The Magician King Page 32

“You told me not to!”

“Janet told you not to. I don’t know why you listened to her. But look, I know.” Eliot put a hand on his arm. “I know. I had no choice. Whoever is in charge of handing out quests has a damned peculiar sense of humor.

“At any rate, off I went. And I did feel something, you know, as I set off that morning. Nip in the air, sun on my armor, a knight pricking across the plain. I wished you could have been there.

“Though I looked much better than you would have. I had special questing armor made, just for that day, embossed and damascened within an inch of its life. I won’t lie to you, Quentin. I looked magnificent.”

Quentin wondered what he’d been doing at that moment. At least he’d gotten to drink a Coke. That was something. He wished he had one now. He was exhausted.

“It took me three days to find that fucking meadow, but finally I did. The Seeing Hare was there, of course, waiting for me under the branches of that hideous great tree, which was still thrashing away in its invisible wind.”

“Intangible,” Poppy said in a small voice. “All wind is invisible.”

Good to see she was finding her feet.

“The hare wasn’t alone. The bird was there as well, and the monitor, the Utter Newt, the Kind Wolf, the Parallel Beetle—it does a geometrical thing, it’s so boring I can’t even explain it. All of them, all the Unique Beasts, the full conclave. Well, except the two aquatic ones. The Questing Beast sends you his regards by the way. I think he’s fond of you for some reason, even though you shot him.

“Well, when I saw them all there together, standing in two neat rows, the little ones in front, like they were posing for a class picture, I knew the jig was up. It was the newt that did the talking. He let it be known that the realm was in peril, and nothing else would do but my recovering the Seven Golden Keys of Fillory. I asked him why, what good were they, what were they for, what did they unlock. He wouldn’t say, or he couldn’t. He said I would know when it was time.

“I haggled a bit of course. I wanted to know, for example, how rapidly these keys would have to be recovered. I could imagine doing one every few years. Organize my holidays around it. At that rate I might even look forward to it—it’s always nicer traveling when you have some business to do. But apparently it’s a time-sensitive issue. They were very insistant about that.

“They gave me a Golden Ring that the keys were supposed to go on, and I left. What else could I do? When I got back Whitespire was up in arms. There were all kinds of terrible portents, all over the kingdom. That storm had spread—all the clock-trees had started thrashing the way that first one did. And you know the waterfall at the Red Ruin? The one that flows up? It started flowing down. You know, the regular way. So that was about the last straw.

“And then the Muntjac came screaming into port, and they told me you and Julia had vanished.”

In full hero mode, Eliot took command of the Muntjac. He spent a day repairing and provisioning it while the whole kingdom buzzed with anxiety and excitement. High King Eliot was going on a quest! Apart from everything else it was a public relations triumph. The docks were mobbed by volunteers offering to join the search for the Seven Keys. The dwarves sent over a trunkload of magical keys they happened to have been kicking around in their vaults, in case there was a match in there, but most of them turned out to be useless.

One, though, fit on the key ring. So six to go. Funny how every once in a while the dwarves came up trumps.

Eliot left Janet in sole possession of the castle. He felt bad about making her shoulder everything even more than she already did, but she was practically licking her chops as he left. She would probably be running a fascist dictatorship by the time they got back. So he set off.

Eliot had no idea where he was going, but he’d read enough to know that a state of relative ignorance wasn’t necessarily a handicap on a quest. It was something your dauntless questing knight accepted and embraced. You lit out into the wilderness at random, and if your state of mind, or maybe it was your soul, was correct, then adventure would find you through the natural course of events. It was like free association—there were no wrong answers. It worked as long as you weren’t trying too hard.

And Eliot was in no danger of trying too hard. The Muntjac ran fast before a warm wet wind, out past the Outer Island, and After, out of Fillory and out of the known world.

A hush settled over the table. For a moment the creaking of the ship’s ropes and timbers could be heard, and Quentin felt for the first time how far off the map they were. He thought how they would look to someone far above them: a tiny lighted ship, lost in the immensity of an empty uncharted nighttime ocean.

