It was a fine day to become a nation, and the Drahlan Kingdom wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity after a long war of independence. The sun was shining over the capital Barlin, and the cirrus clouds were sailing through the sub-tropical sky. As it was late February, it was not so hot and mosquito-laden, and the locals found it quite seasonable, even a bit “chilly” to be out.
But it was time to conduct the ceremony to affirm the obvious, that Drahla in fact was a nation and that its former ruler, Serelia, was “cutting the cord.” They set the platform up in the main square in Barlin, facing west towards the lake. Between the platform and the lake was the flagpole where the nations “new” flag would be raised. As a matter of protocol, the Serelian flag was flying there, the first time in many years and the last as well.
As the people gathered for the ceremony, the band, situated at the foot of the platform, played. Drahla didn’t have a proper military band, so they enlisted the services of the band from the Barlin Pentecostal Church. Outside of what the band played during church, its repertoire was pretty limited, so the guests were regaled with songs such as “Tell Me More about Jesus,” “Keep on the Firing Line,” and “He Abides.” As the noon hour came, the dignitaries assembled on the platform, the town stopped its work and gathered in the square and around the lake.
The platform was a lopsided business. On the right side of the platform was the Drahlan royal family, with King Henry, Queen Janet, Princes William and Dennis and their families, and other relatives and officials. On the other side was Prince George of Serelia, who except for his lackey was pretty much by himself; his father King Adam couldn’t bear to make the ceremony.
At noon the band stopped and Drahla’s Royal Counsellor, Terry Marlowe, stepped to the podium to first greet everyone and then give the invocation. After this the royals gave their requisite speeches, first Prince George and then King Henry. After this the band struck up the Serelian national anthem. As they struggled with it George muttered to himself, “Gustav Holst is rolling over in his grave with this.” All the while the Serelian flag was lowered, then they struck up the Drahlan national anthem as the Drahlan flag went up, along with the cheers of the locals. With that the ceremony was pretty much done.
While the Drahlans were revelling in the moment, George leaned over to his lackey and said, “You see Prince Dennis with his wife there?”
“Yes, Your Highness,” the lackey dutifully responded.
“Ask them if Drahla’s Royal Counsellor could meet with me before I leave for Serelia tomorrow.” The lackey left with dispatch while King Henry came over to greet George and invite him to lunch at the Palace. As George gracefully accepted the invitation, he caught out of his eye his lackey addressing his request to Prince Dennis and Princess Andrea. He could see Andrea turn around and speak with Terry Marlowe, who first responded with a sceptical, then affirmative look. As Henry and eventually the rest of the Drahlans on the platform went on to the palace, George delayed for his lackey’s soon return.
“The Royal Counsellor will be pleased to meet with you at 1800 at the Royal Pavilion,” the lackey informed his lord.
“Thank you very much, let’s go,” George answered. They went on to the palace to partake of his former subject’s hospitality.
The town of Barlin, at the junction of the Barlin River and a small creek from the northwest, started out as a Serelian fishing and hunting camp. Set deep in the swamp that dominated most of the Island, the nobles that first pursued their sports there had little idea that it would become one of only two inland capitals on the Island. They did realise, however, that it needed some drainage for even the most basic development, so they dug the lake about 100 m long and 50 m wide, the long way pointing west-southwest and east-northeast. Since the cease-fire three years ago—a cease fire George himself found interesting because it meant his release as a prisoner of war—Barlin had worked to rebuild itself into as attractive of a town as its resources would allow.
George stepped up to the Royal Pavilion, which was located at the south-eastern corner of the lake, near where the Barlin River flowed out and towards the Gulf of Cresca. The Pavilion, located a few metres from where George sat on the platform and in front of the Royal Palace, was in reality a deck no more than 30 cm off the ground with a thatched roof over it and a few tables and chairs. It was built specifically for the outdoor festivals of the royal family, although it could be had (and was very popular) for wedding receptions, etc., when the royal family was not using it.
As the sun set over the far side of the lake, George was presented with a peaceful scene before him. To his left was the Max Serlin Bridge over the Barlin, followed by the junction with the dirt road that led to the town of Cresca on the coast. Beyond that was the Barlin Pentecostal Church, another thatched roof structure taller and larger than the Royal Pavilion, but long and rectangular in shape. To its right was the church’s school, which served as its Christian education building, Bible training centre in the summer, and Barlin’s largest primary school the rest of the time. As his eyes moved to the right, they fell on a row of neat but unimpressive “shotgun” construction houses which lined the lake and which were separated from the lake by the road which served them. To the right of that was the Chinese Bridge which spanned the Barlin as it entered the lake, and between that bridge and the Pavilion was the square where Serelia officially admitted that the Drahlan Kingdom was in fact a nation.
