— but Clever was never to find out what she wanted. In her eagerness to know, she pressed on the door till it gave way, fell open, and spilled her into the presence of her benefactors.
They looked not surprised.
“Oh-ho,” Vixen laughed without humor, “a spy. Here to steal secrets.” The lady fox tucked out of sight her redundant tails.
“No, no. A smart girl,” praised Dog-Head without warmth. “A smart girl knows; secrets never come free. For every secret learned a price is paid.”
“I wonder,” said Vixen, “if this smart girl knows our secret’s cost is greater than its value.”
Clever stood. Her heart beat frightfully, but her manner stayed bold. “You would be so wicked as to profit off a beggar child.”
Vixen tipped her head. “Cheeky little minx,” she observed in a dry humor, “but over-earnest."
“No, no. A cunning girl,” Dog-Head insisted. “A cunning girl knows to negotiate the learner’s price.”
Clever breathed deeply, summoned courage. “Secret learning is an uncertain venture. Many in the business of teaching it are untrue. They overcharge, add fees, levy tolls and tariffs and taxes of their own invention.”
“Oh, we do not set the price,” sniffed Vixen. “And you will pay, cunning girl, regardless if you learn or not.”
Clever shrugged. “Hunger is the coin with which beggars pay.”
“No, no. A shrewd girl,” Dog-Head declared. “She thinks to cheat and not to be cheated, having no money to pay and nothing to learn. Takes after her mother, I’m told, shrewd and shrewish.”
“Told by whom?” cried an indignant Clever and stamped her foot.
“By the Hangman,” he replied, then unaccountably began to weep great despondent sobs.
“I like shrews,” said Vixen. “Furry. Juicy. A mouthful.” She procured a dusty kerchief and gave it to Dog-Head. “Shrewd girl,” Vixen continued, “hear our story. Decide if we are honest teachers of honest secrets.”