The Good Student

Chapter 32

Chapter Thirty Two


“Because all wars are about money,” said Davo.

“Some wars, certainly,” said Brill.

“No,” said Davo. “All.”

Nic stared into the fire, unable to find the energy to make his way to his chilly bedroom. Winter was making the most of its time in Ranvar, visiting every corner. “It depends on your perspective,” he said.

“And your punctuation,” added Fanny with a smirk.

The four of them were sitting around the fireplace in the cottage. Brill had moved in along with a cartload of new furniture, transforming Simole’s rather bare room into something almost as grand as Davo’s. Almost.

He had made himself at home and, as promised, didn’t press them for answers. He had seen them return to the camp on the back of the Father of Dragons, so there had to be numerous questions he wanted to ask, but he showed great restraint.

However, he had allowed his curiosity to get the better of him about why they had been summoned to see the Headmaster. To be fair, he did have a personal interest in the matter as the Headmaster was his father.

Nic had given him a brief outline of the issue, sticking to the facts, although not in a comprehensive manner. He didn’t say anything about the role the Secret Service had played, or that there were probably agents watching them right now. The subtle differences in the work assumed to be plagiarised was  both his explanation for why they had been incorrectly deemed to be cheating, and also for how he had proved their innocence.

Brill neither defended nor criticised his father’s actions, but he did have some questions about Davo’s perceived bias towards the fiscal nature of war.

“What about land acquisition?”

“Money,” said Davo. “I’m surprised you even need to ask.”

Brill took a breath and thought it over while the others soaked up the fire’s warm glow.

“It’s going to be freezing tonight,” said Fanny.

Davo sat up and leaned forward. “Before I left home, my father informed me of a brilliant new invention. They’re called blankets. Very advanced. He hopes to have them in stock, once they perfect the design, obviously. Perhaps you’d like me to order you one?”

“Thank you, I’m aware of the technology of which you speak. The problem are my toes which stick out of the bottom.”

“Perhaps you’d like to be swaddled like a baby,” said Davo with maximum sneering.

Fanny sat up to make some kind of rejoinder, but thought better of it and sank back down. “Yes, actually, I would.”

“Put some socks on,” said Nic.

“Doesn’t feel right,” mumbled Fanny.

“How did a dolt like you place higher than someone like me,” said Davo bitterly. It wasn’t the first time that evening he had expressed his consternation. “I’ve a good mind to demand a recount.”

“Pride, vengeance, religion,” said Brill with three fingers raised one by one.

“Money, money, money,” replied Davo. “You can put a cash value on all those things.”

“Yes, but come on,” said Brill. “If you think like that, everything has a monetary value.”

“Exactly. I’m glad you see my point.”

“No, I don’t see your point,” insisted Brill. “Not at all. Men go to war for reasons beyond making money. Look at the question we had in the Military History paper. Duke Verman didn’t go to war with Nymmeria for financial reasons.”

The other three turned to look at him.

“Alright, he did benefit financially, but that wasn’t the reason the war started.”

“What was the reason, then?” asked Davo. 

“The assassination of Chancellor Jonkey.”

“So Verman killed his own chancellor,” said Davo, “and then declared war on a city state a thousand leagues away. Why?”

“Are you testing me, Davo?”

“Think of it as revising. If you’re going to be living here, you might as well get comfortable with our methods.”

Brill nodded, willingly accepting the proposition. “Duke Verman went to war with Nymmeria because Chancellor Jonkey was the brother of Nymmeria’s head of state.”

“Keeper Jonkey,” said Fanny. “The clue’s in the name.” He grinned to himself.

Thank you, Mr Bostware,” said Brill tartly, misunderstanding Fanny’s point.

“But Nymmeria didn’t declare war,” said Davo. “The Duke did.”

“He knew Keeper Jonkey would want revenge—not money—for his brother’s death, and decided to attack first.”

“And why did the Duke kill his own chancellor?” asked Davo.

“He was having an affair with the Duke’s wife,” said Brill without hesitation.

“No,” said Davo.

“No?” said Brill. “What do you mean, no?”

“No,” confirmed Nic.

“Nope,” added Fanny.

“It’s a matter of public record,” said Brill, a little less sure of himself.

