Karigan emerged from the Captain's study long after nightfall, bleary-eyed and exhausted. She and Laren had discussed her upcoming mission at length, plotting out routes and rations as well as covering the finer points of diplomatic conversation. The Captain wanted her to be prepared to further Sacoridian interest at every opportunity to take full advantage of whatever alliance may come from her interactions. Karigan's mind fairly buzzed with political turns of phrase. As the meeting had drawn to a close, Yates, Blackveil, and Mornhavon crept into the topic and Karigan had wept in the company of her Captain. Together, they had mourned their losses.
Now, she felt as if she had expended all of her tears; her heart was numb, a vacant flutter. The halls were haunted with the ghost of memory, but she passed straight through them. All she wanted was to close her door behind her and collapse on the bed, ignoring hunger pangs and her aching wrist. It had been sore since Zachary had seized it in the pasture earlier that day. She moved her arm this way and that, shrugging her shoulder to help with circulation. Out of the shadows melted a Weapon that moved to bar her way.
Even in the dim torchlight, Karigan discerned his familiar features easily. "Fastion," she greeted him, lowering her wounded arm back to her side.
"The King is distressed," he said, cutting straight to the point. "He is considering putting your undertaking on hold and keeping the Eletians here for further questioning."
"Considering?" Karigan asked. Surely he wouldn't have sent Fastion to speak with her about something he hadn't yet made a decision on.
The Weapon gave her a strange look, almost disappointed that she had missed the clandestine element in his words. "I'd guess he'll be finished deliberating by, say, noontime tomorrow."
Then it dawned on her that she was being warned. She attempted to shake the fog of weariness out of her head.
"His actions are rash and uncertain, and calling off the venture to Eletia might prove devastating to our joint efforts. We will likely require the Eletians' aid."
"I understand," Karigan said. "Thank you." She sprinted the rest of the way to her room, immediately setting about to stuffing items of clothing into her largest, most weatherworn pack. She included a roll of bandages, salve in a small jar, a tinderbox, and other miscellaneous things that made the inconvenience of travel easier to bear. After she was finished, she fastened it shut and sat stiffly on the edge of her bed, staring into the mirror in the wardrobe, the door to which was still ajar.
What she found there made her groan. Her eyes were rimmed in red, her nose a similar shade. She brought her fingertips experimentally to the welts on her temple, hissing as they touched the raised skin. She dare not do the same to her lip, for it throbbed after the long hours of conversation with the Captain. Her hair was a dark tangle about her shoulders and did little to counteract the feral look she'd acquired on the return journey to Sacor city.
Upon hearing voices outside of her door, she turned quickly back to the mirror and tried to untangle it with her fingers. The task was only half complete before she heard a knock.
"Come in," she said, standing up.
Garth blocked her doorway with his girth, his brow uncharacteristically knitted. "You expecting anyone?" he asked. Karigan caught a glimpse of fair hair behind Garth, then cracked a grin that she immediately regretted as pain tore across her face.
"You can, ow, let him in," she managed. "He's harmless."
Garth stepped aside, Lhean edging through the doorway in the small space the massive Rider provided. He had a pack on one shoulder and was wearing traveling garb. No doubt the news of the King's indecision had reached him as well.
"Let me know if you need anything," Garth rumbled as he shut the door. His footsteps didn't retreat down the hallway until a few moments later.
Lhean raised an eyebrow at her. "Your friends are very protective," he noted. He sat down his burden next to hers. When he straightened, he met her eyes and his smile dissipated. "Something troubles you."
"It's nothing," she answered a touch over-swiftly. After his look morphed into one of cool disbelief, she decided to expound further: "It has been a trying day." Her knees met the edge of the bed and conformed to it. She sank back into the covers, laying her wounded hand across her midsection. The Eletian still hovered by her bedside- she was sure that if Eletians could be awkward, it would look a lot like Lhean looked at this moment. The thought lent a touch of humor to the situation.
"Please sit down," came her muffled request. He did as she asked, taking a seat in the chair that Captain Mapstone had occupied that morning.
"I don't suppose a mender has looked at your injuries today?" he questioned.
She reluctantly pulled her good arm off of her face, rolling her head aside to glance at him. "No." The statement sounded more like a question, for she wondered exactly where he was going with this line of thought.
He shifted, producing a small tin from a coat pocket. It looked like the salve that Hana had kept on her person, but Karigan had long forgotten the name for it. Lhean dipped a finger in the herbal-smelling substance and gestured to her. She inched closer, expending as little effort as possible. The softly tingling numbness that she remembered as an effect of the salve would be a welcome exchange for the sharp, intermittent pain she was currently experiencing.
