“I’m starting to find these people quite easy to detest,” Davo said under his breath as his eyes scanned the cafeteria. “I came here to mix with them, ingratiate myself into their lives, form connections to further my ambitions—all very cynical motives to sell greater quantities of luxury goods to their excessively affluent families—and yet spending time in their midst has left me wishing nothing more than to never have to do business with any of these puffed up little reprobates.”
Nic looked up from his bowl of porridge. The cafeteria was filled with students eating breakfast, chatting, getting up and sitting down in an endless game of musical chairs. Their lives were continuing as normal, taking them closer to their goals as expected.
“Look at them,” muttered Davo. “Pretending to be engrossed in their pointless lives, all the time sneaking looks in our direction. Look, look,” he insisted. “Do you see? The quick glance, the sideways peek. They don’t want to admit their interest, their prurient fascination with the dirt under their shoes, but they can’t help it.”
“Don’t you think he’s got something to do with it?” said Nic, nodding his head towards the Secret Service agent standing to attention behind them.
Davo turned his head and casually looked the man up and down. He wore a white mask covering half his face and was dressed in black from head to foot. A sword hilt stuck out from his back. Not a ceremonial weapon; the handle showed signs of constant use, worn down to a polished smoothness.
“Yes,” said Davo, “I suppose he doesn’t help. Are you hungry, sir? You’re looking a little pale. Can I offer you some toast and jam?” Davo spoke loudly and slowly, like he was talking to a slightly deaf aunt. “It’s supposed to be gooseberry but tastes more like nettles in syrup.”
The agent didn’t respond, didn’t move at all. He stood ramrod straight and stared over their heads at nothing.
Nic had returned from the Pagoda, from its ruins, his head swirling with thoughts of the Archmage and Simole, forgetting the cottage was under guard. He’d walked up to the front door and startled himself when he looked up from his crowded thoughts to find the white mask waiting for him.
There had been no reaction then, either. No questioning, no demand to know where he’d been. That agent’s role outside the cottage was the same as this one’s—the same one? He couldn’t tell—to be seen. So others would know to leave them alone.
He sensed the Secret Service didn’t do this happily. They preferred to stay out of sight and work from the shadows, as any secret organisation would. It was more than likely they had been ordered to babysit the Also-Rans, and Nic had a good idea by whom. He should have been grateful. Relieved he didn’t have to worry about threats to his safety from supernatural sources or disgruntled students. It was, without doubt, reassuring—not even the most belligerent bully would dare accost them now—but it was also belittling. Another clear signal to all and sundry that they were helpless babes in need of special care and attention. All the more humiliating because it was true.
Davo pushed his tray of untouched food away with a grimace, as though the sight of it was upsetting him. “Contempt for your customers is a terrible thing in a salesman. It makes for very small profit margins.”
“Can’t you just pretend to like them?” asked Fanny between mouthfuls of porridge. “I see salesman do that all the time.”
“Bad salesmen,” said Davo. “I’m not a clown to put on a show. A gentleman has principles he needs to adhere to if he wishes to look himself in the mirror every morning. A life of fakery and deceit is beneath me, and also exhausting. Better to have myself brainwashed and forget everything I’ve learned here. I never knew ignorance could be so appealing. Why are you bolting your food like that? Are you in a rush to get to class or something?”
Fanny’s bowl rose higher and higher off the table as he spooned the contents into his mouth, finally dispensing with the spoon altogether and pouring the dregs of milk directly into his mouth. He dropped the bowl onto the tray and wiped his mouth.
“Can’t waste time on eating, too much to do.”
Davo raised a curious eyebrow and then tilted his head up and down, assessing the situation. His gaze paused under the table. “What’s that in your pocket?”
“Nothing,” said Fanny, rapidly applying gooseberry jam to a slice of toast.
Davo prodded him under the table. The toast jumped out of Fanny’s hands to be quickly grabbed again from mid-air and inserted into a waiting mouth like this was how to eat toast with style.
“Don’t do that,” said Fanny through the toast. “It’s just a potato.”
