Reminder: My new story 'Deeper Darker' starts tomorrow!
Preface from Mooderino
“Is there something you want, Mr Carmine?” said Dizzy.
It was not, Nic had to admit, a very affectionate way to address the man you loved, the man whose proposal you had accepted, the man you intended to raise a family with. She was looking at him with no emotion whatsoever.
“Um,” said Nic, raising a hand like he was in class, “if you’re here for Miss Delcroix, is it alright if we go ahead? We’re late for class.”
His request was ignored. The minister and Dizzy were locked in some kind of battle of nonchalance. Nic was not sure what their relationship was, but for some reason he was more curious than dismayed.
Simole was the only one to notice Nic’s raised hand. She grabbed him by the arm and pulled the arm down, giving it a squeeze at the same time. She looked disappointed in how Nic was handling the situation, or possibly in the size of his bicep.
“What are you doing?” she said into Nic’s ear, her lips practically touching his lobe. “You can’t leave. Look at him! He’s your rival. Don’t you feel your manliness rising to the surface?”
“Delzina,” said Minister Carmine, “please, it’s Mol.”
“Mr Carmine,” said Dizzy with civility and patience — this was going to go very badly, “I’d appreciate if you could get to the reason you’re here. As the boy said, we are late for class.” Now he was ‘the boy’? At least she remembered he was there. “What do you want, minister?”
Oddly, she didn’t sound annoyed or irritated, the way she did when she spoke to Nic. When speaking to her fiancé, she sounded distracted, like she was already thinking about what she was going to do next. It was actually quite rude, even though her voice was perfectly courteous. The minister didn’t seem to mind, though. Or was acting like he didn’t.
“Now’s your chance to win her heart,” whispered Simole. “Challenge him to a duel.”
Minister Carmine looked to be in excellent shape. A military man, Nic guessed. He was tall, his hair was pulled back from an aristocratic face, and his shoulders were broad. He had a sword at his side that didn’t look like it was there for show. The scabbard was plenty scratched and scuffed, but it still looked well cared for — glossy and polished.
“Those books you read about romance and heroes and forbidden love,” Nic whispered back at Simole through the side of his mouth, “they aren’t historically accurate.”
“Men didn’t use to duel over the love of a woman?” said Simole, sounding disappointed.
“No, they did. I mean the part where the weaker man finds a way to win because his love is true. That part never happened. The smaller, weaker, more in love man always died.”
“So you’re going to give up?” said Simole.
“Give up what?” he snapped at Simole despite himself. “I was never even in the race. Do you really think I imagined there wouldn’t be others interested in her? The way she looks, her family background, her boundless spirit? Frankly, I’m surprised there haven’t been more, but she’s still young and she has her natural defence against people who try to get too close to her.”
“You mean her personality?”
“Exactly,” said Nic, finding it encouraging to have someone recognise the situation for what it was for once. “My only real advantage has been that I don’t mind how mean and nasty she is.”
“I get it!” said Simole. “That’s why you always provoke her into saying terrible things. The more horrible she is, the less likely anyone else is to want her. Eventually, she’ll be an old maid desperate for any kind of attention, and that’s when you’ll pounce, you wily old fox.” She slapped him on the shoulder with a cupped hand, which he pretended didn’t hurt.
“It’s not like I make her say terrible things.”
“No, no,” said Simole. “I understand. You didn’t create the monster, you just leave out raw lumps of bloody meat so the monster never goes hungry.”
“Well, I suppose you could put it like that, although—”
Nic turned towards the monster, or rather towards Dizzy, who was no longer talking to Minister Carmine. She was now looking at him like he was a lump of bloody meat.
“He isn’t my fiancé,” said Dizzy. “That’s just a joke my father would make to irritate me.”
“Oh, Delzina, no, no,” said Mol Carmine. “I assure you, your father often spoke to me about how he saw you and I as the ideal couple. He was a very forward-thinking man. He had your future all planned out, and I was to be a key part of it.”
“Please don’t interrupt when I’m talking,” said Dizzy, glancing in the minister’s direction for a fraction of a second. Then the full weight of her attention was back on Nic.
Simole nudged Nic with her elbow. “It’s like you don’t even have to try, isn’t it?”
There was no rancour in the way Dizzy was speaking to her prospective fiancé but it was all the more dismissive for it. She was treating him like his claim wasn’t even worth considering.
