“My soul is full of longing
for the secret of the sea,
And the heart of the great ocean
sends a thrilling pulse through me.”
--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The magical Fillorian ship Muntjac raced over the rolling waves of the sea, the eerie yet stately deer skeleton on the prow seeming to leap each time the ship met the crest of an oncoming wave. The sky raced with clouds the color of thinning smoke, driven by a steady breeze laced with a chilly edge.
At the ship's wheel, Eliot Waugh kept his big, elegant hands on the spoke’s thick wooden handles, guiding it through the choppy waves and keeping it on course. His silver-grey scarf appeared to leap as often as the ship’s prow, the delicate ends moving like butterfly wings.
“Do you think we lost them?”
Eliot glanced to his right as Margo Hanson stepped up next to him. She wore black breeches, knee-high leather boots, and a white blouse the same color as the whitecaps out on the sea. Her walnut-colored hair laid over her right shoulder in a thick, shiny braid.
“It’s been three days and I haven’t seen any other ships. I think that last storm put us well ahead of them.”
“El, we have to go back.”
Eliot’s jaw tightened as he stared out at the open sea.
“We’ve been over this. There’s nothing we can do--we’ve been exiled, and we’re fortunate they didn’t execute us.”
“Whitespire isn’t ours anymore. You know what Tick said--”
“Tick is a goddamned traitor!”
“Tick is beholden to whoever sits on the thrones. So is his family,” Eliot sighed. “And that’s not us anymore.”
“So you’re giving up your crown.”
“I didn’t give it up. It was taken from me and you and I barely escaped with our lives.”
Margo crossed her arms over her chest.
“The ungrateful bastards,” she scowled. “Whatever happened to Children of Earth ruling Fillory?”
“I’m sorry. If I had been the kind of husband Fen wanted, she wouldn’t have encouraged the coup.”
“Oh, screw that bitch,” Margo scoffed. “She was more than happy to ride your dick when the Leo blade revealed you were destined to be High King!”
“But it didn’t reveal that I prefer the company of men when the lights go out.”
“That’s her problem. You’re more than just your cock, El.”
“Thanks.” Eliot let the wheel play between his hands a moment.
“We can’t go back to earth, and we’re exiled from Whitespire. What do we do now?”
Eliot looked out over the water. They had the Muntjac, they had each other, and a small crew who remained loyal to them despite the Fillorian coup.
“Ever see The Princess Bride ?”
“Everyone has. What about it?” Margo asked.
A slow smile spread over Eliot’s face.
“I believe I’d make a great Dread Pirate Roberts.”
Six months later
“Captain Waugh! Captain Waugh, come up on deck, sir, please!”
Eliot sat up in his bunk, blinking awake as his third mate, Dirius Zhing, called down to him. He rose, pulled on a pair of black breeches and his boots, and ran a hand through his thick, curly hair as he climbed the steps that led to the Muntjac’s deck. He realized with mild surprise that his hair now grew well past his shoulders and the ocean breeze ruffled it like a playful hand as he came topside.
“What is it, Dirius?”
“There!” The stout man pointed out to sea as he handed Eliot a spyglass. To the naked eye, the thing in the distance looked like little more than some discarded timber, but as Eliot trained the spyglass’ lens on it, he saw a makeshift raft and a motionless, sun-baked hand trailing in the water. Gulls and other birds circled the sad-looking structure.
“Jesus--” Eliot crossed the deck and took the wheel from his navigator, a wizened old sailor named Creale. The man’s thinning braids swung in the wind as he went to man the sails. Eliot turned the ship west, toward the raft. Margo stepped up beside him.
“What’s going on?”
“There’s someone on a wooden raft out there.”
“So now we’re a rescue ship?”
“The ship is sentient, Margo, it’s going to know if we leave whoever is out there to die.”
Margo squinted out at the raft.
“And who do we think it is?”
“We’re too far away to tell.” Eliot handed her the spyglass. She glanced through it, frowning.
“I don’t know, El. Whoever it is looks like they already gave up the ghost.”
“The birds are circling but not actively landing on the raft. That means whoever is there might still be alive.” Eliot gripped the wheel and his lookout called down to him from the crow’s nest.
“Swallowfish approaching the raft, captain! Twenty, maybe thirty yards off our stern!”
“Ah, shit,” Eliot muttered. The Fillorian species traveled in mated pairs, were larger than humpback whales, and swallowed almost any living thing they encountered whole, including people. “Faster,” he whispered, giving the wheel a light squeeze. “Faster, please!”
The Muntjac surged forward and now Eliot could see the swallowfish, two blue-green shapes moving toward the raft with purpose. Eliot raised his hands, chanting in Turkish, and the raft began to glow a mellow lavender before lifting into the air, propelled by Eliot’s magic. One of the fish pumped its flat, wide tail, breaking the water’s surface and snapping at the raft. Eliot raised the raft up and then set it down onto the Muntjac’s deck, knowing the fish wouldn’t attack--they could likely sense the ship could and would defend itself.
“Oh hell,” Margo said as she moved toward the raft and put a hand over her mouth and nose. “Toss it back, Eliot, I’m pretty sure whoever that is died a while ago!”
Eliot gave Creale control of the ship’s wheel again and went to examine the bundle on the raft. The wooden planks, shored together with fraying hanks of rope, didn’t look long for this world any more than its passenger. The bundle sprawled on top of the makeshift thing appeared human and while it didn’t smell like roses, Eliot didn’t smell death either. He crouched and turned the bundle over, and some sun-bleached rags and matted hair fell away to reveal the pinched and bruised face of a young man. The remains of linen pants flapped around his thighs and his ribs protruded under fair skin baked terra rosa by the sun. As Eliot watched, the young man’s thin chest rose, paused, then fell.
Margo leaned forward and her nose wrinkled.
“Are you sure? El . . . he looks like he’s really far gone. Maybe it’s best if we just--” She nodded toward the ship’s railing.
“I can’t do that, at least until I’m sure we can’t help.” He pressed two fingers to the young man’s throat. “He’s got a pulse.” He lifted the bundle. “Jesus, he weighs almost nothing! Margo, can you bring me some clean rags and a bucket of water?”
“Where are you taking him?” She asked as Eliot headed for the stairs that led below decks.
“Just help me out, please!” Eliot said as he carried the young man down the steps to his cabin, using his magic to open the door. He grabbed a piece of canvas and laid it down on the bed before setting the stranger on it.
“Jesus fuck, what happened to you?” Eliot muttered as he moved the man’s matted hair aside. Margo came to the door a moment later with a pan of water and some clean rags.
“Do you think you can get him to come around?”
“I don’t know, but I’m going to try. Here, set that down over here--thanks, Bambi.” He wet a rag, wrung it out, and began to wipe the young man’s face. His lips were cracked and Eliot dripped some water against them. The young man’s mouth twitched and Eliot wet them again. “He looks like a piece of dried fruit.”
“Eew,” Margo frowned but took a scroll from a pouch hanging on the wall nearby. “I think we have a few basic healing spells here that might help.”
Eliot glanced up.
“You want to help him, too?”
“Hell,” Margo muttered as she glanced over the scroll. “He’s just a kid, or looks that way. In his early twenties, maybe. I guess we just can’t leave him for the sharks and swallowfish, can we.”
“No. We’re pirates, but we’re pirates with a conscience. We can plunder and preserve at the same time.” He wiped the stranger’s face again and Margo brought the scroll closer.
“It’s a general wellness spell. It might help with the sunburn and the dehydration.”
“Thanks,” Eliot nodded and glanced at the spell. “I hope my French isn’t rusty.” He moved his hands purposefully along the young man’s form, fingertips starting to glow a cool menthol blue. The magic flowed through him easily as ever, and he was grateful (certainly not for the first time,) that he and Margo hadn’t been stripped of their magic before the exile. Perhaps the Fillorians didn’t have the ability to use it or couldn’t learn how, but Eliot was grateful either way. He could survive the loss of his crown as long as he still had Margo and magic. He spoke the last few words of the spell and the glow faded. Some of the redness has left the young man’s skin and his lips appeared less shrunken than before. Eliot pulled a dagger from his belt and began to cut away the remains of the rotted linen clothing as he tugged a sheet over the stranger’s thighs--he might be unconscious but Eliot wanted to preserve his dignity anyway. He cut away the sun-dried rags around the kid’s waist and tugged them free, then frowned as the edge of a scar showed itself when the sheet shifted.
“What the hell?” Eliot murmured, his brow furrowing, and he lowered the sheet enough to reveal a thin but noticeable scar on the right side of his abdomen. He stared a moment and then blinked at Margo.
“Christ . . .”
“What is it?” Margo asked.
“This--it’s an appendectomy scar!”
Margo’s mouth fell open.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure.” Eliot loosened his belt, untucked his shirt, and lifted it to show her an identical scar. “Look.”
“Then . . . that means--”
“It means this kid is from Earth.”
“But how can that be?” Margo asked. “Aren’t children of Earth revered in Fillory?”
“Considering our situation, it’s hard to say. But maybe no one knows he’s from Earth.” Eliot tucked his shirt back in. “Where the hell did you come from, kid?” He asked, almost to himself, as he touched the young man’s face.
“Maybe he’s a traveler, like Penny. Maybe he came here but then didn’t know how to find his way back. That could be why he was out on the ocean on his own,” Margo sighed. “What are we going to do with him, El?”
“We certainly aren’t going to toss him overboard. He must have an amazing story to tell and I want to hear it.” He soaked a clean rag with fresh water and squeezed it, letting some of the drops splash against the young man’s lips. This time they parted and he made a low, questioning sound in his throat. Eliot patted his cheek.
“Hey . . . hey, can you hear me?” He asked, and watched as the kid’s eyes began to move under closed lids. “Hey!” Eliot raised his voice and the stranger’s head jerked before his eyelids blinked open. Muddled brown irises locked with Eliot’s amber ones and Eliot’s heart seemed to pinball off his ribcage as he felt the tingling charge of two magicians meeting. The stranger’s eyes had a limpid quality, like melting chocolate, and Eliot had to remind himself to blink.
