MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Bryce smelled a rat.
He sighed. He knew what it meant. He would have to clean up the garage. At least until he found the dead rat.
So he started in. He was eighty years old, and increasingly absentminded, so if he encountered something that needed doing, he generally did it immediately, lest he forget. The stench of the rat would not ease on its own if ignored. The body would be there somewhere, buried under or behind assorted junk. If he could get at it.
It had been some time since he had shaped up the garage. In fact he had mostly stopped coming in here, since he gave up driving, and things had pretty much accumulated on their own. But in time it would need to be cleared out, when the house was put on the market, because—
Because Bryce had between one and two years left to live. His doctor had given him the word: he had type two diabetes because he had grown too fat, and his blood vessels were three-quarters clogged because he had eaten too many fatty snacks, and the formerly inert prostate cancer was beginning to become assertive because, well, just because. He had to exercise, reduce his weight, and stop sleeping so much in front of the TV. He needed to get out and interact with other people, becoming more social. He needed to challenge his brain instead of being a mental sponge. Or else.
Bryce had lacked the gumption to do any of those things. Exercise was too much work, and his fading eyesight made it harder to recognize people. So he was faced with the or else. That meant he would die, and his house would be sold in the process of putting his estate in order. It wasn't much of an estate; forty-odd years of office work had not paid any fortune. The two of them had been comfortable, however, not requiring much.
Then Bev had died, and any remaining ambition Bryce might have had had dissipated like windblown smoke. He existed; that was most of what was to be said for him. Their sons had expressed concern, but they had lives and families of their own, as did their grown children, his grandchildren, so they mostly left Bryce alone. His increasing grouchiness of age might have had something to do with it.
He got to work, slowly, because he did not have a lot of energy to spare. He might have to do the job in installments, until he penetrated to the rat's nest, wherever it was. Too bad odor was not more specific, so that he could orient on it efficiently and be done with the distasteful chore. As it was, he would soon be grimy, because layers of dust covered everything. Roaches and silverfish skittered away, resenting the disturbance. Bryce grimaced; he should have donned gloves for this dirty work, but naturally hadn't thought of it. It was just too complicated to go back to fetch them from the house, assuming he could find them.
Almost immediately he had to fight off a wave of nostalgia. There were things here dating back decades, to when the family was more active and ambitious. Useless things that he had not been able to throw out, because that would have been like discarding part of his wife, or a son, or a friend, or his own youth. He knew it was foolish, but he just couldn't do it. So the junk accumulated, reminders of hopelessly faded memories.
He had lived a mediocre existence, and not entirely because he had to. He had made obvious mistakes of judgment and passion, and paid for them. If he could somehow live his indifferent life over, he would be a lot smarter about that. He would do the right thing instead of the convenient thing, the decent act instead of the selfish one, the prudent decision instead of the reckless one. He might not be richer or better known or respected, but he would be a better man. That would count for a lot, personally.
For one thing, he should have made more of his ability to sketch. He was no artist, and had never worked with paints, but if he had a pencil and paper he could sketch anything he saw, accurately enough so that others could immediately recognize it. He still liked to draw things; the house was piled with old pencil pictures, and he always kept a stubby pencil and a little notepad in his pocket. It was his sole creative expression, and it made him feel good. Had he taken art courses, who knew what he might have made of it? So he would definitely follow up on that.
And a fat lot of good that resolution was, at this stage in his wasted term! It was easy to make fine resolutions when there was no prospect of having to follow through on them.
But he was woolgathering, one of his bad habits. It was time to get back to work.
Here was an old push-lawnmower, overwhelmed by cobwebs, as dated in its fashion as Bryce was in his own. There was a similarly old circular rattan chair, once a comfortable novelty, but in recent decades useless because Bryce knew that once he sat in it, he would not be able to get back out of it. It was piled with junk: a bucket of dry-rotting wooden clothespins for laundry that no longer got hung out to dry in the sun, a bag of tattered clothing that Bev might once have worn, an empty picture frame that could have pictured his present empty life, several battered paperback novels that would never be reread, and a bright yellow box.
