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Not a Tale of Romance

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The promised snow didn’t disappoint; before Ren sought his own bed for the night it was coming down thick and heavy, not the light dusting of the day before but a steady blanket that covered the whole of the Frostfall way station. Ren shook it off his cloak and out of his fur, banked the fire in his tent hut for a steady burn, and fell asleep to the heavy silence, as though the entire world was listening with bated breath to the muffled soft pat-a-pat of falling snow.

The sound of industrious digging was what woke him in the morning, combined with the snuffling, sharp pitched sound of Grummle voices. Brother Snowmelt and Cousin Smallpebble greeted him cheerfully when he poked his head out to squint at the flat white and equally flat gray of the world; the sun was up, though barely, and the snow was still falling. The drifts were heaped up around the station tents, waist deep in some places and well over the height of the average Grummle, but the small beings were out, armed with stout gloves on their long fingered hands and sturdy small shovels, carving out paths between the doorways and tramping down the walkways. Shivering, Ren bid them good morning and retreated to build up the embers of his fire, heating water for tea and putting a pot of rice on to cook.

The Quian Shui he had harvested the day before had weathered the night on the low bench where Ren kept his tools, its fronds spread and relaxed in the quiet of the tent. He carefully scooped another bowlful of snow around it and set his gathering gloves to soak in a prepared tub of oil and crumbled charcoal ash while he waited for the rice to be ready. He had just sat down with a bowl and a cup of tea when a voice called from outside.

It was Feng, the older male still yawning and wrapped in his heaviest cloak. Ren invited him in, offering him a cup of tea that Feng took gratefully. “Hard work for these old bones, and the cold doesn’t help,” he sighed, settling himself on a cushion beside Ren’s fire. “The Grummles are predicting it’ll keep falling through tomorrow - we’re going to be up to our chins in it before it’s done. Ancestor’s willing the traders will get through before winter sets in. Did you get that message you wanted sent?”

“Yes, but I’m not expecting a reply any time soon,” Ren said wryly. He offered Feng a bowl of rice but the mistweaver shook his head, holding out his cup for a refill.

“Never really want food after a healing,” he admitted, “but if you melted all of that out there I could probably drink it, if Jun didn’t inhale it first. Feel as parched as dried leather.”

“How is the patient?” Ren asked curiously.

“Alive,” Feng said promptly. “Which is good enough for now. Pai Su and Ling are sitting with him right now.” Pai Su was Jun’s mother, Mei Fan’s elder sister and an accomplished healer in her own right. Ling Stormshot was the other mistwalker in the community, rounding out the shifts that they could spell each other with through the day.

Feng shook his head slightly, producing a wrapped bundle from under his cloak. “Part of what I wanted to speak with you about,” he said apologetically. “These are the things we took off the male yesterday. Not much - clothes, a few trinkets. It’s all unfamiliar to me, but would any of it be useful to you?”

Ren set his bowl aside, taking the bundle with pricked ears. “It might,” he admitted. “The Alliance wear insignia - if he was a soldier in a company it might tell us which one and what type.” He untied the burlap Feng had wrapped around the items, letting them spill across his knees.

He wasn’t sure what he had expected. The sturdy blue of an Alliance tabard, most likely, with scraps of leather or mail armor. The blue and white and pale gold fabric that tumbled out over his hands was ripped, bloodstained and torn, but lighter than he had thought, and richer; linen and silk, tight woven and fine.

Ren’s first thought was of the mages, the Kirin Tor and even the mercenaries, magic users who eschewed the use of armor, weaving their defenses into the very fabric of their sometimes ornate clothes. He inhaled deeply, but the scent of blood and an acrid sickening smell reminiscent of death and rot made him sneeze violently. “Sha,” Feng said, his own nose wrinkled. “There’ll be no getting that out.”

