12. Mark of the King's Hands
It was Márathul who wished to leave first. Sidaizon could have stayed another hour at least, lounging in the hottest pools near the barbers' benches and thinking of nothing. It had always been easier to think of nothing in the loud, crowded fog of the bath house than in the clear silence of home or the Lavazat. Any worries about the lies or Anin or Márathul had no time to form in his head before some yelling, splashing oaf offered a convenient distraction. Like the air, his head was too hazy to think straight. Emptiness of mind came easily.
He was once again drifting into sleep when Márathul found him, contemplating nothing more important than the sound of his own breathing. "Attu," said Márathul's voice, and the word clattered around in his ear for a moment before he recognised its significance and it prodded him back into the world of the fully awake.
"Were you asleep?" Márathul asked.
Sidaizon yawned and stretched. "Only halfway. And you? You want to go?"
"Yes, please. If you're done. I've been here long enough."
Something in the way he spoke sounded wrong. It was nothing that Sidaizon could easily grasp, but there was a new tone to Márathul's voice that sounded unlike him. The words were clipped with a subtle hardness. Or else he was simply not hearing things well in the din. He shook his head to clear it of some of the haze; the difference of voice could have been imagined.
"Of course, Máro. We can leave. Nautalya should be ready to go by now."
Márathul said nothing in reply as Sidaizon climbed out of the pool and dried himself. The two of them walked back to the dressing room without speaking, pulled on their clean clothes in silence, and went around to the women's door at the side of the building without exchanging a word. Márathul kept his eyes on the ground. Every few moments, he tightened his mouth and took a breath, exactly like Eäzinya, as if there were words that cowered behind the threshold of his lips. But the words never appeared. Sidaizon did not push him, out of fear that any attempt to coax a conversation before its time would result in Márathul closing himself and keeping everything hidden inside, as he always did. And also out of fear that he knew exactly what Márathul wanted to discuss. The feeling of exhilaration that had come with his admissions to the other Almatar had long since passed.
In contrast to her brother, Nautalya chattered like a bird from the moment they collected her. Her hair gleamed in bright, golden waves down her back, her skin glowed with the smoothness of honey, and a very immodest and unladylike grin stretched across her face. As promised, she smelled of lily perfume.
"Let me see your arms!" she demanded as soon as Sidaizon had welcomed her back with a kiss to the top of her head.
It was their little post-bath ritual. When Nautalya had been small, hardly more than a baby, nothing had calmed her better after a fuss or a fright than lying curled in Sidaizon's lap with her head in the crook of his elbow, cheek pressed against the bare skin of his forearm and little fingers clutching his wrist. She still, in moments of uncertainty, shyness, or melancholy, would take hold of his wrist, rest her forehead against his arm, and hide from the world within the safety of old comforts. He had asked her once why she preferred his arm to his shoulder or Eäzinya's hair, as the other children. She had answered that she liked the feel of his skin, smooth from the barber's razor and massage oils, and the clean smell of soap that always lingered from having to wash his hands so many times each day at the Lavazat. Thereafter, she was always quick to note when he neglected his grooming obligations and let the stubble grow too long. Nautalya became his personal hair inspector.
He pushed back his sleeves and held out his arms for her to see. With narrowed eyes, she leaned in so close her nose nearly touched his skin. Her fingertips followed everywhere her eyes went.
"Missed some!" she announced.
Nautalya pointed in triumph to a place near his elbow, where four small hairs glinted in the sun.
"Ai, that is terrible! What a lazy barber I had. Remember those, Alya; I'll give you my razor and you can fix them once we're home. Any others?"
"Noooooo," she said slowly as she finished her inspection. "The rest is good."
"I'm glad," said Sidaizon. "How embarrassing it would be to have to walk all the way back with too many missed hairs." He shook his sleeves back into place and linked an arm through Nautalya's. "Shall we hurry home now? Amma will be waiting for us."
He looked back to be sure Márathul was following as they made their way down the path and out the gate of the bath house. Márathul had fallen behind, but he still shuffled along with his eyes on the ground.
"I wish I could have all my arm hair shaved off," Nautalya said.
"People might mistake you for a boy if you did."
"But why can't girls shave? It feels nicer."
"Because it would look funny," Sidaizon answered. "Can you imagine seeing Amma or Haruni Mari with all the hair on their arms and legs shaved off? They would look like men. Very funny indeed."
"I guess," Nautalya allowed.
"I think so. And speaking of funny-looking, did you know that Noldorin men don't shave their body hair?"
