They shoved off early from the marina at Alemara. Because of the sand bars at the mouth of the Sangler, they decided to make the run to Verecunda on the outside, so they passed through Campbell’s Cut and out into the open ocean.
It wasn’t the best day for boating; they had to contend with a light squall line and a shower. But they made steady progress all during the morning. After the intrigues and miseries of road travel, the group was glad to be out on the open water again, even while battening down the hatches for the rain and ocean spray. They passed into Verecundan waters about noon; they noticed a significant drop in the number of vessels on the water. Occasionally they would see the Verecundan Coast Guard and the Ministry of the Environment boats, especially around the Elaron Island, which they left on the starboard. Some of these would follow for a distance; they had the strong feeling that the Verecundans were keeping close track of them.
Towards mid-afternoon they sighted the Point Collina lighthouse. This was always an emotional moment for Terry; Point Collina was where she grew up.
“Have you been back to Verecunda since you left?” Darlene asked.
“No—a couple of years ago, after the cease fire, I went to visit Collina and Aloxa.”
“That’s an interesting trip,” George observed, being nosey. “Collina is occupied and just about nobody else goes to Aloxa. I wasn’t aware you people were having regular talks with the Aloxans.”
“We weren’t,” Terry replied. “I was running a revival and Bible training course in Beran. I did get to meet with King Leslie, though.”
“You are one of the few on our end of the Island who has met the Aloxan king,” George observed.
“That’s too bad,” Terry said, “the Aloxans are charming people and my visit was special. The Collinan visit was very much a ‘covert operation,’ as they say in Verecunda.”
As they began to enter the Verecundan harbour, they left the lighthouse on the port. Terry hadn’t gotten that good of a look at the Verecundan skyline since she had left. They entered the harbour—shadowed now by the government craft—and rounded the jetty to approach the city itself.
Verecunda’s main port had two slips averaging around 70 metres wide and 200 metres long. They were separated by the Boudicca Pier (known as St. Catherine’s Pier when Terry grew up.) These slips were for larger craft, either freight or cruise ships. To the east of the main port, the place where the jetty made landfall created a cove where the Government Marina was. They went to a slip near to the seawall to be received by the Verecundans.
They were met by the man from the Serelian embassy who was to keep the boat; however, the Verecundans who met them were a different group than they expected. The Foreign Minister, Seamus Gallen, met them, and the Inland Police were everywhere, but most numerous were the Druid priests, priestesses, singers and dancers. Robed in white, they greeted them with a combination of choral and solo chants. As they stepped off of the yacht, before they knew it they were crowned by hibiscus garlands, which they wore as they ascended the platform next to the marina.
“I thought these people believed in separation of church and state,” George whispered to Terry.
“Church is exactly what these people want to be separated from,” Terry coldly observed. She found herself praying silently against the spiritual assault gathered around them.
The Druids evidently knew what was going on—they started with a dedication of their visit to the convenient gods, complete with a small burnt sacrifice, which did nothing to enamour them with the Ministry of the Environment. After this they engaged in a dance backed up by a choral group and a small instrument ensemble; the dance combined complex modern choreography with mediocre execution.
Once the Druids were finished with this portion, Foreign Minister Gallen got up and gave a lengthy welcome to at least George and Darlene. He went into an extensive elegy of the long friendship between Verecunda and Serelia and how it was his hope that their friendship would continue and deepen in the future. He managed to get through his long speech without any mention of Terry or the Drahlans.
Once Gallen was finished, the Minister of Culture, Jaqueline Todd, made a similar speech, again ignoring Terry. Darlene turned to Terry and asked, “Wasn’t it one of her subordinates that tried to kidnap you?”
“It certainly was,” Terry agreed. This fact, however, went without note or apology in Jaqueline’s speech. After this the Mayor of the City of Verecunda made a speech very much like the other two, also ignoring Terry’s existence on the platform. Finally the Chairman of the Verecundan Port Commission gave his welcome, following the pattern of the rest.
George was figuring that he would have to say something, so he had been planning his address for some time. As the Verecundans’ speeches wore on, he kept mentally shortening his address, hoping to take the ceremony out of its agony as soon as possible. As it turned out, George’s worry was unnecessary because, the Port Commissioner’s speech completed, the Druids went at it again with another attempt at combining music and dance which was on par with the first. With the end of that, the guests were escorted off of the platform and into the car to take them to their hotel.
