After a week of waking up early and staying after school, Nic felt worn down. It was just as well the Also-Rans didn’t have to partake in the usual extra-curricular activities of a Ransom student as he barely had the energy to cope with their current schedule.
On the weekend, students arranged outings and trips into the capital. Others played games and sports. The campus was no less busy just because there were no classes.
Nic thought he would at least get to sleep in on Sunday, but alas it wasn’t meant to be. He was roused from slumber by a cacophony outside his door. The chill morning air bit at his nose and he didn’t want to leave the warmth, but the noise was too loud to ignore. He stumbled out of bed with the blanket wrapped around him like a cloak and poked his head outside.
Davo stood in the small hall between the rooms, directing men carrying large pieces of furniture.
“What’s going on?” Nic mumbled.
“He’s been shopping,” Fanny mumbled back from the other side of the hall. He was wrapped in similar fashion and just as bleary-eyed, but had a half-eaten banana in his hand. Ever since the tragedy of missing breakfast, Fanny had stocked up on food and snacks and now had a constant supply. Never again would he go hungry for more than five minutes.
“You aren’t the only one who can read the rule book, you know?” said Davo, waving a copy of the Ransom School Rules & Regulations at him. “Bring that one through here.” He indicated towards his room and the men carrying an antique chest of drawers dutifully obliged. “If we aren’t housed within the main school, we’re allowed to furnish the dwellings ourselves. Thanks to Conoling & Sons, this place is going to be a dwelling worth residing in. You won’t recognise the place once I’ve finished with it. Careful with that! Don’t chip the corner!”
Davo hurried off to make sure a wardrobe made of a rich dark wood wasn’t damaged as six men tried to thread it through the doorway. He seemed to be utterly in his element and having far more fun than anyone had a right to so early on a Sunday.
Nic returned to his room and tried to go back to sleep but it was impossible with the racket going on. He got up again, dressed and then left.
Outside, there were four wagons with the Conoling logo on the side. They were filled with furniture, rugs, lamps and assorted other items. Nic wondered how Davo could possibly fit so much into his room which was the same size as Nic’s.
The campus was quiet this early, although no doubt later there’d be whoops and cheers from the playing fields disturbing the cool autumn air.
The rest of the school existed in a separate world, one he wasn’t invited to. Students lived in dormitories with a House Master, a teacher who doubled as chaperone, advisor and guardian. Most students had attended Ransom since they were ten years old and their relationships with each other and with their teachers were well established. Everyone knew who was who and who did what and they slotted into their appointed roles in a very relaxed manner. You could see in the way they responded to each other how comfortable they were with being members of such a revered and lauded institution. To be a Ransom boy or girl was a badge of pride and, in most cases, a guarantee of future success.
Sports teams and hobby clubs abounded. They had their captains and presidents and secretaries and treasurers. There was a school newspaper run by students, a Poet’s Society that gave public recitals, even an Angler’s Association—notable catches were reported in the Ransom School Weekly. Nic often read through the list of clubs in the back of the school activities pamphlet that had come with his text books. He did this most nights as it helped him nod off to sleep.
He had the whole list more or less memorised, including the names of the students who ran each group, and the teachers who oversaw them. If you wanted to join, you had to contact a designated officer of that club. Chances were, neither he nor the other Also-Rans would have been very welcome. Most likely, they would have been forced to undergo a humiliating ritual—the kind Fanny’s father had warned them about—and then treated like servants.
Nic had no desire to play hockey or improve his chess. He had only wanted to check the names for one particular person, and she wasn’t mentioned anywhere.
Nic made his way to the cafeteria and had breakfast alone at their regular table. The place was entirely empty, but he still chose to sit in the corner. Halfway through his porridge, Fanny turned up.
“He’s tearing down walls and building something,” he said from behind a mountain of pancakes. “Probably an indoor gazebo.”
Nic smiled. It was unlikely, although not impossible. “I think the place could use a fresh coat of paint.”
“I’m glad you feel that way,” said Fanny placing a whole pancake into his mouth in one go. “When I left him, he was in your room choosing new wallpaper.”
