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10
“Would it please Your Majesty to dance with me?”

“Inspection, Brandmir,” Prince Imrahil said. The entry hall of the townhouse was filling with blue and silver uniforms, the esquires and their officers all resplendent in their dress blues in preparation for the court that was being held that evening in honor of Imrahil’s arrival. The Prince himself cut a properly regal figure in a tunic of silver patterned blue brocade, embroidered at hem and collar and cuffs with silver swans with sapphire eyes, one of his more delicate dress circlets upon his head. In contrast, Prince Amrothos, slouched in a chair with a book in hand as usual, had dressed with total disinterest in the event as was apparent by the unornamented dark blue tunic and black breeches he was wearing.

The Dol Amroth contingent had finally arrived in Minas Tirith after dark the day before. Brand had been allowed to sleep in this day and had accomplished little beyond preparing himself for the evening’s function. A bath and hair-washing had occurred, then Cuilast had been enlisted in the ongoing fruitless battle to bring Brand’s unruly hair under some control. He presented himself to his great-uncle now with some trepidation. His garb was not a cause for concern-he was sure that his new court clothes, selected by Princess Mariel, would meet with the Prince’s approval. The tunic was of a grey-green brocade that set off his eyes, the breeches a darker piney green , worn with the new dress shirt Princess Mariel had given him for his birthday, and the sword and sword belt his prince cousins had given him, as well as his father’s dagger. No, it was not his clothes that had him worried.

Minas Tirith he had visited before, and had even appeared at court upon the occasion of Faramir’s wedding, but manners were at their best during weddings. He had no idea how the flower of Gondor’s nobility would treat him during a regular court event.

Imrahil looked him over from head to toes, seemed to sense his unease and gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “You will do just fine, Brand. You look very nice.”

“Thank you, sir. I will try to remember my lessons.”

The Prince nodded in approval. “I have every confidence that you will. You will need to dance with some ladies this evening, lad. Tirathiel always made her pupils dance at least three dances, and that seems a reasonable number to me. And they need to be strangers-Hethlin or your Aunt Éowyn won’t count towards the total, though certainly you may dance with them if you wish.”

“Yes, sir.”

Imrahil cast his eyes about the room. “Speaking of which, are we all here now? Has anyone seen Esquire Hethlin?”

“I was walking by her room a little while ago, my lord prince,” the esquire named Súrion offered, “and heard some cursing. Something about laces, I believe.”

“Ah. I see. Well, pressuring her won’t make things go any faster - I was wed long enough to know that. We will give her a few more minutes.”

But even as the Prince said this, one of the esquires whistled and another hooted in glee. Brand looked towards the stairs and saw Hethlin descending.

She was not clad in dress blues, but rather in a gown of grey silk. There appeared to be a golden yellow cross-thread in it, so that it shimmered changeably, grey-gold. A repeating design of eagles with their wings upraised around a star was wrought in silver thread about the neck and hem. Her white hair fell loose like silver floss upon her shoulders, confined by a simple circlet with a star at the front. A necklace of amber beads and a matching girdle of silk and silver and more amber beads completed the ensemble.

The dress laced up the front, flowing like water over curves before belling out gracefully from the hips. It definitely flattered its wearer, whose color was high enough that the scar could be seen on her cheek.

“I beg your pardon, my lord prince,” she murmured, giving Imrahil an apologetic curtsey before turning to glare at her fellow esquires, who were all whooping and whistling now. “The cursed laces got all snarled up.”

“That is quite all right, Hethlin,” Imrahil assured her, his eyes glowing. “You look lovely.” He turned his attention from her and raised his voice. “Esquires. Hear the words of your commander.”

And indeed, there was Andrahar of a sudden, in perfectly pristine dress blues. Brand had not seen him come in. The esquires all straightened to attention. He gave them all, including Hethlin, his own assessing look-over; then, finding them adequate, spoke.

