Book 2: Chapter Sixteen

There was no one waiting for Nic in the corridor outside the classroom. He set off towards the exit, his mind full of questions.

The story he had just read did seem to be an allegory of some kind, something to do with the relationship between humans and demons, but he wasn’t convinced it was the dire warning Dizzy seemed to think it was. Maybe he was wrong. Even if the deal mages had made to obtain the secrets of Arcanum was a questionable one, they had still managed to become wielders of immense power. A reasonable trade.

Dizzy’s anger seemed to have been aimed at the story’s ending. A lie, she claimed. Nic could see what she meant. It would make the bargain struck between the mage and his apprentice seem more attractive if at the end he bestowed full autonomy on her. She became completely independent of him, able to choose her own destiny. Would humanity receive the same generous parting gift from the demons? That would seem to be how they wanted it to appear.

Back in the classroom, Nic had already known the story would rile Dizzy even before she had reacted. As the words had come out of his mouth, as new to him as the rest of the class, he could sense how they would aggravate her, even without knowing what the story was about. The tone of the words was set at just the right angle to slide past almost everyone, but catch on her temperament like a hook piercing the mouth of an irate fish. She probably wouldn’t appreciate the analogy.

What he needed to do was ask the Librarian. He was sure she was the one who had put the story in his head. She had to have a reason to do so. She also had to have a reason to be back here in the school, disguised as a teacher. 

It was lunchtime, and his classmates had probably rushed off to the cafeteria, which was where he was headed, although he only realised it once he looked up. His feet had carried him in the right direction even when his mind was preoccupied with a million different things. Habit and repetition were powerful learning tools. It was a shame he couldn’t use them to teach himself something more useful than ending up in places without paying attention. That seemed to be the only thing he was good at these days.

Davo, Fanny and Brill were already seated with their trays by the time Nic arrived in the cafeteria, along with Hewt, Brill’s younger brother. By the time Nic had gotten his own lunch and sat down, they were nearly finished. He gave them a condensed version of what had happened in Periwinkle’s class, with Brill making small comments that didn’t add much information but underlined the parts that were particularly surprising, like Dizzy’s outburst.

“Sounds like a happy ending to me,” said Fanny.

“I think you’re focusing on entirely the wrong problem,” said Davo.

“What problem?” said Nic.

“Your infatuation, your need to impress Miss High and Mighty. Can we not just agree that whatever first attracted you to this young lady — and I’m not saying she doesn’t have some admirable qualities, like excellent bone structure — they are more than outweighed by her negative attributes. She just isn’t pushing in the same direction as you. It won’t work out, I’m being frank, here. It won’t work out in any way that would be worth all this bumping and clashing you two seem to be doing endlessly. To put it bluntly, Nic, I don’t think she likes you in the way a boy wants a girl to like him, and I don’t think she ever will.”

Nic stopped eating and noticed he had caught up with the others in terms of how empty his plate was. They had all stopped to listen to his recap of recent events, while he had ploughed on, taking on multiple tasks at once. Was this his true potential, to be able to eat and talk at the same time? His mother would be horrified at his lack of table manners.

“I don’t see how any of what I just told you has to do with my relationship with Dizzy.”

“That’s because she is your blind spot,” said Brill, returning to his highly organised plate of food. No one could separate a meal into food groups as neatly as Brill. “I don’t mean to pile on, Nic, but it isn’t really up for debate, is it? You want her, and are willing to make allowances to get her, or at least keep her close. Allowances you wouldn’t make for anyone else.”

Nic felt mildly annoyed but did his best to remain calm. It wasn’t that he didn’t see their point — she had been nothing but nettlesome towards him since he had arrived at the school, but it was to be expected. He had responded the best he could. He had come here to find out if there was any hope for them, and when it became obvious there wasn’t, he had withdrawn and kept to himself as much as he could. It wasn’t his fault events had conspired to bring them closer together.

