The Magician's Land Page 1

Author: Lev Grossman

Series: The Magicians #3

Genres: Fantasy

CHAPTER 1

The letter had said to meet in a bookstore.

It wasn’t much of a night for it: early March, drizzling and cold but not quite cold enough for snow. It wasn’t much of a bookstore either. Quentin spent fifteen minutes watching it from a bus shelter at the edge of the empty parking lot, rain drumming on the plastic roof and making the asphalt shine in the streetlights. Not one of your charming, quirky bookstores, with a ginger cat on the windowsill and a shelf of rare signed first editions and an eccentric, bewhiskered proprietor behind the counter. This was just another strip-mall outpost of a struggling chain, squeezed in between a nail salon and a Party City, twenty minutes outside Hackensack off the New Jersey Turnpike.

Satisfied, Quentin crossed the parking lot. The enormous bearded cashier didn’t look up from his phone when the door jingled. Inside you could still hear the noise of cars on the wet road, like long strips of paper tearing, one after another. The only unexpected touch was a wire birdcage in one corner, but where you would have expected a parrot or a cockatoo inside there was a fat blue-black bird instead. That’s how un-charming this store was: it had a crow in a cage.

Quentin didn’t care. It was a bookstore, and he felt at home in bookstores, and he hadn’t had that feeling much lately. He was going to enjoy it. He pushed his way back through the racks of greeting cards and cat calendars, back to where the actual books were, his glasses steaming up and his coat dripping on the thin carpet. It didn’t matter where you were, if you were in a room full of books you were at least halfway home.

The store should have been empty, coming up on nine o’clock on a cold rainy Thursday night, but instead it was full of people. They browsed the shelves silently, each one on his or her own, slowly wandering the aisles like sleepwalkers. A jewel-faced girl with a pixie cut was reading Dante in Italian. A tall boy with large curious eyes who couldn’t have been older than sixteen was absorbed in a Tom Stoppard play. A middle-aged black man with elfin cheekbones stood staring at the biographies through thick, iridescent glasses. You would almost have thought they’d come there to buy books. But Quentin knew better.

He wondered if it would be obvious, if he would know right away, or if there would be a trick to it. If they’d make him guess. He was getting to be a pretty old dog—he’d be thirty this year—but this particular game was new to him.

At least it was warm inside. He took off his glasses and wiped them with a cloth. He’d just gotten them a couple of months ago, the price of a lifetime of reading fine print, and they were still an unfamiliar presence on his face: a windshield between him and the world, always slipping down his nose and getting smudged when he pushed them up again. When he put them back on he noticed a sharp-featured young woman, girl-next-door pretty, if you happened to live next door to a grad student in astrophysics. She was standing in a corner paging through a big, expensive architectural-looking volume. Piranesi drawings: vast shadowy vaults and cellars and prisons, haunted by great wooden engines.

Quentin knew her. Her name was Plum. She felt him watching her and looked up, raising her eyebrows in mild surprise, as if to say you’re kidding—you’re in on this thing too?

He shook his head once, very slightly, and looked away, keeping his face carefully blank. Not to say no, I’m not in on this, I just come here for the novelty coffee mugs and their trenchant commentary on the little ironies of everyday life. What he meant was: let’s pretend we don’t know each other.

It was looking like he had some time to kill so he joined the browsers, scanning the spines for something to read. The Fillory books were there, of course, shelved in the young adult section, repackaged and rebranded with slick new covers that made them look like supernatural romance novels. But Quentin couldn’t face them right now. Not tonight, not here. He took down a copy of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold instead and spent ten contented minutes at a checkpoint in gray 1950s Berlin.

“Attention, Bookbumblers patrons!” the cashier said over the PA, though the store was small enough that Quentin could hear his unamplified voice perfectly clearly. “Attention! Bookbumblers will be closing in five minutes! Please make your final selections!”

