Beruthiel slept through the night and all the next day. The cats rarely left her side; Uldis kindly brought food and water for their comfort. Each time she entered, the queen was either asleep or pretending to be. She thought at times that Beruthiel was aware of her, but neither spoke.
On the morning of the second day when she went to fill the cat bowls, Beruthiel was sitting up in bed petting Mithril. 'Good morning Uldis, how are you today?' Her eyes were still red and puffy but her voice had lost most of the ragged edge.
'Good, my lady, and yourself?' she asked in confusion. Uldis looked for any clue as to how she was to act.
'As well as can be expected, Uldis. I must thank you for your kind ministrations to myself and the cats. We must put all this behind us.' She made no mention of Aledin.
'Of course, my lady, if you think that is best.'
'I do, but one thing has changed. Please consider yourself my friend, Uldis and call me Beruthiel. I have shared so much of myself with you that I can only think of you in no other way.'
'You honor me, my- Beruthiel,' Uldis said.
'There is one thing. I must ask you to keep my secret or rather Falastur's. I swore to him that I would never tell anyone. Will you swear the same to me?' She did not explain the secret. If for some reason Uldis had not heard that little bit of information, so much the better.
Uldis reddened. She had heard and wished she hadn't. Secrets like that were dangerous to know. 'I swear that I will never reveal anything you said to me last night, Beruthiel.'
'Thank you. Now what shall we do today?' the queen asked.
And that was it. No mention of Aledin, no more tears, no nothing. Beruthiel picked up her life where she had left it two days before when Aledin went on his errand. Uldis supposed that she cried at night when she was alone, but she was nothing but her usual self during the day. However, a shadow seemed to loom over her that never quite retreated even on the sunniest day.
A week after the artist's murder, Lord Galden made an appearance. As Uldis led him toward the courtyard, he cleared his throat and said, 'Are the rumors true?' He didn't particularly like gossip but thought he should be prepared before he met the queen.
'What rumors? What do they say now about the poor woman?' Uldis asked. Would the queen never have any peace?
'They say that her lover has disappeared. The more outrageous rumors allege that the queen killed him in a fit of rage and fed him to her cats,' Galden said.
Uldis tried to stop from rolling her eyes but couldn't help it. 'What next I wonder? Please make no mention of any of this to her. To answer your question, yes Aledin has disappeared, and no Beruthiel did not kill him or feed him to the cats. He was assaulted and murdered in Osgiliath a week ago.'
'How did I not hear of this? I have had no reports of bodies or murder at all!'
Uldis was not about to report to this man what Mithril had said. He would not have believed her anyway. She herself had doubts at times about Aledin's body dissolving; it was too surreal. 'That is between your guards and yourself, my lord. Aledin did not return from an errand and we were told what happened by a reliable witness.'
'And how did Beruthiel react?'
'It is not my place to comment, my lord,' she said dismissively.
Galden took the hint and asked no more. He also remembered her words to not mention Aledin.
The queen was sitting aimlessly in the courtyard. An untouched stitching project lay at her side along with an unread book. Her mind did not seem capable of the concentration either required. When she heard footsteps on the gravel, her head turned to face the Steward. 'Yes, Lord Galden? What brings you here today?' Although they had a truce, the steward was not one to pay random visits.
Galden shuffled his feet uncomfortably. This probably wouldn't end well. 'It is about the paint, your majesty. The populace finds it disturbing.' Over the last week painters had begun to cover the exterior of the King's House in black.
'And?' Beruthiel refused to make it easy for him.
'And I wish you to reconsider. They said you have ordered the entire outside and all the public rooms painted black. It seems a bit….extreme,' he said flustered.
'Not to me. My life is nothing but darkness. Black suits me now more than any color. It is what I wish, Galden. There is nothing more to say,' Beruthiel snapped at him.
Galden swallowed and tried one more time. 'But what about when the king returns? What will he think?'
'I no longer care what Falastur thinks, Galden. He has been gone far too long. Tell the people I mourn for my lost husband. Maybe that will shut their evil mouths!' Beruthiel knew from the cats what they were saying about Aledin even if Uldis did not tell her. 'Perhaps I should feed a few of them to the cats just for good measure.' She shook her head to rid it of the thought of Aledin lying dead in the street.
'No, your majesty, I would not recommend that,' Galden said wryly, 'it might cause indigestion. In the cats.'
