The Magician King Page 19

“He does not have any,” Julia said.

“I don’t have any.” He could speak for himself.

“So did he want to take the test? Because otherwise he can’t stay here.”

“I understand,” Julia said.

The really incredible thing was that she wasn’t even mouthing off to this guy. She was being civil! She, a queen of Fillory, respected the fucked-up protocol of this place.

“Quentin, he wants you to take a test,” she said. “To show you do magic.”

“I want lots of things too. Do I have to do it?”

“Yes, you have to fucking do it,” she said evenly. “So do it. It is just the first level, everybody who comes here does it their first time. You just make a flash. You probably have a fancy name for it.”

“Show me.”

Julia ran through three well-rehearsed hand positions, lickety-split, snapped her fingers, and said:

“ışık!”

The snap produced a little pop of light, like a flashbulb.

“Okay?”

“Hang on,” Quentin said. “Those hand positions weren’t quite generic. Can you—?”

“Come on, people,” Alex said, not so chipper now. “Are we doing this?”

Quentin saw now that Alex had eight stars, four on the back of each hand. That must make him king of the flophouse.

“Come on, Quentin.”

“Okay, okay. Show me again.”

She did the spell again. Quentin came at it, trying to crook his fingers the way she did. Brakebills taught you all straight lines, your hands approximating platonic geometry, but these positions were loose and organic. Nothing lined up. And it had been two years since he’d worked with real-world Circumstances. He tried it once, snap, and got nothing. Then nothing again.

This earned him a round of ironic applause. The locals were taking an interest in this transaction.

“I’m sorry, one more try and then you’re out,” Alex said. “You can come back in a month.” Julia began to show him again, but Alex put a hand over hers. “Just let him try.”

The bouncer, Potions Master, had come in from the front door and was watching with his arms folded. Quentin could hear other people saying “ışık!” Every time they did, a flashbulb would go off.

Screw this. He wasn’t going to pick up some corrupt hedge-witch spell in thirty seconds that would probably screw up his technique. He was classically trained, and a master sorcerer, and a king to boot. Let there be light.

“,” he said. “”

Let’s see who here’s got good Aramaic. He closed his eyes and clapped his hands loudly.

The light was white and blinding—a flashbulb at close range, right up in your face. For a second the whole room—shitty carpet, listing torchiere lamps, staring faces—was frozen, all the color driven out of it. Quentin had to blink his vision back to normal, and he’d had his eyes closed.

There was a beat of silence.

“Holeeee . . .” someone said. Then everybody started talking at once. Alex didn’t look happy, but he didn’t throw them out either.

“Sign in,” he said. He blinked and blotted his eyes on his sleeve. “I don’t know where you learned that, but just get your flash working next time.”

“Cheers,” Quentin said.

Alex peeled a blue star sticker off a sheet and stuck it on the back of Quentin’s hand. Then he handed Quentin the clipboard. Where it said “Name” he wrote King Quentin and handed it to Julia.

When she was done Quentin dragged her out through the kitchen, with its bumpy linoleum floor and its fifteen-year-old Easy-Bake-looking range and its countertops crowded with a multicolored metropolis of unwashed glassware. Enough was enough.

“What the hell are we doing here?” he hissed.

“Come on.”

She led him deeper into the house, down a hall that in another, saner universe would have accessed Daddy’s study and a TV room and a laundry room, until she found the cheap hollow-core door that opened on the basement staircase.

He closed it behind them. The chilly mildewed silence of suburban basements everywhere embraced them. The stairs were unfinished pine planks, shaggy with cobwebs.

“I don’t understand this, Julia,” he said. “You don’t belong here any more than I do. You’re not like these people. You didn’t learn what you know from a bunch of unlicensed losers in a frat house. You can’t have.”

They were alone except for a roomful of taped-up cardboard boxes, a dead TV the size of a washing machine and half a Ping-Pong table.

