Beruthiel walked to Aledin's studio. Without knocking she pushed open the door. Aledin looked up from his place by the window. The artist had been busy the last few weeks with sketches and drawings of the black cats.
'My lady, how may I be of service?' he asked as he stood and bowed.
'Please, sit. I merely seek a place of peace and quiet.'
Aledin thought that rather odd as the King's House was always very quiet. The cat he had been sketching stretched and ran to Beruthiel's side. She scooped it into her arms and gave it a hug. Mithril made himself comfortable in a sunspot on the floor. Roughly stroking the cat, Beruthiel strode around the room looking at the many studies of cats. Cats sitting, lying, playing, jumping; cats doing everything under the sun. 'When are you going to start painting? You have been working for weeks!' she complained.
Aledin laughed. 'Yes, I have, but I never realized how hard it was to draw a cat especially a black one.'
Beruthiel tilted her head and frowned. 'What difference does it make?'
'Black is a solid color. It makes defining detail most difficult. It will be a challenge to present them in the best manner, and I do not want to waste paint before I am ready.' He saw her frown deepen and hurried on. 'However, I think I will start in another day or two. The cat you are holding is most cooperative and he will be the first subject.'
She lifted the cat up to eye level and looked at it. 'Lucky cat. See that you behave yourself.' She heard a faint, 'Yes, Mistress.' Some of the black cats had little speech. She set it back down on the seat. 'Do you mind if I watch? I have little to occupy my time these days.'
The artist heard the plaintive note in her voice. Although he didn't go out into the town often, he had heard the cruel things said about this queen. Aledin noted the redness of the queen's eyes. It was the first time he had seen any sign of emotion in her. 'You are most welcome any time.'
Her days settled into a new routine. While Beruthiel still rode on occasion, it was becoming rarer. She disliked having to ride through the streets and experience the glares and mutterings of the town folk. Instead, she spent her days in the studio watching Aledin paint the cats. Now that Beruthiel had ordered them to cooperate, he made steady progress.
One day she asked Aledin, 'I know nothing about you. Where are you from?'
Surprised, he looked up from the latest work. Beruthiel seldom spoke and certainly never asked personal questions. 'I come from far away and long ago,' he said with a smile.
'That is a silly answer and you know it!'
'Perhaps, but it is the only one you will receive.' He returned to his painting.
Miffed, Beruthiel asked another more personal question. 'How old are you? Your skills seem too great for one so young.'
Again Aledin smiled. 'I am old enough, my lady, and looks can be deceiving. I have traveled many places and learned much in my time.' He dared to turn the tables and asked, 'What of you, my lady, where are you from?'
Her lighthearted mood evaporated. 'No place and nowhere important, Aledin. I prefer to forget it ever existed.'
His artist's perception detected the pain that crossed her face. 'I am sorry to hear that, my lady. It is sometimes hard to be alone. I did not mean to pry.'
Beruthiel gave herself a mental shake. 'No, you could not know. My past is just that, the past.' She gazed pensively out the window for a moment. The last few days had been worse than usual and she felt the need to talk. If only she could trust him.
'You can trust him, Mistress. He will not betray you,' Mithril's voice echoed in her head.
'Are you sure, Mithril? I could really use a counselor right now, but we know so little about him.'
'He is as trustworthy as any one you will meet, Mistress.'
'And you know this how? Like you know that he is special?' she said with a mental smile.
Mithril replied, 'Yes, the same way. I know.'
Abruptly Beruthiel said to Aledin, 'When you are done with this one, I want you to paint me.'
Surprised, Aledin turned to face her. 'I thought you wanted a portrait of each cat? I am only halfway through the black ones and Mithril has not even been sketched.'
'Yes, yes, I do, but I want Mithril in my portrait so that takes care of him. The others can wait. Falastur will be home some day and I would like him to see something of your true skill.'
'It will take another day or two to finish, but I would be pleased to paint you, my lady. What kind of setting?' he asked.
Beruthiel pondered the question. 'I think something simple. I will leave it up to you. Just make sure that Mithril will be featured prominently.'
'Easy enough, my lady, he is very hard to miss. I should have an idea or two for you tomorrow.'
Several days later, she arrived to find a finely carved table standing in the studio. It was topped with a velvet cloth and silver candlesticks. 'What do you think, my lady?' Aledin asked. 'I wanted something simple so that both you and Mithril stand out. He will sit on the table and you will stand next to him with your hand on his head. I will put a few more details into the portrait that express who you are, but I do not need them for now.'
Beruthiel was clad in her ever present black gown. 'What should I wear? This?' She waved her hand over her body.
Aledin walked over and looked her over critically. 'Do you have something a bit more elaborate? You are the queen after all! Since you always wear black there is no need to change the color, but perhaps a different fabric?'
