Authors: Piers Anthony
Tags: #Humor, #Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Young Adult
Xanth 19 - Roc and a Hard Place
It was a nice castle, with high turrets, solid walls, a deep moat, and an elevated office suite whose picture window overlooked the nearby community of nymphs. Fire cracker plants grew around the wall, useful for starting fires in the mornings, and the crackers tasted good too. The connected orchard had pie trees of the most sinfully delicious varieties. The mistress of the household was exactly as beautiful, devoted, and accommodating as her husband desired.
A man could hardly ask for a better situation.
Except for one or two small things. “Where is your worser half?” Veleno muttered, looking apprehensively around.
“Don't worry,” the Demoness Metria replied with a smile as her scant clothing shimmered into nothingness. “I sent Mentia off to see the Demon Grossclout about our other problem.”
She pretended not to hear. “Grossclout's such an intractable cuss that it should take her days to pry any kind of an answer from him.”
“That's a relief!” he said, looking more than relieved.
“It's not that I want to be critical, but—”
“But Mentia is slightly crazy,” Metria finished. “And you married me, not my worser half. But because she did fission off from me, being disgusted by my new goody-goody attitude after I got half your soul, we can't keep her away. She's the half of me you naturally don't like—the soulless half, dedicated to making your life half-muled.”
“Horsed, equined, donkeyed, asinined—”
He kissed her. “I think I could fathom the word if I concentrated. Let's make hay while the sun shines.”
She looked perplexed. “Hay? I thought you had something else in mind.” A tantalizing wisp of strategically placed clothing appeared.
“I love it when you tease me,” he said, picking her up and carrying her to the master bedroom.
She assumed the form of a nymph. “Eeeeek!” she cried faintly, kicking her marvelous bare legs in the nymphly way.
“Whatever am I going to do?”
“You're going to make me deliriously happy, you luscious creature.”
She inhaled, enhancing what hardly needed it. “0, sigh, how can I escape this hideous fate?” she wailed cutely, kissing him on eye, ear, nose, and throat.
They fell together on the bed, in a tangle of limbs, faces, kisses, and whatnot. “You are the best thing that ever happened to me,” Veleno gasped around the activity. “You're just the most wonderful, beautiful, lovable, exciting, fantastic person in all Xanth'“
“You damn me with faint praise,” she muttered, clasping him with such ardor that description would be improper.
Another demoness popped into the chamber. “Oh, there you are, Metria!” she exclaimed. “No wonder I couldn't find you around the grounds. I have brought you what you most vitally need.”
Veleno stiffened, but not in the way he desired. “Oh, no!”
Metria looked up from what was occupying her. “At the least opportune time, of course. Do you mind, worser half? I happen to be busy at the moment.”
Mentia peered closely. “Oh? Doing what?”
“Making my husband deliriously happy, of course, as only a demoness can.”
“When not being annoyingly interrupted,” Veleno muttered.
Mentia peered again. “Sorry. I thought that was a grimace of pain on what's-his-name's face. Are you sure you are doing an adequate job, better half?”
“Of course I'm sure!” Metria said indignantly. “He has not complained once in seven hundred and fifty times during the past year.”
“Oh? What about that groan he groaned just now?”
“That was when you appeared!”
“Well, if you feel that way, I'll just depart with what I brought, and never, never return.”
“Oop, no!” Metria cried with alarm. “I need it!”
Her husband, somewhat bemused by the interruption, put in two more words. “Need what?”
“Never mind,” Metria said. “It's a soldier matter.”
“A what matter?” he asked.
“Secluded, cloistered, isolated, remote, detached, obscure—“
“Whatever,” she agreed crossly.
“But what could be private from your husband?” he asked somewhat querulously.
“Yes, whatever could you be suspiciously concealing from your trusting spouse?” Mentia echoed.
“Can't we have this discussion some other time?” Metria demanded, frustrated.
“Of course, dear,” Mentia agreed. “I'll pop back in during the next century.” She began to fuzz out.
“No, wait!” Metria cried. “Now will do after all.”
“Why, how nice,” Mentia said, smiling with something more than good nature. “But don't you think you should introduce us first?”