Bryce didn't recognize that last. Could a granddaughter have left it here? But no granddaughter had been here in the past decade, and this wasn't the kind of thing to be left and forgotten. It was too pretty: it almost glowed with a xanthin luster. Also, there was no dust on it, so it couldn't have been here long. Yet who could have left it here? The garage was locked from the outside, and the neighbors were not the kind to intrude. It was as if it had simply floated in on its own and found a place to perch.
In a moment he realized something odd but surely significant: the dead-rat odor emanated from the box. Such an awful smell from such a lovely object! Could that be coincidence? It had the one fragrance that was guaranteed to make him search it out promptly. So it must have been placed for him to find.
He picked it up and opened it. Inside were three objects: a tiny pillbox containing a yellow capsule, a small vial of yellow fluid, and a bound yellow notebook. Each had lettering on it. The pillbox said FBU NF, the vial said ESJOL NF, and the notebook said SFBE NF. What did it mean?
Bryce had never been any genius, but in the old days he had diverted himself with newspaper word puzzles. That repeated NF looked like a two-letter word. There were only so many of them. Suppose the letter B were substituted for the letter A? The letter F for the letter E? A childishly simple transcription.
And just like that he had it. The pill said EAT ME, the vial said DRINK ME, and the notebook said READ ME.
Like Alice in Wonderland. Who knew what effect such things might have on a person? Nothing magical, surely, but they could be candy—or poison. It was best to leave them alone.
Except that someone must have left them for him. Why? He had no close friends anymore; they had all died. Similarly, he had no enemies. What possible reason could any stranger have had for such an obscure contact? This was curious indeed.
Well, hell: what did he have to lose? He took the pill and swallowed it.
Nothing happened. So much for that.
He unstopped the vial and drank its few drops of golden elixir. It was neutral in taste. Again, nothing. What had he really expected?
So he opened the book and started reading. It was in the same code, so he had to change the words letter by letter, tediously. It was a curious, probably nonsensical message.
THIS IS A SECRET ONE-WAY PORTAL TO THE LAND OF XANTH. TO ACTIVATE IT, SPEAK THE MAGIC WORDS
He paused. What magic words? It didn't provide them.
This must be someone's idea of a joke. Bryce tucked the book in a pocket and went on with his cleanup, since he was now well into it and had nothing better to do.
He discovered his old recumbent tricycle, buried under more junk. He hauled it out and brushed it off. The chain was oil-caked but seemed serviceable. The tires were solid rubber; he had gotten tired of repairing punctures and switched to these ones that might wear out in time but would never go flat. The trike should be ridable despite its long neglect.
And what about him? Could he still ride it? Balancing was tricky on such machines, because the rider was low to the ground. He had learned the art, but his old reflexes might not be up to the challenge. Still, the trike should be secure against even his clumsiness. It was a bike, not a trike, that required balance. He had been confusing the two, in true senior moment fashion.
Well, hell, again. He opened the garage door and hauled the trike out onto the pavement. He would try it, and if he crashed, well, that was the luck of the draw.
Startled, Bryce looked up. There was a dog. Female, healthy, older, with short black and white hair, fairly solid, with somewhat floppy ears. He was generally familiar with dogs, but did not recognize this one. "Well, what breed are you?" he asked.
She shrugged, obviously unable to answer the question.
Bryce left the trike and approached the dog. "May I? I want to look at your tag." It was always best to approach any strange canine cautiously, though this one seemed friendly.
She shrugged again. Taking that as a yes, he petted her shoulder, then reached for her collar. There was none. Evidently there had been one, but somehow it had been lost along with the tags.
"You must be lost," Bryce said. "And maybe hungry and thirsty. Let me fetch you some water and whatever else I can rouse up. Wait here."
He went back into the garage, glancing back. The dog lay down in place, doing what he had asked. That was a good sign.
He entered the house, found a pan and some leftover pie, and brought them out. He set them down before the dog. "Sorry it's not more. It's all I have at the moment."
She merely looked at him. "It's okay," he said reassuringly. "Drink. Eat. Then we'll see what we can do for you. Maybe there's a bulletin out."
She got up, put her head to the pan, and drank thirstily. Then she ate the pie.
"So I was right. You're lost and haven't been fed in a while."
She looked at him and seemed to nod. She perhaps understood the essence if not the words.
He looked at his trike. "I was about to try riding this, just to see if I could. Let me make my attempt, then I'll pick myself up off the pavement and bring you inside so I can try to locate your owner. Okay?"
