Chapter 1: Queen of the North
Sylvanas had her own opinions about the Magister but she tended to keep them to herself. Especially in situations like these.
“I just don’t know that it wouldn’t be advantageous to have me escort you as opposed to Lady Liadrin,” His voice was silky and smooth yet it grated at Sylvanas’s ears like tree bark against her skin. “You know their kind are used to putting much more stock than is necessary into male presence.”
“Well, that’s something they are going to have to get used to about us, isn’t it? Our lack of need for constant male presence?” Lireesa asked with a faint tilt of her head. Her voice was measured and emotionless. As emotionless as the mask she’d schooled her expression into. Time and time again. For millennia. "How ludicrous."
“You’re right, of course,” Dar’Khan responded with a soft smile that Lireesa seemed to accept as a sign of defeat. “I only thought I would offer one last time.”
“Your concern is appreciated. Your timing is not. I was just about to speak with my daughter when you came,” Again, her voice was even and intonated with something Dar’Khan easily recognized as dismissal after all these years.
“Of course, my Queen. I will be there to open your portal as promised,” He bowed his way out of the room graciously, and Lireesa’s eyes followed him all the while.
Sylvanas still just observed. She had never stopped learning from her mother. Her mannerisms. Her masks. When it was and wasn’t appropriate to wear them. These were important pieces of information. Now, more than ever, with their truce with the humans soon to be solidified.
As impenetrable as the mask had been, it slipped away the moment the door latched behind her mother’s advisor. Her eyes were soft and kind as they turned to regard Sylvanas where they had been anything but only a moment ago.
Her smile was so warm. As warm as it always had been for those deigned worthy of seeing it.
Sylvanas had always been worthy. As all of her children had. She returned the smile easily, and Lireesa gestured towards the little table they’d been meant to share for breakfast before Dar’Khan had interrupted their morning.
“Sit with me,” Lireesa offered. “I had your favorites brought up.”
That was true enough, Sylvanas found as she sat across from her mother and looked at their breakfast fare. Cured fish, fresh cut figs, and a slender loaf of bread that smelled as if it had only just been baked. It likely had. And mana wine, of course. Always that.
“Thank you,” Sylvanas’s response was quiet, and Lireesa regarded her more closely as a result.
“You wanted to speak with me because you are anxious,” Lireesa observed, pouring her daughter a glass of wine as her smile faded slightly.
Sylvanas looked over her shoulder at the parlor beyond. At the beautiful ways the still-rising sun cast the colors of the magnificently stained glass that lined the walls all across the room. The white marble of the floors and the columns was a beautiful canvas.
“I am,” She admitted with a faint nod, biting her lower lip as she reached for her wine glass and pulled it closer. “I wish there were another way, I suppose. You know my feelings on the matter. I find it so disgusting they would give their own daughter as a peace offering. As though a woman could ever be a piece of property. A bargaining chip.”
Lireesa clenched her jaw for a moment because she agreed whole-heartedly. Vehemently.
“It is necessary, darling girl, for us to accept their offer. I’ve put off her coming for years.”
Sylvanas scoffed and finally took a deep sip of her drink before placing her glass back down and plucking a quarter of fig from the serving platter between them. “I know. And I find that even more despicable. How old was she then, hm? When they first began correspondence?”
Lireesa’s eyes narrowed momentarily. The thought alone put a bad taste in her mouth. “Sixteen.”
Sylvanas’s ear flicked in annoyance.
“She is of age, Sylvanas. Had she not been promised to you she’d likely have gone to some nobleman even sooner than that.”
“The thought makes me ill,” Sylvanas said, her voice soft so as to mask the emotion in it. Even from her own mother.
She had learned well.
“I know you will be kind to her, Sylvanas. I know you will make her life here a much better life than any she might have had with her own people. You must remember how fleeting they are. The humans. At her age, she might have seventy years at best. We’ve no idea if the Sunwell will help her. We don’t even know if it will hurt her, though I doubt it could.”
“Mm, and what if I fall for her? What if I cherish her the way I might have cherished a wife of my own choosing? How attractive - the thought of spending an eternity in mourning.”
“You’re being difficult,” Lireesa admonished, and Sylvanas had no argument to the contrary. She knew she was.
“Perhaps. I feel I might not be so trepidatious about this entire ordeal were I to meet her before-hand,” Another fig met its end, then, and Lireesa sighed.
“That is simply not acceptable to them. It’s as though they think you’ll see her and change your mind, though I know that it’s deeply rooted in tradition. At least, I hope it isn’t so shallow as that.”
“As though I would be capable of such shallowness,” Sylvanas muttered, and Lireesa chuckled.
“I know your taste in women is boundless in its variety. You needn’t remind me. They aren’t accustomed to that, perhaps. The thought of caring for more than one’s looks,” Lireesa was satisfied that Sylvanas wasn’t too close to being on the verge of emotional collapse to eat, at last.
Seeing Lireesa a little more at ease soothed Sylvanas as well, and they shared much of their breakfast in the comfort of silence and the warmth of the sun filtering into the room.
It was so peaceful, in fact, that Lireesa’s eyes darted up in surprise when Sylvanas finally spoke.
“Will you tell me about her when you get back?”
Lireesa let out a soft breath of amusement, but the smile that followed softened any indignation the sound might have caused.
“Of course, I will. I put no stake in their strange traditions. If I could have this my way, you would meet and fall for each other naturally as you fall for most women.”
“I feel as though I'm being treated unfairly this morning,” Sylvanas observed dryly, and her mother looked at her for a while in response.
She was proud of her daughter, truly. Proud of her for the brilliant military mind that she was. Proud of her for the way she held herself. She just often wondered if she'd instilled too much of herself in Sylvanas.
“I will ask questions that would be important to you, Sylvanas. Find out things you would very much like to know. I can't give you many more reassurances than that without having first met her.”
Sylvanas sighed and nodded her understanding, and Lireesa reached across the table to take her daughter’s hand in her own. Which of their hands was more worn and calloused, Lireesa couldn't be sure. She stroked along Sylvanas’s knuckles soothingly nonetheless.
“I have no doubt in my mind you will make this work. As infuriating as you are, your heart is kind and pure in a way mine never was and never will be,” Lireesa said quietly, and Sylvanas’s ears wilted slightly as she looked at her mother. “For that, I am forever thankful and proud.”
There was nothing Sylvanas could say to argue with that. Lireesa was not pure. Not kind, either, in any sense of the word. Not to anyone save for her children and a very select few others. It was a luxury she couldn't afford.
It was the cross she had to bear. A weight meant only for her shoulders. Sylvanas had long ago accepted that.
“Thank you, Mother,” She said with a very faint smile, and Lireesa nodded softly and slowly released her hand.
“Of course. Now, I believe you have many more appointments with your clothier over the next few days, yes? You should go see to at least one of those this morning. He's been giving my messengers fits over your absence when he has a near-full wardrobe to complete for you before the wedding.”
Sylvanas sighed softly and rose to her feet, yet even as loathe as she was to go have her measurements taken for the dozen time, she leaned over and placed a kiss to the top of her mother’s head and stayed there for the grip on her shoulder that always came next. Because Lireesa liked to hold on to these little moments.
“Safe travels,” Sylvanas said in a gentle tone when she finally pulled away.
“I am always safe,” Lireesa responded with a smirk, and Sylvanas looked wryly at the scar across her mother’s brow and the chips in her ears. She wondered what the humans would think of their Queen - battle-scarred as she was.
“Of course, Mother,” Sylvanas humored her before they parted ways, as she so often did.
Including her mother, who was fussing over her vicariously through the servant currently braiding her hair as carefully and meticulously as she always did. To her mother’s credit, though, today really was an important day.
Today, they were receiving visitors. For the first time in her life, Jaina was going to meet an elf. Fortunate, considering she would be marrying one in less than a month’s time.
“My hair is fine,” Jaina’s voice was quiet and deceptively calm-sounding as she shut her book and reached up to give the servant’s hand a gentle nudge and a squeeze as though to soften the blow of being dismissed. “Thank you, Isabelle.”
Jaina would never offend her, or any of the women who really kept things running around here, really. They were the only ones that didn’t look at her like she’d grown horns.
“Of course, Lady Jaina,”
Isabelle gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze and avoided Katherine’s gaze entirely as she slipped out of the room.
Jaina would have avoided her, too, had she not been utterly unavoidable for the past few weeks. Funny, considering how little her mother had had to do with her for a great majority of her life.
“They’ll be here soon, you know,” Katherine stated the obvious as she was apt to do, and Jaina looked into the mirror to respond because that wasn’t quite as anxiety-inducing as looking directly at her.
“I know,” Jaina tapped her fingertips against her book. An old, worn volume on the language of Elves. It had been new when she’d received it many years ago. It was almost falling apart, now. “You seem as though you are having a more difficult time of dealing with this than I am, Mother. I can’t imagine you’re going to miss me. What is it, then?”
Katherine sighed heavily and turned her attention away from her daughter, clearly frustrated and doing nothing to hide it.
“Don’t be this way, Jaina. It isn’t necessary. I just hope you’ll behave yourself.”
“I’m a grown woman, Mother. Set to meet the envoy of my future Lord this morning. You needn’t remind me to behave myself,” Jaina, unlike her mother, hadn’t turned her gaze away. She saw a flash of some emotion - maybe guilt, maybe agitation. Likely in response to the aforementioned guilt.
Jaina didn’t feel much sympathy, but she did finally release Katherine from her own scrutiny. It wasn’t that Jaina was actually a danger despite how even her own mother squirmed under her attention. No, the soft undercurrent of power that fizzled just before it made itself known wasn’t a threat, in Jaina’s opinion. It was just something different about her. It always had been.
Sure, there had been a mishap or two. A frozen handpie here, a scorch mark on a stone wall there. But she’d never hurt anyone. She would never.
Yet, here they were. Here they had been. For years.
Jaina probably should’ve been terrified of leaving behind everything she’d ever known. She probably should have had a healthy fear of their Northerly neighbors and all of their ageless, mystical power.
But the only thing Jaina was scared of, really, was the possibility she might lose her lifeline out of this place. Sure, she had the treaty riding on her shoulders. The possibility of lasting peace between her own people and a people they all believed could simply remove them from this world like a splinter in their heel.
From time to time, however, Jaina allowed herself to be selfish.
And damnit, she wanted out.
Her thoughts stalled to a halt when the hairs of her arms rose as she was overcome by the strangest feeling.
“Mother...when are they arriving?”
“Not for an hour, at least,” Katherine explained, now standing up across the room to examine her own hair and clothing in a mirror being held up for her. Jaina wasn’t sure how her mother could even see herself, it was always so dark here in her rooms with no outer walls that might let a little sunlight in.
“Why do you ask, Jaina?”
Before Jaina could even dismiss the odd sensation she was pushing back down where it had risen in her chest, it amplified. Doubled over itself and crashed down over her so fiercely she felt breathless.
It was only a moment later that footsteps echoed down the hallway to her chambers. The frantic footsteps of a sprinting page who burst through her door with the only excuse for such an intrusion Katherine might ever deign valid.
“My Ladies, they’re...the...you should come to the Great Hall. They came through a...a...I don’t know. Some type of…”
“A portal,” Jaina said, unsure which squirreled away, forbidden book she’d pulled that word from. She only knew she was right. “They used portal magic.”
“Well. Whatever it was, it’s caused quite a disturbance. Please come. At haste. Lord Greymane is with them, now. And he’s…”
“Terrible at such things, of course,” Katherine said, her natural propensity for getting a handle on out-of-control situations rearing its head as it always did. She wasn’t even certain why she’d allowed herself to be talked into having him attend such a pivotal visit. Perhaps she was losing her edge. “Jaina, come.”
They were halfway down the hallway by the time Jaina finally gathered her thoughts and steeled herself, expecting to round the corner to the sight of some exotic entourage of power. At least enough to fill half a banquet table, if her past experiences with such envoys the minor human Lords sent from the outer edges of their kingdom for trade arrangements and tributes were anything to go by.
It was only natural she was rather taken aback by the sight of two women being fawned over by overly-eager attendees of their Court. One of them in armor finer than anything Jaina had ever seen - her hair a blaze of red - her tabard of fine silk adorned with a symbol Jaina didn’t recognize despite all of her studies.
The other woman, however, was nigh indescribable. Smaller than the lady knight that Jaina could only assume was her escort. Yet there was something about her that seemed to command the focus of the entirety of the Great Hall and all of its occupants. Jaina didn’t recognize any of the symbols of power she wore. The fine silver circlet that rested above her brow could’ve meant anything. Her dress, the same. Black as night and cut to expose her broad, strong shoulders.
Jaina couldn’t imagine being allowed to wear a dress like that. To expose so much of herself. Perhaps that’s why she seemed so powerful. That, or the bright, almost white-blue glow of her eyes that shone like steel. It might have even been the very faint curve of her lips. Easy and sure as she inspected the people around her. Unbothered.
Jaina wondered if this woman was pleased with herself for throwing a wrench in their plans. For ruining all the carefully plotted acts. The announcements and the peacockery that Jaina hated so much.
She hoped so.
At least, until those steely eyes landed on her from across the room not a moment after she’d entered it. Jaina had no idea how she’d been spotted so easily. So quickly.
To Lireesa, she was a beacon. A sun in a room full of dead or dying stars.
The little curve on the lips of the woman now watching her shifted into a smile, then. A slow, easy smile that faded a moment later when the greying man in front of her seemed to demand more of her attention.
Of course, it would be Greymane trying to have her ear. Who else?
It didn’t take too terribly long for everyone to realize both Katherine and Jaina had entered the fray. The sea of fawners parted immediately for Katherine’s stately presence and equally stately approach. Her chin was lifted unnecessarily high. She had at least a head of height on the darker-haired elf. Slightly less on her knight, yet still, Katherine looked as ridiculous to Jaina as any of the others in attendance did.
Katherine held out her hand.
The dark-haired woman glanced at it.
“I would be more than pleased to introduce you both to Lady Katherine Proudmoore,” Greymane announced with great pride - speaking in a volume that suggested he wasn’t entirely sure these women would understand him.
Jaina could have sworn she saw the lady knight smirk from across the room. She could have sworn.
“We both appreciate your introduction, I’m certain, Lord Greymane” Liadrin responded, taking Katherine’s hand to spare her the embarrassment of her misplaced gesture going ignored. She inclined her head to Katherine only slightly before she continued speaking.
“I am Lady Liadrin. Knight-escort of the Queen of the North.”
Katherine looked stricken. The entire room fell utterly silent.
“Lady Lireesa, if you please,” said the dark-haired elf, easily adopting terminology those surrounding them might better understand much like Liadrin had. “It is lovely to meet you after all these years. I am here primarily, however, for the Lady Jaina.”
Her voice sounded like the steel her eyes seemed to be forged of. It cut through everything. It left no one in the room with any doubt as to who this might be. As to the power that might lie beneath the simple circlet she wore.
“Of course,” Katherine responded with an overly polite smile as those around her floundered visibly for something to do or say. Most of them settled, inevitably, for wandering towards the edges of the Hall and the warmth of the grand fireplaces that lined it. Even Greymane seemed inclined to shy away from them. Or, more specifically, from Lireesa. “I’ll send for her at once.”
“No need, is there?” Lireesa asked with a faint tilt of her head. “Is she not right over there?”
Perhaps Katherine had forgotten her daughter had walked in with her.
Again, she looked as though a rug had been pulled out from under her feet. There was also no small amount of confusion about her in regards to how, exactly, Lireesa had recognized her daughter.
Jaina moved forward because there was only so much second-hand embarrassment she could take on her mother’s behalf, and because she was sure this would all somehow be her fault when it came down to it.
Lireesa’s entire demeanor seemed to shift in her presence. There was a smile again. Captivating. Disarming. But Jaina knew better than to think there was some type of magic being worked on her. She knew that better than anyone in the room save for their visitors.
“Lady Lireesa,” Jaina greeted in an even, pleasant tone. “It's so good to meet you.”
“And it is very good indeed to meet you, as well,” Lireesa said, and Jaina smiled. A smile that she meant. For the first time in a long time.
Jaina was almost taken aback by Lireesa’s conspiratorial tone. This was the first thing Lireesa had said to her since her mother had paired off with Liadrin for a similar stroll at Lireesa’s urging.
“Whatever you wish to tell me, Lady Lireesa, I wish to learn.”
Lireesa hummed in the back of her throat and brushed her hand along the top of the hedge that lined their path.
“Lady Liadrin is bored out of her skull right now,” Lireesa said in a tone that suggested this fact very much amused her. “And I will get an earful about it when we arrive home. About cold, mucky gardens and how she despises politics. I do so love to keep her on her toes.”
Jaina didn't know how to respond at first. She didn't know if there was a proper way to do so. She simply smiled quietly to herself as Lireesa watched from the corner of her eye.
“You have a lovely smile, Jaina,” Lireesa complimented as she looked away. She found this garden, like all gardens, peaceful despite its lack of imagination. The cold didn't bother her nearly as much as it did Liadrin despite the fact that she wasn't at all dressed for winter. Jaina wondered about that as they kept walking.
“You are quiet, though,” Lireesa mused. “But I see the sharpness in your eyes. Is it customary, then? That you not speak?”
“Many things are customary,” Jaina responded as she held her own hands behind her back and watched the cobbled stones of the walkway pass beneath her slippered feet. She tried not to look at Lireesa overly much. She really did. But she was curious by her very nature, and there were so many things about Lireesa that drew every ounce of that curiosity out of her. “You speak our language as though you always have.”
“I have spoken your language since your kingdom was stick and stone and mud, Jaina. As such, your customs mean little to me. Particularly the ones that would make you wary of speaking to your betrothed’s mother. You seem the type of young woman who has so many thoughts in her head. What a shame to lock them all away.”
Jaina hadn't ever really been spoken to like this. Like an equal. And by this woman in particular, no less.
“I believe my people and my family think what is in my head is dangerous,” Jaina responded, wondering if she shouldn't have said that almost the moment the words fell from her lips.
“Magic,” Lireesa said the word, and Jaina looked over at her almost searchingly to find her looking right back.
“Yes, My Lady.”
