The Magician King Page 1

BOOK I

CHAPTER 1

Quentin rode a gray horse with white socks named Dauntless. He wore black leather boots up to his knees, different-colored stockings, and a long navy-blue topcoat that was richly embroidered with seed pearls and silver thread. On his head was a platinum coronet. A glittering side-sword bumped against his leg—not the ceremonial kind, the real kind, the kind that would actually be useful in a fight. It was ten o’clock in the morning on a warm, overcast day in late August. He was everything a king of Fillory should be. He was hunting a magic rabbit.

By King Quentin’s side rode a queen: Queen Julia. Up ahead were another queen and another king, Janet and Eliot—the land of Fillory had four rulers in all. They rode along a high-arched forest path littered with yellow leaves, perfect little sprays of them that looked like they could have been cut and placed by a florist. They moved in silence, slowly, together but lost in their separate thoughts, gazing out into the green depths of the late summer woods.

It was an easy silence. Everything was easy. Nothing was hard. The dream had become real.

“Stop!” Eliot said, at the front.

They stopped. Quentin’s horse didn’t halt when the others’ did—Dauntless wandered a little out of line and halfway off the trail before he persuaded her for good and all to quit walking for a damn minute. Two years as a king of Fillory and he was still shit at horseback riding.

“What is it?” he called.

They all sat for another minute. There was no hurry. Dauntless snorted once in the silence: lofty horsey contempt for whatever human enterprise they thought they were pursuing.

“Thought I saw something.”

“I’m starting to wonder,” Quentin said, “if it’s even possible to track a rabbit.”

“It’s a hare,” Eliot said.

“Same difference.”

“It isn’t, actually. Hares are bigger. And they don’t live in burrows, they make nests in open ground.”

“Don’t start,” both Julia and Janet said, in unison.

“Here’s my real question,” Quentin said. “If this rabbit thing really can see the future won’t it know we’re trying to catch it?”

“It can see the future,” Julia said softly, beside him. “It cannot change it. Did you three argue this much when you were at Brakebills?”

She wore a sepulchral black riding dress and an actual riding hood, also black. She always wore black, like she was in mourning, even though Quentin couldn’t think of anyone she should have been in mourning for. Casually, like she was calling over a waiter, Julia summoned a tiny songbird to her wrist and raised it up to her ear. It chipped, chirruped something, and she nodded back and it flew away again.

Nobody noticed, except for Quentin. She was always giving and getting little secret messages from the talking animals. It was like she was on a different wireless network from the rest of them.

“You should have let us bring Jollyby,” Janet said. She yawned, holding the back of her hand against her mouth. Jollyby was Master of the Hunt at Castle Whitespire, where they all lived. He usually supervised this kind of excursion.

“Jollyby’s great,” Quentin said, “but even he couldn’t track a hare in the woods. Without dogs. When there’s no snow.”

“Yes, but Jollyby has very well-developed calf muscles. I like looking at them. He wears those man-tights.”

“I wear man-tights,” Quentin said, pretending to be affronted. Eliot snorted.

“I imagine he’s around here somewhere.” Eliot was still scanning the trees. “Discreet distance and all that. Can’t keep that man away from a royal hunt.”

“Careful what you hunt,” Julia said, “lest you catch it.”

Janet and Eliot looked at each other: more inscrutable wisdom from Julia. But Quentin frowned. Julia made her own kind of sense.

Quentin hadn’t always been a king, of Fillory or anywhere else. None of them had. Quentin had grown up a regular non-magical, non-royal person in Brooklyn, in what he still in spite of everything thought of as the real world. He’d thought Fillory was a fiction, an enchanted land that existed only as the setting of a series of fantasy novels for children. But then he’d learned to do magic, at a secret college called Brakebills, and he and his friends had found out that Fillory was real.

It wasn’t what they expected. Fillory was a darker and more dangerous place in real life than it was in the books. Bad things happened there, terrible things. People got hurt and killed and worse. Quentin went back to Earth in disgrace and despair. His hair turned white.

