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The Last Temptation
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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3
Chapter Three

"With what a childish and short-sighted sense 
Fear seeks for safety; recons up the days 
Of danger and escape, the hours and ways 
Of death; it breathless flies the pestilence; 
It walls itself in towers of defence; 
By land, by sea, against the storm it lays 
Down barriers; then, comforted, it says: 
"This spot, this hour is safe." Oh, vain pretence! 
Man born of man knows nothing when he goes; 
The winds blow where they list, and will disclose 
To no man which brings safety, which brings risk. 
The mighty are brought low by many a thing 
Too small to name. Beneath the daisy's disk 
Lies hid the pebble for the fatal sling. "
-Helen Hunt Jackson (Danger)



Since there would be no climbing atop the Meneltarma, the festival proper was not set to start until early evening. Those who had not received an invitation to the King's Summer Palace were not constrained by such protocol and began celebrations in earnest long before dawn. There were fireworks to greet the new day, street performers, music, drink... As he watched the crowds of revelers from his balcony in his grandfather's house, their suggestive dancing brought clarity to one aspect of the whole arrangement that had been bothering him, but he had hitherto been unable to articulate. It was a sudden revelation when the pieces finally fit together, but one that filled him with dread, and he rushed out of his room in search of Amandil. After searching through libraries and sitting-rooms, he  found him in one of the gardens, busy helping Haldor plant and prune some  roses.

"Ah, Anarinya!" cried Haldor, with a wink. "Best to do it during the full moon, you know." Then, more seriously, "It seems a bit more appropriate to commemorate this day with nature than out in the streets like the rest of them."

But, Anarion was not interested in roses today. Brushing back the hair that had fallen over his eyes as he ran, he asked, a little breathless, "Will the King have to, officially, establish Sauron's status in the island?"

"Do you mean give him a title?" asked Amandil, stabbing a patch of earth with his trowel.

"Well... shouldn't the Council have to authorize his being here?Do they have to figure out his place in the hierarchy? I mean, what is he, whilst here? What can he do?"

"Establish whether he is here as a slave, or vassal, or land-owner? Something like that?" asked Haldor, looking at them both in turn, but lingering on Amandil as he waited for the reply.

"He already sits for public audience," Anarion said. "More than a trial, it feels like a school. Is that legal?"

Amandil looked up at the sun, wiped sweat from his brow with his forearm, grimaced. "The law does not provide an official clause for it-- as a war prisoner, it is left to the King's discretion, assuming that the decision was made in haste and the Council could not be convened."

"The King can do whatever he wishes, then; the Council is just a figure."

"It has been thus for a while now, Anarinya, but why so interested?" asked Amandil, removing his gloves and gesturing for Anarion to bring him a glass from a nearby table. Grateful for the distraction, Anarion obliged, lingering longer than was needful for such a simple task, serving Haldor a glass, as well. After both had drank, he returned the glasses to the table, and faced them with another question.

"Is there a way to countermand the decision? Could it be brought before the Council as a violation of law?"

"It could, but who would wish to put the king at odds before the Council? That would mark you a target for his wrath." Amandil shook his head. "It would be foolish beyond belief. And I have never known you to be foolish. Tell me, Anarion, what do you really wish to ask?"

Anarion took a deep breath and shoved his hands inside his side pockets. "Would it be unprecedented for the King to reward a war prisoner?"

"Reward?" both his grandparents chorused, looking at each other then at him, equally puzzled.

"I think we ought to sit down for this," Haldor said, leading them both back to the terrace.

They were brought fruit, pastries, and drinks, which Anarion declined as he sat in one of the chairs that overlooked the herb garden to the other side of the balcony. Gathering his scattered thoughts to ask the proper question was not easy, and the more he pondered the dilemma, the more certain he became that finding the answer on his own would have been the easier course despite the work involved. As he watched his grandparents eat, and saw himself watched in turn, he knew that they would read in his question more than he was putting in it.

"Oh, well, so be it," he muttered to himself before facing them to speak. "Could the King, lawfully, take from a Numenorean citizen to give to a slave?"

"Take property?" asked Amandil.

"Take anything. We have seen him take from Faithful-citizens and give to friends of his, but would the law support him in the gifting to an enemy?" Anarion scratched his beard, sighed. "I mean, could one fight that, with the law?"

"I suppose you could," said Amandil. "But it would be a mess in court, not to mention the possibility of retaliation. Which is why you wondered if he would officially title Sauron?"

"In which case there would be nothing for anybody to do, things being as they are," finished Haldor, wiping pastry crumbs from the corner of his mouth, pushing aside his napkin with a small, apologetic smile. "It was not always so. What do you think he is trying to gift?"

Anarion shook his head. "I think we all agree that this whole festival is a setup but, until Eralmir mentioned it the other night, it had not occurred to me that it could possibly be Sauron the one being set up." His grandparents looked meaningfully at each other.

"Do you think Pharazon could have something else in mind besides the obvious show of power?"

"You have been to the Middle-earth," Anarion said. "You know best what Sauron is likely to have seen there and what he'll be seeing here. Do you really think it is all as impressive as everyone believes?"

"You have heard the stories of Pharazon's might," Amandil said, "How his magnificence was such that Sauron was utterly humbled--"

"Yes, but who told the stories, Atarinya? I know what Numenor can offer, which is almost as wild and amazing as one's dreams dare to be, but I have to believe that Elves can do better, if all the legends are true. Could our craft truly compete with that of the Elves?"

"Assuming he knows the Elves..."

"Oh, he knows them," Anarion said. "And Pharazon knows he knows them; he has to!"

