“So this is how the sea starts: increments of longing,
Mostly in half darkness
Then a white light as waves rush through.”
— Meena Alexander, from “Nocturne”
Jaina had read once that heatstroke could provoke a feeling of nausea not unlike seasickness. At the time, she had counted it as something that only ever happened to other people. She was the last daughter of a long line of sailors, and magic came to her as reliably as the tides came in to Kul Tiras. She had never known her stomach to roll on the deck of a ship, or when riding a horse for long hours, or when enduring the summer heat, and had expected that she never would. Until today.
Today, the flank of Jaina's horse was lathered with sweat, and she rode beneath the spires of elven Quel’Thalas, her insides churning all the way. The uniform of the admiralty was heavier than she was accustomed to, her usual robes left behind in Dalaran in favour of something more befitting the situation. It cinched too tight around her waist and forced her shoulders back, the greatcoat pinned and buttoned in more ways than she could count, and she cursed every bit of thread holding the outfit together in the near-tropical heat of the elven city. As discreetly as she could, she reached up with the cuff of her formal greatcoat to wipe the sweat that darkened the hair of her temples to a honeyed gold.
She could taste the magic in the air here, magic that she was familiar with in the way it radiated off the Kirin Tor high elves she studied under, like the warmth of the sun on a summer’s day. In Dalaran it was like resting by a brazier; here it was like standing next to a bonfire, and the magic only added to the cloying heat her uniform and nausea travelling provoked.
It was just nausea, she was certain.
She glanced back. The streets behind her were filled with a forest of tall, fair-headed elves staring after her and the line of Proudmoore guardsmen that trailed in Jaina's wake. The elves parted before her Kul Tiran charger like the waves beneath a ship's prow, so that Jaina rode, alone, at the very centre of an entire foreign city's attention. More than ever she wished her mother were by her side, but the Lord Admiral Katherine Proudmoore was hundreds of miles away on her flagship. It would take at least a week for a packet boat to reach her by sea.
When Jaina reached the gates to the Court of the Sun, she dismounted. Elven guards were upon them immediately, royal Spellbreakers with formal uniforms and flared shields, ready to escort them, to escort her to Prince Kael’thas without delay.
“Lady Proudmoore, thank you for coming so directly,” the leading guard said in a lilting accent, bowing deeply. Another guard was already leading her horse away, presumably to be looked after in nearby stables.
Jaina had to fight the urge to wring her hands. Instead, she returned the bow and greeted the guard in practiced Thalassian. “ Anar-alah belore. The pleasure is mine.”
He straightened, and replied in Common. “Prince Kael’thas sends his most sincere apologies he could not be here to greet you himself. Unfortunately, his duties have detained him elsewhere for a time. I am to escort you to a courtyard to wait for the prince and your betrothed, the Ranger-General. If you would follow me, my Lady.”
Was her broken Thalassian so bad he felt the need to speak in Common? Or was he just being polite? Jaina never could tell. The high elves in Dalaran had never looked at her twice -- until recently, for reasons she paled to think of -- and when they did, it was always with a distinct air of disdain. As though she had muddied the hems of their elegant silk robes just by walking near them.
Or perhaps that was simply what all elves were like. This guard, while polite to the letter, certainly gave a haughty impression without even trying. His casual mention of why she was here at all made her stomach swoop down past her knees.
An engagement between the sole heir of Kul Tiras and the leader of the high elven armies. A military alliance in all its finery. Today was the day Jaina would be meeting the Ranger-General, and she felt sick just at the thought. She swallowed past the panic that bubbled up her throat.
The elven guard turned to stride away, and Jaina followed. Her own Kul Tiran guards trailed behind her, two-abreast. Far from appearing official, Jaina felt they looked drab in contrast to the sparkling minarets, lush scarlet banners, and golden-branched trees -- herself included.
Especially herself. She smoothed her hands down the front of her ceremonial greatcoat, feeling sillier than ever. She would melt before the day was over.
Quickening her step, Jaina caught up to the elven guard who had addressed her before. “Your city is very beautiful,” she said in Thalassian, determined to not let her few practiced phrases go to waste.
One of his long ears twitched. Surprise? Aversion? Maybe her accent was particularly grating. Regardless, he replied once again in Common. “Thank you, Lady Proudmoore.”
Jaina may not have been particularly adept at social situations, but she knew a rebuff when she saw one. Flushing, she fell back a step and let herself be led in silence.
They passed by an opulent water fountain in the centre of a square. Jaina paused to admire it before hurrying along with the elven guards, who had stopped the moment they noticed she had done so. She did not stop again, much as she wished to take a diversion down a street that led to a glimpse of a marketplace bustling with life. She craned her neck as they passed, but kept her feet moving. With a grimace she shrugged against another uncomfortable prickle of heat, feeling a drop of sweat sliding down her spine.
The guards led her beneath an intricately carved archway and through a series of open colonnades. At last, they came upon a private courtyard, empty save for a few guardsmen flanking the entryway.
The lead elven guard bowed to her again. “If you require anything, do not hesitate to let one of us know.”
He turned to leave, but stopped when Jaina said, “Um?”
“Yes?” he asked.
She hesitated, before asking, “I’m sorry to impose, but could I please have some water brought out? It’s awfully warm.”
He murmured something in his native tongue to one of the other guardsmen, and the group of them left without another word, so that Jaina was alone with her own Kul Tiran guards, who had already begun to fan out along the perimeter of the surrounding colonnade. At a loss for what to do, Jaina lingered at the edge of the courtyard. If she could even call it that. It seemed more accurate to call it a private garden. A large tree shaded a stone bench with its golden leaves, and a small stream winded its way through the centre of the space, feeding a bank of artful wildflowers that bloomed with vibrant reds and oranges. She crossed over to the tree in the hopes that its shade would provide a cooler atmosphere than the sun-warmed stones of the colonnade pathway.
No sooner had she sat down on the bench, than two of the elven guards returned. Jaina immediately jumped to her feet once more, anxiously looking over their shoulders to see if anyone else was accompanying them. As it turned out, they were only delivering the water she had asked for.
She thanked them as they placed the fluted crystal pitcher and goblet set on the ground beside the bench, and received only a bow in return. They then returned to their posts, leaving her alone in the centre of the courtyard. Gratefully, Jaina sat and poured herself a glass, but wrinkled her nose when she took a sip.
Tides help her. Even the water in Quel’Thalas was served warm.
With a sigh, she took another begrudging sip before placing the goblet aside. She leaned her head back and looked up at the sky. A breeze sloughed through the canopy. A pair of birds winged overhead in a flit and dip of vivid yellow. The clouds were streaked with vibrant colours -- blues and warm peach tones that would eventually fade to a dusky purple come the evening.
Soon driven to boredom, Jaina was making a tendril of water from the nearby stream weave patterns in the air with one finger, when the elven guards suddenly snapped to attention. Their shields slammed smartly against the ground, and Jaina jerked in surprise. The water she had been manipulating with magic dropped to the earth and scattered along the wildflowers. Someone new entered the courtyard.
Again, Jaina shot to her feet. She kept her arms stiffly at her side to resist the temptation to fiddle with her own fingers. The newcomer -- an elven woman with silver-gold hair, wearing opulent armour -- stopped at the edge of the garden. She exchanged a few sharp words with the guards that Jaina could not hear from this distance. Whatever reply they gave seemed to satisfy her, for she tucked her hands behind her back in an officious pose and strode directly towards Jaina, her footsteps lithe as a cat’s.
Or, perhaps not a cat. Something more deadly than a mere housecat. A panther or sabre. The closer she drew, the more Jaina realised just how tall she was. High elves naturally stood a bit taller than average humans, but Jaina’s family was known for their height, and she was used to standing taller than most. As the woman stopped and stood before her however, Jaina could already tell she was no longer the tallest one here.
“Lady Proudmoore?” the woman asked.
Jaina nodded. “Yes?”
The woman’s eyes, glowing a soft blue like many of her kin, swept appraisingly over her. Jaina squirmed somewhat beneath that intense scrutiny, before realising what she was doing and lifting her chin to meet the woman’s gaze head on. At that, the woman cocked her head, and introduced herself, “Sylvanas Windrunner. You must forgive the tardiness. I’m afraid everyone in Silvermoon is bogged down with work these days.”
