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As they at last approached the western wall of Pelargir, Imrahil left the larger contingent of his companions in the capable hands of his wife and sons. They would find lodging for the night in the relatively quiet outskirts of the city, inconvenient for merchants but perfect for passing travelers. He, his intimate household, and their Elvish companions were to be welcomed as guests by Falathar in the governor’s palace deep in the heart of town. It was an honor Imrahil did not entirely relish.
He had harbored mixed feelings about the place ever since first visiting as a young man. It was indeed a wondrous city, famous for its exotic markets and lively spirit, but it was also crowded, noisy, and always a bit filthy despite the heroic efforts of a small army of street sweepers. It always made him pine for the fresher air of Dol Amroth.
Two colorful heralds rode out to meet them at the second gate, likely to be their official chaperones. Falathar was famously attentive to the needs of his important guests.
“Hail and well met, my Lords of Dol Amroth and of the Woodland Realm! Lord Erellont bids you welcome to Pelargir, City of a Thousand Wonders!”
Imrahil glanced at Thranduil, who surveyed it all with a look of benign disinterest. He wondered briefly how many years of diplomatic drivel the Elvenking had endured during his interminable reign. “Convey our thanks to Lord Erellont,” he said, “and our pleasure at his hospitality.”
“We have been instructed to escort you to your quarters in the palace, or indeed to wherever else you may wish to go.”
“In that case, young man,” Ivriniel inserted herself, “cease your babbling and escort us to Lord Beleg’s counting house.”
Imrahil nodded his approval, and the heralds both bowed low over their horses. “At once, my Lords! Please follow closely.”
The first turned to lead the way, the other hanging back to take up the rear. Imrahil noted some narrow glances from the Elvenking’s guard, but they made no complaint.
Pelargir was not a small city, so it was a ride of some duration through the bustling street traffic before they reached the harbor. In the meantime, the architecture had already begun to give a distinctly mismatched impression. Originally built to exacting Númenorean standards, the shops and houses appeared to have then been decorated by a flock of magpies. Statues, blown glass, hammered metalwork and other ornamental clutter were mounted everywhere. Bright silken flags bearing family crests or other more generic heraldry seemed to adorn every other doorpost. Elaborate facades has been added to the grandest homes, many built of red, pink, or green stone, glimmering with inclusions.
“Pelargir has always been extremely . . . fashionable,” Imrahil explained.
“As you say,” Thranduil agreed, understanding him perfectly.
They crossed the great white bridge leading across the water onto the vast and unnaturally triangular island in the middle of the harbor where the majority of the business was transacted. Here the hustle and bustle was even greater. Fortunately the weather was still very brisk, or else the smell of the canals, the livestock, and the general crush of people would have been decidedly robust.
Ivriniel’s husband’s establishment would have gone unnoticed anywhere in Minas Tirith or Osgiliath, but in Pelargir its simplicity stuck out like a straight tooth in a crooked mouth. The only ornamentation was a plaque of black granite above the door bearing the rune “B.”
“At last!” Ivriniel sighed, allowing the herald to take her reins as she dismounted. “Come, let us leave our horses there in the green.”
Their horses tethered on a nearby sward under the watchful eyes of their escorts, the whole party followed her inside.
“Husband!” Ivriniel called cheerfully. “I come with guests of some consequence! I do hope you have some decent drink about the place.”
“Only the very best, my dear lady,” Beleg assured her, entering the room with a theatrical enthusiasm. “Imrahil! Legolas! Welcome to our humble establishment. And at last, the fabled Elvenking,” he said, coming to attention with practiced ease and offering a crisp military bow. “I have eagerly anticipated our meeting, my lord.”
“As have I, Master Beleg,” Thranduil said, accepting his obecience with a gracious nod. “I regret to see you were so grievously injured during the war.”
“Bah, I forbid you to pity me,” Beleg smiled, shrugging his stump of an arm. “They left me just enough to remain useful. I am quite fortunate that they spared the better of my two hands.”
