Kael had not long been risen the next day, leaving the ever nocturnal Illidan still deep in slumber while he attended to the day's correspondence over a cup of strong tea, when there was a polite rapping on the massive doors to their private rooms.
"Yes?" Kael answered from his writing desk, throwing his voice by way of minor cantrip.
One of the doors opened to reveal a Broken servitor. "The Lady Capernian is here, Prince Kael'thas," the servant rasped in response. "She wishes to see you."
Kael nodded, dismissing the Broken, and High Astromancer Capernian swept past him into the sitting room with imperious grace, garbed exquisitely in a finely embroidered robe of violet silk. He could not help but note the way it clung to her slender form, and did so at length-particularly when she knelt low in a curtsey, her thick black hair falling over one shoulder, revealing the elegant line of her neck. That, too, brought fond memories of Dalaran years past rushing back. But he was a gentleman still, despite his appetites, and kept his admiration discreet.
"Good morning, Capernian," Kael said warmly, setting her at ease. He rose, and offered her a hand, to guide her to a seat on a nearby divan. "Please, let us not stand on ceremony, we know one another too well. To what do I owe the...pleasure of your company?"
Kael was not being remotely serious when he placed the most subtle of emphases on the word, of course, only teasing in his flirtatious manner, but he would not gainsay it either way. Of all his many lovers, he still remembered her fondly.
Capernian was no fool, but smiled despite herself, smoothing the folds of her robe. "Would that it were pleasure, and not business, my prince," she said archly, with just the merest hint of mischief underlying her tone.
"Would that it were, my lady," Kael replied, returning her smile with one of his own. He poured her a cup from the teapot, and offered it to her with the slyest of winks.
She laughed softly then into the back of her raised hand. "Only you would say such things with a lover dozing in the next room, Kael. But alas, I speak the truth when I say it is business that brings me to your chamber. I thought you should know that we had a most interesting visitor arrive at the Sanctum last night, not long after our council concluded."
Kael's feathery eyebrows raised faintly, at that. "Oh?"
"An agent of the Consortium," Capernian said. "And no mere ordinary trader bearing nectar and trinkets, it would seem. Pathaleon's apprentice said she waited patiently for our return from the temple, accompanied by her honor guard, seeking audience with no one less than you. Curious, don't you think?"
Now Kael's curiosity was well and truly piqued. Since their conquest of the Black Temple some months earlier, the Illidari had their share of dealings with the otherworldly race who deemed themselves ethereals, and their erstwhile trade Consortium; indeed, trade was truly their lifeblood, as much as the incorporeal creatures had any. Kael knew this well enough, as he had negotiated more than one agreement with them himself; it was Consortium traders who kept the Temple's larders stocked, and Illidan's soldiers dining on more than tough and gamey felboar. Their merchant caravans were as ubiquitous along the rocky paths through the valley as the nightmare vine that haunted near every crevasse.
But so far as Kael knew, trade was all the Consortium sought. He was no fool to believe that would always be the case; trade and politics went hand in hand, after all, and he had no reason to think even this broken world would be any different in that regard. Still, they'd dealt in naught but foodstuffs and small luxuries of the sort that kept sin'dorei morale high-oils, incense, jewelry, and the like. The occasional artifact, perhaps, but they'd only pursued commerce with Illidan's forces thus far.
"Curious indeed, Capernian. Who is this agent, and what did she want with me?" Kael asked.
"Ambassador Nasira, she called herself, and claimed to have journeyed all the way from the Stormspire, many miles to the north in the Netherstorm, bearing tidings for the Lord of Outland and his loyal Sun Prince from Nexus-Prince Haramad himself, who leads the Consortium. And most curiously, she also bore an invitation for you both to meet with him, at the Stormspire," she answered. Capernian reached into a small, finely crafted leather pouch upon her gilded belt, and pulled out a neatly folded sheaf of parchment sealed with violet wax, to hand it to Kael.
He pursed his lips in thought as he broke the seal-impressed upon it was the crystalline insignia he recognized from the livery every Consortium trader wore over their wrappings. Written in flowing, elegant script with faintly shimmering ink was indeed an invitation to call upon the Nexus-Prince at the Stormspire. "What did you tell her?" he asked, fingering the parchment idly, as the gears of his mind turned.
"That you were presently occupied with Lord Illidan's war efforts, and that I would bear the message to you at the nearest opportunity, but I made no promises as to your answer," Capernian replied. "I saw no need to dissemble to her, and she appeared satisfied enough by my response when she took her leave. In truth, I am curious. The ethereals have a knowledge of the arcane that rivals our own, and in certain areas may even surpass it. I believe there is more to be had in bargaining with them than provisions and trinkets. But I question why this Nexus-Prince is bearing entreaties now, when we have been ensconced here firmly for months, and trading for nearly that long. It bears the stench of opportunism to me."
For all her sometime prickliness, Capernian was as shrewd a courtier as Rommath-and as loyal. Hers was the keen and penetrating mind of an archmage, forever seeking the flaws in arguments, looking beyond the surface of niceties, reading between the lines. And, in truth, it was for those qualities that Kael selected her for his entourage in Dalaran all those years ago, as much as her beauty and skill with the arcane. He trusted her counsel implicitly.
