The Magician King Page 10

In the center of the loop stood a stone monument, a granite obelisk with a statue of a man on top. Monsoons had weathered it badly, and tropical weeds had managed to crack off a corner of the base, but you could still make out the man’s heroic attitude, stoic in the face of what looked like impending misfortune.

“That is Captain Banks,” Elaine said. “He founded the Fillorian settlement on the Outer Island, by which I mean he ran his ship into it.”

Quentin wondered if there was a joke to be made about “founder” and “founder.” If there was it had probably already made the rounds of the Outer Island.

“Where is everybody?”

“Oh, they’re around,” she said. “We keep to ourselves here, mostly.”

Eleanor tried Elaine and was cuffed away. She held up her arms to Quentin, and he hoisted her up onto his shoulders. Elaine rolled her eyes as if to say, don’t say I didn’t warn you. The sun was setting in an absolute bloodbath of a sunset behind the trees, and the evening insects were growing bolder.

Eleanor squealed with delight at how tall Quentin was compared with her usual mount. She pulled the edge of her skirt down over his eyes. He gently lifted it up and she squealed again and pushed it back down. It was a game. She was surprisingly strong. Quentin supposed that there were worse things to be than an easy mark.

He stood there for a long moment, in the tropical darkness that lay beneath the hem of Eleanor’s skirt. Here I am, noble leader of the bold expedition to the Outer Island. King of all I survey. This was it, there really would be no surprise twist, no big reveal. The feeling of resignation was almost pleasurable, a mellow, numbing pleasure, like the first good, stiff drink of the evening.

He sighed. It wasn’t an unhappy sigh, but it included the thought: as soon as I have those taxes I am so out of here.

“You said something before about cocktails,” he said.

Dinner at the embassy was surprisingly good: a frighteningly toothy local fish served whole in a sweet preparation with some kind of mangolike local fruit. Eleanor waited on the guests with towering dignity, conveying salt shakers and glasses and other incidental items from kitchen to table with a straight back and slow, deliberate steps, toe-heel, as if she were walking a balance beam. Around eight thirty she dropped a crystal wineglass.

“For God’s sake, Eleanor,” Elaine said. “Go to bed. No dessert, just go to bed.” The accused wept and demanded cake, but Elaine was unmoved.

Afterward they all sat on wicker couches and chairs on an upper porch and took cautious sips of some appallingly sugary local liquor. The bay was spread out in the darkness below them, with the Muntjac afloat in it, illuminated by lanterns at bow and stern and at the tops of the masts. Julia contrived a spell to keep the bugs away.

Quentin asked where the bathroom was and excused himself. It was a cover story: he stopped by the kitchen, where he found what was left of the cake sitting underneath a glass dome. He cut a slice and took it up to Eleanor’s bedroom.

“Shhhhhh,” he said, closing the door behind him. She nodded seriously, as if he were a spy delivering a wartime communiqué. He waited while she ate the cake, then returned the evidence—the empty plate and the fork—to the kitchen.

When he got back to the veranda Elaine was alone. Julia had gone to bed. If she felt anything about him, she wasn’t about to fight over him for the sake of it. His grand outing with Julia was slipping away from him. Fine if nothing happened between them—at this point he’d be happy if he could just get her to talk to him. He was worried about her.

“I apologize about earlier,” Elaine said. “Your Highness. About your being king.”

“Forget about it.” He refocused his attention on her with an effort and smiled. “I’m still getting used to it myself.”

“It would have been easier if you were wearing a crown.”

“I did for a while, but it was incredibly uncomfortable. And it always fell off at the most inappropriate moments.”

“I can imagine.”

“Christenings. Cavalry charges.”

Under the influence of the local moonshine he was beginning to find himself insouciantly charming. Le roi s’amuse.

“It sounds like a public nuisance.”

“It was practically an enemy of the state. Now I just maintain a kingly bearing. I’m sure you noticed that.”

