Second installment of this fic! One more chapter to go, which I'll post tomorrow.
A matter of perspective by stormwreath - Chapter 2
Fandom: The Silmarillion (Tolkien/Middle-earth)
Characters: Nerdanel and three OFCs; plus Fëanor might turn up later on.
Wordcount: 10,839 in three chapters.
Summary: What happens when her best friend drags a young Elven sculptress to a party she's really not sure she wants to attend...
A matter of perspective - chapter 2
It was the Mingling of the Lights, as Laurelin's warm golden glow gave way to the cool radiance of Telperion. The party was beginning.
Outside in the Great Square below the Mindon Eldaliéva, a large crowd was gathered. They were there to see the great and good of Tirion arriving at the King's House: to watch the pageantry, gossip about who arrived with whom, admire the outfits, and generally have a good time. More practically, they were also there to enjoy the trestle tables groaning under the weight of free food and drink that King Finwë had ordered set up in the square, at his personal expense, to allow the people to join in his son's birthday celebration.
Nerdanel had sidled up to the velvet rope barrier as inconspicuously as possible, suddenly a bundle of nerves despite her earlier show of confidence. People were going to see her as she went in! They'd wonder who she was, how she'd managed to get an invitation. They'd almost certainly comment on her clothes. She felt frumpy and out of place. She wondered if she should just slip off, give Lissiel an excuse, join the crowds in the square instead. They would probably be more enjoyable company than the people inside the palace.
Lissiel's hand slipped into her own. Nerdanel thought that maybe her friend had detected her hesitation and was trying to reassure her - or maybe pinning her so she couldn't run away? But then Nerdanel looked around at Lissiel's face, and saw her pale profile and the way she was biting her lip, and she realised. Lissiel was nervous too. In fact, she looked frankly terrified. It made Nerdanel feel brave by comparison.
Together, they walked up to the line of guards and the impressively-dressed royal servant. The guards were holding their staffs of office - not that anyone believed there was any threat to the King or his household here beyond the Western Seas, but this was a tradition that dated back to the Great Journey. Tradition meant a lot to the Eldar.
Lissiel took her invitation out of her handbag. Nerdanel hastily fished into her pocket for hers. She'd put it between two sheets of stiff card to prevent it getting crumpled or dog-eared, and in her nervous state she started to hand the cardboard to the attendant before realising and frantically switching it for the actual invitation. She almost dropped it as she extended it towards his hand.
The servant gave no sign of noticing her confusion, his expression blank and imperturbable. He merely read the elegant writing on the card, checked the seal, then handed it back to her with a bow. "Welcome, Lady Nerdanel."
'Lady'? She'd never been called that before. She wondered if she should curtsey, or offer her hand to be kissed, or something, but she contented herself with a smile and a 'Thank you'. The attendant's eyes crinkled slightly at the corners in response; she guessed that was the Royal Palace Servant way of smiling back.
Lissiel was far more demonstrative; she was grinning from ear to ear. Sorry, that is to say Lady Lissiel: she'd been given the same honour, and she clearly loved it. Nerdanel gave her a matching smile, and together they climbed the vast white staircase and passed through the wide-open main doors of the royal palace.
The King's House was as magnificent inside as she'd expected; but Nerdanel had little time to appreciate its splendour. Some other time, maybe, she'd have been interested in exploring it with Lissiel. Her friend was an architects' daughter, after all, and when she was in the mood could point out all sorts of technical details about the construction that Nerdanel found fascinating. More fascinating than Lissiel did, truth be told - her friend had no desire to follow in her parents' footsteps, and rather thought she'd prefer a career working with people. Some kind of organisational or management job. Given how she'd motivated Nerdanel herself to come this evening - and for that matter, how she'd manoeuvred Arawendë into giving her the invitation - Nerdanel suspected that she might actually turn out to be very good at such a profession, at least once she was a little older and more confident about her own judgement.
