After Beruthiel's return to Osgiliath, her life deteriorated. Without Falastur at her side, she did not leave the King's House except to attend the Ladies' Court. Even that was almost more than she could bear. Surrounded by her armed guard, she had to ride a gantlet of jeering citizens most of the time. Only if she left early while the streets were lightly traveled did she have at least a little peace. Not surprisingly, it was mostly the men who made her life miserable. The women still appreciated her efforts to be fair in court.
She spent most of her time alone with Aledin. Uldis had gained a taste of freedom in the market and now left to go into the town as often as she could. 'I can stay if you want, my lady. I know you like to watch Aledin paint,' she offered reluctantly.
'It no longer matters, Uldis. The people think I am an adulterous whore so I may as well behave like one. Besides, who will know?' Beruthiel said bitterly. Falastur did not care if she was alone with the artist so alone with him she would be.
'Thank you, my lady. I will let you know of any news that I hear,' she promised as a way of thanking this poor lonely woman.
'Enjoy yourself for me, Uldis. I will be fine.'
Entering the studio, Aledin also questioned the new arrangement. 'Where is Uldis, my lady? Should you be here alone?'
Beruthiel glared at him. 'I am a grown woman and a queen, Aledin, I can do as I please,' she said angrily.
'But what of the people? They were your concern before,' he replied. Although she had never explained Uldis' presence in so many words, he knew the reason.
'The people? I no longer care what the people say because no matter what I say or do, they will think the worst of me. Falastur knows the truth and that is all I care about. I refuse to give up your company because of what others think!' Beruthiel paced around the room and punctuated her words by slashing her hands through the air.
'I spoke with the king about this issue, Beruthiel, and I agree he does not care what happens,' he said obliquely. Neither one had talked to the other about Falastur and any possible relationship.
Ignoring his words she cried, 'Sometimes I think he does not care about anything concerning me!' the queen raged. 'If it isn't about his beloved fleet, it doesn't matter. I am tired of the whole thing.' She flung herself on a window seat and stared out.
'Some men are like that, my lady. They have one love and find it hard to make room in their hearts for anything else,' he said softly.
'Why did I have to end up with one of them!' she raged and left the room without waiting for an answer.
On another day, a calmer Beruthiel watched as Aledin worked on Falastur's portrait. 'Where did you learn to paint so well?'
The artist looked up and said, 'Oh, here and there. I always had a talent for it and I picked up a few things in my travels. Someone always seemed to be around to show me a few tricks.'
'Where have you been? You never talk about yourself.'
Aledin stared at her with a wry expression. The queen had barely ever talked in all their sessions except the last one. 'As I said: here and there.'
'You are always so evasive. Are you running from something or someone?' she said with a smile.
'No, it is my nature to wander. I think this is the longest I have stayed in one place in quite awhile.'
Beruthiel felt her heart beat faster with dread. 'You intend to leave? When? Why? Aren't you happy here?'
'It has been very pleasant, my lady, but as I said I am a wanderer. I only stay for as long as I feel needed,' he said with a meaningful look.
'Well, we need you. Some of the cat portraits are not quite right and Uldis deserves a painting for all she does for me…' Beruthiel's voice trailed off.
Aledin continued the look. 'And is that all, my lady? No one else needs me?'
Beruthiel reddened and broke eye contact. 'The cats need you, too. Mithril really likes you,' she said lamely.
'I will stay awhile longer then….for Mithril,' he smiled at her confusion.
'Good, good, he will like that,' Beruthiel managed to say.
Aledin woke with a start. At first he thought it was the flash of lightning that had disturbed him, but then he realized there was something else. Quietly he slipped from his bed. Barefoot and only in his nightshirt, he crept out to the studio. The lightning flashed again and distant thunder began to rumble. Stopping in the doorway, he waited impatiently for the next bolt.
When it came, he was startled to see a figure standing with its back to the windows. It was Beruthiel! She stood facing the unfinished portrait of the king. His first thought was to return silently to his bed, but the next stroke of lightning revealed that the queen had a knife in her hand.
Quickly he ran to her side and grabbed her now raised arm to stop its descent. 'Your majesty, no!' he cried.
Startled, Beruthiel turned to him and tried to tear her arm loose. 'Let me go; how dare you!' Her face was twisted in anger. However in the next moment it changed to a look of sadness and despair. 'Let me go, Aledin,' she said again but without the imperious tone.
'Not until you drop the knife, my lady.' He still held her arm but there was no longer any resistance.
The knife clattered to the floor and her shoulders drooped. 'I can't do anything right. Why did you stop me?'