“Why do you have a potato in your pocket?” asked Davo. “Where did you get it?” He looked around as if checking for someone handing out free potatoes. “You didn’t steal it from the kitchen, did you?”
“No,” said Fanny. “I asked them if they had any spare and they let me borrow one.”
“You borrowed a potato? They want it back after you’ve finished with it? What exactly are your plans for Mr Potato?”
“I need him—I need it for my experiments. The detector’s run out of the raw Arcanum Simole…” Fanny’s voice caught in his throat for a second before he recovered himself with a sharp cough into his fist. “The charge she put in it is all gone so I need to find a new way to power it.”
“And the potato…?”
“Potatoes soak up Arcanum from the air, everyone knows that. That’s why mages eat so many.”
Davo’s face expressed his consternation with a sneer. “Everyone eats potatoes. They’re potatoes. I don’t think some old wives’ tale is going to—”
“It may just be a myth,” said Fanny harshly, “but it’s still worth checking out. She isn’t dead.”
There was an awkward silence. Nic hadn’t told them about his encounter with the Archmage or revealed what had happened to Simole. Fanny had come to the conclusion she was still alive on his own and without any evidence, just his own desperate need to believe it.
He wanted to tell them but felt cautious both because of the danger it would bring them closer to and because he didn’t know who was listening. But he didn’t want to keep the truth from them any more than he’d want it kept from himself. He looked up at the Secret Service agent who they had decided to call Agent White even though he may have been one of many white masked agents.
“Fanny,” said Davo softly, “I know you want—”
“What do you know?” said Fanny. “You don’t know anything, none of us do. This is magic. Demons. Death means nothing. It’s not even permanent.”
Davo shook his head. “We saw her body. Nic, tell him.”
“Yes, Nic,” said Fanny. “Tell him.”
Nic looked at the agent again, still resolutely ignoring them. He looked at Davo and then Fanny. “You should keep working on it. I’ll try to find a new source of Arcanum.”
Both boys stared at Nic.
“But why didn’t you—” Davo caught himself and looked up at the agent, then back to Nic. “I see. Are you sure?”
Fanny stood up. “I knew it. I knew it.” He took a large potato out of his pocket and put it on the tray. “Someone put that back in the kitchen for me. I’ll see you in class.”
Fanny rushed off, his eyes sparkling with intent.
Davo watched him go and then turned his head towards the immobile agent. “He’s just here for you, isn’t he?”
Nic shrugged. “Maybe. Probably. I don’t think he’s happy about it though.” He joined Davo in staring at the reluctant babysitter.
“No point pouting about it, Agent White,” said Davo to the statuesque, non-pouting agent. “We all have a job to do.” He drew his tray closer and began eating, his appetite having returned.
Mallory sat down in Fanny’s recently vacated chair with a tray loaded with just about every dish on the breakfast menu. Two bowls of oatmeal, a stack of toast, a bigger stack of pancakes, syrup, jam, butter, a pitcher of milk, sweet rolls, swirly pastries, boiled eggs in a bowl... the tray had hardly any room left with some dishes balanced on top of others.
“Hey, there,” was all he said before starting to eat.
The others watched him for a moment, mesmerised but his constantly moving hands. He didn’t eat one dish at a time, he grabbed a little from each using both hands and filling his mouth from all angles.
He didn’t usually join them for meals, either eating at other times or eating somewhere else entirely, so it was hard to tell if this was his normal method of feeding or if he was just in a rush today.
“We haven’t seen you in a while,” said Davo.
“No, been keeping busy. How’s it going?” He didn’t look up as he continued shovelling food.
Nic and Davo exchanged a look, neither knowing where to start.
Mallory raised his head, his cheeks full. “I heard the girl left. She didn’t get kicked out, did she? It’s the main gossip in the second year.”
“No,” said Nic. “Not exactly.” He didn’t know what the students had been told about Simole, if anything. Dizzy was the only one who knew the truth and it was unlikely she would talk. Although maybe he was wrong about that. Malory seemed to be under the impression Simile had simply left.
