Aerana Dantay tilted her head upwards, troubled blue eyes searching the ghostly clouds that obscured the twinkling stars above. Though a large white hood had cast her features in shadows throughout the evening, the momentary gesture allowed the moon’s light to illuminate her pale and uneasy expression. She lowered her head as she heard the familiar sound of armored footfalls crossing the cobblestone path, coming to stand at a respectful distance behind her. Aerana moved out of the moonlight by stepping beneath the overhanging eaves of her residence, which sat snugly on the outskirts of the Cathedral District of Stormwind City. Even at this distance, Aerana could hear the steady but quiet crashing of the ocean against the docks in the Harbor, a subtle backdrop to her Guardian's earlier steps.
Reaching forward, the white-clad woman pressed the palm of her hand flat against the large wooden door in a gesture that once would have seemed strange to her naïve mind but now had become almost second nature. General Larmont and Captain Ronae’Serrar had been particularly concerned when she had formally requested that her residence be relocated to Stormwind. While her Dalaran quarters had boasted multiple layers of magical protections, provided in part by the Kirin Tor, such precautions were not as easily implemented within Stormwind’s limits. Yet in the months leading up to her move, the leaders of the Military had collaborated to provide what protections they could so that Aerana’s safety was assured. As such, entering her residence required a particular set of rituals, each carefully performed at an ordained time. Not for the first time, Aerana silently thanked the General and the Captain for their foresight.
The Empress no longer wore the heavily embroidered sapphire and gold robes with her iconic cloak bearing the Empire’s crest. Such ceremonial attire was customary for the formal gatherings of the Empire but the heavy weight of its finery was decidedly unsuitable for her most recent, and more clandestine, excursion. Instead, she had returned from the surreptitious meeting clad in a simple white robe with a hood that helped to conceal her face. Both pieces had been carefully tailored from fine but durable cloth, sewn with her own hands during the days when she had time to engage in such routine daily chores. Tonight, however, those same hands would undertake a far less mundane, and far more disquieting, task.
Multiple levels of invisible wards flared briefly at Aerana’s touch as particular symbols were activated by the subtle flow of magic from the pale hand touching the wooden grain. The spectrum of colors flickered from violet to lilac and then to azure. The colors faded just as suddenly as they had flashed. Aerana inserted an intricate golden key into the now-visible keyhole before pressing the door open. Myaka Winterborne, the ever silent and solemn woman who had become Aerana’s shadow in recent months, followed as the Empress entered the residence.
Myaka Winterborne – The woman that the rest of the Empire now knew was a Guardian, one of the fabled Royal Guard, a sect within the Empire had been thought to be dismantled in years past. Aerana recognized that others within the Empire had looked in askance towards Myaka after the uncomfortable revelation, no doubt feeling betrayed that Soldier Winterborne had informed them of neither her duty nor her other title. Yet Myaka had sworn an oath and followed it without reserve; her guardianship was not her secret to tell. Aerana pressed her lips together at the thought, slowly making her way through the dimly lit hallway that lead to her personal chambers.
“I apologize that such has occurred and that you may face recriminations for the oath that you took,” Aerana finally murmured as the two passed by a doorway that opened up to an eclectic collection of tomes and treatises, stacked from floor to ceiling in some indiscernible method of organization. Without pausing to browse through the beloved library, Aerana continued down the hallway.
“I regret that a choice had to be made, Empress,” Myaka replied simply. The woman’s brown hair almost looked black in the dark hallway and the scar on the left side of her face, faint even in daylight, was now completely swallowed by shadows. “But I do not regret the choice. I made the choice to stand by you and I do not regret that, nor will I ever.”
Aerana ceased her movement and lowered her head, feeling the weight of the Guardian’s words settle on her shoulders. She slowly lifted her head to meet Myaka’s trusting, yet concerned, brown eyes. “And know too that I shall never seek to create such regret," the Empress continued her path down the hallway, speaking after a mere moment’s hesitation. "I am honored by such service and in turn shall strive to return it by service of my own.”