Ren winced, ears flat and suddenly unwilling to touch the clothes more than necessary. He had seen the manifestation of Sha before, to his regret; it had been the final straw in his break from communicating with the Alliance, watching the hatred and bloodshed between the Alliance and the Horde draw forth the demons of the heart, monsters made manifest from Pandaria soil to wreck destruction on a land that wasn’t theirs. He grimaced and lifted the scraps of fabric carefully with his claw tips, touching them like he would have a poisonous or prickly herb as he shook them out.

And there… there was the somber head of the Stormwind lion, picked out in gold thread against rich blue silk. Ren shook the surcoat out across the mats, frowning. It was no soldier’s gear, that was certain. A magic user, almost certainly, but he couldn’t tell what type with the scent of Sha overlaying everything - not even the musty scent of warlock magic was discernible past that. Still, the fabric felt subtly heavier than it should - spellcloth, surely, but even among the mages only the most well to do wove their field clothes in silk. A ranking magic user, perhaps, but the Alliance rarely put pure mages in command during a skirmish, and the Kirin Tor would not have worn Stormwind’s insignia.

Piece by piece, the outfit took shape - the silk surcoat, linen tunic and trousers, solid boots that had seen wear, and a length of gold silk that he at first thought was a belt until he shook loose a smooth leather belt from amongst the tangle. The Stormwind lion was there, too, molded into the steel of the belt buckle, and picked out in more gold thread at the dirt stained cuffs of the tunic.

Another twist of burlap spilled out several items - a utilitarian knife, no longer then Ren’s palm but, he supposed, suitably sized for the human, and two tiny bands of metal; rings, Ren realized, small human rings that barely fit over the tip of his smallest fingers. The first was a smooth mithril band with a cap of some dark green stone - darker than the fine transluscent jade that the mines to the south produced - and inlaid with chips of red gems, though if they were magic in nature the cloying scent of the Sha disguised it. The second rolled into Ren’s palm, heavy gold with a single blue stone, and he held his breath as he turned it over.

Feng was leaning forward, ears pricked up in mild curiosity. “An insignia?”

“Of a sort,” Ren said, the words rough in his abruptly dry throat. He twisted the ring around between his claws but it remained unchanged, shining gold and sapphire, the crest picked out in fine carving. When he glanced up Feng was looking slightly alarmed and Ren, with effort, righted his laid back ears. “It’s the mark of the king,” he said. The word came out in Common from long usage, making Feng frown in incomprehension, and Ren grimaced. “The crest of the house of the Emperor,” he explained.

Feng’s ears shot back in shock. “A member of their Emperor’s household? No common soldier, then.”

“No,” Ren agreed, frowning. “I have heard that sometimes highly ranked commanders or those doing the direct will of the Emperor are gifted such rings…” he spread his hands, shaking his head. “I have stood with the Alliance in the past, but I was never highly ranked or granted more than the briefest audience within the court.”

Feng nodded, scratching at the ruff of fur that grew along the edges of his jaw. “And these outsiders… the Shado-Pan sent out warning about them, but the Grummles tell that they have sought out and spoken to the Celestials. An emissary of their Emperor, perhaps?”

Ren paused, mouth open and throat dry as Feng’s words sent the pieces crashing into place. With shaking hands he reached out, snatching up the golden length of silk he had thought was a belt and smoothing it in a diagonal across the surcoat. No… not a belt, the one fastening far too wide to wrap a human’s bone thin waist. A sash, though, worn from shoulder to hip - yes, that fit.

“Oh, Ancestors have mercy,” he groaned softly, letting the rings tumble onto the pile of cloth. “I need to see the man.”

“He’s not awake,” Feng warned, pushing himself up when Ren scrambled to his feet. “And in no condition to answer anything.”

“Not talk to,” Ren clarified, grabbing up his cloak as he headed to the door. “Just see. I wasn’t paying attention last night, except to the wounds. I didn’t think… stupid!” A gust of snow laden wind hit them as soon as he unfastened the door, making him lay his ears back and growl. “And the message already sent, no chance of another… I should have paid better attention!”