The day was sunny, the snow blinding, but somehow it was not any warmer than the day before. Gangrel found himself wishing for a heavier cloak, though he was grateful for the fur that lined the collar of the one he wore. In fact, he almost felt sorry for Tharja, who wore nothing except her skimpy sorcerer's garb. Almost.
It was afternoon when the army finally marched into the entrance hall of Fort Ferox, too tired and cold to do much celebrating. Ambling and lethargic, the Shepherds formed a clumsy line as Nisha informed them of their rooming arrangements and locations. As usual, Gangrel was the very last in line, but today he did not lazily wait for his turn. Instead, he kept his eyes on the tactician, wondering if she would mention anything about their planned meeting or not. Every time he thought about talking with her, face to face—alone—a mixture of anxiety and excitement shot through his veins as though delivered by an electric shock.
It seemed an eternity longer than the march through the blinding snow before the line inched itself out of existence, pairs or individuals leaving to find their new temporary homes. At last, he stood before her, ready to hear whatever it was she has to say to him.
"Hello," she greeted the Mad King, a smile quickly flashing across her face. He nodded in return, unsure of what to say. Nisha looked down at a list she had, tapping the spot where she had written his name.
"You're in the Southern wing. First door to the right of the tapestry depicting a Feroxi Khan tournament. It's a single room, so no roommate for you...oh, and I should probably mention that the South wing is where the Fort's soldiers sleep, so I advise that you tread carefully."
"Are there any other Shepherds in that wing?" Gangrel asked awkwardly, wondering if she was trying to hint at something. Nisha sighed, blowing away a small lock of hair that had fallen into her eyes.
"No. Khan's insistence. If I had it my way, you would be in the North wing, where my room is along with the majority of the army. Sadly, Chrom agreed with Flavia and Basillio."
Her words caught his attention: If I had it my way... He hadn't heard her say anything like this since...before the falling-out. He liked the sound of it far more than he should have—or would ever care to admit.
"To get to the South wing, take that door to the end of the hall and take a left. The North wing is through the other door, down the corridor, and take a right. If you ever need anything, my room is the door at the West end of the Wing, to the left of the carved pillars."
The Mad King nodded again and, sensing the dismissal, began walking across the room to the door she'd first pointed out. As he reached for the handle, he heard Nisha's voice echoing in the empty hall.
He turned to look at her, hand still on the doorknob. The dark-haired woman took a visible breath.
"Go get settled and relax a bit. Our...appointment is still on if you want."
The trickster bowed his head in acknowledgement, deciding to hold his tongue rather than give voice to the disjointed thoughts running amok in his mind. He did his best to slip through the door quickly and quietly, and soon the only sound was of his boots on the stone floor of the corridor, stalking him on his way. True to her word, the South Wing did rather look like barracks, and when he opened the door to the right of the tapestry, he found that the quarters were simple, no unnecessary decoration to be found anywhere.
"Well, isn't this a step down from royalty?" he muttered to himself as he observed the simple, single bed with its rough woolen blankets and flattened, uninviting pillows. He took off his sword belt and money pouch and laid them on a small bedside table. He then turned and caught sight of his reflection in a simple mirror mounted on the opposite wall. He took a step closer.
The man looking back at him was almost unfamiliar: rough stubble lined his jaw, and his hair had grown longer, his bangs nearly hiding his eyes. He looked travel-worn, nowhere near prepared for a meeting with the Shepherds' tactician.
“Really let myself go, haven’t I?” he muttered to himself.
Gangrel picked up one of his daggers off the table and crossed the room, his gaze continually on his image in the glass. Careful and slow, he used the sharp blade to shave the prickly hair emerging along his jawline. He left his hair as it was; there was nothing he could do to fix it at the moment, though he would have to cut it soon. He spent a few fruitless minutes attempting to bring order to his appearance, but gave up almost immediately: this was as good as it was going to get.
The Plegian studied the man in the mirror a few moments more before turning away from the glass. He would waste no more time here.
