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Generated: Nov 07, 2022 3:00 PM
Post last updated: Nov 07, 2022 3:37 PM
never get too comfortable
you look trustworthy, let's create some tokens of ultimate power together
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Life in Eregion has been... tolerable, of late. It's not Valinor, but if she had wanted Valinor, she would have returned already. The challenges are stimulating. Running the jewelsmiths, coordinating governance with the other guilds, trade with the dwarves. Plumbing the depths of her craft without needing to be overly concerned with the tides of war outside the gates. There is always trouble, will always be trouble, but for now, it is not her trouble nor does it seem likely to become such.

She can create purely for the joy of it, experimenting, playing with material and magic and process.

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And then, one day in the spring of the year 1200 of the Second Age, Celebrimbor receives a message from a young apprentice serving as an errand boy - 

A traveler has come to the House of the Mirdain, one not known to them nor affiliated with any realm they've heard of, but one dressed finely and foreignly. An elf, the errand boy says, maybe an Avari by the look of her eyes. She would like to meet with the Guildmaster.

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An Avari, really? Does she perhaps want the blacksmiths, instead?

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The errand boy is pretty sure she said 'Guildmaster of the Jewelsmiths.'

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Well. The visitor can wait until the guildmaster finishes setting this, then. It will be a few hours.

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He'll go let her know. Should he tell Lady Celebrimbor if the visitor decides to leave first? 

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No need to bother. The secretary can handle that much. And offer refreshments, she adds as an afterthought, turning back to her work.

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He heads out to relay the message. 

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Back to work.

In a few hours, she goes to see if the visitor is still there.

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Apparently so! Or, at least, a very beautiful woman who Celebrimbor has never seen before is in the main hall, standing and examining the murals. She's tall and willowy, with a rich auburn hair that falls in tight waves unusual for elves. She has none of the inner light that suffuses the Eldar - certainly none of the bright spark in her eyes of those who once lived in the light of the Two Trees. Her ethnicity is very hard to place - the Avari are a strange and diverse tangle of elven tribes in the eyes of the Noldor, so that probably isn't a bad guess by sheer process of elimination. 

Her clothes are indeed very strange - they're probably silk, glossy and fine, in an amount that would be a king's ransom this far west. Her voluminous outer robe is a deep purple embroidered in silver with mountains and rivers and odd peaked houses and scenes of people talking or playing instruments or fighting, over a heavy white dress embroidered with pale green lilies and tiny gems, a thick green sash at her waist. She wears silver earrings and bracelets, and finely wrong silver chains weave through her hair. Celebrimbor doesn't recognize the style, though there's echoes of motifs in some of the fashions worn by dwarven travelers from the far east. 

She doesn't turn to face Celebrimbor immediately, though, continuing to look at the art.

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The mural is of a sunset at the coast of Beleriand. Celebrimbor painted it herself, when the guildhouse was built. There are others she's done in the hall as well, ships and mountain cities and forests and dwarven caverns. Relatively few people in her style, though- they are most often backgrounded or blurred into indistinction.

"Not a view that will be seen again in this age or the next," she says, moving to stand beside the woman. Her own clothes are much plainer, only lightly embroidered. She still wears her leather workshop apron with the Mirdain sigil upon the breast.

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"Is it of Beleriand?" she asks, in crisply accented Sindarin. "It's very beautiful."

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"It is. Thank you."

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She turns to look at Celebrimbor. "Did you paint it?" 

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"Yes."

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"Then you must be Celebrimbor."

"I see rumors of your talents haven't been exaggerated at all."

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"No, they have not. You must be the visitor wishing to see the Guildmaster. What is your name?"

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"I've gone by Annatar since I started traveling in these lands."

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"Indeed? And what reason have you for traveling in these lands?"

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"Word of the great crafters of the west has reached even the eastern edge of the world, and some say that the jewelsmiths of Eregion are the greatest crafters among them. I've wondered how true that is."

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"Very. Would you like a tour?"

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"I'd be delighted."

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Then a tour. There's the main hall, a tasteful showroom, a cutting room, a forge, an inscription studio, a presently-unoccupied laboratory...

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She's interested in all of it, asking insightful questions about this or that item or tool as the walk. 

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"Do you have experience with the craft?"

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"A good bit."

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"Have you come to share in knowledge, then?"

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"If knowledge is available to be shared."

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"A skilled crafter is always welcome."

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"Any tests involved?"

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"Not in particular, though a demonstration piece is a good way to garner attention if you wish to work with a particular guild member."

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"And what if I wish to work with you?"

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"Then I would recommend an impressive showpiece."

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"May I use your halls to work?"

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"If you don't mind the possibility of being observed as you work."

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"Not for this, no."

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"Then you may schedule time with the facilities by speaking with the secretary in the main hall."

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"Will do."

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The tour is almost over, so Celebrimbor will deposit her back there soon enough.

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She moves in without much fanfare, and is ambiently around a good bit after that, talking to the other crafters, exploring the halls some, and apparently spending an unusual amount of time thinking and planning before starting her work - enough there's rumors she isn't actually a smith, which she laughs at if she acknowledges them at all. 

She's popular pretty quickly, though, so she draws some attention when she finally starts working - 

That pretty quickly fades. Whatever she's doing, it's small and fiddly and boring, mostly involving tiny etchings into silver thread and brading and unbraiding and twisting and untwisting said thread while humming a low tune. (She gets some persistent attention from the more broadly curious of the jewelsmiths, those elves and dwarves most enthusiastic about learning from other traditions, and Celebrimbor at one point overhears her saying it's a style of craft used in the avarin kingdom on the far eastern shores of Rhun.) 

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Interesting... Not enough so to distract her from her own projects, but she'll drop by to watch when she has a free moment.

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At one point, she overhears Annatar explaining to her audience the principle of shape she's working with -

"Your style, you make a thing better at its own functions, yes? You draw a conceptual link. A magnifying glass changes what you see, a sword helps you in battle, a gem traps and reflects light, a cloak hides you. You can stretch it, but it's very hard."

"In Yanwa, we do that some, but this art is different - it lets me create effects not associated with the base shape. I still will not spoil the surprise, of course, but there's fairly few things a bracelet could do under your system, and very many it can do under mine - necklaces that treat disease and heal wounds in the person who wears them are relatively common in Yanwa."