"Merchants are inherently opportunists," Kael agreed. "They go where the most profit is. I've no doubt they were waiting to see which way the proverbial winds were blowing-whether Lord Illidan was truly a force to be reckoned with or merely a pretender to an uncertain throne. It would appear they've found a satisfactory answer."
"And how will you answer, my prince?" Capernian asked, her eyebrows quirked in curiosity.
Kael pondered her question for a long moment. He agreed heartily with her assessment that the ethereals were worth feeling out for a more substantial alliance, for the knowledge they bore in addition to their provisions; and perhaps this sudden warming of relations was a sign they would be willing to contract their mercenaries at last to Illidan, something they'd thus far refused. Despite his wariness, he also had no intention of alienating a key trade partner, one who'd supplied Illidan's army quite well.
Then there was the Netherstorm, and the mysteries and possibilities it held. Something within him, perhaps an archmage's intuition, kept tugging at him about that region. It seemed everything was pointing to that place of late, and he did not believe it mere coincidence.
Still, he was wary. Kael did not believe the Nexus-Prince had perfidy on the mind, not for a moment; the Consortium's coffers had been considerably fattened since Illidan seized Magtheridon's throne, and they stood to gain far too much more in the way of profit to risk it. He spoke truly, when he said to Capernian that he believed they were waiting to see how matters would fall out between Illidan and the Legion before making overtures. And the Legion was clearly in decline in Outland. It had been penned in to one stronghold in Shadowmoon Valley, and Illidan's forces were growing stronger by the day, despite the losses taken in Northrend. They would be fools to turn on their best clientele, and Kael did not believe the ethereals were fools by any means.
But it would not do for the Lord of Outland to come running at the beck and call of any who summoned him. Kael also believed that rather strongly. It was a delicate balance to keep, certainly, and the Illidari could not show signs of weakness or desperation. Illidan had to exude the strength of his position-even if it were occasionally more precarious than they let on-and that would be compromised if he were to go a-begging to the Stormspire. He smiled then, a plan forming in his mind.
"I will say that if the Nexus-Prince Haramad wishes to bear tidings to the Lord of Outland, then let him come to the Black Temple and do so in person," Kael said at last, grinning. "Lord Illidan would be glad to receive them, and I as well. Truly, it's been quite some time since we last had a fete-too long I think. Tell Rommath to make an invitation of our own."
Capernian answered Kael's grin with one of her own, devious and amused. "Rommath always did adore a party. He'll be truly sorry to miss it, you realize."
"Not if I tell him it's in his honor," Kael replied, his grin broader. "The Grand Magister of Quel'Thalas should be seen back to Azeroth with all the honor due his exalted station, don't you think? And if the Nexus-Prince Haramad were to attend, all the better. Let the Consortium see how the sin'dorei make use of their largesse, and how Lord Illidan treats those who swear loyalty to him. Spread the word, Capernian: it's time to be somewhat more than soldiers again."
So it was that Kael fetched parchment and ink from his writing desk, and sent Capernian back to the Sanctum of the Stars carrying two missives, bearing the golden phoenix device of House Sunstrider imprinted on crimson wax: one, a reply to Ambassador Nasira of the Consortium, inviting the Nexus-Prince to the Black Temple in three weeks' time for a fete in honor of Kael's right hand, and another to Rommath himself, explaining what he had in mind. Then, he set to making out a number of personal invitations to select august persons within the Illidari, those for whom word from Capernian-the prince's aide, and not the prince himself-might be considered a slight.
It was not merely subterfuge and political gamesmanship that motivated Kael in this endeavor, of course. The sin'dorei had become a hedonistic people in the wake of the tremendous tragedy and hardship they'd suffered, and morale was on his mind. A celebration of their recent triumphs was something he believed would do them all a great deal of good, particularly with the shadow of Northrend still cast long over them. But beyond even that, there were more personal motivations at work. Kael was still plagued by a gnawing sense of guilt that he'd neglected Rommath, caught up as he was in the throes of life with a new paramour; and his decision to send Rommath back to Quel'Thalas-even if it were the man's own idea-did not soothe that guilt in the slightest, only compounding it. Their argument the previous day weighed on Kael, still.
He wanted to do this much for Rommath. Kael wanted to show his oldest and dearest companion, in a manner beyond words, that it truly was only shared duty to their people which drove him to send him back to their ruined kingdom. Merely duty, and not a cooling of passions or lessening of affection. He wanted Rommath to know that he was still loved, regardless of Kael's whirlwind romance with Illidan, and whatever might happen with Vashj. He believed it was the least Rommath deserved-to be so honored before all their allies, particularly after everything the magister had been through.
With Capernian sent off, there was one other person Kael needed to make aware of his plans. Some few hours later, after consulting with his quartermasters, he ventured to the private garden within the Den of Mortal Delights and found his beloved master there, meditating amidst the flowers as he was wont to do.
Silent and contemplative, Illidan sat cross-legged on a soft, round carpet on the floor, his powerfully muscled chest heaving slowly with each deep breath.
Kael stood there in the open doorway for a long moment, gazing upon him with fondness, not wanting to intrude upon his tranquility. The prince smiled at the sight of his lover at such peace. Perhaps it was mere wishful thinking on his part, but he believed that it was coming easier to Illidan now.
