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Lydell spied the rest stop along the enchanted path that led near the Good Magician's Castle. There was a man with a band saw working nearby, clearing more of the area; the saw was playing lively music while it cut the wood. Dell was relieved; it had been a long walk and he was tired. He hurried to the shelter, ready to collapse on a bed of hay.
"Well hello, lad," a woman's voice said.
He stopped, startled. "Uh, I thought it was empty. I didn't mean to barge in on you."
"Oh, come on in," she said. "I'm glad to have the company. I hate eating alone. I'm Grania, Nia for short."
Now he saw that she was an older woman, heavyset with dark brown hair and eyes. "I'm Lydell, Dell for short. I'm — I'm coming to see the Good Magician, if I can get in."
"Past the three challenges," she agreed. "Have some apple pie; I harvested it hardly half an hour ago. It's still warm." She handed him a slice.
"Oh, thanks. But is there enough left for you?"
"If I get hungry, I'll go pick another one. Sit down. Eat."
He sat down and ate. It was a small thing, but he appreciated not having to forage for himself this late in the day. He didn't have much judgment about pies, and often got poor ones. This one was excellent. "Uh, are you traveling the opposite way?"
"Yes, but I'm heading for the same place, the Good Magician. I don't need to bore you with the dull details."
He smiled. "I'm boring. I like dull details." He took another bite of pie.
She eyed him cannily. "And you don't have to carry the conversation when your mouth's full and the other person's talking." She laughed as he cringed, embarrassed. "Dell, I'm a grandmother. I saw my son your age, and then my grandson. I know how it is. You're shy."
"Sort of," he agreed, his awkwardness easing in the face of her understanding.
"It will pass. Let's compare talents, since those largely define folk. Mine is making two spots on the wall, sort of like eyes." She focused, and two glowing eyes appeared on the wall behind her. "It's not much but it's what I have."
"Mine is changing the color, texture, or taste of things." He focused, and the pupils of the eyes became bright blue.
"Wonderful!" she said.
"Well, it's not much either. I can't make things, just change some of their qualities, and it doesn't last longer than until I change something else."
"It will do. Well, now that we know each other, you may hearken to the dullness of my life, so you know it is safe to share the dullness of yours." She handed him another slice of pie, as he had just finished the first.
"Uh, thanks again."
"I wasn't always dull. We lived near Electri City, where the folk are full of energy and grow power plants for a living. I was the prettiest girl in my village, so naturally I married the handsomest lout, who was eager to summon the storks, who soon got the messages, and we had three goodlooking children. I was satisfied with that number, and saw no reason to signal any more storks." She grimaced. "Bad mistake. It turned out that he liked signaling for its own sake, even when the storks no longer paid attention. Who would have guessed? So when I balked, he got a mistress. Then I had the housework, and the children, and the dull neighbors; he had her. I suspect he had the better bargain. Our marriage had become a shell, worse inside than outside. Now I'm wise too late; I'd have been better off to humor him so he wouldn't stray. And now he's dead, maybe from overexertion with her, and our children and grandchildren have families of their own. They have no use for me; I rubbed too many the wrong way by not respecting their outlooks. So I want to do something to redeem my largely wasted prior effort, something worthwhile, for the rest of my life. Maybe find a project some good people are doing that I can contribute to, to help make it a success. That's what brings me to see the Good Magician. I'm sure he'll have an answer for me, if I can make it through the challenges and get to see him. Of course there's the year's service or equivalent he requires for an answer, but that will be worth it if my life has meaning."
"Yeah," he agreed, chewing on the second slice.
"So what do you want, Dell? Something similar?"
"Yes. I'm not handsome, or smart, or bold. I'm just pretty much nothing. Nobody notices me, and that's okay because I'm hardly worth noticing. I've had a lot of time to myself, and gotten fairly practical with ordinary things, like stones, materials, and stray pieces of wood, practicing my talent on them, making them look and feel different. But what's the point? Nobody cares. I've had time to figure out obscure magic effects that work in both Xanth and Mundania, like perspective and equal and opposite reaction, but nobody's interested. I'd like to find a decent life, doing some decent thing, preferably with a pretty girl in it with me. One who actually finds me interesting." He felt himself blushing, because he had never expressed that ambition openly before. There was something about her that evoked his naked feeling.
She caught that. "And you feel you don't deserve that much." "Yes," he confessed.
"Let me tell you something about pretty girls," she said. "Because I was one, and I remember. They may look good on the outside, but not so much on the inside, like my marriage. I don't mean they're bad-hearted, but they may be sort of empty, as I was. As a girl I would not have cared about your talent or your thoughts, but now that I'm old and experienced, I do. I can see that you do have things to recommend you. The best girl for you may be one who looks better inside than outside."
"You mean naked?"
