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Dizzy was dressed in a sky blue jacket with a high collar and gold b.u.t.tons. It was similar to an outfit she had as a child, her favourite that she wore on special occasions like the grand finals of the snail derby (an annual event held behind the stables) or the opening of their secret clubhouse, made of silk bed sheets hanging over an abandoned fox den.
“We could go in my room,” Nic suggested, doing his best to keep his voice level and his heart inside his chest. It was hammering so fast he was in danger of breaking a rib.
“Private,” repeated Dizzy. Her mouth shrank into an impatient bud.
Nic smiled. He remembered that look only too well. When she was in this kind of mood there was no placating her.
Her eyes narrowed and he quickly wiped away the smirk in case she thought he was mocking her. She usually followed it up with a full-body tackle and an attempt to make him eat dirt. Often a successful attempt.
He fought back the grin now trying to force its way onto his face. How he had missed those looks. How his heart soared as he watched them play out in front of him like a medley of her greatest hits.
“Um, okay. How about outside? There’s a pond over there no one visits.” He pointed awkwardly around and over her to a small copse. The trees surrounded a pool covered in lily pads and slicks of algae. Clouds of tiny insects made it less than ideal as a meeting place but also made it less likely that they would be disturbed.
She nodded, curt and serious, and then turned around and walked away without waiting for him.
Nic quickly pulled the door closed and followed. He ran to catch up and then felt foolish for scampering like a puppy and slowed to a more casual gait. He felt anything but casual. She disappeared behind the foliage and Nic felt a pang of fear that she wouldn’t be there when he arrived, and sped up so as to not lose her.
He knew he was being ridiculous, but this was the moment he had worked so hard to reach and it was already nothing like how he had imagined it.
He brushed aside the fronds of a tall shrub, ignoring the scratches, and found her waiting, staring into the pond, her back to him.
He stopped and tried to slow his breathing. The insects buzzed loudly, their refrains rising and falling. Amphibious croaks intruded on their concerto. This wasn’t a place of natural beauty left to run wild, it was a nursery for various unfriendly fauna used in zoological cla.s.ses. Many of the insects possessed nasty stings and some of the frogs were poisonous. It wasn’t something you would want to be too near to, which was why it had been placed apart from the main campus where it would cause the least disturbance and irritation. Just like the Also-Rans.
“It’s nice to see you again, Dizzy.”
She spun around, her eyes flas.h.i.+ng with anger. “Don’t call me that. Who do you think you’re talking to?”
Nic was a little startled and took a step back. “S-sorry. I didn’t mean… what should I call you?”
She came storming towards him, no let up in her enraged expression. Nic stumbled backwards until he was swallowed by a bush. He jumped forward as the thorns bit into him. The flora wasn’t that friendly either.
Nic suddenly lurching towards her halted Dizzy’s charge and she was the one to retreat now, but Nic was practically falling on top of her. He stuck out his hands and grabbed her shoulders to steady himself.
“Don’t touch me,” she said through clenched teeth.
“Sorry.” He let go and pulled his hands down by his sides. Then behind his back.
They stood face to face, neither saying anything. Buzzes and chirps and plops in the water filled their silence.
He was taller than her, he was glad about that. Her hair was long and straight and she had a clip that kept it from her face. Her eyes—
“Stop staring like that,” she said. “It’s disgusting.”
This wasn’t going at all how he had hoped. Defeated before he’d even had a chance. He turned his head away.
“You’re the one who wanted to talk in private. What did you want to talk about?”
When she didn’t reply, he looked back. Her cheeks were flushed red and her mouth was set in a hard line.
“Why are you here, Nic?”
He shrugged. “To get an education. I heard good things about this place, they have excellent facil—”
“Stop it! Why are you really here?”
Nic looked at her. Her hands were in tight fists and the expression of anger now seemed more like distress. He didn’t want to spar with her. He didn’t want to make her feel like this.
“I missed you.” She was looking at him like he wasn’t making sense. Maybe he wasn’t. “You meant a lot to me and then you were gone, and I didn’t know what else to do but follow you here. I worked so hard, for so long, some days it didn’t seem worth it, but I couldn’t give up. Not until I saw you again.”