It was difficult to make out her expression in the twilight. Mobs of exotic eastern stars were filling in the black sky overhead.

“Oh, it was unmistakable.”

She began rolling a cigarette. Were they flirting? She had to be at least fifteen years older than Quentin. Here he was afloat in the wild magical tropics of Fillory and he’d stumbled on the only cougar within 477 nautical miles. He wondered who Eleanor’s daddy was.

“Did you grow up here?” he asked.

“Oh, no. My parents were from the mainland—down around the Southern Orchard. I never knew my father. I’ve been in the diplomatic service forever. This is just another posting for me, I’ve been all over the empire.”

Quentin nodded sagely. He wasn’t aware that Fillory had a diplomatic service. He’d have to look into that when he got back.

“So do you get a lot of people coming through here? I mean from outside Fillory? Over the sea?”

“Sadly no. Actually I’ll tell you a terrible secret: no one has ever come through here, not as long as I’ve been at the embassy. In fact in the whole history of this office, three centuries of it, nobody has ever once passed through customs from across the Eastern Ocean. The records are completely blank. In that respect I suppose you’d have to call it a bit of a sinecure.”

“Well, what with there being no work and all.”

“It’s a shame, you should see the customs forms, they’re really magnificent. The letterhead alone. You should take some. And the stamp—I’ll stamp something for you in the morning. The stamp is an absolute masterpiece.”

The tip of her cigarette glowed in the dimness. Quentin was reminded of the last time he’d smoked, during the brief but vigorously hedonistic period when he’d lived in New York, three years ago. Her cigarette was sweet and fragrant. He asked for one. She had to roll it for him, he’d forgotten how. Or had he ever known? No, Eliot had a clever silver device that rolled them for you.

“I hate to bring this up,” Quentin said. “But there’s a reason why I’m here.”

“I thought as much. Is it that magic key business?”

“What? Oh. No, it’s not the magic key.”

She leaned back and put her feet up on a chest she used for a table.

“What then?”

“It’s about the money. The taxes. You didn’t send any last year. I mean the island didn’t.”

She burst out laughing—a big, openmouthed laugh. She leaned back and clapped her hands together once.

“And they sent you? They sent the king?”

“They didn’t send me. I’m the king. I sent myself.”

“Right.” She dabbed at her eyes with the heels of her hands. “You’re a bit of a micromanager, aren’t you? Well, I suppose you’re wondering where the money is. We should have sent it. We could have, no one’s in any danger of starving on the Outer Island. Tomorrow I’ll take you out to see the gold beetles. They’re amazing: they eat dirt and poop out gold ore. Their nests are made of gold!” She kicked the chest their feet were resting on. “Take this. It’s full of gold. I’ll throw in the chest for free.”

“Great,” Quentin said. “Thanks. It’s a deal.”

Mission accomplished. He took a drag on the cigarette and stifled a cough. It had been a very brief phase, his smoking period. Maybe he’d had too much of whatever this was. Rum? It was sweet, and they were on a tropical island, so let’s call it rum.

“We hadn’t heard from you for years. There didn’t seem to be any point. I mean, what do you actually do with the stuff?”

Quentin could have answered that, but even he had to admit that the answer wouldn’t have been a very good one. Probably they used it to regild Eliot’s scepter. Taxation without representation. She could start a revolution. She was right. It was all so unreal.

“Anyway look what happened. They sent us a king. I think we might be forgiven for feeling a little pleased with ourselves. But why are you really here? Don’t tell me that’s the whole reason, it’s too, too disappointing. Are you on a quest?”

“I’m afraid I am going to disappoint you. I’m not on a quest.”

“I was sure you were looking for the magic key,” she said. “The one that winds up the world.”

It was hard to tell when she was joking.

“To be honest, Elaine, I don’t really know much about the key. I guess there’s a story about it? Do you get a lot of people looking for it?”

“No. But it’s just about our only claim to fame, aside from the beetles.”