Nia laughed. "No. Naked is still the outside. I mean in the mind, the heart. External beauty fades in time — don't I know it! — but internal beauty lasts for life. Looks are important, because they're the first thing you see, but they certainly aren't everything." She smiled reminiscently. "There are exceptions. I once knew a hand kerchief. He was the chief of people who looked like hands made of silk or cotton. He was a decent chap, but his look was simply too far out for me."
"But if all I can see is the — the outside — how else can I judge?"
"Well, you have to take a bit of time to get to know her. That's something that does not come readily to the young, but it's smart to learn. Then ask yourself if you would still like her if she were not pretty. Be guided by that." "Are you sure?" he asked uncertainly. "I really like pretty girls, at least to look at from a distance."
"If I got too close, they would flash their panties at me, and when I came to, they would be gone."
"You freaked out!"
"Yes. I can't help it. Panties freak me out."
"You're a young man. Even older men can freak out. It's the special magic of panties. It protects girls from molestation."
"Yes. So I've never gotten really close to a pretty girl."
"This about that: my husband's mistress wasn't nearly as pretty as I was. But she paid him close attention, as if he were the most wonderful man in Xanth. She made him feel important, and she was a bleep of a lot better in bed. He wasn't the smartest of men, but he did relate to that. Men do."
Dell caught on to something. "You — you are paying me close attention, Nia. You don't interrupt me, and you respond perfectly to anything I say, even when it's nothing much. You take me seriously, you're interested, and you're sharing yourself just as if I were your equal. You make me feel almost important, at least in those moments."
She laughed again. "Did I mention that I got wise late? I am treating you with the respect every person deserves. If I'd considered my husband's needs before my own, or even parallel to mine, he'd never have left me, emotionally."
"And you never flash your panties at me, so I can actually have a conversation with you."
"I'll let you in on another secret: part of the reason I don't flash you is that I'm old enough so my panties probably wouldn't work on you. There's a significant difference between young and old panties. I don't want to risk that failure. I already feel older than I like."
"Oh," he said, not knowing what else to say.
"If you find a young woman who isn't pretty, but who acts sensible, being more than a shell, give her more serious attention. She just might be worth your while."
"But no young woman ever gave me the time of day."
"No pretty one, perhaps. But did you ever consider the others?"
Dell was chagrined. "The dull ones? I never did."
"Here is another female secret: the dull girls have feelings too. Some of them will give you a lot more than the pretty ones will, because they're realistic enough to know that there's more to a boy than his looks, and they're quite ready to settle for what they can get. It's vastly better than nothing."
"But if I were with a dull girl, and a pretty one smiled at me, I'd go to her."
"Maybe not, if you asked yourself that question."
"Would I still like her if she were not pretty?" he repeated thoughtfully. "I've seen pretty ones who were stuck up, now that I think of it. I wouldn't like them, if I were not blinded, sometimes literally, by their appearance."
"That's it. Your lesson for the day. Ponder it in the background of your mind. Maybe you'll get smart earlier in life than I did."
"Aren't you, well, betraying your gender by telling me these things? Women have secrets they shouldn't reveal, just the way men aren't supposed to let women know how they, well — "
"How they try to get girls into bed."
She considered. "I hadn't thought of it that way. But you know it's not really Us against Them between the genders. We're all human beings, except for those of us who aren't. I suppose it's that you listen so well, and I know you will profit from my advice if you want to. I just have to share things with you. I'm really on the side of the innocent versus the manipulators, whatever the gender. You must be getting fed up."
"No! You're teaching me so much about life. I'm happy to hear anything you say."
Grania sighed. "I wish my son and grandson had felt that way. Very well, here's one more: if a pretty girl ever comes on to you, don't just dissolve into goo. Keep in mind that she probably has a reason, and it's not that your manliness is sweeping her off her feet. She'll be wanting something you may not want to give. So find out what it is before you let her take you."
"No pretty girl ever came on to me."
"So be suspicious when one does. Much of the mischief men do is because lovely women lead them on."
"I will remember," he promised.
"This is mainly idle curiosity, so you don't have to answer. I don't much believe in coincidence, such as our meeting here and getting along so well together though we are quite dissimilar. What made you come here at this time?"
"Well, it was just sort of a coincidence despite what you say. This traveling minstrel, Cool Hand Lute, came to our village, and of course we all turned out to listen to her, because things are dull and she was lovely and sang so well as she played her lute."
"Cool Hand Lute!"