“I didn’t think anyone would notice,” said Nic.
Mallory took a moment to swallow before answering. “After what she did to the Red Mage? She was all anybody could talk about, and then poof!” He snapped his fingers. “Gone.” He resumed eating. “Most people think she got called up to the Royal College—fast tracked. No one’s going to say she didn’t deserve it.” He looked up again, waiting for some kind of confirmation. “She arrange for him?” He tilted his head at the agent standing motionless.
Nic wasn’t sure how much Mallory knew about Simole’s background. The incident with the dragons must have tipped some people off. He knew how strong she was from personal experience and how she had been the main reason the Also-Rans had been left alone, more or less. And what it meant now she was gone. It stood to reason the Secret Service agent would be a replacement for her, but who did he think she was to be able to arrange it?
“Why didn’t you tell us about the streaming?” said Nic.
Mallory stopped eating. “What do you mean?”
“They put us in the bottom stream,” said Davo, “so they could kick us out at the end of the year.”
Mallory continued chewing, but slower. “I had no idea. They didn’t do that to us. Just threw us into the deep end and waited for us to sink or swim. Mainly sink. If they went out of their way to hold you back, I can only imagine they saw her as some kind of threat. Unless it was you they wanted to shackle.”
He gave Nic a questioning look, then returned to his octopus eating strategy.
“Are you really this hungry?” asked Davo, unable to take his eyes off the darting hands.
“Carbo-loading,” said Mallory. “For the Arts Course.”
Nic and Davo shrugged at each other.
Mallory gulped, the bulge visibly passing down his throat. “They don’t really teach us any magic but they do lots of stress tests.” He popped more food into his mouth. “Let’s them see how much you can take.” Another spoonful of something moving too fast to identitfy, followed by a swig of milk. “Uses up a lot of energy. If you don’t stock up like a bear for winter, you’ll pass out.”
He stopped, leaned back and blew air at the ceiling. He arched his back and his distended stomach poked over the table.
“What you guys don’t get yet is how little books can teach you in the end. You have to do the practical stuff to really understand. You can read it, absorb it, see it in your mind well enough to pass any exam, but it’s only when you do it yourself that you form the connection, you know?”
“Yes, of course,” said Davo.
“No.” Mallory shook his head dismissively. “I was the same. Thought I was just below the threshold. I was miles away. That’s the crazy part, just how far from being useful you are. I mean, useful. To be able to use what you’ve learned.”
“There’s not really much we can do about that,” said Nic.
“No? You’d be surprised. If I’d know from the beginning, I would have done things very differently.”
“Like what?” said Davo.
“Like find a person who knows what they’re doing and work for them. For free. Even if it’s simple, basic stuff.”
“Which subject are you talking about?” said Davo.
“All of them. Any of them. Getting your hands dirty in the real world makes a huge difference. They teach you about it in the third term, but it’s too late by then, if you ask me. Applicational Physics, it’s called. Mr Robad, usually. Definitely take that class.” He paused and looked at the two of them. “Actually, don’t. I can sum it up for you in five minutes. The main example is doctors. You know the number one cause of death in hospitals? First year residents. They take the brightest and smartest people, train them for many years, explain everything, let them practise on cadavers and the moment they let them loose on real people, absolutely useless.”
“Really?” said Davo. “The number one killer?”
“Those are the government statistics, so who knows? The point is, knowledge can prepare you, but training is training. You have to do the real thing to understand what the words in the book actually mean. If you take the reverse, a field hospital in a war zone, stick a scalpel in some grunt’s hand and show him how to chop someone’s leg off, in a week he’ll be as good as any surgeon in the unit.”
Davo scoffed. “There’s no way that’s true. I mean, yes, you have to learn through experience, but you’re exaggerating, aren’t you?”
Mallory shrugged. “Perhaps. But say it was completely as I say, how would that change your approach to learning? I mean, if your goal wasn’t to just pass exams and collect certificates.”
He stood up and brushed the crumbs off his front. “Something to keep in mind. I have to go.”
He rushed off and left them digesting his words.
