She hesitated outside the throne room, the knot in her stomach clenching as she reached for the doorknob. Her hands were trembling slightly as she opened the door.
It wasn’t that Jaina didn’t want to be here; in fact she was pretty glad to be visiting Miscellania again. It was just that she really was rather nervous about what she was going to have to discuss. On the other hand, she couldn’t keep it all bottled up forever either.
Drawing herself up straighter, she walked into the throne room and softly spoke up.
The king’s eyes lit up as he saw the familiar face of his daughter-in-law before him. “Oh, Balrak! It’s so good to see you again—please, come here.”
He spread out his arms and beckoned for Jaina to come closer, and as she did, he pulled her into a tight embrace. She relaxed slightly and gently returned the hug.
“Hello again, Balrak,” Queen Sigrid piped up cheerfully, smiling her way. “We missed you! Is Thorlor with you?”
Jaina shook her head. “I-I haven’t seen him since… since that day… I don’t know where he is at the moment, I’m afraid…”
She curtsied politely and gave her best smile. “Sorry I haven’t visited in awhile. How’s the kingdom faring? How are you two?”
Queen Sigrid returned the smile. “We’re doing fine. It was hard to move out of my beloved castle, but it was worth it to be with my husband! I do often go back to visit it, though.”
“The kingdom is faring well, Your Majesty,” Advisor Ghrim said. “You and Thorlor are sorely missed, however—the citizens often inquire as to when you will return.”
“Really?” Jaina frowned and wrung her hands. “That’s reassuring… but I’m afraid I can’t visit too terribly often; I have many other duties to attend to. I can’t speak for my brother.”
“Well, dark times do need great heroes, Balrak.” King Vargas placed a hand gently on her shoulder. “I’m glad Miscellania has you—to see you cope so well with your loss has inspired me to do the same.”
Jaina felt a cold sweat on her brow. She didn’t think she’d dealt that well with it at all—she’d been too upset to focus on anything important for three days straight after it had happened. It had been a couple months since, but even now she cried herself to sleep some nights.
“Oh, um, about that…”
Vargas didn’t seem to hear her as he continued. “I do hope you’ll at least remain regent. You’re the closest thing I have to a daughter now…”
Again he hugged her tightly, rocking her a bit in his arms. When he let her go, she could see that he was trying to hold back a few tears.
She bit her lip, trying to ignore the knot in her stomach. The last thing she wanted to do was upset her father-in-law… oh, how she hoped he wouldn’t be too mad at her.
“Father Vargas? Can—can I please speak with you? Alone?”
King Vargas gave her a curious look. “Alone? Is this about Brand?”
“Sort of,” Jaina said, looking down at her hands.
Vargas nodded and offered her a hand. “Of course! Come with me.”
He shot a brief glance at Sigrid, who nodded in understanding, and then led Jaina down the hall and into Brand’s old bedroom, closing the door behind them. Sitting on the bed, he motioned for her to come sit beside him.
“What’s troubling you?”
Jaina could feel a lump rise in her throat, and she was silent for a long moment. Straightening her shoulders, she willed herself to swallow and then spoke up.
“Well… you know how you said I’d inspired you by coping so well with my loss?” She bit her lip and looked awkwardly off to one side. “I… I think may have coped a little too well…”
The king raised an eyebrow curiously, and Jaina took a deep breath before she spoke again.
“There… there is another who’s caught my eye…”
“Another?” Vargas looked even more curious now, though his expression was a little difficult to read. “This seems rather soon…”
“I know,” Jaina said, wringing her hands. “I don’t know what to do… I don’t want to hurt you, or betray Brand’s memory…”
Vargas rested his head in his hand. “Hmmm… What is this man like? Have you known him long?”
“We’ve been acquainted for awhile. I rescued him, actually.” She paused a moment to collect her thoughts. “What he’s like… well, he’s quite a bit different from Brand. Sure, there are some things they have in common—he’s passionate, noble, dedicated to his goals, and he has such a wonderful smile…”
She nervously pulled at one of her pigtails. “But in a lot of ways, he’s very different—whole worlds different. He’s… older and wiser, for one. And he’s tall, strong, handsome—well, handsome in an odd sort of way.” She smiled a little, her face flushing a light pink. “He’s always believed in my capabilities, and encouraged me to take risks and do things. He even showed me a thing or two about magic—as well as… um, other things. Things that have… really changed my outlook on life.”
