"Discretion" was written for Tárion Anaróre as a holiday gift in 2007. Tárion asked me for a story with "Caranthir interacting with Fingolfin and/or Finarfin ... preferably single!Caranthir ... light on the osanwë side (or at least subtle/small role/not directly mentioned ... siding toward serious rather than comedy ... [and] bonus points for incorporating Maedhros/Finrod." Believe it or not, as Tárion is one of my oldest and dearest fandom friends, this request wasn't as off-the-wall as it may seem. All quite predictable, actually, after many wacky IM conversations about this very premise. In fact, the hardest part about this story was the restriction on using osanwë: In my Felakverse stories, osanwë is the reason for the divide and dislike between Caranthir, Finarfin, and Finarfin's children. It was challenging--but fun--to remix this old idea of mine a bit.
"Discretion" is also nominated in the 2008 Middle-earth Fanfiction Awards in the category Times: First Age and Prior: House of Finwë.
I have a predilection for shadows, and that is how I learn much of what I know about the secret goings-on of others. My father, the artificer of Light, has ever warned us away from the darkness, and perhaps I should have listened. But ever my instincts--my dark desires, Macalaurë might intone melodramatically, hand flopped against forehead--have drawn me into the shadows. Hence, I go.
I was reading one day in a dark nook in the garden that my father must have missed when installing his ubiquitous blue lanterns, a cozy, dark place between a fountain and a tree. It is difficult to read in the dark--and some would say, not advisable--but ever have I been fond of it, for it forces me to concentrate more on deciphering the text, and I am less apt to lose myself in daydreaming. The book was one of the many dull tomes that Atar insists his sons read before reaching their coming-of-age (and mine was only a short year away), and I can say without being hyperbolic that I absolutely hated it. It was not only dull but the people flat upon the page in that way of history texts, like when everyone is painted in bright colors, even though you know that they got dirty and rained on and that the sky was cloudy that day and no one looked nearly that bold. These texts tell only of the emotions that trumpet across the page like brass music: He was fearless or angry or indomitable--never that he was craven or sad or wearied, like I knew too well everyone, even heroes, become in life.
So the book was dull, perhaps meant to be read in the shadows.
As the afternoon evolved and the golden light of Laurelin dimmed and Telperion dominated, I reached my daily quota of pages and was about to slide from the shadows and pursue something more pleasurable when I heard voices. Someone was coming along the paths in the garden. Nay--as they drew closer--two someones, one of whom was clearly Nelyo. If he saw the book I was reading, I would be made to endure his quizzing and his inquiries; I would have to listen to his bright adulation for the dull and flawed tome in my arms which he, of course--being recently appointed as one of the King's loremasters--had probably memorized over the course of his numerous readings. With a voiceless sigh, I prepared to settle into the shadows.
And then I recognized the other voice: Findaráto. Beard of Yavanna, that was even worse! I had no doubt that my brother and my half-first cousin were engaging in one of their dissertations about diplomacy, in which both were said to excel. It was debated at times who was better, though Nelyo and Findaráto both professed to hold the other in highest esteem. For, of course, given the nature of their pursuit, their shared prowess wasn't the sort that could inspire bloodthirst or envy or upmanship--indeed, even the mildest of rivalries--but rather resulted in these dull discourses whereby one practiced his exceptional diplomacy most civilly upon the other and both considered how their combined exceptional gifts might benefit the Noldor in centuries to come.
Privately, I sometimes thought that they must secretly despise each other. Here, each had been given so many special gifts, only to find them precisely replicated in the other. Beautiful, gracious, learned, and wise, such a fortunate accident should happen only once to any single family, and I often imagined that our family's boon that it happened twice in ours must be their most profound mischance.
My hope was that they would pass me by and go to the lighter, more favorable places in the garden.