“Umm?” The young man questioned, and the way his lips moved suggested that he would have said more if he’d been able. Worry flickered in the dark eyes and Eliot touched his shoulder.
“It’s all right, no one’s going to hurt you. Can you understand me?”
“Understand,” the young man croaked, and Eliot filled a wooden mug with fresh water. The stranger licked his lips and Eliot handed the mug over, but he couldn’t sit up on his own.
“Hold this for me?” He passed the cup to Margo and reached for the young man, who flinched back. “It’s all right--I’m sorry. You’re onboard a ship--the Muntjac. I’m Eliot Waugh and this is Margo Hanson. We’re from Earth.” He stepped closer. “Can I help you sit up?”
The young man nodded and Eliot clasped his hand, watching him wince. Margo offered him the mug and he accepted it, drinking until water dribbled onto his skinny chest.
“Hey easy, you don’t want to get sick,” Eliot said, and those dark eyes tipped up to his.
“Quentin,” he said after a moment. “I’m Quentin Coldwater.” He took another sip from the cup. “Thank you for bringing me on board.”
“We weren’t sure if you were alive and your raft was about to fall apart,” Eliot noted the bruises on Quentin’s chest were shaped differently than those on his face--they were larger and deeper. “Looks like someone got their hands on you, Quentin. Is that how you ended up on that raft?”
“I--could I have some more water, please?”
Eliot flicked a glance at Margo before refilling the mug. As he handed it to Quentin, he tried a different tact.
“Any idea how long you were out there?”
“Days . . . weeks, maybe. I had a bag of fruit, some jerky, and a goat’s bladder full of water, but no way to navigate.”
“Where did you leave from?” Eliot asked, and Quentin gripped the mug with both hands.
“Somewhere near the southern coast of the Outer Islands, I think.” He set the empty mug aside. “I can’t be completely sure.”
He’s a magician , Eliot thought to himself. I ’m sure-- I felt it when he came to and looked at me! Does he know? Is that why he left wherever he’d been?
“You must be hungry,” Eliot said instead of voicing his line of questioning. “We have a decent cache of food, and if you’d like a bath, we can arrange that as well.”
Quentin looked away.
“I know I don’t smell good. I’m sorry.”
“You were stranded in the middle of the ocean. It’s hardly your fault. What would you like to eat? We have some dried fruit, some venison jerky, some bread.”
“Whatever you can spare,” Quentin replied and glanced down at the shirt he wore.
“I think we can scare up some clothes too. I cut away most of what you had on.”
“Do you think you can stand on your own? I can see about that bath for you.”
Quentin nodded but didn’t meet Eliot’s eyes.
“I think so.”
After a bath, during which it took three shampooings and half a bottle of almond oil to rid Quentin’s hair of mats and parasites, Quentin dressed in a simple pair of black breeches and a linen shirt Eliot found in the ship’s stores. Both were big on him, but Quentin was grateful for their freshness. He tottered from the bath to Eliot’s bed, refusing help but tucking into the food Eliot and Margo brought with eagerness.
“I’m amazed you didn’t starve,” Eliot said as he watched Quentin eat. Cleaned up, Quentin’s bruises stood out against his fair skin and cheeks hollow from starvation, but despite all that, Eliot could see the young man’s sensitive, bookish good looks underneath, like someone you’d see in a library, tucked into a corner chair and buried in a book.
“I’m surprised too,” Quentin nodded, eating a large portion of dried pomegranate. “I remember laying on my back on the raft and looking up at the sky, wondering if dying would hurt. If I would feel anything or if it would be like going to sleep.”
“You’re all right now--at least you seem to be out of the woods.” Eliot pulled up a chair. Margo watched the two men a moment before heading for the door.
“I better go check out what’s going on topside,” she said, and Eliot nodded his thanks. Quentin glanced over as she left and twisted a piece of jerky apart.
“So, you and Margo run this ship?”
“More or less.”
“Is it a cargo boat?”
“It’s a long story is what it is. You’ve heard of Castle Whitespire?”
“Yes.” Quentin nibbled on a piece of jerky. “Ruled by what they call children of Earth.”
“Formerly ruled,” Eliot corrected him. “There was a coup and the family that held the Leo Blade took over.”
“But the Leo Blade--didn’t it reveal which Child of Earth was destined to rule?”
“It did.” Eliot held up his scarred right palm. “Meet the former High King of Fillory.”
The jerky fell from Quentin’s fingers and onto the coverlet. He stared.
“You . . .”
“I was High King. Margo was High Queen. There was also another queen, but--well. That’s another long story. I don’t know how much it matters now anyway. We were exiled but the Muntjac accepted our plea for help. She’s a sentient ship. A magical ship.” Eliot ran a hand over his chin. “I couldn’t help but notice, you have some spell residue on your hands. Are you a magician?”
“No. I mean, I don’t think so.”
“How’s that?” Eliot frowned, and Quentin set the food aside but drank more water.
“You’re not the only one with long stories, High King Eliot.”
“Just Eliot,” he replied, swallowing what tasted like cloves sauteed in bile. “I’m not a king, not anymore. Margo and I are simply magicians from Earth. Royalty turned pirates. Do you remember me telling you we’re from Earth?”
“And you are, too?” Eliot prodded. For a few moments, the only reply was the muted thump-woosh of the Muntjac as it met wave after wave. Finally, Quentin gave a nod.
“How could you tell?”
“When I got you onboard and cut those rags off. I saw you have an appendectomy scar and those aren’t exactly common among Filloreians. I just made the connection, that’s all. How did you get here? How long has it been?”
“Uh, look . . . I’m pretty tired. I appreciate what you’ve done for me, I really do, but if you would just take me to the nearest town--”
“This isn’t a cruise ship and it’s not a transport service,” Eliot retorted, then seized upon a sudden inspiration. “It’s a pirate ship, and since I fished you out of the ocean, you’re my prisoner.”
Quentin sat up, brows drawing together as his mouth dropped open.
“You can’t do that! You have no right!”
“I have every right. I saved your life and now, according to the Fillorian pirate code, you owe me. When you’re well enough you can work off that debt by servicing me as a cabin boy.” Eliot strode across the room, opened the door, and glanced back at the young man. “You’ll find it more pleasant than the death you faced in a swallowfish’s belly.” He closed the door before Quentin could reply and turned the lock, trapping his guest inside.
“You told him what ?”
Eliot grinned a little at Margo’s tone. They sat in her cabin, sharing the weak but palatable wine Eliot was able to conjure from water and a precious barrel of grapes they kept in a locked room in the ship’s hold, a suspension spell keeping them from withering.
“I told him Fillorian’s pirate code has put him in my debt.”
“There’s no such thing as Fillorian pirate codes.”
“But our guest doesn’t need to know that, so keep it under your corset.”
“Droll,” Margo observed. “Now tell me the real reason you’re keeping a scrawny, anxious human who can’t be more than 22 as your cabin boy?”
“Because in close quarters, he’s more likely to open up about his past.”
“You’re interested in his past?” “he’s from Earth, Margo! And he won’t discuss it but he’s a magician! I don’t think he’s trained but . . .” Eliot pushed his mass of dark curls back with one hand. “It’s there and I want to know how he got to Fillory and what he’s been using magic on. And how he ended up on that raft!”
“You think making him a cabin boy will loosen his tongue?”
“Someone else tried to loosen it with their fists. You saw the bruises. That was a beating, it was deliberate.”
“El, what’s this all about, really? In case you haven’t noticed, we have our own problems!”
“Our problems are there whether we help this kid or not. And--I don’t know, I suppose it’s because he’s like us. He’s a child of Earth and he’s adrift. He didn’t ask for whatever happened any more than we asked for exile.”
Margo sighed and sipped her wine.
“All right. I just hope you know what you’re doing.”
Eliot bent down, took her right hand, kissed it.
“Don’t I always?”
“Bullshit you do,” Margo smiled, returning the kiss with a wink. “But it never stops you.”
“Indeed.” Eliot drained his wine and turned toward the door.
“Be careful,” Margo admonished, and Eliot paused a moment before stepping into the hallway.
Careful , he thought to himself. Where has that ever gotten me? Into a magical school that threw me headlong into a chaotic world, I was expected to rule, as if I had a clue what ruling even meant? Maybe it’s time to throw myself into some controlled chaos and I can at least have some say about how much I fuck up.
He went to his cabin, unlocked the door, and stepped inside.
Despite his former outrage, Quentin laid in a sprawl across Eliot’s bed, tawny hair spread across the pillow. His eyes opened as Eliot shut the door and he sat up, tense, reminding Eliot of a prey animal. His expression sparked a memory in Eliot’s mind--hiding from his father, trying to avoid punishment for some perceived offense, muscles tense at the aggressive whisper of old leather as his father pulled his belt from its loops. Eliot paused, the memory causing an unpleasant chill to course down his spine.
“It’s all right,” he said at last. “I’m not here to hurt you.”
“I’m your fucking prisoner!” Quentin scoffed. “What else would you be here for?”
“I can understand your anger--”
“However,” Eliot continued, somewhat impressed by Quentin’s obvious desire to fight for whatever life he still had, “you owe a debt, and I want to discuss your duties.”
To Eliot’s surprise, Quentin got to his feet at those words and balled his fists.
“What--” Eliot began, and Quentin scowled.
“Come on!” He cried, his voice reverberating in the small cabin. “I know what duties you mean! I’d rather fight you and die on my feet!”
Eliot kept his hands in sight as he watched Quentin assume what he must have thought of as a fighter’s pose.
“Tell me what duties you think I mean,” Eliot said, and Quentin kept his fists raised.
“You think because I’m young that I’m stupid? I know exactly what you mean! You--you’re going to force me into your bed! Make me do things!”
“Sexual things!” Quentin snapped, and Eliot’s heart seemed to shrink and expand in the space of no more than a second or two.
“Lower your fists, Quentin. I’m not here to force you into my bed or do anything else to harm you.”
“You were asleep in my bed for well over an hour. I could have attacked you then. I could have easily overpowered you. Instead, I left you to rest.”
Some of the anger left Quentin’s expression.
“I--I slept that long?”
“Yes. I went to Margo’s cabin so we could talk without waking you.”
Quentin dropped his fists and shook his head.
