PAUL BIRCHSTOLEN CHRISTMAS
The girl was tall, slender, elegant — and fizzing with anger. 'What are you going to do about it?' she demanded.
Callum MacRobert raised his eyebrows. 'Do about what?' he asked mildly.
'I told you. They've stolen Christmas.'
Callum leaned further back in his chair and plonked his feet on the desk. 'Oh, yeah?' he drawled. It seemed to irritate her.
'Cut that Humphrey Bogart stuff. You're supposed to be a Christmas Specialist, not a private eye.'
Callum sighed and sat up. 'Lady Grey —'
'Miss Grey,' she corrected. 'Librarian to the Lord of Stavenger Keep.'
'Miss Grey,' he said. 'I do Christmas parties. I do them every day of the year, whenever a keep celebrates Christmas Day. I do them very well. I don't chase missing Christmases. Try the Habitat Authority!'
'They sent me to you,' snapped Miss Grey. 'I should have known better than to expect any help from a … a self-centred priggish mercenary clown!'
'Quite!' said Callum. He could have spanked her. He suppressed the appetising image of a dishevelled Miss Grey bent over his knee. 'How on MacRoberts can you steal Christmas anyhow?'
'A fat lot you care!' Miss Grey sniffed and brushed the back of her hand across her eye. For an instant she was eight years old.
Callum felt a touch of remorse. Sometimes he forgot how much Christmas meant to the keepfolk. Here in the City it was all too easy to become cynical. 'Look, I'm sorry,' he said. 'Let's start again! What's your name?'
'Jane,' she snuffled.
'Jane Grey?' Callum hid a guffaw in a grunt.
Her eyes flashed. 'What's wrong with that?'
'Nothing at all,' he said hastily, 'It's a grand old name. Not exactly Scandinavian, though, is it?'
'Scandinavian? Why on earth should it be?'
Callum frowned. 'Isn't Stavenger Keep Norwegian?'
'Oh, originally, I suppose. But they've been speaking English since before they left the Solar System. That's part of the problem.'
'You're an incomer, yourself, I assume,' said Callum. 'Direct from Home?'
She nodded. 'On the Morningstar. Five years ago. Stavenger took me in — I was very fortunate in obtaining so congenial a post.'
The Morningstar had reached Eta Cassiopeia in a bad way, half the habitat torus blasted by drive pellets and with insufficient delta v to match MacRobert's World without an expensive tow. She'd had to file for bankruptcy, he remembered.
'Librarian to the Lord!' he said. 'Astounding.'
'Assistant Librarian' Jane admitted. 'The hereditary Librarian's an old fogey who spends his time drinking port with the nobs. I do all the real work.
'Anyway, we've been at war with NyeNarvik, off and on, for years. They do speak Norwegian. They make a point of it.'
So much of a point, Callum recalled, that everyone assumed they must speak standard English in private. 'But didn't I see something about a peace treaty?'
Jane nodded vigorously. 'A Treaty of Union, in and through the marriage of the Lord Apparent of NyeNarvik and the Lady Apparent of Stavenger.
'Ah, yes,' said Callum. 'Both keeps are currently in regency, aren't they?'
Miss Grey pursed her lips. 'The former Lords bumped each other off in single combat. Cretins!'
'I'd have thought that'd have made your keeps even less inclined to bury the hatchet,' observed the Christmas Specialist.
'I gather they were so irritated by their Lords' behaviour they decided to make peace just to spite them' said Jane.
'Well all right, but where does your stolen Christmas come in?'
'The treaty comes into force on the second of December, Stavenger calendar. That's the fifth of January in Narvik.' Miss Grey tossed her head. 'And after the Union, both keeps will be on the Narvik calendar, of course.' She looked at Callum.
He nodded grimly. 'So no Christmas for Stavenger this year?' This was serious. Once people got the idea they could do without Christmas who knew where it would end?
'It's disgraceful!' Jane leaned forward. 'Think of the children. How can they ever be expected to want peace with Narvik if it means losing Christmas? Old fools!'
Callum found himself admiring a wisp of hair that had worked loose from behind her ear. 'It's simple enough. Put off the peace until after Christmas. Surely January's soon enough?'
