“We could just ask her,” said Davo.
Fanny nodded. “Go on, then.”
“Why does it have to be me?” said Davo. He adjusted his scarf and flattened the front of his jacket. “She’d be more receptive to someone like you. Someone she doesn’t find threatening.”
They were standing in the hall, Davo, Fanny and Nic. There had been no notification that their extra lessons had been cancelled, so they decided they would go along to the designated classroom at the designated time, and if Mr Varity turned up, they would carry on as normal. Like nothing strange or absurd had happened.
“Are you saying she finds you threatening?” said Fanny, his lips pursed with scepticism.
“Or maybe Nic. Why don’t you ask her?”
Nic slowly realised he was being addressed. “Ask who, what?”
Davo shook his head and waved a dismissive hand at Nic. “It’s nothing. No need for you to concern yourself with our petty problems. Go back to daydreaming about Hostern’s Equation of Dynamic whatever.”
“Equivalence,” said Nic.
“Nobody likes a pedant, Nic,” said Davo.
“Examiners do,” said Nic, pedantically.
There was the sound of a door opening in the kitchen and Simole emerged in a towel wrapped around her body like a dress. She stepped out into the hall, steam rolling around on the floor behind her. The bathroom had been no more than a sink and minuscule tub when they first arrived. After Davo’s renovations, it was a wet room with shower heads and nozzles pointing in all directions. The water pressure was now many times greater than it had been and hot water was available around the clock, which meant they had somehow become connected to the school’s plumbing system. They certainly hadn’t been before. Freezing cold water dripping from the taps was the best they could get before the renovations. But as Davo informed them, they had as much right as the other students to the school’s resources; it said so in the rule book he now carried in his breast pocket.
Simole looked at the boys, dressed and ready to depart. “You can go without me, if you want,” she said. “I can catch up.”
All three boys shook their heads and made reassuring noises.
“No, no,” said Davo. “We’d only be early. Take your time.”
She turned, her long hair at the back swishing like a tail, and went into her room.
“You could have asked her then,” said Fanny.
“You know nothing about how to talk to women, you savage,” said Davo. “You don’t harass a woman when she’s wet and naked.”
“Oh,” said Fanny, “when do you harass her?”
Davo sent him a withering look. “Save your smartness for the end of term mocks. Academic excellence is the only way to avoid being expelled at this rate.”
Fanny frowned. “Why would they expel us? We haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Really? You don’t think embarrassing an heir to the throne will have repercussions? They used to execute people for that sort of thing, you know? We’re going to have to be extra vigilant from here on out.”
“But we didn’t do anything,” repeated Fanny, anxiously. “They’d only expel her, wouldn’t they?”
“So gallant,” said Davo. “Such chivalry. If you don’t make it into the Royal College, I see a future for you in the Knight’s Guard.”
“I don’t see what chivalry has to do with it, she has the same obligation to be chivalrous towards us. Being a girl doesn’t change anything.”
Davo pulled his chin into his neck and an uneven smile formed on his lips. “Are you in love with Simole?”
Fanny flinched. “What? No, of course not.” He was flustered and a red bloom rose from his neck. “You just have an old-fashioned idea of what chivalry is. They have female knights, you know?”
Davo tilted his head forward and lowered his voice conspiratorially. “So there’s nothing about her you find attractive?”
“I didn’t say that. She has nice arms.”
“Nice arms?” Davo burst out. “What kind of fixation is that?”
“It’s not a fixation, it’s an aesthetic appreciation. You saw her arms just now. They had a nice shape to them. Soft skin, good colouring.”
“You’re just hungry, aren’t you?”
Simole opened her door and exited her room dressed in the same uniform as them, and was met with complete silence.
They walked across the quiet, early morning campus and arrived in the empty classroom five minutes before their lesson was due to start. They waited for half an hour before concluding their private tuition had indeed been cancelled.
Nic sighed. He has suspected this would be the case, but coming to class had been the only way to be sure. “They could have at least informed us.” Nothing felt like a greater waste than an inefficient use of time.
“Why would they?” said Davo. “You don’t show consideration to those you barely tolerate.”
“At least we won’t miss breakfast anymore,” said Fanny, a bar of half-eaten chocolate rising towards his mouth.
Davo snatched it out of his hand. “Yes, so no need to continue grazing like a farm animal. You don’t want to become the school fatboy, do you?”
“I’m not fat,” said Fanny, snatching the bar back.
“No, but you will be if you keep eating twelve times a day. They’ll roll you out before sports events and the team will rub your stomach for luck. Is that what you want?”