"This is fundamentally related to the continuous circle..."

And on into ever more esoteric theory. 

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Hmm...

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Her gaze drifts over to Celebrimbor with a little smile. "Do you have more questions for me?" she asks her audience. 

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"A few. But I might wait until after you finish to ask. See what I can puzzle out myself."

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"I look forward to your thoughts."

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"And I look forward to seeing the final product."

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"It won't disappoint."

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"Good."

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She smiles again and turns back to her work. 

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Celebrimbor will let her get back to it.

She writes a letter to Domhildr, her dwarf friend, about the visitor and her strange methods. Domhildr is the person she knows who comes up with, mmm, unusual approaches most often, so she expects Domhildr may be able to grasp this more quickly than herself. And writing it out helps her sort what she knows, and take on somewhat of Domhildr's mindset herself- she has some fresh ideas after finishing, which she appends in a postscript.

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She sounds fascinating. You've piqued my interest - I expect an introduction on my next visit, now. 

And then a great many comments about Celebrimbor's observations and ideas. 

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Enlightening as always.

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And as delighted as always to write to her. 

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Then with hypotheses in hand, the only thing remaining is to wait for the reveal.

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Crafting is a slow process, and Annatar isn't hurried - but she's efficient, and it isn't too long at all before she's finished. 

She requests another audience with Celebrimbor when she is. 

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She'll clear her schedule.

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Good. 

Annatar meets her in private in her office, presenting the bracelet with no real fanfare. "Do you want me to tell you what it does?" she teases. 

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"At least give me a chance to look at it, first."

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"Here you go, then."

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She takes it, turning it over carefully in her hands, before getting out a loupe to examine more closely.

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It's made of a thin silver thread, in a three strand braid then woven into a twisting four strand braid. There's tiny etchings along each strand - if they're writing, they're no script Celebrimbor has seen before, simple and angular. The clasp is two circles held together by an intricate charm, an abstract knot with many tiny parts that look like they might move or change when pressed on, perhaps. 

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She hums a resonating tune, attempting to tease out the threads of imbued magic.

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Flexibility, is the first, overlaying all of it. Then the broad tones of insight, knowledge - then she can slowly tease out sight specifically -

It takes a lot of very careful teasing, and someone less skilled than Celebrimbor might be forced to give up early, but... Nothing here is truly hidden, just carefully folded away, unobtrusive. 

The Song laid upon it is very clearly a derivative of the ancient Songs for sight. Keen sight, far sight, seeing spectrums of light usually invisible to elven eyes, blocking other light... Celebrimbor has before now only ever seen it as something people apply to themselves in the moment, or else as a separate Song for each of many looking-glasses in a kit. These, though, are elegant - trimmed down, improved - combined, one tune rising at a time while the others fade intk the background. 

 

(The Noldor, as a general rule, don't put very much effort into fixing their tools, especially not in ways that will mostly just reduce some hassle. Not unless it's needed for a specific project. Her grandfather had been one of the only ones who ever really bothered, and that was still mostly in response to certain repetitive tasks annoying his impatient mind.)

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"A tool for vision, in a form unnatural. New refinement to ancient work, multiple settings in a single band- Ah, the circle, yes, I see. Clever. And elegant. Exceptional use of space."


"If you wanted my attention, Annatar, you most certainly have it."

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Smug.

"And you've proven your cleverness, here. I have known relatively few who could read that with such ease."

"I would be honored to work with you, Guildmaster."

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"I am sure it will be a fruitful partnership."

She offers the bracelet back.

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"Keep it," she says. "A gift to commemorate the start of our partnership."

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"Thank you."

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"You're welcome."

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Smile.

Then she has so many questions for Annatar.

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And she has answers, and further questions, and points for discussion, things she admits she doesn't know yet -

There's a lot she does know. 

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The start of a fruitful partnership.

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With far more to come. 

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Excellent.

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And shortly thereafter, Celebrimbor receives a letter announcing her friend Domhildr will be visiting in the next day or so. 

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It should be entertaining, if nothing else. She makes sure her schedule (and by extension, Annatar's) is clear enough to receive the guest.

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Domhildr makes good time, arriving at the guildhouse at sundown a day after the message. She doesn't bother sending a messenger boy, instead cheerfully going to look for Celebrimbor herself. 

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In her lab, which Domhildr is familiar enough with.

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She watches for a little rather than disturbing Celebrimbor right away.

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She's working on a necklace at the moment, etching the enchantment with fine detail.

"Hello there," she says, looking up. "You made good time."

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"I heard interesting things were happening here."

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"Interesting things are always happening. But I suspect you mean the other visitor."

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"You've sounded fascinated with her."

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"She has a number of intriguing ideas."

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"Exceptionally high praise from you."

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She fiddles with her wrist and passes over the bracelet. "Well deserved. Look at this."

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She examines it intently.

"This is very fine work..."

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"Her show-piece."

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"Did she give it to you?"

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"She did."

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"That'd be a proposal in Khazad-dum," she teases.

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"As I believe I've explained to you several times, Ost-in-Edhil is not Khazad-dum."

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"Yet." Wink.

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"You'll need more than a road to change that."

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"More dwarves moving here?"

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"For a start."

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"I'll do what I can to help."

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"Going to start caravanning people out here?"

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"Build up your reputation as the best city for crafters."

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"Does that mean you'll be moving your own base of operations?"

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"Might be time to."

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"It would certainly cement our reputation."

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"You'd have the two best crafters in the lands in your city - or even the three best, if Annatar keeps up her record."

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"She's shown no sign of disappointing thus far."

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"You need to introduce us, then."

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"Then let us go find her."

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Annatar, fortunately, also keeps a fairly predictable schedule. This time of the evening, she's in the little corner of the sprawling library she's claimed as her office.

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"Good evening, Annatar. I'd like to introduce you to Crafter Domhildr, of Khazad-dum."

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"Good evening, Crafter Domhildr."

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"Good evening, Crafter Annatar."

"Celebrimbor's spoken about you to me."

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"Only good things, I hope."

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"As that's all you've shown me.."

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Smug smug smug.

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"Quite. Domhildr is also eager to see more of your unique style."

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"It's fortunate that I love showing off, then."

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"Having you around is very educational," she agrees.

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"It's my honor to contribute."

