Authors: Piers Anthony
Bink was a standing target as the dragon opened its gullet to spew fire at him—but the diving griffin crashed into the dragon’s snout as the flame emerged. The snout met the ground, and the dragon’s head was bathed in the back-blast.
The griffin snatched Bink up, and with Chester galloping below them, they made for the refuge of a wide crevice in the ground—but the dragon followed.
Suddenly the centaur skidded to a halt.
“Don’t stop!” Bink cried. “The monster’s right behind us!”
“Some escape route,” Chester said bitterly. “We’d better turn and fight the dragon.”
Then Bink saw with a rush of horror what had stopped Chester …
A Del Rey
Published by The Random House Publishing Group
Copyright © 1979 by Piers Anthony Jacob
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Del Rey Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Del Rey is a registered trademark and the Del Rey colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 78-61817
he magic-sniffer ambled toward Bink, its long limber snout snuffling industriously. When the creature reached him it went into a frenzy of enthusiasm, snorting out flutelike notes, wagging its bushy tail, and prancing in a circle.
“Sure, I like you too, Sniffer!” Bink said, squatting to embrace it. The creature’s snout kissed his nose wetly. “You were one of the first to believe in my magic, when—”
Bink paused, for the creature was acting strangely. It had stopped frisking and become subdued, almost frightened. “What’s the matter, little friend?” Bink asked, concerned. “Did I say something to hurt your feelings? I apologize!”
But the sniffer curled its tail between its legs and slunk away. Bink stared after it, chagrined. It was almost as if the magic had been turned off, causing the thing to lose its function. But Bink’s talent, like all others, was inherent; it could not dissipate while he lived. Something else must have frightened the sniffer.
Bink looked about, feeling uneasy. To the east was the Castle Roogna orchard, whose trees bore all manner of exotic fruit, vegetables, and sundry artifacts like cherry bombs and doorknobs. To the south was the untamed wilderness of Xanth. Bink remembered how that jungle had herded him and his companions here, seeming so menacing, way back when. Today the trees were basically friendly; they had only wanted a Magician to stay and make Castle Roogna great again. King Trent had done that. Now the considerable power of this region
exerted itself for the benefit of the kingdom. Everything seemed to be in order.
Well, on with his business. There was to be a ball tonight, and his shoes were badly worn. He proceeded to the edge of the orchard where a stray shoe-tree had rooted. Shoes liked to move about, and often planted themselves in out-of-the-way places.
This one had several ripe shoes. Bink inspected individual ones without plucking them, until he was sure he had found a pair that fit him. Then he twisted them off, shook out the seeds, and put them carefully on his feet. They were quite comfortable, and looked nice because they were fresh.
He started back, walking with exaggerated motion to break in the shoes without scuffing them, his mind still nagged by the episode with the magic-sniffer. Was it an omen? Omens always came true, here in the Land of Xanth, but it was seldom possible to understand them properly until too late. Was something bad going to happen to him? That really seemed unlikely; Bink knew it was no exaggeration to assume that serious evil would have to fall on all Xanth before Bink himself was harmed. So it must be a misreading. The magic-sniffer had merely suffered a fit of indigestion, and had to scoot off.
Soon Bink was within sight of his home. It was a fine cottage cheese just off the palace grounds, which he had moved into when he married. The rind had long since hardened and lost the better part of its flavor, and the walls were fine-grained creamy-yellow petrified cheese. It was one of the most tasteful cottages extant, but since he hadn’t hollowed it out himself he didn’t see fit to brag about it.
Bink took a deep breath, nerved himself, and opened the front rind-door. A sweetish waft of seasoned cheese blew out, together with a raucous screech.
“That you, Bink? About time! Where did you sneak off to, right when there’s work to be done? You have no consideration at all, do you!”
“I needed shoes,” he said shortly.
“Shoes!” she exclaimed incredulously. “You
His wife was much smarter than he, at the moment, for Chameleon’s intelligence varied with the time of the month, as did her appearance. When she was beautiful, she was stupid—in the extreme, for both. When she was smart, she was ugly. Very smart and very ugly. At the moment she was at the height of the latter phase. This was one reason she was keeping herself secluded, virtually locked in her room.
“I need good-looking ones, tonight,” he said, mustering patience. But even as the words were out he realized he had phrased it badly; any reference to good looks set her off.
