Nic took the unprecedented step to approach the table where Simole was eating her lunch. He stood up, leaving his own lunch untouched, and stepped out from the chair with a heavy lump of apprehension in his chest. The others gave him cursory glances, assuming he had forgotten a condiment or needed a clean fork. They would never imagine he would do something as bold as walk across the cafeteria straight towards Simole and Dizzy, which is what he did.
It was likely, in Nic’s mind, that Dizzy was upset with him and would remain so for the foreseeable future. There were many reasons that might be the case, not least of which the matter of his being a constant presence in her life when she had happily moved on (roughly five years ago).
She might also be upset because he had access to a world that she herself was interested in entering but had so far been prevented from doing so. She might also be under the false impression that he was the one blocking her entry.
It was complicated. Made more so by the lack of communication between them. That was partly his fault. And partly hers.
Nic felt his nerve slipping as he wended his way through the tables, and his bowels grew queasy. He sped up so as to force himself no time for second thoughts. He concentrated on dodging students who suddenly sprang up after eating or reached out to grab a bottle of sauce on another table, swiftly switching directions and finding alternate routes like he was part of a dance involving the rest of the year without them knowing about it. The lunchtime rush was in full flow and no one paid him much attention. The constant babble of voices reassured him that his antics were of no concern to the rest of the school.
No doubt his friends behind him had guessed his destination by now and were watching with dread fascination. They always displayed the same braced-for-impact expressions whenever one of their number was forced into direct conflict with either of the two girls. It was something of a tradition to assume the worst in the hope the actual outcome would be unable to live up to their fearful predictions and end up producing a sense of relief that at least it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.
Thinking about it in abstract terms — it helped to look at the situation as though it involved other people, preferably from the distant past and long dead — a person in Nic’s position should have spoken up immediately after what had happened at the Royal College. The two girls would have responded in the moment, with no time to develop unnecessary suspicions about what he was up to. Whatever came of it, good or bad, could have been dealt with immediately and there would be a common understanding.
What they’d ended up with was a common misunderstanding. Each party had made assumptions about the other and then acted as though the only way to avoid any unpleasantness was to completely avoid each other. The unpleasantness that followed may have taken a different form, but it was still unpleasant. It certainly hadn’t been avoided.
The Winnum Roke issue was what had convinced Nic to allow the situation to carry on. It had been a drastic step and one he had made unilaterally. He had feared their reaction, but that was all it would have been. They couldn’t actually change his decision or do anything about it, other than to report him to the Archmage. And they wouldn’t do that, he was fairly sure.
When he reached the table, neither Simole nor Dizzy looked up. Both were in the middle of eating and continued to do so as though it was terribly important to not let even one pea escape.
They knew he was there. He stood silently, waiting for some reaction. They were deliberately trying to make him feel awkward, and doing a magnificent job of it.
“Simole,” he finally said.
Dizzy was the one to look up, a cool gaze meeting his eyes, the lack of emotion in her face a deliberate choice rather than an act of indifference.
Simole continued to eat.
“Simole,” said Dizzy, “there’s someone here for you.” There was a chill to her tone, but Nic had a great deal of experience with it and remembered her temper fondly. If anything, it warmed him.
“Who is it?” said Simole without looking up. “Anyone interesting?”
Nic felt the corners of his mouth curling up and fought to prevent them. They were playing with him but in the silliest way possible. Teenage girls were well known for their mean-spirited teasing, but there was no point pretending you couldn’t see what was right in front of you. That just made you look like the foolish one.
“It’s me,” said Nic, not bothering to indulge their needling, even though he would normally have played along just because it would have given him an excuse to stay near Dizzy a little longer. It was thoughts like that that made Nic wonder exactly what kind of relationship he wanted with her. Apparently not one on an equal footing. “I’d like to have a word, if that’s okay. In private.” He looked at Dizzy and smiled in what he hoped was a humble and respectful manner. Something flew off Dizzy’s plate and struck a boy three tables away, much to the boy’s surprise. It had moved too fast for Nic to see what it was. Possibly a sausage.
