"I do not like to lose, Faramir." Aragorn smiled wryly. "Particularly twice over." Faramir's guest had just retired. "And while I am certainly sympathetic to Lord Raksandhar's plight, how do you propose to move the council on this matter?"
"I do not propose to move the council at all, my lord. But I know someone who might."
It took but a moment for the king to discern of whom his steward spoke.
"He has argued the matter before, to no avail."
"I think…that perhaps things might be different now." Faramir's hands moved swiftly over the chess board, erasing the king's most recent defeat by preparing it for yet another contest.
"Indeed. Given recent events, he may no longer be of the same mind as we two, and he has cause." Aragorn sighed. "Though it would be good to hear anything from him at all, even if it were that he disagreed with us. I miss him. Too long has he been absent from our counsels."
"He would come if you were to ask him, Sire."
"Or if you did, Faramir. But I do not feel that I have the right to disturb him."
"He would say otherwise, and you know it."
"That may be so, but it still seems…unkind."
"And what of Raksandhar's people? Is not what is happening to them unkind?"
The king threw up his hand, conceding one battle with a rueful shake of the head as he sat down to another at the chessboard.
"Shall I write to him then?" Faramir pressed gently.
"Do so. In both our names. For if we must trouble his peace, we will do it together."
Minas Tirith, F.A.25
The Anduin had run red in the dawn, but now glittered silver under the morning sun. Within the king's council chamber, Gondor's great lords gathered to debate once more on the opening day of the summer session. The windows were open to catch any errant breezes, and the weather was pleasant rather than hot as was usual at this time of year. A fine day, and the lords were restless, imagining the other pleasurable pastimes they could have been enjoying. The bell tolled the hour, and the King entered the room, his Steward in his wake.
"This Council of the twenty-fifth year in the reign of King Elessar Telcontar is called to order," Faramir intoned as he and the king moved to their places at the head of the table, Faramir upon the king's right hand. "Please be seated, my lords." With much rustling and murmuring, Gondor's elite did so, eyes turned towards the seat at the king's left hand which was reserved for the Prince of Dol Amroth, and was still empty.
"I saw Prince Elphir just yesterday and spoke to him down in the market," Forald of Lossarnach said. "Perhaps we should send to his house."
"'Tis not like him to be tardy for such things," Galugil of Anfalas remarked. "I hope that nothing has befallen him."
"Are we to begin then, or wait upon the prince's pleasure?" Daerlath of Morthond asked querulously. "The rest of us are here."
"I suppose we will begin," the king said, "for my steward does like things done in a timely manner." He smiled at Faramir, seeming not much vexed at the prince's absence, though the other lords, knowing all too well by now how the king worked, were glad enough that they had been punctual. One or two cast glances down the table towards Brandmir, who simply grinned and shrugged his shoulders. He seemed to know nothing of the matter, despite the Swan Knight's white belt circling his narrow waist.
"Captain, have you heard-" Daerlath started to ask. The door opened. Eyes moved to where the Lord of Waters stood in the doorway, tall and sere. Grey-eyed, his hair steel and silver, clad in robes of a fabulous brocade of waves in various shades of blue and grey, Dol Amroth's circlet of sapphire and pearl upon his head, Imrahil of Dol Amroth surveyed his fellow council members for the first time in two years.
"My lord king, my lord steward, my lords," he said quietly. "I apologize for my late arrival, but the wind was against us and it was oar-work the last third of the way up the river."
"We had not yet begun and you are well come in any event, Imrahil." The king's voice was warm. Imrahil inclined his head in regal acknowledgement, then glided smoothly to his chair and sat down. Startled murmuring broke out momentarily, then was quelled when Faramir raised the rod of his office.
"If we can begin, my lords…" he said, and they did.
Having made the effort to bestir himself to come out of mourning, Imrahil of Dol Amroth did not seem much inclined to be any more active than that. He said nothing unless directly addressed by King or Steward and sat with chin resting on steepled fingers, listening attentively as the morning wore on, seemingly unaware of the glances that were sent his way. And the same held true when they reconvened after the lunch hour-until the king once more broached the subject of tariff reduction to the subjugated lands.
"Sire, how many more times must we go over this ground!" Hirlind of Pinnath Gelin exclaimed, and disgruntled mutters arose in agreement.
