That word described Charis' gait, her posture when she came to a halt, and the hesitant hand with which she reached up to knock on the wooden door. It was not the familiar door that she had gone to a hundred times before. That portal, and the room behind it, were largely gone. She remembered that, and still sometimes heard Vy Miegga's scream in her less horrible nightmares. Her knuckles hovered above that hard wood surface.
Turning abruptly, the simple white robe she was wearing flaring as she did, she walked away from the door.
The she returned again.
"You can do this," Charis told herself. "Eyrenya didn't save you so that you could run away and hide."
No matter how tempted she was to do just that, she thought grimly. Casting a quick, fearful eye back over her shoulder, looking for a certain demon that had yet to materialize, Charis reached out and quickly rapped her knuckles against the door. She held her breath.
"...we have a deal then." Geran, tall and dark and every bit as magnificent as she just then needed him to be, was saying to somebody over his shoulder as he opened the door. "And I'll keep my word, don't you-- Charis?"
His dark eyes widened as he looked to his visitor, taking in her unnatural pallor and the strangely fragile way that she held herself erect. If his eyes were wide, her's were like saucers as she tried to meet his gaze. She started and almost screamed when, without warning and with a small whoop, the giant of a man flung his heavily muscled arms forward and swept her up off of the floor. There was joy in his reaction, and relief. After a few moments she relaxed into his embrace, tears once again flooding her eyes while his black-and-red beard tickled and scratched at the side of her face, her neck and the portion of her shoulder that the loose fitting robe left exposed. Joy, pure and uninhibited, ran away with her for a moment at his touch. Then she opened her eyes and saw the man that Geran had been talking to.
Haron scowled back at her, and the tearful grin disappeared from her face. The tears remained.
"You weren't supposed to use it yet," the soldier admonished as her feet again found purchase on the floor. Charis' eyes were drawn to the markings on his simple military uniform as he spoke. Why had Geran restored his rank? "This changes things, Geran. The previous plan won't work."
"We'll work it out." Geran shrugged noncommittally. His gaze remained on Charis' face, locked so tightly and drinking so deeply of her features that a faint blush began to creep into her nearly colorless cheeks.
"It isn't so simple as that!" Haron snapped at his King in a hard voice. "We agree that this thing is too dangerous to leave anything up to chance. We have to know where all of our pieces are--"
Irritation flickered across Geran's face, impossible to miss from where Charis stood. He finally tore his eyes away from here and turned his attention back to Haron. "It's done. Or am I expected to rewrite time each and every time something doesn't go exactly the way we mean it to?"
"You could at least give me some forewarning--!"
"I didn't exactly go out and retrieve her myself, damn you!"
The argument between the two men continued to gain heat. Charis' head was swimming, and she reached out to rest her weight against the door frame. Their 'piece,' Haron called her, as if she were a pawn in some grand game of Stratagem. Geran's lack of rebuttal for that comment had visibly stung her, but the men were too caught up in their anger at each other to notice. Perhaps she was being overly sensitive. Perhaps he simply had not noticed. From the words being exchanged between the two of them, however, it was clear that the her predicament had been the subject of much talk and little of it had been about saving her. That left her feeling more than a little conflicted, and further conflicted for feeling conflicted.
"The talisman didn't work," she blurted into a brief lull between their raised voices.
Silence. Their attention shifted instantly back to her. Geran's rising anger evaporated suddenly, his brow smoothing and the redness leaving his face, as he moved back to her side. He slid his powerful arm around her shoulders again. She shrugged it off.
"I'm not a little girl, Geran. I don't need to be coddled right now." She spoke from between clenched teeth, and looked deliberately away from the hurt in his eyes.
"What do you mean the talisman didn't work?" Haron interjected before Geran could speak again. This earned him a dark glower, "I had assurances--"
"--and they aren't worth a Gods damned thing to me!" She hissed at him. "Not only did Erek see right through it, he made me prove that it couldn't stop him. I killed a man in a very ugly way, and the only thing your little trinket did was make sure that there was enough of me that was still me to suffer through every horrible little moment. And he knew all about you. It took a friend with real power to pry me out of his clutches. I guess you aren't so clever as you thought you were, are you?"
