Token Anarchist: A Charlie Bellman Story
A Speed Week dance begins at the British Embassy.
by Antonia T. Tiger
Whether or not this was true, both Ambassadors have since been treated with particular respect by the Althing. Not that this had anything to do with the lack of the anticipated photographs in the Spontoon Mirror. Perhaps that had more to do with the substantial betting at the Casino.
Tuesday night, the chief rivals were Britain and Germany, and at the British Embassy the guest list was littered with ancient titles. There were Dukes and Earls and Viscounts, one of the Dukes having the extra advantage of being a Royal Highness. There were Barons, and Knights of every Order the Empire had created. There was even a Baronet who, while not bad, was already well marinaded when he arrived.
It did not greatly surprise His Excellency the Ambassador that Commander Fanshawe, the Naval Attache, and those two talented Consular Officers, Mr. Saunders and Mr. Bellman, had been called away on urgent business. Commander Fanshawe, he suspected, was testing pink gins at the RINS Base. Saunders and Bellman might be doing almost anything, and he knew that it was best he let them get on with it.
But it did make Lady Helen Todd seem a little out of place. He would have expected to see Mr. Bellman as her escort, but perhaps she was being discreet. Well, a selective discretion: Lady Helen Todd and Party were definitely unconventional. There would be gossip.
He rather liked that. It was good to know what the chattering classes were taking a paw in, especially if it was something trivial. Besides, Lady Helen was definitely connected: she knew the right people. She was one of the right people, if perhaps a little too inclined to make social life interesting.
But an Army Sergeant? From Rain Island? Well, he was smartly turned-out, had good manners, was holding his drink, and, from what Sergeant Wilson had said, seemed to have more combat experience declared in his badges than Rain Island's admitted military history made possible.
Lady Helen did seem to like competent people.
As for the Spontoonie woman, he was an Ambassador. He was supposed to know these things, and it annoyed him that he was certain he was wrong. The Spontoonie legal system wasn't quite English, and old Poynter tended to vacillate on the results: either crazy natives, or they're doing a damn fine job. He'd thought the lady was some sort of Judge, but she must be something else. You only had to watch the waiters. No unseemly competition to serve her, but in their eyes she outranked everyone.
It was odd that she walked with a stick, more of a staff, and curious that the flower in her head-fur seemed to be such a precise match to the one which Lady Helen wore.
"I say, Gordon, who's that vixen with the soldier?" The voice was pitched discreetly low.
The Ambassador glanced sideways, caught the automatic honorific unspoken, and answered, "The Lady Helen Todd, Bertie." He almost had to force the unadorned name out, even after so many years in the Islands. "Daughter of the late Duke of Stepney."
"The news reports in London didn't tell anyone how pretty she was." His Royal Highness the Duke of York sipped at his drink. "I think I can see what my father meant." He sighed. "Somehow, I don't think it would have helped to point my brother in her direction."
The Ambassador considered that for a moment. "Probably not. Besides, she's an anarchist."
"So my father said. And don't let her near a pack of cards." The Duke smiled. "He liked her."
"Perhaps I should introduce you?"
"That would be delightful."
As an Ambassador, of course Gordon had met his King, and the late King. And he was pretty sure that Bertie meant what he said: Lady Helen had made an impression. And that was Tiffany Howard, getting a little matronly. Lady Helen would be glad of an interruption.
Bertie had been well briefed—it was part of the job—and as Governor General of the Dominion of Canada he was kept well-informed about Rain Island. He'd even noticed some of the bias in the reports. So, as he walked across the dance-floor with the Ambassador, he quickly classified Sergeant Baginski. Rain Island Army Union, Sergeant of Landing Forces. Call him a Marine, and you would be close. None of the wartime campaign ribbons, but at the place of most honour was a ribbon of silver-bordered red and black. That was not something handed out with the rations.
That, and the fact that Lady Helen Todd had picked him as her escort, led him to think that he was about to meet a soldier, and fur, of considerable quality.
It was almost a relief. There were too many people here for Speed Week who paid more attention to who their ancestors were than to what they had done themselves.
The Ambassador was performing the introductions. "...His Royal Highness, Air Vice Marshall The Duke of York."
