The physician was a slightly overweight man of advanced years, with bushy white hair and a friendly demeanour. He closed the door firmly, with Corin's mother on the other side.

Corin looked around with interest. The only physician he'd ever seen was the Laures House physician, a gaunt short-tempered man whose response to most things involved tonics and purgatives and fasting. This bright clean room with a high table a patient could lie on and shelves of neat shiny instruments was something altogether different. In one corner, two chairs with cushions on the seats stood at right angles, close enough for comfortable conversation.

“Parents,” the physician said, with a shake of his head. “Trying to actually talk to a patient with a parent around is impossible without the parent answering all the questions, or the patient answering to please them, and then how is one to get accurate information, hm? Have a seat, lad.” He took the other chair himself, and waited while Corin joined him. “Now, I gather your parents are concerned about your behaviour. Want to tell me about it?”

Corin shrugged. “They keep expecting me to do things I'm just not interested in doing. I try to obey them, I don't like making them angry and I don't like being scolded or slapped or switched, but I just can't.”

“What kinds of things do they want you to do?”

“Hunting. Fencing. Horsemanship. My father would even be happy if I was interested in the maids in the house. Properly manly sorts of things.”

“Hm, yes. What would you rather do?”

Corin regarded him warily, uncertain whether to trust the apparent lack of disapproval. “Read, or study things directly.”

“Such as? Give me an example.”

A lifetime of certainty that no one wanted to listen warred with the physician's attentiveness and the unexpectedly relaxed atmosphere. Well, what do I have to lose? So one more person tells me I'm crazy...

“I was banned from the laundry room just before we came from the estate to the city for the season. I was curious about how some of the things they use for cleaning interact with each other. Two of them had a particularly strong reaction and foamed up rather violently and scared the maids.”

The physician chuckled. “Chemistry in the laundry room. I see. What else?”

That was an encouraging response. “I'm not allowed in any gardens at all anymore, because I was taking samples of plants at different ages and testing which ones will grow roots from cuttings and I planted a few things in different spots to see if they'd grow differently.”

“I'm sure the gardeners were horrified. No one ever considered just letting you have some space of your own to experiment with plants?”

“Digging in the dirt isn't manly,” Corin said, with a sigh. “Oh, wait, that's not proper for highborn, instead. Everything's one or the other.”

“Seems like it sometimes, doesn't it? What else?”

“I'm not allowed near the kennels or any of the livestock, only into the stables to ride. Some people started a rumour that I was cursing or injuring some of the animals because I saw something going wrong before anyone else and told them about it. No one ever pays attention, and then they're surprised and blame me when it happens. I was banned from the kennels over a year ago because I saw that a whelp wasn't thriving and because a bitch went lame after being set to hunt even though she was avoiding pressure on one hip. I told them a foal was blind and they didn't believe me until days later, and one of the stable-hands started muttering that it wasn't blind until I did something. But I wouldn't. I hate it when things suffer. If I could, I'd make sure everything and everyone was healthy all their lives and only died in their sleep when they're old.”

“That's a worthy sentiment. What were you doing just before this appointment?”

“Reading. My father won't buy more books, but I save whatever I can and, well, I found a pawn shop that'll let me sell things I'm given that I don't want.” He flushed, dropped his gaze, but when he dared look up, he saw no condemnation. “A ring my grandmother gave me, it wasn't a family heirloom or anything like that, and a tooled leather sword-belt with a fancy buckle but I really hate fencing, things like that. And I use the money to buy books when we're in the city. No one in my family ever notices if they're the same old books or new ones. I can't always find specific subjects, usually I don't have much time to look and I can't afford anything expensive, but anything is still something.”

“What subjects do you try to find?”

“I like natural science best. Animals and how they live, plants and how they grow, all the different kinds of rocks and how they make the landscape, anything like that. History is good, too. The math my tutor teaches me is interesting, geometry especially, but not as much.”

“Sounds like a fascinating field of study. What were you reading earlier, then?”

“History. The Plague of Mynatt. I've read it before, but I wanted to see whether an idea I had fits with the description in Ogden's text.”

The physician looked intrigued. “What idea?”

“I don't think it was a plague. At least, not the kind spread by air or contact. There's a mention in the description of Mynatt before the plague that they'd been having recurrent problems with the drainage system backing up after heavy rains, just offhanded, like it's a wonderful place and this trivial detail is the only tiny worm in the apple. I checked in Reynell's General History of the North and it says that the same year as the plague, there were repeated unseasonably heavy rains. So maybe it was the water that was the real problem, and it wasn't something sent by a shyani witch or even something brought in by traders.”

“And that's the only history you've ever read about the Plague of Mynatt?”

Corin frowned. “Yes, the only one I could find. Why? Did I say something bad?”

The physician shook his head. “Not at all. There've been two books written since Ogden's on the subject. Both have reached similar conclusions, based on more sources and more evidence.”

