The priests of the golden flame say, “And the Great Tower was glorious and all who saw it despaired at the power of the Lord.”
Now, ensconced in the Tower, at the very heart of human and divine power, Cytise Nūrohti keeps seeing flaws in the perfect design of their ruler.
They’re mostly stylistic complaints. Governance is chokingly tight in the surrounding countryside and she doesn’t know enough about armies to attest to much beyond their staggering size and readiness. The fact that this court, uniting men of both kinds from across the lands, exists, is an unmatched triumph itself. All the many lands that bow to their shining lord send envoys, troops, representatives, and tributes. The cults of the Endless Eye and the Admirable Fire both center around the fiery mountain and fortress. Great weapons are forged in the underground machineries close to the volcano’s heart. The tower crawls with mighty generals and scholars, priests and laborers, while endless armies make their home outside.
It’s all very impressive. It just isn’t very pretty.
Cytise’s new companions, fellow attendants serving at the pleasure of the lidless eye, are powerful in their own rights in the lands they called home; but they’re also by and large warriors. They prefer the shine of armor to the softness of silk or the transparency of fine cotton. Armor can be beautiful but that is a hard, extravagant beauty— and even the baroque ostentation of gilt and chasing is rare in the shadow of the Great Tower. The advisors who find most favor with their god tend to be pragmatic to a boring extreme.
There is no more surfeit among the priests or the generals. Certainly there is a practiced personal image among both groups, the latter certainly favour bones to a frightening degree, it just isn’t gentle. It isn’t pleasing.
So it goes with much of deep Mordor. The sights and sounds are breathtaking, frightening, awe-inspiring; but they aren’t beautiful unless you like bare stone and sharp spikes of metal.
In the late hours of the night, when the crashing sounds of industry decrease somewhat and your thoughts are almost your own, Cytise yearns for home. She misses her terrace, her dinner parties, her witty guests, the pretty girls who would teach her how to dance. She misses colors, the copper blue of the ocean and the white of fabric drying on clotheslines.
The All-Seeing is heart-rendingly glorious, of course. His eyes burn with the light of knowledge and his serene face glows. His stride is long and his movements controlled in a way that would make a dancer jealous. He isn’t even a bad dresser, unsurprising given that he holds the last scrap of wisdom handed down by the forgotten god of power. It’s an aggressive style, thornier than Cytise would favour, but objectively quite fetching.
This is one of those thoughts that you can think once, and then have to quickly squelch.
Amidst the heart of his power ideas have to be tightly controlled . You never know when the Eye will take an interest. After standing before him for the first time, feeling his gaze on her flesh down to the marrow of her bones, having to open up her own head because that pressure brooked no refusal, she’d known. No one else says as much, though there are whispers sometimes of previous envoys who displeased the lord in some unspoken way, but Cytise isn’t about to take any chances. She’s already been exiled here, there are no further allowances for misbehavior.
Only when their master wanders, taking trips to visit far off client kingdoms or touring the countryside of Nern, are clever ideas and idle observations safe.
This is a particularly good evening for little indiscretions. Napâr and Hazârasp, near interchangeable old soldiers from a small city on a river, are throwing a party. The conversation is boisterous and the sour grape-press these northerners drink flows freely. Loud and crowded as it is, she finds it enjoyable. In the future, she might see if she can find some honey wine, which travels badly but tastes sweet and has a strong kick. Maybe the handful of soldiers sent from home to serve here still make it.
It’s the kick her new friends would particularly enjoy. They seem to like losing themselves, in a way she is not sure she could. The Admirable is not here, is off about his own business which is mysterious and rarely understood by mortals, and they act as if a weight has been taken off their shoulders. They act like they haven’t known freedom in years.
Maybe they haven’t. It’s stifling here. Only a few months accustomed to the tower she already knows the feeling of being found wanting, of trying to please an impossible leader.
Achaimene, who writes poetry and has the heart of an aesthete though his shoulders are broad and burdened, is sitting by her, keeping her company, when she tipsily brings up her complaints about the fashion life in Mordor.
“It’s dull—” she points around wildly at the sparse military style of even this diplomatic suite, “Look at that! No frescos, no weaving! We need more weavers, more embroidery. Isn’t it a glory to—” Even here and now she does not invoke him. “Isn’t it a glory to demonstrate the will and wonder of humanity?”
“You do us wrong, princess,” Achaimene laughs. She’s not a princess, not that they care. “We have glory! Yesterday Zikiti wore two whole colors.” There are titters from others nearby. The lioness lady is a minimalist even by these standards. Some even whisper that her leather comes from orc tanners, and no one is confident about where they source their wares.
One of the most beautiful of their cohort, Zikiti can get away with such brutal wear. She has an austere grandeur, a face that looks like it should be carved in stone. Her perfect black ringlets are streaked with grey and her lightly lined face suggests that she has seen a thousand battles.
She rolls her eyes. “The will and wonder of humanity is in survival.”
“What point is there to life without art?” Cystise argues, wine-warm and dizzy. “Why have eyes if they can’t feast?”
“Now, I protest,” Napâr says. “You’ve seen my carving work, princess. Is that not enough of a feast for you?”
“You’re very good,” she assures the older man, glancing to the little wooden figures, minute in detail, each made of the light grey wood that grows amid the stark molten topography and whistling fumaroles. Men, animals, even a few little carts with turning wheels, a tiny army arrayed in rows. “But what about jewelry and fine fabrics. And perfume!”
It always smells of sulfur here, a stench that sinks into everything. After long enough you become acclimated and then, when you leave the vicinity of the great mountain, you realize again how awful the brimstone air is.
“Aren’t you fashionable enough for all of us?” Zikiti grumbles and Cytise thinks she might be teasing.
“You know who wears jewels?” slurs Belanu (he’s definitely drunk, leaning on the wall and unimpressed old Prince Qamar in turns).
“Who?” Achaimene is just humoring the sauced fellow, a friendly gesture that he certainly won’t remember in the morning.
“The elf!” exclaims Belanu, gesturing so broadly that he topples right over.
A disturbed quiet falls over the party. Even people who weren’t paying mind are watching now, eyes and ears open for signs of danger, signs of misbehavior.
No one talks about the elf. No one even knows how to talk about him. They use delicate euphemisms like, “the guest” and “the Lord’s friend” and sometimes “the prisoner”, though the only chains he wears are gold.
“That gentleman certainly does,” Napâr says with forced cheer as Hazârasp hefts Belanu upright by the back of his collar. “Lovely jewelry, isn’t that right?”
The conversation is her fault, so Cytise takes the plunge in. “Yes, very nice. I like the goldwork.”
Although she’s never counted him among her rankings of fashionable and unfashionable denizens of the tower, upon reflection he does do well. Certainly better than Zikiti or silly Belanu.
Gold necklaces, pins in his short dark hair, earrings on his strange orc-like ears. Like the Eye himself, there is a luminosity to his presence that blots out accessories. Like the Eye he is beautiful, and more human than she would have expected an elf to be.
“Some of the necklaces look like northern work,” she adds, hoping it is mild enough a comment.
“I think he makes them here,” Achaimene says, then goes pale. “He spends a lot of time in the precious metal forges, I mean, it’s possible.”
She didn’t even know the Tower had goldsmiths. There are many places she is not permitted to go.
At home the only workshop on the archipelago that worked precious metals would bring all new wares first to the palace and second to her house. Her cook would lay out coffee and wheelshaped sweetbread for the old smith, who would stay an hour or two, telling Cytise bits of gossip and vintage scandals.
