It was raining.
Vili hated when it rained.
He couldn't display all his merchandise properly in the small pavilion he had to erect on wet days. And business was slow too. He didn't blame potential customers for holing up in their own homes or inns of course, but it was still annoying. Especially when Vili himself could no longer afford to pack up and find somewhere warmer. The clothes would get wet and he would get wet, and risking the latter was out of the question. The lydnleaf dye he used on his blond tresses and beard turned them a light brown. But prolonged exposure to water washed it out, and if that happened there would be nowhere to hide.
Vili had been blessed by Mahal – or cursed in his opinion – with an exceedingly rare colouring. His hair and beard were naturally golden like the Sun, and the Khazad people valued this trait above all else. Just as they coveted real gold, they equally coveted those few dwarrow they labelled Mahal's Chosen, treating them almost like gods in some instances. But the harassment and other more invasive behaviours that accompanied this attitude were what made it truly unbearable. Before he had taken to dying his hair, Vili often fought hard – and failed – to ignore the leers of other Khazad, both dam and dwarf. When attempting to sell, he had to wonder whether his customers were truly after a coat or him. Having to behave in a friendly, charming manner didn't help either. They often thought he was flirting, leaving him no choice but to politely turn down their advances, which unfortunately sometimes lead to disgruntled patrons leaving without having ordered or bought anything.
Vili had never been made to feel like one of them. He was an outsider, and would still have been with all the company in the world. He could have said company if he deigned to participate socially outside of tailoring and sales. But what was the point when all they cared about was his appearance? He would much rather draw their attention to their own, and help them find the right look for the right occasion. That was his job. He wished they'd let him do it a bit more thoroughly and efficiently than their behaviour generally allowed.
He'd been so busy mulling over things whilst he waited for the rain to abate, he hadn't even noticed her walk in.
Vili turned in response to a flicker of movement in the corner of his eye, and approached her slowly. Business may have been slow, but it would never do to pounce on a potential client. Her back was to him, her long black hair done up in a single braid which fell to her waist. A tattered, mud-covered cloak was draped over her arm, and with the other hand she was examining one of his cloaks. Her gown looked to be made of expensive material, and he recognised real pearls stitched into the patterns. A nobledam.
With his best smile in place, he commented, "That would look truly lovely on you, my lady. You are very welcome to–"
She faced him and he felt his words stick in his throat. Her eyes were large and a deep brown, her features well-proportioned and delicate yet also sturdy-looking. A small, combed but unadorned black beard completed the vision standing before him.
"Good afternoon, sir. Welcome to what, exactly?" Her voice was of a lower quality for a dam, rich and warm.
Vili swallowed hard and felt his face heat in embarrassment when his own voice came out in almost a squeak, "… try it on."
"Oh, thank you. Ah, would you mind?" She held out her ruined garment to him and he took it without thinking, still recovering from the strange feeling that had come over him. She swung the cloak over her shoulders and clipped the silver fastening into place, then did a little twirl for him with a broad smile. He couldn't help but smile back and feel a complete fool for behaving like a smitten dwarfling.
"What do you think? I like it, but I'm wondering if you perhaps have something a little broader? It's cold out there and I want to snuggle myself up tightly in it like a caterpillar in its cocoon."
Vili blinked and had to take a longer moment to think than normal. "Um… yes. I'll fetch some others right away for you, my lady." He almost tripped over his own boots in his hurry to meet her desires. What in the name of Aulë had she done to him? She chatted amicably behind him as he sorted through a crate.
"It's such a dreary day. You know, I actually left after it started, thinking it might stop after only a few minutes, the way it has lately. But no, the one time I risk it, the gods decide to play tricks on all the poor souls out and about today and send it down in buckets. Someone bumped me in the street earlier and I fell and that's why everything is completely ruined. My cloak bore the worst of it though, so maybe the maids will be able to clean and repair my dress after all… oh, thank you." She paused to swap over the cloak she was wearing for the one he'd handed her. "Oh, that is much better! See? Cocoon!" She humorously lifted the sides of the cloak and ducked down inside it, covering her head and looking for all the world like a sleeping bat. Vili laughed then covered his mouth quickly with a frown, "I am so sorry, my lady. I mean no offense!"
"None taken. I was trying to amuse you," she dropped the fabric and allowed it to fall into place around her, giving him a grin as she emerged.
They stood there looking at each other, then the nobledam nodded sharply and reached for her money pouch, "Right. Well… I'll take this one if you plea– oh no! My coin purse!" She searched frantically for a moment, evidently coming up with nothing. She worried at her lip, clearly thinking. "I must have lost it in the mud… I'm so sorry," she moved to undo the clasp at her throat, but Vili put out a hand to stop her, hearing himself say, "No please, it's quite alright. You can have it."
A pair of dark eyes stared up at him in both gratitude and disbelief, "Really? Are you sure? I am perfectly capable of–"'
"Please, I insist. What kind of dwarf would I be if I sent a dam out into the cold in a soaked gown with nothing to defend her from the rain and biting winds on a day like this?"
"Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you! You are too kind! I shall be back as soon as I can to pay you for it– NO!" Vili had opened his mouth to protest but promptly snapped it shut again as she raised a finger for silence and continued speaking, "I appreciate your kind gesture, but I know how a business works. I doubt you can afford to lose the profit on this, and what kind of dam would I be if I let you give away part of your lively-hood for a pretty face?"
She had once again rendered him speechless. Who was this beautiful dwarrowdam with the charmingly childish sense of humour, yet so obviously used to being in a position of authority? She was already departing through the pavilion flap, calling over her shoulder, "Good afternoon, sir. I wish you good health, and I shall be back so please don't leave town just yet. I'll hunt you down if you do."
Then she was gone.
And he didn't even know her name.
What a fool he was.
He certainly wouldn't be going anywhere any time soon, even if the weather cleared up. He found himself needing to see her again, just the once. Just to know for certain she had been real. Of course she was real. Her muddy cloak was still lying on the table he had draped it over. It was a good thing no other garments had been there at the time. He would not have noticed.