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He had indeed become cool, but the blanket fixed it. "Thank you."
"You are welcome, Forrest."
He started to drift back to sleep. But then he realized that she had no blanket of her own. "Aren't you cool too?" he asked.
"It does not matter."
"Yes it does. Isn't there another blanket?"
"I found only one. Use it, and sleep in peace."
"But you must be sleepy too. You should have it."
"But then you would be cold."
Forrest pondered briefly. "We could share it."
He had been afraid of that. "If you are concerned that I view you as a nymph-"
"No, it is clear that you do not. You are a far more responsible faun than I expected."
"Caring for my tree has made me that way. Please do join me, Imbri; we are both warm, and the blanket is large enough for us both."
"Thank you." She dissolved her clothing and joined him.
After an astonished instant, Forrest realized that she did not care to sleep under a blanket in her clothing; it wouldn't feel comfortable. So she had eliminated her dress. It made sense. But in that instant she had indeed looked exactly like a nymph. That had an effect on him that he hoped he could conceal from her. He did not want her to think that he had tried to deceive her.
She settled down beside him. Her body touched his at shoulder and hip.
She was soft and smooth and warm. Just like a nymph. But she was not a nymph, he reminded himself forcefully. She was a mare in girl form, and an intelligent and thoughtful creature, not interested in nymphly pursuits. So he faced away from her and did his best to ignore her presence.
It took some time, but at last he did manage to sleep again. But later he drifted awake to discover her nestled against his side, her nymphly attributes very soft. He didn't dare move. But he wasn't quite sure he dared sleep again, lest he dream of chasing and catching a nymph, and do something that would appall her. He wished he had antic.i.p.ated this situation, and avoided it. Yet at the same time he also liked this unexpected contact with her. He knew that his awareness of her had changed in a way that could not be undone. She was still Imbri, his helpful companion. But now she was also somewhat more than that-in a way he must not allow to show.
Forrest lay awake, struggling to adjust his thoughts, but they would not fit back into their former simplicity. He knew Imbri as a person, not a nymph-but now he wished she could be both. That was of course impossible.
So it was a long night. But in the morning he was not tired or logy, apparently in this state he did not really need sleep. It was just a convenience during darkness.
As the light brightened, Imbri stiffed and woke. She stretched, rubbing against him, then sat up. "Oh-of course," she said, glancing at him.
"We shared warmth. For a moment I wondered what I was doing under the blanket with you."
"Just sleeping," he said.
"Yes. Thank you." She stood, glanced down at her bare body, and concentrated. Her dress formed from her substance, covering her. "I feel like a Sorceress when I do this," she confessed. "But it's really not magic, just reshaping of my soul material."
"Yes." But how different it was to see that nude body, when he knew she was not a mindless nymph. That awareness should have caused him not to care how she looked, but instead it made him care even more. Last night he had wished she could be both nymph and friend, the two aspects separate, taking turns; now he wished she could be both at once. That was a significant change in concept: the idea of celebrating with a real person, a friend, instead of doing the mindless thing with one, and respecting the other. A human woman could have fit that description, as humans had minds and bodies, but Imbri was not human and she had no body, except in the present rather special situation. So it was pointless to dwell on it.
"You seem rather thoughtful this morning," Imbri remarked. "Did you sleep well?"
What could he say? The truth was not appropriate, but he did not like the notion of deception. So he hesitated.
"Oh, you didn't!" she said, in brief anguish. "I shouldn't have taken part of your blanket! You lacked room to sleep freely. I must have tossed and turned and poked you in the night."
"No, no, that's not it," he protested. "You were perfect."
"I didn't poke you?"
"Not exactly." This struggle to find a compromise between accuracy and discretion was awful. It was not an exercise normally required of tree spirits.
"I don't understand. Did I poke you or didn't I? Did I disturb your sleep or didn't I?"
Forrest decided that evasion was untenable. He would have to be forthright, and take the consequence. "You did poke me, but it didn't hurt. You did disturb my sleep, but not because of any restlessness on your part. You slept quietly."
"But I poked you with my elbow?"
"I don't understand. What did I poke you with?"
"Your-" Still he hesitated.
She looked down at her body. "I don't see how-" Then her human mouth turned round. "My maidenly bosom? I poked you with that?"
Forrest felt himself blus.h.i.+ng, a thing he had never done before.
Possibly no faun had managed it before.
"Oh, Forrest," she said, chagrined. "I never thought-I look like a nymph, don't I! And you're a faun.
"Yes." Now it was out.
"And you had to hold yourself back from being a faun. All night."
"I would never have-if I had realized-this isn't my natural form-it just never occurred to me that-"
"It doesn't matter," he said, wanting to get off this embarra.s.sing subject.
"Yes it does! I have treated you with discourtesy, and caused you distress. I don't know how I can make up for that. I should have understood-it's so obvious in retrospect-"
"Please. It's not important. Let's just resume our trek."
"I was just so thoughtless! No apology can be enough. But I must do something-" Then a new expression crossed her face. "Forrest, I keep forgetting that I'm solid, here on Ptero. Even when that makes mischief, I forget that it can also abate it. I can be a nymph for you."
"No. I don't want that."
"No, really. It is no affront to me. We animals don't take such things seriously. I can play the game perfectly, if you will just tell me how.