If she had reacted to Nic like that when he first arrived at the school, he probably would have packed his bags and left the same day. Which made him wonder why she hadn’t. He quickly stamped down that kind of thinking. Hope was the greatest enemy to rational thinking.
“Okay, we’ll leave you to it,” said Nic, trying to move away towards the school gate. Simole stood in his way, not trying to stop him, but not letting him by, either. He leaned into her shoulder to shove her aside, but she was immovable.
“Didn’t I tell you not to go off without me?” said Dizzy, her eyes igniting now that she had turned towards him.
Behind her, Minister Carmine seemed disappointed to have lost her attention. He didn’t know how lucky he was.
“Ah, but class…” Nic pointed towards the school.
“Yes,” said Dizzy. “Wait.” She turned back to the minister, who didn’t seem so sure of himself any longer. “Mr Carmine, my father was indeed a forward-thinking man, but he also raised me to make my own decisions. The only choices he made on my behalf were those he expected me to challenge. If he wanted to put you forward as a suitor, it would only be to see how I would get out of it. I’m sorry he used you like that, but I’m sure it wasn’t personal. The fact he found you useful at all is something you should cherish.”
The men around Minister Carmine, large brutish soldiers of the Ministry for Instruction, intimate with countless forms of torture, looked uncomfortable and like they wished someone would sound the retreat.
“Delzina,” said Carmine with deliberate gentility, “I can’t say for certain what your father intended, you knew him better than I, there’s no doubt about that, but I was at least someone he considered of appropriate standing to be matched with you. Can’t you at least give me a chance to impress you? I feel no shame in admitting I have been smitten with you ever since we first met.”
“No,” said Dizzy. “I don’t have the necessary emotional reaction to you.”
“Love can grow when two people are suitably aligned in their intentions,” said the minister with a depth of feeling Nic could only imagine he would come to regret.
“I’m not talking about love,” said Dizzy. “I’m referring to respect.”
The minister was a little taken aback. “Then let me prove what I’m capable of and then judge me. As the acting-minister, I plan to—”
“You aren’t listening,” said Dizzy. “How you perform as a minister is irrelevant. My lack of respect for you is based on your interest in a girl half your age, not even finished with school.”
“That’s your objection?” The minister’s face registered his confusion. “But it is perfectly normal for a man to court a younger woman. It happens all the time.”
“For a man to be ‘smitten’ with a child, he must have a fear of women his own age, who might stand up to him. A young girl is easier to manage and dominate — the younger the better. I don’t respect you because I consider you to be a coward, as all men who prey on young girls are. It is not love you seek, it is a victory, and an easy victory at that.”
“No, come on, really,” blustered the minister, his men shrinking away in their desire to not be present. “You can’t believe that. Do you really think I see you as someone easily dominated?”
“Easier than someone with all my traits but fully grown, wouldn’t you say? If you wish to impress me, find a woman of firm convictions of your own age, and impress her. Lead by example. Choose the highest difficulty, not the easy option.”
The minister seemed to grow paler. His men were still at his back, but they offered him no support.
“But the heart wants what it wants…” he said in a slightly strangled voice.
“That is poor justification for ignoring what is appropriate.” Dizzy turned around and walked towards Nic.
Nic turned around and walked into Simole, immovable as ever.
“Where do you think you’re going,” said Simole. “This is just starting to get interesting. I think you’re next for the chopping block.”
Nic had been worried that the ministry would send someone capable of dealing with Simole — they knew her power and it would be foolish to take her on without some kind of plan — but it appeared Simole was not the one to be concerned about.
Perhaps the minister did have a counter to Simole, but a counter that wasn’t needed was just extra weight you had to carry. He didn’t have a counter for Dizzy, that much was clear.
“Mr Tutt,” said Minister Carmine, pinching the bridge of his nose, his eyes closed, “before you go, might I have a word?”
Would he vent his frustration on Nic? Wouldn’t that be preferable to having to suffer whatever Dizzy had in store for him?
“Yes, okay. In private?” he asked hopefully.
“Here is fine,” said the minister. Nic felt the man wasn’t going to allow Nic the privilege of a private interrogation after his own public flogging. “I understand you are returning from the Royal College. Could you elaborate on what happened to make you rush there in the middle of the night?”
“Oh, the Father of Dragons was dying. I expect all the other dragons will soon be dead, too.”
Carmine lowered his hand and opened his eyes. “How did you know about the High-Father?”
