Everybody on campus hated it when Heloise walked down the street whistling. Well, maybe not everybody. And maybe it wasn’t Heloise they hated per se. But she knew she was annoying plenty with her springing, jaunty step and her smile. There were some who felt that students had no right to smile this close to exams.
But why shouldn’t there be a spring in Heloise’s step and a song in her heart? It wasn’t as if she were worried about exams. You didn’t spend as much time studying as she did through the semester without coming to the realization that there was very little the professors could ask her that she didn’t know. And if she didn’t know, why, she’d bullshit her way through. She was a philosophy major, and she had come to find out that a good quarter or so of philosophy was bullshitting. The trick was to learn to distinguish good bullshit from bad, and how to take that good bullshit and turn it into something profound.
It was, admittedly, a trick Heloise was still mastering. But she knew she would get there eventually.
In the meantime, she had her one-on-one tutoring sessions with Henry — Professor Baxter — to help her out. He was the one who had told her about the bullshit. And with any luck, he would help her as she continued on her journey to distinguish the good from the bad.
Still, as she neared St. Pascal’s Hall — where the professor’s office was — Heloise felt the mask beginning to clamp down. She took her book, the one Henry had let her borrow, out of her bag and began to flip through it. None of the other philosophy majors would pay her any mind if they saw it was just Heloise Wesleyan with a book.
Of course, it figured that there was nobody around to see her as she pushed open the great doors with one of her hips and meandered on in. But that was all right. It was better to be always on guard, always careful, now in the heart of dangerous territory. If she kept the mask on even when nobody was around, there would be less chance of it slipping off when there was someone to see.
She wet one finger and flipped through the pages, ostensibly searching for a quote or particularly troubling passage. Meanwhile, she cradled the spine of the book just so — just so the author’s name wouldn’t show. It wouldn’t do for anyone to know just who wrote this book.
She got to her destination before danger — another student — struck. He was waiting outside another professor’s office. But still, because he was watching her (even if it was in the indifferent manner of one watching Heloise only because she was slightly different than the surrounding scenery), she had to be careful as she knocked.
“Yes, who is it?” came the gravelly voice on the other side of the door.
“It’s Mistress Wesleyan, Professor!”
If she wasn’t just waltzing right in, or introducing herself as Heloise, then Henry would know something was up, someone was around to hear. And he did not disappoint her. “Ah! Mistress Wesleyan, do come in.”
She came in, and before she shut the door, she pitched her voice to carry into the hall beyond. “I’ve come to return that book I borrowed.”
Henry was already up and smiling when Heloise entered. “Ah. And did you find it helpful?”
She grinned and slowly let the door swing shut. “Most helpful.” She set her book on the desk.
Henry smiled back and mimed turning a key with his hand. Heloise felt behind her and, sure enough, the key was in the lock. Heloise quickly turned it and heard the bolt shoot home.
Then, with their precautions taken and even a few carefully chosen comments having wafted into the hallway, Henry could greet her properly.
And to think she’d only come to the school for the studying!
Henry’s arms were as supple as any younger man’s, gripping her to him with all the possessive strength of a young swain holding his sweetheart. And unlike with those young swains who had heard of her father’s relative wealth and wanted a piece of that for themselves, Heloise didn’t struggle. Why struggle with Henry? He actually wanted her for her, damn it, not her father’s money or her ability to bear him children some day. He wanted the substance, not the accidents.
As for Heloise — well, what did she care for graying hair or slightly slackened skin? Any young swain she took up with would look like that eventually. Or else he would die early and leave her with a bunch of children to somehow look after and feed. No, thank you. She would take Henry’s shining mind over any young swain’s charming smile any day of the week.
But when Henry pulled away, he looked sad even as he smiled. “Henry?” Heloise whispered.