“The Admirable One’s...” Qamar pauses, the sort of lengthy pause that allows other words to flicker through the gap. Since their Lord is away some of the attendees may even allow themselves to think the more unseemly ones, “guest may do as he pleases.”
Does it please him? Can an elf be pleased?
They are cruel, winsome creatures, carved of air and flame. Still, this one was chosen.
She has a lot to think about.
Though her islands were conquered long before she was born, some folkways and bits of local religion hung on well into her childhood. She has dim memories of sitting on her mother’s lap, watching rituals that would soon be snuffed out forever. (She doesn’t miss them out loud anymore, even in the privacy of her own head.)
Of all those sacred events, the ocean’s marriage was the most important. It is, therefore, the most pristine in her mind’s eye, as if some part of her knew even at four that the press of the crowd, the wedding song, the white coral sand, the smell of roasting meat, was a treasure to preserve.
The ocean guided and sheltered her people, they used to say. Yet, despite giving aid to so many, the ocean was the loneliest of gods. So every year a girl would dress up in wedding clothes and wade out until she disappeared, offering the sea a bride. The sea never took her— they were a fishing community and therefore full of very good swimmers. It was the offer that was the important part.
It was important for gods to have spouses, her mother used to say. They need to be bound to some other soul. In old Maree the dancing goddess, swiftfooted deer of the hills, would take the best of her priests or priestesses for however long they lived; when they died she mourned them and when she left again she sobbed for none could come with her. The ocean was alone but that was not how divinities were meant to be.
They don’t offer anything to the ocean anymore, torn away by another, more demanding god.
Cytise knows exactly what the elf is. It’s nothing so sordid as some might think. He is simply a husband, a companion to make the eternity easier. No one can be faulted for that, not even one who claims to be infallible.
It is strange that he is an elf. They aren’t made to love, or so she has been told. But humans die so quickly while elves endure. A husband should be long lasting. And surely, surely to be picked among others this particular elf must have been of an outstanding nature.
And as the husband of a god, even one not claimed publicly, he would be dressed nicely, better than the soldiers and lesser princes, better than the servants and merchant lords. Working under that logic, Cytise has never given his attire much thought. If he chooses his clothes— the heavy, strangely cut robes, the layers of gold, the flickering stones, a thoughtful, beautiful arrangement on an otherwise enigmatic person— well, that changes things.
The next morning she goes through her luggage until she finds the leftover gifts from her arrival.
Most of the tribute went to the Tower and the Eye, a generalized show of continued loyalty that happened to coincide with her arrival. Her sister had also sent additional gifts, to be used to grease necessary wheels. Almost all the little bribes were pearls— loose pearls, pearl jewelry, pearl powder. They were the best pearl divers in the world and proud of it.
Once in Mordor, Cytise had discovered the tragic lack of fashion sense among the servants of the Flame. The pearls had been set aside and she’d repurposed her own stock of coffee, some good linen from up the coast, and some purchased knives for greeting gifts, all of which had gone over well with her new friends. The pearls were still there.
Now she holds each offering up to the light, inspecting it for quality. If he really does like arranging his own jewels, loose pearls might make for a better gift. The already set and threaded pearls are far finer in quality though. Beautiful as he is, no rough and grainy nacre will do.
One set of earrings makes a particularly compelling case for itself. It’s worth a fortune, some fifteen lentil sized pearls set amid a floss of gold, making a curving semi-circle. The pearls themselves would be perfect, shiny and only slightly flattened, if they weren’t a soft grey in color.
The market prefers pale or warm pearls, the usual creams and pinks, the rare black. This cloudy color is far closer to the whites and lavenders of the freshwater pearls from Rhûn. Beautiful and strange, a rare gift.
He mostly looks human, aside from his pale grey eyes. Aside from the way light bounces off of him, oily candlelight becoming as sharp and blue as the stars that never shine here, the pale white sun reflecting off his skin warm and golden as the summers that never come.
It will do, Cytise decides.
It’s surprisingly hard to get the present into his hands. He’s rarely seen in the halls of the tower, almost always walking somewhere purposefully, trailed by a handful of servants. No one dares interrupt or stop him as he wanders here and there.
Cytise takes to carrying the earrings in a silk bag tucked into her belt. When she recognizes one of his servants, a steady-eyed, short woman in the livery of the Eye who is almost always at his side, walking the halls with an armful of strange contraptions, she catches her by the arm.
“May I have a moment of your time?”
There’s a moment as the woman eyes her, taking in her dress (casual enough to be threatening, here) and lack of a weapon. Then she bows as low as a woman carrying several mysterious boxes and pieces of sharp brass can, letting her head hang low.
“Of course. I’m at your disposal.”
“Don’t,” Cytise says nervously, tugging her up. “It’s just a little thing.”
Up close, looking at her features— a nose like Cytise’s, a stubborn chin, deepset eyes— it’s clear she’s from the far eastern states, latest conquered and furthest from the the gaze of the One. Two little princes and their sister, all still with milk teeth, from those lands live within the tower. Cytise plays with them sometimes and counts herself lucky that her nephew isn’t in their peacock feathered shoes.
“I have a gift for the All-Seeing’s guest,” she tells her, “I wasn’t sure how to give it to him, so…”
“Why?” There’s no aggression about her expression, just genuine amazement.
That is, that is a good question. It sets Cytise aback. “It seemed like he might like it? Not enough people here like beautiful things. He at least seems to have taste.”
Brow still twisted with worry or bafflement, the brusque woman nods. “Alright then. Put it on top of my pile. Who should I say it’s from?”
She hasn’t used her real name since she was a child so Cytise gives her the fake one, the one even she uses in her own head.
And as the woman leaves instead of feeling accomplished she feels afraid. That too she tamps down; there’s no room here for fear.
When the woman shows up outside her door her arms are empty and her face is a careful blank.
“Cytise Nūrohti?” she inquires in the politest form of the One Speech.
“Yes.” Cytise replies, mirroring her formality back at her but taking the superior linguistic position. Even though the visitor is older than her— she must be since she wears the full eye on her livery and few servants earn that honor before twenty— she has a childlike face.
“Lord Celebrimbor,” that word is not in the high tongue, “invites you to come visit with him.”
Before she can answer she first has to figure out who Celebrimbor is; it’s the elf, of course. They must call him something. It doesn’t feel like being let in on a secret so much as being told some naked truth.
‘Celebrimbor’ is not in any language she knows. This doesn’t mean it’s his own name but does increase the chances that it’s his elf name. Even with its punched out plosives it sounds less bizarre then the hyena chatter of pretend elves, the imagined languages street children and storytellers came up with. Elves are not made of coal and ice, they do not cry like gulls or wail like the possessed.
They have names. They ask people to visit.
“I’d be delighted,” she says, hand still curled around the sill of her door.
Even elves can get lonely, surely. And it’s been a long time since she had an actual social call on her calendar. Achaimene just shows up at her door with new poetry and honey whenever he wants.
The woman bows again and for a second the fold of her tunic makes it look like the great embroidered eye on her chest is winking. When she straightens she turns and begins walking away, fast. Cytise has to scramble to throw on a shawl, find shoes, and reassure Natsined, sent to watch over her, that she is not being summoned to her death. If it is a lie it will at least keep the poor woman calm for the next few hours.
She has to run to catch up; luckily she is much taller than the liveried woman stalking ahead of her. It only takes her the length of the hall to make up the distance, at which point she has to work not to get ahead of her quick-paced but short-legged guide.