But he knew he was being disingenuous. Even when he’d been reading the story in class, knowing it would draw her contempt had pleased him. He was as much to blame for the poor atmosphere between them as she was. He liked the heat of her anger so close to him. It felt like there would eventually be a moment where he’d be able to reach out and grab hold of her, and all that rage would dissipate, leaving behind… what?

“What about you, Fanny? Do you think I’ve fallen for the wrong girl?”

“I think,” said Fanny, and then he put a forkful of food in his mouth so everyone had to wait for the rest of his sentence, “that she is a lovely young woman who is going through a difficult time, and it would be best to allow her time to grieve, which she probably hasn’t had a chance to do properly.”

The others were slightly stunned at Fanny’s mature response, and a little embarrassed at their own lack of empathy for the girl who had just lost her father.  

“I also think” —he took another mouthful and made them wait again— “you should all keep your voices down. She’s only over there and if she hears you talking about her, she’s liable to come over here and box all of our ears until they look like this cauliflower and cheese.” He carried on eating.      

“You’re right,” said Nic, doing his utmost to not turn around and check if Dizzy was looking in his direction. “She has her own problems, and I have mine. I need to focus on getting an education and making a future for myself. There are other, far better qualified people to take care of everything else.”

Davo said, “Are you trying to convince us of that or yourself?”

No one at the table seemed inclined to let him off the hook today.

A few slow, quiet claps caused them all to look down the other end of the table. The applause came from Brill’s brother.

“Excellent, Nic, excellent. Your pragmatic way of thinking, combined with an experimental, scientific approach based on observation and logical analysis, is lacking in both imagination and effectiveness. Based on this alone, we can satisfactorily conclude that any young woman with below average intelligence would find you irresistible.”

Nic looked at Brill. “How old did you say he was again?”

“Twelve. My apologies. I believe something untoward happened to him in the womb. My mother was very partial to dessert pears during her pregnancy, which are known to have a toxic effect when consumed in large amounts. Brain damage.”

“Brillard, I hardly think my intellect can be called into question considering my position in this school.”

“There are more ways to define intelligence than intellect, Hewton,” replied Brillard. “Tact, kindness, social awareness — all these things play a part. Now, please stop interrupting and finish eating your broccoli like a good boy.”

Hewt put down his fork on his plate of disorganised food, nothing like his brother’s, and his features sank into his face. He has a small nose and thin lips, both of which seemed in danger of disappearing altogether.

“I merely think it is somewhat wasteful for someone like Nic to spend all this time surrounded by demons and mages and dragons, and the only thing that seems to provoke his interest is whether or not the girl he likes likes him back. I hardly think I should be the only one looked at as someone who needs to grow up.”

Nic looked at Brill again, this time with a more questioning gaze.

“I told him nothing about your affairs,” said Brill. “He has the ability to divine information in an almost supernatural manner. He claims it is through syntax and body language, but personally I believe he eavesdrops on people and is very good at it.”

“Do you keep a journal?” asked Fanny.

“What?” said Brill.

“A journal, a diary where you write down recent notable events of interest to you. Today the peas weren’t entirely symmetrical, I must have a word with the cook. That sort of thing.”

“Well, not quite for that reason, but yes. I keep notes for the autobiography I will one day write.”

“He probably knows where you keep it,” said Fanny. “That’s what happened to mine. My sisters found it and then made fun of all my embarrassing secrets.” He shuddered. “I no longer write down anything, posterity be damned.”

“Is that true?” said Brill. “Have you been reading my private papers?”

“Of course not,” said Hewt. “Do you think I have time to waste on your trivial jottings? And as usual, you all go off on a hundred different tangents at once and miss my point entirely. Nic, you wish to learn, to improve yourself to the point where you are someone worthy of this young woman’s attention, is that not the case? And no, I haven’t been reading your journal or your love letters or the poetry you write in the back of your notebooks. Such elementary deductions do not require such high levels of chicanery, I assure you.”

