There was a sudden increase in workload. Lessons went from a steady flow of information and assignments, to a surge of books to read and informal tests held regularly. They weren’t competitive tests to rank the students in order of ability—everyone was expected to get full marks.
The teaching methods here were different from what Nic was used to. The teachers each had their own approach and personality, some were strict and aggressive, forcing knowledge into the students like corn down a goose’s gullet, others were more relaxed and conversational, trying to instil a sense of wonder and excitement (which was quite ambitious when you were teaching Economic Analysis).
However, the one thing they all had in common was how they approached testing. Nic noticed it first in Military History. In the middle of a long lecture, Mr Varity tended to pick on a student and ask them a question on what he’d just been talking about. This would happen many times during a class.
The student would stand when called on and answer. Nic could always tell if the student really understood what they were saying, or if they were just repeating it parrot fashion, and so could Mr Varity.
To the casual observer, it would seem the students were chosen at random and it was just a way of reinforcing the information being conveyed.
But when they had their tests, the questions would always be focused on the areas the students in class had the most difficulty with. Once he became aware of this, Nic began watching for this approach in the other teachers, and found it.
They all canvassed the class in subtle ways and used this data to shape their testing.
It meant, Nic surmised, that the school had a policy of using the lowest level of understanding as a limiting factor. He wasn’t sure if this meant they were generously aiming to help the least able, or coldly targeting them.
What was clear was that it made more work for the teachers. Rather than pick the apples at the top of the barrel, they pushed up from the bottom.
The other thing the teachers had in common was that none of them ever asked their divining questions of the Also-Rans. If their understanding didn’t match the least of their fellow students, they would be left to rot at the bottom of the barrel. Probably also school policy. Fortunately, the Also-Rans were far from the bottom.
Nic observed closely whenever questions were asked, using his own extensive understanding of each subject to judge the students’ responses. And from that, he was able to predict what any upcoming test would be on, down to the exact question.
This made revising much more efficient. He would tell the others what they needed to know, specifically, and they would focus solely on that. At first, they were dubious about limiting their studies to such a narrow range, but when they faced those exact questions in the test, it quickly became apparent Nic somehow knew what to expect.
He did try to explain how he was able to do this when they asked, but while the general idea was easy enough to grasp, when they tried to observe the teachers in action, neither their questions or the students’ answers revealed anything to them. But they were happy to continue taking Nic’s advice on faith.
Nic didn’t really need the advantage of knowing the questions in advance, but it did open his eyes to how the school operated. None of the students in the Upperclass were lacking when it came to academic ability—they wouldn’t have been accepted if they were—but they weren’t tested in a sink or swim approach. They were challenged to address their own weaknesses.
If this was how teachers at Ransom had been taught to teach, it made Nic curious how the masters at the Royal College functioned. He had no interest in becoming a mage, but he’d like to see how mages were trained.
It was a facile thought. He would not be entering the Arts Course that Fanny was so keen to get into. He would use his time at Ransom to achieve a decent education and perhaps some distinction, and then get a good job, perhaps with Minister Delcroix, if the offer was still there.
He would be able to afford a respectable standard of living, take care of his mother, and… There was one area of his life he couldn’t foresee, or at least resisted dwelling on. No matter how well off he might end up, he would still be the son of a maid. It didn’t matter if he came first in the whole school, he would never be able to change that.
It made him question his reasons for coming to Ransom in the first place. What had he hoped to get from Dizzy? Just friendship? It didn’t really matter what she felt for him, it was impossible for her to reciprocate his feelings. He knew that, but he’d come anyway. It was incredibly unfair of him to put her in such a position. Luckily, it posed no dilemma for her. She had made that abundantly clear.
“Mr Tutt,” called out Miss Daffly, “you don’t appear to have a detector. Why not?”
Nic looked down at his hands like he was checking to see if she was right, even though he already knew she was.
“There weren’t any left,” he said, once he’d confirmed that he indeed did not have a herbal detector in his hands.
The other students continued foraging for herbs with their clicking boxes. The wheelbarrow-like trolley that was supposed to contain one detector for each student was empty.
The real reason he was detectorless was because the missing detector was in his room. He had been trying to fix it, but hadn’t got very far. The inner workings of arcanum-related devices was not one of his areas of expertise, but he was confident he could figure it out, eventually. Just not by today’s lesson. Even though Fanny had inadvertently taken it home with him, Nic had been responsible for breaking it, so it was only fair that he should be the one to go without.
Miss Daffly walked across the field to the trolley and peered into it like she didn’t believe him. She looked back at him, her eyes flicking up and down his body to make sure he didn’t have the missing detector hidden about his person.
“Here.” She took off the detector hanging from her shoulder, her personal device that was far better than the school provided ones, and handed it to him. “Don’t break it.”