The king nodded, scratching his beard thoughtfully. “It sounds as if he’s quite like you, in some ways. Brand used to tell me much about how you appreciated his poetry and music, and that inspired him further… though I’m sure it took you some time to learn to love those!”
He smiled sadly, and Jaina could’ve sworn she saw him blink back a tear before he continued. “Do you plan to court this man, then?”
“Oh no, I—I couldn’t!” she exclaimed, shaking her head. “He has far more important things to do than pay attention to some silly girl’s pining… If I told him how I felt, he would probably just laugh. I have to admire him from a distance… but it doesn’t matter if I have a chance or not.”
Sighing, she looked down, her head in her hands. “To seek his love would be wrong—I shouldn’t feel this way about anyone else! Brand was my dearest love… I don’t want to forget him; it would be a betrayal of his memory!”
There was a short silence, and then Vargas slowly wrapped an arm around his daughter-in-law’s shoulder. His gaze was not stern, but soft and reassuring.
“Balrak, darling, you needn’t worry so much. I understand this better than you might realize—consider Sigrid and myself. We are very happy together, as you’ve seen, but of course she was not my first love. I haven’t told you of your mother-in-law yet, have I?”
Jaina looked up at him, sitting up straighter. She hadn’t really thought about her mother-in-law before; there had always been more important things to think about than what had happened to King Vargas’ wife, and Brand had never talked about his mother either.
“No; what was she like?”
“Elsa was… something of a tough nut to crack, if you will,” Vargas said, looking wistful. “She was respectful and polite, but very hesitant to open up to people. She seemed to prefer to keep to herself, tending flowers and walking around the island—though she also helped out the people when they weren’t looking. It wasn’t easy getting to know her; she kept answering my questions with a flat yes or no!”
He smiled thoughtfully and straightened his crown. “Once you got to know her, though, she was very sweet and cheerful, and always had a smile ready for you. She was also trustworthy, and was a skillful ruler. I could always count on her to keep the kingdom running smoothly while I went off exploring!”
“I should have liked to have met her,” said Jaina, though she figured she might not have been needed if the queen had lived. On the other hand, maybe her mother-in-law would have been afraid of yetis and fled when her husband was cursed, so her help would’ve been necessary anyway?
“I’m sure she would have liked you,” the king said. “Though you may have had to convince her to trust you first. You can imagine where Astrid and Brand inherited their stubborn streaks!”
Jaina was sure she knew the answer to the question on her lips already, but she asked anyway. “What happened to her?”
Vargas hung his head and softly sighed. “There was an illness that passed through Miscellania and Etceteria some years back… Most of the citizens managed to survive, but Elsa… I saw her grow slowly weaker every day, until it finally claimed her.” His voice was quiet and solemn. “Astrid and Brand were just six. I will admit, I neglected the kingdom greatly due to my grief.”
Jaina didn’t say anything. She wasn’t sure what she could possibly say, and her mouth felt dry.
After a rather long silence, King Vargas placed his hand on her shoulder again. “She and I loved each other very much. Sigrid and I love each other very much, too. She has given me much joy and comfort these days—and she is very different from Elsa.”
He smiled warmly and gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. “What I mean to say is, what I feel for Sigrid now doesn’t diminish what I had with Elsa. I still fondly remember the time I spent with her, the love I had for her. I didn’t stop loving her just because I fell in love again, with another. It’s not that one is better or worse than the other, either—they’re merely different.”
Jaina blinked, still not sure what to say, as her father-in-law continued. “I’m sure you won’t forget the time you spent with Brand, either. If this other man truly makes you happy, don’t be afraid to pursue him. Who knows, perhaps we might meet him someday?”
Her eyes widened at the mental image of that, and she swallowed and nodded. She hadn’t known how her father-in-law would react, and she hadn’t expected this—but if he knew more of the details, she surmised, he would probably be more frightened than supportive of the idea.