"Dalah'surfal," Illidan breathed softly, remaining still upon the floor. Kael was no longer startled at such moments, the sudden recognition of his presence by his blind master; not now, after so long knowing him. Instead, he smiled, that Illidan could still sense him even when sunk in the depths of his meditations, with his consciousness turned deep within his oft-tortured soul.
"I love you," Kael said quietly, impulsively, and for a moment forgot that it was not simply a social call that brought him to Illidan. He could not help but be moved by the picture of dark beauty and serenity before him.
But moved as he was by Illidan's beauty-he was, after all, an elf-Kael made himself focus upon why he was there, disrupting such a picture.
Illidan, for his part, bore the news with his typical apathy when Kael entered the sanctuary, and they sat at the table to converse. Politics were not the demon hunter's utmost concern, and Kael had realized that fairly early on in service to him; Illidan was one who craved the prestige of rulership, the power and accolades it brought, but seldom wielded it in the temporal sense. Illidan relished the adoration it brought above all else. Lordship over anything for its own sake had never been what drove him, Kael had come to learn in time, and it was part of why he loved him so. Survival was the only reason he sought dominion over Outland; survival, and the magic this mysterious, broken world held. Always, with Illidan, there was the hunger for magic, and forbidden knowledge. He craved it like little else.
Kael came to realize too, early on, that Illidan was starved for the respect he deserved. Above all else, Illidan wanted to be adored. Politics, he left to Kael, and Vashj; Illidan trusted the two of them to negotiate it on his behalf, while his mind was fixed upon other matters, among them his schemes with the orcs. What manner of court existed in the Black Temple consisted of sin'dorei, naga, and their demonic allies. Kael's meetings with his many advisors were of little consequence to Illidan, so long as Kael was content and the sin'dorei primed to fight for him as needed, which they always were.
At mention of the fete, however, Illidan's indifference turned to curiosity. "A reception, here at the temple, with you as host?" he asked, over a plate of sliced fruits. A Broken servitor had brought them discreetly at Kael's command, along with a selection of writing implements.
Kael absently moistened the nib of his quill upon his tongue, before dipping it in an inkwell and setting it to parchment. "Yes, master. I believe the Consortium is testing the waters for something more than a trade alliance, and the ethereals are an urbane, sophisticated people. A fete would go a long way to cement their loyalty," he replied, as he wrote out instructions in his flowing, graceful hand. "And truth be told, my own people are social creatures. We've been on a war footing for nearly three years now, with little cause to celebrate. Beyond the political necessity, I believe it will do us all a world of good." He paused, smiling at Illidan. "Yourself included."
Illidan raised his eyebrows at that, holding a bit of salted melon hovering before his lips. "Why do you say that?"
"Because when you aren't sequestered in council, or deep in some arcane text, all you do is brood," Kael said gently. "You are the sovereign Lord of Outland, master, yet you've only known the burdens of rulership, and reap none of the pleasures of it."
"I visit the Den," Illidan protested with a snort, gesturing to the lush chambers beyond the doorway.
"Indeed, and I do not wish to impugn the quality of Lady Shahraz's company. But carnal delights are not the only kind of pleasure there is, and you might enjoy others from time to time, love," Kael replied with another smile.
Illidan snickered, a long, pointed violet ear twitching with mirth. "That's rather droll coming from you, my young prince. I thought you thoroughly enjoyed carnal delights."
"Well, yours are especially delightful," Kael said, grinning. "Nonetheless, my point stands. I know you're often a man of extremes, but is there no pastime somewhere between orgies and meditation with which to occupy yourself, master?"
"Forgive me, my thero'shan," Illidan said softly, as he reached across the table, and took Kael's hand into his own, scarred and calloused. His thumb glided across Kael's knuckles, stroking the smooth skin, and Kael suppressed a sigh of pleasure at his unwontedly gentle touch. "I've just...I spent ten thousand years chained in darkness, much of it denied the presence of others, even that of my accursed gaolers. Always, I was alone with my thoughts, my nights spent in endless tedium. Sometimes I fear I've lost what it means to be in the world, and simply live. Tedium was a boon companion, in truth. My only one, for an eon. And I realize it made me a poor one for you, Kael. I'm sorry."
The fel emerald light of Illidan's shrouded gaze dimmed for a moment, and it seemed then, as it did so often, that he was a world away from Outland-from Kael-when he fell silent. In such moments, when his cursed vision extended beyond the enchantments and the flows of magic in blood, bone, and earth, Kael wondered what Illidan saw. Kael knew there were many places Illidan's mind drifted to when he fell silent like this, places he could not follow with impassioned declarations of loyalty and oaths of undying devotion.
It was at such times that he remembered who his lover and savior truly was. It was at such times that Kael remembered the truth of the life Illidan had led.
It was easy in the dark of night, with the weight of his tall and powerful body pressed against him, flush with desire and driving him to heights of untold pleasure, for Kael to forget what had befallen Illidan long before they had ever met. It was easy to forget, in a temple fortress full of his loyal warriors, that Illidan Stormrage had worn the mantle of "Lord of Outland" upon his shoulders for far shorter a time than he had "The Betrayer". It was easy to forget, when blood-gorged orcs beat their chests and zealous shivarra uttered his name as a battle cry and prayer by turns, that "Betrayer" was no mere epithet, that it had been a sentence of judgment, a word of damnation uttered by his own flesh and blood-the sundered half of his soul, his own twin-which cast him down into darkness to languish for an eternity, lost and forgotten.
