The Magician King Page 17

“A little. More theory than practice, of course.” Fogg chuckled. “Some years back we had a student with an interest along those lines. Penny, I think his name was. Can’t have been his real name.”

“He was in my year. William was his real name.”

“Yes, he and Melanie—Professor Van der Weghe—spent quite a bit of time working on that very subject. She’s retired now, of course. What would be the nature of your interest, exactly—?”

“Well, I always liked him,” Quentin said, improvising haplessly. “Penny. William. And I’ve been asking around, but nobody’s seen him in a while.” Since he got his hands bitten off by an insane godling. “And I thought you might have some idea about where he is.”

“You thought he might have—crossed over?”

“Sure.” Why not. “Yeah.”

“Well,” Fogg said. He stroked his goatee, mulling, or appearing to mull. “No, no, I can’t go around handing out information about students left and right without their consent. It wouldn’t be proper.”

“I’m not asking for his cell number. I just thought you might have heard something.”

The springs of Fogg’s chair squawked as he leaned forward.

“My dear boy,” he said, “I hear all sorts of things, but I can’t repeat them. When I arranged for you to recuse yourself with that firm in Manhattan, you don’t suppose I went around telling people where you’d ended up?”

“I suppose not.”

“But if you’re really interested in Penny’s whereabouts, I’d advise you to start your search in this reality”—dry chuckle!—“rather than some other. Will you be staying for lunch?”

Julia was right. They shouldn’t have come. Obviously Fogg didn’t know anything, and being around him wasn’t good for Quentin. He could feel himself regressing in the direction of an adolescent tantrum—it was like trying to talk to his parents. He lost all perspective on who he was and how far he’d come. He really couldn’t believe the awe in which he used to hold this man. The towering, Gandalfian wizard he once cowered before had been swapped out and replaced with a smug hidebound bureaucrat.

“I can’t. But thanks, Dean Fogg.” Quentin clapped his hands on his knees. “Actually I think we’d better be moving on.”

“Before you do, Quentin.” Fogg hadn’t moved. “I’d like to prolong this conversation a little further. I’ve heard some pretty exotic rumors about what you and your friends have been up to these past few years. The undergraduates talk about it. You’re quite the campus legend, you know.”

Now Quentin did stand up.

“Well,” he said. “Kids. Don’t believe everything you hear.”

“I assure you I don’t.” Fogg’s eyes had regained their old flinty spark from somewhere. “But a word of advice from your old dean, if I may. Notwithstanding my regrettable ignorance of interdimensional travel, I don’t know what your interest in Penny might be, but I do know perfectly well that you never liked him. And no one’s heard from him in years. No one’s heard from Eliot Waugh or Alice Quinn in years, either. Or Janet Pluchinsky.”

Quentin noticed that Josh didn’t figure in Fogg’s memory. He should have asked about Josh first. Though he probably would have gotten the same answer.

“And now you’ve turned up dressed very oddly, and you’ve brought a civilian onto the grounds, one of our rejections if I’m not mistaken, which is—well, it’s just not something we ordinarily tolerate. I don’t know what you’re mixed up in, but I’ve put myself out for you over the years, quite a bit, and I have the reputation and the security of the school to think of.”

Aha. There’s the Fogg he used to know and fear. Not gone, he’d just been playing possum. But Quentin wasn’t the naughty schoolboy he used to be.

“Oh, I do know that, Dean Fogg. Believe me.”

“Well, good. Don’t go digging too deep, Quentin. Don’t stir. Shit. Up.” Fogg enunciated the obscenity crisply. “Right now you have the air of somebody who thinks he knows better. Humility is a useful quality in a magician, Quentin. Magic knows better, not you. Do you remember what I told you the night before you graduated? Magic isn’t ours. I don’t know whose it is, but we’ve got it on loan, on loan at best. It’s like what poor Professor March used to say about the turtles. Don’t bait them, Quentin. One world ought to be enough for anyone.”

Easy for you to say. You’ve only ever seen one.

