The Magician King Page 39

Julia crossed her arms fiercely, or with all the ferocity she could muster, to avoid giving them the impression that they were entirely forgiven. But God damn them all to Hades, she was curious. She wanted to know what the hell this place was, and what they were up to. She wanted to know what the game was, so she could play too.

“So whose house is this?” she said. “Who paid for all this?”

Obviously there was a lot of money washing around here. She’d stood by while Pouncy called the rental car company and, in fluent French, simply bought the scraped-up Peugeot with a credit card.

“It’s Pouncy’s,” Asmodeus said. “Mostly. He was a day trader for a while. He was pretty good at it.”

“Pretty good?” Pouncy lifted his finely drawn eyebrows.

Asmo shook her head. “If you’d gone into the math just a little further you could have done so much better. I keep telling you, if you look at the market as a chaotic system—”

“Whatever. It wasn’t an interesting problem. It was a means to an end.”

“If you’d just stake me—”

“We all put in money when we came here,” Failstaff said. “I put in all mine. What was I saving it for? What else is money for except to live like this, with them, somewhere like Murs?”

“No offense, but it all sounds kind of culty.”

“That’s exactly what it is!” Asmodeus said, clapping her hands. “The Cult of Pouncy!”

“I think of it more like CERN,” Pouncy said. “It’s an institute for high-energy magical studies.”

Julia hadn’t touched her wine. More than wine right now, she wanted control, a thing that was not fully compatible with wine.

“So I’m looking around for like a Large Hadron Collider or its magical equivalent.”

“Bup-bup-bup,” Pouncy said. “Baby steps. First we power-level you up to two hundred fifty. And then we shall see what we shall see.”

It emerged that the house at Murs was, in its way, a natural outgrowth of the safe-house scene. The scene was a filter: it caught a very few, rather unusual people, culled them out of the everyday world and into the safe houses, and gave them magic to chew on. Murs filtered the filtered, double-distilled them. Most people in the magic scene were happy chilling in the safe houses, faffing around with three-ring binders. It was a social thing for them. They liked the double-life aspect of it. They’d gone behind the veil. They liked knowing they had a secret. It was what they needed, and it was all they needed.

But some people, a very few people, were different. Magic meant something else to them, something more primal and urgent. They didn’t have a secret, the secret had them. They wanted more. They wanted to penetrate the veil behind the veil. They did not faff, they learned. And when they hit the ceiling of what they could learn in the safe-house scene, they banged on it till somebody in the attic opened up a trap door.

That’s when they ended up in Murs. Pouncy and his gang skimmed off the cream of the safe houses and brought them here.

Life was easy in Murs, at least at first. There was a living wing and a working wing. Julia was assigned a beautiful bedroom with a high ceiling and wide floorboards and big stripey-curtained windows that let in floods of that champagne-y French light. Everybody cooked and everybody cleaned, but they’d worked out a lot of magic to smooth the way—it was amazing to watch the floors repel dust and herd it into neat little piles, like iron filings in a magnetic field. And the produce was second to none.

The others didn’t welcome her with open arms, exactly. They weren’t open-arms types. But there was respect there. She was geared up to prove herself all over again, since based on her life thus far she was used to having to prove herself to a new gang of assholes every six months or so. And she would have, she really would have. But they weren’t going to make her. The proving was done with. The journey was the test, and she had arrived. She was in.

It wasn’t Brakebills. It was better. She felt like she’d finally won—she’d won ugly, but she’d won.

They knew about Brakebills at Murs. Not much, but they knew. Their attitude toward it was bracingly snobbish. They considered Brakebills—to the extent that they considered it at all—rather cute: a sanitized, safety-wheeled playpen for those who didn’t have the grit and the will to make it on the outside. They called it Fakebills, and Breakballs. At Brakebills you sat in classrooms and followed the rules. Perfectly fine if you like that kind of thing, but here at Murs you made your own rules, no adult supervision. Brakebills was the Beatles, Murs was the Stones. Brakebills was for Marquis of Queensberry types. Murs was more your stone-cold street-fighting man.

