So Quentin stabbed his own hand with a pointy stick, and stuck his palm to the stone carving. Warmth ran up his arm, arching his back. He started to scream –
And it was over, and they were inside the temple.
Which was … underwhelming. “Smells like an outhouse in here.”
“Jeez, look at all this trash.”
Julia was holding a hand over her nose, as if that would help.
“Someone’s been holed up here a while.”
“It is customary to bow, Children of Earth,” said a deep voice from the depths of the temple. Cave. Thing.
Quentin startled, turned, and bungled a curtsy. Julia managed a more straightforward bow, always graceful.
It was Ember. He was large, well over six feet tall, maybe close to seven, with massive horns on his head, curling like a ram’s, furred legs with hooves that clicked on the stone floor, and the large, overflowing gut of a god of abundance, fertility, and good harvests. Quentin had memorized the illustrations, but they didn’t quite convey the sheer presence. It was a god. An actual god. His spine quivered.
And then Ember spoke again. “Have you brought me little cakes?”
“No?” Julia said, as if asking a question.
“Uh, we didn’t really know that we were supposed to,” Quentin stammered, feeling a pang of disappointment at the question.
“Oh,” Ember sighed. “And I am so tired of eating mice.” Then he waved a hand, as if to dismiss the slight, and chuckled. “No matter. And you are?”
Quentin stepped forward. “Uh, I’m Quentin Coldwater, and this is Julia Wicker.”
“Huh,” Ember said. “Spank my cheeks. You’re usually dead by now.”
Quentin looked at Julia, who raised a brow in question.
Ember continued, “He kills you, and I’m left to hide here like an animal in horrid, arid, cake-deficient Loria, but you’re here!”
“What happened?” Quentin asked, brushing past that revelation. “What are you— what are you doing here?”
“He lured me into a trap, of course.”
“As you call him, yes. He snared me and my dear brother, Umber.”
“Wait, Umber’s a captive, too?”
“Yes, in his own temple, I presume. It’s unseemly, all of it.”
“I’m sorry,” Julia said, “I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but how could a Magician get the drop on you?”
“Fillory’s magic belongs to no one, not even a god,” Ember said defensively. “A Magician with enough determination can harness its forces and make haggis of any one of us.”
Neither really knew what to say to that. They’d come here for help, and to find that the Beast had defeated two gods of Fillory was … well, disappointing.
“So now I just wait till he is slain and I can be reunited with my dear brother,” Ember continued. “I’m so fucking bored, Children of Earth. I’ve had sex with every nymph in the kingdom.”
Quentin took a breath. “Well, we’re here to help.”
The god gave him a speculative look. “But you’re not a nymph.”
“No, I’m—” Quentin looked at this god, this literal god, standing on the other side of a temple that looked like a cave and smelled like a pigsty, and snapped. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
Ember drew himself up, demanded, “Pray pardon?”
“What are you doing here?” Quentin pressed. “You’re just going to let the Beast trample the shit out of Fillory?”
“You think that I want to be here?” Ember said, and he sounded desperate. Pathetic.
“I think you’re being kind of a whiny bitch.”
“Q,” Julia said, touching his arm. “Maybe don’t insult—”
“No,” he snapped. “Does he care or not?”
He waited, breathless – and Ember answered.
“You’re right.” Ember sighed. “Years trying to outwit him. Greatest failure, deepest shame. And now he is prepared for anything I do. It’s not I who can defeat him, not directly.”
This was what Quentin had been waiting for. “I’ll do it,” he said. “I volunteer. I’ll kill the Beast.”
Ember didn’t answer right away, and Quentin continued, “I love Fillory. I don’t know why. But I am supposed to be here, I’m supposed to fight for it.”
Ember peered at him. “Can you be the champion we’ve been waiting for?”
“I want to be,” Quentin said, sincerity and nerves equally clear in his voice. “I’m ready to be. I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Ember stepped forward, one hoof clicking on the stone floor. “You love Fillory. And you never stopped. Never stopped.” He paused, looked at Julia. “Not like this one.”
“Maybe in college,” Jules stammered, “but now I totally—”
“Yes, you see? Stopped. But you never did,” the god said, stepping forward again. One big hand came up and cupped the side of Quentin’s face. “Only the best and the purest can face the Beast, and that is you.”
“Right, okay,” Quentin said, trying not to shrink from the touch. Hotter than human skin, and the hand so large it covered the side of his face, his ear, the fingers curling around the back of his neck. “So, here’s the thing, I can’t really touch the knife that can kill the Beast.”
“Yes, you need my strength. I will infuse you with my essence.”
“Th-thank you,” Quentin stammered as Ember just looked at him, doing nothing further. “So, um, how …”
“I’ll need to bestow it, of course,” Ember said, and leered. “Do you prefer oral, or anal?”
“Your bestowal,” Julia said slowly, “is your … semen?” She glanced at Quentin, incredulous. “Seriously?”
“Yes,” Ember said cheerfully, “my Bestowal, my Largesse, the seed of my power.” He leered at Quentin again.
“Um, I,” Quentin managed, but when his mouth opened, a larger than human thumb slipped inside, pressing down against his tongue and pushing in to just touch the back of his throat. He gagged a little, trying to pull back but held effortlessly in place by Ember, whose mouth twitched into a considering moue.
“Well, not oral,” Ember said, and laughed heartily at his own joke.
If this were a television show, then the camera would cut away, fade to black, maybe the audience would laugh and a commercial would break the tension. But this wasn’t a show, and there was no camera, and so Quentin was just stuck in this terribly awkward moment. “Um. I, uh,” Quentin stammered, feeling Ember’s hand hotter than was really comfortable on his skin.
Then Julia’s hand was on his arm. “Can we discuss this for a moment? Among ourselves?”
“Very well,” Ember said, stepping back. “I’ll be waiting.”
And if his voice was almost flirtatious, Quentin did not want to think about it.
“You don’t have to do this,” Julia said as soon as they were out of earshot (though what exactly would a god’s hearing range be? For all they knew he could hear every syllable. Quentin broke into a light sweat.) “We can find another way, you can just say no,” she continued, both hands on his shoulders as if to pin him down.
“No, I can’t,” Quentin said earnestly, placing his hands over hers. “You know I can’t.” He glanced to the far side of the temple/cave, where a god waited impatiently to fuck him. “We need that knife, and if this is the price …” He shrugged, his eyebrows creasing. “I have to pay it.”
She held his gaze for a long, uncomfortable moment, then nodded. “Okay, so we’re doing this.” Her mouth slanted to one side, and she pressed her lips together. A giggle broke free anyway, and Q felt one rising to meet it, and then they were both laughing helplessly. “A god,” she sputtered.
“How is this my life?” Quentin managed between giggles, leaning into Julia’s shoulder a little.
She sobered. “Have you, um, you know …”
“Oh my god,” he snapped, “I’m not a virgin.” His chin tilted up, as if asking the heavens, “why does everyone think that?”
She nodded quickly, as if to placate him. “Okay, okay, you’re experienced.”
“But, um,” he admitted sheepishly, “it’s been awhile.”
“Clock’s ticking,” Ember called from across the cave. “So to speak.”
Julia glanced over at the god, back to Quentin. “How are you planning to do this?” she asked Ember.
“Bend this one over,” he said, gesturing to Quentin, “and pierce him on my, well, spear, shall we say. The nymphs seem to like it.”
“Um, Jules?” Quentin said, voice high with sudden panic.
She looked at his wide eyes, back to Ember. “Not a fan of foreplay?” When the god just looked confused, she nodded in a resigned fashion. “I’d better handle the prep,” she said.
“Hm?” Quentin asked, his eyes fixed on the altar like it might jump up and bite him.
“It’ll be okay,” she told him, patting his thin shoulder. “I’ve got you.” Then she asked Ember, “Do you at least have any lubricant?”
Another puzzled look, and she sighed. “Okay, magic it is.”
Somehow that cut through the white noise that had taken over Quentin’s brain. “You know sex spells?”
Julia looked just slightly shifty. “Not exactly, but Marina said this was really handy if you were in a tight spot.”
“Hedge magic?” Quentin demanded. “Oh my god, Jules, have you even tested this spell?”
“Yes!” She said instantly. “Well …”
“Well, what?” Quentin’s eyebrows went flat.
“I saw it done, once. But I definitely remember how to do it.” When Quentin still hesitated, she smacked him lightly on the arm. “It’s not like we have a lot of choice, here, Q!”
“Okay, okay.” He braced himself, shoulders drawing in as if to ward of a blow. “Do it.”
It started with Popper 39, but, nervous, he squeezed his eyes shut and didn’t see the rest, just listened to Julia’s whispered Aramaic and tried to follow along, mostly as a distraction. But his Aramaic had never been the strongest, and he caught only a few snatches, he thought, words he’d heard associated with spells for drought, or crops, or something.
He felt a strange warmth at his center, then a wetness between his thighs that made him yelp and try to lurch away. But it was as if he were bound fast, and he couldn’t move, couldn’t even squirm, as the heat intensified to a burning, and some mysterious liquid soaked right through the seat of his jeans.
Then it was done. He staggered back a step, and looked at Jules. She looked concerned, and Quentin felt his face heat and flush.
“Enough of this,” Ember boomed, “we must begin.”
If possible, Quentin flushed a little more. “Yep,” he squeaked, cleared his throat. “Good to go, here. Thanks.”
She nodded, still looking concerned. “I’ll be right here. Call if you need me.”
He should have felt shame at the idea of being on exhibition, or at least overheard, but instead he felt … safer. Comforted. “Thanks, Jules, really.”
And then it was time.
It's time for the ritual.
He walked over to the altar and started to pull off his clothes. “How do, um, should I—”
“On the altar, child of earth,” Ember said, and if his voice was full of humor it was also almost kind. “On your back, I think. I should like to see you.”
“Oh. Okay.” Quentin’s fingers plucked nervously at his shirt. Even he realized he was stalling and, taking a deep breath, yanked the shirt over his head – only getting caught briefly. By the time he’d kicked out of his trousers, he was shaking a little, anticipation and nerves zinging through his limbs and making his heart thump unevenly in his chest.
Then he was naked in front of an actual god, and he couldn’t make himself look up, hiding behind the curtain of his hair as Ember looked him over.
“Skinny little thing,” Ember said, a leer in his voice. “You’re no nymph, certainly. Still, we must make do.”
“Great,” Quentin said, flinching a little at the unflattering assessment. His shoulders hunched in a little further, and he edged toward the altar, hopping up to sit on the edge. The stone was cold beneath him. Whatever Julia’s spell had done, he could feel a slick substance sliding out of him, wetting the stone; shivering, and mortified, he kicked his feet anxiously.
“Are you certain, Quentin Makepeace Coldwater?” Ember asked, and suddenly he didn’t seem amused at all – his voice very serious, very grave.
Hearing his full name made Quentin shiver, but he firmed his spine, and said, “Yes, I am certain.”
“Then lie back, and grasp the supplicant’s ghend.”
The unfamiliar word startled Quentin slightly, but he looked at the altar and saw roughly where his hands would be, if stretched above his head, a set of carved metallic handles. “Oh,” he said nervously. “So I, uh, just, hold on?”
“You must not release the ghend until you have received and absorbed my bestowal, little one.”
Quentin nodded again. “I understand,” he murmured, and, heart skipping in his chest, laid back on the cold stone.
He flinched when his skin touched stone, reached up to grasp the handles, the metal cold at first under his hands but warming quickly at his touch. This left him stretched out across the altar, his arms up above his head in a posture that was comfortable enough, for now. His legs were drawn in, self-consciously.
One of Ember’s big hands touched his knee, and, gulping air, he let his knees fall open, feeling so exposed and suddenly vulnerable that it seemed hard to breathe.
“Be calm, little one,” Ember said, gripping Quentin’s knee a little more firmly. “This might surprise you.”
The god stepped closer, the click of his hooves on stone something Quentin thought might be burned into his brain, and he stared fixedly up at the rough ceiling of the cave, feeling the scratch of fur against his thighs. He shuddered, and a big hand pet his thigh, almost soothingly. Another hand moved lower, hot fingers moving through the slick pouring from his loosened hole.
His skin was sensitive, shockingly so, and a bolt of pleasure went through him at the lightest touch. He gasped, and his thighs relaxed, falling open more naturally. His cock jumped, and a flush crawled up his chest. “What?” he huffed, looking at Ember but having to look away, unable to meet the god’s eyes.
Ember chuckled, a bass rumble that vibrated through Quentin in a surprisingly pleasurable fashion. He shivered, and one large finger slipped into his hole, square and blunt, as if testing something, probing, and Quentin’s hips shifted restlessly.
He was still feeling that anxious pain in his stomach, but above that he was feeling … excited as the finger slid out.
Then Ember pressed the blunt head of his cock to Quentin’s hole. Quentin’s spine went sort of liquid and stiff at the same time, and then Ember slid in with one, well, god-like thrust, shoving a sound like a wail out of Quentin’s throat.
“Q?” Julia called from the other room. “Are you okay?”
“Mm, yeah!” he called, fighting the urge to release the ghend and fist his suddenly aching cock. “Real good, thanks!”
Then Ember was thrusting, and it felt, god, he’d never known anything could feel this good.
It was like … a feeling of fullness, as he was stretched open and he’d never really enjoyed that feeling before, he’d tried bottoming rarely and the last time the other boy had been too impatient for any real prep and it had been more hasty and slightly painful but this. Ember was stroking his prostate with every movement, his cock hotter than seemed normal but it felt unbelievably good, and thanks to Julia’s spell there was no pain, just the never-ending slick and the delicious feeling of being filled. It lifted his hips into each thrust, his back arching, his hands white-knuckle tight around the ghend. He was moaning almost continuously, feeling too much pleasure to be self-conscious about it, desperate to come but also really not wanting this to ever stop.
The thrusts got a little stronger. He braced himself to meet them, and there was something odd about the feeling now, like the god was getting bigger.
“What?” he managed, and Ember, not at all out of breath, said, “Oh, that’s my knot forming. To keep the bestowal in place.”
“To—” A thrust cut him off, and he could feel it now, a bulb in the long shaft that the god was forcing in. It dragged at his rim coming out, and this still didn’t hurt but sent sparks through his limbs and curled his toes.
Ember was really thrusting now, and without his hold on Quentin’s hips, Quentin would have been sent sliding across the sweat-slick stone, his own exhausted arms no match for the god’s strength. A few of these powerful thrusts, then the knot wouldn’t come back out, Ember tugging a couple of times before sighing, just a little, and pumping Quentin full of divine come.
Hot jets of it, scalding Quentin’s insides, and he squirmed a little on the knot, not sure if he was imagining the feeling of being filled, warmth spreading through him. But it kept coming; there was a twisting and cramping in his guts, and he looked down to see his lower abdomen bulging out just a little, his cock desperate and weeping just beyond. His head spun. Just how much did Ember think he needed?!
He made a noise, not of protest exactly, but Ember shushed him anyway, patting his hip as one might soothe an anxious pet. “You’ll get all you require, little one.”
After a few more moments, Ember stopped moving. The knot in his cock held them together. Quentin looked down the length of his body, panting, sweating, at the literal god tied to him like they were … animals, a dog mounting his bitch. And Quentin still hadn’t come.
His hips moved in sad, restless little circles, and he whined.
“Hush, Quentin Coldwater,” Ember said sternly. “This is not about your pleasure.”
“Sorry,” he panted, trying to keep himself still. He couldn’t keep himself from clenching around the knot, shivering with the intensity of the feeling – but apparently that was acceptable, and Ember didn’t chide him again. They just waited in silence, Quentin trying to slow his breathing.
The sweat began to dry on his skin, prickling and sending chills through him. The place where he was joined to Ember was the warmest place on his body, sheltered by the god’s fur and warmed by the unnaturally (supernaturally?) hot seed.
He wasn’t sure, but he thought the bulge in his belly might be shrinking as time passed. The semen was … absorbing. If he’d been able to see himself, he would have seen the light flash in his eyes, the power sinking into him. He couldn’t, but he felt a surge rush through him, power stiffening his spine and banging his head on the altar beneath him in one great spasm.
“There,” Ember said, his voice sort of more wholesome and hearty for Quentin’s liking, considering what they’d been doing. “It is done.”
He didn’t pull out, though. Quentin squirmed just a little. He was still mostly hard, but starting to calm down, and because of that starting to feel self-consciousness creep over him. Reminding him how exposed he was, how vulnerable. A different kind of shiver wracked him.
“Can I, uh,” Quentin tried to ask.
“You have only to decide, little one, whether you would like my aid in retaining this gift.”
Part of him wanted to sigh, to demand what now. But he held onto the impulse, and asked, “Would it last without, um, assistance?”
“Not for long, I fear.”
“Then yes, please.”
“And you shall have it, and more.” Ember pulled out then, a quick tug and a sense of loss, sudden emptiness, and some liquid slipped out with him even though Quentin tried to clench down. He wasn’t sure, but he seemed to be a little too loose to really close. A shiver of fear went through him. Would he ever be the same? Had he been ruined?
Ember pressed something into him, hard and cold. He shuddered at the feeling as his rim closed around a thinner base, realizing it was a plug.
“Come, Quentin,” Ember said. “Dress yourself, and go forth to do battle.”
When Quentin finally released the ghend, his hands were stiff, aching with how hard he’d been gripping the metal handholds. He sat up gingerly, eased his underwear and jeans over his half-hard cock. The seam pressed the plug a little further into his ass, sending a jolt of pleasure through him. He shivered lightly, wished he could have cleaned off before getting dressed, but pulled on his shirts anyway.
Once he was done, Julia rushed in, as if a barrier had been removed, and pulled him into her arms, ignoring the overwhelming scent of sex and the bulge in his pants.
“Are you okay?” she asked, pressing her cheek against his damp hair.
“Yeah, Jules,” he said, returning the hug tentatively. “I’m okay.” He pulled back a little, caught her gaze. “I have it.”
She took a relieved breath.
“As this is our final chance,” Ember said, “I shall also give you this.”
And he handed Quentin a glass vial, stoppered with cork, containing a pearlescent substance that seemed to glimmer in the candle light.
“What, uh,” Quentin began to ask.
“More of my bestowal,” Ember said, very self-satisfied. “In case you run low.”
“You mean I could have just—”
Ember waved a hand before he could finish the thought, and they were outside.
The sudden change was dizzying, and Quentin staggered a little. Julia caught him, and held him up until he found his footing.
“So was that—”
“Just to get his jollies off?” Feeling worn out, used, and still half-hard, Quentin glared at the vial.
“Maybe it’s not as powerful this way?” Julia suggested, taking the vial and turning it so that the bestowal shimmered.
Quentin sighed. “We should get back to the others.” He shifted uncomfortably, the plug pressing against his rim. “I’m not sure how long I can keep this in.”
“Right,” Julia said, looking uncomfortable. “Well, um, the spell sort of cleaned you out,” she explained delicately, “so that bought us some time.”
Quentin grabbed his messenger bag and threw it over one shoulder. “Can we not talk about it?”
“Sure, Q.” She patted his shoulder once, and then started toward the road.
They reunite with the others, and plan how to move forward.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
He followed a little more slowly, his gait hampered – but also reluctant to explain this to the others. Julia realized he was lagging after just a few steps, and dropped back to wind her arm through his. They walked together in silence for a few miles, Quentin resenting every step, sticky and increasingly sore.
“Maybe you should try a spell,” Julia suggested after his latest wince. “If you’re powered up, it would be good to know by how much.”
“If?” His eyebrows crumpled with alarm. “If that was all for nothing …”
“That’s not what I meant,” Julia soothed. “Sorry. I was just thinking we should … confirm, um, things. And I know a great spell for, um, hygiene.”
“Oh my god,” Quentin said, stopping in his tracks. “You’re saying that I smell.” He paused, voice getting a little more outraged. “Like sex?”
Her shoulders hunched defensively, holding in a laugh. “No! Q, no, I’m uh,” she faltered. “Okay, yes, there’s … an odor.”
“Oh my god,” Quentin said again, outraged. “You, I can’t believe, I.” He sighed, chin tilting up. “What’s the spell?”
She covered her mouth, but her eyes were crinkled at the corners, and he looked at her laughing at him, as she had so many times before, and felt the painful throb of his old love for her in the center of his chest. It was a familiar pain, one hardly worth noticing anymore.
It took her a few moments, but she calmed down before his unamused face, and showed him the spell. He copied her movements, and felt it move over him like a quick wind, ruffling his clothes and leaving him feeling clean. Cleaner than clean. Like he’d had a full spa day, not that he knew what happened on spa days but that’s all he could compare it to.
“Wow,” he said, once the feeling stopped.
“Damn, Q,” she said, looking at him. “It even did your hair.”
“What did it do to my hair?” he asked, feeling it with panicked hands.
She laughed at him again. “No, nothing, it just…” she paused, smiled more genuinely. “It looks really good.”
“Oh,” he said, still patting the strands, clean and dry at least. “Thanks.”
“Well, that wasn’t much of a test,” she acknowledged as they continued walking, “but that was a lot more effective than I’ve ever seen it be.”
“Now that I don’t smell,” he said pitifully, “can I lean on you? A bit? This is really starting to hurt.”
“Yeah, of course.” She put a shoulder under his arm, and helped him limp down the road. “You don’t do a lot of assplay, huh?”
“God, Jules,” he muttered, glanced at her. She arched a brow at him, and a sheepish smile creased his face. “No, fine. Not a lot.”
“That’s what I thought, Coldwater,” she said, pulling a laugh out of him.
She’d always known how to make him smile.
Of course, when they did get back to the others, Penny ruined any good mood he’d managed to retain. As soon as they entered the knife-maker’s home, Penny’s head snapped up, and a look crossed his face that Quentin couldn’t read (he couldn’t read any expression that crossed Penny’s face, which was part of why their relationship remained so prickly).
“Are you serious right now?” Penny said, staring at him. “You whored yourself out for some god semen?”
Quentin’s eyebrows flew up. “Penny, shut up!”
“Woah,” Eliot said, looking up from where he’d been talking to a small bull dog wearing an Elizabethan ruff. “Really?”
Alice, behind him, looked … hurt. A pang went through Quentin, and he opened his mouth to explain.
But Julia got there first, as she often did. “It was the price, he paid it, can we move on?”
“What, like, literally?” Margo was asking curiously, but Alice nodded, and Eliot, still looking at Quentin oddly, slowly nodded his agreement as well, and Julia swept them past that particular rock.
As they were discussing what to do with Quentin’s powered up magic, Penny edged closer, until he was standing next to Quentin, who squinted at him from the corner of his eyes, willing him to keep quiet.
It was ineffective. “Just lie back and think of Fillory, huh?” Penny asked, waggling an eyebrow at him.
“Just shut up, Penny,” Quentin muttered, pointedly not looking at him.
“Kinky little nerd,” Penny said, and left, and Quentin realized of course he knew about the butt plug, and flushed a deep red.
“Why is this my life?” he asked himself.
“So, the dungeon?” Julia asked, mostly as a distraction from the curious glances at Quentin, who was huddling in on himself the more he caught onto the others’ curiosity.
“Roaring success,” Margo said dryly, “and a twofer.”
“Sorry?” Quentin asked.
“We should see if he’s awake,” Alice said, and started toward the other room.
Quentin followed slowly, but as soon as he saw the gray-haired man on the bed, he gasped. “Oh my god, that’s Christopher Plover.”
“We were wrong about everything.”
“Plover’s not the Beast?”
“No,” Quentin said, frowning as he put it together, “Martin Chatwin is.”
They interrogated Plover, who wasn’t the Beast but who surely had created him. Though, Quentin couldn’t help but think that he’d seen Martin and hadn’t helped him, not that he could have helped a ghost; Fillory had taken Martin and then hadn’t helped him, had banished him; then Quentin and Julia had told Martin that Plover would become even more powerful and terrifying.
If the Watcher Woman had inspired Jane to become her, how much more inspiring would a pedophilic Magician be to his terrified young victim? Yes, Plover had created the Beast, in what he’d done to Martin – but Quentin couldn’t help but think that he’d had a hand in it.
They decided to stake out the well, where Martin Chatwin would have to return eventually, and confront him there.
As they were waiting together, Quentin pulled the vial of Ember’s semen out of his bag, and stared at it thoughtfully. Sure, he could pick up the knife, now, but none of the others could. And that started to feel like a very bad idea.
“What are you thinking, Q?” Julia asked, sidling up next to him. She leaned into his shoulder, and he pressed back against her, feeling the familiar comfort of her presence. Julia had always been smarter than him, she would know what to do.
“I just don’t think it’s a good idea to leave everything to me,” he said, voice small. “I’m … god, Jules, you know how badly I’ve always wanted this. But …” he paused, looked out the window at the small square of Fillory he could see from the window seat. “What if that’s what caused us to fail all the other times? Counting on me?”
“Hey,” Julia said, touching his arm. “You aren’t going to screw this up.”
“But what if I do?” His eyebrows creased, and she brushed his hair back from his face. “What if I screw this up, and get us all killed, and that’s it? No more time loops, no more do-overs, Jules, this is it.”
She frowned, thinking. “Do you think he remembers the loops?”
“Is he that powerful?” Quentin said. “Probably.”
“So he might be expecting to face you.” She looked at him carefully. “How would you feel about being bait?”
He nodded. “That’s kind of what I was thinking. Keep his attention on me, then someone else knifes him from behind.”
“Sneaky,” Eliot said, clearly having overheard at least the end of their conversation as he swanned in, sitting down on Quentin’s other side. “I like sneaky.” His arm went around Quentin’s shoulders, and he leaned into Eliot’s warmth for a moment, before remembering that he’d been mad at Eliot, and stiffening.
Eliot drew back, and while Quentin felt a pang of regret, he just hunched in on himself a little.
Julia glanced between them for a moment, confused, before obviously deciding to let it go. “Anyway, I think it’s a great plan. Who should drink the jizz?”
“Penny’s another obvious threat,” Quentin said, thinking out loud. “Martin is already gunning for him.”
“I suppose I’m not the best choice,” Eliot said, his voice low but painfully honest. “I haven’t been making the best decisions, lately.”
Quentin winced, and, unable to keep punishing the other boy for his own mistake, put a hand on Eliot’s shoulder. “Hey, you’re … doing your best?”
Quentin was terrible at this.
Eliot chuckled a little, but didn’t bat away his hand. “Margo would eviscerate him.”
“He might know that about her.”
“I’m usually dead by now,” Julia said slowly. “Isn’t that what Ember said?”
“Yeah,” Quentin said. “He said he was surprised you’d made it this far.”
“So he might not know what to expect from me,” she posited, sitting forward.
Quentin perked up. “No, you’re right. He knows too much about the rest of us.” He looked at her. “It has to be you.”
“Yay,” she said weakly, staring at the vial.
Part of Quentin expected Eliot to object – he’d been the most vocal against hedge witches in general, and Julia specifically. Especially after Quentin’s brush with death, or, well, eternal coma anyway. But Eliot had seemed to take Quentin at his word, when he’d said that he and Julia had worked things out.
So Eliot only asked, “What if we give it to two people?” He glanced between them. “How much do you need to get, you know, powered up?”
“Really not clear on that,” Quentin said with a resentful grimace. “Gallons, apparently.”
“Ew,” Eliot said, but in a fascinated way. He looked Quentin over. “So you … and Ember. You really.”
“Yes,” Quentin snapped, “yes, Penny was right, do we have to talk about it?”
“No, of course not.” Eliot sighed. “It’s just … the cost to save Fillory: one straight marriage, and one deflowering. Seems like we took the wrong roles, is all.”
“Hey,” Quentin said, looking at him. “I’m, um, I’m sorry. That I couldn’t do that for you.”
“Same, I suppose,” Eliot said, managing a small smile.
Quentin shrugged. “It was, um, fine. Well. Pretty good, actually.”
“Very good, judging by the sounds,” Julia said mischievously, and Quentin felt that damn blush creeping back into his face.
“Jules,” he protested.
“No, tell me more,” Eliot said, leaning forward to look at her around Quentin’s body. “This was not our dear Q’s first time?”
“Of course not, jesus,” Quentin said, slightly offended Eliot could assume that after their threesome. “I, really, I’m not a virgin, guys.”
They were both laughing at him now. “We know,” Julia said, smiling. He had to smile back, feeling not made fun of so much as enfolded in their sudden laughter, and, forgetting, leaned against Eliot’s shoulder.
Eliot wrapped a tentative arm around him. “Sore?” he asked in a knowing voice.
Quentin blushed lightly, not pulling away. “It’s not too bad.” If Penny hadn’t spilled the truth about how Quentin was holding on to the god’s blessing, and if Julia was keeping her mouth shut, then Quentin didn’t want to give it away himself.
“Anyway,” Julia said pointedly, “maybe Eliot has a point. I could drink half, and then see if I can hold the knife.”
“Or even less,” Quentin said. “I mean, if everyone could be powered up …”
“Okay,” Julia said, taking a deep breath. “Let’s do this.”
They gathered the others, the knife, and the vial, and explained their new plan. Margo and Alice agreed readily, though not about Julia’s involvement.
“She’s not one of us,” Alice said, staring at Julia resentfully. “She’s not even properly trained.”
“Successfully petitioned a god,” Julia returned cockily. “Who else here can say that? Oh, yeah, just me and Q.”
She put her hand up for a high five, and Quentin obliged, awkwardly.
“That was just sad,” Penny scoffed, and wandered off.
“Shut up,” Margo said, grabbing the vial. “Let’s do this.”
She took a sip, and everyone watched her with bated breath. The very air seemed to pick up the tension.
“Anything?” Eliot asked, touching her shoulder.
She sagged a little. “Nothing.”
“So a sip won’t do it,” Alice said clinically.
“Jules,” Quentin said, “you should go next, just in case.”
“Right,” she said, taking the vial from Margo. “Any other objections?”
Alice glared, but said nothing, and Julia took three large gulps of Ember’s seed. She lowered the vial with a shudder, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “That is nasty.”
“Well?” Margo pressed. “Are you powered up yet?”
As she said it, Julia stiffened slightly, and a flash of green light, like a small star, lit her eyes.
“Woah,” Quentin said, rocking back on his heels.
“Right,” Alice said, grabbing the vial from Julia’s lax grip and chugging the remainder.
“Oh my god,” Margo said, “did you just bogart the rest?”
Alice’s eyes flashed, as well, and she huffed, setting the empty vial on the table. “It wouldn’t have lasted, not for another person.”
“You don’t know that for sure!” Margo said. “That was a shitty test, nothing between a sip and half the remainder?”