“Some people overeat to comfort themselves,” said Nic. “Reduces anxiety. Like depressed housewives.”
“You see?” said Davo, snatching at the bar again.
Fanny raised it over his head, leaning back in his seat to keep it out of reach. “Hostern’s Equation of Dynamic Equivalence. You only put on weight if you don’t do any exercise. And I do.”
Davo stopped trying to reach the chocolate. “I’ve never seen you do any exercise.”
“That’s because I do it in my room, in private.”
Simole stood up. “I don’t think I want to hear about what kind of exercising you do in your room, in private.” She walked towards the door.
“I mean push-ups and sit-ups. No, really, I can do a hundred push-ups in one go.”
Nic and Davo both gave Fanny disbelieving looks.
“Mages need a strong constitution and good upper body strength. Simole, tell them.”
Simole paused by the door. “How would I know?” She left.
“You can look at my arms, if you want,” offered Fanny.
Davo rose. “We don’t all have an arm fetish, like you.” He followed Simole out.
“Can I have a piece of chocolate?” Nic asked as he got out of his seat.
“No,” said Fanny, stuffing the rest of the bar into his mouth.
They reached the cafeteria halfway through the breakfast service. The moment they entered, Simole leading, the busy tables filled with exuberant students fell silent. All eyes were on them, or to be more accurate, on Simole.
“I was worried this would be awkward,” Davo muttered under his breath, “but this isn’t awkward at all.”
Simole showed no reaction to the gawping. She strolled over to the serving area and picked up a tray. The students ahead of her all vacated the queue, allowing her to go straight to the front.
Fanny quickly picked up a tray and fell in behind her. “We’re with her,” he said to the students who had stood aside. “Ooh, still some poached eggs left.”
If they were going to be treated as guilty by association, they might aswell reap the benefits. They filled up their trays and made their way to their seats, the atmosphere around them slowly returning to normal, or something close to it.
Despite the crowded tables, theirs was waiting, unoccupied. They ate and tried their best to ignore the eyes still looking in their direction. Simole was easily the least affected. Her indifference didn’t seem to be an act, she truly didn’t care, and it was hard for the boys to remain unsettled when the cause of the disturbance was so very unconcerned.
Now that they didn’t have the special classes to help, Nic knew he would need to spend more time in the library figuring things out for himself. He was even happier he had been able to come to an arrangement with the librarian. And there were some teachers who might not mind answering some of his more obscure questions, so there were still avenues open to him.
A crowd formed at the end of the table.
“Not this again,” muttered Davo. But he was surprised to find that on this occasion, the representatives of the student body’s unrest were all female. “Oh, hello. Can I be of service?”
They ignored him. All eyes were on Simole at the far end of the table. The lead girl was blonde with a pointy nose. Nic did his best not to stare, but it was very sharp at the tip. He didn’t think she was in any of his classes, though. He would remember a nose that pointy, he felt.
“Explain yourself,” the girl said. She folded her arms and the six girls behind her did the same, which made it look like some kind of dance move.
“No,” said Simole. She continued eating.
The girl unfolded her arms and her friends followed. “Can’t you see what a disruption you’re being? You’re ruining the Ransom experience for everyone.”
Nic had fully expected the students to be hostile towards them, and towards Simole in particular, but he hadn’t expected this line of attack. Guilt tripping.
“The least you can do is explain who you are and what you are. No one should be able to do what you did. Not at our age. You owe us an explanation.” She was very insistent.
Simole continued to eat, giving no indication she intended to comply, or even that she had heard the demand. The noise around them dwindled again as the rest of the room focused on the table in the corner.
“There’s a disease called Precocious Arcanum Syndrome,” said Nic. “It over-produces some hormone in the brain, I forget what it’s called, makes you very sensitive to Arcanum. It’s extremely rare.”
The girl looked at Nic. “I’ve never heard of it.” She said it in a manner that suggested if she hadn’t heard of it, it couldn’t possibly exist.
“The sufferers die young. Usually in their teens. If you want to know more, you should ask the librarian for a book on the subject. Be careful, though. It’s quite a gruesome illness. Brain fries from the inside. Painful.”
Simole stood up and the girls immediately took several steps back. Simole picked up her tray and walked away.
Once she’d gone, the girls let out a breath in unison. “What did you say it was called?”
“Precocious Arcanum Syndrome,” said Nic.
“I see. I suppose if it’s terminal, she should be pitied.” She turned around and walked through a crowd of twirling girls who hurried after her.
