The Magician King Page 46

Most days the two groups would debrief at noon, over lunch for Pouncy’s team and breakfast for Asmo’s, who were out all night in the field most nights and got up late. Each side presented its data, and each side would feed what the other side had learned back into the next stage of its investigations. There was a certain amount of healthy competition between the two sides. Also some unhealthy competition.

“For fuck’s sake, Asmo,” Pouncy said one day in September, interrupting her mid-report. The hay fields all around the house were turning a toasted brown. “How is this getting us anywhere? If I have to hear one more word about that Golden fucking Goat I’m going to go mental. Absolutely mental. The Goat knows nothing. This whole region is just chickenshit! I would kill for something Greek. Anything. God, demigod, spirit, monster, I don’t even care what. A cyclops. There’s got to be a few of those things left. We’re practically on the Mediterranean!”

Asmodeus stared at him balefully across a table strewn with baguette crusts and smears of local jam. Her eyes looked hollow. She was wiped out from lack of sleep. A huge wasp, its legs dangling limply, airlifted from one jam smear to the next.

“No cyclops,” she said. “Sirens. I could get you a siren.”

“Sirens?” Pouncy brightened up. He banged the table with the flat of his hand. “Why didn’t you say so! That’s great!”

“They’re not Greek sirens though. They’re French. They’re half-snake, from the waist down.”

Pouncy frowned. “So like a gorgon.”

“No. Gorgons have snakes for hair. Except anyway, I don’t think gorgons are real.”

“A half-snake woman,” Julia said, “would be a lamia.”

“She would be,” Asmodeus snapped, “if she were in Greece. But we’re in France, so she’s a siren.”

“All right, but maybe she knows a lamia,” Pouncy said. “Maybe they’re related. Like cousins. You gotta think all the snake-bodied women have a network—”

“She doesn’t know a lamia.” Asmodeus put her head down on the table. “God, you have no idea what you’re asking.”

“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you, you’ve got to widen your search. I’m so sick of this cutesy Frenchy-French shit. Ever wonder why Clash of the Lutins was never a movie? The power levels around here are nothing! We can fly you to Greece, the money isn’t a problem. We can all go to Greece. But you’ve hit a wall here and you’re too stubborn to admit it.”

“You don’t know!” Asmodeus sat up, her red eyes flaming. “You don’t understand what I’m doing! You can’t just go knocking on doors like you’re taking a census. You have to build up trust. I’m running a network of agents here now. Some of these things haven’t talked to a human for centuries. The Golden Goat—”

“God!” He stuck a finger in Asmodeus’s face. “No more with the Goat!”

“Asmo’s right, Pouncy.”

All eyes turned to Julia. She could see that Pouncy had expected her to back him up. Well, she wasn’t here to play power games. If there’s one thing magic had taught her it was that power wasn’t a game.

“You’re thinking about this the wrong way. The answer isn’t wider, it’s deeper. If we start hopping around the globe cherry-picking myths and legends we’re going to burn through all our time and money and end up with nothing.”

“Well, so far we’ve got Golden fucking Goat cheese.”

“Hey now,” Failstaff said. “That stuff was perfectly edible.”

“You’re missing the point. If we go out there looking for something specific we’ll never find anything. But if we focus on someplace rich and really deep-dive it, work our way down through what’s there, we’re bound to hit something solid eventually. If there’s anything solid to hit.”

“Someplace rich. Like Greece. It’s like I was saying—”

“We don’t need to go to Greece,” Julia said. “We don’t need to go anywhere. All this stuff has to be connected at the roots. Everybody came through Provence: the Celts were here, the Romans, the Basques. The Buddhists sent missionaries. The Egyptians had colonies, and so did the Greeks, Pouncy, if you absolutely need the Greeks to get you hard. They even had Jews. Sure, it all got covered over with Christianity, but the mythology goes all the way down. If we can’t find a god in all that, there are no gods to be found.”

“So what are you saying?” Pouncy regarded her skeptically, not pleased by her display of disloyalty. “We should drop all the world religion stuff and just do local folk and myth?”

