The Magician King Page 33

As for her parents . . . Julia cut herself off. She knew what she was doing, and she knew how hard it would be for them, watching her fall back into the obsession and get skinny again and stop bathing and all the rest of it, and she did it anyway. She felt like she had no choice. It was an addiction. Thinking about the consequences for her family, really thinking about them, would have annihilated her with remorse. So she didn’t. The first morning she caught herself absentmindedly, almost sensuously, running a thumbnail along her arm at the breakfast table, leaving a red line behind, or rather when she caught her mother catching her doing it, no words were spoken. But she saw part of her mother die that morning. And Julia did not take heroic measures to resuscitate her.

Julia could have died that morning too, she knew. She almost did. But you let a drowning woman cling to you, she’ll drag you down with her, and what’s the point of that? That’s what she told herself, anyway. You have to look her in the eye and pry her fingers off your arm and watch her sink down into the airless green depths and perish there. It’s either that or you’ll both die. What’s the point?

Her sister knew that. You could see the disappointment in her quick brown foxy eyes, then you could see it change and harden into something clear and smooth and protective. She was young enough, she could still swerve around the wreck and keep moving. She let Julia go, her sister with her black secrets. Smart kid. She had made a sensible deal. Julia made one too.

And what did Julia get, for her deal? When you put your family and your heart and your life and your future up on the block, how much does that net you? What do you walk away with in return? Show her what she’s won, Bob!

A lot, it turns out. A motherfuckingload of arcane lore is what it gets you, for starters.

That first day they tested her. From the second you got in the door—Jared actually started up the stopwatch widget on his iPhone as she crossed the threshold—you had fifteen minutes to learn and execute the flash spell that Quentin punted at the Winston safe house, or you had to leave, and you couldn’t come back for a month. They called it, boringly, the First Flash. You could try again at another safe house, of course—they didn’t share information—but there were only two in New York City, so if you wanted to get your magic on in the five boroughs you had to go big or go home.

Tired as she was Julia did it in eight minutes flat. If she’d had any muscle tone left over from her rainbow-witch phase she wouldn’t even have needed that long.

As it turned out, they didn’t know the rainbow spell, so she printed out the scan she’d downloaded from the Internet that one time, it was already two years ago now, and brought it in. Jared the linguist, with great pomp and ceremony, encased it in a transparent plastic sleeve, punched the sleeve with a three-hole punch, and added it to a tatty duct-taped three-ring binder in which they kept the club’s spell list. A three-ring binder: that’s what they had by way of a spellbook.

And they called it the Spellbinder. That should have tipped Julia off.

Still, it increased twentyfold the sum of Julia’s information about magic, and that was a joy beyond measuring. Under Jared’s tutelage, or whoever the senior magician in the house on any given day happened to be, she worked her way through the book. She learned how to stick things together with magic. She learned how to light a fire at a distance. She learned a spell to guess a coin flip, and to keep a nail from rusting, and to take a magnetic charge off a magnet. They competed with each other to see how many everyday tasks they could do with magic: opening jars, tying their shoes, buttoning buttons.

It was a bit random, and it was a bit small potatoes, but it was a start. Nail by nail, magnet by magnet, she began to force the world to conform to her specifications. Magic: it was what happened when the mind met the world, and the mind won for a change.

There was another binder, of hand exercises, much battered from having been thrown across the room in frustration, and she started work on them too. Soon she had the book memorized, and she did the exercises all the time: in the shower, under the table at mealtimes, under her desk at work, at night as she lay in bed. And she got serious about her languages. Magic wasn’t just a math thing, it turned out.

As she learned spells, she gained levels. Yes, levels: that’s what they called them. The lameness of the level system, borrowed wholesale from Dungeons & Dragons (which must have borrowed it from Freemasonry, she supposed), was not deniable, but it did keep things orderly, and it kept the hierarchies clearly defined, which Julia liked more and more the higher she rose in them. She began the tattoos on her back. She took care to leave a lot of room, because she was learning fast.

