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Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Kildaran - Chapter 53


Okay, everybody get that?  The long-promised bachelor party is arriving shortly - and this is a true OJRN! chapter (or OAGN or ODEN [I like the last for the pun but this is not all or even nearly all Dick's work, I have to admit]) - and OJRN! means Oh John Ringo No! for the reaction several (many?) readers had to Ghost when it came out several years ago.  Well, it had to happen.  And when better?

So.  Bachelor Party.  That means there's not too much left.  Two chapters.  And I have one of them just waiting for me to edit into shape.  Then - as they say in Hollywood - that's a wrap!



    “What now, Chief?”  Mike rubbed his arms and chest with a towel.  The workout he’d just finished was long overdue and a welcome break from the post-mission stresses.  He would have preferred another hour on the Nautilus, but the joints were letting him know it was time to stop.  The abuse from previous missions was making itself felt; he was sure he’d have to seek out Kurosawa and his needles.  Thus, his answer to Adams was perhaps a little gruffer than he’d intended.
    “The first stones are back from the cutter,” he answered, dropping a bag on the desk.  Mike sighed down into the expensive executive chair, appreciating the extra support it provided.  Definitely getting old.
    “Stones?  Oh, yeah, right.  Good.  Thanks.”
    “That’s it?  ‘Good.  Thanks’?  You know how hard it was to find a reputable gem cutter in this country?  And to keep him from stealing them?  I had to install cameras in his shop beforehand and prove that they were being watched!  Then I had to convince him that the chips and dust weren‘t a bonus for him to keep - you know how much even that stuff‘’s worth??  On top of which, I‘ve had to babysit his sorry ass the entire time, and you know how much I hate babysitting!”
    “I’m sure you got some of the Keldara to watch him, while you sat back and had a beer or two.”
    “That’s not the point!  The point is, I did you a favor and now it’s no big deal?”
    “Ah.  You want gratitude.  Why didn’t you say so?”  Looking up from his terminal, Mike put on a cheesy fake smile.  “Thank you ever so much for putting yourself out on my behalf!  I won’t ever forget this!”
    “Ah, fuck it.  You just better watch out.  Your bachelor party’s coming up really soon.”
    That was a threat.
    “You and Daria, eh?”  He raised a single eyebrow.  He’d seen Stasia do it to her charges, and it seemed to imply so much more than was actually said.  It made the target think whatever they feared most and gave the impression you knew more than you really did.
    JP didn’t blink.  He‘d been before enough boards of review to have the routine down pat.  Admit to nothing until necessary, and only the minimum then.  “Yep.  Me and Daria.”
    “And here you were complaining about Sivula getting married.”
    “That’s different.  I’m on short time, no wife or family back home, and I figure if I get out here and manage to get a position with you, the odds are pretty good that Uncle Sam won’t be able to call me back into service.”
    “How many years have you put in, JP?”
    “If you don’t mind me asking - why are you still a captain?”  Mike steepled his fingers and leaned back as if considering the entire man, past, present, and future.  Which, in a sense, he was.
    “I was a mustang.  Enlisted for four years, thinking it would be a good way to save up some money for college.  Made sergeant, but didn’t really love it, y’know?  I was planning to get out, and my CO knew it, so he made me an offer.  Hard to refuse the old man.  He had a way with words, and I swear, he could predict the future.  Kinda miss the old bastard, now.””
    “Yeah.  Came out a shiny new second john, didn’t know my ass from my elbow, but I’d signed for another six years.  Got all gung ho after 9/11 and went to Ranger school, qualified, and then got assigned to the 75th.  Worked my way up to commanding my company in between deployments and getting my hitch ’extended’ three times - ‘needs of the service‘, you know that bullshit.  So here I am.”
    “So why get out?  Why not go for field grade?  I can make a few calls, pull a couple strings…?”  He let the offer hang in the air.
    “Mike, after so many years in the Big and Little Sandbox, I don’t need to prove my patriotism to anyone.  I love my country and want to serve, but I’m over thirty now - I still want some kind of life.  Kids, too, ones that know their daddy and have a single place to live.”
    “You think that you’ll get more of one here?”
    “I know that you do weird shit out here that’s so black nobody, and I mean nobody, can talk about it.  I also know that you don’t take orders from anyone, just requests that you think will help out the country.  That’s where I want to be.  Then you have the beer - all I have to say is, Oh My God.  And, of course, Daria.  She doesn’t want to leave here, she made that abundantly clear, so if I want her in my life, I have to share her place.  Besides, I hear the pay ain‘t bad, either, given the bonuses you gave my men - and thank you for that.  Bunch of ‘em really needed that, even if they didn‘t say anything about it.”
    “Even if it means you’re stuck in a training slot for the nonce?”
    “What do you think Rangers do all day we’re not deployed?  Carve ’snake-eater’ tattoos into our arms?  And does that mean you have a job for me?”
    “Possibly.”  Mike explained about the Mountain Rams.
    “They’re a ton of raw material, and, honestly, I don’t think they’re quite up to the standards of the Tigers of the Mountains.  Plus, they’re locals, not Keldara, and those two have never mixed well.  But, by God, they‘re willing, and doing their best.”
    “What are you looking at, then?”
    “There’s a lot more of them, and we‘ve only got the first batch up to snuff,” Mike said.  “Word’s gotten out, though, and they’re tired of being sheep.  I figure, if we can get them up to the standards of the Corps, there’s enough there to take the biggest burden off the Tigers.  Plus, having a potent military force which is politically neutral but strongly in support of the legitimate government will go a long way towards stabilizing the country and dragging it up towards the first world.”
    “You want the Rams to be the Army to the Tigers’ Rangers?”
    “Something like that, or at least National Guard.”
    “I can do that.  Tough to turn sheep into soldiers, but I hear you have a good cadre going?”
    “You won’t be alone.  I have a Scottish sergeant and a few Gurkhas working with them, but I want you to provide a general direction, an officer they can look up to and call their own.  Nielson‘s done his best, but he‘s got a bunch on his plate already.  And you could bring Daria in.  She‘d make a hell of an S-2 or -4.”
    “Can do.  Where will I slot into your command structure?”
    “You’ll report to Colonel Nielson, then to myself.  You’re essentially an independent command; you’re going to have enough men.”
    “Maybe I should have asked earlier, but just how many men am I looking at?”
    “Right now, we’re projecting a force of 750.”
    “Holy crap!  That’s more like a battalion!”
    “Yep.  Which is why, for my purposes, you’re going to get your silver oak leaf.  There’s a chicken in your future, too, but only after Neilson takes his medicine and accepts a star.  Totally unofficial outside the Valley, but it’ll give you some pull with the troops.  Think that‘ll suffice?”
    “Captain to Light Colonel in one jump?  That’ll do nicely.”
    “Once your Rams shake down, we’ll have to nominate some officer candidates and train ‘em up, but that’s a problem for later.”
    “You have an OCS?”
    “No, that’s why it’s a problem for later.”
    The planning meeting went on long into the night.
    “So what do you think?”
    “I think you’re insane, but that’s nothing new,” said Kacey.
    “Definitely.  We’re helicopter pilots, not fixed-wing, and sure as hell not something like a Backfire!” added Tammy.  “No matter how sexy it is!”
    Mike had suggested that his two pilots get some time in the Backfire before John and Chris - he couldn’t call them Hardesty and Watson, it sounded too much like a bad law firm that advertised late nights for personal injury claims - returned to their regular jobs.  Hardesty wasn’t an issue; as long as Chatham didn’t need him back, he was perfectly willing, okay, overjoyed, to earn twice his usual pay playing with a supersonic bomber.  That briefly brought his mind to the stack of claims for broken windows from a nearby village.  Again.  Hardesty was having way too much fun.
    Watson was a different story.
    He’d been “shanghaied” - his words - by OSOL, and he was dammed if he was going to spend, quote, any more time in a godforsaken third-world shithole of a country, unquote, than he had to.  He was willing to finish familiarizing Hardesty - but with John’s extensive background, that wouldn’t take long.  And he flat-out refused to consider staying on longer, despite promises of bonuses comforts available in the Valley.
    Mike had considered the benefits of having Pierson ‘advise’ Watson that his time in Georgia was going to be extended.  In the end, though, he figured that the misery the arrogant pilot would produce far outweighed any possible gains, and so had let Watson know that he’d be able to depart as soon as Hardesty reported himself ready to pilot the Backfire solo.
    That wasn’t going to be more than another couple days.  Unless they buzzed another town at full burners.  He should never have let them borrow his copy of Top Gun.  Dammit, it was a bomber-turned-transport, not a fucking fighter!
    However, that was going to leave Mike with a big, expensive aircraft and zero trained pilots.  Umarov had volunteered his pilots’ services, but, while they were competent enough in their SU-25 Frogfoots (despite their nearly thirty-year-old design, still being produced in a factory outside Tbilisi), he didn’t quite trust them with his supersonic bomber on a regular basis.  Hence his suggestion to Kacey and Tammy, that they learn how to fly the beast.  He thought they’d be excited.
    Boy, was he wrong.
    “It’s a totally different kind of flying.”
    “Almost contradictory, in fact.”
    “There’s different procedures and protocols to follow.”
    “Different reactions to train.”
    “And if we become proficient at flying Grez -”
    “- We might lose our tough with the Hinds.”
    “Dragon would get lonely if I didn’t let him feed occasionally!”
    “And, if you’re going to take me out of Valkyrie, then, sir, with respect, Fuck No!”
    So it had gone, a verbal tennis match, with Mike the only spectator.  Now the Marine was coming out of his pilots, and he knew it was time to put a stop to it.  Mike’s neck was weary from the constant back-and-forth nature of their argument, so he rested his head on his hand for a moment.
    “So what you’re saying is neither of you could fly it without giving up the choppers.”
    They shared a glance, then Kacey’s pilot’s ego took over.
    “We could fly her.  Probably not well, certainly not up to her abilities.  But we each have some hours in fixed-wing aircraft.  Much smaller, but the principles the same.  We can get by, for short periods.”
    “We just don’t want to transition out of our Hinds,” admitted Tammy.
    “Why us?” asked Kacey.
