AN: For Oshun. I’m sorry this year has been so rough for you, and also that my promise of a ficlet to (hopefully) make you smile took this long to see the light. Pain is a dreadful thing and I hope the worst will soon pass.
It was mid evening and the palace grounds were almost deserted, although the more popular areas were still lit with tiny lanterns. The portion of the garden reserved for residents was drenched in shadows, the lights confined to torches at the entrances. The night was quiet, or as quiet as it ever was in Mithlond. The sea soughed energetically, close to spring tide and having a voice about it, while the trees and bushes rustled in the breeze blowing in to shore, with an occasional loud creak or rattle of branches in response to a heavier gust.
Erestor hurried across the grass, long fingers unravelling the multiple tight braids he had worked his hair into earlier to keep it out of the way. He had moved like a shadow along the illegal shortcut everyone used from the stables to the palace, but this close to home stealth had given way to the need to seem ordinary, or as close to ordinary as he ever did, so by his standards his footsteps were positively loud. His attention was on the staff entrance up ahead so he had barely registered the darker shape amongst the chestnut trees before it detached itself, resolving into neither one of the King’s Guard nor even a guest, but the tall, broad shoulrdered form of the king himself. Long strides took Ereinion Gil-galad to the gravel path where he stopped to wait, arms folded, expression unreadable.
“Evening, Erestor. A little exercise before turning in?”
Erestor held onto his reputation for nerves of steel by a hair and bought himself a few moments to catch his breath with a bow and a murmured, “Good evening, Your Majesty.” He even threw in an engaging smile, all perfect teeth and dimples, which had no noticeable effect. Gil-galad merely grunted and then waited as though expecting more. Erestor faded the smile, produced an attentive expression and waited too. He had no choice – he could hardly walk away.
“Never tried it but those rocks look like a stiff climb,” Gil-galad said eventually. “Quite a workout.”
Erestor had made the climb up the rock face nightly for the past week and could have organised a pass for the area had he wanted – he was a military advisor, no matter how junior – but that would have defeated the stealth component of the exercise. He need not have bothered, he thought wryly, more than a little mortified to be so easily caught out. And by a peacetime warrior at that if the barracks sentry was responsible.
He had answers ready should he be stopped by members of the King’s Guard who patrolled the grounds. He was even prepared in the unlikely event that the sentry on duty at the barracks should spot him crossing the sand on his way to the headland at the end of the little beach the military thought of as their own. Being questioned by the king had never crossed his mind, not even as a playful fantasy.
Instinct took over while he found his feet: there were people you lied to or to whom you spun the truth a little, but the High King was not one. “Yes, Your Majesty. Very demanding.”
Gil-galad gave him an interested look then gestured briefly. “Quite. Come. This way.”
Erestor blinked but obeyed, following the king inside. They went up the stairs to the floor above his own, then through a maze of corridors to a softly-lit hallway rich in rugs and tapestry-draped walls. He would have known he was in the private wing even had he not been a regular visitor to Elrond’s rooms and possessed of a good sense of direction. His mind raced with how, why, and how long, but he could not work out where they were going, nor find a single reason why Gil-galad would take a personal interest in what was a fairly minor infraction.
Just then they turned into a broader, better-lit corridor and Erestor knew where he was; this was the way to the large office Gil-galad referred to as his workroom, which was somewhere Erestor had been before, taking notes at meetings for his superior.
There was no one in the outer office, in fact they had only seen one person along the way and he had ducked his head to the king and kept his eyes down as he passed. Erestor would have given a lot to know what that elf was thinking. Then again, considering what the first thought might be at sight of the king and a good looking companion alone together, he decided he would rather not know.
He followed Gil-galad into his workroom, which had the unlikely distinction of being directly above the palace bathhouse. Elrond had once said his cousin chose that unusual space because he liked hearing activity downstairs when he was working late. Erestor was never sure if Elrond really knew what he was talking about when he explained Gil-galad’s thinking on something or if he was guessing. He liked people to think he had all the answers. Including – especially – Erestor.