But then he and the others had pulled themselves together again and gone back to Fillory. They faced their fears and their losses and took their places on the four thrones of Castle Whitespire and were made kings and queens. And it was wonderful. Sometimes Quentin couldn’t believe that he’d lived through it all when Alice, the girl he loved, had died. It was hard to accept all the good things he had now, when Alice hadn’t lived to see them.

But he had to. Otherwise what had she died for? He unslung his bow and stood up in the stirrups and looked around. Bubbles of stiffness popped satisfyingly in his knees. There was no sound except for the hush of falling leaves slipping through other leaves.

A gray-brown bullet flickered across the path a hundred feet in front of them and vanished into the underbrush at full tilt. With a quick fluid motion that had cost him a lot of practice Quentin nocked an arrow and drew. He could have used a magic arrow, but it didn’t seem sporting. He aimed for a long moment, straining against the strength of the bow, and released.

The arrow burrowed into the loamy soil up to the feathers, right where the hare’s flashing paws had been about five seconds ago.

“Almost,” Janet said, deadpan.

There was no way in hell they were going to catch this thing.

“Toy with me, would you?” Eliot shouted. “Yah!”

He put the spurs to his black charger, which whinnied and reared obligingly and hoofed the empty air before lunging off the path into the woods after the hare. The crashing sound of his progress through the trees faded almost immediately. The branches sprang back into place behind him and were still again. Eliot was not shit at horseback riding.

Janet watched him go.

“Hi ho, Silver,” she said. “What are we even doing out here?”

It was a fair question. The point wasn’t really to catch the hare. The point was—what was the point? What were they looking for? Back at the castle their lives were overflowing with pleasure. There was a whole staff there whose job it was to make sure that every day of their lives was absolutely perfect. It was like being the only guests at a twenty-star hotel that you never had to leave. Eliot was in heaven. It was everything he’d always loved about Brakebills—the wine, the food, the ceremony—with none of the work. Eliot loved being a king.

Quentin loved it too, but he was restless. He was looking for something else. He didn’t know what it was. But when the Seeing Hare was spotted in the greater Whitespire metropolitan area, he knew he wanted a day off from doing nothing all day. He wanted to try to catch it.

The Seeing Hare was one of the Unique Beasts of Fillory. There were a dozen of them—the Questing Beast, who had once granted Quentin three wishes, was one of them, as was the Great Bird of Peace, an ungainly flightless bird like a cassowary that could stop a battle by appearing between the two opposing armies. There was only one of each of them, hence the name, and each one had a special gift. The Unseen Monitor was a large lizard who could turn you invisible for a year, if that’s what you wanted.

People hardly ever saw them, let alone caught them, so a lot of guff got talked about them. No one knew where they came from, or what the point of them was, if any. They’d always been there, permanent features of Fillory’s enchanted landscape. They were apparently immortal. The Seeing Hare’s gift was to predict the future of any person who caught it, or so the legend went. It hadn’t been caught for centuries.

Not that the future was a question of towering urgency right now. Quentin figured he had a pretty fair idea of what his future was like, and it wasn’t much different from his present. Life was good.

They’d picked up the hare’s trail early, when the morning was still bright and dewy, and they rode out singing choruses of “Kill the Wabbit” to the tune of “Ride of the Valkyries” in their best Elmer Fudd voices. Since then it had zigzagged them through the forest for miles, stopping and starting, looping and doubling back, hiding in the bushes and then suddenly zipping across their paths, again and again.

“I do not think he is coming back,” Julia said.

She didn’t speak much these days. And for some reason she’d mostly given up using contractions.

“Well, if we can’t track the hare we can track Eliot anyway.” Janet gently urged her mount off the track and into the trees. She wore a low-cut forest-green blouse and men’s chaps. Her penchant for mild cross-dressing had been the scandal of the season at court this year.

