A Less Sudden Meeting

Story no. 30. Progress! And 3/30 for April, and this time it’s actually still April 3rd even in Switzerland!

Beatrice saw the man with the glasses and the shaved head again a week later. She refused to admit to herself that she had deliberately called Mr. Billings with questions about her contract that could only be resolved in person so that she could wander the UCL campus hopefully.

But her embarrassment withered when she saw him across the yard. “Hullo! Excuse me! Sir!”

The moment he caught sight of her his whole body seemed to expand. “Oh! It is you . . . ! The woman from the, er, the – “

“The toilet, yes.” Beatrice stopped in front of him, gasping, and realized she’d been running. “Pardon – “

“My name is Khirlaeon,” he said, bowing. “Erabach Khirlaeon. Do you want to shake hands as well? I felt very stupid when I realized we had not exchanged names.”

“Shaking hands is nice – I did as well – my name’s Beatrice B. Smithwick,” she said, holding out a hand and laughing.

“Oh, like the mystery author,” he said, gingerly shaking two of her fingers. His hands were very large indeed.

“Erm – well – exactly like the mystery author,” she said, warmth rising over her cheeks to her hairline.

Khirlaeon paused, one eyebrow raised. “Do you mean – “

“I mean – well – I assume you’re talking about Captain Howard – are you talking about Captain Howard?”

“Yes, and Isaac the dog – “

“Oh yes. I, well, I write those books. It’s the only thing I do,” she rushed on. “I quit my job at a greeting card company last year. Mummy – my mother was quite angry with me. But it’s not so – ”

Khirlaeon’s eyes gleamed as he said a number of very nasty-sounding words she couldn’t understand. “I have the book of The Night Ship is in my room,” he said. “If I had it I would ask you to sign it. Maybe you could sign a small, erm, like this – “ he drew a rectangle in the air with his index fingers, about an inch by two inches “ – of paper, and I can glue it inside the cover.”

“Oh, I’d be happy to,” she said, her head filling with oddly pink clouds. “But – the truth is – I wanted to find you – to ask you about literature,” she blurted out. “Because I hardly had the chance to last time, and I was going to read literature at uni, you know, only once I failed that course the second year Mummy said she wouldn’t help me anymore, and I always meant to write – well, serious books – that was what I dreamed of, anyway. So I wanted to ask someone who is really doing it – ”

He tipped his head back and forth and made a disgruntled, disagreeable noise. “That is maybe an exaggeration. I would not call myself exactly a success as a student of literature. And I have not written – that is to say, I have not finished any books in the case of the present time.”

“Well, I’m not either,” she said and laughed again. She wished she could stop laughing.

“I would be very pleased with myself if I wrote Captain Howard books,” Khirlaeon said, his voice wry and full of warm envy.

“I don’t know if anyone’s ever said something that nice to me before,” she said. This time they both laughed in that flustered, too-loud way.

He flipped his sleeve back impatiently from his arm and, in doing so, caught sight of his watch. A hiss escaped from between his teeth. “I am having the teaching of a class.”

“Oh, when?” Beatrice said, anxiously tucking a strand of curly hair between her ear.

“Five minutes ago,” he said, and they both startled into laughter again.

“Maybe you could be sitting in the back of the class,” he said abruptly. “It is perhaps the best mannerism in which to find out what I teach – it is most unfortunate that at this point I teach rather than do.”

It was in this way that Beatrice ended up sitting in a wooden folding chair at the very back of an old lecture hall, her freckly face dull red, her hands tucked tightly between her knees as if that would hide her lack of a notebook.

Khirlaeon paced the front of the room, speaking in punctuated and forceful about medieval Wodani poets to twenty master’s students who watched him with a combination of interest, bemusement, and – on the part of at least two of the female students whose faces Beatrice could see – open desire.

“The best translators of Izurnyasch Tonat preserve the rhythm of the plainsong,” he threw out over the students’ heads. “The hunting chant. The Wodani court had passed four centuries in underneath the civilizing influence of the Priyasthane, so they are having their finer graces – but they are not forgetting the song of the hunt, the nomadic song, the song of moving, the song that is picking up the tents and tying them on the backs of horses. They are not forgetting the song that is fighting the wolves, the song that is pushing out against the dark.”

He read an excerpt from Izurnyasch in English from the textbook. “But I would not say it like this,” he said. “It has the right sense but the wrong rhythm. From the vocabulary you understand his grace, his refinement. But it is from the rhythm that you know he is still hungry in his bones.”

I am in love with this man, Beatrice thought, and immediately banished the thought as idiotic.

“Next week we will look at Sanin, and you will see that he is having a very different structure, in where the rhythm is not so important, because he is not from Wodani,” Khirlaeon finished. “Please remember your papers for next week. Good weekend.”


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