Cube Route

Xanth (Volume 27 of 37)

Piers Anthony

Tor Fantasy

1
Rear View
 
Looking back, as was natural in the circumstance, Cube concluded that it all started with the rear-view mirror. What a complicated route, from such a minor trigger.
She was out picking bubble gum from the bubble gum tree beyond the hay field when there was a swirl of smoke beside her. “What are you doing?” the smoke inquired.
Startled, Cube gazed at it. “Talking smoke?”
“That doesn’t exactly answer my incertitude,” the smoke said, forming a set of eyes.
“Your what?”
“Dubiousness, skepticism, suspicion, mistrust, uncertainty—”
“Question?”
“Whatever,” the smoke agreed crossly.
“I don’t see why I should answer you if I can’t see you,” Cube said. “Are you a refugee from the smoking section?”
The smoke formed a mouth. “Ha. Ha. Ha,” it said. “Very funny. Not. Don’t you recognize a lovely demoness when you see one?”
“A demon!” Cube sidled nervously away from the smoke. “I never did anything to you. Why are you harassing me?”
“Because that’s what demons do.” A head formed around the eyes and mouth, framed by smoky hair. “Demoness Metria, not at your ritual.”
“Not at my what?”
“Observance, rite, liturgy, ceremony—”
“Service?”
“Whatever! So who are you?”
“I’m called Cube.”
“Cube! What kind of a stupid name is that?”
“It’s not my name.”
The hair spread out and formed a question mark. “You just said it was.”
“I said I was called that. I didn’t say it was my name.”
The smoky features swirled a moment, then coalesced back into the face, which was now pretty in a dusky way. “Score one for you, drab mortal. So what is your name?”
“Cue. But when other kids saw me, they nicknamed me Cube, because I’m just not with it. I tried to pry it off, but that nickname stuck fast.”
“They do,” Metria agreed. “That’s part of the curse of being human. Now answer my first question and I’ll give you something.”
Cube decided that she should do that, before the demoness got angry and did her some harm. “I was just picking bubble gum for the boys.”
“What use have you for boys?” the demoness asked.
“I like them. But they don’t like me.”
The smoke formed a vaguely human female body below the head. “Of course they don’t! Look at you.”
“No thanks. I know I’m not pretty.”
“That’s the understatement of the hour. You give plain a bad name. Whatever made you suppose that any boy anywhere would ever be interested in you?”
“Well, I do have a certain quality of character.”
“Like what?”
“Gumption.”
“What?”
“Initiative, courage, aggressiveness, resourcefulness, common sense—”
“Guts?”
“Whatever,” Cube agreed, frowning. “I’ve got gumption galore, but that doesn’t seem to be what boys want.”
“Naturally not. Boys can see, not think. They don’t much notice character.”
“So I have learned. But I thought that maybe if I got them something nice, like fresh bubble gum, they might let me hang around, and maybe get to know me.”
“Not without a better appearance. Look at this.” A dusky hand extended toward her, holding something. “Use the mirror. It is my promised gift.”
Cube took the mirror and held it up before her. But it did not show her homely face. It showed an unsightly posterior in a dull skirt. “It’s not working.”
“Yes it is. It’s a rear-view mirror.”
“Rear-view mirror?”
“It shows your rear, idiot.”
“Ugh! That’s worse than my face. Take it back.” She pushed the mirror toward the demoness.
“Nuh-uh! That gift can only be given, not taken back.”
“I don’t regard it as a gift. I don’t want it.”
But the smoke was fading, and in half a moment it was gone. She was stuck with the mirror.
She set it on the ground and turned away. And found it back in her hand. She threw it at the trunk of the gum tree, but it returned to her hand before striking the tree. She tried to smash it against a stone, but it shied away.
“!!!!” she swore, absolutely disgusted. At age twenty she was old enough to use an ugly word if so motivated. The demoness had succeeded in making a dull day into a bad one. That must have been why D. Metria had bugged her in the first place: to get her to accept the mirror.
She looked at the next tree, which bore pretty colored gum drops. She was half tempted to eat some of those, but they would just make her teeth drop out of her gums. That would make it difficult to chew.
She jammed the mirror into a pocket and headed for home, disgruntled. Maybe she could find someone else to give it to, someone with a prettier rear than her own.
That reminded her of her condition. “I wish I were beautiful!” she exclaimed. “Then I could nab a good man and settle down and have a nice family. Or something.”