He put the book back. An old woman in a beret that looked like she’d knitted it herself bought a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and let herself out into the night. So not her. The skinny kid who’d been camped out cross-legged in the graphic novels section, reading them to rags, left without buying anything. So not him either. A tall, bluff-looking guy with Cro-Magnon hair and a face like a stump who’d been furiously studying the greeting cards, pretty clearly overthinking his decision, finally bought one. But he didn’t leave.

At nine o’clock exactly the big cashier closed the door and locked it with a final, fateful jingle, and suddenly Quentin was all nerves. He was on a carnival ride, and the safety bar had dropped, and now it was too late to get off. He took a deep breath and frowned at himself, but the nerves didn’t go away. The bird shuffled its feet in the seeds and droppings on the bottom of its cage and squawked once. It was a lonely kind of squawk, the kind you’d hear if you were out by yourself on a rainy moor, lost, with darkness closing in fast.

The cashier walked to the back of the store—he had to excuse himself past the guy with the cheekbones—and opened a gray metal door marked STAFF ONLY.

“Through here.”

He sounded bored, like he did this every night, which for all Quentin knew he did. Now that he was standing up Quentin could see that he really was huge—six foot four or five and deep-chested. Not pumped, but with broad shoulders and that aura of slow inexorability that naturally enormous men have. His face was noticeably asymmetrical: it bulged out on one side as if he’d been slightly overinflated. He looked like a gourd.

Quentin took the last spot in line. He counted eight others, all of them looking around cautiously and taking exaggerated care not to jostle one another, as if they might explode on contact. He worked a tiny revelation charm to make sure there was nothing weird about the door—he made an OK sign with his thumb and forefinger and held it up to one eye like a monocle.

“No magic,” the cashier said. He snapped his fingers at Quentin. “Guy. Hey. No spells. No magic.”

Heads turned.

“Sorry?”

Quentin played dumb. Nobody called him Your Majesty anymore, but he didn’t think he was ready to answer to guy yet. He finished his inspection. It was a door and nothing more.

“Cut it out. No magic.”

Pushing his luck, Quentin turned and studied the clerk. Through the lens he could see something small shining in his pocket, a talisman that might have been related to sexual performance. The rest of him shone too, as if he were covered in phosphorescent algae. Weird.

“Sure.” He dropped his hands and the lens vanished. “No problem.”

Someone rapped on the windowpane. A face appeared, indistinct through the wet glass. The cashier shook his head, but whoever it was rapped again, harder.

He sighed.

“What the shit.”

He unlocked the front door and after a whispered argument let in a man in his twenties, dripping wet, red-faced but otherwise sportscaster-handsome, wearing a windbreaker that was way too light for the weather. Quentin wondered where he’d managed to get a sunburn in March.

They all filed into the back room. It was darker than Quentin expected, and bigger too; real estate must come cheap out here on the turnpike. There were steel shelves crammed full of books flagged with fluorescent-colored stickies; a couple of desks in one corner, the walls in front of them shingled with shift schedules and taped-up New Yorker cartoons; stacks of cardboard shipping boxes; a busted couch; a busted armchair; a mini-fridge—it must have doubled as the break room. Half of it was just wasted space. The back wall was a steel shutter that opened onto a loading dock.

A handful of other people were coming in through another door in the left-hand wall, looking just as wary. Quentin could see another bookstore behind them, a nicer one, with old lamps and oriental rugs. Probably a ginger cat too. He didn’t need magic to know that it wasn’t a door at all but a portal to somewhere else, some arbitrary distance away. There—he caught a telltale hairline seam of green light along one edge. The only thing behind that wall in reality was Party City.

Who were they all? Quentin had heard rumors about dog-and-pony shows like this before, gray-market cattle calls, work for hire, but he’d never seen one himself. He definitely never thought he’d go to one, not in a million years. He never thought it would come to that. Stuff like this was for people on the fringes of the magical world, people scrabbling to get in, or who’d lost their footing somehow and slipped out of the bright warm center of things, all the way out to the cold margins of the real world. All the way out to a strip mall in Hackensack in the rain. Things like this weren’t for people like him.