“In one week’s time, we will be meeting some of Gondor’s finest younger officers in tournament. I do not want to hear of any skirmishing before then! The court this evening is not about you, gentlemen-it is to honor your lord. You will do him credit with your behavior! There will be no drunkenness and no brawling. We will resume our usual training schedule in the morning-bear that in mind when you are contemplating making a late night of things! And romance the young ladies if you must, but remember this - there will be many widows there tonight as well, women whose husbands spent their lives to save Gondor. I do not want to see any of those ladies, no matter their age, who want to dance lacking for partners when there are Swan Knights, even half-baked ones, present. Am I understood?”

“Yes, SIR!” came the chorus of assent. He nodded abruptly. “Very well, then. My lord prince, are you ready?”

“I am.”

“Then let us be off.”

Three of the esquires-Ciryandil, Ragnor and Tirion-immediately stepped forward to volunteer to escort Hethlin. She looked both surprised and flustered at the attention. A dispute seemed imminent until the Prince, after an exchange of meaningful looks with his oath-brother, settled matters.

“AMROTHOS!” Imrahil barked at his youngest son, who had been oblivious to all this. Amrothos looked up.

“Yes, Father?”

“You will be so kind as to escort Esquire Hethlin. Now, please!”

Amrothos looked irritated for a brief moment; then, seeing his parent’s expression grow thunderous, he sighed in resignation. Sliding his book into his tunic, he rose to his feet and sauntered slowly over to Hethlin, who was watching his reluctant progress with amusement rather than offense.

“A good one, is it?” she asked, her Anorien accent noticeably heavy for a moment.

Dol Amroth’s youngest prince nodded. “It just came into the booksellers today, and I’ve been waiting forever for it. Alkhayam’s Treatise on Celestial Mechanics. In the original Haradric, of course.”

“Of course,” Hethlin echoed, her eyes dancing. “I promise I’ll turn you loose as soon as we get there, my lord prince.”

Amrothos gave her a look of genuine gratitude as he offered her his arm. “Thank you, my lady! You are a princess among esquires!”

For some reason, that remark made Hethlin blush again.

8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8

The herald had announced the arrival of the Prince of Dol Amroth, Prince Amrothos, Captain Andrahar and the esquires. True to her word, Hethlin immediately released Amrothos, who vanished into the crowd in search of some cranny where he could read undisturbed. Imrahil sighed. Brand looked about, his eyes goggling. The Court of the Fountain had been transformed, hung with beautiful lanterns that would be lit when it grew dark and filled with gaily dressed men and women. It was as big a throng as had been at his Uncle Faramir’s wedding and he didn’t even know how to begin about finding a dancing partner.

The Prince gestured gracefully towards the right side of the expanse. “You might start over there. See the young lady in the red dress? She’s just your age and she is Lord Liahan’s youngest sister. So she probably won’t bite.” Brand looked toward where he had indicated and spotted a short figure in a bright red dress. He hesitated, and Imrahil gave him a gentle shove.

“Go on,” he was urged.

Brand made his was slowly around the perimeter of the courtyard, watching the dancers to avoid having to confront his own fate for a few moments more. The dance they were dancing was very intricate and patterned and probably barely within his level of expertise. Lady Tirathiel had started his instruction in dance, but with her departure to Rohan with Queen Lothiriel, it had continued under Imrahil’s court dance-master, a rather effete, waspish gentleman who nonetheless knew his trade. After almost two years worth of instruction, Brand knew he could dance any of the simpler dances that would be done here this night.

Eventually he arrived before the girl in the red dress, who was his age or perhaps a year younger. Liahan’s last sister had none of his solemn handsomeness-she was in the throes of the worst part of early adolescence, inclined towards lank dark hair, spots and a bit of pudge about the middle. Brand knew that Liahan’s family was blessed with an abundance of children and cursed with a dearth of money, so it did not particularly surprise him that the young lady’s dress looked as if it might have seen use in its time for one or more of her older sisters. There was some wear along the side seams that indicated it had probably been taken up and let out a couple of times. It may be that being a bastard is not the only thing that could make life difficult at court, he mused. Aloud, he asked, “My lady, may I have this dance?”