Eliot studied the ceiling. He was actually groping for words. That was a new one on Quentin.

“You wouldn’t have believed it, Q,” he said finally. Something like an expression of actual awe had come over Eliot’s face. “You really wouldn’t. We’ve been all over the Eastern Ocean. The lands we saw. Some of the islands . . . I don’t know where to begin.”

“Tell him about the train,” said the shaven-headed young man. All at once Quentin recognized him. It was Benedict. But a new Benedict, reborn with ropy muscles and flashing white teeth. The floppy bangs and the sullen attitude were long gone. He looked at Eliot with a respect Quentin had never seen him show anybody before.

“Yes, the train. We thought it was a sea serpent at first. We barely brought the ship around in time. But it was a train, one of those slow freight trains that are always about a million cars long, all tankers and boxcars, except that this one never ended. It broke the surface, seawater streaming off the sides of the cars, rumbled along beside us for a couple of miles, then it sank back under the sea again.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that. Bingle hopped onto it for a while, but we could never get any of the cars open.

“And we found a castle floating on the ocean. At first we just heard it, bells ringing in the middle of the night. The next morning we came up on it: a stone castle, riding on a fleet of groaning wooden barges. No one inside, just bells tolling in one of the towers with the rocking of the waves.

“What else? There was an island where no one could tell a lie. Goodness that was awkward for a while. We aired a lot of dirty laundry there, I can tell you.”

Rueful smiles went around the room among the crew.

“There was one where the people were really waves, ocean waves, which I know, but I just can’t explain it anymore than that. There was a place where the ocean poured into a huge chasm, and there was only a narrow bridge across it. A water-bridge that we had to sail across.”

“Like an aqueduct,” Benedict put in.

“Like an aqueduct. It was all so strange. I think magic gets magnified out here, gets wilder, and it creates all sorts of impossible places, all by itself. We spent a week trapped in the Doldrums. There was no wind, and the water was as smooth as glass, and there was a Sargasso Sea there, a big swirl of flotsam in the ocean. People lived there, picking through it. Everything people forget about ends up there one day, they said. Toys, tables, whole houses. And people end up there too. They get forgotten as well.

“We were almost trapped there, but the Muntjac sprouted a bank of oars to help us get away. Didn’t you, old thing?” Eliot knocked familiarly on the bulkhead with his fist. “You could take things away with you, from the Sargasso Sea, but you had to leave something behind. That was the deal. Bingle took a magic sword. Show them your sword, Bing.”

Bingle, sitting at the far end of the table, stood up and drew his sword halfway out of its sheath, almost shyly. It was a narrow length of bright steel chased with swirly silver patterns that glowed white.

“He won’t say what he left behind for it. What did you leave, Bing?”

Bingle smiled and touched the side of his nose and said nothing.

Quentin was weary. He’d woken up in Venice that morning, and spent the day in England, and another half day in Fillory. He’d already been drunk once and sobered up, and now he was getting drunk again, sitting there on a hard splintery bench in the Muntjac’s galley. Probably Eliot would have enjoyed a little jaunt back to Earth, he thought, where the wine and coffee were better. Though who knows, maybe it wouldn’t have worked if it had been the other way around. Maybe he couldn’t have done it—maybe he would have gotten trapped in the Sargasso Sea. And maybe Eliot wouldn’t have found his way to Josh, wouldn’t have gone to see the dragon, wouldn’t have played with Thomas. Maybe he would have failed where Quentin succeeded, and vice versa. Maybe this was the only way it could have gone. You didn’t get the quest you wanted, you got the one you could do.

That was the hard part, accepting that you didn’t get to choose which way you went. Except of course he had chosen.

“Don’t keep us in suspense,” he said. “Did you find the keys?” Eliot nodded.

