If there was one thing Gangrel had learned recently it was this: women were extremely complicated creatures. Not only did they speak a different language at times, but their sole purpose in life seemed to be confusing every single man that crossed their path. And when a woman is chief tactician of the army...well that just spreads the confusion even quicker.
All the same, confusion didn't really cover what the Mad King was feeling: bewilderment was probably a better word. The cause? The tactician in question, who had suddenly decided to fulfill her role as a woman and become completely incomprehensible.
Nisha had undergone a sudden change in the last few days: she had shut herself away, almost never emerging from her tent, even at mealtimes. Whenever she was seen, it was always with some thick book in front of her nose, and she was never out for very long. She never spoke to anyone anymore either—the last time she had ever said a word to Gangrel after their meeting on the riverbank had only been to ask a question.
"Gangrel, something's been bothering me ever since you and Stahl were caught in the tavern fire," she'd told him in a hurried rush, "and I don't think I'll get a moment's peace if I don't ask."
"Just say it, tactician," he remembered responding. Nisha had taken an audible breath before speaking. Her question had been a single word:
It was the same Gangrel himself had been wondering. Weeks of thinking it over had produced no explanation, and he doubted he would ever really know why he'd cared enough to save the young paladin. But standing there, looking into the young tactician's dark eyes, an answer had come, unbidden.
"You know why," was all he'd said. Very vague, and though he didn't know what he really meant by it, the words had felt true, perfectly right. And despite his confusion, he could see that Nisha certainly understood it, even though he didn't: he remembered how her brow had furrowed for the briefest moment, making her appear more worried than before.
Women are bizarre, he though to himself as he reflected on it three days later, barely taking note of Sumia and Lissa's giggling over something or other as they passed. The Mad King stretched lazily, enjoying his relatively comfortable lounging space on the soft grass, putting the whole issue from his mind.
The Shepherds were only about a week's march away from the Valmese coast—though the probably could've been in Regna Ferox by now if they hadn't made so many detours to fetch the future children and other miscellaneous allies. The closer they came to the sea, the more real the threat of Grima became, each successive day becoming more grim than the last and Gangrel was not about to pass up some uninterrupted relaxation time. He'd have been content to laze around until dinner, except that a certain young farm boy came to find him.
" 'Scuse me, sir," Donny said, nervously shifting from foot to foot, "but Nisha wanted me to tell ya somethin'."
It took a moment for the trickster to decipher the words though the thick country accent and slang, but he decided not to get annoyed with the pot-wearing youth: he was far more interested in the message Nisha was sending through this courier to him; she'd never done this before. He impatiently gestured for Donny to continue, who did after swallowing hastily.
"Nisha wanted me to tell ya that she needs to have a talk with ya after supper. Said fer you to go right on up to her tent."
"That's it?" Gangrel asked dryly, a little disappointed that there was nothing more.
"Yessir. Do ya want me to tell Nisha anythin'? She wanted to be sure you were comin'."
"Weeeell," the red-haired Plegian drawled, "I suppose I could spare the time—"
"Alrighty then!" Donny crowed. "I'll go tell her!"
The curly-haired boy ran back through the tents, clutching the pot perched atop his head to keep it from falling. The quick departure left Gangrel a little stunned: he hadn't even finished his sentence.
Pah, what does one Ylissean whelp matter? he told himself, forcing the incident from his mind and relaxing again. But even as he stretched out, one thought persisted in bothering him, interrupting his serene state of mind:
What in the gods' names is going on with Nisha?
Supper was not over fast enough. Following her recent pattern, Nisha hadn't shown up at all, though Gangrel could've sworn he saw someone sneaking out of the mess tent with an extra plate of food.
Standing outside the tactician's tent, Gangrel forced himself to breathe deeply. His heartbeat had begun to race as he'd come closer, hammering hard enough he was sure it was audible to anyone he passed.
What is wrong with me? the Mad King wondered. It's just Nisha.
Yet no matter what he told himself, his pulse refused to slow. Giving up, Gangrel lifted the tent door and peered inside.
It was a total mess: books and maps laid all across a small table and some were strewn on the ground with no apparent rhyme or reason. Seated on a short stool before the cluttered desk, Nisha read out of a book in one hand, taking notes with the other, managing by some supernatural power to do both simultaneously.
"Hey Gangrel," she said, sparing a moment to glance his way. "Please come on in. Sorry about the mess; I'll be done with this in a second."
