The Magician King Page 25

She set her glass down on the wide marble parapet. More whiskey, still neat. A muscle twinged in her jaw.

“I have to go back. I cannot stay here.” Before when she said this she sounded angry and desperate. Now she sounded regretful. “I must keep going. Are you coming with me?”

It made Quentin’s heart ache, to hear Julia ask him for something. Anything. She needed his help. People needing him: it was a new feeling. He was starting to like it.

“Of course I am.” It was what she’d said when he asked her to come along to the Outer Island.

She nodded, never taking her eyes off the view.

“Thank you.”

That night at five minutes to midnight Quentin was remembering that conversation and trying to hold on to that feeling as he loitered on the Ponte dell’Accademia, holding copies of Il Gazzettino and the International Herald Tribune, just to cover all the bases, and a really great, amazingly expensive raw steak, doing his very best impression of somebody who wasn’t about to jump into the Grand Canal.

After the crushing, malodorous heat of the day, the night air was surprisingly frigid. From the point of view of someone who was planning to immerse himself in it, the creamy green water of the Grand Canal looked about as enticing as glacial runoff. It also looked a lot farther away than it had looked from the banks. It also looked clean, which Quentin knew it wasn’t.

But somewhere under all that water there was a button. And a dragon. It didn’t seem real. He half-suspected Josh of having lost the button in a sofa and making up the story about the dragon because it was less embarrassing.

“This is going to be really wretched, dude,” Josh said. “You are not going to be a happy puppy in there.”

“No kidding.” He’d hoped Josh would offer to do it himself, or go in with him, but no such luck.

“You’ll get used to it,” Poppy said, hugging herself.

“Why are you here, again?” Quentin said.

“Interests of science. Plus I want to see if you’ll actually go through with it.”

It was a personal tic of Poppy’s that she never seemed to lie when other people would. It was either tactless or admirable, depending on how you looked at it.

Quentin took some deep breaths and leaned against the splintery wooden railing, which still retained some of the fading heat of the sun. Remember what’s at stake. Julia wouldn’t hesitate. She’d be over the railing like a damn Olympic hurdler. At his request they hadn’t told her they were going tonight, but slipped out after she went to bed. She would have insisted on going in.

“They hardly ever eat people,” Poppy said. “I mean like twice a century. That we know of.”

Quentin didn’t respond to this.

“How deep do you think it is?” Josh said. He dragged on a cigarette. Of the three of them he looked the most nervous.

“Twenty feet maybe,” Quentin said. “I read it on the Internet.”

“Jesus. Well, whatever you do don’t dive.”

“If I break my neck and end up paralyzed just let me drown.”

“Two minutes,” Poppy said. An empty vaporetto churned by underneath them, off duty, lights off except for one in the cozy pilot’s cabin. That water must be ninety percent E. coli, and the rest was probably diesel fuel. This was not a body of water intended for swimming in.

Somebody had carved what might have been a stylized dragon, or just a fancy s, into the wood right at the apex of the bridge.

“Are you going to take off your clothes?” Josh asked.

“You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting for you to ask me that.”

“Seriously, are you?”

“No.”

Poppy said it at the same time he did.

“Seriously,” she added.

Their little group fell silent. Somewhere far away glass broke. Beer bottle versus wall. Quentin wondered if he was actually going to do this. Maybe he could just drop a note in. Message in a bottle. Call me.

“Hey, remember when that little person called your cell?” he said. “Did you get his number? Maybe we could just—”

“It was blocked.”

“Time!” Poppy said.

“Damn it!”

Just don’t think about it. He backed up to the middle of the bridge, scrunched the papers and the bag with the steak in it up in one hand, ran at the railing, and vaulted over it sidewise. He surprised himself by how spryly he did it. Must be the adrenaline. Even so he almost clipped a sticking-out support beam going down.

