The three left the guesthouse the next morning. The main axis of the city of Alemara ran parallel to the shoreline; they had to pass through about half of the city to get to the eastern end and the border with Vidamera. As they went through they got to see some of the industrial and commercial side of the city, not the prettiest for the tourist but for monarchs who collected taxes interesting just the same. The traffic was heavy with cars and trucks, so their progress was slow. Finally they reached a small bridge that crossed a slow-flowing creek. When they saw the checkpoint wave them through, they realized that they had crossed into Vidamera and the nondescript town of Deram.
Once they got through Deram, they got to see some of the Vidameran countryside. Most of the Island—especially the eastern portion—was covered in an Everglades-like swamp, but around the rim there was terra firma. They saw an alternation of farms and land covered with low scrub mixed with slash pine trees. The road wasn’t any better than the Old Beran Road that they were familiar with, and the traffic made progress slow even in the countryside. Things were slowed further as they encountered a couple of “toll booths” along the way, set there by the local nobility wanting to enhance their revenue stream.
They finally got to Vidamera. George had spent some time here on state visits, and Terry had come here during the war, but for Darlene this was a new experience. As they got into town, they noted that the place lacked the hustle and activity of Alemara; it was more like Serelia in that regard. It was certainly more like Serelia in its lack of tidiness; George and Darlene could feel at home in this respect. After more stop and go and taking in the diesel exhaust of the trucks in front of them, they reached the palace in the centre of town.
The palace was right on the Sangler River; it was more like a fortress, with its high walls. It lacked a garden like the Serelian monarchs enjoyed. The car was ushered in after the usual security procedures, but instead of going to the main building and the throne room they went towards the waterfront. When they got there, they saw a deep sea fishing boat tied up at the dock. A man with shorts, sport shirt and sandals emerged from the boat, and George recognised him to be King Francis himself.
The three emerged from the car in total amazement. “Welcome to Vidamera,” the king bellowed. He looked at Darlene and said, “I presume this is Her Highness.”
“It is,” George said.
“It is a pleasure to meet you. And I know the Royal Counsellor of Drahla all too well—it is good to see you again.”
“And for me also, Your Majesty,” Terry said, trying to keep her wits about her.
“I hope you’re ready for some good fishing today,” King Francis noted. “I understand that both the Prince and Princess are good fishermen—and of course Miss Marlowe had quite a teacher as well.”
“Your understanding is correct,” Darlene noted, trying to get over the shock of their reception.
“Most of my fishing lessons were inland,” Terry noted. “If it pleases Your Majesty, I would not want to spoil your outing with Their Highnesses with my inferior skills.”
“That’s fine,” King Francis said. “It would have been a little crowded anyway. So let’s get ready and shove off.”
George and Darlene glared at Terry as they started to make their way to change clothes for this sudden change of plans. “I can’t believe you wormed your way out of this and left us holding the bag,” George whispered to Terry.
“Maybe we’re better diplomats than you thought,” Terry replied.
“Obviously,” observed Darlene, coldly. Terry was then greeted by the Prime Minister, with whom she spent a little time. However, as the boat pulled out and went to sea, Terry took her leave and went into town.
Terry wended her way through town. Since they had left Serelia it had cooled off a bit; she could feel a little chill as she made her way through Vidamera’s nondescript urban layout. She finally reached the Catholic Church of the Holy Spirit, which was smaller than the student chapel she had known long ago.
She went in through the narthex and stood at the back of the nave. She hadn’t been in an actual Catholic church in a long time; memories of long ago flooded her mind, especially when she saw the sanctuary light. She was walking in rather slowly, almost like a procession down the main aisle, when a priest emerged from next to the altar.
“Can I help you”—he asked, then stopped, looked at her and said, “You’re Terry Marlowe—oh, excuse me, Your Excellency.”
“I understand you must be addressed now as Monseigneur,” Terry replied, and they both laughed.
“My father told me you might be coming,” the priest said. It was Raymond des Cieux. “It has been a long time, and both of us have come a long way to this meeting.” They both sat down next to each other at the pew closest to the altar. “The years have been kind to you.”
“And to you also,” Terry answered. “Perhaps it is more accurate to say that we have been kind to the years.”
“Perhaps. But what brings you to Vidamera?”
“I am supposed to be visiting King Francis, but he’s off deep sea fishing with my travelling companions, Prince George and Princess Darlene of Serelia.”
“I assume that my father has informed you about the Princess.”
“Yes he did—we’ve been working on that ever since.”
“I have confidence you can handle it—you were always Avalon’s best, how can I say it, pupil.”
“I doubt he would agree with that assessment today.”
“Well, life is full of unfortunate events,” Raymond mused. “I think that it is regrettable that the Church lost you, particularly in the way it happened. But if we look at subsequent events, we can see that it was God’s plan that you ended up where you did.”