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In the spirit of education, then, Celebrimbor will begin a conversation about her latest projects.

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Listening to Celebrimbor talk is a pretty significant motive behind Domhildr's visits.

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She won't disappoint.

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She never does.

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There's enough material to keep them occupied until (or through) the dinner hour.

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Annatar's not going to be the one to remind the others to eat.

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Then it falls to Celebrimbor, only slightly belatedly.

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Always the responsible one.

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An appreciation for fine work in matters of cuisine as well as smithing.

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They can't let the cooks feel neglected. 

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Otherwise they might come hunt their little group down.

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They are the most consistently armed crafters.

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To dinner then, before they become it.

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"You have interesting people here."

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"Most of the boring ones have sailed west already."

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"A fact I've never doubted."

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"I'm sure."

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"You should come East with me, someday."

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"Someday, perhaps."

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"Open to one more?"

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"I would be, certainly."

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"If Celebrimbor puts in a recommendation."

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"Consider it done."

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Laugh. "Good to know you still have taste."

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"If I ever lost that, please put me on a boat west as gently as possible."

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"Nah. I'd drag you under the mountain for some reeducation."

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"I'm not sure there'd be enough of me left to reeducate at that point."

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"The best crafters can recreate what's been broken."

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"Going to build me a new personality of chipped ceramic and gold?"

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"If that's my only option. But I'd prefer you whole, start to finish."

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"As would I."

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"Many would. You're a delightful person."

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"Thank you. I do appreciate appreciation."

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"You've earned it."

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Smirk.

And food?

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Food!

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Only the best for the Guildmaster and her friends.

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Another thing that keeps Domhildr coming back.

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Whatever works.

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"Maybe I should give you more of a challenge."

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"If you feel that you personally are lacking in stimulation..."

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"Maybe I just like seeing you put in some effort."

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"Making me grunt and sweat."

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"Get nice and worn out."

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"Tired enough to relax and go limp."

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"Let all your worries melt away."

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"Perhaps I can convince you to play a soothing song."

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"With some effort, maybe."

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"If I'm trying anyway, it seems a shame to stop short."

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"One of your best traits."

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"If a thing is to be done, best it be done well."

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"I see what you mean," Annatar says to Domhildr, teasingly.

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"Was it not obvious already?"

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"It's an observation that can always use reinforcing."

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"No such thing as too much data."

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"It'd be hard to achieve, at least."

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"Nigh impossible, in this particular instance."

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"But might need a long time to evaluate the question in serious depth."

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"Fortunately, it is a project that can be run concurrently with others."

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"Efficient as well."

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"Every little counts."

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"True."

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Speaking of concurrent projects, they can resume their discussion from earlier...

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Domhildr has contributions...

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A fruitful partnership all around. 

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Perhaps tomorrow they can take these ideas to the workshop.

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Why wait? 

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Sleep helps the mind, and there is not presently a war on.

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If Celebrimbor insists...

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"As you have not joined the guild, I have no formal authority over you. But personally, I will be retiring."

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"I might as well join you in slumbering, then."

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"Eager to see sense, good."

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"I'm not too hard to lead."

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"Just enough to need some effort?"

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"Probably not much more than Domhildr needs."

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"So you'll have me working twice as hard."

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"Only if there's no economy of scale."

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"Depends if what impresses you overlaps, I suppose."

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"Something to investigate."

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"We shall see."

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"We will."

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But for now, bed.

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Bed. (For elves and dwarves, at least.)

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Men, lacking stamina, would be asleep long since. (And as far as everyone else here knows, there are no longer any Maiar interested in taking corporeal form outside of Valinor.)

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(She does a very convincing imitation of sleep while she thinks and plans and looks afar into the complexities of the Song of Creation, fortunately.)

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Meanwhile, on the other side of at least one mountain and one river, a young girl plots a daring escape from her captivity of tyranny. Tyranny of captivity. Captivating tyranny. Tyrannous captivation. One of those. Anyway. No longer will she be held hostage to the whims of cruel and fickle minders, no longer will she languish in dreaded and boring hearthside labor instead of stalking through the forest and wresting adventure from the world with her own hands. Tonight, she is sneaking down to the stream, taking one of the boats, and setting off to wherever the current may take her. (This last clause being necessary because she has only a fairly slim idea how one manages a boat. But hey, how hard could it be? The others manage it, right?)

She's been stockpiling supplies gradually for a couple weeks now (and only had to push back her departure on account of accidentally eating into said supplies like twice), she's got her walking stick, her sling and bag of stones, and an extra shirt, just in case.

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She successfully gets to the boat without getting caught!

The boat - a canoe, really - is long and thin and has a pretty clear area to sit, and she usually sees people using the paddles with it. 

It's a lot less still when she tries to get in than it looks when other people are doing this.

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Surely through hard work and determination (and maybe a little bit of splashing) she can make it work.

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...Well at least she doesn't sink?

She does get very slightly stuck in a shallow bit. Only really slightly. Though this time vigorous canoe wiggling isn't getting her out like it did last time.

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Does paddle-pushing do the trick?

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Wiiiigle shift -

No.

She might need to get out and push the canoe forward into deeper water.

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Bleeehhhh. All right. Just gotta get the canoe loose without it running away from her. Easy.

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...Well.

The rock ledge here is very slippery, and the current tumbling over it is pretty fast...

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Ooooor she could pick the canoe up and put it back in where the water is friendlier. She can do that.

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That makes her balance so much worse.

This is a very heavy canoe, in a way you kinda only notice when you're already starting to tilt precariously.

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Aaaahhhh!!

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At least slick river rocks hurt less when you fall on them than normal rocks.

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Ow.


Chalk that one up to a learning experience. Or something.

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At least the canoe doesn't get very far.

Still out of her reach, though.

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No way she's giving up here. After it!

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There is so much splashing.

 

But, several bruises, another soaking, some overheating, and some moments that would maybe be embarrassing if anyone saw which they didn't, she has - and is even back in - her canoe.

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Call that a success. Alaudala settles back in to the journey, already mentally making edits to the story to either skip over it or make herself look better depending on the audience.

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Things go smoothly from there.

Until the rapids, that is.

(Alaudala is going to build up a lot of interesting story, at this rate.)

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She did plan on adventure...

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And the river has obliged! Such a helpful river.

