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Iers Anthony - pell For Chameleon

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pell For Chameleon
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Because he was foolishly terrified of being alone at night, he answered himself. If only he had some magic, then he would feel more secure. Even a simple confidence spell would serve.

He spied a light ahead. Relief! It was a yellow square, nearly certain indication of human habitation. He was almost tearfully pleased. He was no child, no adolescent, but he might as well be, here in the forest and off the bounds of his map. He needed the comfort of human companionship. He hurried toward the light, hoping it would not turn out to be some illusion or trap sponsored by an inimical being!

It was real. It was a farm at the edge of a small village; now he could see other squares of light farther down the valley. Almost joyfully, he knocked on the door.

It opened grudgingly to show a homely woman in a soiled apron. She peered at him suspiciously. "I don't know you," she grumped, edging the door closed again.

"I am Bink of the North Village," he said quickly. "I have traveled all day, and was balked by the chasm. Now I need lodging for the night. I will perform some reasonable service for the favor. I'm strong; I can chop wood or load hay or move rocks-"

"You don't need magic to do those things," she said.

"Not with magic! With my hands. I-"

"How do I know you're not a wraith?" she demanded.

Bink held out his left hand, wincing. "Prick me; I bleed." It was a standard test, for most nocturnal supernatural creatures had no blood, unless they had recently fed on some living creature. Even then they had none that would flow.

"Oh, come on, Martha," a man's gruff voice called from inside. "There hasn't been a wraith in these parts for a decade, and they don't do no harm anyway. Let him in; if he eats, he's human."

"Ogres eat," she muttered. But she cracked the door open far enough for Bink to squeeze through.

Now Bink saw the farm's guardian animal: a small werewolf, probably one of their children. There were no true werewolves or other weres that he knew of; all were humans who had developed the talent. Such changelings were increasingly frequent, it seemed. This one had the large head and flattish face typical of the type. A real werewolf would have been indistinguishable from a canine until it changed; then it would have been a wolfish man. Bink put out a hand as it slunk up to sniff him, then patted it on the head.

The creature metamorphosed into a boy about eight years old. "Did I scare you, huh?" he begged.

"Terrified," Bink agreed.

The lad turned toward the man. "He's clean, Paw," he announced. "No smell of magic on him."

"That's the trouble," Bink murmured. "If I had magic, I wouldn't be traveling. But I meant what I said. I can do good physical work."

"No magic?" the man inquired as the woman poured Bink a steaming bowl of stew. The farmer was in his mid-thirties, as homely as his wife, but possessed of a few deep smile-lines around his mouth and eyes. He was thin, but obviously sturdy; hard physical labor made for tough men. He flexed purple as he talked, then green, his whole body changing color smoothly: his talent. "How'd you make it all the way from North Village in one day, then?"

"A lady centaur gave me a lift."

"A filly! I'll bet she did! Where'd you hang on to when she jumped?"

Bink smiled ruefully. "Well, she said she'd drop me in a trench if I did it again," he admitted.

"Haw! Haw! Haw!" the man brayed. Farmers, being relatively uneducated, tended to have an earthy sense of humor. Bink noticed that the homely wife wasn't laughing, and the boy merely stared uncomprehendingly.

Now the farmer got down to business. "Listen, I don't need no hand labor nowsabout. But I've got a part in a hearing coming up, and I don't want to go. Upsets the missus, you know."

Bink nodded, though he did not understand. He saw the wife nod grim agreement. What sort of thing was this?

"So if you want to work off your lodging, you can stand in for me," the farmer continued. "Won't only take 'bout an hour, no work to it 'cept to agree to anything the bailiff says. Softest job you can find, and easy for you, too, 'cause you're a stranger. Playing opposite a cute young thing-" He caught the grim look of his wife and aborted that line. "How 'bout it?"

"Anything I can do," Bink said uncertainly. What was this about playing opposite a cute young thing? He'd never find out while the wife was present. Would Sabrina object?

"Fine! There's hay in the loft, and a bucket so you won't have to go outside. Just don't snore too loud-the missus don't like it."

The missus didn't like a lot of things, it seemed. How did a man ever come to marry a woman like that? Would Sabrina turn shrewish after marriage? The idea made him uneasy. "I won't," Bink agreed. The stew was not very tasty, but it was filling. Good stuff to travel on.

He slept comfortably in the hay, with the wolf curled up beside him. He did have to use the pot, and it stank all night, having no cover-but that was much better than going into the magic night. After that initial expression of objection to the stew, his innards settled down. Bink really had no complaint.