This time he was sure she nodded. This was evidently a smart dog.
He oriented his trike, settled onto it, put his right foot in the webbing on the right pedal, and pushed. The trike started to move, rather wobbly despite its third wheel. He brought his left foot up and pushed that pedal, gaining speed and balance. He was doing it!
Then he was out on the street, not by choice so much as because that was the only place to go without crashing. Fortunately there was no traffic at the moment. He turned right and moved along the pavement. "Damn!" he said, pleased.
Then he saw that the dog was running along beside him, keeping him company. He liked that too. Loneliness had been his chief companion in recent months. "I'll loop around the block and return home," he told the dog.
She glanced at him and nodded. She probably recognized the word "home."
He laughed. "I guess I said the magic words."
He looked at the street, ready to make the first turn around the block. But there was no turn. In fact there were no houses. He was suddenly on a strange street. Not even a street; a path. It wound through a quiet forest. How had he suddenly come to this parklike avenue? He had been distracted only a moment, and there was no such park in his neighborhood.
The dog still ran beside him. She looked surprised too.
Then the path tilted down. Before he knew it he was picking up speed. He squeezed on the hand brakes, but they were ineffective. That was what must have fallen apart with disuse: the braking mechanism. He was out of control. All he could do was steer and hope for the best.
The dog kept pace with him, but he suspected she was questioning his judgment, speeding like this on a strange path.
They rounded a curve—and there was a great old-fashioned stone castle. The path led right up to its sturdy wood dungeon door. But the door was closed.
He tried again to stop, and could not. "Swerve aside, doggie!" he cried. "We're going to crash!"
But she only drew closer to him, as if trying to cushion his crash with her body. It was way too late to stop.
Bryce closed his eyes and braced for the worst. They crashed.
* * *
Bryce blinked. He was sprawled beside the dog in an empty stone chamber, obviously not his cluttered garage, and the trike was gone. But that was only part of it.
He had double vision. Whatever he looked at seemed slightly blurred. Was he suffering a stroke? "What are the symptoms?" he asked himself rhetorically.
"Yes?" the dog asked.
"You talked!" Bryce said.
"Yes," she agreed, looking surprised.
"Did you talk before we got here?"
"Something very odd is happening. Maybe we both died in that crash, and this is our afterlife. You think so?"
Bryce sighed. "I guess that would have been too easy an answer. But right now I have another problem: double vision. Let me have a moment."
"Quiet," the dog agreed.
He stood perfectly still, and his vision cleared. Then he moved, and it blurred again. He discovered that if he closed one eye, things were clear. So it was a nuisance, but did not seem dangerous. He felt fine.
In fact, he felt great. He looked down at himself, and discovered that his overgrown belly was gone. His arms and legs were lean and muscular. His eyesight was preternaturally clear. It was as though he had imbibed a youth potion.
He smiled tolerantly. Could it have been in a yellow vial?
Then what about the pill? Had it caused his double vision? If it was another magical gift, it did not seem to be very convenient.
He looked at the dog. "What's your name?"
"Are you feeling as healthy as I am, Rachel? Especially considering we should be close to dead?"
Rachel checked herself, surprised again. "Yes."
And she had not eaten a pill or drunk from a vial. Something else was in operation here.
Then someone entered the stone chamber. Someone? It was an animated skeleton!
Rachel moved protectively close to Bryce, picking up on his reaction.
"Do you see a skeleton?"
Oh—maybe this was a horror house, with scary figures being dangled to impress the visitors, not visible from every angle. Or something.
Bryce shut his left eye, and the apparition disappeared. But a few seconds later it reappeared, this time in the right eye. What kind of horror house effect could account for that? He wasn't wearing glasses. He needed them, but was forever losing track of them. Rather, he had needed them, until now.
Rachel growled. This time she was seeing what he was seeing. "Attack?"
"No," he said quickly. "It probably isn't real."
The skeleton saw them and paused. "Who are you?" it asked with evident surprise. Now Bryce realized it had spoken before, but in his confusion he had tuned out the sound. So the thing talked, or at least there was a speaker somewhere to make it seem to do so despite lacking lungs or lips. Such effects were standard in amusement parks.
