“Everything he said about training to be a mage was a lie?” Brill sat down in the armchair he’d been hovering around as Nic went over his encounter with Master Denkne.
“Yes,” said Nic. “Complete fabrication.”
“But why?” asked Brill.
“I don’t know. I think he’s trying to teach us something.”
“What has lying got to do with Arcanum dispersal fields?” said Brill. “You can’t mislead a pencil and protractor.”
“Perhaps he isn’t here to teach us how to draw Arcanum dispersal fields,” said Davo.
“But that’s the chapter he set us to read for the next lesson,” said Brill, as though this was proof positive of the mage’s intentions.
“Maybe that’s a lie, too,” said Fanny.
Brill looked at them, from one to the next. The three boys seemed unperturbed by the mage’s strange behaviour. Even if it was true, the least they could do was act appropriately baffled. He wasn’t used to being the least composed person in a room.
“Don’t worry,” said Nic. “I’m sure it won’t do you any harm to read up on Arcanum dispersal theory.”
“Blast it, I can’t even tell if you’re making fun of me or not.” Brill shook his head.
“Why would I make fun of you?” said Nic.
“He isn’t making fun of you,” said Davo. “He’s just telling you to keep running, as he laps you. It’s hard to take that kind encouragement with good manners. Believe me, we know.”
Fanny raised a sympathetic eyebrow and nodded.
“Do you really think of me as condescending?” asked Nic.
“You aren’t condescending,” said Davo. “You’re just better at this than the rest of us. That’s what makes it so horrifying.”
“Look, I understand what you’re saying,” said Brill having had a moment to collect himself. “Yes, he’s a strange chap—he’s a full-fledged mage, after all—but that doesn’t mean he can just bowl in and turn everything on its head. We have ways of doing things here. This place was built on tradition.”
The other three looked at each other, waiting to see who wanted to handle this one. Nic shrugged, reluctant to come across as too overbearing. Fanny was too busy opening the box Nic had brought.
“There’s no such thing as tradition,” said Davo. “It’s just a way to get rid of old stock. Seasons change, and when they do, you better have new inventory in. It’s just that Ranvar’s always had very long, slow seasons.”
Brill expelled air. “Not everything can be reduced to trade and profit.”
“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that, and perhaps you should stop before you say something you can’t take back,” said Davo very solemnly.
“Why is this in here?” said Fanny. Out of the box he pulled another box. This one was wrapped up like a gift, with Fanny’s name written on a small white card. He flipped it over. On the reverse it said, “From Father.”
“You should have carried it like that,” said Davo with a small smile. “It would have got you into less trouble.”
Fanny began ripping the wrapping paper.
“I would have,” said Nic, “if I’d known it was in there. I was too flustered.”
“Oh? Flustered by what?” asked Davo.
Nic told them about Denkne being in the bath during their meeting, which he had left out in his previous summation of events.
“You were in the bathroom?” asked Davo.
“No, the tub was in the living room.”
“Was he naked?” asked Fanny.
“Obviously,” said Davo. “Why would he take a bath fully dressed?”
“I don’t know. I’m not a mage, am I?”
“Your father is, though, isn’t he? Does he take baths in a suit and tie?”
“How would I know?” said Fanny defensively. “I’ve never taken a bath with him.”
“I think one thing’s clear,” said Brill, refusing to turn into a slack-jawed bystander, “the man’s deliberately trying to be as unsettling as possible. He’s well aware of the effects of his actions, agreed?” He looked to the others for some sort indication they considered his interjection worthwhile. They all seemed to be paying attention and willing to hear him out. “The only question that remains is what can we learn from his odd behaviour.”
“I think that’s a very accurate reduction of the problem,” said Davo, to Brill’s great relief. “Clearly, he wishes his odd behaviour to have an effect and he isn’t being subtle about it. We only need to establish the purpose and we’ll have the advantage of him. So what is his purpose, Nic?”
“I don’t know,” said Nic.
“Yes,” said Davo, “but you’ve already determined all the things it couldn’t be, I would think.”
Nic shrugged. “The really obvious things, sure.”
“And from what’s left, there are most likely some that stand out as more likely than others.”
“And one that nags at you like a bee sting in the back of your neck.”
