It was a grey and dreary day and Nic woke feeling tired and uneasy. After lying in bed wishing he could go back to sleep he decided he was hungry and got up.
His nights weren’t very restful and he suspected he was being worn out on purpose, putting him into a weary state that would make him vulnerable to the influences of nefarious forces. The battlefield was his own mind, a place he considered within his control, but that might change if he became exhausted by his nighttime adventures. He would have to be careful to conserve his energy. Or he could just take a nap after lunch.
Nic padded into the small kitchen wearing the slippers his mother had bought him as a gift. Completing the first year as a Ransom Upperclassman was both not as great an achievement as she thought, and far greater one than he was willing to admit to her.
“You look awful,” said Fanny.
“Thanks.” He took one of the six slices of toast on Fanny’s plate. They weren’t for sharing and Fanny gave him a pained look as though he’d been saddened by a betrayal.
“I mean it. You’re all pale and your eyes are bloodshot. Are you not getting enough sleep?”
“He’s probably staying up late reading,” said Davo, who had just come out of the shower room at the back of the kitchen. He was in a dark blue bathrobe with his initials monogrammed onto the lapel. With his hair wet and messy he almost looked his age for once. “Read and read and read, the life of Nic Tutt. He reads to completion and then goes back to the front page and reads some more.”
“I haven’t been staying up any later than normal,” said Nic, feeling better now he had something in his stomach. “Just a bit restless.”
“Davo has the same problem,” said Fanny. “He has a recurring nightmare where an expensive item is mislabelled and he has to sell it for a lot less than its worth. Wakes up screaming.”
“Stop blathering, you imbecile,” said Davo, taking a slice of toast. “And who wouldn’t experience night terrors if they imagined something that alarming?”
Brill walked in to see what was going on, already dressed, and helped himself to a slice, much to Fanny’s dismay.
The four of them were the occupants of the lower floor of the cottage, while the new Also-Rans were installed above. They had been given the choice to join the other students in the dorms, but they had decided to stay where they were. The new boys, nervous in their new surroundings, had decided it would be better to stay with their own kind.
Brill had moved into Simole’s room after she died, nominally speaking. She had decided not to move back in after her return to the land of the living, and had installed herself in the girls’ dorm with her new best friend. Nic hadn’t seen much of her outside of classes and the occasional midnight visit at his window.
“This is very good,” said Brill taking dainty bites that somehow circumvented the production of crumbs. “Although I’m not sure why you feel the need to eat before we have breakfast.”
“Just a habit I got into,” said Fanny. He grabbed another slice of toast and then picked up the plate to keep a closer eye on the last piece. “You never know when disaster might strike and prevent us getting to the cafeteria in time.”
“Yes,” said Davo, “truly a tragedy to be feared. Well, I’ll be ready in a minute. Don’t leave without me.” He brushed crumbs off his front and went to his room.
There was a thunder of feet as the first years came down the stairs, running around Davo.
“We’re going,” shouted one.
“See you there,” said another.
They were gone in a flash.
“They have no idea,” said Davo, shaking his head. “No idea, at all.”
“Good,” said Fanny. “Maybe they’ll have a wonderful time at Ransom and make great memories. We made the world a little better for others which is the whole point, isn’t it?”
“Yes, of course,” said Brill, reaching for the last piece of toast. Fanny yanked the plate away to the other side. Nic caught it as it slid off the edge and went back into his room to get changed.
The four of them walked across the campus to the cafeteria, as they did each morning before going off to their separate classes. The number of classes in the second year of the Upper Class were reduced as students chose three specialised subjects to focus on.
Most Ransom students already had their futures mapped out for them. Their families had traditions hundreds of years of old. Their parents, grandparents, ancestors, they all proudly performed the same roles. It was what family in Ranvar was all about — continued stability. In the government, in the army, in some other role that served the betterment of Ranvar.
Ransom was where they could prepare for that role. A broad education to make ready for their entry into adult society, and training in specific vocations for their awaiting employment. There was a surety to it that even someone like Nic found comforting.