The hallway was still empty when he left his quarters, silent and cold. The trickster didn't have to wonder why the Khans and Exalt wanted him in this desolate wing: he was out of their way, and within the grasp of the Fort's soldiers. He thought again about what Nisha had said: If I had it my way, you would be in the North wing, where my room is. Gangrel chose to hope that it was a sign of trust rather than suspicion (not that he was hoping too hard. Definitely not hoping and wishing with all his might that she meant those words in a very good way.)
The Mad King knew when he had reached the North Wing right away: the decor was fit for royalty; he of all people would know that. The walls were decorated with art of past Khans claiming victory whether in tournaments or wars, the columns carved perfectly smooth, shining in the wintry light that entered through small windows. Gangrel felt like a stranger—or a thief—padding along the carpeted hallways, glancing at every door he passed.
Then, to the left of an elaborately carved pillar, right where she said it would be, was the door he was looking for. The trickster hesitated, doubt rising inside him. What if...no, no "what if"s; he couldn't afford to think that way. He forced his arm to move, to knock upon the door.
There was no answer. His heart rate picking up speed, Gamgrel knocked again, calling through the door.
"Tactician? Are you there?"
Still no reply. A wave of unwelcome anxiety jolted through him. Had she gone out? Was this even the right room? He swallowed the feeling.
"Fair warning, tactician: I'm coming in."
The door swung in and Gangrel tentatively entered, scanning the organized room sign of the woman he sought.
He froze in place. There she was: stretched across her large, luxurious-looking bed, clearly fast asleep. She looked as though she had simply fallen unconscious upon lying down: her raven hair was still in its ponytail, her boots still on her feet.
Nisha sleeping so peacefully was strangely beautiful; Gangrel found himself equally entranced and paralyzed. He shouldn't be here. And yet...he couldn't quite bring himself to leave.
Then, with a sudden jolt, the trickster found himself freed of his stunned observation and immediately made to exit through the open doorway, but was once again frozen in place as Nisha made a sound in her sleep. He dared a glance over his shoulder.
The tactician's brow had furrowed, her relaxed expression morphing into a discomforted one. She shifted uneasily on the bed, moaning again. The Mad King was uncertain of what to do. Then Nisha rolled onto her back and began to shake, her breathing ragged.
Some power seized Gangrel's body, and he moved forward seemingly against his own will. He heard the door snap shut behind him, but by then, he had come to the edge of the large bed.
I'm going to regret this later, some part of him whispered, but the words were drowned out by the concern that overwhelmed his mind. He knew only one thing: Nisha was in distress and he had to help in any way he could.
"Nisha," he said, reaching across the bed and touching her shoulder. She groaned again and several beads of sweat appeared on her forehead. Gangrel knelt on the edge of the bed, and he shook her a little.
"Nisha," he repeated, louder each time. "Nisha, wake up."
The tactician gasped and her eyes flew open, staring wildly at nothing. Then her eyes locked onto his, widening in terror. The next moment, she was gone.
The Mad King immediately stood, his reaction instinctive. Nisha hadn't disappeared, he realized a moment later; she had simply rolled over and sat up on the other edge of the bed, breathing heavily. He could see her profile as she slowed her breathing, her eyes slowly coming back into focus as she shook off whatever terrifying vision she'd been having.
"Tactician?" he dared ask, and she whirled around in surprise, her several hairs falling out from her ponytail. He hesitated before continuing. "Are you alright."
"Yes," she replied, a bit breathlessly. "Yes, it was just a nightmare."
She didn't look fine: her skin was unusually pale and her brow was still damp with sweat. With her hair falling into her face, Nisha looked frazzled and disorganized—not at all like her normal, collected self. Still concerned, he walked around the bad, reached out a hand to touch her shoulder and saw what little composure she had regained slip away, as if she were about to flee the room. The red-haired man froze, hand in midair, before comprehension dawned on him, and his arm dropped back to his side.
"Was it about me?" he asked tonelessly, his worry evaporating into the void of emptiness that stole over his mind. Nisha shook her head, but it was too quick an answer, and only confirmed Gangrel's thoughts. He turned his back on her.
"Do you want me to leave?"