But they stopped in this place, where the light was inadequate and the shadows profound, a place that Eldar of the likes of them should wish to avoid. There was a rough-hewn stone bench--and early project of my mother's that has since been relegated here in favor of her more stunning accomplishments--just barely wide enough for two, but of course, they both sat upon it. For what did they have to avoid in the other?
Nelyo carried a book in the crook of his elbow: a tome nearly as thick as the one crushed between my thighs and my chest as I tucked myself as tightly into the shadows as possible. I sometimes thought that Nelyo must have a callus at his elbow, for he was rarely without a book in his arm, much in the way that Atar has calluses on his hands from grasping a hammer and Macalaurë on his fingertips from playing a harp: the scars of love, Atar calls them in his more sentimental moments. Findaráto carried nothing, and I suspected that this is because he knew what a splendid profile he made in his floor-length robes with his hair mostly unbound and his shoulders squared and his empty hands clasped primly in his lap.
Findaráto was at the age when he should have been thinking of marriage or, at the least, courting (which I knew because I was also at that age and frequently evading similar inquiries from purportedly well-meaning kinsfolk) but he had no time for this when the hopes of the Noldor rested on his slender, squared shoulders. He went alone, save for his tutors and, of course, my brother, though I suspect more than one maiden scribed his name in the dust beside her own and dreamed.
Beside him, Nelyo was twice as fair--in face as well in stature--for he had our father's height and broad shoulders and bright eyes. Yet he also went alone.
Perhaps people should stop worrying so much about my loneliness, I thought bitterly at the sight of them--two fair-faced and beloved young Eldar, prime for marriage, and choosing the company of each other. Perhaps people should worry more about the supposed "heirs of the Noldor."
Nelyo was talking, some rot about favors and insinuation into the favor of a particularly disagreeable lord (whose name I noted with a reminder to consider service to him, should I ever require a way to irrevocably anger my father in the way that Nelyo had, upon going into service in Tirion) who, naturally, served as a block to certain decisions that represented what was "good for Tirion" and, hence, "good for the Noldor." Findaráto was nodding, but when Nelyo speaks--especially when he looks at you and speaks, like you can't believe he'd waste his time looking for even a moment at your ugly face--then it is impossible not to nod along, and he has an annoying way of evolving what you want into what he thinks is best. Once upon a time, I remember when my brother was not that way, before he went to Tirion. When he saw individuals with their selfish individual wants and lusts and desires, and not only the greater good. But dwelling on that--and my grief at its loss--is, of course, fruitless.
So, as I said, Findaráto was nodding. If Nelyo is a talker, and his gift is in the eloquence and persuasion of his speech, then Findaráto is a listener, and his gift is in managing this wheedling, doe-eyed stare and this slow, profound nod that (I am ashamed to admit) has more than once at family gatherings, with the help of a carafe of wine, resulted in me unburdening upon him things that would have best passed unspoken. Findaráto has this rare gift for making you think that he stares into the center of Eä, and you are in it, and all the rest of the world careens wildly around it, and you. He was urging Nelyo on and on, urging him to speak faster and with more passion--and lack of restraint--once even smiting his knee with his fist as one as poised as he should never do, and Findaráto was leaning in closer. I could see them from the shadows of my hiding place. Findaráto was leaning in closer, and he was achieving an intensity as I'd never before seen, and Nelyo was falling for it, and he was leaning forward too, his silver-gray eyes taking a strange light, and then--
He stopped speaking.
Right in the middle of a sentence about the power of decency and kindness to change to fate of the Noldor, he simply stopped. Findaráto's hands unwrapped themselves in his lap. One lifted. And with the backs of his fingers, he caressed Nelyo's face from temple to chin, and there he lingered.
Nelyo's eyes fluttered shut. The book he held tumbled from his arms and to the dust. His hand lifted and cupped Findaráto's small shoulder, and they leaned into each other in an awkward embrace that ended--my eyes were popped out by this point, and I was vaguely wondering if the shadows were playing tricks on me--in a most un-cousinly kiss on the mouth.