There was a morning chill in the air. The cafeteria would have only been a few steps away if they had accepted a place in the second year dorms, but the walk was doing Nic good, helping to clear his head.
His first lesson was Military Strategy, which was usually an elective for those planning to go directly from Ransom into the Ranvar Military Academy, most probably for officer training. They would receive more of the same there but the added prestige of arriving with an academic background in tactical thinking would help mark them out. Their family connections would get them in, but the armed forces were no place for favouritism, at least not until a certain standard had been met.
Nic had no intention of joining up, even though his father had been a soldier. He hadn’t been an officer, though. Nic just happened to enjoy the subject and he had to choose three classes, as all second years had to. He still envisioned getting a government job, he knew it was what would make his mother happiest, although the offer to join the Ministry of Instruction no longer awaited him. His other electives were Advanced Economic Analysis and the Arts Course.
Military Strategy and Economic Analysis covered most of the ministries that might hire him as a clerk, and the Arts Course would get him into the Royal College.
He had no intention of going there, either. He had never seen himself as a mage, and even less so now that he knew how magedom was achieved.
They arrived at the cafeteria along with most of the other students and made their way to the usual table, where the first years were already seated and nearly finished.
“What’s your first lesson?” Nic asked Fanny.
“Herbology,” replied Fanny carefully placing his heavily burdened tray. He had a full selection from the breakfast menu, plus an extra portion of toast to make up for his early morning losses.
“You’ll make a wonderful gardener when you get to the Royal College,” said Davo.
Fanny’s reasons for taking Herbology had nothing to do with plants. It was the only department in Ransom that used Arcanum, be it in a restricted form. The herb detectors were very simply constructed devices, but the Herbology teaching staff were trained in their use and their repair. Which made them useful advisers as Fanny developed his interest in Arcanum-based technology.
“It’s actually quite fascinating how exposure to Arcanum has changed the flora of Ranvar over the centuries,” said Fanny in between bites. “It’s given me a lot of ideas of how to artificially replicate some of the same features. Boost the signal organically.”
“It does sound fascinating,” said Davo with a deeply sarcastic undertone. “A shame you don’t have access to any actual Arcanum.”
“There’s always Simole,” said Fanny.
“And when was the last time she even acknowledged your existence?” said Davo. “Or any of us?”
Fanny didn’t reply and finished his breakfast. After that they split up to go to their separate ways.
Nic was the first student to arrive in an empty classroom. Second-year classes tended to be smaller, anywhere between four and ten students. With no need to take classes that didn’t interest you, lessons became intense affairs, where everyone was keenly paying attention and no one was bashful when it came to pointing out someone else’s mistake. It was quite a lot of fun.
Nic sat down at the front, in the middle. No longer did he have to worry about sitting to the rear, making an effort to remain inconspicuous. If someone didn’t wish to sit next to him, that was their issue.
Of course, no one had reason to treat him like that anymore. He was part of the school, no less so because of the special treatment he received. In fact, that only served to make him more of a typical Ransom student.
Being enrolled on the Arts Course only underlined this. He was part of the school elite, there was no disputing that. And you certainly didn’t want to offend someone who might go on to become a mage.
If the student body was well-versed in anything, it was the understanding that not all students were equal. Some stood out as higher value individuals, and everyone acted accordingly.
Acting accordingly was very much a Ransom thing. It was very much a Ranvar thing, also.
Nic found himself nodding off as he sat with his elbows on the desk and his chin on the heel of a palm. A warm, fuzzy sensation lulled him to the point where his head slipped off his hand; fortunately, no serious injuries were incurred.
A few minutes later his classmates arrived, all fifteen of them. Military Strategy was one of the more popular choices. Military service was the ultimate destination of at least a third of the student body, according to statistics Nic had unearthed (and then quietly reburied in the library stacks).
They sat down around and behind him, chatting and settling in a for a two-hour stint. Lessons were more intense and more protracted. When he casually looked to the side, he found Dizzy sitting next to him, returning his gaze with a look of cold inquiry. He turned face front as Mr Varity bustled in.