Nic left Fanny working on his second helping and went to the library. As soon as he walked through the doors he felt the relief of no longer having to deal with the strange, alien world he had landed on.
The library solved all problems. It used up his free time, gave him access to a limitless supply of knowledge and kept him away from suspicious teachers.
Having convinced Mr Varity his superior insights about The Bloodless War were due to his father telling him bedtime stories about it, and not a general expertise in Military History, he had decided to stay out of the way of students and teachers alike. A library was an excellent place to practise keeping your mouth shut.
The fact his father had been a soldier lent some credence to his explanation, although he died before Nic was born, so he’d have to hope Mr Varity didn’t check the dates. He was a historian so he might well do exactly that, but hopefully not before Nic had had a chance to come up with a secondary-ruse. A weak first lie could work to your advantage if you expected it to be caught.
And the other great thing unique to this particular library was that it allowed him glimpses of the girl he had spent most of his life chasing after.
Usually, the others would be with him, other times he’d be on his own. Their regular table in the library was always empty. The poor lighting and cramped space between shelves made it an unpopular choice with the other students. Nic would sit and read, take notes, and spy on Dizzy.
She would be there most evenings, always surrounded by a large group of fellow members of the Standard Club. A club he could have joined.
Sometimes all he’d see was a swish of her long, dark hair. Or maybe a hand writing in a notebook. It wasn’t easy to see across the library and through a crowd. He always made sure to stay out of sight and tried not to waste too much time gawping. But it was hard not to stare.
After having travelled so far he had finally arrived only a few metres from her and couldn’t seem to get any closer.
The truth was he feared how she might react and putting it off was much easier than walking over and saying hello. He knew it was cowardly, but a little more time to get himself settled was all he needed, or so he told himself.
Just a casual conversation, two old friends meeting up, was how he envisioned it. A light, fun walk down memory lane. Or not. He was usually snapped out of his wistful reverie by the thought of her blanking him and acting like she had no idea who he was. Or even worse, genuinely having no idea who he was.
The library had only just opened and was entirely empty, not even the Standard Club were in residence this early on a Sunday. Nic decided it was time he faced his fears, starting at the bottom, and walked up to the main desk.
The librarian was there, tending to a large tome that looked like it was a thousand years old, which it very well might have been. She appeared to be polishing the aged, red leather with an oily cloth.
“Er, excuse me.”
The librarian looked up. “Yes?” It was the same lady who had accosted Nic on his first visit, although she didn’t seem to recognise him. Nic knew better. A librarian didn’t forget a face, or a spine.
“I was wondering if I could apply for a library card.”
The librarian lowered her glasses slightly, slipping them down her long nose. Nic wasn’t intimidated, it was a move he’d seen many times. He suspected it was taught as part of librarian training.
“You’ve lost your card?” She didn’t sound impressed. She breathed in deeply. “See your House Master about a replacement form. Fill it in. Fully. And then hand it in. If all sections are correctly completed, I will issue you a replacement card. There is a fee. You can pay it when you hand in the form.”
“No, I never had one. And I don’t have a House Master. I’m new.”
She pushed the glasses back up with a long, thin finger. “New? You’re a transfer student?”
“Yes. I just started.” He smiled at her, hoping he looked sad and pitiful, a boy without the most basic of necessities—a library card.
The librarian gently placed the book on top of a small pile of similar leather-bound books, all the same shade of red, and bent down, disappearing behind the desk. When she reappeared, she had a thick folio of yellow paper in her hands. She leaned across the desk to place them in front of Nic. Her own skin looked like it might have been regularly oiled, too. Perhaps that was why she looked of such indeterminate age.
“Complete them—all of them—and then bring them back here. Any questions you don’t underst—”
“Thank you.” Nic picked up the stack and walked to the nearest table. There was no one else there, but he still felt odd sitting out in the open. He began filling out the forms.
He was familiar with the questions and the correct way to answer them. He’d had to go through a similar process at the Librarium. Most libraries required some kind of registration but none as complex or as in-depth as the Librarium. The Ransom School library came close, though.
