Maeza finally extricated herself from Mr. Tungsten and breathed a sigh of relief.
She had appreciated the good intentions of Dr. Gerard in intervening on her behalf, but part of her resented him. Not in a great way, or in a manner that she would even remember past the next hour. But it was painfully common among men to assume that a woman could not assert or hold her own against another man, even a blowhard such as Jaeger Ess Tungsten – Sorry, “Jet.”
Despite her five years of service at Astora Sanitorium, during which she dealt with much more difficult and physically imposing individuals, she was still viewed through the lens of being a member of the Sisterhood.
And the members of the Sisterhood were viewed as fundamentally “weak.”
It tired her soul.
Maeza walked down the corridor away from the rooms where the less difficult patients stayed – despite all appearances, Tungsten was counted among them. Several doors were open, and many of the residents sat in their rooms, usually reading or staring off into nothing depending on their state of mind. She was careful not to glance into their rooms or make eye contact.
Maeza was struck with a pang of guilt as she thought this, but she felt a little more tired and irritable this morning than usual. She could think of no particular reason why; she had slept well the night before, and even Tungsten’s rantings about society or literature or the state of music were not as exasperating as they could sometimes be. No, something else was at play, something itching in the back of her mind.
Maeza exited the northern residential building and made her way across the campus, heading towards the administration building so that she could document some patient notes she had been putting off. She had not yet met a Sister or even a doctor who enjoyed filling out paperwork, and Maeza reluctantly resigned herself to the task for the rest of the morning.
That was when she saw the young man in the wheelchair.
His skin was dark brown, his hair close cropped around the back and sides. He sat with his hands in his lap, his head tilted forward looking at them. He was young, possibly in his early twenties – perhaps younger. What struck her was the melancholy that radiated from the young man. A thought flashed through her mind that he was pulsating with heat, a faint shadowy steam emanating from him. Maeza blinked the thought away, and once again he was just a normal, if dour, young man.
She stopped beside him and looked down. “Hello there.”
Maeza was met with silence, but she was undeterred.
“Do you need any assistance? It appears that you have been left alone.”
“Because I asked to be left alone.” The young man’s voice carried a rich depth that surprised Maeza. He spoke with the air of a much older man.
“My apologies, sir!” Maeza said lightly, in a teasing voice that she hoped would put him at ease.
If it did, he did not show it. He continued to sit in silence.
“It’s rude to not share your name with a lady, you know,” Maeza said, maintaining her bright demeanor but bringing down the glow just a little.
He looked up at her, and Maeza almost stepped back at the sight of his cerulean eyes. In his gaze Maeza sensed a profundity, coupled with a storm of intellect, and it made her catch her breath. Part of her mind tried to place the accent. One of the southeastern regions?
“My name is Izem,” he continued. If he noticed Maeza gawking at his eyes, he provided no hint.
“A lovely name,” she said. “Not one I’ve ever heard before, either.”
Izem said nothing.
“So why are you here all by yourself?”
“I said,” he began, but Maeza lifted a hand.
“I know what you said, but that is really no answer,” she said. “I’m Sister Maeza, and I’m here to be of any assistance. Now, you tell me that you want to be left alone, then I shall respect your choice. But I have a pretty good intuition, and it is telling me that you are not enjoying sitting over here alone.”
Izem stared at Maeza, and she wondered if he was assessing her mental status. His mouth flattened into a grim horizon, but there was a thoughtfulness in his eyes that she found comforting. This went on for a few moments before Izem blew air through his lips in frustration.
“I want to play chess,” he said finally. “I used to play with Kethir but when he… left, I have not been able to find someone else to play with.”
Maeza recalled Kethir, an older gentleman who had unfortunately come down with the Black Lung and was placed in the hospice building a week or so ago. She offered Izem a sympathetic smile.
“My father loved playing chess,” she said. “Not in any of the Fair competitions or anything like that, but he did enjoy it with some of his close friends and even some rivals in the town I grew up in.”
Izem perked up a little upon hearing this. “Do you play, Sister Maeza?”
She favored him with a sheepish grin. “Not well. Terribly, if I am being blunt.” Maeza let out a self-deprecating chuckle. “He tried, mind you. We would spend some nights, him explaining the rules and strategies to me, but I just never had the mind for it. It drove my mother mad. She would yell at him to leave me alone, that if he wanted to teach chess to a child, he should have given her a son.”
Maeza felt a wince peek through her well-crafted veneer of politeness, and hoped again that Izem would not notice it. She doubted he missed it, but suspected there was a politeness about him that fooled her into thinking otherwise.
Izem’s face crumbled into disappointment, and he looked back down at his hands.
“But,” Maeza continued, “I think I might have an idea where I can find someone for you to play chess with.”
Izem’s head snapped up. “Really?”
She nodded. “Yes. I can take you to him, if you would like?”
Izem held her gaze for a long moment, and then slowly nodded. “Thank you.”
Maeza smiled, radiant and honest as she stepped behind the wheelchair and undid the locking mechanism. Izem stiffened at first, reflexively dropping his arms down to the wheels, but thought better of it, and placed his hands back on his lap. She gripped the handles of the wheelchair and began to push.
“You, sir, are very welcome.”