The rooms where the diplomats, hostages, and guest-generals are kept are already high in the unending tower, so high that when Cytise looks out a barred window she gets sick. It is a small concession to rank. At greater elevations the air is cleaner, the sunlight clearer, the noise of the armies below almost inaudible. Reaching the ground means climbing endless stairs— or worse, chancing the moving platform— which keeps everyone occupied.
Lord Celebrimbor’s messenger leads her up another two flights of stairs, into the offices of statecraft. They walk briskly through sparsely populated meeting rooms and empty reception chambers, into a back hallway that Cytise has never seen before. At the end of the journey is the door to a moving box, a smaller, sturdier version of the pulley platforms that carry people and goods around the tower, hidden away like a secret behind the beating heart of the empire.
Nervously, she twists her bracelet, a present from her sister before she left.
In the lift they climb even higher. When she’s escorted out they’re in a softly lit hallway of polished granite, black shot through with creamy gold. There are no rugs or wall hangings, nothing to cut through the strange chill in the air, a sharp departure from the smoky heat that fills the rest of the building.
Within a few minutes they’ve reached their final destination, an otherwise unremarkable door. Without even a word of warning to Cytise, the woman thrusts it open and steps in, calling out, “I’ve brought her!”
It’s big, she thinks as she first peers through the doorway. Space is always at a premium; here there is room to spare. Two young men in loose leather armor, vaguely familiar as part of the elf Celebrimbor’s usual entourage, are playing keep-up in the corner without fear of knocking over any of the bookshelves or arcane machines scattered about. There’s at least one other room, half visible through an open doorway.
He is sitting on a chaise in the middle of the room, prim and upright, watching almost as intently as the Lord.
“Thank you, Maha.”
The woman—Maha— beams, dour facing brightening briefly before she peels across the room and settles down by a window through which the steel grey sky and black mountains can be seen.
Formalities, formalities; awash in awe Cytise struggles to remember rules of etiquette she has known since infancy. Her bow is late and not as low as it should be, then again there isn’t exactly a set degree for sphinxlike elves in the favor of your emperor.
“Do you want to sit?” he suggests. He has an apologetic voice, a self-aware slant to the curve of his gentle smile. His grasp of the One Speech is flawless, even better than hers, though she started learning at ten and he cannot have known it for more than a few years.
“I will sit if you want me to,” she replies. It’s a beginner maneuver and useful in any situation.
“We could play this game for hours and it won’t be any more fun for me then you,” the elf warns, almost teasing. “Sit down.”
So she sits. The chair is lowbacked, folding, gilt and ivory veneered over a style common in army camps and merchant homes.
“Thank you for inviting me.”
“Thank you for your gift,” he responds and for the first time she looks up at him.
He’s wearing the earrings, soft round shapes making the sharp angle of his ears all the more exceptional, but that’s not the first thing she notices. First she is struck by how beautiful he is up close.
Viewed from a distance it’s not an uncommon or inhuman beauty. Strong, broad shoulders, the chiselled hawklike profile shared by people all down the coast, skin that gleams like a polished bronze mirror and hair as black as the sea. He is uncomfortably tall and his eyes are unsettlingly pale, but both those traits can be found among men. The people of the southern mountains can reach lofty heights; in north Charad and diminished Nern green or grey eyes are not unheard of.
(Coastal cities frequented by the a'ëleqleqara— the seapeople, the sorcerers, who ally themselves with dark forces and live centuries without enjoying the taste of food or the warmth of sunlight— often see silver-eyed, long limbed, fatherless children. She does not like the connections that can be made there so she doesn’t make them.)
In proximity, all the perfect details swim into view. Skin like a mirror, polished until all flaws are gone. Long, black lashes fanning out until they almost brush his brows. Smooth, beardless cheeks without even a trace of stubble. She can see a triangle of his bare chest, between a heavy golden necklace and a cream colored shirt, and that too is hairless but covered in a netting of raised scars, a white mesh that layers over more scar tissue, leaving no true skin bared.
Instinctively, her eyes flicker over the rest of him, searching for more scars. It’s no use. Aside from his face no other skin is bared. The heavy pomegranate red robe he’s wearing loose over his clothes is pretty, excellent detail work, but it is made of a lot of fabric.
“So, what’s the verdict?” he asks, leaning back in his chair. Once again, it feels almost like a joke, and not an unkind one.
Cytise bites back her first five replies. “They do suit you. I thought they would.”
“Is that the only reason you gave them to poor Maha? Because you thought they’d look nice on my head?” he— Celebrimbor, his name is Celebrimbor, he has a name— is staring at her carefully, inquisitively.
“Why else?” she blurts.
Across the room, at her writing desk, Maha drops a scroll so suddenly that across the room one of the boys loses track of the ball. As he lets out a series of swear words in some local argot and Maha picks up her paperwork, Cytise thinks more carefully about the potential repercussions of her actions.
She has been trying to do that more, since a few thoughtless conversations at parties, hypothetical discussions, and stockpiled historical weapons led to accusations of fermenting treason. Getting exiled a thousand miles from home makes a person more aware of the weight of their words, however well intentioned.
(Not that she ever meant any harm, she’s as faithful as a dove, as committed to the wellbeing of the empire as any devoted servant should be)
It is possible that a gift, given out of nowhere, to a person clearly held in the benevolent gaze of the Eye might be viewed as an attempt to capitalize on an otherwise unused resource. No one else is willing to touch him but he’s clearly a potential contact point, a way to perhaps curry favor or gain goodwill.
In any other court this logic might hold up. Here, watched and shepherded by one who can peel apart their minds, shrivel them up with withering discomfort until all their secrets are laid bare, look at them until they are forced to let him in, it would be the stupidest move imaginable.
“I was worried, briefly, that it might represent a larger trend,” Lord Celebrimbor says delicately. “I have been left alone and I do like it that way.”
“I’m sorry for disturbing your peace then. I just noticed you’re always wearing such pretty jewels. No one else here appreciates art or splendour, there’s no room for my gifts here. You, at least, looked like the sort of person who would enjoy them.”
Celebrimbor shakes his head, almost reflexively, the earrings jangling softly and a wisp of his hair slipping out of the pins keeping it secured tight to his scalp. “They’re… very nice. I can’t recall the last time I wore pearls. When I was younger they were a political issue and then I lived inland.”
“There are river pearls,” she reminds him, trying not to scold the Eye’s husband.
“Yet despite living on a river I neglected to secure this most precious of cargo.” It’s clear now that whatever else he is, a demon, a monster, married, he’s funny. “You’ve won me over now though.”
“Good,” Cytise says, a little alarmed by how easily he’s made the conversation his own. Usually she’s the personable, talkative one. Instead of being able to relax and make small talk she feels out of her element. She’s still fiddling with her bracelet, nervously twisting it around her wrist as she tries to think of a way to get back on track. “What did you use if not pearls?”
There is a moment when his face freezes and she isn’t sure what he’ll do. Then comes a deluge of words. “Hard stones, we had good trade with the dwarves, so we got a supply of rubies and emeralds. Some softer stones, agate, chalcedony, carnelian, amethyst. Lots of enamel. Horn was popular for a few decades but when you live as long as us, well, as long as I do, organic materials can age poorly.”
National pride, carefully restrained, rears its head. “It’s the aging that makes them wonderful! You don’t buy pearls for your grandchildren, you buy them so they will grow old with you like a spouse. They’re delicate, fragile, and so they remind you of the fragility of the world.”
The earrings Cytise wears right now, great disks of solid metal with concentric circles of creamy pearls, are made of gold from her grandmother. The gems were harvested from the sea when she turned seven and they will not begin to yellow or lose their luster until she does. When she sees old treasures, dull and scratched nacre, she sees weathered elders and her own mortality.
