Currant Events (Magic of Xanth Series #28)

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Overview

When Clio, the Muse of History, sat down to pen the twenty-eighth volume in the Chronicles of Xanth, she was stunned to discover it was already there! And, what was worse, it was totally unreadable, for the words on its pages were fuzzed beyond comprehension.

Vexed and bewildered, and more than a little concerned, Clio resolved to leave the quiet comfort of her study on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, and ask her old friend, the Good Magician ...

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Overview

When Clio, the Muse of History, sat down to pen the twenty-eighth volume in the Chronicles of Xanth, she was stunned to discover it was already there! And, what was worse, it was totally unreadable, for the words on its pages were fuzzed beyond comprehension.

Vexed and bewildered, and more than a little concerned, Clio resolved to leave the quiet comfort of her study on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, and ask her old friend, the Good Magician Humfrey, to search a solution to her problem in his Book of Answers.

But, much to her consternation, Humfrey required her to perform a magical Service before she could acquire her Answer: to rescue Xanth's dragons from the verge of extinction before the delicate balance of its wildlife was permanently thrown out of whack.

Her momentous mission lead her to a dangerous Dragon World hidden amongst the Moons of Ida, across a perilous landscape filled with wonder and danger, in search of the fabled Currant, a very rare red berry that might hold the secret she sought.

Along the way she acquired a fellowship of companions, including the brave and beautiful Becka Dragongirl, a pair of pocket dragons named Drew and Drusie, a charming young child called Ciriana whose destiny was somehow entwined with hers, and Sherlock, a sweet but homely man from Mundania who might just be a master magician himself.

Together they gradually began to unravel the momentous mystery of Xanth's missing history. And Clio began to realize that Sherlock's enchantments had begun to work their way into her heart.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Panty puns and intermittently droll word-play drive veteran Anthony's 28th Xanth book (Cube Route, etc.), the first of a second magic trilogy within this popular fantasy series. Since the author always pays such close attention to what his readers want, newcomers shouldn't expect too much by way of a plot. Clio, Xanth's slim Muse of History, hates her body's lack of curves. Despite the practicality of jeans for outdoor activities, Clio wears skirts ("they were required of her gender and age"), which leads to such quips as: "There's nothing like new panties to make a man pant." When Clio discovers an undecipherable history she's apparently written, she goes for help to Good Magician Humfrey, who sends her on a wild quest for a magical red berry. Along the way, Clio must meet a number of amusing challenges, like restocking dragon-poor Xanth with 6,000 beasts from Dragon World by using a special expandable net. Together with her love interest, Sherlock of the Black Wave, Clio endures an abundance of puns supplied by fans, hundreds of whom Anthony acknowledges in an extended author's note. This is great fun for punsters-a Tor-ment for others. (Oct. 1) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
When Clio, the Muse of history, discovers that her latest book chronicling the events of Xanth is blurred and unreadable, she travels to the Good Magician Humfrey for advice and agrees to go on a quest to save the world's dragons from extinction. The prolific sf and fantasy author begins his 28th foray into the magical, pun-filled world of Xanth with his characteristic love of wordplay and broad humor. Fans of the series will want the latest addition. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780765343109
  • Publisher: Doherty, Tom Associates, LLC
  • Publication date: 10/1/2005
  • Series: Magic of Xanth Series , #28
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 28
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 282,445
  • Product dimensions: 3.91 (w) x 6.66 (h) x 0.99 (d)

Meet the Author

Piers Anthony is one of the world's most popular fantasy authors and a New York Times bestseller twenty-one times over. His Xanth novels have been read and loved by millions of readers around the world. In addition to his bestselling Xanth books, Anthony is the author of a series of historical fantasies called The Geodyssey, that makes the broad sweep of human history into very personal stories. Piers Anthony has a devoted fan following, and he daily receives hundreds of letters and emails from them. Piers Anthony lives in Inverness, Florida.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Clio

Clio was tidying up her office, as she did every century or so even if it didn't really need it. Dust did tend to collect, along with dried bugs, apple seeds, and lost wisps of fog. Then she paused, which was easy to do during a dull chore like this. There was a volume on the shelf she didn't remember. That was odd, because she had an excellent memory. She had to, to be a competent Muse of History.

She lifted it up, noting the clean spot of shelf beneath it. She blew off the dust and looked at the title. She couldn't quite make it out, so she opened the volume to the title page. That was written in her handwriting, but was somehow blurred. It might be CURRENT EVENTS, but could also be GETTING EVEN. Neither one made much sense, as she did not handle either contemporary news or revenge plots. Her specialty was history, past and future. The present bored her.

She turned the pages. They had all been filled out, and definitely in her handwriting, but she couldn't read a word of it. She blinked to clear her vision, but it didn't help; every word was fuzzed. The pages might as well have been blank.

She stood there, bemused. How could she have written a volume of history that she herself couldn't read? It didn't make sense. Was she losing her sight?

Alarmed, she set the volume down and picked up the one next to it. That one was clear enough: PET PEEVE, with a picture of a disgruntled bird. That was incomplete, because it hadn't happened yet; she was working on it. So she checked the prior volume: CUBE ROUTE, which was complete. That was the story of a girl with gumption, and the text was quite clear.

So it wasn't her eyes, which was a relief. It was the volume. What was wrong with it? And why couldn't she remember writing it? How could she be writing the following volume, and remember its details, while being fuzzy on this one?

Fuzzy: her memory of it was as fuzzy as its print. There was definitely something strange here.

She considered for a good three and a half moments. She seemed to have two or more unenviable choices: principally to let the riddle be, or go to Good Magician Humfrey for advice. Humfrey could surely unravel the enigma, but would take obscene pleasure in her predicament. She hated giving him that satisfaction. But she knew the mystery would bug her until it became a downright nuisance.

She sighed. She would stuff her pride into her nonexistent handbag and go to see the Good Magician.

Humfrey's castle was some distance away from the home of the Muses, so Clio got transportation. She walked down Mount Parnassus and out to a babbling brook and spoke to it. "May I have your attention for a moment?"

The brook ceased babbling and formed a swirling eye. It looked at her, recognized her, and formed a mouth. "So good to see you, Muse," it bubbled.

"I need to pay a call on the Good Magician. Do you suppose I could prevail on you to transport me there swiftly?"

"Gladly, Muse. I owe you favors from way back."

That was true, but she hadn't cared to put it that way. "Then I should be obliged if you would run me there now."

The water humped up into a shape like that of a centaur without a human forepart, standing in the riverbed. "Immediately," it agreed. "If I can make it past the fish."

"The fish?"

"Recently there have been so many fish they clog my channel. It has never been this bad before; normally the water dragons eat them."

"The dragons must be off their feed," she said. That was humor; dragons were never off their feed. Still, it was an oddity.

Clio stepped close to the bank, glanced around to be sure no one was watching, then lifted one leg and swung it over the centaur's back. Skirts were not the most convenient clothing for riding, but they were required for her gender and age. She caught hold of the liquid creature's flowing mane and drew herself fully onto it. "I am ready."