'What were you going to do?' he asked softly.
'Cut it; slash it; destroy it!' she said venomously. The rage was back in her face.
'But why?' he still had his hand on her arm and the strange spark he had felt before was back. He did not release her.
'Because he left me again, he always leaves.' Tears of anger rolled down her face. 'And I am lonely. I was never lonely before, but now there is no one…' her words trailed off.
'You have Uldis and Mithril,' and me he added silently.
'Uldis! She has developed a taste for town living and is rarely here. Not that I blame her. She still has a chance at a normal life. And Mithril? In the end he is only a cat. The conversations are a bit basic.'
Aledin smiled at that. Although he never heard the cats speaking, he believed in them by now. A crash of thunder made them both jump. His hand tightened on her arm and she finally noticed his touch. Her eyes met his as they had on that first occasion, but this time she didn't pull away.
'I am here, my lady, Beruthiel,' he whispered. 'I am here for you.'
Beruthiel could feel the energy of his touch racing up her arm. 'You know that can never be, Aledin.'
'Why not? The king all but gave me permission to be with you. Be with me, Beruthiel!' He put his other arm around her and tried to pull her closer.
She fought to pull away. 'I know he did, but we can never….'
Aledin finally achieved his goal and clasped her to his chest. He felt the warm pressure of her breasts against his skin. Holding her tightly he kissed her as he had longed to do for so many weeks. Her struggles ceased as his lips found hers. 'I can't,' she said weakly, 'I can't.'
'Yes, you can,' he mumbled in reply, 'yes.' A tremendous crash of thunder startled them apart. The windows rattled in their frames and Aledin lost his hold on his queen. With one last startled look at the artist, Beruthiel made her escape from the room.
She raced down the stairs checking to see if Aledin was following. Luckily he was not. She did not know what she would do if he was. Slamming and locking her door, she leaned against it and tried to get her heart rate back to normal. What had she been thinking? Not only had she almost destroyed Falastur's beautiful portrait, but she had allowed the artist to kiss her! No, not only allowed it but actively enjoyed it. Falastur had kissed her innumerable times, but they had been soft, sweet, gentle kisses. Pleasurable but not memorable.
But now her lips still burned with the kiss from Aledin. It had awakened feelings in her that she never knew existed. A shiver ran up her spine as she relived the moment. Then reality set in. She was queen and he was not her husband. Yes, she knew Falastur had told her she could be with Aledin, but how could that ever really happen? Her disgrace would be complete if she had a child while Falastur was at sea, and there was no way to prevent it. Was there? Her sole purpose in life had always been to reproduce. She had never thought of it the other way around.
As she calmed down, she realized that the cause of her rage in the first place was all but forgotten. Yesterday's visit to the Ladies' Court had been the final straw. Not only was the crowd jeering, but having forgotten (or no longer caring) about the king's punishment before, they had begun throwing rotten fruit at her! None had struck her personally, but her guards had been continuously pelted.
'You will have to go in a closed chair from now on, your majesty,' Noldin had informed her. 'I can no longer guarantee your safety.' He had looked at her in a very pitying manner and it was that as much as the fruit that had infuriated her.
Gritting her teeth to keep from shouting at the poor man, she had acknowledged his advice. 'Whatever you recommend; I will not give up the court if I can help it.' She had stewed over this latest offense and when she had been unable to sleep had picked up the knife and headed for the studio. Whether she would have destroyed the portrait or not, she would never know.
That thought brought back the feel of Aledin's lips and the heat of his body. Even in the privacy of her own room, Beruthiel blushed. She spent the rest of the night in uneasy sleep dreaming of the man who was not her husband.
Aledin also had a restless night. He knew now that he would have to tell Beruthiel his secret. What he had suspected before was true and the kiss had confirmed it. He found her with Uldis and the cats enjoying the sun in the courtyard. 'Good morning, my lady; Uldis. It certainly is a beautiful day,' he said aimlessly, trying to judge the queen's mood.
'Hello, Aledin. Are you all right? You look tired,' Uldis greeted him.
Beruthiel glanced shyly in his direction. He took that as a good sign. It meant she wasn't completely disgusted by his behavior. He sat on a nearby bench and scratched Mithril's ears when the cat jumped into his lap. 'The storm kept me awake,' he said. He needed Uldis to give him some privacy with the queen, but he wasn't about to initiate it.
Perhaps sensing his desire or wanting it on her own, Beruthiel said at last, 'Uldis please leave us for awhile. I would like a word with Aledin.'