“Whatever for? He knows who the mischief you are, from ever since you returned from that madness with the gargoyle.”
“Yes, but he may have forgotten. I've been away a whole hour, you know.”
“That long?” Veleno inquired with resignation.
Metria gritted her teeth. There was nothing half so annoying as half a demoness! But she knew her worser half would not give over until she had her half-baked way. “Veleno, this is the Demoness Mentia, my soulless worser half, who represents what I was like before I got half-souled, except that she has no problem with vocational.”
“Idiom, language, speech, expression, locution, utterance, articulation—“
”Whatever. Instead, she's slightly crazy.”
“Yes, it's my talent,” Mentia agreed proudly.
“And, Mentia, this is my husband Veleno, formerly a nymphomaniac, but he hasn't touched a nymph since I married him and took half his soul.”
“Yes, but hasn't he looked at nymphs out the window, with a glint in his—?”
“Pleased to meet you,” Veleno gritted, drawing free a hand and extending it. “Now will you begone?”
“Charmed, I'm sure,” Mentia said, forming a pair of pincers on the end of her arm.
“Ixnay,” Metria murmured warningly. “Mortals are protected from harm in this castle.”
“Oh, that's right,” Mentia agreed, disappointed. The pincers became an ordinary hand, which shook Veleno's hand.
“That was one of the conditions of the restoration. Well, now that your mortal man and I have been properly introduced, I will give you what you most need, Metria.”
At last! But Metria still wasn't easy about this. “Veleno, dearest, why don't you take a little snooze for the moment?”
Metria suggested dulcetly, covering his eyes with her hand.
“But what could you need that I have not provided?” he asked, frowning.
“Yes, I'm sure he will be really, truly interested in this very important secret matter,” Mentia said, sitting on the edge of the bed, so that her thigh touched Veleno.
“Oh, all right,” Metria said, really crossly.
“Have no concern, dear, I will explain it excruciatingly clearly,” Mentia said. “What I bring is information to help abate your incapacity, so you won't be a failure anymore.”
“What incapacity?” Veleno demanded. “My wife has made me deliriously happy almost continuously since we married.”
“That is the problem,” Mentia said. “She has helped you with the chore of summoning the stork seven hundred and fifty—” she peered again “—and a half times this year, and more times during the prior year when I was too busy to be with her, unfortunately, and yet the stork has not gotten the message. She is clearly inadequate in this department.”
Veleno pondered, slowly realizing the truth of this statement. “That hadn't occurred to me,” he said. “I was too delirious to think of the stork. But how could it fail to get the messages?”
“That is precisely what Metria wants to know,” Mentia said. “Whatever could be wrong with her to bomb so badly in so many attempts? Whatever could make her such a sore loser? Especially when I could so readily have—”
“Nuh-uh!” Metria and Veleno said together.
“So she sent me to ask the most intelligent creature she knows, the Demon Grossclout, for advice,” Mentia continued without concern, “and he instantly delegated me to convey that essential advice to her. Naturally I delayed not half a whit to honor that stricture. Her failing is simply too serious to permit any delay.”
“Thank you so much, Worser,” Metria snarled.
“You are so welcome. Better. I knew you would want to attend to your washout without delay.” Mentia's form fuzzed, and assumed the likeness of a giant lemon, then a cooked turkey. “I am thrilled to have been of so much help.”
“You haven't been of much help yet,” Metria said grimly.
“What did Grossclout say?”
“Oh, that. He says you should go ask Good Magician Humfrey.”
“But Humfrey charges a year's service for a single Answer!” Metria protested. “I don't want to pay that! That's why I went to Grossclout.”
“Grossclout did add a few words,” Mentia said. “I believe those words were mush-head, cheapskate, and serve her right.”
“That's Grossclout, all right,” Metria agreed. “He still holds a grudge just because I chose to sand my nails in his dull magic classes at Demon U.”
“Actually, that was I who did that,” Mentia said, smiling reminiscently. “Back when we were inextricably bound together as alternate aspects of a single demoness. Those were the days! But I did not see fit to remind the Professor of that.” She paused reflectively. “I might be able to remember a few more of his words, if it's really important,” she offered helpfully.