“You were right,” said Dizzy. “It wasn’t worth it. You shouldn’t have come. I’m sorry if all your hard work was for nothing, but that isn’t my fault. This place… it isn’t for you. I worked hard, too. I have a life here. Friends. I don’t need you messing things up. We played together as children. You were my maid’s son, that’s all.”
Each word was like a body blow, knocking a little more life out of him. He tried not to show it on his face.
“I understand. Don’t worry, I won’t embarra.s.s you—I won’t even tell anyone I know you. I just needed to know, and now I do. I won’t be a bother.”
“Good.” She let out a breath that sounded to Nic like relief. Had she expected him to try and force her into being his friend? Threaten to reveal her dirty secret, that she’d once played with a boy beneath her station?
It wasn’t like he hadn’t considered this outcome as a possibility. It was the most likely, you didn’t have to be good at statistics to know that; and Nic was an excellent statistician. But there was solace even in failure. Who wanted their happily ever after to happen at sixteen? What would you do with the rest of your life?
He looked past her at the pond. The creatures continued with their daily ch.o.r.es, unimpressed by the inconsequential drama playing out beside them.
“Do you still catch frogs?” he said without thinking. “And keep them in your pants?” He smiled at the recollection.
Her face tightened again. “I want you to forget everything about me. Like it never existed.”
One more body blow, right in the gut. “I’ll do what you say, Dizzy, but you can’t have my memories. They belong to me, and her, not you. And you’re wrong. It was worth it. She was worth it.”
“And I told you not to call me Dizzy. Only my family call me that, and you aren’t. If you have to address me, call me Miss Delcroix, the same as your mother.”
The knockout blow. She’d put him in his place, and that place was on the floor. Sometimes it’s better to lie there and let the referee count you out than to struggle back to your feet just to get knocked down again. He lowered his head and let the sadness pa.s.s. When he looked up again, she was gone.
Well, it wasn’t so bad, he told himself. At least he hadn’t burst into tears. And she’d remembered him, that was for sure. He had made an impression on her life, one as about as welcome as an unsightly stain, but now he had his answer. All he had left to do was work out what to do for the next two years stuck in this place. Something bit him and he slapped himself on the cheek. He should have done that five years ago.
“That was intense.”
Nic spun around to find Simole standing there. She hadn’t made a sound approaching which seemed unfeasible. They were surrounded by plants forming a thick green wall on all sides, but she looked immaculate. Nic looked around and then up. Had she been sitting in the tree?
“So she’s the reason why you worked so hard to get into this place. You must be kicking yourself for being so stupid. I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror after making that big a fool of myself. I mean, she really wasn’t interested. At all. Not even a little, tiny bit. ‘Call me Miss Delcroix’. Brutal.”
“She wasn’t always like that,” said Nic, suddenly having to defend the girl who had just crushed him under her heel.
“Sure. n.o.body starts off that full of themselves. You need time to grow the right muscles, really develop the ability to look down on people. She must have put in a tonne of effort to get to that level of spite so quickly.”
“You won’t say anything, will you?”
“Me? No. I think there’s still hope.”
Nic was surprised. “Really?”
“Two childhood friends, separated by privilege and money, coming together because the boy just wouldn’t give up on his first love. When you think about it like that, it’s kind of… creepy. Basically, you’re a stalker. No wonder she was so mad.” Simole s.h.i.+vered. “I might have been too hasty, she may be the victim here.”
“I’m not a stalker.”
“Technically, if we go by the dictionary definition, yes, you are.”
Another midge nipped at him and he slapped himself again. “Why are you enjoying this so much? This is the most fun I think I’ve ever seen you have. You like seeing people suffer, do you?”
“I don’t know. It is fun, though. Tell me more about her, when you were kids.”
“I’d rather not. I’m trying to put it behind me.”
“Oh, maybe I should discuss it with f.a.n.n.y and Davo.”
“Are you blackmailing me?”
“No,” said Simole. “Actually, yes.” Her smile was wicked but playful.
Begrudgingly, or maybe not so begrudgingly, Nic relived some of his fondest childhood memories. Rescuing lambs being prepared for slaughter and releasing them into the woods (they all died horribly). Stealing fruit pies with a fis.h.i.+ng rod (not one made it out of the kitchen, mostly ending splattered on the tiled floor). Building a large boat out of a bunch of smaller boats tied together and sailing for the open seas (they got as far as the next town before a Royal Navy barge intercepted them).
