Gloha flapped her feather wings until she was high above the harpy hutch. The Land of Xanth spread obligingly out below her, so that she could see all the way to its medium-far corners. There was Lake Ogre-Chobee, with its ogre tribe on the shore and its toothy reptilian swimmers. There was the great Gap Chasm with its horrendous six-legged Gap Dragon. There was all the monster-infested jungle between them. She loved all of it.
But she couldn’t pause to appreciate the sights. She had important business. She had to go see the Good Magician so she could ask him a Question. With luck and a year’s Service, she might have his Answer. Then maybe she would have her heaving little heart’s desire.
She leveled off and flew swiftly toward the Good Magician’s castle. She knew exactly where it was, but had never thought she would one day have to go there. That was because she had just somehow assumed that her life would work out well on its own, after the frustrations of childhood worked their way out of her system the moment she turned eighteen and became party to the Adult Conspiracy. Unfortunately, when she actually became party, she realized that she needed a male of her kind—and she knew of none. She was the only person of her new species in Xanth. That had become a problem.
So now she was off to the Good Magician Humfrey, and after doing her year of Service for his Answer, she would be able to settle down with the man of her dreams and live happily forever and ever after and torment their children unmercifully by not letting them know the secret of stork summoning. She was nineteen years old now, and would be twenty then, which would still leave her a faint bit of her youth for her true love to appreciate before they both became adult dullards the following year. She was not so vain as to assume that she would be different from all the other adults who had ever existed. It was too bad that life had to consist of the two problems of childhood and adulthood, with only that brief window of romance wedged in between, but that was the way it was. She knew; she had observed. She was mostly humanoid, and that was the way humanoids were.
She reached the region of the castle, and paused in her flight. There was a mean-looking vapor hovering over it. That looked uncomfortably like Cumulo Fracto Nimbus, the worst of clouds. But what would he be doing here? He wouldn’t dare harass the Good Magician.
Reassured by that thought, she resumed flight. But the closer she got, the larger the cloud loomed, and the uglier it looked. Soon she realized that this wasn’t merely the magic of perspective, that changed things according to their distance; that cloud was looming uglier on purpose. It was Fracto!
She flew lower, to pass under the mean-spirited blob. But Fracto extended his vapors downward to intercept her. She tried to go around, but he sent boiling fog out to the sides to cut her off. His big amorphous mouth formed a gassy O. HO HO HO! it gusted.
This was a real nuisance. Gloha had never liked Fracto, and this encounter was making her emotion ripen into active detestation. Of all times for the blowhard to be in her way! He must know where she was headed, so was getting his flatulent jollies from interfering with her. Somehow he always seemed to know when something important was happening, like a picnic, and he always came to spoil it.
How was she going to get through to the Good Magician’s castle? She realized now that the evil cloud would stay here as long as she did, just so he could ruin her mission. She hovered in the air, and waved her fine little fist at the big ugly cloud. “Oh, you make me so angry, I could utter a bad word!” she exclaimed.
HO HO HO! A twisty gust reached out to blow her skirt up over her head so that way too much of her lithe little legs was exposed.
“Now stop that!” she cried, quickly pushing the skirt down. She realized belatedly that she should have worn slacks on this trip. But she had wanted to look dainty and feminine, because she would probably meet one of the Good Magician’s five and a half wives. After she got through the challenges that would bar entry to the castle, of course. The Good Magician always had three challenges, to discourage those who weren’t really serious about their quests for information. He didn’t like to be bothered frivolously.
Then something clicked in her pretty little head. The challenges! This must be the first one! The disreputable cloud must owe the Good Magician a debt, and so was doing him a Service. It wasn’t coincidence at all. She had to figure out how to get past Fracto.
That put an entirely different complexion on it. Her own comely little complexion relaxed. All she had to do was figure out how to get past this messy old cloud, and she would be a third of the way through. There was always a way; she just had to find it.
Could she insult Fracto, and make him blow himself out? That was the way Grundy Golem would do it. But Grundy had a mouth that was the envy of harpies; he could spew out insults faster than they could. Gloha was half harpy, because her father was Hardy Harpy, so she should be able to spew out a stinking stream of invective. But somehow she had never cared to acquire that ability. Her mother was Glory Goblin, who was beautiful and good, and Gloha just preferred to emulate her. If her brother Harglo were here, he could have let out an oath that burned a hole in the cloud. But this was a challenge she had to handle by herself.
