The Oddest Places Can Become Sanctuaries
“Why isn’t he waking up?”
“I don’t know.” The person who ran the academy’s infirmary was a faculty member named Twila, a lady Isaac’s mother’s age whose greying hair fanned out down her back. She wore a lot of heavy necklaces that clinked when she moved. “As far as I can tell, there’s nothing wrong with him.”
Isaac looked down at Oliver, still asleep. He looked back up at Twila. “People who have nothing wrong with them don’t sleep for weeks.”
“Don’t they?” Twila raised an eyebrow, cocked her head a little. “I hadn’t realized that. Young man, I think you’ve made the medical breakthrough of the century.”
Cheeks brightening a little, Isaac looked back down at Oliver. “Cut me a little slack, I’m traumatized here.”
“Yes, how are you doing, by the way?”
“I’m fine,” Isaac mumbled, wishing Oliver didn’t look so dead. At least he looked peaceful and was breathing. “I just don’t understand why he doesn’t wake up.”
“Christopher was his friend,” Twila told him. “And he tried to kill Oliver—and almost succeeded. Not all injuries are to the body.”
“You think he’s still hurting?” Isaac was.
“I think that he’s protecting himself by staying asleep. Means he doesn’t have to face reality. We humans have interesting ways of dealing with different kinds of pain, and this is sometimes one of them. When everything gets to be too much, we just…shut down, for a little while.”
She had a very calming voice that Isaac liked. “Can’t you…open him back up?”
Twila sighed. “I’ve been talking to Lee about that. We might be able to work something out, but no promises.” She clasped her hands together. “In the meantime, you should be worrying about yourself at least half as much as you’re worrying about Oliver. You look exhausted. Are you sleeping enough?”
Isaac was struck with the errant thought that Oliver was doing enough sleeping for both of them. But rather than saying that, he shook his head. “I’m having a lot of nightmares.”
“No doubt.” Twila turned away, puttered around in some of her many cupboards. The infirmary was a wall of beds and three walls of cupboards and shelves, with one long desk along the short wall in the back. The cupboards were full of bags and jars and powders and creams and potions and Isaac wondered how she kept them all straight. She returned with a small tin of herbs. “You should boil a little bit of this into tea before you go to bed. It should help chase nightmares away.”
Isaac considered telling her he didn’t like tea, but he nodded, took the tin. He wanted to sleep without seeing dead bodies and centipedes. “Okay. Thank you.”
“If it doesn’t work, let me know.”
Isaac nodded at her, pocketing the tin. “I will. I should go,” he said with a sigh.
“You can stay if you need to,” Twila said, with a small smile.
“No.” Isaac shook his head, smiling back at her. “I should study and get out of your way.”
“If you say so. I’m sure I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“I’m sure you will,” Isaac agreed, waving at her. He patted Oliver’s hand. “Wake up soon, dummy,” he muttered, before turning and leaving the infirmary.
He hadn’t been lying, he should study. There was an exam in Lee’s class next week that Isaac didn’t feel ready for. But as usual, all he could see was Oliver laying there in his bed, pretending to be alive.
He didn’t feel ready to stop seeing that, and Isaac’s feet took him to the stairs, but he went up instead of down. He didn’t want to go outside and see his friends. He just…didn’t. Not right now.
It was only after he’d gone up the four flights of stairs from the infirmary that he realized where he was, and he stood outside the door, hand poised to knock. And Isaac shook his head, turning away. This was silly, he was being silly.
“Who’s there?” Yancy’s voice called out through the door, muffled. “Come in, come in.”
Damn. Isaac sighed to himself, pushed open the door and went inside Yancy’s study. “Hi,” he said, stupidly.
“Isaac.” Yancy was sitting at his long table, peering down at some moving device. He had hilarious eyeglasses on that made his eyes look huge, like he was some kind of insane owl. “What do you need?”