    “You’re the only pilots I have,” answered Mike, somewhat amused by the question.
    “You mean, we’re the only rotary-wing pilots you have,” agreed Tammy.  “Fixed-wing aircraft are much easier to learn how to fly than helicopters, though.”
    “I’ll bet you could find a half-dozen volunteers among the Keldara without even trying!” offered the other Bobbsey twin, and the tennis match was back on.
    “Let’s see, there’s Serena Mahona, she always wants to deadhead on training flights -”
    “And Akilina Kulcyanov -”
    “Who’s that little blonde?”
    “The one that D’Allaird was sniffing around?”
    “Yeah, until she gave him a black eye.”  Tammy smirked.  “He’s not going to equate ‘small and blonde’ with ‘stupid’ any more, no matter how perky her tits are!”
    “Lizaveta Shaynav.  She’s got the reactions, for sure.  And then there’s also -”
    “Whoa!  We’re talking a multiple-million-dollar, supersonic converted and upgraded bomber here, not a farm tractor!” interrupted Mike.
    “Your point?”
    “My point?  Do you really think these girls are able to handle piloting a fucking Tu-22M?”
    “Did you think that any of these ‘girls’ would be able to run an Intel shop like Grez?”
    “Or shoot like Katrina?”
    “Or lay mortars like Jessia?”
    “Or rewrite code like Creata?”
    “Okay, okay, I give!  What about men?  Gonna have some bruised egos if you only select the girls for training.”
    “What about them?” asked Tammy.  “It’s been proven, over and over, that women have better reaction times and can make better pilots than men.  Besides, all the young men are in the Tigers.  Don’t think many will give that up.”
    “Ask, anyways.  Just say you’re looking for volunteers.  Then make a list and I’ll give it to John, on one condition.”
    They looked at him warily before replying.  “What’s the condition?” asked Kacey.
    “You two take some ‘refresher’ training.  Once John returns to Chatham, unless they get a shitload of hours behind the stick, I want a more experienced, veteran hand available to fly with them.”
    “That makes sense,” said Tammy.  “But you ought to include Chief D’Allaird as well.  He’s got plenty of bootlegged hours.”
    “And while we’re on the subject -”
    “Yes?”  Now Mike was wary.
    “It wouldn’t be a bad idea for us to start training some of our crew chiefs how to fly the birds.”
    “You’re not planning on leaving, are you?”  Mike frowned.
    “Hell no!” snapped Kacey.  “The hours are good, the pay outstanding, and we get to blow shit up!  How could life get any better than that?”
    “Getting laid more often?” said Tammy.  Kacey glared at her.
    “So why?”
    “Redundancy, for one,” said Tammy.  “You don’t want to be down a chopper if either of us should come down with the flu, or break a leg, or -”
    “I get the idea.  Okay, good point, but not enough.”
    “That brings us to the second point,” continued Tammy.  “If we train up more pilots, especially from among our crew chiefs who at least have some familiarity with the birds, we’ll effectively double our usefulness.  Right now, at some point - and God knows we’ve pushed right to it! - we simply have to stop and get some crew rest.  If we have a relief pilot, even one that we have to co- for, we’ll be able to increase our endurance considerably.  You can‘t afford to have us end up like the girls in the Cave did this last op.”
    “Now, that makes sense.  I want you to start small at first, though.  No more than one relief pilot from each of you.  You know your chiefs; I’ll go with your recommendations.  Now, is there anything else?”
    “No, Kildar,” answered Kacey, and the two pilots beat a hasty retreat.
    “Do you think he knows we’ve already started training?” asked Tammy when the heavy door had closed behind them.
    “I sure as hell hope not!  How many hours does Naida have now?”
    “Fifty-three.  Anechka?”
    “Forty-two, but she really wants to play with the guns.”
    “I know; Naida is still griping about not being able to take out the Administrator’s Humvee.”
    “Still?  After all these months?”
    “Yep.  She says that target practice just isn’t the same.”
    They’d made their way to their quarters.  “What’s on the agenda tonight?” asked Kacey.
    “Nothing much,” said Tammy.  “Did you hear about Daria?”
    “Yeah,” grinned Kacey.  “She snagged him right out from under you!”
    “Not quite under me, but close enough,” agreed Tammy.  “What about you?”
    “The Chief asked me to drop by, help him plan the Kildar’s bachelor party.  Said to bring the Marine playbook on nasty tricks.”
    Tammy brightened at that.  “Sounds interesting.  Care if I come along?”
    “Naah, I’m sure he won’t mind.  But I give you the signal, you get scarce.”
    “Why?  You planning a bombing run on him?  And who said I wouldn’t want in?”
    Kacey shrugged.  “Not planning on it, and no, I won’t share - that never works out!”
    “And he’s a SEAL - he likes ’em young, you think of that?”
      Hell, I’m a Marine - adapt and overcome!”  
    “Do you know how difficult this was?”
    Actually, what the Chief said came out more like, “D’yuh know ho’ diff’cult thish wa’?”  The bachelor party had begun, officially, only an hour ago, but it seemed that Adams had started his celebration quite a bit earlier.  Truth be told, so had Mike, though he wasn’t nearly as badly off.
    “How difficult?”  His joints were warmed by a recent session with Kurosawa, while his belly had been warmed by two fingers’ of single malt that Bridgewater had claimed was over a hundred years old.
    “Very fuckin’ diff’cult.  But yer worth it, Ash-Boy!”
    Mike was actually impressed.  Instead of holding the party in the caravanserai - a nightmare Mike had had more than once in the past week - the Chief had appropriated one of the emergency shelters in the valley.  And, with the possible exception of Stella and the Ready Team, it seemed like the entire Valley had made an appearance.
    A huge bonfire had been lit out front, casting flames thirty feet into the evening sky.  A separate fire pit was laid, and at least two steer had been butchered and were grilling over the coals, casting their fragrant aroma far and wide.  Turnips and parsnips, harvested after resting underground all winter, had been transformed into a savory hash,  Fresh-baked bread had appeared as well.
    Then the beer was brought out.
    Not the slop they made for export.
    Not the slightly better product they sold in the village.
    Not even Mother Griffina’s brew, regarded as consistently the second-best among the Families.
    No, this was all - all - Mother Lenka’s winter brew.  Ten full barrels of dark ale, which made Mike wonder just how long Katrina had been planning her little ambush, and also if the old witch really could see the future.  Her brew was liquid gold, carefully hoarded and always in scarce supply.  And the dark ale was only made in times of great good fortune and prosperity.  Then, it was held for drinking on rare occasions.  The last, he’d heard, was the funeral of ten Keldara who’d died trying to rescue some of their own from slavers, and that had been over twenty years ago.
    That had been the last time Keldara had gone to the Halls, the last time the tun had received warriors.  That had been early in the winter, and the bodies had awaited internment until the ground thawed enough for the burial.  More than enough time for her to prepare her ale.  But, for her to provide ten barrels was simply unheard-of, impossible!  Unless…
    Overanalyzing again, he told himself firmly.  No Gods talked to her, let her know the date…
    Bowing to American traditions, Katrina was nowhere to be seen.  In fact, there were very few women here at all, Mike realized with a start.  Jessia, with Andrew.  Daria, with JP, and those two were closer than a pair of horny teenagers.  Cold water wouldn‘t do anything there except steam, and he doubted a crowbar would do any good either.  Stasia, with Jack - he noted that pairing with a wrench.  Well, he had always insisted that she was a free agent, and it seemed that she had reconciled herself to his impeding wedding in her own manner.
    Then he saw Elena and Catrina?  That meant that their freelance job was finally over.  Maybe he’d be able to trade for some info - he’d need a couple new playmates in the Dungeon if Stasia was really moving on to Jack.  They’d be happier than a rabbit in a lettuce patch over that tidbit.  The marriage to Katrina, well, they could handle that too.  They knew about his dark side and would take turns when it got too heavy for him to keep inside any longer.  They might even try to recruit Katrina, though she’d more likely hold the lash than take it.
    “Hey!  When did you get back?  And where’s the rest of the team?”
    Bright smiles lit their faces as they bounced through the crowd towards him.  They very little they weren’t wearing wouldn’t keep them warm, he could tell that.
     “Mouse and God-boy are up at the serai.  She said something about checking in on her feeds?”
      “Shota and the Mules are showering; boy, do they need it!  You know how rank it can get in a cargo plane for six hours?”
    “They still played in the tournament, but didn’t take time to shower up.  Smelled worse than they do after a summer op, you know?”
    “Yeah, I do, actually.  What tournament?  And Lasko?  McKenzie?”
    “I think they’ve both turned in,” answered Catrina, avoiding the first question and settling in on his right.  Even through his pants Mike could feel that she didn’t have anything under her skirt.  He immediately stiffened, to his surprised, but then he remembered Kurosawa’s promise.  “Enough vigor for three young men!”  Guess he wasn’t kidding.
    “Mac said he wanted to get back to training tomorrow, see what the Gurkhas got into in his absence,” said Elena, on his left.  She managed to wiggle into that side of his lap and, like her co-conspirator, was wearing nothing under her too-short skirt.  His hand stroked her thigh absently.  “And Lasko’s just old.”
    “Not that old,” giggled Catrina.  “Not much older than the Kildar, and younger than the Colonel.  Wasn’t he surprised that time?”
    “Oh yes!” giggled Elena.  “That was fun, though he was pretty pissed about being late for his morning meeting.”
    “Is there a story there?” asked Mike.
    “Kildar!  What happens on mission -” began Elena.
    “- stays on mission,” finished Catrina.  “But if you’re very nice to us, we might just show you what we mean,” she continued, tickling his ear with her finger.  Elena, bolder than her sidekick with Mike’s hand on her leg, licked his other earlobe.
    “This is your bachelor party,” purred Elena into the same ear.  “Your last ‘fling’, yes?  We saw enough of them in Lunari to know all about them, how it’s a drunken debauch.”  She looked up at Catrina and winked.  “It was a loooong, boring flight home, and we thought of  plenty to things to keep us…amused.”  She wriggled her butt on his lap, putting pressure on him and getting even more of a rise.  And she knew it, too.
