Chapter Twenty-One: The Pebblesorter

Nyssa couldn't see far ahead, but as they moved, the space of where she could see moved too. Once or twice the curiosipede had to juke suddenly one way or the other to skirt around a suddenly looming monster, but it was quite fast enough, especially as they were traveling downhill, and usually they had some warning before it was swerve or be snatched. Soon they were through the worst of it, and all the dim shapes in the mist were far-off specks. Nyssa wondered about how the plants could live at all in so little sunshine; did the fog ever clear? She wondered what the monsters ate, for she didn't think they could get too many visitors. She wondered what the Princess ate, since she did not - presumably - consume innocent entrants into the Valley. Maybe the monsters were like Pomodoro, only terrible, and ate the badness of things happening to people... They bounced along over the rubble and failing plants for a minute undisturbed, then:

"Help!" cried a voice. "Oh, help!"

Nyssa looked up. Had somebody gotten trapped in the Valley to be menaced by monsters, somebody who couldn't make as quick a getaway as a curiosipede full of urgent questions could? She turned that way, Pomodoro on her shoulder tucked in securely against her neck.

The voice came from a cave dug into a rocky section of the Valley. Nyssa disliked very much the idea of going into it, because it was even darker than its surroundings, and she didn't have a light; she paused at the entrance and tried the lens again, but it just informed her that she was being obstructed by inadequate illumination, which she'd already known.

"Please, help!" called the voice again. "I heard something - is there anyone there?"

Nyssa let the curiosipede edge just a little into the cave, hoping that it would make it harder for passing monsters outside to see her. "Who are you, please?" she asked. This had revealed the demon Akrasia, and might work again; a clever demon might lie, but a narrow-minded one might thoughtlessly tell her just what it was.

"My name is Prima and I'm so glad someone's finally come!" said the voice. Prima did not sound to Nyssa like a demon's name; she nudged Pomodoro with her chin, and she couldn't see it but she could feel it shrug against her cheek. "I want so badly to get out of this valley, I've been trapped here for what feels like forever, but I can't bear to abandon my treasure."

"Is there too much of it to carry?" asked Nyssa. "You could make several trips, but I guess that would be more dangerous..."

"Oh, it's far too much for me to carry. It's an art object, and very heavy and easy to lose bits of if it's not packaged just so, it was built right here before the place was infested with monsters," Prima replied. "But maybe you can help me. How big are you? Do you think you can carry a few hundred pounds?"

"I... do not think that I can carry a few hundred pounds," said Nyssa dubiously. "The curiosipede might be able to take the weight but I don't know that there's enough room on the bench for anything that weighs that much."

"Oh dear," said Prima. "I can't just leave it."

"I can't see it," said Nyssa, "have you got a light? Maybe I'd be more help if I knew what we were talking about."

"I have matches somewhere," said Prima, "so that every now and then I can at least gaze at my treasure, but I'm running so low... I'll use one now, though." And she lit a match.

Prima was a small froglike person, not quite entirely a frog, wearing battered faded clothes and a plaintive expression. Nyssa couldn't get much detail in just matchlight, but it was enough to see that she didn't look any more demonic than she sounded.

The treasure appeared to be a pile of rocks.

Some of the rocks were lovely, to be clear; there were stripy ones and veined ones, speckled ones and spotted ones, ones in all shades of brown and grey and beige and a few that were almost red or orange or blue; but rocks. Rocks a bit smaller than Nyssa's fist, mostly, all arranged lovingly in a heap, wide at the base and with a single pointed pale rock at the top. The pile was taller than Prima; it might have been taller than Nyssa, though since she was aware she might have to make a roll for it she did not get up from her bench to check.

"Uh," said Nyssa, "where's the treasure?" Perhaps hidden cunningly under or behind these rocks there was a lump of gold or a valuable book or something.

"It's right in front of you. Do you need glasses? I don't have any," said Prima. "It's beautiful, isn't it? You have to agree, I don't see how anyone could think it wasn't."

"It's... it's a nice pile of rocks," said Nyssa. "They're nice rocks. I just don't quite understand why you can't leave without them."

"Assembling this pile took a terribly long time!" said Prima. "Months and months! I didn't just assemble it one rock at a time, you know, I had to make smaller artistic piles and combine them. There was math involved. The pile is exactly nine hundred and twenty nine rocks big."

Nyssa frowned. "Why does that matter?"

"It makes it correct," said Prima. "Now, if you're going to help me move it, you have to disassemble it carefully if you're going to do it at all. You can't just take one pebble off - actually, you can't take any odd number of pebbles off - because then it would be incorrect. You'd think this would make it impossible to move it piecemeal, since if you take an even number of pebbles off, then you have an even number of pebbles, and that won't do unless you care to move them two at a time, but actually you can remove multiple quantities of pebbles at the same time but separately, so especially with the two of us -"

"I don't think I can help you," said Nyssa.

"No, no, you see it's all right, I have an idea, you've got a bag there and I've got some tarp in the way back of the cave, we can rig something up and transfer the rocks to a setup tied to the bench, and then -"

"I'm sorry," said Nyssa, "it's just that I don't think I want to help carry a pile of rocks. Especially not if it has to be moved in a very complicated way. I don't know if I need to be in very much of a hurry, but it seems like I might be and ought to act like I am. I can tell that the pile of rocks matters to you but I don't really care about it at all, and especially don't care about doing it in precisely sized pieces, and if I help you move it I won't be able to do what I came here to do."

"How cruel! You come in here dangling hope in front of my nose and then tell me that my rocks don't matter, my carefully piled heap doesn't matter, my exquisite attention to detail doesn't matter -"

"I don't think I have time to argue about this, either," said Nyssa. "But maybe it will be safe to stay here after I'm finished, or it will be easier to get help moving the pile then, I don't know."

"Wretched, wicked girl -!" The match went out; there was a shuffling as though Prima might be approaching. "Putting yourself first like you've got some kind of right - when I -"

"I do apologize," said Nyssa, already rolling out of the cave. She looked at Pomodoro. "You didn't ring."

"I might have been about to," said Pomodoro. "It doesn't seem like we did her any good, but maybe we couldn't have known that for sure right away."

The curiosipede leapt into the air off a little natural ramp and landed with a thunk and they continued into the Valley.