“A gift,” Lireesa looked almost pleased when she said it. “And in you, a surprisingly strong one. I saw you without seeing you the moment you walked into that room. A fleck of brilliance among the brown and grey. There are countless competent teachers of its art in your future kingdom. In Quel’Thalas.”
“It hadn't occurred to me that I might learn how to...well. I suppose a lot of things have likely never occurred to me.”
“You will do whatever you wish, Jaina. Study whatever you wish. Have whatever passions you wish to have. I wanted to meet you almost solely to reassure you of all this.”
Jaina nodded her understanding because the very idea of all this was almost profound to her. Marriage seemed such a minuscule sacrifice for such freedom. Such opportunity.
“You call to mind the image of a songbird in a cage, Jaina. One who has lost her melody. The thing about songbirds is that all you need do to return their voice to them is open the door. They will do the rest all on their own.”
The longer they spoke, the more Jaina grew familiar with the delicate, lilting accent of Lireesa’s speech. The more she found it as captivating as the woman it came from.
“Most women of my status hardly have the door opened for them in such a way. Most are simply transferred to another cage.”
Jaina sounded to Lireesa so much older than her years, then. She couldn't imagine such a fate.
“No cages for you, Jaina. We do not believe in such things where I come from. You need never fear such a fate befalling you.”
For the first time since their walk began, Jaina heard a subtle change in Lireesa's tone. She looked over at her questioningly and saw an almost alarming darkness in her eyes before her expression softened into something apologetic.
“Forgive me, Jaina. I don't mean to pass judgment. It is only that I think such things are utterly vile,”
Jaina smiled again then. A little laugh bubbled in her throat.
A lovely laugh, Lireesa thought.
“That was an interesting apology,” Jaina observed, and Lireesa’s eyes glinted with something akin to mischief.
“Perhaps because I am not at all sorry,” Lireesa offered, and Jaina’s face brightened again.
It was inevitable that they would run into Katherine and Lady Liadrin again sooner or later. Unfortunately, in Jaina’s opinion, it was sooner. That was an opinion Liadrin didn't appear to share if her stiff shoulders and the almost imperceptible narrowing of her eyes in Lireesa’s direction were anything to go by.
“Did you enjoy your walk?” Lireesa asked, ignoring the would-be glare in favor of smiling at her.
“Oh, very much so,” Liadrin remarked. “Lady Katherine was just telling me about the rarity of the particular kind of hedge required to make these inventive archways.”
Lireesa thought of their mage-lit, wondrous gardens at home, and her smile widened into something only Liadrin recognized as the smile of a woman who was having far too much fun considering the circumstances.
“Oh?” Lireesa asked before turning her attention to Katherine. “Are they particularly hard to come by?”
By the time Katherine was done talking about the hedges again, it was apparent even to Jaina that Liadrin wanted very much to disappear inside of her very impressive armor.
Jaina had so enjoyed the company she'd been keeping that morning that she was almost morose when they began to part ways. Katherine was unconcerned. She was far more worried about changing for the day's feast than she was about hedges, now.
Lireesa smiled at Katherine faintly in acknowledgment when she took her leave after promising a page would be sent soon thereafter to take them to freshen up.
“I'll wait with you,” Jaina offered quietly as she looked away from the retreating form of her mother to Liadrin and Lireesa instead. “All of these halls look the same. I wouldn't want to leave you in them.”
“That won't be necessary, though your offer is very kind and much appreciated. I would much rather walk you to your rooms and find Liadrin once I have. You needn't worry about either of us getting lost.”
Jaina wasn't sure that was the proper thing to do. All she knew was that any chance to spend more time in the presence of Lireesa was a chance she couldn't pass up.
Unfortunately, the walk was a short one. Just two turns and Jaina was coming to a stop outside her chamber doors.
Lireesa recognized the look on her face, of course. The reluctance there mingled with apprehension. And now that they were alone, she took Jaina’s hand in her own and gave it a gentle squeeze.
“This is not your fate, Jaina. Cages and hedges and wordy men to speak for you as though you cannot speak for yourself,” Lireesa said quietly. Far too quietly for anyone but Jaina to hear. “And this is only the first of many, many walks and just as many talks we will share. This, I can promise you.”
Jaina looked to find the gentleness from earlier had returned to Lireesa’s features. Sharp and scarred though they were, they were equally as soft when Jaina met and held her gaze rather fearlessly.
“I only hope you are pleased with me and with your choice,” Jaina said as she slowly let her hand slip away from Lireesa’s.
“I am so very pleased, Jaina. Make no mistake about that.”
Lireesa felt a faint flux in the magic Jaina held inside herself like chained lightning, and she let out a soft, breathy sound. An almost-laugh, yet nothing belittling. There wasn't a whole lot about Lireesa that Jaina didn't find surprisingly comforting, actually.
“And we will help you with that, as well.”
“You see so much?” Jaina asked, her brows furrowing as she reigned herself in as best she could without truly knowing how.
“I feel,” Lireesa corrected gently. “As you will someday learn to do as well.”
“When you arrived earlier, it felt as though something quite large perched itself upon my chest,” Jaina admitted this as though it were a secret. But then, she was very used to keeping such things a secret. “I've never been near anything like it before, but I guessed what it was. I have a few books. I keep them under my bed.”
“Portal magic is rather volatile. Anyone who is sensitive to it would feel it from quite some distance. But I'm guessing you may have known that?”
“I read it once or twice. Or a dozen,” Jaina offered almost sheepishly. “Something like that.”
Lireesa’s smile was more than enough reward, to Jaina, for her honesty, yet Lireesa wasn't stopping at merely a smile.
“There are entire libraries in our capitol city devoted to magic. Two in the palace alone. And you needn't hide any book you may find in them under your bed.”
As much as Jaina wanted to linger, she knew all too well if she wasn't changed and ready before her mother returned she would be in for an earful, and Lireesa - ever perceptive - gathered as much when Jaina shifted ever so slightly towards her door.
“This all sounds too good to be true,” Jaina admitted.
“It's all quite true, Jaina. You'll see soon enough. For now, I fear I must go find my noble escort lest she get caught up in another conversation revolving around horticulture. It's simply not her strong suit.”
Once Lireesa had her smiling again, she seemed satisfied to leave and rescue Liadrin from any would-be garden enthusiasts, and Jaina slipped into her room riding higher than she likely ever had. She'd nearly forgotten how she'd feared she might ask Lireesa about her betrothed. That much, at least, Jaina had managed to refrain from. She needed no reminders that the elves offered infinitely more than her own kingdom could offer in return. To seem choosy in any regard wasn't something Jaina could allow herself.
Besides, Jaina wasn't feeling particularly choosy, anyway. No matter who it was she would be marrying, she believed Lireesa and all the promises that had been made simply because Lireesa needn't have promised anything at all. And any one of those promises was more than Jaina ever could have hoped for here.
Chapter 2: The Royal Spymaster
Lireesa’s eyes blazed as she turned on her heel to face the direction that voice had come from. Liadrin’s voice. Hoarse from shouting orders and from days without proper food and drink.
It had all come down to this moment, hadn't it?
Lireesa sheathed her sword slowly as she watched Liadrin cut down yet another foe.
“Call the retreat,” Lireesa responded, her sharp eyes surveying the battlefield beneath the ridge they were ascending. “Now!”
Liadrin faltered with her hand near the horn at her hip, and she stared at Lireesa as snow fell against her hair and her armor - mottling the darkness of it with white.
“That was an order! I will call it myself!” Lireesa’s eyes blazed with the power that echoed in her voice, and Liadrin nearly stumbled back from the force of it.
The horn was blown. The path they'd cut up the ridge for just this purpose became a stampede of elven warriors.
Lireesa stayed atop the ridge watching the trolls give chase. Far too slowly. Elves were much faster. Much nimbler.
Except for their wounded. Still struggling in the snow. Helpless.
“So many,” Lireesa whispered as the din of battle slowly faded to the back of her senses. Her vision ran as red as the bloodied snow beneath the fallen of her army.
So many, she thought, as she lifted a hand slowly towards the sky.
Too many, she thought, as the winter wind whipped her cloak around her body just before she called the fire. Just before the valley was engulfed in a storm of flame.
That was the thing about fire. It didn't pick and choose. It had no empathy. No self-control. Only hunger.
The screams of her own people pulled her back as they burned. Back into reality. Into the harshness and the coldness of it as snow and bodies alike sizzled in the wake of her destruction. Her own clothing was smoking from the heat of it. The skin of her face - blistering. She could hear Liadrin leading what remained of their army higher up the ridge.
She called the fire back into herself, then. And the sight of what she'd left in the aftermath burned into her vision with a fierceness even her own magic would never match.
Nothing remained of the last great troll army.
Just as nothing remained of those that hadn't been able to heed the call of Liadrin’s horn.
Liadrin hung back near the smoldering hearth of the queen’s parlor. She'd only walked in a moment earlier, and might have left just as quickly when she found Lireesa sleeping in her sitting chair with a book laying across her lap. She might have, if Lireesa weren't breathing in a way that was almost frantic in the dying light of the coals of the fireplace.
With a murmur and a wave of her hand, Liadrin activated the mage lights around the room, but only dimly, and moved forward to kneel by Lireesa’s chair.
Even now, she was careful of waking her from a dream, or from a nightmare, whatever the case might have been. She was always careful of alarming Lireesa. And the only way, really, to catch her off-guard was to wake her when she was sleeping heavily. A dangerous venture, indeed.
“Lireesa?” Liadrin carefully placed a gloved hand near Lireesa’s where it lay on the arm of her chair, and even that small intrusion was enough for Lireesa’s eyes to snap open.
The glowing coals nearby reflected in them strangely. Harkening to a time long past. The sight sent a chill up Liadrin’s spine.
“Forgive me for waking you,” Liadrin said quietly, removing her hand from the chair. She stayed kneeling though. Perhaps out of respect. More likely out of concern. “I’d heard you weren't in the best of moods when you received word upon our return that Sylvanas was called away. They told me you wouldn't take your dinner.”
“I wasn't hungry,” Lireesa stated simply as she rose from her chair and shut her book before tossing it onto the now-empty cushion. “I'm still not.”
“Let me bring you something small at least,” Liadrin urged as she stood and followed Lireesa across the parlor towards a decanter of wine on the table Lireesa had only just shared with her daughter that same morning.
“Liadrin, don't be a pest,” Lireesa’s words likely would have stung if they had any emotion at all in them. They didn't. She sounded almost hollow. And then she sighed. “You are a knight. Not a servant.”
Liadrin rested her hand on the sword hanging from her belt and looked down at the marble floor beneath her polished boots. The moonlight outside had turned it a pale yet pleasant grey-blue. It might have looked almost dreary were the melancholy of it all not so beautiful.
“What did you dream?” Liadrin asked, slowly lifting her eyes to rest upon Lireesa once again.
Lireesa held her wine glass delicately in her hand. She looked almost statuesque in the moonlight that flooded in through the windows she was standing near. Looking out over her kingdom, and at nothing, in particular, all at once.
“You should go to the pools for a soak and then have the cooks make you something special. I do appreciate you having accompanied me today. I appreciate you keeping the girl’s mother occupied even more.”
Again, Lireesa spoke flawlessly. There wasn't even any rasp of sleep in her voice. She could have just as easily been addressing her trade council.
Liadrin took a step back and nodded.
“Of course, My Lady. Thank you,” she allowed the more familiar terms they were usually on to fall by the wayside. It simply wasn't worth it. She would gain nothing by pushing this further, and she had no desire to make anything difficult on her Queen. Things were more than difficult enough as it was.
“Goodnight, Liadrin,” Lireesa said just before she took a sip of her wine.
Liadrin thought, then, that the moonlight made her look like another column just like the others in this room the way it washed out her pale skin. Unmoving. Constant. Breathtaking grey-blue melancholy.
Lireesa had never found as much joy in the sun as the rest of their people.
As such, she was glad to drop down heavily from the last step into the steam that hovered above the pools and caught their soft blue light - dispersing it throughout the room.
Such power it had taken to rend the springs from their ageless paths. Such strength of will it had taken to re-route them to the palace for purely recreational purposes. Or perhaps it had been arrogance.
The night’s attendant began unbuckling her armor for her as she stood next to the landing of the stairs. It would be taken away to be polished and stowed in her suite. There would be a soft linen shirt and pants waiting for her when she was done.
Such was the way of things.
One had to put effort into expending any effort, now. Training, at least, was something Liadrin could still do by herself. And she had had a rather taxing session very early that morning to work away some of her nerves before her and Lireesa’s long-awaited visit.
Her sore muscles were that much more reason for her to pad across the steam-dampened floors with a towel over her shoulder to the furthest pool. One meant for privacy, in its own little alcove with silk hangings in its archway.
Liadrin let out a heavy sigh as she took her first step into the scalding water. It was blissful. The next moments found her laying her towel on the edge of the pool and sinking into one of the seats that lined the bottom of it. Molded from the stone itself to provide more comfort than such material should ever have been able to provide. The slopes in the side, too, were set at just the right height to cradle the back of one’s neck if one were so inclined.
Liadrin, tonight, was very inclined to spread her legs out into the water and drape her arms along the edge of the pool. She was even inclined to watch the way the ripples of light danced gently along the low stone ceiling through the steam.
Her minor aches and stiffness dissipated quickly, because these weren't simple pools, of course. Nothing was simple in Quel’Thalas. The heat of the water did a fine job hiding its healing magic. The warmth of spells long ago set into the very stone basins mingled and blurred with the water lapping slowly just above Liadrin’s chest.
She'd only just begun to doze when a sound startled her out of her in-between state of consciousness. The sound of clothing hitting a stone floor.
Liadrin blinked up at the woman who had walked through the silk barrier between her private pool and the rest of the bathing room, and her jaw clenched immediately.
“This is a private pool. The attendant wouldn't have allowed anyone past the curtain.”
“Right as always, Liadrin,” Valeera responded as she lifted her hands to pull her impossibly long ponytail further up into a barely-managed bun. “A shame I had to kill him.”
Liadrin mostly felt as though this was sarcasm. You could never really tell with Valeera, though.
And just like that, Valeera was slipping into the pool directly across from Liadrin. She chose a seat that kept everything but her lower half above the water and spread her arms out along the edge with a sigh.
"What are you doing?" Liadrin asked, sounding just as agitated as Valeera had expected her to.
"Minding my business, but that might not be something you're familiar with,” Valeera’s drawl came out almost bored as she lifted her head from where she'd lain it back to eye Liadrin over the steamy surface of the water.
“Very rich coming from the Royal Spymaster,” Liadrin muttered, as though Valeera wouldn't hear her, at exactly the correct volume for Valeera to hear her.
“Is this a noble-knights-only pool?” Valeera asked with a lift of one of her brows as she gestured vaguely toward the room beyond the curtain. “I saw no signage to suggest-”
“Can you at least stop talking if you insist upon being here?” Liadrin asked before Valeera could finish her sentence.
“I was just fine not talking when I got in the pool. You're the conversationalist, here. And anyway, I need a briefing on the girl.”
“You really couldn't wait until morning for that?” Liadrin asked with a flick of one of her ears. “And you call her ‘girl’ as though you're significantly older.”
Valeera snorted derisively before she responded.
“Yes. Girl. Now, what can you tell me about her?”
Liadrin looked as though she had thoroughly given up at this point, because she had.
“She’s...contained. Measured in every way imaginable. Strange, actually, to think someone could be so polished at twenty years of age,” Liadrin trailed off and regarded Valeera silently for a beat or two. “Please be kind to her, Valeera. She isn't a new source of amusement for you.”
It was Valeera’s turn to be silent, then, as she slipped further into the water. Her expression remained unreadable and impassive despite the sting of Liadrin’s words.
“You think I’m as terrible as all that? That I would risk so much for my own entertainment?” She asked as she lifted her chin almost imperceptibly and trailed her fingertips along the surface of the water.
Valeera ‘tsk’d and shook her head before Liadrin could answer her. “Of course, you do.”
Liadrin felt the faintest tinge of guilt, then. It was easy to express her distaste. Easy to pretend she was better than a former criminal. Mostly because Valeera was such a clear and physical representation of how close they all were to being what they'd been. Being capable of what they'd done.
But Liadrin had never been very good at being honest with herself.
“No,” Liadrin finally said with a faint shrug. “No, I don't think that. I know you’ve settled for terrorizing me.”
Valeera exhaled through her nose and smirked.
“A stunning woman slipping naked into your hot pool. How agonizing,” Valeera mused. “Most of your noble friends would be frothing at the mouth.”
“Haven't you already made your rounds with all of my noble friends?” Liadrin asked without missing a beat.
“Yes. Unfortunately, Kelantir is otherwise occupied this evening,”
Liadrin tried to cut Valeera off, then. Unsuccessfully. The lift of her hand in an attempted protest was utterly disregarded.
“And Cyssa is still at the border. A tragedy. And under your orders, no less. You leave me with no one to keep my bed warm and then you complain when I wind up in your pool. Imagine being so self-sabotaging.”
Liadrin realized she was out of witty retorts the moment she opened her mouth to speak. She shut it again and clenched her jaw and made a move to get out of the pool.
“Sit down,” Valeera’s tone was so different from the one she usually used with her that Liadrin actually listened to her.
Valeera lifted herself from the pool, instead.
“Good girl,” she muttered, gathering Liadrin’s towel from the side of the pool and wrapping it around herself. “Enjoy your sulk. You're really sexy when you sulk by yourself for absolutely no reason.”
Liadrin’s jaw stayed clenched throughout their entire rather one-sided final exchange. She didn't complain that her towel had been stolen. Maybe she deserved it.
And maybe it was her silence that had Valeera pausing as she pushed the sheer curtain aside to leave.
She looked back at Liadrin thoughtfully as she leaned against the side of the arched entrance.
Liadrin looked back at her almost questioningly.
Valeera slipped away before the moment could stretch on long enough to become something more, and Liadrin finally exhaled.
She couldn't remember the last time she'd felt so exhausted. Between the trip and the awful, bland feast. She was tired. She was hungry. And she didn't have time to wonder why she was the one feeling guilty for this particular talk when they'd had a hundred other such talks that hadn't been any different.
