The room was cold. Simole was cold. Her body was surprisingly heavy in Nic’s arms. Perhaps he could save her if he could get her to the sanitorium. He turned, trying to keep the limp body supported. Fanny and Davo were looking at him dumbfounded. Dizzy pushed them aside.
“Is she dead?” she said quietly, and then repeated herself more forcefully when all she got were blank stares.
“I… I don’t know,” said Nic. Simole’s head hung loose like her neck was made of rubber. Her open, unseeing eyes gave no indication of life. “Maybe if we… if we take her…”
Dizzy came closer and looked at Simole’s face. “I think she’s gone.”
“No,” said Nic, even though he felt the same. He fought back the voice telling him he was too late. He wasn’t a doctor, how could he be sure? “We should take her to the sanitorium. They’ll know—”
“Nic,” said Dizzy, the snap in her voice jerking his head up like she’d pulled a chain around his neck. “She’s gone. Whoever killed her could still be here.”
Nic wanted to argue with her, point out all the logical reasons why they shouldn’t make hasty judgements, how there were lots of cases of people being presumed dead when they were just in a coma or some magically induced sleep. He couldn’t get the words out. His whole body was shaking.
His legs went first and he collapsed into a sitting position with Simole draped over him. He’d failed. He had taken it on himself to save her, and he’d failed.
He should have asked for help. Gone to the proper authorities. There’s been all sorts of reasons not to, but that didn’t mean doing it himself was the better option. Even if he’d got here in time, what could he have done? It had been a stupid, childish idea.
He didn’t have any power, no special abilities, no source of supernatural strength. There were certainly people like that in the world, people who could go up against superior forces and succeed. He knew they existed because he’d read about them, but he wasn’t one. He wasn’t special.
She was, though. And now she was lying dead in his arms. He couldn’t stop shaking.
He was aware of some movement around him, the others saying something, but he couldn’t hear them. His skin was clammy and the cold had reached into his core. He couldn’t feel his fingers and his feet hurt for some reason. Everything was shaking and moving and a light far away grew smaller until it was only a dot.
“What happened?” said the man in the red mask.
Nic looked around, baffled. He was in a small, well-lit room. Simole’s body was gone. He was sitting on a chair across a table from a Secret Service agent. There was a door behind the man. No windows and no other furniture. He had no idea where he was or how he’d gotten here.
He was still cold. He was still shaking.
Nic looked at the agent. The red mask was familiar, but that didn’t mean it was the same agent he’d seen those previous times. Perhaps they handed the masks in when they ended their shifts.
“Tell me what happened? Why were you in Dr Tenner’s research building? What happened to the girl?”
The only visible parts of the man’s face were his jaw and mouth. It was hard to read his expression, but he didn’t seem happy. Did he suspect Nic was responsible for Simole’s death. He wanted to deny it, explain how he tried to save her but in truth he was responsible.
Nic opened his mouth. He wanted to say, “It was my fault.” Own up and get rid of the crushing weight stifling his thoughts. The words wouldn’t come. Instead, a weird wailing emerged. The agent stood up and backed away, like he feared Nic might throw up.
It was strange. Nic didn’t feel ill. He didn’t feel particularly upset or sad. In fact, he didn’t feel anything. It was like his mind and body were two separate entities.
He looked back at the agent, but he wasn’t there anymore. The room was empty. Nic raised a shaking hand and patted his face. It was as though he was touching something that didn’t belong to him. His face was wet. With tears, presumably, even though he had no memory of crying.
He was tired. He had no idea what time it was, or even what day it was, only that he’d been up all night and he was exhausted. He put his arms on the table and rested his head on his arms. He was shivering so hard the table rattled. His eyes closed for what seemed like only a few seconds but when he opened them he wasn’t alone.
“Of course he isn’t alright,” said a woman. “He’s clearly in shock.”
Nic recognised her. She was the doctor from the sanitorium, the one who had healed him. Was she looking after Simole? Was she alright?
“Can you fix him?” said the agent. “We need answers.”
“I can give him something to calm him down, but I wouldn’t rely too much on anything he says until he’s had a chance to recover. The Arcanum poisoning left him very frail, and now this. He’s going to fall apart if you’re too rough with him.”
“Doctor, we don’t have a choice. There’s a very clear and present danger here, to all the students. My duty is clear.”
Nic didn’t like the way the agent had said all the students. He didn’t mean all, he meant the important ones, the ones the school cared about. He couldn’t be trusted to find out what had really happened to Simole. Neither could the school. They were only worried about their reputation and the real students. Even the Headmaster had stepped in to make sure none of the Also-Rans would embarrass his precious school. He was probably well-aware of what Tenner was up to, maybe even authorised it.