They finished their breakfast at a more leisurely place and made their way to the first lesson of the day. Agent White walked a few strides behind them, drawing looks from everyone they passed. Fanny was waiting for them by the door, too nervous to go in alone.
The class was called Pre-emptive Strategy and was part of the Military History course. Their new schedule consisted of many fragmented subjects, each focusing on a singular element. Advanced Calculations, for example, now included Trajectory Evaluation, Fast Estimation Protocol, Density Reversals and Load Bearing Technique. Each was a small subject that they would have studied for a day at most. Now they analysed each with intense detail for an entire term. Often with very odd examples that didn’t seem to have much to do with the subject.
Military History was broken up into six different disciplines and each had a separate teacher. So far, they had encountered none of the tutors who had taught them in the lower tier.
That changed when Mr Varity came walking into Pre-emp. with a stack of papers he could barely see over.
Nic felt a slight twinge of betrayal at the sight of him. Here was someone who knew what was being done to the four of them but said nothing. Of course, there was nothing he could have said. It wasn’t like he had shown any particular sympathy towards the Also-Rans, not like Mr Tenner. Varity had just been doing his job, and had been reasonably kind to them, which was as much as you could expect. Unless there were ulterior motives, as Nic had come to learn.
“Yes, yes, where were we?” Mr Varity mumbled as he sorted out his files. “Oh, new faces and yet old faces. Welcome gentlemen, nice to see you again.” It was business as usual, nothing worth getting worked up about. “And a guardian angel, I see.”
Agent White was standing at the back of the room, no more animated than a chair or desk. The students, who had very deliberately ignored them when they had entered, now all turned to look. Other that Dizzy who continued to look straight ahead.
“Interesting, interesting,” Varity muttered to himself. “Let’s begin, then, shall we? An action, let’s say offering someone a glass of water. Benign, courteous. If I offer the glass to a thirsty man, I am a wonderful human being. If I offer the same glass to a man drowning in a lake, I’m a cruel and twisted individual. Same action, different interpretation due to context.”
Nic listened, waiting for the segue that would make it clear how this related to the subject they were supposed to be studying. He had no idea why they felt it necessary to approach everything from such tangential origins. Simply stating what they meant would make it a lot quicker, he felt.
“It is never enough to know what you intend and act like that will be enough for you to achieve your objective. You never act in a vacuum. How others see your actions will affect events, so it is in your interest to determine what those interpretations will be.”
People were taking notes. Nic didn’t see the point. What Mr Varity was saying wasn’t hard to understand.
“Information is king. What you know about your opponent will guide your actions. But their position is never static. You wish to marry the love of your life. You determine by clever questioning that she is responsive to your advances. You buy a diamond ring and rush to proclaim your affection, but in that small window of opportunity, she met and fell for another suitor.” He looked around the room. “How could you have known? How could you have avoided this unfortunate outcome?”
Treating your bride to be as an opponent seemed rather an odd way of thinking, but Nic understood the general point. The more you know, the less chance of the wrong outcome. Meaning what? Information gathering, spies, grooming of sympathisers. Bribes and threats and stolen communications. These were all standard methods used in times of war, and in times of peace.
“Control,” said Mr Varity. “If you control the target of your interest, then you control the outcome. If the target is unaware of the influence, if they believe their choice is their own, no one is unhappy with the result.”
Was he advocating mind control? Brainwashing? Nic knew what that was like. He understood how it felt to believe your actions were your own when they weren’t. He had been perfectly happy doing what people told him when he had no idea it was their will he was following and not his own. And how it felt once he was made aware of the truth. It was not the happy result Mr Varity painted it as.
Nic glanced around the classroom, the backs of heads, doing his best to not alight on the one that drew his attention most.
These were the students who were most comfortable in this setting. They never gave the impression they didn’t belong. They had every advantage at their disposal, and knowing that was often enough for them to not need those advantages. It was a peculiar irony; having what you needed gave you the freedom to not need it.
What would it take to control them, to have them do as he wished without realising? Would he be able to resist them when they tried to do the same to him?