Her present gown was of cotton which was easier to keep clear of cat hair. 'I have several formal gowns that I use when Falastur is here. I will have Uldis bring them later so you can choose which you think will work best.'
Aledin nodded and returned to put the finishing touches on Sable's portrait.
He began his new work the next day. Beruthiel appeared in the gown he had chosen. 'Is this what you wanted?' she said with an edge to her voice.
'Yes, my lady that will be fine. Is something wrong?' She seemed more on edge than ever these last few days.
Remembering Mithril's words and needing a sympathetic ear, Beruthiel's words tumbled out of her mouth. 'The people are the problem! They tell terrible stories about me and yell insults whenever I appear. I grow more tired of it with each passing day!' she complained. For the next few minutes she filled his ears and talked more than she ever had on all other days combined.
Aledin simply listened and nodded with the occasional, 'How unfair' or 'that was rude,' interjected when she paused to take a breath. He found that when you drew someone, you often drew them out.
At last she stopped. He looked up to see a stubborn look on her face. 'Anything else, my lady?'
'I would skin them all alive if I could!' she swore but then she began to laugh. 'Poor Aledin, no wonder I could not find Uldis this morning. She knew what she would have to face!'
'I have heard worse, my lady. Now we will begin. I need Mithril on the table and you standing next to him.' The cat obligingly leaped onto the table top and Beruthiel moved less eagerly to his side.
'You expect me to stand here all day?' she grumbled, the laughter of only a moment ago gone.
Aledin nodded. 'If you want a good portrait, yes. I can always just sketch you and transfer it to canvas, but I find my best work is done with living models.
Grudgingly she moved into position. 'Like this?' she said as she lifted her hand to Mithril's head.
'For now you can simply stand by him. I will start with the dress and worry about the positioning later.' He was already beginning to make rapid movements across the canvas.
For the next few days, Beruthiel stood as still as possible while Aledin sketched. She attempted a few more times to find out about his past, but in the end he managed to learn far more about herself than she of him.
'Your parents were really that awful?' he asked quietly after she had told him of a particularly harsh punishment.
'Awful? I suppose they were, but I got used to it. I learned to keep my thoughts and feelings to myself. I think you are the first person other than Nanny that I ever told. I even stopped telling her after awhile because it upset her so,' Beruthiel said. 'It was the way of things.'
'That should never happen to anyone let alone to one such as you, my lady.' He was appalled at her life thus far and the fact that it didn't seem to bother her.
'Other than being chosen as Falastur's queen, I am no better than my parents in the end. Look how I talk about the town folk. I have wanted to be as cruel as they on occasion.'
'But were you or did something stop your hand?' he asked.
'Only to those who betray me,' she said thinking of her ladies-in-waiting. 'I suppose it was the memory of how I felt afterward that keeps me from hurting those who are innocent,' she admitted. This man had a way of making her think like no one else ever had and he actually listened to her.
'And that is a sign that you are different. Now, raise your hand and hold it above Mithril's head.'
Beruthiel put out her hand a few inches above the white head of the world's most patient feline. Mithril had held the same position without moving every day. 'Like this?'
Aledin assessed her pose. 'Lower.' The hand moved. 'Too low and move it back a little.'
For several minutes, he tried to tell her where to put the offending appendage but she could not find the right spot. 'What do you want?' Beruthiel cried in exasperation. 'I have put it everywhere possible!'
Aledin put down his brush and tentatively walked over to her. 'I would need to touch your hand, my lady.'
'Well than touch it!' she cried, 'I am not made of glass.'
'It would not be appropriate, my lady,' Aledin commented.
'And just who would know, Aledin? Uldis is gone for the day and would not tell anyone anyway. Put the blasted hand where you want it or we will leave.' Talking of her parents had resurrected too many old memories at one time, and she took her anger out on the nearest human.
He reached out and gently moved her hand to just above Mithril's head. The cat stretched up and brushed against his mistress's hand to offer a bit of comfort. 'He does not mean to anger you, Mistress, and he truly is sorry.'
Beruthiel barely heard her cat's words. When Aledin touched her, a sharp stabbing thrill had run up her arm. It took every ounce of control that she had not to jerk her hand away from his touch. Long years of abuse had trained her muscles not to respond to her father's blows. Now they reacted in the same manner to a most pleasant sensation. For a second, grey eyes met green in surprise and then each looked away.
'Did he…?' she asked Mithril in confusion.
'Yes, he did,' the cat said.
At last Aledin broke the silence. 'There, hold it right there.' She merely nodded as he retreated back to his easel.
For the rest of the session, Beruthiel remained frozen in her pose and neither spoke another word.
Her dreams that night were a continuous round of Aledin touching her hand, the thrill she had felt and the look in his eyes.
The next morning, Beruthiel summoned Uldis. 'You must sit with me today when I pose for Aledin.'
