On pairings: given how widely Chameleon's personality changes, Bink/Chameleon is really an OT4, not a pairing. Trent/Iris starts out as a no, they don't love each other. It's practically in the marriage contract, but eventually Iris gets over herself and they bond. Trent/his first wife ended with her dying from something magic could have cured: he still carries a torch. Bink/Trent, during the book and after, is a combination of 'I could kill you any time I want' with bonds of trust forged under fire. The book's ending just changes what they know about who's the one really in danger/on top.
I like the concept of Bink's talent being a second personality that makes plans of its own etc. It's practically a character he spends most of The Source of Magic arguing with about acceptable tactics and who gets to determine how they do things. Its reaction to Centaur Aisle was likely unprintable, and I wonder if Bink did that just to annoy it.
If anything, my Xanth OTP is Bink's talent/Fanchon, because of certain things she says and what they imply during Night Mare, especially. Given Fanchon's pesonality, especially in light of her backstory, and keeping in mind that Imbri doesn't know what's going on, so you have to look at what Fanchon actually says, not the narration, what she says and the level of trust there is sweet to the point of Made of Diabetes. That? Is love. I want to add a chapter to this where the two of them discuss Dor and what would make that aspect Chameleon willing to physically bear a kid, in a world where that's rare/optional, much less have one period given the risk of them inheriting her mutation (because like hell Fanchon didn't check Trent's research in Castle Roogna and apply it to herself).
If anyone thinks that poly is unrealistic in Xanth, I refer them to Humphrey's wives and their arrangement. Although Bink was timeshared first.
Anyway, on top of the worldbuilding there are lots of random references to things in the series, like magic springs being open to suggestions and people being turned into fish.
"Working so late? You need to take better care of yourself."
Looking up from the reports, it took Trent a second to identify that voice. He knew it, he'd grown to know it very well over their journey together, and yet there was something…
"It wouldn't do anyone any good if you died." Not when there was so much that needed doing, in order to save Xanth. "You should be with your wife."
"Iris has her own bedroom. It was a marriage of convenience, I won't impose." She was his Queen, that and wife were two different things. He'd had a wife, once.
"She would like it if you did. She's always been thought of either as terrifyingly powerful because she's a sorceress, or not good enough because she's a sorceress instead of a magician. Someone who couldn't take the throne for him was useless to Humphrey." A hand touched his shoulder casually.
All Trent had to do was turn around, look at him, and he had the option of getting rid of the intruder. Although he knew better than to think that would work, now.
His sword wasn't far away. He could get up and wander over to the place he'd concealed it while they talked.
"She's not my wife. I will never love her, it wouldn't be fair to make her fall in love with me."
"She already is, even if she isn't admitting it to herself. Because you're a good man, and honest. She's just now realizing that honesty is even more important to a mistress of illusions." How could she change reality if she didn't know what was real? How could she know herself if she didn't have any bedrock to stand on?
"I was honest when I told her that I would never love her."
"Give it time."
His left hand had gripped the arm of his deskchair, hard, and now his right moved as well, tightening around the pen he hadn't put down. "Is that what you want?"
"I'm not going to kill you if you divorce her, if that's what you're asking. But you won't. This arrangement is too advantageous."
"I love my wife."
"And there's no magic in the world that can bring her back, we both know that." Or else Trent would have tried. "Iris is no replacement for your wife: we both know that. If you come to love her," and was that a hidden smile in his voice when he said if? "It would be for herself."
"I will never forget her. But then, there is water of Lethe, all sorts of ways of getting rid of memories." Why was he goading this man?
"But then you wouldn't be you." That warm hand squeezed his shoulder. "All of that made you who you are, and you're the one who should be king of Xanth. You're the one who didn't kill me when you had the chance."
"Did I have a chance?"
"No. For example, your own talent could have misfired and turned you into a fish. Don't make that face. I won't do that to you." How did this person know his expression, when his back was still turned to him? "And you know I won't. That was why you didn't strike."
