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86
The scent of spice

October, Umbar, 2979

The scent of it was the very smell of desire—so it was said, and the Greening Festival was aptly dedicated to the ripening of springtide. The air was heavy with the scent of spice—not the heavy, savoury scent of most kitchens in Umbar, but the sharp-sweet scent of more exotic spices, and not a few young men and women in their bloom milled about, eyeing the merchants' wares and each other under the watchful eyes of chaperones.

Aragorn was naturally curious, but he had not so much coin to spare that he could afford to indulge curiosity. The swiftest way out of Umbar was by ship, and he ought to have just enough…

"You!" a threatening voice boomed out, very nearly in his ear, and Aragorn tensed, habit sending one hand to the knife tucked up one sleeve. Not now! Not after all he had been through in his southern journeying, and when he had but a few streets between him and the docks, and the journey home at last…!

But then the weeping began, and he realized he was not the one accused. Not this time. He was about to continue on his way, but something about the sound of those tears made him turn. A little ways away, an irate spice merchant had a girl by the wrist. And girl she was—surely no more than nine or ten, and the dusty, tattered brown robe she wore suggested one of the denizens of Tilnum Alley, one of the poorer streets in Umbar that lay nearby.

"Thought you'd steal from me, eh?" the merchant was growling, and the girl seemed to shrink into herself. "We'll just see about that. Brat! The magistrates ought to be pleased to be rid of you…" At which the girl's sobs became wails of sheer terror, and Aragorn, who had seen enough of the magistrates and their men to credit her fears, sighed softly. And then he stepped forward.

"Oh for—! I promised, did I not, that we would come here in good time? I have matters to attend to first, Phani'im," he said, adopting an air of exasperated patience, even as he reached for the first girl's name that came to mind. Pray that our merchant does not know her name already, he thought, as he shook his head and cupped a hand under the girl's chin, forcing her to look at him. "Did I not promise? Must you defy me every time and go your own way?" The girl was staring at him now with wide eyes, but fortunately she caught on swiftly.

"Sorry. Just that I wanted a taste…" she muttered.

"Well, and now you'll get it perforce, but we'll not come again next year," he warned. Then turning to the merchant, who was watching him with narrowed eyes, he bowed, and said, as graciously as he knew how, "You have my apologies, honored sir. My sister is ill and her husband away—my niece is unruly without them, and I fear I have no one to teach me the ways of small girls. What did she take?"

"Put her fingers in my spice box, she did," the merchant replied, still eyeing him with some suspicion, even as he indicated an elegant little chest filled with a rich, brown powder. Aragorn weighed the coins in his purse and stifled a groan.

"How much for the box?" he asked, resignedly, as all the long leagues of Harad stretched out before his mind's eye. It seems I shall be going home the long way…

Lithe, Lórien, 2980

"What is it?" Arwen asked curiously, running her hands over the ornately carved box, Beren's ring winking upon her finger in the evening's light. She opened it and Aragorn watched her eyes light with pleasure as the heady, sweet scent of cinnamon wafted upwards. He thought of the waif in Umbar, clutching the cinnamon sticks the merchant had insisted he buy in addition to the chest, and smiled. It had cost him a long walk home, but it was worth it, and so he answered:

"That, as they say, is the very scent of love."

~~~

Author's Note: Written for the "U – like unsavoury urges in Umbar" prompt.


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