It took Nic less than five minutes to go through the sheaf. Knowing which questions weren’t applicable to him helped cut down on time, although he was careful to put ‘not applicable’ in the space provided rather than leaving it blank. A lesson learned the hard way. Incorrectly filled out forms required you to redo the process from scratch. He took the papers back to the librarian who had watched the whole process with her mouth slightly open. She snapped it shut.
“There was a page missing,” said Nic. “21b, I think.” He riffled through the sheets. “Yes, see?”
She leaned forward to check. “Ah, yes. Apologies.” She bent down again and came back up almost immediately with the missing page.
It occurred to Nic that she might have deliberately kept that one page back, but why? There seemed no obvious reason for it other than spite, and librarians, in his experience, weren’t the sort to do such things. This was quite an unusual librarian, though. For a start, she seemed to run the entire library by herself. Nic hadn’t seen a single other member of library staff since his first visit, and he’d spent not an inconsiderate amount of time here.
He quickly filled in the missing page and handed it back to her.
“I’ll have to check this over.”
Nic nodded. “I’ll take a temporary card while you do that.” Having been through this process a good number of times, he knew exactly what he was entitled to.
The librarian’s mouth scrunched up a little. She bent down once more, this time over to one side. Nic waited quietly. There was a loud clang that reverberated around the empty library. She came back up holding a metal library card. It wasn’t a temporary one.
“You might as well take this now. I doubt there’ll be an issue. Although, if there is, I’ll be taking that back.”
Nic took the card and looked it over. His name was embossed onto it. She’d done that very quickly. Nic was familiar with the press used to manufacture these cards and it was quite a fiddly process lining up the letters using a pair of tweezers. The librarian had taken less than a minute.
“Thank you,” said Nic, doing his best to not come across as a troublemaker. Librarians didn’t like troublemakers. “I promise to take good care of borrowed books.”
“Oh, you aren’t allowed to take the books out of the library.”
Nic was confused. He had a library card. “Why not?” he asked. Did they have some kind of probationary period?
“All students are required to make use of library books within the library. It’s school policy.”
“Then what’s the card for?” He held up the card.
Nic wasn’t a confrontational person. He liked to study in quiet and getting into conflict with others made that difficult. But he also knew his rights and was careful to preserve them.
“Do you have a copy of the Libraries Charter?” he asked the librarian.
She peered over the tops of her glasses. “Of course. We have several.”
“Section six, paragraph 1a?”
A dark cloud formed above the librarian’s creased brow. Nic knew a little about a lot of things, and more or less everything about Ranvar library system. The country prided itself on its libraries, they were more common than churches and, some would say, more revered. Ever since King Ransom I, it had been written into the constitution that anyone could become a member of any public library, and holding a membership card entitled them to borrow books from that library. Any book marked as only to be used within a library’s walls had to have a second copy available for lending. Even the Librarium followed this rule. Because it was the law.
This wasn’t a public library, but he was a member. He had a card. He was entitled to borrow books as long as he returned them within the allotted time.
Of course, late returns were severely frowned on. Fines were stiff. You could lose your membership if you weren’t prompt or didn’t take good care of the books and there was even a special department that repossessed overdue books. No one wanted to get on the wrong side of the Recollection Agency. Their agents had powers of entry even the National Guard envied, and dogs trained to sniff out books. Which some people found amusing, until the huge mastiffs tore through their homes, ripping their upholstery to shreds. Books were a serious business in Ranvar. And rules were enforced rigorously.
“The school has special dispensation,” said the librarian.
“Oh,” said Nic. “Can I see a copy of that?”
It made sense now why the books he had read in this library all had a pristine white sheet inside the front cover. Normally, there would be covered in date stamps to indicate when the book was to be returned each time it was borrowed. He had assumed the librarian was very zealous when it came to replacing them, he had encountered many librarians who were extremely passionate about their job, but now it seemed they had been blank because they had never been used.
The librarian seemed reluctant to move. She slowly pivoted and moved to the rear where there were a series of small filing cabinets lined up against the wall. She opened one and withdrew a sheet of paper. Even more slowly, she came back to Nic and placed it in front of him.
