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"Okay," said Simole. "Anything else?"

There was a sharp intake of breath. Nic wondered if it would be rude to step away from Simole. He didn’t think it was wrong for someone to stand their ground, but he didn’t necessarily want to be stood next to them when they did it.

The mage’s face turned grim. He raised his left hand and the students behind him stepped back as one.

There was no fireball, no flash of lightning. Nic felt his knees buckle and then hit the ground. Then his face was kissing the turf. He couldn’t move. It was probably the same thing Simole had done to Prince Leovek. Was it a deliberate copy to make a point?

There was a shout. "Hey, what do you think you’re doing?" It was a voice Nic recognised, although he couldn’t raise his head to see.

"Release these children at once," demanded Mr Tenner.

"I will release them when I see fit, Tenner."

"Master, please, this is a school."

"And I am teaching them a lesson. Do not deem to lecture me."

With the greatest of effort, Nic was able to glance left. He saw Davo’s head planted into the short grass. He couldn’t see Fanny, but no doubt he was on Davo’s other side in the same position. Very slowly, Nic shifted his gaze to the right. Simole was bowed beside him. So even she was under the mage’s power.

The pupil in her white eye swivelled to meet his. She winked.

Nic felt the pressure holding him down, lift. He could move but he stayed as he was. He sensed Simole move and turned his head. She was sitting up. He did the same.

Mr Tenner was still respectfully insisting the master release his hold on them. He had his back to them so didn’t know they were already free. He was also blocking Ferityn’s view.

Davo and Fanny also sat up and waited, looking past Nic at Simole. She didn’t seem to be angry or about to do anything. She just sat there, listening to the men arguing.

"I completely accept that, Master, but they are children under the protection-" Tenner had turned to point at them and only then realised they were sitting up. He looked confused.

The mage looked surprised, and then deeply offended. He raised his hand again. There was a sharp crack and he grunted as his wrist went limp. It hung useless. His eyes widened and then tightened into dark holes of rage. He lifted the other hand and another crack left it in the same condition. Simole hadn’t moved.

"You think I need hands to deal with you?" roared the mage. "Ferity-"

Whatever he was going to say, he failed to get it out before his teeth exploded. They shattered in his mouth, spraying a cloud of white ivory dust.

His head jerked back and the students behind him screamed and pushed into each other to back away.


Simole stood up. "Hand gestures and spoken spells will be your undoing, Ferityn." She spoke calmly, without rancour.

Ferityn tried to hold his hands to his bleeding gums, but they flopped about. Still, the mage did not look ready to give up.

"Feshi… Farrr…" He struggled to speak without teeth, but would not stop trying. "Feridee…"

The students watched, horrified. A shimmer in their midst turned into Secret Service agents. With Prince Leovek gone, Nic had not thought to see them again, but there were other, not quite so important people to protect. Some from themselves. They closed around the crippled mage.

"Shheize her," cried out Ferityn when he saw them. It was the same as the Prince had tried, and no more successfully. Powerful people stripped of their power were a sorry sight, Nic realised.

"We cannot, Master," said the red-masked agent. "Let us get your injuries seen to."

He drew back as they tried to approach him. They were being respectful, but he was not in the mood to be reasonable. "She appacked a mashter ob da Woy…" The effort was too great and too painful.

"She is under the King’s protection," the agent said gently.

"The law!" screamed the mage, spitting flecks of blood. "Mobody ish abub da law."

He was surrounded by agents now. They tried to turn him, but he struggled away from them.

"Master of Arcanum, you may be," said Mr Tenner, "but not of politics. There are many who are above the law, and she is one of them. You, however, are not." He was quite stern now, his earlier demeanour gone. "You endangered the lives of many children today, and you will be held accountable. Now yield to these men."

The light of anger faded from the mage’s eyes and he seemed to go limp. The agents quickly led him away.