The air in the room was cold and the sea sounded almost as loud as it had outside because most of the windows were open. A single lamp burned. Gil-galad made a sound of annoyance and spent the next few minutes sorting out light and closing all but one window. Then he sat down behind the big table that served as a desk and picked up a paper which he proceeded to read.
Erestor took up a position behind one of the chairs facing the desk, careful not to make a sound. He supposed if he was about to be disciplined for going where he had no right to be, it would have been handled by his immediate superior, certainly someone lower than the king himself. This was about something else entirely.
Gil-galad at length looked up and frowned as though he had forgotten he was not alone. “Oh yes, of course. Sit, will you? No need to tower over me like that.”
Pulling the chair out, Erestor sat. Gil-galad stared at him and he submitted to the scrutiny, trying to look composed without appearing forward. As luck would have it the chair was hard so there was no risk of him relaxing. He made a mental note that if he were ever to have an office with chairs for visitors, they should be upholstered and padded. When people were physically at ease, they made mistakes.
Gil-galad nodded again, apparently satisfied with what he saw. “So. What exactly is it you’ve been doing these past few nights? Besides getting some exercise, I mean.”
With no obvious right answer, honesty was the safest approach. “It’s just a test I devised for myself, Your Majesty. Get past the sentry unseen – I clearly failed there – then climb the headland and go along to where the cliff overhangs the next cove… not sure you could get down there without rope and not break your neck. And then on the way back, try and build up some speed.”
“Going slow on the way up because you’re looking for new obstacles, yes? Rock falls and the like.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
Gil-galad continued to study him, eyebrows slightly raised. “Why?” he asked.
Erestor started. “Why? I had to know I still can, I suppose?”
Explaining was less easy when it concerned something so personal, all about half-voiced urges and instincts, a need to keep that edge of which he had been quietly proud. Erestor answered slowly, reaching for the right words. “I don’t get much exercise any more, not as I did out in the wild. There’s no pitting myself against the terrain or watchers’ eyes and I thought maybe a little practice… Not that I don’t enjoy my work, of course,” he added hastily. “but the main part that’s exercised there is my brain and not my other skills..”
“They picked you up three nights back. You might want a few more weeks at this rate,” Gil-galad suggested mildly. “I heard about it by chance. Suggested they let you get on with it.” Erestor couldn’t be sure but he thought the king’s lips twitched. Nothing made sense here. To be on the safe side he kept his expression bland and nodded.
Gil-galad got up and paced the length of the room, hands behind his back. One of the lamps smoked at the movement of air and he shot it a scowl but said nothing about fixing it, so Erestor stayed put.
“You spend quite a bit of time with my cousin these days.”
Ah. So it was about Elrond. Erestor took a mental breath. He and Glorfindel got along extremely well except on this one topic, and the blond must have taken his concerns to the person best placed to do something about them. Never underestimate the value and reach of pillow talk, he reminded himself dourly. “We – seem to have interests in common? We spend a lot of time talking.”
“Is that the new name for what you’re doing? I don’t always keep up with the fashions. Anyhow. Whatever it is.”
“Is there a problem, Your Majesty?” Best to grasp the nettle in both hands and get it over and done with, Erestor decided, poised to deal with whatever came next, from banishment to a premature welcome to the family.
“Problem? No, no. No problem. It occurred to me we might find it useful. For cover.”
This also was not on the list of things he was prepared for. An image of the elf in the hallway looking discreetly away flashed across his mind and with it came a warning frisson of nerves. Instinct told Erestor to watch every word from this point. His mind scrabbled through the last sentence and settled on a question. “Cover?”
“Mm. Don’t need the entire world to know what’s going on.” Gil-galad spoke absently, giving the impression of thinking something through while they talked. Suddenly, as though the problem had resolved, his blue eyes came to rest on Erestor and he smiled that smile of infinite charm for which he was justifiably famous. He looked amiable and utterly guileless, a look Erestor instantly distrusted – he had made use of something like it too often himself.
