The Magician King Page 41

They all worked together through the night, whey-faced and industrious. Julia sat with the corpse, slowly reassuming her human form, her mourning dress for once entirely appropriate for the occasion. Also fully in character was Bingle, whose haunted demeanor had darkened to funereal. He spent the night by himself haunting the ship’s bow, hunched in on himself in his cloak like a hurt bird.

Once Quentin went forward to see if he was all right, but he heard Bingle mumble to himself:

“Not again. I must go where I can do no further harm.”

And Quentin thought, maybe I’ll leave him to work that out by himself.

The sky was paling through the rain clouds when Quentin went out alone into the square in front of the castle to finish the job. He was chilled through and bone tired. He felt like the living corpse in the library. He wasn’t the best person for this job, but it was his job to do. He got down on one knee in front of the little obelisk with a hammer and a chisel, which he’d borrowed from the ship’s carpenter.

Probably this could be done by magic, except he couldn’t remember how just now, and he didn’t want to do it by magic anyway. He wanted to feel it. He set the point of the chisel against the stone and started chipping. When he was done there were two words there, ragged but legible:

BENEDICT ISLAND

Back on the ship he gave the order—eastward ho—though everybody knew what the order was before he gave it. Then he went below. Quentin heard the anchor being weighed. The world tilted and came unmoored, and he was finally gone.

The Muntjac ran fast ahead of a freezing gale. It drove them across vast, island-less stretches of ocean, punishing the sails, which meekly accepted the abuse and ran even faster. Enormous emerald-green swells urged them onward from below, rising up under them and then rolling on ahead of them, as if even the sea had had enough of them and couldn’t wait for this to be over. Eliot had made the voyage out sound like nonstop riches and wonders, islands of mystery twenty-four-seven-three-sixty-five, but now the ocean was a complete blank, scrubbed mercifully free of anything remotely fantastical. A clean miss.

Maybe the islands were moving out of their way. They had become untouchable. They didn’t see land once—it was as if they were taking a grand leap outward into nothingness.

The only miracle that happened, happened on board. It was a small miracle, but it was a real one. Two nights after Benedict died, Poppy came to Quentin’s cabin to say she was sorry about what had happened and to see how he was. She didn’t leave till the next morning.

It was a strange time to have something nice happen. It was the wrong time, it wasn’t appropriate, but maybe it was the only time it could have happened. Their emotions were raw and close to the surface. Quentin was surprised to say the least, and one of the things that surprised him was how much he wanted her. Poppy was pretty, and Poppy was smart, at least as smart as Quentin, probably more so. And she was kind, and funny when she let her guard down a little, and her long legs were as absolutely wondrous as anything Quentin had ever seen in this or any world.

But beyond that Poppy had something Quentin wanted almost as badly as the wordless physical forgetting of sex—which would have been enough, God knows, it really would—and that was a sense of perspective. She wasn’t completely caught up in the grand myths of quests and adventures and whatever else. Deep down she didn’t especially give a shit about Fillory. She was a tourist here. Fillory wasn’t her home, and it wasn’t the repository of all her childhood hopes and dreams. It was just a place, and she was just passing through it. It was a relief to not take Fillory too seriously for a while. When he’d imagined something like this might happen, he’d always imagined it with Julia. But Julia didn’t need him, not this way. And when it came right down to it, the person he needed wasn’t Julia either.

Quentin hadn’t been celibate since Alice died, but he hadn’t exactly been cutting a swath either. The problem with sleeping with people who weren’t Alice was that somehow it made Alice even more gone. It meant really, truly knowing and admitting that she was never coming back. With Poppy he let himself know it a little more, and that should have made it hurt more, but strangely it made it hurt a little less.

“Why don’t you stay?” he said one day, while they were eating lunch in his cabin, cross-legged on his bed. Fish again. “Come live in a castle for a while. I realize you’re not a Fillory nerd like me, but haven’t you ever wanted to live in a castle? Haven’t you ever wanted to be a queen?”