Guardian Winterborne nodded once and signaled to Aerana that she would take her usual position outside the door to Aerana’s inner chamber. With a final glance at the solitary woman, Aerana pushed her hand again to the door. Once more, wards flared in a soft splash of colors, throwing both Aerana and Myaka’s expressions into stark relief. With one last look at the single known Guardian, Aerana opened the door to her large darkened chamber and stepped inside, alone.
It would be another sleepless night, she knew, so the Empress wasted no time in even attempting to seek the rest that her bed so often promised but rarely provided. Instead she paced over to her desk, cleared now of the reports and records that had littered its surface earlier that day. Aerana briefly considered the unlit wicks of the numerous candles around her chambers. With a soft murmur and a simple gesture, flames flickered to life and danced merrily where before there had been only darkness. Such light would be sufficient for her purposes.
Unclasping the cloak she wore, Aerana laid the cloth garment across the back of her chair before taking a seat. She opened the drawers at the edge of the desk and reached for a number of spherical stones that had been carefully polished; the flames reflected off of their perfectly glossy edges, giving the appearance that the stones glowed with their own inner light. Next she pulled out several small pouches, finely stitched and drawn tight with heavy thread. Aerana carefully unlaced the stitching, exposing the pouches' contents to the candle’s light. Within each bag glittered a small pile of tinted powder, bathing Aerana’s now impassive countenance in a myriad of colors oddly reminiscent of the wards that had flashed only moments ago at the doorway. Fingertips sifted through the first bag of dust, carefully arranging the vibrant grains, like miniature emeralds, in concentric circles. She reached for another small bag, pinching a small quantity of the sunset colored particles. And so, she began her work, hesitatingly at first, but with growing confidence as she remembered the quiet incantations, intricate patterns, and appropriate reagents. In truth, the repetitive, mechanical, movements helped to calm her mind and quell the turmoil within her heart, if only a bit.
‘Could I have done aught differently?’ she silently questioned herself as she stared down at the collection of stones on her desk, now covered in a fine layer of softly glowing dust. Each line of dust was carefully drawn, with no stray specks daring to break the intricate and elaborate pattern.
The report that she had received only a couple of nights ago resounded once more through her mind, so clear that she wondered briefly if it was being repeated again within her chambers. She looked up from her work, staring at the far wall as she thought over the foreboding words.
“Pralea is of mind that Empress needs to be away. It appears in concern of health. Tinox agrees and states it has been spoken of much among other Senators. He further implied it may be done with or without Empress’ desire when Pralea had left.”
The fierce Guardian at her side had spoken up, asking the questions that Aerana’s stunned mind could not articulate. “Did they mention how they might go about this? Or what the concern was about her health?”
“Something about…obsession with vision?” came the Scout’s reply. “And no.”
It had been eminently disturbing and seemed only to confirm the other outwardly innocuous, but similarly disconcerting, happenings of the previous year. That report had caused Aerana’s subsequent nights to pass in sleeplessness, as her mind endlessly sorted through other actions and words, desperately seeking some semblance of understanding to the shift in political currents within the Empire. The minute details, the strange coincidences that had created a feeling of unease deep within…all had been substantiated by that simple, dreadful report. And all appeared to indicate one thing.
At her desk, the Empress closed her eyes. Not for the first time, she hoped that she was mistaken and all had been nothing more than a mere misunderstanding, a series of laughably inept miscommunications.
‘Naïve and idealistic,’ came the unbidden thought. It was not the first time that she had been referred to as such. Nor would it be the last time that such descriptions were attributed to her. Yet in this matter, she could afford to be neither; the very Empire depended on her grasp of this situation.
Had not the Senate denied the detailed petition put forth over a year ago by the Captain, the General, and the Empress herself, to ensure Aerana's continued safety? The Royal Guard had ever been an elite group of soldiers, dedicated completely to ensuring the safety of the Empire’s leadership. Though the Senate alleged that the Guardians split the Military, attempted kidnappings and attempted assassinations only underscored the importance of the select force. Indeed, the fact that Aerana yet survived was a testament to the effectiveness and success of the Royal Guard. But the Senate had disregarded such incidents and the fact that the reinstatement of the Guardians was fully supported by the Military. Instead, they had denied Aerana such protection at a time she needed it the most; her move from Dalaran to Stormwind left her more vulnerable than she had once been among relative safety provided by the Kirin Tor. And so, such protection had been arranged in accordance with the General and Captain’s ideals, though such was provided for Aerana and Senator Terrison’s sole benefit given the Senate’s earlier disapproval of the formal petition.