"Hush, Nelyo." I have never heard anyone save my father tell Nelyo to hush since he left our family's home and went to Tirion, and those injunctions usually ended in shouts and tears. For all that my brother is supposed to be a diplomat and skilled in arbitrating for the benefit of both sides, he is not particularly good at relinquishing his own opining, when asked. Yet he was immediately obedient to our cousin, falling silent and letting himself be held and kissed again and again.
"All that we have worked for, Findaráto, if someone found out what is between us--"
"Nelyo. I told you to hush." As though to underscore his point, he kissed my brother more firmly on the mouth.
When I was small and still fit easily under furniture, I used to like watching my family in certain intimate moments: my parents or Macalaurë and his wife or Nelyo and his seemingly endless string of girl-friends, back before he went to Tirion and foreswore personal pleasure in favor of "serving the greater good." Should I ever decide to court and marry, I have developed quite an encyclopedic knowledge of sexual techniques and positions, and repeated early exposure had (I thought) erased all possible horror at that thought that my parents and my brothers felt the same carnal desires as I. But this--I was not prepared for this.
Findaráto's hand worked itself into the folds of Nelyo's robes. I didn't need to see closely to know that fasteners and ties were being undone and naked flesh sought. Nelyo's fingernails raked the rich cloth covering Findaráto's back: naked flesh found. "Shhh. Shhh," Findaráto said, but Nelyo bit his lip hard and made not a sound. Coming upon them at unawares, anyone--even I--might be easily fooled into thinking that they shared a rather awkward but tight embrace as cousins might, on occasion, be expected to do. Nelyo buried his face in Findaráto's shoulder; Findaráto's robes were crushed in both his fists. I knew better. Findaráto's arm--the one attached to the hand lost in Nelyo's robes--moved ever so slightly in a slow and steady rhythm. My stomach quavered and my heart pounded and my eyes refused to blink, much less look away.
They are both males! They are cousins!
They are diplomats, perfect and selfless with slippery smiles, who never split an infinitive or walk out of the lavatory with paper stuck to their clothing or aren't sure what to do when they find a bone while eating Uncle Arafinwë's "famous" and disgusting fish quiche. They do not make mistakes like this!
"Fin!" Nelyo gasped--his first word and my first sight of his face since the start of this awful tryst. I have seen Nelyo at his undoing before, but this was awful, not even for the knowledge that it was brought about by our own cousin but for the guilt etched there. I had thought him incapable of guilt any longer, since entering the service of our grandfather.
"I know, I know," Findaráto whispered, and with a final kiss the mouth, they were straightening their clothes, composure restored except for the way that neither would look at the other. Nelyo took a while in retrieving his book and brushing the dust from it.
"Findaráto," he said, "we cannot continue to do this. All that we have done; all that we serve to lose--not for ourselves, but for Tirion--this cannot happen again."
His assertion had the tired sound of having been said before--many times before--and Findaráto nodded as expected and reached over to squeeze Nelyo's hand, a sign of solidarity and agreeance and desire for the flesh he'd touched forgotten. "I know," he repeated in again in that voice so full of assurance that, for a moment, even I was convinced that what I'd seen had been all in my dark imagination.
Nelyo was to stay with us until the New Year: an unexpected surprise. Since he'd left so many years ago, he'd never stayed so long under the same roof as our father. They tolerated each other in memory of the love and fellowship that had once seemed so indestructible between them, or perhaps in hope of rekindling the same, but the tolerance wore thin after few days, and there were always harsh words: talk of dreams forsaken and expectations dashed, uncompromising selfishness that refused to consider the wounded heart that the other possessed. Yes, the house became unpleasant, if Nelyo lingered too long.
My brothers each went to his room--Macalaurë the first and staying the longest, followed by each in turn, save me--and there was much laughter and loud voices. I know, for I made it my point to pass Nelyo's door often that afternoon. Atar went in last, and I passed even more often then--making excuses to Amil, when she asked, about a stomach-upset caused by eating too many hot peppers the night prior--but there were no shouts and no tears, and when Atar emerged after an hour (and I happened to be passing and rubbing my stomach and looking petulant, the latter not an act), then he was smiling and clapped me on the shoulder before returning to his work.
