Disclaimer: The inimitable World of Warcraft and the characters, settings, and languages it contains are the property of Blizzard. I make no claim to them; this fic is not intended for commercial use. The quote from the summary is, of course, also Blizzard's property.
Author's Note: Sorry for the delay in this chapter. I had far less exciting work to be getting to—it, unfortunately, had to take precedence. I will try to avoid such huge gaps in updates in the future! Hopefully the length will compensate for the wait.
Sunday mornings in the Spire are the best time for getting work done. Instead of heading into his office, however, Rommath returns to his estate. The streets are awakening now, as much as the streets in the Scholar's District ever do: smoke wafts out of open windows far above him, coiling around the floating shrubbery, and a few elderly Magisters amble down the road arguing about their research, heads together. On the opposite side of the street a group of House Summerswan guards saunter by, dressed in their magnificent feathered cloaks and winged helms, and Rommath watches them warily. But nobody looks at him twice. In his plain black robes, with his simple wooden staff, he is not the Grand Magister. He can be invisible.
This is the part of Silvermoon he knows best, the part he carried with him when he was in Outland, the memory of home: her dozen teeming libraries, her minarets that arc upwards farther than you can see, her quiet, shadowy boulevards lined with trees. He knows he's being a blind fool. He knows that open sewers, brothels, and workers who work themselves to death are no less Silvermoon than the things he loves. But those parts lie on the far side of the city, separated from him by his high birth and her high white walls.
He dismounts his hawkstrider once he is within his grounds again and leads her to the shed nestled on the far side of the property, guiding her with one hand on her neck. He is unreasonably sentimental with the creature, a source of endless amusement for the unsentimental nobles—he has even gone so far as to name her, which is almost unheard of, the behaviour of coarse trackers and Farstriders. Blackfeather, his pride and joy. She clucks at him, and nips at his shoulder hard enough to draw blood.
The cool darkness of her nest-house is a relief; the unseasonable warmth of the day has made riding more tiring than it should be. When he shuts the door behind them, she unfurls her wings, nearly filling the room, and Rommath has to step back to avoid being knocked off his feet. Her black feathers glint with purple and green in the light, more brilliant by far than the jewels in her harness. He pulls it off, gently unhooking the clasps, and strokes her neck.
"She needs a rub-down," someone says from behind him. He turns. The stable boy is sitting on the dirt floor, reading a book. "They get fussy when there's eggs about. Shall I, my lord?"
Rommath smiles. "Later, thank you. It is not so warm out; she sweated far less than I."
"As you will, my lord." He turns back to his reading.
Rommath pokes at the book with his staff. "Your attention is divided. What could possibly be so engaging?" The boy holds up the book so that Rommath can see its cover. "'The Breeding of Hawkstriders, on the Basis of Desirable Traits and Those That Needs Must Be Purged'." He laughs. "Is this your idea of fun, boy?"
"Not fun, my lord." He nods to Blackfeather, settling herself into her nest making noises between a cluck and a hiss. "That's a special bird you've got."
"She is magnificent, is she not?" Rommath agrees, for what feels like the hundredth time.
"And you don't know where she came from?"
"She was a gift, child. It would have been unkind to ask."
"I've never seen her like. I think we should breed her, my lord," the boy says. "It isn't right that her line die out."
Rommath sighs, but for some reason the fact that this issue is continually being pressed does not bother him. Perhaps it's the boy's youth that makes it tolerable. "We have discussed this. She is remarkable because she is unique. Would she be so extraordinary with four or five like her?"
"They wouldn't be just like her, my lord." He gestures to his book. "Real black is a rare colour in a hawkstrider. It needs to be nurtured over generations, and even then the shade isn't always true."
Rommath laughs, and tosses him her halter. "You know much. I can tell you've been studying." The boy beams, but Rommath shakes his head. "Blame it on my vanity, child. I will take nothing less than perfection. She must be one of a kind."
The boy shrugs. "I suppose it's fitting, my lord. She does suit you well, and it's not everyone who can ride a beast like that."
Rommath smiles, feeling a strange sort of nostalgia, remembering without regret. It could have been another lifetime: her harness in his hand, the eyes of the convocation on him, his brothers' envy, his father's pride. She is the jewel of her kind, as you are, my friend...
Inside the house, Rommath does not return to his office but instead takes the servants' backstairs down into the basements, past the kitchen and their quarters before emerging into his cellar.
It is far cooler down here, pleasantly dark and dry, and a faint breeze coming from the lower levels stirs his hair. He has to stoop to avoiding hitting his head against the low ceiling. This is one of the deepest levels of the manor, though still above the catacombs and the vaults, and he feels the pressure of the entire house weighing on him. He gropes his way down the narrow passage with his staff, supporting himself against the wall, half-blind in the dark. At the end of the corridor he raises his hand, lighting all the sconces with a motion. Dim light fills the chamber, flickering against the stone walls though not quite illuminating all the dark corners or the passageway beyond.
