They shake hands, cameras pop and click. The president smiling, and the king who is not smiling. Pictures for postcards and newspapers back home. “If you could only come to my country” says the king “see the land, the people. How far we’ve come.” “Maybe someday Vlad” says the president “but you need to come around to our side. Be a part of the team…before it’s too late.”

Knocks him off stride. The king’s name is ‘Valdamir’ not ‘Vladamir’ and he understands English better than he speaks it. But not well enough to know whether mispronouncing his name was intentional, or maybe just a mistake. Either way, it says a lot about the man he’s dealing with.

Behind the scenes, away from cameras and public attention, the minister of defense meets with the vice president. “We understand your security needs” says Myerinck “and we’re willing to do everything we can to help.”  General Petros smiles, says nothing. American meddling is the cause of the insecurity in his part of the world; the wars and threats of terrorism looming over his country.

“We can offer you…aircraft” says the veep “fighters, state of the art. And pilots too, to train your people; all the protection you’ll ever need.” Still the general says nothing. The veep continues “with that, you could be…a regional power. Someone to be reckoned with.” “We can’t afford such things” says Petros “but our soldiers…are brave and strong, fierce.” Surely he knows that, thinks the general.

The vice president isn’t interested, doesn’t care. Reaches down beneath the dark polished table and lifts up a briefcase. Opens it up to show him the neatly stacked bundles of American dollars filling it completely. “This is a loan, which will…assist you to purchase all the armaments you need. With even some left over, I imagine. It’s our way of saying ‘thanks’ for all your help.”

The general looks at the money, more than he’s ever seen before, more than he can even imagine. Then he looks at Myerinck. “We’re not for sale” he tells him. The veep closes the lid of the briefcase and smiles. “Look, we all know your king has been playing coy and cute with…our state department; and his refusals of our generosity. So I guess it’s up to me to say it. This is our final offer, understand.

“And let me make this clear. The pipeline…is going to go through your country. That’s inevitable, it’s going to happen, there’s no other way. The oil has to flow…and yours is the most secure and…convenient route we have. So it’s going to happen, with or without you…or your king.”

“I understand” says Petros “but let me be clear also. We have a saying in my country…” He pauses, scrutinizing the man in front of him, making sure there’re no mistakes. Then speaks a couple of lines in a strange sounding language, a Euro-Slavic mixture that’s quite pleasing to the ear. “And what does it mean” asks the veep. “Don’t smile at my face while you’re lying out your ass” says the general.

The vice president laughs, but Petros continues like he’s on a roll now “we don’t do ‘coy’ and we don’t play games. We told your foreign secretary that we don’t want your money, and we don’t want your pipeline. And you’d be well advised to quit meddling in that region of the world. You can see where it’s gotten you, can’t you?”

“I only see allies…and enemies” says Myerinck “and it’s too bad. I had hoped…we could be friends.” “What if we took your money” says Petros “and your aircraft; and used them …to attack you.”

The vice president glares at the man “it’s a mistake…to say things like that; even in jest.” “We all make mistakes” says the general “but it’s better to live with good intentions, than to die with bad ones.” “Yeah well, we’ll find out if you’re right about that, won’t we.”

On the flight home, the king goes over it with his defense minister. They hadn’t spoken in the rental car, not in front of the boy who drove them. He’s only eighteen, one of the king’s palace guards, Freidrich Arnstid, a young soldier. This was a perk for him, this trip, an amazing adventure to come all the way to America.

Ostensibly he was there to carry the luggage, book the flights, make the arrangements. A lot of responsibility for a young man. But soldiers need to grow up quick in a little country like theirs; surrounded by hostilities and long-standing enemies. You need to learn, and grow up quick if you ever want to become an old soldier like General Petros.

Now they’re in the plane, and Freddie is off wandering around the aisles, looking for pretty girls, or anyone who might look suspicious or out of place. He’d booked the flight when they arrived at the airport, using different names, different passports. That’s what you do when you can’t afford a private jet. But even so, someone might recognize the king, so you have to be aware of that, see who’s flying with you.

Petros and the king can relax now, and speak freely. Unlikely anyone will overhear them or even understand the strange dialect of a little Eurasian country that nobody’s ever heard of. “I felt like killing him, right there” says the king “with my bare hands.” “Why didn’t you” asks Petros. The king looks down at his hands, resting on the fine suit he’s wearing. The two of them dressed like businessmen, flying on a commercial airliner, second class. “They’d think…we were barbarians” he says “living in caves, herding goats for a living.”

“They think that already” says Petros “couldn’t find us on a map, even if you told ‘em where to look.” But they knew all that going into the meeting. This great historic event, the first and only meeting their little county’d ever had with the great and powerful Mr. Tomkin. Even so, the results were even more frustrating than they’d imagined.

The king tells how the president mispronounced his name; Petros laughs. “I like that, ‘Vlad’ makes you sound like Count Dracula or something.” The king laughs too, but then Petros tells him of his meeting with the vice president. And there’s no more laughter. “Good God, Bruno…you didn’t really say that, did you?” “I spoke…the words that came to me” says Petros “just, the truth is all.”

“You told them…what we think, in private. What we don’t want them to know we’re thinking.” Petros says nothing. Neither apologizing for what he’d said, nor surprised at the king’s reaction. He knows the king would have done the same thing, if he’d been in that position.

The stewardess brings them food, and wine to drink. It helps to ease the tension, focus on something else. Just the food, and drinking the wine. “Bruno, has it occurred to you…that diplomacy is maybe not your strong suit?” “Diplomacy” says Petros “is what little dogs do when they’re afraid of the big dog.” “Yes my friend, and these sayings roll off your tongue like a commander giving orders to his troops. Right or wrong, they’re going to follow you, aren’t they?” “Am I wrong” asks the general.

“No” says the king “no, it’s just that, we need to…find ways to stop wars, not start them.” “We didn’t start this” says Petros “just think of it…what we’ve done, over the years; since the Russians left. All that work…all that we’ve accomplished, so far.”  The king nods his head, the two of them recalling the years of ‘the struggle.’

It was an amazing thing, impossible almost. No one ever thought the Russians would leave, that they’d be free someday. It’s all they had ever known, what they’d grown up with. Foreign armies occupying their land, running their government, the lives of the people. Just do what you’re told, is all. Don’t ask questions or you might not be around for long. That constant fear, that constant threat.

But you get used to it. It’s all you know. Then one day, after all those years…there’s talk of change. That it all could change, and you’d be free. Own your own land, say what you think, do what you please. No one pays any attention; heard it all before, many times, and nothing ever comes of it. But this time it’s different. Really seems to be happening. No one can believe it. Don’t even know what to do.

Such overwhelming joy throughout the land, the whole country; to be free. Just that, to be free. And the celebrations, parades, speeches. Drink ‘til you’re dizzy, dance ‘til you can’t stand up. For days and days it goes on, the dizzying celebration of freedom. Like there’s no tomorrow, or yesterday. Just this moment, this moment that will go on forever.


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