"What is gossip?
It is a truth taken out of context."
- Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio
Martell Socius College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
What is he doing here?
The question urged itself, at first gently, then more and more insistently, on his mind. It had bothered him for many days, but never more than it did today.
With a small shake of his head, Karl Weseluc tried to concentrate on the lecture. It was, truth be told, a good lecture if you were – like Karl – passionately interested in archaeology, but today it left him cold. He was preoccupied, not with the lecture, but with the man delivering it.
He doesn't belong here. Not in a small, privately-run college like this one. A man like that belongs in King's College, or – assuming he was out of favour with the regime – in Zion University. It's absurd. And yet – why do I bother? If my professor has a good reason to remain in Davenport, that's all the better for me! Yet – it's an oddity.
Oddities always bothered Karl, for whom an unresolved question or an anomalous observation invariably meant a sleepless night.
I'll ask him. The worst he can do is brush me off, and like Mum, I don't mind being brushed off! I want to know.
The lecture ended, and the students filed out of the small classroom, most of them forming small groups as they excitedly discussed their plans for the weekend. Only Karl remained behind, his gaze fixed on the man who was now erasing the blackboard, his back to him.
I might as well.
"Er, excuse me," Karl said, conscious that his voice was more high-pitched than usual, and embarrassed by this realization. "Professor…"
The man turned around slowly, unhurriedly, and put down his eraser before picking up his stick. Despite his stooped posture and graying hair, there was something solid about him, and he smiled as he faced Karl.
"Yes, young man?" he said, calmly. "Can I help you?"
"Um – I was just wondering, Professor…"
The Professor's expression was kind. "You're Weseluc, aren't you? Well, I rather enjoy having a physics major in my class on Archaeology, even if it's just an elective. And your last paper, though cluttered with unnecessary asides, was quite interesting. Are you, perhaps, objecting to the B that I gave you?"
"Oh no, Professor," Karl said, with a laugh. "I was expecting a C plus at best. As for the asides, they run in the family. My mum's the Rumour Mill of Davenport, and I guess I take after her that way. Anecdotes, side-notes, footnotes – I love them all. It's a wonder I took up physical science in the first place."
"That's interesting," the Professor said, "but it's surely not what you wanted to ask me. Now, come on. Out with it." He smiled.
"Professor…" Karl gathered up his courage, then blurted it out. "What are you doing in a place like this?"
"What do you mean?" The Professor's expression was puzzled, rather than offended.
"I mean this: though I'm not an archaeologist at all, you're – how do I put this? – too good for this place. Someone like you ought to be in King's College, or even the Commonwealth University of Higher Learning! Let's be honest, Professor," – Karl's voice grew forceful – "Socius College is a dump! It's for party animals and slobs who just want a degree before getting a reasonably paid job. Most of us are here because we couldn't get anything better, and those of us who've got scholarships are a minority. You don't belong here, Professor. Hell, half the boys sleep through your lectures! Why do you even bother?" He shook his head. "You deserve better, Professor Spenson."
The Professor looked bemused as he listened to this harangue, and when it was finished, he shook his head gently. He began to walk towards the College's main gate, with Karl following close behind.
"My dear young man," he said, "first of all, I think you overestimate me. But let us assume, for the sake of scholarly discussion, that what you say about these hallowed halls" – he looked around at the gleaming, deserted corridor – "is true. There may be reasons, other than the scholarly, why a man should choose a quiet, low-profile existence. But you are young, and perhaps you know little about these things."
"I see," Karl said, a thoughtful expression on his face. "Do you mean you've been declared non grata by the Palace? But surely those days are past; King Derren is nothing like his father, and…."
"Wait a moment, Weseluc," Professor Spenson replied. "It is true that things are, shall we say, a little more liberal in these days. But it is not merely a question of political sympathies. If that were all it was, I would probably be in King's College as you suggest. But there are deeper reasons, personal reasons. You young folks probably see Derren as a man of the people, and execrate his father as a tyrant, as the evil genius behind the throne."
"Well, isn't that so?" Karl replied, with a frown. "I mean, my father was in the Army during the Mutiny of 318, and was cashiered for protecting some of the rebels. If it weren't for that, I would probably be in King's College as well! I have nothing good to say about that man, who set himself up as another Richard Lionheart, though he is not even of noble birth.…."
"Stop, young Weseluc," Professor Spenson said, holding up his hand in protest, "before you say something that would offend me. You see me now as a professor in a second-rate college, one of life's also-rans for all intents and purposes. It may surprise you to know, therefore, that there was a time when I actually was closely associated with him. And I know that he is not the tyrant that the youth of Galvenia believe him to be. He is flawed – but I believe that every great man has his flaws; only the Infinity is perfect."
"You speak as if you knew him well," Karl said, astonished by the rebuke.
"Oh, I certainly did," Professor Spenson replied, "though he would hardly be thrilled to acknowledge it. Destiny can play strange tricks on men. Today, we are strangers. But that will not prevent me from defending the memory of the man I knew – the man who, before the Infinity decreed otherwise, was my friend."
"Your friend?" Karl was shocked. "But – how could a man like that have a friend like you? What – changed him?"
"It is a long story," Professor Spenson said, picking up his book and waving at the groundsman who had just opened the gates for him. "But it is one that deserves to be told, and I can see that you are curious. Tell me, have you no plans for the end of the week?"
"None, really," Karl replied. "Mum and Dad have gone to visit my sister, who's just had a child, and I have my finals to prepare for. I was thinking of taking a trek to Ozunhold Castle, though."
"That sounds like a capital idea," Spenson said with approval. "But before that, what would you say to a cup of tea? Perhaps I could answer some of your questions. And Viola's teapot is large enough to accommodate a visitor, I'm sure. Only…"
"You will have to keep my story to yourself, Weseluc," the Professor said, firmly. "The Prince Consort's antecedents are not to become fodder for the Rumour Mill, even if said mill is run by your own dear mother. Do you understand?" His eyes twinkled.
Karl laughed as they made their way down Gustav Eramond Lane. "Trust me, Professor," he said. "Unlike Mum, I'm the soul of discretion."