Jaina had hoped never to see blood on the streets of Theramore.
But the flash of teleportation behind her eyes had faded on a vision of hell. Buildings made of wood so raw it was still sticky with sap were in flames, carts still full of building stones shattered and overturned. The half-complete cobblestones ran red, glistening in the fading sun, filling the air with the scent of copper and sewage. The streets were barely laid in except for main thoroughfares, and the sparse grass and sand had been stirred into muck by the fighting.
Jaina had a sick suspicion that, even so, the tacky, sucking moisture pulling at her shoes was not mud.
She’d teleported back to her city the moment she could no longer hear the ring of weapons, unable to stay away any longer. Indeed, the fighting seemed to have...died down, she thought, sick.
Many of the bodies were orc and troll and tauren; but most were human. It was hard at first glance to differentiate between Kul Tiran green and Lordaeron blue-on-white, torn and bloodstained as the bodies were; harder still to pick out sigils, when the anchor and the jagged crest of Lordaeron cut such similar profiles.
It might have been easier, if there hadn’t been so much...trading, in their time together. Experimenting. It had warmed Jaina to her core, watching the attempts at forging a unified seal for Theramore Isle. The Proudmoore crest in Lordaeron colors, and vice versa; some creative attempts to fuse the two, driving a sword through the heart of the anchor, adding tripartite slash marks to the stock ring, adding a second anchor fluke to the spiked L…
It didn’t matter, really. They were all her people. They had all been her people.
She realized dimly that while the fighting sounded like it had stopped, there were still angry voices coming from near the docks.
She bit back a low moan as she came around the corner.
The fighting hadn’t stopped at all; it had only frozen.
The Horde had kept its word; a large group of Jaina’s people were pinned against the outer fortress wall, but they seemed to be disarmed, most of them injured but alive. What few armed fighters remained had been isolated against the water, and there were a good three yards between the cluster of humans and the Horde warriors keeping them in place.
The third group formed a tight, bristling ring of swords and shields, grimly braced on a rocky outcropping. A surviving rowboat had been brought up alongside; but while Thrall was favoring his right arm and dark blood dripped from his fingers, lightning danced along his hammer all the same. A pointed, silent warning of what would happen if they were stupid enough to try fleeing a shaman over the water. Briefly, Jaina wondered why they hadn’t been eliminated yet—and then noticed the way they clustered around a single ballista, pointed directly back along the only approach line and wound tight to fire.
A stalemate. They could shoot faster than Thrall could respond; but the siege weapon would tear into their own wounded, three hundred feet behind him, if they missed— and even if they didn’t, they would die before they had a chance to reload. The smart thing to do would be for Thrall to retreat and have his warriors rush the ballista en masse; Jaina had to assume they’d threatened to fire if he moved.
Rexxar glanced up as she approached, shaking his head with a heavy sigh.
“Stay back, sorceress,” he rumbled. “There’s no reason you should have to see this.”
Interesting. She hadn’t realized it was possible for her stomach to drop further than it already had.
“Oh, no,” she breathed, and stepped around Rexxar.
None of the men in this holdout group, she realized, bore the simple encircled anchor of the Proudmoore marines who’d followed her this far; and she had no one among her own people who would have owned anything with the more elaborate, unified Kul Tiran emblem of the Admiralty.
Her father’s personal guard didn’t seem happy about it; but they parted enough to let him see her as he staggered to his feet. His entire left side was visibly wet with blood, a shirt hastily tied around his shoulder to stem what had to be an axe wound; but just for a moment, his voice was all honest fear for her.
“Jaina! Get out of here!”
Clutching a staff she knew she was too short for in a desperate attempt to keep her hands from shaking, Jaina took a deep breath and stepped up beside Thrall.
“They haven’t surrendered?”
The Warchief gave a low grunt, twitching his head without taking his eyes off Jaina’s father. Gently, he placed his uninjured hand on her shoulder and pushed her to the left, back out of the ballista’s line of fire.
“Don’t cast, please, Jaina,” he said evenly. “They’ve been very clear where they stand on sudden movements.”
He did not, she noticed, seem afraid. He barely seemed tense at all, as if the outcome of this standoff was certain and decided.
Jaina had seen Kul Tiran ballistae groups in action before. She’d seen her father command defenses. Without disrespecting Thrall’s skills and experience, she wasn’t so sure.
“Thrall,” she said quietly, placing a hand on his good arm. “You’re hurt…”
Her father’s eyes narrowed, flicking between them. Thrall once again pushed her, firmly but not unkindly, to the side, but Daelin Proudmoore’s sudden hard focus didn’t waver.
“So,” he said, that alien coldness back in his voice. Jaina tried not to wince in the face of it. Until he’d come to Theramore, she’d never heard that kind of Admiralty contempt directed at her. She’d never thought it could be. “My men wasted time searching for you to aid our defense, to ensure your safety. I take it this is why none of them could find you."
Jaina didn’t bother to deny it, and forced herself to stand straight.
Hot anger began to burn in his eyes. “And what aid did you offer these creatures? Knowledge of our defenses, our weaknesses?”
“They already knew those things, Father. I left to speak to someone who has been a friend and ally, before everything I built here was ruined.”
“And so my daughter abandoned her post to flee to the arms of our enemies.”
“Thrall’s Horde,” she said quietly, “is not our enemy. Without their help, none of us would have gotten this far.”
“If only you showed such loyalty to your own people.”
“He has more than earned it. You would understand if you would only listen. I trust him, Father—”
“Trust?” Her father made a sharp, abortive gesture; an attempt to sweep his arm to the side, hampered by his injuries. “I warned you what would happen here. You chose to disobey me, Jaina—now look around. This is what your trust has wrought! This is what happens when a young fool forgets what an orc will always be and opens her arms to the enemy! Did your brother’s memory mean so little to you?”
That went too far, and Jaina felt a flare of cold fire up her spine as she lifted her chin.
“We had no enemies here!” she retorted. “Not until you came. Thrall has fought at my side against our real enemy, and never once broken faith with me.”
Her father’s lip curled. “In exchange for what, I wonder.”
“Enough,” Thrall growled. This time, the hand on Jaina’s shoulder was an order as it pulled her back, pushing her to the side as his grip flexed around his weapon.
But now the Admiral had rallied. The soldiers on both sides were growing restless. Jaina’s appearance at Thrall’s side had confused her people, and the Horde wanted this battle done; and the Admiralty guard, it seemed, had realized that only one person was required to fire a ballista.
“Jaina.” Oh, that was almost worse than the cold. This was a firm, authoritative finality; one that made Jaina feel ten years old again, caught stealing pastries from the kitchen. “I understand that you have been through a great deal. We’ll discuss your lack of judgement on the way back to Boralus.”
“My people are here now,” she breathed. “It’s done.”
“You’ve mistaken an order for a suggestion, my dear.” When she didn’t move, steel entered his voice. “Jaina Proudmoore. I will not tell you again.”
“Then I won’t have to refuse. Please, Father. Just...go.”
Fire burned in the Admiral’s eyes; but the knot of resistance slipped behind the rocks and into the longboat. Jaina closed her eyes as the boat, sped by a Tidesage blessing, disappeared into the rapidly darkening night and the shadows of ships still burning. There would be surviving vessels, waiting to receive him. Thrall’s eyes hardened with determination; then, just as Jaina was certain he was about to strike and damn the consequences, he sighed.
“He no longer holds the isle,” the Warchief decided. “Our enemy is in retreat, and will find no footholds here again.” To the young lieutenant grimly crouched at the ballista’s trigger, he added, “Your sacrifice was courageous, soldier. Killing you accomplishes nothing now, and no one else needs to die today. Stand down. You’ve served with honor.”
The lieutenant bared his teeth. “I’ll see you in hell, scum—”
Pushed too far and with his attention elsewhere, Jaina slashed a hand across her body. Daggers of ice whipped down at the speed of thought; one of the ballista’s wheels burst into splinters, jerking it wildly to the side as more shards shredded its strings and sent sinew and spring coils snapping in every direction, the bolt whistling harmlessly over the harbor. Razors of ice drove themselves into the lieutenant’s body, and his dying scream cut off almost instantly.
Thrall grunted, unhappy but not disapproving. Jaina stared into the twilight and tried not to be sick.
“He was looking for his daughter,” she said, voice hollow. “With no one to rescue, he’ll have no reason to come back.”
“He may come for you,” Rexxar pointed out.
Jaina gave a thin smile. “That sounds like my problem.”
Thrall squeezed her shoulder, and didn’t disagree. She tried not to let that hurt.
Raising her voice as much as she was able and praying it wouldn’t break until she was alone, she called to her people. “I will not condemn the Horde for striking against my father. Too much blood has been spilled today; I promised to protect you, and I know I’ve failed. But by his own admission, he came here to commit genocide.” She swallowed, and took a deep breath. “Any who wish to follow him, this is your only chance. Throw down your weapons and go. No one will stop you.”
Thrall didn’t look thrilled about that little addition; but after a moment and a long look with Rexxar, he nodded to his warriors.
There was a long, tense moment. One of the men pinned on the shoreline flung his sword into the sand and marched to one of the Horde landing boats without looking back; after a moment, a slow trickle of neutralized survivors sidled through the Horde forces after him. Jaina forced herself to count dispassionately.
Seventeen in total. Barely enough to crew a longboat. Jaina remembered how to breathe.
There was still...too much. Too much to do, when all she wanted to do was curl up under a blanket and cry herself to sleep. But she’d been wanting that since Stratholme, and she could wait a little longer.
Again, she choked down her pain and reached for the distance-carrying command voice of an Admiral’s daughter.
“Anyone who’s uninjured, we need on the ballistae. Let them retreat. Don’t fire unless fired upon; but if they shoot first, don’t wait for orders. Healers, stay with the wounded and pick anyone you need as assistants, but no more. Everyone else…” She took a long, steadying breath. “With me. We need to gather the dead.”
“And the Horde dead?” someone called. There was a chorus of agreement; some voices neutral, others carrying wary anger. Jaina froze, an agonized moment of indecision.
Thrall cleared his throat. Under his breath, he told her, “My people build funeral pyres.”
Vol’jin, who’d made his way to Rexxar’s side once the Kul Tiran loyalists were away, hummed. “Mine...sometimes. Not by preference, but after a battle? That be good enough.”
“Thank you,” Jaina breathed, and raised her voice to add, “The Horde dead can be burned outside the city. But...respectfully. That this happened is a tragedy, and the fault lies with my father, not with either side.”
It took a moment, but while the low murmur that spread among her people was not necessarily approving, it wasn’t disapproving either. No one protested.
“We’ll leave you in peace,” Thrall said, quiet. “Our quarrel was never with Theramore. I pray that never changes.” He hesitated, then squeezed her shoulder one last time. “Take care, sorceress. I fear this is far from the end. Farewell.”
The soft glow of Antonidas’ staff was fast becoming the only light that didn’t come from burning ships and burning buildings, and Jaina wasn’t sure she’d still be standing without it.
“Come on, people,” she managed, tired to the core. “I’ll set us up some magelights.”
“You knew there was a chance of this.”
Jaina rubbed her face. The fact that it was true didn’t make it any easier to swallow.
“I know,” she said out loud. “But I’d hoped for better, Pained. They really seemed…”
It wasn’t that she didn’t understand. Merchant vessels...well. The fact of the matter was, merchant vessels in the Eastern Kingdoms sailed at the mercy of the Kul Tiran navy. No one hated pirates with more passion than Kul Tiras, and even the roughest crews with the oldest hatreds would balk a little at attacking civilians; navy ships were meant to defend the merchant marine. It was in their blood and bone, carved into their very being.
But Kul Tiras didn’t have to contract with those merchants.
Jaina didn’t exactly have her finger on the pulse of current Kul Tiran politics. She hadn’t heard a word from her homeland since her father had been driven off, and neither she nor her bodyguard was inclined to think no news was good news. But she could only imagine the chilly, unofficial blacklisting that would face any merchant vessel trading with Theramore.
It was the only explanation she could think of for the consistent absence of supply ships whose arrival she had been counting on. Even the most well-meaning merchant skipper had the hard truth of his bottom line staring him in the face. It was a lot to give up, for the sake of a ragged group of refugees on the other side of the world—a group that, right now, had very little to offer in the way of resources.
That would change, in time. If Jaina’s plans for establishing a proper port infrastructure worked. Maybe their scouts in the marsh would even find some natural resources; even a decent tin mine would give them something.
But would it be fast enough?
“We have to establish real trade with Durotar,” she decided, setting down the pitifully bare ship manifest she’d been staring at for the past hour. “If nothing else, we need an infusion of farm animals. I’m not a fan of Orcish pork myself,” she acknowledged with a wry smile; Pained hadn’t quite been able to control her grimace at the idea. “But I’m sure we can experiment, and they do have meat animals other than boar. We need to establish a livestock population, and soon. I’ll be honest, I don’t know how much more crocolisk steak I can stand.”
Pained’s thousand-yard stare acknowledged the point.
In actuality, Jaina had to admit, crocolisk meat wasn’t bad ; it had the consistency of pork, and it was a subject of great debate on Theramore Isle whether it tasted more like chicken or a mild fish. But after a few months with almost no food available except crocolisk steak, deep-fried crocolisk balls, crocolisk and threshadon stew, slow-roasted crocolisk ribs, variations on a Troll recipe for crocolisk gumbo that had staved off open rebellion for almost two full weeks, and the occasional formal gourmet meal of sautee crocolisk tail marinated in Kaldorei wine and served with a side of devilled egg of crocolisk—
Every so often, a scout came back with enough meat for Janene to make snapping-turtle soup. There had been three bloody riots for the limited bowls so far, and the establishment of a regular fishing trade had only barely taken the edge off. Dustwallow Bay was a rich resource, but had to be carefully managed; and deep-sea fishing took time, and yielded fish valuable enough that they were better preserved and offered in trade for things Theramore needed more desperately.
And really, truly, even Kul Tirans got tired of fish eventually.
“The problem, of course,” Jaina told no one in particular, “is that Thrall won’t make any trade deal that doesn’t benefit his people at least as much as ours. Nor should he.”
“Might be nice if he did,” commented Pained. Jaina snorted.
“It might be nice if we had anything to trade that Orgrimmar can’t easily get for itself,” she threw back, and ran her fingers through her hair. “We have plenty of ambulatory ooze, apparently.”
Pained’s scarred face twitched in a repressed smile. “Well, we do have one thing going for us, my lady.”
Jaina sighed and buried her face in her arms. “Please,” she mumbled. “Share.”
With absolutely no inflection, Pained answered, “We’ve certainly cornered the market on crocolisks.”
Jaina gave a reflexive, unrestrained laugh she hadn’t realized she needed so badly. After a moment, however, her smile turned thoughtful. “You know...you’re right. Not the meat, but crocolisk leather isn’t cheap. Not in Kul Tiras at least, and they may not be willing to trade with us but Stormwind will be only too happy to sell it to them at a markup. Would your people buy the skins, do you think?”
Pained thought about it, then wiggled a hand. “We generally prefer leather from our own sources, that we know were hunted as ethically as possible. But we don’t have crocolisks, and we do live in the real world. Darnassus wouldn’t buy it in bulk, but you’d have a market with individual merchants.”
Jaina nodded slowly. “And...lobster. Lobster may actually be worth a lot, I don’t think the Echo Isles have the right offshore environment to support a population...some of our craftspeople are doing amazing things with turtle shells. And I know those will be valuable in Orgrimmar, if only to sell them along to Mulgore where big turtles like that are unheard-of…”
She set the list of absent supply ships aside, and began scribbling notes to herself.
A slow build of whoops and cheering, muffled by distance and stone walls, broke through Jaina’s concentration.
It was probably time for a break anyway, she thought, wincing. She set her quill down and flexed her fingers, working blood back into the numb tips and glumly watching the indentation in her index finger throb.
“Pained?” she called over her shoulder. “Do you know what’s going on out there?”
Construction was progressing at an astonishing rate. Jaina had left well enough alone, carefully choosing a group of leaders from among her refugees rather than interfere with city planning she knew absolutely nothing about. It had, for once, been the right choice; with the rare opportunity to plan a city from the ground up rather than the organic sprawl of growth that formed cities like Lordaeron or Stormwind or Silvermoon—
Jaina fought back a wince at the sudden, unexpected stab of pain. The point was, she told her suddenly low mood, that the city was rapidly taking shape.
For the moment, however, it wasn’t quite ready for her. Her planning committee had been adamant that Jaina was their leader, and city leaders lived in keeps. Jaina had been equally adamant that she wasn’t their queen and under no circumstances would she allow them to divert those kinds of resources even if there was room for such a thing on the island, which, as she pointed out seven times before the argument was accepted, there was not.
She’d been so very satisfied with herself when they agreed to redirect their efforts into a slightly more functional keep, only to take three weeks to realize the significance of keeping the blocky administrative building tucked humbly to the side, in deference to the massive inner ring of defensive fortifications and the beginnings of a tower.
She’d been told the inner walls were going to contain a storage facility that could double as a last-hope fallback position.
By the time she’d returned early from dinner one night to find her engineering corps guiltily triple-checking her notes on magical resonance patterns in Dalaran architecture and trying to hide half-remembered sketches of mage towers they’d helped build in the past, the foundations had already been laid. All she’d been able to do was concede gracefully and treat the entire city to some of their precious, closely-rationed lobster as a thank-you.
Foothold Citadel was their pride and joy for the moment, even if it was a little rough around the edges still; combination barracks, dining hall, warehouse, and administrative center. Between Foothold itself, and the bristling ring of double walls and reinforced guard towers her people had been possibly a little too enthusiastic with, in a pinch they could fit the entire population of the isle inside stone walls. Most of them would have to sleep on the floor and many would have to sleep in hallways and stairwell landings; but if half of what Vol’jin had told her about summer storms in this part of Kalimdor was true, there would be a pinch someday. Wooden buildings, even constructed by the best carpenters, could only withstand so much.
Calling Foothold Keep the “citadel” had started as a fond joke that stuck, but it carried some truth; anything that needed doing on Theramore Isle, it could be run from within a single building.
At least, that would be true until they got some damn shipping in their port city. Sooner rather than later, ideally.
At the moment, Jaina was tucked in a side room in the Citadel so that she could work uninterrupted, a need which had made her sneaky, underhanded, untrustworthy, utterly wonderful city planning committee look entirely too smug for their own good.
Pained, standing just outside the door, leaned over to peer out a window. After a moment, her ears shot up in shock; then, a smile pulled at her lips.
“You’re not going to believe this, my lady,” she said. “But those look like white sails coming into the bay to me.”
“You’re joking!” Jaina pushed away from her makeshift desk, the budget spreadsheet forgotten as she joined Pained on the landing and fumbled a spyglass from its pouch. The ship was well within the mouth of the bay—how long had it taken her to notice the commotion?—but while two of the harbor ballistae were tracking the arrival, their crews were waving hats rather than seeming to anticipate a real challenge.
Poor discipline, possibly; but the ship was flying the Proudmoore crest below the seal of Lordaeron, and it took Jaina only a moment to steady her spyglass and make out the name on the bow.
She wasn’t sure whether to grin or throw her hands up in exasperation, so she did both. Pained neatly flicked an ear out of the path of her lady’s wildly swinging spyglass, and entirely failed to notice it coming back down.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Jaina griped as they emerged from the keep, Pained rubbing gingerly at the back of her head and occasionally checking her fingers for blood. “I’m as glad as anyone that Lark is back, but honestly. We’ve had time to repair our own vessels, have the remaining ships involved in a losing naval action, repair them again, send a messenger sloop to Stormwind, load the remaining ships with trade goods, send them across the ocean, and bring the first of them back. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect one, singular honest Stormwind merchant to have gotten here before she did!”
Pained shrugged, and Jaina rolled her eyes good-naturedly. Lark was just tying up to the dock; her crew had already thrown down a gangplank, and the assembled crowd whistled and called out to them as they worked. A short, red-haired man Jaina recognized as her captain was deep in discussion with the dockmistress, who until today had been a very bored woman.
Something didn’t seem...right.
Jaina wasn’t the only one who’d noticed. The enthusiastic greetings were tapering off, replaced by murmuring and worried whispers. Lark was their frontrunner, the first fruits of their labor; she was returning to Theramore Isle a hero, so why was her captain in visible distress? Why was her crew avoiding eye contact with their well-wishers on the shore?
Rather than push through the throng, Jaina teleported directly to the dock.
“...didn’t have a choice, I told him it wasn’t legal but I didn’t see how we’d do much good to anyone dead—Lady Jaina!”
“Captain,” she said, as kindly as she could; the man was obviously deeply upset about something. “Forgive me, but I need to know. Has something happened in Stormwind? The Scourge?”
He blinked. “ Stormwind? No, not unless it happened after we left. Why would there be anything wrong in—it’s Kul Tiras that’s the problem!” Seeing the look on her face, he hastily added, “No, no, no Scourge there that I know of either. I’m sorry, milady, I’m so mixed up—”
Heart rate settling back to something more reasonable, Jaina managed a smile. “It’s all right, Captain. You need to get something to eat and drink, and then you can tell me what happened. I’m sure Decedra can oversee unloading your cargo.”
The poor man looked even more stricken. “That’s just it, Jaina—there isn’t any. The bastards boarded us!”
Decedra Willham cleared her throat pointedly, nodding unsubtly toward the waiting crowd, and Jaina forced herself to control her reactions.
Lark ’s captain was miserable. “We were just barely starting North to skirt the Maelstrom,” he said. “You have to, y’know, the currents are that strong…”
Jaina nodded, suppressing an impatient gesture. The Maelstrom didn’t affect the currents of the Great Sea; it was the currents. If you wanted to go West, you skirted so far south along the coast of Zandalar that the drag was weaker than the winds; or, if you didn’t feel like being reduced to red paste on the water by the Zandalari navy, you went North and didn’t need to worry about wind at all, letting the currents at the very edge propel you around. Jaina was an Admiral’s daughter, and didn’t need the primer.
The crowd had gone silent now, listening intently. Jaina was almost grateful this was happening in the open; it would at least spare her having to figure out how to break the news to the city.
The captain shook his head, anger winning out over his distress. “Some smug Kul Tiran bastard in an ugly little war sloop comes trotting up alongside and orders us to heave to for inspection! I told him loud and clear we weren’t anywhere near Kul Tiran waters, and all he asked was if he “read our signals properly” and I was chartered by Theramore Isle. Well, I couldn’t lie about that and I didn’t see any reason why I should have to…”
A low chorus of “hear, hear”s rippled through the crowd, and was quickly hushed by those trying to listen. The show of support seemed to bolster the man, and his voice was stronger when he continued.
“He said...his words, Lady Jaina, not mine, if you’ll pardon me.”
“Of course, Captain.”
He bared his teeth. “He said that ‘Theramore Isle was no longer a priority of the Kul Tiran navy’ and when I said I didn’t give a plagued rat’s ass what the Kul Tiran navy’s priorities are, sparing a lady’s presence, he had the gall to say that since we were flying a Proudmoore crest that put us under his jurisdiction and he was ‘rerouting’ our cargo, the damn pirate.”
Angry hisses circled the dock, and Jaina’s mind raced.
“You’re certain he was Navy? It couldn’t have been a false flag?”
He hesitated. “I mean...It could’ve, I suppose? False flag and false uniforms, then, and I never knew a pirate who wore white gloves and carried a ceremonial rapier. And I might hate that little ship, but she was clean and new and had green sails.”
Not a pirate then, and almost certainly not a rogue. “They can’t do that,” Jaina said, knowing how ridiculous the words are but too gobsmacked to hold them back. “They can’t, we’re not at war. That’s blatantly illegal and Kul Tirans hate piracy. They can board you if you’re in claimed waters and they can seize your cargo if it’s illegal, but unless you’re a Kul Tiran chartered merchant they can’t just—and even then the Navy would have to compensate you for it!”
“I know, Lady Jaina, but with respect, Lark hasn’t got guns.”
“No,” she said immediately, placing a hand on his shoulder. “No, you did exactly the right thing.” Anger and betrayal boiled in her stomach. Those had to be Admiralty orders, it was too convenient. How could he, how dare he—there had been medicine in that shipment.
And there was nothing she could do about it. Not without escalating. Oh, she could mount a formal complaint with the Admiralty, and much good may that do her! She’d be damned if she got the little rat a pointed commendation, on top of everything else.
Theramore was coming into its own, but only just. They were trading reptile skins for water filters, magically preserved swordfish and unusual dyes and turtle-shell carvings for healing potions and desperately-needed water purifiers. They could not afford hostilities with Kul Tiras.
They couldn’t afford to escalate. They couldn’t afford not to.
Jaina hated resorting to violence. She hated that she was even considering it—but there was a different kind of hate underneath, colder and harder, ringing like steel. The people of Theramore had suffered and starved and bled and lost everything and everyone they had ever loved, and then they had washed the blood from their hands and set about creating a new life. The obstacles they had overcome, the sacrifices they had made, the leaps of faith, the gambles…
All the fruits of their labor had been on those trade ships, and at least a third of it would never come back to them.
“We have to hope Silverwake or Tiderunner gets through,” she said. “Maybe they both will. Boundless we know will be back from Orgrimmar in three days, and that’s not nothing. For now...how soon can we send Stormdance out?”
Immediately, a voice from the crowd: “We can sail by nightfall, Jaina! What’s the message?”
“I’ll have one for you,” she answered. That was good. Stormdance was their courier sloop; small and not terribly comfortable, she was proof that Jaina had possessed very few resources and even less time while snapping up every pathetic scrap of ship tonnage available for the evacuation. But she was twice as fast as any other ship at their disposal, and they needed her now.
Jaina gazed out over the bay, forcing herself to flick dispassionate eyes over the ships lying at anchor weighing their capabilities.
“I want Lark, Serrar, and…” Her mouth twisted bitterly. “Peacebloom, moved in to dock. We have to begin work on them immediately. Tirisfal we leave alone. Stormdance, I’m sending you to intercept Boundless and redirect her to the goblin shipyards for hardware; she was trading almost entirely for coin, not goods, and time is of the essence.”
“Lady Jaina?” Her choices likely seemed random; but they were all small brigantines or large sloops, lighter and faster than the real cargo-movers but big enough to hold their own.
“We’ll refit the three I named as escorts,” she said, as evenly as possible. “From this day forward, Theramore has a navy.”
There was an intake of breath, as much at the detachment in her voice as the words themselves. After a few moments, however, the muttering started, building from a ripple to a swell, and there was a hard determination under it. They were angry, as angry as Jaina was and more; and fierce, bloody approval was in their eyes.
Jaina turned to look up at the dual pennants, flying in a stiff sea breeze. Her eyes lingered on the lower, the warm gold on green that had always meant home.
Ice in her heart and on her tongue, she said, “And take that down.”
The Lord Admiral was brooding again.
Katherine Proudmoore sighed, resisting—barely—the urge to massage her temples. It had been almost three days; the Admiralty couldn’t afford to delay a response any longer, but she doubted whether locking himself in his study was doing anyone any good.
For a moment she thought he hadn’t heard, or else was ignoring her. After a moment, however, he made a sound somewhere between a sigh and a growl and looked up, acknowledging her with a brief nod.
Knowing very well that Daelin Proudmoore’s entire bloodline was congenitally incapable of remembering to eat, Katherine had come armed with tea and a plate of sandwiches, which she placed firmly on her husband’s desk. He moved as if to wave the tray off; luckily for the Admiral, he caught a glimpse in her eyes of what would happen if he tried to dismiss her like a hovering servant, and carefully turned the gesture into picking up a sandwich.
Katherine arched an eyebrow. “Better.”
That earned her what was almost a smile, as she deftly traded a cup of tea for the letter he’d been staring at all day. She forced herself to do no more than glance at it as she folded it and set it aside.
The glance was enough of a stab in the heart as it was. Jaina had learned penmanship on her mother’s knee; it was essential to the safety of Kul Tiras that Admiralty orders be clear, legible, and uniform, but some variation always arose, and Katherine’s daughter formed her Ls and Ys exactly the same way she did.
That those little cues were the only hint at Jaina’s hand hurt in its own way. The hard-learned, rote Admiralty style was hell on the wrist—Katherine should know—and only used for official notices. Jaina’s natural penmanship was...well it was a bit horrifying, really, but it always made Katherine smile. All hard, jagged slashes, cramped and close but with crossed Ts that would sometimes reach across a good fourth of the paper.
It was the chickenscratch of an enthusiastic, overactive mind, rushing to get her thoughts on paper as fast as they arrived—Jaina could write neatly, she could write well, and she could write quickly, but she always cheerfully acknowledged she could only do two of those things at once. And even that was nothing compared to the actual academic notes Katherine had seen glimpses of. Those were very nearly their own alphabet, and as the woman who had in fact taught her daughter penmanship, the realization that Jaina’s notes weren’t written in Thalassian had almost given her a stroke.
She would have given anything for a letter in that tangle of dark ink.
Daelin gestured toward the missive. “You’ve read that, I assume.”
“Not as many times as you have.” Katherine hated the waver in her voice. Turning the letter face down so that she didn’t have to look at the damning signature, she said, “I suppose she’s earned credit for sheer nerve.”
This formal “diplomatic” protest had arrived by packet boat from Stormwind. The phrasing of the short, terse demand that Kul Tiras cease and desist its “illegal seizures” of “Theramore” property was as clinical and impersonal as everything but those damn looped Ls.
The look Daelin gave Jaina’s missive was nothing short of disgusted.
“She’s certainly your daughter,” he growled. “She could stand to be less so.”
Katherine’s eyes sharpened. “I beg your pardon?”
He snorted, and gave a wry sort of smile. “A bold little sea bitch, and don’t deny it.” When Katherine glared, his smile softened, just a bit. “I did marry you for a reason, my dear.”
She had to give a low, huffed imitation of a laugh at that. Daelin half-stood to pull out a second chair, and kissed her forehead as she sat down beside him. She gripped his fingers more tightly than she would be willing to admit to.
“I don’t understand this, Daelin,” she sighed. “Jaina’s...headstrong, certainly, more than the boys ever were. An idealist. And I know I’ve complained more than anyone about how far in the clouds her head can be at times. But she’s never acted without reason, and she’s seen things she was never prepared to deal with. I’m certain she truly believes she’s acting for the best.”