"As many times as it takes to get it through your thick skulls that you are wrong," came the Prince of Dol Amroth's voice at last. "Therefore, it will undoubtedly be on the Council agenda until the Fifth Age!" Heads turned, startled, at both his entrance into the debate and the ire with which he had done so, but he paid them no heed, looking instead to Aragorn. "Sire, have I your permission to address the Council?"
The king gestured gracefully. "Please, my lord prince."
Imrahil rose to his feet. He was still a tall man, it did not seem that age had shrunken him yet, though his nephew thought he'd gotten a bit spare over the last couple of years.
"Many, many years ago, when I was a young man, and most of you here were not yet born, or were little more than babes in arms, I went with my father Adrahil to Pelargir, to make treaty with the Haradrim, for such was our custom in those days." Here Imrahil glanced over at his nephew. Inexplicably, Faramir muttered something that sounded like 'See fishie', causing both Aragorn and Forald, who was seated on Faramir's right, to stare at the Steward in bafflement. Imrahil, however, actually smiled, the first smile that had crossed his face that day, before he continued.
"The treaty was re-negotiated every five years, and the tariffs had been raised by both parties the previous two negotiations. Denethor was wanting to either raise them again or maintain them at that ruinously high level. And I say ruinous because our trading houses were beginning to fail, for they found the tariffs upon the other side to be stifling their business. I told Denethor then what I tell you now, that to raise taxes, or maintain them at this high level, is to lessen the trade of both goods and ideas between countries, and makes misunderstanding and war all the more likely."
Protests broke out at once. "These are not taxes!" Daerlath exclaimed heatedly. "They are reparation for the damage done our lands and livelihood! They are weregild for my two older brothers, slain on the Pelennor, and for all those others lost!" He looked to the Lord of Lossarnach for support. "Forald's father was hewn by axes!" Some murmurs of agreement arose, though Forald himself looked uncomfortable.
"I know perfectly well what happened to Lord Forlong-I was trying to cut my way through trolls and Variags to get to him when it happened!" said Imrahil. "And I met your brothers, Daerlath, and knew them to be brave young men of the highest quality! But you and Forald are hardly the only people in Gondor or on the other side, to lose loved ones in that conflict."
"'Tis easy enough for you to sympathize with the enemy, my lord prince! I note that your family is still intact."
Something changed behind Imrahil's eyes then, something that made the Council shift uneasily and Daerlath shrink back a little. The Prince drew himself up, and as if in answer to an unspoken summons, a breeze blew through the open windows, lifting his hair. But his voice, when he spoke again, was quiet.
"My lord, are you implying that Dol Amroth has been laggard in her duty to the realm? Because though my family is known for its visionaries, I am reasonably sure that I did not dream commanding this city when it was besieged by the Enemy, my first-born son at my side, while my other son sought to winnow the Corsairs down in the Bay of Belfalas. And I am also sure that I did not imagine myself and Elphir fighting on the Pelennor, and at the Black Gate. I seem to recollect having been at Dale as well, and divers other places over the years. That we were more fortunate than many, I do not deny. But we did our part, and I dare anyone present to contest that!"
"If they do, they may contest with me, my lord!" Brandmir interjected, all his good humor gone, his eyes grey ice. Several lords gave the younger man uneasy looks. The day after his foster-father had fallen in battle, Brandmir had taken up Andrahar's Mahiran scimitar and done such damage upon the insurgents that he had almost single-handedly brought about an end to the conflict as well as winning himself a place in local legend as an object of fear and terror. More than one of the oldest veterans there had been reminded of his father Boromir-another warrior who was most amiable in manner everywhere but on the battlefield.
The Prince inclined his head in gracious acknowledgment to his great-nephew, then continued.
"I dare you to tell Elphir or Erchirion that they shirked their duty, Daerlath. But you will not, for not only have you not the stomach for it, you have no ground to do so. And my family has in fact suffered a loss. Two years ago, in southern Harad, I lost my blood brother in a battle we should not have been fighting at all. But those who acknowledge the king's authority there had not the means to defend themselves, due to this policy of ours. So honor demanded that he send men to protect them. Andrahar and I were both fourscore and eight at the time, we'd both been fighting in Gondor's defense for over three score of those years, and we could have stayed home by our hearths with no one thinking the worst of us. But we could still wield arms and the king had need of soldiers to enforce his writ, so we went. And so Andra died. And it may be, Daerlath, that age is indeed dimming my memory, but I don't recollect seeing Morthond there. Or upon any other battlefield since you have come to manhood."