“Thank you so much, no,” Metria said. “I think I have fathomed his altitude.”
“Manner, disposition, temperament, bent, inclination, penchant—“
“Attitude?” Veleno inquired.
“Whatever,” Metria said crossly.
“From the height of his eminence,” Mentia agreed.
“'Well, if you need no further assistance or advice on technique—“
“None!” Metria said.
“Too bad.” Mentia faded out.
“You want the stork to deliver a baby?” Veleno inquired as Metria resumed activity.
“Yes. It's what married couples do. Raise children.”
“But demonesses don't get babies unless they want them.”
“Precisely. I want one.” She looked away. “I suppose I should have told you, and I can't blame you for being angry.”
“But I'm not angry.”
“You aren't? But it might interrupt the delirium, and give you the solid obligation of raising a child.”
“Exactly! I want a family, now that it occurs to me.”
Metria gazed at him with adoration tinged substantially with relief. “Wonderful!”
Now he was thoughtful. “The stork must figure that our signals aren't serious.”
“Which is ironic, considering how strong we have made them. I've just got to get the stork's distention!”
“The stork's what?”
“Observation, mindfulness, notice, focus, application—”
“Whatever. What do you think I should do?”
He considered. “I think you should go to ask the Good Magician.”
“But then I would have to leave you alone for a year.”
“Surely you could return on occasion. It might mean you could make me deliriously happy only three or four hundred times in that year, but I think I can survive that deprivation.
After all, I want you to be happy too.”
“You dear wonderful man!” she exclaimed, and proceeded to do the impossible: to make him twice as delirious as before.
But before she went, she checked around the premises, debating with herself, because her worser half had decided to unify for the occasion, now that there was a chance her life would become interesting again. “Do I really want to do this?” Metria asked herself.
'Why not? It isn't as if you have anything important to do around here.” Mentia had fissioned off in disgust when Metria married, got half a soul, and fell in love, in that order.
Her worser half claimed to have been on a grand adventure with a gargoyle, and helped save all Xanth from madness, but that was surely an exaggeration. She had merged as soon as Metria stopped being nauseatingly nice to her husband.
“If you had half a soul, you would have a different alti—attitude.”
“Praise the Demon X(A/N)th that I have not been corrupted with any portion of a soul,” Mentia agreed. Their dialogue was silent because it was internal; no one else could overhear it. She pointed with their left hand. “There's a sand worm, step on it.”
“I will not,” Metria retorted. “That wouldn't be nice.” She lifted the worm carefully with their right hand and inspected it. It was, of course, made of sand; if direct sunlight or water touched it, it would powder or dissolve away. So she put it back in a dry shaded section, and watched it wiggle off.
'Disgusting,' Mentia remarked to no one else in particular.
'But you can redeem your demonly nature by squishing that June bug.’
'No way. Kill a June bug and the year loses its most romantic month.’ Mentia grimaced with the left side of their face.
'I'd rather have you half-bottomed than half-souled.' She looked around, using Metria's left eye.
'I see that go-quat tree is fruiting.’
'So is the come-quat tree,' Metria agreed. 'Veleno likes them, when he's coming and going.’
'Which is he doing when he's alone with you?’
'The opposite of what he wants you to be doing.’ But Mentia could not be shamed.
'Here is my favorite: the grapes with an attitude.’
'Sour grapes,' Metria agreed. 'Your kind.’
'So why are you dawdling around here, instead of getting moving to the Good Magician's castle?’
'I'm just not sure it's right to leave my husband on half rations.’
‘There's all the food he needs, growing right around the castle here.’
'Half rations of delirium.’
'Oh.' Mentia looked around again, until the left eyeball was oriented completely to the side. 'Let's make it easy, then. See that winged nut tree?’ The right eye swiveled.
'Of course. The nuts are almost as nutty as you are.’
'If the right wing nut flies first, we stay right here. If the left one flies first, we pop over to see the Good Magician.’
'That would be a crazy way to make such an important decision.’