Daelin breathed out heavily. “I believe she does,” he admitted. “She never could lie to save her life.” After a moment, however, his lip twisted. “She never did say what she thinks that ‘warchief’ is to her, the young fool. As if the creature didn’t turn and strike the settlement she claims to love as soon as it lured her away.”
Katherine winced. She could allow her daughter more leniency, perhaps, than she herself felt; to ally with orcs at all was unthinkable, but then, Jaina had been alone and traumatized, with civilians to protect. Katherine cared much more for the knowledge that her daughter was alive against all odds—that she had survived the slaughter and destruction in both Lordaeron and Dalaran, both tragedies that ought to have claimed her life—than about any decisions she might have had to make in order to survive.
But to ally with orcs at the cost of her own people’s lives, over her own father, was more than even her mother could justify. Whatever debt she felt she owed this orc, whatever principles she couldn’t bear to betray, her weakness had cost Kul Tiran lives. Katherine’s blood still went cold at the thought of the ugly mass of scarring on her husband’s left shoulder. Three inches lower, and he would never have returned home at all.
And yet. And yet.
“Daelin.” Her fingers hovered over the missive, aching. “She’s our little girl.”
A warm, gentle hand closed over hers, guiding it away from the letter.
“She is twenty-five years old, Katherine. Derek commanded fleets younger.” A gentle touch at her chin had Katherine closing her eyes, sick with how nearly she’d lost this. Daelin’s voice was softer than it had been since he returned from Kalimdor, but there was no pity in it. After a moment, he took his hand away and pulled a sheet of parchment from a drawer, handing it over.
It was unsigned, an unofficial draft response to Jaina’s demand, written in Daelin’s hand and not to Admiralty standard. Katherine closed her eyes for a moment, then began to read.
It was nothing she didn’t already know—nothing all of Kul Tiras didn’t already know. Jaina’s phrasing in her original missive had been...calculated. She was attempting to portray herself and her fortress as a sovereign city—a status which would make her ships independent, but a poorly-chosen position.
Katherine was her mother—but she was also wife of the Lord Admiral, in line to succeed him, and designated regent when he was with the fleet. She was capable of looking at this situation as coldly as the sea, if she had to. The first thing she did was pick up a quill and cross out the address line. This had been delivered by Stormwind; there was no need to further legitimize Jaina’s settlement by addressing the response to her directly.
If Jaina wanted the protection of independent shipping for her city, she should have portrayed it as an extension of the Kingdom of Lordaeron. It would be a weak premise, and she would have done best to claim the status of a representative consultant rather than ruler. As she had failed to do either, she would struggle now to walk back her assertion of herself and her city as unaffiliated to claim that kind of protection later—and, according to the uncaring letter of the law, her independent status was more than highly questionable.
These were the facts:
Firstly, that Jaina Proudmoore was first in line to the Kul Tiran succession.
Secondly, that as evidenced by the prominent position given to her personal crest during the founding of a colony, she was demonstrably acting as a Proudmoore on her own initiative and not as a representative of Dalaran.
Thirdly, that she had taken command of a fleet and established a settlement, and the residents of that settlement openly acknowledged her as their leader.
Fourth, that her expedition had included a not insignificant number of Proudmoore marines, all of whom considered her their commanding officer despite their commissions actually being in Daelin’s name.
And fifth, and most damning: that when the Lord Admiral first arrived, despite Jaina’s protests, those same residents and Kul Tiran soldiers had recognized and followed him as a legitimate change in leadership.
Under any interpretation of the law, those factors combined made “Theramore Isle” a Kul Tiran colony.
And so Jaina’s protest collapsed like a castle made entirely of dry sand. Her shipping was Kul Tiran shipping, paid for by an extension of the Admiralty; and they could do with it what they wished.
“I don’t like it, Daelin.” Nevertheless, Katherine scratched a note in the margins and drew a series of arrows rearranging a paragraph. “They were promised protection by your daughter. If we claim jurisdiction of the island we must also offer them a place in Kul Tiras; they fought for you, when you asked. Whatever Jaina may have done, we condemn refugees to starve with this.”
“Which falls on her conscience,” he responded. “Not mine.”
“Daelin,” she said quietly.
His eyes were like flint as they stared at each other; then, finally, he closed them and relented.
“As you wish. As always, my dear, I cannot argue with you.”
“Mmm.” She dipped her pen in ink. “Feel free to do so whenever I am in the wrong.”
He chuckled. Katherine smiled faintly, sketching out the deceptively short piece of parchment that would slit the throat of Theramore Isle for good.
She forced herself not to think of how Daelin had laughed with delight when he first learned what their daughter had accomplished, or how proud she’d once been of the bright, compassionate courage and strength that every stroke of her quill condemned.
“This doesn’t have to end in blood, Vol’jin.”
The troll leaned back, tall frame and long arms not quite suited to the chair but not seeming perturbed by it. He watched her, silent, and Jaina stepped firmly on the urge to backtrack. It needed to be said, and they both knew it. Still, though; she was not her father.
“That...wasn’t a threat,” she said, evenly. “I only mean that sooner or later, there will be violence. I’d like to at least be able to say we did our best to prevent it.”
She’d been hoping, when her scouts went out to scour Dustwallow for anything they could possibly trade except slime and crocolisks, that they might discover some piss-poor tin vein. The realization that parts of the marsh were rich in iron was only partially dampened by their proximity to ogre camps; but iron, while an invaluable discovery to Jaina’s increasingly resource-poor city, wouldn’t be enough to set troll and human at one another’s throats without the situation getting much, much more dire than she intended to allow.
Gold and mithril, however...and then, Pained grimly shaking her awake at three in the morning to meet with a blacksmith equal parts elated and terrified, they’d found deposits of truesilver.
There was very real danger here. With goblin fisheries and shipyards, the Darkspear, and now Theramore all dependent on the marsh and the bay, competition for resources was fierce. They had managed to navigate hunting and fishing rights amiably enough—
Well. Jaina and Vol’jin’s people had arranged hunting and fishing rights, she wasn’t entirely certain the goblins were familiar with the concept of a fishing license.
The point was, food was something they were able to mutually agree on. Both sides had their own best interests at stake; responsibly used, the food supplies in Dustwallow would last indefinitely, whereas shortsightedness would doom them all. Troll and human hunters acknowledged one another in passing, and otherwise left well enough alone. There was no competition for dye plants or medicinal herbs; everything grew like a weed in this climate, so a single seed crop had been enough to create wide swathes of the plants. Thankfully the dyes required enough concentration that it was unlikely they’d flood the market and reduce demand.
For various reasons. The fact that their shipments were still being attacked in transit was a fairly good guarantee of that as well.
“Mmm.” Vol’jin rubbed his chin. “A rush on those gold veins...I wouldn’t like to see it.” He tapped his knuckles on the sealed paper beside him. “But I’ll not be signin’ away our mining rights. Your people aren’t the only ones who need that trade, Proudmoore.”
“I know.” Jaina sat forward. “We both need access to these precious metals, and tensions are higher now than they’ve ever been. I don’t want us to be in competition for something so valuable; we’ll end up fighting and I don’t know that we’ll come back from that. Nor do I see a way to delineate territory. It’s all but impossible to enforce even if we wanted to make our people patrol out there, and frankly, I think if we gave them the choice between marsh stakeout and slow starvation most of them would have to think about it.”
That got a chuckle, and a flash of teeth behind Vol’jin’s massive tusks.
“It’d be asking for trouble,” he agreed. “One side hits a richer vein than the other too many times, we all bleed before it’s done. And you be thinking you have a solution.”
“Joint mining operations,” Jaina said simply.
Unfortunately, that also drew a chuckle from her counterpart. She tried not to bristle.
“Proudmoore,” Vol’jin said, not unkindly. “You have a good heart. And if it was the two of us, I’d say, better to take less than we could than spill blood for more than we need. And now you tell me—how long are you thinking it takes before your people or mine start thinking, watchin’ for the other side to cheat, numbers in their heads of how much more they could make…”
“...if we just ran an entirely human operation and didn’t split the difference, when we know we have the manpower?” Jaina supplied. “I know. I...don’t know if I have a solution for that, but we can’t cure resentment by skulking around each other. I thought...if we could benefit one another. Give each other something the other side really doesn’t have, maybe we could counteract it.”
Vol’jin didn’t respond; the tilt of his head was skeptical, but he gestured for her to go on.
“I want to use your shamans,” Jaina said quickly. “Mining in that swamp is going to be difficult to impossible, not to mention absolutely miserable, otherwise. Shamans to keep the area drained, and possibly stable. Get some air flow. We both provide an equal number of guards for security against raids or wild animals.”
“An’ not to police our own people at all,” was the sardonic response. “Nor, spirits forbid, one another’s people.”
Jaina felt her ears burning. “Well,” she said. “There’s no need for us to come out and say it.”
“And what would you be providing?”
She suppressed a wince. “For now, manpower. I’m prepared to take responsibility for up to seventy percent of actual workers, and for setting up the infrastructure to transport ore to both central locations to be processed. That’s not worthless, in muck like this.”
The Darkspear chief shook his head reluctantly. “Oh, my people’d appreciate it at first, to be sure. But we can do those things ourselves, Proudmoore. And your people will grow restive, thinkin’ themselves servants to the Darkspear. That won’t be good enough to last.”
“I know. It’s temporary. Vol’jin, the trade networks I’m building will work. Whether the Alliance likes it or not, they need the resources we can provide. There’s no plague here. Despite my father’s best efforts, there’s no war, either.” It felt...cruel, evil, to phrase this so baldly, like taking advantage...but it was the truth, and mincing words served no one. “They will need that open port. I just need a little more time. After that, I provide higher-paying buyers, and markets that will never open themselves to trolls.”
I can do this, she thought, but refused to say aloud. It sounded too...weak, too much like a child begging to prove herself. Just give me a chance.
For a long time, Vol’jin regarded her, taking her measure without giving anything away. Jaina tried not to fidget.
Finally, he gestured around them.
“You called me here, sorceress,” he said.
“Invited,” Jaina protested. “I would have been willing to meet—”
“Ah, ah.” Vol’jin held up a finger. “You teleported out to me, to invite me here. You wanted me to see this city.”
“I’m...excited to show someone my new office?” Jaina offered weakly.
It was only almost entirely a lie. Jaina’s tower—an indulgence she was embarrassingly glad to have, with the logistics of running a city piling so heavily on her shoulders—was rough around the edges still, but it was nevertheless the prettiest room in the city. Well, she thought so anyway. It still smelled faintly of wood varnish, but it was furnished and clean. There was a sturdy, comfortable desk and no end of bookshelves lining the walls, one of which featured bars that locked the books in place so that it could be folded down into a bed and not take up unnecessary space—or, more to the point, require her to receive state leaders for trade negotiations in her bedroom.
Sunlight glittered in sparkling patterns through the rough glass on every side; it would be some time before Theramore had the facilities to make perfectly clear glass panes, but Jaina loved the imperfections.
Vol’jin didn’t bother dignifying that with an answer.“Your people do good work, Proudmoore. That much I’ll give ya. If you learned a little subtlety, though, it might do you some good.” His eyes rested on her, unblinking. “You want me to see this little port, so that you can tell me a deal with you be worth my time, and I might believe it.”
Jaina gazed back, and didn’t flinch. “Yes.”
There was no reaction. Then,slowly, without a word, Vol’jin sat forward and held out a hand. Jaina reached out in kind, and that strange three-fingered grip clasped her arm without hesitation.
The scent of parchment had always been calming. That was good. She needed that, right now.
Jaina tapped her quill on the side of an inkwell, carefully ignoring the sealed envelope at her elbow.
She already knew what it would say.
The first such message had arrived months ago, and the angry emerald-green seal of the Admiralty had twisted Jaina’s stomachs in knots as she broke it. She’d been expecting that one sooner, frankly. Her father’s refusal to communicate directly with Theramore had, legally speaking, bought her more time than she’d dreamed.
There had been multiple successful trade runs to the Kaldorei and back. Trade with Mulgore through Orgrimmar had proved more lucrative than Jaina dared hope, and that was without being able to sell the largely-vegetarian tauren much fish. Theramore’s wells were reliable, especially with the rainy climate frequently refreshing the groundwater; still, Jaina treated their water stores like a ship’s freshwater. After some trial and error and finally some amused pointers from the Darkspear, they’d set up saltwater distillation channels made of light canvas along the beach on the mainland. Hopefully that would be temporary, just until they had enough resources to maintain stable magical filtration on an island-wide scale; but they could use the distilled water freely, and keep the aquifer wells for drinking only.
It wasn’t much; but it was enough. Her people had lost the tightness around their eyes; every so often they were able to trade for little luxuries, like Kaldorei wine or a few barrels of ale from Orgrimmar. They were building houses now with Ashenvale lumber; several of them were starting trade workshops and even stores, of a sort. They’d even gained a few genuine immigrants, who were minor local celebrities at the moment. A few had taken on apprentices, and not everything being crafted was an absolute necessity anymore.
Theramore still had what was mostly a bartering economy and it would be some time yet before food stopped being a non-negotiably communal resource; but they could breathe now.
The joint mining efforts with the Darkspear had succeeded beyond what anyone had expected. Tensions had been present from the beginning; but Jaina and Vol’jin had appointed their guards with great care, and even the most resentful couldn’t deny they were being treated fairly. After a few weeks, anyone would be hard-pressed to find a human who wasn’t at least begrudgingly grateful for the efforts of the shamans.
And it wasn’t all begrudging. There had been enough instances of leave requests for human miners to meet up with their colleagues for a meal, or vice versa, that Jaina had left standing orders with the gatehouse to grant those requests without prior approval so long as comings and goings were recorded and reported to the next watch.
The real game-changer had been the dwarves.
Summoned from the sea like water elementals by the first shipment of gold and truesilver ingots, they were a practical and no-nonsense people who knew how to follow a garrison’s lead even if its cultural practices seemed...odd. Jaina had folded them into her mining teams and they’d earned their keep within three days. The metal deposits in Dustwallow were rich, but small and oddly scattered, and the process of trying to find new ones so dangerous and miserable that they’d essentially depended on tripping over the nodes. Even with Darkspear earth magic, no one could trace gold deposits like an Ironforge prospector.
Productivity had nearly doubled, with Theramore and the Darkspear matching workforce numbers and splitting profits from the joint negotiations perfectly down the middle. Vol’jin had caught Jaina’s eye during those talks and favored her with a wink and a rare, warm smile.
And Ironforge had nothing to fear from a navy. If Theramore could get shipments through to the tram, the dwarven negotiator told her bluntly, Kul Tiras could take its diplomatic retaliations and shove them up its arse.
If only everything were that simple.
Jaina felt like she was being watched, and gingerly flipped the Admiralty letter face down.
Determined once more to ignore it, she turned back to her spreadsheet. With a good half of their “fleet” tied up as escorts every cargo ship mattered; but Thrall had written her several days ago with a request, and Jaina was almost certain she could find a way to free up the tonnage for what he needed. With luck, the sacrifice would pay off. Regardless, it was...the right thing to do.
Footsteps on the stairs made Jaina look up and Pained casually rest a hand on the hilt of her sword. The deadly foe was quickly revealed to be a deeply winded young woman holding a small stack of papers.
“Hello, Lana,” Jaina said calmly. “Can I help you?”
Lana held up a finger, doubled over and wheezing. After several long, gasping breaths, she managed, “Theoden Manners says… got… the mail sorted… ma’am. Sent me up with pers’nal… correspond...oh man, one second…”
“Take your time,” said Pained, either unable to keep the amusement out of her voice or not bothering to try.
Poor Lana held up her bundle of papers. “High priority,” she explained. “He said...anything else can wait, no need to… bother Lady Jaina just yet. Whew. Do your stairs, uh… do they have to… be like that?”
“I’m afraid they do,” Jaina said, apologetic. “It has to do with mana resonance. The stairs appear asymmetrical, which seems counterproductive for a mage tower when spell matrices depend so heavily on parity and stable equivalence. However, the physical structure of the architecture’s interior is actually a small part of a greater arcane counterbalance—”
“I’m very sorry I insulted your tower, ma’am,” said Lana, who’d now been given plenty of time to catch her breath. “Please have mercy.”
Pained definitely didn’t try to quiet her laughter that time. Jaina sent her bodyguard a look that promised swift retribution and utterly failed to intimidate her.
Jaina untied the bundle and glanced through the seals. A copy of Silverwake ’s shipping manifest in case yet another loss of cargo protest had to be launched; several inexpertly sealed letters with Lordaeron surnames that were likely from survivors hoping for word of a lost loved one; one symbol she failed to recognize entirely, and a letter from Stormwind bearing the royal seal that made her heart skip a beat.
Pained’s ears twitched in surprise. “What does Sylvanas Windrunner want from you, my lady?”
Jaina blinked. “Sylvanas—” She picked up the letter with the unfamiliar seal. “Is that the symbol of the Forsaken, then? How do you know that?”
“Part of my job,” Pained saidi simply. “I am...more concerned that it reached our ships. How did she manage it?”
Lana looked nonplussed. “I’m not sure. You’d think our people would remember seeing Scourge hanging about.”
“Forsaken, Lana,” Jaina chided her gently, though she understood the hangup perfectly. Still. “They bother me as well, but they’ve suffered from the Scourge in ways no one else has.”
Lana made a face. She didn’t argue, but she certainly didn’t agree either.
Curiosity piqued, Jaina pulled out the letter. She could feel her eyebrows climbing as she read. The phrasing was stilted—either the Ranger-General wasn’t as fluent in Common as Jaina had been led to believe, or she was very, very tense. Understandable. What was very interesting was the request the Banshee Queen had made of her—and the date at the top of the paper.
“Pained. Do you remember when I said that Thrall wanted to charter one of our ships, if we could spare it?”
“To send reinforcements to the Forsaken?”
“Yes,” Jaina said slowly. “Except that Sylvanas doesn’t mention reinforcements. She’s asking for a dedicated ship to evacuate her civilians to Kalimdor, at least until they can establish a real safe zone. And she wrote this at least a month ago, meaning she’d already negotiated entry into the Horde with Thrall, and he only contacted me three days ago.”
Pained considered this. “She didn’t think he would grant the request.”
“At the very least she was covering her bases. And this is...a generous offer. Sacreligious, but generous. She’s willing to trade half the looted gilding from the second-largest temple in Lordaeron for safe passage.”
“Forsaken have civilians?” Lana blurted.
Jaina tried to hide her own discomfort at the thought. It was...wrong. She tried to picture it and simply couldn’t imagine Scourged undead as anything but hardened, ruthless killers. But Sylvanas’ desperation was clear...
“Almost everyone slaughtered by the Scourge in Lordaeron was a civilian,” she murmured, mostly to herself. “And now they’ve woken up. Would you want to kill any more?”
Lana didn’t have an answer to that.
“Will you...give them a ship?” she asked.
“I was already going to free up Lark. There’s no reason Thrall’s reinforcement carrier can’t bring civilians back with her. But I do think I’ll have to make the crew volunteer-only, now. There’s no point responding to this, she’d get the ship before she got the letter at this rate. Was there anything else, Lana?”
“Oh,” Lana said as more footsteps thumped up the stairs. “Yeah, sorry. Joe’s here—the junior lieutenant from Lark, ma’am. You said you wanted to talk to him?”
“I did.” For now, she set the rest of the mail aside. “Lieutenant, what news of her?”
“We got it confirmed by one of the Kaldorei ships that she should only be a few days behind. She was well out of Kul Tiran range when we last saw her. I’m sorry, ma’am, only I don’t know enough to be sure so I didn’t want to put it in the report…”
“Thank you. Lana, could you give us the room? Take the steps slower this time.”
“Oh, going down ’ll be no problem, Jaina.” With a casual wave, the girl hopped onto the bannister and slid out of the office. Jaina braced for a scream or a crash; when none came, she turned her attention to her new visitor.
The young man in front of her had the grace to look sheepish.
Jaina, in return, managed not to rub her temples too obviously. Lieutenant Joseph Warner was two years older than her, but phenomenally inexperienced for his rank; most of the Lordaeron refugees had no real sailing experience, and part of refitting their poor tin-pot fleet had involved pulling from anyone physically capable of hauling sail line who was willing to try. Were that not true he would still deserve all of their gratitude and then some for saving Silverwake, and even more for the incredible morale victory he’d just bought them.
However temporary it might be.
“You did very, very well.” The warmth in her voice was genuine. “In the future, however—please do try to run up your colors before entering the bay, particularly if you happen to be making an unannounced arrival in a battleship with Kul Tiran sails.”
He blushed. “Yes, ma’am.”
“We are in your debt,” Jaina told him. “All of you. Bringing in a naval vessel under a prize crew is no small feat, even if she is only a patrol sloop.” He grinned, and she inclined her head. “I’ll add Lady Blackwater to the registry. I see no reason to rename her; she’s done nothing to disgrace herself.”
Warner nodded in the same polite fashion as when Jaina sometimes, occasionally, possibly launched into a discussion of arcane matrix theory. “That’s a Kul Tiran thing, ma’am?”
Pained audibly snorted. Jaina’s lips twitched despite her stress. “Sailor’s superstition, landsman. You’ll pick it up in time. Now.” She picked up the Stormwind missive, looking around for her letter opener in a clear dismissal. “I expect there are several pints of orcish ale with your shipmates’ names on them tonight. Don’t let me keep you—Commander.”
It took a moment for that to register; when it did, Warner lit up like a paladin in sunlight and practically skipped down the stairs.
Jaina slit the Stormwind envelope, flipping the letter open before she could think too hard about it and lose her nerve. She read through the short message twice, and then once more, just to be certain.
“Pained,” she asked. “Is he gone yet?”
Nonplussed, her bodyguard crossed to the railing and peered down through the complicated pattern of branching staircases that formed the interlock matrix of Jaina’s arcane structural lattice, which was not nearly as complicated as everyone seemed to think, if they would only set aside about seven hours to let her explain it.
Pained held up a finger; after a few moments, she lowered it. “ Now he’s gone.”
Jaina took her time re-folding the missive, tucked it back into the envelope, and set it very carefully aside. She took a deep breath.
“Varian Wrynn,” she said calmly. “You motherless, cowardly, mealy-mouthed piece of —”
Seagulls screamed over the Sound. Barely flapping their wings, they hung effortlessly in the stiff sea breeze, calling jubilant challenge to their fellows as they swooped and raced.
They were ugly, smelly little pests; but they had cleverness to spare and accomplished much on sheer unflinching gall. Their sharp, shrewd eye for anything resembling dropped fish guts or an unattended pasty was legend. Katherine watched as squalling gangs patrolled their territory, idly noting the ringleaders. The inevitable fisticuffs whenever two groups of hungry strangers met in the same place resembled nothing so much as rival whaling crews on shore leave.
Jaina, visiting home during a Dalaran holiday when she was fourteen, had once slyly used this information to call the awful seabirds more Kul Tiran than she was. Her brother, feigning offense on behalf of his homeland, had unceremoniously shoved her off the end of a pier.
It was the angriest Katherine had ever been with them; the ensuing midwinter water fight had destroyed most of the dock and several waterfront carts and they’d nearly given themselves hypothermia in the process. She’d dragged them inside by the ears and threatened to have them skinned alive and turned into boots if they ever repeated the stunt, then ordered her blue-lipped, still-giggling children into hot baths and out of her sight.
And even then—it would never, in a thousand years, have seemed possible that Jaina could be right.
Heavy footfalls announced Daelin’s arrival on the balcony. Katherine didn’t turn around; a warm hand rested at the small of her back, then circled her waist as he joined her.
“I take no pleasure in this, Katherine,” he said after a moment.
Katherine’s own voice was alien to her. “She’s left us no choice.”
They’d made every effort. Daelin had been all but snorting fire since that first infuriating missive, ready to take reinforcements straight back to Kalimdor; but he had waited. They had been patient. Jaina hadn’t touched the notice of her legal status; they had done her the additional courtesy, after a time, of cutting orders instructing her to shut down operations and return to Boralus, and she had ignored them.
That, Katherine could forgive. Jaina had been clear on her intentions to remain at the settlement, and she was nearly as stubborn as her father and damn the consequences, when she believed it necessary.
Then Jaina had fired on them.
Chimera was a good patrol ship, only doing her job; Daelin had known the captain as a midshipman, and she hadn’t been the only casualty before Chimera broke off action. They hadn’t even realized the “Theramore” ships refusing to stop were armed until a “warning shot” tore a hole straight through her bow.
It had to be a miscommunication, Katherine had insisted. Jaina was stubborn and infuriating sometimes, yes, but she wasn’t a madwoman. There had to be an explanation. Their daughter did nothing without reason.
It was the first real argument they’d had in over a decade, and by far the loudest. Daelin was fire and thunder, insisting that firing on a Kul Tiran ship performing its legal duties was an act of treason; but Katherine was Kul Tiran as well. In the end he’d backed down. They’d sent a letter of censure instead, demanding an explanation and that the subordinate responsible, if acting against orders and unless there were mitigating circumstances the Admiralty considered sufficient, be punished.
The only response had been an insultingly brief, cold message reiterating her demand that the Navy cease its “piracy”.
Even Katherine couldn’t have restrained the wave of fury that sent across the islands, and she hadn’t tried. There was no greater insult, and the hypocrisy galled the nation. A Kul Tiran deserter—the Admiral’s daughter, making the betrayal all the worse—who was, by the clear letter of the law, regularly making off with Admiralty property, firing on her own people, skulking past patrols in the night, flying a thrown-together mess of heraldry as a flag—calling them pirates!
The moment Jaina Proudmoore had fired on a Kul Tiran ship in order to keep possession of goods that were rightfully owned by the Navy, any ship under “her” flag was legally a pirate vessel.
Before, the Navy simply stopped ships flying a Lordaeron-blue anchor if they happened to spot them. But now she’d savaged their pride. Daelin unleashed his reserves as pirate hunters with blood in the water, and his wife made no attempt to stop him.
They’d convened a court-martial. Jaina had been given six weeks to respond.
Katherine glanced at the sun. Her time would run out at sunset; and they both knew Jaina wasn’t coming.
Good, she thought, vicious, bitter. She’d wasted too much time and energy, too many tears and sleepless nights, trying to defend her daughter. Some things could not be defended.
That Jaina had gotten so many refugees to safety, and established a true haven, had been commendable. Her ceasefire with orcs and trolls of all things was revolting, but understandable given the terrible circumstances and the dangers she’d faced. And even Daelin was, resentfully, willing to admit that in retrospect he understood her reactions at the Battle of Theramore; she was young, with no leadership experience, stranded and alone and beset by enemies on every side. She had been isolated too long, exhausted, stretched to breaking point. Any interruption to her plans was both a threat and an overwhelming source of stress she was not equipped to bear.
A mental break from a too-junior officer. With a recommendation of mercy from her commander, it could be grounds for nothing more than dismissal from naval rank in disgrace. She would never inherit the Admiralty; but that, as evidenced by this fiasco, was likely for the best.
They had bent over backwards trying to show her mercy, reading her determination to remain with her fledgeling fortress as loyalty and an unwillingness to abandon her dependents.
And she had fired on them. Stolen a Navy ship and run up a mockery of their own crest. She’d used Lady Blackwater in a skirmish not two weeks ago, and Kul Tiras bayed for her blood at that perversion.
This was no longer a power struggle from a young woman resentful at her father’s high-handedness. This was no longer mere insolence from an heir, or posturing to make a point. It was no longer misplaced, well-meaning devotion that cost Kul Tiran lives as a tragic, avoidable side effect.
Jaina had killed her own people, because she was angry at being told what to do.
Katherine swallowed thickly. “You were right, Daelin. I should never have...”
But her husband shook his head, watching the seagulls peck one another senseless. “Even I never thought our daughter would go this far. I wouldn’t have believed it of Tandred, and he has a harder streak in him than she ever did.”
“Or so we thought.” Katherine tasted bile.
Daelin rested a hand on her shoulder. “You were right to give her every chance. No one can say we acted rashly.” He sighed and shook his head. “I would always have wondered.”
Hating herself for the lingering weakness, she asked, “Will you try to take her alive?”
“If I can. She is still my daughter. But she has proven a powerful mage, if nothing else. If it comes to battle…”
“I know.” Katherine was steadied by his promise. “Take no unnecessary risks, Daelin. I…”
She was running out of family to lose.
Daelin pressed a tender kiss to her temple; and the Lord Admiral of Kul Tiras turned and walked away.
“—son of a fucking bitch!”
There was a pause.
“...Did that help, my lady?” Pained asked politely.
“A little, yes!”
Wisely, the kaldorei was silent. Jaina turned and paced back in the opposite direction. She was vaguely aware of arcane wind flaring around her as she turned on her heel, and quite frankly did not give a shit.
Her thoughts were racing, tripping over themselves, grabbing others on their way down and skinning their knees on the pavement, everything was tangled in her head with sharp pricks of pain and blood…
“We needed Stormwind,” she said, and hearing the terrified desperation in her voice only heightened it as she continued. “We needed Stormwind. I didn’t ask for—I wasn’t expecting a mutual protection pact, Pained! All I asked for was that he recognize Theramore as an independent settlement. Not even a sovereign nation! A neutral port. And he won’t even give me that.”
It would have been a chink in the armor. A small policy statement, at this point a token gesture.
But no. Varian Wrynn was unwilling to interfere in such a delicate internal conflict. Translation: he didn’t want to risk angering the Kul Tiran navy. The king of Stormwind, the only naval power in the world that might actually be able to hold its own against them.
“Internal. An internal conflict.” Jaina gave a high, bitter laugh that she was very aware bordered on hysterical. “So,” she said, slamming her hand on the letter. “So, according to this pox-ridden, two-faced bilge rat, Theramore’s government is Kul Tiran.”
“I see, my lady,” said Pained, gingerly pulling the beeswax out of her ears. “I cannot imagine what would make him think that.”
