He thought his heart had stopped because he couldn’t hear it. Everything was so still and silent. It was the smell that brought him round. The smell of his mother’s kitchen.
The kitchen table was covered in books and pens and papers. He could date the moment by the stationery. This would be when he was around seven.
His mother sat opposite him, holding a sheet of paper in her hand, a look of intense concentration on her face. She was studying a problem. Her eyes flicked in his direction and then back to the page.
“You’re sure the teacher wanted you to answer this question? This question?”
“Yes,” he heard his own voice say, but in a soft, girlish tone. Was that what he sounded like as a child? Was it what he imagined he sounded like or maybe what someone else imagined he sounded like?
He recalled this moment, although he had no idea if the details were accurate. A sunny day? A glass of milk? These added a layer of realism to the scene that he had no way of being able to verify.
It had been the first time the teacher had decided to set him work outside of the regular homework she set everyone else. The class were working on memorising their times table. He had been given a set of more advanced equations to familiarise himself with.
“Well,” said his mother, “first you should drink your milk. A healthy body helps to maintain a healthy mind. Your father always drank a glass of milk in the morning.”
It was rare for her to talk about his father. It was rare for her to give him advice — how long had it been since she’d done that?
“What else did he do?” His voice didn’t sound girlish anymore, it sounded like him now.
His mother didn’t seem to notice the change in pitch. “Oh, he was quite the man of habit. Every morning, a glass of milk, a banana — he preferred them slightly overripe but he didn’t mind them however, as long as they weren’t too hard — and a boiled egg. Then he would spend a good ten minutes in the bathroom and you certainly wouldn’t want to go in there once he’d finished.”
She grinned mischievously at him. She looked so young.
“What if there were no bananas?” he asked.
“How dare you?” said his mother with mock outrage. “What kind of a housekeeper do you take me for? There should always be a banana in the pantry.”
He watched her mouth laugh.
“How did he die?”
This was a dream, of course. Nic couldn’t tell if it was a genuine memory dredged out of some dark recess of his mind or completely fabricated like a play on a stage, based on a true story. It was more than likely a concoction of one of the many people who had access to his mental processes and worked to influence his thoughts through pictures in his head, but he was also one of those people. It could be a message to himself.
But his mother never spoke about his father, and he had never forced the issue. Partly because he didn’t want to upset her and partly because he doubted she had been told the truth.
Here, though, he felt he could ask without fear of causing her pain. But then, what value would such an answer have?
“They told me he died of fear,” she said calmly, her mood soft and wistful, like she was remembering a distant summer whose memory made the recent summers seem less pleasant. “They told me that he faced a hideous enemy and defeated it, but he was left in a terrible state and when he looked down at himself and saw what he had become, his heart could not accept it and the thought of subjecting others to his dreadful appearance scared him to death. And so the life left his body.”
Her words seemed to roll across the kitchen table, tumbling over one another. Had she ever spoken to him like this? It sounded like her but also not like her. He suspected the hand of another at work. Winnum Roke? It was hard to say.
It didn’t really matter to him. She was telling him something worth more to him than simple facts.
“What kind of a soldier was he?”
“The kind you could rely on. They would always send him on the most important missions. If they wanted to make sure the job was done properly, they would call for your father. He didn’t spend his time standing in a line with twenty others, marching back and forth, matching uniforms and shiny buttons. He had those, of course, but I never had to have them cleaned. Too busy to ever get them dirty.”
It was a pleasant thought, to imagine his father as a celebrated officer who saved the nation. A hero. But from what he had managed to learn, his father was just another soldier in the Third Infantry, The Ranvar Bold, with a grand total of two medals to his name. One for serving for more than a year, and the other for dying.
Which didn’t necessarily mean that was the sum achievement of his military career. The rest of his records were sealed, which was unusual. The official reason given was because of the sensitive nature of the battle he’d died in. It may have been an encounter that wasn’t authorised. The location might cause diplomatic problems if they had been on foreign soil without permission. There may have been civilian deaths involved. There were many legitimate reasons why the records would be kept out of public hands. Except, none of the other members of his platoon had had their records withheld.
