I arrived late last night. Sebastian greeted me in the driveway and had his people carry my stuff inside. He’s given me the guest cottage on the south lot, where I have my own bathroom and personal library. There are four antique sofas nestled comfortably around the oversized stone fireplace, and the warm light gives the place a homey feel. His people have stocked the cottage with memoirs and estate property from famed Christian writers. Theres a first edition of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, a few hand written letters from Charles Spurgeon and Jonathan Edwards, and even a Guttenberg Bible. I was instructed by the castellan only to handle the books while wearing a pair of white cotton gloves. When Sebastian came by to see how I was settling in, though, he picked up the signed copy of Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet and tossed it to me, suggesting I read it right away.
I told Sebastian about the rabbit. He jokingly took Lewis away and replaced it with Through the Looking Glass, which I read until I fell asleep still in my clothes.
I woke late, feeling momentarily like Id begun life all over again. This little cottage made me feel like some old hermit, living in the woods showing hospitality to travelers. Ezekiel did that. Before his wife died they lived in the wilderness. Kings and priests came to him for guidance wisdom and sage advice. He and his wife never left. They had everything they wanted.
Realizing that, the spell was broken. I came back to reality, a widower, without the person who made me whole. This thought chased me out of the cozy hut and across the grounds of Le Château Sûr.
The French tend toward spectacle and this place s no exception. The first bits–the tower and the dairy–were built in the late 11th century out of white stone. Centuries later, the morning sunshine the effect that the entire castle s made of sand. That effect s only intensified when you look past the castle and out into the seas of green grass, sculpted to roll and break like the tide. The servant’s quarters, kitchen, laundry, and offices re housed in a wing some Vicomte or another built in 1623. Since everyone was terribly busy there I decided to skip past the thousand-pound oaken doors and move on to the main house. It contain the great hall, the lesser hall, the master rooms and bedrooms for the family, as well as the dining hall, smoking lounge, liquor room, billiards hall, and gallery. Breakfast was waiting for me on bone china at one end of an embarrassingly long table. I ignored the bowl of hot chocolate and drank my coffee standing up, nibbling on a chocolatine pastry. I tried to hide my crumbly mess by shifting it around the carpet with my foot, hoping no one would notice.
A maid saw the whole thing. When I had finished massaging my mess into the carpet I looked up and caught her staring at me.
I took my coffee cup and saucer into the gardens and sat beneath an ancient yew. Liz always liked to have coffee outside. I felt close to her and imagined us teasing each other about the way we liked our coffee. She put enough creamer in hers that I often joked we needed our own cow. I remember how she used to smile politely when I that, and then think of a new comeback every time.
Thoughts of Liz were the only mental meme I had going round. Sitting there, looking back at the castle, I was struck by how little I knew about my famous friend.
I had that same thought later in the evening, when we met for dinner. The castellan had measured me for a dinner jacket previously, and had made sure I was presentable before leading me into the great hall for pre-dinner drinks with Sebastian. But he was not alone. A woman stood with him, engaged in their conversation but giving no outward signs of enjoyment. When she leaned over to the sideboard table, I could see the ridges of her spine arching almost directly above her sharp ankles. Her black dress seemed to shiver in the firelight, reflecting back her emerald necklace and brooch. She was attractive, but intimidating.
She adjusted her glasses before shaking my hand. were introduced she did a passable job of hiding her condescension. For her part, Nessa Vodyanoy ha earned two concurrent PhD’s studying hydro-vulcanology and geodynamics. She Sebastian’s cousin, twice removed.
“I didn’t know you were Russian” I mentioned to him.
Sebastian shrugged. “Grand-mère was a Holstein-Gottorp Romanov. Not royalty, but a proud family. We came to Brittany one hundred years ago. We left our fame and our peril. It is no small matter, being a Romanov. Nessa has made us quite proud.”
“You are too kind, Dyadya.”
“Dyadya?” I asked.
“It’s a term of endearment. It means ‘uncle.’” Sebastian reached out his hand and placed it on Nessa’s head. She didn’t shirk right away. I used to bring her gifts.”
“From Venezuela, Franceall these wonderful places.” Nessa took Sebastian’s hand from her head, but kept it in her own. She was congenial. “None of my other cousins did that, but it seemed like something an uncle would do. You hung above every mantle in our home.”
“I had a favorite uncle as well” I offered.
“Good for you” he said, turning away. I was left looking at empty air. Still, things loosened up a bit and after twenty minutes of casual conversation I found myself warming to heromewhat. We might never be friends, but I was relieved that Nessa had no apparent interest in making the meal uncomfortable.