“Nothing,” Isaac said, shaking his head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bother you.” It hadn’t occurred to him that Yancy might have spells on his door to tell him when someone was lurking.
“Nonsense, it’s not a bother. Come in. Do you want some tea?” Yancy stood, waving Isaac to a chair nearby, which was stacked with books.
“No, it’s okay.” Isaac sighed again, and moved the books to the floor beside the chair as gently as he could. “Um, I just…came from the infirmary.”
“Ah.” Yancy nodded, took the hilarious spectacles off. “How is Oliver? I went to see him last night.”
“No change,” Isaac reported. “Twila and Lee are going to see if they can do something together to wake him up. They think…they think that the Christopher stuff surprised him so hard that he’s staying asleep to cope with it.”
“Hmm. Perhaps so. I regret that I am not more versed in healing magic, but I trust the two of them to help him. Twila and Lee were both students of mine at different times, they’re the best the academy has to offer. And Oliver has always been a strong boy, I know he’ll recover.”
“Yeah.” Isaac nodded, looking at the floor. “I know he will too.” Because anything other than that was admitting defeat. “Um. I don’t really know why I came here. I just…” Yancy stayed quiet, let Isaac think. “I wasn’t ready to go outside and pretend to be okay.”
“I don’t think anyone would expect you to pretend to be anything when you’re not, Isaac. Your friends all seem like thoughtful young people to me.”
They were. Isaac nodded. “I would,” he said quietly. “When I’m around other people I feel like I have to be getting better. But I don’t think I am.” He wasn’t sure he ever would. “I know it’s dumb, I know nobody expects that from me, I just…” Isaac shook his head. He didn’t know.
“I understand,” Yancy said, smiling at Isaac. “When I was a student—and I don’t claim our situations are the same, mind—I was always at the top of my class. Which you may think sounds wonderful, but I came to be the student who always knew the answer, who always had something to say. And if I didn’t, no matter the situation, I started to feel like I’d failed myself. Like I wasn’t being who everyone expected me to be.”
Isaac nodded now. “That sounds hard.” He felt like that a lot.
“Again, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s the same as how you feel now. But the expectations we place upon ourselves are often stricter than those imposed by others.” Yancy leaned forward a little, elbows on the table. “The only thing anyone expects from you at this academy is for you to be a student, Isaac. To learn and do the best you can, that’s all.”
“That’s not true,” Isaac said. He wished it was. “They expect me to be the chosen one, too. Or one of them.”
Yancy was silent for a moment. Then he sighed. “Yes, they do. And I apologize for my role in that. It’s an undue burden to place on someone so young.”
“It’s not your fault,” Isaac said, reaching down and picking up one of Yancy’s books to occupy his hands. “You can’t help what’s in a prophecy. And like you said back in my village—my powers were already developing. I would have hurt someone, or myself. I needed to come here, even if I didn’t like it. It wasn’t your fault.”
The book in Isaac’s hand didn’t have a title on the cover, but when he opened it, he came face-to-face with the chosen one prophecy. He snorted. “You must be sick of reading this.”
“Not yet,” Yancy told him, sounding fond. “Though I admit I do tend to skim over the duller parts when I’m tired.”
The whole thing was a dull part as far as Isaac was concerned. But he laughed. “’And with constancy of heart, he will restore the banner,’” he read, picking a line at random. “What banner?”
“It’s hard to say. The word has a military connotation in the original language, and historians have speculated that there used to be mage companies in armies during the Catechism Wars.”
“So what, I’m supposed to raise an army?” Isaac asked. He did remember something about that from the books he’d read in the winter.
“That’s only one interpretation,” Yancy said, but he nodded.
“I do like uniforms and armour,” Isaac muttered, shaking his head. He looked at Yancy. “Mage companies? Just mages, or other kinds of magic too?”
“It’s unclear.” Yancy sounded uncertain now. “It’s assumed to have been just mages. Our magic tends to be the most suited to combat of the five types.”