Celebrimbor smiles. “I knew you looked like a Teleri.”
“Excuse me?” Her mind knows there is no way he knows her mother tongue yet faced with an unknown word she can only default back to the first language she ever learned, before Nernese and I’lat and the One Speech. T’eli ri: to resemble a goat. “What does that, begging respectfully, what does that mean?”
“Oh,” Celebrimbor looks a little startled, a little sad. Every expression seems to suit his face; he really is astoundingly pretty. Despite Cytise’s wish that there were more beautiful women in the Tower she can still admire this elegance in form. “They were, are, a people of my childhood home. I don’t think any of them live over the sea, at least none that still call themselves by that name.”
Names and languages. It all strikes a little too close to home. Cytise smiles through her discomfort and says. “It means something very rude in my language. My first one, not the Speech.”
“I’m surprised it doesn’t mean something rude in Sauron’s little language,” Celebrimbor’s lips thin into a matching, brittle smile. “He certainly took a jab at the us with the sorcerers” the way he pronounces G’nûldu— a servant magician or wraith of the air, usually wicked, often bound to the Eye to repay past misdeeds— is so twisted it’s almost unrecognizable.
He takes the deep throatiness out of the gn and perches the n instead on the tip of his tongue, rounds both the vowel sounds out until they sound more like a startled oh. Between that little puzzle and the name— title? epithet? Sauron, which she has never heard before, she has plenty to chew on.
“Mistranslations are hard. Because we’re so close I can speak just enough of the language of Ilat for them to think I know what I’m doing when I ask for fifty fig wasps. Apparently the word for fig in my language…”
Celebrimbor saved her the embarrassment of having to explain further. “Yes, I see the point. Even between close languages it can get messy. My cousin Artanis’ name, if shifted into the language of our cousins when we moved to live with them, would have been Areth or Aril. She did change her name but not to either of those.”
Artanis. Cytise rolls it around in her head. It does sound like a proper elven name. A little menacing with its hissing ending, not too hard to say. “Pardon my asking, but you are the first elf I’ve ever met and I do have questions. Is Celebrimbor truly your name? Are all elf names like it?”
To her surprise he goes a little pink. “Yes. It’s my name, one of them. I try to wear it well. As to your second question, elven names are as many as stars, I cannot speak for all of them. We have several languages, many kindreds. Yet we share sounds, common ancestors, a way of speaking. The elements of the names may be the same and so may the meanings.”
“What does your name mean? My name means blessing.” It’s not wholly true. Cytise, which is Nernean, refers to a sort of shrubby golden plant that grows on mountain slopes. Her true name means blessing and that’s what counts.
“Ah. It’s hard to explain in your language,” he says, though this is just a language she speaks. “Maybe it’s easiest to say that the translation of my name in it would be, hmmm, Kyelpi-utqûrr?”
“Silver… full hand?”
“More of a—” he mimes a clenched fist.
“Oh. Oh! See, to me you would be,” it takes her a few smudged synonyms and quick calculations to make it work but she’s very proud of the results, “Cebeẗebrur! Much closer!”
Cebeẗe-, to hold; -bruri, silver. The first consonant is more sibilant, the vowels all longer and slower, still, it sounds like his name.
“So it is!” he says delighted. “We must account for similarities between the base languages though. Elvish is… it’s a bit hard to explain in one sitting. Suffice to say that the Elvish of most elves today is closer to human tongues because it is spoken by elves who deal with humans. But this little black Speech uses is, if I’m not mistaken, based on an older version, from before elves knew humans at all.”
She doesn’t consider herself an academic, not in the slightest. Books are only interesting when people read them out loud, stories are only important when there are real lives attached. Despite her lack of intellectual rigour she loves nothing more than hearing someone passionately explain something she didn’t know before. It’s a party game that everyone wins.
“Yes. My name in that tongue was Telperinquar, which as you can see is closer to Sauron’s creation.”
Sauron she won’t touch but the other name— “Telperinquar.” she tests out the pronunciation, like she has all the other names, only this time she does so out loud. Celebrimbor. Artanis. Telperinquar.
Lord Celebrimbor stiffens a little. “No one has called me that since I was young. Celebrimbor is fine, it’s what everyone uses.”
The young men are in the full swing of their game again and Maha’s head is bowed over the desk, though she’s angled her chair so she can keep one eye on the two of them. Through the great windows, clear smooth glass an arm span wide, the red sun is peeking through the smog. Cytise feels herself full of unmistakable fondness for this man, at least twice if not two hundred times her age, who she has just met. Maybe this is the magic of elves. More likely she’s just been starved for someone who knows how to hold a conversation. “Don’t worry,” she says, “I know how it is. I used to have another name too.”
Gold may be most valuable but silver is most precious.
North to south, east to west, everyone knows that though gold may be for riches and wealth, silver is for magic, for protection. Among the wandering people, silver is for unwed maidens, a symbol of new moon vitality. At home in Mahnás silver was meant for drinking vessels and ceremonial ware. Its protective powers keep diseases borne in food and drink at bay.
When she returns to her room she searches futilely through her collection of jewelry for something silver. There is nothing— gold is traditional and it suits her.
It doesn’t suit Celebrimbor, not as well as silver would.
Silver would bring out the cool olive in his skin, the shades of blue in his night black hair, the mistiness of his eyes. A deep garnet, a turquoise, an amethyst cabochon, it’s easy to think up colors and patterns that would flatter him.
In fables silver burns beings of evil, such as elves, disembodied spirits, and wicked northern trolls. Like salt, sunlight, ivory, eye beads, hands, coins, and brass, silver serves as the base of talismans.
She might be more worried about injuring Celebrimbor with an ill-advised gift if she hadn’t seen him wearing the startling local variant of the ubiquitous eye beads (the Tower’s forges can do startling, wonderful things with glass, it almost outshines the million-eyes of Akurgel) and sitting on ivory furniture. If she can find silver it should be fine.
The coffee in her lap is rapidly cooling so she drinks it and then goes to find Achaimene.
“Do you know anyone willing to trade me good silver accessories?” she says after the requisite small talk about his horse and his thinly veiled frustration with his father, who will never let him come home.
He stops fiddling with the little rosebush he’s been trying to make grow in the inhospitable climate. When he opens his window it chokes in the air, when he keeps it closed it dies without sun. “Why? It’s not usually your style.”
“I’m thinking about gifts!”
“Nūrohti, you’re too kind. You’re going to overwhelm the poor thick old men. They don’t know what to give you in return.”
Very few people bothered to follow her first gift up with more than a gruff thank you, which she really doesn’t mind. Achaimene gave her perfume, Zikiti offered to teach her how to ride, the little princes and princess down the hall let her play with their sickly peahen, and Prince Qamar handed her a jeweled knife; all of which have been more helpful than a dozen fake niceties.
“It’s about the giving,” she insists, putting on her silliest smile.
Achaimene sighs. “That’s not at all how it works. I think the delegation from Leshkerru has the right connections, or the old lord from that town east of Um-bar.”
He’s right, Leshkerru has plenty of goods to offer and is more than interested in a selection of pearls from the south. And they say commerce doesn’t thrive under the Eye.
Her first plan is to walk the neatly wrapped box, complete with an explanatory note apologizing in advance for any adverse reactions creatures of inhuman mien may have to silver and for the imposition of another gift so quick on the heels of the first, up to his room and leave it discreetly. She’s just a simple girl, caught by the urge to decorate the most beautiful person in her vicinity. His kindness sparked a creative interest.
