Most boys saved their pocket money for sweets or toys. Nic had no interest in either. He had a jar next to his bed that would slowly fill up with small coins and when they reached the rim, he knew he had enough to buy a coach ticket to Ranvar City, the capital of Ranvar.
He had made the journey numerous times over the years. Not to enjoy the great city and all it had to offer, but for the one thing that couldn’t be found anywhere else; the Librarium, the largest library in all of Ranvar.
The coach trip took three hours and wasn’t very comfortable. It was usually overbooked, smelled terrible and rattled your whole body as the horses thundered down the highway. There were more comfortable ways to travel but Nic couldn’t afford them. Even if he could, he probably wouldn’t have; he’d just go more often. The more trips to the Librarium he could make, the more knowledge he could accumulate.
It was the summer holiday and Nic had nothing to do but wait for the new term. He could have taken a little time off to enjoy himself, but he had no idea how to do that. Instead, he bought himself a return ticket to Ranvar City as soon as he was able.
“The usual?” asked the woman in the ticket office. He’d been making this trip since he was ten years old. Everyone at the coach station knew him.
“Yes, please.” He paid the money and received a yellow piece of card with his destination stamped on it.
“Oh, and well done.” She smiled at him and nodded in a strangely disturbing way.
“Erm, thanks.” He smiled back and quickly made his way to the waiting coach. If he could get a seat next to a window it would be easier to breathe.
It was early, the first coach of the day, and the sun hadn’t yet warmed the air. Nic had a scarf and hat on, even though it was summer. Later, it would be very warm, but the morning coach had open windows and the air rushing through them would freeze the end of your nose off if you didn’t take precautions.
As he clambered on board, the coach driver congratulated him as well, and also smiled and nodded. If this is going to keep happening, thought Nic, I’m going to have to think of a proper way to respond. He wondered if there was a book on the subject in the Librarium.
The coach quickly filled up. Bags were meant to be put on the roof but people insisted on keeping some luggage with them. Food was often consumed. Pets were even brought. A parrot in a cage wasn’t too bad. A goat on a piece of string could get problematic.
Fortunately, there was no livestock on this trip. Nic ended up squeezed into the corner by a large gentleman who kept a small suitcase on his lap but Nic didn’t mind. He had the window seat and his hat pulled down to cover his ears. He was asleep within a few minutes of setting off.
Conserving his energy now would enable him to make the most efficient use of his time. When you had limited funds and endless requirements, it was necessary to plan carefully.
It was ten o’clock when they arrived at the coach station in the capital. It was, understandably, much larger than the one in Hammond. Coaches from many places were coming and going, and people swarmed in all directions.
Nic hurried out of the station, weaving between the crowds with expert timing. He would feel lost in the city itself, but the journey from the station to the Librarium was as familiar to him as the walk from his front door to the garden gate.
Ten minutes later Nic bounded up the Librarium’s stone steps, eager to waste as little time as possible. He stuffed his hat and scarf into his bag. He wouldn’t need them until the late-night return trip.
The Librarium was a stone building, white and chalky on the outside, filled with endless shelves on the inside. Two large statues stood either side of the entrance, one a griffon, the other a dragon. They rose high overhead to rest their heads against each other above the doorway. They were a grand symbol of how important this place was. As a nation, the thing Ranvar prided itself most on was the knowledge it gave all its citizens access to.
Having already passed his finals, Nic had no need to study for any particular test, but that wasn’t why he was here. He had no illusions that studying at Ransom would be an entirely different proposition to what he’d been accustomed to. Not only would standards be much higher, but the other students would be familiar with everything Ransom had to offer, and how to go about using it. He would be at a great disadvantage.
“Do you have any books on the Ransom School?” he asked the librarian at the main desk.
There were a few scholars about, but the Librarium was mainly empty. When he had first started coming here, it was hard to get a librarian’s attention. Knowledge was meant to be free for all, but they didn’t take a small boy very seriously. He’d had to persist to the point of annoyance, but it had been the only way.
Over the years, the Librarium staff had grown accustomed to the little boy with the strange requests for long-forgotten books and he no longer got the long look down the nose. Until today.
The librarian in question was one who had served Nic many times before. He was tall and thin, with a very large nose, so it took quite a long time for him to look down the length of it. He stared at Nic without answering.
“Erm, anything to do with its history, the rules, the curriculum… anything?”
“You,” said the librarian. “Are you the one?”
Nic was baffled by the question. “Which one do you mean?”
“The Tutt boy.”
In all the years he had been coming here, no one had ever asked his name.
“Yes,” said Nic. “Is there something wrong?”
The man’s face broke into a smile. He turned and said, “It is. It’s him.”
There were a number of other librarians enclosed behind the circular desk. They all got up and rushed over to congratulate Nic and shake his hand. They were all faces he recognised, men and women, but he didn’t know any of their names.