Suddenly he saw a tall and slender figure emerge from the last house before the rivulet that flowed into the lake from the north-west. He could tell that she was dressed in a long black dress with hair colour to match. She walked from the house past the other houses. George kept an internal countdown to her arrival, but the countdown kept getting paused by her stopping and talking with people she met on the road or enjoying the evening from their front porches. This day was, of course, a national holiday, and the pace of the town was decidedly relaxed. The woman finally got past the houses, crossed the Chinese Bridge and the square and ascended up to the Pavilion, where he could see that she had dark eyes to match the medium length hair, dress and East Asian look and complexion. He also could not fail to notice that, as she walked across the Pavilion and he rose to greet her, he found it still necessary to look upward to maintain eye contact.
“Your Highness,” she said, formally as she bowed.
“Your Excellency,” he replied. “Thank you so much for agreeing to meet with me.”
She sat down with him at one of the tables. “I never thought I’d be spending a Shrove Tuesday doing what I did today,” George observed.
Terry stopped and thought a second. “It is Shrove Tuesday, isn’t it?” she mused. “Pentecostals don’t observe the liturgical calendar…you take me back to my younger years…so perhaps some repentance is forthcoming?”
“I was hoping to start with thanksgiving,” George replied.
“Thanksgiving?” Terry replied, her interest piqued.
“You saved my life,” George answered. “The princes were split on whether to have me killed when you took me prisoner at Drago, in the old Island tradition. Yours was the deciding vote. I want to thank you for that; I don’t know how to repay you.”
“Repayment is unnecessary,” Terry replied, trying to conceal the fact that she was taken aback by his statement. “Your cousin Andrea convinced Dennis to vote against it, that was the start. I did what I thought was the Christian thing. We’ve had enough killing on this Island.”
“You know that better than anyone,” George observed.
“Sadly I do,” Terry sighed. “First it was my husband Max…” she turned and looked at the bridge named in his memory “…and then my son David, killed at point blank range in his baby bed by Ronald Amherst at Cresca.” George could tell that the tears were fighting to come out.
“That ended tragically for everyone,” George observed.
“It did,” Terry agreed. “Ronald and his brother Eddie were killed just beyond the bridge.” Terry pointed again to the memorial crossing, then paused in what felt like George to be an eternity. “I must thank you for returning his body and those of his men who were killed.”
“Old Man Amherst wanted to pile them all into a pyre and burn them,” George noted. “My father vetoed his decision.”
“Your father was also wise in agreeing to a cease-fire for your return,” Terry said, trying to deflect from thinking about the revenge.
“I was his last living son,” George observed. “My mother couldn’t stand it any longer; she really didn’t want me to go to start with. But I think he knew it was over, he agreed to the cease-fire and here we are.”
They sat in silence for what seemed to be another eternity, then Terry said, “So there is a great deal to be repentant about, isn’t there?”
“There is,” George agreed. “But we also must look to the future. And that’s why I requested this meeting, especially because it concerns a topic that you have unique expertise in.”
“And what might that be?” Terry asked.
Terry rolled her eyes. “You are right about that. But hasn’t Verecunda been your ally?”
“Well, that’s part of the problem,” George answered, sighing. “But perhaps I should go back to the beginning and explain things.
“When Beran collapsed and my grandfather Albert proclaimed the Serelian Kingdom, Verecunda gave us a great deal of support, both military and economic. In doing so they created a great debt—at least in the minds of King Albert and my father, King Adam. My brothers and I were instilled with the idea that Verecunda was our best friend on the island.
“All was well until about thirty years ago. At that time, things in Verecunda took a dramatic change”—
“I know all too well—that’s why I left,” Terry interrupted.
“—and we suddenly found our trade with them become an erratic business,” George resumed. “This was especially true with arms purchases—they changed from the arms merchants of the Island to its pacifists overnight. We couldn’t even get ammunition and parts from them for arms we had already purchased, they interfered with obtaining them from other sources, and then they would protest virtually any military activity we might conduct—even training exercises. But our problems with them didn’t end with military commerce—there were endless spats over environmental issues and dealing with their bureaucracy became a hassle.
