“Now,” said Mr Tenner, “as a special treat, we will be having a test next lesson.”
A groan ran around the classroom. Nic sat up a little straighter to see better from the back. This would be the first test since he’d arrived at Ransom. The thought of taking all he had learned over the last few weeks and comparing his comprehension against the other students was quite exciting.
“Yes, I can see how thrilled you all are, but worry not, ladies and gentlemen, I will tell you the question you will be asked in advance so you can all get top marks. And those who don’t get top marks, well, I suppose there will be consequences. But why dwell on unpleasantness when I’m sure you will all pass with flying colours?”
Tenner paused to smile, his thin face projecting an air of malice Nic found confusing. What was this test where you were told the questions beforehand?
“It’s simple, really,” continued Tenner. He held up a small book. “We have been using the Roke Index these last few lessons. Very useful, I’m sure you’ll agree. Three hundred and twelve simple equations to deconstruct any Arcanum field. All you need to do is write them down. From memory.”
There was an even bigger groan this time. Nic frowned. It wasn’t a proper examination, it was just learning by rote. The Roke Index was very useful, and knowing the equations off by heart would certainly prove expedient when it came to the real exams, but it was still disappointing. There would be mostly perfect scores in this test.
“Think how much cleverer you will become once your brains are swollen with all this lovely information,” said Tenner gleefully. He had regained some of his verve in the last few days and was more like his old, sinister self.
The bell rang for the end of class.
“Mr Tutt? If I might see you for a moment?”
There was some muttering at Nic’s name being called, and a few dark glances shot in his direction. It was mild compared to what they’d all been subjected to over the last week since Simole’s display of draconic control. No one dared confront her directly, so it was the other Also-Rans who received the dirty looks. But even that had died down, now. Nic suspected the teachers’ had had a word with the students to make sure they didn’t provoke the girl who could command dragons. Added to which, there was always the chance the Secret Service were watching.
Nic stood by Mr Tenner’s desk, waiting while he rearranged the papers and books spread across the desktop. Once the last of the student’s had filed out, Tenner looked up at him.
“Ah, there you are,” he said, as though he’d only just noticed Nic. “I wanted to thank you. I was in my private room in the library and I noticed my books and papers had been moved. I say moved, perhaps a better word would be ‘organised’. Your handiwork, I presume.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir. It’s a habit. I must have done it without thinking.”
“No need to apologise. Made it much easier to find what I was looking for. There was just one thing that seemed out of place. A book on dragons.” He said the word like he was tasting it. “Yours?”
“Yes, sir. I was reading it and needed somewhere where it wouldn’t be… borrowed by someone else.”
“I thought you were reading up on Demonology. Hence the need to share.”
“Yes, sir. But it occurred to me that if Ranvar is the only country that has a natural dragon population, and also the only country that is able to produce mages, that there might be a connection. Something that goes back to the origins of Arcanum.”
“Interesting.” Tenner slid his long fingers down either side of his pointed chin. “An observation that has been made before, of course, but nothing conclusive has ever been found. You think you might succeed where others have failed?”
“I think I might find something I can use in the end of year exams, sir.” While that was possible, it had nothing to do with why he had hidden the book in Tenner’s private room.
“And apparently you do not wish the other students to have access to this information. It’s not an unethical move, I suppose, but hardly good sportsmanship.”
“I don’t play sports, sir,” said Nic.
Tenner laughed, short and sharp. “Of course not. Games are for children.” He stood up and slapped Nic on the back. “My hope is that you somehow find your way to the Royal College. I know that isn’t your ambition, but I would greatly enjoy seeing the masters there having to deal with someone like you.” He laughed again and headed for the door.
Tenner stopped and turned. “Yes, Nic?”
“About the Roke Index.”
“Yes? I expect you already have the whole thing committed to memory.”
“Yes, sir. I was wondering about Equation 27, the March Lines.” Tenner nodded slightly, enough to let Nic know he should continue. “I was thinking, the Secret Service, they must use a form of shadow magic to move around without being detected.”