The Morningstorm wine cellars extend into the darkness, unfathomably large, dwarfed only by the family tombs. For about a year, Rommath did not have any reason to go down here: the collection survived the Scourge, only to be destroyed during the civil war as infernal blasts swept through the city, rocking the house to its foundations. The precious vintages turned in their casks, the musky reds from the Golden Summer and the sweet ice wines from the north. All gone. But Rommath isn't much of an enthusiast anyway.
Their replacement more than makes up for it. And there it is: his refuge, his oasis, his port in a storm. A magically-barred hermetically-sealed windowless nook. His study.
From outside, the entrance looks like nothing more than another pyramid of barrels—a well-crafted illusion. Rommath taps his ring three times against the topmost one before whispering the words his first master took as her motto the day she became an Archmage.
The barrels drop down into the floor below him and the door they concealed swings open, revealing the interior: high, cold steel walls, sparse furnishings, experimental equipment, and his desk. His safe is by far the biggest object in the room; taller than he is, embedded in the far wall, its door forbidding black. Rommath took no chances with this, spared no expense. This is where his work is—his work, and his most prized magical possessions.
Rommath has heard people talking about the wealth of House Morningstorm. Some say it lies in the family's remaining land holdings to the northeast, criss-crossed by some of the richest ley lines in Quel'Thalas. Some say it lies in his mother's jewels, though Rommath knows that she carried most of them to her funeral pyre. And some particularly romantic fools say it lies in the beauty of his two surviving sisters, the Black Diamond and the Black Widow.
But the truth is that it lies here: behind a foot-thick iron door, five locks, three magical barriers and his own reputation as a tyrant. Fifteen pounds of pure Saronite.
The first time he had seen the stuff, Rommath had dropped it, recoiling in revulsion. Saronite radiates horror as palpably as though it were some sort of vapour, with veins of mineral that throb with unliving blood. For all that, the stuff is worth more than four times its weight in gold. With the price he paid for it he could have covered his fingers in diamonds so huge he wouldn't be able to lift his hands, but that's not really his style. Organic black metal that could make Rhonin Redhair piss his pants in terror: that is Morningstorm style.
He barely pays attention to the safe as he works through its physical and magical locks, humming with impatience. The interior is large enough for him to walk into, and the lights are blindingly bright. He passes his acquisitions without a glance: his experiments of varying legality, stolen relics of unimaginable age, magical gadgets of gnomish make.
The brick he has been examining is at the back of the safe, set in a bedding of straw and feather and wrapped in silk, although as far as Rommath can see it's a needless luxury. Nothing he does to it can dent the stuff, much as Astalor had told him. "Garrosh Hellscream's two-handed blow could not chip this metal. But don't tell him I said that," he'd added.
He pulls it out of the safe, losing his balance a little; the lightness of it still surprises him, and he barely feels it, carrying it back to his desk. Ever the good scholar, he remembers himself at the last moment and pulls on his work gloves, though he has no idea if there is any risk to handling the stuff directly, or, if there is, whether there is any possible protection to be had from it at all. He lifts it gingerly from the setting, watching it; it seems almost as if it is inhaling.
"They call it the black blood of Yogg-Saron," Astalor had said, "but I don't believe in ghosts and I don't believe in Gods. I believe in money, and I believe it's selling for eight thousand gold a hit now."
Rommath had paid him more: eighty-five hundred gold a bar, plus the cost of having it shipped from Northrend (only goblins were willing to deal with the stuff), plus one of his collapsing vacation homes in the Ghostlands to pay for Astalor's silence.
He knows he's breaking laws that haven't even been written, but the research is so exciting, so new. If he had to be honest with himself, he would have to admit that he is a little afraid of it, a little uncertain of his own wisdom. He could, for all he knows, be putting himself in serious danger—what if it is toxic? No one knows anything scientific about it, for all that it's used in weaponry—he's been through every book in the library, even going so far as to swallow his pride and have a Sunreaver supporter send him scrolls from the Dalaran archives. It's all nonsense and fairy-tales: stories about cursed creatures, turned to stone for their unspeakable crimes, or the petrified eggs of the long-dead aqir. But most of all, stories about horrors that sleep, neither alive nor dead, beneath the earth, their acidic blood tunnelling through the ice.
What he knows is that the Scourge used it in their constructions, smelting it in their hellish forges, and that try as he might he can't do anything with it. In fact, he isn't even sure what he wants to do, but he's certain that there's a reason nothing can hurt it, a reason it is more like an organism than inert stone. Why is it that when he picks it up, it squirms as if trying to break away from his grasp? Why is it that sometimes, sometimes, when it is late at night and he is frustrated and on the verge of sleep, it seems to throb with life and sound, as if it is singing to him?
