Top Idol

Cobweb made me write it, honest. G

Honest? HONEST? You believe that from the Gnome, you believe anything. C.

It had been, the Gnome decided, a mistake to ask his hosts to open the fifth bottle of Shiraz. It had been doubly a mistake to insist rather pointedly, afterwards, that he was perfectly capable of Folding himself back home, and no, he would manage if Barnabas insisted on staying behind at the Website to finish his interminable story about what one of Diomedes’ mares had said to him one night on the Troad – ‘a right little man eater, I can tell you’ the donkey had added archly. It had been triply a mistake, when his huff had been simply ignored by the other guests, to go off in it and actually attempt the Fold.

It wasn’t that he couldn’t do the 13-dimensional math in his head, or even, really, that he was too lazy to do so, despite the many comments that have been made along those lines. It was more that, having been born into a Universe very much younger than, and surprisingly different from, the present one, he had difficulty, sometimes, in seeing Her in quite the same way that everyone else did. Like any very old friend, he was inclined to think of Her as She used to be. It was easy to forget that like many people, She had expanded considerably since Her youth.

As a result, unless he concentrated quite hard, a thing which on the whole he preferred to avoid, Folding often led him astray. Not the enjoyable sort of astray that is lambasted from the pulpit by proponents of the more muscular sort of religion (and the Gnome, who had little interest in any sort of religion, knowing what he did about gods, was certainly not going to contemplate it unless it was at least muscular. And scantily clad). No, this was more the wrong- end-of-town-in-filthy-weather-with-no-cash-and-just-who-were- those-hooded-figures-with-the-gleaming-eyes-in-the-burned-out- doorways? sort of astray.

The last time he had attempted a Fold the worse for wear he had ended up spending three weeks for vagrancy in a squalid cell on Barsoom, with a leering thark who appeared to have designs on his body. Quite pretty designs, actually, and the Gnome had struck up a pleasant friendship by asking the name of the green Martian’s tattooist, but despite the conversation, the food had been appalling.

This time – well, he wasn’t quite sure where he was, but he didn’t think he was in Faery any more. He peered blearily up at the ceiling, which boasted an interesting crack and a large yellow stain that looked rather like a map of Africa.

I’m in bed, he thought muzzily. In a bedroom. Not my bedroom. That thought worried at him – he couldn’t have? He wouldn’t have, not any more! – until he realised, sitting up very, very cautiously, that it was a single bed, in a small and narrow room with a wardrobe and desk at one end and a collection of posters for various pop groups he had never heard of on the wall. The room also boasted a fairly comprehensive, and comprehensively unwashed to judge by the fusty smell, collection of worn socks, t-shirts, and jeans on the floor, which did rather raise the question of what the wardrobe was for, since the room’s usual inhabitant clearly didn’t use it for clothes. He hastily checked and discovered that he was still wearing some, although someone had removed his shoes.

“What in the name of the God am I doing here?” he muttered. He was fairly certain that he would never have lowered his standards, no matter how drunk he was, to this. It was as he was running a hand over his eyes and promising himself never to Fold again after more than one bottle that someone hammered on the door.

“Julian, come on! You’ll be late.”

The Gnome ignored it. In his experience, people who knocked on your door eventually got bored and went away. Apart from the small minority who broke it down, of course…

“Hey – why isn’t that door locked?” he asked, as a fresh-faced young man with longish blond hair opened it and came in.

“Don’t be silly, you know we aren’t allowed to have locks on our doors,” retorted the newcomer. “And you are really going to be for it unless you get a move on – lectures start in ten minutes. Remember the last time?”

“Um – no?” ventured the Gnome, slightly bewildered.

“Oh Julian, honestly.” The youth frowned hard at him. “What is it – are you sick? Did you eat something you shouldn’t have? You did, didn’t you?”

“No, no, I…” protested the Gnome feebly.

“No, I know what it is,” said the other. “You’ve been drinking!”


“Oh, come on. I know you. What was it – cream soda? Doctor Pepper? Not Coke? It was, wasn’t it? You’ve got a Coke head.”

“Coke? I wouldn’t…” touch the filthy stuff, he started to say, but his interlocutor had never heard of the give and take of debate.

“Hey, you don’t need to pretend to me. Anyway, I think it’s great if you’re finally taking your studies seriously. I’ll tell them you’re ill, and can’t come to lectures. Although it will mean the Thermometer Thing.” He shuddered ostentatiously. “And I’d really better go, or it will be me getting into trouble too, and we don’t do double-entry badkeeping until next term. See you!” He sped out.

Something, said the Gnome to himself, is Not Quite Right. I really need to find out where I am, so that I can be somewhere else. And why did that young man think I was someone else? He bounced out of bed (the huge advantage, as far as he was concerned, of being a votary of the God of Wine was that hangovers were largely optional), looked in the mirror and choked back a scream. Instead of his familiar, debonair, dark-haired self, a, a, a, a boy, a mere skinny, doe-eyed boy with tousled light-brown hair and a horrified expression was looking back at him.

“Fuck!” said the Gnome, sitting back down in shock. “I’ve Folded into someone.” It was a known risk, if you were incautious, but the chances of it happening were minuscule. Unless, perhaps, you were drunk and astray in thirteen dimensions at once. The problem was that he wasn’t quite sure how you Folded out again, not without doing yourself, and your host, a mischief. “Fuck,” he said again, miserably. He could tell from the flat feel of local space that this was not a highly magical Thread, which meant that sensible advice on his predicament was going to be hard to come by, but on the other hand, this didn’t have the rigid, unshapeable feel of one of the Multiverse’s base Realities, down in the dip of the improbability curve.

He shook his head, trying to gather his thoughts, and slowly his natural self-possession returned. Nothing had changed. It was just all the more urgent that he found out exactly where he was. Maybe, just maybe, he was intended to be here. The gods, as he well knew, often moved in ways that were not only mysterious but downright confusing. And he knew perfectly well that his nearest and dearest would also be doing their best to find out where he was. He also knew that Cobweb was going to give him a Telling Off of truly mythical proportions when she caught up with him, but right now that seemed like quite an encouraging prospect.

He got up again, and stood by the door, listening. Bustle, yes there was definitely bustle going on, but it was dying down. He poked a cautious head out.

A lone straggler came pounding down the corridor, sheaves of notes and a laptop in hand, dodged him with a grimace and a ‘sorry’ as he vanished down the staircase. A piece of paper circled in his wake like the first leaf of autumn.

“Hey, you’ve dropped your…” began the Gnome, but it was too late. He picked up the paper, ran an eye over it, frowned, and began to read it more carefully.

An external observer, had there been one, might have noticed the curious dance of expressions over his mobile face – bewilderment, disbelief, amusement, and finally the expression that was most at home there. Had that hypothetical observer been one who was familiar with the Gnome he might have warned all and sundry to take care, but perhaps it wouldn’t have done any good. It was, after all, the Gnome’s business to make trouble. It was just that, as that glow of sheer devilment showed, he really, really enjoyed his job.

“So that’s where I am,” he said. “Well, well. I suppose this place had to exist, really.” He strolled jauntily down the corridor and headed down the stairs. Another corridor, depressingly institutional in décor, with double doors at either end, and signs indicating in one direction ‘A1 – B4, Epidemiology/Pathology’ – Pathology? Well, when he thought about it, yes, of course – and in the other ‘B5 – C5, Lecture Theater, Administration Bloc’. Lecture Theater – he supposed they meant Lecture Theatre – that sounded promising. The boy had said something about lectures.