“It’s done,” Quentin snapped. “It doesn’t matter.” He looked around at his friends, tension curled up in him like a living thing.
“Q’s right,” Eliot said, a sigh in his voice. “We should probably get going.”
Thank you guys so much for commenting! I'm going a little out on a limb with this one, so it's good to know that other people are enjoying it as well. ^_^
They confront the Beast. Will the changes make any difference?
Penny had been getting special Traveler tattoos from Virginia, or so they thought. Turns out, she’d finished hours ago, and in the meantime she and Josh had taken a few things and fled back to Brakebills, leaving only a facile and craven note. This was discovered when Alice went to get Penny, finding him standing over the bed Josh had been using, the note in his hand.
“Those little shits ran out on us,” Penny said as they strode back into the main room.
“I guess it doesn’t matter anymore,” Quentin said. “You can get us there, right?”
“Yeah,” Penny said, flexing his hands, the tattoos fresh and stinging.
“Are we ready?” Alice asked, looking around at the others.
Julia adjusted the knife in her inner coat pocket, where it was secure, and hidden from view, and nodded. “I’m ready.”
“We all know the plan,” Eliot said, taking a breath. “Let’s do this.”
“I for one am eager to get this over with,” Margo said, taking his hand.
Quentin slipped his hand into Julia’s, Margo taking his other side. Penny stepped between Alice and Eliot, and then they were all joined in a circle, and Penny said, “Hold on,” and the world blinked out.
They arrived in a clearing, among a densely wooded forest, to see a rather insignificant looking little shack.
“That’s the wellspring?” Quentin asked, letting go of Julia and Margo’s hands.
“It’s a truck stop shithouse,” Margo said, disdainfully, and Quentin had to admit that she was right. This was such a letdown.
“We should hurry,” Alice said, looking around. “He could be here any minute.”
The others agreed, and so they filed inside.
It was bigger on the inside (like the TARDIS, part of Quentin thought gleefully), and they moved further into the space as Penny said, “What the fuck?” and Eliot noticed, “It’s Plover’s study.”
“All that power,” Quentin said sadly, “and he can’t stop thinking about where it happened.”
Margo pushed past him, muttering, “Fillory needs meds way more than magic.”
They moved about the small room, searching. “So where’s the actual wellspring?” Alice asked, sounding frustrated.
Eliot was looking in the safe, where he’d found the pictures in Plover’s actual writing room. Margo pulled at the books on the shelves, as if one might contain the trigger to a hidden room. Julia found a small door off to the side, and poked her head in, while Penny milled about the room almost aimlessly, looking at the mundane objects but seeing no point in touching them.
Quentin just stood there, staring at the room. This room, that had produced the books that had saved his life but also so much horror that he’d been killed thirty-nine times trying to stop it. All from one place. And that poor little boy … It was hard to hate the monster he’d become, having seen what had happened to him. “Poor Martin,” Quentin murmured, almost to himself.
Alice was staring at something on the floor, something that hadn’t been present in the actual writing room, the one still in England. Quentin looked down, saw the wooden circle, carved with symbols and runes, and started toward it.
He heard the soft fluttering of moths.
It was too late. Martin was there.
He strode in through the door, face covered by the mass of moths, and Quentin and Alice backed away, Eliot and Margo pressing themselves against the book shelves, Penny moving behind the desk to stand near them.
“Quentin,” said a low, resonant voice that emerged eerily from the cloud of moths.
“Hi, Martin,” Quentin said, though his heart was hammering in his chest. “We know it’s you.”
The Beast made a considering noise, and waved one six-fingered hand. The cloud of moths dissipated, the moths themselves fluttering about the room and then vanishing into the ether, revealing the handsome face of a fairly distinguished man in his late forties or early fifties.
Quentin blinked, a little surprised, some part of him expecting, in accord with fairy tale logic, the deformed face of a monster. But of course, that wasn’t how morality worked. Evil didn’t tend to show on the face, and Martin’s pleasant smile clearly concealed the empty core of him.
Martin stepped forward, and they all flinched back a little bit. He smiled. “Well,” he said pleasantly, “you made it a good long way this time around. But this is it, Quentin.”
Quentin swallowed, glanced nervously around the room. His friends seemed frozen, and in desperation, he said, “I know you’re still in there.” He gestured at the form the wellspring had taken around them. “Look at this. You still feel, you’re still hurt,” he said, and, his own outrage surfacing, continued, “and you should be, after what happened to you.”
In a way, Quentin felt kinship with Martin. Plover had destroyed his own childhood, in a way, in destroying Martin’s. Everything was tainted, and Quentin wished there had been some kind of justice for the boy, before he’d become the monster.
But instead of reaching Martin, his words only seemed to amuse him. “Oh, Quentin,” he said, taking another step forward. “Always so sentimental.” Quentin’s back hit the wall, and he realized he’d been retreating the whole time only when he had nowhere else to go. Alice had peeled off and joined the others behind the simulacra of Plover’s desk, as if that would protect them.
He realized he’d lost track of Julia, and his eyes darted about the small space, searching for her.
But Martin was still approaching. “Although, must say, most wouldn’t walk to certain death forty times in a row.” And then he was there, right in front of Quentin, the closest he’d been since blinding Dean Fogg, chuckling. “You’re no quitter.”
Quentin flung out some battle magic – but while he cut Martin, it wasn’t very deeply, and Martin blinked, then shrugged it off, and stepped forward. Moving easily, like the blow hadn’t even landed.
Quentin pressed himself against the wall, but he was stuck, there was nowhere to retreat to, and Martin’s too-large hand was around his throat. He leaned in, too close, and sniffed. Quentin quailed, but couldn’t move in Martin’s grasp.
“Powered up, I see,” Martin said, that smooth, plummy voice raising the hairs on the back of Quentin’s neck. Then his hand started to tighten, and Quentin felt pressure growing in his head, at his temples, gasped for breath and tried to claw at Martin’s arm with both hands. “How are you at casting with no voice,” Martin taunted, not seeming to even feel Quentin’s efforts.
Alice was powered up, too, and Quentin cast a desperate glance toward her, saw Eliot and Margo both trying to ready spells, Penny shifting as if to leap forward – and Martin waved a single hand, tossing all four against the bookshelves to writhe helplessly against some unseen force.
That massive hand, its too many fingers, tightened around Quentin’s throat and something made a popping sound, and Quentin gasped for air only to receive none. The corners of the room seemed to darken, and Quentin flailed, hit Martin’s arm once, again, to no effect. One of his feet kicked out involuntarily, and everything started to feel distant, and all he could see was Martin’s easy grin and avaricious eyes.
Then Martin stiffened. His hand twitched around Quentin’s neck, and Quentin felt something crunch as Martin straightened, his eyes going wide and unfocused – and as Quentin watched something strange moved in Martin’s neck.
The tip of the Leo blade emerged through the flesh of his throat.
There was a splatter of blood, and Martin’s hand loosened. Quentin fell to the floor, hard, and started coughing raggedly.
He looked up through streaming eyes, and saw Martin sagging to his knees, something slow and almost flabby about the movement, and Julia was standing over him, her hand still on the hilt of the knife buried in the back of his neck like she was controlling the fall.
And then Martin’s body was on the floor. Julia stood over him, the knife in her hand slick with black blood. Martin’s body was still, so still. Quentin thought he might be dead.
It was over.
They deal with the aftermath.
Yesterday's chapter was kind of short, so early update!
Eliot rushed over first, touching Quentin’s shoulder. “Are you alright?”
Quentin was rubbing at his throat, still coughing, but nodded. “Yeah, yeah, is he?”
“He’s dead, alright,” Margo said, standing over Julia where she knelt by Martin’s body.
“So we did it,” Alice said, sounding almost disappointed. “It’s over.”
“It’s finally over,” Quentin said, then his voice dissolved into coughing again, and Eliot passed him his flask. Quentin took it with shaking hands, and the stinging liquor actually seemed to soothe the ache in his throat.
It was an ache that faded quickly. After a moment, Quentin stood, and Julia raised a brow at him. “God powers,” he said, shrugging. “I guess we’re harder to kill, at least for now.” He rubbed his throat again, reflexively, to find it almost completely healed.
“That’s lucky,” Jules said, sheathing the knife. “So, what next?”
“What should we do with the body?” Penny said, very practically.
“And where’s the wellspring?” Alice said, moving back to the odd glyphs in the middle of the floor. “In here?”
The others joined her to look down at the circle of graven wood. “It’s like a manhole cover,” Margo observed.
“And a powerful lock,” Alice said, kneeling down to run her hand just over the surface, not touching, but sensing the magics in it. “There’s a piece missing, here,” she said, pointing to the small indent in the center of the piece.
“Oh,” Quentin said, looking around, “I saw something like that.” There had been a dish of odds and ends on the desk, and he plucked the small orb from it with quick fingers. “Here,” he said, tossing it to Alice.
She placed the orb carefully in the void in the puzzle’s center, and the whole thing clicked, and moved, and with a number of ratcheting, clanking sounds the lock opened.
They stood in a circle over the hole, looking down into the wellspring.
“It’s not what I imagined,” Quentin said slowly.
The wellspring was a deep cavern, from which ripples of blue light emanated and scattered about the room, lighting their faces and undulating all along the walls and ceiling. A feeling came off it, like a cool wind but somehow more, and they all basked in it.
“It seems kind of low,” Alice noted, looking down at the blue substance critically.
“It should begin to replenish itself,” Quentin explained, remembering a detail from the books.
“I knew he was drinking from it every day,” Eliot said, sounding stunned, “but to think he almost drained it dry …”
“Q’s right,” Julia said, touching his shoulder. “It should start to recover, now that Martin’s gone.”
“I still can’t believe it was him, this whole time,” Quentin said sadly.
Julia gripped his shoulder a little more firmly. “I know,” she said.
“Do we need to do anything?” Margo asked, standing. “I want to get out of here, this place gives me the creeps.”
“Ugh, same,” Penny said, from where he was lurking over by the bookshelves.
“Let’s lock this up and head back to my father in law’s,” Eliot suggested, standing and rubbing his hands together.
Alice moved reluctantly, but didn’t say anything as they closed the cover and Quentin pocketed the locking mechanism. He stood, still rubbing absently at his neck. “What should we do with the body?” he asked the others, echoing Penny’s earlier question, not looking over to where Martin lay.
“I’m the high king, aren’t I?” Eliot said, flicking a glare that way. “We can just send someone.”
“Oh, um, not until after you get crowned,” Quentin reminded him.
“Ugh, right, those douches wouldn’t let us on the coach without our crowns,” Margo said, then nudged Eliot’s side. “I do get a crown, right?”
“Of course, Bambi,” he murmured.
“And they won’t let us into Castle Whitespire without them, either,” Quentin continued, his pedantic instincts forcing him to complete the thought.
“Yeah, man, we got it,” Penny snapped, stepping forward. “So where do we get the crowns?”
“There’s a special crowning place,” Julia started.
And Quentin finished, “Just past the rainbow bridge.”
Eliot gasped. “Where family pets go when they die?”
Quentin blinked at him, stymied. “No, um, I don’t think so?” He looked at Julia, who shook her head. “No, nothing to do with that. It’s a bridge that’s covered in flowers.”
“Oh,” Eliot said, sounding disappointed.
“So, if we get the crowns, we can go to Castle Whitespire and get this mess cleaned up,” Margo said, recapping for them. “Great, let’s do it.”
“Where’s this bridge?” Penny asked.
“Oh, well, I’m not sure,” Quentin admitted.
“We might have to ask someone,” Julia said, shrugging.
“Perhaps we should reconvene at wifey’s,” Eliot suggested again, “and think about this a little more.”
“That’s easy enough,” Penny said, stepping forward with both hands held out. They formed a quick circle, rather practiced at it now, and Penny traveled them back to the blacksmith’s home.
Fen was rounding the corner of the house as they appeared, and when she saw them, she dropped the basket she was carrying. “You’re alive!” she yelled, running to them.
“Yay,” Eliot said, accepting her hug with equanimity.
“And the Beast?” she asked, pulling back.
“Dead,” Quentin affirmed, lowering his messenger bag wearily.
“Oh, thank Umber,” she said, hugging Eliot again. “We’re saved.”
“Got anything to eat?” Penny asked.
“Oh, yes, of course,” Fen said, and dashed back inside.
“I suppose we should talk about the crowns,” Eliot began, sitting at a table underneath a tree.
They all exchanged glances, as calculations and desires became almost visible in the close air of the room. Quentin watched the others’ faces anxiously. Josh and Victoria had fled in the night, so there was less competition than there had been. He’d been so sure he would be High King – to not be a king at all would be devastating.
Penny spoke first. “I’m gonna go look for Kady,” he said. “Good luck, or whatever.”
“Wait,” Alice said before he could vanish. “I want to come with you.”
“Alice,” Quentin objected.
“What?” she demanded. “We’re not … friends, Quentin. None of us would have even known each other if not for the need to defeat the Beast.” She tossed her hair, the familiar gesture cutting through Quentin’s chest. “I was never into Fillory. I don’t, I don’t love this place, not like you. I just want to go figure out my life.”
“But, Alice, please.”
“Penny, take me with you?” She turned to him, eyes pleading.
“Wait, can’t we talk about this?”
“If I can’t go with him,” Alice said, her voice getting a little lower, “I’ll just steal the button later.”
“Alice,” he said softly.
“No, Quentin,” she snapped, glaring at him. “I’m still angry at you and I want …” She took a deep breath. “I want some time. Away. From all of you.”
And she glared at Margo and Eliot.
Quentin could almost see the light bulb go off over Julia’s head. “Oh my god, Q,” she said slowly, looking at all three of them. “Did you?”
He nodded, miserably.
She laughed approvingly. “You are such a slut!”
“Not helping,” he ground out, seeing Alice twitch slightly.
She glanced at Alice, then. “Right, sorry.”
Alice didn’t say anything. She didn’t need to.
Penny spoke, as if to break the tension. “I’ll, uh, check back in later, guys.” And he grabbed Alice’s hand, and they were gone.
Quentin’s outstretched hand fell to his side, and he breathed, a little amazed that he could.
“High Queen, though, right?” Margo asked Eliot, and Quentin laughed weakly. Alice hated him now, but he still had his friends. He wasn’t alone.
“I should have gone with them,” Julia said, sending Quentin’s mood plummeting again.
“I have my mission,” she said, just a little apologetic. “I have to seek out a new form of magic.”
“What does that look like, exactly?” Eliot asked dryly.
“That’s a good point,” Quentin said, a little desperately. The quest was over, they had won – and they were all leaving him, as fast as they could. “Maybe Our Lady Underground wants you to be here, you don’t know yet.” She looked skeptical, and he pressed on. “Fillory is magic, Jules – if there’s a new kind, maybe it’s here.”
Julia looked slightly conflicted, and she glanced at Margo and Eliot – who hadn’t exactly been welcoming earlier, and Quentin began to realize the problem. “It’s not going to be awkward, right, guys?” he prodded them. “Julia would make a great queen of Fillory.”
Margo looked stubborn for a moment, before sighing. “If Quentin’s really okay with what you did, then I guess I can’t hold a grudge.”
“I am,” Quentin said quickly.
Eliot looked at her for a moment longer. Julia didn’t say anything in her own defense, or point out how she had changed – just lifted her chin and met his gaze steadily. In the end, Eliot looked away first. “I suppose I’m out-voted.”
“Not technically a democracy,” Quentin had to point out.
“Not right now, Q,” Eliot said, turning away. “Let’s just go.”
“So you’ll stay?” Quentin asked Jules once they were alone.
“It is what we dreamed about when we were nine,” she said, voice filling with a suppressed glee. Then, though, her expression fell. “If I have to leave for this quest, though…”
“Then have Castle Whitespire to come back to,” he said, grabbing her hand. “Jules, I don’t think we can do this without you.” He took a breath. “I can’t.”
She returned his grip fiercely. “Hey, I’m here with you.” She smiled. “I got your back, Q.”
They turned to follow the others, and Quentin winced.
“Maybe, uh, can we take a time-out first?” he asked, leaning into Julia’s side.
“What is it?” Julia asked, concerned. “Did you get hurt in the fight?”
“No, it’s …” He felt a blush crawling up his cheeks. “Ember’s … blessing, it’s.”
“Oh my god,” she said, blushing with him. “Right. I forgot … You, uh. I’ll delay the others. You … take care of that.”
“Right, thanks.” He looked at her for a moment. “Really, Jules. Thanks.”
She smiled, a thin pressing of her lips, and he waved awkwardly before limping to the nearest room with a lockable door.
The kings and queens go get their crowns.
Added warning for humiliation in this one.
Only he couldn’t get it out.
After what felt like a half hour of trying, his hand and shoulder sore from the awkward angle, Quentin pulled his jeans back on, gingerly, and shuffled back out into the main room where the others were waiting. Feeling exposed, Quentin said, “Jules?” in a small voice.
She looked up at him, and her eyes widened. “Q, no.” She shook her head. “No, I can’t.”
He pressed his lips together, eyebrows crumpling. He looked at the others. “Um, El? Can I, uh, talk to you? For a minute?”
One of Eliot’s brows went up in an elegant question, and, like they were back at Brakebills, Quentin grabbed his hand and pulled him into the other room and, like they were back at Brakebills, Eliot let him.
Once they were back in the room, door safely locked, Eliot looked at him. Waiting. Quentin wanted to pace back and forth, but he was too sore for that, his hands grasping at nothing as the nerves ran through him. After a moment, Eliot prompted him gently. “Well?”
“It’s, um.” He looked at Eliot, who had mostly been a really good friend to him, and who hadn’t really ruined his life, Quentin had done that himself, and he needed to just get over it and acknowledge that Eliot and Margo had been hurting, too, and they’d tried to comfort each other. And Eliot hadn’t been the one cheating. Quentin had. Quentin gulped a breath, and decided to trust his friend. “Ember’s gift, it, uh.” The nerves got the better of him, and he tried pacing anyway, limping a few steps past the bed. “It needed a way to stay, um, in.”
Eliot was watching him, and a look of sudden realization crossed his face. “You’re talking about a butt plug.”
Quentin flushed miserably. “Yeah.”
“Well, what’s the problem? Why do I need to know?” Eliot leaned back. “Not that I’m objecting, mind. The image is fairly hot.”
Quentin looked down, mumbling, “I can’t get it out.”
“I can’t get it out,” he said more clearly.
Eliot looked like he might laugh for a moment, and Quentin tried to brace himself for it – but then Eliot frowned. “How long has that been in?”
“Since, um, you know.”
Both of Eliot’s eyebrows flew up. “That’s not safe, Q.”
“I know!” Quentin crossed his arms defensively over his belly. “Believe me, I know.”
“So you need me to …” Eliot said, trailing off delicately, his hand making a gesture Quentin couldn’t decipher.
Quentin figured he’d gotten the gist of it, and nodded.
“Right.” Eliot seemed to consider that for a moment. “Right. Okay. No problem.” He stood, took off his jacket, sat back down, stood back up again. “We should, hm.”
“Eliot?” Quentin asked, his voice getting higher. He’d been so sure Eliot would know what to do that seeing him panic was making Quentin panic.
“No, it’s okay,” Eliot said. “I’ve got this.” He closed his eyes for a moment, and when they opened, he looked calmer, and ready. “Okay, pants off, bend over the edge of the bed.”
Quentin looked at the bed, suddenly apprehensive. Of course he’d known his pants would have to come off, but he hadn’t really understood the reality of it. Eliot’s seen you naked before, he had to remind himself. Somehow that didn’t help.
Heart pattering, he lowered his trousers and underwear, unable to look at Eliot as he did, and therefore missing that Eliot was politely turned away, giving him some modicum of privacy. His breaths were rapid and unsteady as he bared himself, pressing his belly to the mattress, his face into the scratchy coverlet.
Eliot put a warm hand on his lower back, comforting. “Hey, it’s okay, Q.” He rubbed Quentin’s back gently. “I’ve got you.”
Quentin shivered at the touch, tangling his fingers in his hair and trying to make himself relax. “I know, I know,” he panted, tugging at his hair. “I’m just, uh, I trust you, El, I do.”
Eliot’s hand moved lower, and he nudged Quentin’s thighs apart with a gentle touch. “Ohh, this is.” He paused.
“What?” Quentin asked, slightly alarmed. “Is it. Can you get it?”
“Yeah, yes, of course,” Eliot said, and Quentin wasn’t sure if his tone was believable. “It’s just an odd shape. I can see why you were having trouble.”
“Okay, so, you can. Just, uh.”
That hand rubbed at his lower back, steadying, and the other slid between Quentin’s cheeks, grasping the base of the thing. “One big tug, okay?”
“Okay,” Quentin muttered, trying to crowd all the tension up in his shoulders while relaxing everything lower down. “Okay, go.”
Eliot pressed down on his lower back a bit more firmly, and Quentin could feel his clever fingers working to get a better hold. He shivered again, and Eliot made some small sound, and pulled.
The base tugged uncomfortably at Quentin’s sore rim. He tensed, huffed out a breath and forced himself to relax. Eliot pulled a little harder and the thing popped out of him. It was followed by a gush of fluid and, mortified, Quentin hid his head under his folded arms.
“It’s okay,” Eliot said, very matter-of-fact, tossing the plug to the other side of the bed. “Come on, get cleaned up, and we’ll go.”
“Okay,” Quentin said weakly, the sound barely audible from where he was hiding.
Eliot patted his back one last time, and then Quentin felt the bed move as Eliot got up. The door closed behind him, and only then did Quentin feel able to move, to sit up and find a cloth to sop up some of the viscous liquid. He realized it must be Ember’s semen leaking out of him, and grimaced. “That’s going to stain,” he muttered to himself as he pulled up his jeans, resigned now to the steady stream of humiliation that was his life.
It felt good, though, to be free of that damn plug. Quentin tried a few steps, found that he felt strangely empty, but also able to walk. It was a trade-off, he supposed.
They started their journey to the rainbow bridge in this way, with Quentin walking in the back because he was self-conscious about the god’s sperm that was slowly soaking through his jeans, hopefully disguised by the black denim, the others clearly exhausted but excited about being crowned. Eliot led the way, since it was his spell leading them to the bridge. Margo walked just behind him, slowed slightly by her shoes.
After a while, Julia dropped back to walk with Quentin, who let her, feeling squirmy and self-conscious – but then Julia knew what had happened and what must be happening now, and he just couldn’t see any point in trying to hide it from her.
“What do you think a new kind of magic would be like?” Julia asked, offering a distraction.
He took it, gratefully. “Well, what do we know about the system we use?”
“Magic is something we use, not something we are,” Julia said thoughtfully, breaking it down. “It has an external source.”
“Like the wellspring,” Quentin added.
“Right,” she said. “And we draw on it. Maybe I’m supposed to find a new source of magic?”
“Maybe,” Quentin said thoughtfully. “What did she say, exactly? A new source, or a new kind?”
“Hm, kind.” Julia frowned. “Maybe it’s the fact that we draw on a source. Is there a magic that’s intrinsic to the user?”
“Well, what gods have,” Quentin said, attention drawn to the humiliating wetness between his legs. “But that’s probably not, uh.”
“Right,” Julia laughed. “Probably not. But maybe we’re on the right track.”
Speculation took them as far as the bridge, when all thoughts of future quests were knocked right out of Quentin’s head by awe.
Spanning a massive gorge, the rainbow bridge was a riot of color against the deep green of the forest, blues and pinks and reds, and colors Quentin couldn’t name, and as they crossed it he could see for miles, like all of Fillory was spread out beneath them and in spite of everything, in spite of losing Alice and being fucked by a god (and not even getting to come, he was a little bitter, he’d admit it), seeing it all like this made him feel a swelling bubble of happiness in his chest.
“This is it,” Quentin murmured, looking out at the deep forests and the distant mountains. “This is it.”
“Yeah it is,” Julia said, smiling at him, her real smile, and he felt himself smiling back helplessly.
“Come on,” Margo groaned. “Can we just get crowned so I can get into the stupid castle and get a bath?”
Quentin didn’t say anything, but he thought that he would also quite like a bath. The cleansing spell had really been something, but without the plug he was feeling … damp, and grimy, and he wanted to scrub at his skin with hot water and soap until this feeling went away.
Eliot laughed, passing a hand over his eyes. “Priorities,” he sang, and stepped toward the other side of the bridge.
“Well, you heard the woman,” Julia said, raising a brow. “Let’s go.”
Quentin looked out over the sprawling land he’d read about and dreamed about, and felt that surge of love for it all over again. “Yeah,” he said, smiling. “Let’s go be kings.”
“And queens!” Margo said, striding ahead with all the confidence she carried in her tiny body.
Beyond the bridge was a trail that led them down to the edge of the water, an expansive bend in the river that formed something Quentin almost identified as a lake. Mist rose off it, and out of the mist jutted mounded, craggy rocks – Quentin wouldn’t have been surprised if one had moved, and a turtle’s head had popped up out of the water to reveal the mossy islands as merely protuberances of its shell. The whole land had an air like that, of whimsy, and he found himself half-expecting strange, magical things to happen.
On the rocky beach by the still water was a ring of stones, carved to look like ram’s heads, and on the far side of that ring rested the figure of an ancient knight, crumpled against one of the rocks, quite dusty.
“Did we come too late?” Quentin wondered. “Is he dead?”
They all hesitated just outside the circle, none seeming to want to be the first to disturb what might be this knight’s final resting place. Finally Margo huffed a sigh, and stepped into the circle. “Let’s get this over with.”
The knight’s body jerked, and jackknifed upright with a wheeze, causing them all to jump. “Oh my god,” Quentin said, putting one hand over his heart as if to still it.
“Are these claimants to the throne?” the knight wheezed, standing in a cloud of dust. “Have you come to meet the challenge?”
“Challenge?” Julia asked, apprehensively. “I don’t remember that from the books.”
“Welcome,” the man said, as if she hadn’t spoken. “I am the Knight of Crowns” (he bowed) “will the royal aspirants approach?”
Eliot stepped forward. “I’m the high king.” He paused, shrugged. “I took a blood test.”
“Excellent!” The knight said heartily. “Then the test should be easy. Answer these questions and prove that you are, indeed, children of earth.”
“Okay,” Eliot said, bracing himself. “Come at me.”
Quentin anxiously fiddled with the straps of his messenger bag. He didn’t like running across things that hadn’t been explained in the books, and, not for the first time since finding out the truth, cursed Christopher Plover.
Julia put a hand on his arm. “It’ll be okay, Q,” she said.
Then the knight asked his first question: “What is the famous American sitcom starring Tim Daly?”
Everyone paused, startled.
“There were kind of a lot,” Quentin muttered.
“Next question?” Eliot asked.
“Very well. What hit song is performed by the offspring of entertainers?”
“That’s super vague,” Margo complained.
“I can give you one clue,” the knight offered. “The Beach Boys.”
“Oh, ‘Hold On’ by Wilson Philips!” Margo said. When the others looked at her, she said, without shame, “That song is my jam.”
Quentin suddenly realized what was happening. “The tv show, that was Wings. Tim Daly starred in Wings.”
“Why are all these questions about pop culture from the 90s?” Julia asked.
“Is it no longer the 1990s?” The knight asked.
“No,” Quentin said, shifting. “It’s 2017.”
“Wait, 90s,” Eliot said consideringly. “Ask me something about Patrick Swayze.”
The knight seemed astonished. “You know of Swayze?”
And then Eliot stripped out of his camel hair coat and his scarf, grabbed Margo’s hand, and performed the entire ending monologue from Dirty Dancing.
“Holy shit,” Julia muttered in Quentin’s ear.
“Uh huh,” he breathed, staring at his friend, remembering the fact that they had slept together in a slightly different light.
The remainder of the crowning ceremony.
Some dialogue pulled from the show, some repurposed.
Eliot’s performance certainly proved their familiarity with Earth culture, and the knight bowed before him as high king, and gestured to a carved wooden box. “The crowns are yours,” he said, bowing again.
Eliot strode forward with renewed confidence, and flipped open the lid of the carved box. The crowns were inside, four of them; Quentin took a step forward, mouth falling open a little. It was the crowns of Fillory, and they were about to become royalty, holy shit.
Eliot picked one up, and turned to face them, holding it in his hands. It was an odd crown, black and set with rocks rather than jewels – or at least that’s what it looked like. Quentin couldn’t quite figure the crown out; just like he couldn’t quite read the look on Eliot’s face. “So I guess we just put ‘em on,” Eliot said, and started raising the crown toward his own head.
Nerves quivered up his spine, and he shouted, “No, stop!”
“What now?” Eliot asked, and Quentin understood, they were all exhausted and everyone wanted to just get this over with and get to the castle, but.
“I just … We’re, we should have some kind of ceremony,” Quentin said. Eliot sighed. He looked at Quentin, tilted his head to one side. Quentin pushed forward. “We’re about to become kings and queens of Fillory,” he urged. “It, just, this only happens once. We should treat it like it matters.”
He stepped forward, and glanced up at Eliot, who was looking at him with the strangest look – sort of a smirk, but there was something unmistakably fond in it.
Quentin smiled back, irrepressibly nervous. “Hand over the crown,” he said, biting his lower lip.
Eliot gave him an indulgent look, and handed him the crown. It was heavy in Quentin’s hands, the stones smooth with age. He looked at Eliot, and said, “Kneel, Eliot Waugh.”
Eliot rolled his eyes, but when he knelt down, there was a slightly eager look in them, like maybe he was excited about this too. He knelt easily, on one knee, his back as straight as a knight’s.
Quentin, meanwhile, could barely contain himself. “So, destiny is, it’s bullshit, but you are high king in your blood,” he started, raising his eyebrows dramatically, “and somehow that makes sense! And for what it’s worth,” he continued, softening, “I think you are going to be a really good king.”
Eliot smiled at that, softer, and more sincere.
“So, um, I dub thee, um, I dunno, would you say you’re more brave or merciful?”
“I’d say neither,” Eliot said gravely, “but I still plan on being a spectacular monarch.”
Quentin couldn’t help smiling at him then. “I dub thee High King Eliot, the spectacular.”
He placed the crown on Eliot’s head, and beamed down at him. Eliot blinked, and said, as seriously, “This is as natural as underwear.” He reached up, and Quentin offered both hands; Eliot took them, clasping Quentin’s hands gently in his, and stood. Then he looked down at Quentin, and quietly said, “Thank you.”
Quentin nodded, and retreated so that Margo could have her turn.
She hurried forward, as if still worried someone else might snatch High Queen away from her, and knelt gracefully before Eliot, who lifted the golden crown from the box. It was more elaborately carved like vines and leaves, and set with precious stones shaped like berries.