“There have? I wonder if I can find them. I'd love to see what else they found out and why.” Confirmation of a theory was a rare treat, and one he intended to treasure. This whole appointment was worth it for that, if nothing else.

“There was some mention of you and dead animals?”

All the delight of vindication fled instantly. That again. “I don't kill them! I don't like hurting anything! It's fine for my brothers to go hunting and kill things and drag them home, but not for me to want to see how they're put together before they're butchered?”

“It's all right, I'm not accusing you of anything. I'm just trying to understand.”

“That's a first,” Corin muttered.

“You feel a lot like no one understands?”

“I know no one understands. My father is smart enough to keep Laures running smoothly, although part of that is being able to choose the right stewards and such, but he's only interested in aristocratic manly things. My brothers are just the same. My mother is mostly interested in appearances and her social standing when we're in the city every year and finding the best husbands for my sisters, and my sisters are just like her. I'm always the odd one out. I keep asking questions no one wants me to ask, and then I go looking for answers myself, and then people tell me I'm not normal. But if I don't ask questions, they just build up in my head and nag at me until I can't think about anything else.”

“Questions about chemistry and plants and animals? Like how they're put together?”

Corin nodded. “Everything's different. At first I was curious about how the bones all fit together like a puzzle, and what keeps them together but lets them move. But I found a lot of other things. Birds have hollow bones and they have all sorts of extra air pockets inside, that has to be so they weigh less and can fly, but why do they only have one hole under their tail for everything instead of two or three separate ones? Why do deer and cattle and sheep have four stomachs but pigs and hares don't? They all have hooves except the hares, and they all eat plants except that the pigs will eat a wider range of things. But the different parts of a pig's hoof look sort of like they're the equivalent of the pads on a hare's paw, or a dog's, and a cow's do too, but a horse's don't so much. And I know horses only have one stomach, too.” He stopped short, biting his lower lip hard. Too dangerous, he was saying far too much.

“Interesting questions. And ones that could be answered fairly readily, with access to the right books. Your parents aren't supportive of buying books, and then get angry when you try to find the answers on your own, whether that involves scandalizing the staff or failing to live up to your parents' idea of what you should be as a son of Laures. Does that about cover it?”


It took time for Corin to get past monosyllables again, after spooking himself by talking freely, but the physician was patient and sympathetic. Corin caught himself starting to show enthusiasm again and again, as the physician brought up subjects long of acute interest.

“Corin, lad,” the physician said finally. “I think we need to bring your mother in.” He either didn't notice Corin's wince or, more likely, tactfully ignored it as he went to the door to courteously invite Lady Laures to join them.

“Your Grace,” he said, “what we have here is your common or garden-variety precocious intellectual. They turn up in all the best families, I assure you. There tend to be fewer of them than the rough-and-ready types, but the world would be in a sad state without them, since they're the ones who come up with some of the most original engineering advances to improve homes and have devised some of the most valuable medical theories and procedures and treatments that we currently use. The treatment for household discord is this: as soon as he turns eighteen, send him to the University. Medicine is probably a good field to focus on, all things considered. I strongly suspect Corin could become a physician of some note, given the opportunity. And until then, buy the lad some books. I'll send you around a list of reading material that will be a good foundation for the University, and I don't believe you'll have any trouble convincing him to study them. Give him his own garden to plant things he can uproot and replant at will without disturbing your gardens, and give your staff a tongue-lashing for being so conceited they'd rather blame superstitious nonsense or malice than listen when Corin observes something afoot with the animals. In short, there is nothing at all wrong with your son beyond being highly intelligent and observant and curious, none of which are sins and all of which can be very powerful blessings if nurtured, but can cause immeasurable misery in the wrong environment.”

Corin listened in astonishment that only grew with every word.

“But everyone says...” he stammered.

“No one normal acts like Corin does,” Lady Laures said, much more firmly.

“Good lady, you are confusing difference with disorder, and they are not the same thing. Corin, as you get older, you'll find that 'they' say a great many things that have very little foundation in fact. There is absolutely nothing here for me to treat, apart from chronic loneliness and withdrawal which I expect the University can cure far better than anything I can offer.”

“Given the choice,” Lady Laures argued, “he'll stay in his room reading day and night!”

“Not if he has his own garden. And permission to observe your animals for early signs of injury or illness. And I suspect that if you get the lad a good book on geology, he'll be wandering all over your lands with no prodding needed. You cannot break a duck to saddle nor convince a horse to lay eggs. Let each do what comes naturally, and it's much better for all involved. If you like, I'd be happy to see Corin again while you're in the city. Once one gets past the reticence, there's a charming conversationalist under there. However, I think there's little I can do beyond making the suggestions I have and sending around a list of books. Would you both excuse me? I have other patients to see. Ones who are actually ill.”

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