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Another Man's Cage: 8. Chapter Eight--Maitimo
I awaken to a hand on my shoulder.
It rests there, gently, too firm to be incidental and too warm to belong to anyone else but Atar.
My eyelids feel as if they've been welded shut, but I squeeze the muscles of my forehead together and force my eyes to open. The silver light is dim but nonetheless makes my head ache. Macalaurë lies motionless beside me; his deep, even breathing tells me that he is still in the depths of dreams. I roll onto my back, away from him, away from the light. I hear a sound pass my lips that is a cross between a mumble and a groan, and Atar says, "I need you to come to Tirion with me, Nelyo. To get your cousin."
Today? I had forgotten that that is today.
I sit up carefully so as not to disturb Macalaurë, but he does not even twitch as I swing my feet over the edge of the bed, wincing as they touch the cold stone floor. "I'll meet you in the kitchen," Atar says. He is wearing his traveling clothes, I notice: light cotton, neutral colors that do not show dust, his green cloak. Amil would be pleased: His hair is braided away from his face. I nod, and his hand slides off from my shoulder, and he leaves the room.
I sit for a minute, my feet on the cold floor, anchoring me in wakefulness, tempted to topple backwards, curl up beside Macalaurë, and return to the comfortable, warm sleep from which I had so reluctantly emerged. Dried mucus tugs at the corners of my eyes; my mouth feels as though it has been swabbed with cotton: the signs of having drunk too much wine, I realize, and then behaving regrettably afterward. I feel my eyes dropping shut again, so I press my feet against the floor and stand, swaying on uncertain legs, and walk to my armoire, where I select clothes that match Atar's: light material, for it will be hot today, in colors that will not show the dust from the road. The lords of Tirion already make smirking jokes about the King's eccentric son who lives outside the city gates; we certainly do not need to inspire them further by arriving in their court in muddy boots and dusty cloaks.
I creep downstairs with my boots in my hands, trying not to wake anyone; I can feel the expectant silence of a sleeping house heavy in my ears. Judging from the light in the windows, I could not have been asleep for more than two hours, but it is an hour's ride to Tirion and another hour to its center, where my uncles live in mansions beside Grandfather Finwë's palace, so I understand Atar's desire to leave early and arrive before the city fully awakens.
Atar is in the kitchen, wrapping a small loaf of bread in a clean, white cloth. I join him at the table and, without a word, begin wrapping salted meats and cheeses and an apple for each of us. "Are you hungry now?" he asks me, and I shake my head no; in the early morning, his eyes seem brighter than Telperion's light outside the windows.
"Nor am I. We shall stop, if you'd like, on the way there?"
"That would be fine, Atar." My voice is still hoarse and sleepy.
"I am sorry to have awakened you, Nelyo," he says, "but…." He leaves the words unspoken, but I know what he means. He does not like to go to Tirion alone. He always takes Amil or Macalaurë or me. "It is fine," I assure him. "I should like to bid farewell to our kin before we leave for Formenos."
He smiles, a quick twitch, surprised: Such a thought did not enter his mind.
In truth, I enjoy taking journeys with Atar. At times, he grows so restless that even the broad pastures and dense forests of our home cannot satisfy him, and he takes those of us who will go, and we ride across the country, wherever our hearts lead us, sometimes to the edges of our world, where the sea batters the cliffs of our homeland as though begging to enter and share in our blessings. Other times, he takes us to the mines, where small, dark Noldor burrow beneath the earth and extract metals and gemstones that my father will twist into beauty. Once, we went to the mountains in the south and slept upon the highest peak, breathing air so clear that our heads spun with it, gazing giddily over lands never before seen by our people. Others tell of Atar on such days as intolerable, picking at all that lies before him until small blemishes become gaping wounds, and when circumstances keep him home during such times, he is. But when his body is allowed to move where it pleases, he falls into a languid good humor that exceeds even the distracted joy to which he is prone after a very productive day in the forge. We ride beside him then—my mother, my brothers, and I—racing and playing games; at times, nearly falling from our horses with laughter; discussing and debating with each other late into the night, over the swirling sparks of a dying campfire; and sleeping beneath stars that blaze brighter than they ever do in Valinor.
Today, though, is the prelude to the journey: the requisite trip to Tirion. Atar's face is grim.
Atar had readied our horses while I'd dressed, and we mount in the silver light of morning, the world softened by glistening drifts of mist that rise from the earth. The forests recede into layers of gray shadow-trees around us. The grass beneath our feet blazes as emeralds set against smoky velvet. Laurelin is brightening and the Lights are mingling, and I silently beg her to wait still, to let her brother reign for just a while longer, to let me bathe in the light that shone at the moment of my birth.
But the light is growing sharper, and Atar and I fall into easy conversation as we ride, discussing the progress I am making on my research and some of the ideas he has for the work I had done on colored light. "Everyone's tired of stones that give only a white-blue light," he says, and I quickly reply, "Oh, I don't think so!" and he laughs.
