After the Frenchman had left, Bret sat back in his seat with an air of frustration admixed with several degrees of relief. He looked from Kevin to Tanji and back again.
"So," he began, "It's more-or-less as I had understood. There've been numerous attempts to build tunnels in this area, secretly, to provide a private route. It's not unusual; the Guardians have been unearthing tunnels in the vicinity of other crossings for centuries. But there's no new evidence here or, rather, no evidence of new excavations that we've been able to dig up."
Kevin winced at the series of puns, but the other man seemed to be unaware of the double meanings. Bret shook his head and picked up his wineglass.
"As I was saying earlier," he continued, "I don't think there's any more investigations we can carry out here, and Jean-Marc's information, while fascinating in itself, doesn't really take us any further right now."
Bret swirled the wine around in the bottom of his glass.
"So, we'll return to England tomorrow. In the meantime, let's enjoy the last of our wine, or perhaps a little port," he concluded, glancing over Tanji's shoulder, "I can see that the cheese trolley is approaching."
In fact, there were three trolleys, each supporting an artful arrangement of French cheeses, most of which Kevin had never even heard of before, let alone tasted. Each trolley was manned by a separate waiter, and a more senior member of the waiting staff was on hand to guide them through the intricacies of choosing cheese to suit their palate.
Following Bret's, and the sommelier's advice, Kevin allowed himself a glass of an aged port. This was not something which he had sampled before, but he found - to his surprise and delight - that it really did complement the veined and pungent cheeses he had permitted himself to be recommended.
The rest of the evening dissolved in a pleasant blur of conversation and cognac, and even Bret's evident frustration seemed to dissipate. Tanji giggled at his witty remarks and Bret's stern countenance was softened by laughter and his own collection of amusing anecdotes over the cheese pates and later in the Orangery.
The next morning, Kevin awoke feeling refreshed and alert, much to his surprise, despite the generous nature of the dinner last night. He did not have the slightest hint of a hangover, nor did he feel particularly heavy or bloated. After a few moments reflection, he imagined that this was the effect of a meal that lasted several hours, and where the courses, although numerous, were individually rather tiny.
Tanji was still deeply asleep at his side when there was a light, even diffident, tap on the door. Belatedly remembering that he had ordered room service breakfast late the previous night, Kevin swung himself out of bed and slipped into the luxurious fluffy white dressing gown provided by the hotel. He tiptoed across the deep-pile carpet in his bare feet and opened the door.
Outside the door stood a uniformed waiter who nodded politely then wheeled in a trolley covered with a starched white tablecloth. The flunky reached under the cloth and, with a flourish, lifted up two flaps to convert the trolley into a circular table. He then adjusted the items on the table, augmenting them with fruit and bread and juice and milk and, Kevin was reassured to see, a large pot of coffee, all drawn from compartments - one hot, one cold - set into the ends of the trolley. The waiter drew up two chairs which had been standing against the bedroom walls, then added the final touches, carefully adjusting the single flower in its miniature glass vase and bowing his head before departing swiftly and silently.
Kevin, who had been watching the immensely polished performance with as much awe as he could summon at this time of the morning, was distracted by Tanji just as the door closed. She has apparently wakened while breakfast was being so deftly served and had probably been peeking out from under the bedclothes.
"So," she purred, "Do you need to work up an appetite?"
Kevin grinned, needing no further encouragement. The two lovers spent the next fifteen minutes energetically entertaining each other in the already dishevelled bed in which they had spent the night.
The coffee and croissants were still tolerably warm by the time they emerged from under the bedcovers. They enjoyed a relaxed and leisurely breakfast, chatting and giggling their way through plates of prepared fruit and bowls of cereal, culminating in Tanji declaring the hot chocolate "not bad" - high praise indeed from a native of the Other World, a world where drinking chocolate was widely served at any time of the day.