“Enough of introductions,” Ivriniel insisted. “We have time enough to become acquainted, and we have had a long weary ride from Belfalas. Fetch the wine, my love.”
Beleg was quite correct about the quality of his vintage, Imrahil noted. He was justifiably proud of the enterprise he shared with his brother, Brandir, thriving as it was after the near ruination of his family before the war. He gladly gave them a brief tour of the place. Thranduil, once again, seemed indefatigably interested in the minutia of the business, and asked many questions, which delighted their host.
“We are primarily importers of ore and fine stone,” Beleg explained, “but we have begun to deal a bit in banking and in other matters of more mundane commerce. It seems best to diversify our interests, especially now that matters are so unsettled in Harad.”
A clamor of children’s laughter from another room interrupted them.
“Do not tell me you have begun hosting a schoolhouse as well!” Imrahil jested.
“Not in the strictest sense, brother,” Beleg smiled, “although they are indeed at their studies, and we must not disturb them. The war unfortunately left many orphans in its wake, and it seemed to me an intolerable waste that they should spend their lives begging in the streets or forced into mindless labor. We arrange apprenticeships for those who are willing, and they then remove to the North to assist in repopulating Fornost.”
“That is an excellent scheme,” Imrahil commended him with genuine enthusiasm. “You must bring it to the King. The problem is by no means unique to Pelargir.”
“I shall,” Beleg promised, “for we shall all see Minas Tirith soon enough. But at this moment, my lords, I fear I have more immediate concerns, for I have not eaten since dawn of this day.”
“Nor have we,” Ivriniel assured him, “and I have been dreaming of the meat vendors all the way across Lebennin. Let us walk the markets! We would be sadly remiss if we failed to treat our guests, and it will do us all good after so long in the saddle.”
“We certainly have no objection,” Thranduil agreed. “Lead us to this famous trove of curiosities.”
It was but a short walk from there to the market district, and there were indeed some fabulous smells wafting toward them. Beleg treated them all to a variety of delicious morsels on sticks which they were able to eat on their feet. Spiced lamb was the most familiar taste on offer, while others catered to more adventurous palates. They sampled bits of barandir, that great humped desert horse, smoked antelope, fried turtle, and even tail of river dragon, his impressive jaws on display for curious patrons.
One could not visit the markets of Pelargir simply to eat. Shops and stalls of every description stood in rows on either side of the street, and the atmosphere was like that of a carnival. Ivriniel was drawn immediately to a perfumer, and began boldly asking the Elvenking's opinion of several scents, almost all of which both he and Legolas seemed to find overpowering. Not surprisingly, they were drawn instead to the vast collection of exotic horns and hides on display nearby, including mumak ivory and the pelt of an unsettlingly large striped cat allegedly from the snows beyond Khand. There was a fine paper shop, several stalls of leather goods, brightly colored carpets, stores of unfamiliar nuts and dried fruit, aromatic spices, scented oils and mineral salts, and even an apothecary offering traditional remedies from foreign lands and strange talismans for any and all purposes. Thranduil laughed outright and bought a small figure of rowan wood from the woman because she told him it was proven to repel woodland sprites.
It was perhaps inevitable that they should at last be drawn to the silversmith. A look of unaffected delight came over the Elvenking’s face which must have gladdened the shopkeeper’s heart. From the midst of all the beautiful things, he seized upon a sturdy pendant depicting Tauron, the Vala called Oromë of old, with the express intention of giving it to little Elfirien. A bit awed by his patronage, the smith’s wife bid him wait a moment, and returned offering him a large and exquisitely crafted wolf’s head brooch set with diamond that he might feel ever welcome in Gondor. Genuinely pleased, Thranduil put it on immediately, making her a gift of his old one. Imrahil observed, though the Elves did not, a glowering frown from her husband, but under the circumstances she seemed not to care one whit, clutching her new treasure and smiling as though she may never cease.
