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The Secret Mathematic
A novel-in-progress from Cheeseburger Brown
The Secret Mathematic, an original novel by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

CHAPTER 7

Piroska has a tired arm, but a tireless spirit.

She props the arm up on a book and then, when it chafes, uses her opposite elbow as a lean. When she shifts the resettling of her dress releases blooms of perfumed air, scented jasmine and girl, and its diffusion can be tracked by the subtle sniffs and slight lifts of the head from the other students around her.

(The others are, of course, boys. They smell like rubber erasers and toothpaste, tobacco and coffee, perspiration and stale laundry.)

When the boys put up their hands they're called on immediately. Some of them don't even have to use their hands -- a raised brow will suffice to catch the professor's attention. "Mr. Szabo, you look like you have an answer for us..."

Piroska wags her hand insistently, watching the professor's eyes slide right over her as he picks out another boy in the row behind her for the follow-up. "And if Mr. Szabo were correct in this case, what transform would we be obliged to apply to the tensors at X and Y?"

"We wouldn't be obliged to apply the transformation if --"

An exasperated sigh. "Miss Fodor, please wait until you are called upon. My hall is an orderly place; help me keep it that way."

"But --"

The professor fixes her with an acidic look. All chatter in the lecture hall dies. Everyone is staring at her: three hundred boys, some smirking, some indignant, all against her. Slowly, reluctantly, Piroska lets her arm sag, her face pinched into a paint-peeling scowl.

The lecture continues.

Piroska sits in imitation of stillness for another thirty seconds. She bites the inside of her cheek, whispers a dark oath to herself, and then abruptly stands and begins gathering her things: baby blue pencils topped with white puffs of feather, pens with sparkling ink, binders of scented paper decorated along their mastheads with curlicues of leafy vines, and a furry scientific calculator done up to resemble the face of a kitten. These items are thrust aggressively into her flowered tote bag, zipped and secured over her shoulder, splotches of blush rising to visibility on her pale neck and cheeks.

She leaves beneath a mantle of the lecture hall's studied indifference. The professor rolls his eyes. As the door hisses shut on its hydraulic stop he mutters, "Women!" The boys titter.

Piroska is cut a wide berth through the corridors. Her ruby-red shoes click on the linoleum, the rhythm impatient and uneven. Heads turn in the wake of her perfume. She pushes out through the double doors to the quadrangle, the ancient looming faces of Eotvos Lorand University's towered buildings staring down at this little square of green amid the cobbles and glass and concrete.

(Beyond these walls is the noise and stink and pall of the city -- here, however, there are trees. Here, nothing smells like industrial disinfectant or sweat. Here, being female is no inherent liability.)

The clumps of students are few and far between. She chooses a tree the furthest and the farthest from any of them, then sits beneath it heavily and wonders if she might cry.

It would make her feel stupid, so she wills herself not to.

Instead she withdraws from her tote a hot pink tin case inscribed with images of sparrows hunting worms. Like a sparrow she puts her mouth to the box and withdraws a stiff stick of gum. She huffs, pushes hair out of her face, and settles into a tight, body-hugging pose with her back against the bark. She closes her eyes, chewing.

She jumps when a voice sounds nearby. "You forget this, yes?"

Piroska's eyes snap open. A skinny boy in a rumpled, oversized T-shirt is standing over her. In his outstretched hand he holds Piroska's little bottle of jasmine perfume. She searches his face for signs of mockery, but finds none. Like her, the boy has a beauty mark. His eyes are brown, flecked with green, steady and without pretention. "Thank you," she says, accepting the perfume. She can't quite bring herself to smile, so she redoubles her gum chewing efforts instead.

"You run away so fast," the boy continues. "It's hard to catch you. Can I sit down? I'm losing my breath."

Piroska humps her wide bum aside, making room by the roots. "My name is Piroska Fodor," she says.

"I'm Drago," says Drago.

"I know."

Drago picks a spot on the grass, settles in cross-legged. He looks at his feet. His shoes are covered in dense webs of chess notation. "How do you know me?" he asks.

"Everyone knows you," says Piroska, blowing and then recapturing a translucent pink bubble. "You're the Mad Serb."

Drago looks up. He isn't offended. He smiles. It's a charming, child-like smile. "Why are you never called on to answer questions, Piroska?"

"Because I'm a girl, Drago," she says, eyes narrowed. "Girls don't make good maths majors. Or didn't you know?"

"How can that be true?"

