The Magician King Page 7

At this level of mastery the action went too fast for Quentin to follow. The precise details of the moves and countermoves and negotiations were lost on everybody but the combatants. Their shared style was all arcs and spins and constant motion as each side looked for openings and found only dead ends. You got the impression they were reading each other down to an atomic level, logging tiny twitches and tells and shifts of weight. The passes would start beautifully, set sequences that sometimes even included a flip or a somersault, then the flow would break and everything would be chaos until the blades tangled up and locked, and they disengaged and started all over again.

Jesus, Quentin thought. And he was going to get on a boat with one of these people. It was a little too real. But it was electrifying too: these were people who knew exactly what they were meant to do and never hesitated to do it, whether they won or lost.

Then all at once it was over: Aral overextended herself with a huge overhand chop that Bingle just managed to roll out from under, and by blind chance her blade stuck fast in the floor, in a crack between two flagstones. Coming up out of the roll Bingle kicked at it, reflexively, and it snapped neatly halfway along its length. Aral stepped back, not bothering to conceal her frustration, and indicated that she conceded the match.

But Bingle shook his head. Apparently he wasn’t happy with the grounds of his victory. He wanted to keep fighting. He looked at Quentin for a ruling. So did everybody else.

Well, if he wanted to play by good-guy rules, then by all means. Quentin wouldn’t mind seeing some more fighting himself. He drew his sword and offered it to Aral hilt-first. She felt the balance, nodded grudgingly, then resumed her fighting stance. The match recommenced.

Five minutes later Bingle jumped a low cut and attempted some midair finesse move that got tangled up in Aral’s ninja wrappings. He wound up right next to her, inside her guard, and she punched him savagely in the ribs, three times. He grunted and staggered backward toward the chalk line, and Quentin was sure he was going to ring out, but at the last second he realized where he was. He spun around and leaped balletically for the wall, pushed off it, turned head over heels, and landed lightly on his feet just in bounds.

The crowd gasped and applauded. It was a circus move, stagy and over the top. Aral irritably pulled off her headscarf and shook out a surprising mass of wavy auburn hair before resuming her stance.

“Bet you anything she practiced that in a mirror,” Eliot whispered.

The dynamic of the fight had changed. Now Bingle dropped the formal, balletic style they’d both been using. Quentin had assumed that that was where his training was, but it soon became apparent that he was some kind of technical freak, because he seemed to be able to shift styles at will. He went at her like a berserker, fast and furious, then cycled rapidly through a courtly dueling mode to a kind of shouting, stamping kendo style. Aral grew increasingly flummoxed trying to adjust, which was presumably what Bingle was after.

Breaking her silence, she shouted something and lunged flat out. Bingle met her attack with a parry so implausible it was vaudevillian: he stopped her blade—Quentin’s blade—with the tip of his, so that the two swords met point to point.

They bent ominously, almost double, for an unendurably tense second—there was a worrying saw-blade sound of flexed metal—and then Bingle’s sword snapped with a sharp, vibrant twang. He had to jerk his head to one side to avoid a flying shard.

He threw his useless hilt at Aral in disgust. The pommel clunked her on the temple, but she shrugged it off. She paused, evidently considering offering him the same largesse he’d offered her. Then, having made some inner calculation probably having to do with honor and principles and castles, she aimed an overhand cutting stroke at Bingle’s shoulder, the coup de grâce.

Bingle closed his eyes and dropped rapidly to one knee. As the blade descended he didn’t dodge, just brought his hands together smoothly and decisively in front of him. And then time stopped.

At first Quentin wasn’t sure what had happened, but the room exploded in amazement. He stood up to get a better view. Bingle had stopped the blade between the palms of his hands, in midstrike, bare flesh against sharp steel. He must have calculated the move down to the last erg and arc and nanosecond. It took a moment for Aral to understand what he’d done, and Bingle didn’t waste it. With the advantage of surprise he jerked the blade toward himself, out of her grip. He flipped it smartly, the hilt smacking solidly into his palm, and placed the blade at her throat. The match was over.