Imrahil paused for a moment to regard his opponent dispassionately. Absolute silence fell over the table. Daerlath flushed with anger or embarrassment, but looked down at his folded hands and did not respond. The Prince stared at him a moment longer, then turned his attention back to the council.
"I have fought for Gondor for over sixty years. My sons have been battling all their adult lives, and now my grandson and great-nephew find themselves doing so. I have the right to ask that my great-grandsons be spared the necessity of fighting and to ask as well that this kingdom enact policies that will encourage peace among those men of good will who wish for it."
"'Men of good will'? Among the Haradrim?" Forald asked.
"You know they exist, Lossarnach. You were there, and you know very well that not every Southron who marched against us was there of his own free will. Not all of them were Sauron's sworn servants. Many were simply men who had no choice but to answer their lords' summons. And even some of their lords were constrained to act against their truest desires. The old desert lord I negotiated that treaty with all those years ago was one such. 'My people are poor,' he told me, 'and have little influence in Council. We are regarded as little else than a source of soldiers, but our soldiers are seldom commanded by one of their own-the coastal lords decide how their blood is to be spent.' His folk sold their skill as soldiers to bring needed resources back to their tribes rather than because they served Sauron, and I have remembered that over the years."
"What exact policy do you propose we enact then, my lord of Dol Amroth, and how will it encourage peace?" Aragorn asked, and somehow it did not sound like a rhetorical question, even to those who suspected he'd arranged matters with Imrahil beforehand.
"I propose that the current tariff level be reduced to a third of what it currently is, which new level would be comparable to what was in place two decades before the Ring War. That would be enough to cover our administrative expenses with a little profit besides, and the reduction would certainly cause an increase in the volume of trade that would benefit both realms."
Outraged protests broke out immediately. "One third!" "Are you mad?" "Shall we just give them the keys to the gates of Minas Tirith while we're about it?" and other such remarks rose around the table. The King let the cacophony continue for a minute or two before raising his hand for silence.
"I asked the Prince two questions, and I would hear his answer to the second one." When order had been re-established once more, he indicated that Imrahil should continue.
"As to how it would promote peace, sire…Daerlath remembers his brothers not coming home, Forald and Hirlind remember their fathers falling on the field of battle. I have my own memories of friends lost during that time. But to the child born just a year or two later, these things are merely the stuff of tales. And to the child born today, on either side, they are the stuff of legend. The Haradrim boy born today, who sees his people struggling, who sees the majority of the wealth they generate going into our coffers, is going to ask why. Why must I be punished? I did not rise against the Gondorrim! And if he cannot make an honest living, particularly if he has a family to support, then he will either turn to outlawry or fall prey to the first demagogue who tells him that it is his right to fight to keep what is his. And I cannot say that I would blame him."
The Prince looked up and down the table, surveying each lord in turn. "Furthermore, as to the question of what we do is tax or weregild, I sailed up Anduin to get to this Council. The Ethir, Lebennin, Lossarnach…all the lands through which I passed looked hale and healed and prosperous. My factors assure me that Belfalas and Dol Amroth are thriving. Any damage that was done by the War seems to have been repaired for the most part, and I fear that we stand now upon a cusp between legitimate recompense and outright greed." Imrahil fastened his gaze upon the King. "It was not my intention to swear fealty to a tyrant, sire. I do not believe it is your wish to become such, with a foot planted firmly upon the necks of our neighboring nations, but I fear that it could happen if we continue upon this course."
Aragorn looked thoughtful, not offended. He nodded an acknowledgement. Imrahil then turned his attention to Faramir. "And as for you, my lord Steward, I am reminded of something you once told Frodo-'I would see the White Tree in flower again in the courts of the kings, and the Silver Crown return, and Minas Tirith in peace: Minas Anor again as of old, full of light, high and fair, beautiful as a queen among other queens: not a mistress of many slaves, nay, not even a kind mistress of willing slaves.' Has that wish of yours changed over the years?"
Faramir smiled. "No Uncle, it has not."
"Then we must tread cautiously over the next few years or a mistress of slaves is what you will be serving, and they will not be willing slaves." The Prince paused to take up the goblet of watered wine that stood at his place and drink a long draught from it.
"Dol Amroth, more than any other place in Gondor save for this one, likes to dwell upon the exalted history of our Numenorean forebears," he said when he had set his cup down. "But like most histories, ours also has a dark side. There is much of the old blood in Belfalas, just as in Lebennin and Lossarnach and Morthond. My own mother had some of that ancestry in her. And in the most ancient archives of my keep are some troubling tales, of how our ancestors dealt with the men who were here first, men they deemed lesser men. I have read those histories and keep them in my heart as a caution against overweening pride, for that has ever been the downfall of our race."
