“He isn’t ready,” said Dizzy. “I haven’t even started his training.”
“We’ve been over this,” said Simole. “Wake him up.”
“You wake him up.”
“With a kiss? I wouldn’t want to take your place.”
“Shut up. He isn’t even asleep. He’s awake and listening to us quarrel.”
“Is he? The sly rascal. That’s good. That’s the sort of thing you need when you face impossible odds. And you learn the fastest when you’re facing something real. There’s no better training than real danger.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Dizzy. “Training isn’t supposed to be a death sentence.”
“It worked for me,” said Simole, her eyes glittering like jewels in Nic’s darkened bedroom. “I’m living proof that I’m right.”
Dizzy produced a growling sound that usually made Nic want to roll out of bed and duck underneath, but for once it wasn’t aimed at him.
“It’s hardly surprising it worked for you,” said Dizzy in a quiet voice brimming with hostile intentions. “You’re the Archmage’s daughter. He’s the son of a maid. He isn’t special like you.”
It was like they didn’t even know he was there. No, it was worse than that. They knew he was there, awake, listening, but they didn’t care what they said in front of him. His feelings were irrelevant because to them he didn’t really have any. He wasn’t even human, just a vessel they were deciding on how best to utilise.
When he looked at it like that, their disagreement took on quite a reasonable appearance. Dizzy wished to wait until the contents of the vessel had matured and reached optimal potency, thus enabling a more efficient application.
Simole, the born provocateur, wanted to smash the vessel open and check for honey in the most direct way possible, even if it turned out to be a wasp nest. Her confidence in her own ability to deal with troublesome consequences was phenomenal and probably justified. Although, the first time she was wrong would also probably be the last. A single wasp offered little threat, while a thousand presented an unbeatable challenge. To most people.
Even Nic could feel the pressure she exerted on her surrounding just by being present. More than before, he was almost certain. Had her father given her further training? Had Winnum Roke?
The other students shifted and flowed out of her path without even realising it. They were students of the Ransom School, smart enough to recognise an insurmountable threat. Simole wasn’t the only one of those the school contained.
What was it like being so sure of yourself? Did it make you happy? Did it make you feel safe? Did it lead to arrogance and conceited disregard for the wishes of the mere mortals who crawled around at your feet?
He needed her, even though it helped emphasise his own weaknesses. The beauty of his position was that he was seen as weak already, so it only reinforced that view, which he could use to his advantage. Any misunderstanding of a situation was vulnerable to being exploited.
Still, he had to be careful. Powerful people surrounded by the powerless never remained in harmony. Both sides would eventually have to react to the imbalance. He could not remain in her shadow much longer. It would only put her in danger.
“He’s more prepared than you give him credit for,” said Simole. “He wouldn’t still be here otherwise, would he?”
“Yes,” said Dizzy, “that’s very true. He has somehow survived unfathomable dangers, but that’s all it was, survival. I was hoping we could help him achieve more than that.”
“Really?” said Simole. “And why is that? What plans do you have for him afterwards?”
The two girls were locked into some kind of battle for dominance. Nic wasn’t vain enough to believe it really had anything to do with him. He was just the vessel. Sometimes, people noticed a well-crafted case, a box with artful hinges and a clasp that snapped shut with a satisfying sound. But the gift inside was what mattered to them most. The sparkling bracelet, the precious ring, the watch with an engraved message, these things made their eyes shine.
It was what he contained that made him of value. It was what they thought he contained. So he had to maintain the charade, for now.
“He’s small for his age,” said Dizzy. “He always has been. He needs time to fill out.”
She wasn’t even looking at him. He studied the firmness of her stance, unyielding, saw the hint of tension in her shoulders anyone else might have missed.
“He’s a late starter,” said Simole. “A little stimulation might be just what he needs to get his spurt going.”
“Late starter? He’s nearly a man.”
“Oh, is he? What are you planning to do with him afterwards?”
It was a friendly kind of rivalry. Both respected the other’s abilities. Neither accepted the other’s leadership, yet. The only thing that seemed to unite them was him, and how best to put him to good use.
Should we yoke him to the plough or to the cart? The fields need planting, but the goods need delivering.
Nic smiled to himself, allowing the mild irritation at their dismissiveness to pass. He lay in bed, not making any move to get up. There was still time.
He took slow breaths, the way the Librarian had taught him. She had tried to show him a path to self-control, but she had also been preparing him for work. He let that pass, too.
He fell into a floating awareness, his heartbeat growing louder, the voices growing quieter, the movement of blood grinding against the walls of his veins.
There was freedom to not being on the outside, not being fully alive. Here, the impermanence of flesh was irrelevant. The moment carried him, held him. No one was powerful enough to touch him here.