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It is a very good river. Alaudala might even sing a little song about it, as the sun starts to rise.

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The musical rush of water over rocks provides a very lovely accompaniment, and the river politely lets her come aground at a perfect camping place.

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Heeee.

Yeah, this is how she's gonna start the story...

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There's a cheery little splash as she settles down.

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"Thanks for the trip today!" she calls over.

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Splaaaash!

(...Was that a laugh?)

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Probably just the wind or whatever. Maybe a frog.

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Very giggly frog, probably.

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"...Hello?"

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"Hello," whispers a voice, like the rush of water over rock. 

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"Where are you? -Who are you?"

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"The river!"

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"Ohhh. Um. Nice to meet you?"

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"You haven't been on the water before."

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"Not really, no."

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"Did you have fun?"

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"Overall, yeah."

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The river bubbles and there's a great big splash -

And the surge leaves behind a man, sitting cross-legged on the river's surface. (A very pretty man.)

"Good."

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Eep!

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Smirk.

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Wow he's pretty. Um.

"So... you're like, a river spirit?"

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"You could say that."

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"What else could I say?"

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"The living embodiment of the beautiful River Gold, perhaps."

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"You got the beautiful right."

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Grin!!!

"And who do I have the pleasure of talking to?"

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"My name's Alaudala. Alaudala Took."

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"A very lovely name."

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Giggle.

"So, do you, like, have to stay on the river, or...?"

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"Nearby, at least."

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"Wanna join the picnic?" She waggles a hunk of bread. "There's food."

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Thoughtful, tempted hum. "Maybe..."

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She takes a bite. "It'sh really good!"

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He floats closer, humming...

And then moves forward, as fast as a boat stolen by rapids, and snatches her bread from her hand before she can react.

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"Wh- Hey!"

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He takes a big bite! 

"It is good!"

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Pout!!

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He offers the bread back. 

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Jealous nibble.

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"What else is there?" He holds out his hand. 

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Berries, jerky, mixed nuts, a bit of wine, goat cheese...

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All fascinating stuff! Though he likes the berries and wine best. 

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Well, she can always find more berries. But that's less true of the wine.

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"How do you make wine?"

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"You take some juice and feed it some yeast, then you let it sit for a couple seasons."

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"Sounds boring."

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"Usually you do other stuff while you wait."

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"But those things aren't drinking wine..."

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"They could be, if you had the foresight to start making more batches even earlier."

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"Pah."

He plucks a large leaf off a bush and twirls it into the shape of a cup, then scoops some of the river water into it - 

Which turns golden. "This way's more fun."

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"Oooh!" Alaudala applauds.

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He takes a very smug sip.

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"Can I try?"

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"Maybe..."

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"Pleeeeease?"

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"For a face like that... Sure."

He offers her the cup. 

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"Thanks!"

Happy sip.

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"You're welcome!"

It's rich, sweet and heady, tasting like berries and spices, burning in her mouth and throat like very delicious fire.

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"Mmmm. This is very good."

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"Told you my way's better."

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"But I couldn't do it your way."

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"A pity."

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"Guess I'll have to keep traveling downriver for a while."

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"You should!!! Most people aren't as fun as you."

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"...That's kind of disappointing, actually. I was hoping things would be more exciting out in the rest of the world."

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"People might just be more boring on rivers than normal?"

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"I hope so."

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"We'll have to find some other interesting people."

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"Going to lead the way for me?"

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"Or explore together."

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"Can you leave the river?"

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"I'm not the type of being who goes far from it... But a lot of towns are on the river, and I can go into other rivers this one meets."

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"Sounds like fun."

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"It does!!!"

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"And more of a plan than I had before."

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"What was your plan before?"

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"I didn't super have one."

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"Flexible plans are the best kind!"

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Giggle.

"If you say so, I guess it must be true."

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"I'm one of the wisest beings in Arda."

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Nod nod.

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"And you'll be too, if you listen carefully to my teachings!"

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"I don't even have to apply them? Wow, that's a great deal."

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"It is! So, what do you say, my young apprentice?"

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"I accept, of course."

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"I knew you would."

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"That wisdom's already demonstrating itself."

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"Of course."

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Heee!

...Yawn.

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Head tilt.

"Why'd you do that?"

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"I'm a bit tired. I've been up all night, y'know."

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"Why's that tiring?"

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"Usually people sleep at night. If you don't sleep, you get more tired."

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"That's so weird."

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"I think not getting tired is more weird."

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"A lot of the other Ainur say they're tired all the time nowadays, but that's also weird. I'm normal."

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"If you say one thing and everyone else says the other thing, that means you're weird."

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"Then it's better to be the weird one."

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"I was definitely the weird one before I left."

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"Then we're well matched in excellence."

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"Seems like it."

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"It'll be a fruitful partnership."

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"Mhm!" Yawn again.

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"What do you need for 'sleeping?""

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"A bed, some blankets, reasonable quiet."

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"Do you have those?"

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"Mhm. Well, not a bed. But extra blankets to make up for it."

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"Rivers have beds!"

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"But they're always using it. I can't sleep underwater; I'd drown."

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"...Weird."

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"Yep."

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"Maybe I can make you one?"

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"Can you?"

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"Only one way to find out!"

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"Go on, then. Show me!"

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And the river surges a little, downstream of their camp, depositing a fine bed of smooth river rocks and sand, and then a thick layer of moss, and then the water receeds and leaves it dry, and then he gestures and red flowers bloom along it, and their petals spread wide and fall and meld together into a sheet softer than silk...

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"So cool..."

She's gotta go over and try it out.

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It's soft and fluffy and she can't feel the rocks through the moss at all. 

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"This is so great!!" She rolls around on it a bit.

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"Good!" He flops next to her. 

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Hmmmmm that seems like an invitation for cuddles.

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It is! She's delightfully perceptive.

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Bit of an instinct for these sorts of situations, y'know.

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A wisdom she's already gained?

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Yep!

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"Tell me more..."

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Oh, she has plenty of stories about her exploits...

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Fascinating...

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She'll happily talk until she drifts off to sleep in the middle of one of her tales.

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Awww that's cute. 

He has river duties to attend to, of course, but he keeps an eye on her and her campsite, nudges away any wild animals or insects or the like that might bother her or damage her stuff. 