Over the ensuing year, a continuous stream of reports had fallen across Aerana’s desk. The succinct and precise script had narrated perturbing scenarios, each weaving carefully with the previous thread to portray a truly alarming tapestry of trouble. First had been Captain Ronae’Serrar’s solemn report that an unidentified gnome known to spend time with sordid and disreputable characters with criminal ties had met covertly with Senator Smartgear. During this secretive meeting, the unknown gnome muttered of assassinations, his voice quiet and suspicious. In turn, the gnome was given gold by the Senator. More troubling yet was the observation at the end of the report: The meeting did not appear unsolicited on the Senator’s behalf.
Yet this occurrence was not the only such report that had crossed Aerana’s desk over the past year. Another missive, in General Larmont’s neat handwriting, reported that Senator Smartgear had recently questioned the General regarding Aerana’s locations and movements. The conclusion had been drawn that the Senator was observing Aerana by tracking her through the guildstone that hung on a delicate chain around her neck. This revelation had raised eyebrows and caused concern amongst those sworn to Aerana’s protection, for why would the Senate engage in such surreptitious monitoring? Then, always with a sufficiently believable excuse, the Senators had begun to check up on Aerana, finding her during her meditations or studies when before they had left her to her own devices. Such small interactions normally would be little cause for alarm; yet when viewed within the overall scope of the Senate’s troubling tendencies such coincidental meetings appeared more than a little suspicious.
More recently, the Senate had failed to host one of the Empire’s largest events: The Annual Anniversary Party to celebrate the Empire’s founding and continued growth. It was a time that the Empire was called to gather together, to celebrate its Vision, to honor those who stood beneath its banner, and to remember the founding that had created the thriving organization. Yet this year, the anniversary of the Empire passed in awkward silence, with nary a whisper of celebration nor tribute of remembrance to be heard.
‘Perhaps such was merely an accident of bureaucracy, as Senator Smartgear and Senator Furyswipe alleged,’ Aerana reasoned, not for the first time since the Senate had given its pretext when confronted with their failing. But her mind would not allow the Senate such a convenient excuse. ‘They seek to push the Empire to forget its founding so that it is more easily made to forget your role in it. And so it shall be easier to push you aside when they decide such is warranted.’ She could not quash the harsh, analytical observation before it rose to the surface, even though its implications tugged her lips downward in a troubled frown. For the past year, tensions had been subtly growing, roiling just beneath the surface of the Empire’s leadership. Each report had built upon the previous missive, ever increasing Aerana’s apprehension and pricking her intuition with a sense of foreboding as the full scope was made known.
And then tonight, the growing disquiet had been made public in the middle of the guild meeting, as Soldier Rhork Greymantle requested to join the “Guardians” so that he could be like Myaka Winterborne and protect Aerana.
Scenes from the night flashed in rapid succession through her mind, almost coming to life in the writhing shadows of her candlelit chambers: the sudden, awkward silence that had descended on the guild hall; the paleness of Myaka’s face, no doubt reflected in her own countenance; Senator Keithson’s harsh response, “There is no Royal Guard, Soldier. Fall back in line.” After the quick adjournment, the Senate had confronted Aerana about the Royal Guard's existence for all of the Empire to see. Five Senators stood arrayed against her and accusations had rung out through the guild hall, almost too quickly for Aerana to respond to each speaker in turn. She stood on the dais, one facing five, wrapping herself in the icy façade of Empress as she responded with forced calm. Yet that calm, too, cracked when Senator Keithson had accused her of being a child.
‘He will ever see you as such,’ came the sad statement, ringing with finality. ‘Yet you have not been a child for many years. It is time the Senate is reminded that your title was born before theirs. The Empire was given into your hands, into your care. It was your hands that, in turn, created the Senate to aid in the burden - not to add to its weight.’
