The Librarian led the way back to the stairs. She raised the lantern high, as if to show Nic what he had in store — a lot of steps — and drew herself up as well, becoming Periwinkle. His clothes filled out at the same time, taking on the more masculine shape of a rugged man who used his brawn to accomplish tasks. Looks could be deceiving and in Nic’s recent experience almost always were.
“Does your device have a way to take us back up?” he asked.
“No,” said Periwinkle, the voice deeper. “It doesn’t work like that. I can affect what you see and hear but not the effect gravity has on you.”
“You couldn’t grow wings and use them to fly us out?”
Periwinkle smiled in a way that transformed the lower part of his face into the Librarian’s. Now that he knew it was her, it was easy to see beyond the mask.
“If I grew wings large enough to enable flight, they would be too big to fit in this stairwell.”
Nic hadn’t expected the answer to be quite so pragmatic. It did confirm that she could have done it in the open, though. The device on her wrist was something he’d like to know more about.
He raised his head and looked past her at the steps illuminated by the lantern. His body sagged with exhaustion just from thinking about how far up they had to go.
“There’s no easier way to the top?” he asked.
“I’m afraid not,” said the Librarian, the lantern swinging gently in her hand. “You’ve been getting stronger, haven’t you? This will be good exercise for you.”
From anyone else, he would have taken it as an attempt to mock the modicum of progress he’d made in getting himself physically fit, but the Librarian was being serious. Climbing stairs was a good way to get stronger. They began the ascent.
His head felt oddly empty. For the first time in a long time, he wasn’t carrying a passenger. He could tell the difference. He felt alone.
“How do you think I did?” he asked from behind Periwinkle.
There was a long pause before Periwinkle spoke, using the Librarian’s voice. “Do you recall the story of the five merchant princes?”
“The one from your book of myths and fairy tales?” said Nic.
“The book by Wink Munroe,” the Librarian corrected him.
“Yes, I remember it. Are you saying this is a similar situation?”
The story was a simple allegory, about a merchant in competition with four others, and how they formed a pact to manage the market between them to their personal benefit. With the five of them fixing prices and preventing anyone else from competing, it was a fairly easy task to keep the money flowing and to give customers no other option but to accept their terms.
They became wealthy and lived the lives of minor royalty, princes among their kind.
But the first prince, the one whose idea it had been to form their association, convinced three others to join in him pushing out the fourth. One share of four was better than one share of five.
Greed and an eye for a good deal drove them to reduce their membership, and then to turn on another and another, until only two were left, the first prince and one other.
And of course, they turned against each other also, until only one was left. But it wasn’t the first prince who claimed the crown for himself, because being the architect of a dream did not entitle you to claim it.
“I am saying,” said the Librarian, “that the reason people agree to join forces with people they don’t trust, who they know can leave them with nothing, is that they believe they have a chance to be the victor and not the victim. And they do. If only one person in five can win, then only one will win, but which one?”
“The one who wants it most?” said Nic.
“Possibly. But I can tell you who will not win — the one who wants it least. If you leave your advantage lying around, someone will pick it up and use it against you.”
“When you wrote those stories,” said Nic, “under the Wink Monroe name, was it meant as a warning to others? Because I was never really sure what you were trying to say.”
“I wasn’t trying to say anything. I was jotting down things I’d seen on this world and many others. Do you know, there’s a world where the different peoples don’t engage in war or any kind of violence? Instead, when they have a dispute, over property, over land, they race their wahari — tall dog-like animals with long legs and no necks. They train them to run very fast, almost quicker than the eye can see, and the winner is given their prize without fuss.”
“They give the dog the prize?” said Nic.
Periwinkle snorted. “The winner’s owner is given the prize, as I‘m sure you understood, Nicolav. The champion wahari is roasted and eaten at the celebratory feast.”
“That seems a little unfair,” said Nic.
“When so much relies on the outcome of a race, there is great temptation to cheat,” said the Librarian. “Many drugs can be used to enhance a wahari’s speed, but they’re all very toxic to their owners.” Periwinkle looked over her shoulder at Nic. The smile was made with Periwinkle’s mouth and the Librarian’s teeth.
Nic didn’t fancy being invited to any celebratory feasts.
“The creature gave me access to this knowledge and no indication of what to do with it.”
“Yes,” said Periwinkle. “I believe that is for you to decide.” He was still talking like the Librarian, which was disconcerting. “The fate of your people is in your hands.”
It sounded ridiculous when put like that. It was not a task he was qualified for. Nobody was, when he really thought about it.
“I find it hard to believe either of them would genuinely want me to decide anything. Wouldn’t they rather be the ones to make those sorts of decisions?”