“By the power invested in my by whatever,” Eliot said, and took a beat. “I dub thee High Queen Margo, the Destroyer.” He set the crown on her head, and clarified, “I mean that in the best possible sense,” and helped her to her feet. She was grinning, and he held her there for a moment, suddenly sincere. “I have known what you truly are since the day we met. Long may you reign,” he said, and leaned down to gently kiss her forehead. When she walked back over to the others, her eyes were a little bright.
Julia went next. Eliot took up the queen’s silver crown for her, an elegantly simple thing. She knelt, and Quentin thought she looked nervous. Eliot was silent for a moment, just long enough that Quentin started to worry. Then he spoke.
“I don’t know you very well,” he said, speaking slowly. “For a long time I, well, I hated you. For what you did to Q.”
Quentin felt a pang at that – at the reminder of what she’d done, at Eliot’s declaration that any enmity was for his sake, at his desire to put Julia’s mistake behind them so he could have his friend back.
It seemed like Julia was feeling some of the same shit. Her eyes were shiny, too, and she said, “I get that.”
Quentin wanted to say something, but he wasn’t sure what to say, and then it was too late.
Eliot continued, “Well, I didn’t have to be an asshole about the hedge bitch thing.”
Both of her eyebrows came up, and he shrugged. “You’ve proven yourself to be a great magician, wherever you trained, and I should have been more … accepting, I guess.” He paused, looked down. “I have some … character defects I’m working on.”
“I, uh, guess I’m working on some, too,” Julia said softly, and nodded. “Thank you, that means a lot.”
“Okay, now that that’s out of the way,” Eliot said, sniffing, “I dub thee Queen Julia, the Seeker of Magic.”
He settled the crown on her head, and it suited her, it really did. She stood and shared a gleeful look with Quentin, and they traded places.
He was shaking a little with anticipation as Eliot picked up the last crown, rougher and simpler than Julia’s but still silver, when Margo said, “No, wait,” and Quentin froze, thinking for a second that this might be taken away from him. But then she continued, “If we’re cleaning slates and shit, I should …” she sighed, reached for the last crown. “Gimme.”
And then she stood before him, looking up at him and he could barely hold himself together. This was the most exciting thing to ever happen to him, and he was vibrating out of his skin.
“I could start by saying something cruel, yet totally hilarious about you,” she began, all her usual sass on display. “Let’s be real, you’re an easy target.” Then she seemed to get a little more serious. “But that’s because you’re honest about what you love, and underneath it all that’s inspiring.”
Quentin had to press his lips together against a sudden surge of emotion.
“And I’m sorry, too,” she continued. “Not about the sex, but mostly my part in fucking up something that was good for you.”
He had an immensely painful moment of wishing that Alice were there with them. “Thanks,” he said hoarsely, “but I think I fucked it up just fine myself.” He sniffed, and refocused on Margo. “It was never your fault. Or El’s, I shouldn’t have said that.”
Over Margo’s shoulder, Eliot nodded to him. Apology accepted.
Margo cleared her throat, and if anyone accused her of being teary-eyed she’d probably just deny it. “Now that we’re ruling a kingdom together, I hope we can go back to being whatever we were again.”
“I guess you’d call that friends?”
“Let’s go with that!” she said, smiling. “I hereby crown you King Quentin, the moderately socially maladjusted.” He vibrated, waiting for the crown, and she wrinkled her nose at him. “Scrunch down!”
He knelt hastily, and she rested the crown on his head, not centered as he had Eliot’s but set farther back like a tiara. He didn’t fucking care, it was a crown! Of Fillory! He stood, looked at his dearest friends in the world, and said, “Royalty, bitches!”
Julia grinned at him, and laughed, and then they were all hugging. The Knight of Crowns looked on, approvingly, and they could hear Fillorian birds in the distance. It was everything Quentin had ever wanted.
They make it to Castle Whitespire, and Quentin, Margo and Eliot figure out a way around that marriage spell.
With the crowns they had access to the Royal Coaches, and consequently arrived at Castle Whitespire just before dark, still euphoric from the crowning ceremony, but exhausted from the battle with the Beast, and really from the weeks of preparation and stress leading up to it.
Piling out of the coach with the others, Quentin stared up at the spires, gently turning and glittering in the slanted evening light. He was really excited to see the castle he’d only read about, but also by the prospect of a hot meal, a warm bath, and a lot of sleep.
Julia slipped her arm through the crook of his elbow as he stumbled, taking a bit of his weight. “I could eat a horse,” she said, tucking herself into his side.
“Jules,” he protested, “I’m pretty sure the horses can understand you!”
“Oh.” She looked at them, saw their back-slanted ears. “Sorry, I just meant I was really hungry.” One of the horses snorted, and she winced.
“It’s just a saying,” Quentin tried to explain, before giving up. “Let’s just … go in,” he sighed.
They followed Eliot and Margo up the grand entry stairs and through the gates, the great doors, into the entry hall, Quentin craning his neck to take it all in. “Jules,” he breathed.
“I know,” she squealed, squeezing his arm. “Fillory, Q, we’re really here!”
Eliot seemed to be having a less-thrilled reaction, greeted by Fen who appeared seemingly out of nowhere, clad in much finer garb, shimmering robes of peach and lavender. Quentin couldn’t help but notice, slightly resentfully, that she’d had a bath since they’d last seen her.
“You’ve arrived, my king,” she burbled, grabbing Eliot’s arm. “This is your counselor, Tick Pickwick, he leads your council,” she explained, gesturing to a short, stout man in rich silk robes, who was smiling nervously.
“Welcome to Castle Whitespire, your majesties,” Tick said. He seemed slightly smarmy, and Quentin shared a wary glance with Jules. “There are several pressing issues we should discuss, sire, including aggression on our northern border—”
“Oh, Loria,” Quentin said, perking up.
“Yes, sire, exactly.” Tick smiled, and accepted a pile of maps from a slightly taller, slightly thinner man. “There is also the matter of the throne room, which has been locked for some time, we are looking for the key …”
“Not tonight,” Eliot said, rather abruptly, holding up a hand to cut Tick off. “We have just defeated the Beast –”
“Oh, congratulations, sire.”
“—thank you. And we require food, and rest.”
“And a bath,” Quentin added quickly.
“Yes, and baths.” Eliot paused, tilting his head. “And someone to clean up a couple of bodies.”
“Right away, your majesties,” Tick said, graciously enough. He snapped his fingers, and several servants stepped forward. “Shall we start with food?”
“Yes, please,” Julia said, tugging Quentin forward a step.
“A couple of bodies?” Quentin asked faintly.
“Plover died,” Margo said simply, not looking at him.
“Right, without the spells he wouldn’t have lasted long,” Quentin said, frowning. He didn’t know quite how he felt about it, and rubbed his chest as if to settle his heart.
“You okay?” Julia asked him while Eliot gave Tick directions to the well spring, and Fen helped him give directions back to her father’s house.
“Yeah,” he reassured her, “just tired and, you know, hungry, and, um, sticky.”
“Right,” she said, a smirk creeping onto her face. “That bath you’ve been wanting.”
“Jules,” he whined, but really he was grateful for the distraction.
Tick finished speaking with Eliot and bustled off to carry out his orders, just as another servant arrived, and said, “There is a light repast laid out in the south tea room, right this way.”
“Yesss,” Julia hissed, nails digging into Quentin’s arm.
“That sounds really good,” Quentin admitted, as badly as he wanted to get clean.
“C’mon, you two,” Margo said, looking back at them. “We deserve this.”
It was the first gesture she had really made toward Julia, who brightened, then glanced at Quentin. He nodded, and they bounded up the stairs together, grinning, to grab Margo’s arms. She yelped, but then laughed, and let them drag her after Eliot.
They stumbled into the tea room, breathless with laughter, to see not so much a repast but a feast. A long table, laden with whole roasted chickens, loaves of fresh bread still steaming lightly in the brisk evening air, platters of fruits gleaming like jewels, vegetables roasted until browned and crisped at the edges, bottles of wine, red and white and other, more unfamiliar colors, and desserts like little fantasies.
“Wow,” Julia said, dropping Margo’s arm and walking forward.
Eliot was already eating, his long legs proving an advantage again. Fen was at his side, watching him somewhat nervously as he tore through one of the roast chickens with just his fingers.
Quentin missed a step, and Margo, arm still linked in his, caught him before he fell, and fixed him with a concerned glare. “Are you sure you’re alright?” she asked him.
“Just tired, Margo,” he said, trying to smile for her. She glared at him for a moment more, but when he didn’t crack and admit to some injury or ailment, she huffed, and started to the table, pulling him with her.
Julia had claimed an entire loaf of bread, and was cramming too-large pieces in her mouth and washing them down with big gulps of wine. She wordlessly passed Quentin a second loaf.
He took it and sat down across from her on the long benches that framed the table. Margo was also eating at a fast clip, though much more neatly than Eliot or Julia could manage just now. Quentin picked at his bread, managing a small bit. His stomach was still tight, leftover nerves, and he took a little of the chicken from El only when he insisted.
They ate until sleepy, stuffed and sticky, and drank until pleasantly drunk, slowly unwinding together as the sun set and the soft night air crept in through the latticed windows.
Fen wandered off to bed somewhere in there, not used to Physical Kids shenanigans, or even Julia’s Columbia-driven dedication to partying.
Quentin was still picking at the food, slower than the others, but just as aware of his need for sustenance. He couldn’t call it hunger, exactly – his stomach was too tender and tight for that – and this was familiar, he knew this feeling from finals week and the trials at Brakebills, and the combination of Ember’s ritual and killing the Beast had killed any appetite he might have managed.
But his friends all knew this about him, too. For probably the first time in his life, he was alone in a room with only people who knew him, really saw him, and who knew how to help him.
“One more, what is this, a pear?” Eliot asked, passing him the slightly oblong fruit.
“I really am getting full, guys,” he said, taking the fruit anyway.
“That’s what she said,” Jules muttered under her breath, then burst into giggles.
“Oh my god, that’s right,” Margo said, sitting up. “You fucked a god!”
They were both flushed with wine, eyes bright and glittering, and Quentin froze. “I thought we weren’t talking about that.”
“We didn’t have time earlier,” Margo drawled, something oddly lascivious about her tone. “But we do now, Coldwater, speak!” She gestured with her goblet, and wine splashed out, making her giggle.
“Mm, yes, do tell,” Eliot murmured, leaning closer. “You said it was … enjoyable.”
Quentin thought he might die of blushing, somehow made even worse by all the wine he’d had. Julia mouthed, ‘sorry,’ then ducked her head, hiding in her own goblet.
“Uh, I don’t … I don’t know what to say,” he muttered. His head was spinning, and it had been pleasant but was becoming less so. “I mean, it was a ritual, so.”
“So?” Margo pressed. “Details, Q!”
“Well, um, Ember … did me, for one.”
“We knew that,” she scoffed.
She was the only one in the room who didn’t know about the butt plug, though. He looked at Eliot nervously, and, looking serious for a moment, Eliot took his hand.
Quentin shivered at the feeling of Eliot’s long fingers, holding his. “Well, I didn’t even get to come,” he blurted out.
Then blushed, because even drunk, he was still Quentin Coldwater.
“Well, that’s a crying shame,” Margo purred, leaning her cheek on her hand.
He looked down, convinced that she was making fun of him, and hating himself for caring so much that it hurt.
But then Eliot’s hand reached up to grab the back of his neck in a half-remembered grip, and Quentin shivered.
“A real shame,” Eliot said, and he pulled Quentin into a kiss.
His mouth was warm, and his tongue slid against Quentin’s in a way that made him melt against Eliot’s long torso. “El,” he whispered, clutching at Eliot’s shoulders, his head spinning now with more than wine.
“I’ll, um, see you guys tomorrow,” Julia said, and Quentin pulled back, looking at her worriedly. She smiled. “Hey, it’s okay. You kids have fun.”
And she left.
Quentin turned back to Eliot, biting his lower lip. “We can’t actually do anything,” he whispered. “The marriage spell …”
“No, but we can,” Margo said, wrapping her arms around him and biting his ear lobe.
Quentin’s eyes rolled back, and he gasped. Margo had straddled the bench behind him, and her breasts were pressed to his back, her hands sliding down his chest toward the waistband of his jeans.
And he was hard again, as if his erection had never subsided. Eliot smiled at him reassuringly, running his fingers through Quentin’s long hair to grasp again at the back of his neck, Margo nibbling at the other side. Her legs bracketed his, pressed so tightly against him that he could feel pressure turning the residual soreness into something pleasurable, and Eliot kissed him again. Margo’s small, strong hand found his erection, and he moaned into Eliot’s mouth, holding onto his vest for dear life as she began stroking him.
It seemed like there were hands everywhere, Eliot’s other hand on his side, thumb rubbing at his nipple, Margo playing with his hair. She got a grip in it, and pulled his head back, using a hank of his hair like a handle. He groaned, going with it as El moved down to bite the line of his throat and Margo pulled him into a wet, open-mouthed kiss, rougher than Eliot had been, and he realized that she was grinding against him in the same rhythm as her hand was jerking him, and that was so hot that he came, hard, lights bursting behind his eyes.
It was electric, and when it was done he sagged in their grip, eyes sagging shut.
“Is he falling asleep on us?” Margo asked, outraged.
But he was already sinking into the dark.
He woke briefly when strong arms lifted him, again when he was placed on a bed, moving instinctively to burrow into soft blankets. Each time Eliot shushed him, and he fell back asleep.
A warm cloth was run over his skin, and he moaned at the feeling, shifting restlessly against cool linen sheets. Warm bodies tumbled into bed, jostling him. He made a small, grumbling protest, and those strong arms encircled him again, and he burrowed into them, felt a smaller body curl up against his back, and real sleep finally came.
At some point Jules crawled in with them. There was some grumbling, and a flailing arm smacked Quentin across the face and he woke, so briefly, whined. Jules’ voice, so familiar, said, “Shh, couldn’t sleep,” and she tucked herself against Quentin’s side like they were still kids, Margo clambering over all of them to El’s other side, using her knees somewhat vindictively.
But they were all together, and they were all warm, and they fell asleep again quickly.
Quentin learns about Fillory's political unrest the hard way.
Quentin woke wrapped in multiple pairs of arms, and it felt so right that he panicked.
Kicking off the blankets tangled around his feet, he levered himself up, then knee-walked awkwardly to the end of the bed, hoping to escape without disturbing the others. As he stood, he saw Jules rolling into the depression his body had left, curling around his abandoned pillow. Quentin felt a pang at that.
Next to her, Eliot stirred. His hazel eyes blinked open slowly, and Quentin was frozen, caught.
Eliot pushed himself up on one elbow. “What’re you doing, Q?”
“Um, bathroom?” he lied, though it wasn’t a lie exactly; he was dying for a piss, too much wine pressing on his bladder.
“Through there, I think,” Eliot said, waving a hand toward an alcove and turning over to resettle himself.
He looked really comfortable, and Quentin fled.
The bathroom was odd, very Fillorian in ways they hadn’t really thought about. The toilet was a hole in a polished wooden board – he peeked beneath, and saw a stream of running water. “That would do it,” he muttered to himself, unbuttoning his jeans – really regretting that he’d slept in them, now. The button and zipper had left red marks on his skin, deep impressions that actually hurt, and Ember’s spunk that had leaked out of him without the butt plug had dried, stiff and crusty. He couldn’t help but notice that someone had cleaned him up, but he had to wonder why whoever it was hadn’t bothered pulling his jeans off.
This was all an excellent distraction from the panic.
He was shaking slightly. He’d done it again. He’d gotten drunk and slept with his best friend in the world, and a gorgeous woman, out of his league, who didn’t even like him. She put up with him at best, mocked him constantly, and the fact that she’d had sex with him twice now out of pity didn’t help his sudden sense of humiliated despair.
Everyone else had left, and here he was doing his best to screw up the relationships he had left.
He couldn’t get his breathing to slow down, and he tugged at his hair reflexively. It was a little greasy, and he remembered he’d never gotten his bath. He managed a couple of breaths, and looked at the silvered mirror set in the wall above a pitcher and bowl. It didn’t provide a clear reflection, not like a modern Earth mirror, but he could see himself, and he could still recognize himself, and he stared into his own eyes and just breathed.
After he’d calmed himself down, he raked both hands through his hair, re-buttoned his crusty jeans, and went looking for someone who could get him a damned bath.
He moved through the room on quiet feet, idly wondering where his oxfords were. Now that he was awake, he took in more of the room they’d slept in. It was taller than he’d really expected, two stories at least, with high windows that sent bright shafts of light cascading over the raised bed. Eliot, Margo and Jules were still curled around each other, and part of him wanted to crawl back in with them and sleep for a few more hours.
Instead, he poked his head out of the tall wooden door, and, seeing a pair of guards, stepped outside. He closed the door behind him, somewhat awkwardly, remaining pressed against it.
“Hey, uh, guys,” he started.
“Yes, your majesty?” one of the guards asked, shifting slightly so that his halberd swayed. Quentin watched it moving, mesmerized.
“Um,” he stuttered, pulling his attention away from the shiny weapon, “I could use a bath? A hot bath, can we do that?”
“Of course, your majesty, we can call for your steward.”
“Steward, right, could you, um, do that, then?” Quentin asked, then retreated back into the room. His heart was fluttering in his chest, and he so badly wanted to get back into bed. This should be fine, this should be easy, he was a king of Fillory, those were his guards, he could give them orders, that was how this royalty thing worked.
None of that fixed his anxiety, though.
There was a sort of entryway to the king’s rooms, a vestibule, and Quentin paced there until a shorter, stout man dressed in velvet and mufti entered with a deferential nod. “Your majesty,” the man said, “I am Peat, the high king’s steward. May I prepare the baths and a meal for the queens and kings?”
“Yes, please, and you can just call me Quentin, it’s fine.”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly do that, King Quentin, it would be against protocol.”
“Right …” Quentin wilted.
“After your majesties are … refreshed, there is the council meeting, a lunch with the ambassadors from Loria and from the Floaters, and in the afternoon your majesties are scheduled to hear petitions from several village leaders.”
The stream of information hit Quentin like a hammer. He’d really just wanted a bath. “Right, good, can, uh, can you tell the others? And I’ll just, um, where are the baths?”
The steward seemed to soften a touch, and said, “Follow me, King Quentin, and I’ll come back for their majesties.”
Peat led him out of the tower to what seemed like the bowels of the castle to a vast, cave-like room filled with steam and extensive pools of clear water. Quentin stared in awe. “This is amazing!”
“Yes, sire, the royal baths are available only to the kings and queens of Fillory.” He didn’t sound terribly jealous. “There are oils and unguents in these cabinets,” he said, pointing, “and fresh linens in these.”
“Thank you, Peat,” Quentin said, already unbuttoning his shirt.
The pools started quite shallow, and wading deeper he found currents and eddies, indicating either magical or spring-fed currents, and hopefully the continual influx of fresh water. Toward the center, chin-deep, it was almost too warm to bear, and he drifted back toward the edge, making a note to warn the others about the temperature gradient.
--but then a figure lunged up out of the water with a massive splash. Quentin flinched, but the man got a length of wire around his throat and pulled it taut.
Quentin bucked, his mouth gaping open, hands scrabbling at the wire. It was just too thin to get any kind of a grip, and he tried to cast – but a hand grabbed his wrist and wrenched his arm behind his back. Pain beat at his temples, and he gasped again.
But then the man pulled on the wire, hard, and Quentin knew no more.
Only that wasn’t quite true.
There was blackness. It seemed infinite, and there was a sensation of floating.
Then there was screaming, and flashes of light. Hands on him, and he flailed, only to spark more screaming.
The others were there. He was floating, still in the bathing pool. Jules was holding his head above water, and she looked scared, and angry.
Margo was screaming curses. Eliot was killing someone.
Kneeling beside the pool, Eliot had both hands working at a strangulation charm, invisible lines of force around the man’s throat.
“He’s not dead!” Jules yelled, and Quentin realized she’d yelled this before, this is what he’d been hearing. He tried to say something, but a sharp pain in his throat reduced the attempt to a squeak. Jules shushed him. “Eliot! Margo?”
“Don’t look at me,” Margo growled. “I want this bastard’s head on a spike.”
Just then there was a surprisingly loud pop, and the man fell limply to the ground.
Quentin tried to right himself, flailed, splashing him and Jules. She shushed him again, and he glared up at her and shushed her back.
She paused, actually looked at him. “How’re you feeling?”
“Like shit,” he croaked – and started choking. She finally helped him up, and he hacked up whatever water he’d swallowed. “What the hell?”
“God power,” she said simply. “I guess you’re still hard to kill.”
He felt his throat gingerly. “Oh my god, that guy tried to kill me,” he finally realized.
“No,” Eliot said, voice oddly flat, “he did kill you.”
“I was … dead?”
“As a doornail, babe,” Margo drawled – and he almost thought she looked a little sad about that.
“You healed up on your own,” Julia said, “just like before.”
Quentin rubbed his throat again, gently. It already felt a lot better. “I just wish people would stop strangling me,” he said to the universe in general.
Jules pet his hair.
“What I want to know,” Eliot said, voice still detached but in a way that seemed to cover some deep feeling, “is how the fuck an assassin got into the royal baths.”
“Guard!” Margo called; when nothing happened, she started for the door. “Apparently Fillorian security is for shit,” she growled, gathering up handfuls of her robes. “I’ll go find that steward guy and see what the hell is going on.” She slammed the door behind her.
Quentin stared after her, then at the body at Eliot’s feet. He swallowed uneasily.
“Hey,” Julia said, shifting her hold on his arm. “Let’s get you dry, and dressed, yeah?”
He realized that of course he was still naked, but felt a little too distracted by his recent death to give a damn. Julia helped him to the shallower parts of the pool, and when his legs gave, Eliot was there, swooping in to take most of his weight.
They lowered him to one of the benches lining the walls. He realized that Julia was still fully dressed, her cloths sopping. He shivered, and Eliot threw a robe around his shoulders.
He began to piece together what must have happened – they must have come in together and seen him being killed, or maybe just his body floating in the pool, and Jules must have plunged in after him while Eliot and Margo caught the assassin. He shivered again.
Julia wrapped both arms around his shoulders, and squeezed. “Don’t do that to me again, Q,” she said, voice wobbly.
“Sorry,” he muttered, leaning into her.
Eliot knelt at his feet and briskly rubbed a dry towel up his calves. “Same, Coldwater,” he said, and his voice sounded a little less distant now.
“Kay,” Quentin said agreeably, starting to feel warmer as they got him dry. “Sorry,” he said again.
“What’re you apologizing for?” Margo asked, steaming back in, the steward and several guards at her heels.
“For worrying you guys, I guess.”
“That’s very sweet, but we have a serious security breach,” she snapped, turning on the guards. “How the hell did this happen?”
The guards started to explain, though mostly excuses and prevaricating emerged.
“I don’t care,” Eliot cut them off. “How could you let someone from Loria get in here without being seen?”
Then the steward said, “He’s a native Fillorian, sire.”
And Quentin’s heart broke.
“One of our own people is trying to kill us?” Eliot asked, and he sounded offended, but for Quentin.
He’d dreamed of Fillory his whole life. And once he’d found out it was real, he’d sacrificed everything to save it. He would’ve done anything for Fillory. He loved Fillory with all his heart.
And the Fillorians wanted him dead.
He looked at Jules, his eyebrows crumpling, and she knew. She knew immediately, and she pulled his head down to her shoulder.
He thought he might cry, but it was like the hurt was too great for that. Too big. He felt it looming over him and waited, terrified, for it to land. He took a ragged, gasping breath. Another. “Jules,” he whined.
“I know,” she said, pressing the words into his damp hair. “I know, Q.”
Eliot and Margo interrogated the guards for a while longer, but Quentin didn’t hear any more of it, shaking himself apart in Julia’s arms.
They find out a little more about Fillorians United.
They couldn’t stay at the crime scene forever. After a while, Julia urged him up, and she and Eliot got him dressed in robes and a loose pair of linen trousers, while Margo kept watch like a tiny, furious statue, her hands up and ready to cast at anything that even looked at her funny.
It was terrifying, but also reassuring, in a way.
Then all three helped him back to the rooms they’d shared the night before, and piled back into bed.
It was like they’d never left. Except Quentin and Julia were still damp, and everyone’s moods were down in the pit of despair.
“Is it more that they want to kill you?” Margo asked after a while, “or that they want to kill you?”
Quentin thought for a moment. “The second, I guess,” he said thickly. “I’m kind of used to people wanting to kill me, just …”
“Not people you love,” Julia said, stroking his hair back from his forehead, her tone slightly guilty. Margo pressed in a little closer, and Eliot, behind her, put one long arm around Margo and Quentin both. Quentin grabbed Eliot’s hand where it rested over his stomach, and leaned his head into Julia’s shoulder.
“I really do,” he said in a small voice.
“We know, buddy,” Eliot said, and his three closest friends held him while he cried over his latest loss.
Julia’s stomach growled, and Quentin snorted, giggling wetly. “Sorry,” she whispered, giggling with him.
Eliot shifted slightly, and Margo emerged from beneath his arm, one hand pressing on Quentin’s shoulder to lever herself out of bed. “Okay,” she said sternly. “We are gonna stop feeling sorry for ourselves, eat some damn lunch, and figure out how to run a kingdom whose residents want us dead.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Quentin said, only sniffling a little now.
The steward had set up a meal as promised, and they pressed all together on one bench, Quentin stuck in the middle, and picked at a more than generous spread. Quentin felt slightly crushed, but also protected, and that feeling warmed him more than the porridge and tea-like substance.
Food helped, and the counselor guy, Tick, finally reappeared as they were finishing to insist on rescheduling the council meeting.
“One of your kings almost got killed and you want to hold a meeting?” Margo asked, outraged.
“No, this is, uh, we should do this,” Quentin said, putting down his mug of tea-stuff. “Obviously there’s a lot going on, and we need a, um, a briefing on, well, the status of … stuff.”
He’d started strong, but it had rather gotten away from him in the end.
“Quentin’s right,” Julia said firmly. “Unrest always comes from somewhere.”
“Tick?” Eliot asked, leaning back against the table as another, taller counselor wandered in. “Pre-briefing, what’s going on? Why do Fillorians want us dead?”
“It is a small group of malcontents, sire, and of no consequence. In more pressing matters, we found the key to the throne room, and can proceed there immediately,” Tick said encouragingly.
“No, these nerds are right,” Margo said harshly. “Who is this group, and what do they want?”
The taller one, Rafe, said, “They call themselves Fillorians United, and they want a native Fillorian to rule.”
“But that’s impossible,” Quentin stammered. “Literally impossible, Ember and Umber made it so only children of earth can be kings and queens.”
“They are not necessarily happy with Ember or Umber, either,” Tick said obsequiously.
“Well, how can you argue with that?” Eliot said flatly.
“Okay, so we can’t give them what they want,” Julia said, clearly thinking hard. “What can we give them?”
“We’re not negotiating with terrorists,” Margo snarled, and Eliot seemed inclined to go along with her. “If they want my crown, let them just try.”
“Jules?” Quentin prompted her.
“There must be a reason they resent children of earth,” Julia started. “We do kind of just waltz in and play at being royalty.”
“I’m not playing,” Margo growled.
“Anyway,” Julia continued, “maybe we can figure out what’s best for Fillory. We could consult Umber, he’s the more logical one, right, Q?”
“Yes, he’s more of a force of order,” Quentin said, brow furrowed in thought. “It’s Ember, though, who created this system really. He’s a force of chaos.” Quentin threw up his hands. “He might have just found it whimsical.”
“Well, or the counselors,” Julia said, gesturing toward Tick. “You must have some idea of what’s been going on, and why they would be this angry. If we can deal with the causes, maybe we can prevent another assassination attempt.”
Quentin was slightly worried that Margo would insist on her heads on spikes plans, and he held his breath anxiously, looking to Eliot.
But Eliot was looking down, and Quentin saw that his fists were clenched, hard, and he didn’t speak.
It seemed like the decision was being left to Margo.
“Okay, Tick, Benedict,” Margo said, “move the council meeting to … wherever it would’ve been before you unlocked the throne room, let’s worry about that later. Get all the intel you can on why these people hate us, concrete reasons, not just because we’re from earth, we can’t fix that, but who pissed in their wheaties?” When both men looked confused, she sighed. “Is crime up? Crops dying? Cows not giving milk? Witches cursing people? Whatever peasants care about, find out what’s gone wrong and if we can fix it.”
Tick and Rafe left, and Quentin and Julia stared at Margo in awe.
“What?” she snapped. “It just makes sense.”
“Thank you,” Julia said, smiling at her, the gentle smile.
Quentin became hopeful that his friends might just all get along after all.
They had to face the counsel sometime.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The steward, Peat, got them all dressed for the meeting, putting up screens so they could get a little privacy but stay in the same room. Part of Quentin just wanted to go back to bed, but a slightly larger part, the part that still loved Fillory, wanted to do as Julia and Margo had planned and find out exactly what was wrong so that he could fix it. He wanted so desperately to fix it.
They each had stewards. Quentin’s, a smaller, slimmer man, bustled behind his curtain just as he was getting undressed.
Quentin flinched back.
“Forgive me, majesty,” the man said, sounding a little startled. “I am your steward, Fard. Shall I help you dress?”
“Um, sure,” Quentin said, wrapping both arms around his bare waist defensively.
Fard pulled out lengths of silk in a deep blue, helping him into loose trousers, a shirt that wrapped at the waist, and a flocked jacket, sleeves slashed to reveal a fine lawn underlayer.
“What about your hair?”
“What about it?” Quentin asked, touching it nervously.
“I could style it for your majesty, if you wished.”
“Um, sure, let’s, yeah, yes.” Quentin sighed, and sat before another small mirror as directed.
Fard ran nimble fingers through his hair, still slightly damp. It felt nice. Fard worked his fingers in, rubbing Quentin’s scalp, and his eyes fluttered shut, a little bit of tension melting away. There was a bit of tugging, and he opened his eyes to see Fard twisting his hair into two braids up off his face.
He froze a little.
He kept his hair long to hide behind. It was a character flaw, probably; it was definitely a weakness, and Fard was just sweeping it up off his face like this was fine, like this was no problem.
“Is this alright?” Fard asked, pausing when Quentin stiffened.
“Um, yep,” Quentin squeaked. “It’s fine.”
He was a king now, he needed to just deal. If he could handle being murdered, he could handle having his hair pulled back.
Fard finished quickly, and settled his silver crown on top of the braids, and it sat there perfectly, and Quentin looked at himself in these beautiful clothes with his hair done up and felt, maybe for the first time, sort of kingly.
