Vale of the vole, p.12
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       Vale of the Vole, p.12

           Piers Anthony

  Now it was clarifying. She was looking for a way to get a better position; her interest in him was little more than an act, taking advantage of an opportunity. He had been fascinated by what he had seen of her legs, but he found her motive less appealing. “My station is very low,” he said. “I’m a crossbreed.”

  She gazed at him, appalled. “What a dirty word!”

  “Yes. So you don’t want anything more to do with me.”

  “That’s true! You can wash yourself!” She pointed to an open door.

  “Thank you,” Esk said, entering the chamber. He was sure he had done what was best, but somehow he was disappointed. Her legs had been quite stunning.

  By trial and error he figured out how to use the cleaning facility. It was a kind of miniature waterfall that came on when he turned a handle, and stopped when he turned the handle back. This was a new kind of magic!

  When he emerged from the waterfall room he found new clothing where he had left his old. His other belongings were neatly set beside; he had not lost his two remaining travel pills or his hand knife. That was a relief.

  He donned the new clothing, which was evidently what a sample audience was supposed to wear. It was a light blue set of trousers and a matching long-sleeved shirt. Both fit him well enough. The curse fiends evidently knew how to entertain a guest, or an audience.

  He stepped out of the chamber, looking around. Immediately a girl appeared. She was not Doris; this must be the regular one on duty. She was not as pretty or flirtatious, which was perhaps just as well; he didn’t want to forget why he had come here. He really did want to help the voles, if he could.

  “Now you must eat,” the girl informed him.

  She guided him to a cubby where a decent meal of fruits and cakes was waiting. Esk ate, going along with the local custom though not entirely comfortable with it. Then the girl wiped his face and combed his hair for him and took him to a quiet, darkened chamber. Was she going to show him her legs, he wondered? But she merely indicated the chair he was to sit in, which was wooden with a single brown cushion on it, and armrests. “The play will begin in a moment,” she said, and departed.

  Well, so far so good. He realized that he would have to watch and listen carefully, and form some kind of opinion so that he could make a competent audience report. What would happen if he didn’t like the play? Would they throw him out? He hoped he liked the production.

  Music sounded, coming from an adjacent chamber. There seemed to be a number of instruments, strings and winds and percussions, operating together harmoniously. Esk had never been much for music, but now he realized that he simply had not been exposed to competent music. This was very impressive, and it induced a positive mood.

  There was a stage before him, mostly concealed by a large curtain suspended from the ceiling. Now that curtain brightened, seemingly lighted from below. It rose, showing the rest of the stage—and Esk leaned forward, interested, his interest heightened by the drama of the music.

  The stage was a model of Castle Roogna! There was the castle in miniature in the center, suggesting the full-sized castle at a distance. There was the front gate, and the moat, with a model of the serpentine monster to one side.

  A young man of about Esk’s own age walked to the center. He wore ordinary clothes, but also a small headband resembling a crown. There seemed to be plenty of room to stand despite the presence of the moat; Esk realized that the moat could be painted, so that there was no danger of the actors falling into the water. But it certainly looked real; this was a clever stage.

  “How’s things, moat?” the young man asked, speaking clearly and with good force, so that Esk heard him very well.

  “The monster peed in me again, Dor,” the moat complained.

  Esk laughed; the joke had caught him completely by surprise. Suddenly he realized that the young man was supposed to be King Dor, who could talk to the inanimate and have it respond; that was the Magician-caliber magic that had qualified him for the office. Not the King as he was today, but as he was when young, before he assumed the throne.

  “Well, that’s what monsters do, when they’re not biting people,” Dor said reasonably.

  “How do you expect me to keep clean?” the moat demanded. “I’m not a sewer!” And the music made a blah sound.

  “I’m sure you can handle it.” Dor walked around the stage, exchanging greetings with the other objects on it, including the door of the castle.