The demoness reappeared. It seemed she hadn’t gone far when she faded out. “Ha. Ha. Ha!” she laughed in a carefully measured cadence.
“What’s so funny?”
“You think pulchritude would solve your dreary life?”
“What?”
“Beauty,” the demoness said crossly. “Whatever.”
“Do you have a problem with vocabulary?”
“However did you guess?”
“Sometimes I get lucky, if the subject isn’t men.”
“Answer the question.”
“Yes, beauty would transform my existence. Pretty girls have great lives, even if they have no perceptible minds. Everybody knows that.”
Metria’s form firmed into sheer loveliness. “Like this?”        
“Yes!”
“You’re wrong.”
“How would you know? You’re a demoness. You can assume any form you wish. You can stun any village lout with your beauty.”
At that point a village lout appeared, walking down the path toward the gum trees. Metria turned toward him, opened her blouse, and inhaled. The lout fell stunned, blindly smirking at the sky. “True. But who wants a lout?”
“You could do it to a good man too.”
“Yes. I did. I’m married.”
“So you see. That’s what I want to do. Then I’d be happy.”
“Maybe. Lovely women traditionally make poor choices in men.”
“I wouldn’t. I’d choose a good one to stun. Because I have as much character as I don’t have body.” Then reality crashed in on her. “But what’s the use? I’ll never be beautiful, so I’ll never nab a man.”
“If that’s what you want, why don’t you do something about it?”
“What can I do about it?” Cube demanded. “I am the way I am.”
“You can go see the Good Magician Humfrey, dummy, and ask him how to get beautiful.”
Cube stood still for a good three quarters of a moment. “I never thought of that!”
“That’s why you’re a dummy.”
Cube realized that in time, without a whole lot of effort, she could get annoyed at the demoness. But it was a good idea. “I’ll do it.”
“Of course he’ll charge you a year’s service, or the equivalent.”
“I know that,” Cube said, annoyed.
“And his Answer will be confusing, so you won’t properly understand it until it’s too late.”
“I know that too. But his answers are always true.”
“Also obvious in retrospect, making you feel even more like a dummy.” The demoness faded out again.
It was true. But what other choice did she have? If there was any barely possible, remotely conceivable, faintest shadow of an obscure hint of half a chance that she could become even marginally pretty if you liked that type, she had to try for it. What was gumption for, if not to do something brave and foolish? Thus was her decision made.
“Ha. Ha. Ha,” the voice of the demoness came, with just a wisp of swirling smoke.
Cube frowned. She hadn’t even voiced her decision, but the infernal demoness knew. Still, she felt buoyed, because now at last she was setting out to do something about her plight. Even if the Good Magician couldn’t tell her how to become beautiful, she would know she had done her best.
And if, just maybe, somehow, there was a way—what a change that would make in her life!
“That’s what yooo think,” the singsong voice of the demoness came.
“Oh, go soak your face.”
“If you insist.” There was a sound of sloshing water. “Glub. Glub. Glub.”
Cube had to smile. Metria was some character.
“Thank you.”
Cube ignored her. The demoness had to be guessing at her thoughts.
“No, your smile gave you away.”
Oh.
The demoness reappeared, evidently about to speak some other incidental mischief. Her feet touched the ground.
“Hay!”
Metria jumped and puffed into smoke. “Who called?”
Cube laughed. “You touched the hay field. It always gets your attention, the first time.”
“Bother!” the demoness said crossly, and faded. Cube was glad to have seen her get fouled up, for once, instead of doing the fouling.
“At least you didn’t land on the romants hill,” Cube said to the space Metria had faded from.
Sure enough, there was a response. “What kind of hill?”
“Romants. When the ants bite you, you fall in love. I think there’s a small love spring under the hill.”
“That’s novel.”
“A romants novel?” Cube could take or leave puns, but this did seem to be a good occasion for one.
“I’m gone.” And maybe this time she was.
So when should she make the trek to the Good Magician’s castle? Well, there was no time like the present. It wasn’t as if she had anything worth returning home for. She lived alone, without even hope of male company.
She headed for the nearest enchanted path. Those paths were always best for traveling, because dragons and other noxious beasts couldn’t get on them, and they had regular rest stops with pie trees and shelter. In fact she had always wanted to travel, but never had a reason to do it. Now she had the best one: her future happiness.
Cube walked swiftly. She was a good walker, having muscles in her legs and stamina in her torso. Of course that was part of the problem; she had muscles instead of feminine curves. So she could out-walk any girl she knew, but of course they didn’t need to walk. Men came walking to them.