“I hear war will do that,” Jaina quipped, trying and failing to make light of the situation.
Still, it earned her a smile. A fleeting, tight-lipped smile, but a smile nonetheless. It was more than Jaina had managed in Quel’Thalas so far. Beneath her gilded pauldrons, Sylvanas’ shoulders were rigid, her posture impeccably militant.
Clearing her throat, Jaina pointed to Sylvanas’ armour. “So, you’re a Ranger, then? You must know the Ranger-General.”
For some reason, that simple observation caused Sylvanas’ eyebrows to rise, her long ears canting up in surprise. Jaina was still wondering what sort of offense she must have accidentally caused, when Sylvanas answered slowly, “I am. And I do.”
When Sylvanas offered no more information than that, Jaina said, “Well, I appreciate him sending you along to keep me company. Though I understand it must be an imposition on your time, what with -- you know -” she waved her hands towards the walls around them, “- the Trolls combining forces and threatening to take over both our lands, and all that.”
“It is no trouble,” Sylvanas replied coolly. After an awkward pause, she added, “This is, after all, meant to be a union to solve that particular problem. Or so I’m told.”
The dryness of her tone made the corner of Jaina’s mouth curl up in spite of herself. “Yes, I remember getting that talk as well. What was it my mother said? ‘A military trade by less than military means’?”
Sylvanas hummed a quiet laugh, and fine lines appeared at the corners of her eyes when she smiled. She did not look old, but Jaina never could tell with elves. As far as she knew, Sylvanas could have been a thousand years old, and she would be none the wiser.
“Your mother is an excellent leader,” Sylvanas said, and for the first time she seemed to relax, more in her element as the conversation continued. “I have admired her strategies for some time. I hope our people can learn much from one another.”
“That’s very liberal of you,” Jaina replied before her head could catch up with her mouth. Her eyes widened when she heard what she had said. “I mean -! I just -!”
“- Know that my people are notoriously xenophobic?” Sylvanas finished for her, amused at Jaina’s stammering. “Yes, I am well aware.”
“Well, I -” Jaina couldn’t help but wring her hands now. “I wouldn’t say that.”
“And what would you say?”
Jaina fumbled for the right turn of phrase. “‘Parsimonious with your cultural heritage?’”
At that, Sylvanas laughed and the sound was infectious enough that Jaina could not help but smile in turn. Mostly, she was relieved that Sylvanas found it funny rather insulting, and that she had avoided some sort of potentially disastrous diplomatic incident.
Sylvanas’ gaze gleamed when she stopped laughing. “You have a way with words, Lady Proudmoore.”
A flush that had very little to do with the heat crept across Jaina’s face. “I can’t say that’s the impression most people have of me, but I’ll take it.”
“Yes, I’d heard something about you being the bookish sort.”
“News travels fast even in Quel’Thalas, it seems.”
“Don’t you know?” Sylvanas tsked when Jaina gave her a quizzical look. “I was sure you would have read about it in those dusty old history books. Elves invented gossip, you know.”
“Bullshit,” Jaina said before she could censor herself. She clapped a hand over her mouth, but Sylvanas was grinning at her again.
Now, Sylvanas appeared positively impish, and she teased, “A wordsmith in more ways than one, I see.”
“Don’t tell anyone,” Jaina warned. “I'm supposed to be on my best behaviour.”
Sylvanas mimed locking her lips with an invisible key. “I wouldn’t dare.”
If any of the guardsmen -- elven or human -- were eavesdropping on their conversation, they didn’t show it. Jaina tried to look past the elven guards to see if anyone was coming. The elven guards exchanged glances, a flicker of their eyes beneath their winged helms. Sylvanas followed Jaina’s gaze, turning towards the elven guards as well. Whatever they saw on her face had them standing up straighter, as if they’d stepped on a lightning ward.
Sylvanas turned back to her and said, “The Prince shouldn’t be much longer.”
“The Ranger-General -” Jaina began. She cleared her throat and tugged at the high collar of her cravat. “- what’s he like?”
A long silence followed her question. Sylvanas was watching her very carefully. “Do you want my honest opinion?”
“Would you give me anything else?”
Sylvanas gave a huff of laughter. “In that case,” she paused before continuing, “The Ranger-General has a bit of a temper, is incredibly vain and meddlesome, and -- quite frankly -- needs a long holiday.”
Blinking in shock, Jaina replied, “That’s - Well, that’s quite honest of you.”
That officious tone came back when Sylvanas answered, “Candour is strongly encouraged among the ranks of the Rangers. It fosters camaraderie.”
“Yes, but -” Jaina shook her head. “He can’t really be that bad.”
Sylvanas shrugged, the plates of her pauldrons sliding together with the motion. “I suppose it depends on who you ask.”
“Well, shit,” Jaina sighed. This time she didn’t even bother trying to stop herself from swearing. She merely tugged at her cravat again, reaching up to wipe at a bead of sweat that darkened the hair at her temples.
Tilting her head to one side, Sylvanas said, “If you’re too warm, you should just take that coat off.”
“I would, but I need to -” Jaina motioned towards herself and her attire. “- look the part. Something about all ceremony and etiquette before the prince.”
“The prince won’t care,” Sylvanas said. Then added, “Well, he will -- I’ve never met a man more concerned about appearances in my life -- but that doesn’t mean you should die of heat stroke before he arrives.”
Jaina rolled her eyes. “Well, thanks. Now I feel a lot better.”
“No, but you will once you take off that gaudy thing.”
Eyebrows rising, Jaina gave Sylvanas’ own attire a pointed look. “Where I’m from, we have a saying: that’s the pot calling the kettle black.”
Sylvanas flashed her a grin, and for the first time Jaina noticed that she had fangs that were surprisingly long and sharp. “But, Lady Proudmoore, how would you be able to recognise I was a high elf, if I didn’t look unbearably snobbish?”
The wayward stroke of humour was far more self-deprecating than Jaina had been expecting from a person who looked so serious. In spite of herself, Jaina let loose a snort of graceless laughter. Sylvanas continued to smile at her, warm if still a bit stiff. As if on her guard. As if someone important could walk into the courtyard at any moment.
“Thank you,” Jaina said.
Sylvanas frowned. “For what?”
“Making me laugh.” Jaina started tugging at the many buttons and buckles of her greatcoat, loosening it one latch at a time. “Tides, but I needed a good laugh.”
With an inscrutable expression, Sylvanas remained silent while Jaina shrugged off her greatcoat. Flinging it onto a nearby bench, Jaina tugged at her white shirt, pulling it away from where it stuck to her sweaty skin, and scrunching up her nose in distaste at the ruffles spilling from the cravat tightly bound at her neck.
“Ugh,” she muttered, sinking down onto the bench as well. “I miss my robes.”
Sylvanas did not join her on the bench, standing a decorous distance from her. “I’d heard you were training to become a member of the Kirin Tor?”
“I’m surprised a Ranger would know that.”
Sylvanas shrugged. “I like to be kept well-informed.”
Jaina sighed, fiddling with the end of a ruffle. "I honestly wish this whole marriage of convenience thing wasn't so...inconvenient."
Sylvanas raised a brow at that. "Oh?"
"I was looking forward to continuing my studies at Dalaran," Jaina admitted. "It took me so long to get Antonidas to even think about training me, and now it's -"
She cut herself off with a shrug.
Sylvanas looked at her for a moment, the tip of an ear flicking as she pointed out slowly, "There are many fine mages in Silvermoon. If they're not up to your high standards, I'm sure we can arrange for wards to portal you back to Dalaran whenever you require. I know it is costly and dangerous, but we have a long standing relationship with the Kirin Tor. They would anchor a portal for us, if we asked it of them."
“Why would they go out of their way like that for me?”
Sylvanas gave her an odd look, bordering on incredulous. “Do you not realise the privileged position to which you are being elevated here in Quel’Thalas?”
“Trust me, I know privilege. This?” Jaina pointed to the lush courtyard sprawling around them. “Feels like a cage.”