But she'd been riding back from the border all night, and her thoughts were too muddled for sleep. Even if they weren't, she was anxious.
She knew she didn't need to knock. The wards around the palace were incomprehensibly strong. Nearly as old as the marble that had shaped the columns that lined the corridors.
It wasn't long before the door was creaking open to reveal Lireesa wrapped in a dark robe not looking the least bit sleepy.
“I'm sorry to disturb you at this hour,” Sylvanas said quietly as she shuffled her weight from one foot to the other in the doorway.
“My darling girl, come in. You are never a disturbance,” Lireesa’s tone was warm and gentle as she took a step back to allow her daughter passage. “What business were you tending to today?”
Sylvanas didn't respond right away. She was busy removing her cloak and her boots by the door because she hadn't even bothered to change when she'd gotten back to the capital.
“Dar’Khan said one of his mage units had gone silent,” she finally explained as she turned to face her mother with a weary expression on her face. “I would have sent someone in my stead had he not asked me directly, and in front of Rommath, no less.”
Lireesa hummed in the back of her throat and looked Sylvanas over quickly as they moved further into her rooms. Within a step or two, Lireesa was satisfied she was unscathed without needing to ask. Lireesa knew Sylvanas well enough that even the faintest injury would’ve been apparent to her.
“A menial task. Is the unit lost?” Lireesa asked in an even tone as she offered Sylvanas a seat on the sofa they’d been heading towards.
“No,” Sylvanas’s response was simple in a way that was simultaneously weighted, and Lireesa looked at her questioningly. “No, their attunement eroded. They couldn’t reach the capital.”
Sylvanas’s gaze met her mother’s and didn’t falter. She was one of the few people who could look Lireesa in the eye. Even Dar’Khan sometimes struggled with such displays.
It was Lireesa who looked away. Farther than just ‘away’, really. It was almost as though she left the room for a moment as her eyes half-focused on the unopened wine bottle on the table in front of them.
“I’ll speak to Dar’Khan,” She finally said after a moment or two. “We can’t afford a loss of communications now.”
“No, we cannot,” Sylvanas agreed, and when she realized her knee was bouncing faintly she stopped it immediately and crossed her legs to prevent any further display of nerves. “And you? How are you faring after the day’s journey?”
None of the worry Sylvanas felt made its way into her tone. She needn’t have bothered hiding it, though. Lireesa could almost taste it on her tongue. Thick and unwanted and bitter.
“You needn’t concern yourself with my well-being,” Lireesa reassured gently, because that much was true. Sylvanas’s concern wouldn’t change anything. It wouldn’t change the ache in her joints or the hollowness gnawing at her insides.
The bottle of mana wine she was now opening would soften the sharpness of it all, though. She poured them each a healthy glass.
“I have a feeling, dear daughter, that the reason for your visit has much less to do with me and much more to do with your betrothed. Am I wrong?” There was a little half-smile playing at Lireesa’s lips, and the tension that had risen to a fever pitch in the room began lessening before it could become too much.
“Perhaps,” Sylvanas reached for the glass her mother offered her and held it in her lap as she looked down into it. It glowed faintly in the dim light that had only just begun filtering in through the windows of her mother’s expansive bed-chamber. A strong vintage. They had only gotten stronger over the years, especially of late. “I had hoped to be here when you returned. It’s been on my mind since you left.”
“It’s been on your mind for years,” Lireesa responded with a soft chuckle. “It only makes sense you would be nearly frantic about it by now. She’s lovely, Sylvanas. Soft in a way that we are not. Smart. Tragically repressed in every facet of her life, yet defiant beneath it all despite everything.”
Lireesa couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen Sylvanas pay such rapt attention to her. When she was younger, perhaps. Not that Sylvanas was old, though she usually showed no hint of her youth. It showed now, though. In the openness of her expression and the faint movements of her ears as though she were imagining the reasoning behind her mother’s words.
It made Lireesa’s heart ache with love.
“She is also beautiful,” Lireesa continued as she reached out to catch Sylvanas’s cheek in her palm to cradle it gently. “The two of you will take the very air out of every room you enter together.”
Sylvanas swallowed thickly as her eyelids fluttered for a moment. She couldn’t help the way she smiled as she dropped her head and turned her face towards her mother’s hand.
Lireesa’s heart ached for a very different reason, then. For all the women who had used Sylvanas to get near to her and to the power of their family. For all the women who hadn’t loved her daughter for her brilliance and her beauty and her kindness.
“I think she will love you, in time,” Lireesa whispered, moving her hand, now, to stroke through the loose waves of her daughter’s hair. “I wish for nothing more than for you to find your equal in this life, Sylvanas. One who deserves you. This may not be ideal. It may not be the way you might have wanted it to happen. But I have hope.”
“So do I,” Sylvanas sighed, and her breath shook slightly on its way out.
Relief, Lireesa realized with a soft smile. Deserved.
Sylvanas deserved that relief as much as she deserved what she desperately hoped Jaina would provide her.
“Hold onto it, then,” Lireesa said with a soft sigh as she moved closer and opened her arm to Sylvanas until she was tucked in against her side. “Even when the day of your marriage comes. And especially on the day after, and the day after that. Love isn’t magic, darling girl. It is, perhaps, the only thing in this world we don’t control. I think that’s what makes it beautiful. I know that’s what makes me want it so terribly for you.”
Sylvanas found comfort in the warmth of her mother in a way she wouldn’t have sought out on her own, though she gladly accepted it, now.
Lireesa watched the windows across the room as shadows of birds flitted across them from the inner courtyard of the palace - enjoying the gardens and the sun of a new day. All the while, she stroked slowly through Sylvanas’s hair - listening idly to her breathing as it began to slow.
“You should rest,” Lireesa murmured, only half-present, now. “You’ve been up for far too long. There is no war. No great threat. You needn’t push yourself so hard.”
Sylvanas’s eyes opened slowly as she listened to her mother’s words and strained to believe them. They were true, after all. They were technically true. And they would tide her over for another day. They would soften the edge of anxiety surrounding her impending union with a young woman she had never met.
Lireesa was helping her up a moment later and pressing the half-empty bottle they’d been sharing into her hand as she guided her to the door. Once there, Sylvanas found herself being helped back into her cloak and her boots much to her sleepy amusement.
“Thank you, Mother,” Sylvanas sighed as Lireesa opened the door for her and gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze.
“Of course,” Lireesa stayed half in the hallway when Sylvanas lingered, and her eyes searched her daughter’s face for a moment as her mind sought out what words might send her to bed. “You know, not many of our kind will ever have the opportunity to show their partner through their own actions what love can be.”
“Because our kind is allowed to love,” Sylvanas responded simply with a furrow between her brows. Perhaps for the first time, she reflected upon her future bride’s situation with something other than disdain. It was a shift so sudden and so apparent that even Lireesa noticed it happening. “I do hope to make her happy. Do you think that I will?”
“I know that you will,” Lireesa responded without hesitation. “All you need do is allow her to know you. I know this because I know you, and my heart would be lost without you.”
Despite the softness of her tone, Lireesa meant those words infinitely more than she meant most things. The conviction in them seemed to be more than adequate appeasement for Sylvanas’s worries. At least for now. But then, she was so tired that she was sagging slightly. Too tired for self-doubt to keep her from retreating to her own wing of the palace. To the comfort of her own bed and her quiet, solitary rooms.
Solitary, at least, for a little while longer.
Chapter 3: Distractions
“Thank you for seeing me,” Sylvanas said in a tone that sounded almost foreign even to Lireesa. “Here, I mean.”
“Why wouldn’t I see you?” Lireesa asked in a murmur as she shut the door behind herself. “I would walk to the ends of the world for you - the trek to your room is quite doable.”
Sylvanas cleared her throat and tried to smile as Lireesa looked her over with a furrow between her brows. Lireesa had never seen her fighting so hard against nerves. In fact, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen her daughter nervous, at all.
It moved something in Lireesa. It made her ache in an unfamiliar way.
“Sylvanas,” She reached out, then, and took her daughter’s hand gently into her own. “If you are having second thoughts, I will go inform them, myself, that the union is to be called off immediately. I won’t think twice.”
Sylvanas’s eyes flashed up to her mother’s face. There was shock etched into her features. Lireesa didn’t waver.
“I’m not,” Sylvanas said quickly as she gave her mother’s hand a squeeze and slowly released it from her own. “I’m not, you have my word. I’m only,” she sighed, and the breath shuddered on its way past her lips. “I’m nervous.”
“I know,” Lireesa whispered, lifting her now-free hand to rest against the sides of Sylvanas’s face. “You’re allowed that, you know. You’re allowed to feel. I wish you showed me more. I hate to see you burdened so.”
“You have enough,” Sylvanas responded simply. Weakly. “More than enough without my own troubles added to your own.”
“Add them,” Lireesa responded as she let her hand fall to Sylvanas’s shoulder and gripped it tightly through the silk of her sleep shirt. “Add them freely. To take your burdens from you, even for a time, would lighten my own. I hate this heaviness in my heart. It aches for you. Sit with me for a while and be my child instead of all the other things that you are.”
Sylvanas was still and silent for a moment despite how sure her mother sounded. Despite the unfamiliar plea in her tone. But only for a moment before she took a single step forward and slipped her arms around Lireesa for a hug that she sorely, desperately needed.
Lireesa was more than ready, of course, to stand there and cradle her daughter’s head against her shoulder until she was ready to pull away. Perhaps that moment came sooner than Lireesa might have expected it to - but that was before she saw Sylvanas quickly reach to wipe some gathered dampness from her eyes.
She didn’t comment on it. She simply followed Sylvanas across the room to a thick, plush pile of cushions situated in one of its corners.
Lireesa would’ve been lying if she’d said she didn’t enjoy this. The simple comfort of being needed by her child. The painful rarity of sitting with her and listening to her worries and her fears. Nothing out of the ordinary. Pre-wedding jitters. More questions about Jaina. Most, questions that Lireesa couldn’t do much more than speculate answers to. Her speculations seemed to be enough, though.
Finally, however, Sylvanas fell into thoughtful silence for a while as she looked down at her own hands where they rested in her lap.
“What if I’m not enough for her?”
The question was a whisper.
As though the very thought must be kept secret. As though Sylvanas was, in this room, what she always had to be outside of its walls. A Lord. A military commander. The future Queen.
Lireesa’s jaw clenched as she folded her own legs beneath herself in order to turn so she could better see her daughter when she answered her.
“You have always, always been enough. You have been too much and too good for every woman who thought to use you as a means to an end. I would k…”
Lireesa trailed off as she felt heat rise along the back of her neck and had to rub the tingling away from the tips of her fingers.
“You were never the problem. I have seen the way you looked at them. The way you’ve treated them. As though they were mana from the Wild Gods themselves. You will be enough for this girl, Sylvanas. You will be a wonder to her. I’ve never believed something more.”
Sylvanas sighed again, then. This time, it didn’t sound pained. It sounded genuinely relieved.
Lireesa felt as though she could breathe again.
“I think I’m tired,” Sylvanas said after a long pause - her tone and her expression almost chagrined. “I think I just need some rest.”
Lireesa smiled and waited for Sylvanas to stand and help her up, as Sylvanas was wont to do.
They parted ways as they usually did, and Lireesa retreated into the stark hallways of the palace and away from the blanket of emotion that enveloped her any time she was with her children.
She felt only for them, really.
She could only afford to feel for them. To feel for herself would be all-consuming. There was simply too much there.
Tonight, more than usual.
She paused near one of the Royal Guard at the entrance to her private wing, and he stood a little straighter, suddenly.
“My Lady,” He greeted, keeping his eyes straight ahead as she kept looking into the distance towards her chamber doors.
“I would have company tonight,” she said without hesitation, “in an hour’s time.”
“Of course, My Lady.”
Lireesa kept walking, then, secure in the knowledge that she would have her thoughts adequately occupied and her memories sufficiently abated for all that was to come the following day.
She was in those very robes standing in front of her fireplace a short while later when she heard the familiar sounds of an approaching guard. Of two sets of footsteps that stopped just outside her door.
With a wave of her hand from across the room - a small expenditure of precious reserves - the door unlatched and swung open as she turned slowly towards the door.
The girl was as lovely as always. Strong and eager to the point of distraction. Looking anywhere but at the way Lireesa’s robes hung off her small, steely frame leaving nothing to the imagination.
Because, of course, not many saw Lireesa this way. With her hair down and something other than black silk or leather and armor adorning her body. Even the silver circlet that usually rested against her brow was gone.
“Anything else, My Lady?” The guard asked after a moment or two once he seemed satisfied Lireesa was interested. Not that she ever hadn’t been. The company didn’t matter much, really. Just so long as it was company and it was willing.
And her company was always willing.
“No. Thank you,” She gestured dismissively, and the guard left them alone - shutting the door behind himself. The moment he was gone, Lireesa beckoned the girl closer.
She responded quickly, yet with a certain swagger in her step. One that Lireesa didn’t doubt was far more subtle right then than it usually was during such encounters. She had lovely eyes. Lovely burnt orange hair that hung half-loose from the bun it was done up in. All intentional. Of course.
The girl stopped a few steps away. The swagger fell from her beneath the intensity of Lireesa’s gaze and their eyes still hadn’t met.
Lireesa took the steps the girl couldn’t, and reached out slowly to lift her chin in her hand. It might have looked odd from an outsider’s perspective.
The girl was taller. Broader. Most might assume her the more powerful of the two.
Yet a chill ran along the girl’s scalp when the warm blue of her eyes met Lireesa’s grey ones for the first time.
“Tell me your name,” Lireesa’s voice was gentle. Calm. The antithesis of the wild-rabbit-look about the girl standing in front of her. Wanting equally both to touch and to drop her gaze all at once.
“Lynalis,” She responded without further urging on Lireesa’s part.
“And why are you here, Lynalis?”
“For you, My Queen,” her voice, though soft, was low and sure in a way that made Lireesa smile.
“Have a drink with me,” Lireesa offered, finally slipping her hand from Lynalis’s chin to reach, instead, for her hand. She inspected it for a moment. Ran her thumb across the calluses of her palm.
A capable woman, then. One that worked with her hands. Or had, once upon a time.
Lynalis followed her towards the fireplace once her hand was released, and Lireesa felt the girl’s eyes on her back all the while. No doubt on the scars that crisscrossed the expanse of it. Clearly visible beneath the formality that was her robe.
Lireesa gestured towards the sofa in front of the fire, but before she could reach for the unopened bottle of mana wine on the table nearby, Lynalis had taken it and looked at her almost apologetically.
“May I?” She asked quickly, as though she were only just remembering herself.
“Of course,” Lireesa sat, then, happy to watch the woman do away with the bottle’s cork with ease and fill both their glasses.
They were halfway through their first glass when Lireesa finally looked over at her silent companion and reached towards her. She brushed a soft touch along the back of her hand to get her attention before she spoke.
“If I had to guess, I would guess that you are usually a charmer. That you are used to all of these things coming easily to you. Might I ask what is so different, now?”
Lynalis nearly laughed, but the sound came out slightly choked and breathy.
“I’m sorry,” She breathed as she leaned forward to place her glass down on the table and relaxed back into the sofa as much as she was able. “It’s only that it is much different to see you this way. I...I had always known you were beautiful beyond words. From afar. As does everyone. It is quite another thing entirely to be confronted by it so directly. I fear if I touch you I might burn.”
“Mm…” Lireesa hummed in the back of her throat and slowly slipped her arm along the backrest of the sofa to untie the bun Lynalis’s hair was tied back into. “Then touch yourself until you are comfortable enough to touch me. Until you are warm enough that I might not reduce you to ash.”
Lynalis blushed from her throat to the tips of her ears. She felt ridiculous. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d blushed.
“Forgive me, My Queen, but I thought I came here for you,” her voice was a murmur, again. Low and slightly raspy.
“Are you so unused to your pleasure being your partner’s foremost desire?” Lireesa asked with a half-smile. “I assure you this isn’t the case with me. But if you would be more comfortable with the reigns in your hands…”
“No, I...I’m quite comfortable doing for you whatever you might ask of me.”
Lireesa searched for the truth of those words in Lynalis’s eyes, and once she found it, she left the faintest trail of a touch down the side of her neck and along her arm.
“In my lap, then. Your hands have been itching to know me since the moment you laid eyes on me. You might at least get a little bit closer.”
Lynalis felt some of the nervous energy pulsing beneath her skin abate as she looked at Lireesa and listened to her speak. She reminded herself that she was with her Queen. That she had been deigned worthy of her interests by someone who undoubtedly knew her tastes intimately. She allowed herself a moment of pride for that as she stood and pulled her shirt over her head in front of Lireesa to leave it on the sofa next to her.
She wore nothing beneath it, and she was unashamed as Lireesa took the time to appreciate this fact. While Lireesa’s own skin was nearly alabaster, she appreciated flesh that frequently knew the warmth of the sun. She appreciated the way it held that warmth.
She appreciated, even more, the deftness of Lynalis’s fingers as they undid the laces of her own breeches.
“You can leave them on,” Lireesa breathed as she reached forward and splayed her hand across Lynalis’s toned abdomen - tracing the hollow of her hip with the side of her thumb. “Come closer to me.”
Lynalis couldn’t help the way her next breath shuddered on its way out any more than she could help her eagerness to straddle the queen’s lap. It took Lireesa helping her get her balance for her to find herself comfortable.
She was more than a little surprised when Lireesa leaned forward to brush the sharp bridge of her nose against her ribs just beneath her breasts.
“You are so warm,” Lireesa whispered, and Lynalis’s hand faltered when it came up and nearly rested against the back of Lireesa’s head. It only faltered for a moment, though, before it slipped slowly over hair that both looked and felt as strong and as soft as silk.
Lireesa exhaled softly against Lynalis’s stomach in response to the softness of her touch, and Lynalis found herself rewarded rather quickly by the sudden falling of Lireesa’s robe away from her shoulders. Shoulders of a warrior more than a mage. Shoulders to fit the body of all the legends woven in and of their queen.
