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One of her first memories: venturing down a long hallway on the unsteady feet of a toddler, one hand clinging to her father’s thick, golden robe. Looking up at him, at the sceptre that glinted in his hand, and stumbling. Being swept up in his arms, carried onwards, her eager hands reaching for the sceptre.

Always reaching.

***

When her brother was born, she knelt beside his cradle and ran her fingers through his damp hair, over and over, while her mother slept, exhausted from her labor. At twenty-two, Silmariën had long known that she had no claim to the throne, that the laws of Númenor let the sceptre fall into the hands of male heirs only.

Still, part of her had hoped.

They named the boy Írimon, a placeholder until the day he took a royal name and the sceptre. Silmariën went to her father’s throne room daily to watch him dispense justice for the people, issue decrees, make proclamations. She had been a quiet observer since she was old enough to walk; she had absorbed more than her fair share of court politics and maneuvering. Yet hardly anyone seemed to see her - it was as if she was only a shadow, forgettable and fleeting.

You always have a place in the royal court, her father promised her, over and over.

She dreamt of the weight of the sceptre in her hand, the hard lines of the throne under her body. Of being knelt to, and gazing out across the bowed heads of her subjects, holding their fate between her fingers.

***

Silmariën was twenty-five when she met the daughter of the Captain of the Ships.

Vëantur was giving her a tour of the eastern port of Rómenna, part of a survey she was conducting for the royal court. Hardly daunting work, or even terribly interesting, but Silmariën welcomed the chance to move around freely, outside the walls of the palace. It was also nice to be allowed to do something for the court, no matter how trivial - she had long ago grown bored of sitting quietly and looking pretty.

Her first sight of the woman was only a flash of golden hair darting around the corner. Silmariën turned, mouth opening to ask Vëantur what that had been - and the woman emerged again, looking over her shoulder and laughing at something Silmariën could not see.

“Tis my daughter,” Vëantur explained. He beckoned her over. “Almarian!”

The woman - Almarian - turned. There was a cheerful smile on her face, but something about her grey eyes put Silmariën on edge - they were clear as a well, but lit with some deep fire that seemed to intensify as she looked Silmariën up and down.

“Who is this?” Almarian asked.

Silmariën stepped forward before Vëantur could answer, bowing slightly. “I am Silmariën, daughter of Tar-Elendil. Your father was kind enough to provide me with a tour to help me with a project for the court.”

“Oh? And how do you like our humble city? I cannot imagine it compares well to Armenelos.”

“It is certainly - different,” Silmariën allowed. Was it her imagination, or was there a teasing note in Almarian’s voice, a spark of interest in her eyes?

“Tis strange to see a princess so far from the royal court,” Almarian noted.

“Almarian,” her father said warningly.

“They do let us out sometimes,” Silmariën replied dryly. Almarian’s smile widened.

“You must desire to make the most of your temporary freedom, in that case.” When Silmariën inclined her head, Almarian added, “Come, then. Dine with me tonight.”

There was definitely something in her gaze, a curiosity that made Silmariën feel warm. She bowed again. “I would be most honored.”

***

“You’re a strange princess.”

Silmariën raised an eyebrow as she took a sip from the glass of wine Almarian had given her. Spread out before them were the remains of their meal - the carcass of a large, grilled fish, various seasonal steamed vegetables. Almarian had spent most of the meal quiet, but every time Silmariën had glanced at her, Almarian seemed to be looking back at her.

“Have you met many of us?” Silmariën asked.

“Nay. You are merely - hm.” Almarian set her utensil down. “So polite. I always imagined royalty as aloof and haughty.”

“Some of us are. You’ll find that we vary, as people tend to.”

Almarian laughed. “And you are amusing. I like you.” Silmariën felt a flicker of pleasure at Almarian’s approval. “I’d imagine you’re a better princess than most, though.”

“Your father is the King’s Captain of Ships. Surely you have encountered royalty in your life.”

Almarian shrugged airily. “I have spent much of my time at my mother’s home in Forostar. I prefer it there to here, truth be told. The woods are beautiful, and the sea is so - harsh.”

“Fitting, then, that you would come from there.” The words escaped Silmariën before she could think better of them, but Almarian was clearly interested. In exactly what, it was hard to tell.

Almarian tilted her head to one side, curiosity on her face. “What do you mean?”

Silmariën had come this far; she might as well dive in fully. She took a breath. “Only that one as beautiful as you must have come from somewhere equally breathtaking.”

