When Dwim and Altariel and I met in Chicago, the nuzguls were flying thick and fast. I thought that Altariel got off the most lightly, but hers were obviously very venomous, given that she's already posted a couple of stories related to that visit. This is one of my nuzguls, a rather surprising one.
A beautiful young lady stood before her mirror, swishing embroidered and bejeweled skirts of a rich sapphire blue silk with great satisfaction, smiling as she twisted her sable hair up onto her head in a variety of ways.
The door opened behind her, and her father leaned against the door jamb, smiling himself in equal parts affection and bemusement. Where had his little girl gone and when had this lovely young lady taken her place? The smile slipped away for just a moment, as he reflected upon the mother who should have been overseeing this rite of passage, then returned with greater force as he looked upon his child with understandable parental pride.
“You will be the most beautiful lady there, ‘Thiri,” Imrahil of Dol Amroth told his daughter.
She spun about and swept across the room to fling her arms about her father’s neck.
“The dress is lovely, Father! But you shouldn’t have! It was horribly extravagant!”
The Prince threw a hand to his brow, miming shock. “What? When has such a thing ever concerned you before? Are you sure that you are feeling well?”
Lothiriel’s tongue poked out for a moment. “I am just fine, thank you! But as expensive as I know it was-it is just as I had hoped it would be! Thank you, Father!”
“Well, it is not every day that my only daughter is presented at court at Minas Tirith for the first time,” the Prince said equably. “I think some small extravagance is in order. Are you excited?”
“Oh yes! I have practicing my dancing and looking forward to this for over a year now!” Her smile faded for a moment. “Aunt Tirathiel said that it used to be the custom that the Steward would dance with the young ladies when they came out at Midsummer, but I don’t suppose that Uncle Denethor will do that, will he? He doesn’t dance any more that I know of.”
Imrahil stroked her hair. “No, ‘Thiri, I do not think he will. He certainly hasn’t danced with any of the new young ladies in recent years. His father danced with your mother and my sister when they came out, but since Ecthelion died the custom has lapsed. But you will not lack for partners, of that I am certain! Boromir and Faramir will be glad to take their father’s place, and I am certain that they will be just the first of many young men lining up to take a turn with you on the dance floor.”
Lothiriel released him and looked up with a sunny smile. “And all the while you will no doubt be glowering at them and watching to make sure that they take no untoward liberties!”
“No doubt at all,” Imrahil said.
“Lothiriel is in town, Father,” Boromir remarked casually at breakfast a few days later. His young cousin had confided her difficulty to him upon her arrival, and he had promised to do what he could to bring about her vision of a perfect coming-out, though personally he wondered why anyone would consider his severe and unsmiling father’s participation as necessary to complete such a festive occasion.
“And how is this supposed to be significant?” Denethor asked absently, sipping his tea and spooning porridge while reading from his eternal pile of documents.
“She is sixteen this year, and will be coming out at Midsummer Court,” Faramir with cautious helpfulness. Boromir had in his turn confided in his younger brother.
The Steward looked up. Past experience had taught him to be wary whenever his two sons presented a united front about anything. “The significance still eludes me.”
“We were wondering if it would be possible to resurrect the old custom, just once for Lothiriel,” Boromir explained. “The one where the Steward dances with the new young ladies to present them at court. I am sure that Lothiriel would appreciate it.”
“I hardly see why Imrahil’s daughter, who has grown by all accounts into a rather shallow young woman obsessed with fine clothing, not unlike her father in his youth, should require my participation in this ritual.”
“Lothiriel has more appreciation for custom than you might think, Father,” Faramir said. “Lady Tirathiel has helped to rear her, after all.” He was hoping that the invocation of the self-appointed guardian of custom in Gondor, Denethor’s own former object of courtship, might serve to sway the Steward.
Denethor’s long fingers tapped his tea-cup. “Tirathiel is certainly a stickler for what is proper, that is true.” He frowned at his sons’ expectant expressions. “But I fear that in this instance, she is doomed to disappointment. I no longer dance.”