"Speak your mind," son, said Haldor, taking the seat next to his, placing a hand on Anarion's shoulder. "There is more to this sudden worry than you are letting out. Do you think Pharazon would take property from a Numenorean to give to his vassal?"

"Property would be the least of it," Anarion whispered as his fist balled against his thigh.

Amandil looked at him for a long moment before his eyes widened. "You think Pharazon will offer him a woman!"

"How can a king display wealth and munificence better than through riches and women? Ostentatious parties, expensive gifts, weapons, horses, ships, litters--"

"But nothing lures a man better than a woman," Amandil finished, leaning forward. "Or many. Do you think Sauron would be fool enough to let himself be seduced by a woman?"

"He does not have to be seduced for the illusion to work," said Anarion, rising from his chair. "And, if it is true, as has been claimed, that Pharazon's intent in bringing Sauron to the island is the ability it affords to watch him closely-- what better way to tie him to the land than through a Numenorean wife?"

"But Pharazon has no daughters..." Haldor had began, but he must have read something in Anarion's face when he said, "You fear for Elenwe's safety."

"Eralmir would never allow it," said Amandil.

"But would Eralmir have a say? Elenwe's mother is a kinswoman through Inzilbeth and Miriel's own mother, Aduninzil," said Haldor.

"He has closer kinswomen whom he could maneuver into such a marriage."

"But none possesses the wealth nor the influence that Erassuil's family holds in the island."

"Haldor," Amandil called, rising only to guide Anarion back to his chair, "do you really see that happening? Elenwe married to a stranger from Middle-earth?"

"Don't you try to shield me, Atarinya, I know how it works. Even if you tried to make me believe my fears are unfounded, a misgiving has settled on my heart that will not be vanquished. Something is about to happen. What, or when, I know not, but I would be a fool to dismiss it."

"Should we warn Eralmir?" asked Haldor, to no one in particular, but it was Amandil who answered.

"I think it premature. And counterproductive. Elenwe cannot hide forever, and her not attending tonight would be misconstrued."

"Let us hope that she can pass the night unremarked."

Anarion could not help but laugh at that.


***

They all made their way to the Summer Palace in what could only be described as a procession. So many people were out on the streets, and so many making their way to the palace, that they could not take more than a couple of steps before bumping into someone or being stopped. All around him, as far as he could see, there were people about, and no way of breaking free from the crowd. Today, of all days...

"We'll make it in due time, Anarion," said Isildur, putting his hand on Anarion's shoulder and giving it a firm squeeze, "focus on the road ahead and stop fretting. We waste more time with you stopping every pace or two trying to find a different way."

Anarion did not bother to reply, but he heard Amandil whisper something that made Isildur stop his teasing.

"The whole city, and two or three of the villages, at least, must have turned out to see the Middle-earth vassal," said Eilinel, sending one of her warm, sympathetic smiles to him.

"They call him Vassal now," said his father, with a snort. "I thought he came here as a slave."

"He came here a pledge for his good conduct," Anarion said. "Apparently, he is being rather well-behaved; might be promoted to ally next."

"Maybe. In all but name," said Amandil. "Pharazon is proud and would never acknowledge his dependence. He would be a fool to do so."

"Sauron got himself here already," whispered Anarion, "which is the most incredible feat, by far. After that, few things would truly surprise me."

"You're forgetting the voice, too," said Isildur. It was a strange comment, but Anarion had no time to pursue a better explanation for they were at the palace doors, and guards were asking for their tokens before ushering them in.

"Careful in this crowd," said Elendil, pinning them both with that stern glance that broke no argument. "No antics, Isildur. Anarion, watch him. And, you--" he said, with that special glance he saved for him alone, "you have become too stern. Do try to enjoy yourself; it would be dangerous not to." Their mother kept looking back over her shoulder at them as she was whisked away by their father but, thankfully, said nothing.

"What he meant was to try and be a little less yourselves," Amandil said, with a wink. "Sometimes, parents worry too much, don't they? But caution is not unwarranted, until we know more." With that, he left them.

"They are so different," Isildur said as he watched them make their way around the room, "that sometimes I wonder how they can be father and son."

"It may account for the experience. They essentially said the same thing, but Atarinya knows that we're more likely to obey if there is some leeway in the instruction."

That made Isildur laugh so hard that a few heads turned their way. His brother's laughter warmed something in Anarion's heart, put him so in mind of earlier, easier times, that he was able to set aside the real reason for all his impatience and laugh along.  Only for a moment. Soon enough, the large collection of women who had assembled, who were already looking to flock around him and his brother, reminded him of his errand quickly enough.

"Well, what now?" asked Isildur, as he surveyed the room from their place at the entrance. "It is rather difficult to enjoy yourself with so many entreaties for caution. They have already dampened whatever enthusiasm I was feeling for this party."

"Don't whine. I know you are extremely interested to be here tonight. Perhaps it was the way those sweet-natured girls-- over there by the fruit sculptures-- were regarding you that has made you hesitant?"

"Oh, bay waters!" he cried. "I promised Saptheth that I would dance with her next time, but her father has made it so ridiculously difficult for me to hold my sway with the guild that I doubt if I can summon a smile for her."

"Remember," Anarion said, wagging a finger at him, "no antics!"

"Traitor..."

Anarion snickered, turned around to search the crowd. He still had not determined what course would be best: should he speak to one of the brothers, he doubted the effectiveness of the message. Should he speak with Elenwe herself... well, assuming she would speak with him at all. Frankly, he was a little scared to approach her; she had looked so angry last night, and anger always made her so determined. The last thing he wanted to do was to throw her in the arms of some drifter and have that in his conscience also. What was clear was that he had to warn her somehow, however he could manage. But, to do that, he had to find her first and the room was flooded with women, more than half of them, surprisingly, wearing white.

