Peri Periwinkle hurried into the classroom, small steps made quickly, settled himself at the desk without looking at the class and took a slim blue book from the scuffed leather case he carried.
He was a large blond man with a round face and a plumpness that disguised a powerful physique. He reminded Nic of farmers with rotund bellies who could lift a cow out of a ditch with their bare hands. He’d seen it done.
Mr Periwinkle was new to the Ransom School. Replacements had been somewhat common of late as circumstances removed members of the faculty. First, there was Mr Tenner, then Master Denkne. Hopefully, Periwinkle’s tenure wouldn’t be as short.
The teacher looked once around the room; a quick glance which settled on no one and treated the six young men and women who faced him with an apparent lack of interest. He took out a pen from his jacket and placed it on the table next to the book.
The students of the Arts Course watched in silence, their expressions identical: alert and focused. They were all keen to find out who the new course instructor was and what qualified him to teach this particular class. All they had been told was his name.
Peri Periwinkle didn’t look like the typical Ransom teacher. His round face gave him a ruddy, workmanlike appearance. He had large hands with blooming pink skin, as though he had recently been doing some kind of manual labour. His clothing was loose and unbuttoned, not at all prim and tightly bound in the traditional Ransom style. Coarse blond grizzle covered his jaw, his eyes were blue slits and his nose hairs, also blond, protruded from his wide nostrils.
He seemed, to Nic, a hearty uncle who was fond of a drink and meat pie or three.
“Let me start,” said Mr Periwinkle, “by congratulating you all on making it onto this year’s Arts Course. It is a great honour, or so I’ve been led to believe, and one that will not be very easy to capitalise on.”
There was a murmur around the class.
Mr Periwinkle leaned back in his chair and surveyed the group. “From my understanding, of the previous nine inductees from last year’s course, exactly none managed to win a place at the Royal College.”
There was more murmuring, increased in intensity at this news.
“This state of affairs isn’t exactly unprecedented,” he continued. “There have been several times over the school’s long and illustrious history that the brightest and best the school had to offer were neither bright nor best enough.” He smiled, revealing a gap between his front two teeth.
From what Nic could gather, Mr Periwinkle didn’t have a very high opinion of the students he had been placed in supervision of. His words were very plain and neutral, but there was a contemptuous undertone to them.
“But the Royal College must have fresh blood, new meat for the table. The master chefs, however, do not go into the coop to slaughter chickens themselves. They leave that to the butcher. That’s where Peri Periwinkle comes in.” He patted himself on his broad chest. “I have been tasked with making sure this year’s crop doesn’t wither on the vine. I will be pushing you harder than ever before, and if you don’t end up hating me for it, it will mean I haven’t pushed you hard enough.”
A hand went up. Nic leaned forward to see past Simole. The hand belonged to a young, fearless (Nic had to assume) man by the name of Carol Rev. Nic didn’t really know him, had never spoken to him, but his name was very clearly etched into Nic’s memory. He had come first in the end of year exams.
“Are you a mage of the Royal College, sir?”
It was the question everyone was wondering, but too wary to ask. Nobody wanted to advertise their ignorance this early. Carol Rev was probably bolstered by his recent success and was willing to take a leading role in the class. It was the right move, in Nic’s opinion. Strike while the iron’s hot.
“A mage?” said Mr Periwinkle. “Not exactly, no. I was, until recently, a member of the Royal College’s faculty, in a training capacity.”
Nic had no idea what that meant. He trained mages, but wasn’t one himself? Or maybe he trained the college’s guard dogs, and had been thought the most suitable person for this job.
“All you need to know about me is that I am here out of necessity for a firm hand. Ask any of my previous students and they’ll either turn pale or blush bright red. None of them will smile fondly. Peri Periwinkle is a fiend, they’ll tell you. A demon in human form. Arrogant, ruthless, unrelenting. A drunk! This last of course is slander, and anyone repeating such a claim will be soundly thrashed. The one thing I can guarantee is that you will not soon forget your time under Peri Periwinkle. Any more questions?”
As far as Nic could tell, the previous question hadn’t been answered yet. It wasn’t clear who or what Peri Periwinkle was, or what exactly he was meant to teach them. Perhaps it was all part of the process. A lateral form of teaching that required students to think for themselves; it wouldn’t be the first time.