“Maybe I am not who you think I am. Maybe I am an unlicensed loser too.”

“That’s not what I’m saying.” Was it? He was still trying to get his head around this place. “I can’t believe they haven’t burned this whole house down by now.”

“I think what you are trying to say is that you do not think they are good enough. They do not meet your standards.”

“This isn’t about standards!” Quentin said, though he felt the ground getting marshy under him. “This is about—look, I paid my dues, that’s all I’m saying. You have to earn this kind of power. You don’t just pick it up at the 7-Eleven with your Big Gulp and your Pokémon trading cards.”

“And what did I do? You think I did not pay dues?”

“I know you paid your dues.” He took a deep breath. Slow down. This place wasn’t the problem. The problem was getting back to Fillory.

“What did he call this house? A ‘dojo’?”

“Dojo, safe house, same thing. They are safe houses. He is just a dork.”

“Are there a lot of them?”

“A hundred maybe, in this country. There are more on the coasts.” Jesus Christ. It was an epidemic.

“What was that test back there?”

“You mean the one you flunked? That is the test to be a first-level magician. You have to be one to come in here. You pass the test, you get a star tattooed on you, you can stay. Most people get them on their hands, somewhere obvious. The more tests you pass, the more levels you go up, the more stars you get.”

“But who runs all this? That Alex guy?”

“He is just a den mother. Takes care of the house. The ranking system is self-policed. Any magician can ask another magician of equal or lower level to demonstrate the test corresponding to their level or any of the levels below that,” she recited. “To prove they know their shit. If you do not know your shit, you get busted down pretty fast.”

“Huh.” He wanted to find fault with the idea but couldn’t quite do it on the spur of the moment. He filed it away for later discrediting. “So what level are you?”

By way of an answer she turned around and showed him what she’d shown the doorman, and Alex: there was a blue seven-pointed star tattooed on the nape of her neck. Its upper points disappeared into the roots of her hair; she must have had to shave to get it done. It was like the ones he’d seen upstairs except bigger, a silver dollar, and it had a circle in the middle. Inside the circle was a number 50.

“Wow.” He couldn’t help but be impressed. “Ginger Balls back there only had eight. So you’re a fiftieth-level magician?”

“No.”

She took hold of the hem of her blouse, crossing her arms in front of her.

“Wait a minute—”

“Relax, playa.” She yanked the back of her shirt up, but only halfway. It was covered in blue stars, dozens of them in neat straight rows. He counted ten across—there must have been at least a hundred. She dropped her blouse and turned back to him.

“What level am I? I am the best there is, that is what level I am, and fuck you for asking. Come on. I am getting us back to Fillory.”

She knocked on a heavy fireproofed door, the kind that in most basements leads to a furnace room. It slid sideways on rollers. The man sliding it sideways looked like a by-the-numbers prepster, with short blond hair and a salmon-colored polo shirt, except that he was only about four feet tall. Dry prickly heat billowed from the room.

“What can I do for you this fine evening?” he said. His teeth were bright and even.

“We need to go to Richmond.”

The small man wasn’t completely solid either. He was translucent around the edges. Quentin didn’t notice at first, until he realized that his eyes were tracking things behind the man’s fingers that he shouldn’t have been able to see. They were well and truly through the looking glass now.

“Full fare tonight, I’m afraid. It’s the weather. Stresses the lines.” He had the twinkly mannerisms of an old-timey train conductor. He gestured for her to come inside.

“Only the lady, please,” said the translucent prepster. “Not the gentleman.”

Deference to Julia’s secret extra-Brakebills magic scene notwithstanding, enough was enough. Quentin’s grasp of real-world Circumstances was rusty but not that rusty. He whispered a quick, clipped series of Chinese syllables, and an invisible hand gripped the man by the back of the neck and yanked him back against the cinder-block wall behind him so that his head bonked against it.

If Julia was surprised she didn’t show it. The man just shrugged and rubbed the back of his head with one hand.