Lynalis didn’t turn to ash when she touched them. Nor when she traced her trembling fingertips over the various marks that would never leave skin that seemed so deceptively flawless. Burns and cuts and so many, many terrible things of a time gone for so long the evidence of them all had faded to nearly match the rest of her.
One would only know up close, really, the countless lines that made the map of Lireesa’s body.
And one would never memorize its paths. Not in one night.
And one night was all anyone would ever have.
Not that Lynalis had any expectation to the contrary.
It was unspoken, really, yet acknowledged. This was a privilege. To have her hands guided along Lireesa’s body until they began to find their own way.
To know that there was some measure of softness here, however small, in the low, breathy encouragement of her Queen as she finally lowered her hand into her own breeches.
She found herself trapped again in Lireesa’s gaze when she first touched herself. It wasn’t quite so overwhelming, now. Not with Lireesa’s hand splayed across the small of her back. Not with the other one kneading slowly along her thigh.
No, those eyes weren’t something to shy away from in this moment. They were something to get lost in. In the perceived power. In the glow of them and behind it into irises that shone like knives if knives could be alluring. Disarming. Appreciative.
Lynalis’s breaths were coming quickly and shallowly now. Her free hand was clinging to Lireesa’s shoulder perhaps harder than it might have been had she been fully aware of herself.
“You are so close,” Lireesa whispered, and Lynalis’s next breath escaped in a whimper as the firelight cast a glow over the fine sheen of sweat that had formed over her brow.
Lireesa reached for the back of her neck and pulled her gently closer until her face was pressed against her shoulder.
Her lips found Lynalis’s ear at the same moment her voice did.
“Come for me,” she whispered. “Come for your Queen.”
Lynalis came with a shudder that wracked her entire body, and Lireesa’s eyes slipped shut so she could saver her soft moans of pleasure.
Lynalis hadn’t even righted herself again when Lireesa let out a soft chuckle in response to the warmth of Lynalis’s hands stroking over her chest to rest against her breasts.
“Are you not ash?” Lireesa asked - her lips brushing Lynalis’s cheek. “Hm? Or have you found that I am nothing like the sun?”
Lynalis laughed weakly and sat herself up in Lireesa’s lap to look down at her.
“More like the stars beyond it,” Lynalis observed. “Yet still nearly too bright to look upon.”
Lireesa hummed her appreciation deep in her chest as Lynalis grazed one of her nipples with the tips of her fingers.
“Would it please you for me to touch you?”
“It already pleases me,” Lireesa sighed as Lynalis’s touches trailed down along her ribs. “But you may certainly do as you please, as well.”
What Lynalis pleased, it turned out, was to lower herself to her knees between Lireesa’s knees. What Lynalis pleased, was to part her thighs and taste her with such careful reverence Lireesa had to grip her hair to urge her into further action.
It was clear rather quickly to Lireesa her assumptions had been correct. This was a woman who was used to pleasing women. Who had no qualms putting her talents to use. And Lireesa certainly appreciated those talents.
Pleasure was a wonderful distraction, after all. And there was much distraction to be had that night. A night that ended with Lireesa laying on her stomach across her bed with Lynalis’s strong, sure hands kneading the stiffness from her muscles.
They had each had a bottle of wine between them, and Lynalis had had more food, even, than she was used to. Lireesa took care of her guests, after all. Of her company. Her distractions.
Even when it became apparent their evening was drawing to a close, Lireesa walked Lynalis to the door of her chambers and took her hand once more as she had hours ago.
“I enjoyed my evening,” Lireesa sounded much the same as she had for most of the night. Not a hint of fatigue or much of anything else. “I enjoyed your company.”
“I’m glad,” Lynalis murmured with a furrow between her brows. “Is...is there anything more I can do?”
If Lireesa had felt anything in response to that question, she hadn’t let it show.
“Not at all,” Lireesa gave Lynalis’s hand a soft squeeze and released it. “I’m sure you’re aware I have quite a few things to attend to.”
“The wedding,” Lynalis nodded and finally averted her gaze from Lireesa’s. It was too much, again. It had lost its softness, somehow. “I wish you luck, My Queen. I wish your family luck, as well. I’m certain you don’t need it, but I offer it all the same.”
“Thank you,” Lireesa opened the door, then, and Lynalis glanced behind herself expecting to find a guard. She was surprised to see the corridor empty. “Your escort is at the end of the hall after you take your first left. I do value my privacy highly.”
“Of course,” Lynalis responded quickly - hoping she could convey her understanding in just two words. Lynalis was used to discretion, as a frequent guest of more than one noble house. “Thank you for having me. Really.”
Lynalis slipped from the room before the absence of any response on Lireesa’s part was too obvious if only to save her Queen the trouble.
Lireesa was more than ready for sleep by the time she was gone. The night had served its purpose.
Sleep would have to wait, however, for another soak and another glass of wine. After that, there would be an hour or two before the work of the wedding would finally peak in the morning.
Before she had to deal with Katherine, again.
Chapter 4: Lady Sun
Alleria had always been the outlier. The odd one out among the three siblings of the royal family. She had seen things her younger sisters should never have to. Lived through things not many in the kingdom were old enough, even, to remember.
Lireesa observed her eldest daughter as she entered the room and took in everything there was to see with sharp eyes. Lireesa knew she didn’t miss a detail. She was likely picking out a piece of lint on Sylvanas’s overcoat from an arrow’s shot away.
At least, until she was jostled rather suddenly from behind by a much smaller, younger elf. The sight of Alleria pretending to be annoyed with her youngest sister despite the fact that she was now swinging her around by her middle brought a smile to Lireesa’s previously almost pensive face.
“Ah, Little Moon,” Alleria greeted Vereesa warmly as she put her back down on her feet and looked down at her with a wry smile. “When will you join me out on the borders? I’ve missed you so.”
“I’m not so sure,” Vereesa responded, looking and sounding only half-serious. “It does sound so tempting to live my life in trees and in tents for months and months at a time.”
Alleria snorted her amusement because this wasn’t even an exaggeration. In fact, Vereesa was being almost generous. She’d never quite...tamed the way that her mother had. She’d never had much reason to. Sylvanas had taken to court life and to the politics like a duck to water. She’d been born into it and born for it. Alleria still bristled at the very idea.
And that’s why they were here now, really. That’s why Sylvanas was eyeing her sisters in the mirror she was standing in front of - an unreadable expression on her face yet one that filled Alleria with tension, nonetheless.
“I think she’s as perfect as she’s ever going to be,” Lireesa announced from her place near the tailor that was still going over Sylvanas’s suit with a fine-toothed comb. Yet, even as fastidious as he was, even he recognized a dismissal when he heard one.
“Very well. I intend to return before the ceremony…”
“Of course,” Lireesa chuckled her response and waved him off as both Vereesa and Alleria approached.
The heels of Sylvanas’s boots made sharp contact with the marble floor as she stepped down from the short platform she’d been on, and Alleria looked her over quickly as she came to a stop in front of her.
“How do I look?” Sylvanas asked - everything about her demeanor and her tone nothing if not reserved.
“Every bit the Prince,” Alleria said easily, reaching out to touch along the high collar of her jacket. It was true. There was nothing about Sylvanas’s outfit that wasn’t breathtaking. All white and gold like some sort of living statue. And Alleria knew enough to know that the cost of this ensemble alone was likely beyond even her own imagining.
But then, her mother’s outfit was just as ostentatious. As was her sister’s. As was her own - she just hadn’t begun to dress herself, yet.
“And you look every bit the scoundrel,” Sylvanas countered as she brushed Alleria’s hand away. “Am I to be wed with you in your armor?”
“Of course, not,” Alleria responded with a heavy sigh. “I wanted to see you as soon as I arrived. Seeing you was of considerably more importance to me than ridiculous costumes.”
Some of the tension in the room seemed to abate then, and Lireesa cut her eyes in Vereesa’s direction with a quick smile. “Let’s take a walk, yes? Get your sister’s outfit for her so she and Lady Moon can catch up?”
None of the servants present were so inclined to offer to run their errand for them. They were used to the subtleties of this family, and used to ignoring things when it was clear that they should be ignored.
With Lireesa and her Little Moon gone from the large dressing room, Alleria looked at her sister almost solemnly for a while, waiting for her to speak. Sylvanas had always been the better of the two of them with such things. Words. Emotions. And Alleria could almost feel them rolling off of Sylvanas.
Sylvanas finally ended Alleria’s suffering with a slow inhale and a gradual lean towards her for a hug Alleria gave freely. She wasn't even worried about leaving creases in Sylvanas’s filigreed coat as she held onto her.
“It feels like I haven't seen you in years,” Sylvanas complained weakly into Alleria’s shoulder where she stayed for a while before finally pulling back. “I thought you might come see me before today. Even just me. Even for a little while. I don't know why I thought that.”
Alleria cleared her throat and reached out slowly to take one of her sister's hands into her own. Sylvanas looked down gradually when she felt something pressing into her palm.
“To keep you safe,” Alleria murmured as Sylvanas carefully examined a very old, very small piece of magic. A little stone. A physical ward that was almost inert, now. These had been common once upon a time, and were now...well. How many years had it been since Sylvanas had even heard of one existing? Many.
“I'll be just fine, Alleria. She's just a girl. She isn't going to do me any harm.”
“It's for both of you,” Alleria explained gently as she took the ward from her sister’s hand and tucked it carefully into the gold silk wrapped thickly around her waist. “Because I won't be here to look after you, myself. I'll still know, now. I can still come if I need to.”
Sylvanas touched over the place where she could feel the magic stone tucked away. It thrummed faintly beneath her fingertips. She'd always been so sensitive to magic even though her own was quite weak. Nearly non-existent, now.
“The communication enchantments? The way stations?” Sylvanas asked in a whisper only Alleria could hear, and Alleria shook her head faintly.
“A conversation for another time. Not one for your wedding day,” Alleria sounded so firm, suddenly. So much like their mother with all of her years ready to back them up.
Sylvanas didn't put up much of an argument, however. She simply nodded. Today was the type of day that made her feel inclined to let those older than her deal with the problems of the kingdom for once. Not that she wasn't already dealing with the biggest problem it currently had. It was just that she wasn't really necessarily processing that at the moment.
“I take it you still haven't met her?” Alleria asked as she gestured towards a nearby bench and made her way towards it at her sister’s side. She wasn't sure when she'd started having to look up slightly to look Sylvanas in the eye. She was still broader, but her sister was longer and leaner in a way that had long ago left Alleria far less likely to get into physical scraps with her.
Sylvanas shook her head as she plopped down on the bench in a way that would have dismayed the clothier had he still been present, and she leaned forward with her arms crossed over her knees. Or at least, she tried, only to find her jacket far too stiff to allow her any real comfort.
She gave up quietly and sat up straight next to Alleria, who was no grimacing at the thought of putting her own get-up on.
“Well, if it makes you feel better, she’s nobility, right?”
“The humans hold looks in high regard. Especially when it comes to suitors. I'm sure they wouldn't be making an offer if it wasn't the best they had.”
Sylvanas made a sound of disgust in Alleria’s direction, and Alleria’s ears twitched when she realized just how terribly she'd misread the situation. Or perhaps she'd forgotten how much faster Sylvanas had grown up than she did.
“I can tell you didn't like that. I'm sorry. To be honest, I don't really know what to say, here. I feel like I probably owe you some sort of apology, right? But what can I say? I'm sorry it's always you and never me? I can't, really. I would wither away here. I would go mad. You know that.”
“I know,” Sylvanas responded with a shrug and a sigh. “I suppose I’m not entirely unhappy. I suppose it’s also possible I’m being petulant because I selfishly wanted you here sooner. I have no idea what I’m doing, you know.”
“And I do?” Alleria asked with a gentle yet wry smile as she reached over to pat her sister’s knee. “You know more about love than I do, Lady Moon. I think you know that deep down. You’ve been hurt more times in the past fifty years than I have in countless centuries. This is a good thing, of course. A normal thing. You’re the normal one, remember?”
“The tame one,” Sylvanas said quietly. “The boring one. The one to be counted on.”
“Boring?” Alleria asked with a tilt of her head and a faint flick of one of her ears. “I’ve seen you put an arrow through an ogre’s eye from further away than anyone else ever could. I’ve seen you fight. Fiercely. But some of the fighting doesn’t happen in the forests or the fields. Some of it happens here. And the type of fighting that you regularly do requires much more bravery than my own. Tact is a thing of courage and maturity. And that’s why Mother counts on you. That’s why she knows she can.”
“I think you give me too much credit,” Sylvanas countered with little hesitation.
“I know that you give yourself too little,” Alleria’s response was so quick that it silenced Sylvanas utterly for a moment as her eyes flashed over in the direction of her sister. They shared a look for a while before Sylvanas’s attention eventually slipped away.
“I suppose we should finish preparing for the ceremony,” Sylvanas announced when she finally decided to give up. Half because they didn’t have time to argue, half because she was already tired of Alleria being right.
“I suppose you’re right,” Alleria said, half expecting her mother and Vereesa to walk through the door on cue. They did not. An awkward silence stretched between them, then. One that Alleria finally felt the need to fill.
“I am sorry that I wasn’t here sooner. I meant to be. I truly did.”
If Sylvanas was shocked, she didn’t let on. She just nodded her acceptance and hoped it came across as appreciation as well.
Just when the moment seemed to stretch on longer than either of them could stand, the doors to the dressing room finally opened and Sylvanas looked up in relief to find her mother trailing behind Vereesa, who was proudly carrying Alleria’s ceremonial garb.
“Ah, Little Moon!” Alleria greeted with a broad grin as she extracted herself from the tension between her and Sylvanas. “My ridiculous clothing! Whatever would I have done without you?”
Alleria took the outfit from a rather proud-looking Vereesa’s arms and looked over it before her sly eyes slid to find Vereesa’s own. “And you didn’t even let them drag the ground. Quite the feat for someone of your stature.”
“She’s growing, Alleria,” Lireesa admonished in a low, even tone as she walked past them both towards the chair she’d taken up residence in for the better part of the morning. “Let her be.”
“Of course, she is,” Alleria responded with a wink in Vereesa’s direction. “She’ll be the tallest of all of us.”
“I plan on it,” Vereesa grumbled with a narrowing of her eyes despite the little smile of amusement that played at her lips. “Just to spite you.”
“No fighting, please,” Lireesa said in much the same tone she’d been using previously. No harshness. Just a clear and concise warning that drew both Alleria and Vereesa’s attention back across the room where the clothier had slipped back inside to put the finishing touches back on Sylvanas’s outfit.
It wasn’t long at all before she was as adorned and primped and perfected as much as any one person could be.
She looked miserable enough for Alleria to feel that old guilt creeping in, and miserable enough for Lireesa to take her hand and walk her away from the fuss currently surrounding her other daughters so they might have a private word regarding Sylvanas’s mood and Alleria’s place in all this.
Jaina swallowed past the lump in her throat for probably about the dozenth time as her Ladies fussed over her hair and her dress all while her mother oversaw the entire process. It was utterly ostentatious. Absolutely overboard.
But then, Jaina was marrying an elf. An elf of noble blood, no less. Anything run-of-the-mill just wouldn’t do. Not if her mother had any say-so in it. For once, though, Jaina agreed with her. For various reasons.
Not the least of which was the memory of the queen’s visit and the way she’d looked. She’d only met two elves in her life, and both of them had been nothing short of perfect. Not a single hair out of place. Not a single wrinkle in a single piece of clothing.
Perhaps that’s why she was allowing herself to be primped and prepped until she wasn’t entirely sure she was going to make it out of this room with her sanity.
In the end, however, she did. After many, many hours of so many adjustments that Jaina had lost count, here she was. Standing in front of a portal of magic origin. A portal of elven origin.
Her mother was with her, of course. Her Ladies were with her, as well. Though she wasn’t particularly close to any of them, their presence was still a comfort for her if only because of their familiarity. The rest of their escorts, however, only served to put Jaina more on edge. Especially Genn, who was a constant worry in such situations. At least to Jaina.
Fortunately, he was currently being primped for the ceremony in another room.
Still, this small blessing did little to lower Jaina from the precipice her anxiety had driven her to.
For once, Jaina saw her mother take notice of her for a reason other than wariness. At least, her expression was softer than it usually was.
“This place is beautiful,” Katherine observed, though they had only seen a small section of the palace. Only a corridor and the series of rooms Jaina's party had been given to ready themselves in. “You look right at home.”
“Thank you, Mother,” Jaina kept her voice even in her response despite how decidedly uneven she’d been feeling since the moment she first stepped through the portal this morning. Not because it had made her ill, no, nothing of the sort. It was just that everything else was making her feel ill.
Jaina was apprehensive to voice much of anything at all, yet she felt certain if she didn’t let some of what she was feeling out it might overwhelm her entirely. She waited for a moment when her entourage seemed otherwise occupied to clear her throat for Katherine’s attention.
“Mother, I…” Jaina sighed under Katherine’s gaze and nearly fell silent again before she reminded herself that none of this would matter anymore very soon. “I’m not feeling well.”
Worry flashed across Katherine’s features, and Jaina chose to believe it was worry for the right reasons. Worry and care that she was craving desperately for.
“What isn’t feeling well? Are you sick?” Katherine leaned forward to brush the back of her hand against Jaina’s forehead and Jaina very nearly leaned away from the touch before she stopped herself. Katherine seemed satisfied she wasn’t feverish after checking despite Jaina shaking her head in response to her question.
“Nerves,” Jaina said simply. “My stomach is uneasy.”
“I can fetch you a shot of something. I’m sure Genn has some brandy on him. He’s likely around here somewhere.”
Jaina grimaced and hated the way her stomach threatened to turn in response to the offer of liquor. She couldn’t imagine drinking at a time like this.
“No. No, that’s likely the last thing I need. Can’t you just…say something? Can’t you just try? Once?”
Katherine feigned indignance, but only for a moment. There was no one watching. No one listening. And they both knew how the past years had gone between them.
“Okay. Okay, then, what is it that you want me to say?”
“For starters, how do I even become a wife to someone? How did you do it for Father? Did you make him happy? Did you have to try very hard?”
Katherine looked away from Jaina at the mention of Daelin. She hadn’t been expecting it, clearly, but there it was. No taking it back, now.