"It's sort of a pun. She had very cool hands, and she could chill something by grasping it. Her lute was ice cold." He smiled. "An amorous lout tried to get hold of her, and she put her hand on his wrist and chilled him to the bone. Ice flaked off him as he stumbled away. It was funny. After that, no one tried to bother her. Anyway, she seemed to single me out, amazingly, and I was mesmerized by her attention. She was devastatingly beautiful up close, and her clothing wasn't snug." He hesitated, then said it. "I don't think she even wore a bra. I almost freaked out. She asked me what my ambition was, and I was tongue-tied. Then she touched my hand, and that was the oddest thing of all, because it didn't freeze me or even cool me, it just made me suddenly want to be all that I could possibly be, as soon as I could. Which seemed impossible, because I'm really nothing. So I came to ask the Good Magician. Because a woman led me on. Can you believe that?"
"Yes? It's so foolish."
"Because Cool Hand Lute came to our village too, and singled me out, and touched me, and here I am."
He stared at her. "You too? But you're not a naive boy!"
"Indeed I am not, and truth is, I sort of resented her blazing sex appeal. It was her touch," Grania said. "It gave us both the desire to fulfill our ambitions immediately, whatever they might be."
"We were sent here?" he asked, bemused.
"So it would seem. So it wasn't coincidence. Maybe it was just the minstrel's mischief."
"Wow," he said, awed in retrospect.
She stretched. "Now it's about time for us to turn in. If you want to go wash up in the pond, I promise not to look. Then you can take that other pile of hay for the night."
Dell realized that he was being managed, but it didn't bother him because it made things easier. It was what grandmothers did. "Okay." Nia lay on her pile of hay and rolled over, hiding her face. Dell knew he could trust her to remain that way and not peek. It really didn't matter, but he appreciated it.
He went out to the pond, stripped, set his clothing aside, and waded into the water. He paused, letting the water settle to a still surface, looking at his face in the reflection. That was another kind of magic: water pretending that what was above it was also below it. A nice illusion. And of course illusion was terrific magic, used by many, many creatures and plants and things.
So what did he look like? He had nondescript brown hair, brown eyes, and a forgettable face. No muscles to speak of. He was a nothing.
He dropped down and splashed, washing himself. He felt an odd kind of freedom, knowing that he was naked and there was a woman who wasn't watching. So she was old; it still counted. He was being uncharacteristically bold, in his feeble fashion. Maybe it was just his wet (rather than dry) sense of humor, here in the water.
He emerged and shook himself dry, then put his clothes back on. His imaginary boldness faded.
"I'm clean," he said as he reentered the shelter.
"That's nice." Nia lifted her head and opened her eyes. "Now it's my turn."
"Uh, right." He lay on his mound of hay, closed his eyes, and put down his face. Would he have found it as easy not to peek if she had been a young thing? He hoped so, but doubted it. As she had said, there was a huge difference between young and old women. He would have been awfully tempted.
He felt something in the hay under his head. A piece of paper? What was it doing here?
Soon Nia returned. "All done. You didn't look."
"Of course I didn't look," he said. But were his motives as clean as that implied?
"I know. I watched you. But you never promised not to."
"It was implied. I was doing what you did, honoring privacy."
"So you did. I appreciate that. I thought you'd be curious, even though I'm no nymph."
"I — I guess I was curious. But it wouldn't have been fair to look, especially after you didn't look at me."
"You believe in fairness?"
"Yes. And in keeping my word, expressed or implied. Sometimes that gets me in trouble."
"I know exactly how that it is. They call it compulsive honesty."
"Yeah." This was another subject he found awkward, because others regarded it as a fault in him. "You too?"
"Me too," she agreed. "I learned too late, as I said, not to push my honesty in people's faces. The social graces require finesse rather than candor. I could be meaner than a four-headed cactus in a drought, and I alienated people. So you should describe me as mature rather than fat, and I would describe you as lean rather than gawky, and we'll get along for the brief time we associate." Dell had to smile. She did have a way with awkward concepts. "I've already made people mad without meaning to. I wish I could have you in my head to say 'uh-uh!' when I'm about to rub someone the wrong way."
"And I wish you could lend me your youthful vigor when I need it. But we're both stuck with what we are, physically and mentally." She paused half a moment, thinking. "There's a place called Pair O Dice City, where everything is a game of chance. The houses are made of cards that might collapse at any time. I've never been there, but it occurs to me that life is like that. It's one big game of chance, and some of us have better luck than others."
"So even if we could trade our qualities, it probably wouldn't make much difference. Still, just in case there is any relevance, you might picture a little copy of me in your head, who can whisper uh-uh when you know it's called for."
Now he laughed. "And you can picture a bit of me in your body, so that when you need a little extra energy, there it is. Maybe we can help each other even after we separate."
She nodded, smiling. "Why not? Next subject: What did you find?"
"A piece of paper, I think," he said, remembering it. He brought it up to his face in the gloom. "There's writing on it. A message, I think."
"Maybe someone dropped it and lost it. What does it say?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Fire Sail"
Copyright © 2019 Piers Anthony.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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