The Magician King Page 20

My God, he thought. These people were absolutely everywhere. Magic had gotten out. The antimatter containment field had collapsed. Maybe there had never been one.

The man was demonstrating a spell for his audience: simple cold magic. He had a glass of water in front of him, and he was working on freezing it. Quentin recognized the spell from his first year at Brakebills. Having completed it, in what Quentin thought was a basically correct but overly showy style, the man cupped his hands around the glass. When he took them away it had a skim of ice on it. He’d managed not to break the glass, which the expanding ice often did.

“Now you try it,” he said.

The girls had their own glasses of water. They repeated the words in unison and tried to imitate his hand positions. Predictably, nothing happened. They had no idea what they were doing—their soft pink fingers were nowhere near where they needed to be. They hadn’t even cut their nails.

When the man noticed Julia standing in the doorway, his face went to shock and horror for about a half second before he was able to bring up a facsimile of delighted surprise. He might have been forty, with carefully mussed brown hair and a fringe of beard. He looked like a large, handsome bug.

“Julia!” he called. “What an amazing surprise! I can’t believe you’re here!”

“I need to talk to you, Warren.”

“Of course!” Warren was working hard to seem like the master of the situation, for the benefit of the room, but it was clear that Julia was very low on his list of people he wanted surprise visits from.

“Hang tight for a minute?” he told his acolytes. “I’ll be right back.”

When his back was to the undergrads Warren dropped the smile. They crossed the hall into a den. He had an odd, rolling gait, as if he were managing a clubfoot.

“What’s this all about, Julia? I’ve got a class,” he said. “Warren,” he added to Quentin, with a wary smile. They shook hands.

“I need to talk to you.” Julia’s tone was stretched thin.

“All right.” And before she could answer, he said under his breath: “Not here. In my office, for God’s sake.”

He ushered Julia toward a door across the hall.

“I’ll just wait in the hall,” Quentin said. “Call me if—”

Julia closed the door behind them.

He supposed it was fair play, considering that he’d parked Julia in the hall outside Fogg’s office. This must be as weird for her as going back to Brakebills had been for him. He couldn’t make out what they were saying, not without putting his ear to the door, which would have attracted even more attention from the girls in the living room, who were peering at him curiously, probably because he was still dressed in the raiment of a Fillorian king.

“Hi,” he said. They all found something else to peer at.

Raised voices, but still indistinct. Warren was placating her, playing the reasonable one, but eventually Julia got under his skin and he got loud too.

“. . . everything I taught you, everything I gave you . . .”

“Everything you gave me?” Julia shouted back. “What I gave you . . .”

Quentin cleared his throat. Mommy and Daddy are fighting. The whole scene was starting to seem funny to him, a clear sign that he was becoming dangerously detached from reality. The door opened and Warren appeared. His face was flushed; Julia’s was pale.

“I’d like you to leave,” he said. “I gave you what you wanted. Now I want you out of here.”

“You gave me what you had,” she spat back. “Not what I wanted.” He opened his eyes wide and spread out his arms: what do you want me to do.

“Just set the gate,” she said.

“I can’t afford it,” he said, through his teeth.

“God, you are path-et-ic!”

Julia walked stiff-legged back through the house, back the way they came, with Warren trailing after. Quentin caught up with them in the mirror room. Julia was scribbling furiously in the ledger. Warren was busy with his own issues. Something odd was happening to him. A long twig was poking through his shirt at the elbow. It seemed to be attached to him.

It was like a dream that just went on and on. Quentin ignored it. They seemed to be leaving anyway.

“You see what you do to me?” Warren said. He was trying to twist and snap off the twig, but it was green and bendy, and there seemed to be another branch sticking out from his ribs, under his shirt. “Just by being here, you see what you do?”

He finally wrenched it off and waved it at her, accusingly, in his fist. “Hey,” Quentin said. He stepped in front of Julia. “Take it easy.” They were the first words Quentin had addressed to him.