“I am surprised to hear you say that,” Terry reacted.
“You should know best—you and I have walked this same path. As a man of God, I hate war, and I hate to see what it does to people—you know this better than I, you have lost more, as have the Prince and Princess, than I have. But all the world knows that you, the Drahlans, were not only fighting for yourself, but for everyone else on this island, as the Verecundans have their own idea and are pursuing it in their fitful way. I am glad to see that you and the Serelians are working together, because that tells that not only is reconciliation taking place—and that is our purpose here—but also that what we know about the people we grew up with is becoming more common knowledge.”
“I am surprised that you feel our war with the Serelians was just—Father Avalon certainly doesn’t,” Terry said.
“James Avalon is a great man,” Raymond replied, “but he doesn’t always see things in a broad perspective. There are many things we must all learn. One night I was talking with my father about our situation here. I never understood him about the Verecundans—he always complained how provincial they were, but then, when their new régime came in, he liked it even less. Finally he told me, ‘My son, today people are going to prison here for the same things that some of our ancestors went to the guillotine for—and that fate here is only a matter of time.’ It took a little for this to make sense, but when it did I knew he was right.
“When things happen as they did in Verecunda, or for that matter in 1789 or 1917, it forces us to make decisions about who we are and what we stand for. You and I made our decision and have had to live with the consequences. Personally, I think you have paid the highest price of those who were connected with Father Avalon’s prayer group—that is why I find it hard to condemn you for what you did in Drahla, even though I would have liked for it to turn out differently. In addition to the war, today you have a brother, highly placed in the Verecundan government, who is hunting you like prey, as the Princess’ brother used to do. It was dangerous for you to come here—Vidamera is an unstable place today, it’s hard to know what will happen. But no matter what we must do what we know is right, even though the world doesn’t like it.”
They sat and talked about many things, including the school that was connected with the church—Monsignor des Cieux invited her to visit the school and have lunch there. But suddenly he changed the course of the conversation abruptly.
“There is something I have always wanted to ask you,” Raymond said.
“What’s that?” Terry replied.
“Do you remember the night when you came to the student chapel and you saw what you did at the tabernacle?”
“I will never forget it—I thought of it when I entered this place.”
Raymond looked at Terry intensely. “Do you still believe that the real presence of Christ himself was there, and that he himself came out to speak with you?”
Terry was surprised at the question. She thought for a moment, then said, “Yes, I do.”
“Then you will need some fortification for your journey.” He got up, went to the tabernacle, removed the Host, turned to Terry and said, “Don’t worry about confession—a General Absolution is in order.” Terry got up and stood in front of the altar. After the absolution Raymond administered the Host to her, saying, “The Body of Christ.”
“Amen,” she instinctively replied. He returned the remaining Host to the tabernacle and then walked with her back to the narthex.
“You were very kind,” Terry said. “Thank you.”
“You have a long way to go,” Raymond responded. They reached the front of the church and went outside, only to be greeted by three men in a jeep, uniformed and well armed with automatic weapons.
“You’re Terry Marlowe?” their commander asked.
“Yes,” she answered.
“You must come with us,” he said, as they handled their weapons. Terry looked in fright at Raymond.
“You should go with them,” Raymond said. “But they won’t harm you. They’re good boys.” He looked at them and said, “I’ll see you in church next Sunday, won’t I?”
“Yes, Father, just like yesterday,” the commander replied.
“Their boss is waiting for you,” Raymond told Terry. “I will see you later.” She got into the jeep, and they sped off through the streets of Vidamera.
They took the road north that runs along the Sangler River for what seemed to be a long time, then turned right into town again for about a block. They reached a building, where she was escorted up an outside stairway and into a large room on the second floor. The room had a large table; a man was sitting at its head.
“So Drahla’s Royal Counsellor has come to see me! My apologies for the rude summoning, but I had to be sure you would come,” the man said.
“You succeeded in your task,” Terry replied, nervously.
“I should introduce myself—I am Count Michael, of West Vidamera. Won’t you join me for lunch?”
“I suppose so,” Terry said. She was even more nervous now, considering that Count Michael was supposed to be the most pro-Verecundan noble in Vidamera. He also looked to be the best armed as well. Terry sat down, along with the Count and the commander from the jeep. The rest left while the kitchen help started to serve the meal.
“How are things in Drahla these days?” the Count asked.
“They are well,” Terry replied. “And here?”
“As for us, you know, it’s always the same—so far from God, so close to Verecunda.”
“You’re not as far from God as you think.”
“Perhaps, perhaps not. I remember you had some help in your little independence adventure from some of my colleagues on this side of the river.”
“Yes, they did help us. I am surprised you have this nice of a facility on this side of the river.”
