Waiters eased us into our chairs. “Miss Aelvsson is more in the nature of a business colleague,” I said to his frankly disbelieving face. “Newcomer as I am to Minas Ithil, she has done me the exceptional favour of introducing me to quite a few notables in the city.”
Grimwald’s eyes showed that he relished my turn of phrase. I thought he was going to add something to that, but instead he turned the beacon of his easy charm upon Goldberry.
“And how does it feel, Miss Gee—may I call you Gee?—being a dryad in fabulous Minas Ithil?”
“I’m not exactly a dryad—I’m a naiad. I don’t know much about trees in general, just the ones that grow along river banks. I’ll tell you anything you want to know about willows and poplars.”
“Really now?” replied Grimwald with a deep chuckle. “What’s your opinion of our attempts to grow poplars along the canals in Udûn?”
I was sure Goldberry was going to wince at that, but she kept herself under heroic control. “The poplars I saw gave me to understand that they’d rather be anywhere else than Udûn.”
“The trouble with being a tree is that you have to remain where you’re planted.”
“Not in Minas Ithil you don’t,” retorted Goldberry. “You heard about the huorns?”
Grimwald laughed heartily. “Oh, yes!—who hasn’t?” He peered at me. “But from the look on Mr Overdale’s face, it doesn’t appear that he has…!”
“No. I must confess I don’t know what you two are talking about.”
“Well,” said Grimwald. “In one of Minas Ithil’s numerous face-lifts, the dwarf contractors supplied trees to line the avenues. The ‘trees’ turned out to be huorns from Fangorn Wood. Everybody said how well they had taken and how nice they looked, but first the stray dogs began to disappear, and then the tramps, and then various people walking home from the pub after dark. The City Council gave orders for the trees to be chopped down. But they didn’t hang around to wait for that and departed for goodness knows where, all in the same night. I suppose you don’t know where they went, do you, Gee?”
“Back across the Anduin to Fangorn Wood I’d guess,” replied Goldberry. “They can swim, you know. They can even manage to forge their way upstream a bit.”
“Ha-ha! But not as far as the Brandywine River and the Old Forest, eh? That would have been rather a long way even for a huorn to come, just to stand around in Minas Ithil looking pretty.”
Goldberry, unperturbed, replied “Everywhere’s good for a change, now and again.”
It wasn’t lost on me how Grimwald was making a point of showing he knew everything there was to know about Goldberry. Except the one thing none of us knew—why she was here. Hers was the ideal cover story—she just went around as herself.
I had considered doing that too, but I had put away a friend or two of Grimwald’s when I’d done a job for GUB in the newly founded Doom City over 20 years ago. It was unwise to rely on Grimwald having a short memory. I’d rehearsed my story well, but I was waiting in trepidation for him to start directing a few well-honed questions at me.
He didn’t. Perhaps he’d had no option but to accept me at face value—a stranger nobody seemed to know anything about, who travelled in distant lands—a merchant adventurer. I was rather hoping that was true, although I knew I ought not to depend on it.
Grimwald drew a glistening bottle from the ice-bucket at his elbow. He poured it—the wine was excellent. Knowing a bit about wine I ventured a guess. “Old Winyards?”
“Same grape variety, but grown here on the southern slopes of Mount Doom. This is the first selection of course.”
I said, “I wouldn’t have credited it! But they do say all grapes need is sunlight. They thrive on stony soil.”
“They love a volcanic soil. And it imparts a special flavour to the wine.”
The three of us chinked glasses. “Well—here’s to Trade,” said Grimwald. “Free Trade. World Trade. Trade gloriously free from regulations. Anything from fine wines to—er—personal jewellery.”
The waiters came with dishes of hors d’oeuvres. I was dreading having to eat meat in an orc establishment, but this looked like a medley of vegetables, although I didn’t recognise a single one. I prodded my fork in and tasted them cautiously.
“Met anything like these before on your travels, Mr Overdale?”
Was he testing me? “No,” I said confidently. “I don’t recognise any of them. And the sauce is delicious. It doesn’t look as if there is a market opportunity for imported vegetables here in the Mandate, as I was rather hoping.”
“No indeed! These have been invented and grown here in Doom City. They don’t need earth and they don’t need light.”
“That’s amazing! I’d had half a suspicion we were eating sliced huorn”—a remark which earned a chuckle from Grimwald. I continued, “But you used the word ‘invented’. Shouldn’t that have been ‘bred’?”
“I choose my words carefully. These plants—if you can call them plants—have been developed like new mechanical devices. And patented as such. It’s hard to tell these days whether what you are eating is animal, vegetable or mineral. But orcs have never eaten food grown on the surface. They’ve always had things they could grow deep down in caves. Slimy, unpleasant-tasting things for the most part. It’s only in recent years that they’d been able to engineer roots and fruits which are palatable enough to serve in the best restaurants. Not bad, are they?”
“No, not bad at all,” I agreed. Goldberry threw me a sidelong glance.
Our host treated us to a lyrical description of all the new products being invented in Doom City. Products to rival Udûn, not to mention Dale in the North. And what a great place Doom City was to live in! He was recommending Goldberry to come and try it (he had a job for her, of course) and launched into a catalogue of the massage parlours, fetish clubs and strip joints for which Doom City was rapidly becoming famous. All of which he had a hand in—and didn’t care who knew it.
“Minas Ithil had better look to its laurels!” he said. “If My Lord Faramir has his way, the place will be gentrified before you can say ‘odds and sods’!”
I laughed. I had to admire the man’s egregious wit—for more of a man than an orc I had decided he was. I’d heard how charming Grimwald Uruksson could be and I was just wondering whether I could afford to relax enough to enjoy the meal, when the main course arrived.
Goldberry, wide-eyed, stuffed her napkin into her mouth to stifle a scream. I stared at the fried fish on my plate. It was not properly dead and it was working its jaws furiously, even though the rest of the body was cooked and the fins crisp.
Grimwald started tucking into his fish with relish. “I heard mention about Miss Gee not eating dead things, so I thought I’d order something that was still alive. It’s a speciality of the hotel. It’s a lifetime’s skill of the chef, to dip the body in the hot oil just long enough to deep-fry it, but not to kill it stone-dead.”
When he’d finished his fish he helped himself to ours as well. “I’m sorry you two weren’t hungry,” he said. “The vegetables were rather filling. But be sure to have a dessert—mother isn’t standing over you now, ha-ha! I heartily recommend the fruit pie and cream, especially the forest fruits. Me—I have an insatiable passion for forest fruits—for berries of all sorts.”
…to be continued.