A pearl merchant observed his neighbor’s success, and began calling to the royal party to choose any oyster they would so that he might produce a surprise pearl for them. Unfortunately for him, Imrahil was extremely confident in the superiority of the pearls of Dol Amroth and warned his companions away, for which he was rewarded with a withering glare from the frustrated entrepreneur.
“Thank you for the tour, brother Beleg,” Imrahil said at last, fondly clapping him on the shoulder. “We really must see ourselves settled before long, as we are expected for dinner. Shall we meet again at first light?”
“Indeed we shall,” Beleg agreed. “You will not be shed of us so easily.”
“Until tomorrow, sister.” Imrahil took his leave of Ivriniel with a fraternal kiss. Whatever his own feelings about Pelargir, she had never regretted her marriage and had always enjoyed that special happiness every brother should wish for his sister.
“Until tomorrow,” she agreed. “Do not allow Falathar to offend our guests.”
“I trust Thranduil has encountered creatures more hateful than Falathar in his time,” he assured her. “He needs no protection from me.”
Falathar slowly paced a well-worn path through the armory, calming the chaotic machinations of his mind before facing his social obligations for the evening. Something about the musty smell of oil and leather always focused his thoughts. He had been informed of his guests’ arrival that afternoon, but had been too occupied to meet them personally. Many matters vied for his attention.
He had no personal desire to leave for Minas Tirith and endure the measured mistrust of Elessar in person. In truth he he wished to stay as far removed as possible, but there was no avoiding it. He must make of it what he could, an opportunity to show himself and his son to best advantage. All the while he must observe closely the hysterics of Baldor of Lamedon, as they might prove crucial. All things in their own time. Tonight he must take the measure of this newest pawn in his game, unlooked for but by no means unwelcome. At the moment he would gladly be eclipsed by the coming and going of greater lords, as he could ill afford closer scrutiny.
The soft tread of heavy boots entered the armory behind him, and Falathar turned to see that the chief among his pawns had finally appeared as requested. He was a large gristly man, unkempt black hair knotted behind his back, his dark tunic worn and stained with age. His weathered face was covered with scars, his arms with Southron tattoos.
“Radhruin,” Falathar greeted him simply. “Prompt as ever.”
The corsair said nothing. He had ever been a man of few words. His deeds spoke for themselves.
“Change is coming to Gondor once again, my friend,” Falathar continued, “and I shall have much need of your skill if we are to end with the better portion. I know you would not hesitate to strike a blow against the rule of Elessar for its own sake, but I am also prepared to compensate you handsomely.”
Radhruin’s face was almost impossible to read, frozen in a perpetual scowl. “I have heard of your impending quarrel with Faramir,” he said. “Now I suspect I should not wager on his success.”
“You must precede us to Cormallen and await my instruction,” Falathar commanded. “Stay out of sight, and declare yourself to no one. Even the Elves must fail to mark your presence. It may be best to avoid Ithilien altogether until the last. I know you have your ways.” He gave the other a pouch full of silver coins. “This is but a taste of the riches that shall be yours,” he promised. “You may in fact see a significant improvement in your lot when we are at last in a position to effect it.”
Radhruin gave him a poisonous look. “I may serve at your call when I must, but I am not your creature, Falathar. I might improve my own lot if I would but leave this wretched land. I still have purposes of my own.”
“Very well, master corsair,” Falathar allowed, his voice turned to ice. “But while you remain in my service, I expect those purposes of yours to await their own turn. Be at Cormallen before the King’s men. You will be told then what is to be done.”
Radhruin turned away slowly, holding Falathar’s gaze with a sort of presumptuous distain which the other found decidedly discomfiting. Then he left as he had come, quietly and in shadow.
Falathar stepped out into the corridor as well, turning in the opposite direction. The grand supper he had planned would soon be served, and he sought to drive the lingering impression of Radhruin from his thoughts, prepared to spend the evening in much more savory company.
