At last Havoc and Gale are married, having discovered the source of the changelings, but the King and Queen have yet to enjoy a peaceful reign. The knowledge they've gained, as well as their new Glamor status, opens doors to new questions—and new missions for Havoc's loyal friends.
The discovery of the enigmatic loom brings more questions than answers, and when the loom creates a tapestry that points the way to Counter-Charm, the whole assemblage makes ready to visit and explore the mysterious sister planet. With the help of the peculiar cloud-like ifrits, the Glamors must find the location indicated by the tapestry and permeate powerful illusion fields to find whatever lies at the center.
In the process they just might discover that the key to their destiny may be the smallest among them.
Twenty-one times New York Times Bestselling Author
Piers Anthony is one of the world's most prolific and popular authors. His fantasy Xanth novels have been read and loved by millions of readers around the world, and have been on the New York Times Best Seller list twenty-one times.
Although Piers is mostly known for fantasy and science fiction, he has written several novels in other genres as well, including historical fiction, martial arts, and horror. Piers lives with his wife in a secluded woods hidden deep in Central Florida.
Chapter 1: Loom
Ennui was at her desk, reviewing papers, when it happened. A clip slid off the desk and bounced under it. She pushed back her chair and leaned down, reaching for it, her chin almost colliding with her knees. She got the clip and straightened up again. And paused, amazed.
She felt a sudden surge of energy and desire. She felt wild and wanton, like flinging away her clothing, laying open her body for the gaze of a virile young man. When he hesitated, she went to him, kissed him, took his hands and placed them on her bare breast and buttock. “Take me,” she breathed, kissing him again. She felt his huge erection rising against her thigh, seeking its avenue of penetration. Yet there was also a nasty thrill of nervousness, of fear; there was danger here. This was not a safe situation.
She blinked. She remained at her desk, the papers undisturbed. She was fully clothed, and there was no handsome young man. Yet her heart was beating hard, her breasts were tingling, and her cleft was moist. And she still quivered with sexual desire.
What was the matter with her? She was forty-one years old, her seductive days past if they had ever existed, her children grown and gone. She had never been a siren, even when young; she remained moderately homely. And she didn’t need a virile young man; she already had a man of her own generation, who loved her, and was quite virile enough. So why this illicit dream?
Yet still the mental image teased her, and her body yearned to it. She wanted sex now, and not the routine kind. The desire had touched her, and it wasn’t going away. But she had to stifle it, because someone was coming to the office.
Nonce entered. The girl was sixteen and lovely, as was required for her position as First Mistress of the Royal Bath. She was in charge of washing the King and other members of the royal household, as directed. If the King felt an itch for sex, she accommodated that too, on a strictly no-fault basis. The prior two girls to hold her office had soon gone on to far more important roles. In fact, when it came to sex—
“Lady,” the girl said.
“Surprise,” Ennui said, trying to suppress her rascally imagination. “You are on leave. You don’t have to work this week.”
“Privacy,” Nonce said.
That meant it was important. Nonce had the kind of face and body Ennui could hardly even dream of, but she was a sensible girl, not given to irresponsibility.
Ennui stood and walked away from her desk. She led the way into a nearby private chamber and closed the door behind the girl. “Speak.”
“Message: ‘Bring two ikons.’”
Ennui stared at her. This was a treacherous surprise. “What do you know of ikons?”
“Only that if anyone knows what this means, you do, Lady. You are Havoc’s oath friend.”
Bath girls were trained to keep secrets. Often they learned things in the course of their duties that were best kept private. Such as just how rapidly a king could be brought to climax from a limp start. But this thought was that sexual charge possessing her mind again. She had to banish it and get serious. “No other words?”
“None. But the circumstance—”
“I was bathing in a forest pool, when—”
“Don’t you get enough of baths here?” Now that rogue desire was taking over her voice.
Nonce smiled. “Bathing alone, Lady, I can pretend I am a person of consequence.”
Ennui returned the smile. “You are such a person. The king likes you.” It was true, but she shouldn’t have said that.
“The queen won’t let him bathe alone.”
“The real king,” Ennui clarified. “My oath friend.”
The girl’s mouth fell open. She blushed prettily. “Oh!”
And that gave Ennui a certain vicarious satisfaction. Oh to have enough naiveté back to be able to blush like that! “But I distract you from your circumstance. Continue.”
“When a—a tree spoke those words. I knew it had to be magic, so I came immediately to you.”
Ennui nodded. A tree. That was definitely a message from Havoc. “Prepare to take two anonymous people to that pool. Meet them here an hour hence.”
Ennui left Nonce to her preparation, and went to see her closest female friend. This was the lovely Lady Aspect, widow of the former king, and Havoc’s social advisor. “Greeting.”
Message from Havoc: ‘Bring two ikons.’ Nonce will take us there in one hour.