Illidan was like no one Kael had ever known. It was true; it was why Kael, who'd wanted for no amount of pleasure or companionship, found him so impossibly alluring. It was why Kael had come to harbor such foolish romantic dreams of being the one to melt his wounded heart, to coax smiles and sighs of pleasure from his brooding lips, and why he was so damned smug that he did. Vashj had called him a heartsick fool once, and he'd denied it then, but deep down he'd known it was true even then, long before he and Illidan became something more than a master and his loyal consigliere.
But it was altogether too easy sometimes for Kael to not grasp the true meaning of it-of what it meant to love someone who'd been imprisoned against his will for millennia, bereft of companionship or even simple kindness, while the world far above him spun on without him. Illidan had not been free in the world since he was a youth barely of his majority; Azeroth had barely sundered to its component continents then, and humans had not even existed. What was three years of freedom to an immortal who'd spent ten thousand in brutal captivity? What was barely half a year of love and companionship to a man who'd spent eons-the very lifespan of a civilization, Kael's own-in the direst isolation and solitude? The span of a heartbeat, perhaps, if even that.
I've been a martyr for ten-thousand years, Kael. Should I know anything different?
They had been words spoken upon the selfsame terrace where they sat this day, more than a month ago, and they came back to Kael as he gazed upon Illidan's chiseled face, aching and beloved. He found himself grieving, and not for the first time, for what Illidan endured. For the choices he made, for the path he tread, for the singular sacrifice he made of himself, and for the eternal enmity it earned him. For his folly and for his sorrow. It was grief Kael felt, tempered by pride, that he endured it. Truly, Illidan yet endured, for all that two worlds and more sought otherwise.
And Light above, did Kael love him for it.
"Don't apologize to me, love," Kael said softly, lifting Illidan's caressing hand to his mouth and kissing his scarred knuckles with the utmost tenderness. "I only wish to be a comfort to you. I wasn't lying when I said that."
"And you are, more than you could ever know," Illidan confessed. He gently slipped from Kael's light grasp, and rested his hand against Kael's cheek, cupping it in his palm. The warmth of his touch was like nothing else on life; Kael found himself leaning into it again, as Illidan's thumb caressed the height of his cheekbone, the talon lightly brushing his skin. It set Kael's pulse to racing.
"I almost believe it when you say that," Kael sighed softly, tilting his head to plant a kiss upon Illidan's calloused palm.
"I fear I have lost touch with normalcy long before you were ever born." Illidan chuckled darkly to himself, with sardonic self-deprecation, before he continued. "Some might argue I was never in touch with it at all-namely, my brother. Still, it is difficult for me to live as a normal man does, the way you might expect of a companion. But I am trying, Kael. For my own sake, and yours. And if you believe this fete will help, then I will gladly attend."
Kael laughed a little, nuzzling Illidan's hand. "What should 'normal' mean to ones such as us, master? We dwell together in a desecrated temple, nestled in the ruins of a world far from our own, surrounded by demons and serpents and blood-drunk orcs. And who defines it, at any rate? We live in extraordinary times, and live the best we can, as the times shape us in profound ways. It is all we can do, in the end. Normalcy is overrated, anyway. I would rather grasp a fleeting moment of the extraordinary than live a whole lifetime of 'normal'," Kael said.
"Let us make the most of it then," Illidan agreed, lowering his hand from Kael's face with one last caress of his finger. "Because I wish for it to last. What do you need of me, for this fete?"
Kael stared at him intently with pursed lips, his eyes glancing the length of Illidan's body, half-obscured though it was by the table. For once he was not ogling his handsome lover for the sake of it, but rather...taking stock of certain matters. He leaned back in his chair, and raised his brows at the wrappings about Illidan's wrists, the tattered obi trimmed by lightly stained fur at his waist which held up old breeches with worn, fraying hems. And Kael pursed his lips into an ever so slight frown.
"To visit a tailor," he answered diplomatically, his expression as deadpan as possible, though his stare was meaningful.
Fortunately, there were a number of them counted among the sin'dorei forces at the temple, who produced the standards and livery worn by all the various Illidari forces. Kael required someone of suitable vision to garb the Lord of Outland and his second-in-command, however, and no mere seamstress. Though Kael's own clothier-the Lady Alexandra, who earned considerable fame adorning him in Dalaran-was a human mage of the Kirin Tor and perished in Lordaeron's fall, Kael's people were nothing if not skilled, creative, and resourceful. Before a full day had passed, his discreet inquiries to Capernian produced the name of a young healer whom everyone from Capernian herself to Rommath to the Lady Shahraz swore was also the most talented couturiere among not only the sin'dorei, but the whole of the Illidari.
Magistrix Amelia was slight and lovely, with bronze skin and wavy silvery hair pulled back into a tight braid. She worked surrounded by a bevy of apprentices-including, most curiously to Kael, a small number of naga sirens-out of a makeshift atelier in the sin'dorei quarters of the Black Temple, when she was not at work at the Sanctum of the Stars conducting arcane research, or in the field leading Eclipsion patrols. The atelier was fair bustling with activity, Amelia and her team of tailors and seamstresses having already taken on any number of commissions for the Prince's fete. Word travelled briskly in the Black Temple, it would seem.