Nic watched it all from his knees, but the raging mage was not what he had seen. Among the wall of students, fearful and confused, he had seen a single figure. Dizzy. She was standing with all the others, watching, but either side of her was a tall, male student. They weren’t just near her, it was like they were standing guard over her. He recognised them both. He had seen them leaving the pond just before he found Mallory.

A dreadful chill ran through him. All this time he had been consumed by the idea that no matter what he achieved, how high he rose, he would never be able to reach her. He would never be good enough in her eyes or anyone else’s. But now a far more distressing reality occurred to him. What if it was she who was not good enough for him?

It was such a sorrowful thought he couldn’t bear to think it. He got to his feet and walked away. He had to go to the library and study. There were exams to prepare for. He had no time to waste on distractions, not if he intended to come first. And he did. He intended to rise so far above them all, he would never be within their reach. Any of them. Nic began studying in earnest. He didn’t want to dwell on the other aspects of life at Ransom, no matter how persistently distractions tried to get into his field of view. When he was immersed in a book, no other thoughts could reach him, and that was perfect.

If the others noticed a change in him, they didn’t mention it. They trusted in his ability to organise them in the most efficient manner, and followed his lead. It was a struggle to keep up, but they had already become much better students since arriving at Ransom thanks to him, so it seemed like a natural, if exhausting, progression.

Every day, after lessons, they convened at the library. Their regular table would be waiting for them and Nic would write an extensive list of subjects they needed to cover. Sometimes it would be something they had been taught in class but not to Nic’s satisfaction. Other times it was completely new and seemingly unrelated, but they didn’t question his choices.

They would work all evening and then, one by one, head back to the cottage, always leaving Nic on his own, the last man standing.

Occasionally, Nic caught them giving each other concerned glances but he didn’t have time to deal with their worries. He had too much to do.

"I thought you might enjoy this," said the librarian one evening when there was no one left in the library. She was holding a book for him to take. A very old book with a plain cover. Unlike most of the books in the library, it wasn’t bound in leather and didn’t have a fancy title embossed in gold. In fact, it didn’t have a title at all.

Nic took it from her. When he opened it, he found no title on the inside, either. "What is it?"

"It’s the autobiography of Winnum Roke."

Nic frowned. "I’ve read it." He’d found a copy in the Librarium, although it didn’t look like this.

"This is the… ‘unabridged’ version. It’s the only copy I know of, so I don’t think you have, in fact, read it."

Winnum Roke, the first female Archmage, had been an Also-Ran. Her autobiography had been very interesting as a historical record of what life was like a thousand years ago, but not particularly relevant to the upcoming mock exams.

"I don’t think it’s on the syllabus," he said, offering the book back.

The librarian fixed him with an acute stare over her glasses and he slowly withdrew the offer.

"Sometimes, a problem is best solved by approaching it from a new direction. You can leave it in Mr Tenner’s room when you’re done reading it." She scooped up a number of books from the table-somehow, she knew which ones he no longer needed, and walked away.

Nic read the first few pages of the autobiography. It didn’t seem very different to the one he’d read before. At first. Then he began noticing details he hadn’t spotted before. Very personal details about her family life. And it was a lot more specific about her schooldays.

Before he realised it, he was deep into the book, his studies forgotten. The rest of the library was dark and empty, but he sat under the single lamp still burning, reading through the night. He began to understand that Ransom was never going to accept him if he continued on the path he was on.

Even though he read the entire volume in one sitting, he wanted to keep the book close by for reference. He had quickly developed a fondness for both Archmage Roke and for the book itself, with its modest, unassuming appearance.

He had explored the library thoroughly and never seen the book on any shelf, so it was probably kept somewhere safe and out of the way. Probably with other books of a similar ‘unabridged’ nature.

Winnum Roke had primarily been a demonologist, and while she had written well known texts on the subject, there were some unusual references to it in her biography that Nic had never come across before. Her enthusiasm for the other dimension and its denizens had started at a very young age.

It reminded Nic of Mr Tenner’s devotion to what was, for most people, an archaic subject.