She stared up at him in surprise, wearing an expression that seemed to question whether or not he was wholly serious.
"It's true," he said. "And also true of most Yaranénor. Many of them don't shave, either. But because their hair is golden and matches their skin, it's not so easy to see. With those pale white Noldor and their black hair, you can see everything. And they let their body hair grow and grow until they look like monkeys."
"That's not true!"
"It isn't?" Sidaizon laughed.
Nautalya looked horrified. "Is it?"
"Well, maybe not like monkeys. But they do have dark hair on their arms and legs, and they don't shave it."
"What about the women?" she asked.
"I don't know. I've never seen a Noldorin woman's bare arms. But I imagine they have dark hair, too, though not as thick as the men's."
"Eugh." She made a face, sticking out her tongue. "That's disgusting."
Grinning, Sidaizon pulled her into an unbalanced, one-armed embrace. "Now aren't you glad you were born into a lovely Valadávan family and won't have to marry any unshaven, heretic monkey?"
"Yes," she was quick to reply.
"Good. And I'll do my best to find you a nice husband who doesn't let his arm hair grow like an animal's."
"A prince," she reminded him. "Or at least a nobleman. Remember my horoscope!"
"Right, right, how could I forget? I should start looking tomorrow. Not too many years now until you're old enough to marry, and I'll need every one of them if you expect me to find a prince for you."
"You'd better. I won't settle for any old rug-maker like Hwailenda."
"Of course not." Pausing, Sidaizon glanced back over his shoulder. Márathul had fallen farther behind, shuffling step by slow step. "Alya, why don't you go on alone? I need to talk to your brother. Run ahead to the market up the street and see if you can find a stall selling shoes. You know the kind I need: white slippers for the Lavazat."
The apprehensive look in her eyes was fleeting, replaced almost immediately by determined pride. She had never before been allowed to wander the market stalls on her own. "I know which shoes," she said. "I'll find them."
"Good girl. Máro and I will be along in a minute."
She took off down the street at a run, hair flying wildly behind her. Sidaizon watched until she bobbed out of sight behind a wagon full of vegetables, then turned to wait as Márathul approached. "Well there. Leisurely walk today?"
Márathul shrugged and said nothing.
"You haven't spoken since we left the pools."
He answered with a gruff snorting sound, followed by a grudging sentence. "What should I say?"
Sidaizon ignored the flutter of warning that grew in his stomach. Uncomfortable as it might be, he could not simply avoid this conversation and pretend everything was fine. "I think you are upset about something, Máro. You might want to talk about it."
For one taut moment, Márathul held his breath. But his words, when he spoke, were not what Sidaizon dreaded. "Attu, they were going to kill him!"
"Anin! The Hands! They were going to kill him! After you left..." The entire story came tumbling out at once, in a swirl of distraught fragments. "He was sitting on the floor. Once you left, they asked me... One of them said they would take him away. They warned him before. They'd take him away and teach him what the law meant. So they asked... I knew they would kill him. They wouldn't say, but... He said they would. Then I... I had to. I couldn't let them. I told them he could stay with me."
He rubbed at his eyes and face with more force than needed, as if trying to wipe away any evidence of being so upset over a bath attendant. Sidaizon cautiously stepped closer.
"And you're worried that you've done something wrong?"
Márathul gave a vehement shake of the head. "No. I just..." He sighed and looked from the ground to the sky, carefully avoiding Sidaizon's gaze. "You should have told me."
The flutter of warning returned. "Told you what, Máro?"
"What he is. What they are. Why they're there. He's not even Valadávan, and..." A frustrated sigh cut across the last words.
"One needn't be Valadávan to work in the bath house. Strange, yes, but Yaranénon workers are allowed. They are forbidden only from touching the water, and they must remain partially clothed at all times. I've been told they accept the restrictions because they make better money from us than they do at their own open-air baths."
Finally meeting his eyes, the look that Márathul cast him was as sharp as a blade. "Told by whom?"
"That's not important-" Sidaizon began, only to be interrupted by Márathul's hardened voice.
He sighed. "Yes, Máro. By Anin. I asked him once why he works in a Valadávan bath house instead of the pools on the other side of the river, and he said he makes more money from the Lávar, who, ironically, are less prejudiced than his fellow Yaranénor. Is that better?"
"No," said Márathul. "What would be better is if you took the time to reassure me that nothing – nothing – ever happened between you and that... that..." he bit his lip and spoke the final word in hardly more than a whisper: "whore."
