Chapter 1: Games
“Honestly, I don’t know why I’m even doing this,” Wrathion said, frowning at the board between them. “You do realize that this is a completely ridiculous concept for a game, don’t you?”
“What’s so ridiculous about it?” Anduin replied mildly, pushing a piece to another square.
“Because,” Wrathion said, doing the same, “The point of a game is that one person wins and the other person loses.”
He spoke as though explaining basic facts to a toddler, which Anduin found bemusing, given Wrathion’s age.
Anduin had spent about a week in the Tavern of the Mists by this point, convalescing from his extensive injuries. He could walk, but not long or well, and he had very little strength overall. The lack of mobility gave him time to consider, to observe. He was in this tavern because it was secure, neutral ground—maintained both by Madame Goya and the omnipresent underlings of Prince Wrathion. The Blacktalon didn’t make Anduin nervous, exactly, but there was something disconcerting about them and their constant mutterings to one another, something unpleasant in their guarded, just shy of hostile stares and their unwavering obedience to the young black dragon sitting across from him.
Wrathion, too, was a disquieting presence.
“You know,” Anduin said. “I once read somewhere that you can learn a lot about someone through playing games with them.”
“Did you,” Wrathion said. He paused, one gloved, clawed hand hovering over another token. “And what are you learning?”
Anduin snatched the token, grinning as Wrathion’s face contorted in dismay. “That you need to be more open-minded.”
“First of all, that’s mine,” Wrathion said, swiping across the table at Anduin. Holding up his hands innocently, Anduin let the token drop back onto the board.
“Technically, it belongs to the Tavern—”
“—and secondly, I’m incredibly open-minded. I’m just not naïve.”
He made his move, and the irritation of a moment ago slipped back into calm self-confidence. “This is nothing more than a meaningless way to pass the time.”
“We’re certainly never going to finish it if you keep making decisions like that,” Anduin said. “Cooperation between two people is the point here. If we don’t work towards the same goal, we’ll both lose.”
He tapped both his and Wrathion’s pieces as he spoke, frowning. Wrathion was free of the Old Gods’ corruption, but Anduin wasn’t sure that he had escaped the other unfortunate predilections of his race. Like arrogance, or a disdain for mortal life, or an appetite for power and wanton destruction.
“Foolish,” Wrathion proclaimed.
“Why?” Anduin said. “I really don’t understand your problem with this.”
“Perhaps it’s because I can tell what you’re thinking. The world doesn’t work this way, Prince Anduin,” Wrathion said. “No matter how much you want it to. ‘Cooperation’ isn’t going to solve the problems we’re facing now. Only swift, decisive actions will do that.”
“Brutality, you mean,” Anduin said. He could feel his temper rising, as it always did whenever they turned to this topic.
“Necessary force,” Wrathion said. He made another move, flicking one of Anduin’s pieces aside in the process.
“Hey—you can’t—” Anduin said, and Wrathion shrugged, smiling. “That’s against the rules.”
“If I don’t like the game I’m playing, I change the rules,” he replied. “Because I’m open-minded.” He flicked another piece of Anduin’s off of the board. “Are you going to stop me?”
Anduin sighed as he bent to retrieve the tokens. “You’re really acting your age right now, you know?”
Pain shot through his muscles as he straightened up, the still-mending tissue and bone reacting badly to even this minor exertion. Anduin winced, exhaling hard.
Wrathion’s bright red eyes watched this display silently, betraying no emotion—neither amusement nor concern. After a moment, he said, “I’m trying to tell you something. Though if having your entire body crushed by that bell didn’t teach you the lesson, I suppose I don’t know what chance I have.”
That remark brought a full-on scowl to Anduin’s face. “What do you mean?”
“We live in a harsh world, Anduin. Chaotic. Violent. You can preach diplomacy and hand-holding all you like, but in the end, it’s just going to get you … “ Wrathion leaned back in his chair and made a sweeping gesture with his hand to indicate Anduin’s frail state. “Well. You know.”
