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Another Man's Cage: 45. Chapter Forty-Five--Macalaure
Nelyo awakens me only two hours later, and he is dressed already in light robes, near to what the Teleri wear, and his hair is neatly secured away from his face. He appears as every bit of the prince and scholar that he is supposed to be: proud, dignified, impeccable. But I, who know him, note the paleness of his skin and the bluish circles beneath his eyes and am not fooled by the clean, stately façade he presents. He is falling apart, I know, but he is putting on a show of strength. For me.
“Come, Macalaurë,” he says, nudging my shoulder gently. “You asked me to wake you.”
I had expected to be exhausted but I fairly spring from bed and feel a little guilty for my enthusiasm when Nelyo can only manage to shift backwards to escape my flailing arms and clasps his hands at his waist and appraises me in what I think of as a most lordly manner, with his eyebrows raised and an insincere smile on his lips. One thousand emotions assault me at once, and I emerge from the onslaught, uncertain which I should feel. Thrilled from last night? Dreading today? Curiosity or eagerness? Within me, all of these duel, and I fidget, as though my body cannot contain the myriad emotions that suddenly coexist within it.
“I take it you had fun last night?” Nelyo asks, wandering over to his bedside table to retrieve his books.
“I did.” I hesitate. I could gush for hours about Vingarië, about my love for her and my certainty that a few decades will see us married, but it is hard to for my levity to weasel past the somber shroud Nelyo has wrapped around himself. Nor do I completely wish it to; I wish for my joy to triumph over all else, even the anxiety of the placement tests today. Finally, after many long moments of silence where neither of us speak--and I sense that he is waiting for more details with the dutiful obligation of one who has taken many such liberties and now must grudgingly return the favor--I add, “I met her brothers.”
“Ah. Yes. Turonén and Tindanén. Many times did we meet, during Atar’s and my stays here, during the construction of the quayside. They are great companions. Relay to them, if you will, my fondest wishes.”
You could do so yourself, I think, but do not say it. Nelyo is here to study and will not have much time for socializing.
Swiftly, hoping he will not notice, I change the subject. “When will you go to Taniquetil?”
He notices. He smiles. “When I am ready,” he says. His expression changes, and he resembles more the brother that I left behind in Formenos, the brother who--briefly--appeared to me at the sea. “Look at you, Macalaurë, with your hair in disarray and still in your nightclothes. You will not do well to be late on your first day.”
My first day.
My stomach clenches, and joy makes way for dread. My reason for being here, after all, is not Vingarië or her brothers or the wide sea roaring beyond our balcony; my purpose, for once, is much like Nelyo’s: I am supposed to be the proverbial sponge, soaking up knowledge and lore as though it is the reason for my creation. “To bring my music beyond mere instinct,” my tutor once wrote to me, and I’d wanted to scrawl back that I had had instruction, and no, it wasn’t from anyone eminent in music but Atar, and he’d taught me with his warm hands over mine, and for those short moments every week, the songs that sprang from my mind as ideas for craft spring from his had been important enough to warrant his attention. And obviously, I would write, if you believe that music born of mere instinct is somehow inferior, then you have never had to capture and hold the elusive attention of Curufinwë Fëanáro.
Of course, I did not write those things, and I was in fact loud in my desire to come here and learn among my peers rather than squeezing my lessons between the “Noldorin” pursuits in my day: sculpting, forging, penning endless diatribes on inane minutia. I dwelled on those same bad habits that my tutor was convinced must exist and Atar’s unsuitability as a music teacher until he gave in. But--here at last--I am not so sure that I belong in either place.
Nelyo has gone to his bed, to sit and open one of the books amid which he slept last night. But I see his eyes lifting constantly to watch me removing my robes from the armoire with considerable care, turning my back to him so that he doesn’t see my hands shake. “Macalaurë?” His voice is barely a whisper, but I whip around to face him, as though he’s shouted. “I will walk with you?”
Even as I open my mouth to say no--I am almost forty, after all! I arranged this myself! I hardly need my hand held on my first day of lessons!--my chin betrays me and dips into a hasty nod, eyes lowered, quickly turning away to hide my gratitude.
Breakfast is delivered while we dress, and Nelyo makes me sit and eat and keeps up the chatter so that I do not have to. Of course, my thoughts trickle beneath his loquacity, and I am keen to the possibility of failure. I do not belong here. Neither the Teleri nor my own father wants me here, but my “gift” is such that they feel I should not be denied. So why am I here?