Their breakfast was interrupted by a call on the house phone. It was Bret, reminding them that they were to be collected in thirty minutes time. Kevin swallowed the last of his - by now, noticeably cool - coffee and dived into the bathroom for a shower, leaving Tanji still sitting in her dressing gown finishing the last of her hot chocolate and nibbling on a bread roll spread with a soft blue cheese and drenched with honey.
A few minutes later, Kevin emerged dripping and towelling off vigorously. He dropped his towel uncharacteristically untidily and started to get dressed quickly while Tanji, evidently determined to take things at a more leisurely pace, wandered into the bathroom humming happily to herself. While Tanji was showering, Kevin packed up his bag, which did not take very long at all since he had brought very little with him, and then attempted to read a French newspaper with little success. Shortly afterwards, Tanji emerged from the shower, slipped into her clothes and packed in even less time than Kevin.
The two of them arrived in the hotel foyer to find Bret absent, although he materialised on the stairs no more than thirty seconds afterwards. Bret handled the checkout, using some dark-coloured credit card with heavily-understated branding that Kevin did not recognise. Immediately afterwards, they were collected from the hotel entrance by the same car and driver that had transported them from the airport the previous day.
Bret had returned to his persistent withdrawn mood overnight, it seemed, and sat in the front seat immersed in his own thoughts for the entire journey. He stirred only when they arrived at the concrete maze that was Charles de Gaulle airport, through which they were deftly navigated by their driver, finally depositing them at the departure area. They moved swiftly though the VIP check-in counter - a process so smooth and efficient that Kevin was barely aware of the transfer. Very shortly afterwards, the three travellers were ensconced in a private section of the departure lounge with the morning's second cup of coffee in their hands.
"I've been pondering what to do next," Bret began, "I'm convinced that there's something going on. Yes, I admit we've not found any kind of evidence - recent evidence, at least. But I still have this uneasy feeling that there's more to this than meets the eye."
Bret had clearly been fretting over this for much of the night, Kevin imagined, and the man looked tired and drawn. Bret sipped his coffee and continued.
"So, I want to investigate some more, and I'd like you both to help. It'll mean another trip, this time in the Other World."
Kevin glanced at Tanji, who nodded vigorously and unhesitatingly in response.
"Of course," he replied earnestly, "So where will we be going?"
Bret's reply was drowned out by the announcement of their flight over the tannoy, although Tanji nodded in apparent understanding. The next few minutes dissolved in a flurry of locating their bags and finishing their drinks. The flight back from Paris to Manchester was uneventful - the best thing, in Kevin's view, which could be said about a flight. The there was the usual hanging around for disembarking and passport control, followed by a short taxi ride to Kevin's Manchester flat, ostensibly to collect his car. In fact, both he and Tanji took the opportunity to refresh the contents of their travel bags. Kevin grabbed a few clean shirts and underwear from the drawer in the bedroom while Tanji, who often stayed over, also found replacement garments in a different drawer.
Soon, Kevin was driving them along the familiar route to the island of Lyndesfarne with Tanji at his side. She chatted away gaily, trying to tempt him with suggestions for their next tourist trip. Her choice of destination apparently decided, she then dozed for the remainder of the trip. Bret sat in the back seat. From what Kevin could glimpse in the rear-view mirror, the other man spent some of the time talking quietly on his mobile phone and making notes in an old-fashioned leather-bound notebook, and the remainder staring out of the window looking pensive and withdrawn.
Finally, they arrived at the Lyndesfarne causeway. Kevin dumped the Volvo in the usual nearly empty and windswept car park. He and Tanji wrapped themselves in Lyndesfarne-style cloaks. Having experienced the variable and often inclement weather in the vicinity of the crossing, Kevin kept a couple of these garments in the boot of the car for himself and Tanji. Bret produced a similar item from his own pack and hefted it across his shoulders.
