1. An Immodest Proposal
Chapter One: An Immodest Proposal
"But at my back I always hear
Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity."
Andrew Marvell, 'To His Coy Mistress'
"In the name of Manwe's mighty winds! What, Aragorn, is that?"
Legolas Thranduilion had been known by several names and descriptions throughout his immortal life -- Prince of Mirkwood, later Eryn Lasgalen, Legolas of the Nine Walkers, Elven-lord of Ithilien -- but the one dearest to him was Legolas, friend, boon companion, and frequent guest of Elessar Telcontar, King of Gondor. This last, he was now, and perhaps the abundance of wine at the king's table, always the best, had caused him to speak with greater than usual candor.
"That, my old friend, is Master Barlomi, who has lately come to my court. Barlomi is . . . an entertainer."
Legolas turned to his left and raised an eyebrow at the strained tone in Aragorn's voice. It was not like his old friend to beat around the bush in such a way. From Aragorn's other side, Legolas heard Arwen give an audible sniff. Although it was winter in Minas Tirith, the great dining hall of the king was toasty warm from the assembled bodies and from fires that burned in the hearths at either end of the vast chamber. Yet, Legolas had felt a definite chill emanating from the queen's side of the table all evening. He had thought perhaps that the Lady Undomiel's displeasure arose from the fact that table manners in Minas Tirith were not quite up to Rivendell standards. As he looked across the table, Legolas could see Beregond picking his teeth with his knife, another courtier was wiping his nose on his sleeve, and earlier in the evening one of the captains from Cair Andros had actually hoisted up one side of his body to scratch his left buttock. This was nothing new to Legolas, who had been a frequent visitor to Laketown and Dale, but he could well understand how such things might be annoying to an elf-woman unused to the more relaxed deportment of Mannish society. He realized that his own blasphemous outburst had probably not helped matters either.
"I could tell he is an entertainer, Aragorn, by the musical instrument he carried. What is that, some kind of lute? And he plays it well. But he seems to be dressed rather . . . provocatively."
Provocatively was an understatement. The young man in question wore skin tight breeches, which would not have been all that remarkable, as Legolas himself was wearing tight breeches, but these breeches were not covered below the waist by any sort of tunic or robe. A light silk shirt was tucked into the trousers, and that shirt lay open to mid chest. As Legolas watched, the young man cast a coquettish glance at one of Aragorn's councilors.
"What is more, Aragorn, he seems to have painted his face."
"Barlomi is from Harad," Aragorn replied evenly. "It is the custom there to wear kohl around the eyes."
"I was referring, Aragorn, to the fact that he has colored his lips. And that he is flirting with your minister."
Aragorn sighed. "Not here, Legolas, not now. Barlomi is the reason I invited you to spend the Yule with us here at Minas Tirith. But we will speak of that later."
The meal had ended. Aragorn rose and bowed to the assembled nobles. Arwen took his arm -- very gingerly, Legolas noticed -- and the three of them proceeded from the hall. Behind them, the music of Barlomi's lute began anew.
"Legolas, will you take a walk in the garden with me?" Aragorn said. "I would like to discuss something with you. My dear, will you give us leave?"
Arwen nodded curtly and swept off up the great stairway. Legolas raised an eyebrow as he watched her depart. "Is the honey-time over, my friend?"
Aragorn shook his head. "It is not that."
"Ah, well," Legolas said. "Women often become strangely moody when they are with child, or so my father tells me. I would know nothing of that myself, of course."
"It is not that either," Aragorn said. "Come, Legolas. Take the air with me."
Gondor in the winter had almost no snow, just an endless rainy season, or so it seemed to Legolas. The grey skies and wet weather were enough to lower the spirits of even such merry folk as the elves. Legolas sighed. At home in Mirkwood -- no, Eryn Lasgalen, he reminded himself -- the snow would be a foot thick on the ground and Thranduil's halls would be decked out with evergreen boughs and holly berries, and the air would be fragrant with the scent of burning pine logs. Back in Ithilien, Legolas's elves had gathered such winter greenery as they were able to find, but it was simply not the same.
This was one of the few nights when it was not raining, and the air felt as mild as a Mirkwood spring. The dampness or the chill in the king's private garden did not trouble Legolas, but he wondered if Aragorn might be feeling it. They sat on a stone bench behind a hedge of yews.
"Why are we out here in the dark and the cold rather than in your study?" Legolas asked bluntly.
"The very walls have ears," Aragorn said, "and what I am about to tell you needs must be kept between us. It involves the young man from Harad, in case you have not already guessed."
Thranduil having raised no fools, Legolas of course had guessed this. He waited patiently for his friend to continue.
"Last month, Barlomi arrived quite unexpectedly with a letter of introduction stating that his presence in my court was a gift, with the compliments of King Khorlai of Harad. I have been trying to establish diplomatic relations with that country for several years without any success. Thanks to the lies of Sauron and a long history of enmity between our two peoples, Khorlai does not trust Gondor in any way, much less its new king. He has refused to accept my ambassadors in his land."
"One can hardly blame him," Legolas said. "I doubt he has forgotten that Gondor once held Harad subject and forced the sons of the rulers of Harad to live as hostages in the court of the king."
Aragorn shrugged. "That was long ago, in the time of Hyarmendacil."
"It was an infamy, Aragorn. Separating child from parent, and compelling submission through threats to loved ones is a tactic more suited to The Enemy than the noble Men of the West. No wonder Harad fell prey to the blandishments of the servants of Sauron."
"You deem it so, my friend?" Aragorn seemed surprised.