So it was my turn. I slid into Nelyo's room without knocking. He was bent over a parchment on his desk, writing furiously in his perfect, precise hand. Stacks of books and papers formed tall columns at either corner of his desk. The hand that was not writing lay in his lap, and he was picking relentlessly at his cuticles.
"Nelyo," I said when I thought I might startle him into scratching a streak across the almost-finished page, but he hid his small flinch well, and from my distant vantage-point, I could see no sign of my sudden, startling arrival in the tidy perfection of his script.
He dried the ink from his quill and laid it gently beside the parchment. "Carnistir," he said, turning to face me with a soft smile on his face, "I did not expect you."
"I am your brother too," I replied. "I can visit you."
"Yes, but you don't often come to my rooms, when I visit. Nonetheless. I am pleased that you have come. Won't you take a seat?"
I said nothing and certainly didn't move toward the proffered chair, probably still warm from the procession of backsides belonging to my insipid brothers and father still willing to be cowed by his slick sycophancy. I stared at him. After about twenty seconds, I could tell that he was becoming unnerved. He'd resumed picking at his cuticles. His gaze broke from mine. He sighed.
"What do you want, Carnistir?" he said at last, and his voice was tired and slightly cantankerous, much like the brother I remembered from when we were both children still, the brother who became an unbearable tyrant whenever he drew near to having to sit for an exam or attend an important recitation. This startled me so that I almost revealed my surprise and covered it only with a cheerless smile. "I just want to know what you do," I said, "and why you do it."
"I know that I let you down, Carnistir," he said with a sigh. "Along with others whom I love."
That was an invitation to debate. Nelyo is flawless in argument and rhetoric and nearly impossible to best. I knew his technique well by now: He hoped to entice me into an argument, at which point he would turn all of my points on their heads and, when he turned them right again, they would mysteriously resemble his own quite closely. I would not be fooled. I said nothing.
He picked at his cuticles and also said nothing. He lifted his hand to his mouth to snag a flap of skin with his teeth--I doubt that he even knew that he'd done it--and left a spot of blood on his lip. Something wobbled inside of me: a vestige of the love I'd once felt for a brother who'd had me thoroughly convinced that I was the most important person in the world to him, worth more even than the "greater good" of the Noldor. Even then, he'd been able to fool me with his tricks. I'd been thoroughly convinced of my importance. I heard myself laugh.
"What is funny?" Nelyo asked, and I shook my head and did not reply. What was there to say? Nelyo, I used to like when you'd let ink bleed out onto almost-finished parchments in your haste to catch me in your arms and kiss me hello. Nelyo, I used to like the stories you'd tell me of how wonderful I was and how wonderful I would be. Clearly, that has not come to pass; clearly, both were lies. But I liked them, Nelyo. I liked the way you would sigh and look peevish when I interrupted you, but you always stopped what you were doing and even, if I recall, once failed an exam because I needed to speak to you and would not wait, and you indulged me.
I chose my words carefully. "Well. If you truly let me down--and others--then I would like to know what for." And I had in my mind that if he used the words "greater good" at any point in his reply, then I would slap his smug face.
One of his hands toyed with the emptied quill and the other picked, picked, picked relentlessly at his cuticles. He was bleeding and didn't know it, and he was smearing the blood all over his hand. "Our father," he said at last, and I knew that he chose his words with the same care as I'd chosen mine, "should take certain responsibilities, yes, and I know that, and also, I know that it is impossible: that he does not, and never will he. The pain in his heart is so great that he would see the Noldor destroyed from within to assuage the agony at Þerindë's death and what he sees as our grandfather's subsequent betrayal, and he would think nothing of it, and only once we were sliced into miserable factions would he realize that the pain is still there, that it will never go away, and no amount of bitter retribution will transform what has already come to pass." He glanced at me to appraise my reaction.