"It isn't," she says with forced carelessness. "But that's what the dean thinks. He told me as much when I was accepted. 'It'll be a trial by fire for you, miss, if you insist on going through with this questionable course of study.'"

Drago laughs, because Piroska's imitation of the dean's stuffy, gravelly tone is spot on. "I don't mean to laugh. That's absurd. Why should the dean want to discourage us?"

Piroska pauses in her gum chewing, watching Drago oddly. She purses her lips, and there is a hint of a smile at the corners. "I like that," she says finally.

"You like what?"

"I like that you're the first person at this school to ever discuss the idea of my earning my degree in maths while using the term us, as if I were no different than you."

"Well...you aren't, really, are you?"

She pulls out her gum and squashes it against the tree. "When I first came here, nearly three years ago, I knew they didn't think girls belonged. I tried to hide myself. I tried to dress like a boy, to talk like a boy, to fade into the background of boys." She looks up at Drago. "But it didn't work."

"Why not?"

She shrugs, then looks down at her own ample body stuffed inside a floral-print summer dress. "I'm too fat to hide my bosoms, Drago. No matter what I tried, they still thought of me as a female first and a student second."

"I don't mean to stare at them," confesses Drago, colouring.

"They're there. It can't be helped," says Piroska. She sits up straighter and shrugs again. "So I decided there was no point in denying who I am. I gave up any disguise. I decided to be every inch the girl, and to hell with them all. It's the maths I'm here for, and the maths are the fairest judges there can be: all they care about is whether you're correct." She smiles. "And, when it comes to maths, I am always correct."

Drago smiles back. "They hate me too, at school. You know this. But numbers do not hate anyone."

Piroska pauses again, considering something. She twists a loose lock of strawberry-blonde hair in her stubby fingers. "Drago, would you like to come to lunch with me? Being upset makes me hungry."

Drago hesitates. "This is...this is like a date?"

Piroska shrugs. "I don't know. I'm not an expert. I'm too ugly and too clever to have much experience in the field."

"I think you're very pretty," offers Drago.

"Well, that decides it," she announces, standing up and slinging her tote bag over her shoulder. Her cheeks dimple. "It's definitely a date."

At Karma Cafe they sit on a patio overlooking the smoky city, the air above the haze a bold azure stroke peppered with cotton-wads of drifting cumulus. Between them: traffic helicopters, small planes, whorls of birds oriented like spills of iron-filings across the sky. Down below the Danube glimmers. The waiter brings two steaming coffees and a plate of Viennese pastries.

"So are the stories they tell about you really true, Drago?"

Drago considers this, stirring his coffee. "What do they say about me?"

"They say when you can't find paper you carve your notes into the walls."

"Well, that's true."

She blushes. "And they say you get...aroused when you're doing maths."

Drago blushes, too. "I can't help it. Numbers are exciting."

"And you've really changed residences over a dozen times?"

"That's not strictly true, actually," he counters. "Sometimes they just change my roommate, but not the room itself."

"Do you have trouble getting along with people?"

"No, I am happy to meet everyone," he claims. "But often they find me trying, and they complain. Blah-blah-blah, the Mad Serb wrote on my pillow, blah-blah-blah, the Mad Serb won't put on pants. It's always the same. I try to accommodate them, but my efforts come up short in their estimation."

"I know that feeling," says Piroska darkly. She pulls the wad of gum out of her mouth, sips her coffee, then puts the gum back in.

"Why do you always chew the gum?" asks Drago.

"It stops me from eating," she says, holding the gum aside again as she selects a mini apple strudel from the plate and devours it.

"Ah."

"They say you're a prodigy," continues Piroska, swallowing away the strudel and licking icing sugar from her lips. "That's why the school tolerates your...eccentricity. They say you're a natural. They say you'll one day do great things."

"My grades are not good," confesses Drago sadly. "I struggle, yes, like everyone."

Piroska shrugs, chin in her hand. "I don't struggle."

"Maybe it's you who is the prodigy, then. I don't claim anything for myself. I am just Drago."

She smiles. "Alright, Just Drago. Now I know I have a lesson for you. Piroska has something for everyone. I too might once have said I am 'just Piroska' but those days are gone. I will never be just anything again. And, when I am done teaching you, you will also refuse to belittle yourself."

"Is it belittling to say I simply am who I am?"

"It is if it's a matter of just or merely or simply. Take me, for instance. I will never consent to be 'simply Piroska.' I am Piroska! Do you hear the difference? One is a concession, the other a declaration -- a challenge to the world."