"Stop that, it's embarrassing," he heard the whisper in his ear. "Let's go down the steps where people won't see you searching so hard."

"If we go down I'll lose vantage--" he protested, but Isildur was already leading him down.

"Don't worry, she's not here yet, but if you keep searching for her so conspicuously you'll give yourself away."

"I am not looking-- she's not here? How do you know?" Isildur's knowing, amused grin, made him see his blunder. "Who do you think I was looking for?" he then asked, trying to cover up the lapse, but Isildur was already snorting and shaking his head.

"Anarion, Anarion..." he said with a sigh and, unexpectedly, took to adjusting Anarion's shirt collar, smoothing his shirt, pushing back the short hair that kept falling on his eyes.

"Let it go, Isildur, you are treating me as if I were a lad."

"Then stop acting like one," Isildur said, his tone and look hard, serious. "Stop lying to others, and most of all to yourself, or the world will keep moving on without you. And, if you are planning to ask Elenwe for a dance, you had best get to it at once; she is sure to have many requests."

"Why are you telling me this?" he asked, mussing anew the hair that Isildur had pretended to straighten for him.

Isildur shrugged his shoulders and turned around. "I see Emeldil," he said and, with that, walked away, leaving Anarion to brave the crowd by himself.

Lips curled in annoyance at his brother. That he had not missed. He was fifteen years into his majority yet they all, always, had a wealth of unwanted advice to offer. The smiles of a group of mothers to his left brought him back to the present. A ball-- This ball-- was, by all accounts, the wrong place to sulk. If Isildur had seen Emeldil, surely Elenwe could not be too far away?

He had to make his way through cluster upon cluster of people, all the time wondering when the King would choose to appear. He saw some of the guild masters and craftsmen from other guilds with whom he was acquainted, some of the ladies from the Historical Document Preservation Society, a couple of Physicians who hailed him to ask for the health of the friend he had brought to them the other day-- them he dismissed fast--, Abrazir the librarian... 

She could not be in this corner of the room; better to retrace his way and climb up the steps again. He had to turn and nod at all those he had already passed, and was just muttering an acknowledgment to the lady Naruphel when he lifted eyes to the entrance and--

"Oh--" he whispered, unable to keep going. "Valar..."

The air was knocked from his lungs when an elbow collided against his ribs.

"Idiot!" he heard, and had to tear his eyes away to find the owner of the voice. "Lucky you are that it was I who happened to pass you. What, in the name of blazes, are you doing? You never swear!"

He vaguely registered Arandar's presence, but could not bring himself to mutter more than a passing thank-you. Immediately he turned back to see Eranion coming down the steps, and the vision that came down with him. Eranion smiled, waved. They were coming.

"Is she worth a beheading?" he knew that Arandar asked him.

"It is worse than I ever dared to imagine," he heard himself reply from a faraway place.

Sooner than he had time to recover they were before him, greeting them (if she did not speak to him, he never knew it). Eranion was very pleased to see Arandar, Elenwe even hugged him. Arandar was pleased in turn, told Elenwe how beautiful she looked, thanked them for the fruit they had sent him. She smiled her thanks and Anarion realized that, after tonight, he could never again look at her and see the girl he used to know. She was beautiful, with that white silk on that hinted at all the right curves in all the right places. A woman.

And her voice was sultry and soft. To her brother. She was leaving.

He woke from the daze, managed to hold on to her wrist.

"You are not wearing that tonight, are you?" he asked, clearly the wrong thing, since three pairs of eyes trained on him at once-- shocked, bewildered, angry.

"Oh-hum... I never thought you would side with me on this one," Eranion said with that small grimace that told him he had already argued his case, unsuccessfully.

"I would reconsider that, if I were you," said Arandar. Then, in a whisper, "Are you sure that is what you meant to say?"

But he shook his head, turned to Eranion. "How could you? Of all of your brothers... How could you let her out like this?"

"I am right here," she said, taking a step or two-- or three-- closer, coming between him and her brother. "If you have something to say, you may say it to me."

And he had much to say. And he would get to it in a moment, if she would just let him. If she would just-- "Step back a pace--"

"What?" That tilt of the head and the upward glance that entranced him so, and he had to find some air.

"Step back a pace," he repeated, for lack of a clearer notion, taking a deep breath as he moved back himself. "Have you any idea what all the men in this room are thinking about?"

She blinked her eyes twice.

"Even my aunt-- my aunt who frets about the appropriateness of female correspondence!-- had nothing but compliments to give about my gown, if you have any objection to it."

"Lissilome is clearly losing her wits."

"How dare you, Anarion?"

"How dare you-- latching on to what I said last night to come up with this-- this-- this-- display!"

"You are gesturing to all me as if there is something wrong with me-- as if I am doing something wrong," she said, stepping closer again, making it harder for him to think. "Do not make the mistake of believing that your tasteless taunt prompted my choice. Eralmir had this made for me months ago."

"Eralmir too is going mad if this is what he can produce and I will have to have words with him."

"Anarion, you go too far," she had begun to say, but the trumpets blared then and a hush fell over the room as loyal-- and not so loyal-- subjects prepared to receive Ar-Pharazon the Great and his Queen Zimraphel. Or, rather, their guest-- the face they had all come tonight to see.

A way was opened for the royal group to descend by way of the staircase Anarion had helped design, as a favor to one of the masters. He muttered his thanks that the uses it had been put to had been so innocuous; the nightmares he had had about it had been cruel and unwarranted. 