“Thank you, Father Vargas,” she finally said. “I feel… slightly more at ease about the whole thing now… though I’m still not sure there’d be a point to seeking his love anyway.”
Vargas smiled and laughed. “Ah, you might be surprised—and, well, you should know from your adventuring that you’ll never truly know something until you try it.”
Jaina couldn’t argue with that. “I suppose you’re right…”
The sound of footsteps echoed off the cavern walls as the robed figure walked quietly into the temple. Standing under the entrance arch, he respectfully inclined his head and recited a quick prayer before continuing on in.
He approached the altar in silence, and stopped briefly to reverently drop to one knee. Rising back up, he brushed a bit of dust off his robe and spoke.
The man who had been tending to the altar turned, surprisingly not startled at the sound of the voice. Seeing the newcomer, he half-smiled and nodded in greeting.
“Good of you to visit, Wahisietel! What kept you? I was wondering when you’d come to see the results of my hard work.”
“I have certainly been meaning to,” Wahisietel said, “but my research kept me busy up until the Ritual.”
He glanced around at the temple. “A pale shadow of its former self, but still impressively done… but I’m sadly not here to admire the architecture. There are things we must discuss, Azzanadra.”
Azzanadra’s expression grew more serious. “Do you mean the question of Guthix? There seems to be no way the Empty Lord can get around the Edicts on his own…”
“While that is undeniably important, no,” said Wahisietel, shaking his head. “Though I do suppose we must discuss that as well. Possibly first.”
“Very well—why not go over the less important matters first?” Azzanadra said. “That will give us more time to consider Guthix.”
Wahisietel nodded, his brow furrowing a bit. “You might find this strange, but it seems our human friend rather fancies you.”
“So it’s true, then?” Azzanadra had straightened up, a curious look in his eyes. “I did have my suspicions, but I wasn’t entirely certain if she did, or if she found my true form off-putting.”
“Jaina visited me shortly after the Ritual, and the topic of you eventually came up. She spoke of you in rather glowing terms, and her face reddened... I asked her if she might be in love with you, and she confirmed it.” Wahisietel frowned and glanced briefly at the communion portal behind the altar. “Well, she did not say so exactly; she told me merely that she ‘liked’ you, but it was rather obvious what she meant.” He sighed. “She is wise to keep her distance… I’m not entirely sure what to make of this.”
Azzanadra wasn’t sure what to make of it either. Why would Jaina tell that to Wahisietel, but not him directly? Did she intend to tell him the next time she visited? Of course, he didn’t understand her rather strange behavior anyway—one moment she would be nervous and shrinking back, and the next she would be smiling at him.
Her smile… he found he couldn’t help but smile himself when he pictured it. When she smiled, her eyes would grow bright and her face seemed to light up along with her eyes. It was a smile full of the light of hope; hope that Zaros would be restored to his former glory, hope that the faithful would no longer have to hide.
Even if it was indirect, to hear it confirmed, to know that Jaina could feel that way for him—that filled him with hope too. He had tried to forget the thoughts and dreams of her that lingered in his mind rather frequently these days; it wouldn’t have been at all proper to pursue her knowing that she was in mourning, and he’d believed she would rather have one of her own kind anyway. Then again, she wasn’t your average human in the slightest…
“It is rather comforting knowledge, I must admit,” he finally said. “I’m certainly relieved to know she doesn’t fear me.”
Wahisietel hadn’t seemed to hear him. “Don’t give her the wrong idea. The next time you see her, you should make it clear to her where you stand, gently talk her down…”
Azzanadra found it hard to hide his smile as he nodded. “Yes, of course. I will certainly respect her wishes.”
“I would hope you’d do the sensible thing,” Wahisietel said, raising an eyebrow. “She must surely know how foolish such a relationship would be… You would have to watch her age and die in such a short time.”
He sighed, looking at the floor. “I will be sad to see her pass, myself. Such a pity humans are so short-lived—they have surprisingly much to show us.”
That observation stung more than Azzanadra had expected it to—more than Wahisietel could possibly realize. He hadn’t considered the matter of her lifespan before; with everything that had been going on, it simply hadn’t crossed his mind that she wouldn’t be around for very long.
