Simole picked up the pen, raising it to her eyes and sliding it across her gaze from side to side. “Where did you get this?”
Nic sat up, a sharp ringing tone bouncing around inside his ears. “I told you, it was a gift.” He blinked hard, holding his eyes closed for a long second. Despite his sudden collapse, he actually felt better. His head had cleared and his thoughts felt joined together again.
“You don’t look good,” said Fanny. “Did you eat something funny?”
“I don’t think that was food poisoning,” said Davo, eyeing Fanny with derision. “Someone put a spell on him. Didn’t they?” He aimed the question at Simole. He started off confident in his assessment, but in reality he was as confused as Fanny.
“Not a spell I’ve ever seen before,” said Simole. “There was no form or shape to it. More like he fell in a vat of Arcanum and couldn’t get out. I’ve never seen anything so Arcanum-intensive. Nothing living, anyway.”
Nic got to his feet and then righted the chair. The other three kept their distance and watched him closely. “What? I’m fine.”
“Is he still radiating Arcanum?” Davo asked Simole.
“Is he contagious?” asked Fanny.
“I think this pen saved you,” said Simole, extending her hand to offer the pen back.
Nic took it. It was hot to the touch. “Yes, I think so too.” It felt heavier than before. Although that might have been his imagination. He put it in his pocket.
“What happened?” asked Fanny. “Was everything okay with Tenner?”
“Yes. I think so.”
“You think so?” said Davo. “Don’t you remember?”
“No, I remember it very well. It was just… odd. And I’m tired.”
“So…?” said Davo. “You went inside the Pagoda and then...?”
“Yeah,” said Fanny, “what happened in the Pag?”
“The Pag? You’re calling it the Pag now?” said Davo, sounding horrified.
“What’s wrong with that? Saves time. Come on, Nic, give us the deets on the Pag.”
Davo rolled his eyes but waited for Nic to answer.
They clearly weren’t going to let it go, but Nic wasn’t sure what he should tell them. It didn’t make a whole lot of sense and there was no point making things stranger than they already were.
“I went inside and down some stairs to a laboratory.”
“The Pag lab?” said Fanny. Davo punched him in the arm.
“And then he introduced me to an old man called Professor Veristotle and that was it, really.”
They stared at him.
“That was it?” said Davo. His eyes narrowed to slits. “Is there something you aren’t telling us? Were you sworn to secrecy? And why were you dipped in Arcanum?”
Nic shrugged. “I really don’t know. No one cast any spells. It was very quiet down there, just the three of us. I think Tenner just wanted to introduce me to the professor, but he didn’t seem to think I was suitable.”
“Suitable for what?” said all three of them together.
Nic was a bit startled by the synchronised questioning. “I don’t know. I think it had something to do with his research. Maybe he wanted an assistant and he thought I might be good at researching stuff. It wasn’t the sort of meeting where everyone chats freely. They were mostly talking as though I wasn’t there.”
“I see,” said Davo. “A position that required filling, but you didn’t measure up.”
Nic grinned sourly. “I guess so. Probably for the best. We don’t have that long before the mocks.” Saying it out loud reminded him of just how much work he had to do if he hoped to do well. He looked at his roommates guiltily.
He could just tell them the truth. The full, muddled, confusing truth as he understood it. Voice his concerns about the strange Professor Veristotle. They might even be able to help him make sense of it. But what good would that achieve?
He knew there was more to it. Professor Veristotle hadn’t liked him, he had a strong recollection of that. The impression was firm and solid, unlike most of his other thoughts about the meeting. He remembered entering the Pagoda clearly, and everything after that, too. He didn’t understand why he’d been asked there but he’d left feeling satisfied with how things had turned out. He didn’t feel like that now.
It was confusing. It all seemed straightforward at the time—he went, he met, he left—but now he had so many questions. And at some point, he had been exposed to a massive amount of Arcanum.
It wasn’t a spell—Simole would have been able to tell, he was sure—so some other source. Considering the kind of work Tenner did in the Pagoda, there could be any number of explanations.
The whole thing was like an equation you’ve been walked through so you know what every part means, but still, you’re not sure how to use it correctly.