At that, Sylvanas went rigid, her posture more martial than even when she first entered the courtyard. “If you don’t wish to go through with the engagement, you needn’t do so. Nobody will force you into this, least of all -”
Before she could finish, she cut herself off with a clench of teeth, her mouth twisting to one side.
“You’re very kind,” Jaina said. “But really, it’s fine.”
Sylvanas took a step forward. Her eyes, which had previously glowed a soft blue, were suddenly very intense. The change was startling enough that Jaina leaned back in her seat. “If you have reservations, you must confide them.”
“In who?” Jaina asked.
“Somebody.” Sylvanas insisted. “Anybody.”
“I -” Jaina started to speak, but paused. Pressure pushed down on her shoulder, on her sternum and throat, until she felt like she was going to cave in upon herself. She swallowed thickly, staring down at her hands. “It’s not that simple.”
“Yes, it is. I assure you: it is.”
When Jaina neither replied nor looked up, Sylvanas sighed. For a brief moment, Jaina thought Sylvanas was going to be angry with her, that she was going to storm off and do something brash. Instead, she shocked Jaina even more by walking over and gently moving the greatcoat in order to sit beside her on the stone bench. Sylvanas leaned her elbows on her knees, and when Jaina snuck a hesitant peek, it was to find her staring down at her clasped hands in much the same fashion.
Sylvanas’ voice was soft when she spoke, “If you want, I can make this whole situation go away. You need only say the word, and I promise I will do everything in my power to make it so.”
Jaina stared at her. Sylvanas looked up and met her eye, and Jaina had no doubt that she could make good on such a promise.
Finally, Jaina shook her head. “No.”
“You’re certain?” Sylvanas pressed.
“Yes.” Jaina took a deep breath. “It’s not my first choice -- by any stretch of the imagination -- but it is my choice.”
For a moment, Sylvanas said nothing in reply. Then, she surprised Jaina yet again with faint laughter. “And now it is my turn to thank you.”
Jaina blinked in confusion. “Why?”
“For setting my mind at ease,” she said, and this time her smile was gentle enough to make Jaina’s breath catch.
Footsteps approached, rapid and quickly approaching. Jaina could hear the faint strains of male voices talking, and Sylvanas’ ears twitched. Abruptly, Sylvanas stood and motioned for Jaina to do the same. Jaina followed suit. She reached for her greatcoat, but stopped when Sylvanas shook her head.
Before Jaina could do anything more, Prince Kael’thas entered the courtyard, accompanied by the lead elven guard that had led Jaina from the Court gates. All of the guards -- human and elven alike -- stood at attention, but Kael’thas took no notice of them, as if they were mere fixtures along the walls.
He shooed the lead elven guard away with an irritable wave of his hand. “Yes, you were right, Ithedis. No need to be so smug about it.”
Far from appearing smug, Ithedis bowed low at the waist as Kael’thas continued to cross the garden courtyard alone. A friendly smile bloomed across Kael’thas’ face as he strode towards them, and Jaina felt more than saw Sylvanas stiffen beside her.
“Ah, Sylvanas! I was searching for you in the Walk of Elders, but here you are, keeping our esteemed guest company. Been getting to know one another?”
Sylvanas made a smart gesture, placing her palm flat over her chest in what appeared to be a salute. “We have.”
“Excellent.” He turned his attention upon Jaina. When he opened his arms, Jaina was half afraid he was going to offer her a hug -- she hadn’t known high elves to be liberal with physical displays of affection -- but he only indicated their surroundings. “Lady Proudmoore, it is very good to see you again. You are most welcome in Silvermoon.”
Jaina bowed. “You are generous to receive me, Prince Kael’thas. It is my sincere hope this is the start of a long and robust alliance between our two nations.”
When she straightened, he was positively beaming with satisfaction. “Then our visions are aligned. Come!” He turned heel and started to walk back the way he came, not pausing to see if they followed. “Grab your coat and let us repair to someplace more suited to these kinds of formal discussions. Now that we’re all here, we can -”
“Uhm -?” Jaina interrupted. “Excuse me?”
Stopping in his tracks, Kael’thas blinked and turned, momentarily flummoxed at being interrupted. “Yes, Lady Proudmoore?”
Pointing between the three of them, Jaina said, “Aren’t we missing someone?”
Kael’thas glanced between Jaina and Sylvanas in puzzlement. Then, he smiled at Sylvanas as if she had intentionally left him out on some sort of inside joke. He turned back to Jaina apologetically, “I’m afraid I do not follow.”
“The Ranger-General?” Jaina prompted, a little testily.
Slowly, incredulously, Kael’thas aimed his full attention back upon Sylvanas. “You didn’t tell her?”
“Tell me what?” Jaina looked at Sylvanas, but Sylvanas was studiously avoiding her eye. Something stirred at the back of Jaina’s mind, suspicion floundering at the edge of outright understanding.
Sylvanas’ voice was strained. “It never quite came up.”
Oh. Oh, no.
“Well, then. Allow me to be the one to properly introduce you two.” Kael’thas gestured first to Jaina then to Sylvanas, like an officiant presiding over a ceremony, his blood-red robes sweeping with every motion. “Lady Jaina Proudmoore, Heir to the Kul Tiran Admiralty, Scion of the Fleet. And Lady Sylvanas Windrunner, Ranger-General of Silvermoon, of Quel’Thalas, and of the Farstriders.”
Jaina’s stomach sank, like an anchor plummeting to a rocky seabed. The sun burned in the sky, but ice squeezed Jaina’s chest in a vice-like grip. Sylvanas stood tall, straight-backed, and stony-faced. She glanced sidelong in her direction, and this time when their eyes met, Jaina felt like she’d been plunged into an icy lake.
Sylvanas bowed to Jaina, her every movement rigid, and murmured, “A pleasure to formally make your acquaintance, Lady Proudmoore.”
The negotiations took weeks and weeks. Partly because Kael’thas insisted that Jaina be seen around Silvermoon City for what he called ‘a sufficient duration of time’ in order for her and the citizens of Quel’Thalas to acclimate to the idea that she would be marrying their Ranger-General. Mostly though, it was because it took so long to get everyone in the same room together. Meetings were pushed back or cancelled. Katherine Proudmoore couldn’t make it one week due to Zandalari activity to the southern seas. Kael’thas couldn’t make it the next week due to a meeting with the Council of Elders. Even Sylvanas had to extend her apologies, when a skirmish with the Amani trolls called her away to the borders.
Meanwhile, Jaina remained in Silvermoon, restlessness and boredom building under her skin like the sweltering heat of Quel'Thalas.
Rather than staying cooped up in the quarters given to her in the Court of the Sun, she had taken to walking around the city, accompanied by her omnipresent mix of personal Kul Tiran guards and elven Spellbreakers. In the first week, this had sparked a flurry of Thalassian whispers and stares when she had walked through the marketplace. Ithedis, who had been permanently assigned to Jaina’s protection detail by Kael’thas, had informed her that most foreign dignitaries were strongly encouraged to remain in the boundaries of the Court of the Sun during their brief visits.
Jaina wasn’t sure about being a ‘dignitary.’ She certainly didn’t feel particularly dignified with so many people gawking at her. She also wasn’t sure that rule applied to her.
“Didn’t the prince say that the whole point of my stay here was for me to be seen?” Jaina pointed out to Ithedis, when she continued to roam the city in the second week.
“He did, Lady Proudmoore,” Ithedis conceded in his usual stiff monotone. His expression was difficult to read behind the ornate flanges of his helm.
She ignored the way people gave her a wide berth on the streets, preferring to instead admire the fluted architecture of Farstrider Square. “Then, are you -” she stopped to peer into an open-plan building. “- ‘strongly encouraging’ me to remain in my quarters? Does this shop sell anything?”
Ithedis blinked at her in confusion, glancing between her and the building. “Weapons, Lady Proudmoore. And I would not presume to tell you anything that was against your best interests.”
Patting him on the shoulder, Jaina said, “And I thank you for that, Ithedis. Would you like to accompany me into the shop while the others remain outside?”