“I won’t answer your questions,” said Nic, the words trembling out of him.
The doctor and the agent watched Nic as he pulled the pen out with a violently shaking hand. He held it up.
“Give this to the Minister of Instruction. Tell him I need to see him.” He insistently thrust the pen towards the agent, but the agent refused to take it. He almost seemed afraid of it.
“Where did you get that?” he said in a hushed whisper.
“The Minister gave it to me. Take it, or answer to him.”
Even with the mask covering most of his face, Nic could sense the apprehension. The agent was a tall man, muscular and intimidating, but the mention of Dizzy’s father was enough to make him lose his composure. It was a pleasant sensation, to be able to threaten someone so imposing.
The door opened and another masked figure appeared. The agent went over to talk to him. The pen was still in Nic’s hand, getting heavier. His arm dropped onto the table and the pen fell from his feeble grip.
The doctor ran forward and caught him before he slid off the chair and forced something into his mouth. It was hard and crunchy and extremely bitter.
Nic’s head jumped back up and his eyes were wide open, too open, it felt like.
“It seems you really do know the Minister,” said the agent. “He’s just arrived at the school and he’s asking for you.”
Nic felt a wave of relief. He could trust Dizzy’s father to find the truth.
The agent led Nic out of the room into a long passage with polished oak floors. Whatever the doctor had given him, it stopped the shaking and his mind felt only mildly foggy. He followed behind the red-masked agent with another two (green and white) behind him.
He was in the school, he could tell by the familiar architecture, but this was part of the school he had never been in before. The long corridor was lined with glass cabinets containing trophies and paintings of delighted looking students in a range of sporting attire. Plaques on the wall listed names and dates and titles won.
The corridor led to a large set of double doors. The two agents behind Nic sped up to open the doors. Only the red agent entered with Nic and the doors closed behind them.
Six tall windows ran along one wall. It was early and the grey-white sky provided a brittle wash of light that filled the grand, wood-panelled room. A rich, blue rug embroidered with gold thread in a dizzying spiral covered the floor. It swallowed all sounds of their footsteps.
A smartly-dressed man stood in front of a large fireplace with his back to them. Beyond him, there was an imposing desk and another man in a chair with a high back and ornate carvings. It would have made a modest throne for a king and a very ostentatious one for anyone else.
The fire crackled in the hearth. There was no other sound. Outside the window only the empty sky kept witness. The agent stopped and Nic stopped beside him. Minister Delcroix, the man warming himself by the fire, acknowledged Nic first with a slight dip of his head, then he turned to the red-masked agent.
“Commander, good to see you.”
“And you, Minister.”
Nic didn’t think either man sounded particularly pleased to see the other.
“You’ve been quite busy of late,” said the Minister.
“Yes, Minister,” said the agent in a neutral voice.
“I’d like to see the report of all incidents since the start of this term.”
“As you wish, Minister.”
“Not copies, the originals.”
Nic felt a slight shift in the man standing next to him, a ferocity. It made him want to step away.
“That… is an unusual request.” The words were slow, deliberate.
“Yes,” said Minister Delcroix. “These are unusual incidents, handled in a questionable manner.”
“Minister,” said the agent, his voice losing some its neutrality, “I can assure you—”
The Minister raised a hand. “Assurances aren’t required. I’m only questioning the actions taken at this time. We can deal with any conclusions drawn at the appropriate juncture, which isn’t now.”
There was only a nod, but the clenching of the agent’s jawline, the tightening of the fist by his side, was enough to tell Nic restraint was being squeezed into existence by a powerful force of will.
“You may leave. Have your men remain outside the door.” The tone of voice was dismissive but the agent didn’t react to it. He seemed almost relieved to be allowed to go. He turned and left without looking at Nic.
“Tutt,” said the Minister, “how are you?”
Nic wasn’t sure how to answer. Was he being greeted or questioned? “Fine, thank you. That is, not fine, but…” His voice faltered.
“I see. Come here.”
Nic approached. The Minister raised his arms and placed a hand either side of Nic’s face. Not in an affectionate, cupping manner. The edges of his palms were against Nic’s throat, like he was about to chop from either side and take off Nic’s head.
Nic throat went dry and he gulped. The Minister tilted Nic’s head back and leaned away to get the right angle into Nic’s eyes.
“Hmm. Yes.” He stuck his thumbs out and brought them to rest on Nic’s forehead. Nic felt a slight pressure above each eye, then a sudden rush of wind through his mind.