For a moment it appeared that Uldis would question the wisdom of this request, but then she nodded and rose to leave. After all, they had been alone numerous times over the last few weeks only this time she sensed a change in both of them. 'Shall I return, my lady?'
'No, I will send one of the cats if I need you, thank you.'
Uldis' brain churned with possible reasons for all of this, but she was wise enough not to ask. If she was allowed to know either the queen or the cats would tell all eventually. 'Very well,' she said and left the couple alone.
After she departed they both sat in uneasy silence for a few moments, but then before Beruthiel could say anything Aledin knelt at her feet and cried, 'Please forgive me, my lady, if I offended you last night. I didn't listen. I should never have lost control. I will leave if you command it.'
Beruthiel put her hand on his shoulder. 'Sit next to me Aledin. If anyone owes an apology, it is I. I do not know what I was thinking. First I intruded on your privacy and then I threatened your beautiful painting.' She paused for what seemed like ages and then added, 'And you did nothing to offend me.'
'Then you did not find my attentions unpleasant, my lady?'
For the first time, Beruthiel managed to look into his eyes. 'Unpleasant? If I am honest, it was one of the most wonderful moments in my very poor life, Aledin. I would not have missed it for anything.' Her heart thundered in her chest as she dared to admit this.
'Oh, my lady, I…'
'After last night, Aledin, I believe you may call me Beruthiel!' the queen laughed, 'at least in private.' She put her hand on his and again they both felt the same spark of energy.
Aledin took her other hand in his and kissed each one. 'Then you have thought again about us? About being together?'
Beruthiel pulled her hands away slowly. 'I have thought of nothing else for hours, Aledin, but I still cannot do it. It would be too difficult.'
'Difficult? What do you mean? The king has said he has no objection to us being together and after last night, I know you feel the same as I do.' Now it was his heart that thundered in fear of her decision.
'I have that desire, Aledin, but there is still Falastur's one demand that I bear no child! There is no way to guarantee such a thing as I well know from all the sad tales of the Ladies' Court. I could not shame the king or the kingdom with such an act. And if anyone found out, the people would most likely kill me.'
Aledin knew she was not exaggerating with that last statement. The people's hatred grew by leaps and bounds for reasons he did not entirely understand. 'There is something that may ease your mind, my dear Beruthiel. There is no way that you and I will ever produce a child, and I can guarantee it!'
Beruthiel's mind turned to the difficulties she already had with Falastur. 'You mean you…' She stopped herself before she betrayed Falastur's secret or even hinted at it. 'You do not wish to be with me in that way?' she finished lamely.
Aledin laughed and reclaimed her hands. 'Absolutely not! It is my greatest desire and has been almost from the start. When I touched you the first time, I knew you and I should be together, but I never dreamed it would be possible until the king's last visit.'
'Then how can you promise such a thing? I have met more than a few women who listened to such words and ended up with children!'
'Because I am not entirely human, Beruthiel. Remember how I never answered your questions about my life? There was no reason at that time to tell you, but I am half nix.' He sat and waited for her response. On other occasions this confession had led to a broken relationship.
Her forehead wrinkled as Beruthiel searched her memory. 'But I thought nix only lived near water and that they could be rather cruel. There is no water here and you have only ever been very kind.' Before he could answer, a startled look replaced the frown. 'Is that what Mithril means when he calls you special? Mithril, is that what you mean?'
The cat, sitting at their feet looked up. 'In a way, Mistress,' and said no more.
'Wretched cat. He will never give a clear answer!' Beruthiel complained.
Aledin, not privy to the exchange, now was the one with a puzzled look. 'I have no idea about that, but as for the other, I am only part nix. Very few full-blooded nix exist, and they are the ones who never leave their water. That explains my mixed blood. Since a nixie cannot journey too far from her home water, she usually will mate with a passing man. A nix would do the same, but woman rarely travel unattended so the opportunity does not arise very often. That is what happened with me. My mother desired a child and she met a man who camped by her river.'
'But that means that nix can produce children with humans! There is no guarantee!' If Beruthiel was shocked by his revelation, she did not let it distract her from her main point.
'Yes, it does. A nix is like an elf. I can decide if and when I wish to create life. The same is true of a nixie. If she wishes a child and has relations with a male, she will become pregnant. Only if I desire a child, will I impregnate a woman. You are safe with me Beruthiel, I promise. We will not betray king or kingdom on that account.'
'But don't you have that desire, Aledin? What of your needs?' she asked quietly. It wasn't only about her anymore.