“Thank you. I’ll try to remember that.”

Fogg sighed tragically, like Cassandra warning the Trojans, destined never to be heeded.

“Well, all right. Professor Geiger should be in the junior common room, if you need a portal. Unless you’d rather walk out the way you came.”

“A portal would be great. Thank you.” Quentin stood up. “By the way, that ‘rejection’ sitting in the hall? She’s a better magician than most of your students. Most of your faculty too.”

Quentin walked with Julia down to the junior common room. He had to get out of here. Everything was smaller than he remembered it—it was like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and he’d drunk the magic tonic. He felt like his head was sticking out the chimney, and his arm was out the window.

“Not going here?” he said. “You didn’t miss much.”

“Really?” Julia said. “You did.”

CHAPTER 10

Julia was playing the long game. But the problem with the long game, it turned out, was that it was long. They knew she was out here, and sooner or later they would have to deal with her. All she had to do was wait them out. But meanwhile weeks passed. People graduated. Julia included, probably, although she didn’t go to the ceremony.

The summer turned her darkened room into a convection oven, baking its contents to a hard hydroptic crisp, and then fall came and the weather relented. The ivy that ran up the house in back of them changed color and ruffled in the wind, and rain spattered the window. She could feel the neighborhood empty out as her classmates all went off to college. She didn’t. She was eighteen now, a responsible adult. Her coming-ofage story was over. Nobody could make her do anything anymore.

She could breathe easier with all her old friends, First Julia’s friends, out of town, but at the same time it made her nervous. She was all alone on this one. Very alone. She had made her way out to the edge of the world, hung by her fingers from the lip, and let go into free fall. Would she fall forever?

Julia would do anything to make the time pass. She killed time, murdered it, massacred it and hid the bodies. She threw her days in bunches onto the bonfire with both hands and watched them go up in fragrant smoke. It wasn’t easy. Sometimes it felt like the hours had ground to a halt. They fought her as they passed, one after the other, like stubborn stools. Online Scrabble helped ease them on their way, and movies. But you could only watch The Craft a finite number of times, and that number turned out to be about three.

And yes, all right, she did spend six weeks in an insane asylum. There, she said it. It was awful, but she knew it was probably coming, and you couldn’t blame her parents, not really. They gave her a choice, junior college or the laughing academy, and she picked door number two. What could she say, she thought they were bluffing, and she called them on it. Read ’em and weep.

So that happened. Bad as she thought it was going to be, it was worse. Six weeks of bad smells, bad food, and listening to her roommate, whose arms were crocheted with razor scars from cuff line to armpit, toss and turn and talk in her sleep about transformers, transformers, everything is a transformer, why won’t they just transform?

Who’s crazy now? Those movies were even worse than The Craft.

So she talked her shrinks in circles and took her meds, which helped to nudge the calendar along. Time sure flies when you’re having fun, and by fun she meant Nardil. Sometimes she really did think death would be preferable, except she wasn’t going to give those bastards the satisfaction. They couldn’t wear her down. No they couldn’t. No they couldn’t.

Eventually she was simply returned to sender. The doctors couldn’t keep her. She was no danger to herself or to others. She just wasn’t that crazy.

So that was another exclusive institution she’d been kicked out of. Badum-ching. Thanks very much, you’ve been a great audience. I’ll be here all week, all month, all year, indefinitely, until further notice.

Eventually, given that she had a little spare time on her hands, she opened up another front in the war. If magic was real, it stood to reason that some genuine information about how to work it must be in circulation. The Brakebills couldn’t have it all to themselves. It was inevitable; anybody who knew anything about information theory would know that. You just couldn’t contain a body of data that large completely hermetically. There would be too much of it, and too many pores it could leak out through. She would start tunneling from her side of the wall.