“My lord.” A page met him near the great hall. “Your guests await you.”
“Very well. Let them wait a moment more.”
When he felt perfectly ready, he entered through the enormous oaken doors.
It was a quiet and intimate affair, though the great empty spaces of the ornate hall gave it a cavernous and dispassionate atmosphere, bathed in flickering yellow torchlight. His guests were seated well away from one another along a square formation of long tables around an open center where at present a Southron woman was treating them to a slow and rather sensual snake dance to the subtle music of two minstrels.
Erellont stood out of deference for his father, as did the favorites of their household. Imrahil did not, nor did Legolas, nor did that titanic figure of fawn and crimson he assumed was Thranduil. Each of them boasted rank enough to afford the privilege. Six Elvish attendants stood behind their lords like statues, just outside the ring of brightest light.
“Welcome to our home, my lords,” Falathar said, “as I am certain my son, the governor, has already bid you. Please forgive my tardiness. Let the meal be not delayed a moment longer on my account.”
“Indeed not,” Erellont agreed tersely, giving the signal for the first course to be served.
“Lord Thranduil,” Falathar began pleasantly, choosing to address him directly and not waste any more time about it, “I understand that this is not your first visit to our country.”
“It is not,” the Elvenking confirmed, his voice like velvet. “But it seems a lifetime ago when I last saw the Anduin, in the last days of Elendil.”
“Surely this will be a much more joyous occasion,” Erellont offered, seeming to sense his father had touched an unfortunate subject.
Six servants had entered bearing three great trays, crabs dressed with butter and cinnamon in their own shells, eel and oyster pies with raisins and currants, and boiled mussels in saffron almond milk. They began serving in silence.
“Of course,” Imrahil agreed. “Let us not dwell on bitter days so long past.”
“I imagine your people in Ithilien are eager to show their king what their labors have accomplished,” Erellont continued.
“They speak of little else,” Legolas smiled, clearly quite proud. “Our King has always shared our sorrows, and our joys are never complete unless he can share them as well.”
Falathar considered his dinner guests individually as they continued to make dull but polite conversation. Imrahil he knew well already; the man was Elessar’s bulldog, loyal to a fault and entirely incorruptible. In short, he was no use to him at all, and would likely prove a formidable nuisance. He and his nephew Faramir were cut of the same cloth in that respect.
He knew Legolas more by reputation than by personal experience. He, too, was a paragon of loyalty who apparently observed much but said little, and did not often assert himself. He would be unlikely to challenge any judgment of Elessar’s.
Thranduil, however, seemed exactly what Falathar had hoped he would be. He was an imperious figure, proud, vain, and supremely confident in the blind devotion of his subjects. He would certainly excite Baldor’s prejudices.
“My son has told me your city was besieged by corsairs during the war,” the Elvenking was saying.
“Indeed,” Erellont confirmed, “and not for the first time. Pelargir has had a long history of violence with the Corsairs of Umbar. But now that Elessar has routed them, we may yet dare to hope for peace on our seas.”
The second course was now served, grilled pike in ginger wine, lampreys and spiny urchins in spiced blood sauce, hash of calves tongues, and great loaves of bread stuffed with sausages, affectionately known as dragontails.
“These corsairs are not of the Gondorrim?”
“They were once,” Imrahil explained. “They were partisans of a usurper to the throne and driven from Pelargir by King Eldacar during the kin-strife of the Second Age. They established themselves in Umbar and have harried our coasts ever since. Thankfully the war was finally the ruin of them.”
“The war was the ruin of many things which shall not be mourned in this new Age,” Legolas said.
“Very true,” Falathar agreed, “and although peace is a very slippery thing, I share my son’s hope that Pelargir may continue to be among the foremost jewels in the crown of Gondor, continuing in the spirit in which the Faithful of Númenor built her.”
At least, that was how he hoped Elessar would continue to see it. He was prepared to sacrifice a very great deal to make that possible.
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