Bardic Collegium was very calm at this time of the day. The younger students were either in their rooms practicing, or outside, letting go after a long day of classes. The older students, allowed to go beyond the college grounds, were in the heart of Haven's public market, setting up for the evening crowd.
Medren was nearly alone in Bardic's vast dining hall, sitting at the end of one of the three long tables there. There were a few more students close by, also slaving away on work. Medren generally couldn't work efficiently on mathematics or sciences in his room, surrounded by his instruments and other much more appealing alternatives; he liked to imagine the half-dozen students also in the dining hall right now were similarly trying to trick themselves into doing their mathematics homework. Why they even needed any sort of mathematical knowledge was beyond Medren, but he wasn't letting something so ridiculous stop him from getting his Scarlets and becoming a Bard.
He was working on a series of triangles that were adamant about giving him a headache when Godfrey and his usual following, Franya and Karith, walked in, making sure they could not be ignored.
Medren did not like Godfrey. He was from a good family, and had taken to make anyone who was not feel inadequate. For all that he was seventeen, two years older than Medren, the other boy had always been selfish, self-centered and full of himself. This was why, even though he was old enough that he'd soon be promoted to Journeyman if he got the attention of the teachers, he had been getting passed over for younger students. It made him even crueller than usual. Luckily, Medren had rapidly developed his father's frame and muscles, and apart from calling Medren a bastard on a few occasions, Godfrey had kept his distance.
Or, rather, had mostly kept his distance, as he sat down in front of Medren, snickering, clearly not there for a friendly exchange on the weather.
“Hello, Medren,” he said, grinning.
Etiquette was the only reason why Medren looked up from his work and answered a curt “Good morning”, not even bothering to set down his quill.
“You would not believe who we just ran into,” he continued, disregarding Medren's unfriendly tone.
“I probably also would not care in the slightest.”
“We saw your little protégé at the market.”
Medren's blood ran cold. This revelation could in no way be anything else than bad news. Stefen was not yet allowed to leave the grounds during days off, and had already been caught sneaking out a few times. He had been warned about the consequences he would be facing at another such indiscretion, and Medren thought he’d made it clear that Stef was to share with him his plans when he wished to do anything outside of what was permitted. That way, Medren could both verify the validity of his plan and play false witness, or open windows, if needed.
“I doubt it was Stefen, if it was at the market. I know for a fact that he's currently in our room,” Medren lied deftly anyway, and hoped Stef had realized he had been seen so that he'd be back at their room fast enough that Godfrey wouldn't have the time to fetch a teacher.
“Oh no, it was him,” Godfrey insisted, too pleased with himself.
Medren started ordering his papers, stood up, and tucked them under his arm. “If you're quite done, I am going to retire to our room, also. I think I'm sensing the beginning of a headache. Must be the company.”
Godfrey glared at him and didn't let Medren go, navigating around the tables so he could follow him.
“It was your little street whore and he's back to his old ways.”
“You will stop talking now if you know what's good for you,” Medren said, between his teeth.
Getting a reaction out of Medren seemed only to excite Godfrey, who smiled widely and added, “He must have liked selling his body because he is letting some older men have their way, the little pervert. I'd be careful if I were you, you might catch his deviance–”
Medren let his work fall on the floor, turned around, and punched Godfrey in the face with his left hand, naturally protecting his dominant hand even if it made the hit less efficient.
Godfrey yelled and clutched his face, Franya screamed and ran to his side, all as Karith jumped on Medren in retaliation.
She slowly started treating him, examining his lips, nose and eyes. She hadn't asked anything, so Medren thought it fair to stay silent and allow her to work.
“You won’t need a Healer. Nothing broken, and I don't believe you’ll even have a black eye. You ended that tussle in much better shape than your adversaries.”
Medren did his best not to smile at this prognostic, and was only mildly successful.
“Now. Franya and Karith both said you hit Godfrey first. Do you... corroborate this version of the facts?”
Breda looked at him, and Medren could see rather plainly that she was expecting him to deny this, and was ready to believe him. Godfrey was not liked by many, including most teachers at Bardic.
Medren glanced away.
“Yes, that’s right.”
Breda's eyes widened in surprise. “You admit to being the first one to turn the matter physical?” she asked, as if to give him a chance to change his mind about his statement.
“Yes,” Medren muttered, looking down at his hand. It had throbbed a bit shortly after the hit, but it did not hurt at all anymore. He couldn’t have hit Godfrey all that forcefully.
“Well. Since everyone agrees, you will understand that punishment is in order. You will not be allowed to Haven proper for a month, and you will report to the library to help Bard Julia every evening this week. You also will have to meet with the school's disciplinary committee. Most likely, this will result in a strike against you. Do it again, and you could be facing expulsion, which is something I do not wish to see happen.” Breda looked at him intensely. “Is all of this clear?”
“Yes, Bard Breda,” Medren answered, chastened.