For now, though, they had a party to attend. The room was full of people, all dressed in finery like a flock of exotic birds, and chattering like them too. The noise was overwhelming. There was music too, in the background. The two young women slipped through the crowd with some difficulty until they found the ballroom, where the dancefloor was currently empty. The band - no, orchestra: normal parties had bands, kings had something rather more splendid - was sitting there waiting its moment, but four of the musicians were playing some incidental music. This room, ironically, was actually a little quieter than the main hall, as the people gathered along the sides were listening to the music rather than conducting their own conversations.
Lissiel leaned over to whisper in Nerdanel's ear, "Do you think we ought to find King Finwë, or the Prince, to pay our respects?"
Nerdanel shrugged. Then concentrating very hard, she closed her eyes and formed an image of her friend in her mind. Then to the image she said, "We probably should, but I wouldn't know where to start looking."
Beside her, she felt Lissiel jerk in surprise. Then faint and scratchy, a response seemed to flicker through her thoughts. It said, as far as she could make out, "Ooh, look at you, you show-off" and there was a mental picture - faint and blurred, like watercolours in the rain - of Lissiel sticking out her tongue.
Nerdanel giggled. She opened her eyes again and looked around at Lissiel, who was standing with a deep scowl of concentration on her face as she struggled to transmit the image. Nerdanel took pity on her, and said in her mind, "Let's go outside", and transmitted a picture of a garden. Lissiel was keen to agree.
The wide balcony overlooking the private royal gardens was almost as crowded as inside, as people watched the Mingling of the Lights - but only almost. The two women made their way over to a free spot between two marble planters overflowing with roses, and Lissiel nudged Nerdanel with her elbow.
"You're getting really good at osanwë. I could hear you almost as sharply as if you were really talking to me!"
"Thanks. You weren't too bad yourself either. I got the picture, anyway. Complete with tongue."
Lissiel chuckled. "It'll be centuries before I'm as good at it as you already are. What's the secret? Is it just inborn talent, or is it all those private lessons you get from Lord Aulë and his Maiar? They use osanwë all the time, don't they?"
"When they're just making friendly conversation they use voices, but yes, for the in-depth teaching they generally switch to mindspeech. I've had a lot of practice. But Lissiel, they're not 'private' lessons. Lord Aulë welcomes anyone who wants to learn from him, you know that. He just tends to be a little, well, impatient with people who can't keep up, or who don't contribute their own ideas..."
"Which rules me out. I'm not good with my hands like you are, or your father is."
"That doesn't mean you're not talented. Maybe one of the other Valar will take you as a pupil; have you ever considered it?"
"Do you think they'd have me? I mean, I'm not really good at anything except talking to people."
"Which is a talent! Maybe Lord Irmo or Lady Nienna could teach you. Or even Lord Manwë—"
"Why not? You're good at organising people, and who better to help you get better at that than the Elder King himself?"
"Um." There was a thoughtful expression on Lissiel's face. "I'm sure he's far too busy. And it's not like I'm royal or even noble..."
"You won't know until you try." Nerdanel suddenly grinned. "And anyway, if you do marry Prince Fëanor you'll become royal enough for anybody!"
Lissiel laughed. "Yeah, right. Speaking of him, though, I still think we should try and track him down and say 'Thank you for inviting us'. Or maybe from what you said, it's Queen Indis we should be thanking?"
Nerdanel smiled wryly. "Yeah, that could be awkward. Going up to the Prince and saying, "Hey, hi there! Thanks for the invite!" and he replies, 'Uh, who are you? Guards! Intruders!' But maybe there'll be some kind of formal presentation later in the evening?"
"Maybe. I ought to ask Arawendë, she's sure to know the procedure. For that matter, I should probably track her down anyway, they were behind us in the queue outside but she'll be somewhere in the building by now."
"Um, right. Okay."
Lissiel gave her an understanding smile. "While I'm doing that, why don't you scout out the dining hall, see what sort of food they're going to give us? Or perhaps have a look in the palace galleries. No need for us both to go. I'll see you around later?"
"Yes! Okay." Nerdanel couldn't hide her relief at not having to face Arawendë again; but her conscience did make her add, "If you're sure?"