“He can’t have had an affair with the Duchess,” said Davo. “He was impotent.”

“Since when?” said Brill, losing his composure. “How can you possibly know that?”

“Since he was a boy. He had an accident with a horse.”

“A pony,” said Nic.

“Yes, sorry. A pony. A horseshoe, in any case. Kicked him in rather an unfortunate place, completely confused his plumbing. They called him Wonky Jonkey. A childhood friend of his grew up to be a traveller. Wrote many memoirs and detailed much of his childhood memories. Wonkey Jonkey had his own chapter.”

Fanny started giggling. “Wonky Jonkey.”

“And where is this memoir? What’s it called?” asked Brill.

The Journey of a Nymmerian Sailor,” said Davo. “Third volume. Of twelve, I believe.”

“By Negril Arrankey, the White Pirate of the Nymmerian Gulf,” said Fanny. “I think he may have made up his own title. Nobody else has ever mentioned the White Pirate.”

Brill’s head was jerking about as answers flew at him from all directions. “I’ve never heard of him or the book,” he said.

“The only copy I’ve seen is in the Librarium,” said Nic. “You have to ask for it.”

“You’ve read it?” Brill asked Nic.

“He has a thing for memoirs,” said Davo. “If you ever write one yourself, you’ll be guaranteed at least one reader.”

“But if it’s known he was… indisposed that way, why are we taught otherwise?”

“The family was embarrassed,” said Nic. “They were powerful, and rich. They had it expunged from the records, everything relating to it destroyed. Almost everything. They preferred him to be accused of infidelity and of being a philanderer. Sounds more… manly, I suppose.”

Brill sat back, sinking into the large armchair, courtesy of Conoling & Son.

“When he was old enough, he moved to a new city,” said Davo. “He found employment with the Duke. He came from Nymmeria. He was considered to know about financial matters.”

“But then why was he killed?” asked Brill.

“Bad loans,” said Davo. “It’s always about money.”

“Loans to whom?”

“To the Duke. From Nymerria, the city of banks.”

“Banking was invented in Nymmeria,” Brill agreed, “but that was much later.”

“No,” said Davo. “Duke Verman burned the city down to the ground, wiping out the whole Nymmerian culture, but they hung onto the idea of banking until they had a chance to rebuild. Took them several hundred years.”

“And did you read this in someone’s memoir?” Brill asked Nic.

“There were four heads of state in Nymmeria,” said Nic. “One for each house. Each house was a bank. They were called Keepers. Short for bookkeeper.”

“The clue’s in the name,” said Fanny. Then he started giggling again. “Wonky Jonkey.”

“There’s only one bank in modern Nymm,” said Nic. “It’s called the Bank of Four. There’s only one of them.”

“Okay, fine,” said Brill, struggling to remain a sceptic. “Let’s say they had banking back then, and they loaned some money to the Duke. Why did that make him kill his chancellor?”

“His chancellor was the one who arranged the loan,” said Davo. “From his brother. It was to fix the palace roof. It leaked.”

“How did you…?”

“They still have the records of expenses and outgoings from back then in the Verman Library,” said Nic. “Chancellor Jonkey kept meticulous records on parchment of excellent quality, before he had his limbs cut off. You have to ask to see them. The records, not his limbs.”

“And he couldn’t pay the loan back?” asked Brill.

“A poor harvest meant tax revenues were down,” said Davo. “A slight delay in repayments, not the end of the world. But the deal arranged by the chancellor wasn’t a good one, I’m afraid. The compound interest rapidly grew to three times the size of the original loan. As you can imagine, the Duke was not amused. He considered the brothers to have conspired against him. I don’t think they had, it was probably their standard contract. But the chancellor, for all his excellent records and precise note-taking, was not a good businessman. You don’t gouge your customers, intentionally or otherwise, and expect to last long in the world of commerce.”

“They weren’t businessman and customer, though,” said Brill. “They were Duke and Chancellor.”

“Same thing,” said Davo. “It’s a fundamental of any conflict—you never allow the customer to feel they’ve been cheated. Even when they have. They should always prosper to your detriment, or at least it should appear so. They should feel confident they have the best deal available. Even when they surrender. Especially then. Otherwise the war hasn’t ended, it’s merely on hiatus. The success of Ranvar’s military engagements have always relied on the enemy accepting our help to rebuild. Fear and intimidation to gain the victory, trade and cooperation to keep us there. It makes good business sense.”