Beruthiel looked at her steward's face but it was a straight mask of concern. 'Lord Galden, you have a good point. I will feed no one to the cats. What else did you want? You must have known there was no hope with the paint!'
'I had to try, your majesty, if only to be able to say that I did. What I really came for is to ask if you are still interested in the Ladies' Court. I have been told that cases have begun to pile up in your absence.' Beruthiel had not appeared at the court since before Aledin's death.
For a moment, Beruthiel wanted to tell him that he could foist the court on some disobedient lord, but then she remembered that she was still queen, it was her one responsibility and she did enjoy it. 'I will try, Galden. However, it becomes more difficult each time to get there. Could we move it here to the King's House? Then I would not have to go into Osgiliath.'
'No, your majesty, it cannot. It is set into the law that the cases be heard in the city itself.'
'Very well, I will try another few times,' Beruthiel promised. It was time for her to rejoin the living even if it was only a day or two a week.
After all was said and done, Beruthiel thought she should have referred her final Ladies' Court case to one of the other judges. However, it was such a convoluted issue that without the cats, justice would never have been done.
She left the King's House just after dawn while most people were still at home. In addition to avoiding the worst of the harassers, she needed the extra time to review all the details of the case and confer with Mithril. He had been busy sending out various cats to check up on the stories of the participants.
When the bailiff at last called the court to order, she was ready with a sheaf of notes. Quickly disposing of several minor cases, she called the plaintiff and defendant before her. 'This is a most complicated case,' she said, 'therefore I want to ask each of you if you want me to hand it to another judge outside the Ladies' Court.'
The defendant, a worn down sorry woman with mouse-brown hair, looked at her warily. 'No your majesty, I would like this settled soon. I've no more time to wait.' She hitched the baby she was holding higher in her arms.
'Is that the child mentioned in the case?' Beruthiel asked. She already thought of the woman as Mouse. The woman nodded. 'Bailiff, could you please find someone to watch the baby while I hear this case?' The bailiff walked over and put out his arms. Beruthiel noticed that the woman seemed glad to be rid of her burden. She turned her attention to the male plaintiff. 'And you, sir? Are you willing for me to hear this case?'
He would have been a handsome man but any good looks he had were ruined by an ever present self-satisfied smirk on his face. 'Why of course, your majesty. I am sure you will do just fine!' His condescending tone of voice intimated that he didn't think any woman would find against him.
'Very well, sir, please state your case,' she said to the grinning man. She thought of him as Smirk.
'I want a divorce, your majesty. My wife is a cheating whore plain and simple,' he said. He all but winked at Beruthiel when he said 'cheating whore' as though he understood she was one also.
'And your proof?'
'That little bastard she handed off to the bailiff. He looks nothing like me. Hair as red as flame. No one of my family or hers has such like.'
Beruthiel glanced to a corner where a woman whose case she had heard earlier was dandling the baby on her knee, cooing softly in its ear. She also noticed a red-haired man sitting behind Mouse listening intently. 'And you, sir, you have never strayed from your marriage vows?' the queen inquired.
'Never, your majesty. We have been married for ten years and I have been tried and true through every one,' the man boasted.
'If I understand this correctly, you wish to have your wife vacate the marital home? Who will care for your children?' She made a show of looking through her papers. 'I believe you have eight including that one?' She motioned to the corner.
'Yes, I want her out and she can keep the bra….'er the children. How am I to know any of them are mine anyway?' the man demanded.
Beruthiel turned to the defendant. 'And you, madam, how do you reply to his accusations? Is this final child his or not?' The woman stared at the floor rather than meet Beruthiel's eyes. 'Remember you are under oath,' the queen reminded.
At last the woman raised her head and said quietly, 'It may not be his, but it's only this one. All the others are his. You can tell just by looking.' She turned to her husband, 'How can you say that about your own children!' Her voice gained strength as she denied his accusation. 'And how can you stand there and insist you are innocent of straying? You have cheated on me for years though I never accused you nor even knew!' As she spoke each sentence, her eyes began to snap and she stood tall in her defense.
'Lying bitch! You are the cheater with proof for the entire world to see!'
'At least my fall was for someone I loved and not a local whore.' She faced Beruthiel. 'Your majesty, I made a mistake. No, two. The first was marrying this lout and believing in him for so long, and the other was bedding a man who actually loves me before I was free. I would be most happy for a divorce if this rodent would only pay for his children's upkeep.' The mousy brown-haired woman had disappeared and a fierce virago stood in her place.
