The Magician King Page 12

It was when Quentin left that day that Julia really fell off a cliff.

It was fair to call it depression. She felt like shit, all the time. If that was depression, she had it. It must have been contagious. She’d caught it from the world.

The shrink they sent her to diagnosed her more specifically with dysthymia, which he defined as an inability to enjoy things that she should be enjoying. Which she recognized the justice of, since she enjoyed nothing, though there was a world of space inside that “should” that a dysthymic semiotician could have argued with, if she had had the energy. Because there was something she did enjoy, or would enjoy, whether or not she should. She just had no access to it. That thing was magic.

The world around her, the straight world, the mundane world, had become to her a blowing wasteland. It was empty, a postapocalyptic world: empty stores, empty houses, stalled cars with the upholstery burned out of them, dead traffic lights swaying above empty streets. That missing afternoon in November had become a black hole that had sucked the entire rest of her life into it. And once you’d fallen past that Schwarzschild radius, it was pretty damn hard to claw your way back out again.

She printed out the first verse of a Donne poem and stuck it on her door:

The sun is spent, and now his flasks

Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;

The world’s whole sap is sunk;

The general balm th’ hydroptic earth hath drunk,

Whither, as to the bed’s-feet, life is shrunk,

Dead and interr’d; yet all these seem to laugh,

Compared with me, who am their epitaph.

Apparently semicolons were the hot new thing in the seventeenth century.

But otherwise it was a pretty good summary of her state of mind. Hydroptic: it meant thirsty. The thirsty earth. The sap had sunk out of the thirsty world, leaving behind a dried husk that weighed nothing, a dead thing that crumbled if you touched it.

Once a week her mother asked her if she’d been raped. Maybe it would have been simpler if she said yes. Her family had never really understood her. They’d always lived in fear of her rapacious intellect. Her sister, a timorous, defiantly unmathematical brunette four years younger, tiptoed around her as if she were a wild animal who would snap rabidly if provoked. No sudden movements. Keep your fingers outside the cage.

As a matter of fact she did consider insanity as a possible diagnosis. She had to. What sane person (ha!) wouldn’t? She definitely looked crazier than she used to. She’d picked up some bad habits, like picking at her cuticles, and not showering, and for that matter not eating or leaving her room for days at a time. Clearly—Doctor Julia explained to herself—she was suffering from some kind of Harry Potter–induced hallucination, with paranoid overtones, most likely schizophrenic in origin.

Except the thing was, doctor, it was all much too orderly. It didn’t have the quality of a hallucination, it was too dry and firm to the touch. For one thing it was her only hallucination. It didn’t spill over into other things. Its borders were stable. And for another thing it wasn’t a hallucination. It fucking happened.

If this was madness it was an entirely new kind of madness, as yet undocumented in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. She had nerdophrenia. She was dorkotic.

Julia broke up with James. Or maybe she just stopped answering his calls and greeting him when they passed each other in the hall. One or the other, she forgot which. She did some careful calculations with her GPA, which until that point had been highly robust, and figured she could go to school two days out of five, eke out straight D’s, and still graduate. It was just a matter of careful brinksmanship, and the brink was where Julia lived now.

Meanwhile she continued to see the shrink regularly. He was a perfectly decent sort, nothing if not well-meaning, with a funny stubbly face and reasonable expectations of what he could hope to achieve in life. She didn’t tell him about the secret school for magic that she hadn’t gotten into, though. Maybe she was crazy, but she wasn’t stupid. She’d seen Terminator 2. She wasn’t going out like Sarah Connor.

Every once in a while Julia did feel her conviction slackening. She knew what she knew, but there just wasn’t a lot to go on, day to day, to keep her belief in what happened strong. The best she could hope for was that every couple of weeks Google might pop up a hit on Brakebills, maybe two, but a few minutes later it would be gone again. As if by magic! Apparently she wasn’t the only person out there who had a Google alert on it, and that person was clever enough to scrub the Google cache when the alert went off. But it gave Julia something to chew on.

