Miriel's servant, Nithil, finished Miriel's hair and stepped back, handing her a mirror of polished silver. "Done! How do you like it?"

Miriel, who had been staring off into space, took the mirror absentmindedly. "Oh?" She looked at her carefully pinned curls of hair. "Very nice."

Nithil waited a moment as Miriel stared blankly into the mirror. "Do you need anything else?"

"No. Er, do you know where Usaphda may be found?"

"I hear the king has been sending him all over Armenelos on errands. These days, he's harder to talk to than the king."

Miriel rose from her chair. "Help me with my dress. I'm going out."

It seemed Usaphda's services had transferred to Ar-Pharazon along with the king's scepter. Miriel hadn't noticed until this moment. She had been happy enough to let Ar-Pharazon prosecute the war. War was ever the playground of men.

Women could be just as effective on the battlefield as men, but women tended to be more reluctant, either too timid or too vicious in their eagerness to end the unpleasantness quickly. Men, on the other hand, savored war like a gourmand savoring a fine dish. They danced their formations across the field just as passionately and just as prettily as any female dancer on the stage, engendering-as far as they were concerned-honor for themselves and respect for their foes. It was an art most women didn't care to learn to appreciate.

But it hadn't just been the impending war that had so dissuaded her from ruling. There had been an impending birth as well. Miriel and Ar-Pharazon had been married for a little more than two years, and though Pharazon had not neglected his husbandly duties, still Miriel failed to become pregnant until nearly six months before the war.

His name was to be Uedjan. It meant hope. It would have been recorded as Estel in the annals of the kings had he lived long enough to see the scepter. But she had miscarried less than a month after Ar-Pharazon had left to invade Middle-Earth. Uedjan's body was now buried in a tiny gold casket in the tomb of women. She intended it to be transferred with her to the tomb of kings when her time came. She still wore a small scroll with both of his names on it next to heart.

Ar-Pharazon had been home for nearly a year now. Though she had enticed her husband to her bed nearly every night, still in all that time she had not yet become pregnant. A dark and growing fear began to creep upon her that, like the path to the undying lands in the west, her womb was also now closed.

Miriel found Ar-Pharazon in his private study with the prisoner Sauron, leaning over a table covered in parchments bearing drawings of ships and parts of ships. Sauron reacted first to her presence, looking up immediately as she entered. Ar-Pharazon followed his gaze, his frown turning to a smile when he saw her in the doorway.

"What brings you here, my dear?"

"Forgive me if I'm intruding, but I had a question. I hoped to speak to you and Usaphda seems to be hard to find of late."

"I have been keeping him well occupied," Ar-Pharazon said, "but you never need another's permission to see me. What would you ask me?"

Miriel started to speak, then paused. Sauron's piercing eyes dissected her with his lidless stare. It was hard enough to try and make her husband understand what was little more than fear and guilt and the most desperately thin shadow of hope. She unconsciously pressed her hand to her abdomen.

How could she explain that she feared the Valar had cursed her womb? How could she make Ar-Pharazon understand that if they restored the rites of old that maybe-just maybe-the Valar might overlook their sin and allow the sons of Elros to continue for at least one more generation. She opened her mouth to speak, but Sauron's gaze blasted the words away like candle smoke in a stiff breeze. His very presence seemed to poison the room.

"I'd rather speak to you alone," she choked out.

Ar-Pharazon followed her gaze to Sauron. "Is this about Mairon? He's harmless."

Sauron shot Ar-Pharazon a look.

"What is the enemy of Numenor doing here?" she asked.

"Enemy? No enemy of Numenor." Sauron, or Mairon as he was now calling himself, gave her a crooked smile of calculated self-consciousness. "That...unpleasantness last year was a misunderstanding. We both seek to heal the wounds of the last elf war and unite the peoples of Middle-Earth for their own good."

Miriel didn't know how to respond to so bold a lie.

Ar-Pharazon took her hand. "What can I do for you?"

Miriel took a deep breath and plunged it. "It is nearly the summer solstice and the festival of Erulaitale."

"Ah!" Ar-Pharazon nodded as if he had forgotten.

"What is this?" Sauron asked.

"It is a festival," Ar-Pharazon said with a toss of his hand. "There will be contests of song and verse, music and dance and more food than you can eat. All of it needing to be sampled and judged to determined which will make the better sacrifice. It will go on for days. I should make you go in my stead."

"It is also the time to offer the prayer of praise," Miriel cut in.

"Yes, well..." Ar-Pharazon searched among the parchments as if looking for something.

"It is never a good thing to forget the traditions of old," Miriel said. "Ar-Gimilzor forbade ascending Menaltarma and his life was cut short. If you would have the blessings of Eru and the Valar for your realm and your reign, we must ascend the pillar of heaven."

