Back after a week off. Wish I could get a bit of a buffer but ideas seem to come slow with this one. Sorry about the delay.
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“Last night I had a dream,” announced Mrs Unlevy as she walked into the classroom. “The subject for today’s lesson is gone. Close your books, put it out of your minds.” There were groans around the class as textbooks were closed. “Poof, it is no more. Instead, we will delve into a subject many consider taboo. The forbidden history of Ranvar.”
She put her bag on the desk at the front of the class and faced the mildly unsettled students.
Mrs Unlevy was one of three teachers Nic had for Military Strategy. He had three two-hour classes spread out through the week, and each class was with a different teacher, each taught in a very different manner even though the subject was primarily the same.
It was the same with Economic Analysis, three teachers, each once a week. Only the Arts Course was run by a single entity, although he was no less varied in his approach.
“I refer, of course, to the Civil War.” She said it with a mixture of mischief and audaciousness, her voice lowering in volume to express how daring she was being.
The Civil War was a topic known to every Ranvarian — a key moment in the formation of the kingdom — but it was rarely discussed. Not in school, not in the home. Certainly not in public.
Most history books referred to it only in passing, as though the subject would be explored in greater detail at some other time, in some other volume. It never was. Nic had researched the topic quite extensively, and had never found anything more than short passages with no more than dates and the parties involved. That and the only salient fact, which was that the rebels were destroyed by their own hands, a slaughter of all their leaders in a single night.
Chaos turns on itself, was the common conclusion.
“Of course, there are many definitive texts on the matter. We will ignore them all! Today, we speculate and conjecture. Nothing we speak of here will be considered to be fact, only supposition. But what a fertile playground of the imagination we have to run around in!”
Mrs Unlevy was a stout woman with dark, curly hair and gleaming eyes, when they were open.
She had a somewhat romantic view of the battlefield, where heroes committed acts of bravery to a background of colour and noise, the troops clashing as though part of a dance routine where all had a predestined role to play. She had a tendency to close her eyes as she spoke, tilting her head back so far she appeared in danger of toppling over backwards.
“That final battle, so climactic, so traumatic, none could escape its brutality, not even the survivors! It was the coldest of mornings, so cold that the horses had icicles hanging from their bridles. The temperature we know from meteorological records from the period, the rest is reasonable to extrapolate. Everyone, eyes shut, picture it in your mind. Can you smell the sod churned over by hooves? The tang of blood in the air from the previous night’s skirmishes. Immerse yourselves.” She breathed in deeply, as you would if inhaling the scent from a bouquet of flowers.
Nic placed his arms on the desk and let his chin rest on the top of his hand. His eyes were not closed, but they were unfocused enough so that he was no longer aware of his immediate surroundings.
He had an interest in the period being discussed, but it was rather suspicious that it would be brought up today considering the discussion he’d had the previous night with Winnum Roke.
“Did you get her to do this?” he said into the far reaches of his mind.
Winnum Roke’s presence was very different compared to when he had a demon ensconced in his brain. That experience had been a constant pressure on his head, like he’d been wearing a hat all day and still felt it after he’d taken it off.
With Winnum Roke, it was far less noticeable. She wasn’t a demon, so some differences were to be expected, but she wasn’t exactly human, either, so those differences weren’t necessarily to be welcomed.
For sure, it was easier to make contact with her at night, when there were fewer distractions and his mind was stilled. Communicating with her was rather like a dream, but not the kind you got lost in and were unable to notice the difference between the mundane and the bizarre. This was like the half-dream the mind slipped into when you woke too early and then drifted back into a half-sleep.
Nic let his mind roll away from the class, his eyes open but unseeing, and tried to catch the tail of a fish the refraction of the water made it impossible to target accurately.
“It seems odd that you would bring up the war last night as a way to convince me of your intentions, and then it miraculously becomes today’s unplanned topic for discussion,” he mumbled to himself.
He tried to sense an answer, stretching out his perceptions. It was much harder to do in the light of day.
“I have no control over the school curriculum.”
The voice was much closer than he had anticipated and startled him. And then he wasn’t sure if he’d heard it or just imagined it. Nic raised his head and looked around the class as though the other students might have heard it, too, but they all had their eye shut tight. Apart from Dizzy who looked back at him with a penetrating stare.
