The Magician King Page 18

The effect went away as soon as she stopped. It was two in the morning, and she had a word processing shift at a law firm in Manhattan at eight. (Word processing was all she got anymore. She could type like a demon, but her appearance and phone manner had degenerated to the point where at her last receptionist assignment they’d shitcanned her on sight.) She hadn’t showered or slept in two days or washed her sheets in two months. Her eyes were full of sand. She stood at her desk and tried it again.

It was two more hours before she got all the way through it for the first time. The words were right, and the pitch, and the rhythm. The hand positions were still a joke, but she was onto something. This was not fuck-all. When she stopped, her fingers left trails in the air. It was like a hallucination, the kind of optical effect you’d get from botched laser surgery, or maybe from staying up all night two nights in a row. She waved her hand and it left streaks of color across her vision: red from her thumb, yellow, green, blue, and then purple from her pinky.

She smelled that electric smell. It was Quentin’s smell.

Julia went up to the roof. She didn’t want to touch anything with the spell going—it was like having fresh fingernail polish on—but she had to go somewhere, so she climbed the steel ladder and cracked the trap door and emerged out into the jungle of tar paper and air conditioners. She stood on the roof and made rainbow patterns with her hands against the rapidly bluing predawn sky until it stopped working.

It was magic. Real magic! And she was doing it! Hakuna fucking matata. Either she wasn’t crazy, or she’d finally gone well and truly around the bend, and she wasn’t coming back. Either way she could have died for joy.

Then she went downstairs and slept for an hour. When she woke up she saw that her fingers had left multicolored stains on the sheets. Her chest felt painfully hollowed out, as if somebody had gone in and scraped out all the organs with a table knife, like scraping the pith out of a jack-o’-lantern. It wasn’t until then that she thought to try to trace the poster from the BBS, but when she checked the archive the post was already gone.

But the spell still worked. She set it going again, and it worked again. Then, careful not to touch her face with her candy-colored fingers, she put her head down on her desk and sobbed like a child who’d been beaten.

CHAPTER 11

Quentin had Professor Geiger send them back to Chesterton. They materialized smoothly in the center of town. Geiger—a middle-aged woman, cheerfully overstuffed—had offered to send them directly to Quentin’s house, but he’d forgotten his parents’ address.

It was the middle of the afternoon. Quentin didn’t even know what day it was. They sat on a bench on a historic green where a minor battle had been fought in the Revolutionary War. Sun-dazed tourists drifted past them. It was not a time for able-bodied twentysomethings like him to be out and about with nothing to do. He should have been at the office, or acquiring a graduate degree, or at the very least playing touch football stoned. Quentin felt the daylight bleaching the energy out of him. God, he thought, looking down at his leggings. I really have to get out of these clothes.

Though Chesterton was one of the East Coast’s premier venues for colonial reenactments. That ought to make them a little less conspicuous.

“So that went well,” he said. “Starbucks?”

Julia didn’t laugh.

They were becalmed. They sat in silence under the old oaks: the king and queen of Fillory, with nothing to do. The air was full of weird modern hums and drones he never used to notice before he lived in Fillory: cars, power lines, sirens, distant construction, planes in the jet stream laying double-ruled lines across the clear blue sky. It never stopped.

He’d met Julia here once, he reminded himself, or not that far from here, in the graveyard behind the church. That was when she told him that she still remembered Brakebills.

“You do not have a plan, do you?” Julia stared straight ahead.

“No.”

“I do not know why I thought you would.” That haughty anger was back. She was waking up again. “You have never really been here. Out here in the real world.”

“Well, I’ve visited.”

“You think magic is what you learned at Brakebills. You have no idea what magic is.”

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s say I don’t. What is it?”

“I am going to show you.”

Julia stood up. She looked around, as if she were sniffing the wind, then set off abruptly across the street at a scary angle. A silver Passat honked and scritched to a stop to avoid hitting her. She kept walking. Quentin followed more cautiously.