Nic had been in this kind of situation many times. Spending so much time teaching himself from books, he often ran into text that was clear and precise in its description of a subject but which, for whatever reason, didn’t gel with his thinking process.
He had learned the thing to do in such a situation was to be patient and wait. Once all the pieces were in your head, it could take time for them to fit together. But once one or two of them did, it usually resulted in a cascade effect. The more pieces that clicked into place, the more obvious it became where the remaining ones were meant to go.
There was something more here. Some connection he was missing. He would wait until it became clearer before saying anything.
“Listen, I know this is all a bit weird, but we can’t lose focus on what’s important.” He didn’t feel tired. His thoughts were clear and he knew exactly how to proceed. “We need to start taking the mocks seriously.”
“Isn’t that what we’ve been doing?” asked Davo.
“We’ve been using our classmates as a guide,” said Nic, carefully choosing his words. “But none of the Standard Club are in any of our classes. We don’t know what kind of results they’ve been getting, or which parts of the syllabus they’ve covered. We’re only assuming it’s the same as us.”
“You want to spend even more time reading books?” said Simole with a sigh.
“No. We have to go beyond that. We need to get more out of the teachers. Don’t worry, it shouldn’t be too difficult.” He didn’t know if that was true. He didn’t even know what information he wanted from the teachers. He just knew there was more to learn.
“Okay,” said Fanny, his voice wavering with uncertainty. “It’s not like we have a busy social calendar or anything.”
“Good,” said Nic. “We’ll start tomorrow. I’m going to get some sleep. I’m pooped.” He wasn’t at all tired, but he wanted to curtail any discussion that might lead to awkward questions.
They filed out of his room. “Heh, pooped,” said Fanny, sniggering to himself and eliciting a groan from Davo at the juvenile behaviour. Simole paused to look at him, and then closed the door without speaking.
Nic sat at the desk. He took out the pen and took off the lid. The nib looked like any ordinary pen, be it an expensive one he could never afford to buy for himself. The minister had given it to him as a last minute graduation gift. It made complete sense that someone like Minister Delcroix, a top official in a government department, would own such a device, but it made no sense for him to give it away. Was it by accident?
Had he meant to give him some meaningless token and forgotten this one had special capabilities? Or had it been deliberate? In which case, for what reason?
He couldn’t have known Nic would be exposed to Arcanum in a huge amount. There had been nothing to suggest Nic might need protection at his new school. He put the lid back on and it made a solid, satisfying click.
It was a beautifully made item. The feel of it in his hand was reassuring. He would love to own ten more just like it. He wondered how much that would cost. He put the pen down and swivelled in his chair. On his bed was the broken (again) detector left behind by Fanny.
Mechanical magical devices. They could do things almost as well as a mage. Perhaps they were limited in scope and range, but you didn’t need to be a gifted person to be able to use them.
He wasn’t a gifted person.
If he could make his own Arcanum-absorbing pen, or design a detector that told you what it was detecting and where it was coming from, not only would it help him avoid future mishaps—he was sure there would be more—but it might also give him something to do with all his accumulated knowledge.
He went over to the bed and sat down. He picked up the detector and looked it over. It was still smoking, slightly. Wisps of smoke leaked from the edges. He had absolutely no idea how it worked, but he would figure it out, eventually.
He lay down on his back, his mind racing with possibilities. Books he needed to get hold of, which teachers he could pester, where to find materials. It would take time away from his studies, but as Fanny had said, they had no pressing social engagements. He could go to the library right now and get started. A good idea. He would close his eyes for a second, gather his thoughts, and then slip out after the others had gone to bed.
When he opened his eyes, bright sunshine was streaming into the room. He sat up and the detector slid off his chest and hit the floor with a crack. A section of the casing fell off.
He groaned. He had been alert and ready to get to work when he fell asleep, and now he had woken after several hours rest and he felt terrible. His limbs felt heavy and his mind was fogged up. He was fully dressed and even had his shoes on.
He let his feet drop over the side of the bed and stood up. The room swam in front of him for a moment and then went back to normal. He walked over to the door and opened it.