"Of course I'm sure. And don’t worry, it's not like we'll lose each other, the palace isn't that big." She started to walk off, then looked back and gave her friend a parting shot. "Just don't go marrying the Prince yourself or anything, before I get back!"
"Yeah, right. I don't think there's much danger of that," laughed Nerdanel.
Now she was alone, Nerdanel used the opportunity to have a poke around and satisfy her curiosity. The palace might well be small compared to, say, the Pastures of Yavanna or the beaches of the Bay of Eldamar - both of which she'd hiked around in her time - but it was still one of the largest Elf-built structures she'd ever seen, and full of intriguing nooks and corners.
Of course it was also full of people - probably at least a thousand guests, if she was any judge, not counting the regular staff and courtiers - and exploring meant weaving her way through gaps in the crowds. She recognised a few people; while this was hardly her usual social circle, her sculpture was starting to make a name for itself in Tirion, and several high-ranking households had already commissioned work from her despite her youth. She smiled, waved, nodded a greeting, but didn't stop to chat; she didn't like to interrupt.
She did try and keep a look out for her hosts - it would be easier, she thought, if the King and Queen were sitting on big thrones with their children around them, visible to all. But this was officially a 'family' occasion rather than a 'state' one, which meant that informality was the order of the day.
As if a household which employed several hundred servants and courtiers - many of them high-ranking nobles in their own right - could ever do anything 'informally'...
It was starting to feel rather oppressive, in fact. People everywhere, blocking the way, talking in too-loud voices. Hundreds of people she didn't know, talking about things she wasn't interested in. In fact, she had no real idea what she was supposed to be doing here. After some fruitless wandering, Nerdanel found herself standing next to a table laden with filled glasses of wine. At least she knew what to do with one of those.
It didn't calm her nerves as she'd hoped. She still felt out of place and unsettled... but now she needed the bathroom as well. She was fairly sure that was down to anxiety, not the single glass of wine she'd drunk, but hey. At least it gave her a (temporary) objective, and a destination to be going to instead of just wandering aimlessly.
Of course, a large, prominent sign pointing the way to the Ladies was too much to hope for in a royal palace. That would be frightfully gauche, my dears. Instead Nerdanel looked around until she spotted a discreet archway at the back of the room, with a few people emerging from it, and took a chance.
Five minutes later, as she wandered down a deserted corridor lined with firmly-closed doors, she reluctantly came to the conclusion she'd chosen wrongly. Her feet made no sound in the thick carpet, and the light from the lanterns glinted off gilded scrollwork on the walls. It was becoming increasingly clear to her that she wasn't supposed to be here.
Far in the distance, she heard the sound of trumpets, loud enough to penetrate even to this quiet and secluded passageway. Something must be happening! Well, she would just have to hope it would still be happening when she got back.
There was nobody in sight to ask for directions - and Nerdanel wondered nervously if that was a bad thing or a good thing. If she was trespassing, being caught might get her thrown out of the palace in disgrace. Maybe she should retrace her steps and start again?
She had turned left here before, hadn't she? Those steps didn't look familiar.
This corridor was definitely too long. And she didn't remember seeing that painting before.
A faint sound made her freeze in panic, and look around desperately for a place to hide. She was going to be caught, they'd drag her away in chains...
She took a deep breath. She could handle this. She'd faced down wild animals in the tangled forests, personally negotiated the sale of a three-metre tall marble statue of Justice to the Royal Law Court in Tirion, and she'd even asked Lord Mandos to pose for it, an act of courage that - had she but known it, which she didn't - made a nine-day sensation among the Valar themselves.
(Námo the Judge had consented to the use of his likeness; but rather than posing, he had impressed an image of himself in Nerdanel's mind so vividly that she could carve the statue entirely from memory. She could still recall the memory even now, years later. She wasn't entirely sure that was a blessing.)
Standing motionless, not even breathing, she heard the sound more clearly.,. Voices from behind one of the closed doors. She could walk away, they wouldn't know she was there...