He strolled slowly down the corridor. A middle-aged woman with glasses frowned at him through a glass partition as he passed, but the Gnome had been Looked at by experts and hardly registered her effort; indeed he gave her a sunny smile and a wave as he passed, just to be annoying.

He pushed open the door marked ‘Lecture Theater’ cautiously, hoping to slip in unnoticed. Unfortunately, like such doors in every Reality, its hinges nurtured hopes of a career in opera, and the demonic screech with which they greeted his entry turned every face towards him, including that of the rather cross-looking young man at the podium.

“So, Julian, you’ve condescended to join us? How very kind. Come down here please.”

The Gnome, not without a certain flicker of trepidation (the delivery hadn’t been quite right, but the peremptory tone wasn’t bad), strolled languidly down to the front, aware of a certain amount of muttering and furtive glances from the other students. He resisted the temptation to preen.

“Here you go,” said the Lecturer, handing him a laser pointer. He wore a small metal badge identifying him as Mr Ainsworth.

“What do you expect me to do with this?” asked the Gnome, bemused.

“Well, I assumed that since you obviously know it all, you’d be able to give the lecture yourself,” said Ainsworth, in a voice dripping with sarcasm.

The Gnome stared at him, then looked down at the device. Then he smiled, slowly. It wasn’t a nice smile.

“How dare you speak to me in that tone of voice, young man?” he said, his delivery just a fraction above absolute zero. The lecturer blanched, opened his mouth to say something…

“And did I ask you to speak?” continued the Gnome, getting into his stride. He’d been lectured a good deal in his time, he could have done this in his sleep. “I don’t think I did. When I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it. It’s about time you remembered just who’s the Top here. I make the decisions around here – your place is to look decorative and to realise, after I’ve thrashed you senseless, that you don’t have a sensible thought in your head and you really need every facet of your life organised by me.”

The unfortunate lecturer was slowly going an interesting shade of carmine. The Gnome wondered, with academic detachment, whether anyone had apoplexies any more. Apoplexies had been big in the old days, he seemed to remember, and he also seemed to remember that they looked a bit like this. Maybe a bit purpler…

“No, no, don’t thank me. You can do that later, when you’re telling me how wonderful I am in bed…”

Expressions of mingled horror and delight shone upon him from every corner of the lecture theatre. The Gnome beamed. This was Fun! “And I will remind you – eep!”

An enormous hand closed upon his shoulder, and turned him, very slowly, to face what appeared to be a cross between a mountain gorilla and a rugby prop (an understandable mistake on either parent’s side). It was huge, hirsute, and unmistakably displeased. Too late, he realised that the expressions of horror had been because this apparition had come through the door beside the pull-down screen at the front of the lecture theatre, a door which unfortunately did not squeak, and had been advancing on him from behind. By the side of it stood what appeared to be a living Ken doll – a soft-focus, bronzed, lightly oiled blond with gym-built pecs and a general air of dissatisfaction.

“What,” rumbled the troll, at a level just barely above the subsonic, “the heck is going on here?”

“Ah, Vice-Principal, Principal Baines,” squeaked the lecturer, “this boy…”

“I was just demonstrating,” cut in the Gnome quickly. “Practical demonstration of what we’d learned so far.”

“Not a great deal, if that last comment is anything to go by,” snapped the blond – the Principal, judging by the way everyone deferred to him. “How many times must we drive it into you that this is nothing to do with sex? Tops and Brats are not about sex. Period.”

The Gnome stared at him, open-mouthed. “Yes they are,” he said.

There was a very loud silence.

“How dare you argue with me?” hissed the Principal when he got his voice back. “Vice-Principal, is this the way the boys in this academy have been encouraged to behave? No wonder the place needs taking in hand.”

“Julian, did you just contradict the Principal?” asked the Vice-Principal, with surprising mildness, as might a man who had heard something impossible, a cuckoo in winter, or a score suggesting that England had won a World Cup.

The Gnome eyed the formidable bulk with unease. On the other hand, sheep, lambs – why not?

“I believe that hearing is one of the first senses to go, at your age,” he said thoughtfully. A collective indrawing of breath around the room was followed by a dreadful silence, as between the lightning and the thunderclap. “Or possibly you have some difficulty processing sentences?”

Rather to his surprise the big man smiled, a smile of great sweetness. “None whatsoever,” he said, still in the same mild tone. “Your sentence, for example, will be the hiding of your life.”

The Gnome bit his lip. He had rather expected it, but nonetheless, now the moment was upon him the prospect was not quite as negligible as bravado had painted it. He was a very big man.

He sighed. “Lead on, Macduffer. Take me to the place of execution.”

“Oh no,” said the Principal quickly, with a leer. “Have you lost interest in the education of your fellow students so quickly?”

“Wh-what do you mean?” stammered an alarmed Gnome.

“You wanted to demonstrate what you’d learned so far, didn’t you? Here’s your chance to put your classes in Histrionics and Creative Writhing to good effect. I hear you’re good at Histrionics.”

“Not in front of them! I don’t do public punishments,” pleaded the Gnome.

“You do now,” said the Principal. “But not just in front of them.” He indicated the small black boxes disposed around the ceiling. “Our audience figures have just gone up to 15 million in anticipation. Lots of viewers have been waiting to enjoy your just desserts, Julian, and now they’ll be all over prime-time television.”

“I’m not showing my arse to 15 million people,” squawked a now thoroughly panicked Gnome.

“No. Fifteen million and twenty,” said the Principal, taking in the transfixed students with an airy wave. “Vice-Principal, do your duty.”

“OK,” growled the VP. “Julian, you know you’ve had this coming for a long time  - and the viewers seem to agree: they’ve voted for you to be soundly spanked and paddled.”

His free hand tugged at the waistband of the Gnome’s jeans. In any sensibly organised reality this would not have had that much effect, as the unfortunate Julian clearly liked to maximise his assets and they were, to say the least, figure hugging. However, as the sausage-like fingers grasped the cloth the Gnome’s senses detected a little quiver in local space-time and the denim slid obediently to the floor.

Bugger. Of course, here, Reality would always be organised so that such things worked to the Top’s advantage. The Gnome went scarlet with rage and embarrassment as the man proceeded to pull down his white shorts to reveal a very pert little bottom to the appreciative audience before he found himself expertly lifted and positioned over the gorilla’s lap. There was a horrible pause.

“You know we have to do this?” said Principal sententiously, from somewhere overhead. “These are the rules you agreed to, Julian. We’re only doing this to help you.”

“You’re doing bugger all apart from grandstanding, so for fuck’s sake quit the sermon and let’s get on with it,” muttered the Gnome. He felt a little tremor of suppressed amusement from the gorilla.

“And afterwards we’ll soap that mouth of yours, boy,” growled the Principal. “I will not have that sort of language used in this Academy. Thrash him, mister.”

It was only as the first spank exploded with something like the effect of a small nuclear device that the Gnome realised his mistake. This new body had nothing like the tolerance to pain of his old one. The big, calloused hand fell like a thunderbolt again and again, and it felt as if the skin on his backside were being splashed with boiling oil.

To his horror he felt a whimper bubble in his throat. A whimper, and for a mere spanking. It was – humiliating. His head went up as yet another slap landed, and the image of the eager, watching faces around the lecture theatre – some wincing in sympathy, some flushed with enjoyment – burned itself into his vision. Give them the satisfaction? He’d – he’d – he’d rather swallow his own tongue. Well, this body’s tongue.