“You have an infuriatingly low opinion of yourself,” said a voice in the deep recesses of his mind. It was still possible to pick up her whispered words if he let his mind drift into this hazy state of daydream, but it was easiest to hear her at night.
He could almost see her, a females shape lit from behind like a witch’s shadow, her outline uneven like it was made out of cobwebs.
“Are you eavesdropping on my thoughts?” It would be embarrassing to have someone auditing his every passing fancy. He would have to be more deliberate in keeping her isolated to the parts that wouldn’t shame him. Which parts were those?
“I simply wonder why you allow others to guide you. And always women. Do you have a mother fixation?”
He could tell she was trying to get a rise out of him. Not out of malice, though, out of boredom.
“My mother hardly ever tells me what to do,” he said, “and these two are trying their best to be helpful. Forcing them to do as I say won’t make things move any faster, not without incurring additional risks.”
“So, you feel you could take command of them if you wished?” The voice was sceptical.
“I can’t say for sure, but I know their strengths and when they’ll be useful, and their weaknesses for when that becomes necessary. I have no need of their respect or admiration. It would only lead to complications. I admit it would be nice, though.”
“How is it you never speak with such assured confidence when you speak to them?” asked Winnum Roke.
“If you train your skills against those you may need to defeat, they will learn all your best moves,” said Nic. “It’s a well-established Ranvarian tactic. In many cases, I think wars against Ranvar were instigated by us just so we could ally with those we had identified as a more prominent threat in the future. It’s not in any of the history books, not explicitly, but the pattern is hard to miss. We and another nation are mysteriously attacked by a foreign power bent on domination, even though they lack the infrastructure to maintain such a long-term strategy. We join forces against our common enemy and achieve cooperative victory by sharing resources and intelligence. And a few years later, we annex our former comrades in arms. Our assistance was a way to not only gain trust, but also a way to access information.”
“That’s very good,” said Winnum. “How blind we were not to see the same tactic used against us, don’t you think?”
Nic was taken a little by surprise by the question. “Used by whom?”
“Who are you talking to?”
He sensed the two girls through closed eyelids, opened them, saw them standing over his bed, the lantern on his desk at its lowest setting. His focus shifted from the blurry middle-distance, to the much more sharp features of the two girls staring intently at him.
“Hmm?” he said sleepily. “Me? Nobody.”
“She’s going to slowly take over your mind,” said Simole.
“I don’t think so,” said Nic. “And if she did, you’d stop her.” He turned to Dizzy. “You both would, without hesitation.”
Dizzy frowned, Simole shrugged. Neither denied his assertion.
It was the one good thing about their indifference towards him. If he did fail to maintain control, then there would be no problem for either of them to do what was necessary. Although, he expected there would be a number of people in line ahead of them for that honour.
“This is why we need to move quickly,” said Simole. “While he has some control over her, we can get her to reveal the secrets of the Royal College to us. If we wait too long, who knows what she’ll do to him.”
“And then what?” said Dizzy. “What are we going to do with these secrets.”
“How can we know that if we don’t know what the secrets are?” said Simole. “Perhaps we do nothing, I don’t know. But this is something that affects me, I know it does. And probably you, too. There’s only one way to know for sure, and there’s very little risk if we act now before anyone suspects what we’re doing. In and out, no one will even know we were there.”
Dizzy had a look of extreme doubt on her face, her hair held back by a simple black ribbon from her oval face and yellow eyes. They continued to argue and Nic was forgotten once more; if only he could return the favour.
“She’s more like a dream than the demon,” he said. They stopped talking, then. “I sometimes think she isn’t real, I just imagined her and planted her in my head for company. The demon was always trying to worm its way to the front, but she sits in the back and waits for me to come to her. I like to think it’s a stray thought that passes too close, but I go looking, really. The things she knows are so enticing. I would like to know them, too. It’s why she chose me, I think. Why they all did. The thing I can do, that others can’t.” He looked up at them, both girls watching him closely, saying nothing, waiting for him to finish. “There’s only one thing I do better than anyone else. A long time ago I realised to be able to learn a lot, you have to be good at learning. Before reading and writing and counting, you have to be able to absorb and put it in the right place in your head. I just spent more time organising that space than other people. I can take it in quicker and retain it. She thinks I’m capable of taking it all in, the totality. And when I have hold of all the different pieces, I’ll make them reveal all their different sides, like turning puzzle pieces around in your hands to see how best to fit them together.”
His head tilted towards Dizzy. “You’re right, I’m not ready. Not for any real challenge that’s been prepared for me.” He turned the other way, towards Simole. “You’re right, now is the perfect time to go and look, while they still think they have everything under their watchful gaze.”
He removed the bedclothes with a sweep of his arm, and rose from the bed fully dressed. He sat down on his chair and put on his shoes. “If I go tonight, then at least I’ll know if she’s real or just a figment of my imagination.”
