This was a story I enjoyed as a kid and wanted to read again, but I can't remember what it is, and this is the only scene I really remember vividly. (I'm getting the little details wrong, of course; e.g I think the merman dies in the backstory, but the central idea is right)

The heroes met a merman, who relates a story of how he had found a rare item at the same time as a dragon, so they decided to play earth/water/fire for it. The dragon lost, but wound up trying to take the item anyways, and wound up killing the merman over it.

But what is earth/water/fire? It's explained just like rock/paper/scissors: water douses fire, fire scorches earth, earth restrains water. (or something like that)

Later, the heroes meet the dragon, who relays a similar story, but that the merman tried to cheat and take the item anyway after the dragon won. After the heroes explain how the merman thinks he won, the dragon scoffs and explains the rules: fire vaporizes water, water erodes earth, earth smothers fire.


The dragon is Draco, and the book is Heaven Cent by Piers Anthony, part of the Xanth series.

You repeatedly hear characters saying things like 'As sure as Water Douses Fire', only to hear another say 'As sure as Fire evaporates water' -- eventually, Dolph makes them realize that they had a miscommunication, and the dragon chooses to give the widow of the Merman the pair of valuable opals that was behind the game.

Some relevant segments:

"Mela thinks you just attacked him and stole the opal," Dolph said. "She thinks you're a rogue dragon."

"There were no witnesses to the event, so I suppose she can think what she pleases. But I have told it as it happened. I threw fire, he threw water, plain as two days. I am absolutely sure of that, as I am of his bad attitude. That gem is mine!"

But something was nibbling at Dolph's memory. "Mela— she said something—I think it was just a saying she used— about fire and water. 'Sure as water douses fire'—something like that. I wonder—"

"That's backwards!" Draco growled. "I told you, fire evaporates water. Every time. You breathe fire on it and it heats and turns into steam and it's gone. When I come home and drip on the nest, I dry it out by heating it a little."

"But maybe to a merperson, who lives in water, it would seem the other way," Dolph said. "I remember something else she said, about sand displacing water—"

"That's backwards, too! Water covers sand! I'd heard that merfolk were addle-brained, and this proves it!"

Then, a page or so later:

"But what I was trying to remember—Ah, now I have it! Fire melts sand, she said. So you know, they—"

"All backwards!" Draco exclaimed. "What idiots! They think fire melts sand, sand displaces water, and water douses—" He broke off. "Uh-oh."

"I wonder whether they play mat game the same way?" Dolph asked innocently. "Backwards?"

"Suddenly I very much fear they do! So that when I threw fire and Merwin threw water—"

"You mean he really did think he won?"

Draco snorted out a fierce jet of fire. "Oh, my," he hissed. "I wish I'd understood! We could have discussed the rules, gotten them straight . . ." He trailed off, his words fading into thoughts.

  • That could explain why I had trouble finding it again; there had been a few times I came across a book that seemed familiar but was still wrong, and I hadn't realized it was part of a series! Poking around on google search, this definitely seems right, although I can't pin down the book this happens in. – Hurkyl Apr 7 '14 at 15:09
  • Yes, this is definitely it! Thank you! – Hurkyl Apr 7 '14 at 15:21
  • Happy to help.. Sorry it took so long, but even knowing what I was looking for, the Net didn't help.. I had to go dig up my copies of the books to be sure :) – K-H-W Apr 7 '14 at 15:23
  • See Also: Poor Communication Kills (not linking to the trope page, I don't want to be responsible for people getting lost for hours) – Shadur Jul 6 '17 at 12:42

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