The Petitioners Hall, situated near the entrance to the castle, was where the Crown Prince traditionally held court. Ren had sat there with Anduin on occasion, more often of late as he set to learning the feel and flow of the politics of the human capitol of Stormwind.
An audience with the Crown Prince was reserved for senior guild representative, merchants and craftsmen of high standing, and the lesser titled families of Knights and Barons. It was, Anduin had remarked dryly, for anyone who thought they were too good for the open public hours of audience with the King, but who weren’t important enough to arrange a private moment of Varian’s time. The issues brought before him were, Ren had found, only an echo of those that were endlessly paraded before his father - Guild disputes, land disputes, charges of wrong doing where one or both parties were too highly ranked to be brought before the public courts, and so on. Anduin, Ren thought with a private bit of bias, was better at listening than his father was, and his subsequent judgements were sometimes better thought out; the petitioners that left his presence might not be happy, but they knew they had been dealt with fairly.
In the absence of the King, Anduin had elected to hold both the petitioners hours and the open court together, from the larger venue of the throne room. The throne and dais sat empty, bereft of both men usually found on it as Greymane had accompanied Varian Wrynn into battle, his weathered countenance held tight and sour at the prospect of the coming joint offensive that put Alliance troops shoulder to shoulder with their Horde counterparts.
Alliance, Horde… it was all the same to Ren, foreign politics and foreign blood feud that had stretched on beyond all reason. He had served a brief stint with the Alliance forces when he had been fresh off the back of Shen-zin Su, but Varian’s greeting - such as it was, thinly veiled threats and stringent rules - had left a sour taste in his mouth and made him question that path before he had even shaken off his awe and wonder at the greater world.
Since then, he had found a home in the ancestral lands of his own people. He had walked the ruins of the Jade Temple, watched as Pandaria’s southern beaches were overrun with foreigners that brought bad blood and worse spirits with them. Watched, as that bad blood created nightmares spawned from hate that tortured a land that wasn’t even theirs. No… Ren had no love for either side and had wished, more than once, that he didn’t love the thoughtful, eloquent, golden furred son of the human Alliance leader.
But he had, and he did, and one person could not change the course of the river, as one of his masters had been fond of saying. He couldn’t change the course of the Alliance or the Horde, but maybe this threat greater than both of them, this Legion, could. Ren thought he might almost be thankful to the demons if they did.
Anduin had set his own heavy chair below and slightly to the side of the dais of the throne. Human chairs were too narrow and awkwardly shaped as far as Ren was concerned; he had found a low stool that let him press his feet together properly, knees pointed outwards. His formal robes stretched across his knees, making a neat hammock of space that his youngest cub was resting in, sound asleep, the other two cradled in a sling across his chest. He didn’t always bring the cubs to audience, which could be loud at times, but the crowd today was much thinner than usual, quiet and subdued in deference to the gravity of the day. Most of the city had turned out in the early morning hours to watch the army leave, gunships ascending between regimented flights of gryphon, a breathtaking show of might spread across the clear sky. Down at the docks the sailing ships were still leaving, their ranks supplemented with mercenaries from far and wide.
The petitioners were fewer and quieter, as though even the most self important of them realized that their grievances, in the face of the threat looming over Azeroth, sounded like petty nonsense. Anduin had taken advantage of the quiet to abscond with the eldest of the litter of cubs; Li Hua - named, after much debate, for Ren’s own mother - was a small bundle of swaddling cloths and a tiny furred head against the Prince’s shoulder where he expertly supported her, one hand curled protectively over her back.
Ren had had misgivings at first - never about Anduin, but about the responses of those around him. Anduin had just smiled, one of those shining expressions that still made Ren’s heart beat a little faster but did nothing to hide the mischief hidden in it, and told Ren to watch. He had, and Anduin’s instinct, as always, had been right - xenophobic to the less similar races humans might be, but a cub was still a cub, apparently. The female petitioners and even most of the males softened a little when they looked at the sleeping bundle draped limply over Anduin’s shoulder, and the deft way Anduin handled the infant, rubbing her back and rocking her slightly, seemed to bring him favor in the people’s eyes. Humans had many faults but Ren had to admit that their treatment of cubs, by and large, wasn’t usually one of them.