When Kael and Illidan arrived for their appointment that evening, the young lady was quite simply starstruck.
"My lords, you do me the utmost honor. I shall strive to be worthy of it," she said, somewhere around four times, before Kael gently bid her to rise from her low curtsey without outstretched hands, helping her upright.
"You came with the highest recommendation, my lady magistrix," Kael said with a reassuring smile. "I'm sure you will."
Amelia's tawny skin became flush with crimson as she stared up at Illidan, who rather casually towered over her. "Shall we begin with you, my lord?" she asked, her voice filled with quiet awe.
"By all means," Illidan chuckled.
Amelia was barely at eye level with his waist, and it made for a rather comical sight. To his credit, Illidan did not even crack a smile when the diminutive priestess was forced to whisper an incantation that held her gently aloft in the air before him, so that she might stand eye to eye with the comparatively gargantuan demon hunter in order to begin taking his measurements.
"Oh, my," she mumbled to herself, as her arms stretched a length of measuring cord across his wing span, and halfway along ran out of tape and slender arm in kind. Her thick lips curled into a frown. "Penelope, dear! I think we may need a longer tape. And your arms."
Penelope, it seemed, was a dark-haired beauty a fair bit taller than tiny Amelia-in truth, she was closer to Kael's height, and between the two of them they managed to measure out Illidan's top half without much trouble, though Penelope required a step stool. Together, the couturieres stretched out the length of cord across his broad shoulders, his thickly muscled biceps, and chiseled torso, making notations on a sheet of parchment. He stood patiently, extending his arms and lowering them at the ladies' silent commands, without a word of complaint.
The bottom half was another story entirely.
Amelia blushed again, and far deeper, but her eyes narrowed in shrewd appraisal of Illidan, glancing downward. "You'll have to strip, my lord," she said a bit absently, dismissing her spell and lowering herself gently back to the floor.
Illidan stared blankly at her. "I beg your pardon, milady?" he spluttered, after a moment.
"It's for accuracy, my lord," erstwhile Penelope explained, trying very hard to hold in her tittering. Kael thought she did an admirable job of it, all things considered.
"It's necessary, my lord. I'm sorry," Amelia added by way of halfhearted apology, with absolutely no sincerity whatsoever. Her hungry eyes rather betrayed it too. Kael smiled.
Though Kael could almost see the enchanted spheres of fel iron rolling skyward behind Illidan's blindfold, the Lord of Outland sighed and obediently untied the stays from his obi, removing it and allowing his loose-fitting trousers to drop in a pool of fabric at his hooves.
Somewhere, an apprentice gasped and dropped a bundle on the carpeted floor with a muffled yet distinct thud.
Amelia's breath caught in her throat involuntarily, her eyes taking in the feast of chiseled, powerfully muscled flesh before her. Penelope gasped and her hand absently drifted to her gaping mouth, the other touching Illidan's massive thigh muscle with no small amount of awe. Truly, Kael could hardly blame either of them.
Still, he covered his mouth and laughed at the tittering women as they bent low, stretching out their cords. Somewhere behind them, the sirens of the atelier nudged one another with their myriad arms and covered their own grinning mouths; one made a rather scandalous gesture with her hand, and the others laughed wickedly. More than once, Amelia and Penelope stole surreptitious, curious glances at Kael as they took their measure of Illidan, their heads close together as they whispered conspiratorially in low tones with one another like giggling schoolgirls.
Neither seemed to be aware that the demon hunter, though conventionally blind, nonetheless possessed near-preternatural hearing.
"Anar'alah belore! He's enormous," Amelia whispered from behind her free hand.
"I've never seen a man so..." Penelope agreed in hushed tones. "How do they even...?"
"Carefully," Illidan murmured in deadpan nonchalance, with only the faintest hint of a smirk upon his lips.
They laughed in embarrassment, glancing guiltily at Kael, who simply inclined his head with a good natured smile, and a cheeky wink.
"Oh look at us Penny. We're like a pair of adolescent party girls at the Academy," Amelia said with a little self-deprecating laugh. She rose to her feet and glanced up at towering Illidan, and then over to Kael. "My apologies, my lords, for being so dreadfully unprofessional."
"It's no trouble, young miss," Illidan said, his tone filled with amusement. In truth, he seemed to take the attention in stride. Kael found it terribly endearing, the way his tattooed chest puffed out as Amelia eyed him speculatively, beckoning him to turn and pose just so, like some great living doll.
"He is rather impressive, isn't he?" Kael said, which set them all to giggling again.
"Very," Amelia agreed, tapping her chin with a thoughtful finger. "I shall strive to do his fine physique justice, your highness," she added impishly, with a little curtsey. "And you as well, my lord prince. I believe it's your turn."
"The pleasure is mine, my lady," Kael replied. He was never bashful, being accustomed as a prince to people fussing over him, and disrobed with grace, to the barely contained swoons of all present in the atelier. Amelia did not require the aid of her partner to take his measurements, but Penelope eagerly offered it nonetheless, all too thrilled at the prospect of getting up close and personal with her prince's lean, muscular body. Kael didn't begrudge them this and merely smiled at them indulgently. He was beautiful, and he knew it; he reveled in the attention.
Stripped to his crimson briefs, Kael held out his arms, and exchanged a number of lingering glances with his couturieres. At one point, Amelia knelt before him to measure his toned calves, and Kael gazed down upon her with a smoldering look that she returned boldly.