Julia finished writing and stared at the mirror.

“I cannot wait to get out of here,” she said, not looking at Warren.

The meek dishwater woman looked horrified by all this. Another of Warren’s acolytes, without a doubt. She had faded even farther into her corner.

“Come on, Quentin.”

He got the freezing shock again, and this time when they stepped through the transition wasn’t instantaneous. They were somewhere else, somewhere dim and in-between. Beneath their feet was masonry, old stone blocks. It was a narrow bridge with no guardrails. Behind them was the bright oblong of the mirror they’d come through; ahead of them, twenty feet away, was another one. Beneath them and on either side was only darkness.

“Sometimes they pull apart like this,” Julia said. “Whatever you do do not lose your balance.”

“What’s down there? Under the bridge?”

“Trolls.”

It was hard to tell if she was joking.

The room they emerged into was dark, a storeroom full of boxes. There was barely room for them to push their way out of the mirror. The air smelled good, like coffee beans. No one was there to meet them.

The coffee smell explained itself when he found a door and opened it onto a cramped restaurant kitchen. A cook barked at them in Italian to move along. They squeezed past him, trying not to burn themselves on anything, and out into the dining room of a café.

Threading their way out through the tables, they emerged onto a wide stone square. A beautiful square, defined by sleepy stone buildings of indeterminate age.

“If I didn’t know better I’d think we were in Fillory,” Quentin said. “Or the Neitherlands.”

“We are in Italy. Venice.”

“I want some of that coffee. Why are we in Venice?”

“Coffee first.”

Bright sunlight on paving stones. Clumps of tourists standing around, taking pictures and studying guidebooks, looking both overwhelmed and bored by it all at the same time. Two churches fronted the square; the other buildings were a weird Venetian jumble of old stone and old wood and irregular windows. Quentin and Julia walked over to the other café on the square, the one out of whose kitchen they had not just magically burst.

It was an oasis of bright yellow umbrellas. Quentin felt like he was floating. He’d never been through so many portals in one day, and it was disorienting. They’d already ordered before they realized they had no euros.

“Fuck it,” Quentin said. “I woke up in Fillory this morning, or maybe it was yesterday morning, either way I need a macchiato. Why are we in Venice?”

“Warren gave me an address. Someone who might be able to help us—a fixer, kind of. He can get things. Maybe he can get us a button.”

“So that’s the plan. Good. I like it.” He was up for whatever as long as coffee was involved.

“Great. After that we can try your amazing plan which you do not have.”

They sipped their coffee in silence. Dreamily Quentin studied the chaotic surface of his macchiato. They hadn’t drawn a milky leaf on it the way they would have in America. Pigeons strutted in between the café tables, picking up unspeakably soiled crumbs, their clawed toes looking livid and pink this close up. Sunlight washed over it all. The light in Venice was like the light in Fillory: stone-light.

The world had changed again. It wasn’t as neatly divided as he remembered it, between the magical and the non-magical. There was this grubby, anarchical in-between now. He didn’t much care for it; it was chaotic and unglamorous and he didn’t know the rules. Probably Julia didn’t like it either, he reflected, but she hadn’t gotten to choose, not the way he did.

Well, his world hadn’t done them any good. They would go rooting around in hers for a while.

“So who was that Warren guy?” Quentin said. “Seems like you guys have some history.”

“Warren is nobody. He knows a little magic, so he hangs around the college and tries to impress undergraduates and teach them some things so he can bang them.”

“Really.”

“Really.”

“What happened to him at the end there? With his arm—what was that?”

“Warren is not human. He is something else, wood spirit of some kind. He just has a thing for humans. When he gets upset he cannot keep up the disguise.”

“So did Warren ‘bang’ you?” he said.

Who knew where it came from. It just bubbled up out of nowhere: a flash of jealousy, sour and hot like acid reflux. He didn’t see it coming. He’d had a lot to absorb in one day, or night, whatever it had just been, and it was just a little too much too fast. It spilled over.

