The Magician King Page 8

Finally the scroll ran out, and the loose end popped out and flapped around.

“Not much out there,” he said, since he felt like he should say something.

“It’s the last scroll in the catalog,” Benedict said. “No one’s even looked at it since I’ve been here.”

“Can I take it with me?”

Benedict hesitated.

“It’s okay. I am the king, you know. It’s my map anyway, if you want to be technical about it.”

“I still have to sign it out.”

Benedict carefully rolled up the scroll and placed it in a leather case, then gave him a slip of paper that allowed him to take it out of the map room. He had cosigned it: his full name was Benedict Fenwick.

Benedict Fenwick. Jesus Christ. No wonder he was sulky.

Quentin had an obsolete sailing ship that had been raised from the dead. He had a psychotically effective swordsman and an enigmatic witch-queen. It wasn’t the Fellowship of the Ring, but then again he wasn’t trying to save the world from Sauron, he was attempting to perform a tax audit on a bunch of hick islanders. It would definitely do. They left Castle Whitespire three weeks to the day after Jollyby died.

A stiff salt breeze was scouring the waterfront. The Muntjac’s sails looked ready to lap it up and race off over the horizon in search of more. They were a glorious white with the very pale blue ram of Fillory splashed across them like a watermark, their edges snapping and vibrating with barely contained excitement. It really was a marvelous beast.

A brass band played on the waterfront. The conductor was visibly urging his charges to greater and greater volumes, but the notes were whipped away by the wind the second they left the instruments. With half an hour to spare Benedict Fenwick had turned up with the clothes on his back and an overnight bag stuffed full of clinking mapmaking equipment. The captain—once again, the unflappable Admiral Lacker—assigned him the last available quarters.

Eliot walked out onto the dock with Quentin to see him off.

“So,” he said.

“So.”

They stood together at the foot of the gangplank.

“You’re really doing this.”

“Did you think I was bluffing?”

“A little bit, yes,” Eliot said. “Say good-bye to Julia for me. Don’t forget what I told you about her.”

Julia had already stowed herself in her cabin with the air of someone who wasn’t planning to reemerge till they’d made landfall.

“I will. You’ll be all right without us?”

“Better off.”

“If you figure out what happened to Jollyby,” Quentin said, “go ahead and kick the ass of whoever’s responsible. Don’t wait up for me.”

“Thanks. For what it’s worth I don’t think it was the Fenwicks. I think they just think we’re dicks.”

Quentin remembered the first time they’d met, how odd Eliot’s twisted jaw had looked. Now it was so familiar he didn’t notice it. It looked like something natural, like a humpback whale’s jaw.

“I suppose I could make a speech,” Eliot said, “but nobody would hear it.”

“I’ll just act like you’re exhorting me to further the interests of the Fillorian people and show these renegade Outer Islanders, who probably just forgot to pay their taxes, if they even have anything to pay taxes on, or with, that we stand for everything that is just and true, and they’d do well to remember it.”

“You’re actually looking forward to this, aren’t you?”

“If you want the truth, it’s taking all my self-control just to stay standing here on the dock.”

“All right,” Eliot said. “Go. Oh, you’ve got an extra crew member. I forgot to tell you. The talking animals sent someone.”

“What? Who?”

“Exactly. Who or what, I never know which. It’s already on board. Sorry, it was politically expedient.”

“You could have asked me.”

“I would have, but I thought you might say no.”

“I miss you already. See you in a week.”

Light on his feet, Quentin jogged up the plank, which was hastily withdrawn behind him as soon as he was on deck. Incomprehensible naval yells issued from all quarters. Quentin did his best to stay out of people’s way as he picked his way back to the poop deck. The ship creaked and shifted slowly, ponderously, as it leaned and bore away from the wharf. The world around them, which had been fixed in place, became loose and mobile.

As they cleared the harbor the world changed again. The air cooled and the wind picked up and the water abruptly became gunmetal gray and ruffled. Massive swells came booming through underneath them. The Muntjac’s enormous sails caught hold of the wind. New wood cracked and settled comfortably into the strain.