Katherine drew in a slow breath to steady herself before she responded. “Jaina, it’s simple, really. They’re...simple creatures, men. They want to be listened to and indulged. Sometimes even coddled. Your father was a wonderful man. I hope your own is even half the man that he was. A true partner. They do seem quite different, these elves. Forward-thinking, I mean. I think you have a better chance having a husband that would be your equal here than anywhere else. I hope that for you, at least. Whether or not you believe that I do, I do. You’ve always been a fish out of water among your own kind. There’s no use in either of us denying that. I know you’re nervous now. But I think this is for the best.”
Jaina had long ago learned to take what she could get with her mother, and this had been far more than she’d expected. Even despite the many grains of salt she’d had to swallow along with the little glimmers of comfort that had found their way through in her mother’s words. She was surprised to find herself feeling a little steadier, now.
“Thank you,” Jaina said, even managing to offer Katherine a faint smile. Katherine returned that smile and reached out to squeeze Jaina’s hand, and Jaina found that she didn’t mind that, either. It was almost nice, even if it was too little and too late. “I hope you’re right.”
“You can write me, you know. As often as you wish. I’d be more than happy to help you in any way I can. There isn’t much advice I can offer you, now, but once we know more…”
“I will,” Jaina rescued Katherine from her floundering with a quick, half-forced smile. “I’ll write you as soon as I’m able.”
“Well, it’s settled, then. You’ll write me, and all of this will work out just fine,” Katherine sounded so sure that Jaina found it easy to take her seriously. Mostly because this was exactly what she needed right now. Reassurances. No matter how unfounded or unrealistic. This much, at least, Katherine had managed to do for her.
Katherine had her limits, though. Even on a day like today. And Tess Greymane quickly took her place when she seemed inclined to wander off to check on the rest of Jaina’s wedding party.
Tess was a breath of fresh air, really. From the wary looks she cast around the room as she lowered herself next to Jaina to the slight purse of her lips when she finally looked at her.
“Did I just see you have an actual talk with your mother?” Tess asked when she was sure no one was within earshot.
“Surprisingly, yes,” Jaina responded with a weak little shrug. Her dress even made it difficult for her to shrug, she realized. Even after the alterations that had been made to it following the Queen’s visit that might have made Jaina look ridiculously modest in comparison.
Even with those adjustments, however, there was only the scantest bit of collarbone above the neckline of her gown. Scandalous compared to any other noble wedding attire she’d seen in her scant years alive and far too many wedding attendances.
Yet, Jaina enjoyed the feeling. She enjoyed feeling as though her collarbones weren't something to be squirreled away because she'd always thought the idea absurd.
“Was it enlightening?” Tess prodded as she folded her hands in her lap expectantly. Tess wasn't a fan of all this and Jaina knew it. She was more a fan of having tales under her belt to tell the courtesans she regularly held the ears of back home despite her young age. She was a terrible flirt. Jaina was almost glad she wasn't going to be around when Tess really hit her stride. She knew the court would be positively aflame with rumor and intrigue.
“Not very. She tried, I'll give her that,” Jaina laughed weakly and Tess gave her a heavy sigh of commiseration in response. Neither of them had gotten particularly lucky on the parent front. Maybe that's why they'd always gravitated towards one another when they were put into situations like these.
“At least she tried, I suppose. Father has all but given up on me. You took a lot of heat off me with this whole wedding thing. I feel like you deserve to have it work out well for you just based upon that alone.”
“That’s so incredibly self-centered, Tess,” Jaina remarked dryly, and Tess chuckled. An impish, self-amused little chuckle that brought a weak smile to Jaina’s face. But at least it was a smile.
“There we are. There’s a smile. Keep your chin up out there. I’m not sure I have the speed to catch you if you faint.” Tess said in a tone that caused Jaina to look over at her appreciatively. Jaina had wondered a time or two what it would be like to be one of those court girls that Tess liked so much to hang around. She often reminded herself that Tess would never be able to keep her attention as long as she kept theirs. Jaina had never been a particularly easy person to impress, after all.
“Whyever would I faint?” Jain asked incredulously with a furrow between her brows.
“What if he’s ugly?” Tess asked with a quirk of one of her own and a little smirk playing at her lips. “Imagine?”
Jaina gave Tess’s shoulder a shove that wasn’t quite as gentle as it probably should have been, and Tess huffed and rolled her eyes in response to Jaina’s refusal to let her keep her entertained.
That was about the time the room fell silent and Jaina felt like she was the only person left in it that had no idea what was going on.
She lifted her eyes slowly, and her attention finally settled on a familiar, yet unfamiliar face.
The lady knight from the queen’s visit. Liadrin. And her mother greeting her, of course. She almost hadn’t recognized her in the clothing she was wearing. Royal blue and gold from her collar down to the tips of her boots. The sword that hung at her side looked like something out of a picture book with all the gilding and filigree on the scabbard.
She was gone again before Jaina even had a chance to inspect her properly, and her mother approached her not long after holding a small parchment in her hand.
“Lady Liadrin requested I give this to you,” Katherine said. “She specified it was to be given only to you. As though I am a child.”
“Mm. I’m sure she didn’t mean anything by it,” Jaina soothed her mother’s concerns as best she could as she reached for the small, sealed packet and waited for her mother to walk away before she opened it. The handwriting was stunning. The pen strokes were long and easy and sure and Jaina took a moment to admire them before she finally began actually focusing on the words that had been written.
I hope this letter finds you as well as could be expected. I know how difficult this day must be for you. I know how nervous you must be. I have had no small amount of nerves to calm in my own household of late.
I want you to know before any of this truly begins that your well-being is at the forefront of the collective thoughts of my entire family. We all wish for nothing more than your comfort and your happiness.
When all those eyes are on you later this morning, try to remember my shoulder is always open, my ear is always free, and my libraries are just as much yours as they are mine. You are such a lovely woman. It will be a joy to call you my daughter.
Jaina looked down at the paper and read it a good handful of times before she finally folded it and brought a hand up swiftly to dab at her eyes for fear her makeup might begin to run.
The note found its way into the sash around her waist, for it was just small enough to fit there without fear of it being seen. She could almost feel the comfort of it seeping into her skin.
“What was that about?”
Jaina jumped a bit in response to her mother’s voice. She hadn’t even seen her approach.
“Just a letter from the queen,” Jaina explained simply. “Welcoming me, is all.”
“Odd,” Katherine muttered beneath her breath.
But then, this was all odd to her. Odd, and varying degrees of unacceptable.
To Jaina, though? Oh, to Jaina it really was wonderful.
Beneath her near-constant undercurrent of nerves, there was so much wonder. Wonder about the colored glass in all the windows and a desperate need to find herself curled up in the myriad of colors that filtered into this room and likely many others through that very glass with a good book.
But books would have to wait, she reminded herself.
Not that she needed to. Genn’s take-charge attitude and overbearing voice were suddenly making themselves known in the hallway outside.
It was time, then.
Jaina touched over the place in her sash where she’d tucked Lireesa’s letter as she stood and tried her best not to let all the color drain from her face.
She thought of a hundred different things at once.
Strangely, she thought most about what Tess had said earlier as time suddenly seemed to slow to a near-stop. She thought about what she should have said in response to her jest at the possibility of ugliness. That all she cared about was that her Lord was kind and smart. That they could speak and understand one another. Because Jaina had met so very many beautiful, hideous people. And that was the very last thing she wanted.
“Are you ready?” Katherine asked, and the softness of her tone caught Jaina off-guard. It seemed so out of place in the sudden commotion.
“Yes,” Jaina responded as she smoothed the front of her dress for the hundredth time for absolutely no reason. She realized after she said it that her response hadn’t even been a lie.
She was ready. The waiting was misery, and now that it finally seemed to be over - everything felt just a little lighter. For now, anyway. And as the doors opened and everyone began filtering out into the grand corridor outside, Jaina decided that it was probably best to focus on that, right then.
Chapter 5: A Royal Wedding
Jaina was almost certain if she weren’t clutching her hands together in front of her waist, she might have involuntarily crawled out of her own skin. The women fussing over her dress had faded out of her awareness long ago. Even her mother’s nervous pacing had blurred at the edges of her vision.
All she could focus on were the grand, arched doors in front of her and the din of countless people beyond, and the fact that each and every one of them was waiting on her to enter the room. Including the one person her thoughts were centered upon. The one she knew almost nothing about.
Before she could descend into madness, however, the doors began to open. They opened so slowly it felt to Jaina as though time were moving backward. Perhaps the worst part was how the room had fallen utterly silent the second the doors cracked.
Jaina really didn’t have long at all to think about that, though. The sheer grandeur of the room hit her almost immediately. The ceilings were vaulted. Taller than anything she had ever seen. She wasn’t even sure it could be called a room, really. ‘Room’ seemed to simple a word for the space flooded with beautifully colored sunlight filtering through windows the size of most houses back home.
What really had her feet cemented to the floor, however, was the music that had suddenly begun filtering through the grand space. Music played by no one, yet music that was everywhere all at once. This had to be magic.
That thought occurred to Jaina just as she felt a hand at her back urging her forward. Right.
She was supposed to walk.
She was supposed to take the steps down a petal-carpeted path so long she couldn’t even make out the faces of the people waiting for her at the end.
All she knew was that Genn was at her side and her mother was behind them when she took her first steps.
The steps seemed endless. The fact that she was surrounded on both sides by unfamiliar faces didn’t help, despite the fact that half of them were her own people. Lords and Ladies and dignitaries from her kingdom that all needed to be here for appearances, or so they had all said. Jaina wondered, as her breaths repeatedly caught in her throat, for how many years they would use this as a bargaining chip. A status symbol.
That they had attended a wedding.
Jaina was nearly hysterical about it inwardly. Outwardly, her chin was raised and her shoulders were squared and her posture and movement were impeccable. But then, nearly her entire life had been leading up to this moment.
Nearly her entire life had been leading up to her reaching the base of the stairs that held…
Sylvanas’s eyes had been forward since the moment the room had gone silent and the doors had opened. She didn’t even hear the music, really. She couldn’t, past the sound of her pulse pounding in her ears.
It wasn’t until her mother reached out to touch her elbow that she finally turned her head at almost the precise moment the music stopped. It looked almost planned.
Sylvanas was terrified.
And then her eyes met Jaina’s for the first time and she froze, entirely.
“Offer her your hand,” Lireesa whispered without looking, and so quietly that only Sylvanas heard her.
She obeyed immediately, and Jaina offered her a soft smile as she accepted and ascended the stairs.
Genn slipped away like he was supposed to, and her mother stepped up just after Jaina.
And then, they were face to face - their eyes locked - Jaina’s bare hands resting in Sylvanas’s gloved ones.
“Hello,” Sylvanas offered, because she honestly didn’t know what else to do. It was ridiculous. Unrehearsed. Not at all what she was supposed to say.
And it made Jaina let out a soft breath of relief.
She sounded kind. And she looked just as scared as Jaina felt.
Jaina’s eyes widened for a split second as she took in the delicate yet sharp facial features of the woman in front of her.
“Hi,” She whispered just so nothing else would fumble past her lips. Nothing embarrassing. Nothing life-ruining.
Jaina’s thoughts raced for a moment. Shifted from question to assumption to suspicion and back again. Had her mother known, and just not told her? Did it matter?
This line of thinking came to a screeching halt when she realized quite suddenly that the shaking she felt wasn't coming from her own hands, but from the woman’s in front of her.
Her eyes flashed down to the finely made gloves that felt like silk against her skin but weren't, and she made the sudden, brave decision to give those gloves and the hands wearing them a faint squeeze before she looked back up.
The ceremony had already begun, and Jaina was relieved to find the words being spoken in Common.
“Sylvanas,” the woman said so quietly Jaina almost hadn't heard her.
“You have a beautiful name,” Jaina murmured under her breath in response. “I am glad to know it.”
There wasn't much more opportunity for talking. They were repeating words and phrases and making promises before long, but that didn't mean Jaina couldn't look around a bit. Just at the women behind Sylvanas. She found the smile on Lireesa's face comforting. Almost as comforting as the peering of the slightly broader of whom she could only assume were siblings was unsettling.
She found it easier, suddenly, to look back at Sylvanas.
It took so long, yet not long enough. It'd felt like seconds and like years all at once by the time everything was said and done. By the time they were wed, and the hall was filled with raucous cheering from the Elven attendants until the humans caught on that the mood should be celebratory.
Jaina saw something in Sylvanas shift as they turned to face the room. She saw the fear fade quickly into surety and confidence as she took Sylvanas’s arm when it was offered to her, and wondered if she'd been imagining all those other things before. Or projecting them, perhaps.
Jaina cast one quick glance at her mother before they descended the stairs, and found her looking relieved.
It was almost disappointing, really. She'd been hoping for shock.
Again, Jaina didn't have time for lingering thoughts. She and Sylvanas were being ushered to a reception with more haste than she was necessarily prepared for, at least, until Lireesa gave them a rather convenient, albeit temporary, out.
“It's customary among our people that the newly wedded couple enter the celebration of their union last,” Lireesa announced as she turned to face the throng of people trailing behind her.
Sylvanas lifted a brow suspiciously, and Jaina believed her beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Lireesa turned her attention to Sylvanas and the young woman holding her arm. Jaina. Her newest daughter.
“Sylvanas will walk you through the gardens,” she explained with such surety nobody in attendance would even suspect this might not be a real custom. At least, the humans wouldn't. And the elves knew better than to ask questions. “You'll join the rest of us soon enough.”
Lireesa leaned in, then, and took Jaina’s arms gently in her hands to pull her close and whisper something only she would hear.
“I won't have you sit through a celebration of your own wedding with a stranger, married or not. Go. Breathe for a moment. Both of you.”
Sylvanas bowed her head in her mother’s direction when she took a step back, and Jaina did the same - taking the cue from her. They split from the group at Sylvanas’s urging or, more accurately, Sylvanas was walking in the opposite direction and Jaina was doing a decent job of keeping up.
They were alone almost too suddenly for Jaina’s already frazzled nerves. The heels of Sylvanas’s boots echoed in the curved space. Jaina found it odd that that’s what she noticed. Unfortunately, that’s where her self-awareness ended. The fact that she was holding onto Sylvanas far too tightly to be proper escaped her, entirely.
“You can...my arm,” Sylvanas’s words came out almost stilted as her pace slowed to something Jaina found more comfortable, and Jaina nearly jumped at being so directly addressed. As though she’d never held a normal conversation in her life.
“I...you want me to let go?” Jaina asked carefully, and Sylvanas nodded. She let go immediately.
“The touching. You are not comfortable. You needn’t be...ah, performative for my benefit,” Sylvanas looked over at her with furrowed brows as though she were secretly hoping beyond hope Jaina understood her.
“I understand,” Jaina offered with a smile, smoothing at the front of her dress and matching Sylvanas’s much slower pace once the woman began to move again.
“You were surprised,” Sylvanas observed as they rounded a corner that was full, strangely, of fresh air and a rather pleasant, warm breeze. “When you saw me. Why?”
Jaina swallowed thickly and cleared her throat. It was difficult to keep her attention on their rather lackluster conversation when she realized they were suddenly technically outside. She wondered how they kept a palace such as this so immaculate. One that seemed to flow from inside to outside. From perfectly spotless marble columns to ones that were twined with vines from which bloomed flowers unlike any flowers Jaina had ever seen. Magic, perhaps?
“Oh, I…” Jaina remembered Sylvanas had asked her a question and cursed herself inwardly. “If I’m being entirely honest, I wasn’t really aware of your...well. Of the fact that you’re a, um...well. You’re a woman.”
Sylvanas’s eyes had been narrowed in concentration the entire time Jaina spoke, and she wondered if human conversations were always this hard to follow.
“I am that,” Sylvanas responded in confusion. “Do you find this disappointing?”
“No! No, it’s not that. Not at all. I’m...I’m already making a mess of things. I apologize. Where is this garden, by the way?”
Sylvanas looked over at Jaina to find every ounce of the young woman’s attention focused on her, and she smiled in faint amusement before gesturing outward.
Jaina’s eyes turned, and her steps faltered suddenly. She hadn’t even realized the open arches they’d been walking past had grown sparser. Faded off into nothing more than curved structures lining a path that had shifted from marble into some material Jaina didn’t recognize.
Her eyes went wide as she looked around. At blue and purple glowing lights dancing around here and there. Over the ponds in the distance and even at the curled ends of the arches that lined the path high above them.
“Are these…?” She pointed up at one of them and squinted to see it better. The ones lining the paths seemed to be contained in little gilded, golden cages.
“They are lights?” Sylvanas responded in confusion, and Jaina blushed and looked away.
“Magic,” Sylvanas corrected herself. “They are magic lights. And I...I am sorry if I misunderstand you. My grasp of your language is….”
“Perfectly fine,” Jaina offered graciously, though Sylvanas recognized that this was an olive branch, and she was happy enough to take it, albeit with a quiet sigh and a nod. Jaina looked at her more closely for perhaps the first time.
She’d never seen anyone like her before. She’d also never seen clothing that held a candle to what Sylvanas was wearing. Like something a prince from a children’s picture book might wear.
Sylvanas’s ears shifted faintly as she stood there under Jaina’s gaze. If she felt as though she were being appraised, it didn’t seem to bother her. She seemed more than willing to let it happen.
Willing enough that Jaina eventually realized she was staring and let out a quiet breath and dropped her gaze quickly.
“I don’t mean to stare. We should continue our walk, I think.”
“You can do whatever it is that you would like to do,” Sylvanas responded, straightening her jacket and taking the initiative to get them going in the right direction, again. “Do you...well. Do you find me satisfactory?”
Jaina blushed ten shades of red and stared down at the path passing under her feet for a moment to collect herself. “I find you...I find you shockingly beautiful. Like something that ought not be touched. Something to be put on display and admired from afar. And how do you find me?”
Sylvanas smiled in a way that suggested to Jaina it hadn’t been entirely intentional, and that didn’t help her blush in the least.
“Your eyes are captivating,” Sylvanas responded unabashedly.
“Mine? Perhaps you just aren’t used to seeing eyes that don’t glow, as all yours seem to.”
