The Magician King Page 9

On deck he was the only person who had nothing to do. The crew of the Muntjac was small for a ship its size, eight hands including the captain, and all the crewmembers who were visible were very seriously engaged in steering the ship and splicing ropes and scrubbing the deck and climbing up and down things. Julia was nowhere in sight, and Admiral Lacker and Benedict were discussing some navigational nicety with a degree of animation Quentin hadn’t thought either one of them was capable of.

Quentin supposed he would consult on weather magic if any was required, but Julia was better at that stuff than he was, and anyway he couldn’t imagine how even Julia could improve on what they had, which was a clear sky and a cold stiff wind out of the northwest. He decided to climb up the mast.

He walked over to the last and least of the Muntjac’s three masts, swinging his arms forward and back, loosening up his shoulders. It was probably a stupid idea. But who hadn’t at some point in his life wanted to climb to the top of a sailing ship in full flight? It always looked easy in movies. The mast wasn’t exactly built for climbing—there weren’t any rungs or steps or spikes. He put his foot on a brass cleat. The man at the helm looked at him. Your king is climbing a mast, citizen. And no, he doesn’t know how. Deal with it.

It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t that hard, either. Where there weren’t cleats or spars there were at least ropes, though you had to be careful not to pull anything that wasn’t supposed to be pulled. He skinned a knuckle, then another one, and a fat splinter stabbed straight into the soft ball of his thumb and broke off there. The mast hummed with tension—he could sense it rooted deep in the hold, taking the force of the wind and balancing it with the force of water on the keel. The thing he hadn’t counted on was how cold it got, right away, like he’d climbed into another climatic zone, or maybe the lower limits of outer space.

The other thing he hadn’t counted on was the angle of the ship. He barely noticed it most of the time, but the farther he got from the safety of the deck the more perilously the ship seemed to be heeling over. He had to keep reminding himself that it wasn’t actually in imminent danger of rolling right over and drowning them all. Probably.

By the time he got to the top he was no longer over the deck at all. He could have dropped a plumb line straight down into the water, which rushed along below him, a torrent of rough green glass. A blunt-nosed, milky-gray shape was keeping pace with them below the surface about fifty feet off their starboard side. It was huge. Not a whale—its tail was vertical, not horizontal. A gigantic fish, then, or a shark. Even as he watched it, it swam deeper, growing fainter and more diffuse, until he could no longer see it at all. The higher you get the more you realize how much bigger than you everything is.

Going down was easier. Once he was safely on deck Quentin decided to keep going the other way, down to the hold. The noise of the bright, busy outside world vanished as soon as he stepped through the dark hatch in the deck. There wasn’t far to go: three short flights took him to the bottom of the Muntjac’s hollow little world.

It was warm there. He could feel the ocean pressing in on him from the other side of the damp, sweating wood. The hold was so full of supplies there was hardly room to move. It wasn’t very scenic. He was making his way back to the ladder, back up to reality, or what passed for it in Fillory, when a weird, furry, upside-down face loomed out of the darkness at him.

He gave a high and not very kingly bark of alarm and hit his head on something. The face hung in midair—as his eyes adjusted he saw that the creature was hanging upside down from a crossbeam, so comfortably that it looked like it had been there its whole life. It had an alien, half-melted look.

“Hello,” it said.

That was one mystery solved. Their talking animal was a sloth. It was just about the ugliest mammal Quentin had ever seen.

“Hi,” Quentin said. “I didn’t realize you were down here.”

“Nobody seems to,” the sloth said, with equanimity. “I hope you’ll come visit. Often.”

It took them three days to sail to the Outer Island, and every day it got hotter. They left the autumn beaches and steel waters of Whitespire for a more tropical zone. They did this while traveling east, instead of north or south, which was weird to the people from Earth, but none of the Fillorians seemed surprised. It made him wonder whether this world was even spherical—Benedict had never even heard of an equator. The crew changed into tropical whites.