I snorted: so full of melodrama!
He didn't bother to hide his displeasure. "Always the skeptic, are you not, Carnistir? Well then. I respect that, for I have worn that cloak on many occasions and still do, no matter what Atar says of me now that I sit in the court. Why should you trust that what I say is true? I am only your brother--once, I like to believe, I was worthy of beloved brother, even--and I have never given you any indication that I mean to harm you or our family or our people, but yes, continue with your vague exercises in skepticism, with my blessing! I am clearly inventing this conflict because I like engaging in subtle political battles all day; I like losing nights to worry over our people."
"But you do," I said frankly, and he started at that.
"You are right, in a way," he admitted at last. "I do enjoy diplomacy and discourse, but for the results it brings, not the acts themselves. The acts themselves can be painful. But. I will give to you an example of what faces our people, at our most recent juncture. I will ask discretion of you, but I do not think that you speak often with anyone, much less someone who would be concerned by this." The contempt in his eyes was plain. I felt myself grinning. Oh, the triumph of having brought forth my brother--the actual flesh-and-blood brother whom once I'd loved--from beneath the veneer of the slavering political automaton he had become!
"You are wholly right, of course," I assured him. "I have no friends and don't particularly care much for anyone in our family, and so whether you would be right in doubting my discretion I could not tell you." I shrugged. "It has never been tested."
He gave me a guarded glance and began. "Our father recently had to appear at court. I trust that you know that."
Of course I did. Atar was expected at the court in Tirion once per season, to hear of the recent work and reports of the lords. The week leading up to this obligation was always unbearable, Atar seemingly unsatisfied until all of the house had either once fallen to tears or sworn bitter despise of him. "The miserable love to share their lot," Amil said often in an attempt to pardon him, but it did not lessen the grief of enduring his attempt at "sharing." We were glad when he was gone, and even gladder when the court was over and he returned, smiling again and bearing gifts to make up for his ghastly behavior in the weeks prior.
With my nod, Nelyo continued. "Well, at the last court, he picked a fight with one of the lords known to favor Nolofinwë--and quite vocally--and of course, he did so publicly. Atar is difficult to best rhetorically, even when he is clearly wrong"--a wistful smile touched his lips at this, and I knew that he too had been often bested by Atar's wayward logic--"and the lord was thoroughly rebuked and shamed and lessened in the eyes of all in attendance. I was present, and I will admit that while Atar spoke, I was thoroughly persuaded against one whom, while I've never particularly liked, I've always respected. It was only later, while meeting with my peers, that I realized my folly and the weight of what Atar had done.
"And I was right. It did not take long for the lord to begin to plot his revenge against our father, and it came in the form of a move to make an official declaration about Nolofinwë's status as our grandfather's son. You know by now, I hope"--though he fixed his gaze on me in such a way that I knew that his hopes for my awareness were, in fact, quite fragile and perhaps nonexistent--"that the court has avoided making an official declaration of Nolofinwë's status, in recognition of the pain that our father suffered at Þerindë's death and what came after. Some call Nolofinwë a high prince, and others do not; no final word has ever been given, and Nolofinwë stays solidly in the role of a second-born son, same as if he shared a mother also with Atar.
"Well, no longer. The motion is official as of this week past--the final week of deliberations before the Festival--to declare Nolofinwë in sharing Atar's title of High Prince. You know what this means?"
Of course I did. Even I, who professes a hatred of politics and, more so, familial drama, knows the explosion that would follow if such a motion were passed. Even I know that the Noldor would, indeed, be split in twain as Atar and Nolofinwë both scrambled to assert their right based on their following. Unease prickled the hairs on my arms and squirmed in my belly. "But they will not?" I said.