It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, Jaina told herself over the rushing in her ears. Varian hadn’t called them independent, but he had carefully not called them Kul Tiran either—yes, ‘internal conflict’ was damning, but he hadn’t actually said what nation it was internal within. He’d made clear that Stormwind would continue to allow access to all merchants with legal goods unless they became enemies of the Crown. He’d used Theramore’s name prominently throughout the short pronouncement; the Admiralty never did, calling it “the Dustwallow fortress” in all of its official communications. And.while official charters would make no appearances, independent vessels were free to do as they wished.
That meant more than it might seem. There were already, despite the dangers, quite a few human skippers willing to capitalize on a new market in two directions. This had been helped in no small part by one of Jaina’s gambles; an offer that the first five Eastern Kingdoms ships to commit to four runs to Theramore a year would be exempt from docking and brokerage fees, and their imports subject to only fifty percent of standard tariffs. All of a sudden, people hadn’t found the crossing so terribly difficult after all.
So no, this wasn’t as bad as it could have been; but it was bad enough to destroy her.
Legal goods was the vice Kul Tiras would use to crush them. Because, after all, according to them, all of Theramore’s goods became stolen property the moment it refused to surrender them to the Navy when commanded.
It would take weeks at most, now, for the Admiralty to put pressure on Stormwind to expel or imprison the “pirates”. And without Stormwind trade…
Jaina couldn’t breathe.
She’d overreached. She should have left well enough alone. With no official statement no harm had been done. Now, Varian had given her father a knife to slip between her ribs. With one careless phrasing—or calculated? No, never, he wouldn’t, had this phrasing been an advisor, what enemy did Jaina never realize she’d made…?
With one deadly word choice, Stormwind had destroyed Jaina’s entire legal argument. The most powerful kingdom on the planet had just framed Theramore’s existence as a Kul Tiran civil war.
And that meant, explicitly or no, intentionally or no, that a major world power had just endorsed the Admiralty’s elaborate legal fiction and made it true. It made Jaina legally a Kul Tiran officer, and that meant she had nothing.
She could not protest seizure of sovereign property if she had no sovereignty to be violated. She could not protest theft of goods; by law, Theramore’s payments were merely an extension of the Admiralty’s coffers. And the Admiralty, after a “wasteful campaign” in Kalimdor and “disastrous mismanagement” on the part of the officer entrusted with its establishment, had chosen to abandon Theramore Isle.
It didn’t matter that the majority of its residents were Lordaeron refugees; they had placed themselves under the command of a Kul Tiran officer. They had not recruited Jaina as some kind of independent consultant; she had recruited them. She had told them of the Kul Tiran offer of asylum for any who wished to take it. The suggestion had offended every man, woman and child in Theramore, and they had all remained.
So now here she was. Head of a traitorous splinter faction. A single-fortress rebellion against the might of an awakened Titan. Eight ships and a courier sloop, and only half the eight were armed.
Her voice was a ragged whisper. “We’re all going to die.”
For some reason, Jaina was finding it difficult to sleep.
She’d only given in because she was trying to make Pained go to bed, and her bodyguard had flatly refused to sleep unless Jaina did too. She’d threatened to sit on her until she obeyed, and the firm set of her ears had suggested she meant it.
Not that it was doing much good. Jaina hadn’t managed to stay in the same position for longer than two minutes at a time for what felt like hours. All she could do was stare into the dark, eyes burning with exhaustion but unable to sleep, oscillating wildly between waves of despair and cursing Varian for a fool.
This was pointless. She needed to be doing something.
She kicked her bare feet out of bed, grateful for the climate-control spells woven into the woodwork of her tower; Boralus was always chilly, Lordaeron never had any weather that couldn’t be described as “mild, a bit boring really” and almost every building in Dalaran had these same enchantments. The oppressive heat and humidity of Dustwallow would have destroyed her without them, and she made a mental note to check that all the other buildings on Theramore had the option…
For the short time any of them had left, anyway.
She had to grope for a moment to find a gap in the curtains that blocked off her little alcove, but didn’t dare summon a light. She was pretty sure Pained was bribing random Theramore guards to tattle on their beloved leader if she tried to sneak some work in the middle of the night.
Jaina had been worked into such a state by the Stormwind letter that she hadn’t been able to focus on anything else. Now, exhausted, her fear had burned itself out. What was done could not be undone.
Not without a much greater command of temporal magic and access to the Caverns of Time, anyway.
The budget and shipping spreadsheets were still on her desk; she closed the books and tucked them under her arm by touch, feeling around the desk surface until she found her unread mail and shoved the envelopes between her teeth so she could grab her stoppered inkwell and a quill before retreating back behind her curtains.
There was a problem that needed to be solved. And despite the betrayal, Theramore didn’t have nothing after all, she reminded herself as she stubbed her toe on an uneven floorboard and fell into bed.
Ironforge, she knew, wouldn’t take kindly to the sudden loss of a new resource pipeline. The Dustwallow mining operations were small, practically speaking; but Theramore was currently the only trading port for the Alliance within an entire continent, and after Vol’jin’s success, Thrall had been quick to take advantage. Horde and Alliance wouldn’t trade with one another...but both were willing to trade with Theramore, and politely ignore the seals on their purchases.
Besides that, everyone felt more secure arranging trans-ship trade in a friendly, neutral port that for once wasn’t run by pirates; and while Jaina was determined not to price-gouge for the privilege, she wasn’t running a charity either. Her harbor and brokering fees were fair—some would say generous—but they were not negotiable.
So, Ironforge; an ally she hadn’t considered when thinking about Theramore’s naval future. At the very least, they would raise holy hell if Stormwind closed its ports to Jaina’s people and cut Ironforge off by proxy. And that would have far more devastating effects than even a Kul Tiran tantrum; so perhaps they wouldn’t lose Stormwind trade, after all.
The real issue was the security of their trade ships in transit, and while selling their goods to independent merchants at Theramore itself would keep them fed and supplied they needed the ability to trade in bulk directly. A middleman meant they had to sell slightly under market value, to allow the merchant to perform a markup down the line—and they were barely scraping by as it was.
Jaina was not a thief, as she had once told Vol’jin; but neither would she be cheated.
Glancing at the window behind her, Jaina gave an exasperated sigh and pulled her blankets over her head. She was either the ruler of a sovereign port city or the vicious, murderous instigator of a civil war; and either way, it was more than a little ridiculous that she was hiding under the covers reading by magelight as if she was seven years old.
Yes, she’d read budgetary spreadsheets for fun at the age of seven. She was a very normal child.
Tyrande’s response, at least, had been a balm. She had recognized Theramore, and directly addressed the harassment without prompting. The tone of the letter had been almost excessively apologetic, with many pointed statements about inability to risk endangering her own shipping by overly antagonizing a powerful navy, but at least she’d been honest. And her real feelings had been made clear by the implication that while the Kaldorei unfortunately couldn’t offer protection to Theramore ships, she would hardly warn them off if they...happened to be sailing nearby. And if any independent merchants of unclear origin might happen to run into her caravans she would of course be honor-bound to defend them.
Not that Theramore would ever do something as dishonest as forget to fly their flag—the flag that Kul Tiras had repeatedly demanded they strike and refused to acknowledge as legitimate (and thus required under maritime law) in the first place.
Thrall’s support was more tentative. He, of course, had no political complications preventing him from recognizing Theramore as its own nation, and had happily done so; beyond that Jaina was not his to protect, and Horde resources could not be spent doing so. But he had, quietly and outside of official record, offered to “charter” as many of her ships as she could spare, allowing them to fly Horde colors instead; and any space not used by the job he hired them for would be free for Theramore’s own goods.
Jaina somehow doubted he would be using them as more than troop carriers, with little to no cargo at all. It wouldn’t do much for trade, when the real issue was getting to Alliance territories; but it was a kindness, and she was grateful for the offer.
Since she couldn’t possibly make herself feel worse, she opened the Kul Tiran letter she’d been avoiding for two days and forced herself to read it.
It...was almost a relief, she thought with an odd detachment. There was nothing here she hadn’t expected, and somehow it hurt less to see the words than it had to imagine them.
Tried in absentia, convicted of treason.
So be it, then. The final line almost made her laugh, a twisted sound in the darkness: Sentence to be determined on arrival in Boralus.
In theory, it was both a threat and a bribe. It should have been a simple notice that she had been sentenced to death, with the brutally calm description of the method by which she would be executed. Sentence to be determined meant that how she arrived in Boralus would make the difference. It was intended to provide incentive for the condemned to turn themselves in—surrender and you might still be hanged; refuse and you would be.
Coming from her father, it was almost as insulting as the standard, rote Admiralty orders she’d received months ago. He had to have known they would be ignored; the recall had served no purpose other than to give teeth to the court-martial summons for “disobeying lawful orders” that had immediately followed it. And now this...petty threat.
It was the diplomatic equivalent of crackling a ruler over her knuckles. The notice might as well have included orders to send herself to bed without supper.
Go to your room, Jaina. Don’t make me come over there and get you.
Suddenly tired, Jaina glanced at her spreadsheets. She needed to find a way to free up a ship, preferably one of her escorts. It wouldn’t be fair to put evacuees in a marked ship that couldn’t defend them. It wasn’t a question of ‘if’ now; she could no more abandon Sylvanas Windrunner’s civilians than her own. Besides. Even if it wouldn’t do much good for Theramore in the short term, creating a history of sharing ship tonnage with Thrall’s Horde could pay off in the future…
Later. Later. In the morning.
She pulled a clean sheet of paper free, and jotted down a quick note. After a few minutes, however, she was forced to acknowledge that Pained might, conceivably, have had a point. Careful not to spill ink on her bedsheets, she piled the remaining paperwork beside her bed, and doused the magelight.
There'll probably be a LITTLE more of a delay between this chapter and the next one, but I'm really extremely excited and I hope you guys are still enjoying the ride.
MAN this chapter fought me hard, but I'm happy with where it ended up! More than one scene I'd intended to be in this chapter had to get moved to next week, but that's for the best, the pacing will be much better this way.
Shit's about to get real. So, for this chapter, content warnings for some canon-typical violence; nothing graphic, but there's references to a pretty brutal ongoing siege.
Jaina usually had a stress headache these days, but this went a little beyond the usual.
Slowly, carefully massaging her temples, she took a deep breath. When this failed to do any good, she took several more.
“Could you,” she said carefully, “repeat that, please.”
Her guardsman hesitated.
“They...want protection,” he said.
“Who does?” Jaina asked, all sugar. It was really unfair to shoot the messenger like this, but...well. Privileges of rank. If anything she owed the Proudmoore marines who stood behind her more than she owed anyone else on the planet, but she also knew them better.
The man slumped. “The Steamwheedle goblins,” he muttered.
“Right. That’s what I thought you said. The Steamwheedle goblins...want me to send marines for protection. For their…?”
“Dragon-hunting safari business,” the guardsman said glumly.
Jaina rubbed her face. When that didn’t quite feel sufficient, she folded her arms on her desk, buried her face in them, and began slowly beating her head against the wood.
“I know. But since they were offering a bribe I thought you should know. They said they know we’re desperate for trade options—”
“Oh, I just bet they did!”
The wretched guardman continued. “And that the Steamwheedle always remember their friends.”
“And their enemies,” Pained finished darkly. “They know how dependent we are on goblin repair yards. Now more than ever.”
It wasn’t an idle threat, though Jaina personally doubted the yard dogs would actually start turning Theramore ships away. Goblins might be culturally shameless about their bottom line and a little...pyrotechnically overzealous...but Jaina got the impression the local goblins rather liked the Theramore settlers for their pluck, creativity, and refusal to say die.
The feeling was rather mutual. Jaina sincerely doubted goblins were any more prone to greed than any other species, and distinctly less than many; her slowly growing network of adventurers generally shrugged and said they’d never been short-changed for a job by goblins, who tended to pay competitive rates. If anything, according to most of them it was refreshing to be hired by someone who bluntly acknowledged that you were being paid a modest amount to do an unpleasant job because he didn’t feel like doing it himself. And as reckless as they could be, it was hard to argue that anyone but the trade princes failed to run the same or greater risks as their underlings.
Jaina would frankly rather work with forthright, bluntly honest goblins than certain human nations she could name, and the Steamwheedle had nothing to gain by letting Theramore die even if she believed for a second they were inclined to do it. None of which meant that they wouldn’t hike up their prices if she refused to help them, probably citing “increased security costs” to rub salt in the wound.
“Can’t they call reinforcements from Gnomeregan?” she demanded. “I know their entire advertising team is gnomes.”
It was amazing, the level of cooperation possible between mortal enemies when black whelpling pelts drew seven gold apiece. The gnomes handled advertising and tourism in the Eastern Kingdoms, preserved and securely transported the goods, and lent an illusion of legitimacy and safe management to anyone who didn’t know much about gnomes. The goblins ran the actual safaris and wrote the waivers, meaning there had been seventeen deaths to date and only one successful lawsuit, in which the plaintiff still somehow ended up owing the Steamwheedle five silver.
“Apparently they tried. They haven’t heard back in three weeks. And they say the swamp water gets into their mechanicals.” He hesitated. “I told them it gets into our boots too, Lady Jaina, but they didn’t seem to care about that very much.”
“I’m shocked.” Jaina was definitely getting a headache. “They realize there will be a broodmother out there somewhere, yes?”
“They’re using one as their mascot, actually.”
Jaina moaned and put her head back down on the desk. Pained reached out and rubbed between her shoulder blades until she sat back up.
“We’re fighting a war,” she complained, then sighed. “Which is why we can’t alienate the Steamwheedle. I am not detaching marines to defend that insane venture, but tell Sharpgear and Buzzcord I won’t stop them from hiring our people, if they can get any interested. Actually, tell them I’m letting the free market decide, that should shut them up.”
“Do gnomes believe in a free market?” Pained wondered out loud. Jaina ignored her.
“No more than ten percent of our fighting force, they don’t go on the safaris themselves, and the moment we’re attacked they return to Theramore, no exceptions,” she added.
“You could tell them yourself,” the guardsman offered. “They’re waiting at the inn.”
“Were it not for your loyal and dedicated service above and beyond all reasonable call of duty,” she informed him flatly, “I would strangle you with my bare hands.”
“I really did try to stop them, ma’am.”
Jaina gave a weary sigh. “I believe you.” She pushed away from the desk and cracked her back, sharing a look with Pained. “Let’s get this over with then, Sergeant.”
It was, almost infuriatingly, a beautiful afternoon. There was a stiff breeze off the water, cutting the humidity and cooling the air; Tirisfal, acting as a bay fisher this month, was hauling in her catch for smoking. If only Lark and Silverwake would get home; they were three days overdue from Stormwind already, and everyone was getting nervous.
“Right,” she sighed. “You said the idiots were waiting at—Vol’jin!”
Even Pained’s ears twitched into surprised attention as the Darkspear chief approached them. A deeply stressed guard was a few steps ahead.
“I was—I was just about to run up and get you, Jaina,” she stammered.
“It’s absolutely fine,” Jaina assured her. Then, “I’m so sorry, if I’d known you were coming—”
Vol’jin held up a hand to stop her. “If it was important, I’d have sent word. There be no real rush, Proudmoore. Only here to wish you well.”
Jaina’s heart sank, and the smile she attempted almost certainly came off as a grimace. “You’re leaving, then?”
“Mmm.” He didn’t look any happier about it than she felt. “The Darkspear came here runnin’ from your father the first time. Now it looks like he be comin’ back. We may as well be in danger in our own homeland, an’ get out of the way if we can. Might be you stop ‘im here, Proudmoore.” A ghost of a grin. “I’d appreciate it, myself.”
Jaina’s eyes tightened with regret. “This is the second time I’ve been responsible for your people being driven from their homes. We would have defended you, if you stayed.”
A humorless smile. “You’ll be hard-pressed enough to defend your own. Those paladins you threw our way to help with the fever saved enough lives already.”
They hadn’t, really; the shamans had been controlling the disease well enough. Jaina’s paladins had only stepped in to let them rest, holding the line, trading off over the sick. “I’m...sorry, Vol’jin. I never meant for this to happen. I just...I wanted…”
Vol’jin heaved a heavy sigh. After a moment, he reached out to place an awkward hand on her shoulder.
“You tried to save who could be saved,” he said. “Don’t go bein’ ashamed of that. You’d be a poor excuse for your kind if you did any less. Thrall doesn’t blame ya, Proudmoore. Maybe I do, a little; but I know better than to think it’s fair when I do. There be no justice in holding the child responsible for the crimes of the father.”
Swallowing around an unexpected lump in her throat, Jaina asked, “Is there anything we can do?”
Vol’jin shook his head, the bright sun glinting off his tusks. “Na. Most of my people left already. Only shamans really left. We buried the last of the mining sites last night; no reason to stay longer.”
Jaina nodded, helpless. The decision to destroy their mining operations hadn’t come easily; but she’d be damned if she left them uncovered for Kul Tiras or the goblins to scavenge. They’d kept the operation up as long as they could, watching, waiting, knowing war was coming. Stormwind still refused to openly communicate with her; but Varian told Ironforge almost everything, and it was free to do as it pleased. And Sylvanas Windrunner’s spy network was becoming, frankly, a bit concerning. Thrall passed along any information he thought was relevant to Theramore, but he almost needn’t have bothered. Half the time, copies of those spy reports found their way to Jaina’s desk before he got a chance.
And they all agreed: Kul Tiras was mobilizing.
“We’ll be leavin’ a few traplayers behind,” Vol’jin continued. “Give any humans landin’ in the marsh a nasty shock. They say they’ll sent a messenger to let you know the safe path, make sure your people can hunt a bit still.”
“Thank you, Vol’jin,” Jaina said quietly. “You didn’t have to do that. We owe you.”
Again, he shook his head. “The traps be our little revenge, but we’ll not be leavin’ clear tracks to follow us home. They know their duty. No trace, at any cost.” He looked at her, unhappy, and added in an undertone, “You should think about leaving yourself, sorceress. Theramore may be a fortress, but that be an army on your heels.”
“We have a few tricks up our sleeves yet,” Jaina said, as calmly as she could manage. Then, because she was nothing if not honest, she added, “Besides. This is our home now.”
Vol’jin’s eyes tightened. “You should evacuate,” he said again, the weight of experience heavy in his voice.
As if he were offering new information. Jaina’s headache flared, and perhaps that was what pushed her irritation over the edge. “What do you expect me to do, Vol’jin?” she snapped. “Mercy kill my civilians? Even if Lark and Silverwake get back safely, we don’t have the ship tonnage anymore! My father captured Peacebloom. We lost Tiderunner entirely. Serrar is somewhere between Undercity and Orgrimmar and that will almost certainly be all that saves her. And unless you’re volunteering to take us all in at once, we have nowhere to go .”
Serrar had been intended as a temporary loan; but the Forsaken were so jumpy, so on edge, so willing to flinch toward weapons if any of the living moved toward them too quickly, that Jaina hadn’t had the heart to recall her. Whatever was going on in Lordaeron, whether Sylvanas’ undead were sincere or this was all some kind of infiltration plot by Arthas to play on their pity (and frankly, he’d never been that subtle)...they were scared. They were more scared than Jaina, and right now that took some doing.
It wasn’t as if one more war sloop was going to make any difference, in the long run.
And none of it justified her outburst against a friend who was only saying what she already knew. She pinched the bridge of her nose, so that she wouldn’t have to look at Vol’jin’s disapproval.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I know. You’re right, but we can’t leave.”
“Could go overland.” Thank the Tides, he didn’t sound angry.
“To where? A few thousand extra mouths to feed, and a pack of humans sticking around forever? That’s a hard sell even to the tauren. Assuming we didn’t all starve getting there.” She passed a hand over her eyes. “And we’d bring war with us. I won’t lead my father to anyone’s doorstep, even if anyone was willing to offer. Especially then.”
“Mmm. I can’t say I don’t understand that, Proudmoore. Don’t die for it.”
She gave a weak smile. “We’ll try.”
“Send a ship when it’s over. We’ll be lookin’ forward to trade with you again.” It was a pointless request; when this was over, Theramore would no longer exist. They both knew it. But the tilt of Vol’jin’s head was respectful, and his grip when Jaina clasped arms with him was hard and fierce. After a moment, he gave a wry kind of smile behind the long tusks. “You believed in this little port once. It may be you weren’t wrong to.”
Jaina’s hand tightened on his wrist. This time her smile came a little more naturally, and she was opening her mouth to respond when the bells began.
She whipped around, so sudden that Vol’jin barely managed to release her and his nails caught on the underside of her arm. Jaina didn’t notice.
This wasn’t the standard three bells from the lighthouse to announce the arrival of a ship in the bay. Their watchpost rang wildly, without pause or rhythm; and despite the clear, bright day, the lamp had begun to flash as well. Along the walls, shouting rose up. It was tense, but clear and unpanicked; and through her fear Jaina felt a fierce, almost violent pride in her people. They had rehearsed this. They had drilled this. Jaina herself had created an illusory Kul Tiran warship on the horizon a week previously, and warned no one but Pained ahead of time.
She raised a hand to teleport onto the walls, but didn’t get the chance. The lighthouse keepers kept signal flags on hand, and within moments a sentry called the report down to her.
“Stormdance, ma’am! She’s flying signal flags. Lighthouse report says— ‘Invasion Imminent’.”
Jaina’s blood ran cold. Stormdance had been sent out scouting only a little over a week ago. Accounting for the fact that she could move faster than the Kul Tiran fleet, which had to wait on its capital ships, that still…
“No more than three days out,” she said, hearing her voice like a stranger’s. “Vol’jin, if your people are leaving…”
“Already gone, mon,” he murmured. “I be the last of them.”
“Good.” Her mind raced, trying to think—who did she still have afield, who was vulnerable, how many of her people needed to be brought behind stone walls before the world ended? “We have to assume we’ve lost Silverwake, and Lark wouldn’t abandon her unless she really had no choice...Sergeant?”
Her loyal guardsman, almost forgotten, jumped and came to attention. “Ma’am?”
“I have a new offer for the safari staff. Themselves and anything they can carry to the docks by sundown, free passage to Storm—no. Orgrimmar, they can get to Stormwind through Booty Bay.”
The man tried and failed to hide his wince. “Is it as bad as all that, though, Jaina?”
“This is a shooting war,” she answered, feeling his revulsion at even that loose association with pirates and forcing it down. “We can’t run to Stormwind anymore. I realize the irony, but I’d rather play it safe. Especially with other people’s lives...regardless of how difficult they’ve made mine.”
Despite the seriousness of the situation, she couldn’t quite keep the exasperation out of her voice, and he grinned. Pained just coughed suspiciously into the back of her hand.
The harbor, for the first time since they’d landed at Theramore, was empty.
It had to be. Of the ships Jaina had left, only Lady Blackwater was armed; Stormdance as well, technically, but her armament consisted of slingshots and potato guns compared to a ship of the line. A handful of unarmed merchies and two sloops would serve no purpose in defending Theramore against the Kul Tiran navy; the moment Jaina’s marines had bullied a gang of goblins and gnomes onto Tirisfal, she’d cleared the harbor.
Or at least she’d tried to. Unfortunately, that would have involved the evacuation of the ships’ crews and anyone who was willing to flee with them, and there hadn’t been any. The sailors themselves had gone into open revolt at the idea of running on the eve of battle, calmly and efficiently unloading cannons and hauling them up to the battlements even as Jaina stood in the center of the operation loudly informing them that this was the exact opposite of what she had explicitly ordered.
Eventually, she had managed to convince them to at least sail the damn ships around behind the city and beach them to make them less tempting targets for her father. The only ship still floating was Stormdance, and she’d be running herself aground any minute now as well.
The tension on the walls was palpable. It lingered in the air, almost a taste.
They’d been watching green sails approach for an hour.
“They sure be taking their time, hey mon?” murmured a nearby Darkspear shaman.
Vol’jin’s trap layers had, indeed, lingered behind the departing tribe to cover their tracks. It was a modestly-sized group, consisting almost entirely of hunters and shamans and a few trolls whose nature-based magic reminded her of the whispers about Thornspeakers. It was fascinating, and Jaina wished she had more time to interrogate the strange “druid” casters.
They insisted they’d had no choice but to start at the marsh’s northern border and work their way backwards along the trail, painting themselves into a corner against Theramore’s gates. It was, they said, the only way to be certain they got every trace.
It was probably the truth, by a technicality; but Jaina also knew that such a rearguard position was volunteer-only, that there was a determined, defiant set to their shoulders as they’d waved to be let in the day before, and that each and every one of these trolls had made at least a single close friend among the human defenders in their time here.
Pained made a noise in her throat, jerking her chin toward the armada. “They know we can’t run. Psychological warfare. They have nothing to lose by letting the tension build.”
Unfortunately, it was working. Jaina took a deep breath.
“Well,” she said, forcing lightness into her voice. “If they’re going to take their sweet time about it...tea, anyone? Captain Wymor?”
The blonde captain gave a dark chuckle. “I’ll pass, Lady Jaina.”
“I don’t suppose you’ll be offended if I have some? Stand down a bit, everyone. No use wearing ourselves out just standing around.”
No one really relaxed, per se. But a few of them sat down, or leaned against the walls. The image of Jaina perched on the battlements, casually using magic to heat a kettle and taking her sweet time dipping a summoned mana biscuit into her tea, got a few laughs. She’d learned this much, at least; if her people saw her tense, they would be afraid as well. The mocking ritual of calm, even as they knew it was a facade, cut through the tension like opening a window to a dusty room. It didn’t make the problem go away; but they could breathe now.
If she was very lucky, someone on the flagship would have a magically-enhanced spyglass turned her way. She wanted her father angry, for more reasons than one.
She wanted him to make mistakes.
Even Jaina’s thin pretense at being unconcerned had vanished now. She stood on the Eastern wall, one hand resting on a ballista, watching the screening ships begin to move into the bay. For the eighth time in the past minute, she glanced to her right to check the runes on the ballista bolt. They’d been prepping those magebolts for weeks, carefully carving the symbols and marking them with enchanted ink so that they would glow faintly in the dark.
The cannons pulled from their poor, pitiful fleet were frantically undergoing the same process even as Theramore waited. Jaina had drilled Theoden Manners and Marie Holdston until they could replicate the runes as precisely as Dalaran engineers; frankly it hadn’t taken very long, Jaina’s people were good.
If they could survive this initial assault…
Jaina placed a finger on the magebolt, charging it. The runes weren’t enough to hold their own power for more than a handful of minutes, not without reagents they simply couldn’t afford to use on something designed to be launched off a wall and shatter on impact. They would amplify and focus a caster’s power; but they would still need a mage on the other end of the spell.
“All the same to me, ma’am,” the guard said quietly. “I’d just as soon let ‘em come as waste the ammunition.”
Jaina dared to take her eyes from the lead ship long enough to give him a firm look.
“They get a warning shot,” she informed him. “We’re better than that.”
The man had the decency to look chastened, and Jaina’s jaw tightened as the first war sloop passed the invisible line she’d drawn for herself.
“Ready,” she said calmly. The ballista made a deadly soft noise as the safeties were disengaged, echoing in a ripple along the walls. Jaina placed her fingers together, took a breath, and exhaled, drawing them apart with a surge of arcane energy to open a portal directly in front of the war engine. The hole in reality rippled with refracted sunlight through waves; but Jaina would be a poor mage and even more of a disgrace to Kul Tiras than she already was, if she forgot things like fluid barriers on her portals. “Fire.”
The portal snapped shut behind the enchanted bolt. The portal-aiming was an exhaustive drain on mana in a pitched battle; far-flying runs on the rest of the ballista bolts were ten times as efficient. But a warning shot had to be aimed perfectly, and it was worth the exertion just once.
The instant the bolt flew free a resounding CRACK shattered the silence, and shouting rose from the Kul Tiran armada.
With absolutely no distance to travel, the ballista bolt, striking just below the waterline, should have shattered the lead vessel’s hull; but the sharp tip had been removed, and it bore only a line of runes, almost perfectly spaced. Almost far enough apart that the release of energy from each rune wouldn’t interfere with its brethren.
Jaina was nothing if not precise.
The frost novas tripped over one another, arcane energies tearing into neighboring spells and shredding their containment, scattering mana in predictable fractal patterns. It was an icy cascade, the reaction spiralling out of control twenty times more powerfully than the amount of energy Jaina had poured into the bolt could ever have managed on its own. The lead ship lurched, hull groaning, something snapping as the ice caught it fast; and the effect spread like ink on wet paper, racing across the bay, snaring two more ships before the brief manastorm abated.
The ships were still under sail, though men raced into the riggings to try to mitigate the damage; the wind was still behind the screening ships, grinding them against the ice. The vessels behind them were forced to twist and lose the wind, or, when there was no room to alter course, driven forward and into their fellows.
For a moment the ice barrier held. Jaina glanced down, watching as the water receded under the docks, waiting for the blow. It came seconds later, a single unnatural swell, neither a ripple nor a wave; a wall of water laced with the magic of a Tidesage raced from behind the fleet, ships bobbing faintly on the rise until it slammed into the ice.
The ice trap was only a chained frost nova spell. It shattered in the face of Tidesage magic, the wave racing ahead of the liberated warships. The Darkspear shamans tensed, letting it come; the docks splintered loudly under the onslaught, but the miniature tsunami broke against the rocks and did no further damage.
“Well,” Pained said flatly. “You warned them.”
Jaina gave a jerky nod as the fleet screen reorganized itself and continued into the bay. If she raised her spyglass now, she’d be able to read the names of the approaching ships. Her fingers clenched around the cold metal; in a moment of sick cowardice, she left the spyglass at her side. She couldn’t bear to know.
The first of the screening sloops entered the minefield.
As a rule, Jaina trusted goblin technology less than she trusted gnomish technology, which took some doing. Explosives, however, were something for which they could emphatically be relied upon. When it became obvious that open war was inevitable, Thrall had been only too willing to pay Serrar ’s charter fee in Steamwheedle subsidies. Given free rein and having apparently always possessed a deep-rooted urge to mine the entire ocean floor and see what happened, the goblins had been...generous. Generous and creative. A single, twisting route in and out of the bay had been left open; but Stormdance had taken a final shipment of mines out just yesterday to close it.