“You are about to raise Dol Amroth’s taxes, Father. The gesture might sweeten Uncle’s disposition,” Boromir observed.
“Imrahil’s disposition, sweetened or otherwise, does not factor into my decisions about the realm’s finances,” came the tart rejoinder.
“It is a custom of very long standing, Father,” Faramir ventured. “The Annals specifically state-”
“Do not quote the Annals at me, Faramir!” his father interjected sharply. “I know more of them than do you! In this instance, the Stewards stand in for the King, who used to do such to recognize young ladies of high degree as adults, and to give his official sanction to those lords to seek such ladies in marriage. I guarantee you that for the last twenty-six years the young ladies of the realm have continued to mature and mate quite competently without my sanction. I no longer dance, and I will not make an exception in this case. That is all.” He stood abruptly. His sons stood as well, as Denethor drained his cup, gathered up his papers and swept from the room.
Boromir looked at Faramir with a rueful smile and shrugged his shoulders. Faramir sighed and nodded. They had tried.
“My lord Steward…” Denethor looked up. His secretary, usually an imperturbable man of great discretion, looked positively…rattled. “There is a lady here to see you.”
“Yes, my lord.”
The Steward of Gondor considered possibilities for a moment. Most likely a widow, he decided, seeking my aid in the matter of an inheritance or military pension. A woman of breeding, or she wouldn’t have been allowed to get this far. Such cases usually irritated him, but given his appallingly dull schedule this day, the woman’s plight might actually serve as a diversion.
“Show her in.”
The secretary obediently opened the door, but instead of a matron or bereaved widow, a vision in blue the color of the sky above the western coast swept into the room, along with a faint scent of jasmine. Hair black as a summer night, eyes as grey as the sea, she was a young, fresh creature, and her smile struck him to the heart, for in it were echoes of another smile, a smile long since entombed in stone.
“Good afternoon, Uncle!” she exclaimed cheerfully. “’Tis been so long since you visited us, that I thought I would come to see you instead.” His expression could hardly have been welcoming, many a strong man might in fact have hesitated to approach him, but Lothiriel glided forward with fearless grace and soft lips brushed his cheek. She indicated the pretty basket that graced her arm. “Look-I’ve brought tea.”
“Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth, Warden of Western Gondor,” the herald at the door to the Merethrond intoned. “Prince Elphir, Heir to Dol Amroth. Prince Erchrion. Prince Amrothos. And Princess Lothiriel, Lady of Dol Amroth.”
At that last, first-time announcement, heads turned to regard Imrahil’s youngest child, and there were sighs of appreciation and approval for the slender, regal figure in clad in silk and silver and sapphires. Part of Lothiriel’s hair was drawn back from her heart-shaped face and twined about a silver and sapphire tiara, the rest fell in rippling waves down her back. The other young ladies present were instantly envious-envious of the princess’s fresh beauty, her bevy of handsome brothers, her distinguished father and their obvious wealth. All the scions of Gondor’s one remaining royal house were clad in the blue and silver of their house’s sigil. Even Prince Amrothos, widely known for not caring anything about court fashion, was turned out tolerably well this evening-probably at his sister’s insistence.
“Lady Tirathiel. Captain Andrahar, Armsmaster and Commander of the Swan Knights,” the herald was continuing, as Imrahil’s right-hand man and Lothiriel’s chaperone entered behind their lord’s family, Tirathiel’s severe dark blue gown and Andrahar’s Swan Knight dress blues meshing nicely with the over-all color scheme. Other lords and ladies were entering behind them, but Dol Amroth was one of the last entrants into the hall. Imrahil moved through the crowd with his daughter upon his arm, obviously bursting with pride as he formally introduced her to Gondor’s notables.