Aerana shook her head, pushing the thought aside. She rested her forehead in the palm of her hand as she remembered the meeting that had taken place only hours earlier. After the Senators had gone their separate ways, Aerana had turned to see the anxious and concerned faces of those who had witnessed the manifestation of division within the leadership. Their obvious worries pained her. Though her own heart was in turmoil, she sought to quell the anxieties of those yet present within the guild hall, speaking of misunderstandings and reconciliation. Even so, the division made itself felt as several of those present vowed to stand by Aerana’s side against the Senate. The sudden roaring in Aerana’s ears as a year’s worth of premonitions flooded through her prevented Aerana from responding with anything more substantial than swearing to continue her service and honoring their dedication to the Vision.
Afterwards, Aerana and Myaka had returned quickly to Stormwind and walked in thoughtful silence, accompanied by Tarashan Flamewind. The wise Kaldorei shared her insight with Aerana, cautioning the Empress against rash or sudden actions that might cause the Senate to overreact. Such advise resonated with Aerana, for she had always been one to seek communication, to search for a path to understanding. Indeed, such was her intention with the Senate, despite the emotions that had girded their earlier confrontation.
But then, another report came – a much more recent, and more troubling, report from one who watched those of the Senate gather after they had left the guild hall.
“Donnelly…I could not read. He did, however, state that should you not be able to be …trusted? That you must be removed. Pralea seemed…unhappy with that. Though Donnelly continued and implied…that if not peacefully, then forcefully.”
“Do you believe that he would truly do such?” Aerana had asked softly, not willing to believe that Donnelly Keithson would think to betray her thus. Yet within her heart, she knew that she and Donnelly were more alike than most; both would do whatever must be done for the sake of the Empire and its Vision. She knew the answer before the Scout gave it.
“If he felt it needed…” came the reply, “yes, I do.”
Aerana did not disagree for it was a truth that she and all gathered knew as well. Donnelly would do what he felt must be done, regardless of whether the rest of the Senate agreed. His demeanor reverted often to that of the General, accustomed to having every order followed immediately by those in the Empire's Military.
“I spoke of eat—Removing the Senate? Even if they were correct,” the deep voice continued, “they publicly challenged you in front of the body. It is …wrong.”
Aerana had pressed her lips together into a thin line, thinking over the terrible, grave suggestion. “Yet would not such alienate those of the Empire who sympathize with the Senate? Would they not see me grasping for some type of power as we fear the Senate does, even though I wish not for power?”
The Fierce One, standing across from her this night, spoke up. “One way or another, members will be alienated.”
The Scout agreed. “If you are removed, others will leave too. The Senate…made a move that cannot be ignored.”
By her side, Myaka spoke up. “If the Senate pushes this confrontation, it will alienate one side or another.”
“We are military,” the Scout added. “We believe in…order…structure. The Senate has broken the order. Perhaps if they are willing to…publicly acknowledge the error of their public challenge…” The voice trailed off.
“I agree,” the Fierce One stated simply. ‘If they push it unreasonably, remove them. Diplomatically, if possible. By force, if needed. If it comes to it, I have no qualms about killing the Senate to protect the tenets.”
“Otherwise is shows that…you are not the leader.” The Scout continued with an analogy, though Aerana already understood his meaning so she allowed her mind to turn to the abysmal implication behind the words spoken this night. As the Scout fell silent, the Empress found herself once more looking at Myaka.
“The Senate is pushing this,” the Guardian replied in response to Aerana's silent question. “They chose to focus on a perceived slight to them. They seem to think more on pride than on duty to the Vision. If they hold pride above the Vision, then they cannot be allowed to undermine it further.”
And so the gathering in the middle of nowhere had dispersed, with Aerana’s final words. “Given our recent discussion regarding the Senate, I will ask that the Guardians be wary in their duties. Should the Senate make a move signaling danger, we must be prepared.”
She had pulled on the reins of her gryphon, alighting into the dark skies above, as the Guardians below saluted her.
Aerana set the small stones aside as the first rays of dawn’s light began to peek up over the horizon to reveal the glassy surface of the ocean. Both her body and mind ached, drained from the lack of sleep and the excess of disturbing thoughts. Despite her preoccupation with all that had occurred this night, she had finished her work. The delicate, opaque stones pulsed with a soft green inner light that seemed to grow in the presence of the others.
“And so we shall prepare for that which we dread,” Aerana whispered tiredly, looking at her handiwork.