“Isn’t the whole point to grind your enemy into the dust? Isn’t that how empires are built?” asked Brill. “I don’t see this velvet glove approach you seem to think exists. Ranvar is superior to our neighbours in all ways. They do what we tell them.”

“If I have five customers, and they each make two gold coins for every one of mine, then they each have two gold coins, and I have five.” Davo smiled. “War and business are the same.”

“So all war is a commercial enterprise, and warriors and generals are the same as base-born tradesmen?” Brill spoke in a mild daze, and only realised what he’d said after the words had left his mouth. “Not that… I didn’t mean…”

“No, no,” said Davo. “You’re correct. It is base. Business is part of our less admirable nature, as is warring. But it is better to understand it and learn how to survive, than the alternative.”

“I… I…” Brill looked like he was reeling while sitting down. “Why didn’t he just refuse to pay the money back?”

“I don’t know,” said Davo. “I expect he was angry. Have you ever seen a really angry customer? A debutante whose heel snapped in the middle of a Royal Ball? While she was dancing with the eligible prince of some unheard of principality? I assure you, without the correct handling, a young woman like that would gladly burn Conoling & Son to the ground, all hands on deck. But there is always a way to handle things to everyone’s mutual satisfaction. Simply lowering interest rates and calling it a clerical error would have sufficed. In the long term, all losses can be reclaimed.”

“Perhaps they should have given the Duke a refund,” said Fanny.

“Easy,” said Davo. “Let’s not attempt to change the wheel on a cart while it’s still moving. Chancellor Jonkey and Keeper Jonkey were authors of their own demise, and that of their people.”

“But to destroy a city,” said Brill, “to kill tens of thousands over a disputed bill…”

“They didn’t all die. Most were enslaved. In the end, the Duke made a healthy profit on the deal.” Davo smiled wistfully. “That was the idea of his new chancellor. Now, there was a man who knew how to run a base commercial enterprise.”

“You sound like you approve of slavery,” said Fanny.

“Of course not,” said Davo. “It’s a despicable, inhuman act to put another human being in chains. But purely as a fiscal proposal, in context, you understand, it was an astute move. It allowed for the solid financial foundations that Ranvar ended up being built on. By the way, that new chancellor was Phylum Mendum. You may have heard the name.”

“The Responsible Chancellor?” said Brill. “Yes, I’ve heard of him.”

“The man was a legend,” said Davo with unbridled conviction. “An unsung hero.”

“They should have given him a more exciting title to be remembered by, then,” said Fanny.

“You understand nothing. He wasn’t just ‘The Responsible Chancellor’. He was ‘Chancellor: Responsible’. Chancellor, colon, Responsible. Understand. They acknowledged his role. It’s in the records.”

“No, it isn’t,” said Nic.

“What do you mean?” said Davo.

“It isn’t written like that in the records.”

“But I’ve seen it.”

“No, you haven’t. Not once is it written as Chancellor, colon, Responsible. The only person who writes it like that is you.”

“But I’m sure… I was positive I saw… I mean...”

Nic shook his head.

“Maybe you dreamed it and thought it was real,” said Fanny. “That happens to me sometimes, when I wake up and think there’s a pound cake still in the pantry. But there isn’t. I already ate it. Every time.” 

Davo ignored him as he reassessed the incorrect facts his understanding of history had been built on, a hand over his mouth.

Fanny leaned over towards Brill. “Davo dreams about balanced books and numbers all neatly written in columns. Nic may just have brought his world crashing down around his ears.”

“But if you knew I was incorrect,” said Davo, “why didn’t you correct me?”

“I didn’t say you were incorrect,” said Nic. “Your interpretation could be spot on. When people write these things down, they want it to be read a certain way. They want you to think the same way they did. Sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. Sometimes the truer facts are hidden beneath the obvious ones. Sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. I’ve always found if you collect enough information and let it settle, the important things have their own purpose. They climb into your thoughts and make themselves known. It’s an instinct, as powerful as the one that takes a ferret to a rabbit’s throat. Maybe your way of seeing Chancellor Mendum’s role is the correct one.”

