The Magician King Page 27

Julia typed as she walked; she had developed a great facility in doing this, using her peripheral vision to weave around fire hydrants and dogshit land mines and other pedestrians. A key part of successfully being Julia, it seemed, was not giving a shit if you looked weird. Today she halflistened via the app’s text-to-speech feature while Pouncy and Asmodeus went back and forth on the validity of Hofstadter’s strange-loop theory of consciousness as derived from Gödel numbers, or something like that.

The other half of her consciousness, Hofstadterian or no, was deployed in looking at the front doors of the houses she passed. Specifically she was looking at the way they were divided up into square and rectangular panels of different sizes. Most of them were anyway. This was not on the face of it an overwhelmingly interesting activity; in fact she would have been hard-pressed to explain to anybody exactly why she was doing it. It was just that the doors had begun to remind her of a game of Series they’d played the other day.

Pouncy had offered up a geometrical puzzle, painstakingly executed in ASCII characters, consisting of simple patterns of squares on a small grid. It had turned out—Failstaff nailed it—that the patterns could be understood as successive states of a very simple cellular automaton, so simple that they could nut out the rules in their heads once they had the general idea. Or Failstaff could anyway.

The funny thing was, Julia fancied that as she walked she could spot sequences from the series in the different configurations of the doors she was passing. It seemed like if she kept going long enough she could always find the next term.

It was just a goofy mental exercise. Sometimes the pattern was in wood, sometimes in glass, or a wrought-iron gate. Once it was in cinder blocks in a blocked-up window, which was cheating, but it was weird how often she found it. She started setting rules for herself—she would stop walking if it took her more than a block to find the next term in the series, then it had to be within a block and on the same side of the street, and so on—but the right pattern always turned up just in time. She wasn’t sure if this was a significant discovery or not, but she felt a compulsion to see how long she could keep it going. She could imagine the acidity of the sarcasm Pouncy would slather all over her if she told the others what she was doing. It would be seriously corrosive, pH 0 sarcasm.

It was all working out very neatly though. The only difference between her and Pouncy’s cellular automata was that hers was running backward—the rules were being applied in reverse, so it was winding back down to its initial state. That was another reason she kept walking: the series was finite. It would be over soon, whatever happened. Once she got lost for a block, but then she realized she’d munged the transformation, and once she fixed it then sure enough, there it was, an old wooden door with inset panels, three of them slightly lighter in color to pick out the right configuration. It was a will-o’-the-wisp leading her onward, farther into the perilous marsh of Bed-Stuy, deeper into a dreamlike, hypnagogic state.

A small but vigilant sector of Julia’s brain wasn’t that stoked about how far into Bed-Stuy she was getting. Row houses were giving way to vacant lots and chop shops and half-built apartment houses that the recession had killed off before they were finished. She had about an hour before dark, and it was no longer possible to tell herself that some of the houses were boarded up because they were undergoing very ambitious gut renovations, because those houses weren’t being renovated, they were crack houses. But it wouldn’t be long before she found the door that corresponded to Pouncy’s starting configuration, and then the series would be at an end—which is to say, at its beginning—and she could turn around and head back to Park Slope.

And sure enough, just past Throop (pronounced “troop”) Avenue, there it was. It was not a pretty house, but it wasn’t a crack house, either. It was a two-story lime-green clapboard house with an antique rabbit-ears antenna on top and a surly gang of aluminum garbage cans in the cracked cement yard out front. The front door was an eight-paned glass affair. One pane, the top left corner, had been punched out and plastic-wrapped, thereby completing the series.

And that was that. It was finished. The sight of that final pattern, the initial state, released Julia from the spell. The dream logic had iterated itself out. She looked around like a sleepwalker awakened, wondering where the hell she was, exactly. Somebody was still babbling in her ear in a computer-generated voice about Hofstadter. Exhaustion broke over her in a wave. She must have walked for miles, and the sun was setting. She sat down on the stoop.