"Are you not the one, Nelyo, who celebrates equally each color on the prism? Imagine if I could make gemstones with light the color of your mother's favorite roses! Or Tyelkormo's eyes. Or your hair."
I laugh. "But, Atar, white light is the most beautiful of all, for in it is all of those colors, all of the colors of Arda."
He gives me a careful look. "You are ambitious, my son, for you wish to capture the mingled Light of the Trees. That is the only white light in pure form." But I know from his intentional, slow enunciation that this is not the first time he has considered it.
We ride until we leave the forest and can see the city walls in the distance, wavering on the horizon. We stop and sit beneath the trees at the edge of the forest to eat our breakfast. "I was working in the forge and noted that my dear Vorondil returned home quite early last night. Quite early…and alone," Atar says.
I pretend not to know what he is saying. "I did not see him leave," I answer innocently, picking at a crust of bread.
"I always thought that he coveted the affections of the lovely Annawendë. I was surprised that she left by his side but returned not that I saw."
"Lovely? Annawendë? You jest."
"Once, when your mother was young, she was hurt by her sister's husband, who told her that she lacked the beauty that inspires men to make statues of women. Yet I have made a thousand statues of her, and still I have not tired of the pursuit."
I try one of Macalaurë's flying subject changes. "Macalaurë will be writing to a maiden this summer."
"Now you jest, Nelyo. Macalaurë set down his harp long enough to be introduced to a maiden?"
"Well, to be fair about it, she was the flutist and sitting beside him all night. I doubt he had much of a choice."
"But he fancies her?"
"He fancies himself in love with her."
"Would I know her?"
"She is Vingarië, of the House of the Albatross."
"Ah, a maiden of the Telerin court! I wondered which of you would dilute my blood first," he teases. "I suspected it would be Tyelkormo—after all, he is mistaken for a Vanya as it is, and his golden-haired children would be lovely to behold—but it makes sense that Macalaurë should fancy one of the singing Teleri. I shall have to badger him liberally about it."
"Do not let him know that it was I who told you!"
"You did no such thing, Nelyo. I heard it from the sons of the lords in my father's court." He winks at me. "What of you, Nelyo? Do you fancy Teleri or Vanyar? Or Noldor?"
A piece of bread catches in my throat, and I cough. "I have had my eye on a Noldo," I say quietly.
"I know you have. I have been hoping that you would just admit it to me and be done with it."
"Until last night, I knew not if she fancied me," I say carefully.
"So that is why poor Vorondil came home alone. And, you, I presume, Nelyo, fancy her deeply?"
"I would make a thousand statues of her," I say, "and never tire of the task."~oOo~
When we reach Tirion, the day is bright and gilded with golden light.
Tirion climbs the Hill of Túna in ever-smaller circles, wide stone streets carved from the earth and spiraling higher and higher, reaching for the top of the hill.
When Macalaurë and I were young, Atar and Amil would take us to the sea, and there we would build a mountain of white sand—Atar told us it was glass, but it looked like diamond—packing it round and smooth, and we would take the molds that Atar had lent us from his forge and build a white city upon it: Tirion. At Laurelin's zenith, Tirion burns white, like an apparition, on the horizon, as though with the fire of stars. My grandfather and my half-uncles live in the narrowest circle, at the top of the hill. The king's palace crowns the apex, and Mindon Eldaliéva stretches against the sky.
There are gates to the city, but they are unguarded, for there is no danger to fear in the Blessed Realm. The gatekeepers are unarmed and are posted only to welcome visitors to the city and bid safe passage to those leaving. I see their eyes settle on us as we approach—two of them, at each side of the golden gates that have never been closed—and I imagine that they mutter to each other from the corners of their mouths, as is their manner."Prince Fëanáro?"
"And his eldest son Nelyafinwë?"
But when we get close enough to see their faces, they are rigid and silent.
Smiles carve their mouths at the same time.
"High Prince Fëanáro!"
"We welcome you back to Tirion upon Túna!"
"Bring you any news from the lands beyond the gates?"
We stop before them. It is strange to be greeted in such a manner, so warmly, by strangers. Some of the gatekeepers I know, from accompanying Atar to Grandfather Finwë's counsels, but these I have never met. Atar's gaze drifts over them. He appraises people in the same manner as gemstones: surveying their brilliance, looking for flaws, turning over each feature in his mind before closing his hand to keep them or cast them aside. "No news has come to my home but from Tirion," he says in a careful voice that always startles me. Atar blazes like light on diamonds, but this voice is flat and brittle, conjured in the same manner as the illusions he does to amuse Tyelkormo and Carnistir. "My family fares well: We are busy with our work, and my sons grow faster than Nerdanel and I can alter clothing to fit them. I come to collect my brother-son Findekáno, for he is accompanying us to Formenos this year."
