To The Feathered Serpent

Later, Lia remembered that she had rather enjoyed the walk from the apartment block. It was a pleasant stroll in the sun across the corner of the park over to the Feathered Serpent. The central location of the apartment put it in easy walking distance of the Library, the main faculty buildings and, she realised, was not too far from her own shared house. Jensson had seemed interested in the layout of the campus, asking questions about this and that building, re-orienting himself in university grounds changed since his last stay while skilfully avoiding the subject of when that had been. As he pointed over to the bulk of the Library, its monolithic bulk rearing up behind smaller buildings, a flash of light reflected dazzlingly off his left hand. There had been nothing on the hand as it rested on his thigh in the car, she was sure of that. But what was there now?

She was glad that she’d not told her friends of the day’s mission, or her first impressions of her new boss, while she waited for him to get cleaned up. The man who walked next to her now seemed to have little in common with the vagrant who’d dropped from the ugly Russian helicopter. He moved with a silence and grace that had been hidden by the ugly and threatening boots. His suit, reminiscent of Gihon’s robes but not as intimidating, had a timeless and understated expensive quality. The cut was elegant rather than fashionable, it flattered his slim frame, and the muted greys of the layers were a subtle contrast with the auburn highlighted hair that now showed a nodding acquaintance with being under control. Clean shaven his appearance was striking, his sharp features compelling rather than fitting the soft mould of recent trends. He was clearly a man who could make an arresting first impression when he wanted to.

Lia had noticed the glances of people walking in the opposite direction and the way conversations halted as faces turned to follow his passage. Curiously, he didn’t seem to notice the regard of these distracted pedestrians. Whether he was truly blind to the effect he was having or, as she had seen with Gihon before, chose to ignore it she was not certain. It was not in the woman’s character think that people might have been looking at the two of them together – or that anyone could have found anything of interest in her presence.

The Feathered Serpent was popular with university staff and students all year round. Though the campus was always busy there were still some weeks before the start of the term proper, and the atmosphere in the C-shaped bar was more of a lazy buzz than the mad crush that descended with every new academic year as freshers found their feet and started new traditions. Lia and her friends had met regularly at the same tables on the balcony for the last couple of years. They had settled on a group of tables on the wide balcony that extended from the three internal walls of the C after deciding which were most suited to their requirements – out of the busiest traffic (but not too far away to be overlooked by the waiting staff), with fine views across the park and down into a certain corner of the main court below. Though the location had initially been chosen by others in her little group she had begun to appreciate the benefits of the view over the long summer.

Lia brought Jensson into the Serpent through the open side facing the park. As they entered the stone floored courtyard at the heart of the bar they could see Gihon at his usual table. Turned slightly away from them, head down, he appeared to be reading. The reason for the mystery appointment was clear to see. His hair was now tamed in gleaming, intricate plaits. Wherever he’d had it done it was clearly the work of some skill and effort. The two side braids were still in place, the only variation to the extravagant symmetry of his new style. The intrigued woman had never known the big man to take such care, such extreme care, in his appearance. She thought it could only have been done for a special event – or person.

A sotto voce oath escaped the man beside her as he stopped mid-stride, pulled up short at seeing the reading figure. She didn’t quite hear what he said but there was something about the way he said it, he seemed surprised … and, and what? Lia looked between them, and then her glance flicked down to confirm her sudden suspicion. She was familiar with the gold and platinum clasps on the big man’s braids and she recognised that their patterns were matched by the double ring on the new arrival’s hand. The only difference was in the choice of metals – the cold burning platinum of the beautifully complex wedding ring was what had caught the light as he had pointed to the Library earlier. Oh, she realised, probably not just Plaisir’s oldest friend then. She wondered what other understatements he had made recently and then reminded herself that Europeans, no matter how normal they might seem, were sometimes just too different.

Not wishing to impose on their reunion she murmured her adieu and turned toward the steps and her friends. Jensson caught her arm briefly, the shock of contact halting her withdrawal as much a his long fingers. “Do I look ok? Sorry, sorry, no, shouldn’t ask.” She was intrigued to see a sudden nervousness, a hint of rawness beneath his assured exterior. “Deep breath. I’m ok … no, no I’m not. Look at me, nervous as a schoolboy. Ha! Ten years and I’m just going to go over and say ‘hi’ like nothing has changed.” A brief flash of panic was visible as he fought to restore his calm.

“Yes, you look ok. Actually, if you’re looking for a disinterested opinion I’d say you’re looking pretty good. I see the ring on your finger; I know he wears the same in his braids. I might not know the exact meaning but I think I have a close guess. Don’t worry about the years or whatever happened, from what I’ve seen of Gihon recently I’d say that today he’s just as wound up about meeting you again.”

On impulse she stretched up and kissed him on the cheek. The observer in the corner of her mind automatically made a couple of notes. His skin was smooth and cool; she was impressed with the closeness of the shave. Whatever aftershave he used it seemed familiar but she couldn’t quite place where she recognised it from. She knew that she liked it. “Put both of you out of your misery. Really, just go over and say ‘hi’ like no time has passed. Oh, and don’t forget to breathe. I think I could quite like you, and I wouldn’t want to lose you on your first day here.” Smiling back at his lost expression she was aware of a desire to kiss him again. And not just on the cheek. Strange, she thought, it was all most uncharacteristic of her. She would never have behaved so forwardly with a New Yorker. She retreated up the steps before she could consider what the feeling might signify – after all, it wasn’t like it would mean anything to him.