Unfortunately the body seemed to have ideas of its own. It began to buck and writhe like a gaffed salmon under the pinioning left hand of the VP, and hot, scalding water gathered with increasing pressure behind eyelids clenched as tightly as the now scarlet buttocks. No! Not crying. Not that, please… The urge to whimper returned, gathered somewhere in the depths of his chest, a building pressure…

The hand stopped, abruptly. The pain, unfortunately, didn’t. It throbbed and burned, as if a family of rather overweight salamanders were dancing on his bum. Still, thought the Gnome, I didn’t yell. Or cry…

“Still obstinate, Julian?” rumbled the VP, a contented volcano gathering itself for the next eruption. “Let’s see if the paddle can help.” His hand ran gently, almost tenderly, over the scarlet buttocks of the Gnome’s unwitting host before picking up – where did he have it? wondered the Gnome from his uncomfortable position over the big man’s lap, I never saw it when he came in – a small paddle in polished wood, about 25 centimetres long, and alarmingly thick. It had a patina that bespoke much use. When it was tapped lightly against the scorched flesh it felt deceptively, even pleasantly cool, but the Gnome, feeling the weight of the implement, gulped. This was going to be…

HORRIBLE! IT WAS HORRIBLE!! He writhed convulsively in the gorilla’s grip each time the paddle fell, kicking and wriggling, quite oblivious to the fact that he was showing everything he possessed to the world, or to maintaining any semblance of dignity, or of anything but making it STOP!

He squalled and writhed, but to no avail. The burning blazed through his nerves with every swat, fiercer and brighter, until he couldn’t think, couldn’t speak, knew no focus but that scalding fire – a fire that suddenly blinked, like a candleflame in a draught, as with a loud SNAP the paddle cracked from one end to the other and fell in pieces to the floor, closely followed by an overbalanced and astonished Vice-Principal, and a gasping Woodgnome.

“Here, I brought you some ice,” said the blond boy.

“I don’t want ice,” sulked the Gnome, lying face down on his bed. Right now he was too uncomfortable to care about the fact that the other had just walked into the room and was surveying the scorched wasteland of the Gnome’s bare backside and screwing up his face in sympathy.

“You’ll have marks for weeks, otherwise,” said the other practically. “Honestly, Julian, you really do push the envelope. And if that paddle hadn’t split you might have had to take more. Man, was the Veep mad. That was his favourite paddle. And the look on Baines’ face!”

The Gnome snorted. He rather thought that the splitting of the paddle hadn’t been accidental. Somehow he had been able to use the pain to overcome the inertial resistance of this Reality to magic.

“On the bright side,” said the blond boy, “you apparently got the highest ratings ever. You’d be a cert for a plum role somewhere, in something with proper grammar and good punctuation, if it wasn’t for the…” he trailed off, looked uncertainly around, and fell silent.

The Gnome sat up abruptly, and then winced as his abused flesh reminded him of the unwisdom of doing so. He grabbed the bag of ice from the blond.

“What do you mean?” he said. “This is the Brat Academy, right? This is where characters learn how to be Brats before being assigned to Story, so why wouldn’t a performance like today’s, which was Brattery of a very superior order if I do say so myself, get me out of here?”

The blond boy looked at him with dawning horror.

“Julian, did you hit your head or something when you and the VP fell over?”

“Of course I didn’t – er, yes, that’s it! I’m a bit confused right now. Explain it all to me as if I were new here.”

“Shouldn’t I call a doctor?”

“NO! No, no need for that.” Doctors were nearly all natural Tops in the Gnome’s experience, and any medical assistance that was summoned here was as likely to pack a strap as a stethoscope. Not to mention those damned thermometers. “Look, just remind me, all right. I’m just a bit dazed.”

“Do you even know who I am?”

“No,” the Gnome started to say, but something, a certain fragility, in the boy’s expression held his tongue. You’re in love with this one, he said to himself privately. I wonder if he loves you? I’m not sure that this body has learned to love anything outside itself yet, to believe in the world outside itself. Still, surely he must know you, on that deep level where the cells dance their thousandfold gavotte? He closed his mind to let the word well up, let the body speak…

“S - Scott?”

“Yes!” With enormous relief. “See, it’s coming back to you.”

“I – maybe. But tell me the story, anyway. Summarise the plot so far. It’s a useful skill for when you get a placement in Story – I mean, Constant Reader can cope with anything, naturally but remember that lots of the drop-ins don’t have the stamina, and they can easily lose their place when writers use too much ironic post-modern self-reference larded with fancy words like gavotte.”

“Gavotte? Who said anything…” he subsided at the Gnome’s glare. “Well you know, like you say, this was supposed to be where characters did their Brat training. I mean, it isn’t easy being a Brat. Learning to do crazy, illogical things, to behave much younger than your real age, to get into trouble time and again without drawing the obvious conclusions and avoiding the problem next time – that doesn’t come easily. Nor does giving up your independence and allowing someone else to dictate your every move.”

“Tell me about it,” agreed the Gnome. “So people come here to learn how to do it.”

“Yeah. This place has a really good reputation. Alumni of Brat Academy have worked in some pretty well-constructed tales, let me tell you.”


“So, when the old Principal retired, everyone figured the VP was a shoo-in. I mean everyone respects him, and he’s been here, like, forever.”

The Gnome grimaced. He certainly felt the greatest respect for the VP’s abilities.

“But instead…” he prompted.

“Instead the Board of Governors brought in this new guy, Baines, from outside, and he announced they had done a deal with a television company. People would watch and vote for the characters who they most wanted to see punished, and the one who came out as the brattiest and most spanked at the end would be guaranteed a place as a Brat in a series by a good, well-known author. People are saying it will be Ranger, but I don’t believe that; still, I’m hoping there’s a chance it might be Elizabeth Marshall, or Ecanus.”

“What about…?” asked the Gnome, and mentioned another site with which he was familiar.

“Oh no, I couldn’t work for them. They don’t get it at all. And I don’t understand the rules of that rough game they insist on having in everything, and anyway their series go on too long, I’d get typecast.”

“Hmm. But anyway, why is it a problem that there’s a guaranteed place for someone at the end?”

“Because it doesn’t look like there’ll be an end! For f- heaven’s sake, you’re the one who worked it out. The longer they can keep us here, the longer they can make money out of the TV rights from all those people who want to see nice young men getting spanked. Since the cameras came in, no-one has graduated. No-one! They keep thinking of new modules we have to do, or failing people and making them redo the module. And it’s so unfair – I had straight A’s in Whining and in Truth Economy, and since all this started my grade average has gone down and down.”

“Ah. Yes, of course.” That made entire sense. It was why Reality here felt so – constipated. Nothing was moving on. The Gnome smiled slowly. It was the smile of one who was about to administer an enema…

“How many students can we rely on?” he asked.

“What do you mean? Julian, you aren’t going to do anything – well, silly, are you?”

The Gnome looked at him. “Aren’t Brats supposed to do silly things?” he asked. “Isn’t that what you’re – I mean, we’re – here for?”

Scott flushed and looked away. “You know what I mean,” he mumbled. “You can hardly walk now, so if the Principal catches you up to no good…”

“You leave the Principal to me.” The Gnome sighed inwardly as he said it. It was going to require a certain amount of magic, and for him to do magic here seemed to be only possible when he was in acute pain.


“But me no buts. Or butts, as the case may be. And you didn’t answer my question. How many other students are concerned enough about the way things are going to here to actually do something about it?”