“This was the culmination of three years of constant battle,” continued Mrs Unlevy, her arms swaying back and forth like she was conducting an orchestra. “King Ransom, our illustrious school founder, leading ten thousand men marching under the Ranvarian standard. Not the one you see today, this one was maroon with golden trident. Picture it, picture it,” she commanded.
Nic had seen a picture of the flag Ranvar had fought under before the three black dragons on a field of green that flew over the kingdom now. He would not have described it as a trident. Pitchfork would seem more accurate.
“And on the opposing side, his brother, Neurith, surrounded by a rabble of over thirty thousand, the combined forces of the Seven Kingdoms. Men in mismatched armour and a confusion of different liveries. Sound and colour so extreme it would offend your senses to just be near them, and the stench…” She scrunched up her face. “These were not professional soldiers. Tradesmen and merchants pressed into service. Fishermen and farmers more accustomed to haggling across tables in the marketplace than fighting for their lives. But they managed to hold back a professional and well-disciplined army for three years.” Mrs Unlevy’s eyes opened. “Can anyone suggest how they managed it?”
There was a moment of hesitation, and then hands went up around the class.
“Magic,” said the boy who was called on to answer.
This was the common belief about the war. That it provided the introduction to Arcanum that set Ranvar on the path to ascendancy. And that it had begun as a tool of the king’s enemy, his own brother.
“Indeed,” said Mrs Unlevy, “a very important factor, no doubt. But let us not be distracted by the fantastic and arcane. Think in terms of the struggle to gain advantage on the battlefield. From close up, yes, war is hell. It is ugly and brutal and disgusting. But when seen from afar, with the distance of time, it becomes a thing of great beauty. It is more than the clash of steel and spilling of guts. It is music, it is melody and counterpoint. It is dance.”
She raised her arms as though placing them around a partner, and swayed from side to side, her eyes closed.
“With the benefit of detachment, what appeared to be blunt force smashing through the front lines, now emerges as an elegant thrust of a delicate blade, slicing through a chink in the armour, gliding between ribs, perfectly piercing a vital organ before its owner becomes aware of their unavoidable death. Dance. Your enemy is also your partner. Perhaps you take the lead, perhaps you follow, both are permissible, both can lead to victory, if you execute the steps correctly and to the correct rhythm. A great dancer does not think of the next move, a great dancer flows from one moment to the next, taking the dance where the music and the dance floor allow.”
“The woman’s an idiot,” said Winnum Roke, whispering in Nic’s ear, although this voice seemed to be whispering from the inside. “Wars are rarely won in a single battle. Months and years take their toll. Plans and betrayal come undone. Some people are traitors by nature; they take pleasure in treachery. Some people are loyal to a fault, and refuse to see the truth and die fighting for a lie.”
“Mr Tutt? You have something you wish to contribute?”
Nic realised he had been repeating what he was hearing in an effort to clarify the words which were slipping away from him without being fully-formed. He had only been mouthing them silently, but it had probably made him appear like he was trying to say something.
“Very well. Then let us consider the actors in this play. Prince Neurith, a small man with pockmarks and a hooked nose, rumoured to have been illegitimately sired.”
“Ridiculous! How could a twin be illegitimate?”
Nic made sure to keep his mouth tightly shut, but Winnum Roke’s outrage made him grin. If true, then it would indeed be a very peculiar lie to have spread.
Mrs Unlevy was looking at him again. Nic moved his mouth around and stretched his jaw like he might have toothache.
Winnum Roke’s voice continued: “In truth, the only reason for the war was that Neurith was keen for distraction, and had been convinced he was the elder twin, and the throne was rightfully his. The evidence for this proposition was non-existent and was based purely on scurrilous gossip, which was more than enough for Neurith to climb into a suit of armour that was far too big for him and strap a sword on he could barely lift. He was an insufferable little shit.”
The voice in Nic’s head was still a distant whisper, but he could understand it clearly now. Mrs Unlevy was continuing to wax lyrical about the grandeur of the king’s forces as they prepared for the final battle. She seemed quite taken by her imaginary recollection of the event.
“None of this happened,” said Winnum Roke. “There was no battle between tens of thousands. The king, at first, chose to interpret his brother’s complaints and grousing as sibling resentment. The thorny jibes of a bored and irritable child. His brother had always been pampered as redundant heirs often are.
“King Ransom tried to involve his brother more in the business of ruling a kingdom, but Neurith became ever more unresponsive. He did not wish to be included. He wished to be his brother’s replacement. In due course, the king came to feel the lack of support from his twin, to a concerning degree.
