2. Chapter Two
As I lead my motley gang through the maze of streets, I become aware of a silent presence at my elbow. I turn my head to discover Legolas matching my steps. He glances back at the chattering knot of hobbits and dwarf, and awards me a quizzical look.
"Is this wise? I would hate to see you placed in difficulties with Lady Eowyn because of a hobbit's gossipy tongue."
"Oh, there will be no problem, since I have no plans to avail myself of any woman's company tonight, and hobbits are too honest to invent a false tale. This is for everyone else's benefit, not my own."
"Nor mine, I fear," says Legolas with a slight smile, "for I cannot imagine coupling with one not of elven kind, or paying the lady for such a dubious service. I merely intend to observe, though it may make for dull entertainment."
"Not at all, because there is much to do regardless. The mistress of the house, Melime, prides herself on keeping one of the best tables in the city, so many go there to dine and drink only, or listen to the musicians she employs. And she is fond of good conversation as well, and hires her girls for wit as much as beauty. You may be surprised at the amusement to be had outside the bedchamber." I give him a sly smile. "But if that is not enough, there are places within the house where you can go and watch, hmm, other patrons' mating customs if you want . . ."
Legolas looks back at Gimli and the hobbits and visibly blanches while he rolls his eyes. "Thank you very much for branding my mind with visions it will take an eternity to lose," he snaps.
"You are welcome, my friend," I grin. It is a rare occurrence, denting that elven impassiveness, and I suspect this evening will present me with more chances to do so. Before I can launch another shot, however, Pippin's voice calls out behind me.
"Are we there yet, Faramir?"
"Almost," I reply. "It's just around the corner right ahead." I lengthen my stride as we approach our destination, suddenly wondering if both house and ladies survived the siege intact, flinching away from the thought of Melime alone, or dead . . .
We round the corner, and I sigh in relief. There stands the House of Crimson Joys, tall and thick-walled, with only the discreet red lantern shining over the door to distinguish it from its prosperous neighbors that shelter merchants and craftsmen. Chunks of missing plaster mar the white surface, but no other damage is obvious. "There," I say, pointing at it.
Everyone stares in surprise, clearly taken aback by its unassuming appearance. "That?" says Merry. "Why, it looks like an ordinary house, nothing special at all."
"But of course," I laugh. "Do you think the mistress wants to draw attention to herself? Here are folk who might complain if she flaunted her trade openly, and her customers demand discretion too. Far better to save any wealth for inside, and avoid giving offence even if she breaks no law."
"You speak as if you know Mistress Melime very well," says Legolas curiously.
I nod, memories returning swiftly, but I shake them off. "Come," I say. I lead them to the studded oak door and pull the bell rope hanging next to it. I hear muffled noises within, then footsteps. The door swings back to reveal Altallo, Melime's man-of-all-work, holding himself straight despite how grey his hair now is. He blinks in disbelief before smiling widely.
"My Lord Faramir! Long has it been since you last darkened our steps! What brings you here this evening?"
"The desire to entertain my dear friends with the very best in Minas Tirith," I reply with a flourish. "May we enter?"
"But of course, how foolish of me, forgive an old man . . ." We file into the hall, the hobbits trying not to stare at everything while Gimli strokes his beard warily and Legolas' face becomes a smooth mask. Altallo bars the door before giving us all a deep bow.
"Welcome, masters! Any friends of the Lord Steward are our most honoured guests, and shall receive the finest hospitality the House of Crimson Joys can offer you. Please follow me, if you will."
He leads us down the hall to a pair of carved wooden doors, which he throws open upon the house's main parlour. "Please make yourselves comfortable while I fetch food and drink from the kitchen and inform Mistress Melime of your arrival." Another bone-cracking bow, and he vanishes in the direction of the stairs.
The room we find ourselves in is elegantly furnished, with carved wood furniture gleaming in the firelight and fresh flowers sweetly perfuming the air. But I can see that the tapestries' colours have dimmed, and there are a few worn patches on the carpets beneath the chairs and tables. The others, particularly the hobbits, see only the luxury, not the scars of war, for which I am unexpectedly grateful.
"This is quite nice, Faramir," Frodo says as he turns round. "Not at all what I was picturing. You weren't lying when you said the mistress of the house had good taste."
"Most certainly she does," agrees Legolas. The elf folds himself into a chair with his usual ease while Gimli climbs onto a nearby settle with some difficultly.
I motion for the hobbits to sit down. Merry and Pippin scramble up into the depths of a well-cushioned bench next to the fire, their eyes fixed on the doors with barely veiled anticipation. Frodo sits down slowly on the opposite bench from his cousins, still admiring his surroundings. But Sam remains planted before the fire, pure panic etched on his plump face.
"This place is far too fine for the likes of me, Mister Faramir," he mutters. "I really should go back–"
"No, Sam," I tell him firmly. I pick him up and plunk him down beside Frodo. "You are as worthy of comforts as any in Middle-earth." He continues to appear totally discomforted, so I add, "Besides, you like the company of a pretty woman as much as anyone, yes? What is there to be nervous about here?"