“No? Good. Then let me tell you how I plan to prepare you for the Royal College. First, though, let me warn you. A mage of the Royal College told me I would die surrounded by the terrified young. I hope none of you find that too upsetting.” His pale eyebrows rose.
Nic wasn’t sure why Mr Periwinkle thought the students would be upset to be warned about the prophesied scenario. It wasn’t their deaths that were being foretold.
“Everything else that mage told me has come true, so we’ll see how things go. After this class, if I survive, I intend to retire and knit scarves in front of a fire, the way my grandpa did before me.” Mr Periwinkle pushed himself back in the chair to view the class with a greater field of view. “We’ll get to know each other in good time, but let me take your names. I keep a list of my students in this book.” He held up the blue book. “You, young man, your name?”
“Carol Revo, sir.”
“Ah, yes. First in the examinations, correct? Well done, young man. I’ll be expecting much of you. And you?”
“Brillard Epsteem, sir.”
“Headmaster Epsteem’s son, of course. I hope there won’t be any tales told around the dinner table about what happens inside these walls. Everything we discuss in here is to remain confidential.”
“Yes, sir,” said Brill.
“And your name, young lady?”
“My condolences, Miss Delcroix. Your father’s passing was a great loss.” He paused to wipe his nose with a large white handkerchief, which disappeared back into his breast pocket. “Now, would it be fair to say your exam result were rather below expectation?”
“A difficult time for you, I’m sure, but I believe the main issue was that your project presentation was rejected on grounds of being a threat to national security, is that right?”
“That is what I was told, yes.” Dizzy’s answer was cool and temperate. Nic could tell she was still seething about the disqualification.
“You don’t think a thorough examination of the Secret Service’s methods and tactics, including a fully indexed list of their current capabilities, was against the nation’s interests?”
A flutter of surprise passed through the other students. There was the mildest of shrugs from Dizzy.
“And yet you were still allowed to join this class, by agreeing to not make your findings public. I believe the term is blackmail.”
“No, sir. I was given special dispensation on account of my father’s passing. My previous record speaks for itself.”
“Special dispensation, yes, I see. Well, you’re here now. I hope you can prove yourself worthy.”
“The feeling is mutual, sir.”
Mr Periwinkle started at the ambiguity of her answer — which Nic didn’t consider ambiguous at all — but regained his composure. He moved on swiftly. “And you are?”
“Simole van Dastan.”
“Ah, well, yes, of course. I feel we’re assured of at least one entrant into the Royal College this year.”
Simole was using her real name this year, now that her father was no longer considered an enemy of the state and was once more the Archmage. The news didn’t cause much of a fuss; if anything, people were relieved to have an explanation for what had appeared utterly baffling. Of course she was the Archmage’s daughter. That made sense of everything. An answer always satisfied when it plugged multiple holes at once.
“And your father,” said Periwinkle, “he is satisfied with your presence in this institution?”
“Why don’t you ask him?” said Simole.
Periwinkle smiled. “I did. He suggested I ask you. And now, you, sir.”
“Nicolav Tutt, sir.”
“Another name I’ve been warned about. So far we’ve had a student who fell well short of the required test scores, one who has no need to be here, and you, Mr Tutt, who didn’t even apply to join this class. Your exam results were also lacking. In fact, you didn’t even hand in a project presentation. And yet, here you are, a member of the most elite division Ransom has.”
“How is that so?”
“Archmage van Dastan insisted, sir.”
“Did he? And why would he do that? No.” He raised a hand to stop Nic before he could answer. “Let me guess. I should ask him, mm?”
Nic nodded. He was starting to like Peri Periwinkle. His manner was odd for a teacher, but it was about right for the students he’d been saddled with. Anything less than bewildering would have given the course members far too great an advantage over him.
“It really must be very galling for the other prospective candidates when they see the three of you taking their rightful places.” He paused, waiting for some kind of rejoinder, perhaps. He was met with silence. “And you, young lady?”
“Rumi Kettle, sir,” said the girl. Nic hadn’t seen her before today. She was short and had dark hair that fell over her face so it was hard to tell what she looked like.
Mr Periwinkle finished writing the names of each of the six students into his blue book.