It rocked him back on his heels and he thought he was about to fall over. He caught himself but part of him kept going. It was like the fuzziness in his head had been knocked out of him the same way a thump on the bottom of a ketchup bottle knocked out the tomato sauce. His mind was clear.
“That should do it,” said the Minister lowering his hands. “Better?”
Nic nodded. For the first time in days he felt like himself.
“Good. Now, let’s get to the bottom of this. You can speak openly here. You know the Headmaster.” He half-turned to indicate the man behind the desk.
“No,” said Nic. “I’ve never seen him before.”
The Minister raised an eyebrow. “You don’t remember him from the commencement address on the first day?” Nic shook his head. “You do still give the commencement speech, don’t you Headmaster?”
“Of course.” The Headmaster rose from his seat and stood monumental. He was deep-voiced and deep-chested, at least a head taller than the Minister and loomed over Nic like a giant. His face was broad and flat with a snub nose barely keeping the gold-rimmed spectacles aloft. “A Ransom tradition. Attendance is mandatory. If the boy didn’t—”
“We weren’t invited,” said Nic. He knew he was being confrontational and with entirely the wrong person, but he couldn’t help it. Tact seemed unnecessary.
“There are no invitations,” said the Headmaster testily. “The information is all in your Introductory Packet.”
“Which we received that evening. Deliberately, I would guess.” He was saying what he believed to be true and all very much things he would have loved to bring to the appropriate person’s attention, but this was not that person. He was only making things worse by aggravating the Headmaster who no doubt ordered the treatment Nic and the others had received. Not that it really mattered; most likely the timetable for his expulsion had been brought forward in any case.
“What makes you think it was deliberate?” asked the Minister.
“I can’t for certain, but it’s not a very hard pattern to identify. We’ve been treated unfairly since the beginning. Isolated from the rest of the school, kept away from facilities meant for everyone and placed in the lowest tier classes in preparation of kicking us out at the end of the year, if not sooner.”
Nic couldn’t quite believe how bold he was being. Part of him relished the shocked look on the Headmaster’s face but even if he was being forced out there was probably still quite a lot the Headmaster could do to make life difficult for Nic wherever he went next. Openly accusing the school of plotting against the new students was just foolhardy.
The Headmaster looked ready to explode. “This is outrageous.” He was barely able to speak. “The boy is clearly still delusional.”
“I don’t think so,” said Minister Delcroix. “I’ve applied a slight suggestion to help him collect his thoughts. He should be coherent. He certainly speaks with conviction. Perhaps there was a miscommunication somewhere along the way.”
“It’s always a possibility,” said the Headmaster, grabbing at the offered branch.
“Is there a lower tier for students?” asked the Minister. “I wasn’t aware of it.”
“Students are sorted into classes on merit. It’s easier to teach those at a similar level, that’s how it’s always been.”
“Indeed,” said the Minister. “But this boy came second in the whole country. I would assume he would be in the same class as the other top students. Is that not the case?”
The Headmaster was silent for what seemed like a very long time. The Minister waited for an answer. He didn’t prompt, he didn’t repeat the question, he just waited.
“Sometimes we allow for a probationary period to make certain the transferred student is Ransom material. There’s more to it than exam results.”
“I see. I don’t believe our forebears who established this school and made provisions for students like this boy were very much concerned with whether they were ‘Ransom material’.”
“Our forebears lived in a very different Ranvar,” said the Head.
“Yes, a Ranvar they had the foresight to envision and put instructions in place to protect that vision. I believe they were more inclined towards the students being the best Ranvar had to offer in order to make sure the nation as a whole was kept safe from its enemies. His exclusion only benefits those enemies.”
The two men faced each other with unwavering stares making Nic feel like an intruder. He daren’t make a sound in case it reminded them he was there.
“I had no idea the Ministry of Instruction’s remit covered the schools system now.”
“The Ministry’s remit covers the whole of the country, including schools. It’s in our charter. I have a copy in my office, perhaps you’d like to drop by one day and I can show you personally.”
The Headmaster seemed to go a little pale. “No. That won’t be necessary.” He sat down again, glowering at Nic. Just as well I’m being kicked out, he thought to himself.
“Now, Nic,” said the Minister, “this treatment you received, was it all of the new students?”
“Including the Van Dastan girl?”
“Yes. We were all in the same classes. They put everyone they want to remove together and only teach them basics. That way they can fulfil their obligations while focusing the bulk of their resources on those they consider to be more entitled.” He snapped his mouth shut far too late. He looked over towards the Headmaster expecting a loud denial.