A fulminating grey-blue gaze met his. “Before I say yay or nay, who put you up to it?” the girl asked.

“Tathar!” the lady at her side exclaimed, shocked. “Apologize to the young man!”

Tathar folded her arms and glowered. “Shan’t, Nelladel! Not since I was the butt of that joke at winter court. Who sent you, sirrah?”

Taken aback, Brandmir decided honesty was the best policy. “The Prince of Dol Amroth, my lady, who commands that I dance with three ladies I do not know, which is a frightening prospect. I have little experience in such things, and he told me you were a young lady who would be patient with my shortcomings and not bite.” He essayed a tentative smile. Tathar seemed to soften slightly, but her eyes were still narrowed in suspicion.

“Prince Imrahil hasn’t seen Tathar since she was a very little girl, or he would not have suggested anything of the kind,” Nelladel said grimly. Brand suspected he was looking at one of Liahan’s older sisters. She looked to be a couple of years older than Liahan, and had a harried look upon her face. Remembering that Liahan’s mother had died during the Ring War, he realized that Nelladel was probably having to take her place with the younger children. “Such a hoyden as she has become!” She gave him a kind smile, and at that moment, her resemblance to her quiet brother was very clear. “You are Brandmir, are you not?”

“Yes, my lady.”

A hint of interest came over Tathar’s face. “The bastard?” she asked. Her sister blanched.

“That will be enough, Tathar! Honestly, your manners are fit only for a barn!”

“I’d rather be in the barn at home than here!”

“Then I apologize for troubling your ladyship,” Brand said quietly. He bowed and was turning to depart when Tathar laid her hand upon his arm. Turning back, he was met by an apologetic smile that did much to make up for her appearance.

“I am sorry, Lord Brandmir. If you can put up with my bad temper, I would be only too happy to dance with you.”

8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8

The next dance called was one that was relatively simple, so Brand took her arm and they stepped out onto the floor. Tathar looked up at him.

“I apologize again for my behavior, Lord Brandmir. But there was a set of young lordlings who thought at last winter court it would be fun to dare one another to kiss me. Like kissing a toad, they said, because of the spots. So I’ve become rather wary about young men-particularly when they are as handsome as you are.” Brand blinked in startlement, but Tathar did not notice and continued on as if she’d said nothing extraordinary. “Though if Prince Imrahil sent you, then all is well. He would never send anyone vile. I could hardly expect someone to want to dance with me on their own, and I do actually like to dance.”

“Then I am very glad to oblige you, my lady. The Prince has requested that I dance with three different ladies, but once I’ve done that I would be glad to come back and dance with you again.”

“That’s very kind of you, Lord Brandmir.”

Brand shook his head and laughed. “That feels so strange!”

“What does?”

“People calling me ‘lord’! I’ve only been one for a couple of months.”

“Really? I thought you’d been one all along. Since they found you, I mean.”

“No. It only officially happened right before my birthday. Prince Imrahil showed me all the documents-they were really beautiful, written in colors and gold, and they had all these seals and ribbons on them.”

Tathar gave him an envious look. “I should have liked to have seen them. I can’t do embroidery at all, but I write a fair hand. And I like to illuminate.”

“Those fancy letters and things?” Brand asked, impressed. “That must be hard!”

Liahan’s sister managed to shrug dismissively in the course of the dance. “There are tricks to it, like anything else. I’ll do you an initial, if you like. What pictures would you like around it?”

“Can you do horses?”

Tathar laughed. “Horses are what I am very best at! I would be glad to do you an initial with horses in it.”

“I look forward to seeing it, my lady.”

“Have you got a horse of your own?”

“Yes. His name is Swift.”

“What color is he?”