'I wanted to run to the market, my lady. Can I join you this afternoon?' Ever since her outing, Uldis had found more and more excuses to visit the town.
'Find someone else to go for you. I grow tired of the harping of the town folk and the few courtiers that are left. I will not have Falastur think ill of me. Your presence should silence at least a few of them,' Beruthiel explained.
'Yes, my lady.' She sighed. Her moments of freedom would be few and far between until that portrait was done!
At first there was an uncomfortable quiet looming over the studio, but Aledin went out of his way to pay particular attention to Uldis. Beruthiel gradually settled back into some semblance of their old routine. It was all my imagination anyway, she reassured herself.
'No mistress,' Mithril said. 'He is good for you.'
'Why must you say such things, Mithril? You know it is impossible.'
'I speak only the truth, Mistress,' the quiet voice echoed in her head.
'Be that as it may, keep such truths to yourself,' she ordered.
Uldis pretended she heard none of these words like the good servant she was.
The portrait was almost finished. Beruthiel had not posed in days but still kept Aledin company while he painted. Although she tried to stay away, it was impossible. She found it both a torment and a comfort to see him every day. And besides, other than the Ladies Court she did not have much else to do.
Uldis still chaperoned them. She suspected something must have happened based on their behavior and Mithril's words, but she preferred not to know. That way if anyone ever asked awkward questions she would not have to lie.
Uldis had expressed a desire for lessons and the little trio was discussing painting techniques when a footman entered. 'The King has returned, your majesty,' he said with a bow.
Beruthiel rose excitedly. 'Where is he? When did he arrive?'
'I believe he is in your chambers, your majesty; he arrived only a short time ago.'
Beruthiel issued a few quick orders regarding food and cleaning before she dismissed the man. 'I wish I had known he was coming! Nothing has been prepared. Uldis go to the kitchens and make sure my orders are followed. We all get so lazy when Falastur is gone.' Without waiting for a response, she quickly left the room.
Aledin and Uldis exchanged looks. 'I did not think she cared much for the king. She rarely speaks of him,' the artist asked quietly.
'It is complicated, Aledin. In her own way, I think she loves him and he her. I would not get involved,' Uldis warned before she too left the room leaving the artist with his own thoughts.
'Why didn't you let me know you were coming, Falastur? Everything is a mess!' Beruthiel exclaimed as she entered their chambers. She gave him a hug and stood back to look at him. He was as handsome as ever if a bit grayer.
Falastur looked at his wife. Disturbing news had reached him almost as he set foot on the docks of Pelargir. 'You do not need to trouble yourself on my account. It will be a short visit. I must return to Pelargir soon.'
To his surprise, she looked crestfallen. 'I see you so seldom anymore. Have I offended in some way?'
'You must tell me that yourself, Beruthiel. Even Pelargir is abuzz about your behavior.'
'Oh I am certain they are. The people seem to have nothing better to do than gossip about me! What have you heard? That I am a witch or that I live only with cats?' Beruthiel cried. 'None of that is new!'
'That the house is decorated only in black and white.' He smiled at that one. Their chambers were pale green and gold. The smile disappeared. 'I have also heard that you have taken a lover. Is it true?'
Beruthiel's face hardened and her chin came up as she defended herself. 'Never, Falastur, never! It is true there is a man here, but he is a great artist. You wilI understand when you see his work. I swear nothing has happened between us.' She paused, dropped her chin a bit and said, 'Nothing physical.'
Falastur put his hand under her chin and lifted it back up. 'What exactly does that mean, Beruthiel?'
She pulled away and gazed out the window. 'It means that I must confess to a certain longing, but it will never happen. I would never do that to you.'
'I am sorry I did this to you, dear one. I should never have married again knowing my condition.'
She laughed ruefully, 'No, you shouldn't have, but you did save me. And for that I will always be most grateful and loyal. My fate could have been much worse. I know that from the Ladies' Court.'
The king reached out and pulled his queen to his chest. 'If you truly love him, I cannot stand in your way.'
Beruthiel was shocked. 'You would leave me?' For a moment her heart both soared and dropped in her chest.
'No, that can never happen. But who am I to protest if you and this artist wish to be together? I cannot satisfy your needs!' He paused. 'The only caveat is there must never be a child. And not the slightest rumor of one or of my condition. The bloodlines of the kings of Gondor must never be called into question.'
Beruthiel laughed without humor. 'Ah, now that is quite a trick, Falastur. Many women have tried many ways to avoid that fate without much success. I would not want to take such a risk. I am fated to continue as I am. And besides, I do not know for certain that he feels the same way. All I have is one brief touch and the word of a cat!'
Falastur hugged her more tightly either missing or ignoring her words about the cat. 'If only things could be different. In my own way, I love you, Beruthiel.'
'And I you, Falastur,' came her soft reply.