Light, he was smug. Anduin set the pieces back on the table and grumbled. “Let’s just keep playing.”
Wrathion leaned forward again to make his next move, grinning wide and sharp. “I never stopped.”
Chapter 2: Tea and Antipathy
Occasionally, the pain was omnipresent, radiating from every joint like points stabbed into a map. When he tried to sit up, he was dizzy with a debilitating ache, his stomach churning in protest. On those days, Anduin could not rise from bed. Food and drink were brought to him, and he spent the rest of the day alone, trying to read through the haze behind his eyes, trying to mentally compose letters to his father or Jaina (even Baine Bloodhoof, one time), trying anything that kept his thoughts away from the weakness in his muscles. He hated feeling so useless, though he knew that he was lucky to be alive at all.
The Divine Bell had pulverized his bones, liquefied his organs, reduced his body to so much bloody, shapeless pulp. But the Light had brought him back. Few people on Azeroth or beyond could channel the holy energy like Prophet Velen, but Anduin was convinced that there was more to his salvation than either Velen’s considerable skills or the graceful work of the pandaren mistweavers. Sometimes no amount of effort, no matter how fervent and sincere the prayer, no matter how devout the supplicant, could save those on the edge of death. Sometimes the Light was simply ready to take them. Anduin’s mother had died from a stray rock—a single blow. But she was not saved; her spirit had left her body and moved on. Anduin thought he might join her, as he lay beneath the bell, feeling every pound of the heavy, cracked metal on his shattered body. Agony turned to numb shock as his vitality ebbed away, and he lost consciousness.
Anduin had not expected to wake again. In the darkness, he heard his mother’s voice, warm and patient, calling to him. He dreamed of her perfume, Talandra’s rose and crisp apples, swaddling him like a blanket. His mother had died holding her infant son in her arms, and Anduin remembered that scent above anything else.
His eyes opened, wet with tears. He found that the thread of his life had been restored, woven anew by the Light and fortified by the pandaren’s soothing mists. As breath flooded his lungs again, Anduin immediately concluded that his rescue from the brink was for a purpose. He was meant to be here, in Pandaria, to play an important—if now uncertain—role. He kept that in mind as he limped around the tavern, especially on days when the pain was too great to allow even limited movement.
People of many factions—Alliance, Horde, or otherwise—came through the tavern daily. Some of them looked upon Anduin with sympathy or pity. Others stared with contempt; indifference. But a few, always Horde, often orcs, watched him like a wolf watches prey that’s just beyond its reach.
None of them were here for him, though. They sought audiences with Wrathion, the Black Prince, whose guards—and thus, will—dominated the tavern. Anduin’s father had insisted on Stormwind guards for his son, but they were far outnumbered by the Blacktalon. They also slept, which Wrathion’s protectors never seemed to do.
Wrathion made grand promises to everyone who came before him, and he fulfilled them now and then, too. He was the tavern’s only constant presence, aside from its proprietor, Tong. As a result, he and Anduin had gotten to know each other over the past few weeks, somewhat. Weeks still passed where they did not speak at all, either because Anduin was bedridden or Wrathion had disappeared for a while on some unknown, covert errand.
Anduin had expected that day to be one of mind-bending boredom and solitude; his limbs had screamed at him from the moment he woke up that morning. But the pain had dulled as the sun climbed in the sky, and by early evening, Anduin found himself able to swing his legs off of the bed and onto the floor without too much effort.
He stretched gingerly, testing. Yes. He could walk.
Anduin grabbed his cane with excitement, planning to taste the sweet, brisk mountain air before the sun dipped again below the horizon. He clacked his way out of his room and was making for the door when he spotted Wrathion sitting alone near the stove in the lobby, a steaming mug held in his gloved hands.
“Prince Anduin,” Wrathion said, not looking up from his drink, “how good to hear you moving about. I had worried that you might be immobilized again today.” He took a sip from the mug. “I was about to come check on you, but then Tong wanted me to try this new tea he just brewed. You will agree that I couldn’t insult our host by refusing.”