“I’ll get the book,” he managed. “You have credit?”

It was a furnace room, hot and made of unplastered cinder blocks. There was an actual furnace in it, with a fire bucket full of sand next to it, but there were also two old-looking full-length mirrors leaning against one wall. They looked like pier glasses that had been salvaged from an old house: fogged in places, with wooden frames.

Julia had credit. The book was a leather-bound volume in which she wrote something, stopping in the middle to do mental arithmetic. When she was finished the man looked it over and handed them each a string of paper tickets, the kind you’d get if you won at skee-ball at a carnival. Quentin counted his: nine.

Julia took hers and stepped into the mirror. She disappeared like she’d been swallowed by a bathtub full of mercury.

He thought she would. Mirrors were easy to enchant, being somewhat unearthly by nature anyway. Now that he looked at them more closely he saw the telltale sign: they were true mirrors that didn’t invert right and left. Even though he’d just seen Julia walk right through it, he couldn’t help closing his eyes and bracing himself to bang his forehead against it. Instead he passed through with an icy sensation.

Crude, he thought. A cleanly cast portal shouldn’t make you feel anything.

What followed had the feeling of a movie montage: a series of shabby, nondescript back rooms and basements, with an attendant in each one to take one of their tickets, and another portal to step through. They were traveling on a makeshift magical public transit system, basement to basement. These amateurs must have ginned it up piecemeal. Quentin prayed that somebody out there was doing quality assurance on something other than a strictly voluntary basis, so they wouldn’t end up materializing two miles in the air, or directly into the mesosphere two miles underground. That would be a real tragedy of the fucking commons.

In some cases whoever set the portal up had had a sense of humor. One was in a TARDIS-style English phone booth. One portal had a mural on the wall around it: a giant circus fat lady bending over and lifting up her dress, so that you had to step right into her ass.

One stop was completely unlike the others: a hushed executive suite somewhere high up in a skyscraper in some unidentifiable nighttime metropolis. From this height, at this hour, it could have been anywhere, Chicago or Tokyo or Dubai. Through a smoky pane of glass, possibly one-way, Quentin and Julia could see a roomful of men in suits deliberating around a table. There was no attendant here. You were on the honor system: you dropped your ticket into a little bronze idol with an open mouth, and you hit the mirror.

“There are rooms like this all over the world,” Julia said as they walked. “People set them up, keep them running. Mostly they are fine. Sometimes you get a bad one.”

“Jesus.” They’d done all this, and nobody at Brakebills had a clue about it. Julia was right, they wouldn’t have believed it was possible. “Who was that see-through prepster guy?”

“Some kind of fairy. Lower fairy. They are not allowed upstairs.”

“Where are we going?”

“We are going my way.”

“Sorry, that’s not good enough.” He stopped walking. “Where, specifically, are we going, and what are we doing there?”

“We are going to Richmond. Virginia. To talk to somebody. Good enough?”

It was. But only because the bar for good enough had gotten very, very low.

One portal was unexpectedly dead, the room empty and dark, the mirror smashed. They backtracked and haggled with an attendant who rerouted them around the dead node. They gave the last of their tickets to a meek, pretty young flower child with dishwater hair, center-parted. Julia marked the woman’s ledger.

“Welcome to Virginia,” she said.

They’d slipped in time as well as space somehow. When they came upstairs the first thing they saw was morning sunlight in the windows. They were in a big house, nicely appointed and immaculately kept, with a Victorian feel: lots of dark wood and oriental carpets and comfortable silence. They’d definitely traded up from the Winston house.

Julia seemed to know the layout. He followed her as she prowled through empty rooms as far as the doorway of a generous living room, which revealed another face of what Quentin had mentally tagged as the underground magic scene. An older man in jeans and a tie was holding court from an overstuffed couch to three teenagers, undergraduate-type girls in yoga pants who watched him with expressions of awe and adoration.

Prev Next