The words floated into empty air, followed by a silence that could only be a affirmation. The Mad King strode away, with every intent to leave and not look back, but a hand caught his sleeve and Nisha's voice cut down the quiet between them.
"No! No, I don't want you to leave. It was just a stupid nightmare; it’s not like it happens often."
"It's happened before?"
If only it could have been someone else. Gangrel still enjoyed the thought of the Shepherds having nightmares about him, fearing him, but knowing that it was Nisha he was terrifying only hurt. He had done this to her, made her so afraid. It hurt like a physical wound.
The dark-haired tactician released his sleeve, but walked around to look him in the eye. Her brow was furrowed, but not with distress; it was more of a...concern almost.
"Once or twice. That's all," she promised. "It’s just the recurring dream cycle of my failures. Please don't leave."
"As you wish," he replied, not sure if he felt comforted by her explanation or not. Another silence fell, this one not at all chilly, but...awkward.
"I'm not going to start this conversation, tactician," Gangrel informed her after this had gone on for nearly three whole minutes. “You were the one who invited me.”
Nisha smiled a half-smile.
"This is rather awkward, isn't it?"
The trickster raised an eyebrow at the obvious statement, and Nisha laughed once to herself, a soft, gentle sound. Finally, she pulled out a stool from under her desk and seated herself before him.
"So..." she started, then threw her hands up in the air. "I have no idea what I'm doing here. I've never done this before."
"Neither have I," he replied, shrugging helplessly. Nisha rolled her eyes to the ceiling.
"What a pair we make," she muttered. Gangrel didn't allow himself to smile; he still wasn't sure whether he was welcome. The tactician seemed to take note of this because she stood up again, and lightly touched his arm.
"Gangrel," she said, her voice nearly a whisper, "I don't know if you really understand this, but...I am sorry for avoiding you. I wanted to talk to you, but..I guess I was just-just—"
"Afraid?" he offered. The dark-haired woman ducked her head and he knew he was right. The Mad King sighed.
"I was too," he admitted. "And angry. So angry...I just reacted. No thinking, just...reaction. And emotion."
Nisha looked up into his eyes, her gaze searching. Then she stepped away, retracting her touch.
"You read my note, didn't you?"
Gangrel didn't answer: they both knew that he had. The tactician took a visible breath, then walked back over to her bed, sitting down on it cross-legged. She pursed her lips, then spoke, her tone careful.
"Gangrel...I've never been in a romantic relationship before. You know that, right?"
"I didn't," he replied. "I'd have thought..."
"That I'd have suitors on my left and right?"
More silence. Thi meeting reminded Gangrel of navigating a political battlefield, neither one of them willing to speak their mind for fear of offending the other. And like every other time the Mad King had been in a delicate situation with the Ylisseans, he spontaneously decided to throw caution to the winds and speak his mind.
"This is getting us nowhere," he snapped, his temper frayed by the sidestepping of the important issue waiting for them. Nisha's eyes widened at this sudden, direct approach, but the former king did not stop himself. "All this delicacy...we can't say anything. How are we supposed to sort this mess out if we can't even bring ourselves to talk about it?!"
For a second, the Plegian thought he'd overstepped the bounds of Nisha's finite tolerance. But then she nodded in agreement.
"I agree. So, let's start over, shall we?"
Scooting herself forward to the end of the bed, Nisha extended her hand, as though she were a dignitary meeting with a castle councilman.
"My name is Nisha. I'm the tactician of the Shepherds and the Heart of Grima. I'd like to get to know you."
Gangrel was taken aback by this tactic for a moment, but then he felt a smile tugging at his lips as he understood what she was doing. Grasping her hand in his own, he shook it once.
"I'm Gangrel. I was the so-called Mad King of Plegia before I was defeated and found myself a slave to the Dread Pirates."
"Interesting," the tactician remarked seriously, as if she hadn't already known this. "Please, tell me more about what it was like to be King."
"Only if you promise to share some of your little secrets," the trickster shot back playfully. Nisha smiled, and the Mad King couldn't resist one in return. It was as if nothing had even happened between them. It felt so good, like the wounds in his chest and heart had healed in an instant."It's a deal."