Today, the weather was reasonably bright, although a stiff breeze across the causeway whipped Bret's and Tanji's ponytails around their faces and made them all glad of the warm clothing. The three of them strode briskly across the mile or so of the causeway, less busy now that the New Bridge was carrying the bulk of the commercial traffic.
They stopped for a few moments close to the apex of the Old Bridge, at the centre of the causeway and in the exact spot where the Two Worlds met. Both Bret and Kevin admired the asymmetrical but impressive shape of the New Bridge with a degree of pride as befitted its principal designers. The two tall towers caught an occasional glint of sunlight from between the clouds, casting into sharp relief the web of steel cables which supported the roadbed on one side, and the triangular magical support sails which performed a similar function on the other. Even here, Bret was silent, withdrawn, and Kevin did not wish to interrupt the other man's musings with what would probably be regarded as naïve or irritating or unanswerable questions.
After a minute or two they resumed their walk, reaching the end of the causeway without further delay, nodded to the Guardians deployed inconspicuously but efficiently around the crossing, then entered the low stone-built building that nestled in the sand-dunes and sea-grass only a few tens of yards from the end of the causeway.
Bret studied the signboard and then took advice in a low voice from Tanji, whose knowledge of the operation of the portal network seemed to be greater even than his own - no doubt part of the Guild of Directions training, Kevin considered. The two of them rapidly decided on a route and Kevin was guided to the stone arch that dominated the far end of the brightly-lit interior. Together, they approached the smooth grey surface which filled the arch, apparently solid and unyielding. They stepped though, Kevin failing to suppress a blink, and emerged immediately into a large airy space filled with bustling people and their luggage traversing to and fro between rows of identical stone archways.
In the few years since he had first been introduced to Lyndesfarne, Kevin had taken an understandably keen interest in the operation of the portal network, as a system. This was partially because he discovered he could comprehend more of the complex schedules and timetables which were used, as opposed to the magical point-to-point transport itself, whose functioning he found utterly opaque.
The portals themselves seamlessly linked two distant places in this world - the smaller version of the vast connection between the Two Worlds known as crossings. But the portals did not link two places all the time. This, Kevin now realised, would have been hopelessly cumbersome and inefficient. Rather, each portal was connected five, six or more different remote places, the connections changing according to a regular schedule every ten minutes or so. This meant that, to travel between two arbitrary places, it was necessary to take a series of portal transits, perhaps having to wait as much as an hour before the portal was finally connected to the next point on your itinerary.
The transits between portals were undertaken within termini, which housed many portals within the same building and that Kevin always found strikingly analogous to a Swiss railway station, except that the informational signs and the occasional public announcement were even more unintelligible. A considerable degree of skill was required to select the most efficient route for a particular journey, one which minimised the time spent hanging around, and which would depend both on the destination one desired as well as the time at which one set off.
The party emerged from the final portal after an uneventful and unrushed thirty-minute transit. Kevin was feeling, as he often did, slightly disoriented, more from the effects of a sudden arrival rather than anything to do with the transit itself which was as remarkably unremarkable as anything operated by magic could be. Tanji stretched up and kissed him on the cheek, then took his arm companionably and guided him gently towards the open doorway of the portal building.
All portals, even those "Level Five" devices at the edge of the intricately-connected network, were enclosed in some kind of structure. Most were in nearly identical building stoutly constructed of either carefully-jointed masonry - for the older edifices - or the magical building material Kevin knew as "construction stone". Apparently, this was nothing to do with the operation of the portal itself, but more as a convenience to travellers who might have just arrived from a very different climate or season and therefore needed time to adjust their clothing and/or attitude. Privately, he also suspected there was another reason, since these buildings were always very strongly constructed, but he was unsure whether this was to do with the need for military defence or as protection against the depredations of the larger species of dragons.
Kevin stepped past the solid timbers of the portal building doors - noticing the faint orange sparkle within the wood that indicated the presence of magical reinforcements - and walked blinking into the sunshine outside. Then the realisation struck him: he recognised exactly where they were.
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