“I’m telling you, mate, we’ve got to get out of this dorm,” Tom Pendragon announced as he reached for a pawn. “Your move.”
My move in the game, or my move in the debate? “The Llama and the Lamb is right down the street,” Will du Lac pointed out, “if you think it’s safe for us to show our faces there.”
“As long as we leave Lamorak behind, we should be fine,” Tom said, “but that isn’t what I mean. Even a nice ale-induced haze isn’t going to be enough to cover up all the flaws in this place.”
“I’ll admit that the living conditions leave … a bit to be desired.”
“A bit to be desired? Will, this place is a bloody hellhole. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten what happened when that demonic cow-man broke in last week.”
Will winced. He did indeed remember. The dormitory had a quite advanced system to put out fires: somehow or other, pipes filled with rainwater drained down from the roof and would open at the first sign of smoke. Unfortunately, “the first sign of smoke” might not always mean fire.
“I wish we knew who let that thing in,” Will replied, thinking of the cow-man.
“So we could beat him up? I hear you, mate, but I’ve asked around, Lamorak’s asked around, Milo’s asked around — even you and Rob pried yourselves out of your books long enough to ask around. And let’s not forget how many times we’ve been accused of letting the bastard in.” Tom shrugged. “I’m starting to wonder if maybe it swiped a key and made a copy.”
Will considered that and had to acknowledge that it made a certain amount of sense. “Or maybe it’s someone from the dormitory who decided it would be fun to wear a cow-suit and pull a prank.”
“If that’s true, and if I ever find out who it is, I swear I’ll make steak of him myself.”
Will half-chuckled, half-snorted. “I’ll light the fire.”
“You’re a good mate, Will. Though, in all seriousness,” Tommy continued, “there has got to be something we could do other than staying in this hellhole.”
“There’s certainly enough belligerance going around to make it one. You could barely even make it to your exam the other day.”
Will sighed, remembering the dorm-mates who had decided that a peaceful resolution to their numerous differences was impossible. Normally Will would just shrug something like that off, but when they decided to sort out their differences right in front of the only exit from the refactory — completely blocking it from use — then he tended to get a little tetchy.
He sighed and shook his head. “Do you have any idea why they all hate each other?” Will asked, since this fight had been far from the only one they had witnessed.
“Do you have any idea why a professor will assign a surprise test on the one day you come to class hungover?” Tom retorted with a wink.
“You’ve only gone to class hungover once?”
“Hardy-har-har.” Tom stroked his chin as he surveyed the pieces on the board. “Naturally, when I’m really bad, I skip class.”
“Ah, of course. Why didn’t I think of that?”
“Why didn’t you?” Tom said with a wink. “But you have to admit, I think the one you almost got caught in the middle of … I think one of the, er, combatants was from Simspain, the other was a Smoor.”
“So much for the neutrality of the University.”
“Indeed, my friend, indeed.” Tom frowned. “Though the ones who nearly gave Lynn a black eye were both from the same country, I think.”
Will winced at that memory. That had been the only fight, to Will’s knowledge, that Tom had gotten involved in: specifically, to drag one of the combatants away from the fray (namely, the one who had almost hit Lynn), slam him against a wall, and inform him that if he (Tom) ever caught him swinging his fist within three yards of his betrothed, they’d be shipping his body back in pieces for burial. “If they even find the body,” Tom had snarled before letting the shocked dorm-mate slump to the floor in a terrified heap.
If Will hadn’t been right there, and had only heard of the incident later, he would have been terrified that Tom’s overprotectiveness would cause an international incident. As it was, he had been able to see how shaken Lynn had been, not just by the physical violence — being a friend and cousin of Leona, she was no stranger to physical violence — but by its particular visciousness, and by the fact that she had nearly been hit in the face or thrown against a wall herself by it. Will would have been just as fierce had he seen someone nearly slam Jessie into a wall, even if it had been accidental.
Assuming, of course, that Jessie hadn’t hexed the perpetrator into oblivion first. You never could tell with Jess.
“She all right?” Will asked, referring to Lynn, who hadn’t come near the dormitory since that day.
“Aye, she’s fine — now,” Tom muttered. “She wasn’t for a while, though.”
“Aye,” Will agreed. He moved a knight. “Your move.”
“Hmm …” Tom murmured, and for a moment Will thought he had successfully distracted him. Not for long, though. “And you know,” Tom remarked, “that we’ve got to get Lamorak out of this dormitory before he picks up any more … strange acquaintances.”
“Would take more than moving to do that,” Will muttered to his chess pieces.
Tom looked up. “Why are you always so down on him, mate?” he asked. “Lamorak’s not a bad bloke once you get to know him.”
“I …” Will began, then shook his head. No use trying to explain to Tom what he didn’t even fully understand himself, and moreover what he suspected, at heart, was a very irrational dislike. “We’re not all blessed with your outgoing disposition.”
“That explains why you prefer to play chess with one mate rather than hitting the pub with a dozen — not that I don’t admire your choice in that one mate,” Tom winked, “but it has nothing to do why you’re willing to believe anything bad about Lamorak. You’re usually a good judge of character.”
“Hmm.” Will wondered what Tom was thinking … until Tom opened his mouth and told him. “You know, he hasn’t looked at Jess since the two of you started courting.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Just saying.” Tom shrugged, then grabbed his bishop and moved it forward a few spaces. “Your move.”
