Corin waited quietly at the table with the four other young male students who lived in Bruna's boarding house. If he ignored their presence, all of them intensely discussing the results of a ball game between the medical students and the math and engineering students, they equally ignored his.
Who cares who made what move and scored what points? It's only a stupid game. Most of the people you're praising so much are in the bottom half of their classes, and the rest of them are obnoxious asses who have listened too long to people like you turning them into heroes. They can play that game, but I wouldn't want to go to any of them if I were sick, or cross a bridge they designed.
Nothing ever changes. Not really.
Bruna bustled out from the kitchen with the usual great pottery bowl of thick stew; it might typically be heavier on vegetables than meat, but Corin had concluded that it was fundamentally healthy and nourishing, and it was certainly filling. Most days it was stew, with occasional roasts or the like, the leftovers of which went into further stews. Thrifty, but they never got sick from it, the way the students lodging in a couple of even cheaper houses had a time or two. Every meal must be an adventure in apprehension for them, a gastric gamble.
“There we are. Corin, I believe it's your turn to serve. I'll be back with the bread.”
“Yes, mistress Bruna,” Corin murmured, rising to start filling the stack of sturdy bowls and pass them down the table.
Vido, who had been last to the table with nowhere to sit except beside Corin, made much of avoiding direct contact while accepting each bowl to pass on—but he did it quietly, without drawing Bruna's attention. Overtly unpleasant behaviour at Bruna's table meant being banished from it for the remainder of that meal, and since she cared nothing at all for who had begun it, both instigator and victim suffered.
Corin had missed a number of meals that way.
“Should we be talking about something you can understand?” Vido said mockingly, his voice low. “The sexual behaviour of bighorn sheep and why that means that only men who bend over are real men?”
Bruna returned from the kitchen with a platter of bread. “I'm sorry, Vido? I missed that.”
“It was to me, mistress Bruna,” Corin said, favouring her with his most disarming smile. “He's concerned I feel left out of the conversation.” I'm hungry, I'm not missing dinner because you can't understand a simple argument. The instructor made a statement, I have information that conflicts with it, I brought it up. As usual that was a mistake, but that doesn't make it invalid!
“That's nice,” Bruna said. “You're about the quietest lad I've ever had here. It would be good for you to get more involved.”
“My mother has often told me the same, and despairs of its success,” Corin said lightly, passing a bowl to the opposite side for Bruna at the head of the table and filling a final one for himself.
He ate quickly, paying no attention to the debate over which of two players was responsible for their team's victory. He wasn't even sure which team had actually won, and didn't particularly care.
“Mistress Bruna, may I be excused? I'd like to do some reading in the library.”
“It's a shame they won't let you have a bed in the attic there,” she chuckled. “Off with you.”
Outside, he took a deep breath and released it, relieved to be out of the house. It wasn't so bad that on its own he couldn't tolerate it, but it was wearing. Worse, it was part of a general pattern.
Even at the University, he didn't fit in.
Many students were here not at their own request but because their families needed something to do with them, or because it was a family tradition, or in hopes they'd mature somewhat. Some were here because they'd chosen it as the least of several evils, generally younger sons from cadet branches. Genuine hunger to learn and understand seemed to be the rarest reason for being at the University.
And challenging instructors with questions they didn't expect and for which they had no ready answer, well, that set him apart even from the others who wanted to learn.
It was possible to find friendly company, though, if you looked in the right place. Not the library.
The University had not been founded in the middle of nowhere: it lay along one side of a substantial town. While the town grew in other directions, the University campus expanded outwards on its own, spotted with businesses that catered to the students of the university.
Inevitably, public houses were a profitable venture in a location that thronged with highborn younger sons away from their families—often with a generous allowance to help them keep up appearances for the sake of the family name.
He stopped in one such, ignored by fellow students as he sought out an empty table and sat down.
“Corin!” The serving girl stopped by the table and leaned down to give him an enthusiastic kiss that earned him a few jealous looks. “I'll be right back with a drink for you. The usual?”
“Don't go anywhere.”
Edwena, every time he saw her, was bubbling over with energy, rather like a puppy though he never made that comparison to her face. He didn't mean it as an insult anyway: he rather liked being on the edges of it.
She returned with a mug of ale and accepted the small coin he handed her.
“Are you here for the evening, or on your way to the library?” she asked.
“Oh, that depends on whether I can find anyone to keep me company or not.” He smiled at her. “I was feeling a bit lonely and I realized I hadn't been here in a while.”
“Much too long,” she agreed, with a teasing pout that vanished under a grin. “Drink your ale, and we'll see what comes up when I get a chance to take my break, hm?”
“That's the best reason I can think of to stay.”
He sipped his ale, watching the currents and tides of the taproom. Edwena and two others moved through it with impressive efficiency, trading drinks for coins, dodging excessively familiar hands and unwelcome invitations adroitly. In skirt and blouse and tightly-laced bodice, hair in a single braid, completely devoid of cosmetics and with scant jewellery beyond an occasional trinket, hands roughened by hard work and complexion by sun and wind, he nonetheless found them enthralling.