She led them away from Chesterton’s main drag, such as it was. The neighborhood turned residential fast. The din of traffic and commerce died away, and big trees and houses bloomed on either side of the street. The sidewalk became bumpy and irregular. Julia was paying a lot of attention to the telephone poles for some reason. Every time they passed one she stopped and studied it.

“Been a while since I did this,” she said, mostly to herself. “Has to be one around here somewhere.”

“One what? What are we looking for?”

“I could tell you. But you would not believe me.”

She was full of surprises, was Julia. Well, he happened to have some free time just now. Five more minutes went by before she stopped at one particular telephone pole. It had a couple of blobs of fluorescent pink spray paint on it, which might have been left there by a sloppy lineman.

She stared at it, her lips moving silently. She was reading the world in a way that he, Quentin, could not.

“Not ideal,” she said finally. “But it will do. Come on.”

They kept walking.

“We are going to a safe house,” she added.

They walked for literally two miles through the suburban afternoon light, in the process crossing the town line from Chesterton into the less posh but still desirable town of Winston. Children trailing home from school eyed them curiously. Sometimes Julia would stop and study a chalk mark on a curb, or a stray spray of roadside wildflowers, then she would press on. Quentin didn’t know whether to feel hopeful or not, but he would wait for Julia’s plan to unfurl itself, especially since he didn’t have any suggestions of his own. Though his feet hurt, and he was on the point of suggesting they steal another car. Except that that would have been wrong.

Like Chesterton, Winston was an old Massachusetts suburb, and some of the houses they passed were not just colonial-style but genuinely colonial. You could recognize them because they were more compact than the other kind, denser and set back from the road in damp, rotting pine hollows, where raggedy grass lawnlets were locked in an endless running battle with encroaching rings of pines armed with their acid needles. The newer houses, by contrast, the colonial-inspired McMansions, were bright and enormous, and their lawns had gone completely shock-and-awe on the pine trees, of which one or at most two examples still stood, shivering and traumatized, to provide compositional balance.

The house they stopped at was the first kind, authentically colonial. It was starting to get dark out. Julia had logged another couple of telephone-pole paint blobs, one of which she’d stopped and studied quite closely using some kind of visual cantrip that he hadn’t caught because she hadn’t wanted him to catch it—she actually hid it with one hand as she cast it with the other.

The driveway dived down sharply into the hollow. Generations of kids must have murdered themselves on skateboards and scooters trying to go down it and stop before they slammed into the garage. Student drivers must have martyred themselves on it practicing hill starts in standard-transmission cars.

They clomped down it on foot. Quentin felt like a Seventh-Day Adventist, or an overaged trick-or-treater. At first he thought the lights were off, but when he got close enough he saw that they were in fact all on. The windows were papered over with butcher paper to keep them dark.

“I give up,” Quentin said. “Who lives here?”

“I don’t know,” Julia said brightly. “Let’s find out!”

She rang the doorbell. The man who opened the door was in his midtwenties, tall and fat, with a hair helmet and a red caveman face. He wore a T-shirt tucked into sweatpants.

He played it cool.

“What up?” he said.

By way of answering Julia did an odd thing: she turned around and pushed up her long, wavy black hair with one hand, giving the man a quick look at something on the nape of her neck. A tattoo? Quentin didn’t catch it.

“All right?” she said.

It must have been because the bouncer grunted and stepped aside. When Quentin followed the man narrowed his already piggy eyes further and put a hand on Quentin’s chest.

“Hang on.”

He took up a pair of ridiculously tiny opera glasses, toylike, that hung on a thong around his neck, and studied Quentin through them.

“Jesus.” He turned to Julia, genuinely aggrieved. “Who the hell is this?”

“Quentin,” Quentin said. “Coldwater.”

Quentin stuck out his hand. The man—whose T-shirt said POTIONS MASTER on it—left him hanging.

“He is your brand-new boyfriend,” Julia said. She took Quentin’s hand and dragged him inside.

