The king had spared nothing for the celebrations of Fëanáro’s hundredth begetting day. Tirion the white was covered in banners of all sizes, hung from one side of the streets to the other in an endless repetition of the blazons of the two royal houses. The air was sweet with the fragrance of the thousands of flowers, which decorated balconies and every other surface available, their colours reflected in the diamond sand that glimmered between the cobblestones on the pavement.
The citizens, in true Noldorin fashion, seemed set on outdoing the decorations. They all wore their best robes, made especially for such occasions, the precious fabrics enriched with the finest embroidery and gems. They were ostentatious people, Arafinwë knew this well, but he had not been prepared for such a show of gaudy jewels and dresses. Even hair was not spared, but woven into intricate tresses, with ribbons, gems and even more flowers. He would have never noticed how excessive his people could be – and he himself was no exception, because he too was dressed in gold and light green, with the occasional touch of pale pink – if he had not seen her.
She had arrived that afternoon, accompanied by her two brothers as well as a following of princes, dignitaries, valets and maids. Not as many as the children of Ingwë had brought from Valmar, but enough that Arafinwë seriously doubted the palace’s capability.
He had been at his father’s side with the rest of his family, when they had welcomed the children of Olwë in the palace. Arafinwë had felt his heart tremble at the sight of the princess. She had greeted them with practiced ease, though her expression had been open and genuine. Arafinwë, like the coward he was, had barely met her gaze, bowing, as was protocol, to hide his furious blush. If their guests had noticed, they had said nothing. Eärwen’s smile had remained oh so gentle and polite throughout the greetings, and Arafinwë had felt foolishly disappointed at the realisation that he had made no special impression upon her.
Arafinwë was trying really hard not to stare at the daughter of Olwë, willing his mind – and eyes – to remain focussed on the empty conversation happening in front of him. He felt slightly guilty, all things considered, because Nerdanel was a pleasant woman, witty and polite, while her Maitimo (he refused to call him Nelyafinwë; doing so in public was enough) had grown up to be a very smooth talker like his father, a hint of shrewdness lighting up his grey eyes from time to time, sweetened by the gentleness he must have learned from Nerdanel. Young Makalaurë was peering up at them from behind his brother’s shoulder, biting his lips and fighting off his boredom by tormenting the hems of his robe.
Shifting his gaze to Fëanáro, Arafinwë suppressed a smile when he saw him fidget like his son. Nolofinwë and Nerdanel seemed the only two interested in continuing the conversation, with Maitimo chiming in occasionally. How uncomfortable it must be for Fëanáro to see how well his wife and half-brother got along. Arafinwë felt both relieved and vindicated, though he immediately forgot the sentiment when something moving beside them caught his eyes.
She was a vision of silver and white, her laughter free and delicate as spring water. Compared to her, in her light blue dress embroidered with threads of silver, a single string of white pearls adorning her neck and wrists, he felt uncomfortably overdressed, even frivolous. He would have given up everything – his title, his riches – if it meant she would turn and look at him, find him worthy of her time…
And she was turning, quick and graceful on her feet. In a swirl of her gown, her dazzling smile lighted up her face, blue eyes merry and warm, as they settled on the Noldorin princes. Arafinwë felt his own face burn. She had looked at him. She was looking at him (them, the logical part of his mind corrected) and her smile grew impossibly.
“Fëanáro!” she called.
Arafinwë felt sick.
Beside him, he heard the deep voice of his elder brother (half-brother, his mind reminded him bitterly) answer with a greeting so courteous, tinted with – dare he say it – genuine affection, that for a moment Arafinwë thought it could not be Fëanáro standing there, acting like the crown prince he was, no pride and no scorn colouring his words, as he bent at the waist to bow and kiss the princess’ hand. He could not help but notice how small and slender she looked compared to them, especially to Fëanáro’s strength, and Nolofinwë’s height. He might crush her, was his irrational thought, and a strange sensation had him shiver with sudden discomfort.
He was no more in his father’s palace, but on the shore, the sea in front of him as black as the starless sky above him. With every breath he took, the damp sand under his bare feet swallowed him more and more. He was terrified, he knew, but he stood motionless, staring ahead as if petrified, unable – unwilling – to free himself.
“But of course I remember her, Fëanáro!” Eärwen’s exclamation cut through Arafinwë’s haziness, dispersing his vision with ease. She was greeting Nerdanel with the enthusiasm of someone who meets again a dear friend; by the slightly confused expression of Fëanáro and the amused smile on both the women’s faces, Arafinwë guessed that the two had become good friends over time, with his brother none the wiser.
Nolofinwë huffed, shifting his weight from foot to foot. His smile remained congenial, although the slight tension of his jaw gave away his impatience. It was just like Fëanáro to introduce his whole family first – apparently, this was the first time Eärwen met his second child – and forget that the protocol dictated for his half – brothers to be introduced immediately after him.