Before she left he let her look at tracery blueprints of dripping necklaces and earrings so heavy they threaten to drag right down to the ground. Maha perched next to them and flipped through the pages while he explained the mechanics behind the work; the way the earrings looped over the ears to provide extra support, how the cobweb fine chains he described would be intricately plaited and secured so they would lay flat and never tangle. He seemed delighted to have a chance to show off in front of an appreciative audience.
Compared to that the nine thick, heavily decorated bangles Cytise found, though solid silver and at least a quarter of a wealthy girl’s dowry on their own, aren’t that impressive. Beauty doesn’t always make up for wonder.
She can’t second guess herself, she has to stand by her choice. So when she sees Celebrimbor and his small gang passing through the halls she catches up with them and passes Maha the ebony wood box in front of everyone.
Having just exited a very boring meeting with the priests of the Admirable Flame, her compatriots are distracted. A few are hiding yawns or grumbling about the locaquacity of holy men, most are slowly drifting towards the stairs and the long walk home.
When Lord Celebrimbor stops and smiles at her approach, there is a slow reorientation of attention. By the time she places the gift in Maha’s hands and whispers, “Just a little thing, I thought—” all eyes are on her, boring into her back.
Maha nods, prim and a little aloof, holding herself like an agent of someone else, not just a servant. She too is wary of the watching crowd.
“I will convey it,” she says, her fingers pressing into Cytise’s wrist in… support? Threat? She looks sad and worried. “If you— if you want to come by this evening you’d be welcome.”
Cytise looks at Celebrimbor and Celebrimbor flicks his eyes towards her friends, gathered behind her in an increasingly united cluster. Then he turns to go.
The first person to reach her isn’t Zikiti or Achaimene or Hazârasp or any of her usual social circle. It’s old lord Cithrafarn, from one of the little city states between Charad and Khandakka. After losing an arm in the far off war he has distanced himself from court life. Now he’s holding onto her for dear life.
“Child,” he says, “Do not follow where they go.”
The great books, written under the auspices of light and flame and sight, say: “Long before the days of the sun, when the world was still in cooling darkness and the first humans were just a dream in the eye of the Fiery Mountain, the wicked gods grew jealous. They knew humans were being made to supplant them. They did not wish to give up dominion over the world which they had frittered away and taken for granted. So they made facsimiles of humankind. One took ice out of the air and crafted it into perfect bodies, one stole starlight from the sky and used it to fill their eyes with false warmth, one gave them grace, one taught them cunning and clever magics, another showed them how to imitate bird song, one filled them up with the ashes of his forge fire so they’d feel warm, and so on, until these mannequins were so full of wonder all who saw them loved them.”
“They were made eternal, capricious, and cruel. They were not made alive. They burned and froze. They danced on air. And when the real humans came out of the ground, fresh and fragile, they were so filled with rage at seeing what they could never be that they tried to destroy them.”
“They tricked the first humans into giving up their gift of immortality. They stole babies from their cribs and twisted them into monsters who knew nothing but pain. These orcs could never be transformed back into what they once were, so fully had the elves tainted them. Destruction followed them wherever they went. And still they walked on stolen starlight, still they were beautiful, even lit by the flames of their carnage.”
The more recent histories are simpler. It has been just over a year, there’s been no time for a narrative to build.
They say: There were elves in the west who were dangerous. We went and fought them. We destroyed a city, killed their sorcerers, burned their libraries so no more evil works could be done. We fought many battles in deep pines forests and next to cold rivers. Lots of people died.
Then we came home.
(Very few people add, “And an elf came with us,” because they prefer not to think about Celebrimbor most of the time. His presence is messy and concerning.)
Cytise wasn’t here for the war, she was summoned to the Tower after it. She has only vague memories of it beginning— it was six years ago so she was only eleven, a child who liked sticky cakes and playing with her sister’s makeup.
She doesn’t know why everyone is so piqued about it all. Beneath their ire is an anxiety she cannot comprehend.
“Princess,” Achaimene says in the hallway outside her room. He and Zikiti have been chosen by popular vote to upbraid Cytise about her choice of acquaintances; Achaimene because they’re friends, Zikiti because she’s intimidating. “Princess, please.”
That’s another thing she hates about this place. She isn’t a princess. The word they use is Nernean— the One Speech, at least the pure form of it kept by notables here, doesn’t have many terms for monarchies, just lords in ever increasing importance. Nern doesn’t have royalty either, it hasn’t in decades, but it has preserved a more diverse vocabulary for talking about hereditary rank which is used in place of the neologisms their god hates.
The word they use is tharleia which refers to the daughter or granddaughter of a king. She is neither. It’s a small thing which shouldn’t matter and does all the same. Identity and language come intertwined, she has lost one so she shouldn’t be so upset about the other.
“Nūrohti,” she corrects, making Achaimene scrunch up his nose.
“Cytise,” Zikiti says gravely. “You cannot play your silly games with such a creature. It won’t end well.”
Her cheeks burn. “Talking to people isn’t a game. Being kind, taking an interest, isn’t a game. I know the rules and I can politick just as well as you, better than most of you, actually. But I’m not going to stop being myself!”
Achaimene takes a deep breath. “Isn’t being yourself what got you sent here?”
The words, the betrayal of it, hits her like a blow. She lashes out the only way she knows how. “I am delighted to serve here, unlike you.”
“Unlike you, I’ve actually served!” Achaimene snaps. “I saw the cities of the elves, I saw what they can do.”
He is only a few years older than her but he was sent away as a child, sent to serve as a page to an older uncle who died with an elfbolt in his back. And yet, despite her questions, despite the fact that he practically grew up there in the war camps of the western front, he has never spoken much about it.
“What terrors has that poor man inflicted on you for you to mistrust him so? Wars happen, we all move on.” It is not a healing, exactly, when you let the people who hurt you in. Sometimes it is necessary. If you cannot adapt, you die. She has seen many deaths of grudge holders and patriots, people who couldn’t survive in a reworked, conquered world.
“He was their leader.”
Zikiti’s cool voice cuts through the argument instantly.
“He was their leader. I saw him in armor and then I saw him in chains and then no one saw him for a very long time.” She pauses, chewing on her words. Long speeches are not her habit. “People heard him sometimes though. Screaming.”
That isn’t how you’re supposed to treat a spouse. The ways of immortals must be hard to follow, certainly the old stories she has always had a secret fondness for can get bloody in their romances. Still, this seems…
Maybe she was wrong about many things.
She doesn’t think she’s wrong about Celebrimbor’s right to be given a chance. If he is a monster then let him prove it. So far his charm seems genuine; he has the silly, earnest, passion of an artist and a wit to back it up.
“Well, now he’s here.”
“And that is a matter for him and the Eye.” Achaimene says shakily. “It doesn’t change the fact that he’s dangerous.”
He’s just a tall, pretty person who likes talking about metal ductility and the structure of crystals. It’s hard to see him as a threat. “There are lots of dangerous men here. Am I not allowed to talk to you now? Or to Fraykha, butcher of the wainfolk? What about Zikiti, the Lioness—”
“Princess,” Zikiti looks very tired. “He is not a man. He is not human at all. You cannot continue this.”
They are both standing in front of her door, keeping her from going back inside, their little lesson delivered with an edge of force.
But behind her yawns the hallway. Though she might be among the least fighting fit of those who dwell here, she has two distinct advantages. One is youth and the other is long legs.
Defiant, she turns on her heel and runs. Down the hallway, through winding corridors, to the long staircase. At first she can hear Achaimene pursuing but after she ducks under Belanu’s arm and tells him between panted breaths that the dear prince has a new wine his footsteps falter. Byt the time she reaches the stairs she can move at a more dignified pace, without fear of being caught.
