The Flying Cloud, R505 - Season Three

Episode 134: An Audience With the Queen

Not the Royal Crown of Tonga

"You think it was your Lieutenant Blacker?' asked Collins.

"An English officer with a pronounced dueling scar on one temple, wandering about the South Pacific?" said Everett. "I can't think of more than half a dozen. During the past two centuries."

"I wonder about the timing," said Collins. "He was here in Fiji a week ago, but the cruiser didn't arrive until the day before yesterday."

"It is a mystery," agreed Everett.

"And he spoke with Iverson's informant."

"Who told him that the Russians offloaded their cargo in Port Moresby, presumably to send it to Tonga on a different ship. I imagine that's where those fellows are bound now."

"Do you think your people will spot them in time?"

"This has become a matter of some concern. I'd send a message to warn them, but there's no cable to Tonga, and if their wireless is maintained according to the same standards as their air station, I'd hesitate to rely on it for anything of importance."

"We could send one of the Wolleslies," suggested Collins.

Everett shook his head. "That cruiser would make short work of it in an engagement. Even the Bouadicia would be at serious risk."

"Then they're on their own until your vessel is repaired." Collins opened a folder, studied its contents, and frowned. "Lindsey estimates it will take two days to fabricate new girders for your lower fin, another two days to install them, then three days to fit new fabric, adjust the rigging, and qualify the ship for flight."

The two men exchanged worried glances. A lot could happen in that time. Collins picked up a duty roster, compared it with the report, and made some marginal notes.

"We might be able to improve on this schedule," he said. "I'll have my people work around the clock. In the meantime, we can contact Commodore Sears to see if he can spare one of his destroyers to carry a message. It's a three day passage to Tonga, but that's better than nothing."

Everett nodded. "MacKiernan is a resourceful officer. I trust he'll be able to stay out of trouble for three days."

The Royal Palace in Nuku'alofa was more substantial than MacKiernan had expected. Spacious, elegant, and tasteful, it compared favorably with many English manors. The floors were native wood, varnished to a rich luster. The furnishings would not have seemed out of place in a London townhouse. The walls were trimmed with fine wainscoting and lined with portraits of the island's nobility.

Abercrombie seemed ill-at-ease as they waited outside the audience hall. MacKiernan could understand his companion's apprehension. Royalty could be intimidating -- even royalty of a country as small as this one. Miss Perkins, on the other hand, seemed entirely unperturbed. Does anything affect that woman? wondered the Irishman. She must have a heart of stone.

"Are there any special ceremonies we should observe?" he asked Ashton.

The Consul thought this over. "If you were an ordinary Tongan, you'd be expected to approach Her Majesty on your knees. You would not be allowed to eat or drink in the Royal Presence, and it could be a capital offense to allow your shadow to touch hers. As British subjects, I believe the ordinary courtesies will suffice."

MacKiernan glanced at Miss Perkins, wondering if ordinary courtesies would suffice with her. His speculations were interrupted by the arrival of the majordomo.

"Her Highness will see you now."

Salote Mafile'o Pilolevu Tupou III, had not been born to rule. A member of the junior branch of the royal family, her position should have been purely ceremonial. But the Influenza had struck these islands hard, carrying off her predecessors as it had carried off so many others throughout the world, and left her the crown. Traditionalists had resisted the idea of a Tu'i Kanokupolu -- and a woman at that -- ascending the throne. But some leaders seem to grow in the face of adversity, and Queen Salote was such a one.

Her Majesty was a tall woman in her late twenties. While not as voluminous as some of her subjects, she had considerable physical presence, like a sturdy oak or an outcropping of stone. She greeted the airmen with a gravity beyond her years.

"Welcome to Tonga," she told them. "We have always felt considerable regard for members of the British Royal Navy. We have heard of your misfortune at the Air Station. We regret any inconvenience this might have caused and hope the rest of your visit will be more pleasant."

Her voice was surprisingly firm, and the royal `We' sounded sincere and unaffected.

"Thank you, Your Majesty," replied MacKiernan, as smoothly as he could. "The inconvenience is minor, and has given us the opportunity to see more of your wonderful land. But I wonder if we could ask a favor. We understand that a group of White Russian exiles has established themselves somewhere in your realm."

"We know of the party to whom you refer," said the Queen. "An archaeologist petitioned on their behalf... what was his name?"

"Professor Otkupshchikov," volunteered the minister, "that fellow with the blimp. Her Majesty has always supported the practice of archeology."

"We have a message for these Russians," said MacKiernan. "Could you tell us where we might find them?"

An awkward silence fell over the audience chamber. Queen Salote studied her visitors as if they'd committed some unpardonable breach of manners. Behind her, the minister flinched. MacKiernan froze, wondering what he'd done wrong.

"You must understand," the Queen said in an icy voice. "Tongans place a great store on hospitality. This is part of fakatonga: the Tongan Way. These Russians were nobles, driven from their home by revolution and war. They came seeking a measure of peace. Who are you to intrude upon their privacy?"

MacKiernan's spirits sank. It seemed this audience was at an end. He was preparing to make his excuses when Miss Perkins interrupted.

"Permission to speak, Your Majesty."

Queen Salote turned to glare at the secretary. Watching the contest of wills, MacKiernan understood how neutral countries must have regarded the Great War. At last the Queen nodded.

"Very well."

"We understand your concern for your guests," said Miss Perkins politely. "But others are looking for them -- people who may not have their best interests at heart. It may be important that we find them first."

The Queen thought this over. "We will grant your request," she said at last. "We trust you'll give us no reason to regret this. The people you seek are on the island of Eua. We will have Our secretary draw you up a letter of introduction."

The three travelers took passage to Eua on a ferry run by one of the missions -- an ancient steam launch, left over from the previous century, so decrepit that MacKiernan wouldn't take Abercrombie's bet they'd drown. The engine was notably inefficient, producing great billows of smoke that eddied and swirled around the passenger deck. The smoke seemed to steer clear of Miss Perkins where she stood by the rail. Understandable, thought the Irishman, as he joined her to review their discoveries.

"That Queen is a formidable woman," said Miss Perkins.

"She's not the only one," replied MacKiernan, quite sincerely.

She surprised him with a smile. "Why thank you, Mister MacKiernan. And you seem almost civilized, for an airshipman."

The Irishman laughed. "You're very kind, Miss Perkins. As Jenkins would observe, we have standards to maintain."

"Who do you think they are; these Russians?"

"It's difficult to say. So many refugees fled the country after the Revolution. Their acquaintance with Professor Oktup... Otkupsh... whatever the fellow's name is suggests they're minor nobility from Irkutsk or Kamchatka, but there's no telling what we'll find."

"I trust this won't turn into another adventure," the secretary said primly. "I have no desire to be kidnapped and threatened again. Or threatened and kidnapped, as the case may be."

"I wouldn't worry," said MacKiernan. "These islands seem peaceful enough. Besides, it's a beautiful day to be out on the water, and I could never complain about the company."

The words were out of his mouth before he realized what he'd said. Good heavens! he wondered in alarm, Did I really mean that? Miss Perkins began a reply -- some retort, perhaps, laced with hints of sarcasm -- then hesitated and fell silent, as if she too had just realized something alarming.

Next week: An Unexpected Move...

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