Nic didn’t go to bed. He remained curled in the chair in front of the fire, drifting in and out of sleep. He was too comfortable to move, and too uncomfortable to make it past a light snooze.
The fire had gone out and the hall rapidly cooled down. He fancied he heard footsteps. It could have been one of his roommates moving around his room, or it could have been Secret Service agents changing position. He was unlikely to be able to hear that under normal circumstances, but perhaps a state of semi-consciousness allowed you to notice things you otherwise wouldn’t.
The footsteps could also have been the demon wandering around his mind. It had settled down to wait for its master. Or mistress. Did demons have gender? She was coming. Were all demons her children? Did they reproduce like animals? Like people? If she was the mother, who was the father? There wasn’t much research on the subject that Nic had encountered, and he had looked.
There was a creak from above. He sat with his eyes closed, ignoring it. Most likely it was the wind. Mallory hadn’t returned for the new term. There was no one upstairs.
His stomach made its own noises. Perhaps the demon was rummaging about down there, looking for a snack. He doubted it would find much. He needed to eat more. Get bigger and stronger, like a soldier. A hero. A smile played across his dried lips.
He did feel hungry, though. He could raid Fanny’s pantry, there was always something good in there.
Nic opened his eyes. They were a bit gummy and he had to blink rapidly to clear his vision. With all the doors closed, the only light came from the window in the kitchen. The first hint of dawn had crept all the way to the kitchen doorway, but shyly clung to the doorframe.
He stood up and went to Fanny’s door. He knocked lightly. It was kind of pointless to try to wake him without disturbing his sleep. He turned the handle and the door opened.
Fanny slept with at least three blankets piled on top of him, and both feet sticking out of the bottom. He had socks on. He was on his back, his mouth wide open to accommodate large, noisy breaths.
Nic crept closer and shook Fanny gently by the shoulder. There was no response. He could wait until morning to ask his question, but he didn’t have the patience. He shook Fanny a little harder, making his head sway from side to side. Other than adding a little vibrato to Fanny’s breathing, nothing changed.
“Hey, hey,” he whispered. “Hey.”
“What are you doing?” asked Davo. He was standing in the doorway in a silk dressing gown. His normally well-oiled hair flopped across his face.
“I need to ask him something,” said Nic.
Davo walked in, grabbed the pillow under Fanny’s head, and pulled it out.
Fanny’s head dropped onto the mattress, bouncing up to meet the pillow smashed into his face, repeatedly. His hands rose to defend himself as he spluttered awake.
“Huh? Ah. No. Wait.”
“There you are,” said Davo. “Ask away.”
Fanny looked at them through squinting eyes. The early morning light had snuck around the cottage to peer in through the window.
“What are you doing?” said Fanny in a hoarse voice. “Is it trouble?” He sat up, eyes alert and darting from Nic to Davo, and back again.
“What does your dad eat?” asked Nic.
Fanny’s face collapsed into confusion. “Eh?”
“Your father. What kind of diet does he have? Does he eat a lot?”
“No,” said Fanny. “Not a lot. The usual amount.” Comprehension slowly dawned on him. “He eats solids. All the time.”
“Maybe it’s only when they’re training,” said Davo. He had picked up on what Nic was getting at. Mr Denkne had told the class mages needed to exercise great restraint when it came to eating, as part of their development as Arcanum users. Fanny’s father was a mage at the Royal College. “It could have been before Fanny was born.”
“And then they go back to eating like normal?” said Nic. “I don’t think so.”
“Maybe it was a metaphor,” said Fanny.
“Maybe it was a lie,” said Nic.
“Why would he lie about that?” asked Davo.
Nic didn’t know the answer to that. Yet.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” Davo said to Fanny. “When Denkne told us about it in class, didn’t you wonder why you’ve never seen your father fasting?”
Fanny shrugged. “I don’t really think of him as a mage. He never does magic around the house. I don’t even know what his speciality is.”
“How can you not know your own father’s speciality?” asked Davo aghast.
“I think it might have to do with locating things. Whenever my mother can’t find something in the kitchen, he always knows where it is.”
Davo pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head. “Wonderful. If the demons attack, at least we’ll know where the baking tins are.”
“You’re making me hungry,” said Fanny. “Is it time for breakfast?”
Davo looked at the window. “In about two hours.”
“Close enough.” Fanny rolled out of bed.