“Excellent. The six of you are this years premiere students, apparently, and it is left to me to assess if you are worthy of a place in the Royal College. How will we fare, I wonder? If I manage to whip all six of you into shape, I imagine it’ll be seen as a sign of the world coming to an end.”
He chuckled to himself. The students didn’t join in. He closed the book.
“Good, that’s fine. Now, as I was saying, my syllabus for the coming year. As I’m sure you will not be surprised to learn, the actual methods of the Arts Course are kept very hush hush. Part of the testing is to allow little to no preparation. You will be made aware of what is required of you at the last moment, if not later. This is the system. You must prevail by your wits. I will keep a record in my book here.” He tapped the closed book. “My recommendation is final, and my superiors will not allow appeals or complaints. I am your only judge until the end of the school year. Any questions?”
No one spoke. They were all still trying to absorb this strange man’s strange methods. Had all Arts Course instructors been like him? It was a hard thing to believe but then it was not a regular part of the school’s curriculum.
“Very good. Until we meet again.” He rose to his feet, stepped down from the small dais the desk sat on, and departed.
The silence continued for a moment, and then Brill said, “What the blazes was that all about?”
“I think he might be an escaped lunatic,” said Carol Revo, “who killed the real instructor and is impersonating him to stay hidden from the authorities.”
“Why did he leave in the middle of class?” said Dizzy, the irritation heavy in her voice. “We still have half an hour to go.”
“Perhaps it’s a test,” said Brill. “I expect things aren’t going to be as simple as reading assigned books and handing in homework. Some initiative will need to be shown.”
“What do you think he did at the Royal College?” asked Rumi Kettle. Her voice was small but insistent. “He said he wasn’t a mage, but he trained them? What?”
“He didn’t say he trained mages,” said Carol. “He said he was a member of the faculty in a training capacity. That could mean anything. He probably trained the canteen staff in puddings and pastries, judging by the size of his belly.”
“Please, a little respect,” said Brill. “He’s still a teacher at Ransom.”
“I’ll say what I please, thank you very much,” said Carol. “Let’s not forget our relative positions after the exams. The school has a new pecking order.” He primped with smugness.
“Be quiet,” said Dizzy. “You’re not even in the top three in this room.”
Carol seemed like he wanted to say something, but whatever it was, he kept it to himself and pouted instead. Nic listened to them bicker with no real feelings about the matter. If Mr Periwinkle had been chosen to teach them, he most likely was qualified to do so. Denkne had also been qualified, but he had taken a rather indirect route. Nic hoped the same wouldn’t be the case here, not that he really cared about passing the course. Archmage van Dastan had written to him, suggesting (strongly) that Nic take the place he was being offered — this was before any offer had been made — as a personal favour.
How do you turn down the Archmage? He wasn’t sure what the favour was, just that it would mean being around Simole. Was he supposed to keep an eye on her? She hardly needed his supervision, nor would she allow it. Perhaps she was meant to keep an eye on him.
And, of course, it also meant being nearer Dizzy. Not that he envisioned anything coming of it. He had avoided saying anything to her and made as little eye contact as possible. She seemed to approve.
The others continued to speculate about what they were supposed to do now. Nic got to his feet and headed for the door, brow furrowed with thought.
“You can’t leave,” said Brill. “We haven’t been dismissed.”
“He isn’t leaving,” said Simole. She nodded toward the recently vacated desk. “His bag.”
A book bag was still on the floor, leaning against the leg of Nic’s chair.
Nic leaned out of the doorway and looked into the corridor. Peri Periwinkle stood with his back to the wall, his book in his hand, making notes.
“Excuse me, sir,” he said like he had expected him to be there. “Can we leave now?”
“No, not yet,” said Periwinkle. He walked past Nic, back into the classroom. He returned to his desk, sat down, put the book on the desk, open.
“Mr Revo, you seem to have a sharp tongue that is quick to judgement. A mage requires an even temperament, something you should work on. Mr Epsteen, I commend your caution, but a mage also needs to show curiosity, investigate the unknown, know when to take a risk. Miss Delcroix, you have a firm grasp on the tiller, but you don’t play well with others. Not a flaw when it comes to mastering Arcanum, but endless clashes will leave you exhausted. Miss van Dastan, you don’t need my recommendation, but perhaps a little advice. There are still things for you to learn. You are ahead of all of us here, but improvements can still be made. Mr Tutt, the quiet one who likes to gather information for analysis. It must be wonderful to be so penetrating. I wonder if you are able to convert your words into action. And Miss Kettle. Curious and probing. Do you really believe your ambition goes unnoticed? A mage can’t afford to be disingenuous. It will ruin you internally. I mean physically, it will rip your guts out.”