The Headmaster seemed to have regained some of his composure. “And how did you come to this conclusion? Do you have some kind of proof to backup these outlandish accusations?”
“No,” said Nic. “I only found out because Mr Tenner told me.”
There was a slight pause as the Minister looked over at the Headmaster for a moment. Nothing was said by either man.
“You were friendly with Mr Tenner?” asked the Minister. “Did you discuss his research at all?”
“Yes. I saw his notes and talked about some of his ideas.”
There was a loud snort from the Head. “Do you actually believe any of this? A first year Upperclassman helping Tenner?”
“I completely believe it,” said the Minister. “He is unable to tell falsehoods at the moment. He can be wrong, but he can’t be dishonest.”
Nic realised why he was being so brazenly forthcoming in front of the man most of his complaints were aimed at. When the Minister had cleared his mind, he’d also placed a compulsion on him to tell the truth.
It was subtle, more encouragement than insistence, but it was very freeing to speak his mind. And very dangerous.
“What did his research entail?” asked the Minister.
“They were working on creating a door to the Other Place. A transdimensional gateway.”
“Yes. Mr Tenner and Professor Veristotle.”
The Minister turned to the Head. “You know this Professor?”
“There is no one at this school by that name, nor has there ever been.”
“That’s not true,” said Nic reflexively. “There was a teacher by that name when Winnum Roke was a student here.”
“How do you know that, Nic?”
“I read it in a book.”
“Do you think it was the same person?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think he was what he appeared to be. Tenner called him Old Mother.”
Minister Delcroix seemed to stumble and put a hand on the mantel over the fire to steady himself. “The girl, why did she go to the tower alone?”
Nic sighed. “She always went everywhere alone. I think she just preferred it that way. She went to the Pagoda because of me. She wanted to know why Tenner had poisoned me with Arcanum.”
“He tried to kill you?”
“No, I don’t think so. I think it was to lure Simole. I was just bait.”
“And what did they want her for?”
“I think to open the door, the way Winnum Roke did with her dog.”
There was a long silence. “Did you read about that in a book, too, Nic?”
“Yes,” said Nic.
“I think I’m starting to understand, now. Thank you, Nic. Headmaster, I’d appreciate it if you’d arrange for young Mr Tutt and his fellow transfer students to be placed in the correct classes from now on. I think their probation has gone on long enough. He is to have access to all school facilities, including those only available to a select few.”
“Minister,” the Head began to object. “I must…”
“I want you to consider him to be on secondment from my department, under my personal supervision.”
“If this is true,” said the Head, “if any of this is true, why didn’t he tell one of the teachers?”
“You didn’t exactly give him reason to be confident in his guardians, did you?” said the Minister. “Please make the arrangements for the transfer immediately. In person. We want to avoid any further miscommunications, don’t we?”
The Headmaster rose again and stalked out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
The Minister stared into the flames, seeming to have forgotten Nic’s presence. The boy stood some distance from the hearth, not knowing if he should take his leave or wait to be dismissed, feeling like a small player in events too grand for him to be a part of.
“You must go back to being a normal student,” said the minister, turning his back to the fire. His face was like slate in the grey light from the windows. “I realise it will be difficult, the Headmaster won’t be happy with what I’ve asked him to do, but he won’t countermand my instructions, not as long as you don’t provoke him.”
Nic nodded even though the Minister wasn’t looking at him.
“There is much you can learn here, and not only in what they choose to teach you. Even when they tried to limit your reach, it still taught you something, did it not?” He glanced sideways towards Nic who nodded again. “Tell me Nic, why was my daughter with you?”
Nic had been expecting some mention of Dizzy and preparing what to say but now the question had come, he had no idea how to explain it. He was desperately curious to know what had happened to the others—were they being held for questioning? What had they said?—but he didn’t want to draw attention to what they had been doing that night. “I asked her for help. She’s the only other person I know here.” There was an urge to say more which he resisted. He didn’t want to talk about the library or the librarian’s involvement. It was quite difficult to stop himself but he focused on answering exactly what he’d been asked and no more.
“I see. And that’s all it took, was it?” He smiled grimly. “I’ve always found her to be reluctant to follow others.”
“Can I ask you something, sir?” said Nic, trying hard to swing the conversation away before awkward questions were asked about their activities before they found Simole.
The Minister nodded his assent.
“Why did you give me this pen?” He held up the pen, his hand no longer shaking.
“You don’t like it?”
“I like it very much. I think it may have saved my life.” The pen, black and sleek, didn’t look horribly out of place for once. It suited these lavish surroundings far more than his pocket. “It must be worth…” He couldn’t think of an appropriate comparison. A horse? A house? “It must be worth more than me.”