It was utterly ridiculous, but Kael couldn't help himself. He never could, where a beautiful face was concerned.
"Behave yourself, Ami," Penelope murmured, as she scribbled notations on a sheet of parchment.
"I always do," Amelia said rather innocently, circling Kael much like a shark, her eyes bright and calculating.
Kael didn't believe her for a moment.
When the process was at last complete, Amelia curtseyed once more and guided Kael and Illidan to a couch-fully clothed, to the chagrin of the atelier's artisans (though where Illidan was concerned, "fully clothed" was always something of an inappropriate misnomer, what with his pragmatic penchant for shirtlessness). A Broken servitor fetched ink and heavy parchment at her command.
"Now, my lords," Amelia began crisply, "we get down to business, for I believe these bespoke garments must capture the essence of who you are, not merely the message you wish to send. Are we of an accord, gentlemen?"
Kael began to understand why she was recommended so highly, then. "Indeed, my lady. That is precisely what I had in mind."
She smiled. "Excellent, your highness. Now, Lord Illidan reigns supreme over Outland, and his attire must reflect his sovereignty, his dark majesty," she continued. "Darkness, yes, and primal, dangerous beauty. Both night elf and demon, yet together something more, something greater than the sum of his parts. His body itself is a work of art, and should not be overwhelmed, I think. Here..."
Amelia furiously began sketching a design, at once deceptively simple yet elegant and heavy with significance; she refined it after few moments of back and forth critique and debate with Kael. Illidan, for his part, observed the pair with a measure of detachment, asking the occasional question, clarifying the occasional concern. But he leaned in with fascination as he did so, fully engaged, and approving of the final design with a satisfied nod.
"Wonderful. And for you, your highness," Amelia said, pursing her lips in thought. "For you, shining Sun Prince of Quel'Thalas...I think I have just the thing."
It took much less time for Kael and Amelia to agree on his own attire; designing for her prince, with much more familiar stature and proportions and coloring, was far less of a challenge, it would seem. Light, airy, yet structured was the theme, and like Illidan's was deceptively simple.
Rommath had commissioned her also, as it turned out, and it set fire to Kael's imagination wondering what he might be wearing. He held his curiosity in check and did not ask, however. Kael wanted to be surprised.
At last, Amelia summoned her sirens, and Kael and Illidan were shown a variety of fine fabrics, settling on a number of magically imbued bolts; when she was not aiding her much shorter compatriot, Penelope was a tremendously skilled enchanter, and worked her craft on each bolt, each thread, each garment. Amelia's free-flowing hand noted specific and detailed instructions for dying the fabric for Kael's garments, which were given to the sirens.
There was a significance to this process beyond prosaic concerns of craft. While most sin'dorei favored the color red in general, and many would likely wear some shade of it to the reception, the sumptuous deep red known as al'arine crimson was by far the most striking, and it was a color by custom and law restricted to the royal Sunstrider line. So unique a color it was that by the laws of the Royal Thalassian Guild of Couturiers, none but the Grand Couturier and their select apprentices knew the precise formula for the dye. It was a secret passed down from master to apprentice for generations.
Yet no Sunstrider had worn al'arine crimson since High King Dath'Remar himself. Not even Kael's signature heavy robes and mantle were that shade of red, but somewhat lighter.
It was this very legendary hue that Amelia intended to use for Kael's attire.
"An inspired choice, my lady," Kael said, swallowing down an unexpected pang of emotion.
Amelia inclined her head, with a sad smile. "My mother was a dressmaker in the Grand Atelier in Silvermoon, your highness. When the Scourge laid siege to the Shepherd's Gate, she gave me the key to the Royal Couturier's vault, and bade me save the formula. I've kept it on me ever since," she said.
"What of your mother, young miss?" Illidan asked gently. Amelia lowered her quill, along with her eyes.
"She never made it out of the Bazaar," Amelia sighed. But she held her head up then, chin upturned, with a sudden fierceness in her eyes. "But I honored her last wish. I saved that formula. For the glory of House Sunstrider, and our people. It did not pass from the world as so much else did."
Some might have believed it frivolous, a testament to elven vanity and superficiality, that a simple dye formula-knowledge of how to make one specific color, for one specific family-would be so prized, so fiercely protected, so treasured, as though it were some manner of sacred artifact.
Those people were not sin'dorei.
Kael understood. He grasped Amelia's hand, and kissed it chastely, with none of the casual flirtation he showed earlier. "House Sunstrider is in your debt, my lady," Kael said solemnly.
"Please, your highness," Amelia said. "I never thought I would attire the High Prince of Quel'Thalas, or a legend out of time and athenaeum texts. I only wish to be worthy of such an honor. I shall do my best, I swear it. Forgive me, my lords, but I must confer with my assistants. There is a great deal of work to do before the fete."
"Of course, my lady," Kael said, rising with Illidan from the couch. "We wouldn't want to keep you."
"Thank you," Illidan added with a low rumble. "I look forward to the end product."
With that, Amelia curtseyed to them both, and disappeared in a whirlwind of activity, her assistants vying for her attention.
Kael and Illidan quietly took their leave of the atelier.
"Your people's loyalty is remarkable," Illidan remarked, as they walked down the corridor, returning to their quarters. "As is their zeal. It heartens me to see how much they care for you."