If anything, he seemed even more puzzled than before. His head flinched back, as if she had struck him.
Jaina quickly withdrew her hand, eyes wide. “Oh! I’m - I’m very sorry! If I overstepped -!”
“It is fine, my Lady,” he insisted, even as he glanced over his shoulder to see if anyone had noticed. “I would be happy to accompany you inside, if you so wish.”
Right. No touching. Was it an elf thing, Jaina wondered, or a station thing? She didn’t have the courage to ask him. Or, more appropriately, she didn’t want to put him on the spot even more than she already had done.
Jaina told her Kul Tiran guards to remain outside the shop, while Ithedis murmured the same in Thalassian to his own men. As the two of them stepping through the arched entryway, Ithedis removed his helm and tucked it under one arm. He was of a height with her, which seemed off-putting to him, for one of his ears gave a near imperceptible flick when he glanced at the top of her head.
The owner was speaking to an elven customer, and their voices dropped the moment Jaina walked inside. Resisting the urge to roll her eyes, Jaina instead tried offering what she hoped was a welcoming smile, which they did not return. Ithedis remained completely silent and stony, dutifully trailing after Jaina while she ambled round the perimeter of the shop, admiring the wares on display.
Jaina circled a stand of armour. The red lacquered plates had been polished to a shine, so that she could see her own shadow drifting in reflection across the surface. Not looking at Ithedis, she asked, “How well do you know Sylvanas?”
As usual, Ithedis expression gave away nothing. “The Ranger-General is an excellent military leader, just like her mother before her. Cunning. Shrewd. A staunch defender of our people.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Jaina sighed.
He did not ask for clarification, and Jaina took that to mean he did not want to know what she had meant. Either that, or he knew what she meant and had no answer that could help her. Eventually he managed to say, “Lady Windrunner -” he smoothed his thumb across the edge of his helm. “- is an accomplished huntress.”
Well, that was something at least. Drawing in a deep breath, Jaina pointed to a lavishly chased war axe hung upon the wall, its heavy blade stylised in the shape of an eagle’s beak. “Do you think she’d like that?”
Ithedis stared at her as if Jaina had just asked him to jump into a fountain. “You wish to buy the Ranger-General a war glaive?” he asked slowly.
“I wish to buy my betrothed a gift,” she corrected. “Is that inappropriate? Where I’m from, that would be considered quite a common thing to do, so please tell me if I’ve blundered.”
He seemed to relax, if only a fraction. “Ah. I understand. That is acceptable.”
“But not the axe?”
He did not answer.
Sighing, Jaina moved on and pointed to a sword. “This?”
Again, Ithedis did not answer, but his jaw tightened slightly, as if he were clenching his teeth.
“I’m going to take that as another ‘no.’”
Jaina continued walking, taking note of the many exquisite pieces of craftsmanship. She passed by a tower shield not unlike Ithedis’ own -- somehow Sylvanas did not strike her as the type to use a shield. A spear caught her attention, but Jaina paused at the bow beside it.
“You mentioned she was a huntress?”
“Yes, my Lady.”
Reaching up to trace the bow’s curved limb with her fingers, Jaina turned away. A wall adjacent her was layered with shelves that bore all manner of smaller items. Knives and quivers. Arrows and tinderboxes. Leather travel pouches, belts, and spare links of chain mail for repairing armour in the field.
She approached, immediately turning over an assortment of different sized and shaped arrowheads, as well as a wickedly sharp skinning knife that gleamed with oil when she revealed a finger-breadth of damascus steel from its sheath. When her eye fell upon a narrow little box however, Jaina placed the knife aside in favour of the box. It had been expertly carved from pale ivory and inlaid with golden ceremonial Thalassian script all around the edge.
Jaina held it up to Ithedis. “What does this say?”
He leaned forward. “It is an idiom, my Lady. ‘Prey hung is prey skinned.’ It means -” Pausing for a moment to think, he explained, “It means that there are often alternative solutions to a single problem.”
Humming a contemplative note under her breath, Jaina carefully opened the box. It was lined in red velvet, and nestled within was a dark slab of rock. A whetstone.
Jaina closed the box once more, and waggled it at Ithedis. “Yes?” she asked.
Again, Ithedis did not answer, but this time he gave a tiny nod that Jaina would have missed had she not been looking for it.
She bought the box, enjoying the shop owner’s open surprise that she was purchasing anything at all, and that she had picked what seemed to be the most practical and least gaudy item in the room. It was small enough to fit into her pocket when she walked back out onto the street with Ithedis shadowing her every footstep.
He placed his helm back over his head and remained as formal as ever, but for the remainder of the day he would answer her in Thalassian when she boldly tried to practice a few phrases on him. And as the sun began to slip towards the horizon, and they strolled back in the direction of the Court of the Sun, the little box was a welcome weight in Jaina’s pocket.
By the fifth week of her stay, people no longer stared and muttered as she passed, and Jaina had long since taken to wearing more simple Kul Tiran clothing. By the sixth week of her stay, Jaina had explored every street of Silvermoon City. At least, all the ones Ithedis would allow her to walk down. Some, he advised, were ‘ill-suited to the Lady’s disposition’ which Jaina took to mean ‘unsafe.’ By the seventh week, Jaina was just about ready to drag her mother, Kael’thas, and Sylvanas into the same room by the scruff of their necks. Luckily -- for all of their sakes -- they managed to finally arrange a day to settle the negotiations.
Most of the paperwork, Jaina knew, had already been drawn up; she had paled at the sight of stacks and stacks of documents in an official looking room of Sunfury Spire. Her wrist was already aching at the thought of signing those pages.
At least then it would be done. Better to get this over with than have it hang over her like a sword dangling by a silk thread.
Another otherwise uneventful morning found Jaina finishing up a light breakfast, attended as she always was by Ithedis and her Kul Tiran guards. She was seated upon a secluded bench in the corner of the bazaar and people-watching, when Kael’thas found her. She looked up in bemusement when she heard a murmur extend through the marketplace, half convinced that it was due to something she had unwittingly done. Seeing royal guards, she wrapped her half eaten meal in the cloth she had bought it in, and set it aside. She was standing and brushing crumbs from her breeches just as Kael’thas approached.
“You’re a difficult woman to find, Lady Proudmoore,” Kael’thas greeted her with a smile. He nodded to both sets of guards, who all walked a ways off to give the two of them space to speak in private. All except Ithedis, who continued to stand at Jaina’s elbow.
“My apologies,” Jaina said. “I thought I had until the afternoon before the meeting began?”
“Oh, you do. You do. I simply wanted to have a quick chat before the final negotiations. Check in on you, so to speak.”
“Thank you,” she said slowly. “I’m doing very well.”
Kael’thas smiled. “I have no doubt,” he replied. Without turning, he waved a dismissive hand at Ithedis and said, “A moment, please.”
Ithedis did not move.
For a moment, Kael’thas stared at Ithedis in confusion, then growing anger, his brow darkening as Ithedis remained staunchly by Jaina’s side. Kael’thas’ mouth opened, but before he could speak, Jaina murmured to Ithedis, “Thank you.”
Immediately, Ithedis bowed and strode exactly five paces away, watching. Kael’thas scowled after him, then glanced at Jaina thoughtfully as if adding numbers together.
Jaina cleared her throat. “You wanted to speak to me about something?”
“Yes,” Kael’thas muttered. In an instant, his veneer of false cheeriness returned, and his words were buoyant. “Yes, I did. You seem to be acclimating admirably. You’ve been the talk of the town ever since you arrived.”
“Oh - well, that’s -” she fidgeted with the ends of her sleeves before realising what she was doing and putting her hands firmly at her sides. “Good?”
His voice lowered and he assured her. “It’s excellent. I only bring it up because I also hear you and the Ranger-General have not taken the time to -- how shall I put it? -- grow better acquainted.”
Jaina opened her mouth, but no sound came out. It was true; she and Sylvanas had barely exchanged more than a few passing pleasantries since their first encounter in the garden courtyard. The one evening Sylvanas had found the time to join Jaina for dinner in a public venue, a breathless Ranger had raced up to their table and whispered something in Sylvanas’ ear that had her standing and apologising for the need to cut their meal so short.