Benedict stood by Admiral Lacker’s side at the helm with a book of charts that laid out the approach to the Outer Island, page after page crowded with technical-looking dots and blobby concentric isobars. Working together they threaded their way through a maze of shoals and reefs that no one but they could see until the island was actually in sight: a little bump of white sand and green jungle on the horizon, with a modest peak in the middle, not so different from what he’d imagined. They rounded a point and entered a shallow bay.

The moment they did the wind dropped to nothing. The Muntjac coasted into the center of the harbor on the last of its momentum, rippling the placid green surface as it went. The sails flapped limply in the silence. It could have been a sleepy hamlet on the Côte d’Azur. The shore was a narrow sandy strand littered with dry seaweed and the fibrous bits that palm trees constantly shed, baking in the afternoon heat. A wharf and a few low structures stood toward one end, and one rather magnificent-looking building that might have been a hotel or a country club. Not a single person was visible.

Probably they were taking a siesta. In spite of himself Quentin felt a rising sense of anticipation. Don’t be an idiot. This was an errand. They were here to collect the taxes.

They lowered the launch in silence. Quentin climbed in, followed by Bingle and Benedict, who lost his sullen self-consciousness for a moment in his excitement at starting his survey. At the last minute Julia appeared from below and slipped aboard. The sloth, slung comfortably from its beam in the hold, declined to go, though it enjoined them, before closing its drooping, shadowed eyes, to remember that if they came across any particularly succulent shoots, or even a small lizard, it was an omnivore.

A long, skinny, rickety pier projected from the wharves out into the water, with an absurd little cupola at the end. They rowed for it. The bay was as smooth as a pond. Throughout this entire operation they hadn’t seen or heard a soul.

“Spooky,” Quentin said out loud. “God, I hope it’s not one of those Roanoke deals where the whole place is deserted.”

Nobody said anything. He missed having Eliot to talk to, or even Janet. If Julia was amused, or even got the reference, she didn’t let on. She’d been keeping to herself since they left Whitespire. She didn’t want to talk to anyone, or touch anyone—she kept her hands in her lap and her elbows drawn in.

He scanned the shoreline through a folding telescope that he’d charmed so that it would show beings both visible and invisible, or most of them anyway. The waterfront was genuinely, authentically deserted. If you adjusted the telescope—it had an extra dial—it ran the view a little ways backward in time too. Nobody had visited the beach for at least an hour.

The pier creaked in the stillness. The heat was murderous. Quentin thought he should go first, as king, but Bingle insisted. He was taking his duties as royal bodyguard very seriously. He wasn’t anywhere near as jolly as his name made him sound, though that would have been almost impossible since his name made him sound like a clown who entertained at children’s parties.

The big building they’d seen earlier was made of wood and painted white, with Ionic columns out front and grand glass doors. Everything was peeling. It looked like an old Southern plantation house. Bingle pushed open the door and stepped inside. Quentin pushed in right behind him. If he got nothing else out of this he was going to get a little thrill of the unknown, however short-lived. It was pitch-black inside after the glare of the afternoon, and pleasantly cool.

“Have a care, Your Highness,” Bingle said.

As his eyes adjusted Quentin saw a shabby but grandly appointed room with a desk in the center. At it sat a little girl with straight blond hair coloring fiercely on a piece of paper. When she saw them she turned around and shouted up the stairs:

“Mom-my! There’s people here!”

She turned back to them.

“Try not to get sand in the house.”

She went back to coloring.

“Welcome to Fillory,” she added, without looking up.

The little girl’s name was Eleanor. She was five and very adept at drawing bunny-pegasi, which were like regular pegasi except instead of horses with wings they were rabbits with wings. Quentin wasn’t clear on whether they were real or made up; you could never be totally sure about stuff like that in Fillory. Mommy was in her late thirties or thereabouts, pretty with thin lips and a pale untropical complexion. She descended the stairs smartly, in high heels and a vaguely official-looking jacket and skirt, and shifted Eleanor roughly out of her chair, which Eleanor accepted. She took her pictures and coloring things and ran up the stairs.

“Welcome to the Kingdom of Fillory,” the woman said, in a throaty alto. “I am the Customs Agent. Please state your names and countries of origin.”