“What are you blabbering on about?” said Brill, starting to get short with his brother.

“I am saying, with all these grand and powerful people surrounding him, if I were in Nic’s position, I would avail myself of their expertise, and make them my teachers. Why toil away in the classroom learning the basics of a stale and stagnant curriculum when you have access to the greatest experts in Ranvar? They are the ones to learn from, not the doddering old failed academics we’re forced to endure here.”

Nic blinked slowly. Despite the dismissive and frankly quite condescending manner of Hewt’s speech, he was right. If Nic was going to develop himself to the point where not only would Dizzy be impressed by him, but he might actually be impressed with himself, and perhaps not need saving on quite such a regular schedule, he needed the help of masters in their field.

“Actually,” said Davo, “that isn’t a bad idea.”

“Hmm,” said Fanny, who was well into his pudding by this stage. “You have every type of specialist and hot shot wanting things from you. You should try asking for something in return.”

“Studying is what you’re good at,” said Brill. “If you could find a really good teacher, you could really make some real advancements.”

Nic looked back down the table at Hewt. The small boy looked not much different to other children of his age. A bit more formal in the way he dressed, maybe. His hair was oiled and slicked back in the style of the older boys, but many boys his age tried to look older. He bit into his broccoli while pulling a disgusted face, which immediately countered his effort to appear mature.

“Thank you, Hewt,” said Nic. “That’s a good suggestion.”

Hewt nodded, one equal to another, which he probably saw as a  gracious climb down. “You should also stop training with the girl. She’ll only distract you and prevent you from thinking clearly.”

“He’s right,” said Davo.

“I don’t know if I can—”

“Sever all links,” said Brill.

“But who will train me to fight and defend myself?” said Nic.

“What about the Secret Service?” said Fanny. “They’re the best trained and the toughest to beat, aren’t they? And they’re always interested in knowing what you’re up to. Ask them to show you a few moves next time you see them.”

It wouldn’t be quite that easy, Nic was certain, but the Secret Service agents were the best at what they did. Not even Dizzy would dispute that.

“Are there any around?” asked Nic, peering around the room as though he might spot one. His eyes passed across Dizzy’s table, and kept going. She had her back to him.

“Agents?” said Fanny. “Actually, no. I’ve noticed a sharp drop off in their numbers on school grounds. Haven’t detected any activity in days.”

“Really?” said Brill, sounding concerned. “Where have they gone? They’re supposed to be keeping an eye on our country’s greatest resource.”

“High-quality minerals and ores?” said Davo.

“The children of the noble houses,” said Brill.

“We’ll have to agree to disagree,” said Davo.

“I think they must still be around,” said Nic. “Just in reduced numbers. I’ll have to think of a way to contact them.”

“That’s easy,” said Fanny. “Just put yourself in extreme danger. Not too extreme — you don’t want them turning up after you’re dead.”

Nic sat with the food growing cold on the end of his fork, considering the possibility of forming his own personal college of learning, designed to advance his personal growth into a realm he couldn’t even begin to comprehend yet. Physical training by the Secret Service, magical research through the Royal College, draconic lore taught by the Dragoon Corps. The range of subjects was endless. He might even ask Minister Carmine to tutor him the dark arts of espionage and skullduggery. That would certainly raise Dizzy’s ire.

“Why are you grinning to yourself like that?” asked Davo. “Are you thinking about sordid things?”

“Hmm? No, nothing. I was just going over what Hewt said about arranging private sessions with the experts in each field. It would certainly raise the bar for studying.”

“Yes,” said Davo. “Well, rather you than me. I imagine the best of the best use the worst of the worst methods when it comes to pushing their apprentices to the limit. If you think your childhood friend is a harsh mistress, I can only shiver with apprehension at what the men who deal with demons and dragons will do to you.”

“I’ve also dealt with Simole,” Nic pointed out.