As the car pulled away from the marina, onto Central Avenue and into town, Terry looked out with some excitement at the world unfolding around her. She had been gone for twenty years, and expected to see many changes. What surprised her, though, was that the town looked pretty much like it did when she left—with twenty years of wear and tear on top of it. Verecunda had assumed a “people’s republic” look to it, with peeling and unrepainted buildings, poor condition roads and side walks and jungle-like foliage. Even the Serelians, whose own city had little to commend it outside of the palace, were visibly surprised at what they saw. Darlene had visited it as a child, but it was George’s first trip into town, and now he realised why the Verecundans were so reluctant to allow them to come.
The car turned right from Central Avenue onto Gerland Street, which Terry explained was named after her own father’s family. This took them down to the main tourist and hotel district, which was on Verecunda’s famous East Beach. They pulled up to the Elaron Beach Hotel, which Terry also explained was built by her grandfather and then owned by her Uncle Ernie before it was nationalised many years ago. As was the case with everything else, the Elaron Beach Hotel was a place whose glory had come and gone, and it too had a seedy, run-down appearance.
They were let out and told by Gallen that there would be a reception that evening at the hotel for them. Then he turned over the facilitation of the hotel arrangements to one of his subordinates, who took care of things at the front desk and got their things taken to their rooms.
These rooms were on the top floor and overlooked the beach. The rooms actually looked like they had been remodelled since she left; they were a cut above the rest of the hotel. Darlene was enthralled as she stood out on the balcony and looked out at the vista below her. She could look to her left and right and see the beach; the university was to her left and further to the right was Point Collina. To the left of centre was Elaron Island; the visibility didn’t permit seeing a whole lot beyond that. Even George was starting to be captivated by the vista that was spread out before them.
“This is beautiful, Terry,” Darlene said.
“There’s a penthouse on the roof—Uncle Ernie and Aunt Mabel actually lived there. Richard and I would go up during the off season—when school was out—and look out over this place—we always loved it,” Terry reminisced.
“Where does he live now?” George asked.
“I don’t know,” Terry answered. “I heard from exiles in Alemara that he had to leave here when the government took over the hotel—they used some silly regulatory violation as an excuse. I think they just wanted the revenue. I also heard that Aunt Mabel was so distraught by the eviction that she died shortly after that.”
“Well, we’d better get settled in and ready for another reception,” George noted.
There had been so many state visits and receptions on this trip that they started to look like a blur. Nevertheless the Verecundans proved themselves singular even in this effort. The reception took place in the hotel’s ballroom, complete with media coverage. They interviewed George and Darlene, then they got some quick shots of the other guests and left.
The mixture of the other guests was curious also. There were only two ministries represented at the reception—Foreign and Finance, with some people from the Central Bank of Verecunda. There were no representatives from the President’s office, let alone Connolly herself, or from the Congress or judiciary, nor from other ministries that had contact with the Serelian government such as Environment or Internal Affairs (the latter had jurisdiction over the military since the Ministry of Defence had been abolished.) Finally there were no “prominent citizens” such as graced the parties in Drago and Alemara, which surprised the Serelians since they knew that Verecundans were usually infatuated with royalty, lacking their own.
The Verecundans weren’t much on formal introductions here either; they neither announced the entry of the guests nor the hosts. Everyone just congregated and mingled in the ballroom; there was no receiving line either. Finally the food was sparse, which proved a real setback for the three since they had not eaten since landfall.
As was the case at the marina, the Verecundans tried to ignore Terry as much as possible. There was one exception, though; as Terry was talking with a minor functionary from the Ministry of Finance, she heard a voice call out behind her, “Terry!”
She turned around to see a petite blonde who looked like she had divided her life between the beach and the bar. It was Cathy Arnold, her best friend in secondary school.
“Cat!” Terry exclaimed. Cat ran up to her and gave her a hug.
“It’s been so long!” Cat said. “You look great! I didn’t know you were in town. How long has it been since you’ve been here?”
“About twenty years,” Terry said. “What are you doing these days?”
“I’m a major loan analyst with the Central Bank of Verecunda,” Cat answered. “How about you?”
“Royal Counsellor to the King of Drahla.”
Cat stopped for a minute. “I didn’t even know Drahla was really independent.”
“End of last month—His Highness came to the formal ceremony in Barlin.” Terry pointed at George.
“So how long will you be in town?”
“I’m not sure—at least a couple of days?”
Cat looked around for a few seconds, then turned to Terry and said, “Do you think you could get away for dinner sometime?”
“How about tomorrow—I’m sure it will be no problem with our hosts.”
“That’s great,” Cat replied. “I’ll be by at 1830.” They exchanged some small talk, but once Cat recognised her, Terry started to get more attention from some of the other Verecundans.
The reception wound down about 2130; Terry and Darlene went out to the pool and beach to take in the night air while George discussed the schedule for the next day with Gallen.