When Eärwen finally turned to the second son of Finwë, Arafinwë felt his heart sink, because, of course, if anyone of the royal house were to marry her, it would be Nolofinwë. Had he not heard their father encourage him to think about marriage? An official union with the Telerin royal house was desirable, and who would be better than the princess of Alqualondë and the prince of Tirion? There was no hope for Lalwendë to marry, not now at least, and Findis was already betrothed. Arafinwë was yet too young, so his father said, so the only reasonable choice was Nolofinwë. Ever the diplomat, he had only said that he would prefer to get to know the princess better, before making any decision.
Which was, obviously, the only sensible answer. The whole conversation had seemed pointless to Arafinwë. He knew their father would have never forced a marriage, but a firm encouragement in the right direction was not to be excluded. It seemed it had not worked with Nolofinwë, though. He and Eärwen regarded each other with the curiosity of two people who had heard much of the other, but had never become acquainted. Behind the careful politeness, Arafinwë could not detect any sign of a deeper interest, least of all the sparkle of recognition that flared between two kindred souls.
Finally, the princess turned to him.
It was impossible not to stare. The three princes together were a sight to behold, with their proud countenance and striking features. Eärwen could not pinpoint it, but there was something extremely Noldorin in them. They stood out among their people, and they would have been complete strangers in Alqualondë, attracting curious stares and comments. It was not rare for Fëanáro to visit from time to time, but he never came dressed as well as he was right now. Even rarer was seeing him in the company of his brothers.
Knowing the conflicting sentiments of Fëanáro, she did not want to interrupt what seemed to be a pleasant and civil conversation – carried out mostly, she could well see, by Nerdanel. It was better than nothing, and her friend would be pleased, afterwards, that her wilful husband had put aside his annoyance. She could not claim to understand Fëanáro – no one in blessed Aman could, after all – yet, she could not really fathom why he would bear such resentment. Arafinwë was even younger than his firstborn!
So Eärwen lingered, keeping an eye on the princes as she danced around the lords and ladies, chatting with her brothers and their acquaintances, aware of the many eyes that followed her, waiting for her to speak with the sons of Finwë. She had caught whispers here and there of a possible match between her and Nolofinwë, and the thought of such a union made her both giggle and squirm uncomfortably. No one could chose a husband for her, it was a silly idea born from the minds of people with too much time on their hands. She could not imagine herself married to the stern Noldo and neither did she want to leave her home to be a wife and princess for another people. She doubted Nolofinwë would agree to such a marriage, no matter how Fëanáro described him – a strict, boring, obsequious man – which were the same words he used for queen Indis, so Eärwen had learned not to trust him on this matter.
She was close enough to overhear how the conversation was dwindling rapidly, giving her the perfect opportunity to intrude. Fëanáro looked bored, barely keeping still, Nolofinwë seemed increasingly tense, while Arafinwë…
Eärwen could not read him at all. When they had been introduced that afternoon, she had thought him the most beautiful man she had ever seen; yet, he had barely looked at her. She had felt a stab of irrational disappointment, mitigated only by her mind telling her that he must have been too polite and maybe embarrassed to look directly at her. Still, no matter what she told herself, she had been hardly able to breathe the moment she had caught a glimpse of his eyes.
She desired to talk to him, to have his eyes follow her, to see his perfect lips form a smile meant only for her… Silly fantasies that would remain as such if she did not find something to say to him, and soon.
“Fëanáro!” she called.
The princess was even more beautiful up close. Arafinwë could not contain his blush as her azure eyes settled on him. He saw her smile softly, a small thing curving her lips in a way that made his heart throb.
She gave him a small reverence, a delicate hand on her breast, “My prince Arafinwë.”
“My princess Eärwen. I hope Tirion has welcomed you well.”
“I cannot imagine a better welcome, thank you.”
“I am glad to hear this.”
“If I may, I have it on good sources that you are thinking of furthering your studies in music in Alqualondë, is that true?”
Arafinwë smiled, “Ah, I see the queen my mother has talked. Yes, I do. The school is well renowned even among the Noldor.”
“As it happens, my prince, I studied there myself. It would be a pleasure to help you in any way I can.”
“You are kind, my princess. If there is any way I could be of assistance in return, please, you need but ask.”
“I might ask it now, my prince.”
Arafinwë looked at the princess with surprise. The glint in her eyes made him shiver in anticipation.
“Would you accompany me for the night, my prince?” she extended her hand to him, “I could tell you all I know about the school, while you can show me around the palace and the garden.”
He took her small hand in his, with reverence, as if he were cradling something sacred. The air trembled between them, and he felt his own fëa reach out and flare with joy when it met hers. He looked upon her, wondering if he too wore the same awed expression as her. Eru, help me.
“With pleasure,” he said.
I’m going to marry her.