Jaina had stayed to finish eating alone, and discovered upon leaving that Sylvanas had already taken care of any payment.
Kael’thas was still talking. “I understand -- believe me, I understand -- that our beloved Lady Windrunner can be a polarising personality. If she is not to your liking, then it is best we have that discussion before any official proceedings.”
“I don’t - I mean - she’s not -” Jaina floundered for exactly what to say, but Kael’thas continued as if she hadn’t spoken at all.
“If I’m to be perfectly honest, the Ranger-General was not my first choice for this union. Your mother was adamant however, that the alliance be military in nature. Both literally and symbolically. What with the Ranger-General answering solely to the Council of Elders, that military angle was of utmost importance. And while there are many fine Captains who could have taken my place -”
“Your place -?” Jaina’s eyes widened when she realised exactly what he was implying.
“- It did not seem befitting a lady of your station to marry at a level so beneath you. That and the fact the Ranger-General is known to be a -”
“Prince Kael’thas,” she interrupted, voice firm enough that she could get a word in edgewise. “While I appreciate your concern, I think any drastic changes this late in the negotiations would be unwise.”
At that, he appeared confused. As if she had snubbed an offering that he had spent a long time choosing just for her. His answering smile felt more forced than usual. “Quite right, Lady Proudmoore. Quite right.” Kael’thas offered her his arm. “Shall we head for the Spire? I know it’s early yet, but best to get everyone together before another disaster strikes.”
She hesitated for but a moment before placing her hand on his arm and allowing herself to be led from the bazaar. Ithedis fell in close behind them, followed by their combined unit of guards, until Jaina felt like she was leading a small cohort of armed soldiers that clanked with every step. Kael’thas talked the entire way to Sunfury Spire. All Jaina had to do was make noises of interest, and he seemed more than satisfied with the conversation.
Jaina used crossing the threshold of the Spire as an excuse to remove her hand. Kael’thas made no comment, though he did pause before continuing to lead her to the meeting room. More guards flanked the doors. They snapped to attention upon their monarch’s approach. As she passed by, Jaina gave them a weak smile that neither returned.
Someone cleared their throat behind her, and she turned in the entryway. Ithedis stood just outside, giving Jaina a meaningful look, as if waiting to be either invited inside or dismissed.
“Oh! Uhm -” Jaina winced sympathetically, “It’s probably best you wait outside for this.”
Without a word or the faintest flicker in his expression, Ithedis bowed and joined the rest of the guards outside the room.
When Jaina turned back around, it was to find that Kael’thas had been accosted by a steward. They spoke in rapid Thalassian. She had trouble following, only picking out words here and there among the fluid syllables.
Then, Kael’thas offered Jaina a respectful nod. “Excuse me. I must attend to something momentarily.”
“Another disaster?” Jaina quipped.
He grimaced. “Of the paperwork variety.”
“My condolences, Your Majesty.”
He chuckled, waggling a finger at her as though she were a small child caught with her hand in the biscuit tin. “You’re funny! They didn’t tell me you were funny!”
And with that he swept past her, followed by the steward. Jaina watched him go in slight bewilderment. Shaking her head, she stepped further into the room. A large oval table was perched in the very centre, spread with a ruby-coloured cloth and stacked with papers. Her mother stood near the head of the table, deep in conversation with her second-in-command. Based on the furrow in Katherine's brow, Jaina could tell the conversation was not going well. Best to steer clear.
On the far side of the room, open windows streamed with late morning light. Sylvanas was silhouetted against the glass, and beside her stood another elven woman Jaina had never seen before. They spoke quietly yet sharply, and they fell silent when they noticed Jaina rounding the table to join them. As they turned towards her, Jaina was struck by the resemblance of the two women, although the other elven woman was shorter by far and with hair so pale it appeared a shade shy of silver.
“Lady Proudmoore,” Sylvanas greeted with a respectful nod. She gestured towards the other woman and said, “Allow me to introduce my little sister, Vereesa.”
Without thinking, Jaina stuck out her hand. “It's lovely to meet you.”
Rather than bow, Vereesa grasped her hand without hesitation. “Likewise. I'm only sorry I couldn't do so earlier. Sylvanas has kept me busy in the field. I barely managed to escape the front lines. She'd have me working through her own wedding, if she could.”
Sylvanas’ gaze flicked up towards the ceiling, as if praying for patience. “Who else am I supposed to trust the Rangers with in my absence?”
“Heaven forbid you actually delegate for once in your life,” Vereesa shot back.
“Oh, I see. You'd prefer me to promote Falean?” Sylvanas countered in a tone that was far too sweet.
Vereesa aimed an ugly look at her sister. “Only if you want all your hair to be mysteriously shorn off in the night.”
Sylvanas tsked, and sounded bored when she said, “How rude, sister.”
“Well, I'm glad you did manage to get away,” Jaina said, clasping her hands before her.
“That makes one of us,” Sylvanas drawled.
Elbowing her sister in the flank for that comment, Vereesa smiled at Jaina. “Thank you.”
Sylvanas rubbed at her ribs, but a faint smile played across her face. “I must apologise again for having to abandon our dinner,” she said to Jaina. “I’ll have to make it up to you.”
“I’m sure we’ll have plenty of time for you to think of something,” Jaina replied, then brightened. “Oh! That reminds me!”
As Jaina began digging around in her pockets, Sylvanas and Vereesa exchanged puzzled glances. Vereesa shrugged.
Pulling the ivory box free, Jaina held it out to Sylvanas. “I bought this for you. I know we’re not official or anything, but I figure we’re signing everything today, so -- here.”
Both Sylvanas and Vereesa had gone stock-still. Vereesa was watching her sister’s reaction, and Sylvanas was staring at the box as if Jaina had offered her a live serpent. Slowly, she reached out and took the box from Jaina, moving carefully so that their fingers did not touch. She did not open it.
“I -” Jaina hesitated, confidence wavering. “I thought this was alright? I mean -- I asked Ithedis, and he said it was alright for me to give you something?”
Sylvanas’ brow furrowed. “Ithedis? You mean that stuffy old Spellbreaker?”
Jaina bristled. “Hey! He’s nice to me!”
At that, Sylvanas’ eyebrows rose in surprise. “And he told you that you should give me a gift?”
“Well, no,” Jaina admitted. “I said I wanted to buy you a gift, and he sort of steered me towards something appropriate.”
Pointing at the box now in Sylvanas’ hand, Vereesa asked, “As opposed to -?” she trailed off, waiting for Jaina to tell them.
“A war glaive,” Jaina mumbled.
Sylvanas made a faint choking noise that she covered with a poorly disguised cough. Vereesa looked like she was biting the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing aloud.
In the meantime, Jaina could feel heat creeping up her cheeks. She clenched her hands at her side, and her words held more of a snap than she would have liked. “Alright, what? What is it? Is a gift considered bad luck or something?”
Clearing her throat, Sylvanas smoothed her features as best she could, though her eyes still gleamed with amusement. “Forgive me. In my culture people do exchange gifts when they are to be married. However, the gift is supposed to be a sort of representation of the marriage itself. As a general rule, you would avoid any sharp objects. They represent severed ties.”
Slowly, realisation dawned on Jaina. “So, giving a big axe would be like -”
“- announcing to the world that you think the marriage will end in bloodshed,” Vereesa finished for her, unable to keep the grin from her face.
Jaina spluttered wordlessly. When she found her voice, she asked, “What - uhm - what would be a good gift, then?”
Idly tapping the fingertips of one hand against the box, Sylvanas answered, “That depends. Clothing is traditional. A fine steed perhaps? Or -- if you’re feeling adventurous -- a dragonhawk. Though I wouldn’t advise that.”
“Worst wedding reception I’ve ever attended. Dragonhawk got loose,” Veressa added aside.
“Then you’ll be pleased to know this is not a dragonhawk,” Jaina said.
“And thank the stars for that,” Sylvanas chuckled. She looked down at the box. She stroked the ivory grain and traced the elaborate script that scrolled along its edge. With utmost care, Sylvanas opened the box. Some unreadable expression flickered across her face.