Julia didn’t ride a horse at all but an enormous furry quadruped that she called a civet, which looked like an ordinary civet, long and brown and vaguely feline, with a fluidly curving back, except that it was the size of a horse. Quentin suspected it could talk—its eyes gleamed with a bit more sentience than they should have, and it always seemed to follow their conversations with too much interest.

Dauntless didn’t want to follow the civet, which exuded a musky, un-equine odor, but she did as she was told, albeit at a spiteful, stiff-legged walk.

“I haven’t seen any dryads,” Janet said. “I thought there’d be dryads.”

“Me neither,” Quentin said. “You never see them in the Queenswood anymore.”

It was a shame. He liked the dryads, the mysterious nymphs who watched over oak trees. You really knew you were in a magical fantasy otherworld when a beautiful woman wearing a skimpy dress made of leaves suddenly jumped out of a tree.

“I thought maybe they could help us catch it. Can’t you call one or summon one or something, Julia?”

“You can call them all you want. They will not come.”

“I spend enough time listening to them bitch about land allocation,” Janet said. “And where are they all if they’re not here? Is there some cooler, magical-er forest somewhere that they’re all off haunting?”

“They are not ghosts,” Julia said. “They are spirits.”

The horses picked their way carefully over a berm that was too straight to be natural. An old earthwork from an ancient, unrecoverable age.

“Maybe we could make them stay,” Janet said. “Legislate some incentives. Or just detain them at the border. It’s bullshit that there’s not more dryads in the Queenswood.”

“Good luck,” Julia said. “Dryads fight. Their skin is like wood. And they have staves.”

“I’ve never seen a dryad fight,” Quentin said.

“That is because nobody is stupid enough to fight one.”

Recognizing a good exit line when it heard one, the civet chose that moment to scurry on ahead. Two sturdy oak trees actually leaned aside to let Julia pass between them. Then they leaned back together again, leaving Janet and Quentin to go the long way around.

“Listen to her,” Janet said. “She has so totally gone native! I’m tired of her more-Fillorian-than-thou bullshit. Did you see her talking to that fucking bird?”

“Oh, leave her alone,” Quentin said. “She’s all right.”

But if he was being honest, Quentin was fairly sure that Queen Julia wasn’t all right.

Julia hadn’t learned her magic the way they had, coming up through the safe, orderly system of Brakebills. She and Quentin had gone to high school together, but she hadn’t gotten into Brakebills, so she’d become a hedge witch instead: she’d learned it on her own, on the outside. It wasn’t official magic, institutional magic. She was missing huge chapters of lore, and her technique was so sloppy and loopy that sometimes he couldn’t believe it even worked at all.

But she also knew things Quentin and the others didn’t. She hadn’t had the Brakebills faculty standing over her for four years making sure she colored inside the lines. She’d talked to people Quentin never would have talked to, picked up things his professors would never have let him touch. Her magic had sharp, jagged edges on it that had never been filed down.

It was a different kind of education, and it made her different. She talked differently. Brakebills had taught them to be arch and ironic about magic, but Julia took it seriously. She played it fully goth, in a black wedding dress and black eyeliner. Janet and Eliot thought it was funny, but Quentin liked it. He felt drawn to her. She was weird and dark, and Fillory had made the rest of them so damn light, Quentin included. He liked it that she wasn’t quite all right and she didn’t care who knew it.

The Fillorians liked it too. Julia had a special rapport with them, especially with the more exotic ones, the spirits and elementals and jinnis and even more strange and extreme beings—the fringe element, in the hazy zone between the biological and the entirely magical. She was their witch-queen, and they adored her.

But Julia’s education had cost her something, it was hard to put your finger on what, but whatever it was had left its mark on her. She didn’t seem to want or need human company anymore. In the middle of a state dinner or a royal ball or even a conversation she would lose interest and wander away. It happened more and more. Sometimes Quentin wondered exactly how expensive her education had been, and how she’d paid for it, but whenever he asked her, she avoided the question. Sometimes he wondered if he was falling in love with her. Again.

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