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In our world there are ghosts and ghosts: those which are real, and those of our own pasts, which are equally real, if less tangible, but often more dangerous.
Why I was thinking about the ghosts of my pastor Llysette'sI wasn't even certain as I sat behind my desk in the early Saturday afternoon of a day in October and looked out through the sparklingly clean panes of the closed French doors at the reds and golds of the turning oaks and maples that lay beyond. If the sun had been shining, it would have been a glorious sight, but the gray skies muted that, although we had not seen rain yet.
My eyes flicked to the Asten Post-Courier on the side table. Reading it had been depressing, as it had been for months, with the stories about the continuing buildup of the Austro-Hungarian fleet and the maneuvering over petroleum supplies. The Mediterranean was already Ferdinand's lake, not that the outdated Russian Southern Fleet had dared venture forth from the Black Sea in more than a decade. The Austrians had completed turning the Red Sea into another such lake, and with their Seventh Fleet controlling the Indian Ocean, that meant that they could shut off the flow of petroleum to Great Britain or the Swedish confederation at any time. Or to Columbia or Quebec, for the matter.
The sounds of a Poulenc piece drifted in from the parlor where Llysette was practicing. I couldn't remember the name. Every so often the song would stop, and she would play a section on the Haaren, as if to check the phrasing or the notes, and then she would resume. I couldn't help smiling as I listened.
Before me on the desk was a brown manila envelope, one with the return address of Eric's law firm in the federal district that held Columbia City. I picked up the disk case that I had set there on the envelope and turned it between my fingers so that the cover shimmered in the light of the desk lampThe Incredible Salt Palace Concert: DuBoise and Perkins. The picture above the incandescent green of the title showed Llysette and the Saint composer Daniel Perkins, both standing at the front of the stage, smiling. I smiled, too, once more and for perhaps the thousandth time, as I set the disk case down on my study desk beside the SII difference engine. I picked up the royalty statement that the disk had accompanied.
It was hard to believe that Llysette's first three concerts in Desert had been close to a year ago. So much had happened since then. Hartson James had insisted on her doing a segment on one of his videolink Christmas specialsit hadn't been that long, less than fifteen minutes, but TransMedia had paid her two thousand and reimbursed all our expenses in going down to New Amsterdam to record the show, including a suite at the Stuyvesant Grande. James hadn't missed a bet, and Dennis Jackson, the smooth-voiced crooner and host of the special, had even made a big plug for the Salt Palace Concert disk.
Late February had found us back in Deseret. True to his word, First Counselor Cannon of the Deseret Republic had ensured that Llysette had her performance at the St. George Opera House. After that, she'd followed me to Eastern Deseret for my delayed tour of the synfuels plant. I couldn't say that I'd understood all the technicalities, but the engineers from the Columbian Ministry of Interior and the one from Columbian Dutch Petroleum had been most interested.
Then there had been Llysette's appearance in Philadelphia, and the long overdue vacation in Sint-Maarten…followed by the meeting of the trustees of Vanderbraak State University in May, when they had voted to grant Llysette tenureand a raise. The raise had been welcome because concert engagements weren't exactly the steadiest of work, as both Llysette and I had discovered.
By midsummer, despite all the publicity, and the favorable reviews, Llysette had exactly five concerts scheduled for the fall and winter. That made almost ten paying concerts in a little more than a year, when she hadn't seen any in almost a decade. A great improvement, but certainly not enough to consider us wealthy.
The song coming from the parlor stopped, and I looked up to see a dark-haired and green-eyed lady in a soft gray sweater step in the study.
"Johan…worried you look."
"No. Just reflective." I stood and gestured toward the paper. "Ferdinand and his power plays. The world gets more dangerous every day, it seems."
"You…you are not the minister, n'est-ce-pas? Not even a spy any longer." She offered an almost impish smile, one that I was seeing more often the longer we had been married, as if she could finally show some of the playful side that she had probably never been allowed to indulge. Then, I was never certain how much had come from Llysette and how much from Carolynne, the family ghost whose soul was now part of each of ours. I laughed softly. It didn't matter…now. I slipped out from behind the desk to give Llysette a healthy hug. Of course, I kissed her as well.
