The next morning, almost as soon as Idira took her seat in the archive hall, the familiar shimmering of a portal blossomed on her desk. She watched, grumpy and resigned, wondering what far flung part of the Academy she would have to drag herself to this time. She picked up the card, vaguely noticing it felt heavier than the others she had received. The handwriting was different too, a beautiful calligraphy, and the card's edges bore fat borders of gold curlicues. She rolled her eyes. Typical Dalaran excess. It was a long list, and mostly books from the stacks. She scoffed, bitter. How in the Void was she supposed to carry so many books all by her—
She reached the bottom of the card. No. It couldn't be. She looked at it again, incredulous. Unable to stop herself she jumped up out of her chair and did a little happy dance. The Council of Six finally had need of her services. She was going to the Citadel! She stopped dancing and looked down at herself, her joy sliding away in a torrent of shame. Today was laundry day. She had left her violet dress on her bed for collection and worn the only other dress she owned, the faded one from Westfall. She slumped down onto her chair, defeated. Typical. Just typical.
Before she even reached the vast staircase leading up to the main entrance of the Violet Citadel, Idira was already exhausted. She struggled under the weight of nine fat tomes, barely able to see the way ahead. Dodging yet another self-absorbed Dalaran citizen shoving his way through the press, she managed to cling onto the books without dropping them. Back when she'd started, Duncan had warned her just before she made her first delivery that dropping books was a very serious offence, the punishment so dire, he wouldn't even say it, but the certainty of expulsion afterwards was guaranteed.
Halfway up the staircase, she huddled against the wall, leaning against it, trying to catch her breath. She was beginning to see spots in front of her eyes and her arms ached so much, they were starting to go numb. The Citadel looked so close when one looked at it from the Academy, but she was beginning to realise its magical aura distorted the sense of distance from it. In fact, the tower was halfway across the city from the Academy. She staggered up the remaining stairs, counting as she went, to distract herself from the burning sensation of pins and needles in her shoulders. Seventy-three, seventy-four, seventy-five. The staircase finally ended. Trying not to stagger, she crossed the large courtyard and approached the outer gates, her arms quaking with fatigue.
‘Halt!’ A hand on her arm, holding her back. ‘You must have documentation to enter.’
Idira peeked around the stack of books at the guard bearing down her, fierce. She sighed and knelt, setting the books down with great care onto the polished floor tiles. She opened the cover of the top book and held out the card with the order. The guard took it and looked it over, dubious, calling over one of the other guards to check it. Surreptitiously, Idira rubbed the circulation back into her arms, secretly grateful for the chance to rest while the other guard inspected the card.
‘Everything looks in order,’ he said, ‘though why the library would send that disgrace into the High Council's Chamber is beyond me.’ They stood, side by side, eyeing her, disdainful. Self-conscious, Idira tugged at her skirt and straightened it.
‘Go on then,’ the first guard said, waving her through. ‘They're waiting.’
‘How do I find them?’ Idira asked as she knelt and gathered up the books again, her arms screaming in protest.
The guards rolled their eyes at each other. The second one jerked his head at the open glass doors of the tower's entrance. ‘Just keep going straight up the stairs, the Chamber is right in the middle. Even an idiot couldn't miss it. Then again, you might.’ They laughed, mean, as she walked away. ‘Have you ever seen such a thing?’ the first one said, speaking loud enough so she would be sure to hear. ‘Purple eyes, and that raggedy dress, where did she find that? In the sewers? People like her don't belong here. Hope the Council sends her back to whatever hole she crawled out from.’
Her cheeks stinging with humiliation, Idira pushed on, her arms trembling under the renewed weight of the heavy leather and brass bound tomes, unable to take in the splendour surrounding her, thinking only of putting one foot in front of the other; fighting the heaviness spreading through her arms, willing herself not to drop the books before she reached her destination.
She made it to the top of the stairs and was just about to cross the threshold into the vast Council chambers when her arms rebelled and gave out. She bit back a cry, despairing, as the books tumbled down around her, their brass bindings clattering onto the vestibule's marble floor, the noise drowned out by the shouts of a heated argument coming from the centre of the Chamber. Falling to her knees, she hurried to gather up the books, keeping her head down, tears blurring her eyes. It was all over for her now. She was going to be expelled. She would never meet Khadgar, everything she had lived for and suffered through would come to nothing. She thought of Logan and Unambi, of their sacrifices made for her and her Light. Shame piled onto her. She had failed them, utterly. Anger seared through her. Why hadn't her arms lasted just one minute more. Why?
But no one came to her, and no one shouted at her. She fell back onto her haunches and peeked up from under her lashes, waiting for her berating, but apart from herself, the only others she could see in the Chamber were five men and one woman, though they stood at a great distance from her. They all had high-backed, elaborately carved chairs, but none were sitting. They stood around a vast circular table set in the middle of the room upon a raised platform, the table glowing with arcane energy. They argued heatedly, seemingly oblivious of her grave crime. Floating in the air above the table was a rotating globe, its mountains, valleys and seas set out in realistic relief. Idira gaped, recognising the shape of the continent of the Eastern Kingdoms as the planet progressed on its slow spin. Awed, she rose to her feet, the books forgotten as she realised she was looking at a globe of the world. Of Azeroth.