Aspect gave no overt sign that she had received the mental news. She answered with her own thought. Of course.
Ennui provided the background mentally while they exchanged routine verbal compliments. And I felt a weird sexuality just before Nonce arrived.
Aspect met her gaze. So did I.
Astonished, Ennui could only stare. So it wasn’t from inside me.
It was from elsewhere, Aspect agreed.
This was interesting, quite apart from its emotion. They would have to discuss it further. But not at this moment.
Aspect nodded agreement. Then Ennui left her and sought her man.
Throe was snoozing outside the King’s chamber. He woke as she walked by, but pretended to stay asleep. Without speaking aloud she acquainted him with the message and her decision to go, and her urgent state of passion, then went on to their private chamber.
Soon, seemingly coincidentally, he joined her there. They kissed, stripped, and made vigorous love. Their sharing of minds heightened the effect; she felt his passion of fulfillment, and he shared her echo. There was no such thing as an unfulfilled woman, with loving telepathy. Then he helped her become anonymous. She donned a peasant shawl, wooden shoes, and arranged her hair in a messy mop.
“You look beautiful,” he said, presenting her with two small wooden trinkets: fake ikons, so that anyone who might have heard the message would think that these were what had been asked for. “Truly.”
What made it so nice was that he meant it. Ennui was at best a plain woman, without special talents, but he loved her. She kissed him again, then went to the chamber by the reception desk. At least she had a pretext to leave the dull papers alone for a while.
Unfortunately her sex with Throe, delightful as it was, had not abated her wanton desire. She craved something more than a licit interaction. She hoped he hadn’t realized that, for he was a good man and she did love him and did enjoy sex with him. But the vision was something else. It had the thrill of a dangerous liaison that could not be duplicated by a familiar man, even if he could have the staying power of a Glamor.
Soon the Lady Aspect joined her in the chamber. Aspect had undergone a similar transformation, becoming a severely handsome older woman with baggy clothing, netted hair, and a gnarly cane.
Nonce reappeared, also in peasant guise, her allure muted. She glanced at the women, recognizing them but honoring their anonymity. “Are you two visitors ready to return home?”
“Appreciation,” Ennui said. “Indirect route.” She made a small show of putting the wooden ikons in her pocket.
“It’s a long walk,” Nonce said. “Is there any chance to get transportation?”
“Would peasant women be able to afford magic floating?” Ennui asked rhetorically.
“Only if they traded for it,” Aspect replied, also rhetorically. That meant sex for transport; Nonce could do it, but the older women would have a harder time finding suitable takers.
“We walk,” Nonce agreed.
“Negation,” Aspect said. “We’ll have to use the Traveler’s Exchange,”
The girl nodded. She was not telepathic, but she understood the need for secrecy. She was aware that the King Havoc and Queen Gale who resided in the palace were both impostors who had to be treated according to their roles. The girl who played Gale was Spanky, the prior Mistress of the Bath. The Mistress before Spanky had been Bijou, who had also played Gale, to the extent of having an affair with the real Havoc. Nonce longed for a similar affair.
And so do we, Aspect thought, amused.
But with her it’s a realistic prospect, Ennui thought enviously.
They followed the girl to the private stairs and down to the lower levels of the city, sharing her innocent thoughts. The difference between the telepaths and the non-telepaths was that the former could read the unguarded thoughts of the latter, while the latter could not read any thoughts. Havoc and Gale were more than telepaths, so knew what was what. Havoc did like Nonce, and would probably oblige her some day. But of course Havoc liked all young women—and all of them liked him.
Delete qualifier ‘young’ Aspect thought.
And there was a secret the two older women had shared with each other when they became friends. They both loved Havoc in vaguely maternal fashion, but also as women. If the occasion ever came where one of them had to play the part of mistress to him, neither of them would be truly loath. But that was a truth they had confessed only to each other, shielding it diligently from all others. If either Havoc or Gale suspected, they had the wit to let it be.
Could it have been Havoc in her impassioned fancy, his features masked by her shame of the desire? No, because the man was inexperienced, and that hardly described Havoc.
They rode an elevator down to the concourse floor of the city, then walked to the Traveler’s Exchange. “How far is the pool?” Ennui asked. She had the answer from the girl’s mind, but did not want to reveal that she had done so. Nonce knew that the women were telepathic but never spoke of it.
“Five Chroma zones. I traveled on a King’s Pass, but I can’t do that anonymously.”
“What can we offer?” Ennui asked.
“I prefer to save my body for the King’s Bath,” Nonce said. She meant that she did not want to exchange sex for a magic ride, though she could readily have found takers. She regarded herself as belonging to her position.
“Sensible,” Aspect agreed. “We shall see what else offers.”