“When Neurith raised an army of wild hillmen and marched on Ransom’s castle, the king merely sent him an abusive message, demanding he turn his army around and go home. Neurith, who knew his brother’s temperament, ignored the message and burnt down the king’s favourite holiday retreat, exasperating the king to a state of incandescence.
“The ‘final battle’ was no more than a nighttime raid on the King’s second favourite holiday home, which was little more than a cabin in the woods. But King Ransom had secretly reinforced his household guard with a hundred knights and a handful of heavy cavalry. It was more than enough. The undisciplined clansmen were routed; Neurith escaped with his life but was bitterly embarrassed to be surprised while attempting a surprise attack.”
Nic had lost track of what Mrs Unlevy was saying. His attention was on Winnum Roke’s revised history, which was unlike anything he had read in any book.
“This was all there was to the war between the brothers. The rebel leaders who died were killed many years later with no warning. Their deaths served a different purpose.”
“Aren’t you too young to know any of this?” said Nic.
“Time is a many-sided pyramid,” said Winnum Roke. “We stand at the apex and overlook days, months and years in all directions, if we have the appropriate number of eyes. This is the first principle of the Methenoic Demise, as revealed by Jeboah Chud, the one who brought us the Book of Truth from the Other Place. Perhaps you should mention it to your teacher, she looks like she would be interested.”
Nic’s attention was rudely dragged back to the present. Mrs Unlevy and the rest of the class now had their eyes trained on him.
“Yes?” said Nic. He smiled and opened his own eyes wide to indicate he was eager to be of help. It was a look he had practised in the mirror when he was eight after teachers would get upset by his normal face, which seemed to indicate he was unimpressed by their teaching ability. He assumed that was what it indicated since that was usually what he thought.
“Can you share your thoughts on the question of Neurith’s secret strategy? And if you could not mutter the answer I and the class would be most grateful.”
“Um, well,” said Nic, “according to the most respected source, Goynton’s Instigation of Conflict in the First Civil War, Prince Neurith sacked the towns and villages along the disputed border and killed everyone who wouldn’t join him, so that his ranks swelled, while reducing the number of people King Ransom could draw from. His conscripts were reluctant but too scared to refuse. During battle they were driven to a frenzy by magic which made them fight, but they were as likely to attack their own as their enemy. According to Goynton.”
“You don’t sound like you agree with Ferdinal Goynton, Mr Tutt.”
“I have no reason to doubt him or subscribe to his views,” said Nic. He remembered to smile and open his eyes a little late, and a dark look crossed Mrs Unlevy’s normally exuberant features.
“He was there, you know?” said Mrs Unlevy. “Do you perhaps have a better idea of what happened over a thousand years ago?”
There was a mild rebuke in her voice, but also a challenge. Nic would normally be too wary of the first to respond to the second, but Mrs Unlevy wasn’t the sort of teacher to be vindictive, and the topic of the first civil war did genuinely fascinate him. It had occurred when Arcanum had first appeared, although there was no mention of demons until much later.
“No, I don’t know anything,” said Nic. “I’m just curious where both sides obtained magic from. There doesn’t seem to be any record of either brother being trained or taught how to use Arcanum. There’s the legend of the Book of Truth, but I’m not sure how apocryphal that is. It could be there was a third party involved but it seems strange there’s no mention made of them. I can’t believe Goynton wouldn’t have wondered the same and at least addressed the question, even if he couldn’t find the answer. He doesn’t mention it in any of his texts on the period, and he wrote seventeen volumes that I know of. Which suggests he either had a very good reason to keep silent on the subject — I’m afraid I haven’t been able to think of one — or the information was removed for any number of reasons. So, to answer your question, it isn’t that I doubt anything Ferdinal Goynton has to say, I just don’t think the information is complete.” Nic smiled and tried to shape his features into a hopeful look. Teachers liked it when you looked to them for approval. It helped reinforce the hierarchy.
“Well,” said Mrs Unlevy, “that’s an interesting point you bring up, with plenty of very specific references. Well done,” she said without enthusiasm. He could tell he was beginning to test her patience. “Perhaps someone else has thoughts on the matter?” She looked around the class. No one seemed very keen to join in the discussion.
“If Goynton were allowed to divulge the origin of Arcanum,” said Dizzy, “that would reveal more information than would be safe. Is there a particular reason you would like to unearth such sensitive information? I’m sure it would be very valuable.”
“No,” said Nic. “My interest is purely academic. I have no plans to commit treason.”