Nobody has had any answers. And all that anyone has done with it is make axes. And guns. And helms. And probably a few fabulously impractical catapults that take fifty orcs to move. What it really calls for is scholarship: good old-fashioned elven publications in good old-fashioned peer-reviewed elven books.
He shakes himself out his daydreams and places the metal on a stand in the middle of the room, trying to hold it as far away from his body as he can. Glancing up, he peers at the diagrams he has pinned to the walls: sketches of its crystal structure, which, based on his readings, is extremely strange; a geological cross-section of the regions in Northrend that one of his agents stole from a hapless gnome mage, marked to show the areas from which ore was extracted.
He pulls a small diamond blade from his desk and for the thousandth time attempts to scratch the surface with it, though he knows it is pointless; indeed, all he manages to do is strike a few sparks onto himself. Rommath puts out his smouldering sleeve, cursing. When he peers at the blade through his loupe, he sees that the edge is scratched and ragged.
He wishes he had a way to test its ductility, though it cannot be brittle, that he's sure of; even a mage knows that splintering armour protects no one. If he could get a better idea of the way in which it deforms, he could know more about it—where it comes from, for example, how far below the ice sheets of Northrend it forms. It frustrates him to think that his experimental apparatuses are so limited. And it isn't exactly as if he can march into the Journeyman's District with bars of Saronite tucked under his arms, asking to use the greatforge and the anvils.
Patience, he tells himself. It has, after all, only been four months, and he has made some headway. But he doesn't feel patient. He needs a better microscope—goblin-make, preferably—which he hasn't been able to find, and access to a forge hot enough to do something to it. Even his pyroblasts are useless; one night, in a fit of anger, he'd just let loose on the thing, demolishing two of his chairs in the process and nearly burning his papers to ash. When he'd touched the metal, it was barely warm.
He contents himself with more visual examinations and more drawings; when the pressure-machine he specially ordered from Everlook arrives, he can start the first real experiments, but for the time being he has to content himself with amateur science. He examines the surface carefully, looking for signs of oxidisation, but sees none: a small relief, though not unexpected. Nothing seems able to detract from its dark lustre, although he needs to experiment with some stronger acids to verify that. Still, he's certain that if it could survive the journey from Northrend to Quel'Thalas, it can survive more than a short-term stint in his holdings.
He doesn't leave it out for more than an hour; partly because he doesn't want to leave it open to the air for too long, and partly because no matter how much he tells himself that it is just inert matter, powerless and unremarkable, as solid and dead as iron or gold, he never quite believes it. Indeed, that is the theory he intends to test, though he isn't yet sure how—that the metal is in some intermediary stage between living and nonliving, possessing the properties of both and, really, the properties of neither. The possibility is fascinating, but the idea of it makes him more uncomfortable than he would like to admit. And his fear makes him stupid: he thinks more slowly, jumps more readily. And he notices that when he spends too long on it he has dreams that make his usual nightmares look tame.
After returning it to its place and ensuring the safe is secured, he shuts off all the lights and leaves the way he came, passing by the barrels of wine he will never drink. He should give some to Astalor—the man is one of the few really competent Magisters, and his loyalty is unwavering. Rommath takes a look at a vintage and makes a face. "The only thing worse than a cheap wine is a cheap woman," his father had once announced to his sons while hunting.
"Who cares?" Fanalen had whispered to Rommath. "Just so long as she's a cheap drunk." And of course father had heard and of course they'd both been sent to their rooms without any supper, but it was just as well—they still laugh about it together. And now his father is as dead as all the other Morningstorms, his bones resting in their case in the family ossuary. Perhaps it's for the best. He was always squeamish about doing what needed to be done.
Although his head is buzzing when he reaches his chambers, he does attempt to do something with his hair: his reflection is enough to startle even him, so windswept and forbidding does he look. As groomed as he ever is, he moves to his desk, taking out his pen and the stack of proposals Astalor has sent him to approve. He frowns at the enormous number stamped with the Blood Knight insignia: requests for new armour and weapons, more recruits to replace the dead and deserted, better training facilities. Vranesh has not even bothered to sign them himself. No doubt he believes paperwork is beneath him.
It's been over two years since he'd cast his son out, but thinking about it still makes him seethe. Rommath has never found it easy to forgive and forget, and Vranesh is as proud as he is, perhaps even prouder, drunk with youth and power and his undeserved esteem. Rommath knows that women adore Vranesh, tall and dark and striking, with his flaming sword and challenging stare, and that men respect him for his prowess in battle. Some of them, anyway: the younger, stupider nobles. But prowess and good looks do not a group of belligerent knights control.