She returned the kiss, warmly, but not passionately, before tilting her head to the side. "Non…I must try the Mahler song…and you would have me…impossible homme…"
I grinned and released her after another squeeze. She was right. I was impossible, although I loved the way she pronounced the word in French, and I would have been even more impossible had she given me any encouragement. Being married to a beautiful soprano creates great temptations. "Are you hungry?"
"Mais oui. Why do you think I came to your door?"
So, while she went back to practicing, I headed into the kitchen.
There was some veal, and some lemon, and we always had wine, although I had to go down to the cellar and pull out a light sherry. Before long I was pounding the veal flat, and then sautéing it, while steaming some late beans. I'd already put on some basmati rice. A simple meal, but that was fine because we had to attend the dean's reception at the theatre before the orchestra concert.
Absently, I wiped a droplet of something off the white enamel of the windowsill. Over the summer, I'd stripped all the trim in the kitchen and repainted all the white so that it would be smooth. I suppose I still had enough Dutch in me that I hated anything that didn't look, feel, and smell spotless. I'd never been a particularly neat cook, and that meant I always had a great deal of cleaning up to do, both near the end of the preparation and especially afterward.
Then, in no time at all, it seemed, everything was ready, and I called toward the parlor. "Mademoiselle la diva…"
"Johan…les langues…you are mixing them." Llysette was shaking her head and smiling at the same time as she slipped into the kitchen and sat at the small table that was almost too big for the small half-bay window overlooking the north lawn.
"I know, but I love the sound of that." I slipped the plate of veal and rice and the beans almandine in front of her. I had already poured her tea.
I had fixed myself chocolate, the heavy warm kind composed of near equal portions of chocolate, cream, and sugar. My mother had always said I had to have some English ancestry somewhere because no proper Dutchman could drink chocolate that sweet. I wasn't sure about that, but I wasn't about to argue the point.
"The veal…it is wonderful. You could have been a great chef, Johan."
"Only at a very small bistro," I conceded. "I worry too much about things like petroleum shortages, and Ferdinand's fleets."
"Why…the news in the paper, does it trouble you so, Johan?"
"I suppose it shouldn't. I can't do anything about it, but I still worry."
"Will not the plans you provided?"
"They're building the plant, but it will be another year before it's operating, and one plant will only produce a few percent of Columbia's kerosene needs."
"You, mon cher, can do only so much." Llysette took another sip of tea from the porcelain cup that had come from the set left to mother by my aunt Willimena. Mother had sent them to Llysettenot meright after we were married, saying something to the effect that, since Llysette didn't have any family, someone needed to provide her with beloved heirlooms. Llysette hadn't said much, but whenever she had tea, she'd requested one of the cups, so often that I'd just made it a habit to serve her tea in it. "You cannot save the world."
"No, but one hopes." My head agreed with her words, but I couldn't help worrying. I'd hoped that Llysette's and my efforts in reducing tensions between Columbia and Deseret, and even slightly between New France and Columbia, might have strengthened Columbia's position, but Fredinand's actions suggested otherwise.
"The reception…you do not have to go…" Llysette ventured.
"I'm supposed to sit here and wonder what new scheme the dean is hatching?"
"Most kind she has been."
"I'm sure she had." I snorted. "You've been good for the university."
The university's visibility, and particularly the reputation of the Music and Theatre Department, had soared with the regional and national news stories about Llysette. Applications for Llysette's studio had doubled, and some were even from as far away as Kansas and Newfoundland. There was even a letter from Daniel Perkins requesting that Llysette take a student from Desert University for a semester as an exchange student.
After our meal, Llysette practiced another hour, and then took a bath and dressed.
I finished checking her royalty statements, and turned to correcting quizzes from my environmental politics class. I'd asked for a series of short answers, and no one seemed to have gotten the third question: What was the most immediate result of the naval oil reserve scandal?
