Telling the Truth Has the Potential to Be Very Good or End Very Badly
“Shadow magic is hard,” Isaac complained, trying to do some. He was trying to cast a basic illusion over himself, which was their homework.
“Good thing you’re in a class to teach you how to get better at it,” Peter said back.
Isaac sighed, sitting on the bed in their borrowed room. “I know. But if I don’t get this right before tomorrow, Hooper’s going to be disappointed in me.”
“I think you meant Trey.”
Peter rolled his eyes. “Try again.” He’d gotten it right on the second try, of course.
Isaac sighed, and tried the spell again the way Trey had shown them. To be fair, he’d been watching Hooper nap at the time, which might be why he’d been having trouble. But he got it, or at least he felt like he did.
Instead of suddenly appearing differently from how he was supposed to, Isaac stayed the same, but his shirt disappeared. “Uh…”
“Well, you fucked that up.”
He could still feel it on his skin. Isaac reached down and touched it, feeling the fabric. “I think I turned it invisible.” Suddenly smiling, he cast the spell again, did the same for his pants. “Finally, I learn something useful in school. I can go to class like this and nobody can say I’m not dressed.”
Peter tried to glare, but he was smiling a little. “Stop goofing off.”
“Goofing off like this?” Isaac asked, wiggling his fingers at Peter and casting the spell on him too.
“Isaac,” Peter said, not annoyed.
“What? You’re good at Shadow, undo it.”
Peter started to say something, but someone knocked on the door. “Come in,” Isaac said, grinning. Peter glared at him, but he didn’t undo the spell. It was Peter, after all.
The door opened, but nobody came in. Isaac looked up, and his smile faded. Saul was standing there in the door, Skip behind him. “Oh…” he said, averting his eyes. “Sorry, I didn’t know you were busy.”
“Just homework,” Isaac said, undoing his spell. Their clothes reappeared. “What?”
“I…” Saul sighed. He looked like he might cry. He looked like he’d been crying. “I’m going to talk to the archmage, a-and I…you said you’d…”
Right. Isaac got up. “Yeah. I did. I’ll come with you.” He was glad, and not totally surprised. He’d mentioned to Skip after class the other day that the teachers were asking after Spencer. They weren’t talking much either, but it had been important.
“Me too,” Peter said, pulling himself to his feet.
“You don’t h-have to,” Saul said. He sounded so scared.
“You’re my friend too,” was Peter’s only answer.
Saul looked at the floor, Skip’s hand on his back. “Thank you.”
“Let’s just go,” Peter said, gesturing for Isaac to follow him out of the room. The four of them went, heading out of the dormitory together.
“Where’s Baker?” Isaac asked, as they pushed open the door, a chill hitting them. He should have grabbed his coat.
“Sleeping on your bed,” Skip said. “He misses you guys.”
“We showed him where we were,” Peter muttered.
Isaac nodded. “He knew you were upset,” he said to Saul. “He probably wanted you to feel better.”
“You were upset too,” Saul protested.
“Dogs are smarter than you think they are, Saul. He could definitely tell you were sad.” And the fact that he’d stayed with Saul was one of the reasons why Isaac was willing to tentatively trust him.
Saul swallowed as their feet crunched across the snow. “He made me feel better,” he admitted quietly. “I talked to him a lot while Skip was in class. And he slept with me. It…it helped, a little.”
“You never told me you were talking to the dog,” Skip said, slightly amused.
Saul smiled at him. “He wasn’t talking back, if it makes you feel better.”
“Dogs always talk back,” Isaac said. “You just have to know how to listen.”
Saul nodded, looking honestly happy for the first time since they’d all been in the room together.
They didn’t say much for the rest of the short walk to the mercifully warm tower, where they started the trek up all the stairs. That took a long time, and they stopped to rest three or four times. “He couldn’t come down here,” Skip muttered.
“Maybe I could just light the building on fire,” Saul suggested. “Or something. That would probably get his attention without us having to climb anymore.”
Despite himself, Isaac snickered. The fact that Saul was joking about it was a good sign, he thought.
Eventually they reached the top of the stairs, only to find the archmage’s door closed, which meant he was in there with someone else. There were some chairs arrayed in the waiting area shaped like a crescent moon. “I guess we’ll just have to wait,” Isaac said, belatedly realizing he’d never actually come up to see the archmage this way.
“I guess we will,” Peter growled, wiping his forehead. “I didn’t climb all those stupid stairs for nothing.”
“I really appreciate you guys coming with me,” Saul said, to all of them. “I really…I really do. Thank you.”
“We weren’t going to let you do it alone,” Skip said, rubbing Saul’s shoulder. “You’re not alone, okay?”
