The summer passed and the new term arrived. Nic was full of mixed emotions. Excited to be going to Ransom, the place he’d marked as his destination for the last five years. Apprehensive about seeing Dizzy again. And a little worried about leaving his mother on her own.
Ransom was a boarding school and he would be spending the next three months there, leaving his mother in an empty house. She was more than capable of looking after herself, and had many friends both in and out of work, but he still felt a twinge of guilt at going off. It wasn’t like he spent very much time with her—mostly he was studying in his room, or at the library—but there was a stability in knowing they were there for each other.
Only now, they wouldn’t be.
“You make sure you remember to eat,” said his mother as he dragged the trunk she had packed for him. It weighed more than a few items of clothes could possibly weigh and he struggled to get it out the door.
“I’ll remember. They have a cafeteria for the students.”
“Yes, well, I know you. Probably be so lost in one of your books, all the food will be gone by the time you think to get something.”
It was unnecessary fussing. There would be ample food, but he let her do it without getting impatient with her. It was her way of seeing him off without showing how upset she was. He’d be back soon, but they’d been together, every day, for the last fifteen years. For a mother, even the shortest separation was a chasm at first. He’d read that in a book.
“What you got in there?” said Mr Gram who had offered to help get Nic to the coach station with the little pony wagon he used for his gardening business. The pony snorted and nibbled at some weeds.
He was the widower who lived next door and had a thing for Nic’s mother. Perhaps they would strike up a romance while Nic was away. They were both quiet people who were too shy to show their true feelings. Nic had always thought his mother should remarry and find happiness where she could, but he wasn’t one to show his true feelings, either.
“Taking all your books to school with you, are you?” said Mr Gram.
“No,” said Nic. “They provide the books there. This is just clothes.”
They managed to get the trunk on the cart between them. Just about.
His mother hugged him once and waved him off. She said nothing about going to the coach station with them. She was probably going to burst into tears the moment he was out of sight. All these things were normal and to be expected. It still made his chest feel tight in a way he wasn’t used to.
He climbed onto the back of the wagon, next to the trunk, and Mr Gram clicked his tongue to get the pony moving. Nic waved back until they rounded the corner.
The coach station wasn’t very far, but it would have taken all day to drag the trunk there on foot. Mr Gram helped him unload and pass the trunk to the coachman who swung it onto the top of the coach like it was full of air.
For a second, Nic felt a pang of concern. He had been a bookworm as long as he could remember, hardly going out since the day Dizzy had left him behind. He never played with the other boys, never expressed any interest in games. Would Dizzy be disappointed at how weak and sickly he had turned out? He didn’t see himself that way, but compared to other boys his age, he certainly didn’t stand out as a specimen of manliness.
It was something that had worried him on occasion, but he always had too much to do. Getting to Ransom had been his only priority and now that he had done it, it was too late to work on his physique. His father had been tall and strong, according to his mother’s stories, a soldier who was honoured for his bravery. Hopefully, a little of that was locked inside of Nic, somewhere.
“Well, take care of yourself,” said Mr Gram. “And try not to worry about your mam. I’ll make sure she’s alright.”
Nic smiled. It was a sincere promise and Nic felt grateful for it. “Thank you, Mr Gram.” He already had his ticket and climbed aboard the coach.
The coach didn’t normally stop at the school, most of the students being from affluent families who had their own carriages, but the coach company had happily agreed to drop him off outside the gates. He was well-known to all those at the station and his achievement was the talk of the town. They acted like they were the ones doing him a favour.
“Where are the other passengers?” asked Nic, sticking his head out of the window.
“Just you this trip,” said the driver. He cracked the reins and the horses shot forward, probably surprised at how unusually light their load was.
Nic had travelled in one of these coaches more times than he could recall, but this time it felt very different. It wasn’t just his home he was leaving behind, it felt like something altogether bigger.
The journey took a little over two hours, although it felt much quicker. Before he knew it, they were outside the large black gates which were wide open. Carriages came and went without pause.
These were nothing like the vehicle Nic was in. They were magnificent contraptions, painted and gilded like works of art. Even the horses were dressed up, some with feathered plumes on their heads, others with coats bearing the insignia of noble families. Some even of royalty.
The coachman brought down the trunk as Nic stood at the gate watching the endless traffic.
“As far as I go,” said the coachman. “You’ll have to carry it yourself the rest of the way. Think you can manage?”
