Everyone was quiet as they headed toward the road to Polity. They reached it before too long and came to a fork leading to two bridges. A sign at the split read:
A test to weed the dumb from wise
One is honest, one always lies
You get one question to surmise
Which path won’t end in your demise
They stand reading the sign a few times, blinking.
“You know…” began the dwarf. “You’d think he might have mentioned this bit.”
“I don’t get it,” said Hugh.
“Look,” pointed the giant. “Those two guys are each standing in front of a path. One of the paths leads to us to the city, and apparently the other will kill us…”
“So… how do we know which way to go?” asked Hugh.
“Yeah… exactly,” said the dwarf.
“Okay, let’s think,” the giant said. She shifted her weight and began rubbing her chin, looking between the two bridges.
“I got it,” said the dwarf. “We ask them something obvious, like… is the sky blue?”
“The sky isn’t blue during sunrise and sunset,” said Hugh.
The dwarf scoffed. “Okay, then we can ask if he’s a woman.”
“What if they’re a transsexual?” asked Hugh.
“Wait,” said the giant, “It doesn’t matter, because even if we ask a really obvious question, like… are you standing on a bridge or is it daytime right now… even if we know that they lie or tell the truth, we don’t know if the liar is guarding the bridge to the city or… our demise.”
“How do you suppose they’ll kill us?” asked the dwarf.
“I’m not interested in finding out,” said Hugh. “I know what to ask.” He walked up to the nearest one. They heard mumbling in the distance. Hugh waved them over. “It’s the other one, come on.”
As they crossed the other bridge, the giant nudged Hugh. “What did you ask?”
Hugh smiled. “I asked, ‘Which path would the other one tell me they were standing in front of?’”
The dwarf furrowed his brow. “How does that work?”
“Simple,” said Hugh. “You see, they will always answer with the path they are guarding.”
“They the other one, or they the one you’re asking?” asked the dwarf.
“The answer will be for the one you’re asking.”
“Seriously?” asked the dwarf.
“Yep,” Hugh said.
“I don’t get it,” said the dwarf.
“Think about it,” said Hugh. “Think about every possibility.”
“But… there’s so many!”
“There’s only four!” Hugh said, shaking his head.
“He never had a mind for math,” said the giant.
“Probably all of the brain damage you’ve done smacking me over the years,” said the dwarf. The giant pulled back like she was going to slap him, and when he flinched, she lightly kicked him in the backside.
“You’re too easy to fool, brother.”
The first person they saw as they entered the city was a town crier, who was nursing a flagon of beer.
“Oy,” said the town crier, shoving himself straight up from the tree he was leaning on. “What have we here?”
“We’re looking for a place to hold a funeral,” said the giant.
The crier looked Hugh up and down, and eventually addressed the dwarf. “What’s your business here?”
“Oh, uh…” the dwarf stuttered, still trying to figure out the riddle. “Well, like my sister said, we’re looking to get rid of this dead body.”
“What he means,” the giant said, stepping between the dwarf and the crier, “Is that we need to arrange for a sea burial of some kind.”
“Oh, we can’t do that for you here,” said the crier. “Especially not tonight, or tomorrow, for that matter. Tomorrow is election day, and all religious temples and businesses will be closed so that we can cast our votes for our new chancellor.”
“Alright, well…” the giant began. “If we wait until after the election, will we be able to make arrangements?”
“I’m afraid only very important people get sea burials anymore,” the crier said. “You would either have to be very powerful or on a waiting list for years.”
The giant groaned.
“But you can get rid of this body for us some other way, right?” asked the dwarf. “Like burning it or… feeding it to dogs or something?”
The crier winced. “Right… well, there are many fine inns and taverns where you might purchase a room for the two of you…” The crier glanced quite obviously at Hugh. “I don’t know about… that… thing.”
“Come on,” Hugh said, “I can hear you.”
The crier’s eyebrows rose. “Oh, it speaks…”
“Hey, don’t be rude to him,” the giant said. “He’s the one who solved your little riddle to get here.”
“Ah, yes,” the crier said, nodding. “That little ploy stops half of the fools from reaching the city gates.”
“What about the other half?” asked Hugh.
“Drinking, gambling, women… something always gets them.”
“You have gambling?” asked the dwarf.
Hugh and the giant looked at each other.
“Yes, my boy,” the crier said. “We have some of the best gambling in the world: four race tracks, two gladiatorial arenas, and of course, three world-class casinos filled wall-to-wall with tables for every type of gaming known to man.”