“It’s necessary to represent our interests…but since you have seen fit to travel with Serelian royalty, it seems sensible that you might want to spent some time with some of the rest of us. After all, the war is over.”
“We have a long common border with them—it makes sense to try to improve things.”
“That’s a very kind sentiment,” observed the Count. “However, I see that you, as a woman of the cloth, are still full of kind sentiments.”
They spent some time in small—and very guarded—talk.
“How long have you known Father Raymond?” the Count asked.
“Since we were both about fourteen or fifteen,” she answered. “But it’s been a long time since I’ve seen him.”
“He is a fine man,” the Count observed. “All of my men here go to church there. My father Charles is rolling over in his grave knowing his son’s detail is going to a Roman Catholic Church. He gave Raymond’s sister a hard time about that.”
“Your father is no longer with us?” Terry asked, surprised. “How long has it been since he passed?”
“About a year,” the Count answered. “He was assassinated. I didn’t expect to take the title so soon, frankly.”
“How did it happen?”
“He was in Uranus on business, and was gunned down in the street. This is remarkable since it is illegal for a private citizen to own a firearm anywhere in Verecundan territory,” the Count observed.
“What do you think happened?”
“You should know as well as anyone that things happen in Verecunda for mysterious reasons. His murder is unsolved by the police. They never solved Kendall’s assassination either. My father was a great friend of Verecunda, and was well connected politically. He was a good friend of the current president, Lillith Connolly, and was pleased to see her become president, even though she too came to power by violence. Unfortunately she, like everyone else there, has many enemies. Personally, I think that one of those arranged for my father’s murder. Perhaps they were trying to send a message—perhaps he had just crossed the wrong people in the course of business. It is hard to say.”
“So how do deal with these people?”
“The best I can,” the Count replied. “Everyone who lives next to Verecunda is drawn into their web one way or another. The Aloxans prefer straight bribery, although that can be a very dangerous game when dealing with ideologues. The Verecundans actually had the face to imprison their foreign minister for a brief period over that. My father tried to build a network of political and financial influence there, but we all know now where that leads.”
“I just do my business the best I can—I won’t even go to Hallett unless I have to. They need me more than I need them.”
“So how do you deal with the other side?”
“You mean King Francis? Ha—he is a weakling. I worry more about the other counts than him. You’re sitting here looking at more power and authority than your travelling companions are on that boat of his. The only reason he is still on his throne is because we cannot agree on what to do after he is gone. When that happens, he will end up on the bottom of the Sangler River.”
They went on with their dining. Terry’s sense of unease abated little during the conversation. When the meal was nearly wrapped up, the Count said, “I hear you are a good shot.”
“I do all right,” Terry answered.
“Let’s go find out how good you are.” The Count turned to the man who had commanded the jeep. “Get the fast boat ready—we’re going to find out if the Royal Counsellor is up to her reputation for marksmanship.” At that he went out of the room, soon followed by Terry and the Count. They went down and took the jeep to the waiting boat, which sped them across the Sangler River to another small boat dock on the other side. All the while they had some armed guards with them; Terry could not figure out whether they were guarding her from their enemies or treating her as one.
When they reached the other side, they got into an SUV that took them less than a kilometre inland to a skeet and trap range. “Have you ever shot skeet or trap?” asked the Count.
“No, we don’t even have a range in Drahla,” Terry said.
“Then you’re in for a treat—it’s perfect between hunting expeditions.” They spent the next three hours alternating between skeet and trap, sometimes watching some of the Count’s men take a shot at it and sometimes taking a break.
During one of these, the Count turned to Terry and said, “My cousin taught you well—you are a good shot.”
“Your cousin?” Terry replied, surprised.
“Max’s mother and mine were sisters.”
“Max said he had a lot of relatives I hadn’t met, and told me he would introduce me one day, but we never had the time.”
“I’m not sure either one of you would have lived long enough under the best of conditions to see all of our relatives.” They laughed at that remark. “My mother mourned Max’s death—this disturbed my father to no end. Now I see that you’re travelling with Ronald Amherst’s sister.”
“I didn’t find that out until I got to Alemara,” Terry said. “Raymond’s father told me. It has been difficult but we’re trying to work things out.”
“Your capacity for forgiveness is prodigious,” the Count noted. “But perhaps it will work in your favour this time. With where you are going, you will need all the help you can get.”
They finished up their time on the range, and the Count’s men took Terry back across the river to Vidamera city. They let her out at the palace, where the guest quarters were located.
The fishing party got back a little after Terry did. They didn’t have much time to compare notes, though, as they had to get ready for the evening reception. This was not as eventful as the one in Serelia but it wasn’t as nice either. Terry got to spend some time with the nobles that helped Drahla during the war. They were surprised that she spent so much time with Count Michael, but their sentiments about King Francis were no different.