The legs of the water horse went into instant motion. It galloped down the riverbed, following its twisting channel. It had to, because it was unable to run anywhere else. But the running water was so swift that it would soon reach the Good Magician's castle regardless of the indirectness of the route.

She looked down through the horse's translucent substance. Sure enough, the channel was packed with fish so thick it was almost solid. She looked across the landscape around the river channel, and saw rabbits in similar number; in places they were like a gray blanket covering the ground. That was another oddity; were the land dragons similarly off their feed?

She looked in the sky, and saw clouds of crows harassing the other flying creatures. Where were the flying dragons? Normally crows were hardly in evidence, because dragons toasted them on sight. Only in Mundania did they really flourish, normally.

Soon they were in sight of the castle. There was a stream access to the moat that enabled the water horse to reach it. In hardly more time that it took to see it, they were there, splashing to a halt.

The moat monster was snoozing, hardly expecting any intrusion from this direction. It lifted its head and gaped menacingly. Then it recognized the visitors, nodded, and returned to its snooze.

"I thank you kindly," Clio said, dismounting. The water horse had stopped beside a steep bank so that her foot could readily reach it. "Your swiftness was a real pleasure."

The horse nodded, dripping with pleasure. Then it galloped back the way it had come. Running water could never pause long, or it lost its definition.

A sad young woman was walking away from the castle, staring at the ground. "What's the matter?" Clio asked. "I'm Clio; maybe I can help."

"I'm Cayla. I came to ask the Good Magician what my talent is, because I haven't found it yet." She twiddled nervously with a wooden twig she carried.

"That's something you usually just have to find out on your own," Clio said. "It's almost impossible to guess."

"Yes, I've tried guessing," Cayla said. "It doesn't work." She twiddled some more; the twig was taking a beating. In fact there were two twigs getting intertwined.

"So did the Good Magician have the Answer for you?"

Cayla burst into tears. "No! I never got to see him. In fact I flunked the first Challenge."

Clio was morbidly curious. "What was it?"

"It was a big square park set on its end. That is, one corner was toward me as I came to it. I thought the challenge was to get in, but when I got in nothing happened. There was a ball flying around in there, but I had no idea what to do with it. I finally gave up." She blew her nose into a handkerchief, then returned to twiddling the twigs.

A square park, set on its end. "A diamond!" Clio said. "A baseball diamond. You weren't supposed to get 'in,' you needed to get an 'out.' By catching the ball."

Cayla looked at her. "I don't understand."

Clio realized that this would be complicated to explain. "It's only a guess." Then she noticed something. The two twigs were not just intertwined, they were knitted together. "Do you knit?"

"Yes, when I have wool."

"Have you tried knitting other things?"

"Of course not. Why would I do that?"

"Look at those twigs."

"Oh, these are nothing. I'm just frustrated and nervous."

"They are knitted together."

Cayla looked. "Why so they are. But I don't have knitting needles."

"Try something else," Clio said. She looked around and found several bricks. She picked two up. "Try these."

"Bricks? That's crazy!" But the girl took them and put them together.

The bricks twisted and merged. They were getting knitted together. "That's your talent," Clio said. "You can knit wood and bricks. Maybe other things. Maybe anything. You'll have to experiment and find out."

"Oh!" Cayla said, thrilled. "So I don't need the good Magician after all!"

"You don't," Clio agreed, pleased. This was her first personal interaction with a human person in regular Xanth in some time, and she was glad it had been positive.

"Thank you so much! I was so sad; now I'm so happy." Cayla ran on along the path.

Clio walked toward the drawbridge. This was the obvious way to cross the moat, as she didn't wish to get her feet or skirt wet. But as she approached it, it lifted off the bank, being drawn up by its chains.

"Halt!" she cried. "I wish to use you."

The bridge halted.

She arrived at its resting spot. "Now if you will just drop back down to the bank, I shall be happy to set foot on your sturdy surface," she said.

The bridge started to drop, but a chain snarled and it got hung up. It was stuck a small but inconvenient distance above the ground.

Clio considered it, an unbecoming suspicion hovering at the fringe of her awareness. It wasn't like the Good Magician to have flawed mechanisms. Was it possible that this was not a malfunction? That she was being subjected to a Challenge for entry?

No, of course not; she couldn't believe that of her old friend Humfrey. So it must be a rare glitch in the mechanism.

"Hello the castle!" she called. "You appear to have a problem. The drawbridge is stuck."

There was a little shed associated with the near side of the drawbridge. Now the bridge tender emerged. "Harold the Handyman here. What can I do for you?"

"I am Clio, the Muse of History. I wish to confer with the Good Magician Humfrey, but am unable to cross the moat. Can you fix the connection?"

"Sure, I'll be glad to lend a hand," Handy said, extending his right hand.

She took it. "Excellent. The lines seem to be snarled, so—-EEEEEK!" Her scream was a full five E's, and would have been six, had she not run out of breath.

For the man's left hand had just reached around and goosed her right through her skirt.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," Harold said, hastily retreating. "I forget to warn you. I have two hands."

"I appreciate that," she said somewhat coldly as she rubbed her indignant bottom.

"I mean, they're different. My right hand helps others, but my wrong hand roves. I can't stop them."

She saw his problem. "Perhaps the Good Magician can help you with that problem."

"Maybe, after I complete my year of service."

"I should think he would fix the problem first, to better enable you to perform your service effectively."

"Not exactly. This is my service."

"Tending the drawbridge," she agreed.

"No. Being a Challenge."

She gazed at him. "You are a Challenge?"

"That's right. Any querent has to navigate three Challenges before getting into the castle to query the Good Magician. He doesn't like to be bothered by folk who aren't serious."

"I know that. But I'm not a querent; I'm his friend!"

"You're coming to ask his advice."

The hovering suspicion abruptly landed. She was indeed being subjected to the Challenges. That was as outrageous to her mind as was the goose to her bottom. "Well, I never!"

"My right hand should be able to fix the drawbridge," Handy said. "But my wrong hand will interfere. So I have to deal with my hands before I can deal with the problem."

"And I am expected to fathom how to resolve your problem of hands," Clio said. "As the first of my Challenges."

"You catch on quickly," the man agreed.

She was tempted to think an unkind thought about Humfrey, who was definitely not acting in a friendly manner. The very idea that she should be subjected to this process! He deserved to receive a sour piece of her mind. But unkindness was not in her nature, so she realized in half a moment that this was probably a confusion on Humfrey's part, an error. He used water from the Fountain of Youth to prevent himself from aging beyond a hundred years, and perhaps needed to set the mark a bit younger, to prevent senility. She would suggest that to him, as he surely did not want to be confusing his friends with querents.

But first she had to get in to see him. Well, then, there was no help for it but to tackle the three Challenges, preposterous as the situation was.