Today, I will be assessed, or so my tutor said, to see how I will be placed amid the other first-years. And unlike the admission audition--which was done as a performance in the public square, on the instrument and song of my choosing--this will be done with my tutor alone, in a room small and close with perfect acoustics so that I cannot dismiss errors as the play of the wind or being mired by an impertinent burst of applause. I will be made to play the same songs as my peers, and without my father’s warm hands over mine, my slovenliness will be exposed for scrutiny.
I am eating the kiwi that Nelyo has put into my hands, and with a quivering panicked squeeze of my stomach, I almost regurgitate the whole thing, saving my clean robes--and Nelyo’s across from me--only by swallowing violently until the nausea passes. I set the fruit aside, any vestige of appetite gone. “Macalaurë,” Nelyo’s hands cover mine, “you belong here. You must know that.”
I do not, but I nod. “I am just nervous.”
“Why? You have played hundreds of times for audiences of lords and kings … and Atar who--for not knowing a whit about music--is quite a formidable critic.” He winks; squeezes my hand. I am not assuaged.
“I know. Anxiety lives in a place where logic does not exist.” Glancing at the light in the window, Nelyo folds his napkin and stands. I follow him, locking my knees to keep them from trembling. Standing in the pale golden light of morning, Nelyo appraises me and smiles. “But you are ready.”
As we pass them on our way out of the palace, the servants bow to me and wish me good luck. I imagine--hope--that I have replied in an appropriate manner, but I find that I take two steps and cannot remember. Nelyo and I walk without speaking; the streets are cast in pale golden light--feather soft and soothing upon my skin already grimy with nervous sweat--and I wish that I could breathe it in, let it wind its way through my blood and my body. I imagine that I would be weightless then and my hands would be as fast and light as rain upon my harpstrings. Faultless.
We walk with a distance between us, and we do not speak. Passersby might think us companions by happenstance only, certainly not brothers (not with my brown hair and slight build and his imposing height and red tangle of plaits; we look nothing alike) if not for the fact that this is Alqualondë, and we are united by our strangeness: fiery eyes and oddly colored hair tall above the silvery sea of Telerin heads milling around our shoulders.
The conservatory is at the end of the street, a building--like the palace--designed by my father. I know this by the logic of its structure and the senselessness of its beauty, by the way it is built and situated to capture the Treelight upon its windows and throw it forth like the sparkles on the sea. I wonder, when he made it, if he ever envisioned that his son would attend here. Or did he even envision a son, my father who was adamant for a long while that he did not want children, who set his thoughts against the possibility, even? Would he have laughed at the notion of a Fëanárion in its long halls … or would he have smiled and built it for me?
This is something I dare to never hope. No, he wouldn’t have imagined me at all; even if he believed in my existence, I would be inconsequential to him. Even in the recent months, as our reluctant companionship has bloomed into something that closely resembles friendship (sometimes, in the reverie of weariness, in the silvery night, I dare to hope that it is friendship), I do not believe myself a significant force in his life. His life would be no less without me.
My heart lies now like a brick in my chest; any anxiety of the imminent audition overwhelmed by thoughts of Fëanáro, as Fëanáro has--chief of his many gifts--the power to overwhelm nearly anything.
We stroll toward his building, Nelyo and I, pressed close by the crowd and slowed to meandering. Fishermen are already in the streets, waving about the morning’s catch and trying to entice the sharp-eyed cooks and servants to wander their way. “Swordfish! Grouper!” one calls. His eyes happen on me, note my harp and student’s ledger, and skip away within the space of a second. A moment later, he is bartering with a maid, who wrinkles her nose at his offerings but presses pearls into his hand and flits back in the direction of the royal quarter. The whole transaction takes all of five seconds.
“Watch it,” Nelyo says, catching my arm, guiding me around a kettle of blue crabs that a vendor has set out on the sidewalk. Engrossed by the sights of downtown Alqualondë--so different from demure Tirion, where besides the playful fountains, one is apt to hear only the distant sounds of the forge--I would have fallen right over them. “Uh,” I say as I step carefully around, grimacing at the slow-wriggling creatures scrabbling one over the other within the pot. “They look like spiders.”
