Stork Naked (Xanth)

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9780765304094: Stork Naked (Xanth)

In his 30th rollicking chronicle of the enchanted land of Xanth, Piers Anthony reveals unexplored new dimensions of his magical realm. Stork Naked tells the tale of Surprise Golem, an expectant mother who has just lost her brand-new baby!

For in Xanth, little ones are actually delivered by storks! And the Stork assigned to deliver Surprise's eagerly awaited Bundle of Joy has inexplicably refused to surrender it, flying off instead through a hole in the fabric of reality.

Now, to track down her offspring, Surprise must lead an ill-assorted assemblage of confederates on a desperate quest through dozens of different Xanths. But sinister, unseen forces are determined to stop her. And in order to find her child, Surprise may have to lose her heart.

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About the Author :

Piers Anthony is one of the world's most popular fantasy authors, His previous Xanth novels, including Swell Foop, Cube Route, and Currant Events, have been read and loved by millions of readers around the world, and he daily receives hundreds of letters and emails from his devoted fans. Piers Anthony lives in Inverness, Florida.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :

Chapter One
Paradise Lost
 
How come that stupid bird is green?” Ted asked. “Is it sick?”   
 
No, it’s just too small to manage a better color,” Monica said.
 
“Children!” Surprise exclaimed. “Don’t tease the pet peeve.”
 
“Aw, why not?” Ted asked. “It’s just a dumb cluck.”
 
“It can’t understand a thing we say,” Monica agreed.
 
Surprise Golem was babysitting the half-demon children, Demon Ted and DeMonica. Her husband and parents were away, scouting for a suitable home for the new family. With her magic talents she could handle the children, but they were trying to set off the peeve. That was mischief.
 
The peeve eyed Ted. “Your father can’t get out of bed. Want to know why?” It spoke in Ted’s voice.
 
Ted swelled up indignantly, but the peeve was already eyeing Monica. “Your mother slithers on her belly,” it said with her voice.
 
Monica opened her mouth angrily.
 
“Because it may tease you back,” Surprise said. “And nothing teases worse than the peeve.”
 
But the battle was fairly started. “I know why he can’t get out of bed,” Ted said. “It’s because Mom keeps him there, blissed out, so he won’t be in the way.”
 
“And how does she do that, you ignorant juvenile crossbreed?” the peeve demanded insolently.
 
“Don’t try to answer that!” Surprise said.
 
“Why not?” Ted asked.
 
“Because of the Adult Conspiracy, dummy,” Monica informed him. “You’re only ten years old.”
 
“Well so are you, double dummy!”
 
“Children, don’t fight,” Surprise said. “It’s no shame to be ten. I was ten once.”
 
“But you outgrew it,” Monica said.
 
“And so will you, in a few more years.” It was tricky keeping a lid on it, because both children knew more of the dread Conspiracy than they admitted, because of their half-demon heritage and suspiciously tolerant parents. Surprise didn’t want to get blamed for a violation. She was babysitting them because their parents were busy elsewhere and few others could handle them. The two children were not related, but were like mischievous siblings with special powers. They were indeed ten years old, but often acted half that age, reveling in their childishness.
 
“Yeah, I guess so,” Ted agreed, grudgingly satisfied.
 
But the peeve wasn’t satisfied. “That leaves your mother, who can’t stand on her own two feet,” it said in Monica’s voice. That was one of its annoying properties: it borrowed the voice of the one it was with, or whoever it was addressing, so that it seemed to third parties that the victimized person was talking. That could be distinctly awkward at times.
 
“That’s because she’s a naga,” Monica said. “Nagas don’t have feet in their natural forms.”
 
The peeve opened its beak, ready to set the children off again. It lived to insult people, and the angrier it made them, the more satisfied it was. It had finally found a home here because Surprise’s father was Grundy Golem, the only one who could match the irascible bird insult for insult. The two got along well. But the last thing she wanted was to have the two half-demons getting into a contest with the bird. The Adult Conspiracy was bound to get tweaked if not outright abused.
 
“Let’s tell a story,” Surprise said. Children always liked stories. “About the Adult Conspiracy.” Oops; she had meant to name some safe minor adventure, but her nervousness about the Conspiracy had made her misspeak. “I mean—”
 
“Yes, let’s!” both children exclaimed, picking up on it instantly. “With every dirty detail,” Ted concluded.
 
“No, I meant not about it,” Surprise said desperately.
 
“You said, you said!” Monica chimed. “Now we have to have it. Exactly how does it work?”
 
They were really trying to get her in trouble, and knew how to do it. How could she handle this?
 
“It’s not as if it is any mystery,” the peeve said with a superior tone that was also Surprise’s voice. “All that is required is for the man to take the woman and—”
 
“Don’t you dare!” Surprise said, conjuring a black hood that dropped over the bird’s head and muffled it.
 
