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By Piers Anthony
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1988 Piers Anthony Jacob
All rights reserved.
Dolph made himself comfortable on Ivy's bed and watched the Tapestry. The things its moving pictures showed were always so much more interesting than his dull life at Castle Roogna! Ivy was off at a tutoring session with Chem Centaur, so he had the Tapestry all to himself. That was best, because big sisters were a pain in the tail.
With that thought, he changed form, becoming the wolfen aspect of a werewolf. He curled around, with his four legs tucked under him and his tail just touching his black nose. Animals generally had better bodies than human folk, being both fiercer and more relaxed. Of course he couldn't see the Tapestry as well, because his eyes could not focus sharply, but that hardly mattered because he had seen just about everything before. Everything interesting, anyway: the big battle scenes, the horrendous magical events, and the strange monsters. After the first couple of times it wasn't much fun watching an ogre squeeze the juice from a boulder or twist a tree into a pretzel, or seeing yet another herd of centaurs playing people-shoes. But here and there a mystery remained, and that could be moderately intriguing.
For example, there was the question of what had happened to Grandma Iris' talent She was a Sorceress of Illusion, who could on her better days make anything seem like anything else, and sound and smell and feel like it too, so that it was almost impossible to tell what was what. That could be a lot of fun! But in the last month she had lost a significant part of it — the visual aspect, as she put it — so that while she could still make something sound like something it wasn't, she could no longer make it look that way. Grandma Iris was old, of course, but Dolph could understand how such a thing could be bothersome even so. Where had her Illusion gone? He had used the Tapestry to look for the missing talent but had been unable to find it.
Then there was the matter of the roses. They grew in a special courtyard, a gift to his father King Dor. five bright colors of them, signifying indifference, friendship, romance, love, and death. One person stood in the center, surrounded by the bushes, and another plucked a rose, only of the color that signified his or her attitude toward the other. The wrong color brought a terrible scratch from the thorns. Dolph understood that much; the mystery was why anyone bothered. Young men and young women came all the time to pick roses for each other — to prove their love, they said. What was the point? What, for that matter, was love? All Dolph knew was that it related in some devious way to the secret of summoning the stork so that it would bring a baby. He had tried to trace the storks with the Tapestry, but though he had spotted them carrying babies, he had never managed to discover how anyone signaled the stork in the first place. What was the big secret?
This time he tuned the Tapestry in on the major mystery of all time: the disappearance of Good Magician Humfrey. This had been discovered when Esk Ogre, Chex Centaur, and Volney Vole came together to ask Questions, and had discovered the castle empty. They had looked at the Book of Answers, but it turned out to be too technical for any normal person to understand; only the Good Magician could interpret it, and he was gone. After that, King Dor had gone and taken the Book and locked it up, so that it could come to no mischief while the Good Magician was absent. Everyone had tried to find the Magician, but no one had succeeded. So for the past three years, the mystery had prevailed. It seemed that no one but the Good Magician could solve the question of his disappearance with his family. Meanwhile, there were no Answers to be had, and that was a great frustration to many people and creatures of Xanth.
Dolph worried the riddle back and forth, like the wolf cub he was at the moment. Where could the Good Magician have gone so abruptly, leaving behind his castle and everything in it? It seemed to have happened just before the trio came, because challenges had been set up for each of them. Normally there were three barriers opposing the entry of anyone who came to ask a Question, and only those who won through could have the privilege of giving up a year's service to the Good Magician for the Answer. His reputation was notorious. Once the Gorgon had come to ask the Magician if he would marry her, and he had made her serve a year before Answering. Once Smash Ogre had come, but had forgotten his Question; the Magician made him serve as a guardian to another querent, Tandy Nymph, anyway. In due course the two of them fell in love and got married, and it seemed that was sufficient Answer for each. They were Esk's parents. The Magician had lucked out again.
Now there were no barriers, no challenges, and the castle was deserted. Everybody agreed that the Good Magician had to be found, but nobody knew how to do that. Any number of adventurers had set out to locate him, and some of them had gotten lost themselves. It was a bad situation.
Wouldn't it be great if a mere nine-year-old boy solved the riddle of the age? What fun, to make all the adults look stupid!
Dolph concentrated on the Tapestry. He could tune it in to any time and any place just by thinking what he wanted. Most folk couldn't affect the pictures one way or the other, but he and Ivy were Magicians (well, she was actually a Sorceress, which was vaguely inferior) and it obeyed them with alacrity. He tuned it in to the day before Esk's arrival. If he could spot the Good Magician actually leaving —
After some joggling around, he found the Good Magician's castle on the last day of the Magician's presence. There was Humfrey in his study, looking about a century old (which he was) poring over his tome. Once he had overdosed on Fountain of Youth elixir and become a young child; Dolph had laughed at that, seeing it in the Tapestry. But then he had found out how to revert to his regular age, and that wasn't much fun to watch. There was the Gorgon downstairs making gorgon-zola cheese by staring at milk through her veil. There was their son Hugo, about fifteen or sixteen years old, supervising the placement of a cage of dragons on the bridge over the moat: one of the challenges for the approaching querents. Everything seemed quite in order.