“Yes. It is quite valuable, in its own way.” The Minister took the pen from him and examined it. “I originally gave it to Dizzy, but she refused it.” He handed it back.
It was strange hearing him call her Dizzy. It sounded alien coming from his mouth.
The Minister straightened up and became clear-eyed and resolute.
“What happened in the last few days, I want you to put it behind you, if you can. I know it’s going to be difficult, but there’s nothing you can do and always things that need to be done. Concentrate on your studies and try not to let matters beyond your control distract you. It was unfortunate you were caught up in these events but you have emerged relatively unscathed. Be grateful for that. Once my investigation is complete I will probably need to talk to you again, but I doubt you’ll play much of a role from here. At least, I hope not.”
Nic put the pen in his pocket. The pen Dizzy hadn’t wanted. Hadn’t needed. He was not in the same position. He needed help, that was the difference between them. It had always been the difference. One that was unlikely to change.
There was a shift in the air, a chill despite the flickering flames. It grew darker, like storm clouds were gathering outside, but the view from the window was unchanged, the same bland whiteness.
Nothing appeared to be different, but when Nic turned to look out of the window, a shadow hovered in the corner of his eye. When he turned to catch it, there was nothing there but Minister Delcroix, his head slightly bent as though listening to something he couldn’t quite hear.
Then the dimness lifted and the Minister’s face had turned grim. “I must go. Take care, Nic.” And he left the room immediately.
Nic was left standing alone unsure what he was supposed to do. After a few seconds, he opened the door. Two agents were standing on either side.
“Could you show me the way out?” he asked them.
They led him to the exit and then disappeared. His treatment had been surprisingly mild considering recent events. He was free to continue as just another student and even allowed to participate more fully. He had expected a more thorough interrogation. Perhaps the Minister had intervened. Perhaps he was being observed and they wanted something else from him. Perhaps he was to be bait once more.
He returned to the cottage. He was hungry and tired but his mind was still clear. Whatever the Minister had done, it had been effective in that regard. It may also have been effective in other regards he wasn’t aware of.
Davo and Fanny were waiting for him. Davo paced anxiously while Fanny sat on the floor working on the herbal detector with great intensity.
“Nic, you’re back!” exclaimed Davo when Nic entered. “What happened? Did they kick you out?”
“No,” said Nic. “They’re not really sure what to do, I don’t think. What about you? Did they ask you why you were there? Did you tell them about the library?”
“No, no,” said Davo. “They were far too busy to consider us more than innocent bystanders. What could a couple of Also-Rans possibly know about such things? Their prejudices worked in our favour for once.”
“What about Dizzy?” said Nic.
“Whisked her off, didn’t they?” said Fanny. “VIP treatment. We’ll have to do the rest ourselves.”
“The rest?” said Davo. “What are you blathering on about? What rest? It’s over.”
Fanny jumped to his feet, holding the detector up. “This isn’t what it looks like. The Pagoda, it was dead. No magic. No Arcanum. Not even background levels. Something sucked it dry. We can follow it. I’ve recalibrated the detector. We just need to… need to follow her.”
Nic and Davo patiently listened to Fanny ramble on and on until his voice was a hoarse whisper and he broke down in tears.
“Take it easy, old chap.” Davo helped him to his room. “You’ll be fine after you’ve had some rest.”
“They won’t get away with it. We’ll find them.”
“Yes, we will. But first we need to sleep and gather our wits. Can’t go off half-cocked.” He guided him to his bed.
Nic opened the door to Simole’s room. It was clean and sparse, but it smelled of her. He sat on her bed and stared at the wall, unthinking.
A porter arrived later with new schedules and a copy of the Headmaster’s commencement speech. It was a clarion call to strive and succeed no matter the obstacles.
“When you met with the Headmaster,” said Davo as he looked over their new itinerary, “you didn’t say anything to upset him, did you?”
“I didn’t, no,” said Nic. Davo groaned quietly to himself.
Their first class the next morning was Military History. It wasn’t with Mr Varity, it was someone called Mr Cardma. They found the classroom on the other side of the building from where they used to be. There were only twelve students in the room. Nic assumed the others were late, but there weren’t any others.
Dizzy was one of them. She looked exactly the same as always. Prim and proper and no sign of anything amiss. She didn’t look up as Nic made his way to the back of the classroom.
“No, no, it’s no good you being all the way back there,” said Mr Cardma. He was a slight, quick man with sharp features and piercing green eyes. “Come nearer the front.”