    Catrina took the glass from Mike’s free hand and took a long draught of the beer.  “Ahhh..” she practically moaned.  “Do you know how hard it is for a woman to find a drink in Dubai?  Let alone anything like this?”
    “You have no idea,” she answered, draining the rest of the beer.  “Get me another?” she asked winsomely.  Elena pouted when he stood, but they shielded him for the moment it took to adjust himself, swatting away their too-helpful hands.  Some things, a man has to do himself.
    Somehow, Mike found himself fetching drinks and first steaks off the oxen back to the two women, who attacked the beef as if they hadn’t eaten in days - which, he reflected, they might not have - yet retained a girlishness about them that was totally at odds with how quickly the two ribeyes disappeared.  Elena impishly licked a trickle of juice from Catrina’s lips and chin to tease their Kildar.
    Elena only smiled impishly.  He felt his pants tighten again.  What the hell had Kurosawa laced his tea with?
    “So,” she said, sliding a hand under his shirt, “When does the fun begin?”
    “Any time you want,” he answered.  “But there’s a little matter of the other guests standing around.”
    A bottle of Elijah Craig - eighteen-year-old single-barrel - appeared at Elena‘s shrill whistle, with three water glasses, and they started doing shots, then doubles, then - well, they started to measure it by fingers.  That bottle didn’t last long, with both women matching him drink-for-drink.  The body shots, between their naturally firm breasts, elicited cheers from the Keldara in attendance.
    Neither did the second bottle.  That bottle was different.  Green, triangular glass.  Glen something-or-other.  Gold label, wax-sealed cork, and dusty as hell.  How these two managed to get into Bridgewater’s whiskey vault, he didn’t know, and wasn’t sure he wanted to.
    At one point, Mike was sure he saw the Chief, in full camo, low-crawling across the ground.  What the fuck was that SEAL doing?  It wasn’t a party for him unless he did something spectacularly stupid.  When a certain almost-as-drunk Hind pilot reached down and grabbed his ear, Mike smiled.  And when the same pilot dragged him off, begging for forgiveness, he had to laugh, remembering other, happier, simpler days.
    Sometime the party moved gradually outside.  Mike no longer had his chair-cum-throne by the double doors, where he could observe both inside and out.  Rather, he was seated by the remains of the huge fire, near the roasting oxen, where the flames would neither singe his skin nor set the building alight.
    The night was clear and surprisingly warm for the season, with only the slightest chill to encourage the girls to cuddle closer to him.  They dispensed with the glasses and drank straight from the bottle, something that would have mortified Bridgewater.  Fine.  He wouldn’t tell him.
    He traded whiskey-filled kisses with his two lap vixens until a sudden drum roll burst from the darkness, causing him to stop his playful teasing of the girls, but the whiskey bottle stayed close.
    As the rolling drums thrummed a steady rhythm, the spectators turned towards the darkness on the north side of the party, parting as if they’d been aware of the interruption and had practiced.
     From either side, two teams - Yosif’s and Vil’s - emerged, dressed, not as the modern warriors they had become, nor the peasants they had been, but in far older, more traditionally Georgian dress: red chokhas, flowing, loosely-cut robe-like blouses bearing bandoliers across their chests and elaborate decorations at the sleeves.  Around their waists, all carried a mix of long knives and the favorite weapon of the Keldara, the axe.
    Hoods down over their faces, they formed two lines facing each other.
    “What is this?” asked Mike.
    “It is the Khanjluri dance,” whispered Elena.  “They will compete, in pairs with their knives and their axes, trying to copy exactly the other’s moves.  The first one to fail, withdraws, and is replaced by another from his side who attempts the same steps.  It goes on until one side has used all of it’s dancers.  Ooh, they’re starting!”  She bounced on his lap, and somehow her hand had pushed Mike to that side of his pants.  She nestled it between her ass cheeks under her skirt.
    Catrina pouted.  She’d been playing with the outline of his cock for a few minutes and seemed to have other plans for it, which had suddenly been derailed.  Setting the bottle between his knees, he pulled them closer, sliding his hands up their ribs, eliciting giggles and wiggles and the familiar Goosebumps that told Mike that he was doing it right.  Then he cupped a breast and began to idly tease their nipples as he focused on the dancers.
    Yes, it looked like they were ready to begin.
    The ’zzzzip’ and ’snap’ of his button went unnoticed, as the crowd had turned to watch dancers with growing excitement.  Two hands met under his boxers and found what they sought, stroking him with at the same pace as he did their nipples.
    One way or another, this promised to be a good show.  And the bottle was perfectly sized to hid what the girls were actually grasping, he noticed, wondering if that was planned.
    Edvin Kulcyanov came out for Yosif’s team, while Karoly Makanee matched him from Vil.  By unspoken agreement Edvin went first, with simple actions - tossing the knife from hand to hand, combined with a bit of dancing.  Karoly mimicked it perfectly, then began his routine.  Two blades spun in a blur in his hands, then launched into the air and down to be caught precisely as the pommels came even with his palms.  Edvin nearly managed it, but mistimed his throw on with his left hand.  Rather than catch it blade-first, he wisely let it drop.
    The gudastviri and chonguri - the Georgian equivalents of bagpipes and guitar or mandolin - stopped playing when Edvin’s knife landed.  Only the doli, the drum, continued to hold the beat while Edvin retreated back to his side to some mild ribbing after he‘d bent down to retrieve the blade.  It seemed that his pants were a size too small, and he‘d split them when he‘d swooped down.  A tiny cousin of his came up, violating protocol, and kicked him in the shins for ruining her seamstress work.
    The hands working him tightened and twisted, focusing him on the immediate and forgetting his other train of thought.
    “You’re gonna pay for that, girls.”
    “Hush, Kildar.  There’s still more…dancing, to come.  So don’t you, yet.”
    Vugar was next.  The music resumed, and Karoly repeated his routine, which Vugar nailed.  Then it was his turn.
    Back and forth the two teams went, neither gaining a decisive advantage over the other despite the increasing complexity and danger of the knife- and axe-handling.  Finally, it was down to Yosif and Vil, Mike sure that they’d earned these spots, rather than their teams ‘throwing’ their matches to force the finale.  The dances had been complex as hell with the blades flashing in the firelight.
    As had the dual handiwork of the two vixens in his lap.  Soon it got to be too much, and Elena swooped down to take the tip of Mike into her mouth as Catrina maintained the rhythm.  Mike’s last rational thought was that he was glad they had moved into the semi-darkness, where nobody could see against their fire-blindness.  Then there was no more thinking.
    He’d had to actually bite his tongue to keep from shouting in pleasure, but with the music shrieking and the doli pounding as Vil led off with a spectacular display of axe-handling that left the gathered Keldara breathless nobody but the girls and himself noticed the byplay and aftereffects.  The girls shared the Kildar‘s gift, blocking his view for a second, then chased it with ale from the barrel set near his chair.
    Meanwhile, Yosif calmly matched him, move for move, blades blurring and flying around his head and arms, between his legs and around his waist.  The girls didn’t let Mike relax either, one nibbling his ear and the other stroking him hard again.  He was almost hypnotized by the combination of sensations, music, and flashes from the blades before him.
    Then it was Yosif’s turn in the challenge.  Gathering his concentration, he raised his arms, axes in hand, until they were fully extended from him.  Then, he raised the axes so they balanced in his palms on their hafts - and held them there, motionless.  One minute.  Two.  Three.
    Finally, after four minutes, sweat streaming from his forehead, he grasped the handles and lowered them.  Vil stepped forward and prepared for the simple-appearing challenge.  The girls changed positions again, and now there were different hands on him.
    Fine, he thought.
    He let his hands drift down, under their skirts.  Just as he thought, no underwear.  Just a moist and freshly-shaved nexus, something none of the girls in his harem did.  These two, though, from their lives in Lunari, had quickly learned that it made cleaning easier, and made them appear younger in the eyes of their clients.  So they’d continued the practice after their rescue.
    Up the axes went, onto the palms.  Vertically they stood, living symbols of the Keldara and their centuries-old warrior tradition.
    Mike slid fingers down, searching, probing.  He knew these girls well, and knew just what they liked.  There.  His fingers moved in a quick, complex motion.
    One minute.
    Both girls were trembling, shaking like jello, clenching his shirt and moaning quietly against his neck.  He didn’t relent.
    Two minutes.
    Elena came first, biting his neck to muffle her scream.  Then Catrina on the other side.
    Thr - one wobbled.
    Yosif was mobbed by his team members and carried off, out of the firelight.  
    “That was amazing,” said Mike, awed and exhausted.
    “Amazing almost covers it,” murmured Catrina.  “Oh, you meant the dance?”  She giggled.  “I think it’s time for round two.  Yes, Elena?”
    “Just you wait,” purred Elena, nodding and unzipping his fly fully.  “You haven’t seen amazing yet.”
    “Elena, someone might see -”
    “Not a word, Kildar.  Now we give to you for all you have given to us,” she said, then there was no more chance for talk as she took him into her mouth, leaning precariously from her perch on his leg.  Mike found his hand steered behind and under her skirt by Catrina for support, who slipped off his lap.  She took the bottle with her and adjusted her outfit.
    Catrina then carefully masked any view of Elena from the crowd, performing a sensuous dance of her own before him with the green bottle.  The light glinting off the glass caught the eyes of any who looked their way and distracted them from anything else.  And she made sure that he saw everything of hers, too, while concealing it from the crowd.  It may have shielded him from viewing the dance, not that he really gave a damn at the moment, but it certainly didn’t distract him.
    If anything, the sight of Catrina undulating and writhing before him added to the sensations of Elena’s expert tongue and mouth teasing him.  It wasn’t long before he released into her mouth; expertly, she caught every drop.
    Taking a solid gulp of beer, Elena said, “That was just to take the edge off.”  She giggled.  “Well, the second edge.”  She refilled the mug.  “The first was just blowing off the foam,” and set action to words.  “The girls have something special planned for you, by the way.  We‘re just the warm-up act.”
    “And we missed you, too,” said Catrina, kissing him as though she might not get the chance to do so again.
    “Oh?” asked Mike, intrigued.  It hadn’t been that long, had it?  He thought.  Maybe a month before his engagement.  That would be when Katrina was making her plans, and making clear her plans for Mike, his bed, and sharing either.  No wonder these two were taking this chance!