He had gruel for breakfast, heated without fire. That was the wife's talent, a useful one for a farmstead. Then he reported to the neighbor's house a mile on down along the chasm for the hearing.

The bailiff was a big, bluff man, above whose head a small cloud formed when he concentrated on anything too intently. "Know anything about it?" he inquired after Bink explained.

"Nothing," Bink admitted. "You'll have to tell me what to do."

"Good! It's just a sort of little playlet, to settle a problem without ruining anybody's reputation. We call it surrogate magic. Mind you, don't use any actual magic."

"I won't," Bink said.

"You just agree to whatever I ask you. That's all."

Bink began to get nervous. "I don't believe in lying, sir."

"This ain't exactly lying, boy. It's in a good cause. You'll see. I'm s'prised you folk don't practice it in North Village."

Bink was uneasily silent. He hoped he had not gotten himself into something ugly.

The others arrived: two men and three young women. The men were ordinary, bearded farmers, one young, one middle-aged; the girls ranged from indifferent to ravishing. Bink forced his eyes away from the prettiest one lest he stare. She was the most voluptuous, striking black-haired beauty he had ever seen, a diamond in the mud of this region.

"Now the six of you sit down across from each other at this table," the bailiff said in his official voice. "I'll do the talking when the judge comes. Mind you, this is a play-but it's secret. When I swear you in, it's for keeps-absolutely no blabbing about the details after you get out, understand?"

They all nodded. Bink was becoming more perplexed. He now understood about playing opposite a sweet young thing-but what kind of play was this, with an audience of one, that no one was permitted to report on later? Well, so be it; maybe it was a kind of magic.

The three men sat in a row on one side of the table, and the three girls faced them. Bink was opposite the beautiful one; her knees touched his, for the table was narrow. They were silky smooth, sending a shiver of appreciation up his legs. Remember Sabrina! he told himself. He was not ordinarily swayed by a pretty face, but this was an extraordinary face. It didn't help that she wore a tight sweater. What a figure!

The judge entered--a portly man with impressive paunch and sideburns. "All stand," the bailiff said.

They all stood respectfully.

The judge took a seat at the end of the table and the bailiff moved to the far side. They all sat down.

"Do you three ladies swear to tell no truth other than that presented in this hearing, any time, anywhere, and to shut up about that?" the bailiff demanded.

"We do," the girls chorused.

"And do you three louts swear the same?"

"We do," Bink said with the others. If he was supposed to lie here, but never to talk about it outside, did that mean it wasn't really a lie? The bailiff knew what was true and what was false, presumably, so in effect-"Now this is the hearing for an alleged rape," the bailiff announced. Bink, shocked, tried to conceal his dismay. Were they supposed to act out a rape?

"Among these present," the bailiff continued, "is the girl who says she was raped-and the man she charges. He says it happened but it was voluntary. That right, men?"

Bink nodded vigorously along with the others. Brother! He would rather have chopped wood for his night's lodging. Here he was, possibly lying about a rape he never committed.

"This is done anonymously to protect the reputations of those involved," the bailiff said. "So's to have an advisory opinion, in the presence of the first parties, without advertising it to the whole community."

Bink was beginning to understand. A girl who had been raped could be ruined, though it was no fault of her own; many men would refuse to marry her for that reason alone. Thus she could win her case but lose her future. A man guilty of rape could be exiled, and a man accused of rape would be viewed with suspicion, complicating his own future. It was almost, he thought grimly, as serious a crime as having no magic. Getting at the truth could be a very delicate matter, not something either party would want to advertise in a public trial. Win or lose, reputations would suffer grievously. Yet how could justice be done if it never came to trial? Thus this private, semianonymous hearing. Would it suffice?

"She says she was walking down by the Gap," the bailiff said, glancing at his notes. "He came up behind her, grabbed her, and raped her. Right, girls?"

The three girls nodded, each looking hurt and angry. The vigorous head motion caused the knee of the girl facing Bink to shake, and another ripple of suggestion traveled up his leg. What an opposite lady, in what a play!

"He says he was standing there and she came up and made a suggestion and he took her up on it. Right, men?"

Bink nodded with the others. He hoped his side won; this was nervous business.

Now the judge spoke. "Was it close to a house?"

"'Bout a hundred feet," the bailiff said.

"Then why did she not scream?"

"He said he'd push her off the brink if she made a sound," the bailiff replied. "She was frozen in terror.