Haron narrowed his eyes beneath his returning scowl. “If he knows what I've been about, why hasn't he killed me?”
“A favor for a favor,” Charis answered. Her head drooped and she wiped at the tears that stood in her eyes with the back of her hand. “You gave me hope, which let him hurt me even more. So...”
“I get to live a while longer.” Haron finished for her. His face, like his voice, had gone very grim. “Damn, but that takes the wind out of my sails.”
“Doesn't it?” Charis agreed, her voice bitter and dejected.
In the silence that followed, an odd exchanged passed between Geran and Haron. They stared at each other, then the former arched an eyebrow and the latter rolled his eyes then shook his head in affirmation. Haron turned away and walked as far away as the big room would let him, making some show of looking out the windows that were nearly opaque with wintery whiteness. That left Geran and Charis with a limited, relative amount of privacy that the King was quick to take advantage of.
He reached out to her again, but did not try to draw her close as before. Instead, he simply rested his hand on her upper back and rubbed his thumb back and forth against her shoulder blade. She did not react at first, but then, finally, she relaxed. Only then did he speak. “I'm sorry.”
“Whatever I did to upset you.”
A sigh parted Charis' chapped lips, and she turned to look up at him. “I'm not actually sure it was you. Maybe it was me.”
“I'm still sorry.”
A smile, small and genuine, touched her face and she caught his hand at her shoulder where it had come to rest when her back had turned out of reach. Charis took it in both of hers, spread his fingers, and kissed his palm. “Thank you.”
“Will you be staying with me tonight?” He asked softly.
Charis gazed at his palm for a long time, still holding it open before her face. She traced the lines of his hand with one finger. “From the time I was a little girl up to when I left Fyrendi, I was always a little taller than the other girls. A lot stronger. I mean, you saw Pelessa. She's such a tiny thing. That's more normal where I'm from.”
When Geran nodded in acknowledgment, remembering the little ball of fire that was Pelessa, Charis turned his hand. Holding his palm vertical, she pressed her own against it and stretched her fingers out against his. His skin was several shades darker, and his digits dwarfed hers. It was as if her's was a child's hand resting against a dark cloud that might swallow it whole.
She smiled. “I guess that's why I like how dainty you make me feel sometimes.”
The man they called the Battle King smiled back at her, but seemed mostly confused. That made Charis smile a bit wider, then she pressed his hand closed and rested her forehead against it. When she made her decision, it was visible in the way she straightened a little as if steeling herself.
“No,” she answered at last. “I... am going to help Eyrenya clean up the mess I made of her room. She... ah... said I could rest there tonight. I already have a comfy looking spot picked out on her floor.”
“Eyrenya?” Geran asked. “Was she the one--?”
“Yes.” Charis answered softly. “I'll tell you about it tomorrow, okay?”
“Charis,” he caught her at the door. “I do love you, you know?”
They stared at each other. It was a hard moment for her. She knew that, if she tilted her head just so, he would lean down to kiss her. Her resolve would fade against his lips and disappear inside his arms, and she would stay through the night. A part of her screamed for it. Still, she stopped herself.
“I know,” she said. She reached up to caress his face, her fingertips brushing through his beard. Then she moved away, stepping backwards through the doorway that separated his rooms from the hallway. Again, they stared at each other. He was searching her face, trying to understand what this was about and coming up short.
Finally, Charis looked to the door and back to him. It was a clear message. Close it, she said silently, and I'll be on my way. His confusion was evident by his expression, and his hesitance even more clear by the slowness with which he reached for the door and eased it shut. Just before her face disappeared from view, he paused. She looked away. Then he pushed the door closed, and she heard him swear softly to himself on the other side of it.
“Now then,” she said to no one in particular as she turned and hurried away from Geran's door. “to go see what Eyrenya thinks.”