"If I have my way, no. No, they will not. Nolofinwë has never given me any indication that he wants such a title. This is borne of an urge for revenge, but--however deserving Atar may be of revenge from more than a single lord in the court--the cost is far too high. We are talking about splitting our people, of requiring a choice of fealty in whom one would support in the event that Grandfather abdicates, as he someday will, I am sure. And so you ask, what have I been doing? This is what I have been doing. I see the implications, but I am my father's son, and I have to dodge (sometimes rightful) accusations of favoritism and bias. But I have found an ally, one who can be counted as close to neutral in this tangled web of allegiances and betrayals that is our court, and Findaráto and I--"
My stomach plunged. Of course. Findaráto. I saw them in the courtyard in my mind: the kiss, Findaráto's disappearing hand, the way that Nelyo's face had twisted at his touch. So hard he has worked to convince us of his unflagging perfection! Perfection that has been expected of us in turn, for we are also Atar's sons, and if Nelyo can be perfect, then so can we. How many times have I heard--and if not heard, then sensed--that expectation?
"Findaráto. Of course," I muttered. I was already backing toward the door. Nelyo's lips were moving, but I heard not what he had to say. "I have heard enough," I heard my voice say, sharp against the backdrop of noise of Nelyo's voice. I watched his face collapse ever so slightly as I turned to leave and let the door bang shut behind me.
Two days later, a messenger came hastily up the path and talked with Atar for a short while in the garden, having interrupted him at his work. I was doing nothing much of importance; mostly trying to catch a whisper of what Nelyo and Macalaurë were saying upstairs through the airshaft in the parlor, a book at the ready in case anyone challenged why I was sitting in a dark and dusty room not often used. Nelyo used to tell Macalaurë everything, and I wondered if my second eldest brother knew of our perfect Nelyo's immoral (and, in fact, illegal) affections with Findaráto. So far, I had heard naught but vague marital complaints from Macalaurë always answered with sound-seeming advice from Nelyo, who has had more failed romances than the Valar have been fooled by Melkor and was certainly not the best to offer such counsel.
Atar and the messenger distracted me briefly, but I could not hear what they were saying, and both were turned at such angles that it was difficult to read their lips, and shortly, I heard the words "in the court" come tumbling down the airshaft, and I flew to the sofa again in hopes of hearing something of interest.
Because of this, I barely had time enough to arrange my book in front of my face when Atar burst into the room, and I was caught in a compromising pose with one knee upon the sofa and my ear tilted toward the airshaft, but Atar seemed not to notice. "Come, Carnistir," he said. "A most-anticipated silver delivery has come at last to Tirion from Alqualondë, and I need to collect my share before the other smiths declare me absconded and divide it among themselves, as they did last time. I require your assistance."
I did not have to work to make my face look peevish. "I am studying, Atar."
He stared at my book, and too late, I realized that I was holding it upside-down. I felt my face flush, and he alighted on the sofa beside me, getting his dirty forge boots all over the good cushions. "Nelyo!" he called up the airshaft. "Don't say anything confidential because your brother is spying on you in the parlor!" The rumble of voices from the airshaft abruptly ceased, and Atar hopped down again, ruffled my hair, and said, "Now you have nothing to keep you. I'll expect you at the stable in five minutes to help me harness the horses."
Atar won't go to Tirion alone. He needed my assistance with transporting the silver like Macalaurë needed my assistance with tuning his lute. Macalaurë--who can become wonderfully cynical with enough wine, provocation, or both--once hypothesized that Atar continues having children so that he always has something to shove into people's arms to prevent them from questioning his service or his politics. "Who can talk court to the face of one of Atar's chronically adorable infants?" Macalaurë had griped, and I wondered at the truth of that.
