The Spires of Turris
Christine Danse © 2017
All Rights Reserved
I appeared at the Humanities ballroom at 1800 sharp with everything but literal bells on. The suit fit snugly. A folded piece of vellum was tucked into my vest pocket.
Small knots of people stood scattered around the bright antechamber. The yellow and blue crystals of the chandelier threw geometric patterns of light around the room. A student waved from one of the corners.
I waved back and strolled to the double doors of the ballroom. The sound of chamber music drifted out with the din of voices and a sweet smell, like champagne.
I scanned the drifting mass of bodies but didn’t see Sita. There seemed to be a pretty clear path around the wall; I could make a quick circuit around the room to find her before I collected a glass of bubbly and started the tribal ritual of bumping elbows with students and fellow faculty.
The student waved again, vigorously, from the corner of my vision. I realized she stood next to a research poster. Damn, and she’d already caught my eye. I smiled and approached.
It was Aelia who saved me, three student posters and twenty minutes later.
I glanced back to spot her approaching in a slim red dress, waving at me with a champagne flute already half-emptied.
“Please excuse me,” I said to the undergrad who had been telling me about Tuvan time orientation. I turned and bowed. “Doctora Capra.”
She flushed. “Dr. Wells, you’re looking…dashing.” Her dark eyes traveled up and down the length of me. “Look at your shoulders in that suit.”
“And you look extraordinarily stunning, my lady.” An Italian beauty, with olive skin and a cascade of mahogany curls. I’d’ve been head over heels. If. Her red lips quirked, like she knew it too. I offered her my elbow. She took it, and we walked arm in arm toward the ballroom.
“A top hat and everything,” she said. Her eyes danced at me.
“Do you like it?”
“It is very you. Very…Victorian gentleman.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” I said, and touched the brim.
We grinned. Then we pressed into the sea of sound and bodies through the ballroom doors. I bent my head to her ear. “Have you seen the dean?”
“Somewhere around here,” she half shouted. “Don’t worry. I’ll vouch that you were here.”
“Very kind of you.” I patted her hand. “Hey, I think that’s her. I hope you will excuse me, my lady.” I raised her fingers, kissed them, exchanged a wink with her.
Sita, if that had been her, had already disappeared into the crowd when I turned. I wove through, hoping to catch sight of where she’d turned. I froze.
I thought perhaps I was just seeing things, the Ghost of Faculty Mixers Past, but then he turned his white smile to someone next to him and I caught an unmistakable look at his profile. The Roman nose and the square chin that, on another person, might have looked like a caricature artist’s joke. He made it imperious.
He began to look up, and I pushed back through the crowd. My heart banged—but not in anger, as it should. Ridiculous. He should have been the one running, not me.
This wasn’t “running,” though. This was tact. If I collided with Mata tonight, I wasn’t sure I could control my expression or my mouth. I was here for Sita.
“Dr. Wells? Would you like a glass?”
I realized I stood next to the champagne bar. An ex-student watched me hopefully and expectantly, waiting to place her own order. Half a dozen other people watched me, too. They probably thought I’d skipped the line. I touched my hat in silent apology and said, “The asti, please.” I could use it.
The student dazzled me a smile and repeated the order to the bartender. A minute later, drink in hand, I was safely ensconced in a group of students with my back to the wall and no Felix in sight. Also, no dean, but I could be patient, especially now that Mata had already shaved the edge of immediacy from my excitement. None of the students asked me about research assistantship, certainly a plus.
I drank, nodded to the conversation, and kept an eye on the crowd. Felix Mata. What would he be doing at a faculty mixer? The first and obvious answer was too distressing to consider. Of course, I might have been mistaken, as I’d only caught a flash of him. But a flash was all I needed to recognize that aristocratic profile and black mane of hair. He still wore it down and unbound. He must be near fifty now. What self-respecting man of fifty wore his hair down like some twenty-year-old Don Juan? There was a shot of gray in it. I wanted to feel smug about that, but the fact was, the color suited him. Everything suited him.
I drained the last of my champagne. I realized the small circle of students had gone silent and stared at me. Someone had asked a question.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Will you be offering another section of Advanced Lost Languages next semester?”
“You’ll have to ask the dean. And tell your friends to ask, too. Courses are offered if enough people show interest in them. If you’ll excuse me.”
I ducked out and skulked for the doors to catch a breath of fresh air and regroup. I was sweating under the suit, and the edges of a headache threatened.
Out in the antechamber, the din of voices dropped back like a curtain. Once there, I knew I’d be calling it a night. I’d made my appearance, and I could show Sita my discovery tomorrow.
“London, there you are.”
And there was the dean now, parting the crowd with her slight form. She looked handsome in a classic black dress, hair twisted into a slick bun. I thought she’d scold me for leaving early, but she smiled with glossy maroon lips.
I’d tucked my top hat under my arm to make myself less of a target in the crowd, an attempt not to be noticed by Felix. As I turned to meet her, I placed it back on with a twirl of my wrist.
She held out her hand. “I’ve been looking for you, London.”
I squeezed her fingers. “Dean Tiwari. Afraid I would bow out?”
“Never, if you know what’s good for you. Look at you. You look like you stepped right out of a Victorian sim.”
I bowed low at the waist and kissed her knuckles. She smelled of sandalwood and cardamom. The piece of vellum in my breast pocket burned a hole there. I straightened, lips parting to ask if we could move somewhere quiet to speak. My gaze rose to the man standing at her elbow and the words died.
Sita’s smile widened. “London, I’d like you to meet someone. Chas Chambers. He’s a master’s student in Language Studies. Chas, this is Dr. Wells.”
Suddenly I felt a fool in my costume, a big kid playing dress up. My hand went to my hat. I removed it.
“Chas,” I said, taking the big hand he proffered me. This time, it was dry and warm. My all-too-helpful gentleman caller from yesterday cleaned up well in a charcoal suit. Its sharp angles accentuated his high cheekbones and trim waist. Almost alarmingly trim, under the broad chest and arms. The suit contained him neatly, but just. He looked powerful but sophisticated. In short: classy. He smiled at me, and a trace of the self-consciousness remained, but there was confidence in his demeanor this time. His other hand was tucked into his pants pocket.
“We had the pleasure of meeting just the other day,” I said with a nod to Sita, as if he hadn’t walked in on me nearly toppling from a ladder. “Language Studies, huh? You’re a new student, then.”
“This is my third semester,” he said.
That would put him nearly halfway through the program. I did the math. He must have begun the program the same semester I set out for Anemoi and had completed nearly half of it since then. It hit me then just how much time had passed. It also hit me, in a strange way, how expendable I was. I was director of Language Studies; in my absence Sita must have admitted him herself. Life went on without me. The wheels continued to turn.
Into my own dumb silence, I said, “Well. And what’s your focus?”
“The Lost languages.” Then, in carefully clipped Oblitian, he said, “This is my favorite of the languages. I fell in love with it while reading Words in the Wilderness.”
It was the first time I’d ever heard anyone else speak a full statement in the language. Sita smiled, not because she understood Chas’ words, but because she understood the expression on my face.
“You know it well,” I responded in the same language.
He nodded. “I admire your work.”
Right. Well. “Thank you.”
Sita looked between the two of us, her smile quizzical.
In Basic, I said, “Good luck with your continuing studies.”
“Thank you. It’s really good to meet you. Properly, this time.”
Now why did I feel like such a chump for turning him down for a research assistantship that had never existed?
“London,” said Sita. “Would you meet me in my office in an hour? There was something I wanted to talk to you about.”
My hand went to my vest pocket. “I wanted to talk to you, too.”
“It’s a date, then.”