Scott pondered, biting on his lower lip in a way that he obviously thought made him look cute. “Umm, Donny certainly, Meredith, Cal, but not Larry, he’s the Principal’s snitch, hmm, hmm, er – well, say, maybe, six or seven. Mostly seniors, the juniors haven’t cottoned on yet that they may be stuck here for all time, and anyway they haven’t been here long enough to be ready to break rules.”

The Gnome cocked his head on one side, considering. He would have been mortally offended to have been told that this made him look cute, at least in his present body. Say six, an appropriate enough number. It wasn’t as many as he had hoped, but it was more than he had feared. Well, it would just have to do.

“Right,” he said. “Then this is what we’re going to do…”

Madeleine Swythorpe looked up through the glass partition and frowned. Those naughty boys were standing in a huddle in the corridor. Up to no good, she’d be bound. She felt a glow of satisfaction. It was nice to see the students taking their work seriously. Still…

She went to rap on the partition, but noticed the glances flung her way, the sudden looks of – guilt? Yet she’d seen many, many guilty looks over her years as Secretary, and it didn’t seem quite like any of them. Curious. On a more mature person, she’d have said it was sympathy. She opened the partition.

“Boys, move along,” she said sharply. “You know you aren’t allowed to stand around in the corridors.”

Instead of a rude retort, or a sullen slouch away, either of which would have been appropriate protocol and allowed her to report them, she was surprised to see an exchange of rueful glances and raised eyebrows.

“Yes, Miss Swythorpe,” said the blond one. “Umm – I just wanted to say, we’re all very sorry.”

“Sorry? Why, what have you done?”

A look of horror crossed the boy’s face. “My goodness, you mean they haven’t even told you yet? Oh gosh, look, I’m really sorry, we shouldn’t have mentioned it.” And the whole pack of them hurried away down the corridor.

It was all rather disturbing, really. It preyed on her mind all through the morning, and upset her digestion at lunch. At 4pm she found an errand that just happened to take her past the lab where the seniors had been doing Relationship Chemistry.

“Ah, Scott, isn’t it? I’d like a word with you, young man,” she said grimly, grasping him firmly by the arm. He looked as if he would have liked to pull away, but Madeleine Swythorpe had been a part-time Harpy in her youth, and once she grabbed hold there was no getting away.

“Umm. Yes, Miss Swythorpe. Umm, I said I was sorry, I really shouldn’t have said anything.”

“Yes, well now you have you might as well tell me exactly what you’re going on about. Otherwise, I shall have no recourse but to report you for spreading gossip.”

He blanched.


“Well then. Out with it.”

“It’s just this – umm this thing about the TV people wanting more photogenic staff. You know, you being replaced with – er – a younger model.”

She reeled. “What? What nonsense! Where did you hear this?”

“Um, well, one of us was waiting outside the Principal’s office, and the door wasn’t quite shut, and he was on the phone and – well, this person overheard him making the deal.”

“It must be a mistake. He misheard.” The boy shook his head, vigorously. “No ma’am. That’s why they’re refurbishing the office, because the agent for the new Secretary demanded better conditions.”

She considered. It was true that the decision to renovate had come rather suddenly, but she had assumed that it was because of all this money coming in. And hadn’t the Principal asked her for the phone number of a staffing agency only the other day? She had assumed it was for holiday cover, but now it all made a horrible sort of sense…

“But – but I’ve given years to this place. They can’t do this!”

He swallowed. “I’m really sorry,” he said miserably. “For what it’s worth the students are all really – I mean, we all think it’s a shame.”

She sniffed. “Why should you care?” she said bitterly.

“Oh no, really! We know how much the staff have done to make the Academy great. We love this place too, Miss Swythorpe. We don’t want to see its traditions sold off for the benefit of TV ratings.”

She looked at him. She wasn’t one of the teaching staff, but she had heard enough lies over the years that she thought she knew truth when she heard it, and that last had been delivered with genuine passion.

“Well,” she said again, weakly. “I – thank you, Scott, for being honest with me.”

He flushed, and looked down. Then a thought seemed to strike him, and he looked up again. “You won’t tell anyone that it was me that told you, will you? Please, Miss Swythorpe! I’ll get into real trouble.”

“No, Scott, I won’t tell.” But I’m going to have a good long talk with my lawyer, and with the VP and my other friends on the staff. Railroad me out of the Academy and replace me with, with, a bimbo, will they? Well, we’ll see about that…

This day had just been one damn thing after another, the Principal thought to himself. First the bathrooms in D Wing had blocked and overflowed all down the stairs, and when he found out who had so ingeniously jiggered the cisterns that person was going to pay with their hide. Then Maddy Swythorpe seemed to have gotten a snit on about something, and had given him a reception about 20 below zero when he had only reminded her to forward him details of the staff pension arrangements for the annual review.

He sighed, and admired his regular, blond features in the full length mirror he had had installed in the Principal’s office. He sure hoped the stress wasn’t giving him wrinkles. No, on reflection, he still looked as good as ever. But the sooner they got this place running properly and got rid of the dead wood amongst the staff and students, the better it would be. With a last admiring glance at his image, he threw himself in a vigorous and masculine fashion into the large and extremely comfortable executive chair that he had insisted on to replace that tired old thing his predecessor had used…

“Julian, come up to the front of the class,” snapped Fred Ames, the Unclear Physics teacher, turning from an analysis of the equation that relates value of a borrowed car to probability of an accident in time to see the Gnome flicking a well-aimed pellet of paper and ink across the class to hit Larry Chandler in the back of the neck, provoking a squawk of outrage. “I can’t think what’s got into you, boy, and I should have thought your bottom would have been sore enough to teach you better after the Vice-Principal’s little demonstration. What have you to say for yourself?”

The Gnome considered for a moment. “A practical demonstration of Newtonian physics?” he suggested thoughtfully. “Potential energy of ruler transformed into kinetic energy of pellet?”

“I’ll give you a better one,” said Fred grimly. “Kinetic energy of cane transformed  into heat and sound on impact with bottom. Bend over!” He drew his cane out of his desk, swished it once or twice through the air then drew back his arm. The others in the class bit their lips, some wincing in anticipation. Fred was known as a rare but ferociously effective caner and he had been in a foul mood about something all lesson. The rattan thwipped through the air, and the Gnome braced himself and concentrated…

With a sound as of falling redwoods, the Principal’s chair collapsed, and deposited him painfully on the floor. Several of the kind of words that were strictly forbidden the students escaped him in the heat of the moment.

Something pale floated down, apparently out of nowhere, like a stray snowflake in winter. It was a scrap of paper, folded into four, that must surely have been dislodged from his desk or the recesses of the chair. He opened it, read the message several times with disbelief and increasing fury.


The Gnome picked at his dinner, shifting very uncomfortably from time to time. The chairs in the student dining hall felt as if they had been designed to maximise the discomfort of a well-punished bottom, which of course they probably had. Four strokes of the cane on top of the damage from the previous day had left his new body miserably sore, but he was damned if he was going to give in to it.

He noticed Miss Swythorpe talking animatedly to two of the other staff members in a corner and a sudden glow of satisfaction made him forget for a moment the throbbing in his backside. The campaign of disruption, subterfuge, and downright lying was paying dividends. But he had a nasty feeling that it was going to take considerably more effort to clear up this mess, and that it was going to require higher grade magic than 4 strokes of even Fred’s cane over the seat of his trousers could provide. No, he would probably have to be sent to the Vice-Principal again. Unfortunately.