The sausage-struck boy stood up with a yelp, drawing the attention of his table-mates, and looked for his assailant, ready to go to war. The outrage quickly faded from his round, moony face as he calculated the probable trajectory and worked out who he would have to demand satisfaction from. He sat down again, subdued and uneasy.
Simole forked a sausage from her own plate and transferred it to Dizzy’s. Nic watched the act of quiet generosity with a feeling of something tightening in his stomach. Their relationship had developed to a level of unspoken intimacy that was beyond casual friendship. They were close. Closer to each other than he was to either of them. He was, he realised, jealous.
“I’m having my lunch,” said Simole. She at last looked up to acknowledge his presence.
“I know,” said Nic. “I’m sorry. It’s not really urgent, but I thought it would be less inconvenient now, so you don’t have to go out of your way. It won’t take long.”
“And this is concerning…?” Simole waved her fork around, trying to come up with an answer to a question she vaguely recalled.
“You know, the stuff that happened…” Being surrounded by students was an acceptable reason to be a little vague, Nic felt. “I could use your help.”
Dizzy stood up. Her chair made a loud scraping sound as it was pushed back, which was unusual. Dizzy could easily get up from the table without making any noise whatsoever. She turned without saying anything and carried her tray away.
“Are you intentionally trying to provoke her?” asked Simole, returning to her eating.
“No. I don’t think so. I might be doing it subconsciously.”
“Ah, you yearn uncontrollably.”
“My yearning is fully under control,” said Nic. “Yearning is very time consuming and I’m very busy at the moment.”
Simole smiled. “How can someone so aware of his own issues be such a prisoner to them?”
Nic sat down opposite her. “Because they’re my issues. Will you help me? Not with my issues, I mean. With my other problem.”
Simole cut up her food and then speared each piece until her fork was holding far more than a mouthful. “Aren’t you worried what you have to say might be overheard?” She slid the fork into her mouth and out again empty.
“Fanny’s been scanning for agents regularly since we got back,” said Nic. “They were extremely vigilant at the start of term, but they’ve eased off recently.”
“That’s why you elected to stay in the cottage?” said Simole. “Easier to keep an eye out for spies and observers?”
Nic nodded. “I suspect they have more pressing matters to deal with and I’m not all that interesting, on a day to day basis.”
“You think the problems with Gweur?”
“I would guess so,” said Nic. “Or something we haven’t been told about. I don’t think they can spare too much manpower on watching a boy doing his homework. They’ve backed off, in any case. And it’s not like I have anything of great importance to say.”
“Nothing of importance? I would have thought whatever gave you the fortitude to come over here after distancing yourself from us would be very important indeed.”
Nic’s eyebrows squeezed together. “I didn’t distance myself. You both… I don’t know what I did, but you both made it clear I wasn’t…”
“I see,” said Simole. “We hurt your feelings.”
“We are merely two girls whose fathers appeared to be more interested in a strange boy than us, and we were perplexed. Can you understand our consternation with such a discovery? Our whole lives spent being the centre of papa’s world, and then along comes Nic Tutt and they are both instantly besotted.”
Nic’s mouth turned down on one side while he chewed on the inside of the other side’s cheek. “That’s not quite how I would describe it. Both your fathers are, were, are terrifying men. I would gladly return their attentions where they belong if I could. I’m sorry if I deprived you of any familial love.”
“No need to apologise,” Simole said gleefully. “Trying to solve the mystery of the Tutt Effect, where grown men become weak at the knees at the prospect of turning you into a surrogate son, has brought us, Dizzy and I, together, joined in our mutual hope to unravel your secret allure. If we can bottle it, fortune awaits.”
“Davo can probably help you with distribution,” said Nic. “He’ll take a cut, of course.”
“You really are no fun,” said Simole, disappointed she couldn’t get more of a rise out of Nic. “Perhaps I should be more like you. Cold, heartless, immune to psychic attack… Who can tell how you really feel about anything?”