“I don’t understand,” he said, and Eliot nodded.
“You’re confused because you’re making assumptions and then realizing you’re mistaken. That’s enough to confuse anyone. So, can we speak like two civilized men?”
“You’re a pirate!”
“Yet a refined one. Please . . .” Eliot gestured to a chair and Quentin sat, his gaze still mistrustful. “Now, let me make one thing clear to you--yes, I’m exiled monarchy, yes, for all intents and purposes this is a pirate ship and yes, I will do what I have to in order to survive. But I’m not a rapist. Understand?”
“Yes,” Quentin nodded. “I just thought--uhm, pirates aren’t known for their morals.”
“Circumstances forced me into the role. I wasn’t born into piracy and I don’t harm people if I can help it. Now, as to your duties, they’ll be quite simple. You’ll run messages, bring me my meals, clean my cabin, and arrange supplies in the hold. In return, you’ll be fed, looked after, have your own cabin, and the freedom to move about the ship. You may even learn a few useful skills from my crew.”
“And how long will my servitude last?” Quentin asked, and Eliot tried not to smile at his petulant tone.
“I haven’t decided that, but know that you’re safe while you’re aboard. No one will harm you.”
Quentin looked down at his hands. His cuticles were red nests of hangnails and sore-looking spots where he’d picked them away, the nails blunt and hardened at the edges.
“Can you promise me?”
“I’m the captain of the Muntjac. Nothing happens onboard without my say-so.”
“All right,” Quentin nodded. “Then I agree to your terms. When do I start?”
“First you need to get your strength back. Come on, I’ll show you your cabin, it’s right next door for convenience.” He led Quentin out of his cabin and opened the door immediately to the left. The dark-haired pirate had at least eight inches on him, so Quentin glanced around Eliot’s side rather than trying to see over his shoulder.
The cabin’s interior was marrow, maybe six paces wide and seven or eight paces long. The bed frame held a feather-stuffed mattress and a buckwheat pillow. A set of drawers, built into the wall to save space, faced the bed. One small round window, bordered with polished wood, showed the expanse of the ocean outside.
“I believe there’s a sheet or two in those drawers if you want to make up the bed, and I can get you a blanket or two from ship’s stores,” Eliot said. Quentin stepped into the cabin. A tarnished silver bell hung in one corner, a sturdy pull string attached to one end, the other threaded through a hole in the wall. Quentin supposed Eliot would pull on the other end of the string from his cabin when he wanted something.
“What happened to your last cabin boy?” He asked, and Eliot stroked his chin.
“To be honest, you’re my first. The men who left Whitespire with us are older--how old are you, Quentin?”
“Uh, well . . . I was nineteen when I found Fillory and it’s hard to keep track of time here because the seasons last so long but I guess I’m 22 or so.”
“I know what you mean about the time passage here. Months can pass here when it’s only been a few days on Earth.”
“When did you come to Fillory?” Quentin asked as he opened a drawer and found a worn but clean bedsheet.
“About three years ago, I think. Maybe a bit less. It’s impossible to say how many birthdays I’ve had by Earth’s standards . . . I was a few months away from my 23d birthday when Margo and I came here.”
Quentin billowed the sheet out and tucked in the top two corners.
“How soon were you made royalty?” He asked, and Eliot made the other end of the with practiced movements as he replied.
“About a month later,” Eliot said, surprised at the wistfulness in his tone. “There was a test with this dagger called the Leo Blade . . . the dagger’s blade would only pierce the skin of the true king of Fillory.” Eliot held up his left hand to show Quentin the scar the blade had left behind. Quentin sat down on the narrow bed, fatigue catching up with him.
“You said there was a coup?”
“Yes. It’s complicated and you look like you need more sleep, so why don’t you rest up and we can talk more later--that is, unless you’d rather toss yourself overboard than work for me.”
“I said I agree to your terms. I have your word and you have mine.” He flinched away as Eliot offered his hand. “Please--let’s say that’s enough.”
“All right,” Eliot nodded as he drew his hand back. Try to get some sleep, you’ll heal faster.”
“I’ll try,” Quentin said as he laid back on the bed. Eliot lingered a moment longer and then left the cabin, shutting the door behind him.
Quentin laid shrouded in darkness, his hands chained behind his head, thick jointed metal gloves on both. He sensed them, just as he sensed the others, chained in rows, nude and mute as he was. They were forbidden to make noise, whether they tried to speak or cried out in pain when the milking happened. He had learned, as had the others, that vocalizing only brought the cutting lash of the whip, and when the wounds that it caused brought infection and fever, there was no healing touch--only a final milking and the dying magician sold by the pound at auction to whoever had need of his flesh and bones.
The hissing, low sound that announced a milking began to fill the room where Quentin and the others were kept and Quentin squeezed his eyes shut as the metal gloves tightened around his hands, manipulating his fingers into different positions and drawing away the magic the tuts produced, even though he could not control or call whatever magic he possessed forth on his own. The overseers moved down the line with glass vials, milking each magician in a more direct manner. Someone to his left cried out, the sound punctuated by the crack of a whip, and Quentin jerked as if he’d been struck. The gloved hand stroking him caused no pleasure, only the involuntary reflex of erection.
Stop , Quentin begged within the confines of his own mind. Stop, I haven’t any more to give, please stop!
But neither action stopped. The creatures that ran this hellish place went on and on until Quentin felt his skin collapse inward, his organs sucked dry as if by a gigantic spider. As his abdomen sunk inward, Quentin screamed out his pain and terror as braided leather whips struck him again and again, carving his dying body apart . . .
The sound of his name, spoken by a voice that had only become familiar over the past few weeks, pulled Quentin away from his nightmare and he lashed out with both hands, the part of his mind still trapped in the dream trying to rid his hands of the metal gloves. His half-closed left fist struck something and the resulting grunt of pain, not his own, brought him awake the rest of the way. He opened his eyes to see Eliot standing over him, one hand rubbing his jaw, his expression bemused. Quentin sat up.
“Shit! I hit you!”
“I don’t think I was the one you were trying to escape, I merely got in the way.” Eliot worked his jaw. “I’m all right. Are you?”
“Yeah. Guess I was dreaming.” Quentin rubbed his eyes until yellow sparks appeared in the darkness behind closed lids.
“What about?” Eliot asked as he sat on the end of Quentin’s bed. In the four weeks since he’d boarded the Muntjac, he and Eliot had formed a cautious camaraderie, and Eliot knew the younger man had experienced something terrifying wherever he’d been before, where he’d managed to escape from. He refused any form of physical contact, even causal or accidental, and when someone did touch him, he tensed like a cat about to bite. Eliot took care to give his new friend plenty of space, hoping Quentin would come to trust not only him but the rest of the crew as well.
“I’m not sure.” Quentin pushed back his tawny hair. A part of Eliot that he’d been trying to ignore even as it made itself more apparent longed to sit Quentin in his lap and brush his hair until it gleamed. “Just bits of memory and--and vapors, I guess.”
Eliot nodded, accepting the obvious fiction.
“And you have no memory of where you came from or why you were on that raft?”
“I already told you . . . no.”
“Easy, I just thought that maybe with time, some new memories might surface, that’s all.” He adjusted the blanket to busy his hands. “Are you ready to start your duties?”
“I guess I’m well enough,” Quentin nodded. He’d filled out in the past month and the bruises tattooing his face and chest had faded. His sensitive good looks were even more apparent now, including a curved upper lip that hinted at the type of passion seldom seen on an otherwise rather timid face.
Curse the universe for not allowing us to meet elsewhere , Eliot thought. Before whatever terrible thing hurt you.
“Well then,” he said instead. “If you like, you can start with tidying my cabin. It shouldn’t prove too difficult. I’ll give you a few moments to dress.” He moved toward the door, pausing only a moment as Quentin spoke.
“Thank you, Eliot.”
“It’s no trouble,” he replied before stepping out and shutting the door behind him. Margo met him there.
“How’s your foundling?”
“Shhhh, he’ll hear you.”
“And? That’s what he is, El. You’ve been nursing him back to health every spare minute you have!”
“Which notebook have you been using to keep track of that, Harriet?”
“Hey, Barracuda, relax,” Margo replied. “Why are you getting so defensive over an observation?”
“I’m not.” Eliot dusted off the front of his waistcoat and avoided his friend’s curious gaze. “I only want him to feel that he’s safe here, that’s all. Something tells me he remembers more about what happened to him than he’s letting on.”
“Everyone keeps secrets, El.”
“I don’t think this is about his secrets. It’s more about--” Eliot cut himself off as Quentin’s cabin door swung open. He’d pulled his hair into a messy tail, but the clothing ship’s stores had found for him--a white linen shirt, black breeches, and calf-high black leather boots, looked much more tailored to his frame than it had when he’d first come on board. Margo looked him up and down.
“Hey kid, you’re looking a lot better,” she said, and Quentin offered her the ghost of a smile.
“I’m all right, thanks.” His dark eyes tipped up to Eliot’s. “Ready when you are.”
“Sure. See you up on deck, Margo,” Eliot said as he led Quentin to his cabin. Quentin noticed how Eliot never seemed to stumble or even misstep despite the pitch-and-roll of the Muntjac as it crested the waves. Eliot unlocked the wards on his door and Quentin flinched at the flutter of residue the magic left behind.
“Where should I start?” Quentin asked as they stepped inside. The air in the cabin carried a different scent than the salty air up on deck; Quentin took in notes of citrus and cedar with undertones of Fillorian tobacco, milder than the Earth strain and smelling like freshly-tanned leather. Eliot often left these scents behind when he left Quentin’s cabin, but Quentin now realized this was where they lived.
“You can make the bed, maybe dust off the dresser. After that, you can go down to the galley and see what Garrick has for my supper.” He turned toward the door.
“You’re not staying?” Quentin asked, and Eliot’s features softened.
“I have to go topside for a bit. I know I can trust you to work independently.”
“Besides, I’m sure you’ll be more comfortable without me breathing down your neck.”
Quentin looked down at the tops of his boots.
“I don’t mind--you being around, I mean.”
“I’m glad to hear that,” Eliot smiled. “I’ll be back at six bells, all right?”