Furthermore, I knew that the silver delivery would have come to the House of Arafinwë since it was he--by virtue of a marriage to a maiden who, fortuitously, happened to be a Telerin princess--who had established cordiality between the Noldorin craftspeople and the Telerin silversmiths. The only house Atar hated worse than Arafinwë's was Nolofinwë's, and with Nolofinwë (at the least) the feeling was mutual and his stay guaranteed to be brief. As Atar drove the wagon down the path to the road, I readied myself for a lingering visit during which I would likely be forced to try Arafinwë's most recent prawn recipe and admire his leaning topiaries and give ear to a concert on harp by Findaráto--
Findaráto! I had forgotten my cousin's likely appearance, now that the court was on leave for the coming festival days. I sank lower into the wagon seat as Atar turned onto the road. Had I not been so absent-minded, then I might have feigned an illness to rid myself of this horrid obligation. Nelyo could have gone in my stead. He and Atar had been surprisingly amiable over the past days, and Nelyo and Findaráto could explore the shadows beneath Arafinwë's topiary rabbits.
It was an hour-long ride to Tirion, and I spent the time pondering Nelyo's choice in illicit mates. Atar didn't attempt to make conversation, and for that I was glad. We both looked sullen; more like father and son than perhaps ever before, seeing as I have done little justice to the exceedingly majestic bloodline Atar has been so kind to give me, and whatever darkened his thoughts I knew had naught to do with what darkened mine. My brother had always been indiscriminate (if one was being kind) and promiscuous (if not), and indeed, it was this reputation that kept him from advancing faster in the ranks of our grandfather's lords. Recent years had seen his wantonness quelled a bit--or so I'd thought--to relief all around.
I realized that it was not the illicitness of what Nelyo had done; it was not that it was done with another male or even a cousin. I am hardly a moral person: I sneak and spy and lie, and I hate most everything, and while I have discovered how to sate the carnal lusts expected of one my age with the rare willing female, I have never so much as considered that fairy-story notion of love for the same. I cannot stand in judgment of any behavior, no matter how odd it seems to me. No, it was the cousin Nelyo had chosen: Findaráto, beautiful, perfect, usurping Findaráto. Bad enough that Nelyo's unrelenting perfection had placed a burden upon his brothers' shoulders that we could never now escape; bad enough that he had fled to Grandfather Finwë's court in lieu of facing us and Atar and that burden every day, as we must. Bad enough that we--that I--must feel that I was not a good enough brother to justify his continuing presence in our lives. My life. Worse that we--that I--had been replaced: by Findaráto, who would be a lesser man's enemy.
Even as the thoughts unspooled in my head, I knew their illogic and their pure, bitter gall. I sneaked looks at Atar as he drove the wagon along the road, ever closer to Tirion. He had been the other half of my misery over the past few years, but he gave me no acknowledgement. Of course. What had I expected? He did not ask Nelyo or Macalaurë or Tyelkormo or his professed favorite Curufinwë because he could not sit beside them in sullen silence for the whole of the journey and then shove them into Arafinwë's presence while he bartered the price of silver and expect no complaint. I thought of the lord Nelyo had mentioned and his plans to derail Atar--and, by default, Nelyo--and I felt a sudden stab of empathy for him and his plot. It felt good to even ponder retribution, but to carry it out? Unwittingly, I gnawed my lip.
We arrived shortly in Tirion, and I did not notice much as we climbed the streets to the royal square where my grandfather and half-uncles lived. Servants appeared as though by magic to take our wagon, though Atar protested that we would not be long; they wore Arafinwë's badges, so they knew it impossible not to linger in their lord's home and smiled and nodded and took the wagon anyway. And then there was Arafinwë, coming down the walk as though he'd been waiting at the window for us (probably, he had), and his mouth was stretched into a grin, and he had to embrace us both, much too long for my preferences (who would not protest never being hugged again).
Once we were in the house, Atar managed to duck away to inspect his silver, leaving me to be led by Arafinwë into the parlor to admire a new item he'd had made that involved water spilling over a revolving set of chimes in a way that a muted song played beneath the ceaseless noise of falling water. I found it tiresome and insipid after only a few rounds of the same tune; he claimed it a "symbol of the union between Noldorin and Telerin" and clearly loved it.
