Nic watched from the window on the second floor of the library. He extinguished the lantern which was already at its lowest setting, and touched his nose to the cool glass.
The Pagoda, looming tall and straight over the trees, was ink-black against the faintly glittering night sky. The moon was lost behind some clouds to the far left, but there was still enough residual light to silhouette the Pagoda’s curious lines.
Something over there had set off the modified herb detector. Something emitting enough dark Arcanum to make it go up in smoke; there was still a sharp tang of burning hanging in the air. The box was now in several pieces on the floor, although that was a result of Nic dropping it.
He looked for movement, some sign of life, but there was only the gentle sway of the treetops. There were no windows in the structure that he could see, no leaking of light. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the work Mr Tenner was doing over there produced some dark Arcanum, but had he actually managed to pierce the wall between dimensions? It seemed unlikely. The world hadn’t ended, for a start.
Nic turned his head and pressed his ear to the glass. He heard the wind and not much else. It was after midnight and no one was around, so nothing was what you would expect to hear. Nic felt a mixture of relief and disappointment. According to Mallory, screams were often heard in the Pagoda’s vicinity, but that may have just been teasing.
Mallory hadn’t been around much. The second year students of the Upperclass had their own building and their studies were supposed to be very intense. Nic imagined it couldn’t be much fun for Mallory, the last of the four Also-Rans from the previous year’s intake. Not that he asked for sympathy. He kept to himself and didn’t like to be burdened with distractions. Even showing Nic and the others around had been a huge inconvenience to him, as he was only too happy to make clear. Still, he had been here a year (and survived) so he probably knew a good deal about how the school operated. How it really operated. He was a resource, just like the library, and worth probing for information.
A line of yellow light appeared at the base of the Pagoda. A door opened. Nic ducked down, even though the chances of him being spotted were slim. He peeked over the sill and saw a figure emerge; a man. From the thin, angular body, it looked like Tenner, but his face wasn’t visible with the light behind him. He stretched, arms reaching high over his head, and then bent double to touch his toes. He straightened again and did a little jig, shaking out his legs. Maybe it wasn’t Tenner.
Nic watched with no real idea why the Pagoda fascinated him so. He certainly couldn’t tell what was going on over there, if anything. The detector going crazy had set his imagination running wild, that was all. Visions of unstable magic out of control and about to come bursting through the walls, but he realised that was silly. Nothing had happened. He was in a library by himself hiding from no one.
The man turned around and went back inside, closing the door behind him. With him went Nic’s interest in staring out of a window for no reason. It was just another building, albeit a strangely shaped one. Nothing sinister, nothing to help him with his studies.
Nic waited a few seconds and then relit the lamp. He set it down and picked up the pieces of the detector. It had broken into three large sections and there were two rocks that gave off a smoky whiff when he sniffed them. He assumed they had come from the detector. The librarian was unlikely to leave rocks lying around on the floor.
He had no idea how it was supposed to fit back together. Quite possibly it was beyond repair. Fanny wouldn’t be happy. He wasn’t happy, either. His plan to find the special books he was sure were somewhere in the library had been ruined. It was curious how high the background Arcanum level was. Perhaps the books he had been seeking were spread out in different locations, or maybe Tenner’s experiments were flooding the area around the Pagoda. Either way, his search for the elusive books would have to wait.
He locked up the library and made his way back to the cottage. The clouds had drifted away and the moon hung low in the sky, lighting his way. He’d made the trip across campus countless times, but it had never felt quite like this. It felt like something had happened, yet nothing had. Not that he could tell, anyway.
Despite the lack of anything to be genuinely concerned about, he still felt a surge of relief as he approached the cottage. It might not have become a proper home to him but it was still a safe refuge.
“Nice walk?” said a voice, making Nic jump and nearly drop the pieces of the detector cradled in his arms. Simole was leaning out of her bedroom window with her chin on the heel of her palm.
“Oh, it’s you,” said Nic, his relief even greater.
“What’s got you so jumpy?”
Nic frowned. “You, obviously. Shouldn’t you be in bed? It’s late.”
“I’m in my bedroom,” she pointed out. “You’re the one on night manoeuvres.”
“I was just—”
“At the library?”
