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The problem with living in Minas Tirith was that it was always too hot or too cold. In summer, no matter how high up your room was in the stone pile, the sun baked the walls and lingered in the stone courtyards. The desultory breeze that puffed in through the windows was never enough to cool the room. But winter gales filtered easily through the shutters and made freezing cold drafts along the floor. On perfect spring days it was both. Faramir had shucked off his tunic and unbuttoned his shirt in the drowsy, lingering light of early evening as the sun flooded through the window and reflected heat from the white stone courtyard outside. While he was absorbed in his duties, the room had imperceptibly cooled as the night deepened until his bare feet sought in vain for warm places on the wooden floor. The branch of candles that lit the work area contributed the only heat to the room as a chill night breeze weaseled its way through the open window.
Faramir wondered what time it was. He pulled on his tunic as he went over and closed the shutter, blocking off the worst of the late night chill. There was nothing but dark outside the window and there had been at least one guard change, or perhaps two, since he started his search of the records.
On Faramir’s desk was the crumbling record of court decisions from the fifth to tenth years of Belecthor the First’s time as Steward. Faramir was increasingly certain that the scribe who recorded them had died of palsy, as the writing he was trying to decipher got smaller and shakier by the page.
The glow that word brought to him was still undimmed by his two-weeks’ acquaintance with his new title. If he was to go no more to war, then an administrator he would be. Though the major embassies were handled and done, there was still an endless parade of petitioners to present to the king. Faramir raised his eyes from the desktop and stared dreamily into the distance. Eowyn, content to be Steward’s wife and not a queen, was sweetly grateful that she did not need to spend all day in court and find gracious words for every delegation.
From the first, Faramir vowed that the new king would have a summary of every petition and precedent to come before him well before court opened every morning. Faramir’s staff handled most of the details, but some thorny questions of precedence needed his personal supervision. The king could slowly learn the ways of his people but Faramir was determined that Aragorn would never be embarrassed by lacking knowledge of who and what came before him in court. A Ranger of the North, no matter his bloodlines, could not be expected to know the intimate ins and outs of a court as old as Gondor’s.
Faramir bent back to the records with a stifled sigh. Eowyn was three days gone on the road to Edoras, and he had been distracted from this research far too long already. The precedent was needed for tomorrow’s court and his staff had finally confessed that none of them could read the old text. He rubbed his eyes and continued skimming, turning the fragile pages carefully.
Liquid sloshed into a mug that was pushed across the desk towards him.
“I had no idea the king was such a harsh and demanding master. Middle of third night watch and still you work.”
Faramir startled, looked up and saw a tall, rangy man with a pitcher in his hand lounging at ease in the chair in front of the desk. He was dressed in a loose white shirt and dark trousers and his eyes held an undeniable gleam of amusement.
“As a Ranger of Ithilien, I thought I had mastered stealth, but you are very good at it, sire,” Faramir said.
“Stealth is a hard habit to break. Drink up. It’s from the Third Company’s stocks. Pippin swears they have the best brewmaster in the Guard, and he makes it his business to know,” the king said. Aragorn reached down to a basket at his feet and fished out another mug. He filled it from the pitcher and parked both on the edge of the desk. Reaching into the basket once more, he took out a bundle and unwrapped a stuffed loaf of bread from its cloth cover. He pulled out his belt knife and began to slice the bread into two sections. “It’s a long time since dinner.”
Faramir, a half smile quirking his lips, looked from the loaf to Aragorn’s face. “You do know it’s against protocol for the King to serve the Steward, sire,” Faramir said.
“Aragorn? Elessar? Estel? Strider? Surely there is one of my names that you could bear to speak.” Aragorn wiped his knife on the napkin and sheathed it. He picked up a half of the loaf, took a bite and pushed the other half towards Faramir. “It’s good.”
Faramir slowly reached for the bread astonished at the level of intimacy he was being offered. In the two weeks since the king had entered the city, between the press of business, entertaining the visiting lords and embassies, and Faramir’s private times with Eowyn there had been very little opportunity for the king and the steward to interact. “Thank you...Aragorn, I am hungry.” The bread was crunchy on the outside, white and soft on the inside. It was thickly spread with a soft cheese and a slightly sweet and spicy condiment unfamiliar to Faramir. He took several hungry bites and washed them down with a swallow of beer. “This is very good. What is that spice? Mustard? … Aragorn,” he added uncomfortably.
“With honey and spices. Sam made this batch after dinner. He took me aside and said the mustard on the table last night,” Aragorn shifted voices and did an uncanny imitation of Sam, “was, begging your pardon, Strider, sir, thin and sour and not fit for a king. I’d a been that ashamed to serve it even at the Gaffer’s table.”
Faramir choked, spraying damp crumbs over the volume on the desk.