“Nic,” said Simole, “we both sensed the change in you. You aren’t going insane.”
“Change,” said Nic. “Yes, I’ve changed. Who wouldn’t be changed after what I went through? That doesn’t mean the cause is what you think it is.”
How much to tell them? In an exam, you answered the questions as quickly and accurately as you could, so that you could move onto the next one. Timing was irrelevant.
In the real world, timing was everything. How and when and to whom, it all made a difference. The effect the truth had on an individual and those they passed the information onto, the ripples were all affected by the initial drop of the stone in the pond. It was marvellously complex and far beyond his current level of mastery. One day, perhaps…
He stood up, ready. “How are we going to get there?” he said to Simole.
“That’s why she’s here.” Simole nodded towards Dizzy.
“I’m here because I chose to be,” said Dizzy.
Simole rolled her eyes. “There’s no need to impress him with your fierce independence. He’s already besotted with you. Although, who knows why? Some sort of childhood trauma, I expect. Psychological damage at an early age can produce a warped perspective, sometimes. Would you like me to unbreak your brain?”
“If you want to be alone with him, why didn’t you just call up a dragon?” said Dizzy.
“Because we’re trying to do this inconspicuously. It would be rather hard to sneak past the High Father of dragons if we come flying in on one of his daughters.”
“So you could summon one, then? Good, I was just checking.”
The two locked eyes for a second. Nic had a fleeting image of them fighting for his affections, but it was the least likely of the prizes they might come to blows over. Still, it was a warming reflection on a cold night.
“Then you arranged a carriage?” said Nic.
“Yes,” said Dizzy, eyes still on Simole.
“One of your father’s? You still have access to Ministry property?”
Dizzy slowly turned to face him. “Yes. The carriage and horses were always his. We’re supposed to remove the Ministry insignia, but I haven’t got around to it, yet. I’ve been busy.”
That would make travelling to the capital much easier. No one would stop a transport belonging to the Ministry for Instruction, especially in the middle of the night. Most people would pretend they hadn’t even seen it.
“Then we should go. Don’t worry, it really won’t be very dangerous. If we get caught, we’ll just blame Simole for making us do it. They’ll believe anything if we tell them it was her idea.”
“Is that why you really want me to go with you?” said Simole. “As a scapegoat?”
“No,” said Nic. “You also have to get us into the Royal College.”
“Wouldn’t it be strange,” said Simole, “if he was using both of us to get what he wanted? What would you do to him, if it turned out he’d been manipulating us both and had no interest in our input?”
“I don’t know,” said Dizzy. “I’d need time to compile a list.”
“If I was doing something like that,” said Nic, “wouldn’t it be more likely Winnum Roke was forcing me to do it? I’m hardly capable of something so devious on my own. Look how small I am for my age.”
As he left the room through the open window he thought he heard a sigh, but he had no idea which of the three it came from.
They moved quickly across the school grounds to the wall on the other side of the pond. It was ten metres high with no trees close enough to use as an impromptu ladder.
“Here you are,” said Dizzy. “Let’s see how ready you are for this.”
She immediately scrambled up the wall and disappeared over the top. Simole shrugged and then jumped over the wall in a single bound. Nic was left alone, with only the wall for company.
His eyes scanned the surface for cracks or possible handholds in the near-darkness. The wall loomed over him, and yet looked down on him the least.
He pressed his fingers into a slight indentation, balanced a toe in a tiny crevice, and began to climb.
It took him ten minutes to get to the top. His fingers ached and his knees were scuffed. If he intended on becoming a more robust physical specimen, there was still a long way to go. He wondered if he would have the time.
Nic sat on top of the wall for a second to catch his breath. Down below was a grass verge, and then the road. A black carriage waited, the two horses making no sound.
If he jumped down from here, he would probably break both his legs. Even if he took care to land correctly and roll, he was still risking some pain. And he was far from adept at that kind of landing.
He twisted and lowered himself, holding onto the top of the wall. His legs hung below him, the soles of his feet flattened against the stone. He let go and slid down the wall, his feet slowing his descent a small amount. When he felt he was close enough to the ground, he pushed off and fell backwards and landed heavily on his back.
“What was that?” hissed Dizzy.
He hadn’t seen her from the top of the wall and had assumed she was already in the carriage. Apparently, she had been waiting to critique his landing. He didn’t expect his score would be very high.
“I didn’t want to sprain an ankle.”
“So you decided to break your spine instead?”
Nic got to his feet. He was unhurt apart from a slight knock to the back of his skull where it had bounced off the turf. A little jarring but otherwise a successful dismount.
“I’m fine,” he said.
“I know you’re holding something back,” she said.
It was the biggest risk he was taking, allowing her to be so close to him. She knew him too well.
“You really have no need to worry about me.”
“She isn’t even really here.”
