Bilbo was going to like Erebor. He was firmly decided on the subject. If Thorin disappeared and Balin whisked the hobbit away from his brother, that didn’t have any bearing on the mountain. In fact, Balin brought Bilbo straight to a tailor, which was a wonderful starting point.
“You’ll want to look your best tonight,” Balin said. “Knowing Thorin, well, he’s not going to waste time.”
“You’re engaged by hobbit custom, of course,” Balin explained, “and I know Thorin considers himself already bound. He will want to formalize matters at the feast tonight.”
“Formalize.” Bilbo’s heart decided to break free of his chest, beating violently against the bars of his rib cage. “The wedding will be tonight?”
“No.” Balin smiled. “No, not the wedding. A royal wedding requires at least a week’s notice, I am sorry to say. We must invite our allies from Mirkwood and Dale, and the elves require some little travel time to arrive. Still, that gives you a chance to be formally engaged. Tonight is nothing for you to be concerned about. Just accept whatever gift Thorin gives you. I’ll have something for you to offer him in return. After the exchange, the king will present you to the kingdom, and the wedding invitations can be sent.”
“Right.” Bilbo took a few deep breaths. “It’s just a formality.”
“Just a formality.”
The hobbit looked down at his threadbare waistcoat. “I haven’t a thing to wear!”
Balin very kindly did not laugh. “That is why we’re at a tailor’s.” To the tailor, he said, “Something formal for tonight, something better for the wedding, and start working on a full wardrobe. Charge everything to the crown.”
A very pleasant hour passed between Bilbo and the tailor. An amiable dwarf named Lori, the tailor happened to be cousin to Dori, Nori, and Ori, all of whom popped up in short order. Bilbo discussed the fashions of Erebor with his friends, his preference in fabrics, his ideas about double stitching on seams, and his personal appreciation of waistcoats. Measurements were taken, and Bilbo sat with Dori, Ori, and Nori drinking tea while an army of assistants brought out different swatches and styles for him to approve or reject.
In the end, Bilbo wound up with a very daring silk tunic cut in the dwarven style. Deep blue in color, it had gold trim, a gold belt, and gold trousers to match. Bilbo was able to wear his golden cufflinks with it, and Lori assured him that he looked tremendously fashionable. Checking with Dori was natural, but the well dressed dwarf simply went misty eyed.
“Wearing a courtship gift when you receive an engagement present is commonly thought to be very good luck for a wedding,” Ori said.
Nori sniffed. “Most suitors are just too cowardly to hand over the goods until they’re sure you like ‘em.”
“Oh, not at all,” said Ori. “There’s a great deal of historical precedence. Did you know that Durin himself—”
And they were off discussing the dwarven cultural history of engagement presents all the way to Bilbo’s rooms.
Bilbo’s chambers were beautiful. His sitting room rivaled the king’s private one, but there were extra throw pillows on every single chair, as though someone had taken careful note regarding what was necessary for a hobbit’s comfort. A bed that might have slept an entire family of Big Folk stood proudly in the center of another room, draped in silk and covered with fine, woven blankets. A third alcove was given over entirely to a massive marble bathtub that would easily have bathed that same giant family, but Bilbo could choose how deep to make the water. He was sure he could splash around quite comfortably with Thorin, for the copper plumbing in Erebor was just as good as what he had in Bag End.
A little kitchen would have been nice, in case he felt like whipping up a snack or two, but Dori showed him a rope to pull. Just touching it made dwarves in bright armor appear. The fellows were extremely eager to bring Bilbo anything and everything he might desire. Even an omelet at midnight, they assured him.
Fortunately, this did not need to be put to the test right away. Bilbo Baggins had a feast to attend.
The great feast hall of Erebor had vaulting ceilings and dozens of tables full of bejeweled dwarven nobility. Upon a dais was a great stone table for the king and his family, and closest to that dais was a table for Thorin’s Company. Bilbo hesitated between the two, but Balin took his arm gently and lead him to a seat just one away from the king. On Thrain’s left, Dis sat with Fili and Dwalin beside her followed by Gandalf at the very end. On Thrain’s right, there was an empty chair. Bilbo sat next to that, with Kili at his own right and Balin on the other side of him.
The king made a little speech and all the plates were filled with meat. Bilbo barely tasted the food in front of him, waiting for Thorin to make whatever dramatic entrance he had planned. Eventually, awkwardly, the king leaned across the empty seat to speak to Bilbo.
“It seems my son is set upon completing his task,” Thrain said. “He sends his apologies, but he is not able to attend you tonight.”
