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The Head That Wears the Crown

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“Don’t you think,” Janet said, on first seeing his new bedroom, “that it’s a bit much?”

“What, this?” Eliot spread out his arms, taking in the curtained four-poster bed and the paintings and chandeliers and unremitting acres of gilding. The staff were carrying an enormous claw-foot bath through into the bathroom. “Don’t be so bourgeois, darling.”

Janet narrowed her eyes, spoke a word in Aramaic, and made a swath of silk brocade explode with a vindictive poof.

*

Eliot enjoyed being king. He liked the view of Whitespire harbor from his private balcony, and being able to spread out sideways across his enormous bed and not touch the ends. He went through a phase of having beautiful servants peel his grapes for him, before he decided that he actually liked grapes better with their skins on, in so far as he liked grapes at all.

More than that, Eliot enjoyed running things. In his first month as High King, he reorganized the customs duties taken at the city gates, replaced most of the tollhouse keepers, and simplified Fillorian tax law by striking out three-quarters of it. He held levees where the cream of the nobility fought over the right to trim his nails, which prevented them from plotting against him in dark corners. When he saw that the others weren’t about to emulate his efficiency, he instituted the daily royal meetings with subsequent public appearance.

Everyone had always told him that what he needed was something real to do, and Eliot had never agreed. Now it turned out that it was true, for certain very specific definitions of real.

Janet took to it right with him. She bossed people around and ruffled their feathers (in Fillory, these were often actual feathers), and left Eliot to soothe them down again. Unlike him, she was also great with the paperwork, and had a knack for loophole-proof legislation.

And Julia...well, Julia was Julia. She was more than slightly terrifying, and Eliot was glad that she was on their side. He tried to make friends with her – pretty girls generally liked him – but she just stared at him blankly and said something perfectly civil in her flat, affectless voice. She’d gone off using contractions around the same time she started talking to birds.

Quentin was moping. It took Eliot a long time to notice, because Quentin was also vibrating like a live wire – he wanted to do everything, see everything, until there would be nothing else left. Eliot wanted to tell him that that was not the way to enjoy a charmed life in a fantasy kingdom, but Quentin wouldn’t listen.

At a time he figured loosely corresponded with the correct date on Earth, Eliot threw himself a birthday party. The early part of the evening, held in the Grand Ballroom with its colour-changing wall sconces and gently rotating floor, was all public relations – sipping glasses of chilled liqueur with the Lorian ambassadors and waltzing with a series of stiff-spined wood sprites.

Later, though, as the party moved upstairs into the High King’s private apartments, it became a genuine good time. Eliot watched benevolently as people danced and flirted and made witty remarks under the trompe l’oeil ceiling. It was almost like their halcyon days back at Brakebills, when they had been the Physical Kids, except of course it was nothing like that at all.

Even Julia joined in for a while, swaying back and forth on the dance floor to music only she could hear, although she soon excused herself. Janet went off too, accompanied by two bare-chested fauns, winking back at him over their sculpted shoulders.

At the end of it, he and Quentin ended up in bed together. Quentin had collapsed among the bolsters and lace and boudoir cushions, his head pillowed on Eliot’s thigh, and Eliot sat up against the headboard, idly carding his fingers through Quentin’s untidy white hair. It was all sickeningly Brideshead Revisited, but then, so was Eliot’s entire life.

“So what I’ve realized,” Eliot was saying, with the meditative candor of four in the morning and a lot of decent Fillorian claret, “is that my depression was situational all along. Maybe yours is, too. Maybe you just haven’t found the right situation yet.”

“Righter than Fillory?” Quentin mumbled, turning his face into Eliot’s trouser-seam. “Oh God, everything is spinning. What did you put in the punch?”

“I told you not to drink the punch. And that’s just it. You know you ought to be happy here, and you’re doubly unhappy because you aren’t. Have some water.”

Quentin sat up, rubbing his face, and accepted the crystal goblet that Eliot floated across the room toward him. It had bobbled a little, but Eliot was rather pleased that he had managed the spell at all, under the Circumstances.

“I’m glad I’m here,” Quentin said, after draining the glass. It wasn’t quite the same thing as being happy, but Eliot would take it.

“I’m glad you’re here, too,” Eliot told him, because apparently claret made him sentimental now.

Then Quentin lurched forward and kissed him.

Unaccustomed moral quandaries wound their way through Eliot’s claret-tangled brain. A voice in his head – it sounded a lot like Janet’s – was gibbering, Oh Jesus Christ, you idiot, what are you doing? Not that she was any authority on sound decisions.

It felt nice. Like they’d done this before, and maybe they had, on that one awful and even-drunker night, but this was different. And possibly Eliot was taking advantage, but at least (he thought) Quentin didn’t want to sleep with him because of his title, and what a small pool of candidates that now was.

Quentin was fumbling with the complex lacings of his trousers, hurriedly, as though he thought at any moment Eliot was going to stop him. Which Eliot was demonstrably not doing. Instead he seemed to be taking control of the kiss, tilting them back against the embroidered cushions until Quentin stopped flailing.

Eliot knew that he wasn’t likely to get what he wanted out of this, but then, he was the High King of Fillory. He had probably already reached his lifetime allowance of getting what he wanted.

*

He woke up to flat midday light trickling through the curtains, and Quentin sitting up as though he’d been stung. He was hunting around for his clothes and trying to put them on, which was tricky without servants: neither of them had got used to hose yet. To compensate, Eliot put his hands behind his head and watched him.

“Jesus, you’re awake,” Quentin said, which didn’t bode well as far as morning scenes were concerned. Eliot made a noise of agreement. He wondered if Quentin had slept with anyone else since Alice died, and if that made a difference. It was deja vu all over again, though at least Janet wasn’t there. He hoped she’d had a good time with her fauns, and not broken their goaty little hearts yet.

“I’m sorry,” Quentin was saying, addressing his own shirt-buttons. “I shouldn’t have – you’re my friend...” He sounded utterly miserable. Eliot suppressed a pang; he wasn’t drunk now. Though that was something that seriously needed to be rectified.

“It’s all right,” Eliot told him, “it really is,” and because they were in Fillory, he found that he actually believed it.