The doors to the great hall were off their hinges, one of them cracked into three pieces, the other kicked in and only hanging onto the frame at the top. Walking between them, Oren tilted his head back to keep an eye on the upper pieces, seemingly balanced against nothing, and tried not to imagine them falling in on his head.
The hall itself was almost empty. He was unused to the echo of his own steps in a room that was usually full with conversation and humming motion, so he moved slowly. The lamps had not been lit, and the window light stretched between shadows. The pillars were stripped bare. The high seat was still upright on the dais, but it stood forgotten behind the table that had been dragged in front of it. No chairs, just a handful of men and women leaned over it, murmuring and marking.
Oren slowed even further, trying to sort between the strangers. One of them must have been Lady Dareya. He felt stupid, realizing that he wouldn’t know her even if she looked straight at him. He should have asked someone what she looked like.
He was going to marry her. There was nothing stranger than knowing that before knowing the color of her hair.
In the end, she made it easy to recognize her. Hearing someone approaching, she lifted her head above the huddled conference over the table, met his eye and looked down again. The man across from her finished some small report. She nodded, giving permission for something that seemed to please him. Papers shuffled.
“You’re dismissed,” she said quietly. “All of you. Come back after you’ve found something to eat.”
Oren barely heard her, her tone low and even, but the others moved as if they had been pushed. They gathered their things, and turned toward the doors immediately. One of the men hovered two steps back from the table for just a moment.
“Should I have something sent up for you?” he asked.
Lady Dareya shook her head without lifting her eyes from the papers still scattered in front of her. “I’m fine, thank you.”
Passing Oren, they glanced at him, but didn’t pause. He found himself looking at the floor rather than meet their eyes.
He waited for the familiar thunder of the doors shutting. It never came, and he felt stupid again at having expected it. Their footsteps faded, and thick silence settled into the hall. He didn’t dare come any closer.
Dareya still braced both hands against the table. He could see there was a map, now, laid out across the center of the table. Stacked beside the map were port records, and he thought he knew the steady script of his portmaster. Beside that were manifests, company reports, folded papers with official seals, and rank markers. It was such a mix of things, a thousand different orders of business, all important, all too large to trust to the inexperienced. And she didn’t have enough people on the island who she trusted to cover them all.
It was easy to imagine that she had been there since dawn, handling all of them herself, and that she would be here until night fell. Still, she didn’t look tired.
She had brown hair, bronzed by sunlight, braided away from her face and tossed into a lazy tail over her shoulder. It hung down in sea-salted curls. Her eyes were intent, her mouth a neutral line. If she was older than him, it couldn’t have been by much, but she looked built from other materials. She was all stone; the calm she carried around herself, iron braces; the smoothness of her, just what happened when you spent that much time in the ocean.
Still in her fighting leathers, it was hard to tell what was stiff clothing and what was hard muscle, but, either way, it belonged to her. She wore all of it as easily as he stood in jacket and shirt.
Oren hesitated before he spoke. “I didn’t know the fight came this far,” he said. His voice echoed and sounded thin.
Dareya looked at him with the same guarded concern she had leveled on the map. He memorized the gray of her eyes.
“The doors,” he said, clarifying when she didn’t answer.
She glanced behind him, then back down to the table. “It didn’t,” she told him. “Someone decided to lock every door on their way out. We found the keys melted together in the kitchen. Had to break our way in.” He realized suddenly that she hadn’t moved anything except her head. As if she hadn’t actually abandoned what was spread out in front of her, hadn’t really focused on him.
He wasn’t sure what to say next.
“You hid,” Dareya said, after a moment. He was surprised at how quickly the silence had settled in again, but she broke it easily. “Rather than fight.”
It sounded like an accusation.
The blunt force of it, coming from this conquering queen, pushed any answer he might have conjured back down his throat. He blinked at her, until she turned her head again, fixing him with a heavy look. He felt the added weight as if she had shoved him, actually rocked back onto his heels. Then he glared at her. Every line of her demanded to know why he hadn’t gotten in her way, and the question was too ridiculous to bear.
“I hid so that the fight could go on,” Oren snapped. Her expression dulled, but he got the impression she was only hiding the sharper bits away before she cut him, rather than that she had backed down at all. He pushed forward.”Every single person on this island knew that the moment you found me, this fight was over.”
“The moment I captured you,” she corrected.
Swallowing his next sentence, he searched for a way to argue the lack of difference when standing in front of her.
“You chose the poor man’s method of making sure that didn’t happen,” she said. Shaking her head, Dareya turned back to the table.
It wasn’t an accusation anymore, but judgement and sentence. He hated her for it. She didn’t have any right to chastise him for how he lost a fight which she had always intended to win.
He didn’t know a way to strike her with the same strength.
“Please tell me,” she whispered after another, stretched silence. “That’s not how you’re going to live the rest of your life.”
If he hadn’t heard the small thing that might have been a break in her voice, he would have snapped back and immediate no. Instead, he stared at her again. He didn’t have the means to calculate why it was she needed him not to be a coward. He didn’t even have what he needed to weigh out an honest answer for her.
So, he turned away.
If she looked at him again, he didn’t see it.
The shadows of the doors cut uneven shapes across the floor. The pointed shafts of light didn’t quite reach his toes, but cut wrong-ways across the yellow lines of window light. He wished for the lamps, for the old glow of the hall, and didn’t like facing the jagged pieces of wood any more than he liked facing her.
“You should repair the doors,” he muttered, not knowing why he bothered to say it out loud.
Dareya was quiet longer than he expected. “There are a lot of people waiting for me to fix a thousand other things that I broke,” she murmured, absently. ‘Things more important than half ton carved doors that serve nothing except the privacy of an over-sized chair.”
Slowly, Oren turned back. He let his eyes slide over the papers on the table – the port records, the map of the island, the stacks and stacks of reports for the city she had just broken through – before he looked at her again.
He glared harder, meaning half of it for himself. He was going to like her, eventually, he realized. It was going to be hell learning to.