His abused flesh reminded him again of just how unfortunate it was likely to be. A sudden spike of discomfort, and all the lights went out, as every fuse in the neighbourhood abruptly blew. The Gnome smirked in the dimness and took a sip of his coffee, then promptly spat it out in disgust. Old habits die hard – all the milk had curdled as well.

“You want me to do what?” squeaked Scott.

“I want you to tell Larry that I’m the one causing all these – um – incidents,” said the Gnome, trying hard to sound nonchalant.

“But Larry will go straight to the Principal,” objected Donny, skinny, dark-haired, and nervous. “He’ll give the whole game away!”

“Exactly,” said the Gnome, patiently. “We tell him that I’m going to break into the Bad Language Laboratory tonight to sabotage it, and he tells the Principal, who waits there to catch me.”

“What does that achieve, other than for you to get your butt beat again?” sneered Cal, the pretty-but-oh-how-he-knew-it strawberry blond with the green eyes and freckles. “Hell, I’m starting to think you like it!”

“I won’t be in the Lab,” said the Gnome with glacial patience. “I’ll be in the Principal’s office. We need to get some sort of documentation onto the computer so that the staff can find it and confirm what Scott told Miss Swythorpe. The others aren’t going to believe her without proof.”

“And just how are you going to break into the computer system to plant this proof, when you can hardly even download a track onto your mp3 player without getting one of us to help?” asked Cal. The Gnome glared at him. The next time I can do some hexing, he thought, that boy is going to have a bad attack of acne. Then we’ll see who’s so superior.

“The Principal works on his computer until late every evening. If Larry comes running to him at say 10 o’clock, to say that the Forces of Darkness are raiding the lab, he’ll get up and go to check it out, leaving his computer unguarded.” I hope. “I sneak in, put the fake documents on his PC, then arrange for them to be accidentally included in with the staff briefings that get sent out each week.”

Cal shrugged. “How, ‘accidentally’? Sounds to me like you’re making a lot of assumptions.”

“‘Never assume, it makes an ass of you and me’,” quoted the Gnome sententiously. “Look, if it doesn’t work I’ll try something else, OK?”

After they had gone, the Gnome lowered himself carefully onto the bed. Evidence. He had to dream up some, and it needed to be superficially convincing. It wouldn’t do to spoil the ship for a ha’porth of tar. And that meant that he would need to do more magic. And that meant…

He slapped himself cautiously on the behind, pulled a face, tried again, with a little more effort. Then he sighed, reached for his waistbutton, and dropped his jeans and shorts. He ran his fingertips over the still slightly raised welts on his bum, sighed again, drew back his arm and slapped himself, hard. And again. And again.

No, it was no good. You just couldn’t do it. It stung a bit, but it wasn’t enough.

“Bugger,” he said to himself quietly. At that moment, someone knocked on the door. Panicking at the vision he knew he presented, the Gnome stumbled forward to put a hand to the door to prevent anyone opening it, caught his foot in the jeans and underwear that hobbled his ankles, slipped, and fell heavily backwards onto his backside.

The rush of pain as he landed his full weight on a bottom that had been soundly spanked, paddled, and caned all within the last 2 days whited out conscious thought for a moment. Something went PING! deep in the clockwork of Reality, and a floppy disk fell from nowhere onto the bed.

Simultaneously, the engine of Fred Ames’s car caught fire in the car park, despite being cold and switched off; the windows in the staff room, which had just been cleaned, were suddenly besieged by incontinent birds; all the dahlias in the flower beds seethed with earwigs; and a shower of toast crumbs materialised between the silk sheets of the Principal’s bed.

“Ooh, that was a doozy,” muttered the Gnome with some rue. He pulled his underwear and jeans hastily back up and opened the door.

No-one was there.

It was convenient, the Gnome thought, hiding in the shadow of the trophy cabinet, that there was a clock outside the door to the Principal’s office. He understood well enough, of course, why that was: any unfortunate waiting outside would experience eternities of nervousness between glances at the face, only to see on looking up again that the hands had hardly moved. Still it was convenient, since his host didn’t appear to own a watch, no doubt so that he could be late to things in style.

He had his own reasons for wanting those clock hands to move faster now, though. Come on Scott, tell the wretched little squealer and get him up here.

As if summoned, the gawky figure of Larry Chandler came lolloping up the corridor, paused, and knocked hesitantly on the door. The crack of light under the door flickered. It opened, but rather than Principal Baines, it was the Vice-Principal who loomed into the corridor, frowning.

“Larry, what are you doing here? You should be reading something suitably childish before going to bed.”

“I’m sorry, I, I, I was looking for the Principal,” whined Larry, ending with a well simulated wheeze. Larry was good at Sick Brat, and liked to keep in practice.

“The Principal is in a meeting.” Odd way to put it, thought the hidden Gnome. Why not ‘we’re in a meeting’? Unless the Principal is somewhere else… “What do you want with him, Larry?”

“Sir, they’re going to sabotage the Bad Language Lab!”

“They? Who’s they?”

“Julian. Julian and the others, but he’s the ringleader. He’s the one responsible for all these things that have been going on.”

The craggy features of the Vice-Principal creased with an appreciative grin. “Julian, is it?” he mused. “I might have known it.” He collected himself visibly. “You, Larry, get back to your room. I’ll see to young Julian.”

He reached down to the umbrella stand by the door and pulled out a heavy black rattan cane from the collection there. He swished it through the air a couple of times, admiring the low-pitched, threatening sound it made. Larry winced, and scuttled away, followed, at a more sedate pace by the armed and highly dangerous figure of the VP. The door stood ajar behind him.

In the shadows of the corridor the Gnome smiled to himself. Excellent. Now for the next stage. He slipped silently across the corridor and sneaked a cautious head around the door. The office was empty.

Heart pounding he walked in and closed the door behind him. Sheaves of paper were spread on the desk in the light of a desk lamp. The Principal’s PC hummed quietly to itself to one side. A screensaver was running – the Gnome had a sudden panic in case it should prove password protected, but no, when he moved the mouse the screen lit up to show the desktop and a couple of open documents.

He pulled the disk from his pocket. He had no idea what was on it, but he trusted to whatever Power was so callously making use of his sore arse that it would be what was needed to do the job. He slipped it into the floppy disk slot. Now he would need to – he paused, his eye suddenly registering the title of the document someone – presumably the Vice-Principal, though why he hadn’t been looking at his own copy on his own computer was a mystery – had left minimised on the taskbar. ‘Redundancies.doc’. Redundancies? Redundancies plural?

“By Her tits,” he swore (something that would have earned him a swift clip round the ear had Cobweb been there to hear him – she took her duties as a votary seriously). “We got it almost right, only we didn’t go far enough. They’re planning to get rid of all the old staff, not just the Dragon Lady. The sneaky bastards.”

“You’ve been told before about using that sort of language,” growled a voice in his ear.

Potter’s Law of Upsitude states that levitation is not generally possible by non-technological means in a Reality whose magical constant, theta, is lower than 1. That didn’t stop the Gnome from having a good try at reaching the ceiling. Even had he been able to fly here, however, the large, the extremely large, hand on his shoulder would have impeded him.

“Fuck me!” he swore. “You could have killed me!”

“Oh no,” said the Vice-Principal. “But I imagine you’re going to wish you were dead by the end.”

