I knew she was trouble the moment she came through the round door of my office. She was trying to pass for a mortal woman, with a tasteful hat from Appledore & Sons to cover those pointed ears, but they don't hand out that luminous complexion to ordinary guys like you and me. Eyes that were the color of a swordblade and just as harmless looked me over as she said, "Mr. Baggins?"
"That's right, Miss . . . "
"Rushlight," she said. "Primrose Rushlight."
A good, solid Bree-lander name, and as fake as an orc's smile. She took a seat in the special chair I keep in my office for Big Folk. "Miss Rushlight," I continued, "What can I do for you?"
"I have a parcel that I need delivered to my brother in Minas Tirith," she told me. She forgot to give the city's name the rustic pronunciation the Bree-landers use; instead, the inflection was pure Rivendell.
"Sounds like you need to hire a courier," I told her. "A simple Bree-land girl like you ought to know one or two Rangers. Maybe you could let one of them deliver your parcel."
A look of alarm crossed her perfect elfin features before she composed herself. "I prefer to deal with one of the . . . Little Folk," she said, with a slight hesitation, as though she had had to stop herself from using another word, like periannath. "We Bree-landers find you more trustworthy than the Rangers."
"Very well. My usual fee is five crowns a day plus expenses. For an extended job like this, I'll have to ask for a hundred fifty up front." A real Bree-lander would have spent the next five minutes haggling my price down. She just opened up a belt pouch and counted out the money, milled gold coins from Erebor with Dáin Ironfoot's profile on one side and the Lonely Mountain on the other.
It took a moment for my new client to remember that that was her name. "Yes, Mr. Baggins?"
"Might I ask what your parcel contains? Since I'll be delivering it for you, after all."
She reached into the folds of her traveler's cloak and brought out a small, carved wooden box, of Bree-land make, the sort that they put engagement rings in. Unusually, this box had a small lock on the front. "A family heirloom," she explained. "Of little worth, but great sentimental value. When you reach Minas Tirith, you'll find my brother's house on the sixth level, on the Street of the Carpenters."
She seemed oddly hesitant about handing the box over. When I finally handled it, I found it had a peculiar balance to it; it seemed heavier than it was. I set it down on my desk, then waited.
"Yes, Mr. Baggins?" my client finally said, her bright eyes flashing with annoyance.
"Do you have the key, Miss Rushlight?"
"My brother has the key."
"Fine," I said. "If I need to reach you, Miss Rushlight, where can you be found?"
There was another pause, the sort that people make when they're thinking up a plausible lie. "I'll be staying at the Prancing Pony, in Bree." Another slip on her part; no Bree-lander needs to specify where the Prancing Pony is. "When will you be setting out, Mr. Baggins?"
"Tomorrow morning, I expect," I told her. "Is there anything else I can do for you, Miss Rushlight?"
"No, Mr. Baggins. That will be all." So saying, she rose from her chair, bending slightly to avoid my ceiling, which is high for a hobbit, but low for one of the Big Folk.
"Miss Rushlight," I nodded, and she did likewise before turning and leaving.
After my office door closed behind her, I sat and stared at the wooden box on my desk. There was something fishy in the Village By the Water, and it wasn't the perch in the mill pond.