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“I thought I had made myself perfectly clear, Master Ilian,” the quiet, a little hoarse voice from behind the table said.
The room was dim and very silent. All the old merchant from Dol Amroth could see was a shadowy figure beyond the bright circle of light from the six-armed candelabra, the tray with the black velvet cloth and those long, slender hands, pushing away the precious treasures he had brought to the palace. Pearls in the soft, iridescent colors of dawn… gentle pink, creamy white and the mere hint of a rosy apricot, marvelous enough to please a king. Which exactly was the reason why he was here… only that his treasures had to pass the eyes and hands behind the table first. And this turned out to be much more difficult than Master Ilian had dreamt it would be.
„But they are exquisite, Lady Artanis!” he said. “They are the best quality I could get so fast, and it took many preparations and not a little risk to bring them here in time!”
“I am sure that this is the case,” the woman replied in a dry tone. “But you certainly remembered that the thing I was asking for were gray pearls – and only gray pearls?”
“You told me that you need three hundred gray pearls,” the merchant said, swallowing nervously. What had he been thinking? He should have known better than trying to move around her clear order and to offer her something she hadn’t asked for. “I must admit – to my greatest regret, of course – that I could only find seventy-five pearls of that shade, due to the lack of---”
“— the lack of time, I know.” Now the sound of the woman’s voice was a little tired. “The fact that I ordered so many of them doesn’t necessarily mean that I will actually use all of them… as you should know, Master Ilian.” One pale hand moved over the tray, and a pearl, formed like a perfect tear, appeared between its fingertips. The soft, silvery luster shimmered in the flickering light of a candle and was gone when the lady slipped it into a small bag beside her. “The creation of a string of pearl may turn out to be the task for a lifetime. Sometimes you need years to find only two matching pieces, let alone enough of them for a whole, perfect necklace. I don’t have this time. The new King of Gondor trusts me to collect enough pearls to create a gift for his queen within the next month, and I have to rely on your experience and skills to grant his wish. How long will I have to wait?”
“Give me two more weeks, Lady Artanis,” the old merchant said, bowing deeply. “Only two more weeks and you will have what you wanted.”
“Thank you, Master Ilian. I can only hope that you are right.”
She watched him as he put the bags back into his heavy, wooden chest, carefully and slowly as if laying half a dozen children to rest. Then he bowed once more and left, silently closing the door behind him.
The woman stayed behind her table, lost in thoughts, while her hands neatly folded the cloth on the tray. The candles were burning with quiet flames now, mirrored in heavy-lidded eyes exactly the color of the pearls she intended to use to fulfill the new King’s order.
A string of pearls, she thought, perfect in size and form, from the smallest size at both ends of the necklace to the biggest ones exactly in the middle, each of them precious enough to fight a war for.
The war was still going on, though he didn’t know that, this Aragorn, this Telcontar, this Ranger from the North… this usurper of Gondor’s throne.
A string of pearls for the usurper’s queen.
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