He idly flicked one of her hanging curls and smiled. “Nothing, dear.” Heloise pouted: she hated when he called her “dear” and he knew it. It was the sort of thing a grandsire would say to his granddaughter, not what a philosopher would say to his lover. Mostly he only did it to make her mad. But today … there was something else behind that word. Something that wasn’t meant to get a rise out of her.
So Heloise said nothing.
Henry pulled away and looked at the book Heloise had put onto the table. His eyes widened. “You weren’t just making an excuse!”
“I believe I’ve learned that the lie that is easiest to believe is the one that has a grain of truth in it,” Heloise smirked.
“Still, you finished it that quickly? Did you sleep?”
“Sleep? Why would I sleep when I had that to read?”
“You’re young.” He sighed. “Take care of your health now, and you might have a prayer of still having some when you get older.”
“Oh, bah! You’re worse than my mother! ‘Get to bed at a decent hour, don’t stay up all night reading those blasted books by candlelight! You’ll ruin your eyesight!'”
Henry snorted. “I’m old enough to be your mother.”
Why was he going on about that? That was the second age-related comment he’d made in as many minutes. The last time he had made so many remarks about the difference in their ages had been when Heloise had planted herself on his desk and shimmied her hips, smirking at him all the while. But he had seen sense soon after.
Still, in the truest Wesleyan fashion, Heloise dealt with possibly troubling topics by deflecting them with a joke. “Not hardly. I’d need blue-green skin for that, sir.”
“What — oh. You mean …?” Henry shook his head, but he smiled. “Folk tales for the unlettered, Heloise. What need have scholars like you and me for such silly stories?”
Scholars like you and me! Heloise didn’t bother to hide her grin. “I won’t argue with you about the stories — but try, dear Professor, to explain away facts so glibly.”
“Facts?” Henry chuckled. “What facts?”
“Well, the two blue-skinned babies found on my sorority sister’s aunt’s doorstep, for one. They’re about a year old now, and according to Garnet, very cute. … But she likes babies, so we should best take her word with a grain of salt.”
Henry’s eyes bulged. “My word,” he whispered. Then his eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled. “Heloise, your sorority sister feeds you a tall story about blue-skinned babies dropped on her aunt’s doorstep, and you choose to disbelieve her assertion that they are cute?”
“The sorority sister in question is Lady Garnet Orkney.”
Henry shuddered — but unlike last time Garnet had been brought up in conversation, he did not make the sign of the plumbbob over himself. Maybe he had learned from that last time: Heloise had stormed out of his office and not spoken to him for a week, even sitting stony-faced and silence in the back of his lectures. Why she went to such lengths for Garnet — especially since Garnet would never know of them — she did not know. But she did know that if Garnet deserved to be condemned, it was for being the bitch she was at heart, not because of the mother who had, if Garnet’s conversations with Leona were any indicator, hurt Garnet as much as she had hurt anyone.
Probably remembering that fight and not wanting to relive it, Henry turned to the book on the desk. He ran a finger along the rough spine. “So, Heloise … now that you’ve galloped your way through my little book, what do you think?”
“Oh, Henry! It was brilliant!” On utterly safe ground, Heloise clasped her hands together and leaned forward. “When are you publishing it?”
“Brilliant.” One corner of his lip crooked up in a smile. “Would you think it that even if I hadn’t written it?”
“Henry, I told you that your Sic et Non was pure bullshit.”
“Only because I raised questions without even attempting to answer them.”
“And your introduction. Let’s not forget the introduction.”
“I merely gave some techniques for discerning the truth when authorities of equal weight disagree explicitly with each other on essential questions –”
“When the work might have had some power if you’d just left it alone! Show how the authorities contradict each other and let others make of it what they will, rather than try to weasel out some way to come to the truth of it all.”
“Heloise, that introduction would have been the only thing to save the book from being called heresy, had I published it.”