He had spent his life reading books, trying to glean the secrets hidden between words, when the people who were most successful in this world were able to fulfil their potential simply because it was expected of them. This was what he should study.
He turned his notebook over and turned it upside down. He opened it and began taking notes, not on the class but on his classmates. He would turn his well-honed ability to understand a problem on the people who were the problem. How they behaved, what drove them, their strengths and weaknesses.
His notes quickly filled the page. He didn’t mention names or specific identifiers. If the book was found and read by someone mentioned within, it would make for an awkward conversation. Instead, he made up aliases and created fanciful scenarios.
This girl was a shopkeeper in a shoe shop. This boy was a knight on a quest. Dizzy was a dragon living in a castle on a mountain.
He disguised them, made his observations part of a story. Fairytales. Stories like those in Winnum Roke’s book. The realisation shook him. Had she written her book for the same reasons?
“Taking control of a situation is the best way to predict it. Consider what happened at the Battle of Au Mare.”
Nic’s ears pricked up at the mention of the name. He knew it well, better than any other battle of the last thousand years. It was the battle his father had died in.
“General Alphendo, one of the greatest military minds of his time, had command of a cavalry that was undefeated in seventeen battles. He was known to have complex and detailed battle plans drawn up for each engagement which he shared with his commanders. When a copy of one of those plans was found on the body of a dead officer washed up with the wreckage of a frigate, our forces had a distinct advantage.
“But General Rangol understood the multifaceted nature of information. If it was real, they would win. If it was fake, planted to deceive, we would be led into a terrible defeat. But if he planned for both eventualities, he could gain the upper hand no matter what. Even a fake plan reveals what the enemy would like you to do, and in doing so, reveals his own plans.
“Of course, had General Alphendo taken this class, he would have realised he could use that to his own advantage, and history might have recorded quite a different victor.”
Varity went on and on about one side outsmarting the other. Bluff and double bluff. The lesson ended. Nc still wasn’t sure what the point had been other than a description of war as an endless series of mind games and second guessing. Hopefully things would become clearer as the lessons continued.
By lunchtime he had divided his notebook into two equally full sections. At the front, his class notes, at the back, stories featuring the twelve members of his class. So far he had only collected superficial observations, but it would be the bedrock for a far more encyclopaedic work. He didn’t know what use he would put it to, but he felt sure there was something to be gained from studying the world around him. Mallory had impressed on him the need to put skills to use in order to truly master them, but he had no skills other than studying.
He knew he had to become stronger in some way. If Simole had made him her anchor, then he would find a way to stay rooted. He didn’t expect to be left alone to do that. And he didn’t expect those protecting him for now to always be there.
Fanny bolted his food as usual and then wanted to go to the library. Of the three of them, he was the one most driven. He seemed to know exactly what needed to be done.
Nic didn’t do too badly keeping up when it came to packing away lunch in record time while Davo looked on with horror at the poor table manners. They had half an hour to spend in the library but Fanny disappeared into the stacks like he only had five minutes at most.
Nic made his way to the reception desk where the librarian was busy with her work. Agent White stood at Nic’s shoulder as he waited for the librarian to notice him.
“Mr Tutt. How can I help you.” There was no sign of familiarity, no indication anything had occurred between them other than the normal student-librarian interactions one would expect.
“I… would like the key back.”
“Which key?” asked the librarian, she looked over her glasses at him, and then up at the Secret Service agent, as everyone did.
“The key to the library. And also, I’d like a private study upstairs. Any room.”
The librarian looked mildly surprised, which for her was quite a big response. “I believe the Headmaster already made his views clear on the matter”
“If you contact his office I think you’ll find his views have changed.”
Minister Delcroix had warned him not to provoke the Headmaster, but there was no point having the resources around him if he wasn’t able to use them. And the Minister had said he should have all his previous privileges reinstated. His actions might annoy the Headmaster, but inaction might have far worse consequences.
“I’ll check with the Headmaster’s office.”
Nic nodded and left. There were other things he would have liked to have spoken to her about, but it was difficult with his constant escort. He would have to find a way to reclaim some sort of privacy.
