The Magician King Page 31

The bed, while a top-quality bed that contained a fair amount of actual bona fide wood—Thomas’s parents had spared no expense—was only so-so as a raft and had trended downward rapidly as the bedclothes and then the mattress soaked through and lost their buoyancy. Josh sat heavily on it, crisscross applesauce, resigned, Buddha going down with the ship, while the bed gradually swamped, and the cold seawater lapped up over his knees.

But the Muntjac was already in view by then, sheering keenly through the waves toward them, the force of a fresh wind setting it at a rakish angle. Its sails—his sails, Quentin’s sails, with the pale blue ram of Fillory—stood out in taut, proud curves. The power of it, the color, the solidity, the reality of it, were almost too thrilling. A tiny action-figure sailor was already at the railing, pointing in their direction.

Quentin hadn’t for a second doubted that the Muntjac would be there. It seemed like years since he’d seen it. They had come to take him home.

As it bore down on them he’d had a moment of worry: what if centuries had passed, what if Eliot and Janet really were dead, and the Muntjac was the last survivor of the Brakebills era, and he was going home to a court of strangers? But no, there was Bingle at the railing, looking just as he always had, ready to haul his royal body back on board and get back to guarding it.

Though even as they were toweling off, and hugging each other, and making introductions, and securing fresh clothes and hot tea, he could see that not everything aboard the Muntjac was exactly as he’d left it. The ship was older. Not that it was shabby, but it had aged, settled into itself some. What had been glossy—the paint on the railings, the varnish on the deck—was now rubbed to matte. Ropes that had once been bright and prickly were now smooth and soft and dun-colored from having been run through blocks over and over again.

Also Quentin was no longer in charge of the Muntjac. Eliot was.

“Where have you been!” he said, when he was done embracing Quentin. “You ridiculous, ridiculous man. I was starting to think you were dead.”

“I was on Earth. How long have we been gone?”

“A year and a day.”

“God. It was only three days for us.”

“That makes me two years older than you now. How do you think that makes me feel? How was Earth?”

“The same. It ain’t Fillory.”

“Did you bring me back anything?”

“A bed. Josh. An Australian girl named Poppy. I didn’t have a lot of time. And you know how hard you are to shop for.”

Quentin was still in a euphoric state, but the adrenaline was wearing off, and his eyes felt sandy and jet-lagged. Twenty minutes ago it had been midnight, the tail end of a long and arduously alcoholic party, and now it was early afternoon again. They went below to Quentin’s cabin, which was now Eliot’s cabin, and he dried off and changed clothes and cursed Ember that He hadn’t thought to bless Fillory with the miracle of coffee beans.

Then he lay down on Eliot’s bed and looked up at the low woodwork ceiling and told Eliot about everything that had happened. He told him about going back to Brakebills, and about Julia’s safe houses, and how Josh had sold the button. He told him about the Neitherlands being in ruins, and about the dragon, and about the Chatwins’ house.

Eliot sat at the foot of the bed. When Quentin was done Eliot watched him for a minute, slowly tapping the hollow of his upper lip with the tip of his index finger.

“Well,” he said finally. “This is interesting.”

Yes, it was. Although Quentin’s immediate personal interest in it was faltering. He wanted to fall asleep and moreover felt confident of his ability to do so very quickly. Being back in Fillory was a massive dose of comfort, a huge inflatable cushion of relief of the kind stuntmen fall into from great heights without injury, and he sank into it.

Though if Quentin could have had absolutely everything exactly the way he wanted it, he would have asked for one more thing: he didn’t want to be on a boat anymore. He wanted to go home, meaning not just to Fillory but specifically to his room in Castle Whitespire, with its high ceiling and its big bed and its special calm hush. Quentin did not consider himself a great interpreter of signs and wonders, but the lesson of the golden key seemed pretty clear to him. It was this: you’ve already won the game, so quit playing. Remain where you are, in your castle, and you will be safe. No further action on your part is required.