"Just an old man suffering a hallucination," Bryce replied, playing along. "And his friend. Who are you?"
"I am Picka Bone, proprietor of Caprice Castle. This is supposed to be a secure chamber. That's why I investigated when I heard noise here." His words seemed to repeat themselves about ten seconds later. Bryce focused, trying to tune out the extra voice, and succeeded reasonably well.
"I can't explain how I came here," Bryce said candidly. "I was riding a recumbent tricycle, and suddenly we were in an unfamiliar setting."
"I'll ask Dawn," the skeleton said. "She will know. Please come this way." He turned and departed the chamber.
This was weird, but it was easier to continue playing along. Bryce and Rachel followed the skeleton out the door, up the stone steps, and into a rather more ornate section of the castle.
Soon they were met by an astonishingly beautiful young woman. She had bright red hair, green eyes, and a figure a movie starlet could only dream of. She must be Dawn; indeed, her presence was like the rising of the morning sun.
Dawn approached Bryce and touched him. "Ah," she said. "This will require some explaining. Please come this way."
Bryce and the skeleton followed her to a pleasant family room. They sat opposite her. Dawn talked.
"I am Princess Dawn, wife of Picka Bone here. I must explain that I am also a Sorceress. My talent is to immediately know anything about any living thing I touch. Thus I know about you. Bryce, you are freshly from Mundania, a land almost bereft of magic." She smiled, and the room seemed to brighten. "There are traces of it, such as your rainbows that can be seen only from one side, and perspective, where distant objects hurry to keep up with close ones without actually moving. But aside from such minor effects it is a remarkably drear world. This is the Land of Xanth, which in contrast has magic everywhere. It is for my taste a much preferable place to live." She grimaced. "Except, perhaps, for the puns. But we are doing what we can to reduce them."
"I never was very good at puns," Bryce admitted. "But my companion, the dog—can you check her too?"
Dawn knelt before the dog and put her hand on a shoulder. "And you are Rachel, a German short-haired pointer highly trained as a Service Dog. But your master died, and they were going to put you down, so you left. Bryce reminded you of your owner, in that he needed help, and you really like to help, so you befriended him. Now you can talk, or at least say the few words you were trained to obey, but you understand many more."
"Yes," Rachel said.
"The point is that both of you will find it strange here, especially at first. But you will acclimatize, and you are welcome to remain here in Caprice as our guests until you do."
"Until we return to Mundania, as you put it," Bryce agreed.
"Until you are ready to live on your own in Xanth. I don't believe you can return to your own realm. Not by your own choice. You passed through a one-way portal when you spoke the magic words."
Bryce was astonished. "You mean those were the magic words the book told me to utter? ‘The magic words'?"
"Yes. You are unusual in that you did not die first."
"That won't be long," he said. "A year or two."
"No," she said firmly. "You surely have a good sixty years ahead of you, before you fade out, if you stay clear of dragons and other dangers."
He shook his head. "I am eighty years old, and in poor health." He glanced down at his body. "Or I was, until I mysteriously arrived here. I assume I'm dreaming, and my real body remains a wreck."
"You are mistaken. You have been gifted with four magical things, and Rachel with three, and you have no choice but to work through them as well as you can."
She seemed very certain, so he didn't argue further. He ticked them off on his fingers. "A youth potion. Blurred vision. A pass to this magic land. There is another?"
"A youth potion that makes you age twenty-one, physically," she agreed. "And healthy. The illnesses you had in Mundania are gone. The blurred vision is actually a magic talent, second sight. You can see, hear, and feel ten seconds into the future with your left side, while your right side is normal. This is nice magic; it could be quite useful on occasion, such as if a dragon were about to pounce. It will give you that time to take evasive action, possibly saving your life. Because you are young, not immortal. All you need to do is take a few days to attune, so it no longer confuses you. You are correct about the pass to Xanth."
"So what is the fourth gift?" he inquired skeptically.
"You have been imprinted with romantic love for my younger cousin, Princess Harmony."
Bryce laughed. "I am long beyond love, let alone for a young princess. She must be a teen."
"Sixteen," Dawn agreed.
"Younger than my youngest granddaughter. Believe me, I know better than to get romantic about a child."
Dawn glanced at the skeleton. "Picka, dear, please bring a mirror."