“Aye,” Quentin nodded, repeating the response he’d heard other crewmembers give Eliot, and Eliot’s smile widened.
“Aye,” he replied before leaving and shutting the door before giving in to the desire to touch Quentin’s cheek or stroke his hair.
Once Eliot left, Quentin busied himself with changing the bedsheets and making up Eliot’s bunk. He smoothed out the quilt and paused a moment to examine the twin ram’s heads sewn into the silky top layer. He then turned to the dresser with the dusting rag he’d been given. He removed items from the dresser with care, noticing some were weighted at the base to prevent them from sliding off. He handled each one a moment, turning them over in his hands: a bronze tin filled with hand-rolled cigarettes, a tanned pouch with leather drawstrings filled with tobacco, a rolled map, a small crystal dish with two silver rings inside, and, most fascinating, a small snow globe from Earth. Quentin held this for nearly a minute, peering into the miniature Times Square within, tilting it to make the snow fall. When was he last on Earth? How much time had passed? Did his parents and friends search for him? Had his father declared him dead? Tears stung Quentin’s eyes and he set the snow globe aside as he wiped away a fine layer of dust from the dresser’s surface.
It’s not like you can go back anyway. Even if only a few years have passed, you could never look any of them in the eye. Julia, James . . . my dad. They’d see the shame on your face--they would know.
A tear splashed onto the dresser’s surface and Quentin wiped it away before replacing Eliot’s belongings. He paused as he picked up the drawstring bag and then held it to his nose. The scent was rich and lovely somehow and he set it back down before leaving the room and making his way toward the galley.
Quentin expected the galley cook to be a gruff, even crass old man, whip-thin and humorless. Instead, Garrick was nearly the complete opposite--barrel-chested, middle-aged, and gregarious, he kept Quentin entertained with songs and jokes as he prepared Eliot’s supper.
“My da, he was a woodsman and a carver, my ma a weaver,” he explained to Quentin, who sat on a three-legged stool in one corner, listening, as Garrick simmered an oyster stew. “Both Fillorian born, they were, with not much education, either of them, but they was good folk. Me, I wasn’t made for woodcutting. I wanted the freedom to wander and nothing gave me as much as I dreamed of a life at sea.”
Quentin clasped his hands in his lap.
“So when the coup at Whiterspire happened, you decided to go with the royals?”
“Aye . . . I’ve been loyal to them since the day they arrived, and loyal I stayed. A’sides, what did the others offer? My neck stretched if I stayed? Pah!” Garrick spat into a bucket stowed in one corner. “Disloyal bilge rats, if you ask me.” The man’s sea-blue eyes peered at Quentin from under blazing red brows. “And you’re Captain Eliot’s new cabin boy, saved from the belly of a swallowfish. And a good thing too, my lad, they take weeks to digest their live prey.”
Quentin felt a shiver chase up his spine at the thought.
“Aye,” Garrick nodded, seeing Quentin’s expression. “You’d be naught but a squirming blob of meat by now if not for the captain and first mate Margo.”
“Can I ask you something?”
“Sure lad, sure.”
“Captain Eliot . . . he and Margo . . . they’re magicians, aren’t they.”
“Mmmm,” Garrick nodded. “And powerful they are, too.”
“What about the others on board?”
“Mostly Fillorian and the like . . . non-magical folk who joined when the captain and former high queen took to the sea.”
“So he and Margo--they’re a couple?”
Garrick chuckled as he ladled stew into a bowl and set it on a tray.
“No. Not even when they was royals. The cap, he prefers men. It’s not so strange here as it seems to be where they come from, or so it seems from what I’ve learned being his cook.” Garrick added a glass of ale to the tray. “Go on now, it’s nearly six bells, you take that to the captain.”
Quentin got to his feet and picked up the tray.
Garrick reached into the deep pockets of his apron and withdrew a piece of sugar candy, which he added to the corner of the tray.
“For you, as a thanks for your company.”
“Thanks back,” Quentin replied, surprised into a smile. Garrick’s candy was famous on board, and some of the crew even used it as currency for trading. The big man raised a hand as Quentin left with the tray and then chuckled, shaking his head at Quentin’s line of questioning.
“Have a care, lad,” he murmured. “Have a care.”
Over the next several weeks, Quentin fell into a routine of helping Eliot dress, cleaning his cabin, and assisting other crew members when they needed it and when Eliot approved. Quentin’s friendship with the enigmatic, handsome captain deepened, but his struggle to sleep without nightmares worsened. He kept the screams locked away in his chest after each hellish dream, but he worried that soon, he would no longer be able to hide his exhaustion from the crew.
One night, only a few moments after he’d delivered Eliot’s supper, the cabin boy’s bell rang. Quentin returned to Eliot’s door and knocked.
Quentin reached the door and looked in.
“Captain Eliot? You rang for me?”
“I did.” He motioned Quentin inside.
“What’s wrong? Is the food no good? Did I forget something?”
“No no . . . please, come over here.”
Quentin approached and Eliot opened a nearby narrow drawer and pulled out a wooden bowl and spoon.
“I’m tired of eating along and Margo has a shift topside now. Come on--” Eliot spooned some of his stew into the bowl and offered it to Quentin. “Eat with me.”
“I don’t see any of my other favorite cabin boys here.”
“I’m your only cabin boy.”
“So you figured it out,” Eliot grinned as he held out the bowl and Quentin smiled a little before accepting it. Eliot nodded to the end of the bed and Quentin sat.
“I wasn’t joking, I really am tired of eating alone.”
“I guess being the captain sets you apart, huh.”
“Not as much as being High King did,” Eliot admitted as he stirred his stew.
“Was it--I mean, did you like being High King?” Quentin asked, and Eliot tipped his head to one side.
“There were certainly some enjoyable aspects of it . . . the wardrobe, the opulence.” He took a few bites of stew. “You’d think I’d miss it more.”
“No. It’s rather funny, how suited I am for a life at sea.”
“The Dread Pirate Roberts,” Quentin said, and Eliot nearly spilled stew onto his knee.
“Christ!” He laughed. “I made that joke to Margo when we first escaped Whitespire.”
“Yet you’ve never told me what good work I do but you’ll most likely kill me in the morning.”
“Well, if you’re into threats, I can start first thing tomorrow,” Eliot smiled. A grin flashed across Quentin’s face like heat lightning and the way it changed his face into something boyish and playful made tingles of excitement mixed with affection chase up Eliot’s spine.
Seeing that again could definitely become a priority , he thought to himself.
“It’s not necessary, thanks,” Quentin said at last. “But you and Margo must have a direction in mind? You’re still magicians, you still have other options.”
“To be honest, I think we’re both still a bit shell-shocked over the coup. We should have seen it coming.”
“What about Earth?”
“The Fillorians forced us out to sea, and then there’s the Neitherlands. I don’t know if we could even find the right fountain without someone helping from the other side. Besides, royal or not, this has been home for three years. I don’t think there’s much left to go back to on Earth for either of us. What about you?”
“The same I guess.”
Eliot set his empty bowl aside.
“I don’t know how or what you think of me, Q--do you mind if I call you that?”
“Uh, no . . . I guess not. My friends at school, they used to call me that.”
“I don’t know what you think of me, but I want you to know you can trust me. If there’s something you want to discuss, it will stay between the two of us.”
“I don’t have much to tell.”
“Not even the fact that you’re a magician?” Eliot asked, and it was Quentin’s turn to startle. He set his bowl down.
“No I’m not.”
“Yes, you are. I felt it from the moment you came on board. Even as weak as you were, I sensed it. You don’t have to lie to me.”
Quentin flinched as this line of conversation turned the stew in his stomach into an uneasy, bubbling cauldron.
“Just Eliot. I suspected you knew, but I wanted to give you time--”
The ship gave a sudden lurch, the bow rearing like a panicked horse as a terrible shudder ran through its frame. Quentin gasped as the force of the action pitched him to the floor and the wooden bowl struck the opposite wall.
“Shit!” Eliot cried, trying to steady himself as Quentin scrambled to his feet. “What the hell--” He made his way to the cabin door and down the passageway that led to the deck stairs. Quentin followed, clinging to the railing as the ship lurched again.
“Margo, what’s happening?”
“We’re fucking under attack!” Margo snapped as Eliot and Quentin reached the deck.
“Have the Whitespire dissenters found us?”
“That’s not a Whitespire ship!” Margo handed Eliot a spyglass, which he peered through. The ship lacked delicate sails and had a squat, almost bulky shape. While Eliot noted all this, it was the figurehead that made his heart give an anxious jog--that of a huge man wielding a whip. The shape was formed of human bones and the tail of the whip, melded scalps with the bloody skin still attached, fluttered and snapped as the ship pursued the Muntjac. A cannon mounted on the side of the ship roared again, shearing off a section of the magic ship’s stern. The Muntjac bucked and Eliot slung an arm around Margo as she fell against him.
“Evasive maneuvers!” Eliot shouted to his crew. “Let out the sails, get out of range! Quentin--” he turned to his cabin boy, only to find him in a state of complete panic. He gripped the deck railing with both hands, knuckled milk-white, his chest heaving as he struggled to breathe normally. His dark eyes fixed on the squat boat in the distance his lips trembling. Eliot took a step toward him.
“Quentin? Q, what is it? Do you know that ship?” He asked, and a low moan escaped Quentin’s throat. Garrick, who’d come topside when the attack began, looked out at the ship as he worked a knot loose on one of the ship’s sails.
“Ember’s beard! That’s a slaving ship!”
“Aye! Slave trade’s alive and well on the southern coast of the Outer Islands, cap. There’s talk of a hidden city near a cove where all the buying and selling goes on.”
“You’ve seen it?” Eliot asked as he struggled his way over to Quentin. Garrick shook his head.
“Not the city, me, but I’ve seen slaving boats before.”
“The southern coast . . .” Eliot frowned as Quentin’s words came back to him, how he’d set sail on his raft from that exact area. Quentin’s reaction now, along with his aversion to being touched, all added up to a terrible sum in Eliot’s mind. He summoned as much authority as he could under the onslaught and stepped close to Quentin.
“Quentin!” He snapped. “Look at me!”