Nic nodded, although he wasn’t too sure.
“Take care, lad. I’ll see you on the last day of term.” Nic had already paid for his return trip. His arrival and departure were all taken care of. It was just the bit in between he had to deal with.
The coach left in a cloud of dust and Nic dragged the trunk through the gates, careful to stay out of the way of the thundering carriages going in both directions.
Once he’d navigated the gates, the Ransom School revealed itself in all its glory. Over a thousand years old and built like a palace. A series of palaces next to each other. It was a breathtaking sight.
Nic entered the gravel-covered courtyard as a four-horse carriage barrelled past. In front of the looming buildings were hundreds of children milling around. The noise was deafening. Nic had no idea where he was supposed to go or what he was supposed to do. Everyone looked like they were perfectly at home, greeting each other, excitedly chatting away. Nic felt lost.
Among the students were a few adults. They were recognisable not only because they were obviously older, but because of their outfits. In particular, their hats. They wore extremely tall top hats that seemed like they could have no reason for being that tall.
These at least Nic knew about. His research into the school had told him these were the school porters whose job it was to do the custodial work. From cleaning and fixing, to carrying and moving. They would know where he was supposed to go.
One had a hat even taller than the others. Assuming some kind of hat hierarchy, Nic approached him, the trunk digging a deep furrow into the gravel behind him.
“Excuse me, I’m looking—”
“Name?” said the man in a snippy voice.
“Oh, er, Tutt. Nicolav Tutt.”
The man had a clipboard in his hand which he looked over. “Ah, yes. Leave your trunk here and go over there.” He pointed a long finger across the quad to a large tree under which stood three boys.
Nic dropped the end of the trunk he had raised. “Okay. Thank—”
The man had already turned his back on Nic. He snapped his fingers and pointed at the trunk. Another, younger man with a slightly less tall hat came running through the crowds of boys, picked up the trunk in a swift movement, and then ran off with it.
Nic shook his head. He really had to start doing some kind of exercise.
He assumed the trunk would find its way to his lodgings and walked over to the tree. As he approached, weaving his way through small groups of students in their smart, expensive-looking clothes, his eyes darted about. Was she here? Would he bump into her? Would he recognise her if he did?
Half of him was brimming with excitement at the prospect, the other half was dreading it. He’d much rather encounter her when he felt more certain of his surroundings and in control of himself. But then, that might never happen.
He reached the tree without seeing anyone even vaguely resembling Dizzy.
Standing by the tree were two nervous boys. One was well-dressed, tall and thin with a prominent nose. He had his hands in his pockets affecting a nonchalant pose, although his leg was bouncing up and down like he was half doing a jig. The other boy was shorter and more plump with a red face and hair that fell over his eyes. There was no doubt in Nic’s mind that these were his fellow Also-Rans.
There was a third boy leaning against the trunk of the tree, eyes closed like he was dozing. Somehow he sensed Nic’s arrival and pushed himself up just as Nic got there.
“Hello,” said Nic. “I’m Nic. I was told—”
“Ah,” said the dozer, “you’re him, are you?”
It was an odd question Nic didn’t know how to answer.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” said Nic.
“You don’t come second in the National Table and go unnoticed, you know? It’s going to be fun and games for you.” He turned to the other two. “You want to count yourselves lucky. Thanks to him, you’ll probably manage to slip by unnoticed.”
“And why would that be lucky?” said the taller boy in a slow drawl underlining how unimpressed he was with the idea.
“Oh, you’ll see.” He turned back to Nic. “I’m Mallory. I’m what you might call last year’s batch. I’ll show you to your digs as soon as the fourth member of your party turns up.”
“I’m here,” said a small, female voice. The two boys stepped aside with a little jump, startled there was someone behind them. A girl stood there. She was shorter than the boys, but not by much. Her brown hair was in a severe bob, until she turned and then you could see a strip of hair about the width of a hand had been left to grow, all the way down to her waist. It was a haircut Nic had never seen before.
“Excellent,” said Mallory. “Then let us depart”
He led them past all the magnificent buildings, past the students whooping and hollering as they excitedly ran in and out of doors and called to each other from windows, past the slightly less impressive buildings at the far end, all the way, eventually, to a small, two storey cottage.
It was set apart from the rest of the school. It didn’t look like it even belonged there.