Nic was about to comment that she was already all of those things, but he decided to keep the observation to himself.
“My father thinks being direct is quicker but makes things needlessly difficult,” said Simole. “If they see you coming they will prepare better. Much easier to pretend you’re on their side and attack when they aren’t expecting it. Takes longer to get there, but the execution itself is a lot more efficient.”
“Is that why he wanted to kill all the mages?” asked Nic. He had never gotten around to asking what the reasoning was behind the Archmage’s decision. It had seemed impolite to bring it up in the Archmage’s presence.
“He claimed it was the only way because She was coming. I tried to get him to explain it now that it seems She was Winnum Roke. He must have known that from the start.”
“What did he say?” said Nic.
“Nothing. He refused to give me an answer. I don’t think he trusts me.”
“Well, you did turn him in to the authorities,” pointed out Nic.
“Yes, there is that. No need to hold a grudge, though is there? It’s not like I attacked him directly.”
“I don’t really want to attack anyone,” said Nic, “directly or indirectly.”
“I know, that’s your problem. No one can understand what you do want, so they can’t prepare themselves and it makes them anxious. You’re a tricky opponent, Nic. Everyone thinks you must be playing a very clever game, but I don’t think you’re taking part in their contest. You’ve got your own competition, haven’t you?”
“You’re being a bit vague,” said Nic. “I’m not sure I follow. What game are they playing? Ranvar already controls most of this region, and the other big nations have their own problems. They wouldn’t want to start anything. I thought the status quo was what everyone wanted to maintain.”
“They did. And then Winnum Roke decided to make some changes, didn’t she?”
Nic shrugged. “Do you really think she’s been waiting to get her revenge for the last thousand years?”
“It hasn’t been a thousand years for her,” said Simole. “I spent enough time with her to work out three things. One, she’s very angry. Two, she’s insane. And three, she’s a lot more powerful after being in the Other Place than she was before, and she was pretty powerful before.”
“Then what’s stopping her?” said Nic.
Simole raised her head slightly and looked up at him with her eyes peering through her lashes. “You really have to ask?”
“Me? I don’t think I could stop her if she really was as powerful as you say she is.”
“Not unless you’re more powerful than you think you are,” said Simole.
Nic sighed. “I’d really like that to be true. Being that kind of person all of a sudden would be quite wonderful. It might even make some people look at me differently.” He looked around the cafeteria. No one was looking in their direction.
“Are you still trying to make a good first impression?” asked Simole. “It’s a little late for that, don’t you think?”
“Then what should I be doing?”
“Aha!” said Simole. “I’ve often asked myself the same question. I tried asking other people, and they always gave me answers that made me think, I might not know what I want, but I know it isn’t that.”
Nic grinned. “Yeah. That’s all it ever is, a few more directions to cross off the list.”
“So what do you want my help with?” asked Simole, bring them back to the start, the point of his trip across the cafeteria.
Nic leaned forward and lowered his voice. “I want to find out what Winnum Roke wants. There has to be something specific she’s after. I thought it would be best to bury everything and just not bring it up — it’s bound to be a pain to deal with, better not to know.”
“That doesn’t sound like you,” said Simole.
“No, it doesn’t.” Nic looked down at the tabletop, covered in the ancient stains of a million sittings. “I’ve decided it won’t work to just sit and wait. Plus, I like it. Being involved in something big, even when I don’t really know what’s at stake. Maybe if I did I would be more scared. Ordinary life, working in a nice office, buying things to make myself more comfortable, it just feels a bit…”
“I guess. Drab and dreary.”
“But safe and comfortable,” said Simole.
There was another chair scrape. Nic had been so engrossed in his conversation, one that he’d been waiting to have for far too long, that he didn’t notice Dizzy’s return until she was sitting down again. Her tray was full of food; she had gone to get seconds.
“Enough of this,” said Dizzy. “I won’t stand for it anymore.”