"How did I sire a fool like that?" Rommath once moaned while in his cups.
"Maybe he isn't yours," Father Nishil'ever said helpfully, but Rommath silenced him with a look and there have been no more discussions of Vranesh's paternity.
It should have been Lord Solanar, or even Bloodvalor, but Solanar had refused to adopt the position even temporarily, citing old age and battle weariness and his position in Northrend overseeing the return of the last soldiers; Bloodvalor was still in the infirmary a month-and-a-half after his return, having broken most of his bones after being thrown from an airship during an aerial engagement. So it had fallen to all the third-tier master Knights to scrabble for the head position and in the end Vranesh had come out at the top of the pile. Not surprisingly. For all that he's difficult and head-strong and temperamental, he's also more like his sister, more like Rommath, than either of them would like to admit. And at the very least, he's smart enough to remember who, precisely, watches him from the top.
Rommath taps his chin, thoughtful, but he is not so lost in brooding and paperwork that he misses the shadow that fills his doorway. A visitor, impossibly tall and hooded, leans against the frame. His ease is disconcerting.
"Good afternoon, my lord," the guest says, pleasant enough. But he doesn't pull back his hood.
Rommath blinks, forcing back the impulse to drive a flaming lance through the intruder's chest. "Who showed you in?" The servants are forgetting themselves.
"In fact, I showed myself in. My message is urgent, and most private."
Rommath grips his staff with his left hand, his right hand feeling for the dagger in his sleeve—the surprise of a blade-wielding mage has saved him on a few occasions. "And who, may I ask, sends this message?"
Rommath allows himself to bark out a laugh. "You'll have to excuse my incredulity. I have few enough friends."
"You have some." The intruder throws the cloak off to reveal a warped mockery of elven beauty: towering seven feet tall with the face of a monster, twisted ears and furred olive skin. Garel Zel'Sin: the Half-Blood.
As always, Rommath starts at the sight of him. "I never expect you to come in person."
"As if I would deny you, sweet prince." His bow is a parody.
"You risk much to come to Silvermoon."
"Perhaps," he says. "I would risk more to send the information by mail."
"Is it so dangerous, then?"
"That is your call to make." He gestures to a seat with his four-fingered hand. "May I?"
"As you wish," Rommath snaps. He slams the dagger down on the table, in plain view of Garel. His eyes widen a little.
"Wise of you to carry that toy around. There is much danger afoot, my lord."
Rommath waves him away brusquely. "If you've only come to share idle gossip, I suggest you show yourself out." He frowns. "I pay you to keep me informed. Now I hear there are grumblings amongst the nobles."
"Indeed there are." He doesn't look the least bit concerned. "You are aware, then?"
"Yes, a bit late. I had to hear it from Astalor Bloodsworn, of all people. Even Goldcrank knew."
"Astalor is a fool and knows nothing." He leans forward, his red-tinged eyes sparkling. "Treason is a desperate man's dish. Even I do not eat of it. No noble will be willing to risk the Old Death, after all."
"And yet there are traitors," Rommath says, "and there is treason."
"Indeed. There is treason all around us—in your own house, even. Quirdas is dead."
Rommath's mouth opens before he can stop himself. "What?"
Garel nods, looking pleased with himself. "Murdered—by a commoner. A deserter, to add insult to injury. Ah, as I said, Grand Magister: desperate men..."
"When?" He seems to be frozen. He barely remembers Quirdas—only her bright red hair and her smart mouth—but she is, was, his blood, however distantly. "How could this happen?"
Garel glances at the grandfather clock against the wall. "Oh, approximately... three hours ago. One of my cells saw Quirdas enter his apartment, and then there was the sound of some sort of altercation. The apartment is well-watched. Neither of them has left."
"Then she could be alive, could she not?"
"If she were alive, no matter how badly injured, she'd have raised an alarm. Quirdas did not strike me as the type to submit to being taken hostage."
Rommath sits back, trying to hide how shaken he is. "I see you do not know me at all, Garel. I will not take my vengeance. Let the Blood Hawks handle this, as they handle all crimes."
Garel looks uncomfortable. "I'm afraid that's... not a good idea, your Grace."
"And why is that? The law binds us all, noble and commoner alike."
"Well, that's the odd thing," Garel says. "You see, it wasn't binding on your little niece: Quirdas broke into his house."
There is a pause in which Rommath simply does not understand what he is hearing. "She broke into his house? Why would a noble lady want to break into the house of a commoner? What could possibly—"
Garel looks at him, curiously quiet. And then Rommath understands. "By the Sun, was this Vranesh's doing?"
Garel shrugs, and he at least has the decency to look miserable. "It appears so, your Grace."
He's on his feet in an instant. "I will summon my house guards," he says. "Disguise yourself, and lead them to the residence. I will have two of them sneak the boy out of the city."
