“What about a man in a grey cloak, sort of narrow and bullyish looking in the face, white hair? You didn’t happen to see someone like that before the fire started? Or after, I suppose.” This was as close a description as she could manage of the assassin that Fafmuir had spoken of. She had seen him only from a distance.
Harper shook his head.
“I certainly don’t recall anyone of that description,” said the Old Riddler. “Here, would you like to share some wine? It is a very heady vintage, from very far away, harvested very long ago. It is marvellous.”
Harper slipped back into a indolent smile, not unfriendly “My friend exaggerates, but it is true that you’ll never taste its like in all the living world.”
She wondered, would it be impolite to decline? She risked it, saying as warmly as she could manage, “No thank you. I’d rather not be tipsy when walking back among the night-folks.” She gave them a slight nod of a bow. “Apologies if I offend.”
The Old Riddler frowned. “Oh no. No, no indeed. I suppose that is sensible.”
“Very true,” added his companion. “Prudent. Luckily for us, we plan to go nowhere and do nothing before the dawn. We shall celebrate the night in our own quiet private way.”
“Quite right. None of this nonsense with bonfires and deaths. Whatever makes them think that Herself of the Night would want souls sent to her? Doesn’t she have enough matters to look after without a throng of needy ghosts too?”
“Hrmn,” said Dapplegrim in a sudden, considering way. “Hrmmm. How true.” He was looking at the Old Riddler with a peculiar gaze. “You know, Caewen, I saw a card reader up the way who I liked the look of. Let’s go have our cards read, eh. That would be fun. Hrm.”
“Can it wait a minute?”
“A minute, maybe, hrrmmm, but not much longer than that.” He paused, and then said, “Why are you called the Old Riddler? Harp-strumming boy there: I can see his name plain as day… so to speak, but why the Old Riddler?”
“Oh, well,” he seemed almost abashed. “I like to make up riddles. That’s all. It’s a pastime of mine.”
“And much less dangerous than looking into things,” said Harper, with a slight smile. He thumbed a few more of his beautiful notes from the harp. There was an otherworldliness to each rise and fall of the chords.
“What sort of riddles do you like to ask?” said Dapple. His tone was quite suspicious now.
“Oh, well, the usual sort. Lately, I’ve taken to starting my riddles with an elephant. An elephant is a very riddle-worthy animal, you see. Very riddly.”
“How so?” said Caewen.
“Ahem. I am an elephant in winter. I am a bear in summer. I am a gosling in spring. What am I?”
Caewen considered the riddle. She turned it over, looking at it, before smiling, and saying, “A head of hair. Grey in old age. Brown in middle years. Downy as a babe’s head of hair. But you have to know that elephants are grey to answer that, or that bears are brown.”
“And also the downiness of goslings,” added Harper. “A most unfair riddle, in my opine.”
The Old Riddler laughed and rocked back in his seat on the stool. “Good, good,” he declared. “It is clearly and obviously not very unfair, though, as you got it quick, didn’t you? There is nothing that delights me as much as a person who can place a quick wit upon one of my riddles, and then crack it open. You have some talent there, young one.”
His companion smiled a thinner, more foxish smile. “Except for when a person cannot crack one of your riddles. That delights you the more, I would say.”
The layers of fat, whiskers and laughter lines that made up the Old Riddler’s face fell into a moment of serious fixation. “Now that is true. That is true. You know me well. Like a brother.”
A note struck then from the harp, clear and honeyed. “That I do.”
“I’ve another for you though,” said the Old Riddler, a gleam dancing across his gaze. “How about this. My voice is an elephant. My skin is a cameleopard. For a name, you may stand back-to-front and call me the ancient wife. What name for me?” His cheeks heaved up into rosy hillocks above chin and jaw. “Well?”
“Give me a moment,” she said, feeling a bit of irritation at his sudden impatience. “Now, you said a voice of an elephant. A skin of a camel-leo-pard, although I don’t know what that is.”
“It’s a–” started Harper.
“No hints! No hints!” The Old Riddler nearly yelled this. His eyes were bright and large.
“M’m. Yes. No hints.” As she spoke the Harper’s blue-grey eyes narrowed, and she had a sudden sense that she ought to be polite to him. “Ah. Though I’m grateful for the kindness of the thought, Lord Harper.”
“Lord,” snorted the Old Riddler. “Him? A lord. A long way from lord, is he.” More snorted laughter.
“Well, if you’d let me think. Old woman. Back-to-front. Ah. I have it. A herald.”