There was a slight lull in the proceedings after the last group - dwarven merchants from the north asking for a license that granted them permission to operate their business within Stormwind lands, easily given - bowed their way out. Anduin glanced back at Ren, as somber as Ren himself felt, but the Prince reached out with the hand not occupied balancing a cub and pressed Ren’s wrist briefly. “It will be fine,” he said softly. “Have faith.”
Ren wasn’t certain who Anduin was trying to convince, himself or Ren. Azeroth had faced threat after threat, even within their lifetimes, but not often of a magnitude that drew the King of Stormwind himself out onto the battlefield. Rumor had it that the Warchief, as well, was joining his forces, and Ren’s own stake in the matter - a cousin who had accompanied Varian’s flagship, the only blood relative to have come with him off of the turtle - seemed small in comparison.
Something - the tilt of his ears maybe - must have given him away because Anduin squeezed his wrist. “Hardwire will be fine,” he assured Ren. “He’s better with those swords than he ever let on - even if my father is never going to let him live it down.”
That made Ren snort softly. His cousin, ‘Hardwire’ by preference when his given name was longer and more difficult for the humans to pronounce than Ren’s was, had spent far longer with the Alliance and in Stormwind than Ren had. In that time, he had perfected a role that suited him perfectly, that of the harmless hard-drinking fisherman. Scruffy, disreputable, one of the low end commoners the King had a lamentable habit of associating with in the taverns around Stormwind. Ren had no doubt that all of the councilors and nobles who grumbled about Varian’s tavern crawls and the filthy commoners he kept company with hadn’t recognized the smartly armored Pandaren monk master who had bowed and fallen into step behind Varian that morning as the same Pandaren who occasionally came stumbling back to the palace in the early hours of the morning, supporting an equally stumbling drunk King, the both of them covered in beer and bruises from whatever tavern they had torn apart the night before.
It was wrong, though, for Anduin to be trying to reassure him about his cousin - Hardwire had completed his monk training well before Ren himself had, and was in vastly better shape and practice - when Anduin’s own father and King was out there. Ren forced his ears upright and turned his hand over, letting the Prince’s palm slide against his own and squeezing back gently. “I’m more worried about Greymane ripping Sylvannas’ throat out the minute the King’s back is turned,” he said in soft jest, which had the desired effect; a weak smile tugged at Anduin’s mouth and he gave Ren’s hand one last squeeze before turning back to the next petitioners.
It was near the end of the combined audience hours when the first messengers reached them. Ren had turned away earlier to loosen the front of his robes and let two of the cubs quietly nurse; the human reaction to public nursing, much less from a male, was somewhere between offensive and hilarious, but Ren wasn’t inclined to either test which it would be that day or to leave Anduin’s side. Turning so that those before the throne could see little but his shoulder and back was the best alternative, and one of the guards near the dais stepped forward with a small, sympathetic smile beneath her helm to hold one of the cubs while Ren briskly changed the smallest of the boys. He rewrapped him after, then handed the newly fed and swaddled cub to Anduin while taking Li Hua back.
He had just tucked her into the the front of his robe, her little claws hooked in his fur as she latched on to nurse, when the first commotion started out in the antechamber. A door guard moved quickly to Anduin’s side, bending down to speak to the Prince in a low voice. Anduin looked startled for a moment, then nodded firmly. “Yes, of course,” Ren heard him say, and then he was turning back to the petitioners before him, firmly telling them that their case would need to wait, he would return to them as soon as he could.
Ren cinched his belt a little tighter - shamefully tight, his belly still more flat than properly fleshed out even months after the cubs had been born, Ancestors bless but he had never thought feeding four of them would take so much out of him - tucked his daughter deeper into his robes, and scooped the other two cubs back into the carry sling. Anduin’s voice was steady but there was a tightness to his spine all of a sudden, and Ren’s ears had heard what those around them couldn’t, the messenger’s whisper of a courier returned from the front. If prayers were worth anything, either to the Light or the Celestials or his own Ancestors, let it be good news, Ren thought fiercely. Let it be good news, a decisive battle, victory in the making, for all their sakes.