Gangrel did as he was requested, crossing the threshold and trying not to trip on the scattered books and other piles of stuff. He stood uncertainly again the canvas wall opposite the desk, struggling to not show any of his anxiety—or any emotion other than the boredom he projected—as the tactician continued to take notes on her reading. As he waited, Gangrel noticed a plate of untouched dinner on the table. She hadn't even eaten yet? That was concerning.
Finally, the dark-haired tactician finished her notes and closed the book, setting it aside as she stood and stretched.
"Sorry about the wait," Nisha apologized, turning to face the Mad King with a weary smile. "I've been overrun recently."
"I think I've noticed," said Gangrel wryly. "You've been ignoring me, tactician. I'm hurt that I'm not as important as these old paper collections, or your reports to the princeling."
"Right, about that...I think it's time to set the record straight."
Those words were vibrant red waring flags: Gangrel knew something was up as soon as those words reached him, though they had been soft and said in a tired way. He studied Nisha intently, noticing for the first time the dark circles under her eyes and how unnaturally pale her skin had become in just a few short days. The dark-eyed tactician shifted uncertainly, brushing away a few loose strands of hair.
"If you have something to say, spit it out," the trickster prompted none to subtly. "I'm not getting any younger here."
The young woman nodded to herself, clasping her hands and taking in a breath before beginning.
"It's been happening for a while now, and I know I shouldn't be making any fuss about it, but...people have been talking. About us."
"Really," Gangrel stated flatly, ignoring the strange tingle that surged through him as she said the word "us." "And remind be why I should care what the Ylisseans are gossiping about?"
Nisha brushed at her hair again, fixing minuscule errors that simply weren't there. Was she nervous? Couldn't be; Nisha didn't scare.
"I don't usually pay attention to these sorts of things," Nisha admitted, "but this time...they sort of have a point."
What point? Gangrel wondered, leaning forward in interest.
"They're saying," the tactician continued, her gaze firmly anchored to the ground, "that I'm playing favorites with you, just because you...had a rough two years with the pirates. They're saying it's not fair how much attention I'm paying you. And they're right."
What's wrong with a little favoritism?
"I'm the tactician of this army: I'm supposed to be an unbiased individual, an impartial judge. I can't be...getting so involved with people—not with the world at stake now; we all have to be equally prepared for our battle with the Fell Dragon."
"And what does all this have to do with me?" Gangrel asked, interrupting her monologuing. Though he feigned nonchalance, a growing feeling of dread had begun to form somewhere inside his rib cage. Nisha studied her folded hands for a moment, clearly avoiding eye contact—which did nothing but heighten the red-haired man's sensation of impending doom. Finally, she stood straight and looked him in the eye.
"I've begun to balance my life between you, my tactician duties, and everything else," Nisha stated, maintaining the air of someone being forced to confess a terrible crime. "This has to stop; we can't be so close—I can't afford it. Not now."
Is this what it felt like to have gravity suddenly cease its hold on you—spiraling out of control with no anchor to keep you grounded? Gangrel was certain that it was only his willpower that kept his feet planted in the grass.
"You can't be serious," he said numbly, wishing as he'd never dared to before that he'd misunderstood her somehow.
"I'm afraid I'm being entirely honest with you," she replied, the finality in her tone striking Gangrel harder than a deathblow; it would have been less painful to endure Chrom murdering him again. Nisha didn't want anything to do with him. And she just kept talking, oblivious to any effects her word had wrought.
"Too much is at stake for me not to straighten my life out. Please, just try to understand—"
"Oh I understand perfectly, tactician," the former king interjected frostily, his shock and disbelief melting into anger. The young woman immediately silenced herself. "You finally remembered that that Ylisseans and Plegians aren't supposed to be friendly. Then you realized that of all the Plegians to choose from, none could ruin your untainted reputation as an upstanding tactician quite so much as the thrice cursed Mad King! Can't possibly have that happen, can you?"
"Gangrel!" Nisha cried, but Gangrel was far from finished.
"I suppose now that you're through with me, you'll go running off to be with people you actually care about! Oh, his highness Chrom will be so pleased now that you've returned to the straight and narrow!"
"Gangrel, please stop!"
"With me out of the way, you can finally go back to your precious Stahl—finally announce to the world that you've found the perfect man to be your lover!"