It took her a month to realize that she was learning faster than the other regulars at the safe house, and another three months to realize just how much faster. By that point she had seven stars, which was as many as Jared had, and he’d been at it for three years. Probably at Brakebills she would have been just another apprentice, but she wasn’t at Brakebills, was she, she was here, and here she stood out. The others just didn’t seem to have any flare for the theoretical side of magic. They learned their spells by rote, but they weren’t interested in the basic patterns that underlay them. Only a few of them went into the deeper linguistic work, the grammars and the root systems. They preferred to just memorize the syllables and gestures and forget the rest.

They were wrong. It sapped the power of their casting, and it meant that every time they started a new spell they were starting over from scratch. They didn’t see the connections between them. And you could forget about doing any original work, which Julia was already looking forward to. Along with Jared she started an ancient languages working group. They only got four other members, and most of those were there because Julia was hot. She kicked them out one by one when they didn’t keep up with the homework.

As for the hand exercises, she worked doubly hard at those, because she knew she wasn’t naturally gifted at them. Nobody kept up with her on the hand exercises, not even Jared. They didn’t have her taste for pain.

Much as she hated Brakebills, with a red glowing hatred that she kept carefully burning in some inner brazier, blowing on it if it ever sank too low, she could see why they kept things exclusive there. A lot of riffraff came through the Throop Avenue safe house.

Julia had always had a nasty competitive streak. In the past she’d done her best to keep it under wraps. Now she reversed that policy. With no one to check her, she nurtured it and let it flower. As Brakebills had humiliated her, so she would humiliate anybody who couldn’t keep up with her. Hey, magic’s not a popularity contest. Throop Avenue would be her own private Brakebills. Any visitor who came to the Throop Avenue safe house rocking a level equal to or less than Julia’s had better come to play. Any bullshit you were walking around with, you would be called on.

It didn’t matter if you were black or white or tired or sick or twelve. It was amazing, truly incredible, how many magicians were faking their way through this shit. It made Julia furious. Who issued these people their stars? You gave some of these other safe houses a little push and they fell over like houses of cards. It was dispiriting, is what it was. She’d finally found a magic school, of sorts, to call her very own, and it was barfing out a bunch of fakers and cheats.

On the strength of Julia’s bedside manner, the Throop Avenue safe house began to get a bit of a reputation. They didn’t get quite so many drop-ins anymore, and some of the drop-ins they did get got ugly. As in physical. Bullshitters don’t like being called on their bullshit, and there was a considerable Venn diagram overlap between people who were into magic and people who were into martial arts.

But I’m sorry, where did you think you were, motherfucker? Connecticut? You’re in a magic safe house in Bed-Stuy, borough of Brooklyn. There was a considerable Venn diagram overlap between people who lived in Bed-Stuy and people who had motherfucking guns. Fool. Welcome to New Dork City.

Still, even with Julia’s crusade for magical rigor bringing up the general tone of things, there was a problem at the Bed-Stuy safe house, and that was its three-ring binder. The Spellbinder. Every once in a while a visitor would drop by who meant business, and they’d know a spell that wasn’t in the book, and if that was the case, and if the book contained a spell that they didn’t know, a swap might be arranged, and the book would grow.

But such transactions were frustratingly infrequent. Julia needed to grow faster than that. It didn’t make sense: where did these spells come from in the first place? What was the source? Nobody knew. Turnover was high at safe houses, and institutional memory was short. But more and more Julia suspected that somebody out there was operating on a much higher level than she was, and she wanted to know who, and where, and how, and now.

So Julia turned it around. She became a visitor. She’d hung on to the Civic from her Chesterton days, and she quit her job troubleshooting networks and started putting miles on it, sometimes by herself, sometimes with Jared riding shotgun. Safe houses weren’t easy to find—they hid their locations from the wider world, but also from one another, because safe houses had been known to go to war, and that usually resulted in mutual annihilation. But sometimes you could coax an address out of a friendly visitor. She’d gotten good at coaxing. If all else failed she had the power of the bathroom handjob, and she wielded it with an iron fist.