Soon she was out of familiar territory, but she wasn’t concerned. She could defend herself if she needed to. Which was another part of the problem: her talent was an ugly, aggressive one, befitting her character, when she would have preferred an appealing, feminine one.
She approached a huge mound. It looked like an ant hill, except that water was flowing down its slopes. She didn’t trust this, but the trail led right by it on the way to the enchanted path.
A huge insect came out to challenge her. It was larger than she was, and had about thirty heads, each of which had a snout looking rather like the nozzle of a hose. What in Xanth could it be?
Then she saw the sign: BEWARE THE HYDRA ANT. Oh, no—this was one of those water-spouting bugs.
She reversed course, backing away. She didn’t want trouble. But the hydra ant followed. Then it squirted water from one of its nozzles. The jet missed, but soon it would get the range, and Cube would get soaked. It was looking for trouble.
There was no help for it. She had to defend herself, because this was the only access in this area to the enchanted path, and she had to reach that path. It wasn’t as if she lacked gumption to do it, just that she preferred to try to seem halfway feminine if that was manageable. But this was the time for boldness.
She invoked her talent. In a moment a swarm of little silvery bugs appeared. They were nickelpedes, the scourge of caves and crevices. “Sic’em,” she said, pointing to the ant.
The nickelpedes charged the big ant. In a moment they were chomping its feet, gouging out nickel-sized chunks of flesh. The hydra danced away, but they pursued. It aimed jets of water at them, but though it was able to wash any one nickelpede away, or any thirty, there were over a hundred of them. Soon it gave up the fight and retreated into its hill.
“Enough,” Cube called. “Thank you.”
The nickelpedes left off the chase, and faded into the woods. Cube walked on by the ant hill and reached the enchanted path.
Now she was safe, but unsatisfied. She didn’t like having to use her talent, because every time she did it reminded her how unladylike she was. Summoning and controlling nickelpedes—what delicate flower of a feminine girl would ever be caught with a talent like that? There were probably plenty of male roughnecks who would love it. But they hadn’t gotten it; she had. She hated it.
Well, she shouldn’t have to use it anymore, because the enchanted path had no threats. She wasn’t even sure she would be able to use it here, since nickelpedes were monsters. Little ones, but no less deadly for all that. So they probably were barred.
The enchanted path was nice. No brambles overlapped it, no tangle trees lurked beside it, and of course there were no dragons, griffins, or other dangerous creatures. It occurred to her that life should be like this, with a clear path and no dangers. It would be nice to travel forever on such a path. Except that she didn’t want to do it alone. She wanted to travel with a man—a man she loved, who loved her too. And that was impossible as long as she was not beautiful.
It kept coming back to that. What would she do if the Good Magician couldn’t help her? Now that she had gotten up the gumption to try to do something about it, she just had to succeed. Somehow.
The path wound into valleys, around hills, through forests, and wherever else it thought of, being in no hurry to get where it was going. It finally came to a camp just as evening was approaching. That was part of the enchantment, of course; it was as if the path knew who would be walking on it, and arranged things to be convenient. Yet again, Cube wished that her life could be like that.
She entered the camp, and found a nice little stream cutting across a corner, with assorted pie plants growing by its bank. There was a curtained shelter made of soft cottonwood beside a pillow bush. She was about to pick a nice apple pie when she heard something. She paused, listening.
It was footsteps. Someone else was coming to the camp, from the other direction. Cube wasn’t sure whether to be nervous; would it be a nice person, or not?
It turned out to be a handsome young man with blue hair. He spied her as he entered the camp, and waved. “Hi! I’m Ryver.”
That was straightforward. “I’m Cue—Cube.”
“I didn’t know anyone would be here. Is it okay to share?”
What could she say? She was nervous about strangers, yet he seemed nice enough. If he was as nice as he looked, he was exactly the kind of company she wanted. “Of course.”
Then he paused, glancing at her more closely. “You’re a girl!”
He had been in doubt? “And you’re a boy.”
Ryver evidently realized that he had been clumsy. “Uh, I mean—”
“Never mind. Make yourself at home.” But they had gotten off to an awkward start. Which was the way it usually was, with her, with men.
He looked at the shelter. “Share that too?”
“Of course.” Staying the night with a young man—how nice it could have been, if only she were the kind of girl to make a boy get ideas.