I found myself next in the kitchen, sitting at the rough wooden table used for chopping vegetables while he shooed away the cooks to make for me a chocolate drink that he remembered me liking as a child. Like father like son, I thought wryly, and as though detecting my thoughts, he said, "Findaráto was disappointed that he would not be here to see your father and you today. He had a prior engagement with one of my brother's lords."
"No mind," I said. I tried to make my voice light and amiable like Nelyo might, but it came out a bit too squeaky and still too gravelly. Quietly, I cleared my throat. "He was at our house the other day."
"Oh?" Arafinwë chirped. "I did not know that he'd had any such intentions." By the intensity with which he stared into the liquid he was stirring, I could see that he was bothered by this.
If he'd known his son's true intentions, I thought, then he would have been more than mildly perturbed by Findaráto's omission. It would be so easy, I realized, to bring Nelyo low, to teach him what it felt like to be among the average of the Noldor; to rattle Atar's pride; to strike out at Findaráto, who had claimed one once dear to me, whether he'd done it intentionally or not. Even to horrify Arafinwë, who had irritated me for far too long. All it would take would be a single slip of discretion--
"He came to see Nelyo," I blurted out, and Arafinwë visibly relaxed. "Ah, yes," he said. "They have forged a great friendship since beginning to serve their grandfather." He crossed the kitchen and sat the drink in front of me. "There you go. You probably thought you'd never taste its like again, that I'd forgotten, did you not?" He smiled, awaiting congratulation.
I sipped the drink. It was far too sweet, but I kept the grimace from my face with some effort, though I could not force my tongue to twist into dishonest praise for its taste. But it was familiar. I had drunk this as a child constantly; Atar had invented it, and Arafinwë had learned to make it to please me at dinners where the Telerin dishes were never to my liking. I used to drink it by the bucketful.
"Friends. Indeed," I said, and I let my voice carry an edge like the way that Atar will sharpen his ornamental swords so that the light plays across them in such a way that one perceptive enough knows their danger. Arafinwë cocked an eyebrow at me. He was one of Nelyo's diplomatic ilk; he was perceptive enough.
I took another sip of the oversweet drink. My heart was pounding for some reason and my palms sweating. I hoped that my anxiety--my relish, if I was being honest--did not show in my face. But I was playing at Nelyo's game: a game of subtlety, of alliances formed and broken with words and gestures. So much rested on me in that moment. With a few wags of my tongue, reputations could be shattered and perceptions overturned. Nelyo and Findaráto would never be seen the same; nor would I, I realized with a start. The entire Noldorin political structure would be remade, if Nelyo and Findaráto were defused. The entire Noldorin people split in twain, as Nelyo had said, and the conflict that Atar and Nolofinwë had always liked to imagine between them made real. All for the words that my tongue was poised to speak, was it not engaged already with the disgusting drink that Arafinwë had made for me.
All of Atar's grief for his mother; all of the bitterness that his stubborn pride had caused: no attempts to avenge these things had ever had the effect of a brother scorned. I could divert history, as sure as a boulder plunked in the path of a meandering stream.
I set the glass down. Arafinwë watched me closely. His hands were resting palms-down on the tabletop.
I spoke, but the words I said were not the ones that I wanted. "They are indeed friends," I said. "I envy Findaráto that." The sickening taste on my tongue had nothing to do with the drink: It was bitter.
I waited for Arafinwë to assure me of my brother's continuing love for and loyalty to me, to proffer saccharine words of reassurance. But he smiled sadly and said only, "I am sure that you do."
My chin dipped to my chest. No need to prolong delusions: I hadn't Nelyo's poise, nor his courage in directing the course of Noldorin history. All I could see of Arafinwë now were his hands. He should chuck my chin and force me to look up again. He had done so before, to my brothers and to me: Arafinwë, the implacable optimist.
Slowly, his fingers curled into fists, and he said naught.