So steaming Fracto was out. Avoiding him seemed to be out too, because he was hovering right over the castle she had to reach, by no accident. What was left? Outsmarting him? She just knew she was smarter than a creature whose brain was swirling vapor, but how could she prove it? This seemed to be a situation in which intellect didn’t count for much. All he had to do was sit there and wet on her if she tried to get through.
Well, maybe she would just have to get wet. It wasn’t as if she were made of spun sugar, whatever impression she preferred to give others.
Gloha set her firm little face in an earnest little expression and flew directly toward where she hoped the castle was, on a level course.
Fracto puffed up like a mottled wart. He opened his sodden maw and breathed out a sickly gust of wind. It surrounded her, coating her true little tresses with smog and her winsome little wings with dirty ice. Foul air clogged her nice little nose and fuzzed her open little eyes. Suddenly she was flying blind, and losing altitude. She was in danger of crashing!
Gloha sneezed. The force of it shot her spinning back out of the foul air, and she was able to blink her eyes clear. She still had some altitude, and was able to pull out of her tailspin.
She brought out her handsome little hankie and wiped her face. Fracto’s ugly puss was laughing and spitting out broken bits of wind and cloud that drifted in stenchy colors. It seemed that she couldn’t just try harder; the awful cloud had too much ill wind.
Well, if she couldn’t fly there, she would walk there. She was a goblin girl with harpy wings, and though she had spent most of her time with winged monsters, she was at home on the ground too. Fracto couldn’t stop her from using her fast little feet.
She glided down to the ground before the evil cloud could work up another foul gust to blow her away. She had hoped to find an enchanted path going there, but saw none. So her lovely little lady slippers touched down in an isolated glade, and she began to walk. There was an ordinary path that would serve; she had noted its direction as she descended, and was sure it would take her there. She would simply have to watch out for hostile monsters and other ilk, because they would be able to harass her on an unenchanted path.
Fracto was furious. He huffed and he puffed and he blew up such a storm that in two and a half moments snow was pelting down. In the remaining half moment it was piling up so thickly that all trace of the path was gone.
Oops. How was she to find her way now? She knew she would get lost in the trackless snow. She couldn’t even make her own tracks, because the snow was covering them up just about as fast as she made them. In addition, it was cold; her tight little tootsies were freezing.
She would have to take shelter until the storm blew over. Maybe she could find a blanket bush and hide under the blankets, and the snow would cover her so that Fracto wouldn’t know where she was, and would drift away. At least she would be warm while she waited.
But she saw no blanket bushes, and no pillow bushes. This glade was singularly bereft of useful plants. There was only a big snowball at the edge of the glade. She certainly didn’t need that!
But as her teeth began to chatter in an unladylike manner, her mind squeezed out an odd thought. What was a giant snowball doing here? The snow had just started, and it was covering the ground with a level layer. It couldn’t form itself into a snowball. Was there an invisible giant doing it? But there was no depression where the snow would have been taken from, and there was no smell of giant. “That snowball—that’s no ball,” she muttered, making temporary tracks toward it.
Then she realized that she had made a pun. “That snowball” had become “That’s no ball,” spoken the same way. And that gave her the cue.
She marched up to the ball and touched it. Her hands passed through its seeming surface. She stepped forward, and found herself within the entrance to a tunnel. It looked like a snowball from outside, but it was warm and dry inside. This was the way past Fracto’s storm. All she had had to do was figure out the secret, and she was on her way. Her mild little mind had prevailed over the cloud’s fury, and she had mastered (or maybe mistressed) the first challenge.
But there would be two more, and they wouldn’t be any easier than the first. She had gotten through as much by luck as by wit, and might have used up her supply of both. Should she give up her quest?
But then she would never find her Perfect Mate and True Love, and would have to endure unhappily forever and ever alone, which was a fate worse than marriage. She wasn’t ready to face that dreary prospect. After all, she had so much to offer the right man, she hoped. She glanced down at her fancy little figure, just to be sure.