“Eliot,” he said. “Where are we?”

“We’re east. Very far east. Even farther than you went. We left After Island behind two weeks ago.”

“Oh, no.”

“We’re over the horizon.”

“No, no, no.” Quentin closed his eyes. “We can’t be.” He wanted it to be dark, but surly yellow late-afternoon sun continued blasting in through his—Eliot’s—cabin window unabated. “All right. We are. But we’re going back now, right? You found me and Julia. Mission accomplished. End of story.”

“We will go back. We just have to do one more thing first.”

“Eliot, stop. I’m serious. Turn the ship around. I’m never leaving Fillory again.”

“Just one thing. You’ll like it.”

“I don’t think I’m going to like it.”

Eliot smiled broadly, or as broadly as his bad teeth would allow.

“Oh, you’re going to love it,” he said. “It’s an adventure.”

It was unbelievable. Never mind Thomas: he, Quentin, had missed everything. It had started as soon as he left for the Outer Island.

This all came out at a massive feast belowdecks that evening. By then Quentin had almost come to accept that when you were surfing the great interdimensional divide certain days were just destined to stretch out to about thirty-six hours long, and there was nothing you could do except to wait them out till they ended. The new arrivals ate like wolves—their exhaustion had turned into a raging hunger. They’d never had a proper dinner the night before anyway, just the occasional passed hors d’oeuvre. Only Julia picked at her food, managing a bite every few minutes, like her body was an unloved pet that she was being forced to babysit.

“I knew something was up,” Eliot said, cracking open a massive, lethal-looking crimson crab. Like Julia he never seemed to eat, but somehow he got through massive quantities of food anyway, which of course never made him any less skinny. “First off, two days after you left Whitespire, someone tried to kill me in my bath.”

“Really?” Josh said with his mouth full. “And that tipped you off?”

It hadn’t taken long for Josh to get acclimated aboard the Muntjac. Discomfort just wasn’t in his nature. He’d picked up with Eliot exactly where they’d left off two years ago.

“That’s awful,” Quentin said. “Jesus.”

“It was! I was lolling in my bath of an evening, as one does, blameless as a newborn child—more so, if you’ve ever met such a creature, they’re absolutely horrible—and one of my own towel boys came creeping up behind me with a big curvy knife in his hand. He tried to cut my throat.

“I’ll spare you the details”—which is what Eliot said when he was going to march you through everything blow by blow—“but I grabbed his arm, and he went in the water. He’d never been a particularly good towel boy. Perhaps he felt he was meant for better things. But he was no great success as an assassin either, I can tell you. He got his knife against my neck, but nowhere near the artery, and he hadn’t braced himself properly at all. So in he went, and I scrambled out of the water, and I froze it.”

“Dixon’s charm?”

He nodded. “It was no great loss. I was about to get out anyway. I’d put in so many bath salts I didn’t know if it would take, but it froze solid right away. He looked like Han Solo frozen in carbonite. The resemblance was actually quite striking.”

“You and your towel boys,” Josh said. “But I ask for a harem and it’s all, morality this, human rights that.”

“Well, and I spared you a good stabbing, didn’t I?”

Eliot didn’t tan, he was too pale for that, but the sun and the wind had put some texture in his otherwise immaculate pallor, and he’d grown some nicely naval stubble. He’d dropped some of the god-king preciousness that had dominated his persona back at Whitespire, shed some of the gold leaf. He spoke to the crew with an air of easy familiarity and command—even the ones like Bingle whom he’d never met before the ship sailed, and in Quentin’s mind wasn’t supposed to know. Now he knew them better than Quentin did. They’d been at sea together for a year.

“I let him out, of course. I didn’t have the heart to let him suffocate. But would you believe it, he wouldn’t tell us a thing! He was a fanatic of some kind. Or a lunatic, maybe. Same thing. Do you know, some of the generals wanted to torture him? I think Janet would have done it too, but I couldn’t. But I couldn’t just let him go either. He’s in prison now.