Dolph moved it forward, orienting on the precise time of departure. Was he the first to use the Tapestry this way? Surely his father had thought to do this! Yet maybe not, because the mystery had never been unriddled. Adults were sort of stupid, as a class. That was why they needed Answers. Maybe that was why they so rigorously guarded the secret of summoning the stork: otherwise the children would do that better, too.
Abruptly the image disappeared. Had something gone wrong with the Tapestry? Ivy would murder him if that were the case! Hastily Dolph backed it up — and the image returned. It wasn't the Tapestry, it was something in it that blocked out the pictures.
He played it forward slowly, checking simultaneously on Humfrey, the Gorgon, and Hugo. It was possible to do that, because the Tapestry had many pictures going at once; it would not tune in on different times or places simultaneously, but it would show several scenes relating to a single place and time. This was the group of the castle, its various rooms open like those of a doll house. Humfrey was still poring over his tome — he never seemed to leave it! — while the Gorgon was making up a petrified cheese salad in the kitchen, and Hugo was conjuring assorted fruits in his bedroom. That was his talent, but he wasn't very good at it; the fruits tended to be misshapen and oddly colored. Meanwhile, an elf was setting up some kind of device in a workroom, evidently on Humfrey's orders. There were usually assorted creatures around the premises, working off their years of service for their Answers, so that Humfrey had never lacked for assistants.
But something went wrong with the elf's project. Smoke started pouring from it. The elf retreated, coughing. The smoke expanded, filling the chamber. Now the Gorgon perked up, sniffing; she cried out to Humfrey (the Tapestry conveyed no sound, but Dolph could see her chest inflate, her mouth open, and he saw the reactions of the others as they heard), who roused himself reluctantly from his tome and trundled downstairs. Hugo also came down, carrying a blue-speckled bunch of bananas he had just conjured. They converged on the smoke.
But the smoke did not wait for them. It doubled its effort and quickly filled several chambers. The elf gesticulated, explaining, but the smoke was hot on his trail. More than that: it was circling around them, forming an enclosure so that they could not escape it. Dolph realized that it was no ordinary vapor; it was holy smoke! There was no telling what a big cloud of that would do.
Magician Humfrey looked annoyed. He gestured, and the four of them hurried to one more chamber. The smoke roiled up avidly, pursuing them. The stuff was out of control! As they squeezed through the door, so did it, closing in. In a moment the chamber was filled, and the picture of that region blotted out.
This time Dolph played it on through. In a few minutes the smoke thinned and dissipated. But Humfrey, Gorgon, and Hugo were gone. Only the elf remained, plainly distressed. He had evidently lost track of the others in the smoke and did not know where they were.
When they did not reappear, the elf proceeded to shut down the castle, perhaps operating on standard emergency instructions. He opened the cage and released the dragons at the moat, who took off down the enchanted path with all the speed they could muster. That was a blunder, Dolph knew that dragons weren't supposed to be on that path. When things were wrapped up, the elf departed himself; apparently his own tour of duty was done now.
That was it, until the three querents arrived the next day. The Magician and his family had simply gone up in smoke! Holy smoke!
Dolph played it back to the smoke, trying to find some angle that would penetrate the obscurity at the key moment. Now he understood why the adults had not solved the mystery through the Tapestry; the smoke had stopped them. But if his sharp eyes managed to see what theirs could not —
Dolph changed to griffin form. As a griffin he had excellent vision. Now —
"What are you doing in my room!?" Ivy demanded, bursting in upon him. "You brat of a brother — you aren't supposed to be in here!!" Half her anger was real, half pretense; he could tell by the doubled punctuation.
Dolph reverted to human form. What a stew of a picklement he was in now! He had gotten so absorbed that he never heard her returning. "I was just watching the Tapestry! If you'd let it hang in my room for a while —"
"Never!!" she exclaimed. She was fourteen, and at the very total height of her bossiness; Dolph knew that nothing, repeat NOTHING, was worse than a big sister that age. Her talent was Enhancing, and it certainly enhanced her nature. It was futile even to attempt to reason with a creature like that.
Therefore he didn't try. He changed into a giant poisonous spider and stood over her, mandibles dripping.
Ivy screamed and retreated. "What utter ick!!" she cried in simulated horror. "He's finally reverted to his true form!! I always knew he was creepy!!"
