Nicolav Tutt came down at a little after ten in the morning and had some breakfast. He didn’t like waking up early but of course he had to on most days. You were required to turn up at school by a certain time, which meant getting up when it was still dark outside and leaving the house with his brain still snoring.
Like many things in his life, there was no point complaining or procrastinating or trying to stay in bed for five more minutes. Things you didn’t want to do but which had to be done were best dealt with quickly and without distraction.
He finished eating and washed the dishes. He was alone in the house. His mother had gone to work and his father had died before Nic was born. He dried the dishes and put them away. He didn’t like doing the washing, either, but what good would it do to leave them in the sink until later?
It was this attitude that made Nic such a good student. And he was a very good student. Excellent.
Most of his young life had revolved around Hammond School for Boys in the town of Hammond. It was a large town, the third largest in the country of Ranvar, and taught over a thousand boys across five grades. For the five years Nic had been a Hammond boy, he had always been first in all his classes.
He did not have any great love for the subjects he excelled at. He didn’t marvel at the wonders of science or the glories of nature. He didn’t much care for the beauty of mathematics or the complexities of language. He was just good at them.
Nic didn’t consider himself all that intelligent. Certainly he wasn’t gifted or a natural talent when it came to studying. His impressive achievements across the board were the results of hard work.
He studied relentlessly. He spent his free time visiting libraries and making use of the facilities provided by the government to all who wished to use them at no charge. He understood that to do well in exams, you had to give the examiners the answers they wanted, which wasn’t necessarily the same thing as giving them the answers that were correct.
The Battle of Dek Ridge was a victory for the Ranvar Military, according to the school text books. According to other sources, the outcome wasn’t so clear cut.
The person who discovered Merrick Juice was known to be Archmage Merrick. Thanks to him, it was possible to sedate those who required surgery and so increase the survival rate dramatically. Only, a man called Perry Nabine from the neighbouring nation of Erista had made a very similar discovery three years earlier and there were documents to back this up. It would, however, be a dent to Ranvar’s pride and reputation if anyone was to say this publicly. Not that they would get a chance to.
Nic had discovered these things in dusty books in cobwebbed shelves. He liked to investigate rarely visited corners of libraries and dig out information he knew examiners would like. Information that confirmed what they believed to be true. Any information that did the opposite, Nic left to gather more dust.
Passing exams was Nic’s best subject. He knew it had nothing to do with being an expert in the topic being tested; it was all about giving people what they asked for. Fulfilling expectations received high marks in Ranvar.
So Nic gave them the correct answers, and then some. Even answers they might have felt were somewhat dubious—like the insistence that King Ransom III was the father of King Ransom IV, even though he had been away from his wife for over a year fighting the Pelomene War—Nic could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt using dates and quotes from various obscure texts from the time. He understood the value of being able to turn supposition into fact, as long as they were the right facts.
Nic didn’t care about the truth, he only cared about getting good grades. He only cared about being first.
And the reason it mattered so much to him had nothing to do with ambition or status. He didn’t want to impress anyone or win their admiration. He really had no idea what career to pursue. There was only one reason he wished to excel, and that reason was a girl.
Delzina Laurentia Delcroix. Or Dizzy. She was the daughter of a high level politician in the Ranvar government. A very important and influential figure, from what Nic had been able to piece together. So important, in fact, that very little was known about what he did. His title was Minister of Instruction, but nowhere did it list what his department did.
Nic first encountered Dizzy when they were both small children. His mother worked as a maid in the Delcroix household. One day she took Nic with her to work and introduced him to a little girl.
For some reason, the junior Delcroix did not have any friends. She was an only child and since they were both five years old, he was to be her companion.
It hadn’t seemed so strange at the time, just a playmate to spend time with, but years later Nic would wonder why she hadn’t been found friends of her own social standing. He could only assume it was a political matter. A man as important as her father probably didn’t want to show favour to one family or another, even through something as innocent as who he allowed his child to play with.
There were plenty of historical books on the intrigues of court life that would seem to support this theory, although Nic had no idea if those historical tales still held true. There were no modern books on the subject.
In any case, Nic had spent every day with Dizzy. After a rocky start where they cautiously eyed each other from behind their respective mother’s skirts, they bonded like two halves of the same walnut.
Dizzy was a tomboy and fearless adventurer. There was no part of the vast Delcroix estate she wasn’t willing to climb, crawl or jump off. The orchards were regularly stripped of fruit, the ponds routinely de-frogged and the stables in constant uproar.
And everywhere Dizzy went, Nic would be not far behind, racing to catch up.
As they grew older, tutors were brought in to teach Dizzy. She was schooled at home and resented being confined to a single room for hours on end. To help settle her, Nic was added to her classes.
The two of them would sit side by side in small wooden desks and learn to read and write. History and music. How to paint, how to ride horses and how to dance. It was an education nobody of Nic’s background would normally have access to. Of course, it wasn’t for his benefit that he received it, but he became educated all the same.