Fanny was walking out of the kitchen in a bathrobe, eating his pre-breakfast slice of toast. “You weren’t kidding about putting in extra hours. Give us a minute to put on some pants.”
Nic nodded and went back inside. He undressed and grabbed his stuff to take a shower. It had been a strange night and he needed to get off to a fresh start.
They arrived early for breakfast at the cafeteria and the sounds of their cutlery echoed around the empty hall. First lesson of the day was Economic Analysis with Mr Cromnym. They were first to arrive and set up at the back as usual where they reviewed everything Mr Cromnym had taught them since the beginning of term.
Nic knew the disparity between them and the students at the top had nothing to do with the exam itself. They had access to past papers and could see the kinds of questions that would be asked. It would be the answers that would differentiate them.
While he and the rest of the students in the classes he’d attended had been given perfectly reasonable and correct information, those ahead of them had better answers. Exactly how those answers trumped what he had access to, wasn’t clear to him. There was no way of knowing without being in those other classrooms, which would be hard to do unnoticed, or somehow getting hold of those students’ notes. The latter didn’t sound entirely impossible.
“The key to the Inefficient Business Model,” droned on Mr Cromnym, “is the deliberate slowing down of resource distribution. Consider, if a man comes up with a design for an innovative type of saddle, he needs leather, he needs craftsmen to shape and build it into a useable item, then he needs storage, transport and a seller. The step-by-step exchange of money throughout that process is what creates a sustainable economy. On the other hand, if a mage were to create the same saddle using Arcanum, and phase it straight to the customer’s doorstep, the process would be much quicker and cost efficient, but all those intermediates would be removed from the fabric of society to which we are all connected. A difficult balance for a constantly developing culture with advancing technology.”
Nic raised his hand.
“Yes, Mr Tutt?” The room turned its attention to the rear. “You have an observation to make?”
“What’s the solution?” asked Nic.
“How do you mean?”
“How can we use the most advanced technologies available without disenfranchising the workforce?”
Mr Cromnym puffed out his chest and scratched at the vest under his jacket. “That’s the question, isn’t it? Economic Analysts are working on that problem every day.”
“But they must have working theories,” said Nic. “Will you be teaching them?”
“Ah, no, that’s a little advanced for this class, perhaps—”
“Could I have a list of the relevant books, please?”
Mr Cromnym put his thumbs behind his lapels and smiled condescendingly. “Don’t you think you should first master what this class has to offer?”
“I already have, sir,” said Nic, trying his best to keep his tone deferential. “‘The key to the Inefficient Business Model is the deliberate slowing down of resource distribution.’ Mandlkin and Grote, chapter three, Inefficiency as Core Economic Growth Provider. I can recite the whole chapter if you’d like.”
It was hard keeping the contempt out of his voice. He knew irritating the faculty would only prove to be counterproductive.
“I just need the references, I’ll do the reading on my own. We have a lot of free time since transfer students aren’t accepted in any of the school’s out of hours programmes or clubs. I can put the request in writing if you’d prefer, and send copies to the appropriate departments so there’s an official record on file. For administrative purposes.”
Then again, sometimes being counterproductive was necessary to get the desired result, as the Inefficiency Business Model demonstrated.
Nic left class with a list of twenty books. Mr Cromnym had responded to Nic’s request by overburdening him with textbooks new and old. If his hope was to teach Nic a lesson for derailing the class, Nic hoped he would succeed. Being taught a valuable lesson was exactly what he was looking for.
The list contained many books Nic had never even heard of, filling him with excitement. Mandlkin and Grote proved to be correct in academia as well as business.
After Military History, and an in-depth interrogation of Mr Varity with regards to the intricacies of Ranvarian brinkmanship, the list of books grew to twice the length.
Mr Varity had responded to Nic’s questioning with a weary resignation, as though he had been expecting and dreading just such an inquiry. He answered quickly, agreed to provide further reading material and then returned to the scheduled teaching plan.
“How are we going to read all that?” Fanny whined over lunch.
“He’s probably going to get a few more added to the list before the day’s over,” said Davo.