“Ah, true,” said Davo. “Compared to her, it should be a doddle.”

They set off to their individual classes after lunch. Nic had Military Strategy with Mr Varity, who was a decent enough teacher when it came to the fundamentals, but what if he could get the Ministry for War to teach him the finer points?

Firstly, though, he wanted to contact the Secret Service. If he could convince them to train him directly, under the pretext of it being less likely he would die before he could get vital information to them (he had no idea what that information might be, but that only made it sound more vital), then he wouldn’t have to rely so heavily on Dizzy.

Whatever his personal feelings about her, there was certainly an added element to deal with when he faced her. Even when they sparred — which usually meant a sound thrashing for him — he was never really able to see her as just an opponent. She was always Dizzy.

He needed to distance himself from her, for both their sakes.

The easiest way to summon Secret Service agents, assuming there were still some on duty at the school, was to cause a commotion, preferably involving one of the more important students. A prince or duke’s son in trouble would bring them running, or appearing out of thin air, as was their preferred method of entry.

He sat in class not really paying attention and examined his fellow students. There were eighteen of them in the classroom, including himself, so sixteen to choose from once he excluded himself and Dizzy, who he very carefully avoided making eye contact with. If she thought he was up to something, she would fly into a rage and accuse him of breaking their agreement. Which would be accurate, but inconvenient (and most likely painful) to admit.

Once he removed the other girls from the running — because the plan he’d come up with was going to involve violence — that left eight candidates.

Of them, the highest ranking in terms of nobility was without question Quin Henrik, third son of the Earl of somewhere or other, Nic couldn’t recall. Not exactly the nation’s most valued aristocrat, but important enough for the Secret Service to take action if the boy was in harm’s way.

Nic waited until the end of class and then casually made his way to Quin’s desk, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. He had made sure Dizzy had already left before he made his move.

“Do you mind if I have a word?”

Quin looked up with mild surprise. Everyone knew who Nic was, at least in terms of his unusually high status considering his lowborn origins.

“Alright,” Quin said cagily. “What do you want?”

Nic tried to stall until most of the students were gone. “I just wanted to say sorry.”

“Sorry for what?”

Nic slapped him. It was quite a hard slap and loud. It made the palm of his hand sting. A red mark appeared on Quin’s face, but rather than fall down or cry out, he just looked astonished. Absolutely astonished.

“What was that for?” he said, his voice stern but not in any way raging.

This was already not going as he’d envisioned it. Nic reminded himself that this was how you learned, through experiment and observation.

“Ah, I just needed to talk to the Secret Service, and I thought…”

“If you hit me they’d come running to the rescue? I’m not a dinner bell. You don’t strike people to get attention. And they won’t turn up over something as trivial as a slap in the face.”

Now that he thought about it, perhaps this wasn’t the best way to achieve his goal. His total disregard for this innocent boy was nothing to be proud of.

“Sorry. I didn’t know what else to do. You’re quite important, so I thought…”

“No, don’t try to flatter me with pointless compliments.” He rubbed the side of his face. “Why didn’t you just ask me?”

“Ask? You mean, you have a way to call them?”

“Of course,” Quin pulled a gold chain out from his shirt collar. “We have these. You break it if you’re in mortal danger.”

“Oh,” said Nic, feeling like a fool. “That’s a good way to do it.”

“Do you really want me to summon them?”

“Yes, please,” said Nic.

“Are you sure? We’re only meant to if it’s something really important.”

“Yes. This is. I’m sure it will be fine. And I’m really sorry. If there’s anything I can do to make it up to you…”

“Actually, there is,” said Quin.

“There is? What?”

“A lunch date.”

Nic pulled a surprised face and Quin raised his hand to dismiss the idea in Nic’s head. “Not with you. The Archmage’s daughter.”

“Simole?”

“Yes. Nothing fancy. Just at the cafeteria, her and me at a table. And lunch, of course.”