"Two armed house guards, smuggling a criminal out of Silvermoon in broad daylight?" Garel shakes his head. "Hide him in your house until the storm has passed. He will be your friend and your prisoner both."
"What, and have him spread his stories to the servants and, by extension, everyone in Silvermoon?" Rommath moves to stand before his desk, allowing Garel to help him with his cloak. "No, he must be taken care of. We will protect him in return for his silence."
"And where do you propose to hide him?" Garel is clearly unimpressed.
"With my sister."
"Not the idiot one," Garel says, with what he must think is delicacy.
Shrugging, Garel tosses his own cloak around his shoulders. "It's as good a plan as any. In the meantime, do try not to get us both killed; I rather like my life, such as it is. Although," he adds, looking down at Rommath, "I suspect I'm rather more at risk than you."
"I assure you, Vranesh would like nothing more than to see me cooked over a spit. Now, cover up. I'm summoning my guards."
"Pray, have them hide the colours of House Morningstorm, at least," Garel says, pulling the hood down over his face again.
"What do you take me for?" Rommath says coldly.
"A nobleman," Garel says. His voiced is muted, as if he is speaking from far away. "You're so damned proud, you'd wear those solid-gold snake torques trying to swim."
"Proud," Rommath says, "but not proud enough to risk the ire of the Regent Lord. There will be no blood spilt in the streets under my name."
"But there will be blood," Garel says, and Rommath does not correct him. He presses his fingers against the ruby setting in his ring. The air ahead of him churns as if in a whirlpool, becoming mirrored for a moment before it flashes and shows an image of his guards' barracks.
Captain Ori'lan's image appears immediately, his gentle face lined with worry.
"My lord," Ori'lan says, bowing. "What is it?"
"An emergency. Send me six of your men—three mounted, three not, and a spare hawkstrider for one of my arcanists."
"To Sunfury Spire?" Ori'lan sounds shocked.
"Merely to the courtyard. I am in need of an escort." Rommath moves to shut off the image, but remembers. "And try and be inconspicuous. Wear your old civilian armours."
"Your word is law," Ori'lan says. The image blinks out.
"My, this should be a pleasant little jaunt," Garel says, rubbing his hands together.
The guards are waiting for them outside, wearing unornamented plate, battered and unexceptional. Rommath is pleased—they look like a group of poor soldiers, out on the town for a smoke and some air, and the captain has come himself. Ori'lan has the extra hawkstrider in hand; he stands a bit apart from the rest, tall and dark, but he breaks into an uneasy smile when he sees Rommath. His junior guards, however, regard the hooded Garel with open distrust.
"Arcanist Vastalis here informs me that young Lady Quirdas has had a run-in with some thugs," he says. "We are going to rescue her—and to deal with her attacker."
"The lady's honour will not be tainted while I draw breath," Ori'lan says, and Rommath feels a tug of exasperation mixed with guilt. Quirdas had all the 'honour' of an unwashed pickpocket—she just dressed better. But if Ori'lan knows, it doesn't affect his loyalty in the slightest.
"Thank you, captain," Garel says. "We are most relieved to hear that the virtue of elvish ladies will remain untarnished."
Rommath shoots him a dirty look and turns back to his men. "Three of you," he says, gesturing to Captain Ori'lan and two of the other guards. "Mount up. You will follow Arcanist Vastalis to the house where Quirdas is being held. The rest of you, with me."
"Why does he hide his face?" The guard who spoke is young, bright-eyed and suspicious.
"He was disfigured during the Third War," Rommath says, as harshly as he can. The boy quails a little.
Ori'lan glares at him. "Show some respect, child, and do not question orders from your lord."
"Never mind," Rommath says. "If he does not like Vastalis, he shall come with me." It is an effective punishment: the boy looks crestfallen.
He leads Garel away from the group, keeping his grip firm on the half-blood's forearm. Rommath notices with relief that his hideous four-fingered hands are well-covered as well. "Bring the boy back to the estate immediately, and contact me once you do. If anything goes wrong, meet me in the Spire, at my office. And Garel: the guards are not to know that we were aware of her death, do you understand?"
"Obviously," Garel drawls. "And before you tell me, yes, I do know that I should avoid getting into any altercations with Blood Hawks or Knights or Magisters. Thank you ever so much for your concern."
Rommath and his guards linger in the courtyard, watching 'Vastalis' and his trio leave; it will be less conspicuous that way, although Rommath wishes he had an alternative to sending Garel himself—he's hardly unremarkable, though the benefit of his questionable background is that he can't run off with the enemy. Not when the enemy would love to cut his throat.
Where Garel's group rides south to the poorer part of town in which the boy lives, Rommath and his guards move east, staying well within the noble district. A few people, mainly ailing old men out on walks with their dazzling young wives, recognise him but don't seem to think anything of his company.