“Something like that. What has that to do with March Lines?”
“Couldn’t you use March Lines to detect them, the way you can with a demonic field? There was a section about it in—”
“Saxon’s Demon Wave Theory,” said Tenner, cutting in. His eyes were alight with interest now. “Yes. Go on.”
“Well, I was just thinking, if the Secret Service use a similar process, their position could be easily detected with one of those, erm, plant identifiers we use to find herbs with heavy Arcanum deposits.”
“Very good. Yes, you are correct. With some modification, and a small infusion of raw Arcanum, you could indeed. But why would you want to locate the position of our brave Secret Service agents as they strive to keep us all safe?”
“Oh, no, no, that’s not what I meant.” Nic looked around nervously. There could be any number of agents in the room with them right now. “I only wanted to know if it was possible to use the equations across different fields.”
Tenner smiled, without malice this time. “It would be such a waste if you don’t pursue Arcanum as a vocation in some form. You don’t have to be a mage, you know? There are other areas of research that could use a mind like yours.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Nic, not sure what those areas might be. If you studied Arcanum but weren’t a mage, what were you?
“Such potential,” said Tenner as he walked out. “Don’t burn too bright, too quickly. We have need of boys like you.”
Nic found Davo and Fanny waiting for him outside the classroom.
“Thought it best not to leave you on your own,” said Davo. “More vulnerable once you get separated from the herd.”
“I don’t think the students will do anything when everyone’s on high alert,” said Nic. “They’d get in too much trouble.”
“Oh, Nic,” said Davo. “So young, so naive. Do you really think children of the elite worry about what might happen in the future? They do as they wish and leave it to others to clean up the mess.”
“That thing you said to Tenner,” said Fanny, “about modding the herb detector, would that really work?”
“You were eavesdropping?” said Nic, surprised their voices had carried.
“No,” said Fanny. “Not intentionally. So, would it?”
“Yes, but you need the extended version of March Lines, so you can make it self-adapt.”
“Right, right, of course,” Fanny muttered to himself.
“You’d need a detector first,” said Davo.
“I’ve got one in my room,” said Fanny. “Forgot to return it.”
Davo gave Fanny a disapproving look. “And who are you going to go looking for? Demons?”
“It’s not demons we need to worry about,” said Fanny. He lowered his voice. “Secret Service have us all under surveillance.”
“I doubt it,” said Davo. “It’s expensive following people around. They wouldn’t bother with the likes of you. They have better things to do than watch you exercise in private.”
“No, but they’d watch Simole, wouldn’t they?” said Fanny.
“Yes, there is that,” agreed Davo.
“Where is Simole?” asked Nic.
“Who knows?” said Fanny. “She’s even harder to keep track of than the Secret Service.”
“I’m right here,” said Simole, making Fanny jump.
“Don’t do that,” said Fanny, red-faced. “Were you there the whole time? Can you hide in shadows, too?”
“No, I went to get something to eat.” She held up a bar of chocolate. “Want some?”
They all took a piece and stood chewing at each other.
Nic was first to finish. “I’m going to the—”
“Library,” Davo finished for him. “We know. You’re obsessed. It isn’t healthy.”
“I’m not obsessed,” said Nic.
“Completely obsessed,” agreed Fanny.
“Madly in love with the place,” confirmed Simole.
“And,” said Davo, “I think that librarian has the hots for you. She always has one eye in your direction. I know a window shopper when I see one.”
“Probably thinks he’s going to steal one of her precious books,” said Fanny.
“Mark my words,” said Davo ominously. “I’ve seen that hungry look before. Women of a certain age start to get a hankering. They insist on help to try on shoes, but they aren’t there to buy slingbacks.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Simole.
“Me neither,” said Nic.
“What’s a slingback?” asked Fanny.