He closed the book and leaned back in the chair. “Listen closely, I do not care to repeat myself. Take notes if you wish, but keep them private. A mage is not an education, it is a transformation. The body must withstand great forces, as must the mind. Both must be resilient. Unbreakable.
“Some are naturally born thus, others need to train themselves to the appropriate level. There will be no attempt, no willingness to try. You must be tough enough or not at all. And let me tell you, ladies, it is much harder on the female physique. That isn’t discrimination, it is merely a matter of fact. It is possible, but it is difficult. Much more difficult. Vast cosmic forces will be trying to shear your bodies in half, and half again.
“We will work to achieve the ideal and perhaps you will get close enough. We shall see. That will be all for today.” Once more Peri Periwinkle walked out. This time there were no comments after his departure.
Nic met Davo and Fanny at the cafeteria. Davo was reading from a book held in one hand while he forked food into his mouth with the other. Fanny was scribbling diagrams into a notebook where every page was already filled while a full plate of food cooled untouched.
“I hope he isn’t another maniac like Denke,” said Davo after Nic had given them a quick summary of his first Arts Course.
“I don’t think so,” said Nic. “I hope not. Fingers crossed.”
“Your confidence is very reassuring. I expect an extinction-level demonic event is on the way. Fanny, prepare more worthless magic devices. I have feeling damsels in distress will need to be fraudulently comforted.”
“Your sneering is inaccurate,” said Fanny without looking up. “The comfort was a hundred percent effective. It was only the actual saving from certain death that was bogus.”
“Well, good job, then. Considering how cheap it is to manufacture empty boxes, I foresee your imminent ascendency to the filthy rich in no time. Your marketing slogan should be: The secret ingredient is hope.”
“Mm hmm,” said Fanny.
“What’s he doing?” asked Nic.
“No idea,” said Davo. “He’s been working on some new contraption all morning. I think the disappointment of not getting on the Arts Course has driven him to burying himself in work.”
“I’m not disappointed,” said Fanny.
“No?” said Davo. “I thought it was your great dream, to become a mage like your dear old pater.”
“The only one desperate for their pater’s approval is you,” said Fanny. “My issue is one of trying to avoid being smothered. And I’ve already secured a place at the Royal College, so it makes no difference.”
“Yes,” said Davo, “but not as a mage.”
“Considering what we now know about what it takes to become a mage, I’ve reevaluated my goals. Those two are suddenly very chummy, don’t you think?”
Fanny moved his head just enough to indicate a direction. The cafeteria was full of children, every table filled, but there was no mistaking who Fanny was referring to. Simole and Dizzy sat at a table for six, just the two of them. No one dared to ask if they could sit with them, which was entirely understandable.
Fanny looked at Davo. “What do you think they’re talking about?”
“Oh, you know, boys, dresses, the end of the world and how to correctly accessorise for it. The usual girly stuff.”
“I expect they’re making plans,” said Nic, “for when they take over Ranvar and make us all their loyal subjects.”
“I think they’re talking about you,” said Fanny.
“Me?” said Nic. “I don’t think so. I’m yesterday’s news. Neither of them have said two words to me since we got back.”
“Isn’t it about time you retired the ‘who me?’ face?” said Davo. “Miss Delcroix’s father knew from the start you were going to play a role in whatever was about to happen, as did the Librarian. And the Archmage went to great lengths to ensure your continued involvement. Still is, from what I can see. Any fool can see you are tied to this whole farrago at the deepest level. And those two aren’t fools.”
Nic put his knife and fork on the empty plate in front of him and let out a breath. “Yes, you’re right. In all likeliness, they’ve decided to join forces to keep an eye on me and prepare a suitable tactic for preventing me getting in their way. They probably assume some new catastrophe will befall us and I’ll be in the middle of it, and they’ll want to control, manipulate or coerce me into giving them full power of attorney over whatever small influence I might end up with. I don’t think they trust me to handle it myself or have the good sense to let them take over without being forced to.”