“He’s silver-grey. War-horse bred, but he was too light. He’s very fast-a real racer.”

“He sounds lovely! You must tell me all about him!”

Brand was all too eager to describe his new horse, and the remainder of the dance passed pleasantly enough in a discussion of equine matters. He found out that Tathar had had an aged pony; but like himself, had outgrown the animal a year ago and did not currently have a mount.

“We really can’t afford a riding horse just for me,” she said with a bit of a grimace. “Nella doesn’t like to ride, and we’ve my brothers’ warhorses to feed. Thank the Valar that the Prince horses Liahan-that’s a big help. And a bigger thanks to them that Lian’s not going off to war again!”

“I think you actually have Captain Andrahar to thank for that, my lady. He is the one who appointed your brother Armsmaster in his absence.”

“Then the Valar bless Captain Andrahar!” Brand chuckled at the thought of Andrahar’s unappreciative reception of such a benison and Tathar gave him an inquisitive look.

“Are you going North?”

Another of those intermittent pangs struck Brand. I asked him to let me come with him, right before things fell all apart. I really wanted to. He realized a couple of moments later that he had not answered her question, and glanced down at Tathar, who was giving him a concerned look.

“I am sorry if I asked you something that troubled you, Lord Brandmir.”

“You didn’t,” he assured her. “Though it is true I was wanting to see the North, and I was disappointed when the Prince wouldn’t let me come. Perhaps I will get another chance when I am older. Are you going to be in Minas Tirith long?”

“A couple of months at least. Father needs to be here for the Council sessions that they’re going to have before the King leaves. Why?”

“I think the Prince keeps some nice saddle-horses here. I’ll ask and find out. If he has something suitable, perhaps we could go riding sometime.”

The transfiguring smile lit Tathar’s face once more. “Oh, do you think so? I would enjoy that so much! I’ve not been able to ride in ever so long!”

The dance was winding down to its final measures. Brand made his final bow to Tathar, who curtseyed back, and he took her back to where Nelladel was waiting.

Bowing over her hand, he said, “I will ask, my lady, and find out. And I’ll be back to dance some more later.”

“I look forward to it, Lord Brandmir,” Tathar said with a demure smile. He caught Nelladel giving her younger sister an astonished look as he departed.

8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8

Having gotten the first of his required dances under his belt, Brand went in search of his uncle, only to find that he was off to the side of the dancing area where throne-like chairs had been set for the King and Queen. The Queen was out dancing with Captain Andrahar, but Aragorn was there, speaking with both Faramir and Prince Imrahil. Feeling as if he should not intrude, he started to turn away, but Faramir saw him.

“Brandmir! Come here, lad!”

Brand did so, a bit reluctantly because of the exalted company, and found himself folded into his Uncle’s embrace, which he gladly returned. As soon as Faramir released him he made his bow to the King.

“Your Majesty.”

“Lord Brandmir,” Aragorn acknowledged, giving him a warm smile. “You’ve grown quite a bit since last I saw you.”

“So the tailors say, sir,” slipped out before he could think, but the King only laughed.

“Forthright as your father!” he said. “Did you come seeking me, your uncle or your great-uncle?”

“My uncle, Your Majesty,” Brand managed, stunned that the King felt that Brand had the right to seek him out. Could he have meant what he said last year about us becoming friends? His mind refused to consider that prospect.

“Very well then, Faramir, by all means get reacquainted with your nephew,” the King said, agreeably enough. “We’ll talk again later. Imrahil, Húrin had some questions about the rules for the tournament. Why don’t we go find him?” Aragorn rose to his feet and together he and Imrahil strolled off talking, while casually acknowledging the salutes of the subjects they passed. Faramir gave Brand a searching look.

“Is something the matter, Brandmir?”

“I need to speak to you about something, sir. In private. Whenever you have the time, of course-I know you must be very busy.”