Sylvanas laughed and Jaina felt a thrill at the prospect that the woman found her at least mildly amusing. That was good. That was a good start.
“Perhaps,” Sylvanas agreed, cutting her eyes in Jaina’s direction almost slyly. “But I think not.”
Jaina returned Sylvanas’s attention until it left her, and even then her gaze lingered as she processed as many of the thoughts coursing through her as she could manage in this small span of silence. The thought that this woman was lovely and charming, but that cruelness often dwelled in spades behind beauty. She reminded herself that it was awfully hard to feign trembling hands, and that Sylvanas’s had been shaking in her own all the while they’d been vowing their lives to one another.
She got lost enough in the beauty around her and her own rather active imagination that she didn’t notice the outside had gradually become the inside in much the same way it had shifted from one to the other before.
In fact, she didn’t notice until the sound of a gathering of people finally edged its way into her thoughts. The reception.
Sylvanas must have noticed her sudden almost-hesitation.
“I can think of a reason for your absence,” she offered as she paused and turned slightly. Just enough to look at her a bit more easily. “I am more skilled in politics than foreign language.”
Jaina was a little shocked at the offer. That Sylvanas would sacrifice such an important appearance for her comfort when she seemed so damned...schooled.
“That won’t be necessary. I’ll do my best to keep up,” Jaina offered Sylvanas a smile that she hoped was reassuring. It seemed adequate, because Sylvanas nodded and offered Jaina her arm again.
The first short while was a blur of faces to Jaina. A blur of faces and a blur of words - some of which she understood, some of which she didn’t.
Genn found her almost immediately, and Jaina wasn’t surprised to see her mother trailing behind him. She was rather out of her element, after all, not being the most esteemed person in attendance. And if Jaina had learned anything since they’d stepped through this door, it was that every elf at this reception was varying degrees of esteemed. Or at least they carried themselves in such a way that there was no way to really tell.
“Jaina, Jaina, Jaina.”
Jaina nearly winced at the sound of Genn’s voice. It was so...abrasive compared to the almost musical quality of all the Elven voices surrounding them.
“Please, introduce me to your, er...ah. Well. Introduce me, won’t you?”
Katherine looked appalled at his side, and Sylvanas was standing straight-backed and impassive next to Jaina. Unbothered, seemingly.
“Sylvanas, this is Lord Greymane. Genn, this is Sylvanas. I suppose you should meet my mother, as well. Lady Katherine.” Jaina glanced at Sylvanas, who was already a step ahead of her reaching for Katherine’s hand in a rather deep bow.
“Lady Katherine,” Sylvanas greeted. “A pleasure.”
Jaina noted there seemed to be certain phrases Sylvanas was more practiced in than others. Certain actions. She was thankful for that as her mother seemed both flattered and pleased by her greeting. Genn seemed mollified at best, but that was to be expected.
There was something about Sylvanas’s demeanor, however, that left Katherine less apt to brag or prattle on than she had been on the Queen’s visit. Or maybe it was the grandeur that surrounded them that kept the conversation short.
Jaina certainly couldn’t think of anything to brag about back home with all these exotic foods and drinks flowing freely about the room carried by servants who might have been nobility anywhere else.
The conversation was, instead, rather painful to watch. Jaina found herself feeling sorry for Sylvanas by the time Genn and her mother finally threw in the towel, yet Sylvanas smiled at her once they were finally as alone as one could be in a banquet hall full of people.
“You’re rather good at that,” Jaina complimented quietly.
“The politician in me,” Sylvanas responded simply, sounding every bit the noble that she was. “I hope your meeting of my mother was less…”
“Your mother is wonderful,” Jaina interjected quickly. “I...I was terribly nervous before I met her. I still was, of course. I still am. But she spoke to me like...like I was important instead of tainted. I owe your mother a great deal.”
“You aren’t tainted, Lady Jaina,” Sylvanas said quietly yet adamantly. “I am certain of that much.”
Jaina was far too touched by that reassurance for it to have come from a relative stranger. Even if she was married to that stranger. But there had been such sincerity in her tone. Such earnestness to find the right words and say them properly.
She was saved from trying to stumble through an appropriate show of appreciation by the sudden feeling of a hand on her shoulder. She might have jumped were her nerves not already frayed beyond belief.
The smile on Sylvanas’s face could’ve told her that this was no ordinary guest behind her if she’d been paying any attention. Instead, she turned to find Lireesa holding out her arms. It seemed odd to Jaina - to hug someone at such a formal gathering. Why she found herself in Lireesa’s arms without a second though, she didn’t know.
“Oh, you are so lovely,” Lireesa said as she gave Jaina a little squeeze before releasing her. “It is so good to have you here. To have you home.”
“Between your daughter and you, I am going to cry in front of every important set of eyes in the kingdom,” Jaina warned as Lireesa reached for her hands and held them.
“Has she been waxing poetic at you already?” Lireesa asked with a spark of mischief in her eyes.
Jaina found herself laughing at their exchange. It had seemed so...well. Human, for lack of a better word.
“Oh, forgive me. I can’t help but pick on her from time to time lest her head get too big for her shoulders. They aren’t nearly as broad as her sister’s, after all. Speaking of her sister-”
Lireesa reached behind Jaina and grabbed a passing woman by her elbow with very little gentleness.
The woman seemed more amused than bothered.
“This is Alleria. The eldest of my children.”
“The most important of her children,” Alleria corrected, and Jaina was surprised at how naturally the Common flowed from her. She sounded a lot like Lireesa. Scarcely even an accent. “Nice to meet you, Lady Jaina.”
“It’s wonderful to meet you as well, Alleria,” Jaina offered her hand, and Alleria took it without a bow. More of a slight incline of her head in Jaina’s direction.
“I must be off,” Alleria said to all of them at once. “I have...business to attend to.”
“Women to attend to, she means,”
Jaina’s mind was close to spinning as she turned her head sharply to see Liadrin standing next to Sylvanas. The lady knight she’d seen twice, now. A surprisingly familiar face.
“Ah, Liadrin,” Alleria smiled a little too sweetly at her. “Quite right, as always. Women. It’s women that need tending. My throngs of women.”
Lireesa’s tone was sharp in a way Jaina hadn’t heard it before, and she was amused to see both Alleria and Sylvanas’s ears press back at the sound of it.
“My apologies, Lady Jaina,” Alleria said immediately. “Talk of my harem isn’t meant for your ears. You deserve better.”
“She does,” Sylvanas agreed, and the warning in her tone was evident even to Jaina.
Alleria sighed in defeat and gave Liadrin a light shove on her way past.
“You got me in trouble,” she muttered, and Liadrin chuckled in her deep, easy tone and returned the shove.
“You got yourself in trouble,” she corrected, and Alleria offered no argument in return in favor of making a quick escape.
The rest of the evening didn’t seem so daunting to Jaina after that. The wine didn’t hurt, either. Nor the delicious food.
Yet still, her nerves began returning to her as the crowd started to thin and Lireesa pulled Sylvanas to the side.
She was practically beside herself, actually, when Sylvanas returned to her seat next to her at the head of the table.
“We can leave whenever you wish,” Sylvanas announced, and Jaina looked at her to see that she looked a little worn. Not infallible after all, then.
“I’m...of course. I’m sure you’re ready to retire,” Jaina flushed and this fact was lost, entirely, on Sylvanas.
“I am, actually,” Sylvanas let out a breath of a laugh and nodded. “Quite tired.”
“Well, then, at your leisure, my lord.”
Jaina found herself back on Sylvanas’s arm a moment later. Being led down more confusing hallways. Confusing, yet beautiful, so it wasn’t all bad.
Jaina wasn’t really worried about the decor, however. She was more worried about what, exactly, her evening was going to entail.
It wasn’t until they’d walked for what felt like an eternity that Sylvanas finally stopped them in an entryway flanked by two guards that Jaina glanced at only to receive curt, quick nods from them in tandem.
No help there, then. No clue as to what this woman might be like behind closed doors.
It mattered little. The door was opened and then closed behind them soon enough.
Jaina’s curiosity and worry redoubled as Sylvanas finally removed her heavy, embroidered overcoat only to leave it laying on a nearby sofa as though it were any old thing instead of a priceless piece of work.
“The sitting area,” Sylvanas explained as Jaina’s eyes wandered and her brows furrowed at the utter opulence of it all. She was thankful, at least, for the fire crackling away in the fireplace in front of the sofa.
“I...I had it lit for you,” Sylvanas continued when she saw Jaina’s eyes linger on the flames. “These rooms don’t need such things. I know your kind is fond of...or perhaps you just need fire.”
“It’s lovely,” Jaina reassured as she looked over at Sylvanas to save her from her efforts. “Thank you.”
“Of course. Anything. Really. A fire is...well. Anything that you need, please. It’s yours.”
Jaina looked at Sylvanas for a while and then cleared her throat in an attempt to make responding easier despite the fact that she felt a slight lump forming in it.
“That’s quite kind of you,” she said with a very faint forward gesture of one of her hands. “Would you like to show me the rest?”
“Of course,” Sylvanas cleared her own throat and turned on her heel, though not so quickly that Jaina would have to rush to catch up.
When all was said and done, Jaina had seen a sunroom and two bedrooms aside from the largest of the three. She’d also seen a room of sheer silken curtains with what she knew from her studies to be two hookahs, and likely of the highest quality if the adornments were anything to go by.
She did her best to take it all in, but she was fairly overwhelmed by the time they arrived in a second sitting area with cushions arranged both perfectly and imperfectly all at once and no small amount of books arranged on a wall that seemed to be made of shelves for them. An impressive private library that more than rivaled Jaina’s own collection.
Until Jaina realized the shelves were lined with her own books. Books that had been sent ahead of her with the rest of her things.
“Sylvanas…” Jaina broke from Sylvanas’s side for the first time and rushed over towards the shelves and touched over a few well-worn, familiar spines. “Sylvanas, all of these are mine.”
“I...yes. Yes, they are. I hope you aren’t angry. I didn’t have the shelves for them, so I had them built.”
Jaina turned to face her, eyes burning despite her best efforts to contain her emotions.
“Thank you,” She breathed, and the words shuddered as she spoke them. “I...thank you. I love it. I love this room.”
“Oh,” Sylvanas looked down at her own hands and began removing her gloves to tuck them into her belt. “I’m glad that you like it. It’s yours.”
Sylvanas paused for a moment, but she looked so deep in thought that Jaina didn’t want to speak, lest she disturb whatever was going on in her mind.
“I think now is a good time for my gift to you,” Sylvanas finally said. “My wedding gift.”
“You got me a gift?” Jaina asked almost incredulously as Sylvanas came to a stop beside her. “This room was so much more than anything anyone has ever given me, I-”
“It’s customary,” Sylvanas offered before Jaina could argue further. “And...well.”
Sylvanas shook her head, seemingly frustrated, and reached into the inside pocket of her jacket to produce a small velvet pouch.
Jaina stepped forward and reached for it when it was offered to her, and she held it in her hands for a moment before she began loosening the drawstring that held it shut.
She lifted what looked to be a necklace from it slowly. A beautiful necklace that seemed to be silver, but didn’t feel like any silver she’d ever held. On the end, a delicately contained gem that felt warm in her palm when she lifted it to inspect it further. Warm in a way that wasn’t natural. That couldn’t have been.
“This is just between you and I,” Sylvanas explained. “Sometimes it is best to not let those around you know everything there is to know about you. You’re more than well acquainted with this notion, I’m certain. You’ve grown up in a court as I have.”
“Very well aware,” Jaina responded as she ran her thumb over the gem. “What is its significance?” She lifted her eyes in confusion to Sylvanas. Why should a necklace be a secret?
“I’m not speaking Common, Lady Jaina.”
Jaina was stunned for a moment. She hadn’t realized. Only when she thought back did she recognize the beautiful language that Sylvanas had been using had been a million years away from her own.
“You weren’t, were you?” Jaina clutched the necklace in her hands a little more securely. “I don’t understand.”
“It’s a speaking stone. That’s what we called them when they were more common. Now, though, there are only a handful left. Hardly anyone remembers them, now. Not much need. My mother has one, and my sisters. Only the most trusted officials. And now you.”
“And you?” Jaina asked. “You must have one, of course.”
“I’ve chosen not to wear it with you,” Sylvanas explained simply. “Just as I won’t continue to speak my own language with you until you speak it comfortably on your own without the aid of magic. Jaina, you’ve given everything to be here. My putting effort into using words you grew up hearing is so little. So insignificant. But it is something that I can do for you in these rooms. Outside of them, I can give you the promise that nothing will ever be kept secret from you through use of a language you can’t fully understand, and that you will never be repressed through its use. You deserve that much. To be my equal in this.”
Jaina let out a trembling breath and quickly wiped at one of her eyes as she nodded quickly.
“Thank you,” she managed to gasp, and Sylvanas stepped forward quickly.
“Don’t cry,” Sylvanas murmured as she took the necklace from Jaina and stepped behind her to latch the delicate clasp behind her neck. Jaina was impressed she managed to do it without so much as a graze of touch against her skin. Or perhaps she was just surprised.
“You’re speaking Common, again,” Jaina observed.
“I told you that I would.”
Sylvanas bit her lip and moved around in front of Jaina again.
“As kind and perfect as this all seems to be, Sylvanas, I’m sure you’re quite ready for bed.”
Sylvanas nodded faintly. “I haven’t had much sleep. You will take the large room. Myself, one of the others.”
Jaina must have been too tired to hide her shock because her expression earned her one of curiosity on Sylvanas’s part.
“You...wouldn’t have me on our wedding night?” Jaina asked incredulously.
“Have you?” Sylvanas asked in much the same tone. “S...sexually?”
“Well, obviously.” Jaina sounded almost indignant.
“Jaina, I hardly think...this is a marriage in title only. We are two people, and we have to make of this what we will. We can’t do that in one night, and you shouldn’t have to offer your body to me to try.”
“Oh,” Jaina breathed, and suddenly almost all the tension in her flooded from her and left her feeling almost boneless. “Oh, God, you...oh.”
“I don’t agree with the expectations that your kind places on its women. I would never place them on you now that you are here. But I do think your eyes are captivating. And I do want you to be happy.”
“I’m sure that I will be,” Jaina said, still trying to overcome her disbelief. “You are so much more than I could have expected. I...I don’t think you realize just how abysmal the prospect of marriage is where I come from.”
“I’ve heard,” Sylvanas chuckled and then wondered if she should have. She decided, when Jaina smiled at her, that she’d done just fine. “All your things are in the suite. The bathroom there is attached, and I’m sure you would enjoy a long soak before bed.”
“That sounds divine,” Jaina sighed, and she meant it with every fiber of her being.
“Very good,” Sylvanas felt a little relieved, now, herself. She was almost shocked that nothing awful had happened thus far today, and then with the promise of sleep rapidly approaching, nothing bad was likely to happen until tomorrow at the very earliest. “You remember where the rooms are, then?”
“I do,” Jaina reassured.
“I’ll let you have some peace, then,” Sylvanas offered. “We just have to make it through the morning’s breakfast with our families and then our peace might consist of more than just a bath.”
“One can only hope,” Jaina responded softly, and she bowed on her way past Sylvanas. The bow was returned. She stopped at the door, though, and lifted a hand to the frame of it as she looked at Sylvanas over her shoulder. “You’re very funny, I think. Under all the pomp and circumstance. I think you’re very funny.”
“Do you like funny people?” Sylvanas asked, still standing in the middle of the room watching Jaina carefully.
“Very much,” Jaina said before she released the door frame and stepped away.
Sylvanas was still combatting a faint tingle at the base of her skull as she listened to Jaina’s retreat. She only realized once she could no longer hear Jaina’s footfall that her ears were burning.
Well, at least that hadn’t happened until Jaina had gone. She hoped.
Chapter 6: The Lady's Departure
Sylvanas woke in the middle of the night much like she did nearly every night. Water. Water usually helped. Sometimes wine.
She was just such a light sleeper. She always had been. The added unfamiliarity of having Jaina in her rooms wasn’t helping any.
That’s what had her usual path towards the sitting room splitting off towards the main bedroom. Her feet padded softly against the too-cold floors as she walked towards the bedroom door. She was more than a little surprised, not only to find the door half-open, but one of the lights on.
She faltered near the door, unsure for a moment what to do.
Sylvanas blinked up through the opening in the door and regretted it the moment her eyes met Jaina’s.
“Apologies,” She called out from the hallway. “I was only going for a drink. I didn’t mean to disturb you. Would you like a glass of water?”
“You needn’t apologize, I’m just reading,” Jaina said quietly from inside the room, and Sylvanas cleared her throat. “This is our room, not mine. I’m only using it until...well. Anyway, yes. Water is fine. Wine would be even better, if that’s what you’ll be having.”
Sylvanas was gone in an instant. Given a task - something to do - something to make Jaina happy, perhaps, all her hesitation had gone. She returned only a few moments later with a glass of wine in each hand and slipped in through the door to find Jaina half-covered in bed in a dressing gown. Smiling at her as she put her book aside.
“You look different,” Jaina remarked as she looked at Sylvanas in the gentle illumination of the single mage light she’d left on.
Sylvanas hadn’t even considered the fact that she must look rather unimpressive in her simple linen shirt and pants. Nor did she consider Jaina wasn’t thinking anything of the sort.
“Here,” She responded simply, walking towards the bed and holding the glass out towards Jaina. “Can’t you sleep?”
“New place,” Jaina explained with a soft shrug as she took the wine. “Thank you. I’ll be fine. Used to it in no time.”
Sylvanas held her own glass in both her hands as she nodded her understanding, and they both looked at their drinks for a moment before glancing back at each other all at once.
Sylvanas let out a breath of a laugh and shook her head. “I’m not usually…ah. I don’t know the word.”
“You’re used to being the talk of the town, I’m sure,” Jaina offered graciously. “Like any good prince, right? And yet here you are, worrying over me in the middle of the night. Acting as though I might shatter if you look too hard or for too long. Unlike any prince or lord I’ve ever met.”
Sylvanas was fiddling with the edge of her wine glass with the sides of her thumbs as Jaina spoke. “I’ve never been married before.” She offered, wondering if that was enough of an explanation.