“You’re talking about Simole? Fierce girl with an asymmetrical haircut and a low tolerance for idiots. That Simole?”

“Yes. Is that so hard to understand? It’s just lunch.”

“I suppose I could ask. I can’t guarantee she’ll say yes.”

“Obviously. I only need you to ask. These things don’t happen if someone doesn’t take the first step.”

“You could ask her yourself,” said Nic.

“Oh, no.” Quin looked horrified by the idea. “I can’t do that. What if she said no?” He shuddered. “Too embarrassing. No, you just ask her on my behalf, a kind word or two about me being a decent sort of chap would be appreciated, but there’s no need to force yourself, and we’ll see what comes of it. Right, here we go.” He yanked at the chain around his neck and it snapped.

Nic felt bad for what he’d done. Quin did seem to be a decent sort of chap, willing to help, when asked. Even willing after he’s been unjustly slapped. He even displayed a surprising amount of courage. There weren’t many people who would take up the challenge of a date with Simole. She might accept just to see the kind of boy who would be so daring.

Within a couple of seconds, the door opened and two agents came running into the classroom. They wore masks, one red, one green, but it was still obvious they were mildly confused about why they’d been called. There didn’t appear to be much of an emergency.

“Sorry,” said Nic, turning into something of a serial apologist. “There’s no emergency. I made him do it. I needed to speak to your commander but I have no way of getting in touch with you guys.”

The two agents didn’t speak, they just stood there. “What is it you want?” said the red masked one, eventually.

Nic began to feel this really was a terrible idea. What was he supposed to say? That he’d like some lessons in self-defence?

“I was, er, hoping to speak to the Chief of Staff, actually. I don’t suppose he’s around?” He tried to imply what he had to say was only suitable for the ears of high-ranking individuals, but it sounded weak and unimportant.

“Alright,” said Red Mask. “We have standing orders to notify command if you make contact. Come with us.”

Nic let out a quiet sigh of relief. It would have made him look even more like a dummy if they’d brushed him off.

“Don’t forget,” said Quin.

Nic nodded and waved at him apologetically as he left.

Outside in the hallway, Dizzy was leaning against the wall, going over some notes. She was acting like she just happened to be there, minding her own business. As he walked past her, she said, “Come to my room after you’ve finished with the agents.”

He was about to tell her he couldn’t do that, he didn’t know when that would be, but she was already walking away. As he turned back to keep up with the agents, he was sure he heard a very soft, “Don’t make me come find you.”

The agents took him to a building near the main quad. It was like every other building only there were no children inside. It was a series of rooms like the classrooms he used, but with no blackboards and no desks and chairs. He was taken to a room with a fireplace and a sofa and told to wait.

He sat down and tried to get comfortable for what he assumed would be quite a long wait, but the sofa wouldn’t allow him to sit with any degree of stability and he kept sliding around. Was this part of some advanced interrogation technique? he wondered.

The door opened again only about five minutes later, and the Chief of Staff himself entered, flanked by two different agents, blue and yellow masks, and bringing with him a wave of heavy pressure. Nic stood up, after a moment of struggling not to get eaten by the sofa.

“I hear you want to see me. What is it?” The Chief sounded abrupt and intimidating.

“Could you take off the mask, sir?” Nic asked as politely as he could. “It’s hard to think when you’re wearing it.”

The Chief sent away his escort and took off the silver demon mask, revealing his slightly less intimidating face and balding head. The pressure threatening to squash Nic abated and he was able to breathe normally again.

“Thank you. I’m sorry to bother you like this, I’m sure you’re very busy.” Nic was talking as fast as he could but still seemed to be in the small talk end of the conversation.

“Yes, I am. Out with it.”

“Um, I noticed there weren’t as many agents on the school grounds as before and I felt it would be a good idea if I had a way of contacting you in case… well, just in case. It’s actually quite difficult to speak to an agent now. I had to take some, um, uncomfortable steps to get their attention.”