Will frowned at the board. “Indeed.” While he pondered, he added, “Even if you’re right that the best way to deal with this dormitory is to abandon it — post-haste — how are we supposed to do that?”
“Generally the process of leaving involves packing one’s bags, handing them off to a servant, moving towards the exit …”
“Where would we live, Tom?”
“There are several nice houses for rent studded throughout the university.”
“And where would we get the money for that?” Will asked.
Tom sighed. “Honestly, Will, as much as you might claim that you’re not very outgoing and perfectly happy with just a few close friends … I think this is the real reason that you aren’t surrounded by legions of companions. You have this unfortunate habit of raining on other people’s parades.” As Will raised his eyebrow, Tom added, “Of course, that’s merely because they’re not as smart as I am, and don’t realize that a warning drizzle on one’s parade preparations is infinitely preferable to a full-blown thunderstorm in the middle of the festivities.”
“Nice save, mate.”
“Thanks, I try.”
“So how would we get the money? As … talented as you, Rob and Lamorak are at cards, we might as well face the fact that, while perfectly adequate for funding nights out on the town … it’s not going to pay for a house.”
“No, it won’t,” Tom agreed. “But in case you haven’t noticed, all of us — even Rob — come from rather wealthy families.”
Will looked up. “Tom, I hate to break it to you, but there is no way that my parents will be buying or renting a house for us.”
“Aw, come on, your father is a generous soul.”
“Sure he is, but my mother would want to know why we suddenly need a house. And once I told her, my father would want to know why all that he’s taught me isn’t sufficient to get me through college with a minimum of physical damage.”
Tom paused, clearly considering how the great Sir Lancelot could be expected to react to the news that his son was (apparently) running away from a fight. Or a fight every other minute, as it were. “You could always tell your mother it was for carousing and parties.”
Will raised one eyebrow.
Tom sighed. “Aye, she’d never believe it coming from you.”
“Indeed.” He moved another piece. “Your move.”
“Hmm …” Tom scratched the back of his head. “Well, there’s always my father.”
“And how would you plan to convince him to divert that much gold from the country’s treasury?”
“Well … for starters, we could promise Dad that any young man from Albion who came to Camford would be allowed to stay at that house. So, really, buying it would be a service to the country.”
“And,” Tom continued, ignoring Will’s question, “I could point out to Dad the probable consequences of putting Kay into this … volatile atmosphere.”
“Most of the people producing the volatile atmosphere will have probably graduated by that point.”
“With the amount of time they’re spending in the infirmary? I don’t think so, mate. They’ll probably be here long after we’re gone.”
“Old and gray and still in university?”
“Aye, pretty much.”
Will chuckled. “Sad as it is to say, I think you might have a point.”
“What — what the point is, or the fact that I have one?”
“In the interests of keeping my head attached to my neck, I shall refuse to answer that question.”
“Oh, that’s low.” Tom shook his head. “Besides, I’d never chop your head off.”
“How reassuring to know that our friendship is that strong.”
“Oh, it’s not nothing to do with our friendship, mate. It does, however, have everything to do with the fact that whatever I did to you, Jess would do to me — and then resurrect me and do it again.”
Will laughed and shook his head. “By the way you tell it, she’s almost as bad as Leona.”
“By the way I see it, she is!” Tom retorted. “So, mate, you agree with me? We need out of this dormitory — and the best place to get the money is my father?”
“I don’t think there is any other place.”
“Not exactly what I was hoping to hear, but I think I’ll take that as agreement.”
“It’s close enough.”
“Good,” Tom replied. “So here’s what we’ll do … you just write home telling your parents about the insanity that is our dormitory, casually, and I’ll take care of the rest. We’ll be out of here before the next semester is out.”
They were out of the dormitory a full semester before Tom expected that they would be, but Will credited that more to the fire than to any of Tom’s schemes.
A cooking fire was bound to happen sooner or later, the dormitory’s cook being “barely competant” at best, and “mind-numbingly awful” at worst. (Will wondered if she was at all akin to the strange old ladies who wandered Albion, offering to watch other folks’ children for a copper or so a day. He’d heard that they had a bad habit of starting fires as well.) But the King and Queen couldn’t have been expected to know that, and it was reasonable to assume that the reports of a fire shook them up a bit.
It was one thing to risk your son to belligerant dorm-mates: it could be said to toughen said son up, build character. It was quite another to find out that your eldest son and the carefully groomed heir to your kingdom was liable to be burned to death in a cooking fire at any moment. It scared the King (or maybe just the Queen) enough that the gold required to purchase, fix up, and rent a house on the outskirts of the university was forthcoming astonishly quickly.
So it was at the very end of the semester that the four boys from Albion stood outside what was to be their home for the next three years.
“It’s … big,” Rob said, being the first to venture a comment.
“Sleeps up to eight,” Tom remarked. “So it ought to be big.”
“Including fair company?” Lamorak asked.
Tom turned to Lamorak with one eyebrow cocked. Will, remembering that Lamorak was by popular rumor betrothed or the next thing to it to Tom’s cousin, was not surprised to see Lamorak hastily shut up.
“So shall we enter?” Tom asked, glancing toward his other two companions.
“Sure,” Will said.
“Sounds good,” Rob added.
“And you thought it couldn’t be done,” Tom remarked to Will as they began to walk toward the house.
“Clearly,” Will replied. “I was wrong.”
And he had never been quite so glad to be so wrong.