"That is all well and good..." Ar-Pharazon moved the scepter of the king aside and the corner of the parchment it had weighed down snapped up into a roll. "You know I have always respected... I was raised to respect the traditions of old..." He fruitlessly flattened out the parchment as he sought for words.

"What need have you for the blessings of the Valar?" Sauron asked.

Both Miriel and Ar-Pharazon looked up at him in shock.

"When you set out to conquer Middle-Earth was it the Valar who felled the trees, milled the lumber and built your ships? Was it the Valar who mined the ore, smelted the steel and forged your swords and armor? Whose hand lay on the tiller of your ships? The Valars' or yours?"

Sauron's words struck Miriel like a cold hard slap of sea water.

"I repeat, what good have the blessings of the Valar ever done you?"

When the tide of shock receded, a blazing fire of indignation rose up in Miriel. "How dare you? If it weren't for the Valar, we wouldn't exist. They raised the island of Andor up from the ocean for us-"

"-A rest and a reward for helping them in the first War of Wrath," Sauron interrupted. "I know what they told your fathers. What better way to trap a man than to tell him his prison is a paradise?"

Ar-Pharazon scowled. "What are you saying? That Numenor is a prison?"

Sauron turned a patient look on him. "If you had stripped every tree from Numenor, you would not have had enough timber to build the fleet you have. To do that, you needed the resources of Middle-Earth, a world nearly denied you. Why do you think the Valar forbid your fathers from sailing east? They fear the strength you would have if they shared their land and their power with you."

"I suppose we should expect such lies from a servant of Morgoth," Miriel said.

For the first time, irritation flickered across Sauron's face. He straightened indignantly and Miriel realized, Sauron wasn't merely tall, he was big. He was like one of those over-sized statues erected by prideful kings of the past. "I was a servant of Aule, the smith!"

Miriel watched him measure his words carefully, remembering the Maia before them was unimaginably old. He had neither mother nor father, having been created by Eru Iluvatar himself.

"I only sided with Melkor when the other Ainur shamefully sought to bind their elder brother and deny him his rightful place. They grew jealous of his power and creativity and sought to restrain him, though he broke their chain and freed himself."

"I thought he was...unhoused," Ar-Pharazon said hesitantly, "...and cast, body and soul, through the Door of Night into the Void."

Sauron gave him a slight smile. "All according to his wishes."

"He sought to be cast into the Void?" Ar-Pharazon looked more surprised than skeptical.

Sauron's smile broadened. "Aule was only a craftsman. Melkor was a true artist. He had mastered all the arts of creation but one: the secret fire, the flame imperishable which gives life and substance to all creation."

"Which lies...in the Void?" Ar-Pharazon asked.

"You don't expect to find the tools of creation in that creation do you? The world came out of the Void-it is the source of the world-and the secret fire can be found there as well."

"I can't believe the nonsense I'm hearing," Miriel said once she had caught her breath.

"For all we know, Melkore may have already created new worlds and new resources, beyond the reach of the greedy Valar," Sauron continued, ignoring her. "Worlds for you to find and use."

"How can you stand here and listen to that-"

"Enough!" Ar-Pharazon shook his head slightly as if to clear it. "I have neither the time nor the interest in arguing philosophy or ancient histories like drunken old men sitting at the city's gates."

"I apologize." Sauron held up a hand in a placating gesture. "I became overwrought. I still find myself becoming incensed at any form of injustice."

It was a mistake to come here, Miriel thought as she watched Ar-Pharazon stare thoughtfully at the table. If I had left them to discuss new designs for keels and hulls and sails, Sauron would not have put these ideas into his head. Sauron's twisted words contain only enough truth to wound.

With a deep sigh, Ar-Pharazon turned an apologetic smile on her. "You have often asked how you may be a help to me, and I agree that the ancient rites and traditions must be upheld and observed, but prosecuting the peace has proved even more challenging that prosecuting the war."

Miriel braced herself for disappointment.

"But you are also a queen of Numenor. You bore the scepter before me." He paused and gave her an expectant look.

Miriel was surprised by the implication.

"There is no reason you cannot host the feasts, judge the contests and take the sacrifices up Menaltarma. You have just as much right to go there as I do."

Did she have that right? she wondered. Could she speak for the people of Numenor? She glanced at the king's scepter lying on the table. Had she given up that right when she handed over the scepter? Would Ar-Pharazon allow her to borrow it to make the prayer? Would she give it back if he did? Could he take it from her if she refused to return it?

Miriel closed her eyes and silenced a thousand darting questions. She was doing this for his sake at least as much as her own, she reminded herself. "Very well." She opened her eyes. "I would prefer for you to come with me, but I will represent you alone if I must."

"Thank you." Ar-Pharazon kissed her on her forehead.