Like reminiscing at a wake, the stories helped ease some of Nic’s grief. It was as though he was letting go of a friend who had pa.s.sed and he began to feel a little better. He didn’t blame the girl Dizzy had become for his silly infatuation. He would put the past behind him and be grateful for the happiness he had been granted, whatever the cost to him now.
Simole listened and nodded, laughing occasionally but saying little until he had finished. Then she said, “Strange how worked up she was even before she saw you. Almost like she got mad on purpose because she didn’t trust herself to be around you normally. People who wear anger like a mask are generally hiding their true feeling. I wonder what face she was hiding.”
Just as he’d come to terms with his life’s ambition not working out the way he’d hoped, Simole’s word slingshotted him back into the middle of his turmoil.
“Wait, what do you mean? Are you saying… What are you saying?”
Simole smiled her wicked smile and then walked back into the house, leaving him with his mouth hanging open and no idea what to think.
The next few days kept Nic busy enough not to dwell too much on what Simole had said. If Dizzy had put on an act for some reason it didn’t really make a difference—she still didn’t want anything to do with him. It wasn’t something he needed to sort out immediately. They would be in the same place for the next two years. If there was something more, he had time to let it make itself apparent. But there probably wasn’t, he told himself.
With lessons before and after school, and then the full day of cla.s.ses, there was plenty to distract him. He still spent most evenings in the library, but made sure to sit with his back to the central area so he wasn’t even tempted to look over towards the Standard Club. Despite his lifelong obsession with a little girl he once knew, he also had his other obsession to fall back on. The library had books he had never read and he had all the free time he needed. Plus a key to the library’s back door he hadn’t even used yet.
The extra tuition proved to be very useful. Nic slowly extended his questioning to subjects well beyond what they were learning in cla.s.s, but he did it in a conversational way that seemed to naturally branch off from what the teacher was trying to explain. Often,their planned topics would be forgotten as the small group entered into a discussion about the broader aspects, leaving Nic plenty of room to ask highly esoteric questions. Nic knew he was on a clock. Eventually, the lessons would be cancelled and he wanted to mine as much information as he could. Some of the teachers may have suspected what he was up to, but they seemed to quite enjoy talking around the topics they themselves were once fascinated by.
Mrs Finleaves, the Advanced Calculations teacher, was one of those who would gladly be led astray from the core lesson plans she came prepared with, into wildly theoretical concepts well beyond the scope of a normal school lesson. Ad. Calc. involved equations and formulae that underpinned all structural endeavours, from pitching a tent to erecting a wizard’s tower.
“So something like, I don’t know, the PaG.o.da on campus would need foundations twice as deep as Dole’s Coefficient states if you wanted to attract dimensional waves?”
“Oh, the PaG.o.da, such an interesting building, isn’t it? I only wish Mr Tenner would allow me to inspect it from the inside. He’s very secretive about what goes on in there, you know? It’s not only Dole’s Coefficient you’d need to apply, it requires you to take graviton waves into consideration.”
“Because of the stress on the internal matrix?”
“That’s right! Let me show you the equation. My own thesis was on this subject, coincidentally.”
It was no coincidence. Nic had read her papers and just needed some clarification on the finer points. Mrs Finleaves was only too happy to oblige.
During regular cla.s.ses, the Also-Rans kept a low profile, always sitting at the back, never asking questions or drawing undue attention. The other students ignored them and that was fine. The academic side of things were at least proceeding in a fruitful manner, until Nic made the mistake of speaking without thinking.
It was during a regular Ad. Calc. cla.s.s with Mrs Finleaves, and she asked a question no one knew the answer to. For some reason, she decided to wait until someone at least made an attempt, but no one seemed willing.
Nic wasn’t really paying attention, it was all material he had covered already, but when she asked the same question for the third time, he instinctively called out the answer.
The whole cla.s.s turned to look at him, and not with admiration. He realised his mistake immediately, but it was too late. He looked down at his book, hoping Mrs Finleaves would carry on with the lesson and his intervention would be quickly forgotten. Unfortunately, the students were not it a forgetful mood.
It wasn’t until lunchtime that Nic learned this. As he and the others sat in their secluded eating area, a committee of young men appeared at the end of the table. They were all fellow members of Ad. Calc.
“You,” said the leader, a tall, blond boy with slicked back hair in the popular style, but far more glossy and well-maintained than any head of hair Nic had previously observed. Ever.