“Is that true?” said Davo.
“Yes, it’s a real disease,” said Nic.
“And you think that’s what Simole has?” said Fanny.
“I doubt it,” said Nic. “P.A.S. sufferers have distinctive lily-shaped lesions all over their face and body.”
“Then why did you tell them she has it?” asked Davo, perplexed.
“I didn’t. She had questions, I gave her an answer I thought she would find interesting.”
“But when she reads up on it, she’s going to know it isn’t true,” said Fanny.
“If she asks for a book on the subject, the librarian will probably report her to the authorities. It’s a prohibited subject on the medical watchlist. You can get put on a register for asking about it because of the possibility of creating anti-Arcanum biological weapons. Books can be very dangerous.”
The two boys stared at Nic for a long moment as he finished his porridge.
“If it’s such a sensitive subject,” said Davo, “how is it you know so much about it?”
“You only get reported if you ask for information, not if you happen to find the book on a shelf by yourself. Even the biggest secrets are openly available if you know where to look.”
“But if it isn’t that,” said Fanny, “what is it?”
Nic shrugged. “Unless they intend setting a question on Simole for the mocks, I don’t really care.”
The day’s lessons continues as normal. There were still curious glances directed towards Simole, and whispered conversations the teachers found it necessary to quash, but no direct confrontations. Prince Leovek, who had started it all, did not attend any of their classes. Whether that meant he had been moved to a different set of classes or he had left the school, wasn’t clear, but probably the former, Nic guessed. It would be enough if they just kept him away from Simole. The gossip would die down eventually, assuming she didn’t do anything else to reignite the flames.
The following couple of days bore this out as studies took precedence over scandal. There were mock exams at the end of the term, only a few weeks away, and there was little time for wild speculation about things that weren’t on the curriculum. Without the extra lessons, Nic found himself with more time and he spent most of it in the library, often after hours. Alone with all the books he could hope for, he would study late into the night and then walk back to his room through the dark and silent campus, content with the path he was on, even though he wasn’t really sure where it was taking him.
Since he found most of his regular classes covered material he was already familiar with, his reading centred around how to go beyond what he would be tested on. He wanted to provide answers that would impress the examiners to such an extent, they would have no option but to give him the maximum number of point available through their discretion.
He was only the second highest rated student in Ransom. Dizzy may not have appreciated his presence, as was her prerogative, but he still wanted to make his presence felt. Not to try and win her over, at least not consciously. He just wanted to catch up with her, because that was what she had instilled in him.
One of the subjects not taught in class but which he felt would help give him an edge was Demonology. First years students of the upperclass weren’t expected to bother with something so esoteric and niche, but there were connections to Arcanum that he felt would be useful to him.
So it came as a surprise when he went to the appropriate shelves in the library and found them all empty. There was bound to be a reason for this, probably something simple. It wasn’t like anyone could take them out of the library. Luckily, he had a special relationship with the person who would know.
“Yes,” said the librarian. “They’ve been requested by one of the teachers. He’s working on a special project and needs them to be available. They’re in a private study on the second floor.”
“Is the teacher Mr Tenner?” asked Nic.
The librarian looked over her glasses. “You know him?”
“I have him for Arcanum.”
“Maybe, if you ask him, he’ll let you have access to the books you’re interested in.”
Nic nodded. He didn’t particularly like the teachers knowing what he was reading—they were the ones he was trying to impress—but Mr Tenner was different. He appreciated the effort as much as the result.
“Oh, and Nic?”
Nic turned back. “Yes?”
“Your late night sessions have been noticed by some members of the faculty. They don’t know it’s you, but questions about the lights being on in the middle of the night have been raised.”
“No, it’s fine. Just try to be discrete.”
Nic had Arcanum the next day and after class he approached Mr Tenner. He sat motionless on his chair, his back to the blackboard, staring straight ahead of him into nothingness. He looked tired, Nic thought, and lacked his usual sharpness. He had been subdued during the class, like he had other things on his mind.
Tenner picked up a book, opened it, paged forward a leaf, and then back one. “Hmm? Yes, Tutt? Something I can do or you?”
“There were some books I was looking for in the library. The librarian said you had them in a private room on the second floor.”
He looked up and smiled wanly. “Brushing up on your Demonology, are you? A bit premature, isn’t it?”
“It’s to help with my understanding of Arcanum. I think some of the basics are common to both.”
