Early the next morning, just as the sun's first rays painted the sky in glorious shades of deep pinks and dark purples, Idira stood beside Ryback near the top of Stormwind's walls, inside a wooden planked, straw covered corridor, waiting for her turn to speak to Stormwind's Gryphon Master. Her hand tucked into the crook of Ryback's arm, Idira glanced at him, flattered he had made so much effort to see her off. The Pig & Whistle's cook had washed and shaved for the occasion, combed his hair back, and worn his Holy Day best: a blue linen shirt, starched and pressed, and a pair of brown leather breeches. He'd even gotten up early and polished his boots for the occasion.
'Now don't you be worrying about being up there on a big old gryphon,' he said as he patted her hand, reassuring her as she eyed the enormous creatures, uneasy, 'those are some smart beasts. They know exactly what they're doing, and those saddles, well they are about one of the most comfortable, safest things in Azeroth. Once the novelty wears off of seeing the world from up high, there's no reason not to have a nap,' he chuckled, his eyes unfocusing as he reminisced, 'Light knows I've done it plenty of times.'
Idira nodded and smiled for him, but her heart pounded, filled with trepidation as she watched the enormous hybrid creatures, half-lion, half-eagle leap from the platform's opening and plummet, screeching, towards the city's moat far below, their great wings lifting them up moments before hitting the water.
'Ah, that part's the hardest to get used to,' Ryback admitted, as Idira tightened her grip on his arm, fearful. 'Best not to go on with a full stomach, or drunk, drunk's bad too. Nothing stays down after that. That's why I said to eat light this morning, anyway there'll be lots of delicious things to eat in Dalaran, fanciest city in all of Azeroth, only the best of the best get to live there, with all the fine things to match.' He patted her hand. 'It'll be ok. You'll be fine. The good news is Dalaran is a lot closer to Stormwind than it used to be because of the Legion's invasion. It's just over Karazhan now. Not so long ago, you'd have to take a ship all the way to the northern continent, and then a gryphon.' He chuckled again and shook his head. 'Colder than a frost mage's nipples up there.'
Idira blushed, smiling faintly at his attempt to lighten the mood. She thought of the maps folded into the front leaves of her books, how much she had loved to pore over them, imagining other lands and what it would be like to visit them. But Ryback wasn't exaggerating, she knew of Karazhan well enough from her books—the great towering fortress, long deserted, which stood within Deadwind Pass. Once, long ago, Khadgar had studied there under the Guardian Medivh. Compared to the vast size of the Eastern Kingdoms, Deadwind Pass was quite close, even Unambi had been there once, the time Khadgar had saved his life and—
'Wait,' she blurted, Ryback's earlier words jolting her from her thoughts, 'what do you mean over Karazhan?'
Ryback glanced at her, taken aback. 'Dalaran is a floating city. Didn't you know that?'
Idira stared at him. She didn't. The only thing she knew of Dalaran was that long ago, when she was still a child, Lady Nin had told of how she had travelled to Dalaran, nestled in the province of Hillsbrad Foothills to buy her hats from a famous milliner. Nothing in any of Idira's books mentioned Dalaran being anywhere else, all she had read was the city in Hillsbrad had been destroyed by Arthas during the Third War. Since coming to Stormwind, she understood Dalaran had been rebuilt, but as a floating city? She shivered as the scattered pieces of her life gathered together, assembling quietly around her dream from all those years ago. She touched her pouch, containing the precious bank note and Logan's letter. Of all the people who could have aided her, it was Logan, the one who'd loved her who had opened the door leading to Khadgar. Unambi was right, the Light did move in mysterious ways.
'Are there . . . balconies in Dalaran?' she asked, hesitant.
For a beat, Ryback stared at her as though she had lost her mind. 'I suspect so,' he finally answered, slow, 'since it's all towers and spires.' He scratched his head, baffled. 'That's a very strange thing to be asking. Are you afraid of balconies or something?'
