Once in the city, Idira experienced another paralysing spike of shame. She had thought the men and women she had seen shopping along the canal in Stormwind had looked well off, but this city's residents made Stormwind's prosperous citizens look like paupers by comparison. Now she understood what Nin meant about making the trip to Dalaran to buy her hats from a famous milliner.
Within a glass-fronted shop, its interior finished in luxurious fabrics and sumptuous colours, Idira glimpsed an elegant group of three slender, beautiful women reclining on pale sofas, holding crystal-cut glasses filled with sparkling wine. They nodded and chatted amongst themselves, ignoring the liveried attendants carrying out fantastic, gem-encrusted gowns, holding them out for their inspection.
One of the women glanced out the window, catching Idira watching them. She said something, tilting her head at Idira. The others turned and eyed her, hostile, bristling with indignation. An attendant moved to the open door and closed it, his expression dripping with contempt. Idira backed away, drowning in humiliation, trying and failing to blend into the crowded street, realising as she searched the faces for others like her that she was utterly alone, at least on this street. Everywhere she looked, beauty and wealth surrounded her, down to the smallest detail, even the potted palm trees lining the street were perfectly tended.
The deeper she went into the city, the more she became convinced only the most elite and privileged of Azeroth could afford to be in Dalaran; the families of kings and princes; the highest nobility; the wealthy barons of war, and titans of commerce. She didn't belong in such a place. She stopped and half-turned, thinking to go back to the Gryphon Master to fly back to Stormwind. She could go back to The Pig and Whistle, it wasn't much of a life, but at least she wouldn't be alone in a place like this. Maegan had said there would always be a place for her there, should she want one.
Her hand drifted to her pouch, a stab of guilt puncturing her insecurities. No. It was Logan's wish for her to do this, she had to at least try. She looked around, searching over the heads of the people strolling along the avenue and found a guard. Steeling herself for another derisive dismissal, she approached him and asked where she might apply to join the Kirin Tor. He didn't say anything cruel, but neither did he say anything at all, he simply ignored her, as did the other two guards she found. She tried very hard not to take it personally, but it wasn't easy.
Several wrong turns later, and after losing herself in a garden maze for almost an hour, she discovered, quite by accident, a low, discreet opening at the base of an enormous citadel. Despite the steady flow of fashionable people along its vast, ostentatious staircase, no one seemed interested in the little patch of grass where Idira stood, tucked away behind the street, and accessed by a narrow grassy alley. She leaned back and looked up at the citadel. Over its main entrance, the magical sigil of the Kirin Tor—an eye with three pointed lines beneath it—hung suspended, glowing a cerulean blue, and pulsing with arcane energy. She shivered, sensing the power the citadel contained, for a heartbeat diverted from her misery as her body resonated to the steady pulse of the Eye.
Tearing her gaze from the sigil, she leaned back a little more. The citadel towered so high its topmost turrets disappeared into the clouds. She realised as she returned her attention to her immediate surroundings that for the first time since she had arrived (apart from a few times in the maze), she was completely alone. Here in this quiet corner of Dalaran, no imperious, disdainful guards stood in front of the low opening in the wall. Considering all the places she had seen them standing, beside a post box, outside a pet menagerie, even flanking the entrance to a barber shop for Light's sake, she was surprised not to find any here in front of a dark, suspicious looking, musty staircase leading into the bowels of the city. It seemed as if by their absence they were sending a message: This place is beneath us. Despite herself, she smiled at the pun.
She peered down the stone stairs into their shadowy, torchlit depths. Old cobwebs clung to the edges of the opening, drifting lazily in the draught. The stairs looked like they hadn't been cleaned in years; burnt-out butts of cigars and empty tankards littered the way, while other unnameable things lurked in the corners.
Voices drifted up, reminding her of the background hum of The Pig and Whistle. Fausty, stagnant air wafted past her, laced with the smells of roast meat, wood smoke, and stale ale. She wrinkled her nose as the stink of urine found its way to her through the miasma. Curious, she followed the stairs, hoping she wasn't about to walk into a place filled with men like Papa. The stairs ended, giving way to a long stone walkway. Ahead, the light brightened, and the smell of roasting meat grew stronger, overwhelming another new stench, of dampness and rot. The voices grew louder. The clank of crockery. The thud of tankards against tables. She turned a corner and found herself staring face to face with the very goblin who had taken all the things from VanCleef's house, still wearing that ridiculous top hat. Before she could stop herself, she slapped his face, hard.
‘What in the Light!?’ the goblin erupted. He rubbed his gold-encrusted fingers against his jaw, eyeing her, cautious. ‘What did I ever do to you?’
