The Magician King Page 24

“Anyway, I’m supposed to meet the guy on such and such a dock at such and such a time, so I basically do, though the day when good old-fashioned green-and-white American street signs come to this continent will be a merry fuckin’ occasion, let me just say. A guy pulls up to the dock in this fancy-pants launch. Not one of your usual Venice craporetto fart-buckets. This thing is sleek. It’s like a giant knife made out of wood. Totally soundless. It glides up to the dock, this guy jumps out. He doesn’t even tie up, the boat just waits for him.

“And he’s a midget. Little person—sorry, little person. But way highend little person. He’s so well dressed you don’t even notice he’s a little person. He’s from this old Venetian family, a marchese of whatever whatever. It takes him about an hour just to say his name.

“But after that things go pretty quick. He says he represents somebody who wants to buy the button. I don’t even know how they know about it, but I say who is it. He’s all, I can’t say. I say, how much, and he’s all: one hundred million dollars. And I’m all: two hundred million. Fifty. Two hundred fifty million.

“Right? Check that out! And I want to know who the buyer is. Right? Now who wasted his childhood watching like a million hours of TV? That shit is practically second nature to me.

“So the midget takes out an envelope and inside the envelope is a cashier’s check for two hundred and fifty million. It’s like he knew what I was going to say. And I’m all, and? And he waves me over with his little stubby fingers. I figured he was going to whisper something in my ear, so I stop and bend down, and he’s all, no, and he keeps waving me right up to the edge of the dock, and then he points down into the water. And this face looms up at me.

“It just comes floating up toward the surface of the water. It’s enormous—it looks like the front of a truck coming up at me. I practically shit my pants.”

“What was it?”

“It was a dragon. There’s a dragon that lives in the Grand Canal! That’s who bought the button.”

Quentin knew about dragons, at least in theory. There weren’t many of them, and they mostly lived in rivers, one to a river—they were highly territorial. They hardly ever came out or spoke to anyone. They hardly ever did anything at all, just dreamed away the lifetime of the planet in secret fluvial oblivion. Except one of them had woken up long enough to talk to an aristocratic little person, apparently. And it had bestirred itself to show its face to Josh, and to buy his—their—magic button for two hundred fifty million dollars.

“So we go to the bank, we verify that the check is valid, then we walk back to the dock. I take out the button and hand it to the little guy, who’s put on one white glove, Michael Jackson–style. He looks at the button through a jeweler’s loupe, then he walks to the edge and chucks it in the water. Just like that. Then he gets in his launch and drives away.”

“That is pretty astonishing,” Quentin said. It was hard to even be mad about it. Though not impossible.

“Can you believe a dragon bought our button?” Josh said. “He knows who we are! Or who I am anyway. I don’t even think people knew there was a dragon in the Grand Canal. I mean, it’s salt water. You know that, right? It’s not actually a river, it’s a tidal estuary or whatever. I don’t think people know about saltwater dragons!”

“Josh, how would I go about getting in touch with that dragon?”

That brought him up short.

“Well, I don’t know. I don’t think you can.”

“You did.”

“He got in touch with me.”

“Well, how would you try?”

Josh heaved an exasperated sigh.

“All right, there is this one girl I know who knows a lot about dragons. I guess I’d ask her.”

“Okay, good. Listen. This is what’s going to happen.” Quentin focused his will on Josh. Now hear this. He met Josh’s gaze and held it. “All due respect to your being king here, but Julia and I are king and queen of Fillory, and we have to get back there. For all intents and purposes we are on a fucking quest here. You are now on the quest team too. I am deputizing you. We have to get back to Fillory, and we don’t know how we’re going to do it. That’s the problem.”

Josh considered.

“That’s a big problem.”

“Yeah, and you’re the big fixer. Right? So let’s fix it.”