There was no surprise at Dizzy’s presence, she had chosen the exact same classes as Nic, most likely for the exact same reasons. It wasn’t even that surprising that she would sit next to him. She always sat at the front, so she would need to be on one side of his or the other. Did she think he had purposefully arranged for that to be the case? Had he?
Despite having accepted the lack of enthusiasm she had for any kind of relationship with him, Nic found it difficult to abandon all hope. The future could turn out any number of ways, and while he couldn’t shape it to his will, he could keep himself available for any course corrections.
It was a foolish and childish way to console himself, but he was a child, and more likely than not a fool. Analysing himself was always a source of amusement. It was hard to fathom how his life had turned out so far, or where it would go from here. He should be grateful, he tried to convince himself, that at least it held his interest.
“Stop smiling like that,” said Dizzy under her breath. “You look like an idiot.”
Nic snapped his mouth back into a straight line of indeterminate emotion and kept his eyes on Mr Varity as though he hadn’t heard Dizzy’s admonishment.
Mr Varity was busy drawing on the chalkboard, marking out troop positions from some battle that was about to reveal a multitude of layered thinking.
“You look terrible,” Dizzy continued to mutter. “You’re fighting to keep control, aren’t you?”
Nic didn’t respond. There was nothing to say. Did she want hourly updates? Perhaps her choice of classes were due to him. Perhaps she wanted to keep an eye on him.
He had accepted that his original goal — to get closer to Dizzy — was no longer feasible. But the result of that was that he had lost a lot of his ardour for learning. His mind often wandered during classes, on flights of fancy of no consequence. Drifting and aimless.
He lacked purpose. He needed purpose. He had found it in his nocturnal duels with Winnum Roke. He wasn’t about to give that up, too.
In the back of his mind, though, was the constant doubt that this was not all his own idea. He had been manipulated before, and Winnum Roke was no less adept at it than the demons.
“Life is a struggle,” Nic muttered back, and then winced as Dizzy kicked him in the shin. He scowled to prevent his mouth opening and releasing the yelp that had jumped up his throat. He wasn’t angry at her, more at himself. He should have known that was coming.
Mr Varity continued to add detail to his ever more complex rendering in chalk. Some sort of pincer formation, it looked like.
Nic leaned slightly towards Dizzy and whispered, “Have you had any weird dreams lately?”
He lifted his foot as Dizzy’s darted under it. He leaned back to avoid the elbow casually thrown at his ribs, and then tipped his chair away from her as she raised her pen to fire it at any number of targets on his body. He also hooked his foot under her chair leg so that as he leaned away, she was sent toppling in the opposite direction.
Dizzy stood up as the chair fell, somehow managing to step over and onto her falling seat so she ended up standing on the chair that was now laying on its side.
Mr Varity turned around at the noise to find Delzina Delcroix standing to attention, towering over her desk. He raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “Miss Delcroix?”
“My chair became unbalanced,” said Dizzy, as though there was nothing unusual about it.
“I see,” said Mr Varity, although the furrow of his brow suggested he didn’t really. “Perhaps you would like to swap it for one less unbalanced?”
Dizzy stamped on one side and the chair tipped back up as she lowered herself onto it. “It’s alright now. I fixed it.” She sat down, very deliberately not looking in Nic’s direction.
Nic was not very athletic. Certainly nowhere near the level Dizzy was. But he had years of practice when it came to avoiding Dizzy’s attempted assaults. He just needed a little time to warm up.
The next lesson was Advance Economic Analysis, and Dizzy chose not to sit next to Nic. Davo was in this class and was happy to replace her, even though he had no idea that was what he was doing.
“This class is so easy,” said Davo. “I expect to be challenging you for the top spot.”
“Good luck,” said Nic.
Davo gave him a hard stare. “There’s no need to be quite so vicious.”
Nic smiled apologetically. He hadn’t intended it that way, of course, but sometimes he forgot he had status now, and words dropped from on high gained momentum.