He took it up to Mr Tenner’s room, as the librarian had suggested, and left it on a corner table, under some other books.

It was very late, and he had meant to drop off the Roke book and go home, but he found himself examining Tenner’s research material. There were reams of notes in small, neat handwriting, and many tomes lying around. On Demonology, Arcanum and a book of fairytales that seemed completely out of place. Wink Munroe’s Tales of Myth and Legend. It was a book about monsters and brave mages. Nic sat down and read it from cover to cover.

Pretty soon he was going from one book to the next. As he read through the notes and cross-referenced them with the books piled on the table, a pattern began to emerge. Mr Tenner was looking for something. Something very specific. Nic only noticed because Winnum Roke had spent much of her life looking for the same thing. And found it.

At the bottom of Mr Tenner’s notes, Nic wrote ‘Dana-Long’ and underlined it. He locked up the room and left the library.

The next day, in Military History, Nic sat at the back as usual as Mr Varity lectured them on the dangers of overextending on a superior position.

"The balance between secure defence and an overwhelming offence is a thin one. Colonel Brattniz snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by showing a lack of patience. It is a common occurrence among great military minds to believe fate or destiny or supernatural forces are supporting their right to achieve greatness. However, it is the men on the ground who decide battles, not the hopes and dreams of old men. Who can give me another example of hubris from the Battle of Kelemy? Mr Cheesul?"

A boy near the front nervously rose to his feet. Just by his reluctant body language, Nic could tell Cheesul, a thin, blond boy who toadied around after the bigger boys, was not confident in his knowledge of the battles of the pre-Arcanum period.

"The Rout of Groff?"

"Yes," said Mr Varity, sounding surprised. "You are correct. Well done."

A complete guess. Technically it was right in so far as it involved an act of overconfidence on the part of a Ranvarian officer, but it was more incompetence than hubris. It was the most famous battle of the period and Nic was sure Cheesul had plucked the answer from thin air without any knowledge of what had happened in one of Ranvar’s most shameful disasters.

Nic was also sure Mr Varity could tell his student didn’t know the details. A follow up question or two would make that only too apparent. But Mr Varity turned away to move onto the next part of his lecture.

"The Rout of Groff was an act of insubordination," said Nic, "due to the acting commander deciding to sacrifice his front line troops so he could retreat to safety."

The class was silent. They were unused to Nic or any of the other Also-Rans speaking in class. Their wariness of Simole led to them acting like none of the four existed, and the teachers seemed to encourage such behaviour.

"You don’t think it counts as poor judgement on behalf of a military leader?" asked Mr Varity.

"I think there are better examples. The Battle of Ranvar Falls, when General Montfrey simultaneously attacked twelve different settlements along the Great Ranvar River. Or the Charge of Sacksonomy. That’s S-A-C-K-S not S-A-X."

There was a pause, and then a sudden burst of scribbling as the rest of the class took notes. Davo was the only one not writing down Nic’s words. He watched closely, wondering what was going on.

"Thank you, Mr Tutt. That’s a very comprehensive answer. With correct spelling. Let’s consider the Battle of Ranvar Falls, first."


The lesson continued and Nic offered further details as and when required, even if it wasn’t asked of him. Whenever a question was posited and not answered in the fullest possible manner, Nic stepped in to expand and fortify the student’s unsatisfactory response.

By the end of the lesson, Nic had spoken almost as much as Mr Varity. As they left the classroom, Davo walked up beside Nic and said, "Do you know what you’re doing?"

"I think so," said Nic.

Nic did the same in the other classes. He was a mine of information on all manner of subjects, and he was in a sharing mood. It didn’t matter who was asked to contribute their thoughts, if they failed to provide a full and rounded answer, Nic intervened to fill in the gaps.

By lunchtime, Davo was fuming. He banged his tray down next to Nic’s and took his seat with much huffing and exasperating.

