Authors: Piers Anthony
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General, #Fantasy fiction, #Humorous, #Humorous fiction, #Science Fiction/Fantasy, #Xanth (Imaginary place)
Cynthia crested a hill and spied the Good Magician's castle. She paused, surveying it, her pulse accelerating with maidenly excitement. She was here; could she handle the three Challenges? She knew they would be possible but not easy.
Suddenly her Question seemed foolishly inadequate. She really didn't need to bother Magician Humfrey with it; there was one sure way to get the answer on her own. The trouble was, that way was dangerous. If she proved to be unlucky, she could regret it for the rest of her life. So she could not afford to gamble; she had to know before she married Che Centaur.
She spread her fair white wings and leaped into the air. She had been trotting, perhaps to give herself more time to think, but now she would fly in before she had a chance to change her timid mind again. After all, centaurs weren't supposed to be femalishly irresolute. They were supposed to be intelligent and decisive. She had been a centaur only half her life, or one-third of it, or five-sixths of it, depending on how she chose to see it at the moment. She was still learning.
The castle looked deceptively placid. The tower windows were open, the moat was calm, and the drawbridge was down. Just as if anyone could walk right in. Well, there was one way to make proof of that.
Cynthia Centaur glided to a four-hoof landing, folded her wings, and trotted up to the drawbridge. Sure enough, it lifted just before she got there. Unsurprised, she walked down the bank to the water. As her forehoof touched it, colored fins appeared. Loan sharks. She backed off; she did not want to let them take an arm or a leg. There would be no swimming today.
She spread her wings and leaped. The feathers found no purchase; she landed back on the ground. She nodded, having confirmed another limit. She could not walk, swim, or fly across the moat. It was a Challenge.
So what was the way? There had to be something likely but difficult, and she would have to figure out how to make it work. That was the way of it. The Good Magician did not like to be bothered with frivolous Questions, so he made it awkward for querents to get in to ask them. Then they had to pay a year's service, or the equivalent, for the Answers. Even so, there seemed to be a fairly constant stream of them. Many of them worked off their Services by becoming parts of Challenges for later comers. So it amounted to a cottage industry.
None of which helped her to cross the moat. What had Magician Humfrey cooked up for her? For the Challenges tended to relate to the abilities of the ones whose progress they barred. It would require centaur savvy to get through.
She walked around the moat, seeking some hint. All was quiet. Until she was halfway: 180° in precise centaur terminology. There she saw a rope supported by a system of pulleys on either side of the moat. One end was attached to a small boat at the outer bank, and another end was in the hands of a lovely human woman.
"Ahoy there, centaur!" the woman cried. "Do you mean to anger?"
"Why, no," Cynthia said, surprised. "Am I somehow giving offense?"
"Frustrate, interfere, balk, thwart, oppose—"
"Whatever," the woman replied crossly. "Do you intend to navigate this moat?"
"Why, hello, Demoness Metria!" Cynthia said. "Are you operating this Challenge?"
"Yes, I'm stuck here until I help someone get across. If you want to come in, get in the boat and I'll haul you over."
"But I weigh a lot more than you do," Cynthia protested. "It would be difficult for you to pull me."
"That's why I have the pulley. It gives me the magic of buy."
"Shop, browse, patronize, bargain, purchase—"
Cynthia fixed on the last word. "Leverage?"
"Whatever. Get in the stupid boat. I'll use the crastination to haul you across."
Crastination? Cynthia hesitated to inquire. It was probably the name for the fancy pulley. She wasn't sure about this, but nothing better offered, so she set four feet in the boat and hunkered down so as not to tip it over. This was hardly her most comfortable mode of passage, but of course the Challenges were not designed to be comfortable.
Metria pulled on her rope. It swung her halfway across the moat. Cynthia's boat hardly budged.
!!" the demoness swore up, down, and sideways. The water beneath her bubbled and clouded as if abruptly heated.