So she proceeded resolutely down the passage. She would at least make an efficient little effort, and if she failed, then she would go somewhere and cry.
The passage opened out into a good-sized lighted cave. Along the sides were darkened alcoves, and at the far end was a monster. Uh-oh—she suspected that the next challenge was upon her. Instead of a cantankerous cloud, she would have to get by an aggressive animal.
But there had to be a way to do it without getting eaten. She merely had to figure out that way again. Somehow. Maybe if she proceeded very carefully it would happen.
So she took a tour of the chamber, looking in the alcoves. This turned out to be a slightly baffling tour.
The first alcove held a fat bird with a beautiful fan-shaped tail. Gloha cudgeled her balky little brain and managed to remember news of a bird like this, perhaps confined to Mundania: it was a turkey. She looked at it, and it looked at her, and that was it. The bird wasn’t confined, but didn’t seem inclined to depart its alcove. It was just there.
“You certainly are a beautiful bird,” Gloha said politely. The turkey gobbled appreciatively.
She moved on to the next alcove. There was a rather unprepossessing young human man. Because he was human, he was about twice as tall as she was; goblins were twice as tall as elves and half as tall as humans. She wasn’t sure how either other species could stand being so pitifully small or so dangerously large, but it wouldn’t be polite to call attention to such failings, so she didn’t. “I say, can you talk?” she asked the youth, who seemed to be no older than she was, though it was hard to tell with humans.
“Sure,” the youth replied.
“What is your name? Mine is Gloha.”
He did not seem to be much for conversation. “What are you doing here, Sam, if I may ask?”
“I’m part of your challenge.”
That was certainly direct! “And what is your role in this challenge?”
“I’m a flunky.”
“A flunky? I don’t think I know that position.”
He didn’t respond. She realized that he merely answered questions, and as briefly as possible. Naturally the challenge creatures didn’t volunteer much information.
“What does a flunky do?” she asked. Then she was afraid he would just say that he flunked. But Sam did give a meaningful response, fortunately.
“He does stupid errands for other folk.”
“What errand will you do for me?”
So much for that. That time she might almost have preferred a less straight answer. She moved on.
The next alcove held a tub of dirty water. That didn’t seem to be of much interest, so she went to the following one.
That alcove held a large four-footed animal, like a unicorn without a horn, with long ears. “Hello, creature,” she said.
“Hee-haw!” it brayed back.
That gave her the cue. It was a Mundane donkey.
The next alcove held a sort of springlike metal thing sitting on a step. There were several steps, but it wasn’t using them. But when she came to stand before it, it leaned over and its top end toppled to land on the next step below. The rest of it followed smoothly, making a turn from the upper pile of itself to the lower pile, until all of it was down. Immediately it bent again, and started sinuously transferring itself to the next step. When it reached the bottom of the little stairway, it stopped. That was all.
The next alcove held a vaguely humanoid creature with a most versatile tail. It jumped from bar to bar, swinging with its hands, feet, or tail. It moved very cleverly, never missing a bar, never falling. It chittered at her from its furry face. She pondered, and realized that this was another odd creature: a monkey.
So it went: each alcove held a creature or thing. They were all part of her challenge. But how did they relate? She could see nothing similar about them; this was like a little zoo with assorted displays.
At the far end was the monster. It stood taller than she was, on all fours, with a huge powerful foresection and a rather small hind section. It was in no alcove; it was in the exit from the chamber. She realized that she had to get by it, but the moment she approached it, it rose up and snarled with such ferocity that she had to step quickly back. It wasn’t confined or chained, but it didn’t pursue her.
She realized that this was the one she would have to deal with. So she stiffened her knocking little knees and came to stand just beyond the monster’s snarl range. “If I may inquire,” she said in her most timidly civil little voice, “what are you?”
The monster eyed her appraisingly. He licked his formidable chops. “Hi. I am the Yena,” she said.
Gloha blinked. She had thought the monster was male. She looked again, trying not to blush because of the impolite nature of the act, and saw that it was indeed male. She must have misheard. “The Yena?”
“That’s what I said, goblin girl,” she replied.
Gloha looked yet again. The monster was female. How could she have thought otherwise? “Thank you,” she said faintly.