“He told me before he left, he said, Milly, don’t let our child grow up to be a soldier. He should not fight on the orders of others, only for himself.”
“What else did he tell you?” asked Nic.
“He said, ‘A good dog obeys but a better dog knows when to disobey.’”
“He said, ‘There’s no need to fear a dragon. They are more afraid of you.’ I told him I thought he was confusing them with spiders, but he said, no, they look nothing alike.”
Nic heard himself laughing and his mother smiled.
“You remind me so much of him.”
He woke in the dark. He still had his shorts and vest on from his run earlier, he could feel the air on his exposed limbs. There were two figures standing at the foot of his bed, their shadowed faces unnaturally outlined away from their heads.
Nic did not feel fear. His mind was still wrestling with what his mother had said and the meaning of it, if it had any meaning.
The men at the end of his bed — their size suggested men rather than women, but he was only guessing — felt familiar to him and unthreatening. He was only guessing about that, too.
Nic slowly sat up, propped on his elbows. His eyes adjusting in degrees as his viewing angle changed. “Yes?”
“We were sent to start your training,” said the Secret Service agent on the left. His mask was a lighter colour, possibly white, which made him easier to see, although all he could see was the mask. The other agent had a darker colour but revealed no more or less for it.
“The Chief sent you?” Nic had felt alert when he’d been asleep, now he felt groggy. “Isn’t it a bit early?”
“No,” said the darker mask. “Get up.” He sounded less happy about being here. Probably because it was so early.
Nic forced himself to his feet, which helped him overcome his mental sluggishness quite a lot. Leaving bed sent a signal for him to stop trying to get back to sleep and he was able to switch to a more awake state of mind. “I’m ready. What are we going to do?”
“Come with us,” said the lighter mask.
“Alright. Where are we—”
Something covered Nic’s eyes.
Cold bit into him. The hairs on his arms rose and the ground beneath his bare feet went from hard to soft.
His eyes were uncovered and he was no longer in his room. He was outside, in a courtyard he didn’t recognise. There was a faded brick arch that had similar architecture to the school, so he assumed he was still on the grounds, somewhere.
Nic shivered. “It’s a bit cold.”
The two agents — he assumed they were the same two — were standing in front of him. In the light of the lanterns hanging on the walls their masks looked black and white.
“You’ll warm up in a bit,” said White.
“That will be your opponent,” said Black, pointing behind Nic.
He turned around to find a series of wooden poles sticking out of the ground. They were twice his height and topped off with sharp points.
Nic moved closer to inspect them and to try and figure out what he was supposed to do. Climb them? They weren’t very thick. He could just about enclose one with both hands forming a circle. There were eight poles lined up in a row.
“What do you want me to do?” he asked.
“Climb up and walk along the top,” said Black.
As soon as the agent said what needed to be done, Nic could see how to do it. The only problem was that he saw how Dizzy would do it.
“I can climb a bit but I don’t think I can—”
“Like this,” said White.
He took two loping steps forward and hopped into the air. He placed a foot on the second pole about a metre up, pushed off it and used his other foot to push off the first pole. Then the second again, then the first, then the second. He landed lightly on the tip of the first pole.
Nic looked up at the white mask looking down at him.
The agent was balancing on one foot. Then he walked from one pole to the next like stepping stones until he reached the end. He turned around with a flick of his leg that spun him around, and walked back.
Nic had backed away to watch. It looked simple enough in terms of objective, but it wasn’t a case of working out what to do, you had to have the ability to do it.
“How?” he blurted out as an amalgam of everything he wanted to say about the futility of asking him to do this. “I can’t even get up there.”
“You have to think it through,” said White, jumping down next to him. “This is a technique to connect your mind to your body. The tips are sharp enough to draw blood but controlling the amount of pressure you exert through your foot can nullify the effect. The height adds an added concern that you might fall but the technique is the same even if you were only a few centimetres off the ground. The poles are thin and will move, making it hard to balance, but you can use their movement to your advantage.”
Nic understood what the agent was telling him, but that still didn’t mean he’d be able to complete the exercise. Physical ability was required. Ability he didn’t have and that would take a fair amount of time to acquire.