‘You! You fiend! You took my clothes, and my books,’ Idira hollered. His sudden, unexpected presence triggered a rage she hadn't known she still harboured, her anger so fierce, it felt as if it she were once more a little girl, watching her things being loaded into a wagon as he stood by, rubbing his hands together in glee. She raised her hand to hit him again. ‘You took everything we had, and for a pittance, too. You left us with nothing!’
Someone caught her, holding her wrist in a viselike grip. She spun around, furious.
‘Easy, there,’ a woman said, quiet, from behind the concealing depths of a dark hood. ‘You don't want to be attracting the wrong kind of attention in this place. Come on, let's get you a drink.’
Still holding Idira by the wrist, the woman fished in her leather tunic and tossed a gold piece at the offended goblin. ‘This ends here, Kuzzik,’ she said, cold. ‘I know what you're like, you probably had that coming.’
‘Huh,’ Kuzzik scoffed, eyeing the woman narrowly. He bit the coin, then tucked it into his brocade waistcoat. ‘Fine, I'll let it go,’ he huffed, ‘but if it happens again.’ He narrowed his eyes at Idira, menacing.
The woman walked past him. ‘Yeah, yeah, big man. Whatever.’
Kuzzik spluttered, outraged. The woman beside Idira chuckled as she wended her way into the bar area of a ramshackle wooden tavern, all crooked angles and edges, her hand still holding Idira fast against her. ‘He hates to be called that,’ she said as she nodded at the blond-haired barkeep, leaning against the wall behind the bar, his muscled arms crossed over his red-shirted chest. ‘Two ales, Baxter, and clean tankards this time, eh?’
‘Clean ones cost extra,’ muttered Baxter. He pushed away from the wall, surly.
Another gold coin appeared from the woman's tunic. She slid it across the top of the bar. He eyed it, then scooped it up, pocketing it. ‘I'll bring 'em to ya,’ he muttered, ‘gonna have ta boil up some water first ta wash 'em, so hope ya ain't in no hurry.’
The woman shrugged as though she didn't care and led Idira further into the tavern, where the light was thinner and the air lay blue and ripe, blanketed in greasy, curling trails of old cigar smoke. Her hooded companion ducked into a shadowed alcove and settled onto a stool. Dragging another stool over with her heel, she put her feet up, crossing them at the ankles. She leaned against the wall, her arms folded over her chest, and nodded at the empty stools surrounding the table, indicating Idira should choose one and take a seat. Not knowing what else to do, Idira sat down onto the stool nearest to the door—gingerly, hoping she wasn't sitting on anything that would stain her dress. Eyeing the table's surface layered in sticky ale rings and grease stains, she decided to keep her hands in her lap.
‘What brings you to Dalaran?’ the woman asked as she dug inside her tunic and pulled out a small pouch, her fingers dipping in to retrieve a bag of tobacco and some rolling papers. She busied herself with making a roll-up, her fingers slim, elegant and deft, nothing like Idira had expected after having felt the strength of the other woman's grip around her wrist.
‘Um,’ Idira temporised as she watched the woman work, fascinated, ‘just wanted to see it, I guess.’
‘Right,’ the woman said as she leant towards the candle in the middle of the table and lit her cigarette. The paper at the end flared up, bright red. She dragged on it, lighting the tobacco, making her dark eyes gleam, like a cat's. She leaned back and exhaled. ‘If you say so.’ Smoke curled up out from under her hood. She sat there, saying nothing, just looking at Idira, unnerving her.
Idira looked away, uncomfortable, wondering what she was going to have to say or do to get away from her new 'friend'. Even though the tavern was almost empty, the few who were there looked like the kind of people VanCleef used to hire, mercenaries and criminals; their faces scarred and rough, all hard edges and brutality. Dalaran was turning out to be a much stranger, more complicated place than she first perceived.
Baxter turned up with their drinks. He slid them onto the table, careless, ale sloshing over the tankards' brims, and walked away without saying a word.
The woman leaned forward and pulled her tankard closer. She gestured at Idira's beverage. ‘Drink up. You're going to need it if you're going to survive this place.’
‘Oh, yes, thank you,’ Idira said, polite and sipped at her ale. It was quite good, she looked up in surprise.
Her companion scoffed and waved her hand in the direction of the ceiling, trails of smoke drifting after her cigarette. ‘It's the magic in this place, makes everything taste better, even this pig's piss Baxter likes to call ale.’ After several minutes of quiet drinking, the woman stubbed out her cigarette on the heel of her boot. ‘You planning on applying to join the Kirin Tor?’ She tossed the butt into the shadows behind her.
The ale was making Idira feel better, more confident and positive. She nodded. ‘I'm going to try, anyway.’