She smiles at the people she meets along the way, gives them reassuring platitudes and tells them that Zikiti gave her a talking to. Through meeting rooms and conference halls she holds her breath and it’s only when she’s in the little elevator up that she realizes where she’s going.
Afraid in spite of the spite driving her she tugs at her beaded bracelet. It’s a childish thing, clunky beads made of the pulpy press left after oil production, rolled into balls with animal glue, left to dry in the sun, painted bright red and yellow, then sealed with wax. It was her sister’s when she was a girl, a gift from her in-laws, and it was passed along before Cytise's departure.
She has so many questions, half of which she can’t even think. Does she want answers, to involve herself in a situation that is not what she assumed?
Still, she knocks on the door.
“I hope your friends weren’t too worried about you.”
Cytise runs her fingers over the chair back in front of her. “No. Not… considering.”
How novel to practice her not-quite lies aloud. It was possible that Celebrimbor, being an elf, could read her heart and extract all her secrets. But she had felt an inexorable pressure on her mind, forcing open every door lest under threat of madness and unspeakable pain. There is no hint of that searing regard here, not even a whisper of intrusion on the edges of her thoughts.
His eyes are full of light, still she can’t describe them as piercing. They’re soft, especially now, dressed as he is.
It is different to see him with his hair down. It falls to about his shoulder blades, on average, and she has to say on average because the ends are choppy like it was hacked off in great clumps.
Without gold in his ears or around his neck it’s easier to notice the thin silver scars creeping up his nape. His robe is loose and voluminous with big bell sleeves and a hem that looks like it might trip him when he walks. The neck, however, is low enough for her to see more of the long healed injuries she’d noticed at their last meeting. Upon further inspection they appear deliberate, lines laid out evenly, every few inches a square of flesh with a slightly different texture. It looks like weaver’s work, a geometry of pink, grey, brown and deep purple.
It’s rude to stare so she can’t look long enough to try to pry out the logic behind the damage done. Nor can she determine at a glance what is burnt or gouged or mauled. All she knows is that it looks like it hurt.
“What did they say to you?” Celebrimbor pries as she refocuses deliberately on the window behind him. He’s going through the motions of a good host but he seems distracted, distant.
Cytise sighs and throws herself into the chair uninvited, like the spoiled princess she is. “Oh, lots of silly things about the war. It’s boring, I hate military stories.” Such tawdry matters don’t befit genteel company. “Did you like the present? Is silver too much for you? I know I’m being overbearing but it would look so nice!”
“It was kind,” Celebrimbor hedges, “Unfortunately bracelets aren’t exactly my style.”
“Rings then?” she suggests, preening idly like a bird, twirling her loose curls and fiddling with the edge of her dress. Silliness seems the only way to drag the conversation back into safe waters.
Out of the corner of her eye she barely catches Celebrimbor’s little flinch. “No. No.”
It’s Maha who finally snaps. She leaves the samavar boiling and, leaning over Celebrimbor, says something pained in a language Cytise has never heard.
He responds, just as quick, just as worried. With a second listen she can tell that they aren’t speaking any language common in the empire. Even the free people to the south and east have a different, more lyrical sound to their speech than this one, so full of popping consonants and lisping diphthongs.
It’s not ugly, just alien. Yet it seems she’s the only person in the room who doesn’t understand it; even the two young guards, sitting and playing Twenty Squares, are attending closely.
“Lah narithon en! Yston im annyel hîn farm ghost-ôl? Senn níthan pawnt?” If she pays attention she can make out individual syllables. No meaning, no pattern, just the sounds like gurgling water.
Maha stares him down, somehow still adoring in her reproof. It is something to watch a woman— probably older than Cytise though that’s not hard, certainly more experienced with the ways of this world and this social circle based on her public behavior— become a smiling, scolding, sharp-tongued girl in the elf’s presence. It is yet another spell he weaves, one of trust. “Hên adth isti-dollen beriawtha. Ten al-hîn, tregallem be enin o lachrhim.”
“Ainistog, en trenarithenn, en trenarithenn.” He closes his eyes. “I don’t want to burden you with sad stories.”
“But you should know not to give him bracelets in the future.” Maha chimes in
Cytise watches the board game playing out in the corner. The taller of the two young men is winning. “I won’t ask any questions you don’t want to answer.”
“Ask away,” Celebrimbor says as he shakes back his sleeves, “It’s not myself I’m afraid for, and you must be allowed to make your own choices.”
Oh. Has she never seen his hands before? She must not have because these can only be called appendages in the most general sense. It does look like someone took the trouble of reconstructing the mangled flesh but only after some time passed. The bones were set in the right place but not quick enough to fully straighten his fingers or ease the painful contracture his muscles have settled into. Everywhere is thick, ropy scar tissue. Several finger joints and the thumb on one hand are missing.
He’s always worn wide sleeves, sat still, let Maha carry and hold things. Now it seems less like an affectation of power and more like a necessary adaptation to injury.
“Why?” Cytise asks before her sensible brain can catch up with her.
Celebrimbor shrugs. “Politics. You know how it can get.”
She does in fact. Even if she can’t understand his exact situation, the fundamentals ring true.
“Then why are you here?”
He hides his hands in his sleeves again. “Why do you think?”
Cytise remembers the whispers, the words that aren’t said, the awkward way everyone tiptoes around the subject with red cheeks and guilty eyes. “There are theories. I thought… I thought it might be love.”
Celebrimbor isn’t offended by the idea, instead he seems ruminative. “Maybe it was. Love or spite or avarice. I took something he wanted and threw it in the sea and he reacted, ah, badly.” His sleeves move, hacked-wood hands twitching beneath the sky blue fabric.
It isn’t proper to speak of power like a person. Humanization and degradation of divinity come so very close together and she has always been careful to stay on the right side. “You were someone important then.”
“I still am, by some counts,” he offers another bitter smile. “Distant family does not disappear when your home is sacked; my royal cousins are still out there. They may even still care for me, despite my failings. Perhaps that’s why I’m here. I don’t know, I stopped thinking I understood Sauron some time ago.”
Do generations bear down on him like a curse, ancestors demanding absolution? He must know what it is like to hold the life of other people in his hands. More than that, she realizes, he knows how it feels to fail them.
Every action she has ever taken has been calculated to prevent the exact circumstances he has lived through.
We went and fought them. We destroyed a city, killed their sorcerers.
At times she has come so close to slipping up.
“I wish that we had met under better circumstances.” It is the closest thing to an apology she can offer, for something that is not her fault, that cannot be unilaterally regretted. “That you were not unhappy here.”
“I do manage,” Celebrimbor tells her. “I work on little projects that won’t hurt anyone; the forges have been accommodating and Alba in the workshops helps with getting my ideas on paper. There have been kindnesses enough to tide anyone over. And I intend to die shortly.”
He says it so glibly that it almost doesn’t sink in. There is resignation on his face though, and in his old, brilliant eyes. When she looks to his companions they seem uncomfortable but unsurprised, like they’ve heard this before and have grown used to such statements of impending doom. Like they’ve given up arguing.
It makes sense, she has to admit.
War, real city-shattering war, hasn’t come close to her home in generations. They were surrounded by larger allies, then they were quietly annexed after their closest ally fell. The violence since has come from quiet rebellions and sanctioned destruction, of executions in the night. Even then, there were efforts to maintain a shell of the old nobility (in different forms, with newer, younger, easier to mold figureheads).
Despite these facts there remains a cultural awareness of certain facts. Stories are passed down, old patterns ingrained. Every girl of rank knows that it is better to die than be taken alive, for political reasons as well as personal ones.