Legolas shrugged. "I've no doubt the men of Harad deem it so. When war destroys the crops and the people go hungry, or when the house burns with wife and children inside it, it would matter little to a man whether the deed was done by the evil servants of Sauron or the noble folk of Gondor."
"I understand that all too well," Aragorn replied. "Even more so because I journeyed to Harad in years past, and I have lived among them in secret. So you see, I am in no position to insult the king by refusing his gift. He has made an overture that may lead to peace between us if I make the right moves."
"So far, I understand. Or at least I think I do," Legolas said. "Why would you wish to refuse this gift?"
Aragorn made an unhappy noise. "Legolas, Barlomi is more than a singer. He is a . . . a . . ."
"A courtesan?" Legolas finished gently. At Aragorn's look of surprise he laughed. 'For pity's sake, Estel, I am hundreds of years old. My father is thousands. It is not as if we have not seen what mortals do, and seen it many times over. Very little shocks an elf. I merely wondered why you had such a one in your court, and now I understand. No wonder Arwen is out of temper."
"Alas, Legolas, you do not understand. It is more complicated than that." Aragorn let out a sigh. "The custom in Harad is that when a gift is given, it is the polite, nay, the expected thing to give one in return. In kind."
"In kind? Hmm, well that does complicate things," Legolas said.
"I need to find someone to send in return, or risk insulting Khorlai even further," Aragorn said, "and there is no one in Gondor who fulfills the requirements."
"Gondor has no harlots; Gondor needs no harlots," said Legolas gaily.
"You are not making this any easier, my friend," Aragorn sighed. "But you are right."
"Aragorn, have you been down to the docks at Harlond recently? However, I do see your predicament. The poor trulls who meet the boats in no wise resemble Master Barlomi."
"Yes. To be a bêthnaru, as they are called in Harad, requires a person of great beauty. It requires the strictest standards of manners and person; someone with accomplishments in music and able to hold a witty conversation."
Legolas thought back to the evening meal, the hall filled with grim, bearded Dúnedain and stout Gondorian nobles scratching their behinds. "I would say you have a problem, Aragorn. For I know of no one in your realm who fits that description."
Aragorn made no answer to this. He merely continued to stare balefully.
"Ai núath! You cannot be serious!" Legolas exclaimed.
"That is exactly what Arwen said when I first broached the subject. And when I persisted in it to the point of inviting you here to discuss the matter, she . . . Well, I regret to inform you that I am, at present, sleeping in my dressing room."
"I hate to be the cause of domestic discord," Legolas said. "But Arwen has a point. I refuse to become anyone's slave. Much less a slave of that nature, no matter how needful the cause."
"Legolas, Barlomi assures me that he is not a slave. He is a free man who holds a position of some respect in his own land. Officially at least, his services do not involve, er, special favors of the bedchamber. And indeed, none of them do here in this realm. Here and at home, he serves as an entertainer and an ornament to the court."
"He 'is' very ornamental," Legolas said dryly. "And needing a person of this sort, you of course thought of me. Ai, Aragorn, I do not know whether to feel flattered, or to throttle you!"
"You will have to throttle someone else," Aragorn replied, "for the idea was not mine originally. It was Gimli's."
Now it was Legolas's turn to be surprised. "Gimli? I shall be having a word with Master Dwarf when next I see him. I wonder what made him think of me?"
"Well, you do have a lovely singing voice," said Aragorn. "And you have shown a genius for evading amorous overtures without causing offense."
"I rather think it is Gimli having his revenge on me," Legolas laughed. "He has always insisted that I am far too serious for my own good when it comes to these matters. A dwarf will never understand an elf when it comes to love."
Aragorn smiled and then grew solemn. "Legolas, you are my oldest and dearest friend. You have no idea how deeply it grieves me to make such a request of you, but the need is dire. I wish to avoid future war with Harad, and this is a chance to do that very thing. Harad distrusts us, with reason, as you have said. This is an opportunity for us to show our quality, which is why you, above all, are an ideal choice. Beauty and accomplishment aside, you are a noble and decent being. They will see this in Harad, and perhaps they will be more willing to treat with us on a political level rather than the more . . . informal. But truly, Legolas, the one who goes to Harad need not actually be a bêthnaru; he must merely pose as one. I would not consider sending you otherwise."
"When you put it that way, Aragorn, how can I refuse? What could be more important than the welfare of Gondor and its people?"
"Only your dignity," said Aragorn grimly.
Legolas gazed sadly upon his old friend. Between Aragorn's brows he saw the deep worry pucker that had graced Thranduil's face so often in memory. Legolas had no doubt that since he had come to rule his own realm, those same lines were beginning to mark his forehead as well. "Alas, Estel, I wonder if I did right by you, helping you to gain the throne of Gondor. You and Arwen would have been much happier running in the wild, living life as a simple ranger and his lady."
Aragorn sighed. "Quite true, my friend. But such was not to be."
"I warned you once, long ago, that it would not be all bright banners flowing." Where was the small boy so full of childlike hope, the boy he had promised to protect so many years ago, Legolas wondered? Gone, like the melting snows of a hundred years past; like the fallen leaves of many autumns. But the aging, careworn man before him remained, and so did the pledge. Legolas took a deep breath. "Very well, Aragorn." He paused as his friend's eyes widened in surprise, and held up a hand. "I make no promises. But I will have a talk with this Barlomi tomorrow. I have many questions . . ."
* * * * * * *
To be continued . . .
Ai núath!: Sindarin for Oh shadows!
bêthnaru: Adunaic for 'conversation man' or courtesan
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