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That's very thoughtful of him.

She wakes a couple hours later, refreshed and ready to go. After another quick bite to eat, of course.

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He can provide more wine, if she wishes.

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Sounds like the best way to start the morning.

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He'll have to agree. 

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Then back to the canoe after.

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He walks on the water beside her, at least at first.

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A good place to sing more traveling songs from. Does he duet?

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Yes. He even plays the flute!

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Fancy!!

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She'll have to work hard to keep up. 

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Practice makes perfect, and she's got nothing else to do.

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He's happy to help her grow. 

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She's learning so much on this trip already.

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"I'm very efficient!"

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"Nothing stops your course, huh?"

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"Not for long!"

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"Makes sense for a river."

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"I'm very good at being me."

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"I think you've gotta be good at being yourself before you can be good at anything else."

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"How the world works."

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"That's wisdom right there."

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"As I've said."

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She laughs.

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Heee.

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"Traveling with someone else is a lot more fun than doing it alone."

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"Just hanging out is a lot more fun together, too."

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"As long as both people are fun."

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"I can make people fun, even if they didn't start that way."

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"How?"

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"Sometimes it goes a lot like what I did to you. Though they don't usually respond as well as you did..."

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"I was already fun."

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"And I brought it out!"

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"Or were witness to its unfolding."

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"And I can provide the same opportunities for anyone."

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"Good thing I'm not the jealous type."

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"You'd get worked up very quickly if you were."

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"Getting worked up can be fun."

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"True, true..."

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"But staying cool can help you find other ways to have fun in that situation."

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...Hum.

"Perhaps best to mix it up each time."

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"Keep things from getting stale."

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"Keep everything flowing."

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"Like a river!"

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"Exactly!"

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"That's definitely your theme."

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Giggle. 

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"It's too bad I don't have a bigger boat..." she says pensively. "Cuddling with you was nice."

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"Maybe you can get one at the next settlement... Though I bet I could squeeze in there with you."

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"You'll save me if you flip us over, right?"

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"Of course!"

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"Come on in, then."

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He flows up into the canoe behind her - and it's indeed a tight fit, enough space for his torso but not his legs -

Which is when Alaudala feels herself being pushed up a little as he slides his legs under her. 

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Eep!

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He laughs. "Comfortable?"

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"Getting there!" She wiggles.

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His arms wrap around her. 

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Gigglesnugs.

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"You're cute."

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"I knooooooow." Hehehehe. "Isn't it great?" She tilts her head back to look up at his face.

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"It is! And you have such a lovely face..."

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"People tell me it's kissable."

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"We should test that, then."

Kiss!

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Yessss hot boy kisses! Gambit success!!

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He's insanely good at this. Possibly cheating a little. 

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Cheating in her favor, so that's fine.

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So long at she isn't challenging the results.

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Wouldn't dream of it.

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Then he'll keep outrageously cheating at kissing her!

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Best. Trip. Ever.

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He's happy to provide. 

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She has a feeling the rest of the day's going to pass pretty quickly, like this.

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A wise and insightful prediction. 

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Close contact must be bringing out the wisdom.

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A sound theory! They should keep testing it. 

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Sounds like a plan!

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And possibly see if more thorough contact works better...

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As long as he remembers about saving her if she falls into the river...

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Promise he does. 

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Then let's get cozy.

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Is that what the kids are calling it these days?

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At least one kid, anyway.

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Works for him!

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And before they know it, the day slips by them just like the riverside.

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He nudges them to another perfect campsite. 

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Time for more food!

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And more wine and good cheer.

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Such cheer.

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Too much to hoard to just the two of them, really. 

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Maybe tomorrow they'll find someone else?

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He'd like that. 

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Then Alaudala had better get to sleep, so tomorrow comes sooner.

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He'll watch over her again. (And help make sure she's nice and exhausted beforehand. So she sleeps better, of course.)

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She is gonna sleep like a rock.

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A very pretty rock!

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Future generations would be in awe of the sculptor's skill.

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They'd establish a shrine around her.

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Inspire some... worship?

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Only deserved.

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Heeeeee.

Then, to sleep.

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He watches over her again.

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And Alaudala has a restful night's sleep.

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And onwards to find people in the morning.

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Onwards to see what falls in their laps!

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Meanwhile...

Annatar's been thinking. 

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That's always promising.

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Is it? 

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Celebrimbor has found it so. She tends to enjoy Annatar's ideas.

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She'll like this one, then. 

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Oh? What does she have?

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A thought experiment about the infinite nature of circles, and their power to therefore bind in disparate parts of an artifact's working...

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Hmm. Somewhat a synthesis of the two modes of crafting- function neither following strictly nor divorced from form, but rather drawing together the metaphysical implication of the physical incarnation...

It certainly bears testing.

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And experimental explorations. 

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And if the concept proves sound... entire new vistas await. What recursive patterns might one create with a braided pattern, for example?

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Or circles within circles, or interlocking - such as through a setting -

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Many possibilities to contemplate.

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Possibly itself a work without end. 

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Then they had best get started.

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Send Celebrimbor's dwarven friend a few teasers to lure her back in...

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Perhaps a proof of concept.

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Might take a while...

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If Domhildr wants to be completely tapped in to the latest developments, the crafter will simply need to spend more time in Ost-in-Edhil.

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Perhaps they'll simply mention a new idea has sprung up. 

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Or circled around.

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One of the two. 

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Whatever seems more likely to provoke interesting reactions.

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The main goal here? 

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When it comes to Domhildr, at least.

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Not getting Domhildr to move in? 

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A change of that magnitude would have to be Domhildr's own initiative. Celebrimbor knows better than to try to force it.

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But surely some encouragement won't go amiss.

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Shall Celebrimbor write to inform Domhildr that Annatar is pining for the dwarf's presence?

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If she thinks it'd help. 

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It seems likely to be amusing.

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Celebrimbor's welcome to, then.

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Good to know she has permission.

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Hopefully an important part of this. 

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Of course. It's all in fun.

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Good.

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Though she has noted that some people, on occasion, enjoy at least the illusion of surrendering decisions...

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Not Annatar.

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Fair enough. Celebrimbor doesn't lean that way either.

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Does she know anyone who does? 

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One or two. One or two. And she has her suspicions about Domhildr...

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...Oooo.