“When you people declared your independence eight years ago, we frankly felt that quelling the rebellion would be short work. My own brother Richard planned to be in Barlin in a month. Part of the reason he ended up dead at Drago—in addition to his own mistakes, including a refusal to surrender—was the state of our military’s armament. Coupled with the death of my eldest brother Arthur at the hands of the Claudians a couple of years before that, we realised that something was terribly wrong with our state. But our appeals for help to the Verecundans fell on deaf ears.
“After your husband’s raid, the Verecundans realised how vulnerable our situation was. So they appointed your brother Richard as their special envoy to the rest of us on the Island. He got things going again with the arms shipments and other types of aid.”
“My guess is that he had some opposition back home,” Terry observed.
“Quite a lot, probably,” George agreed. “It was still a hassle – they would hold up shipments for months on end while several ministries – and occasionally their congress – would argue over the most idiotic things. The Ministry of the Environment was the worst offender – they kept trying to block the shipments as hazardous to the environment. We never knew when we would get what we needed – one day it was coming, the next day it wasn’t, and so on. But your brother’s efforts were persistent enough to provision us for Ronald to make his ‘back door’ invasion at Cresca—“
“There are so many whom we love that we no longer can embrace,” Terry interrupted, looking out once again at the bridge.
“So there are,” replied George after a quiet moment. “May I resume?”
“Go ahead,” Terry replied. His use of “May I” took her back to another encounter years ago overlooking Collina Bay…
“Well, it took two years for us to put together the men and materials to try again—complete with the usual teeth pulling with the Verecundans—but finally I was able to lead an army into Drahla. The only thing I proved is that our best generals were gone—but at least, thanks to you, I was able to come back, as did most of the army.”
“It helped that you had the good taste to surrender,” Terry observed.
“When your brother learned that we were negotiating, he came up and pressured my father to keep the war going. He promised more weapons, even to send parts of the Verecundan army—“
“That would have done more harm than good,” Terry observed.
“That’s what I thought. And I also thought that it was time to recognise the inevitable and grant you independence. But my father is a stubborn man, and you people are hard bargainers—especially Prince William—but we eventually got the job done.”
“Well,” Terry said, “this is a fine—if sad—story. So what is to be done?”
“About two years ago, your brother came to Serelia and asked for a private audience with my father. He was in there for quite a long time—two hours, perhaps—but the strange part was that my father never seemed to want to discuss what went on. The only comment he has ever made about the meeting was that the Verecundans wanted to ‘infringe on the prerogatives of the Crown’ with their proposals.”
“The only national sovereignty that Verecunda understands is its own,” Terry observed. “Everyone else’s is dispensable.”
“And you are probably one of the few people on this end of the Island that really understands that,” George said. “We got delegations from Verecunda on a reasonably frequent basis. My father saw some of them privately, dispatched the rest, never discussed anything with anyone—not even me, my mother, or his Chancellor—but then nothing ever came of it.
“Since the cease-fire, this state of affairs has bothered me more and more. So I’ve talked with everyone who will discuss the subject—other sovereigns, foreign ministers, our own diplomatic corps—and I’ve come to the conclusion that the Verecundans are up to something that will increase their influence—“
“—control—“ Terry interjected.
“—on the Island. They are attempting to abandon their isolationism of the last thirty years or so and expand their sphere of—well, control. But I’m not sure how they are planning to do this—I’m not even sure my father understands, other than a ‘gut’ feeling that he would lose some of his own control in the bargain.”
There was another of those long pauses. Then Terry said, “How is my brother?”
“He doesn’t look well, although he seems to get around the Island a lot,” George answered. “My father says that the years have not treated him well.”
“Sadly, I’m not surprised, although I haven’t seen him since I left Verecunda twenty years ago.” Terry paused again, then resumed. “Well, we don’t have your diplomatic corps here in Drahla—we’re not even formally recognised yet by anyone—nor do we have the intelligence network to go along with it, nor do we have the standing with other sovereigns in the Island yet, but based on what I have heard, and discussed with others, and my own knowledge of the Verecundans, I believe that they are up to something. One of the things that kept me going in this war of ours was the idea that you in effect were proxies for the Verecundans.”
“An idea that many others on the Island shared,” George said.
“My experience with the Verecundans is that when they are in charge death reigns, first because they are at war with God, and second because they are at war with any kind of wealth creation. Without both a society will die. For me, that’s what this war was about. But I should be more diplomatic—I am talking out of my pain, I apologise.”
“I understand,” George responded. “Once I came to the realisation that things were not what they seemed with the Verecundans, I tried to talk things over with my father. That was a waste of time—he wouldn’t listen at all and became angry. So finally last Christmas—the first Christmas I and my family spent with my wife, Darlene—”
“Congratulations,” Terry interjected.