Nic suddenly couldn’t recall what lie he was currently standing behind. He went for the vaguest possible explanation. “I have a link to him, or I used to. It’s gone now. He is no longer in the dragon’s body. I don’t know where he is right now.” What he was saying was more or less true. He expected the minister to be too interested in the future of the Ranvar’s dragons to press him on the minor details.
“Link?” said Dizzy. “What link?”
He really needed a counter to Dizzy of his own.
“It’s not really a link, just a vague connection. A feeling.”
She glared at him, not believing a word. Why did it feel like she already had a counter to him? The dispassionate serenity she displayed when conversing with the minister — who had tried to waylay her entire future by forcing her into a marriage of his personal convenience! — was nowhere in attendance when Nic merely mentioned an inconsequential relationship with a demon or two.
“What kind of feeling?” pressed Dizzy. “Where did it come from? Who put it in there?”
The minister looked like he would have liked to ask the same question, and vaguely embarrassed that he had been beaten to the punch. If he planned on spending his marital life with Dizzy for a partner, he would need to move a lot quicker; or get some help.
“It’s not like that,” said Nic. “I mean…”
“The demon,” said Simole. “He had a demon in him for a while. You probably read a report on it.”
He didn’t send Simole a grateful glance — that would have been too obvious — but he thought it strongly and hoped it would find its way to her.
She was talking past Dizzy, to the minister, who was so pleased to be included he nodded his head like a dog waiting for a ball to be thrown.
“Demons leave a kind of mental residue, don’t they?” said Simole, tossing the ball to Nic.
“Yes,” said Nic. “Not so much a residue as a hum. In the back of my head. Bit annoying, really.”
“That wasn’t in the report,” said the minister.
“No?” said Nic. “The Archmage may have redacted it.”
Between Dizzy’s pummelling and Simole’s ever-present threat of doing something unpleasant, the minister was caught off-balance. Nic had never met him before, didn’t know the kind of man he was under pressure, but riding into the enemy line was very different to facing off against the combined forces of Girl A and Girl B. Nic knew which he would prefer.
“Perhaps so,” said Carmine.
“All I know is that the High-Father is no longer at the Royal College,” said Nic, “at least not in his dragon form. I was drawn there and the Archmage sent me back here. If you need to know more I’m sure he’d be happy to explain. He’ll be able to do a much better job of it than me. He’s the Archmage.”
Nic hoped he wasn’t overplaying the poor lost soul caught in matters beyond his comprehension. It usually worked because it wasn’t that much of an act. And Carmine was probably inclined to believe. Nic was inclined to believe it himself.
“Do you know my father?” asked Simole, stepping up when needed.
“I have met him once or twice,” said Carmine. “I doubt he recalls it.” He had regained a little of his composure. His men seemed relieved things had moved on from being lectured to by Dizzy. “And do you happen to know how to prevent the dragons from dying?”
The question was posed in such a way as to suggest the answer was no, and that asking it was merely a formality to establish Nic’s lack of knowledge. The minister needed to prove he wasn’t the least informed person here, and trumping Nic was the obvious, and possibly only, way to do it.
“You can’t, not unless the High-Father chooses to let them, and even then I’m not sure it’s possible. He doesn’t have the Arcanum. In fact, the only place he could find that much raw Arcanum is probably Gweur.”
“Gweur?” said Carmine, his interest genuine now, the posturing gone. “What do you mean?”
“The Gweur fanatics, they were using raw Arcanum. I think they were probably stockpiling it, judging by how heavily dosed they were. I don’t know, maybe they knew this would happen and that the dragons would be caught short. If they can find a way to bring the dragons to them, they might be able to save them. But then, they would have control of them.”
Nic hadn’t really thought about it, but talking to Carmine was like when he explained things to Davo and Fanny, and in the process revealed new thoughts on the subject to himself. It was actually quite enlightening to talk without too much scrutiny. There was a freedom to it. Although he wasn’t sure why the minister was staring so intensely.
“Did I say something wrong?” asked Nic.
“No,” said Carmine. “But you think the Gweur rebels want us to send in our dragons?”
“I don’t know,” said Nic. “But they’re all too weak now, aren’t they. If that was their plan, they must have mistimed it. Or they have another way to get to the dragons. If I were them, I would probably set up an obvious target that would bring our forces to them in an attempt to wipe them out in one go, or heavily disable them, and use that as cover for sneaking in over the border.”
“But they would be sacrificing a large number of their own people if they did that,” said the minister. He seemed tense again.