“I don’t understand,” said Brill, even more uncertain of his position than Davo. “If this is all known, why are we taught The Battle of the Two Cities was about a jealous husband? Are you suggesting you have a better understanding of history than our teachers and educators?”

“They know,” said Nic. “If you give them back the answers they gave you, they’ll give you full marks. But they’ll give you extra marks if you tell them the answers they didn’t give you.”

Brill sagged in his chair. “Is it always like this around here?” he asked no one in particular.

“Yes,” said Fanny, sliding down his own chair. “It’s exhausting, isn’t it?”

“Indeed,” said Brill. He stood up. “I need to lie down.”

He left the three boys sitting around the fire, rubbing his forehead and sighing heavily as he closed the door to his room.

“Do you think he’s spying on us?” asked Fanny in a low voice that barely rose above the crackling of the fire.

“Clearly, he is,” said Davo. “He told us so himself. He reports to his father.”

“Yes, I know that. But I mean really.”

“Yes, really,” said Davo. “He said so specifically.”

“Why would he just tell us like that?” said Fanny, a little tetchy that Davo was being so obtuse.

“Because,” said Davo, “he either sees us as so inferior to him he considers us unable to do anything about it, or he’s a bit odd.”

“Or he wanted us to know he wasn’t going to really spy on us, just pretend. Although, now that you say it, I’d probably go for him being a bit odd.”

“It’s not like there aren’t other people watching us,” said Nic.

Fanny sat up and looked around the room. “Do you think there are agents in here with us, right now?”

“Probably,” said Nic.

“Right now,” emphasised Fanny.

“Has the cold weather rendered you hard of hearing?” said Davo. “Yes, right now. The room’s probably crawling with them. Every room.”

“Even the toilet?”

“Yes. Even the toilet when you’re in there.”

“I suppose they have been trained for that sort of thing.”

“Suicide missions?” said Davo.

Fanny continued to look around as shadows from the fire licked at the walls. “If they are hanging about, I could use them to perfect my detector.”

Nic glanced away from the fire. “The Archmage said he was going to send you some stuff to help with that. Did you get it?”

Fanny shook his head.

“Denkne’s probably got it,” said Davo. “You should ask him.”

Fanny shuddered. “What would I say? He’s a bit creepy-looking, don’t you think? Not sure how I’d approach him.”

“It’s simple,” said Davo. “Knock on his door and say, ‘I believe you have a delivery for me, my good man. Hand it over, chop, chop,” and then give him a few coins for his trouble. What’s the worst that could happen?”

“He could obliterate me with a bolt of lightning,” said Fanny. “What kind of mage do you think he is?”

“Maybe something to do with ice?” said Davo.

“White hair, ice, yeah, I can see it. I thought lightning, but ice is better. Turn people into frozen statues.”

There was more inane speculation about Denkne’s specialisation, but Nic’s attention had returned to the fire.

He had been trying to decide how to proceed. If he did nothing and carried on like any other student, he would be no better or worse off than he was now, should something happen. 

Not knowing how to prepare himself meant it really didn’t matter what he did. 

If he carried on pursuing answers about Winnum Roke, about demons and mages, the amount of information he had to work with would grow. Which meant the chances of him coming across something useful would also grow. But he could be looking in the wrong places, assuming there even was an answer waiting to be found.

He believed what he told Davo, that knowledge accumulated and lived inside of you. He wasn’t sure how it happened, but if you had the pieces of a puzzle in your mind, they would eventually drift close enough to fit together. It had happened too many times for him to doubt it. The answer always came. You just had to be able to recognise when it did. And then you had to figure out what to do with it. In some cases, it might come and go without you even noticing.

He was sure that hadn’t happened yet. Fairly sure.

“Nic?”

“Hmm?” said Nic.

Fanny was staring at him, from slightly closer than was comfortable. “I said, do you think the headmaster will try to get us expelled again?”

Nic moved his head from side to side. “I don’t know. If an opportunity presents itself, maybe. The justification for it would have to be greater than the last attempt. Watertight. I doubt he’ll find anything like that. Unless one of us slips up badly.”