Except now they were. It had come to that. He was one of them, these were his people. Six months ago he’d been a king in a magic land, another world, but that was all over. He’d been kicked out of Fillory, and he’d been kicked around a fair bit since then, and now he was just another striver, trying to scramble back in, up the slippery slope, back toward the light and the warmth.

Plum and the man with the iridescent glasses sat on the couch. Red Face took the busted armchair. Pixie Cut and the teenage Stoppard reader sat on boxes. The rest of them stood—there were twelve, thirteen, fourteen in all. The cashier shut the gray door behind them, cutting off the last of the noise from the outside world, and snuffed out the portal.

He’d brought the birdcage with him; now he placed it on top of a cardboard box and opened it to let the crow out. It looked around, shaking first one foot then the other the way birds do.

“Thank you all for coming,” it said. “I will be brief.”

That was unexpected. Judging from the ripple of surprise that ran through the room, he wasn’t the only one. You didn’t see a lot of talking birds on Earth, that was more of a Fillorian thing.

“I’m looking for an object,” the bird said. “I will need help taking it from its present owners.”

The bird’s glossy feathers shone darkly in the glow of the hanging lights. Its voice echoed in the half-empty stockroom. It was a soft, mild-mannered voice, not hoarse at all like you’d expect from a crow. It sounded incongruously human—however it was producing speech, it had nothing to do with its actual vocal apparatus. But that was magic for you.

“So stealing,” an Indian guy said. Not like it bothered him, he just wanted clarification. He was older than Quentin, forty maybe, balding and wearing an unbelievably bad multicolored wool sweater.

“Theft,” the bird said. “Yes.”

“Stealing back, or stealing?”

“What is the difference?”

“I would merely like to know whether we are the bad guys or the good guys. Which of you has a rightful claim on the object?”

The bird cocked its head thoughtfully.

“Neither party has an entirely valid claim,” it said. “But if it makes a difference our claim is superior to theirs.”

That seemed to satisfy the Indian guy, though Quentin wondered if he would have had a problem either way.

“Who are you?” somebody called out. The bird ignored that.

“What is the object?” Plum asked.

“You’ll be told after you’ve accepted the job.”

“Where is it?” Quentin asked.

The bird shifted its weight back and forth.

“It is in the northeastern United States of America.” It half spread its wings in what might have been a bird-shrug.

“So you don’t know,” Quentin said. “So finding it is part of the job.”

The bird didn’t deny it. Pixie Cut scooched forward, which wasn’t easy on the broken-backed couch, especially in a skirt that short. Her hair was black with purple highlights, and Quentin noticed a couple of blue star tattoos peeking out of her sleeves, the kind you got in a safe house. He wondered how many more she had underneath. He wondered what she’d done to end up here.

“So we’re finding and we’re stealing and I’m guessing probably doing some fighting in between. What kind of resistance are you expecting?”

“Can you be more specific?”

“Security, how many people, who are they, how scary. Is that specific enough?”

“Yes. We are expecting two.”

“Two magicians?”

“Two magicians, plus some civilian staff. Nothing out of the ordinary, as far as I know.”

“As far as you know!” The red-faced man guffawed loudly. He seemed on further examination to be a little insane.

“I do know that they have been able to place an incorporate bond on the object. The bond will have to be broken, obviously.”

A stunned silence followed this statement, then somebody made an exasperated noise. The tall man who’d been shopping for greeting cards snorted as if to say can you believe this shit?

“Those are supposed to be unbreakable,” Plum said coolly.

“You’re wasting our time!” Iridescent Glasses said.

“An incorporate bond has never been broken,” the bird said, not at all bothered—or were its feathers just slightly ruffled? “But we believe that it is theoretically possible, with the right skills and the right resources. We have all the skills we need in this room.”

“What about the resources?” Pixie Cut asked.

“The resources can be obtained.”

“So that’s also part of the job,” Quentin said. He ticked them off on his fingers. “Obtaining the resources, finding the object, breaking the bond, taking the object, dealing with the current owners. Correct?”

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