The skeleton got up, walked to a wall, and took down a hanging mirror. He brought it to Bryce. He looked in it, and was amazed.
It did not reflect his face. Instead it showed a pretty girl with brown hair and eyes, as well as a matching brown dress. "Well, hello Harmony," he breathed.
She looked startled. "Who are you?"
She had heard him! What magic was this?
"It is a magic mirror, of course," Dawn said. She raised her voice. "Harmony, this is Bryce from Mundania. He will be courting you."
"He will be what?" Harmony asked, astonished and not entirely pleased.
"I suspect it is a Demon wager to select your ideal man," Dawn said. "You being the only remaining unattached princess of your generation. It is the most feasible way to account for the rather special effects I have noted associated with Bryce Mundane here. There may be other suitors. We must meet in a few days to consider this."
"I'm not courting any teen girl!" Bryce protested.
"Well, nobody asked you to," Harmony retorted. "I'm not ready for courting or marriage yet, and certainly not to any Mundane."
"But he loves you," Dawn said.
"I do not!" Bryce snapped. Then paused, frozen in place.
Because he did love her. Utterly, hopelessly, eternally. He didn't know her, but he was overwhelmed with romantic passion for her.
Dawn had made her point. That was some imprinting.
Picka removed the mirror and the contact was broken. But Bryce was left with his sudden love.
"And you, Rachel, seem to have picked up some of the magic because you were with Bryce when he invoked it. You are now young and healthy, you can speak, and you have a more subtle magic talent of finding useful things. You have been imprinted with love for a dog you have not yet met, though your loyalty to Bryce might be considered similar."
Bryce exchanged a glance with Rachel. Both of them were confused but impressed.
"What's this about a Demon bet?" Picka asked.
"It is the way they operate," Dawn explained. "They like to make wagers on random things, such as how a given mortal will react to a particular stimulus. Such as this."
"So Bryce may have been summoned from Mundania to compete for the hand of Princess Harmony, who is the only one of that naughty trio who remains unspoken for."
"Exactly. Princesses are not expected to remain on the market long."
"That's right," Picka agreed. "Melody will marry Anomy in due course, and Rhythm will marry Cyrus Cyborg. That was quite a scandal when they got together. She was only twelve."
"But we have to give the little twerps some credit," Dawn said. "They did save Xanth from Ragna Roc."
"So Harmony is left," Picka concluded. "A suitable focus for a Demon contest."
Bryce had been tuning out of their dialogue, caught up in the marvel of his sudden love, but this brought him back. "What is a Demon?" Because, oddly, he heard the capital.
"Demons are immensely powerful spirits associated with assorted galaxies, planets, moons, or substances," Dawn said. "For example, the whole of the magic land of Xanth derives from the trace leakage of the magic of the Demon Xanth who snoozes deep below the surface. The leakage from the Demon Earth is experienced on that world as gravity. Demons seldom pay attention to the endeavors of mortals, but they do vie for status by making wagers that sometimes involve the unpredictable actions or reactions of mortals. You appear to have become one of those. Your entry to Xanth was facilitated, and you were given certain things you will need, such as youth and a magic talent, plus the imperative of courting Harmony. Your entry at this place was probably to be sure you received some necessary background information promptly, so you would not get eaten by a dragon before you got started. So your presence here is no coincidence. If that is the case, the Demon who selected you will not play any further part in your life. He or She will merely watch, and win or lose based on your performance."
"I'm a toy of a supernatural spirit?"
"Yes, in essence."
"But I don't believe in the supernatural," he protested.
Both Dawn and Picka laughed. "You'll get over that soon enough," the skeleton said.
Indeed, if this was not a dream, there was plenty of evidence for the supernatural, beginning with the animated talking skeleton. "I just realized that it probably was not the yellow box with the three items that changed me," Bryce said, working it out. "The instructions were merely labels, a protocol signaling my readiness to participate. The youthening, magic talent, and love for Princess Harmony were all done by the Demon when I spoke the magic words. Because Rachel happened to be in the vicinity at that moment, she was affected too, entering Xanth with me, getting youthened to a lesser degree, and getting the magic talent of being able to speak the words she knew."
"Exactly," Dawn said.
"So assuming that I must participate, regardless of my choice in the matter, what is my best course of action?"
