“I’m very upset, Gaya,” Ened said, addressing one of her dolls from childhood that sat at the foot of her bed, looking at her with unblinking blue eyes. Ened had named her “Fear” in ancient Elvish, precisely because she was the blandest doll she had ever owned. “And do you know why?”
Gaya stared dully back at her.
“Because tomorrow my prohibition ends, and all my family can come and yell at me. Actually, they’re too well-bred to yell. They’ll just talk at me, very disapprovingly, and I’ll have to sit through it all.” Gaya’s blank stare hadn’t changed, of course, and with a sigh Ened abandoned her attempt to complain – it made her sound like a five-year-old anyway – and flopped down on her bed. The motion made Gaya fall over at the waist, and Ened had to laugh – the doll was neatly displaying her white knickers while oriented perfectly toward a window.
She didn’t really feel like setting up all her dolls to show off their undergarments, and after her behavior toward the Ondohers, she hadn’t even been allowed to leave her rooms. Asca stood guard at the bedroom door, and the only one of her rooms not guarded was the bathroom. At least they left me some privacy, Ened thought irritably.
So there was really only one thing she wanted to do. She reached under her bed and lifted her jewel box onto her covers, pulling out the leather-wrapped ring and tossing the wrapping back into the drawer. The ring hadn’t lost any of its luster, even though she’d made a point of taking it out every day for nine days – it still shone a perfect silver. She put it on and admired the smooth flat silver circle on her finger.
But even her ring couldn’t dispel Ened’s black mood. Tomorrow she would be subjected to the anger of the Telcontars, and probably they would call into question her right to succeed after Beldor and Madron, and Elves help us, they might even propose that her aunt Malara’s son Naur should be the next ruler of Gondor instead of her! Not that Ened was eager to become the queen, but even she would be better than Naur, whose greatest pleasure was setting a bear and a lion to fighting and wagering on which one would die first. “He’ll grow out of it,” Malara always said. Since Naur was twenty-three, Ened rather doubted it.
So this was sort of her last day of freedom, and Ened felt suddenly reckless. Why not see if she could slip past her guards and actually see something other than her suite of rooms? After all, if they catch me they’ll just lay me under prohibition again, and that wouldn’t be too bad.
She rapped on the door, knowing Asca was just waiting there in case she tried to get out. “I’m going to the bathroom!” Ened yelled, to make sure the words got through the door. She thought she heard Asca gasp in horror at her mistress’ coarseness, but she shrugged it off and headed for the bathroom. She’d told Asca the truth, after all, she reflected mischievously – just not the whole truth. She was indeed going to the bathroom, she just didn’t plan on staying there.
Because all of Ened’s rooms were situated in particularly scenic spots of Minas Tirith, she had begged and pleaded for windows in all of them, even the bathroom. Jeniniel had only given in on that one when Ened allowed her to install heavy brocaded curtains that allowed not one shadow to be visible from outside. They also made the bathroom horribly stuffy in summer. Ened took special pleasure in pulling them aside now and opening the window. I wish Grandfather hadn’t put in glass, she thought. It makes sneaking out so much harder. Luckily, the bathroom window was only a five-foot drop to the street below, and there was only a little jar as she landed – and there she was, Ened, fifth lady of the house of Telcontar, out on the streets of Minas Tirith. Admittedly, it was still the Seventh level, but maybe she could get down to the Fifth before they realized she was gone. See, I am sneaking out, just a little late.
She set off at a fast pace. Ened had learned from the girls at the Institute that if you walked like you knew where you were going, people would be less likely to stop you. She wished she’d thought to change into something less conspicuously Seventh-level, but there was no help for it now. Ened clenched her fist instead of squealing aloud at the ease of her escape, which was what she really wanted to do, and found that she’d never taken off the silver ring. That helped, somehow.
The gate of the Seventh level loomed before her. This was it. She wasn’t allowed to leave her rooms, and here she was, about to descend into another level altogether! Ened swallowed her excitement and walked up to the gate.
A guard in a perfectly clean blue uniform with the White Tree embroidered over his breast barred her way with his spear. “Password?” he asked lazily.
“The Tree blooms,” Ened said carelessly, and he stepped aside and let her pass.
She couldn’t resist one little squeal at her success as she set foot again in the Sixth level.
The Institute was on this level, and she knew it pretty well from class trips. Ened made for the marketplace, thinking to browse and make herself less conspicuous before she headed on to the Sixth-level gate. After all, people remember someone who moves directly through level after level – they don’t even register faces in the crowd.
But, as Ened had glossed over in her mind, the Institute was on the Sixth level.
She made it as far as the jewelry stall, tucking the hand with the silver ring into her pocket, before she heard a voice cry behind her, “Ened!”
She whirled around, and there, of all the Elf-cursed bad luck, was Nethinn, wandering around with her maidservant. And of course she’d recognized Ened. She’s probably going to get a medal from my family for turning me in, Ened thought wildly in the space of a second. The Order of the Tree to Nethinn Erkal, for being a snitch.
There was no time to waste. Nethinn’s cry had drawn the attention of practically the whole marketplace, and a few guards were coming toward her. Ened glanced around hastily. The gate to the Fifth level was somewhere down the alley to her right, she guessed.
Ened snatched up her skirts, balling her fist tighter to keep her ring on, and dashed away down the alley.
The people were so surprised that they stepped away and gave her a clear path – although she did help them do that by barreling toward them with her head down and shrieking, “Get out of my way!” She raced down the alley, her heart pounding and her throat burning, taking crazy turns to shake the pursuit she heard dashing after her and coming close. Once she stumbled, tripped over a loose stone, and fell, scraping her knee and tearing a hole in her fine dress. She yelped in pain, bit her lip, and scrambled to her feet to keep running.