He waited until the three boys switched desks.
“Allow me to present you with a scenario,” said the Mr Cardma. “Picture, if you will, a country at war. A unit in the army is sent to take an enemy village. They succeed. They have the villagers at their mercy and many of the men decide to take advantage of the situation in the most vile way imaginable. Such things happen.”
He paused to make sure he had everyone’s attention. He did.
“Not everyone participates. You don’t.” He indicated the class in general with a wave of his hand. “You are appalled, as any right-minded person would be. But there’s nothing you can do. The others have been driven to near-madness by the ravages of war and to try to stop them would most likely lead to your own demise.
“You return to your base, what do you do? If you report the incident, you are considered a traitor, a tattle-tale, a snitch, if you will. You earn the enmity of the entire army, perhaps even the country. A person not to be trusted. If you keep quiet, the heinous acts you witnessed will probably be repeated, probably by the same men. You will be complicit, might as well join in next time, eh?” He was recounting this hypothetical infraction with quite some glee.
Nic looked around the room. The students were all paying close attention. This wasn’t like the lessons with Mr Varity where some ancient battle was summarised and then names and dates were written down to be memorised later. He wasn’t even sure what the teacher was talking about. It seemed to have very little relevance to Military History.
“Now, who would like to go first?”
A hand was raised in the front row. Nic couldn’t see who it was but the voice was that of a girl. “Why is it incumbent on me to report anything? Doesn’t the army have proper protocols in place for this sort of thing?”
“They do,” said the teacher, “and in almost every case they are severely lacking. Inaction with the hope someone else will deal with it is anathema to the military mind. It would be more efficient to just surrender. Yes.” He pointed at a boy sitting near the window with his hand just about off his desk.
“When you rely on others for your life, loyalty is paramount.” His voice was sharp and full of certainty. “The effect on the men when you are ostensibly putting the enemy ahead of your own is counter to any benefits from honour or justice. It’s a matter of pragmatism. The war effort will be hindered by such behaviour and should be strongly frowned upon as I believe it always has been. It’s not to be condoned, but war cannot be run within societal norms.”
“A cogent and ruthless assessment, Mr Greer-Rozz. I would expect nothing less from you. Anyone else? Perhaps one of our newer members would like to join the fray. There are no wrong answers.”
The class turned to look at the three of them. The expectation was mixed with a degree of disdain.
“I don’t think it’s pragmatism that keeps people from reporting their colleagues,” said Nic quietly. “I think it’s more likely cowardice.”
“Yes? Please elaborate. And if you could speak up a little.”
Nic lifted his head. “The problem with reporting the kind of behaviour you described is being ostracised by those you did not accuse. They will see you as unreliable and they lose nothing in preventing your inclusion in normal circles. Most people will keep quiet because they’re scared. Even though they’re willing to charge into battle when the odds are stacked against them and death is a near certainty, they are not alone. People fear isolation. They keep their mouths shut because of that fear. They are cowards when no one’s watching.”
The room was completely silent.
“Very interesting. And what about those who are brave enough to speak out? Are they heroes?”
“Bravery is supposed to be rewarded and celebrated, but they will only be punished. Others will see how they are treated and learn from it. Learn to stay quiet. There is nothing to be gained. If the system wasn’t corrupt, measures would already be in place to deal with the matter internally and harshly enough to act as a deterrent. And if the system is corrupt, nothing you do will make them raise a hand to the soldier who’s the child of a general or a minister or a mage.”
“Well, it seems we have a revolutionary among us.” The teacher’s tone didn’t change but his eyes twinkled even more. “Can you see no other resolution?”
Nic knew he was overstepping the mark. He was practically accusing every other student of being unworthy of their place in society. He wondered if some of what Minister Delcroix had used on him was still in his system.
“The only way to overcome the bias is to find someone with the power to change it. An individual who can withstand the forces set against him... or her, and adjust the status quo. And then offer that person your support.”
“You don’t think you could be that person rather than hope they turn up when you need them?”
“I couldn’t,” said Nic, “but others might be able to rise to the occasion. It’s happened before. They’ve also almost always been killed, though.”
“Ah,” said the teacher with a broad smile. “We have progressed through today’s lesson much faster than expected. Assassination, the greatest tool of war to use against the most potent force in war, the charismatic individual. There is always the single point of entry, whether it is in the cause of righteousness or an act of vulgar barbarism. The one man, or woman, who can lead others despite their initial reluctance. Whip the crowd into a frenzy, as the saying goes. Eliminate that one person quickly enough, and the threat they pose is eliminated with them. Let’s look at how effective this can be with some examples from our history. Page thirty two of...”