The Steward of Gondor smiled his grave, beautiful smile. “I am never so busy that I cannot make time for you, lad. Is this about what happened on the ship? Uncle wrote me an account which arrived here a couple of days before you did. I was appalled at what happened to you. And very proud of how you conducted yourself. Your father would have been proud as well.”

Brand felt the heat rise into his cheeks and studied the toes of his boots for a few moments. “Thank you, sir. It is about that, a little, but also about something that happened before then, and something that has been going on since.”

“I see. This sounds serious.”

“It is, in a way. But not so serious that it cannot wait a day or two if it needs to, sir.”

“Nonsense. We’ll talk tomorrow. I will find you-it will be easier that way. Does that suit you?”

“It does, sir. Thank you.”

“I am honored you wish to confide in me.” The grave smile turned wry. “Is Uncle making you dance?”

Brand groaned. “Yes, sir. Three dances with strange ladies.”

Strange ladies?” The Steward’s eyes were twinkling.

Face reddening, Brand hastily clarified. “Ladies I haven’t met before, that is. I’ve done one so far.”

Faramir laughed out loud, then discreetly indicated a woman a little older than himself in a plum-colored gown a little way down the same side as they were. “That lady is Lady Merilin. She is actually my cousin-father’s sister’s daughter-so that makes her your second cousin. She is very nice. You might try her.”

“She won’t mind my being…a bastard, will she?”

“No. I have told her about you and she had mentioned that she would like to meet you.”

“I don’t know that kin count as strangers, sir.”

“Kin you have never met do,” the Steward said firmly. “I think it is harder to meet kin you don’t know than strangers. And you can always tell Uncle that it was my idea.”

Seeing a couple of lords hovering nearby and figuring that he had taken up enough of his uncle‘s time, Brand said, “Thank you very much, sir. I will go ask her. If I don’t see you again before tomorrow, I hope you enjoy the evening.”

Faramir smiled at the courtesy. “I suspect you might see me once or twice more-on the dance floor at least!” He looked at the waiting lords and sighed. “ I must find the time to go find my lady and see if she would like to take a turn. I fear that I have been neglecting her for state business.” He gave Brand a friendly nod and went to speak to the lords.

8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8

Lady Merilin was a handsome woman rather than beautiful-a bit rawboned in stature and she had a somewhat unfortunately prominent nose. But as his uncle had said, she was very pleasant when Brand introduced himself.

“So you’re Cousin Boromir’s son! Let me have a look at you!” She surveyed him up and down for a moment, then nodded. “You’re much like your father at that age. Always teasing and tormenting us girls, he was. You don’t do that too, do you?” She gave him a mock-stern look, but her eyes were still smiling.

“No, my lady.”

“You certainly seem well-spoken! Of course lad, I would be glad to dance with you.” Brand bowed and offered her his arm, but despite the words, she shook her head.

“Not this one. Listen to the music. It’s complicated and full of lifts and I don’t think you want to be lifting a lady as large as yourself! We will do the next if it is suitable.”

Brand nodded, and she continued to chat with him in a friendly manner about his life at Dol Amroth and his other, unmet cousins as they watched the dancers. Suddenly, she tsssked disapprovingly and he looked to where she was looking to see that his great-uncle had no problem at all doing the complicated dance full of lifts, if that dance gave him the opportunity to put his hands upon Hethlin. Her grey-gold skirts were flying when he swept her skyward and she was flushed and laughing. Imrahil was grinning his pirate’s grin as well.

“It would be a great thing if some here would just act their age,” Lady Merilin sniffed.

“I think that the Prince knows Lady Hethlin likes the fast dances,” Brand said in defense of his great-uncle. “And he should dance with her at least once-she was put in his care by the King.”

Merilin gave him a knowing look. “There’s a rumor going ‘round that Imrahil would like to give that girl more care than the King actually asked for. I do not see the appeal myself-she is not at all like his late wife and there are questions about her sojourn in the Rangers. I’ve been meaning to ask Cousin Faramir about that myself. But ‘tis true the man has no need of more heirs, and that he has no-one to please but himself at this point. I simply worry that it would be fair to the girl. He is too old for her and if he truly cares for her, then he should be seeking out a good match for her, someone closer to her own age. Like you for instance.”