“You’re welcome, you tasty little tart,” he said.
Gloha found herself getting confused and embarrassed. Once she had passed the magical age of eighteen she had sought information about the secrets hidden by the dread Adult Conspiracy, and had been somewhat disappointed when she learned their nature; she had almost wished she hadn’t bothered. But she had gotten it straight, she thought. Now she wasn’t sure. How could she be sure, when the creature’s unmentionable region kept changing? When it might not be exactly the way a male goblin’s region would be, not that she had ever seen such a region anyway? Of course the creature’s voice was changing too, being now gruff and then dulcet. What a confusing (not to mention embarrassing) situation!
“You—you must be part of my challenge,” she said after a moment. “I—I’m supposed to get past you, so I can go on to the next.”
“And if you fail to find the key, I will get to crunch up your bonnie little bones,” the Yena agreed.
Gloha had been afraid of that. But now, irrelevantly, she realized that there was something odd about the creature’s mane. It was severely knotted. In fact it seemed to be twisted with balls of metal.
She pondered, and decided that it was better to inquire than to ignore. “Your mane—” she started after a pale little pause. “Would you tell me why it has metal in it?”
The Yena smiled, showing his distressingly big sharp teeth. “Ah, you are admiring my locks,” she said.
“Um, yes. They are—unusual.”
“Indeed,” he agreed. “I’d give anything to be able to comb them out. But each one is locked in place.”
Gloha picked up on a subtlety. There was something the Yena wanted. “Anything?” she asked hesitantly.
He considered. “Well, anything, within my power, of course. I’m not exactly a wealthy monster.”
“Even—even letting a minor little morsel get through without being eaten?”
She peered closely at Gloha. “You’re catching on, morsel,” he agreed. “But of course you would have to deliver.”
Gloha realized that she had found only half the key to this riddle. She had to find a way to comb out the Yena’s locks. But what could that be? They were solidly metal, and surely would not respond to her cute little comb.
Yet somewhere in this chamber must be the answer. Because that was the way it was, with challenged. Everyone knew that. What everyone didn’t know was how to get safely through a particular challenge. That tended to discourage querents from bothering the Good Magician—which was of course the point. Humfrey didn’t like to be bothered by folk who weren’t serious. His time seemed to be impossibly precious, so he prevented it from being wasted.
She gazed around the chamber. What would comb out a metal lock? Surely not a donkey or a turkey. The flunky? She didn’t see how; the metal would still be too hard to abolish. The same went for the monkey, and how that murky water could help was beyond her. Water made iron rust, which would be worse than ever, because it would make the locks impossible to work.
Something began to percolate through her meticulous little mind. These things here—there was something similar about them. They were all keys! Donkey, monkey—even the mur-key water. And a key should do for a lock, to unlock it. One of these keys must unlock Yena’s locks.
But which one? And how would it work? She couldn’t bring the donkey to comb Yena’s locks; it just wouldn’t work. There was something she still hadn’t figured out. She didn’t want to make a mistake, because that would get her eaten, which she probably wouldn’t enjoy.
She went back to look at Yena. Now she saw that each lock of the monster’s mane was different. Some were big padlocks, others were little keyhole locks, some were several types together—combination locks—and one was weird. “What lock is that?” she inquired, pointing.
Yena craned her head about to look. “That is the Lock Ness,” he said. “It is a monster.”
Indeed it was. It was a huge tangle of serpentine cables of metal knotted into a lock that seemed impossible ever to unlock.
“I suppose that if you could unlock that one, the others would be easy,” Gloha said.
“Surely so. But if anyone tried to unlock it and failed, making it even worse, I would be most annoyed. I’d probably have to pulverize that person”
Gloha had suspected as much. She returned to the alcove exhibits. One of these had to be the key to that awful lock—if she could only figure it out. If she guessed wrong, she was doomed.
She looked at the don-key. She just didn’t see how its hooves could do anything as intricate as unlocking a lock. The same went for the tur-key’s claws. The flun-key was a man, who might have the necessary dexterity, but he had no tools to work on that horrendous Lock Ness. In fact none of these creatures and things seemed like likely prospects.