"You are sensible," Dawn said. "You both should take a few days to familiarize yourself with Xanth and its local customs, as well as learning to use your talent effectively. Then you should go to see the Good Magician Humfrey, who will advise you how to proceed. I suspect he won't charge his usual exorbitant fee, considering that this must be a Demon incident."
"What exorbitant fee?" Bryce asked warily.
"He normally charges a year's service, or the equivalent," Picka said.
"A year's service! I just want to go home!"
"Do you?" Dawn asked gently.
And Bryce realized that he had nothing to return to except old age, illness, loneliness, and death. "No. I don't know what I really want." He looked at Rachel. "Do you?"
She wagged her tail. "No."
"You want to relive your life, this time making better decisions," Dawn said. "This is your chance."
"I suppose it is," Bryce agreed, amazed. "Crazy as it seems."
"And to do that, you need to remain here in Xanth and perform your Demon-inspired task."
Bryce sighed. "This is the kind of channeling I would prefer to avoid. Throughout my mundane life, others made key choices for me: my mediocre residence, my indifferent schooling, my dull job, even really my wife. Oh, she was a good woman, and I loved her, I'm not complaining about that, but I really did not choose her myself. My family thought she'd be good for me and guided me rather forcefully toward her. They were right, but it would have been better if I had been able to make my own decision. Now some Demon is channeling me similarly, and some Good Magician, and some teenaged princess. Who knows, I might have loved her on my own, if I could ever get over the immense disparity in our ages and stations, but I wasn't given the chance. I was potioned or magicked into artificial love. Where are my choices? What is the point, as far as my personal life is concerned?"
"He's got a point," Picka said. In that moment Bryce found himself liking the skeleton.
Dawn frowned as if addressing a willful child. "In Mundania, even if you had been granted complete free will, your choices would have been severely limited. You would have had to choose a residence similar to the one you had, and get an education similar to the one you did, and labor at a job similar to the one you got, and you would have had to marry a woman who might not have been as good as the one your family found for you. So if you could live your Mundane life over, what would you do, really?"
Bryce looked at her. "You don't come across like the starlet model you resemble. You are making uncomfortable sense."
"I have had my own struggles with realism," she said with a wan smile. "I did manage to break the mold that my royalty and appearance set for me, to a degree. I married for love rather than status, unlike my sister Eve. That's why I wed Picka."
They were married? Oh yes, she had said so before. "If I may ask, is it usual for a princess and a skeleton to marry?"
"No. And that is the point. The constraints on a princess are considerable, but I managed to find a way to express myself regardless. You can do the same."
"You are faced with a new situation, with new rules. Learn the rules, then discover how you can forge your own way despite them. Isn't that what real choice is?"
He nodded. "I suspect it is. And if I understand correctly, the first rule is that I must win the Princess Harmony if I want to remain here in Xanth for any length of time. If I fail, my Demon sponsor will have no further use for me."
"There are worse fates than marrying a pretty princess. Once that chore is accomplished, you should be able to choose the rest of your life more freely. Harmony is not a domineering girl, though she can be mischievous. And if you fail, having tried your best, chances are your Demon sponsor will simply leave you where you are, here in Xanth, and forget about you. Then you will truly be able to live your life over. But if you deliberately fail, you could face the wrath of an angry Demon." She shuddered evocatively.
It was a persuasive case. "And most of my choices will be more subtle personal ones, such as how I treat others. I am beginning to like this game."
"However, Xanth has its darknesses," she cautioned him. "Do not take anything here for granted until you understand it. You will need guidance."
"I surely will," he agreed. "But I'm not sure who will relish the task of guiding me."
"Woofer and Tweeter will show you around," Dawn said.
A large dark mongrel dog entered the room, with a brownish parakeet perched on his head. "Woof!" he said.
"Tweet," the bird added.
Introduction enough. "Hello Woofer, Tweeter. I am Bryce, from Mundania, and this is Rachel."
Woofer eyed Rachel. "Woof!"
Bryce could have sworn that Rachel blushed, and a little heart-shaped dog bone sailed out from her head, though that was of course impossible. Or was it? Woofer must be the dog she had been spelled into love with.
"They are from Mundania too," Dawn said.
"They came with a Mundane family, which returned to Mundania. But later they rejoined us here in Xanth. They are among my closest friends."