"What am I supposed to believe? You used Chameleon. She loves you, and that was Wynne. She should have frozen there, too lost to think of what to do, not lunged to your defense. She would have, if she'd been able to think of it. She loves you." And you took advantage of that. "But unless the curse she carries was altered, allowing her to think in a situation where anyone would panic, just for a second, she couldn't have. You nearly let her die to save your own life."
"I would not have let her die." He seemed almost affronted, yet there was a real smile when he said, "She's too perfect."
"So you do love her? But isn't your talent… Aren't you only concerned with yourself?"
"No one exists in a vacuum. Back when I was young, I inhaled poison gas. I didn't see it coming, I wasn't as powerful and aware as I am now. I'm only alive because my parents were able to save me, with my help. They worked as hard as they did, and they were there to be used in the first place, because they loved me. Chameleon was willing to die to save me because she loved me. You didn't strike because I'm your friend. Even when you knew that I would be holding a blade to your throat for the rest of your life if you didn't kill me then and there. Do you remember when you gave us your sword?"
It had both been the practical thing to do, since someone needed to guard him while he slept, and a test. He couldn't have made it through the wilds watching both the jungle and those in a position to stab him in the back at the same time. "That was why. That was my chance to kill you, or try to, and now I have to live with it?"
"Now you will live. You are important to me. Like my parents, like Chameleon, like Iris will be."
"Iris? After you spurned her?"
"She wasn't what I needed, and that was because I wasn't what she needed. She'll be good for you, though."
"Happily ever after?" Was all this a reward for being a good king? Being good? "I knew that you wouldn't want the throne. You would have to reveal yourself for that. What do you want?"
"What do I want? I want Xanth's borders opened, so my grandchildren don't devolve into monsters."
"What? You're going to have grandchildren? With Chameleon?" Was he insane?
"What's the point of having the power of protection if I can't protect my children? When they will help protect me in turn. I will find a way to keep them from carrying her mutation. You're right. It's not a talent, it's a 'mutation.' She's the first of a new kind, like the gorgons or nymphs." Wynne was practically a nymph already, and men had used her as one. "She wants children, and I want children. They will be advantageous, so I will find a way to give them to her."
"Iris wants to give me a heir. The marriage couldn't be annulled then." Her position would be secure, and so would Xanth's. Xanth needed a stable line of succession, another magician to take the throne who would be competent, unlike the Storm King, and would care about more than holding the position until he could pass it to someone else, unlike the Good (but not good enough) Magician Humphrey. Someone reasonably intelligent who could be trained.
"You lost a son: having one would remind you of too much, wouldn't it?" That hand squeezed his shoulder. "A little girl to spoil, and our children will play together." Didn't that sound nice.
"And fall in love?" Meaning the next king would also… What? Be loyal to Bink? Willing to arrange matters to protect him?
"If they make each other happy. Otherwise, there's no advantage to it." But they would, it would be easy to arrange for them to bond.
"Why are you revealing yourself now?" Why possess Bink, why come into Trent's office/bedroom in the middle of the night?
"I already revealed myself to you."
"Not quite this blatantly. You feigned weakness."
"And you knew it all along, didn't you? You can't say that I tried to deceive you when I knew you wouldn't fall for it."
"That was the bargain you and Bink made, that you would duel one another. I could have easily arranged for you to die, but neither of us wanted to kill you. He felt honor-bound to stop you, even though he knew you would be the best king. That you would bring about a new golden age."
"He's a very honorable person. And you are not. You've been lying to him his entire life."
"Yes. So that he would grow up into that honorable man. So that he would understand what it is to be weak, and helpless, and try anyway. So that he would learn to try anyway, and find ways. There are ways to nullify talents, you know. Like that plant you found on the border. You could have sent for some of it."
"Isn't that ability itself magical?"
"You would have tried. You're a very clever man, and you don't give up. You find a way." Now that fondness disappeared from his voice. "So stop pretending we're enemies?" They both knew better.