“I’m sure they’d have plenty of volunteers,” said Nic. “The old and injured, mostly, although they would present them as the heroic and the wise, key targets for us, break morale, smash the command structure. It’s quite an old tactic for insurrectionists. Historically, it only works once every generation or so. If it isn’t successful, it takes a long time to raise the numbers back up to useful levels for an effective insurgency, and a competent occupying force won’t let that happen. Ranvar’s a prime example of—” An elbow in the stomach brought Nic up short.
Simole gave him a look to let him know he was digressing to no practical purpose, which she often did, especially around lunchtime.
Nic returned his attention to the minister, who looked quite pale. “You haven’t just sent a strike force into Gweur, have you?”
“I’m sorry, I have to leave. Please, take care of yourself, Delzina. I hope we can talk again.” He turned and rushed away, his men following. They mounted their horses and raced off.
“So,” said Simole, as they walked through the school gates, “Dizzy tried to chase old Mol off by questioning his ability to do an impressive job in the appropriate manner, and you, Nic, tried to chase him off by suggesting his attempt to do his job in an impressive manner may not have been appropriate.” She nodded. “I can see that you both immediately and without mercy undermined the poor man’s confidence, and did quite a good job of it.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Dizzy.
“I was just speculating,” said Nic, “based on the accounts of Ranvar’s foreign policy over the last four hundred years. I just happened to be reading up on it recently.”
“Sure, sure,” said Simole. “Remind me to never believe a word either of you say.”
“We’re very late for class,” said Dizzy. “Mr Periwinkle won’t be happy.”
“No need for concern,” said Simole. “I’m sure you’ll both still pass. It’s not like he’ll be testing your sincerity or common decency.”
“I think you’ve got it all wrong,” said Nic.
“Do you?” said Simole. “Or is that just what you want me to think?”
The school grounds were empty and quiet. Everyone was in class except for the three of them. As they passed the girls’ dorm, the two girls suddenly veered off. “We’ll meet you there.”
After insisting he not go off on his own, Dizzy had ditched him anyway. He could have avoided the entire incident with Minister Carmine.
Was that what he would have preferred though? Nic had found it interesting observing someone else who had recognised Dizzy’s qualities. If it wasn’t for his age, Dizzy might even have reciprocated the interest. He was certainly the kind of man who could help her develop. He had the right connections, the right type of experience.
Five years from now, the issue of age would be of no importance. The problem was that she had caught his attentiveness five years ago. It made the whole thing creepy. Then again, his own interest in Dizzy went back ten years. It was a good thing they were the same age, or he’d be the one attracting suspicious looks.
“She is worth the effort,” said a voice in his head.
“But am I?” said Nic.
“With a little work.”
“I thought you had finished with me,” said Nic.
“No, I was just taking a moment for myself,” said Winnum Roke. “It’s strange being back after all this time. And I think I deserve a moment to celebrate. Things have gone remarkably well so far.”
“The High-Father has been ousted, the Archmage is preparing to gather his forces, the disgruntled neighbours are massing at the borders… yes, I think all in all things are going about as well as could be hoped for.”
“Congratulations,” said Nic. “I hope it all works out.” He was still the boy on the sidelines, being dragged along behind the people racing ahead of him.
“How well it works out will largely depend on you.”
“Will it? I think we may have a problem, then. I have no power to influence what will happen.”
Nic stopped at the steps to the main second year building. “What do you mean?”
“You were right, my thousand-year-old knowledge may not be worth very much now, but my time in the Other Place was not entirely spent lounging around, you know. They have two things on their ship. An astounding amount of Arcanum, and a library full of knowledge they have collected from all the worlds they have visited.”
“A library?” said Nic.
“Yes. A thousand years was barely enough time to get through a fraction of it, but I learned a lot. For example, there are other ways to harness magic. Did you know that?”
“Without a demon?”
“Can you teach me?”
“Perhaps. But what would really help would be to have some help sorting through all the knowledge I’ve collected.”
“Yes, someone who knows how to quickly find the relevant article from among thousands.”
“Like a librarian?” said Nic.
“Exactly,” said Winnum. “One that isn’t too busy right now. Who is free to go where she wants while the High-Father is otherwise occupied.”
“I don’t know where the Librarian is,” said Nic. “Do you?”
“Yes,” said Winnum Roke. “I’ve sent for her. And then, Nic Tutt, your true education will begin.”
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