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Chapter 1. Ivy League
Irene held her little girl snugly before her as they rode the centaur. They were approaching Castle Zombie, and she didn’t want any problems about sliding off. Ivy, only three years old, had not encountered a zombie before and might react in an unfortunate manner.
Suddenly Irene experienced a terrible vision. She screamed and almost fell off the centaur herself.
Chem Centaur spun her front section about, trying to catch woman and child before they fell. Simultaneously, Chet jumped close, reaching out to steady them. “What happened?” he asked, his free hand reaching for the bow slung over his shoulder. “I didn’t see anything.”
“You didn’t; I did,” Irene told the centaur, recovering. They had been friends for a long time. “A vision. It appalled me.”
King Dor, riding Chet, glanced obliquely at Irene. He evidently did not know how serious this might be, so he limited his comment to practicalities. “Let’s get on inside the castle. Then you can tell us about it.” He didn’t say so, but he might have been nervous about having his daughter riding with a person who screamed without apparent reason, for he reached across and lifted Ivy from Irene’s arms. Irene stifled a flash of anger and embarrassment, but did not resist the transfer. She could hardly explain her reaction herself.
They rode on in slightly awkward silence, the two centaurs choosing the path. Irene glanced at her husband and child. Dor had been young and gangling when she had arranged to become engaged to him, and still somewhat unprepossessing when she had finally managed to marry him five years ago, even though he was a full Magician. She remembered their nuptials with a certain fondness; they had been in the zombie graveyard at Castle Roogna. Most of those zombies were gone now, having perished at the brutal hands of the invading Mundanes. It was difficult for a zombie to die, since it wasn’t really alive, but it could be hacked to pieces. However, the newer zombies here at the Zombie Master’s own castle in the uncharted wilderness of southern Xanth had not been subjected to such indignity.
She closed off that subject in her mind, as she was not partial to zombies, useful and loyal though they might be. She returned her thought to Dor. The assumption of the throne of Xanth had abruptly matured him, at least in her eyes, and the arrival of their darling child two years later had matured him again. Now, at age twenty-nine, Dor seemed quite solid and respectable. In a few more years he might even look kingly!
Ivy, in contrast, was a bundle of squiggle. She was large and agile for her age, with fair hair that bore just a tinge of green and eyes with more than that. She was insatiably curious about the whole of Xanth. That was natural with any child, of course; Irene’s parents, who had ruled Xanth before Dor, had remarked on her own propensities for mischief at an early age. Irene’s magic talent was for growing plants, which was probably why her own hair was green, and it seemed that talent had manifested early. Before she had learned to talk, she had caused all manner of weeds to sprout around Castle Roogna. Blue roses were all right, but skunk cabbages were awkward, particularly when they got upset.
Ivy’s talent, though, was of a different nature. They had had to readjust palace life when she was around, because—
“Halsh!” It was a zombie centaur guarding the approach to the castle of the Zombie Master. Zombies came in all varieties; most were—or had once been—human, but some were animal or crossbreed. The Zombie Master could reanimate any dead creature, giving it perpetual half-life. This one’s hide was mottled with mold and its face was rotting out, but otherwise it was in fair condition.
“We are here for the twins’ debut,” King Dor said, just as if he were addressing a living creature. “Please let us pass.”
“Ssurre,” the zombie said. Evidently it had been told to be accommodating for this very special occasion. Zombies had rotten brains, but could comprehend and remember simple instructions.
They moved on toward the castle. It was a truly grotesque specimen of its kind. It had a moat filled in with thick, greenish sludge, populated by corrupt monsters. Its stones were degenerating slimestone. It looked centuries old, though it had been built less than a decade ago. That was the way the zombies liked it. They had made it, and their ichor stained every surface.
The Zombie Master’s twin children were alert. Both hurried out to meet the incoming party. They were just sixteen, lanky and fair-haired, about the same height and almost identical from a distance. But as they approached, their distinctions manifested. Hiatus was male, with developing shoulders and the first traces of a beard; Lacuna was female, her hair framing a rounder face and her clothing arranged to set off contours that were evidently not entirely to her satisfaction. Irene smiled to herself; some girls filled out early, as she herself had done, while others were late. Lacuna would get there in due course.