He emerged from behind his screen to see the others already dressed and styled, Julia’s hair curled and wearing white, blue and silver, Margo’s hair in an elaborate up-do and wearing red and gold. Peat had helped Eliot, dressing him in luxurious silks the color of a fire, reds and oranges and yellows that set off the jewels in his crown. The others caught sight of Quentin, and Eliot clapped.
“You clean up good, Coldwater,” Margo said approvingly.
“Um, thanks,” Quentin said, wanting to fidget with his hair but worried about ruining it.
“Okay, we’re all gussied up,” Eliot said, getting more serious. “Let’s go be rulers.”
They went not to the throne room then but to an auxiliary banqueting hall flanked by two massive fireplaces and dominated by a table that ran nearly the length of the hall. The council was seated around this table, a motley assortment of men, women, and talking animals, including a sloth perched on a hanging branch near the table. Above them on a raised dais was a smaller, though more ornate, table with just enough room for four.
Peat escorted them as far as the hall, announced them, then seemed to vanish just as he’d drawn every eye in the room to them.
Feeling too much the center of attention, and not quite safe, Quentin hung close to Julia. Margo and Eliot took the lead, sailing arm in arm down the length of the hall to take the two center chairs. This left Quentin and Julia on either side of them, and Quentin dithered until Julia sat beside Margo, leaving him to sit next to Eliot. He took the last chair, and sank into it, vibrating with nerves.
In a covert gesture, Eliot took Quentin’s hand below the surface of the table, and squeezed it gently. Quentin didn’t look at him, trying not to make it obvious, instead staring out at the hall.
Tick was seated at the head of the long table, closest to the monarchs, with Fen just across from him. She waved to Eliot shyly, and Quentin had a moment to wonder where she’d been last night before Eliot started speaking.
“As you probably know by now, we are the new kings and queens of Fillory,” he began, his nerves only visible in how tightly he was holding Quentin’s hand. “We were crowned yesterday, after confronting the Beast who had been terrorizing Fillory for the last several decades.” Here he paused for effect. “We killed him.”
There were a few gasps, a couple of people applauded, but the news seemed already stale.
“With divine assistance,” Eliot pressed on, “from the god Ember.” There was a sort of stillness in the air, as if the room was awaiting something. “And this morning,” Eliot continued, voice growing louder, “your new king, Quentin, was trying to enjoy the royal baths when he was murdered.”
Now there were gasps, murmurs of confusion. Quentin looked out at the room, knowing some of these people wanted him dead, and held Eliot’s hand a little tighter.
“That’s right,” Margo chimed in. “He was dead.” She took a beat, smirked. “Obviously it didn’t take.”
“Forgive me, your majesties,” Tick said, standing. “I believed King Quentin to be mildly injured by the attack that the high king bravely thwarted. Are you saying that he was more badly hurt than realized, and was healed by the queens and high king?”
“No, I mean dead. As a doornail.” When this garnered no response, Margo threw up her hands. “Point is, the guards let an assassin get into a place no one is supposed to have access to but us.” She gestured in a way that encompassed the royal table.
“But that means …” Fen began to speak.
“His majesty was dead?” A tall black woman further back asked Quentin directly, her voice cutting through the din.
Quentin stammered, “I supposed, I mean, I don’t really remember much.” The council waited intently. “Everything went very dark,” he said, his voice getting small. “And there was a light.” He shrugged.
“How can this be?”
“Can we get back to the assassin?”
“What, um, happened to him, the assassin?” Fen asked.
“I killed him,” Eliot said bluntly.
“You just, you just killed him?” Fen asked faintly.
“He had just killed Quentin, I wasn’t about to let him try again.”
“But how can that be, King Quentin is alive and well. You must have been mistaken,” another of Tick’s relatives said.
“He’s god-touched,” Julia said, speaking up for the first time.
At her words, a hush fell over the council.
“Well, so were you,” Quentin said, leaning forward to look at her.
“Yes, you’re both special,” Margo said.
“The still-living king,” a voice murmured, but in the hush it carried.
“Wait,” Quentin said, “this isn’t, I just, um, petitioned Ember for strength, you know, to kill the Beast, and I’m still, uh, powered up. That’s all.” He looked around, but the council and surrounding guards were all staring at him and Julia. “Like Rupert Chatwin, nothing special.”
“Ember granted you a boon he last granted our greatest king?” Tick asked, and there was something new in his voice, and more sincere.
“Yes,” Eliot said quickly, seizing momentum and regaining control of the narrative. “King Quentin and Queen Julia petitioned the god Ember, who deemed King Quentin worthy of his largesse. Queen Julia petitioned an earth goddess, and was granted great favor. All to kill the Beast and save you people. We have all sacrificed.” His visible hand clenched into a fist. “Which is why it is so very upsetting that our own people, who we have done all this petitioning and sacrificing for, want us dead.”
There was a pause.
“There is great unrest,” Rafe admitted. He was seated a little further down the table, near the rolling stand that held a sloth. “The Beast caused many problems for Fillory, and because he was from earth …”
“We want to help,” Quentin said, leaning forward. “I love Fillory, I always have. Please, I just want to help.”
There was another pause, as if his words had been unexpected. And then Fen said, “Your people are starving.”
“What?” Julia gasped.
“But isn’t all food grown by magic?” Quentin asked.
“Exactly,” Fen explained. “As the Beast drained the wellspring, magic in Fillory became unstable. Many crops no longer grow at all.”
“Then why are you laying out these feasts?” Margo demanded. “No one eats that much.”
“Do we need to be rationing?” Quentin asked.
Eliot heaved a great sigh. “Farming,” he said in dolorous tones. “Why did it have to be farming?”
“El?” Quentin asked, squeezing his hand gently.
Margo turned to him, a new light in her eyes. “You can fix this,” she said.
“Maybe,” Eliot said, his expression grave.
“We should work on the flow of magic, too,” Quentin suggested. “A lot of stuff here relies on it, not just farming, and that should be a priority.”
“Okay, who’s good at research?” Margo demanded of the council. “How do we help the wellspring? Get on it.”
“There’s, um, a royal library,” Quentin remembered. “We should try that.”
“There is also the matter of Loria,” Tick said seriously. “They believe us weakened by our reliance on magic, and plan to invade.”
“I thought we were just meeting an ambassador?” Margo spat.
“This is what the meeting will discuss.”
“Jules?” Quentin asked her. “Loria, they’re traditional foes, right?”
“Yeah, history of unspecified enmity.” She turned to Tick. “Why are they so against Fillory? That was never explained.”
“We use up most of the flow from the wellspring,” Rafe volunteered. “The Lorians believe they should be entitled to half.”
“Can we do that?” Quentin asked, looking to the counselors. “What would that do to our infrastructure?”
Rafe consulted with the sloth for a long moment. “Her slowness indicates that it would be unsustainable,” he said.
“Can we increase the flow, somehow?” Quentin wondered. “Fill their needs and ours?”
Rafe leaned in to listen to the sloth again, but it was the taller black woman, Heloise, who spoke up. “You must consult Umber.”
“He is the architect,” Julia said, nodding. “He would probably know.”
“Okay,” Quentin said, clapping his hands together and rubbing them. “We have a plan.”
“Reinvent farming, broker a treaty, and change everything about how the wellspring works,” Margo recapped like a pro, then smirked. “What could go wrong?”
Thank you all so much for reading and commenting, it really encourages me to keep going with this weird thing. ^_^
They still have to meet with the Lorian ambassador, and then Quentin, Margo and Eliot get a chance to talk.
After all that, they still had the rest of the day to deal with.
The Lorian ambassador was due any moment, and Quentin thought he might shake apart. “Can we reschedule?” he asked no one in particular.
Tick heard him, and said, “That would be most unwise. The Lorians are looking for any sign of weakness.”
Quentin was nothing but weakness, and felt a bolt of despair run through him. “Right,” he muttered, trying to run a hand through his hair and getting stuck on a braid.
“Don’t mess with that,” Julia said, helping him get untangled and smoothing out his hair.
“Sorry,” he said softly, staring at her kind eyes, her easy smile. “I don’t know if I can do this,” he confessed.
“It’s what we always wanted,” she said, a little surprised.
“Yeah, but it seemed so much easier in the books,” he said, whining a little, aware he was whining, but not able to stop himself. “I don’t remember the Chatwins ever dealing with crop failure, or, or, politics.”
“Well, so they had it easy.” Julia smiled, a cocky look in her eyes. “We’ll be better rulers than they ever were.”
Quentin tried to smile at her, but it was more of a grimace.
The luncheon laid out for the ambassador was still quite lavish, everyone agreeing that putting out a meager spread would be as good as confessing their weakness to Loria. So he sat next to Julia behind towers of delicate sandwiches and little cakes and pots of Fillorian tea-like substance. It seemed that the rule of the Chatwins had influenced Fillorian cuisine, because the spread looked exactly like afternoon tea as depicted in every British movie Quentin had ever seen.
Eliot was stiff with nerves, and Margo was trying to soothe him, even though she looked a bit nervous herself. They were all a bunch of kids, Quentin thought, and this was their real first test. The council at least was on their side. This was the enemy.
Eliot’s steward appeared in the doorway, arm outspread. “The ambassador from Loria,” Peat announced. “Princess.”
“Oh, cool, a woman,” Julia said, perking up. “I was worried this would all be some patriarchal nightmare.”
“Ugh, same,” Margo said, peering at the door curiously.
But it wasn’t a woman who walked in. The first person through the door was a black man of slightly above average height, with a shaved head and broad shoulders, wearing embroidered wool and lavish furs. They all waited, thinking perhaps the princess would follow. But none did, just a small retinue consisting of a few white men, another black man, and a few who could have belonged to the Pickwick family.
“Princess?” Eliot asked, raising one brow.
“You can call me Ess,” the young man said, smirking a little.
“Dude, fuck your parents,” Eliot murmured, and Quentin stiffened in panic and tried to shush him.
But Ess seemed to take Eliot’s remarks in stride. He ventured further in, and took the seat offered to him by Peat. “I’m here to negotiate terms for the wellspring,” Ess said, picking up a scone without waiting for anyone else.
“Okay, wow, right down to business,” Margo said, staring at Ess with a look of mild distaste. “So what do you want?”
“Magic,” Ess said, spilling a few crumbs. “Fillory has been hoarding the wellspring for generations, using you interlopers from earth as their magical thugs.”
“That’s, um, let’s say that’s true,” Quentin stammered, wanting badly to hide behind his hair. “What do you want us to do about it?”
Ess slurped down some tea, seeming not to care that it was still steaming. “Give us half.”
“Let’s maybe think about that,” Eliot started to say.
“And an alliance sealed by marriage to one of you.”
There was silence.
“Absolutely not,” Margo said, both eyebrows coming up.
“That’s a no for me as well,” Julia said, putting down her cup of tea.
Ess raised one brow.
“I’m already married,” Eliot said, laughing a little.
“Why are you looking at me?” Quentin asked.
“Hey, I’d prefer the high queen, even if she is a virgin, but the twink will do.”
“I am not a virgin.”
“I’m not a, uh, a twink.”
“Wait, how do you know the word twink?” Eliot wondered.
“Boarding school on earth.” Ess smirked at them. “Those are my terms: alliance, marriage, half of the wellspring.”
“We will discuss your terms and resume negotiations tomorrow, here,” Julia said, cutting off Margo’s continued protests and Quentin’s sputtering. Nothing could stop Eliot’s hysterical giggling at this point, so they just tried to hold it together until Ess had bowed, gathered up his retinue, and left the room.
“Wow, Julia, that sounded so official,” Margo drawled.
“Model UN,” she shrugged.
“I don’t wanna marry that guy,” Quentin said, eyebrows crumpling. “He seems like a jerk.”
Eliot stopped giggling. “That’s your only objection?”
“Well, and how would that work? Would he move here? Would I have to move to Loria?” Quentin’s breathing started to speed up. “I don’t want to move to Loria, it always snows there and I won’t know anyone.”
“Hey, hey,” Margo said, touching his arm. “It’s okay, no one is marrying that asshole.”
“What do you think, model UN?” Eliot said, finally picking up a sandwich.
“I think we should talk to your wife.”
“Lorians are evil,” Fen said. Her face was downcast, and her hands picked nervously at each other.
Julia frowned, looked at the others. “Fen, is everything okay?”
“Fine,” she said, though it sounded sort of like she was lying.
“Are you sure?” Julia asked, and touched her hand gently. “I’m not just asking, I really want to know.”
Fen glanced around at the others, and nodded tightly.
“Um, guys, could we get a minute?”
Eliot sighed. “I should start teaching someone about compost, anyway. Margo, Quentin, want to come?”
“Why not,” Margo said dryly. “I always wanted to know more about dirt.”
“Sure,” Quentin agreed, standing. “I don’t know anything about compost, though.”
“Just stand by me, and look pretty.” He slung an arm around Quentin’s shoulders, and they left together as Julia took Fen’s hand in her own.
“What do you think they’re talking about?” Margo asked, latching onto Quentin’s other arm.
“How terrible I am as a husband,” Eliot proposed in dolorous tones. “How much she regrets our marriage.”
“That seems unlikely,” Quentin said, leaning into him. “It’s only been a couple of days, what complaints could she have?”
“He’s got a point,” Margo added.
“I did kind of cheat on her last night,” Eliot muttered.
“Oh, I, I mean, we,” Quentin sputtered, his face getting hot.
“Relax,” Margo scoffed. “We stayed within the letter of the law.”
“And the spirit?” Eliot asked, sounding somewhat philosophical.
“I’m sorry,” Quentin said miserably. “I didn’t mean to make things harder for you.”
Eliot shrugged. “It might not have been the right thing to do, morally, or whatever. But I don’t regret a second of it.”
“Me either,” Margo sighed, squeezing his arm. “Even if you did fall asleep on me.”
“Sorry,” he said again.
“Eh, make it up to me tonight.”
“Tonight?” Quentin blurted, both eyebrows shooting up. “I, uh, yes ma’am?”
“Good boy,” she said, smiling up at him.
“Only if I get to watch,” Eliot said, hugging Quentin a little closer.
They were silent for a few steps, and then Quentin said, “I mean, I guess this is really hypocritical, considering that you had to marry Fen, but, um, I really don’t want to marry that guy.”
“It’s not hypocritical,” Margo said. “Or if it is, I’m a hypocrite too, because I’m not marrying that little prick.”
“We’re getting ahead of ourselves,” Eliot said, turning them down a side corridor. “That was just his opening salvo, right? We’ll figure out a counter offer that doesn’t involve marrying one of you off.”
They didn’t get far, wandering out into a rose garden. The early afternoon sun was warm, there was a light breeze, and the garden smelled of enchanted flowers.
Quentin was enjoying the perfume-y scent, but Eliot sighed. “This is their problem,” he said, striding away from Quentin to grab a blossoming rose.
“The roses?” Margo asked.
“How they’re growing the roses,” Eliot said, tearing the bloom apart in his hands. “Magic, to grow a rose out of season for what, their amusement? Our amusement? And have you noticed the smell?”
“It smells nice?” Quentin said uncertainly, wrapping both arms around his stomach.
“Right, it smells great, because you don’t have to smell the manure they used for fertilizer.”
“Something that could be done in a completely mundane way, they use magic for.” Eliot closed his eyes, a somewhat pained expression crossing his face. “I hated my family.”
“I know, baby,” Margo said, dashing over to take his arm.
“Were they, uh, what were they?” Quentin asked.
“Farmers,” Eliot said, though his tone of voice could have been used to describe cannibals, or something. Utter disgust.
“So that’s why you know all about roses,” he realized.
“Well, mostly vegetables,” Eliot said, letting the crushed petals drop to the ground. “Wait, why did you just accept that I knew about composting, and not put that together?”
Quentin shrugged defensively. “I don’t know, you know a lot of things, and anybody can garden as a hobby, or whatever.” He fidgeted, reached for his hair, remembered, and put his hand down. “Are you, did you not like your family?”
Margo grimaced, and Quentin wished he hadn’t asked, but Eliot just sighed, and said, “Remember that thing I told you, right before you got expelled?”
Quentin glanced at Margo, who was looking slightly curious, and nodded.
“Well, let’s just say he wasn’t the exception in how I was treated.”
“El, I’m so sorry.”
Eliot shrugged, a careful, calculated gesture. “I would really prefer to be what I made myself to be.”
“You are,” Margo said, squeezing his arm.
“But underneath, Bambi, I’m still this scared farmer’s son.”
Quentin didn’t know what to do. Eliot looked sad, and he hated to see Eliot sad, but his own ability to comfort others was atrophied, or broken. He just stood there like an idiot until Margo motioned him over, pretty face twisting into a scowl. Grateful for her straightforward nature, he darted forward and joined their hug.
Eliot put an arm around Margo, the other around Quentin, and bowed his head. “Thanks, guys,” he managed after a moment, sniffling.
“Hey, what are friends for?”
“Just friends?” Margo said archly, reaching down to squeeze Quentin’s butt.
“Hey!” he yelped, jerking a bit in their grasp.
Eliot giggled once, then again, then released a full belly laugh, holding onto them both as he swayed in place. “Oh, thank you. You two are just what I needed.”
“We are friends, though, right?” Quentin asked a little anxiously.
“Of course we are,” Margo said, hugging him again in a slightly less risqué manner.
“The best of friends,” Eliot said, smiling down at them. “The three musketeers.”
“Oh, I call Athos,” Quentin said.
Margo swatted his back. “How are you such a nerd?”
“Bambi,” Eliot said reproachfully.
She sighed. “Fine, I call Aramis.”
“Then I shall eat, drink, and be merry,” Eliot said, “For we already have our D’Artagnan.”
“Jules?” Quentin asked hopefully.
Margo rolled her eyes at him. “Yes, Julia. She’s … new, to the group, but she seems okay.”
“I really want you guys to get along,” Quentin confessed.
“I know, baby Q.”
Quentin’s mouth slanted unhappily. “I don’t … think I like that.”
“Oh, calm down, it’s just a nickname.”
“What are you guys doing?” Julia asked, sweeping out into the garden in a whirlwind of motion.
Quentin tried to spring apart, but Eliot and Margo held fast, just turning to look at her.
“Hugging,” Eliot said blandly.
“Right,” Julia said slowly, glancing at Quentin who had stopped struggling and hung now in their arms with a sheepish look on his face. Then she continued in a more serious tone, “Guys, we need to talk.”
They confront Fen and Tick, and learn some things about Fillory.
They sat on a grouping of stone benches in the center of the rose garden, and Julia told them everything Fen had said.
“Fen is one of those FU fighters?” Quentin asked, frowning.
“My wife tried to have us killed?” Eliot stood, jaw clenching. “What the fuck.”
“She says she didn’t know about the assassination,” Julia said consolingly. “I believe her.”
“Well I don’t,” Margo growled. “Give me five minutes with that twat, she’ll tell us what she knows.”
“Guys, I talked to her,” Julia said, holding out both hands. “She’s upset, she’s worried, but she’s not a killer.”
Quentin hugged his knees to his chest. “So what are we going to do about it?”
Margo grabbed a rose and crushed it in her hand. “Execute her.”
“Wow, that seems, uh, extreme.”
“Let’s not rush to judgment,” Julia cautioned.
“What does Fen say?” Eliot asked, putting both hands on his hips. “Is she willing to turn on them? Give us information?”
“She says she is.”
“Can we trust anything she says?” Quentin tugged on his hair, and a little slipped out of its braid.
“I can’t believe I was worried about her feelings,” Eliot muttered. “I need a drink.”
“Ugh, same,” Quentin said to his knees.
“We still have the petitioners this afternoon,” Julia said, her voice a little rough.
“Damn it,” Margo snapped.
“What if we have Fen attend?”
“How would that help?”
“Oh, like a test?” Quentin asked, perking up.
Julia pointed at him. “Exactly. We’ll see how she behaves, and maybe she’ll see that we care about Fillory.”
They got Quentin’s hair sorted out, retrieved a wary, tentative Fen, and returned to the banquet hall to meet with petitioners. The long table had been moved against a wall, so they sat at the royal table at the head of the hall and Fillorians formed a line that snaked out of the door.
“Oh my god,” Quentin murmured, looking at them. “What are we supposed to do about all of this?”
Tick looked slightly sheepish, folding his hands together. “We did summon too many of them, your majesties, to hear today. The petitioning will have to extend over the next few days. I will explain our error, and arrange things.”
Julia frowned at him slightly. “Tick, were you sabotaging us?”
“What?” Tick laughed nervously.
Julia grabbed his arm and pulled him into an alcove behind their table. After a startled moment, everyone crowded in after them.
Julia was grilling Tick. “The meeting with Prince Ess, the council members, now this. You’ve been sending us into everything underprepared, so either you’re not very good at your job, or you’ve been deliberately sabotaging us.”
Margo gasped, putting a hand to her heart. “You’re right, he’s been fishy since we got here.”
“When have stewards ever given up power easily,” Quentin muttered, remembering his Shakespeare.
Tick flinched, looking down. “I … yes, perhaps I was. I thought …” He stepped closer, lowering his voice. “I thought you like all the others. Earth children. Here to use Fillory for your own pleasure, and leave when you liked.”
“I can’t leave,” Eliot said coldly.
“And we won’t,” Quentin said, raising both eyebrows. “We want to help fix what the Beast destroyed, that’s all.”
“My family has ruled Whitespire for generations,” Tick said, frowning. “But it seems it is the will of the gods that you take the thrones. Which are cursed, by the way.”
“What?” Margo asked flatly.
“The thrones, majesty. They are cursed. I got the door unlocked so that you would all kill each other after sitting on them.” Tick moved shiftily, his eyes darting side to side. “I am glad, now, that you didn’t.”
“I’m not sure that helps,” Margo said, crossing her arms over her stomach.
“Can we trust anyone around here?” Eliot asked.
Fen looked sheepish, and Tick grimaced.
“And why are you being so open about this now?” Quentin asked, frowning at him.
“I … I am not sure,” Tick said, blinking.
Julia raised her hand. “That’s, well, me.” When they all turned to look at her, she shrugged. “I don’t know if I’d call it a power, but ever since Our Lady Underground blessed me, I’ve … been able to get people to talk.”
“Wow,” Quentin said, staring at her. “You’re like a superhero.”
“Yeah, like Wonder Woman,” Margo said, rolling her eyes. “Have you been using that on us?”
“No, of course not.”
“So Tick is telling the truth, our thrones are cursed.” Eliot sighed. “And Fen is telling the truth, she wants to help?”
Fen nodded anxiously. “I never wanted to hurt anyone.” She glanced at Quentin. “I’m sorry.”
Quentin bit his lip, looking down. “It’s okay,” he muttered. “No harm done, I guess.”
“So what are you planning, Tick?” Margo asked him. “Still going to betray us?”
“I want to do what’s best for Fillory,” he said, and he sounded sincere.
“And there’s nothing else?”
“I have been embezzling funds from the treasury,” he admitted, wincing.
“There’s a fucking famine on,” Margo snarled at him. “What were you thinking?”
“Yeah, that’s gotta stop,” Eliot said.
“Can you really help our people grow food?” Fen asked, looking hopeful.
Eliot looked at her for a moment, then sighed. “Yes, yes I can. So let’s … just start over.”
“Sire?” Tick asked.
“Go on, get Rafe, let’s see the petitioners.”
“Just, stop sabotaging us,” Julia said, touching his arm. “Okay?”
“Of course, Queen Julia.” Tick paused, looked conflicted for a moment. “I should tell you that most of the petitioners will be here about the food shortage.”
“What do we have in the larder?” Margo asked. “Can we distribute food until crops start growing?”
That set the tone for their afternoon. They got through more of the line than Tick had given them credit for, announcing at the start that they knew about the famine and would be distributing food packages until a more permanent solution could be found. That appeased most of the petitioners, and they handed out food side by side with the guards and palace staff, Fen by their sides and glowing a little more with every person helped.
And it did seem to help. The more people Quentin talked to, the more he realized their problems weren’t so strange. They needed stability, and resources. And food, as the immediate concern. The Fillorians he talked to were grateful, approaching with an air of beaten-down ennui and leaving with baskets full of food and a smile. And hope for the future.
It made Quentin feel really good, like he was making a difference.
The other petitions were not that dissimilar. A monster was hunting near a village, scaring the locals. A well had dried up, and the village needed funds to have a new one dug, or magic to get the job done faster. Some kids had gone missing near the Flying Forest, and search parties needed to be sent out. Taxes had gone up, but harvests had shrunk, or failed, and some villages couldn’t pay.
They dealt with everything they could, hearing petitioners until the sun went down, and Quentin felt faint from lack of food. The last villager left with a letter authorizing a handful of guards to help the safe delivery of a load of furs and wine, and Eliot slid down in his chair.
“I can’t handle any more,” he groaned, putting a hand over his eyes.
“We can resume tomorrow,” Tick said, his voice hoarse, his posture a little hunched.
They were all crimped by exhaustion, though Fen was still beaming with enthusiasm for her people. Even Julia looked a little dampened and wan.
“We need a break,” Margo groaned, resting her cheek in her hand.
“I’ll call your steward and have a meal laid out,” Tick offered. He paused before leaving, looking at them. “I … misjudged you, majesties.”
“Thank you,” Eliot said, “I think.”
“Nothing too lavish,” Julia reminded him. “We don’t need to impress anyone for dinner.”
“Ugh, we still have that meeting with Ess tomorrow,” Quentin remembered as Tick left.
“What does the prince of Loria want?” Fen asked.
“Half the wellspring and marriage,” Margo grumped. “To one of us.”
Fen frowned at Eliot. “I do not wish to share you with our enemy.”
“Oh, not to me, I’m already married,” Eliot said complacently.
“You already have a wife, yes. What about your husband?”
“My what now?”
Quentin repays Margo.
Fen explained over dinner.
“So I could marry Ess,” Eliot said, a new light in his eyes.
“That prick?” Margo asked him.
“Hey, any port in a storm.”
Quentin shrank in on himself.
“You will do as you think best,” Fen said unhappily.
“What is the deal with Loria?” Julia asked, frowning thoughtfully. “Was Rafe right, is this all basically about who gets to use the wellspring?”
Fen scowled. “Why should they get access to our spring? They have attacked us for generations, razing farms, stealing, kidnapping women and children.”
“So, not the kind of people we want to ally with.”
“I don’t think a war is a good idea, though,” Quentin said, fidgeting. “Fillorian battle tactics all seemed to involve magic. Do we even have an army?”
“Who’s to say we have the right to use up the spring,” Julia said thoughtfully.
“Ember and Umber,” Fen said, as if it were obvious.
“So, we have divine right on our sides,” Quentin said, perking up.
“I’m not sure that makes it okay.” Julia frowned.
“I can’t talk about this anymore,” Eliot said, rubbing a hand over his eyes. “We’re going in circles, guys. Until we talk to Ember and Umber, what can we really decide?”
“He’s got a point,” Quentin said, picking at his food. He’d propped his cheek on his fist, elbow on the table, and slumped over a little more as they spoke.
“Aw, is it a sleepy Q?” Margo cooed, tugging on one of his braids.
“Stop it,” he mumbled, slumping down even further. “I’m just getting really tired, guys.”
“You did die earlier,” Margo acknowledged, looking a touch worried.
“It’s been a long day,” Julia said, standing. “Let’s reconvene in the morning. Maybe we can hammer out a plan over breakfast.”
“Motion seconded,” Eliot said, dragging himself up. He grabbed Quentin’s elbow, and, whining, Quentin allowed himself to be hauled up from the table.
“Are you guys, um, same as last night?” Julia asked, a touch hopefully.
“Cuddle pile,” Margo purred, “yes.”
“Can I join this, um, cuddle pile?” Fen asked, tentative and cute.
Eliot grimaced. “Maybe not tonight?” When her face twisted unhappily, he continued, “I believe you, and all, but I might need some … time.”
“I understand,” she said, sadly.
“Come on, Coldwater,” Margo said, grabbing Quentin’s hand and pulling him away from Eliot. “You still owe me.”
“Oh, wait, I might, um, not join you guys after all,” Julia said, eyebrows coming up.
“Margo, I …”
“It’s fine, Q,” Julia said, grabbing Fen’s hand. “Let’s go somewhere and talk,” she said to her, smiling.
Fen smiled back a little shyly, and suggested they retire to her chambers. Theoretically they all had separate chambers, rooms and rooms that nearly filled one of the towers, but no one seemed to feel entirely comfortable on their own yet. Quentin thought for a moment about going to a set of rooms by himself, and blanched.
“You okay, Q?” Margo asked, tucking herself against his side.
“Mmhmm,” he insisted. “Just really tired.”
“We don’t have to actually do anything,” she said, frowning a little. “I was just teasing.”
“No, I want to!” Quentin wrapped his arm around her in turn. “You’re amazing, and gorgeous, and I would be an idiot to turn down any chance with you.”
“Hey,” she said, stopping them in the middle of the hall. “This isn’t a one-time offer, Q.” She reached up, tugged on one of his braids until it came loose. “If you’re too tired, just say the word. There’s always tomorrow.”
He had trouble meeting her eyes, feeling a blush rising in his cheeks. “Could we do something quick?”
She nudged him with her hip. “Sure thing, kid.”
Exhaustion dragged at the edges of him, but Margo had sprawled herself out across Eliot’s massive bed and she was looking at Quentin impatiently. He shucked his embroidered jacket, yanked his shirt over his head – got stuck.
“Oh, for pete’s sake,” Eliot sighed, helping him find his way out.
“Thanks,” he huffed, once he’d been freed.
“I’ll be watching from over here,” Eliot said, retreating to a chair across the room.
“Hot,” Margo said, blowing him a kiss.
Quentin’s hands shook just a little. He clenched them into fists, to still them, and crawled up onto the bed and between Margo’s legs. “This okay?” he asked, looking up at her.
She spread her thighs a little more, smiling at him. “Perfect.”
She had shaved or waxed her hair so that just a neat strip remained, and he buried his nose in it and breathed her scent, earthy and rich. She was already wet, and he ran his fingers through her juices to spread them around, lapping at her. She tasted like amber, and something he couldn’t identify. He licked at the center of her, and she sighed, luxuriantly, seeming to sink further into the bed somehow.
Quentin pressed careful fingers to her entrance, and then inside, feeling her hot walls tighten around the intrusion. Margo hissed, her thighs twitching on either side of his head, and Quentin found her clit, taking it between his lips and humming.