'It's not that easy,' she said. 'The problem is, Lord Ingvar isn't allowed to get married until he turns twenty-one and takes his seat, whereas Lady Fredrika has to be married by the time she's nineteen or lose her fief to her cousin Siegfried, a curmudgeonly brute who's been opposed to the treaty from the outset.'
'And who couldn't many Narvik's lordlet anyhow,' said Callum. 'I begin to see. I take it—'
'Yes! Lady Fredrika's birthday's on the eleventh of December—'
'—so they've got to be married by then.'
'And Lord Ingvar—?'
'—comes of age on the second—'
'—their fifth of January—'
'—so they couldn't get married before Narvik's Christmas, or after ours.'
'Neat,' said Callum. 'A real puzzler. Rough on Stavenger, of course, but what do you expect me to do about it?'
Jane flopped herself down into the chair she'd ignored up to now. 'Stop them stealing our Christmas,' she said bluntly.
'How should I know how? You're the Christmas expert.'
'This is where we came in,' muttered Callum. He stalked across to the window, stared out in silence for a while, then paced hack and forth across the carpet. That usually encouraged the clients, though it didn't much help him think. Miss Grey kept mousily quiet — whether because she was really impressed or only depressed he wasn't sure.
'Look here,' he said after a minute, 'the treaty doesn't have to come into force right away, does it? Couldn't they postpone the union until after the wedding?'
'But the wedding is the union,' said Jane. 'That's the whole point!'
'Hhm, I'm not sure I follow that. When exactly does Lady Wotsit's regency end?'
'Exactly when she's married, of course!'
'Very feudal,' said Callum. 'Rats !But what would happen if she married her prince before his birthday?'
'Oh, in that case, there'd be a joint regency until her lord and master turned twenty-one. Only he's not allowed to, remember?'
'I forgot,' Callum admitted. 'Oh, it's hopeless. There's just no way. You'll have to make do with the wedding celebrations instead.'
Jane looked angry. 'That's not good enough. I've told you. If those kids lose their Christmas, I guarantee they'll hate those Narvikites to the depths of their souls and the end of their days and the treaty of union will be as dead as a duck in the water.
'You're mixing metaphors,' said Callum. There was more to this than concern over some silly little treaty. Nobody worried about wars on MacRobert's World. Wars were fun. 'So who was it cheated you out of your Christmas when you were a kid?'
Jane blushed. 'Don't be a cleverclogs,' she snapped. 'Anyhow, you're wrong. If you must know, it was my sister. That's why I had to leave the planet. She never did forgive me.'
Callum blinked. 'What on … Earth … did you do?'
She fidgeted with the executive toys on Callum's desk. 'I locked her in the toolshed on Christmas Day,' she said at last. 'Mummy thought she was spending the day at her best friend's house.'
'Oops!' said Callum, and tried not to laugh. 'But why?'
'Old story. I was jealous. Before Liza took her over, her best friend was my best friend too.'
Callum grunted 'Yes .I see.' He wasn't at his best with deep-seated metaphor-mangling emotional tangles. He paced up and down again.
'Thirty days hath September,' he muttered, 'April, June and … leap years? Calendars, calendars. Christmas comes but once a year, once a year, once a year! That's it!'
Mr Callum MacRoberts snatched Miss Jane Grey out of the chair, kissed her soundly and swung her round the room in a confused and breathless dance consisting largely of Miss Grey's legs bashing against the furniture while Mr Callum carolled all about Christmas coming once a year.
Miss Grey waited patiently until Mr Callum put her down. 'So what?' she asked.
Callum kissed her again for good measure. 'So what if it came twice?'
'The kids would love it,' said Jane. 'But it doesn't.'
'Leave it to me,' said Callum.
And it came to pass that on the fifth of January (Narvik date) and on the second of December (Stavenger calendar), the Lord Ingvar of Narvik and the Lady Fredrika of Stavenger were wed and the calendars were joined, and great was the rejoicing.
And furthermore it came about that in three and twenty days it was Christmastide in Stavenger. And in the Keep of Narvik it was Christmas too — the second Christmastide that year. And the date was the twenty-fifth of December.
© Paul Birch, 19th Dec 1993.