Heloise blinked and laid her hand on his shoulder. “Henry … I didn’t … I didn’t discourage you too much, did I? I mean … I didn’t mean to stop you from publishing it if that’s what you wanted to do …”
“Sic et non,” he replied, grinning. “I had my doubts. You just confirmed them.” He sighed. “If a work can have power only if it crosses the line into heresy, then it’s best not to publish at all.” He stroked the spine of the book Heloise had returned. “Which is why I shan’t be publishing this one.”
“What? But Henry! It’s brilliant! You’ve completely demolished the theory of universals!”
“And you don’t see how that could be heretical?” Henry asked, snaking an arm around her waist and guiding her to the couch.
“It has nothing to do with religion!” Heloise protested as they sat.
“It has everything to with religion. The monks tell us that the Lord Wright exists in us all, that His breath is our soul. Thus, he is the Universal. But if universals cannot exist — then …?”
He didn’t say it. He didn’t have to say it. Heloise’s stomach still dropped at the thought. “You can’t — you didn’t say that.”
“I wouldn’t be stupid enough to say it.”
Heloise looked nervously at the book on the desk. “You — you wouldn’t — believe it, would you?”
She watched him closely. He would not be above lying to her to make her feel better. However, nor would she be above seeing right through his lie. But Henry laughed, easily and lightly. “I wouldn’t be stupid enough to believe it, either. No, I believe there are limits to even logic. But others don’t, you know. A book like this could cause a great deal of trouble in the wrong hands.”
“That wouldn’t be your fault.”
“Wouldn’t stop the Robertians from blaming me,” Henry pointed out. “And I’m too old to want to shorten my life further — even only in potentia.” His hand moved up her arm, to her shoulder, and finally to tangle in her hair. “But, my dear, speaking of time and its shortness … you do have exams to study for …”
Well, when he put it like that …
There were, after all, two reasons why she came to Henry’s office so often and locked the door behind her. Only one of them was because of the conversations that could happen behind locked doors, conversations that couldn’t happen anywhere else.
The other …
Well, the other reason was a bit more fleshly. His flesh on hers. They didn’t have time — not now — for the dress to be thrown over her head and the robe to be puddled on the floor. It was exam season. But at other times …
Those other times, those hasty near-surprises, those afternoons of golden pleasure, had made Henry nearly as adept at lacing up Heloise’s bodice as Heloise herself: which was to say, not very. But it got the job done, and it got it done quicker.
Still, even though they didn’t have time and they both knew it, an insistent bump formed underneath Henry’s rub. It rubbed against her hips. Heloise broke away from the kiss long enough to grin at him and tease. “Hey. You know the rules.”
“The rules” was really one rule in particular: nothing that would get Heloise pregnant. She wasn’t foolish enough to try to find and buy herbs to prevent that. If she went to a somewhat reputable seller, one whose wares were consistent and the best money could buy (or rather, Heloise could afford), rumors would start and circle all around the campus. If she went to a disreputable one, who knew what she would be getting, or what it would do to her?
Besides, even the best herbs that money could buy didn’t necessarily work. The ones that did tend to work were the magical ones, and nobody dared to sell those in Camford.
But strangely enough, the mention of the rules didn’t make Henry grin ruefully and go on kissing her. No, instead he sighed and rolled off her. “Heloise … you’re not going to be able to abide by those rules forever.”
Heloise’s eyebrow arched. “Is that your way of saying you want more?”
If he knew what was good for him, he would damn well better not want more. Heloise had “borrowed” Clarice’s obstetrical texts when she wasn’t paying attention and had pretty well figured out that only one thing led to pregnancy: vaginal intercourse. Since Heloise allowed anything — anything — other than that, she didn’t see what Henry had to complain about. It seemed to be all much the same from the man’s perspective.
But he didn’t shamefacedly or even ruefully admit that her accusation was true. Instead he shook his head. “Lord forbid. I don’t want to ruin your future, Heloise.”
“Who said anything about ruining my future?” If word of this got out, of course, they’d both be tossed from the university. But that wasn’t her future, that was their future.