Nic looked up at Davo who was a full head taller than him. “How do you know that?”
“Aha. You aren’t the only one who can follow a trail of breadcrumbs. Look at you, tugging on the back of your hair.”
“Are you saying I have a tell?” Nic said with some concern. He brought his hand down to his side.
“I pray for the chance to one day face you in a high-stakes game of cards, so I can thoroughly fleece you,” said Davo.
“Well, what is it?” broke in Brill impatiently, rising to his feet. “What does the itch on your neck tell you?”
Nic sighed. “Demons don’t lie.”
“So, he isn’t a demon?” asked Fanny, his hands full of tubes and wires.
“Well done, Fanny,” said Davo. “You’ve established he isn’t a demon and he doesn’t bathe with his clothes on. You’re really narrowing down the options.”
“For reference,” Fanny said to Brill, “that’s what real condescension sounds like.”
“Demon’s don’t lie,” said Nic, “but falsehoods attract them. They like to play with them.”
“Well, that’s plainly ridiculous,” said Brill. “Why would he want to attract a demon? I mean, where does he think he’s even going to find…” His voice trailed off as he caught sight of Davo and Fanny, their faces aghast.
“Why would he do that?” Davo burst out.
“Is he crazy?” asked Fanny, equally appalled by what Nic had just said.
“I don’t think so,” said Nic. “I think he’s just curious.”
“Could you suggest he not be?” asked Fanny.
“What’s wrong with the two of you?” asked Brill. “Are you suggesting there’s an actual…” He lost his words again and sat down with a bump. Of course. It made so much more sense now. A demon.
Brill became aware of Nic looking at him, and the brilliant, razor-sharp boy seemed to soften. Just for a moment, Brill saw something like pity. No, nothing as harsh as that. He was being looked down on, but kindly.
“It’s obviously an exercise,” said Nic. “He can’t tell us what he’s doing because that would defeat the point of it. He’s testing us without exam papers and time limits.”
Brill nodded. It made sense. It would be a simple and elegant way to teach a group of bright children the ways of Arcanum. How you turned a mass of confusion into a sharp, pointed thought that could cut through stone. Or something like that. You didn’t need to understand it to believe that was what he was doing.
That’s what made it so clever. And also so clearly untrue. He had seen how they had reacted, the fear and the exhilaration. That wasn’t the kind of excitement an exercise could produce. A demon might, though. A real one.
He understood what Davo meant now. He was on the same running track, but he was being lapped, again and again.
He didn’t feel as magnanimous in his interpretation as Davo. He simmered with indignation. Arrogant and conceited, he thought, then immediately, oh, give me sense to be patient. It was as glorious as it was ridiculous. Three boys deciding the fate of the entire world between them. Without fear or alarm. Like seasoned soldiers planning their next campaign.
“I wonder what my father would do if he thought there was a demon on campus,” said Brill to no one in particular.
Nic stood with his hands in his pocket, his head tilted to one side as though considering all possible outcomes.
“If he thought you were truly in danger, he would remove you from here and make sure you were very far away.”
Thank you, thought Brill. Thank you for the invitation, and the warning. Come if you wish, the invitation read, but come alone. How could he resist?
A demon. How was that even possible? A demon could change the course of history. It could grant unlimited power. And it could destroy everything it found offensive to its eyes.
Brill sighed and looked into the fire Davo had been building up. “Are we going to die?” he asked the flames.
“Yes,” said Nic. “Eventually.”
That snapped Brill out of his morbid reverie. “I didn’t take you for a smart Alec.”
“Really?” said Davo. “You thought the know-it-all wouldn’t be a smart Alec? You may have failed the exercise before we’ve even started.”
“If that’s his true nature,” said Brill, “he has shown remarkable restraint so far.”
“I know,” said Davo. “His consideration for others is his most sickening quality.”
“I am in the room, you know?” said Nic.
“This is fantastic,” said Fanny. He had laid out the contents of the box on the rug. An assortment of small objects that made no sense to Brill. It was every kind of junk and none of it of any practical use, as far as he could tell.
Fanny went to his room and returned with a herbal detector. Brill was sure that’s what it was, but he had no idea why he’d been allowed to keep one in his room, or why.