She gazed at it, entranced. Back on the farm in Westfall, she had spent plenty of time absorbing the flattened maps tucked within the covers of her books, but to see the whole world, seamless, a planet, in such breathtaking detail was like a dream; she felt her perspectives shifting, her mind opening, broadening as she envisaged herself no longer on a flat world, but a spherical one.
The Archmages continued to argue, though their shouts had subsided. She listened, curious. They spoke in a language she didn't understand. She followed the strange words, intrigued, hearing for the first time the language only the Council of Six knew and used, a High Arcane dialect she had been told by Duncan during one of his more sociable moments was called Tirisian, the inscrutable words laden with magic, cloaking their words from both prying ears, and spies.
She searched for Khadgar. There. Her heart thudded. He stood on the left side of the table, the seat back of his chair slighter higher and wider than the others. One of the others spoke, passionate—a man wearing dark red robes—waving his arm towards the globe. Khadgar turned away, shaking his head, his expression tight, his hands curling into fists. He leaned forward and rested his weight on the table, addressing the others, his tone adamant and unbending. She wondered what they were arguing about.
‘You look like you could use a little help,’ a small voice piped beside Idira's ear. Idira turned, startled. A female gnome, her blond hair braided and curled up into buns on the sides of her head stood beside Idira, green eyes twinkling. She held out her hand. ‘I'm Chromie. Pleased to meet you. You better hurry, soon they will notice you, and it won't go well for you if they see all their books on the floor.’
Idira took the pretty gnome's hand and shook it. ‘Idira Northshire,’ she answered, shy, eyeing her, curious. There was something about the gnome. Idira couldn't quite place it, but something wasn't as it seemed with her. It wasn't bad, though it wasn't quite right either. She reminded Idira of the Citadel, in the way the building distorted her perception of space, it felt like being near the diminutive gnome distorted Idira's perception of time. She glanced back at the group of Archmages, the woman, Archmage Modera had just begun to turn around, though her eyes were on one of the other Archmages, the one Idira guessed was Kalec from his blue hair. She stood still as statue, as did all the others, frozen in time, a tableau. Idira turned back to Chromie, gaping.
‘Did you do that?’ she breathed.
‘I know who you are,’ Chromie said, businesslike, as she picked up the books and handed them to Idira, who took them, her gaze darting back to the Archmages, astonished, incredulous. ‘I've covered for you this time,’ the gnome continued, brusque, ‘but next time, try not to drop the books. There's only so much someone like me can do. They have satchels at the library they can lend you. Next time ask for one.’
Idira took the last book and thanked the gnome, who nodded and smiled. ‘And don't heed any of the hateful talk in this place,’ she said, pausing, as she turned away. ‘You are above all of that. Far above it. You just need a little more time.’
She lifted her staff. A flash of light filled Idira's eyes, and quick as a blink, the gnome was gone.
‘There you are, finally!’ Archmage Modera called out, irritable. ‘Come in then, what are you waiting for?’
Idira realised Modera was speaking to her, behaving as though Idira had only just arrived. Her heart soaring with relief for what the little gnome had done for her, she crossed the distance to the platform and waited, unsure where to put the books.
‘Here, beside me,’ Modera snapped, impatient, pointing at an opening beside her, her voice raised over the others who continued to bicker in Tirisian. ‘I haven't all day.’
Keeping her head down, Idira climbed the three steps up onto the platform and approached the table. Gently, ever so gently she lowered the books onto the shimmering blue surface and backed away. Modera turned her back to Idira, rifling though the pile of books for the one she wanted first. She opened it, her finger running down the lines, her eyes darting back and forth, seeking, hungry.
Unable to stop herself, Idira glanced at Khadgar, hoping to catch his eye, but he had sat down and was staring at the table, deep in thought. With only Modera between them, Idira was so close to him she could see the rise and fall of his tunic as he breathed. Her heart quavered as she drank in the nearness of him, sensing his strength and charisma, his deep history of experience; a true warrior-mage, his powerful presence filling the room, leaving the others in his shadow, despite their much more elaborate robes and headpieces.
How she longed to touch him. Her heart aching, she looked at the man who had occupied most of her life, staring down at the table, as lost to her as though he were still on another planet. Please, she begged him, silent. Look at me. An inner tug pulled on her, once, twice, coming from the centre of the table, distracting her. A third tug and a judder surged through her torso, so sharp and sudden it left her breathless. A heartbeat later the globe of Azeroth flared to life, gleaming as bright as a star. Streamers of light the same colour as her own erupted from its core and darted, chaotic around the sphere, dozens of them, their numbers increasing until the globe seethed with her Light, a living thing, glowing so bright the whole Chamber turned violet. The Archmages rose to their feet, astonished, all of them apart from Khadgar talking, excited, though nothing they said was remotely comprehensible to Idira.
Idira backed away, watching Khadgar, willing him to look at her, to recognise in her the violet-imbued child he had seen when he was trapped on another planet, walking in that faraway city, but he didn't. He gazed at the shining globe, silent, brooding, and lost to his thoughts, blind both to her, and her Light.