“We can split it up between us,” said Nic. “We just need to identify the useful stuff.”
“And how are we supposed to know which is the ‘useful stuff’?” asked Davo.
“I’ll show you,” said Nic. He yawned.
“You don’t look very good,” said Simole.
“I’m serious,” said Simole. “That much Arcanum in your system can do serious damage.”
“But it isn’t in my system anymore. I feel fine.”
“We could take you to the nurse to check you out,” said Davo. “I assume the school’s legally obliged to prevent us from dying on campus, even if they aren’t morally so inclined.”
“You found where the nurse is?” asked Fanny. “Does she give out sick notes?”
“There’s nothing wrong with you,” said Davo.
“No,” said Fanny, “but you have to plan ahead. I prefer to know where my exits are.”
Davo turned his attention back to Nic. “The sanitorium’s in the main school. I know we aren’t supposed to go in there, but they won’t complain if it’s a mission of mercy.”
“I told you, I’m fine.” Nic was appreciative of his friends’ concern, but it was unnecessary and mildly irritating. “Let’s go see if they’ve got these books at the library. We can ask for them to be put aside.”
“Put aside where?” asked Fanny. “What is it with you and that librarian?”
“You really need to ask?” said Davo. He tapped the side of his prodigious aquiline nose.
Nic said nothing, not wanting to encourage them. He looked over at Simole who he expected to be thoroughly unamused by the antics of the two, but her expression was something else altogether. She looked concerned.
She may well have had cause to be. Residual Arcanum in his system could do all sorts of mischief, but he would have noticed some symptoms. He was clear headed and fully fit.
The library was moderately busy. It was lunchtime so most students were occupied elsewhere, but with mocks approaching, there were still some who were eager to keep pushing themselves. Nic felt a twinge of regret. Under other circumstances, he could see himself thriving in such an atmosphere.
Nic showed the librarian his list while the others went off to their usual table.
“This is quite extensive,” she said as she peered at it over her spectacles. “Are you planning to start your master’s degree now?”
Nic smiled politely. “I just need to know if you have them, I can find them myself.”
“We have them. We have all of them” She took off her glasses and for the first time he noticed her eyes were grey to the point of being white. “You know, there is such a thing as overworking.”
“There is. But I’m still testing the boundaries.”
She smiled and put the glasses back on. “I hope you aren’t using Winnum Roke as your role model. Not everyone can be the perfect student.” She paused, as though expecting him to respond, but he had nothing to say. He agreed with her. “I’ll dig out some of those books; a few of them are in storage. Not much call for five hundred year old books on economics. I’ll leave them in Mr Tenner’s room, I’m sure he won’t mind. Perhaps we should get you a private study room of your own.”
A sudden, unexpected thrill shot through Nic. Even if she wasn’t serious, the idea of his own room in the library set his heart racing for a moment. He looked up and she was smirking like she knew exactly what had gone through is mind and he felt a blush of heat on his face. He turned and quickly walked away.
He decided to take a quick detour to the study room before meeting up with the others. Winnum Roke’s autobiography should be back in its proper place and there were a couple of other books he should return. The tomes on Demonology held less interest for him now, with all the studying he needed to do. And he also wanted to investigate the mechanics of magical devices.
He looked over his shoulder. The librarian was still smirking at him. He could ask her about it later.
The steps up to the third floor bounced and squeaked under his feet as he skipped up them. The rail was familiar in his grasp. Here he didn’t need to worry about what others had in store for him. Everything he needed was available to him.
He reached for the keys as he approached the door but as soon as he placed a hand on the handle, it was clear the door was unlocked. His first thought was he’d forgotten to lock it, which would have been embarrassing if Tenner found out. He opened the door and found Mr Tenner himself standing over the table with the Roke book open in his hands.
“Ah, hello, Nic. Didn’t expect to see you here.” He spoke in a relaxed carefree manner. “This yours? Very interesting.”
“She was an Also-Ran,” said Nic, trying not to show his surprise, or his nerves. The moment he saw the Demonology teacher, a rush of blood made him feel light-headed. His fingers and toes went cold and he wanted to sit down. He remained standing.