Nevertheless, after they had eaten, they harvested pillows and settled in the cottonwood shelter. Each plank was full of soft cotton, and the pillows made it that much more comfortable. It was dark outside, but there was a faint glow from the walls so that they could see well enough. “Wanta talk or sleep?” Ryver asked. Then, realizing that sounded wrong, he tried to backtrack. “I mean—”
“Talk,” she said quickly. “Tell me about yourself.” Because then she could listen and pretend she was part of his life.
“Sure. I’m twenty-three years old and on my own. My name’s Ryver because of my talent. I can work with water. You know-make water balls and things. What’s your talent?”
She had to tell him. “Nickelpedes. I can summon and direct them.”
“Say, that’s great! Can you make them go away, if you have to go through a cave or something?”
“Yes.”
“That must be fun. Everybody’s afraid of nickelpedes.”
“Yes.” Which was the problem. So she changed the subject. “Where are you from? Where are you going?”
“I’m going nowhere in particular. I just like to travel. So I’m coming from home and going back there. Nothing much else to do. Last night I met a pretty girl with the talent of negativity; that was a frustration.”
“She had a bad attitude?”
“Not at all. She was nice. She said she expected to have a hot night with me, and I liked that idea. But then we slept in separate cabins and had nothing to do with each other.”
Cube wished he had a similar idea about her, but of course he didn’t. “Why?”
“Her talent reversed her expectation. What she thinks of won’t happen, and it didn’t. I was just as annoyed as she was, but I couldn’t get close to her.”
If only he wanted to get close to Cube! “Why didn’t she announce that the two of you would never get together?”
Ryver stared at her. “She never thought of that. Neither did I. What a waste!” He shook his head. “How about you?”
It kept coming back to her, and not in any way she liked, which was exactly where she didn’t want it. But she had to answer. “I’m just a dull village girl. I’m going to see the Good Magician.”
“That so? What’s your Question?”
Ryver was a bit too open for her taste, being short on sensitivity in the masculine manner. Now she was stuck with the answer. “How can I be beautiful.”
“That makes sense,” he agreed. Then, yet again, he caught up to the awkwardness too late. “I mean—”
“I know.”
There was another ungainly silence. Finally he broke it. “That’s my problem. I keep saying the wrong thing.”
“I’m used to it.”
“I guess so. But you know, sometimes things work out anyway. They did for my folks.”
“Oh?”
“My mother, Lacuna—she liked this man, but he didn’t notice her, so nothing came of it. Then his life didn’t work out, and hers didn’t, and she wished it had happened differently, but it was too late. They had both ruined their lives by not getting together.”
“But then she found your father,” Cube said.
“Not exactly. He was the one she liked, who married someone else and made a mess of it.”
“A mess? But in Xanth marriages always work out.”
“Marriages last, yes. But she was a mean woman, so he was stuck, and probably wished he hadn’t done it. Certainly my mother wished he hadn’t. So she made it a Question to the Good Magician. He wasn’t there, then, but Magician Grey was substituting, and he told her she should have proposed to Vernon.”
“That wasn’t much help! How long had it been?”
“Twelve years. And of course she couldn’t go back. But then she got a wish, and she wished she had proposed to him, and then she discovered her change of life.”
“Change of life?”
“Yes. When she got home, she was married to him, and I was her first male child. She calls it her retroactive marriage. I mean, she changed the past, with her wish, and then just sort of stepped into how her life would have been, and now really was. I get confused when I think about it too much.”
“That’s not surprising.”
“But anyway, it all worked out well, for my folks and for me. I had a good childhood, after having been alone for ten years. I mean, that change of life affected me too, so I had no longer lived alone, and that was great, but I remembered some of how it had been, so I was really grateful. Except for Lacky, my big sister who never existed; I still miss her. Does that make sense?”
Cube pondered it. Vernon must have had a daughter in the bad marriage, who was undone by the change, and Ryver retained some memory of her. Changes of life did have consequences. “I think so. If I could somehow change my past, and make myself be delivered beautiful, I’m sure I’d be grateful, if I remembered my present life.”
“Right. That’s how it is with me. I hope the Good Magician comes through for you.”
He seemed sincere, and she realized that she liked him. He was sometimes socially clumsy, but he had a good heart. “I hope so too.” Then she got bold, which often as not got her into trouble. That was the liability of gumption. “If—if he has an Answer for me, and I get beautiful, maybe after I work my year off—where will you be?”
