It was raining in Bywater that day, a heavy late summer rain that turned the village's dirt streets into a sloppy, slippery muck that clung to the hair on your feet. I held my trenchcoat close to my collar and hunched my head down as the mud squirmed its way between my toes. Days like this I usually spend in my warm, dry office, relying on a bottle of Old Winyards to keep me entertained, but Miss Rushlight's little locked box had me curious.
I pushed my way into the Green Dragon and looked around. There was the usual crowd of locals keeping the bar's waitresses busy, and a few travelers who had stopped in for some liquid refreshment. The man I was looking for was in his usual spot at the end of the bar. I'd been worried that he might have his crony Greasy Sandyman with him, because I wanted my business to stay my business. Fortunately, Greasy wasn't around, and my man was alone. I eased myself onto a stool next to him.
"Hey, Deuce," he greeted me.
I nodded back. "Petals," I said, "I may have a job for you. Where can we talk?"
He rose from the bar and led me into a backroom, tossing a quarter-crown to the landlord. He sat down at the scarred wooden table, and I sat down across from him.
"Whatta ya got for me, Deuce?" he said.
If Petals had been one of the Big Folk, they would have called him a second story man, but we hobbits don't go in much for second stories. His mean old drunk of a father had named him Halfwit, but everyone called him Petals because of his cover as a gardener. Despite the old drunk's name, little went on that Petals' beady eyes missed. You could case a joint pretty thoroughly when you were supposed to be trimming the verges, and Petals could slip in and out of a locked hole quicker than a dagger thrust. If you had a lock that you wanted picked, then Petals Gamgee was the man to see.
I produced Miss Rushlight's box and set it on the table in front of Petals. He screwed a jeweler's loupe into one eye and gave the thing a quick, thorough going over. Finally, he set the box down, removed the loupe, and said, "Magic. Elf magic."
I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was. "So you can't open it?"
"A troll couldn't open it. You couldn't even saw open the wood. Nothing and no one can open this box unless they use the key. But," and he paused while a sneaky grin spread across his homely features.
"But?" I prompted him.
"The elves are smart cookies," said Petals, "and they got a lot of know-how, but they think in straight lines. An elf'll look at a box like this and think, 'I need to cast a spell so no one can open it,' and they do. But the box is still wood. It'll burn just like any other piece of wood."
Matching Petals' grin, I picked up the box and threw it into the fireplace.
Petals was right. Miss Rushlight's magic box burned just like any other wooden object. I figured it would take maybe an hour to burn away, and then I'd find out what was so important that it was worth a hundred fifty crowns to get to Minas Tirith.
"What do I owe you, Petals?"
I counted out some of Miss Rushlight's gold coins, and Petals looked on with great interest. "New client, Deuce?" Like I say, not much got by Petals.
"That depends, Petals. How much 'mind your own business' does that ten buy me?"
Petals sighed. "All right, Deuce. I hear you."
As he got up to leave, I sent another portrait of King Dáin rolling across the table. "Tell the landlord I'll be here for another two hours."
Scooping up the coin, he nodded. "You got it, Deuce."
Then he left, and it was just me and the fireplace.
Now that is likely to prove a mistake, I suspect. These hobbitses. I hope Deuce likes travelling.
He likes traveling if the price is right, and 150 crowns buys a lot of like.
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