The Traveler’s Exchange was a chamber with a raised stage and a group of people standing around it. As they entered, a man was finishing his statement. “...beyond the Dead Zone.”
“I’m going that way,” a man said. He was a Cartographer; they had to canvass the planet regularly, to update their maps, because the geography was constantly changing. “Got an assignment.”
“Excellent! Brothers, mutual protection, no fault?” No fault was a system used primarily in traveling, whereby people assumed family relationships to each other without any commitment beyond the trip. Men and women often became no fault marriage partners, and this was not considered any violation of their formal marriages elsewhere.
“Done,” the Cartographer said. The two shook hands and departed together.
A yellow woman stepped onto the stage. “I am going home to my zone, two Chroma to the east. I have food, need protection.”
“I’m going that way,” a green Amazon said. “My zone is just beyond yours. What food?”
The yellow woman held up a large basket and tilted it to show an excellent variety of fruits and breads. “Sisters?”
“Agreed.” The two joined and left.
Several others followed, without takers. Sometimes it took several days for a person to find the right company with the right assets going the right way. Then a blue man stepped up. “I have transport home five Chroma to the north. It is a bus globe that needs cleaning. My wife and daughters normally do it on the return trips, but this time there were too many passengers and they had to stay home. All conveniences provided, but the thing is filthy.”
“That’s near the pool,” Nonce murmured. “I rode that bus.”
Ennui exchanged a thought with Aspect, then spoke. “Two sisters and a daughter, no fault.”
“Welcome!” the blue man said.
Another woman spoke. “And a wife, no fault, to the adjacent Red Chroma.”
The blue man looked in her direction, and so did Ennui. She was a moderately handsome red woman. She was offering sex for travel, rather than cleaning. Men of one Chroma normally liked the notion of sex with women of other Chromas, so this was clearly appealing. Of course men liked sex anyway, but the novelty was said to enhance the effect.
“Agreed, if my no fault family does not object,” the blue man said, smiling.
“No objection,” Ennui said, glad that this eliminated any chance that the man would want sex with any of them. Sometimes no fault agreements changed along the way.
They walked up to join the man and meet the red woman. “I am Bus,” he said, introducing himself.
“I am Nine,” the red woman said.
“We are anonymous peasants,” Ennui said. “On, Speck, and No.” She indicated herself and the others, using adaptations of their names. Many folk preferred to travel anonymously, so this was not remarkable. “We are not experienced at cleaning buses, but can follow directions.”
“Satisfactory,” he agreed. He led the way down to the exit ramp at the edge of the city.
They took the ferry across the lake. As they rode it, they gazed back at the city of Triumph. It was a huge wooden pyramid, floating on a lake, anchored to the center. The lower tiers were populated mainly by peasants, the middle tiers by more important folk, and the apex was the king’s palace and household.
So now they were cleaning women. It was an irony, because either Ennui or Aspect could readily have commandeered magic service when traveling as themselves; they were two of the king’s closest associates. But there would have been no privacy; everyone would have known or suspected the king’s business. If Havoc had wanted publicity, he would not have sent his directive in code.
For they carried very special objects: two ikons. Not the wooden trinkets, but metallic statuettes. Few others knew their nature, or even that they existed. Ennui’s was in the shape of a tree with eight stubby roots; Aspect’s resembled a ball of moss. They were the counterparts to two very special people: the ikons were remnants left behind when people became Glamors. Whoever held a Glamor ikon had considerable power over that Glamor. The Glamors themselves could not touch their own ikons.
The message “Bring two ikons” meant that their bearers should come immediately. This was Glamor business.
They reached the staging area at the edge of the Translucent Chroma zone adjacent to the nonChroma zone surrounding the city of Triumph. There was the bus: a big roughly spherical structure with portholes around its waist. They entered it through a round door that opened from the underside. Inside was a central deck surrounded by comfortable chairs, one by each porthole.
Bus was right: this dome was filthy. His prior passengers must have been slobs. There were fruit peels, bread crusts, and colored smears on floor and seats, and smudges on the glass of the ports. He showed them where brushes and mops and cloths were, and they started in. Nonce took the portholes, and the two older women took the floor.
Two Translucent men came. In a moment the bus was levitated onto a boat, and the boat was moving across the liquid terrain that was the Translucent Chroma zone. They were on their way.
Then Bus went to a closed chamber. Nine didn’t say a word; she followed him in. Men usually wanted sex first, and it was best to get it out of the way early. Male capacity was generally less than male ambition, so a woman could thoroughly oblige a man with relatively little actual sex. All women knew that; men should, but constantly deceived themselves.
It was dull scrubbing. Shall we become better acquainted? Aspect inquired. I know you, Ennui, but not as you were before we met.
I was dull, as my name shows.
Your name evinces lassitude rather than dullness. How were you named?
And there was the request for her early life story. Ennui thought back to her childhood.