"I think I'm still too heavy for you," Cynthia said.
"You're not too heavy! I'm just too amateurish. I can't get it right."
Obviously true. Cynthia watched as Metria swung back to her side of the moat and landed on the bank. "Maybe if you pulled it more slowly, to get more leverage?"
The demoness pulled more slowly—and was hauled across the moat even faster. "
!!" The green grass around her wilted and turned brown.
"I am not sure this is working," Cynthia said delicately. "Perhaps if I looked for some other way to get across—"
The demoness vanished from the outer moat bank in a puff of vile smoke and reappeared at the inner bank, rope still in hand. "Absotively posilutely not! I am supposed to haul your donkey rear across this fetid pool of snot, and I shall do it if it vetoes us all." Now steam rose from the water, and chips flaked from the castle wall behind her. What little vegetation remained in the area gave up the ghost; little plant-shaped spirits were floating into the sky.
Cynthia's maidenly ears were hurting. She had never before seen a demon quite this enraged, and wasn't sure she would survive with her health if it got any worse. She decided not to argue. "Of course, Metria," she said soothingly. "It will surely work out."
moil out," the demoness gritted wrathfully, "or I might become annoyed." Thin plumes of smoke jetted from her ears, and veins stood out in stark red relief on the crackling surfaces of her eyeballs.
This was still beneath the level of annoyance? Three of Cynthia's knees felt weak, and the fourth was none too strong. She had to pacify Metria before she exploded, destroying the whole castle. Obviously the present approach wasn't working. The demoness did not seem to know how to operate the pulley correctly, but surely would not be amenable to suggestions by an outsider. How could this be handled posilutely—oops, positively?
Maybe if she reverted to basics. "Metria, I'm sure there's some mistake, and something is interfering with your effort. Maybe if we explore this from the start, we can find out what's happening."
"Maybe," the demoness snorted. A little smoke ring spun clear of her nose, expanding as it floated across the moat. The fin of a blue shark sliced through it—and the fin blistered before it hastily submerged.
So far so good. "Now, I am somewhat inexperienced about demonly matters, and perhaps my vocabulary is deficient. You mentioned a crastination, which I assumed to be the pulley. Possibly I am in error." It galled her to say this, because true centaurs were seldom in error, and their vocabularies were never deficient.
Metria laughed. Waves of heat rippled outward from her; the rage was dissipating. "Maybe I misspoke. I am trying to use the pulley to keep me here while I pull you across. I am trying to crastinate, so I can stay here long enough to find out what is so infernally important about your quest."
"But there's nothing important about me or my quest," Cynthia said. "I just want to find out whether my offspring will breed true. You see, I'm not a natural centaur; Magician Trent transformed me from human eighty years ago. So my children might turn out human, instead of winged centaur. I can't face the threat of such a horror, so I must find out before the fact."
"That's right; I remember now," Metria said. "You tried to fool the Magician, and he was diseased."
"He was what?"
"Instead of being at ease, he was—"
"Oh. Not eased. Perturbed."
"Whatever," the demoness agreed crossly. "So he punished you."
"Yes. But now I like being a winged monster, and I love Che Centaur, and I want to be sure that when I marry him I'll be able to do my part. But however important that may be to me personally, I recognize that in the larger scheme of the cosmos, it is inconsequential. So it must be some other quest that is the one you want."
"No, you are the only querent scheduled for today, so it has to be you. Humfrey's in such a dither he didn't even notice how I'm subbing for Demon Tension in the Challenge. I'm the most curious of demonesses, and I've just got to know what's so awful it can make even the Good Magician get all up in a heaval. So I have to get you into the castle, not me out of it. Until my oddity is sated."
"Your what is sated?"
"Eccentric, irregularity, peculiarity, abnormality, quirk—"
"Whatever! So I gather you don't even know what's so important about your Question."
"Well, it's important to
But I think not to many others. Does it seem important to you?"