“Good thing he was lying about the fasting,” said Davo. “You’d never make a mage otherwise.”
“I know,” said Fanny. “I was considering giving up on the whole idea. Thanks,” he said to Nic. “I feel a lot better about my prospects, now.”
Nic moved aside to let Fanny out. His thoughts were still on Denkne. The Archmage had sent him to keep an eye on things. Minister Delcroix had vouched for him. Where did telling the students fabrications come into play? Was Denkne some kind of prankster? That didn’t seem likely.
There was a distinct feeling that he was missing something. Perhaps the Archmage had set Denkne a different task. But what did lying achieve? The smell of toast distracted him and he went to join the others.
They didn’t go back to bed. It seemed pointless, and Fanny produced a stream of pastries out of the small oven no one else had even figured out how to light. They chatted about what they had been up to over the break, and how to best organise their time over the new term; a moment of normality at dawn.
Nic was expected to decide on logistical matters, his approach being well in advance of theirs. There were no exams this term, but Ransom had a full itinerary for them.
Brill joined them soon after, his nostrils unable to ignore the early morning call to feast. They didn’t bother going to the cafeteria for breakfast. Fanny complained mildly about having to restock his provisions, but his pantry was still more than half full by the time they’d gorged themselves to a standstill.
Fanny offered the last pastry to the empty corners of the kitchen, in case there were any hungry agents on duty, but there were no takers. Brill watched him with a puzzled look on his face. His questioning glances towards Nic and Davo was answered with mimed responses strongly implying Fanny had mental problems.
Washed and changed into their school uniforms, the four boys headed for the school hall, a location three of them hadn’t visited before.
“It’ll just be an announcement about the presentation project,” Brill informed them. “Shouldn’t take long.”
They knew what the presentation project was in theory, but it hadn’t been explained in very great depth in the literature they’d received. A large block of the second term would be given over to the writing and presenting of a paper, the subject of which would be chosen by each student, developed by them in whatever manner they saw fit, and then judged at a public presentation at the end of the term.
It was up to each individual student to decide what they thought would be worth presenting. The scope was so broad, it made it virtually impossible to work out what the faculty expected.
Nic found the idea both baffling and beguiling. He couldn’t predict the best course of action, leaving him to do something on a subject he considered enthralling, and hope for the best.
Only, he wouldn’t do that. He would carefully consider what the teachers would respond best to, and then give them something they couldn’t resist. At least, he would try. It would depend on exactly what the restrictions were. And if he had the time.
“It’s all a bit vague, isn’t it?” asked Fanny as they walked across the quad. A stiff breeze broomed the clouds across the sky before they could settle.
“It’s open-ended at the outset,” said Brill. “It doesn’t have to be vague in the execution. The whole school turns out to watch and most are very well received. A few are even what I would term amazing—emphasis on the zing! And then, of course, some are stunningly disappointing. I’ve seen some very fine lectures. And some outrageous grandstanding. There was one last year where the student decided to show the cyclical nature of the food chain by having larger animals eat smaller ones on stage. Worked his way up to a human being eating a full dinner, choking on a bone and then his body decomposed as we watched, providing sustenance for an army of insects that invaded the auditorium.”
“How did he do that?” asked Fanny, at once thrilled and horrified.
“Puppets,” said Brill.
“We’re expected to put on a show, are we?” asked Davo.
“You can communicate your ideas any way you see fit,” said Brill. “It’s all about you expressing your own interests. There is no right or wrong answer.”
“But they awarded marks, don’t they?” asked Nic.
“End of year exams are worth more, but, yes,” said Brill. “In particular, they take them into account when deciding who to put it into the more selective classes in the second year.”
“You mean the Arts Course,” said Davo.
“Indeed I do,” said Brill. “Some less than impressive students have managed to gain admission thanks to a stellar project presentation.”
Nic considered it a smart move on the part of the school. It allowed them plenty of leeway when it came to assigning students to classes in the second year. With a highly subjective approach to assessing a successful presentation, it would be easy to justify the inclusion of favoured student when their results might not seem to merit it. A royal child or powerful scion could be legitimately ushered in.
And it also allowed for those who weren’t the right sort to be held back. They might have the marks to gain entry, but were they ‘fully-rounded’? Did they demonstrate the right sort of ‘mentality’? Were they ‘one of us’?