"So is the word. How fortunate he is to be left with so gifted a scholar."
Atar only nods. Such words are not praise to him but mere fact.
The gatekeepers move to the side, and we pass between them and into the streets of Tirion. With our backs to them, I have to stiffen my shoulders and stare at the road before me to keep from twisting around to see if they mutter at each other from the corners of their mouths. But I can imagine that I hear their voices."So gifted but so cold. The boy may freeze."
"And hair so red on an Elf? Such a color was not meant for our people."
"Expect you less for a Fëanorion?"Fëanorion
My shoulders are so stiff that they ache.
Tirion is a beautiful in the way of the Noldor: clean, practical, geometric. Any superfluous spills of beauty are constrained so that they do not hinder daily progress. Flowers are kept back from the paths; fountains tumble near the gates, where travelers can dip their hands or pause for a drink. When vines are allowed to climb the walls of the houses, they are carefully tended to keep them from drooping across windows and doorways. The city smells of daylight on stone, eclipsed in places by the sweet scent of flowers. The stones from which the city was built are a thick, powdery, and white, drawing the heat of day and not allowing the day's warmth to escape at night, and Tirion always seems to simmer in repelled heat.
People greet us in the streets, and even their clothes are practical. Dresses and cloaks do not trail the ground. Robes are rare on the men; most dress as Atar and I do, in tunic and trousers. Hair is kept braided off the face but the designs are not so complicated as to make one late for work in the mornings. People move with brisk purpose, deftly steering around each other to avoid collision, talking in the sparse, sensible speech of the Noldor.
When the streets become narrow, we dismount and lead our horses. I watch people's eyes as we pass. Some light too quickly upon seeing my father to be anything but genuine joy. Others, I notice, pause before chortling our praise in high, false voices, and their eyes shift quickly from mine when I answer. Atar speaks little, leaving me to take the hands of our people, to inquire after family members whose names he does not remember, and I am struck with vague surprise that he who is so quick to gather my mother and my brothers and me into embraces at home stiffens so when a young maiden places her hand on his arm, as though he would like to throw it off as he would a fly. "Prince Fëanáro? Would you like an orange?" she asks. Her shoulders are laden with bags of fruit, from which she gives freely to the people of the city.
"Thank you," he says. He nods cordially, and his hand plucks the orange from hers with fastidious care. "My son Tyelkormo will delight in this, for my orchards have been lacking this season." He gives his horse's reins a quick jerk and moves past her. I pause and thank her again. We must have met before because her name tumbles from my mouth, though I cannot call it to conscious memory, even as I stand with her hand in mine. "May you fare well on your journey, Prince Nelyafinwë," she tells me, and I say warmly, "Please, call me Maitimo," and I know that—despite Atar's aloof behavior—she will remember us as gracious to her family that evening.
In short time, we are standing at the gates that mark entrance to the royal quarters atop the hill. I turn to see the city spilling down the hillside beneath me. Gatekeepers greet us again, and two of Grandfather Finwë's stablehands rush to take our horses. "Thank you, but I am competent enough to lead my own horse," Atar says in appalled surprise, and the stablehands fall back in alarm. "It is our way to take our own mounts to the stable," I assure them. "I apologize, for no offense is meant."
Their heads bob. "Of course, Prince Nelyafinwë. Of course."
The houses of the lords and my uncles—princes of the Noldor like Atar and I, more in manner if less in blood—are each caged behind neat gold fences that gleam in Laurelin's light. The streets bustle in an unnerving silence, servants mostly, wearing the crest of the house they serve. We too have a crest—the star of the House of Fëanáro—but show it today only on a platinum ring set with a fire opal that Atar wears on his left thumb, as though the ring had been made only as an experiment, an afterthought, without being fitted to a more appropriate finger, worn now only because it is pretty. The servants stop and bow and murmur in deference as we pass, and Atar stares at them, his face grim.
We take our horses to Grandfather Finwë's stables, remove their tack, and carefully dry them. I bring two sloshing buckets of water while Atar rations out handfuls of hay and oats. He is silent now, stiff, as is his wont in royal Tirion. Ironic how, from despise of the stiff, glacial lords, he falls so easily into their manner! I try to start conversation, but he hums his responses—high and lilting for yes, low and grumbly for no—and finally, I give up.
"Fëanáro!" The stable door bursts open and Grandfather Finwë runs down the aisle—making the horses snort and paw the floor—looking quite comic in his billowing white robes. He catches Atar so hard in an embrace that I hear my father gasp, his palms flat on Atar's back. Whenever he holds my father, it is as though he believes that Atar is not quite real.
"Atar!" says my father, in the joyful voice that I wanted to hear a moment before and could not find. "I sent two stablehands…" Grandfather Finwë begins.