“I told you, didn’t I, Mr Gerry,” said an excited woman who had always treated Nic like he was invisible. “I knew it had to be him.”
“Yes, Miss Philm,” said the first librarian, Mr Gerry. “Correct and precise, as usual.” He clasped his coat by the lapels like a proud father. It was all very odd. “now it all makes perfect sense.”
It was Nic’s turn to smile and nod. He had no idea what he was supposed to say.
“Of course, you’ll want to be fully informed about the Ransom School before you start there. Very smart. Very prescient.” Mr Gerry snapped his fingers. “Toso, take Master Tutt to the stacks. Find whatever he needs.”
A young man exited from behind the desk through a swinging door and came round to Nic’s side.
“And then take him to a private room. 2a should be free. Get Miss Philm to help you if need be.”
They all stood watching him with beaming smiles as he walked away. Very odd, indeed.
He found over a dozen books and he didn’t even have to carry them. The private room wasn’t very big, but there was a table and chair and it was very quiet. It was perfect. He hadn’t even known these rooms existed; he usually sat on the floor in some hidden corner with the book on his lap. It was much easier to make notes when you had a table to rest the book on.
There was quite a lot of information on Ransom which required copious note-taking. Official texts on the rules and regulations, reports on budget and finances, even the deeds and plans of the buildings.
He worried he might run out of ink.
“You might be interested in these,” said Mr Gerry, appearing in the doorway. He carried a small tower of books. They were memoirs and autobiographies by famous Ranvarians whose names Nic recognised, even though most had been dead for centuries. “They all went to Ransom and mention their school days at least in passing. I thought it might give you an idea of what to expect.”
“Yes, thank you,” said Nic, quickly getting up to take the books. He wondered if any of them had been Also-Rans like him.
Every hour or so, either Toso or Philm would pop their head in and ask if he needed anything. It was like having servants. But the novelty soon wore off and he became immersed in his studies. Even though there was no test to be taken, the method was the same. He needed to find the answers that would fit the questions. Ransom would be a test of another kind.
By the time the Librarium was closing, Nic had managed to get through less than half of the books piled on the table.
“Don’t worry,” said Toso. “You can leave them here. Mr Gerry says you can have this room until you’ve finished your studies. You’ll be back, won’t you?”
“Yes,” said Nic, “but I don’t know exactly when.”
“That’s alright, Mr Gerry says there’s no time limit.”
Nic thanked Mr Gerry and the others before he left. They all said nice things and urged him to come back soon. He made his way back to the coach station in a bit of a daze, unsure why he was getting special treatment but not unhappy about it. He didn’t expect it to last, so best to take advantage of it while he could.
The light was already fading by the time they left the city and it was pitch dark by the time they reached Hammond. Lanterns hanging from the carriage lit the last few miles although the horses had made the journey so many times they could have probably made it back blindfolded.
Weary and lost in thought about all the things he had learned about his new school, Nic didn’t notice the carriage outside his home until the horse snorted at him, startling him out of his reverie. There was a driver but his hat was wide-brimmed and pulled down low, so the face was hidden. He may have even been asleep.
Nic skirted around the horse and opened the garden gate. There was a silhouette in the window. He lived alone with his mother, and it certainly wasn’t hers.
It was a small house and he was in the living room as soon as he stepped through the door. The man he had seen through the window turned around and Nic recognised him immediately, even though he had only ever seen him a handful of time. It was Minister Delcroix; Dizzy’s father.
Things from your past usually looked smaller than you remembered them because you were bigger, but he seemed even taller and more imposing.
Nic looked at his mother. She seemed a little excited but otherwise untroubled.
“Ah, Niclov, how nice to see you again.” Nic got the very strong impression the Minister had no recollection of having met him before.
“And you, sir.” Nic waited. This was already the longest conversation he’d ever had with the man. It was probably best to let him ask the questions.
The Minister took out a pocket watch and flipped it open. “Milly said you’d be back before ten, and here you are.” He smiled an emotionless smile and snapped the watch shut. “You’ve been to the capital.”
It wasn’t a question but still felt like it required an answer.
“Yes, sir. I went to the Librarium to research the Ransom School.”
“Very wise. I can see you like to be prepared. I was very impressed when Milly told me you had been accepted to Ransom, but I had no idea how well you’d done until I saw the results in the paper. Tell me, Niclov, what do you attribute your success to? Hard work? Good luck? Cheating?”
Anyone else would have made it sound malicious, but there was no edge to his voice. He sounded like all the options were perfectly reasonable and none would surprise him more than the other.
“I attribute it to you, sir,” said Nic.
“Oh? How so?”
“I was your daughter’s companion when I was younger. When tutors came to teach her, I sat with her, to stop her feeling lonely I suppose. Everything she learned, I learned, too. You educated me. Thank you.”
Nic was careful not to sound like he was brown-nosing while making sure to flatter the Minister. He spoke simply and without emotion, mimicking the Minister’s style. Exams weren’t the only place Nic had learned to answer questions correctly.