This is not the way to the gate, she told herself, and fought down the panic that rose within her. She was going to be caught, and taken back to the palace, and then…her family’s wrath didn’t even bear thinking about. It would be humiliating to be dragged in front of them like some thief caught filching a few bracelets. That would be the real disgrace for her.
Up ahead of her, a small man stepped out of a house overlooking the street and started across, blissfully unaware of Ened careening toward him. She yelled, “Look out!” and he looked up in surprise and didn’t move. Ened screeched to a halt in front of him. The guards chasing her were not too far behind…and this man knew absolutely nothing about her or her problems.
She didn’t think – if she had, she would have rejected the plan as idiotic. Instead Ened grabbed the man and gasped, “Please – can you hide me? Fast?”
He might not have moved when she yelled at him, but he did then. “All right,” he said, took her by the arm, and pulled her back across the street into his house, shutting the door. Ened sank, winded, against the wall and listened. Sure enough, the guards clattered by the house and went on, not thinking twice about searching when their quarry, as far as they knew, would have had no time to hide inside a house. Ened let out her breath in relief.
The small man opened the door and looked out. “No one’s there,” he said, and turned back to her. “Now, missy, you owe me a few answers.”
“I do?” she panted, still trying to get her breath back.
“You do,” he said firmly. “Who are you, for starters?”
She closed her eyes to ease the pounding in her head and swallowed to get rid of the burn in her chest. Both things helped, a little. “Ened,” she said.”
“Yes?” he prompted, when she offered nothing more. “Ened who? You must have a last name, and your family must be well off for guards to be chasing you and that dress to be on you. That is silk from Harad, isn’t it?”
Ened had no idea where the silk for her gown came from, so she just nodded. “Ened Telcontar,” she said.
She was grateful that he didn’t stare at her in disbelief, or worse, call the guards back. “Ened Telcontar,” was all he said, musingly. “Huh. Well, it’s not every day a humble citizen can assist royalty. I consider myself special now. Thank you, Lady Ened.”
“Oh. You’re welcome, I suppose,” she said, a bit nonplussed. This was the strangest person she’d ever met. “What’s your name, anyway? What do you do?”
“You first,” he said resolutely.
She rolled her eyes. “Please. I’m a Telcontar – I don’t do anything.”
“You’re not just a Telcontar,” he pointed out. “You’re the Telcontar third in line for the throne.”
“Fat chance after what I just pulled,” she corrected.
He grinned. “Ah. And what did you `just pull’?”
“Can I sit down?” Ened asked.
“Please,” said the small man, motioning toward a few chairs. Ened sank gratefully into the puffiest one. “So what did you do to have the guards chasing you?”
“I sneaked out of the palace while I was under prohibition,” she said. She didn’t have to explain what prohibition was to him – he lived on the Sixth level with most of the nobility, who all used prohibition to discipline family members – he would surely know what it was. “And then I ran into a former classmate of mine,” she went on, “who is truly vile, and she let them know I was here.” She sighed heavily. “If she hadn’t, I might have made it into the Fifth level, or even the Fourth.”
To her surprise, the small man started to chuckle. “Well, here’s something that I don’t think Gondor has seen since the days of Elessar!” he laughed. “A Telcontar who wants to have adventures…I didn’t think they existed anymore.”
“Who’s Elessar?” Ened asked impatiently.
The small man’s eyebrows shot up. “You don’t know who Elessar is?” he demanded. “He was only the founder of your family, missy, the first Gondorian king in the Fourth Age -“
“I’m not good with ancient history,” she said, peeved at his tone. “And you haven’t answered my questions.”
“Very true,” he conceded. “Well, I am the chief librarian here in Minas Tirith, and my name is Oronin Arbeth. At the moment, I have as staff five full-time librarians, seven assistant librarians, and twelve apprentice librarians, about three of whom will actually become real librarians.” He sat down himself and looked beadily at her. “And I’ve just reached a decision,” he said, sitting up, “because I have before me a Telcontar who wants adventure, but knows very little about her own house’s history.”
“That’s not true!” she said indignantly. “I know about King Ardu’s treaty with the southrons, and about the War of the White Tree in the 7th Age -“
“And the War of the Ring in the 3rd Age?” Oronin asked. “That is rather important for your house.”
“That’s ancient history,” Ened shot back. “No one knows what really happened then.”
Oronin laughed, “Now that is where the modern Telcontar mind surfaces in you. Your family today is much too stubborn, too dependent on physical proof, with no capability to conceive of the magical. For instance, what would you say if I told you that in the library, we had a book written at the start of the 4th Age that told the story of the War of the Ring, written by someone who took a very active part in it?”
Ened was about to say that that was impossible, 4th Age documents were ridiculously brittle and unreadable, when she caught the knowing look in Oronin’s eyes. He was waiting to prove her wrong, to gloat over her, and by the Elves, she wasn’t going to give anyone the satisfaction of doing that! “I would say that it sounds interesting, and that I’d like to see it,” she lied.
Oronin got to his feet. “All right,” he said companionably. “As I was saying, any Telcontar should be well acquainted with his or her family’s history, and I would like to take you to the library and show you some documents that might help you with that – as long as you aren’t giving a very nice lie about how interested you are in it.”
To her surprise, Ened found that she wasn’t. Oronin seemed perfectly sincere, and the idea of actually seeing, of really touching a book from the 4th Age was interesting. “I’m not lying,” she said, truthfully this time.
“Excellent!” said Oronin, his eyes twinkling happily. “Come along, then. I’ll say you’re an apprentice librarian if we run into trouble.” He went to the door and opened it, locking it once they were both out of the house, and led the way down the street to the library of Minas Tirith.