“Oh.” Bilbo forced his most charming smile. “I quite understand. What we spoke of with Gandalf obviously takes precedence over any personal considerations.”
“It does,” the king agreed, but he did not look happy. “Tell me of yourself, Bilbo Baggins. The grief was too near for me to press my son or grandson to speak of you, but I would know you well ere the coming of the storm.”
“There is not so very much to tell,” Bilbo said. “I am but a simple hobbit from a simple land away to the west. Yet I was privileged to share a childhood with someone who is known to you well.” In so saying, Bilbo continued on, telling Thrain the little tales of Kili that a grandfather would most like to hear.
It was a pleasant enough meal, and Bilbo found the old king to be perfectly charming. If the hobbit might have preferred a different dinner companion, he was determined not to show any disappointment. When the time came to part, however, it was clear that he had not been entirely successful.
“I hope you enjoyed dining in state, Bilbo Baggins,” Thrain said, “because we will do so again tomorrow.”
“Oh? Do you often take your meals this way.”
“No,” the dwarf said plainly. “But we will do so tomorrow. Thorin can hardly propose to you in private, can he?”
Laughing, Bilbo flushed. “Oh dear. I’m sure I don’t expect—”
“Yes, he does,” Kili cut in quickly. “He does expect, as he should. They’re already engaged by hobbit customs.”
Thrain’s laugh was a loud, pleasant sound that drew smiles from all the dwarves in the hall. He put a warm hand on Bilbo’s shoulder. “My son is no fool. Tomorrow, he will prove it.”
Despite the assurances of tomorrow, Bilbo hoped Thorin might attend him a little sooner. As he slipped into a bed far too big for any hobbit, the little fellow wondered if he might not have company after all. Thorin might not like to turn up for a big show in front of all his kingdom, but the two of them had always done very well in private. Sadly, that was not to be. Eventually, a small dot in the center of the expansive bed, Bilbo Baggins slept.
Kili turned up for breakfast with passable eggs and tea. Neither of them spoke of Thorin. Instead, Bilbo mentioned Dale, surprised to learn that Kili had not visited since passing through.
“I’ve been spending all my time mucking about in my new forge, or with Fili and Amâd.” Kili froze, staring at Bilbo.
Bilbo grinned. “Amâd, eh?”
“It’s perfect.” Bilbo took his brother’s hand in his own. “I think it’s perfect. She isn’t Mum; she is your Amâd. Does she like it?”
Kili flushed and ducked his head. “Doesn’t seem to mind.”
“Good. Now, it really is very silly that you haven’t explored Dale. Besides, I asked a shopkeeper to hold something for me yesterday. It was rather prideful of me, for I haven’t any funds at all. Think you can see your way to lending your brother ten crowns?”
Kili blinked. “I could make some crowns in my new forge, probably. Do they have to be gold? I certainly have enough of that, but I think ten all gold would be rather dull. I’ve some lovely bright copper.”
“Coins!” Bilbo laughed. “They call those gold coins they use here in Erebor and in Dale crowns, you silly fellow.”
“Oh.” Kili paused to consider this. “I do not think I have actually seen any money, though Fili’s used a little. People just give me things when I want them.”
Remembering his experience at the tailor’s the day before, Bilbo understood. “Well, we shall have to speak with Balin, I think. I’m sure he will lend us a little walking around money. We cannot go exploring Dale empty handed. I promised the shopkeeper to return.”
In fact, Balin did not agree to lend them the money at all. Instead, he laughed at the request. “You will shame your shopkeeper, Bilbo, when they realize who you are. Royalty do not sully their own hands with trade.”
Bilbo flushed. “I am not royalty.”
“You will be soon enough. I ask you to follow our customs in this as you move through Erebor and Dale. Anything you like, simply accept as a gift.”
“How could I possibly take anything from a hardworking crafter under such circumstances,” the hobbit demanded.
Holding up a forestalling hand, Balin continued. “One of your attendants will pay for the item at the merchant’s asking price. This leads to a much greater profit for the folk involved than the usual round of haggling and barter that accompanies dwarven transactions. Watch a few purchases in the marketplace when you visit, and you will understand. Even a small purchase might lead to a long battle to sort out an agreement. An argument in which royalty would always have the upper hand. By circumventing the fight and overpaying with grace, you show yourself to be a benevolent ruler.”
“But we haven’t any attendants,” Kili pointed out.
Balin smiled. “You have me. If you will accept my services as a tour guide, that is. I am well versed in the history of Dale, and may know a few spots that will peak your interest.”
