It was barely light outside when Nic was woken by incessant banging on his door. He opened one eye and fumbled for the pocket watch on his bedside table. It had belonged to his father and had numerous dings and dents covering the silver casing. 6.30 AM.
“Hey!” called a voice through the door. “This was your idea, you could at least not make us wait.”
It was Davo’s voice and he sounded far too chipper for this early.
“One minute,” Nic shouted back as he stumbled out of bed.
Their first extra lesson was set for 7 AM with Mr Tenner, the arcanum teacher. All the lessons Nic had asked for had been granted, and all were either before or after regular school hours.
Nic quickly got dressed. He wasn’t much of a morning person, most of his studying was done late at night. He struggled to get his clothes on the right way round.
When he finally opened the door, Davo and Fanny were standing there. Davo was bright-eyed and his clothes looked like they’d been pressed and ironed. Fanny was yawning and blinking to get the sleep out of his bleary eyes.
“Have I got time to brush my teeth?” asked Nic.
“No,” said Davo. He held out Nic’s toothbrush. “You can do it on the way. We don’t want to give anyone reason to be more upset with us than they already are, don’t you think?”
Nic took the toothbrush, stuck it in his mouth and pulled his door closed. He stopped when he realised there was one more person waiting for him.
“Oh, are you coming, too?”
“I thought I might as well,” said Simole. “You did arrange for us to all get these remedial lessons.”
“Actually,” began Fanny, “Nic doesn’t need—”
“We better get going,” cut in Nic. “Don’t want to keep Tenner waiting.”
They walked across the campus in silence. Davo led the way with Nic beside him. Fanny seemed to need two steps for every one of Davo’s to keep up. Simole, who was the shortest, had a way of gliding along like she was putting no effort into her movements, but somehow threatened to overtake everyone if she did.
It was cold. And grey. Not just the weather—everything. It all looked different in the early morning light. It all looked cold and grey. It wasn’t deserted, though. People were running around doing all sorts of things. Men in tall hats were carrying boxes or books or pieces of equipment that didn’t look familiar but probably had some important function.
Nic watched them scurry around, occasionally pausing or speeding up to get out of their way. Other men in regular workman clothing and without the odd hats tended the plants and cut the grass. It was a very different kind of activity to when the other students were around. It was a lot quieter, for a start.
“If we’re going to do this every morning,” said Fanny, huffing to stay level, “we should sort out provisions. I don’t function well at this time without sugar and coffee.”
“What are you talking about?” said Davo. “I’ve never seen you drink coffee.”
“You’ve never seen me up this early, either,” said Fanny. “How are we supposed to concentrate if we’re half asleep?”
“Speak for yourself,” said Davo. “My father used to make me work at his store every morning before school. ‘If you’re going to run this place one day, you need to know every inch of it,’ he’d say, and kick me out of the house while it was still dark.”
Nic smiled. Despite his complaints, it was obvious Davo was proud of his father and considered his upbringing to be like a soldier going through boot camp. A soldier who couldn’t wait to get into the battle.
“This is nothing,” Davo continued. “All we have to do is sit and listen to some mumbo jumbo about demons. I had to clean out a whole warehouse with an old broom and then wash the windows with a bucket of cold water and some rags. Every day.”
Davo continued to wax lyrical all the way across the quad, into the school building and into the classroom they’d been assigned.
“And I’d still arrive at school before everyone else. I tell you, children these days are spoiled rotten.”
They took the seats at the front, which they never did during their regular classes. They were always expected to disappear into the back while the ‘real’ students got all the benefits.
Mr Tenner walked in a few seconds later. He was a tall, narrow man. Everything about him seemed squashed together. His eyes were too close, his mouth was permanently pursed and his nostrils seemed far too thin to provide an adequate intake of air. He stopped at the desk, turned and smiled. It was a narrow smile.
“So, you are this year’s Also-rans.” It was a term the teachers didn’t usually employ, at least, not in front of the students. “Eager to be educated to the fullest. Isn’t that right?”
“Yes, sir,” mumbled the Also-rans, not really sure if an answer was required.
“Good, good. Now, where shall we start? From the beginning?”
Mr Tenner was the teacher Mallory had characterised as hating teaching with a strong dislike for those he had to teach, but he had been the only teacher not to be taken by surprise by Nic’s request. He agreed immediately and carried on with the class, as though he’d expected to be asked. This was before the faculty had had a chance to discuss the matter.