Tenner stood up, a little of the brightness returning to his eyes. “And so they are. Shame we no longer have those early morning lessons to discuss it further. I’ll speak to the librarian and tell her to give you full access. Bright minds shouldn’t be hindered.” He strode towards the door.
“Thank you, sir.”
Tenner stopped in the doorway, a hand on the frame, thinking. Then he turned back to Nic.
“You know, Tutt, not everything of value can be learned from a book. Some books can lead you away from the truth.”
“I don’t really have many other options, sir,” said Nic.
“No, I don’t suppose you do. Not yet, anyway. Just be wary of believing everything you read. Information can become outdated, or held back. Not every tome is as truthful as its dusty cover might imply. Sometimes something as simple as supply contracts can lead to one version of a story becoming popular over another. It’s also a business, you know?”
Nic nodded, not sure why he was being told this. It sounded true enough, but not particularly relevant to someone in his position. It was more important to focus on what his examiners believed. His own judgements could wait.
Nic left the building trying to decide if he should go back to his room first or head straight to the library. It took him a moment to realise something was going on in the main quad. Shouts, squeals, gasps and the roar of flames igniting, followed by the smell of tar.
The source of the commotion became immediately apparent once he raised his head. Dragons.
The courtyard brimmed with twelve giant lizards surrounded by hundreds of students oohing and ahhing over them.
The dragons were black, although their scaly bodies glimmered a range of colours in the sunlight. Their large wings were folded back and they stood in a line still as statues. Only when one would blink or snort did they seem to come alive.
They had large saddles strapped to their backs, some of which were empty, some containing riders dressed in the livery of the Royal Air Force.
The commotion seemed to be centred on the largest dragon whose rider was pulling on the incredibly long reins that reached over the serpentine neck to the dragon’s snout, rearing its head back.
The rider was clearly an officer, his helmet the only one with a giant red feather protruding from the top. Every time the reins were snapped, the dragon released a plume of flames straight up, eliciting more squeals of delight and cries of admiration from the crowd. Nic was held enthralled by the spectacle, but he also noticed that next to the officer, standing on the side of his saddle, was Prince Leovek. Still a student of Ransom, apparently. He was talking animatedly to the dragon rider, as was the right of a member of the royal family. He could probably request a ride, if he wished.
Nic had no idea why there was a troop of dragon knights in the quad showing off for the students, but he couldn’t help but be impressed by the sight. Ranvar was known for its domination of the skies during warfare; it was only second to their mastery of magic when it came to intimidating their opponents, and for understandable reasons. But seeing the magnificent beasts in person was another thing entirely. The power contained in their huge bodies was palpable, even from where he was standing.
He was about to go closer—this was one occasion he was sure his presence would go unnoticed—when he spotted two familiar figures rushing towards him. The first was Fanny, walking fast with head bowed. Behind him, Davo trotted to catch up.
Nic waited for them to get to him. Fanny looked up for a fraction of a second, then veered around Nic and kept going. Davo threw Nic a worried look as he ran past. Nic fell into step with him.
“I don’t know what’s got into him,” said Davo. “We were admiring the dragons with everyone else, then he suddenly took off. Won’t say why.”
“Dragonphobic?” asked Nic.
Fanny stopped and turned to them red-faced. “I am not dragonphobic!”
“Fanny!” called out a feminine voice. “Fanny! Fanny!”
Fanny’s face fell. The other two turned around as a woman came running up the path towards them. She was dressed in full flight gear with goggles perched on top of her red hair, a big smile on her round face.
“Friend of yours?” asked Davo, although there was more than a passing resemblance between the two making it clear she was more than a friend.
“Your sister’s a dragoon?” said Nic, unable to stifle the surprise.
“Trainee,” said Fanny.
“Fanny!” She arrived all at once and threw her arms around Fanny, who cringed but didn’t attempt to ward her off. “Oh, how lovely to see you. Ooh, I missed you.” She peppered his head with kisses while Nic and Davo exchanged curious looks.
She eventually stopped the assault but kept one arm locked around Fanny’s neck. “So, are these your friends? Aren’t you going to introduce me?”
“Nic, Davo,” mumbled Fanny, “this is my sister Talie. Talie. Nic, Davo.”
She put out her hand and shook each of their hands, firmly. “Delighted. Absolutely delighted. I hope you’re taking good care of my baby brother.”
“Of course,” said Davo with a smirk. He knew an opportunity to cause Fanny grief when he saw it. “He didn’t tell us his sister was a dragon knight.”