The explosion made Jaina jump; the second, moments later as fire found the powder magazines, was earth-shattering. One moment there was a Kul Tiran sloop inching toward them; the next, she was an inferno.
Her sisters tried to check themselves; but it was too late. Two more explosions rocked the trees, two more ships in flames; and now, the Tidesages had time to respond. Water swelled to douse the fires—
Pitiless, grim-faced, the Darkspear shamans stepped forward and hauled the waves back into line. A second faction gripped totems, focusing their power, and the wind began to turn. Sparks were blown back toward the fleet; ships thrown into irons were left adrift.
The elemental battle raged, visible to the naked eye even without Jaina’s well-honed instincts for a magical duel. Flames were fanned to angry, leaping heights, half-snuffed in an instant, then came roaring back like the fury of a dragon as shaman and Tidesage fought. The wind was impossible to track from moment to moment, flags whiplashing from side to side.
The Darkspear pushed, waves carrying the burning ships back toward their fellows; the Tidesages shoved back, duelling like bull bison, raw power flung behind body blows.
For a moment, just a moment, Theramore held the advantage. The shamans’ fight for mastery of the waters was futile; they were skilled and well-rounded, but a Tidesage studied the sea and nothing else, and would almost always win out over any shaman less specialized. But they had more elements at their command, more flexibility—and unlike the Kul Tiran fleet, tossed by the angry bay and buffeted between changing winds like orcas toyed with prey, the Darkspear stood on solid ground behind stone walls.
Jaina’s order was cold. “Now.”
This time, the ballistae were not offering warning shots.
Far-flight glyphs activated just at the edge of the mages’ range, launching the bolts far afield. Jaina had taken the idea from second-stage goblin rockets; sure enough, three of the first volley exploded over the bay.
The rest struck true. Some were standard, non-magical bolts, dealing purely ballistic damage, and that was quite good enough. Sails shredded, hulls splintered; and the magebolts did much more.
Some bore the cascade frost nova spells; others split on impact into a flurry of razor-sharp ice splinters, or burst into a pillar of enchanted flame. A few shot rapid-fire polymorph spells in flight, honing in on targets every second until the bolt was destroyed against a ship’s hull.
Jaina had been rather proud of that one.
It was chaos. The screening units carried no artillery capable of hitting the walls at this distance, and with every ship they damaged or disabled, the entrance to the bay grew clogged and more treacherous to navigate. Ideally, they would fill the gaps completely, trapping the bulk of the fleet on the open water behind the corpses of its brethren.
They wouldn’t get their ideal, of course; but a girl could dream.
The second ballista volley was more coordinated. This time there were no midair failures; the guiding mages were learning the limits of their ammunition, no excess power poured down the connection in a moment of nerves just before the bolt whistled out of range. By now the Kul Tiran fleet had managed to check its advance. A single ship, bearing light damage and trailing ice but its Tidesage having successfully snuffed the fire bolt, tried to forge past its dying sisters, testing the minefield. Twin explosions later, the rest of the fleet made no move to follow.
“Hold,” Jaina ordered, before they could send off a third volley.
Everything went quiet.
Jaina felt the impact of crashing magic in her bones.
Sometimes people failed to understand just how much power was contained in a water elemental. Even a small summon was easily hundreds of pounds just as dead weight; the behemoths it took to defend a city massed in the hundreds of tons, and that was without factoring in the power of inertia and momentum.
One of her elementals staggered, pinned between two Tidesage summons; Jaina tried and failed to hold it, but the combined magical power of the two elementals swamped her hold, and she dismissed the creature before it could be truly destroyed.
For a moment her vision swam. Ignoring the bout of vertigo, she re-cast the summon spell, and another elemental surged up in a wave of whitewater and fury.
Jaina tried to take comfort in the fact that in a week and a half, Kul Tiras had yet to breach the walls. It wasn’t enough.
The minefield had stalled the fleet, not stopped it. Theramore could claim first blood, but no one would care about that except the history books, which tended to be written by the survivors. By sundown on the first day, the fleet had already redeployed around the back of Alcaz Island. Mere hours after dark, they had begun to hear the low, muffled sound of mines exploding under immense water pressure.
Elementals, deployed as scouts, triggering and smothering the mines one by one.
Jaina, who had just barely conceded to Pained’s insistence that she be well-rested for a morning attack, hadn’t even bothered leaping out of bed in a panic; she’d teleported directly to the walls in her nightgown, already halfway through an elemental summoning spell.
The minefield had to stand. If the fleet was allowed carte blanche to maneuver its capital ships, if they actually allowed the Kul Tiran armada to form a line of battle —
She shivered at the thought. After several long moments, she realized that wasn’t the reason she was shaking.
“I’m fine, Pained.” It took a few tries, but she managed to fumble open the pouch at her hip and choke down a mana pastry. It was cheap energy; but it would keep her on her feet and steady her flagging arcane reserves.
The kaldorei wasn’t having it. “When was the last time you ate? Real food?”
It had been...well, she’d eaten, probably, at some point. Surely. She must have.
The battle of elementals had been raging on and off since it began, rotating mages in and out to make sure nobody dropped dead on the walls. They had slowed the advance, but they couldn’t stop it entirely; every time a section of minefield was cleared, the Kul Tiran ships would inch forward. They weren’t playing around with screening sloops either, now; the shallower draft of the bay kept the first-rate ships further out, but third- and second-rate frigates were more than capable of pressing close enough to bring their artillery into range.
Jaina was grateful—and made sure her people knew it—that they’d hauled all those extra cannons off the Theramore ships to reinforce the walls. It was only thanks to the truly ridiculous weight of metal the extra guns allowed them to throw per volley that Theramore had walls left at all. That, and the countless elementals that had sacrificed themselves for the defenders, surging up to meet Tidesage-enchanted cannonballs in midair and kill their momentum.
There just weren’t enough defenders. They couldn’t be everywhere. They didn’t have the relief officers, and there was no mobility to speak of. And, now that Kul Tiras had landed marines, Theramore was well and truly cut off from resupply.
All those light screening sloops had been left with nothing better to do, after all. Unable to make headway on the water, the lighter units had been sent—and, in enough cases to make Jaina’s heart ache, sacrificed—on other missions. A few they had seen leave, presumably to scout along the coast; others had continued testing the minefield, now protected by Tidesage elementals. Jaina had done her best to take those elementals out; but the sloops trying to find the extent of the southern mines had been supported by a crushing, vicious assault from the majority of the fleet to the North that had required all of her attention. She’d had to trust the southern batteries to harry the handful of sloops.
Eventually, inevitably, Kul Tiras had found the boundaries of her minefield. They had colored buoys laid out now, infuriatingly, and they’d put their sloops and longboats to work landing troops on the shore.
At first that had been of little enough concern. Theramore had serious artillery batteries dedicated to its land approaches; no charge would survive past ballista range, and Kul Tiras’ strength came from the sea. The Darkspear were well out of harm’s way; there was no one the marines could hurt except themselves, slogging around in the marsh like fools.
Then, they’d found Vol’jin’s traps.
The handful of Darkspear defenders had been solemn when sentries on the walls reported the first of the marines entering the treeline; a few had murmured prayers to the spirits of their people. Jaina had assumed they were praying for victory, for good luck.
One of the shamans had shaken his head when she asked.
“Forgiveness,” he said quietly.
Slowly, one by one, the screams had started.
Some, mercifully, cut off quickly; every so often they simply heard distant cursing, and one of the nature-specialization mages would give a low chuckle—they called themselves druids, though they seemed far more ethereal and more like dedicated casters than most of the kaldorei druids Jaina had met. Most frequently the Kul Tirans’ misery had nothing to do with traps at all, and screams would mix with the indignant roaring of an irritated crocolisk.
But far too often, when a trap triggered, the screaming wouldn’t stop. Not until, with sickening suddenness and the crack of a rifle, it became obvious that someone in the squadron had put a brother out of his misery.
The dark, killing rage stoked by navigating that treacherous marsh was palpable, as if the hatred could reach out and choke them all. Within nine days of landing, the marines burned Jaina’s grounded ships.
They should have known better. They should have learned from the sacrifice of Jaina’s eyes and ears in the lighthouse. During the initial fleet redeployment, a pair of sloops and their Marine detachments had moved to capture the tower; her determined guardsmen, Proudmoore marines themselves, had barricaded themselves in and spent their final hours signalling crucial intel. Enemy numbers, ship names, deployment patterns. They’d aimed the lighthouse spotlight with intent, spoiling attempts to land rowboats under cover of darkness; then, as the fleet began complicated maneuvers, they’d doused the lamp entirely only to light it again at random intervals and with viciously accurate aim, blinding the fleet. A few ships had run aground, and more had been damaged.
When the Admiralty marines finally forced their way in and slaughtered Jaina’s men, they’d tried to capture the lighthouse itself and light the lamp for their own purposes. The oil had ignited willingly. Moments later, so had the fuse of a goblin bomb sealed beneath the deck in a storage closet.
Stormdance and Boundless also burned, igniting stores of black powder hidden beneath smugglers’ panels that the gloating marine contingents clustered around them hadn’t bothered looking for. Lady Blackwater was already dead. When the Tidesages had tried to pull her from the beach and reclaim her for Kul Tiras, the southern ballistae had switched to flamestrike bolts and burned her themselves. She had served them too well to give her anything less.
In the days after the marines first landed, Theramore had still been able to feed itself without touching its preserved rations. Not easily, not without risks; but their hunters knew Dustwallow, and unlike Admiralty marines, they were quiet and light-footed, wore no heavy armor, hauled no horses with them.
Jaina had put a hard moratorium on anyone leaving the city two weeks ago. The marines had learned their tactics. An entire group of hunters save one wild-eyed troll had failed to return, and—
Maybe it was better not to know what the furious, vengeful Kul Tiran force had done to them. Maybe it was better not to know what could make a person scream that way.
“I’m fine, Pained.” Trying to get away from her, Jaina made a sharp left turn and was too proud to go back when she realized where she was going, storming out into the black, pouring rain without breaking stride. Within seconds she was soaked to the skin, but she managed not to slip on the wet cobblestones as water ran downhill toward the docks like a river, saturating her shoes almost to the ankles.
“You need to eat and sleep, my lady—”
“I said I’m fine.”
“I was not suggesting it this time!”
“Keep your voice down,” Jaina hissed. When Pained’s ears pinned back, she winced and tried to modulate her tone. She knew her bodyguard was right, and if she were less tired and better fed she wouldn’t be nearly so irritable about being reminded of the fact. “I couldn’t sleep if I tried, so I may as well give someone else a chance. And we don’t have enough food as it is.”
Apparently, Jaina was no better at keeping her voice down than Pained, because a man tending a spluttering fire under a stretch of waterproofed canvas looked up sharply.
She winced and forced a smile, holding up a hand to reassure him. We’ll be fine, we’ll have to tighten our belts a bit but we’ve done that before…
“We got enough to make sure our strongest mage don’t drop dead, Jaina,” he said, reproachfully. “With respect, milady, get your ass inside and eat, we can’t afford to lose you.”
Pained smirked. Jaina pinched her side vindictively and allowed herself to be prodded under the awning by a swarm of wet Lordaeron natives who’d appeared out of the rain like summoned elementals.
“Or a plague of locusts,” one woman commented cheerfully when Jaina made the comparison out loud. She shoved a bowl of stew into Jaina’s hands. Outnumbered, Jaina sat on an upturned crate and tried to eat her crocolisk with dignity.
She gave a very undignified moan at the first bite, and immediately threw dignity out the window. At least, to her people’s credit, the laughter was soft and affectionate.
Jaina had last eaten real food...tides, she didn’t want to think about it. She’d fallen into the trap of too many mages, over the years. Conjured food was so convincing. It required no cooking time, no use of resources. It would ease the sensation of hunger, restore tapped-out mana, steady trembling limbs with an infusion of instant energy. And with Theramore’s stores beginning to run out, it was so tempting to wave off meals with the honest reassurance that she wasn’t hungry.
But conjured food was a lie. It would give energy, yes; but it was only energy. There were no nutrients or actual calories in it, because it wasn’t food. She wasn’t really summoning something made of sugar and butter and oil; she was creating a complicated arcane matrix coated with an illusion, to cleverly imitate those things. Inside, her body was malnourished and dying of starvation.
“Better?” Pained asked softly, and Jaina felt a pang of guilt for brushing her off. Coming up for air, she reached out a shaking hand and squeezed her friend’s arm.
“Much. Thank you.”
A mostly-dry loaf of bread was produced from someone’s pocket, and this time Jaina was not churlish enough to turn down the generosity.
“You know,” one of the group pointed out. “In a way it’s a good sign, ain’t it?”
“Mmm?” said Jaina, mopping stew from the side of her bowl with a bit of torn bread.
“That supplies are gettin’ a bit tight. Almost two months now, and no resupply, no hunting...Just having to tighten our belts now, we could’a done a lot worse for ourselves.”
A dark-haired man grinned and jerked a thumb over his shoulder, at the monsoon. “No risk of the wells running dry anytime soon, aye?”
That brought out some laughter, and a woman holding a very large mace sat forward, expression thoughtful. “I think it is a good sign,” she said slowly. “Almost two months...no wonder we’re starting to look sideways at our food stores. We never figured on holding out this long.”
That observation cheered the group. There was a chorus of agreement, along with a few derisive comments on the might of the Kul Tiran navy. In a rush of emotion that warmed Jaina’s heart and twisted it ruthlessly in her chest at the same moment, some of those insults came from Proudmoore marines.
Theramore marines, she thought to herself. They were all children of Theramore now.
Black smoke and the harsh smell of blood filled the air.
Eyes watering, Jaina pulled her robes over her face, trying to take deep breaths. The taste of sulfur was thick in her mouth, stinging at the back of her throat; very much the least of her problems, but distracting, and she couldn’t afford to be distracted.
Her captain signalled the northern cannoneers. “Fire at will!”
“Belay that!” Jaina blinked the twenty feet to his side. “Cancel that order, captain! Volley strength is the only advantage we have!”
“I know, Lady Jaina,” he answered, distressed. “And our people are good, but we can’t coordinate volleys like a Kul Tiran warship, ma’am. We just can’t, they’re better than us. They’re gaining ground and they know our patterns, we need speed as well as—”
As if to make his point, an earsplitting thunder of cannons split the air yet again, men and women cringing as a chunk of whistling masonry was torn from the wall. This time, this time, it struck only the opposite wall and did no further damage. Jaina forced herself not to look at the terribly still figure crushed beneath a portion of collapsed ceiling from earlier in the morning, or the blood surrounding it.
She had no answer to the problem, but she didn’t need one. The gunnery chief was thinking at the speed of light, and nodded to himself. “Random intervals. Four volleys, then a minute and a half of at-will fire, then three coordinated volleys, then back to—do you understand? Keep them guessing.”
“They can’t adapt to a plan if we don’t know what we’re doing either?”
Jaina threw her hands in the air . “Well it’s better than anything I have!”
“Thank you, ma’am!” He grinned, black hair long and wild around his face, and the next Kul Tiran volley tore through the wall and sent a cannonball through his spine.
Pointlessly, Jaina went to her knees beside what was left of him; but there wasn’t time to mourn. Almost before his blood had time to stain her robes Jaina was pulled to her feet by a young woman with wild, mouse-brown hair. The soot-stained badge at an angle on her left shoulder marked her as the next in command.
“I heard him, Jaina,” she said with determined calm. “We need you back on the walls. Ready! One last shot and back to volley!”
Jaina squeezed her eyes shut, trying to clear the smoke and grief, then opened them and set her shoulders.
“Pick your targets, people!” she called, and teleported away.
They couldn’t keep going like this.
The Tidesages had finally cleared enough of the mines from the eastern portion of the harbor to allow first-raters into gunnery range. Other capital ships ranged to the north. Tidefury Cove and the inland portions of Dustwallow were shipkillers, so Theramore was at least mostly safe to the south; they’d transferred half their cannon and most of their ballistae to the northeast walls in a desperate attempt to hold the armada at standoff range.
It was carnage, in both directions. A large portion of the northwestern wall was rubble, leaving a gaping wound in Theramore’s side; thus far, the armada had failed to get anything or anyone close enough to storm the gap. A group of marines from the marsh had made a charge, but between the land-facing artillery and Jaina’s paladins, none had survived more than ten feet past the wall. Most of the Kul Tiran screening ships were either dead, or had pulled back well past Alcaz for safety. Theramore had lost several guard towers, a portion of the top floor of Foothold Keep, and several ballistae; but the Navy was taking its lumps as well, in greater number.
The problem was, the Navy could afford it.
Over the past three months the fleet had received reinforcements once, and resupply twice. Their forces were angry—angrier every day that trapped them here, in this humid climate far from home with no shore leave, what should have been a swift victory dragged out into a long, humiliatingly two-sided campaign. But they were sleeping. They had reliable meals. In theory, if combat dragged out too long, they had the possibility of being sent home and replaced with fresher sailors.
It wasn’t just food that Theramore was rapidly running out of anymore, either. With every hard iron bolt they sent whistling off the walls, their reserves plummeted. Their blacksmiths had to make repairs—but with what? Magic could send cannonballs flying when gunpowder ran scarce, but it was more draining than portals to pull off; and the cannonballs themselves would not last forever.
Food, however, they could scimp on—to an extent. Despite the dread in her heart at what they risked by doing it, Jaina had long since started supplementing rations with mana bread. It courted mage sickness on a mass scale, but it would help hungry soldiers sleep. It would let them cut back to two meals a day, without being distracted by weakness or hunger pains.
There had been a close enough call, weeks back. In the wake of a particularly brutal engagement, a Tidesage curse had somehow gotten past Jaina’s layers of wards as well as the watchful Darkspear shamans. They’d woken to find their wells turned to seawater overnight; with Kul Tiran soldiers stalking the trees, setting up emergency distillation was simply not an option.
The Navy had pressed the advantage, throwing everything they had at the walls; they’d burned almost all of their incendiary ammunition as well, filling the air with heat and smoke that coated the defenders’ mouths, making them sweat.
It was as insulting as it was petty. Jaina was a frost mage. Did they think she couldn’t counter a bit of fire?
Within hours, Theramore’s magical purification systems had almost caught up to the demand of thirsty soldiers, with noncombatants rolling up their sleeves to run waterskins between exhausted defenders. Within a day, the shamans had performed a ritual to cleanse the wells entirely and return them to their natural state; within less than forty-eight hours they managed to reverse-engineer the curse, and unleashed it on the fleet.
The Tidesages had also cleansed their freshwater supplies within a manner of hours, according to those trolls capable of sensing such a thing; but the point had been made, and there had been no second attempt.
It was a chilling, terrified realization—how much they owed the Darkspear. Without Vol’jin’s volunteers, that single blow might well have been fatal. Jaina wanted to think that their purifiers, and a bit of arcane cleverness, might have been enough; but enough in time, she couldn’t say for certain. If nothing else, it would have been a grim, ugly fight.
None of the Darkspear bothered anymore with the pretense that their presence was anything but intentional. The only thing a handful still denied was that they wanted anything but a chance at vengeance against the Admiral, for the harm he had done their people. That much, at least, Jaina respected them too much not to believe. Defending Theramore was a doomed venture from the start, and for all their tentative friendships, the Darkspear owed her group of humans nothing. Daelin Proudmoore, however, they owed a great deal.
Jaina flinched back from the thought. She’d managed so well, over the past three months. Speaking of Kul Tiras, of the Navy; in a pinch, of the Admiralty, if she had no choice. Never a name, not even of the flagship.
She’d come so close, to being able to forget that the enemy commander less than a quarter mile offshore was her father.
Cannons roared beneath her feet. Setting her jaw, Jaina reached out to pour mana into a line of flamestrike ballista bolts, and prepared to watch Kul Tiran sails burn.
It was a sign of how bad things had gotten that Pained wasn’t telling her to eat.
The kaldorei set a cup of tea next to Jaina’s elbow, hesitated, rested a hand between her shoulder blades. Jaina managed to glance in her general direction and nod before her eyes dragged back to the bookkeeping.
Maybe, she thought dully, if she stared at the numbers long enough, they would turn into something else.
Pained’s voice was soft. “How bad is it, my lady?”
Jaina swallowed. “Bad.”
Her stomach snarled. Almost against her will, her eyes dragged to the long line of zeroes that was beginning to take over her resource manifest in the foodstuffs category. She resolved to ignore it.
She took a deep breath. “Bad enough that I’m...considering sending hunters out again. Or rather—no. I’m considering lifting the ban on hunting. Volunteers only. I won’t order anyone into that kind of danger, and I won’t ask for volunteers, either.”
Pained watched her. “If you asked them to go,” she said slowly, “They would do it. Even a few of the Darkspear.”
“I know.” Not for the same reasons, no. The Darkspear would go because they knew how to move in jungles, because they wanted a chance to lay more traps, because they would rather die testing skill on skill in the marsh than trapped like rats behind human walls. But the citizens of Theramore would go because Jaina had asked them, and she couldn’t take advantage of their loyalty that way.
They had, at absolute best, two weeks. It would be a lean, hungry two weeks, but they could stretch their supplies that long. And yet it would be so easy. They couldn’t use land routes anymore, not with Kul Tiran marines watching them; but she could open a portal to the old Darkspear camp, promise to check for them at regular intervals to pick them back up again. It was so tempting, the chance of a meal for her people that wasn’t crocolisk jerky…
Jaina shook her head. “There’s no possible way they could catch enough to feed everyone, not if they had to spend ninety percent of their time trying not to be caught. It’s too much risk for almost no reward at all.”
“Some would say that’s their choice to make.”
“Others would say it’s the job of a leader to keep her people from dying needlessly. It doesn’t matter if we run out of food in two weeks anyway, Pained. We’ll have to surrender in three days.”
Pained went very still. “Will we?”
Jaina rested a hand on the spreadsheet. “We’re officially out of lumber strong enough to use to repair or replace ballistae, unless we want to start physically dismantling half the city to tear out support beams. We’ve been using magebolts without heads for the past four days because we no longer have metal of high enough quality to forge them. We have...ten barrels of gunpowder left, for the entire city. We’re close to melting down frying pans to replace cannonballs at this point, and sooner or later we’ll run out of those.”
Pained’s hand on her back was the only thing holding her steady. “What are you thinking?”
Jaina gave a short, choked laugh. “What’s to think? We have to surrender. We don’t have a choice. The only question is whether we literally fight until we’ve used the last of our ammunition, first. I’ll...I’ll have to speak to them, in the morning. We’ll vote. It’s only...right.”
Pained made a soft sound, almost a laugh if there had been any humor in it. “I know what they’ll say. I imagine most of them won’t want to surrender at all.”
Jaina shuddered, and a brief squeeze to her shoulder apologized for pointing that out. But she couldn’t deny it.
“I imagine they will. I can’t let them do that.”
Pained sighed, slowly rubbing her back. “Better to die than be killed, my lady. Your father will see us all hanged if we surrender. I would sooner die with steel in hand and make the bastards work for it.”
That was the real issue. Jaina buried her face in her hands. She had to surrender and try to spare her people; and she couldn’t afford to do it. Kul Tiras had tasted blood, and Theramore had defied and humiliated them for too long. If Jaina opened her gates to the Navy, to the Marines, she had no confidence that what followed would be anything short of a sack.
She didn’t even know if her father would try to restrain them.
It was a cruel thought. It curdled in her gut, rancid like poison, but she couldn’t unthink it. She had to know her father would never allow the rampant slaughter of innocents, of Jaina’s noncombatants and children, of course she knew that…
Did her father believe there was such a thing as an innocent in Theramore?
Jaina, in her heart of hearts, did not believe her father would allow a bloodbath against forces that surrendered. But she had stood at the gates of Stratholme and asked herself this question once— Would he really do it? Could he? Was he even capable of such an atrocity? —and she knew that whether she thought the answer was “yes” was irrelevant.
What mattered was this: she could not say, with absolute certainty, that the answer was no.
“I suppose,” she said finally, “I could evacuate our noncombatants to Orgrimmar. If the alternative is abject slaughter.” It wouldn’t solve anything; all of the impossible obstacles she’d once shouted at Vol’jin still stood in their way. But scattering to the winds would be better than...and perhaps Varian would take them in after all, if their number consisted solely of noncombatants, if the armed defenders allowed themselves to be taken into custody…
Taken into custody to be hanged en masse, as traitors to a nation only a handful of them had ever seen. They had survived so much, escaped Lordaeron against all odds...some might still have family, searching, hoping against hope that they were among the lucky few thousand…
Mass execution or mass slaughter.
She hadn’t meant for this to—
“Jaina.” Pained made an abortive gesture, reaching out and then pulling her hands back like she’d been burned. “Jaina, are you—”
Jaina realized she was shaking, her breath doing something harsh and shallow in her lungs that wasn’t, quite, crying. Choking, she wiped hot tears from the corners of her eyes. “I’m fine, I…”
She wasn’t entirely certain how it happened, only that somehow Pained’s hand under her elbow turned into Jaina’s face buried against her neck, trembling too hard to sob.
“I was—I was trying to— save them, I, I only wanted—”
“I know,” Pained whispered, hands gentle at her back. “This is not your fault.”
“They’re all going to die, Pained—”
There was nothing anyone could say that would bring comfort here, and Pained didn’t try. One hand came up to cradle Jaina’s head as she was held close, and that was all there was time for before cannonfire shattered the night.
She gave a low, despairing moan, tightening her grip on her bodyguard’s collar. If there was a night attack, Jaina had to respond to it. But she was tired, so tired, so sick of blood and hatred, and she found she couldn’t move even as whistles and shouting rose from the southern wall.
And then, she heard bells from the guard towers.
Two quick, paired rings of a watch bell— Friendly Ship Approaching.
It took a moment for the signal to sink in, and Jaina frowned into Pained’s chest before abruptly holding her at arm’s length, bewildered. The watchtower rang out again, the same cheerful welcome even as she heard the ballistae start to fire.
“...What?” Jaina managed, before teleporting directly to the southwest tower.
The chaos was less than she’d feared, simply due to geography. The flurry of activity was centered around the dregs of Dustwallow Bay, and there were no capital ships here, barely a handful of brigantines just for the principle of the thing. Kul Tiras didn’t put its real firepower anywhere near the gauntlet of sharp rocks and shallow islands in this part of the bay, especially not after the Darkspear shamans had pulled off a powerful windstorm and dragged three ships by force into the breach. They hadn’t needed to destroy the vessels; after the better part of a week trapped within that labyrinth, one ship had been damaged past repair by an incoming tide and the other two abandoned in the dead of night.
Which rather raised the question of what in the hell the single Kul Tiran ship able to get the range thought it was shooting at…
“Will someone,” she began, “please explain to me—”
“Not now!” the senior watchman interrupted, frantically waving her off. “Someone get down there and open the watchtower entry, quick! They’ve got injured, the crazy bastards!”
Jaina blinked. In the brief visibility brought by a Kul Tiran muzzle flare, she had seen movement on the nearest island, a conveniently large, flat piece of bare rock. A cluster of profiles and a kodo beast, though how they’d gotten there and what they were doing…
Without warning, the moon flared searing white. Jaina winced and ducked her head, wondering what the druidic casters were thinking; but while the brightness might have hurt her eyes briefly, the shouting and curses from the Kul Tiran ship spoke of far greater pain. It was like the enchanted moonlight was burning them, and even the rate of cannonfire stuttered and died down.
The sudden illumination also made clear what was going on in the mouth of the bay.
What had looked like black water was actually a rough pontoon bridge, empty explosives barrels strapped together and covered with boards, not quite laid in place between the island and the walls of Theramore. Whoever the hurried figures down there were, they’d apparently only had time to construct one such bridge; a few still stood on the opposite shore, being ferried back and forth by a frantic goblin on a raft.
The goblin, the angle of approach, and the presence of a kodo at least suggested they weren’t Kul Tiran, but…and Jaina’s heart wrenched as she realized the pack beast was laden well beyond an adventurer’s supplies, that each of the figures carried heavy packs, that both kodo and the handful of other beasts of burden were hitched to marsh sledges and there was only one humanoid figure on the far shore, at the head of a trio of either horses or mules.
Blockade runners, breathed something tiny and soft in her core.
Their angle of approach was all wrong for a run directly from Orgrimmar. They must have come in the long way, from the Barrens; surely there was bound to be a pass somewhere in the mountains, and the natives would know it. But it was an insane venture. They had to have skirted the ogre camps in the dead of night to avoid the marines. Even with that deadly gamble, part of their journey would still take them through the minefield of Darkspear traps, and nothing could avoid the wildlife or the climate...no wonder the guard tower had rung the bell as soon as Kul Tiras blew the group’s cover. A naval salute was the only honor Theramore could give.
A groan rose on the walls as a single cannon shot struck true, shattering the last several feet of the pontoon bridge and nearly throwing the newcomers into the water as the bridge twisted. A group of Theramore guards immediately darted out of the guardhouse, throwing ropes to the figures and hauling it back in line.
For a moment Jaina thought the moonlight was dimming; then she realized it was simply being outdone.
Too fast for the naked eye to follow, something punched a burning hole through a Kul Tiran sail.
The druids were angry, now.
That first shot had been less a warning than a portent; Jaina doubted even the casters could have stopped this once it began. Jagged bolts of raw light shredded the air, the low, sizzling sound of their passage lagging almost a half-second behind. Wild falling stars plunged into the water, nearly harmless but for the shrouding clouds of steam they threw up. But most...most ripped through hardened timber like canvas, whistling with spite and the fury of the heavens, and left nothing but screams behind them. Shrieks from the treeline across the bay revealed that the marines had also noticed the commotion; but there would be no interference from them tonight.
Their attempt at secrecy ruined, the newcomers were emboldened by the support. They ran and leaped the last few feet to solid ground; the Theramore guards hauled them up the rocks and through the guard tower, inside the safety of the walls. Only the kodo couldn’t fit, and friendly shouts rose up urging its tauren handler to go around to the northern gate, that the path was clear now.