"If we continue as we are doing, then one day, and I think it will be sooner than later, there will be conflict again with our southern neighbors, as they seek the freedom to rebuild their country as we have rebuilt ours. And if indeed that is the hidden agenda here, to provoke Harad until they give us cause to expand our borders to where they once ran at the height of the flowering of our kingdom, then I warn you now that Dol Amroth will have no part of it. Elphir and I are agreed upon that. We will gladly give our lives and those of our men, to defend this realm. We will not give them for empire-building."
His eyes met Aragorn's then and the king's eyebrow rose a notch, but he said nothing, merely inclining his head slightly. There was muttering among the lords and one or two had sheepish expressions that indicated they might indeed have been thinking along the lines the prince suggested. Imrahil's gaze raked the table once more. He smiled a second time, and it was a grim smile.
"I thought as much. We have no need for more land than we now govern. We have no need for the deserts and orange groves and jungles of Harad. We would be stretched much too thin administering it. Between Arnor and Gondor there is room for entire realms along the Greyflood and elsewhere, and that is good land! Our younger sons can settle that, there is no need to send them into the sand! It is time to give Harad her dignity back."
"What assurance do we have that giving Harad her 'dignity' back does not involve her raising an army once more, my lord prince?" Forald asked.
"In the first place, my lord Forald, Harad does still have an army, drawn down as it is. In the second, I expect she will increase her number of soldiers if we give her the means to do so, for she needs them for her southern border. In the third place, where is the difference between Gondor fighting Harad's armies or fighting her battles for her because we've left her well-nigh defenseless? In either event, we are still fighting, and our young men are still dying. And it is the fighting I wish to stop. Understand me-I do not propose that we lessen our own troop levels or our vigilance one bit. Our own borders must be properly maintained. But if Harad finally becomes our proper ally rather than a subservient client state, then she is less likely to rise against us and can look to the south for us."
"And if she rises again against us?" Hirlind asked.
"Then that will hopefully be later than sooner. If you do as I ask here today, my lords, I think it will be much later, if it ever happens at all. And if it happens in our grandsons' time, then I believe we will be able to do naught but prevail. For we are a people diminished in numbers now, but given the good land we have available to us, and the time to settle it, our numbers should grow swiftly. We will have the people and resources to successfully oppose Harad if she rises, for even though she will have recovered as well, she cannot feed so many as can we. Besides, if our descendents decide then that empire is the best course of action, we will hardly be in a position to protest."
A chuckle or two actually went around the table at that. Aragorn looked up at the man who had been the first to swear fealty to him and smiled. Faramir was smiling as well.
"We thank the Prince of Dol Amroth for his wise words. Have you anything further to add, Imrahil, before we put the matter to a vote?"
The Prince looked down at the table for a moment, then back up at his monarch. His expression was suddenly grim.
"I do, sire. Honor compels me to tell the Council what I will do if they do not pass this measure."
"What you will do?" The smile left the king's face. Faramir actually looked somewhat startled. Those lords watching who had been thinking that Gondor's ruling triumvirate had planned all this began to wonder if that were so.
"Yes, my king. If the Council votes to maintain the tariffs at their current level, then my factors stand ready to sail to Harad to offer ten-year contracts to all the major trading houses at the one-third rate I have suggested."
"But you cannot do that!" Galugil protested. "The king must be paid his lawful due!"
"Indeed he must, and indeed he will," agreed Imrahil. "I plot no treason here. Dol Amroth's harbor fees and tariffs will go to Gondor to make up most of the difference, and the rest will be added onto the re-sale price. Elessar will receive his due, never you fear. My men of business predict that I should be able to bring nine-tenths of the silk trade, two-thirds of the spice trade, and two-thirds of the general trade through Dol Amroth. I won't deny that it will hurt my purse-I will have to make any repairs to the docks and roads out of my own pocket, but I know we can hold out for that length of time." He looked down at his splendid robes and his mouth twitched into a wry smile. "Though I might have to cut back on my wardrobe a bit."
This time, there was no laughter. Almost as one, heads swiveled towards the foot of the table where sat Banadar, the head of the tradesman's guilds of Pelargir, one of several commoners who also sat on the King's council. He did not often speak, unless the King addressed him upon matters of trade, and he'd said nothing at all this day. His face was pale as milk.