"Nothing whatsoever, little master. Have no fear, for the only rule of my house is pleasure." The woman's voice is rich, musical, and full of laughter. I pivot around and smile at the figure standing in the doorway.
"Melime! It has been too long since I have seen you."
"Indeed, my Lord Steward, but that is perfectly understandable." She steps forward and I take her hands in mine as I study her afresh. Except for a few more curves and some silver hairs among her black tresses, she looks unchanged, her beauty still sparkling like a dark diamond, shown off perfectly by her black silk gown dusted with silver embroidery. She leans forward and offers me a kiss of greeting; as her lips brush mine, the memories of my first night here come bubbling up . . .
It was my sixteenth birthday when Boromir dragged me here, scandalized that I was a virgin and swearing that it would not be his fault if I remained one by the end of the evening. He insisted on paying for the night's entertainment, clapping me on the back and declaring it the finest present he could give me. On his command, Melime summoned all of her ladies for me to make my choice. My natural shyness only worsened as I struggled to choose among the beautiful, and experienced, girls, frightened of the act to follow and how I might perform; convinced I would fail and be laughed at to my shame. Finally, I turned to Melime, drawn to her warmth and sensuality despite the fact she was older than any of her charges, and murmured, "If you would so honour me, Mistress?"
"What, the chief mistress?" Boromir exclaimed. "You are surprising, little brother."
Melime gave me a smile to heat the blood and took my hand, ignoring Boromir's jibe. "I would be honoured, my dear lord. Now come with me . . ." She led me to her bedchamber, and there I learned just how splendid a part of life sexual pleasure truly was, a lesson I never forgot. Nor did I forget my first teacher; no matter whose beds I sampled later, it was Melime's bed I returned to most often, even after she had officially retired.
Melime's eyes shine brightly, and I realize she too is remembering. "You are looking well, my lord. You have recovered now?"
"I have, thank you, and am very glad you too are well after the siege." I clear my throat. "Please, let me introduce you to my friends, all members of the great Fellowship of which you have heard." I begin to lead her around the circle of curious faces; her curtsey to each of them is deep and poised.
"Legolas Greenleaf, of Mirkwood." Legolas' bow is cool but respectful, with the politeness that is second nature to elves. His eyes survey Melime closely, as he tries to take the measure of a woman so different from any he has met before.
"Gimli, son of Gloin." He climbs to his feet clumsily, yet the way he takes Melime's hand and kisses it would do justice to the most mannerly of knights. She lets her hand stroke his beard swiftly, and he blushes a brilliant scarlet.
I fight not to laugh at the dwarf's discomfiture, and guide Melime to where the four hobbits stand and stare. Only Sam, his mouth open, seems embarrassed; the other three boldly show their appreciation of her beauty as they look up into her face or, in Pippin's case, into her creamy breasts.
"And these are the valiant hobbits of the Shire, most gallant of those who fought the Dark Lord. This is Meriadoc Brandybuck, heir of the Master of Buckland and knight of Rohan, and his cousin Peregrin Took, heir to the Shire's Thain and squire of Gondor. Samwise Gamgee is the faithful companion of the Ringbearer, and here," I place my hand on Frodo's shoulder, "is the Ringbearer himself, Frodo Baggins, of whom I need not speak, for I am sure you know of his magnificent bravery." I can feel Frodo bridle a little under my hand; he hates what he views as excessive praise.
"Indeed I do, for all Minas Tirith echoes with his name and that of his valiant kin and friends. Accept this kiss of peace as a small token of my respect." Melime bends over and drops a soft kiss on each hobbit's cheek. Sam looks like he might flee, Frodo and Merry both appear startled, but Pippin clearly wants more; he tries to return Melime's salute with a full kiss on the mouth, but she pulls away gracefully with a low chuckle and shakes her head.
"Not yet, my dear Master Took, we have other appetites to satisfy first." Even as she speaks, Altallo reappears at the door leading three other servants, all bearing trays laden with food and wine. The hobbits' eyes light up eagerly, and I finally burst into open laughter.
"Food really is your chief pleasure in life, isn't it?" I grin as four abashed hobbit faces turn towards me. "All of you ate enough earlier to carry you for several days, yet here you are, ready to eat again!"
"Of course we are," Merry says with dignity. "We never know when we might be back on short rations, after all."
"And we wouldn't wish to insult a beautiful lady's generosity either," adds Frodo, as he gives Melime a little bow.
"How kind of you to say so, my dear little master! Now please sit and refresh yourselves."
We all sit once more around the fire and begin to partake of the refreshments crowding the low table. I pour wine for myself and Legolas while Frodo's attention is drawn to a silver bowl full of fruit.
"Strawberries out of season? You are a miracle worker!" he says admiringly to Melime.
"But what's this dark stuff next to them, Miss Melime?" asks Sam. He touches the surface with a fingertip and carefully lifts it to his lips. His eyes widen in amazement as the taste registers with him.