From his chair at the other end of the hall, Denethor watched them progress, his countenance outwardly calm, his mind in inner turmoil, reaching back to a time when another young princess of Dol Amroth had entered this hall for the first time. He had noticed her even then, at sixteen, though the attraction had not strengthened until Finduilas was somewhat older. And he remembered his father leading her out in this very hall, on another Midsummer night.
The Steward of Gondor prided himself upon being a man who never deluded himself, who knew his own mind. And he knew full well that even after twenty-six years he hungered still for the quicksilver charm Finduilas had possessed, that surfaced from time to time in his oldest son, and that had manifested very strongly in his visitor earlier that afternoon. Imrahil possessed that same charm in abundance, and it occurred to Denethor in a sudden flash of insight that perhaps that was one of the reasons he found himself so often at odds with the Prince. He found himself responding almost involuntarily on some deep level to Imrahil’s charm, though he was careful not to show it and was at pains to repress it; for unlike Finduilas, it was manifested in a person that he could never hope to possess or control, and that made him resentful.
He filed this idea away for further contemplation later, and instead watched Lothiriel, her face alight, smiling and laughing as introductions were made. There was something of her mother in Lothiriel as well as Finduilas, he decided. He had always approved of Nimrien of Dol Amroth, who had been a kind, modest, lovely woman with a keen mind. And more than a little of her fearless father as well.
“’Tis because you are my uncle as much as because you are the Steward,” she had said artlessly that afternoon, explaining her request for a dance with him. “I will dance this evening with my father and brothers and cousins and should not like for you to be left out. But if you are still too sad and miss my aunt too much, then I understand. I shall see you there in any event, shall I not?” He had eaten the cakes she had brought and drunk the tea and agreed that she would in fact see him, without promising anything one way or another and had spent the rest of the afternoon in a somewhat better mood than he had begun it, much to his staff’s surprise and relief.
The musicians were tuning up, and the floor in the center of the hall was beginning to clear. Denethor settled deeper into his chair.
“Well, look at you, little cousin!” Boromir exclaimed with a big grin. “Quite the lovely little swan you have become! And such plumage!” He himself glittered in the silver and sable dress uniform of the Captain-General, and more than one young lady nearby cast her eyes in his direction hopefully.
“You do look lovely, ‘Thiri,” Faramir agreed more quietly, clad also in dress uniform. He stepped forward before his brother did, to claim an embrace. When Boromir came to take his turn, Lothiriel gave him a severe look.
“You will not toss me, Boromir! I am not to be mussed this evening!” The Steward’s Heir, who had in fact looked as if he intended to throw his cousin up in the air, swept her a bow instead, and as directed, gently enfolded her in his strong arms.
“No mussing, my lady! I promise!” More greetings were exchanged-bows for Tirathiel, forearm clasps for Andrahar, and cousinly back-slaps for the younger Princes. Imrahil embraced both of his nephews, then cast a nod of acknowledgement across the room towards Denethor, who inclined his head in return.
“I’ll lead you out when the musicians cease their caterwauling, cousin,” Boromir told Lothiriel, “And I’ll try not to step on your toes if you promise in turn not to step on mine. I am a foot soldier, after all. I need those toes!”
“You’re a big lout, is what you are,” the young princess replied fondly. She tilted her head and smiled sunnily up at her big cousin. That smile had impact even the whole room away, and when Denethor saw it, he made a decision.
Surely I can allow myself one indulgence. It has been more than twenty-five years, after all. In a moment of trenchant self-honesty, he knew this was not about pleasing a charming young woman. It was an opportunity for him to journey back in time for the space of a few minutes, to a place in his youth before his life had become nothing but duty. Lothiriel would not truly be his partner…
He looked down at himself as he got to his feet, and realized that the decision had apparently been made somewhat earlier, for he had dressed this night in a tunic and breeches rather than his usual robes. Snorting softly in appreciation of his own folly, he started towards the knot of blue and silver. The thought that came to him on the way was something of a consolation.