“Yes, that’s right. I expect you two have quite a lot in common.” He slammed the book shut. “Actually, I wanted to have a word with you. About last night. You weren’t too put out, were you? Professor Veristotle can be a bit brusque the first time you meet him.”
“Oh no, sir. It was fine. That is… Winnum Roke had a tutor called Veristotle.”
“Of course. That’s the professor’s great, great, great… well, I’m not really sure. His ancestor, certainly.”
That made sense. A family tradition. “I didn’t think… I mean… I don’t think he liked me.”
“What? Nonsense. He just takes a little time to warm up to people. You’ll see. I only realised after you left I never told you why I wanted you to meet him. He’s the foremost expert on Demonology, you see, and a bit of a mentor to me in my early days. Many of the experiments I carry out in my facility originated with him. He’s a grumpy old git, to be honest, but mind like a steel trap. Full of the most amazing insights. You remind me of him in many ways. I thought you two might be able to feed off one another, as it were.”
A companion to an old man? It was certainly something a maid’s son could do, and if Tenner was right about the professor’s intellectual facilities, Nic wouldn’t mind picking a brain like that. “He didn’t seem all that keen, though.”
“Yes, but that’s just your first meeting. Like I said, he takes time to trust people. He also has a habit of speaking his mind. Privilege of old age, which is a polite way of saying he’s a rude old fart, haha. You shouldn’t take notice. But I think you could learn a thing or two from him. We’ll slowly get him comfortable around you first.”
Comfortable. Yes, that would be good. The room seemed to turn on its side, but it wasn’t the room, it was him. Nic fell and the ground rose up to meet him somewhere along the way.
Nic opened his eyes. He was in a very cool room with white walls and white sheets. A man in a white outfit, matching smock and trousers, stood by the bed with a thin object in his hand.
“You’re awake. Good. I’m Nurse Hall. The doctor will be in to see you shortly.”
Nic nodded like he understood, but he didn’t. Then he flinched backwards. The object in the nurse’s hand was a needle. A big one.
“Don’t worry, this is just to help flush the Arcanum out of your system. All better soon.”
Nic was drowsy and none of his limbs worked. He wanted to back away but there were a thousand pillows blocking the way. The needle cut into his arm like a sword and he passed out.
When he came round again, there was a woman in a white coat standing where the nurse had been. She had greying hair tied into a bun and frighteningly large eyes which returned to a more reasonable size once she removed the magnifying glass she’d been looking through.
“Welcome back, Nic.” She had a pleasant, warm voice. “I’m Doctor Gilleshpie. I don’t have a lisp, that’s how it’s pronounced.”
Nic tried to say hello back, but his throat was too dry to emit more than a croak.
“Don’t try to speak. You’ve been exposed to rather a large dose of Arcanum. Far more than any young man has the right to expect on school grounds.” She looked to the side somewhat disapprovingly. “You’re out of the woods now, though. You just rest. Oh, and there’s someone here who would like to speak to you.” She turned to the side. “Be quick.”
Tenner floated into view. “Ah, hello again. Seems like I owe you an apology. I’m afraid it’s my fault you’re in here.”
“Mm?” was all Nic could manage.
“Yes, it seems someone left the shielding off our Arcanum stores. We have barrels of the stuff in the basement, doesn’t usually cause any problems. I’ve grown quite a resistance to it and the professor could eat the stuff for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Ha. You, on the other hand, are very sensitive to it. Could have ended very badly. I’m terribly sorry, Nic. I can’t imagine what strange things you’ve been seeing and hearing lately. Quite the hallucinogen when you have so much of it in your system.”
The words reached him slowly, trickling down his ears, but he understood now. The strange paranoia, the disjointed feeling, the distorted way the world had felt—he had been poisoned, by accident. But he’d be fine now. Ranvar had the best Arcanum treatments in the world. They had the only Arcanum treatments in the world, but that didn’t make them any less effective.
“I really am sorry, and I promise to make it up to you when you’re better. Don’t worry, it’s going to be fine. Doctor? Is he alright.”
Everything went black again.