Nic hesitated. How did she know that? It would be a fair guess during the day, but it was the middle of the night.
“I’ve seen you sneak out before,” said Simole, reading his mind, “so I followed you one night. I had this crazy idea you and that girl were secret lovers and the whole scene between you was just a charade to hide your true feelings from the world. I expected to see unbridled passion. Imagine my disappointment when you slipped into the back of the library. You didn’t even have to break in, you had a key. Your life lacks romance, Nic, in every sense.”
Nic listened to Simole with mounting discomfort. “Why did you think… Of course it wasn’t a charade. She really hates me. Where do you get these crazy ideas from?”
“Don’t you ever read books that aren’t full of facts and figures?”
“Story books? No,” said Nic. “Why would I?”
They were both silent a long while in the darkness, each trying to get the measure of the other, and failing.
Simole shook her head. “You should come inside. You must be getting cold.”
He was, but he only realised it once she mentioned it. He walked around to the front and Simole opened the door for him. He nodded his thanks and went to his room. Simole followed and walked in without waiting to be invited.
“You can learn a lot from books that tell you stories. A farm boy goes on a quest, fights giants and wicked villains, and wins a kingdom. Don’t you find that inspiring?”
“No,” said Nic. “I find it statistically unlikely.”
Simole made a weird sound. It took a moment for Nic to realise she was giggling.
“I wasn’t joking,” he said.
“I know,” she said, “that’s why it’s funny.”
“I don’t need to be inspired.” He put the detector on his desk. The pieces didn’t look too smashed up. There were grooves in the side. Maybe he could slot it back together.
“Don’t you?” said Simole. “I think you already have been. You wouldn’t be here, otherwise.”
“Yes. And look how well that worked out.” He began fiddling with the pieces.
“There are other truths, you know? Ones that you can’t learn by being told. You have to see them. Feel them. A silly, made up story can do that. A farm boy becomes king and the person reading the story realises they can reach a little higher than they thought. That’s worthwhile, don’t you think?”
The pieces of the broken detector were being stubborn and not fitting together. What he needed was a manual. He should have thought of it when he was in the library.
“I came here because a dumb kid thought something was possible when it wasn’t. It was worth trying, but not surprising it failed. I don’t mind it, but I wouldn’t encourage anyone else to do the same as me.”
“Stay where you are and accept your place?” said Simole.
“No. Try as hard as you can, but don’t feel bad if you fail.”
“How?” asked Simole. “It hurts when you fail.”
“It hurts when you succeed. I did well to make it to this school. It was what I wanted and I did it. Now I have to deal with the consequences. How I feel is temporary.”
“I don’t know how you can take it so calmly. I can see why you confuse her so much.”
Nic stopped his fiddling. “She didn’t seem confused to me. She was very, very clear, I thought.”
Simole stood beside him, picked up the pieces of the detector and expertly slotted them together. She took the two stones from his hand and popped them into an opening Nic hadn’t noticed before.
“Not everything has a simple solution like an example in a textbook. Some things don’t have an answer. Some have answers that keep changing.” She handed the detector back to him.
He took it and looked it over. “You sound like Mr Tenner when you talk like that.”
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” asked Simole.
“I don’t know,” said Nic. “The answer keeps changing.”
Simole smiled. “You’re a quick learner.”
“Yes,” said Nic. “I am.”
Classes resumed and with the end of year mocks approaching, the students had less time to glare disapprovingly at the Also-Rans. Despite being the children of wealth and privilege, no one could afford to slack off in the Upperclass. If you didn’t maintain an acceptable standard, you were asked to leave, whoever you were.
The change in atmosphere was noticeable. Questions were asked more frequently during lessons and even the teachers took on a more aggressive approach, doubling the amount of work required outside of class.
Nic found it invigorating, like a runner seeing his competition closing.
“I don’t think this is working,” said Fanny. He waved the detector around. It made no sound. “I tried it on Nic’s magic pen. Not a sausage.”
They were sitting on the floor in front of the fire, revising for the mocks. Nuts and dried berries were piled high in bowls. Fanny’s pantry supplied all their nutritional needs. He also had a bag of chocolates, for their non-nutritional needs.
“The Arcanum’s probably run out,” said Simole.