“Oh. Are you sure?”
“It’s not a choice.” Celebrimbor laughs a little. Watching him she realizes the word she’s been looking for to describe his sudden turns of mirth. They’re bitter like thistle and the only reason she hasn’t realized until now is because his anger is not directed at her. “Elves do not live long once our will is broken. It’s a fading, like your old age or the progression of poison. I’m only a little surprised I’ve lasted this long; my family was always bad at passing on.”
She tugs at her bracelet fitfully, mind racing. “If this is what you act like while dying then I would have loved to meet you before.”
The samavar finishes heating and the slighter young guard gets up to make tea. The drink that has jumped in popularity since recent conquests opened up deeper trade with the lands of the east, though Cytise is smugly aware that coffee (from Ilat which is practically her home) remains the most common drink.
She gratefully takes a fragrant, steaming cup then watches him help Celebrimbor grip his drink with both hands, steadying him for a few seconds before stepping back.
“Thank you, Aydir,” Celebrimbor stares at his tea. “I would have liked to know all of you under better circumstances. Then again, who knows if we would have met without this?”
Talking here is like walking on a thin beam over an open flame. It’s like wrestling a great wolf. It’s exhilarating. “None of us would exist without what shouldn’t have happened.” In her case, she thinks it might be literal; her mother's infanthood engagement to a nobleman from a southern kingdom unallied with the Eye was broken as their people were bent to the will of the tower.
“Mmmm. You know, we had a drink like this in— in the place I was born. We would steep a certain kind of holly, it doesn’t grow on this side of the sea, in water. It was quite energizing.” He takes a shaky sip. “I am glad I got to try this version.”
She is about to say that she’s glad she was reckless enough to reach out to him, a hook that might drag the conversation back to less emotionally charged topics. Bracing as honesty is, it’s easier to make small talk about braids and brocade.
Then the door opens.
Celebrimbor goes stiff as a corpse. In the window glass Cytise sees a reflection of glory and, as if pulled by strings, turns to stare straight into the eye of the sun.
The Lord of the World glows like a poker left in the fire too long. At the edges he is hazy, like the sunset obscured by smoke. His face is golden and smooth, his hair is white as an old man’s, his hands are slender, his eyes do not let you look away. There is no part of him that is not a shade unearthly; a little too metallic, a little too pale, a little too luminescent in the dark.
Beauty is not a quantifiable object, easily measured or held in the palm of your hand. Still, as a connoisseur and a breathing human, she knows that he wears the sort of beauty that could burn kingdoms.
Like gazelle in front of a hunter, Maha and her two friends have gone perfectly still. They are not bowing; there are different rules for different people and their proximity to Lord Celebrimbor means they may be following an altered rule book. Her protocol remains the same.
So she does her obeisance and remains, like the other three humans in the room, keeps rabbit-still and mouse-quiet, alone with thoughts racing too fast to even be coherent.
“I heard my guest was entertaining a guest of his own,” says the All-Seeing, in a voice that is lyrical and hard. “Princess Kidisd. Celebrimbor.”
Cytise is just a name picked at random by a foreign tutor who couldn’t pronounce her first one, used over and over by merchants and dignitaries until it replaced her childhood appellation. She never asked for it, never chose it, came to love it slowly, and used it mostly as a shield. It unnerves her to hear the name her parents gave her pronounced almost perfectly in the midst of other languages. It feels like a layer of protection she didn’t even know she wore being stripped away by a person she barely knows.
Of course, he knows her.
There’s abruptly a hand at her elbow, not gesturing her up but lifting her effortlessly and then setting her back down in her seat.
When she meets his eyes again the pressure comes down on her. A thousand tons of stone, of water, of sheer mental might and eye-clawing pain pressing at her from all sides, a headache turned inside out threatening to pop her skull like a grape.
Holding out is so hard, every second of instinctive pushback hard won. Giving in, once she remembers who she is and who is in front of her, is the cleanest relief imaginable. It hurts to have someone pulling through her skull, rifling through memories, tearing through their last two conversations and every interaction associated with them, but the tugging intrusion is more bearable. All she has to do is leave the doors open until he’s done with her.
When he’s satisfied he sits himself on the edge of Celebrimbor’s seat and smiles toothily. “Are you enjoying yourself?”
“It’s very atmospheric here.” The tea in her hands is suddenly cold. It’s hard to use the right register; she rarely has reason to speak in the most deferential form of the Speech.
“And the people?” A hand on a knee is not an especially restrained gesture. The unhurried way his fingers play with the pale blue silk— another import from the wealthy kingdoms of the east, which bowed to neither gods nor elves— draped over Lord Celebrimbor’s thigh speaks of a refusal to be restrained. Immortals will act as they please.
“Everyone has been kind.” Her anxiety is so high she wants to chew her bracelet to bits.
With a sigh of annoyance and only a hint of fear in his eyes, Celebrimbor brushes the hand away. “We’ve been trading stories about our homes.”
The Lord of Men glitters in the setting sun, all the sharp metal on him set dancing by the scarlet twilight. “I saw.”
From Charad to southern Zaba to the plains of Ottorogoral , it is generally agreed that there are three holy colors. Black, red, and blue. One for the long night humanity was born into, one for the blood they all bled together, one for the morning sky they first wandered under. When the Capable Hand came and took up his post he took black and red for himself, leaving blue as a neutral color, sacred without being political.
It doesn’t take an artist’s eye to know that Celebrimbor, wrapped in blue, and the god in his shiny black carapace, both bathed in red light, look like some allegory brought to life. Chest to chest, face to face, not quite looking each other in the eyes.
Cytise throws back the last of her tea just as Celebrimbor declares, “We were admiring your handiwork.”
“You flatter me,” he purrs, “You contributed too. Without your stubbornness and determination to escalate matters—”
“I do wonder,” Celebrimbor interrupts, a veritable storm brewing on his easygoing features, “if I could get you to do it again. Since you’re being so accommodating.”
“Is that what you wish?”
“You know my plans, there are no secrets between us anymore.”
The carpet is very interesting. There is no pattern to the weaving, none of the usual tricks used to demonstrate skill. Instead it is made of some shimmering metal thread. When she turns her foot and rubs her ankle across the rug it rasps at her skin like a cat’s tongue or a rough grindstone.
It’s very pretty, though she has to wonder how comfortable it is to walk across in bare feet.
“Neither do you have any leverage.” He is touching Celebrimbor again, laying one hand on his chest, the tips of his fingers just grazing the map of scars above his collar. On his finger a gold ring flashes, picking up light even though the sun has disappeared behind the clouds again.
“No one has any leverage here, do they?” All of a sudden Celebrimbor looks very sad, sad and old. The thin lines around his eyes weren’t there a moment ago. “I don’t believe these people acted so afraid before you came. You play the savior, swooping in and saving people from themselves, then destroy everything that was built before you. Tell me, is it better in the places you haven’t touched yet? Do you ruin everything you claim to love?”
He’s looking at her, dragging her into this spat, and she doesn’t know how to answer. The Admirable One gives her a slow nod, so she thinks about it, preparing a response that will stand up to such questioners.
“I know very little about lands outside the empire,” she says, “For good or ill.”
“Surely you know that they don’t want to be a part of this grand project,” Celebrimbor says with a hysterical laugh.
“I know that they are recalcitrant,” she hedges, aware that she is being watched. “They will not join easily.”
Zaba, to the south of her home, will not be conquered for many years. Once she would have said it would never fall; then she came here and learned that defeatism doesn’t pay, politically speaking.