And then, one day, when he was ten years old, Nic’s mother stopped taking him to work with her. Not that he would have wanted to go if she had offered. Dizzy was no longer there.
At ten, all of Ranvar’s children were required to go to their local state school. For Nic that meant Hammond School for Boys. But Dizzy didn’t go to the adjacent School for Girls. She was not a regular child. She had a place waiting for her at The Ransom School.
Only the children of the richest and most powerful families went to Ransom, founded by King Ransom I over five hundred years ago. Its alumni went on to become the leaders of the country. Statesmen and ministers and, in a few exceptional cases, mages. They were the elite and Dizzy was one of them. Nic was not.
After being inseparable for five years, the next five had been an agony for Nic. It was like his arm had been cut off. His mother recognised his distress but put it down to him missing his little friend. She assumed he would get over it.
Nic couldn’t get over it, but he learned to hide his grief. It was ridiculous to think he had any right to want to see Dizzy again. She belonged to an entirely different world.
His mother thought his obsession with studying came from the time he’d spent being tutored and that he would eventually obtain a high-level position in some top firm. Perhaps a clerk in an office. Such things were considered the pinnacle of ambition for those from their sort of background and it made her immensely happy to think he would be able to earn such a good living. She often boasted about his accomplishments to the other staff and even to her master, thanking him, of course, for giving her son such a generous gift. Minister Delcroix would smile and wave away her gratitude, and then wave away the rest of her. He had no idea the real reason for Nic’s obsessive studies.
The Ranvar school system required every child to be educated to the age of fifteen, after which they would sit the most important exams of their young lives. The results would determine their future, what kind of work they would be eligible for, the kind of people willing to employ them.
But some would excel to the point where they would have the chance, if they wished, to enter the Upper Class.
Each school in each town had two additional years of higher learning to offer the brightest students, narrowing in scope to specific areas. Those who showed aptitude for engineering or medicine or any other advanced vocation could specialise in that field. If they were successful, their prospects for employment became even better. To be an assistant to a doctor, or a clerk in a government office required an Upper Class education.
Competition was very high. Different schools were known for expertise in different areas, so it was allowed for students to transfer to other schools if their grades were good enough. All schools opened the doors to their Upper Classes to the brightest and best. They all wanted to augment their own most talented students with those children who would raise the reputation of their institution. All schools, including Ransom.
Of course, Ransom was no ordinary school. It wouldn’t take just anybody. Of the thousands of children who sat their finals each year, the top one hundred would be listed in The Ranvaran Herald. The top ten, sometimes more, would all be students from Ransom, but lower down, student from other schools would appear. The top four of these—called the Also-Rans—would be allowed to enter Ransom’s Upper Class on a full scholarship.
This was what Nic had spent the last five years studying for. All he had to do was place in the first four Also-Rans and then he would get to see Dizzy again.
He knew it was a stupid thing to hang on to for five years. Most likely, she didn’t even remember him. She would have been surrounded by people just like her, made friends, found her place among those she undoubtedly belonged with. But he couldn’t help it. He still missed her. He wanted to see her again, even if it was just to be looked at like a stranger. At least he’d know.
Nic wandered around the house not sure what to do with himself. It was a small house, so it didn’t take long for him to wind up back in the kitchen. There was no school today. Normally he would continue studying, even during holidays and weekends, but there was nothing left to study. He had sat his final exams.
He heard footsteps outside the front door and rushed to open it. The postman stood there, going through his bag. He looked up surprised, and then smiled.
“Hello, er, do you have today’s paper?” Nic eyed the bag full of copies of The Ranvaran Herald.
The postman bundled a copy with the letters he was holding and passed them over, grinning. Everyone knew today was the day the exam results were published. All around the country, children were anxiously waiting to find out their results.
“Thank you,” said Nic, no longer aware of the postman or of anything other than what was in his hands. He returned to the kitchen and sat down at the table.
One of the letters was clearly his exam results. It had the examination board’s crest printed on the back. He wasn’t interested in opening it right now, he knew he had passed all his subjects and received high grades. He opened The Ranvarn Herald.
It was a lightweight weekly gazette with not that many pages. Most people didn’t bother reading it, even though it was free. The stories were bland and heavily vetted by the government.
Nic’s hands shook, rustling the pages as he turned them. He was confident he was the best student at Hammond, but there were many other schools, with many other students vying for a place at Ransom.
The exam standings took up both of the centre pages. Nic ran his eyes up the list until he found his name. Nic had worked hard and prepared with greater diligence than anyone would consider necessary. He needed to come in the top four Also-Rans.
He was second. Not out of the Also-Rans, he was second out of the entire list. He let out the breath he had been holding. Number two in the whole country, including the Ransom students. He hadn’t expected that.
It was a staggering accomplishment for the son of a maid. Around the country, people read the paper and were shocked that the name of the school next to his name wasn’t Ransom. Eyebrows were raised in various corners. Ripples had begun to spread.
It was a great relief for Nic to have achieved his goal. But for him, it wasn’t his own name that caught his attention, it was the name above his at number one. Delzina Laurentia Delcroix.