“This is us,” said Mallory as he led them in.
It was modestly decorated and furnished. Doors led to four bedrooms and a very small kitchen. There was a combined bathroom and toilet, and a staircase.
“Why are we all the way out here?” asked the tall boy.
“I realise you have certain ideas about what coming to Ransom means,” said Mallory. “We all do when we first arrive. But it’s important you grasp the reality of the situation. You aren’t wanted here. Yes, they’re happy to let us come here. There’s always the chance one of us turns out to be a genius, indispensable to the kingdom, even though I think that’s only happened once. General Xavier, you know, the one who defeated the Larmenians? He was an Also-Ran.”
“Winnum Roke,” said Nic. He had gone looking for the same information, Also-Rans who went on to extraordinary achievements. Not because he wished to emulate them, but because they would be more likely to have written an autobiography in which they might talk about what it was like going to school at Ransom. Nic’s only interest was in information he could actually use.
“Who’s she?” said Mallory, twisting his face like he doubted she even existed.
“She was the first female Archmage of the Royal College.”
“Was she?” said Mallory. “I’ve never heard of her.”
“It was a long time ago.”
“What does her being female have to do with anything,” said the girl. It was the first thing she’d said since back in the quad, and Nic had almost forgotten she was there.
“Nothing,” said Nic. “She just was. The first female Archmage, I mean. And she was an Also-Ran.” They all continued to stare at him. “That’s all,” he added in an attempt to get them to stop.
“Well, that’s very interesting. I’m upstairs, you can choose whichever rooms you want.”
“Where are the others?” asked the plump boy.
“The ones who came with you last year,” he said.
“Oh, I’m the only one left. They didn’t make it.”
“They died?” he said, quite shocked.
“No, no, they left. Washed out. Couldn’t handle it. You guys really don’t get it, do you? You’re in for a rough time. They’re all convinced they’re superior to everyone, especially us. Far superior, and they plan on proving it to you, over and over. Especially you.” He aimed the last statement at Nic. “They’re going to teach you your place.” He smiled, but it wasn’t a happy smile. “Get ready for Hell.”
Mallory turned and slouched up the stairs.
“What about our luggage?” the tall boy called after him.
“It’ll turn up. Eventually. If they can be bothered. The staff care about us even less than the students.” He disappeared from the top of the stairs.
The four of them stood there for a moment, then they all turned and went to the nearest door.
Nic opened his to find a small, clean sparsely furnished room. There was a bed, a desk with a chair, a wardrobe and a window. There was also a strange musty smell. Nic went over to the window and attempted to open it. He tried to lift it up until his fingers hurt but it didn’t budge. He really needed to do some exercise.
“I suppose we should introduce ourselves.”
Nic turned to find the tall boy standing in his doorway. He came in without waiting to be invited.
“I’m Redavo Conoling. You’ve probably heard of my father.”
Nic slowly shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“Conoling Stores? The second largest chain of retailers in Ranvar?”
Nic continued to shake his head. “Sorry. I don’t really do much shopping.”
“Who’s the first biggest chain?” said another voice from the doorway. This time it was the plump boy.
“Miggets,” said Redavo with a scowl.
“Oh, I’ve heard of them.”
Redavo scowled harder. “Of course you have.”
“I’m Fandral, by the way. Fandral Bostware. Everyone calls me Fanny.”
Redavo sighed and shook his head. “Look, I don’t know if what misery-guts upstairs said was true, but it really wouldn’t surprise me if it was. I see my father with them all the time, the nobles, the aristocrats, what-have-you. He’s right, they do think of themselves as superior, but that doesn’t mean they are. They can be handled if you know what you’re doing. I certainly don’t intend to spend the next two years of my life being looked down on. I’m sure you feel the same.”
Nic nodded, vaguely. It was weird. Redavo looked the same age as him, but he spoke like a man. A salesman.
“Any venture, business or otherwise, what you need is a plan. You have to know the competition and be prepared. The first step being to collect data. We need to know what exactly we’re up against, and then pool our resources. This enterprise will have a much better chance of avoiding liquidation if we stick together, right?”
Nic nodded again. He looked over at Fanny who was doing the same, vaguely.
“What about you?” Redavo said to Nic. “What does your father do?”
“Oh. He was a soldier. He died.”