“I don’t suppose this is a thought experiment, is it?” asked Nic. “A metaphor?”
“No,” said Black. “You have to go up there.”
He had requested the Secret Service take over his training but this hadn’t been quite what he’d expected. What had he expected? They’d teach him the secret handshake and he’d be qualified to use the special Secret Service gymnasium, membership fees waived?
“I don’t have any shoes on,” said Nic.
“It’s easier without shoes,” said Black.
If they wanted him to try, he would try. They were the ones who would have to report back to the Chief that their methods hadn’t worked.
Nic ran forward and jumped. His right foot connected with the second pole, just like the agent had but not so high up. He kicked off, but the pole didn’t give him anything to push against. It leaned away, towards the third pole. The movement was completely understandable, but that wasn’t what had happened when the agent had done more or less the same thing. More, Nic guessed, rather than less.
Nic’s foot slid off the pole and he landed on the ground. It was slightly wet grass, but soft, which more than made up for the unwelcome moisture. He lay there, staring up at the poles stretching all the way to the stars.
“You have to face what you fear,” said White, his mask appearing overhead. “What are you most afraid of?”
“I don’t know,” said Nic.
“You don’t fear anything?” asked White, the blankness of his mask not matching the surprise in his voice.
“I fear too many things to pick a favourite,” said Nic.
White nodded. “When I was a boy, the river near my home burst its banks and flooded the surrounding area. Everything was washed away. Buildings, animals, vehicles. We ran, taking nothing with us and returned after the waters subsided to find everything ruined. My father saw the life he had spent building gone in a night and he didn’t want to start again. He gave up and refused to rebuild. My fear is that one day I will lose everything and not be able to find the strength to start again.”
“And that made you able to leap tremendous height?” asked Nic.
“Once you let go of your fear,” said the agent, “anything is possible.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” said Nic. “Knowing what you fear doesn’t change anything.”
“Not know, realise. Make real. That’s what realise means. What do you fear, really? All your fears are one, if you look closely enough.”
“That’s what realise means?” said Black, incredulous. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m trying to inspire him,” said White. “Maybe he’ll get there quicker. I had plans for tonight.”
“He’s going to think we’re some kind of mystical cult.” Black’s voice was full of disapproval.
They seemed to have forgotten about him as they bickered. Nic was still on the ground. If he got up they’d probably make him try again. The result would be the same, he was pretty sure.
Try another way, perhaps? The task was to get up there, he didn’t have to use their methods.
He got to his feet and went up to the first pole and grabbed it with both hands. The surface was smooth and polished. Nothing to get a grip on.
Nic looked back at the two agents. Dawn’s first light was appearing behind them, just a hint of blush on the horizon.
With no guidance and no training, failure was inevitable. The lack of fitness and talent didn’t help, either. He jumped and grabbed onto the pole as high up as he could reach. His hands seemed to stick to it. His feet were bare and dirty, grit between his toes. He managed to wrap himself around the pole and clung on like a monkey.
He stayed there for a few seconds. Any movement would send him sliding back down. What was he meant to learn from this?
“Stop thinking,” said Black.
Was that the lesson? Allow yourself to act on instinct? Fail and grow persistent? Failure taught you many things but it rarely made you stronger. And he wasn’t even afraid to fail. He was afraid that even after he obtained the skills to succeed, he still wouldn’t be good enough. What excuses would he have then?
He could see Dizzy climbing the pole ahead of him, her hands reaching up and pulling her body into an inverted vertical, her feet pointing at the stars, latching onto the pointed tip with her insteps pressed together. Then her hands letting go and her body bending at the waist, hands going from the middle of the pole to the top. Effortless.
She was his continuous distraction, all the more effective for his willingness to let himself be tempted. The Librarian had said he should have been able to come up with a plan to win her over, but the truth was he should have been able to formulate a plan to keep her away. Once he did that, he would be free to do whatever was necessary. But he didn’t want to. Even though at some point her importance to him would become apparent to those who needed him out of the way. They would use her against him and he would be helpless. Nothing scared him more than that.
He fell off the pole.
“Good,” said Black. “I can see the problem. Turn over.”