Now it was Harper’s turn to laugh. He threw his head back so that his silver-pale hair swayed in quick moving locks. “You’ve met you match, old man. She’s onto you and your tricks.”
“Quiet, you.” Though he seemed more good humoured, when he said to Caewen. “A herald, yes, but you might have guessed. Explain it for me so that I know you worked it out.”
“I don’t see how I could have guessed without working it out: but, well, a herald has a trumpet or horn, and elephants give out a great trumpet noise when they are fighting dragons, though I only know that from stories…” She shifted a foot, and said, more softly, “I confess that I don’t know what a camel-leo-pard is. But the ancient wife is an old woman, but backwards. Woman old didn’t seem to be anything, but her old, is close enough to sound like herald. But, like I said, I didn’t understand the middle bit.”
It was the Harper who replied. “Ah, but that’s his mean trick. Unless you knew both that the official badge of station for heralds in Fraenkish lands is a long gold chain on sable, and that a cameleopard is sort of long-necked beast with gold and black spots, you couldn’t guess the middle. Rather another unfair riddle, if you ask me.”
“But no one is asking you,” said the older man, his face now bent into an intrigued smile. Still, still, she did guess the most of it. I have more riddles that start with elephants. How is an elephant like a calf’s skin?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“They’re both unfailing in their memory.”
“No, I don’t understand that one. Is it because you can’t sew leather without making big holes? I don’t know anything about elephants though.”
The Harper breathed a long stray sigh. “He is being mean-spirited with his clues. Vellum is made from calf’s skin, and vellum makes up pages in books. Letters on pages do not forget. Elephants also do not forget. Or so the fables say. I can’t vouch for it.”
“One more one more, I want to give you another chance.”
“We’re leaving,” said Dapplegrim, his voice hard.
“What?” said Caewen.
“Now.” He was glaring. With a snort, he pushed his head into Caewen and shoved her away from the two men.
“What are you–?”
But he addressed the two men. “I don’t know what you are, but you are not mortal magicians, that much is clear to me. I don’t know what happens to those who answer three of your riddles, Old Riddler, but I assure you: we maybe foolish, but we are not foolish enough to answer another riddle. Goodnight to you both. Hurm!”
The Old Riddler looked affronted, a touch on the worse side of sour.
Harper on the other hand played with some drifting notes, smiling, as he said, “You malign us, little demon of flesh and shadow. And you misjudge. If we had uses for you and your mistress, you would not stop us by simply walking away. We would not permit it. So, be glad that you have misjudged, and we are kinder souls than you think.”
“Hurm! Kind? Indeed. Come on, Caewen. Now. Don’t even talk to them. Don’t even look at them. Not either one of them.”
Caewen let herself be nudged away. As she glanced back, she saw that both of the men were watching her. “What are you doing? They seemed friendly enough, and the younger man, Harper, he was rather, um, comely too. I mean, he was nice to talk to. And look at.”
“Listen to yourself!” He nearly snarled the words. “Those were not men. I don’t know what they were. Elder spirits. Gods. Demons. Monsters. But they were definitely not men. It would have been very dangerous to answer a third and last riddle. You’re lucky you stumbled on the one about memory. Gods and goddesses, but that one was easy too.”
“No it wasn’t.”
“Only because he assumed you were lettered. Anyone who knew their ciphers would know at once that calf skin makes vellum, and vellum makes books. He wanted you to answer his riddles. Hrm. Most every sorcerer worth their salt is lettered. You’re luck you’re an ignorant bumpkin.”
“And also not a sorcerer.”
He didn’t even glance at her as he said, nonchalant, “Says the woman who killed two mean dead with raw magic not more than a few hours ago.”
“What–?” She floundered on her words. “How–?”
“Look at me Caewen. Really look at me. Do you honestly think I wouldn’t be able to smell the tang of blood, the whiff of death-magic, the fragrance of a fey-stroke? I could track you halfway across the moot from the stink of the spellwork. I bet that talking magician lion could smell it too. I guarantee it. He’ll be watching you closely now, I reckon. Hurm. Maybe those two things pretending to be men could smell it too. That might explain their keen interest in you.”
Dapple looked around. “Now, let’s go and get our cards read somewhere.”
“What? I thought you were just making an excuse to leave.”
“Of course I was, but it is unwise to outright lie to beings whose reach and powers are unknown. We will have our cards read, thus walking the line of truth. Hrm. You have a thing or two to learn about dealing with arcane beings.”
“I see.” She looked back. “They’re still watching us.”