"How can I not think of you as a threat? You're far more powerful than I am, you're the reason I made it this far. You saved my life far more times than I know of, didn't you? Not just the hypnogourd, we were in dangerous, wild territory. All you would have had to do to ensure my death was stop working to keep me alive. And now? Is there anyone in Xanth you couldn't kill?"
"Yes." Bink paused. "Probably," he admitted. "Does that matter, though? You gave us your sword. We could have killed you in your sleep. Instead, we protected you, Chameleon and I. How is it any different now? Except that you still have your sword, in that drawer over there."
"How did you know?" Trent asked, out of idle curiosity more than anything.
"It's amazing how deeply magic is woven into Castle Roogna."
"You could have taken control of it."
"It chose you as king. And I chose you."
"So I'm to be the king, and you the kingmaker?"
"Are you complaining about this? Isn't it exactly what you wanted?"
"I wanted…" He wanted his wife back. Or to have won back then, instead of losing and being exiled, so that he never would have met her and never have lost her. "I will never love another woman as I loved her."
"So love Iris as a dear friend."
"And what do you get out of this?"
"If you're happy and well-rested, Xanth will prosper with you as king, and I will be better off. I'm not the part of Bink that has friends, I'm the one that manipulates. That lets the woman I 'love' take a blow for me. I do, however, know usefulness. I know what love is, and how powerful a force it is." A sword and a shield, raised in his defense. "I could have been an Evil Magician, I could have grown up only seeing the people around me as pawns, whose lives were worth nothing compared to my own. Except it's hard to keep up an act all the time, and there are plenty of non-magical means of knowing someone is lying. Hence, the Bink you know. The one with no talent. Who sees others as people whose lives are worth just as much, or more than his own. He'd die to protect you and Chameleon. He'd curse me for stopping him if I didn't save you as well. I trained him a little too well. He can be very difficult when he wants to be."
"Yes. I noticed." Bink was a very impressive young man.
"He's been angry at me since he noticed that you were avoiding him. He knows you well enough to know why."
"I haven't been avoiding him, I've just been busy…" No, he had been, hadn't he.
"You were afraid. It's only sensible to be afraid of powerful forces that you barely understand that could crush you at any moment, and you're no fool. Do you understand better now? To hurt you would be to hurt myself, and I exist to prevent that."
"So I have no need to fear you?"
"Only if you do something foolish, and you're no fool. That's why I want to keep you around. You're very good at what you do, and Xanth needs a competent king. Well, a competent king who actually wants to be king, unlike Humphrey."
"Neither of us would make a good king. Bink's too nice and helpful, and I don't care enough."
"Opposite sides of a coin. Like Wynne and Fanchon."
"Be fair. He's far from stupid, and I'm not that smart."
"You like her, don't you?" That… that was a relief.
"…She's good company. Useful. Advantageous to have around. We're going to keep them both, as well as Dee. We could cure them. Constantly dose her in that anti-magic elixir you made and have Dee all the time, but without Wynne's stupidity, Fanchon wouldn't be so brilliant. And Bink enjoys taking care of Wynne. It makes him feel needed, and it makes all of them happy, especially Fanchon, that someone would actually look after Wynne and her best interests instead of taking advantage of her. The looks don't matter. Bink and I both turned down a mistress of illusion."
"She wanted to make you king." Which both of them claimed not to want.
"Yes, but she would have done all the actual work. She would have insisted on it." If she was using her powers to make it seem as though Bink was a magician so he could be her puppet king. "It's easiest to get people to do things when they'd do them anyway. Like you'd take care of Xanth and not let your power go to your head even without Bink as a reminder of what fate awaits tyrants." Because Bink was a good and honorable man who had fought him before.
"Someone needs to remind you of that. I came very close to hating you, to deciding that you needed to be killed when I realized what had driven Chameleon onto my blade. Then there was that love spring."
"That was Bink's fault for not testing the water in a less suicidal way. If I didn't let him suffer some of the consequences of his actions, he wouldn't have learned from his mistakes. Not to mention that if I had protected him from the spring, you and Chameleon would have drunk from it next."
