The Magician King Page 11

The rum, which had seemed so delightful the night before, so absolutely good and necessary, had now revealed its true nature as a hideous toxin, a drier of mouths and a ravager of brains. He cursed the earlier incarnation of himself that drank so much of it. Then he got up and went in search of water.

There was plenty of it around. Probably there was a beautiful songbird somewhere around here that puked gallons of sparkling springwater every morning, to go with the gold beetles. He ran himself a cool bath and sat in it and sipped more water till his head felt better. You can’t feel fresher and cleaner than when you’re soaking in fresh water within sight of the ocean.

Most of the night before was blotted out, or available to his memory only in the form of mental security-camera footage, grainy figures with blurred voices, but one thing remained bright and clear and high-definition: the golden key. She’d said it was real. He wondered what the magic was. He wondered what it opened. Had she told him, and he’d forgotten? No, that didn’t sound right. But she’d told him where it was: After Island. He needed to know more. They had a choice to make: go on, or go home.

But by the time he came down for breakfast Elaine was already gone. She’d left a note reminding him to take the chest with him, the one with the taxes in it, and wishing him well. She also left him a slender gray book called The Seven Golden Keys. She didn’t say where she’d gone.

I guess she won’t be showing me those gold beetles after all, he thought. Or her fancy stamp. Thank God he hadn’t made a pass at her.

Elaine had left behind her daughter too. Eleanor was back at her mother’s desk, just as they’d found her when they arrived, industriously documenting the habits of the bunny-pegasus in bright primary-colored pencils on official Outer Island Embassy stationery. There seemed to be an unlimited supply of it.

Quentin looked over her shoulder. The letterhead really was nice.

“Good morning, Eleanor. Do you know where your mom went?”

Quentin hadn’t spent a lot of time with little kids in his life. He mostly fell back on treating them like adults. Eleanor didn’t seem to mind.

“No,” she said lightly. She didn’t look up or stop coloring.

“Do you know when she’s coming back?”

She shook her head. What kind of mother would leave a five-year-old to take care of herself? Quentin felt sorry for Eleanor. She was a sweet, earnest little girl. She made him feel paternal, which wasn’t a feeling he had much experience with, but he was finding that he liked it. She obviously didn’t get much attention, and what she got wasn’t exactly dripping with maternal affection.

“All right. We have to go soon, but we’ll wait till she gets back.”

“You don’t have to.”

“Well, we sort of do. Are you still drawing bunny-pegasi?”


“You know, I think they might be hare-pegasi, not bunnies. Hares are bigger, and much fiercer.”

“They’re bunnies.”

The eternal question. Eleanor changed the subject.

“I made these for you.”

With some effort she pulled open a desk drawer—the humidity made it stick, and when it came unstuck it pulled out all the way and fell on the floor. She rummaged in it and took out some papers, four or five of them, and handed them to Quentin. They were heavily scribbled over in colored pencil.

“They’re passports,” she said, anticipating his question. “You need them if you want to leave Fillory.”

“Who said I’m leaving Fillory?”

“You need them if you’re leaving Fillory,” she said. “If you’re not you don’t need them. They’re just in case.”

And then more quietly: “You have to fold them in half yourself.”

She must have been copying from something official, because they were in their own way impressive documents. They had the Fillorian arms on the front, or a crude facsimile thereof. Inside Quentin’s—once you folded it in half—there was a picture of Quentin, more or less, with a big red smile and a golden crown on his head, and some squiggly lines representing writing. On the back were the arms of the Outer Island: a palm tree and a butterfly. She’d made one for each of them, even the sloth, whom she had never seen but had been extremely interested in. She must be bored stiff without any other kids around, Quentin thought. She must be practically raising herself.

He could relate. He was an only child too, and his parents had never paid much attention to him either. They considered their attitude toward parenting to be rather enlightened: they weren’t going to be the kind of couple whose lives revolved around their child. They gave him a lot of freedom and never asked him for much. Though the funny thing about never being asked for anything is that after a while you start to feel like maybe you don’t have anything worth giving.

“Thank you, Eleanor. That was very, very sweet of you.” He bent down and kissed her on her blond crown.

“It’s because you brought me cake,” she said shyly.

“I know.”

Poor moppet. Maybe when he got back to Whitespire he could start up some Fillorian equivalent of Child Social Services.

“We’ll wait till your mom comes back before we go.”

“You don’t have to.”

But he did, or he waited as long as possible. They spent the day lounging around the embassy and fishing off the dock. He made another attempt to teach Eleanor to read the palm clock-tree and was again rebuffed. Around four o’clock Quentin called it. He had Benedict take Eleanor into town—over her strident objections—to find somebody responsible to leave her with and ordered everybody else back on the freshly watered and provisioned Muntjac.

Benedict returned an hour later, haggard but victorious. They weighed anchor as the first stars appeared. Playtime was over. They set sail for Castle Whitespire.


A funny thing happened to Julia after that business with her fake social studies paper. A magic trick, you might even call it: where once there had been only one Julia, there were now two Julias, one for each set of memories. The Julia that went with the first set, the normal set, the one where she wrote the paper and went home and had dinner, did normal Julia things. She went to school. She did her homework. She played the oboe. She finally slept with James, which she’d kind of been meaning to do anyway, but for some reason had been putting off.

But there was a second, stranger Julia growing inside the first Julia, like a parasite, or a horrible tumor. At first it was tiny, the size of a bacterium, a single cell of doubt, but it divided and divided and grew and grew. This second Julia wasn’t interested in school, or the oboe, or even James particularly. James backed up the first Julia’s story, he remembered meeting her in the library, but what did that prove? Nothing. It just proved that in addition to writing her paper on intentional communities for her, they’d gotten to James.

And James bought the story, heart and soul. There was only one James.