This time there were a veritable cacophony of warning bells, but he was ahead of them, remembering a time not so long ago when he had flirted – lightly, harmlessly – with the king and had picked up a definite flash of interest. If this turned out to be a proposition, he needed a strategy for declining with grace and in such a way as to have the least impact on his job. Not that he was short on ambition, far from it, and not that he found Gil-galad unattractive – far from that, too. But city living had blunted his edges… there was Elrond to consider now. And to his surprise, even more than Elrond there was Glorfindel. Elrond would fight dirty for what he believed was his, but the shy, friendly blond from Gondolin could be as trusting as a puppy.
Sitting very straight and looking as professional as he could under circumstances that involved casual clothes, loose hair and probable dirt smudges, Erestor said, “Was there something Your Majesty wanted me to do?”
Gil-galad picked up the sheet of paper he had been studying and nodded. “Yes, there very well might be. You used to be one of Gildor’s better agents, as I recall. Good at getting in places you shouldn’t be, putting together information, right?”
Erestor hated being confused, it put him off balance. “Seeing patterns in things is one of my strengths, Sire. And people seem to like talking to me.”
“Well that would be because you’re easy on the eye,” Gil-galad said, ever practical, and smiled. “Talking to someone’s the best excuse yet for staring.”
Erestor kept quiet. It was clear where this was heading and he still had no idea how to deal with it when they got there. What made it worse was the little voice whispering that he would have no objections were it not so damn inconvenient. After all, there was nothing to dislike in the king’s appearance – well-muscled, with a mane of dark hair and blue eyes set in a strong rather than beautiful face. Plus he exuded rank and power, which were their own attraction to many and from which he knew he was not immune.
Gil-galad put the paper down and then pushed it across the table at him. “Read this. It’s a report from one of my men. He came down through the Red Birch Pass into Lindon, stayed the night at the watch station there and didn’t like what he saw. He had no authority to investigate further. I’m considering sending someone who will.”
Intrigued, Erestor picked up the sheet of paper and ran his eye down it. Gil-galad helpfully moved the lamp a bit closer for him and Erestor caught a whiff of extremely expensive scent with a hint of cinnamon. He shut it out and paid attention. A quick reader, he skimmed the page then put it down, still frowning. “Someone has a nice little business there, selling supplies to the townspeople.”
“So it would seem, only there’s no town as such, just the garrison. He must be selling them on elsewhere.”
“Or has a regular order from someone passing through,” Erestor said, thinking aloud. “It should be possible to track that. Aren’t there records of everyone passing through a border post?”
“Meant to be, not always carried out. And this is just one place. I have no idea what else might be happening out there.”
“It’s peaceful for the first time in most of our lives,” Erestor hazarded. “People get bored. There’s space to think about more than plain survival.”
“I thought you’d understand the problem.” Gil-galad sounded pleased with himself. “People who can fish out information usually have minds that work that way. And that’s what sent you rock climbing above the barracks, too – boredom, living soft, no chance to stretch yourself. Soon as I heard, I knew.”
He knew because it was something he had gone through himself, Erestor realised. An active war leader, peacetime must have come hard for him as well. The warning, which had receded while there was a problem to solve, sounded loudly again. Erestor reined in his thoughts and composed himself; in the rush of empathy he had almost forgotten who this was. “It gave me an edge that simple sparring lacks, Sire. I was never a swordsman.”
“No. You’re more close quarters knife work, aren’t you? Not tall, easy to get in under someone’s guard if he’s not expecting it. Not the kind of thing that can be practiced the way passes with a sword can.” He was measuring Erestor again as he spoke, those disconcerting blue eyes travelling down his body and back up again.
“Knife and unarmed, yes, Sire.” Icy disdain worked very well for keeping most people at a distance when they crowded in too close, but Erestor was damned if he could think how to apply that to a king. It was work enough keeping his voice pleasant and steady.
Gil-galad leaned back in his chair still watching him. “Seem to remember something about that, something Gildor said. You see anything of him these days”
“Uh, not for some time, no Your Majesty.”He used Gil-galad’s title like a charm, trying to remind them both of the difference in status between them. “He seldom comes to Mithlond and I’ve not been far from here in a while.”