“Stop it. Pretending this isn’t real won’t make it any less dangerous.”
“She never came back with me, I’m not in danger of being possessed, there’s nothing about the Royal College we need to fear.” He smiled at her, knowing it would drive her suspicions in the wrong direction. The truth was often the best lie.
“Hey, lovebirds,” said Simole from the carriage window. “Move it.”
“Let’s go before you trip and break your neck,” said Dizzy.
The driver of the carriage said nothing as they got in. He was wrapped up in a large cloak so that not even his face was visible. He looked straight ahead.
Once they were inside, Dizzy tapped the roof with her hand and the carriage set off. Simole was seated by the far window. Nic sat next to her, and Dizzy was to his left so that he was sandwiched between them. There was another wide empty seat opposite them, but it would mean having to be face to face. Nic preferred to stay where he was.
“This is exciting, isn’t it?” said Simole. “Our own little adventure.”
“This isn’t one of your romance novels,” said Dizzy.
“It sort of is,” said Simole. “The hero battling against forces beyond his abilities, the unrequited love for a slightly-better-than-average-looking girl, a secret race through the night — it has all the telltale signs of a romantic undertaking, don’t you think?”
“Am I the hero?” asked Nic.
“Technically, yes,” said Simole. “I think the story has potential, although I generally prefer a more appealing love interest. Someone you can see a hero sacrificing everything for.”
“I am not the love interest,” said Dizzy, through gritted teeth.
“Do you think you’re the hero?” asked Simole. “Maybe I’m the love interest, then.”
“If I’m the hero,” said Dizzy, “you won’t be the love interest.”
“Not your love interest, but sometimes there’s more than one hero. Sometimes an unexpected character rises to the challenge when the hero dies. A farm boy, usually. Ever worked on a farm, Nic?”
“I used to pick strawberries from Dizzy’s kitchen garden. Does that count?”
It took an hour to reach the capital, and then only a few more minutes to get to the Royal College. Simole did most of the talking. Dizzy made disgruntled noises and Nic remained wary of saying too much. He needed to see if what Winnum Roke had told him was true, and then he would know what to do.
No one stopped them or commented as they clattered through the cobbled streets of the capital. There were few pedestrians out this late, but even the guards on duty ignored the carriage, assuming it was on official business.
The Royal College’s walls were far taller than the school’s. The carriage stopped outside the main gate which was closed and seemingly unguarded. It had little reason to be otherwise. No one came here unannounced.
The carriage moved off as soon as they had climbed out. They stood before the Royal College and Nic felt his insignificance press down on him. Small for his age and getting smaller.
“Won’t they hear you open the gate?” said Dizzy.
“Not this way,” said Simole. “We’ll go in the back.”
“There’s another way in?” said Dizzy. It might not have seemed such a remarkable claim, but the walls of the Royal College weren’t just tall, they were seamless. The front gate was the only way in, supposedly.
“Of course. There are dozens, but I know the one only two or three people know about. It shouldn’t be a problem this late. Even my father will be asleep by now.”
“What if he isn’t?” said Dizzy.
“Then he’ll be very busy. Either way, he won’t worry about something so trivial as a mage sneaking back in after a night on the town.”
Simole led them around the wall to the very rear of the structure. The surrounding buildings were all set back from the street, and dark. She stopped when they were out of sight of the main road and touched the red brick with both hands. There was no door or opening here, but she seemed to be looking for something.
A few presses and touches, and the bricks parted to reveal an archway. They hurried through into a courtyard and the bricks slid back into place as though they had never been apart.
“See? Now, where is it we’re supposed to go to find this big secret?”
Nic closed his eyes and took a breath. When he opened them again, he pointed towards the opposite side of the yard.
“They’ll take us.”
A group of robed men appeared out of the shadows, led by the Archmage.
“A trap,” hissed Dizzy.
“No,” said Simole, glancing towards Nic. “He knew they’d be waiting. Just didn’t tell us.”
“He said you would be here,” said the Archmage in a rumbling voice.
“Take me to him,” said Nic. He stepped past the two girls who had moved to shield him. It was an oddly touching yet condescending thing that he was still unsure how to deal with. Were they protecting him or what they thought he carried?
The robed mages stepped aside to let them pass, led by the Archmage. They walked through a larger archway into a much bigger courtyard filled with mages. Dizzy and Simole followed, mildly cautious, deeply annoyed.
The mages stood with their backs to the arrivals.
A few noticed the Archmage and moved to one side, tapping those ahead of them on the shoulder. The gathering peeled open as more and more mages stepped to the side, finally revealing the dragon curled in repose. The massive black shape would only be the High Father.
“He is dying,” said the Archmage.
“Yes,” said Nic. “She said he would. I thought maybe she was lying.”
“She wasn’t,” said the Archmage. “And when he dies, all magic dies with him.”
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