“Whatever Mr Denkne’s up to,” said Fanny as he opened the wooden box and began inserting new parts into it, “he only has magic on his side. We, on the other hand, have this.” He held up the detector which had wires hanging out of it.
“How marvellous,” said Davo. “What is it? The key to our self-destruction?”
“This is technology. This is the future.”
“I’ll take that as a yes,” said Davo.
“You have no faith, Davo. Luckily, you won’t need any.” Fanny twisted a knob and there was a high-pitched squeal.
Shouts came from two corners of the room, followed by thumps in the same corners.
Fanny turned off the detector and dropped it on the chair. “Sorry, sorry.” He had his hands raised and kept turning so he faced one corner, then the other. “Sorry, it was an accident. Please don’t be mad, I want to live.”
Brill could make no sense of what had just happened. Davo was laughing into his hand while Nic tried to reassure Fanny that he was in no danger of being executed.
It dawned on him what that meant. Secret Service agents. In the room. Only the most important students merited that kind of surveillance. Had Nic achieved the same level of importance as a prince or the child of some powerful family? Were they here to protect him or stop him?
He felt very much an outsider. What did they know? What was the extent of their knowledge? How could they hope to prevail against something as vicious and cold-hearted as a demon?
“You know, you might consider recruiting a fifth,” said Brill. “Miss Delcroix is actually—”
The look cut him dead. “No.” Nic’s eyes were filled with such overbearing conviction, Brill was suddenly very willing to believe there was a demon on campus, and that it was in the room with him.
“Under no circumstances is Dizzy to be involved. You understand?” There was no softness in his voice, no openness to the counsel of others.
“As you wish,” said Brill. “It was merely a suggestion.”
This wasn’t rivalry or a wish to domineer. He wanted to protect her. Her!
Brill had known Delzina Delcroix since she first came to Ransom at ten years old. Her first day had left every girl in class so cowed they were unable to make eye contact, with her or each other. Then she’d started on the boys.
She always allowed others position and status over her, but everyone knew their place. Her gift to those who accepted their role beneath her was to leave them alone. It was a bargain most were only too happy to make.
If the stakes were truly as high as he thought, she was an obvious choice. Never had he seen someone act protective of the most ruthless person he had ever encountered. What kind of person would think to protect a pit viper?
“Is this what your presentation project is going to be on?” Davo asked Fanny. “I can see you bringing the house down with your demonstration. And not in a good way.”
Fanny had calmed down once he realised he wasn’t going to be carted off for daring to attack the King’s Own. “I just need a little help with fine-tuning. I’m going to ask Miss Daffly to be my project supervisor.”
“Herbology?” said Davo. “Good idea. Give this whole technology farrago a wide berth.”
“She’s a trained technician,” said Fanny holding up the detector. “She’s the one who showed me how to open one of these in the first place. You shouldn’t judge people so easily.”
Davo raised a contemptuous eyebrow. “It’s not her I’m judging.”
“Have you already applied to Denkne?” Nic asked Brill.
“Yes,” said Brill. “I thought it best to…” He realised then that his instant decision to steal a march on the other prospective candidates for the Arts Course by handing in his application so quickly may not have been quite the prescient move he had thought.
If Nic was correct and Mr Denkne was playing some elaborate game, having him as a supervisor, eminently qualified as he was, would not serve Brill well. He would certainly have all the answers Brill might want, but that was of limited value if he insisted on only giving out false and misleading information.
“That’s good,” said Nic. “He’s worth staying close to. Whatever his reasons for being so uncooperative, there are still ways of getting the truth out of him. We should be able to manage him between us.”
Despite having serious doubts about being able to manage a mage of the Royal College, Nic’s words did bolster Brill’s slipping confidence. Even with no assistance whatsoever, he could still produce a noteworthy presentation. The point of taking Denkne as his supervisor was purely to augment his prospects, and that could still prove true. Assuming he handled the situation to his advantage.
“And I assume you’ll be going with Cromnym?” Nic said to Davo.
“Presumptuous as ever. But correct.”
That made sense. Mr Cromnym taught Economic Analysis. He would be a good fit for someone like Davo.
Nic, hands still in pockets, made for his own room. “I suppose I better get my proposal written up. As soon as I think of one.”