"You are Piroska!" echoes Drago, grinning through his coffee steam.

"Yes!" she cheers. "I am. And you -- well, you know I only know you by reputation and the look in your eyes right now across this table, but even so I would wager any amount that you are Drago! See? Try it with me."

"I am Drago!"

"That's a reasonable start. I can see in the skin around your eyes how you don't believe it. Even so, given time you will certainly improve." She pops another pastry into her mouth as she holds the wad of gum aloft. "You've begun your paper for Dr. Lupescu?"

"Yes..." says Drago guardedly.

"How is it?"

"It's terrible."

"Then I shall be your tutor. If you are a prodigy, I'll find out why your work doesn't show it."

"And if I'm not?"

"And if you're not, I will learn the secret of the misapprehension. If being seen as a prodigy is a reproducible error, I want to learn it because no matter how consistently correct I am I cannot manage to impress upon our professors the fluidity of my facility. If your genius is a lie, Drago, I wish to know how to tell it for myself."

Drago smiles. "Because you are Piroska?"

"I am Piroska!"

"I am Drago!"

"That's somewhat better. See? You're coming along already." She spits her gum over the edge of the railing, then perfumes herself and snaps closed her tote. "I need to see your notes. Let's go to your dormitory."

"Is this still part of the date?"

"If we walk arm in arm it is, yes."

Arm in arm they scuttle up the dormitory steps and then pad down the corridor to Drago's door. Drago's current roommate has changed the locks again, so Drago is obliged to pick it. Taped to the door is a pink carbon-copy of a notice of a formal complaint launched against Drago, commanding him to appear before the dean at 18:45. Piroska reads it aloud as Drago saws a carefully bent paperclip back and forth through the keyhole, cocking his head as he listens to the clicking tumblers.

The latch springs. Drago pushes open the door and walks inside, ignoring the notice. It flutters in the breeze as he swings the door shut behind Piroska.

She slows, brow furrowing. She is suddenly considerably less certain of her course of action, clearly aware that the Mad Serb is essentially a stranger to her. She draws her tote protectively close.

Drago's side of the room looks like it's been exploded. Everywhere is crumpled clothing, torn papers, discarded pens, broken pencils, tissues and towels, crusts of hardened food, half-empty cups filled with liquids long turned foul beneath a bobbing head of mold, rulers and binders coated from edge to edge in scratched chess notation, single shoes, single socks, a bewildering array of knives and chisels...

This is down below. Up above, around the bed, on all sides of the window, there are photographs of a raven-haired girl thrusting out her artfully tapered breasts or coyly spreading her labia. Everywhere Piroska looks there is another image of the girl staring back at her, eyelids heavy, licking her lips, tracing a finger along the contours of her own nudity. Her stomach is flat and taut, like a fashion model; her anus is pink and soft-looking, like a child's.

Piroska's mouth goes dry. "So..." she says in a small voice, "you're a big fan of pornography, I see."

"Pornography?" says Drago, shaking his head. "No, no. Not at all. You don't understand: this is my sister."

Piroska coughs. "What?"

"She's a model, yes," he claims. "Isn't she beautiful?"

"Um," says Piroska, eyes involuntarily lingering on a photo involving a frighteningly bestudded dildo cast in garish green plastic. She blinks and turns her back to the display. She bites the inside of her cheek and looks at the floor.

"Does it make you feel funny?" asks Drago.

"A little," admits Piroska.

"I should not have brought you here."

Piroska turns to face him again as he sits on his unmade bed. "Don't say that, Drago. You allowed me to come because you trusted me not to judge you. It's me that's being foolish. Forgive me." She takes a breath, scans the papered walls again. "You love your sister."

"Yes," whispers Drago. He's looking past her, eyes unfocused. "Very much."

"Then that's all that matters," decides Piroska. "Does she live here in Budapest?"

"She doesn't live anywhere, really."

"Because she travels for her work?"

Drago looks up, his face slack. "No, Piroska. Because she has died."

"Oh, God," says Piroska, blinking again. "I'm so sorry, Drago."

"Don't be sorry," he replies cryptically. "She's not altogether gone."

This statement flummoxes poor Piroska but she affords herself no time to dwell on it: her habitual reaction to confusion is to take charge. She stands up taller and puts her hands on her broad hips. "Show me your notes for Dr. Lupescu, Drago."