“This is -” she started to say, but stopped.
“Perfect,” Vereesa finished, shooting Jaina a covert wink.
Jaina breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh, thank the Tides.”
Sylvanas admired the whetstone for a moment, before placing the lid back on and tucking the box into one of the leather pouches that lined one side of her belt. “Thank you. I shall treasure it.”
Something fluttered in Jaina’s chest at the small, warm smile Sylvanas gave her. Before she could say anything foolish, she was saved by the return of Kael’thas and the steward.
“If we could all be seated?” Kael’thas sighed even as he sank down into his seat at one of the heads of the table. The steward followed after him, arms laden with documents and scrolls which he placed on the table before his liege lord. Kael’thas watched with an air of distaste before waving the steward away with an irritable glower.
Sylvanas and Vereesa sat on Kael’thas’ side of the table, though nearer the middle, leaving Jaina to hesitantly make her way over towards her mother. Katherine had dismissed her second-in-command, and was pulling back a chair to sit. “Problem?” she asked.
“Nothing that we can’t handle,” Kael’thas assured her. “A numbering issue on a few minor clauses referenced later in the agreement. Now that it’s fixed, we can -”
When Jaina tugged at the high-backed chair directly opposite Sylvanas, the legs squealed against the marble floor, loud enough that it cut off what the prince had been saying. With a wince and a muttered apology, Jaina sat down.
Clearing his throat, Kael’thas continued, “As I was saying, now that the issue has been fixed, we can settle the last few details, and our happy couple -” he gestured to Sylvanas and Jaina “- can sign everything in front of witnesses.”
“Finally,” Vereesa muttered under her breath in Thalassian. Sylvanas shot her a warning look out of the corner of her eye, and Jaina had to bite her lower lip to keep from grinning.
“You have the pages with the new numbering?” Katherine asked, holding out her hand towards the steward, who stood at attention by the closed door.
Kael’thas nodded. Immediately, the steward moved forward to give Katherine a copy of the pages. She squinted down at the fine print, held it further from her, then gave up and pulled her half-moon spectacles from a pocket of her greatcoat. After settling them on the bridge of her nose, she began to read.
“Your scribes write too small,” Katherine remarked.
“To not waste good parchment,” Kael’thas pointed out. “They have to make duplicates in Thalassian as well, remember?”
Waving him away, Katherine placed her finger on one page. “Yes, yes. This bit here -- trade restrictions. I thought we’d agreed upon a more laissez-faire system.”
“Some consumer protections are a necessity, Lord Admiral. I’m sure you understand. We can’t have bad blood over something as banal as a bad shipment of fruit.”
With a begrudging grunt, Katherine conceded. “And the tariffs? I suppose they’re simply to protect elven agricultural production? I’d hate to think you were attempting to gouge your new allies, Your Majesty.”
“Perish the thought.” If Kael’thas was insulted by his guests’ bluntness, he did not show it. He maintained a presence of calmly smiling poise, while Katherine’s brow darkened.
Tossing down the page, Katherine flipped to another. She glared at him over the top of the parchment and growled, “No tariffs. The consumer protections can stay.”
That sparked a forty minute long debate between the two of them, in which Kael’thas wheedled and pretended to ring his hands, and Katherine grumbled and blustered. Meanwhile, Sylvanas and Vereesa bowed their heads together and spoke in soft tones, leaving Jaina to fiddle with the edge of the tablecloth. Sylvanas did speak, but rarely, and only when the conversation turned to military matters, weighing in on the like of border patrol and merchant protection.
Jaina was trying to catch the steward’s eye in order to ask for a glass of water, when her mother and the prince turned to a fresh page of the documents.
“There is one topic we have avoided during our initial consultations,” Kael’thas said, steepling his fingers beneath his chin. “I mean, of course, the subject of heirs.”
“The Trolls are today’s problem,” Katherine sniffed with a dismissive little flutter of her gloved fingers. “Future heirs are tomorrow’s problem.”
“But we cannot leave the issue undocumented,” Kael’thas pressed.
Katherine’s sharp, pale gaze fixed upon Vereesa across the table. “I have been informed you have children, Lady Windrunner?”
Straightening, Vereesa nodded. “I do. Twin boys.”
“Good.” Katherine turned the page over in her hands and set it atop the growing stack to one side. “Then that side of the bloodline is settled, and Jaina can adopt any one of her host of cousins for an heir.”
Hearing that, Jaina scrunched up her nose.
“What is it?” Katherine sighed.
“Nothing,” Jaina mumbled.
“Don’t mumble, dear.”
Jaina ducked her head. “Sorry.”
“Well, spit it out,” her mother said, watching Jaina with dry amusement. “You have us all rapt.”
Lips pursing, Jaina admitted, “They don’t like me very much. My cousins, I mean.”
Katherine rolled her eyes. “It’s not about ‘like.’ They don’t have to ‘like’ you to be honoured for the opportunity to inherit your titles and carry on our family name.” Her voice gentled when Jaina grimaced at her bluntness. “What about your second cousin?”
“Which one?” Jaina couldn’t keep the sarcasm from her tone, and flushed when her mother shot her a warning look.
“You know which one. The one who was just recently appointed lieutenant aboard the ‘Restoration.’ What was his name?” Katherine frowned and tapped at at her lower lip. “Fitzwilliams?”
“Fitz hates sailing,” Jaina pointed out, and her mother appeared taken aback that any Kul Tiran could hate such a thing as sailing. “He only got the position because of his older brother, who served under dad.”
“Well,” Katherine conceded with a disdainful sniff for Fitz’s character. “Your father’s side of the family has no dearth of nieces and nephews. I’m sure you’ll find someone suitable when the time comes.”
And that seemed to settle that. Kael’thas and Katherine made notes in their separate copies and moved on, leaving Jaina flummoxed. When they moved on to discussions of Jaina’s movements to and from Quel’Thalas, Jaina tried speaking up. Every time she did so however, her mother or Kael’thas would talk over her as if she hadn’t started to form a sentence.
“She needs to be seen to tour around Quel’Thalas with her wife,” Kael’thas insisted.
“And they shouldn’t have to do the same in Kul Tiras?” Katherine countered.
“But what about -?” Jaina began.
“I’m not implying that they’ll never visit Kul Tiras,” Kael’thas continued. “Simply that the first year or two should be spent in Quel’Thalas.”
That earned a derisive sniff from Katherine. “She’s a mage . Frankly, I don’t see why she couldn’t teleport the two of them to and from each nation every month.”
Kael’thas bristled, “Because unanchored portals are incredibly dangerous. Because even teleporting to a place out of sight could tear the most experienced mage in two. And because we need to show some stability. Appearances are everything.”
Rolling her eyes, Katherine leaned back in her seat. “Oh, here we go again.”
Before the two of them could launch into another fully fledged debate, Sylvanas raised her voice, smoothly cutting them off, “If you don’t mind, I’d like to hear the Lady Proudmoore’s opinion on the matter.”
Silence fell across the table, and every eye turned upon Jaina.
Her first instinct was to slip down further in her seat, but she forced herself to sit upright. Taking a deep breath, Jaina lifted her chin. “The first year or two in Quel’Thalas, but I want to spend at least one day a week continuing my education with the Kirin Tor.”
Both Katherine and Kael’thas mused over that idea. “Your magical education could be well supported here in Silvermoon,” Kael’thas pointed out.
“I’d prefer that to be supplementary to my studies under the Archmage,” Jaina refused to back down. “Studying under Antonidas is not an opportunity I want to pass up.”
“Nor should you have to,” Katherine added.
Fingers drumming against the tabletop, the noise muted by cloth, Kael’thas considered the proposal. Then, he nodded. “Agreed. Shall we put it with the appendices?”
“I think that would be easiest.”
Already they were moving on, and Jaina sighed in relief. She glanced across the table to find Sylvanas watching her, utterly impassive.
‘Thank you,’ Jaina mouthed silently.
In answer, Sylvanas inclined her head.