“My condolences.” He had the oddest way of acting like he was twenty years older than he actually was. “And why are you here? You must have reason to work so hard. Second in the kingdom must have taken quite a few late nights. What’s your end goal?”
Nic didn’t know what to say. Certainly not the truth. He shrugged. “Not really. Get a good education, I guess. Would mean getting a better job and then I can look after my mam. She works as a maid.” He wasn’t trying to elicit any sympathy, it just sounded like a reasonable end goal. And maybe a little sympathy wouldn’t hurt.
“She’s a maid?” The appalled tone was hard to miss.
“For someone who claims they don’t like being looked down on,” said the girl who was now taking up the doorway, “you’re pretty good at it yourself. For a shopkeep’s son, I mean.”
Redavo’s face twitched but his voice remained steady and unaffected.
“Not at all. I’m not looking down on anyone.” He turned back to Nic. “Don’t tell me you’re one of those learning for the sake of learning types. Don’t get lost in academia, my friend. You know what they say, those who can do, those who can’t teach.” He turned to Fanny. “What about you? What does your father do?”
Fanny’s face flushed. “He’s a teacher.”
“What does he teach?” said Redavo without missing a beat. Nic was quite impressed by how he could maintain such a calm exterior under the circumstances.
“It’s… complicated. Lots of different things.”
“What does that mean?” said Redavo, starting to sound less composed. “Surely you know what your own father teaches.”
“Well, um, I suppose he teaches magic.”
There was a long silence before anyone spoke again.
“Where does he teach magic?” said Redavo, eventually.
“At the Royal College.”
“Your father is a mage at the Royal College of the Arts?” It was fairly obvious to all those present that was what Fanny was saying, but it was still worth confirming.
“Yes. That’s why I’m here. If I can get on the Arts Course, maybe I can get in the College, too.” Fanny grinned optimistically.
Acceptance by the Royal College was not easily gained. In theory, anyone with an upperclass education could apply, but in practice, only those who attended the second year at Ransom were considered. And of those, only the select few who were chosen for the Arts Course.
“But why are you only joining Ransom now?” Davo seemed to find his fellow students to be a baffling bunch. “He’s a mage! You could easily be a regular student here.”
Fanny blushed, making his already red face redder. “I did try when I was younger. Failed the entrance exam.” He peered out nervously from under his floppy hair. “It was a good thing, really. Turned me into a hard worker. Less of a disappointment.”
“Following in the old man’s footsteps, huh? I know a thing or two about that,” said Redavo. “Well, good luck with getting on the Arts Course.” He pulled a frown. “I hear they practically kill each other to get selected.” He turned to the girl and opened his mouth.
“My name is Simole,” she said before he could ask. “And I lost both my parents.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Redavo, back on familiar ground. “How did you lose them, if you don’t mind me asking.”
“I’d rather not talk about it. Painful memories.”
“Of course. My apologies.”
Nic found watching the two of them fascinating. Two accomplished liars crossing swords.
“And you’re here because you want to get on the Arts Course, too?” Davo asked.
“It’d be nice if I could.” She said it like it was no big deal. “But getting an education is the main thing. Just like Nic, here.” She smiled at Nic. He felt an involuntary shudder go through him. “But what about you, Davo?” He flinched at her shortening of his name, but said nothing. “Why are you here?”
“You don’t get from number two to number one by waiting for the pack leader to fall over dead. You have to take what you need. One day, I will inherit my father’s business and I intend to take it all the way to the top, and that means knowing the right people and making the right connections. I didn’t come here just to be marginalised and pushed to one side. These next two years are going to set the tone for my whole adult life.”
He spoke with a passion that hadn’t been there a second ago, Nic noted. This is what he sounded like when he genuinely meant what he said.
“Which is why it’s important we set out on the right foot. Whatever our backgrounds we have one thing in common, we’re smart. Unlike most of the nobs, we got here on merit. Our first classes start tomorrow and our goal is to observe and report. Once we know what we’re up against, it’ll be much easier to form a strategy. Trust me, we can turn whatever they throw at us into a positive. We just need to be smart and keep a low profile. They’ll never see us coming. Are you with me?” He pumped his fist.
It was a rousing speech. A born leader, thought Nic. He would do well whether he came to this school or not.
Nic smiled and nodded. Although he didn’t pump his fist like Davo had, he agreed with most of what Davo had said. You did need a plan in this sort of situation, and Nic had one. But keeping a low profile was not part of it.