“Oh my God,” Eliot said. “Did you see that? Oh my God!”

The assembled barons forgot their noble reserve. They got to their feet, huzzahing, and mobbed the winner. Quentin and Eliot cheered along with them. But Bingle didn’t seem to see them. Those hooded eyes never changed their expression. He pushed his way through the crowd to Quentin’s throne, where he kneeled and offered Quentin back his sword.

The next time Quentin visited the waterfront the Muntjac was crawling with workmen, like piranhas on an unlucky Amazonian explorer except in reverse. They were putting the Muntjac back together—bringing it back to life. There was no part of it that wasn’t being aggressively sanded or varnished or tightened or reinforced or replaced. They’d got it up into drydock, propped it up on a forest of stilts, fixed the sprung boards, caulked and tarred and painted it. Out-of-sync hammer blows clattered from all quarters of the hull.

As it turned out the ship’s structural elements had been basically sound, which was good, because the shipwrights didn’t think they could have reproduced what they found. Deep in the hold, pieced into some of the complex joins near the prow, they’d found a complicated lump of wooden clockwork connected to taut lines leading off into various parts of the ship. They couldn’t figure out what it was for, so Quentin told them to leave it alone.

The Muntjac’s hull was now a smart jet-black with bright white trim. Hundreds of yards of new sail were even now being sewn by an army of sailmakers, an astonishingly technical process that took place in a vast, airy sail loft the size of an airplane hangar. The sharp, honest fragrances of sawdust and wet paint bloomed in the air. Quentin breathed them in. He felt like he was coming back to life too. Not that he’d been dead, just . . . not quite alive. Something else.

With only two or three more days till the Muntjac could be floated, Quentin paid a visit to Castle Whitespire’s map room to see what he could learn about his destination. The Outer Island was the least exciting part of this whole undertaking, but he’d better at least be able to find it. After the clamor of the docks the map room was a reservoir of cool quiet. One whole wall was windows, and the other was taken up with a glorious floor-to-ceiling map of Fillory, from Loria in the north to the Wandering Desert in the south. The map was traversed by a rolling library ladder, so you could get right up close to the part you wanted to study, and the closer you looked, the more detail resolved itself, to the point where you could pick out individual trees in the Queenswood. No dryads though.

The map was lightly animated by some subtle cartographical magic. You could follow tiny combers in as they pounded the Swept Coast, one after the other. Quentin leaned in: you could even hear them, faintly, like the roar in a shell. A line of shadow was advancing across the map, showing where it was night and where it was day in Fillory. Overhead on the vaulted ceiling, tiny stars twinkled in the velvety blue-black of a celestial map that showed the Fillorian constellations.

This was Quentin’s kingdom, the land he ruled. It looked so fresh and green and magical like this. This was Fillory the way he’d thought of it as a little kid, before he’d ever been here—it looked like the maps printed on the endpapers of the Fillory and Further books. He could have watched it all day.

The map room wasn’t exactly a hive of activity. The only visible staff was a surly teenager with thick black bangs that fell over his eyes. He was bent over a table furiously working some kind of calculation using a collection of steel cartographical instruments. It took him a minute to look up and realize that he had a patron.

The boy gave his name, grudgingly, as Benedict. He might have been sixteen. Quentin had a feeling that not a lot of people came through the map room, and still less often were those people kings; at any rate Benedict was out of practice at showing the appropriate amount of deference. Quentin sympathized. Personally he could take or leave the bowing and scraping. But he still needed a map.

“What can you show me that has the Outer Island on it?”

Benedict’s eyes went blank for a second as he queried some mental database. Then he turned away and dragged himself over to a wall that was honeycombed with little square drawers. He yanked one out—they turned out to be thin but very deep—and extracted the single scroll it contained.

The centerpiece of the map room was a heavy wooden table with an elaborate brass mechanism bolted to it. Benedict nimbly fitted the scroll into it and cranked a handle. It was the only thing he did with anything remotely resembling alacrity. The crank unrolled the scroll and spread it out flat so you could get a good look at the section you wanted.