"Your Royal Highness." Lady Helen's bow was the modern fashion, and something in her dress would have torn if she had tried a formal curtsey. "May I present my escort, Sergeant Wolf Baginski of the Rain Island Army Union Landing Service."
Baginski responded with a perfectly proper "Sir!". Not even a twitch towards saluting, with his drink and his plate of canapes, and his bare head. And military courtesy requires a similar response as acknowledgement. "Sergeant." Bertie glanced towards the other two.
Lady Helen picked up the cue. "Your Royal Highness, my good friends the Honoured Mother Kaimi, and Miss Freya Bjorksdottir."
He had a prety good idea of the sort of person an "Honoured Mother" might be, but he hadn't recognised Freya Bjorksdottir. Here, she almost looked plain, compared to her screen persona. "Honoured Mother"—it doesn't matter what label they use, you don't offend the locals by insulting their religion—"Miss Bjorksdottir."
They smiled, and echoed Lady Helen's response. One doesn't insult tourists who know how to be polite.
"So you are the infamous Lady Helen." He smiled. "My father wrote of you, rather fondly." His eyes passed briefly over the Thunderbird brooch. "I envy you, a little. I was never allowed to take up flying."
"Not everyone has the talent, sir," she answered. "I suppose they thought it was too dangerous." She shrugged. "Danger often comes unlooked for."
She didn't look like the crazed gunslinger one newspaper report had described. And his day at Jutland, in Collingwood, had felt rather impersonal, as if, instead of your name, the shells had been marked "To Whom It May Concern". Twenty-one years, now, and still he seemed to recall every detail. "One tries to keep going," he said. "During, and afterwards."
Kaimi responded, and he had the feeling that she too knew of what he spoke. "One does. And then one worries about whether one did enough." She had such a wonderful voice. "I understand your children are ill."
He nodded. "Measles. My wife decided to stay with them, though we have a nanny."
After a slightly odd pause, she nodded. "They'll be alright. And Speed Week can get a bit lively for children."
Her words didn't seem an empty platitude. "Yes, I've noticed," he remarked, glancing down at his drink.
Lady Helen raised her glass slightly. "I don't think Mr. Gibson ever existed, but this is plain water with a cocktail onion. I'm flying tomorrow. In the Cloverleaf." She smiled sweetly. "One of my competitors looks to be preparing a hangover."
"Air racing? Ah, that's the long-distance handicap. What are you flying?"
"Mr. Crane is helping back the Shoshone Skypaths entry, and I'm the pilot in command. I hope I get better weather than the last flight." Almost unconsciously she touched the Thunderbird badge.
Bertie nodded. "I have had to endure one of your passengers. We call her Countess Wobbly, when she can't hear. She wobbled at great length..."
Lady Helen didn't even chuckle...
"Oh, bugger," said Lady Helen, peering ahead. She was most emphatic. She was not happy, for only a lunatic would be happy with the sky she was flying into.
The view might even be thought beautiful, but it was a line of thunderclouds, vanishing into the horizon haze to left and right.
Cunning Eagle spoke first. "Fuel state is good, but we're committed to Spontoon now. I don't see any choice."
"Just had an acknowledgement on the weather report." He considered. "From the DF loop, I'd say turn starboard to get around it, but it isn't that much better."
Yep, that was how the line of thunderstorms was angled. But it would be a long trip. If they were lucky, they'd make a safe landing in the Thousand Keys.
On the other hand, if you could dodge between the thunder cells....
"I've seen worse." He didn't say "You're the boss." He didn't have to.
She licked her lips. "We'll try for it. Drinks on me at Mahanish's." She flicked a switch on her intercom box. "Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking. Will you please return to your seats and fasten your seatbelts. We are approaching some rough weather which we will have to fly through to reach our destination. Thank you."
Yes, that was definitely lightning....
"To be honest, sir, I think I made a mistake to try for it."
"You got through."
She shook her head. "I remember breaking out of the updraft at about eighteen thousand feet, and no oxygen. That plane shouldn't even be able to get that high. The next thing I remember is hauling back on the yoke at two thousand feet and two-ninety indicated." Her paw strayed to her brooch again. "I managed to pull out. I almost made shark food of us all."