At least this will serve a more practical purpose as well. I shouldn’t like my sons or Imrahil to think that I am too predictable!
The musicians ceased their tuning abruptly as the tall, saturnine figure rose from his chair and started across the dance floor.
“There you go, ‘Thiri, ‘tis time,” Boromir said, his back turned to the floor. He offered his much smaller cousin his arm with a rakish grin. But Faramir laid a hand upon his shoulder.
“Bide a moment, Brother.” At the Captain-General’s inquisitive look, he indicated that Boromir should turn around. Puzzled, Boromir cast a glance over his shoulder, saw their approaching parent, then turned about in a hurry, Lothiriel still upon his arm.
All eyes followed the Steward’s stately progress. His was still a trim enough figure, though Imrahil knew that was due more to a natural asceticism than any continued practice in arms. Clad as he was tonight, he reminded the Prince of Dol Amroth of days gone past, when a younger, but still not young Denethor had gamely followed Finduilas home to her city to play out the final days of their courtship. Imrahil loved both of his nephews dearly, he could never wish that they had not been born, but he did occasionally wonder if Finduilas would still be with him had she married a lord of Belfalas and stayed closer to her beloved Sea.
Denethor halted before his sons and their cousin. He was Winter incarnate in this Mid-summer Court with his almost silver hair, clad in the sable and silver of Gondor. Spring looked fearlessly up at him.
“Would you care to dance, my lady?” he asked quietly, bowing over her hand, and Lothiriel’s legend was made, her primacy amongst all the ladies of Gondor established.
“I would very much like to, my lord.” She curtseyed, smiling brightly as he came up, and he was startled to see a knowing compassion and understanding in her glance. She is her father’s daughter after all, and her mother’s as well. Not shallow in the least, and not just a pretty face, he cautioned himself. I must remember that.
But if Lothiriel had read him more truly than he would have liked, the consternation upon his sons’ faces was very satisfying. And he knew Imrahil well enough after decades of association to have caught the slight flicker of surprise before the man’s public face reasserted itself. As for that cursed Haradrim…Captain Andrahar looked impassive enough, but Denethor had known him for years as well, and there was a dour cast to his countenance that indicated he probably would rather have seen Dol Amroth’s finest flower dancing with a Khandian pimp than the Steward of Gondor. That was very pleasing as well. It was beneath Denethor’s dignity to openly twist the Tiger’s tail, but that it had occurred as a side-effect to his actions was a delightful bonus. His smile, as he transferred Lothiriel’s hand to his arm from Boromir’s, was a close to genuine as it ever got, and all there present noted this.
The unlikely couple swept off to the middle of the dance floor and a stately measure began. Lothiriel and her uncle danced alone, none of the court daring to intrude.
Boromir, watching them, whistled low. “Valar, Uncle! If ‘Thiri can win Father over, you’ve got trouble on your hands!”
Imrahil, torn between pride and a primal desire to snarl at the many young men he saw following his daughter’s progress with avid interest, could only nod in dismayed agreement.
Lothiriel did not chatter, which Denethor appreciated. He could not abide women, or men for that matter, who nattered on out of nervousness. And there was no counting of steps or worried attention to her feet. She glided lightly in his arms, and if she was not as tall as Finduilas, still there was something of the same grace in her manner. It was not so very difficult at all to imagine himself in another time, with another partner…
That she had noticed his distance and perhaps divined his intentions was obvious once the dance was over.
“I wish I had known my aunt,” the young princess said quietly, as he led her off the floor to stand at the side. The musicians were starting the next song and dancers were lining up with their partners. “Her portrait at Dol Amroth is very lovely.”
“She was a most beautiful and gracious lady,” Denethor said softly; then, surprising himself, he added, “as her niece has grown to be.”
Lothiriel smiled a little sadly. “Thank you, Uncle.”
“Do you remember very much about your mother?” he asked, surprising himself again.