“Welcome to Castle Zombie, your Majesties,” Hiatus said formally. The two were on their good behavior; no mischievous magic occurred.
“Good to be here,” Dor responded. The truth was, the King had come on business; the twins’ debut was merely a pretext so that citizens of Xanth would not be concerned that something was wrong. For something was indeed wrong, and this was to be a significant meeting. It was perhaps the first genuine crisis since Dor had assumed the throne on a regular basis, and Irene worried that he might mishandle it. Her father, King Trent, had been fully competent to deal with anything—but Trent had retired and moved to the North Village so as not to interfere with the policies of his successor. Irene would have preferred to have her father closer by, just in case. She loved Dor, and always had, especially when she was furious with him, but knew he was not the man her father was. Of course, she never displayed that sentiment in public; her mother Iris had long since impressed on her that it was not politic to be too open about the inadequacies of men, particularly husbands, especially those who also happened to be kings. It was better to run things behind the scenes, the old-fashioned way. That was where the real power was.
“We cleaned up the zombies for you,” Lacuna said shyly.
Irene glanced at the zombie centaur, which had followed after them as a kind of honor guard. Gobbets of decayed flesh fell from its body as it moved and plopped sickeningly to the ground. But the creature had a bright red ribbon in its tail. “We can see that,” she said diplomatically. “That was very nice of you.” Zombies did take some getting used to, but they were, in their putrescent fashion, decent folk. It was hardly their fault that they had died and been reanimated as walking dead.
They crossed the moat, using the warped wooden drawbridge. Irene couldn’t help glancing down into the green fluid coated by slime and wrinkling her nose against the terrible smell. No enemy in his right mind would storm this sewer!
A zombie water monster lifted its largely defunct head, but did not bother them; it was used to the frequent passages of the lively twins. Such a creature would not be very good for real defense because it had lost most of its teeth, but naturally it would not be polite for a visitor to remark on that. Zombie monsters, like husbands, required careful management.
The interior of the castle was quite different, for this was where Millie the Ghost held sway. The stone floor was clean, and pleasant draperies covered the walls. The zombie centaur did not go inside, and no other zombies were in evidence.
Millie stepped forward to welcome them. She was dressed in a soft pink gown that fitted her very well. She had been in her teens for eight hundred years, as a ghost in Castle Roogna, but since then had had another twenty-nine years of real life, just about tripling her mortal age. She had been an amazingly supple creature, as Irene well remembered, and Irene had always been secretly jealous of that. But now Millie was plumping out in the manner of a pampered housewife.
She still had her magic talent, though; Irene could tell by the way Dor reacted. She felt a stronger tinge of jealousy. Millie had been Dor’s first love, in a fashion, for she had been his governess while his parents were away for extended periods. But Millie affected every man that way—and Millie’s own love was only for her husband the Zombie Master. So Irene’s jealousy was mainly a perfunctory thing, and she controlled it rigorously. She had come to know Millie better in adult life, and liked her personally. Millie was really very sweet and permanently innocent. How she managed to be so after bearing and raising two children was a minor mystery, and Irene was also a bit jealous of that.
There was a small commotion outside, and the twins dashed out to get in on the action. In a moment they escorted Arnolde Centaur to the interior. Arnolde, no zombie, was much older than Chet and Chem and showed it; he walked with a certain stiffness and wore spectacles, and parts of his hide were turning gray. He was a Magician, which magic had gotten him banished from his original home on Centaur Isle, but his talent did not manifest in Xanth itself. He was also highly educated and intelligent, and this did manifest. He had, briefly, been King of Xanth during the Nextwave crisis, and it was generally conceded that his special insights into the situation had been the critical factor in turning the course of the war to Xanth’s favor. Irene liked Arnolde; because of him, she herself had been, even more briefly, King of Xanth.
Irene smiled to herself. Xanth custom prohibited any reigning Queen, but did not specifically bar a female King. That had been part of Arnolde’s insight, bless him.