Nic was confused but he rolled over onto his front.
“Your hamstrings are too tight. Your calves, also.”
There was a sharp pain in the back of his leg and he let out a yelp.
“You spend a lot of time sitting, don’t you?”
Short, sharp hits pummeled him along the length of his leg, first one, then the other. Each strike forced air out of Nic’s mouth. He assumed there was a good reason for what the agent was doing, but it felt like he was getting a beating.
Hands grabbed his shoulder and pulled him erect.
“Someone your age shouldn’t be in this sort of condition.” It took a moment to realise the hands had let go and he was supporting himself. His legs felt completely different. Like they weren’t really attached to him.
“Try again,” said Black.
Nic took two steps forward, moving his feet like he was operating a puppet on strings. He jumped, bounced off the second pole, bounced off the first pole, missed the second pole and landed in a heap.
He fell from a much greater height this time and it hurt more. He didn’t mind. He had almost done it.
“Good,” said Black.
“Might be hope for you after all,” said White.
Nic stood up. His legs felt heavy again. “I think whatever you did is wearing off.”
“I didn’t do anything, that’s how you’re supposed to feel. You need to do a lot more stretching. It’s going to hurt at first, but there’s no point trying to get stronger if you’re only using part of your body. You have to regain full range of motion.”
“And face what you fear,” said White.
“Will you stop?”
“What? It’s important to make a mind-body connection. Fear is primal. It’s the easiest way.”
“You’ll only confuse him.”
“No, no. He gets it now, don’t you? When you first saw the poles, what did you think? Difficult?”
“I thought it would be impossible.”
Nic looked at the poles. “Possible.”
“That had nothing to do with your primal mind-body connection.”
“Speeded things up.”
“No, it didn’t. Ignore him. I’ll write up a list of stretches you need to do every morning and evening. It’ll take you about an hour. Do them.”
“I understand. Thank you. I’m very—”
It went dark again. Nic couldn’t tell if there was a blindfold over his eyes or a bag or what. When he could see again, he was back in his room, alone.
Nic felt weak and small and failed. And also exhilarated. He came out of his bedroom covered in dirt and sweat.
“Rough night?” asked Fanny, who was coming out of the kitchen with a bowl of something he was rapidly transferring to his mouth.
“Yeah. I had a lot of weird dreams.”
“Oh,” said Fanny. “Anyone we know?”
“Who else?” said Davo, as he came out of the kitchen in a bathrobe, drying his hair with a towel. “The girl, it’s always that girl.”
“It was my mother, actually.”
“Guilt,” said Fanny with understanding. “I get that, too.”
“She was giving me advice, at the kitchen table.”
“Because you never listen to her,” said Fanny. “It’s your subconscious telling you to write her a letter. What was the advice she gave you? Do you remember?”
“Yes. Always keep some bananas in the pantry.”
Fanny stopped eating. “That is actually good advice.”
“Do you have a banana in your pantry?” asked Davo.
“That’s rather a personal question,” said Fanny.
Nic showered and changed and the four of them went to breakfast. The Arts Course was his first lesson of the day. Brill and Nic headed there together and picked up Carol on the way. They arrived in class to find the three girls already in their seats and Mr Periwinkle at his desk.
Nic had done his best not to think about what he would say to Mr Periwinkle. Were they meant to pretend they didn’t have a relationship outside of the classroom, that he didn’t know the Librarian was his teacher in disguise? Obviously he was, but he worried about how to not make it awkward. There were people here who would be able to see something strange was going on. He went to his desk and sat down, already feeling eyes on him. It was just his imagination, he thought, but when he glanced over his shoulder Dizzy was staring at him.
He put it down to coincidence. It wasn’t like he was ever not awkward in her presence. His natural bumbling around her would cover for his lies and secrets. He could still feel her eyes on his back.
“A change of plans,” said Mr Periwinkle. Nic watched him stand up behind his desk, looking for any telltale signs of the Librarian leaking out. “Today, we will be going on a field trip to the capital.”
A murmur of surprise passed between the six of them.