She began a systematic survey. It was good to give her always-hungry brain something to chew on—it kept it, if not happy, then at least busy. She drew up a list of the major magical traditions, and the minor ones. She compiled bibliographies of the major texts for same. She then read every one in turn, centrifuging out the practical information and ditching all the rest—the matrix of useless mystical crap in which it was suspended. This required some leaving of the house, some furtive forays into the Big Blue Room. But that had the extra effect of placating her parents a bit, so whatever, it’s all good.

She ground and boiled. She sniffed and daubed. It was fun, like a scavenger hunt. She haunted head shops and organic herb sections and familiarized herself with the restaurant supply stores on Bowery—a great source for cheap hardware—and online mail-order laboratory supply houses. It was amazing what they would send you through the mail if you had a fake ID, a PayPal account, and a P.O. box. If this magic thing didn’t pan out she could definitely go into domestic terrorism.

Once she spent a solid week tying like a thousand knots in a piece of string before she read ahead and realized that the string was supposed to have a strand of her hair woven into it, and she had to do it all over. She had always been a workaholic—she just couldn’t get enough of that workahol, was James’s joke—but even she had her limits. Twice she even killed something small, a mouse and a frog, quietly, in the backyard, under the cover of darkness. Hey, it was the circle of life. Hakuna matata. Which by the way is a Swahili phrase of modern origin and does absolutely fuck-all no matter how many times you chant it.

In fact, everything did fuck-all. It continued to do fuck-all as she moved out of her parents’ house to a studio apartment above a bagel store, which she had to temp to pay for, but it meant she had more space to lay out pentagrams, and her sister wouldn’t steal her charms and bang on her door and run away while she was chanting. (The fear effect having somewhat abated, unfortunately.) It did fuck-all even after she jacked off a simian twentysomething who couldn’t believe his luck in the bathroom at a party just because he said he could get her into the Prospect Park Zoo after hours, the zoo being like one-stop shopping for some of those African preparations, let me tell you. And besides she needed some semen for a couple of things, though fortunately for the zookeeper neither of them worked.

One time, only once, did she ever get a whiff of something real. It didn’t come out of a musty old codex, it came off the Internet, though it was ancient by online standards—the Internet equivalent of a musty old codex bound in finest fetal calfskin.

She’d been trolling through the archives of an old BBS run out of Kansas City in the mid-1980s. She was trying the usual search keywords, as one does, and getting the usual mountain of junk, as one does. It was like combing through stellar radiation for signs of extraterrestrial life. But one hit looked suspiciously like signal and not noise.

It was an image file. In the bad old days of 2400 baud modems, image files had to be posted in hexadecimal code in tranches of ten or twenty parts, since the amount of data in an image was many times the allowable length for a single post. You saved all the files together in a folder and then used a little utility to zip them together into a single document and decode them. Half the time a character or two got cut off along the way, and the entire frame got thrown off, and you ended up with nothing. Noise, static, snow crash. The other half of the time you wound up with a photograph of a thirtysomething stripper with baby fat and a cesarean scar, wearing only the bottom part of a high school cheerleader’s uniform.

But if she was going to crack the magic racket, it wasn’t going to be by half measures.

What this image was, once she had zipped and decoded it, was a scan of a handwritten document. A couplet—two lines of words in a language she didn’t recognize, transcribed phonetically. Above each syllable was a musical staff indicating rhythm and (in a couple of cases) intonation. Below it was a drawing of a human hand performing a gesture. There was no indication of what the document was, no title or explanation. But it was interesting. It had a purposeful quality, draftsmanlike and precise. It didn’t look like an art project, or a joke. Too much work, and not enough funny.

She practiced them separately first. Thank God for ten years of oboe lessons, on the strength of which she could sight-sing. The words were simple, but the hand positions were murder. Halfway through she went back to thinking it was a joke, but she was too stubborn to quit. She would have even then, but as an experiment she tried the first few syllables, and she discovered that something was different about this one. It made her fingertips feel hot. They buzzed like she’d touched a battery. The air resisted her, as if it had become slightly viscous. Something stirred in her chest that had never stirred there before. It had been sleeping her whole life, and now somehow, by doing this, she had poked it, and it stirred.

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