Next time he opened his eyes, it was dark. After a few seconds he began to be able to see shapes and outlines. He was still in bed. There was a figure nearby, but he couldn’t see it clearly.
“Here, have a drink.” A straw was held to his lips. Water flooded down his throat. He didn’t need to see clearly to recognise the voice. A cool hand pressed against his warm forehead. “You stupid boy. Why do I always have to take care of you.”
“I missed you, Dizzy.”
“I missed you, too.”
“Nice to see you again, Miss Delcroix,” said another voice from further back.
The hand jumped away from his face. Too soon.
“What are you doing here?” said Dizzy, flustered.
“I could ask you the same thing,” said Simole, “but we already know the answer, don’t we?”
He couldn’t see either of their faces but he liked hearing them so close. He imagined them sitting around a table, all friends.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I just wanted to…” Dizzy’s voice faded away.
“You just wanted him to hold you and kiss you and run the tip of his tongue around the rim of your ear, and you’ll say no, please, don’t, but you won’t stop him, you’ll pull him closer because you want more, you’ve always wanted more, haven’t you?”
“What? Are you crazy? What kind of thing is that to say to someone?”
“Ignore her,” said Nic, flapping at the air with his hand. “She grew up in a castle where they only had Arcanum tomes and romance novels to read. She doesn’t understand how complicated real feelings can be.”
“Sure, Nic. If you say so. Here, I wanted to give you this.” Simole’s unmistakable silhouette drew closer. She was holding something up, long and thin. Not another needle! No. It was a pen.
“Where did you get that?” Dizzy sounded shocked.
“Your father gave it to me,” said Nic. “A present for catching up to you.” He grabbed at the pen but missed. He felt very tired.
There was more talking, fast and sharp, but he couldn’t make it out. The voices were too far away.
He woke with a start. The room was full of white sunlight and he sat up to look around. No one else was in the room. He remembered Dizzy and Simole being there but would have put it down to being a dream, except for the pen in the breast pocket of his paper pyjamas. There would have been a horrible mess if the pen had leaked.
He felt infinitely better. He didn’t know if it was the pen or the injections, but he was able to climb out of bed and walk to the door with no trouble.
Had Dizzy really come to see him? She had always been able to get into places she wasn’t allowed, so it was quite possible. Even though she was in a different world from him and keeping company with people he didn’t approve of, he still experienced a wave of relief that she cared enough to want him to be okay. It was a relief he hadn’t realised he needed.
As for Simole, she could come and go as she pleased, seen by only those she wished to see her. No surprise there.
He found the nurse in the next room, who called the doctor and he was given a quick but thorough examination. The doctor explained the treatment he’d received to flush out his system, and gave him a course of pills to keep taking.
Then he was given his clothes and bag and allowed to leave. It was a cold, blustery day, but bright and clean. The sanitorium was at the edge of the main school buildings, but there was a huge difference in the student population.
Children of all ages ran around, laughing, shouting, rushing to class. They were all younger than him and all seemed to belong.
They had no idea who he was and didn’t bother him. They ran around him and stepped aside to let him pass, and apologised if they accidentally bumped into him. Never had normality felt so abnormal.
He got back to the cottage with a great desire to take a long shower. He walked in to find Fanny and Davo standing by the fire, both hunched up, arms wrapped around themselves like the frost was biting. They looked pale with worry.
“I’m fine,” said Nic. It didn’t seem to help.
“Simole,” said Davo. Fanny shook his head.
“What? Simole, what?”
“She said they poisoned you on purpose. Said she was going to find out why.”
“We couldn’t stop her,” said Fanny.
“She went to the Pagoda last night. She didn’t come back.”
And it all fell into place, a complete education all at once.
How could Tenner not have known he had been exposed to Arcanum? The symptoms would have been more than obvious. Plus, he was an expert practitioner. He’d have known instantly.
The pieces slotted together seamlessly.
They didn’t want him, they wanted her. Only, she was always being watched by those afraid she might cause trouble. Unrelated but inconvenient. The only way was to make her come to them. She could become invisible to prying eyes if she wished.
Not him. Her. He was just the bait. The Arcanum-doused bait to lure her in. And now they had her.