She took a deep breath. "Baginski, give me that damn Martini."
Bertie saw Kaimi give a little nod. A waiter seemed to come out of nowhere, with a tray of exactly the right drinks. And Lady Helen drank two Martinis inside a minute. He glanced at the Ambasador, and decided to stay here.
"Those thunder cells were dancing, and they pulled me in, threw me around, and spat me out again." She looked at Bertie. "I was praying to the Thunderbird all the way. Almost screaming."
"The Bird heard you," said Baginski.
Bertie raised his glass. "Thank you, Thunderbird," he murmured.
Helen calmed her expression. "The Countess is going to dine out on the story for years."
Bertie chuckled. "Should I tell her she owes her life to a pagan anarchist native girl?"
The Ambassador looked shocked. The others hardly reacted, and then Lady Helen said, "Why not? It's true."
"Daughter, he is your old King's son. You maybe should tell him." Kaimi sipped at her drink.
Bertie said, more quietly than before, "I know you made a certain promise to my father."
Helen nodded. "I did." She started to reach up to her hair. "I've been adopted into a native family. The Islands are my home now, rather than England." Her voice caught for a moment. "I can't forget England, or your father, but this is the place I'd rather die for. It feels right for me."
Bertie nodded. "I'm the Viceroy for the King of Canada. You're not so strange in such loyalties. Many people put Canada first. And, looking at some of the politics, I wonder what would happen if there was another war in Europe."
There was, briefly, a chill edge to her voice. "My brother, the current Duke, is in the government." He smile seemed to twist slightly. "One life, two countries, Sir. And what might happen out here—what is already happening—is pretty bad."
Baginski reached out and touched her elbow. "We get things done," he said.
She nodded. "Sir, we're between Canada and the bad things, and you're more than smart enough to have worked that out for yourself. But this is where I'll fight. Not Saskatchewan, or Ottawa, or London, or France."
Bertie nodded. "That's good enough for me. " He paused. "And I hope war never comes to this place."
"We all hope," said the actress. She smiled, and it was a dangerous smile. "Every Spontoonie in this room is in the militia. We're ready to fight, too."
"Whatever happens," said Baginski, "If the politicians get it wrong, people are going to die."
"I know," said Bertie.
In the background, the band was playing. They'd been imported from Canada. The Ambassador made a discreet almost-cough. "Sir, you promised the first dance to the Duchess of Strathdern, but..."
"Protocol more than promises." He gave a wry smile. "But what?"
"Her Grace hasn't arrived yet." The Ambassador sounded a little more mournful than was quite proper.
"For which my feet are properly grateful. But it's dashed awkward."
Helen explained. "It is customary for the dancing to be begun by the highest status couple present. In this case, Bertie is a Royal Duke, and Katie MacArran is a Duchess in her own right. Just one of those crazy Euro customs, Wolf, but everyone knows how they work."
"So I don't get to have the first dance with you?"
"I'm only the daughter of a Duke. Technically, a commoner." She grinned. "I think there are quite a few here who outrank me." She thought for a moment. "You will have chosen the music, I expect?"
Bertie grinned impishly. "Slow foxtrot, Ma'am. I was very insistent about the music. I am aware of the Duchess's reputation as a dancer. Out of practice, mostly."
"Problem solved," said Kaimi. "It's simple." Bertie looked baffled. "You need a high-status partner for a slow foxtrot, correct?"
Bertie nodded. "Correct, Honoured Mother."
Kaimi smiled. "I can dance a slow foxtrot. I can even manage a passable Lindy Hop."
Bertie was no fool. "Honoured Mother, would you care to dance?"
Kaimi took his hand. "I would be delighted, Your Grace."
The Ambassador made a signal. He felt a little as if he were drunk, but he had the feeling that the people who really mattered were going to be very pleased. The tourists could go hang. But a Spontoonie Priestess knowing how to dance. His mind half-formed a question, and decided against it. If Charlie Bellman were behind this, he didn't want to know.