Long moments stretched while the King made his way through the throng and Anarion's earlier doubts about his magnificence came to haunt him, for never had he seen anyone-- anything-- as magnificent and golden as Pharazon as he stepped lightly next to them, with his Queen clinging to his arm, wearing that proud smile that told all who would read it that she was, actually, happy to be there. When Sauron followed, flanked by two guards-- there to protect him, or protect them all?-- Anarion felt Elenwe inch closer to him, grip his forearm.

In the blink of an eye they had passed, like a waking dream, and everyone could breathe again.

"Is that him?" Elenwe asked in a whisper. "He looks--"

"Like an Elf."

She gave a small gasp, turned to him with a keen, worried glance that would not waver. Shortly afterwards, the other two did likewise.

"You are fast developing a penchant for saying all the wrong things," said Eranion, with a crooked smile. "We'll have to be presented, I gather."

"The sooner, the better," Arandar said. "The King surely has a card up his sleeve, and I won't be at ease until he has revealed it."

The look they exchanged unsettled him. Eranion was putting his arm around Elenwe's shoulders, presumably to lead her to the family group to await introductions, when someone hailed him and he had to turn away. It was now or never! 

Pulling her to himself, he removed one of the gardenias that she had tucked behind her ear and leaned toward her.

"There are things about these people," he whispered, close to her ear, "that you do not know, and that would chill your blood were you to hear of them. Please, I beg you, Elenwe... Watch yourself. Stay out of trouble!"

That frown right between her eyes made its appearance, and the sudden urge to stretch his hand and wipe it away threatened to overcome him. But, just then, he felt a pull as if a thread were connecting with him from across the room. When he looked up, Sauron was watching him.

***

Arnuzir, formerly named Galdor, the King's herald, announced that all courtiers would be presented before the King in groups with their families. The thought fleeted through his mind that it would be easier to face so much splendor if he was not going to be alone, and after that encounter he could use all the help he could get. Sauron's glance on him had been distressing and unwelcome-- could not have come at a worse time. What had he seen, and what had he made of it? On the wings of that thought came the caution that Pharazon had, likely, a purpose for parading them all before a stranger, but what could it be?

He had not long to think before he could hazard a guess. His family was one of the first to always come forward and, when he spotted them, he was struck by the elegant arrangement they made. Tall, beautiful, elegant women; strong, brave, important men-- captains, merchants, council-members, with a pedigree as impressive as the King's. If Pharazon was seeking to remind his guest that they had rightful claim of descent from the most noble bloodlines in the world, he was set for success.

On the other hand, did any of that matter?

He was not able to reach his father' side before Arnuzir announced, "The Lords of Andunie!" amid whispers and quiet cheers and, he was certain, the occasional sigh. Amandil came forward with Issilome beside him, followed closely by his parents. The herald, quite solemnly, named them all, "The lord Amandil son of Numendil, eighteenth lord of Andunie in direct descent from Silmarien, firstborn to Tar-Elendil, and her husband Elatan of Andunie. His wife, the lady Issilome daughter of Insilsar of Andunie. Their son, Elendil, heir to the lordship of Andunie and captain of the ship Foamstar of the trades-guild of Numenor. His wife, the lady Nessilenwe of Romenna, daughter of Haldor of Romenna and his wife, Eilinel of Nindamos. Their sons, Isildur, second in succession to the lordship of Andunie, and captain of the unincorporated ship Foam Princess; and Anarion--" and there was that slight hesitation that overcame all when they sought to put a name to his seemingly discordant occupations.
  
Arnuzir cleared his throat, glanced at him from the parchment from which he read-- maybe seeking for clarification? But he gave him none, advancing, instead, to join his brother a few feet away and below the King and the beautiful lady Zimraphel. To the King's right, he did not look.

"Be welcome, lords," Pharazon said, loudly enough for all to hear, clasping arms with his father and grandparents. The ladies received kisses, and exchanged them also with the Queen. Turning to him, he said, "Anarion, what do you do these days, as my herald seems to be at a loss?"

"I build ships, my lord."

A puzzled brow rose on Pharazon's face. "Are you working with the carpenters and builders?"

"No, my lord. I work with the engineers."

"I see," he said, attempting a smile that told Anarion that he really did not see. "I do not remember signing your license."

"I have not passed review yet, but I have completed the studies. I will receive accreditation when I pass review of my final project."

"I will make sure that you do," he said, oddly pleased, if Anarion was reading that curl of the lip, that gleam of the eye, in the right light. He then turned to explain to Sauron how the guilds worked and how profitable for Numenor to be commercially and academically organized in such a manner-- a rather long explanation, made painful by the fact that the King was, in theory, still addressing him also. When he was done, he turned back to Anarion, positively excited this time. "Lad, then, what is your final project? Share it with us!"

His astonishment was such that, forgetting himself, he searched for the King's eye and held it, without leave. His station allowed him the liberty, but it was a bold, reckless move; and, what was more, revealed too much of his nature that could be used against him. He noticed, with discomfort, that Sauron's distant, assessing look, had acquired an amused quality to it, slightly perceptible, but enough for him to remark it. The King's disregard for his privacy vexed him, but not as much as Sauron's did. Trying to appear unruffled, he summoned a smile and bowed low. Since he had already marked himself a proud boy, best to go on as he had began and show he was not concerned with ingratiating himself before royalty, either. It was a gamble; he hoped the King went for it.

"My lord will forgive me if I decline," he said, this time careful to keep his eyes where they were supposed to be. "I would not want the wrong ears to hear of my work before the guild masters have had a chance to examine it first."