It was a lot longer than Quentin expected. Yards of almost-blank parchment scrolled by as Benedict cranked, showing curves and arcs of latitude and longitude or whatever the Fillorian equivalents were, traversing miles of open ocean. Finally he stopped at a tiny, irregular nugget of land with its name underneath it in italic script: The Outer Island.

“That must be the place,” Quentin said dryly.

Benedict would neither confirm nor deny this. He was painfully uncomfortable making eye contact. Quentin couldn’t think who Benedict reminded him of until he realized that this was what he had probably looked like to other people when he was sixteen. Fear of everybody and everything, hidden behind a mask of contempt, with the greatest contempt of all reserved for himself.

“It looks pretty far out,” Quentin said. “How many days’ sail?”

“Dunno,” Benedict said, which wasn’t quite true, because he added, obviously in spite of himself: “Three maybe. It’s four hundred and seventy-seven miles. Nautical miles.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Nautical’s longer.”

“How much?”

“Two hundred and sixty-five yards longer,” Benedict said automatically. “And a bit.”

Quentin was impressed. Somebody must have managed to beat some information into Benedict somehow. The brass map reader had many articulated arms that extended seductively outward, each one with a posable lens on it. Quentin swiveled one around, and a magnified version of the Outer Island swam into view. It was roughly peanut-shaped, with a star marked on it at one end. Its border was a thick dark line, with a fainter outline around it, doubling it, as if to suggest waves, or maybe the submerged edge of the landmass under the water.

It was about what he expected. A fine black thread, a single lonely stream, wandered from the interior down to the coast. Next to the star was the word Outer, in smaller letters. Presumably that was the name of the island’s one town. The lens failed to reveal anything else. All it did was make the fine grain of the parchment look coarse.

“Who lives there?”

“Fishermen. I guess. There’s an agent of the crown there. That’s why it has a star.”

They looked at the star together.

“It’s a shit map,” Benedict volunteered. He leaned down so that his nose almost touched it. “Look at the shading. Why do you want to know about it?”

“I’m going there.”

“Really? Why?”

“That’s actually a pretty good question.”

“Are you looking for the key?”

“No, I’m not looking for the key. What key?”

“There’s a fairy tale,” Benedict said, as if he were explaining to a kindergartner. “That’s where the key that winds up the world is. Supposed to be.”

Quentin wasn’t wildly interested in Fillorian folklore.

“Why don’t you come along?” he said. “You could make a new map of it, if this one’s so bad.”

Now he was a counselor of troubled youth. Something about the boy made Quentin want to shake him up. Get him out of his comfort zone so he could stop sneering at everybody else who was out of theirs. Get him thinking about something besides his own neuroses for a change. It was harder than it looked.

“I’m not rated for fieldwork,” Benedict mumbled, dropping his gaze again. “I’m a cartographer, not a surveyor.” Quentin watched Benedict’s eyes keep getting drawn back to the map, to that irregular peanut. Maps of places, rather than actual places, were obviously where young master Benedict preferred to live. “The linework is . . .” He made a noise through his teeth: ch. “Jesus Christ.”

“Jesus Christ” was an expression the younger Fillorians had picked up from their new rulers. It was impossible to explain to them what it actually meant. They were convinced it was something dirty.

“In the name of the Kingdom of Fillory,” Quentin intoned, “I hereby pronounce you rated for fieldwork. Good enough?”

Should’ve brought my sword. Benedict shrugged, embarrassed. It was exactly what Quentin would have done ten years ago. Quentin almost found himself liking the kid. He probably thought nobody could possibly understand how he felt. It made Quentin realize how far he’d come. Maybe he could help Benedict.

“Think about it. We should bring somebody to update the maps.”

Though the draftsmanship looked fine to Quentin. Idly he turned the crank of the brass map-viewing contraption. It really was very neat: little half-concealed gears spun, and the Outer Island drifted away and was rolled up on the far side of the scroll. He kept cranking. Yards and yards of creamy blank paper passed by, decorated here and there with dotted lines and tiny numbers. Empty ocean.

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