Looking back, as was natural in the circumstance, Cube concluded that it all started with the rear-view mirror. What a complicated route, from such a minor trigger.
She was out picking bubble gum from the bubble gum tree beyond the hay field when there was a swirl of smoke beside her. "What are you doing?" the smoke inquired.
Startled, Cube gazed at it. "Talking smoke?"
"That doesn't exactly answer my incertitude," the smoke said, forming a set of eyes.
"Dubiousness, skepticism, suspicion, mistrust, uncertainty--"
"Whatever," the smoke agreed crossly.
"I don't see why I should answer you if I can't see you," Cube said. "Are you a refugee from the smoking section?"
The smoke formed a mouth. "Ha. Ha. Ha," it said. "Very funny. Not. Don't you recognize a lovely demoness when you see one?"
"A demon!" Cube sidled nervously away from the smoke. "I never did anything to you. Why are you harassing me?"
"Because that's what demons do." A head formed around the eyes and mouth, framed by smoky hair. "Demoness Metria, not at your ritual."
"Not at my what?"
"Observance, rite, liturgy, ceremony--"
"Whatever! So who are you?"
"I'm called Cube."
"Cube! What kind of a stupid name is that?"
"It's not my name."
The hair spread out and formed a question mark. "You just said it was."
"I said I was called that. I didn't say it was my name."
The smoky features swirled a moment, then coalesced back into the face, which was now pretty in a dusky way. "Score one for you, drab mortal. So what is your name?"
"Cue. But when other kids saw me, they nicknamed me Cube, because I'm just not with it. I tried to pry it off, but that nickname stuck fast."
"They do," Metria agreed. "That's part of the curse of being human. Now answer my first question and I'll give you something."
Cube decided that she should do that, before the demoness got angry and did her some harm. "I was just picking bubble gum for the boys."
"What use have you for boys?" the demoness asked.
"I like them. But they don't like me."
The smoke formed a vaguely human female body below the head. "Of course they don't! Look at you."
"No thanks. I know I'm not pretty."
"That's the understatement of the hour. You give plain a bad name. Whatever made you suppose that any boy anywhere would ever be interested in you?"
"Well, I do have a certain quality of character."
"Initiative, courage, aggressiveness, resourcefulness, common sense--"
"Whatever," Cube agreed, frowning. "I've got gumption galore, but that doesn't seem to be what boys want."
"Naturally not. Boys can see, not think. They don't much notice character."
"So I have learned. But I thought that maybe if I got them something nice, like fresh bubble gum, they might let me hang around, and maybe get to know me."
"Not without a better appearance. Look at this." A dusky hand extended toward her, holding something. "Use the mirror. It is my promised gift."
Cube took the mirror and held it up before her. But it did not show her homely face. It showed an unsightly posterior in a dull skirt. "It's not working."
"Yes it is. It's a rear-view mirror."
"It shows your rear, idiot."
"Ugh! That's worse than my face. Take it back." She pushed the mirror toward the demoness.
"Nuh-uh! That gift can only be given, not taken back."
"I don't regard it as a gift. I don't want it."
But the smoke was fading, and in half a moment it was gone. She was stuck with the mirror.
She set it on the ground and turned away. And found it back in her hand. She threw it at the trunk of the gum tree, but it returned to her hand before striking the tree. She tried to smash it against a stone, but it shied away.
"!!!!" she swore, absolutely disgusted. At age twenty she was old enough to use an ugly word if so motivated. The demoness had succeeded in making a dull day into a bad one. That must have been why D. Metria had bugged her in the first place: to get her to accept the mirror.
She looked at the next tree, which bore pretty colored gum drops. She was half tempted to eat some of those, but they would just make her teeth drop out of her gums. That would make it difficult to chew.
She jammed the mirror into a pocket and headed for home, disgruntled. Maybe she could find someone else to give it to, someone with a prettier rear than her own.
That reminded her of her condition. "I wish I were beautiful!" she exclaimed. "Then I could nab a good man and settle down and have a nice family. Or something."
The demoness reappeared. It seemed she hadn't gone far when she faded out. "Ha. Ha. Ha!" she laughed in a carefully measured cadence.
"What's so funny?"
"You think pulchritude would solve your dreary life?"
"Beauty," the demoness said crossly. "Whatever."