He’d give Josh this: maybe he blew their only chance to get back to the secret magical land where Quentin was a king, but he bought a very nice palazzo with the money. It was a glorious, grotesque heap of fifteenth-century marble. The façade on the canal side was white, with its own tidy little dock out front. The interior teemed with curly plasterwork ornaments. Old oil paintings clung to the walls like lichen. Josh had accidentally acquired a minor Canaletto when he bought the place.

It was a serious palace, and it must have taken serious work to get it back on its feet. Josh had replumbed it and rewired it and put in a restaurant-caliber kitchen and done some work below the waterline, shoring up the foundations to keep the whole thing from slumping forward into the canal. He’d done it carefully, too, so that you wouldn’t know the place had been touched until you turned on the shower.

And all it had cost was $25 million, plus $10 million more for the renovation. Not that Quentin was a math genius or anything, but he figured that that left Josh with a pretty tidy nest egg. No doubt it would be a great comfort to him during his golden years.

It was all a reminder that Josh had a capable and determined side that really did deserve respect, even though for his own private reasons he worked hard to keep that side hidden most of the time. Now that Quentin looked, really looked, something had changed about Josh. He was more confident. He stood differently. He’d lost weight in the Neitherlands, and he’d kept it off. People changed. Time didn’t stand still for you, while you lounged around on cushions in Fillory.

And he could learn something from Josh. Here was somebody who was having a good time. He was doing what he wanted and enjoying himself. He’d been through everything Quentin had been through: he lost the girl he loved, and he nearly died. He didn’t sit around moaning and philosophizing about it. He bounced back and set himself up in a palazzo.

Quentin slept like the dead till noon the next day, when he enjoyed a formal breakfast in the dining room. (Josh was exceptionally proud of the table he set. “Over here they use spoons for their jam. Amazing, right? Tiny spoons! It’s ‘fit for a king’!” Wink, wink.) They were joined by Julia, who kept her sunglasses on and ate only marmite, straight from the jar, which if anything seemed like further proof of her declining humanity.

They were also joined by Poppy, Josh’s friend, the one who was supposed to know something about dragons. She was a beanpole, tall and skinny, with wide blue eyes and curly blond hair. Poppy had been to Brakebills as it happened, but only in a postgraduate capacity as a research fellow. She’d learned her magic at a college in Australia, which was where she was from.

Quentin had some idea that Australians were fun-loving and easygoing, and if that was true he could why see Poppy had gotten the hell out of Australia. She had a bright, sharp manner and a quick little voice and a lot of confidence. She was especially confident when it came to pointing out other people’s mistakes. Not that she was a know-it-all—it didn’t seem to be an ego thing with her. She just assumed that everybody shared her desire for everybody to be clear on everything, and she’d expect you to do the same for her. Apparently at Esquith, which was the Australian magic school in Tasmania, she’d been the academic superstar of her year. This according to Josh, but Poppy didn’t contradict him, which if it weren’t true would have gone against her error-hating nature.

Poppy was an academic at heart, but she wasn’t the ivory tower type. She was into the real world. She was into fieldwork. Specifically she was into dragons.

Quentin supposed it was an extension of the general Australian preoccupation with fatally dangerous animals. Start with saltwater crocodiles and box jellyfish and it was just a hop, skip, and a jump up the food chain before you got to dragons. Poppy knew about as much about them as it was possible to know with actually ever having seen one. She’d followed leads all over the world, and now she’d followed one here. Josh had put out feelers for an expert on the topic, and he’d been very pleased indeed when his expert had turned out to be as good-looking as Poppy was. She’d been there for three weeks, and Josh didn’t feel she’d worn out her welcome.

He introduced her as his friend, but given who Josh was, and given Poppy’s undeniable prettiness, Quentin didn’t think it was uncharitable to assume that Josh was trying to sleep with her or had already slept with her. He was new and improved, but he was still Josh.