“Erm,” said Nic, still not sure if the questions were rhetorical or not, “we only need to know what the other students already know.”
“Is that right? Tutt, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir,” repeated Tenner. “You’re a very interesting boy, Tutt. Quite the hot topic of conversation in the teachers’ lounge. Oh yes, everyone’s dying to know how an Also-Ran managed to climb so high in the national rankings. It’s quite the mystery. Of course, I know.”
Nic looked up. He wasn’t hiding anything but still felt like he was about to be found out. It was an unsettling sensation.
“You see, I decided a boy as remarkable as you, Tutt, deserved to be looked up. So I did. I requested your exam papers from the finals. What interesting reading they made. Do you know why?”
Nic shook his head. “No, sir.”
“Because I’ve never seen such a perfect forgery.”
Nic was too shocked to speak. Was he being accused of cheating? What had he forged? He confusedly turned to the others, but they just returned his confusion with interest.
“I… I don’t understand what you mean, sir,” Nic finally managed to stutter. “Are you saying… What are you saying?”
“I’m saying you’re a big faker, Mr Tutt. A big, fat fake. The answers you gave to the examination, while excellent answers they may have been, were beautifully crafted forgeries. Copies of answers, but not the answers themselves.”
Things were getting no clearer, but Nic did feel like he was being accused of something. “I’m sorry, sir, but I didn’t cheat. Really, I didn’t.”
“Cheat?” said Tenner. “No, boy, you misunderstand me. I’m not saying you did anything wrong. Far from it. You provided exactly what the examiners wanted from you, even though they probably didn’t realise it. Quite masterful. You know, it takes no less skill to forge a great piece of art as it does to make one. To be able to convince everyone they are seeing the real thing, it’s quite an achievement.”
Mr Tenner put the tips of his fingers together in a tent and tapped them together.
“But it isn’t honest. You told them what they wanted to hear, not what you truly thought. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Great careers are built on such misrepresentations. But it is a dangerous mindset to take into the arcanum.”
Nic felt a bit dizzy. He was on the verge of something. An allegation, a castigation or possibly a pat on the back. It was hard to tell.
“The arcanum requires you to set aside all sense of self. Your ego, your self-worth, your pride. You can’t trick the arcanum. You have to be able to see yourself as you truly are. That’s why there are so few mages. And even fewer great ones. I hope you weren’t planning on practising magic, Mr Tutt.”
“No, sir,” said Nic. “I hadn’t really given it any thought.” His heart had stopped pounding. He was beginning to understand what this teacher was doing. He was teaching arcanum.
Unlike the normal class where information was delivered in long, dry lectures, here they were being walked through a simulation of what it was like to be inside the arcanum.
“I doubt there’d be much chance of a trickster like you passing the First Test, let alone the rest. And you must certainly never associate with any demons. If you approach a demon with deceit in your heart, your soul will quickly be devoured. Lickety split.”
The room was silent. The talk of demons had surprised them all. Mr Tenner hadn’t mentioned them even in passing during their regular class. It was all set readings and long lists of dates. Arcanum was a dry and pedantic subject.
“Do demons really exist?” squeaked Fanny, his voice barely carrying.
“Why of course they do,” said Tenner. “Where else do you think mages draw their power if not from the demonic planes?”
“But I mean on this plane,” said Fanny, a little more confidently. “Can they cross over?”
“Ah, well, that’s the question, isn’t it? They were certainly capable of it once, but now…” There was a wistful look in Tenner’s eyes. “But if one does happen to find its way back, then do make sure to be as honest as you can in its presence.” He was looking at Nic again. “For all our sakes.”
“What if you make it believe your lie?” asked Nic.
It was Tenner’s turn to be surprised this time. He sat back and tapped his chin with a long finger. “Then you would have yourself a bound demon. A marvellous way to gain supremacy over the world. Or possibly to end it.” He smiled. “Do you know what else I discerned from reading your papers, Mr Tutt?”
Nic was afraid to ask. He shook his head.
“I very much doubt you need extra lessons to catch up with the other students. In fact, I would guess you are already far in advance of most of them. Which raises the question, why would you then want to burden yourself with extra lessons you didn’t need?” He looked at Nic expectantly.
Nic thought about how best to answer the question. He would have rather not answered it at all, but Mr Tenner seemed to be willing to wait.
