Aethas stared blankly back at Rommath. "Quel'Thalas and the Kirin Tor have been allied for over two thousand years," he said. "Since we joined formally with the Horde, things have been strained, but—"
Rommath laughed again, loudly this time.
"Since we joined the Horde," he repeated. "Of course. That's somewhat awkward, I imagine. And do you, Archmage Sunreaver, remember exactly why we sought to join the Horde?"
Aethas did not answer, but he looked Rommath straight in the eye, unflinching.
"A monumental betrayal," Rommath said, his voice nearly a whisper. His eyes glittered with seething anger that nearly a decade had failed to quell. "In Dalaran," he continued, "beneath the ever-watchful eyes of the Kirin Tor."
"They really had nothing to do with—"
"I assume you mean," Rommath interrupted, "that the Kirin Tor did nothing. Did nothing to prevent it, did nothing to stop it. And instead"—his voice began to rise—"left us to rot in the prisons beneath a city many of us called home as much as ever we did Silvermoon. A city our own crown prince had served as faithfully as his own homeland for longer than a human lifetime. A city we fought and died for, and at the request of the Kirin Tor. A city within whose walls they would have watched, in silence, as we all swung from a hangman's noose. Their city."
"The Kirin Tor find themselves under new leadership," Aethas replied, and Lor'themar felt that his controlled tone spoke well of the young archmage.
"That is a lie, and you know it," Rommath said. "Rhonin may be their figurehead, but Modera and Ansirem remain on the council. These are the same people who happily turned their eyes away when Garithos sentenced us to death. They can all rot in hell, or better yet, in Arthas's army as Scourge," he scoffed.
"Let us hope that none of the Council of Six ever ends up under Arthas's sway, Rommath," Halduron said quietly.
"Despite your obvious disdain for the Kirin Tor, you seem to be rather well informed, Grand Magister," Aethas said.
"Which would be one of the reasons I am the grand magister of Quel'Thalas and you are not, I would think," Rommath retorted. "And as grand magister I will never order my magi to service in the name of the Kirin Tor. Never."
Lor'themar's fingers twitched against the smooth table top, and his mouth hardened. Rommath had walked a thin line, and overstepped it.
"That is enough," Lor'themar said coolly. "You do not possess the authority to issue such ultimatums. It will be my decision whether to send our forces to Northrend—and if I so choose, you and your magi will follow orders.
"Now," he said, standing, "it is clear that to continue this will result in nothing more than petty bickering, and by all means, if the two of you wish to go on in such a manner, feel free. I, however, do not care to waste any more of my time. I would hazard the ranger-general feels similarly.
"I have business in the south," he continued, "and I had planned on leaving tomorrow. I do not think I shall disrupt those plans. You are welcome to stay, Archmage, but I may be gone a number of days."
Aethas did not reply, but nonetheless failed to successfully mask his irritation. Lor'themar was more than content to let him be upset. He turned to leave.
"There are those who will go to Dalaran whether you will it or not, Regent Lord," Aethas's voice called out across the room. Lor'themar paused and turned to face him as he continued. "Give me at least the blessing to speak on behalf of the regency of Silvermoon, and I will see to it that the interests of the sin'dorei are protected."
Rommath snorted in response, but said nothing. For a moment Lor'themar considered Aethas's request, but the younger elf was in no position to bargain. They all knew well that Aethas's skills in statesmanship were far outclassed by the other men in the room.
"I shall have a servant show you to your quarters, Archmage," Lor'themar said.
Aethas had left graciously enough, sparing one or two mean looks in Rommath's direction. The grand magister had appeared resolute, but Lor'themar could see the sway in his step and the lines of exhaustion that had resettled heavily upon his face the moment Aethas had gone beyond sight. Carefully Lor'themar had noted Rommath's fragility; his will could be bent.
Once, in the past, Lor'themar would have called it ignoble to even consider using such a thing against another. Now he recognized its necessity.
Alone, he sat by the window in his quarters and mulled over the afternoon's debates. Absently he twisted the long curtain between his hands as he stared across the spire's gardens, hearing Aethas's determined voice in his head. There are those who will go to Dalaran whether you will it or not. Lor'themar could not deny that truth, but privately he agreed with Rommath's disdain. How could he trust Aethas to faithfully represent the regency when he already cloaked himself in the dress of the Kirin Tor and stamped their seal upon his correspondence? Aethas was committed to the Nexus War: that much was clear. How many others would he convince to follow him? And how far was he, as regent lord, obliged to protect his people when they forged into ambiguous territory?