Nic looked at Simole but only received a barely perceptible shake of the head.
“Stand for what?” said Nic.
Dizzy stabbed a sausage in a far more aggressive manner than was necessary. She leaned across the table, making Nic lean back. Her hand shot out and grabbed his lapel to stop his retreat.
“Simole, I understand,” hissed Dizzy. “She was born this way. Fate has put her in the middle of events and with good reason. Her involvement I accept. Yours…” She paused to relax her mouth which had grown tight with conviction. “What good can you possibly do?”
“You smell nice,” said Nic, which wasn’t what he meant to say, but it was all that he could think about. Her scent wasn’t sweet or feminine, she smelled more like she’d been rolling around in the grass and had trampled a few flowers in the process.
Dizzy’s face reddened and she let go of his lapel.
“What about me?” said Simole with a petulant pursing of her lips.
“What do you mean?” said Nic.
“You never tell me I smell nice. Does that mean you think I smell unpleasant?”
“No, of course not,” said Nic.
“But not as fragrant as this girl.” She pointed at Dizzy with another fully-loaded fork. “Compared to her, my scent is objectionable? Distasteful? Nasty?”
“No,” said Nic, fighting back his rising panic. It was much easier to deal with either girl alone. Together, they boosted each other’s abilities to get under his skin like those insects that used human flesh to incubate their eggs. “It’s just hard to notice with the, er, the smell of cabbage.” He pointed vaguely in the direction of the kitchens.
“Cabbage wasn’t on the menu today,” said Simole. “Perhaps you’re confusing my perfume with the scent of boiled vegetables. Have you always thought of me as smelling of cabbages?”
“I like cabbage soup,” was all Nic could think to say.
“Stop it,” said Dizzy. “This isn’t the time for flirting.”
Simole reacted with a horrified smirk, recoiling from the accusation.
“I don’t think that was flirting,” said Nic.
“That’s because no girl has ever flirted with you before,” said Dizzy.
“Oh,” said Nic. “So when a girl flirts with you, you’re supposed to feel afraid and like you want to run away?”
“Depends on the girl,” said Simole, “and what she’s after.” She added a wink.
“Like I was saying,” said Dizzy firmly, “Simole I understand. You, on the other hand, are completely out of your depth. You don’t deserve to be part of this, let alone leading the way.”
“And you do?”
“More than you.”
It wasn’t as though he disagreed with her point of view, it was that he failed to see the relevance. Since when did being deserving have anything to do with it?
“What if it hadn’t been me?” said Nic. “Not you, either. Someone else.” He sat up straight and looked for a likely candidate. No one stuck out. “Anyone here. Would you have been okay with it?”
“That entirely depends on who it was,” said Dizzy. “You aren’t well prepared, you’re inept in the use of arms, have no stomach for physical effort and probably still gasp for breath after climbing a single set of stairs.”
She had a point, but not one Nic was going to admit to.
“But you’re being so short-sighted,” said Simole. “For all his many, many faults, you have to admit the boy is intelligent and dogged, and despite what his appearance might suggest, clearly resourceful.” She smiled like she was about to add a punch line to a joke, and the thought of it was enough to start her chuckling.
“Those qualities aren’t of much use when a building falls on your head,” said Dizzy.
“They were actually very useful,” said Nic. “I think you’re being—”
“I don’t care what you think,” snapped Dizzy, cutting him off. “That’s the whole point.”
“How are those yearnings now?” asked Simole, the smirk on her lips openly taunting him. “Still feel the pull of all those years.”
“That’s got nothing to do with it,” said Nic. “I’ve already accepted her decision. She was” — he turned to Dizzy — “you were right. There are more important things to worry about. My whole life is a big empty hole I need to fill with something. I’m sorry if I ended up where you wanted to be. It was just dumb luck, I know, but it would be stupid not to make the best of it. That’s all I’m trying to do now. Even if I’m doing it poorly, it’s still my decision how to proceed, deserving or not.”