After classes, he returned to the library and was handed two keys by the librarian. She said nothing but there was the slightest glimmer of a smile on her lips. He went up to the private study room allocated to him, not the one Tenner had been in, and arranged three chairs around the table. Davo and Fanny claimed their seats and they all looked at each other across the table like directors at a board meeting immensely pleased with the quarterly report. Agent White stood in the corner. If he was impressed he didn’t show it.
By the time they returned to the cottage, Nic was exhausted. He felt like he wasn’t just reading books and trying to assimilate the information, it was like he was juggling them at the same time.
He lay on his bed with a copy of Wink Monroe’s book of fairytales. He read the first paragraph of the first story, a fairly straightforward fable about selling your soul which he’d read countless times. Now it seemed to be entirely new to him.
A loathing fascination held him
His senses fully alert
He listened, striving to understand
The Lady in the Shadows
He didn’t get any further. His eyes closed and sleep drowned his thoughts.
A weight pulled down his whole body, a lethargy which he fought against but couldn’t shake off.
A sound like rushing wind filled his ears, though there was no movement. The sound grew, louder, louder, until… At the limits of his vision, a mass of squirming tendrils seeped into view, grotesque limbs worming their way towards him. Their dancing, sickening motion reminded him of tentacles, wet and slippery, weaving through the darkness. Two pinpoints of light glinted above the tentacles, cold blue and piercing. Eyes. The rushing sound grew still louder, as loud as a hurricane, so loud he thought his eardrums would burst.
There was a crash and Nic sat up. His lamp was still lit and he was on his bed, fully clothed. Fanny was standing in the open doorway, the door flung open.
“What happened?” said Fanny. “Is she here?”
“Who?” said Nic, groggy with sleep.
Davo appeared behind Fanny. “What’s going on?”
“The detector,” said Fanny, holding up the box. “It’s fully charged.”
“How?” said Nic, shaking himself fully awake.
“I don’t know. It just filled up out of nowhere. Things going mad. It must be her.”
They all looked around but nothing had changed. Nic expected the Secret Service agent to come running in, but he didn’t make an appearance. It would take more than some boys making a ruckus to drag him from his post, it seemed.
“There’s nothing here,” said Davo. He dropped his voice to a whisper. “And keep your voice down, Agent White’s probably taking notes.”
Fanny waved the detector about. “No, it’s gone,” he muttered more quietly. “Maybe it was a failed attempt. I think she’s coming.”
“Well let’s hope so. I certainly don’t want to have to go fetch her.”
Fanny was too busy fiddling with the fully charged detector to listen. He wandered back to his room to make adjustments. Davo shook his head and pulled Nic’s door closed.
Nic got changed and fell back on the bed. Maybe it had been Simole, trying to get back. Perhaps the dream he’d had was an indication of where she was. He shuddered and turned off the lamp. He couldn’t help her, he could only be as ready as possible for when she needed him.
There was a sound in the dark room, somewhere across the room. He stiffened. It sounded like soft footsteps. He opened his eyes but they hadn’t adjusted to the dark and he couldn’t see anything.
He sat up and tried to shout but a hand covered his mouth and pushed him back onto the pillow.
“Quiet, young master,” said a man’s voice. It sounded young and gentle. Not threatening, not violent. The hand lifted from his mouth. “I will not hurt you. I will help you in any way I can.”
“Help me with what?” said Nic, his voice trembling out of him. The voice was kind but now he could make out a shape. A hooded head with two pinpoints of light, cold blue and piercing.
“Whatever you wish. She has made you her vessel, her ferry to the shore.”
“My Lady of the Shadows.”
And it suddenly occurred to Nic that the Archmage may have been wrong. What if it wasn’t Simole who had tethered herself to him? What if it was someone else? What if it was some thing else?
Thank you so much for voting on topwebfiction, it's greatly appreciated by me. The votes refresh every seven days, so last week's votes are about to disappear. No sign up required, just hit the button. Cheers. VOTE.