“Neither have I,” Jaina responded with a quiet laugh. “I have no idea what I’m doing. I do know that you are charming and gentle and that I’m very lucky.”
Sylvanas smiled softly down at her wine and gestured towards the edge of the bed. “May I?”
“Of course,” Jaina responded simply, watching Sylvanas as she moved to sit down - nowhere near to touching Jaina’s side, but seemingly being careful about just that, nonetheless.
“Are you missing your home?” Sylvanas asked after taking a sip of her wine.
Jaina was rather preoccupied just looking at her now that she had a chance to actually begin to process everything that had happened that day. So much so that one of Sylvanas’s ears twitched in her direction and she looked over at her for an answer.
“Your ear moved,” Jaina observed as her mouth curved into a little smile. “No, I’m not missing home. My nerves have just finally gotten the better of me, I suppose. Why aren’t you asleep?”
Sylvanas reached up to the ear that had betrayed her and stopped herself from touching it just before she did before she dropped her hand back into her lap.
“Sometimes I don’t sleep well,” Sylvanas admitted with a faint shrug. “What are you reading?”
Jaina felt it was only proper she feel a flicker of concern over Sylvanas’s trouble sleeping, considering they were married. She didn’t put much thought into the fact that they’d only been married for a matter of hours. “Just an old adventurer’s novel. It used to be one of my favorites. I find it comforting, despite it actually being rather terrible, objectively.”
“It’s acceptable to like objectively terrible things,” Sylvanas responded, and Jaina noted she’d finished nearly all of her wine already. She decided she’d better take a sip of her own. “I like romance, in example.”
“For example,” Jaina said quietly through her smile. “It would be ‘for’ instead of ‘in’.”
“Oh,” Sylvanas responded with a thoughtful look down at the bed between them. “I’m not sure that makes any sense.”
“It rarely does,” Jaina sighed as she offered Sylvanas a sympathetic look.
“Thank you. For telling me. You should tell me always so that I can learn.”
Jaina was slightly stunned for a moment. She hadn’t even been sure she should’ve corrected her, at all. To be thanked for it was unexpectedly touching.
“Will you be as patient with my learning of your own language? If I were to choose not to wear the stone around you?” Jaina asked curiously.
“I would always be patient, yes,” Sylvanas reassured without hesitation.
Jaina smiled, again. Despite her lingering nervousness, she didn’t seem to be able to stop.
In the moments of silence that followed, Sylvanas finished her wine and stood from the bed.
“Are you going?” Jaina asked, wishing, suddenly, that she wouldn’t.
“I think I should,” Sylvanas said as she held up her empty wine glass. “This should help. And we have an engagement in the morning.”
“With my mother,” Jaina groaned quietly as she nudged her book further away from herself so she could at least try to get comfortable. This room was larger, even, than her mother’s room back home. She knew already how empty it was going to feel again once Sylvanas left. “I’m so sorry you have to be in such a difficult position so early in the morning.”
“It’s no trouble,” Sylvanas said, biting her lip as she shifted her empty glass from one hand to the other. “Goodnight, Jaina.”
“Goodnight, My Lord,” Jaina responded with only half a smile this time. An almost knowing smile.
“You like to call me that,” Sylvanas said as her eyes lifted to meet Jaina’s.
“I think you might like to hear it,” Jaina countered softly. “Is that a fair assumption?”
“For the most part, yes,” Sylvanas responded. “Though, I do think I would like to hear you say my name just as much.”
“Alright, then,” Jaina said, watching Sylvanas as she walked past the mage light and brushed her fingertips across it to dim it further than it already was. “Goodnight, Sylvanas.”
“I like that better,” Sylvanas said as she paused near the door to look at Jaina for another moment or two. Jaina looked right back. At least until Sylvanas was gone, making her way back to her own room.
“Our accommodations are so lovely, Lady Lireesa,” Katherine offered with a smile across the breakfast table. It was a small gathering. Only her daughter, Sylvanas, and the Queen with a meal fit for easily a dozen people to share between them. “As was the ceremony.”
“Thank you for saying so,” Lireesa responded easily with an even easier smile. Sylvanas glanced between the two of them from the opposite end of the table, happy that she hadn’t had to do any of the speaking yet. “I hope you find our breakfast as adequate. Of course, you won’t need any strength for the journey home. We’ll provide you with portals for your journey and you’ll arrive with comfortably full stomachs, no doubt more than ready for rest.”
“Rest sounds lovely,” Katherine remarked, glancing down the table in her daughter’s direction for what felt, to Jaina, like the dozenth time. “Did the two of you get any rest last night?”
Lireesa frowned, Sylvanas blinked, and Jaina blushed from her chest to her ears.
“Plenty, mother,” Jaina responded, and Sylvanas looked at her in response to the slightly agitated tone of her voice.
“We were quite tired after the ceremony,” Sylvanas continued for her. “As I am sure we all were.”
“Quite,” Lireesa finished, effectively cutting off their current conversation as one of the servants attending their breakfast refilled her glass from a decanter of juice he was holding.
“Right, well. The food here is quite something,” Katherine offered as she sliced one of the rolls she’d been served in half to find it filled with some sort of cream beneath the crisp shell of blistered honey on the outside.
“Parnis, find Quelis in the kitchens and tell him I’d like him to have a recipe book ready for Lady Katherine by the time she departs. Include some of our honey and our wine in the bundle.”
“My Lady,” He responded simply and, with a quick, graceful bow, he was gone.
“That’s quite generous of you,” Katherine said, looking genuinely surprised.
“What’s ours is yours, now, Lady Katherine,” Lireesa responded, as though it were the most natural thing in the world. “A few recipes is no big thing at all. Our cooks will be pleased to know you enjoyed their craft so much.”
The rest of their breakfast went much the same as it began. Small talk. Chit chat, largely carried along by Katherine and supported effortlessly by Lireesa all along.
In fact, Jaina and Sylvanas did very little talking. So, when Katherine asked Lireesa if she might spare a moment alone, they were all too happy to be excused from the table to walk off their rather heavy meal.
Lireesa waited quietly for Katherine to give some sort of explanation, her head tilted faintly and her eyes somewhere between cold and warm.
If Katherine was intimidated, she didn’t let on.
“You wanted to speak with me?” Lireesa finally prompted after the silence stretched on longer than her patience would allow it to.
“Well, yes,” Katherine responded, and for the first time she seemed, to Lireesa, to be nervous. Not to a degree most people might pick up on. But then again, Lireesa wasn’t most people. “In regards to our arrangement.”
“I’m listening, Lady Katherine,” Lireesa responded gently in a successful attempt to soothe.
“Well, my intentions were to secure lasting peace. Security. As I’m sure yours were much the same.”
Lireesa only smiled.
Katherine pushed forward.
“I’m just not entirely certain how lasting this might be if my daughter is unable to produce an heir for you. You have no sons, I’m assuming. Perhaps we might have discussed other options. My own son, for instance, is-”
“Of no interest to me or to my children, Lady Katherine. Or to this kingdom,” Lireesa had to measure herself carefully so her response wouldn’t come across too sharp. Even then, she lifted her glass to take a sip from it to smooth her throat and her voice.
“My apologies,” Katherine said quickly in an attempt to recover. “I’m so very unfamiliar with your customs and traditions.”
“If my daughter wants to produce an heir, that is her prerogative. And Jaina’s. They may do so whenever they wish. Not everything is so black and white here, Lady Katherine, I assure you. Our accord, however, is. Very much so. In giving herself to the one I hold most dear to me, Jaina has sealed our bargain for as long as my kingdom holds these lands. I expect that to be a very long time.”
“I’m pleased to hear I was wrong, then,” Katherine said without so much as a wince. She paused for a beat before she spoke again.
“How long?” Katherine asked with a slight furrow of her brows. “If you don’t mind my asking? Our legends and our books are only so...accurate. It has always been a great curiosity of mine.”
“How long have we been here?” Lireesa asked, knowing full well what the answer was.
“Since there was only darkness once the sun set,” Lireesa responded rather nonchalantly. The words were no less impactful. “Since we first lit the night against its chill.”
Katherine looked at Lireesa for a moment. Truly looked into her eyes for the first time. Her own fell quickly.
“I do hope you’ve enjoyed your stay. I’m sure the Lady Jaina would like to see you before your departure,” Lireesa glanced towards the nearest servant, who quickly moved to pull Katherine’s chair back for her as she moved to stand up.
“Of course,” Katherine nodded her head with all the grace she could muster, and Lireesa returned the gesture without standing before Katherine turned to be escorted from the room.
She was surprised to find Jaina waiting in the corridor alone outside, and she looked back quickly at the door when it shut behind her, leaving them alone together.
“Jaina,” Katherine greeted as she turned her attention back to her daughter. “Was Lady Sylvanas not only just with you?”
“She is waiting for me in the gardens,” Jaina responded softly. “She intends to walk with me once I’ve seen you off.”
“That sounds lovely,” Katherine said, and her speech was almost stilted.
“You won’t look at me,” Jaina observed, though her tone lacked any sort of accusation. “You can, you know.”
Katherine sighed softly and finally stopped looking past Jaina in favor of meeting her gaze. She looked almost pained.
“You don’t need to carry this with you, you know,” Jaina said almost sadly. “The guilt. I’ll be happy here, mother. I know I will.”
“I know that you will,” Katherine tried her best to smile. “You’ll do so many wonderful things here.”
“Things I could never have dreamt of at home,” Jaina finished for her. “I think here is a good place to leave the past, don’t you?”
“Do you mean that, Jaina?” Katherine asked, swallowing thickly when she found her voice beginning to catch in her throat. “After everything, you truly mean that?”
“With all my heart, Mother,” Jaina smiled, and it was much easier than Katherine’s earlier attempt. “I do love you. And there are parts of you that I’m certain I’ll miss. Perhaps I will find them in our letters and in our visits, if we have them.”
“I would like that,” Katherine breathed, and she reached up quickly to catch a tear that had slipped down her cheek before it could fall too far. “Very much, Jaina.”
“As would I,” Jaina had to stop her lower lip trembling as she stood there. Katherine’s hug was, for once, a blessing. Her shoulder was, for once, a safe place to hide her tears.
There wasn’t much left to say once they finally parted. The human entourage was milling around in the courtyard and Katherine was being fetched, leaving Jaina to wander towards the gardens with her heart hammering painfully in her chest.
Sylvanas was waiting so quietly she didn’t see her when she walked through the first archway that led towards the outer path.
“Have you been crying?” Her voice was so soft as it fell on Jaina’s ears from behind her.
“I have,” Jaina responded, turning towards Sylvanas. “Don’t fret over it.”
Sylvanas’s eyes flitted back and forth for a moment before she took a step nearer and held out her arm.
Jaina took it and wrapped her own through it far more tightly than she had the first time they’d walked together, and Sylvanas rested her free hand atop Jaina’s arm as they started down the path.
“You are easy to fret over,” Sylvanas said after a few steps. “You wear your emotions so openly in your eyes.”
“I’ve always been guilty of that, I think. And those around me have always been guilty of not seeing me.” Jaina said as she looked down at their feet while they walked. Sylvanas was in another pair of lovely boots. Only mildly dressed down from their ceremony the day before. Then again, Jaina was dressed a little too formally for a garden walk, too.
“I see you,” Sylvanas murmured after a while, and Jaina squeezed her arm a little more tightly. “I’ll do my best to keep seeing you. Regardless of what is between us.”
“You’re such a lovely person, Sylvanas,” Jaina was a little breathless. Mostly with emotion. “Truly.”
“I’m…” Sylvanas trailed off and listened to the garden around them for a moment before she sighed. “I’m trying to be.”
“Aren’t we all trying?” Jaina asked with a weak laugh, and Sylvanas exhaled through her nose and nodded.
“I believe most people are, yes,” Sylvanas said. “You sound tired.”
“I am,” Jaina sighed the words. “You must find me incredibly boring.”
“I think we could both use a rest after this walk,” Sylvanas said, and then her tone shifted. “There is nothing boring about processing everything you’ve been made to process over the past days and weeks. There is no need to impress me. You already have. I’m captivated. I wish only to get to know you.”
Jaina recognized the slip into an altogether different language. The words flowed and danced in an almost musical way and Jaina was glad she’d been able to better recognize them this time, even if she understood them as though they’d been in her own tongue.
“Such a lovely language,” Jaina whispered after a few moments of silence. “Such lovely words.”
“I mean all of my words when I say them to you. This is another promise I can make you.” Sylvanas said as Jaina watched a bird flit past them, unlike any bird she had ever seen with beautiful, vibrant feathers of red and gold.
“I’ll make you the same promise, then,” Jaina responded. “And once I’m well-rested and not a blubbering mess, I would like to begin getting to know you, as well.”
“You are not a mess,” Sylvanas said with a little smile. “And only slightly blubbery, if that means what I think.”
Jaina couldn’t hold back her laugh, then. And oh, it felt so good to laugh with Sylvanas beaming next to her, obviously pleased with herself that she’d managed at least that much.
Lireesa glanced nonchalantly over the notes in front of her as Valeera stood before her desk waiting to be addressed.
“How did it go? Anything interesting to report?”
“It went as expected, aside from a vague sense of unease,” Valeera said with a faint tilt of her head. “On my part, I mean.”
Lireesa lifted her eyes immediately and all her attention was focused on the dark-clad spy in front of her. She still smelled of blood, even from a few feet away. But then, Valeera knew always to report directly.
“You’ve never been uneasy before,” Lireesa responded with a furrow between her brows. “What is so different about this particular blood on your hands?”
“I felt like someone was watching me,” Valeera responded quietly, and Lireesa felt the sudden urge to comfort her when her ears pressed back. She wouldn’t. But she felt it. “There was no one, of course. You have my word. It was done cleanly and quickly as always.”
“Wards?” Lireesa asked curiously. “Scrying?”
“Who has the power to scry?” Valeera asked in a near-scoff. “Even you haven’t scried in, what, ten years? More? If…” Valeera faltered and trailed off. Their thoughts both drifted to Dar’Khan simultaneously and Valeera cleared her throat.
“Why would he watch me?” Valeera asked without bothering to explain her question.
“Coincidence, perhaps,” Lireesa contemplated aloud. “As the only scryer, things such as this are bound to happen. It isn’t as though he isn’t aware of your dealings. Of our dealings. He is directly involved in many of them, after all. He is just as invested in silencing those that might do us harm as I am.”
“Of course, My Queen,” Valeera seemed to relax. She seemed to, anyway. And if she still had any inward turmoil to work through, Lireesa would leave her to do that on her own. Valeera recognized her dismissal when her queen’s eyes fell back to the coded messages in front of her.
Oddly, she couldn’t leave quickly enough. It was torture to maintain the decorum necessary to depart, and once she was in the hallway she sighed a heavy, shuddering sigh as she turned the corner. It had been like this of late. These unsettling feelings seemed to follow her wherever she went. Into her dreams, even.
But then, her sensitivities and sensibilities were why she’d been chosen. That, and her wayward moral compass.
And her physical compass as well, she thought, as she had to come to a complete stop to avoid colliding with Liadrin who seemed to be heading towards where she’d come from.
Valeera wasn’t in the mood for banter.
“Sorry,” She said quietly as she tried to step aside, only to find Liadrin moving with her. She sighed in irritation and looked up at her. Past the too-nice clothing and the affronting level of perfection. “Excuse me.”
“Are you alright?” Liadrin asked suddenly, and Valeera recognized genuine concern in her voice, however faint. “Is the queen alright?”
“She’ll brief you when you get there. She’s fine, obviously. I’m tired. Move.”
Liadrin fumbled for words for a moment as Valeera began pushing past her, and when she found herself at a loss, she reached for her only to find Valeera snatching her hand away the moment she’d taken it.
“Don’t do that,” Valeera snapped, and Liadrin pulled her hand back and looked down at it. At the dried flakes of blood that had come off on her fingertips.
“See?” Valeera muttered as she adjusted her tunic and rolled one of her shoulders. “That’s why you don’t do that.”
“I just wanted to apologize,” Liadrin said quickly as she wiped her hand off on her breeches, seemingly unconcerned. Whether or not that was true, Valeera couldn’t tell. “For the other evening in the baths.”
“Ah, your weird savior guilt complex thing,” Valeera said quietly under her breath with a nod. “Right. No problem. Apology accepted.”
“Okay,” Liadrin’s jaw was set hard, but she bit back the urge to return Valeera’s vitriol to her.
Valeera looked at her for a moment that stretched into more, and nearly laughed as she shook her head. “I see you aren’t in the mood for a fight today, either.”
“I guess I’m not,” Liadrin sounded almost removed, and Valeera nodded her understanding.
“You’re probably as exhausted as I am with the added wedding details and these humans crawling all over the place,” Valeera continued. “And then it’s still business as usual on top of all that.”
“You should get some rest. They’re gone, now. Everything will be back to normal soon enough.” Liadrin responded. “Besides, I know you aren’t feeling well if we’re having a normal conversation.”
“Is normal conversation the way to your heart?” Valeera asked, quirking one of her brows. “You might’ve told me ages ago. Would’ve saved me a lot of time.”
Liadrin’s lips set into a thin line that amused Valeera more than anything, and she made sure Liadrin saw her wink before she slipped away down the corridor.
Chapter 7: A Thief and a Murderer
“Shh, shh. Be still,” Valeera’s voice was a whisper. Her hand was like steel over his mouth. Unshakable. Ruthless. She jerked her dagger upward hard and quick, and most of the strength left in her quarry’s body melted away as she pulled it from his kidney once the deadly stroke had been made. “There, now.”
Another whisper as she lowered him to the floor in the darkness of his bed-chamber. Before he could gasp his pain, she ended his would-be suffering with a quick severing of the femoral in his thigh. Easy enough to find in his dressing-down clothes. Mages did so love their thin, expensive fabrics. Former mages, anyway. Hollow, empty things with barely a spark of magic left in them.
She removed her hand when she felt his mouth working against her palm. Aftershocks, she thought.
But curiosity got the better of her.
“You are wrong,” he rasped with his dying breaths. “Tell the Queen you are all wrong.”
Valeera scoffed, and just as she moved her knife to avoid any further conversation, the light in his eyes died.