"Let's see-nymphs run and scream cutely, and kick their feet, and fling their hair about, and pretend to signal the stork." As she spoke, she dissolved her dress, ran around in a little circle, kicked up one foot and then the other, and flung her lengthening hair in a full circle.
Then she tried a cute scream: "Eeeeeek!"
"No!" Forrest cried. "Stop it!"
She stopped immediately. "I'm sorry, Forrest. Do I have it wrong?"
"No. I just don't want you as a nymph."
"But you said-in the night-"
"You're not mindless."
"Oh. But I can pretend to be."
"I would know better."
She nodded sadly. "So I can't be a nymph for you. All I can do is frustrate you."
"I truly apologize, Forrest. If there is any other way I can make it up to you-"
"No. We must get on with our mission."
"Yes, of course," she agreed, chastened.
So they resumed their trek. But in his mind he saw her again and again, acting exactly like a nymph. He had wanted so much to play that game with her! But to have her pretend to be mindless, and believe she was satisfying him, when what he truly wanted was-no, he couldn't accept that. Neither would he ask her to do it while not pretending to be a nymph, because that would imply some actual commitment on her part, and he had no right to desire that. She was just with him on an a.s.signment, to help him find a faun for a tree. When this quest was done, she would be free to go her own way, her service to the Good Magician fulfilled.
"Forrest, I see you are still depressed," Imbri said as they walked. "I know it's my fault. I wish-"
"No. It's my fault." And he knew that was the truth. He had no right to soil her innocence with his unrealistic desire. "I want to speak no more of it."
"Of course," she agreed, chastened again.
No danger threatened them on the way, because the path was enchanted.
The scenery was mountainous, but the path wound around, remaining almost level, so that this was no problem. They could admire the view with impunity. Only when there was no alternative did the path climb to any height.
In due course they came to Castle Roogna, which was in a forest in a valley. The path had climbed over a ridge, and the valley was laid out for their view, like a large picture. But there was something wrong with that picture. "What are all those lines?" Forrest asked, startled.
"I don't remember seeing them." For the valley was crisscrossed with long colored lines that extended from hillside to hillside, as if some giant had drawn them with a pencil. Only the area immediately around the castle itself was clear of the lines.
"I'm sure they weren't there in Xanth," Imbri agreed. "But of course this isn't Xanth; it's a smaller replica."
"Still, we haven't seen such lines elsewhere in Ptero. I don't think it can be normal."
"Do you think it could relate to the problem we are supposed to solve?" she asked. "Marginalization?"
"Marginalization," he repeated, pondering. "They do look a bit like margins. As if somebody drew some lines to mark off the valley, then drew some more lines inside those, and more farther inside, leaving less s.p.a.ce in the center. It reminds me of a game I used to play as a faun."
She laughed. "You aren't still a faun?"
Actually, he wondered. The fauns of the Faun & Nymph Retreat were shallow creatures, intent on only one thing, and the nymphs provided that. The fauns who left the retreat and sought useful employment became deeper, but not by a whole lot; it was just that they now realized that the pursuit of nymphs was not the only thing, though it did remain the main thing. Those fauns who chose to a.s.sociate with trees became deeper yet, but still were not by any means really serious people. On this quest Forrest had become far more thoughtful than ever in his life before, and the episodes on Ptero had accelerated that change. Right up until last night, when he had actually held back from doing what was natural, and this morning when he had declined Imbri's offer to play nymph, despite considerable temptation. No faun he had ever heard of would have done that. So he was certainly no longer a normal member of his kind. But that was too complicated to go into right now. "When I was young."
"What was the game?"
"We played it with stone knives. We cleared a patch of dirt, and took turns flipping our knives into it so that they stuck point first. Then we extended the direction of the blade each way, making a line that divided the patch into two sections. Whoever missed the clear patch, or didn't get his knife to stick in the ground, lost his turn. The clear patch kept getting smaller as it got subdivided, until finally it was too small to hit. The last one to get his knife into it was the winner."
"But what was the point?"
"Just to win. We had to have something to divert us when there were no nymphs in sight. That was it."
She glanced sidelong at him. "Your horizons have broadened since then."
If only she knew how far! "Yes. Anyway, a game would look like that valley. It was hard to get the knife to fall just the right way, and it got harder as the game progressed, so that usually just a slice was taken off the edge of the remaining patch. If this is a game, it's about three quarters through."
"What kind of creatures could play such a game with the human territory of Ptero?"
She nodded. "If it is such a game, what does the winner get?"
"Castle Roogna," he said. "And with it, dominion over all the human beings of Ptero."
She nodded again. "And you have to help Dawn & Eve save the human territory from marginalization. Now I think we know more about the nature of the threat."
"Marginalization," he repeated. "Pressing in of the margins. Until there is nothing left in the center. That seems like something that needs to be dealt with."
"Yet the King would be a Magician," Imbri said. "How is it that he could not fight this incursion?"
"Something must have happened to him. We had better get down there quickly, before it gets any worse."
"But won't the giants see us, and stop us from getting there? Especially if they should suspect our mission?"
"Yes. So we'll use Cathryn's blanket of obscurity." He reached into his knapsack and brought out the little can.
"You are getting smarter all the time. I wouldn't have thought of that."
"Please don't compliment me."
She looked at him, surprised. "Why not, when it's true?"