    “Yes,” agreed Catrina.  “But it will have to wait until later.  There‘s more entertainment planned for you.  So you‘d best watch and clap a bit.  We‘ll let you keep you hands free.  For now.” Elena pouted again as Mike slid his hand from under her ass and the attached fingers out.  “Watch, now.  Your girls have been practicing in secret for weeks, even before you left for your trip.”
    Another team, Padrek’s, had taken the impromptu stage.  Arminis stepped forward, and as the instruments began to play again, Tinata joined him, dressed in a gauzy green and yellow creation that barely concealed her ample breasts.  A veil covered her flowing red hair.  The two began a flirtatious dance with alluring looks and brief touches, growing more and more bold as the music played.  As the dance seemed to reach a climax, Padrek broke in roughly, separating the pair.
    Though it had none of the rawness of Catrina’s dance, Tinata’s dance had something sensual about it which drew everyone’s attention.  Especially since it was one of the Kildar’s women dancing, in so daring a costume before everyone, and not simply for her master’s pleasure.
    Now, Tinata stood to the side, chest heaving and blushing as she noticed all the eyes upon her for the first time.  Reluctantly those eyes turned and watched as the two men, Arminis and Padrek, ‘fought’ over her, the stylized dance moves so emphatic that Mike could almost see the knives flashing out.
    Again, the music built to a climax, then Tinata stepped back in, tossing her veil between the two.  Chastened, they withdrew to either side while Tinata performed a solo dance, ending with her picking up her veil and stalking off, with the haughtiness only a redhead could manage.
    Tinata and Katrina in his bed at the same time.  The thought held a special allure yet also caused a deep fear.  Would it be worth the risk?  Kat had said she’d share his bed with the harem, though she hadn’t exactly said she’d share Mike with them, or at the same time.  With her mind, he was sure that she had parsed that promise in a most exacting way.  And heaven help if he managed to cross her.  Maybe letting her study with Kurosawa wasn’t quite a sane idea after all.
    As soon as she faded into the darkness, Arminis and Padrek resumed their ‘fight’, with members of the team falling in to either side.  Now that they were separated, Mike noticed subtle differences in dress between the two.  This ‘battle’ went on for nearly ten minutes before Tinata returned, again tossing her veil between the combatants.  She began to dance again around the fringes of the group, sometimes singly, sometimes with a member of one faction or the other, working her way to the center where Arminis and Padrek awaited.  They were so into the dance they were trading looks which promised death and mayhem.  The ancient blood was certainly up, and he was glad that no one had showed signs of being a berserker.
    Finally she reached the center and began her final dances.  She chose Padrek first, earning a fulminating glare from Arminis which went totally unnoticed.  The pair were practically a single body, yet as they spun around Mike could see clearly between them; not even their palms touched.  Finally Tinata spun away from Padrek and into Arminis’ arms.  They spun away as the tempo increased, leaving Padrek behind.  Again they moved as one, closer together than she had been with Padrek but still untouched, until the music reached a crescendo and then fell into a sudden silence.  Both partners stepped away, the men anxiously awaiting her decision.
    She swayed between the two for a moment, then fell back solidly against Arminis.  His arms went around her waist and she half-turned her face to meet his for a kiss.  Unnoticed by the pair, Padrek and his supporters stalked off into the night, followed closely by the rest of the team.  Finally, as the music resumed quietly, Arminis and Tinata strolled away into the dark.  Now where would they be going?  He hoped that she was going to deliver him to his wife, who’d administer what Hardesty would call ‘a good rogering’ as soon as they could find a dark corner..
    As for Tinata…  Well, she had her toys.  And he’d have to find time for her later tonight.  Unlike most of the harem, she never showed the slightest interest in any of the other girls, so he’d always made sure to give her a little extra attention.
    “That was the Khevsuruli,” said Elena.  “It is a courtship dance.”
    “Really?” he couldn’t resist saying.  “I never would have guessed.  So, what’s next?”  He used the bottle to conceal his rigidity - again! - from any passers-by.
    “Now we drink more!” shouted Catrina to general applause.  “Drink!  Drink!  The Kildar commands it!  It’s a party!”
    After that, Mike’s memory got a little hazy.  He vaguely remembered Tinata joining them, and at one point he had a very sharp image of Catrina licking Tinata’s neck, but very little else.  So she wasn’t against being tended by another woman.  Interesting.  Though he did note she didn’t reach for the other girls, preferring to devote her attentions to him.
    Adams made a long, rambling, mostly incoherent toast, ending with, “An’ I promise I won’ tell her why you’re really called Ass-Boy,” before collapsing.  Kacey looked down at the Chief, shrugged, and, with the assistance of a Keldara, dragged him into a clearing where some were already dancing.  Later, Mike noticed him propped by the door of the shelter - surely the work of some merciful soul, as Adams was beyond Vegas drunk.
    A third bottle of whiskey appeared but was quickly whisked away into the crowd, so he turned to the ale.  He could taste a definite difference.  No tiger berry, but some different spices.  He thought it would make a good variety for export, if he could persuade Mother Lenka.
    A boombox appeared and popular western songs started playing.  It was quite the mix, from rock and pop to slow tunes to goth.  Mike even caught a few techno songs, which the younger crowd seemed to love.  The guys with the instruments tried to play along whenever something local popped up, but soon gave up.  The mix - excepting the goth - wasn’t anything Mike would have chosen, but it was intended to bring people together, give them something to slow dance to as well as being able to let loose if so inclined.
    Many of the younger women took the opportunity to be as daring as they thought they could get away with, catching the eyes of the single men in the crowd.  The three girls wiggling in his lap, meanwhile, kept rhythm to the music too.  Each took a quick break to ‘find the bushes’, giggling upon their return and teasing him further.  He was sure he’d been taken by each at least once, but couldn’t be sure when, or what order.  His alcohol-soaked attention was being yanked in all directions by the girls, and the music, and other distractions.  Not all of them pleasant.
    He remembered Vanner coming over with a stack of paperwork.
    “Why now?”
    “Needs to be done today,” he replied, shrugging.  So Mike signed, even as someone was nibbling his neck.  Somehow Vanner kept a straight face through the entire pile before smirking, “Have a good night, Kildar.”  As soon as he walked off, Mike felt someone else fully engulf him and squeeze him with well-trained muscles.  That had to be Tinata.  The mystery of the two dozen hollow rubber balls from Romania was finally solved!
    He came hard again.  After he did, Tinata kissed him and dismounted, saying something about checking in at the clinic for something-or-other.  Catrina took her chance and slammed down onto him before he could even begin to shrink, finally releasing fully and crying out into his chest.  Then she managed to turn and guide him to another home while Elena pleasured her.
    How the girls kept a straight face while people wandered by to wish him well he didn’t know, and how the Keldara managed to remain selectively blind was another puzzle, but he didn’t waste much thought on it.  Instead, he concentrated on hiding his, ‘I’m getting laid right now!’ grin, a task that become more and more difficult as the night went on and the girls showed no sign of slowing, and neither did he.  Whatever Kurosawa put into the tea, he ought to market it, he’d make a fuckin’ fortune!
    “It’s good to be king!” he said abruptly, drawing confused looks from some of the closer crowd.
    Even Mother Lenka paid her complements, speaking to the girls in rapid Keldaran.  The only word Mike caught was the borrowed ‘clinic’.  Maybe they needed uppers to try to keep up with him?  His ego was pleased with that thought.
    Eventually, the Keldara returned to their homes, and the smaller group made their weaving way up to the serai, Mike supported by the girls.  They left the Chief, snoring, on the ground by the fire, his face treated with a permanent marker to look like tribal tattoos.  He’d deal with that in the morning.
    “Tol’ ya that messing with Marines was a dumb idea, Ass-boy!”
    “Why do you call him that, Kildar?  He doesn’t seem to do that more than the other.”
    “How would you know, Catrina?”
    She giggled.  “We hear everything.  Don’t we, Elena?”
    “He does do some things you don’t, Kildar.”
    “Don’t wanna know.  I have some morals,” he said with as much righteous indignation he could manage.  “There are some things even I won’t do.  Ask him when he wakes up about the Philippines and the ‘Apple-Banana’ story.”
    At the serai there was a brief debate as to where to reconvene.  Elena and Catrina voted for Stasia’s dungeon, but were overruled by the rest of the harem, who had gradually drifted in, along with some of the Valkyries.  Eventually the party staggered out into the harem garden.  Torches were lit around the perimeter, and some of the hardier fruit trees were beginning to blossom.  Surrounded by the perfume of a dozen beautiful women, Mike was dizzier than he’d been on the long walk back up to the serai.  Though, to be honest, the walk had done him good, and had allowed him to pass back to being just pleasantly buzzed instead of totally fucking drunk.
    To Mike’s surprise, a buffet-style spread had been laid out by Mother Savina and Mother Griffina, while Kacey and Tammy took care of the booze.  Finger foods, hot and cold, suitable for nibbling were arranged on two large tables: Soko (seasoned mushrooms), Satsivi (chicken in a walnut sauce), Boche Bread (coarse potato cakes with bacon fat), and then Mike saw the ‘American’ end: gigantic shrimp cocktails, mozzarella sticks, potato skins, sliders, and - were those buffalo wings?  That was something he’d missed on his recent travels, and he loaded a plate with them.
    Big, meaty, juicy wings, lightly breaded and fried, tossed in a rich, buttery, hot sauce - perfect!  The gardens had just started producing peppers the previous year, after he and the Chief had explained their essential nature as a vital cooking ingredient and a virtual necessity for happiness.
    Mother Griffina had, after much experimenting, been able to produce her own version of a hot sauce that used equal parts vinegar and vodka for a base.  With aging, it got even better.  The militia had created their own version of chili, though the best that could be said for it was it was a test of manhood rather than good eats.  The Chief had sampled it, pronounced it, ’mildly entertaining,’ and polished off his bowl.  And a second.  And a third.  That raised him to just below the level of godhood to the Keldara. 