“I was shaken, but I suppose you’re not really High King until somebody tries to kill you in your bath. If they ever succeed, by the way, make sure you leave me in there and have a painting done. Like Marat.

“I wanted to let the whole thing drop, but I couldn’t. It wouldn’t let me drop. I don’t know what it was. Fillory, I suppose. At any rate, that’s when the wonders started.

“That’s what everyone called them, and I couldn’t think of another name for them. It started out just as feelings. You would look at something, a carpet, or a bowl of fruit, and the colors would seem different. Brighter, more vivid, more saturated. Sudden rushes of grief or excitement or love would come over you for no reason. Some very unmanly crying jags were observed among the barons.

“It was like drugs more than anything else, but I hadn’t taken any drugs. I remember one night in my bedroom lying there smelling spices in the darkness, one after the other. Cinnamon, jasmine, cardamom, something else—something wonderful I couldn’t place. Paintings started to change as I walked by them. Just the backgrounds. The clouds would move, or the sky would go from day to night.

“Then I saw a hunting horn hovering before me at dinner. Some of the others saw it too. And one night in the middle of the night I opened the bathroom door, and it opened onto deep forest instead. It’s all the same when it comes to taking a piss, I suppose, but still. It put me right off my game.

“For a while I thought I was going mad, literally mad, until the tree came. A clock-tree grew up right in the middle of the throne room, right through the carpet, in broad daylight. It did it all at once, all in one go, with the whole court watching. And then it just stood there, silently, like a hallucination, ticking and sort of swaying with the energy of its just having grown. It was as if it were saying, ‘Well, here I am. This is me. What are you going to do about it?’

“After that I knew it wasn’t me that had gone mad. It was Fillory.

“I don’t mind telling you I found the whole business more than a little provoking. I was being called, you understand, and I most definitely did not want to come. I understand the appeal this sort of thing has for you, quests and King Arthur and all that. But that’s you. No offense, but it always seemed a bit like boy stuff to me. Sweaty and strenuous and just not very elegant, if you see what I mean. I didn’t need to be called to feel special, I felt special enough already. I’m clever, rich, and good-looking. I was perfectly happy where I was, deliquescing, atom by atom, amid a riot of luxury.”

“Nicely put,” Quentin said. Eliot must have mounted this set piece before.

“Well, and then that damned Seeing Hare came bolting through the room during our afternoon meeting. Scattered the whiskey service and frightened one of my more sensitive protégés half to death. Everyone has a limit. Next morning I called for my hunting leathers, saddled a horse, and went riding out alone into the Queenswood. And you know, I never go anywhere alone, not anymore, but these things have certain protocols and not even the High King—or I suppose especially not the High King—is exempt.”

“The Queenswood,” Quentin said. “Don’t tell me.”

“But I am telling you.” Eliot finished his wine, and a rangy, shaven-headed young man refilled his glass without his having to ask. “I went back to that ridiculous meadow of yours, the round one. You see, you’d been right to want to go in. It was our adventure after all.”

“I was right.” Quentin felt crestfallen. He stared down at his hands. “I can’t believe it, I was right!”

If he hadn’t been so tired, and a bit drunk, it probably wouldn’t have struck him the way it did. But as it was he felt himself filling up with a sense of—how could he put it? He thought he’d learned a lesson about the world, and now he was realizing that the lesson he learned might have been the wrong one. The right adventure had been offered to him, and he’d walked away. If being a hero is a matter of knowing your cues, like the fairy tale said, he’d missed his. Instead he’d spent three days faffing around on Earth for nothing, and nearly got stuck there forever, while Eliot was off on a real quest.

“It’s true,” Eliot said. “Statistically, historically, and however else you want to look at it, you are almost never right. A monkey making life decisions based on its horoscope in USA Today would be right more often than you. But in this case, yes, you were right. Don’t spoil it.”

“It was supposed to be me, not you!”

“You should have gone on it when you had the chance.”

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