Quentin twitched and turned his head like some ancient, arthritic owl. His pupils were so tightly contracted that the dark brown irises seemed to eat up the upper half of his face. His lips trembled and Eliot nodded.
“I get it, I think, but you have to listen to me! Do you know who is on that ship?”
“Please,” Quentin groaned, his eyes filling with tears. “Please don’t let them--”
Before Eliot could speak again, Quentin shocked him into silence by stepping forward and hiding his face in the silken waistcoat Eliot wore, hands rising like frightened birds to grip Eliot’s embroidered twilight-blue coat. Eliot blinked at Margo, who gave him a look that suggested she couldn’t be less surprised. Despite their situation, Eliot took a moment to put a hand on Quentin’s head.
“All right, Q . . . I won’t let anyone hurt you. Hey--” He pried Quentin away and lifted his chin. “I won’t let anyone hurt you but you have to tell me the truth! Help me so I can fight whoever that is!”
Gunfire began to crack as the crew of the Muntjac took up their muskets and began to fire on the slave ship.
“It--it’s not just a slave ship,” Quentin managed, his voice shaking. “They take magicians . . . drain their magic and, uhm, harvest their fluids to sell on the underground trading market. Fillorians don’t have much magic of their own so the Outer Island slave trade is solely based on captured magicians--earthlings and other beings who find their way here.”
“Like you,” Eliot said, and Quentin nodded. Eliot’s jaw tightened. “All right then, let’s get the bastards!” He made his way to the stern of the ship, willing it to slow so he could get a better look at the enemy. The Muntjac had more speed but lacked any serious firepower--she was a questing boat after all and not built for combat.
“We’ll have to use battle magic,” he said to Margo, who gave a terse nod.
“If what Quentin says is true, then we have to drive them away before they try to board.”
Eliot glanced back and frowned as several of the slavers erected a tall, flexible pole on the deck of their ship and set one end into a thick brass base. It bent briefly as the ship moved closer and one of the men shimmied up it like a toy chimp on a stick, the kind that climbed when you wound a key in its back. The man had a whip coiled over one shoulder and Eliot realized the purpose of the pole a moment too late.
“Get back!” He shouted to the crew as he pushed Quentin toward the steps that led to the ship’s cabins. At the same time, several stout men on the slave ship bent the pole back and launched the man sitting astride it, aiming him toward the Muntjac. He flew like an acorn shot from a slingshot and landed on the Muntjac’s deck, crouched and wild-eyed. He snarled, and in a moment that seemed to still in time, Eliot saw the slaver’s teeth were filed to sharp points. Quentin screamed in terror as the man unfurled his whip, the young magician’s eyes filled with a stricken, helpless kind of recognition. Eliot began to move his hands as he stepped in front of Quentin, preparing a magic missile, not pausing or wasting breath on words. The slaver cracked his whip at the same time, the end braided and tipped with a poison thorn loaded with venom from a carnivorous plant that grew in the eastern mountains of Fillory, beyond the Flying Forest. The thorn struck Eliot in the base of his throat, and the effect was almost immediate. Eliot’s arms fell to his sides, the magic missile fizzling into nothing but a few harmless sparks. His legs folded and he crashed to the deck, unmoving.
“No! No, Eliot!” Quentin cried, and Margo fired a magic missile as she glanced at Garrick.
“Get him below! Protocol Beagle!” She snapped, and Garrick got his big arms around Quentin, lifting him off his feet. Quentin shrieked in protest, kicking and cursing as the stronger, bigger man carried him down the steps.
“I know you hate me for this now, laddie-buck, but we have to follow orders! Chief mate Margo said to get you below, and I intend to do just that!”
“Eliot! Eliot!” Quentin cried as Garrick carried him to the ship’s hold, where the heart of the Muntjac glowed. Garrick sat under the twisted tree that held it, tugging Quentin into his lap.
“Head down, lad,” he said to Quentin, and the two of them flickered out of sight as the ship protected them with an invisibility spell. Quentin gave a low moan of fear and Garrick shushed him. Far above them, the sounds of a battle raged on and the ship rocked so fiercely that Quentin feared it would list onto its side and drown them.
“Courage, Quentin,” Garrick murmured. “Courage, or it’s all for naught.”
Quentin squeezed his eyes shut. The man with the whip stalked Quentin in his dreams, and his back still bore the scar where the Gorgevine plant’s thorn had struck home more than three years earlier when he’d first been captured and taken to a hidden cove, known to those who traded there as Spellreaper’s Cove. The plant’s venom only paralyzed, Quentin knew, the effects lasting long enough for the slow-moving plant to engulf its prey. The men at Spellreaper’s Cove bred these plants for their own use, feeding them the sick, injured, or useless and harvesting the thorns. The thought of Eliot helpless as he had once been and at the mercy of the slavers made Quentin feel nauseous. He clapped his hands over his ears as Garrick held him still and the battle raged on above.
Quentin wasn’t sure how long he and Garrick sat mute and invisible in the Muntjac’s hold, but the slam of the door that led to the upper deck jolted him from his torpor. Margo descended the stairs a moment later and uttered a few words in a language Quentin didn’t recognize, breaking the invisibility spell. Her blouse was torn at one shoulder and blood trickled from her right temple, but she was almost incandescent in her fury.
“Bastards!” She snapped, and Garrick shifted Quentin aside so he could stand.
“You’re hurt!” He exclaimed, and Margo waved him off.
“It’s nothing. We have to get after that ship, Garrick, the bastards took Eliot! They tossed him overboard and netted him like a goddamned trout!” She looked down at Quentin and then got a hand under his arm, pulling him to his feet. Quentin started and Margo scowled as Garrick went topside. “You better get over yourself and start talking right now! That man with the whip knew you! He knew you, I saw it in his eyes and Eliot put himself in harm’s way because of it!” Her dark eyes blazed. “I think you remember where you escaped from and why . . . and if you lie to me now and say you don’t, I swear to every god I can think of, I’ll toss your ass to the swallowfish!” Her hands went to Quentin’s shoulders and she gave him a brisk shake. “You have to help me! And if not me, then Eliot!”
Quentin twisted away but even as her words terrified him, he knew there was no other way to help the man who had saved him, cared for him.
The man he’d fallen in love with.
“Look,” Margo said after a moment, her tone softer. “I know you probably went through some serious shit. I saw the bruises when we first brought you on board. I get that. But I can’t just accept that Eliot was kidnapped and simply leave or sail on. I have to get him back and you’re the only one who can help me.” She adjusted her torn blouse. “Please, Q.”
Quentin closed his eyes a moment.
“All right. I’ll tell you what I can.”
“You would think things got strange when I first arrived here, but really? My life has never been normal.”
Quentin and Margo sat in her cabin--she in her favorite chair and Quentin on the stool she used with her small vanity table after he’d declined to sit on her bed.
“How do you mean?” Margo asked.
“I was born a month early and my mom . . . she, uhm, wasn’t exactly ready for me. I don’t think she would have been ready even if I’d been full term. She tried, my dad said, but she had really bad postpartum depression and it was like it never quite went away completely. She left a month after my fifth birthday, on a painting and poetry sabbatical. She sent postcards at first, then birthday cards, but when she was due back, she wrote my dad and said she’d decided to stay in Europe. That the atmosphere made her feel like a whole person. They divorced and that was the end of us being a family. She didn’t even try to gain custody or visitation--it was like there was no question about who would raise me.”
“So other than a non-contested divorce, what was so strange?”
“I--I guess I was. In some ways, not much changed at home. My mom usually found reasons to be away from the house even when she lived there, so dad and I didn’t really need to readjust. I always felt like she left because of me and dad never said otherwise. I started getting into magic tricks--cards, disappearing coins, that kind of stuff. Then there were the Fillory books . . . I read and re-read them, longing to find a magical world and escape how I felt all the time. To find a place I belonged like the Chatwins did. That’s when it happened. I found a first edition of The World in the Walls at a junk shop in Brooklyn. There was a detailed map on the inside cover, something I’d never seen in other editions. I took it home and studied the map as closely as I could and then--I don’t know what happened but it was like the page started to grow. That’s the only way I can describe it. Like it got bigger and more detailed, pulling me in until the map was gone and I was standing in Fillory, just outside the Flying Forest.” Quentin paused and his throat worked.
“I’d tell you to take your time, but that’s not something we have a lot of,” Margo said. “What happened to you? How did you end up on that raft?”
“I tried to find Castle Whitespire. I walked maybe two, three days and--and that’s when I crossed paths with the men who took me.” Quentin’s voice shook. “I was asleep under a tree and they caught me there--that man with the whip? He took me down with it as I tried to run away. They had ropes around me a minute later . . . put me in a wagon that was like a jail on wheels, and there were other people in it, their hands and feet bound.”
“Do you think any of them were magicians?” Margo asked.
“It’s pretty likely. The men always made sure our hands were bound. They--they took us by slave ship to the Outer Islands. To, uhm, this place. It could be where they took Eliot. The men who run the smuggling ring call it Spellreaper’s Cove.”
“And that’s where you escaped from?”
“Yeah. And if Eliot has powerful magical ability . . .” Quentin hugged himself and Margo’s features softened.
“All right. I think I get the idea, and you don’t have to tell me anything else yet. But you do have to help me find this place.” She touched Quentin’s hands. “Please. I can’t just give up on him and if I’m any judge of body language, you care about El too. Maybe more than anyone realizes.”
“He got captured trying to protect me. And you hid me with that spell.” Quentin paused. “Why is it called Protocol Beagle?”
“Because it makes you disappear. When I was a kid, my favorite book said unicorns had the power to vanish or become invisible. The author--”
“Peter S. Beagle!” Quentin blurted out, and Margo nodded.
“Exactly. Now, where do we find this cove? I owe that bastard with the whip who boarded us a serious ass-kicking.”
“Spellreaper’s Cove is a big place, Margo.”
“Don’t worry, I remember him. Hairy, cockeyed, smells like a used bandaid.”
“Gross yet accurate,” Quentin replied, the corners of his mouth lifting, and Margo nodded before giving Quentin’s hair a brief, gentle ruffle.