He looked at her in the dim light. “I’m afraid I’ll say something stupid. I do that often enough. Maybe I don’t understand your question.”
“I’m twenty years old and have always been, well, plain. I’d like to-to have a relationship with a good man. Just as your mother did. She changed her reality and got it after she thought she’d lost it. If I got beautiful—would you care to be the man?”
He considered for a full moment, which was the time required for the average man to make such a decision. “Sure.”
“I mean, I’d have the same personality. The same talent. I’d be the same person. Only lovely.”
“That’s what makes the difference.”
How unfortunately true. He didn’t care about her character, just about her appearance. He really was a typical man. “So if it works out for me, as it did for your mother, maybe I’ll come to your house.”
“Sure. Just ask for Ryver. Everybody in my area knows the water boy.”
This seemed too easy. Did it mean he thought she was joking, or that he didn’t believe she’d ever be beautiful? Was he humoring her so as to get rid of her without making a scene? Had she just made a worse fool of herself than she thought? Maybe she should cancel it now. “Of course, if—”
“Let me give you something, so you can find me better. When you come, I mean.”
He was taking it seriously! “Oh, you don’t need to—”
“I’ll fetch it from the river.” He got up and stepped out of the shelter.
Bemused, she followed. Now she saw that the rest of the camp was outlined with glow, including its internal paths, for the convenience of travelers. What could he give her, that was from the water?
At the river, he leaned down and swooped one hand through the water. He shaped something with his other hand. Then he offered it to her. “Here.”
She couldn’t quite make it out in this light. It seemed to shimmer. “What is it?”
“A water ball.” He put it into her hands.
She held it. It was indeed a ball, cool and soft, but it couldn’t be water because it held its shape. Yet she had seen him swoop it from the river. “How—?”
“I told you: my talent is water. I can shape it into things, and it will keep. Show that to anyone in my neighborhood, and they’ll know I gave it to you. If you get caught without water, you can drink some of it, but don’t drink it all. If you get tired of it, return it to any river or pond. It deserves to be with its own substance.”
“I won’t get tired of it,” she said, amazed. “This is—amazing.”
He paused. “Maybe I’d better show you the rest.”
“The rest?”
He faced away from her, then quickly got out of his clothing. She saw just the shadow of his lean bare backside. What was he up to? Then he jumped into the river and disappeared.
“Ryver!” she cried, bobbling the water ball. “Where are you?”
His head appeared, rising from the surface. “Here’s my head.”
She laughed nervously. “And the rest of you, I trust.”
“Not at the moment, exactly. Feel.”
“What?”
“Put your hand down in the water. Feel where I should be.”
“I can’t do that! You’re naked!”
“Not exactly. Feel.”
Bemused, she held the ball in one hand and put the other down to feel his neck under the surface.
There was no neck.
She felt further. There was no body. Just the head.
“What is this?” she asked, growing alarmed.
“It’s me. I’m made of water.”
“Made of water!” Realizing that this must be a trick or illusion, she put her hand under the head and lifted it up. It came out of the water, like a shaggy ball.
“At least, when I enter water,” the head said.
“Oh!” She was so startled she dropped the head. It splashed into the river and dissolved.
Then she saw it form again, downstream. This time it came out of the river by itself. His body was under it. She turned her eyes away, lest she see something she shouldn’t, even in the darkness. Actually she was old enough, and was a member of the Adult Conspiracy, not that it did her any good. But she lacked experience, because of her appearance.
In one or two moments—certainly no more than two and a half moments—Ryver had recovered his clothing. “So you see, I’m not a regular man. That is, not when I’m in the water. Originally I was all water, and I longed to become flesh. When I became Lacuna’s son, I became flesh- except when I get too close to my origin. I thought maybe you should know that, when you’re beautiful, before you come to—to—”
“To have a relationship,” she finished for him.
“Yes. This—this has turned off other girls. So if you don’t want to do it, I’ll understand.”
Cube looked at the water ball in her hand. He was indeed not a regular man. But was it worse than the way demons were? He just had a more serious relationship with water than she had realized. “I think I can handle it.”
“That’s great!”
They returned to the shelter. On the way, she thought of something else. “You gave me something. I should give you something. But all I have is—is something you might not want.”
“What is it?”
“A rear-view mirror. But I have to tell you, it’s not quite what you think, and you can’t get rid of it unless you give it away to someone else.”
“That’s okay. Let’s see it.”
