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The PR Consultant

Chapter Text

“Hetman?” The sentry was looming in the door, hat balled up in one hand, brows knitted sheepishly. “Sorry to trouble you this early, but—”

“Yes?”

“Patrol just picked up a weird American trying to get out of town on the quiet. We thought maybe you should see this one. The commander's already got her out in the other room.”

“What makes you say it’s an American?”

“Flag pin.”

“Weird how?” Bohdan hitched his rifle sling onto his shoulder and reached for the chipped mug on the floor.

“You’d better come see.”

He drained the last of his coffee as he followed the sentry out into the main room. Anastasiya was standing at a rickety table strewn with maps and thermoses, clutching the handle of a grimy army surplus backpack with an Eye of Providence crudely stamped onto the flap in fading crimson paint. Beside it on the table was an old but well-maintained camera with a brightly embroidered strap. She nodded towards corner beside the south window, where a woman in rumpled civilian clothes under an old fatigue jacket was leaning against the wall with her eyes closed, her hands zip-tied behind her.

“Go on back outside, Oleksiy.”

The sentry saluted and slipped out the front door. When it had closed, Bohdan leaned the rifle against the edge of the table and stepped forward to inspect the prisoner. Her tangled mouse-brown hair was pulled back carelessly with an asparagus rubberband, her jeans were grass-stained at the knees, and on the collar of her old jungle camo jacket was a tiny enameled pin depicting crossed American and Ukrainian flags. Someone had already taken away her bootlaces.

“Well?”

The American’s eyes snapped open. “You sons of bitches don’t even wear red boots. What's the point, if you don’t get to wear red boots?”

Bohdan lowered his empty mug and stared. Anastasiya had unzipped the backpack and was lining up canisters of instant slide film and carefully rolled-up clothes on the table.

“I’m not calling you Hetman, either, not until you display the integrity to commit to the red boots and the hairdo. I get your reluctance: the hairdo is heinous. But that’s no excuse.”

“What?” he said carefully.

“No. Red. Boots. C’mon man. This neo-Cossack movement is a disgrace. For a self-styled romantic nationalist, you’re insufficiently committed to your aesthetic. I’m embarrassed for you. I mean good god. You’re wearing a t-shirt.”

Bohdan glanced down at his white t-shirt and then round the room at the table and benches, a dilapidated wood stove, a pile of packs heaped up in a corner. The walls were bare except for a shelf that must once have held an icon. “Sorry to disappoint,” he said mildly.

"There's a guy in that Ilya Repin painting wearing a long plain white coat. You could start there."

"That's right, there is—"

“I am confident, however, that some of you must do the hopak at least occasionally.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Well, you know what they say, nationalism starts with folk dancing—”

“Sorry?” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Anastasiya open what should have been the water bottle pocket and take out a mangled 45mm artillery shell.

“— and ends with barbed wire.”

“What.”

“Never mind. Listen, I’ve read Taras Bulba, and this is no way for good Cossacks to behave. I don’t see any evidence of carousing. You have no horses. There don’t seem to be any shashkas besides the ones on your insignia. I strongly suspect you of disliking fun.”

“It’s 1996.”

“I’m aware. What sort of an excuse is that?”

“Tell me, do you wear a three-cornered hat?”

“Sure, but only for patriotic holidays. Then again I also don’t purport to be the leader of a nationalist revivalist movement, do I?”

“Do you? It seems to me you guys could do with some national renewal yourselves.”

The American snorted. “Are you kidding me? We chucked out the British because we didn’t like the tax brackets and only became Americans much later. I mean until the late 1800s you couldn’t put a Virginian and a New Yorker in the same room together without hostilities breaking out. In fact about the only thing capable of uniting the American polity is our universal hatred for the tax man. Anyway I’m not going to put up with this kind of whataboutist sidetracking. Do you know how to brew mead? Mead is nasty, don't get me wrong, but it's also an integral part of the schtick.”

Bohdan rubbed an eye with the heel of his hand. “I think we’ve got someone who can play the bandura.”

“That’s good. That’s a start. We can work with that. I realize this is probably a long shot but do you by any chance know how to use a shashka?”

“It’s 1996!”

“Do you even— oh my god, you don’t actually own a sword, do you?”

“No.” Bohdan was looking back over his shoulder at the table, now strewn in carefully-labelled quart freezer bags of spent brass. “What’s your name?”

“Elizabeth Rouka.”

Anastasiya shook her head. “No papers in the pack.” She held up a topographic map with multicolored symbols inked on it. “Just this map. Hang on.”

The American flattened herself against the wall as her jacket and front pockets were searched, and let out a startled gasp when Anastasiya grabbed her hard by the shoulder and slammed her into the bricks as she spun her round to check her back. Something clattered into Bohdan’s mug as Anastasiya stepped back to stand beside him. He looked down. In a sticky film of coffee at the bottom were a three live Kalashnikov rounds.

“So, American with no papers and many opinions,” said Anastasiya as she opened a film canister and started to unspool the roll of slides, “what are you doing behind our lines?”

“Wasn't behind your lines when I got here. My name’s Elizabeth Rouka, like I said.” When she turned back towards them, there was a red scrape on her cheek. “I’m from Washington DC, and, for my sins, I study arms supply chains. Your arms supply chains, if you must know. Aside from all the graft, the government’s are reasonably transparent. May I sit down?”

“No. For whom?”

Anastasiya passed Bohdan the slides. He held the roll up to the light, and saw a jumble of small arms, exploded ordnance, and bombed-out vehicles, punctuated by the occasional road sign or municipal building.

“Anyone who subscribes to the Armament Research Center’s quarterly report.”

“Where is it published?”

“The English edition is published in DC and there’s a French version out of Beirut. Are you going to write any of this down?”

“No. Did you have a guide?”

“The little bastard ditched me yesterday afternoon when you lot rolled in.”

“Was he Russian?”

“I didn’t take a DNA sample.”

“Where did you learn Ukrainian?”

“University.”

“Hm. Where’s your passport?”

“In a safe in Kiev. You didn’t find the photocopy in the pack?”

“No. I didn’t.”

There was a long silence.

The American closed her eyes again and rested her head against the wall. After a moment she smiled slightly. “Try proving I’m not a camel?”

“Try proving you’re not a camel.”