They made their way to the library, four outsiders now inured to the sideways looks and whispers following them. People moved out of their way and avoided eye contact. Nic much preferred it when they were completely ignored, but that wasn’t possible anymore.
“The Roke Index,” said Fanny, “was it named after that female Archmage?”
“Winnum Roke? I don’t know,” said Nic. “Probably, but I’ve never seen any official mention of it.”
“Typical,” said Simole with a huff.
“You never know,” said Davo, “maybe it was named after her husband.” Davo tripped barely managing to stay on his feet. “Did you do that?”
Simole smiled innocently. “Me? No.” She shook her head unconvincingly.
When they got to the library, Fanny went straight to the desk. “Can you tell me where to find a copy of the Roke Index, the extended edition?”
The librarian was picking at a book binding with tweezers. “Third floor, reference shelves to the right of the stairs,” she said without looking up. As they turned to go, she added, “Nic? If I might have a word?”
“Yes, of course. I’ll catch you up.”
The others exchanged looks but left without saying anything. Nic walked back to the desk.
“How did you find that book I recommended, Nic?” asked the librarian, in rather a pointed manner, Nic thought. “The one on dragons.”
“Yes, very good. Thank you.”
“No one’s asked for that book in years, but just after you did, another student asked for exactly the same book.”
“Oh?” said Nic. “That’s a funny coincidence.”
“Isn’t it? And then imagine my surprise when she said it wasn’t where I said it would be. I even checked, myself. No sign of it. Do you think perhaps you may have misshelved it?”
“No. Actually, it’s in Mr Tenner’s private study room.”
The librarian arched an eyebrow. “Well, that would explain it. And why would it be in there? Is Mr Tenner looking to switch his research to another area? It would seem rash after so many years invested in Demonology.”
“No, not exactly. I just needed to put it somewhere it wouldn’t cause any… disruption.”
The librarian peered over her glasses at him for a long time. Then she took off her glasses and peered a bit more. “You think a book on the mating habits of dragons would be disruptive?”
“I see. Well, I suppose it will turn up eventually.” She put her glasses back on and resumed working on the binding.
Nic turned around and headed after the others. He caught up with them on the staircase.
“She called you Nic,” said Davo.
“Yes, that’s my name.”
“She doesn’t call anyone else by their first name.” Davo leaned closer to him. “Beware the slingbacks.”
It was dusk when they returned to the cottage and there was a man standing outside. He was tall, sharp-faced and quick-eyed, which made Nic suspicious of his intentions. He had the air of a teacher, but not one they had seen before.
“Ah, there you are,” he said as they approached. “I was just about to leave. No answer.” He rapped his knuckles on the door to illustrate. “I’m Mr Poosam, the Deputy Head. I don’t believe we’ve had the chance to meet.”
He said it like he wasn’t sure, but since no one had bothered to welcome them to the school, it hardly took guesswork.
“Miss Caram, it’s a pleasure to have you at our school.”
Nic didn’t like the way the Deputy Head was being so polite. It felt like a prelude to something bad. Poosam’s smile was so fake it practically had strings tied to the corners.
He dipped his head slightly in Simole’s direction. It wasn’t quite a bow, but it showed some kind of deference.
The boys looked at Simole, getting that strange feeling they were in the middle of some event they hadn’t been invited to. They cautiously left the two of them and went inside, closed the door and then stood with their ears pressed against it at three different heights.
“Thank you,” said Simole. “The Headmaster not available?”
“I’m afraid not. He is extremely busy, as I’m sure you appreciate.” There was a distinct frost in the air. Even the door couldn’t stop them feeling the chill. “He sends his warmest greetings and hopes to meet you in person, when he has the time.”
“I look forward to it,” said Simole in a very unanticipatory manner. “Was there anything else?”
“Yes, indeed. The Head would like to offer you special accommodation while you’re with us. This, er… dwelling is perhaps a little inconvenient. Something more central to the campus. And a shift to more private tutorials. I know you had access to a few of those already. We were thinking of allowing you more individualised teaching, for your convenience.”