"Can he do that, Guildmaster?" Daerlath demanded. Banadar nodded.
"Oh yes." His voice was low and shaken, and the others had to strain to hear. "The Prince's family has always had very good relations with all of the major silk-weaving guilds in Harad, and the merchant houses as well. He can do what he says. And he will ruin us."
The look Imrahil gave the guildsman then was not without sympathy. "You would have to match me to keep what trade you could, and you cannot support it. And then you would have to apply to the king to reduce the tariffs in actuality." He turned back to the Council, his expression chill and resolute. "Much less time wasted, and much misery spared, to simply do as I suggest today, don't you think?"
"You would declare a trade war upon your own people, Imrahil?" Forald exclaimed in disbelief. "Why would you do such a thing?"
"Because though there are casualties in a trade war, and I do not pretend there are not," snapped the Prince, with a nod towards the shocked and reeling Banadar, "it is still less bloody than the real thing!" He took his seat as accusations and protests arose once more, seeming oblivious to all of it, his attention fastened exclusively upon Aragorn, who was absolutely expressionless. Faramir had his diplomat's face on as well, but he had been badly surprised, as evidenced by the length of time it took him before he remembered himself and rapped upon the table with the rod of the Stewards to bring order to the Council.
"I think," said King Elessar Telcontar as he stared at the renegade prince who'd just blackmailed his Council, "that it is time to put this matter to a vote."
In the sunset light, a man leaned alone upon a merlon on the wall of the sixth circle, looking towards the West. He was leaning upon the left side of the great stone, and though he was alone, his glance would stray at times to the empty space upon his right, and he was addressing the air there.
"Well, what do you think, Andra? A good day's work? Perhaps a few less starving children, a few less slaves? Fewer young men felled in battle? I know, I know. It was all too overly dramatic for your taste. Just as well you've gone ahead-you'd have probably ruptured something trying to keep from laughing."
Light footsteps sounded on the top steps of the stairway then, and the man faced forward and fell silent.
"Is he really here?" a voice like music asked. The man did not answer immediately, merely patting the stone beside him, inviting the other to join him, to take that empty space. When she had done so, albeit a bit hesitantly, he turned to her with a smile.
"Like the Houseless Ones? No, he is truly gone, my queen. But I talked things over with him for most of my life, and find the habit hard to break. The folly of age, if you will."
"Folly, my lord?" said Arwen disbelievingly. "T'was not folly that bent the Council to your will this day. Though Aragorn did say you skirted the edge of treason once or twice. Not that he is complaining about the results."
A pirate's grin flashed at her through the gathering dusk, and Arwen was glad to see it.
"It appears that I have not entirely lost my appetite for dancing with danger," Imrahil admitted. "And though I always thought of Andra as my fire, and thought it gone, some embers apparently do remain."
"Fanned to life by the wind of the kingdom's necessity?" the queen asked. "We have missed you, Imrahil. I have missed you. Please don't become a stranger to us again. Aragorn needs your wisdom and counsel."
"Aragorn, my lady, has every bit of my years and more."
"But those years were not spent in Gondor. You have the history here that he lacks. The history that enabled you to do today what he has been trying to do for the last ten years."
"True enough." Imrahil conceded the argument. A slender arm laid itself across his shoulders then, and a soft cheek pressed close to his.
"And you are very special to me. You were my first friend here, the first one to greet me as queen."
"And I will be the first to leave you, Arwen." He turned his head slightly then, that he might meet her starlit eyes straightly. "And it will be soon, as you would reckon such things. Though not forever." His arm moved to her waist in its turn, and squeezed. She sighed.
"You truly believe that?"
"I know it." The certainty in his voice seemed to comfort her, and she relaxed and leaned even closer.
"Your family is all below, my lord prince, waiting for you to join the celebration," she murmured coaxingly in his ear, soft as the voice of the Sea in a shell. "And our family as well. Will you not come back to us?"
"I will," Imrahil said, releasing her and straightening up. He took the Queen of Gondor's arm then, and escorted her back down the stairs, to the garden, where lamps hung in the branches of all the trees and a feast was laid on the boards beneath them. There he found his family waiting, and many of his friends. Then Faramir led forward the one face in the crowd he did not know, a young Haradrim face, grave beneath its Gondorian haircut.
"Uncle," he said, smiling, "there is someone here I would like you to meet."
Footnote-Faramir's words to Frodo that Imrahil quotes back to him are, of course, from The Two Towers.