“Amâd bargains for things. I have seen her. And Fili has given people gold as well,” Kili argued.
A shadow passed over Balin’s face. “Sometimes it is necessary for a member of the royal family to make an apology of sorts. And your mother is still recovering from long illness. Her behavior is not yet all the example to you which it might one day be. Please, just allow me to accompany you to Dale. I will take care of everything.”
At that, Bilbo understood the full extent and reason for the custom. What could he do but agree to follow it? “As if we would refuse a local guide, Balin! Thank you so very much for offering to come along. I warn you, I intend to do a fair bit of exploring.”
The dwarf smiled. “I would expect no less, Master Baggins.”
Dale was just as wonderful as it had been the day before. All the people and shops thronged about with as much energy and excitement as Hobbiton during the free fair, though it was clearly just an ordinary day for the large city. Somehow, it felt a little emptier than the day before. As though one notable person was absent from the adventure. Shaking off the feeling, Bilbo lead Balin to the shop with the flying birds.
Balin knew a great deal about everything in Dale. Answering Kili’s architectural questions as easily as he gave Bilbo lyrics for the snatches of tavern music they heard walking past open windows. Once they realized how fascinated Kili was by the great bells, Balin had a quiet word with the keepers at one tower. Just as the hour struck noon, Kili was allowed to pull the rope, ringing the bell in time with all the others.
It was a beautiful day, made all the more glorious for the sunshine and flowers, so that Bilbo hardly worried about anything until he was once again seated next to an empty chair for dinner.
King Thrain did not bother to mask his disapproval. “Once again, my son does not deign to grace us with his presence.”
“Well, I am sure he is doing very important work,” Bilbo said.
“Nothing is more important than choosing the companion of one’s life. It is a decision that will greatly affect his entire reign: his legacy. He shames himself.”
Bilbo wondered if, perhaps, Thorin was not attending dinner for that reason. If the prince was reconsidering certain decisions made on the road. Romance was one thing, but what Thorin thought best for Erebor might require a different path.
“Enough about my shiftless son,” Thrain grumbled. “Tell me of Dale. Did you enjoy your visit there today?”
“Very much so,” Bilbo said. Indeed, there were so many marvelous sights to discuss that he was able to carry on a very pleasant conversation with the king despite the empty chair between them. The distance closed, and Bilbo hardly noticed the empty space.
He noticed his empty bed a little more, without company to distract him.
Bilbo’s second day in Erebor was spent with Fili and Dis. They walked the markets inside the mountain and explored many wondrous caves and caverns. A dwarven mountain might not have traditional gardens, but Bilbo saw places where crystals grew like roses and gold that ran like rivers through the rocks. Natural and beautiful, these polished halls were incredible. The hobbit was deeply curious about the dwarven teas and spices he found in the marketplace, but he was quickly informed that any cooking he wanted to experience could be done by others.
“I notice they don’t tell you that anything you want forged can be taken care of,” he grumbled to his brother.
Fili stopped walking and Kili bumped into him. A brief scuffle ensued that Bilbo stayed well away from. It ended with Kili in a headlock and Dis laughing at them both.
When Fili released him, Kili fixed his hair and said, “I was watching where I was going. You’re the one who forgot how to walk.”
“Kili,” Bilbo said.
Sighing, the young dwarf offered a bow. “My apologies Fili, for fighting and for bumping into you. It was unmannerly.”
“No, not that.” Fili waved a dismissive hand at Kili and looked to Bilbo. “You miss the way of things at Bag End.”
Bilbo’s heart turned over. Suddenly, he missed his cozy little smial very much. Far more than he had at any other point in his journey. He ached for the freedom to wander about with a few coins in his pocket, to do as he pleased without worrying about the plans of others, to cook what he wanted to eat when he wanted to eat it. The weight of stone overhead felt like a prison. Bilbo wondered why he was there. He wondered when Kili would want to leave.
“Not at all,” the hobbit said. “Your family has been most hospitable. If you don’t mind the imposition, Kili and I will probably stay for a nice long visit.”
Kili stared at his brother. “This is not a visit. You are marrying Thorin.”
“Yes, yes, of course.” Shaking his head quickly, Bilbo patted his brother’s arm. “I misspoke. I think I’m overtired.”
“Would you like a nap before the feast tonight?” Dis suggested.
“Probably wise,” the hobbit agreed.
“Thorin will be there tonight,” Fili promised. “I know he will.”
Bilbo only smiled.