The three boys looked at each other, eyes narrowed.

“On three,” said Davo. “One, two, three…”

Davo and Nic pointed at Fanny; Fanny pointed at Davo.

“What!” said Fanny. “It won’t be me. I came third!”

“Probably won’t be any of us,” said Nic, lowering his hand. “He isn’t a vindictive man, he just has the urge to protect his students at all costs, and if he feels he has to take harm to shield them, it only makes him more resolute, like his personal suffering is confirmation of the importance of the effort. He’s pragmatic, really, choosing the path he considers least harmful to the most students, but it makes it hard to reason with him.”

“That’s why you offered to let him drop us down the rankings?” said Davo.

“Yes. He would find it hard to refuse an offer like that, where everyone gains something, but he takes the greatest risk. His career could be over if the governors thought he had overstepped his bounds.”

“Brill must have had it hard,” said Fanny.

“No, I don’t think so,” said Nic. “He wouldn’t force Brill to take any burden on his behalf. I don’t think he even sent him here to spy on us. More likely, he wants to expose his son to an unsafe element, the way you expose a baby to chicken pox; to make it stronger. We’re inoculating him against worse things he’ll face later. He’s probably at home, worried sick about what we might be putting his boy through, but he won’t intervene unless absolutely necessary. His suffering only confirms his decision was correct.”

Nic looked up to find the other two staring at him.

“What?”

“You know,” said Davo, “whenever I experience an overwhelming sense of fear and trepidation about the demon you carry around with you, I remind myself how scary and unnerving you are. The demon’s probably sitting in a corner hoping you don’t notice it.”

“You think I’m scary? Why?”

“You’ve met the Head, what? Twice? And you have him dissected like a biology experiment. Can you do that to me and Fanny? Break us apart and see how we function? No, no, I don’t want to know. I’m going to bed.”

“To dream about profit margins,” Fanny whispered to Nic, loudly.

Both boys rose and went to their rooms, leaving Nic in front of the fire. He sat there, thinking. He had so much to think about. His mind flitted from one kernel of information to the next, and the thing that stuck out, the place his mind returned to again and again was the book of fairytales written by Winnum Roke.

He considered the priceless volumes of forbidden knowledge he’d been shown in the Librarium, to which he no longer had access. They contained many valuable nuggets of enlightenment, but none to match the depth of knowledge he sensed in those simple fairy stories. Digging it out was the problem. He felt like he was scratching at a coal face with his fingernails.

She had left truths hidden behind stories. Why? Why not just leave clear instructions carved into the side of a mountain? 

He had already come to the conclusion that there was someone at the Royal College she didn’t trust. It would be easiest to assume it was the demon itself, in some guise, but would Winnum Roke really not be able to identify an impostor and deal with it directly? 

He felt it had to be someone else she was wary of. One of her own. Perhaps more than one. You only hide clues if you don’t want undesirables to learn your secrets, but you also need to be sure the right people know where to look. To know your important message.

And yet, the book, or at least a version of it, was in practically every home. That didn’t seem to match the intent of either the person who wrote it, or the ones she hid it from. 

Unless the person who made it widely available wasn’t able to decipher it, but instead made it so common as to become meaningless. Just stories. Who would think there was something special waiting to be found there when it was available so freely?

The original was written when Winnum Roke was Archmage at the Royal College. After she left, someone must have authorised its publication. If he could find out who, perhaps it would indicate… something. He really had no idea what his mind was trying to tell him.

He was still pondering a few hours later when Brill emerged from his room to use the bathroom. 

The fire was only embers. Nic was seated in the same position he had been all night, eyes closed, the flames still playing on the insides of his eyelids. 

Brill let out a soft, scoffing laugh. “I thought you’d be studying.”

Nic waited until Brill went to relieve himself, and then very quietly said, “I am.”


Author's Note: So, when I write a reflective chapter like this, where it's very static and not much happens, I never know how it will be received. There are a lot or things being set up for later, but that shouldn't mean it' should be allowed to be too boring or uneventful here and now. Any reactions to how you felt about it would be appreciated.

I'd very much appreciate any support on topwebfiction.com if you feel the story is deserving. All votes very gratefully received. 

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