“Is that so? My wife’s idea, I suppose. In any case, it is a remarkable achievement. Considering my daughter was the only one to better you, I’d say my wife’s taste in tutors must be exemplary.”
“How is Miss Delcroix?” asked Nic, acting like it was a polite inquiry. He resisted being too familiar. “I hope she’s doing well.”
“Oh, yes. She is a child worthy of the Delcroix name. It’s the other students I worry about. They’re supposed to be receiving the best education available, yet a boy in a less than average state school bettered them. Perhaps the teachers should all be lined up and whipped.”
Nic assumed he was joking. He wasn’t sure.
“If I am in some way responsible, it’s only right you return the favour, don’t you think?”
“Er, yes, of course, sir.”
“Assuming you live up to your potential, I want you to come work for me when you graduate.”
Nic was surprised. He hadn’t expected a job offer. “At the house?”
“No, of course not. At the Ministry.”
Nic’s first impulse was to ask what it was the Ministry did, but he didn’t. “Thank you. I’d be honoured. If you think I’d be worthy.”
“That’s what’s to be determined, isn’t it? We shall see. However, as your indirect sponsor, I think I should at least give you a gift.”
Nic suddenly had a vision of a coach pass for life. Travel anywhere in the country for free. He could visit the Librarium whenever he wished.
Minister Delcroix reached into an inside pocket and took out a pen. It was thick and black with a gold clip attached to the lid. He held it out.
“I, I couldn’t,” said Nic, absolutely meaning it. “It must be very expensive.”
“It is. It’s also impolite to refuse a gift.” He thrust it forward and Nic took it from him. It was the heaviest pen he’d ever held.
“Thank you, sir.”
“You’re welcome. And don’t sell it, either.”
“I, I would never—”
“Make sure you don’t. Anyway, I should be going. I’ll see you in the morning, Milly.”
Nic’s mother had been hopping from foot to foot, grinning from ear to ear as her son was so richly rewarded. A job with one of the Ministries was more than she could have possibly dreamed for her boy.
“Yes, sir. Thank you so much, sir. I’ll make sure he takes good care of your wonderful gift.”
She saw him to the door while Nic held the pen he could barely get his fingers around.
Minister Delcroix nodded farewell to his maid and walked to the small garden gate. It was a modest home, clean and well-cared for, as he would expect; the garden was trim and tidy. The gate creaked slightly when he opened it, but that was forgivable.
The carriage door opened as he approached and closed once he got in. A few seconds later they were on the move.
Milly was a capable maid and had never given him reason to scold or punish her. Honest, hard-working and reliable. She had raised her son on her own and by all appearances seemed to have done a commendable job. The boy was a credit to her. A credit to the town.
As Minister of Instruction, it was his job to make sure Ranvar remained a safe and productive environment for its citizens. That meant not only being aware of conditions in the present, but also having a grasp on things to come. With recent events, stability was more important than ever. A boy like Nicolav Tutt was worth keeping an eye on.
There was a rustle outside the carriage window. They were moving swiftly through the streets of Hammond, but something was moving just as swiftly alongside.
“You followed the boy all day?” said Minister Delcroix.
“Yes, master,” came a whispering voice through the window. “He went to the Librarium.”
“And after that?”
“That was all, master. He didn’t leave until he returned home.” The voice flickered with the wind, but Delcroix was used to his servant’s loose vocalisations.
“And what did he study so hard in the Librarium?” asked Delcroix of the blackness outside the window.
“The Ransom School, master.”
It was as the boy had said. “And magic? Did he seek to prepare himself for the Royal College?” It would follow the boy’s real goal would be to gain entry to the Royal College of the Arts.
No? All indications would suggest he would seek to prepare himself for the College as soon as possible. A thorough person, an ambitious person, would know the difficulties ahead and waste no time getting started. Unless, of course, that was not his goal. He could be one of those people who loved learning for its own sake. An academic.
The boy was young and despite his huge potential, he might amount to nothing. But he might also amount to something very special.
“We have a teacher placed at Ransom,” said Delcroix.
“Yes, master,” whispered the voice.
“Instruct him to keep the boy under observation.”
“Yes, master.” There was a sharp rush of air and then an emptiness outside the window which had always been empty. The carriage left the town behind and raced up the hill to the mansion.
If the boy had no interest in the Arts, as unlikely as that might seem, there was no shame in that. If recent events were anything to go by, it would be a much safer path to follow. And the Department always needed clerks and secretaries.
On the other hand, if he did intend to gain powers beyond the reach of most, Delcroix was in the ideal place to guide and mould those nascent abilities and put them to good use. And if they proved to be uncontrollable, then that too would be best discovered sooner rather than later. And best discovered by the Minister of Instruction. After all, it was his job to make sure such powers were not left unchecked. Recent events had made that only too clear.