She looked at Harold the Handyman. So he had a right hand and a wrong hand. Her challenge was to discover a way to nullify the wrong one, so that he could let the right one function. She doubted that any permanent solution was within her power, as she was a Historian, not a Magician, but perhaps there could be a temporary expedient. One that would enable him to function during the interim of his Service to the Good Magician.

"I am neither a Magician nor a Doctor," she said. "So I am unable to offer a cure for your condition. But I may have a way to negate enough of its effect to enable you to perform satisfactorily."

"That would be great," Handy said.

"I believe you should identify your hands. The right one can be called Dexter, and the wrong one can be called Sinister. Put labels on them to that all who encounter you will know them well enough to be able to avoid mischief."

"That sounds great," he said. "Forewarned is foreordained."

"Forearmed," she said.

"Whatever." He fetched some sticky labels and a pen. But when his right hand tried to write on them, his wrong hand jerked the paper out from under the pen.

"Let me see if I can do that," Clio said, smiling. She took pen and paper and neatly printed DEXTER and SINISTER. "Now hold out your hands."

Handy's right hand cooperated, and she fastened its label to the back of it. But the wrong hand jerked away, raising a middle finger. A cloudlet of smoke formed around it, suggesting that this was not a nice gesture. It didn't want to be labeled.

She tried to catch it, but it dodged aside, avoiding her. Then she had a naughty idea. She stood straight, half turning away. "Very well, if I can't label you, I will go elsewhere."

The wrong hand couldn't resist. It dived in for another goose. But as it touched her skirt, she slapped the label against it. Now the hand was marked despite itself.

"You got it!" Handy exclaimed.

"Well, I should hope to be able to outsmart a mere hand." She was privately pleased despite the embarrassing touch. She had, as it were, gotten to the bottom of the problem.

The hand was so ashamed of being tricked that it hid behind the man's back. That allowed the right hand to reach up and unsnarl the lines, and the drawbridge dropped to its proper landing. She had navigated the first Challenge.

At the far end of the bridge was a gate with an oddly folded turnstile. In fact it was shaped like the letter W. Clio paused to examine it. If this was a Challenge, its operation was obscure. It was mounted on a post that allowed it to rotate, so that it should be possible to step into one of the indents and circle through to the other side. What was supposed to be so difficult about that? She was not a suspicious woman, but she distrusted this.

Still, there seemed to be no other way to proceed. She stepped into it, put her hand on an end, and pushed. It turned, briefly enclosing her as she passed through the gate, then releasing her the other side. No problem at all.

She turned to glance back—-and saw another woman right behind her. She looked rather familiar. In fact she looked exactly like Clio herself in the mirror. Where had she come from? She had not been on the bridge.

"Get out of my way, witch," the woman snapped.

Clio stepped out of her way, affronted. "Who, if I may be so bold as to ask, are you?"

"Who do you think I am, idiot? I'm your double, Oilc."

"My double! How can that be?"

"Didn't you just pass through the Double-You? What did you think it was going to do, cut you in half? Have you no wit at all?"

There was something about this woman that annoyed Clio, but she restrained her temper lest there be some misunderstanding. "The Double-You? It doubles you?"

"What else, dullard? Why'd you go through it if you didn't want to be doubled?"

This was evidently another Challenge. How was she supposed to deal with this abrasive copy of herself? Now she realized that the woman's name was her own name, backwards. And the woman's character was the opposite of her own, in the ways that showed so far. Clio tried always to be polite, moderate, and helpful, while this creature was unpleasant, aggressive, and sarcastic. Still, maybe she was merely on edge because she had suddenly been created. It was best to give her every reasonable chance.

"What is your purpose here?" Clio asked.

"You need to ask, stupid? You've overstayed your visa. I'll be taking over now."

This set Clio back again. "You'll be what?"

Oilc favored her with a withering stare. "I'd better put you out of your misery." She looked around, and saw a stick of wood lying on the ground nearby. She picked it up and advanced on Clio threateningly, brandishing her improvised club.

Clio stepped back. "What in Xanth are you doing?"

Oilc swung the club at her head. Clio ducked aside just in time. Should she use her talent? No, it was probably blocked here, and if not, the other woman might have the same talent, which would greatly complicate things. So she ran to the side and fetched a stick of her own.

Oilc came at her again, swinging. Clio managed to block the blow with her stick, but it was a physical as well as an emotional shock. How could she be engaging in physical combat? That was not her style at all!

"I really don't understand," she said as she retreated. "Why are you attacking me?"

"You really don't get it, do you, moron," Oilc said as she swung again. "There can't be two of us; people would notice. So one of us has to go. So I'll just eliminate you, and then your life is mine. No one will know the difference, and I'll be able to do whatever I want."

"But you have no positive agenda," Clio protested as she awkwardly fended off the attack. "You would quickly make enemies, and leave my reputation in ruins."

"More fun," Oilc agreed, this time aiming for the knees.

"Who would write the Histories of Xanth?" Clio asked, jerking her knees back.

"Who needs to? They're dull, boring, repetitive, and uninteresting, with egregious puns."

That generated some ire. "Who makes any such claim?"

"The critics, jerk. Who else?"

"Nobody else," Clio said with some asperity.

"Anyway, I won't bother writing anything. It'll be a lot more fun to go around messing people up. They deserve it."

Clio realized that she really had to do something about this double. But how could she get rid of the woman without being unconscionably violent? That just wasn't her nature. Which, it seemed, was why it was Oilc's nature, she being opposite in everything but appearance.

Now Clio was backed up against the bank of the moat. One more step and she would fall in, and she rather suspected that this would represent a failure to navigate the Challenge. Whatever was she to do?

Oilc swung again, trying to knock her into the moat. Clio tried to avoid her, but lost her balance and started to fall. She flung her arms out, losing her stick, and happened to catch Oilc by the arm. She hauled on it, trying to recover her balance.

"Let go, imbecile!" Oilc snapped. "I don't even want to touch you, you emotional jellyfish."

Then Clio got a wild idea. She flung both arms around Oilc and hugged her close. "You're my other half," she said. "I love you and want you with me always!"

"Stop it, you mealy-mouthed disaster!" Oilc cried. "I want no part of you!"

But Clio clung close. She brought her face to the other face and kissed it.

Oilc screamed in sheer anguish. Then suddenly she was gone. Clio was left standing holding nothing, shaking with reaction.

She had done it. She had solved the riddle. She had realized that the only way to be rid of the ugly facet of herself was not to fight it but to take it back into herself and suppress it with her conscience. In this manner she had destroyed Oilc before Oilc destroyed her. She hoped she would never have to go through anything like that again.

She brushed herself off and walked through the main portal into the castle. The entry wasn't straight; it made a right angle turn to the right, then to the left. The wall to the right was carved in the shape of a huge human face.

As she stood there, a panel slid across the passage she had just passed through. She was blocked in; she could not retreat. Well, she hadn't intended to go back that way anyway; her business was forward into the castle.