“You mentioned an election,” Hugh said.
“I can’t tell you anything today,” the crier said. “It’s the law. Can’t say I’d want to, either. I thought I was going to go hoarse after shouting non-stop for weeks now. But, it’s the law that no one can talk politics today, as a sort of break for everyone. The three candidates are probably sharing a beer together now in some symbolic show of unity, even though all three of them hate each other.”
“Who hates me?” Someone walked up to them, smiling. ““You better not be doing what I think you’re doing.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” said the crier.
“Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Walker, and I am but a humble shrub farmer.”
“When have you ever been humble?” the crier asks, walking up to him and giving him a huge bear hug.
“Are my opponents importing voters from distant lands, now?” asked Walker, still beaming from ear to ear.
“Naw,” the crier said. “These folks came here for a burial.” He swept his hand toward the wheelbarrow.
“Oh my,” said Walker. He put his hand on the giant’s shoulder. “I’m so sorry for your loss. If there’s anything I can do for you in this time of need… I’m sure we could still register you to vote.” Walker winked at the dwarf.
The crier shakes his head. “I didn’t hear that.”
“Hear what?” Walker asked over his shoulder. He turned back to the giant and the dwarf. “We can get the two of you registered in the morning. I promise you, if I am elected, I will do everything in my power to provide the proper burial for your… father, grandfather?”
“He’s just a friend,” the dwarf said.
“A very lucky man, with very dedicated friends,” Walker said. He looked at them, settling his gaze on Hugh. “The kind of friends I would like to have, actually. I imagine your dedication is matched only by your sheer size. Where are you staying while you’re in town?”
“We don’t have a place,” said the giant.
“Just my luck,” Walker said. “I simply insist that you stay with me. We can store your friend’s body in my family’s mausoleum. It’s right under my estate.”
The giant and the dwarf looked at each other, then back at Hugh, who shrugged.
They followed Walker through the city, following cobble stone roads through narrow alleys. Stone buildings towered three or four stories over them at times. They came to a large fountain with stone mermaid statues partially submerged in the water.
Past the fountain was a large building with an enormous copper dome that had turned mint green. Hugh looked in the other direction, across a grass plaza, and saw a tall marble obelisk, with swirling patterns of black and gray.
Walker waved to those who stared at them. Soon, they were back into the claustrophobic streets, passing homes and store fronts. The smell of food being cooked mingled with the stench of human waste in the gutters. They moved their backs to the wall as a mule drawn cart passed them.
Before long, they came to an archway covered in roses with a metal gate. Walker stood in front of it for a moment, and a man sitting on the other side got up, threw a latch, and opened the door for them. He bowed his head as they passed, and closed the gate once they were through, locking it.
They walked down a path through a garden, flanked on either side by several small ponds full of fish. As they approached the building, an enormous animal waddled from behind a hedge and sat down next to the path.
“Who’s a good boy?” Walker said in a sing-song voice. He put his hands on either side of its huge face. “This is a tibear, supposedly half tiger and half bear. However, my vet assures me they’re actually a very large sloth.”
The animal looked like a white bear with black stripes. Hugh noticed huge, curved claws. It’s small eyes seemed lost in all it’s fur.
“I’m a man who likes exotic things,” said Walker, “And I have a talent for getting what I like.”
They continued up the steps toward the large home. The entire façade was made of white marble, with the exception of a floor mural of a single rose in the center. A drop of blood drips from one of the thorns. They walked up to the front door, where another doorman opened it for them. Inside was a man in a white hooded robe. He lifted his head as they entered and said, “It is good to see you, sir.”
“Hankster, my boy,” Walker shouted. “Help these three to rooms. I’ll have someone send for them around dinner, see to it that they’re comfortable until then.”
“This way,” he said, walking down a corridor with his arm raised high in the air.
“I leave you in very capable hands, my friends,” Walker said, heading to another part of the house.
“So… your name is Hankster?” asked the dwarf.
“Only the master calls me Hankster. My given name is Henry. Feel free to call me whatever you wish,” Henry said.
“Could I call you Scum Maggot?” asked the dwarf.
“If sir wishes it,” said Henry… or Scum Maggot.
The giant popped her brother in the jaw. “Don’t talk to people like that, you know better.”
Henry opened three doors for them, and inquired as to what was in the wheelbarrow. Upon hearing of Walker’s promise to store the body, Henry lifted the wrapped corpse onto his broad shoulders and carried it down to the catacombs while the three of them went to check out their rooms.
To be continued…