The mule train had been loaded and was nearly at the island by the time the Kul Tiran ship rallied enough to manage even intermittent cannonfire. Deadly shot splashed in the water around the raft, but its skipper was either fearless or panicking and didn’t waver. The goblin jumped from the raft the moment it landed, hauling a riderless horse and the pack mule tied behind it at a fast trot to the safety of the walls; but there was a problem, it seemed, with the third. Its Darkspear handler lingered on the island for a moment before stepping out onto the pontoon bridge, the beast limping so slowly on its near hind leg that it was nearly lame.
Cannon shot whistled around them, and the shouts of encouragement reached a frantic fever pitch, shifting to pleas for her to leave the mule and run as it became increasingly clear that they weren’t going to make it—
And with a final surge of effort the injured mule cleared the bridge, Proudmoore marines dragged its handler bodily to safety, and the resounding impact of a thick oak bar being slammed home echoed in Jaina’s bones.
It took mere minutes for the Kul Tiran fleet to launch a midnight bombardment. Of course they did, Jaina thought, more lucid and collected than she had felt in a month. Theramore had just received a massive influx of resources as well as the greatest morale boost since its founding. The enemy—and Jaina no longer flinched from the term, even as it squeezed her lungs—had no choice but to strike before that good fortune could raise their spirits too high, before they had time to make real use of it.
But while the gunners on the wall rushed to their posts, it was with spring and enthusiasm they’d lacked for too long; Jaina rather thought the Admiral had made a mistake in challenging them while their blood was up and they’d just won a major morale victory.
As for the rest of Theramore, the main square had transformed into what was nearly a festival atmosphere.
Their saviors were a sweaty, mud-caked, exhausted group of orcs and trolls, with a single tauren and a few kaldorei scattered throughout—and a small contingent of three Forsaken and a Deathguard, who were standing silently to one side and being given a great deal of space.
The others, however, smiled through their tiredness as their packs were unloaded to a hero’s welcome. Jaina, grateful that she hadn’t been asked to speak, swallowed past a painful lump in her throat at the way they were drawn into the center of the square. Some were warriors, wearing battered armor and grimly functional weapons; there were one or two orcish shamans, a handful of hunters with falcons on their shoulders or shaggy worgs, wary raptors, and massive sabercats lounging at their feet.
And they’d all brought food. Salted venison, a wide variety of dried fruits, enchanted bandages from Darnassus. Fresh vegetables, flour, butter, and a bulging sack of herbs for mana potions from Mulgore.
The orcs sent beef, pork, cheese, a few kegs of beer apparently on the logic that Theramore could survive without it but what would be the point, and what seemed like it had to be every side of bacon in Durotar. The Echo Isles had provided a bounty of smoked fish and barrels of different citrus juices, worth their weight in gold to any quartermaster who didn’t want her people to die of scurvy.
But the real treasure had been carefully packed and waterproofed on the backs of the mules who had reached Theramore by inches. Lark had made it safely to Orgrimmar after all—and so had the mail she’d been carrying. It was little enough, no official missives of any kind; but letters from friends and in rare cases family, for both the humans and trolls, were sorted on the spot and passed from hand to hand, the crushing weight of their isolation lifting for a moment.
The whistles and cheering over every item nearly drowned out the cannons.
Jaina stood in the shadow of the inner ring of walls, watching them with a faintly tearful smile. She glanced over to find the goblin who’d punted them over from the mainland lounging on top of the wall, looking pleased with himself.
“Thank you,” she said softly.
He waved a hand. “Ah, don’t read into it, gorgeous. I was commissioned, see?”
“Of course.” Jaina raised an eyebrow. Commissioned to run a Kul Tiran gauntlet with a band of misfits. “For how much? I’m curious.”
He froze for just half a moment too long before giving a convincingly lopsided grin. “Ha! Nice try, Proudmoore. Trade secrets. Proprietary.”
“Your commission rates are proprietary. I see. My sincere apologies.”
The goblin muttered unconvincing invectives under his breath, and Jaina shook her head and turned back to the square.
In the outpouring of joy, the Forsaken were nearly forgotten; when the Deathguard finally urged her skeletal horse forward, the crowd’s enthusiasm leeched into tense, awkward shuffling like water into desert sand.
Somehow, despite the roar of cannons, the square was silent. But the Forsaken had run the same risks as the rest of the group; and between the bone sledge being drawn behind the Deathguard’s horse and the massive crate carried by the three others, no one wanted to leave without seeing what was inside, anyway.
Jaina cleared her throat and stepped forward, hoping she’d managed to hide her initial, instinctive revulsion. They still looked so much like the Scourge...but they weren’t, she reminded herself, forcing herself to meet that sick yellow gaze without flinching.
“Well met,” she said evenly. The dead woman’s mouth twitched in what was almost a smile.
“The Dark Lady sends her regards.”
That was...a marked divergence. The other groups had been careful to point out that their gifts were bought and paid for from the populace, donated in some cases but always by independent citizens, not their governments. Sylvanas Windrunner, apparently, didn’t play those kinds of games.
Jaina gave a shallow but respectful bow. “I hope you’ll pass along our sincere thanks to your Queen. May I ask what it is the Forsaken have brought to us?”
“Grain,” the Deathguard rasped.
The silence became profound.
After a very long time, with absolutely no change of expression, the woman deadpanned, “You people have no sense of humor.”
She jerked her head, and the three Forsaken behind her stepped forward and set their crate on the ground, leaning down to unfasten the clasps. Two stepped back, prompting the entire watching crowd to do the same; the third placed one rotting boot on the lid and shoved hard, sending it sliding to the ground. No one seemed in a rush to look inside.
After a moment, a broad, dark-haired man rolled his shoulders and edged up to it. He blinked, lifted a hand and pulled it back. Curious now, Jaina walked up next to him.
Draped in the flag of Lordaeron to keep it quiet, the crate was packed tight with nothing but hundreds of metal bars. The crate was reinforced with thorium and bore enchantments against water, which was no surprise; undead strength might be able to lift the crate, but it would have sunk that raft in seconds if not carried across the bottom of the bay. Not pig iron, either. The bars were high-quality, worth a fortune...
“Refined and purified. No remnants of the Plague...probably.” The Deathguard jerked her head back, toward the sledge. “And a few thousand pounds of gunpowder,” she added. “We assumed you’d be running out.”
The man at Jaina’s side ran his fingers over the battered flag, tracing the jagged edges of the sigil before hefting a single bar in his hand.
“..Well,” he said after a long moment, half-turning to the breathless crowd. “Thank the Light we’ve got our brothers and sisters out there, remembering what good Lordaeron steel can do!”
The whoops that rose in response were reflexive, because no Lordaeron survivor could do anything else in response to such a statement; but after the first, weak round of automatic whistles, a few people clapped in earnest, and the slowly growing cheers gained soul and animation until one of the Forsaken edged uneasily behind his commanding officer to get away from it.
In reality, Jaina couldn’t have slept for more than five hours; but that was five hours more than it felt like she’d gotten in years.
The bombardment last night had died out in less than an hour when the Navy realized it served no purpose other than to demoralize their own people. So Jaina woke to quiet, her body feeling rested in a way she could barely remember. She gave herself a minute, maybe two, to enjoy the feeling; then, rubbing sleep from her eyes, she folded her bed back into the wall and set about getting things done.
A folded piece of paper waited on her desk; the quartermaster’s tally of their new supplies. Feeling nearly gleeful, Jaina sat down, turned a page in her book of spreadsheets, and began a new entry.
At some point, Pained showed up and bullied her into eating a few pieces of toast—with butter, again, and just this once Jaina was too happy to object to the luxury.
Once the books were balanced, Jaina fished around in a drawer until she found a familiar roll of parchment. This part of the job was...less joyous, but necessary. This was a copy of the last such scroll she’d sent out, that one to Stormwind. There were more casualties to add, now; a callous X beside the name, with a brief note as to circumstances of death. By the end of an hour, however, it was done. She cast a spell to magically replicate the updated roster, tucked the original back in its drawer, and rolled the copy into a scroll case.
“Come on, Pained,” she said breezily, and led the way downstairs.
Which, yes, when she walked instead of teleporting in and out she could admittedly understand why people complained about them so often.
Despite the humidity, the air felt clearer this morning, the sea breeze crisp and bold. It was amazing, what a little hope could do. Something itched at the back of Jaina’s mind, a foreboding; but for now, she ignored it. She was on something like a mission.
She flagged down a guard as the woman passed. “The blockade runners haven’t left yet, have they?”
“No, ma’am,” the guard answered promptly, pointing toward the inn. “They brought their own rations and refuse to eat any of ours, but they let Janene put them in real beds overnight. Except the Forsaken, of course.”
“Damn.” Jaina was looking for the Forsaken. “Where are they, then?”
The guard’s lips twitched. “Hiding, ma’am. While we were moving the supplies last night a few of the braver youngsters kept trying to ask their names and get them to get closer to the fire where everyone else was talking, and I think we scared them.”
“They’ve...probably gotten worse scares,” Jaina allowed. “I’m sure they’ll get over it. Well, if you see any of them, let them know I have something for the Dark Lady, won’t you?”
Pained gave her a curious look as they moved off. Ears flicking, she nodded toward the scroll case slung across Jaina’s back. “That’s for Windrunner?”
Jaina shuffled her feet slightly, gripping the strap. “I...yes. I know she doesn’t think it’s a good idea for her people to try to...reconnect. And I know many of their living families may not want it either. But I’ve been keeping records of all the survivors I know of, especially here. I thought...I should at least send the names along. So that the Forsaken have a choice in whether or not they want to know. We’ll likely never have another chance.”
There it was again, that niggling dread that she refused to acknowledge just yet.
“And that was why you were in such a hurry this morning?”
“What? Oh. Yes and no. I wanted to see if I could find whoever was in charge of that group...”
Well, there was no point in disturbing anyone. Jaina swung by Foothold to check in with her people, returning the quartermaster’s tally sheet so that other officers could use it for their own records. She made the rounds of a handful of blacksmiths already busy forging new ballista bolts and cannon shot from the steel and iron the Forsaken had brought them, that uneasiness stirring in her gut even as she was buoyed by the high spirits of her people. Finally, she decided it might just be restlessness. Trailing a mildly confused Pained, Jaina decided to take a walk along the walls and clear her head.
Conveniently, she wasn’t the only one to have the idea.
The young orc hunter was fiddling with some kind of tiny, delicate contraption of gears. He was...a very orcish hunter, she thought with some amusement. He wore the heavy armor and cold iron weapons of a vanguard fighter, and had the muscle to show for it—though, again, pale in comparison to Thrall. A fighter by trade rather than spirit, perhaps. It was his pet that made Jaina want to laugh.
One of the kaldorei hunters worked a white sabercat; Jaina had seen many of the breed at Hyjal. This orc seemed to have been inspired by them, but the massive tiger sprawled on a pile of crates beside him was no domesticated frostsaber. Jaina had to assume it was from Feralas, or some similar tropical jungle she’d never been to herself; the bright powder blue would surely spell its doom anywhere else. And while it lacked the saber teeth of a kaldorei hunter’s companion, it made up for it with heavy, arching scythe tusks.
Very, very orcish. Had taming wild swine not held enough challenge for him?
He glanced over as Jaina approached, nodding absently and then doing a double-take. “Lady Proudmoore!”
“Please.” He’d moved to bow, and that was more than Jaina could bear. “The honor is entirely mine. I wanted to thank you for what you’ve done for us.”
He hesitated, then gave a simple salute across his chest. “You held on like boar dogs, ma’am. We respect that. And...you needed help.”
“We did.” Smiling through trepidation she was no longer able to ignore, she held out a hand. “Jaina, to my friends.”
The young hunter reached out to awkwardly clasp her hand in his massive one. “Kemm. Tusklock. I’ve never been to Theramore before, you, um...you have a beautiful city.”
“The view’s usually nicer,” said Pained, with a tilt of her head toward the massed Kul Tiran fleet.
The tiger snorted into Jaina’s hair, and she laughed and turned to greet it. She had enough sense to glance at the hunter first. “May I?”
Kemm gave her a reproachful look. “You should ask her. Vaz, come on, don’t do this to me. It’s embarrassing.”
Grinning at the faux reprimand, Jaina held out a hand to the tigress. She could almost swore it raised an imperious eyebrow at her, before giving a slow, languid blink.
Anxiety forgotten in favor of temporary schoolgirl delight, Jaina buried her hands in the thick fur. “Oh, she’s gorgeous . Hello, sweet thing...by the Light, that’s amazing.” Tiger fur was thicker and softer than she would have dreamed, and Jaina enthusiastically scratched the massive beast’s chest and ears. “And this color? You’re lovely and you know it, don’t you. Yes, you are! You’re absolutely beautiful.”
“Not bad for a human yourself,” said the tigress, with a casual glance at Jaina’s neckline.
Leaping back with a yelp, Jaina landed solidly on her rear end to helpless, bell-like laughter from Pained and a countermelody of rough chuckling from what was apparently a Darkspear druid. Kemm just rubbed his face and sighed.
“Yes, all right,” Jaina said sourly. “Very funny.”
Pained recovered enough to help Jaina to her feet, though she either couldn’t stop grinning or couldn’t be assed to try. Ears trembling with laughter, she said, “You did know that trolls have druids too.”
“Well— yes, but—kaldorei druids look nothing like—and I’ve never seen the Darkspear transform! I assumed it was different!”
The tigress’ tail twitched. Amused, she said, “Druids are druids, mon. Can’t help being prettier.”
“Watch it,” said Pained.
“Make me, elf. Vazkri,” she added to Jaina with a polite dip of her massive head. “No offense intended, Lady Proudmoore.”
Jaina sighed as she brushed herself down, but couldn’t contain a bit of a wry smile. “None taken. Though my people have druids too, and I’ll bet you anything you wouldn’t recognize a Thornspeaker as a druid either.”
Not that Jaina knew much about them herself. Her father wanted nothing to do with such devilry. Her mother was no more eager to see Jaina too interested in obscure Drust rituals than to see her become a Tidesage; she always pointed out that as Jaina was the Admiral’s daughter and her magic was attuned to the arcane regardless, druidry was an inappropriate topic of study. But Jaina still had eyes. Every so often while out in a little day-sailer she’d spotted something drinking from brackish water that could not possibly be a deer, that lifted its head to look her in the eye before she could convince herself that it was some kind of driftwood. And everyone heard the eerie howling in the mountains sometimes, with a wildcat yowl on the end; no one really believed they were escaped worgen from Gilneas.
The point was, druids were very strange and sometimes you accidentally molested an ally because you thought she was a large cat, and everyone should stop laughing.
Vakzri gave a casual stretch, flexing claws almost as long as Jaina’s entire hand. She still radiated smug amusement, but that might just be the birthright of any cat.
“Can we help you, Lady Proudmoore?”
“Jaina,” she corrected. If nothing else, she and this druid were definitely on first-name terms now. “I was actually looking for your commanding officer if they’re available.”
“No officers,” Vazkri answered, cheerful and reflexive. “Independent volunteers. With respect, you’re not that important.”
“Be nice, Vaz,” Kemm muttered under his breath. Then, clearing his throat, “We can help you.”
Jaina gripped her scroll case. “We did plan to portal you back to Orgrimmar around noon. I was hoping you might be willing to carry some of our mail out with you. I have a message for Sylvanas Windrunner, but...they’re responses to some of the personal letters you brought us, mostly.”
Mostly, they were goodbyes.
Vazkri’s big golden eyes softened. “We can do that,” she said, a gentleness in her low, rough voice. “My cousin is a mail courier, she’ll get it done. I’ll tell her now, if you want to come.”
Jaina’s quiet thank-you was almost buried by the rumbling purr of a seven-hundred-pound tiger bumping her head against an orc.
“Catch up in twenty,” she said, before stepping down from her perch more lightly than Jaina would have thought possible for such a huge animal. Jaina turned for the stairs and did a double-take when the druid didn’t follow, balancing for a second before jumping to the ground and padding over to sit by the foot of the stairs and wait for them. Kemm, to whom this was apparently normal, waved to them and went back to playing with his puzzle box.
“Your mate?” Pained asked when they rejoined her. Pained was bad at small talk, so Jaina appreciated her making the effort, because she was suddenly not up to it.
Vazkri gave another of those low, deep chuckles. “Kemm looks for men and I don’t. Call him a little brother.”
Jaina couldn’t stand it anymore. “Pained,” she said abruptly. “Can you do something for me?”
Her bodyguard blinked in surprise. “Of course, my lady.”
Fumbling slightly over the catch, Jaina shrugged off the scroll case and handed it over. “Go meet Vazkri’s cousin and arrange a mail delivery, please? And let the others know to get their replies to her in the next two hours. I have...something to think about.”
Pained’s concern was visible in her eyes and the cant of her ears, but she took the case. She looked like she was about to say something, but Jaina turned away before she got the chance.
The worst of it was, Pained probably wasn’t judging Jaina’s sudden rudeness, even though she should have been. She felt her mother’s stern disapproval like a cold brand against her heart. Jaina! Whatever nonsense is going on your head, however important it may be, these people deserve to have you present in the moment. They are your citizens, and you are their leader. Your tender feelings are secondary. You owe them your full respect and attention!
And it was all the more true today. It was an inexpressible failure as a leader, if she couldn’t spend more than a few minutes being gracious and focused toward the heroes who had saved them all.
Only they hadn’t.
Jaina was grateful. Jaina was grateful to her bones, for the courage and generosity shown by every corner of the Horde. Theramore was a valuable resource to them, certainly; but she would be a fool to think civilians would run such risks, at such great cost to themselves, simply to retain a shipping port. And if their motivation was nothing but spite against the Admiralty, they didn’t have to send creature comforts like...butter, and fruit. Bulk salt pork, hardtack and peas would have kept them alive.
But the fact was, nothing had really changed.
And that was the truth Jaina had been running from all day. Oh, they would hold out for at least another month now, and simply knowing Theramore had never been alone was a balm against every aching dread that had tormented her for so long. But Kul Tiras could hold out indefinitely.
And in six weeks, they would be back to exactly where they’d been before: looking their deaths in the face, with nowhere to run. This single, heartrendingly generous supply run had been everything the civilian sector of the Horde could spare, and it would only buy them time. Even if the Horde was willing to scrounge up such a massive infusion of supplies again, they’d never be able to afford it. Theramore was not a production economy, especially with access to Dustwallow cut off. They couldn’t even produce their own food, let alone trade goods. And the Horde could not starve itself to save them.
The roaring in Jaina’s ears was from more than just the crash of waves against the isle.
The situation had changed. It wouldn’t stay this way, no; even a week’s delay would give up too much of the advantage. But right now, before Kul Tiras had time to really analyze what Theramore could possibly have gotten in a single supply caravan…
This had always been a final stand. They were always going to lose; even the heroes risking everything to relieve them in their darkest hour had known it. That more than anything was what twisted Jaina’s soul in her throat. All of that, just because they couldn’t bear to let Theramore die alone. Just to let them know someone cared, to give them some dignity when the end came.
But maybe, without realizing it, they had done something more. Maybe they had saved Jaina’s people after all.
The long game would always end in their defeat; so she had to end the game; and she had to do it now, while Theramore stood briefly in a position of strength and Kul Tiran morale had just taken a major blow. Worst of all, like cold Forsaken steel in her stomach, she knew exactly what move to make. She’d played chess with Modera in Dalaran…
If only she wasn’t so afraid.
She stood on the battlements, staring at the flagship in the distance, until hours later Pained found her again.
“They’re getting ready to leave, my lady,” she said, hesitant.
“I’ll go to the square and thank them again, before I open a portal. Pained, I need you to do something else for me. Two things, actually.”
“Go dig through the paymaster’s vault. Give the blockade runners any gold we have left; it’s useless to us now.”
“Of course. They may not take it, you know.”
Jaina had to smile at that. “Well, they can always give it to someone else once they get to Orgrimmar.”
“All right. I’ll see if I can convince them.” There was a long pause. “My lady...the second thing?”
Still time to change her mind. Still time to back out.
Jaina took a deep breath and let it out, slowly. She repeated the process a few times—the way she’d been taught as a child before diving, making sure she was really filling her lungs before she committed.
“A queen’s gambit,” she responded, and her voice didn’t tremble. “Find a volunteer to signal the flagship. At this time tomorrow, I want to meet with my father and negotiate the terms of my surrender.”
You know a chapter's fun when your beta's first reaction is "This Is Fine".
CW for this chapter: a very, very brief reference to suicide.
Jaina still loved the imperfections.
Slowly, the first rays of sunlight began to filter through the windows. Her tower was always bathed in light; rising above the shadow of Theramore’s walls, she was the first to see the dawn and the last to see the sun set. The flawed, uneven surface of each inexpert section of glass in her windows diffused the light, creating a near opaque patchwork of dancing light. Her architects had been unhappy with it, complaining that it defeated the purpose of a window if she still had to open it in order to see outside—but their discontent had faded with Jaina’s raptures over the effect.
It was...soft. It muted the sharp rays of sunlight, blunting their edges. That she couldn’t see through them doubled as a promise of true privacy in her living quarters; and it created a visual barrier, as well. A shield, between Jaina and the harsh bright reality of the outside world. A sanctuary woven from gentle golden light.
Delicate and kind, with love soaked into the timbers, smelling of books and cut wood. Of home.
“How angry are they, Pained?”
Her voice came out hoarse, raspy like she’d scoured her throat with saltwater. She winced and made a note to eat and drink some water sooner rather than later. She couldn’t afford to sound like she’d been crying.
She hadn’t, actually. She couldn’t. She couldn’t let herself when there was still so much she had to do..
“Not as angry as I am, my lady. Jaina, don’t do this.”
Irrational anger warred with despair; just barely, despair won out. Did Pained think she was doing this for fun? That she did it lightly? Jaina knew Kul Tiras. There was only one way out, and she already might not be clever or brave enough to pull it off…
“It’s done, Pained.” The voice was barely her own. “This is the only chance any of them have.”
“You are making a mistake.”
Jaina spun to face her, wanting to snap, wanting to lash out, but all she could manage was a choked, “I have to—!”
Pained winced, and for a long moment there was no sound but Jaina’s ragged breathing. She’d thought Pained of all people understood.
Then, finally, a shaky sigh.
“I know.” Pained reached out and rested a hand on her shoulder. “I know. But I was meant to protect you.”
Jaina swallowed with difficulty.
“Pained,” she whispered. “I’m...please don’t make this harder than it already is. I have to, you know that…”
Briefly, Pained’s thumb brushed her cheek. “We don’t have to agree with you to understand, my lady. I am bound to protect you; you are bound to protect them. Do not ask me to like it.”
How terribly odd. She hadn’t noticed her bodyguard’s hand stroking her hair until it tightened convulsively.
Pained’s throat worked for several minutes before she finally spoke.
“That makes two of us, my lady.” Her bright eyes closed; after a moment, her ears set firmly into a more determined slant. “You need to decide what you’ll wear. Don’t let them see your fear. And for the goddess’ sake, Jaina, eat something.”
Sunlight lanced off the waves.
The weather, Jaina had determined, delighted in mocking her—or perhaps it was the Tidesages. The water today was clear as crystal, laughing and bright, the sky perversely clear.
At least her father’s expression was stormy.
Somehow that grounded her. In the fragile hours of the early morning there was room for weakness, room for fear. But that had burned away like mist as the sun rose, as her people— her people, who had fought and bled to get here, trusting Jaina to see them through—sought her out to clasp her hands and squeeze her arm, to say goodbye.
Her sentries had erected a table for these negotiations just past the high-tide line. Five empty barrels, smooth timber nailed firmly over the surface, with a chair on either side.
Five, because the Kul Tiran side was a solid wall of wood; while Jaina’s, invisible to them, had more than enough room in the middle to tuck her feet comfortably under the table. They’d considered making her father face into the sun, and only reluctantly decided against it because they assumed he would simply sit on the wrong side, robbing Jaina of their carefully planned advantages. That, and the passage of time. Negotiations might run long, and Light forbid he grow less miserable.
If the Admiralty wanted to play a game of petty spite and technicalities, Theramore was done being the bigger person.
Kul Tiras was angry? It wasn’t their homes that had burned, their city bombarded, their friends and allies derided as savages while their families died defending walls that should never have been in danger. It hadn’t been Kul Tiran children starving while monsters with human faces watched.
Jaina was scared, sick and pale with it. She just didn’t care anymore.
She’d waited exactly five minutes, once the Admiral’s team landed, before teleporting out. It wasn’t a subtle power play, but neither was a letter of censure that addressed her as a Kul Tiran officer, so they could damn well get over it. The delay had also given her time to take measure of the forces he’d brought with him; a six-man squadron of marines, which he at least had the decency to leave twenty feet back. Jaina, despite her cold anger, couldn’t begrudge him that. In his position she would have done the same.
She was not, however, in his position. This was her city, and she didn’t need a security team to walk safely on her own soil. It was more than time he remembered that. She brought nothing with her but an inscription case, because she’d be damned if she asked the Kul Tirans for a pen; and Pained, because if she’d attempted to leave her behind she suspected her bodyguard would have sat on her.
She knew her people were still unhappy, but Jaina had at least managed to make them understand. It had taken her well past sundown last night to convince them and Janene had still come close to locking her in the cellar until her fit of madness passed...but they couldn’t tell her she was wrong. They couldn’t argue with the cold calculation, only protest it. And in the end, she had at least managed to convince them that this was her right; that if they had ever trusted her as a leader, they would let her act freely now.
The walls of Theramore bristled with palpable resentment at her back, and she had to believe it wasn’t aimed at her. Because in front of her the only thing she could see was hatred.
Something twitched in the Lord Admiral’s tight jaw as Jaina approached. She forced back a mirthless smile.
He disapproved of her wardrobe choice, it would seem.
She had intended at first to wear her Dalaran robes. Borrowing the authority of an agent of the Kirin Tor still held value, even if Dalaran itself was...gone. It would have served to highlight her status as an independent, neutral agent—but as Pained had pointed out with a short shake of the head, they were the robes of an apprentice, that her father had seen her wear too many times. Besides; she wasn’t neutral.
She had Antonidas’ staff slung across her back, a mark of power and prestige as well as something embarrassingly close to a security blanket. Beyond its presence there was no statement to be made, and too strong an association with her adolescence. And of course, digging any of her Proudmoore colors out of mothballs might as well be sharpening the headsman’s axe for him.
And so Jaina had opted for Lordaeron white and blue.
It had required a bit of a community effort, because in truth none of them really had much in the way of spare clothes. They owned what they’d had on hand when they ran; for Jaina that meant she had exactly one full outfit that wasn’t Kirin Tor robes, and it was what Derek would have referred to as ‘painting clothes’. The women of Theramore had responded with relief at having something to contribute beyond well-wishes or pleas to reconsider, however.
Beyond that, a simple color-change spell and a far more powerful enchantment to seal the rich navy into the fabric and prevent it from being reversed was all that was necessary. Jaina’s old Admiralty cape, pride and joy enough that she’d allowed it to take up precious room with her belongings when fleeing Dalaran, would never blaze Proudmoore green again.
She left the bronze clasp unchanged, and felt a thrill of fear and satisfaction at the way the eyes of the Kul Tiran delegation locked onto the anchor sigil over her breast.
Jaina set her briefcase on the table and sat down in front of him before finally looking up to meet those blazing grey eyes.
“Father,” she said evenly.
“You,” he said in a voice like frozen steel, “are no daughter of mine.”
Jaina kept her face still as the whiplash coiled around her soul. After a moment, he gestured with disgust at the parchment laid out in front of him and shoved it toward her.
Jaina picked the parchment up as Pained moved to her side, pouring a glass of water before setting pitcher at Jaina’s right hand, well out of reach of the Kul Tirans. Oh, her father was no stranger to power plays at the negotiating table; he’d brought himself a bottle of wine as well...but it was hot, and at her instruction Jaina’s people had set up the meeting in direct sunlight. He would want better than alcohol soon enough—and the ice glyph carved into the bottom of the glass pitcher would keep Jaina’s drink frosty and covered with enticing dew long after her father’s wine went warm and unsatisfying.
It was the little victories, sometimes.
Without a word, Jaina set the parchment back on the table and popped the catch on her inscription case, selecting a vial of red ink and a simple feather pen and setting to work like she was grading an initiate’s first essay.
“You seem to be laboring under a delusion, Jaina,” her father ground out. “None of these items are negotiable.”
A lie, and she wouldn’t have needed to know his tells to figure that out. The ‘items’ amounted to nothing short of Theramore’s complete and unconditional surrender, and the trial—and thus execution—of every living thing above the age of reason within its walls. That was brutal even for Kul Tiras, and the rest too entitled. No military leader would lay such extreme terms unless he expected to be bargained down.
“I agree,” Jaina said, keeping her voice light. Her father blinked, taken aback, and she calmly clarified, “None of this is negotiable in the slightest, in that I refuse to even allow these items to enter the conversation. I invited you to parlay, not insult my intelligence.”
Her father’s jaw tightened, and Jaina swore she heard thunder as she looked into his eyes. Carefully. She couldn’t afford to back down; but she couldn’t afford to push him too far, either.
The Admiral’s voice was a carefully restrained growl. “You are in a poor position to negotiate, my dear.”
“Are we?” Jaina couldn’t match Antonidas’ mild, arch surprise, but she could give it her best shot. She took a sip of ice water. “I hadn’t noticed. No, I’m afraid none of this is salvageable, actually. Never mind, we’ll start from scratch. It’s not as if either of us have anywhere better to be.”
“Jaina,” he snapped.
“Father,” she rejoined without flinching. Then, “My counteroffer, Lord Admiral. Kul Tiras leaves Theramore, renounces any claim, and halts future attacks against its shipping in independent waters. My civilians are cleared all charges of piracy, and you guarantee the safety of the Proudmoore marines who stood by my side.”
He made an incredulous sound that was not anything like a laugh. “Those are hardly terms.”
“And in exchange,” Jaina continued, unable to keep the faintest tremor from her voice, “I come quietly.”
Her father’s eyebrows vanished into his shaggy hair.
Jaina looked at him, silent and unmoving in the manner she’d learned from Vol’jin. When she spoke, her voice was quiet.
“This was never really about Theramore, Father.”
“You have a high opinion of your own importance. You are an enemy combatant. Nothing more. Do you really think, after everything you have done to my nation, that I will let this band of treacherous orc-lovers roam free in exchange for your personal surrender?”