She looked down the left side passage. It led to a ramp that rose to about head height, then evidently descended beyond. The ceiling rose accordingly, so there was room to walk up and over the ramp to reach whatever was on the other side. It was an odd layout, but maybe there was something beneath that couldn't be moved or altered, so the passage simply had to go over it. Just about anything was possible, here in the Good Magician's castle.

Could this be the next Challenge? The fact that she was closed in here suggested that it was. She had solved one man's problem of wrong-handedness, and abated her doubled alternate self, so this must be some other type of endeavor. Like the drawbridge and the W turnstile, it looked innocuous and probably wasn't.

She would find out. She marched down the hall and started up the ramp. It was steep but not too steep; she could handle it for this short distance.

Suddenly she felt heavy. Very heavy. Something was weighing her down horribly. It wasn't her imagination; her feet were pressing into the ramp and sliding down it as if shoved by a giant hand. She barely kept her footing as she landed back on the flat portion of the floor.

The weight left her. It must have been magic, because there was no evidence of any natural force. This did seem to be the Challenge: to mount to the top of the ramp, when it made her so heavy that she got pushed back down.

She tried it again, bracing herself against the extra weight. And ran right up the ramp as if she were feather-light. In fact her feet left the surface and she floated, drifting back, unable to gain any purchase to push her forward.

Now this was interesting, in an annoying sort of way. The first time she had grown heavy; the second time, light. Both balked her; what she needed was a compromise, her normal weight. How could she keep that?

She tried again, treading carefully up the slope. The heaviness came, increasing until she was unable to drag herself up farther, and had to let herself slide back down. She tried a fourth time immediately, moving slowly, and the higher she went, the lighter she became, until she could no longer maintain contact with the ramp, and drifted back in the slight wash of air coming from its far end.

Well, she had defined the problem. It alternated between heavy and light, and neither suited her purpose. It seemed simple, yet she had no idea how to handle it. Obviously she had to get an idea, or she would be stuck here indefinitely.

She walked back down the passage. The huge carved face was still there, gazing at her. The enormous eyes blinked.

Blinked? The face was alive!

"Now I recognize you," she informed it. "You're a sphinx, serving your year of Service."

"Congratulations, Muse," the sphinx replied. "You have solved the first riddle. Do you care for the second?"

"Does it relate to my Challenge?"

"No, it is merely a diversion to entertain you while you remain balked."

"I already know what walks on four legs, then two legs, then three legs," she said with some asperity. She was good at asperity. "A woman, when she's a baby, grown, and old with a cane."

"Unfortunate. I trust you will forgive me if I don't throw myself off a cliff and perish."

"Considering that there's no cliff here, I seem to have no choice but to forgive you."

The sphinx smiled. "So good to encounter a trace of humor. I haven't had a good laugh in centuries."

"Neither have I," she agreed. "Shall we exchange introductions? I am Clio, the Muse of History."

"I am Gravis the Sphinx."

"Gravis. Would that have something to do with gravity?"

"It would."

"In fact, that would be your magic talent: to increase or decrease gravity in a region. That is what is balking my passage."

"Congratulations. You have solved another riddle."

"I am curious: how far does your ability extend? Could it bring a flying bird down from the sky, or raise a fish from the sea, should they happen to traverse the region you affected?"

"It could. In fact I used to make sport of passing birds and fish who did not understand why they could not fly or swim past a given region."

"It is certainly a significant talent."

One eye squinted. "You would not by any chance be seeking to flatter me into allowing you to pass?"

"I would not have the temerity to attempt any such thing." She was not good at temerity.

"That is fortunate, because it would only annoy me."

"I surely would not want to do anything like that."

"That is good to know."

They understood each other. She had of course been trying to flatter him, and he had rebuked her for it.

That left the original problem: how to get past the ramp while the sphinx guarded it. She had no magic to oppose his; she saw no way to counter the unbearable heaviness or lightness of being.

Then she got a notion. Gravis had not had a good laugh in centuries. Maybe she could provide him one.

"I regret I must leave you now," she said, "as I have business within the castle."

"Must we part already? I had thought we would have more time for dialogue."

"Another time, perhaps."

She oriented on the ramp, then lifted up her skirt and charged toward it as fast as she could. Obviously she hoped to run up it at such speed as to get over the hump before the heavy gravity stopped her.

She made it up several strides before the increasing weight caught her. "Oh!" she cried, and toppled back, somersaulting to the base head over heels, her panties surely showing. She landed on the floor with a thump.

"Ho ho ho!" Gravis roared, thrilled by her humiliation. Young women flashed panties deliberately; mature ones concealed them at all costs. He took a breath and laughed twice as hard. The force of his breath made a blast of air down the passage.

Clio clambered to her feet and charged up the ramp again. This time the lightness struck, as it was its turn. In a moment she was floating—-and the moving air carried her on up the ramp to the top. It stopped abruptly as the sphinx realized how he had been tricked, but too late; she had passed over the hump.

She recovered her normal weight and touched down on the far side of the ramp, running. She was through. She had navigated the third Challenge. Now to tackle Humfrey.

"So nice to meet you again, Clio." It was a young woman approaching her from the far side of the hall, which debouched into a larger chamber.

"Nice to see you also, Wira." Wira was Humfrey's daughter-in-law, one of the few people he really liked. She was blind, and had seemed useless to her family, so they had put her to sleep. Later Humfrey and the Gorgon's son, Hugo, had awoken her and married her after she had taken a dose of youth water to reduce her age to his. Now she mostly ran the castle, with the help of the Good Magician's designated wives.

"Can you tell me why I was subjected to this querent business?" Clio asked. "I thought I came as a friend."

"I am not sure, but I believe Dara knows."

"She is this month's Designated Wife?"

"Yes, it is her turn. I understand she was after all Humfrey's first wife."

"She was," Clio agreed. "She had half a soul, but gave it up and left him, then regretted it."

"Well, souls are awkward," Dara said, for they were just arriving at the floating room. "Can't live with them, can't live without them."

"We mortals can't live without them," Wira agreed. "I will see if he is ready." She departed quietly.

Clio hugged Dara. "It has been a while," Dara said.

"A hundred and fifty-two years since we first met," Clio agreed. "I left after you married Humfrey the first time, and we have encountered each other only passingly since. Did he ever get your name straight?"

"Never. He still calls me Dana. I'm getting used to it."

"Well, he's a slow learner."

They both laughed; it was a private joke. The Good Magician had made it a point to learn everything he could, so he could put it in his Book of Answers. That was just as well, because later he had taken Lethe water and forgotten some things, and now needed the Book to remind him of them.

"What brings you here?" Dara inquired.

"My 28th Volume of the History of Xanth is illegible. I evidently wrote it, but now can't read it or remember it."

"Just like Humfrey with his Book!" They laughed again.

"So I came to ask him if he knows of this matter. But I had to go through the querent Challenges, which were a nuisance; I can't say I'm pleased. Do you know why he put me through that?"

