Amos couched a glass of sherry in his hand. The room was dimly lit and well furnished. Certainly better furnished than his own. And warmer. There was a fireplace, but it was mostly cosmetic. A roaring fire was aesthetically pleasing, but much less convenient than a proper heating system. At least, that appeared to be the viewpoint of the dean. Because this was his office.
The dean himself, was not yet in attendance. An errand or somesuch. He'd be along shortly. There was another man seated opposite Amos, however. He also had a glass in his hand and he swirled it gently. He wore a beard, and was a little taller. His build was not very different though he was perhaps a little thinner. He had been in Cambridge roughly the same amount of time as Amos, though he had spent a few years abroad, and was originally European-educated. And in all the time the two had spent in the institution, most would not say their relationship was friendly.
The man’s name was Ivan.
"How's the paper going Amos? I've been looking forward to your next publication."
For one, they were academic rivals. Amos was better received by the traditional schools of thought in his field, where Ivan was favoured by the more radical body. He had recently been winning in terms of the wider debate.
"It's going rather well, thankyou Ivan. I should think you're looking forward to it, after all, it addresses the myriad issues found in your last article."
"You are barbed as ever, I wonder why I don't enjoy your company more often."
"I wonder why you don't as well! It's a great shame, really, I almost feel sorry for you!"
Ivan's smile was wry, Amos' overflowing.
They sipped the sherry. It was sweet and crisp. Ivan preferred his drink a bit dryer, Amos would have wanted it more exuberant in flavour. But, it was a good intermediary, and they both liked it well.
"So, what's all the fuss about this wonderful young lady you're tutoring? I seem to recall a deal of hype floating around the faculty."
"Ah, Laura. Truly, she is splendid! Her talent is remarkable, particularly considering her age. But of course, you knew all that already."
"Ah no, I can't profess to have known. I heard a multitude of stories I could scarcely believe and wished only to confirm or see refuted their validity."
"How suspicious of you. I'm offended on her behalf that you doubt her ability."
"Well, as you say, considering her age, all these ruminations seem awfully disproportionate. Two victories in as many days since entering the institution? Unheard of! Not to mention the method of her victory. Movement so canny and incisive it would be considered rare in any of the international top ten. In addition, we must consider her opponents were her seniors and betters in terms of strength, height, weight, fortitude and experience. Do you blame me for doubting such extraordinary tales?"
Ivan's finger seemed to underscore his point with a lazy scroll along the side of his glass.
"Well, I trust you have sufficiently convinced yourself of their truth now. After all, my input was never a prerequisite for your belief at all, was it? Though, while we're on the subject, I meant to ask you about that second victory. If I am not mistaken, those were your tutees today were they not?"
"Oh, Amos, whyever would I tell you such a thing? You were foolish enough to be seen publicly with your tutees so it's your own fault everyone knows their affiliation. That said, it's no skin off my nose to tell you that no, they were not mine today. Though admittedly, I had planned to test your lot before long, it appears I was rather beaten to the punch this time."
Amos touched the drink to his lip. The dark liquid ran up and back down the glass. The flavour tingled on his tongue.
"I see. So it wasn't you. That makes things more complicated."
"Indeed. I do not envy you. I rather have a suspicion who it might be."
"As do I. I think-"
A cool breeze cut off his sentence as the door swung open and shut noisily. A man with short, steel-coloured hair stepped inside. He was as tall, again, as Ivan, if not a little taller, and he was perhaps slimmer than both of them. He was also older than the other two.
"Sorry for my lateness. I've been dealing with papers for expulsion, phone calls and whatnot. And the parents, what a damned hassle. If it was at all decorum, I would've just cut them off. I don't suppose the two of you have heard yet, but I'll relate to you the details in a moment."
The man tossed his briefcase in the corner by the desk and hung his coat on the coatstand.
"And pour me a drink, one of you. I hope you've been civil to one another. At least I hope you've gotten your customary bickering out of the way and now we may converse properly."
He hustled over to where the other two were seated. Ivan had filled a glass and stood to hand it over. Amos also stood. The three faced each other, eyes slightly narrowed in the twitchings of smiles.
The man sighed.
"Well, Amos, Ivan, it's been too long. Here's to another year, you damned bastards."
"Ian." Amos and Ivan acknowledged him by his name.
They touched their glasses together firmly and each took a generous mouthful.