    The other expatriates were digging into the state-side food with relish too, while the Keldara were more divided.  Catrina, Daria, Elena, and others who had traveled outside the Valley were ranging the entire length of the tables, choosing the local and, to them, more ‘exotic’ foods.  Others, like Jessia and Kseniya, stuck mostly to the foods they were familiar with.
    Then there was Mouse.  Somewhere along the line she had joined the gathering, and was now stoking her ravenous fires with just about anything she could get close to her mouth.  Mike guessed that the trip to Dubai hadn’t included much she considered ‘good’ food.  She was definitely making up for it now.  Kurosawa, who held a soft spot for her, was acting as her personal servant for now.  While Mike watched, he brought another piled high plate of delicacies to add to the pile of six already stacked before her.
    “Hey, Mouse, glad you came out of your hole!” said Mike.
    “Hellofph,” she swallowed.  “Kildar,” she said around a mouthful of potato skins and Soko.  “Thank you for the plane, especially on such short notice.  Otryad appreciates it, too.  Says he‘ll put it to good use, soon.  You have friends who need to be moved from Russia, yes?”  In went more food.  Did she breathe?
    “You’re welcome,” he answered, not entirely sure what she meant.  The flight back?  The Backfire?  Who knew, with Mouse.  Best just to go with it.  “Where’s Evan?”
    “God-boy?  He’s tied up at the moment,” she said with just a hint of a smile.
    “Well, tell him he’s missing a helluva party!”  Mike leaned against a pear tree.
    “I’m sure he knows, Kildar,” she answered vaguely.  Picking up a heavily-laden plate, she said, “I have to get back and watch over him.  See you later.  Hiro, bring me a platter of the cheesy things, some sauce, and egg rolls, please?  Thanks.  All of them, if you can manage it.”  Still chewing, she walked off.
    “Yeah, see you.”  He shook his head.  “Weird little critter.”
    Now that they were more private, the girls became less and less inhibited.  Someone - Mike thought it Klavdiya, but wasn’t sure - brought out a MP3 player and hooked it to the speakers in the garden.  Wait - speakers?  When did that happen?  Soon enough completely non-traditional music was blasting the air - Lady Something, Black Eyed Peas, Britney Spears, Pink, Nickleback - in short, nothing Mike would’ve chosen.  But the girls seemed to enjoy it, and it gave them a slight veneer of an excuse to get up and start dancing, sometimes with their chosen partner, often with each other.  Mike simply sat and stared, and thought.
    A soft body on his lap disturbed his thinking, and probably just as well.  The alcohol was making him more introspective than usual, and this really wasn’t the right time for it.  This, he wanted to enjoy.
    A head nestled into the crook of his neck and a voice whispered to him alone.  “Dance with me, Kildar,” suggested Elena, tugging at his hand.  “You can’t sit there all night.”
    “I haven’t been sitting here all night,” he retorted with perfect logic.  “I was down the hill earlier.”
    “Silly man.  Get up.”
    Mike raised an eyebrow.  “Again?  I thought I’d done enough of that earlier.”
    “No, I mean dance with me.  Please.”  The usual kittenish persona was put away; this was a serious Elena, one who rarely appeared and even less frequently in public.
    “When you ask so nicely, how can I refuse?”  He stood and allowed himself to be pulled away from his chair.  He did the basic white boy dance - tap a foot, sway back and forth, maybe a little hip spin for the more advanced - while she writhed around him, hands busy on his body, breasts and groin pressing against him.  She didn’t seem to care that she revealed to everyone that she wore nothing under that too-short skirt.
    Soon he was aware of another body mirroring her movements; he half-turned and saw, as expected, Catrina.  The pair had perfected their act during their months of slavery, and saw no reason to break up a good partnership now.  They managed to caress and kiss each other in passing, in time to the music, while never letting their bodies leave his for longer than it took to change places.
    The other ‘partnered’ girls dragged their men out as well, and began imitating the moves as best they could.  First the Valkyries then Mike’s harem girls joined the cluster around him.  Random hands and fingers slipped along his neck, his chest, his groin.
    Memory got seriously blurred after that.
    “I’m sleeping until noon!” he remembered saying.  Of course, it was four in the morning, so noon wasn’t unreasonable.
    His next clear memory was of being undressed and brought to bed.  The room was dark, and the woman with him wasn’t talking, just leading him.  Parts of him were clearly pointing the way.  He could tell she was naked, though not her identity.  The hairdo seemed different, something the harem was experimenting with, but he still couldn’t pin down a name.  Right now, he didn’t much care.  Between the drinking and the groping, if Mouse climbed in bed with him right now she’d get the fucking of her life.
    Despite his evil intentions, though, he found himself on his back on the sheets, the woman kissing her way down his chest, rubbing her nipples against him.  He could feel her excitement, which stiffened him, and when she took him into her mouth he groaned in pleasure.
    It was short-lived, as she released him after only a few strokes of her head and tongue.  Before he could voice a complaint, or force her head back down, she was straddling him and taking him into her.  Fuck, she was tight!  Ready for him, he noted as he slid into her without the slightest hesitation.  The magic Romanian balls again?  If so, he was going to order them all to train with them.  His toes curled so hard his joints cracked with pops.
    Through this she was silent even as her body shook and trembled with building pressure and pleasure.  Every time he reached for her breasts that the shadows barely revealed, her small hands would push his away and he found that he couldn’t stop her.
    He wasn’t fucking her here, she was fucking him!
    She rode up and down on him, hair whipping around, pulling his hands up to grasp her firm breasts and hard nipples.  She moaned passionately and deeply with a voice he wasn‘t sure he was familiar with in his bed.  But any further thoughts and guesses as to her identity - and it could have been Tammy, for all he knew - were driven from his head as he focused entirely on his groin and the nova-like fire that was building there.
    He was so sensitive from earlier sex and constant teasing that he could feel every  nuance of the insides of this woman - every fold, every quivering muscle, and the growing slickness of her internal lubrication -  as she levered herself up, using his arms as a counterbalance and began to slam and grind down on him in earnest.  A groan escaped his own throat that slowly became a primal growl as she expertly shifted her hips and applied extra pressure when he threatened to explode before she did.
    After another eternity passed he could feel her thighs tighten and start to spasm.  Her nipples seemed to grow harder and longer than before, and he used his palms to stroke them as he grasped at her breasts and slammed up into her with all he had.
    She whipped her head again and again as she approached a final climax.  He could feel his building as well, and thrust upward into her in counter to her movements, prolonging their contact and delaying the inevitable if possible.  He lost the battle, and they came almost simultaneously, his grunts totally drowned out by her ferocious scream.
    It was primal and only one woman had reacted this way with him.
    “Oh, oh, oh,” she said almost too softly to hear, settling down onto his chest.  “I had no idea…”  Her soft words were reinforced by the muscles still milking him inside her.  But that was enough to splash frigid water on a moment that should have been one of cuddling and shared glow.
    That snapped him back to reality.  Though he was still trapped in the sweaty redhead glued to his chest, he snapped on a bedside lamp.
    “Katrina!  Katrina?  What the fuck?”
    She smiled lazily at him, a hand brushing against his face.  “Will it be like that every time?” she purred.  “I hope so.  So many years I’ve waited for this.  I’m not sure I forgive you for making me wait so long.”
    “Goddammit, Katrina!  You’re not supposed to be here!”  He pushed her hand away and tried to sit up.  He was still trapped inside her and the movement seemed to set off a smaller explosion down deep in his fiancĂ©e.  Who shouldn‘t be here.
    “Ohh.  Oh?  Again?”
    “It happens, Katrina, you’re still riding the crest, but that’s not important!  You’re not supposed to be here!  What are the elders going to do to me when they find out?  Or you?”
    “We’ve discussed this!  By Keldara custom, you’re already my husband, ceremony or not!”  Katrina’s voice was firm.  She shifted her hips to maintain contact.  “And a wife’s place is in her husband’s bed!  I have told you this before.  You are mine now, Michael. You can‘t take that away from me.  Not now, not ever.  Till death do us part, vows or no vows.  We‘ve sealed the deal, as the Chief would say.”  She squeezed him still inside her to make her point and bit his chest as another small shock shook her body.
    “And I told you -”  He felt the building fire again.  “Fuck, stop that a second and listen to me, Katrina.”
    She actually laughed, a merry laugh.  “And when have I listened, ever?”
    “Point,” he admitted grudgingly.  A thought occurred to him.  He reached down, and he hand came back from the point where they were still joined, bloodless though shiny with their commingled sweat and fluids.  No blood.  “I thought you were a virgin?”
    Her temper flared.  “You dare ask me that?”  She squeezed as hard as he could to emphasize the prison Mike was still trapped in.
    “Of course I dare!” he snapped back.  “I didn’t feel anything break when I penetrated you!  Where’s your maidenhead?”  He hoped to put her on the defensive while he tried to get his mind wrapped around the situation and how he could conceal it.  Who in the harem could he sneak in and trade clothes with her?
    She relaxed and gave him a small shrug he felt all the way down in his groin.  Damn, that herbal mix was kicking in again.  Down, dammit!  Mind over matter!  Wait - he‘d never deflated.  Kurosawa!
    “Oh, that!  When you finally gave in,” she said, dimpling, “And it was clear I was to be Kildaran, a ceremony was held to the Goddess.”  As soon as she said it, she knew it was a mistake.  Michael’s curiosity about the Keldara’s traditions and their Gods and Goddesses was well-known.  Perhaps he’d simply let it go.
    “A ceremony?” he said interestedly.  “Do I want to hear this?  Can I hear this?”
    No.  Not going to let it go.  What to tell him?  She couldn’t lie to him, but she had to be careful with her words.  Very careful.  Hmm.  As few details as possible.  No chants, no names - he’d guess Mother Lenka, but she’s the Priestess.  She rolled her hips slowly as she thought.  Best to hurry up, then fuck him silly so he wouldn’t focus on the facts.  As many times as possible, in fact.  Tonight was the critical night.  In a few weeks, she would know.   In a few months, the Valley.
    “This, you can.  Others?  Not even the Kildar can know all the secrets of the Priestess and her acolytes.”
    “So you are going to be Priestess?”  He’d recovered enough to cuddle her into his shoulder, arm wrapped around her, still gently tickling a nipple.