“Oh, yes,” she sighed, and grabbed his hair with both hands. The tug at his scalp felt good, sent zings down his spine, and he pressed further into her, hooking his fingers and tonguing her clit until she gasped.
Quentin could hear Eliot, the slick sounds of stroking, his occasional murmur of appreciation. It made him feel hotter, made him want to bring Margo to greater heights, made him want more of everything.
He found a sort of smooth spot behind her pubic bone and pressed that firmly while licking her clit, and she came with a high moan, her back arching, clamping down on his fingers in rhythmic spasms. He worked her through it, gentling his touch, until she was pulling his hair in a different way, pulling him off of her.
He came up for air, panting a little, wiping at his chin with his forearm.
“Alright, payback time,” Margo said, her voice looser than usual and a smile on her face as she pounced him.
He let her push him back, happy to see her happy, and she swallowed him down in one go. He wanted to grab her hair, wanted to hold something, his arms flailing up, and he hid his face in his hands, struggling to keep his hips still as she worked him into her tight, hot throat.
“Hey, no hiding, Coldwater,” Eliot said teasingly from his chair. His voice was rough, breathy, and Quentin dared sneak a glance at him.
Eliot was sprawled in the chair now, working his hard cock in a slow, steady rhythm, and Quentin could see the sweat gleaming on his broad chest, his tensed brow. Quentin licked his lips, grabbed the coverlet beneath him, and watched Eliot watch him while Margo gave him the best blow job he’d ever had.
One last lick beneath the head and he was gone, coming so hard blotches of black obscured his vision.
Margo rose above him, smirking, and he smiled back at her sleepily. She tucked herself into his side, and said, “Not bad, Coldwater.”
“You were amazing,” he said, knowing it didn’t count as playful banter but aware he’d never been very good at it anyway.
She just smirked some more. “I know.”
Eliot sat on the edge of the bed and offered them a warm, wet cloth. “That was very hot,” he said in his deadpan voice.
Margo took the cloth, and wiped her face before handing it to Quentin. He swiped lazily at his chin, at the sweat that was drying on his chest and stomach, before giving up. They were still talking, but he felt himself falling asleep with every breath.
At some point he felt movement, and roused just enough to see Margo climbing out of bed. He made a small noise of protest, and then Eliot’s arms were wrapped around him, and he was pulled against Eliot’s chest, his head tucked under Eliot’s chin. He shifted again, but then Margo crawled back across the bed’s surface to lie next to him, and he stilled.
“We probably need to talk about your wife,” Margo was saying, and Quentin had a thought, but it was like his brain had disconnected from his body, and the intention never quite carried through, their voices fading as he fell into a dream.
They agree to a plan, and Quentin and Julia ride out to consult Ember and Umber.
Quentin dreamed of drowning.
He woke a few times in the night to a feeling of suffocation, only to find himself safe between Eliot and Margo, cradled by their sleeping arms, a little too warm but immediately comforted. Only to sink back into the same weird dreams, and eventually startle awake again.
He was mostly a quiet sleeper, and didn’t wake them even in his panic. It was an oddly long night, broken and restless, and when he finally woke more naturally to sunlight and the smell of bacon, he was alone in the big bed.
Quentin raised his head muzzily, and found Margo and Eliot eating at a small bistro table set beneath one of the tall windows. They were bathed in early morning light, and both so breath-takingly beautiful that Quentin didn’t say anything for a moment.
It was Margo who noticed he was awake. “Q!” she called, waving a piece of bacon at him. “Get over here and eat something.”
He stumbled over, rubbing at his hair. “Hey, guys.”
“Hi, sunshine,” Eliot said, smiling at him. “Sleep well?”
“Ugh, no,” he said, slumping into one of the free chairs. “Weird dreams.”
Margo and Eliot both reached out, and each took one of his hands. “Are you okay?” Margo asked.
He felt warm, having their attention so closely on him. “Yeah, I’ll, uh, get cleaned up,” he stammered, standing up again a little quickly, “and join you guys in a minute.”
“Sure thing, babe,” Eliot said casually, going back to his own breakfast.
“Oh, we set up a tub in the alcove,” Margo said, pointing to the other side of the room, “if you want to get a bath in here.”
Quentin’s mouth slanted down, a sudden pang going through him. Not that he didn’t appreciate the gesture, but maybe that he appreciated it too much. They both knew him so well, had known he wouldn’t want to return to the bathing room. “Thanks, guys,” he whispered, before fleeing to what he was calling the bathroom.
He had a piss, washed his hands and face, and tried a few breathing exercises. The water in the tub had cooled, and he warmed it with a quick spell, sinking into the water as if he could forget his dreams. He couldn’t. His bath, long-desired, was hasty and involved more scrubbing than lounging.
By the time he reemerged, Julia had joined the others, and Fen, and they all sat around the small table and ate together and Quentin was really glad to not be alone.
Julia brought them all back to business, cutting into their idle chatter with the question, “What do we plan to do about Ess’s proposal?”
Quentin felt a sudden pang. “Should I marry him?”
“It is said that Prince Ess is fairly modern, for a Lorian,” Fen said consideringly. “He may even let you speak in public.”
“What?” Margo asked, her voice so flat that it didn’t sound like a question.
“That does not sound like a fun time,” Eliot said, blinking at Fen, who shrugged.
“Loria is very, um, male-oriented,” Fen explained.
“I’m a man,” Quentin mentioned.
“Well, yes, of course,” Fen said, patting her hands in a little conciliatory gesture. “It’s just that, once you marry Prince Ess, he would be your husband.”
“Wouldn’t I be his? Husband?”
“That’s not exactly how it works.”
“So there’s a major power imbalance,” Margo said, leaning back in her chair. “Sounds typical of a patriarchy.”
“That sounds awful.” Quentin looked down, picked at a cuticle nervously. “Am I, uh, am I being selfish?”
“No,” Margo said, putting her hand over his so that he had to stop picking at himself. “It’s not selfish, Q. No one wants to marry this guy.”
“But if it would help Fillory,” he murmured, turning his hand so that he could grasp hers.
She squeezed his hand. “It won’t come to that,” she promised, her big brown eyes intent on his. “I’ll think of something.”
“For now,” Julia said, “I think we should delay any negotiations. We need to consult Ember and Umber before we make any big decisions, and Ess needs to be put off until we can.”
“I like this plan,” Eliot said, looking at Julia with a new sense of appreciation. “Delay tactics, go.”
“We can probably just talk to him,” Julia suggested.
“Is that wise?” Margo tilted her head. “He seems very headstrong to me, hot-tempered. He might assume we’re trying to pull a fast one.”
Eliot threw down a piece of toast, and snapped, “Then let him. We’re kings and queens of Fillory, people.” He stood, shoulders squared, profile regal. “Time we acted like it.”
Margo looked slightly impressed.
“Well, alright then,” Julia said, toasting him with her cup of tea.
Quentin was dealing with a sudden hard on, and didn’t respond verbally.
Lunch with Ess was, perhaps predictably, a disaster.
“We’re willing to consider your requests,” Eliot said regally as soon as Ess and entourage arrived. “But we will not discuss them for a week.”
“A week?” Ess exploded.
“One week,” Eliot confirmed.
Quentin had raised a finger sandwich halfway to his mouth, and set it back down awkwardly.
Ess fumed, paced a bit. “We want an answer,” he ground out.
“We are within our rights to take time to fully consider the ramifications of your proposal,” Julia said, taking a very pointedly calm sip of her tea-like substance. “In fact, it would be irresponsible to make this decision with less thought and care.”
Ess frowned, huffed. “But we.”
“Can hear our answer in a week,” Eliot said, waving one hand. “See you then, princess.”
Ess frowned mightily, but seemed stymied. He looked to a taller, white member of his party; the man had a long staff, and was wearing a robe. He shook his head, and Ess huffed again. “Fine, we return in one week. If you don’t have an answer then …”
“Don’t fret yourself,” Margo drawled. “Give it a week, you’ll find out who you’re marrying.”
Ess peered at them suspiciously, but left, seemingly uninterested in lunch now that negotiations had been stalled.
Quentin glanced at Margo nervously. “Who he’s marrying?”
She rolled her eyes. “None of us, obviously.”
“Right,” he said, relieved.
Eliot patted his hand.
“So who’s coming to see Ember and Umber?” Julia asked brightly. “Q?”
“We have more petitioners,” Quentin equivocated.
“We can handle that, darling,” Margo said, something wicked in her expression. “I’m sure Ember wants to see you again.”
“That’s not funny,” Quentin said flatly.
“But seriously, Q,” Margo said, smirk softening into something real. “You and Julia talked to him before, successfully. It just makes the most sense to send in the dream team, not a bunch of newbies.”
Quentin sighed, eyed the sandwiches for which he was no longer hungry. “Fine, back to the gods.”
“That’s the spirit,” Julia said, nudging him with her shoulder.
Eliot reached over and squeezed his hand. “Just try not to have too much fun.”
Quentin squinted his eyes at him, but Eliot just laughed and pulled him in for a hug. Quentin’s head came to rest on Eliot’s shoulder, and Quentin sighed, relaxing for a second. “Come back to me,” Eliot said, his voice soft and sincere now that it was just them. Quentin nodded, scrubbing his cheek against the scratchy brocade of Eliot’s jacket.
Quentin and Julia changed into hunting boots and warm jackets, and rode out toward Ember’s temple as the sun reached its apex overhead and petitioners began to spill into Whitespire’s courtyard. Quentin sat on his horse, a tall grey mare, and watched the line get longer by the minute. He fidgeted, and the horse, picking up his nerves, danced under him.
Julia mounted her own black gelding, and nudged him closer with easy movements. “You okay?” she asked.
“Yeah,” Quentin said, riding the horse’s high spirits with a half-remembered ease. “Like riding a bike.”
“I meant about leaving,” she said gently.
Quentin bit his lip, gripped the reins a little too tightly. “It’ll be fine,” he said, forcing the optimism. “We’re just asking for advice this time.”
“Right,” she said, a not entirely convincing answer.
“Right,” he echoed, and gently tapped his horse’s sides. “Margo and Eliot can handle things.”
“Of course they can,” Julia said, riding next to him. Their horses matched gaits easily, and they cantered for a bit before slowing to a walk as the trail grew less level. “If it’s anything like yesterday, they’ll be fine,” she continued as they slowed, and talking became possible again.
“We might need to start handling some of those requests ourselves,” Quentin said, sort of thinking aloud. “The monsters in the woods, that sort of thing.”
“You just want to go questing,” she said teasingly.
He flushed a little. “Well, yeah! Questing, Jules, in Fillory!” He stilled, sighed. “And I don’t like the idea of a bunch of guards getting killed trying to fix some of this stuff.”
She smiled at him. “You’re a good man, Quentin Coldwater.”
If anything, his flush deepened. “I’m, uh, I’m trying to be.” He glanced at her shyly. “I want to be.”
The woods they were riding through had been quite dense – lovely, but closed in and almost claustrophobic in how restricted any views were – but now they began to open up to broad, grassy meadows, and the horses picked up speed again, just to a gentle canter, the sort of gait they could keep up all day if they needed to. Quentin enjoyed the ride, and the widening vistas, and watched the land move by with a sense of awe and something like satisfaction. This was Fillory, and Fillory was his, and he was Fillory’s, and for a moment everything felt perfect.
After a few miles of this, his stomach cramped, and he pulled his horse back down to a walk. Julia slowed hers, too, and gave him a concerned look. “Everything alright?”
“Yeah,” he said, rubbing his belly with the hand not grasping both reins. “Just a cramp, sorry.”
“Did you even finish your breakfast?” she asked, slightly scolding. She’d always tried to take care of him, for most of their friendship anyway.
He shook his head. “Wasn’t hungry.”
“I have some apricots, I think,” she said, twisting in her saddle to sort through her saddlebags.
They munched on the snack together, horses still keeping to a slow, almost ambling walk, almost eerily sensitive to Quentin’s upset stomach. It was a reminder that they could understand English, and Quentin felt oddly self-conscious about the things they’d been discussing.
They were moving through another patch of forest, though this one was thinner and the trees grew far enough apart that the sun poured down to the forest floor and made for thick undergrowth on either side of the trail. Quentin thought he saw movement, and tugged on his reins. His horse stopped, turning her head about as if to ask why. Quentin heard the sound again, and slid down out of the saddle, looping the reins over the saddle horn absentmindedly.
“What is it?” Julia asked, peering through the trees.
“I’m not sure,” Quentin said, and pushed into the undergrowth.
It was thick, and prickly, and he followed the sound until he popped out into a clearing to find a fox caught in a rope trap. It was panicking, and flailing about, and it was his cries of help that Quentin had heard.
“Hello?” Quentin called, not wanting to get too close. “Are you caught?”
The fox stilled, panted, looked up at him. “You a hunter?”
“No,” Quentin said, raising both palms. “Can you not solve the riddle?”
The fox scoffed at him, a strange sound. “This one ain’t riddled, human.”
Quentin frowned. “I didn’t think that happened, here.”
“A child of earth,” the fox said in scathing tones. “You tend to be a naïve bunch.”
Quentin sighed. “Do you want help?”
The fox stilled its frantic tugging once more. “Are you offering?”
“Yes,” Quentin said, a little exasperated now. “Just, hold still.”
The fox did, and Quentin shot a quick spell at the rope, which unraveled neatly to coil at the fox’s feet. The fox sprang up, and eyed Quentin warily. “Well, go on then,” Quentin said, gesturing to the trees.
Without a word, the fox sprang away, and disappeared into the undergrowth before Quentin could say another word.
“Whatever,” he muttered to himself, before turning back to Julia and the horses.
Quentin and Julia consult Ember and Umber about the wellspring.
When they got to Ember’s temple, it looked completely different than it had before. Gone were the bright flowers of their first trip, back in the 1940s, but gone also were the limp and dying remains, the damp and decay banished by a hundred shining crystals, the flowers replaced by sculptures and jewels. The whole thing was radiant, and sparkled, and as they moved into the temple itself they moved into rainbows of refracting light.
“Wow,” Quentin said, looking around. He held up one hand, and watched the colors play over his skin.
“Wow is right,” Julia said, craning her neck, her mouth hanging open.
“I am so pleased you like it,” Ember said suddenly, appearing seemingly from nowhere.
Quentin jumped, then transitioned into an awkward curtsy. “Yes, it’s, um, lovely,” he managed, heart still beating a little fast.
“It’s beautiful,” Julia said, bowing. “Greetings, Ember.”
“Greetings, children of earth,” Ember said, seeming pleased with her formality. “How may I assist you?”
“Oh, well, we, uh,” Quentin stammered.
“May we speak with you and your brother?” Julia asked. “Umber?”
“Of course, of course!” Ember said in jolly tones. “You must come in and see what he’s done with the place, it’s simply divine,” he continued, then giggled at his own pun.
Quentin glanced uneasily at Julia. She nodded, and they stepped forward. Ember swept his arm in a simple motion, and they were inside.
“Royalty,” a voice cried, “my, we are graced.” A second ram-headed god stepped out, and Quentin and Julia stared at him.
“Umber,” Quentin realized, trying out another curtsy. He thought he might be getting better at them.
“Welcome,” Umber said, his voice a little less generous and jolly than Ember’s, but genuine and warm. “What do you think?” he asked, gesturing to their surroundings.
The interior had been redecorated as well, in jewels and crystals and swathes of gauzy white fabric. It was so far distant from the filthy cave they’d last visited that Quentin wasn’t sure for a moment it was the same place. It even looked bigger, like the space itself had changed.
“It’s amazing,” Quentin said honestly, and Julia echoed his praise. Umber looked pleased, and Ember put an arm around his brother, chuckling with him.
“But down to business, of course,” Umber said, leaning against his brother. “What would you have of us, children of earth?”
“It’s about the wellspring,” Quentin started nervously.
“Of course!” Ember seemed almost pleased to hear about it. “The wellspring is quite drained.”
“Yes,” Julia said slowly. “And we were hoping you could help with replenishing it.”
“We would certainly like to,” Umber said, stroking his neatly groomed goatee. Quentin’s thoughts stuttered for a moment – was it still a goatee on a goat? Or, um, ram, he supposed those were different.
“What do you mean?” Julia was asking. “Will you help, or not?”
“It’s not really up to us, my dear,” Ember said, picking at a lavishly set table of sweetmeats and candies.
“Of course, it is,” Quentin objected. “You’re … gods.”
“Well, exactly,” Umber said airily. “We are gods, and the wellspring must be repaired by profane hands.”
“Uh, profane?” Quentin asked, envisioning devils and heretics.
“Not divine,” Ember clarified.
“So it can be repaired?” Julia asked, getting back to the important part.
“Certainly!” Ember said, a familiar gleam in his eye. “With a bit of hard work, and some sacrifice.”
“Oh my god,” Quentin said, blanching.
“A repair spell!” Umber continued.
“That’s it?” Julia checked. “A spell?”
“Whew,” Quentin said, very quietly, to himself.
“Yes,” Ember took over the explanation. “One of you must travel to the source of the wellspring, deep underground, and repair the wards which guard the source of the spring and maintain its flow.”
“Oh, could the flow be increased?” Quentin asked quickly.
Umber frowned, but Ember said, “I don’t see why not.”
“Why, that’s amazing,” Quentin said, so relieved he barely knew what to do with himself. He’d psyched himself up for some new, impossible challenge, and here it was, just a matter of asking for help. “That’s fantastic.”
“Yes, it is,” Ember chortled. “Why do you want to increase the flow, Quentin Coldwater?”
“To, um, share some with Loria,” Quentin said without thinking.
“Loria?” Ember said, both thick eyebrows going up in surprise. “Whyever would you want to share with those barbarians?”
“They don’t have enough,” Julia said, her voice very level. “We just thought…”
“You just thought?” Ember echoed, a cruelly mocking twist to his words. “Humans,” he continued, “how could you possibly understand our designs?”
“I don’t understand,” Quentin said.
“Of course you don’t,” Ember said snidely.
“But you were fine with increasing the flow before I told you why we wanted it. Why does it matter?”
“Because Loria is the domain of want,” Umber said, pleasantly enough. “Whereas Fillory is the domain of plenty.”
“Simple as that?” Julia asked.
“So you just leave all those people to suffer for what? Balance?” Quentin turned in a small, frustrated circle, running both hands through his hair. “It makes perfect sense.”
“Q,” Julia objected.
“No, I mean, it makes perfect, logical sense.” Quentin looked at Ember and Umber then. “It’s just cruel.”
Ember looked stung, while Umber seemed almost … approving. “Yes, exactly,” Umber said, smiling. “A perfect, cruel logical division.”
“That’s not why you told me we should divide the wellspring unequally,” Ember said, that hurt look expanding into something else.
Umber sniffed. “I didn’t think you would understand.”
“Well, I don’t, brother.” Ember seemed to swell with something, and Quentin shrank back, grabbing Julia’s arm and pulling her with him. “I don’t understand this reasoning of yours. The Lorians are base, backwards people, that’s why they don’t deserve the blessings of magic.”
“They are as we made them,” Umber said, condescendingly.
Ember snarled at that, and stepped forward. Quentin feared the worst.
And then Julia stepped forward. “Enough!” she demanded, and something in her voice thundered.
The very air seemed to dim. Quentin quailed back from her. Even the two gods seemed a bit stunned.
Julia even seemed to have startled herself. She took a breath, and said, “I just meant, let’s all calm down.”
Umber now looked concerned, though Ember looked impressed. “God-touched,” he murmured, looking at her. “I should have seen it before.”
“Different from, uh, how I was …?” Quentin asked, still standing off to the side.
“Very different!” Ember laughed heartily. “Your friend carries a spark, Quentin Coldwater.” He looked at Julia now, though he still spoke to Quentin. “She should see it grow.”
“What does that, um, how exactly …” Quentin stammered.
“Holy shit,” Julia breathed, “this is it! Q,” she said, turning to him, “this is a different kind of magic!”
“Oh, your quest!” Quentin realized. She grabbed both his hands, and he grinned at her.
“Holy shit, indeed!” Ember said, and laughed, while Umber looked pained.
Julia had effectively diffused the tension, and they managed to get the brothers to agree on increasing the flow of the wellspring enough to share a bit with Loria, though Umber insisted they face some privation. Why, exactly, he wouldn’t say, and Quentin tugged Julia out of the temple before she could push them any further. They rode back to the castle together with spells and instructions and a light of hope in their eyes.
“We can restore magic to Fillory,” Quentin said, just about vibrating in his horse’s saddle.
Julia seemed a bit preoccupied, though. Her only response was a murmured, “Mmhmm.”
“And then we can really help these people,” Quentin continued, not really noticing, he was so excited. “We can re-grow the crops, and El was right, grow them smarter, use magic smarter, make things better for everyone.”
“Yep,” Julia said, guiding her horse around a bend in the trail.
“And maybe once we restore magic Ess won’t insist on marrying one of us,” Quentin said, more quietly.
Julia seemed to come back to herself then. “Hey, it’s okay,” she said, smiling at him. “We’ll get the alliance, and no one’s going to have to marry anyone. Else. Anyone else.”
Quentin looked at her. She grimaced at her slip-up, and he giggled at the face she made.
“But really,” he said, when he’d stopped laughing. “Fen seems nice.”
“She does!” Julia said quickly. “She is, she’s very nice.”
“What did you two talk about?”
Julia shrugged. “Her life, really. What she expected from Eliot. From us.”
“She’s a sweet girl.” Julia looked thoughtful then, and continued, “She wants what’s best for Fillory, for her people.” She chuckled a little then. “She’s a practical girl.”
Quentin squinted at her. “You like her,” he said after a minute.
“What?” Julia asked. “Of course I do, she’s very nice.”
“No, you like her, like her.”
“What is this, Coldwater, high school?”
He stuck his tongue out at her, feeling … somehow lighter, and a bit giddy. “Everything’s going to be okay,” he said quietly, and they rode on, content.
Julia and Quentin share the news with Eliot and Margo, and they all get the chance to know Fen a little better.
I must again thank my beta, scribblemoose, who is a star. ::smig::
It was nearly dark by the time they got back to the castle. Eliot and Margo had finished with the petitioners for the day, and were busily planning the next day, and the day after that, and petitions started to stack up. Margo was sorting issues into different piles based on urgency, and Eliot was working on solutions, both seated at the royal’s table in the dining hall in lieu of a better place to work.
Quentin rushed up to them, bubbling over with enthusiasm. “We know how to fix the wellspring!”
Eliot and Margo looked up at him, and at Julia who had followed behind more slowly. “That’s great,” Eliot said, putting down his pen (really it was a feather quill, and part of Quentin geeked out at seeing it). “What do we have to do? Fuck Umber this time?”
“Ha ha, no,” Quentin said, frowning a little. “Guys, c’mon, can we let this one go?”
They exchanged a brief, speaking glance. “Anything for you, sweetheart,” Margo said, leaning her chin on her hand. “So tell us, how do we fix it?”
“It’s just a spell,” Julia said, and if she sounded less enthusiastic Quentin didn’t really notice. “One of us has to travel to the head of the wellspring and renew its enchantments.”
Eliot and Margo both frowned, Eliot saying, “Why does that seem too easy?”
Quentin sat down in the chair next to Eliot’s, suddenly tired. “It’s not, exactly,” he admitted, pulling out the set of instructions Umber had included. “It’s apparently quite a tight fit, in the caves.”
“Caves?” Eliot asked, sounding dismayed.
Margo put her hand over his. “He’s claustrophobic,” she explained, glaring at Quentin as if this were his fault.
“Sorry,” Quentin said, “I didn’t know.”
Eliot shrugged. “It’s not something I like to spread around.”
“Some third-year dicks spelled him into the wall, our first year,” Margo growled.
“Jesus,” Julia said, sitting next to Margo. “That’s awful.”
Quentin reached for Eliot’s hand, too. “I’m so sorry that happened.”
Eliot shivered slightly. “Let’s talk about something else. You said it’s a tight fit?”
“Yeah,” Julia said, willing to go along with it. “Apparently only Margo or Quentin would even fit.”
Margo looked askance at Julia. “You’re tiny, why can’t you do it?”
Julia looked down, her mouth opening and then closing. Quentin, still vibrating with excitement, said, “The wellspring has to be fixed by human hands.”
He leaned forward to look from Margo to Eliot. “Julia’s divine.”
“What?” Margo asked flatly.
“Not exactly,” Julia said.
“What do you mean, not exactly?” Eliot asked her.
“She has a spark,” Quentin said, eyes alight. “Or, she’s carrying a spark. From Our Lady Underground.”
“We think,” Julia said absently.
Eliot managed a small, “Wow.”
Julia shrugged. “Ember said that I could grow it, the spark. Our Lady said I should find a new kind of magic. Maybe this is it.”
“Queen of Fillory and touched by the divine,” Margo said, sounding a touch bitter. “Things are just coming up roses for you.”
“Oh, speaking of roses,” Quentin said, turning back to Eliot, “did you ever explain composting and fertilizer and stuff?”
“Um, yes,” Eliot said, still staring at Julia, “but can we get back to the part where your childhood friend is on some new magic?”
“It was a disaster,” Margo told Quentin, in her way of telling a particularly funny story. “He’s all, sprinkle shit on the crops, and of course that’s barely half of it. The looks on their faces! And I had to make him actually explain what he meant, and how to do everything.” She gave Eliot a fond look. “But he overcame his childhood trauma for them. It was so brave.”
Eliot closed his eyes during his, and looked pained. “Yes, and now it’s over.” He softened then. “But thank you, Bambi.”
“So that’s one thing taken care of,” Margo said, looking down at her stacks of paper. “There’s a hell of a lot more, you guys.”
“Fixing the wellspring will take care of some of these issues,” Julia said, touching Margo’s shoulder.
Margo gave her a wan smile in response. “So who’s going down there? I’m not a big fan of tight spaces, myself.”
“I’ll do it,” Quentin said, glancing again over Umber’s instructions. “It should be pretty simple, and I’ve always thought spelunking sounded kind of cool.”
“Of course you did,” Eliot said fondly. Then he stretched his arms up over his head, and sighed. “Alright, that’s more than enough for today. Dinner?”
“Absolutely, yes,” Margo seconded.
“I’m starving,” Quentin added, jumping up. He stuffed the spells and notes in his bag, and looked to Julia. “Jules?”
She looked thoughtful. “I’m going to find Fen,” she said. “Go on without us, it shouldn’t take long.”
Eliot looked ambiguous about the prospect of eating with his wife. Quentin wasn’t sure himself how to feel about it. She had been part of a group that had killed him, technically; the only reason they hadn’t succeeded was a fluke, or divine providence. But Julia had that truth power, now, and if she said they could trust Fen, then Quentin wanted to believe they could.
Again, it was Margo who ended up deciding for them. “Fine, go get wifey.” She stood slowly, and grabbed Eliot and Quentin by the arms. “I need a drink.”
“Mmm, same,” Quentin said, liking the feeling of being held by her while she held Eliot, part of one whole.
Then Margo leaned into him, and sniffed his sleeve. “You smell like horse,” she informed him.
Eliot laughed, and Quentin flushed. “Oh, sorry. I could get another bath?”
“Eh,” Margo said, straightening up. “Worry about it later.” She sighed. “It’s been a long day.”
Eliot had downed three glasses by the time Julia pulled a reluctant Fen into the room. That wasn’t saying much – Quentin was still on his first goblet, though Margo was trying to keep up with El and both were giggling and flushed.
“I didn’t want to intrude,” Fen said, sitting down in a chair at a slight distance from them. Quentin realized how closely they were sitting, felt a touch self-conscious about it, and drank some more wine. But he didn’t move away. Some part of him felt like being further away from Margo and Eliot would hurt him, somehow.
“It’s not an intrusion,” Julia was saying, sitting between them as if to mediate. “We want to get to know you.”
“Mmhmm, yes, we do,” Eliot said, not entirely sincerely.
“What do you want to know?”
“How about your opinion on wine?” Margo said, offering her a goblet. “Red or white?”
Fen looked taken aback, clearly having expected an interrogation. “Um, I enjoy red,” she said meekly.
“Well, alright then,” Margo said, pouring her some. “A girl after my own heart.”
“Should we take care of the wellspring tomorrow?” Quentin asked, pouring Julia some white without needing to be asked. She nodded in thanks, and took a sip.
“Yes, as soon as possible,” Margo said, pointing at him. “We don’t want this thing to spiral out of control. Any delay could be dangerous.”
“You’re going to fix the wellspring?” Fen asked.
“Yes, Ember and Umber agreed to help,” Julia said, smiling at her. Fen smiled back, and Quentin looked down, feeling suddenly sorry that he’d teased Julia earlier.
“Then that’s wonderful,” Fen said, beaming at them. “Our woes are at an end!”
“One can only hope,” Margo sighed.
“Do you not trust Umber and Ember?” Fen asked, looking at Margo curiously.
“About as far as I can throw them,” Margo said, taking another drink. “They’re the only reason we’re royalty, a bunch of kids with no experience and no qualifications.”
Fen looked slightly taken aback.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Margo said, fixing her with a hard glare. “I’ll do my best for this damn place. I’ll be the best high fucking queen Fillory’s ever seen. But what kind of system is this?”
Fen said, hesitantly, “That is how many of the FU Fighters feel.”
“Bambi,” Eliot said.
“The Foo Fighters?” Margo sputtered.
“Yes,” Fen said, “the members of Fillorians United.”
Margo could only giggle helplessly, waving a hand at them. Quentin said, “That’s the name of a famous band, on earth.”
“A band?” Fen asked, looking between them.
“Tell us more about them,” Julia said to Fen, as their food was brought in.
A far cry from the feast of their first night in the castle, they were served bowls of broth thick with small dumplings, like little envelopes closed around tiny meatballs. The broth shimmered with fat and spices, and a thick glob of a pale pink sauce was dolloped on top before the servants left.
Quentin looked at the broth, took a tiny sip. The flavor exploded on his tongue, rich and unbelievably complex. He looked up at the others. “This is amazing!”
Eliot had already fit three of the tiny dumplings in his mouth, and was nodding his agreement.
“You like it?” Fen asked hopefully. “It’s a traditional recipe designed to make the most of our resources.”
“It’s delicious,” Julia enthused, slurping at the broth.
“And thrifty?” Quentin asked. “That’s, wow.”
“Yes, a meal like this only requires a pound of meat,” Fen explained, eating her own portion more daintily.
“As opposed to a chicken apiece,” Eliot realized, eating more slowly now.
“Precisely.” Fen beamed at him.
“So, what Julia asked,” Quentin said, drinking a bit of wine. “Can you tell us about them? What you want for Fillory?”