  Just as the novelty was wearing off, a young woman walked onstage. She was rather pretty, with bright green hair, and wore her dress provocatively, though she looked a year or so younger than Dor. She was evidently a major character, because the music became excited as she entered, with little frills. “Hi, Dor!” she exclaimed, her voice well enunciated and carrying just as well as his did. Esk wished that real people spoke as clearly!

  “Oh, hello, Irene,” Dor said with obvious lack of enthusiasm. That was another thing: it was easy to read the feelings of the folk onstage.

  “Let’s go somewhere and kiss,” Irene said, and the music went into a naughty-sounding theme. Esk was reminded of Doris, though this was a different girl. That started him on a chain of thought: could Doris have been named after King Dor? The curse fiends obviously had some interest in the folk of Castle Roogna, since their play related.

  “No, I’ve got to go talk to more things,” Dor said.

  “You care more about the inanimate than you do about me!” Irene flared. There was a rumble of musical anger.

  “Well, sure I do!” he retorted. “You’re only a girl.”

  “I’m a woman!” she exclaimed.

  “Ha,” he said, with withering contempt. Esk found himself trying to repeat the syllable himself, to get the exact inflection; what a way to cut someone down!

  “I’ll show you!” she exclaimed. She wrapped her arms around him, heaved him up, and threw him into the moat.

  There was a splash. Esk almost jumped out of his chair; there was real water there after all, and Dor was in it, sopping wet. What a surprise! He realized that the sound of the splash had been enhanced by the music, contributing to his reaction.

  “I’ll get you for that!” Dor sputtered, climbing out.

  “Ha!” Her use of the word was as effective as his. “You can’t touch me, ’cause I’m a girl.” Indeed she was, and she bared a bit of cleavage to prove it.

  “Oh yeah?” Dor advanced on her threateningly

  She stood her ground, the picture of feminine certainty. “Yeah.” More bosom showed, affecting Esk more than Dor.

  Dor grabbed her and threw her into the moat. “Oooo!” Esk found himself breathing, surprised again; he had thought Dor was bluffing. Evidently the music had thought so too; it was now a jangle of amazement.

  “You—you—man, you!” Irene screamed. Her hair was matted about her head and neck, and looked like seaweed now. “I’ll get you for that!”

  “I was just getting even,” Dor pointed out.

  She climbed out. Her dress clung to her, enhancing contours that were more voluptuous than they had seemed before. “That’s no excuse!”

  Dor, alarmed, started to walk offstage, but Irene ran after him and caught him. She hauled him back toward the moat.

  “No, you don’t,” Dor said, struggling to escape that fate. They got tangled together, and both fell in.

  “You—you!” Irene cried, tearing at his clothes.

  “That’s what you say!” Dor retorted, attacking her clothes. Now they were fighting in the moat, their clothing coming apart. Flashes of Irene’s body showed, and Esk gaped; that girl was supposed to be only fifteen years old?

  Now they were locked in the struggle, chest deep in the water, while the mock moat monster watched. Suddenly Irene changed her tactics. She put her face up against Dor’s and kissed him. The music made a naughty flourish.

  “Oooo,” Esk breathed as he saw Dor stiffen, then relax, then begin kissing back. It was easy to imagine himself in such a situation; he
d kiss back too, if a girl as lovely as that did that to him!

  A new figure clomped onstage. This was a centaur, evidently mocked up by two human actors in a centaur suit. It was female, because of the two enormous breasts mounted on front. The music became somber; this was a person not to be taken lightly. “Dor,” she said, holding up a sheet of paper, “I have graded your essay. I want to comment on your spelling. Let me read this to you as you have it.”

  Dor and Irene continued kissing in the moat, oblivious of the centaur. Esk smiled; he understood how this could be.

  The centaur cleared her throat and read, and as she did, the words appeared on a scroll that two arms held from offstage, showing the spelling. “Eye live inn the Land of Zanth, witch is disstinked from Mundania inn that their is magic inn Zanth and nun inn Mundania.”

  Then the centaur glanced into the moat and for the first time realized what was happening. “Dor! What are you doing with that girl?”

