Genre: Humorous Fantasy
Type of Short Story: Short Story
Summary: Renardo and his brothers are up to their eyeballs in debt, with one last chance to save their merchant business (and their gonads) from the moneylender. The great city of Tebos is holding its Festival of Song in three days’ time, and they have a wagonload of songbirds to sell.
There’s just one large, man-eating problem: the bored sphinx who guards the city’s gates, and her deadly riddle game. Renardo doesn’t even want to be a merchant, but somehow it falls to him to outwit the sphinx. No pressure. All he has to do is come up with an unanswerable riddle.
“I’m not asking riddles any more,” said the sphinx.
“Really?” The merchant raised his face from the dirt hopefully.
“Really.” The sphinx shifted her wings, which jiggled her bare breasts in a most interesting fashion. She saw the merchant’s gaze drift and frowned. “You shall ask them instead.”
The merchant’s eyes shot back to her face, alarmed. “Me?”
“All of you.” The sphinx’s nod took in the waiting caravans and the line of delegates behind her current victim, all toting their heavy riddle books under their arms. “Union regs only say I shall test each traveller and admit the worthy to the city. There’s no rule that says I have to ask the riddles. A person could get tired of creating riddles after a few centuries, you know.” She sniffed. “No one appreciates the work that goes into a good riddle.”
The merchant had too much on his mind to sympathise. Like just how big the sphinx was close up—bigger than a horse. Bigger than two horses, maybe. Not to mention the size of her teeth.
“Well?” said the sphinx, her snake-like tail twitching impatiently.
“Well what, your graciousness?”
“Are you going to ask me a riddle or shall I just eat you straight off?”
The merchant scrambled back in alarm. “Just a minute, your ladyship.”
He reached for his riddle book and she growled. “And that’s another thing. No more riddle books.”
“No more—?” The merchant cast an anguished glance at his well-thumbed copy of Riddle Me This. His father had presented it to him before his first journey to Tebos, and it had served him well ever since, though there had been that tense patch when the sphinx had decided that riddles were passé, and knock-knock jokes would introduce a little levity into the proceedings.
“Tick tick tick,” said the sphinx. “Time is money, you know.” She yawned, luscious, bee-stung lips pulling back to reveal wicked canines. Sweat sprang out on the merchant’s brow.
The sphinx flowed to her feet as the merchant hesitated. He scrambled backwards as she paced towards him, his eyes riveted on her face. “No, please. Just a minute, your magnificence. Mercy. Just—just—give me a second.”
His foot slipped and for a moment he windmilled on the edge of the precipice that looked down over Tebos. She waited, crouched down so they were nose to nose, till he stopped gasping.
“Lovely view,” he said with a sickly smile.
“The riddle, merchant.”
“What’s … what, um …” His brain had seized with terror. He rummaged desperately through the echoing spaces inside his skull for a riddle. Any riddle.
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