Through the windows, the sun was beginning its slow descent towards the horizon when Kael’thas and Katherine finally seemed satisfied. Katherine flipped to another page. She adjusted her spectacles with one hand while reading aloud, “We confirm that Lady Jaina Proudmoore, Heir to Kul Tiras, Scion of the Fleet, etc. etc. is of marriageable age. Yes.”
From the other side of the table, Vereesa asked, “Out of curiosity, how old are you exactly?”
“Nineteen,” Jaina answered.
Both Sylvanas and Vereesa went stiff, their ears tilting up in shock. Sylvanas’ eyes were wide, and she was staring at Jaina with a look of horror. A chill of unease walked down Jaina’s spine, settling in her gut and remaining there.
“Oh, good,” Vereesa hissed to her sister. “She’s nineteen.”
“I heard, thank you,” Sylvanas ground out between grit teeth. One of her hands was gripping the tablecloth tight, and she let go, refusing to meet Jaina’s eye across the table now.
“My kids are eight, Sylvanas. Eight. ”
Sylvanas’ jaw clenched as she replied to Vereesa, “I am aware.”
Bristling at the way they were talking as if she weren’t right there and could hear them, Jaina asked, “Well, how old are you then?”
Sylvanas still would not look at her. “Older than nineteen.”
“It does seem rather young,” Kael’thas said to Katherine.
Her mother paid them no attention as she continued skimming the page. “It’s a perfectly legal marrying age for humans. This all seems to be in order.” She tossed the page atop the others and gestured to the steward, “We can begin the signing now.”
The steward brought forth two identical quills and inkwells. Jaina scraped back her chair, as did the others, and they rounded the table.
Sylvanas took the place directly to Jaina’s left, the two of them standing side by side before each inkwell. She stood in such a way that she would not accidentally brush against Jaina, even going so far as to pull aside her cloak. She did not look over at Jaina as the steward placed the first page before them. Instead, Sylvanas picked up her quill, tapped a swell of black ink from its nib against the well, and bent down to sign.
Her signature was a spidery scrawl against the pale parchment. When she had finished, Jaina reached over to take the page, but the steward coughed and made an abortive motion forward, as if he were about to swat her hand aside.
Jaina snatched her hand back. “Oh! Sorry!”
The steward pointed to the bottom right corner of the page. “If the Lady Windrunner could please initial here? And here, where amendments have been made.”
Sylvanas sighed, “I see we’re going to be here a while yet.”
Only then did the steward pass the page along to Jaina for her to do the same.
Then the next page.
And the next.
And the next.
With the first few pages, Jaina’s hand had trembled from nervousness. Halfway through however, her wrist and lower back had begun to ache. By the time they’d finished, both their signatures had grown sloppy, but still legible enough to satisfy the steward’s exacting eye. At every other page, Vereesa had to step between Sylvanas and Jaina to sign as the official witness, which only made everything take even longer.
The moment Jaina and Sylvanas finished, setting their quills back into their inkwells, the steward stepped between them and the documents, all but herding them aside so they could get out of the way and let him work. Jaina blinked, startled, and stepped back. Sylvanas was already turning to walk away, her stride stiff. Vereesa fell in beside her, and the two were speaking in rapid hushed Thalassian once more, heading towards the exit, while Jaina stared after them.
“My blessings to the happy couple,” Kael’thas smiled warmly at Jaina. He brushed a hand across his robes and said, “Now if you’ll excuse me, I must attend another meeting. Until I see you all at the ceremony.”
He nodded to Jaina and Katherine before sweeping from the room.
Jaina started when her mother grasped her gently by the shoulder. “Well done, my dear. You were very poised during the negotiations. I’m afraid duty calls for me as well. The Fleet experienced another casualty yesterday, and a sloop is waiting to ferry me back to the flagship.”
Jaina opened her mouth to protest that she hadn’t done anything during the negotiations, but fell silent when her mother pressed a kiss to her cheek and murmured, “Be well. And get some rest. You deserve it.”
And then she, too, was leaving, until Jaina was alone with only the steward for company. Her words caught in her throat as she blinked at the open door through which everyone else had disappeared. The steward began to unceremoniously shuffle all the pages together and prepare to take them away. He eyed Jaina askance, then offered a bow before leaving as well.
Jaina was still standing there, dazed, when Ithedis entered the room looking for her. Removing his helm, he crossed over to her just as she pulled out a chair and dropped into it feeling winded, as if she had just sprinted a nautical mile.
Ithedis hesitated. “Are you well, my Lady?”
“Yes,” Jaina breathed, rubbing tiredly at the lightheadedness building in her temples. “Just married, I guess.”
He stood beside her chair, gripping his shield. For a moment he said nothing, and then he murmured, “Congratulations, Lady Proudmoore.”
Jaina nodded faintly. “Yes. Thank you.”
The wedding ceremony itself was intentionally set in the Court of the Sun, with invitations dispersed to every inhabitant of the city. Jaina should not have felt so nervous about acting out a symbolic ritual of something that was already set in stone. They were fully legally married. She knew for a fact that the militaries of both nations had already begun to redeploy according to the union, and that the borders had been tentatively opened.
Moreover, when he wasn’t shadowing her every footstep, Ithedis had taken to overseeing the transference of Jaina’s personal items from her diplomatic quarters in Sunfury Spire to an estate southwest of Silvermoon City, which would be her new home. It was not, she had been told, the old Windrunner family estate, which lay further to the southern border of Quel’Thalas. Rather, Sylvanas had dusted off an estate purchased by her family generations ago and left uninhabited but for the rainy season, when they would venture further north to be nearer the city and -- more importantly -- the Sunwell.
Jaina had visited the estate just once after the papers were all signed, and even then it had only been for Sylvanas to walk her briefly around the spire manor and its grounds. They would not reside there together until after the ceremony.
Which, as it turned out, Jaina was dreading for reasons unknown.
The roiling of her stomach from when she first arrived in Quel’Thalas had returned in full force. It had happened very suddenly. One day she was exploring the library of Silvermoon, perfectly content to sit and read for hours while Ithedis stood at her side or carried books for her. The next day, she was getting fitted for a wedding dress and trying not to be ill.
Like a wave rushing back to shore it would periodically wash over her, the feeling. When Vereesa was mischievously sneaking Jaina down those side alleys Ithedis had refused to let her wander for an ill-advised midnight jaunt. When Jaina was at lunch with Sylvanas in a public garden, watching the languid gestures of Sylvanas’ fingers, the expressive movements of her long ears. When she lay awake at night atop the sheets, unable to sleep in the sweltering heat. Whenever she checked the time and realised the ceremony was quickly, steadily approaching.
And then without fail she was being bustled into a room by a group of elven attendants so they could prepare her for the day ahead. It took far too long. She had to fight the urge to fidget and bite her fingernails ragged. They squeezed her into a white dress fit for a traditional Kul Tiran wedding but for its more elegant elven cut and understated silver brocade. They applied kohl around Jaina’s eyes. They gossiped about the upcoming ceremony, who would be attending, where they would be sitting, how odd the clash of cultural touches appeared in the grand courtyard of their homeland.
Jaina was standing, her feet already beginning to ache, when the two hairdressers -- Jaina still did not know why she required two hairdressers -- got into a very polite argument in Thalassian about whether Jaina’s hair should be worn up or down. Jaina listened with half an ear. She could not understand every word, but the gist of the argument was apparent.
After the passive-aggressive bickering went on for a good five minutes, Jaina said in Thalassian, “Hair down?”
The hairdressers and all of the other attendants as well froze. They went stiff and still with shock at the idea that she had understood their conversation, and that they had not been curbing their tongues in her presence for the entirety of that morning.
“I agree,” said a voice from the doorway. “Down.”
All of the attendants straightened at the sight of Sylvanas standing at the entrance. Sylvanas crossed the room and stopped in front of Jaina, who felt her mouth drop before she could close it. She had only ever seen Sylvanas in various sets of armour, but today she moved just as gracefully in a dress. Whereas Jaina was clad all in white, Sylvanas was resplendent in red. Her arms and shoulders were bare, her skin golden against the crimson of her dress. The train of her sleek gown trailed in her wake like a streak of blood across the marble floor.
“May I speak with you in private?” Sylvanas asked.