"You will get to understand their speech before long," Picka said. "They are nice folk. You can trust them."
So he was being handed off to animals. But if this was one of the rules of this realm, he could handle it. "I shall. What's next?"
"Woof." The dog turned and dog-trotted out of the chamber, still carrying the bird.
Bemused, Bryce and Rachel followed. Evidently Rachel had no better notion how to handle her magic love than Bryce did. She was being appropriately diffident. The animals led them to an upstairs chamber where a bed was laid out. Beside it was a plush dog blanket. "Is this for us?" Bryce asked, surprised. Dawn had said he could be a guest here, but he hadn't thought it would be in the castle proper.
"Tweet." It sounded like yes. Was it his imagination?
"Picka said I would come to understand your speech. Did he mean that literally?"
"Woof." That was definitely a yes.
"And it is evident that you understand me. So where do we go from here?"
"Tweet." And this time it sounded like "First shower and change."
So he did. Rachel waited, not needing to do those things. There was a very nice bathroom, complete with a well-appointed shower. He stripped and used it, feeling invigorated. When he emerged and toweled himself dry he paused to gaze at himself in the full-length mirror.
He was a supremely healthy young man, more fit and muscular than he had ever been in real life. But would it last? He decided to take the best possible care of this new body. It did look like him, as he remembered, but better. The Demon had given him an excellent start.
His old clothing was gone. In its place was a clean bright shirt and trousers, together with shoes. He put them on, and they fit perfectly, including the shoes, which were the most comfortable he could remember in ages. "It must be magic," he said.
He hadn't realized that the castle dog was right there. But why not? It wasn't as if he was desperate for privacy. Woofer must have been communing with Rachel.
He combed his hair, admiring his youthful features in the mirror. "A man could get to like being young," he murmured.
"What, you two are youthened too?"
It turned out that they had indeed grown old in Mundania, but were returned to their young primes when they came back to Xanth. They did understand.
Woofer conducted him to a banquet hall where an impressive meal was laid out. "I really don't need anything half this fancy," Bryce protested. Then he saw the strange man. "Uh, have we met? I'm Bryce from Mundania.
The man smiled. "We have met. I am Picka Bone, your host."
"But Picka is a walking skeleton!"
"One of the conveniences of Caprice Castle is that we are able to alternate forms when we choose. Ah, here is Dawn."
Bryce turned to meet her—and discovered a female skeleton. "Uh—nice bones," he said uncertainly.
"Yes, I am Dawn," she said, possibly smiling. It was hard to tell with her barefaced skull. "And these are our children." She indicated a baby carriage containing an infant human baby and a similarly sized skeleton, side by side.
"My son Piton," Picka said proudly. "A chip off the old block, as it were."
"And my daughter Data," Dawn said. "A calculating female."
Then as Bryce watched, the skeleton boy became fleshly, and the fleshly girl became skeletal.
"They are learning early," Picka said.
So it seemed.
A very nice repast was invisibly served, the new platters appearing and the used dishes disappearing. Bryce tried to catch it happening, but somehow the changes were always just when he wasn't looking. Another convenience of the castle. Woofer and Tweeter had dishes of their own, similarly replenished. So did Rachel. Bryce could see that she was trying to mask it, but she loved being near Woofer.
"You said I would learn to understand Woofer and Tweeter soon," Bryce said. "I believe it is already happening, unless I am imagining it. They woof and tweet, and I understand whole sentences."
"It is true," Dawn agreed. She wasn't eating, as it seemed skeletons did not need to, but was tending to the babies. They were assuming human form for a gulp of milk from a bottle, then turning skeletal while the other took the bottle. They seemed to have the system worked out well. "When you feel fully conversant, you can go out punning with them, as practice in Xanth."
"Collecting puns," Picka explained. "This is what we do here at Caprice Castle. Xanth has entirely too many puns, so it is our job to fetch them in and store them safely so they can't escape and infest more terrain. It's a challenge."
What next? "I will do my best," he said bravely, and Rachel wagged her tail. And wondered what other surprises awaited him in this odd new land. Very little seemed to be as he might have expected.
"That will surely be good enough," Dawn said.
Bryce hoped so.
Copyright © 2012 by Piers Anthony Jacob