Nerdanel took her courage in both hands, drew herself up to her full height, then walked over to the door and rapped her knuckles on the gilt woodwork, then pushed it open.
Inside, three off-duty servants were sat around a wooden table, their formal livery jackets slung over their chair-backs. They were playing cards. They glanced up in mild curiosity as she looked around the door.
"Uh, sorry. I'm looking for the Ladies?"
"You've got yourself a bit turned around, miss. Which one are they using for guests, again?"
"The White Room's probably the closest."
"Fair enough. Okay, go back to the stairwell, turn right past the tapestry of Cuiviénen, down to the end of the corridor, then left. Got that?"
"Yes, I think so. Thanks, um, sorry to disturb you. Thanks."
"No problem, miss."
Nerdanel closed the door again and staggered down the corridor in the indicated direction, feeling an overwhelming sensation of mingled relief, embarrassment and above all, anti-climax.
Following the route she'd been given, she found the turning where she'd gone wrong, and quickly found herself in front of yet another door - but this one had a discreet card propped next to it announcing its purpose in elegant hand-written calligraphy. Subtle, unobtrusive, and far to easy to overlook.
Afterwards, as Nerdanel made her way back into the main hall, she encountered a flow of other people coming in the opposite direction. Something important had obviously just finished. She had a fair idea what it probably was... she'd just missed her opportunity to be formally presented to her hosts, and the birthday boy. Oops. Oh well.
As she came back into the room, it seemed more crowded than ever. She negotiated the steps up to the balcony that ran the length of one wall, and fought her way through the throng to the edge. The balustrade was made from wrought metal - she studied it for a moment with professional interest, then leaned over and took in the panorama of the hall below her.
At first it seemed chaotic, without any structure; but as she looked with an artist's eye she began to make out the patterns. Clusters of people, in large groups and small groups. Flows of movement, feeding in from the doors that led to other rooms of the palace, flowing around and between the stationary people. Some of those fixed points were themselves in flux, as people attached themselves to the fringes of the larger crowds then fell away again, or groups split and merged.
One of the largest fixed points in the sea of movement shone golden in the lamplight, in sharp contrast to the darker colours around them. Nerdanel took a closer look, and nodded in recognition. A dozen tall blonde women standing in a group burned like a fruit of Laurelin on a blanket of dark-haired Noldor. Queen Indis and her ladies-in-waiting had arrived at the party, then. The ebb and flow around them would be partygoers paying their respects or saying a polite word to their hostess. It occurred to Nerdanel that she should probably join them - if it wasn't too late, and she'd missed her chance.
There was another flash of blond hair, closer, standing under one of the pillars of the balcony. If she moved that way a little, Nerdanel could hear what she was saying...
It was Arawendë, sure enough; Nerdanel recognised her voice. But the person she was talking to wasn't Vilyië - it was Lissiel. An excited and happy Lissiel, from the tone of her voice. Nerdanel felt an unexpected pang of jealousy.
Shamelessly, she eavesdropped on their conversation - then had to clap her hand over her mouth to hide a gasp of surprise. Lissiel had spoken to Prince Fëanor. Actually and for real. Personally, a one-to-one conversation. And he'd smiled at her. Lissiel was bubbling over with glee as she recounted the details to Arawendë.
Arawendë was making all the appropriate comments - "No! Really?" and "What did he say?" and "You're so lucky!" But perhaps because Nerdanel's ears were attuned to the subtleties - or perhaps, let's be fair here, because she cordially disliked Arawendë and was ready to believe the worst about her - she could detect a certain amount of gritted teeth about the Vanya woman's replies. A certain amount of seething, hateful jealousy.
Nerdanel suddenly felt very tired. She'd never really understood what Lissiel saw in Arawendë, but she'd been willing to accept that they were friends, that they enjoyed each other's company. But now? Now it seemed like it was all shallow, all based on nothing at all. It was depressing.
And apparently the Prince had arrived at the party, was circulating among the guests. Maybe she'd get a chance to speak to him herself. Maybe Arawendë would refuse to speak to her ever again if she did.
You know what they say about clouds and silver linings...
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