“I – if you touch me I’ll tell everyone what you’re doing!” quavered the Gnome, hating the way his voice went high. He cast a swift glance at the PC, wondering if he could retrieve the floppy before the Vice-Principal saw it and added to his punishment, but to his astonishment it had vanished. “You’ll be exposed and all the staff will stop you.”

The big man shook his head. “I rather think it’s too late, Julian.”

“Indeed it is,” said a second, smugger voice.

Two further men stepped into the lamplight. One was Principal Baines. The other was – looked – the Gnome stared, his mouth falling open.

It wasn’t often that he was lost for words, and the Principal took full advantage.

“Well, it’s quite a party here. Seems like I need to get me a lock for this office. Breaking and entering? I don’t think you’ll be getting a reference from the Academy after this.”

The Gnome frowned, puzzled, then realised this was addressed to the Vice-Principal.

“I came looking for you, Mr Baines,” said the imperturbable Neanderthal figure. “We have things to discuss.”

“You mean your redundancy notice? Nothing to discuss. You had your chance to co-operate, despite the fact that you aren’t exactly movie star material, and you chose to offer your resignation instead. And the governors have agreed to accept it.”

The Gnome blinked. That meant that the Vice-Principal was on the hit list too! No wonder he hadn’t had his own copy of the document.

“Never mind me,” said the Vice-Principal – the former Vice-Principal – “what’s all this about getting rid of the other staff?”

“The Governors have no choice but to ratify the Principal’s decision, and he has decided the Academy needs younger and more – ah – photogenic staff,” said the other man. He had a beautiful voice. “Regrettable as that may be for individuals, the good of the Academy must come first. And this,” he sneered, looking at the Gnome, “I take it, is the ubiquitous Julian I’ve just been hearing about.” He sneered very well, but then he’d had a lot of practice.

“Cara…” began the Gnome.

“This, Julian,” said the Vice-Principal, coldly, “is Mr Maldonado, Chairman of the Governors.”

Carabosse looked at the Gnome. “And this is the boy who is responsible for all the acts of vandalism and rebellion from which the Academy has been suffering? I can’t say I’m impressed.”

The Vice-Principal sighed. “The responsibility is mine, as Dean of Discipline,” he said. “The failure is mine. Perhaps Mr Baines will have more luck.”

“A man makes his own luck,” said Baines. “Reckon I’ll just have to take a few layers off this boy’s hide until he learns some respect.” He smiled as if he relished the prospect, which he probably did.

“I think, before justice is done, that I would like a word with this –youth,” said Carabosse, investing the last word with unparalleled depths of contempt. “You boy, come with me.” He seized the Gnome’s ear with a vice like grip and drew him out into the corridor.

“What the fuck,” he hissed, “do you think you’re playing at? Do you realise we’ve been looking all over for you while you’ve been playing games here? You’ve made Cobweb cry again – do you recall what I said would happen to you if you did that?”

“Ow, Carabosse, it wasn’t my fault, ow, leggo, let me just explain…”

“And what are you doing in that ridiculous shape? Shift back when I’m talking to you.”

“I can’t, it’s not a Shift. I Folded into it. Him.”

“You did WHAT!?”

I Folded into him.

The pupils of Carabosse’s eyes glowed momentarily red.

“Demonic possession? Taking without owner’s consent? That explains it. I might have known that it would be you at the root of the problem.”

“I am not a demon, as you very well know. It’s gnomic possession. Or something. Anyway, it was an accident. I didn’t mean to do it.”

“I see,” said Carabosse heavily. “And that excuses you, does it?”

The Gnome said nothing, loudly and sullenly. Then grudgingly:

“No. I suppose. But I would have left if I knew how. I don’t. And I didn’t want to – I was afraid I might damage the body if I got it wrong.” He cleared his throat. “Anyway, what did you mean by ‘you might have known’? How did you find me?”

“I, in the middle of the mess you caused by not getting home on time, received a message from my Boss – yes, exactly,” he added, at the Gnome’s expression of alarm – “and Cobweb was none too pleased about that, either, the smell of sulphur is extremely lingering. He had just found out that someone was possessing without license in this Reality and wanted me go and sort them out fifthwith. Only He didn’t put it as politely as that. As I say, I should have realised that it would be you at the root of the trouble.” He cuffed the Gnome absent-mindedly. “Don’t you think it’s about time you just grew up and stopped this nonsense?”

The Gnome went pink. “It wasn’t my fault the last time, I was kidnapped. And this time…”

“No, it’s never your fault, is it? Well I tell you, Gnome, I’m sick of it. If it weren’t for the fact that Cobweb would carry on, and that I like Huw, in whose case love truly is blind, I’d gladly bind you in a rock or a tree or something and leave you here.”

The Gnome froze. Something ancient and dangerous lit his eyes for a moment.

“Do you imagine you could?” he asked very quietly.

Carabosse gave one of his best sneers.

“On a third-rate little elemental like you?” he said. “Without even breaking sweat. I certainly wouldn’t waste any effort on you.”

A shadow, looming and dark, began to grow in the corner.

“Don’t try to impress me with theatricals,” taunted Carabosse. “I mean, even you can do better than that. I was hoping you’d picked up something worth seeing in your vaunted aeons. If you really are as old as you make out, that is.”

Thunder rolled, somewhere outside of Time and Space. The atmosphere felt as thick as if an enormous hand were squeezing it. The Gnome began to tower, far taller than was possible under such a low ceiling. He stepped forward …

…and Carabosse reached out and gently took his hand, smiling.

“There, all safely out of that body,” he said. The Gnome blinked, turned, and saw the bewildered Julian stare at them both, open-mouthed, before crumpling gracefully.

“Catch him, Gnome!” said Carabosse. The Woodgnome managed, not terribly gracefully, to prevent the boy from banging anything vital on the floor.

“What? – I don’t understand,” he said plaintively.

“Easiest way to undo a bad Fold like that,” grinned Carabosse. “Just get you beside yourself.”

“You mean – you deliberately provoked me?”

“Oh come on, you may be many things, but you aren’t slow on the uptake. Of course I did. Worked too, didn’t it?”

The Gnome chewed the inside of his lip. “Thank you,” he said at last, not terribly graciously.

Carabosse nodded. “Mind you, I still want a word with you about upsetting Cobweb,” he added, “now that whatever happens to you won’t affect that boy.”

The Gnome swallowed. He had never been topped by Carabosse, and he wasn’t sure that he wanted to start now. It was a bit – incestuous – for one thing, given that Carabosse was most firmly Cobweb’s Top.

“And I imagine that Huw will want quite a lot of words with you. He was the only one who wasn’t too concerned. He said he’d know if anything bad happened to you, and he probably would. But he did seem to have a few ideas about Folding while Under the Influence, and when he hears you’ve been joyriding in someone else’s body as well, well I imagine there’ll be the Boss’ Residence to pay. Come along.”

He Opened the World, grasped the Gnome firmly by the elbow, and stepped through.

It was a white space, without form and void. Carabosse stared in alarm. This wasn’t the Website. This wasn’t even a Reality, as far as he could tell. Beside him the figure of the Gnome nodded and said ‘Ah-hah,” in a self-satisfied way, as of someone who has had their theories confirmed.



“Where are we?”

“Outside Everything, I think. I was here once before. Someone will be coming.”

Even as he said it a small dark blur in the general whiteness resolved into the form of a woman, a dumpy woman in a business suit and sensible shoes, with short white hair in a rather smart cut, and many laughter lines around her grey eyes.