Kael smiled, and leaned against Illidan, slipping his arm around his waist. "They care for you just as much, master," he replied. Illidan snorted rather dubiously at that, but Kael added: "you saved us."
"Vashj saved you," Illidan countered.
"And she would not be here if not for you," Kael said. "None of us would."
Illidan gave one of his slight, self-deprecating smiles in reply, and Kael wondered if he truly understood that, or understood the depth of Lady Vashj's devotion to him, where it came from. Again, Kael found himself melancholy at the thought of her absence, and dearly hoped she would be in attendance. Hers was the first invitation he made out, after Nexus-Prince Haramad's, and Rommath's. He could only hope her reply would be swiftly forthcoming, as he set about in his preparations.
In truth, the days that followed their appointment with Amelia found Kael in a near constant rush of activity, determined as he was to take a personal role in every aspect of the planning. Between fittings at the atelier and his usual war councils, he spoke with the botanist Magister Freywinn Sunseeker at the Sanctum regarding the procurement and placement of flora. With Solarian's aid, he located a number of sin'dorei with musical skill, and did not have to impress a sense of need to win their engagement; they were thrilled to be called upon by their prince at all, and for somewhat other than their skill with blade, bow, or spell.
Indeed, the Black Temple and the Sanctum of the Sun alike were fair buzzing with excitement over the affair. Kael's estimation that his people were in dire need of frivolity after nearly three years of constant struggle was altogether accurate, it would seem. It also seemed that their enthusiasm was rather infectious: the Illidari demons joined in, those of higher sentience, at least. Kael was treated more than once to the rather comical sight of a satyr honing his craft with a set of wooden pipes, as he traversed the temple's halls.
When the Consortium's reply came, confirming the attendance of the Nexus-Prince and a delegation of his ethereals, Kael was heartened, but it threw something of a snag into the menu planning. It occurred to him quite suddenly, one day in the temple kitchens with Capernian, as sin'dorei chefs presented a number of dishes for his approval.
"What do they eat, these ethereals?" Kael asked, glancing over a selection of hors d'oeuvres. "Do they eat? They're incorporeal, after all. Do they even require sustenance in the manner of other beings?"
"I spoke of it with one of the traders once, actually. It seems they do, in fact, consume foodstuffs...though they are rather exotic, as foodstuffs go. All of their food and drink is derived from gemstones, and their bodies render it into pure energy once consumed," Capernian replied.
"Fascinating. I don't suppose your trader had any of it for sale, did he?" Kael asked.
"I can do one better, in fact. One of the more...eccentric Sunseeker alchemists at the Sanctum has been making a study of ethereal cuisine, apparently, and purchased a tome of recipes and methods a fortnight past," Capernian answered. "I'm not entirely certain whether or not the resulting experiments are fit to serve a prince of the ethereals, but our trader appeared to enjoy them well enough a day or so past, and spoke highly of the lady's offerings."
Kael nodded. "Good. Have her train the cooks in her methods. I want Haramad and his people to feel suitably welcome here. A pleased palate leads to pleasing conversation, and pleasing politics are sure to follow," he said.
"Now you sound like one of those fools at the Legerdemain," Capernian chuckled, but smiled softly in affection at the memory of Dalaran's most famous inn-famed in equal parts for its hospitality and its intrigue. She sounded a bit wistful when she continued. "This is just like the old days in the Sunlit Court, isn't it?"
"Except our guests are even more exotic," Kael agreed, answering her smile with one of his own. Truly, he had been known as a gracious host during his time in Dalaran, and parties at the Sunstrider estate, exclusive though they were-Kirin Tor or not, he was royalty-were always counted by those in attendance as the highlights of the social calendar in Dalaran. And Kael hadn't had the opportunity to play host since those halcyon days; perhaps this was as much about his own morale as his people's. It was a welcome distraction, for all its political and personal necessity, and he genuinely enjoyed the planning. It was why he threw himself into it with such gusto.
"Indeed," Capernian replied. "Speaking of which, you may be pleased to hear that a delegation of naga returned from the cistern, and that I spoke with Fathom-Lord Karathress this morning. He asked me to inform you that Lady Vashj received your invitation, and will be in attendance."
Kael let out a breath he did not realize he'd been holding in, one inhaled at mention of the naga. A palpable sense of relief washed over him. Vashj's continued silence wounded him, and he had not realized how much the wound festered until he heard Capernian speak her name. Deep down, he'd begun to fear that Vashj was truly wroth with him, that he had pushed her too far in his concern for her. He'd thrown himself into his duties and other concerns in part to take his mind off it.
Which manner of invitation the High Priestess of Nazjatar meant to answer, however, was another concern entirely. Still, Kael took the acceptance as a welcome sign that their relationship had not been damaged beyond repair by the weighty revelations shared in a terrifyingly aching moment of intimacy within the Coilskar grotto. She answered, and that was all that mattered to him. The rest would play out as it would, at her readiness, in accordance with her own will. Kael was firm in that belief, in that silent vow he made to himself. He was not Azshara, to force her hand.
"Thank you, Capernian," he said at last in genuine gratitude. "It does please me, a great deal."