She fished the mirror from her pocket and gave it to him. “It’s what it shows.”
“Seems like a regular mirror to me.” He held it up before his face. “Say—what’s that?”
“Your derriere,” she said delicately.
“Isn’t that something!” He changed the position of the mirror, getting a better view in the dim light. “I like it. It reminds me of my early life.”
“How does it do that?” she asked surprised.
“When I look back, to see how it was and how it became, it’s a rear view. Not quite the same as the front view other folk see. The mirror’s like that, maybe.”
She was relieved. “It’s yours, as long as you want it.” She glanced at her ball. “Is it safe to set this down?”
“No, not exactly. Keep it with you, or with something that’s yours, like your clothing. If it leaves you, it will revert. That’s why folk will know I gave it to you; no one else can touch it.”
“That’s sweet.”
“So are you. I hope you get beautiful.”
On that nice note, they went to sleep. Maybe if she got beautiful she would get to sleep in his arms. As it was, she was satisfied to have their agreement for the future. Maybe it wouldn’t work out, but at least she’d be in the game. That would be far more than she had ever had before.
* * *
In the morning they took turns using the sanitary facilities, then had a breakfast of milk and honey pies. Then Ryver went his way, and Cube went her way. Her determination to get beautiful had been reinforced; now she knew exactly what to do with that beauty. Until then, she could dream.
Outside the camp was a warning sign: DO NOT LAUGH. Cube looked at it and shrugged; she hadn’t been planning to laugh anyway.
As she set forth, a shape looked up beside the path. “Come here and I will really send you,” it called.
Cube realized it was a male demon. She knew better than to leave the path. “Where will you send me?”
“To Mundania,” he said, chortling. “I am Demon Port.”
Demons generally had a simple translation code, except for Metria, who evidently hadn’t gotten her word quite right. Demon reduced to D, and the name. That would abbreviate to D. Port, or deport. “No thanks.” And suppose she had laughed? Would she have fallen into the demon’s power despite the protection of the path? Now she appreciated the sign’s warning.
Another figure appeared. “Come to me,” he called. “I reduce things to simpler forms. I am Demon Volve.”
Which would be D. Volve—devolve. Cube did not want him either, so she kept walking, with a straight face.
A third demon appeared. “I am Louse. I hate bugs.”
That would be D. Louse—delouse. Cube did not find that funny at all, because of her talent. Bugs could be very beneficial on occasion.
A demoness appeared. She was absolutely lovely as she preened; she looked like a goddess. She sang a brief melody, and her voice was divine. Then she paused. “Well, aren’t you going to applaud?”
That surprised Cube. “Applaud?”
“I am Demoness Va. I expect my due.”
D. Va—Diva. A prima donna. Probably the only way to get rid of her was to give her the applause she craved. Cube clapped her hands together several times.
D. Va made a bow and faded out. Cube smiled, but refrained from laughing.
Another demoness appeared. It seemed there was a whole troupe of them. “Tell me your secrets, and I will spoil them,” she said enticingly.
Cube couldn’t figure that one out. “Who are you?”
“Demoness Mystify.”
Demystify. “No thanks.”
The next demon was different. It was a fat male in a big washtub. He was scrubbing his own back with a long-handled brush. “Rub-a-tub-tub!” he sang, well off-key. He sounded intoxicated. “Rub my tub, summon me. Rub my back, I’ll grant you three.” Sparkling water sloshed as he moved.
“Really? Three wishes?”
He looked at her. “Of course not. This stuff is alcoholic. I can’t focus well enough to get myself out, let alone grant wishes. But it’s a fine-sounding promise.” He belched.
What was the pun? “Who are you?”
“I’m a bathtub jinn.”
Cube, surprised by the change in the code, laughed before she caught herself. And a bucket of dirty water that smelled of gin drenched her. The demon laughed so hard he and the tub exploded into smoke and dissipated.
Well, she had been warned. Apparently the magic of the path couldn’t protect her entirely from her own folly. She paused at the next stream, rinsed out her clothing and herself, put it back on wet, and let it dry on her. At least the demons hadn’t stayed to laugh at her unsightly body as she rinsed.
Her hand brushed something on her damp clothing. It turned out to be several stick-hers. She must have overlooked the stick-her bush when she took off her clothes. There were also a few stick-hims, as though the bushes hadn’t been sure of her gender. Even plants rubbed in the fact that she was no lovely creature.
Later, a small boy was standing at the edge of the path. He was staring at her midsection. “What are you looking at?” she asked sharply.