“You’re all right, Q,” she said, and Quentin favored her with a wider smile.
“No one’s ever told me I’m all right before.”
“I knew I must have been missing something when Eliot said he liked you.” Margo looked him up and down. “Come on, I’ll teach you how to steer the ship. If we’re going to find El, we’re going to have to teach you proper pirating.”
Margo turned the Muntjac south towards the Outer Islands and introduced Quentin to the ship’s great wooden wheel. The ship reacted favorably to his touch, as it did with most magicians.
“Why did you lie to us about your magic?” Margo asked as they stood at the wheel together, watching the sun toss strips of glittering diamonds across the water’s surface.
“Because I don’t want you to look at me with any kind of pity. If I do have any kind of magic, it's locked away inside me. I don't have the control to bring it forth at my will, like others seem to be able to do. And I didn’t want to talk about what happened to me at the encampment.”
“But it is where you escaped from,” Margo said, and Quentin nodded.
“I hoarded the materials for the raft for moths. They would send us unto the forest to gather wood and other materials. I couldn’t hide away any large pieces of wood--my master would have noticed. I made piles of twigs, braided them together with horsehair rope every moment I could steal. I had to bury everything each time I added to the raft and then unbury it later. When it came to fetch water by the lagoon, I managed to get away during an auction.”
“That man, the one who took Eliot--”
“Was my master,” Quentin nodded. “Kainin Grayle. He . . . he has a stable of human slaves. He bred them for the magic. The ones that had no ambient magic were sold off or fed to the gorgevines he kept, or sold to troll colonies on a few of the islands . . . trolls aren’t real choosy about where they get their meat.”
“Jesus,” Margo muttered. “And the ones who had ambient magic?”
Quentin paled and his hands tightened around the ship’s wheel.
“I know the memories must be hard,” Margo said as she watched the blood drain from Quentin’s face. “But anything you can tell me might help us find Eliot.”
“Grayle--I don’t know if he’s Fillorian or maybe from somewhere with a fountain to the Neitherlands but he always knew when someone had magical ability."
“That explains why he took Eliot. His telekinesis makes the flow of ambient magic very powerful. His casts are almost effortless.”
“Grayle . . . he created a device that drains and stores magical energy. He would harvest--” Quentin’s voice broke and he blinked back tears. “Take our hair, our blood, our uhm, fluids. He’d sell them.”
“Christ almighty,” Margo all but whispered it. “I’m so sorry, Quentin. If El and I had known about this place while we were royals--”
“I know. But everyone involved goes to great lengths to keep the place a secret. There’s big money in magic along the Outer Islands.”
“And Eliot? Q, what will Grayle do to him?”
“If he finds out Eliot has telekinesis, he’ll weigh the difference in auctioning him off and adding him to the stables. Grayle always does what profits him.”
“When we find him, he’s going to learn that some profits aren’t worth the effort.” She touched the sword that hung at her side.
“We have to be careful,” Quentin replied. “Grayle may not look powerful but he has a lot of it at his disposal.”
“He’s not the only one.” Margo glanced up at him. “Listen Q, I have an idea to get us into the market but you’ll have to trust me. Are there women slavers?”
“None that I’ve seen.”
“Shit,” she sighed. “I was afraid of that. All right, desperate times, et cetera. Do you trust me?”
“I do,” Quentin nodded.
Eliot’s consciousness returned to him in a rapid march of awful smells that caused him to gag before he was even fully awake. The stink of human and animal offal overpowered other odors that were no less disgusting--rotting food, grease, the titanic body odor of men who used lard rather than soap, and cheap tobacco. Voices spoke in Eliot’s proximity but he kept his eyes closed and listened as he battled nausea.
“Twenty gold pieces for this fine specimen? That’s an insult, and the last to insult me hangs by his own guts in the Darkling Woods!”
Eliot risked cracking open one eye. Thick iron bars filled his vision and he realized he was laying on his side on top of a damp pile of hay. A low wooden ceiling loomed over his head and manacled pinched his ankles and wrists, the latter of which were twisted behind his back.
I’m in a cage , Eliot thought to himself. Outside the bars, the man with the whip, the one who had taken him from the Muntjac, spat on the ground as he faced a bearded man almost twice Eliot’s height and many times his girth. A shivering human boy, surely no more than twenty, stood next to the slaver, his wrists bound, his eyes downcast. A filthy pair of rough-looking canvas shorts barely concealed his privates. Tears coursed down the boy’s face but he made no sound.
“Has he magic?” The giant rumbled. “Because if not, he, twenty’s all he’s worth if I take him to the meat block!”
“Indeed,” the slaver nodded. “Not as strong as others I’ve brought you, Duth, but worth more than what you’ve offered!”
The giant glared.
“Thirty then! But know you what happens, Grayle, when you slavers cheat me!” He gestured to a set of human scalps hanging from a hook on his belt before scooping a large rock from the dirt and crushing it with his fist, apparently to punctuate the threat. Grayle seemed unconcerned by the threat.
“Thirty,” he agreed, and the giant handed over a tanned bag full of jingling gold pieces. A moment later, Duth led the boy away after collaring him with a thick piece of leather. Grayle grunted before pulling a hand-rolled cigar from a pouch on his belt, the unlit end chewed and misshapen. He lit the other end with a match and spit a wad of bile-colored phlegm onto the ground near the wheel of the caged wagon Eliot laid in.
“I know you’re awake, magician,” he said suddenly. “I heard you stir.” He turned to face the wagon and Eliot opened his eyes, knowing it wasn’t any use to play dead any longer.
“So I am,” he said as he struggled to sit upright with his hands bound behind his back. “Am I to guess you’re responsible for these lovely accommodations?”
“Use your flowery human words all you like, magician!” Grayle grinned, exposing the sharp, filed teeth Eliot had noticed back on the Muntjac. “Fact is, I have you and you’re going to pay for stealing what’s mine!”
“That filthy tobacco you’re smoking must be causing hallucinations,” Eliot replied. Grayle pulled his whip from its place on his belt and brandished it at Eliot, the red thorn at the tip giving a toxic wink in the midday sun. Eliot frowned at the threat but respected its meaning--he knew too much venom from a gorgevine plant could kill, and he could still feel the effects of the previous dose in his limbs and at the base of his skull. “I haven’t stolen anything!”
“The boy!” Grayle sneered. “The boy on the raft!” His thick lips worked around the cigar, making it quiver. “He’s my property and you took him from the sea after he made his escape from holding pens in my stable!”
“You have no right to say you own anyone!” Eliot snapped. “Just because you round up and hold magicians prisoner doesn’t make them your property!”
Grayle gave a tobacco-laden chuckle and tossed the butt of the cigar aside.
“So you say! But you and those like you make me a fine living.” He produced a knife and a set of brass keys before unlocking the wagon’s barred door. Eliot watched, his shoulders working. “Did your fine new friend tell you how I gauge magical ability?” He backed Eliot against one wall of the wagon and crouched down. As Eliot watched, stunned with horror, a thin, wriggling proboscis emerged from the slaver’s scalp with a wet yet purposeful noise. The flesh-colored stalk waved and dipped while a needle tip sought out its target. A moment later, Eliot’s helpless scream echoed along the shore of Spellreaper’s Cove as the needle slipped into the cornea of Eliot’s right eye and into the frontal lobe of his brain.
Five Days Later
The North Shore of Spellreaper’s Island
“How long can the Muntjac hide herself?”
Margo glanced up from the potion she held in one hand.
“A few days at the most,” she replied as Quentin lingered near her bed. “Now get dressed.”
Quentin glanced down at the tattered shirt and breeches laid out across Margo’s duvet.
“Are you sure this is going to work?”
“Magic, like life, doesn’t come with any guarantees, Q. But we have to try and get Eliot back before Christ knows what happens to him.” She gave the vial in her right hand a rapid swirl. Quentin stared at the clothes as his heart warred with the terror in his veins at the thought of facing Grayle again.
You can’t be a coward anymore, Coldwater , he lectured himself. Not unless you want Eliot to slip away before you can discover what he might mean to you . . . and you to him. He had the courage to defend you, and now you need to find that same courage, or the life he fought for won’t mean shit!
Another glare from Margo supplemented his stern thoughts and he dressed in the torn clothing.
“Good,” Margo nodded before swallowing the potion she’d made. As Quentin watched, fascinated, Margo seemed to drain away like something opened some interior tap. As she vanished, another being took her place--a creature the same height but heavier and squatter, a toga-type leather garment showing plenty of mottled skin covered with coarse brown hair. Margo’s lovely features were now vaguely piglike, with two short, blunt horns protruding from each of her temples. Her eyes bulged, orange reptilian irises floating in citrine corneas.
“Christ,” Quentin frowned, and the thing nodded.
“No one is going to question me at the auction block if I look like this.” She added a dagger to the leather belt around her thick waist. The belt hung low on her right hip, like the holster of a gunslinger. She picked up a pair of iron manacles they’d dug up from the ship’s stores, and Quentin flinched.
“Quentin, you know this isn’t real and it’s the only way we can get into the slave market.”
“I know, I’m sorry.”
“So am I. Hands behind your back.”
Quentin swallowed against the fear building in his throat but obeyed. Margo shackled his wrists and then looked him up and down.
“You could look a bit more malnourished, but I can’t risk another concealment spell. It’s too much to hold together,” she said as she and Quentin left her room and headed topside to enter the small rowboat that would take them to shore. Creale helped them in.
“You’re sure I can’t come with you?” The old man asked, and Margo shook her head.
“That turd with the whip might recognize you. If that happens, we’re screwed--up the flagpole,” she sighed as her Earth slang didn’t translate. “I think this is going to be our only shot for finding the captain. Stay here, keep things together, and if we’re not back in five days . . .” a sigh escaped the wide lips, from which a few yellow snaggleteeth protruded from the lower jaw. “Beat it out of here.”
“Without you? But--”
“Hey! With the captain gone, I’m in command!” Margo snapped. “So do as I say!” Even under the spell, heat flashed in Margo’s eyes and Creale lowered his head.
“Aye, Chief Mate Margo.”