"I'm sorry, I don't. I didn't realize it was you until Wira told me. But you know, he has some weird ways. When the Gorgon came and asked him if he would marry her, he made her do a year's Service before he answered."

"I remember. Then she became Wife #5. But there was reason: he's such a difficult old man that she needed to have that year's experience with him before she could be truly sure she wanted to marry him."

"I don't think 'difficult old man' quite covers it. How about 'irascible ancient gnome'?

"At present I'm not sure that covers it either. He is going to have to have excellent reason for treating me this way, or I shall be annoyed."

"You might write him out of Xanth history!"

They laughed again. It was humor; Clio wouldn't actually do that. They both knew she was too nice a person.

"How is it, being his wife for just one month in six?"

"It takes the first week to get used to his grumpiness, and another week to seduce him away from his musty tome, and by the last week his stinky socks are piling up and I'm quite ready to disappear back into demonly oblivion."

"You don't pick up his socks?"

"I'm a demoness! How could I even focus on a dirty job like that? Have you ever smelled one of them?" They laughed again. "Fortunately Sofia Socksorter handles that, in her month. Without her, this castle would melt from the accumulated stench."

"She's a sturdy woman. Of course that's why he married her: to catch up on his old socks."

"She knows. She calls him 'Himself,' because that's what he's full of."

"Does anyone really like him?" Clio asked. It was humor; liking was hardly the point, with the Good Magician.

"Wira does."

"Wira's an angel in human form."

Wira reappeared as if summoned. "Humfrey will see you now, Muse Clio," she said.

"And I shall see him," Clio said grimly. But her dialog with Dara Demoness had taken the edge off her irk.

Copyright © 2005 by Piers Anthony Jacob

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Table of Contents

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First Chapter

Chapter One

Clio

Clio was tidying up her office, as she did every century or so even if it didn't really need it. Dust did tend to collect, along with dried bugs, apple seeds, and lost wisps of fog. Then she paused, which was easy to do during a dull chore like this. There was a volume on the shelf she didn't remember. That was odd, because she had an excellent memory. She had to, to be a competent Muse of History.

She lifted it up, noting the clean spot of shelf beneath it. She blew off the dust and looked at the title. She couldn't quite make it out, so she opened the volume to the title page. That was written in her handwriting, but was somehow blurred. It might be CURRENT EVENTS, but could also be GETTING EVEN. Neither one made much sense, as she did not handle either contemporary news or revenge plots. Her specialty was history, past and future. The present bored her.

She turned the pages. They had all been filled out, and definitely in her handwriting, but she couldn't read a word of it. She blinked to clear her vision, but it didn't help; every word was fuzzed. The pages might as well have been blank.

She stood there, bemused. How could she have written a volume of history that she herself couldn't read? It didn't make sense. Was she losing her sight?

Alarmed, she set the volume down and picked up the one next to it. That one was clear enough: PET PEEVE, with a picture of a disgruntled bird. That was incomplete, because it hadn't happened yet; she was working on it. So she checked the prior volume: CUBE ROUTE, which was complete. That was the story of a girl with gumption, and the text was quite clear.

So it wasn't hereyes, which was a relief. It was the volume. What was wrong with it? And why couldn't she remember writing it? How could she be writing the following volume, and remember its details, while being fuzzy on this one?

Fuzzy: her memory of it was as fuzzy as its print. There was definitely something strange here.

She considered for a good three and a half moments. She seemed to have two or more unenviable choices: principally to let the riddle be, or go to Good Magician Humfrey for advice. Humfrey could surely unravel the enigma, but would take obscene pleasure in her predicament. She hated giving him that satisfaction. But she knew the mystery would bug her until it became a downright nuisance.

She sighed. She would stuff her pride into her nonexistent handbag and go to see the Good Magician.

Humfrey's castle was some distance away from the home of the Muses, so Clio got transportation. She walked down Mount Parnassus and out to a babbling brook and spoke to it. "May I have your attention for a moment?"

The brook ceased babbling and formed a swirling eye. It looked at her, recognized her, and formed a mouth. "So good to see you, Muse," it bubbled.

"I need to pay a call on the Good Magician. Do you suppose I could prevail on you to transport me there swiftly?"

"Gladly, Muse. I owe you favors from way back."

That was true, but she hadn't cared to put it that way. "Then I should be obliged if you would run me there now."

The water humped up into a shape like that of a centaur without a human forepart, standing in the riverbed. "Immediately," it agreed. "If I can make it past the fish."

"The fish?"

"Recently there have been so many fish they clog my channel. It has never been this bad before; normally the water dragons eat them."

"The dragons must be off their feed," she said. That was humor; dragons were never off their feed. Still, it was an oddity.

Clio stepped close to the bank, glanced around to be sure no one was watching, then lifted one leg and swung it over the centaur's back. Skirts were not the most convenient clothing for riding, but they were required for her gender and age. She caught hold of the liquid creature's flowing mane and drew herself fully onto it. "I am ready."

The legs of the water horse went into instant motion. It galloped down the riverbed, following its twisting channel. It had to, because it was unable to run anywhere else. But the running water was so swift that it would soon reach the Good Magician's castle regardless of the indirectness of the route.

She looked down through the horse's translucent substance. Sure enough, the channel was packed with fish so thick it was almost solid. She looked across the landscape around the river channel, and saw rabbits in similar number; in places they were like a gray blanket covering the ground. That was another oddity; were the land dragons similarly off their feed?

She looked in the sky, and saw clouds of crows harassing the other flying creatures. Where were the flying dragons? Normally crows were hardly in evidence, because dragons toasted them on sight. Only in Mundania did they really flourish, normally.

Soon they were in sight of the castle. There was a stream access to the moat that enabled the water horse to reach it. In hardly more time that it took to see it, they were there, splashing to a halt.

The moat monster was snoozing, hardly expecting any intrusion from this direction. It lifted its head and gaped menacingly. Then it recognized the visitors, nodded, and returned to its snooze.

"I thank you kindly," Clio said, dismounting. The water horse had stopped beside a steep bank so that her foot could readily reach it. "Your swiftness was a real pleasure."

The horse nodded, dripping with pleasure. Then it galloped back the way it had come. Running water could never pause long, or it lost its definition.

A sad young woman was walking away from the castle, staring at the ground. "What's the matter?" Clio asked. "I'm Clio; maybe I can help."

"I'm Cayla. I came to ask the Good Magician what my talent is, because I haven't found it yet." She twiddled nervously with a wooden twig she carried.

"That's something you usually just have to find out on your own," Clio said. "It's almost impossible to guess."

"Yes, I've tried guessing," Cayla said. "It doesn't work." She twiddled some more; the twig was taking a beating. In fact there were two twigs getting intertwined.

"So did the Good Magician have the Answer for you?"

Cayla burst into tears. "No! I never got to see him. In fact I flunked the first Challenge."