"Do you have a problem with vocabulary?"
"However did you guess?"
"Sometimes I get lucky, if the subject isn't men."
"Answer the question."
"Yes, beauty would transform my existence. Pretty girls have great lives, even if they have no perceptible minds. Everybody knows that."
Metria's form firmed into sheer loveliness. "Like this?"
"How would you know? You're a demoness. You can assume any form you wish. You can stun any village lout with your beauty."
At that point a village lout appeared, walking down the path toward the gum trees. Metria turned toward him, opened her blouse, and inhaled. The lout fell stunned, blindly smirking at the sky. "True. But who wants a lout?"
"You could do it to a good man too."
"Yes. I did. I'm married."
"So you see. That's what I want to do. Then I'd be happy."
"Maybe. Lovely women traditionally make poor choices in men."
"I wouldn't. I'd choose a good one to stun. Because I have as much character as I don't have body." Then reality crashed in on her. "But what's the use? I'll never be beautiful, so I'll never nab a man."
"If that's what you want, why don't you do something about it?"
"What can I do about it?" Cube demanded. "I am the way I am."
"You can go see the Good Magician Humfrey, dummy, and ask him how to get beautiful."
Cube stood still for a good three quarters of a moment. "I never thought of that!"
"That's why you're a dummy."
Cube realized that in time, without a whole lot of effort, she could get annoyed at the demoness. But it was a good idea. "I'll do it."
"Of course he'll charge you a year's service, or the equivalent."
"I know that," Cube said, annoyed.
"And his Answer will be confusing, so you won't properly understand it until it's too late."
"I know that too. But his answers are always true."
"Also obvious in retrospect, making you feel even more like a dummy." The demoness faded out again.
It was true. But what other choice did she have? If there was any barely possible, remotely conceivable, faintest shadow of an obscure hint of half a chance that she could become even marginally pretty if you liked that type, she had to try for it. What was gumption for, if not to do something brave and foolish? Thus was her decision made.
"Ha. Ha. Ha," the voice of the demoness came, with just a wisp of swirling smoke.
Cube frowned. She hadn't even voiced her decision, but the infernal demoness knew. Still, she felt buoyed, because now at last she was setting out to do something about her plight. Even if the Good Magician couldn't tell her how to become beautiful, she would know she had done her best.
And if, just maybe, somehow, there was a way--what a change that would make in her life!
"That's what yooo think," the singsong voice of the demoness came.
"Oh, go soak your face."
"If you insist." There was a sound of sloshing water. "Glub. Glub. Glub."
Cube had to smile. Metria was some character.
Cube ignored her. The demoness had to be guessing at her thoughts.
"No, your smile gave you away."
The demoness reappeared, evidently about to speak some other incidental mischief. Her feet touched the ground.
Metria jumped and puffed into smoke. "Who called?"
Cube laughed. "You touched the hay field. It always gets your attention, the first time."
"Bother!" the demoness said crossly, and faded. Cube was glad to have seen her get fouled up, for once, instead of doing the fouling.
"At least you didn't land on the romants hill," Cube said to the space Metria had faded from.
Sure enough, there was a response. "What kind of hill?"
"Romants. When the ants bite you, you fall in love. I think there's a small love spring under the hill."
"A romants novel?" Cube could take or leave puns, but this did seem to be a good occasion for one.
"I'm gone." And maybe this time she was.
So when should she make the trek to the Good Magician's castle? Well, there was no time like the present. It wasn't as if she had anything worth returning home for. She lived alone, without even hope of male company.
She headed for the nearest enchanted path. Those paths were always best for traveling, because dragons and other noxious beasts couldn't get on them, and they had regular rest stops with pie trees and shelter. In fact she had always wanted to travel, but never had a reason to do it. Now she had the best one: her future happiness.
Cube walked swiftly. She was a good walker, having muscles in her legs and stamina in her torso. Of course that was part of the problem; she had muscles instead of feminine curves. So she could out-walk any girl she knew, but of course they didn't need to walk. Men came walking to them.
Soon she was out of familiar territory, but she wasn't concerned. She could defend herself if she needed to. Which was another part of the problem: her talent was an ugly, aggressive one, befitting her character, when she would have preferred an appealing, feminine one.
She approached a huge mound. It looked like an ant h...