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Smirk.

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Something to investigate. 

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Perhaps.

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"You aren't curious?"

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"Mm. If the opportunity arises. But I do not see value in forcing the matter."

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"Why not?"

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"I am friendly with Domhildr for other reasons, and I have other interests to occupy what time we share together and my time alone. This question... is not pressing."

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"She won't live forever, you know."

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"...No. But neither are dwarves so fleeting as Men."

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"How old is she?"

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"Just past her first century, I believe."

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"You'll probably have another century and a half with her then. Two, if you're lucky."

She almost says it gently. 

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"I am aware."

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"A very small arc of infinity."

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"Mm. So the world goes, in most respects."

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"Unless we seize more than we are given."

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"Historically, that path ends in death as well."

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"And so we'd need to overturn the arc of history as well."

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"A weighty proposition."

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"So is much of what we do."

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"Perhaps."

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Small hum.

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Then shall they begin the experimentation?

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Absolutely. 

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To work.

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And creation. 

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The journey from Numenor was long, and - perhaps far too honestly - boring. Nyarie likes sailing among islands, but the wide sea stretching horizon to horizon, an infinite oceanic maw, the dull smudges of land too tiny to make out...

It's not her thing.

 

Arriving in Middle Earth was like a breath of fresh air. Like a warning.

She was sent by her mother the Queen to preside over the ceremonious inauguration of the first full city built and run and owned by the people of Numenor. Not just a haven - a permanent port for their ships, a place to repair them without needing to limp into the elven ports first - but a home, to hear her mother speak. A foothold of great Numenorean culture, a place to process goods and manufacture and trade, to house their exploratory teams and provide a base to leave from when finding out more of this new world. A place of education, a shining city on the coast to spread civilization like flashes of light. A place to build newer and greater ships - and to build the sort of mid-sized coastal ships that can't easily cross the oceans.

A grand thing, and what's been constructed of the city of Estellondë so far is nothing if not beautiful.

But something is... Off, even if Nyarie can never say what, and she's the highest ranking Numenorean on this continent, and she really would rather not get back on a ship, all things considered.

And so, a few hours of gentle arguing with her guards and the captain of the royal ship (the real captain; Nyarie is technically considered the captain, but she thinks that's a joke, and she puts on a leaderly face in public but lets the real captain do the actual running of the ship), Nyarie sets out from Estellondë and into the near Eastern stretches of Middle Earth, beyond the crumbled glory of the Blue Mountains.

(She argues herself down to only one companion, at least...)

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Aww, Sulumithil has been promoted to companion! That's so thoughtful of Nyarie.

Though it's kind of backwards, isn't it, having a full complement aboard the ship while in their own sovereign territory, but cutting everyone out when she's venturing into the unknown...

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"Yes, but it's the rules of our sovereign territory that define a full complement, and we're no longer where those rules apply."

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"Aha. Very tricky, your highness. I'll be sure to make a note to try that reasoning on your honored mother. Spare no expense for my funeral pyre, will you?"

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"She'd probably hold that it isn't your job to talk me out of trouble, Sulumîthil. You're my loyal retainer and all."

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"As long as no trouble figures out how to follow us home."

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"I'll see to it."

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"My most humble thanks, Princess." She bows formally.

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"It's only my duty."

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"Then shall we away into the untamed wild?"

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...Thoughtful, not entirely happy hum.

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Hm?

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"There's a - way a lot of people talk about this continent, and a way they were looking at the native workers, that's..."

"Strange."

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"Like they don't count as proper people, you mean."

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"Yes."

"And it doesn't match with what I heard about this continent - about what we're even doing here - back home."

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"Mm. This is a learning opportunity for you. It's- like the difference between the palace lake and the ocean."

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"I suppose so."

"And I want to learn everything that's been - hidden or brushed away or softened."

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"You're starting off on the right trail."

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"I hope so."

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Smile.

"Come on, your highness. Let's go see for ourselves."

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She smiles back.

"If you already know something of the trail - where do you recommend we start?"

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"Away from this city. Out of the island's direct area of control. To the countryside, to other cities. To meet new people."

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"No specific thoughts, then?"

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"It's my first time here too, y'know."

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"And here I thought you were all knowing."

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"Only apparently so. It's a carefully-crafted illusion."

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"You're a master at that craft, then."

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"Thank you!"

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She laughs. "Any good princess acknowledges skill when she sees it!"

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"Then you must be one of the greats."

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"Well, I shouldn't argue with my subjects about that..."

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Nod nod. "Humility is good, but too much just makes you seem ignorant."

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"Or like I'm just putting on a show of it."

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"Neither option is desirable."

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"...No, it isn't."

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"Doesn't seem like it'll be a real problem for you, though."

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"...I hope it never is."

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"Just make sure to pick your advisors and companions carefully."

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"I've been trying."

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"And succeeding, if I do say so myself."

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"I started strong, at least."

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"Start as you mean to continue!"

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"And I have."

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"Let's get walking, then."

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"Alright." Onwards?

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Onwards. See if they can't fill some more details into their maps.

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There's a lot of Middle Earth beyond the coastline - the most well known areas to Numenor are the coastal cities of the Noldor, the small dwarven settlements still clinging to life in the Blue Mountains, and the thin scattering of native Men. But there's towns and villages and pastures networks of wild lands beyond that - a great road plunges from the largest elven haven to the southeast, running towards Eregion and Khazad-dum and the natural overland passes through the imposing Misty Mountains. They hear the most gossip about Eregion and Khazad-dum - the names aren't unknown to Numenor, of course, but they have little to do with either kingdom directly in the normal course of things.

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Sounds interesting to Sulumithil. Where they're likely to find the strongest local culture.

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Yes... And Eregion's likely to be - more familiar at first, maybe, and seems closer regardless.

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Then it seems like they have a destination.

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They do...

Eregion is ruled oddly, from what she's heard.

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Yeah. A council of trade guilds, or something. Must make for some interesting politics.

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And an interesting journey figuring out who to introduce themselves to if they want to act officially.

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If Nyarie really wanted to act officially, she wouldn't have ditched her escort.

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True enough.

And they'll get a more unbiased look as just two more travelers passing through.

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Sulumithil prefers doing reconnaissance anonymously.

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Perhaps she can teach Nyarie some tricks, then.