Capernian's fine, dark brows raised ever so slightly, but she decided discretion was the better part of valor, and thus said nothing on Kael's moment of silence before speaking. Like Rommath, she'd come to know him well enough to gauge his moods, and despite her sometime prickliness, she also knew when to leave well enough alone. "By your leave, my prince, I'll confer with the naga quartermaster on which delicacies are pleasing to them," she said. "What they expect to be served at a formal table, as opposed to the field."
"Of course," Kael said, rising from the table to take his leave of the kitchens. His final fitting with Amelia beckoned. "I trust your judgment."
The High Prince of Quel'Thalas had indeed been fortunate enough in his life to have such judgment he could trust, even in the most seemingly mundane of matters as menu planning. He thought of Rommath again as he made for the eastern wing of the temple, and the atelier. Kael had been so busy with his preparations for the party that he'd scarce found time to confer with the guest of honor. Rommath's own preparations for his imminent return to Quel'Thalas had occupied him as much, and he'd sent his reply to the invitation via courier, thanking his prince for his graciousness; he confirmed that he would gladly attend, doing his best to further the aims of Lord Illidan and his prince in diplomacy. It was a touch formal, but rather expected. Kael knew that whenever Rommath was uncertain of protocol-an exceedingly rare occurrence, mind-he fell back upon formality. It was as much a comfort to him as anything, something upon which he could lean in times of uncertainty.
And for the first time in years, perhaps ever, the protocol of their situation was uncertain. Kael was Illidan's right hand, his treasured lieutenant and the general of his armies. That he was also Illidan's lover was common knowledge; though it was not something they spoke openly about, it was hardly something they especially hid, either. This fete, however, would make what had to that point been merely quietly acknowledged gossip plain at last in the most public of manners. Though it was technically being held in Rommath's honor, as Grand Magister of Quel'Thalas, it was also for all intents and purposes a reception of state. The first such reception Illidan would hold as Lord of Outland, receiving a powerful merchant prince of another race.
It was also reception that Kael was hosting. It was by his invitation that the Nexus-Prince would attend. Not one among the Illidari forces questioned it at the temple; why would he not direct such a function, when he was directing the war effort? It was another thing entirely, however, to stand at Illidan's side as he received a potential ally in state, even as they toasted a loyal courtier for his service. Such a thing would send a distinct message-not merely to their allies and to the ethereals, but to all of Outland. As word carried across the broken world along the Consortium's myriad trade routes, by traders dealing in gossip as surely as goods, it would be unmistakable: the Lord of Outland did not rule by his lonesome, and the Lord of the Blood Elves was no mere vassal or consigliere. Kael would be perceived as Illidan's consort, and perhaps rightly so. To have fallen into the role so naturally and with such ease was one thing; to be viewed and acknowledged as such by Outland would be quite another.
It was something that weighed heavily upon Kael, even unto his return to the atelier and the scrutiny of Amelia's exacting eye. Kael was thoroughly distracted by such thoughts of politics during the fitting. He scarcely marked the tailors' adjustments to his garments or Amelia's sharp and precise instructions to them, ruminating instead on the changing nature of his role and how it would be perceived. The whole point of this fete, beyond even the political concerns, was to remind Rommath of his value to Kael. Not simply his political value as an advisor and courtier, not even his value as a magister of unparalleled skill and cunning, but as his lover, as his closest friend since childhood. How would being perceived and acknowledged as another man's consort color that purpose? Would it be tainted, no matter the truth of the arrangement? Kael would not forget the fear in Rommath's voice, nor the bitterness when he believed himself exiled and unwanted.
And how in the world would Lady Vashj perceive it? Illidan- the secret desire of her heart since before even the Sunwell was conceived-with Kael at his side playing the dutiful master of the house so to speak...would she consider them both denied to her, regardless of Kael's words to the contrary in the grotto? Would such a sight be too much for her to countenance, would it be the thing that severed her at last from them?
Trepidation and uncertainty seized Kael in a vice grip, as tightly as the tailors gripped their needles presently piercing the fabric of his hem. Perhaps Kael had acted in haste in the planning of this fete. Perhaps he'd been so pleased with this seemingly perfect solution to a number of disparate problems that he'd miscalculated, and not foreseen the dangers. His father had always said that was Kael's one real flaw as an archmage: that once he believed he found an answer, he possessed a nearly implacable belief in the certainty of his rightness. Such belief was commendable, of course, but only to a point; not when it led Kael to miss or underestimate critical flaws in his answer. Overweening pride could easily lead to arrogance, and sometimes it did for Kael. In time, he had grudgingly come to admit that his father was right about that-though his father pointedly refused to admit the truth of just where Kael acquired that particular character trait. He felt a rueful sense of melancholy thinking of it, of how alike they truly were.
Still, the thought that Kael might well have solved one romantic dilemma while exacerbating another filled him with dread. When the the tailors' work was at last complete, Kael smiled graciously, the picture of cordial regality in spite of his inner turmoil-he'd been trained from birth to be as much no matter how he felt inside, after all-and took his leave of the atelier, brooding all the while; on bittersweet memories of his late father, on the mistakes he made.
Most of all, Kael brooded on Lady Vashj and Rommath, and whether or not he was right to attempt melding the personal with the political, despite its seeming inevitability in his life, as a prince and Lord of the Blood Elves, and as lover and vassal of the ruler of a burgeoning empire.
One week, and he would know for certain.