“Yes, I heard. You want to be fitted with a device? It can be arranged. Is that all?”

“No. I mean, thank you. I also wondered if it would be possible for one of your agents to give me some training.”

“What kind of training?” asked the Chief.

“Nothing too crazy, just so I can defend myself, not against demons, against maybe someone from Gweur. No point me being able to call your agents for help if I’m dead by the time they arrive.”

“Why Gweur?”

“Sorry?”

“Why did you say in case someone from Gweur might attack you? Do you have something they want? Have they been in contact with you?”

“No, no. Not that I’m aware. I just used them as an example because of the problems we’re having with them. I assume that’s where all the agents have gone.”

“You assumed, did you?” What else have you assumed?”

“Nothing, really. I ran into Minister Carmine, acting-Minister Carmine, and he seemed very jumpy about the whole thing when I suggested they might set a trap for our troops and get us to commit to an attack on their leadership.”

The Chief’s white eyebrows rose. “That was you, was it? Good, I’m glad someone knocked some sense into him. I was relieved when he called it off.”

Nic still felt like he was imposing, but the impatience had eased off in the Chief’s face. A little.

“I suppose we can get the agents still stationed here to run you through a couple of sessions. Not like they have much else to do. Let me see what I can do.”

Nic was dismissed and led out by the same agents who had brought him, or ones with the same coloured masks. He was given a gold chain just like Quin’s and told to only use it in case of a dire emergency.

It was a relief to get out of the building and head back to his room. He had managed to get what he’d wanted, but it had been far more difficult than he’d imagined. It was probably going to be even harder with the other prospective tutors. He had to think through his approach and come up with a better plan.

The campus was quiet, the break between the end of lessons and the start of the dinner service at the cafeteria. Nic walked with his head down and his mind full of different ways to requisition the help he needed from people who had no obligation to give it to him. When he looked up, he was outside the girls’ dorm building.

He had put Dizzy’s ‘invitation’ out of his mind while he’d been dealing with the Chief but now there was no avoiding it. He had to tell her he wasn’t going to use her as his training coach at some point, and it would be easier to get it out of the way sooner rather than later.

He walked into the building and was stopped by a stern-faced woman behind a door with the top half missing, like in a stable. She was sitting on a stool with a large ledger open in front of her.

“Name?”

“Nic Tutt.”

“I meant who you’re here to see, but that’s fine. You’re expected, Mr Tutt. Sign here.”

He signed the ledger and entered, surprised at how easy it had been to gain entry. But then, the woman had looked at him like he was the only one in danger here.

He headed up several flights of stairs to the top floor. He had been here before with Dizzy so he knew the way.

He made it without encountering any girls. He knocked lightly on Dizzy’s door, ready to leave if she didn’t answer, having done as he was asked. The door immediately flew open.

“Nic!” said Simole. “If I’d known you were coming, I’d have baked a cake. Not really. I’m terrible at baking. You should have brought me a cake. Did you?”

Nic shook his head. “Sorry.”

“Stop apologising for goodness sake and come in.”

Nic entered and then stopped. Dizzy was sitting with her desk behind her, facing him with a look of dark focus as though there was no one else in the world right now apart from the two of them. He would have liked that feeling normally, but this felt like she was working out how to be the last person standing in some kind of survival game.

“Well?” she said. “Don’t you have something to tell me?”

Nic tried to think of how to begin. Nothing came to mind.

“What’s the matter? Did the Secret Service do something terrible to you? Please describe it in detail.”

“Give him a chance,” said Simole. “He’s obviously nervous, being alone in a bedroom with a girl he’s incredibly attracted to, and also with you, Dizzy.”

“I’m not nervous,” said Nic.

“But you’re alone with girls, every adolescent’s greatest desire, and also greatest fear. Look, this is an underwear drawer. Full of underwear. Feeling a bit hot and bothered now?”