“Now,” Breda said, putting down the medical supplies she had been using. “This will in no way diminish the severity of the situation,” she looked at Medren pointedly, “but, I would like to know what Godfrey said to provoke you, if you are willing to share.”
Medren tightened his mouth, not unwilling exactly, but unable to recount the whole exchange without telling the Bard that Stef had most likely been at the market this afternoon.
She mistook the reason of his hesitation and asked, her voice softer, “Did he comment on the status of your birth?”
“No. He didn't say anything about me.”
Breda's eyes lit up in comprehension. “Something about your uncle's preference?”
Medren's face darkened and he nodded. Although the comment had not been about Vanyel specifically, he knew himself enough that he could tell he had reacted so strongly because Godfrey had been insulting both his best friend and uncle.
“Very well,” Breda said, “I understand the need to defend the ones you love, but it does not excuse your behavior. Do not let him, or anyone, give rise to your temper like this again.”
Medren nodded once more.
“Away with you, young man. And don't forget to report to Bard Julia.”
“What happened to your face?”
“Godfrey,” Medren said, before amending his answer, “Oh, no, he never did get close enough. It was all Karith.”
“Did you fight them? You don't even know how to fight!”
“I know how to fight! You should see how they look,” Medren retorted, annoyance creeping in his tone.
Stef's expression immediately changed from worried to pained and guilty. “I think Godfrey saw me at the market,” he said.
“Yes, he did. I told him it couldn’t have been you, as I knew for a fact that you were in our room.”
“Even if his story is not enough to report you to someone, he'll make sure to spread gossips about what he saw.”
Stefen waved his hand, dismissive. “There are already so many rumors about me, I don't see how this will change much at all.”
“It’s never quite the same when the rumors are true.”
Stefen laughed. “As if anything that Godfrey spreads around could be remotely close to any truth. And some of those gossips are already true, either way.”
Medren frowned. Stef wasn't wrong, exactly, but he felt there was a significant difference between rumors that Stef used to be a beggar –which, although true, was only amusing to a certain group of people with whom Medren would not have wasted his time– and rumors that Stef might be shaych. Vanyel, who was very close to being celibate as well as being the most powerful Herald-Mage in the kingdom, still often fell victim to discrimination and a stream of problems due to his preferences. Stef was frail and young, had an amazing Bardic Gift that would be completely useless in a fight, and most likely was not on his way to celibacy if he was already going to Haven to meet people.
“It would have been easier to cover for you if I’d known you planned to sneak out today,” Medren stated and raised his eyebrows at Stefen in an attempt to breach the topic slowly – or even to encourage Stef to talk to him first.
“I might have forgotten?” Stef asked, suddenly grinning like a devil.
“Of course you did,” Medren answered, sitting down on the chair by their desk. “Are you sure it isn't because you wanted to conceal why you wished to go to the market?” Medren asked.
“Maybe that had a minimalistic influence on my decision.” Stef shrugged, apparently not bothered by Medren's line of questioning, even if not quite forthcoming. Medren hesitated and finally chose to be blunt.
“Godfrey said you were with an older man.”
Stef opened his mouth and frowned in an incredulous grimace. “Percyvell is not old. He is younger than Godfrey.” That probably meant that this Percyvell was three or four years older than Stef, which sounded a bit too old to Medren, but certainly did not qualify as 'some older man'. “Honestly!” Stefen carried on, “I have no doubt that Godfrey is jealous because he is strongly encouraged to stay celibate until his wedding night, lest some bastard could put a claim on his family's land and properties!”
As Stefen kept talking, Medren slowly hid his face in his hands. “I’m not saying you are wrong,” he responded, “and you have to trust me when I say that I have no issue with it at all, but I really believe that you should be more subtle about being shaych.”
“About being what?” Stefen asked, clearly startled.
“Shaych. It comes from the Tayledras word shay'a'chern.” Now is not the best time for an etymology lesson, Medren thought. “It means you have a... romantic preference for other men.”
Stef processed the new information and eventually sat down on his bed. “So,” he said, slowly, “Is it... bizarre to be interested in other men and not women?”
Stefen usually seemed older than his age, as his time before Bardic had taken its toll on him. Medren was surprised that he could appear and sound thirteen under certain circumstances.
He sighed. “Maybe. I don't know,” Medren answered truthfully. “What I do know is that you are not alone. My uncle...” He trailed off, having made his point. “And, clearly, Percyvell,” he added, smiling.
Stefen smirked, and he looked older again. “Still. You said some people would have issues with this?” Medren nodded. “Why?” Stefen asked.
“I'm not quite sure.” Medren grasped for the right words, and felt thoroughly unprepared to be having this conversation. “Although, I know it's their problem, not yours.”
“If it’s their problem, why should I hide?” Stefen declared, a hint of arrogance in his voice.
This statement set the tone for much of their time at Bardic.