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surf - Man


"Hey, lumpfoot!"

Krion cringed. He tried to move faster, his club foot dragging, his gait uneven, breathing rough and ragged as he struggled against the limitations of his body. Not quick enough. The Duke of Grell's son, Huroc, caught him by the ear, and cuffed him hard.

"Don't try and run away from me, lumpy. If I want to talk to you, wait." Huroc wasn't the worst of his tormenters, by any means. Sometimes, he could even be almost kind, and once he had actually smiled at Krion, as if he meant it. He had eyes the colour of a spring shower, thick curling straw-gold hair, an elegant nose, and full, sumptuous lips. He was well-built, lithe, the captain of the polo team, the best kickball player, and a gifted kitharor [1]. Next year he would do his military service in the army – he was eighteen, almost the same age as Krion, who, however, would never do military service. Huroc's father was rich, and the Duke of one of the Nine Duchies. He had a mother and sister who adored him. He was everything Krion wasn't.

"Have you done the history essay?"

"Y-y-y-y-y-yes." Huroc didn't wait for him to finish, impatient with the stutter.

"Well, give it to me quickly. I didn't have time last night to work on it." Krion hated Huroc's smirk. Everyone knew that Huroc was having an affair with one of the kitchen maids. They were reputed to meet in the pantry, and couple on the empty grain sacks. No-one would ever come to Krion's bed, except to torment and tease him. He silently handed over his essay, and watched while Huroc copied it. Then Krion saw with quiet resignation his own papers torn into tiny shreds. Krion knew he would get a beating for not handing in his work. But it was a beating from the master or being beaten up by Huroc, and then having to explain to nurse that he'd fallen over on the stairs, and watching her disbelieving face soften with pity. Besides, he never gave up hope that Huroc would be grateful, and treat him better. If Huroc did, then perhaps the others would follow his lead. Sometimes, in his secret place in the attics, while he was reading a story of a shining knight, rescuing a beautiful maid from certain death, he would dream about being Huroc's friend, of being invited to his keep, of going riding with him. He never let his thoughts go any further – someone as beautiful as Huroc with a clumsy, club-footed nobody! Might as well expect the sun to rise in the west.

Lord Drengo's academy for boys had a good reputation. Many nobles sent their sons there, to learn reading and writing, swordplay and dagger work, geography and history, horsemanship and horse husbandry, and for those few with brains, Elvish and music. Sport was extra; kickball, polo, and in summer, swimming in the large pyashina [2] in the grounds. There were eighty boys and ten teachers, and the usual complement of guards and bravos, and kitchen staff and cleaners. The school was situated two days' ride from the imperial capital, Cappor, far enough to harden the boys, and discourage frequent visits from their mothers, but close enough to make the journey home every quarter reasonably convenient. Its graduates filled the ranks of the upper bureaucracy, and half the noble houses.

Some merchants and manufacturers sent their sons there, and often it was a happy experience for them. With the right personality, they made friends, who sometimes lasted all their lives. But if they were shy or odd or too intelligent, it was harder. If you came from a poor family, you had little chance of fitting in. It was enough that they ignored you, but of course, it was much more fun to bully and torment.

Krion came from a family too poor to afford the fees, too poor to afford to keep a polo pony. His father had been Lord Drengo's lyubon [3], long before they had both married. When Krion's father died, in one of the epidemics of the coughing sickness (in that year when the wolves had prowled the suburbs of the city, and snow a foot thick cloaked the citadel), Drengo had taken Krion into the school. He himself had little money – the family estates were on poor land, and the city house was heavily mortgaged. But he remembered warm evenings of love and affection on campaign in Roidan, camping in elfhame, in a grove of near-magical trees, a trip to the icefields of the far south. So he did what he could. Sometimes he could see Jnethon's face in Krion's, and he felt sad, and sent him away. But mostly, Krion took after his mother, and that was worse – the face of his rival, her dark eyes and chestnut hair. Krion seldom smiled, but when he did, you could see the beauty that came to him from both of them. Despite these reminders, Drengo tried hard to be fair, and being unimaginative, he had no idea what Krion suffered in the dormitory, in the corridors, even in the classroom.