“To be more exact,” continued Periwinkle, “to the Librarium. I think it would help you understand what it is you’ve signed up for if you learn a little more about what it takes to become a mage. The process of transfiguration from young pup to mighty guardian of the Ranvar empire is not something to be taken lightly. The process is shrouded in secrecy, of course — we can’t have our enemies and rivals learning such confidential information — but there are some elements of the change that I think will help broaden your minds.”
He paused to look at each of them and seemed to be pleased at the riveted attention he was witnessing.
“I can see I have your interest. Good. There are a number of special books held in the Librarium that are unlike anything else you will have seen. Books of power that give a glimpse of the true nature of Arcanum. These books aren’t allowed to be taken out of the Librarium, not even by mages of the Royal College. The Librarium was specially constructed to house them safely. We must go there if we wish to view these tomes, so off we go!”
He stood in front of his desk with a finger pointing up as though he expected them to fly into the air at his command.
“How are we going?” asked Simole, the least excited by the prospect.
“In style,” said Mr Periwinkle. “The school omnibus. You all have free period this afternoon so there should be no problem. We will be back by dinner.”
“I will meet you at the bus,” said Dizzy, standing and putting her books back in her bag.
“We’re leaving now,” said Mr Periwinkle.
“I won’t be long,” said Dizzy. “I need to change.” She left the classroom before anyone could ask what she planned to change into.
The rest of them stuffed their bags into their lockers and made their way to the school stables. The omnibus was a large carriage pulled by six horses. It was much longer than a regular carriage and could easily carry ten people. More if they piled in. It was mostly used to transport sports teams to other schools for matches.
The interior was segmented into two sections, separated by a wall. The front compartment was smaller, with a single bench that could seat three. It was meant to give the teachers a little privacy.
Nic climbed in and sat in a corner next to a window. He hadn’t spoken to Mr Periwinkle since his announcement but he assumed this trip had been arranged for his benefit. They were going to the Librarium to meet the creature the High-Father had created.
How was this going to work? There were five other people going, too. The Librarium was a big place but it would be noticed if he suddenly went off on his own. By some people in particular.
The students sat on the leather-covered benches inside the omnibus, spaced out with an unusual amount of legroom. The hatch in the partition wall opened and Mr Periwinkle’s face appeared.
“All ready to go?”
Brill spoke up. “We’re missing one.”
“I’m here,” said Dizzy, climbing in through the door in the rear with a large bag. She was dressed in her climbing gear.
She pulled the door closed behind her and looked at Mr Periwinkle. “Ready.” She nodded at him.
He looked like he might say something, but slid the hatch door shut. The omnibus moved off with a jerk.
Dizzy kept her balance as she moved down the carriage towards Nic, the bag the only part of her swaying with the movement of the vehicle, bumping into legs.
“You could have stowed that in the luggage hold,” said Carol, rubbing his knees.
“Might need it on the way,” said Dizzy. She dropped it on the floor by Nic’s feet. It made a resounding thud. She sat down next to Nic and winked at him. She was very close when there was plenty of room. She was in an odd mood. That never boded well.
“Keeping him all to yourself?” asked Simole, who was sitting opposite.
“Yes,” said Dizzy.
Nic was having a little trouble breathing. His leg could detect the heat from hers. There was a desperate urge in him to reach out and touch her. Put his hand on her knee. He wouldn’t do it, of course, but the temptation to just see what would happen sat on him like a frog under his hat — you could ignore it, but why was it there?
“You’re making the boy troubled,” said Simole.
“Good,” said Dizzy.
“Could you… give me a little more space?”
“No. It’s obvious this day trip to the city is because of you.”
“Don’t bother. You know, before you arrived here, Nic, I used to be quite a level-headed person. Calm, perceptive, insightful. My instincts rarely let me down. Then you turned up and my brain turned to jelly. I couldn’t think straight, couldn’t clear my head. Every time I saw you it was like my blood was on fire.”
“Because of me?” said Nic.
“Apparently. I wouldn’t be too pleased with yourself. It isn’t something to be proud of.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Stop smiling, then.”
“I’m not smiling.”
“You are a bit,” said Simole.
Nic pulled his lips into his mouth to stop them turning up at the corners.