“I don’t need to catch up, that’s true.” He tried to keep his voice steady. There was an excellent chance this would completely backfire. “I thought if I had the opportunity to speak to my teachers in a less… crowded environment, I could better understand some of the things I’ve studied outside of the curriculum. On my own.”
Tenner nodded. “So you arranged for private tuition.” He wagged his finger at Nic. “Devious. Very devious. Perhaps a demon really has crossed over to this side. Maybe I should take you to my tower and do experiments on you, Mr Tutt.”
There was a smile on Tenner’s face, but it didn’t look very jolly. Nic’s blood ran cold.
“I’d honestly rather you didn’t, sir.”
Tenner laughed. “I believe you! So, you wish to expand your understanding of arcanum, then let us proceed.” Despite his unravelling of Nic’s motives, Mr Tenner, much to Nic’s surprise, was willing to continue with the lessons.
They left the classroom after more than an hour of very tangential teaching. Nic sensed he had a better understanding of arcanum, but not in a way he could explain. The others were equally puzzled by the unorthodox lesson. The group silently crossed the campus to the cafeteria; to find it closed. They had missed the breakfast serving.
“No!” cried out Fanny. “No, no, no.”
They proceeded to their first official class of the day, stomachs complaining, but not as much as Fanny.
They attended lessons as normal, sitting at the back of each class, taking notes and being ignored. Nic had nothing to learn in these classes and spent his time thinking about the things Tenner had said. They seemed to take on a new meaning every time he considered them.
At lunchtime, Fanny rushed off to the canteen like he feared it too would close before he could get there. By the time Nic and Davo arrived, he was already at their small table stuffing his face. Beside him, eating with slightly more restraint, sat Simole.
“Decided to join us, then?” said Davo as they sat down with their trays.
“I have to eat, like everyone else,” said Simole.
“Really?” said Davo. “I thought you might be a vampire. Flitting out of your bedroom window to feast on the blue blood of our fellow students.”
“Would be a bit of a thin and watery meal,” said Simole.
Davo laughed and the others stifled their sniggers, guiltily looking around in case anyone had heard them. By the time they got to pudding, even Fanny had stopped whining and there was a pleasant atmosphere around their small, sidelined table. Until a shadow loomed over them.
They all looked up to see a boy standing at the end of the table. He held a tray of empty plates, on his way to return them. He stood there saying nothing but fixedly glaring at them. Then he turned and left.
“What was that about?” whispered Fanny, not wanting to attract the strange boy back.
“That, Fanny, was what we in the business world call tagging.”
“What’s tagging?” Nic and Fanny asked together.
Davo smiled benevolently, always happiest when he was in a position to share his wisdom. “Tagging is when you let your competitor know you have him in your sights. A declaration of war! But on a smaller scale.”
“He wants to go to war with us?” said Fanny, shocked.
“Well, not literally, at least I hope not. He just doesn’t like us. Intimidation tactics.”
“Oh,” said Fanny. “He’s trying to bully us.”
“Exactly,” said Davo. “Psychological warfare. A weapon to use against the feeble-minded, so we should be fine. Fanny, do your best.”
“Wait, why did you single me out?”
The afternoon lessons passed without incident and then they had another extracurricular lesson to attend, this time with Mr Varity, the Military History teacher.
They trudged to the classroom and entered warily, ready to meet resistance and probing, just as they had with Mr Tenner. Maybe even more so. Mr Varity had been the most set against these lessons. But Mr Varity didn’t ask any pointed questions or try to ascertain Nic’s true reasons for asking for these lessons. He seemed to be in a hurry to get his obligation over with as quickly as possible and launched into the basic principles of an aggressive foreign policy without even a word of hello.
It was a basic retelling of how the tiny nation of Ranvar had become a powerful force despite being surrounded by far larger neighbours. Nic was more than familiar with the authorised version—brinkmanship, savvy negotiations and a tactical use of small but highly trained military forces. He was also well aware of how incomplete that version was.
But along with the familiar names and dates that he’d been taught at Hammond, Mr Varity included a host of new details. Departments involved in specific treaties, ministers responsible for establishing relationships with foreign powers, and even the names of special forces teams that were deployed to ‘encourage’ diplomatic solutions.
It was the nearest Nic had ever come to hearing a teacher admit the truth about Ranvar’s well-known policy of full contact diplomacy. Well-known outside of Ranvar, that was.