Me?” Brand squeaked. Lady Merilin nodded.

“It would be a good match. Both you and this Lady Hethlin come of good blood, but there are…irregularities on both sides. Both of you have some property, that would be much more significant were it combined, and in all likelihood more profitably managed as well. Do you dislike the lady?”

Still boggled, Brand protested, “No! She has been very kind to me, she teaches me archery. But I am too young for her. I am just turned fourteen, and she is twenty-three!”

His cousin did not seem to think that much of a consideration. “You are younger than she, ‘tis true, but she is of the Northern blood and will live longer. You need to be younger! And in ten years you will be twenty-four and she thirty-three. Such distances close with time. At least distances like nine years do.” She gave the Prince and his partner another disapproving look. “Two score and more? Neither of them would live that long.”

“The King promised Lady Hethlin that she could marry to suit herself. And I really don’t think I suit her, my lady.”

Lady Merilin snorted. “You may not suit her now, well-favored though you be, but put four or five years’ growth on you and I will wager she might see things differently! The men of our house have always drawn women like bees to honey. Valar’s sake, there were three or four of the shameless hussies around Faramir when I came in, and he a married man!”

Brand blushed at the very idea of Hethlin liking him in that way, thoroughly discomfited. Seeing this, Lady Merilin took mercy upon him.

“There lad, the music for the next dance is starting up, and as I thought, it is most suitable. Lead me out, will you?”

8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8-8

Upon completion of their dance, Lady Merilin had wished him a pleasant farewell. With two of his required dances done, Brand decided that he might as well finish the task, so that he might relax for the rest of the evening. His uncle must not have won his way free yet, for Brand spied his aunt Éowyn by herself, speaking to a number of likely-looking ladies across the courtyard, and headed in that direction. But when he was about halfway there, he saw her suddenly scowl, seize the wine glass a lady in a yellow dress was holding, spill the red wine deliberately all down the front of that dress and storm off.

Not knowing exactly what the cause of her ire was, and not sure of his reception if he were to walk up after his kinswoman had just behaved in such a manner, he cast his eyes about and spotted another cluster of young ladies a little further on. They were younger than the first group who had been with Éowyn, and as he watched a couple of the esquires carried two of them off to join in the dance that was just starting up. That left a third lady, gowned in lilac silk, who stood tapping her foot in a way that indicated to Brand that she might like to dance. So he made his way towards her. A swift bit of movement drew his eye and he saw Lady Hethlin, a bit further down this same side of the courtyard, suddenly start towards him, discarding any pretense of ladylike behavior by moving in a hurry, kicking her skirts out before her with the long, swinging strides of an infantryman. People were getting out of her way, and watching her passage with curiosity.

I will dance with her next! Brand told himself, looking forward to it as a reward after completing his chore of courtesy. And then again with Lady Tathar. But this lady first! He advanced and made a careful bow.

“Would you care to dance, my lady?” he asked. To his surprise, the lady turned affronted eyes upon him.

“Do you have any idea who you are talking to, stable boy?”

Confounded, Brand gathered his courage and said politely, “No, my lady, I do not.”

“That is hardly surprising, given your origins! I am Jerulas of Belfalas, of one of the oldest and finest families in western Gondor! I do not dance with boys, and I certainly don’t dance with bastards! Whatever Prince Imrahil was thinking, to try to foist you upon civilized society is beyond belief! The man’s wits are turning!”

Taken aback at her hostility, and unable to determine how he should respond, Brand stood there frozen for a moment. Suddenly Lady Hethlin was standing beside him.

I’ll dance with you, Brand,” she said, with an encouraging smile for him. Jerulas’ lip lifted slightly, as if she smelled something unpleasant.