“Sometimes only one person gets to make the choice and more than one wants to. In those cases, it can be easier to let a third, neutral party make the choice.”
“See whose call the wahari responds to?” said Nic. Was that what was happening here?
“It means they need you and are willing to give you enough freedom so that its loss can be put to use. If you are strong enough to resist the High-Father’s influence, you can forge your own path.”
“What about the creature’s influence? Surely it wants me to do things in a certain way.”
“Indeed, I would not be surprised. Or it might leave it to you, now that the choice has been made. You can’t predict a player’s moves if the player doesn’t control the pieces.”
It was sounding more and more like a game. Was that all it was? Unimaginably powerful entities so bored with eternity they used whole worlds as their fields of play? He was the ball, about to be kicked repeatedly in an effort to move him in an intended direction.
“So it’s important my role is given to someone as naive and unsophisticated as possible so their moves land on an empty board? It doesn’t even matter if I’m aware of what they’re doing?”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Periwinkle, his breath a little short, “but we are merely speculating while we climb these interminable stairs.” The voice was deep again and the tone and posture Periwinkle’s.
They reached the second landing and paused, more for Nic’s benefit, although the Librarian was putting on an act of also breathing hard. She seemed to enjoy playing her role. Nic had been doing his best to keep up with the Librarian’s pace, trying to think of it as an exercise. Now that they’d stopped, he felt like he might not be able to start moving again.
Periwinkle raised the lantern as though it would show their destination. It only showed more stairs.
“I was surprised you didn’t ask about your father,” said Periwinkle, still looking in the direction of the stairs.
“You know…” Nic was still breathing hard and found it hard to speak at the same time. “You know about him?”
“Just that he was in the military and died under mysterious circumstances. I am sure it has weighed on your mind. You are his son, after all. The creature could have shown you how he died.”
“Yes,” said Nic. He stood up straight and inhaled, reclaiming his ability to breathe. “It’s something I considered. I spent a lot of time trying to find out and got nowhere. I think it’s something the government wants to keep secret which, knowing our government, probably doesn’t bode well. I… I’m afraid to see it.”
It was the simplest way to put it. When the task was to dig up information that might lead to more places to dig, his goal was to get nearer the truth and that was fine. But the creature wasn’t making clues available, he was able to show exactly what happened. He was able to put Nic in the place where it happened, watching as it happened. The thought had made Nic’s curiosity falter.
“I see. Not because it would be too gruesome,” said Periwinkle. “Because of what it might reveal about him.”
“Because I think of him as my mother remembers him. I don’t know if I want to exchange that for who he really was.”
“Maybe he was who your mother thinks he was. She knew him best, don’t you think?”
Nic bowed his head. He felt embarrassed. Was he underestimating his mother? Undervaluing his father? Was it easier to assume a member of the Ranvarian army would have been charged with unpleasant duties and possibly been good at them? Enjoyed them, even. What difference would it make to his mother’s memory? It was only his own view of the man that would change.
“Maybe ‘afraid’ wasn’t the right word,” he said. “I don’t want to lose him. Selfish might be the correct word.”
“No, Nic,” said Periwinkle, looking at him. “That isn’t the right word.” He smiled and turned to carry on climbing.
“You aren’t one of them,” said Nic as he hurried to not be left in the darkness. “Are you like the creature? Did the High-Father build you, too?”
Periwinkle laughed in the Librarian’s voice. “No. Not quite. But I too am from another world, taken as a memento. The ship, that came from the creature’s world, dead and rudderless, the High-Father gave me the ability to fly it. The plans for the creature’s construction were hidden within the ship. I found them, gave them to the High-Father.”
“Did you know what it was?”
“I only knew it was something powerful and unlikely to succumb to the High-Father’s wishes.”
Nic walked on in silence. Perhaps the game had more players than he realised. He wasn’t sure what that meant, other than more people trying to kick the ball.
When they finally reached the top of the staircase, Simole was waiting for them, looking bored. Nic looked past her — the others were still asleep, just as he’d left them.
“You made it back in one piece, then,” said Simole.
“You weren’t expecting me to survive?” said Nic.
“Oh, I knew you’d be back,” said Simole. “How else would you face your true opponent?” She glanced over her shoulder towards where Dizzy was lying on the floor. “Did you bring me back anything? It’s customary to return from a trip bearing gifts.” She gave him an expectant look.
“No, sorry,” said Nic. “There wasn’t a gift shop.”
“Shame. It wasn’t very exciting waiting for you. I ended up doing a bit of reading.” She looked over her other shoulder where a large book was glowing on top of a case.
“You took a book out of its case,” said Periwinkle, his voice filling Nic with concern. It took a lot to shock the Librarian.
