The girls had a travel schedule that was both easier and harder than the guys. It was easier in that they didn’t have to leave school until 0900, as opposed to 0700 when the guys pulled out of the marina and 0730 when Jack left the yacht club. It was also easier in that, instead of having “grind-a-pound” Hancock at the wheel, they took the athletic trainer as the driver.
It was harder in that they were forced to traverse the full length of the Island, mostly on the Old Beran Road. Built by the King and Grand Lodge of Beran in the years before the slave revolt, it was a marvel in that it spanned Beran’s realm from Beran town itself to Drago. Now it was considered the longest bowling alley in the world, too narrow for the vehicles now expected to travel it. Coupled with spotty maintenance and the fact that it crossed two international borders, the Old Beran Road was an ordeal to travel, but the fact that the girls got to travel it at all from its western terminus to just past Amherst was a unique experience that few Islanders shared.
To get there though, they had to first travel the same route that the four players travelled to the Beran Invitational. This time, though, there was a critical mass of girls, and their mood was more upbeat and their conversation virtually non-stop as they travelled through Collina and Aloxa. Not even the usual hassle at the Aloxan border dimmed their enthusiasm. They talked about everything: their school work, their clothing, the other aspects of their appearance, and of course their boyfriends, past and present. They even took in the drive around them with enthusiasm, looking at things and people as they passed on the Island’s most scenic drive.
Getting to Beran, they picked up the Old Beran Road. Now came the best part of the journey from a visual standpoint. The road followed the shoreline of Beran Bay, giving them a nice vista of the bay and the beaches, Avinet’s and others, directly in front of them. Many on the bus wished that they had brought their bikinis instead of their tennis outfits, although the thought of the probable spectators brought on the usual torrent of racial slurs that all too often marred Verecundans’ conversation.
They passed through Williamstown. It wasn’t long after that when conventional, West Island terra firma gave way one of several forms of everglades that dominated most of the Island’s land mass. The road’s maintenance fell off as the water table came to the surface; the Aloxan military and customs services were the main users of the road, as there were few people living in the northern part of the country.
They reached the Claudian border after crossing a small bridge. The border guard ambled up to the bus, eyeing all of the girls inside.
“Passports, please,” he said to the trainer, who handed them in a neat stack to the guard. They always put Denise’s diplomatic passport on top, to emphasise the importance of the cargo and to protect them from other types of harassment. Their ruse worked; the guard’s eyes fell on that one first, and he flipped through the rest of them.
On the driver’s side behind Denise was Alicia Decker. Petite with long, straight auburn hair and a plastic hair bow, she eyed the young guard from head to toe. He was dressed in the traditional Claudian militia uniform, which was modelled after the one the Italians used in World War I.
“He’s cute,” she whispered to Denise.
“Yeah, he is,” Denise agreed.
“We’ve been expecting you,” the guard said. “I’ll need to come on the bus and take a look.” Alicia sighed as if her prayers had just been answered. The trainer opened the door and the guard came on, walking back slowly, opening the passports and comparing them with their holders. He could not help but notice that Alicia was staring a hole in him, a look which he returned more furtively, although he did a more thorough passport comparison with her than with the others. “I’ll need to enter your passports in the registry,” he said, turning and taking them back off the bus to his little guard house.
“What were you doing?” Vannie angrily asked Alicia. “Didn’t you see his wedding band? Besides, they just take what they want up here, and don’t ask questions.”
“Just trying to be nice,” Alicia sheepishly replied.
“You should have just given him your phone number,” Denise observed.
“I think I wrote it in my passport,” Alicia observed. The guard came back on and handed each passport back, Alicia’s with a wink. With that he got off, the trainer closed the door, the guard’s fellow raised the gate, and, as the trainer waved at him, they moved onward.
“You live dangerously,” Vannie told Alicia as they pulled away.
“He won’t come to see me,” Alicia protested.
“He might,” the trainer spoke up.
“How come?” Denise asked, curious.
“That guy who raised the gate is Claudia Yedd’s cousin,” the trainer observed.
“Who’s Claudia Yedd?” Alicia asked.
“That’s the woman who’s kid Maddy healed,” Vannie replied. Denise rolled her eyes in disgust at the thought.
“They’ve all got relatives in town. You just might have a visitor—especially if he doesn’t bring his wife,” the trainer observed.
“This Island’s too small for its own good,” Denise sourly observed.
From there they went on to what Vannie called the “Mordor” part of the trip, because it was dominated by two stone forts. The first one came right right after the border at Fort Cox, with the large, Beran era castle on the left and the town on the right. Were it not for the stone edifice rising out of the swamp, Fort Cox would have been one of those places where, if you had blinked, you would have missed it. The road then paralleled the coast very closely as it went through the wooded strip that separated the mangrove lined coast from the inland everglades. Sometimes the coast itself would break through and the girls would get a glimpse of what Islanders called the “North Ocean,” although people who actually lived along oceans at the higher latitudes would have laughed at the idea.