“Yes,” said Jaina.
“Then you have grown arrogant beyond belief.” His lip twisted in an ugly expression. “I assure you, my dear, you will stand your sentence in Boralus whether you surrender or not. I say again, you are in no position to dictate terms to me!”
Jaina took another sip of her water, resting the glass on the table to hide the trembling in her hands. “Why is that?”
Her father gestured sharply around them. “This tin-pot fortress you call a city is nothing but rock. One lucky band of mutts does not a supply chain make. You cannot feed yourselves, you cannot supply yourselves. You have no reinforcements or allies. We have you surrounded, and Jaina, I will outwait you.”
“And eventually we’ll run out of ammunition,” Jaina agreed. “Either before or after we run out of food. Either way, once we can no longer fire on you I expect you’ll storm the citadel, or else continue to blockade us if you’re feeling cruel. You’ll force us to either starve to death, or die in a clash of steel one way or another. There’s nothing we can do to stop you.”
“Quite.” It was a growl; he was suspicious of where she was going with this. Good.
She let her voice soften. “And how long will that take? We’ve held you off for three months, and the death toll is only rising. Your men are fighting for conquest; mine are fighting for their lives. Yes, you have more reinforcements, but this is a city, Father, whether you want to acknowledge it or not. Most of us are still alive, and if you refuse my attempt to surrender, we’ll have absolutely nothing left to lose. How many Kul Tiran lives are you willing to spend, just to make me watch my people die?”
“As many as it takes. You have a weak stomach and a soft heart, my daughter. If you lack the spine to finish a war, you shouldn’t have started one.”
“Add a few more organs to that analogy and you’ve got yourself a Deathguard,” Jaina muttered under her breath.
“Do you really think I’ll just turn around and go home, granting you everything you ask for, in exchange for a single prisoner?”
Jaina took a deep breath. “I think, if it comes to a battle like that, you can’t afford not to capture me.”
Ever so slightly, his eyes narrowed. She lifted her head and stared him down.
“I’m the lynchpin,” she told him. “The bogeyman. I’m the demon in all your propaganda. I know they sing songs about me in Boralus these days.” Thank you, Sylvanas Windrunner, and do remind me to ask you how in the actual hell you planted spies in Tiragarde Sound. “You say that capturing me and leaving Theramore intact would make you lose face, but that pales in comparison to what it would do to your reputation if you sack a city filled with Lordaeron survivors only to realize I’m not there. Unless you capture or kill me, as far as public opinion is concerned, Father, you’ve lost.”
His eyes were narrow flashes of iron in the bright sunlight.
“Never play cards in Boralus, Jaina,” he said slowly. “Your mother never taught you how to bluff, I’m afraid.”
Jaina crossed her arms, leaning her elbows against the table, and raised an eyebrow.
“I’m sorry,” she said coldly. “Do you mean to imply that I lack the stomach to abandon my people under fire, solely to deny you a victory?”
An angry hiss rippled through the Kul Tiran line. Pained put a hand on the hilt of her sword.
Jaina pressed her advantage. “If, as you say, you intend to slaughter my people no matter what I do—if you’re so certain that nothing I do can save them—then all I have left in the world is the ability to spite you, and kill as many of your men as I can in the process. Do not push me that far.”
Her placed both hands flat on the table, and she braced herself. If she pushed him to the point of storming off, and that was far from unlikely…
Between his teeth, he managed, “Define come quietly.”
Jaina tried to hide the way her shoulders slumped with relief. Judging by the flash in her father’s eyes, she failed; but that didn’t matter, if she could convince him.
“You can’t hold me without my consent, Father. I trained under the greatest archmage in the world.” She took a breath. “Leave Theramore out of this and I’ll allow myself to be taken prisoner. I won’t flee, I won’t fight. I’ll submit to dampening shackles, if you have them. I’ll cooperate. I’ll obey orders given to me. Just leave my people in peace. They’ve done nothing to you.”
A muscle worked in his jaw.
“There will be no pardons,” he finally said. “Kul Tiras does not grant clemency to pirates.”
Jaina had anticipated this. She flipped open her writing case again, pulling free the letters tucked against the lid to keep ink from rubbing off on the clean paper below. Thumbing through the stack, she passed one across the table to her father.
He frowned slightly as he glanced over it, recognizing his own handwriting in the court-martial summons Jaina had been issued a lifetime ago.
“Any and all persons known to crew, provide aid and comfort to, or allow to make port a ship under my flag shall be found guilty of piracy,” she quoted, pretending the words didn’t taste like rot on her tongue. “Removing me as separate from Theramore means they are no longer under my flag.”
“That’s a very thin technicality—”
“This entire war is a thin technicality,” Jaina snapped, then shut her mouth with a click. Her father sent a warning glare her way, but at least had the dignity not to try to deny it.
Finally, the Lord Admiral sat back, rubbing his chin in a manner so familiar that just for a moment Jaina’s determination wavered. She frantically swallowed, trying to bury the ache suddenly choking her. How did everything go so wrong…
“Mmm,” he said slowly. “I have no intention of denying a legitimate claim to the fortress. What I will allow—”
“What are you going to do, occupy it?”demanded Jaina. “You couldn’t hold the Horde off before you spent three months blowing holes in my walls! Officially, you claim you abandoned—”
“What I will allow,” he repeated, a warning of thunder in his voice, and Jaina subsided. “Is a reiteration that this Kul Tiran fortress has been declared abandoned, and any civilians who chose to remain may claim right of settlement and retain fealty to their kingdom of origin.”
It galled her, but it was the best she had dared hope for; Theramore’s de facto sovereignty wrapped up in a bow of filthy lies was still not cargo she could afford to turn away.
“I’ll accept that,” she said, terse.
Her father glanced at the pennants waving on Theramore’s walls, and his lip curled. “Very well. Provided they change that flag.”
“It’s modeled after the sigil of Lordaeron, Father,” Jaina frowned. “You can’t expect them to—”
“And the Proudmoore crest. I call that serving under your flag. They can take their sigil from a different Lordaeron motif.”
Jaina nearly threw her hands in the air. “Not everyone in the world can use a blue lion as their national symbol! Theramore is a port city, the Proudmoores are not the only people who’ve ever thought of putting anchors on things!”
“Enough!” The sudden bellow made her jump, and Pained half-draw her sword; the Kul Tiran guard stepped forward, but when no one else made any sudden moves, their respective security stood down. “I said I’ll allow this farce to stand if you order these people to remove the blatant Proudmoore imagery from their flags. I am a reasonable man. They have six months.”
“Fine,” she said between her teeth. “I would be willing to sign a statement to that effect, so long as it also states that once I am no longer in Theramore my people can no longer be considered pirates, before or after they design a new flag.” Looking as if the concession were as sour to him as the first had been to Jaina, the Admiral gave a reluctant nod. “Including my marines.”
He actually jerked his head up at that, nostrils flaring like a fighting stallion. “No.”
“They are citizens of Theramore now! We have never delineated by birth—”
“You’ll find I do.” There was no argument in his voice. “Citizens of Lordaeron I can justify. Proudmoore marines, bearing commissions in my name? Absolutely not. They hang in Boralus like the traitors they are. I suggest you amend the terms of your surrender to include every Kul Tiran still breathing behind those walls.”
They would do it, Jaina knew. If she asked it of them, to save the others, her marines would give themselves up at her side. Some of them would do it just to be able to claim in the afterlife that they never left her.
“Reconsider,” she said, and couldn’t pretend it was anything but a plea.
He gave a hard snort. “You might have considered that there would be consequences for your actions. The penalty for desertion alone is death.”
“They never deserted!” Jaina exclaimed. “I was their commanding officer—you said yourself that I was their commanding officer, the heir apparent, at the time—that was half your justification for claiming Theramore in the first place!”
“And then you were condemned,” he replied, unmoved. “It was their duty to apprehend you if they could, and return you to Boralus for trial. They ought to have returned with the fleet when I did.”
Jaina fiddled with two more papers. The first was that original declaration of Theramore as Kul Tiran property, to back up her argument that the Proudmoore marines were within their legal rights to follow her. The second really was a thin veneer at best, and if her father was determined to kill her people just to make her suffer, it wouldn’t do any good. But she had to try.
“There had yet to be any legal censure against me at the time,” Jaina pointed out. “Abandoning their post as security to the Lord Admiral’s daughter because they disagreed with me really would have been desertion.”
That got her a dirty look, but no argument. “They’ve had ample time since. You test my patience. You repeatedly defied orders, refused to submit to a court-martial or a civil hearing. It was their duty to cease obeying the commands of a treasonous officer.”
Jaina took a breath to steady herself.
“You can’t prove they knew that.”
That actually earned her an exasperated sigh. For a moment he sounded like her mother.
“Enough,” he growled.
Jaina shook her head. “Why would I tell my best armed guards that they were legally obligated to imprison me? Doesn’t that fit your narrative, that I would lie to them to maintain my position? You cannot prove that they knew the truth about my legal position.”
“The Kul Tiran armada in the harbor might have served as a clue, Jaina. I said there will be consequences.”
“Poor judgement is not punishable by execution,” Jaina said quietly. “You commissioned them for their loyalty and told them to obey me in all things. Condemn them for their lack of reasoning, I never said they would face no consequences. But your charges are wrong. They followed what they perceived as rightful orders.”
Loaded phrasing, yes; but it was hard enough slandering her marines’ courage and defiance this way. At the very least, she owed them capitulation with a sting in the tail.
It was a weak trump card, but Jaina played it. “If you insist on holding them to charges of desertion you can’t prove, I insist on having a record that says I’ve admitted to withholding information in order to manipulate their understanding of the chain of command. The law requires that testimony to be read in public court. You may lose political support for their hanging even if they don’t end up acquitted.”
And they wouldn’t. Jaina could claim to have lied to them all she liked; the moment they were given the opportunity they’d open their mouths and tell the truth. But after all this time, she knew them better than her father did. He knew a soldier’s determination—but he was so willing to see Theramore as a den of thieves and traitors. The likelihood that he would believe her marines willing to die rather than forsake their honor…
Anger smoldered in every line of her father’s face; but this time he didn’t dismiss the suggestion.
“A dishonorable discharge,” he muttered, clearly furious at the leniency. “Dismissed from service in disgrace...No. Not good enough.”
Jaina slid the paper she’d been playing with onto his side of the table. With a sharp movement, he turned it around and flicked his stony gaze over it.
“In light of their regrettable lack of wisdom...this is insipid nonsense.”
“Their lack of wisdom and history of dubious loyalties, then.”
“They have been found to pose a risk to the integrity of Kul Tiras and the functioning of its military, and a sentence of exile is therefore passed. Do you think me a fool, Jaina?”
She failed to entirely hide a wince. It was transparent, she couldn’t argue the point. A sentence of exile and discharge from the military meant that Jaina’s marines were free of the Admiralty’s authority, and could never be recalled—it was, in fact, permission to remain in Theramore for good.
“I would sooner recall them all to Boralus just to slap them on the wrist,” he snarled. “You think you can get away with this?”
Jaina frowned. “I’ve already agreed to face my punishment, Lord Admiral,” she pointed out. “We were discussing the charges you would lay against my men. Are you seeking to punish me, or them?”
She could almost hear his teeth grinding. “The only reason I consider this,” he said, voice low and dangerous, “is to deny you the opportunity to spread more of your lies in Boralus. They will submit to a formal expulsion. Here, today, where the fleet can see them. And the sentence will be exile and excommunication. Any assets they might have left are seized by the Admiralty, any Kul Tiran found to be in communication with your renegades forfeits his life.”
Jaina closed her eyes and said a quick, silent prayer that none of her men had left wives or children behind. They’d never mentioned it, and it would have been unusual in a permanent detachment like hers, but still…
“So be it,” her father nearly spat. “That will do for the junior officers, but their captain is not negotiable. He hangs.”
“He’s dead,” Jaina said quietly.
“Good.” There was a flash of dark satisfaction on her father’s face at her anger. “A posthumous charge and conviction will be simpler. Be silent, girl. I’ve conceded enough for these treacherous dogs.”
Jaina could feel the tightness in her shoulders, but refused to rise to the insult. The dead were beyond her help. “As you wish then. If you have any other demands, I’m listening.”
The ultimate treaty added nothing of substance beyond what they had already agreed to. It ended up being about four feet long, full of subheadings and bullet points to close any conceivable loophole.
It was almost normal, almost possible to forget what this meant. Like all those war games over the years, competitions of riddles; trying to outsmart one another sprawled on the floor of Proudmoore Keep while her mother sighed and chided them both for their language. If Jaina focused on nothing but the content of the impersonal stretch of parchment, she could get through this.
The only section that carried no qualifiers was at the very top, the first item—that Jaina hand herself over as a prisoner, with no further reservations.
Theramore would be left to its people, who would no longer be subject to accusations of piracy so long as they altered their flag enough within the next half a year; her marines were being gathered within the city to submit to formal expulsion on the beach, within sight of the fleet but well defended by Jaina’s mages and several ballistae against recrimination. They would be required to reimburse Kul Tiras for the “misunderstanding” resulting in Lady Blackwater’s “theft,” while Kul Tiras had no intention of returning or reimbursing the value of Peacebloom. And that stuck in Jaina like a thorn, pricking her soul; but Peacebloom was still only a ship despite her place in Theramore’s heart, and the money was a small price to pay for survival.
Everything else was a series of similar small humiliations. By putting her signature to this agreement at all Jaina was accepting the Kul Tiran travesty of a fiction, legitimizing their “original” claim on Theramore. If that was the price, if that was the price, if that was the price—she would never have done it, still, were it not for the fact that doing so trapped Kul Tiras in the lie about having withdrawn of its own volition.
She agreed to the dismissal-with-disgrace of her marines, grit her teeth and put her initials beside the cruel condemnation of her marine captain. The last few items were tacked on simply to run up the score, try to make it look like Kul Tiras had secured more concessions than it had.
She confessed to disobeying Admiralty orders, sparing the effort of a court-martial. Wrote a short statement confirming that she had acted on her own initiative and not as a representative of Dalaran. At her father’s threat to withdraw his leniency for her marines, she choked down every curse she wanted to fling in his face and pled no contest to “fraternization with born enemies of humanity,” a charge she was absolutely certain he had made up on the spot. All she had managed was to change the wording to “born enemies,” rather than “natural”.
She knew Thrall would forgive her. Vol’jin might not, even if he had any way of knowing what the price of refusing would have been, and that nearly broke her heart.
There was one concession, however, that she found she was not able to make.
Her father gave a short, rough sound that could almost have been a laugh if there were any mirth in it. “If you think your refusal will save you, Jaina, you are sorely mistaken.”
“It won’t make any difference,” Jaina agreed, resisting the urge to cross her arms like a child. “The court’s decision stands whether I concede to charges of treason or not. My surrender explicitly states I won’t attempt to defend myself against any aspect of my legal sentence. I don’t have to certify this.”
The Lord Admiral had his hands braced on the table, standing over her. “You were given the opportunity to defend your decisions. You chose not to advocate for yourself! This statement serves no purpose but to lay out in words what has already been decided for you.”
“I will not recant defending the lives of my people!”
One of the Admiralty guard shifted uncomfortably. It was a near unforgivable break in discipline; they had been standing in the sun, in full armor, for hours now, but Pained was a night elf and hadn’t shown signs of the strain. They were all, however, getting tired and hungry.
Jaina’s mother had always said Daelin was a nightmare when he hadn’t eaten…
It should have been a simple detail. One last humiliation, one last pass of the whetstone over Jaina’s guillotine. It didn’t make any difference in the end, forcing her to put her signature on the grand court decision to find her guilty of multiple counts of treason; just a way to remind her of her place.
But she’d fired on those ships because they were blatantly robbing her own, harassing and stealing food from the mouths of refugees trying desperately to scrape a new life from the rock in Kalimdor. Kul Tiras could have been their staunchest ally, could have offered them citizenship as friends rather than as a stern parent informing them they would only get dessert if they stopped shouting and came inside to supper right this minute, and mind you don’t track mud indoors.
The only ones to reach out an honest hand had been the Horde, and Jaina had already been forced to effectively repudiate them. She’d be damned if she stood here and said she’d been wrong to do what any red-blooded Kul Tiran did to pirates!
“I won’t.” She’d planted her feet, recognized the stubborn set of her own chin. “I won’t do it. Go to hell.”
“Watch your tongue,” her father growled.
“Read my lips,” she spat back. “I’m not signing it. I was justified in protecting my people and defending my own shipping. I’ve given you your damn pretext for this war.” The Admiral was puffed up like an angry cat, and they’d made no progress for the past ten minutes, so Jaina held up a hand in a sharp, jerking motion. “I won’t sign a retraction, but I won’t insist on having the refusal in writing. You can save face, I don’t care.”
His eyes narrowed, just slightly, and she knew she’d won.
“This,” he said, words clipped as he took the unsigned statement back and rolled it away, “is not over.”
“I’m sure I’ll be reminded of it frequently on the journey back to Boralus, Father.” Ignoring the low rumble of warning, she finally picked up her pen and signed the treaty. Jaina knew that anxiety made her handwriting cramp; Modera had once commented that you needed a magnifying glass to read her notes during exam season. Today, despite the fear clinging to her bones, she refused to let it control her. Her signature was loose and bold, and near enough to the bottom of the page that if her father wanted to match it, he would have to put his mark above hers.
Where history would always see it first. One last victory, she thought as she turned the scroll and watched him do just that.
The moment his signature confirmed the terms set, Jaina snapped her fingers and created a magical replica. “Here,” she said. “Have your scribe confirm these are identical copies, then she can create two more and my people will go over them later. I want a copy to keep in Theramore, and I’m sending duplicates to Stormwind and Orgrimmar.”
“Some people might trust in the honor of Kul Tiras,” her father said acidly.
Jaina stood and looked him in the eye. “Some people might.”
Waves broke on the rocks, a steady counter-harmony to Jaina’s racing heartbeat, as they stared at each other. Finally, the Kul Tiran scribe spoke.
“It’s clean, Lord Admiral.” She slid Jaina’s duplicate into a case and held it out; Pained stepped forward to take it. The woman—older than Jaina, younger than her mother, with bright red hair—laid out two more rolls of parchment on the table and tapped the original with her knuckle. After a moment, the ink replicated itself twice over. These copies didn’t get scroll cases, but the scribe was polite enough to fasten them each closed with a leather strap before handing them to Pained as well.
Nervousness fluttered in Jaina’s stomach. “That’s done, then.” There was only one thing left…
The Lord Admiral stood straight, looking at her coldly, then folded his hands behind his back.
“Place your staff on the table.”
“Wait,” Jaina blurted.
“Negotiations are over, Jaina.”
“This is unrelated—Lord Admiral, before being taken prisoner I wish to surrender an ancestral weapon!”
It was an old tradition, but it still held. Ancestral weapons were a symbol of an entire family line. If their bearer was disgraced, their effects would be confiscated—and ultimately either destroyed, pass into national coffers, or be divided up among guards, the headsman, soldiers involved in the individual’s capture. If the owner of a true ancestral weapon were being placed under arrest but had not yet been searched, they had the right to formally give up such a symbol, and allow the Admiralty to place it in the trust of “a worthy heir”.
The decision was always highly political; countless blood feuds had been formed and families torn apart by the simple choice of who inherited a weapon surrendered under disgrace. But legally, the Admiralty was bound to pass it to the closest “suitable” heir, and could not pass it outside the direct family line. It was better than losing a thousand-year-old sword to your executioner, and the option was nearly always taken.
Of course, it only applied to weapons that one could convincingly argue were representative of a true legacy.
Trying not to chew her lip, Jaina unslung her staff and held it in front of her.
Her father gave a quiet snort. “I think not. You do not constitute your own legacy.”
Pained, for the first time, spoke. Her musical voice was even. “It was a gift from Antonidas.”
“My inheritance from Antonidas,” Jaina corrected reflexively. The difference was everything. “He had no other apprentice, and...to my knowledge, no other heir.”
Her father didn’t look convinced. “And this was passed on while he still lived?”
“Yes. He placed it in my hands.”
Maybe he would listen after all. For a legacy weapon to pass out of a direct bloodline and still be considered ancestral, the inheritance had to be done with intent; Jaina taking her master’s staff from his body, for example, didn’t count. The only reason to clarify that legality…
It wasn’t a Kul Tiran weapon. Really, technically, the Lord Admiral was under no obligation to treat the staff with any special consideration, and after the way today had gone Jaina already regretted showing any attachment to it at all. That was all the reason her father likely needed to have it destroyed the moment he could find a powerful enough mage.
But the context was everything. Surrendering an ancestral weapon to the Admiralty meant acknowledging yourself as unworthy to carry it. It was done only when the bearer had disgraced their bloodline so thoroughly that they willingly cut themselves away from its symbol.
It was not an action without repercussions, and the implications fed into precisely the narrative her father wanted.
“Very well,” he decided. “The Admiralty will take it in trust, and transfer ownership to a more deserving heir of your bloodline.”
Tandred, then. It was better than nothing. Maybe someday he would have a magically-gifted child Jaina would never get to meet.
A child that might have been her apprentice someday…
Her father jerked his head. “Search her.”
Pained gave a low hiss. One of the guards raised a crossbow; Jaina stepped between them, hands raised.
It would have been a more effective calming gesture if she had remembered to put the staff down first.
When everyone had calmed down again, an Admiralty guard inched forward, glancing between Jaina’s staff and the equally deadly glow of Pained’s narrowed eyes. Being very careful not to make any sudden movements this time, Jaina placed her staff on the table and—very, very slowly—laced her fingers behind her head.
Despite Pained’s visible agony, the marine lieutenant was rough and a bit pushy, but mostly professional. He turned out her pockets and took a pouch of reagents and a holdout wand off her belt, obviously, and rather than risk any ugliness Jaina mentioned the dagger in her boot herself; then he hesitated, came back, and slipped the belt from around her waist entirely.
“You’ve expressed a willingness to take extreme measures in order to avoid facing sentencing in Kul Tiras, ma’am,” he explained in a neutral tone. Carefully neutral, the neutrality of a man who was only holding back out of determination that her punishment be scrupulously within the law so no one could later say she hadn’t deserved it.
Putting her on suicide watch was all well and good but removing her belt was a bit pointless when they weren’t doing anything about the laces in her corset, Jaina thought irritably. Tides knew she wasn’t about to point that out.
Everything else was just the usual mild humiliations that came of trying to imprison a mage. A ring that had been her mother’s might be a focusing crystal, the embroidery on her skirt might contain pre-prepared runes, and other such nonsense. Janene had done Jaina’s hair for her this morning, as Jaina had never had the gift of managing anything more complicated than a secure braid on her own; it was off her neck in Kul Tiran style, but more intricate, more delicate, a Lordaeron fashion that no longer existed.
“Ow,” Jaina muttered. The marine excused himself in the same flat tone as he continued plucking the pins from her hair, seemingly unimpressed with how stupid she thought they were.
Only one of them had any magic in it, a sliver of kaldorei silver with a small moonstone and a very, very mild healing enchantment. She regretted letting Pained give it to her; there was no way they would let her have it back, and Jaina didn’t bother asking.
Too soon, they were finished, and she couldn’t help but stiffen as an officer stepped forward carrying heavy shackles that pulsed with angry violet light.
She’d rather hoped her father wouldn’t have any truly powerful arcane dampening shackles on hand. In retrospect, that was a foolish wish. He’d come for her, after all.
Jaina barely had time for her breath to catch. One moment the woman was moving toward her, and she took half a step back out of reflex; the next she knew the echo of metal striking metal was already fading in her ears. Experimentally, she tried to summon a frostbolt; she couldn’t even dredge up any power for the spell, let alone manage to release it, and she swore as a bolt of pain lanced up her arm, buzzing like an angry wasp at the nerves in her elbow before fading petulantly into nothing.
“Pained?” she managed.
“I’m here, my lady.”
“Please make sure those copies are checked against mine, and that someone delivers them to Thrall and Varian,” she said, her own voice tinny and distant in her ears. “You know where I keep my letters, there are several of a personal nature I’d appreciate you sending out as well, and one for you—”
“I’ll see it done, Jaina.”
“I know you will. I never deserved you, Pained, I’m so sorry it’s come to this—”
“Let’s go.” They’d at least done her the courtesy of binding her hands in front of her body, but Jaina still stumbled as she was tugged forward by the elbow.
“Thank you,” she said in a rush, twisting to keep her bodyguard in sight. Pained’s ears were twitching in obvious distress, and Jaina fought to keep her voice calm. “Thank you for everything, I could never repay you even if—”
“That’s enough,” her escort said, more firmly, and Jaina nearly fell flat on her face because she hadn’t noticed the rowboat she was being steered into.
She tried not to think, as the Tidesage sped them across the water, about how deathly silent Theramore had gone. The only prayer she could think of was that they wouldn’t hate her for her weakness, for giving up in the end. That would be more than she could bear, even with the promise of her looming execution.
In a kind of dubious mercy, Jaina failed to register much of anything as she was hauled onboard Tempest. A hand on her shoulder—she didn’t even notice whose—guided her belowdecks and then shifted to a firm hold on the back of her neck. Jaina had expected a brig; but, she realized, whatever he might think of her she was still the Admiral’s daughter. The optics of throwing her in a filthy cage awash with bilgewater might have been viscerally satisfying to Kul Tiras in general—but it simply wouldn’t do, politically.
She spared a thought for whatever officer had been turned out of their cabin to make room for her.
The brief thought was all she had time for before she was given a hard shove between her shoulderblades and stumbled forward, with no time to even turn before the door was slammed behind her, a lock striking home.
Blinking in the sudden gloom, bleary-eyed like she’d just woken from deep sleep, Jaina tried to take in her surroundings. Tempest had always been as good a home to her as any; her father’s flagship, warm and noble and protecting her as she found adventure in its hidden spaces.
This...wasn’t the ship she remembered.
It was an officer’s cabin, or had been until recently. But no one lived in this space, not anymore. It had been stripped to the bulkheads of anything resembling usefulness or comfort, even a lamp. Faded places on the walls and places with less grime forced into the wood grain suggested there had been some limited furniture recently; a sea chest, what might have been a map pinned up. Rivet holes in the wall suggested whoever this was had enough seniority to rate a desk in his cabin, despite its small size. Marks on the beams above her head showed where the previous occupant had slung his hammock, and a glance at the door confirmed the knob had been reversed, probably earlier that day.
It occurred to her that the hammock as well had been removed, and had not been replaced with anything. That was just petty.
The cabin was, generously, the size of a closet; she’d turned out a fairly high-ranking officer, then, with space on warships at such a premium. There was a chamber pot with a securable lid fastened firmly in one corner, at least; and that was clearly a very new addition for Jaina’s benefit. The only other feature was a single porthole at just below head height, padlocked shut, through which she could see the empty horizon.
Jaina hadn’t looked back while on the rowboat, she realized suddenly. And now her only view of the world was from the wrong side of the ship.
She’d lost her chance to see Theramore one last time.
The wave of loss was more profound than anything she could possibly have been ready for. It was a thousand things at once, and she didn’t have the strength to mourn them. The soft light of dawn through the windows of her tower. The rough-hewn stone walls of a citadel that sang with life and defiant joy around her. Pained. Vol’jin’s hard-earned smiles of approval at the end of a long day, the snap of a blue-on-grey flag in the breeze, cheerful toasts to the crocolisk may it burn in hell and never grace my plate again, Antonidas’ final blessing cool and constant at her back, the rare visit to Orgrimmar to share a quiet meal with Thrall where all talk of politics was banned—
She’d never even had the chance to mourn Arthas—
One last dubious mercy: Jaina never noticed the moment she broke down. All she knew was that somehow she had curled into a ball in the corner, that her body had finally remembered how to cry, and that she couldn’t stop.
The click of the lock, and the turn of a key in another, were all the warning Jaina had before her door was thrown open.
She scrambled to her feet and back against the hull, stumbling as the ship rolled. Silently, she cursed herself for it. She hadn’t been onboard a ship for the past year, landbound at Theramore, but still. She was a daughter of Kul Tiras. It was embarrassing to know she’d lost her sea legs.
Especially in front of the Admiral.
The door bounced off the wall with the force of his anger. Someone on the other side, a guard, reached in to catch it and quietly pulled it closed. Jaina braced herself against the rough, familiar wood and lifted her chin.
“You worthless traitor,” he snarled.
Getting right into it, then. That was good. Jaina always hated having to wait for things.
She kept her voice dull and even. “Hello, Father.”
“Make no mistake. Were you anyone but my daughter, you would be strung from a yardarm while your den of thieves watched.” In the close quarters of the cabin, Daelin Proudmoore seemed to fill all available space. Jaina struggled to stay at parade rest, head high and refusing to look at him, as he continued. “I expect you think yourself some kind of hero.”
Jaina sucked her tongue to keep from responding. Her silence did her no favors.
“Look me in the eye, Jaina.” Glaring, she obeyed. “You are no martyr. You are a turncoat seditionist, forced to surrender and brought to justice in chains, and you will die bearing that mark. And for what? You disgraced your name and your family, betrayed your kingdom, killed your own people! As if breaking faith with your very race were not enough for you—Jaina, I am ashamed to call you my daughter.”
“Finally,” Jaina replied hollowly, unable to stop herself. She dropped her gaze to the side. “Something we agree on.”
Her father’s eyes hardened. “I should have known something like this would happen,” he growled. “You were always willful, and like a fool I encouraged it. I should never have sent you to Dalaran.” He gave a disgusted wave of the hand. “Elves and ivory-tower wizards. This is what happens when you let your heir into the hands of mainland academics who’ve never hauled sail line or seen the carnage of a Horde raid with their own eyes. Soft hands and softer minds, filling my daughter’s head with pretty abstract theories until you forget what you are—”
Her head snapped up. “Don’t you dare talk about Antonidas like—”
“I turned my back on you once and this is the result! In the unlikely event that you escape the hangman’s noose, my dear, I can assure you, I will not make that mistake again.”
Magic tried to flare in her hands and sparked against the binding irons, pain like splinters of cold steel piercing her bones. Jaina clenched her fists against the spike of agony, hissing a breath through her teeth.