"Ah, wonderful. Right, sit down, sit down. Let's get down to business."
Amos and Ivan broke into genuine smiles and Ian sat himself down solidly, leaning forwards, elbows on knees. He did not smile, but then, he didn’t smile much anyway.
"So, where shall we begin?" Ian clasped his hands as he began to speak. It was an idiomatic pose that really essentialised his being. There could be no Ian who did not sit forwards, hands clasped. It brought a wave of strong nostalgia over both Ivan and Amos and each showed a slight smile, directed nowhere in particular.
Of course, between Ivan and Amos, most would not say their relationship was friendly. But Ian, dean of the college, rather knew better. Along with himself, the three were exceptional friends, and, though their commitments over the years (Ian and Ivan were both married, and all three had worked abroad at times) had meant they had rarely seen each other all at once, it so happened that, for this year, their times in Cambridge coincided, and they would once again be working together for a time.
"We were just discussing Amos' little prodigy, have you heard about her?" said Ivan.
"Ah, actually, that ties in very nicely with what I was going to discuss anyway. I had heard all the rumblings, same as everyone else. However, I had a rather more reliable look at her skills this evening."
Amos raised an eyebrow.
"What do you mean?"
"I visited a young man in the hospital to tell him he had been expelled. The doctors said the joints in his right arm were completely ruined, he had bruising on his ribs, a dislocated jaw and quite a severe concussion. I heard your girl was terrifying in battle, but I didn't imagine she'd actually be quite so brutal."
"Wait, Laura did that?" Amos' mouth hung open.
"And why, might I ask was the boy the one expelled if she so critically wounded him?" said Ivan.
Ian held up a hand to pacify the questions before he continued.
"You remember the family who donated the library extension in the east wing yes? The boy was their son. The same son who your famous tutees embarrassed earlier today, Amos."
"Ah." Said Amos.
"One of those." Said Ivan.
"And I take it he came for revenge, needed to save face, somesuch-" Amos trailed the sentence with a wave of his hand.
"Yes. As I understand it, he roughed up your boy and threatened him with a knife. Your young lady, in what we'll call an act of self-defense, effectively made him a cripple."
"She was unhurt?" Ivan interjected.
"Not a scratch."
"Pheeew-" Ivan blew an appreciative sigh from his lips. "So, to sum up everything we know about your girl so far, she's an invincible killer, is that right?"
Amos chuckled and took a mouthful from his glass.
"An invincible killer who's also a bit of a sociopath." He said to a little laughter from the others. He took care not to show how relieved his was she was unhurt.
"You really had the luck of the draw this year Amos." Ian refilled his glass. "I'd honestly say she's a candidate to top first year combat, even without seeing any of the rest of the crop."
"Woah, not so fast! Should the dean of the college really be saying something like that? Favouritism is against the rules, you know." Ivan rubbed his beard between sentences. "Besides, I'm not counting myself out. I have a few in my cohort who I think would challenge Amos' dear partnership."
"Oh, well I do look forward to seeing them try." Amos retorted. "I don't expect they'll touch a hair on Laura's head. John, well- It seems he's destined to get a bit beat up no matter what happens, but at least he can take a hit."
"Oh, if that's the case, would you care to make a wager?" Ivan smirked sidelong.
"What are you willing to lose, Ivan?" Amos grinned from ear to ear. "How about you, Ian? Will you join our game?"
Ian raised his palms as if to deflect the other two's sudden enthusiasm.
"I'm afraid I'll have to stay out of this one. As Ivan said, favouritism is against the rules and the dean of the college can't be seen to be backing one student over another."
They gave him a look reserved for when he was being a stick in the mud.
"However, if I were, hypothetically to back anyone, I would most definitely back Amos' girl, Laura, and would, should my hypothetical wager prove successful, expect at the very least to be bought dinner. There's a particularly good place in London which would be ideal for a celebratory dinner at the end of the academic year." Ian's smiles were rare, but when they appeared they were crisp and smart. This time there was also a healthy dose of self-satisfied thrown in.
"Well then, the gauntlet is down." said Ivan.
"Don't disappoint me Amos." said Ian.
"I'll instruct Laura to be extra-violent in the coming weeks then, shall I?" Amos chuckled and felt a familiar excitement that came with rivalry. He raised his glass once again.
"So, to our students. May the best man win."
Ivan's glass tinkled against Amos'.
"Bring it on, old boy. Bring it on."