He did his best to shake the thought of her death out of his mind. It seemed time was of the essence... Well, if she had told Wahisietel, surely she would soon tell him as well? Or should he attempt to pursue her immediately?
Well, pursuing her right away might be too much of a distraction—perhaps once Zaros had returned? Would she still be mourning then—especially since he hoped the return would be soon? Or should he still wait for her to confess first?
“Is something troubling you?” Wahisietel asked. “You’ve grown strangely quiet.”
Azzanadra shook his head. “I was merely thinking things over.”
“A wise thing to do… Come to think of it, the matter of Guthix is relevant here anyway.” Wahisietel wiped his brow. “Jaina was raised Guthixian, and I severely doubt it will be easy getting the Empty Lord around the Edicts if we manage to find Guthix. If it comes down to us against the Guthixians… she may very well feel obliged to side with the god of her childhood.”
“Have more faith in her, Wahisietel!” Azzanadra’s raised voice echoed off the temple walls. “Has she not done so much for our cause already? She had little knowledge of Zaros when we first met her, yet she’s still responsible for all this!” He motioned to the communion portal and the artifacts on their pedestals. “She will be true; I’m sure of it.”
“She has done much for us, I cannot deny that,” Wahisietel admitted, “but she’s still only human, and you shouldn’t blindly trust her, Azzanadra. We haven’t seen her loyalty be truly tested yet... I wouldn’t blame her if she felt she must do what she believes her parents would have wished.”
While Azzanadra could concede that Jaina might still feel some attachment to Guthix because of her upbringing—and he would understand her decision on the off-chance that she did side with the Guthixians in case of a conflict, saddening as it would be—he knew for sure that Wahisietel was very wrong indeed to call her “only human.” She had proven herself to be much more than that, in such a short time no less… Could that well be why she simply wouldn’t leave his mind?
Well, there was definitely that, but he certainly could not ignore her beauty either. Human females were a pleasant sight, a soft, delicate, exotic sort of pretty, like flowers or silk—but none had ever stood out quite so much. It wasn’t just her hair, or even her smile—the rest of her was lovely to behold, to imagine… How lucky he was to have awakened after that long imprisonment to such a sight…
“I assure you, my faith in her is not blind,” he finally said, trying to suppress the thoughts of her that were surfacing. “You’ll see soon enough.”
Wahisietel eyed him suspiciously. “I really do hope you’re being sensible…”
A flash of bright purple caught Azzanadra’s eye, and his heart raced as he looked towards the temple entrance. Sure enough, she was there, peeking around one of the columns in the doorway. There appeared to be something tucked under her arm, though he couldn’t make out what it was.
He was hopeful that she was going to confess while she was here—what reason did she have not to? Even if she might be hesitant to get involved in a relationship right away, she had nothing to lose by merely telling him how she felt.
It had taken a bit of consideration, but he knew how he would approach things—he would wait for her to confess first, to allow her time to mourn further if she needed. However, he would definitely make the first move if she failed to do so by the time Zaros had returned.
Jaina did not walk in immediately, and instead spent about a minute glancing at the item under her arm before finally entering. Azzanadra’s eyes widened as he saw her come closer; he hadn’t expected her to be dressed so… differently today.
She was wearing an elegant, colorful top and matching skirt, purple with splashes of blue, which revealed her shoulders. He barely noticed the intricate design on her top; his gaze was drawn more to her pale shoulders, as well as the way the outfit accentuated her figure more than usual. He wasn’t sure if she was intentionally trying to catch his eye or not, but he hoped she might wear things like this more often either way.
Jaina looked up and nearly dropped the item she carried—a small white box, he could now see—turning rather red as she felt his eyes on her. After managing to grab it, she gave an awkward half-smile.
“Oh, um… Hi… I-I mean, good afternoon!”
“Good to see you too, my friend,” Azzanadra said, giving her a tip of his hat. “You look… rather more dressed up than usual.”
Her face grew even redder, and she didn’t say anything as she pulled the box out from under her arm and stared down at it. Naturally, he was wondering what it might be for.