If or when they eventually made it back to Castle Whitespire, with or without that last key, it was going to be something less than a triumphant homecoming. It would be good to have Poppy beside him when he sailed back into that harbor, for moral support. And for immoral support too.

“Mmmm.” Poppy salted her fish within an inch of its life, then drenched it in lemon juice. No amount of flavor seemed to be too much for her. “You make it sound romantic.”

“It is romantic. That’s not just me. Living in a castle is objectively romantic.”

“See, this is spoken like somebody who didn’t grow up in a monarchy. Australia still has a queen. There’s a lot of history there. Remind me to tell you about the constitutional crisis of 1975 sometime. Very unromantic.”

“I can promise you there will be no constitutional crises if we go to Whitespire. We don’t even have a constitution. Or if we do I promise you nobody’s ever read it.”

“I know, Quentin.” She pressed her lips together. “But I don’t think so. I don’t know how much longer I can stay here.”

“Why not? What do you have to get back to?”

“My entire life? Everybody I know? The real world?”

“This world is real.” He scooched over next to her, so that their hips touched. “Here. Feel.”

“That is not what I meant.”

She put her plate on the floor and lay back on the bunk. She hit her head on the wall. It wasn’t made for a tall person, let alone two.

“I know.” Quentin didn’t know why he was fighting her on this. He knew she wasn’t going to stay. Maybe that’s what made this so easy, that he knew the outcome in advance. There was no chance that she would get too close. He was playing to lose. “But seriously, what’s back there for you? Your dissertation? On dragon-ology, or whatever? Or tell me you don’t have a boyfriend.”

He took her foot in his lap to rub. She had new calluses from walking around the ship barefoot, and he picked at one. She snatched the foot back.

“No. But yes, my dissertation on dracology. I’m sorry if that seems very boring to you, but it’s my thing and I happen to like it.”

“There are dragons in Fillory. I think. Well, maybe there aren’t. I’ve never see one.”

“You don’t know?”

“You could find out. You could apply for a royal research grant. I can promise you your application would be looked upon favorably.”

“I would have to start all over again. I’m not ripping up four chapters of my dissertation.”

“Anyway, what’s wrong with a little unreality?” Quentin said. “Unreality is underrated. Do you know how many people would kill to be where you are?”

“What, in bed with you?”

He pushed up her shirt and kissed her stomach, which was flat and covered in very fine downy hair.

“I meant here in Fillory,” he said.

“I know.” She sighed, prettily and genuinely. “I just wish I were one of them.”

It was all very well to decide that Poppy was going back to the real world—or not very well, but it was what it was—but it was an open question how they were going to get her there. They could be confident that at some point Ember would turn up to kick her out of Fillory, as He always did with any visitors. But that could take weeks, or months, you never knew, and she didn’t want to wait. Quentin might have been in paradise, but Poppy was in exile.

In the end they decided to try the keys. They didn’t have the one from After, which had gotten Quentin and Julia to Earth so efficiently, but they all looked more or less the same apart from the size. They started with the last and biggest, the one they’d found on Benedict Island. It was stowed in Quentin’s cabin, still in the wooden box it came in. They brought it up on deck. Poppy had come with nothing, and she had nothing to pack. Quentin supposed Josh would want to go back too, in the fullness of time, but he didn’t seem to be in any hurry. He was already talking about which room he’d get back at Whitespire. And Quentin preferred to give Poppy a private send-off.

The key had lain in its box so long, its three-toothed jaw had worn a shadow of itself into the red velvet. He offered it to her, like a fancy cigar. She picked it up.

“Careful.”

“It’s heavy.” Poppy turned it over in her fingers, weighing it. “Wow. It’s not just the gold, it’s magic. The spellwork on this thing is thick. Dense.”

They looked at it, then at each other.

“I sort of felt around with it in the air,” Quentin said. “You should find an invisible keyhole. It’s hard to explain, it’s more a learn-by-doing thing.”

