THE NEXT MORNING I woke early, washed up, and grabbed a bite to eat at the Mess. Then, because I had nothing to do before my whipping at noon, I strolled the University aimlessly. I wandered through a few apothecaries and bottle shops, admired the well-kept lawns and gardens.
Eventually I came to rest on a stone bench in a wide courtyard. Too anxious to think of doing anything productive, I simply sat and enjoyed the weather, watching the wind tumble a few scraps of wastepaper along the cobblestones.
It wasn’t too long before Wilem strolled over and sat himself next to me without an invitation. His characteristic Cealdish dark hair and eyes made him seem older than Simmon and me, but he still had the slightly awkward look of a boy who wasn’t quite used to being man-sized yet.
“Nervous?” he asked with the harsh burr a Siaru accent makes. “Trying not to think about it, actually,” I said.
Wilem grunted. We were both quiet for a minute while we watched the students walk past. A few of them paused in their conversations to point at me.
I quickly grew tired of their attention. “Are you doing anything right now?”
“Sitting,” he said simply. “Breathing.”
“Clever. I can see why you’re in the Arcanum. Are you busy for the next hour or so?”
He shrugged and looked at me expectantly.
“Would you show me where Master Arwyl is? He told me to stop by… after.”
“Certainly,” he said, pointing to one of the courtyard’s outlets. “Medica is on the other side of Archives.”
We made our way around the massive windowless block that was the Archives. Wilem pointed. “That is Medica.” It was a large, oddly-shaped building. It looked like a taller, less rambling version of Mains.
“Bigger than I’d thought it would be,” I mused. “All for teaching medicine?”
He shook his head. “They do much business in tending the sick. They never turn anyone away because they can’t pay.”
“Really?” I looked at Medica again, thinking of Master Arwyl. “That’s surprising.”
“You need not pay in advance,” he clarified. “After you recover,” he paused and I heard the clear implication, if you recover, “you settle accounts. If you have no hard coin, you work until your debt is…” He paused. “What is the word for sheyem?” he asked, holding out his hands with the palms up and moving them up and down as if they were the pans of a scale.
“Weighed?” I suggested.
He shook his head. “No. Sheyem.” He stressed the word, and brought his hands even with each other.
“Oh,” I mimicked the gesture. “Balanced.”
He nodded. “You work until your debt is balanced with the Medica. Few leave without settling their debts.”
I gave a grim chuckle. “Not that surprising. What’s the point of running away from an arcanist who has a couple drops of your blood?”
We eventually came to another courtyard. In the center of it was a pennant pole with a stone bench underneath it. I didn’t need to guess who was going to be tied to it in an hour or so. There were about a hundred students milling around, giving things an oddly festive air.
“It’s not usually this big,” Wilem said apologetically. “But a few masters canceled classes.”
“Hemme, I’m guessing, and Brandeur.”
Wilem nodded. “Hemme hauls grudges.” He paused to give emphasis to his understatement. “He’ll be there with his whole coterie.” He pronounced the last word slowly. “Is that the right word? Coterie?”
I nodded, and Wilem looked vaguely self-satisfied. Then he frowned. “That makes me remember something strange in your language. People are always asking me about the road to Tinuë. Endlessly they say, ‘how is the road to Tinuë?’ What does it mean?”
I smiled. “It’s an idiomatic piece of the language. That means—”
“I know what an idiom is,” Wilem interrupted. “What does this one mean?”
“Oh,” I said, slightly embarrassed. “It’s just a greeting. It’s kind of like asking ‘how is your day?’ or ‘how is everything going?’”
“That is also an idiom.” Wilem grumbled. “Your language is thick with nonsense. I wonder how any of you understand each other. How is everything going? Going where?” He shook his head.
“Tinuë, apparently.” I grinned at him. “Tuan volgen oketh ama.” I said, using one of my favorite Siaru idioms. It meant ‘don’t let it make you crazy’ but it translated literally as: ‘don’t put a spoon in your eye over it.’
We turned away from the courtyard and walked around the University aimlessly for a while. Wilem pointed out a few more notable buildings, including several good taverns, the alchemy complex, the Cealdish laundry, and both the sanctioned and unsanctioned brothels. We strolled past the featureless stone walls of the Archives, past a cooper, a bookbinder, an apothecary….
A thought occurred to me. “Do you know much herb lore?”
He shook his head. “Chemistry mostly, and I dapple in the Archives with Puppet sometimes.”
“Dabble,” I said, emphasizing the buh sound for him. “Dapple is something else. Who’s Puppet?”
Wil paused. “Hard to describe.” He waved a hand to dismiss the question. “I’ll introduce you later. What do you need to know about herbs?”
“Nothing really. Could you do me a favor?” He nodded and I pointed to the nearby apothecary. “Go buy me two scruples of nahlrout.” I held up two iron drabs. “This should cover it.”
“Why me?” he asked warily.
“Because I don’t want the fellow in there giving me the ‘you’re awfully young’ look.” I frowned. “I don’t want to have to deal with that today.”
