The sheep were in their pasture and, for the time being, all was peaceful around me. The lambs frolicked in the spring grass, caring nothing for the mud that splashed upon them. The wind was hot despite the night's rain.
I sat on the fence, spinning yarn. I'd managed to avoid breaking the yarn for a record 3 minutes straight. Soon I would be going places, all the way to the...state...yarn-spinning... competition. Or something.
Masie Sani sat next to me and watched the sheep. "You've got a face that's full of worry," she said. "Do you have something you want to tell me?"
Yes. Also no. Also hell no. And yet...if I didn't tell her now, it was going to be a lot harder for me when the rest of the Wizards discovered what I'd done.
"I have a question." My yarn broke. I gathered it together and tried again. "Are you familiar with the library of the Academy?"
"Never visit it much myself."
"Have you heard anything from the school about nighttime disturbances in the stacks?"
"Hmmmm...there was something on the school bulletin about disturbance. Something like, the librarians sensed a lot of residual energy floating around the AC1 section. Also a major book stampede in the P301 section. But all they said was that the investigation would be ongoing. Who knows what they'll find."
"Do you want to know what happened?"
"Oh, for goodness sake, don't tell me you -- "
I related the whole story to my teacher.
She didn't say a word as I spoke, only raised her eyebrows now and then. Humped a bit. Didn't seem particularly angry.
"I'm disappointed in you," she said. " Granted, you didn't break the school rules knowingly, nor, technically, did you violate your special curfew, at least knowingly -- "
I resolved not to tell my teacher about last night's incident.
" -- But you did put yourself and your friends in grave danger. Pat, I'm going to tell you what schools everywhere tell kids about the rules. They're like the laws of driving. They exist to protect. They're meant to spoil fun if that fun is dangerous. Schools have liability. Schools have insurance policies. Schools have the desire to see their students SURVIVE the process of learning, so they can gaduate. You learned a lot, my student, but you risked a lot to do so." She sighed. "It's clear that there's no rule that can keep you in check. What do I have to do, beg you to exercise self-restraint? Do I have to put literal shackles on you? You'd whisper to the shackles and spring free. Do I have to put enchantments on you to make you obey? I don't want to be in that position, Pat. I value freedom as much as you do. I don't want to be the kind of adult that has to spoil your fun just to keep you alive. But if you keep this behavior up...well...who knows. Maybe I'll just have to let you go, like you seem to want."
I bowed my head over my spinning, and said nothing.
"Pat. Look at me."
I met Masie's gaze. He face was written all over with worry.
"I'm disappointed that you seem to be blowing a good opportunity. The school has offered you a chance to learn control of great power."
"Yeah, well, I've said time and again that it wasn't my idea."
"And yet, this school offers something worth having. It actually wants you to stay alive. Kid. Think about where I'm from. Think about who I'm from. The boarding schools my people were sent to, they weren't designed with safety of children in mind. They were literally designed to break us. Needles through the tongue for speaking our own language. Milk for lunch when most of us couldn't digest milk. Cutting hair, making children wear the White man's clothing. I could go on and on. They were designed to rip out the souls of children, and replace them with European ways. My grandmother went to one, and she refuses to even talk about it.
"When this Chicago Academy of Wizards called me up and asked me to sell them my special wool, I refused. I didn't want to have anything to do with a damn boarding school. The director had to show me the operation of the school, in detail, before I was certain that the place was not meant to crush the souls of young adults. I had to be absolutely sure that the school was on the up and up. So when I say your school has your interests in mind, I am one to know. Do you understand?"
I sighed. "I do. But you're missing the point. I don't think the school is trying to kill me, at least not the instructors. I'm just not motivated to seize the opportunities offered. You know? If it wasn't my idea to be here, then everything about the school feels external, imposed. So I shake it off. Just like High School. If I'm going to learn wizardry...it has to be my idea." I set the drop spindle down. "Which is easier to achieve than you might think, because I really did feel useless on that last expedition. If I want to be able to save a friend's ass from an incoming fireball or something, I can't do that with Shaman powers. I can't just waltz into yet another dangerous realm and hope that a silver tongue will save me and my friends."
"How many times have you -- "
"My point is, I'm done with the expeditions until I can actually use basic Wizardry. You have my word that I will keep to the farm and to the school, and that I will be attentive to my studies."
"I want your word that you won't go on these expeditions at all. At least, not without me to accompany you. If I come along, we can say that your journeys are field trips. Wink."
"Did you just -- "
"In the meantime, you have your sheep to attend to."
"And the spinning." I picked up the spindle. "I think I shall keep to the farm for a while."
"Don't you want to sleep in your own bed?"
"I don't sleep."
"You what now?"
I showed her the ring. "Found it in a dream. It keeps me awake. Useful for my studies, I suppose, and for spinning yarn all through the night -- "
"Take it off."
"That would be a bad idea. I've had it on for a while now."
"Take it off. If you leave it on too long, you won't be able to take it off without dying."
"What if I've already hit that mark? Oh well. Might as well find out."
I took off the ring.
I awoke in my bed.
"How long was I out?" I said to the ceiling.
"It's been about 3 days," said Jo. "And before you ask, the librarians still haven't figured out what we did in the library. Aurore says the spell she used was something she constructed on the spot, so if the librarians want to find out what she did, they're going to be working a long time from scraps of information. That being said, the Wizard Police are asking around to see if anyone noticed anyone entering the library at night."
