The first thing he learns is that the people who have power don’t care about him and the people who care about him don’t have power.

He doesn’t deceive himself that his mom is cruel to him to toughen him up to survive the Scholomance, or anything like that. She’s cruel to him because she hates him. Talia is the heir, Melissa is the spare, and he (in the middle) was an accident—and his mom doesn’t let any of them forget it. He knows what love looks like—his dad loves him, his big sister loves him, and his mom doesn’t. That said, while she is not intending to toughen him up so he survives, her actions still have that effect, and he’s grateful, in his own way. If he becomes a great wizard, someday, he’ll pay her back with interest, in the same currency she paid him.

Talia was sent off to school last year with the best gear money could buy; Adam is loaded down with letters and gifts for his enclave-mates, and his own gear budget is only what his dad could skim off the top without his mom noticing—but fortunately, his mom is rich enough that even that is a substantial amount. Even more fortunately, Talia has promised to look out for him when he joins her in school, regardless of what their mom says about wasting resources. She is, his mom has remarked, the perfect heir except for her unfortunate attachment to her younger siblings. Less fortunately, he’s tall for his age, but at least he is naturally skinny, and he packs efficiently to get in as much gear of his own as he can on top of the letters.

He’s going to pay it forward in a year when Melissa joins him, if he makes it that long. Adam wants to survive, more than anything (even though, he will admit, the life of a wizard kind of sucks), but Melissa deserves to survive. Adam knows he’s kind of an asshole, but Melissa is as tough as him and she takes care of the people around her. She has ambitions beyond mere survival; she wants to make the world better. If he weren’t already maximally motivated to survive for its own sake, he would at least hang on so he could prepare the way for her.

What does Adam have? First of all, he has his affinity—“charm”, if he had to put it into a single word. The sort of spells that could make your looks prettier or your voice more compelling—great for picking up vain enclave kids or wannabe overlords as allies. He can fight—he may not have an affinity for combat magic, but anyone can learn regular combat, and his dad has gotten him a high quality dagger. He has enclave connections; Seattle is no New York but it’s still a damn good place to be. He knows French and Latin well, and can manage good enough pronunciation in Mandarin that he probably won’t kill himself with a botched spell. He has the right mindset for creative writing track. And, finally, even without his affinity, he has his natural good looks, a gift from his dad.

(He remembers the story his dad has told, many times, of how he made it into an enclave by marrying Adam’s mom. Adam doesn’t need to worry about finding a spouse in the Scholomance—his mom will set him up with one of her friends’ kids, after he graduates. If he graduates, his mom would remind him smugly. Whoever it is, she’ll be loathsome, because his mom hates him, but she’ll be rich, because all his mom’s friends’ kids are, and she’ll be competent, because she doesn’t hate Adam more than she wants surviving grandkids. Adam accepted that deal because she promised that if she could solidify an alliance by marrying him off, she wouldn’t need to use Melissa for the same purpose, and she may be a heinous bitch but she’s not the kind of heinous bitch who would swear falsely.)

Adam’s dad’s final gift to him was long-term male birth control. On the one hand, technically, he’s supposed to be saving himself for marriage. On the other hand, plans change, and (his dad adds in a darker and quieter voice) things can happen against your will. If that did happen, it would probably be a guy, but if it were a girl—well, getting pregnant would weaken her, and she’d deserve it. Except...Adam’s dad knows that if Adam got a girl pregnant by choice, he would want to protect her, and in any case he would want to protect the baby, and that would weaken him. He knows it because it’s what he would do, and Adam is just like him. So: one little shot to block the sperm, another in four years to undo it if he survives.

Melissa cries and hugs him and tells him to give her love to Talia and that he better be alive to welcome her in a year. Adam Sr. lets his son see him blinking the tears out of his eyes. Adam doesn’t cry, but his voice shakes as he tells them he loves them. He’s barely finished getting the words out of his mouth when he’s swept away.