“My first thought was that you were doing it deliberately, as part of a ploy.”
“Stop repeating everything I say, Nic, it makes you sound like a parrot. I thought it was strange how the boy who likes to work out answers to problems came to Ransom with a particular goal in mind, and when he found he couldn’t get what he wanted, he just stopped trying. Would the boy I knew give up like that, or would he come up with a way to get the result he was looking for?”
“What?” said Nic, confused.
“Don’t pretend to be confused,” hissed Dizzy. “You understand the reasoning I’ve laid out. You set out to bring me back to your side, and here I am.” She pressed against him harder. “But now I realise I was mistaken.”
She backed away and bent down to get something out of her bag.
“I would never try to manipulate you like that.”
“Do you know Dwickham’s Murder and Motivation?” asked Dizzy, pulling a book out. “I’ve been reading it recently.”
“You’ve been reading a book about murder?” said Nic.
“Yes, it’s very interesting. This is the fifth edition. You’ve probably read it at your local library and they’re usually a few editions out of date. This is the one with annotations.”
“I read it at the Librarium,” said Nic. “They have all the most recent editions.
“Ah, true,” said Dizzy. “Must have taken you some effort going back and forth between home and the capital. You’re very committed when you put your mind to something, aren’t you?”
“Dizzy, I really would never—”
“The theory of aligned determination — you recall it?”
“Yes,” said Nic. “Oh. You think…”
“Makes sense, doesn’t it? More sense than you being able to put me at sixes and sevens. I’ve been forced into this position, just as you have. Now we’re heading to the Librarium for some reason you won’t tell me, and there you will no doubt get embroiled in something beyond your ability to handle.”
“I’ll be there, too,” said Simole.
“Yes,” said Dizzy. “I expect they know that and will have a way to distract you.”
“And you?” asked Simole.
“I think I’m most likely a bargaining chip. A good way to get him to do what they want is to threaten me. He’s more likely to agree to something ridiculous if he thinks it will save me from danger. I used to think they chose him because he’s so gullible and easy to bamboozle, but now I’m more inclined to believe it’s his hero complex.”
“He wants to save you?” asked Simole. “Like in a romance novel?”
“He wants to save us all,” said Dizzy.
“Excuse me,” said Brill. “What are you two talking about? “Dwickham’s Murder and Motivation? Theory of aligned determination?”
Nic had been so busy feeling offended by Dizzy’s casual character assassination of him — alongside the unpleasant suspicion she might be right — that he only now remembered there were others present. He felt belatedly embarrassed. He was used to Simole witnessing their spats, but now he felt exposed to a whole new level of humiliation.
“Um, well,” said Nic, “Khyle Dwickham was a detective who believed murderers were driven by a specific motive to kill, even the ones who seemed to be acting out of madness. He wrote a book on it, using the cases he worked on as examples.”
“And the theory of aligned determination?” asked Carol.
“Well, sometimes a death would have a very obvious suspect, who had the strongest reason to commit the murder, had the most to gain and so on. But there might be someone with the same motive, hidden behind the more prominent suspect. They would often knowingly use the more obvious target to mask their activities. Dwickham referred to them as shadow murderers.”
“I see,” said Rumi. “So someone who has reason to want Delzina to remain close to you might be pulling strings to keep you two together, but because Nic is so desperately in love with her, he seems like the more likely culprit.”
Nic hadn’t expected Rumi to launch an attack from the flank. He didn’t even know her. “I don’t think I would say I was—”
“Exactly,” said Dizzy. “Someone with a great deal of power, I would guess. It’s time for me to stop allowing others to influence my actions and face them head-on. I don’t know what will happen at the Librarium, but I will deal with it on my own terms.”
Nic wasn’t sure what to say. Denying her claims would do no good, and he couldn’t tell her what they were going to encounter in the Librarium even if he wanted to. “I think you’re making far—”
“It’s okay,” said Dizzy. “You don’t have to tell me anything. I know you don’t know what’s going on, either. Don’t worry, I’ll keep you safe.” She put her hand on his knee and smiled encouragingly.
Nic couldn’t think of anything else to say for the rest of the journey.
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