She looked into them anyway. At the way the glow of them dulled and then extinguished, entirely.
It was almost mesmerizing every time.
Not always, Valeera reminded herself as she wiped her blade on his frock to begin the process of cleaning up her mess. It hadn’t always been this way.
It wasn’t difficult to remind herself of this when she’d gone to stand in front of Lireesa. To hand her the messages she’d retrieved over the course of her eventful, bloody evening.
It was never difficult, then, to remember the first time she’d looked into the queen’s eyes.
Even as she exchanged words with Liadrin in the corridor outside, only half her heart had been in their usual banter. She was thankful for the haven of the dark halls that led to her room in the palace.
On nights like this, an encounter with Liadrin served only as a reminder of her own worth and of her own past. She couldn’t get to her rooms quickly enough. She couldn’t get the blood off of herself quick enough, either.
By the time she crawled into bed, she was so drained she felt she could sleep for days.
She didn’t bother to hope the dreams might not come.
They always did.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, scum?”
Valeera’s ears pressed back against her skull and her head snapped up in the direction of the voice. Her hands froze over the jewelry box she’d only just opened.
“You are,” The voice sounded almost offended, and Valeera was nearly blinded by the mage lights as they came on in response to a wave of the mage’s hand. He could only be a mage. Valeera could tell that much. “I can smell you from here.”
“I’ll leave,” Valeera’s voice was trembling as she shut the little box and took a step towards the door. “Please just let me leave.”
“Absolutely not,” the man scoffed with a shake of his head as he began walking towards her. He took her wrist firmly in his hand and began leading her towards his door. “We are going to the guards immediately.”
Valeera, even as small as she was, struggled more viciously than he had anticipated. She struggled for her life. The penalty for thievery was severe. There was no place for criminals in their society. Not even ones that had been orphaned long ago. Ones that were starving for a single scrap of food.
Their sudden, unexpected scuffle ended when Valeera drew her knife and held it to his throat. It ended when he sneered and dared her to use it.
It ended with a sickening gurgle and wide eyes and a choked sob trapped in her throat.
Perhaps a passing guard had heard the struggle. Perhaps the mage had activated some sort of alarm she hadn’t noticed.
It didn’t much matter. The dagger had still been lodged firmly beneath his adam’s apple when the door burst open. His blood was still bubbling from the wound to wet her fingers warmly as they threw her to the floor with such force she knew nothing else for a long while.
The next days were a blur of anguish. The physical, she could handle. The guilt, she could not. The realization that she could kill a man because he had dared her to...oh, that was what had her reeling. That was what had her young mind flayed and jagged and broken.
There was no amount of mistreatment that could do her more harm than the harm she had already done to herself.
By the time the latest guard came calling, there was almost nothing left of her. Just a shell of a young woman in the corner of a cell that was nicer than any place she could remember ever having slept in.
“The queen would like an audience with you.”
The words were still ringing in her ears as she was led down the hallway. She felt filthy, despite having bathed. She’d felt filthy for days.
Mostly, she was terrified. She wanted to bolt. She wanted to scream. Anything to avoid this.
But there was no avoiding what was to come. The shackles around her wrists were inescapable. The hand on her shoulder was too strong.
And then she stumbled as she was pushed through an open door that shut behind her. Deafeningly.
Valeera let out a shuddering breath as she stared down at her feet, her eyes burning with a need to shed tears that she’d run out of long ago. Her mind raced. What tribunal faced her? What council? Would she even leave this room alive?
“Lift your chin, child.”
Valeera swallowed thickly in response to that voice. She felt compelled to obey, and she had no idea why.
She lifted her eyes slowly, and her lips parted for her frantic breaths as she realized she was face to face with the queen.
And no one else.
She flinched when the queen waved a hand in her direction, fully expecting her end to come then and there.
Her hands shook violently as the shackles fell from around her wrist and landed on the floor with a clatter, drained of the magic that had been holding them in place.
“What will you do now?” The queen asked, and Valeera looked at her from across the dimly lit chamber like a field mouse in the eyes of a hawk. “Hm? Will you run?”
“No,” Valeera gasped emphatically. “No, Your Majesty.”
“Good girl,” Lireesa stood, and Valeera fought the urge to fall to her knees. She was almost sure that wasn’t proper.
Yet, she shrank into herself in response to the queen’s approach. Smaller and smaller the closer she got.
“You know me,” the queen said in a low, even tone as she came to a stop within arm’s reach. Valeera’s eyes had left the icy gaze they’d been locked in the moment it had become too much. It had become too much rather quickly. “Do you fear me?”
“Yes,” Valeera whispered, because she simply didn’t have it in her to lie.
“We are not so different, child,” Lireesa responded after a too-long moment of silence. “Do not be ashamed.”
Valeera’s brow furrowed and she shut her eyes tightly as she saw the queen’s hand coming towards her, only to find it moving beneath her chin and gripping her jaw more gently than anyone had touched her in her life.
She was still shaking as she was guided back up to her full height.
“There, now. You will look at me when we speak. Do you think you are undeserving of such a thing?”
“I’m a murderer,” Valeera breathed, her eyes wild and her voice trembling despite how still she somehow managed to stand. “Your Majesty, I...please. Please, just-”
“You will not beg,” Lireesa hissed, and she tightened her grip as Valeera tried to get away from her tone and from the sudden blaze of her eyes. “Ever again. Do you hear me, child?”
“Yes, Your Majesty, I…I don’t...I don’t understand. I’m sorry. I don’t-”
“How did it feel?” Lireesa asked before Valeera could continue. “As he died, how did it feel?”
Valeera fell silent. She felt as though her knees were a second away from giving out entirely.
The queen’s eyes searched her own for a moment, and then she lifted her other hand to tuck a wild wave of hair behind one of Valeera’s wilted ears. “Did you feel strong, Valeera?”
The queen’s voice was a whisper, then. Gentle. Soft. Valeera had no idea how she knew her name. She couldn’t even begin to consider why she might care to.
“Tell me the truth, because I will know if you do not. Tell me. Did you feel you had control for the first time in your young life?”
Valeera swallowed thickly as the first tear slipped down her cheek.
Her tone was both bitter and relieved all at once, and another tear followed the first.
“Dry your eyes,” the queen breathed with a gentle smile, running her thumbs across Valeera’s cheeks and holding her face in her hands once she was done. “I will give you all of that power and more. That feeling, you will have it again. It will be yours. Every last breath. And every life you take - all of this will be in my name.”
Valeera was frozen. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t speak. She could scarcely breathe.
“Or you can say no,” the queen continued with a slight sideways tilt of her head as she slowly allowed her hands to slip away.
Valeera’s eyes opened slowly to the darkness of her room. Her chest rose and fell evenly as she turned her head against her pillow to look at the stars outside her windows. The silk of her sheets was soothing against her burning skin as she moved her limbs in search of coolness.
She was surprised at herself for waking before the afternoon. Even more surprised that it was still evening.
It was so unusual, actually, that it made the hairs rise along her bare arms. And then the nape of her neck.
She reached for the knife beneath her pillow mid-stretch as she listened carefully to the silence of her room and slowed her breathing and willed her pulse away from her ears.
She’d only just wrapped her hand around the hilt of it when she saw movement in the shadows near her cold, dark fireplace.
The dagger flew with deadly accuracy, and she slipped from the bed before it even made contact - dropping to the floor so she could get to a more substantial weapon.
She realized, before she did, that the dagger had lodged itself in the wall. That it had passed through nothing at all.
As her eyes adjusted, she leaned back against her end table with a heavy ‘thud’.
The marble was cold against her bare legs as her chest rose and fell quickly.
Nothing. There hadn’t been anything there. The room was empty. It just hadn’t felt empty.
She pulled her clothes on quickly. Tied her breeches sloppily and didn’t bother to step into her boots before she threw open her door and moved into the hallway to find it just as empty as her room had been aside from the guards at the end of it.
There was purpose in each step she took towards them. There was cold sternness in her voice as one of them turned to look at her the moment she first spoke.
“Tell me who passed here this night,” She demanded with her jaw set and her eyes blazing with scarcely-contained fury.
“No one, Spymaster,” the nearest guard responded in confusion. “You have my word.”
Valeera clenched her teeth and congratulated herself inwardly for not baring her fangs.
“And yours?” She asked as her eyes darted to the second guard. A woman she was all too familiar with for more reasons than one.
“I saw nothing,” She responded, and there was a tinge of worry in her tone. “Should I fetch someone? Has something happened?”
Valeera glanced back towards her room for a moment before she finally looked back to the woman she’d been speaking to. She didn’t like the worry in her eyes. The muddle of emotion being reflected back at her.
“Send for Lady Liadrin when you exchange your post in the morning,” Valeera said, and she managed to do it without sounding agitated, despite the fact that she was. “It isn’t urgent. I just need to speak with her.”
Valeera lied better than she told the truth. If the woman knew that, she didn’t let on.
“Of course, Spymaster. Shall I...is there anything that you need this evening?”
Valeera’s eyes were full of a warning she didn’t speak as she answered. “I have everything I need in my rooms, thank you. Good evening to you both.”
“Yes, Spymaster,” the woman responded quickly. She wasn’t hurt - that much was clear. Just faintly surprised, perhaps. Maybe even a little resigned all at once. “And a good evening to you.”
This wasn't the first time Liadrin had been to Valeera’s rooms. She'd been to them quite often, really. This was one of the most secluded rooms in the palace, and for good reason. The conversations had here were best not heard by passers-by.
Liadrin was expecting one such conversation when Valeera opened her door for her and shut it quickly behind her.
She was expecting one until she immediately noticed the dagger protruding from the wall very near to her face.
Valeera glanced from the dagger to Liadrin before she finally dislodged it and tossed it onto a nearby table. A table she sat down at, leaving the only remaining chair for Liadrin.
“It's not like you to play with knives in your own rooms,” Liadrin observed as she sat and reached for the dagger to examine it. “The fact that it's one of your own puts me somewhat at ease.”
“You wouldn't know what I play with in my rooms. Anyway, there was someone here last night,” Valeera said without any pretense, and Liadrin’s eyes darted up to meet her own.
Liadrin looked at her more closely, then. She noted the darkness beneath her eyes and the wariness on her face. There had been almost no gravity to her statement, which was something Liadrin was used to. It was just a bit more frustrating in this situation than most.
“If there was someone here, why did you miss?” Liadrin asked as she placed Valeera’s dagger back on the table.
Valeera shook her head as she looked back to the place she'd seen the shadow the prior night, and she looked to be deep in thought for a moment before she finally answered.
“I never miss,” she said, and Liadrin was a little taken aback when she realized Valeera was worrying at her own fingernails. Such behaviors were almost utterly void from her. Normal behaviors and displays of emotion just weren't a part of her repertoire. “I didn't miss. Nor did they leave.”
“Then...Valeera, I don't understand what it is that you're trying to tell me.”
“Whoever it was didn't arrive, either. The guards didn't see anyone. My wards weren't triggered. I only woke because of a dream.”
Liadrin shifted in her chair as her brows furrowed. “Could you have been dreaming, then?”
There was a flash of fang and an almost-sneer before Valeera curbed herself. In this area, at least, they trusted each other implicitly. She knew Liadrin had to ask these things. It was only logical to ask these things.
“No. Nor did I go back to sleep after I questioned the guards. Just to be sure. It was...it was almost like a shade. If it was magic, it was unlike any magic I've ever seen. If it was nothing, then…” Valeera trailed off and looked away from Liadrin entirely.
“I believe you, Valeera,” Liadrin said quickly. “Don't question yourself. I've seen you have harder days than you had yesterday and I would trust your judgment even on the hardest of those. I'll inform the queen.”
“Don't,” Valeera said suddenly, and Liadrin’s ears pressed back in confusion. “Don't, Liadrin. I'm still working this out, and she doesn't need to be involved just yet. You can't go and tell her that her spymaster’s chambers were compromised by what might as well be a ghost.”
“What will you do, then? In the meantime? How am I to ensure your safety if-”
“I have never needed anyone to ensure my safety,” Valeera cut her off quickly. Perhaps too quickly. “That hasn't changed.”
Liadrin cleared her throat and tapped her fingertips against the edge of the table.
“Replace my guards. Reassign my servants. And...and I need you to find out why my mark became a mark. Discreetly.”
“And your meals?” Liadrin asked almost incredulously. “Wait, your mark? Since when have you needed a reason?”
“I just do. Don't ask me why, just find me the information. You have ears everywhere that I don't. I'm sure you're more than capable. And I will supply my meals, myself,” Valeera said simply. “Until I know what this was, or until I'm confident it isn't going to happen again. You act as though I need servants. As though any of us do.”
Liadrin levelled her gaze at Valeera and, in the end, lost to whatever tension had built between them and looked down at the table.
Valeera might have felt smug were she not so tired.
“Alright.” Liadrin paused and clenched her jaw for a moment. “I'll never understand why you try to do this, by the way,” Liadrin said quietly.
“What?” Valeera asked with a tilt of her head. “Remind you that our titles are as perceived and contrived as your pristine reputation? I'm sorry. It's my favorite thing to do.”
“Why?” Liadrin asked, doing nothing to hide her agitation as she looked at the exhausted woman across from her, wondering how she even had the energy for this right now.
“You're pretty when you squirm,” Valeera responded softly - her voice like silk, suddenly - as though none of their prior conversation had happened. As though Liadrin hadn't only just walked past a lodged dagger in the wall on her way in.
“And you look ridiculous when you try to cover up your very real fear with thinly-veiled insults and flirtations,” Liadrin countered, much to Valeera’s surprise. “You needn't push me away. If I'm to keep this from Lireesa, you can't shut me out, as well. Nor do you want to, or you wouldn't have sent for me. Is that untrue?”
“The guard dog has teeth,” Valeera said quietly as the words hit her like a wave breaking against rocks. “Who might have thought? If only she would put them to good use.”
“That's enough, Valeera,” Liadrin snapped as she stood from the table, and Valeera only blinked in response as Liadrin looked down at her.
Valeera could almost hear Liadrin’s heart thrumming in her chest. She knew it was. She could see the pulse in the side of her neck.
Liadrin regained her composure far too quickly for Valeera’s tastes. As always.
“Do you need someone to stay with you, then? Until this is sorted?” Liadrin sounded almost haughty. Valeera exhaled through her nose before she answered.
“Are you offering?”
“Is that a no?” Liadrin asked, and Valeera shrugged.
“I suppose it is. I sleep in the daytime, anyway. Last night was a one-off thing. I hate the light, you know. I much prefer the darkness.”
Liadrin ran her fingertips along the back of the chair she'd only just been sitting in for a moment before she moved her hand to the pommel of the sword currently hanging at her hip and nodded. “I can't say that I understand. But I can accept that you don't want anyone in your rooms. Best not draw attention where attention isn't needed.”
“You understand something, then, at least. That's good,” Valeera stood and gestured towards the door as she began walking Liadrin towards it. “I think you know more about the dark than you let on. But I suppose that's none of my business.”
Valeera reached past Liadrin for the handle of the door and stopped when Liadrin caught her eyes with own.
“Perhaps I do,” Liadrin responded, and Valeera was suddenly too aware of how close they were. “And perhaps I don't need your constant reminders of that.”
“Are you so sure?” Valeera asked, still not opening the door.
“Are you so sure your infatuation would remain intact if you found out the answer to that question?” Liadrin asked, her voice lower, even, than usual.
Valeera said nothing for a moment. She just smiled in a way that was indescribable between wickedness and amusement.
“My infatuation,” she finally mused aloud. “As though I don't see how your eyes wander.”
The door opened, but only a crack. “As though I don't dress for them.”
Liadrin’s eyes darted downward almost embarrassingly towards the black silk of Valeera’s shirt that hung against her chest rather loosely. Only half tied and tucked into leather breeches dark as night, all the darker for the way it all complimented her pale skin.
Liadrin's ears reddened as she looked over Valeera’s shoulder for a moment before reaching to cover her hand over the handle of the door. Her own was rough and calloused and scarred. Even the palm of it, as it rested over Valeera’s hand and her wrist.
Valeera would've shuddered if she didn't have the self-control that she did.
“Are we done here?” Liadrin asked, still holding Valeera’s hand firmly against the door handle.
“Yes, pretty Knight. I'll keep you abreast of any new developments. You can look at them, by the way. I don't mind. It's worse when you pretend you don't. I'm rather vain, you see. I like to know I'm being appreciated. I do so hate assuming.”
Liadrin rolled her eyes and scoffed, and Valeera chuckled as she finally opened the door to allow Liadrin to retreat.
She didn't right away, though, much to Valeera’s surprise. She lingered in the doorway and looked around the hallway before turning back to Valeera.
“Take care of yourself,” Liadrin told her. “Without any unnecessary risks.”
Valeera looked almost confused for a moment as she processed Liadrin’s tone and her words.
“Good day, Valeera,” Liadrin said. “Your guards are fresh and alert. They are two of my own. You should rest.”
“Perhaps I will,” Valeera relented. She'd felt the exhaustion tugging at her very bones since yesterday. It had only doubled over on itself since her early morning encounter.
“Good girl,” Liadrin responded, mirroring Valeera’s words from the hot pools back at her. There was something in her voice Valeera wasn't used to hearing, and if she did, in fact, have an infatuation - those words had hit every subtle nuance of that infatuation all at once.
Valeera shut the door rather firmly and latched it before retreating to her windows across the room so she could draw her curtains. Ones made especially for her that didn't allow even the faintest sliver of harsh morning light in.
The last thing she needed right now was any sort of harshness. Especially when that harshness was the type that revealed things she would rather not see, as light was so apt to do.
No, she would retreat to her bed and know nothing more until late that afternoon, and only then would she begin to chip away at her newest problem. No doubt with Liadrin’s words spinning tales in her mind while she did her best to ignore them.
They were awfully hard to ignore, though.
Valeera could've sworn she'd heard a hint of darkness in them. A touch of danger.
She found herself wishing she hadn't been so cold to her guard the prior evening as she pulled her sheets around her now-naked frame so that something, at least, might touch her. Might provide her warmth without seeking something in return that had never been hers to give.