He read it over. It did indeed make the Ransom School Library exempt from lending out books. For one month. Twenty seven years ago.
“This is no longer valid,” said Nic. He had the horrible feeling she wasn’t going to take this news very well, even though she no doubt already knew. He winced, waiting for the reaction.
“No,” said the librarian, very calmly. “It was a temporary order due to water damage. A leak in the roof. It just became a lot simpler to manage the books once the students stopped taking them back to their rooms and… defiling them.”
“So you decided to keep it that way?”
“Not I, the previous librarian.” She arched a single eyebrow. “How old do you think I am?”
Nic wisely chose not to answer that question. “Isn’t that illegal?”
“It’s not that students can’t borrow books, it’s just that I prefer they didn’t. You’re the first one to object. I didn’t mean to mislead you, it’s just what’s best for the library.”
Spoken like a true librarian.
“I understand, but I still need to take out books. What you want to tell the other students is up to you. It would be different if the library was open around the clock, but even today, you’ll be shut after lunch. I need access to these books.”
She said nothing for a long time. Nic waited. Then she said, “It would be awkward if other students became aware that you were taking out books.” She raised a hand to stop his assurances that he wouldn’t tell anyone. “Even if you didn’t tell them, someone would notice, and then…” She pursed her lips. “However… we could come to an arrangement.”
Nic felt an odd tingle down his spine. What did that mean? He didn’t like the gleam in her eye. “What kind of arrangement?”
“As the school librarian, I am allowed to make one of the upperclass students my assistant for the annual audit. It’s a menial appointment—tidying up, checking the stacks, repairing bindings—all things I enjoy doing myself so I’ve never needed any help. You would have a key to the rear office. Which has its own entrance.” She gave him a suggestive look over her glasses. “You could use the library when you wished, day or night. It would be better if you were discrete, but even if you were seen, there would be a valid reason for your presence.”
“My own key?” asked Nic, hardly able to believe his ears.
“I would expect you to be very careful within these walls, Mr Tutt.”
The use of his name threw him a little. Of course, she had seen it on the form and had set it in the press when she made his library card. It still sounded odd to hear her say it.
“I think that would be okay. I mean, I agree.”
“And you won’t mention anything we’ve discussed here?”
“No, no. Not a word. I’m a transfer student, I hardly know anyone.”
She nodded, turned and went back to the filing cabinets and returned with a small, unassuming key on a simple chain. “Don’t lose it.”
Nic took it with trembling hands. “I’ll guard it with my life.”
“Don’t be melodramatic,” said the librarian. “This way.” She led him to a door behind her and showed him the small office. It was very neat and orderly. There was another door, not very big or heavy. It was painted white and had glass panels you could easily break if you were desperate to gain entry. Or exit.
The librarian opened the door, which wasn’t even locked. It led to a wooded area at the back of the library. Rising above the trees was the Pagoda where Mr Tenner was alleged to carry out his experiments. Nic hadn’t seen it up close before. It was an odd building, the lack of windows making it seem eerily uninhabited. He listened closely but didn’t hear any demonic screams.
“As you can see, it’s very quiet and secluded. The students don’t like it here so as long as you aren’t too conspicuous, nobody will notice your comings and goings. But I will. Don’t make me regret this.”
He immediately began assuring her he would never do anything to harm the library but she simply raised her hand to silence him. “I know who you are, Nic Tutt. I am well aware of how you gained entry to this school and of your achievements. Mr Gerry at the Librarium sent me a letter about you.”
Nic was more startled by this than all the other things he had heard today. “He did?”
“Yes. I thought it was an odd thing to do, too. Asking me to be aware of a single student, and an Also-Ran at that. But now I think maybe he was trying to warn me.” She cocked an eyebrow.
“No, I don’t think—”
“Either way, he has expressed faith in you, and I’m willing to take his word on the matter. For now. They aren’t kind to Also-Rans around here, Nic. In fact, they’re quite nasty. But nowhere near as nasty as I, not when it comes to my books.”