Some primal instinct caused him to flap his arms and let go of the steak and the papers in midair. They separated from him and disappeared into the night. So much for that. To his left he caught a glimpse of something falling in parallel with him. Somebody—it was Poppy! She was jumping in too.

He hit hard, feetfirst more or less, and went under. His only thought as he went down was to clench or snort out air from all possible orifices to try to avoid taking in any water or other fluids. The canal was freezing and powerfully salty. For an instant he felt relief—it wasn’t that cold—then his clothes soaked through and turned to frozen lead, and the cold pressed in on him from all sides. He panicked and thrashed—his clothes were too heavy. They were going to drag him under! Then his head broke the surface.

He’d lost a shoe. Poppy surfaced at the same moment a couple of yards away, spitting and blowing, her round face shining pale in the sodium light of the streetlights. He should have been mad at her, but the gonzo jolliness of swimming in the Grand Canal in the middle of the night made him laugh crazily instead.

“What the hell are you doing?” he stage-whispered.

If nothing else the freezing shock had taken away his irritation at her. He had to give her credit for a degree of physical courage he wouldn’t have thought she possessed. They were in it together.

“Twice the chances, right? If there’s two of us?” She was grinning a loony grin too. She lived for this shit. “I was wrong, we should have taken our clothes off.”

He treaded water. It took about thirty seconds before he was exhausted and shivering uncontrollably. The current was sweeping them under the bridge—not the current, the tide, it must be, he reminded himself, since the canal wasn’t really a river. Jesus, there could be sharks in this bitch. Somebody yelled at them from the bank, in Italian. He hoped it wasn’t a cop.

Quentin peed in his pants and felt warmer for ten seconds, then even colder afterward. He tried not to think of what PCBs and other industrial toxins must be leaching their way into him upstream. From down here the canal looked enormous, the banks miles away. How did he get here, so far from where he started? How had he gone so far off track? He felt like he would never claw his way back to where he should be, back onto his cozy throne. A wavelet popped up out of nowhere and slapped him in the face. He was ready to call it a night. At least he could say he tried.

“How long are we supposed to wait?” he asked Poppy.

Just then an iron handcuff locked around his ankle and jerked him under.

He should have died right then. Surprise made him blurt out all his air in one heave, and he went down with his lungs completely empty.

But there was a spell in effect to keep him alive. It was obviously something the dragon had developed over many years for the comfort of its human visitors. It was comprehensive. It was user-friendly. It had the feel of magic finely milled by long centuries of use and cast by a past-master with wings and a tail. Quentin wasn’t going to die. Or at least not by accident.

In fact he felt warm, for the first time in what seemed like hours, and he could see clearly, if dimly, which he shouldn’t have been able to do. He was breathing the water. It wasn’t quite like breathing air—it had more heft to it, more push and shove was required to get it in and out of his chest—but it got the job done. Oxygen continued to reach his brain. He heaved it in and out gratefully, in big gulps. He felt relaxed. Somebody was taking care of him. He was flying first-class.

Quentin had always had reservations about dragons, the real ones anyway, the ones that actually existed. He’d been raised on the tradition of high-flying, gold-hoarding, fire-breathing dragons. Beowulf dragons, Tolkien dragons, Dungeons & Dragons dragons. The news that real dragons lived in rivers, and didn’t go thundering around the countryside setting trees on fire, had come as a disappointment to him. River dragons sounded colder and slimier and more newtlike than what he’d been hoping for.

So he was happy to see that the dragon that had hold of his ankle with its short but powerful right forelimb, drawing him down and placing him gently on the canal floor, like a puppy to whom it was saying “stay,” was thoroughly, almost quintessentially draconian. It looked sinister and coldly calculating and like it could eat him without noticing, but it was canonical. Its massive saurian head was the size of a compact car. Its eyes flashed silver when you caught them at the right angle. Its scales were a delicate watery green. Having settled him on the soft sand, the dragon of the Grand Canal released him and crouched down in a catlike pose, resting its head on the tip of its tail. Its vast body humped up in the dimness behind it.