Nic had found enough indirect accusations and circumstantial evidence in foreign books—books that were incredibly hard to get hold of—to surmise how Ranvar conducted itself on the world stage. It made no difference to Nic, he was hardly in a position to judge the methods of his elders and betters. Keeping such information out of the public domain did make it look a little underhanded, but there could be any number of valid reasons for that. No doubt other nations conducted themselves similarly, if not worse.
Ransom students, however, were apparently expected to have a more realistic understanding of how their government worked. Which made sense, since most of them would be running the government soon enough.
Nic made copious notes, checking spellings of names so he could research them further in his own time. These were exactly the kinds of details that earned extra marks on exams.
After an hour, they were released to go about their business. Mr Varity had been efficient, patient and thorough. As soon as they finished, he rushed off.
The school building was deserted, the other students long gone, off to their after-school clubs and sports teams. All activities the Also-Rans had not been invited to or offered the chance to join.
“By the time we get back to the cottage we’ll have to come back for supper,” said Fanny. It was a bit of an exaggeration, but the point was valid. It wasn’t really worth going back. And Fanny was determined to not miss another meal.
“We could go to the library,” said Nic.
“That’s a good idea,” said Davo. “I’ve been meaning to go have a look.”
“I’ll see you back at the cottage,” said Simole. She turned and walked off.
“I think she’s warming to me,” said Davo. “It’s only a matter of time now.”
“I don’t think so,” said Fanny. “You’re probably too thin and watery for her tastes.”
They walked the short distance to the library and carried their leaden bags up the steps. Inside it was busier than the last time Nic had visited. There were small pockets of students in the central part, with smaller groups roaming the shelves.
“Wow,” said Fanny. “I’ve never seen so many books.”
“Something of a missed opportunity,” said Davo. “You could easily install a small kiosk in that corner and charge the students for drinks and snacks.”
Nic had a very good idea of how the librarians would react to such a non-academical intrusion. He wouldn’t have minded a hot chocolate, though. It had been a long, tiring day.
“Where do we go?” said Fanny. All the tables appeared to be occupied and they knew how a request to share would be treated.
Nic already had somewhere in mind, a hidden nook he had spotted last time. He led the others without needing to speak; they instinctively fell in behind him as he wandered around the back of the endless shelf-lined passages, expertly avoiding the other students.
The table walled off by three bookcases was unoccupied and they set up camp. They had assignments to do and Nic was confident he could complete at least one before the cafeteria opened for the dinner service. Books quickly filled the table.
As they worked, quietly asking questions of each other, but mainly of Nic, the library slowly emptied. The main student dorms were a lot closer than the cottage, so the other students could easily return to their rooms and not be late for supper. The three boys scribbled away in their notebooks until they once again felt a shadow encroach.
Nic looked up expecting to see the same boy again, but this time it was another boy. This one also didn’t seem very friendly, but not quite so hostile. He had dark slicked-back hair and a collection of gold rings and bracelets. His school uniform, identical to theirs, looked like it had been tailored to fit the exact pose of superiority he was affecting and no other.
“You. Tutt?” It was a very brusque greeting.
“Yes. Me, Tutt,” said Nic.
Davo barked out a laugh and quickly converted it into a cough.
The boy was unamused. “Do you know who I am?”
Nic shrugged. “Sorry, I don’t.”
The boy nodded, like he had expected this to be the case and saddened to find he was right.
“I’m Brillard Epsteem.”
He seemed to be waiting for some kind of recognition. “Oh,” said Nic. “Hello Brillard.”
“Hey, Brill,” chimed in Fanny.
“Yo, Brillo!” added Davo.
Brillard narrowed his gaze, trying to work out if he was being mocked. Nic would have thought it fairly obvious that he was.
“I’m president of the Ransom Standard Club.” He left another pregnant pause, but this time Nic had actually heard of the club. It had been mentioned in many of the books on Ransom in the Librarium.
“Oh, right. That’s the club for the top students.” Nic smiled hoping his answer would please the sour-faced boy.
“It’s not a secret club, is it?” said Fanny. “My father said I shouldn’t join any secret clubs. They blindfold you and make you put horrible things in your mouth.”
Nic hadn’t read about any clubs like that, but he didn’t doubt the existed. Fanny’s father was an alumnus, so he would know. It didn’t sound very appealing.
“Of course they don’t do things like that,” said Davo. “Do you?”