    “As soon as Mother Lenka decides her time is done.  It will be soon, I think.  She is tired.  Tired of life, too.”  She shuddered slightly.  “I do not look forward to it, Michael.”
    “Why not?  It‘s just a change in command, isn‘t it?”
    She shook her head.  “That, I cannot say.  It is a secret of the Goddess.”  But I don’t want to kill Mother Lenka!  She’s the only one who ever treated me as normal before you, Michael!  “But you’re changing the subject.  I thought you wanted to know this, not delve where no man should dare.”
    “Right.  Ceremony.”
    “In - our place,” she said, almost slipping and naming the concealed, holy ground of their worship.  “We gathered.  I was stripped of my white dress and laid upon a - table.”  She almost said ‘sacrificial stone’, but caught herself in time.  “It was so cold!”
    “End of the winter?  Outside?  You probably like to froze your pretty ass off.”  He caressed one cheek.  “Good thing you didn’t, though.  Okay, white dress because you were pure?”
    “Yes, a virgin.  Once I lay down, the Priestess recited a plea to Eostra-”
    “Eostra is your Goddess?”  Mike asked excitedly.  The Keldara’s Goddess was always unnamed; he hoped that -
    “No, but she is the goddess of fertility, and the spring.  The Goddess is also goddess of love, and sex, and war and death, and - let me explain, please?”  She hoped she could confuse the issue somewhat.
    “Sorry.  Go ahead.”
    “The Goddess has companions who act for her upon the world.  Eostra, through the Goddess, grants fertility and brings back the spring.  She does this by using the Goddess’ feathered cloak as her own, taking some of Her power upon herself for that time.”
    “I follow that.”
    “My sacrifice to Eostra is - was - my maidenhead.  The Priestess opened me ritually with a sacred knife, and my blood was caught on a cloak of raven feathers, as was the blood of the Kildarans before me.  Then I was clothed in this cloak, and said my plea to the Goddess.  In the past, the Kildaran would be given a pigeon‘s heart to stain the marriage bed as proof of her purity to the Kildar.  I suppose we can dispense with that,” she joked.
    A fertility goddess.  Her hymen was taken at the height of her period, ensuring the most blood possible for her part in the ceremony.  And to ensure the blessings of Eostra and the Goddess, it was imperative that she consummate her earthly relationship at the peak of her own fertility.
    Mist had helped her determine that she would be ovulating tonight.  A word to Kacey, who was only too happy to help, had secured this date for the party, the one night Mike might not notice who was escorting him to bed.  A quick visit to the clinic earlier in the day had confirmed her fertility, and the plan was fully prepared.   Kurosawa’s tea was icing on the cake and would ensure that Michael would be at his peak all night and into the next day, though he’d pay for it later, she was told.  But the deed was done, done gladly and done well.  And would be done again - and again!  She finally had him where she had wanted him for so long.
    The first time had been for the Goddess, the second would be for herself.  Though she felt sure she had shared her pleasure with the Goddess.  She would repeat it for herself, and then for Mike.
    Mike nodded.  “That makes sense.  A ritual sacrifice, and you, as Kildaran, take the same role as the Goddess does.  Wait a minute,” he said, a thought striking him.  “Does that make me a god?  I know I‘m close to being a king - I think I said something about that earlier, and nobody argued - but a god?”
    “No - though that might not be too far off,” she answered archly, finally slipping off him and taking him into her hands.  “I might be willing to worship at your staff again.”  She gave him an experimental lick and decided she could deal with their mingled juices this way.
    “You know,” said Mike.  “People will talk.”
    “More than they already do?” said Katrina.  “Impossible.  And so what if they do?”  She kissed him.  Another long lick.  He was trembling in her dainty hands as her tongue traced several veins.  “Now.  How shall we worship this time?”
    Mike almost answered before she swallowed him whole, driving speech from his mind.
    He remembered the rest of the night vividly.
    Especially the ‘tongue-twisty thing’.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Kildaran - Chapter 52

(Reaction?  Comments?  Anything from seeing Vlad catch a bad case of lead poisoning???  Or the shooter's ID?

Seriously - I love comments, and try to respond to them all (eventually).  I have this set up so any comments go to my email, so will react to tech questions and 'oops you goofed' messages ASAP.

Now what?  Well, there are a few loose end.  Like a bachelor party.  And a wedding.


    The after-action report was gonna be a bitch.
    That was clear enough after doing the very brief hot wash, immediately after their return to the serai.  With combat sites scattered across fifteen hundred miles, only two of which were actively under their control, the simple logistics made doing it ‘right’ nearly impossible.  Zero chance to comb over them for missed data, or to properly sanitize the battle scenes.  Especially not Moscow.  No way in hell was he going to dare Murphy there, not until the uproar had settled from Putin’s death.
    As far as he was concerned, the mission was done.  Over.  The nukes were safely returned to better hands than before.  The money was in the works.  The men had gotten their steaks and beer and one hellacious ‘welcome home!’ party.  Everyone was happy.  Almost.  Upper still wanted more details, of course, and Katrina was insisting, loudly, to Adams that they would do it properly!
    Just as loudly, Adams was attempting to explain exactly what happened to all after-action reports.  How sooner or later they all ended up in the wrong hands, with a person who had no clue about the details of the situation.  They wouldn’t know the background, or the pressures faced at that moment of decision.  And sure as God made little green apples, they’d end up making every operator look incompetent, a criminal, or both.  Then they’d use the report to push their own agenda, or maybe a bit of petty revenge.
    He wasn’t using nice language, either.  He was shooting from the hip and Katrina was alternately blushing, nodding, and repeating what Adams was saying even more emphatically.  All along, she was cradling her M4, which she hadn’t set down for more than ten minutes since boarding the Backfire for the flight home.
    Mike listened to Guerrin promise that, as soon as he had his finished, he’d give a copy to Nielson for review.  Chechnya?  Not a prayer.  Pavel wasn’t up to the task yet, and Adams flat-out refused.  On this, Katrina agreed.
    “Screw them.  The job is done.  Pay us and leave us alone for a long, long time.  I want to get married, and I want to get laid, and I don’t much care about the order.  And if anyone tries to bother us before the honeymoon is over, I will personally shoot them in the nuts.”  She caressed her rifle.
    That left Moscow, and Cottontail.
    “No way.  What happened in Moscow, stays in Moscow.”  Mike was adamant.  There was no way he could prevent stories from being told - already, Vil’s marksmanship was becoming common knowledge, and Katrina was practically preening from all the attention she was getting - and that was bad enough.
    He did not need the notoriety that would arise if her role in Putin’s death was generally known.  Or guess how many death squads would be dispatched, if they didn’t just drop a missile on them instead.  Less personal but cheaper in the long run than trying to penetrate through the Keldara.  Even if it wouldn’t bring the wrath of the ultra-nationalist Russians down upon them, he didn’t know if the valley could stand Kat’s ego blowing up.  “They came after me?” he could imagine her saying.  “Oh!  I’m famous!”  That chilled him almost more than her need for retribution.
    At least there was one positive out of this.  Putin’s death had solidified the support for President Medvedev, stabilizing it immensely.  The fact that Putin had died as the hero/cowboy he had always pretended to be resonated with the Russian people.  And the stories from the witnesses all supported that version of the facts.  It was their story, and they were sticking to it.
    As for Cottontail - she was still at the Republican Clinical Hospital, waiting for J to recover.  He had begun to recover some movement in his extremities, but still required assistance to breathe.  His doctors were confident that he’d make a full recovery in time.  The anti-toxins had arrived, and were helping him progress, but it was still a lengthy process.
    Tamara was one of the few people Katya allowed in the room, and she’d taken a picture of the agent, sleeping.  She was head down on J’s leg, one hand clutching a pistol, the other a purple teddy wearing an orange-and-black kilt.  It was terribly cute, and frightfully scary, and she couldn’t resist the impulse to snap the photo.  Luckily, Katya was fully zonked from exhaustion, helped by valium in her apple juice.
    Mike wasn’t sure J would return to the Valley, though, which would be unfortunate.  He’d talked with Katya, upon returning from Moscow, and she’d mentioned J’s intent to end Katya’s apprenticeship.  What that meant for J’s future as the resident HumInt specialist remained to be seen.  It made Vanner nervous, though whether at the thought of losing J or having Cottontail as his primary agent Mike wasn’t sure.
    Putin’s death had made all the headlines.
    “Prime Minister Stops Nuclear Terror” - CNN
    “Evil Empire Has Soft Side, Saves Bakery” - Fox News
    “Elvis And Russian Save Moscow!” - Midnight Sun
    Okay, some were more accurate than others.  The best part was that none mentioned Georgia, or the Keldara, or the Kildar, or a mysterious Backfire flying in and out of Moscow.
    Chechnik had taken charge of the situation long enough for the ‘official’ story to be cemented in the public’s eye.  His men spent two days getting very, very drunk and vigorously laid, a minor expense Mike was more than happy to absorb.  Arensky had provided them with another concoction which he swore would blur all memories of the past week and supplied it to Chechnik before the bacchanalia ended.  This way even the most rigorous questioning wouldn’t be able to shake their stories from the party line.
    Mike had put Chechnik in touch with Sheik Otryad as a final favor to the man before he disappeared himself.  Chechnik could use a patron abroad, especially with the sudden demise of Putin, and Otryad could use a man who, all bitching aside, really knew the intelligence business.  Besides, the sheik owed him a favor after borrowing Shota, the Mules, the Four Blind Mice, Lasko, and tapping Mike’s former trainers to reel in McKenzie as well.  And Chechnik could use a pair of pilots with no conscience and knowledge of the unofficial southeast Asia flight routes.  It was a temporary arrangement, of course, but seemed perfect.  God save anyone who got in their way.
    Since the news had broken and they’d recovered the last nuke, the phones had been ringing off the hook, as well as all the secure cyber channels.  His responses had been remarkably similar to all.
    “Fuck you.  No.”
    “Ask OSOL.”
    “Ask JSOC.”
    “Ask the Big Man, and he’ll tell you what I told you.  Fuck off.  You don’t have need-to-know.”