“Hm?” said Nic through a mouthful of soup.
“Don’t you think it’s improper for you to receive additional tuition when you’ve already caught up with the rest of us? An unfair advantage, I’d say.”
The half-dozen boys backing him up nodded and grunted their agreement.
The question that he’d answered in cla.s.s had been quite basic. It wasn’t something Nic needed extra lessons to know as he’d covered the topic even before he arrived at Ransom. He decided it would probably be indelicate to tell the boy this.
“We had an extra cla.s.s with Mrs Finleaves this morning,” said Nic, which was true. “She went over that same question then. That’s the only reason I knew the answer.” Which was not true, but sounded plausible.
There was some muttering between the boys. This new information seemed to make a lot of sense to them. Of course he wasn’t smarter, he just got lucky.
“I see,” said the leader. “But I don’t think you’re so far behind that you need to take up the teachers’ time with your special needs.”
Nic nodded. “I think the lessons are coming to an end, anyway.”
It wasn’t a commitment to do anything, but it seemed to mollify the disgruntled boys who moved off, throwing a few suspicious looks his way, but nothing more.
“Do you know who that was?” asked Davo. Nic shook his head. “His Royal Highness Prince Leovek, fifth in line to the throne.”
There were many members of the royal house studying at Ransom, mostly minor royalty. Honorifics weren’t used by the teachers and no special treatment given while in cla.s.s, although there were special accommodations for the more privileged among them. Prince Leovek was high on that list.
“I didn’t know,” said Nic, not really sure what he would have done differently even if he had.
“You should be careful,” said Davo. “People like him have Secret Service following them around. One false step and you’ll disappear faster than a pregnant chambermaid.”
Nic looked around for signs of the Secret Service. He knew of them, of course—highly trained men and women charged with the welfare of the most important of important people—but he had never seen them in the flesh. He didn’t see any now, either.
f.a.n.n.y was peering around, too. “Where are they?”
“They don’t stand around in plain sight,” said Davo. “I’ve seen them at my father’s store when the top n.o.bs come in. The flags.h.i.+p one in the capital, you know?” He shook his head sourly at the blank faces. “You people need to get out more.”
“What did they look like?” asked f.a.n.n.y.
“Well, I haven’t seen them, just felt them. Like shadows.”
It seemed a fanciful story, but that didn’t mean it was untrue. Secret Service or not, Nic knew he would do well to avoid conflict with someone of such high standing and pledged himself to staying as inconspicuous as possible.
Unfortunately, Mrs Finleaves had other ideas. In the next Ad. Calc. cla.s.s she asked another very straightforward question, at least Nic thought so, which was once again met by deafening silence. Nic wasn’t about to make the same mistake twice and kept his mouth shut.
But Mrs Finleaves was frustrated by her students’ apparent unwillingness to meet her halfway. It didn’t speak well of her teaching methods that the entire cla.s.s was unaware of rudimentary principles.
“Mr Tutt, perhaps you can answer this question as you did the last.” She was clearly intending to use to Nic to embarra.s.s the cla.s.s. The shame of being outsmarted by an Also-Ran would drive them to study harder, she no doubt thought. Nic suspected the shame would drive them to an entirely different course of action.
He, of course, knew the answer. He could have given three different methods with full citations and references. But that wouldn’t have ended well.
“Ah, I’m not really…” He looked to the side. Davo was slowly shaking his head at him. He looked across to the other side where Simole was ignoring him altogether. She was busy doodling something in her notebook. It looked like a dragon with smoke coming out of its nostrils.
He should have just said he didn’t know, but it went so against his way of thinking he found it impossible. “Is it Nestor’s third algorithm? X minus the third quadrant?” He tried to make it sound as vague and guess-like as possible.
Davo buried his face in his hand.
“Exactly. Why is it a new boy can know the answer, while a whole cla.s.s full of Ransom students can’t?”
Prince Leovek stood up at the front of the cla.s.s. He looked a bit red around the ears, Nic thought.
“Perhaps because he has received extra tuition,” he said somewhat haughtily.
“I can a.s.sure you I haven’t covered any of these matters in our remedial cla.s.ses. This is basic material I would expect you all to be familiar with. But apparently not. Now please sit down.”