“That’s what I’m saying. That’s where our sources are. Let’s bear down on those and see what they get us.”

Pouncy pursed his lips, considering. Everyone looked at him.

“All right.” He threw up his hands. “All right! Fine. Let’s do a month just on Provençal stuff and see what it gets us.” He glared around the table. “But no more dicking around with leprechauns. Take us up the food chain, Asmo. I want to know who runs this area. Find out who all these small players are afraid of and then get that guy’s number. That’s who we want to talk to.”

Asmodeus heaved a sigh. She looked years older than she had in June.

“I’ll try,” she said. “I really will, Pouncy. But you don’t know what you’re asking.”

You’d never hear Pouncy cop to it, but Julia turned out to be right. When they narrowed their focus to the local mythology only, Project Ganymede began to get traction. Once they started looking at just one corner of the puzzle—and stuck all the rest of the pieces back in the box—everything started to fit together.

Poring through Gregory of Tours and other, nameless medieval chroniclers, Julia began to get a feel for the local magic. Like wine, Provençal magic had its own distinctive terroir. It was rich and chaotic and romantic. It was a night-magic, confabulated out of moons and silver, wine and blood, knights and fairies, wind and rivers and forests. It concerned itself with good and evil but also with the vast intermediate realm in between, the realm of mischief.

It was also mother-magic. Gradually Julia began to become aware of something, or someone, who was standing behind the old dead pages, just out of view. Julia couldn’t see her, or name her, or not yet, but she felt her. She must have been old, very old. She must have gotten here early, long before the Romans. Nothing Julia read spoke of her directly—you couldn’t look straight at her, but you knew she was there because of the small ways she perturbed the universe around her. Julia picked up on her only by triangulation, via tiny traces, little glimpses, like the curious Black Madonna figures you saw scattered around Europe, and especially around Provence. Black Madonnas were otherwise ordinary images of the Virgin Mary, but with an inexplicably dark complexion.

But she was older than the Virgin Mary, and wilder. Julia thought she must be some kind of local fertility goddess from out of the darkness of the region’s deep, preliterate past, before the cosmopolitan conquerors came in and scraped everything smooth and clean and paved it over with official homogenizing Christianity. A distant cousin of Diana or Cybele or Isis, ethnographically speaking. When the Christians arrived they would have lumped her in with Mary, but Julia thought she might still be out there on her own. She sensed the goddess looking out from behind the mask of Christian dogma, the way the second Julia had looked out from behind the mask of the first Julia.

The goddess called to Julia—Julia, who had turned her back on her own mother to save herself, and now heard about her only in oblique and infrequent e-mails from her sister, sent from the safe bosom of a small, top-flight liberal arts college in western Massachusetts. Julia remembered the grace and forgiveness with which she had been received back into her home, when she came crawling back from Chesterton. It was like nothing else she had ever experienced, before or since. It was the closest to the divine she’d ever been.

The more Julia read and cross-checked and deduced and collated, the more she was convinced her goddess was real. Nothing she longed for that ardently could fail to exist—it was like the goddess was just on the other side of all these useless words, trying to find Julia as Julia was searching for her. She wasn’t a great and grand world-ruling goddess, a Hera or a Frigga. She was more of a middleweight, a team player on a big pantheon. She wasn’t a grain-goddess like Ceres—Provence was rocky and Mediterranean, not wheat country at all. Julia’s goddess dealt in grapes and olives, the dark, intense fruit of hard, gnarled trees and vines. And she had daughters too: the dryads, ferocious defenders of the forests.

The goddess was warm, even humorous, and loving, but she had a second aspect, terrible in its bleakness: a mourning aspect that she assumed in winter, when she descended to the underworld, away from the light. There were different versions of the story. In some she grew angry at mankind and hid herself underground half the year out of rage. In some she lost one of her dryad-daughters and retired to Hades in grief. In others the goddess was fooled by some Loki-type trickster-god and bound to spend half the year hiding her warmth and fruitfulness in the underworld, against her will. But in each version her dual nature was clear. She was a goddess of darkness as well as light. A Black Madonna: the blackness of death, but also the blackness of good soil, dark with decay, which gives rise to life.