“Why?” said Simole. The chill factor was off the scale.
“Ah, yes, I can see you’re not receptive to the idea. It’s just that your presence has caused some minor upsets in the balance of normal school life, and we thought it would help calm the other students if you were—”
“I’m not moving and I’m not taking lessons in private.”
“I don’t think you quite understand—”
“I don’t think you understand why I’m here. I have a letter signed by the King saying I am to be a normal student, treated no differently to my peers. If you have an issue with him in this matter, I suggest you contact him through his office. Or one of his ministries.”
There was a long moment of silence. The boys pushed their ears harder against the door, risking splinters to hear what was happening.
“Yes, I see,” said the Deputy Head. He wasn’t a man to brook nonsense from his students. In this case, he seemed to have little choice. “I will inform the Head of your… request.”
“It isn’t a request, but feel free to tell the Head what you wish. I look forward to hearing his reply. In person.”
There was some movement. The boys sprang away from the door and took up completely unnatural positions around the hall. Simole came in and stopped to give them each a disparaging look. Fanny leaning awkwardly on his elbow on the back of one of the armchairs; Davo inspecting the doorframe to the kitchen; Nic tying the shoelaces of his already tied shoes.
She left them to it and went into her room.
“Who is she?” said Fanny. “I mean, really? How can anyone get away with talking to a teacher like that?”
“Not our business,” said Davo, leaning nearer to Simole’s door. “And watch what you say. We may not be alone.”
Simole’s door opened and Davo jumped back to his doorframe inspection.
“Roke’s Index,” she said. “How are you supposed to memorise so many equations?”
“They run in a sequence,” said Nic. “Once you learn the first ten, there’s a repeating pattern.”
“What?” said Davo.
“Really?” said Fanny. “Why didn’t he say so?”
Nic shrugged. “You’re probably supposed to work it out for yourself. Isn’t that the way Arcanum works?” He looked at Simole.
“I don’t know,” said Simole. “I never bothered with the theoretics.”
The next few hours were spent in Nic’s room, showing the others how the equations repeated themselves while simultaneously going over his Herbology homework. Once they got it, Davo and Fanny went off to their rooms to fix the pattern in their minds. Fanny was giggling to himself, Davo whistled a merry tune.
“You’re a good person to have around,” said Simole.
“Thanks,” said Nic. “Glad to be of use.”
“I didn’t mean it like that,” said Simole, scrunching up her mouth. “Or maybe I did. Sorry.”
“Don’t be. I don’t mind,” said Nic.
She got up to leave and paused halfway to the door. “Don’t you want to know who I am, Nic?”
“I already know who you are.” The book he was reading, provided by Davo, had thick pages. It wasn’t like the cheap version they had been assigned by the school. These pages were stiff like cardboard and had incredibly detailed drawings of plants in black ink. They appeared to have been hand drawn directly onto the page, not printed. How many of these books had they produced?
“You do, do you? Found the answer in a book, did you?” asked Simole, watching him closely as his eyes skimmed down and across and down again.
“Actually, yes. Dragon Social Structure and Grooming. Third Edition.” Nic carefully prised two pages apart and turned to the next section. A wall of unhelpfully tiny words filled the yellowing paper; a sight that made Nic feel like a miner approaching a rock wall. In a gold mine.
The words entered his mind, dancing into position beside their waiting partners. Fresh information, new associations, greater understanding.
She walked over to his desk. “Who am I?”
“Simole van Dastan. Archmage van Dastan’s daughter.” He put his finger on the page. Deep in the text, he’d struck gold.
On the register, she was Simole Caram. Her parents were recorded as Viktor and Belina Caram, owners of a grocery store in the town of Vigle. Nothing remarkable.