Books opened and pages whispered and flicked. Nic had no idea how they’d gotten from whistleblowing to assassination, but it did make a strange kind of sense. In the original scenario, there would most likely be a single soldier driving the others on to commit those heinous acts. Simply removing him would do nothing to harm the war effort and prevent an atrocity from taking place. And if the other soldiers wanted to report you for it, then the ethical quandary would be theirs to wrangle with instead of yours. A neat but bizarre solution. He was already finding this class more interesting and it was only the first day.
The lesson ended at the prescribed time and the teacher wrote the homework assignment on the board and rushed off to his next class.
“That was unusual,” said Davo as they packed away their books.
“I have no idea what just happened,” said Fanny. “Can I borrow your notes?”
They got up to leave but stopped. The doorway was blocked by four boys. They looked angry. Two of them were the boys who had attacked Mallory. The other students had gone.
“I think they might have taken some of the things you said personally,” whispered Davo.
“Do you think they want to assassinate the charismatic leader?” said Fanny.
“She’s already dead,” said Nic. “We could charge them.”
“Get closer to them quicker?” said Davo. “Very cooperative of you.”
“We could scream for help,” said Fanny.
There was a loud crack and one of the boys fell over. Dizzy was standing behind him with a bucket in her hand. It was filled with sand and was meant to put out fires.
“Why did you do that?” shouted one of the boys.
Dizzy raised a finger, indicating he should wait. There was a confused silence and then a blur in the corridor. Two Secret Service agents appeared.
“The Third Duke’s heir has taken ill,” she said, swinging the bucket in her hand. “Please take him to the sanitorium.”
The agents seemed uncertain, even behind their masks Nic could tell they were baffled.
“Also,” said Dizzy, “the protection of students has been somewhat lacklustre of late. This is the sort of thing you’re supposed to prevent. Please inform your commander, if he’s finding the workload oppressive, I can speak to my father and have him install some of his people.” She waited for the two agents to acknowledge her offer and then she left, still swinging the bucket.
The agents picked the stunned boy off the floor. The other boys had already hurried away.
“I think she saved us,” said Fanny.
“I think she nearly killed the Third Duke’s only heir.” He turned to Nic. “Don’t you know any nice girls?”
They were left alone in their other classes and were too busy taking notes to worry about the broader implications of their new status and the offence their presence caused everyone around them. They managed to make it to the end of the day in one piece and with a lot of reading to do.
Nic wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d returned to the cottage to find it on fire. It was the sort of reprisal expected but the only thing different was the Secret Service agent standing outside their door. He didn’t respond to them in any way, not even when they tried talking to him directly.
“He’s a bit grumpy,” said Fanny once they were inside.
“How can you tell with the mask?” asked Davo.
Nic went into Simole’s room, again. He couldn’t help it. Nothing had changed. Davo and Fanny left him there and he sat on the bed as the room slowly darkened.
There was a tap on the window. He went to it and pushed it open. Dizzy stood outside. He could tell from the way she stood she was mad at him.
“I went to your room first,” she said, “but there was no one there.”
“No. I was just… Thank you, for today. And the other day.”
“I hate using my father’s name like that, Nic. Hate it. I’m sorry about your friend, but I won’t help you again. You’re on your own from here.”
“I understand. I won’t expect you to. We’re even.”
“No, we’re not. You owe me. You can pay me back by staying quiet in class and not causing any more trouble.”
“I’ll do my best,” said Nic, slightly annoyed that she would persist with this attitude after everything they’d been through. “And thank you for coming to see me in the sanitorium.”
Her face screwed up in surprise. “What are you talking about? I never visited you.”
“But I remember. You were with Simole.”
“Why would I be with her? Are you still unwell?” There was no doubt in her voice, no hint of a lie.
“No, I’m fine. I must have mixed things up. Don’t worry, I won’t cause any more trouble.” He closed the window, his face heating up.
Had he imagined it? Part of his delirium? But he had the pen. He woke up with it in his pocket. How did it get there?
He went to his room, more confused than ever. He had the pen in his hand. He understood why Dizzy had refused it. Taking help from others, borrowing their strength, it often served a purpose but it also reinforced a truth. That you weren’t capable on your own. That you didn’t possess a strength of your own. It reinforced your own insignificance.
For Nic, that wasn’t really a problem. He accepted his reality. For Dizzy, though, every helping hand she accepted was a signal for others to consider her less capable.
“He’s working on that machine again,” said Davo from the doorway. “Convinced it will lead us to her killers. I have a terrible premonition that it will and then where will we be?”