“It seems unfair to allow a merchant’s son into this class,” said the girl sitting on Davo’s other side. “What is a merchant other than a parasite who makes nothing, grows nothing and spends his time counting other people’s hard-earned money? Have you no shame?”
“No more than our customers,” said Davo, no rancour in his voice. “As I recall, we have dealt with your family to our mutual benefit on several occasions, Miss Miggets.”
“Miggets-Hanover,” said the girl tartly.
Miggets Department Store was the direct competition to Conoling & Son. They were the older firm and better known, and they had also married into nobility so that one half of the family considered itself better than the other. It hadn’t hurt the business, though. Their higher standing attracted a wealthier clientele.
It was one of the reasons Davo had thought to come to Ransom, to increase his own firm’s standing among the well-to-do. It hadn’t worked out the way he had hoped in the first year, but he had been doing better this term. Not making friends, as such, more acquaintances and, in some cases, customers, which was even better. Which had brought him to the attention of Miss Miggets-Hanover, a tall, willowy beauty whose face fully embodied the aristocratic half of her bloodline whenever in Davo’s presence, her lips curled in disgust at the sight of him.
Davo, however, was very practised when it came to dealing with haughty young ladies. He maybe even enjoyed it.
Nic considered their feud another example of appropriate badinage for children of their age. Who knew, it might even lead to a spark of romance and the eventual merging of their two great companies. Although judging by the sheer contempt on the Miss Miggets-Hanover’s face, perhaps not.
After lunch Nic had the Arts Course. Another chance for Peri Periwinkle to astound and confound his charges. The six students watched him intently as he leaned back in his chair, mere centimetres from tipping over. They all expected him to posit something absurd.
“How do we understand the nature of magic when explanation is the death of poetry?” said Mr Periwinkle, refusing to disappoint. “The craftsman disguises his joins, the surgeon attempts the smallest of incisions, the clockmaker hides the intricate machinery behind a functional facade. Nobody wants you to be able to see the methods employed from the outside. Then how do we deconstruct what we have before us in order to reconstruct it in our own image?”
His question was met with silence.
“I will tell you,” said Mr Periwinkle. “I will tell you by setting you a simple task. I wish you to come up with a method to prove whether unicorns exist.” The silence was joined by a plethora of blank faces. “You all know what a unicorn is, you’ve read about them in books and such, yes? You also know they are mythical and most probably a figment of some writer’s imagination. How would you prove it, though?”
Carol Rev raised his hand.
“Yes, Mr Rev.”
“You can’t prove a negative, sir.”
“Are you being insolent, Mr Rev?” Periwinkle’s dark eyes glittered with suspicion.
“No, sir,” said Carol Rev, his voice quavering. “I was trying to be helpful.”
“Please avoid attempting such things. If I ask you to formulate a theorem, I expect you to put your efforts into doing so, not questioning the question. It is a poor way to expend your energies.”
“I understand, sir, and shall cultivate the qualities you mention.”
Periwinkle’s eyes glittered again, but his cool gaze passed over the other students. “Why don’t you have a think about it, all of you. Feel free to confer.”
He leaned back in his chair, put his feet up on the desk and opened his blue notebook, which he placed over his face.
“Any ideas?” asked Brill.
“The answer’s obvious,” said Simole. The others turned to look at her, waiting for further details. “I’m not going to tell you. How will you ever learn anything if you always rely on others?”
“I was wondering about something, Miss van Dastan,” said Brill. “What classes do you take apart from this one? Nobody I’ve spoken to has mentioned seeing you in any of their lessons.”
“Why don’t you stop wondering about things that don’t concern you, Brillard?” said Dizzy.
“We were told to confer, so I’m conferring,” said Brill in a lowered voice. “I don’t want him putting any demerits next to my name in that book of his. Which brings up something I was wondering about regarding yourself, Miss Delcroix. I noticed both you and Nic chose the same subjects for this year. I can’t believe that’s a coincidence.”
“What are you implying?” said Dizzy, unimpressed by Brill’s curiosity.
