Miriel sat in her dressing room in a chair of carved narwhal ivory while an attendant fixed up her hair. She wore a cerulean blue gown of rare silks woven by skilled elves of the north. It was detailed in silver thread and bore constellations of gems. Time was, she thought as she sipped her tea, that a lady could prepare for the day in peace. "Please continue," she told her advisor to the council. "Would you like some tea?"

"No, m'lady. Thank you." Counselor Usaphda glanced at the tea tray longingly as if he were lying. "As I was saying-"

He was interrupted by knocking at the door. It opened and the chamberlain poked his head in. "Pardon, m'lady, but the lord and keeper of the tombs wishes to see you. He's most insistent."

"I'm sorry, but this can wait no longer." An old man in black robes and a grey hood pushed past the chamberlain into the room and bowed. "A thousand apologies, my queen. But I've been prevented from speaking with you for days now and the inhumation must happen soon."

"Why do you call me queen, Lord Agannalo?" Miriel asked.

The old man paused, opened-mouthed. "But Tar-Palantir is no more and you are his only child."

Miriel cast a sharp glance at Usaphda. "The council has yet to grant me the scepter and it seems that some would see that I never hold it."

"We've already spoken of this," Usaphda said a little defensively. "The scepter has merely been mislaid. I'm certain it will reappear as soon as events are sorted out and things become organized. Your father's death has caused much confusion."

"But in whose hand will it appear?" Miriel asked.

"My lady?" Lord Agannalo looked at her with a curious expression. "Why are you not dressed in mourning?"

"I completed my mourning during his illness."

"But tradition! It's unseemly." Agannalo's aged sense of propriety seemed to overpower his sense of decorum.

"'Unseemly' is the faithful mourning as if they have no hope."

"Have you no love for your father? You haven't even given your permission to have his body embalmed."

"Why preserve the flesh once the spirit is gone?"

"But to simply let him rot in the ground...!" Usaphda joined in surprised.

"We will all of us rot in the end, regardless of all efforts to preserve ourselves. Eru clothed my father when He brought him forth and He can clothe him again if He should return him."

Agannalo shook his head. Her mention of Eru seemed to make him and Usaphda uncomfortable.

"Drape him in his cloth of gold, put on his mask of gold and place him on his golden bier festooned with scented flowers." Miriel looked at Agannalo over the rim of her teacup. "Is there any other question that needs answered?"

Agannalo seemed to gather himself. "If he will not be embalmed, then the inhumation must be soon. The choirmaster is already complaining that he needs more time to prepare for the ceremony."

Miriel set down her teacup. "Then tell him to start now."

"He needs to know which of the thirty-seven funerary rituals you would like performed."

"You know my father loved the ancient ways. Tell the choirmaster to use the first and oldest."

"But..." Agannalo cast a pleading look at Usaphda. "That ritual is nothing but invocations of... invocations of...Eru. And in elvish no less."

"Is there any law against such?"

"Not now," Usaphda said. "But in your grandfather's day that language was banned. That rite may well anger the king's men. They are your greatest obstacle at the moment. We need their support."

"Then we are fortunate," Miriel leaned back in her chair and smiled, "that despite my father's attempts to revive that tongue, few people know it. No one who cares will know what the choir is chanting."

Usaphda pinched the bridge of his nose as if his head hurt. "Lord Agannalo, please tell the choirmaster to use the high speech of the elves. It should be the least recognized."

With a somewhat scandalized look, Agannalo nodded and bowed his way out of the room.

Usaphda stood staring at the door for several long moments in silence.

"Perhaps I should just craft my own scepter," Miriel said thoughtfully.

"It's not the scepter you need, it's the support of your council."

"I would have thought the support of the law would be sufficient."

"Laws can be changed. If it weren't for Tar-Aldarion changing the laws to allow his daughter to succeed him, we wouldn't be having this conversation. Some on the council are saying that since your father tried to revive the old customs, that we should revive this one as well."

"How many of my counselors are loyal to me?"

"The lords of Andunie and Laurinque are most loyal to you. Ondosto and Nindamos are unknown, but their sympathies are suspect. Armenelos has always been governed by the king's men and, as far as we know, Azulzain of Orrostar has been as well. Without an heir, there is no one to sit in the seventh seat."

"So two are for me, two against me and two unknown. It would seem the forces for and against are fairly balanced."

"Alas, but they are not. Since the relocation of the faithful from the western lands to Romenna, the influence of Andunie and Laurinque have lessened and Azulzain and Armenelos have grown. At best, we can only hope that Ondosto and Nindamos will remain neutral, but even so, your opponents enjoy greater support."

For a moment, Miriel stared into the dark mirror of her tea.

It had been the tradition of the kings of old, that once their sons had come into their full power, the king would voluntarily hand over the scepter to them. If her father and revived that custom rather than clinging to the scepter until the bitter end as his fathers had done, she would have been firmly planted on the throne by now. That he did not, left a question-both in her mind as well as in the royal council's-as to whether he thought her fit for the throne of Numenor.

"What will they do to me if they reject me?" she finally asked in a soft voice.

Usaphda turned to her with a smile touched by sadness. "They may well set you aside. And this is not without precedent. Even when the council permitted Tar-Aldarion's daughter to rule, they required her to marry. If you would consider taking a husband, one not objectionable to the king's men..."

"If there were any, I might have done so," Miriel grumbled.

A sudden roar broke the gathering silence. It was the voice of a great crowd of people.

"What is that?" Usaphda asked.

Miriel rose and led the way from the dressing room into an antechamber, then down a corridor to a balcony overlooking the main road from the harbor. Below, great crowds of cheering people filled the streets.

"It seems the lords of the sea have returned," Usaphda said and Miriel saw the harbor was filled with ships bearing red and gold sails. Beyond them more ships waited, heavy with timber for building even more ships. A procession of men unloaded treasures from the boats, chests of gold and silver and precious gems; crates of precious foods and cages of rare and exotic animals. They marched into the city bearing aloft the standards of captured kings, dragging in chains the fallen lords as slaves.

"Is that my cousin Pharazon?" Miriel watched a man in the lead toss handfuls of gold coins into the crowd as if stoking the fire of their uproar.

"They are wearing his colors," Usaphda said. Then, a moment later, "He might make a good candidate."

"For what?"

"For a husband."

"My cousin? Are you jesting? Even if it were legal for first cousins to marry, his father was the leader of the king's men."

"Which will more than placate them," Usaphda said, "despite the fact that Pharazon has never cared for politics. He only cares for the sea and adventure and exploration. Of all the sons of Numenor, he is most like Tar-Aldarion, which in your case would be a good thing. You could continue to rule while he spent his life away at sea."

The idea stunned Miriel. It was an elegant solution to her problem. She had to admit, of all her close relatives, Pharazon-whom she had called Kulu as a child-had always been the most interesting and pleasant to be around. Though a little rough, he was always full of laughter and enthusiasm, telling thrilling stories of his adventures on the seas. But he was her cousin-a first cousin-and so their marriage was proscribed by law. "No," she said a little wistfully. "I think such a marriage would only lead to misfortune."