Fen put down her spoon, her face a little more serious. “I simply want what’s best for Fillory,” she started slowly. “For my family.” She looked at Eliot then. “My new family.”
“Right, yes,” Eliot said, not quite meeting her gaze.
Fen sighed. “We … think much as you do, majesty,” she said to Margo. “That children of earth are unprepared to rule, and often make mistakes.”
“We want to avoid that,” Julia said, smiling at her. “We would like to be good rulers, and to make Fillory the best place it can be.”
“What do you need?” Quentin asked, forcing himself to meet Fen’s eyes. She blinked at him, and he noticed her eyelashes were very thick, and long.
“We need education,” she said firmly. “You’re taking care of the famine, and that’s wonderful, but we need to know how to deal with magical shortages in the future.”
“We’re fixing the wellspring …” Margo said.
“But it was drained once.” Fen frowned. “It could be drained again, or something else could happen.” She looked between the four of them. “We don’t need magicians. Or, I mean, we need to be less reliant on magicians, and magic.” She gestured at nothing, at the whole room. “How many of our problems were caused by our complete reliance on magic? And yet fixed so quickly by King Eliot’s knowledge of fertaleezer.”
“It’s, um, fertilizer,” Eliot said, “and you can just call me Eliot, you know, we are married.”
“We can do that,” Quentin said quickly. “We can bring books from earth, teach you anything you need to know.”
She smiled at him tentatively. “That would be everything we need, thank you.”
“And we can still solve some things with magic,” Margo muttered.
“Well, of course,” Fen said. She sighed. “I just … I just want what’s best for my family.”
There was something in the way she looked at Eliot then that made Quentin slightly nervous, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on what, exactly, that was.
Part of the group sets out to fix the wellspring.
They resurrected the cuddle pile that night. Quentin and Julia were sore from being in the saddle all day, and Margo and Eliot were drained after dealing with petitioners on their own all afternoon. Also, they’d all had a little too much to drink, and tumbled into Eliot’s high king sized bed together. It was a little awkward at first, as Quentin gravitated toward the center, wedging himself between Margo and Eliot, before thinking of Jules.
His head popped up, and he stilled. Julia and Fen had curled up together on Margo’s other side, and Fen was already asleep. Julia placed one finger over her lips, and Quentin nodded, sinking back down. Eliot manhandled Quentin until his back was pressed to Eliot’s front, and his head tucked under Eliot’s chin. Quentin let this happen, and helped Margo get settled against his shoulder and, enfolded, fell into a deep, peaceful sleep.
It was just as well, because they were up at dawn to get ready for the expedition to the cave.
Quentin dragged himself out of bed reluctantly, washed hastily, and went looking for his steward.
The guards pointed him toward his own room, where apparently Fard had been sleeping in case Quentin needed him in the night.
Wandering the halls, Quentin wondered if his steward had a family, if he was keeping the man from anything.
“Fard,” Quentin called as he entered the room. “Can you put together something appropriate for exploring a cave?”
Quentin grinned at him. “We’re going to fix the wellspring!”
Fard seemed unphased. “And this will happen in a cave?”
“Yes,” Quentin said, trying to maintain his enthusiasm, “I have to, uh, travel to the head of the spring in, well, the cave, I guess.” He frowned. “So I’ll need ropes, harnesses, crampons …”
“What is a crampon?”
Quentin shrugged. “I was kind of hoping you would know.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Anyone in the castle an expert on this kind of thing?”
“Yeah, you know, quests, exploration, seeking in the depths.” Quentin's favorite books had never involved spelunking, or realistic expeditions into uncharted terrain. He was starting to regret that.
Fard looked thoughtful. “There is the knight of Tyre.”
“Tyre, your majesty,” Fard clarified, looking patient. “The knight has an inclination toward hidden depths, caverns, crevices, that sort of thing.”
Quentin looked at Fard for a moment. “That kind of sounds like. Um. A smuggler?”
“Ah, yes, sire.”
Quentin blinked. “Well, I guess that works.” He moved to the bed to retrieve his bag and his Fillory books to start researching the wellspring. “Could you, ah, find this knight and ask him what I should bring?”
“At once, majesty. I'm sure she will be happy to assist,” Fard said, and hustled out, a man on a mission.
“She,” Quentin repeated thoughtfully. A lady knight and smuggler. What would Fillory reveal next?
It took the remainder of the day to gather up the necessary gear. Fard hadn’t just asked the knight of Tyre for advice, he’d brought her back to Whitespire with the promise of a consultation fee, which they ought to be able to afford once the wellspring recovered. She was a striking figure, with bleached hair cropped close to her scalp, old but meticulously polished armor, and myriad tattoos on her brown skin. She came upon Quentin packing his bag, and the first he knew of it she was saying, “That will get you killed.”
“Gah!” Quentin yelled, falling over. When he finally got a look at her, she was smirking at him, one eyebrow raised cockily in a way he hadn’t expected. Still clutching at his chest, he asked, “Are you the smuggler knight?”
Her other brow joined the first. “It is perhaps alleged, your majesty.”
Quentin flapped a hand dismissively. “Get back to what you were saying before. What, uh, what's wrong with it?”
“That’s the wrong kind of rope, for starters.” She took a step closer, stilled. When he waved her on, she got close enough to pick up a coil of rope. “This is too fine,” she said, rubbing the coil with her thumb. She gestured for Quentin to do the same, and he did, reaching out hesitantly.
The rope felt smooth under his fingertips, almost cool. “It feels nice.”
“And that’s not what ropes are for,” she said, just a bit scornfully. “You need something capable of supporting at least sixteen stone, not this pretty shit.”
Quentin did some quick math in his head. “I don’t weigh that much,” he protested.
She frowned at him. “Sire, I think I should come with you.”
“What now, what did I say wrong?”
“The rope isn’t just going to hold your weight. Have you ever taken a fall? A real one, from a height?”
Quentin thought of his terrible impulse to hurt Penny the way Penny had hurt him, barely glimpsed battle magic vomiting out of him, flying through the air as the spell rebounded. He nodded.
“You put as much force on the ropes as your body did hitting the ground, maybe more.” She shook her head. “Fall far enough, and any amount of weight would snap these.”
“Oh, right, you have to factor in momentum.” For a moment Quentin couldn't believe he'd forgotten something so basic.
The knight talked him through the rest of his gear, and they joined Julia and Margo in the courtyard before nine, ready to go. Quentin was wearing his new tweed suit, suitable for caving, and laden down with a miner’s lamp, a massive coil of rough rope, a few climbing axes and metal spikes. He was also wearing a climbing harness over the tweed suit, and made for quite a sight.
“Got everything?” Margo asked him with a raised brow, shifting uncomfortably in her saddle.
“We could take the coach,” Julia offered.
“No need, I like to be on top,” Margo said, patting her horse’s sleek neck. “Besides, now I’m a queen I should see what all the fuss is about.”
Julia hid her laugh behind her hand. The horse made a slightly strange noise, though Quentin didn’t think anything of it.
“Where’s Eliot?” Quentin asked, looking around after he’d stowed most of his gear in his saddlebags.
“He and Fen are touring the farms,” Julia said.
“By themselves?” Quentin asked, thinking of the FU Fighters.
“I think it’ll be good for them,” Julia said, smiling in her new, sort of peaceful manner. “Some bonding time.”
“And a chance for the people to see their king doing some work,” Margo said dryly.
“We should move out,” the knight said, swinging up into her own saddle.
“And this is?” Margo asked, eyeing her flirtatiously.
“Oh!” Quentin said, blinking. “Sorry, guys, this is the Knight of Tyre. She’s a, uh. Cave. Expert. Yeah.”
“Pleasure,” the knight said, bowing stiffly from her saddle.
“Pleasure’s all mine,” Margo purred.
“Thanks for helping us,” Julia added, her tone more businesslike.
“Anything to help the people of Fillory, and your majesties, of course.”
Quentin wasn’t entirely sure that the pirate was being sincere, but he didn’t want to push it. She was helping, and that had to be enough.
They rode out then, mostly silent. It might have been the presence of the stranger with them, or it might have been the urgency of their task. Quentin wanted to go over Umber’s instructions again, but they were moving a little too quickly, the horses picking up their nerves and cantering briskly across fields and then into the deep woods. Before he really felt prepared for it, they were at the wellspring, the shithouse shack, or whatever Margo had called it.
It looked different in the light of day. Still small, and scrubby, for being the source of all magic. They dismounted, Margo stretching a little, the knight moving with an enviable ease. Quentin gathered all of his things, and started to wonder if it would all fit in the cave with him, if the space were so small.
He leaned both hands on the saddle for a moment, breathing hard. The mare’s head swung around, and she whickered at him.
“Thanks,” he whispered to her, and straightened up. He took one deep breath, straightened his shoulders, and marched to the door of the shack.
He stepped inside, and froze.
It no longer looked like Plover’s writing room. The shack was still larger on the inside than it appeared, but now it looked exactly like the renovated interior of Ember’s temple, a cave lit with light refracted from jewels and crystals.
“Wasn’t expecting this,” Julia said, looking around.
“Why’s it look like a caveman disco in here?” Margo asked.
The knight was silent, seeming awed.
“It looks like Ember’s temple,” Quentin explained, setting the massive coil of rope down and rotating his sore shoulder. The lights played across Margo’s face, and he watched her for a moment. “It’s, um, Umber redecorated. After.”
“So that’s why it doesn’t look like the pedophile’s office anymore?” Margo asked him, looking slightly annoyed that this place had changed on her.
Quentin wondered if she’d dreaded returning, if she’d been bracing herself to face the memories of their fight against the Beast. He wanted to hug her, but wasn’t sure if she’d let him, in front of the others. So he didn’t try. His mouth slanted unhappily.
Julia asked, “Everything okay, Q?”
“Yeah,” he said, trying to smile for her. “I’m just nervous, I guess.”
“Everything’s going to be okay,” she said, smiling at him. “I can feel it.”
She nodded, beaming, and held out one hand. He grasped it, feeling a little like he’d taken hold of an anchor. He suddenly felt more certain, more stable. Able to do this. He found himself returning her smile.
“Okay,” he said, psyching himself up. “Let’s do this.”
Quentin climbs down into the wellspring.
The cover of the wellspring, still locked by Martin Chatwin’s seal, was in the same place within the shack, though it seemed different with the newly rearranged interior. Margo stumbled over the cover, and Quentin pulled the lock out of his pocket. Once the cover was open, the four of them stared down into the wellspring’s glimmering depths, the smooth rock reflecting shades of dancing blue light. It reminded Quentin of Umber’s new temple design, and he wondered if that had been deliberate.
“Ready?” Julia asked him.
“Ready,” he echoed, nodding firmly.
Margo suddenly grabbed the back of his neck, and pulled him into a kiss. He squeaked, but soon relaxed into her. When she pulled back, his legs felt unsteady. “Come back to us, Coldwater.”
“I will,” Quentin murmured, mouth flattening into a slightly crooked line.
Julia looked slightly misty. Margo was smiling. He felt like a hero about to set off on a voyage.
The knight patted his shoulder briskly.
Julia and the knight helped him hook his harness into the rope, which they had anchored around a sturdy rock column that Quentin could only hope was a physical and real manifestation of Ember’s temple and not some sort of illusion magic. The rope was then fed through an old fashioned pulley system with a hand crank that the girls would take turns operating. Quentin eyed the whole contraption warily, not sure about the sheer number of ropes, the complexity of it, the pre-industrial mechanisms.
But it was time, and they lowered him down.
The harness tugged on him uncomfortably, but he almost didn’t notice as he got into the hole. It wasn’t dark at all, but filled with the glimmering blue light that came off of the water, or magic, the substance that flowed through the bottom of the cavern. He stared down at it as he was lowered slowly in little jerking movements; he was clutching at the ropes with both hands but all his attention was on what waited for him below.
The air got cooler as he got closer to the cave floor. The cavern was smaller even than he’d imagined it to be. It was a naturally (or magically) occurring structure, but it had the dimensions of a well – close and narrow. Actually the opening through which he was being lowered was shaped almost like a vagina, though he tried not to think of that as the air took on a damp, cold bite and the sound of water or whatever flowed below reached his ear.
It was very like water. It moved and flowed beneath him, and he watched the ripples as the rope turned over another cog on the crank’s wheel, and he jolted a little nearer to the source of all magic. It was mesmerizing, and his gaze grew fixed as he got even closer.
“Are you okay down there?”
Julia’s voice emerged from the spelled pin on his lapel, the closest to a walkie talkie they could manage in Fillory. In a way, Quentin thought it was cooler – it reminded him of the communicators on Star Trek. He tapped his, saying, “Everything’s good, over,” before returning his grip to the rope.
It was Margo’s voice now: “You don’t have to say over. Dork.”
Quentin couldn’t care about her teasing in that moment. He was at the bottom of the cavern. The magic lapped at his shoes. He was touching it. He was in it. He was in magic.
He gave the rope a couple of tugs, and the sound of the crank stopped. He hadn’t realized how loud it had been; now that it wasn’t grinding away above his head, he could hear the magic moving around, lapping at the walls of the cavern. There was something to it that was like water, but there was also something to it that wasn’t like water at all. It … moved differently. It seemed to … glide. That was the only word he could think of, glide over the worn-smooth stones.
Then he was standing in it. The source of all magic, lapping about his feet. Even through his boots he could feel it. A shiver ran up his spine, twitching his shoulders.
“Oh, wow,” he murmured, straightening up.
“Q?” The communicator. “You say something?”
He tapped his pin. “It’s good, it’s, uh, fine it’s just …”
He’d been saying something. “I’m … gonna go.” He said, thought for a moment. “Down the tunnel.”
“Q, I don’t know about this …” a woman’s voice was saying, but he tapped the pin again, and walked down the tunnel.
He hadn’t needed all the equipment. It was a tight fit, but the water, or magic, it put off that blue glow. So he set his lantern down. It was heavy, anyway. And the rope was kind of heavy. He shrugged the remaining coil off his shoulder as he walked, leaving it in a small heap in the magic.
Quentin watched his feet. They moved strangely through the magic. It wasn’t like water at all, he thought.
The tunnel got smaller. The V-shaped roof crouched low above his head. He felt it, almost pushing down on him. He kept going. It had seemed cool in the well-like portion, but now it seemed like it was getting warmer. He was sweating. He shrugged out of the tweed jacket. He thought he heard someone’s voice, and paused. He stood, swayed a bit.
Right, the pin!
He retrieved his communicator from his lapel, dropping the jacket carelessly back into the magic. “Hey,” he said to the pin. Nothing happened, and then he remembered to tap it. “Hey, it’s me, um, Quentin.”
“Oh my god, we know who you are.” That was Margo’s voice. “What is happening down there?”
“Maybe I should’ve gone with him.” And that was Julia.
Quentin smiled. “Hey, guys, what are you doing here?”
“Jesus Christ,” the pin said, though it sounded a lot like Margo. Quentin stared at the pin for a moment, confused. But it was okay, he was in Fillory, maybe talking pins were normal. He kept going.
“Quentin, are you feeling okay?” the pin asked.
He tapped at the pin, missed. Tapped it again, giggling to himself. “Yeah, Pin, I feel great. How’re, uh, how’re you?”
“He’s fucking baked,” the pin said.
He frowned at it. “Hey …”
“Quentin, do you remember why you’re down there?” the pin asked.
“How do you know my name?” Quentin gasped. “Are you a mind-reading pin?”
“We’re not the pin, you idiot, we’re speaking through the pin. It’s Margo. And Julia.”
“Oh, hey, guys,” he mumbled. It was getting hot again, and he was struggling out of his vest, or, uh, waistcoat, but the tunnel was so tight now that he was banging his elbows on the smooth rock walls.
“Quentin, do you know why you’re down there?”
“Down … where?” He tripped over nothing, fell into the magic with a splash.
Oh, and now it was soaking through his tweed trousers, splattered across his skin and sinking in and his back arched and he moaned, the feeling zinging through him like a sort of glow, a warmth he could feel down to his center and radiating off his skin.
“Quentin?” The pin, no, Margo and Julia, getting louder.
Everything felt distant. He got back up to his knees. He held a hand up, bracing himself against the wall of the tunnel. It was like it wasn’t his hand. He stared at it for a moment, laughed.
“What?” he asked the pin.
“Are you almost there?”
“To the source of magic, oh my god.”
He looked back where he’d been coming from, then toward where he’d been going. Or was that the other way around? He turned around. But wait, he was going up the tunnel, right?
“Um, hey,” he said to the pin. “I’m … which way am I going?”
“Quentin.” It was Julia’s voice now. She sounded calm, and level, and he listened to her. “Quentin, you need to go upstream.”
“Upstream,” he whispered, staring down at the magic.
“Just look down at the water, and figure out which way it’s flowing.”
“Now go the opposite way,” Julia said. “Go to where it’s coming from.”
“Okay, upstream,” he said to himself, peering at the magic. It was flowing from the narrower part of the tunnel. He swallowed, crouched down, and went further in.
If anything the magic was brighter here, a glowing blue that dazzled his eyes. The tunnel got even smaller, and he was crawling in it, and waves of pleasure ran through him like the most intense, floaty warmth. He stopped, giggling, then shook his head and crawled a little farther. What was he doing?
“What am I doing?” he asked the pin. He was so warm. Maybe he should take off his pants. His shoes had disappeared somewhere, and his bare feet felt nice in the magic.
“It’s okay, Quentin,” Julia said, soothing. “You’re going to the source of magic. You’re going to fix it.”
“I’m gonna fix it,” he repeated, staring ahead with a new determination. The tunnel, brightly lit as it was, seemed to waver before his eyes. He crawled another step, toppled over into the magic, came up giggling. “Gonna fix it,” he said again, and again, singing the refrain to himself tunelessly as the tunnel got smaller, and smaller. The bottom wasn’t so smooth, now, and his knees were starting to hurt, even through the good feeling. He paused, running a hand through his hair. It stuck a little, his hand was wet, and he looked at it. “Whose hand is that?” he whispered.
“Quentin, is someone down there with you?”
“What the hell!” he yelled, starting up. His head slammed into the top of the tunnel, and he fell back into the water. No, it was magic. He looked around. He was in a tiny tunnel, of rock, he was underground, what the hell?!
Shaking, Quentin felt around, trying to figure out why he was down here. There were sheets of paper folded in his pants’ pocket, and he took them out with trembling fingers. The blue light coming off the water, or, no, magic, was bright enough that he could read the scratchy writing. “Fixing the wellspring,” he read quietly. “What on earth …”
The pin! He touched it, asked, “Yeah?”
“Quentin, you said something about a hand. Is someone else down there?”
“No,” he said, his voice a little vague. “I mean, I don’t think so.” He looked around. “Jules, what’s going on?”
She sighed. “Quentin, you’re on a quest.”
He perked up. “Really? That’s awesome!”
“Yeah, awesome.” There was laughter in her voice, and he laughed too. “You’re heading upstream, okay, buddy? Do you still have the instructions?”
He looked down at the sheets of paper. They were shaking slightly. “Yeah,” he said, peering closer at them. “I have some paper, and, um, it says … oh, there’s a spell.”
“Yes, Q, a spell. Are you at the source?”
Quentin looked around his tiny patch of tunnel. He was sitting waist-deep in magic, the roof of the tunnel less than a foot from his nose. “I don’t think so,” he said doubtfully.
“Okay, Q, you have to keep going,” Julia said. “Can you do that for me?”
“Of course, Jules,” he said, stuffing the paper back in his pocket. It was like crawling on someone else’s knees, and someone else’s hands, but he kept moving forward. The light of the tunnel glimmered in front of him, wavering in and out of focus, and he fell over a few more times. He was soaked through, and it only ever seemed funny. He pulled himself up again. The tunnel was really small, now, and he was down on his belly. The water came up to his chin. He squeezed through the gap, straining his neck to keep his head above water.
He got stuck, partway through. He pulled with his arms, straining. With a grunt, he forced himself through. He left a little skin on the rock, and the water flowed against the cut, stinging and then suffusing him with the most delicious warmth.
On the other side of the tiny gap, the tunnel opened up, suddenly, all around him. He floundered in the water, staring around at the cave. It was almost round, and forty feet high or more – after the narrow tunnel, it seemed immense. Quentin’s mouth gaped open as he stared up at the ceiling of the cave, spangled with lights that seemingly had no source, and at the center, there was a basin, and from it the water welled in a steady trickle.
Quentin crawled to the edge of the cave, and used the wall to help lever himself upright. He swayed, almost fell, and grabbed onto the wall.
Quentin shook himself. “Yeah, Jules, I’m here.”
“Are you at the source?”
“Yeah, I think so.” He looked around. “This has to be it.”
“Okay, can you do the spell?”
“Spell.” He thought. “What spell?”
“Q, there’s a spell, on some papers in your pocket.”
He searched through his pockets until he found a few crumpled papers. He pulled them out, and tried to smooth them. His hands were shaking.
“I have some papers,” he said, remembering to tap the pin. “Jules?”
“What’s going on?”
“I think you’re being affected by the magic, Q, but hold on. You can do this.”
“I can do this,” he echoed. The pages fluttered in his hands. They felt strange, and he realized they should’ve been wet, but they weren’t wet. He frowned, eyebrows coming together. He rubbed the sheets of paper between his fingers.
The writing on them was scratchy, spidery. He squinted at the instructions, mouthed them until they made sense. “I can do this,” he said, feeling a little zing of excitement in his belly. He rubbed his forehead with the back of one hand. He was so warm, and it was such a pleasant warmth but almost on the edge of too much. He shrugged out of his shirt.
The pin said something, but it fell in the water, and he didn’t hear it.
The paper rattled strangely. He crumpled it back up, and faced the fountain, and did the spell. The hand movements felt familiar, like he’d practiced this, and the words came easily, and the power was all around him in the cave and it flowed through him so easily.
It was done. He huffed out a breath, and waited for something to happen.
Slowly, so slowly he thought he might be imagining it, the glow from the fountain increased, and the flow from the fountain increased. It was coming out at a trickle, and then faster, and faster, more of it until it was gushing upward with the force of it.
“It worked!” he yelled, punched the air. He looked around. He tapped at his chest, met bare skin. He looked down. “Where …” His shirt was gone. And the pin, where was …
The magic was flowing faster, now, and it was almost a torrent, geysering up out of the fountain. He blinked, looked to the tunnel – but it was already underwater. He remembered how narrow it was, and swallowed.
He really hadn’t thought this through.
There was an overwhelming blue light.
Quentin was tumbling, caught by a current.
He thought he screamed, or tried to scream. Inhaled water instead of air.
His lungs burned.
His body slammed into hard rock. He flailed out an arm, banged it against stone but couldn’t get purchase.
There was suddenly light, then darkness again. He kicked, reached for something, but there was nothing within his grasp. His lungs burned.
He lost time. There was darkness, then light. He was on a shore. He coughed, retched up water, or magic, vomiting it and feeling it stream out of his lungs. He fell, face-down. Blinked, and the light was different, like the sun had moved. He was laying face down in wildflowers.
He coughed again, and staggered up. He couldn’t feel his feet beneath him. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, or shoes, and he shivered even in the bright sunlight.
Quentin wrapped his arms around his middle, and looked around. He was … he was in a forest. It didn’t look familiar. Tall trees and very little undergrowth – he could see for miles between the trees, they stood above him more like the columns of a building. There was a sound of running water behind him. He shivered again, took a few steps. Coughed, and a little water came up. There were flowers beneath the trees, beneath his bare feet. He kept walking.
He couldn’t have said later how long he stumbled through the forest, lost. He ached, for a time, but that faded. His head hurt, but then felt … fizzy. Gently floating through the bare-trunked trees somewhere above his numb feet. Barely attached to his body.
After a time there was a rustling in the sparse undergrowth. A flash of color, and a fox appeared.
Quentin staggered to a halt against a tree trunk, and said, “Hey, there, mister fox.”
“Hello yourself, human,” the fox said.
Quentin swayed, and clung to the tree. “You can talk!”
The fox squinted at him. “Are you … feeling alright, child of earth?”
“Yeah, pretty, pretty good,” Quentin said, then giggled, and leaned forward, still clinging to the tree, to whisper, confidentially, “I’m, uh, I think I’m lost.”
“I see …” the fox said dryly. He waited then, and Quentin watched him, staring at the little bits of fur that waved in the breeze. “Do you need something? Anything?” the fox prompted.
Quentin shrugged, swayed again. The tree he was holding onto was smooth under his fingers, and his gaze fixed on it next, following the grain of the bark and stroking it softly.
“Why don’t you wait here, child of earth.” The fox turned, then paused. “You don’t … recognize me?”
“You’re a fox,” Quentin said, and sat down abruptly. “Ow,” he giggled.
The fox looked at him for a moment longer, then darted away.
A little sun came down through the high branches, and it felt nice on his face. Quentin stared up into the rustling leaves, feeling just a touch woozy. He folded his arms, and curled up so that his back was braced against the tree trunk. He shivered, coughed again.
In the distance, there were voices. They were shouting, and they sounded familiar. Quentin perked up a little, trying to sit up. He pulled at the tree, slid down its slick bark, finally rolled over to his knees and climbed up slowly. There was still shouting, and he turned toward it, taking a wobbly step.
Suddenly Margo and Julia burst through the trees, and he was engulfed in their arms. The Knight of Tyre followed a moment later, and even she looked relieved to see him.
“Quentin, what happened?” Julia asked.
“I dunno,” Quentin said, shrugging.
They seemed to notice his unclothed state, then, and Margo shrugged out of her cape and slung it around his shoulders. He clutched it to himself, shivering.
“The wellspring filled right up and you didn’t, you were just, we thought …” Julia was saying, and there were tears in her eyes.
“I’m okay,” Quentin said, swaying a little. Margo shoved herself under his arm to prop him up.
Julia grabbed his chin, and made him meet her eyes. “Holy shit, Q, your eyes.”
“What?” he asked.
Margo turned his head toward her, and whistled. “He’s still high.”
“As a kite,” Julia echoed. “It was affecting him while he was down there, why …?”
“Q,” Margo asked slowly, “did you … I don’t know, touch the magic?”
“Yeah,” Quentin said easily. “A lot.” He paused, giggled. “A lot a lot.”
“Jesus,” she said, sounding almost awed.
“Is it going to wear off?” Julia asked.
“I guess we’ll find out,” Margo said, and tugged on Quentin’s arm. “C’mon, let’s get him back to the castle. We need to tell El about the wellspring. And, well, he’s going to want to see this,” she snickered.
“Don’t be mean,” Quentin said, leaning into her dizzily as Julia darted back the way they’d come.
“I’ll show you mean,” she said teasingly, and poked at his ribs.
Quentin staggered, and nearly went down.
“Shit, Q, sorry,” Margo said, almost to herself, as she fought to keep him on his feet. “I should've gone.”
Quentin found this terrifically funny, for some reason, and doubled over with high pitched giggles. She swatted his arm, told him to stop that, but it was like he wasn't in control of that part of himself and he kept laughing, until the giggles trailed off into breathless hiccups.
Julia returned with the horses. Quentin was shivering, and the knight removed her jacket to reveal that she was wearing at least three shirts; she removed the outer layer, a loose shirt in a wrap design, and Margo and Julia worked together to thread Quentin's arms through the sleeves,. Margo tied the shirt closed while Julia propped him up. They tossed Margo’s damp cape across her saddle.
Quentin’s giggles faded into hiccups, and he pressed a hand to his stomach, which felt tight, and tender. They took a step toward the horses, all together like they were competing in a six-legged race, and then Quentin's stomach turned, and he leaned over and vomited glowing blue magic on the ground.
“Gah,” Julia yelped as some splattered her shoes.
“That doesn't seem right,” Margo said, holding him tighter.
Quentin burped, smacked his lips. There wasn't an objectionable taste of bile, just an odd tingling. Where the blue vomit had landed, flowers bloomed.
They got him up onto his horse, and he leaned over her neck and buried both hands in her mane, and dozed off.
The ride back to the castle seemed to pass in a blink. Quentin had somehow slept through it, for when he was next aware they were at the castle gates, surrounded by excited members of the court, and someone was pulling him out of his saddle.
He flailed, kicked, and a voice said, “Be calm, your majesty, we’re only helping you down.”
“Oh, right, sorry,” Quentin muttered, feeling dazed and taken off guard as unfamiliar hands hauled him bodily down. When he was set on his feet, it was between two guards the size of linebackers, as tall as Eliot and three times as wide. He stared up at them, patted one’s burly arm.
“Thanks, guys,” he said, and burped again, swayed. One put a hand the size of a dinner plate over his belly, to steady him, but the pressure was too much, and Quentin leaned forward and vomited again. Just a little blue stuff came up. And, as they watched, a flower poked up through the cobblestones, and bloomed.
“Your majesty?” one of the tall men asked, sounding worried.
“Ask the queens,” Quentin managed, and fell in a dead faint.
Quentin came to some time later on a chaise lounge near the royal table in the banqueting hall where they’d been having meetings. He turned his head on a feather pillow, blinking.
The hall had been decked out for a celebration. Servants were still stringing garlands, setting the long table, and the mood could only be described as festive. He levered himself up onto one elbow, and Julia rushed over to his side.
“You’re awake!” she said, smiling at him gently.
“What happened?” he asked, searching his memory and finding little that made sense.
“Oh, and you’ve sobered up,” she said, her smile turning into a slightly mean smirk.
“Um, I have?”
She nodded. “As far as I can tell, you were submerged in the magic, and it left you a little loopy.”
He squinted. “That … sounds kind of familiar. Maybe.” He ran a hand through his hair, which was softer than he remembered it being. “How did I get out of there?”
“You don’t remember?”
He shook his head. “I remember finishing the spell … and then the water, uh, magic was rising, and I remember thinking it was too late to get back through the tunnel.” He shivered. “Which was really fucking small, by the way.”
“Ember did warn us,” Julia said, touching his arm. “We’re not really sure how you got out. We were coming back, thinking we’d lost you, when a talking fox just came out of the woods and told us you were lost in the forest.”
“Wow, that’s weird.” Quentin frowned. “I think I remember a fox …”
“Whatever happened, I think still being powered up by Ember saved your life,” Julia said solemnly, and then took his hand. “We really thought …”
“Hey, I’m okay,” he said, pulling her into a hug. They clung to each other for a moment.
And then Margo was there, inserting herself into the hug with an indignant, “I was worried too, you assholes.”
“Sorry,” Julia said, “he really just woke up.”
Quentin felt Margo trembling in his arms, and held them both tighter. “Sorry, guys. Didn’t mean to worry you. Again.”