“Yes,” said Nic. “I understand. I won’t let you down. Er… but I was wondering, do you have a special room with the more, ah, delicate books?” Every library he had been to had had a special inner sanctum where they kept the really rare, most precious books. Some might even be considered dangerous. He’d never gained access to one of these rooms, but he knew they existed. It wasn’t that you couldn’t borrow the books inside them, it was just that it was hard to ask for books you didn’t know existed.
The librarian’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t push your luck, Nic. Let’s see if you can be trusted, first.”
So there was a room. “But perhaps, one day…?”
“Perhaps.” She smiled and Nic took an involuntary step back, an icy hand running its fingers down his spine.
Nic spent the next few hours reading but he found it very hard to concentrate. He was too excited. Of all the things he could have hoped to have achieved by attending the Ransom School, his own key to the library was beyond his wildest dreams.
Not the sort of wild dreams most boys would have, but then Nic wasn’t most boys. He wondered if Dizzy would be impressed by what he had managed in just his first week. Or would she consider it laughably unambitious?
It didn’t matter, he was too pleased to care about anyone else’s opinion. He left the library more than an hour before it closed, secure in the knowledge he could come back later and have the place to himself. He paused to wave goodbye to the librarian, but felt silly and she wasn’t even paying attention to him, working away on her books.
When he got back to the cottage, the Conoling wagons were gone. He walked through the door and on a day of surprises, got his biggest one yet. It was like he had stepped inside a palace.
A very small and cosy palace.
“What do you think,” said Davo. He was dressed in a silk smoking jacket and had an unlit pipe in his hand. The hall was decked out in fine furnishings and expensive furniture. There were hangings on the wall and a plush rug on the floor. Wingback armchairs with tassels were positioned around a roaring fire. “I had them put in a chimney. A real one.”
“I didn’t know you smoked,” was all Nic could think to say.
“I don’t. It’s for the look. Come on, see what I did to your room.” He waggled his eyebrows and sucked on the end of his pipe. Bubbles came out the end.
Nic’s room had been transformed. It wasn’t as busy as the hall, no excessive wall coverings or fancy upholstery. There was a beautiful desk with many drawers and ornate carvings, a leather chair and shelves full of books that didn’t belong to him. He ran his fingers across the spines. They were the texts required for the next year, all the latest editions.
“Davo, I don’t know what to say.”
“Just temporary, you understand. Everything has to go back once we leave this place. No reason why the stay shouldn’t be a pleasant one, though.”
“Have you seen the monster in his room?” asked Fanny from the doorway.
Nic was intrigued and followed him to Davo’s room. It had been turned into the study of a wealthy industrialist, a giant desk fitting in next to a bed that somehow magically turned into a chaise lounge. And taking up an entire wall, a life-size painting of an old man with a leer that practically attacked you as soon as you entered the room.
“Yeesh,” said Nic, afraid to get too close, “who’s that?”
“That, my dear Nic, is the founder of Conoling Stores, Hulard P. Conoling. The man’s a legend, an absolute legend.” Davo fairly beamed with pride.
He certainly had the bearing and refined look of someone from a legendary tale, but with a face like that his role might well have been as the villain. Nic didn’t say that.
“Did he do your room, too?” Nic asked Fanny.
“Too right, he did. I’ve got my own pantry.”
“What about Semiole?”
“Ah, no,” said Davo. “She wouldn’t let me in. Very secretive that girl. I think she’s up to something in there. I wouldn’t mind getting a good look at whatever it is.” More bubbles floated out of the end of his pipe.
It had been quite a day. With the way things were improving, Nic felt he might be ready to face his biggest challenge, the girl he’d come here to find.
He walked back out into the hall and sat in one of the wingback chairs. The fire warmed the soles of his feet. The perfect place to sit and read.
There was a knock on the front door. What now? thought Nic as he got up. Davo and Fanny were still in Davo’s room discussing art. Fanny felt the painting of Davo’s ancestor was following him around the room—not just with its eyes, but bodily—and would very much like it to stop.
Nic opened the front door. And stood there, unable to speak, hardly able to breathe.
“May I have a word?” said Dizzy. “In private.”