She opened a very official-looking ledger and held a large purpleinked stamp at the ready.

“I’m Quentin,” Quentin said. “Coldwater. I’m king of Fillory.”

She paused, eyebrows arched, with her hand poised to stamp. She was making a good thing out of this routine: businesslike but sexy, with some nicely judged irony in there. There was something of the vamp about the Customs Agent.

“You’re the king of Fillory?”

“I’m a king of Fillory. There are two.”

She put down the stamp. In the column marked OCCUPATION she wrote: king.

“In that case—from Fillory?”

“Well, yes.”

She made another note.

“Ah, well.” She sighed and closed the ledger. She didn’t get to use her stamp. “There isn’t much paperwork if you’re from Fillory. I thought you might have come from overseas.”

“Address His Highness with respect,” Bingle snapped. “You’re talking to the king, not some wandering fisherman.”

“I know he’s the king,” she said. “He said that.”

“Then address him as ‘Your Highness’!”

“Sorry.” She turned to Quentin, trying, but not very hard, to suppress her amusement. “Your Highness. We don’t get a lot of kings here. It takes getting used to.”

“Well, all right.” Quentin let it go. “Look, Bingle, I’ll take care of guarding my dignity, thanks.” Then to the Customs Agent: “You can still stamp my form if you want to.”

Bingle shot Quentin a glance to the effect of, you have no idea how to be a king, literally none.

The Customs Agent’s name turned out to be Elaine, and once she’d satisfied herself as to their immigration status she was a gracious host. It was usual on the Outer Island to have cocktails in about an hour, she explained, but before then would they like to see something of the island? They certainly would. By all means, as long as they were here. Only they should be warned that someone would wind up carrying Eleanor on his shoulders. She was a sweet child but easily distracted and very lazy.

“She’s a terrible flirt. She goes straight for the men of the party, and if she figures out you’re an easy mark, you’ll be carrying her around for the rest of the day.”

They followed Elaine through the embassy, which was what the grand building turned out to be. It was dim and surprisingly elegant, with lots of club chairs and dark wood, something like an English gentlemen’s club. It was hard to picture the opulent age in which all this stuff had been shipped out here and assembled. The Outer Island must have had a heyday. They walked out the back gate and along a cart track hacked out of the tropical greenery. Elaine picked a tangy sweet-sour fruit from a low-hanging branch and offered it to Quentin.

“Try this,” she purred. It had dense nests of seeds inside that one spat out into the weeds.

The spicy scent of the seaside gave way to the dense green chlorophyl fug of the jungle. Here and there they passed a wrought-iron gate, painted white but rusting, with a path curving away back into the underbrush. Elaine discoursed about the various histories and scandals of the families that lived in the houses at the ends of the paths. She was handsome and had a bright, appealing manner. Though Quentin wondered why she wasn’t more affectionate to her daughter, the helpful little Eleanor. It didn’t jibe with her otherwise hospitable manner. Bingle stalked ahead of them, sword out, ready to slash or grapple any malefactors who might spring out of the jungle with designs on the king’s person. Quentin thought he was being rude, but Elaine didn’t seem to notice.

They stopped to admire a tropical clock-tree, which took the form of a palm tree instead of an oak. Quentin asked Eleanor if she could tell time, and she said that she couldn’t and what’s more she didn’t want to.

“Aren’t we being a little princess for the king,” said Elaine. Benedict sketched effortfully as they walked, trying not to blot his notebook with sweat. Julia stopped to study a weed, or maybe talk to it, and they left her behind. How much trouble could she get into? Quentin had had some half-formed idea of flirting with Elaine as a way of arousing Julia’s competitive spirit, but if such a spirit dwelled within her it remained unaroused.

After a half mile they came to the center of town. The cart track performed a wobbly loop and rejoined itself. There was a market here, or at least some market stalls, with a fishy reek and a few discarded, trampled fruit of the kind they’d picked on the way there. At the head of the loop stood a grand official building of the town hall variety with a stopped clock on its pediment like a blind Cyclops eye and a faded but still recognizable Fillorian flag hanging limp and exhausted in the damp heat.

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