Maybe she had not yet fathomed the proper pun. Which of these keys was punnishly designed to open such a lock? Not the don, tur, flun, mon, mur, or—what was that slinky spring that marched down the steps called? The question brought the answer: it was a slin-key. That was no good either.
Then another theatrical little thought percolated through her petite little perception. Slinky—that was the way the Yena would like to have his/her locks. All combed out and slinky smooth. And the slin-key was metal, showing that metal could be prettily flowing. So maybe it could lend its attributes to the metal lock mess—uh, ness—and make it similarly smooth.
She wasn’t at all sure that her reasoning was right, but since everything else seemed wrong, she gathered up her cornered little courage and made her move. She reached into the alcove and picked up the slin-key. It flexed iridescently in her hands but did not protest. She carried it to the Yena. “I think maybe this slin-key will smooth out your Lock Ness,” she said with an adorable little ad-lib.
The Yena swelled up hugely. “Oh you do, do you?” he inquired ominously. “Are you sure?” she added.
“I—I’m not s-sure,” she confessed in a dainty little dither. “But it s-seems the best chance.”
“Remember, I’ll chomp you if it doesn’t work.”
“Y-yes, I realize that,” she said, shaking. “But I must try it.”
“Well then, what’s keeping you?”
“N-n-nothing,” she said with a successful little stutter. She lifted the slin-key and put it to the Lock Ness.
The tangled cables twisted like snakes. They slithered around and through each other, forming a pattern like that of the slin-key. Then they flowed down and became slinky smooth, exactly as she had hoped. After that, all the other locks smoothed out similarly, making the fearsome Yena look positively handsome or beautiful, as the case might be. The entire hide glistened like polished water, showing her real little reflection.
Gloha almost went into a sweet little swoon.
“Well, you did it,” the Yena said, standing aside. “You may pass on to the next challenge.”
Gloha stiffened her nice little knees and prepared to walk on. “I’m just glad I got the right key.”
“Oh, there was no danger of getting the wrong one.”
“No danger? You mean you were only bluffing about chomping me?”
“No, I wasn’t bluffing about that But any of the keys would have worked.”
She was aghast. “Any? But then where’s the challenge?”
“It was a challenge of courage, just as the first was a challenge of nature. You rose to it, so you pass.”
“Courage? But I was terrified!”
“That’s the nature of courage: to do what you have to do, without yielding to fear. Every sensible person feels fear on occasion, but only cowards let it govern them.”
“I never realized!”
“Well, it wouldn’t have been as good a challenge if you had,” the Yena said sensibly.
“I wonder what the third challenge will test,” Gloha said musingly.
“Understanding, of course.” The Yena curled up and went into a snooze, his tail twitching contentedly across her fur.
Gloha walked down the passage. She hardly cared to admit it, but her understanding had already been strained to the limit of her broadened little brain. She wasn’t at all sure she could evoke any more understanding than she had already. But what was there to do but go on?
The passage was getting warmer. In fact it was getting hot. Gloha would have removed her bright little blouse, but that would have been unseemly. Certainly she couldn’t take off her snug little skirt. So she spread her wings a bit and waved them slightly, making a delicate little draft to cool herself. This was certainly a change from Fracto’s blizzard outside!
The heat increased. The floor got so hot that her sunny little sandals started smoking. She had to practically dance to stop her feet from getting burned inside them. Even so, she was soon surrounded by smoke.
Then she spied a water fountain by the side of the hall. She skipped to it and touched its magic button. A fortunate little fountain of chill water spouted, and she put her longing little lips to it and drank deeply. That cooled her, and the smoke dissipated. What a relief!
She proceeded on down the hall, no longer bothered by the heat. Now she didn’t have to jump and flap her wings to cool her feet, but she was so glad to be safely by that region that she jumped anyway, dancing along. This hall was large enough so that she could stay in the air longer than a regular jump, by flapping her wings. She couldn’t actually fly here, but at least it made walking fun. This was more like a frolic. All too soon she knew it would get serious, so she enjoyed herself while she had the chance.
The passage widened into another chamber. In the center was a small plant. She couldn’t make out its details, but appreciated its presence. Plants always improved places, especially if they had nice flowers.