“I see your pan-tees!” he said in a singsong voice.
Cube refused to be fooled; she knew they were completely covered by her skirt. “No you don’t.”
“Yes I do. They’re ugly. And they’re wet.”
That got to her. Her outer clothing had dried, but her underwear remained damp. “How do you know?”
“It’s my talent. I can see panties, covered or not.”
It seemed he could. “But that’s a violation of the Adult Conspiracy.”
“Yeah,” he agreed zestfully.
Cube was annoyed. Then she realized that when this obnoxious boy grew to manhood, his talent would cause him to be perpetually freaked out. So that situation would take care of itself. She walked on by him.
She walked well that day, and knew she was getting close to the Good Magician’s Castle. That was because there were signs along the way, saying GOOD MAGICIAN’s CASTLE TWO AND A HALF DAYS’ WALK, and ONE AND A HALF DAYS’ WALK. So her third day’s walk should be half a day, and she’d be there.
She felt something in her pocket. She brought it out. It was the rear-view mirror. How had that gotten there? She had given it to Ryver yesterday, and not taken it back. Had he returned it to her in the night? That seemed unlikely; she didn’t think he would have done such a thing without telling her, and in any event she would have been aware if he had come close enough to do it.
She had not been able to get rid of it before; could this be another aspect of that? She could give it to a person, but then it quietly returned to her? Magic objects could have odd properties. She’d have to try again, and stay alert. Meanwhile, she put it from her mind. At least she still had the water ball Ryver had given her.
She passed another sign: HEADLINE. At this point she was taking signs seriously. But what did it mean?
Then she saw a line of balls along the side of the path. Only they turned out to be heads. A head line.
“Step over me so I can see the color of your panties and freak blissfully out,” the first head said. Then it blinked, getting a better look at her. “Cancel that.” The eyes squeezed closed.
Cube almost ground her teeth. Even her panties were not good enough!
Just at the right place there was another campsite. She entered it, and discovered someone else there: a winged centaur filly, with the large human breasts and handsome brown equine flanks and tail of her kind. She also wore a quiver and bow, the harness nicely framing her front. “Hello,” Cube said, surprised.
“Hello. I am Karia Centaur. Please don’t repeat my name.”
“I am Cube Human. I’m on my way to see the Good Magician.”
“I just came from there. It’s less than an hour’s flight from here.”
“Half a day’s walk,” Cube agreed. “But why are you here, since you’re not land-bound?”
“I am a winged monster,” the filly agreed, though she hardly resembled a monster. “But I can’t fly indefinitely, so I need a safe place to spend the night.”
“I’m happy to share the night with you, if you’re satisfied to share it with me.”
“Of course. I don’t have human company very often.”
They handled the routine of harvesting supper and pillows for the night, then settled down in the shelter and talked. “You said you just came from the Good Magician’s Castle,” Cube said. “May I ask—”
“I’m a flying centaur, so my talent is flying. That is, flicking myself light enough to float. But I have an associated side effect that I would like to be rid of. So I went to ask the Good Magician.”
“As I am doing. Did he help you?”
“No.” Then before Cube could look surprised, she explained. “I didn’t get to ask my Question. I did not make it through the three challenges. In fact I didn’t pass the first challenge. So now I am returning to the herd with my tail between my legs, as it were.”
“But I thought centaurs were smart.” Then Cube realized that she was being just as awkward as Ryver had been. “I mean, it must have been a formidable challenge.”
“It was a stupid challenge, but it stymied me. It was a path that orked. One side passed close by a sticker bush that stuck me when I got close, so I had to avoid it.”
“A stick-her bush,” Cube said. “It probably stuck only females. I encountered one of those today.”
“Oh, a stupid pun. I hate puns!”
“But there are puns all over Xanth; you can’t avoid them.”
“Yes I can; I fly over them. I make sure to land on pun-free terrain. It’s just too awful when I accidentally step in one and get it stuck to my hoof.” The filly shuddered. “There is nothing more revolting than having to scrape squashed pun off your foot.”
“So maybe the Good Magician was forcing you to face what you hated. That was the real nature of the challenge.”
Karia frowned. “I suppose so. I think it was unkind of him.”
It was apparent that the centaur had lacked the gumption to tackle something she found objectionable. That would never stop Cube, of course, but there was no point in pointing that out. “Where did the other side of the forked path go?”