“Do you know if Simole visited me at the sanitorium that night?” Nic asked him.
“I’m sorry, I don’t. Why?”
“I woke up with this pen in my pocket. It wasn’t there before.”
“Oh, that. That’s when we visited you. We thought it might help make you feel safe. Magic pen, after all.”
“You and Fanny? You visited me?”
“Not surprised you don’t remember. Completely out of it, you were rambling like a loon. Fanny was very touched when you told him you missed him, though.”
Nic felt like an utter fool. He had planned to do his best to avoid Dizzy from now on, but now he made it an even firmer commitment.
His mistake was so excruciating, he couldn’t sit still. He put on a coat and slipped out of Simole’s window to avoid the agent standing guard.
The temperature had dropped. The sky was still covered in clouds and the light was fading rapidly. Nic didn’t know where he was going, only that he didn’t want to see anyone or talk to anyone. He found himself heading towards the library. It was where he normally went so his feet had assumed that’s where he meant to go.
He had many questions for the librarian but now wasn’t the time to ask them. If he was under observation as he suspected, he would only bring her to their attention and he didn’t want to do that.
He veered away from the library, around the side. There was no point lying to himself, this was always where he was going. The Pagoda. The scene of his failure.
He expected it to be cordoned off, guards in place, but there was no one there. The structure looked a little worse for wear. Its elegantly appointed eaves had shattered and lost their shape. The walls were cracked and looked fragile, like they might collapse at any moment. It had the look of an old derelict, once fearsome but now broken and battered.
The cold gathered around him and a mist formed at his feet. It quickly thickened to fog, surrounding him and hiding the world from view, and him from the world. The Pagoda shimmered and disappeared. Moisture condensed in his hair and ran into his eyes. He could just make out the trees as outlines in the dimness. The dark air was utterly still and cold. In his heavy wool coat he was warm enough, but he shivered, standing in the darkness, waiting. Something was coming, he was sure of it.
A light grew in the fog, blooming to whiteness, making the air glow. A gust of wind tore open the blanket and the Pagoda was visible again for an instant. Clinging to its side was a dragon.
It was far bigger than the dragons he’d seen before, perched on the side of the Pagoda with scythe-blade talons gripping it nearly all the way around. Its muscles and sinews seemed to be constantly moving, the glittering black scales rippling along its body, to the tail wound around the base of the tower multiple times.
The head, elongated into a snout of uncountable fangs, twisted to present one side to Nic, one enormous reptilian eye swivelled in its socket until it located him and then jumped from a single black slit in a bright green setting to all black with a single slice of green.
The mouth opened. Nic knew he should run, even if it wouldn’t save him. He should do something, anything rather than wait to be burned alive. Why hadn’t they come, the ones watching him, the ones waiting to see if their suspicions were true? Didn’t this count as suspicious?
The dragon roared but there were no red tongues of fire. A jet of steam flowed from it yawning jaws, hot and wet. It fortified the fog, making the walls around them thicker and stronger. The dragon faded from view like a charcoal drawing being brushed off the page.
Then a wind sheared the fog open once more. Two wings cracked open behind the dragon, the membrane translucent and veined. Unlike the other dragons, these wings weren’t attached to the forelegs, they were separate appendages attached to the dragon’s back and the sight of them fully extended left Nic unable to move or speak or think.
The dragon lowered its head sniffing, revealing a man astride its neck. He was a large man, but not as large as the Headmaster, with intense eyes that fixed on Nic. He slid off the dragon and landed gracefully on the ground.
“This is an impenetrable fog, we can’t be seen or heard here.” His voice was deep but soft. It calmed Nic and he suspected there was more to it than his reassuring lilt. Everyone seemed to tweak Nic's psyche to suit their mood, freely and without permission.
“Are you the Archmage?” he asked, already knowing the answer. Arriving on the father of all dragons was a bit of a giveaway.
“Aye. Where is my daughter?”
Did he not know? What would he do when he found out? What would he do to the person who told him?
“Her body, what did they do with it?” He didn’t sound particularly upset, more impatient.
“I don’t know, they took her away. I don’t know when the funeral is.”
“Funeral?” said the Archmage. “She isn’t dead. Did she really tether herself to someone this dense?”
Nic didn’t know how to respond and then realised he didn’t have to. The Archmage was addressing the dragon. The single eye aimed at Nic from far above rotated to complete one full circuit.
“She isn’t dead?”
“Come with me.” He walked towards the Pagoda and the dragon’s tail unwound to unblock the entrance.