Julia wasn’t the only one to hear the call of the goddess. The others talked about her too. The Free Trader Beowulf alumni in particular, who tended not to have been the beneficiaries of world-class mothering as children, felt drawn to her. In the crypt under Chartres Cathedral there was an ancient druidical well, and nearby a famous statue of the Black Madonna that was known as Notre Dame Sous Terre. So that’s what they called the goddess, for lack of a real name: Our Lady Underground. Or sometimes, when they were being familiar, just O.L.U.

Asmo began to take Julia out on some of the nighttime raids. These were conducted in Julia’s former rental Peugeot or, in the event that they were considering extracting and transporting someone or something, a long-suffering Renault Trafic van. One night they followed a tip deep into the Camargue, the vast swampy delta of the Rhône River where it flowed into the Mediterranean: three hundred square miles of salt marshes and lagoons.

It was a two-hour drive. The Camargue was, allegedly, home to a creature called the tarasque. When Julia asked Asmodeus for details she just said, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

She was right. Having squelched through miles of rotten, boot-sucking ground, they finally tracked the thing down and chivvied it out of its hiding place in a hollow full of stunted, broken marsh pines. It faced them in the moonlight, making a miserable whuffling sound, like it had a nagging cold.

“What,” Julia said, “the fuck.”

“Holy shit,” said Failstaff.

“This is exceeding expectations,” Asmo said.

The tarasque was a beast about the size of a hippo, but with six legs. It had a scorpion tail, a kind of lion-human head with stringy long hair, and on its back a turtle shell with spikes coming out of it. It was the turtle shell that did it. It looked like Bowser from Super Mario Bros.

The tarasque crouched low to the ground, wheezing, its chin resting on a wet stump, looking up at them with its unbelievably ugly face. Its posture was not so much defensive as resigned.

“Leave it to the French to come up with the most fucked-up-est dragon ever,” Asmodeus sighed.

Once the tarasque realized they weren’t going to attack it, it began to talk. In fact they couldn’t get it to shut up. The thing didn’t need a roving strike team of folklorist-wizards, it needed a therapist. They sat there all night on tree stumps listening to it complain about how lonely and insufficiently damp it was. Not till dawn did it lumber back into its hollow.

But the tarasque turned out to be worth it. It was a champion whiner, and if they were trying to figure out who people around here were afraid of, well, it was afraid of practically everyone. They were spoiled for choice. The tarasque was too big for the small fry to pick on, but reading between the lines it was clear that it was a whipping boy for the upper ranks of mythological society. Apparently Reynard the Fox teased it a great deal, though it begged them not to mention anything about that to Reynard, for fear of reprisals. More interestingly, the tarasque was subjected to periodic beatings by a holy man of some kind who had been haunting the slopes of Mont Ventoux for the past millennium or so.

It was the tarasque’s terrifying appearance, see, that caused it to be so often misunderstood. A being of such ferocious magnificence as itself was too often assumed to be evil, and scourged and vilified should it devour even so much as six or seven village folk! That was why it had taken to spending its days wallowing in the salt bogs of the Camargue, nomming the occasional wild horse to stay alive. Why not join it? It was cool and safe here. And you know, it so rarely found anyone nice to talk to. Not like that nasty holy man. They were so much nicer than he was.

Driving back along empty predawn highways, squinting out at the flatness of the swamp through gummy eyes, they all agreed that the holy hermit sounded like a very nasty customer indeed. Exactly the kind of nasty customer they should get to know better.

A new atmosphere had settled over the house at Murs. It had always been a basic tenet there that luxury and comfort were integral parts of the magical lifestyle, not just for its own sake but as a matter of principle. As magicians—Murs magicians!—they were the secret aristocracy of the world, and Goddamn it, they were going to live like it.

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