“Lower away,” she said, and Creale and his shipmates lowered the rowboat down. Quentin opened his mouth to ask about rowing when Margo took up the oars as they hit the water with a bump and the pulley ropes detached and retracted. She set the oars in the locks and began to row with bold strokes. Quentin blinked at her and she scoffed.
“What--you think I’m some poser pirate?” The wide lips stretched into a grin. “El and I both know how to row.”
Worry needled Quentin’s chest at the sound of Eliot’s name.
“Do you think he’s still alive?”
“You wouldn’t believe what he’s survived. If he can figure out a way to stay alive, he will.” Margo said as they reached the shore and she stepped into the knee-high surf to tug the prow of the boat into the sand. She helped Quentin out and then frowned before kick-sweeping his legs out from under him. Quentin went sprawling in the wet sand with a surprised grunt.
“Okay, what the hell?” He asked, coughing out sand as he gave her a dirty look over his right shoulder.
“Sorry, but you don’t look nearly as dirty as a slave should.” She stomped in a nearby muddy tide pool, spattering Quentin with dirty water and muck. Quentin rolled and tried to get to his feet.
“Quit it!” He protested, and Margo helped him to his feet.
“Sorry Q, but we need to blend in as much as possible.” She wiped sand from his cheeks. “Nothing personal.”
“You could have warned me!”
“Hush.” She attached a length of chain around Quentin’s waist and gave it a tug. In the near distance, a trader’s market waited. “Come on, we can probably buy a few horses to reach the other coast. The island isn’t that big, so we should reach it in maybe a day’s ride.”
“I’m scared,” Quentin said as they started for the market. Margo nodded, her large bare feet leaving deep impressions in the sand.
“Me too, but let’s work with that--it might help sell our story.”
The word came with a dash of cold, dirty water to Eliot’s face and he gasped as it brought him awake all at once. A glimpse of iron bars told him he was still a prisoner. He worked his shoulders and they seemed to shriek with pain. Sometime during the last period of unconsciousness, after--
Don’t think about that right now
His captor had fitted his hands with something heavy and that pinched his fingers. Metal joints kept his long fingers immobile.
Stunted my ability to cast, Eliot thought as he shook water from his dripping face and hair and managed to roll into a swaying sit.
“Do you like my invention?” Grayle grinned. “You’ll do no magic as long as you wear the gloves, and you wear them as long as I own you.”
“Fuck you! You don’t own me!” Eliot snapped, and his captor scoffed.
“Look upon where you sit, magician!”
“My name is Eliot!”
“Your Earth name is no longer important! I am Grayle, but you will call me master.” The slaver took a chunk of stale bread from a pouch on his belt and tossed it into the cage. “Eat.”
“At the risk of sounding cliche, there’s no way you’re getting away with this,” Eliot said as he ignored the bread.
“Do you think your simpering pup and your ex-queen are coming for you? Oh yes, I know exactly who you are,” Grayle nodded as Eliot failed to hide his surprise. “Or who you used to be. As I said, your old name means nothing in my stables.”
“You’ll see soon enough, slave. As soon as we reach my stronghold.” Grayle nodded to the other barred wagons, all bolted to each other, like boxcars. Inside each were several young men, shackled as he was, some terribly gaunt, others looking stunned and unblinking, as if they had died with their eyes open.
“The whelp escaped me,” Grayle said. “But I’ll catch him soon enough, especially with you as bait.”
“If he has any sense, he’s miles away from the Outer Islands right now.”
“Sense he might have, but I didn’t need any magical ability to hear the agony in that boy’s voice when I took you. He’ll come.” Grayle then moved out of Eliot’s sight and the barred wagons rocked briefly before they jarred into motion with Grayle at the head of what looked like a team of furry mules. As the train left the clearing where Grayle had stopped to rest, Eliot shifted until he sat with his back and bound hands against the iron bars.
Even if Grayle was right about Quentin coming for him, Eliot didn’t like him guessing it. And if that was Quentin’s plan, he would need Margo’s help, which put them both in danger.
Please, stay away , Eliot prayed as he closed his eyes, and the wagon jolted along. Stay safe, take the Muntjac and get the hell away from the Outer Islands!
The slave market at the outer edge of Spellreaper’s Cove smelled like acrid smoke, sweat, animal dung, and the misery of those brought there to be bought and sold. The babble of different voices filled the air, punctuated with an occasional cry of pain or crack of a whip. The booming voice of the auctioneer rose above all this as slaves brought their offerings to the block.
Quentin experienced the market from the back of a chestnut mare with a broad rump and fine white feathering at her fetlocks. Margo had paid a few coins for her at the open-air market at the other side of the island. While definitely not a youngster, she carried Margo and Quentin both with little trouble and had a patient, gentle nature that Quentin appreciated. He’d named the mare Iris, despite Margo’s warning about not getting attached.
“We might have to sell her or leave her behind at some point,” Margo had warned as they set out for Spellreaper’s Cove but Quentin, who had a soft spot for animals, felt the name suited her.
“Jesus,” Margo muttered now as they rode through the market, Quentin’s hands secured in front of him so he could keep his balance, a length of chain around his waist and the free end secured to the saddle. “You told me about it, but--”
“You have to see it to believe it,” Quentin nodded. They passed the large wood-and-stone stage, where the auctioneer was taking bids on a dirty, slat-sided young man in stained breeches, his blue eyes heavy-lidded and downcast.
“He’s a kid!” Margo exclaimed, keeping her voice low, and Quentin nodded.
“And used up.” He glanced at the bearded, barrel-chested man who stood off to one side of the stage, watching. “That’s the owner . . . he’s probably trying to make back what he spent if the kid had little or no ambient magic.”
“Can’t they tell at the time?” Margo asked as she slowed Iris to watch the auction and felt Quentin flinch at the question.
“Grayle can. But I think his ability is pretty rare. I’m not sure if it’s common to his race but it’s pretty likely. It could be he’s Fillorian, except I’ve never heard of any creature who can do what he does.” Quentin’s voice cracked on the last word at the thought of Eliot at the mercy of Grayle’s terrifying mind-probing appendage. “I’m sorry,” he said after a moment. “It wasn’t a pleasant experience and El--”
“I know.” Margo’s pumpkin-shaped head gave a nod. “I’m trying not to imagine what Eliot might be going through at the hands of that bastard.”
“Is it working?”
“Of course it’s not. Now lower your head and look like property,” Margo said as she urged Iris to the nearest wares tent. A man with unblinking cat’s eyes and tufts of orange hair growing from his ears glanced up from working a tanned hide.
“Treated oxen hide? Horse blanket? Sheep’s bladder?” He asked, nodding to treated animal organs that hung at the back of the stall.
“Information,” Margo replied, and the golden eyes tipped up to hers. After a few moments, Margo patted the coin purse on her belt. The slaver set his tools aside and Margo leaned down.
“Looking for Grayle’s stronghold.”
The creature’s eyes flicked to Quentin.
“That for sale? Give you fifty coins.”
Margo knew better than to name Quentin as bounty, especially in the middle of a market where people made a living buying and selling slaves, so she scowled.
“Didn’t come here to sell. Came here to see Grayle.”
“Sixty coins and two tanned hides,” the catlike creature bantered.
“The boy is my servant and not for sale. Information or nothing.”
The vendor made a displeased sound in his throat but pointed through the throngs of people and the busiest section of the market.
“That way . . . the building flies a flag with his mark.” The vendor made a likeness of it on a scrap piece of hide and a chunk of charcoal. Margo opened her coin pouch and dropped five gold pieces on the counter, where they bounced briefly before settling.
“Many thanks,” Margo nodded before urging Iris ahead and through the crowd.
“Margo?” Quentin murmured.
“What’s our plan once we find Grayle?”
“Other than using a magic missile to blow a hole through his chest big enough to ride this horse through?”
“Well . . . yeah. What if he sees through your disguise or if he’s waiting for us? He might have a trap laid out.”
“That’s pretty likely and I’m counting on his arrogance.” She slowed the mare and pointed. “Look, there it is!”
Quentin raised his head enough to follow Margo’s gesture. The blood-red background made Grayle’s mark--a grinning skull and a skeletal hand wielding a whip--stood out in eerie relief. Quentin’s stomach clenched and its contents threatened to make an abrupt appearance. He swallowed hard.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” he said, and Margo cast a grim look over his shoulder.
“Damn it Q, we’re in this together and we’re the only ones who can get El back and shut down this shit stain of an island! Got it?”
“I--” Temporarily out of words, Quentin only nodded. Margo kept the flag in sight until they came to a large stone stronghold flanked by holding pens lined with gorgeplant vines, the thorns glinting in the sun. A few young men sat within, but Eliot was not among them.
“Stay here,” Margo said as she slid off Iris’ back and approached the iron-banded wooden gates of the stronghold and pounded on them with both fists. A tall man with a scraggly black beard opened the gate doors a moment later, a dripping shank of meat and bone in one hand. The man’s scalp was missing and stitched in its place was a piece of sun-baked animal hide, the surface covered with red tattoos. He had one missing eye, the socket hidden with a black patch of leather. The other, a baleful blue, sized up Margo’s disguised form.
“Oye?” He snapped, and Margo matched his glare.
“I’m here to see Grayle.”
The man chewed the rest of the meat off the bone and tossed it aside, where two skinny creatures with striped grey-and-brown fur and hyena-like features snarled and tussled over it.
“Business?” The man barked, and Margo nodded at Quentin.
“Grayle owns that one. He escaped, but I caught him near the Northern Shores, trying to find passage to the lands of Whitespire.”
“Let them in, Mordok,” a voice said behind them, and the guard turned as his master spoke. Margo struggled to stay in character as Grayle stepped around his dogsbody.
“I’ve come for the bounty on this boy,” she said, and Grayle grinned his pointy grin as he approached Quentin.
“Well now! Look who it is.” He reached up and yanked Quentin off Iris’ back. The horse tossed her head and showed the whites of her eyes, but Grayle took little notice as Quentin hit the ground and sprawled onto his right side. “Did you really believe you would escape me for long?” He hauled Quentin to his feet and glared at him, nearly nose to nose with the young man. “When word of your punishment spreads, boy, no one will ever have the courage to escape me again!” He dragged Quentin back through the gates and motioned for Margo to follow. She paused to hitch Iris to a nearby tree, where the mare shook herself before cocking a rear leg to rest.