She walked toward the plant. But something funny occurred. She seemed to be slowing, though she was walking at the same pace as before. She just was making slower progress.
Realizing that this could be a problem, she hurried. But though she ran, she still moved more slowly. She saw now that her lazy little limbs were not going at the rate she thought; she was running, but they were molasses slow. She jumped, and she rose slowly into the air, then slowly fell.
Something was definitely amiss! She felt fine, but she wasn’t getting anywhere. What could account for this?
What else but the challenge? It was upon her, and she had to figure it out. The Yena had said it would be a challenge of understanding. So she would have to understand.
She had a bright little bit of feminine intuition. She lifted her purse and let it go. It fell slowly toward the floor. So slowly it would take several times as long as it should to get there. She reached for it, but her hand moved almost as slowly as it did, making it hard to catch. Meanwhile she herself was still in the air from her slow jump.
She paused. She settled slowly to the floor and looked at the plant. Now she recognized it: thyme. The herb that affected time. That was why she was slowing: she was in its field of effect. She would have to figure out how to get around it.
That was indeed a challenge. She really did not know much about thyme, except that the closer a person got to it, the more powerful was its effect. So if its effect was to slow her down, she needed to get away from it, because by the time she reached it she would be moving at no speed at all.
But now she saw that there was no way out of the chamber except the passage on the far side—beyond the plant. She would not be able to reach that passage without going closer to the plant than she was now. That would take, literally, almost forever.
There was certainly plenty to understand! How could she pass a plant she couldn’t pass in her lifetime?
Well, the first thing she had to do was back off, so as to be able to operate at normal velocity. She was afraid she was even thinking slowly at the moment. In fact, it might be a longer moment than it seemed.
She backed away. Slowly her feet moved, and her body nudged backward like a small river barge. But as it moved, it gained speed, and soon she was back to normal.
She stopped at the edge of the chamber. She knew it was pointless to go back up the passage she had come down, because that didn’t lead to the Good Magician’s castle. She had to go forward—past the plant. Somehow.
There had to be a way. That faith had gotten her through the first two challenges. There must be something here that she just had to understand. As before.
She looked around. Now she spied seven glass cups on the floor at the edge of the chamber. Each was on its own built-in pedestal, or maybe it was just a two-way container, the same either way up, so that it looked like an hourglass. They seemed to contain assorted seeds. Each was labeled. One said SEC, and the next said MIN, and the next HR. Farther along one said DY, and another WK. Then MNTH, and finally YR. What could they be?
She started to reach into the first cup, to take up some of the seeds and see what kind they were. But she hesitated, because she didn’t yet understand the nature of either cups or seeds, and if understanding would enable her to get safely through, a lack of understanding might wash her out in a hurry. She should figure out the meanings of the labels before she took any action.
Another thought percolated through her meandering little mind. A thyme plant—hourglass cups—these must be the seeds of thyme! Of time. Some of them might enable her to pass the mother plant. If she just figured out the right ones, and how to use them.
Now the labels started making sense. SEC—that would stand for Second, the briefest measure of time. MIN would be Minute. And so on, through Hour, Day, Week, Month, and Year. The SEC seeds were tiny, while the others were respectively larger, until the Year seed was so big that just one of it filled the cup.
What would happen if she lifted out that huge Year seed? Since the thyme plant itself slowed her down, that would probably speed her up, and a year would pass in maybe an instant. That wouldn’t do her much good. But if she took a Second, that would hardly be worth it, because even an ordinary second passed pretty quickly. Which kind of seed could she use, and how could she use it?
She decided that if she took some seeds and walked toward the thyme plant, they should cancel out the slow effect, and enable her to maintain her speed. So she could get through on something like a normal schedule. If the seeds worked the way she was guessing they did.
She returned to the SEC glass and picked up one seed. The chamber blinked, and the seed was gone. What had happened?
She thought about it, and decided that the blink had been time jumping forward one second. She was now one second ahead of herself, as it were.
She tried her purse-dropping trick again. But this time as she let it go, she scooped several secs from the cup.
There was a triple blink, and suddenly the purse was on the floor, much faster than it should have been. Now she was sure: to touch a seed of thyme was to feel its effect, which was opposite to that of the thyme plant.