The Wildhammer rider who stumbled into the throne room was not the carrier of anyone’s fervent prayers. The dwarf’s courier livery was bloodied and torn, a makeshift bandage wrapped around his leg, blood already seeping through the layers. Something had ripped huge chunks out of the male’s thick beard, along with a not insubstantial swath of skin, more blood running down what was left of a braid into a half charred and filthy tunic. Ren felt his own breath lock in his lungs, something cold and ugly settling into the depth of his stomach. He saw it, aching, as Anduin came to the same conclusion, the Prince rising to his feet, expression sliding away entirely to leave a mask that could have been carven from stone.
“Yer Highness,” the courier gasped, stumbling to an unsteady halt. “Yer…” he broke off sharply, coughing, the sound wet and rough. Anduin, lips pressed thin, gestured sharply; one of the guards stepped forward with a water flask, which the dwarf downed gratefully in great gulps.
Hesitant, Ren reached out, pressing his palm to the Prince’s back. Anduin didn’t acknowledge him but Ren felt him lean into the pressure for a single moment before he stepped forward, breaking the connection. “What news?” he asked briskly, but his free hand was sure and steady as he reached for the dwarf’s shoulder, and even from where he was sitting Ren could feel the subtle burst of pressure against his ears as the Light answered Anduin’s call. The dwarf straightened, breathing a little easier, but his expression as he looked up at Anduin was utterly lost.
“Yer Highness,” he said again, his voice breaking on the words. He drew in a shuddering breath. “Yer father… I’m sorry… King Varian… he….”
A gasp, low and horrified, swept the throne room. Anduin stepped back, one small involuntary movement, rocking back on his heels. The courier slid slowly to his knees and for one moment Ren thought the dwarf might pass out, but he steadied himself with a hand and then deliberately saluted, his breath coming hard and rough around suppressed sobs. “Y-yer orders, yer Majesty?”
There was something pained in Ren’s chest, a sharp, ugly hurt that ached all through him as he gathered his cubs close and rose to his feet. He watched as Anduin drew in one breath, then another, all color leached from his face until he was nearly the same shade as the pale furred cub tucked against his shoulder. He watched, heart heavy, as Anduin straightened, his gaze sweeping around the room in a slow, unseeing wave.
“The gunships,” Anduin said at last, his voice low but steady. “How many are left?”
“Only a handful,” the courier gulped. “We lost so many, on th’ beach, an’ then… th’ fel reaver… Lord Greymane called th’ retreat…"
Something hard and utterly unlike his normal expression slid over Anduin’s face, and Ren felt his heart fall. Anduin drew in one more breath, then raised his voice, sharp orders barked out that sent the Alliance soldiers of the room scrambling. “Clear the cathedral! I want every priest down on the docks to receive the wounded. Captain Malagan, rally the mages, get a location triangulation on those ships if at all possible, start bringing the worst wounded through!” He reached down to catch the hand of the courier, dragging the smaller male to his feet, and the burst of Light that bled out from the clasp of their hands was anything but gentle but did let the dwarf stand firm, eyes clearing.
“I’m sorry to ask this,” Anduin was saying quickly, the words nothing more than a hollow shade of his normal politeness, “but I need you to rally the rest of the gryphon riders we have left. Get word out to the ships that have already sailed, tell them to fall back. Get the long range riders in the air, we need to know if the Legion is pressing the attack off the isles. Go!”
“Yer Majesty,” the dwarf said, more heartfelt this time, his salute crisp as he headed out.
Ren watched, cradling the cubs close, as Anduin turned. Their eyes met for a moment and Ren could feel his heart break, something deep and wounded crumpling inside of him as the grief welled up. Anduin turned away, his gaze falling on the dais behind him and the heavy lion throne of Stormwind that his father had held court from only the day before.
Anduin hesitated for a moment, barely perceptible, then stepped forward. One step, then another, ascending the dais, his steps slow but steady. Ren watched, muffling the hitch in his own breath as the Prince - now King - turned towards the room. Watched in silence, the ache knifing through him, as Anduin pitched his voice to carry but not to disturb the small cub tucked against his shoulder, his hands gentle on the infant even as he snapped out orders to make preparations for wounded, broken bodies and broken ships, to guard against attack, a million details that Ren couldn’t even wrap his numb mind around and which Anduin rattled off as easily and naturally as breathing, every inch his father’s son.
Behind him, untouched, the lion throne sat empty.