Drago nods, then reaches to three corners of the bed and retrieves balled wads of papers from each. He smooths them out on the yellowed sheet, squinting to read his own scrawls. Piroska walks over and kneels by the bed, taking the papers from Drago. She frowns, looks up. "This is...a chess game?"

He shakes his head. "Not directly, no, no. The chess-like manifold models the topology --"

"Well, clearly."

Drago pauses, blinking. "Okay, yes. So you can see: the two-bishop here, he is defining the subspaces while the five-king, this one, when he's in check puts the stationary points into relief, yes? This knight array moves along the higher-order mappings between the non-intersecting subspaces here and here. My queen..." He hesitates, fingers hovering over the notes reverentially. "My queen she defines the realm of solutions, and her trajectory along the hypersurface squares reveals the corresponding functions."

"But, why..."

"Look again. The extrusions fall away up-left and inverse-right. We can abelianize the topological space of checkmates, and also connect each one with a unique higher-dimensional board structure, and nothing changes when you unfold it. It's much easier to calculate that way, and the products are still valid. Do you follow?"

She sniffs around a half-smile. "Of course I follow," she says. "I am Piroska!"

Drago nods, handing her the next sheet. She pores over it, lips twitching slightly. She looks up again. "Drago," she says slowly, "you are a genius. That much is apparent. But," she adds with a frown, "you're also an idiot."

"It's been suggested before, yes," he admits. "I will fail."

She shakes her head. "You're an idiot because you're being asked to deconstruct Hellenic ballads and you're doing so using Japanese haiku. Is it any wonder Lupescu can't follow?"

"My method is succinct and pliable, yes. I am fluid, like this."

"Your method might as well be in Basque. You would be better off handing in your papers as Morse Code dots and dashes...or, at least, no worse off. Either way your arguments are lost, essentially meaningless to anyone but you, Drago."

"The information is there. It can all be reduced to first principles. Surely Lupescu's brain is nimble enough to make the leap into more crude notation if he feels that's desirable, no?"

"No!" cries Piroska. "That's why you're an idiot, Drago. You ask too much of him. He can't be bothered to translate your paper in order to read it."

"My calculus is superior."

"Maybe so, but it's personal. Mathematics is the only truly universal mode of communication, Drago. You've managed to get by in Hungarian -- can't you concede to also learn a standard way of manipulating numbers so that you might be understood?"

"My Hungarian is awful."

"I can follow you well enough. It gets the job done, doesn't it?"

"People make funs of my accent."

"So? Since when are people a reasonable measure of civility? It's how people don't behave that we consider laudable -- the default is barbarism, tribalism, nationalism, creedism. The default behaviour is to separate. Maths, on the other hand, bring us together. With maths we can discard accents and idioms, and agree upon what is correct. If you can't communicate that to someone else, you might as well never open your mouth. You might as well live exclusively inside your own brain."

Drago opens his mouth, says nothing, then closes it again. He nods.

Piroska puts his papers aside, then cracks her knuckles. "Are you ready to learn, Drago? I am confident that together we can build a bridge that will allow you to work with your notations but to output something meaningful to the faculty. Will you try?"

Drago nods again. "Yes. Help me, Piroska. I will try strongly, yes."

"In exchange, you are obliged to take me on another date. Perhaps to a concert?"

He nods again, eyes flitting. "Yes, yes. Now you will show me how to stop being an idiot in this way?"

"I will," she says. "Let's begin with an example problem. I want to see how you work it through."

"Okay..."

Piroska opens her tote and withdraws a sheet of scented paper and a feather-tipped baby blue pencil. She takes them over to his roommate's pristine desk and jots down a few lines, then hands the paper over. Drago scans it quickly. "This is a child's problem," he says.

"It is," she agrees. "Show me how you solve it."

He does so. She nods over the paper again, chewing the inside of her cheek. "Interesting..." she declares after a moment. She flips the page and writes down a more complex problem. "Now this. It shouldn't take you long. I've already solved it in my head."

Drago reads the problem. "So fast?"

"I am Piroska!"

Drago takes the pencil, scratches his head with it as he thinks. In another moment he jots down the solution. Piroska hands it right back to him. "And now the proofs, please."

"But it's obvious!"

"Just do it, Drago. Take it back to axioms. Omit nothing."