Quentin sneezed. His sinuses had flooded with filthy water when the dragon yanked him down, but the water around him now was clean. He was enclosed, with the dragon, in a quiet green-black dome of water. The canal bed, which should have been a swamp of trash and scrap metal and sewage, was smooth. The dragon kept its patch of sand well tended.

Quentin sat cross-legged. It was just the two of them; the dragon hadn’t taken Poppy, apparently. Quentin was having a little trouble not floating away, but he found something round and heavy next to him—an old cannonball, maybe—and settled it in his lap to hold him down.

He let a minute go by, but the dragon didn’t talk. All right. Game on.

“Hello,” Quentin said. His voice sounded basically normal. Just distant, as if he were eavesdropping on himself from another room. “Thank you for seeing me.”

The huge face didn’t move. It was as unreadable as a skull. Though there went the eyes, flashing again.

“Probably you know why I came here. I want to talk to you about the button, the one you bought from my friend Josh.” He felt like a kid asking the school bully for his lunch money back. He straightened his spine. “The thing is, it wasn’t entirely his to sell. It also belonged to me, and some other people, and we need it. I need it to get back to my home, and my friend Julia does too.”

“I know.”

The dragon’s voice was like some vast string instrument two levels below double bass. An octuple bass maybe, playing a perfect fifth. He felt the vibrations in his ribs and in his balls.

“Will you help us? Will you give us back the button? Or sell it back to us?”

The rest of the canal was a solid wall of darkness around them. There was a distant rumble, and Quentin risked a glance up: a late-night barge was thundering by overhead. It felt like the water was getting chillier, or maybe he was cooling off. He scooched a little closer to the dragon, who was giving off heat. If it was going to eat him it was going to eat him, and at least he’d die warm.

“No,” came the reply.

The dragon’s eyes closed and opened.

The door back to Fillory was shutting. He had to stick his foot in it. That world, the world of his real life, the life he was supposed to be living, was drifting away, or he was drifting away from it. The moorings had been cut, and the tide was flowing out. They never should have gone to After Island. They never should have left Castle Whitespire.

“Maybe you could loan it to us?” He willed the desperation out of his voice. “A one-time trip. If there’s anything I have that you want, I’m offering it. I’m a king, in Fillory at least. I have a lot of resources there.”

“I did not bring you here to listen to you boast.”

“I’m not—”

“I have lived in this canal for ten centuries. Everything that enters it is mine. I have swords and crowns. I have popes and saints and kings and queens. I have brides on their wedding day and children on Christmas. I have the Holy Lance and the noose that hung Judas. I have every lost thing.”

Fair enough. Quentin wondered if Byron had ever been down here. If he had, he probably thought of something clever to say.

“Okay. All right. But I don’t understand, why did you bring me here if you don’t want to sell me back the button?”

The dragon’s pupils widened until they were almost a foot across, and it seemed to come awake and really notice him for the first time. Its head lifted off its tail. He was close enough that it had to go slightly cross-eyed to focus on him. Now that Quentin’s eyes had adjusted to the dark he could make out the big scales on the dragon’s back. They looked as thick as encyclopedias, and a few of them had things carved into them, sigils and pictograms that Quentin didn’t recognize.

“You will not speak again, human, except to thank me,” the dragon said. “You wish to be a hero, but you do not know what a hero is. You think a hero is one who wins. But a hero must be prepared to lose, Quentin. Are you? Are you prepared to lose everything?”

“I’ve already lost everything,” he said.

“Oh, no. You have so much more left to lose.”

The dragon was a lot scoldier than he expected. And disappointingly cryptic. Somehow in the back of his mind he’d vaguely thought that the dragon might want to be his friend, and they would fly around the world solving mysteries together. The chances of that happening now looked vanishingly small. He waited. Maybe the dragon would give him something they could use.

“The old gods are returning to take back what is theirs. I will play my part. Best you prepare to play yours.”

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