‘Well, good luck to you,’ the woman said, sour, as she lifted her tankard in a mock toast, ‘the first trick is to find the office where you apply. Lots of politics here, Dalaran stinks to the skies with hierarchy. Since the spoiled brats don't know anything about the real world, they like to play their little games—the social inbreeds—making it as difficult as possible for the 'outsiders' to get in. Of course if you are one of the 'in crowd', you get a nice gold-gilt card sent to you telling you exactly where you need to go, with a nice little map and everything.’ She tilted her head at Idira's half-empty tankard. ‘When you finish your drink, I'll walk you there.’
‘Oh, I don't want to trouble you,’ Idira demurred, wondering how her companion knew about the gold-gilt cards, ‘I'm sure I can find it on my own, eventually.’
‘You won't,’ the woman said, ‘trust me. They do this on purpose, the bastards.’
‘How much do you want for it?’ Idira asked, hesitant. She'd lived long enough with VanCleef to know people who frequented places like this never did anything for nothing.
‘This one's on me,’ the woman said, ‘it will give me a kick to piss them off. And I know you especially are going to wind them right up.’
‘Me?’ Idira asked, offended. ‘Why would you say that? You don't know anything about me.’
‘I know plenty,’ the woman said as she pulled back her hood and leaned closer to the candle.
‘No, it can't be,’ Idira breathed. Something ground to a halt within her as the combined features of Myra and the dark colouring of VanCleef looked back at her from a face six years younger than her own. She stood up, panicking, fearing the ale had been laced with hallucinogenic herbs. ‘No. You're dead,’ she said, her voice rising, feeling herself begin to gibber. ‘You died four years ago. I grieved for you. The dead don't come back to life, not even here, in magical Dalaran. No. You don't exist. I'm imagining you.’
The woman, who looked exactly like she remembered Vanessa from the last time she had seen her, stood up and grabbed hold of Idira's arm, giving her a hard shake. ‘Stop your nonsense. As you can see, I'm very much alive. I faked my death. Sit down and shut up,’ she ordered, sharp, glancing around the room. ‘People are looking.’
Idira sank back onto the stool, staring at Vanessa, fighting a sudden incomprehensible urge to cry.
‘Listen, the stories you heard, none of them are true,’ Vanessa said as she sat back down, drumming her fingertips on the table, agitated. ‘When I knew I couldn't win, I drank a potion, saying I was ending my own life to throw them off, but really I just went into a deep state of unconsciousness for about a day, one heartbeat a minute sort of thing. Pretty risky, since a drop too much means you're a goner. Gave me a headache that took a week to wear off.’ She shook her head, the drumming stopping as she winced at the memory. ‘Never going to do that again.’
Idira stared at her niece, an upwelling of anger slamming into her, overwhelming her panic and grief. ‘You let me believe you were dead,’ she seethed. ‘All this time, you never contacted me. You left me believing you were gone to the Light. Why?’
‘You wouldn't understand,’ Vanessa sighed as she pulled out her pouch and tapped a little tobacco onto a rolling paper and rolled a new cigarette.
‘Alright,’ Vanessa said as she lit the roll-up. She inhaled, deep, before continuing, smoke drifting out of her mouth as she talked. ‘At the time it seemed for the best. If you didn't know I was alive you wouldn't be implicated if I was ever found. I did it to protect you.’
Idira scoffed, waving a hand in front of her face to fan the smoke away. ‘I see you've inherited your father's warped sense of logic.’
‘I knew you wouldn't understand,’ Vanessa said, cold.
‘Whatever,’ Idira said, folding her arms over her chest, looking away, feelings of betrayal rising in the wake of her anger. ‘I taught you to read and write,’ she grated, her throat aching. ‘I took care of you. I was practically your mother. You should have told me.’
She glanced at Vanessa. A spasm of guilt sliced across her niece’s face.
‘I know,’ Vanessa said as she took another long drag from her cigarette. ‘I hated what I had to do to you, but it's done now. As it turns out my fortunes have changed for the better, and with what's happening with the Legion everyone has long forgotten about little old me. For what it's worth I was bloody thrilled to see you walking down those stairs. I also enjoyed seeing you giving Kuzzik what's what. He's scum, through and through. Now we can sit here and commiserate about what I did or didn't do, or we can be on our way and get you into the Kirin Tor. Your choice.’
Idira stood up, bridling at her niece's cold logic. ‘You sound just like your father,’ she muttered, annoyed.
Vanessa arched an eyebrow but said nothing. She led the way out of the tavern and back up the stairs into the fresh air and sunlight. ‘You need four thousand gold to get in,’ she murmured as they walked across the grass to the alley leading back onto the street. ‘Do you have it?’
‘Yes, Logan gave it to me,’ Idira answered, quiet, her heart aching anew at the thought of him.
Vanessa nodded, a look of approval crossing her face as she slid her hood back up over her head. ‘I knew I did the right thing letting that one live.’