The initial joy of reunion subsided, Atar's brow furrows and his eyes flash hotly. "I know. And I refused them. When is it the way of the Elves to grovel before another? I ask not for your people to lie at my feet because I was born in your palace with your blood in my veins."
"Fëanáro. They are apprentices to my horse trainers. They will not serve me in this meager capacity forever." Grandfather Finwë's voice is patient and tired, a voice that is used to quieting querulous lords and unruly children.
"If they are apprentices to your horse trainers," says Atar, "then should they be training horses and not scurrying to tasks that could be done by Carnistir." He sneers, and I cringe, for my father is the most beautiful of our people, but his face can twist into ugliness when he is displeased. "I have more pride than to allow another to do for me a child's task."
"I meant no offense." Grandfather Finwë rubs his forehead as though warding off a headache, and Atar's eyes blaze. "In the course of my day, there is much that I must do for our people, and I cannot always find time for such tasks."
"I am your High Prince"—when Atar says it, "High Prince" sounds like something to be ground into the dust with the heel of his boot—"yet I manage to accomplish such trivialities and still maintain time for my craft. The only ones who aid me are my wife, my sons, and my apprentices, whom I serve with equal love and gratitude, and I ask none of them to do that which I have not done a thousand times myself."
"Next time, then, Fëanáro," says Grandfather Finwë in a patiently patronizing voice that would enrage Atar coming from any other, "I shall lead your horse myself and curry him until he gleams, just to prove to you that accepting such offers of assistance from those who choose to serve me is a respectable luxury." He looks past Atar, to me. "Now you have flustered me so that I have neglected to greet my eldest grandson." He opens his arms, and I step into his embrace. "Russandol, I am always glad to see you."
"As I am to see you, Grandfather Finwë," I reply.
We walk to the palace. Grandfather Finwë inquires about the rest of the family, although he saw them just last week, and I tell him how well Tyelkormo is progressing in his horsemanship lessons and that Macalaurë has written two new songs and praise Carnistir's letters, which he is beginning to write quite well. Atar is mostly silent and walks with his arms crossed over his chest. "You shall, I hope, Fëanáro, greet your brothers while you are here?" Grandfather Finwë asks Atar.
"Nerdanel has written letters to both of my half-sisters-in-law, wishing them well, as they are both with child, so I shall see that they are received. I should myself like to see Arafinwë. And Nolofinwë leaves me little choice, as he has somehow convinced me to drag his son behind us to Formenos this summer."
"Ah, young Findekáno is a delight. He shall be a good playmate for Tyelkormo."
I try to imagine big, roguish Tyelkormo playing with my delicate cousin Findekáno and cannot. I can see Carnistir whopping him over the head with a practice sword; I can see Tyelkormo luring him into quicksand. And I can see Macalaurë dragging a muddied, weeping, and possibly bleeding Findekáno behind him and claiming not to know how any of it happened. But I cannot see my poor cousin fitting into my big, loud family.
"I should like, actually, to call on Arafinwë, gather Findekáno and quickly return home," says Atar, "for there are still many preparations to be made before we leave for Formenos day-after-next."
"No, Fëanáro, you must come in for a short spell, at least," Grandfather Finwë protests. "Indis has been looking forward to your visit all week."
Indis is the reason that Atar does not like to go to his father's home, but he does not say that.
"You leave me no choice then but to accept," Atar says, his voice weary, as though he has been making such acceptances for far too long now. But his eyes burn with something that is not weariness, and I can imagine, had Carnistir come along, that he would be wailing by now.
The palace sits atop a long flight of marble stairs. We enter the court, a massive, high-ceilinged room, occupied by the lords of the neighboring houses. I see Atar's work among the statues and paintings that grace the walls, and I am always taken aback, for I cannot imagine him here, appraising this room, planning its decoration, setting aside his research and his gemstones to manufacture pleasures for the lords of the court. I can imagine less that he lived here for forty years, that he was once a child who ran and played across this wide floor, that he stumbled home, late and disheveled from love with my mother, trying not to make a sound. I cannot imagine my parents—still children themselves—crossing this room with me in their arms, clothes soiled from the road, taking me to meet my grandfather for the first time. A man who knew not that he even had a grandson. How did they cross so vast a space on knees that must have quavered? How did they bear the whispers of the lords, loitering in the corners? The child? Whose is it? furtively whispered as their faces took in with satisfaction the slim gold rings on my parents' hands and the red-haired baby in my mother's arms.
The lords stand there now, in their robes and circlets, in small clusters like feeding predators, discussing in bold voices the counsels they have held and attended pertaining to a wide array of issues affecting Noldorin life in Tirion, everything from the allotment of land to the new marriageable generation to the replacement of loose cobblestones on the lower streets. There is an awkward falter in speech when we enter, a moment's pause before the bold conversations continue as before, and I can imagine the question zipping through their heads: Fëanáro? In his father's court? Without being summoned first to counsel?
