Corin wove his way through the crowded tavern at positively reckless speed, making for the back corner.

Jared looked up from the book open in front of him when Corin dropped into the seat across from him. There was a pitcher of ale and two cups, one clearly not used yet; that Jared wasn't sufficiently impatient to have ordered his own meal was a good sign. Jared didn't bother stating the obvious fact that Corin was late, just gave him an expectant look while laying a scrap of paper into place to mark his page and closing the book.

“I'm sorry. Medical stuff. I was busy putting Harald's latest conquest back together. Physically, at least.”

That gave Jared pause. “That's pretty strong phrasing.”

“Yards of bandages and a dozen stitches and a bucketful of witch hazel-based lotion deserve strong phrasing. The poor girl's black and blue.”

“So she came to you.”

“A mutual friend asked me to come see her. She's going to lose wages from being unable to work. She can't afford to pay for care, too. And it would come with a lecture about how she asked for it, which would only make her feel worse. She doesn't deserve that.”

What she does deserve is justice, and there's absolutely nothing I can do about that. One question, “Did you go with him willingly?” and it'll be turned into her own fault. Even though no one should reasonably expect consenting to sex to include consenting to being beaten and verbally abused.

“I suppose hands-on practice is always good,” Jared reflected. “Harald is an idiot. It's not a difficult arrangement to grasp, after all. We're nice to the girls, the girls are nice to us, no complications, no fuss, everyone is happy. Hey,” he leaned to one side to lay a hand on the arm of the girl working here tonight—Corin recognized her as Molly, a friend of Edwena's. “Bring us two of whatever the special is, hm?”

Her gaze flickered to Corin, and she nodded. “As soon as I get these delivered, I'll be back with it.”

“Anyway,” Corin said, “I am sorry I'm late.”

Jared shrugged. “The risks of physician friends, I suppose. And you're here now, so no harm done. Have a drink and relax. You've done your charitable act for the day.”

Well, no, there's one left to do. Although I'd be happier not doing it.

He did fill the other cup with ale, though, and take a healthy swallow.

“If I let you,” Jared said with a sigh, “you're going to end up setting up the world's most shabby practice here in town, and looking after tavern girls for free most of the time. Paying for rent or food, let alone medical supplies? Mere practicality doesn't stand a chance against your sense of compassion.” He leaned back to fish out a handful of coins, and left enough lying on the table to cover two meals with a moderate tip. “Just as well I have no intention of going back to Hyalin and leaving you here alone.”

Terrifying thought, Jared not being there. That would be like the sun not rising.

“I'd probably get into a major mess,” Corin conceded. “Other than making the collective faculty certain that I'm a deliberate troublemaker.”

“Instead of something much more dangerous: an intelligent and educated freethinker.” Jared pushed the book off to one side and refilled his own cup before raising it.

“Before Nora came to find me,” Corin said casually, “I ran into Geoffrey.”

“You do have a class together.” A faint edge crept into Jared's tone.

“He said you're refusing to say anything to him beyond bare basic courtesy. Refusing to acknowledge his presence last night was rather harsh, wasn't it?”

“Then maybe he should think next time before he makes promises he has no intention of keeping. If you're going to brag about being related to the expert on coastal ecosystems, and promise an introduction after his big guest lecture, then you should probably expect some consequences if you fail to deliver.”

Corin heaved a sigh. “Look, I can live with or without Geoffrey around. All-Father knows, he doesn't think much of me, and it's mutual. But he does have a point. There's no way he could have known that his uncle would only be here for two nights and would spend all his time around the lecture with his own old friends in places we'd be thrown out of. It sounds like Geoffrey only managed a very brief greeting, himself.”

“Then don't promise without having all the information.”

This was delicate ground. He had no intention of getting Jared annoyed with him, especially over someone he knew made nasty comments about him behind his back, but his sense of fair play meant he had to at least give it a genuine try. “Even if he'd found away to do an introduction, there is absolutely no guarantee that you'd have gotten more than a short polite greeting yourself. Geoffrey couldn't have forced his uncle to actually have a conversation with you about the questions you have. If he spent his whole time here wining and dining with his own old friends, well, that doesn't sound like someone much in the mood for intellectual debate. I know you always are, but not everyone is.”

Jared made a noncommittal noise, simply acknowledgement that he was still listening, without any actual agreement. At least he was still listening, though. That meant he was open to being convinced. It was only when he turned his attention elsewhere, writing further discussion out of his personal universe entirely, that it became hopeless—and he almost never did that to Corin, though it wasn't uncommon for others.

Molly delivered two well-filled plates, scooped up the coins, and swirled away.

“Jared, think about it. He came to me for help. How desperate do you figure that makes him? He made a mistake. He promised more than he could deliver because he was hoping to give you something that you'd value and enjoy. It didn't work out. Sometimes things don't. But you liked having him around when he was talking about engineering tests involving different building materials and how to measure their strength and durability and ability to retain heat, right?”

“That's true,” Jared conceded. “He did have some excellent new ideas about it.”

There must be something else. Jared wouldn't have continued associating with Geoffrey unless he had something to offer. He searched his memories for anything else he could bring to mind. “And when you were trying to figure out the most efficient possible layout for a minimal residence that would be warm and well-lit on limited resources and compact but comfortable?”