Clio was morbidly curious. "What was it?"

"It was a big square park set on its end. That is, one corner was toward me as I came to it. I thought the challenge was to get in, but when I got in nothing happened. There was a ball flying around in there, but I had no idea what to do with it. I finally gave up." She blew her nose into a handkerchief, then returned to twiddling the twigs.

A square park, set on its end. "A diamond!" Clio said. "A baseball diamond. You weren't supposed to get 'in,' you needed to get an 'out.' By catching the ball."

Cayla looked at her. "I don't understand."

Clio realized that this would be complicated to explain. "It's only a guess." Then she noticed something. The two twigs were not just intertwined, they were knitted together. "Do you knit?"

"Yes, when I have wool."

"Have you tried knitting other things?"

"Of course not. Why would I do that?"

"Look at those twigs."

"Oh, these are nothing. I'm just frustrated and nervous."

"They are knitted together."

Cayla looked. "Why so they are. But I don't have knitting needles."

"Try something else," Clio said. She looked around and found several bricks. She picked two up. "Try these."

"Bricks? That's crazy!" But the girl took them and put them together.

The bricks twisted and merged. They were getting knitted together. "That's your talent," Clio said. "You can knit wood and bricks. Maybe other things. Maybe anything. You'll have to experiment and find out."

"Oh!" Cayla said, thrilled. "So I don't need the good Magician after all!"

"You don't," Clio agreed, pleased. This was her first personal interaction with a human person in regular Xanth in some time, and she was glad it had been positive.

"Thank you so much! I was so sad; now I'm so happy." Cayla ran on along the path.

Clio walked toward the drawbridge. This was the obvious way to cross the moat, as she didn't wish to get her feet or skirt wet. But as she approached it, it lifted off the bank, being drawn up by its chains.

"Halt!" she cried. "I wish to use you."

The bridge halted.

She arrived at its resting spot. "Now if you will just drop back down to the bank, I shall be happy to set foot on your sturdy surface," she said.

The bridge started to drop, but a chain snarled and it got hung up. It was stuck a small but inconvenient distance above the ground.

Clio considered it, an unbecoming suspicion hovering at the fringe of her awareness. It wasn't like the Good Magician to have flawed mechanisms. Was it possible that this was not a malfunction? That she was being subjected to a Challenge for entry?

No, of course not; she couldn't believe that of her old friend Humfrey. So it must be a rare glitch in the mechanism.

"Hello the castle!" she called. "You appear to have a problem. The drawbridge is stuck."

There was a little shed associated with the near side of the drawbridge. Now the bridge tender emerged. "Harold the Handyman here. What can I do for you?"

"I am Clio, the Muse of History. I wish to confer with the Good Magician Humfrey, but am unable to cross the moat. Can you fix the connection?"

"Sure, I'll be glad to lend a hand," Handy said, extending his right hand.

She took it. "Excellent. The lines seem to be snarled, so--EEEEEK!" Her scream was a full five E's, and would have been six, had she not run out of breath.

For the man's left hand had just reached around and goosed her right through her skirt.

"Oh, I'm so sorry," Harold said, hastily retreating. "I forget to warn you. I have two hands."

"I appreciate that," she said somewhat coldly as she rubbed her indignant bottom.

"I mean, they're different. My right hand helps others, but my wrong hand roves. I can't stop them."

She saw his problem. "Perhaps the Good Magician can help you with that problem."

"Maybe, after I complete my year of service."

"I should think he would fix the problem first, to better enable you to perform your service effectively."

"Not exactly. This is my service."

"Tending the drawbridge," she agreed.

"No. Being a Challenge."

She gazed at him. "You are a Challenge?"

"That's right. Any querent has to navigate three Challenges before getting into the castle to query the Good Magician. He doesn't like to be bothered by folk who aren't serious."

"I know that. But I'm not a querent; I'm his friend!"

"You're coming to ask his advice."

The hovering suspicion abruptly landed. She was indeed being subjected to the Challenges. That was as outrageous to her mind as was the goose to her bottom. "Well, I never!"

"My right hand should be able to fix the drawbridge," Handy said. "But my wrong hand will interfere. So I have to deal with my hands before I can deal with the problem."

"And I am expected to fathom how to resolve your problem of hands," Clio said. "As the first of my Challenges."

"You catch on quickly," the man agreed.

She was tempted to think an unkind thought about Humfrey, who was definitely not acting in a friendly manner. The very idea that she should be subjected to this process! He deserved to receive a sour piece of her mind. But unkindness was not in her nature, so she realized in half a moment that this was probably a confusion on Humfrey's part, an error. He used water from the Fountain of Youth to prevent himself from aging beyond a hundred years, and perhaps needed to set the mark a bit younger, to prevent senility. She would suggest that to him, as he surely did not want to be confusing his friends with querents.

But first she had to get in to see him. Well, then, there was no help for it but to tackle the three Challenges, preposterous as the situation was.

She looked at Harold the Handyman. So he had a right hand and a wrong hand. Her challenge was to discover a way to nullify the wrong one, so that he could let the right one function. She doubted that any permanent solution was within her power, as she was a Historian, not a Magician, but perhaps there could be a temporary expedient. One that would enable him to function during the interim of his Service to the Good Magician.

"I am neither a Magician nor a Doctor," she said. "So I am unable to offer a cure for your condition. But I may have a way to negate enough of its effect to enable you to perform satisfactorily."

"That would be great," Handy said.

"I believe you should identify your hands. The right one can be called Dexter, and the wrong one can be called Sinister. Put labels on them to that all who encounter you will know them well enough to be able to avoid mischief."

"That sounds great," he said. "Forewarned is foreordained."

"Forearmed," she said.

"Whatever." He fetched some sticky labels and a pen. But when his right hand tried to write on them, his wrong hand jerked the paper out from under the pen.

"Let me see if I can do that," Clio said, smiling. She took pen and paper and neatly printed DEXTER and SINISTER. "Now hold out your hands."

Handy's right hand cooperated, and she fastened its label to the back of it. But the wrong hand jerked away, raising a middle finger. A cloudlet of smoke formed around it, suggesting that this was not a nice gesture. It didn't want to be labeled.

She tried to catch it, but it dodged aside, avoiding her. Then she had a naughty idea. She stood straight, half turning away. "Very well, if I can't label you, I will go elsewhere."

The wrong hand couldn't resist. It dived in for another goose. But as it touched her skirt, she slapped the label against it. Now the hand was marked despite itself.

"You got it!" Handy exclaimed.

"Well, I should hope to be able to outsmart a mere hand." She was privately pleased despite the embarrassing touch. She had, as it were, gotten to the bottom of the problem.

The hand was so ashamed of being tricked that it hid behind the man's back. That allowed the right hand to reach up and unsnarl the lines, and the drawbridge dropped to its proper landing. She had navigated the first Challenge.