“Completely,” Anduin said, trying to keep away an irritated edge. He didn’t need anyone checking on him, anyway.
“You should try it, too,” Wrathion said. He nodded at the empty chair across from him. Anduin noticed that the table in between was set with a tray of fresh, steaming pastries and, interestingly, another full mug. He sighed.
“All right. Just for a few minutes.” Anduin sat down carefully in the vacant chair, taking time to arrange his limbs into the least excruciating position. He set the cane against one of the chair’s arms, then leaned back against the soft, yielding cushions. Wrathion said nothing during this production, instead addressing his tea with great focus. He waited until Anduin reached for the tray before his sharp eyes glanced over the rim of his mug.
Anduin breathed in the steam rising from the tea; it was a heavy, dark scent, something dredged up from deep in the ground. The liquid itself was a rich amber color, brilliant in the lantern light. Anduin brought the mug to his lips and took a sip.
He tasted the earth: bittersweet leaf buds, plucked right at the start of spring. Delicate orchids, harvested at the peak of blooming. His tongue found notes of fruit, too—ripe, dried oranges spiced with smoky cardamom. The flavor was powerful, but not overwhelming, subtle in its details and steeped with an excellent sense of timing.
Anduin’s stomach rumbled as the hot tea slid down into his gut. He hadn’t eaten in hours. Wrathion gestured to the plate of pastries and said, “I recommend the pineapple bun, personally. The red bean filling goes well with this tea.”
Anduin stared at the assortment piled before him. He picked up a triangle of something fluffy, white, and spongy instead, then tore it in half with his first bite. The cake was light, but cloyingly sweet, especially against the earthy, floral taste still in his mouth. He made a face.
“What’s the matter?” Wrathion said, picking up the golden, red-spotted bun he had pointed out. “Don’t trust me?”
“You know I don’t,” Anduin replied.
“I’m not going to poison you, you know,” Wrathion said. “Besides, I want Azeroth to be safe. You want Azeroth to be safe. We just don’t have the same perspective.”
“You can’t make peace while preparing for war,” Anduin said.
“Hmm, I wonder where you read that line?” Wrathion said. “I do admire your literacy, Prince Anduin, but you can’t believe everything you find in books.”
“I don’t think you can necessarily believe what you see in person, either,” Anduin said.
Wrathion laughed, showing teeth. “Well, that’s true enough.”
“You speak of Garrosh’s attack on Theramore as an achievement,” Anduin said, his tone accusatory. “Countless people died that day, and many more lost the only home they’ve ever known!”
“Yes, it was tragic,” Wrathion said, without much conviction. “But ‘great’ and ‘terrible’ are not mutually exclusive concepts.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you deny that Garrosh’s plan was a genius bit of warfare?”
This remark felt designed to goad him, but Anduin took the bait anyway, lurching forward in his chair. “Yes. It was nothing more than a cowardly massacre. What Garrosh did was an act of madness, not war.”
“That’s one viewpoint, I suppose,” Wrathion replied. “Another might be that he had a goal and he accomplished it—thoroughly.”
Anduin seethed. “How dare you.”
He couldn’t abide this talk. He had known Jaina Proudmoore for most of his life, and he loved her like his own family. Even though he disagreed with the depth of her rage following Theramore’s destruction, he didn’t begrudge it of her. When he heard Wrathion speak so flippantly about the event that had cost Jaina everything, Anduin lost his reason. He thought of his beloved friend, standing alone in the ruins of her city, her hair bone-white, her eyes suffused with arcane energy, her pale cheeks stained with tears. He saw corpse after corpse, some buried in rubble, others just stretched out on the grass, as though locked in a long, dreamless sleep. His heart broke, and anger poured in to cauterize the wound.
Anduin slammed his mug down on the table, upsetting the pastries, and made to stand. But the nerves in his legs burned, sending jolts of agony up through his spine and right to the center of his forehead. “Agh.”