“I couldn’t make head or tail of that. It terminated at a door. I opened the door, but it became a jug in my hand, and there was just a blank wall beyond it. When I moved the jug forward it became the door again, closed. It was no help at all. I was most frustrated.”
Cube laughed. “You opened the door and made it a jar!”
“I fail to see the humor.”
“Ajar. Ajar—open. Another pun.”
“Oh,” the centaur said somewhat sourly. “No wonder I didn’t appreciate it. In any event, it was of no use to me. So I turned around and flew for home.”
“I wonder,” Cube said. “Couldn’t you have used the jar to catch the stickers, so they couldn’t stick you?”
“I suppose I could have, had I thought of it. But I was already pretty upset, and it seemed pointless to continue.”
“I’m sorry,” Cube said. “It must be a big disappointment.”
“It is. I so much wanted to have a rousing good adventure, but I can’t risk it as long as I have the complication.”
“Complication?”
“The side effect. You see, I get carried away when anyone else speaks my name. That can be extremely awkward.”
“Another pun!” Cube exclaimed. “Karia. Carry-a! You must really hate that!”
There was no answer. Then she saw that the centaur was floating out of the shelter. She wasn’t flying; she wasn’t even walking. Her four legs were folded under her as they had been in the shelter, only now she was drifting in the breeze. Her eyes were glazed, as if she were distracted and not paying attention to her surroundings.
In fact, she was being carried away. “Oh, I’m sorry!” Cube said. “I said your name!”
Karia continued to drift. Cube ran after her, catching at a leg. “Please, I’m sorry! Please come back!”
The centaur opened her eyes. “Oh, did it happen again?”
“Yes! I said your name, and you got carried away. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t realize—”
“That’s all right. But now you appreciate my problem.”
“Yes I do. I won’t speak your name again.”
Karia straightened her legs and touched the ground. She walked back to the shelter. “I would like to go where nobody knows my name. Then I’d be safe. But there’s always the chance I would meet someone unexpectedly, who would say my name, and then I could be in trouble. So I suppose I’ll just have to stay home, where folk know to call me ‘hey, you.’ Not that I like that much either.”
“That side effect—it’s another pun,” Cube said. “No wonder you hate puns!”
“No wonder,” Karia agreed wryly. “Why are you going to see the Good Magician?”
“I want to be beautiful.”
Karia looked at her more closely. “I suppose you aren’t. I hadn’t noticed.”
“If you were a man, you wouldn’t notice me at all. I want to marry and have a loving husband and a nice family and live happily ever after, but it will never happen as long as I’m homely.”
“Oh, I’m not sure of that.”
“You’re not homely. You have a pretty face and a bosom that would make men stare even if it weren’t bare.”
“Point taken. 1 have not suffered that particular problem of being unnoticed. Yet I would exchange a portion of my assets with you, if I could abate my side effect.”
“And I would gladly have that portion! If I had your breasts, no one would notice my face.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Others do notice my face, and of course my rear.”
“Your rear?”
“Like most centaurs, I have a handsomer posterior than face, and of course 1 am duly haughty about it.” Karia reached back and gave her haunch a resounding slap. “I just wish I could see it better.”
“1 have just the thing for you,” Cube said, fishing out the mirror. “Try this.”
“I’m not certain how this relates,” Karia said, accepting it.
“Try it and see.”
The centaur held the mirror up before her face. “Oh, my! Can that be my rump?”
“Yes. It’s a rear-view mirror.”
“Delightful! It’s even handsomer than I thought.”
“Keep the mirror,” Cube said.
“Oh, I couldn’t! I like it, despite the pun, but I have no return gift for you.”
“I will be glad if you can keep it. A demoness with a speech impediment gave it to me, and I didn’t want it, but I can’t be free of it unless I give it away. I gave it away yesterday, but today I had it again. So it may not stay with you anyway, though I hope it does.”
Karia considered. “In that case, I will keep it, and hope that it remains with me. If not, I will understand.” She paused. “The demoness—would that by any chance have been Metria?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“She’s just about the only one who interacts with humans more than briefly, usually mischievously. And she has trouble getting the right word. She doesn’t hurt people, merely annoys them. This is the kind of trick one might expect of her.”
“That’s interesting.” Actually Cube had encountered several other mischievous demons, but they had departed once they tricked her into laughing and getting drenched. “But I still hope you keep the mirror.”
“We shall see.” They composed themselves for sleep.
 
Copyright © 2003 by Piers Anthony Jacob