“Oh, come off it. How do you think the crab salad you adore so much begins?” Nelyo holds fast to my arm and navigates me through the crowd, bringing me closer and closer to Atar’s building, and--pressed involuntarily close to him--I cannot elude the sharp nudge he gives me with his elbow beneath my ribs. I nudge him back, and like two small children, we carry on that way for some time: our faces portraits of dignity; our childishness hidden by our voluminous robes and our close-pressed bodies.
Shortly, the crowds are thinning and most of the other pedestrians appear to be students, like me, with instruments upon their backs and music ledgers in their hands. They greet each other in loud, joyful voices--Telerin accents brighter than the song of the water playing in the fountain in front of the conservatory--but they ignore Nelyo and me, two Noldor not like to them at all and inconsequential in their world.
Nelyo laughs softly as a tiny maiden pushes past me to embrace her friend and fellow student, as though I am invisible, insignificant at least. “They have no idea, do they?”
“No idea of what?”
“Who walks among them?”
I look at him, my heart prodded into frenzy once again. “I do not deserve that, Nel--”
“Do not tell me--who heard your voice at your first cry and every song after--what you do and do not deserve.” Our steps, made languid in the crush of bodies earlier, hasten. He still holds my arm, less for guidance, more for companionship. We have stopped nudging and walk like Noldor, briskly and with purpose, toward the jewel-bright conservatory, our feet loud and important against the cobblestones. I hold my music ledger tightly, until I can feel my pulse fluttering as fast as butterfly wings against it.
We do not need to climb any steps to enter the conservatory, and this feels strange to me, to step into one of the biggest moments of my life so far without having to first endure a wearying climb. The Noldor feel the need to preface the entrance to any important building with long flights of stairs, offset by brief plateaus with statues and tasteful gardens. Always a fountain. But the pathway to the Telerin conservatory is just wide enough for two to walk and is lined with lamps; not the oil-burning variety common around the city, I see, but Fëanárian lamps, those that glow perpetually with the light of stars. It is practical, I think, how the buildings of Alqualondë are designed. Constantly tramping up and down marble steps becomes tedious after a while, and I’m not sure that my quivering knees could take it.
We pass another student, a Telerin boy a bit older than me. He nods gravely at me, and I nod gravely back. On the path to the conservatory--Noldo or not--he must assume it is obvious that I am a student. If he is surprised by me, his face does not show it, and when I turn to watch him hasten down the path and into the street, he doesn’t likewise look back. We are at the door now, and Nelyo is holding it open for me to step into the vast foyer beyond, where soaring ceilings and breathtaking seascapes make me gasp with their beauty. Heart pounding, I am inside the Telerin conservatory at last, this moment long and painful in its arrival.
A soft-voiced woman directs us down a hallway where other students wait, some playing softly, agitatedly at instruments. Nelyo does not ask if I want him along, and I do not tell him to leave. From beyond the small room comes the sounds of music being practiced and played; imperfect music designed to reveal the flaws of the musician who attempts it. It stops; begins again. Stops. Begins again. On and on, maddeningly, as we wait, I hear the same theme at least a dozen times, and somehow, each subsequent time sounds worse than the one prior. I hold my harp in my arms and rest my fingers upon its strings but dare not play, even a restless tune that might distract me from the endless, jolting stop-start theme being played deeper within the conservatory, lest the others in the room--heads bowed over instruments and sheet music--raise suddenly to stare in awe. I imagine their words: Why is he here? My arms tighten around my harp as though to assert again that, yes, I belong. I have earned this. Have I not?
Nelyo and I stand beside each other, leaning against the wall (for the few benches have already been claimed), and before I can think better of it, I press my cheek to his shoulder and whisper, “I am afraid.”
He abruptly takes my arm, and we leave my harp and ledger and stroll down the hall, where we are afforded more privacy. He stops suddenly in the middle of the hallway and turns to me. “Of course you are.” He fixes one of my plaits behind my ear, smoothes the collar of my robes. “And you have every reason to be. So, then, you must convince your body that it is not afraid and hope that your mind will follow.” Without giving me time to reply, he pushes me against the wall with a hand at the center of my chest. “First, breathe. You have not breathed properly since we left the palace this morning, and--although I am no expert--I suspect that this is important for a singer like you.” He winks at me. “And when you breathe, it slows your heartbeat. Now close your eyes …” Ghostlike, tender, his fingers brush my eyelids shut.