Idira shook her head, but didn't have time to say anything more. Her turn had arrived.
It was worse than she feared, the drop down to the moat. With barely a chance to say goodbye to Ryback, the gryphon galloped to the edge of the wooden platform and fell, screeching with joy down to the moat, its powerful wings pumping, beating hard against the shear of air rushing up past them, catching their fall just as its talons brushed against the moat's cold, dark, murky waters.
Up they went, the transition from falling to rising so abrupt, Idira barely had enough time to get the disposable linen vomit bag the gryphon master had tucked into one of the leather restraints to her mouth. Surging waves of nausea crashed over her, so powerful her vision narrowed to little points of light. She hung over the bag, sagging in the grip of the restraints, emptying the bitter contents of her stomach, the sharp stink of bile making her continue to retch long after she'd finished. Don't you be puking on my gryphon, that's just disrespectful, the Gryphon Master had warned her as he tightened the restraints holding her, trembling and quaking with terror in the saddle.
She finally finished. With shaking hands, she tied off the stinking bag and settled it into the leather satchel hanging from the saddle for later disposal. All she had eaten for breakfast was half an unbuttered toasted roll, but it seemed even that was too much. Next time, she vowed, if there ever would be a next time, she wouldn't eat for hours beforehand.
As the gryphon lifted into the air, ascending towards the clouds, cold, fresh air blew into her face, reviving her. She turned and looked back at Stormwind as it fell away. The city lay in diverse, compact sections divided by canals. In the distance, to the north, the palace loomed high up against the mountains, its spires and turrets gleaming in the early morning sunlight. Further out, the harbour lay packed with ships: juggernauts, trade ships and ferry boats jostling for space at the massive docks. The bright glint of metal winked back from along the docks' wooden platforms as the sun's first rays reflected against the armour of thousands of soldiers waiting for their turn to board one of the ships, ready to make their way to the shores of the Broken Isles.
Her heart suddenly heavy, Idira turned from the sight to face forward, her hand once more straying to touch the pouch where Logan's letter lay, nestled safe within, tormented by the knowledge he had stood on those very docks just yesterday morning. She wondered where he was now, if he had reached the muster point off the coast of the Broken Shore; waiting for the others to arrive so they could begin the battle he knew would cost him his life.
She thought she had cried every tear she left to cry in the last two days, but it seemed she still had more. Despite the enticing blur of trees, rivers, roads, villages and lakes sweeping away beneath her feet, she grieved anew for Logan and Unambi as she flew alone among the skies and clouds, until the impossible floating city of Dalaran appeared on the horizon, emerging from between the parting clouds, the sight of it astonishing her so much, she could only stare, hiccupping and dumbfounded as her gryphon wheeled, screeching, towards it.
Even from a distance it looked enormous. Dalaran was at least the size of Stormwind, if not bigger. Despite its impossible size and weight, the city hung suspended and still in the sky, perched on a vast rocky platform which looked like it had been pulled up from out of the ground along with the city, an inverted mountain that tapered down to a jagged point far below the city's foundations. Above, the entire city appeared to be comprised of slim, silvery white towers of various heights topped by colourful spires, their filial points tiled in varying shades of blue and purple, the whole of it looking like an elaborate confection. The gryphon tilted to its side, homing in for its approach to the landing, a massive circular platform tiled in an intricate white and blue mandala. Apart from the opening where the gryphons departed and landed, the rest of the platform lay surrounded by gardens.
As the gryphon descended, Idira glimpsed the city's wide avenues and lanes, lined by luxuriant, verdant trees and gardens. It was the most beautiful place she had ever seen, nothing in her fairytale books, written or illustrated had even come close to describing the breathtaking contrast of Dalaran's fragile beauty and grandeur.
The gryphon sailed in for its landing, hitting the ground at a run. It came to a stop just heartbeats before the edge of the gardens. It turned and walked, docile to the Gryphon Master, throwing its head up and down, trilling with pleasure.