“You say you found the boy trying to book passage to Whitespire?”
“He was with a human woman. I followed them, listened. They spoke your name and of his escape from you.”
“And the woman?”
“I killed the bitch! She would have tried to stop me!”
“Interesting,” Grayle nodded as he led them into the stronghold.” You overcame a human magician?”
“Magic means nothing when you attack as your enemies sleep.”
“True enough. Come then, and earn your reward--but first, there is something I want this pup to see. Perhaps it will amuse you as well, bounty hunter.” He opened a heavy door with a thick iron key, then pushed it open to reveal a long hallway lined with cell after cell. Quentin balked, traumatic memories flooding his head, and Grayle laughed.
“You haven’t forgotten your former home, I see! Good--you’ll soon be back in your old cell again.”
Margo steeled herself as they passed the cells, each one containing a thin, silent magician, their hands chained and fitted with what looked like heavy iron gloves, the fingers jointed. Each one was strapped to a thinly padded slab of stone, and Grayle glanced over his shoulder.
“The gloves are my own invention. They drain magic, which I use to power my stronghold. My men harvest them of their fluids a few times a day . . . brings me quite a few coins on the underground market.” Grayle reached the end of the hallway and unlocked another door. “Now you’ll see what happens when upstart magicians take what is mine!”
The door swung open wide, two paces separating it from thick iron bars. A single cell filled the space--there was nowhere else to look and the sight filled Quentin with equal measures of rage and horror.
Eliot hung from chains on the stone wall like someone’s grisly idea of a living piece of artwork. A thick strap of leather blindfolded him and a black wooden ball set between his teeth kept him silent. The iron gloves on his hands manipulated his fingers, causing magic to flow from them. An unseen source caused a flexible sheath strapped to his cock to suck and pull, suck and pull, milking him as his naked body twitched and his toes curled at the sensations.
“I’ve collected magicians for years so I could use their magical energies to run this stronghold. This one, though, has abilities like I’ve never known! He’ll live out his life in this cell, chained and used for his magic.” Grayle grinned, showing his pointed teeth. “And as for you, boy, you will beg for your end long before it comes! I will sell the very flesh off your bones, bit by bit, and your precious pirate king will hear every carve of my knife and every cry of pain I coax from your lips!” His gaze swung to Margo. “And you, woman, I will sell by the pound to the hungry trolls that frequent the market! Did you think I was a fool, that I would not see through that glamour?”
Margo spat out a brief rain of curses on the slaver, but Quentin only registered a few syllables as something in his chest seemed to bloom, then swell until he felt filled with it. The hairs on his arms and the back of his neck went stiff, and some kind of golden light outlined his vision. Anyone watching would have seen this light ring his pupils and make his dark irises burn with it. As Grayle stepped toward Margo and began to pull his whip from its place on his belt, Quentin turned toward the opposite wall as if shoved and his manacled hands shot out in front of him. Molten magic shot from his fingertips, the manacles melting off him like softened butter and obliterating the bars of Eliot’s cell and most of the south-facing wall. Margo shed her disguise, cursing in surprise, and Grayle picked himself up from where the blast had tossed him. He fled through the ruined wall and Quentin stared down at his hands as his magic, unlocked by the sight of the person he loved in such awful peril, made itself known in his veins, his blood, his beating heart. His expression shifted into something knowing and powerful as he went to Margo.
“Are you all right?” He asked, and Margo nodded.
“Yeah. Q, your magic--”
“Help Eliot down,” Quentin replied as he scrambled over the rubble of the ruined wall. “I’m going after Grayle.”
“If I don’t, then he’ll chase down and capture others like us and start this whole awful place somewhere else! Please, help Eliot!” Quentin called over his shoulder. His magic, now coursing through his frame like a high-quality drug, made his senses throb and tingle. In the near distance, Grayle fled west.
“Stop and face me while my hands are free, you bastard!” Quentin shouted. Grayle forded a wide water-filled ditch and turned to face him.
“You may have found your magic, boy, but you have no control over it! You flail like a helpless worm under its energy!”
Quentin charged the ditch as Grayle unsheathed his whip. Its deadly length cracked across the divide but Quentin ducked its paralyzing tip. Grayle retreated again, toward a dense, tall line of shrubbery. Quentin jumped into the wide ditch and climbed out the other side, shaking water from his tawny hair. He approached Grayle, who cracked his whip and showed his teeth.
“Come then, you human whelp! Come, and we will see how well you fare against me with magic like an unbroken horse!”
Quentin swallowed down the last motes of his fear.
Eliot , he thought. You can’t fail him! He never failed you and you can’t let this asshole steal whatever happiness you might find with Eliot in the future!
“I’ll feed your cock to the trolls, boy!” Grayle taunted, and Quentin glanced at the field beyond the dense shrubbery. As he watched, the gaping horizontal mouth of a gorgevine opened, the inside black and gleaming satin-soft, like the lining of a demon’s casket. Its vines slithered and reached, but Grayle was out of range. Quentin’s frame trembled as his magic stoked itself again and he raised his hands, willing it with as much control as he could manage.
“Feed on this !” He shouted, and his voice seemed to echo, multiplying its power. Raw magic poured from his fingertips in thick, crackling ropes, striking Grayle and tossing him backward. The force of the energy blew Quentin off his feet and back across the ditch, where he landed on his side, the wind knocked out of him. Just before he passed out, spent, he watched the hungry gorgevine plant make a meal of Grayle, stinging him in the chest and neck before poking him into its mouth. Quentin managed a smile before darkness edged the corners of his vision and then drew an ebony cloak over his consciousness.
Quentin dwelled in darkness for nearly 72 hours, but when he again became aware of his senses, it was Eliot’s voice and touch that roused him. His long, elegant fingers stroked his brow, and Eliot’s deep voice called Quentin from his involuntary sleep.
“Quentin? Quentin, come on, come back to me, baby . . .”
Quentin tried to speak, failed, then battled with his eyelids as they lagged at his attempts to raise them. Eliot called his name again, his tone edged with hope, and blurred colors finally arranged themselves into Eliot’s smiling face.
“Look who finally woke up,” Eliot said as Quentin climbed from the trenches of unconsciousness.
“Where . . .?” Quentin managed, trying to raise a hand to touch Eliot’s face. Eliot took it and pressed it to his own cheek.
“You’re on the Muntjac, Q, in my cabin.” A wooden cup touched his lips. “Here . . . drink.”
Quentin obeyed. The water was cool and slipped down his parched throat like an answered prayer. Margo stepped into his line of sight a moment later, back in her shipboard garb, her hands on her hips.
“It’s about time!” She snapped, but a smile played around her lips. “We’ve been without a cabin boy for three days!”
“He’s earned a promotion anyway,” Eliot smiled. “You did a brave thing, Q. Thank you.” He helped Quentin sit up. “And you unlocked your magic . . . we can teach you proper spellwork now.”
“It was seeing you that way--the way Grayle had you. It was like all my emotions turned into raw energy--like a hurricane built up inside me.”
“It’s because magic comes from pain, Q. It’s not ideal, but it’s true.” Eliot leaned in and kissed Quentin’s forehead. “You freed me and more than two dozen other magicians, and now we can dismantle the Outer Islands slave trade for good.”
“The others . . . they’re free?” Quentin asked, and Eliot nodded.
“Once the other slavers realized they weren’t under Grayle’s protection anymore they scattered like roaches. Margo and I rounded them up and have them locked away in Grayle’s cells until we decide the safest way to handle them. After that . . .” Eliot lifted a shoulder. “I suppose it’s back to the water.”
Quentin contemplated the bottom of his cup a moment.
“It doesn’t have to be that way.”
“What do you mean, Q?” Margo asked, and Quentin smiled.
“Every Dread Pirate Roberts has to pass the name on and find a home someday. With the slavers gone, we can make this island our own . . . build a home and create a safe haven for all magicians.”
Eliot glanced at Margo, who lifted a brow. Then Eliot grinned and leaned in to kiss Quentin warmly on the mouth.
“Only you could make a Dread Pirate Roberts want to retire early.”
Six Months Later
The setting sun threw a shining line of diamonds across the water as Eliot and Quentin rode horseback side by side, Quentin on his faithful and steady mount, Iris, Eliot on a palomino gelding he’d rescued from one of the slavers, scarred at the flanks but his spirit unbroken. In the distance, the Muntjac gleamed at the dock they and their shipmates had built, like a precious jewel in the diminishing sunlight.
They reached the cove where the slaver’s market once stood, now a collection of neat cottages where magicians and members of Eliot’s former crew now made a living at fishing, farming, and providing training for young magicians who found their way to FIllory, as Quentin had so long ago. Eliot, Margo, and Quentin shared a new two-story home up on a hill where Grayle’s stronghold used to stand, a corral for the horses to the left. Now, the two magicians dismounted and linked hands, leaving the horses to nibble on the salt-tinged grass at the edge of the cove.
“Spellkeeper’s Cove,” Quentin said. “Do you like the new name?”
“I do,” Eliot nodded as he squeezed Quentin’s hand. “And you were right . . . the place makes a fine home despite its past.”
“I think the three of us prove the past doesn’t have to matter much,” Quentin said as he rested his head on Eliot’s left arm. “And we’re doing good work here.”
“And you have become quite the magician,” Eliot smiled, and Quentin’s cheeks reddened.
“You and Margo are responsible for that.” Quentin paused. “I love you, El.”
Eliot’s features softened.
“I love you too, my sweet little cabin boy,” he teased, carding a hand through Quentin’s hair. “My Q.”
Quentin’s blush deepened.
“You saved me,” he said, and Eliot shook his head.
“We saved each other. And those like us.” He slipped an arm around Quentin’s waist.
“Are you going to miss being a pirate?” Quentin asked, looking up at his partner. Eliot shook his head.
“Why not?” Quentin questioned, and Eliot turned to look down at the man he’d come to love so much. The setting sun made a halo at the crown of Quentin’s head, and Eliot touched it with reverence.
“Because I’ve already discovered Fillory’s greatest treasure.”