“    !” the peeve swore, the badness stifled by the hood. It flapped its wings, lifted into the air, did a loop, and dropped the hood to the floor, where it faded out. It opened its beak again.
 
“If you say one bad word, I’ll lock you in a soundproof birdcage,” Surprise warned it.
 
“You wouldn’t dare, you uppity wench!”
 
A birdcage appeared next to the bird. It had thick sound-absorbent curtains.
 
The peeve reconsidered. It had brushed with Surprise before, and learned that she could do just about anything once. If she abolished the birdcage, she would not be able to conjure it again. But she could conjure a very similar one, or a bandanna knotted about its beak, or a cloud of sneeze powder that would prevent its talking for several moments and some instants left over. Her magical ability was limited only by her imagination. She was in fact uncomfortably close to being Sorceress level, and might one day be recognized as such when she perfected her ability. That was why she was able to handle the demon children, and they too knew it.
 
“No bad words, harridan,” the bird agreed, disgruntled.
 
“Idea!” Ted exclaimed, a bulb flashing brightly over his head. “Have the peeve tell about the Adult Conspiracy.”
 
Oh, no—they were back on that. No amount of magic could handle that violation if it happened. She had to change the subject in a hurry. But for the moment her mind was distressingly blank.
 
Monica clapped her hands. “I thought you were out of ideas, Ted, but that’s a good one.”
 
“It is not a good idea,” Surprise said. “The peeve can’t speak a sentence without insulting someone.”
 
But the children knew they were onto something. “Is that true, birdbrain?” Ted asked.
 
“No, poop head. I just don’t care to waste opportunity. I can cover every detail of the Adult Conspiracy without uttering a bad word.”
 
“Wonderful!” Monica said.
 
“No you don’t!” Surprise said. “I’ll make a laryngitis spell.”
 
“Awww,” the children said together.
 
“I can tell about it without violating it,” the peeve insisted.
 
“See—the bird’s reformed,” Ted said eagerly.
 
“Under a pig’s tail,” the peeve said. “I’ll never reform.”
 
“But you can really annoy Surprise if you make good on your pledge,” Monica said with a canny glance. “No bad words, no violation, but you cover the subject and she can’t stop you.”
 
The peeve received her glance and sent it back. “You’re not half as stupid as I took you for, Harmonica.”
 
“That’s DE-Monica, greenface. As in Demon-ica.”
 
“Ick,” the bird agreed.
 
“So it’s decided,” Ted said. “The bird sings.”
 
Surprise hesitated. The three were ganging up on her, but she was curious how the peeve could do what it said, and maybe it would help get them through until some more innocent distraction turned up. “Very well. But the rules will be strictly enforced.”
 
“Absolutely, honey-pie,” the bird agreed with her voice. But there was a shiftiness about its wings that suggested it was going to try to get away with something.
 
The children sat on the floor facing the peeve’s perch. Surprise set about making a snack for them all, but she kept a close ear on the bird. Nothing daunted it except a direct enforceable threat.
 
“Long ago and far away,” the peeve said, “there was no such thing as the Adult Conspiracy. People summoned storks freely and no one cared. Children knew all about it, and watched when they wanted to. That was how they learned how to do it. But then confounded civilization arrived and messed up the natural order. Adults started concealing it, and setting other ridiculous rules such as not letting children hear the most effective words. It seems the adults were jealous of the carefree life of children, so decided to keep interesting things away from them.”
 
“Hear hear,” Ted agreed.
 
Surprise did not see it quite the same way, but as long as the bird stayed clear of key words and concepts she couldn’t protest.
 
“There are also stories that the adults grew fearful of a revolution by the children, so acted to prevent it. After all, suppose children started summoning babies on their own? What further need would there be for adults? They might discover themselves superfluous, and be on track for elimination. They didn’t like that, so decided to stop it before the children made their move.”
 
“That’s interesting,” Monica said thoughtfully. “Something should be done about it.”
 
“Tyrants never yield their power voluntarily,” the peeve said. “Power is addictive; they do everything they can to hang on to it.”
 
Now both children were thoughtful. Surprise was disgusted. It wasn’t like that at all. She had not been party to the Conspiracy long—only a year or so—but in that time had summoned the stork with her husband Umlaut, and was expecting delivery of her baby at any moment. Babies needed adults to take care of them; children were too irresponsible. So there was good, sensible reason to prevent children from summoning storks. But of course children didn’t see it that way. The confounded bird was succeeding in really annoying her, without breaking any rules. In seemingly good language it was insulting the entire adult species.
 