"Bink is stupidly honorable like that."
"And it was very noble of you to make sure that he saw you first, just in case."
"Well, I couldn't let him attack Chameleon. It could have been a hate spring, or any number of things." There were springs whose water turned all it touched to gold, poison springs of countless varieties, springs that were actually disguised monsters…
"Still, you could have hit him over the head. With your mundane sword."
"I've wondered if you had something to do with that," Trent confessed.
"It was entirely your own fault for having your mouth open." That had been asking for far, far worse than what had happened. When Bink had just taken a drink from a magical spring and his lips were still wet. What if it had been poison or worse? Love springs were mostly harmless, most of the wilderness was mostly deadly.
"I know it was just one of those things that happen in the wilderness. I can't complain about that when so many worse things could have happened." That hand had moved to the nape of his neck now.
"You don't regret and you think you should. It was nice, wasn't it? Letting go. But you feel like you can't let go." Of your guilt, duty, so many things.
He rested his head in his hand. "At least there wasn't a stork." Most of the time there wasn't, not with two men, any more than when a man bedded a nymph, but love springs had incredibly high conception rates. Pregnancy was obviously not a risk, but storks were less choosy. He'd been considering having water brought for him and Iris, to ensure they didn't have to try too many times.
But then, that would make it seem as though he didn't find her attractive without it, or that he didn't want to touch her because he despised her or… something. It certainly couldn't help the working relationship, and she took it out on everyone in the vicinity when she felt slighted. "Did you arrange it?" Trent dared to ask, feeling the way he had when Fanchon had laid out the problems with Xanth's legal system and he'd been told how many times per year Wynne had been raped. Trent'd been willing at the time, but then Wynne had been willing at the time. 'Informed consent' was a Mundane concept: Xanthian law had been written with love springs and so on in mind. Wynne had come on to them, she had said yes at the time: it had been legal. The fact that it was due to her condition messing with her head hadn't kept the men from sleeping with her, it had just kept her from being branded a whore or no better than a nymph, in the way a woman wasn't responsible for what happened if she accidently drank from a love spring. The men had gotten away from it, in the way they would have if they'd been seen by that same woman.
However, giving someone water from a love spring was a crime. Going up to Wynne shirtless or anything that would set her off should have been regarded as just as bad.
He'd trusted Bink. He hadn't blamed him for it, even if he had yelled at him for doing something as stupid as drinking from a spring without finding an animal to test it first. Chameleon hadn't blamed either of them for it. Love springs didn't count. They were like lightning strikes.
Nothing to blame anyone for, nothing to speak of ever again.
Except now the back of his neck was being rubbed, by the man that was his friend, the one he had fought beside, the one he trusted, and not. The man who was a magician more powerful than he was, a strategist who could plot rings around him, the man who had made him king instead of letting them execute him.
It was likely it had been that entire scene, that staged scene, that had convinced the council to accept Evil Magician Trent. And Bink's father Roland was a prominent member of the council.
"What if there had been?"
"It would solve the heir problem," two magicians would almost certainly have a powerful child, "but Iris would kill me, at this point." Now he turned around, forcing Bink to remove his shoulder and take a step back. "Are you trying to seduce me?"
"Do I need to?"
Yes, he needn't have worried. This was Bink's talent: it wasn't looking for anything but advantages. It wouldn't be attached. "Weren't you just saying that I should try to learn to love Iris?"
"She's not going to be first in your heart. She needs to understand that if she's ever going to be happy with you."
"What about Chameleon?"
"She has three selves. She loves Bink because he cares for Wynne, loves Dee, and respects Fanchon. He loves them all, even if in different ways. Also, she didn't mind before."
"That was a love spring, not infidelity." He looked up but didn't stand up. He was the king, he shouldn't need to in order to have authority. "What would you do if I said no?"
"So you are still afraid."
"Was this some sort of test?"