But how could she use any of these seeds? She needed to get them to the slow vicinity of the plant before touching them. She couldn’t keep dashing back to the cup for more.
“Silly me!” she exclaimed as a dim bulb flashed just over her honeyed little head. She picked up the SEC cup itself. Seconds were all she cared to use; they were more manageable, and she could use them in handfuls if she had to.
She carried the seconds glass as far as she could before the slowdown was bothersome. Then she picked out one sec. This time there was no blink; instead she speeded up for an instant. The seed had canceled out a moment of the thyme’s slowdown. It was working!
She moved ahead, dipping out more secs. Her progress was somewhat jerky, being either fast or slow, but that was to be expected. She had to use two seeds at a time as she got near the plant, and then three. When she was closest to it, she had a small handful of secs at a time. She didn’t want to use them all up before she completed her journey across the chamber! But once she was beyond it she was able to get by with fewer sees, and finally she made it to the far hall, and she still had some sees left That was a relief.
She set down the cup and started down the hall. She had made it through the third challenge!
But as she turned a corner, she came up to a broad desk set to block it. A woman sat behind the desk, writing on a pad of paper.
Gloha stopped, surprised. “Who are you?” she inquired.
“I am the SB,” the woman replied, pointing to a nameplate that said SB. “I’m here to handle the Sin Tax.”
“Syntax? you must be a writer.”
“Sin Tax,” the woman repeated. “S-I-N-T-A-X. You must pay. I am the Sin Bursar. It’s my business to see that you pay.”
“But I haven’t sinned!” Gloha protested innocently.
“You were smoking, drinking, gamboling, and having secs,” SB said evenly. “Those are all taxable.”
“Smoking? But my shoes were burning up! And it was just one drink of water I took to cool off. And then I was so happy to be cool again that I did dance a little, but I never thought—” She paused. “What was that last?”
“You had most of the seconds available. You used them up. Now you have to pay the tax.”
Gloha realized that she was stuck for it. Ignorance was no excuse, whether a person stuck her finger in a beehive or used the contents of a seed cup. “How do I pay the tax?”
SB toted up the total on her pad. “That’s four counts. You will have to perform four tasks. You will have to wash her, dry her, sock her, and box her.”
“Washer, dryer, soccer, and boxer?” Gloha repeated, baffled. “I don’t—” But she stopped herself before saying “understand.” After all, she had to understand, in order to get through this challenge, which she now realized wasn’t yet done. “Could you explain that a bit more?”
SB touched a button on her desk. A panel in the wall opened. Beyond it Gloha saw a strange yet rather nice creature. It had the head and front legs of a horse, and the hind section of a winged dragon. So it was a winged monster, and therefore a creature Gloha could relate to, as she was a winged monster herself.
“There is the Glyph. Clean her up and pack her for shipment,” SB said, and returned to her writing.
Gloha entered the Glyph’s pen. Now she saw that the poor creature was quite dirty. Her wing feathers were soiled, her fur was grimy, her scales did not glisten, and her hooves were caked with mud. The poor creature needed attention. Gloha would have been glad to help her even if it wasn’t to pay the Sin Tax.
There was a trough and bucket beside the stall, and brushes too. Gloha dipped the bucket full of water, and approached the Glyph. The creature shied nervously away from her. “Hey, take it easy, Glyph!” Gloha said soothingly. “You don’t have to be afraid of me. See, I’m a winged monster too.” She spread her wings and pumped them a couple of times.
The Glyph settled down. Gloha washed her, getting the fur and scales and hooves clean so that they glistened and shone as they should. Then she brushed off the wings so that the feathers turned light and bright. She fetched towels and dried her. But she wasn’t sure how to sock her. She wasn’t about to hit this nice creature.
Then she saw a plant with odd dangly foliage. It looked like a blanket bush, only smaller. She brought it to the Glyph, and the plant immediately reached around the Glyph’s feet and legs. Tendrils stretched material, in a moment and a half both legs had socks. The socks sank in, and seemed just like nice black fur decorating the legs from the knees down.
Now it was time to box her. Gloha saw wood panels to the side of the stall. She could use these to make a big enough box around the animal. She went to fetch the first panel. But as she put her hands on it, she paused. Something was nagging her.