“I did.” Henry leaned his head back so it thunked against the wall. “Heloise, you’ll be a senior next year.”
“And don’t you think it’s time to consider your future?”
“Meaning what exactly?”
“You’re a bright, shining girl, Heloise. You deserve better than …” He sighed and gestured to himself. “A decrepit husk of a man who doubts he’ll live to see the next Abbot’s Council.”
“You mean the genius sitting on the other side of this bench?”
“I mean the coward to whom you have somehow attached yourself. Heloise, I want what’s best for you.”
“I won’t be publishing again.”
“What? Why not?”
“Because everything I write, I see heresy in,” he replied, not looking at her. “And I am too young a man to write it out again — I have too much fire in me, still, to want to toss my hard work to the side like that — but I am too old to undergo the fires the Church would put upon me.”
There really was nothing Heloise could say in reply to that.
Until, of course, she came up with something. “Well, so what?” she asked, facing him once again. “It’s not like you haven’t done your share of publishing. If anybody asks, you tell them that you want to concentrate on teaching. You want to be sure there are able scholars to pick up your wisdom and extend it into the next generation.”
“I still know myself for a coward, Heloise. And now you know me for a coward, too.” He sighed.
“No, I don’t. You write things that could be dangerous. And you won’t publish them now. But you’ve written them down, and maybe someday you’ll change your mind. Or maybe somebody will publish them posthumously, when people can do with them what they like with them and it won’t affect you.”
Henry snorted. “They’ve dug up scholars and burned them before.”
“I fail to see how that will matter to you if you’re dead.”
“They’ve pronounced dead scholars heretics and thus damned before.”
“Please. If you’re a heretic, Henry, I’m pretty sure the Lord Wright will figure it out and damn you accordingly before the Abbot’s Council would get around to it.”
Henry turned to her with a ghost of a smile. “You have a unique faith, Heloise.”
“But it won’t do. No, it won’t do. You have a whole bright future ahead of you. You … you would do better to, well, get on with it. Get on with it, enjoy yourself, find some nice young man –”
“Get married, have children –”
“Heloise …” Henry sighed, stood, stayed with his back to her and his arms crossed over his chest. “You are so young. You hardly know what life has to offer you yet. You ought to free yourself, you know. Taste all that you can of life while you’re still young enough to enjoy it.”
“Enjoy what?” Heloise rose, faced Henry with her hands on her hips. “Henry, listen to yourself. You’re telling me to settle down? Get married? Make babies? Are you insane? What do babies have to do with books? The insanity of family life with study?”
Henry smiled and reached up to caress her cheek. “You think your books and pens will keep you happy forever?”
“When you get to be my age, you may think differently — and you will rue your lost chance.”
“At what? I don’t want to spend the next ten or twenty years shoving out baby after baby, Henry. And then raising them? Kill me now!” Heloise shuddered. “And before you say anything about me not knowing what I want, ask yourself this: does somebody who just described having children the way I did have any business doing so?”
“You bring up unanswerable arguments,” Henry sighed. “But let me try, too. Heloise, I want you to have everything.”
“And I’d rather have only those things which I like. And since I’m the one who has to do the having, I make the final decision.”
“But how do you know you won’t like it until you try it?”
“Henry! This isn’t like trying a new food at a feast, where you can push it aside if you don’t like it! If I find out that I don’t like babies after I’ve already got one, what the hell would I do with the kid?”
“And what will you do if you decide to make a commitment to a life of contemplation and study — and teaching, here at Camford — and decide that you don’t like it?”
“Leave,” Heloise replied flatly. “That’s the nice thing about minor orders. You can leave them.”
“Indeed,” Henry murmured. “Indeed, you can. You have an answer for everything, Heloise.”
“I know.” She wrapped her arms around him and held him close. “And that’s why you love me.”
He didn’t answer — at least not with words — and that was how Heloise knew that she had won.