“—at her urging I went to my mother and laid things out. She in turn went to my father, who just before New Year’s called me into his study. He looked very sombre.
“’Your mother shared with me your concerns about the Verecundans,’ he said.
“’Well?’ I asked.
“’Son, you’re a fool. The Verecundans have been there for us for the last seventy years—without them you wouldn’t have a kingdom to inherit. Thanks to the rest of your friends on the Island, you almost don’t have one now. But this kingdom will be yours one day, yours to grow or squander. You’re obviously obsessed with this topic—and frankly I’d be less than honest if I didn’t admit they weren’t the best allies in this last war. But I can’t let you ruin this relationship without good reason. So this is how we’re going to do it: you need to find someone you can trust outside of Serelia who can give you some wisdom and experience with these people. If you can find this person, you both need to go there and see for yourself what’s going on and to hear for yourself what they have to say. After that we can do what we have to do one way or another.’
“Things fell silent for a minute. Then I said, ‘Well, what about Terry Marlowe? She knows the place better than anyone. Perhaps she will help us after we tidy things up with the Drahlans?’
“’The river of blood that runs between us and her is too deep,’ my father answered. ‘She wouldn’t do it. Besides, she is as prejudiced against the place as her brother is for it.’
“’Well, you’ve given him more than one audience,’ I shot back.
“’You’re too clever for your own good,’ he answered. ‘We’ll see how clever you really are—if you can get her to come here, I will have an audience with the both of you. If all is well, you can proceed with your mission.’”
George ceased at that point. Terry gazed in thought out over the lake. The sun had already set and the main lights were the street lights—such as they were—whose reflection was shimmering on the lake. The insects and birds were making their chorus, almost drowning out the worries of the age.
But they did not do so entirely; she then turned to George and said, “I can only do such a thing if it is the pleasure of my lord here in Barlin. If it is so, then it will be my pleasure to come to Serelia and make our plans. I can tell you that our decision will be swift.”
“Thank you, Your Excellency,” George replied. “I appreciate your time for this.” With that they both arose and bowed slightly. Terry left the Pavilion more swiftly. As she did and started back for her house, King Henry’s lackey met her.
“His Majesty will now have an audience with you,” the lackey said. She wasn’t quite prepared for this degree of swiftness, but went anyway to the palace and the throne room. When she entered the room, it was definitely ready for her. King Henry was on his throne, which was elevated from the floor. Sitting with him was the queen, and the two princes flanked the two thrones, William on Henry’s right hand and Dennis on his mother’s left. There were no servants in the room as the lackey closed the door. She walked up to the centre of the room, stopped, faced the throne, and bowed before King Henry. Then she stood and waited for him to speak. The king looked very serious.
“It would please us if the Royal Counsellor would give an account of her meeting with His Highness Prince George of Serelia.” This Terry proceeded to do, condensing the parts about the war (which everyone already knew) but repeating George’s request to come to Serelia and then to Verecunda.
“It’s a set-up,” Prince William said. “They just want to accomplish in peace what they couldn’t on the battlefield.”
“No it’s not,” shot back Prince Dennis. “He’s not the kind. Besides, he’s sticking his neck out to break a seventy-year alliance, especially in front of a foreign official.” The princes went on like this for some time. Finally Henry told his sons to shut up. Then he turned to Terry.
“Well, what do you think about this rather bold proposal?”
Terry thought for a minute, then said, “Your Majesty, I think that any possibility of weaning the Serelians from their relationship with Verecunda is in the best interest of Drahla and of the entire Island, and I am prepared to take the risk to me personally—as I have done in the past for you, the Princes and the nation—to make it a reality. Besides, if Prince George is right and the Verecundans have launched a ‘diplomatic offensive’—as they put it—to broaden their realm, than such a mission is not optional.”
The king thought for a minute and said, “As hard as it is to see you venture to Serelia, I believe you are right. But I must insist that Prince William go with you—there will be fewer sceptics with him in your company. I will have Prince George informed that the two of you will be leaving for Serelia the day after tomorrow. You will take the Royal Lighter to Drago…”
“The Royal Lighter—anything but the Royal Lighter…” William interjected.
“Silence!” the king said. “You need to visit Drago and Fort Albert on the way.” When the king finished, there was a hush in the room.
“May God save the King!” exclaimed Terry.
“May God save the King!” the princes and the queen echoed. Terry then left the palace and returned to her house.