Margo poked him in the ribs, but pulled him closer when he tried to flinch away. “You’ve gotta stop doing this to me, Coldwater.”
“Sorry,” he whispered again, pressing a kiss to her hair.
Julia pulled back a little, wiping her eyes. “Anyway, we let everyone know that you fixed the wellspring, and they want to have a celebration.”
“We,” he said, frowning. “We fixed it. And we should probably get the knight a pardon, for her help.”
“Already done,” Margo said briskly, standing up. “And she’s been given a license to trade, if she wants to go straight.”
“Wow, that’s … such a good idea,” Quentin said, marveling at Margo’s forethought. She’d seemed like such a party girl, a mean girl, back at Brakebills. He never would have thought she’d be so good at diplomacy, and ruling a kingdom, but here she was. Magnificent.
She rolled her eyes at him, mask firmly in place again. “We’ve earned this,” she said to them both. “Let’s party.”
“Is Eliot back yet?” Quentin asked, looking around the hall.
“No, but it’s still pretty early,” Julia said.
Quentin blinked. “I guess I thought our quest took … longer.”
Margo sighed. “It seemed that way. Now, enough gab. I need a drink,” she said, and wandered off in search of a bottle of wine, or a servant to fetch one.
Tick found them just a few moments later, a smile on his face that seemed so genuinely pleased that Quentin had trouble placing it for a moment. “Congratulations, your majesties!” he burbled to Quentin and Julia. “With the restoration of the wellspring, we’ve already seen improvement in our control of the rain, and the beetles seem much healthier.”
“That’s wonderful,” Quentin said, a feeling of exhaustion coming over him.
“Thank you for checking on everything, Tick,” Julia said graciously.
“Is this going to help with the Loria situation?” Quentin asked slowly.
“It should, your majesty.” Tick paused, and looked thoughtful for a moment. “There is one other thing …”
“What?” Quentin sighed.
“The marriage might not be a bad idea.”
“No,” Julia said, “absolutely not.”
Tick raised both hands as if to pacify her. Quentin could have told him that wouldn’t work. “I merely meant that an engagement might …smooth things over.”
Quentin frowned. “And not go through with it?”
“You might … come to like Prince Ess, in time.”
“I don’t think I will,” Quentin said dolefully.
“It’s not an option,” Julia said, her voice hard.
“Of course, your majesties. Merely a suggestion.” Tick bowed awkwardly. “The celebration should be starting soon.”
“Oh,” Quentin started, and sat up a little. “Should I get changed? Or,” he touched a hand to his hair.
“There’s no need,” Tick assured him. “Everyone understands that you have been questing.”
“Still,” Quentin said, looking down at his borrowed shirt and tweed climbing trousers, which had dried wrinkly and water stained.
Julia gave Tick a stern look. “Is this more sabotage?”
“No!” Tick said immediately, sounding genuinely surprised. “I thought …” He leaned forward, and lowered his voice. “I thought that if everyone saw the effort your majesties had expended in addressing Fillory’s woes, perhaps they would extend you the benefit of the doubt in other matters.”
“What other matters?” Quentin asked, concerned.
“No,” Julia said thoughtfully. “That’s a good idea.” She looked at Quentin for a moment in a way that made him feel slightly worried. “Q, look sadder.”
He raised both brows, and she wrinkled her nose at him. “No, sad.”
He tried lowering both brows, and couldn’t hold it – they both burst into giggles, and Tick looked between them uncertainly.
“Your majesties?” he asked nervously.
Her giggles trailing off, Julia said, “It’s not a bad idea, Tick. Thank you.”
Quentin couldn’t think of anything to say, and just gave Tick a nod as the man bowed and went to manage other banqueting preparations. Once he was out of hearing range, Quentin asked Julia, “Do you really think this is a good idea? I look like a bum.” He looked down, and picked at his borrowed shirt. He didn’t feel grimy, or anything, but he was certain that he looked terrible.
“You look like you’ve been through the wars, yes,” Julia said, sitting next to him on the lounge and leaning against his side. He tilted his head to rest on the top of hers, and she wrapped an arm around him. “What’s really going on, Q?”
He pressed his cheek to her hair. “I don’t, um, I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“What do you mean?” She turned a little. “You just restored the wellspring, Q, you’re a hero.”
“I don’t feel like one,” he whispered, like a confession. His knee jiggled in a bout of nerves. “Or a king. I haven’t really done anything since we got here that was … Kingly.”
Julia hugged him tighter. “Okay, one, we’ve only been here for a few days. And two, you’ve been doing exactly what we needed – letting Fillory get to know you, the real you. Q, fixing the wellspring means so much more than having some attitude, or whatever.”
“I wish Eliot were here,” he said, even quieter.
“I know, bud,” Julia said, then nudged his side. “But hey, you can do this. And I’m here, and Margo’s here. And I bet Eliot and Fen will be back soon,” she cajoled him.
“Yeah,” he agreed, trying to force himself to cheer up. “You’re right, I’m just … a little down. Sorry.”
“You don’t have to apologize to me,” Julia said fondly. “Just lie back, get some rest if you can. We’ll stick close.”
“Kay,” he murmured, curling up on his side and wrapping his arms around a throw pillow. Julia stayed with him, and they watched the bustling servants develop the hall into a glittering, organized space.
Margo came back with a bottle of wine in each hand, and looked at them dourly. “What the hell?” she asked, cocking one hip. “You were fine when I left, what happened?”
Quentin shrank a little. “Didn’t mean to bring the mood down, sorry,” he murmured.
Margo softened, her face becoming tender. “Feeling some post-quest letdown?” she asked sympathetically.
He blinked. “Yeah, I think … I think that’s what it is. I just.”
Margo nodded, sitting on his other side. “I get it,” she said, passing him a glass of wine. “It should feel amazing, what you did.”
“But it doesn’t,” he complained, taking a gulp of the wine. “I just feel like … like I didn’t do enough.”
“That’s normal, I think,” Margo said, and Julia made an affirming noise, rubbing his back. “You had purpose, and drive, and while you succeeded, the purpose is gone.”
Quentin stared at her. “Yes. That’s … holy shit, that’s it exactly.”
She looked slightly smug. “I know you, Quentin Coldwater,” she said, and leaned in to give him a surprisingly platonic peck on the lips. “Now drink your wine, puppy.”
Eliot and Fen return from their tour of the farms, and Fen comes up with a plan.
Quentin stayed on the chaise for most of the celebration. There was a lot of food on the main banqueting table – he wasn’t sure how magic farming worked, but he wasn’t sure they should be burning through their larder this soon. But he tried not to worry about it, through the speeches, Julia saying a few words, then Margo saying rather a lot more, Tick reporting on the improvements he’d shared earlier. Quentin was made to stand once, to take a bow – there was a lot of applause, and he looked out at the faces of the nobles and palace guards and servants and thought he should feel proud or something but he mostly felt warm.
Margo left to do some mingling, but Julia stuck close to him, and as the nobles came by she deflected most of their attention. Quentin tried to stay alert, but at some point he dozed off, and woke to a much stiller room, dim candlelight and just a few revelers left, Julia still at his side. As he blinked himself awake, Margo returned with a plate of food, and the three of them ate in relative privacy as the party wound down.
The nap, mortifying as it was, had helped, and Quentin felt a little more like himself as he sat up on the chaise and accepted more food.
“How was the celebration?” he asked between bites.
“You were here,” Margo said, looking both exasperated and amused.
“He was tired,” Julia defended, patting his shoulder. “It was good! Everyone was very impressed that we fixed the wellspring so quickly. A few people mentioned other problems, so I think we’re getting a reputation for solving things.”
“Not the worst reputation we could get,” Margo said archly.
She was interrupted by the opening of the grand hall doors. It was Eliot, returned from his tour of the farms with a smear of dirt on his face and a wild look in his eyes. He had Fen in tow, and scooped up Quentin and Margo. Quentin had time to give Julia a little wave, but Eliot hustled them to his rooms, sitting the three of them on his bed to pace in front of them for a few minutes.
“Eliot?” Quentin asked, looking sideways at Fen. She looked back at him calmly and, reassured that they probably weren’t in immediate danger of insurrection, he raised both brows at Eliot. “El, what’s going on?”
“Fen and I have been talking,” Eliot said, then seemed to stall out.
“About what?” Margo asked dryly.
“Are the farms okay?” Quentin asked hopefully. “Did the fertilizer plan work?”
“Yes, yes, fine,” Eliot said, waving a hand dismissively.
“We fixed the wellspring, you know,” Margo said dryly.
“Which is great, wonderful,” Eliot said, a touch dismissively. “Knew you could do it.”
“Quentin died again,” Margo said, raising one brow.
Eliot stopped for a moment. “Q?”
Quentin flapped a hand at him. “I’m okay, I’m still powered up.” He shrugged. “Just a little tired.”
Eliot looked relieved, but still took a moment to pull Quentin into his arms. He hugged Quentin tightly, and said, “I told you to be careful.”
“I was,” Quentin protested. “It just got a little hairy down there.”
Eliot sat down abruptly. “Jesus, you died.”
“I’m okay,” Quentin insisted, shooting a glare at Margo for bringing this up now. “Really, I’m fine. I was high, earlier, you would’ve found it hilarious.”
Eliot’s eyebrows did something complicated. “I’m sorry I missed that …” Then his expression crumpled, and he hugged Quentin again. A big hug, both arms wrapped fully around him, forcing Quentin’s chin over his shoulder. “You won’t be powered up forever,” he said. “Then what?”
Quentin returned the hug, patting Eliot’s shoulder. “I doubt we’ll need to restart the wellspring again.”
“I’m sorry,” Margo said, her voice a little small. “I didn’t mean …”
Eliot pulled back, sniffed. “It’s okay. I … it’s been kind of a long day. Fen and I, well, we talked about, um, children.”
“The king needs an heir,” Fen said, clearly trying to steer the conversation.
Quentin blinked. “Yeah, that’s, um, true.”
“So what does this have to do with us?” Margo asked, catching on a little quicker.
Eliot laughed nervously. “Oh, well, that’s the thing. Fen’s great, you’re great, honey, but not …”
“I’m not his type,” Fen said, and she said it in a slightly bitter tone but also as if she was resigned to it at this point.
“So have you not actually …” Quentin began, alarmed.
“No, we have!” Eliot snapped. “We have, we did.”
“On our wedding night,” Fen said pointedly.
“Right, but every since then, um.” Eliot sighed.
“Honey,” Margo asked, one eyebrow going up. “Can you not get it up?”
“That’s unfair,” Eliot said with a sort of quiet dignity. “But yes.”
Quentin frowned, thinking of the times he, Margo and Eliot had sort of slept together. “Yes, you can,” he said, confused.
Eliot rolled his eyes. “I think you’re thinking of a very different circumstance, Q.”
Both of Quentin’s eyebrows went up. “You mean?”
“Yes,” Eliot hissed.
“I am …” Quentin blushed. “I am so sorry, I didn’t realize the marriage contract was so, um …”
“You are kind of an idiot,” Margo said, but she said it fondly, brushing a bit of hair back from his face.
“So what does that, um, arrangement have to do with getting you an heir?” Quentin asked.
“I’m proposing we include Fen,” Eliot said simply.
“If the contract is that strict, then she can’t sleep with anyone else either,” Quentin said slowly.
“But Eliot can watch you,” Fen said, shrugging.
“Is a baby that important?” Quentin asked.
“Yes,” Fen said, suddenly intent. “A stable monarchy would change Fillory for the better, and prevent any other idiots from wandering in and claiming an empty throne.”
“Woah, hey,” Margo said.
“She meant other than us, right honey?” Eliot asked.
“Yes, of course.”
“So you’re after a dynasty,” Quentin said. “It makes a lot of sense.”
“So will you help us?” Fen asked him, then turned her pleading gaze to Margo.
“Ugh, yes,” Margo said, then to Eliot, “Anything for you, babe.”
“Me, too,” Quentin said nervously, his fingers twisting together. “But, um, how would this work?”
The answer turned out to be mirrored glasses, and creative spell work. Quentin and Fen would take matching positions on their hands and knees on Eliot’s bed, and while Eliot fucked Fen he would be seeing himself fuck Quentin, aided by Margo and a strap-on to complete the illusion.
Quentin was all for trying that night, especially since Eliot seemed so eager to get started. But after they’d talked, he’d nearly collapsed, and Eliot had needed to carry him to bed. The next day, he’d been a little nervous when talking to any of the three, and had mostly stuck by Julia’s side.
When she asked what was wrong, the whole thing had come spilling out.
After laughing at him for a good five minutes, she hugged him, and told him she was proud of him.
“What for?” he asked, pressing the words into her sweet-smelling hair.
“You’re helping your friends,” she said simply, squeezed him hard, and let go. “And I think Fen is right, this is a good move for Fillory.”
He nodded. “It makes sense, a lot of sense. I’m just …”
“Nervous?” she said sympathetically.
“Yeah, a little. It’s kind of … I barely know Fen, you know?”
“You could try to get to know her.”
“That might be more awkward,” Quentin said, his hands opening and closing anxiously.
He was useless during petitions that afternoon, squirming in his chair until Eliot grabbed his hand and held it. The feeling grounded him, a little, but he still didn’t hear anything, his thoughts on that night.
Quentin eyed the bed nervously. Fen stood next to him, and they were both clad in simple robes that would have to come off soon. Quentin had learned Julia’s prep spell, and was tempted to use it now, but Eliot had insisted that watching Margo finger him would help with the libido issue.
“Are you sure you’re okay with this?” Quentin asked Fen.
She turned to him with a clear gaze. “We all do what we must for Fillory.”
Quentin felt caught by her eyes for a moment, as if he couldn’t look away. “Yeah,” he agreed, and weirdly that lifted a weight off his chest. Eliot and Margo were conferring over something to do with the spell, thick as thieves like always, and Quentin let his robe drop. Fen raised a brow, and let hers drop, too.
She was beautiful. Curvy with skin like fresh milk and rosy nipples that Quentin wanted to nibble even though he really wasn’t allowed to touch. They could get away with kissing, though, he thought to himself. She was also giving him the once-over, eyes traveling up and down his body. She gave an approving hum, and smiled at him. It was a nice smile.
“We really doing this?” he asked, nerves turning into zings and tingles in his belly, anticipation curling his toes.
“We’re doing this,” Fen said, and winked before crawling up onto the bed.
It was fairly inspiring, and Quentin crawled up after her, his cock already hardening.
They settled onto their hands and knees, roughly parallel on the mattress, a few feet apart. Quentin looked over at her, at the curtain of her long hair hanging down and hiding her face a bit. “So have you been thinking of baby names?” he asked her.
She giggled a little. “Not yet,” she admitted, “though I’ve always like Violet for a girl.”
“Oh, that’s pretty.” Quentin thought for a moment. “Can a girl become high king?”
It was a strange conversation to be having while naked, but they both appreciated the distraction while they waited.
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “But she could at least be high queen, and have some measure of control.”
“So a new high king can’t replace the other king and queens?” Quentin asked, arching one brow. “That’s good to know.”
“Yes, the kings and queens rule together but each also has their own power,” Fen confirmed, rolling her shoulders a bit. “You really should know this.”
Quentin sighed. “The books were less informative than I’d hoped.” He thought for a moment. “They were children’s books, to be fair.”
“So all your knowledge of Fillory comes from … children’s books?”
“Well, that’s, I mean, technically … yes.”
Fen glanced at him, frowning. “We should talk.”
“I would love that! The library is weirdly empty, we think the Beast might have emptied it out, and I would love to learn more about Fillory. I want to learn everything about it.” He paused, bit his lip. “I love Fillory.”
Fen patted his hand. “I know you do.” She smiled a little. “It’s why I trust you.”
“Thanks,” he said, trying to smile back. His fingers flexed nervously in the coverlet. “Should we have gotten drunk for this?”
She giggled. “Maybe?”
“I wouldn’t say no to a drink,” Margo said wearily, climbing onto the bed to join them.
“Everything okay?” Quentin asked, turning to look at her.
She was wearing an odd pair of sunglasses, and she was naked. He swallowed, sitting back to take in her harness and cock. It was larger than he’d been imagining, and he swallowed again. “Is that, uh…”
“Finest money can buy,” she said, wiggling her hips a little so that it wobbled. Quentin’s eyebrows went up. “You likey?”
“It’s, um, bigger? Than I was thinking?”
She looked down at it. “It’s a perfect match for El’s,” she said pensively.
“Oh,” Fen said faintly. “It didn’t, I mean, it seemed less … aggressive. On our wedding night.”
“Honey,” Margo said, putting a hand to her heart. “You haven’t been laid since your wedding night?”
Fen frowned at her. “No, I haven’t.”
“Sorry,” Quentin said, not sure why he was saying it but feeling she deserved some kind of apology.
She patted his hand again, and said cheerfully. “We’re fixing it now.”
Eliot emerged, also naked, but wearing what looked like sunglasses. He never wore sunglasses at Brakebills, and Quentin thought they were a good look for him, making the line of his jaw stand out and his lips look softer.
“Rein it in, Coldwater,” Margo said, swatting his arm with the back of her hand.
“What?” he muttered, ducking his head.
“Oh, Q,” she said fondly. “Never change.”
“Are we ready?” Eliot asked, spreading both arms to put himself on display. “Because I can’t see a damn thing right now.”
Quentin snickered, and Margo smacked his arm again. “We’re ready, El,” she said, shifting on the bed.
Eliot felt his way toward the bed and got one knee on the edge. He was still soft, and frowning slightly. “Where are you guys?”
“Here,” Fen said, reaching for him. He groped across the bed until he found her hand, and crawled over to her.
“Okay, so, now what?” Quentin asked nervously.
“Now we get started,” Margo said, rubbing her hands.
The fertility ritual.
“So you’re seeing from Margo’s eyes?” Quentin asked as Margo worked another finger into him. The stretch burned a little, and he huffed, arching his back.
“Oh, yeah,” Eliot said, his voice a purr. “Seeing you loud and clear.”
Quentin giggled, then sighed, pushing back into Margo’s touch. “I don’t, uh, I don’t think that’s how it works.”
“Says you, Coldwater,” Eliot growled, and Fen squeaked.
“You okay?” Margo asked her, fingers slowing.
Fen murmured an assent, and Quentin wiggled his hips. “C’mon,” he muttered.
Margo smacked his ass, just hard enough to sting, and he jumped a little. “Patience, little Q.”
“Mmm, do that again,” Eliot said breathily.
“You okay with that, Q?” Margo whispered.
Quentin’s forehead dropped to the pillow. “Um, sure?”
Margo kept stretching him for a moment, working in a third finger. Quentin moaned, and spread his thighs a little more. She scissored her fingers, and then curled them down, finding his prostate with arrow precision and rubbing it firmly. Quentin panted, fingers clutching at the coverlet. Her other hand ran up his thigh, as if in warning, and then slapped his ass.
Eliot gasped, and Quentin moaned at the feeling, the sharp sting combining with the overwhelming pleasure to make everything seem more heightened. She hit him again, and Eliot breathed, “Oh my god.”
“You’re doing so good,” Margo whispered, and Quentin felt warmth flood through him, a flush heating his face and spilling down his back. “So good, baby Q,” she cooed, and smacked him again.
His cock jumped, and he pushed back into the feeling, breathing raggedly.
“Oh my god, this is so hot,” Eliot said, and did something that made Fen whimper.
Quentin flailed out one hand across the coverlet, blindly, and Fen took it.
“Okay, I’m ready,” Eliot said, his voice strained, and Margo pulled her fingers out. Quentin whined, and she ran a hand up his thigh in a comforting gesture.
He could feel her moving on the bed behind him, shuffling up on her knees, and then she pressed the head of her silicone cock against his hole.
It was a little cold, and a shiver ran up his spine. Eliot moaned at the sight. Margo grabbed Quentin’s hip with one hand, and used the other to steady her cock as she pressed it into his loosened hole.
The head of it was unyielding, and Quentin panted a couple of sharp breaths as she pressed harder. Fen flexed her fingers; he realized he was crushing her hand, and tried to loosen his grip. His shoulders went tight, and Margo made a soothing noise, rubbing his hip, but still pressing.
“Quentin,” Eliot said gently, “Quentin, open up for me.”
Quentin shivered again, and the head popped in.
Quentin groaned, and Eliot made a sharp sound and moved; Fen muffled a squeak in her pillow, holding Quentin’s hand a little tighter. Margo braced herself with both hands on Quentin’s hips, and shoved the rest in.
One long stroke, and it was a lot bigger than her fingers, opening him up and the stretch curled his toes and stiffened his back and he moaned, high in his throat, wanting to move, wanting to thrash against the feeling, get her out and get her deeper, all at once.
She paused, and asked, “Quentin?” Her voice was low, and he moaned again, managing a sad little thumbs up with his free hand. She patted his hip again, and pushed in a little more. “Oh, this is so hot,” she whispered, stroking his hip.
“So hot,” Eliot echoed.
“Mmm, Eliot,” Quentin moaned, arching his spine a little.
Eliot made a sound, and Margo patted his hip again. “Good job, baby Q,” she whispered.
That feeling of warmth spread through him again, and he opened beneath her, the dildo sliding in a little more easily. She let out a surprised little moan, and fucked into him. She put both hands on his ass and spread it open a little more, and then her hips were pressed tight to him, she was in as far as she could go, and they both groaned.
“Can we move yet?” Fen asked quietly, sounding slightly strangled.
“Yeah,” Quentin said after a moment, “yeah, yes, go.”
Still holding on with both hands, Margo dragged the dildo out of him in one long, slow motion. He trembled at the feeling, his shoulders twisting in on each other. She pulled out almost to the tip and then, gripping his hips tighter, slammed back in.
Quentin shouted, and Eliot made a sound like he’d been punched in the gut, and then Margo was going again, slow slow slow out and then straight back in to the hilt. It felt like the breath was being pushed out of him, and he panted against the feeling. It was big, huge, the feeling, it was too much but not enough, he was harder, so hard, but not anywhere close to coming, the rhythm was weird and he started to feel overwhelmed. “Margo?” he hissed.
“Hush, baby Q,” she crooned, slamming into him again. “Just a little more.”
Eliot was into it, Eliot was loving it, Eliot sounded like he was watching the best porn ever. Fen’s fingers twisted around Quentin’s, and Quentin dragged in a breath and tried to relax into the feeling.
He stopped expecting to come anytime soon. This was for Eliot, he reminded himself, and Fen. He was a vessel, and he started to believe it, and let Margo push into him in an odd rhythm that wasn’t going to get him off. He wasn’t enduring it exactly, but letting it flow through him. He started to feel a little distant from his body, and Margo seemed to feel the lack of resistance, for she finally sped up.
Her nails dug into his skin, and she was hitting his prostate finally with every stroke, and he moaned, high and desperate as orgasm got closer, and closer, and he tilted his hips so the feeling was even better.
It felt so good, shooting right through him, and he clenched down on the dildo. Her rhythm faltered, and she swatted his hip lightly. “I can’t keep this going, Q,” she hissed, and he realized she wasn’t strong enough to push through if he resisted at all, and he was going to have to hold himself open. He whimpered. Tilted his hips. And relaxed.
She set up a punishing rhythm, driving into him at an angle that nailed his prostate every time, and orgasm was creeping up on him around the edges.
He came all at once, clenching so hard that she couldn't move, spasms wracking through his belly, twisting his spine and curling his toes.
“Dammit, Coldwater,” she hissed.
“Sorry,” he panted, coming back to himself slowly. “Eliot?”
“Oh god, that was gorgeous,” Eliot told him.
Quentin felt like he was glowing.
Eliot took a breath, and then said, “But can we keep going?”
Quentin's heart sank. “Yeah,” he said tremulously.
“Good boy,” Margo said, and she pulled out slowly.
God, he was sensitive, so sensitive, and he shuddered at the feeling of her thick, all-too realistic cock sliding out of him. She pulled out almost all of the way, until the molded head tugged at his sensitized rim. He gasped at the feeling.
“Hold onto something,” she breathed, and started fucking him.
He wailed, shoulders twisting together. It was too much, he couldn't take this. Margo was moving too fast, and he felt overwhelmed with the sheer amount of sensation, oddly numb yet so sensitive a brush would have been too much, this pounding like an assault on his nerves.
He tried to clench and couldn't, muscles worn out and exhaustion setting in. He was sweating, and Margo's hand slipped off his hip, making her falter. She straightened back up, cursed, and grabbed his hair, yanking his head up and arching his back so he was bent nearly in two. He whined, feeling his cock fill again. He didn't want to come a second time, he was too sensitive, it was going to hurt.
Margo was stronger than him in a lot of ways, and endurance was proving to be another. She pounded him like a machine, tireless and ruthless and, wrung out, all he could do was let her. He twisted, wished for a headboard, for something to hold on to, and then Eliot was shouting, he was finally coming, and Fen grabbed Quentin's hand again, yanking him closer in a spasm of relief.
“Finally,” Margo snapped, releasing Quentin's hair so abruptly that he fell on his face.
“Mmph,” he objected, and she patted his hip as she pulled out.
“Sorry, Q,” she said, falling over to lie beside him. He looked at her, and it was clear she was exhausted too, and had been struggling there at the end. She was glowing with exertion, her chest heaving with every breath. He touched her arm, not bothering to lift his head.
“Good job,” he breathed.
“Go team,” Eliot said, only a touch sarcastically.
“Woo,” Fen agreed with a tiny cheer.
Quentin was still hard, and he pressed his erection into the coverlet. The sweat was drying on his back, itchy and cold.
“Q?” Margo asked, rolling over to face him. “You okay, honey?”
“Mmhmm,” he said, face still buried in the coverlet.
“Come out of there,” she said, poking his side.
He groaned, and shifted until he was laying on his side, facing her, so that they were two commas paired on the wide expanse of the bed. He tried not to be self-conscious about his erection, but felt himself blushing.
“Oh, honey,” she said, raising one brow. “That doesn't look fun.”
“Maybe it could be?”
She looked thoughtful for a moment. “Well, I was gonna rub one out in the bath later, but do you wanna trade handjobs?”
“Sure,” he said quickly, realizing she hadn't gotten much out of this either.
Fen made a slightly disgruntled noise.
“Sorry, babe,” Margo said, “but you're still off limits.”
“Well, I could give it a go,” Eliot said. “How hard can it be?”
Quentin snorted, and Margo giggled.
Eliot and Quentin share a moment, and then they have to deal with Ess' return.
They woke together in the big bed, and to Quentin it felt as natural as anything ever had, to be surrounded by nearly everyone he cared about. Eliot was sprawled between him and Margo, and Fen was laying on Margo’s other side, curled up with her back pressed to a fluffy pillow.
Quentin let his head flop back to his own pillow, and stared up at the ceiling twenty feet up, the distant carvings casting odd shadows in the morning light. He stretched, carefully, feeling soreness radiating up from his lower back. It was a delicious sort of soreness, and he bit his lower lip at the feel of it, arching his back and sliding a hand down toward his stirring cock.
Next to him, Eliot made an approving hum.
“No, please, by all means,” Eliot purred, hooking a chin over Quentin’s shoulder for a better look.
“Um.” Quentin could feel the blush crawling down his chest.
Eliot chuckled a little and backed off. “Alright, alright. Have it your way.”
Quentin’s erection, if anything, got harder. “Well …”
“Really?” Eliot touched his arm, still giving him some distance.
“I mean, I was going to anyway,” Quentin prevaricated, glancing up at Eliot and then away.
“Then I must say I approve,” Eliot said, propping his head on one arm, gesturing with the other. “Go ahead, then.”
Quentin licked his lips, turning onto his back to give Eliot a better view. Eliot’s approving moan made the awkwardness worth it. He grasped his erection in a firm hold, and gave it a stroke.
Eliot made a noise, and Quentin realized that he was jerking off too. Just a foot away from him. Quentin gulped a breath, moving his hand faster. He glanced at Eliot, just out of the corner of his eye, and saw his long, elegant fingers grasping his hard cock. Quentin licked his lips again. He wished he could touch. Taste. He couldn’t remember what Eliot tasted like, if he’d gotten to taste him that night. He whined, bucking up into his fist. Eliot was staring at him, and now he stared back, watching the long lines of Eliot’s chest and the fine muscles in his arms, and wished they were touching, and came.
“Q,” Eliot breathed, and then his hand was moving faster and he bit his lip. Quentin felt another twinge of desire at that, and he watched avidly as Eliot came, spilling over his fist, his eyes fluttering closed. Quentin wanted to kiss those closed eyelids, the bitten lower lip. He sighed, and let his head fall back on his pillow.
Eliot touched his arm. “Hey,” he said, voice a little hoarse. “What’s going on in that head of yours?”
“It’s, um, nothing, I guess. Nothing we can fix.” Quentin couldn’t look at him. Now that’d he’d come, the pleasure twisted into a sort of disappointed hollow in his belly. “Can we, uh, I mean.”
Eliot sighed, and pulled Quentin into his arms, tucking Quentin against his chest and pressing his chin to the top of Quentin’s head. “I know things are difficult right now,” he said very quietly. “It’s not like I wanted to get married.”
Quentin frowned, brows knitting together. “Are you, um, are you okay?”
Eliot sighed again, and pressed his chin to Quentin’s head, almost too hard. “I’m holding up, I suppose.”
Quentin let himself be pulled in closer, and looped both arms around Eliot’s arm that was draped across his chest. “Can I do anything?”
Eliot huffed out a laugh. “You’re already doing it.”
“Oh my god,” Margo said, and Quentin squeaked. “I’m trying to sleep!”
“Sorry, Margo,” Quentin echoed, and hid his hot face against Eliot’s arm.
Eliot’s chest shook with repressed laughter, and Quentin, still blushing, squeezed Eliot’s arm, feeling a burst of absurd happiness rush through him.
Margo groaned, and started to climb out of bed, her eyes squinting against the light. “Just fuck me with a spade, you assholes.”
“What’re you …?”
“We have that follow up meeting with Ess,” she said crabbily. “Might as well get ready.”
Margo’s movements on the mattress woke Fen, who looked at them blearily, hair hanging all in her face. “What’s going on?”
Eliot star-fished onto his back, staring up with an expression of despair. Thus abandoned, Quentin rolled himself in a sheet and climbed out of bed after Margo while Eliot reminded Fen about Ess’s eminent return.
Margo was filling and heating the tub they’d installed after Quentin’s murder, her hands working in elegant motions through the spells. Her hair was tangled and her shoulders were bare.
Quentin watched her for a moment, clutching his sheet. “You okay?”
She shrugged, grimacing a bit. “Headache.”
“Hangover?” he teased.
She threw a towel at him. “Shut it, you.” But she was smiling, so that was something.
