Выбрать главу

       So his mother was jealous of something that had happened in his father's life before he married her. What a pitful of concepts Bink had stumbled into, unwittingly.

       Roland's face became serious, "To a young man, inexperienced, the notion of a lovely, nude, captive nymph may be phenomenally tempting," he continued. "All the physical attributes of a real woman, and none of the mental ones. But, son, this is a juvenile dream; like finding a candy tree. The reality really would not be all you anticipated. One quickly becomes surfeited, tired of unlimited candy, and so it also is with-with a mindless female body. A man can not love a nymph. She might as well be air. His ardor rapidly turns to boredom, and to disgust."

       Still Bink dared not comment. He would not have become bored, he was sure.

       Roland understood him, too well. "Son, what you need is a real live girl," he concluded. "A figure with a personality, who will talk back to you. It is far more challenging to develop a relationship with a complete woman, and often extremely frustrating." He glanced meaningfully at the door through which Bianca had departed. '"But in the long run it is also far more rewarding. What you sought in the wild oats was a shortcut-but in life there are no shortcuts." He smiled. "Though if it had been up to me, I'd have let you try the shortcut. No harm in it; no harm at all. But your mother-well, we have a conservative culture here, and the ladies tend to be the most conservative-especially the pretty ones. It's a small village-smaller than it used to be-so everybody knows his neighbor's business. So we are circumscribed. Know what I mean?"

       Bink nodded uncertainly. When his father laid down the law, however circumspectly, that was final. "No more oats."

       "Your mother-well, she was caught by surprise by your growing up. The oats are out-she's probably rooting them up right this instant-but you still have a lot of good experience ahead of you. Bianca might like to think of you as a little boy forever, but even she can't balk nature. Not for more than five seconds! So she'll simply have to go along with it."

       Roland paused, but Bink was silent again, unsure of what his father was leading up to.

       "There's a girl due to move here from one of the lesser villages," Roland continued. "Theoretically this is for proper schooling, since we have the best centaur schoolmaster in Xanth. But I suspect the underlying reason is that there simply aren't many eligible boys in her village. I understand she has not yet discovered her magic talent, and she's about your age-" He paused to glance meaningfully at Bink. "I think she could use a handsome, healthy young man to show her around and warn her of local hazards. I understand she is extremely smart and pretty, and soft-spoken-a rare combination.''

       Then Bink began to understand. A girl-a real girl-for him to get to know. One who would not be prejudiced by his lack of magic. And Bianca would not be able to disapprove, though privately she might dislike the fact of Bink's newly masculine drives. His father had given him a viable option. Suddenly he realized he could do without wild oats.

       "Her name is Sabrina," Roland said.

       A light ahead brought Bink back to the present. Someone was standing by Justin Tree, holding a magic lamp. "It is all right, Bink," Justin's voice said in the air beside him. "Sabrina brought help, but it wasn't needed. Did you get the sponge?"

       "I got it," Bink said.

       So his little adventure had been no adventure at all. Just like his life. As Sabrina helped him pack the sponge around Justin's wound, Bink realized that he had decided. He could not go on this way, a nonentity; he would go to see the Good Magician Humfrey and learn what his own magic talent was.

       He glanced up. His eyes caught those of Sabrina, glowing by the light of the lamp. She smiled. She was even more lovely now than she had been when he first met her, so many years ago, when they had both been adolescents, and she had always been true to him. There was no question: Bink's father had been correct about the advantages-and frustrations-of a real live girl. Now it was up to Bink to do what he had to do-to become a real live man.

   Chapter 2.


       Bink set off on foot, wearing a stuffed knapsack and bearing a good hunting knife and a home-cut staff. His mother had urged him to let them hire a guide for him, but Bink had had to refuse; the "guide" would really be a guard to keep him safe. How world he ever live that down? Yet the wilderness beyond the village had its hazards for the traveler unfamiliar with it; few people hiked it alone. He really would have been better off with a guide.

       He could have had transport on a winged steed, but that would have been expensive, and risky in its own fashion. Griffins were often surly creatures. He preferred to make his own way on the secure ground, if only to prove that he could, despite the fancied snickers of the village youths. Jama wasn't snickering much at the moment-he was laboring under the mortification spell the village Elders had put on him for his attack on Justin Tree-but there were other snickerers.

       At least Roland had understood. "One day you'll discover that the opinions of worthless people are worthless," he had murmured to Bink. "You have to do it your own way. I comprehend that, and wish you well-on your own."

       Bink had a map, and knew which path led to the castle of the Good Magician Humfrey. Rather, which path had led there; the truth was that Humfrey was a crotchety old man who preferred isolation in the wilderness. Periodically he moved his castle, or changed the approaches to it by magical means, so that one never could be sure of finding it. Regardless, Bink intended to track the Magician to his lair.

       The first leg of his journey was familiar. He had spent his whole life in the North Village and explored most of its surrounding bypaths. Hardly any dangerous flora or fauna remained in the immediate vicinity, and those that were potential threats were well known.

       He stopped to drink at a water hole near a huge needle cactus. As he approached, the plant quivered, making ready to fire on him. "Hold, friend," Bink said commandingly. "I am of the North Village." The cactus, restrained by the pacification formula, withheld its deadly barrage. The key word was "friend"; the thing certainly was not a friend, but it had to obey the geis laid on it. No genuine stranger would know this, so the cactus was an effective guard against intruders. Animals below a certain size it ignored. Since most creatures had to have water sooner or later, this was a convenient compromise. Some areas had been ravaged occasionally by wild griffins and other large beasts, but not the North Village. One experience with an irate needler more than sufficed as a lesson for the animal lucky enough to survive it.

       Another hour's swift march brought him to less-familiar territory, by definition less safe. What did the people of this area use to guard their water holes? Unicorns trained to impale strangers? Well, he would find out soon enough.

       The rolling hills and small lakes gave way to rougher terrain, and strange plants appeared. Some had tall antennas that swiveled to orient on him from a distance; others emitted subtly attractive crooning noises, but had branches bearing powerful pincers. Bink walked at a safe distance around them, taking no unnecessary risks. Once he thought he spied an animal about the size of a man, but it had eight spiderlike legs. He moved on rapidly and silently.

       He saw a number of birds, but these were of little concern. Since they could fly, they had little need for defensive magic against man, so he had no cause to be wary of them-unless he saw any big birds; those might consider him prey. Once he spied the monstrous form of a roc in the distance, and cowered down, letting it wing on without seeing him. So long as the birds were small, he actually preferred their company, for the insects and bugs were at times aggressive.