“Oh, well, only in training. We’re taking these birds to the western border to run some exercises, give the neighbours a bit of a show. Only stopping here to let them have a rest and a quick bite. Got anyone you wouldn’t mind feeding to a dragon?” She let go of Fanny’s neck and nudged him in the stomach, letting out a barking laugh.
“Shouldn’t you be going?” said Fanny. “I think your Captain’s looking this way.”
Talie raised her arm and waved. The Captain waved back. “No, it’s fine. Not embarrassed of me, are you?” She ruffled his hair and punched him in the arm.
Simole walked past them, her head in a book and an apple in her other hand. She didn’t seem to notice them.
“That’s Simole,” said Fanny, trying to redirect his sister’s attention.
“Greetings,” said Simole without lifting up her head. She kept walking.
Nic was more interested in what she was reading and craned his head to try and get a glimpse of the cover, walking along with her bent at the waist.
There was a sharp snap as the lead dragon opened its wings and reared up. It jumped over the crowd and as it landed, its head shot towards Nic and Simole.
Nic stumbled backwards and fell over as the monstrous head rushed forward propelled by the elongated neck. Simole kept walking absorbed by her book. The huge jaw opened to reveal enormous fangs, and roared directly at Simole, sending her hair flying into the air along with her apple.
The loss of the apple did catch Simole’s attention and she watched it land on the grass. She turned to look at the dragon, face to face, and smacked it hard on the nose with her book.
The dragon seemed surprised, as did its rider. The Captain was a tall man with an unmistakably aristocratic face, now enraged. Prince Leovek was no longer present, but Nic suspected this attempt to scare Simole had something to do with him.
The dragon snorted, smoke rising from its cavernous nostrils. Then it sniffed. Then it raised its head up—clearly not what the rider was expecting as he desperately tried to keep his seat—and roared.
The sound echoed around the quad. The other dragons’ heads snapped to the left in unison. They began lumbering through the panicked crowd, those with riders and those without. They were answering the call of their pack leader and nothing was going to stop them.
The lead dragon dropped its head back down and placed it at Simole’s feet, it’s green and yellow eyes looking up at her in a way Nic could only describe as adoringly. The other dragons collected around her and followed suit. They started making a strange whining sound.
The riders still on board, desperately tried to regain control of their mounts, but their shouts and commands were ignored. The ones who had been on the ground raced to catch up, yelling to be heard over the cries of the scattering students. They were also ignored.
Simole shook her head and brushed a hand over the snouts laid out around her. The dragons all angled their neck up, heads at forty-five degree angle, and breathed flames into the air. Simole walked through the archway of fire, reading her book like it was no big deal.
So much for things dying down. Nic knew the questions about Simole would only become more insistent from now on. He had a few himself, but he doubted she would be very forthcoming. He suspected she quite liked being the enigma everyone wanted to solve. Or maybe she truly didn’t care.
Confusion followed. The dragoons were upset about what had happened. Losing control of their dragons in such a public place was embarrassing and could have been disastrous. There was a lot of shouting and Fanny’s sister had no more time to tease him.
Nic found it easy to slip away. Since the cottage was on the other side of the hurly-burly, he decided to go to the library until it calmed down. And he had something he wanted to look up.
“Mr Tenner spoke to me about his private room,” said the librarian. “Told me to give you your own key. Quite a collection you’re amassing.” She held out a small key.
“Thank you. Um. Do we have any books on dragons?”
The librarian raised a single, slanted eyebrow. “Obviously. This is a library.”
“Yes, sorry, I mean on dragon socialisation.”
The librarian nodded and told him the name of the book and the shelf it was on. He made his way up to the third floor, to a shelf far in the back. He tapped a dry fingertip along the spines, reading the titles under his breath until he got to the one he was looking for. He eased it out and cradled it in his arms as he turned the pages. He felt a presence approaching him and turned his head.
“What are you doing here?” said Dizzy.
“Reading,” said Nic.
“Reading… Miss Delcroix?”
Dizzy closed her eyes for a second. “No, I mean what are you reading?”
“Oh. Dragon Social Structure and Grooming. Third Edition.”
“That’s the book I was looking for.”
“Okay. You can have it after I’m done with it.” There were many things Nic was happy to let others have before him. Books were not one of them.
“And how long will that be,” she asked tersely.
“Mmm.” Nic looked at the book. It was a big one. “Three hours? Maybe four.”
There was a glint of something in Dizzy’s eyes. Something cold. She spun around on her heels and stomped off. It was curious. He knew why he wanted to read this book, but what was Dizzy’s interest? The same? Very curious.