At the far end of the bridge was a gate with an oddly folded turnstile. In fact it was shaped like the letter W. Clio paused to examine it. If this was a Challenge, its operation was obscure. It was mounted on a post that allowed it to rotate, so that it should be possible to step into one of the indents and circle through to the other side. What was supposed to be so difficult about that? She was not a suspicious woman, but she distrusted this.

Still, there seemed to be no other way to proceed. She stepped into it, put her hand on an end, and pushed. It turned, briefly enclosing her as she passed through the gate, then releasing her the other side. No problem at all.

She turned to glance back--and saw another woman right behind her. She looked rather familiar. In fact she looked exactly like Clio herself in the mirror. Where had she come from? She had not been on the bridge.

"Get out of my way, witch," the woman snapped.

Clio stepped out of her way, affronted. "Who, if I may be so bold as to ask, are you?"

"Who do you think I am, idiot? I'm your double, Oilc."

"My double! How can that be?"

"Didn't you just pass through the Double-You? What did you think it was going to do, cut you in half? Have you no wit at all?"

There was something about this woman that annoyed Clio, but she restrained her temper lest there be some misunderstanding. "The Double-You? It doubles you?"

"What else, dullard? Why'd you go through it if you didn't want to be doubled?"

This was evidently another Challenge. How was she supposed to deal with this abrasive copy of herself? Now she realized that the woman's name was her own name, backwards. And the woman's character was the opposite of her own, in the ways that showed so far. Clio tried always to be polite, moderate, and helpful, while this creature was unpleasant, aggressive, and sarcastic. Still, maybe she was merely on edge because she had suddenly been created. It was best to give her every reasonable chance.

"What is your purpose here?" Clio asked.

"You need to ask, stupid? You've overstayed your visa. I'll be taking over now."

This set Clio back again. "You'll be what?"

Oilc favored her with a withering stare. "I'd better put you out of your misery." She looked around, and saw a stick of wood lying on the ground nearby. She picked it up and advanced on Clio threateningly, brandishing her improvised club.

Clio stepped back. "What in Xanth are you doing?"

Oilc swung the club at her head. Clio ducked aside just in time. Should she use her talent? No, it was probably blocked here, and if not, the other woman might have the same talent, which would greatly complicate things. So she ran to the side and fetched a stick of her own.

Oilc came at her again, swinging. Clio managed to block the blow with her stick, but it was a physical as well as an emotional shock. How could she be engaging in physical combat? That was not her style at all!

"I really don't understand," she said as she retreated. "Why are you attacking me?"

"You really don't get it, do you, moron," Oilc said as she swung again. "There can't be two of us; people would notice. So one of us has to go. So I'll just eliminate you, and then your life is mine. No one will know the difference, and I'll be able to do whatever I want."

"But you have no positive agenda," Clio protested as she awkwardly fended off the attack. "You would quickly make enemies, and leave my reputation in ruins."

"More fun," Oilc agreed, this time aiming for the knees.

"Who would write the Histories of Xanth?" Clio asked, jerking her knees back.

"Who needs to? They're dull, boring, repetitive, and uninteresting, with egregious puns."

That generated some ire. "Who makes any such claim?"

"The critics, jerk. Who else?"

"Nobody else," Clio said with some asperity.

"Anyway, I won't bother writing anything. It'll be a lot more fun to go around messing people up. They deserve it."

Clio realized that she really had to do something about this double. But how could she get rid of the woman without being unconscionably violent? That just wasn't her nature. Which, it seemed, was why it was Oilc's nature, she being opposite in everything but appearance.

Now Clio was backed up against the bank of the moat. One more step and she would fall in, and she rather suspected that this would represent a failure to navigate the Challenge. Whatever was she to do?

Oilc swung again, trying to knock her into the moat. Clio tried to avoid her, but lost her balance and started to fall. She flung her arms out, losing her stick, and happened to catch Oilc by the arm. She hauled on it, trying to recover her balance.

"Let go, imbecile!" Oilc snapped. "I don't even want to touch you, you emotional jellyfish."

Then Clio got a wild idea. She flung both arms around Oilc and hugged her close. "You're my other half," she said. "I love you and want you with me always!"

"Stop it, you mealy-mouthed disaster!" Oilc cried. "I want no part of you!"

But Clio clung close. She brought her face to the other face and kissed it.

Oilc screamed in sheer anguish. Then suddenly she was gone. Clio was left standing holding nothing, shaking with reaction.

She had done it. She had solved the riddle. She had realized that the only way to be rid of the ugly facet of herself was not to fight it but to take it back into herself and suppress it with her conscience. In this manner she had destroyed Oilc before Oilc destroyed her. She hoped she would never have to go through anything like that again.

She brushed herself off and walked through the main portal into the castle. The entry wasn't straight; it made a right angle turn to the right, then to the left. The wall to the right was carved in the shape of a huge human face.

As she stood there, a panel slid across the passage she had just passed through. She was blocked in; she could not retreat. Well, she hadn't intended to go back that way anyway; her business was forward into the castle.

She looked down the left side passage. It led to a ramp that rose to about head height, then evidently descended beyond. The ceiling rose accordingly, so there was room to walk up and over the ramp to reach whatever was on the other side. It was an odd layout, but maybe there was something beneath that couldn't be moved or altered, so the passage simply had to go over it. Just about anything was possible, here in the Good Magician's castle.

Could this be the next Challenge? The fact that she was closed in here suggested that it was. She had solved one man's problem of wrong-handedness, and abated her doubled alternate self, so this must be some other type of endeavor. Like the drawbridge and the W turnstile, it looked innocuous and probably wasn't.

She would find out. She marched down the hall and started up the ramp. It was steep but not too steep; she could handle it for this short distance.

Suddenly she felt heavy. Very heavy. Something was weighing her down horribly. It wasn't her imagination; her feet were pressing into the ramp and sliding down it as if shoved by a giant hand. She barely kept her footing as she landed back on the flat portion of the floor.

The weight left her. It must have been magic, because there was no evidence of any natural force. This did seem to be the Challenge: to mount to the top of the ramp, when it made her so heavy that she got pushed back down.

She tried it again, bracing herself against the extra weight. And ran right up the ramp as if she were feather-light. In fact her feet left the surface and she floated, drifting back, unable to gain any purchase to push her forward.

Now this was interesting, in an annoying sort of way. The first time she had grown heavy; the second time, light. Both balked her; what she needed was a compromise, her normal weight. How could she keep that?

She tried again, treading carefully up the slope. The heaviness came, increasing until she was unable to drag herself up farther, and had to let herself slide back down. She tried a fourth time immediately, moving slowly, and the higher she went, the lighter she became, until she could no longer maintain contact with the ramp, and drifted back in the slight wash of air coming from its far end.

Well, she had defined the problem. It alternated between heavy and light, and neither suited her purpose. It seemed simple, yet she had no idea how to handle it. Obviously she had to get an idea, or she would be stuck here indefinitely.

She walked back down the passage. The huge carved face was still there, gazing at her. The enormous eyes blinked.