“Good,” said Dizzy. “I’m glad to hear it.”
“Yes, thank you for clarifying that Miss Delcroix.” Mrs Unlevy gave Dizzy a quizzical look. “Since Ferdinal Goyton was the only one of us alive at the time, let’s take his word on the matter for the time being.”
“I was there,” said Winnum Roke. “I remember it very clearly. Two struggling magicians involved in petty conflict over a pile of mud. Ransom proved the strongest and defeated Neurith, in a risible battle under the Demon’s Heart. What to do with a defeated magician, who seethed with evil and hate? Ransom rolled him up in layers of cut turf and buried him in the mountain, replacing one demon’s heart with another. He dug a deep hole and dropped his brother into it, and all the nobles were glad and spoke well of Ransom for dealing with the matter so efficiently.
“King Ransom I, he became, a pallid round-headed little man, ineffectual, shrill and waspish, but he ruled without contest for two hundred years. He reigned from his castle Side Rift, in the northern mountains, as far from Demon’s Heart as he could get, keeping counsel with the demons who had granted him the power to defeat his brother, who had also granted his brother the power to defeat him. It did not matter to them which emerged victorious, only that they had the winner’s ear, and so they did.”
Nic jumped up from his chair. He had been aware that the words had been coming out of his mouth, if only very quietly. He hadn’t thought anyone would hear. He had been too enraptured by the history lesson to be on his guard.
“Sorry. I was remembering a story I read somewhere.”
“Be that as it may, this is Military Strategy, not fairy tales for the campfire. That was quite the fanciful flight of the imagination.”
“Yes. Sorry.” Nic sat down. He could feel the eyes on him, but he kept his head down and waited for their curiosity to pass.
“There are many versions of the same story, Nic,” said Winnum Roke. “How can you know which is true, if any? There is only one way. You have to see it for yourself, or accept that you know nothing.”
“I hear you’ve become something of an oracle,” said Simole at lunch. “A portal to Ranvar’s past.”
She had deigned to come sit with them at their old table. The gathered Also-Rans, old and new, weren’t quite sure what to make of the honour.
“I got a bit distracted, that was all,” said Nic.
He wasn’t too concerned about his momentary lapse. It wasn’t like Winnum Roke had tried to take control of him. She had tried that before, and always failed. The attempts had been good practice for him, and Nic felt confident he could retain mastery of himself as long as she was trapped in his mind.
The only reason he had lost sense of his surroundings for a moment was because he’d been genuinely captivated by what Winnum recalled of the past. As a teacher, Winnum Roke was a far more interesting prospect than anything the school had to offer him. As an insane wizard bent on revenge, she was a somewhat less attractive alternative.
“Distracted? Really?” Simole nodded like she understood. “I waited for you last night, but you never showed. Distracted?”
“Sorry,” said Nic. “Something came up.”
“Don’t worry, boys,” said Simole, addressing the rest of the table who were all ears. “It isn’t what you’re thinking. It’s far more depraved. He may seem like a nice quiet boy, but when he’s alone with a woman...” Her eyes flashed wide.
“Simole,” said Nic.
“Yes, Nic?” said Simole.
“Could you take your hand off my knee?”
Simole looked at him for a full five seconds before taking her hand out from under the table. “That’s what I like about you, Nic. You aren’t afraid to meet me halfway.”
“Why did she have her hand on his knee?” said Fanny, confused.
“She didn’t,” said Davo.
“But he just said…”
Davo shook his head. “The game is bluff and blush. The loser is all of us at this table.”
“I had second thoughts,” said Nic. “It turns out you’re probably the person I shouldn’t be left alone with.”
“I could have told you that,” said Davo.
Fanny snorted through a mouthful of food.
“Me?” said Simole. “But I’m very well regarded in certain circles. I’m clean and punctual, and highly educated.”
“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” said Fanny, still chewing. “What are your other subjects? I asked around and no one seems to be in the same class as you.”
“Special lessons,” said Simole. “Arranged by my father.”
“Is it music and deportment?” asked Davo. “To make you a better prospect for marriage?”
Fanny choked on his food.
Simole smiled, or at least her mouth widened to show more teeth. It could have been a prelude to biting into something, or someone.
“Personally,” Davo continued blithely, “I feel you need no such assistance. You have synthesized for yourself a style, a sparkling sense of mischief that any man would find entrancing.”