The others muttered their agreement and retired to their own rooms. Did anyone really believe Nic didn’t already know exactly what he was going to put forward as his central thesis? Brill was entirely sure that he did.
There was one question in Brill’s mind he hadn’t asked, even though it was easily the most insistent. Why should they be the ones to deal with such a huge threat?
Even if Nic was an extremely smart and capable boy, he was still a boy. There were bound to be far more suitable people who could handle this sort of thing far better.
Brill sat on the small bed in a room a quarter the size of his bedroom at home and pondered over the matter.
Nic was at the centre of whatever was happening. The arrival of a mage, the Secret Service Agents, the Archmage appearing on the back of the most powerful dragon in Ranvar… it all suggested the clever boy with top grades wasn’t just a wildly adventurous opportunist looking to make a name for himself. That didn’t fit the boy’s profile at all.
Everyone was sitting back, giving Nic the space to cause trouble. They were using him as bait.
For whatever reason, a demon had chosen him as its target. That made Nic very valuable. Brill couldn’t see those in power just preventing any meeting taking place, they would probably encourage it. The first demon to appear in a thousand years.
They would wait, and watch.
And what would Nic do? Simply allow himself to be a sacrifice for the greater good? That didn’t seem likely. He would try to prepare himself. He couldn’t avoid the risk, but he could, perhaps, turn it to his advantage. Demons could be bound. Brill’s own knowledge about demons was limited to storybooks and old myths, but he knew they were vulnerable to a sharp mind. And Nic certainly had one of those.
But he was still only a boy, and Brill remembered the old stories well. The men who were mages only in name, drawn by the smell of power the way hungry animals are drawn to the scent of blood, came to bind the demons to their wills. They came with books of instruction and refined Arcanum and braziers to burn them in, and they found the power couldn’t be taken so easily. What they did manage to take, would not be owned. It came when they called, but it would not be bound and when the men refused to give up, it bound them all.
It was a story taught to all children, the Parable of the First Failed Mages. A reminder that when you hunt to feed your hunger, your prey is also hungry.
Brill lay in his bed, unable to sleep, thinking about what a servile demon would allow you to achieve. He was also conscious of his own desire to be involved in such a perilous undertaking. Whatever the outcome, he was unlikely to benefit, not directly.
But he couldn’t deny his urge to be a participant. To be present, if only as a witness. He may well have been underestimating the danger, and would regret allowing his curiosity to get the better of him, but it was doubtful he would ever have another opportunity like this one.
He had been surprised when he’d been allowed to move into the cottage, with three boys whose presence he knew his father considered a nuisance. He had expected an argument and strong disapproval of the idea. An immediate rejection of his request would not have surprised him. But his prepared counter-arguments had not been needed. Permission was granted without the inquest he had envisaged.
He had assumed his father had wanted someone to keep an eye on the three Also-Rans. A way to avert future mischief from taking place. Now he wondered how much his father really knew about what was happening here.
The following morning they went to breakfast and no more was said on the subject of demons. They had things to do and results took time.
There was only one class, and then free periods until after lunch. They had much more time to themselves, to prepare their presentations and to research their subjects, with the help of their supervisors.
Brill decided to pay his father a visit, both because he hadn’t seen him in a few days and it was only polite, and also to gauge his mood.
His father was an easy man to read, at least for his son. He wore his emotions high on his sleeve. He would no doubt question Brill about his new living environment, and his questions would reveal his concerns. Nic was right about one thing. If his father knew about the demon, he would never have allowed Brill anywhere near the place.
He went up to his father’s office in the administration building, enjoying the familiar sound of his shoes sinking into the thick carpet. It was comforting after his time in the cottage. It was really quite unfair to subject the Also-Rans to such poor standards of accommodation simply to teach them their place. In addition to which, it clearly wasn’t working.
“Brill…” said his father’s secretary, smiling warmly as he approached her desk. He had known her his whole life and considered her practically his aunt.
“Miss Peregon,” said Brill, remaining formal while they were in school hours.
“Mr Epsteem,” she said, returning the courtesy, but retaining the smile. “What can I do for you?”
“I was hoping to catch my father, if he has a moment.”
“I’m sure he’ll make time, but you’ll have to wait.” She nodded past him.