'Whoa there girl, you're in a good mood today,' the Master remarked to the gryphon as he caught hold of Idira's stirrup and led the gryphon to the side, to rest with the others. Unlike the roughly dressed gryphon master in Stormwind, this man wore an elaborate blue tunic and fitted trousers edged with silver piping. Embroidered in silver thread upon the breast of his tunic he wore the sigil of the Kirin Tor, the stylised image of an eye, with three long points descending from it, the middle the longest, flanked by two shorter ones. He looked up at Idira, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. She met his eyes for the barest of moments before he paled and looked away. Clearing his throat he lowered his head and busied himself with unfastening the straps of her restraints.
'Is something the matter,' Idira asked, dabbing her sleeve against her mouth, trying to be discreet. 'I was sick on the way,' she whispered to him, mortified. 'Please tell me I haven't arrived with sick on my face.'
'No, you're all right there, miss,' he answered, ducking under the gryphon to unfasten the restraints around Idira's other leg, his fingers working so fast, the straps fell down and slapped against the gryphon's flanks, startling the creature.
Idira glanced down at her threadbare dress, smoothing her hands over it, inspecting it. It was still clean. She looked back at the Master again, perplexed, hoping he might enlighten her, but he turned away, moving to catch the next gryphon, smiling up at its rider, all charm and conversation.
At a loss what to do, Idira waited for him to come back and help her down, watching as he hurried to assist the other woman, who looked no more than a few years older than Idira. The woman sat in her saddle, erect and regal, dressed in a very expensive, well-cut burgundy gown, reminding Idira of the quiet wealth of Lady Nin. Dark-haired and square-jawed, the woman's thin face made her cheekbones stand out, proud and elegant. Her eyebrows curved, perfectly arched above her dark blue eyes, framed by long, thick lashes. She looked beautiful and dangerous, reminding Idira of a viper. The corners of the woman's lips curved downward as she looked around the landing, her expression seething with disdain.
'Look at all this riff-raff exploiting the situation, seeking a quick path to fame, wealth, and glory,' she said, her tone arch and dripping with condescension. 'How I wish I had the power to keep them from entering our fair streets.'
Boisterous laughter rose from the gardens. Her face twisting with distaste, the woman turned in her saddle and glared at a group of young men and women lounging on the grass, eating apples from one of the trees. One of the men tossed his apple into the bushes, half-eaten. She huffed in outrage.
'You see? How dare they litter? Modera has tried, by the Light she has tried,' she sighed, rolling her eyes, 'to convince Khadgar of the need to keep to our previous standards and only permit applicants from good, decent, established families. But you know what he's like, all equality and the greater need must preside over protocol in these dire times blah blah blah.' She lifted her fingers to her lips, yawning with mock boredom.
'Huh, if only,' the Gryphon Master grunted as he unfastened the last strap, freeing the woman's ankle. He leaned closer, lowering his voice, though Idira could still hear him. 'One came in just before you, all raggedy and rough, with the strangest eyes I've ever seen—purple, gave me the creeps. Then, she comes right out and tells me she threw up and wondered if she had any on her face, asking me, the Head Gryphon Master of the Kirin Tor such a question.'
The woman scoffed. She held out her hand, dainty, accepting his assistance as she dismounted. 'Khadgar goes too far. He will regret this one day, mark my words. The Kirin Tor is no place for gutter trash and nobodies.'
The Gryphon Master bowed low as she swept away, the subtle scent of jasmine wafting behind her, washing over Idira, screaming of wealth. He turned away and caught the next arrival, guiding the new gryphon further down the line. Idira sighed, realising he had long forgotten about her, the so-called gutter trash. Clutching onto the saddle, she lifted her leg over the pommel and slid down, praying the gryphon wouldn't step on her, or worse, bite her.
But it didn't seem interested in her at all. As soon as she left, it began to preen, cooing softly to itself.