“We found some of them. It was always either a fight or a riddle, one or the other. One was a huge beast like a giant spiny lobster. It had the key inside its heart. Then there was a beach that was all made of keys, millions of them, and we had to go through them till we found the right one. There was probably a trick to that one, but no one could think what it was, so we brute-forced it instead—took shifts, trying keys on the key ring, round the clock. After a couple of weeks we got a fit.

“Now I’m sorry if I’m a bit direct about this, but you have to remember, we’ve been at this for a full year, week in and week out, and frankly all this questing is wearing pretty thin. So here it is: we have five of the seven keys. One the dwarves gave us, and four we found. Do you have one? The one from After Island?”

“No,” Quentin said. “Julia and I left it behind when we went through the door. Didn’t somebody take it?”

Quentin looked at Bingle, then at Benedict. Neither one of them met his eye.

“No? But we don’t have it either.”

“Damn,” Eliot said. “That’s what I was afraid of.”

“But what happened? It can’t just have disappeared. It must still be on After Island.”

“It’s not,” Benedict said. “We looked everywhere.”

“Well, we’ll just have to keep looking.” Eliot sighed and raised his glass to be refilled. “So it looks like you’re going to see some adventuring after all.”

CHAPTER 18

The house in Bed-Stuy was Julia’s first safe house, and it was the end of Stanford. She was never going to college now. It was her parents’ hearts broken for the second and final time. It was too terrible to think about, so she dealt with it by not thinking about it.

She could have said no, of course. She could have finished dialing the number of the car service, and turned her back on the man with the porkpie hat, and waited till the black town car came, and gotten in and repeated her home address to the Guatemalan highlander behind the wheel until he finally understood and whisked her away from it all. Or she couldn’t have, but she wished she could. She wished it then, and she would rewish it many times in the years to come.

But she couldn’t walk away, because the dream, the dream of magic, wasn’t dead. She’d tried to kill it, to beat the life out of it with work and drugs and therapy and family and the Free Traders, but she couldn’t. It was stronger than she was.

The owlish young man who was working the door of the Bed-Stuy safe house that night was named Jared. He was about thirty, not tall, with a bright smile and heavy black stubble and heavy black glasses. He’d been working on a doctorate in linguistics at NYU for the past nine years. Nights and weekends, he worked magic.

They weren’t all like that—nerdy, academic, what you’d think. It was a surprisingly heterogeneous crowd. There was a twelve-year-old prodigy from the neighborhood, and a sixty-five-year-old widow who drove down from Westchester County in a BMW SUV on weekends. In all there was a rotating cast of about twenty-five: physicists and receptionists and pipe fitters and musicians and undergrads and hedge-fund guys and barely functional, socially marginal nutjobs. And now there was Julia.

Some of them came in once a month to work on spells, and some of them showed up at six in the morning every morning and stayed till ten at night, or slept there, though house rules kept that to a minimum. Some of them were high-functioning in their daily lives, had careers and families and no obvious signs of eccentricity or physical debilitation. But doing magic alongside all that other stuff was a tricky balancing act, and when you lost it and fell you hit the floor hard. Even if you got up again, you got up limping. And everybody fell sooner or later.

See, when you had magic in your life, it turned out, when you lived the double life of a secret underground magician, you paid a certain price, which was that your secret other life pulled at you always. Your magician self, that loopy doppelgänger, was always with you, tugging at your sleeve, whispering silently that your real life was a fake life, a crude and undignified and inauthentic charade that nobody was really buying anyway. Your real self, the one that mattered, was the other one, the one waving her hands around and chanting in a dead Slavic dialect on the busted-ass couch in the lime-green clapboard house on Throop Avenue.

Julia kept her job, but she was at the house most nights and all day on weekends. The lust was back, and this time it looked like she could slake it. She had the scent, and she was going to make the kill. She went quiet on FTB. The Free Traders could wait. They were used to members dropping off the grid unexpectedly for months or years at a time. In the chronic mood disorder community, that was well within normal operating parameters.

Prev Next