"You know that's not true!" the dark-eyed tactician shouted, struggling to get control of the situation. "I'm not—Stahl and I—we aren't—"
Gangrel just laughed, a maniacal cackle unlike any sound he could ever remember making, somehow more frightening than any other mad laugh he had ever made before.
"Do I know it? Really?" he challenged.
Silence suddenly filled the tent, which seemed to have grown larger in the space of a few minutes. Gangrel's hands were shaking, his whole body trembling with some emotion he couldn't describe. There was anger, but also a strange pain and...something else, burning in his chest. The red-haired trickster felt the sudden need to do something—something drastic—to work off the passionate emotion, to rid himself of it. Whirling around, he stalked to the tent door, pausing as he came to it.
"You know, I've always had a talent for knowing when I'm not wanted," he remarked bitterly, in a voice that didn't seem to belong to him. "And I was a fool to believe that you would ever want me around."
As he heard her say his name in such a soft, tender way, something snapped inside him, some barrier of self-restraint fell away. The next instant—or so it seemed—Gangrel had crossed the distance between himself and the tactician. In a single movement, he took her face in his hands and brought his lips to meet hers.
A thousand things were happening at once: the heat that had been confined to the Mad King's chest was spreading though out his body, his heart pounded, all conscious thought fled his mind: the sweet taste of her lips, the feel of her soft skin under his fingers, all of his senses were overwhelmed by Nisha's intoxicating presence. And somehow—despite the chaos of the moment—Gangrel enjoyed it all with a wild, prmimitive satisfaction.
The kiss was neither sweet nor gentle: it was rough, impatient, filled with unbridled desire, just like the man who had begun it. He could have stayed there forever, never letting her go...but his hurt and anger refused to go away, prowling on the edge of his thoughts. With difficulty, he managed to pull himself away.
Nisha was frozen in place, the only difference between her and a statue the shallow rise and fall of her chest. Her deep brown eyes—those lovely orbs—were wide with shock. The Mad King smirked as he leaned away, allowing one hand to drift from her pale cheek to just under her chin, keeping their eyes locked.
"If I had anything of value left," Gangrel growled, forcing venom into his voice, "I'd have bet it all that not one of those Ylissean dastards would ever dare to try something like that. I certainly hope they're worth losing me for. And if it's not, well it's far too late now."
Gangrel remained where he was for a moment, regarding the tactician coldly. Nisha still hadn't moved—she hadn't done a single thing since he'd first touched her. The Plegian's frigid smirk morphed into a disgusted scowl, and he swiftly turned on his heel, all but running from the tent.
He stalked through the camp, not caring in anyone saw him, not caring about what they would think; no, his only concern was putting distance between himself and that tent—between himself and that woman.
Gangrel broke into a run.
Rows of tents traded themselves for groves of trees, but still the Mad King ran. He did not stop his desperate flight until a raised tree root snared his ankle and sent him sprawling.
Laughter suddenly burst free of him, and he couldn't seem to stop. The loud, discordant sound continued even as Gangrel rose unsteadily to his feet and fell back against the wide trunk of an oak.
"Gods above, what is wrong with me," the trickster whispered breathlessly before he was taken by his ill-timed laughter again.
Gangrel needed no divine answer; he already knew what his ailment was.
Nisha was Ylissean—one of them. She was a powerful woman, one who had dethroned both kings and conquerors. Even the blinding brilliance of the Mad King's reputation paled before the record of her deeds! There was a world of difference between them, a million things that should've kept them enemies. But, despite all reason, all resistance, he still wanted her. His body trembled at the fresh memory of the kiss—he wanted nothing more than to run back to her and do it again. The only thing stopping him from doing just that was an overpowering rush of bitterness that flooded his mind and tainted his amusement.
Of all the things that could've happened to him, this was by far the worst. Oh the gods were extracting a heavy toll for his survival on the border wastes. He thought he had suffered enough to pay back the debt when he had been enslaved to the Dread pirates, but it was clear that two years of humiliation had only been the beginning. He could feel the chilled gold of his Levin Sword pendant resting over his heart, reminding him again that he shouldn't be alive, reminding him that he had brought this pain upon himself by choosing to accept the curse instead of death. How appropriate that the cursed luck charm he wore should lay over the very place that hurt most.
If Gangrel had learned anything recently it was this: nothing hurts more than a heart broken beyond repair.