Then, in April, they made their first wrong move. They really blew it. Blew it wide open. Because seven envelopes arrived in her mailbox: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, MIT, and Caltech. Congratulations, we are pleased to accept you as a member of the class of ha ha ha ha you must be fucking kidding me! She laughed her fucking head off when she saw them. Her parents laughed too. They were laughing with relief. Julia was laughing because it was so goddamned funny. She kept on laughing as she ripped the letters in half, one after the other, and fed them to the recycling bin.

You goddamned idiots, she thought. Too clever for your own good. No wonder you let Quentin in, you’re just like him: you can’t stop outsmarting yourselves. You think you can buy off my life with this? With a bunch of fat envelopes? You are perhaps under the impression that I will accept these in lieu of the magic kingdom that is my rightful inheritance?

Oh my no. Not on your life, mister. This is a standoff, a waiting game, and I’ve got all day. You’re looking for a quick fix to the Julia problem, but no such fix exists. You’d best settle in, my friend, because Julia is playing the long game.

CHAPTER 7

On the way home, Quentin made it his royal business to orbit the Muntjac and check in on everybody once or twice a day. The morning after they left the Outer Island, Quentin’s first stop was Benedict. The ship was racing along under the tropical sun, its every line and sail twangingly taut and perfect, and Quentin was feeling a little silly that he’d had the Muntjac so thoroughly fitted out for what had amounted to a trip around the block. He found Benedict sitting on a stool in his cabin, hunched over his tiny fold-down writing desk. Spread out on it was a hand-drawn naval chart showing a few jagged little islands and peppered with tiny numbers that might have denoted the depths of the ocean. Somebody had gone over the shallow water with a pale blue wash to make it look more watery.

Benedict hadn’t warmed to Quentin any since they’d left the mainland, but Quentin found himself liking him anyway. There was something bracing about the sheer consistency of his contempt for Quentin, who was, after all, Benedict’s king. It took some backbone to stick to that position. And if nothing else Benedict was about the nerdiest person he’d met in Fillory, of a type that didn’t really exist in the real world: he was a map nerd.

“So what have you been up to?” he said.

Benedict shrugged.

“Seasick mostly.”

He hadn’t seen much of Benedict, though he’d tried a couple of times to tutor him on his math. Benedict was conspicuously skillful at doing arithmetic in his head, but Fillorian mathematics weren’t particularly advanced. It was amazing how far he’d gotten on his own.

“What are you working on?”

“Old map,” Benedict said, without looking up. “Like really old. Like two hundred years ago.”

Quentin peered over his shoulder, hands clasped behind his back.

“Is that from the embassy?”

“Like I would do that. It was on the wall. In a frame.”

“It’s just that it has the Outer Island Embassy seal on it.”

“I copied it.”

“You copied the seal too?”

“I copied the map. The seal was on the map.”

It was a gorgeous map. If he was telling the truth, Benedict had genuine talent. It was detailed, precise, without any hesitations or erasures.

“That’s amazing. You have a real gift.”

Benedict flushed at this and worked even more industriously. He found Quentin’s approval and his disapproval equally unbearable.

“How’ve you found the fieldwork? Must be different from what you’re used to.”

“I hate it,” Benedict said. “It’s a fucking mess. Nothing looks like it’s supposed to. There’s no math for it.” His frustration brought him out of his shell a little. “Nothing’s ever correct, ever. There’s no straight lines! I always got that maps are approximations, I just never understood how much they leave out. It’s chaos. I’m never doing this again.”

“That’s it? You’re giving up?”

“Why shouldn’t I? Look at that—” Benedict waved at the wall, in the general direction of the heaving sea. “And now look at this.” He pointed to the map. “This you can make perfect. That—” He shuddered. “It’s just a mess.”

“But the map isn’t real. So sure, maybe it’s perfect, but what’s the point?”

“Maps don’t make you seasick.”