He took it and hoped lightning wouldn’t strike twice.
Unlike most other lessons, Herbology consisted mainly of field trips and course work. There was no end of year exam and no mock test to bone up on, just finding herbs and catching them.
This lesson’s target was Herb Thyson. You had to listen for the right pattern of ticks and hums, and then slowly creep up on it before it saw you and ran away.
“That’s not fair,” said Fanny. “You’ve got a better one than us.”
Nic walked past him, bent over and strafing the grass ahead of him left and right. “Shh. I think I hear one.”
Everyone was spread out across the meadow near the east wall. The area had been left to grow wild and was near their cottage, so they could at least go home afterwards.
Nic got down on his knees and listened intently. He shuffled along until he saw it, a tiny plant with a purple and yellow closed bud, crawling through the grass. Now he just had to entice it into his glass jar. He couldn’t touch it without damaging it, but he knew a dozen capturing techniques. He’d just never tried any of them before.
“Thanks,” said Simole, planting her own jar on top of the hapless herb. It jumped up to the base and Simole turned the jar over and put the lid on.
Herb Thyson couldn’t jump like that, he was sure. She had used some skill not available to the rest of them, but there was nothing wrong with that. Although he would have preferred she hadn’t stolen his herb.
She grinned at him, like she would only have stolen his herb.
There was a splash and a distressed shout. Some boys appeared from over by the pond, the one next to the cottage. They looked pleased with themselves and suspicious. They glanced over at the students in the meadow, and hurried away. He didn’t recognise any of them; they looked older.
“Twenty minutes left,” called out Miss Daffly, either not noticing the other boys or ignoring them. “I expect a live specimen. Unbruised.”
Nic couldn’t stop looking over at the pond. He started walking towards it, waving the detector in front of him like he was looking for the elusive herb. He heard a choking gasp and ran.
He broke through the shrubs and saw a body in the pond, a student, struggling to get to the edge, but unable to use his arms. He rolled onto his back to reveal a battered face. It was Mallory.
Nic dropped the detector, cursing himself somewhere in the back of his mind for probably breaking it, and ran into the water. He grabbed Mallory’s jacket and pulled. Mallory screamed.
It became obvious why he’d been having so much trouble getting out of a shallow pond. Both his arms were broken.
Nic ignored the protesting cries and stumbled backwards with Mallory in tow. He felt the edge hit the back of his legs and then more hands were reaching to help pull Mallory ashore. Fanny and Davo were either side of him.
They managed to get him onto land and dropped him on his back, weeping. His arms were unnaturally turned and angled.
“We should get a doctor,” said Davo.
“Is there one?” asked Fanny, and they realised they didn’t know.
“There must be a nurse, at least,” said Davo. “Mallory, where do we find the school nurse?”
Mallory just whimpered.
“Secret boy’s club?” asked Simole as she ducked under the low branches to join them. She stopped when she saw Mallory. “Who did that?”
“I don’t know,” said Nic. “Some second years, I think.” He looked down at Mallory who was now shivering uncontrollably. He turned back to Simole. “You said you knew attack and defence. Does that include healing?”
Simole gave a noncommittal shrug. “Some.”
The three boys stared at her, not saying anything. Simole sighed and rolled her eyes. She handed her detector and the jar containing Herb Thyson to Fanny. “Be careful with that, it’s a female, guaranteed A.”
She stepped closer to Mallory and took a deep breath. She didn’t seem to do anything else, but around them, the vegetation began to wither; grass yellowed and leaves wilted. Mallory’s limbs straightened and he gasped. Simole let out her breath and reached out towards Fanny.
Fanny was too mesmerised to understand what she wanted, then realised and handed back her equipment.
She lifted up the jar. All that was left of Herb Thyson was a shrivelled husk. “Damn.”
Mallory sat up, wheezing. He lifted and lowered his arms like he didn’t know what they were. He looked up at Simole, his face unblemished. “Thank you.”
“Why did they do that to you?” asked Nic.
Mallory got to his feet, wiping tears from his eyes. He was soaking wet with water from his hair running down his face, so it didn’t make much difference.
“A friendly warning,” said Mallory with a bitter smile. “There’s a master from the Royal College visiting. He’s here to make preliminary cuts from the arts programme.”
“You’re on the Arts Course,” said Fanny, his voice rising excitedly.
“Yes,” said Mallory. “It’s a great honour, as you can see.”
“They wanted you to get kicked off the course?” asked Davo.
It made sense. If someone had to be thrown out, why not an Also-Ran?
“No, if I’m absent through illness—” he snorted a humourless laugh “—I won’t get kicked. But if I’m not present for the master’s appraisal, I can’t be selected for prominence.”