He snatches back the paper, frowning at it as he paces the room, his lanky form bobbing. His tongue moves inside his mouth, his gaze roams. A film of sweat breaks out across his brow, but he catches it before it runs into his eyes. In a flash he's jumped on the bed and he studies a scrawl of rudely-etched figures carved into the plaster, fingers running over the edges and causing little cascades of dust to trickle down onto his pillow. He drops from the bed again, shaking his head. "I can't do it -- it's simply too tedious and it obfuscates everything I'm trying to say..."

Piroska just looks at him.

Drago sighs. He wipes his brow again, sitting on the floor cross-legged and rubbing at his neck. He focuses in. He clutches the pencil, chews it, stabs at the air with it, and then finally begins jotting hurried lines of scratchy, barely legible notes across the page. She hovers nearby, only once or twice pointing out an easy translation from his system to the conventional one. Drago begins to nod. "Okay, okay, okay..." he mutters. "Yes, I can see it now..."

He catches himself as he unconsciously begins to peel the loose T-shirt off his sweaty back. He pauses, looking at Piroska.

"Go ahead. I know your reputation."

"My clothes bind me," he explains lamely.

"Take them off. I don't mind."

"But, you are a girl..."

"So now suddenly the shameless Mad Serb develops shame?"

Drago gives her a hard but lost look.

"Very well," says Piroska. "I will join you. Will that make you feel less vulnerable?"

"No," he decides quietly. "But it might make me feel less alien."

Piroska unbuttons her dress and lets it drop, releasing a cloud of perfume. Her alabaster body is squeezed into a matching set of pink brassiere and underwear. Across the front of the underwear is the cursive word WEDNESDAY. She has beauty marks that are not usually apparent. Drago finds himself involuntarily transfixed as she unsnaps the bra and then bends double to kick off her Wednesdays. She straightens, her cheeks colouring, twisting a strand of hair by her ear that's dropped loose from her elaborate braids.

"Okay?" she says.

"Hufph," says Drago, his jaw slack.

She snaps her fingers. "Drago! The maths!"

"Oh yes!" he cries, and then seizes the paper and pencil once more, his eyes flashing with a new and profound hunger. He scribbles furiously. She watches over his shoulder, feeling out blindly behind for her tote in order to secure a fresh stick of gum.

She grimaces suddenly. "Now why would you do that? You're going to end up with all sorts of messy infinities."

"The infinities go away. Look now."

"That operation makes no sense!"

"It does, it does. You just have to use actual numbers."

"Actual numbers? Do you mean real numbers?"

"No, no: actual numbers, yes. Not the dumb symbols people push around -- I mean the numbers nature uses when she counts. Look: like so, like so, like so. Presto: the disjointed becomes contiguous, the infinities are vanished."

Piroska's eyes widen. "Show me that again."

He does so. Again she points out the nodes of consanguinity with conventional algebraic algorithms, piece by piece bridging the gap between the Mad Serb's insanely complicated system of calculation and the way the rest of the academic world counts. She reels as she tries to digest his processes, now beginning to catch glimpses of the titanic iceberg of idiosyncratic but deeply insightful calculus hulking beneath the bizarre glimmers of multidimensional chess shown on the page. "It's...beautiful," she gasps.

He looks up, one brow cocked. "Yes," he agrees breathlessly. "That's how I know it is true."

"This is deep. I can't believe you try to use it day to day. It's like putting in a nail with a wrecking ball."

He sniffs, sweat dripping from his nose. "I don't go in for half measures, Piroska," he says, then smirks. "I am Drago!"

"Indeed," she nods seriously, eyes locked on his. "You certainly are." She looks down at the densely-scribbled page again. "Now, bring it all home, Drago. Make it something even Lupescu could read."

"I'm not sure that I can..."

"You must. The burden is on you. Do you want to live alone inside your mind, or do you want the world to count with you?"

"I'm not all alone there --"

"Drago! Translate!"

This imperative is high-pitched and sure, like his mother's commandments to put his head between his knees or flee. Drago reacts automatically, his hand flying across the page as he scrunches up his face painfully. He stands to begin pacing anxiously again. "But here I will lose information --"

"No!" she shouts, grabbing his shoulders and arresting him in place. "Merge tables L1 and L2. Watch what happens. You'll see the symmetry."

"But --"

"Do it!"

He mashes the page between her pendulous breasts and she feels his jotting pencil tickle across her sternum: probing, wandering, scratching out and starting again. Suddenly he looks up, his brow open, his mouth loose. "Yes," he whispers, "yes, yes I see it now!" and then lays into another ferocious bout of scribbling. The paper tears. The pencil digs into Piroska's skin but she doesn't flinch.