Nic looked up and caught her eye. He had returned the herbal detector to Fanny looking just the same as when he took it, but it no longer detected dark Arcanum. Or magic herbs. He felt a bit guilty about breaking it, but it wasn’t Fanny’s and the school had plenty more. They wouldn’t miss this one; they hadn’t so far.
He carried on reading Borders and Frontiers by Westan and Blake. He’d read it many times before, but this was the latest edition, ordered by Davo. Not even the school had this version.
“I think something’s rattling around inside,” said Fanny, peering into the hole in the side of the box. “I wonder if I can fix it.”
Davo pushed a book across the floor towards him. “If you pass the exams maybe you can get a job as a herbal detector repairman. You’ll make a decent living.”
Nic wasn’t used to studying with others. He wasn’t used to doing anything with others. It wasn’t the most efficient way to work—plenty of interruptions and unnecessary arguments—but there was a comforting air to the way the four of them interacted, like they’d known each other for years, rather than a few weeks.
“We shouldn’t overdo things,” said Fanny, pushing the book back. “We’re already going to crush the competition, we don’t want to burn ourselves out.”
“Overconfidence will be your undoing,” said Davo. “You might beat the other students, but you’ll still come fourth.”
Fanny put down the detector and picked up the book. “To be honest, I wouldn’t mind fourth. For the mocks. It’d be great to see their faces when our names are read out.”
Confidence was high all around. Judging by the sorts of questions asked in class, the regular students were some way behind the four of them. But there were other students.
“I don’t think it’s going to be that easy,” said Nic. “There’s going to be quite a few people trying their hardest. Everyone in the Standard Club.”
They were all aware of the high standards Ransom expected of its students. It would be foolhardy to think they would show a lack of effort now.
“I’m not sure it’s such a good idea for us to challenge the top students,” said Davo. “We’ve already made enough of a splash to get everyone’s back up. If we actually took the top four spots, there would be panic in the halls of the Department of Education. In the halls of Ransom, too. Parents would lose their minds and kids would be throwing themselves off rooftops. Do we really want to create a fuss like that?” He looked at Simole. “Again.”
It was an exaggeration, but only a slight one.
“What do you want us to do?” asked Fanny. “Fail on purpose?”
Davo gave a half-hearted shrug.
“You do?” said Fanny. “You want us to take a dive?”
“It’s only mocks,” said Davo. “The real test is in the summer. We can afford to take it a little easier now. I mean, it won’t affect our results, will it? And it might save us a lot of grief in the long run. Something worth considering. What do you think, Nic?”
They all turned to look at Nic. He felt their expectation settle on him uneasily. “I think… you should do what you think is best.”
“He’s totally going to tryhard it,” said Fanny.
“Totally,” agreed Davo. “It’s going to upset a lot of people.”
“Yes,” said Simole. “And impress a few of them.” She gave Nic a pointed look.
They went to the cafeteria for dinner and then to the library. Old exam papers were available from the librarian, and they had started doing them against the clock and then scoring each other. They didn’t know what kind marks the examiners would give out but they could at least check for factual errors. Nic had failed to get a single answer wrong so far.
Simole finished a Geography paper she was doing and rose from her chair. It hadn’t been too difficult apart from one section on the Ghabri Desert, which she’d never heard of. “I’m going to find a copy of Edwihn’s Atlas,” she said.
Fanny and Davo were too busy scribbling to hear her. “Second floor, left side,” said Nic without looking up from his notes on Arcanum—he had finished twenty minutes ago. It was no more than she expected.
She made her way up to the second floor and along the shelves on the left side.
There had been a library in the castle where she had been raised, but nothing like this. A room full of books about Arcanum she had read a hundred times and grown bored of. There were a few works of fiction that had belonged to her mother. They at least gave her something to dream about. But the rest were so dry and dusty, she had grown to hate them.
It was strange seeing how much Nic loved to read pages and pages of plain, dull text, how he devoured new ideas and information. He would even sneak around in the middle of the night just to spend a few more hours with his precious books.