The cloth stretched and began to fray beneath Lor'themar's ungentle, unconscious attentions. He failed to notice.
"I am not sure," Halduron confessed to him later that evening. He had found the regent lord still sitting by the window, staring sullenly into the sunset. One glance had sent him wordlessly to the liquor shelf to generously fill a glass for his old friend. Now the ranger-general sat across from him.
"I believe his intentions are honest," Halduron continued. "I just do not know how far we can trust honest intentions, even among our own people."
Lor'themar stood and went to the shelf to top up his drink. "I worry that if we give him authority to act on our behalf, he would—intentionally or not—promise something from us that I am not willing to give." Lor'themar paused and looked toward the carved ceiling. "Then again, if enough sin'dorei follow him to Dalaran, he will end up their de facto leader anyway, and I am loath to have him acting as such without obligation to the cro—Silvermoon."
"It would be better if Rommath were not so stubborn," Halduron mused. "He lived in Dalaran for a long time; he bears the archmage title himself, you know. He has enough experience with the Kirin Tor to know how to handle them, and enough loyalty to his country that I believe we could trust him. He would be an ideal liaison for Aethas."
Lor'themar smiled faintly at Halduron's words. "Well, is that not a strange thing, to hear you speak well of Rommath?"
"I never approved of that business with M'uru, or the formation of the Blood Knights, no," Halduron admitted. "But that is behind us now, and we have no more reason to doubt him. If he were going to betray us, he would have done it when Kael'thas..." The words drifted and froze in Halduron's throat. Neither of them spoke for a long moment.
"Well," he added finally. "He would have done it then."
"So what do you think?" Lor'themar changed the subject and returned to his seat by the window. "What should we do about Aethas and Dalaran?"
"Aethas considers himself a member of the Kirin Tor," Halduron replied. "And I can think of a number of others who would be pleased to bear that mantle again as well. If the Kirin Tor want to admit blood elves, we cannot stop them from doing so."
"No, we cannot," Lor'themar answered. He was silent a moment. "However, it is my instinct that we should eschew official involvement in the Nexus War. Aethas should report to us periodically, and we should give him a clear set of boundaries. But those who wish to offer their services may do so under the banner of the Kirin Tor—not Quel'Thalas."
One corner of Halduron's mouth twisted up into a sardonic smirk, and Lor'themar pretended not to notice the melancholy in his friend's eyes. "What was that you said this morning about being a Farstrider? You sound more like a king every day, Lor'themar," Halduron remarked.
From where he sat, Halduron could not see the way Lor'themar's fingers tightened around his glass.
A few days later Lor'themar, atop his hawkstrider, picked his way through the northern foothills of the Eastern Plaguelands. He winced to look at the land; he was an elf, and, moreover, a ranger—a child of the open woods, of clear water and golden leaves. The sight of the cracked, foamy soil and withered trees of eastern Lordaeron twisted his heart and nearly made him retch. Such would be the fate of Quel'Thalas if not for his people's unrelenting vigilance.
Lor'themar looked behind him. Three Farstrider honor guards followed, taken at Halduron's and Rommath's insistence.
"By all means," Halduron had said, "you should not be going at all—I thought for sure you would give up this silly notion when Aethas decided to drop by. But I can see that nothing I can say will stop you, so you are at least going to take an escort. Do not argue." Rommath had wanted to send a few of the Blood Knights, which was out of the question. "They will not be well received," Lor'themar had pointed out. And nor will I, he added silently. Fortunately Rommath had not pressed the point.
At last the ridge he sought came into view. At a glance it would seem to be just another jutting projection on a low, rocky face, but he knew better. He drew his mount into a sharp turn, picking out the path, and continued up at a quick pace. There was no point in stealth, for the scouts would already have seen them.
As he expected, about halfway up the winding trail two figures suddenly materialized from behind the rocks. Their blades clashed as they barred the way, the sound echoing violently into the eerie stillness of the Plaguelands.