They come to greet us, arriving in carefully timed waves, making their salutations, and departing. They are like small missiles being bounced dutifully off a wall. Atar is distant and stiff; I am warmer. I take their hands to please my grandfather. I make the appropriate inquiries about their families and answer those made about mine, always the vague positives only: They do not need to know that Tyelkormo twisted his ankle three weeks ago or that Carnistir's nightmares have gotten worse. Nor do they need to know that Macalaurë and I are both in the first flushes of love. I dole out controlled smiles that are neither gushing nor insincere, that do not show too much tooth. I nod with appropriate deference, to show respect for the satiny, gilded versions of the men who crossed Middle-earth with my grandfather, filthy and stinking, centuries ago.
Laiquiwë of the House of the Silver Willow hesitates until nearly last and arrives bracketed by two other lords, and when I try to meet his eyes, his glance skips away to Atar's, and when Atar stares back at him, skips to the floor. I am especially deferential to him, as one who still owes a debt, and I know that he sees me eternally unclothed, caught in the clasp of his daughter on the couch in his study (who knew that my grandfather would call the counsel short that day?) and he sees Atar as the negligent, permissive father who gave me only a month of cleaning the forge as punishment. (Atar actually found the incident quite harmless; the punishment was more Amil's doing.) I have to bite the tip of my tongue to keep from laughing, biting hard until I taste a painful spurt of blood, and when Laiquiwë's glance leaves mine, Atar and I catch each other's eye in a sidelong glance—two lines that intersect at a tiny, insignificant point in space, fixing upon a single molecule, unnoticed by the others—and I have to clear my throat to hide the laughter that bubbles unbidden over my bloodied tongue.
(To be fair: It was his daughter that found the lascivious parchment in his study. It was his daughter who led me there and instructed me to stand while she removed my clothing piece by piece. It was his daughter who suggested that we attempt one of the more ambitious activities illustrated on the parchment. It was his daughter who took to whispering my name then speaking it then shouting it, leaving me no choice but to think that, when she screamed, it was in the throes of passion, until an unfamiliar male voice joined hers. Perhaps he was more embarrassed by the damning presence of the parchment in his study than the relatively passive role I played in corrupting his daughter?)
Laiquiwë's face is like marble, and I know with thrilling humiliation that he has seen that grain of air sizzle with mine and Atar's convergent glances. The laughter chokes in my throat. I bow very low and bid him—and his attendant lords—a most sincere farewell. Atar just nods and remains silent.
More lords march to greet us before we are free, passing into the private chambers of the palace.
"Indis has had prepared for you a midday meal," says Grandfather Finwë.
"That is not necessary," Atar replies. "Nelyo and I had bread and cheese just two hours ago."
I could eat again, to be polite, and I will. But I know that Atar will not; he will force himself to ignore the rich, delicious food; he will go hungry if he needs to. He will use our plain meal of bread and cheese as an excuse to reject the superior food that Indis offers, to reject Indis.
We arrive in a sitting room, a posh room, upholstered in an endless sea of blue velvet and a rich gold and maroon carpet. Indis is perched on the edge of the sofa like a woman about to be called to give unpleasant testimony. Her clothing matches the room: a deep blue gown with sweeping, voluminous sleeves and a train that brushes the ground behind her. The necklace at her throat is something that Atar made—a ruby and topaz thing that coordinates with the carpet, beautiful but too bright for a casual midday meeting with one's stepson and step-grandson—and her attempt at pleasing his vanity seems sadly flagrant, like too low a bow before a minor lord. She is a beautiful woman, her face caught eternally in youth, her golden hair swept into a hairstyle that must have taken hours to execute, but it is hard to imagine that she has a body beneath the pounds of velvet and stiff, lacquered hair; it is easier to believe that she is a dressmaker's dummy, with wire ribs and dowel-rod arms. As I come nearer to her, I am dismayed to realize that even her eyes match the room, a deep sapphire blue untroubled by winks of gray, as are the eyes of the Noldor.
She is Vanya, a woman of soft hands, whose skin has never been broken or hardened by labor. She is kind to us in an effortful, doting manner; she goes to lengths greater than should be necessary for one whom she longs to call family. She treats Atar as if he were the King, and as if her husband was but an ambitious, upstart lord.
She rises from the sofa and glides to us. "Fëanáro, Russandol," she says, and I wince at the use of my epessë, an effort—like the jeweled necklace around her throat—too dazzlingly obvious to please. She takes Atar's hands and kisses him, letting her lips brush across his; I see the tendons in his neck spring rigid, like it takes a great effort to keep from twisting away from her. She comes to me next. Her hands are warm and powdered; her lips on mine are very light and dry. I suddenly feel slobbery and dirty. My skin itches.