“Yes,” said Dizzy. “I accept it, too. You’re the winner here, there’s no changing that.” She said it like he’d won a lottery prize of great value. That wasn’t how it felt at all. “One qualified contestant, one wild card. But you’re going to let me join. Whatever is going to happen from here on out, I want to be a part of it. I don’t care if you think it’s a good idea or not.”
Her demand was met with silence. Nic wasn’t sure how to explain his reluctance. At least not in a way that wouldn’t cause her to turn violent.
“They’re going to try to stop you when they find out what you’ve been keeping from them,” she continued. “Probably slice you open to see what else you’ve got hidden in there.”
She spoke about him being cut up with such relish it made Nic think she would volunteer for the job. He gulped involuntarily.
But he wasn’t about to be bullied into agreeing to her demands. “You can’t just order me to do what you want.”
“I know,” said Dizzy. “We’re going to come to an understanding. You’re going to give me what I want and in return, I’m going to give you whatever you want.”
For some reason Nic couldn’t pinpoint his heart began to hammer at his ribcage and warmth flooded his face.
“What are you looking at me like that for?” said Dizzy.
Simole began to laugh. “I think you just reactivated his puberty. The poor boy’s about to overheat.”
Dizzy scowled. “Oh for goodness sake, I didn’t mean it like that.”
“No, no, neither did I. I-I-I mean, I didn’t think you did.” The stammering wasn’t helping. “I understand what you’re saying, it’s just that I’m not sure what you think you have that I would want. I don’t need anything.”
“Then what did you want from Simole?” said Dizzy, her tone intensifying towards belligerence once more.
“She can come with me. You can’t. You said it yourself, she was born that way. I lucked into it. I couldn’t take you even if I wanted to.”
“You underestimate what I can contribute. What I can do for you,” said Dizzy, “is train you to be able to run for hours at a steady pace without losing your wind. I can give you the strength to climb any structure and the eye to see the most efficient route to scale it. You will be able to handle any weapon proficiently, and one or two expertly. I will push you in the direction of the men you read about and then dream about becoming but never do. You need to become that man.”
“I think you have a poor understanding of what he dreams about,” said Simole.
“It won’t be easy,” continued Dizzy, ignoring the interjection. “Each session will leave you weak and shaken, vomiting until your guts are emptied and your tears run dry.”
Nic did not find the image appealing. This was what she wanted to contribute?
“That’s quite the offer,” said Simole, flashing widened eyes at Nic in teasing fashion. “I should grab onto it before she changes her mind. Think of it Nic, your body as finely tuned as your mind. Even a woman of the most unreasonably high standards wouldn’t be able to resist you.”
“Nor would a woman of low standards,” said Dizzy, “or no standards at all. You should probably keep your options open.”
The two girls exchanged a look of no obvious meaning that nonetheless made Nic very uncomfortable. He was in the middle of something he couldn’t quite understand, and wasn’t sure he wanted to.
“I want to be included,” said Dizzy. “I know she can go places I can’t, but I can take you places you’ve only ever dreamed of.”
Nic stood up as the heat returned to his face. “I’ll think about it.” He turned and walked back to his table.
The first years had gone, but Davo, Fanny and Brill were waiting for him.
“Dizzy’s going to teach me to run, climb and fight,” he said to their questioning faces.
“Excellent,” said Brill. “I’m sure that’s just what you need. Fresh air, plenty of exercise. I would join you but I’m an intellectual. My mind is my first priority, my body is a temple, and as such remains in the same place indefinitely.”
“I’m also an intellectual,” said Fanny.
“Ditto,” said Davo.
Nic couldn’t blame them for not wanting to join in his new training regime. It would be gruelling and very painful if Dizzy had her way, which she always did. But he was smiling at the thought. She would be spending time with him of her own volition, which she hadn’t done so far. It had always been at his behest. He started eating his cold lunch, bolting the food and then drinking the water in record time. He sat back and took a breath and could have sworn he smelled muddy grass and broken petals.
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