“I know. Thank you. I…I love you.”
“I love you too,” Skip said quietly, kissing his ear. “And I’m not going to let them do anything to you.”
Saul nodded, sniffing as he started to cry. Isaac had to look away so he didn’t tear up as well. Peter took his hand, and that made Isaac feel better. “He’s really lucky to have you, Skip.”
“I am,” Saul agreed quietly.
They waited in relative silence for a few minutes, until the doors opened, and out stepped James and Ron. Oops, Isaac thought as he looked up. He’d…completely forgotten that they existed, and had skipped all his lessons since the Saul thing. Shit.
He and Ron just kind of looked at each other for a second before James noticed him. “There you are. I was worried you were ill.” He didn’t sound particularly worried. Isaac wondered why he’d been meeting with the archmage. Hopefully not about him.
“Sorry.” Isaac hung his head a bit. “I’ve been busy. I meant to let you know.” He hadn’t. He’d completely forgotten, which was just embarrassing.
“No doubt.” James knew he was full of shit. Great. “It’s fine. You take up less of my time when you’re busy.”
Fair enough. Isaac nearly laughed at the joke, but it was probably true. Peter elbowed him gently, eyebrows raised. Right. “Oh. This is James, and Ron,” Isaac said, then glanced at his friends. “Peter, Skip and, uh…” He hoped his pause wasn’t that audible. “Spencer. My roommates.”
“Nice to meet you,” Ron said. “I guess you’re here to see the archmage. Sorry we were in there so long.” He didn’t sound curt like James did, but he never did. Ron was pretty chill.
Isaac made himself smile. “It’s fine, we haven’t been waiting that long. I guess we should go in, though.” Unfortunately. He stood up, giving Saul a look. Saul rose as well.
“You’ll be okay,” Ron said suddenly, looking right at Saul.
Saul looked a bit shocked, but it was so clear he was worried that Isaac wasn’t surprised Ron had caught it.
Fortunately Cameron emerged before he had to answer. “This isn’t where I’d choose to spend my social time if I were you,” she said, upon entering. Whatever James and Ron had been talking about the archmage about, it must have been important if she was there. Probably more important than him skipping his witchcraft lessons.
“We need to see him,” Isaac told her, hating to draw attention to himself. James was looking at him funny.
“Go ahead then,” Cameron said, not stepping aside. “And don’t skip any more of your lessons or I’ll toss you through that portal myself.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Isaac said, trying not to seem terrified. Then he waved them past, and the four of them went into the office.
“I’ll see you soon, Isaac,” James said, which sounded vaguely like a threat. Fuck.
But Isaac had more important things to worry about than that. They were in the office now, the door swinging shut, and the archmage was looking at them, clearly curious. No chance to go back now. “Sorry to bother you, sir,” he said.
“Not at all,” he said, smiling and gesturing for the four of them to sit. “What can I do for you four?”
There were two chairs in front of the archmage’s desk, and Isaac used Dark to pull two more over. Saul and Skip sat in the middle two chairs, and Isaac took Saul’s other side. “We have something important to talk to you about.”
The archmage nodded, looking at all their faces. “Something serious, I’d wager. It’s obvious that something is bothering all of you. You especially, young man. I hear you haven’t been attending classes either.”
Saul nodded. “I’m…I’m sorry, sir,” he said, his voice a rasp.
“Don’t be. I understand your father passed away. That’s very hard, especially at your age.” The archmage always sounded so nice.
Saul nodded again, then stopped, shook his head. “No, sir, that’s not…that’s not it. I mean. It’s true, he did die, but that’s not…that’s not…” He cut himself off, tears falling again, shaking so much Isaac worried he might fall out of the chair.
“Hey,” Isaac said, hand on Saul’s arm. “It’s okay. You’re okay.”
Skip had Saul’s hand in his. “Yeah, you’re okay. I’m here, remember?”
“Me too,” Isaac whispered, because…he was. He was here for Saul. Lee had been right. Peter gave him a nod. “We all are.”
Saul nodded, giving a shaky nod, but it took him nearly a minute to stop crying. “I…I’m sorry,” he said.
“Young man,” the archmage said gently, hands on the desk. “I assure you, whatever’s happened, you don’t need to be frightened of me. It seems to me you feel you’re in trouble, but even if that’s so, I doubt it’s as bad as you seem to think.”
“I lied to you,” Saul said, shaking his head, looking down at his lap. “I lied to everyone.”
“Lying is hardly a crime worth such terror.”
“I…it is, though,” Saul insisted.
“You just have to say it,” Skip said, Saul’s name hovering on his lips. Isaac nodded, patting Saul’s shoulder.