He stops. The pencil wavers. "I'm hurting you."

"Finish!"

"But if I --"

"Finish!" she commands, reaching out and grabbing him by his most prominent and intimate appendage.

Drago is erect. His eyes pop open wider. His face colours. He writes, then drops the pencil, breathing hard.

They stare at each other, glistening faces just inches apart.

Piroska peels the torn paper from her chest and reads his last figures, then nods curtly and smiles, her cheeks dimpling. "You've done it, Drago. Welcome to a wider world."

His expression changes, eyelids fluttering. She feels a warm splash on her belly as he ejaculates.

It is at this exact moment that Drago's roommate, Sandor, opens the door and his boisterous conversation with his friends cuts off mid-sentence. Sandor's gaze is unwillingly riveted by the image of the skinny, sweaty, naked Serb standing in the middle of the room with a pencil between his feet.

"Oh my God!" cries Sandor.

His friend swings open the door the rest of the way, revealing Piroska's ample nudity as she continues to clutch Drago's rapidly softening, dripping member in her chubby hand.

"Oh my God!" cries Sandor again. "My eyes!"

Piroska turns to face him with her hands on her hips, her round stomach thrust out carelessly like a child. "What?" she says lightly. "Haven't you ever seen someone doing their homework before?"

"I'm sorry, Sandor," stammers Drago. "We were simply --"

Sandor is looking at the wall as his friends dodge their heads sideways to see past him, flinching dramatically when they do. "This," yells Sandor at the wall, "this is why I lodged my complaint with the dean! God! What is wrong with you people?"

"The dean?" blinks Piroska. She checks her watch. The tips of the hands are little crimson hearts. "Drago, your appointment! It's nearly quarter to seven!"

"What?" says Drago, eyes narrowed in bewilderment.

"The dean! You have to see the dean!"

"Yes," adds Sandor darkly. "So he can expel you, freak."

Sandor's expression changes from derision to fright when he finds himself backed into the corner behind the door as Piroska surges at him. She jumps at him aggressively, her large breasts pinning him against the wall, her face drawn in so close he can smell her gum. "Listen, asshole," she hisses, "if you've got a problem with him, you've got a problem with me. Got that? And I promise you right now I can break you over my knee like a toothpick if you force me to."

Sandor's face says he believes her. His mouth moves but he makes no words.

"Now get the hell out of here," she adds.

Sandor squirms out along the door and then hurriedly disappears into the hall, his friends following after casting uncertain glances back at the two naked mathematics students. Piroska slams the door and then spins to face Drago again. "Get dressed," she advises.

"That was amazing!" he says, stumbling into a pair of jogging pants.

She raises her chin haughtily. "And are you surprised?" she asks, brow arched. "I am Piroska!"

Drago grins. "And thank goodness for it."

She checks her watch again. "You're late! Go, go, go!" She throws a T-shirt at him and scoops up her tote, quickly jotting something on a small square of pink paper then jamming it into his pocket. "This is my address. You'll come calling when you're done?"

"I will," he swears earnestly, still grinning.

He runs across the quadrangle, dodging other students and calling apologies over his shoulder. He takes the steps of the administration building three at a time and then nearly wipes out on the recently polished linoleum in the lobby. People stop to stare in anticipation of the crash but he recovers, shoes squeaking, and then inexplicably knocks his heels together as he jumps into the elevator. The doors rumble shut lazily while he stabs at the buttons.

"I was quite prepared to send you packing today, Mr. Zoran," growls the dean from the far side of his immaculate desk. "But it seems someone else has already relieved me of that pleasure."

"Sir?" prompts Drago, wiping perspiration from his face with his T-shirt.

The dean folds his hands on the blotter. "Against all reason, your application to the Sorbonne has been accepted."

"But, sir, I do not have the means..."

The dean pushes a letter to the edge of his desk. The masthead carries an elaborate seal circumscribed with wiggly Arabic worm-letters. "You have been awarded the Anwar Scholarship, Mr. Zoran," he pronounces carefully. "It is a very generous scholarship: accommodation, tuition and travel."

Drago is speechless. He clutches the damp front of his T-shirt, mouth agog.

"You don't seem pleased," says the dean. He smiles smugly. "Goodness knows I am."

Drago takes a deep breath, slinking slightly lower in his chair. "I shall have to cancel my date," he concludes sadly.


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