"Where are we going?" It is the boy who questioned him before.
"Sunfury Spire," Rommath says briskly. He makes a note to himself to keep an eye on the child. He's a bit too curious.
The Spire sits against the northernmost wall of Silvermoon, though it is in fact visible from every point in the city; from below it looks like a needle towering dizzyingly above the streets. The scrying orb atop it is amongst the most powerful in Quel'Thalas, second only to the one located on the Sunwell Plateau. Rommath prefers that one—it sees farther, and there is less risk of being seen—but any port in a storm will do. It's also unlikely to be in use on a warm Sunday afternoon which, for his purposes, is perfect.
The members of the Royal Guard stationed outside nod to him as he passes into the interior, his eyes taking a moment to adjust to the darkness. Dim light filters through the small, red-tinted windows, high in the walls, and the black marble of the floor is lustreless. Above them, hanging from the twenty-foot ceiling, is an enormous chandelier that barely penetrates the gloom.
The Spire is always busy, even on resting days, though it is much quieter than during the week. A few of his Magisters bow to him as he passes, and there are some young squires running around, presumably on errands for their lords. They take no note of him, but his guards are vigilant, glancing about as they wait for the moving platform that will carry them to the top. Once he could have reached the scrying orb by foot, but he's feeling his age acutely—and he doesn't want to risk bumping into anyone who might try to speak with him.
They ascend slowly and in complete silence—too slowly for Rommath's liking—though his guards seem nervous from the movement and the darkness of the enclosed space.
"Does the platform ever... fall?" one of them asks.
"Not in my memory, though I suppose it could always happen, hm?"
None of them look particularly happy with his answer; when the platform's movement finally slows to a halt they rush past Rommath into the receiving room, seeming more than relieved.
The scrying orb stands on a terrace above them, open to the air. He and his guards climb up a final flight of stairs, and then they are there, at the top of the city, looking out over the sea to the north. So high up, the air is colder, the wind fierce. Rommath pulls his cloak tighter around himself, glad that he thought to bring it, and glad that he has no fear of heights.
"How far up are we, my lord?" the boy asks.
"Five hundred feet," Rommath tells him. The boy's face lights up, and he has to laugh. "Look out over the rail if you wish, but be careful! And no," he adds, "you may not spit."
The guards laugh guiltily, and even he spares a chuckle. He himself had had the same urge as a child.
"I would have you guard the stairs," he tells them. "Do not tell anyone who I am, although you may, if that is the only way to keep them out. I am not to be interrupted unless it is an emergency, do you understand?"
"Yes, my lord," one of the guards says.
"Good. Excuse me. This shall hopefully be quite brief."
While they take their positions, Rommath approaches the orb, studying its depths: it churns with light that is oddly bright, golden even, glittering and warm. Breathing deeply, he clears his mind and lifts his hands to it, filling it with arcane energy.
Instantly his vision expands as if he is floating over the Spire, watching himself from above. It is a strange sensation—he sees his black hair loose from its bindings and whipped about his face from the wind, his eyes closed. Two of his guards block the stairs that lead up to the patio, and the boy is still leaning out over the rail.
He looks further east, towards Farstrider Square. He sees Brightwing immediately, his white-blonde hair and green mail visible even from the sky, taking a few practice shots at a target. He is with two men Rommath doesn't recognise, though judging from their attire they are rangers as well. Rommath doesn't like that he's hanging around the Blood Knight quarters, but there's nothing to be done for it.
Beyond that he sees the quarters themselves, the golden arch and red sheer curtains that cover the entrance. He swoops in closer, pressing through the roof of the building; it resists his gaze and then gives, like rubber tearing, and he is inside. He sees a few guards and acolytes, standing around or talking amongst themselves. He edges closer to hear them, but they say nothing particularly interesting and he quickly moves on. The longer he lingers, the more likely he is to be detected.
He has been to the Blood Knight quarters before, and he vaguely remembers his way around. He slides his gaze down through a hole in the floor that opens onto the deeper meeting chambers; the darkness is filled with arcane light only he can see, every corner lit under his gaze. The room is completely empty, but one of the doors on the far eastern side catches his attention: it is ajar, but all he can make out are dim shapes and the sound of indistinct whispering. A strange mist covers the room, an iridescent fog that he cannot penetrate. He squints but nothing comes into focus. When he tries to push through he comes up against a barrier. An anti-scrying device, then. Vranesh still knows him so well. This is promising.
He draws back for a moment, assessing it for weak spots, areas where the haze is thinner and not swirling as quickly. His vision contracts to a narrow point and then he is pushing through, feeling as though he is squeezing into a very small space—the device is powerful, surprisingly so, and he feels its resistance like a crushing weight, threatening to trap him. The effort is draining to the point where his vision starts to blur, but he holds firm, not slowing for a moment. He doesn't dare let up: some of these devices can blind unwary scryers permanently. And then the pressure suddenly abates, easing off like a fading headache, and he can see clearly again.