Saul took a breath, nodded, and looked up at the archmage, back straight. “My n-name’s Saul, of Clan Netzer,” he said.
The archmage was silent for a second, and his expression read as surprise—it was the first time, Isaac realized, that he’d ever seen him taken by surprise. Then his face softened into something more like what he usually looked like. “I see. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you, Saul.”
Saul held his gaze for a few seconds longer, then his breath hitched, and he started crying again, turning to hold Skip and burying his face in Skip’s shoulder. “Hey, hey,” Skip said, wrapping his arms around Saul. “You’re okay. You’re okay, Saul, you did it. You were so brave. I’m so proud of you.”
Isaac was starting to think that Skip might be the best boyfriend ever.
“So you all knew about this, I take it,” the archmage said, voice just slightly less gentle than a moment ago.
Isaac nodded. “For a few weeks. I promised him we’d come with him when he was ready to tell you.”
“I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that telling me right away would have been the right thing to do.”
“I’m sure you’re not surprised that I didn’t do that,” Isaac said.
“No.” The archmage sighed. “Our ideas of the right thing are, I suspect, vastly different.”
Isaac just nodded, and the archmage turned his attention back to Saul and Skip. “Saul,” he said. “I’m afraid I need your attention now.”
Taking big, gulping breaths, Saul managed to stop crying and looked up at the archmage again, Skip’s hands still on his shoulders. “I’m sorry,” he said again. “I just…my father sent me. It wasn’t my idea. He made me come, to keep an eye on the chosen one. But I never hurt anyone. I never wanted to hurt anyone, I swear I didn’t. But I was too much of a coward to say anything until now, so…” He trialed off, squeezing his eyes shut.
The archmage nodded. “With a father that domineering, I can see how you’d have a hard time defying him even from a distance. Had you known he was dead, I suspect you’d have said something earlier.”
Saul nodded miserably.
“You understand, of course, that I must expel you.”
Saul nodded again, dull this time. “I understand.”
“Hold on,” Skip said. “That’s not fair. You can’t kick him out.”
“He has nowhere to go,” Peter told the archmage. “He can’t go home, his brother will hurt him.”
“You can give him…” Isaac tried to remember a word he’d learned in Hugo’s class last semester, the thing that the fifth ven Sancte king had given to refugees from a civil war down south. “Asylum. He needs protection from Sam, sir.”
“The academy is a school, not a government. We can’t provide asylum for anyone,” the archmage said.
“That’s crap,” Isaac said back, because it was.
“If you make him leave I’m going with him,” Skip said, glaring at the archmage. “We’ll…we can go west, to Aergyre.” He was talking to Saul now. “My parents will take us in. You can stay with us. As long as you’re not afraid of boats.”
“There’s no need,” interrupted the archmage, “to be pre-emptive, boys. I did not say that Saul had to leave. Just that because he’s not a mage, he cannot be enrolled in the mages’ programme. There would be little point in him taking classes meant to educate him in magic that he can only pretend to use.”
“He’s right,” Saul said, letting Skip support him. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Isaac was trying to figure out what he meant by all that, but of course Peter got there first. “But he can enroll as a non-magical student,” Peter said. “People who aren’t mages attend the academy too, they just don’t take the magic classes.”
The archmage smiled. “I knew you were one of our brighter students for a reason,” he said to Peter. “Very good. Saul, you’ll be expelled from the mage’s programme. But if you wish, I can offer you a spot as a regular student. It’s very clear to me that you mean it when you say you don’t want to help your family, and it’s clear you regret lying.”
“He can still stay here,” Isaac repeated, trying to catch up. He…hadn’t expected that. “What about living here? Only mage students are allowed in the dormitories.”
“I think an exception can be made, given the circumstances.” The archmage smiled at Isaac now. “We’re not quite as tyrannical as you believe us to be, Isaac.”
“I…” Saul sounded like he was in a different room. “I can stay? You’re going to let me stay here even after I lied?” He was going to cry again, Isaac could tell.
“Yes,” the archmage said. Isaac couldn’t quite believe it either. “Pending your ability to meet my conditions, of course.”
“I’ll do it,” Saul said immediately, clutching Skip again. “I’ll do whatever you want.”
The archmage nodded. “That you’re being vouched for by three other students says a great deal about your trustworthiness. But you will need to prove to me and the faculty that you’re not a danger to the school. We are going to question you at length and you will need to answer us truthfully.”
“I will,” Saul said quickly, breathing fast. “I swear. I won’t lie anymore.”
“And we will expect your help in combatting whatever it is your brother is planning,” the archmage continued. “Anything you can tell us about him or what he’s up to—your sister Sylvia is here as well, but she last saw Samson when he was a young boy. You knew him more recently.”