Julia leaned across the table and slapped Quentin. She only did it once, but she did it hard.

“You have no idea what I had to do to get what was handed to you on a plate,” she hissed. “And yeah, I banged Warren. I did a lot worse things too.”

You could almost see the waves of anger coming off her, like fumes off gasoline. Quentin touched his cheek where she’d hit him.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Not sorry enough.”

A few people looked over, but just a few. It was Italy after all. People probably hit each other all the time.

CHAPTER 12

It was another year and a half before Julia saw Quentin again. He’d become a hard boy to find. He didn’t seem to have a cell phone, or even a phone, or even an e-mail address. His parents talked in vaguenesses. She wasn’t convinced that even they knew how to find him. But she knew how to find them, and he had to come back home once in a while, like a dog to its vomit. Quentin wasn’t close to his parents, but he wasn’t the type to cut them off all the way. Frankly he wouldn’t have the stones for it.

Julia, though. Julia had the stones for it. She was a flight risk, no strong ties to the community. When she heard that the Coldwaters had sold up and moved to Massachusetts, she pulled up stakes and followed them. Even a suburban cultural sump like Chesterton had Internet connections and temp agencies—no, especially a suburban cultural sump like Chesterton—and that was all she needed to get by. She rented a room over a garage from a retired guy with a janitor mustache who probably had a Web cam hidden in the bathroom. She bought a beat-up Honda Civic with a wired-shut trunk.

She didn’t hate Quentin. That wasn’t it. Quentin was fine, he was just in the way. He had gotten it so easy, and she had it so hard, and why? There was no good reason. He passed a test, and she failed it. That was a judgment on the test, not on her, but now her life was a waking nightmare, and he had everything he ever wanted. He was living a fantasy. Her fantasy. She wanted it back.

Or not even that. She wasn’t going to take anything away from him. She just needed him to confirm that Brakebills was real, and to open a chink in the wall of the secret garden just wide enough for her to squeeze through. He was her man on the inside. Though he didn’t know it yet.

So here’s how it worked: every morning before work she drove past the Coldwaters’ house. Every night around nine o’clock she drove by again, and got out and quietly walked the perimeter of the lawn, looking for traces of her quarry. A McMansion like that, all double-glazed picture windows, broadcast the goings-on inside it out into the night like a drive-in movie. It was summer again, and the summer nights smelled like murdered grass and sounded like crickets fucking. At first all she learned was that Mrs. Coldwater was a predictable but technically sound amateur painter in a sadly dated Pop art mode, and that Mr. Coldwater had a weakness for porn and crying jags.

It wasn’t till September that the beast showed himself.

Quentin had changed: he’d always been lanky, but now he looked like a skeleton. His cheeks were sunken, his cheekbones jagged. His clothes hung on him. His hair—cut your fucking hair already, you’re not Alan Rickman—was lank.

He looked like shit. Poor baby. Actually what he looked like was Julia.

She didn’t approach him right away. She had to psych herself up for it. Now that she had him where she wanted him, she was suddenly afraid to touch him. She quit taking temp assignments and went fulltime on Quentin. But she stayed under the radar.

Around eleven every morning she watched him slam out of the house in a brown study and whiz into town on a hilariously antique white tenspeed. She followed him at a distance. Good thing he was completely oblivious and self-obsessed or he would have noticed a red Honda with a death rattle shadowing his every move. There he was, the living, breathing forensic trace of everything she’d ever wanted. If he couldn’t help her, or wouldn’t, it would be over. She’d have given two years of her life for nothing. The fear of finding out paralyzed her, but every day she waited the risk that he would vanish again grew and grew. She would be back to square zero.

All Julia could think was that if it came right down to it she would sleep with him. She knew how he felt about her. He would do anything to sleep with her. It was the nuclear option, but it would work. No risk. It was her ace in the hole. So to speak.

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