  The kiss broke with a guilty start. The music abruptly ceased, leaving awkward silence. The two bedraggled youngsters stood in the moat, their tops half exposed. “Just, uh, quarreling,” Dor said, shamefacedly.

  “Quarreling! In that case I’d like to see what you consider being friendly!”

  “We’re getting to that, Cherie,” Irene said with a marvelously obscure and unrepentant smile.

  “Indeed you are not!” Cherie Centaur said severely. She reached down and took Dor by the ear. “You are coming to see the King, young man!”

  As poor Dor was hauled out of the water, the curtain came down. The scene was finished.

  Esk relaxed. He had expected to be somewhat bored by the curse fiends’ art, but instead he had been fascinated. They were very good! He wondered whether this play was an accurate replication of history. Had Dor really torn off Irene’s clothing in the moat? The King and Queen had seemed quite sedate when he had had audience with them, but perhaps they had been different when young and vital. Would little Ivy become conservative and dour when she grew up? Would Esk himself? What an awful prospect!

  Soon the curtain rose on the second scene. This was the throne room of Castle Roogna. The King sat on the throne, and the Queen stood beside him. Both were every bit as dour as their generation seemed to be. The music was now grand and somber, as befitted royalty.

  “Dear, we shall have to do something about our daughter, Irene,” the Queen said.

  “They don’t call me King Trent for nothing,” the King said grandly and somberly. “What’s wrong with the girl?”

  “She’s lonely.”

  “She’ll get used to it, Iris. We did, after all. Loneliness is good for royalty.”

  “I think we need to send her somewhere where there will be other girls her age. She has no one to play with, here.”

  “What about Dor? He’s only a year older than she is.”

  “He pays no attention to her. He’s too busy talking to things.”

  “He should be busy on his homework! He’s supposed to be King after me, you know. He has to learn things.”

  “I know, dear. But—”

  At this point the King launched into a lengthy and somewhat dull lecture on the responsibilities of kingship, and why a prospective King had learn it all. Esk became impatient, then bored; he had no prospect of ever being a King, so had little interest in this subject.

  Then Cherie Centaur trotted in, hauling Dor along by the ear. “Do you know what I found this wretch doing, Your Majesty?” she demanded righteously.

  “You will surely tell me at length,” King Trent muttered, and Esk smiled; he knew the feeling.

  “He was stripping off your daughter’s clothes!” Cherie said indignantly.

  Esk frowned. That did not ring true. The centaurs hardly cared about exposure of bodies, as they did not wear clothing themselves. Even if Dor and Irene had done more than kiss, the centaur wouldn’t have minded; centaurs regarded sexual interplay as another natural function. It was Dor’s poor spelling that should have excited Cherie’s ire.

  “What?” the King demanded.

  “In the moat,” Cherie continued. “If I had not arrived when I did—”

  The King fixed a steely glare on bedraggled Dor. “Well, what do you have to say for yourself, young man?”

  “She started it!” Dor protested.

  “And his spelling is atrocious,” Cherie concluded.

  “That does it!” King Trent exclaimed. “I hereby banish this wretch to Mundania!”

  “No, please!” Dor wailed, sinking to the floor in wretched supplication.

  “The King has Spoken,” Queen Iris said with satisfaction. “I never did like the way that boy frittered away his time with objects.”

  “She shouldn’t call her daughter an object,” Dor muttered to himself, his voice nevertheless carrying clearly to the audience. The music made a snide laugh.

  A guard came in and marched Dor out as the curtain dropped.

  Esk concluded that he didn’t like this scene as well as the first. After all, Irene had started it, and started the kissing too; Dor had been relatively innocent. Now he had just discovered how interesting Irene could be—and he was being banished to the worst of regions, drear Mundania. Were the curse fiends trying to show how unfair human beings sometimes were?