She needed a ride home. A car service would be expensive, but being mugged and/or assaulted would be even more expensive. Plus she felt like she would literally drop in her tracks if she had to take another step. She killed the FTB app and took out her earbuds, and the voices died away. Silence. Reality.

Behind her she heard the door open. She got up again and held up a hand—okay, okay, she was going. She didn’t suppose that a lecture on cellular automata would really pass for an excuse for trespassing with the residents of some random lime-green shitbox house on Throop Avenue.

But the guy in the door wasn’t shooing her away. He was a white guy, owlish-looking, maybe thirty, in a vintage blazer and jeans and an insta-annoying porkpie hat.

He just looked at her, assessing. Behind him she could see other people in the house, sitting and standing, chatting and moping, and doing things with their hands. Only they didn’t have anything in their hands. A weird acid-green light flared for a second in the doorway, from somewhere she couldn’t see, like there was welding going on in there. Somebody gave an ironic cheer. The air absolutely reeked of magic. You could barely breathe, it was so thick.

Julia squatted down on her haunches on the sidewalk, like a toddler, and put her head in her hands and laughed and cried at the same time. She felt like she was going to pass out or throw up or go insane. She had tried to walk away from the disaster, to run away from it, she really, truly had. She’d broken her staff and drowned her book and sworn off magic forever. She’d moved on and left no forwarding address. But it hadn’t been enough. Magic had come looking for her. She hadn’t run far enough or fast enough, or hid herself well enough, and the disaster had tracked her down and it had found her. It wasn’t going to let her go.

It was about to start all over again.

CHAPTER 16

During everything that followed, all the time while he nearly got creamed by a vaporetto as he swam to shore, while he dragged himself up some ancient stone steps out of the water (the Grand Canal was well-appointed with means of egress for those who fell or flung themselves into it) and trudged back to Josh’s palazzo alone—Josh having had his hands full keeping Poppy out of the clutches of the carabinieri, who showed up shortly after Quentin went under—Quentin’s mind was on fire with the only piece of useful information the dragon had given him: that there was still a way back to Fillory. They weren’t going to get the button, but he could let go of that now, because there was a way back. If they could just figure out what the dragon meant.

He thought about it while he rinsed off salt and oil and heavy-metal particles and worse in a half-hour shower at high temperature and high pressure and washed his hair three times and dried off and finally tossed his ruined clothes, his beloved Fillorian clothes, his royal clothes, into the trash and crawled into bed. The first door, the dragon had said. The first door. The first door. What did it mean?

Of course there were other words in there to think about. There was a lot to take away from that brief conversation. The old gods were returning. Something about being a hero. All definitely important. Of paramount importance. But the first door: that was the action item. He had the scent. He was going to do it, he was going to follow the clues, and get them out of here and back where they belonged. He was going to be a hero, damn it all, whatever the dragon said. He would lose whatever he had to lose, if that’s what it took to win.

Poppy woke him up the next morning at seven. It was like Christmas morning for her. She was just so excited, and she’d waited as long as she could. She wasn’t even jealous. She’d already had three cappuccinos, and she’d brought him one. Australians. He thought she was going to start bouncing on his bed.

They all worked through the possibilities together over breakfast.

“The first door,” Josh said. “So it’s some primal, like, door. Like Stonehenge.”

“Stonehenge is a calendar,” Poppy said. “It’s not a door.”

In the course of general orientation Poppy had almost incidentally been brought up to speed on the existence of Fillory. Irritatingly, she took it in stride, the way she did everything else. She was interested in it from an intellectual point of view. She assimilated the information. But it didn’t set her imagination burning the way it had Quentin’s.

“Maybe it’s like a time-lock. Like on a vault.”

“Dude!” Quentin said. “Forget Stonehenge! It must be something in Venice, like a sea-gate or something.”

“Venice is a port. That’s a kind of door. A portal. The whole city is a door.”

“Yeah, but the first?”