“Lady Hethlin. I do daresay. You will dance with anyone, and are never happy unless you have at least a company of men about you.”

Brand felt anger surge through him at the lady’s abuse of his friend, and he started to say something to Jerulas, be she lady or not, but Hethlin’s hand upon his forearm stopped him. He looked over at her and found her surveying Jerulas with a look of cool calculation.

“Brand?” Hethlin asked, in an amused, drawling tone he had never heard her use before. It was also a tone that carried very well to the people around them.

“Yes, my lady?”

“Remind me to have a word with the King’s Master of Hounds tomorrow, please.”

“My lady?” Brand asked, totally baffled.

“He has been terribly remiss, and I shall remind him of his duty, for it appears that a kennel door has been left open somewhere.”

It took a moment for Brand to understand what she had just said, and when he did he gaped at her in shock. Someone in the immediate vicinity snickered. Hethlin smiled at Jerulas with seeming pleasantry, but she was also showing lots of teeth and her eyes were as cold as the northern countries the King had wandered in his youth. Suddenly, incongruous though it was in this peaceful setting, Brand remembered what Andrahar had told him not so long ago-“Your Lady Hethlin, of whom you are so fond, is a very, very good killer.”

Jerulas, looking into those eyes, seemed to sense her peril as well, and actually took an involuntary step back. Then she appeared to recover. Cheeks flushed, she had just opened her mouth to say something, when suddenly her eyes widened and she sank into a curtsey instead. Brand turned to discover what had caused such a reaction and found that the Queen of Gondor was standing right behind him. He blanched. He had not heard her approach.

Everyone was bowing or curtseying. Hethlin sank straight down in as graceful a display as any lady there. Brand bowed as well.

Arwen might have been Elbereth herself, in a gown of midnight hue over which sparkling crystals were scattered like stars. The single white gem of her coronet bound her brows and her hair was twined and bound about with silver and crystal. She surveyed her obeisant courtiers and smiled.

“Please, everyone, do get up. There is no need for that.” With a rustle of silk and brocade, Gondor’s nobility straightened. Arwen turned her eyes upon Hethlin and a smile of genuine pleasure came over her face.

“Kinswoman! It is so very good to see you at our court, even if it is only briefly. I have missed you, and I enjoyed your letters.”

“I have missed you as well, Your Majesty,” Hethlin said, a pleased smile on her face. The next moment, the two women were embracing, to the murmurs and fascinated stares of the court. When they parted, Arwen turned to Lady Jerulas, lifting a long, slender hand to her cheek with an expression of sympathy.

“My poor Lady Jerulas. Are you not feeling well?”

Puzzled, Jerulas stammered, “I feel fine, Your Majesty. Why should you think otherwise?”

Arwen smiled her devastating smile. “Because it has not escaped my attention that you seem always to be out of sorts these days. It worries me. Prince Faramir has told me the tale of his mother, you see, and I begin to wonder if you might not be another lady like her, pining for the bracing sea air of Belfalas.”

Jerulas paled. “No, Your Majesty, I assure you that is not the case.”

The Queen gave her a level look, and the stars in those fathomless eyes burned cold of a sudden. “That is good to know. For if your disposition does not improve very quickly, then I will take steps to ensure your return to your home for your health’s sake. I shall insist upon it! I am responsible for the welfare of my ladies, and I will have no one suffering by dancing attendance upon me when it would be more beneficial to them to be elsewhere.”

To be sent home thusly by the Queen would have been social suicide, and Jerulas knew it. Even the veiled public chastisement she had just received would do her reputation no good. So she swallowed her pride and curtseyed once more.

“I promise you, Your Majesty, I will endeavor to be more cheerful in the future,’ she said, throwing resentful glances at both Brand and Hethlin.

“That pleases me.” In the next moment, the Queen turned her attention to Brand as well.

“Lord Brandmir.”

He gulped under the battery of those eyes, and bowed.

