Laures being what it was, Corin's allowance wasn't greatly higher than that of the occasional tradesman's son sponsored by his lord in recognition of extraordinary talents.
It didn't matter. If necessary, he'd have skipped eating rather than miss the gatherings most evenings in one of the pubs that catered to students.
“But that's exactly the opposite of what I'm saying,” Jared argued, reaching for the nearest pitcher of beer. Only a sad trickle dripped into his cup. “Okay, who finished the beer without saying anything?” He sighed. “Corin, get one of the girls to bring us a couple more pitchers, would you? Here.” Absently, he fished the coins out of the pouch at his belt and handed them to Corin, who nodded and went in search of one of the serving girls. Behind him, he heard Jared pick up the thread of his argument without missing a beat despite the brief distraction. He had no fear his seat at the table would disappear—acknowledged as Jared's shadow, he always had the spot beside Jared, and anyone who wanted to challenge that risked Jared's... not anger, but annoyance, and no one wanted to annoy Jared.
He waited while Nora finished with another table; she turned around, saw him, and smiled. Curious about the gossip that apparently spread among the girls in multiple pubs, she'd propositioned him once, and he must have lived up to it since there'd been a second invitation. As usual and understandably, she'd turned her attention to someone who could give her pretty gifts once the option existed. The story, in variations, had replayed over and over with different girls. Somehow, he stayed on friendly terms with the majority of them. Especially since he'd lost any real interest in sex with them, all of his own attention elsewhere.
“More for his lordship, hon?”
“Please? He said two, but there's enough there for three, and it's not all that late.” He handed her the coins.
“I'll be right there with it.”
“Thanks.” He flashed her a quick smile, and went back to the table.
“How do we even know that weyres look like animals called wolves and bears?” Jared was saying. “We've never seen any of these creatures for ourselves. There are none anywhere on this continent. We have reports from our ancestors who came here of two types of weyre that are similar to the large cats they knew from back home, though emphatically not identical. That we have names for them that don't appear in the early records suggests that we're actually using shyani terms for pumas and jaguars because we didn't have our own, but they're recognizably felines. The early reports say that bears here are a smaller version of the great brown bears they knew from back home, and the sea otters are a much larger version of ones they knew of as living in rivers and lakes. And that live in ours, for that matter. Even that much resemblance is highly improbable, and the wolves seem to be nearly identical in both locations. Did some ancient shyani find a way to crossbreed with a true wolf of some sort?”
“It wouldn't surprise me much,” Harald muttered.
“The answer to how the weyres are even able to change shape, let alone how they resemble real animals, could tell us so much about the world! And without it, how are we ever going to be able to have any certainty that any theory is correct, if we don't know whether it allows for that?”
“If they even change shape,” Willem said. The son of a stonemason, he was here because of his quick mind, his tuition and expenses paid by his lord; until Jared had recognized him as being interesting and had begun to listen to him, most of the highborn had snubbed and ignored him. “Evidence is rather thin on that, for good reason. I read a rather good treatise not long ago that suggested that they don't actually change shape at all, since that would be a physical and biological impossibility. Instead, they belong to tribes with specific totem animals and use the skins of those animals at certain times, including in battle. Possibly involving ritual or drugs or both to put them into a mental state of strong identification with their tribal animal and somewhere beyond feeling fear or pain. That's why they all have large fierce carnivores. One or two tame animals fighting at their sides, and it would be very easy, especially at night, for our ancestors to mistake what they were seeing. Which would also account for the postmortem dissections that demonstrate no significant deviation from true felines and canines.”
Jared considered that thoughtfully for a moment. “That's a rather intriguing approach. If you can remember where it was, I think I'd like to read that.”
“There were differences,” Corin said. “Most of them were within an expected range for a different species of feline or canine, but there were some brain structures that were never adequately explained.”
“We don't have adequate explanations for most human brain structures,” Wystan, the one other physician student, pointed out.
“No, but we know how to recognize a human brain. The brains of the human-form weyres had what were called anomalies, but they all had them and they were the same and they were all different from human. The animal-form brains had similar ones. That doesn't sound like an anomaly. And there's one report of a particularly minute examination of the body of a human-form weyre that showed some subtle oddities that would be very easy to overlook. He thought that if he had a way to compare the essential tissues of bones and organs that it would be highly illuminating, but they didn't have our level of chemistry or optics then and he couldn't. No one has tried, since we have better tools now but don't generally have weyre bodies available.”
“And most people, even scientifically-minded ones, have probably never even heard that there might be something worth investigating,” Jared said.
“Most people who have,” Wystan said, “point out that it's a single report and that no one else said anything about anomalous physical traits, so either that specific weyre was unusual, or the author was seeing things that weren't there or inventing things in an attempt to get attention.” His covert glare at Corin suggested that not only ancient authors were prone to that last crime.
“Or maybe,” Jared said, “that particular author was more open-minded and observant and made fewer assumptions. Seeing what you expect to see works both ways. Unfortunately, we don't have a way to test it, really. Drawings show only what the artist perceived, so we can't depend on those. About the only way to confirm it would be to dissect a weyre, or better still several, but that's not really a feasible option these days. Too bad they didn't have someone like you around, Corin, we'd probably have a lot more information.”
Corin smiled, eyes low. He never knew how to answer when Jared said things like that, but he was absolutely certain that he wanted him to, as often as possible.