Her tone was not helping, but Nic couldn’t think of what to say that wouldn’t make matters even worse.
Prince Leovek did not sit down. He stormed to the back of the room pointed his finger at Nic. “I demand you decline further tutelage outside of school hours.”
It wasn’t like Nic had expected the cla.s.ses to go on forever. If it was going to prevent any more unpleasantness, Nic would be happy to comply with the cease and desist order. But before he could agree, Simole spoke.
“The tuition will end when the teachers decide, not you.”
There was a gasp. Prince Leovek’s redness migrated from his ears all the way to the front of his appalled face.
“Now, that’s enough,” said Mrs Finleaves. “Everyone return to your seats.”
The Prince was the only one out of his seat, and he wasn’t ready to return anywhere. “You will do as I command and you can tell your s.l.u.t—”
His back was to the cla.s.s, but Nic could see why he suddenly stopped talking. His mouth had closed so tightly it looked like his lips had been sealed together with wax. His eyes bounced around in their sockets, wild with confusion, but the rest of him didn’t move. It was like he was encased in a statue of himself.
Then he slammed down onto his knees. The crack was loud and sounded painful, but his mouth remained shut, releasing only a slight moan. Then his head pitched forward with his arms pinned to his sides and his forehead hit the floor with a sharp slap.
Simole continued doodling as the Prince bowed down in front of her. “I accept your apology,” she said without looking at him.
The door to the cla.s.sroom was thrown open and three men appeared. They didn’t exactly come through the door, at least not in a way that had been visible, they were suddenly just there. They were very tall, dressed in black from the neck down, and wore masks, each a different colour, covering the top half of their faces and most of their hair. They also had swords, two each, strapped to their backs.
They ran to the back of the cla.s.s, the red mask ahead of the white and green. He stopped just behind the bent over Prince and looked at Simole.
“If you would be so kind, my lady.” His voice was deep and powerful, but extremely respectful.
Simole nodded and the Prince’s body visibly slackened. As soon as control of his body was returned to him, he reared up, his forehead even redder than the rest of his face, and began screaming. “Arrest her! I want her thrown in prison. Now!”
His demands got louder and more insistent the more they were ignored. The three men, who looked like they could have killed everyone in the room without breaking a sweat, didn’t make a move to apprehend Simole.
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible, Your Highness,” said Red.
“What?” He was even more incensed with his bodyguard than he had been with Simole. “I’m ordering you. I don’t care what—”
This time the one to cut the Prince off was his own man. He placed a hand on the Prince’s neck and he went limp. Before he could hit the ground, he was lifted up onto a shoulder and carried out, followed by the other two men. Once they’d gone, gently closing the door behind them, the room exploded into chatter.
“Enough! That’s enough,” cried out Mrs Finleaves, trying to restore order and failing. Only the bell sounding the end of cla.s.s stopped full pandemonium, and only because Simole got up. Silence descended like a wet rag over a pan fire as the entire cla.s.sroom watched her make her way to the door and leave. And then instant bedlam once more.
There was one more cla.s.s that day and word had spread so that there was a constant twitter of conversation. Mr Coolpo was baffled by his students’ lack of focus during his Economic a.n.a.lysis cla.s.s, and as a strict disciplinarian was quick to start handing out detentions, which brought some semblance of order. Simole remained oblivious, or at least appeared so, although she must have realised the effect she was having.
When they returned to the cottage, she simply went to her room without saying anything about the day’s events.
“That was magic,” said f.a.n.n.y. “I’m sure it was.”
“Of course it was,” said Davo. “You don’t need a mage for a father to know that. The question is, how was she able to do it?”
The three of them were in Nic’s room, quietly discussing what they’d witnessed in hushed tones.
“It’s not unknown,” said f.a.n.n.y. “Sometimes you get a natural, someone born with it.”
“Yes,” said Davo, “but then why would she only just be starting Ransom now? People like that are fast tracked, aren’t they? They would have jumped her a few years and put her in the Royal College by now. Where has she been all this time?”
f.a.n.n.y shrugged. “And did you hear how the Secret Service guy spoke to her. Are they that polite to everyone?”
They both looked at Nic, sitting in the leather chair Davo had provided, a book open in his hand.
“What do you think, Nic?” asked Davo.
Nic sighed. “I think that’s the end of our private tuition. Looks like we’re on our own from here.”