More difficult for them to avoid were the unpleasant names they were sometimes called and the crudely explicit comments flung in their direction.
It was interesting, as an outsider, watching the way people moved around, fellow students changing tables and forming new patterns, some leaving and some arriving.
Edwena slid her arms around Corin's shoulders from behind and nipped his ear. “Done your ale, sweetheart?”
“It would be worth abandoning for you anyway.”
“You say the nicest things.” She twined a hand into his and urged him to his feet.
The pub's owner and his wife lived upstairs, but so did the serving girls and the boy who did anything they didn't. Officially, upstairs was off-limits to customers.
Edwena led him up the steep stairs to her room. It was even smaller and plainer than his, but the bed was a bit wider.
With a contented sigh, she linked her arms around the back of his neck, and he wrapped both arms around her waist. “It always makes my night better when you're around. You're the only true gentleman of the lot, and money and bloodlines have nothing to do with it. The bunch of them, treating us like our bodies are public property or something they buy access to with their ale. And saying things they'd never dare say under their mother's roof, like serving ale means we have no right to expect any kind of courtesy or decency...”
“It's not fair,” he agreed sympathetically. “You work hard, and it's an honest job, which is more than most of them can claim. They shouldn't behave like that.”
“Having lovers does not make us common whores to be bought, either.”
“Of course not. You deserve nice presents. I wish I could afford to buy them for you.”
Just about any young commoner female in regular contact with students, he'd discovered, had one or more lovers at any given point in time. That they expected gifts from those lovers, who were usually highborn, seemed quite pragmatic to Corin. Their lives were less stable and less secure in many ways, and they were risking pregnancy with all its physical and social dangers, a threat not hanging over their lovers. If they could collect a little extra to set aside for the future or a crisis, or to use as a dowry for a better marriage down the road, or pay for something in the present that was otherwise out of reach, well, they were using what they had to survive as best they could.
It didn't matter whether trading sexual favours for gifts technically fell within the definition of prostitution. Any of them would be appalled by the offer of coin outright. They were not selling their bodies; they had friends who were generous. Several shops in the town did a brisk trade, buying trinkets from the girls, keeping them out of sight long enough to avoid drama, and then selling them again; Corin was sure some of those gilt pendants and silver-plated brooches and gold pins had probably gone through the cycle repeatedly. The girls never got as much as the original purchase price, but that mattered less than something intangible.
Self-definition was everything. As long as the girls never took actual coin, their self-image and sense of personal identity and integrity remained intact.
Edwena was unusual in choosing to stay friendly with Corin despite his limited funds and inability to buy her gifts. He wasn't foolish enough to think that she loved him or anything like it, or that she really wanted to hear him talk about his own tangled feelings, but being respectful and sensitive went a long way.
Edwena kissed him. “I know, sweetheart. But boys with money are everywhere. Boys who are actually good in bed, that's another matter.”
It didn't take long to get out of clothes and onto the bed, even hampered by eager kisses and hands beginning to seek out known territory. He quite enjoyed her obvious pleasure along with the chance to become intimately familiar with a healthy and highly responsive female body.
His own sexual satisfaction was another issue entirely. It hadn't really come as much of a surprise to discover that, given the opportunity, he preferred simply to make his partner feel as good as possible. The vague sense of his own body as being ill-fitting, his own disconnection from it, had always meant he had no interest in the self-pleasure in which he knew his brothers had begun to indulge around the time their voices broke. The sense of poor fit and distance only seemed to get stronger as he grew older, and sexual contact didn't help as he'd hoped it might.
That was part of the reason why he read things that made his fellow students mock him, looking for answers that he was increasingly sure weren't there even in the University's immense library. The kindly physician had missed something, and there was something wrong with Corin, he was sure of it. It wasn't normal for men to see sex the way he did, as something to take or leave, a way to give someone else a good time in trade for exploring and for not being alone. It wasn't normal to have no sense of identity with his own body.
Edwena gave him a last lingering kiss. “Someday, sweetheart, you're going to make your wife a very happy woman, and the rest of us should grieve.” She wriggled out of bed and reached for her shift.
“Maybe I'll marry you,” he said teasingly.
“Oh, I'm sure your father would be all in favour of that. Silly boy. Up you get. You know I have to get back to work, even if all I want to do after you've been here is lie around and not move for a while. I think I've learned more about my own body with you than all the time before.”
Corin obediently pulled his pants on. “Maybe that's my true calling. Helping women learn about themselves.”
“What the world needs is a way for that lot downstairs to learn, even just for one day, what it feels like to be a woman. You, somehow, don't seem to need to.” Busy running a comb through her hair and beginning to rebraid it, she missed his instinctive flinch. “Don't wait so long to come around, hm? I'll always make time for you.”
“I've been busy with homework, but I'll make sure it's not as long next time.”
“Good. Another ale, on the house, before you wander back to studying?”
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