“I’m not interested in a girl’s underwear,” said Nic. “It’s what’s in the underwear that matters.”

“Aha!”

“That’s not how I meant it.”

“AHA!” insisted Simole.

“Simole, I have Winnum Roke in my head with me all the time. When I go to the bathroom, when I get changed, when I pick my nose. It was the same when I had the demon inside me. She wasn’t technically female, but that’s how I saw her. So, it really doesn’t affect me anymore.”

“I see,” said Simole. “So, if I made you strip naked right now, you’d have no problem with it?”

“Of course, I would,” said Nic. “My friend would be trying to humiliate me and that would make me very sad.”

Simole’s shoulders sagged. “Now I feel bad. You really are no fun.”

Nic smiled. “I think you’re fun, though. Also, a boy asked me if I would invite you on a lunch date with him.”

“Huh? Boy? Lunch? What?”

“He seemed quite a decent sort. Helped me get in touch with the Secret Service. I think his family’s quite well off.”

“Are you suggesting I’m a golddigger?” said Simole.

“No, I’m saying gold comes free if you’re interested. I’ll point him—”

“Ahem,” said Dizzy. “If I could interrupt your social engineering for a moment, Nic, why did you go to see the Secret Service?”

“Oh, I asked them if they would train me. I think it would better than—”

Dizzy jumped out of the chair and grabbed Nic by the wrist. “The truth.”

“What do you mean? That is the truth. Why are you holding my wrist?”

“I can tell if you’re lying by the change in your pulse.” She stared at him, and then threw away his hand in disgust.

“What happened?” said Simole. “He didn’t even answer yet.”

“There’s no point,” said Dizzy. “As soon as I touched him his heart started racing at a million beats per second.”

“Wow,” said Simole, “the perfect counter.”

“You see?” said Nic, gently rubbing his wrist. “I can’t control myself around you. I’ll learn quicker if I’m not so distracted.”

Dizzy stood with her arms folded across her stomach. “Fine. Get out.”

Nic considered that an easy escape and left. He arrived back home to find Davo, Fanny and Brill getting ready to go to the cafeteria. Nic changed into his running shorts and vest.

“Taking the training seriously this time, then?” said Davo. “Wait, what’s that gaudy chain you’re wearing.”

“Don’t like it?” said Nic.

“It’s a little gauche, my friend. What’s next? Large ruby ring on your little finger and get a couple of chambermaids pregnant? Nic the Cad.”

It was only a thin chain, but it was rather showy.

Nic went for a run, down to the main gates and out onto the road. He wanted to get away from the school, from the students, from all of it. He was going to take this seriously. The Secret Service would expect him to have at least a little stamina.

His mind went blank as he ran. He could even get away from Winnum Roke like this, at least temporarily. He seemed to be able to keep going at a steady pace that he could have kept up for hours. It started to get dark and he saw the light of the capital up ahead. How far had he run?

For a moment he felt exposed and vulnerable, but then his fingers felt the chain around his neck and he felt safe. He turned around and ran back.

It was harder going on the way back, his breath short and sharp in his throat. The school walls finally appeared ahead of him and he headed around the back. He stopped when he reached the wall and looked up. It wasn’t an easy climb, especially with how exhausted he felt, but he climbed it anyway. It was time he started taking on challenges.

He landed inside the school grounds near the library, just as he’d expected. He had arranged to meet the Librarian here. He had a lot of questions for her. Or him.

It was late and no one was around. He had missed dinner and was hungry, but he could eat later. Fanny would have something in the pantry.

The back door to the library was open. He went in and made his way up to the top floor. The hatch was open and the ladder had been lowered for him. He climbed up into the mirrored room. Mr Periwinkle was waiting for him.

“Hello, Nic,” she said.

“Hello, Nic,” said Hewt. And then Nic finally remembered. Brill was an only child.

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Afterword from Mooderino
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