The young princess thought for a moment. “Not really,” she said eventually. “Her perfume, and the sound of her voice when she read me stories. I was very young when she died.” Her smile returned, happier this time. “I have a shawl of hers. Father kept it for me. I shall wrap my babies in it, I think, when I have them. That way, it will be as if she is there with us.”
The Steward nodded. “I think she would have liked that. I knew your mother, of course. Not well, but enough to perhaps know a story or two you’ve not heard yet.”
Lothiriel twined her arm around his. “Then I shall bring you tea again, and you may tell them to me.” She added sternly, “I do not think you always take proper care of yourself, Uncle, living in a bachelor house as you do.”
“Perhaps not,” Denethor conceded. “But it is too late to mend that matter now-so none of your matchmaking! I have heard tales of that already!” The chuckle with which Lothiriel answered his uncharacteristic sally into humor had a delightful little gurgle to it. “Here, I’d best return you to your father before he comes hunting for me.” And before I am completely undone! he added to himself mentally, appalled at the easy way Lothiriel had managed to worm herself into his confidences.
“Thank you, Uncle, for dancing with me,” she murmured softly, as they returned to Imrahil and her brothers and cousins. “I know it was hard for you, but I really appreciated it.”
“It was no trouble at all, child, and I was glad to do it,” the Steward of Gondor replied, and upon bemused reflection, found it to be true.
“Council will meet in the morning, Brother,” Denethor told Imrahil as he transferred the Prince’s daughter back to his care. “We will discuss the budget, and I fear you will not like what we will have to do.”
Imrahil nodded, with a bit of a wry smile at the unusually intimate address. But he knew better than to comment upon Denethor’s decision to dance, or any possible effect it might have made upon his brother-in-law. “I will be there, Brother.” The Steward made his way back to his seat, scattering courtiers before him. A sea of black and silver, punctuated by rich color, gathered hopefully about the Princess-only to be dispelled by the Captain-General of Gondor.
“Off with you, you lot!” Boromir commanded blithely, grabbing Lothiriel with one mighty arm while he swept his path clear with the other. “Commander’s privilege! I go first!” He paused to listen for a moment to the musicians, then grinned. “Oh good! This one has lots of tossing in it, cousin! Prepare to be mussed!” The Princess, who had after all been raised with three older brothers, gave him a respectably solid smack on the arm in remonstrance.
“You are a princess, Lothiriel, not a hoyden!” Lady Tirathiel exclaimed.
“But he promised!” she protested over her shoulder to her chaperone as she was carried off.
Faramir’s usually grave face lit with a smile as he watched them go. “To have made such a conquest of Father, Uncle, is amazing! Lothiriel is the true Queen of Gondor!”
And at his words, Imrahil, who had not had such a turn in years, felt the world spin around him, and was suddenly in another time. This same place, but another time. Dancing lightly down this same floor, with a partner whom he could not see. Mist surrounded her, but he got glimpses of a figure of surpassing litheness, heard snatches of a voice like music. And for some reason, he thought of stars…
Andrahar’s hand fastened upon his elbow and squeezed firmly, grounding him back in reality. Andrahar’s body pressed a little closer to support him if necessary. Trust Andra to catch me! “Are you all right?” came the captain’s murmur in his ear, low enough that only he could hear. The Prince nodded, and shook himself a bit. He looked around to find that Elphir and Erchirion had found dance partners and were out upon the floor with Boromir and Lothiriel. Amrothos was nowhere to be seen-he’d undoubtedly taken the chance to retreat to a nook somewhere with the book he’d smuggled in his doublet. But Faramir was still with him, watching with concern-and comprehension.
“There is no Queen of Gondor, lad,” Imrahil said a bit thickly, “Not yet at least.” Looking out to the floor where his daughter swept about with her cousin as gracefully as a swallow while a bevy of appreciative young men looked on, smitten, he added in a more normal tone of voice, “But Lothiriel is undoubtedly the Queen of Hearts!”