“Is it assumed to be just mages because it’s mages writing the histories?”
That gave Yancy pause for a moment. “Possibly,” he admitted. “Most histories that mention the concept use the word…” Yancy thought for a moment. “ysem. It means…well, it seems to have meant ‘spider’ before the Catechism Wars, from what we can reconstruct. But during or after that period it is used to refer to magic users, and it’s translated as ‘mage.’ As I said, that’s who was assumed to be in combat, and as far as we know, mages had the earliest formal institutions for magic.”
“I wonder,” Isaac said, thinking about what the archmage had said to him. He could use all five types of magic. Maybe other people had used to be able to do that. “If just ‘magic user’ is a better translation. I know I don’t know the language or anything, but…” He closed his mouth.
He had promised the archmage that he wouldn’t tell anyone that part. Even if Isaac wasn’t sure it was a good idea, he did recognize that he couldn’t take back a secret once he’d spilled it.
“Why don’t you take that book, Isaac?” Yancy suggested. “I know you’ve read the prophecy before. But that’s my teacher’s copy, with her teacher’s and her teacher’s teacher’s notes and so on, as well as mine. I believe Oliver’s made some notes in the back as well, though he doesn’t share my obsession with the prophecy, I fear. You may find it helpful.”
Just like with Twila, Isaac almost said no, and then stopped himself. “Don’t you need it?” he asked instead. “This is what you work on, right?”
“It is, but I’ve all but memorized the book at this point. You may yet learn something from it. And you may have insights that the rest of us didn’t. I’d be interested to hear them.”
“I’m sure I don’t have anything to say that someone smarter than me hasn’t already said,” Isaac protested.
“Nonsense. You’re much smarter than you give yourself credit for, Isaac.”
Isaac snorted. “Wait until I’m in one of your classes and see if you still think that,” he muttered.
“Do you struggle in your classes, then?” Yancy asked, tilting his head a little.
Isaac nodded, colouring. “Yeah. I’m doing okay. My friends help. But it’s hard.”
“If you like, I could help you.” Yancy smiled when Isaac looked up at him. “Not to an unfair degree, of course. I would hardly countenance cheating. But I was top of my class as a student. I might be able to help if you’re having difficulty understanding.”
Isaac looked at Yancy, then at the book in his hands. He thought about Peter, and Spencer and Garrett, and how much help they were. And how, after a certain point, Isaac would pretend that he understood things that he didn’t, because he didn’t want to waste their time. “As you sure you have time for that?”
“I always have time for my students, Isaac.” Yancy’s tone was so firm, in a way that made Isaac realize that he was probably a really good teacher.
Isaac nodded. “Okay. Thank you. I…could use the help.”
“Excellent. Why don’t you come up here once a week to start, and more if you decide it would help? I shall help you with your studies, and we can talk about prophecies.”
Isaac gave him a smile. “I’m not that into prophecies.”
“I have many years yet to make a convert out of you, not to worry.”
That got a laugh. “I’ll read this and see what I think, then.”
“You do that. And when Oliver wakes up, you shall help me in my steady attempts to convert him as well.”
Isaac nodded, liking that idea. “Okay. Or maybe he and I will gang up and convert you.”
“You’re welcome to try.” Yancy smiled.
“Could…” Isaac looked around. “I know you have work to do. Is it alright if I sit here and read, for a little while?”
“Of course,” Yancy nodded. “Still not ready to pretend?”
“Feel free to stay as long as you like.”
“Thank you, Yancy. You’re really nice.”
“Ah. Pray don’t tell the other students that. I’ve a reputation to uphold.”
“Of course,” Isaac laughed. “You have my solemn word.”
Yancy narrowed his eyes. “Was that an impersonation of me?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Isaac promised, looking down at the book.
Yancy harrumphed, but put his glasses back on and went back to looking down at his work. Smiling, Isaac started reading.
He skimmed over the dull parts.