I let air sink to the depths of my lungs that--Nelyo is right--I have starved all morning. I cannot see him smile but I hear it in his voice. “See?” My heart, pounding against the flat of his hand, has indeed slowed.
“Now relax each of your muscles in turn, starting here.” He rubs my forehead, moves his fingers over my cheeks and jaws, down my neck and to my shoulders, rubbing from my arms to my fingertips. “How did you learn to do this?” I whisper, opening my eyes to ponder him.
He smiles wryly at me and does not cease his work on my fingers. “Do you think I never feel afraid?”
Once I would have insisted, No, I do not think you've ever been afraid, not about something like this. Matters of erudition have always been a matter of course for Nelyo, never me. Now, my gaze skips away from his haunted silver eyes, and I believe him. He fears more than I know.
From down the hall, my name is called in a Telerin voice, beautiful and terrifying in its pronunciation: “Macalaurë Fëanárion?”
Nelyo does not hug me or squeeze my hand or any of the things that I would expect; he wrings the last bit of tension from my shoulders and opens his hands as though casting it away, then steps aside, already moving toward the foyer and the exit. He will not be here when I am done; I am alone.
“Breathe,” he says over his shoulder and smiles, turning for the door.
Diligence and discipline, I learn, do not belong solely to the Noldor, and many hours later--shoulders aching and fingers aflame with the beginnings of blisters--I make my way up the palace stairs in the meager light of evening. How can my legs be aching, after spending a day seated in front of my harp? They do. My arms are laden with a pile of parchments that must be completed by tomorrow, to evaluate my understanding of theory and history.
I fumble the doorknob and, with great relief, step into the bedroom that I share with my brother. The room is dark except for the quivering halo of a gas lamp on Nelyo’s bedside table: a dark room opening to a dark, heaving sea, sparkling faintly with Telperion’s weak light. Nelyo is curled beneath his blankets in bed, propped on his elbows and reading a thick, formidable volume filled with inscrutably small text. He looks up when I enter, eyebrows raised, brow rumpled with concern.
“So? How did it go?”
I go to my bed and dump tomorrow’s assignments upon the neatly-made bedclothes. “I placed well,” I say.
“Good! Have a few assignments there, it seems?”
“Yes. It seems that what I have spent the entire spring, summer, and autumn doing is inconsequential and I must prove again that I know the material.” I want a cup of tea, a hot bath, and to sleep between cool sheets, but at least three hours of work are sliding from my bed onto the floor. My neck aches and my mind rebels at the thought of music. And this is just the first day of a month-long stay yet!
“Ai, welcome to academia, Macalaurë. Proving yourself once is never enough. Why do you think I am here? You would think that somewhere between the books I’ve written that I would have proven that I know Eldarin history. Or at least the language in which they are written. But no, it is never enough.” I hear the rustle of bedclothes as he rises; the whisper of his feet sliding into his slippers. A moment later, he is pressing a goblet into my hands. “Here. This will help your headache.”
I do not even care how he knew that my head hurts (and it does); I gratefully sip the beverage--expecting the fermented sweetness of wine--and nearly spit the liquid across my bed when I discover that it is only water.
Nelyo laughs at the surprise on my face. “You may have a glass of wine when you are finished with your work. It will only make you sleepier and your head hurt more. Have you eaten or drank anything since breakfast?” Delicately, I shake my head. “That is why you are uncomfortable. Sit down and begin your work. Sip the water, and I will bring you something to eat. I saved you something from supper.” He gives me a quick kiss on the temple before dashing out the door in his nightclothes.
But I am hungry, and if he is fetching me a meal, he can do it naked for all that I care.
I peel my boots from my feet and settle onto the bed with a sigh, uncorking a vial of ink and preparing to follow Nelyo’s instructions. I begin work on my first page. For each question that I answer, I reward myself with a sip of water. I think of Vingarië--whom I barely have time to think of, much less see--and wonder at my foolishness in thinking that we would have droves of free time to spend together, that this experience would somehow be a break from the discipline demanded of me by my father. I begin to wonder at my wisdom in wanting to take the one thing that I have unquestionably loved--music--and make it something more than “instinct.”
Nelyo comes back then with a tray: more fruit and a plate of something that smells divine as he draws closers. I sit up straighter to see what it is, and with a wicked smirk, he sets down the tray and says, “Crab salad.”
Together, we laugh so hard that I collapse on the bed and rumple my pages without even knowing it.
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