A vast orange moon was rising, as orange as their cigarette tips. It was a crescent moon, hanging so low it looked like it could snag a horn in the Muntjac’s rigging. Fillory’s moon was actually crescent-shaped, not round. Once a day, exactly at noon, it passed between Fillory and the sun, making an eclipse. The birds all went quiet when it happened. It still seemed to take them by surprise. Quentin was so used to it he hardly noticed it anymore.

“It’s not here anyway,” she said.

“I figured that.” Quentin poured himself more rum from a decanter. Not that he needed it, but who cared. He wondered if they’d solved the mystery of Jollyby’s death yet.

“It’s on After. The next island farther out.”

“Sorry,” he said. “I’m not following. What’s where?”

“There’s an island farther out from here, called After. Two days’ sail, maybe three. I’ve never been there. But that’s where the key is.”

“The key. You must be joking.”

“Am I laughing?” Was she? She gave him a funny half smile.

“I’m thinking this is a metaphorical key. The key to life. It’s a piece of paper that says ‘haste makes waste’ or ‘early to bed early to rise.’”

“No, Quentin, it’s a real key. Made of gold. Teeth and everything. Very magical, or that’s what people say.”

Quentin stared at the bottom of his glass. He needed to be thinking now, but he’d taken steps to disable his thinking apparatus. Too late. Haste makes waste.

“Who makes a key out of gold?” he said. “It makes no sense. It would be too soft. It would get bent all the time.”

“You’d certainly have to be careful where you stuck it.”

Quentin’s face felt hot. Thank God the night was cooling off, finally, and a night wind was rising in the trees around the embassy.

“So there’s a magic golden key a couple of days’ sail away from here. Why haven’t you gone and gotten it yourself?”

“I don’t know, Quentin. Maybe I haven’t got any magic locks.”

“It never occurred to me that the key might be real.”

It was tempting. It was more than that: it was a big buzzing neon sign in the darkness that read ADVENTURELAND. He could feel the pull of it, from out over the horizon. The Outer Island was a bust, a red herring, but that just meant he hadn’t gone far enough.

Elaine sat forward on the couch, looking more sober and cogent than he felt. Probably she was used to this rum stuff. He wondered what it might be like to kiss her. He wondered what it might be like to get into bed with her. They were all alone on a sweaty tropical night. The moon was up. Though if he’d been serious about that he probably should have stopped drinking a little sooner. And now that he did think about it, he wasn’t entirely sure that he wanted to kiss those thin, smiling lips.

“Will you let me tell you something, Quentin?” she said. “I would think very hard about whether you want to look for the key. This island is a pretty safe place as islands go, but it’s the jumping-off point. This is the end of Fillory, Quentin.

“Out there”—she pointed out to sea, past the Muntjac’s cozy hurricane lamps, past the faint black-on-blue outlines of the palm trees on the rim of the bay, where the hushing of distant breakers came from—“that’s not Fillory. Your kingdom ends here. Here you’re a king, you’re all-powerful. You’re not king of any of that. Out there you’re just Quentin. Are you sure that’s going to be enough?”

When she said it, he saw what she meant. They were on the very rim of something, the lip. The edge of that meadow in the forest, where Jollyby died. The sill of his office window, when Eliot and the others had come to fetch him on Earth. Here he was powerful. There, he didn’t know what he was.

“Of course I’m not sure,” he said. “That’s why you go. To find out if it’s enough. You just have to be sure you want to find out.”

“Yes, you do, Your Highness,” Elaine said. “Yes, you do.”

Quentin was the last one to bed that night and the last one up in the morning. His sense of time had gotten pleasantly elastic in Fillory, since he wasn’t constantly being assaulted with blinking digital clocks here the way he was in the real world, but it was late enough that the sun was already scorching. Late enough for him to feel the shame that comes with hearing other people going about their business while he was still weakly tangled up in his sweaty sheets. His room was airy and equatorial, with cool white linen and flung-open windows, and it was still suffocatingly hot.

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