“Ah, there you are my dears,” she said. “I’m sorry to hold you up, but I’m afraid the Gnome can’t go home just yet. He has to finish this story for me.”

The Gnome smiled and leaned forward to kiss her.

“Hello old friend,” he said. “So how do I make it come out?”

She shook her head at him, amused. “You are a rogue, you really are,” she said. “If it wasn’t for the fact that you actually get your just deserts so often, you would be quite unbearable. You know perfectly well that I can’t answer that question.”

He laughed. “Well, it was worth a try,” he said.

Carabosse watched this interaction with interest and some alarm. That this was a Power he was certain. But he had thought that he knew the manifestations of all the major Powers, and yet he did not recognise Her.

“Lady,” he said, bowing carefully. “I am Carabosse. May I ask…”

“Of course you are, and of course you may, my dear Carabosse. With that wonderful voice of yours you could ask for almost anything, I’m sure. And I know that you are anxious to get home, and that there are many there who want my friend back. I hope you and they won’t mind if I borrow him a little longer? Things are almost resolved now, I think. I sense a resolution coming.”

“Lady, I…” but there was really nothing to say. Whoever she was, Carabosse was far too canny to pick a fight with her. And if the Gnome were needed here a little longer – well, perhaps he had better stay to keep an eye on things. And ensure that the Gnome got what the Lady had rightly described as his just desserts. Deserts. Damn.

“Mr Maldonado, is everything all ri-” began Baines, sticking his head out of the office. Carabosse froze him with a gesture.

“She – who was She, Gnome? I thought I knew all the major Powers, whatever form they took.”

The Gnome smiled beatifically.

“She isn’t a Power,” he said.

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“She isn’t. She’s Everything.”

“What do you mean, everything? Talk sense.”

“Everything. Omnia. The Universe.”

Carabosse blinked. “I think I need to sit down,” he said rather faintly. “You’re on hobnobbing terms with the Universe?”

The Gnome shrugged.

“But that’s – it’s – the power there – I mean, Everything!”

“You’re babbling, Carabosse. Look, it isn’t such a big deal.”


“Really. She’s just awfully fond of stories. Well, Stories. So we have to make this one pan out, otherwise we aren’t going anywhere.”

“Oh no. You have to make it pan out. That’s what She said. And you can’t go back into him, either,” he said, indicating the unconscious Julian. “You’ll have to Shift to look like him, or put on a glamour, I don’t care which. I’ll stuff him out of the time flow for a while to keep him out of the way.”

“Can I?” asked the Gnome. There were suddenly two Julians, one standing over the other, although the standing one wavered a little, like a mirage. “Oh yes, so I can, though it’s harder here than at home,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe what I had to go through to do magic here before. I suppose that’s because I was in a mortal body. Well, that’s useful, at any rate.”

“Tighten up that illusion, you can see through it in places,” said Carabosse. “Yes, that’s better. So, now what are you going to do?” he added, picking up the real Julian without marked effort, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the Gnome, who privately resolved to do everything possible to avoid that threatened ‘talk’ about upsetting Cobweb.

“I haven’t the faintest idea,” the Gnome confessed. “What I’ve done up till now, I guess. I’ll wing it.”


“Yes, Mr Baines. I am satisfied that this boy is a troublemaker and a bad influence, and I trust that you will express your displeasure, and that of the Board of Governors, in the most severe manner.”

“Oh, you may be sure, sir.”

“And on primetime, of course. Your debut.”

Baines grinned cheesily. “I’m looking forward to it.” He patted the Gnome on the bottom. “I figure we might birch him in front of the whole school. Folks like a bit of tradition, and I’m pretty sure we can beat the previous viewing figures.”

Behind him the beetle brow of the Vice-Principal clouded like the presage of a hurricane.

“Wait a minute…” began the Gnome, but Carabosse cut in smoothly.

“That sounds an excellent idea, Mr Baines. I suggest that you summon a general assembly first thing in the morning to announce the Vice-Principal’s departure and deal with this miscreant.” He smirked at the Gnome, who liked the sound of this not at all, before turning back to Baines and adding in a lower voice: “I think you need not mention the matter of the other redundancies until such time as the replacement staff are available. I gather it is proving a little difficult to find suitably skilled personnel, and the Board would not look favourably on the total collapse of services here, no matter how profitable your other ideas may seem.”

“Sure thing. But I’ll do it Mr M, don’t you and the Board worry. The sooner we can get rid of the dead wood and get some decent looking young Tops in here, the sooner we can expect to see some real profits from the operation.”

A camera swivelled to follow them down the corridor as they marched the Gnome back to Julian’s room and locked him in to ponder his fate. In the Principal’s office the night pressed against the window, as his computer hummed and chuckled quietly to itself on the desk. A message box flashed onto the screen briefly. Sending, it said.

The lights gleamed on the dark wood of the birching block, polished to a high sheen by the generations of young male bodies it had held in its firm and uncompassionate embrace. The straps looked new, though, thick leather cinches to hold the legs splayed and immobile, the broader strap that buckled across the back to hold the victim down.

The Gnome swallowed. The staff – minus the former VP – were ranked, grim faced, on the stage on either side of Baines and Carabosse. The pupils sat in silent terrified rows, eyeing the evil looking thing at the base of the stage.

Carabosse stood and leered.

“I am Mr Maldonado, the Chairman of the Board of Governors. You will all be aware that there have been – problems – in this establishment. I am here to tell you that the Governors take a very dim view of such disturbances. The pupils of this Academy – of this Academy in particular – must learn to obey, no matter how unreasonable an order may seem. It is not for Bottoms to question their Tops, and until you have learned that fact, you have not learned what the Academy has to teach. No matter how ridiculous, pig-headed, obtuse, or foolish a Top’s decisions may seem, he is always Right. That is why the Board asked Mr Baines, who has a distinguished record in this area, to take charge in the first place. Mr Baines?”

Baines stood, adopting a stagy air of gravitas for the cameras. He exuded the same sort of noble stupidity as a racehorse, thought the Gnome, tartly.

“Boys,” said Baines. “You know that bad things have been happening here, just like Mr Maldonado said. And we all know who was responsible for those bad things. I intend to punish him until he learns better, and let the rest of you take note. If you behave like him, you’ll be dealt with just as harshly. Julian Stevens, come forward.” He beckoned.

“Not bloody likely,” murmured the Gnome, but as every head turned to look at him he blushed furiously and rose reluctantly from his seat, compelled by narrative logic. He slouched forwards, a rough beast whose hour had come round at last.

At a nod from Baines two myrmidons grasped his arms, and, to a grunt of protest, removed his lower garments. Then they forced him down over the block, and fastened him, helpless, in position.

What the fuck do I do now? thought the Gnome. Yes, I could escape – I could transform or Fold somewhere – but that won’t fix the Story. What does She expect me to do?

On the stage, Baines folded back his sleeves, reached into a container of brine and drew out the birch. There was a sort of collective sigh throughout the hall.

“You will be flogged, Julian,” he said, “with this birch. Thirty-six strokes.”

Gasps and mutterings arose. “Mr Baines,” protested Fred Ames in a furious undertone, “you can’t do that. It’s brutal!”

“I can and I will,” said Baines firmly.

“But these boys are – we are in loco parentis,” agreed another of the staff. “This is beyond what any reasonable parent would do!”

“These are unformed characters,” snapped Baines. “It’s up to us to form them. If that takes a little severity, it’s only being cruel to be kind.”

“Maldonado, tell him!”