  The curtain lifted on the third scene. The play continued, showing Dor in Mundania, unable to use his magic, miserable, while Irene was miserable at Castle Roogna. Love denied—and Esk did feel it, though he knew this was only an imitation of history, something that might or might not have happened a generation ago. He wished he could reach even the first stage of this tragedy: having a girl to love.

  Finally, in the play, Dor had a revelation. “I love her!” he declared. Then he marched back to Xanth and charged in to face King Trent. “I love your daughter and I’m going to marry her!” he said, sweeping Irene into his arms. It was amazing how conveniently near she happened to be.

  “Well, why didn’t you say so before?” King Trent demanded grumpily as the scene closed.

  Esk knew it was all arranged and rehearsed, but Dor had married Irene, and they now had two children, so it could have happened somewhat like this. At any rate, he felt exhilarated by the conclusion, being glad that the two had finally gotten together.

  Now a man appeared. “Very good,” he said. “I believe you will make a credible sample audience. I have only one question.”

  “How did I like the play,” Esk said for him. “Well, I did—”

  “I will ask for the information I require,” the man said curtly.

  “But I’m trying to tell you—”

  “That is unnecessary.”

  “But how can you find out how I liked the play, if I don’t tell you?”

  “We know how you liked the play. It is only a technical matter I am concerned with.”

  “A technical matter?”

  “I see I must explain,” the man said gruffly. “Very well, pay attention. We do not need to ask you how you reacted to the play because you were under continuous observation. Your reactions were catalogued and matched against the standard reaction chart. We now know that they are essentially normal for your sex and age and culture. You will make an adequate audience.”

  “You were watching me? I didn’t see—”

  “Naturally not. It’s a one-way curtain. We recorded every fidget, every nose scratch, every smile and frown and vocal expression. We know which parts you enjoyed and which you did not. Now that we have aligned your individual reactions to this standard presentation, we can verify their applicability to those plays we have not yet put on tour. We have zeroed you in.”

  “Zeroed me in,” Esk repeated, wondering how many times he had scratched his nose while watching the play. “You say this was an old play?”

  “Standard boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-recovers-girl, always good for a simple audience. Now the only question I have for you is why you frowned at the wrong place in scene two. When Cherie Centaur was reportin
g how Dor had stripped Irene’s clothing from her. Did you find that historically inaccurate?”

  The man had been watching, certainly! That was exactly where Esk had objected. “Centaurs aren’t like that,” he said. “They don’t care how much of a person’s body shows. She wouldn’t even have noticed, and wouldn’t have cared if they had gone completely naked in the moat.”

  “You are conversant with the attitudes of centaurs?”

  “Well, some. I do know that much.”

  “How many centaurs have you known well?”

  “Well, only one, really. But she is Cherie’s grandfilly.”

  “Only one,” the man repeated coldly. “On this basis you extrapolate an attitude for the entire species?”

  It sounded inadequate, now. “You asked me why I frowned,” Esk reminded him. “That’s why.”

  “A note shall be made.” The man turned away. “That will be all. Your next audience will be in the morning; the wench will conduct you to it.”

  “The wench?” Esk asked somewhat blankly.

  “The servant who brought you here.” The man snapped his fingers, and immediately the girl appeared.

  The man departed, and the girl showed Esk back to his room. That was just as well, because he would have been lost in the maze of passages by himself.

  “Was it rough?” the girl asked.

  “I’ll survive,” Esk said.

  She flashed him a quick smile. “I will wake you in the morning.” Then she was gone. She was evidently no vamp, just one of the nothing folk of this realm.

  The next two days were full of plays. Esk enjoyed them, generally, and soon was used to the knowledge that he was being scrutinized as closely as he scrutinized the plays. He did feel that he was performing a useful service for this community, and that his reactions would help them to refine their plays for their outside tours. For it seemed that the curse fiends, though largely self-sufficient economically, had a desperate need for the approval of others, in their chosen art form. They wanted their plays to be recognized as outstanding, and to have their audiences eager for the next season’s offerings. Promotion within their hierarchy was based on this; an effective actor became a leader of their society.

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