Dinner began with a fancy drink, some Sirop de Picon, followed by hors d’oeuvres and a thin broth. The entrée consisted of roast squab, sliced and simmered in cognac, served with a small amount of foie gras, truffles and mushrooms. I know that sounds luxurious but I still ad images of the bunny stuck in my head. Thankfully the meal was served with bread and mineral water. Sebastian grinned when he saw me eating so “American.”
Nessa was the first to make some conversation over the meal. “I’m surprised you haven’t deployed a recovery expedition Dyadya” he said.
Sebastian looked partway up, nodding his head to the side. “But of course, we were very keen to return to Okhotsk. However, Institut is not willing to finance such a mission. Not so soon. Recovery has no ‘scientific value’ they say.”
“And the Japanese?” Nessa’s voice had lowered into a brittle grind.
“Ma chere, they never saw our voyage favorably”e said.
“Because of the nanobots, Dyadya?” Her jaw was flexing and it looked like she was going to drive the base of her fork through the table top.
Sebastian waited just a second before answering. “Our friends from Japan, they do have a fixation with technology” e smiled.
“You stole it!” Nessa said.
“What’s a nanobot?” I asked.
“Inessa Aleksandra Vodyanoy,” Sebastian had stopped with his wine glass almost to his lips, “that is ridiculous.”
I still hadn’t clued into the implications of what we were discussing. “Is it like a little robot?”
“Had you designed it, you would have tested the technology personally” he said. “You’ve never been so deep as Dignite. We are years behind.” I assumed she meant the Russians.
I closed my mouth and sat back in my chair. When I looked Sebastian he huffed and shook his head. Nessa wasn’t buying it. She was glowering, her forehead leaning slightly toward her uncle. “Did you keep from the others?” he asked. “What about Challenger? Dennis had to have known.”
“Dennis Challenger was fine” Sebastian said. “He wasn’t involved in anything unethical.”
“But you were?” I asked.
Sebastian looked briefly at me before again addressing his niece. “Don’t be a child. I am a man of principle. I’m a believer. I have invested my life and my considerable wealth in spreading the gospel of sustainability and renewable resources. I will not be questioned by a frustrated adolescent, regardless of either my affection or her intelligence.”
Nessa spluttered. Her silverware clattered onto her plate. “I wanted to believe it wasn’t true” he said, proceeding to sulk.
Dinner had taken a turn. I wondered whether or not I had misjudged my benefactor. He had been very good to me, and I’m a loyal person loyal enough, in all likelihood, to overlook some small offence. But industrial espionage?
My fledgling attempts at dinner were now thoroughly depleted. I wondered if I was the only one without any appetite, until I noticed Sebastian looking rather pale.
And then he fell over.
Nessa sat in stunned silence but I was at his side immediately. Sebastian was sweating and waving me off, but I called for help. “Castellan!” I called. White Gloves came running quickly, along with Girard. “Call the ambulance!”
“Mon Dieu!” He said, turning to scamper toward the telephone.
“Arrêtez!” Sebastian called. “I’m fine.”
“Etes-vous sûr?” The castellan did not look convinced.
Sebastian nodded, beckoning to his manservant. “Girard, help me to my room please. I need only rest.”
“Nessa my dear I assure you it is only momentary.” Sebastian struggled to his feet with help from Girard. He looked pained but was exerting a lot of effort to smile. “Please, stay and eat with David. We have good food and few guests. Do not waste my hospitality.”
I know Sebastian didn’t want his little bout of dramedy to spoil the evening, but somehow the after-dinner selection of fruits and cheeses didn’t make me feel any better.
Nessa, too, looked concerned. In spite of the tension at dinner, he was still Dyadya.
“Are you going to be alright?” I asked her, after the third long stretch of conversational silence.
“I am worried.” She said.
“Hopefully it’s nothing.”
She made a small noise at the back of her throat. “Are you a fool?”
Nessa set down her glassware. “The nanobots are not the only secret Dyadya is keeping.”
“Sebastian is my friend. I trust him. He’s the only other person on the planet working hard to get back to Okhotsk.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes.” I said. “We just need funding.”
“She looked incredulous. “He told you there is no money to go back?”
“There is always money, Dr. Mann. But right now you do not have the information you need to release that money. Information is power. Those who hold the information, hold all the power. You are powerless. You think you need money, but I tell you what you need is to get the right information to the right people. Money will follow.”
Abruptly, Nessa stood up and pushed back her chair. “Excuse me,” she said, leaving the room. That was how we said good night. Awkwardly, with me heading to my cottage and Nessa striding down the hall, both of us worried and confused.