Beruthiel turned to the plaintiff. 'Are her accusations true? Remember you are under oath.'
The smirk still spread across the man's face. 'Pure as the driven snow, your majesty. No one in this town will speak against me!' Smirk said.
The queen smiled wryly. 'No one? You are certain?'
The smirk faded a bit. 'No one,' he still said boldly.
Even as he spoke, Mithril leaped to the queen's table. 'They are here, Mistress, and we have checked the house. There is a hidden cupboard under the spare bedroom's floor with a box inside,' the cat's voice echoed in her head. Beruthiel motioned to the bailiff and whispered some instructions in his ear. She handed him a small scrap of paper before he left the room.
Turning once again to the plaintiff, she said, 'I ask you one last time. Have you ever in your entire marriage ever cheated on your wife by having intimate relations with another woman or man?' She was not about to allow the cretin any wriggle room after what Mithril had just confirmed.
The smirk was now gone but some semblance of bluster remained. 'A man! How dare you!' he tried to distract her.
'Answer the question,' the queen demanded.
The door opened and the room could hear the sound of several women's voices. Smirk wilted when he heard them. He was the one staring at the floor now.
Deciding to continue as before, Smirk said, 'No, I have not!'
Even as he spoke, a gaudily dressed woman walked in the door and said, 'Manel, what are you doing here, love?'
Smirk aka Manel, cringed. 'I do not know this woman, your majesty, I swear!'
The woman snorted. 'Not know me? After all this time? How could you, Manel? You said once you ditched the little wife we would be together, and I could be a decent woman!'
If looks could kill, Smirk would have killed the woman with his. His wife, Mouse, looked both irate and pleased. 'I knew it! So this is where all your money went? To pay for whores when your children went to bed hungry, and I worked as your slave?'
Beruthiel quietly watched the scene unfold. She had known most of the facts ahead of time, thanks to the cats, but it was good to have them confirmed. Now several more women entered. They too appeared to be less than reputable. Smirk watched with growing horror as they lined up behind him in the audience some blowing kisses and others scowling angrily.
'It appears that there are a few women here today who may speak against your purity. What do you have to say now?'
Smirk's shoulders sagged and his face held the tiniest bit of fear. 'I-I may have been mistaken, your majesty. My memory isn't what it should be.'
Mouse roared, 'When I think of all I have done for you! The night's you insisted on bedding me or you would find relief elsewhere!' She turned to Beruthiel, 'Your majesty, I begged him to allow more time between all these children but he never would. I seem to be one of those unlucky women who is with child any time a man looks at her! And even that wouldn't be so bad if he ever had any money. He always said he was doing the best he could, and I believed him. And I believed him.' Now it was her shoulders that sagged.
Again Beruthiel questioned Smirk. 'You have no money anywhere? None put away for a rainy day and a new love?' She motioned to the first gaudy woman.
'No! None, not one piece of silver!' he exclaimed.
The queen noticed the bailiff returning from his errand with a box in his hands. 'Not one piece of silver? How about gold?' she asked depriving him yet again of a technicality.
Smirk heard the approach of the bailiff and saw the box. 'How dare you invade my home?'
'So you admit that it is yours?'
Caught in the trap, Smirk cringed. 'Yes, but you already know that. But how? Those dammed cats!' he howled seeing Mithril next to Beruthiel.
'Never mind how I know. Open the box, bailiff.' The bailiff opened the box. Inside were coins of various sizes, all gold.
Mouse had watched the scene in confusion. 'That is your gold? But why did you not share it with your own children? Why? Your majesty, I do not understand. For years I have had no help with the house or the children because he always said we were too poor. Why?' Tears slipped down her face.
'Because I needed some dumb bitch to satisfy me when no one else was available, you fool!' he sneered. 'And it was nice to have someone do the cleaning for such a cheap fee. If you hadn't kept popping out little bastards, it would have been a whole lot better,' Smirk showed his true nature at last.
'That is quite enough!' Beruthiel ordered. 'Another word out of you and I will have you removed.' She slowly stroked Mithril's ears. 'Given the latest evidence, I believe I am prepared to make my decision. You,' she pointed at Smirk, 'are hereby granted your divorce based upon the admitted adultery of your wife.'
Smirk's eyes widened in surprise and the smirk was back. 'Thank you, your majesty; it is good to see justice done.'