Pharazon seemed taken aback but, when Sauron broke into laughter-- a laughter that dispelled all animosity-- so did he. "You do not want someone else copying you! Good, good, Anarion. I shall personally ensure that your work is examined as soon as I receive word that it is ready. You are both dismissed. Enjoy the celebrations."

Anarion inclined his head and was forced to include Sauron in his bow, lest he attracted even more unwanted notice for his rudeness.

As they withdrew to a corner to watch the rest of the proceedings, Isildur whispered to him, "Exactly what any hard-working man could wish: to have the King promise, within hearing of guild masters and patrons, to personally make sure you pass review. What a start to anyone's career! Everyone will be doubting your true talent now."

"What would you know... that is, suddenly, not the worst of my concerns."

Isildur stepped closer to reply but he moved forward, instead, as Eralmir's family was being called forth and he needed to see how Elenwe would be received.

The House of Erador was, at least, twice as large as his own, and equally ancient as their family descended from Isilme, second daughter to Tar-Elendil; but, all their sires having passed out of the circles, Eralmir and his siblings had more preeminence within their own family circle than he himself had within his. Pharazon was bound to clasp arms with the siblings, give a customary kiss to Lalriel, the lady of the house. Anarion saw with dismay how, in a breach of custom, he gave Elenwe one, also. By the King's own invitation, Sauron stepped forward to greet them all in the same way. From where he was, he could see the slight falter on Lalriel's step and the unnatural rigidity of Elenwe's back and shoulders. She was still angry, maybe even scared; yet, from his position, he could not detect anything in Sauron's demeanor that bespoke of any interest, except at the end. When he lifted eyes from his bow to Elenwe, Sauron's face sought, briefly, his.

He was sure his emotions betrayed him then, but Sauron's expression did not show him how. He was the same mask of aloofness-- if it could be called that when he was deliberately seeking him out in such a daring way.

The introductions continued and, as unsettled as he was, he did not have to pretend to show indifference-- he was too busy with his anxious thoughts to notice much else. A long time passed before all the nobles had, finally, been presented. In the end the King came forward, with Sauron at his right arm, and Anarion hoped that it was a fancy that made his heart rate quicken in just the way it did when his misgivings were about to be proved true.

He tried hard to keep his eyes on Pharazon, but he was only interested in finding Elenwe in the crowd to gauge how she was taking all, to see who was beside her. Engaged in such a way, he missed the first half of the King's speech. The applause brought him back.

"...Conquerors we are! Conquerors of the world! And our wealth and wisdom will extend to all coasts of Arda and beyond, where there are men living in the darkness of ignorance. And, that the majesty of the Sea Kings be known unto all, I have brought Sauron here to bear witness of our power and the wealth and ease of our kingdom. As a token of my goodwill, I have offered him two coffers of silver and gold each, and a necklace of mithril from my mines in the Blue Mountains. And, today, I also offer him whatever woman he desires for his own." Pharazon stretched his right arm to take Sauron's and clasped it in what could only be interpreted as a token of alliance, gesturing toward the hall with his left. "You will have all week to observe them as they join my celebrations, and you shall have your pick of the choicest maidens of Numenor. This honor is rarely bestowed upon any vassal."

The King need not have added that last. When moments before he had been a war 'guest,' he was now offered citizenship-- nobility-- together with the King's favor. Sauron had to be conscious of the implications of all that yet, Anarion thought, the smile he offered was strained, at best.

For his part, Anarion felt to cry in rage at the King's insolence in pretending to give away what had never been his. Some physical sign of his turmoil must have shown, for Isildur wrapped his left arm around his shoulders as if to restrain him. He promptly shrugged it off.

"How can you remain so calm?" he asked. Lowering his tone, "What right has he, without approval from the council, to turn a war prisoner into a prince of Numenor?"

"He is the King, Anarion, he can do--"

But, as if that were not enough of a shock for one night, the King added, "I will further honor the young men of my realm with privileges as marks of the royal favor. Each night of celebration, one of you will be chosen and gifted with the honor to oversee the celebrations beside me and my Queen. You will be given the task of choosing a partner to enjoy this privilege with you. The first of these shall be Isildur son of Elendil, a man both strong and wise, who will go far in the service of King and country. Come to me, Isildur. Enjoy this well-earned honor."

When all eyes fell on them, they were still fighting each other. Isildur let go at once, but otherwise remained nailed to the spot, unsure what to do, Anarion thought, and still mindful of him standing beside him.  Still, when the horns and drums played the next fanfare, his brother had no choice but to go, joining the King at the dais.

"Tell us, Isildur," the King ordered, "who shall be your Queen tonight?"

Isildur looked a far cry from his handsome, confident self, still astonished, unable to focus his glance or close his mouth for two moments together. Anarion could see those dark eyes darting about, trying to find a way out of the scrape he was in. The women in the room were in a flurry-- married and unmarried alike-- adjusting cleavages and rearranging jewelry as they awaited the announcement that would, arguably, change their lives.

When Isildur opened his mouth to speak, Anarion's heart rose to his chest then plummeted to the pit of his stomach.

"Ele--" he began, but someone's gasp blurred the sound of his brother's voice and he could not hear the whole of it. His heart knew, however. Before the herald had a chance to announce it to the crowd, his eyes were seeking her, and found her just as the full purport of the word sank in and prompted that widening of eyes, that hand to her mouth.

"Elenwe," cried Arnuzir, "daughter of Erador, from the house of the lords of Romenna."