Simole slid her hand under one side and flipped the the book closed. He jerked his head back and gave her a questioning look. He had just got to a part in the processing of herbal elixirs that explained why you had to crush the leaves and not cut them up, which would be useful to know for the the upcoming exams. They had been taught that as the preferred method, but not told why. He would know, and the examiners would be impressed; as long as Simole let him finish. He still had his finger inserted between the pages to keep his place. Luckily, she hadn’t slammed the book shut or he would have needed a splint, which would have been disastrous. It’s not easy to write with a broken finger.
“You figured that out from a book?”
“Dragons have a rigid social structure,” he said.
“Oh?” said Simole. “Is that right?”
Nic nodded. “They form packs and each pack has a leader. They’re a bit like dogs. They even have a similar reliance on smell to identify each other and their status. They use dragon urine in their training process, but I’m not sure how that works. Haven’t got to that part yet.”
“I see. You’re thinking of becoming a dragon knight?”
“Me? No. I don’t like heights.”
“Carry on. Dragons are just like dogs.”
“Yes. Only, dragons are all female.”
“All of them?”
“All except one. The High Father. Father of all dragons. I’m not sure how that works, either.”
“Probably for the best,” said Simole.
“Hmm,” said Nic, although if there was knowledge to be had, he considered it better to know than not. “They—the dragons, I mean—are completely subservient to the High Father. He’s like their god, as well as their dad.”
Simole’s gaze drifted away to the window. “Some fathers are like that.”
“The dragons the other day, they smelled their father on you. It was enough for them to bow their heads. Lots of bowing in dragon culture. Not so much like dogs. More like people.”
“So you connected me to the High Father of dragons.”
“Yes. And everyone knows the most powerful dragon in Ranvar belongs to the Archmage. Although, I don’t suppose he’s the Archmage anymore.”
“No,” Simole sighed. “Now he’s just the traitor van Dastan. Have you told anyone else?”
“And the book on dragons?”
“I put it somewhere safe. I haven’t finished reading it yet—the breeding cycle is very complicated. But, you know, if I was able to figure it out, so will others. The dragoons, for a start. And once they do…”
“It doesn’t matter.” Simole waved away his concerns with a dismissive hand. “They’ll be ordered to forget about it.”
“Secret Service?” asked Nic.
“Maybe. Probably the Ministry of Instruction.”
Nic’s ears perked up at the mention of the name.
Simole noted the reaction. “You’ve heard of them?”
“Hm,” said Nic. “Yes. Kind of. I don’t really know what they do, though.” He didn’t feel comfortable revealing his connection to Minister Delcroix. Or that he was Dizzy’s father.
“Pray you never do,” said Simole. They both sat silently for a moment. “You aren’t curious to know about the traitor?”
Nic shrugged. “Not really.”
“Because it won’t be a question on the mocks?”
“Are you mocking me?” said Nic.
“Funny.” Simole placed her hand on top of the book and pressed down. Nic winced as his finger got squished. “Don’t pun with me. I know dark spells.” Her words were threatening, but her smile was playful.
Nic pulled out his finger and stuck it in his mouth. Now he’d lost his place. “I suppose your dad taught you.”
“Yes,” said Simole, sitting back. “Since I was three, every day. Not all magic, just attack and defence. He called me his Little Weapon. That’s what I was to him. Everything they said about him, it was all lies. All of it.”
Nic took his finger out of his mouth. “Okay.” He had seen some of the reports in the newspaper the previous year when the government had claimed to have foiled a great and terrible plot. It involved foreign powers and assassinations, but Nic hadn’t paid it much mind. Partly because the newspapers rarely reported accurately, and partly because it wasn’t going to come up on any test.
“No, I mean what he was planning to do was far, far worse. That’s why I had to turn him in.” Her mouth tightened into a hard, straight line. “No one expects their own weapon to turn on them. I betrayed my own father, Nic.” She dropped her head. “Now he sits in a special cell. A regular jail wouldn’t be able to hold him, so they built one for him. They wouldn’t have been able to catch him without my help. We’re both traitors. Runs in the family.”