"No. Who cares whether your baby is a stinkweed? So it must be something else. I've just got to know."
Cynthia was beginning to be just the merest suggestion of concerned. The Good Magician was dithered about her Question? It was true that if the Answer turned out to be negative, she would have to seriously consider not marrying Che, which would break both their hearts, but since when did Humfrey care about centaur hearts? She hardly rated any such concern. "I fear you will be disappointed. But I'll be happy to share my Answer with you, at such time as I obtain it. Then you can rest undisgruntled."
"Calm, placid, peaceful, quiet, serene, tranquil—"
"I beg your pardon?"
"I usually give only five explications."
"Analogues, meanings, expressions, translations, identities—"
"Whatever. You gave six. That damages the cadence.
should have filled in the sixth."
"I apologize." Actually Cynthia remembered her giving six on more than one prior occasion, but she didn't care to argue the case. "I meant merely to say that you can rest easy, once you know what I learn from the Good Magician."
"Well, why didn't you say so?" the demoness demanded crossly.
"I fear I got distracted. Now about this crastination: I remain unclear as to its precise application. How will crastination help you?"
"By delaying my departure, so I can overhear Humfrey's verdict. I'm trying to stall."
Cynthia nodded. "Perhaps the word you want is 'procrastination.'"
"Yes! That's it. I couldn't quite get it. 'Amateur crastination' was as close as I could come."
"And when an amateur does a job a professional should do, it can go wrong," Cynthia said.
"It can get downright bungled. I want to stand here and pull you across, using the—" She hesitated.
"Of the pulley. Instead it's been reversing, leaving you slow while I zoom across the moat."
"Try it again, this time thinking pro instead of amateur."
Metria pulled on the rope. This time she remained in place, and Cynthia's boat slid smoothly across the moat. She had figured it out.
"Remember—you promised," the demoness said. "And souled folk keep their promises."
"I will tell you what I learn," Cynthia agreed. "Though I suspect it will disappoint you. Nothing about me or my concerns is important to Magicians or demons."
"Brine, water, pool, bay, ocean—"
"Whatever." The demoness looked cross as she faded out.
"We'll see," Cynthia agreed with half a smile. There was something almost amusing about the demoness's problem with words. Was the Good Magician really unaware of Metria's presence? The Challenge seemed remarkably apt for this particular individual.
She stepped out of the boat and surveyed the castle. There was a door in the wall. She tried the handle, and it turned, and the door opened.
Beyond was a spacious chamber filled with harpies. They were dancing, strutting in messy patterns. Feathers were flying, the walls were filthy, and the smell was appalling. No wonder: there was bird poop all over the floor, getting stirred up by the claws of the dancers. Cynthia stepped back, wrinkling her nose. Centaurs were natural about natural functions, but their manure was inoffensive and good for flowers. Harpy dung, in contrast, was truly nasty. It required special facilities for detoxification. To have it spread about a sealed chamber—that was dangerous.
But this seemed to be the only way into the castle. The first Challenge had been a test of her understanding; she had found the key word and thus gotten through. This second Challenge seemed to be a test of her fortitude; how could she pass through this muck and stench without fainting?
The answer was that she couldn't. Cynthia had been cleanly all of her life, whether in human or centaur form. She had regularly washed or replaced her human clothes, then had to get used to going bare as a centaur. She had finally reached the point where she could trot past a group of human boys, knowing that their eyes were riveted to her bouncing breasts, and not be unduly embarrassed. After all, clothing fetishism was a human trait, not a centaur trait, and centaurs were not responsible for human hang-ups. Boys weren't supposed to see the sexual parts of girls, so naturally they lived to sneak peeks, and the upper foresection of a centaur was similar to that of a human person. So human boys did stare at centaur fillies, and thought they were getting away with something, but if there was embarrassment, it should be on the part of the boys. But going bare did not mean going dirty. The idea of going among these dirty birds repelled her.