The idea of Indis and Grandfather Finwë making love always creeps unbidden into my mind whenever I see them together. I try to banish it in a manner of shooing away pesky birds, but it steals back as I watch them sit beside each other, his hand draped over hers. The impracticality of it is darkly fascinating: to think of this tiny, sighing woman and her dry kisses in the eager, viselike embrace of my bearish grandfather. It is hard to imagine him unwrapping her from her miles of velvet gown like one might unwrap a morsel to eat on a journey. I wonder how she lays on her hair without mashing the hours of effort it takes to make it look that way. It is hard to imagine, a squeamish thought, but they must have, twice at least, for I have two half-uncles in Tirion with Indis' blue eyes and Grandfather Finwë's strong shoulders. Perhaps Atar thinks of it too. Perhaps that is why he won't eat in her presence.
She has set out a small table with a spread of lavish food that we rarely get at home. (Partly, I must admit, because Macalaurë and I never want to go to the trouble of making such things when it is our turn to cook.) I dutifully take some—my stomach has managed, at the sight of food, to be hungry again—but Atar rigidly refuses. He refuses her wine as well: "I'll have a glass of water," he says, and she has to leave the room to get it for him, my grandfather having dismissed the servants who usually hover outside the door, perhaps fearing another of Atar's outbursts.
The food is really good, but then, Grandfather Finwë and Indis have in their employ some of the finest cooks in Tirion, cooks who are not always rushing to get back to the forge or the library or the music room like we do at home. Indis returns with Atar's water and I wait until he takes an awkward sip of it to grab another handful of crackers with a spicy cheese spread and little slices of smoked turkey, hiding them in my hands like they are an insult to him.
"This is very good, Lady Indis," I say. Like I winced before at her use of the name Russandol, she twitches almost imperceptibly at the name Lady Indis, the title used by the lords of the Noldorin court when they speak with her; the name used by her servants. It is a name suggesting obedience, deferment. It does not suggest the blood of kin, even if that kin is yours only through a dubious marriage.
Grandfather Finwë and I maintain the conversation. Indis makes the occasional polite inquiry, and Atar makes the occasional polite but tepid reply, but mostly it is Grandfather Finwë—laughing too heartily—and me—being too gracious—keeping the awkward silence at bay.
I am grateful when Atar stands and announces that we have other calls to make and must be moving on before the day grows late.
"Will you return for supper?" Grandfather Finwë asks.
"No, we shall return home. Macalaurë has generously offered to have a supper waiting in welcome of his cousin."
Secretly, I think that Macalaurë's spongy casseroles and stringy, overcooked meats are far from welcoming, but I keep my thoughts to myself.
Back outside, on the balcony overlooking the long flight of stairs that will carry us down to ground, Grandfather Finwë embraces Atar, and they hold each other for a long time. Grandfather Finwë whispers something into Atar's ear; he strokes Atar's hair, but Atar doesn't move or speak, and I can only faintly discern his shoulders moving as he breathes. When they let go, at last, Grandfather Finwë holds Atar's face in his hands and lavishes him with kisses—his eyes, his cheeks, his lips—like he would a small child who has injured himself, while Atar grips his wrists with both hands.
"I love you," he says, and if Atar replies, I do not hear it.
My uncle Arafinwë lives only a few houses away, and we walk there in the golden light of afternoon. Atar is quiet and I do not question him. Silence shimmers between us like heat waves, unfamiliar but not yet uncomfortable.
Arafinwë has one of the more modest homes on the street, a pinkish stone mansion fronted by ranks of lopsided topiaries that he proudly keeps himself. Someone—probably Arafinwë—has propped open the gate with a chunk of broken cobblestone. Arafinwë is only fourteen years older than me, near enough in years that I stood with him at his wedding only five summers ago. We have barely set foot on the path when the front door flies open and Arafinwë bounds down the walkway.
"Fëanáro!" he sings, and leaps onto Atar, squeezing his arms around his neck and spinning him in a circle. Arafinwë is small next to Atar—little and quick like a golden sparrow—and Atar likes him the most of his second family, probably because Arafinwë cheerfully ignores any of Atar's attempts at animosity. Atar embraces him in return—more warmly than I would have expected—though he is the first to let go and makes a point of widening the space between them. I am next, and my uncle who is already shorter than me catches me in a tight hug around the neck. "Russandol!" he says, and the epessë does not sound awkward when he says it, but warm and familiar, as grandfather Mahtan intended when he gave it to me.
Arafinwë backs away and appraises me. He wears blue robes and a prince's silver circlet, but his quick smile makes him less imposing than my uncle Nolofinwë and the lady Indis—even Grandfather Finwë. "My, you're tall," he says to me. His voice is musical, breathless. He speaks faster than is the wont of the Noldor. "How old are you? Ninety-eight, ninety-nine?"
The goofy childlike humor works. I grin. "No, just forty-seven."
"Forty-seven!" He makes a big show of looking behind me. "Shouldn't you have three or four children by now?" He pokes Atar as he says this. "Like your father? At least a beautiful wife?"