Bertie and Kaimi walked out onto the slowly-clearing dance floor. They didn't look as though they ought to be a couple, but there was something special in the way they moved. Not that the guests noticed that. Oh no, it didn't matter that it looked right. It didn't matter, as the music started, that Kaimi was flattering him with every step she took.
You just knew who was thinking, "She's a bloody native!"
Lady Helen was moving up with her Sergeant. They didn't have the same grace, but they seemed confident. And nobody would be talking about them in the morning.
"I don't believe it myself," said Freya.
"Kaimi dancing the Lindy Hop. Mr Ambassador, would you care to dance?"
He glanced around. His wife was enduring a diplomatic outbreak of rheumatism tonight, and thus neutralising a group of particularly determined matrons. And she was a kinema enthusiast. "I shall have to introduce you to my wife, later. She's something of a fan of yours."
Then he recalled what the Lindy Hop was. Honoured Mother Kaimi had the natural grace of a feline, and there was a hint of raw athleticism in her movement. He could believe it...
The downside of being in direct competition with the German party was that they couldn't actually ignore each other. Some British notable would briefly visit them, and they would send Ilse Klensch at the most inconvenient time possible, such as at the end of the first dance.
Bertie was rather glad when it did happen. It released the tension. Though it still felt slightly odd to have been dancing with, perhaps, the equivalent of a Bishop and a Judge, all squeezed into a single rather attractive body.
At least, it should have released the tension. Ilse Klensch herself was exactly as advertised, A jaw-droppingly beautiful woman with an intense and controlled physicality. And superbly dressed. If there was one thing the Reich knew how to do, it was the projection of power through clothing design.
And one of the interesting little side effects of ballroom dancing is that you can be so delicately aware of your partner's state of mind. You can feel the shifts in muscular tension. Of course you could feel the Ilse Klensch spike, but as he trod the last few measures Bertie felt something different in his partner. It seemed to be the two escorts, in the black uniform of the SS. Something in the something he felt prompted him to discreetly check his immediate surroundings.
To his left were Freya Bjorksdottir and the Ambassador. Drifting between him, and Kaimi, and the Germans was Lady Helen and her Sergeant. And they were almost herding him towards a table, being watched by three hard-eyed Spontoonie waiters, where waited Lady Helen's substantial handbag and Kaimi's staff of office. And he hadn't really thought about the Sergeant's holstered sidearm, not until now.
What was the threat? Who was the target?
He used the genteel formalities to calm himself, to focus a little. Not the She-wolf of the Luftwaffe, but her escorts. And why SS officers when there were enough Luftwaffe officers available, each with the gold braid to corrupt a government. What message was being sent?
The Ambassador was good, but he could see some signs. Part of diplomacy was hiding your true feelings, but Bertie was sure he knew something. Whatever the message might be, whatever was intended, there was something about the messengers.
"Honoured Mother." He smiled slightly. "I enjoyed the dance," he said, simply.
"I was distracted," she apologised.
He nodded slightly. "I noticed." He sighed. "I have to greet our visitors. I have to be nice to them."
Kaimi nodded. "The woman is dangerous, in the way that a stick of dynamite is dangerous. Pray you never see her escort again." She picked up her staff. Something in her eyes prompted him to glance at Lady Helen. And the Sergeant. "They are abominations," she explained.
There was some special weight to that word, and not in the way that some preachers he had heard would use it. And he'd seen certain reports, and spoken with calm-eyed men who still followed the faith of their fathers, and presented as rational the idea that if what they believed were true, then certain other things followed.
Bertie took a deep breath. "I am the son of a king, The Land is in me."
Kaimi placed a finger firmly on his lips. "That is not, yet, an oath you may take." She smiled. "Not yet. And those two are not your problem."
"This is your land."
"And I have my knights." She stepped back. "Your Royal Highness, may your Gods guard and guide you and yours."
He returned her bow. "Honoured Mother." What could he say? "May you be in Heaven an hour before the Devil knows you're dead."
He turned away, not wanting to face her eyes.
His Britannic Majesty's Ambassador to the Althing of the Spontoon Independencies flopped into his office chair. Madge had left the tray, with two rather large mugs of tea. His bow tie hung loose, and his cummerbund was draped over a half-open door of his filing cabinet. "I was bloody terrified," he admitted.