    Now, though, he had to deal with Major Hughes, and his boss, to whom he at least owed the favor of being polite.
    “Jack, if Pierson wants an after-action report, you can give him one.”
    “But, Mike, I wasn’t there!  Every time something interesting happened, you sent me somewhere else.”
    “Not all of it.  What about taking down the Emir?  You were there for that, weren’t you?”
    “So that’s what, one out of five?”  He held up a hand and started ticking off fingers.
    “First bomb, Groznyy.  We were where?”
    “St. Louis,” mumbled Mike.
    “So all the information I have is second- or third-hand.  That makes my boss so happy!  Second?  Kek-Usn - and, by the way?  I didn’t enjoy flying in a fucking Hind on top of three hundred kilos of Semtex, fuck you very much! - Kek-Usn, and the Emir, right?”
    “Right.”  Mike caught Adams rolling his eyes, and Katrina hiding a smirk.  He turned to face Jack more fully and doubly flipped both of them off behind his back.
    “That, I can do my job properly.  But then you send me back to Elista with a shitload of bombs that have lead aprons rigger-taped to them -”
    “You volunteered, Jack,” interrupted Mike.  More snickering.  He wanted to turn to say something really rude but Jack was still in full bitching mode and had caught his breath.
    “Yeah, whatever.  The point is, I spent the next eight hours welding lead plates onto live bombs.”
    “And your point is?”
    Hughes didn’t answer, just continued.  “I finally haul my ass back here and find out that I’d just missed a major battle between Rangers and Chechens!  Mortars, machine guns, snipers, bunkers, you name it, it was there!  And where was I?”
    “Screwing my harem manager?  I‘m sure Pierson would love details of that type of close quarters action.  What‘s that story going to be - diplomacy?  Tying down loose ends?  Or language lessons in pillow talk?”
    “That’s totally not the point!”
    “That’s not what she said.”  Nobody could hide their giggles any longer.  Jack blushed a little, but being a good Marine he pushed on.  Forward momentum for good or ill.
    “I had intended simply to lie down for an hour.  Next thing I know, my hands are tied to the bed and she’s blowing me!  What do you think I was gonna do?” Hughes said desperately.
    “Cum again?  I didn’t hear that last part,” Adams added in laughing.
    “Need better situational awareness there, Jack.  And Chief?  Unless you have something constructive to say, shut it.”
    Returning to the subject, Hughes said, “Fourth.  The action in the woods.”
    “That was personal between Cottontail, J, and Schwenke.  You’re welcome to interview any or all of ‘em.  I wouldn‘t recommend going to see J, though.  Only doctors and nurses Katya‘s personally cleared are getting into that room.”
    “Great, I have permission to interview a man on a respirator, a bitch I wouldn’t dare to piss off, and a lunatic whose body has disappeared.”
    “You have Oleg’s report,” Mike added helpfully.  “And you could give the President Kurt’s nuts.  I’m sure the crows haven’t touched them yet.  And if you make a little coin purse out of his sack, Katya might just be impressed enough to talk to you.”
    “Fifth and finally, Moscow.  But you send me to babysit a hundred-fifty kiloton bomb in a Hind - which is almost as much fun as Semtex, you know? - to a tiny, stinking port on the Black Sea.  There I get the third degree from some CIA degenerates who hadn’t been, let’s see if I remember this right: ‘briefed on the non-itineraried presence of an officered member of the United States Armed Forces in connection with transportation of nuclear deterrent products en route to the US for dismantlification and recycling pursuant to -’ some Executive Order I’ve never heard of.”
    Mike winced.  “Pure bureaucratese is hard to come by these days, especially around here.  I am truly sorry you had to endure that alone.  I should have sent the Chief with you.  He knows how to put a stop to that.”
    “Damn straight.  Only takes one round through the knee to set the rules of polite conversation and make them get to the point.  Just be sure you have a grenade in your other hand, just in case they don’t understand your accent.”  He was grinning like a shark.  Mike knew the others weren’t sure if Adams was telling the truth or just spewing bull.  That was part of Ass-Boy’s magic with the troops.
    “It was three hours before they were convinced I was who I said I was!  It didn’t help that your lunatic pilot and her equally-crazed crew chief were sitting back and laughing the entire time!  But the Company jerks couldn’t touch them because, somehow, they were carrying diplomatic passports.”
    “Just a little precaution,” Mike said.  “That, plus they were probably loaded for bear.  Bet she landed so her spinal cannon covered their little camp.”
    “Yeah, well, they made me pay for it.  So by the time we get back, I’m so stressed and wiped out that I crash again.  Just sleep, this time.  Not that she didn‘t try.  I woke up naked when I heard her calling for Kurosawa and his needles.  Nothing like it to get the tired out of your bones and make the urge to relocate your primary motivator!”
    “I know.  Stasia was complaining that you didn’t have the, ah, stamina she’s used to.”
    “After I wake up and flee the room, I find that you and your merry band of cutthroats have somehow gotten hold of a Backfire bomber and flown to Moscow!   I mean,  what the fuck?  Didn’t you think of waking me?”
    “Stop.  One second.“  Mike held up his hand.  “Honestly, Jack?  You really want to know?”
    “Yes, I did.  But Stasia promised mayhem if I didn’t let you get a full night’s sleep, and over the next day and into the morning, when it was all going down, well, it was just so fucking chaotic, I just plain forgot.”  Mike shrugged.  Katrina fell off her perch and onto Adams, reclining in his comfy chair, from laughing.  Mike gave her a raised eyebrow.  She nodded and covered her mouth, but her whole body was still shaking.
    Adams seemed more engrossed in the pert little butt that was almost right in his face at the moment than the chance to joke at his best friend’s expense again.  “You know, I haven’t… talked to Bambi in a while.  A long while.  I think I ought to do that soon.  Real soon.  Right now, in fact.”  And he stood up, dumped the offending pert butt into the floor and strode out of the room.  “Don’t call me; I’ll call you.  Later.  Much later,” he called over his shoulder.
    “In any case, I wake up and you’re gone.  Kseniya let me into the Cave, so I was able to follow your progress and read your reports as they came in, but it’s not the same as being there.  Those girls edit the data on the fly.  They must have had it buffered by at least ten seconds, maybe more.  I can‘t read Georgian, but my Russian‘s real good, and those screens weren‘t matching at all.”
    “You’re absolutely right, Jack, it’s not the same.  It’s a lot safer.  And you‘re right, they probably were.  It‘s as much about sheltering them as anything.  If one of their husbands is deployed and gets injured, or worse, the data gets dumped into a buffer for Grez until she has a chance to counsel them in private, get relief and a Mother.”
    “The problem with that is there are all sorts of questions that nobody wants to give me a straight answer to.”
    “They’re pros.  Vanner taught them.  Mr. No-Such-Agency himself.  But I’ll help you out, if I can.  To a point.”  Mike noticed that Vanner and Grez had taken advantage of Adams’ departure to slip from the room themselves.  That was fine.  He just hoped they’d air out the Cave before heading to quarters; it stank like a mix of gym socks, stress, burnt coffee and overheated electronics.
    “Like who shot Gereshk, where is the bomb, and who shot Putin?”
    “That’s a bit more than a little.  I can give you the official version.  I think that some Private shot Gereshk, right after Gereshk shot Putin who was being a dumbass cowboy and crashed our op unannounced -”
    “Bullshit, Mike!  I can get that from CNN and Vremya!  Dammit, if I’m going to do my job, I need the truth!“
    Mike pondered this for a moment before replying.  “If I say it doesn’t go in your report, do I have your word that it doesn’t go in?”
    “Absolutely!  On my honor as an officer in the Corps!”
    “I don’t care about your honor.  If you lie to me, if you’re lucky, you end up in an unmarked grave.”
    “Not that I’m gonna lie - but what if I’m unlucky?”
    “I’ll tell Stasia she can’t play with you any more, and give you to the Mice.”
    “The Mice?”
    “Be afraid.  Be very afraid,” was all Mike said.
    “Never mind that.  I want the truth.”
    “Fine.  In no particular order?  Chechnik took charge of the bomb, and contacted our Ambassador to help arrange for secure transport to Novorossijisk.  Vil, one of my Team leaders, shot Gereshk after he took a shot at me.”
    “Hit you too!  Mike’s getting slo-ow!”  Katrina’s voice sing-songed out from under the table.
    “Took it in the armor, mostly.  Anyway.  Katrina did for Putin with a Makarov she’d taken off Gereshk’s body, after he told us he was going to kill us all and pin the entire thing on me and the Keldara.  Then he‘d take the credit for saving Moscow, even though they‘re the ones who‘d lost the bombs in the first place.”
    “The fuck you say!  Chechnik took the bomb?”  He didn’t even blink at the part about Putin and Katrina.
    “That’s it?  That’s all you have to say?”
    “Well, I know that the men you picked to lead your Teams can’t be any kind of slouch, so Vil’s shooting doesn’t surprise me.  And I spent a week with you and Kat; need I say more?  I also know she can shoot; I heard the Chief telling stories about her giving some guy‘s balls a close shave with her gun during a spring festival.”
    “So what are you going to tell Pierson?”
    “I think we can tell him that Vil took down Gereshk and that Chechnik took care of the nuke.”
    “And what about Katrina?”  She peeked over the table edge at the sound of her name.
    “I wasn’t there; nobody actually saw it, right?”
    “Nobody except Katrina.  Not even the Keldara behind her or next to her.  She always does have to have the last word.”
    “Do not!  And you’re going to pay for that!”
    “Anytime, sweetie.  Still, between the glare of the lights and her hip shooting, no one could really say anything with certainty.  It helps that Chechnik had his own hand-picked crew there, who were primed for a long, ah, ‘vacation’ in warmer climes.”
    “So who can I ask that would contradict Chechnik’s official view?  Dead men don‘t talk much, and I never liked that asshole anyway.”  Katrina beamed at Jack for that before settling into Adams‘ vacated chair.
    “Thanks, Jack.  That‘ll make things smoother.”
    “No problem.  I figure I owed you at least that.”
    “At least.  So, what’s next?”
    “Don’t know.  How long until the wedding?”