"He's working on the last part," Atar tells him.
I am appalled. "I am not—Atar! We've only been to one dance!"
"Well, I shall have my best robes pressed then," Arafinwë says, "in anticipation of the occasion." He winks at me. "And I shall have Atar order nine gross of handkerchiefs," he says to my father, "for the maidens in Tirion shall weep inconsolably on the day that one of their numbers takes the charming Russandol away from them."
"Arafinwë!" From the house behind us comes my aunt's voice, her Telerin accent lively in the still air of royal Tirion. "You would leave our guests at the gate like beggars? Where are your manners?"
Aunt Eärwen trots down the walkway, holding her pregnant belly just beginning to swell, the grin on her face betraying her feigned annoyance. She wears a light blue gown of a filmy, gossamer fabric; her jewelry is not gemstones set in gold, as is her husband's, but strings of pearls iridescent in the afternoon light and a pair of earrings that Atar made as a wedding present: scallop shells cast in silver and adorned with tiny flecks of multi-colored coral. Eärwen's hair is silvery, as though the sea itself resides in it; her eyes are gray like ours but they twinkle and dance like light playing on the water. She bounds into Atar's arms as Arafinwë had done only moments earlier. "Fëanáro! It has been too long!"
"It has only been a month since I was here last for Atar's counsel."
She laughs and catches him by surprise with a quick peck on the lips, but he does not recoil. "And Russandol!" she says, holding her arms out to me. "My brother-son, who never fails to grow taller and more handsome each time we meet. How fare you?"
She stands on tiptoe to kiss my lips.
My Grandfather Finwë and Eärwen's father Olwë have long been the closest of friends. Eärwen is but a few years younger than Atar, and I have always suspected that the two had a close friendship in childhood, for Eärwen is the only woman besides my mother who ever touches Atar without him flinching. She takes our hands now—her hand is frail in mine, like the stems of flowers, easily crushed—and leads us into the house.
Arafinwë's house blends the stern beauty of the Noldor with the whimsical loveliness of the Teleri. Light, silky curtains billow from open windows to tickle the heavy oak furniture given to Arafinwë by Grandfather Finwë. Some rooms have large glass tanks with many-colored fishes darting around in them; these fascinate Tyelkormo when we visit, and he will sit alone for hours with his mouth agape and his nose and palms smudging the glass. But we pass the sitting rooms with the fish and proceed to a balcony overlooking the back gardens—more of Arafinwë's topiaries and the song of tinkling fountains—beneath a blue silk canopy. The furniture is made of the light wood found beside the sea; the balcony is graced by several statures of Uinen that I recognize as my mother's work, carved from the soft, porous stone that washes onto the beaches of Eldamar. There is an hourglass on the table that Atar made for their first wedding anniversary, the glass oscillated, each half a different size and shape in a multitude of colors—the relativity of time, he said—and filled not with sand but with the dust of diamonds.
Eärwen pours wine for all of us—this time Atar accepts—before snuggling against Arafinwë on a wicker couch. I remember how my parents were when Amil was pregnant with my brothers, the way they rarely left the other's side, the way that they would press against each other even during mealtimes, as though, by doing so, they could embrace their unborn baby between them.
Eärwen rests a hand on her belly, as though the child can feel her caresses—and perhaps he can—and Arafinwë rests his larger hand on hers. I think suddenly of Grandfather Finwë's story about the night before their marriage ceremony and have to bury my face in my wineglass to keep from laughing at the thought of Arafinwë, with his proud Noldorin shoulders, being dumbstruck by a tiny Telerin maiden who seems like she could dance in the palm of his hand.
"So how fares my imminent brother-son?" Atar asks.
Eärwen breaks into a wide grin. "He will be here in exactly two hundred and forty-nine days. I already have my name picked out for him."
Arafinwë cautions us: "Do not ask her what it is. She will not even tell me."
"That's fine," Atar says. "I named Nelyafinwë when I was thirty-two years old and told no one for twelve years."
Everyone laughs but me. I am always bewildered by the things that parents will reveal when they are with other parents.
"Actually, Fëanáro," Eärwen says coyly, "as precocious as you are, I am surprised it took you that long to name your firstborn son. I would have thought you'd have had him named by your twentieth begetting day, at the latest."
"Ah, my lovely sister-in-law, if you think on it, you will realize that, in my thirty-second year, something very profound happened to me, for that was the year that I met my beautiful wife, and prior to that chance encounter, I had never imagined myself the father of any children. I thought it'd be Nolofinwë's duty to beget my father's heirs."
Now I stare at Atar with open bewilderment, for how could the one who defied what was thought possible for the Elves—fathering four children before his own hundredth begetting day—possibly have once doubted that he would have any children at all? I try to picture Atar without Carnistir in his arms or Tyelkormo walking so close behind him that he steps on his heels, and the picture—when it finally comes—is incomplete and sad, like a painting left unfinished.