When they reached the hall building, students were waiting outside. There was a degree of agitation in the air, not due to the special assembly, but because new rankings for the mocks had been posted, with revised standings thanks to Nic, Davo and Fanny being included this time.
Some students were a little put out by their lowered positions, but the Also-Rans being overlooked wasn’t exactly an unprecedented occurrence. It may have come as a bit of a surprise to some of the students that the three of them were still attending the school.
They received some questioning looks as they walked up, and some questionable ones, too. Brill took the lead and shooed them away with the confidence of a man who knew he was well beyond the reach of those in his path. Outside the school walls, it would have been a different story.
The school hall was an enormous building with an upper tier for when the entire school was required to be present. It felt cavernous with only the first year upperclass in attendance.
“I guess this is where we would have come on our first day,” said Davo, “if we’d been invited.”
“Why aren’t there any chairs?” asked Fanny. “How long will this go on for?”
The Headmaster came onto the stage at the front and motioned for quiet.
“Thank you, settle down now, please. Welcome back to all of you. As you know, this term you will be given a great deal of latitude with your studies. Your applications need to be in by the end of the week.”
“What applications?” whispered Fanny. Brill waved him silent.
The Headmaster continued talking for thirty minutes or so. Fanny was floppy and listless after the first fifteen. Davo stood ramrod straight, concentrating. There was a lot of information to take in, but there was also a great deal taken for granted. This was a time-honoured Ransom tradition, so it was assumed the students were already aware of the basic requirements.
And they all seemed to be. Apart from a small minority.
Nic was relieved they had Brill to explain the finer points, and also some of the more general ones.
The gist of it, as far as Nic was able to ascertain, was that they would have to come up with a proposal for their presentation, and hand it into the teacher who they thought would be best suited to help them.
The teacher would be an adviser who could point them towards the things they would need to make their presentation a success. He wasn’t a participant, or a judge. He was merely a supervisor who might offer a little counselling on the side. The students were solely accountable for their efforts.
“Sounds like just another day at Ransom to me,” said Davo under his breath.
Nic suppressed a smile and looked down the line. Brill had a strange expression on his face as he watched his father on the stage. Pride burst out of him. He planned to become a mage, but following in his father’s footsteps might be the more rewarding path. Nic’s gaze slipped past him and was sharply intercepted by two glaring eyes at the far end of the row, no less intimidating for the distance.
Nic snapped his head to face front, and then dared a peek to see if Dizzy was still staring at him. He didn’t really need to look, he could feel her rage boring into him. He knew that look. She was mad about his relationship with her father. It didn’t matter what the relationship was, she didn’t like it. She meant to find out why her position had been usurped, even though that was far from the truth. He couldn’t tell her that, it would only aggravate her. There was no point denying it, if he wanted to keep her away, he’d have to find satisfactory answers for her questions. Dull ones that would placate her into losing interest.
He had arrived at the school to be met by ferocious indifference from the girl, and now that he needed her to keep away, she had suddenly developed a morbid interest in him. The time allocated for working on the presentations would at least prevent him from seeing so much of her in class.
After the assembly they had the rest of the day free to begin the process of working up a proposal and consider their options for an advisor. Brill already seemed to have his proposal written and rushed off to procure the teacher of his choice. The other three headed for the library.
“Denkne’s going to be popular,” said Davo. “All the Arts Course aspirants will be rushing to have a mage of the Royal College on call.”
“Are you going to apply to him?” Nic asked Fanny.
“Mmm,” answered Fanny noncommittally. “Dunno. I should, but I’d rather have someone who can help with technical stuff. I want to get my detector fine tuned. I’ve got some pretty good ideas. I think it’ll make a decent stage show, once I add some music.”
“Shouldn’t you go see Denkne about any items he might have for you, then?” said Davo.
Fanny didn’t look keen. “Maybe after lunch.”
He prevaricated after lunch and well into the afternoon. Davo had a concept for demonstrating how the economy of Ranvar operated. His ideas were somewhat controversial, but his natural flair as a salesman would probably make them more palatable. It helped that he had no interest in getting onto the Arts Course, leaving him free to be more provocative.
Nic had no interests in that direction, either, but since Denkne had been sent here because of him, it seemed fitting that he choose him as his advisor. That way, if something untoward were to happen, he would have a clear channel of communication already set up.
He was hesitant. He sensed something improper with regard to the white-haired mage.
“I’m going to talk to Denkne,” said Nic.
“Can you ask him if he’s got anything for me?” Fanny immediately blurted out.