“Well,” said Davo, “you seem to have a pretty strong grasp of the situation. I apologise for doubting you.”
Nic smiled. “I’m just surprised you two aren’t over there plotting with them.”
“You must be joking,” said Fanny, putting his book away and starting on his untouched lunch. “They think even less of us than they do of you.”
“Of course he’s joking,” said Davo.
Fanny took a bite of his sausage. “Why is this cold?”
“Maybe because you’ve been sitting there drawing pictures for the last twenty minutes.
“Ah, allow me to join you,” said Brill, sitting down next to Nic. “I thought you’d be finished by now.”
“We’re waiting on Master Barstowe,” said Davo. “He chews very slowly to extract the maximum nutrients from each mouthful.”
“Very commendable,” said Brill. “I chew each mouthful thirty-two times, once for each tooth.”
“Can we sit with you,” said a skinny boy in need of a haircut. Three other boys stood with him.
“Yes, yes,” said Davo. “You realise you don’t have to sit at this table. Also-Rans have the full run of the place, you know? We fought the indignities of discrimination so you youngsters would have the freedoms we were denied.”
The four new Also-Rans looked confused, standing with their trays of food.
“Sit, sit,” said Davo.
“Hey, Brill,” said Fanny, “you see that girl over there? The one with all the frizzy hair. Do you know her name.”
Brill craned his neck to look. “Oh, yes, of course.”
“What is it?”
“Sorry, I can’t tell you.”
“What? Why not?”
“Because you should reap what you sow,” said Davo.
“It’s for your own good,” said Brill as he rearranged his food on his plate.
A genial argument broke out about the nature of unwelcome interventions. As students of military history, everyone had an opinion.
Nic turned and looked at the two girls across the cafeteria. They were deep in conversation, like old friends. They seemed relaxed and comfortable in each other’s company. It was concerning.
Nic lay on his bed. His classes were much harder now and all the more enjoyable for it. Staying busy was a good thing, it kept his mind active. But at night everything stopped. The night was when she would visit him and he would have to find ways to keep her distracted. Eventually, he would fail and then there would be a price to pay. He would need to come up with a contingency before that happened.
The tricky part was knowing who to side with when the moment came. Winnum Roke might be insane, but there were worse things out there.
He waited, dozing.
“I thought you would be exercising. Preparing your body for transformation.”
Nic turned his head. A silhouette sat on the window sill, legs hanging down inside the room. He hadn’t heard the window open.
“I don’t want to be a mage,” he said. “No point preparing my body.”
“I don’t suppose there’s enough room for three of you in there.,” said Simole. Nic didn’t say anything. “I know you brought Winnum Roke back with you, Nic.”
“I’ve got it under control.”
“You’re no match for her.”
“You don’t improve by taking on those weaker than you,” said Nic.
“You don’t improve if you end up dead,” said Simole.
“Depends what you can learn from the experience. Trial and error is a valid approach.”
“Has she tried to take over yet? Does she invade your dreams?”
Nic had been expecting a house call at some point either Simole or Dizzy. He was glad it wasn’t both of them at once. He put his hands behind his head and looked up at the dark ceiling. “Now that you mention it, I have been having some weird dreams lately. The same one, actually, over and over. I’m working for Minister Delcroix, in the ministry. I think I’m his assistant or secretary, it isn’t clear. It’s a good job. Good pay, good hours. Sometimes, the minister brings his grandson to work. Dizzy’s son. I don’t know who the father is, but we get on very well, me and the boy. He complains about his bossy mother and I give him advice about how to handle her. He makes mean jokes about her that are very funny. The husband is afraid of her and hides himself in his work, I think. I’m not sure what Dizzy does, but she’s far too pushy with the boy. He doesn’t like to be told what to do. He reminds me of her.”
“Tell me,” said Simole. “This boy in your dream, is his name Femi?”
“How did you know that?” asked Nic, genuinely surprised.
“Because she’s been having the same dream.”
Nic sat up in the bed. “What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps you’re seeing the future.”
“I don’t think so,” said Nic. “Not unless Dizzy’s father plans to come back to life. It’s just a dream.”
“It may not be that literal. Or maybe it’s nothing. There is one difference between your dream and hers.”
“She knows who the boy’s father is.”
“Who?” said Nic. He turned to the window, but it was empty.
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