"It was also an honest question. Bink does admire you very much." And wasn't that to Trent's advantage. "I'm not going to hurt you, he'd start throwing himself off cliffs to make my life difficult. Or he'd shut himself in a safe room somewhere until I died of boredom." He touched Trent's arm this time. "And if I was trying to bind you to him, if that was what this was all about, I would have let the signal reach the stork. Love springs have an almost a hundred percent chance, you know."
"Why didn't you?"
"Because extortion and love, obligation and friendship, aren't the same. A man threatened into being your bodyguard isn't the same as a man who wants to protect you. Not to mention that he'd have blamed himself and I try to make his life difficult and interesting, not miserable." Anyway, "If you don't trust me, trust Bink. And I know that you trust him."
That was why Trent hadn't struck, that day. If Bink's talent was going to kill him anyway, then better to go down fighting, he'd thought. Better to decide it then than have the threat hanging over him every day for the rest of his life.
And yet he just couldn't do it. Even with his life, no, with Xanth's future at stake. Even seeing Chameleon's body lying there, guilt and anger warring within him. "I trust him. That was why I couldn't kill him." Not because of you.
In the end, he had shaped Bink's life, shaped Bink, so it was because of him, but he wisely didn't say that. "I'm glad." That hand trailed up Trent's arm, squeezed his shoulder. "I like you almost as much as Fanchon. You're strategist enough to appreciate it when I say that you're my most valuable piece. I'd sacrifice all of North Village," where Bink had grown up, including his parents, "before I sacrificed you."
"I'm flattered," Trent said dryly, looking into eyes that were fond and proud, as someone might be of some variety of champion livestock. "But given the current state of our gene pool, I'd prefer it if you didn't." Even if his army was helping, they still needed to find more people willing to move to Xanth and able to make the transition without raving about witchcraft or getting eaten their first day unsupervised.
"Of course not. I'd prefer not to do it either. They're valuable too, and Bink… well." He shrugged, patting Trent's shoulder and letting go. "If even I like you, then you know Bink loves you. As a friend, but then again…" He walked up to the wall. "Get some rest." At least he didn't say pleasant dreams. "The offer stands," he said as it opened for him, Castle Roogna showing this magician a passage it hadn't shown its king (of course, Trent hadn't asked).
Trent sat there, not knowing whether to be reassured or terrified, just like after their battle. The start of it had been him against Bink, but once he'd had Bink cornered the real fight had begun, against the truly dangerous one.
Or was that the Bink he knew, all along? It was almost impossible to defeat Bink's talent. It was almost impossible to really even try to kill Bink in the first place, and any strategist knew the best battle was one won before it began. Bink's talent preferred to be a last resort, after all. He and Bink truly did have no reason to fight. If anything, knowing how dangerous his opponent would be if they did just made him safer, because now he had even less desire to try anything and if he didn't try anything, Bink's talent wouldn't have to kill him.
Imagine a talent that powerful acting to protect him as a means of protecting Bink… that could be useful. Bink could be useful, he could take missions that would be suicide for any other.
He could also kill Trent, kill anyone, and make it look like an accident. Just bad luck.
Like the master of bad luck that had brought down King Roogna when they fought for the throne. The consequences of that battle were still harming Xanth after all these centuries.
Magicians throughout history had killed each other for the throne. It was the natural order of things. It took strong magic to protect the people from the wild magic around them. The strongest magician should have the throne. He had tried to take it from the senile Storm King to protect Xanth, all those years ago. Bink should never have let him have it, this was a farce.
Except the Bink he knew would never hurt Xanth. Bink had done it because he believed Trent was the best man for the job.
Bink was a trusting optimist, but his talent wasn't. Trent would be dead if Bink didn't truly believe, all of him, that he was the best king Xanth could have right now.
It really was reassuring.
…Maybe he could find some mission that would send Bink far, far away from him.
Trent knew that Bink wouldn't hurt him, really, but…
(What Bink's talent knew was that love springs might always summon the stork, but actual love potions didn't, and magic springs were often open to suggestions. Not that it had actually done so, of course, not when his outer self's methods were both more effective and completely immune to counterspells.)