Somehow he was still getting the worst of this! She always managed to do it to him. He reverted to boy form. "You think you're so smart! I'm going to do something to make you look like harpy guano!" He tried, but he just couldn't manage doubled exclamation points, unfortunately.
"Yeah? What, you little twerp!?"
"I'm going to go find the Good Magician and rescue him!"
She did not retort. She was too sneaky for that. She simply burst out laughing. She fell on her bed, supposedly overcome by the mirth — and abruptly sobered. "There's werewolf hair on my bed!!" she exclaimed, outraged. Her moods could shift from horror to sardonic mirth to outrage with incredible velocity.
Dolph realized that there was valor in judicious retreat. He changed into a mouse and scurried out, leaving the screams of sisterly ire behind.
But the notion of searching out the Good Magician would not leave him. He had said it in the spirit of a dare, to daunt his imperious sister, but now he could not retreat from it without getting horribly razzed. Besides that, he was fed up with being the younger sibling, and wanted to get out to make his own mark. Why not seek Good Magician Humfrey? He was as well equipped to search as anyone; he was young, but he was a full Magician. If anything threatened him, he could change into something to stop it in its tracks.
So he decided: he would do it. He would go to the Good Magician's castle and see whether there was not some hint in that chamber that would show him where the Magician had gone. Then he could follow.
There was, however, one small problem: his parents. They thought he was too young. Their answer to anything ambitious was always that. While this was merely another proof of the opacity of adults, it did need to be handled. After all, his father was King of Xanth, so could not be completely ignored.
"Perhaps in a few years," King Dor suggested diplomatically. He was always the more liberal of the two, but that counted for little in the face of Queen Irene's certainty.
"But the Good Magician needs to be found now!" Dolph exclaimed. "Everyone knows that!"
"I don't," his chair said.
"Shut up, wood-brain!" Dolph hissed.
"Don't call me names, smart-bottom!" the chair retorted, louder. "I'll run a splinter into you."
Dolph decided not to argue further. His father's talent was conversation with the inanimate, and the inanimate wasn't very smart. In King Dor's presence anything was apt to talk, even when not asked.
King Dor exchanged a glance with Queen Irene. Dolph knew that meant trouble. They were looking for some way to keep him home without hurting his feelings. Parents were experts at stifling adventure without seeming unreasonable.
"Perhaps if you had a suitable adult companion," Irene said. She was actually just as bossy as Ivy, but she masked it expertly. Her suggestions, however mildly phrased, had the force of law.
Ouch! That was worse than a splinter! An adult companion would ruin everything. Especially the kind his mother would favor: a centaur. Centaurs were entirely too disciplined and reasonable, and they always wanted to educate children. Dolph had had more than enough tutoring for a lifetime.
Still, his mother had spoken. She knew he didn't want a companion, certainly not an adult. She figured that would turn him off the Quest. But perhaps he could get around her by getting a companion who wouldn't be too obnoxious. It could be a real art — getting around parents — but it was possible if one truly put his mind to it.
"All right," he said. "But I get to choose him."
King Dor kept a straight face, which meant he was trying not to smile. That was a good sign. They both knew that Queen Irene would want a female centaur; if Dolph got this past her, he would win half the battle at the outset.
"Very well," she said after a significant pause. "But we must approve him."
Um. That could be a devastating qualification. She would not approve anyone he really liked, only someone she liked. How could he get around that?
Dolph had a quick, juvenile mind. In only three seconds he had figured out a way. "Done," he said. "I'll make my choice tomorrow."
"Certainly," Queen Irene agreed with one of her smooth masked smiles. She thought she had him.
"This'll be fun, twerp," the chair remarked insolently.
King Dor said nothing. He knew better than to get in the way of a contest of wills like this. That was why he was King.
Back in his room, Dolph pondered names. His strategy was simple: he would make a series of suggestions so awful that his mother would reject them with queenly outrage. She was good at that. Then he would slip in the one he wanted, and it would seem so sensible by comparison that she would agree before she really thought about it. She might regret it later, but she would be committed. A Queen never went back on her word; it looked bad, and she was very conscious of her appearance.
The one he had in mind was Grundy Golem. Grundy was an obnoxious, loudmouthed little creature, fashioned from wood and string and rag and later made real by the Demon X(A/N)th. He had an insult for every occasion. Therefore he could be a lot of fun. He also spoke every language that existed, both animal and plant, and that could be handy on a trip into the wilds of Xanth. He was married to Rapunzel, who was a sickeningly nice little woman at all times except when she got a snarl in her hair. That was because her hair was endlessly long. Then she could speak almost as interestingly as Grundy as she fought with the tangle. Grundy was devoted to her, but he liked adventure too, so would probably agree to travel with Dolph.
Excerpted from Heaven Cent by Piers Anthony. Copyright © 1988 Piers Anthony Jacob. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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