“No,” said Brillard trying not to lose his temper. “We aren’t secret, we’re exclusive. Only the most exemplary students are allowed to join. Tutt, I’m here to offer you the chance to become a member.”
“A chance?” said Nic.
“Yes. There’s an interview process, some tests and a six month probationary period. We all had to go through it. Helps weed out the riff raff.” He glanced over at Davo and Fanny.
“Oh, right,” said Nic. “Thanks.”
“Good. First thing you need—”
“But I think I’m fine as I am.”
Brillard’s face reddened. “What… what…” he spluttered. “What are you saying? Are you turning us down?”
“Oh, no,” said Nic. “I’m just not the sort of person you’re looking for. You all intend to apply for the Royal College, don’t you?” He’d read about the club’s high acceptance rate for the college. Joining the Standard club would benefit anyone serious about becoming a mage.
“Yes,” said Brillard. “That’s the purpose of our club.”
“So there’s no point. I don’t have any interest in magic.”
“You don’t?” This seemed to mollify the boy. “I see. I suppose that makes sense.” He turned around and walked away.
They watched him go back to his group, animatedly telling them what had happened. All the boys had the same slicked-back hair. All the girls… Dizzy was sat at the table. Nic raised the book he was reading so it formed a wall he could hide behind.
Did she know it was him? Had the invite been from her? She wasn’t looking in this direction, wasn’t one of those listening to the president hold court.
“You could have joined the best and the brightest,” said Davo.
“After they blindfolded you and made you eat unsavoury objects,” added Fanny.
Nic shrugged. “Just be another Bloodless War.” He flipped the pages and sneaked a look over the top of the book. The Standard Club were leaving, taking Dizzy with them.
“What’s has the Bloodless War got to do with anything?” asked Davo.
“Same method,” said Nic, lowering the book.
“Is that so, Mr Tutt?” said a voice from behind them, making them all jump.
Nic turned to find Mr Varity standing there, two books in his arms and his glasses halfway down his nose.
“Did my ears deceive me? Am I right in thinking you just refused an invitation to the prestigious Ransom Standard Club because of the Bloodless War?”
“Ah, yes, sir.”
“And how does a five hundred year old war pertain to this matter, Mr Bostware.” Suddenly he had redirected the question at Fanny.
“Ah, um,” said Fanny. “Well, er, the Bloodless War came after the defeat of the Corilean Empire.” It was the only thing he could remember about the Bloodless War.
“Yes. Factually accurate. Well done. And how did the smaller armies of the Ranvarian Kingdom defeat the mighty Corilean Empire?”
“Oh,” said Fanny, “I know—”
“Mr Conoling?” Varity switched across to Davo.
“Ah, they formed an alliance with Fordor, their neighbour and oldest enemy.”
“Indeed. Joining forces to defeat their common enemy. And what happened to Fordor after the defeat of Coril?”
“Ooh,” said Fanny. “We invaded Fordor and they surrendered immediately. The Bloodless War.” He beamed at his own achievement under adversity, not really sure why he was being forced to remember these archaic facts.
“And how was that possible? Wasn’t Fordor a nation of comparable size to Ranvar?”
“Yes,” said Fanny, suddenly realising he didn’t know why they Fordorians had capitulated so easily. “That is…”
“Mr Tutt, perhaps you could enlighten your friend.”
“Ranvar offered to help modernise Fordor during their alliance. Rebuilt its roads, its sewers, repaired its defences. By the end of the war with the Corileans, Fordor infrastructure was almost completely Ranvarian built. We knew their strengths and weaknesses, controlled their basic utilities and transportation routes. They were dependent on us, and we could cut them off anytime we wished. It was easier to just give in.”
“And the Standard Club? You believe they would use you to their advantage and then cast you aside when it suited them?”
“Most likely, sir.”
“You may well be right, young man. A very insightful analysis of the Bloodless War, Mr Tutt. I don’t believe I’ve heard it put better or more succinctly, especially since most records have been expunged. You might even be arrested were you to repeat what you just said publicly.” He smiled. “Which begs the bigger question, why would anyone with such an in-depth knowledge of Ranvarian history need to take up my valuable time with supplementary classes?”
“Ah, well, that is…”
Tenner’s lecture on being honest had struck a chord a little too strongly with Nic. He needed to remember too much honesty had its own drawbacks. Offending demons was something to be wary of, but there were plenty of other, more immediate dangers to watch out for.