A moment of silence, then Almarian threw her head back and laughed, the sound clear as a bell. “You flatter me.”

“Oh, but did you not know?” Silmariën leaned forward, smiling. “A princess is obligated to speak only the truth. And I am a very dutiful princess.”

“I’m sure you are.” The smile faded from Almarian’s face, replaced by a fiery hunger. “Well, then, Princess of Númenor, what do you wish of me?”

“Only what you would freely give me.”

Without a word, Almarian rose and offered her hand, leading Silmariën down the hall and into her bedroom. When the door closed behind them, Almarian rose up on her toes - she was a full head shorter than Silmariën, who was considered tall even for a Númenorean - and kissed her. Her lips were soft, and Silmariën caught the scent of pine trees and wind from her skin.

She tangled her fingers in Almarian’s hair, and felt Almarian’s hands go to the clasps of her dress.

***

Afterwards, they lay in Almarian’s bed, tangled amid blankets and shed clothes. Silmariën’s hands could not stay still. They wandered over Almarian’s body, brushing against the delicate skin of her wrists, trailing up her arm, cupping her cheek. She was hardly romantically inexperienced, but this glittering, golden woman was as far from the daughters and sons of the royal court as she could be. It was like making love to a forest spirit, all wilderness and laughter.

“Why did you invite me over?” Silmariën asked. Almarian rolled over onto her back, pressing her head against Silmariën’s shoulder. “Did you expect the evening to go this way?”

“I found you enchanting from the first moment I saw you,” Almarian said. “And I did not expect - I merely hoped.”

“And have I lived up to your expectations?”

“Oh, Princess.” Almarian’s eyes glinted with amusement. “You have far surpassed them.”

***

She found excuse after excuse to leave the royal court to take the overnight journey to Rómenna and spend a day or two at the docks, each one more transparent than the last. It did not concern her. If her father suspected anything, he said nothing, and the rest of the court paid her so little heed that she sometimes wondered if dancing through the palace naked would draw the slightest attention from them.

For the first time in a long while, she found herself swelling with warmth, a happiness growing within. Something about Almarian was the exact opposite of the dull, heavy air of the palace - she was freedom and sunlight and laughter.

It could not last. She knew this. Even if she would not inherit the throne, the daughter of the king had certain duties. Running off with another woman was not one of them.

Royalty are not their own people, her father had once told her, hands behind his back, gazing out a window. Given a choice, I do not know if I would choose this path of kingship - but I have no choice. Our power comes from the people, and so we must follow the will of the people, else betray everything they have trusted us with. We both rule and serve.

It seemed bitter to Silmariën that she should get only the serving part and nothing of the ruling.

***

They sat in Almarian’s boat, a small, wooden craft with a bench that fit the two of them and not much else. Almarian had steered it around a rocky outcrop, away from the docks, to give them some privacy. They spent the better part of an hour kissing and touching each other over their clothes, but Silmariën’s mind kept wandering.

This could not go on forever. She could not always be sneaking away thus. If she had been born a commoner, if she had been free to choose her own path - even if she had been her brother, and able to take Almarian as queen - perhaps things would be different. There was little use dwelling on it, but something kept drawing her thoughts back like a compass needle to the north.

Almarian pulled back with a huff, pulling Silmariën’s attention back to her. “You are distracted,” she accused.

“I apologize,” Silmariën said. “I was merely thinking.”

“About what?”

“Being royalty. Being overlooked for the throne. Being--” She gestured helplessly. “Being me, and not someone else.”

“What do you mean?”

“If I had been born a man, things would go differently.” It was the best she could do - her thoughts were a tangle hard to parse.

“Then you might take the throne and me as your wife. Do you wish that?” There was a playful note in Almarian’s voice. She ran a finger down Silmariën’s cheek, leaning close enough that Silmariën could smell the forest-scent of her.

Silmariën made a noncommittal noise in the back of her throat. “I cannot say.” I still would wed you, if a way presented itself, she wanted to say, but the words refused to emerge. “I know my place.”

Almarian swung one leg over Silmariën’s body to straddle her, pressing her hips close to Silmariën’s thighs. The boat rocked with the movement, and the heat of her body made Silmariën’s eyelids flutter, her body tense with wanting.

“You do not know your place,” Almarian breathed, grey eyes meeting Silmariën’s. “You do not know it because you have not yet found it. You have not yet made it. You are more than what they think of you.”