His Excellency, the Governor General of Canada, vice-regal representative of the King of Canada, dropped into the other chair. He'd removed his white mess-jacket. "It would have been embarrassing." He reached for one of the mugs. "They were ready to shoot. And I don't think it was the She-Wolf of the Luftwaffe who was the target." He considered. "SS Uniform, and I've seen loathsome little thugs like that in every industrial town I've ever visited."
"I'm not supposed to know," said the Ambassador, "But since I worked with Saunders in Switzerland, during the war, I've heard a story."
"Listen With Mother?" Bertie sipped at the tea.
"Are you sitting comfortably?"
The Embassy had the usual support staff, very capable, but almost every diplomat was a spy of some sort or another. And, apart from the Naval, Military, and Air Attaches, no form of spying was in their job description. But they had their posts as spies, not because of any skill as diplomats. Saunders and Bellman were the exceptions, excellent Consular Officers, and extremely good spies. "And they have earned a great deal of respect. You know how the Police will grumble if a consular officer sticks their nose around the door? Well, the locals trust Bellman. He solves problems."
But last week, Saunders and Bellman had handed him undated letters of resignation. And a file which wasn't supposed to exist. "Those two thugs with Ilse are serial killers. Think Jack the Ripper, and tools of the Nazi Party. They killed a woman who was supplying Bellman with intelligence in Berlin. And they've come here." The Ambassador shrugged. "I shall have to watch Bellman, he seems a little obsessed."
"Do the locals know?"
"Yes, and it's Speed Week. I was shown a certain document. A formal declaration of outlawry. And they've given Bellman a carte blanche to deal with it. As long as he doesn't get caught. They don't want to mess with diplomatic immunity."
Bertie swallowed another mouthful of tea, thinking he had a pretty good idea of just who Kaimi's knights were. "I think I ought to see that file." He considered his options. No, there were things he wasn't going to tell the Ambassador. "Some people think one of my Uncles was Jack the Ripper. They could wreck Speed Week, and really mess with my reputation. Especially if one of their targets happens to be somebody I danced with."
"I asked Bellman about Sergeant Baginski. Bellman said, and I quote, he makes me look like a bloody amateur."
"And Bellman is good, you say."
"Battlefield commission. And he held a Regular Commission after the war."
Bertie nodded. "There's not much I can do to back you up, but did you know I can manage a fair forgery of my brother's handwriting and signature?"
Bertie quoted, "The bearer of this letter has done what he has done by my order, and for the good of the realm."
"Don't be a bloody fool!"
It might save somebody's neck."
"Bellman won't need it."
"Lady Helen might."
"She's an anarchist!"
"She was my father's sworn liegewoman. Fealty is a two-way street: if she gives her oath to me, she has my protection. Though I doubt she would give her oath. She's found the right place for herself." Bertie smiled slightly. "I can't help thinking thet we ought to be discussing this in iambic pentameters."
"Treason never prospers..."
Bertie chuckled. "If treason prospers, none dare call it treason." He gave the ambassador a slightly quizzical look. "Such a letter would be foolish," he agreed. "But Bellman, or Lady Helen, as d'Artagnan doesn't feel foolish. Just a trifle too romantic."
The ambassador finished his mug of tea, stood, and looked through the open drawer of his filing cabinet. He placed a large envelope on the desk, one which was rather full. "I'm going to go round and thank the staff, check all is well. Maybe even carry a few trays of crockery back to the kitchen. My First Secretary will call me an old duffer, and the Spontoonies will reckon I'm trying to do things right. Of course, you're a chief. You don't have to do that."
Bertie nodded. "Tell them they impressed your chief." He had opened the envelope.
"Yes, I shall." The Ambassador closed the door behind him.
Bertie wasn't sure that he believed the briefing he'd had in London, and he suspected Bellman would laugh at the idea, but he felt sickly sure that the people he'd met believed themselves to be necromancers. Well, whatever Bellman planned, the end result would be the same. Whatever Bellman believed, he didn't expect the file to be comfortable reading.