“Probably not viable, but stripping down basic assumptions did turn out to be rather interesting.” Jared regarded Corin for a moment, then shrugged. “Oh, all right. I'll let it go. He still owes me one, but I'll stop ignoring him.”

Geoffrey wouldn't be in line for displays of generosity any time soon, but Corin figured he'd settle for being admitted back to Jared's table.

“Fair enough,” Corin said.

“Unless he annoys me again. But he has a second chance. It's up to him what he does with it. Don't ask me to give him a third one.”

“I won't. Anyone who gets a second chance should be grateful and not repeat the mistake.” Conscience clear, he dug hungrily into the plate of food. No elaborate highborn dinners here, but the mixture of vegetables and sausage and noodles was filling and reasonably healthy and surprisingly tasty.

“You missed lunch,” Jared said. It wasn't a question.

“I expected a late lunch, after a lecture on respiratory conditions. Then Geoffrey found me, and then Nora did, and since then I've been busy. Somehow lunch didn't happen.”

“You're really upset, aren't you? About this girl that got hurt.” Jared speared a bite of sausage and chewed it, watching him intently.

“That Harald deliberately hurt. And she has a name, Freda. I'm going to have a tough time being civil to Harald the next time I bump into him. This wasn't something that can be excused as an accident. He had sex with her, rather roughly, and then hit her repeatedly and called her a variety of degrading names. I don't know that I particularly like sharing a continent, let alone a classroom, with someone who does that. You know there's no point to her charging him with assault. With a highborn woman, it only ever sticks because it's an insult to her husband or her family, and not because anyone cares what she went through. For a commoner? She couldn't make it work even if she was a verifiable virgin, instead of finding friends like every other young woman in this town for generations. He got whatever he gets out of it, and she's going to be paying the full price. How is that fair?”

“It runs counter to any impartial definition of justice,” Jared admitted. “But then, how often is justice really impartial, instead of serving the status quo? There's a school of thought that that's the true purpose of any judicial system, rather than any abstract ideals of disinterested equality. On the other hand, her being punished for being friendly and accommodating is going in a direction I don't care for. Life's better all around when the girls feel safe enough to be at least obliging, or better still enthusiastic. You keep looking after her, and I'll cover whatever supplies you need, within reason. And, within reason, take her a few extra treats. Fresh fruit, that sort of thing, so you can be sure she's getting a decent diet for at least the first few days while she heals.”

“I imagine she'll be extremely grateful, but I doubt she'll be inclined to find any friends in the near future. If ever.”

“I didn't suggest it with that in mind, but I like that idea even less.” Jared frowned, said nothing for a couple of bites; Corin was perfectly willing to let him reflect on whatever was in his thoughts, since it allowed Corin a chance to eat a bit more without talking. “Will it make you happy,” Jared said finally, “if I have a word with Harald and point out that breaking some of the girls and making the rest of them nervous as rabbits, which is sure to happen if he keeps this up, is not going to make him any friends when it starts interfering with the rest of us having fun?”

Corin stopped mid-bite. “Would you? He might actually listen to you.” And to that sort of motivation.

“If I don't, you're probably going to work yourself up into going after him yourself and telling him what you think of him. Then he'll challenge you and while he's not exactly a great fencer, there is no one who can't beat you. Then I'll have to go after him myself anyway for taking advantage of your idealism, although it won't help you much since you'll probably be missing useful anatomy by that point. Knowing Harald, he'd go right for where it would hurt the most, although I suppose it might make men more comfortable with you treating their wives and daughters. And I'm used to having you around, and I'd like to keep it that way.”

Well, it might make for a more successful practice that way, and I never did consider it an essential part of me... But Harald with a rapier? Ouch. “Thank you. And yes, that would make me very happy. The girls are going to start spreading the word about avoiding him, since Freda's the third and he's getting worse with each, but I'm not sure how he'll react to that.”

“Probably not well, but at least there's marginally more hope for legal help if they're not going with him willingly. I'll see what I can do. As far as I know, he's not a threat to men, but I'll admit, I wouldn't envy any woman around him.” Jared shrugged. “Anyway, you might like this one when I finish it.” He tapped the book with a finger. “It's extremely outdated, but it's interesting to read about the ideas they used to have about influences on fetal development at various stages and individual traits after birth. Lunar phases, eclipses, planetary conjunctions, sounds and smells and sights the mother is exposed to, whether she has sex after conception and how long it goes on, what the father does for a living, what they both eat...”

“Some of those might be relevant in a medical sense,” Corin said, just as happy to leave this whole sensitive area. “Diet means nutrition, which is obviously important, and the father's occupation and for that matter things in the mother's environment could relate to toxic substances that could be transmitted to the fetus. But astrological events? I'd need some very solid evidence.”

“You won't get it in this book. But the attempt at logic, given relatively primitive knowledge and not much hard evidence available, is worth looking at, if only to be grateful that we've moved past it.”

This was much more comfortable ground.

Because when Jared said things that Corin knew were affectionate in his way, when he offered to do things that would help or please Corin though Corin knew they didn't particularly interest him for themselves, when he acted protective and concerned about his loyal shadow's well-being... it stirred up those other feelings, the ones that terrified him, the ones he dared not look at too closely.

The ones that gave birth to those unbearable fantasies that crept in, more and more, on the edge of sleep when it was all but impossible to keep them away.

<-- Back Next -->