They then came to the second stone fort in the series, this time the royal palace at Claudia town, with its imposing gates open and surrounded by the nondescript town itself. The open gates gave the bus a chance to get some petrol at the palace motor pool, a nice arrangement of Verecunda’s Foreign Ministry. Other than the fuel stop, going past both of these edifices and what surrounded them gave the girls the impression they were going back in time. What they were looking at was a country whose advance had stopped nearly a half century earlier. While their absolute monarchs longed for the day when they could lead the return of Beran, its people quietly slipped away in emigration to places such as Verecunda where some semblance of prosperity could be found.
East of Claudia, the weather continued to be beautiful, and they entered a slightly busier stretch of the road, surrounded as it was by some royal estates. When they saw more uninspiring houses line the road, they realised that they had reached Fort Lister, and although it lacked a stone fort it had one asset the girls were more than ready for: the Perfect Ashlar Tavern, with some of the best food in this part of the Island.
They pulled up to the tavern, which wasn’t busy since it was too early for the evening drinkers and a bit too late for the lunch eaters. As they came to a stop, Coach Dorr got up to make an announcement.
“All right, girls, we’re here. Don’t forget, you’re still in training, so I don’t want to see any of you breaking that.”
Denise gave Vannie a look, then they got up and waited for everyone else to get off of the bus before they did. They fell back behind the group.
“That’s what she thinks,” Denise whispered to her friend. “There’s no drinking age up here, is there?”
“Not here, not in Serelia either,” Vannie confirmed.
“Then let’s find a place away from everybody else,” Denise replied. As they all went in, Dorr and the rest of the team found one part of the tavern to sit in while Vannie motioned to Denise to head to another corner of the place.
“You two don’t want to sit with us?” Dorr asked them across the room.
“We’ve got stuff to talk about,” Denise answered, and they went on.
The two sat down. “What do they have on tap here?” Denise asked.
“Forget about the tap,” Vannie replied. “I’m ordering Heineken. Dark.”
“Is that stuff really better?” Denise asked.
“Of course it is,” Vannie replied. “It’s better than anything the Americans put out. Their idea of a special brewing process is to run it through a horse. I think Terry’s dad distributes Heineken on the Island.”
“Don’t remind me,” Denise said.
“That doesn’t matter. I’m not Dutch for nothing. Try it.” About that time the waitress came up. Attractive with long light brown hair, she was obviously younger than Denise or Vannie, but pregnant in a maternity dress.
“Can I get you something to drink?” the waitress asked, bowing to them.
“Heineken Dark,” Vannie spoke up immediately.
“Make that two,” Denise said.
“Thank you,” the waitress replied, and walked away.
“What’s good to eat here?” Denise asked. “It’s been so long since we were here last, I’ve forgotten.”
“They have killer conch chowder,” Vannie said. “I think they serve it with some kind of beans and rice.”
“Conch chowder seems to work around here,” Denise observed. The waitress brought back their beers.
“Would you like to order something to eat?” the waitress asked.
“How about the chowder special? You still serve that?” Vannie asked.
“We do,” the waitress confirmed.
“Let’s just have two of them,” Denise said.
“Yes, m’am,” the waitress said, bowing again.
“Just a minute,” Denise said.
“Is there something else?” the waitress asked, puzzled.
“How old are you?”
The waitress was in shock at Denise’s interest. “I’m sixteen.”
“You’re married, aren’t you?” Vannie asked rhetorically, since she saw her wedding ring.
“Yes, I am. Married last June.”
“When’s the baby due?” Denise asked.
“You still in school?” Vannie asked, mostly for Denise’s benefit.
“Oh, no,” the waitress replied. “My father’s dead. School ends here in Fourth Form. Girls are not permitted to attend Royal Arch school in Claudia past Forth Form, and it is not lawful to go to school in Serelia, either. Besides, Albert—my husband—wanted to get married, and my mother was having a hard time keeping me up. And I must work because, as you see, my baby’s on the way. It’s a very good position here—I don’t have to work out of doors, which is very nice in the summer.”
“What’s your name?” Denise asked.
“Peterson,” she replied. “Olivia Peterson. My husband’s Albert Pike Peterson—his family is very prominent in the Lodge here. I’m in Eastern Star. But I think your companions are looking for me.”
“Thanks,” Denise said, and Olivia hurried away.
Vannie saw a look of speechless shock she had never seen on Denise before.
“That’s why my father pushed the birth control and abortion bills first,” Denise finally said. “We can’t let this cause fail, Vannie. We just can’t. You see what happens.” They finally filled their glasses with beer.
“You’re right, Vannie, this stuff is great,” Denise declared after taking a sip. “You know, it just hit me: maybe we should have brought Terry to this end of the Island. She could marry someone over here, quit school, have a half dozen kids, and that would be the end of her.”
“You know her mother wants something different,” Vannie disagreed. “Besides, remember Madeleine’s prophecy?”
“You really believe that? With schmucks like her, it’s a lot easier dumping them off in a place like this than to fix them. And it would get a Gerland out of our hair.”