She turned. The Glyph was looking at her. Their gazes met. She had reassured the animal, and now the Glyph trusted her. But Gloha didn’t trust the situation.
She left the panel and returned to the hall. “Why does she need to be boxed?” she demanded.
SB looked up from her writing pad. “It’s on the bill of lading. One boxed Glyph.”
“That’s not good enough. Why does she have to be boxed, when she’s tame? Why can’t she just be led to where she’s going? It’s cruel to put an animal in a box.”
SB checked her pad. “She’s going to be a sculpted figure on a fancy building. She has to be crated for shipping.”
“I don’t understand,” Gloha said, using the word she had tried to avoid. But she was upset. It was too late to take it back anyway.
“Why don’t you?”
“This Glyph is a fine sensitive animal. She’s been badly treated before; she should never have been left so dirty. Boxing her will be more bad treatment. I will never understand why that should be.”
“What never?” SB asked.
“What never?” SB repeated.
Gloha hesitated. She knew she was throwing away her chance to pass the third challenge and get in to see the Good Magician. But she liked the Glyph, and couldn’t bear to see the creature mistreated. Who wanted to be stuck on a building, anyway? “No, never,” she said in a tone that was neither cut nor little.
“Then you must share her fate,” SB said. “Go mount her.”
“You mean ride her? I’m sure she’s a fine steed. But what’s the point, if she’s not going anywhere?”
“Wherever she is going or not going, you will go or not go too. That’s the rule. I’m here to enforce the rule.”
A realistic little realization came to Gloha. “You’re doing your Service for the Good Magician!”
“Of course. That’s the rule.”
“What was your Question, if I may ask?”
“I asked him how I could be a writer. He said I should work on my syntax. Only it turned out to be the Sin Tax. I’m confined to this desk for this boring job. But I must say it concentrates the imagination beautifully. I have written several chapters of my novel between taxes.”
“So you’re getting to be a writer after all,” Gloha said. “While you’re doing your Service.”
“Yes. I think I’ll have a chapter about a crossbreed winged goblin girl and her friendship for a crossbreed winged animal. Do you think my readers will like that?”
“I hope so. It seems interesting to me.”
“Now go ride the Glyph.” It was evident that SB’s affability did not extend to neglecting her duty.
Gloha didn’t argue. She was satisfied to share the Glyph’s fate, if she couldn’t improve the animal’s lot. She went to the stall and climbed on the Glyph’s back, between the wings. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save you,” she said, patting the neck under the now-beautiful mane. “But I just couldn’t box you, no matter what.”
The ceiling disappeared. Open sky appeared. The Glyph spread her giant wings and launched into the air. She was through the hole in the roof and into the sky almost before Gloha knew it.
“But—but you’re free!” Gloha said, amazed.
The Glyph neighed happily. Gloha could have let go and flown herself, but preferred to stay with her new friend. Where were they going?
A castle came into sight below. The Glyph angled down toward it. There was a nice solid flat roof with a pile of hay on it. The Glyph landed on this.
“But where are we?” Gloha asked, not yet over her amazement.
“The Good Magician’s castle, of course,” a voice answered.
Gloha saw a pretty young woman standing by a stair leading up to the roof. “But I shouldn’t be here,” she protested. “I messed up on the third challenge.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” the woman said, coming forward. “I am Wira, the Good Magician’s daughter-in-law. I came here to lead you to him.”
“I’m Gloha,” Gloha said, disgruntled. “I—I told the SB woman I didn’t understand, and it was a challenge of understanding, so she said I would share the Glyph’s fate, and—” She broke off, realizing that something else was odd.
Wira was petting the Glyph. The Glyph was nuzzling her face. It was evident that the two knew each other. Wira brought out a sugar cube and the Glyph ate it. Then Wira petted the animal again and stepped away. “Come on in,” she said to Gloha.
“The challenge of understanding—it wasn’t about riddles or directions,” Gloha said. “It was about decency.”
The girl smiled. “Of course.”
Gloha joined her, and they walked to the stairs. The Glyph began eating the hay, contentedly.
Copyright © 1994 by Piers Anthony