“Or it’s a metaphorical door,” Poppy said. “The Bible or something. Like in Dan Brown.”

“You know, I bet it’s something about the pyramids,” Josh said.

“It means the Chatwins’ house,” Julia said.

The conversation stopped.

“What do you mean?” Poppy said.

“Their aunt’s house. In Cornwall. Where they discovered Fillory. That was the first door.”

It was nice to see Poppy beaten to the punch for once.

“But how do you know?” Poppy asked.

“I know,” Julia said. Quentin hoped that she wouldn’t say what she was about to say next, but she said it anyway. “I can feel it.”

“What do you mean, feel it?” Poppy said.

“Why do you care?” Julia said.

“Because I’m curious.”

Quentin intervened. Julia seemed to have taken an instinctive, prickly dislike to Poppy.

“It makes sense. What’s the first way people got into Fillory? Through the Chatwins’ house. The clock in the back hall.”

“I don’t know,” Josh said. He rubbed his round stubbly chin. “I thought you could never get in the same way twice. And anyway, Martin Chatwin was a little kid. That’s fine for him, but no way I could fit through the door of a grandfather clock. Not even you could.”

“All right,” Quentin said. “Sure, but—”

“Plus it was supposed to be a personal invitation, specific to the Chatwins,” Josh went on. “Like, those particular kids were particularly awesome in some way, so Ember summoned them so they could use their awesome personal qualities to fix shit in Fillory.”

“We have awesome personal qualities,” Quentin said. “I think we should go. It’s our best lead.”

“I am going,” Julia said.

“Road trip!” Josh said, turning on a dime.

“All right.” It felt good to be making decisions anyway, whatever they were based on. It felt good to get moving again. “We’ll go tomorrow morning. Unless anybody has a better idea before then.”

It was getting increasingly hard to not notice that Poppy was helpless with laughter.

“I’m sorry!” she said. “I really am. It’s just that—I mean, I know it’s real, or I mean I guess it’s real, but you do realize that this is a kids’ thing? Fillory? It’s like you’re worried about how to get to Candy Land! Or I don’t know, Smurftown.”

Julia got up and left. She didn’t even bother to get annoyed. She took Fillory seriously, and she had no patience for, and no interest in, anyone who didn’t. He hadn’t noticed till now, but Julia could be pretty unpleasant when she wanted to be.

“You think Candy Land is real?” Josh said. “’Cause I would ditch Fillory in a red-hot minute for that shit. Chocolate Swamp and all. And have you seen Princess Frostine?”

“Maybe it’s not real to you,” Quentin said, a little stiffly. “It’s just that it’s very real to us. Or to me anyway. It’s where I live. It’s my home.”

“I know, I know! I’m sorry. I really am.” Poppy wiped her eyes. “I’m sorry. Maybe you just have to see it.”

“Maybe you do.”

But, Quentin thought, you probably never will.

The next day they all went to Cornwall.

That’s where the Chatwins’ house was: the house where in 1917 the Chatwin children went to stay with their aunt Maude, and met Christopher Plover, and found their way into Fillory, and the whole magnificent, wretched story began. It was incredible that the house still existed, and had been sitting there all this time, and that you could just go there.

But in a way it was incredible that he hadn’t been there already. The Chatwin house wasn’t open to the public, but its general whereabouts weren’t a secret. It was a matter of historical-slash-Wikipedian record. Nobody had torn it down. It’s not like somebody was going to stop them, other than possibly the current owners and the local constabulary. It was about time he went there, if only to pay his respects at what was basically the Trinity test site of the Fillorian mythos.

As far as getting there went, Josh swore up and down that he’d been doing serious work with opening portals lately, and he was pretty sure he could get one through to Cornwall. Quentin asked Josh where he thought Cornwall was, then immediately rephrased and said he would give Josh a hundred dollars if he could tell him whether Cornwall was in England, Ireland, or Scotland. Smelling a trick question, Josh went nonlinear and guessed Canada.

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