“What’s that?” asked Nic. He hadn’t heard of that term, nor seen it in any book.
“The top three students get personal tuition from the master himself. It’s a big advantage. This master specialises in prestidigitation. Hand movements and gestures.” He shook his hands like he was trying to get rid of the cold. “Hard to impress a prestidigitator when you can’t use your hands.” He squeezed them into fists and lowered them by his side. “I have to go. Don’t want to miss my chance at prominence.”
“You’re still going?” said Davo.
“Of course!” said Mallory. “I can’t waste an opportunity like this.” He looked at Simole and smiled with no trace of his customary bitterness. “I’d kiss you if I didn’t think you’d kill me for it.”
“Good call,” said Simole. Nic thought he caught a slight blush in her face, but he might have imagined it.
Mallory rushed off, still sodden to his core.
“You might want to get changed before you catch a cold,” Davo called after him. “Sneezing and magic don’t mix.”
Mallory waved a perfectly-functioning arm without looking back and ran towards the cottage.
Davo turned to Simole. “Or do they? I have no idea to be honest.”
Simole walked off without answering.
Nic picked up the dropped detector. It didn’t look broken. He turned it on and it didn’t make a sound, but then everything around them was dead.
“Do you think they’ll do it to him again?” asked Fanny.
“Probably,” said Davo as they all followed Simole back. “That’s what you can expect if you get on the Arts Course. Good luck to you.”
Fanny pursed his lips. “At least it shows they saw him as a real threat. They only beat him up because they were scared of him.”
“I don’t see how that’s a positive thing,” said Davo.
They returned to the class who were handing in their glass jars. None of the Also-Rans had a specimen to offer, not a living one. No mention was made of where they had disappeared to or why their trousers were wet.
“We’re going to fail this class so hard,” moaned Fanny.
It was the last class before lunch, so they had time to get changed themselves and then went to the cafeteria where their reserved table awaited them. They ate without speaking, brooding over what Ransom had in store for them.
Davo was the first to break the silence. “It makes even more sense not to stand out. You can see how they deal with a challenge to their birthright. If they see us as a threat, they will come for us like they did Mallory. And Simole won’t always be there to save us. Nor should she.”
Simole said nothing and continued eating.
“Yes,” said Nic. “You’re right.”
Davo paused his fork mid-air, “I am? I mean, you agree?”
“Yes,” said Nic. “We shouldn’t make it obvious we’re so far ahead of them. The mocks aren’t that important. I have a pretty good idea of how many students are capable of matching us in each class. If we each leave a single question blank per test, we’ll still be in the top ten. And it’s only the end of year exam we need to worry about.”
“That’s right,” said Davo, eagerly. “It’ll be too late for them to do anything by then.”
“I suppose,” said Fanny. “If you think so.”
Simole tilted her head and narrowed her eyes, giving Nic an uncomfortable feeling. “You sound like you’re giving in. Or giving up.”
Nic carried on eating without looking at her. “I’m just being careful.”
Simole agreed with the plan, but he felt she disapproved.
After lunch, they crossed the quad on their way to an afternoon of Ad. Calc. when they saw Mallory coming towards them with a big smile on his face. The second year Upperclass building was on the far side of the quad and students were streaming out of it.
“Did you attain prominence?” asked Fanny.
“No.” He kept smiling.
“Then what are you so happy about?” asked Davo.
“Their faces when they saw me walk in.” He burst out laughing. “And I clearly trounced them all.” He flexed his fingers. “Better than new. The master was never going to give it to me, I could see it in his face, but everyone knew. They knew. See you later.” He walked away with a spring in his step and his grin filling up most of his face.
“I think I preferred him when he was old Misery Guts,” said Davo.
There was a commotion as a man in a red robe walked into the quad followed by three students. The other second years applauded and the rest of the students stopped and joined in. Apart from four.
There were enough people in the quad that four not participating wouldn’t be noticed, but they were. The man in the robe stopped and looked directly at them. He said something to the students with him, and then changed direction.
“Why’s he coming over here?” Fanny muttered under his breath.
“If we split up, he can’t get us all,” Davo muttered back.
“But he’ll get one of us alone,” said Fanny, alarmed.
“Your sacrifice won’t be forgotten,” said Davo.
None of them moved as the master from the Royal College drew closer, dragging an army of students along behind him.
“It’s a great pleasure to meet you,” said the master to Simole and no one else.
“What do you want?” said Simole, provoking a gasp from the crowd that echoed off the quad walls.
The master’s pretence at geniality evaporated. “Watch your mouth, child. I am Ferityn, master of the Royal College.” He said it grandly and with no sliver of doubt that it was enough to demand complete and utter respect.
The silence was absolute.