***

Anarion did not drink for pleasure. Wine always tasted too tart, ale too sweet, and he despised what fools men became when they had had their fill of either; so, years earlier, he had decided to forego drink when he could not control his consumption. He was considering to break his vow tonight, but he was angry, so angry, that he knew he would let himself go if he had so much as a swallow.

The night breeze brought him wafts of music from the hall but, no matter how hard he shut his eyes, how much he tried to focus his awareness on his core, like he had learned from his sword masters, he could not vanish from his mind-- could not quench that horrible feeling of despair that had shrouded him when he saw Elenwe being taken upstairs.  

The worst of it was that she had also sought him. And had found him. In one awful moment the whole world had shrunk into a kernel where only they two existed, before Pharazon's guards escorted her to Isildur. He could not shake the certainty that Sauron had marked it, and it made his stomach twist with anxiety. 

After that, the whole evening had spiraled into disaster. His duty was to stay and asses the damage done, but the wreck his emotions were creating for him made it incredibly difficult to pretend to be doing anything other than spying on Elenwe as she dined. Forgetting that he had heard jealous men and women reluctantly remark on the suitability of the choice, the gown, the alliance, the trouble Sauron could create for Isildur if they both settled eye on the same girl-- it was beyond him. The fifth or sixth time that someone asked whether he had known of Isildur's interest in Erador's daughter, he stormed out of the room.

It had been foolish to think that he would be left to nurse his anger alone, but he was found much too soon and before he had had time enough to force through a mask of composure that would appease whoever confronted him. Amandil must have sensed it on some primal level, for he did not address him right away. His grandfather stood beside him in silence for a long while-- long enough that Anarion almost forgot that he was there. The next thing he did, he reached for Anarion's left fist and, as gently as he could, pried it off the railing.

"I know you are angry, even without seeing in what state you left," he said, softly. When no answer came, he added, "I never knew Isildur to disregard your advice before. Something must have made him--"

"He did not know. I did not tell him anything of our conversation."

That seemed to surprise Amandil. "He blundered, then."

"Does that make him less selfish, sir?" he asked. "Could he not see what he was doing? No, because he was only thinking of how he would be creating expectations in any other woman he picked, and he could not have that. Elenwe was a safe choice for him; he has no idea what he's done!" he cried, and crouched to the floor, burying his head between his palms. "And that makes it so hard for me to hold it against him-- he didn't know... Even that is my fault."

Amandil knelt beside him, pressed his hand against Anarion's back.

"Maybe there was no damage done," he said, tentatively. "I rather doubt that the King would make trouble for Isildur."

"But the King gave Sauron free choice, which is so entirely unfathomable."

"Sauron would be a fool to put himself in opposition to the King's friends so soon into his sojourn here." That made Anarion look up. "He does not strike me as the sort of man who would jeopardize his safety. I would entreat you to wait and see."

"Easier said than done," he said, with a sigh as he sat on the ground. "When we were in there, he looked at me like he knew me. Every time I sought Elenwe out he was there, following my every move. Ah, I know it's a fancy-- there is nothing remarkable in me that would make him single me from among all the others, but I felt it nonetheless--That horrible, sickening feeling that he knows my turmoil and is enjoying it."

Amandil sat beside him and, for a while, did nothing but look at the stars. As a sailor he knew the sky like he knew the palm of his hand; Anarion had loved to hear those stories when young.

"You're wrong," Amandil said, at length. "There is so much in you that makes you special. If only by the way you handled yourself when the King asked you about your work. You were bold, decisive, completely disregarding of his opinion. It was marvelous."

"Probably foolish."

"Probably. But that told everybody that you will not let yourself be bossed around. That has to be appealing to someone like Sauron, who now owes his life to the King. It must be humiliating. There's also the business of your work."

"That keeps coming up," Anarion said. He grabbed hold of one of his sandal laces and began to, absently, unravel it. "Why is it that everyone finds it such a strange thing that I work? No one understands it; no one, except--"

Elenwe. The word hung between them like a tangible thing, and the realization made his frustration begin to mount once more. What was happening in there? Had he thrown her to the wolves? How was he ever going to fix what had happened tonight?

"I do wonder, however," Amandil said, after a while, "why would Pharazon seek to distinguish Isildur in such a way. Isildur is worthy of distinction, to be sure, but in so honoring him Pharazon has brought him to Sauron's notice, as well as the girl he picked. Pharazon may be many things, but he is not a fool; he has a reason for this, whatever that may be."

"Do you think it could have been a test of his loyalty?"

A long pause. "It is a possibility."

"In which case Elenwe really is in danger."

"As are we all," said Amandil, "though that seems to be a secondary concern to you. Why are you so worried about her, Anarion?" Amandil hesitated there, looked at him, briefly, before fixing eyes back in Earendil. "Do you love her?"

He jerked at that. Love? "It is not about love, but about duty."

"And yet your duty ends with the warning. Once you have warned her, the next steps should be up to her."

"How can you say that? You are the one who swore to her grandfather."

"And I would swear again, a million times over, but what you are doing here is different. It disrespects her when you overstep; it shows her you do not trust her to take appropriate action. Your fierceness in wanting to keep her from harm does not speak of friendship, or even duty-- You would even have quarrel with your brother over her. When anger clouds your judgment-- your usual good judgment-- there is always something more, Anarinya."

"Are you saying you are on Isildur's side?"

"I am saying you ought to search yourself."

After that, there was nothing more to say. Search himself, for what? He nodded, rose, turned back to his grandfather, "Becoming wife to an unknown adversary from the East is not a fate that I would wish upon any Numenorean woman, much less Elenwe. She was a friend-- a real friend to me-- for many years and, apart though we have drifted, her kindnesses to me are burned in the heart. I will not see her wed to Sauron for Isildur's selfishness."