I thought that would have been simplethe resignation of Interior Minister Fell. I would even have accepted an answer that claimed it had been the defeat of Speaker Roosevelt's administration. Only four papers out of twenty-three had either answer. I shook my head. The republic's only major political scandal of the first third of the century, and the one that had led to the creation of entire energy oversight function of the Ministry of the Interior, and no one even remembered or thought in important.
After the environmental politics quizzes came the essays from my natural resources introductory course. Since it was a general education requirement, I expected and got some interesting essays, like the young man who wrote that detailed measurements of subsurface hydrology were only possible after the invention of the water table by Daffyd Browder in 1870. I had to admire his inventiveness, but I wasn't grading on gall or inventiveness.
I didn't get though all the essays before it was time to dress for the reception and concert. All too soon Llysette and I were sitting in my red Stanley, because that was its normal color, unless I flipped the switch to use the thermal paint option. After the relatively short drive down the hill and over the bridge into Vanderbraak Centre and around the square, I was still able to find a space in the lower car park.
While the clouds had lowered and thickened some, only a slight breeze ruffled Llysette's hair as we walked toward the music and theatre building that still resembled the physical training facility it had once been. The reception was in the small anteroom off the foyer to the theatre.
We had not stepped more than a few paces inside before Katrinka Er Recchus slithered up, if an overly ample administrator could ever be said to slither. "Llysette! Johan!"
The dean's welcomes had become most effusive in the past year, not surprisingly. Her floral perfume was as pungent as ever, and her auburn hair was pulled back into a bun that seemed to make her eyes bulge out above the white lace collar.
"Dean Er Recchus." I bowed.
Lysette offered a charming professional smile.
"I am so glad to see that you both could make it to the reception. President Waafl had hoped you would be here, dear Llysette."
"Miss this I would not," Llysette said gently.
"I don't see Alois," I added.
"Didn't you hear, Johan? They've called up the New Bruges Guard, and the national commandant wired Alois, and asked him to serve as acting commander for the second echelon reserves. So he's gone back to work on weekends."
The dean smiled. "He's pleased that he can still be of service."
I had't seen anything about calling up the Guard, and I read the Post-Courier fairly thoroughly. "When did this happen?"
"Well…it hasn't. Not yet. Alois said that the Guard would announce it in the next few days. I shouldn't be saying much, but I know you would be the last person to tell anyone, Johan."
I just nodded.
"If you will excuse me…" The dean bobbed her head. "Here come the vanEmsdens."
Llysette and I eased toward the table holding the punch. Blanding Aastrethe Orchestra conductor, attired in his performance white and blackstood back from the punch bowl, facing Donnel Waafl, the current president of Vanderbraak State University.
"The are as are important," Waafl was saying. "Every student needs a well-rounded education, and that's just not possible without an understanding of the arts.…"
I wanted to laugh. That was his standard line. Whoever he talked to, that was what he said. I glanced at Llysette, but her smile was perfectly in place. I rolled my eyes. "Johan…"she murmured. "All right." I replied pleasantly.
Blanding bowed to Waafl as we neared. "If you will excuse me, President Waafl…"
"Of course, of course…I believe you have an orchestra to conduct." Waafl laughed heartily, then turned to us. "Professor duBoise…I am so glad to see you. The trustees have been so pleased to hear about your upcoming concerts."
"As am I," Llysette said softly.
"We're all looking forward to another videolink performance.…"
"Alas…now there are none scheduled."
"She has Philadelphia," I interjected.
"Good…very good. The arts are so important, and it's vital that students know how strong our performing arts program is here." His head bobbed almost the way the dean's had. Was that something they taught administrators, assuming that administrators could learn anything?
The lights flicked on and off, and the five-minute bells chimed.
"You will keep me informed, will you not?" Waafl's eyes centered back on Llysette, as if I had been dismissed and immediately forgotten.
"Mais oui. President Waafl. That I will do."
The lights flicked again, and we bowed again to Waafl, before turning and heading toward the doors to the theatre.
Copyright © 2001 by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.