King Beldor, first lord of the house of Telcontar, ruler of the land of Gondor, was displeased. Not that it takes a lot to displease him, Ened reminded herself, stubbornly refusing to fidget under her grandfather’s glare. Still, it’s not pleasant either. She reflected gloomily that she would rather be back in the carriage listening to Jeniniel rant than enduring Beldor’s anger. At least he wasn’t sitting on the throne at the top of the dais – that ancient artifact would probably crumble into dust if anyone so much as laid a finger on it.
From the chair at the foot of the steps in the throne room, Beldor said, “Lady Ened, I am most seriously displeased by your actions.”
Oh, for the love of Elves, don’t go into a formal rebuke! Those take too long, and I didn’t get enough sleep last night.
Of course, it was a formal rebuke. “Your actions have brought disgrace on the house of Telcontar, and your lack of repentance has increased that.”
Therefore, Ened recited in her head, I, Beldor, first lord of the house of Telcontar, and by the grace of the Elves King of Gondor, lay you, Ened, fifth lady of the house of Telcontar, under prohibition…
“Therefore I, Beldor, first lord of the house of Telcontar, and by the grace of the Elves King of Gondor, lay you, Ened, fifth lady of the house of Telcontar, under prohibition. No member of your house shall speak to you for nine days, and you will remain on the Seventh level of the city for those nine days. Perhaps when your prohibition is over, the disgrace to which you have subjected the house of Telcontar will have alleviated somewhat.” He lowered the scepter majestically. “So it is spoken. So let it be.”
Under the prohibition he himself had just put her under, he couldn’t tell her to go. Ened knew what he couldn’t say, but she wasn’t feeling very charitable or compliant at the moment. I know, I know, it’s stupidly petty – but at least I’ll feel like I did something to him!” She didn’t move from where she stood before Beldor, staring fixedly at him until he waved his hand in disgust. One of the attendants came up to her, bowed in a terribly servile manner, and said, “You are dismissed, Lady Ened.”
“Oh, fun,” Ened grumbled sourly, stalking through the palace to get to her rooms. “Fun, fun, fun. I love being under prohibition.” Although, all things considered, it might be for the best. At least now she wouldn’t have to put up with snide comments from the Telcontars about their Ened-induced disgrace…although the Ondohers, Jeniniel’s family, weren’t included in the prohibition. She would have to do something about that. The last thing she wanted was Irwath Ondoher, the unbearable daughter of Jeniniel’s obnoxious sister, to come and mock her. Irwath, of course, had graduated from the Institute with full honors, and her sixteenth-birthday escape was still being whispered about in the dormitories.
Asca was putting Ened’s things away when Ened barged into her bedroom, giving the door a most unladylike slam. Asca jumped in surprise and dropped Ened’s cloak on the floor. It connected with a faint metallic clang, and with a shock Ened remembered the glinting something she’d scooped up just before Bren caught her. She dived to the floor and grabbed up the cloak, quickly feeling through the pockets. It was there, all right – same small, hard object she’d fidgeted with all through the interview with Sir Willin. “My lady!” gasped Asca, clearly shocked at her behavior.
Ened herself didn’t quite know why she had gone after the thing so eagerly, or why she’d even picked it up. “You can go, Asca,” she said irritably, flapping a careless hand at her maid, and Asca retreated with one last reproachful glance that Ened ignored.
As soon as the door closed behind her maid, she plunged her hand into the cloak pocket and pulled out the thing. The sunlight came in through her windows and sparked on a small silver ring.
This is…interesting, Ened thought, turning it over and over in her fingers. The band was perfectly flat – not hammered flat, it just was flat, and the circle it made was, as far as she could see, geometrically ideal. She slipped it on the ring finger of her right hand on impulse. It fit perfectly.
I wonder what it was doing on the ground, she thought. Probably just fell out of someone’s pocket. She slid the ring off her finger somewhat unwillingly and hunted around in her jewel box until she found a scrap of soft leather. Ened wrapped the ring in it and stowed it securely away in the middle drawer of her jewel box. It would be safest there if anyone happened to look through her jewels. Everyone opens the top first, then goes to the bottom drawer, and looks last in the middle. She didn’t bother to realize that since no one knew of the ring’s existence, no one would look for it.
Once the ring was off her finger, she felt suddenly exhausted. Oh, well, I knew I needed sleep anyway. Ened curled up on her bed, not even bothering to put on a nightgown, and tugged the thick blankets up over her shoulders. She fell asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow.
In what seemed like much too short a time, Ened woke up to someone shaking her none too gently. She started up groggily and demanded, “What?”
Her bleary eyes detected Jeniniel’s face hovering over hers. Lovely. Ened buried her head under her pillow.
Ruthless Jeniniel yanked the pillow off her head. Ened braced herself for the approaching diatribe – and then remembered with exhilaration that Jeniniel couldn’t talk to her! She was safe! Ened shaded her eyes with her hand and smiled gloatingly up at her mother. “Yes?” she asked in as pleasant a manner as she could manage, having been awake only a minute.
Jeniniel nodded toward the doorway. Ened sat up, and then fell back down again with a groan. Ilrhys Ondoher, her maternal grandmother, Nilhis, her younger daughter, and Irwath all stood in the doorway. “Mother, I’m sick,” Ened said flatly.
She could see what it cost Jeniniel not to snap back a stinging rebuke, and she took a perverse pleasure in it. Instead Jeniniel addressed her family. “She will see you now,” she said, threw a don’t-cause-any-more-trouble-and-I-mean-it look at Ened, and left. The Ondohers came closer to Ened’s bed. Irwath was casting covetous looks at Ened’s jewel box, and Ened threw her a warning glare.
“You’re not really sick, are you?” asked Nilhis anxiously. “Irwath’s going to meet her betrothed tonight, and she really mustn’t have a red nose or a cough -“
“How true,” Ened said pleasantly. “Irwath needs all the help she can get in that area.” The not-entirely-true remark earned her a stinging glare from her cousin, but it was worth it – she never got in as many good lines on Irwath as she wanted to, mainly because of familial disapproval. As long as she was in trouble already, why not reap the rewards of that along with the punishment? “So who is the lucky balrog?” she asked, deliberately using Level slang for “unfortunate man” that Nethinn had brought back from her disastrous sneaking out.
Irwath, who had sneaked out of the Institute only two years ago, knew very well what that word meant. Ened ignored the glare this time, and left her aunt and grandmother to wrinkle their noses at the uncouth word. “Duephel Targaer,” said Ilrhys at last.
Contrary to her family’s beliefs, Ened had studied the genealogy of Minas Tirith very closely. The Targaers were not nearly as old as the Telcontars, of course, and had risen to prominence in the 10th Age as merchants, purveyors of exotic goods from the South. The Telcontars, who had just reclaimed the throne after losing it in the 8th Age, were eager to cement their rule, and signed a historic treaty with the southrons – actually, they preferred the archaic name of Haradrim – with the Targaers as mediators and go-betweens, since they were the house that knew the South best. Since then they had maintained a monopoly on southron goods, and had grown rich off them. Duephel was the fourth lord of the house of Targaer, the eldest son of the patriarch’s eldest son, and directly in line to inherit overlordship of the Targaers, their wealth, and their prestige – and the house would gain immensely by allying itself with the Ondohers, a house tied by marriage to the ruling house of Gondor. He was a suitable match for the daughter of an upper house of Minas Tirith like Irwath Ondoher. No wonder Nilhis was so anxious. “Not to worry,” Ened said airily, “I’m not really sick, not yet. Though I make no promises about my health if you stay very long.”
It was the shortest visit she could ever remember the Ondohers making.