“Your Majesty?”

“My husband, indolent creature that he is, has informed me that he has danced sufficiently for now.” She gestured towards the thrones, where Aragorn was once more sitting, slouched comfortably with a goblet in his hand. He waggled the fingers of his free hand cheerfully at them, and Hethlin grinned and waved back. “I, however, have not.”

Brand took the hint. “Would it please Your Majesty to dance with me?”

“Such a clever young man you are. Yes, it would.”

In disbelief, Brand offered the vision before him his arm, and she took it, laying her hand upon his lightly as a feather. Mother would never believe this! came the almost hysterical thought, as he lifted his chin and led the Queen onto the dance floor. More murmuring arose from the surrounding courtiers, but he barely noticed it, intent upon the music, which, to his relief he recognized as a dance that he could do.

“Do you know this one?” she asked kindly.

“Yes, Your Majesty,” he said, adding honestly, “though I have been known to trip over my feet now and again.” They formed up and began to tread the measures. After the first few panicked moments, when he couldn’t remember which of his feet was right and which was left, Brand calmed and settled to the task before him.

“You are doing very well,” Arwen remarked encouragingly after a bit. “I’ve seen no tripping. But then, your father was a very good dancer too.”

Brand looked at her, startled. “You danced with my father?” The Queen nodded.

“Of course. At Rivendell. He stayed there for a couple of months before the Fellowship set out, and we had dances during that time. He moved very gracefully for such a large man.”

“Did you…like him?”

The Queen nodded. “I did, though I can’t claim to have known him well. I used to enjoy watching him with the young hobbits. He was a kind man.” Arwen smiled kindly at Brand and he almost stumbled, struck anew by her beauty. “I do not know how you feel about what happened between Captain Andrahar and your father, Brandmir, but I would have you remember something. The Elves believe that love, any sort of love, is never wrong, or wasted. And that love has always been behind the greatest victories against the Dark down the ages.”

Can she read my mind? Brand wondered. How else can she know what I wanted to speak with Uncle Faramir about? I haven’t even told him yet! “I will remember, my lady,” was all he could think of to say, but it must have been enough, for she smiled that blinding smile again. They did not speak through the remainder of the dance, until the Queen took his arm to be led back to her husband.

“The King and I were very glad when we heard that you had been found, Brandmir. We know that this has been a very great adjustment for you, and for your father’s sake, and in his memory, we will help you in any way we can. If ever you need us, you need only call upon us. You do know that, don’t you?”

“I do now, Your Majesty,” he managed to say steadily enough, and she laughed her silvery laugh.

“You are much like your father, ‘tis true, but I think perhaps a bit of your Grandy’s charm has rubbed off as well! I fear the court will be littered with broken hearts in a few years.”

“I think perhaps that it already is, Your Majesty, though I cannot claim to be responsible,” Brand said daringly. Arwen’s laugh rang forth again, just as they approached the thrones.

“I see,” said the King of Gondor as he watched them come, “that I had best retrieve my wife before you beguile her completely, my lord Brandmir!”

Brand gave Arwen’s hand to her husband and bowed. “There is no fear of that, Sire,” he said, and smiling a bit nervously added, “so long as you dance with her enough.”

“Ah! I am chastised, and rightly so!” Aragorn laughed. “I see amends must be made, and swiftly! Come, my love!” Nodding to Brand, he rose from his throne and swept his wife off towards the dancing.

His courtly chore finally completed, Brand went looking for Tathar and danced with her a couple of more times. He also danced with Hethlin-as well as two other young ladies who were introduced to him by their own fathers. It did not take long for him to realize that the Queen’s very public show of favor had done much to overcome the stigma of his illegitimacy, and he suspected that had been Arwen’s intention. Feeling much more at ease, he actually enjoyed the remainder of the evening. He eventually retired to the townhouse with his kinsmen and sought his rest, looking forward to the meeting with his uncle on the morrow.

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