Blinked? The face was alive!

"Now I recognize you," she informed it. "You're a sphinx, serving your year of Service."

"Congratulations, Muse," the sphinx replied. "You have solved the first riddle. Do you care for the second?"

"Does it relate to my Challenge?"

"No, it is merely a diversion to entertain you while you remain balked."

"I already know what walks on four legs, then two legs, then three legs," she said with some asperity. She was good at asperity. "A woman, when she's a baby, grown, and old with a cane."

"Unfortunate. I trust you will forgive me if I don't throw myself off a cliff and perish."

"Considering that there's no cliff here, I seem to have no choice but to forgive you."

The sphinx smiled. "So good to encounter a trace of humor. I haven't had a good laugh in centuries."

"Neither have I," she agreed. "Shall we exchange introductions? I am Clio, the Muse of History."

"I am Gravis the Sphinx."

"Gravis. Would that have something to do with gravity?"

"It would."

"In fact, that would be your magic talent: to increase or decrease gravity in a region. That is what is balking my passage."

"Congratulations. You have solved another riddle."

"I am curious: how far does your ability extend? Could it bring a flying bird down from the sky, or raise a fish from the sea, should they happen to traverse the region you affected?"

"It could. In fact I used to make sport of passing birds and fish who did not understand why they could not fly or swim past a given region."

"It is certainly a significant talent."

One eye squinted. "You would not by any chance be seeking to flatter me into allowing you to pass?"

"I would not have the temerity to attempt any such thing." She was not good at temerity.

"That is fortunate, because it would only annoy me."

"I surely would not want to do anything like that."

"That is good to know."

They understood each other. She had of course been trying to flatter him, and he had rebuked her for it.

That left the original problem: how to get past the ramp while the sphinx guarded it. She had no magic to oppose his; she saw no way to counter the unbearable heaviness or lightness of being.

Then she got a notion. Gravis had not had a good laugh in centuries. Maybe she could provide him one.

"I regret I must leave you now," she said, "as I have business within the castle."

"Must we part already? I had thought we would have more time for dialogue."

"Another time, perhaps."

She oriented on the ramp, then lifted up her skirt and charged toward it as fast as she could. Obviously she hoped to run up it at such speed as to get over the hump before the heavy gravity stopped her.

She made it up several strides before the increasing weight caught her. "Oh!" she cried, and toppled back, somersaulting to the base head over heels, her panties surely showing. She landed on the floor with a thump.

"Ho ho ho!" Gravis roared, thrilled by her humiliation. Young women flashed panties deliberately; mature ones concealed them at all costs. He took a breath and laughed twice as hard. The force of his breath made a blast of air down the passage.

Clio clambered to her feet and charged up the ramp again. This time the lightness struck, as it was its turn. In a moment she was floating--and the moving air carried her on up the ramp to the top. It stopped abruptly as the sphinx realized how he had been tricked, but too late; she had passed over the hump.

She recovered her normal weight and touched down on the far side of the ramp, running. She was through. She had navigated the third Challenge. Now to tackle Humfrey.

"So nice to meet you again, Clio." It was a young woman approaching her from the far side of the hall, which debouched into a larger chamber.

"Nice to see you also, Wira." Wira was Humfrey's daughter-in-law, one of the few people he really liked. She was blind, and had seemed useless to her family, so they had put her to sleep. Later Humfrey and the Gorgon's son, Hugo, had awoken her and married her after she had taken a dose of youth water to reduce her age to his. Now she mostly ran the castle, with the help of the Good Magician's designated wives.

"Can you tell me why I was subjected to this querent business?" Clio asked. "I thought I came as a friend."

"I am not sure, but I believe Dara knows."

"She is this month's Designated Wife?"

"Yes, it is her turn. I understand she was after all Humfrey's first wife."

"She was," Clio agreed. "She had half a soul, but gave it up and left him, then regretted it."

"Well, souls are awkward," Dara said, for they were just arriving at the floating room. "Can't live with them, can't live without them."

"We mortals can't live without them," Wira agreed. "I will see if he is ready." She departed quietly.

Clio hugged Dara. "It has been a while," Dara said.

"A hundred and fifty-two years since we first met," Clio agreed. "I left after you married Humfrey the first time, and we have encountered each other only passingly since. Did he ever get your name straight?"

"Never. He still calls me Dana. I'm getting used to it."

"Well, he's a slow learner."

They both laughed; it was a private joke. The Good Magician had made it a point to learn everything he could, so he could put it in his Book of Answers. That was just as well, because later he had taken Lethe water and forgotten some things, and now needed the Book to remind him of them.

"What brings you here?" Dara inquired.

"My 28th Volume of the History of Xanth is illegible. I evidently wrote it, but now can't read it or remember it."

"Just like Humfrey with his Book!" They laughed again.

"So I came to ask him if he knows of this matter. But I had to go through the querent Challenges, which were a nuisance; I can't say I'm pleased. Do you know why he put me through that?"

"I'm sorry, I don't. I didn't realize it was you until Wira told me. But you know, he has some weird ways. When the Gorgon came and asked him if he would marry her, he made her do a year's Service before he answered."

"I remember. Then she became Wife #5. But there was reason: he's such a difficult old man that she needed to have that year's experience with him before she could be truly sure she wanted to marry him."

"I don't think 'difficult old man' quite covers it. How about 'irascible ancient gnome'?

"At present I'm not sure that covers it either. He is going to have to have excellent reason for treating me this way, or I shall be annoyed."

"You might write him out of Xanth history!"

They laughed again. It was humor; Clio wouldn't actually do that. They both knew she was too nice a person.

"How is it, being his wife for just one month in six?"

"It takes the first week to get used to his grumpiness, and another week to seduce him away from his musty tome, and by the last week his stinky socks are piling up and I'm quite ready to disappear back into demonly oblivion."

"You don't pick up his socks?"

"I'm a demoness! How could I even focus on a dirty job like that? Have you ever smelled one of them?" They laughed again. "Fortunately Sofia Socksorter handles that, in her month. Without her, this castle would melt from the accumulated stench."

"She's a sturdy woman. Of course that's why he married her: to catch up on his old socks."

"She knows. She calls him 'Himself,' because that's what he's full of."

"Does anyone really like him?" Clio asked. It was humor; liking was hardly the point, with the Good Magician.

"Wira does."

"Wira's an angel in human form."

Wira reappeared as if summoned. "Humfrey will see you now, Muse Clio," she said.

"And I shall see him," Clio said grimly. But her dialog with Dara Demoness had taken the edge off her irk.

Copyright © 2005 by Piers Anthony Jacob
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted July 10, 2010

    Xanth Rules

    This was a great story - the Muse of History has played a part in other Xanth adventures, it's about time she had her very own!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 16, 2006

    Quite Interesting

    I thought this one was a bit more clever and ingenious than most of the previous books in the Xanth Series. Excellent adventure and premise.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 17, 2009

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2010

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