Hearing the accusation aloud, it carried less of a sting than Sidaizon had expected. The lightening-bolt of shock passed in an instant, leaving only a hint of dizziness behind. Whatever guilt he had braced himself to feel never came. Márathul stared back at him with cold eyes, but it was relief more than shame that gripped him. The worst had passed.
"I hardly think this is the time or place to have such a conversation," he said after a pause. The street was nearly empty, with only a few carts and market-goers passing by, but that made the possibility of being overheard no less likely. There was little ambient noise to hide their words.
"So you admit it," Márathul huffed.
Shaking his head, Sidaizon started toward the market again. "No, I am saying that we will discuss this later."
"No, we won't. We'll walk home and, somewhere along the way, decide this never happened, like we always do. You'll never mention it again, I'll pretend nothing's wrong..."
"Márathul, I swear by Manwë's own name, we will talk about this later tonight. Please. I will tell you whatever you want to know tonight, at home, when we are alone." He tried to catch Márathul's eye to solidify the promise, but Márathul stared resolutely at the ground and refused to be dissuaded.
"Does Amma know?"
"No. No, of course she does not, and nor does she ever need to know."
"Which means," said Márathul, "you're so ashamed of what you did that you won't tell your wife or discuss it with your son. Why did you do it, then?"
Sidaizon continued walking as he spoke, keeping his voice at a low level. "You're sixty-three years old, Máro. I won't insult you by naïvely assuming you know nothing about a man's physical needs."
At that, Márathul flushed red, but he did not stop. "You could have... well... you could have... not."
"Yes," said Sidaizon. "For three hundred and fifty years, I could have simply not."
"You could have married sooner!"
"I had no money. Marriage is very expensive."
"So are bath house-"
"Not nearly as much as a wife and a wedding," Sidaizon interrupted. He stopped, turning to face Márathul; they had come to the gate of the market square. "Now. Can we please continue this later? It's hardly marketplace conversation, and absolutely nothing that your sister should hear.
Grudgingly, Márathul nodded. "I suppose."
"Also nothing that Tarmanaz should hear."
"Tarmanaz? Why not?"
"Because he finds himself enough trouble as it is," said Sidaizon. "I don't want him to be able to use knowledge of my terrible behaviour as justification for doing whatever he wants. Do you understand?"
Márathul nodded again. "Yes."
"Good. Then we will continue to discuss this tonight." Scanning the market square, Sidaizon spotted Nautalya standing before a table of shoes and sandals. She waved to him, and he waved in return. "For now, we should return home."
They arrived at the front gate in silence: Nautalya exhausted by the walk and all out of chatter, Márathul sullenly sulking, and Sidaizon too afraid of Márathul's reaction to speak. Nautalya led the way into the house, kicking off her sandals as she stepped through the door.
"Amma? Haruni? We're home!"
No answer came. Frowning, Nautalya headed around the corner to the sitting room, and Sidaizon followed her.
They were met with the strange tableau of Tarmanaz, dressed in white, standing at the centre of the room, while Eäzinya knelt weeping on the floor at his side. A collection of sewing pins sat clenched between her lips, and her shaking fingers fumbled with a needle at the hem of the knee-length tunic Tarmanaz wore. Tarmanaz, at the sound of Nautalya and Sidaizon's approach, turned his head to face them. His hands rested on the gold sash at his waist.
"Welcome home, Atar," he said, smiling.
Márathul, coming up to stand at Sidaizon's shoulder, gasped at the sight. "Tarmanaz... what did you do?"
Tarmanaz made a show of looking down at the clothing he wore. "You need to ask? I thought this would be obvious."
The uniform he wore was easily recognisable to every person in Valmar. The white tunic had been pinned to a perfect fit by Eäzinya, falling exactly to his knees over matching white trousers. Buttons of knotted gold cord fastened the tunic shut down the left side of his chest, and the wide gold sash pulled everything snug to his waist. A gold-lined white cape lay on the floor near his feet, which were covered by white boots with gold lacing.
Sidaizon said nothing, but held out his hand to Eäzinya. She took it, turning away from Tarmanaz as if he were some despicable horror, but kept her careful distance from Sidaizon as well. "Now you see what your recklessness has done," she whispered.
"My recklessness?" he asked.
"You cut his hair," said Eäzinya. "You think he would listen to what you think is best for him after that?" She pulled away, dropping his hand and looking up at him with red and tear-rimmed eyes. "I hope you're happy and don't regret that choice, Sidaizon, because now your son has gone and joined the King's Hands."
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.