Saul nodded, though Isaac noticed he’d flinched at his sister’s name. “I’ll help. Sam…Sam’s dangerous. He’s not…he wouldn’t be a bad kid if…if we hadn’t all been so awful to him. If he had someone to help him. But if he’s by himself, he’s dangerous for sure. Someone has to stop him before he hurts…a lot of people.”
“If you talked to him,” Isaac asked. “Would he stop?” Maybe that was the solution. Maybe they could get Sam to stop without hurting him.
“No. He…probably hates me. Maybe.” Saul sighed. “I don’t know. Our relationship is…hard.”
“If he sends you another letter,” the archmage said. “Bring it to me right away.”
“Good. There may be more conditions later, but as long as you meet them, you’re welcome to stay.” The archmage paused. “Saul, do think about whether you really want to. It may not be easy—many of your classmates are likely to feel betrayed when they find out you misled them. Just because these three were accepting of it, doesn’t mean your other friends will be. You will find it difficult to stay in a place if you end up losing most of your friends.”
“I’m not losing the people who matter most,” Saul said, taking Skip’s hand. “I’m sure…the others will come around. Maybe.”
“They will,” Isaac promised. “I’ll help.”
That made Saul smile. “Thank you. And…” he turned back to the archmage. “When you re-enroll me, can…can it be under the name Spencer? I’m…I guess I’m attached to it.”
“Of course,” the archmage told him. “That’s not a problem. Now, here’s what’s going to happen. All of you go back to the dormitory. Spencer, I want you back here tomorrow morning when classes begin—by yourself. Your friends will be in class.”
“No,” he said, holding up a hand to stop Skip. “You will attend classes as normal tomorrow. Nothing untoward is going to happen to Spencer, but the questions we will have for him will take most of the day and I won’t have other students’ studies disrupted by it.”
Skip still didn’t seem happy, but Spencer smiled at him. “It’s okay, Skip. I’ll be okay. You told me that, remember?”
Skip looked at him, worried. “I know, but…”
“It’ll be fine. You can take notes for me.”
“Okay.” Skip sighed, shutting his eyes. “Okay, fine. You’ll be okay.”
“I know. You convinced me.”
Skip nodded, suddenly the one in need of comfort. Peter patted his leg.
“Okay,” Skip said, finally. Then he stood up. “I guess we can…go, then.”
“I guess so.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow. And Spencer?” the archmage asked.
“Thank you for telling the truth.”
Spencer just nodded, flushed, and took Skip’s hand to leave the room. Peter followed them. Isaac lingered behind a second. The archmage was looking at him. Isaac looked back. “I didn’t tell you because I trusted him,” he said, realizing now that that was true.
“I understand. I’m glad your trust was founded,” the archmage said. “Join your friends, Isaac.”
Isaac nodded and hurried out of the room. Spencer and Skip were hugging in the waiting room, and when Isaac came out, Spencer hugged Isaac too. “Thank you.”
“Of course,” Isaac said, hugging back. “I’m sorry I was so…”
“No, you were right to be. You…would be right to still be,” Spencer said.
Isaac wasn’t, though, and he took Peter’s hand when Spencer let him go. “But I’m going to…I’m going to earn back your guys’s trust, I swear.”
Peter sighed. “You don’t need to earn anything from us, dummy. We’re your friends, aren’t we?”
Spencer looked like he might cry again, Skip’s arm around him. “Thank you. Um. Will…you guys come back to the dorm room? Baker misses you. And we miss you too.”
“You guys wouldn’t rather have the place to yourselves?” Isaac asked, smiling.
“It’s weird not having all your racket,” Skip said. “It’s weird coming back to the room and knowing for sure there’s not going to be some naked dude in there. It’s not like we’re afraid to kiss with you in the room. And Spencer’s right, the dog misses you.”
Smiling wider, Isaac said, “Then I guess we’ll come home.”
“It’ll be nice to have sex in our own beds again,” Peter said thoughtfully.
“We did so much studying in those beds while you were gone,” Spencer said, voice a little teasing. “So much reading.”
Isaac made a face. “What kind of terrible friend…”
“Cleaned the sheets and everything,” Skip agreed.
“I changed my mind, go live on a boat with Skip’s family.”
“And starve to death?” Spencer asked. “They eat fish.”
“Fish aren’t really animals in the same way that cows are,” Skip said, and it sounded like the beginning of an argument they’d already had.
“They really are.”
Peter took Isaac’s hand as they headed for the stairs. He didn’t say anything, but Isaac didn’t need him to. They were both happy beyond words to have their friends back.