“Okay,” said Simole. “Anything else?”
There was a sharp intake of breath. Nic wondered if it would be rude to step away from Simole. He didn’t think it was wrong for someone to stand their ground, but he didn’t necessarily want to be stood next to them when they did it.
The mage’s face turned grim. He raised his left hand and the students behind him stepped back as one.
There was no fireball, no flash of lightning. Nic felt his knees buckle and then hit the ground. Then his face was kissing the turf. He couldn’t move. It was probably the same thing Simole had done to Prince Leovek. Was it a deliberate copy to make a point?
There was a shout. “Hey, what do you think you’re doing?” It was a voice Nic recognised, although he couldn’t raise his head to see.
“Release these children at once,” demanded Mr Tenner.
“I will release them when I see fit, Tenner.”
“Master, please, this is a school.”
“And I am teaching them a lesson. Do not deem to lecture me.”
With the greatest of effort, Nic was able to glance left. He saw Davo’s head planted into the short grass. He couldn’t see Fanny, but no doubt he was on Davo’s other side in the same position. Very slowly, Nic shifted his gaze to the right. Simole was bowed beside him. So even she was under the mage’s power.
The pupil in her white eye swivelled to meet his. She winked.
Nic felt the pressure holding him down, lift. He could move but he stayed as he was. He sensed Simole move and turned his head. She was sitting up. He did the same.
Mr Tenner was still respectfully insisting the master release his hold on them. He had his back to them so didn’t know they were already free. He was also blocking Ferityn’s view.
Davo and Fanny also sat up and waited, looking past Nic at Simole. She didn’t seem to be angry or about to do anything. She just sat there, listening to the men arguing.
“I completely accept that, Master, but they are children under the protection—” Tenner had turned to point at them and only then realised they were sitting up. He looked confused.
The mage looked surprised, and then deeply offended. He raised his hand again. There was a sharp crack and he grunted as his wrist went limp. It hung useless. His eyes widened and then tightened into dark holes of rage. He lifted the other hand and another crack left it in the same condition. Simole hadn’t moved.
“You think I need hands to deal with you?” roared the mage. “Ferity—”
Whatever he was going to say, he failed to get it out before his teeth exploded. They shattered in his mouth, spraying a cloud of white ivory dust.
His head jerked back and the students behind him screamed and pushed into each other to back away.
Simole stood up. “Hand gestures and spoken spells will be your undoing, Ferityn.” She spoke calmly, without rancour.
Ferityn tried to hold his hands to his bleeding gums, but they flopped about. Still, the mage did not look ready to give up.
“Feshi… Farrr…” He struggled to speak without teeth, but would not stop trying. “Feridee…”
The students watched, horrified. A shimmer in their midst turned into Secret Service agents. With Prince Leovek gone, Nic had not thought to see them again, but there were other, not quite so important people to protect. Some from themselves. They closed around the crippled mage.
“Shheize her,” cried out Ferityn when he saw them. It was the same as the Prince had tried, and no more successfully. Powerful people stripped of their power were a sorry sight, Nic realised.
“We cannot, Master,” said the red-masked agent. “Let us get your injuries seen to.”
He drew back as they tried to approach him. They were being respectful, but he was not in the mood to be reasonable. “She appacked a mashter ob da Woy…” The effort was too great and too painful.
“She is under the King’s protection,” the agent said gently.
“The law!” screamed the mage, spitting flecks of blood. “Mobody ish abub da law.”
He was surrounded by agents now. They tried to turn him, but he struggled away from them.
“Master of Arcanum, you may be,” said Mr Tenner, “but not of politics. There are many who are above the law, and she is one of them. You, however, are not.” He was quite stern now, his earlier demeanour gone. “You endangered the lives of many children today, and you will be held accountable. Now yield to these men.”
The light of anger faded from the mage’s eyes and he seemed to go limp. The agents quickly led him away.
Nic watched it all from his knees, but the raging mage was not what he had seen. Among the wall of students, fearful and confused, he had seen a single figure. Dizzy. She was standing with all the others, watching, but either side of her was a tall, male student. They weren’t just near her, it was like they were standing guard over her. He recognised them both. He had seen them leaving the pond just before he found Mallory.
A dreadful chill ran through him. All this time he had been consumed by the idea that no matter what he achieved, how high he rose, he would never be able to reach her. He would never be good enough in her eyes or anyone else’s. But now a far more distressing reality occurred to him. What if it was she who was not good enough for him?
It was such a sorrowful thought he couldn’t bear to think it. He got to his feet and walked away. He had to go to the library and study. There were exams to prepare for. He had no time to waste on distractions, not if he intended to come first. And he did. He intended to rise so far above them all, he would never be within their reach. Any of them.