The history master, however, was wise to the ways of schoolboys. He had beaten Krion for not submitting his work, and hard. It had happened too often. But when he read Huroc's essay, he smelt a rat. It had been too thoughtful, too intelligent, too understanding of the sufferings of the poor during the rebellion. Though Huroc was undeniably clever, the master didn't think he was capable of this subtlety, and certainly not of this compassion. He knew that Krion was, and that his mind was the finest of all the boys in the school. The next day, at the lesson, he said to Huroc,

"Your essay was brilliant, Huroc. But I didn't fully understand your references to the Reaver movements. Perhaps you would care to explain to us?"

Huroc shot a desperate glance at the teacher, and then at Krion. But Krion just stared back at him. If the teacher suspected, there was little he could do. His bum was still sore from yesterday's beating. He wasn't going to let himself in for more.

"I'm not sure what you mean, master." Huroc was flustered. His classmates were covering their grins with their hands. They toadied up to him but enjoyed his discomfiture, jealous of his beauty, his prestige, his rumoured success with the kitchen maid, his high noble birth.

"Well, surely, you remember what you wrote? If you could elaborate, explain the intricacies of your argument, and the difficulties they faced. Your essay was so insightful, profound, intelligent. It was just that part that confused me." Krion blushed, staring down at his desk. If he had handed in this essay, the master would have been complimenting him. Probably just as well he wasn't – the class would have been waiting for him afterwards, to take their revenge. He became aware that there was a complete silence.

"Who wrote your essay, Huroc?" Everyone flicked their eyes backwards and forwards from Huroc to the master. Some looked at Krion. They knew where Huroc usually got his "work" from. The silence rang through the room. Huroc stared at the master, shame and anger in his eyes.

"I will ask just once more, Huroc. Who wrote your essay?" His anger was ominous.

"Krion." He ground out the reply through his teeth, flicking a quick look of hatred at Krion, whose eyes were still fixed on a groove he had made on the lid of his desk with his knife. Krion knew he would be made to pay for this later.

"And how did you come by his essay?"

"I asked him for it."

"Of course – and he just gave it to you."

Huroc nodded.

"And where is Krion's paper now?"

Huroc was silent.

"I'm speaking to you. Do not ignore me."

"I tore it up."

"You tore it up." There was a long silence. "You copied his essay, then you tore his work up. And then you watched while he was beaten for not handing it in. And you were silent." The contempt in the master's voice was profound. Huroc blushed. Krion turned to face the wall, his humiliation complete. "Come here, Huroc." The master's voice was cold with disdain and scorn. There came the familiar sounds of the cane swishing through the air and connecting with soft flesh. They could tell from the sound it made as it struck Huroc's buttocks that the master was hitting as hard as he could. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Eight! The master was truly angry. Krion expected that his own punishment would be as severe. After all, he should have refused to give Huroc his work. But the master said nothing to him, just giving him one quick look from under his eyebrows. Krion was mortally afraid of the harshness of Huroc's revenge. He dared not look in Huroc's face as he came to sit down, but despite his fear, he stole one quick glance, taking in the eyes bright with unshed tears, the hard mouth, the face tense with anger, the look of hatred he threw in Krion's direction.

At the end of class, the master asked Krion to stay behind. Krion would rather he had been beaten. It was less humiliating, and less dangerous. He watched with despair the other boys slipping through the door.

"Why did you do it?" Krion stared stubbornly at the floor. He heard a sigh. "Come. You must tell me. I will keep you here until you do."

Krion was suddenly angry. He looked directly at the master. "B-b-b-because I'd rather b-b-b-be beaten by y-y-y-you than b-b-b-bashed by h-h-h-him." His voice choked. The master nodded. He'd already known. He wasn't that old – he'd been a schoolboy too, just a few years before. He looked at the boy in front of him, his clothes serviceable but worn, his ugly foot, his hangdog air. He knew that what he had done would make this young man's life worse, not better, and wondered again why youngsters were so cruel. He questioned what he could do. He knew there was nothing.

"Well, he probably won't be doing it again." He was trying to console himself as much as Krion. It was small comfort to Krion – he was preparing himself to face Huroc's revenge. "Y-y-yes, s-s-s-sir."

They were waiting for him in the gangway outside the classroom. Huroc stood negligently against the wall, his two best friends Uin and Darath next to him.

"Here's the sneak." Huroc's voice was cold.

"I-I-I d-d-d-didn't t-t-t-t-tell . . . . " His stutter was always much worse when he was ...

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