Brill turned to find another student was waiting to see his father, seated on the settee between two potted ferns. “Miss Delcroix,” he said, politely dipping his head.
Her own head bobbed slightly, but she kept staring straight ahead, no other movement. She wasn’t ignoring him, she was deep in thought and had nothing else to say. He had known her long enough to understand her moods, all of them well worth avoiding. She was concentrating, formulating her plans. He hoped very much they didn’t involve him.
It wasn’t surprising that she was here. She often called on the Headmaster to demand things and insist on changes. His father often complained about her outrageous behaviour over dinner. He wouldn’t be there to hear what this latest petition was in regard to.
He sat down on the other end of the settee. The secretary busied herself, occasionally looking up and making eye contact with him.
“You did well.”
Brill turned his head to the other end of the settee. She was still staring ahead. “I did?” There was no response. “I’m not sure what you’re referring to, but it sounds like a compliment, so thank you.”
“You saw there was something happening, and you repositioned yourself to take advantage, should that become an option. I was slow to see it. Kudos.”
It was mildly infuriating to be pinned down with such little regard. No inquiry, no wish to hear his intentions. She was informing him of her assessment of his actions, as though that was the only relevant perspective.
He kept his mouth shut. To provoke her would only encourage a painful confrontation. Painful for him.
“I want you to convince them to include me.”
“Include you in what?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care. Speak to them on my behalf.”
“I can’t,” said Brill.
“I won’t, but even if I did, he would say no. He’s already made that very clear. He has forbidden any of us involving you.”
She turned her head, looking at him for the first time. He made sure to not return the gaze. “Why?”
“Because he fears for your safety.”
He could feel her rage shaking the settee they shared. It was a little juvenile to inflame her, but he couldn’t resist, especially as it wasn’t him she was mad at.
The Headmaster’s door opened and both their heads turned towards it. Nic exited, closed the door behind him, and walked past them. He stopped just as he reached the secretary’s desk and turned to face them.
“Um, you wanted me to tell you who I was going to elect as my supervisor for the project presentation.”
“Yes?” she said emotionlessly, all signs of anger wiped away.
“I’ve chosen the Headmaster.”
Brill was taken by surprise. His father had been a fine teacher and was eminently qualified, but he hadn’t taken a class since before Brill had been born. And more to the point, what kind of person asked the Headmaster to be their supervisor? He was the Headmaster!
“Why?” asked Brill. “What will you be presenting?”
“Hmm? Oh, I’m going to do a paper on the effectiveness of the Ranvar educational system. Your father seemed the most appropriate member of the faculty.”
Brill had thought they were both going to choose Denkne and work on him in tandem. That would have made it much easier to work out what his true intentions were, but now it seemed he was being left to operate alone in uncharted waters with a trickster shark. He was about to ask many more question when a cold, hard voice interrupted his panicked thoughts.
“Sounds fascinating. The Headmaster as your supervisor. I don’t think anyone’s thought of asking him before. A prestigious choice. You always did prefer a firm hand on the tiller.”
Brill watched Nic closely. He seemed very calm, almost unresponsive. The Delcroix girl was equally still, but her eyes shone like gems.
The door opened again and the Headmaster appeared. He had a word with his secretary and then turned towards them.
“Miss Delcroix, nice to see you again. I’ve looked over your proposal and everything looks to be in order.”
She stood up. “Thank you, Headmaster. I’ll schedule our first meeting for next week.”
He saw it then, a ripple across Nic’s placid surface. “You also…”
“Of course,” she said. “It seemed the obvious choice. Perhaps we should combine our meetings, so as to not waste too much of the Headmaster’s time.” She didn’t wait for a response, just turned and walked away.
Nic stared after her, unable to react.
Brill looked up at his face. She had outsmarted him, predicted his move and stayed ahead of him. He was shaking. Would he be angry that she had outwitted him, or just crushed? It was neither of those. It was altogether more startling. He was smiling warmly, like he was proud of her. Was he insane? If she saw that look, she’d rip his eyes out.
“I’ll see you later,” Nic said, and wandered off like he wasn’t sure where he was going.
“Come in, boy, come in. I have lots of questions.”
Brill nodded and followed his father into his office thinking, that’s all I have, too.