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Sure, if she watches closely.

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She'll pay the utmost attention.

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Good, that's the first step. But not only to Sulumithil, but to the other people around them. Dialect, styles of dress, mannerisms- find these markers and learn how to match them. Most people tend to look without seeing. If you don't give them a reason to look twice, their own assumptions will fill in any blank spots in your presentation. Change the hang of your hemline, bend the line of your shoulders, and swap your suffixes, and you can walk from the palace heights to the dockyard slums without anyone batting an eye.

After that, you need to learn how to talk to people. Which, admittedly, can be tricky to do without giving the game away. 'A deliberated bid for attention' describes almost all conversations. But most people have some kind of culturally-mediated script for how they interact with others. Once you identify the script, you can begin to manipulate it. A farmer talks differently and about different things to a neighboring farmer, a wandering vagabond, a merchant, a child, a lord, and so forth.

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They have a while to go before they hit Eregion either way, and they can talk to people on the road... And Nyarie's an incredibly talkative sort. Charming, perceptive - honest, but good at always saying the exact right thing.

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She miiiiight have to turn that down a little. The goal is to be familiar, but not memorable.

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That she might be bad at.

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The only cure is practice.

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They'll see how she does.

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She'll exceed expectations, Sulumithil is sure.

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Thanks.

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Being a princess of course, those expectations are pretty high...

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They always have been.

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Must be why she's always so exceptional.

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It might help!

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It's a question of whether potential is innate or brought about by circumstances, she supposes.

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She's pretty sure it's been her own efforts, here. Pretty sure.

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Seems they've put themselves in a good position to test that theory.

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They have...

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Want to take the lead at the next tavern?

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Sure.

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It marks a local crossroads, not too large. Mostly servicing farmers in the surrounding area, the occasional peddler or merchant, a few other miscellaneous itinerants.

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They've already figured out clothes that don't stand out too much for two travelers around here, though their faces are a bit odd - but that can't be helped.

She observes people for a bit - listens - but gets itchy after too long, and sets to asking someone who looks friendly for gossip about the road ahead.

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Word is there's bears about, tracks been seen on a couple farms and all. And that big storm last week, best watch for fallen trees on the road. Then of course there's them seafolk from that fancy new port city. No telling what plans they've got next.

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- Has there been trouble over in that direction?

(She asks, after a few mental attempts to reword.)

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Eh. He doesn't personally know anyone who lived there before, but the only people who live there now is them. And the traders keep coming back with all this funny money. How can you trust it?

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(Serious nodding, and an open expression, and body language that makes him feel heard.) What happened to the people who used to live there?

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Big shrug. Who knows? Moved out, taken across the ocean, conscripted as a workforce to build the seafolk city... No way to tell, really.

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...Do people just - vanish?

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It's not like anyone's running around the countryside counting heads.

...Where did she say she was from, again?

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- Out east. She's...

(Awkward shrug.)

((Nyarie has met women running away from something at home. She knows how they look when they're evading questions.))

((She's also not the best liar, but.))

She's traveling.

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Suspicious squinting.

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"I might avoid going that way, either way. It doesn't sound like - there's a real community."

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Grunt. "Can't trust those foreigners at all."

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"At least not from out that way."

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"Nope."

(That seems like about all the information she's going to get out of this one.)

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She'll keep being lightly friendly, but she'll let the conversation drift to a close, and stick to innocuous topics with others she talks to that night (though she still listens...).

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Not too bad, for a first try.

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She thinks she did okay. (...And she learned a good bit.)

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That's the important thing.

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And she didn't totally blow their cover!

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The other important thing. (They're still in a position where they can recover (heh) from that, anyway.)

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Maybe strained it a little.

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Nah. That guy'll grumble about weird travelers but it'll all be lumped in with the rest of his litany of complaints about the world these days. No one will take real notice.

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Good.

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They can press forward without fear.

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Onto the next stop?

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Ever onwards, learning more about what people here are like.

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There's a few false starts and plenty of minor mistakes - but Nyarie continues to have magic socialization powers, so. Those can make up for a lot, even her ongoing awkwardness with lying.

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That it does. They'll also need to settle into more evolved forms of their disguises, something that they can hold up over a long term.

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Hmm...

A woman on the run from something back home seems to hold up best - cover the most slips. It's... Interesting, but common at the same time, and Nyarie's bad at being uninteresting anyways.

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And where does Sulumithil fit?

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...Hmmmmm.

The forbidden lover she's fleeing with, clearly.

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That would be a good reason for them to be traveling together! And an explanation for the two of them sticking close, and warding off anyone who gets too nosy.

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And Sulumithil shoving herself into Nyarie's conversations if needed.

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Mhm. Plus, they can save on rooms if they only need one bed.

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Do they, though?

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Depends how committed to the bit she is. Or, admittedly, the precise nature of the bit, but it'd be a bit more of a stretch for them to run away together but not be to the point of sharing a bed...

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They should test this first, perhaps. See how committed they feel.

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The empirical method, huh? Sure.

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Seems the least risky option.

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"I hope you don't have cold feet," she teases.

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"You'll have to warm them if I do."

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"Oh, the princessness is showing again."

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"I can't be your princess, still?"

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"If it makes you feel better."

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"Might ease the transition to lover on the run from all she's known."

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"Your wish is, as ever, my command, your highness."

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Heee.

Hm, their forlorn lovers will probably be the sorts to kiss even in public... (Not that that seems as scandalous here as back home.)

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"Have you ever kissed anyone before?"

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"...Not really."

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"Do you want to try?"

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She does actually think about it, before - "Yes. I do."

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"Okay."

She leans in, gently.

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- Kiss?

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Kiss. She'll start slow, and go according to Nyarie's reactions.

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It's weird at first, honestly. Awkward.

But she likes it, she decides pretty quickly - though she isn't pushing for more.

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That's all right, then.

"...And there is probably where a reasonable couple would stop, in public," she says, pulling back.

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"Very scandalous of people here to go even this far," she teases.

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"Shocking, truly," she agrees.

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"It'll take some adjusting."

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"I think you could get used to it."

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"Oh, I already am. There's a pretty big enticement."

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Giggle! "Careful about saying that sort of thing to a man."

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"Good thing I'm eloping with a woman then, isn't it?"

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"Just something you might need to keep in mind for the future."