Lhean gently touched her lip, spreading it down the wound. At some point while she slept, one of the menders had removed her stitches, pulling some of the scabs open in the process. Lhean particularly focused on those areas, his motions hesitant and careful. Karigan watched him as he tended to the scrapes on her temple, how his face was set in concentration, his eyes alight in the low illumination that spilled through her window. She closed her own, feeling a pull of grogginess. She couldn't recall whether or not that was a product of the medicinal ointment.
Distantly, she heard Lhean draw back and shut the tin, and his hand returned to smooth back the hair at her brow.
"Get some rest. I will wake you when it is time," he murmured. She nearly toppled into the velvet-black depths of sleep, but something tethered her to consciousness- a nagging, persistent feeling that she had forgotten something. She squinted her eyes open, unable to do much more than look at the Eletian seated inches away. He waited patiently, thinking that she had something to say, his head tilted inquisitively to one side.
At length, she came up with something to occupy the silence, "Garth probably has the wrong idea."
A conflicted expression surfaced on Lhean's face before he abandoned it in favor of raised brows, "He thinks I mean you harm. All of them do."
She decided to play along. "Do you mean me harm, Lhean?"
After her question settled, he did not respond for several long moments. The grogginess loosened its hold on Karigan and she found herself sitting up in her bed, tucking her knees to her chest. "Lhean? Do you mean me harm?" she repeated. She had no explanation for why her heart was thrumming against her ribcage or why her cheeks felt aflame. It was certainly not a response one would normally have to a threat.
"Not intentionally," he answered. Karigan could see why his words were belated, for as he spoke them, his voice strained with effort. He had not wanted to voice this admittance. He licked his lips in a very mortal gesture, then continued, "My presence has only seemed to cause you turmoil since we arrived here." He allowed his eyes to raise, though they desperately wanted to linger on the floorboards, and drank in the Rider's countenance while she deliberated her response. Her dark hair was a fray about her shoulders, the single shoot of blonde loose and draped over her face. Those fathomless blue eyes were fixed on him and, not for the first time, he wanted to call their attention elsewhere. He couldn't help but feel as if he were being judged by a being far superior to himself, though it was an odd thought to correlate with Karigan.
Nonetheless, that depth and mystery intrigued him, acquiring gravity with which to draw him in. He shifted with well-disguised unease, resisting the pull as he had earlier in the pastures.
"What do you mean?" she finally asked.
"Your King distrusts us. Even the Riders wonder about my peoples' intentions-"
Karigan interrupted him, "I am not talking about your people, Lhean. I am asking: do you, as an individual, intend to do me harm?" The words surprised her as they left her tongue and her mind doubled back to comprehend what she had just asked. She wasn't so concerned as to whether or not the Eletians as a whole were plotting against her- no, she was more curious about Lhean. Confusion twisted her features, and Lhean turned his head, fixing her with a sideways look.
"No," he said, "I would never do anything to hurt you, Karigan."
"Good to know," she chirped, seeking to fracture the remaining tenseness hanging between them. "It's comforting to have a friend that I can rely on, especially when I will be surrounded by strangers."
"They hold you in high regard. You are Laurelyn-touched. You awakened our Sleepers and led them to safety." His gaze dropped to her brooch. "And now we have discovered another facet to your abilities. It would be unwise to make you uncomfortable. As much as your King may need us, we may yet need you. Etherea fades from this land, and so do we."
Karigan became aware that the Eletian had moved closer, though she hadn't been aware of this when it occurred. He was mere centimeters from her. She had to crane her head back to look him in the eye. His proximity was dizzying, for he was resplendent in the moonlight, silver and luminescent, a creature from songs and tales of her childhood that had materialized and was leaning in over her. She reached out with her good hand, resting it softly on his chest.
"Maybe Garth was right, after all, about what you were doing in my room" she said quite seriously.
They held one anothers' gaze for a split second, then both burst into laughter. Lhean's was genuine, of surprise and good humor- but Karigan's was confused and forced, perhaps even regretful. He had been so near, and to her soul, so wounded, she had desired that closeness. In fact, she still desired it.
After their laughter had died down and both were relaxed, Karigan stood, Lhean following her example.
"I will fetch you when it is time to depart," he told her, gathering his pack and shrugging it over one shoulder.
She nodded, not having the presence of mind to answer him with words. They stepped towards the door and Lhean reached for the latch, but Karigan's fingers settled on the back of his hand. A lump developed immediately in her throat. He turned his head to look at her questioningly. She stood on her toes, looping her good arm around his neck, and pressed her lips to the spot where his jaw and ear met, murmuring, "good night" against his skin. He smelled like pine and armor polish, his hair carrying the faint scent of forests.
He remained frozen until she pulled back, only then ducking down and resting his free hand on the small of her back. His fingers left the door and he drew her against him with both arms. "Sleep well, neluthia." And with that, he released her and disappeared down the hall, leaving her leaning in the frame and wondering if she had perhaps dreamt the entire exchange.