I was nearly dancing with anxiety by the time Wilem got back. “He was busy,” he explained, seeing the impatient expression on my face. He handed me a small paper packet and a loose jingle of change. “What is it?”
“It’s to settle my stomach,” I said. “Breakfast isn’t sitting too well, and I don’t fancy throwing up halfway through being whipped.”
I bought us cider at a nearby pub, using mine to wash down the nahlrout, trying not to grimace at the bitter, chalky taste. Before too long we heard the belling tower striking noon.
“I think I must go to class,” Wil tried to mention it nonchalantly, but it came out almost strangled. He looked up at me, embarrassed and a little pale under his dark complexion. “I am not fond of blood.” He gave a shaky smile. “My blood…friend’s blood…”
“I don’t plan on doing much bleeding,” I said. “But don’t worry. You’ve gotten me through the hard part, the waiting. Thank you.”
We parted ways, and I fought down a wave of guilt. After knowing me less than three days Wil had gone out of his way to help me. He could have taken the easy route and resented my quick admittance into the Arcanum as many others did. Instead he had done a friend’s duty, helping me pass a difficult time, and I had repaid him with lies.
As I walked toward the pennant pole, I felt the weight of the crowd’s eyes on me. How many were there? Two hundred? Three? After a certain point is
reached the numbers cease to matter, and all that remains is the faceless mass of a crowd.
My stage training held me firm under their stares. I walked steadily toward the pennant pole amid a sea of susurrus murmurings. I didn’t carry myself proudly, as I knew that might turn them against me. I was not repentant, either. I carried myself well, as my father had taught me, with neither fear nor regret on my face.
As I walked, I felt the nahlrout begin to take firm hold of me. I felt perfectly awake while everything around me grew almost painfully bright. Time seemed to slow as I approached the center of the courtyard. As my feet came down on the cobblestones I watched the small puffs of dust they raised. I felt a breath of wind catch the hem of my cloak and curl underneath to cool the sweat between my shoulder blades. It seemed for a second that, should I wish to, I could count the faces in the crowd around me, like flowers in a field.
I spotted none of the masters in the crowd except for Hemme. He stood near the pennant pole, looking piglike in his smugness. He folded his arms in front of himself, letting the sleeves of his black master’s robe hang loosely at his sides. He caught my eye and his mouth quirked up into a soft smirk that I knew was meant for me.
I resolved that I would bite out my own tongue before I gave him the satisfaction of appearing frightened, or even concerned. Instead I gave him a wide, confident smile then looked away, as if he didn’t concern me in the least.
Then I was at the pennant pole. I heard someone reading something, but the words were just a vague buzzing to me as I removed my cloak and lay it across the back of a stone bench that sat at the base of the pole. Then I began to unbutton my shirt, as casually as if I were preparing to take a bath.
A hand on my wrist stopped me. The man that had read the announcement gave me a smile that tried to be comforting. “You don’t need to go shirtless,” he said. “It’ll save you from a bit of the sting.”
“I’m not going to ruin a perfectly good shirt,” I said.
He gave me an odd look, then shrugged and ran a length of rope through an iron ring above our heads. “I’ll need your hands.”
I gave him a flat look. “You don’t need to worry about my running off.” “It’s to keep you from falling over if you pass out.”
I gave him a hard look. “If I pass out you may do whatever you wish,” I said firmly. “Until then, I will not be tied.”
Something in my voice gave him pause. He didn’t offer me any argument as I climbed onto the stone bench beneath the pole and stretched to reach the iron ring. I gripped it firmly with both hands. Smooth and cool, I found it oddly comforting. I focused on it as I lowered myself into the Heart of Stone.
I heard people moving away from the base of the pole. Then the crowd quieted and there was no sound but the soft hiss and crack of the whip being loosened behind me. I was relieved I was to be whipped with a single headed whip. In Tarbean I had seen the terrible bloody hash a six-tail can make of a man’s back.
There was a sudden hush. Then, before I could brace myself, there came a sharper crack than the ones before. I felt a line of dim red fire trace down my back.
I gritted my teeth. But it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought it would be. Even with the precautions I had taken, I expected a sharper, fiercer pain.
Then the second lash came. Its crack was louder, and I heard it through my body rather than with my ears. I felt an odd looseness across my back. I held my breath, knowing I was torn and bleeding. Everything went red for a moment and I leaned against the rough, tarred wood of the pennant pole.
The third lash came before I was ready for it. It licked up to my left shoulder, then tore nearly all the way down to my left hip. I grit my teeth, refusing to make a sound. I kept my eyes open and watched the world grow black around the edges for a moment before snapping back into sharp, bright focus.
Then, ignoring the burning across my back, I set my feet on the bench and loosened my clenched fingers from the iron ring. A young man jumped forward as if he expected to have to catch me. I gave him a scathing look and he backed away. I gathered my shirt and cloak, laid them carefully over one arm, and left the courtyard, ignoring the silent crowd around me.