Most of them had even been in for the Brakebills exam, like her, though unlike her they didn’t realize that till they’d gotten to Murs and Failstaff, who had a special touch with memory spells, had wafted away the magic that was fogging their brains. They took a certain pride in it, the refuseniks. Gummidgy (Julia never did figure out what the deal with her name was) even claimed to have beaten the exam and then—a historic first—declined Fogg’s offer to matriculate and walked away. She’d chosen the life of a hedge witch instead.

Privately Julia thought that that was completely demented, and that the Brakebills crowd probably had slightly more on the ball than the others were giving them credit for. But she enjoyed the snobbism nonetheless. She’d earned that much.

They were an odd bunch at Murs. It was a menagerie—you needed a genius IQ to get into Murs, but eccentricity was not an impediment, and you’d have to be some kind of outlier to go through the grinder of the safe-house scene and not come out a little skewy. A lot of their magic was home-brewed, and as a result the range of different styles and techniques on display was bewildering. Some of them were graceful and balletic, some were so minimalist they barely moved at all. One guy was so herky-jerky he looked like he was practically break dancing. There was some popping and locking going on there.

There were specialists too. One guy mostly made magic artifacts. Gummidgy was a dedicated psychic. Fiberpunk—a short, thickset specimen almost as wide as he was tall—self-identified as a metamagician: he dealt in magic that acted on other magic, or on itself. He rarely spoke and spent a lot of time drawing. The one time Julia looked over his shoulder he explained, in a whisper, that he was drawing two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional shadows cast by four-dimensional objects.

Life was easy in Murs, but work was hard. They gave her a day to deal with her jet lag and her personal baggage, then Pouncy told her to report to the East Wing first thing the next morning. Julia didn’t fancy being told to report anywhere by Pouncy Silverkitten, whom she was accustomed to thinking of as a friend and an equal. But he just unbuttoned his shirt and showed her his stars. (Also his annoyingly smooth, well-muscled chest.) He had a lot of them. Equals they might be, but only in some abstract philosophical sense. Practically speaking he could still kick her ass at magic.

Which was why, swallowing her pride, and possibly some other feelings, she obeyed Pouncy and reported to an upstairs room in the East Wing called the Long Study at eight o’clock in the morning.

The Long Study was a narrow room lined with windows along one side—more of a gallery, really. There was nothing obvious to study with there. There were no books, or desks, or furniture of any kind in the Long Study. What there was was Iris.

Baby-faced, chopstick-haired, Ivy League Iris, last seen breaking Julia down into her component parts back at the Bed-Stuy safe house. It was almost like meeting an old friend. On her home turf Iris went casual: jeans and a white T-shirt that showed off her stars.

“Hi,” Julia said. It came out a tad querulous. She cleared her throat and tried again. “How are you?”

“Let’s do it again,” Iris said. “From the top. Start with the flash.”

“The flash?”

“We’re going to run your levels. Start with the flash. You miss one, you go back to the beginning. You do them all, one to seventy-seven, no mistakes, three times in a row, and then we can start work.”

“You mean start leveling me?”

“Start with the flash.”

For Iris, meeting Julia again was not like meeting an old friend. For Iris meeting Julia was more like when the grizzled sergeant in the Vietnam movie meets the newbie private fresh from Parris Island. Eventually the private will lose his cherry and become a man, but first the sergeant is going to have to drag him through the jungle until such time as the private can unfold his entrenching tool without shooting his balls off.

Of course Iris had every right. That’s how the system worked. She was doing Julia a fucking favor. Babysitting the noob was evidently not considered a premium assignment at Murs, and she wasn’t going to pretend to enjoy it. Which whatever, but this did not oblige Julia to pretend to be grateful either. Really she ought to dog it a few times, she thought, just to piss Iris off. Show her that Julia had nothing to prove. See how long it took her to lose her shit. ışık her and her flash.