“Nothing. It is a genuine query, that’s all. I wouldn’t like to think I missed out when I made my own selection.”
“It’s very simple, Mr Epsteem,” said Dizzy. “Ranvar operates its national interests via two arms: war and money. The army and the banks. And not equally. The people who control the money control the people who control the army. Do you follow or should I speak slower.”
“That was the perfect speed,” said Brill, in a manner that Nic recognised as that of someone who had been dealing with Dizzy for many years. “So it has nothing to do with staying as close to Nic as possible.”
Nic flinched involuntarily on Brill’s behalf, expecting a strike to be imminent, but there were no sudden moves.
“No,” said Dizzy. “
“She’s right, it’s obvious,” said Carol almost jumping out of his chair. “You just ask a mage. He’ll cast a spell, speak to an oracle, look in his crystal ball or whatever, there’s your answer.”
“No,” said Simole.
“No?” said Carol. “Why not?”
“That would only tell you there weren’t any unicorns you could detect. There could still be one hidden by another mage. Or a demon. Magic can be used against you as well as for you.”
“Then it’s impossible,” said Brill. “He’s right, you can’t prove a negative.”
“You can,” said Nic. “You can prove it wrong. All you have to do is create your own unicorn. There were no dragons once, and then someone used magic to create them. If you need to know one way or the other, you don’t need to discover the answer, you can make your own.”
“And what,” said Mr Periwinkle, the book no longer on his face, “if your purpose would be served better without unicorns existing? If you wished to learn if enemies of Ranvar conspired against the state, would you invent them? That would seem counterproductive.”
“That would be one way,” said Dizzy. “A false flag to flush out the true dissenters. But there are many ways to discern something that simple. There’s a big difference between proving something exists and finding something that is hidden, especially if it’s trying to achieve its goals from its hiding place. Action betrays presence, and inaction is not worth worrying about. Your comparison is a little uninspired.”
Mr Periwinkle picked up his pen and made a mark in his book. “Yes, but the quality of my comparisons aside, Miss Delcroix, how are we to be certain? Why settle for less than a verified result?”
There was a pause as the students considered the options, of which there appeared to be very few. Was it a trick question, designed to impress on them how little they knew? A thought experiment in humility, perhaps? Nic found it unlikely. There was an answer, Mr Periwinkle’s tone and attitude strongly suggested it.
Nic turned to Simole whose head was lolling with boredom. Her mood was difficult to read. Amused indifference, flippant disdain, she had become far more complex in her detachment since returning from her father’s company. Nic would have liked to have spoken to her about many things but the problem was that she would ask questions in return, and he wasn’t ready to answer them.
If she did know the solution to Periwinkle’s riddle — and there was no reason to doubt her claim that she did — the issue was not one of asking her to share her insight, it was that relying on her would end up becoming a crutch, just as she had intimated. She was the alpha predator on the field. Did it even matter what the rest of them did? He included the mages of the Royal College in that assessment.
She had come to Ransom to experience what it was like to be a normal girl among her peers, but she would never be normal and no one here was even close to being her peer. So what did she want now?
What did he want, more to the point?
Her eye slowly slid to the side to meet his probing gaze and the two of them remained like that, neither backing down. She even looked like a predator, lazing inattentively as she waited for her unsuspecting prey to stroll past. No need to go hunt them unless…
“Oh,” said Nic. “You don’t create a unicorn, you create a unicorn hunter. Something that preys on unicorns, tracks them down and kills them.”
“And what kills unicorns, Mr Tutt?” asked Mr Periwinkle.
“Dragons,” said Simole.
Mr Periwinkle’s large forehead creased. “I don’t believe that to be true.”
“Prove it,” said Simole.
Nic realised he had made a mistake. He had been wrong to keep himself apart from Simole out of fear his only role of any value or interest might be taken away from him. She would help him if he asked. And she wouldn’t allow him to rely on her.
He felt a weight lift from his shoulders. He turned and Dizzy was glaring at him. She was two seats away but she looked furious. If she’d been any closer he would have ducked.
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Afterword from Mooderino