His desire to do well, to impress a certain girl, that made sense, but he took it to extremes, she felt. The fact he had taken the detector with him hadn’t passed her by. He was looking for a particular kind of book, one that contained magic, obviously, but she didn’t believe it was the power he was after. No, that would be far too normal. He wanted to read the words and make notes. He wanted to understand, not manipulate.
She ran her eyes across the spines as she walked, unable to find the book she was searching for. Nic would have found it without looking. She wondered if he had found the book he was looking for last night. Probably not. If there were such books in the library, they were probably kept somewhere secure. He might be able to work out their rough location, but that wouldn’t give him access to them.
Her father wouldn’t need a jerry-rigged detector, he would have smelled them out. The way Nic was drawn to books, her father was drawn to Arcanum. A mere glance and he’d locate them, and then take them. A simple flick of his hand and any door was open to him.
His ability to shape and reform the substance of magic was beyond parallel. There was only one thing he couldn’t do with Arcanum, and that was protect himself. His defensive capabilities had weakened from over-exposure to Arcanum over the years. It was his only vulnerability, and why he had trained his daughter to become his personal bodyguard. It was knowledge of that weakness that enabled the King’s forces to capture him.
Simole finally found Edwihn’s Atlas, and pulled it down off the shelf. It was heavy, but then it did contain the whole world within its pages.
“I know who you are,” said a voice behind her.
Simole casually looked over her shoulder. “Worked it out did you, Dizzy?” She enjoyed the look of irritation in those large, brown eyes. She was a pretty girl, but so stern it made it hard to tell.
“Yes,” said Dizzy. “I did.”
“Be careful who you tell. They’ll whisk you away. Haven’t seen much of the Prince lately. Have you?”
She hadn’t accused Prince Leovek of instigating the chaos caused by the dragons—he couldn’t have known that would be the result of his little jape—but he hadn’t been seen since.
“You can’t scare me, van Dastan,” said Dizzy. “My father wouldn’t allow that to happen.”
“Your father will probably be the one to order it,” said Simole. “It’s his department, after all.”
Dizzy was caught by surprise. “You know who my father is?”
“Yes, Miss Delcroix. I know him well. Or as well as anyone can. He’s a fussy man, isn’t he? A perfectionist. Doesn’t like loose ends lying about, isn’t that right?”
Dizzy’s face darkened and her stern look got sterner. “You don’t have to worry, I wasn’t going to tell anyone. But you have to leave.”
“You want me to drop out of school? But what about my education? How will I better myself?”
“Stay at the school if you want, I don’t care about that. I want you to leave the Also-Rans. Live somewhere else on campus, I’m sure with your connections that won’t be too hard.”
This time, it was Simole’s turn to be taken by surprise. “You want me to stay away from the Also-Rans? Or do you mean Nic? I think it’s up to me who I choose to associate with.”
Dizzy crossed her arms and stuck out her chin defiantly. “You aren’t good for him. He isn’t like other people.”
“No argument from me, there.”
“He’ll get caught up in whatever mayhem you bring down on yourself. I’ve seen how you operate. You don’t care about other people. You’ll end up getting him hurt.”
Simole tilted her head. It was a strange thing to be warned off by another girl. It was the sort of thing she’d read in books, jealous tiffs between rivals. In real life, it felt ridiculous. “So, you do have feelings for him after all. I told him you did.”
Dizzy’s composure melted. “I do not have feelings for him. And what do you mean you told him? Told him what? There’s nothing to tell.”
Her protests were insistent. Too insistent.
“Don’t worry, he didn’t believe me. He thinks you hate him, a hundred percent pure loathing. You did a wonderful job of crushing his hopes and dreams. Your father taught you well, Miss Delcroix. You’ll be a great asset to the family business.”
Watching the girl become more and more infuriated was a pleasing sight.
Dizzy flicked her head to the side like she heard someone coming. She took a step closer and hissed, “Whatever ideas you’ve got in your messed up head, you can forget it. He was my friend once, that’s all, and I don’t want to see him fall foul of someone like you.”
“Just some boy you want to protect, is he? Why is that?”
Dizzy glared at her. “I have my reasons, and they aren’t what you think. Don’t try to make it something it isn’t. You’re wrong,” she said emphatically, then she turned and walked away, head held high.
“Not wrong,” said Simole to herself. She grinned. “Just statistically unlikely.”