“It crystallized with little Princess Ivy in the year 1071, thirty-five years ago,” the peeve continued. “Adults had been preaching the gospel of secrecy, but it hadn’t been very effective; most children saw through it soon, and used bad words, and could have signaled storks if they had really wanted to. They told Ivy she had been found under a cabbage leaf; only later did she learn that babies didn’t just materialize under leaves, they were brought there by storks. Her talent was Enhancement, and she Enhanced the story until it became a wider reality. Later she told her twin sister Ida, whose talent is to make real what others who don’t know her power believe. Thus the Conspiracy became thoroughly established, extending well into the future and half a smidgen into the past. It has been almost inviolate ever since, and most folk believe it always existed. But it didn’t; it was mostly myth until Ivy and Ida made it literal.”
 
Surprise was astonished. Could this be true? It didn’t really matter, because certainly the Conspiracy existed now, but the idea of it not existing at some time in the past was subtly disturbing.
 
“That’s really something,” Ted said, impressed. “How did you learn about this, peeve?”
 
“I made it up, crazy boy.”
 
Both children burst out laughing. “You’re lying, bird beak,” Monica said. “We can tell. You weren’t lying before, but now you are.”
 
“Just testing,” the bird said, annoyed.
 
“Say,” Ted said. “I heard about a man with a spot on the wall talent with a difference: he could summon them from elsewhere. Some spun, making folk nauseous. More fun.”
 
“And the relevance is . . . ?” Monica inquired snidely.
 
“If he summoned one from where the Adult Conspiracy first got started, and took it to Princess Eve to analyze it, we could learn exactly how it happened.”
 
The peeve looked at him. “You do have some good ideas, lunatic lad.”
 
“No you don’t,” Surprise called. “That man is adult; he would never cooperate.”
 
“Awww,” both children said together.
 
Surprise smiled to herself. Not for nothing was it called the Adult Conspiracy. All adults participated, to the eternal frustration of children.
 
There was a sound outside. Surprise glanced out the window and saw a heavy bird coming to a landing. It looked like a stork.
 
“The stork!” she cried. “It’s making the delivery!”
 
“Another brat on the scene,” the peeve said peevishly.
 
“Great!” Ted said.
 
“We never saw a delivery before,” Monica said.
 
Surprise wasn’t sure they were supposed to, but there was no way to stop them following her to the door. She opened it, her heart pounding.
 
There stood the stork, a bundle before him. “Surprise Golem?” he inquired.
 
“That’s me!” Surprise said. “I’ve been expecting you.”
 
“I am Stymy Stork, with a bundle of joy. Let me handle the formalities, and the baby is yours.” The stork used his beak to draw a piece of paper from his vest pocket. That was odd, as he wore no clothing, only feathers. He donned glasses so he could read the note. That was odder. “You ordered a baby, gender unspecified, nine months ago?”
 
“Yes!” Surprise was so excited she felt faint.
 
“You are duly married to one Umlaut?”
 
“Yes. Give me my baby.”
 
“Not so fast,” Stymy said. “I’m on probation; I have to follow every rule exactly or I’ll get my flight feathers pulled. You are of appropriate age to receive a baby?”
 
“Yes, I’m eighteen.”
 
The bird perused the paper. “You were delivered in the year 1093. Let’s see, that would make you—I’m not good at math—thirteen years old.” He did a double take. “That’s too young.”
 
“I was five years old when delivered,” Surprise said. “That’s why I was named as I was: Grundy and Rapunzel had almost given up waiting for me in five years, and then suddenly there I was, late but whole. I really am eighteen.”
 
“I’m not sure of that,” the stork said. “According to the rule, age is counted from the moment of delivery forward. I can’t complete this delivery.”
 
Surprise was stunned. “But that’s my baby! I must have it. You can’t let some idiotic confusion deny me my motherhood.”
 
“Take your complaint to headquarters,” Stymy said. He put away the paper and glasses, poked his beak into the loop of material tying the bundle together, and lifted it.
 
“No!” Surprise cried. “Don’t take my baby!”
 
The stork turned, ran down the path, spread his wings, and took off, bearing the bundle away. Surprise was so amazed and chagrined that she just stood there and watched it happen.
 
Even the peeve seemed taken aback. “Why didn’t you scorch his tail and ground him before he got away?”
 
“That sort of thing is not done to storks,” Surprise answered automatically. Yet she might have done it, had she thought of it in time.
 
“Better go see the Good Magician,” Ted suggested. “He always knows what to do.”
 
“Or Clio, the Muse of History, to fix the records,” Monica said. “Before that stupid bird delivers your baby to someone else.”
 
Surprise’s flustered awareness fought to return to control. She knew she had to do something immediately; it just wasn’t clear what. So she grasped at the most reasonable straw. “Good Magician Humfrey. I’ll try him. Thank you, Demon Ted.”
 
The boy turned bright pink, including his hair and clothing. T...

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