As he walked away, the wind carried to him a whisper of his grandfather's words, "Isildur's selfishness, or your own?"

***

The night was long and hot, made worse by the noise from the street that would not abate. His head throbbed like a forge and that wretched burning in the pit of his stomach threatened to drive him insane, yet those were nothing to the mental anguish for what he had done. He was, generally, quite good at pretending-- his survival thus far had hinged on his skill. Why had tonight been such an utter failure?

The scenes from the party played themselves in torturous succession for him, his lapses making him groan. What made him lose control so badly? What would the consequences be? 

How could he face his life knowing Elenwe was completely severed from it?

The mere possibility was staggering. 

He could not let it happen. 

But, how?

Indulging in self-pity would only serve to make things worse, and would bring him no closer to his goal, which seemed clear for the first time in years: he had to find a way to keep Elenwe safe. He rose from his spot on the floor to make some tea to ease the heartburn and headache so he could, at least, think. But, of course, he had run out of chamomile flowers-- 

With a deep grunt, he sank once more onto the ground.

When he had finally began to doze off, a loud knock at the door woke him with a start, bringing back the throbbing with violence. The force and character of the knock, its complete disregard of time and the implicit demand to be answered-- he knew that knock, and it made him groan.

"Open the door now, I know you are awake!"

"Go away, Isildur," he cried from his spot, "I do not wish to speak with you."

"Why would you not?"

Unbelievable! "I have a headache."

"Of course you have a headache, and likely heartburn also; I shall make you tea."

"I already had tea," he lied. Isildur was the last person he wished to see, at least until he had somewhat sorted the emotions that completely overwhelmed him earlier. Isildur would not understand, would only give him the usual one-sided advice and, in his current mood, he was not sure how he would react to it.

"I will make you more," he cried, though the supposed gentleness had that edge of authority to it. "Come now, Anarion, open the door!"

The knocking continued for a long while. Anarion tried to ignore it, but every strike made something split his head in two-- it was that awful. 

"Open the door! I'm getting tired of this..."

"Then go away!" he cried, reaching for the first thing he could find without moving-- his sandal-- and launching it against the door. The collision created a loud thump that took Isildur by surprise, making him even louder.

"This is ridiculous, Anarion!"

By the bay waters-- he muttered, finally rising.

"What is ridiculous--" he said, partially opening the door, "is how little regard you have for other people's choice. What makes you think that you will be obeyed every single time, just for the asking?"

"Well, I am being obeyed right now," he said, pushing the door open and strolling past him.

"You don't see it, do you?"

"See what?" he asked, already taking off his own shoes and unbuttoning the collar of his festival shirt. "This place is a mess."

"Yes. Well, I have no one to clean my things, like you do," Anarion said, taking seat on the chair by his door, propping elbows on his thighs and burying his head within his hands.

"That is entirely by your own choice. You could be home with us! There is plenty for you to do to help in Father's home, believe it or not."

"Why is it so hard for everyone to see how important this," here he gestured around him-- his house, his work, his independence, "is to me?"

"Because it has made you aloof and secretive, and that is not like you. You used to hate lies and deception, yet I hear lies from you at every turn now."

"I will not be accused in my own house when I am fighting so hard for restraint to keep from lashing out at you!"

"You are?" Isildur asked, stopping mid-way to the kitchen. "What did I do?"

"The very fact that you don't know what you did is telling enough," Anarion said, rising. "How can you live so oblivious to the consequences of your own selfish decisions?"

"If you have a quarrel with me you better tell me what it is. I value plainness-- unlike some other people I know."

"Oh, come now, Isildur-- do you really not know?"

"Only women expect others to be able to read their minds."

"I suppose hoping for you to realize on your own was asking too much," he said, sitting back, still looking at his brother. Isildur was flushed and frowning, standing with arms akimbo at the entrance to his small kitchen. "How could you, Isildur? Of all the women who would have gladly thrown themselves at you..."

"Oh, for shame, you know it didn't mean anything! You know I don't care for Elenwe; not like you do. I just-- I suppose I just needed somebody to--"

"Yes, you needed somebody to help you remain unattached and uncommitted, and she was the perfect choice, wasn't she? How could you? Do you think the King and his confederate were not likely to notice her when she was sitting right there at their table? How dull can you be?" he cried, louder, rising again, this time, closing the distance between them on three strides. "The King told him to find himself a woman and, there you go, making it easier for him by picking him out the prettiest one."

"The King won't let Sauron have her if he thinks I'm interested!"

"Can you be sure?" Anarion asked, very close to him "How long will you be interested? A day? A week, a month?" Isildur merely looked back at him, but Anarion could see that the lines around his eyes had softened at that. He truly had not thought that far ahead. "You are not willing to keep The pretense permanently."

"I don't have to, I have you for that," he said, leaning against the doorframe and crossing arms over his chest. "If you would stop arguing with her for two moments together, you would be able to tell her how you feel and maybe she would believe you."

That made Anarion flinch. "You have no right to say that. No right! You cannot possibly know how I feel."

"Because you have never told me. What happened between you, Anarion?"

"You know what happened: we argued. Things were said that should not have been said."

"That tells me nothing to explain the mask of animosity."

"It isn't a mask."

"You very well know it is. Everybody can see how much you care for her, and she for you."

"How could we not, growing up together as we did?" he said, turning to pace back away to his living room. The place was so small that he could not pace long and rounded back, sharply, on Isildur. "None of that changes matters as they are now. You've put her in harm's way, and now we have to find a way to fix that."