And some safe houses were bigger than others, and some were big enough and safe enough that they’d allowed themselves to get a little famous, at least within the scene, on the strength of their belief that they were big enough that nobody could fuck with them. The binder she was handed in an old repurposed bank building in Buffalo was so thick it made her fall on her knees and weep. She stayed there for a week, uploading magical knowledge into her starving brain by the terabyte.

All that summer she roamed north into Canada, west as far as Chicago, south to Tennessee and Louisiana and all the way down to Key West, a back-breaking, clutch-grinding, vinyl-sticky trip that yielded a face-palmingly disappointing twelve-page spellbook in a cat-infested bungalow next door to the Hemingway Home. It was Julia’s wandering period. She crashed on spare beds and in motels and in the Civic. When the Civic quit on her, she got into not-wiring cars off the street. She met a lot of people, and some people who weren’t people. The more rural houses occasionally played host to minor demons and lesser fairies and local geo-specific nature spirits and elementals who lent street cred to the establishment in return for God knows what in the way of goods and services, she didn’t ask. There was a certain romance to these beings; they seemed to embody the very promise of magic, which was to deliver unto her a world greater than the one into which she had been born. The moment when you walk into a room, and the guy playing pool has a pair of red leather wings sticking out of his back, and the chick smoking on the balcony has eyes of liquid golden fire—at that moment you think you’ll never be sad or bored or lonely again.

But Julia got to the bottom of those beings pretty fast, and once she got there she often found someone who was just as desperate and confused as she was. That was how Julia got mixed up with Warren, and that was the lesson she learned.

At any rate her back was filling up with seven-pointed stars. She had to put the big 50-spot on her neck to save space. It was unconventional, but conventions were there to make it easy on the fakers and cheats. You had to bend conventions to make room for somebody like Julia.

But Julia was running out of steam. She was a freight train of magical pedagogy, but that train ran on information, new data, and fuel was growing scarce, and what there was wasn’t of the best quality. The potatoes were too small. Every time she walked into a new safe house she did so with her hopes high, but her hopes were dashed more and more often. It went like this: she pushed open the door, accepted the ogling gazes of the local males, showed off her stars, intimidated the ranking officer into showing her the binder, which she leafed through listlessly, expecting to find and finding nothing she didn’t already know, whereupon she dropped the binder on the floor and walked out, letting Jared make her apologies for her.

This was bad behavior, and she knew it. She did it because she was angry and because she disliked herself. The more she disliked herself, the more she took it out on other people, and the more she took it out on other people the more she disliked herself. There’s your proof, Mr. Hofstadter: I am a strange loop.

Sure, she could have lit out for the West Coast, or made a run for the Mexican border, but she had a feeling she already knew what she would find there. In the looking-glass world of the great magical underground, perspective appeared to be reversed: the closer you got to things, the smaller they looked. Objects in mirror were farther away than they appeared. Put another way: how many coin flips could one girl predict? How many nails could she protect from rust? The world was not in urgent need of more demagnetized magnets. This was magic, but it was chickenshit magic. She had tuned in to the choir invisible, and it was singing game-show jingles. She’d put her entire life down as a deposit on this stuff, and it was starting to look like she’d been taken.

After all she’d been through, all she’d sacrificed, that was more than she could stand. She wondered for a while if Jared could be holding out on her, if he knew something she didn’t, but she was pretty sure that wasn’t the case. Just to make sure she deployed the nuclear option. Nope. Zero. Oh, well.

To be absolutely honest, she’d deployed the nuclear option a few times on her travels, and she was starting to feel a bit like a nuclear wasteland herself: irradiated and toxic. She didn’t like to think about it. She didn’t even name it to herself: nuclear was the code word, and she kept those memories encoded, never to be decrypted. She’d done what she had to do, that was the end of it. She no longer even fantasized about real love. She couldn’t imagine it anymore, her and it being in the same world. She’d given it up for magic.

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