“What’s that you have there?”
“Oh, I… I brought you a little something.” Her hands shaking, she passed the box to him.
“Thank you.” He accepted it with a gracious smile and carefully opened the lid. Curiously he blinked and eyed the contents.
Inside the box was a cake, a rich brown three-tiered confection iced with the sweet brown paste that humans called chocolate. It seemed to be expertly made—there had certainly been much thought and care put into its creation. He continued to look at it for a few moments, not sure what to make of this gift, before glancing back at her.
“This is for me?”
The purple-haired girl smiled nervously and nodded. “I made it especially for you… I-I figured that with whatever hard work you have to do, and all the time you spend down here, you must really be hungry…”
Now there was something else he hadn’t considered in many years. He still remembered having broken bread with humans in the empire; there had often been food at important gatherings, and it was only proper to join them. She, of course, would not know better anyway… he only hoped she wouldn’t be too disappointed.
“Jaina… I do appreciate your thoughtfulness in bringing me a gift… but I am not sure I could make much use of it,” he said, somewhat sadly.
Her face fell. “W-what do you mean?”
“Mahjarrat have little use for food, I’m afraid,” he explained. “We rely on our own self-generated power—I wouldn’t be able to process it as you would.”
Jaina looked down at the floor, backing away from him a few steps. How was she supposed to know something like that? And here she had figured that this would be a suitable gift—it was more subtle than flowers, and it had worked for Brand, too…
Quickly he spoke up again, motioning for her to come back a little closer. “Still… I don’t want to disappoint you. I will share it with you if you wish.”
She frowned as she looked up, glancing briefly at the cake and then back to him. “Oh, I-I don’t want to make you uncomfortable…”
“It would be rude of me to let such a considerate effort go to waste.” Placing a hand on her shoulder, he offered the box back to her. “Why don’t you enjoy it yourself? You need it more than I do—and it is a gift enough to see you, to have you as a loyal friend.”
Jaina froze in place, blushing redder than before. She wasn’t sure how to react to the fact that he was actually touching her… should she pull back, or revel in the warmth of his hand?
“I-I still think I should bring you a suitable gift,” she finally said, reluctantly accepting the cake box back. “That’s what friends do, isn’t it?”
“If you wish,” Azzanadra said, softly smiling. “You shouldn’t worry too much about it.”
Jaina felt her stomach knotting sharply. This hadn’t gone right at all… she could never have imagined it, either. How could she eat what was meant to be a gift? On the other hand, he was right; she had worked hard to make it. What sort of thing could she even give him anyway, other than flowers, which were too obvious in their meaning? Did he even see how much something as simple as a hand on her shoulder had affected her?
Oh, why did she have to screw up like this? She wanted to crawl in a corner and disappear… Oh well, at least she wouldn’t have to bring any of this up at the Legends’ Guild dinner this evening. Certainly not around Ozan, either.
The Guild dinner… it would be soon! She should probably get ready… She didn’t want to leave Azzanadra behind, not so suddenly like this—but she could hardly stay either in the state she was in.
Hastily she drew back a few steps, nearly stumbling as she did. “I-I’m sorry… I have to go meet with some other friends this evening…”
She went to kneel before the altar, taking a moment to pray before she stood up again and returned to his side. “I-I hope to see you again soon…”
With that she tucked the cake box back under her arm and headed for the door, looking back at him briefly before she disappeared once more.
Azzanadra couldn’t help but feel troubled. In that brief moment when their eyes had met, he had seen longing, wishing, in hers—she hadn’t really wished to leave, he was sure. So why hadn’t she confessed?
Had she brought the cake intending to have it lead into her confession? If so, she most likely felt too hurt to confess, and that was why she had left so quickly… Should he have simply accepted it, he wondered? He very much hoped she wasn’t too upset by this.
Should he ask his lord for guidance? No, Zaros had more important things to worry about than that… It seemed he would simply have to be patient. There would be many chances for her to confess before the Empty Lord’s return.
Still, if she had brought a gift intending to confess… perhaps a gift for her was in order as well? He would definitely have to consider that…