“I do dare,” Wrathion said, after Anduin had collapsed back into his seat. He set his mug on the table gently, and then went about rearranging the pastries on the tray.
Once everything was back in order, Wrathion left his chair and walked over to stand behind Anduin’s. “You are the sole heir to Stormwind’s throne. You need to learn how to distance yourself from events like Theramore.”
Anduin did not at all appreciate this change in position. He twisted around to glower at Wrathion, reaching for his cane in the same motion. Holding it steadied him, both physically and mentally. “A good king cares about his people. All people.”
“A good king acts on behalf of the world at large. He must go beyond individual lives,” Wrathion said.
“A kingdom is nothing without its subjects. Their safety, their prosperity—that’s what concerns a wise ruler. If that’s assured, the rest follows,” Anduin said. He felt the thrum of his heartbeat in his ears. He tried to force himself to calm down. Wrathion wanted this reaction, wanted to see Anduin’s temper. Taking a breath, he added, coldly, “You’re wrong, Wrathion. The way you think about the world. Your fixation on power. It’s all wrong.”
Wrathion set a hand on Anduin’s shoulder. The fingers of his gloves were too sharply articulated, and Anduin had long wondered if they concealed claws. Either way, Wrathion’s grip was not kind.
“Hey—” Anduin said, starting to pull back.
“Tell me something,” Wrathion said. All pleasantry had gone from his voice, replaced by something deceptively soft and unnervingly patient. “How many people do you think have died since this war began? How many since the orcs came to Azeroth? In the Northrend campaign? The expedition to the Outlands?”
Anduin went still. “Why are you asking me this?”
The numbers were uncountable. Every page of Azeroth’s history bled with strife, with suffering. Anduin had experienced much of it himself—and what he had not witnessed, he had read. Studied.
“How many died just from fighting my father and his cults?” Wrathion said. His fingers dug into Anduin’s collarbone, keeping him in place. Anduin winced. His eyes darted around the room and found nothing except Wrathion’s bodyguards, who stood impassively, their bodies alert and poised, their neutral expressions fixed like statues. Anduin’s own guards were mysteriously absent. Damn it.
“I couldn’t even begin to guess,” he choked out, shaking with anger.
“Nor could I, honestly,” Wrathion said. He leaned over Anduin, his bright red eyes gleaming, fathomless. Anduin recoiled, gritting his teeth. “For most of the people on this planet, every day is a fight against overwhelming odds. Dangers of very possible kind wait for them, hunger for them. Azeroth is a set of jaws, eager to snap shut on the defenseless flesh of its inhabitants. Even as we speak, endless waves of Horde and Alliance dash themselves against Pandaria’s beaches, slaughtering each other mindlessly.”
A note of sick excitement crept into Wrathion’s voice as he continued. “Have you been down to the battlefield, Prince Anduin? Is the sand stained red?”
“Let me go,” Anduin said. “Right now.”
“Every day ends with another pile of corpses. These mortals—your people, Garrosh’s people, and everyone in between—die alone and screaming. Impaled. Gutted like pigs, like fish for the market. Or bombed, with nothing left but chunks of smoking meat.”
Wrathion dropped to a whisper as he spoke in Anduin’s ear. “And who will remember them? Who will mourn their names? The truth, my dear prince, is that the majority of these deaths mean nothing.”
At this, Anduin did wrench out of Wrathion’s hold, though doing so caused an incredible spike of pain to stab through his shoulder. He stumbled forward, away, using the cane for support as he fought to stand.
Wrathion watched him, moving neither to help nor hinder his efforts.
Breathing hard, Anduin said, “I’m taking my walk now.”
“Oh, good,” Wrathion said. “I could do with some exercise.”
“That wasn’t an invitation,” Anduin hissed.
He turned and walked, slowly, painstakingly, to the inn’s door.
Wrathion shrugged, smiled, and followed after him.