But in truth it was not necessary for Julia to dog it. She screwed it up the old-fashioned way, involuntarily, four times before she made it to seventy-seven even once. Twice she muffed the same spell, level fifty-six, a thumb-cracking affair rich in Welsh ll’s that was designed to toughen glass against breakage. Even averaging a bit more than two minutes a level, which was really machinelike efficiency, they were two and a half hours into it when she went down for the second time. Iris sat down cross-legged on the floor.

But Julia had decided that she was not going to swear or twitch or sigh in front of Iris, whether she muffed level fifty-six twice or two hundred times. She was going to be all sweetness and light. How do you llike them apples.

At two in the afternoon Julia spiked spell number sixty-eight on an otherwise perfect run-through. Iris rolled her eyes and groaned and lay down full-length on the wooden floor and stared up at the ceiling. She couldn’t even look at Julia anymore. Julia didn’t pause but went right back to the beginning, whereupon she stuffed level fourteen, a gimme spell that even Jared knew cold.

“God!” Iris shouted at the ceiling. “Get it right!”

By the time Julia rattled off two perfect runs, right through to seventy-seven, it was six thirty in the evening. They hadn’t broken for lunch. Julia hadn’t even sat down. The setting sun, angling in from the west, painted the long wall a chalky pink. Her feet were killing her.

“All right,” Iris said. “That’s it. Same time tomorrow.”

“But we’re not done.”

Iris levered herself up off the floor.

“Nope, we’re done. Finish tomorrow.”

“We’re not done.”

Iris stopped and stared at Julia through her nerd glasses. Maybe Iris was annoyed at having to babysit the new fish, but Julia had so much more anger than Iris did at her disposal. She was making a withdrawal from her stockpile now, spending a little of the principal, and it hardly made a dent. She walked over to a window and punched it. It would have broken if she hadn’t already cast level fifty-six on it three times that day.

“All right, Julia, I get it. I was tough on you. I’m sorry. Come on. Let’s get some dinner.”

“We’re done when I say we’re done.”

Julia cast a locking spell on the door (level seventy-two). It was a symbolic gesture, as there were in fact two doors out of the Long Study, and Iris could probably have unpicked her level seventy-two in a couple of minutes anyway. That wasn’t the point. The point was that Julia had been waiting four years to get to Murs. Iris could skip dinner.

Iris sat back down and put her head in her hands.

“Whatever.”

She could stand to skip a few meals anyway, Julia thought. She’s working on a muffin-top situation with those jeans.

Julia started again. She was going slower now, and when she was done the room was dark. It was almost nine o’clock. Iris stood up. She tried the door Julia had locked, swore, and walked the length of the Long Study to the other door without looking back or saying a word. Julia watched her go.

There was no touching moment of female bonding. The grizzled sergeant didn’t chuck her on the shoulder and grudgingly admit that the rookie might make a hell of a soldier one day after all. But when she reported to the Long Study at eight o’clock the following morning it was tacitly understood that they could now skip the alpha-chick bullshit.

Let the power-leveling begin. Here come the big secrets. At least she didn’t have to fuck anybody this time.

She didn’t have to stand up, either: apparently she now qualified for some furniture. She and Iris sat on chairs and faced each other across an actual table, a sturdy chunk of old butcher block. On the table was, yes, a three-ring binder, but it was the most beautiful three-ring binder Julia had ever seen: leather-bound, with those sturdy steel rings—none of this bendy aluminum Trapper Keeper shit—and above all thick, thick, thick. It was stuffed with neatly transcribed spells.

Under Iris’s steady gaze Julia went up two levels that day. The next day she did five. Every level she gained wiped out a little bit of what she’d been through in Brooklyn. Julia had a hungry mind, she always had, and she’d been on starvation rations for longer than she cared to think about. She’d even worried that her brain might be starving to death, losing its plasticity, that she’d been running on fumes for so long she might not have the mental muscle tone to wrangle large tranches of hard data. But she didn’t think so. If anything, wandering in the information jungle had made her tough and efficient. She was used to doing a lot with a little. Now that she had a lot, she was going to work wonders with it. And she did.

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