She looked like she might start crying. Nic had been in this situation before. His mother would sometimes get sad, usually for no reason. None that he could understand, anyway. It used to make him uncomfortable, but he learned to sit with her and wait. It was enough. He did the same now.
Simole raised her head. There were no tears in her eyes. It was more like a fire burned in them.
“This was part of my deal, coming to Ransom. A chance to learn the things my father never taught me.”
“Didn’t you want to go to the Royal College?” asked Nic. “I’m sure you could get in.”
“They did offer, but I wanted to know what it was like being around people my own age. I grew up in a castle on a mountain, with a dragon. It isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. Castles are drafty and cleaning up after a dragon is no fun. Not like dogs.”
Having seen dragons up close, the size of their droppings had to be close to ridiculous.
The door swung open as Fanny ran in. “I did it! Look.” He had a herb detector in his hands.
Davo came in behind. “What now? Why are you screeching like that?”
“Look!” Fanny held up the device.
“Don’t tell me you broke it,” said Davo.
“No, look. I used the March List. It can detect dark Arcanum now. Probably. I just need someone to stick some raw Arcanum into it.” He looked at Simole.
She scowled and stood up.
“It’s good to be useful,” said Nic.
Her attempt at walking out faltered as she took in Nic’s meaning. She looked at him, and then at Fanny eagerly holding up the box. She rolled her eyes and snatched it from him, stared at it and then gave it back. It looked no different.
“Is that it?” said Fanny, sounding disappointed.
“Why don’t you go hunting for agents?” said Simole. “I’m sure they’ll be happy to see you.”
“Oh,” said Fanny, “I didn’t think about it like that. I don’t have to let them know I found them, I just want to know if I can.” He turned the detector on. It made a low humming sound.
When they used the detectors to find Arcanum-rich herbs, the box would click when in close proximity. Fanny waved it around. The box started clicking faintly. He followed the direction to Nic’s desk, and then to the left drawer.
Nic opened it. The only thing in it was a pen. He took it out and the detector clicked slightly louder.
“Why do you have a magic pen?” asked Davo. “Full of dark Arcanum?”
“It isn’t magic, it’s a graduation gift from my mother’s boss. He works for the government. Must be residual.”
“Really?” said Fanny. “You think the detector’s that sensitive?” He proceeded to excitedly scan the entire cottage, the area outside and the pond. He found nothing apart from some angry midges.
Having failed to unearth agents in hiding, Fanny put the box away and they went to dinner.
Later that night, Nic borrowed the detector. He said he wanted to see if he could fine tune it and Fanny was only too happy to let him have it. When everyone had gone to sleep, he snuck out and made his way to the library.
When he had asked Tenner about the possibility of modifying the herb detector, it wasn’t the Secret Service agents he was interested in tracking. There were books in the library that were kept separated. They contained knowledge that was both rare and powerful. So powerful, the books became infused with magic just through containing instructive words. They weren’t spells, but they contained their source.
With the detector, he would, he theorised, be able to work out where those books were kept. He wouldn’t necessarily be able to gain access to them, but knowing their location was the first step.
He entered using his key. The library was deathly quiet. He lit a lantern and turned it down so low it hardly lit his way at all, but he didn’t want to attract attention, not tonight. There was enough moonlight falling through the tall windows to enable him to avoid walking into anything.
He turned on the detector and it immediately began to click. He moved it around, but the magic field seemed to be in all directions, surrounding him.
By turning slowly and listening hard, he was able to discern some difference. He followed it to the second floor, towards the back. There was nothing ahead of him except for an empty wall. A secret door? He pointed the detector to the side to examine the wall more closely and there was a sharp shriek from the box. A jolt went up his arm and then the box exploded. It wasn’t loud or violent, just a pop and a whiff of smoke. He dropped it and it broke into pieces.
The detector had been pointing at the window. Nic went to it and looked out. The Pagoda stood in the moonlight, like it was waiting for him.