Neither does recklessly attacking a people who have so strongly demonstrated an unwillingness to come into the light. They are proud in the highlands, tall and strong. There the trolls (reasonable trolls, so different from the unruly northern types who spent too much time with the wild dark gods) rule the night, the humans rule the day, and both groups stand united against any outsiders. Further south there are more mountains, then the deep forests and straw plains, all inhabited by humans who do not seem to mind being untouched by divine influence.
To the east are many, many more lands the geography and politics of which she has never learned especially well. Like the wild west it is a formless collection of impressions, a shapeless, nameless unknown land far from the center of the world. They too have resisted guidance strenuously.
It’s said in some of the stories that there are elves out in the east, along with the dwarves, trolls, spirits, ghost trees, and great beasts that are to be expected.
Celebrimbor’s clever eyes see more than they should without picking through her mind. “Should they want to?”
“They should strive for perfection.” She drags the side of her foot back and forth across the abrasive rug until it’s scraped raw. It’s better than fiddling with her bracelet, which is useless here. “For greater happiness and the advancement of all men.”
“Is it happy here?” He burns with sympathy and the Endless Eye sprawled on top of him just burns. “Is it advanced? Would you like your home to be like this place?”
The air in her lungs is too thin, her eyes ache. All she can see is the displeasure written clearly across the Lord’s face. She stumbles to her feet and bows. “I think I have overstayed my welcome. Thank you for your hospitality.”
Though Celebrimbor’s expression crumples the silent god at his side seems content with the development, smiling through his companion’s effusive apologies.
Maha is kind enough to take her arm and walk her out. As they leave she can hear the Admirable saying, bemused, “Well, she’s a darling little morsel. A bit too simple—” and then the door swings shut behind them.
Panic of a sort that she has never known before threatens to overwhelm her. Before she can do something foolish, like scream, Maha cups her face with plump hands and gives her some advice.
“Three deep breaths.” At the end of the last shuddering exhale she can feel the worst of the fear receding. “Go back to your room. Rest.”
As she staggers down the hall, head pounding and mouth dry, she takes some comfort from the fact that she’s probably still worth more alive than dead. Her sister would be furious if she were killed.
Whether that matters anymore, at the level of affairs that she has gotten herself immersed in, is anyone’s guess.
The next morning she receives word that she is to return home.
In the face of too many conflicting feelings, she simply shuts down. She lets herself be rushed through the bare minimum of packing, lets all the arrangements be made under the watchful eyes of the great Eye’s own.
When Achaimene comes to say goodbye she calls him by his name (Haxāmansh, like her he uses a more universally pronounceable Nernean translation, like her he guards his true self) and apologizes for her cruel words. There is not enough time for an extended farewell.
Before they set out a box is placed in her hands. It contains the silver bracelets, though not, she notes, the pearl earrings.
It takes two days by litter to travel south out of Mordor. She sleeps a whole 18 hours, then prattles for half a day to a servant (not the one her sister sent, but one of the two obvious plants there to keep an eye on her) about how sad she is to be leaving all her friends. In fact, she’s heartbroken, she barely got to say goodbye to anyone!
Her girlish heart and the pain of lost friendships drive her to drink a whole skin of wine, throw up on the side of the road, sob into a pillow until her throat hurts, and then nap for another five hours.
When she wakes up they’ve passed through the mountains and are outside of Mordor. Though his gaze is infallible, the Lord’s eye tends to be most omnipotent inside his own realm.
On the road, secure in her own head for the first time in months and still dizzy from her hangover, Cytise reflects.
First, she can admit to herself that she approached Celebrimbor intending to use him. A thought unvoiced can still exist and urges unconscious, suppressed by a paranoid mind, are still urges. Some part of her knew power when she saw it, and she thinks, looking back, that the same part pushed her to befriend a potential ally. It’s the sort of reckless play she’d make under any other circumstances.
If he liked the gifts, if they both enjoyed the company, if the mental exercise stretched her underused talents, then those were just bonuses.
He turned that around on her, of course. Whether he meant to or not, he charmed her completely and without a concrete plan she had no defenses.
Even with the clear lens of hindsight, she doesn’t think he was playing a part. That doesn’t mean she doubts his potential as a manipulator or overestimates her own skill at remaining unfooled. Anyone can be played and those who think themselves infallible are most likely to get suckered.
But even if Celebrimbor were an actor of the highest caliber or using some arcane elven arts to twist her heart and mind, that couldn’t change the way his closest companions reacted. The affection they held for him, their worry, the tiny expressions of delight, fear, alarm. Elves and gods are unknown variables. Cytise knows how to judge a human, however, and the three in Celebrimbor’s life behaved too closely in sync with his words and actions to be lying. If there was deception it would require a level of coordination between the four of them that bordered on the supernatural.
It’s easier to assume that he was as he appeared. A noble man who had crossed the wrong power and paid the price. A prisoner of a force too great to understand, bound by resentment and old love. A hostage of high birth who wants to escape, however he can.
It’s a heartbreaking story, just awful. It took her in completely.
So much so that she was willing to help him die, no matter how disastrous a choice it might be.
She touches her bracelet. Paste made of the thick, poisonous mash left after making castor oil, add a little bit of red squill and glue as a binder, let dry, paint with arsenic, then coat in several thick layers of wax. A bead or two, thoroughly chewed, can kill a man within 12 hours. It’s not a pleasant death. The beads are a last resort, more symbolic than anything. A bracelet or two on the main members of the royal family (at least those old enough to not gnaw indiscriminately) have always been a tradition in Ilat, one that travelled to their little island neighbor.
The bracelet was her sister’s when she was a little girl, the fiancee of a prince. Before Cytise was taken away it was slipped onto her wrist, a sort of promise, an offer, a last goodbye.
When their parents died Cytise wasn’t made to watch. (She was young at the time and the priests did want to keep a rebellion from such an important family hushed up.) Makada, a young queen, pregnant and afraid, was. And though she’s never said a word to Cytise, the word on the street is that they burned slowly. Before their final ashen end they languished in prison for weeks.
Elves might not even die of poison.
Still, she was prepared to offer it.
Stupid, so, so stupid. After everything that has been lost, after all the sacrifices made. It worked out well for her in the end, being sent home is the best possibility she could have hoped for, but if it hadn’t...
Her grandparents on both sides are dead. Two assassinated, one dead of grief, one who loved the old god of the sea set adrift in a boat alone. Her parents are dead; she remembers them stockpiling weapons and making plans (plans she took and recycled later, a little insurgent with a salon for all of two months before someone caught on). Her brother-in-law, his parents, just about every older member of the nobility who didn’t turn entirely and a lot who did. Old shepherds, young men, whole buildings, things lost and destroyed.
She moved past hate and into resignation long ago. She can see the wonder, the glory, the gold and troops and recognize that they are quite impressive, that there is nothing she can do about them. No one cares if her awe is born of fear as long as it is suitably reverent. It’s better to comply, to bend rather than break (for now, says the part of her that will probably get her killed one day, and she’s glad she was able to at least stifle those thoughts in Mordor.)
So why did Celebrimbor make her willing to throw everything away?
Very likely she’s a fool who likes a good story too much. If she’s being charitable with herself, she could say that maybe there is more kindness out there than anyone in the Tower believes possible.
That sort of sentiment is noble but in this case misguided, she decides. It’s very clear that there is no room for mortals in the love affairs of elves and gods and though she hopes Celebrimbor is well she knows that won’t be the case.
There is no glory in that home, only despair and tight chain of power. If it is uncomfortable to be a guest or attendant there then how miserable must it be to marry in?