The problem was that Julia was smart, and Julia was interested in the truth. She didn’t like inconsistencies, and she didn’t let go until they were resolved, ever. When she was five she’d wanted to know why Goofy could talk and Pluto couldn’t. How could one dog have another dog for a pet, and one be sentient and the other not? Likewise she wanted to know who the lazy fucker was who wrote her paper on intentional communities for her and used Wikipedia as a source. Granted that the answer, “the nefarious agents of a secret school for wizards in upstate New York,” was not a league-leadingly plausible answer to her question. But it was the answer that fit her memories, and those memories were getting sharper all the time.

And as they got sharper the second Julia grew stronger and stronger, and every bit of strength she gained she took away from the first Julia, who got weaker and weaker and thinner and thinner, to the point where she was practically transparent, and the parasite behind the mask of her face became almost visible.

The funny thing, or rather one of the many funny things in this haha-hilarious story, was that nobody noticed. Nobody noticed that she had less and less to say to James, or that with three weeks to go before the holiday concert she lost first chair in the oboe section of the wolfishly competitive Manhattan Conservatory Extension School Youth Orchestra, thereby forfeiting the juicy solo in Peter and the Wolf (the duck’s theme) to the demonstrably inferior Evelyn Oh, whose rendition of it did, appropriately enough, sound like a quacking fucking duck, as did everything that came out of Evelyn Oh’s quacking fucking Oh-boe.

The second Julia just wasn’t that interested in James, or in playing the oboe, or in school. So uninterested in school was she that she did something really stupid, which was to pretend she’d applied to college when really she hadn’t. She blew off every single one of her applications. Nobody noticed that either. But they’d notice in April, when brilliant overachieving Julia got into zero colleges. Second Julia had planted a ticking time bomb that was going to blow up first Julia’s life.

That was December. By March she and James were hanging by a thread. She’d dyed her hair black and painted her nails black, in order to more accurately resemble the second Julia. James initially found this sexy and goth, and he stepped up his efforts in the sex department, which wasn’t exactly a welcome side effect, but it made a break from talking to him, which was getting harder and harder. They’d never been as good a couple as they looked—he wasn’t a real bona fide nerd, just nerd-friendly, nerd-compatible, and you could only explain your Gödel, Escher, Bach references so many times before it starts to be a problem. Pretty soon he was going to figure out that she wasn’t role-playing a sexy depressed goth chick, she had actually become a sexy depressed goth chick.

And she was enjoying it. She was dipping a toe in the pool of bad behavior and finding the temperature was just right. It was fun being a problem. Julia had been very very good for a very long time, and the funny thing about that was, if you’re too good too much of the time, people start to forget about you. You’re not a problem, so people can strike you off their list of things to worry about. Nobody makes a fuss over you. They make a fuss over the bad girls. In her quiet way Second Julia was causing a bit of a fuss, for once in her life, and it felt good.

Then Quentin came to visit. The question of where Quentin had gone to after first semester was one she had an inordinate amount of trouble focusing her mind on, but the mist surrounding it was a familiar mist. She’d seen it before: it was the same mist that surrounded her lost afternoon. His cover story, that he’d left high school early to matriculate at some super-exclusive experimental college, smelled like First Julia stuff to her. Made-up stuff.

She’d always liked Quentin, basically. He was sarcastic and spookily smart and, on some level, basically a kind person who just needed a ton of therapy and maybe some mood-altering drugs. Something to selectively inhibit the voracious reuptake of serotonin that was obviously going on inside his skull 24-7. She felt bad about the fact that he was in love with her and that she found him deeply unsexy, but not that bad. Honestly, he was decent-looking, better-looking than he thought he was, but that moody boy-man Fillory shit cut like zero ice with her, and she was smart enough to know whose problem that was, and it wasn’t hers.

But when he came back in March there was something different about him, something otherworldly and glittery-eyed. He didn’t say anything, but he didn’t have to. He’d seen things. There was a smell coming off his fingers, the smell you got after they ran the really big Van de Graaff generator at the science museum. This was a man who had handled lightning.

They all went down to the boat launch on the Gowanus Canal, and she smoked cigarette after cigarette and just looked at him. And she knew: He’d gone through to the other side, and she’d been left behind.

She thought she’d seen him there, at the exam at Brakebills, in the hall with the chalk clock, with the glasses of water and the disappearing kids. Now she knew she was right. But it had been very different for him, she realized. When he walked into that room he’d buckled right down and killed that exam, because magic school? That was just the kind of thing he’d been waiting to happen to him his whole life. He practically expected that shit. He’d been wondering when it was going to show up, and when it did he was good and ready for it.

Whereas Julia had been blindsided. She had never expected anything special to just happen to her. Her plan for life was to get out there and make special things happen, which was a much more sensible plan from a probability point of view, given how unlikely it was that anything as exciting as Brakebills would ever just fall into your lap. So when she got there she had had the presence of mind to step back and make a full appraisal of exactly how weird it all was. She could have handled the math, God knew. She’d been in math classes with Quentin since they were ten years old, and anything he could do she could do just as well, backward and in high heels if necessary.

But she spent too much time looking around, trying to work it through, the implications of it. She didn’t take it at face value the way Quentin did. The uppermost thought in her mind was, why are you all sitting here doing differential geometry and generally jumping through hoops when fundamental laws of thermodynamics and Newtonian physics are being broken left and right all around you? This shit was major. The test was the last of her priorities. It was the least interesting thing in the room. Which she still stood by as the reasonable, intelligent person’s reaction to the situation.

But now Quentin was on the inside, and she was out here chainsmoking on the Gowanus boat dock with her half-orc boyfriend. Quentin had passed the test, and she’d failed. It seemed that reason and intelligence weren’t getting it done anymore. They were cutting, like, zero ice.

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