In which we are introduced to the first of Joseph Swetnam’s Seven Laws of Fencing, which serve Sebelius as a guide to life…
4. But Now My Task Is Smoothly Done
On Thursday, Jennet found herself both dreading and anticipating the meeting with Sebelius. She took her time deciding what to wear. If he was a misogynist, he’d probably be put off by anything provocative. She normally favored low scoop necklines and V-necks that highlighted what little cleavage she had, but today she decided on a crewneck black T-shirt and jeans, with a green corduroy blazer. She’d probably have to take the blazer off, given that the Dean’s conference room was usually oven-hot, but surely Sebelius couldn’t object to that.
Jennet had stayed up late the past two nights to read all the files using the new online system, and she’d printed out a few pages on each one with the bits she wanted to discuss. Figuring Sebelius would be early, she arrived at three on the dot. As she expected, he was there, already working, when she walked in. She greeted him quietly, hung up her blazer, took a seat beside him at the narrow table, and plugged in her laptop.
Since he’d been through the process before and she hadn’t, she let him take the lead as they worked through the first three files. Mindful of Lynn’s advice, she kept her voice low and quiet, and only spoke when she had a point to make. The discussion was cordial enough, though he didn’t often look at her. He mostly kept his eyes on his computer screen and notes. She, on the other hand, kept looking surreptitiously at his profile. He had a slightly aquiline nose. His chestnut hair curled over the collar of his gingham check shirt, which had the first button open. He wasn’t wearing a tie or undershirt, and she could see his necklace, a short, heavy gold chain, resting in the brown hair on his chest. It had a ring-shaped gold pendant.
The first group of three candidates included two women, and she paid careful attention to everything Sebelius said, watching alertly for any sign that he was treating the female candidates differently from the male. Finally, after a little over an hour had passed, he turned his blue eyes on hers and held her gaze.
“I know what you’re doing, Thorne. You don’t have to handle me with kid gloves.”
You have no idea how much I’d like to handle you, she thought. But aloud she said, “I think we’re working rather efficiently, don’t you?”
“Yes, but you’re acting like I’m a lion about to bite your head off. And if you’re looking for evidence that I discriminate, you won’t find any,” he said, as though reading her mind. “When a man has a reputation like mine, he becomes extremely scrupulous about fairness and objectivity.”
“A reputation like yours?” she asked innocently.
“You heard me,” he said, refusing to take the bait. He turned to the next case, and they kept working until five o’clock.
Sebelius was pleased that he and the Woman had gotten so much done in one meeting, but annoyed at the way she spoke to him, as though he was a three-year-old about to throw a tantrum, or a terrorist holding someone hostage. She’d been professional enough, but he had the uncomfortable feeling that she might be secretly laughing at him. He knew what people said about him. I’m not a monster. Maybe he didn’t suffer fools gladly, and maybe he was a man’s man who preferred to avoid socializing with females, but why should that make him a misogynist?
After a few glances, he’d tried to avoid looking at her. She was wearing a tight black T-shirt that revealed the curves of her tits. For Christ’s sake. He could see the outline of a nipple, or thought he could. He tried looking down at the table where their arms lay side by side as they used their laptops, but that was no better. On her slender left wrist, she wore a small gold bracelet that was a solid oval of two layers, held together by little screws. It looked like a handcuff… No. Don’t think about that.
Joseph Swetnam had laid down seven laws of fencing. The first was to keep a good guard. A good and a sure guard for the defence of thy body. And when thou hast thy guard it is not enough to know it, but to keep it so long as thou art within reach or danger of thy enemie.
On Friday, as their final meeting concluded, Sebelius was in a good mood. The heat register in the conference room was out of order, and the Woman wore a shapeless blue sweater that he found unattractive. The gold cuff was nowhere to be seen. They worked through the rest of the files assigned to them, and agreed on almost everything. Where they diverged in opinion on how to count a particular publication or piece of committee service, she usually deferred to him because she was new at the university. He approved of this, though he was slightly suspicious that she was doing it only in order to avoid confrontation. The important thing was that they were ready well before the deadline, and he wouldn’t have to spend any precious weekend hours working on this task. He found himself feeling positively benevolent toward her, and decided to make an effort to be pleasant.
“I understand you’re a papyrologist,” he said.
She looked surprised. “Yes. It’s one of my two research specialties. I mostly focus on documentary papyri—not literary ones.”
“You mean legal contracts and laundry lists?”
She laughed a little, her green eyes sparkling. Her two front teeth were pearly white, but slightly crooked, and her short hair was disarranged from running her hands through it while they were working. Little tufts were standing up here and there. “Yes, I’ve done my share of laundry lists. They’re interesting to a historian. But sometimes you find a personal letter. It’s like looking into a window on the lives of people who lived thousands of years ago.” In her enthusiasm, her voice grew higher and more animated, but she suddenly fell silent, as though remembering whom she was talking to.
He forced himself to say, “I own a papyrus and have no idea what it is. I wonder if you’d take a look?” He waited for her to reject the request, his jaw slightly clenched.
She answered readily, “I’d be delighted to. I’ll need the provenance, anything you can tell me about it. If you have time we can talk now, but do you mind if we go to Revels? It’s after five, I missed lunch, and I’m famished.”
He hesitated, frowning. He hadn’t expected this turn in the conversation. It was Friday, and Revels would probably be filling up. It was the faculty hangout on campus, a popular bar that served sandwiches and pub grub.
“Don’t worry. It’s not a date or anything,” she said lightly.
“I’m not worried. I just need to be somewhere by six-thirty,” he lied.
“Well, if your somewhere is near campus, that should give us plenty of time,” she answered. She was challenging him now.
“Let’s go,” he said, and led the way.
Copyright 2015 by Linnet Moss
Notes: Jonathan only ever thinks of Jennet as “the Woman.” It’s my little tribute to Irene Adler.