Simole’s features softened for the moment. “Thank you. I don’t believe a word you said, but it still sounded very nice.”
“You’re welcome,” said Davo, and gave the rest of the table a passing glance. They had been braced for something far more violent.
After eating, everyone left the table together and headed towards the library. It was a half-day where second years were allowed to do as they pleased, usually some sort of sporting activity.
The library was not the same place it had once been. There was a new librarian and Nic had no idea where the previous one had gone. Probably to the Royal College, but no one seemed to know for sure, not even the new librarian who was a tall, thin man with a very austere demeanour, so an ideal replacement.
Nic wandered around the bookshelves with Simole following him, quietly waiting for a fuller explanation. He used the opportunity to collect books and have her carry them for him.
When they reached a part of the library with no one around, he told her about Winnum Roke’s attempt to attack the simulacrum he’d made of her.
“She couldn’t tell it was me?” said Simole, sounding doubtful.
“It was a very good likeness,” said Nic.
“Yes, I have excellent recall,” said Nic. “It looked just like you.”
“Creating a person is one of the hardest things to learn,” said Simole. “There are a lot of details you need to get right all at the same time. I was never good at it, lacked the patience. My father would tell me to fix an image in my mind, then change its colours, while holding the shape the same. A tree had to have the exact same number of leaves no matter how many times you counted them. My father would make me create whole forests in my mind. I hated it. Is your memory really that good?”
Nic shrugged. It was a part of his brain he exercised regularly, but he wasn’t sure he could sustain an entire landscape. He didn’t see why he would need to.
“Close your eyes,” said Simole. Nic obliged. “What colour are the buttons on my shirt cuff?”
“Blue,” said Nic.
“There’s a tag on the back of my boot. Describe it.”
“It’s a small red triangle, like a pendant.” He opened his eyes. “I don’t know if I could create a version of you in the real world, but it’s different in my mind. Winnum couldn’t tell it wasn’t you because I believed it. I don’t think it matters how realistic my version of you was.”
”And you think she would have attacked me if I had been there?”
“You were, and she did,” said Nic.
“I realise you’re trying to protect me,” said Simole, “but I think you’re forgetting something.”
“I’m not trying to protect you,” said Nic. “I’m trying to protect me. What have I forgotten?”
“That as much as she might want my power, she has to take it from me first. She wasn’t able to do it in the Other Place, I don’t see why she would be able to do it here. I think it’s far more likely she is manipulating you into thinking I’m her target.”
“I don’t know,” said Simole. “But we need to confront Winnum if we want to find out what she’s really planning. The only other way we’ll find out is after it happens. And that would be less than ideal.”
“She says the answer is in the Royal College. Once I see it, everything will become clear.”
“Is that all?” said Simole. “That shouldn’t be too difficult. You don’t need to sit through a year of classes and pass any examinations to gain entry. Simply bang on the door and say, “It is I, Nicolav Tutt, demon hunter. Let me in.’ Or failing that, I can ask my father to give you the tour. He showed me around and I can assure you it is a spectacularly boring institution. What is it she plans to show you?”
“If I knew that I wouldn’t need to go,” said Nic.
“Very funny,” said Simole. “You don’t think she’s stringing you along? Since when is holding back information to anyone’s advantage except the one who’s holding back.”
Nic placed another book on top of the stack in Simole’s arms. “Why did your father train you to kill mages?”
“Could you warn me when you’re going to switch directions like that?” said Simole. “You’re liable to give me whiplash.”
“Don’t you think it was an odd way to deal with a threat to the world? Remove the only line of defence.”
“And you have an explanation, courtesy of your favourite house guest?”
“Do you know much about the civil war?”
“I wasn’t expecting a pop quiz. Will this count towards my final score?”
“The strangest thing about the war was the way it ended,” said Nic. “All the rebel leaders died on the same night. It was like the war had given them a reason to collect in one place and make their allegiances known, making it easier for someone to get rid of them all at once. A culling. Only, Winnum claims it had nothing to do with the war and happened many years later.”
Simole nodded. “In the olden days, kings killed people they didn’t like. I have no idea what the relevance of that would be to my father’s actions.”
“No, I’m not sure, either. But Winnum Roke thinks it will become clear once I reach the Royal College.”
“Then let’s go,” said Simole. “Let’s go now, this minute. They can stop you, and they can stop her, but they can’t stop me.”
“Because you’ll kill them all?” asked Nic.
“No,” said Simole. “Because my dad gave me my own key.”
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