Nic shrugged. “Okay.”
“Coward,” said Davo.
The teachers’ building was as large as any of the student dormitories, although it housed considerably fewer occupants. Nic walked up the shallow steps to the entrance with a little anxiety pulling at his stomach. It was like entering enemy territory.
A porter asked him his business at the door. He was sitting behind a small window, in a room the size of a closet, lined with shelves full of envelopes and packages.
“I’d like to see Mr Denkne, please,” Nic said in a voice a small girl would have been embarrassed of. He cleared his throat and tried again.
“Nic Tutt?” asked the porter.
“Um, yes,” said Nic, taken by surprise.
“You’re expected.” He gave Nic directions to Mr Denkne’s rooms.
The teachers had had the day off. Judging by the noise when Nic entered the building, they’d spent most of it drinking. Nic kept his head down and hurried up the stairs. He didn’t like dealing with inebriated adults. They were hard to predict and impossible to outsmart. They were going to do whatever they were going to do, you couldn’t stop them. You could, however, outrun them.
He made it to the fifth floor without incident and found Denkne’s apartment. He knocked on the door and received a resounding, “Enter!”
The door was unlocked. Mr Denkne was in a large wooden tub in the middle of his living room.
“Close the door, you’ll give me a chill.”
Nic closed the door. Now he felt really uncomfortable.
Steam rose from the water, filling the room with perfume. There were no pipes or any kind of heating source that Nic could see.
Denkne stirred in his bath. He wiped the sweat from his face and neck with a small white towel and sank deeper into the hot scented water, releasing a contented sigh.
“If you’d told me a few days ago I’d be sitting in a tub in the middle of a tiny apartment, surrounded by mewling children on all sides, and not a few above and below, I’d have sent you to the Ministry of Instruction for assessment. And yet, here I am.”
He opened his eyes and looked at Nic. Water dripped down his long face. Nic didn’t know how to start a conversation from this position.
“You have something you wish to ask me?”
“Oh, um, yes.” Nic looked around for somewhere to sit. The change of angle might make things easier. There were no chairs, just a settee on the far side of the sparsely furnished room. He couldn’t really sit over there and shout.
“Concerned we might be overheard?” asked Denkne playfully. He raised a wet arm and shook the water off.
The air around them changed. Coloured shadows stretched out, painting the room in a wash of red and blue. Standing by the window were two Secret Service agents.
“Don’t fret, they are hearing an entirely different conversation.” He leaned out of the bath and lowered his voice. “They think you’re here to ask my advice about a girl you have a crush on.”
Nic was taken aback and Denkne let out surprised laughter. “I was only jesting, but maybe I struck closer to the truth than intended. Worry not my young demon master, your love life is nobody’s business but your own. They think this is to do with schoolwork. Speak freely.”
It took a moment for Nic to collect himself.
“Did the Archmage send anything for Fan— for Master Bostware’s son?”
“No,” said Denkne.
“But he said he would.”
“You’ll have to ask him about that.” He busied himself collecting his long hair into a tail and hung it off the back of the tub.
Nic thought about his next question a long time. Denkne didn’t seem to mind the wait.
“Are you lying?”
Denkne looked up, and then he smiled. “Congratulations, Mr Tutt, you’ve passed the preliminary test in perspicacity.”
“And in class, the different stages of preparation for a mage, that was also untrue?”
“Of course.” He was still smiling. It was faint and thin, and very unsettling.
“That’s the question isn’t it? When you figure out the answer, we will be able to discuss these things to a much greater degree.”
Nic carefully considered the reasons why the mage might go to the trouble of telling pointless lies.
“Some kind of subterfuge?” Not really an answer, more a request for a hint.
“Honesty is the best subterfuge,” said Denkne.
Nic nodded, not really understanding, but accepting that he wouldn’t get his answers by simply requesting them. Not here.
“Tell me, Nicolav Tutt, will you be asking me to be your supervisor for the presentation project, or whatever it is?” Denkne sank down so only his slanted eyes remained above water, his long hair cascading in behind him.
“I… don’t know,” said Nic.
Denkne paused his submerging, and then gracefully lifted his head out of the water. “No? Why the hesitation?”
“I… I don’t trust you.”
Denkne’s thin lips spread across his face, threatening to release more laughter. “You think I may be your enemy?”
“I don’t trust what I don’t understand,” said Nic. “I can’t trust you to do what I expect.”