Vannie sipped her beer in silence. Denise could tell she didn’t agree but Vannie didn’t have a good comeback.
“Let’s talk about something else,” Denise said. “I can’t keep up with it—tell me about your relatives over here.”
Vannie was partially relieved at Denise’s new agenda. “My grandfather was Cornelius van Bokhoven. He was Serelia’s first Chancellor, or Prime Minister. Without him King Albert would have never gotten the country off of the ground. He had two children; my father and Aunt Susan.”
“Isn’t she married to one of the big families over here?”
“The Amhersts—except for the royal family, the biggest in Serelia. Her husband is Uncle Thomas; his father Elton is still very much in charge.”
“Isn’t one of your cousins on the St. Anne’s tennis team?”
“Theresa, the oldest,” Vannie replied. “I don’t think she’s first on the ladder but she’s second or third. She’s a very nice girl. Her brothers are typical Amhersts, and they broke the mould with her kid sister Darlene.”
“Broke the mould?”
“You’ll have to meet her to figure that out.”
“So, if your family was so big in Serelia, why did your old man leave?”
Vannie looked around very carefully and then turned to Denise. “My grandfather was murdered.”
“Murdered? Who did it?”
“Elton Amherst. He had it done. Found his body floating on the beach in Serelia.”
“Why?” Denise was very worldly and hard to shock, but the East Islanders managed to do it again.
“It’s complicated,” Vannie explained. “Back in the late forties, the Cavitt family was as powerful as the Amhersts. So Elton lured them into starting a secret Masonic lodge, which is very illegal in Serelia. Then he turned them into the King. Albert had old man Cavitt and his sons arrested and hung from the palace gate. He married one of the daughters to one of his drinking buddies at the tender age of twelve.”
“Twelve! You can get sent to the slammer for that, even in Verecunda.”
“He married the other daughter off to his son, and now she’s Queen Annette. She was only sixteen.”
“That wasn’t too bad—I guess, for the East Island,” Denise replied, thinking about their waitress.
“It is bad. Annette is a virtual prisoner of the royal family. Just like Aunt Susan is a prisoner of the Amhersts.”
“This isn’t making a lot of sense. With your Aunt Susan, that is.”
“My grandfather knew of what Elton Amherst had done. So he planned to expose him to the King, both directly and through the Verecundan papers. Elton suspected what he was going to do, so he had him killed.”
“Was your Aunt Susan married to these people when this happened?”
“Of course. But she can’t say anything; she just suffers in silence, just like she does when Thomas plays around. I’ve even heard that he’s got a kid in Alemara by a woman he raped after she quit being his mistress and married. But back to the story—my father knew what was going on, so she took my mother and grandmother and left. That’s why we came to Verecunda. And he also came with one other bombshell.”
“What was that?”
“The truth that Elton Amherst is the son of both Theodore Amherst and Princess Ophelia of Beran. The Amhersts are in fact the ‘sons of Beran’, as they like to say over here.”
“Vannie, you worry me sometimes,” Denise said. “Everybody knows that Elton was born to a mistress. And even if Ophelia was his mom, why would Elton hide it?
“Because Elton knew that, if the truth came out, they’d do to the Amhersts what they did to the Cavitts. That’s especially true after Theresa was born; they’d just kill the men, herd her to the altar, take the property and wealth, and the Amherests would vanish into history. Denise, they’re just biding their time. And they have to be the descendants of the Kings of Beran. Look at them—Avinet’s Beach, the enslavement of black people long after everyone else had given up on it, even after the Americans had ended it with their civil war. And don’t forget the wars they fought with Verecunda. These people are born killers. They make Lucian Gerland look like an amateur. That’s why you can’t let Terry get over here: if she ever hooks with with these people, you and your parents will hang from the yardarm at the yacht club.”
Denise look at her friend with a glazed look. “You’re really serious about this, aren’t you.”
“You should be, too,” Vannie emphasised. Olivia brought their meals about that time.
Denise’s and Vannie’s conversation drifted off into more light hearted subjects, but towards the end of their meal Denise returned to the Amhersts.
“I’m surprised you didn’t say that the Amhersts had run up a lot of bad karma,” Denise said.
“They have,” Vannie agreed. “I guess we need to hope it gets them before they get us.”
“You two ever going to be ready to move out?” Coach Dorr shouted to them across the room. The rest of the team was working its was towards the door.
“We’ll be there!” Denise shot back. Olivia had laid the bill on their table, which was nothing more than a small, tissue thin piece of paper. Denise laid down a Verecundan fifty dollar bill on the table.
“Denise, that’s twice as much as the bill,” Vannie noted.
“She going to need it, with a baby on the way,” Denise said. “Keep the bad karma away from us, too.” Denise walked towards the door, following her team as Vannie followed her. They boarded the bus, assuming the same seating as before.
“Was that barmaid pregnant?” Alicia asked.
“What do you think?” Denise challenged her.
“That’s what happens when you fool around with East Island boyfriends, like that guard you jacked your skirt up for,” Vannie added.
“Oh, dear,” Alicia sighed.