'I have lived a long time, Beruthiel and I have had several loves. One of them carried my child. I have no need of another,' he told her gently.
'Are you immortal then like an elf? Wasn't it hard to lose the ones you loved?' Her mind whirled with the idea of living for ages and loving several times. 'Do you remember them?'
'No, I am not immortal. Long-lived, yes, but not forever. And yes, I remember them. Each was special to me in her own way. They are part of who I am and I would not have missed any of it,' he told her.
'And me?' she asked cautiously. 'What of me?'
Aledin laughed softly. 'Ah, Beruthiel, I think you may be the most special of all!'
She looked into his wonderful green eyes and felt her heart lurch yet again. 'I still don't know, Aledin. I don't know if I can ever be your lover here in this house, this cage. Falastur may not mind but it is a breaking of my vows to him. Part of me longs to be with you, but I don't believe I am ready just yet. This may take some time. Can you forgive me?'
'Forgive you for being honorable? What kind of person would I be if I could not? You must follow your own path, Beruthiel,' his heart ached to hear her words. 'I will wait for you if you ever wish to escape your cage.' He squeezed her hands tightly.
'It is a cage of my own making, Aledin, but also built by Falastur and the ever so hateful people of Osgiliath. Do you know how much I hate them? How much I curse them for what I have become,' she hissed.
He did not have a chance to reply to her sudden outburst.
The sound of a throat clearing made them jump apart. Beruthiel turned to see the Steward, Lord Galden standing there. 'Your majesty, I fear I must disturb you.'
Yet again this lord had heard Beruthiel at her worst! 'You dare to barge in on me, Lord Galden?' she snapped.
He smirked at her with a raised eyebrow. 'The King's House seems rather short of servants these days. I could find no one to announce me, your majesty.'
Or you chose to avoid them, she thought. 'I have sufficient for my needs. What do you want?' she asked rudely.
Galden pointed at Aledin, motioned to the door and commanded, 'Leave us.'
Aledin looked to Beruthiel. She raised her hand to his cheek and stroked it lightly. 'I will see you later; we still have much to discuss.' The artist rose and after briefly glaring at Galden left the courtyard.
'So it is true. You no longer even pretend he is not your lover?' the steward demanded.
'Would it matter one way or another, Galden? But no, he is not my lover, not yet!' she purred. 'Why have you barged in like this?'
'The people you so despise are growing restless. I have come to warn you to be more careful in your dealings with them,' he said. 'It is not just the rumors of adultery. There is sickness in the countryside and the town folk worry it will reach Osgiliath.'
'And I suppose they blame me for that too,' she said facetiously but was stunned when he agreed with her.
'Exactly, your majesty. As you well know, they believe you are a witch and their fear grows daily. Statements like the one I just overheard will get you killed!' Galden may not have cared much for the queen and her cats, but he did not believe most of the rumors he heard about her. He had come to give her fair warning about the growing situation. 'I have increased the guard around the King's House. You should never leave unaccompanied and then only with those you trust!'
'But I must attend the Ladies' Court, my lord. It is one of the few things that I have left.
The steward nodded in agreement. 'Yes, that would be best. If you hide away completely, they will grow ever more suspicious. However, you will have to be very careful. Leave early in the day and go as quietly as you can.'
Beruthiel said, 'I will do that. I do not want to make this situation any worse than it is. I have to admit, Galden that you surprise me.'
He raised an eyebrow and asked, 'How so?'
'When we first met, I thought you did not like me especially after the cat episode. I think for once that Soot may have misjudged you,' she explained.
Galden stood silently before her for a very long minute. 'To be honest, your majesty, I do not like you, but then I do not know you. However, Falastur instructed me to do my best for you no matter what and that he trusts you implicitly. Anyone who can gain the king's trust to such an extent certainly merits mine. Shall we call a truce?'
Beruthiel smiled. 'Truce, Galden, and please know that no matter what you may have seen or heard, the king understands my…. situation.' She couldn't say outright that the king approved of her and the artist, but she hoped was Galden smart enough to put the pieces together.
It appeared that he was for he nodded again and said, 'I will keep that in mind, your majesty. I have some understanding of that situation myself.' And that was as close as he would ever come to admitting any awareness of Falastur's difficulties. 'Do not hesitate to ask for help, your majesty. We must not let a small fire become an inferno.'
Beruthiel nodded. 'And do not hesitate to point out if I am being more foolish than I already am, Galden. I was never trained to be a queen and I will listen to any advice you care to give. I may not take it, but I will listen!'
Galden smiled and bowed. 'And that is all I ask, your majesty.'