“Is that bad?” Simole asked. “I won’t catch some kind of demonic infection, will I?” She didn’t sound concerned at all.
Periwinkle didn’t respond, he just looked around in consternation at all the other books out of their cases.
“I think,” said Nic, “they were in the cases to keep them from falling apart. They’re very old.”
“Age does that for a purpose,” said Simole. “Hanging around too long doesn’t do anyone any good.” She gave Periwinkle a look that suggested she wasn’t just talking in the abstract.
“Was there anything interesting in any of them?” asked Nic, eager to avoid a direct confrontation between the two.
“Bits and pieces. It’s in that fancy language where nothing is said in two words when it can be said in twenty. Not much of a plot, either. Makes your fingers tingle when you turn the pages, though. How about you? Pick up anything interesting down there? High-Father give you some pointers?” She was using the expectant look again.
“Um, sort of. I’m not sure, really. I got to see a map.”
“Ooh, a map? Fascinating.”
“It was, actually,” said Nic. “It let me see where everyone is. Troops and dragons and everything.”
“You can point where they are right now, can you?”
“Yes.” She caught on quickly.
“So, you’re a signpost.”
“No, I wouldn’t say that… but kind of.” He had been thinking of ways to use the ability that had been bestowed on him. It certainly had potential if used under the right circumstances. But Simole, as ever, had cut through to the core of what he was — a signpost to direct others.
“Cheer up,” said Simole, grinning. “Everyone’s pleased to see a signpost. The more lost people are, the more welcome it is. If only you were a bit taller, then people could spot you a bit easier.”
“Thanks,” said Nic, not entirely sure if she was being massively cruel or moderately kind. “I suppose we should wake everyone up. What do we tell them?”
“They won’t need to be told anything,” said Periwinkle. “But we had better put these books back where they belong.”
“Go ahead,” said Simole. “I’ve finished with them anyway.”
Nic sensed a momentary intention in the Librarian to say something, to put Simole in her place. Nic would have advised against it, his signpost would very definitely point in the opposite direction. But his advice wasn’t needed, or indeed asked for. The Librarian, Periwinkle, took out some gloves and proceeded to put the books back in their cases, holding them at arm’s length as though they might bite him.
“I don’t think you should have touched them with your bare hands,” Nic said to Simole. “They might have done something to you.”
Simole shook her head. “I’ll be fine. You just worry about what you’re going to do next. Whatever it is, I’m sure it’ll be fine. The important thing is to try your best. And if you fail and everything falls apart because you weren’t up to the job, I’ll be happy to mop after you.”
It was hard to not be a little irked by her arrogant tone and her complete dismissal of his role. It was like she was letting him have a go as a favour, before she took over and showed him how it was really done. The fact she was fully justified in her attitude didn’t really help.
Simole’s face broke into a laugh. “There’s no need to look like that, I’m just teasing you. You’re so easy, I don’t know why I even bother. Look, I know they’ll be prepared for me, but they won’t be prepared for you. That’s your secret weapon.”
“My lack of knowing what I’m doing”
“Exactly. And also having me on your side. They think I’m going to help you.”
“Not in the way they think. To be honest, I don’t really care about any of their squabbles. Demons and dragons and mages — they’re more like toddlers in a nursery fighting over the toys. They can all blow each other up in giant fireballs if they want. People dying isn’t really so terrible, happens all the time. It would be bad if you remembered it afterwards, but you don’t. Death is very reasonable that way. They expect me to come at them directly, like I’ve been trained to do, but that’s going to be your job.”
This was the first time he’d been told what his job was, and he felt like he’d rather still be in the dark. “And what will your job be?”
“Watching your back. There’s only one way people win these things. They cheat. Winners always act like they believe in the rules and then never follow them themselves. My father included. It’s how you win, you convince everyone else to handicap themselves. I know all their tricks, because I’m one of them. Plus, I read all these books. They contain the history of the Royal College and how they formed a pact with the High-Father. Quite interesting, once you get past the waffling.”
“You said they were boring and hard to read,” said Nic, feeling he’d been had.
“They are. But I’m used to that, thanks to you.” She grinned again and slapped him on the back. “Thanks for pointing me in the right direction.”
“It’s done,” said Periwinkle, taking off his gloves. “We can wake them now.”
Nic wanted to stop him and read the books himself. If they really contained the history of the Royal College, there might be something he could use. The history books he was used to tended to be of questionable value since it wasn’t only your own students who learned how you had succeeded. It allowed your enemies to learn your methods, too. The books about Ranvar’s conquests made a great deal of the power of mages and Arcanum, to a surprisingly candid degree. But they made very little mention of dragons, other than in a ceremonial way, flying over victory parades and attending coronations.