Quentin walked to the very stern and looked out over the wake, swept clean and crushed into foam by the weight of their passage. He felt good and right here. He patted the Muntjac’s worn old taffrail: unlike most things and most people in Fillory, the Muntjac needed Quentin, and Quentin hadn’t let her down. He stood up straighter. Something heavy and invisible had relaxed its taloned grip, left its familiar perch on his shoulders and winged away on the stiff breeze. Let it weigh down somebody else for a while, he thought. Probably it would be waiting for him when he got home again. But for now it could wait.

When he turned around to go below, Julia was standing right behind him. He hadn’t heard her. The wind had caught her black hair and was whipping it wildly around her face. She looked outrageously beautiful. It might have been a trick of the light, but her skin had a silvery, unearthly quality, as if it would shock him if he touched it. If they were ever going to fall in love with each other, it was going to happen on this ship.

They watched together as Whitespire grew smaller behind them and was finally obscured by the point. She’d come here all the way from Brooklyn, just like him, he thought. She was probably the only person in the world, in any world, who understood exactly what all this felt like to him.

“Not bad, right Jules?” he said. He breathed in the cold sea air. “I mean, this whole trip is ridiculous, basically, but look!” He gestured at everything—the ship, the wind, the sky, the seascape, the two of them. “We should have done this ages ago.”

Julia’s expression didn’t change. Her eyes had never gone back to normal after the incident in the forest. They were still black, and they looked strange and ancient with her girlish freckles.

“I did not even notice we were moving,” she said.

CHAPTER 4

You have to go back to the beginning, to that freezing miserable afternoon in Brooklyn when Quentin took the Brakebills exam, to understand what happened to Julia. Because Julia took the Brakebills exam that day too. And after she took it, she lost three years of her life.

Her story started the same day Quentin’s did, but it was a very different kind of story. On that day, the day he and James and Julia walked along Fifth Avenue together on the way to the boys’ Princeton interviews, Quentin’s life had split wide open. Julia’s life hadn’t. But it did develop a crack.

It was a hairline crack at first. Nothing much to look at it. It was cracked, but you could still use it. It was still good. No point in throwing her life away. It was a perfectly fine life.

Or no, it wasn’t fine, but it worked for a while. She’d said good-bye to James and Quentin in front of the brick house. They’d gone in. She’d walked away. It had started to rain. She’d gone to the library. This much she was pretty sure was true. This much had probably actually happened.

Then something happened that didn’t happen: she’d sat in the library with her laptop and a stack of books and written her paper for Mr. Karras. It was a damn good paper. It was about an experimental utopian socialist community in New York State in the nineteenth century. The community had some praiseworthy ideals but also some creepy sexual practices, and eventually it lost its mojo and morphed into a successful silverware company instead. She had some ideas about why the whole arrangement worked better as a silverware company than it had as an attempt to realize Christ’s kingdom on Earth. She was pretty sure she was right. She’d gone into the numbers, and in her experience when you went into the numbers you usually came out with pretty good answers.

James met her at the library. He told her what had happened with the interview, which was weird enough as it was, what with the interviewer turning up dead and all. Then she’d gone home, had dinner, gone up to her room, written the rest of the paper, which took until four in the morning, grabbed three hours of sleep, got up, blew off the first two classes while she fixed her endnotes, and went to school in time for social studies. Mischief managed.

When she looked back the whole thing had a queer, unreal feeling to it, but then again you often get a queer, unreal feeling when you stay up till four and get up at seven. Things didn’t start to fall apart till a week later, when she got her paper back.

The problem wasn’t the grade. It was a good grade. It was an A minus, and Mr. K didn’t give out a lot of those. The problem was—what was the problem? She read the paper again, and though it read all right, she didn’t recognize everything in it. But she’d been writing fast. The thing she snagged on was the same thing Mr. K snagged on: she’d gotten a date wrong.