“Have to work something out there, he has a whole network I’ll need to make use of. You any good as an actor?”
This one also came so far out of the darkness that he couldn’t begin to guess the point. “People see what I let them, Your Majesty?”
“Good. You’ll need that. When word gets round that you’re being sent off on some worthless errand because I don’t like you hanging around my heir as much as you have lately, you’ll know how to deal with it then.”
“Sent off?” Usually he would just stay quiet and listen, and in time the answers presented themselves. This was not one of those times.
“Yes. When you’re off investigating the border posts the length of the Ered Luin for me. Can’t have anyone knowing what you’re about, including your immediate seniors here.”
“You want me to investigate illicit dealings in army supplies and….?” Relief wrestled down the stab of disappointment and sat on it. Mainly he was just glad he hadn’t said the wrong thing and made a bigger fool of himself.
Gil-galad gave him an impatient look. “Army supplies, weaponry – there’s figures that don’t make sense in peacetime unless they’re firing arrows at targets from morning to night. You’ll have a list, but see what else you can pick out – you should be good at that kind of thing. Officially you’ll be going from base to base with a questionnaire for the local commanders to respond to. About morale, and other hard to pin down things. Which,” he added, sorting through a few more papers and passing them over to Erestor, “they will lie about, but I expect you to pick up on that as well. Any questions? You look puzzled. Perfectly fair job for a promising junior advisor, I’d have thought.”
“No, Your Majesty, not puzzled at all,” Erestor lied, pulling himself together with a struggle and resisting the urge to fiddle with his hair which was completely loose now and hanging like a silk shawl about his shoulders. Not for the first time he considered cutting it all off. “Go to border posts. Look for illegal activities. Check morale. Let people know, discreetly, that I’ve been sent out of Mithlond on some makework errand for spending too much time with Lord Elrond. Quite clear, Your Majesty.”
Elrond was across the bay studying with Círdan and only came home three days out of ten, but they were good days and made up for the rest. Erestor did a quick calculation – three more days. They would get to spend Elrond’s break together before they both had to leave…
Gil-galad broke into his thoughts. “You’ll have tomorrow to get up to speed, then you’ll leave the following day. My assistant will arrange an army horse and papers authorising you to exchange it as you go along. Don’t have to tell you to travel light, do I?”
“Day after tomorrow…?” Shit.
He was treated to the devastating charm of Gil-galad’s smile again. “You’ll just have to trust me to give him the facts when he gets back, Erestor. May as well make this look genuine. If I was splitting you up, last thing I’d do would be give you a chance to weep on each other’s shoulders and say a fond farewell.” Quietly he added, “Elrond seems to trust you, and nothing in his life has inclined him to take anyone at face value. That’s why you’re here. I’m relying on his judgment. And Glorfindel’s. He likes you.”
“Though he’d prefer it if I spent less time with Elrond, of course.” Erestor was unable to resist throwing out the bait.
Gil-galad was not tempted to gossip about his lover’s thoughts on the subject. “I hadn’t noticed. Here’s all the information that’s been collected this far – different sources, some small things, others a lot bigger. And here’s a map. I’ve marked the places I think you should visit in red.”
Erestor took the map and spread it out, wondering if this was a double bluff, if he was not, in truth, being sent away because of Elrond, with a possible conspiracy to sweeten the pot. Still, the assignment was not one he could refuse, even if he should so wish. And really, he was already itching for it. This was work he knew and enjoyed. He looked down at the map and blinked at the sheer amount of red.
“It’ll take a while,” Gil-galad said as though he had spoken aloud. “But he should still be waiting when you get back. He’s stubborn that way. Probably got it from Maedhros.”
“I always thought it was from his father,” Erestor replied . “He kept trying time after time to find a route to the West and never gave up.”
“It’s not a bad quality,” Gil-galad agreed. “You might want to practice a bit of that yourself. I always expect a detailed report.”
Beta: Red Lasbelin