Nic suspected the dragons, vessels for the transfer of demons to humans, were much more integral to battle and their involvement had been downplayed so as to not alert future enemies to their threat.
If the books in this room contained a more accurate history, they might reveal such truths and allow Nic to see the other options available. There was a war coming, of that he was sure, and the dragons would not be taking part this time.
“I’ll ask you to not speak of what happened here to the others,” Periwinkle said to Simole.
“I’ll ask you to remember I gave you this chance,” said Simole, her tone cold but somehow friendly at the same time. “I don’t know how you are indentured to them, but if you are the type of slave who has become fond of its master, you’ll get no sympathy from me. If you end up betraying us, I will deal with you personally.”
Periwinkle didn’t exactly look flustered, but somewhat unsettled by the threat, maybe. In the end, perhaps Simole was going to be the person who sorted everything out and he was kidding himself into thinking his role mattered. She was allowing him the opportunity to make something of himself, but if there was no need, why bother?
The others woke with a start. They got to their feet, straightened up and looked around, a little dazed. Nic was sure they would want to know what had happened, why they were slouched over the cases or lying on the floor. But after a few seconds of blinking, they carried on examining the books in their cases, even Dizzy.
After a few more minutes, Periwinkle announced it was time for them to leave, and everyone complied without fuss.
Dizzy stopped Nic from following. “What happened?”
“What do you mean?” said Nic.
“You’re acting strange.” While she might not be able to recall what had happened to her, he could, and she could see it in him, or some vestige of it.
“It’s this place,” said Nic. “It’s not what it seems. The High-Father put a creature here. I spoke to it, in my head. It gave me a new way to look at things.”
Her eyes narrowed as she considered his answer. He had decided to give her a version of the truth; he didn’t think he’d be able to get away with an actual lie to her face. He needed to work on that.
“You’re helping him, aren’t you?” Dizzy said to Simole, barely a question.
Simole smiled. “Jealous?”
“No,” said Dizzy. “Disappointed. You’re far too soft on him. He needs to be ready to do this on his own, not have you waiting to catch him when he falls.” She turned and followed the others out.
Dizzy didn’t speak to him again on the way home. She sat opposite him and stared at him the whole way. Nic didn’t actually mind. He found it quite pleasant, actually.
They returned to the school without any problems, the swift carriage getting them home before it was dark. Mr Periwinkle made a short speech about what they had seen and how it showed them what the Royal College was all about. He didn’t mention any specifics and no one asked for any. Everyone seemed to have a memory of having seen the thing that demonstrated what he was talking about, whatever that was.
Nic returned to the cottage with Brill and then went to dinner with the others. Their conversation was the same as ever, making jokes and teasing one another. Nic didn’t feel any different, his newly acquired power not apparent to him.
It was only when he was alone in his room — truly alone, for once — that he was able to sink into the depths of his own mind and see the world from the perspective of a bird. He was seeing it at night, large swathes of it hidden in darkness, twinkling lights in single and in groups, showing him where people were congregated.
The land beneath him appeared just at is had in the Librarium. A tiny, perfect replica he could examine at his leisure, from any vantage point he wished. He was tempted to spy on Dizzy, but it would be inappropriate to do so, especially this late. To catch her undressed or in a bath… it wasn’t that such things didn’t appeal to him, it was more the thought of how it would make her feel if she knew. He didn’t want to disappoint her on purpose.
He scanned the whole world, not looking for anything in particular, finding it hard to stop watching the world simply existing. How was he supposed to make use of this? What did the creature expect him to do?
He went far afield, beyond the nations bordering Ranvar, finding strange landscapes, deserts and mountains he didn’t recognise and oceans that seemed endless. The further he went, the less important the troubles of a few small countries seemed. Would it really matter so much if the High-Father took control of this small corner of a vast world?
It was a lot to take in, a lot to study. It was also very absorbing and he could have carried on all night. He drew back to his starting point, hovering over the school.
“Show me all Secret Service agents,” he said. Tiny pinpoints of light appeared beneath him. Every agent, their locations revealed. He could see two of the lights approaching the window of his room, he could even see what colour they were.
Nic rose from his bed and got changed. By the time they appeared inside his room, he was in his gym clothes, ready.
“You look like you were expecting us,” said White.
“I’m trying to be more proactive. Set myself some goals.”
“What goals do you have?” asked Black.
That was the question, wasn’t it?
“Well,” said Nic. “I’d like to be able to climb eighteen flights of stairs, forty-two steps in each flight, without losing my breath.”
“That is oddly specific,” said White. “But achievable.”
If Nic had yet to decide on the larger goals in his life, he could at least decide on the smaller one.
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