This was the moment of truth. If Imalad did indeed possess the real Angrennan, the ring he’d described to me so accurately, he would know that this ring was a fake. But what would he do then? Would he challenge me directly? Or indirectly? Or would he simply keep quiet for the present, secretly denouncing me to the others when the opportunity arose?

“How came you by this?” It must have been just what was on his mind, but I hadn’t expected so direct a question.

“I would rather not say right out. I am offering this ring for sale, so naturally I don’t want its price bargained down. But I assure you I do have some title to it. I’ve come by it honestly—I have not taken it from the previous owner against his will.” I stressed those last words to counter the aggressiveness of Imalad’s question and to warn him not to probe too deeply, in case I started alluding to our earlier conversation. He might well be angry with me for letting him describe the ring to me as if it were lost and all the while I had it in my possession. Or so it would appear to him. He would wonder what my motives were. I decided to let him think they were the basest, most venal imaginable. In the present circumstances, that was the safest course.

“Imalad does have a point,” interjected Grimwald. “When we have agreed on a price for it, will you then tell us how you came by it?”

“Gladly!” I exclaimed. I smiled in Imalad’s face. “But first let me ponder this. Would somebody care to tell me exactly what they think it is?”

Grimwald reached into his pocket and pulled out a jeweller’s eyeglass, which he twisted expertly into his eye socket. He picked up the ring and subjected it to a quick scrutiny. Then he put it back on the table. “It’s a piece of fashion jewellery. The stone is of no great value, but the craftsmanship is superb. It would be hard to value it on the open market.”

I turned to Guthmud. “You seemed very excited when you first saw it. What did you suppose it was?”

Guthmud regarded me with a cunning smile. “It’s all very well for you to say you don’t want the price bargained down. But can you blame us if we don’t want its price bargained up? Telling you what I think it is might do just that.”

“It has ever been my principle,” I replied, “to charge for goods and services according to their perceived value to the purchaser, not according to someone’s guess at their inherent value. If indeed there is such a thing. Because if there is no willing seller nor willing buyer, then there is no price, inherent or otherwise.”

“Well,” said Grimwald, looking round the table, “Mr Overdale puts it on a plate for us. Are we ‘willing buyers’? Do we want it? Why I called us all together is so that we can be sure we have agreement on this vital question. If the answer is yes, I would have Mr Overdale rewarded most handsomely for his diligence in searching it out and for bringing it all the way here to Hotel Doom.”

I nodded to Grimwald. “Many have spoken to me about you,” I said, “and all are agreed that you’re a most generous man.” That made him smile, but not broadly. “Yet I have to ask myself, am I a ‘willing seller’?”

“Why should you not be?” snapped Guthmud. “What are you here for, then? Once having put it down on the table, are you seriously proposing to pick it up and take it away again?”

I folded my fingers and held his eye in a level gaze. “Are you suggesting that I am in no position to do just that? Why then, you could offer me whatever price you liked, no matter how absurd. That is why I made a point of saying that I enjoyed some title to the thing—that I was entitled to sell it. Or not to sell it, if I so choose. I am not a common fence of stolen goods! Nor am I without redress… if there are any who would wish to steal from me.”

Guthmud’s features contorted. “Do you really suppose you could just get up from the table and walk out of here…?”

I snatched up the ring and put in my pocket, returning his fierce glare.

“Gentlemen, gentlemen!” Grimwald crooned. “I have not the slightest intention of letting Mr Overdale depart from here… without being fully recompensed. All we have to do between the four of us is to decide on the price.” He turned to me. “But I see you have misgivings…”

“Simply this, Master Grimwald. Just now Imalad son of Imrahil uttered the word ‘plot’. So did you. By selling you this ring I imagine I become embroiled in this putative ‘plot’. Now you may take the view that I oughtn’t go seeking to know more than is good for me. But there is much that I come to know, in travelling to and fro—all of which on principle I keep to myself!”

Casting a fierce gaze round the dinner table I challenged anyone to gainsay me. Nobody did.

“And another of my principles,” I continued, “is not to be held accountable for things I don’t know the first thing about. Am I to be denied access to the King’s court, with its wealthy clientele, as a result of being branded a consorter with plotters against the Realm? Or worse… as a plotter myself? If so the price must go up somewhat to reflect that.”

There was silence. Grimwald broke it at last. “Well, what do you all say to that? I propose that we let Mr Overdale in on the plot. He may then decide for himself whether we are plotters against the Realm—or whether we are in reality its benefactors! I would rather he came to the latter conclusion. Then maybe the price would go down somewhat,” (he winked at me) “to reflect the privilege of working with us.”

“If only Morfindel were here!” groaned Guthmud. “…Yes, all right, I agree.”

“Imalad?”

Imalad seemed to be fighting with himself to come to a decision. At last he said “Yes, all right. Let us let in Mr Overdale on our plan, if it will help him decide whether the price he is getting is fair and generous.” He turned abruptly to me. “No, Mr Overdale, you will not be denied access to the King’s court. Not if the plan succeeds—as it will. Rather you will be welcomed as a hero… by the new King!”

“By the new King! Whoever might that be?”

“None other than Morfindel son of Gollum!” The three of them raised their glasses.

I whistled. “And how is that to come about?”

“First we capture the Queen. Then we kill the King. Then Morfindel weds the Queen and achieves what Aragorn son of Arathorn seemingly cannot (snigger-snigger): get her to bestow a son and heir upon her loyal subjects.”

“Excuse me,” I mumbled, “while I pick myself up off the floor.”

…to be continued.