She wanted to answer, acid-dripping retorts burning holes in her tongue, but they wouldn’t do her any good. This wasn’t a debate. It wasn’t even an argument. This was a dressing-down from the Admiral, and while he praised the kind of officer who led with quiet, soft-spoken competence he had always been of the bellow their arses off persuasion himself.
The best way to weather that kind of hurricane was to clench your jaw, hold your tongue and wait it out. Given no fuel, his fury might rattle the heavens but it would burn itself out fast enough.
His voice had a serrated edge, harsh and hard; Jaina had thought she was used to it, that it couldn’t hurt her this way anymore. “Do you have any idea how many lives you’ve cost? Consorting with orcs, welcoming trolls inside your walls! If I had realized how far you intended to carry this foolish venture I would have dragged you off that rock the moment I arrived, and not wasted my time indulging you!”
“Name one thing you did to help my city!” It exploded from her like magic, like shattering glass. “You showed up at our doorstep with an army, broke our treaties, antagonized our allies and forced my people into the crossfire, then tried to starve the human survivors into submission because you lost a war we told you not to fight! If it hadn’t been for Thrall we all would have died because of—”
The slap was deafening.
Jaina stumbled with the force of it, banging her shoulder against the wall. One hand flew to her burning cheek, the reflex more from shock than pain. The pain was bad enough, she thought, dumbfounded, but it might have been worse. Shipboard discipline was brutal and sailors talked, and they all spoke in fearful awestruck whispers of what the Admiral’s arm could do with cat’o’nine tails; he could likely have drawn blood with an ungloved hand, if he tried…
But he’d never, never in Jaina’s life—
It was her mother who made threats, when she and Tandred got into a truly egregious degree of mischief; their greatest adventures came with a soundtrack of Katherine Proudmoore’s emphatic and creative promises to have them both whipped within an inch of their lives if they ever caused her such trouble again. But such dire warnings were only ever Kul Tiran hyperbole, they’d always known that in their bones. She was no more serious about switchings than about sewing them into a sack of bilge rats and throwing it in the harbor.
Their father was the Lord Admiral, however; he knew he was a hard man with a loud voice and he had never wanted his children to be afraid of him. And so he might have yelled and cursed but he never threatened, not even as a joke.
Jaina didn’t doubt he meant it when he swore to see her executed, but that was...different…
“I trust,” her father said coldly, “this was the last time I will hear that name from you.”
Wiping hot tears from her eyes, too stunned to answer, Jaina put a hand to her jaw as if that would somehow make her remember how to speak. By the time she understood what had happened, the door had already slammed shut behind him.
After a moment, she heard the clang of a deadbolt driving home.
If Jaina sat with her back against the door, she could see the sky through her tiny window. Occasionally, she even got glimpses of the crests of waves, when the wind picked up enough to throw spray as high as the middle deck of a man-of-war.
That was a nice change of pace, when it happened.
She would have preferred watching the sea. But with the ceiling already just barely high enough that her father could stand without stooping, and the porthole at a convenient height only for someone seated in a chair she didn’t have, the pain in her neck had grown agonizing after only a few hours.
Jaina gave a quiet, bitter laugh at the thought. Pain in her neck. She thought back to her father’s repeated, vitriolic promises of hanging. Pain in her neck. It was funny.
It was possible Jaina’s sanity was slipping, just a bit.
It had been seven days since anyone last spoke to her.
Hazarding a guess, the only one with clearance to do so was the Lord Admiral, and he’d declined to grace her with his presence since that first day. The guards never spoke except to order her back against the wall when the door opened. Jaina spared another, twisted laugh for the fact that the traitorous witch, the shameless murderer, wasn’t restrained except for the dampening shackles and a lock on her window. Because, after all, she was a noblewoman who had given her word not to escape, and Tides forbid they not believe her.
Rightfully speaking, having given parole in such fashion they shouldn’t have placed her behind a locked door, but then she technically only qualified as a midshipman for naval purposes. Ceremonially a lieutenant, but in actual fact the lowest possible gentleman’s rank. It wasn’t an insult, or hadn’t been; she had gone to Dalaran rather than the service, and had no official experience in shipboard command.
She let her eyes drift closed and her mind wander. It wasn’t as if she had anything better to do.
The guards wouldn’t speak to her and she had nothing she could ask them anyway. The only thing she could think of was Theramore, and Kul Tiras would have no news from home. If they did, it would be in blatant violation of the treaty; not that anyone in the Navy would care, but they certainly wouldn’t tell Jaina about it.
As it happened she was only passably familiar with one young officer, a weedy redhead whose obvious nerves made Jaina suspect there had been a drawing of straws and the poor thing had lost. The nerves weren’t enough to cover his obvious hostility, regardless.
She’d tried, once or twice, to ask the young man’s name, but she’d never gotten a response. The only interaction was a silent leaving of food near the door, and the removal and return of the chamber pot, twice a day. The latter, admittedly, a duty that inclined neither of them toward eye contact or a desire to speak to one another for any reason.
That being said, Redhead knew more than enough about Jaina. A little reciprocity might have been nice.
Failing that Jaina would settle for being looked at when she spoke.
She wasn’t sleeping well, for some reason. With no hammock or, in fact, bedding, it would have been difficult enough. Folding up her cloak at least gave her a pillow, but she was developing bruises from trying to sleep on the bare wooden floor; and Tempest was never still. Jaina frequently woke herself when the ship heeled particularly sharply, rolling her over and face-first into a wall. Besides, even having to take the southern transit around the Maelstrom, a ship on the open ocean could get cold at night.
And the watch officers knew exactly where Jaina was being held. If she’d had a timepiece she could have set it by the regularity of something, whether it be a conveniently dropped weight or simply a hard boot, crashing loudly onto the deck above her head.
She was dozing, though not asleep, when the sound of the locks being undone jolted her back to alertness. She squinted blearily at the port. Had she fallen asleep? No, they never fed her until nearly dark. And it was summer, so if they were looping south it ought to be getting dark earlier rather than later, there was no reason why anyone would be coming to her in the middle of the day…
In the time it took for her to run those mental calculations the deadbolt had been drawn, and her eyes widened. Her father liked to throw doors open, which was unfortunate, because she was sitting right behind it.
She had time to yank her fingers out of the way and cover her head, and braced for an impact that never came. Instead, there was a polite knock on the door.
Jaina blinked rapidly. That was... very new. With only a little difficulty, she got to her feet and stood back against the far corner of the room.
“I…” she said, voice raspy with disuse. She cleared her throat, and tried again. “Come in?”
The door opened, and her mouth went dry.
“No,” she said, pressing into the wood in a futile attempt to get further away from him. “No, no, no, not you.”
Tandred paused. “All right,” he said slowly. “I’ll admit, that wasn’t the response I was hoping for.”
“Leave me alone, Tandred,” she begged. “Whatever you want to say to me it’s nothing I haven’t heard already. Don’t force me to—not you too.”
Moving carefully, as if trying not to spook a wild horse, Tandred closed the door behind him.
“Easy,” he said. “I’m not here to keelhaul you, Jaina. I just want to talk.”
She scoffed, more vicious than she would have been if she weren’t so terrified of how deeply her little brother could cut her with a single harsh word. “Tell it to the marines, Tandred, they’ll believe anything.”
Rather than respond, he looked around and finally gestured toward a patch of bare wood. “May I sit down?”
It was a bizarre request, as if he were a young lordling meeting his sister in her parlor rather than the de facto heir to Kul Tiras sprawling on the floor of a prisoner’s cell. Unable to think of anything to say that wouldn’t be equally ridiculous—what was she meant to do, tell him no? —Jaina nodded. Her brother flopped down with evident pleasure, setting aside a small scroll case and an inkwell.
Jaina’s eyes narrowed.
“I’m not signing it, Tandred,” she said sharply.
“I was hoping to get a chance to lead up to it. Jaina, sit down, won’t you?”
“I said no.”
He rolled his eyes, the expression so familiar that it jerked at Jaina’s heart. “Really? This is the line you won’t cross?”
She didn’t intend to fold her arms. It was a vulnerable gesture, she’d been coached in body language her whole life, but she couldn’t help it. Tandred was...not nearly as angry as she’d expected, but that could change at any moment. Hatred from him would destroy her.
“I won’t apologize for protecting my people,” she said, somehow, around the block of lead in her throat. “I won’t dishonor them that way. You have no right—you have no idea what you’re telling me to—”
Tandred held up his hands. “Reef sail, there, Jaina, aye? I said I didn’t want to fight.”
Breathing heavily, Jaina dug her fingernails into her arms but reluctantly fell silent. Looking hopeful, he gestured to the floor across from himself; she glared, and he made a face and moved on.
“You’re right,” he said. “I really do want to talk, Jaina. I mean, I know what Mum and Dad say, but...they’re…”
“Very angry,” Jaina supplied flatly.
Tandred offered her a weak smile. “You really are a diplomat.” When that didn’t get a response, he sighed. “I know there’s more to this business with...you call it Teramore, aye? Than they like to pretend.”
“Right. I was hoping I could hear it from you, and...then I’ll decide how angry with you I am.”
Jaina hadn’t forgotten the innocuous unsigned admission-of-wrongdoing he’d brought with him; she knew her father had put him up to this. But he was also the first person to talk to her in a week, and he’d placed himself in a nonthreatening position, looked her in the eye, used her name and Theramore’s name without twisting it to sound like a slur. He was offering to listen. He was her little brother…
Stiff and tense, she sat down across from him.
“I suppose you know,” she began haltingly. “What happened at Stratholme.”
That was where it had started, after all. That was where everything had started. Where everything in the world had begun to go so terribly wrong…
It was the first time Jaina had gotten the chance to sit down like this and tell someone what had happened. Stumbling, stammering, sometimes moving on before having to go back on a seemingly unrelated track that wouldn’t be relevant until later—but telling the story in its entirety, its inevitability. She didn’t know how, except by starting at the beginning.
Tandred had never been a terribly patient young man, which was no surprise. He was a teenage boy, a Kul Tiran, and a Proudmoore, which was about three levels of insufferability too many. He was a surprisingly good listener, for all that. He kept his exasperation at Jaina’s occasional tangents to a minimum, interrupted only to ask questions, and left her alone during sections of the narrative still too raw to manage without her voice breaking. Despite opening his mouth and frowning several times once she got to the parts involving Kul Tiran infractions, he even refrained from arguing any points until she was done.
He rubbed the back of his neck, wincing at her account of the negotiations. “I did get the staff,” he admitted. “I’ve got it in my cabin on...on my ship. I can promise you I’ll see it’s taken care of.”
“Thank you.” Jaina shot him a look. “And what ship, Tandred, you know it’s bad luck not to use her name.”
He had the grace to look ashamed. “She might be Peacebloom. There are worse little brigs in the fleet, and the Admiralty board thought I should have a command of my own. Since...”
Jaina forced down her fury. It wasn’t Tandred’s fault, what they’d done to that poor ship. At least there had been enough compassion or superstition in the Admiralty not to strip her of her name. “Since you’re the heir now.”
She made a face, but couldn’t muster an emotional reaction to that. It certainly wasn’t as if she wanted to be Lord Admiral, even if Kul Tiras would ever have accepted her now. Part of her had always toyed with abdicating in Tandred’s favor so that she could focus on her duties as an archmage in Dalaran, someday.
At one time, the only source of unhappiness in that daydream had been a small flush of embarrassment, at the sheer arrogance of assuming she would become an archmage.
At one time, the dream had been slightly different, with golden-haired children in the palace of Lordaeron…
“Well?” she asked, quietly. “You said you were going to decide how angry to be. You’ll have a lot to live up to, you know, Father stopped by a few hours after we left Dustwallow.”
Tandred ran a hand through his hair. He was a man now, Jaina thought. He’d broken twenty, he had the patchy beginnings of a dark blonde beard that their father would probably make him shave soon until he could grow a full one.
“I think you should have come home when you were summoned,” he said. There was anger in his tone, and a bit of betrayal; but not much, no more than if she’d snuck out of her room for a pub crawl because she was angry after an argument with her mother. Not that Jaina knew anyone by the name of Tandred Proudmoore who would ever do something like that precise example. “That would have been the responsible thing to do, to keep this from escalating. And I wish you’d just sign this concession, Jaina.”
There wasn’t any heat in her voice this time. “No.”
Jaina nearly snapped that calling it treason for Lordaeron citizens to fire on Kul Tiran ships trying to seize their legal cargo was nothing short of incoherent. She stopped herself. That wasn’t the reason. It was true, but it wasn’t what she was digging in her heels against.
She took a deep breath.
“Acknowledging wrongdoing in firing on those ships,” she said carefully, “is the same as saying Kul Tiras had the moral right to starve Theramore in order to punish me. I’d be saying that defending my people is something I regret, and that the right thing to do would have been to just...hand over the supplies and money that we earned, that we needed to survive. I won’t do it.”
Tandred sat forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “You agreed to sign that Theramore was Kul Tiran by right in the first place when not even Father believes that. You can put your name to this, I promise you. And then it will be over.”
Jaina’s anger was starting to pick up again. “Why is this so important to you, Tandred?”
“Because you’re my sister, and I’m trying to save your life!”
Jaina rubbed her temples, fighting back yet another tension headache. “And you think pleading guilty to treason will save my life?” Somehow, she put only a little ice in the question. “No. I’m in the right, and I agreed to legitimize Father’s claim because I traded it for emancipation. The treaty is signed, I won’t get any more concessions, and I won’t betray myself any more than I already have.”
“Didn't…Father says he offered to lift the trade embargo against Theramore, if you signed it…”
There was much more than a hint of ice in her answer this time. “We managed just fine without Kul Tiran trade, if you recall. It was an insult trying to bribe me with something Theramore neither needs nor wants. Frankly I’d be happy to never see green sails in my harbor again.”
Tandred looked pained.
“You won’t see them, if you’re dead.” Hesitantly, voice softer than she’d ever heard it, he said, “Jaina...you’re not pleading guilty. You were...already convicted, remember? The trial is over, you’re not allowed to make any more arguments in your defense.”
She had, briefly, somehow managed to forget. After a moment, she took a shaky breath. “Exactly. It won’t make any difference. I’ll be damned if I give them the satisfaction.”
“It might make a difference still.” Tandred reached out toward her, then seemed to think better of it. “You haven’t been officially sentenced, Jaina! If you keep defying the Admiralty…”
“The Admiralty?” she asked sharply. “Or is it just the Admiral?”
He didn’t quite wince.
“Father won’t tell you this,” Tandred said. “But he promised before he left Boralus that if you cooperated, he would try to mitigate your sentence if he could. You surrendered, and that’s something. He told me that if you...show remorse, say that you were wrong, that might appease the courts enough for him to get you free of the gallows. For our mother’s sake.”
Jaina gave a twisted estimation of a smile. “And you believe him?”
Tandred blinked, taken aback. Jaina closed her eyes, shook her head, and turned away.
After several long minutes of silence, her brother got to his feet.
“I’d leave it here for you,” he said. “But...Admiral’s orders. Leaving inscription materials with a powerful mage…”
“Take it with you.” Gods, she was so tired. “They’re going to kill me either way. I’ll die with my head up.”
Tandred placed a hand on the doorknob, then hesitated.
“I’ll see if I can get you a hammock,” he said quietly.
This was not the kind of conversation Jaina had hoped to get out of her guards.
Tandred had not, ultimately, been able to arrange for a hammock in the last three days. Jaina hadn’t expected him to. Frankly, she was surprised that they actually bothered feeding her. The feed was hardtack, mashed peas, and raisins with overcooked salt pork three times per week; but it was, by the most technical definition, food.
So calling it a surprise when her door unexpectedly opened early one afternoon would be an understatement. She’d heard the whistled signal for all hands to assemble on deck, but had rather assumed she wasn’t invited.
The two guards who entered could not have been more different. One was slight, her strawberry-blonde hair pulled back in an efficient bun; she wore the uniform of a shipboard marine with the rank insignia of a major. The other wore the rough clothes of an ordinary sailor, and she was built...much more along typical Kul Tiran lines. Broad shoulders, large hands, strong jaw, and close-cropped black hair, with a marlinspike in her belt.
As they stepped into the room, the marine officer set aside what at first glance looked like a mage’s staff. Only at first glance, however; even without touching it Jaina could sense it was nothing but a glass orb on a stick, no magic in it at all.
The sailor carried a bundle of fabric, which she held out silently until Jaina took it.
The marine spoke. “You’ve got ten minutes.”
Frowning, Jaina turned the bundle over in her hands. Close-fitting grey trousers, with laces in the calf to prevent loose fabric from billowing; white linen shirt, a sturdy forest-green strip of canvas to tie back her hair... A single white button clattered to the floor as she picked through the clothing—a midshipman’s collar flash.
Jaina froze, looking up at the guards warily. “Why?”
The marine raised an eyebrow. “Because you were told to change. Nine minutes now, by the way. Drag your feet if you like, Proudmoore. You’re coming on deck when your time’s up and I don’t care whether you’ve got clothes on.”
Jaina glanced between them warily. “I’m fine with what I’m wearing.”
She’d been wearing it for almost two weeks and it showed; in reality she was more than eager for fresh clothes, preferably after a long and extremely hot bath, but there were too many implications in wearing a Navy uniform.
Maybe if she left the rank insignia off…
The marine smirked, something dark and cruel in the expression. “Feel free to show up to your own court-martial out of uniform. I would love to watch you flogged against a mast.”
Jaina glared, but didn’t correct her. She’d pled no contest specifically to avoid the hassle of a court-martial that would only ever end one way; even if she hadn’t, being convicted of treason was for some reason considered to disqualify one from naval service. These would be expulsion proceedings, nothing more.
Her father likely considered it a sign of restraint that he wasn’t having her publicly beaten. Unless he was going to.
Rather than follow that train of thought anywhere, Jaina held up her bound hands. “And how am I meant to change?”
The sailor stepped forward with a key. Jaina had a moment of hope; she had no intention of fighting her way free even if there had been anywhere to escape to, but dampeners were uncomfortable and even a few minutes of freedom would do wonders for her mental health. Her hopes were instantly dashed. The shackles were unlocked in the center, leaving Jaina with one independently functional dampening cuff on each wrist.
With a wave of annoyance she realized there was no reason they couldn’t have done that ten days ago.
Choosing not to give either of them the satisfaction of pointing that out, Jaina dropped everything but the shirt in a pile with ill grace and began irritably loosening her stays.
After a moment she glanced up and arched a brow at her guards. She raised a hand and twirled her finger in the air. “A little privacy.”
The sailor at least had the courtesy to drop her eyes slightly, though she didn’t turn away. “Orders say to keep an eye on you. You’re a condemned prisoner.”
“I haven’t been condemned yet,” Jaina muttered under her breath. “Not technically.”
“Tell yourself that all you like,” drawled the marine. She gave Jaina a smirking once-over. “Six minutes, but take your time. My men could use the show.”
“You don’t have a watch, you have no idea what time it is,” Jaina snapped. She was ignored.
Since neither of them were apparently going to turn around, Jaina did so herself. It was a thin approximation of modesty in such close quarters, but better than nothing.
At least in theory.
Strawberry-Blonde gave an appreciative whistle as Jaina kicked off her skirts, reaching down to snatch up her borrowed trousers.
“Not bad at all, traitor,” she murmured as Jaina jerked upright and flushed. “I can appreciate what an orc chieftain sees in you now. Or sees what could be in you.”
“Pipe down, Newfield,” growled the black-haired sailor. Jaina was suddenly, pathetically grateful for her presence. “She’s a prisoner.”
The marine looked Jaina dead in the eye as she responded. “Oh, of course. I forgot her tastes don’t run toward human these days.”
Jaina did her best to finish dressing while her guards bickered. By her estimation they’d just about passed the ten-minute mark, but the distraction allowed her a few precious seconds to pull her tangled, greasy hair into a braid. Not a good one, but better than nothing.
It did nothing to ease the sick jolt in her stomach, or the pounding in her ears.
“...so excuse me for not having seen my girl in Boralus for months because of this murderous bitch.”
“Haven’t seen my wife in longer, and remind me who’s got a fancy commission saying she knows how to wipe her own arse—”
“I wonder how the Captain will feel about how much care you show for imprisoned rebels.” With a filthy look as the woman’s jaw slammed shut, she added, “And watch your mouth with me. You’re only a bosun’s mate, and you can be demoted.”
“Not by you I can’t,” she snarled.
Strawberry Bitch cast around for a target, and zeroed in on Jaina. “Time’s up,” she snapped.
Thanking the Light for that brief diversion, Jaina shrugged her Admiralty cloak around her shoulders. The marine snapped her fingers, holding a hand out; but the bosun’s mate conveniently did not notice her, stepping forward herself. With the alternative so painfully obvious, Jaina let the woman pull her hands behind her back and re-fasten the shackles.
Clearly irritated, the marine moved forward and picked the collar flash up off the ground. A sharp jerk at Jaina’s lapel turned her, and with her hands behind her back Jaina couldn’t even grab the insignia and attach it herself.
The blonde major’s touch was absolutely nothing but professional, Jaina couldn’t deny that. She was standing far too close, but her hands never wandered, fingers doing nothing but attaching the little flash of white cloth. There would have been nothing untoward about it at all—were it not for the burning, unbroken eye contact, the taunt at the corner of the woman’s lips.
As a final touch the prop staff was slung across Jaina’s back, the strap tangling awkwardly with her bound arms. It was useless, of course, but necessary for this kind of thing; as a mage, it would serve the same purpose as a ceremonial rapier.
And so it did.
It was...a normal naval expulsion ceremony, which meant Jaina was shaking by the time it was over despite knowing she bore no shame. Despite not having ever been a naval officer except on paper.
Her father wore a coiled whip at his belt, and Jaina knew he’d seen the blood drain from her face the moment she was shoved onto the deck and saw it. He never used it, never even laid a hand on the hilt. He had no need to; the ceremony was whiplash enough. The slow drums, the ritual stripping of the rank insignia as her “crimes” were recited. The hate-filled disdain on every face.
Despite knowing what would come, despite it only being a prop, despite her desperate efforts to remain coldly impassive...Jaina cringed when the Lord Admiral snapped her staff.
And then it was over, or should have been; but Jaina was no ordinary officer, and this was about far more than naval discipline. She tried instinctively to back away, but an Admiralty marine put a blunted sword between her shoulder blades and forced her to stand and take it.
Drawing a knife, her father advanced on her and cut the Proudmoore crest from the clasp of her cloak.
She tried, she tried, she managed not to cry outright; but by the time she was able to blink rebellious tears away enough to clear her vision, the door to her room was already locked behind her.
It was almost another full week before she saw Tandred again.
The isolation was...beginning to get to her. Large chunks of each day were nothing but a grey haze in her memory, unbroken even by watch changes anymore. She snatched her catnaps when she could, and tried not to think what awaited her in Boralus. A good portion of the journey was behind them already.
For a while, in a possibly poorly-conceived attempt to stay sane, Jaina had tried talking to herself. Reciting elemental tables, at first. When she ran out, she moved on to lists of reagents and chemical equations. She’d been working on a particularly thorny problem in theoretical mass teleportation, before Theramore fell under siege; she’d spent several hours talking out loud to the wall, trying to reconstruct the essential concepts in her head.
She hadn’t been speaking loudly. Barely a conversational tone, just trying to fill the silence. A sudden loud banging at the door, one of this shift’s guards yelling at her to shut up, had nearly given her a heart attack.
Far more unsettling than the shock was the reminder of how little privacy there was onboard ship.
She’d made a few halfhearted attempts to run through similar exercises in her head, but...somehow she just couldn’t make her thoughts stay…
She knew her father’s tread. He hadn’t bothered speaking to her since that first awful day, reading charges at a farce of a court-martial didn’t count; but she’d been raised by the man. And no one else aboard Tempest would have the nerve to stomp so loudly, the entitlement in the impatient tread storming toward her door; when you served on the Admiral’s flagship, you knew better than to out-tantrum the Admiral.
Even with her mind fuzzy and detached, Jaina couldn’t resist rolling her eyes as those furious footsteps approached her door. More than two weeks since their shouting match, and presumably he’d finally thought of some cruel accusation he’d forgotten the first time.
“And another thing—!” she muttered under her breath as she stood, moving into the far corner to wait. The locks were undone, bolt thrown clear, and the door burst open and bounced off the wall where Jaina had just been sitting.
“Hello—” she opened wearily, then blinked. “Tandred?”
Her brother raised a hand, slicing a missive with a broken seal through the air, and shouted, “I take it you knew about this!”
Jaina could do nothing but stare at him in bewilderment. Was he possessed? Obviously she had no idea what he was on about, but she barely had any idea who he was. Tandred—well all right, he was his father’s son, but this was…
“Tandred,” she said. “What are you talking —”
“You went behind our backs!” Tandred had never used anything that could be called a roar before. “We negotiated your peaceful surrender in good faith and the whole time you were planning to threaten us into releasing you. Or do you have a rescue planned? It won’t work. We’re prepared for it now.”
Jaina was done.
“If I was planning to go back on my word,” she hissed, “I wouldn’t need a rescue.”
The dampening shackles exploded.
It sent a wave of sharp, nauseating agony spiking straight through her skull and down every nerve in her body; but it wasn’t as if she’d had anything better to do for the past two weeks than experiment. She’d had no intention of actually breaking the bindings, but she was sick of vague nonsense accusations being flung in her face.
These were good dampeners, powerful and well-crafted—and she’d been trained by an Archmage, whether her father liked it or not.
“Do you see me setting fire to the fleet, Tandred?” she demanded. He hadn’t bothered to close the door when he entered. The guards—not the same pair that had come for her before—were frozen awkwardly, seemingly uncertain as to whether they should do it for him. The off-duty sailors lingering around the mid-deck mostly looked like they suspected they could be flogged for sticking around to watch but had decided it was worth it as long as Jaina didn’t change her mind about the fire thing.
“I see you lying to my face! Talking about peace and legality and your precious independence while the whole time you were cutting deals in the dark, planning to sic orcs on us! Thank the Tides we forced you to surrender when you did, before this obscenity could come to pass. I can’t believe I ever advocated for you.”
“That’s in the past now, Jaina, I can promise you.” His voice was still too loud, pressed at her eardrums in the crowded space. “You’ve gone too far this time. Not even your own father will spare your life after this!”
“He was never planning to,” Jaina cried out, confused and betrayed by the sudden shift in tone. “And I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“Don’t you?” he snarled, still too loud. He held up the letter. “This is the scouting report from Archer. She just returned this morning from patrolling near Theramore. Tell me what she found there!”
“What the hell was a Kul Tiran sloop doing in Dustwallow, you were meant to withdraw—”
“It’s a good thing she did circle back behind the fleet, because otherwise we wouldn’t have seen the Horde banner flying over your city!”
Jaina stared at him for several long moments before finally remembering to close her mouth.
“The what?” she managed.
Very slowly, Tandred lowered the paper and looked at her. Then, folding his arms, he leaned back against the wall.
“You didn’t know,” he observed. Jaina, if she’d been capable of coherent thought, would have strangled him and damn the audience. “Then part of me is sorry to have told you, Jaina. I know you truly wanted to believe that your orc chieftain was different somehow.”
Slowly, Jaina said, “You’re lying.”
“I’m not. They’ve taken the city. By my reckoning, accounting for the time Archer left and the time it would have taken her to catch us again, they must have waited...oh, three days? Exactly long enough to know you weren’t coming back, before they mobilized.”
Jaina’s mind was racing. Obviously Tandred’s conjecture was delusional; Thrall wouldn’t invade Theramore, she knew that. She doubted Vol’jin would even let him, and...yes, certainly it was possible her people might throw open the gates and thus the city could be taken so quickly, but…
Before she could get further in trying to decipher what was really going on, Tandred had sighed and turned to a guard. “Give me the keys.”
“We’re not really supposed to...aye sir.”
Tandred crossed the room in a few strides, pulled out a small iron key, and removed the padlock from Jaina’s tiny porthole so that it swung open.
“You believed you were doing the right thing,” he told her, but Jaina got the distinct impression he was speaking more to the crowd than his sister. “In your exile you forgot who you are, and began to trust orcs over your own people. I’m sorry that your surrender to spare them bought you nothing in the end. I can give you this much comfort—you’re Kul Tiran still. Take in the smell of the sea and perhaps the Tides will hear your prayers for forgiveness.”
Turning on his heel, he slammed the door behind him.
The locks were re-fastened. Jaina stood at the window, which let in absolutely no more of the sea air than did being on a warship in the middle of the ocean, trying to piece together the bizarre confrontation.
“What the fuck?”
Neither the empty room nor the guards outside, who could definitely hear her, responded. After a moment Jaina threw her hands in the air, scooped up the shattered remnants of her dampening shackles, and flung them out the open port.
It didn’t accomplish anything, but it made her feel a little better.
By the time the sun had set and the ship mostly gone quiet, Jaina was regretting that fit of pique. She was on edge, her blood up from that nonsensical fight with Tandred; but while no one had bothered to replace the dampeners after she’d demonstrated that she was able and willing to destroy them, she didn’t want to press her luck by doing any magical grounding exercises. She would have liked something to do with her hands.
What had that been about, anyway? Was the Horde even at Theramore? And if they were, what was actually going on back—
There was a low thump at her window.
Frowning, Jaina looked up. At first she didn’t see anything; then, in the faint moonlight, she made out a slight discoloration on the inside of the wall. Nothing better to do. She scooted over beside it and reached out.
It was a knot at the end of a length of rope, thrown through the open port.
Thank you all for coming on this ride with me!
And as always thank you to @sniperct for betaing and making sure I, who have been A Warcraft for less than a year, don't say anything that breaks canon TOO egregiously.
Frowning, Jaina ran her fingers up along the length of rope until she couldn’t follow it anymore. She glanced at the door. She’d established by now that her guards could hear everything she did; but surely just standing wouldn’t be enough to cause any alarm.
It didn’t help her either, unfortunately, as she bent at a ridiculous angle and squinted out into the night.
Experimentally, she tugged three times at the knot. Nothing happened.