“I still say shapechanging is impossible,” Willem argued. “If there were anomalies, well, fair enough. Shyani anatomy, as I recall, is rather peculiar, too, including some weird brain structures in a few that were believed responsible for so-called 'magic'. Wild animals attacking, weather effects, water rising suddenly, vegetation growing abruptly and in strange ways, et cetera et cetera, we've all heard the stories. The weyres having anomalies, and for that matter animals killed with them having a few, doesn't prove that shapechanging exists.”
“True,” Jared said judiciously. “And I do think the tribal totem theory should be considered, although it doesn't actually rule out shapechanging, either. That they're all fierce sorts of creatures is a valid point. Unless there were other kinds, weaker ones that didn't survive... hm, no, they seem to cooperate with each other, from what we know, so it would be unlikely for, say, wolves to prey on deer if both were weyres. There is the question of a sustainable population, too. How many kinds could there be and still have a viable population? Although that might be less of an issue if fewer of them were high-level predators and more were browsers or grazers...” His forehead furrowed, eyes unfocusing as he tracked the concept wherever it led him.
Nora leaned between Jared and Corin to set two of the three pitchers on the table, and moved around beside Willem to deliver the third. She was gone again in a heartbeat.
“Somehow we get better service when Corin charms the girls,” Harald muttered.
“Must be those big hazel eyes,” Geoffrey snickered. “And that reputation for being a real man in bed, if nowhere else.”
Corin flushed, but ignored it as normal background noise. It didn't matter what his so-called friends thought.
Jared shot the insulting pair down the table a look, the one that was reserved for the sin of mundane interruptions to something he found interesting, and both fell silent instantly.
“What if,” Corin said slowly, “the reason they're all large carnivores is because those are the animals most like human and shyani in many ways?”
Jared's attention went to him immediately. “How so?” Absently, he filled his own cup and Corin's from the nearest pitcher.
“Shapechanging is improbable, but what if you break it into two aspects: changing shape, and changing size? Changing to, say, a horse would involve a drastic change in size along with a drastic change in anatomy, and I think that would be even less probable. But wolves and pumas and jaguars are all supposed to be around the same size as humans, right? At least one account that I read observed that the bears here are much smaller and that in human form they tend to be rather large and muscular. The giant otters are generally described as being on the small side as humans. What if that isn't some sort of symbolic resonance, but is actually keeping the same size?”
“But why carnivores?” Willem asked. “Why not, oh, goats or roe deer or, for that matter, enormous birds? No, I suppose any bird would be too heavy to get into the air. Fish, then, or those big fierce lizard things from the southern swamplands?”
“Because the anatomy is more different,” Corin said. “Fish and lizards don't regulate their own body temperature or nurse young, we know they're very different from more advanced creatures. Birds have hollow bones and a huge number of anatomical differences. Even goats and deer have hooves instead of separate digits and a digestive tract with multiple stomachs. But canines are typically able to eat both flesh and vegetable matter to some degree, and there was a mention in an old book about the bears from the other continent eating, well, anything. That makes it likely they have a digestive tract similar to human, and they at least have paws, not hooves. Felines only eat flesh, so I don't know, but they don't have multiple stomachs, at least. Reports suggest that the otters eat only fish, so again...”
“But one carnivore stomach is still less of a change than four herbivore stomachs,” Jared reflected.
“Corin, I don't know about your family,” Geoffrey said, “but mine doesn't have tails or enough teats for a litter of young or fur all over.”
“My aunt Hulda might,” Conrad mused. “Maybe that's why her husband divorced her. Or maybe just that she's a bad-tempered bitch who insisted on having opinions different from his. But a few animal traits wouldn't surprise me much.”
“Humans are occasionally born with vestigial tails,” Jared said impatiently. “Or with more than two nipples. That it has anything to do with what the mother looked at while pregnant has been thoroughly dismissed as superstition. So it isn't impossible, only unlikely, and it's a smaller difference than a fish's gills and scales or a bird's feathers and hollow bones. Corin, what about the dolphins and seals?”
“Oh. I forgot about them.” Corin sighed and looked down. “Maybe it doesn't work after all.”
“Dolphins breathe air,” Geoffrey said.
“They do not!” Conrad said sceptically.
“They definitely do. I'm from the coast, remember? They come to the surface to breathe. There are some kinds of dolphins that aren't weyres, and they're pretty friendly. They've even helped humans stay afloat after going overboard or in shipwrecks, now and then. Why would they do that unless they recognize another air-breather?”
“Why would they do that at all? Are you sure these aren't weyres?”
“We know the difference between the ones that are weyres and the ones that aren't! And why would a weyre ever save a human?”
The discussion wandered off onto the subject of non-weyre dolphins.
“That's worth thinking about more,” Jared said quietly. “Changing shape and size as separate things, I mean. I don't think the dolphins and seals are necessarily a fatal flaw. I wonder whether there's anything in the library. Comparing whatever we can actually find on their anatomy to human, maybe, and you know anatomy better than anyone at this table right now.”
Corin smiled to himself. “I'll see what I can find.”
“I'll meet you at the library after your lecture tomorrow morning?”
“I'll be there.”
So what if he had homework to do, and had planned to do it between his lecture and the afternoon class it was due for? He could stay up tonight once they finished here, since no one really expected him to attend his scheduled morning fencing class—why did a physician really need to know fencing, anyway? The choice between sleep and the library with Jared was no choice at all.
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