Frankly Poppy got on Quentin’s nerves a bit, but she was about to come in extremely handy. Josh had yet to give her the full download about the dragon of the Grand Canal. He told Quentin he’d been slowplaying it in an attempt to prolong her visit. But now the moment had arrived. They needed her. Needless to say Poppy was beyond excited. Her wide blue eyes got even wider.

“Well, okay,” she said, talking at a runaway clip. “So most of the dragons have a place where you’re supposed to be able to jump into their river and they’ll notice. They monitor it just in case somebody worth their while wants to talk to them. If they want to talk to you, they’ll take you down to where they live. But it’s not a well-understood process at all. There are a lot of urban legends around it. Lots of people say they’ve talked to dragons, but it’s very hard to verify. Supposedly the Thames dragon wrote most of Pink Floyd’s stuff. At least after Syd Barrett left. But there’s no way to prove it.

“Traditionally you approach them via the first bridge upstream from the sea, in this case I guess the Accademia. Haven’t you guys heard all this stuff? I can’t believe you haven’t heard about this. Go at midnight. Go to the middle of the bridge. Take a copy of today’s newspaper and a nice steak. Wear something nice. And that’s it.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it. And then you jump in. It’s all just tradition. I mean, God knows if any of it helps. There’s so little data, and so little of it is reliable.”

And then you jump in. That was all.

“But it does sometimes work?” Quentin said.

“Sure!” Poppy nodded brightly. “Uh-huh. Some dragons like to talk more than others. The valedictorian of the magic school in Calcutta makes a run at the Ganges dragon every year, and it works about half the time.

“A dragon in the Grand Canal, though. That’s new. I mean, really new. I was starting to think you were full of shit.” She gave Josh a sharp, reappraising look.

“Starting?” Quentin said.

“So when are you going?”

“Tonight. But listen, do me one favor. Don’t tell anybody about this yet.”

Poppy frowned prettily, which seemed to the only way she knew how. “Why not?”

“Just give us a week,” Quentin said. “That’s all I ask. The dragon isn’t going anywhere, and I need to get a decent chance with it. If word gets out there’s going to be a mob scene.”

She thought for a second.

“All right,” she said.

Something about the way she said it suggested to Quentin that she might actually keep her promise.

Recovering her high spirits immediately, Poppy addressed herself to her jam and toast. Thin as she was, she ate more than Josh, presumably burning it all in whatever inner furnace kept her at such a pitch of eager excitement all the time.

That left the rest of the day to dispense with. Life at the Palazzo Josh (formerly the Palazzo Barberino, after the sixteenth-century clan that built it and eventually sold it to a dot-com jillionaire, who never set foot in it, and who blew his jillions on Ponzi schemes and a trip to the International Space Station, after which he sold it to Josh) wasn’t exactly taxing. He felt disloyal for thinking it, disloyal to Fillory, but he could almost get used to this. The palazzo’s comforts were many. You could spend the morning in bed, reading and watching the Venetian light track slowly over an oriental carpet that was so fractally ornate it practically scintillated right there on the floor in front of you. Then there was all of Venice to wander around—the structural spells alone, the titanic bonds that kept the whole place from drowning itself in the lagoon, were a must-see for any tourist of the world’s magical wonders.

Then there was the daily late-afternoon spritz. Taken altogether it was enough to make Quentin forget for minutes at a time that once upon a time he used to be the king of a magical otherworld.

Not Julia, though. Not quite. She found him nursing his drink on the piano nobile and admiring the cityscape over its heavy stone railing. Together they looked down at the traffic on the canal, much of which consisted of tourists on boats looking up at them and wondering who they were and whether they were famous.

“You like it here,” Julia said.

“It’s amazing. I’d never even been to Italy before. I had no idea it was like this.”

“I lived in France for a while,” she said.

“You did? When did you live in France?”

“It was a long time ago.”

“Was that where you learned to steal cars?”

“No.”

Having brought it up, she didn’t seem to want to talk about it.

“It is nice here,” she conceded.

“Do you want to stay here?” Quentin asked. “Do you still want to go back to Fillory?”

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