"Do not be so melodramatic. A dinner is hardly a marriage contract."

"Clearly you are out of touch with the times," Anarion said with a snort as he, too, leaned his head back against the doorframe in the kitchen. "Pharazon owns us all, in all but name. He does whatever he wants with little opposition, people are so scared to get in his way."

That gave Isildur pause, but only briefly. He came back with a vengeance, "You may blame me for my selfishness if she gets snatched away from you, but it will be no one's fault but your own."

"How so? I am not the one who paraded her among a court of vultures."

"If you were so worried, you should not have left," Isildur muttered under his breath, but he heard it clearly, and must have shown some emotion when his brother leaned forward and gave him a ruthless, cruel smile. "Who is selfish now?"

He had no reply to that, could hardly believe that it was his own brother who aimed these well-placed arrows at him so that he could score a victory. Anarion let himself slide down onto the floor and finally sat, back against the wall. Isildur followed him, warily. In the silence he heard regret, and a kind of fear of him, of what they were doing to each other. They were both such different personalities, but they had never argued like this, accusing, incisive, hurtful. He had accused Isildur of selfishness and, in as many words, Isildur had accused him of dishonesty, a charge that cut deeply because there were so many things that Anarion kept from Isildur, and it made him feel tainted, even if he had plunged into the choices full-knowing and with good reason.

He lifted his head to to look at his brother, who was looking back, undecided between a glare or a look of pity.

"You are right."

"Of course I am," Isildur said. "Talk to her before it's too late--"

"I should not have left."

Isildur sighed, finally looked down. "I know why you left, I'm not as dense as you think. It would have been too painful to watch and not be able to intervene. I came to ask you not to worry; you did not miss anything. Sauron seemed more interested in me than in her."

"How so?" Anarion asked, turning so abruptly that he knocked knees with Isildur. The movement was so sharp and sudden that it made him see white with pain, and he had to lean back, clutching his head. "What do you mean?"

"He asked an inordinate number of questions about Andunie and our Grandfather, about our ties to Romenna; questions about our trade and our fields, the guilds that we belong to, why you chose to become an engineer and not follow the family trade, what degree of kinship we held with the King and Queen, why we had not manned any ship during the conquest..."

"What did you answer?"

"What I could. It was horrible being questioned in such a way, having to fight with this overwhelming urge to be unscrupulously truthful--"

"Say that again?" he asked, leaning forward, feeling that odd hunch that something might become important tease his mind.

"It was horrible--"

"No, no: an overwhelming urge to be truthful..." Anarion rose, walked to stand beside the kitchen window. If there had been some moonlight out, he could have seen his small patch of a garden, maybe try and look for a chamomile bush that had not died from neglect. Instead, the night was dark and forbidding, with the revelers' noises making the outside wild and foreign. He turned back toward his brother. "What was different about it?"

Isildur bit his thumb nail, a ridiculous habit for a grown man, but one that relieved his tension when his physical energy could find no other outlet. At last, he shrugged his shoulders. "It did not seem so at the time but, now that you're making me tell you, it is difficult to remember all that was said though it just happened. I felt too happy to be listened to. But, don't we all? Maybe there's the charm." He paused, spitted the nail out. "I wish it had been you and not me talking to him; you know what you are hoping to find best."

"I am not hoping to find anything in particular, only that--" and he let that trail for he did not quite know how to continue. "I am simply mistrustful of him; aren't you? He styles himself the King of Men, yet suddenly is best friends with the man who humbled his might? Clearly something is going on that we are not aware of and, by Elros' beard, I'm going to find out what it is."

"Did you know that Elrond, Elros' brother, is alive out there?" Isildur asked with a small, boyish smile. "I mean, had you ever really thought about that? How many generations of our fathers has it been since Elros walked among the living?"

"Twenty two," Anarion replied, unable to keep wonder altogether out of his tone.

"Sauron has seen him."

"Who? Elrond?"

Isildur nodded. "Valar only knows what else he has seen."

Anarion felt that thrill of curiosity shot through him again. "So," he began, aware that curiosity was a double-edged sword, "what was he like?"

Isildur heaved a deep sigh. "Incredible. He is politician, lore master, geographer, adventurer, physician, warrior-- all in one fair package. You should have been there, Anarion, you would have loved it!"

"I know," he whispered. Something in his tone must have been strange, for Isildur fixed on him with that keenness that he had been marking of late.

"Is that why you stopped going to the Square? You said that you went once."

Anarion looked down, where he had begun to twist his ring without knowing. "I don't do well when I lose control, and I know myself. Everything I hear him say is so clever and interesting that I know, once I start, it will be hard for me to stop, even when every logical piece of me is telling me to stay away."

"I know the feeling," Isildur said; but, when he met with Anarion's raised eyebrow, he added, "He seems so entirely harmless that I am forced to mistrust him; people are generally more nuanced."

"So you did not like him?"

Isildur let out a bitter laugh. "No, I did not, and for entirely selfish and immature reasons: He is richer than I, handsomer, the better speaker, and a superior dancer; not to mention that he possesses impeccable manners, will get a wife without having to go through the trouble of courting one, and is the owner of two coffers of gold and silver each."

"And a mithril necklace," added Anarion, ruefully, as he looked at his unadorned palms. The only jewelry he ever wore was his signet ring, and that was plain and understated. "So you could not find a legitimate reason to dislike him."

"None other than the fact that there was none. He was too careful to please everybody all throughout the evening, and never once volunteered any information about himself except when coaxed."

Anarion snorted. "Who coaxed him?"

Isildur looked away and coughed before saying, "Elenwe."

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