Right, girls?"

They nodded-and each looked momentarily terrified. Bink wondered which of the three had actually been raped. Then he corrected his thought hastily: which one had made the accusation? He hoped it wasn't the one opposite him.

"Were the two known to each other prior to the occasion?''

"Yes, Your Honor."

"Then I presume she would have fled him at the outset, had she disliked him-and that he would not have forced her if she trusted him. In a small community like this, people get to know each other very well, and there are few actual surprises. This is not conclusive, but it strongly suggests she had no strong aversion to contact with him, and may have tempted him with consequence she later regretted. I would probably, were this case to come up in formal court, find the man not guilty of the charge, by virtue of reasonable doubt."

The three men relaxed. Bink became aware of a trickle of sweat on his forehead, generated while he listened to the judge's potential decision.

"Okay, you have the judge's ifso," said the bailiff. "You girls still want to bring it to open trial?"

Grim-faced, looking betrayed, the three girls shook their heads, no. Bink felt sorry for his opposite. How could she avoid being seductive? She was a creature constructed for no other visible purpose than ra--than love.

"Then take off," the bailiff said. "Remember-no talking outside, or well have a real trial, for contempt of court." The warning seemed superfluous; the girls would hardly be talking about this one. The guilty-uh, innocent-man would also shut up, and Bink himself just wanted to get clear of this village. That left only one man who might want to talk-but if he breathed a word, all the others would know who had blabbed. There would be silence.

So it was over. Bink stood and filed out with the others. The whole thing had taken less than the promised hour, so he was well off. He'd had a night's lodging and was well rested. All he needed now was to find a route past the chasm to the Good Magician's castle.

The bailiff emerged, and Bink approached him. "Could you tell me if there is any way south from here?"

"Boy, you don't want to cross the Gap," the bailiff said firmly, the little cloud forming over his head. "Not unless you can fly."

"I'm on foot."

"There's a route, but the Gap dragon... You're a nice boy, young, handsome. You did a good job in the hearing. Don't risk it."

Everybody thought he was so damned young! Only good, strong, personal magic would give him real manhood in the eyes of Xanth. "I have to risk it."

The bailiff sighed. "Well, I can't tell you no then, son. I'm not your father." He sucked in his paunch, which was almost as impressive as that of the judge, and contemplated the cloud over his head momentarily. The cloud seemed about to shed a tear or two. Again Bink winced inwardly. Now he was getting fathered as well as mothered. "But it's complicated. Better have Wynne show you."

"Wynne?"

"Your opposite. The one you almost raped." The bailiff smiled, making a signal with one hand, and his cloud dissipated. "Not that I blame you."

The girl approached, apparently in answer to the signal.

"Wynne, honey, show this man to the southern slope of the Gap. Mind you keep clear of the dragon."

"Sure," she said, smiling. The smile did not add to her splendor, because that was impossible, but it tried.

Bink had mixed emotions. After this hearing, suppose she accused him of...?

The bailiff glanced at him understandingly. "Don't worry about it, son. Wynne don't lie, and she don't change her mind. You behave yourself, difficult as that may be, and there'll be no trouble."

Embarrassed, Bink accepted the girl's company. If she could show him a quick, safe route past the chasm, he would be well ahead.

They walked east, the sun beating into their faces. "Is it far?" Bink asked, still feeling awkward for assorted reasons. If Sabrina could see him now!

"Not far," she said. Her voice was soft, somehow sending an involuntary thrill through him. Maybe it was magic; he hoped so, because he didn't like to think that he could be so easily subverted by mere beauty. He didn't know this girl!

They continued in silence for a while. Bink tried again: "What is your talent?"

She looked at him blankly.

Uh-oh. After the hearing, she could not be blamed for taking that the wrong way. "Your magic talent," he clarified. "The thing you can do. A spell, or..."

She shrugged noncommittally.

What was with this girl? She was beautiful, but she seemed somewhat vacuous.

"Do you like it here?" he asked.

She shrugged again.

Now he was almost certain: Wynne was lovely but stupid. Too bad; she could have made some farmer a marvelous showpiece. No wonder the bailiff had not been concerned about her; she was not much use.

They walked in silence again. As they rounded a bend, they almost stumbled over a rabbit nibbling a mushroom in the path. Startled, the creature jumped straight into the air and hung there, levitating, its pink nose quivering.

Bink laughed. "We won't hurt you, magic bunny," he said. And Wynne smiled.


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