The rope was lying over the bottom sill of the porthole, so someone had tossed it in from below. Jaina tried and failed to stick her head out and see who was down there and where, in fact, they might be; the porthole was just slightly too small to fit her head through.
It would have to be someone on a lower deck. No one, not even a kaldorei rogue, could get so much as a canoe past the Kul Tiran war fleet and alongside the flagship. Jaina might not be able to make out much on the surrounding vessels—it was a dark night, a new moon and overcast to boot—but she could see the shapes of them, looming in the darkness. They would have seen any outside boat, and raised an alarm.
And why would a boat toss her a rope, anyway? She squinted as she tried to stick one eye through the opening enough to see down to the waves. What was she supposed to do, climb down?
Maybe it was a none-too-subtle suggestion that she save the Admiralty the bother of an execution, and some angry sailor just didn’t know how to tie a noose?
Jaina sighed. She reached one hand through the porthole, the side of her face pressed awkwardly against the wood as she felt along the exterior of the ship. She was able to follow the rope a few feet down Tempest’s side, but it appeared to just be a rope.
Carefully maneuvering her arm back inside, Jaina placed both hands on her hips and glared at the rope.
She didn’t dare say anything out loud, even in a whisper; but she gave it quite an effective lecture with her eyes alone, if she did say so herself. When this had no effect on its behavior, Jaina sighed again and rubbed her eyes. She gave the knot another tug, but this time didn’t lift her hand as the slack was taken up. Hmm.
A few more tugs finally provided resistance on the other end of the line. Jaina wrapped the rope firmly around her left wrist as an anchor despite years of nautical training screaming to never, ever do such a thing, then pulled it with her right, very slowly. The resistance stayed small, just a bit of friction, until suddenly it increased into a free-hanging weight at the other end. The weight itself was negligible, but there was definitely something there.
Oh, this was definitely treason, whatever it was.
Hauling slowly so as not to knock her most-assuredly-legal delivery against the hull, Jaina pulled it up to the window. It was wrapped tightly in thick canvas and at first appeared too big to fit through the window; but letting the slack back out and tilting it longways finally allowed it to slip inside without fuss, which was when Jaina first realized that the canvas-wrapped bundle was only the top portion of something on a long wooden stick.
She gasped, too loud in the tiny space, the moment her fingers brushed the wood.
Jaina was unspeakably grateful she hadn’t tried to open the heavy canvas. She understood now why her mysterious new friend had wrapped it in so many layers.
It would have been difficult using the cover of darkness to smuggle her the staff of Antonidas, otherwise.
For several long minutes, mind blank with shock, Jaina simply held it tight. She hadn’t fully realized how much being without it had hurt, its absence the constant tingling pain of a phantom limb. She ran her hands over the smooth, well-worn wood, letting its power seep into her skin. It was like a river of cool water in the desert; soothing her aches and pains, washing away the worst of her exhaustion, easing the misery for a few precious moments.
But what was it doing here?
The Admiralty had strict procedures associated with surrendered legacy weapons; and even if they hadn’t, Jaina’s father wasn’t stupid. He would never leave a powerful magical artifact unguarded, and certainly not a powerful magical artifact that was the personal weapon of a condemned prisoner.
Besides that, the staff shouldn’t have been onboard Tempest at all. It had already been passed to Jaina’s next of kin, last she’d heard it was in the possession of—
The realization hit her like a thunderbolt. Tandred, who had complete freedom of movement within the fleet. Whose presence on the flagship would not be questioned or even considered noteworthy. Who had their father’s trust. Who had declared that he wanted badly to save his sister’s life. Tandred, who had mere hours ago removed the lock on her window.
And who was openly furious with her. He’d railed and raved and called her the worst kind of traitor earlier that very day. He hated her now. Why would he…
Hadn’t Jaina felt something was off about that confrontation from the start?
Hadn’t they both learned, years ago, that sometimes the best way to do something sneaky was in plain sight, acting as if you had every right to do whatever it was you were doing?
What had Tandred actually said, during that fight? Think, Jaina. She could feel Antonidas at her shoulder, steadiness and cool logic flowing through her from the staff she clutched to her chest. Eliminate conjecture and assumptions, and deal only with the information you actually have. The best way to solve a problem is to lay out the facts, free of preconceptions…
What did Jaina know, thanks to Tandred’s visit yesterday?
Well...she knew the Horde was at Theramore. Scratch that—she knew the Fleet report stated the Horde was at Theramore. That, if this was true, Thrall’s people would have mobilized almost as soon as the Navy blockade was lifted. She knew Kul Tiras still had warships in the area monitoring Dustwallow. She knew the Navy viewed a Horde presence there as a betrayal, some indicator of bad faith in negotiation—despite the negotiations giving Theramore the complete legal right to do as it wished within its own boundaries.
She knew her father considered it the final straw, and that he no longer intended to advocate for her to the courts.
Do you have a rescue planned? It won’t work, we’re prepared for it now.
He’d provoked her on purpose, trying to figure out whether she’d planned the Horde presence ahead of time or if it was a complete shock to her. He knew her well enough to know when she was upset or not, yet he’d reacted as if her confusion were some form of shell-shocked grief. He’d stormed in, apparently under the impression that the Horde “attack” was a long-standing conspiracy, and a conspiracy so offensive that it could overwrite his previous forgiveness for more egregious crimes—so why would he go out of his way to inform her that it worked?
His justification for not having new dampeners brought up—aside from the obvious fact that she could clearly escape them at a moment’s notice—had been that with her city lost, she had nowhere to go. But he’d said that in the same argument where he sneered at her for collaborating with orcs…
Of course, it was possible that everything he’d said was a lie; without access to outside information, the Admiralty could tell her anything they wanted and Jaina would have no way to dispute it.
But she didn’t think that was the case. For one thing, Tandred was a shit liar. He couldn’t play innocent, he couldn’t play stupid because he radiated his resentment at being underestimated; Kul Tiran pride crossed with the stubbornness of a young man. Their mother had always said the entire island chain suffered from a bad case of chronic testosterone poisoning. And lies were always easier when they were mostly true. Making up an elaborate story, with details on hand, was infinitely harder than just manipulating the facts to serve your purpose.
As the Steamwheedle waiver team had once cheerfully informed her.
So something had happened at Theramore, and Kul Tiras was furious.
Jaina stared at the staff in her hands.
He was insane. The answer was obvious but it was short-sighted, hopelessly naive. She couldn’t just—she’d given her word. Her surrender was the fulcrum on which the entire treaty rested. Breaking those terms meant voiding the entire agreement. She couldn’t place her people at risk that way, even if her pride would allow her to give weight to her father’s slurs against her honor...
What could be voided?
The Marines had been expelled and sentenced to exile. Kul Tiras had stated that of course the current city-state of Theramore was independent, it was only Jaina’s leadership as a Kul Tiran officer that made it rogue—they’d explicitly said that their claim was only on the initial fortress, and that officially abandoning it had given the Lordaeron refugees right of settlement.
The Admiralty could hardly walk back either of those statements now. Not without admitting that they’d never actually ‘abandoned’ the fortress in the first place—which would raise awkward questions about their attempts to starve it into submission. Not without somehow repealing the expulsion and exile of Jaina’s marines only to execute them.
And Jaina was no longer a Kul Tiran officer. She was no longer even a Proudmoore, her father had made that clear…
But Jaina’s surrender had bought them peace. If she took this gift, Kul Tiras would be at war with Theramore again.
Surely they would, Jaina reasoned. There was nothing stopping them from blockading the city again, or at least restarting their campaign of privateering against Theramore shipping. Its status as independent couldn’t be revoked, but independent city-states could have war declared on them openly.
Well, the latter, maybe. But the Fleet had now been driven from Theramore in disarray twice, both times sustaining heavy casualties with nothing to show for it. If Jaina’s least favorite Marine major was any indication, the rank and file were fed up with pounding at an island fortress just for revenge. Attacking Theramore ships in transit was a guarantee; but Jaina suspected her father would find it impossible to rally political support for a third open declaration of war. Especially with Theramore’s independent status cemented. Legally, it would be difficult to justify that kind of expenditure just to capture Jaina.
They could demand Jaina and the other “traitors” be extradited, and they would put heavy sanctions in place when Theramore refused; but Jaina’s city had survived such things in the past. Of course, they’d had a navy at the time.
No. She couldn’t. It was too much to risk on the hope that Kul Tiras would be glad of a chance to be rid of her.
Why was the Horde at Theramore?
Surely Thrall hadn’t actually invaded. If he’d wanted to take Theramore while it was weak, he’d been there the first time. Which meant...which meant…
Tides, it could mean so many things.
Your surrender to spare them bought you nothing in the end.
If she was right...and she was violating her own rule about assumptions, but perhaps this was more a question of inductive reasoning than runaway suppositions…
If she was right, and Tandred had been trying to warn her, then it was logical to assume he knew something Jaina didn’t. A staged fight would only allow him to pass off so much information under the guise of anger. If whatever information he might be party to worried him enough that he genuinely believed Jaina would sacrifice nothing in escaping…
Well, if nothing else, doing nothing wasn’t an option. It was just a few hours after sundown now; waiting until morning meant she would be discovered sitting in her cell holding the staff of an archmage, and that really would cause trouble.
If only she knew ...but maybe she knew enough.
There were only a handful of options, after all. Option one: the Horde really had taken Theramore by force. Unlikely, very unlike Thrall and the timing was poor, but possible. In that case, Jaina had no one left to protect. Very well. Option two: with Kul Tiran battleships in the area despite the treaty, Thrall had gotten fed up and offered Theramore military protection, meaning future attacks would be going up against the full might of the Horde—and Theramore no longer needed her sacrifice to protect itself.
Option three: the whole story was a fabrication to justify Kul Tiras continuing operations against Theramore, or washing their hands of it entirely. In the first case they were already laying the grounds for treachery and Jaina belonged with her people; in the second her father lacked the momentum to re-ignite war, and Jaina’s escape or death would not fundamentally change anything.
She didn’t want to die. She wanted to see Theramore again, and she didn’t want to die. She knew that, too. Jaina was very persuasive. She could talk herself into saving her own life at any cost, if she tried hard enough.
Someone, either Tandred or a sailor he trusted implicitly, had risked everything to get her to this point. They had to believe it was worth it.
Or was it a trap? Would she bounce off an anti-teleportation spell? No, there wasn’t one over the Fleet, or at least not one strong enough to contain her. Maybe...it was a test. Maybe Kul Tiras wanted war, and this was a trap of a different sort. An excuse they intended to use to justify coming back.
But she’d already determined that was unlikely. She was talking herself in circles, because she was afraid of what this actually meant. Scared of taking the leap. She’d begged, pleaded, bargained, finally issued demands for a bit of faith.
Maybe it was time to trust her brother.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, not knowing who she wished could hear her.
By the time the audible rush of light flashed through her little cabin, it was far too late for the guards to stop her.
Arcane light faded from behind her eyes, the blue and violet softening into slanting orange and pink.
It wasn’t quite sunset in Kalimdor yet.
Jaina swayed, planting her staff in the floorboards as a wave of dizzy nausea threatened to overwhelm her. She’d never teleported across most of the Great Sea before. Add to that the fact that she hadn’t cast any magic at all (or eaten a real meal) in weeks, and once she no longer felt like she was about to pass out in her own vomit she’d be impressed that it wasn’t worse.
In a minute, she thought weakly, sinking to her knees with a soft moan. Just a minute.
It took about three minutes, actually; but eventually the boiling combination of magical, physical, and emotional exhaustion cooled. Taking a deep breath, Jaina pulled herself to her feet and looked around.
It was like she’d never left.
Her office was a little musty, but not humid; her environmental enchantments would need more than two weeks and change without maintenance to break down. Magic couldn’t replicate fresh air, however. Or rather—well, it theoretically could, but not without side effects and certainly not without a few dozen overlapping spells that were beyond ridiculous to even consider placing on an elevated tower made almost entirely of windows.
The point was, no one had been airing out Jaina’s office. She felt a pang at the implications.
Part of her had hoped...well, it had only been two weeks, after all. But...a quick glance around the room—sunset-orange, lined with purple shadow—showed everything exactly where Jaina had left it. Down to a pillow she hadn’t picked up, down to the exact place she’d left that quill.
She’d assumed that Theramore would move on. That someone would take up the mantle.
And she was sure they had, at that! Most of the city was run from Foothold, where the tower had always been set aside as Jaina’s sanctuary; the vast majority of the city council that would have been leading Theramore in her absence had offices in the keep. Still. It was agonizingly obvious that almost no one had come in here at all, since Jaina left.
Her fingers closed on a window latch, and then she thought better of it. She’d wanted to get some kind of air flow; but she reminded herself, harshly, that she had no idea what had happened here since she was taken.
If nothing else, just opening a window over the city was likely to give someone a heart attack. These people had dealt with enough ghosts for one lifetime.
Jaina’s fingers shook slightly as she rested them on the guardrail, carefully making her way downstairs. Her heart hammered in her throat. How odd, that she should feel anxious.
She could hear the sounds of a thriving city. It wasn’t loud, precisely, especially not here in the heart of the tower; but there were voices, the occasional rattle of cart wheels, horses’ hooves. That much confirmed the city hadn’t been sacked, not that Jaina ever really thought it had been; orcs didn’t use horses. The Forsaken did, of course...but the occasional shouts on the street were unconcerned, and Jaina heard only the occasional orcish voice among humans. These were the normal sounds of Theramore at the end of the day, a creaking windlass here and elsewhere the bark of a dog—or a worg.
It was unfair to Thrall for her to even think it. But she was tired and alone and anxious, and didn’t have any idea what was going on. Her city had been occupied once before, she’d been the victim of misinformation campaigns before, it was...better to be safe. Until she knew.
She was so tired.
Taking a deep breath, Jaina wrapped invisibility around her like a blanket and stepped outside.
She really did have the best view in the city, even from her front door. She could instantly spot the gates—open to Dustwallow, with guards in blue and white, and she felt a grin spread across her face without permission.
The guards were the only ones armed and armored on the streets now. Jaina’s feet carried her down the hill from her front door, wandering into the square. Jagged red sails speckled the harbor, but Lark ’s familiar profile was also at dock. If Jaina craned her neck, she could make out the beginnings of new wooden frames being set at the ruins of the lighthouse.
She was invisible, not incorporeal, and a few times almost forgot it as she leapt back out of the way of a group of children chasing a ball, or a shaggy dwarven dog chasing a ball, or a distressed citizen chasing a pack of gangly half-grown raptor chicks chasing a runaway rooster. A troll with a messenger bag and a shock of close-cropped orange hair clipped Jaina’s shoulder with a boot, as her long-legged dun mare passed by at a quick trot.
By the time the courier looked around in surprise, Jaina had hurried across the street and the slight distortion in the air was no longer visible.
The walls still bristled with artillery, but the siege weapons were unmanned. Scaffolding crisscrossed the massive hole in the northwest wall; it hadn’t been filled, but it was smaller than two weeks ago, and a cart half-emptied of building stone lay beside it. Work was done for the day; sweaty and relaxed, sprawled on split logs near the work site, three humans, two goblins and an orc sat in a rough circle while a dwarf turned something roasting on a spit.
Inevitably, inexorably, Jaina’s eyes were dragged to the flag on the walls.
She clapped a hand over her mouth to muffle the tiny cry.
There were Horde pennants flying. At every ‘official’ location where not flying a faction identifier would be inappropriate, there was a bold scarlet flag with a black sigil—over Foothold, over the construction at the lighthouse, at the gate and to one side of the docks. There was even a small one outside Janene’s inn.
But they were secondary, and in every instance they were offset; never on a center flagpole, never the largest. Scarlet and black were outnumbered three to one by, frankly, more uniform flags in greater numbers than Jaina would have thought possible to fabricate, much less design, in less than three weeks. The place of honor in every case was taken by a navy symbol on grey that Jaina had never seen before, yet recognized instantly.
The jagged sigil of Lordaeron, looped top reduced in size slightly to make the effect cleaner, mirrored across the vertical; two flanged Ls placed back to back with a sword between them. The hilt of the rapier was no longer a loop, but the hollow outline of a diamond; and arching over it, where before had been the rays of the encircled Proudmoore crest, was the outline of a ragged teardrop shield.
An anchor, held within the flaming crest of the Horde.
Raw spite had never tasted so sweet on her tongue.
And that was all well and good but the implications—what had happened? What had they decided, what would it mean, going forward—?
Jaina hadn’t even noticed the invisibility spell unravelling around her. She barely noticed it now. She couldn’t have seen herself if her life depended on it; the tears threatening at the corners of her eyes had finally brimmed over.
Gasps and a low murmur of her name were beginning to spread in a ring around Jaina; after a few moments the first shouts rose up, and then, finally, the dam burst.
“I told you! I told you she’d be back!”
“We thought you were dead!”
Jaina lost track of where she was, passed through the crowd like some kind of water bucket. Some of her people were whooping, some cheering, some crying; but most of them just seemed to want to touch her, gripping her shoulder, grasping her hand, a light touch over her elbow.
“You’re not going to believe—”
“—took you so long?”
“Should’ve known we hadn’t seen the last of—”
“Jaina! Jaina! I’m gonna tell Pained and she’s gonna kick your ass!”
“Trystan,” Jaina protested as the little boy ran off. “That’s not—oh, who am I kidding, you’re probably right—”
“How’d you escape?” yelled a voice in the crowd.
There was the sound of a hand connecting to the back of someone’s head. “What kinda stupid question is that, Dee? She used magic, obviously—”
“All right, all right, that’s enough.” Janene had waded through the crowd to save her, beating well-wishers off Jaina’s flanks with a dishrag and brutal precision. She’d make a decent Kul Tiran bosun, with whiplash control like that. “Let the lady breathe, you lunatics. She can answer your questions when she’s gotten some rest!”
“I’m fine,” Jaina said reflexively despite the absurd, visible inaccuracy of the statement. “Really. I want to know what’s been happening while I was gone, I can sleep when I’m dead.”
“Don’t count on it,” rasped a passing Forsaken holding a clipboard.
“Always a charmer, ain’t ya? Welcome back, Jaina,” Janene added as an aside. “We missed you. Come on with me, you need hot food and a bath.”
Jaina made a face. “And not in that order, either. Thank you, really—”
Someone cleared their throat behind her. Jaina sighed.
“That was fast,” she said, turning around. “Hello, Pained.”
“My lady.” There were clearly several more things Pained wanted to say to her; but gods forbid Jaina got more than a few seconds at a time to breathe, today. After so long with absolutely nothing happening for days on end, it was overwhelming to say the least. “Don’t let me keep you from eating.”
Before she could even fully register Pained’s presence, the crowd had already started parting to admit a pair of newcomers; one on foot, and the other astride a massive black wolf.
Her grip on Pained’s arm tightened convulsively at that achingly familiar bass rumble. Her emotions were threatening to well over again, clenching in her throat like a fist; when had Thrall’s voice started to mean home?
“Thrall,” Jaina whispered. She should acknowledge Vol’jin too, he was a friend, but there was only so much emotion she could bear at one time.
Without looking away from her he set the Doomhammer aside, swinging carefully down from his wolf. After a moment, a smile split his face and he chuckled, low and deep. “I should have known.”
“You could have told us that you had a plan to get out,” said Pained. She sounded too relieved to be angry, but too angry to be pleased.
Jaina swallowed, voice faint. “I didn’t. I...my brother—”
Vol’jin cleared his throat loudly.
“You may not want to say it too loud,” he murmured, tilting his head toward the crowd. “Sometimes the walls be havin’ ears, mon.”
“Later,” Thrall agreed.
Especially with Horde banners over the keep. Jaina trusted her people implicitly, but she trusted them to be her people; not necessarily Thrall’s.
Speaking of which.
“Thrall,” she managed, gesturing toward the city. “What…? What happened?”
“Ah.” He suddenly looked...nervous? “Yes. We...did not expect you to return, Jaina. It was never my intention to move behind your back. But your people had been abandoned, and now without their leader...when they approached me, you must understand...I.” He heaved a sigh. “I could not find it in my conscience to refuse them. The other members supported their petition.”
“Petition for—” Jaina’s eyes widened. “You can’t be offering us use of the Horde’s merchant marine. Military support until we can rebuild our navy somehow, maybe—it’s insanely generous, still, but clearly Theramore negotiated some kind of alliance while I was gone and I thank you for that. But civilian humanitarian aid on this kind of scale...Thrall, we can’t accept this, not from you. We’ll never be able to pay you back.”
There was an awkward pause. Vol’jin reached up, slapped Thrall on the back, and muttered, “Spirits grant ya strength or a quick death, Warchief. Proudmoore,” he added with a half-bow and an offered hand. Almost automatically, Jaina reached over and clasped his arm without looking; he squeezed once and then moved off.
Jaina was very confused.
Thrall opened his mouth, reconsidered, and closed it again. He looked at Pained with something like desperation; Jaina’s bodyguard held up her hands in the universal gesture for ‘put your own damn head on the block, you green bastard’. After a minute, he gave a long sigh.
“Theramore,” he said, picking his words carefully. “Did not...negotiate an alliance, with the Horde.”
Thrall, Jaina thought sharply, did you actually invade my city?
“Three days after you were...removed,” he continued, “I was approached in Orgrimmar by a small delegation of humans. They had three shamans with them for security, but the Darkspear left before the negotiations. Your people own themselves now and can negotiate with whom they wish. They...told me what you had done. They were extremely angry with the other human kingdoms; tdid not blame you for it, nor me for allowing the situation to deteriorate so badly.”
The tightness in his eyes said he disagreed with that assessment. Jaina reached out to place a hand on his arm. She didn’t know what she was trying to comfort him over, only that it felt right to do so.
“They made an excellent case. Calm and respectful, but proud. They did not come to beg,” Thrall told her, and some of that pain left his face as he smiled with warm approval. “With only a bit of help, you can begin trade again. We all benefited, from that. And with your return, we gain...a skilled, courageous young sorceress who will someday soon be the finest archmage Azeroth has ever seen.”
Jaina pretended desperately that she wasn’t blushing. “Thrall, what…”
“Theramore did not negotiate an alliance with the Horde,” he said again, simply. “They negotiated entry.”
There were several minutes of unbroken silence.
Finally, Jaina remembered what her tongue was for.
“Thrall,” she said. “I can’t—you can’t do that. We can’t accept that.”
For the briefest moment, she thought he looked hurt. Then the expression smoothed into nothing, and he drew himself up, shifting to pull his arm away from her touch without quite being rude.
“With your return,” he said evenly, “I understand that the situation has changed. I assume your people will return you to leadership of the city. I would ask that you read the terms before rejecting them, but they are fair.”
“That’s not what I—Thrall! You know that’s not what I meant. Theramore is—your people gain nothing from this. Theramore has only a single ship in her navy, and our diplomatic efforts have been interrupted, in some cases irreparably. I haven’t spoken to Varian in three months and I shudder to think what will happen when the Kul Tiran account inevitably reaches him first. We can barely even feed ourselves without trade, I...the only thing we have of value to offer is an Alliance market, and we can hardly offer that if…”
“Would you join the Alliance,” Thrall asked quietly. “If they offered?”
“No.” In another life, in a world where everything had gone less catastrophically wrong, maybe Jaina would have hesitated. But no, not after Stormwind hung them out to dry, not with Lordaeron destroyed and Gilneas—gods only knew what the hell Gilneas thought it was doing. Ironforge was the only real friend they had in the Alliance anymore. Maybe Gnomeregan by proxy, either through the dwarves or the Steamwheedle.
All right, well. Now that Jaina remembered that joint venture, maybe the idea of Theramore joining the Horde wasn’t the least likely friendship she’d ever heard of.
“No, I wouldn’t,” she said again, stronger this time. “But I don’t want to lose them, either. And I don’t mean as friends, though that’s true as well; I wouldn’t let the fate of my city hinge on it. But if Theramore can’t offer you Alliance trade, then we’re dead weight. The Horde will resent you for it if they don’t already, and frankly, Thrall, our lives depend on you staying Warchief.”
He snorted, then grew serious again.
“The only member of the Horde not to back your people’s petition was Thunder Bluff; and the Tauren had no objection, only did not speak in Theramore’s favor.” He looked a little smug at Jaina’s stunned expression. “The Darkspear say you keep your word and are capable of honor. My people respect your strength and determination, as well as your independence. The Forsaken want you more than anyone, but that did not damage your reputation too badly.”
“Thrall,” Jaina chided, forgetting for a moment that they were in public as she swatted his arm. Thankfully, he only smiled and placed a careful hand on her shoulder.
“Theramore has been wounded,” he acknowledged. “But it stands, and your people are human. Keep your ports open to Alliance trade. Speak on my council—openly, for once. Set your own fees and tariffs; I am your Warchief, not your king. Rally to my banner when you are called to do so. In peace, Orgrimmar is only first among equals.”
Oh gods, she was going to cry again. She couldn’t start crying now, this was a high-level political negotiation with world-changing stakes…
Do not hug the Warchief, she told herself sternly. Do not hug the Warchief.
But she’d been so alone, for so long. Vol’jin’s unexpected friendship had been the only thing to keep her sane; the last-minute courage of a handful of unconnected adventurers had nearly broken her.
Was this how every member of the Horde had felt? Dalaran was gone, Lordaeron was gone, Kul Tiras wanted her dead, Stormwind was looking to its own house, Thunder Bluff and Darnassus were too far away to do much good, Ironforge and the Steamwheedle were generous and practical but not charities...in an act of either divine mercy or cosmic irony she couldn’t even turn to Kael’thas and hope crying into his shoulder gave him a good enough look down her shirt to convince him to send something useful.
Theramore had clawed its way, bloody and starving, into the sunlight and clung there with grim determination by its fingernails. And Jaina had held it there with sheer willpower, one of few in the city who knew how weak their grip was, how one strong gust of wind could dash them on the rocks.
All she’d ever wanted to do was study...
And Thrall was offering them a home, a people—a real one, with clout and power. It couldn’t be popular among her citizens, even now, but it had been months since Jaina heard real hatred levied toward the Horde. It wasn’t orcs who’d been trying to kill them for no good gods-damned reason at all. In time they might even be ready to acknowledge that the offer was even harder for the Horde to make in the first place. To offer kinship, not just an alliance of convenience, to a human settlement…
They’d been so alone. Jaina had made her peace with the fact that they always would be. That her scrappy, slightly paranoid little citadel on a rock would always be an afterthought. It had become a source of stubborn pride, in fact. Very Kul Tiran. But gods, gods, it hurt when your pride was measured by the scars that earned it.
“I did break my word, you know,” she pointed out, voice wavering. “I signed a treaty and broke it within the first three weeks. I swore I wouldn’t try to escape. If I’d known Vol’jin was vouching for my integrity...”
“Did you dishonor yourself in breaking that bond?”
It wasn’t a rhetorical question. Not from an orc, not from the man who would be her Warchief—all right, that was going to take a long time to start feeling natural even to think —and not from Thrall. Jaina put a hand over his, clutching it tightly where it rested on her shoulder, and did him the courtesy of thinking her answer over very carefully.
“I don’t know,” she decided. “It was...I didn’t surrender because I’d been outfought or because I was wrong, I did it because I thought it was the right choice to spare my people. To end a dishonest, pointless war. I didn’t intend to go back on the agreement when I made it. The situation changed. It was more of a lie to put my name to that treaty and pretend to believe a word it said than to escape once I’d been taken prisoner, but—I still put my name to an oath and broke it.”
Thrall’s gaze didn’t waver. “Can you live with that?”
“Yes.” Jaina swallowed. “Yes, I can, and I don’t know what that says about me. But I don’t want to do it again.”
“Don’t. But I find more value in an arm clasp than a signature,” Thrall rumbled, and a green thumb twitched upward to wipe away a tear Jaina hadn’t noticed escaping. “Your word is enough.”
Do not hug the Warchief of the Horde. You are in the middle of the square and he is your liegelord now. Do not hug the Warchief, do not hug the Warchief, do not hug the Warchief do not hug the —
In the time it took to impress upon herself what a terrible, egregiously inappropriate thing it was to do, Jaina had already flung herself forward against Thrall’s massive chest. It was at least less of a hug and more of a desperate sobbing cling, because she couldn’t fit her arms around him this way and at least had enough control not to actually jump up and put them around his neck.
After a shocked pause, Thrall lifted a hand and put a slow arm around her shoulders.
She’d had a long day, and the Horde was just going to have to get over it.
“I’m sorry,” she gasped, frantically wiping tears on the back of her arm. “I’m so sorry—”
“It’s all right, Jaina.” The arm around her shoulders tightened, almost hesitantly. Held against his chest like this, she could feel his voice in her bones.
She let herself have a moment; and then, indulgently, just a few more. She needed this. She needed to feel safe, to not be judged for just a heartbeat longer. Some part of her brain commented that few things were as grounding as being held by a shaman.
Finally, however, she had to come back to reality. Taking a deep breath, she stepped back.
“All right,” she said. “All right. We should sit down and talk about the specifics of what this means for Theramore’s operations. I’ll speak to the council in the morning and...find out whether they still want me, actually, they seem to be doing fine by themselves. We should probably delineate exactly where my influence stops more formally, now that I think about...I mean,” she corrected herself when she happened to glance over and see Pained’s face.
“Try again, my lady.”
“I’m going to spend about an hour in a hot bath and then eat and go to bed,” Jaina said meekly.
Pained’s lips twitched.
“Yes, all right, I’m going ...Thrall, we should—that is, I’ll...may I have an audience sometime tomorrow, Warchief?”
He smiled. “You’re still welcome at any time, Jaina. Recover first. The Horde cares for its own.”
“Thank you,” she said softly. Then, “First thing tomorrow I need to update all the record books in the tower. Pained, who’s been getting my mail? I should look at that—and I’ll need to at least draft missives to Ironforge and Darnassus, the goblins will figure it out for themselves and it’s not my place to preempt Thrall contacting the rest of the Horde, isn’t that a convenient perk. Stormwind will take more care but I have to get in contact as soon as ow, ow, yes, all right! Dinner first! But after that, Pained, I’ll need to know what our current defense strategy is, I know something will have been developed without me but I have to at least familiarize…”