Instead of answering, Silmariën reached up to tangle a hand in Almarian’s hair, pulling her close to claim her mouth with a kiss. Water splashed against the side of the boat. Almarian hummed approval, lips parting slightly.

***

Sometimes, she daydreamed of a future where she and Almarian boarded a ship and steered it east, away from the island, to some new and uncharted territory. She could see Almarian at the bow of the ship, sun caught in the golden strands of her hair and salt spray on her lips. Could see the joy and freedom in her eyes.

Or better - Almarian could take her to wild Forostar, to the fir forests of the north, and show her the blossoming of summer amid the evergreens. They could have a small house in the depths of the woods, and none save the birds and beasts would trouble them.

(For the first time, her dreams turned away from her father’s sceptre and to another kind of gold - Almarian’s hair, silken against her fingers, falling over her eyes that were grey as the wings of a falcon.)

***

“Come to the palace with me,” Silmariën offered one night. They sat in Almarian’s window seat, the shutters open and letting in the cool night air. In the sky above, stars pinpricked the black.

“What would I do at the palace?” Almarian laughed.

“You are always telling me I do not spend enough time with you.” Truth be told, she agreed with that. “Armenelos is miles from here, I cannot always be making this journey to see you.”

“You have been managing perfectly well so far.” Almarian kissed her, clearly trying to distract. Silmariën pulled back, frowning.

“I’m serious. If you joined me in the palace, we could see each other whenever we wished.”

“And what would you tell everyone, that you have decided to take a seamaster’s daughter as a lover?” Almarian scoffed. “Even were I not from such a humble background--”

“You are not so far removed from the court, you would not be seen as an undesirable match--”

“--even if they did not see that as a problem.” Almarian raised her voice, words overriding Silmariën’s: “They would not wish you to wed a woman. You have duties.”

Duties. Silmariën felt sharp words rising to her lips and forced them back down - Almarian was not the one she should lash out at. She was only echoing the thoughts that had plagued Silmariën since this affair had started, but to hear her take that side of the argument - to agree with the small voice in the back of her head that said that this was doomed - felt like someone had reached into her chest and clenched a fist around her heart.

“What do you expect of me, Almarian?” The anger drained from her, leaving only exhaustion. “I was not born to be Queen. My heart chafes at the bindings of obligation.

“If you were not a princess, if you did not have duty as a mantle, I would follow you.” Almarian’s eyes flashed, mouth set in a stubborn line. “To the ends of the earth, if need be.”

Then run away with me. Across the sea, or to Forostar, or to someplace else entirely--

They could not. They both knew this.

“I am not going anywhere,” Silmariën said instead, running a hand through her hair.

“Then I will stay here for you, for as long as you will have me.” Almarian’s expression softened. She laid a hand on Silmariën’s cheek, touch cool and gentle. Silmariën closed her eyes.

“That is all I can ask of you,” she whispered.

***

Seasons blurred together, golden summer and grey-sky winter, and Silmariën learned how the docks of Rómenna looked choked with ice or adorned with blossoms washed down the river into the sea. Almarian’s window overlooked the quay, and Silmariën spent many an hour with her elbows propped against the sill, watching the bustle of commerce outside.

She still dreamed of taking Almarian as her wife, of ascending the throne and ruling as Queen with the golden-haired woman at her side. For her part, though, Almarian seemed content with what they had - secret meetings, stolen moments - and so Silmariën supposed that she was happy, too.

“Does it bother you, that this cannot last?” she asked Almarian one evening. The two of them lay on Almarian’s bed, limbs entangled and foreheads touching. Almarian let out a long breath, eyes thoughtful.

“Nay,” she said at last. “After all, a sunset is all the more beautiful for knowing it is fleeting. We do not love things because they last for all eternity.”

“If I could preserve this forever, I would,” Silmariën admitted. Almarian smiled.

“As would I. But we cannot. So enjoy yourself in the moment, and do not worry about what the future holds.”

Silmariën nodded, closing her eyes. It was difficult, to let go of her anxiety, to merely exist with Almarian, but perhaps - perhaps she was learning how. Perhaps Almarian had been showing her how, all along.

She curled up against her, wrapping her arms tight around Almarian’s body, and inhaled the green smell of fir needles. For a moment, her mind tried to wander again, painting a picture of the two of them under the trees of Forostar, but she pulled it back, into the warmth of Almarian’s embrace.

This was enough.