Rommath can feel his body breathing, faintly, at the top of the Spire. Breaking through the device took more out of him than he expected: he is getting tired, but he thinks he will be fine for just a few more minutes. The Blood Knights within are still murmuring. He recognises his son, Vranesh, engaged in conversation with two female knights. Holding his breath, he moves a little closer, slowly, so that they will not detect him.
"...not returned yet," one of the women is saying. Rommath cannot see her face. "What could have happened?"
"Patience, Sircassa," Vranesh says. "We shall know soon enough."
"I don't like this," she says. "It is not like Quirdas to be so tardy."
"I have sent my men." There is a definite note of impatience in his voice now. "What more do you ask of me?"
"I ask nothing of my Knight-Lord," she says.
"And if she's dead?" the other woman says. "If she failed, and he's already fled?"
Vranesh draws himself up. "Dead?" he says quietly. "Are you seriously suggesting that a coward, a deserter, could harm one of my knights?"
"Yes," she says. "I am, and seriously concerned that I may be correct. What if he slew Quirdas and is outside the city as we speak, riding for Liadrin's estate?"
"Then he would be doubly the fool," Vranesh says. "Liadrin doesn't shelter murderers. And at any rate her estate is well watched. So we shall know that in short order, too."
"Then suppose he headed south, past the borders?" she says.
Vranesh waves her away. "I've dispatched a dragonhawk with a missive to the guards already," he says. "It should be there within three days. Birds fly faster than elves, Cyssa. The border is at least ten days of riding away. He won't make it."
"Ten days on a charger," she says. "Not a hawkstrider. And if he doesn't stay on the road? If he heads into the forest? Or if he buys passage with the goblins? You can't police every corner of Quel'Thalas. No man can."
Vranesh doesn't like that, he can tell. His petulant look does not become a true leader—if they were still speaking, Rommath would tell him that.
"Enough, Cyssa," he snaps. "We can sit here fretting over possibilities all day, but it achieves nothing. Just be calm, and by the Sun, stop fidgeting."
"Suppose we do get him," the first woman says. "What do you plan to do with him?"
"Interrogate him," the other one says. "Give him a scare. Rough him up, maybe."
"'Rough him up?'" Vranesh says. "What do you think this is, Orgrimmar? We are knights, not craven spies. We'll do no such thing. I intend to speak with him. If he is innocent, he shall find no harm at my hands."
"And if he isn't?" the second one says. "If he is not innocent?"
Vranesh shrugs, giving a smile that Rommath supposes must be considered charming. "Innocent until proven guilty, my dear Cyssa."
Rommath could not be less convinced.
"You're too soft to traitors," the one named Cyssa says.
"Merciful," he says, wagging a finger. "It isn't precisely the same thing."
"Nonetheless," she begins, but Rommath doesn't get to hear anymore. Suddenly he is rushing backwards, as if catapulted, hurtling madly away from the quarters, the square. Street and sky race past, spinning around each other, and he cannot stabilise the view, cannot catch himself. He sees the Spire rising up to meet him, and he braces, knowing what is coming.
He is back in his body before he can even think, hitting it as if he had been thrown; all of his bones feel like they break at the same time, the wind rushing from his lungs. He blacks out for a second, feeling himself falling. And then he is caught, and he wakes up. His bones aren't broken. He hasn't fallen. He overexerted himself with the scrying orb, just like he always does. One of his guards is supporting him, and Rommath's breath is coming in ragged gasps. Rommath tries to push him away but his legs will not respond. He feels heavy, like his limbs are weighted.
"Sorry, my lord," the guard says. "You fell. I hope I didn't—"
"You did well," Rommath says, patting his shoulder awkwardly. "Scrying orbs require the energy of their user. This one is powerful enough to kill. And I suppose I forget my age at times." He gestures to the stairs. "There is little hope of finding anything else while I am in this state. Let us return to my office. I need to collect my thoughts."
He takes a few uncertain steps, feeling the weakness in his legs, wondering how far he can walk. He is still extremely tired, and at the top of the stairs, the boy puts a gentle hand on his shoulder.
"You may lean on me, my lord," he says kindly—a little too kindly. Old he may be, but Rommath is no one's grandfather.
"I do not lean, child," Rommath says. "Hand me my staff."
The platform carries them down a few floors to the one containing his office—below the vacant royal household and the Regent Lord's guest chambers, but still high enough to afford him with a magnificent view of the city. It is wasted on him.
One of his guards enters first, as always, peering into his closet and under his desk before waving him in. The last one shuts and bolts the door behind him.