"Ah, you have never seen chocolate? I am not surprised, for it comes from the distant forests on the Umbar coast, and even here in Gondor it is not common. Here, eat it as it was meant to be eaten . . ." Melime dips two strawberries in the chocolate and hands them to Frodo and Merry. As they exclaim over the rich sweetness, she reaches for another berry, but before she can drop it into the dark pool, Pippin catches her hand.
"May I taste it from the tip of your lovely finger, Mistress?" She nods, amused, and Pippin carefully dips her index finger and then places it between his lips, slowly drawing it out. The ardent look he gives her no longer amuses me; I stir in irritation, feeling a faint prickling of possessiveness I did not expect.
"Saucy little rascal," I mutter under my breath. Despite my low voice, Legolas hears me and whispers back, "That is an understatement."
The next hour passes pleasantly enough, however, for the hobbits quickly concentrate on eating and Melime artfully steers the conversation to include everyone. I admire afresh her evergreen skills as a hostess, for under her prompting, Sam ceases to stammer and even Legolas thaws sufficiently to speak of a great spider hunt in Mirkwood he organized.
At the end of Legolas' tale, a lull descends upon us. Melime glances around our group as her eyes sparkle. "Well," she says, "I think it is time to present the other residents of my house." She steps over to a long bell rope and pulls it six times. She returns to her chair beside me, and murmurs, "Did I guess right that the recently betrothed Lord Steward does not wish to indulge tonight?"
"Right you are, and thank you for your tact . . ." I squeeze her hand where it rests on my sleeve, but before I can speak further, the double doors are thrown open again and Melime's girls slip in, as sinuous as cats on the prowl. They form a half-circle behind Frodo and Sam; Melime crosses over to them and begins to make the formal introductions.
"Lotiel has been here the longest, and is from Dol Amroth." She is tall and slim, and could be my kin with her raven hair and dark grey eyes; clearly older than the rest, she remains very lovely, even with a touch of sadness in her face. She gives us all a smile of exceptional sweetness before sitting beside Frodo in a swirl of amethyst silk.
"Ettelie sings very finely and plays the harp." I note that her ripe curves are showing to great advantage in an extremely low-cut blue gown. She is pretty, rather than beautiful, but her uptilted nose and dark curls suggest a lively time will be had with her. After her deep curtsey, which gives us all a clear view of her physical charms, she makes a beeline for Merry and Pippin and plants herself between them. From their expressions, a sharp competition will be in the offing.
"Vandiel can tell your fortune, if you wish." This one is short and plump, but with an exquisite face topped by a mane of auburn hair and lit by vivid green eyes. She grins at us and saunters over to join Ettelie, Merry, and Pippin. By now, Pippin's face is a study in pure bliss, while Merry looks like a tomcat ready to pounce.
"Nyerelle enjoys baking, and prepared some of the sweets you have eaten." Tiny, with a flawless figure and a long brown braid, she hardly appears that domestic. As her hazel eyes survey us thoughtfully, a small voice pipes up.
"Please, Miss Nyerelle, won't you join me? I love to cook, too, you see, so we can talk about that."
She laughs happily and runs her fingers playfully through Sam's hair as she sits beside him. "Gladly, little master, for I rarely have that pleasure." Sam blushes as Frodo stares at him with surprise.
"You are getting the knack of it now, aren't you, Sam?" Frodo asks.
"He learned it from me, you know," Pippin chimes in smugly. I see another verbal skirmish brewing and gesture for silence.
"Please, do let our kind hostess continue."
"Thank you." Melime turns to the youngest women there. "This is Ailin, and she has joined us very recently—only two months ago, in fact." I feel a pang as I gaze at her, for she is the shadow of Eowyn. Long blond locks flow down her back, while her blue eyes dominate her face. She seems both eager and anxious as she tries to decide where she to sit. She hesitantly perches on the settle next to Gimli, who takes her hand and kisses it; her eyes widen in surprise.
"I did not know your kind were so very gallant, Master Dwarf!"
Gimli practically grows several inches as he straightens up in his seat. "Oh, yes, we are, my dear Mistress Ailin . . ."
"The beginning of a splendid friendship, I see." Legolas' low tone sounds more than a little disbelieving. I smother another laugh as Melime eases the last woman over to us.
"Ravenne is a graceful dancer who will perform for us later." She has a carved perfection of face that is startling, with no feature out of place. She kneels down before Legolas and I and comes back up with a suppleness that shows her dance training. Melime whispers in her ear, and she immediately pulls up a chair and joins Legolas, her black hair brushing his shoulder. He, as ever, is nonplussed but polite.
Melime claps her hands. As the servants bustle in with more wine and ale, she smiles seductively. "There you are, my dear gentlemen, all the flowers of my household. Let us drink and get to know one another better, shall we?"
As the wine begins to flow and chatter rises on all sides, Legolas leans over and hisses, "This is going to be an interesting evening, is it not?"
"Oh, yes," I reply weakly, as I watch Pippin slide one hand over Ettelie's thigh as his other hand strays towards Vandiel's breasts. "That too is quite an understatement, my friend, don't you think?"