Bass was bumping somewhere in the house, which had been a nice house before somebody did a profoundly shitty renovation job on its interior and then somebody else beat the crap out of the shitty renovation. Said renovation must have happened in the 1980s, as that was the era of chic on offer: white walls, black-and-chrome furniture, track lighting. The air was heavy with stale cigarette smoke. There were chips and divots in the plaster everywhere. This didn’t look like a place where he wanted to spend a lot of time. He was doing his best to remain hopeful, but it was hard to see how this was getting them any closer to Fillory.

Warily, Quentin followed Julia up a half flight of stairs and into the living room, which contained a weird assortment of people. The place could have passed for a halfway house for teenage runaways if it weren’t also a halfway house for twentysomething, middle-aged, and elderly runaways. There were your standard goth casualties, pale and skinny and worryingly scabby, but there was also a guy with five-o’clock shadow in a wrecked business suit of not negligible quality talking on a cell phone, saying “yah, yah, uh-huh” in a tone of voice that suggested that there was actually somebody on the other end who cared whether he said uh-huh or nuh-uh. There was a sixtysomething woman with an arctic-white Gertrude Stein haircut. An old Asian guy was sitting on the floor with no shirt on, all by himself. In front of him on the white pile carpet stood a burned-out brazier surrounded by a ring of ashes. Guess the cleaning lady hadn’t come today.

Quentin stopped on the threshold.

“Julia,” Quentin said. “Tell me where we are.”

“Have you not guessed yet?” She practically glittered with pleasure. She was relishing his discomfort. “This is where I got my education. This is my Brakebills. It is the anti-Brakebills.”

“These people do magic?”

“They try.”

“Please tell me you’re joking, Julia.” He took her arm, but she shook it off. He took it again and pulled her back down the stairs. “I’m begging you.”

“But I am not joking.”

Julia’s smile was wide and predatory. The trap had sprung and the prey was writhing in it.

“These people can’t do magic,” he said. “They’re not—there’s no safeguards. They aren’t qualified. Who’s even supervising them?”

“No one. They supervise each other.”

He had to take a deep breath. This was wrong—not morally wrong, just out of order. The idea that just anybody could mess around with magic—well, for one thing it was dangerous. That’s not how it worked. And who were these people? Magic was his, he and his friends were the magicians. These people were strangers, they were nobody. Who told them they could do magic? As soon as Brakebills found out about this place they’d shut it down with a goddamned vengeance. They’d send a SWAT team, a flying wedge with Fogg at the head of it.

“Do you actually know these people?” he said.

She rolled her eyes.

“These guys?” She snorted. “These guys are just losers.”

Julia led the way back into the living room.

The only thing the denizens of the safe house had in common, besides their general seediness, was that a lot of them had the same tattoo: a little blue star, seven-pointed, the size of a dime. A heptagram, but solid, colored in. It winked at Quentin from the backs of their hands, or their forearms, or the meaty part between their thumb and forefinger. One of them had two, one on each side of his neck, like Frankenstein’s neck bolts. The shirtless Asian guy had four. As Quentin watched he started in on some involved casting Quentin didn’t recognize, staring glazedly through the web of his working hands. Quentin couldn’t even look.

A redheaded man with freckles, a pint-sized Dennis the Menace type, was sitting up on the gray slate mantelpiece by himself, monitoring the scene, but when he saw them he boosted himself down and strutted over. He wore an oversized army jacket and carried a beat-up clipboard.

“Hi folks!” he said. “I’m Alex, welcome to my dojo. You are—?”

“I am Julia. This is Quentin.”

“Okay. Sorry about the housekeeping. Tragedy of the commons.” In contrast to everybody else in the room, Alex was chipper and businesslike. “Check your stars, please?”

Julia did the thing again where she showed him the nape of her neck.

“Right.” Alex’s ginger eyebrows went up. Whatever he saw impressed him. He turned to Quentin. “And you—?”

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