"And now you have been blessed with four," says Arafinwë," and may Eru grant you more."
"Yes," Atar says, sipping his wine and smiling over the rim of his glass, "Nerdanel and I make such a request two or three times a week."
"Ai, Eärwen," Arafinwë says, "I only hope that after fifty years of marriage and four sons you are still willing to make an attempt for another two or three times a week," and Eärwen snippily counters with, "I only hope that you have the energy left for such pursuits, Arafinwë, for we would still be childless now if I hadn't motivated you properly after our dear Fëanáro's feast following the Winter Festival this past year."
"Why does everyone beget their children at my house?" Atar asks. "I still suspect that Findekáno was conceived at Tyelkormo's welcoming feast."
"Yes," says Eärwen in a brisk, matter-of-fact voice, "he was. So, Fëanáro, when he becomes lonely for his parents and homesick tonight, you can remind him that you, in a way, have brought him home."
There is more laughter. I hear my voice join in, though I am suddenly not entirely aware of my surroundings. While my elders discuss their children—present and future—I have been sipping liberally of the sweet Telerin wine. Atar's hourglass shimmers like a puzzling apparition; aunt Eärwen's laughter melts perfectly with the sound of the fountains. The Teleri are known for their heady wine, and I do not like the strange sensations it gives. I set my glass to the side and wait for my head to stop spinning.
"And Eärwen and I shall visit frequently once our son is born," says Arafinwë, "so that he too can know his origins. Keep the westernmost bedroom on the third floor ready for us." He winks.
"Two hundred and forty-nine days!" Eärwen says brightly and sighs. "Ah, Fëanáro, for how long have we known each other? I have known you from before I was born, perhaps—have you ever known a time when I did not long for children? I would gladly take a dozen, Eru grant it. In fact, when I first saw Arafinwë—after he'd grown up, of course, because the first time I saw him, he spit apples all down my back—I knew in that moment that I would wed him. He and I will make beautiful babies, I thought, and he will make me happy until the ending of Arda."
"May Eru grant it," Arafinwë says softly. His hand tightens on hers; they both press firmer against her belly.
I remember Arafinwë's and Eärwen's first acquaintance, for it was not so long ago at Tyelkormo's eighth begetting day feast. Amil insisted that King Olwë and his lovely daughter Eärwen—my father's childhood friend—had to be invited. And Atar's half-brothers. I remember watching them together—my uncle and the woman who would one day become my aunt—and thinking them perfect for each other, so light on their feet and flighty. If only she was a Noldo, I'd thought, but that hadn't stopped Arafinwë, who'd suddenly taken a keen interest in Telerin harp music and had begun making weekly trips to Alqualondë to study the craft. A year later, they'd announced their betrothal; a year after that, they had been married, and I'd stood behind my father and my uncle Nolofinwë in honor of them at the ceremony. "Eru made Arafinwë with Eärwen in mind," Amil had said, watching them dance together at their wedding. "They were in harmony in the Music."
I wonder: Do they fight like Amil and Atar do? It is hard to imagine Eärwen's voice raised in anger; it is hard to imagine little Arafinwë slamming a door so hard that it breaks. But, Amil had assured me when I was still very small and terrified of the angry words I'd heard her exchange with my father that all spouses fight. Still I cannot imagine Arafinwë calling Eärwen the kinds of names that I have heard Atar call Amil. Obstinate bitch—I shift restlessly in my chair, wishing suddenly for the swirling oblivion that the wine would bring. And what did she call him? A graceless brat? I cannot imagine those words in my aunt's voice, but neither can I imagine them in Atar's, when he laughs and teases Arafinwë.
The hours pass; Atar announces that we must take leave of their company in order to retrieve Findekáno. Arafinwë and Eärwen both walk us to the door.
Atar gives Eärwen the letter that Amil has written, sealed in red wax with her seal. "Nerdanel sends her best wishes," Atar says. "She is ecstatic for you."
Eärwen seems suddenly very young and small. She takes Atar into a tender embrace. "I thank you, Fëanáro. I would like, if Nerdanel would not mind, if she would attend me at the birth. I am very excited now, but I shall be terrified in the moment. Your wife is the sister for which I wished and never received as a child, and she brings comfort to me."
"At the least, she will keep Arafinwë calm," Atar tells her.
Arafinwë walks with us to the gate, where he and Atar exchange quick embraces. "Give our love to your family, Fëanáro," says Arafinwë, "and to Findekáno. He is a good child. I wish—"
He stops abruptly and looks at Atar, who waits with expectant eyes. The expression on Arafinwë's face is that of one who has endured a gentle ache for a very long time, without hope of it ever ending. But that look slips from his countenance with a soft smile. "I wish you well," he says at last, and Atar and I both know that those were not the words he wanted to say.
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