    “Twelve days, maybe?  The Festival isn’t a fixed date; it’s sometime between the first and third of May.  Besides, with all the traveling, I’m not entirely sure what planet I’m on any more.”   He pointedly stretched.  “I figure in the next couple hours I’ll either rack out or get acquainted with the floor.  The little minx isn’t doing much better, are you?”  Silence.  “Katrina?”  Jack snorted.
    Mike turned, following his eyes.  Katrina had curled up in the chair like a kitten, curled around her M4 protectively and snoring.  Snoring?  Oh, he so needed a camera now.
    “Know what you mean.  All the chopper rides, I feel like I’ve spent a week in a mixing bowl.  So a couple weeks, more or less?”  Jack spoke in a much quieter voice.
    “About that.”
    “Well, I have plenty of leave coming.  Unless the Colonel orders me back, I think I might just drop him an email and let him know I’m taking it.”
    “Why bother?  Just don’t say anything.  You’re on TDY to me anyhow; who’s to say when I plan to send you back?”  Mike smiled conspiratorially and dropped his voice.  “I need you to do something, a few things, actually.  Let‘s take a walk.”
    “Sure.”  Mike walked him out of the ready room.  Making sure nobody was nearby, he motioned for Jack to follow him through the kitchen into what he thought of as his backyard.
    “First, I want you to work with Qays.  If we’re picking up strays, they may as well be useful.”
    “Makes sense.”
    “This is what I want you to do with him…”
    Mike’s instructions for Qays’ training were very explicit and precise, if a bit strange.
    “I can do that,” said Hughes finally.  “And what’s the second thing?”
    “There are some special rounds I need, that I can’t have traced back to me or the Keldara.”
    “What are they?”
    Mike told him.  “The filler will be in a cooler, under the first bridge down from the dam.  Make sure you get to it in time and keep it chilled.
    With a surprised look, Hughes said, “And what are you going to do with those?”
    “I’m not doing anything, you are.  And this is what you’re going to do -”
    Shortly: “Did a sneak?”
    “Won’t you guess my name?” answered Mike.
    “No, I wouldn’t dare.  But you give the orders around here.”
    “Damn right.”
     “What’s all this about?”
    “Let’s just say that I think Vlad may have had something up his sleeve, and this is my insurance.”
    “Going to tell anyone else?”
    “That’s the other thing…”
    There were pluses to being a neo-feudal lord: nice house, freedom to do pretty much as he pleased, Keldara women to look at, a harem at his beck and call, a backhoe to dispose of any stubborn problems… And there were minuses: paperwork, security, paperwork, training, paperwork…  And, occasionally, he had to actually check in with his subordinates.  Otherwise, who knew what they’d charge into.  Or simply charge.
    Parts of the valley were supposed to be self-supporting or even money-makers.  Long-term, according to Meller, the valleys had the potential to become a major industrial and tech center, bringing major income to everyone who invested either labor or money in building it up.  But for now, he had to look after the few that were already completed.
    The dam had been a quick in and out.  Look at the dials, check cleanliness, listen to the hum of the generators and the rush of the spring waters.  They actually managed to export electricity this time of year due to the meltwaters.  It allowed Meller to run the system full out as a sort of stress test.  Mike would have rather read the memo than endure a twenty minute drive and thirty minutes of technobabble, but at least he’d been spared the full-on Powerpoint presentation and video.
    Now, on to something he was passionate about.  Beer!
    “Gurum!  How’s the brewery?”  Mike stood to shake the brewery manager’s hand, then sat again.  Gurum settled into the seat across the desk.
    “We have just finished expanding again.  Now we are a three hundred hectoliter plant!  Although we cannot, in all likelihood, expand beyond that.”
    “Why not?”
    “Tiger berries.  We’re running out of suitable land for the berries, and Genadi doesn’t feel that more acreage can be turned over for planting bushes.  Something about a cash crop versus a sustenance crop?”
    “I know what he means,” explained Mike.  “Two kinds of planting.  One is what you need to survive - wheat, beans, peas, vegetables.  Now, some part of that can be sold, and another part can be held over for the following year’s seeds, but most of it is simply turned into food.”
    “And the other?”
    “That’s the tiger berries, or soy, or any other plant you grow with the intent to sell or use in another fashion.  You have to have enough planted to make it sufficiently profitable, and you can expand it slightly if you’re willing to buy seeds every year for your food crops rather than store your own, but there’s a fine line.  You can’t eat money, after all, and in an area like this, so isolated it’s virtually cut off from the outside, you can’t simply run down to the market if you run out of milk.”
    “I see.  But could we not use land that is not needed for food?  The hillsides, perhaps, or some of the wooded areas?”
    Mike shook his head.  “Genadi has had most of the areas near the brewery already put to that use, but you run into other problems there.  Unless you’re going to terrace the entire hillside, it’s almost criminally foolish to strip the natural vegetation off slopes like we have around here.”
    “Too little ground cover and there’s nothing to hold the dirt in place when it rains; you will get mudslides.  And the same problem with cutting the trees.  Besides providing cover for the game you hunt, they’re natural snowblocks.  We have enough problems with avalanches without stripping the mountain flanks of trees, don’t you think?”
    “But without more tiger berries, we have nearly reached our production limit.”
    Mike shrugged.  “It would be nice to get more income through the brewery, but it’s not exactly essential.”  A thought struck him.  “Do the tiger berry bushes have to be in the Valley itself?”
    “No, Kildar.  They grow elsewhere, but not in the same quantities.  And Mother Lenka says that their flavor is different.  She makes a face whenever the subject is brought up.”
    “Hmm.  I wonder.  Right, here’s what I think you should do.  Go see Dr. Arensky.”
    “The Russian?”  Arensky’s eccentricities were known throughout the Valley.
    “I know he can be a bit odd, but he’s brilliant.  He’s also the only scientist we have locally.”
    Resignedly, Gurum said, “Yes, Kildar.  And what do I ask him?”
    “Bring him to other places the berries grow and have him take samples of the plants and the soil, then compare them to a bush and soil from the valley.”
    “Dirt is dirt, Kildar,” said Gurum, confused.
    “Trust me on this, it isn’t.  Just get Arensky to test them both.  If it comes out the way I hope, you may be able to plant elsewhere.  Also, ask Mother Lenka for a new recipe, for a dark beer.  It doesn‘t have to use the tiger berries, just be a good Keldara beer, strictly for export.”  He finished with a grin.  “There’s a demand for dark beer, and I think we should take advantage of that too.  If it fails, we’ll just buy or build a still and make it into vodka.  Drop a few berries into each bottle, call it Freedom Spirits, and we’ll be able to charge an arm and a leg for it.  Try to remember all that, but I’ll check in a few days.”
    “Thank you, Kildar.”  Gurum rose and left.
    Daria walked in.
    “Okay, Daria, before you tell me who’s next, make a note.  Get Gurum a PDA and some classes in its use.  It‘ll help him do his job better.  So who is next?”
    “He’s lost every PDA we’ve given him, Kildar, we think on purpose.  Or perhaps the boys are still playing jokes on him.  We can issue him another and track it, hope it remains in the area.  Other than that - that was it for today, Kildar.  But -”  She suddenly seemed hesitant.  “May I speak with you?”
    “Of course you can.”  Mike had a sinking feeling he knew what she was going to say.  He hadn’t forgotten her desire to leave; he simply wasn’t looking forward to it.
    “I… you remember our talk?” she began.
    This was it.  He steeled himself and gave her a genuine smile to calm her down.
    “I do, Daria.  You made yourself very clear.  I don’t want you to go, but I did ask you to stay only until after the mission.  The mission’s done, so anytime you’re ready -”
    “Oh, no, Kildar!”
    “I’ve changed my mind.  If that’s all right,” she added hastily.
    “All right?  Of course it’s all right!  It’s fantastic!”  He smiled broadly.  “So what brought this on?”
    “A few things.  I realized that, really, I am very safe here.  Protected.  Even though you have brought some troubles to the Valley, you have also done all you can to push them away.  I don’t know if I can find that out there.  The friendships.  The safety.  The…benefits,” she finished with a blush.
    “You can; it’s just a question of looking.”
    “And until I find it?  What then?  No, Kildar.  I learned long ago not to trade the gifts of today for the promises of tomorrow, for tomorrow might never come.  I have seen far too many young men for whom tomorrow never came, whose parents, wives, siblings would know only sorrow and not the joy of having him around.”
    “True enough,” agreed Mike.  “What else changed your mind?”
    “JP,” she said in a tiny, little girl’s voice.
    “Captain Guerrin?”  Mike couldn’t conceal his surprise.
    “Yes, Captain Guerrin,” she said now in a husky whisper, eyes dilated and nostrils flared as she said his name.
    “How did you find time to get to know him?  And so fast!”
    “I’ve been working with him the whole time he’s been here, Kildar.  Someone had to run interference for him, help him adjust and stay in contact with his commanders in America.  Naturally, he came to me, since I fill that role for you and he figured that I’d know how to help him.”
    “But - he’s still active duty!”
    “Not for long,” she answered.  “When he came here, he had less than two months.  Now it’s little more than one, and he says he can probably get something called ‘termination leave’ since he’s hardly used any of his personal time.”
    “Yeah, the Army’ll do that if you want to get discharged in place.  Doesn’t he have a family or something back home?”
    “No,” Daria answered.  “Nothing like that.  Before you ask, he hopes that you might have a place for him.  He said that you could use another full-time trainer, either for the Tigers or the Rams, and that you’d just have to pay him in beer.”
    “I don’t know if I can afford him, then,” joked the Kildar.  “Well, whatever reasons, you staying is good news.  Guess that means you’ll be moving out at some point?”
    “Perhaps,” answered Daria.  “Though my room is much more comfortable than the barracks he’s used to.”
    “Has he seen them?”
    “You mean, has he slept with me?  No, not yet.  He wanted to wait until I had a chance to talk to you.”
    “No wonder you’ve been so anxious,” he replied.
    That finally drew a blush.
    “Fine, fine.  My blessings or whatever on you both.  I’ll expect you to be professional when he’s around, though.  Mission faces and all that.”
    “Yes, Kildar.”  She twinkled.  “Just like you are with Katrina.”