“Ah, I see, I see. You wish to surround yourself with people who behave as you expect them to, good or bad. You can trust that. Very good. Very correct.” He slipped back down, his knees appearing like pale mountains.
Nic waited for some further instructions, a question, something. No one spoke. The agents shimmered in the purple shadows.
“So, the Archmage did send something?” he asked finally.
“It’s behind you.” The water began to bubble and more steam rose, making the room uncomfortably warm.
Nic turned. There was a box on a table next to the door. He pointed at it. “I should…”
“Yes, yes, off you go.”
It was a fairly big box. Nic needed both hands to pick it up, and then he had to put it down again to open the door. Cold air chilled the warm moisture on his face. He walked out and turned to try and close the door. It blew shut by itself.
Nic had hoped to learn something about why Denkne had been sent, and what kind of help he could expect. His audience with the white mage had left him none the wiser.
He carried the box back to the cottage. It wasn’t that heavy, but it was an awkward size and he had to keep stopping to reposition his hold so it didn’t slip out of his grip.
The cottage door was a bit of a hassle. He banged into it to try and reach the handle, and then knocked using the toe of his shoe. It was opened by Davo.
“We have a guest.”
He pushed the box into Davo’s arms where it seemed much smaller and easier to manage.
Inside, Fanny and Brill were standing either side of the fireplace with nervous smiles affixed. Nic had to walk around to see who was in the chair facing them. Dizzy jumped up when she saw him.
He knew he’d have to face her at some point, but he hadn’t had the time to prepare himself. She looked in no mood to reminisce about old times.
“Have you decided what your presentation will be on?” she asked with no preamble.
“No,” said Nic. “Not yet.”
“But the teacher you want as supervisor, it’s Denkne, right? He’s the only full-fledged mage in the school and anyone who wants to get on the Arts Course would hope to have him as their mentor. He’s going to be very popular—probably won’t be able to take on everyone who applies.”
It was a bit like being caught in a storm, the wind stinging your eyes and the debris flying past close to your face. “I don’t want to get on the Arts Course,” said Nic.
“No, of course you don’t. Why would you? What’s in the box?”
Nic followed her gaze to the box in Davo’s arms.
“It’s Fanny’s,” said Nic.
Dizzy reached out and lifted a corner. There was a label Nic hadn’t seen. It very clearly had Denkne’s name on it.
“You got this from Mr Denkne,” she said with chilling certainty.
“For Fanny,” said Nic.
“He knew your name. In class, when he spoke to you, he knew your name without asking.”
“You went to see him. But you aren’t going to ask him to be your supervisor.”
“You don’t know yet.”
“If you wait too long, it might be too late. I can ask anytime. I won’t be refused. You don’t have the same privilege. You didn’t come first in the mocks. I came first.”
“Second,” said Fanny.
She turned to face him, her whole body, ready. “What?”
He smiled innocently. “Just a second and I’ll get you a drink.”
She looked at him closely. An examination. “Thank you, I’m fine.”
“Cake? I think I have some left.” Fanny paused to think. “I might have eaten it, though.”
She shook her head and turned back to Nic. “When will you decide?”
It was all very brusque and businesslike, with little room for evasion. “Tomorrow?”
“Good. Can you let me know before you declare your interest?”
“Okay,” said Nic slowly. “Why?”
“Because you owe me and I asked you. Isn’t that reason enough?”
Nic couldn’t really disagree. He nodded.
Dizzy turned and walked out.
“What the hell was that?” asked Brill.
“They have a difficult relationship,” said Fanny. “Childhood friends.”
“Oh,” said Brill. “It’s like that, is it?”
Nic wasn’t entirely sure what he meant, and he had no intention to ask.
“I thought she wanted nothing to do with you,” said Davo. “Why is she suddenly making personal visits?”
“Miss Delcroix is not someone you should underestimate,” said Brill. “I expect she’s noticed the same things I have. This is where the action is.”
“All the more reason to keep your distance,” said Davo.
“Hmm,” said Fanny. “Do you think she wants to know which teacher you’d like to be assigned to because she wants to be in the same group as you, or because she wants to make sure she isn’t.”
Previously, Nic would have banked on it being the latter. Preventing a move on his part before he’d had a chance to even consider it was very much her style. But now, it was far more likely she wanted to keep a closer eye on him. He couldn’t allow that.