She nodded. She got it.

“Well.”

“Wait.” He took both of her hands. “I didn’t ask you properly before. Stay here. Please stay. I want you to.”

She shook her head and kissed him softly on the lips. “I can’t. Call me next time you’re in reality.”

He knew she would say that. But it made him feel better, knowing he’d really asked.

Poppy made a few experimental, self-conscious pokes in the air with the key. Quentin wondered idly if the key understood that they were on a moving ship. Suppose it opened a door in the air and then got stuck and they immediately left it behind—the key tugged out of Poppy’s hands, the door lost behind them in midair and midocean. He halfway hoped it would happen.

But no such luck. Old magic usually had any obvious bugs or loopholes like that worked out long ago. Quentin didn’t hear the click, but he saw when her hand met resistance in the air. The key slid in. Keeping one hand on it, she gave him another kiss, this time with some extra sugar in it, then she turned the key. With her other hand she found the doorknob.

A crack opened, and there was a poof of air pressure equalizing. The sun didn’t shine through like it had before. It was dark. It was odd to see an oblong of night standing upright like that, on the deck of a ship in broad daylight. Quentin walked around behind her and tried to peer through it. He felt a cold draft. Winter air. She looked back at him: so far so good?

He wondered what month it was on Earth, or what year even. Maybe the time-streams had gone haywire and she’d be walking into a far-future Earth, an apocalypse Earth, a cold dead world orbiting an extinguished sun. His arms goose-bumped, and a couple of errant snowflakes spun out and melted on the warm wood of the Muntjac’s deck. I had a dream, which was not all a dream. Good old Byron. Something for every occasion.

Poppy let go of the key, ducked her head—the portal was slightly too low for her beanpole frame—and stepped through. He saw her look around and shiver in her summer dress, and he caught a glimpse of what she was looking at. A stone square. The door began to close. The key must have let her out at her last known permanent residence, namely Venice. It made sense. She could crash at Josh’s for a bit. She would know people. She would be safe there.

Or no, she wouldn’t. That wasn’t Venice, and she was all alone. Quentin lunged forward through the closing door after her.

“Poppy!”

She’d stopped just over the threshold, and he barreled into her from behind. She squeaked, and he grabbed her around the shoulders to keep them both from falling over. Then he reached back to keep the door from closing, but it was already gone. The air was freezing. The sky was full of strange stars. It was night, and they were not on Earth. They were in the Neitherlands.

For a second Quentin was almost glad to see them. He hadn’t been to the Neitherlands for two years, not since he and the others had traveled to Fillory. They made him feel nostalgic. The first time he’d seen the Neitherlands he’d felt, maybe for the last time in his life, pure joy: the kind of uncut, pharmacy-grade, white-hot joy that comes with believing, or not just believing but knowing, that everything was going to be all right, not just then or for the next two weeks, but forever.

He’d been wrong, of course. In actuality that knowledge had lasted about five seconds—just up until Alice had punched him in the face for cheating on her with Janet. It turned out that everything was not going to be all right. Everything was chance and nothing was perfect and magic didn’t make you happy, and Quentin had learned to live with it, which it turned out that most people he knew were already doing anyway, and it was time he caught up with them. But you didn’t forget that kind of happiness. Something that bright leaves a permanent afterimage on your brain.

But the Neitherlands he knew had always been warm and peaceful and twilit. This Neitherlands was pitch-dark, and bitter cold, and it was snowing here. More snow had drifted in the corners of the square, huge creamy swaths of it.

And the skyline was different. Of the buildings around the square, the ones on one side looked exactly the way they always had, but the ones on the other side were half-gone. Their black silhouettes stood out jagged against the deep-blue sky, and the snow in front of them was mixed with big blocks of fallen stone. You could see all the way through to the next square over, and through that into the next.

“Quentin,” Poppy said. She looked back for the door too, trying to account for both his presence and her surroundings. “I don’t understand. What are you—where are we?”

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