“I’m afraid it isn’t up to me,” said Carabosse offhandedly. “The Governors cannot intervene in the day-to-day running of the school, it wouldn’t be appropriate. The Principal must have the final say.”

Baines smirked triumphantly. “If you’ve all quite finished,” he said, “I have a bad boy to take care of.”

He strode forward to stand over the Gnome. “Well, Julian, not so mouthy now, are you?” he said. He was wearing, the Gnome noted with disdain, an old-fashioned shirt, unbuttoned half-way down in what he clearly thought was a dashingly romantic way to show his gym-sculpted pecs.

The Gnome made a rude noise. Baines flushed and slapped his bare backside, not gently.

“You’ll sing a different tune in a minute, boy,” he said. He stood to one side, carefully measuring the distance. A few drops of brine from the twigs splashed the Gnome’s skin like a chilly rain. He winced internally as the man drew his forearm back…

Someone threw a bucket of boiling oil all over his backside and thighs, or so it seemed.

His body bucked involuntarily against the straps. It wasn’t such a concentrated pain as the cane but it was everywhere at once. The second stroke hissed down. The third. The Gnome tasted blood, realised he had bitten his tongue hard enough to break the skin.

He wasn’t sure if he could bear thirty-six of these. Baines was using the full force of his arm to drive them. Something trickled down his leg. Blood?

“Enough.” It was a deep roar. From the back of the hall the former Vice-Principal came striding down to the front.

“I beg your…”

“Enough I say. I won’t have a boy treated like this in the Academy.”

“It’s no longer your affair. You have been given your notice. You have no business here. No say. I am Principal here.”

There was a long and dreadful silence.

Then a chair scraped as on the stage Miss Swythorpe stood. “I have served this Academy,” she said firmly, “for thirty years. I have seen Principals come and go. And you, Mr Baines, are no Principal.” She walked, slowly and carefully down the steps, to stand beside the former VP.

“Thirty years and no more, and you can kiss goodbye to your pension,” hissed Baines.

“Like we are already? Oh we know about your little game,” said Madeleine Swythorpe. “Someone sent us all emails last night detailing the plans to replace us all with actors, and use the boys as mere fodder in pornographic pictures.”

One or two of the pupils looked quite interested at this, but the rest began to whisper furiously. The Gnome thought of disappearing floppy disks, and whispered a silent ‘Thank You’ to Whoever might be listening.

“Quiet,” shouted Baines, feeling the situation slip away from him. “Boys, go back to your lessons. This assembly is over.”

The level of general chatter went up a notch. Then someone, near the back, shouted: “No! We won’t. We want an explanation. We came here to learn to be Brats, not porn stars.” The Gnome through waves of discomfort, thought he recognised Scott’s voice.

“Who said that? That boy, report to me!”

“But he’s right,” said Fred Ames, slowly, from the stage.

“Yes, he is,” agreed Smirnovsky. One by one the other members of staff rose from their seats and went to stand with Madeleine and the former VP.

“And you needn’t think you can void our contracts just like that, Baines,” added Smirnovsky. “We’ve consulted lawyers, who think we have a very good prima facie case for unfair dismissal. We’re going to take you to the cleaners. And the Governors too, if necessary,” he added, glaring up at Carabosse who had remained seated, unmoved, above the hubbub.

“If Mr Baines is unable to control the Academy,” purred Carabosse, thoroughly enjoying himself, “then obviously he isn’t the man for the job, and the Governors will have to reconsider our offer.” He turned to the brooding figure of the former VP. “Mr Grimes?” It was the first time the Gnome had heard the man’s surname – he had been starting to wonder if he had one, or whether ‘Vice-Principal’ was simply bar-coded onto him somewhere. “Perhaps you would care for the position, instead? Since Mr Baines can’t perform his duties.”

“I can!” shrieked Baines, scarlet faced. “SIT DOWN ALL OF YOU!”

He swung the birch around him like an axe and the crowd stepped back.

“I AM the Principal, and I WILL complete this boy’s punishment.” He lifted the birch again and brought it down hard on the Gnome’s backside for the fourth time. The Gnome couldn’t help the groan that escaped.

“No you will not,” muttered the big man, and stepping forward he landed a right hook that sent Baines flying across the floor and into the side of the stage, where he took no further interest in proceedings.

“Are you all right, Julian?” asked Principal Grimes anxiously, unbuckling the straps.

“I – ahh, yes. Thank you.”

“Joe,” said the monstrous figure. A curious deformation passed across its features, and the Gnome realised that it was attempting to smile. “You can call me Joe.” It picked the Gnome effortlessly up, cradled in its massive arms, bent its head to kiss the Gnome’s forehead lightly. “It’s all right, Julian. Everything is going to be all right now.”

Oh my, thought the Gnome, it’s – he’s – another one in love with Julian. A spanking love triangle, like one of those old whipping frames. Despite the pain, bubbles of laughter welled inside him. The contents of a pitcher of water on the table drawn up on the stage abruptly became vintage Taittinger.

“Principal!” It was one of the janitors. “A telephone message. It’s the TV people – you’ve produced the best viewing figures ever – twenty-seven million, and they think it will go to syndication. The public phone-ins are 87% in your favour. And the agents of several genre authors have called, and want to know if you and Julian would like to do a pilot story, with options on a series.

“Well,” announced Carabosse, materialising silently amongst the staff, who had gathered around to congratulate their future Principal. “It seems that you are the man for the job after all, Principal Grimes. The Governors will ratify the decision.”

“Thank you, Mr Maldonado,” rumbled the Principal. “I will consider it, although of course it appears I have a number of options open to me now.”

“And naturally, we would agree any budgetary upgrades you might think necessary,” added Carabosse smoothly.

“Well, I think a staff bonus would help morale,” said the Principal. “And some new facilities. I’ve heard that a rugby pitch offers possibilities.”

Carabosse looked daggers at the Gnome, who shrugged, innocently.

“Whatever you think,” he said reluctantly.

“And the experiment with the cameras is over. The Academy should return to the principles on which it was founded.”

Carabosse shrugged. “Agreed,” he said. “I doubt a second series would offer quite as much drama,” he Looked at the Gnome again, “in any case. Now, shouldn’t Julian be resting after his ordeal?”

“I’ll take him to his room,” said the Principal. “Come on, Julian.”

Narrative causality abruptly froze. Oh all right, Time stopped again if you prefer.

“And this is where we leave,” said Carabosse. “You’ve caused utter chaos in your inimitable fashion, so I take it that your work here is done. If you’ll disentangle yourself from the Principal, I’ll substitute the real Julian.”

“Oh, just when things were getting interesting,” pouted the Gnome, half-seriously.

“You want me to tell Huw you’ve been cuddled by strange men?”

“You wouldn’t?”

“I am,” pointed out Carabosse, as he Folded the real Julian out of wherever he had stashed him and into the Principal’s arms, “a Wicked Fairy. There, and I’ve given him a nice set of false memories of getting the birch. How did you like it, Gnome?”

“Not one little bit.”

“Good. I think I’ll tell Huw that, too.”


“In fact, I think it ought to go on your Nemesis file. So that Brian has it as an option next time.”


“Do you think She meant it, when She said I could ask for anything? I wonder what would happen if I wished for you really to get your just deserts? I think I might try.”

“Don’t you dare!” squawked the Gnome, as the World opened and closed around them. But Carabosse, laughing, amended his spelling, and when they got home it turned out to be cheesecake.


Idris the Dragon

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© , 2007