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"I'll avoid kissing and telling for now at least."

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"Sounds good to me."

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Another kiss? For practice reasons, really.

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If Nyarie wants!

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She does!

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And princesses always get what they want. Part of Sulumithil's job, that.

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She's very good at it.

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Many years of training.

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"You've been working for my family for a long time..."

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"It's a steady job. And I get to eat from the palace kitchens for free. The cooks are almost as good at what they do as I am."

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"Almost!" She giggles. "Not bad, as motives go."

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"I try to keep my priorities straight."

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"You're succeeding, though I wouldn't call your methods straight."

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"Straight would be too easy to predict."

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"A reasonable argument." Kiss!

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Kiss! But if she's continuing to initiate...

"I think it's important to clarify: are we doing this for our cover, because you like kissing, or because you like me?"

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"...All three? I don't know if I'm kissing you because I like you in - the way people sound when they talk about kissing someone, though."

"I like you, kissing is apparently very fun, and being comfortable with kissing you whenever is good for our cover and I'm terrible at switching - behaviors?"

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"That's all fine. Kissing is fun, and I'm very unlikely to fall in love with you as well. But with things like this, people can get hurt feelings very easily, so I didn't want that to happen to you."

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"I'll let you know if it seems like we're risking it."

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"Sounds good!"

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She giggles. "Do you like kissing me too, then?"

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"You've got untapped potential."

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"But still more to learn?"

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"Always." Kiss.

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Heee kiss!

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Commendable enthusiasm.

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A good trait when kissing?

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Very much so.

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She'll keep it up, then.

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Perfect.

They're well prepared for the city, then.

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"I'd hope so."

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"You can trust me, princess."

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"I do."

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Then into the city as their cover identities. A ground level view of things.

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The city is beautiful, above all else, a marvel of the entwined craftsmanship of the dwarves and elves. The paving stones are tiny and smooth and arranged in multicolored mosaics, showing plants and creatures and abstract patterns. Lamps with posts carved to look like vines line the major streets, and stained glass windows glow with steady light from within the rooms. The cheaper inn they're directed to early on has enormous stained glass windows with images of cats, and heavy wooden furniture with detailed geometric carvings, and food cooked by a dwarf with a passion - nearly an obsession - for foreign recipes.

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"This is a rich place, isn't it?" she says to Nyarie.

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"It is. Very much so."

And it contradicts a lot of what she hears back home. (Numenor is rich beyond belief, and the palaces are far grander than this. That doesn't mean there aren't slums.)

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"Easy to see how one might covet such wealth."

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"What do you mean?"

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"Numenor has much, but always wants more."

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"And this place is - somewhere with more than even us."

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Nod.

"It is worth significant effort to obtain."

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"And you think that's what - the Queen is doing."

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"That's how the signs seems to be pointing."

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Unhappy face!

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Yeah.

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"Do you oppose that?"

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"I don't think it's the best path forward for prosperity."

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"No."

"Though that might not be what the crown cares about, per se."

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"No. Which is part of the explanation for why it pursues this."

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"The Queen's priorities are - not Numenor's."

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She nods.

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"I won't take action - or share it later - purely if you express, hmm, heretical opinions to me. I value honesty over flattery."

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"It may be thought by some," Sulumithil murmurs, "that the effectiveness of a government controlled absolutely by a singular monarch has been waning in recent generations. That personal ego has displaced regard for the wider mass of people. That Numenor is larger than the palace and the estates atop the hill, and that more consideration for the wishes and well-being of the lower classes, the merchants and tradespeople and laborers, would be a better avenue to growth and strength than overseas adventuring and expansionsim."

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...Hum.

"And what alternative ways to accomplish that, than a monarch whose priority it is through their own virtue, have some possibly thought of?"

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"There are a few alternative systems..." Councils and republics and democracies and communes and others, which she can outline briefly if Nyarie wants.

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She does.

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Then it's time for Political Theory: Outside The Palace edition.

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There's...

A lot.

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Organizing and directing people, it turns out, is a complicated problem. At least if you want the solution to be robust in as many as several cases.

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Tiny smile.

"And there's so many ways it's occurred to people to try."

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"It's important to a lot of people that it does get solved."

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"But then people don't agree on the problem, or the desired end state..."

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"Lots of obstacles."

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"Yes. And some solutions cause more problems than they solve..."

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"It's almost a circular paradox."

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Nod.

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"The guilds in this city seem to mostly work. Multiple independent hierarchies, with a council at the top ensuring everyone is aware of each others' actions."

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"A lot of the members being immortal probably helps that, though."

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"Almost certainly. But we do not age and die in a day ourselves."

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"True enough."

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"So there's probably some lessons we can take. And I'd imagine that some petty interpersonal grudges would only grow over that kind of time."

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"We can ask about what trials and tribulations they've hit, too."

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"After we make contact."

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"Sure."

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"Do you have any plans for that, now that we're in the city?"

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"Don't know if our covers have an excuse to approach any of the guilds, especially their leaders..."

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"We could play tourist some. See how receptive they are to outsiders."

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"Good idea."

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"Then it's a date."

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Giggle kiss!

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(This princess is too cute.)

So bed for tonight, then sightseeing at some of the guild houses after breakfast.

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The jewelsmiths look interesting, and are supposedly one of the more powerful guilds...

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Probably too expensive for a poor runaway to commission something for her girlfriend, but there's no harm in looking...

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They are tourists...

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So let's go touring.

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The guildhall is just as grand as Numenor's main palace, albeit smaller and more practical in places. They seem to have arrived during a lull in activity, though.

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Which makes their presence... unusual.

"Hello there."

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"Good morning." Friendly smile!

"Are you one of the guild members?"

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"I am." First among them, no less. "Taking a break from a project, at the moment. And contemplating if the murals need refreshing. Your eyes seem unlikely to be jaded. Tell me, what do you think of them?"

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"They're beautiful, though..."

Nyarie has had a classical education, and she's obfuscating where she got it a little but she's still far, far better educated in art history and artistic techniques than even many nobles Celebrimbor has met.

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A discussion with the knowledgeable is always a pleasure.

Nothing in this world lasts forever, regardless of artistic merit. And change can keep the mind alert.

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She's not truly an artist herself, though change is wondrous - and she has some ideas here...