Jaina tried to speak, but could only nod.
With a sidelong glance, Sylvanas sent the attendants scurrying from the room. The door shut behind them, and they were alone. Sylvanas stood as she always did, straight-backed, tall, hands clasped officiously behind her.
When Jaina finally found her voice, it was to blurt out, “It’s bad luck to see each other before the wedding.”
Sylvanas frowned. “That seems like a silly superstition. Do you want me to leave?”
Shaking her head, Jaina stammered, “No. It’s - It’s fine. You’re fine. In fact, you’re -” she bit back whatever foolish thing she had been about to say, cleared her throat, and asked, “What did you want to talk to me about?”
Sylvanas tilted her head, and a lock of her pale gold hair curled against the dip of her collarbone. “Last we spoke, you seemed out of sorts.”
“I’m -” Jaina breathed in deeply. “I’m fine. Really. It’s nothing.”
Sylvanas was watching her very keenly. “In every legal sense, we are already married. If you do not want this -- being paraded around before a gawking crowd -- I will personally escort every last snooping busybody from the premises.”
With a huff of wry laughter, Jaina said, “Yes, because I imagine that will go down so well.”
A lofty shrug lifted one shoulder, and Sylvanas replied, “No, but when has that ever stopped me? At this point, it’s almost expected I’ll do something brash.”
“And here I thought I had dibs on ruining the ceremony.”
Jaina tried to sound lighthearted, but something must have shown on her face, because Sylvanas’ impeccable posture gentled somewhat. “You’re going to be fine. You look beautiful, Lady Proudmoore.”
A laugh verging on the hysterical bubbled up in Jaina’s throat. The idea that she could have looked anything but drab next to Sylvanas, who burned like a torch in the noonday sun, was enough to make her stomach lurch again. Placing a settling hand over her abdomen, Jaina said, “Please, just call me ‘Jaina.’ We might as well start with first names now.”
“As you like,” Sylvanas murmured. She moved her hands, and Jaina noticed that she had been holding something the whole time. “I have a gift for you as well, if you’ll have it.”
A necklace slithered between her hands, a small pale stone with a blue sheen like a shard of ice strung from a simple golden chain. As it turned in the light, dangling from where she held it forth, Sylvanas explained, “It is said to have once belonged to the great sorceress, Aegwynn. Whatever power it once held has long since dwindled, but it is a piece of history all the same.”
Sylvanas held up the pendant, strung between her fingers. “May I?”
Jaina blinked, as if broken from a trance. “Oh! Yes, of course.”
As Jaina turned around, she gathered her hair over one shoulder. Sylvanas stepped up behind her, reaching around to settle the stone at Jaina’s throat and fix the clasp. Jaina touched the stone where it rested atop her sternum, savouring the chill radiating from it. She could not mask a shiver when Sylvanas’ fingers brushed the nape of her neck, a fleeting graze of warm skin before the clasp was shut and Sylvanas stepped away once more.
Turning to face her, Jaina said, “Thank you. It’s -” She peered down at the pendant. “I’ve always admired Aegwynn. How on earth did you find a relic like this?”
“I have my ways,” Sylvanas drawled with a cryptic smile. She crossed the room, pausing with her hand on the door. Glancing over her shoulder, she said, “Until later, Jaina.”
Now, the sickening feel returned tenfold. Her stomach boiled. Despite the pervasive heat of Quel’Thalas, Jaina desperately wanted to soothe her nerves with a cup of tea. When she had tried the tea of Silvermoon City a few weeks ago however, the bitter herbal concoction steeped in sunlight had put Jaina right off the idea of elven tea entirely.
Soon, two of the attendants were lifting the train of her dress so she could walk through the door. Soon, another was pressing a bouquet of blood red flowers bound with a white silk ribbon between her fingers. Soon, Jaina was being led towards the Court of the Sun as the sun itself glared directly overhead, painting the land in light.
She could hear the buzz of the crowd the moment she stepped outside. Jaina fidgeted with the ribbon tied around the bouquet, worrying the silk between her fingers. She wished she had a veil to cover her, something to hide her when she walked down the aisle, but veils were only worn to elven funerals and had therefore been deemed unsuitable for the occasion.
Her mother met Jaina at the entrance to the Court of the Sun, stately in her Admiral’s finery. She smiled at Jaina, taking one of her hands and leaning close to kiss her cheek.
“You look radiant, my dear,” Katherine whispered in her ear, before pulling back and offering Jaina her arm. Jaina took it, gripping her mother’s sleeve tight.
“Ready?” Katherine asked.
Jaina could only nod. And then they were striding in time towards Sunfury Spire. Their footsteps were muffled by a long length of rich red cloth stretching all the way to the opposite end of the Court, where a bower had been erected atop the steps leading to the Spire. The walkway had been festooned with alternating Kul Tiran and elven banners. Waves of guests rose to their feet as Jaina passed. Mages had woven an enchantment into the air so that small white blossoms drifted from the sky like snow.
Jaina hardly noticed any of it. She was focused instead on her breathing. How stifling it felt, the heat, the dress, the moment. She walked and did her best not to trip.
Sylvanas already stood beneath the bower, which had been strung with cloth and vines that grew all along its frame. She waited until Jaina and Katherine approached, then stretched out her hand. Katherine passed Jaina over to Sylvanas, who took Jaina’s hand. She leaned down and pressed a chaste kiss to the back of it before drawing Jaina up the steps to stand beside her.
Jaina’s palms were sweaty and her fingers trembled. Sylvanas caught her eye and gave her hand a gentle squeeze, then released her. And in that brief moment, the roiling of Jaina’s gut hitched, like a skipped heartbeat. It did not completely quiet her nerves, but for the remainder of the ceremony Jaina felt she could at last breathe.
Katherine moved to stand beside Kael’thas at the front of the ceremony, where he was acting as the officiant, the two leaders of their respective nations symbolically heading the union. A brazier burned before them. Jaina could feel the heat from tongues of flame that shimmered the air.
When Kael’thas began to speak, lifting his voice with a magnifying spell to address the crowd, Jaina hardly heard the words. For all that the time leading up to this moment had seemed to drag on for an eternity, now that it was actually here time seemed to spin out of control. It was all she could do to focus on saying the right words at the right time, and not on the way her hems brushed against Sylvanas’ gown in a silent whisper of silk.
Then Katherine was sprinkling three handfuls of dried grain into the brazier, and Jaina and Sylvanas held their hands over the flames while they burned. Kael’thas waited for the grain to reduce to ash, then with a flourish extinguished the brazier. Two attendants -- one elven, and one human -- moved forward from the wings. They gathered the ash in golden cups and carefully sprinkled the ash in a tight circle around where Sylvanas and Jaina stood together.
A breeze stirred the banners. The entire congregation seemed to hold its collective breath as the attendants joined the circle of ash on the ground, until Jaina and Sylvanas were enclosed in a dark ring that still drifted with tendrils of smoke.
Once more, Sylvanas took Jaina by the hand, turning to face one another. This time, it was Jaina who squeezed Sylvanas’ hand, and Sylvanas traced the ridge of Jaina’s knuckles with her thumb. Jaina’s breath caught in her chest when Sylvanas reached up with her free hand to tilt Jaina’s chin up. Sylvanas leaned down. Instead of kissing Jaina as she was supposed to, she hesitated, as if some small uncertainty were holding her back.
Something unfathomable flickered in Sylvanas’ eyes. They were close enough that Jaina could see the trace of an old scar that sliced across one cheek, so faint that she would have missed it had they been any further apart. Standing up on her toes, Jaina closed that distance and pressed their mouths together.
The kiss was brief and warm and soft. Long enough for Jaina to angle her head and grasp Sylvanas by her bare shoulder. Short enough that when they pulled apart, Jaina was left chasing after the feeling.
For a moment, Sylvanas remained motionless but for the steady rise and fall of her chest. She leaned back. She grasped Jaina’s hand more tightly. Then, Sylvanas pulled up the long hem of her dress just enough that she could kick open a break in the circle of ash that surrounded them on the ground. The ashes scattered in a dark narrow streak, and together they walked back down the aisle to the roar of thunderous applause.