Aerana sat on the stone bench, staring out over the placid lake to the darker dots that marked the memorials on the far shore. The lingering warmth of the day delayed the inevitable cooling of the night air but Aerana nevertheless wrapped her arms around her, thankful she wore a long-sleeved gown. The leaves and flowers of the beautifully cultivated garden behind the Cathedral rustled quietly, tickled by an errant evening breeze. Aerana's gaze drifted from the solemn monuments of the graveyard to the glassy surface of the water, which glowed with the reflected light of the moon.
She sat alone now, though her shoulder was still damp from Skylah Mackinzie's tears. Looking away from the lake, Aerana’s attention drifted to the empty bench next to her. For a passing moment, she marveled that Skylah had actually sought her out, sitting next to her and confiding in her as a friend. She could not recall the last time, if ever, that someone had cried on her shoulder. Even after all that had happened, all the wounds that, though bandaged, were still fresh...
Aerana sighed softly and, ever mindful of the many gentle reproaches she had received over the weeks, turned her thoughts away from those morose musings. It would not be long until one of those formerly known as Guardians came to fetch her when they found she had not yet retired to her residence. She had no doubt that they would readily recognize her troubled visage and the last thing she wished to do was cause them any further unnecessary concern.
Ever since the procedure, they had treated Aerana as if she was perilously fragile and liable to break at any moment. Indeed, upon waking, Aerana could sense the undertones of anxious fear that pervaded the room and the sudden flare of concern at each of her missteps. Although Aerana recalled nothing of what transpired, she had been told that the procedure had been a harrowing experience and that there were times she almost slipped beyond the reach of the healers. It seemed surreal to her that she had come so close to death without ever being aware of her predicament. It had taken many days before those around her stopped treating her as if she were brittle and frail and the faintest of breezes would shatter her.
Even now, after her return to Stormwind, they often gathered by her side -- less as protectors and more as beloved friends determined to ensure that Aerana remained true to the regime mandated by Brother Neal. They cared for her better than she cared for herself, she admitted. And they were not the only ones who evinced such concern.
Aerana smiled fondly, tilting her head to the side as she regarded the waters of the lake, her thoughts wandering in and out of the various conversations she had participated in during her recovery. Despite the discomfort evident in the initiation of the conversations, they invariably ended on a surprisingly pleasant, if pensively thoughtful, note. She had conversed with so many, speaking of abstract, philosophical matters that touched upon the recent troubles in the Empire. It was painful, yes, but Aerana believed that healing came with each word spoken.
First, while she still recuperating within the Abbey, Donnelly had visited. The timbre of their conversation had been harsh and stilted at times, fraught with evidence of their recent troubles and the emotional wounds inflicted on one another. Yet beneath the words…remained a deep and abiding sense of care. The gruff Senator had spoken of wounds that, though scarring, would not always fester as they did now. Their conversation had been uncomfortable given all that had happened between them; but, strangely, it had also been reminiscent of the early days when Aerana had returned to the Empire and Donnelly stood by her side as a solicitous, if stern, father figure. His words and actions, Aerana knew, had given her the resolve necessary emerge from the protective cocoon of the Abbey. And so she had returned to Stormwind.
With Stormwind came other interactions — as if her return heralded that recovery had progressed enough for more frequent visitors. Days ago, Rednaxela had stood next to that far bench, his words tinged with nostalgia as they beckoned her thoughts back to the early days of the Empire. They had spoken, hesitantly at first. That tentativeness was soon replaced with small smiles as they shared memories of those times, laughing quietly but genuinely at their first adventures and the warm bonds of the Empire. Those days were more innocent than the current times; they had been little more than a group of political idealists, gathering in the forest and passing the time in philosophical inquiries of possible ways to transform their ideals into reality.
The Order of the Forsaken had changed that and had introduced vigilance and wariness into their lives – a lesson reflected in the current structure of the Empire. Aerana shook her head, not willing to dwell upon those dark days. Too many hours had already been spent obsessing over the lives lost and decisions made. For too long had she allowed those lessons to mandate her, and the Empire’s, subsequent actions.
Instead, Aerana focused on the open-ended discussions with others in the Empire – Myaka, Xandric, Aryanna, Tarashan, Dracila, Ezraeil, Nalaani, Autumn, Julianaz, Resileaf, Harlous and Skylah. At various times over the intervening days, the little group would gather around and speak on whatever topic happened to pique their varying interests. Aerana took comfort in the gatherings, despite the somewhat obscure nature of their conversations.
It was, perhaps, that comfort that had allowed her to speak so openly with Pralea, to accept the nature of her words -- the honest and blunt assessment of what had happened and the genuine frustration at not being able to change the tumultuous trajectory.
"I feel like we were too wrapped up in our work to be of any good, that we're losing touch with the people we're rallying... Not that getting our jobs done isn't important, but, how can we lead people who we barely know? I mean... I guess it's fine for a damned army, but, our mission is entirely different, isn't it? How can we call ourselves leaders and look for something like peace between two warring factions when we don't even know our own people, Aerana?"
In her own way, Pralea had articulated the vague and abstract unease that had preoccupied Aerana for weeks. Aerana’s examination of the issue focused on the broad and over-arching concerns. Yet to have them named so clearly, and to be asked such a forthright question, had spurred further discussions. And…
Aerana looked towards the nearby tree, where only hours before, Tinox had stood. Awkwardly, but sincerely, they navigated the perilous path of discussing what had happened and the choices each of them had made. The conversation deepened her understanding of the gnome whose reputation for logic and administration many found intimidating. Yet, his admission that he was troubled reinforced her belief that such difficult conversations were necessary. And indeed, when pressed for concrete statements arising from earlier nebulous discussions, Aerana had struggled to answer.
"It would be like asking a carpenter to build a chair that promoted companionship," he had stated evenly.
"Perhaps," she had agreed slowly, deep in thought. "And yet, are there not ways to do so? Rather than a chair, I would request a curved bench, so that people might sit next to one another and converse easily. I would ask that it be padded and comfortable, so as to invite those who pass by to rest for a moment. Such would support and facilitate this goal we spoke of more than a throne placed alone on the dais above the throng. The analogy is not perfect, yet it could serve as a starting point for such a discussion."
She smiled faintly now at the thought — a chair to promote friendship. Unbidden, the image of Katelle came to her mind, staring at her solemnly. More than the others, and deservedly so, Katelle held her accountable for the actions taken. Yet the tender care shown during the conversation had soothed her mind and reminded her that, despite all that had occurred, their ties would endure. Such bonds may have changed; but they would endure and, perhaps even grow stronger for the pain shared.
Aerana pressed her lips together as a sense of conviction welled up inside her. Though many conversations had been viewed through the lens of her personal relationships, their essence could be applied to the Empire as a whole. The Empire was not the same as other organizations – it was neither a country, to be controlled by a strong central government nor was it a paramilitary group, relying solely on a strict hierarchy to survive. It was…something different. And, just as many within the Empire had been touched by recent events and forced to confront difficult questions, so too must the Empire as a collective face the future while remembering the past.
With renewed energy, Aerana stood up from the lonely stone bench despite the soreness of her weakened muscles. She looked in the direction of the harbor, towards her home.
She would need parchment. And a quill.