"Pull down the curtains," Rommath orders, and the guards obey. His hands shake as he lifts his own anti-scrying device out of his desk and places it on the mantel. It will not protect him from the eyes of a powerful mage, but it should be enough for whatever bunglers Vranesh has been recruiting.
Now there is nothing to do but wait and consider his possibilities. If Ori'lan is successful he will keep the boy at his house for a few days before taking him south to Zyranis's manor. From there he can go where he will. And if Ori'lan does not succeed, if the Hawks get there first, it will be an issue of damage control. It cannot get out that the daughters of House Morningstorm behave like common criminals, that its sons defy their patriarch and their Regent both. Even if they do. Even if every noble brat does.
He has no idea how long he is sitting at his desk, trying to calm his heart, listening to his breathing, scolding himself for taking such a risk. He knows better than to be careless with arcane power. And what if one of his enemies had overwhelmed his guards? He will be in no state to cast spells for hours. Vranesh's idiocy is not worth dying for.
There is a knock at the door. His guards tense immediately.
"Let them enter," he says, looking up as they do. His guards have returned, and they stand in his doorway, shoulders heaving. He can see by the looks on their faces that the news is bad. "What is it?" He tightens his grip on the mantel. "Was he gone?"
Captain Ori'lan hangs his head. "My lord, we were too late. They were escorting the prisoner from the premises as we arrived."
Rommath looks at him sharply. "Who, precisely, were escorting him?"
"Blood Hawks, my lord," Garel says, his voice muffled from within his cloak. "We attempted to find out what happened; I asked them for a warrant."
"I'm assuming they did not produce one," Rommath says.
"They did not."
"Laughed at him for asking," Ori'lan says. "Told us to back off. I told them I'd report it to Aeldon Sunbrand—that got them good."
"I suppose it did," Garel says. "They threatened to cut off your fingers and relocate them to your anus."
Ori'lan flushes. "Like to see them try."
"Where have they brought him?" He doesn't know what answer would be worse: to the Blood Hawk dungeons with the drunks and the pick-pockets, or into the hands of Vranesh.
"To the Blood Knight quarters, my lord," Garel says.
Rommath straightens his back, though he'd like nothing better than to slump back; he feels even more utterly spent. "How did this happen? We acted quickly."
"It seems their lords were quicker, my lord."
Yes: quicker and with a contingent of Blood Hawks to Rommath's three guards and one devious agent, alternately old and tired or young and green. Rommath isn't sure how many of the city guards Vranesh has bought out, or whether the corruption goes right to the top. Blood Hawks and Blood Knights make strange bedfellows, but their roots are entangled, and the watch has never wasted any love on the Magisterium, or the Royal Guard, or the Farstriders.
Farstriders. He presses his fingers to his mouth, suddenly remembering.
"You may go," Rommath says, lost in thought. He watches as the six of them leave. Garel glances at him as well, and turns to depart, but Rommath raises a hand. "Not you, Vastalis. Sit down."
Garel obeys, perching on one of the low divans. "That was not the worst of it, my lord," Garel says, as if reading his mind. "I did not want to say so in front of the guards, but I took the liberty of dispatching one of my agents to the square ahead of them. Young General Brightwing was there."
"I saw," Rommath says, wearily. "And did he—"
"He saw," Garel says. "My cell told me that he appears to be quite displeased—and you know he has small liking for the Knights. I would prepare for the worst were I you, my lord."
Rommath swears the filthiest oath he can think of on several choicer components of the late Queen Laethil's anatomy. "Damn him! Light, what a lot of fools he's made of us. Brightwing, oh, of course, who else." He rubs his temples, but on some level he is relieved. Looking weak and impotent in front of the Brightwing boy is a disaster, without question, but it could have been worse—it could have been one of his Magisters, or a Shiningray, or the Regent Lord.
He takes a breath, and then exhales. He cannot lose his head now—that is the luxury of lesser men. He must think through this clearly, and carefully navigate the matter, the fine balance between the honour of the Morningstorm name, his hold over the city, and his duties to his nation. The calibre of a noble's character is determined based on which side he leans most strongly to: his people, his power, or his gold.
"There is nothing to be done," he says after a moment of silence. "The Blood Knights have ever done as they will. And if Vranesh's duplicity is discovered, he will suffer as anyone else."
Garel nods, and rises. "As you will, my lord."
"Yes," Rommath agrees, "as we all will. You have been an enormous help. The guards appear to suspect nothing. Your fees will be delivered as they always are—and, of course, something extra. My way of saying thank you, Garel."
"My lord is most generous."
"He has to be," he says. "I trust you will keep quiet about this matter."
He thinks that he can see the half-blood smile, though through the shadows around his face Rommath cannot be sure. "Of course, my lord. Your word," he says, "is law."