“The hell you do, dunce!”
He wished she wouldn’t keep rubbing in his inferior intelligence. Ordinarily she was smart enough not to do that. Bink knew he was no genius, but he wasn’t subnormal either;
was the one who was both. “I have to attend the Anniversary Ball,” he explained, though of course she already knew that. “It would be an insult to the Queen if I attended sloppily dressed.”
“Dolt!” she screamed from her hideaway. “You’re attending in costume! No one will see your stinking shoes!”
Oops, that was right. He had made his trip for nothing.
“But that’s all too typical of your selfishness,” she continued with righteous ire. “Bugging off to the party to have a good time while I suffer home alone, chewing on the walls.” That was literal; the cheese was old and hard, but she gnawed on it when she got angry, and she was angry most of the time now.
Still, he tried to be positive. He had only been married a year, and he loved Chameleon. He had known at the outset that there would be good times and bad times, and this was a bad time. A very bad time. “Why don’t you come to the ball too, dear?”
She exploded with cynical wrath. “Me? When I’m like this? Spare me your feebleminded sarcasm!”
“But as you reminded me, it’s a costume party. The Queen is cloaking every attendee in a disguise of her choosing. So no one will see—”
“You utter moronic nincompoop!” she bawled through the wall, and he had heard something crash. Now she was
throwing things, in a genuine temper tantrum. “How can I go to a party in
guise—when I’m nine months pregnant?”
And that was what was really bothering her. Not her normal smart-ugly phase, that she had lived with all her life, but the enormous discomfort and restriction of her pregnancy. Bink had precipitated that condition during her lovely-stupid phase, only to learn when she got smarter that she had not wanted such a commitment at this time. She feared her baby would be like her—or like him. She had wanted to find some spell to ensure that the child would be positively talented, or at least normal, and now it was up to blind chance. She had accepted the situation with extremely poor grace, and had not forgiven him. The smarter she got, and the more pregnant she got, the more intense her ire became.
Well, soon she would be over the hump, and getting prettier—just in time for the baby. It was due in a week or so. Maybe the baby would be normal, perhaps even strongly talented, and Chameleon’s fears would be laid to rest. Then she would stop taking it out on him.
If, however, the baby were abnormal … but best not even think of that. “Sorry, I forgot,” he mumbled.
” The irony in her tone cut through his sensitivities like a magic sword through the cheese of the cottage. “Imbecile! You’d like to forget, wouldn’t you! Why didn’t you think of that last year when you—”
“I have to go, Chameleon,” he muttered, hastily retreating out the door. “The Queen gets upset when people are tardy.” In fact it seemed to be the nature of women to get upset at men, and to throw tantrums. That was one of the things that distinguished them from nymphs, who looked like women but were always amenable to the idle whims of men. He supposed he should count himself lucky that his wife did not have a dangerous talent, like setting fire to people or generating thunderstorms.
“Why does the Queen have to throw her ridiculous pointless dull party now?” Chameleon demanded. “Right when she
I can’t attend?”
Ah, the logic of women! Why bother to try to understand it.
All the intelligence in the Land of Xanth could not make sense of the senseless. Bink closed the door behind him.
Actually, Chameleon’s question had been rhetorical. They both knew the answer. Queen Iris took every opportunity to flaunt her status, and this was the first anniversary of that status. Theoretically the ball was in honor of the King, but actually King Trent cared little for theatrics and would probably skip the festivities. The party was really for the Queen—and though she could not compel the King to attend, woe betide the lesser functionary who played hooky tonight! Bink was such a functionary.
And why was this so? he asked himself as he trod glumly on. He was supposed to be an important person, the Royal Researcher of Xanth, whose duty it was to probe the mysteries of magic and report directly to the King. But with Chameleon’s pregnancy, and the necessary organization of his homestead, Bink had not gotten around to any real research. For that he had only himself to blame, really. He should indeed have considered the consequence of impregnating his wife. At the time, fatherhood had been the last thing on his mind. But Chameleon-lovely was a figure to cloud man’s mind and excite his—never mind!
Ah, nostalgia! Back when love was new, carefree, uncomplicated, without responsibility! Chameleon-lovely was very like a nymph—
No, that was a false feeling. His life before he met Chameleon had not been all that simple, and he had encountered her three times before he recognized her. He had feared he had no magic talent—