"This won’t do. It just won’t." He picked up a fork, violently stabbed an innocent sausage, and then tossed it back onto the plate. "I thought we agreed to not attract undue attention until the end of year exams. I suppose you intend to come first in the mocks, too. Just to ruffle the maximum amount of feathers."

"Yes," said Nic.

"But why?" exploded Davo, slamming his fist on the table. The eyes surrounding them tried desperately not to look in their direction. The threat of Simole was too great for them to risk peeking.

"Keeping a low profile isn’t going to work," said Nic. "You saw what they did to Mallory. The master from the Royal College didn’t even pick him-he never would have and they all knew it-but they still broke his arms. That’s how they operate, here. It’s how they’ve always operated. They’re happy to compete against each other, but it’s an affront to even let us on the playing field. They’ll come after us no matter what."

"And how does showing off in class make things any better?" asked Davo. "You want to speed the whole thing up? Make our demise more efficient?"

"Yes," said Nic. "Plus, the fewer of them there are, the harder it will be for them to surround us. That’s their preferred mode of attack, outnumber and outmanoeuvre. It’s a weak tactic and easily exploited."

"What do you mean, fewer?" said Fanny. "Why will there be fewer?"

"If they can’t keep up with the pace, they’ll be forced to leave the Upperclass. So I’m going to be the pacesetter."

Davo’s outrage dissipated. "You really think that’ll work?"


"It has before," said Nic.

"Well, okay," said Davo begrudgingly. "I just hope they don’t jump us when we’re out alone and try to pass it off as some accident. It’s all very well out-thinking them, but it’s hard to outsmart a punch in the face."

"They won’t do anything. They’re too scared of Simole."

"And that’s fine with you, is it?" said Davo, getting the hump again. "Happy to let a girl fight your battles for you?"

Simole didn’t say anything, quietly watching and eating.

"She won’t have to fight anyone," said Nic. "Apart from those she wants to, of course. As long as she has them trembling in their boots, it would be a waste to not use their fear against them. And in answer to your question, yes, I’m more than happy to let a girl fight in my place. I’ll gladly stay at home and bake a cake for the victory party. I can make a pineapple upside down cake that is considered quite respectable."

"Oh, really?" said Fanny. "Can I try some? Wait, have you actually made it, or just read how to make it in a book?"

"You have a lot of anger in you, don’t you?" said Simole.

"Me?" said Nic, as calm as ever. "I don’t think so. Do I look angry? I’m offering to make cake."

Simole smiled. "It’s nothing to worry about. Angry men tend to get things done. Believe me, I know." She carried on eating.


Nic’s proactive stance to student behaviour not only continued, it escalated. Nobody got away with a less than complete answer to anything. The teachers became quite confused and tried to restrict Nic to shorter interruptions, but it was hard to open up the floor to questions and then cut off someone providing very good answers. Especially when he could do it so concisely.

At the end of the first week, when there were a spate of tests as usual, the effects of Nic’s new approach became more than apparent.

Nic had determined how the teachers prepared their testing, and had systematically undermined them. He made sure the students had the answers to any and all questions of a basic nature, complete with correct spelling.

Without their finely tuned methods of assessing their students’ needs, the teachers were left to ask broader questions that required a proper understanding of the subject. Of course, they could have just asked the simpler questions everyone already knew the answers to, but that wasn’t the Ransom way.

When the results came back, not only had the overall average fallen across all subjects, some people had actually failed. Which also wasn’t the Ransom way. With Nic offering so much help in class, his was the last direction the students were looking for someone to blame. He planned to be even more helpful during the run up to the mocks.

The only teacher to take it all in stride was Mr Tenner. Once Nic offered up his superior knowledge on Arcanum, Mr Tenner began picking on him exclusively. Every question was asked of him specifically, and then further elaborations requested. Until the two of them would be discussing matters so esoteric, no one had any idea what they were talking about.



Lin Yi is one of the shareholders in Daddy’s company? Chu Mengyao widened her eyes in disbelief. Did daddy give shares to Lin Yi? Really?

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