The same Wizard Police who may have seen me at Meyer's Bar. This wasn't good.
There was a knock on the door. "Excuse us," said a voice. "We were wondering if you had any knowledge of -- "
Jo lifted me out of the bed, rushed me to the other side of the room, and tossed me into her cavernous four-poster.
I landed in the hot tub. Not a good place to be when you're nursing a major headache, but better than landing on the exercise bike. From far off and high above, I heard someone asking Jo if she knew where I was. Jo replied that I was at the Spa, Gym, Roller coaster and Arcade Family Fun Complex.
She did not mention that the place she referred to was contained entirely within her cloak.
Score one for unlicensed magic.
"Yup," I said, squinting through the gloom of the hayloft. "Perfect place to hide away for a few months."
"Talk to a bird if you need to speak to me or any of us," said Aurore.
"I didn't say I was going to be here alone. You should hide here too." I patted the hay. "It's nice and soft and warm on a cool spring night."
"That would...draw attention. If four wizards were to vanish from the academy, they'd say we were the ones who broke into the library after all. But you've already kind of left the building, long before this happened, so...you may actually get away with this."
"Yeah, assuming the sheep don't snitch on me. Or the books. Oh, God, the books! All the police have to do is ask the books who was in the stacks!"
"Consider the idea that this was the first thing they would have tried. And yet, you're not nabbed yet. What does that tell you?"
"The books were just as unhelpful to the police."
"Right." Aurore gazed around the hayloft. "Don't get me wrong, I'd love to have a sleepover here now and then. But hiding, not a good plan for me. And, you know, I have to attend to my studies, which are at the Academy."
I looked down at the sheep, who were baaing far below me. "It may be just as well. I try to keep this place clean, but the smell sticks around."
"Any ideas for our next mission?"
"Next mission is postponed indefinitely."
"I'm serious. After what happened in the library, I need to actually learn wizardry. I need to study so that on our next outing I can actually be of use to you. I felt like a dead weight back there in the stacks."
"You were the one who had the idea for that wind-driven sled."
"yeah, but that was an idea. You and Sean and Sam were the ones who executed it. You said you'd help me learn wizardry, and I'm finally taking you up on the offer. Come around here in the afternoons and you all can teach me what you all know. And teach yourselves something new in the process."
Aurore smirked. "Sounds like you're maturing."
"I'm reviewing my options for the coming fight against the Wizard Police. Step one is to understand their tools."
Aurore looked nonplussed. "Coming fight? Are you absolutely certain?"
"They're going to try to arrest my ass eventually, whether for this or something else. If I want to survive....oh that reminds me, can you ask Sameer to see if he can locate Pantagruel?"
"I had a look at this ring of yours," said Masie Sani.
I scooped another load of sheep droppings and dumped it into the wheelbarrow. "What about it?"
"You said you found it in a dream? Which dream?"
"Uh...it was raining real hard and everyone was miserable and someone was playing the blues. I call it Blue Chicago."
"How did you find it?"
I related the full story of the dream as I finished scooping out the stall.
My teacher didn't say anything for a while, but looked at the ring, and then at me, and back to the ring, and then back to me. Then out the barn door.
"He's back," she said at last.
"Was he ever really gone?" I grabbed the wheelbarrow and turned it towards the exit.
"He goes away and he comes back as he pleases. he's a free spirit, he's THE free spirit. The kind of fellow who looks at the gods and mocks them." She chuckled. "And you never know if he's on your side or not, and you never know if he knows what he's doing. If it turns out all right, he takes the credit; if it all goes wrong, he's got an excuse."
"You ought to compare notes with the Muckamuck in Manhattan. He's been dealing with Coyote for a while as well. As have I...that's a story for another time, though."
I trundled the wheelbarrow out to the manure pile and dumped it. I turned around. My teacher was standing right there.
"Pat," she said, "it's clear to me that I haven't been working with you closely enough. And all this business about Chicago bringing you into its dream...I fear for your safety even out here. I may have to remove you even further, have you work with me at the New Mexico sheep ranch."
"And mess up your prize Churro sheep? No way. I wouldn't dream of interfering."
"Besides, if it's so easy for you to get from there to here, you can just some save me if I call for help. I promise I'll be entirely sincere if I say there's a wolf nearby."
"Pat." Masie smirked.
"More to the point, my friends will be coming around as often as they can to tech me what they know. I'm not a lonely shepherd, out here with nothing but a crook and a sling. I'll be fine."
"But in dreams?"
"In dreams...I do not know how to prevent myself from dreaming. That's a problem."
I brought the wheelbarrow back to the barn and prepared to clean the next stall.
"Tell you what," said Masie Sani. "I'll sleep here tonight. If Chicago sends you another dream, I'll try to follow."
"Sounds like a plan."
As the sun set and the sheep came back to the barn, I realized that I didn't know how I was going to honor my promises and also communicate with Oddball City.
"One more question," I said to my teacher.
"Do Wizards typically listen to birds?"
"No, I mean like...intercept their messages."
Masie raised an eyebrow. "What are you up to?"
"Trying to stay here while keeping in touch with friends I made in the city. Do wizards listen to squirrels?"
"What about houseflies?"
"Do houseflies say anything?"
"What about crickets?"
"Are there crickets in the city?"
"What about rats?"
"Are there rats in the country?"
"Then that's probably your best bet."
I shuddered a the thought of getting involved with rats again. There had to be a better option.