The irony wasn’t lost on Quentin. He’s the one who’d turned the ship around, back toward Whitespire. He looked at the map Benedict was working on. Sure enough, one of the little islands toward the edge of the page, almost falling into the margin, had the word After written next to it in tiny calligraphic script.

“After Island.” There it was, right there. Quentin touched it lightly with his finger. He half-expected to get a shock. “Is that on our way?”

“It’s east of here. It’s the complete opposite of on our way.”

“How far?”

“Two days, three days. Like I said, the map is really old. And these are outlying islands.”

Benedict explained, rolling his eyes practically up into his head at Quentin’s ignorance, that the islands farther out in the Eastern Ocean didn’t stay still once they caught on that they’d been mapped. They didn’t like it, and through some kind of tectonic magic they wandered around to make sure the maps didn’t stay too accurate. More chaos.

Benedict whispered some calculations to himself, speed and time, then nimbly, precisely—you wouldn’t think it was possible with those black bangs hanging over his eyes—he drew a perfect freehand circle around After Island in light pencil.

“It has to be somewhere inside this circle.”

Quentin gazed at the little island-dot, lost in the web of curving lines of meridians and parallels. A net that wouldn’t catch him if he fell. It wasn’t Fillory out there. But somewhere in that abyss shone a key, a magic key. He could come back with that in his hand.

An image swam into his mind, an album cover from the 1970s, a painting of an old-fashioned sailing ship on the very edge of a cataract over which the green sea was roaring and pouring. The ship was just beginning to tilt, and the current was strong, but still: a bold tack in a strong wind might just save it. A sharp, barked order from the captain and it would slew around and beat back up against the current to safety.

But then where would the ship go? Back home? Not yet.

“Mind if I borrow this?” he said. “I want to show it to the captain.”

With the course change they left the warm blue-green ocean behind and crashed their way into a heaving black one. The temperature dropped thirty degrees. Flail-blows of cold rain clattered on the deck. Quentin couldn’t have pointed to the dividing line, but now the water around them seemed like a completely different element from the one they’d been sailing in before, something opaque and solid that had to be smashed and shoved aside rather than slipped silently through.

The Muntjac bulled its way gamely through the waves ahead of a firm, pressing salt wind. The ship had a surprise for them: below the waterline it seemed—it was hard to see clearly through the chop—to have put out a pair of sleek wooden fins, unfolding from pockets in the hull, which swam them forward. Whether they were animated by magic or a mechanical arrangement, Quentin didn’t know. But he felt a warm surge of gratitude. The old ship was repaying his kindness and more.

He thought the sloth might know something about it, given how much time it spent down there in the hold, but when he visited he found it fast asleep, hanging by its boat-hook claws, rocking gently with the ship’s rolling. If anything it was more serene in the heavy weather. The air in the hold was warm and humid and slothy, and a salad of rotting fruit rinds and less identifiable debris sloshed around in the bilge.

Julia, then. She might know. And he wanted to discuss the magic key with her. She was his only real peer on board the Muntjac, and she had access to sources he didn’t. And he was worried about her.

Julia kept to her cabin even more than usual now that the weather had turned. She may have been spiritually one with Fillory, but the freezing drizzle had hounded even her belowdecks. Quentin lurched down the narrow passage that led to her room, with errant swells flinging him playfully against one bulkhead, then the other.

Her door was shut. For a moment, just as the Muntjac paused weightlessly on the crest of the wave, Quentin had a powerful sense of the romance of the scene, and his crush stirred inside him, unfolding its leathery wings. He knew it was at least partly a fantasy. Julia was so solitary, so wrapped up in Fillory, that it was hard to imagine her wanting him or anyone, or at any rate anyone human. She was missing something, but it probably wasn’t a boyfriend.

Then again they were both here, far out at sea, tempest-tossed, together in a warm berth in the freezing wasteland of the ocean. It was liberating being out from under the snarky, gossipy gazes of Eliot and Janet. Surely Julia couldn’t be so far gone that she didn’t recognize the allure of a shipboard fling. The scene practically wrote itself. She was only human. And they would be home soon. He knocked on her door.

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