Mouse was barely aware of the proceeding but her tears seemed to fall even faster.
'I am pleased to hear you feel that way, because there is more to this decision.' Now she pointed at Mouse. 'And you may cheerfully consider yourself free of your former husband; cheater, cad and liar that he is. Now for the division of the marital assets. You,' again to Smirk, 'are requesting to keep the home as it has been in your family for generations. I will grant that you retain ownership.' Smirk leered at his former wife and winked in triumph. 'However,' Beruthiel interrupted his celebration, 'I grant your children the right of occupancy until the last should achieve his or her legal majority. I also grant their current caregiver the right of occupancy with a legal spouse should she so choose. You are to have no further contact with this woman and the children unless the children so desire. And I am awarding the contents of this box to your former wife for services rendered.'
Smirk howled in outrage. 'You can't do that! How can I have ownership but not live there and she gets all the gold? Bitch! You whoring bitches all stand together! I will appeal to another judge! You have no right!' Bits of spittle flew from his mouth and his face was the color of an overripe plum.
Beruthiel calmly stared at him while the bailiff came to stand before him and ordered him to be quiet. 'I will overlook your insult to this court. You may appeal if you wish, but as you openly agreed to my judgment, and you as openly lied to this court, I wish you the best of luck. Bailiff, please provide the defendant with a guard to escort her and her gold to a place of safekeeping.'
With that the queen dismissed the court and serenely left the room to an explosion of muttering by the onlookers and screeches of anger from Smirk.
She was happily giving Uldis all the details when Galden arrived. 'And for once I think I really made a difference,' Beruthiel said. For the first time since Aledin died she almost felt happy. 'And what can I do for you, Steward?' she asked. While they still had a truce of sorts, Beruthiel would never be able to like the man.
'A difference? I assume you mean the case you heard today? You have destroyed any hope of ever gaining the tolerance of the men of this city let alone their goodwill!' Galden all but shouted.
Her good mood evaporated like bubbles on pavement. Beruthiel narrowed her eyes and said, 'Of course I made a difference. For once, I knew all the details of a case and made a sound judgment. No one else would have been able to help that poor woman as I did.'
Galden snorted in contempt. 'Better you did not help her. Do you not know who her former husband is? He is a man of high standing in Osgiliath even though he lacks the proper funds. You should have looked the other way no matter what you knew. We all must do it at times.'
Beruthiel could not believe her ears. 'Should have looked the other way while he berated, cheated and enslaved his wife? You all do? Now I know I made the right decision.'
'That decision may very well cost you your throne if not your life, your majesty. There have already been several lords who have insisted that I 'do something' about you.'
'And what exactly do you intend to do, Galden?' she asked coldly.
Galden took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, he said, 'I truly do not know. One thing is for sure, you are finished with the Ladies' Court. The lords will no longer tolerate your behavior toward the men of this town.'
'My behavior! It is the men of this town who bring it on themselves. Never had I expected to find such oafish behavior from what is supposed to be Gondor's finest. Lying, cheating, cruelty; I have heard and seen it all. What they really can't stand is the fact that their wives now have a place where their voices have been heard and listened to.'
'Maybe so, but that is neither here nor there. You are done at least until Falastur returns.'
Knowing he had the power to do this, Beruthiel did not argue. 'If he returns,' she whispered.
After he left, Uldis said, 'It is probably for the best, my lady. You said yourself it was getting harder and harder to avoid the persecution of the crowd.'
'I know, but it is just that today made such a change in that woman's life. You should have seen the alteration in her demeanor when she left with that box of gold. I gave her freedom, Uldis, freedom.' A part of Beruthiel wondered what that felt like and if she would ever feel such a thing. 'Had she stood before another judge she most likely would have lost everything. Without the cats, I probably would have had to find against her also. '
'At least you went out on a personal best then, Beruthiel. The women in this town know what you have done for them even if the men don't. They may not be able to show it, but they do know.'
'You always know what to say, Uldis. I am so glad we are friends now instead of mistress and maid. I will never forget that no matter what.'
'We will be fine. Falastur will be home soon and then everything will be alright I'm sure,' Uldis replied.
Beruthiel forced down all the fears that her words had awakened. What if Falastur didn't return? What would happen to her then? But instead of voicing her fears, she patted Uldis' hand and said, 'Yes, I'm sure your right.'