One of Aragorn’s rare smiles lit his face. “Hobbits can cook the most amazing meals under the worst circumstances. I remember once in the Southfarthing, Gandalf and I were …”
Faramir listened to the anecdote in growing bewilderment. This was not the King Elessar Telcontar he had come to know through long days in court over business. Faramir had only half believed Merry when he told him Aragorn was a friend worth having and not only a king worth serving. Aragorn told the story well, and Faramir found himself chuckling at the end.
Faramir refilled their mugs and sat back with a sigh of repletion. He brushed crumbs off of the volume on the desk and large pieces of the parchment flaked off, pages slumping messily into fragments.
Remembering his company, Faramir bit back an oath. “What I was looking for was probably on one of those pages,” he said glumly. He poked at the fragments and another wedge of parchment broke off. “It’s not worth sending this back to be reshelved.” A gleam of humor came back into his voice. “I’d give it a mercy killing but it already smells dead.” Faramir thumped the cover closed sending a scatter of parchment particles over the desktop.
“One more task for my reign. Have the library recopied,” Aragorn said tranquilly, sipping his beer. “I don’t expect to see the candles burning in here once Eowyn is back. What were you looking for that was worth staying up most of the night to find?”
Faramir fiddled with a quill on the desk. The image he wanted Aragorn to see was of the perfect Steward, effortlessly giving the king what he needed to rule. “Finishing the summaries for tomorrow’s court for you. There’s a disputed precedent.”
Aragorn held out his hand and waggled his fingers. Recognizing a command when he saw one, Faramir slid the unfinished summaries from under the damaged volume and handed them to the king. He watched as Aragorn quickly read through them.
“Guilds tomorrow, I see,” Aragorn said. He looked up at Faramir. “The Pepperers and the Glassblowers aren’t still arguing over who was chartered first are they?”
“How did…? How could you…?” Faramir stammered.
Ignoring Faramir, Aragorn continued, “Of course, I could revoke all the guild charters and start a new sequence of precedence.” He cocked an eyebrow at Faramir and waited to see how he took the idea.
Faramir thought the middle of the night was a strange time to finally begin a discussion of Gondor’s fiscal policy but he scrabbled out a parchment with current revenue numbers from a pile on the side of his desk. Turning it to face Aragorn, he began to instruct his king.
“Gondor’s revenues actually derive from several sources, my lord. Land rents, taxes, guild fees…” he ticked them off on the list as he spoke.
Aragorn put his hand over the parchment obscuring the numbers. “Faramir, how do you think I spent my time while waiting for this?” he gestured broadly to take in all of Gondor and his kingship.
“Fighting the enemy, my lord. Mostly alone, from the tales I hear.”
“And advising kings. I did sometimes try to stay away from the court but if I lived anywhere for more than year or two, I usually found myself a councilor.” Aragorn shrugged. “It happened in Rohan, Harad, other places too far away for their names to have meaning to you. Even here in Gondor I was....”
Faramir looked up sharply, “Gondor?”
“I was Thorongil. Did I leave that name off my list?” Aragorn smiled wryly. “I don’t think it would be politic to call me that. There are probably too many who still remember, and truce or no truce, Umbar certainly has factions looking for reasons not to trust us.”
Faramir tried to reconcile his mental picture of Thorongil, the mysteriously disappearing hero of the tales of his childhood, with the king. The king lounging in his office, quaffing beer, and telling stories.
Aragorn leaned forward in his chair and captured Faramir’s eyes with his own. “Ecthelion was not one to keep his captains here with nothing to do, and he did not seek war. I spent years at court before I gained Ecthelion’s permission for that raid on the Corsairs. I do see and appreciate the work you do. I know well how a kingdom works, and what you can do for me, for Gondor, if you will.” Aragorn paused and looked towards window at the rosy light of early dawn seeping in around the shutters. “Gondor will need much care to guide it back to greatness and Arnor is still mostly in disarray.”
Faramir nodded, puzzled. The king was a beacon at the end of a dark time, drawing him back to life. The friendly, if formal, relationship they shared in the court for the last two weeks was satisfying.
“The city will be rebuilt. I’ll be honored to carry out any of your commands, sire.”
Aragorn sat back and studied Faramir over the rim of his mug. “I do not need you, Steward of Gondor and Prince of Ithilien, as a servant to follow my orders. Elrond and Gandalf were my advisors for all my life, but they are soon leaving Middle Earth. And they are not Men. This is the time of Men. I seek a partner in the rebuilding. Will you join me?” He held out his hand over the desk.
Faramir stared at the hand held out to him. He gripped it. The name came easily to him now. “Aragorn, yes!”
Aragorn lifted his mug of beer. “To Gondor.”
“To Gondor,” Faramir echoed and drained his mug. Life did not get better than this.
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