See, the utopian community she was writing about had run afoul of a change in federal statutory rape laws—creepy, creepy—that took place in 1878. She knew that. Whereas the paper said 1881, which Mr. K would never have caught—though come to think of it he was a pretty creepy character himself, and she wouldn’t be surprised if he knew his way around a statutory rape law or two—except Wikipedia made the same mistake, and Mr. K loved to do spot-checking to catch people relying on Wikipedia. He’d checked the date, and checked Wikipedia, and put a big red X in the margin of Julia’s paper. And a minus after her A. He was surprised at her. He really was.

Julia was surprised too. She never used Wikipedia, partly because she knew Mr. K checked, but mostly because unlike a lot of her fellow students she cared about getting her facts right. She went back through the paper and checked it thoroughly. She found a second mistake, and a third. No more, but that was enough. She started checking versions of the paper, because she always saved and backed up separate drafts as she went, because Track Changes in Word was bullshit, and she wanted to know at what point exactly the errors got in. But the really weird thing was there that were no other versions. There was only the final draft.

This fact, although it was a minor fact, with multiple plausible explanations, proved to be the big red button that activated the ejector seat that blew Julia out of the cozy cockpit of her life.

She sat on her bed and stared at the file, which showed a time of creation that she remembered as having been during dinner, and she felt fear. Because the more she thought about it the more it seemed like she had two sets of memories for that afternoon, not just one. One of them was almost too plausible. It had the feel of a scene from a novel written by an earnest realist who was more concerned with presenting an amalgamation of naturalistic details that fit together plausibly than with telling a story that wouldn’t bore the fuck out of the reader. It felt like a cover story. That was the one where she went to the library and met James and had dinner and wrote the paper.

But the other one was batshit insane. In the other one she’d gone to the library and done a simple search on one of the cheapo library workstations on the blond-wood tables by the circulation desk. The search had yielded a call number. The call number was odd—it put the book in the subbasement stacks. Julia was pretty sure the library didn’t have any subbasement stacks, because it didn’t have a subbasement.

As if in a dream she walked to the brushed-steel elevator. Sure enough, beneath the round white plastic button marked B, there was now also a round plastic button marked SB. She pressed it. It glowed. The dropping sensation in her stomach was just an ordinary dropping sensation, the kind you get when you’re descending rapidly toward a subbasement full of cheap metal shelving and the buzz of fluorescent lights and exposed pipes with red-painted daisy-wheel valve handles poking out of them at odd angles.

But that’s not what she saw when the elevator doors opened. Instead she saw a sun-soaked stone terrace in back of a country house, with green gardens all around it. It wasn’t actually a house, the people there explained, it was a school. It was called Brakebills, and the people who lived there were magicians. They thought she might like to be one too. All she would have to do is pass one simple test.

CHAPTER 5

Waking up that first morning on board the Muntjac, the only thing Quentin could compare it to was his first morning waking up at Brakebills. His cabin was long and narrow, and his bed lay along it opposite a row of windows that were only a couple of yards above the waterline. The first thing he saw was those windows, speckled with droplets and bright with sunlight reflected off the water, which they were skimming over at an unbelievable clip. Bookshelves, cabinets, and drawers had been cleverly tucked in along the walls and under the bed. It was like being inside a Chinese puzzle.

He swung his bare feet down onto the wide, cold planks of his little cabin. He felt the slight pitch and the even slighter roll of the ship, and the tilt that the wind had set it at. He felt like he was in the belly of some massive but friendly marine mammal whose joy in life was to lope along the surface of the sea with him inside it. Quentin was one of those annoying people who never got seasick.

He got his clothes out of the miniature dresser that was built into the wall, or the gunwale, or bulkhead, whatever you called a wall on a ship. He admired the neat rows of books on the built-in shelves above his bed, which were held in place by a narrow board so they wouldn’t fall off during a storm. He wasn’t especially looking forward to finding out what they were going to have for breakfast, and the less said about the bathroom the better, but other than that he was in a state of grace. He hadn’t felt this good in months. Years, maybe.

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