“Do you think it worked?” he asked, twisting the towel in his hands.
“If not, we can always try again,” Margo said easily.
“You’d, uh, you’d be willing to do that?”
“It wasn’t exactly a hardship,” she said dryly.
Margo stopped, then, and turned to face him. “Q, I do … like you, you know.”
Quentin had to look away. “No, I, uh, wasn’t totally clear on that.”
Margo sighed, and pressed her fingers to her temple. Quentin tried a small spell, one Julia had shown him, and he watched as all the tension drained from her expression.
“What was that?” Margo asked, blinking.
“Um, headache spell, sort of.”
Margo smiled, a small, sincere smile that he didn’t get to see very often. “Thanks.”
“Anytime,” he said, smiling back at her.
Margo dropped her simple sleep gown and looked at Quentin over her shoulder. “Want to join me?” she asked, climbing into the tub in one graceful motion.
Quentin let go of his sheet and climbed in after her; his forward foot slipped, and he fell the rest of the way, splashing Margo.
“Calm down, you dork,” she said, helping him straighten up.
He slicked his wet hair back, and gave her a sheepish smile.
She grabbed his shoulders and turned him around, and then started washing his back. He melted under her touch. “Stressed?” she asked.
“A little,” he confessed, arching his back into her hands. “What if …”
“I think it worked,” she said, sounding confident. Then she patted his shoulder. “Come on, do me.”
“My back, Coldwater. C’mon, scrub scrub.”
They met Ess as a united front, dressed to the nines and seated at the head of the banqueting hall they were still using as a temporary throne room. Tick said that he had commissioned replacement thrones, after confessing that the originals had been cursed by the Beast, but they wouldn’t be ready for a few more weeks. Behind the elevated table, the four of them sat straight-backed and ready, Fen and Tick standing at their sides, as Ess entered with his entourage.
He stood below them, looking smug. “What news of the wellspring?”
“King Quentin and Queens Julia and Margo have effected a repair,” Eliot said stiffly. His hands clenched the arms of his chair, beneath the table where Ess wouldn’t be able to see his agitation, and in the light streaming in through the windows he looked limned with gold. “The wellspring flows more powerfully than ever, and we are prepared to offer you a portion in return for a treaty between our kingdoms.”
That knocked the smug look off Ess’s face. “Oh, that’s …” He turned to the taller advisor, the white man carrying a long staff. The man nodded, and Ess turned back to them. “Very well, we accept half of the wellspring, and marriage to one of the queens, or the king.”
“Absolutely not,” Margo snapped.
“We are not offering half,” Eliot said.
“We consulted Ember and Umber,” Julia added, her voice stern. “You may have twenty percent, and no marriage at all, or leave without a treaty.”
Ess narrowed his eyes. “Twenty-five.”
“Done,” Eliot snapped, “and no higher.”
Ess looked slightly disgruntled, cutting another look at his advisor. “I won’t leave without a promise of marriage.”
Tick stiffened, and began, “Marriage is perhaps customary …”
Quentin sucked in a nervous breath, and Eliot grabbed his hand and held it, squeezing hard. He squeezed back.
“That’s not an option,” Julia started, cutting Tick off.
“This is ridiculous!” Ess yelled, throwing up his arms. “Three of you are completely unattached.” He looked between them, something petulant about his eyes. He took a breath, and continued more reasonably, “Royal marriages are designed to cement alliances. Why are you being so stubborn?”
“Look, buddy, where we come from marriage means something a little different,” Margo snapped.
Ess huffed out a breath. “Yeah, yeah, marriage is for love.” At their surprised glances, he added, "Boarding school on Earth, remember?”
“Well, then, you know that we find your insistence on a marriage against our wills very alarming,” Julia reasoned.
“But you’re in Fillory now,” Ess returned. “Don’t you want what’s best for your country? We’ve been at each other’s throats for centuries, don’t you want to fix that?”
Quentin swallowed, looking down, wishing that he’d left his hair free. Eliot squeezed his hand again, like a message.
“Unless you’re saving those marriages for treaties with other countries,” Ess said suddenly, looking suspicious. “Who is it? The Floaters? The Outer Islands?” They exchanged slightly confused glances, and Ess paced a small length across the floor. “I can understand keeping the queens free for true alliances, but you have to at least give me Quentin, he’s the least you can offer.”
“Hey,” Julia protested.
Quentin steeled himself. He would have to do this. For the good of his friends, for the good of Fillory. He leaned forward, feeling Eliot’s hand tightening on his, and opened his mouth to accede to Ess’s demand …
And Margo stood in a rush of motion. “We’re not free.”
“What?” Ess asked.
“What?” Eliot echoed, glancing at her.
Quentin swallowed, sitting back.
“We’re not free to marry you,” Margo said, lifting her chin, “because we’re in love, and marrying each other.”
Ess blinked at her. “What the hell?”
“We are?” Eliot whispered.
Margo nodded firmly. “I’m marrying Quentin, and he’s marrying Eliot. So you see, Quentin has absolutely no ability to marry anyone. At all.”
Ess sputtered for a moment. “Be reasonable …” He looked at each of them in turn. “Queen Julia, then.”
“She’s god-touched,” Quentin managed, cottoning on to Margo’s sudden plan. “She’s on a mission from a goddess, she can’t be married.”
Ess bit his lower lip. “I have a sister, High Queen Margo …”
“You could still take a wife …”
Margo put both hands on her hips. “Oh my god, fine, send her along. If I like her, we can talk about marriage, but no promises.”
“Very well, then.” Ess sighed. “My father, King Idri, will be pleased to hear that we have arranged a treaty. Even one so to our disadvantage.”
“You’re getting a lot more than we had to give you,” Margo snapped.
Ess threw up both hands. “I know, I know. Umber’s ass, you drive a hard bargain.”
Slightly mollified at that, Margo eased her stance. “Damn straight.”
“Congratulations on your nuptials, and I’ll let my sister know she is expected.” Ess bowed, and the remainder of his retinue followed suit, before they all turned and marched out.
There was a moment of silence in the great hall, and then Margo sighed, and sagged back into her chair. “I can’t believe that worked.”
Quentin unfroze a little. “So we’re … getting married?”
She sighed. “Well I guess we have to, Coldwater.” She looked at him then. “You okay with this? El? Fen?”
“I have no objections,” Fen said, ducking her head.
Eliot shrugged. “What’s another marriage, eh?” He then let go of Quentin’s hand, and flexed his fingers.
Quentin looked at his best friends, and felt … excited. “Yeah, yeah, let’s do it.”
“You sure about this?” Julia asked him, looking slightly worried.
“He’s not bad in the sack, and I can always get a wife later,” Margo reasoned.
“I was asking Q.”
“I know, Julia,” Margo said, stretching her name out a touch spitefully. “But this affects all of us.”
“We shouldn’t do it if you don’t want to,” Quentin offered.
Margo softened. “Ugh, time to be honest.” She looked between him and Eliot. “You two are my best friends. And I, um, wouldn’t want to be tied to anyone else.” She was blushing, very faintly, but a smile pulled at her lips.
“We love you too, Bambi.”
“What he said,” Quentin muttered.
“And anyway, I sure as hell don’t want to get married off to some patriarchal douchebag,” Margo continued, retreating into her usual persona. “I like my men small and trainable.”
“Hey,” Quentin objected.
“No offense, baby Q.” She leaned over Eliot to pat his arm, both of them ignoring Eliot’s snickers.
“What exciting news!” Tick said, looking fairly enthusiastic. “Shall I start planning the wedding?”
“Yeah, sure,” Margo said, waving a hand at him.
“Nothing too extravagant, right?” Quentin asked, looking between them. “We’re still feeling the effects of the shortage.” He felt a nervous fluttering in his belly, and wished he were still holding Eliot’s hand.
“You deserve a proper ceremony,” Fen said, sounding concerned.
“I think we can manage a little pomp and circumstance,” Eliot said, looking almost sleepy now that the biggest threat had been dealt with. He stretched, and Quentin watched the line of his shoulders shift beneath his shirt.
“Of course, your majesty,” Tick said, bowing a little. “I’ll get started right away.”
Julia got up and came around to hug Quentin, leaning over the back of his chair and fitting both arms around his chest and neck. “My little Q, getting married.”
Quentin leaned into the hug as much as he could, patting the arm that was wound about his throat. “Thanks, Jules.” He tried to look up at her, though the angle made it difficult to see much more than her hair. “Are you sure you’re okay with this?”
“Of course!” she said, squeezing him a little. Then she sighed. “I should set out on my quest.”
“After the wedding, surely,” Eliot said persuasively.
She propped her chin on Quentin’s head. “You’re right. I’ll stay for the wedding, and then figure out where to go next.”
“Actually,” Fen said, perking up, “I had an idea about that.”
Wedding plans cause a little bit of tension.
Got a little distracted by another epic-length fic, and by the summer Bingo, but I'm back! On my not so regular but more frequent posting schedule.
The next few weeks were taken up with wedding preparations and Julia’s research into the Outer Islands. Fen had told them about a story she’d heard about a priest wielding great and unknown magic, and Julia had agreed that it sounded like a great place to start looking.
Quentin was freaking out about both.
Eliot was very into the wedding prep, more so than Quentin had really anticipated. He and Margo both had started obsessing over seating arrangements, color schemes, and ceremony details. None of which Quentin really cared about.
He tried to care, for their sakes. But the third time they tried to get him to choose sides, he snapped.
“I don’t care what color it is!” he yelled, throwing up both arms.
“You have to care, it’s your wedding too,” Eliot said, frowning.
“Just admit that rose is a perfectly good color,” Margo said, somewhat threateningly, “and you can go back to … whatever you were doing.”
“Obviously he’s going to choose purple,” Eliot said, glaring at Margo, and then beseechingly at Quentin. “Right, lover?”
Quentin looked between them. “You’ve both gone insane.” He ran both hands through his hair, and sighed, “I need a drink.”
“Oh, good, you can help us decide which wine to serve at the reception,” Margo said, turning toward the side table.
Quentin let out a pathetic groan, and sank back into his chair. He’d been reading some books Fen had recommended on Fillory’s politics and history, and he would rather have discussed them with her. Instead he was trapped here, a pawn to Margo and Eliot’s wedding plans.
“Do you really not care?” Eliot asked him quietly.
Quentin squeezed his eyes shut, sighed, then grabbed Eliot’s hand. “I do care. About you, and Margo, and I want to marry you both. But … Eliot, I don’t know anything about colors, or fashion, or, or anything you two know about.”
“That’s very true,” Margo said, handing him a goblet. “Now taste this.”
He took a sip. It was a little sour, and acrid. He wrinkled his nose, and handed the goblet back to her. “Um, no.”
“Okay, one down,” she said cheerfully enough.
“But I really … like. These colors look, um, the same? To me?”
Eliot blinked at him. Looked down at the swatches of fabric. “That’s tragic.”
Quentin shrugged, accepted another goblet. This one was a little dry, and he gave Margo a thumbs up. “Exactly,” he told Eliot. “I’m no help, really.”
Eliot tilted his head. “I want you to feel involved.”
“I do! Totally!” Quentin rushed to assure him. “Maybe a little too involved.”
Eliot looked hurt, then. Just a little, a crease at the corner of his eyes, and Quentin abruptly felt lower than dirt.
“If you don’t want to …” Eliot began.
Quentin took a breath, and said, “Show me the colors again?”
“Are you sure?”
Quentin nodded once.
“Okay, so I’m thinking this shade of lilac …”
Quentin listened as attentively as he was able, but still chose randomly when Eliot insisted he make a choice. Margo wandered through with wine occasionally, and he started to get tipsy on the samples, leaning into Eliot’s side as Eliot started talking him through the floral arrangements.
When he would have skipped past a small, many-petaled flower, Quentin stopped him. “Can we include this one, somehow?”
Eliot beamed at him, absolutely thrilled he had an opinion, and Quentin felt guilt stab at his breastbone. “Of course we can,” Eliot said, and kissed him on the forehead.
Quentin put his head back down on Eliot’s shoulder, and accepted the next goblet of wine Margo passed to him. “It’s sweet,” he complained.
“It’s a dessert wine,” she said, rolling her eyes. “It’s supposed to be sweet.”
“Oh, well, then it’s tasty?”
She sighed, but made a note in her wedding book.
“We’re inviting our new allies from the north, of course,” Eliot said dryly, looking at his copy of the seating chart.
“That’s when Ess’s sister is supposed to arrive for her stay,” Margo added, looking not apprehensive exactly, Quentin couldn’t read her easily even now, but perhaps a touch excited.
“Yes, exactly,” Eliot said, pointing at her. “So this needs to be perfect.”
“It’ll be great,” Quentin said, trying to be reassuring. He patted Eliot’s arm. “You’re so good at this.”
“Shut it, Coldwater,” Margo said, passing him another goblet, “and try this.”
Quentin’s head was spinning. “Can we get snacks?”
Margo snapped her fingers. “I’ve got cake samples, hang on.”
She hustled out of the room, and Quentin laid his reeling head back down on Eliot’s shoulder, and asked, “Are you sure you want to get married?”
Eliot stiffened. “Why are you asking this now?”
Quentin shrugged. “It was Margo’s idea, and I think she was just panicking over Ess.” He looked down, feeling sort of small. “If this is just to, to protect me or something …”
“Hey,” Eliot said sternly, grabbing his chin and making him meet Eliot’s gaze. “I want to marry you.”
“Are you sure, though? I’m …”
“Are you sure?” Eliot turned it around on him, raising one brow. “You’re unattached, you could still leave if you wanted to.”
Quentin pulled back a little. “I’m not leaving, what, I would never, of course I want to marry you. And Margo. You’re … you’re my best friends in the world. In two worlds. I, uh, I love you guys.” He was blushing, he could feel the heat in his cheeks, rising up his neck. But he tried to hold Eliot’s gaze.
Eliot’s whole face softened. “I love you too, you little dork. Come here,” he said, and pulled Quentin into a soft, almost delicate kiss. When Eliot pulled back, he confessed, “I thought maybe you were having second thoughts. You’re so apathetic about the ceremony …”
Quentin ducked his head. “I’m honestly no good at this stuff. But I’ll keep trying.”
“That’s all I ask,” Eliot said, stroking his cheek with gentle fingers. “Now, how do you feel about doing your suit in teal?”
Quentin panicked slightly. “No, what? No.”
Eliot chuckled, threw up his hands in surrender. “Alright, it’s off the table. Banished.”
Quentin frowned at him. “Don’t tease, it’s not funny.”
“We’re teasing him again?” Margo asked, entering the room with a covered tray. “And no one told me?”
“No, we’re not,” Quentin said repressively, but Eliot was laughing at him, and Quentin felt a warmth building inside.
“Whatever,” Margo said, uncovering the tray. “Do you want this or not?”
“Oh, yes please,” Quentin said, grabbing a small square of cake. It was something like chocolate, but not, and rather more spicy than sweet. He chewed for a minute.
“Well?” Margo demanded.
“It’s, um, different,” Quentin said diplomatically.
Margo sighed. “Fillorian baking isn’t really up to snuff,” she said sadly, poking one of the other small squares.
“Hm, what if we found Josh, and got him to cater the wedding?” Eliot proposed.
“Do we think he’s back at Brakebills?” Margo speculated.
“Josh can cook?” Quentin asked.
“Oh, right,” Eliot said, “you missed that part of our adventure. Josh is amazing in the kitchen. And the garden, for that matter.”
“As long as the cake isn’t hallucinogenic,” Margo muttered.
Quentin’s eyebrows came up. “I feel like there’s a story here.”
“Only this idiot trying to get himself killed,” Margo said.
Eliot’s face did something awful, then. Quentin’s heart sank, as he watched all the cheer and mischief drain out of Eliot’s eyes, his jaw setting, his lips firming into a straight line.
“Eliot?” he asked, his voice small.
“He got high on Josh’s drug carrots,” Margo said, spilling Eliot’s secrets as if she couldn’t keep them inside any longer. “When we were sneaking to the fountain to Fillory. I had to shoot one of the Neitherlanders to save his stupid life.”
“Margo.” Quentin tried to stop her.
Eliot wasn’t saying anything. To Quentin, he suddenly felt distant, unreachable, even though he was still right there.
“He came to Fillory wanting to die,” Margo said, and her voice was wavering, and there were tears in her eyes, and Quentin started to feel panicky.
“Eliot?” he whispered. “Is that, um …”
Eliot shrugged carelessly. “Yes, I was a little … high, I suppose. Not a big deal.”
Margo dropped the cake platter. It fell to the ground with a loud metallic clang, and Quentin jumped; Margo was gone before the noise had faded.
“I think she’s still mad,” Eliot said. He sounded like he didn’t care.
“Eliot, were you …”
“What, Quentin? What? Suicidal?”
Quentin bit his lip. “I’d get it, if you were,” he whispered. “I, um. I told you I was hospitalized. Before.”
A crack appeared in Eliot’s façade. “For depression, or anxiety,” he prompted.
“For, um, suicidal ideation.” Quentin glanced up, shrugged. “I, um. Sometimes life didn’t feel, um, like it mattered? Like I mattered? Everything was the same, and it always would be, and there was no point. To. Any of it, and.” He tucked his hair behind his ear, knowing he was pulling in on himself but unable to stop it.
Eliot touched his shoulder. “Hey, I get it.” He sighed, put down his goblet and his wedding book. “I was in a bad place after Mike. Well. After I killed Mike. And when we slept together …”
“I am so sorry that I blamed you,” Quentin said quickly.
Eliot waved a hand. “You’ve apologized for that enough, Q. We were both … not in the best places, I suppose. And I was doing a lot of drugs to self-medicate.”
“But you’re better now?” Quentin asked, his voice small.
“Define ‘better,’” Eliot said archly.
“Eliot,” he snapped.
“Yes, yes, in spite of,” Eliot sighed, “farming-related trauma, things have been … better, here. I.” He looked at Quentin then. “I think being part of something bigger has been, well, good for me. For lack of a better word.”
Quentin felt a brush of relief. “So you’re not …?”
“Are you?” Eliot grabbed his hand. “You’ve been through a lot since we got here, Q, are you holding up?”
“I’m fine,” Quentin said. “I mean, it’s been … weird, and scary sometimes. But questing is, like, the best antidepressant I’ve ever been on.”
Eliot smiled at him. “You’re such a nerd.”
Quentin managed a small smile, but then tilted his head. “Margo’s still mad, I guess.”
“We talked,” Eliot said, “a little.”
“If she’s this upset, then I think you still need to talk,” Quentin said. “Hash this out before the wedding.”
“She’s not marrying me!”
“Still, it’s … I mean, kind of.” Quentin huffed. “It’ll be … awkward.”
“Right, fine. Ugh.” Eliot stood, reluctance in his every line. “I’ll talk to her. Now.”
“Thank you, El.”
“Anything for you, sweetpea,” Eliot said, bending over to peck Quentin on the lips.
“Can you not call me sweetpea?” Quentin asked as he started for the door.
“Sure thing, sweetpea!” Eliot tossed over his shoulder as he left the room. There was a pause, when Quentin thought he’d gone, but then Eliot stuck his head back around the corner. “Hey, Q, take a look at the seating charts, will you? I want to nail those down when I get back.”
Quentin slumped back in his chair. Seating charts?
A few minutes later, Julia poked her head into the room. “Hey, Q, want to come on a ride?”
Quentin perked up. “Yes, where?”
She laughed a little at his eagerness. “Just to the nearest village, I want to see how the repairs are going.”
“Anything,” he said, grabbing a jacket and darting after her. Burying himself in Fillory sounded like the best idea in the world. Better than seating charts, anyway.
Quentin and Julia go for a ride.
They rode two horses rather than taking the carriage, and waved off the guards that offered to escort them. Julia rode the same mare as before, and Quentin had been given a second mare; apparently the two were friends, and liked to chat on long rides.
After a few miles of relative silence, Quentin admiring the passing landscape and the trees, Julia turned to him and said, “I guess I should throw your bachelor party.”
Quentin looked at her, startled. “Oh, I guess.” He gnawed on his lip for a moment. “I don’t want anything too, um, fancy.”
She snorted a laugh. “Sure thing, loser.”
Quentin studied the trail ahead of them for a moment. “I just, um, I wish my dad could be here. For the wedding.”
“Oh, Q,” Julia said sympathetically. “Maybe we could go get him?”
“Oh!” Quentin pulled back on the reins, hard, and his mare snapped a curse at him before stopping. Quentin muttered, “Sorry,” then waved a hand at Julia. “Jules, Jules, the torrent, Chatwin’s Torrent.”
“The healing spring, right.”
“My dad’s cancer,” he said, frantic. “Magic can’t cure it, but the Torrent, what if.”
Julia tilted her head to the side. “What do you mean, magic can’t cure it?”
Quentin’s shoulders slumped. “I, um, tried. I talked to a lot of older magicians, Dean Fogg, specialists. Read the research. Um. Killed Cancer Puppy.”
“Accidentally! And, well, it can’t be done.” Quentin dropped the reins carelessly, running both hands through his hair. “Cancer is too much a part of the self, and magic can’t tell it apart, or whatever.”
Julia blinked thoughtfully. “That doesn’t entirely make sense, Q.”
“We should do it,” she said the, firmly. “We should bring your dad here, and try Chatwin’s Torrent. And if that doesn’t work, I don’t think we should give up.”
“And if nothing else, he should see his only son get married,” Julia said, nudging her mare forward.
Quentin grabbed his reins hastily, as his mare followed. “That’s … thanks, Jules. For, for hoping.”
Julia smiled at him, and it was her gentlest smile, and he felt an almost crushing wave of hope. “I’ve got your back, Q. We all do.”
“I know you do,” Quentin said, feeling a prickle of tears. He’d missed her so much, when they’d been fighting. “It’s really good to have you here.”
“Wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
“Oh, wait, we should invite James, too,” Quentin said, feeling a jolt of guilt and excitement as he remembered his old friend. They hadn’t talked in a few weeks, but James would still show up for his wedding, he thought.
But Julia looked slightly odd. “That might not be the best idea.”
“What do you mean?”
She told him, then, what Marina had done, how James had been removed from their lives with an almost surgical precision. She’d told him about going to rehab, before, when she was explaining how she’d met Richard and the others, but Quentin had assumed that James had been on the periphery the whole time, waiting patiently for his girlfriend to come back to him.
“Wow,” was all he could think to say.
“Yeah, I guess.” She laughed, like laughing was all she could do at the situation.
“That’s awful. So he … I guess she made him forget me, too.”
“So he hasn’t been calling you either?”
“I thought he was still mad about your birthday,” Quentin said. He’d had few enough friends that when James had seemingly stopped caring, he hadn’t been surprised. And magic, and the Beast, had been so overwhelming that he hadn’t thought he cared about his old life. Now that he knew he hadn’t been abandoned, but erased … that changed things.
“It’s a mess,” Julia said helplessly.
“Maybe we could restore his memory? Grab him, and my dad, and bring them here.”
“Maybe. Marina does really thorough work.”
Quentin thought of the spell she’d helped put him in, how real it had seemed, and shivered. “Yeah.”
They were on the outskirts of the village, then, and as they passed a tree four figures appeared, three men and a woman. They were dressed like peasants, and holding various farm implements, a pitchfork, a hoe, a lathe, and a wood axe. The horses stopped abruptly, and Quentin looked at Julia, suddenly worried.
“Halt!” the largest man said. He was carrying the lathe, and Quentin felt a shiver of worry work through him.
“Hey, guys, what’s, uh, what’s going on?”
“Silence, worm,” the woman said, gesturing at him with the pitchfork.
“Let’s all just stay calm,” Julia tried.
But the strangers were already worked up, and one of the other men, the one with the hoe, yelled, “For Fillory! Fillorians United!” And lunged at Julia.
She gestured, and the man went flying. Quentin wanted to be impressed, but two of the others were grabbing at his horse’s reins, and the mare panicked, rearing up to kick at them. They dodged back from her hooves, and when she came down she was off, galloping through the woods.
Quentin knew he was lucky she’d taken him along, and not just dumped him in the dirt, so he stayed low and clung to her mane as she ran full-tilt through the trees. He’d never been on a horse going this fast – at junior cowboy camp, they’d been strictly limited to a very slow gallop, and mostly stuck to cantering in the corrals anyway. This speed was unreal. The wind was like a blow, making his eyes water, and every hoofbeat jarred his ribs. The trees whipped by.
After a mile and a half, maybe, the mare slowed. She was breathing hard, and Quentin tried to untangle his fingers from her mane. They were cramped, and didn’t want to let go.
“We have to go back,” he said hoarsely. “Julia.”
The mare snorted, shook her head. She explained that it wasn’t protocol, she had to take him back to the palace and send guards after Julia.
“Please, we have to go back.” He tugged on the reins, frustrated tears springing to his eyes. “It’s Jules. Please.”
The mare relented, and they returned, trotting a little too quickly through the forest, Quentin’s stomach twisting and cramping with fear. They rounded the final corner – and Julia was standing over all four FU Fighters, hands on her hips, unruffled.
Quentin leapt out of the saddle and ran over to her, grabbing her arms. “Jules, you’re okay!”
Julia patted his back. “Damn straight,” she said, grinning at him.
“How? What happened?”
She wiggled her fingers. “That power-up, I think.”
Quentin sagged as the fear gave way to relief, gave way to exhaustion. “Oh, thank god, or, gods.”
Julia giggled. “Yeah, so I just needed a couple of spells to subdue these guys.”
The FU Fighters were all tied, hand and foot, with vines. “I’m not sure I know that spell,” Quentin said thoughtfully.
“I’ll show you later,” Julia promised.
Quentin put a hand on his stomach, wavering just a touch.
“You okay?” Julia asked, sounding concerned.
“Yeah, just, you know,” he gestured vaguely, “all the running, and fear, and stuff.”
“Don’t go into shock on me.” Julia put a hand on his shoulder, steadying him.
“I won’t, I’m not,” he promised.
Julia’s horse suggested they return to the castle, then, but Julia insisted on continuing to the village. “I want to check on those repairs,” she said, helping Quentin back into the saddle, “and we should escort these guys to the local jail, or whatever.”
“I think that would be the dungeon, at the castle,” Quentin said, settling his sore tailbone gingerly back into the saddle.
“Oh, right.” Julia tilted her head thoughtfully. “Well, on our way back, then.”
“Is it safe to just leave them there?”
Julia cast something, then, that Quentin didn’t recognize, a little Popper 50 into Popper 13, and a shimmering bubble encased the FU Fighters. “There,” Julia said brightly. “That should hold them, and keep anything from attacking them.”
The FU Fighters looked various shades of nervous, wary, and frightened, but also like they wouldn’t be able to wander off. Quentin shrugged. “Alright, then, lead the way.”
The village was quaint, Quentin thought. They rode in slowly, and honestly his heart was still going a little fast from the earlier attack, but everything in town seemed quiet, peaceful even. There were perhaps sixteen small houses organized haphazardly around a central square filled with a well and a small market. The square was bustling with activity, carts hauling fruits and vegetables, more people than could live in this amount of space moving through the market, browsing and purchasing everything from sides of meat to lengths of cloth.
“Wow,” Julia said, looking around.
“Must be market day?” Quentin craned his neck. “Where were the repairs supposed to be?”
“Um, the bridge. Must be on the other side of town.”
They skirted the edge of the town, trying not to get in the way. The horses moved sort of haughtily, as if too good for the muddy village streets; Quentin didn’t want to say anything, but it felt like the castle horses might need a talk about privilege. It shouldn’t come from him, though, he was almost painfully aware of his own privilege as they moved through this town. Most of the locals seemed happy enough, fairly prosperous. There were a few people haggling in the market as they passed, but others just paying what was asked without hesitating. But there were a few beggars, also. Quentin hesitated, felt his costume for pockets. “Jules, do you have any money?”
Her brow knit in consternation, following his gaze to the beggars. “No, I didn’t think to bring any.” She looked around, as if to locate help, but there was nothing. “Maybe we can send someone back later.”
But then one of the horses suggested they check the saddle bags. Quentin slid out of the saddle and lifted the flap of the nearest bag. There was a coin purse inside, a rather small one but filled with Fillory’s currency, small gold coins like the sequins on a hippie’s skirt. “We need to set up some kind of infrastructure for this,” Quentin said, pulling out a handful, “but I guess this will do for now.”
Julia put a hand on his wrist, halting his motion. “Q, we can’t destabilize the local economy.”
“Just give them each enough for some food, and we’ll set up some kind of charity as soon as we get back to the castle.”
Quentin sometimes regretted his English lit major. Julia’s poly sci background seemed a lot more practical at times like this.
Not that he could’ve anticipated needing to know how to run a quasi-medieval kingdom. If he’d known for a fact that Fillory was real back in undergrad, well, he wasn’t sure what he would’ve done. Not bothered with his BA, for starters.
Following Julia’s advice, Quentin handed a few coins to each beggar they came across, but didn’t empty the coin pouch as had been his first impulse. It felt shitty, not giving these people everything he had. But Julia usually knew best.
On the other side of town, they climbed a small hill and at the top spotted the bridge project in the valley below. There were a dozen men and women swarming around a wooden tower that had something to do with the pieces of a stone bridge that was starting to span the flowing water. Quentin had a sudden pang of regret that he hadn’t majored in engineering or something useful. He couldn’t quite figure out what the tower was for, or how they were putting the bridge together. He glanced at Julia, who looked excited, then back at the growing bridge.
“You can tell what’s going on down there?” he asked.
“Well, they finished the columns, so they’ve removed the coffer dams,” Julia said, shifting as her horse moved beneath her. “I think they’re making good progress.”
Quentin kept his mouth shut as they rode down. Julia asked the foreman how it was going, listened keenly to his answers, and offered more money or assistance if the project needed it. It took all of twenty minutes, and they left a very pleased crew that felt their concerns were being met.
It had all been Julia. Quentin didn’t know what he was doing. If she left on her quest, he thought, this whole thing might fall apart.
“That was amazing,” he told her on the ride back.
“What was?” she asked absently.
“How you knew all about the bridge, and what to say to the workers.”
“Q, I just … read the project brief, and a little about bridge building. It’s … not really a big deal.”
“Why didn’t I think to do that?”
Julia leaned over and smacked his arm. “You were focused on restoring magic. And helping your friends get pregnant!” She shook her head at him. “You’re doing enough, Q. You, you don’t have to do everything here all by yourself.”
Quentin nodded reluctantly, and then they were back through the village and Julia was modifying her spell to carry the FU Fighters along with them back to the palace, and it was too late to say anything else without being overheard.