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Chapter Five

"You look perfect," Anastasia said, picking a bit of lint off of Mike's shoulder.

"I look like a fucking fruit," Mike replied, frowning. "This get-up..."

"You always say that the Rite is for the benefit of the young lady," Anastasia said, playing with a curl of hair. "Not for you. And ladies like it when you dress up."

"I know that," Mike said, fiddling with the God damned lace ruff. "But, God, I hate this!"

The Rite of Cardane made virtue of necessity. The Keldara had long had the custom of dowry. Dowry was a poorly understood function of many early societies. The first year or so of marriage was a tough time for a new couple and women just had less economic worth in agricultural societies than males. Among other things, they spent a great deal of time pregnant and less able to do work than ever. Dowry was a response to this, providing the young couple with a starter fund.

In the Keldara, dowry was set at the approximate income of the male for six months. When it was first explained to Mike, the sum of five hundred rubles or equivalent in materials seemed laughably small. But it was a function of how very poor the Keldara had been before his arrival.

The issue had first come to light in regards to Lydia and Oleg. Lydia's family simply did not have the available cash, at that time, to pay her dowry. Mike, therefore, offered to just grant them the funds, Lydia was a fast-coming intel specialist and Oleg one of his top team leaders; just handing them the cash, more, seemed like a natural action.

However, the Keldara also had a hatred of debt that was deep and abiding. Thus Mike simply handing them the money with in his eyes absolutely no strings attached, was out of the question. A debt of honor would remain. In a way the Keldara were more stuck on honor and propriety than Japanese giri and gimu.

There was, however, one clear alternative: The Rite of Cardane. In Western Europe, the term was "droit de seigneur."

In most feudal societies, the very bodies of the "serfs" was owned by the lord. And many lords required that the first person to "open" a virgin be themselves.

The Keldara may have been tenant farmers, may have had various overlords over the years, but calling them "serfs" must have always been a stretch. But the pressure must have been there. The Ottomans, for example, were big on virgins. So were the Tartars, who had clearly been in the area. Hell, the Russian tsarist lords rarely left a lady "pure" for her marriage bed. However, at some point they had made a "virtue" of both problems; in return for a young lady's "virtue", she would be gifted with her dowry.

When Mike finally understood what they were saying he nearly had a heart attack. While Lydia was a... well a fucking hotty, the guy he was going to be leaving to sloppy seconds was... his top team leader. Oleg was going to be at his back with a weapon a lot. Not to mention being a fucking ox. Pissing him off was very low on Mike's list of things to do. And Mike couldn't imagine "The Rite of Cardane" not pissing him off totally and permanently.

Oleg, however, had been fine with it. His biggest worry was that Mike would turn them down. Mike got along with the Keldara incredibly well, they even had similar senses of humor which was unusual, but sometimes they could blind-side him.

He had, therefore, reluctantly agreed to the "Rite." However, he put several stipulations in place. If he was going to do this he was going to do it right.

First, he insisted that she be given some classes. Riding horses for one. But he also insisted on, as he put it, "other riding classes" conducted by Mother Savina, his housekeeper, and Anastasia. He also insisted that there be a little ceremony. He wasn't going to just yank her up on the horse without any "by your leave" and ride off. Among other things it got way to close to where some of his demons lurked.

On his part he did his best to make the night special and the dowry much more reasonable than the cost of a good pair of jeans. Lydia had walked away with about four thousand dollars, plus five one hundred ruble notes, a pearl necklace and matching earrings.

The result, once Lydia let loose some of the juicier details, was that the unmarried females now considered the "Rite" a Right. They wanted their evening with the Kildar, damnit, and the dowry had nothing to do with it anymore.

Anastasia had added a few details to his original plans. Mike had to agree that they were popular, but he didn't have to like them.

Which was why he was dressed in a pair of polished riding boots, a short, tight, black velvet horseman's jacket that made him feel like a waiter, a silk shirt with a ruffled front and skin-tight velvet pants.

A waiter, hell, he felt like a God damned gigolo!

"I would rather face a thousand deaths..." he muttered, turning to the door of the caravanserai.

"Don't give me that," Anastasia said, grinning. "We're talking Gretchen, Michael Whateveryourrealnameis."

"Yes," Mike said, looking at her for a moment. "There is that," he added, grinning.

"Just remember to take your time," Anastasia said, picking at another bit of lint. "Be a good boy."

"I'll try," Mike said. "Now you need to go."

"Yes," Anastasia said with a sigh. "I have a date as well. But if you need any help..."

Mike rolled his eyes and strode out the door.

Petro was holding Dumbass' reins and bowed as the Kildar came down the steps followed by Anastasia. He also had a lack of expression that bordered boredom. At this point he no longer had to try not to grin. The first three or four were grin making, after that, well...

"Thank you," Mike said, mounting then taking the lead rein of the palfrey. "Now scat. You've got duties as well."

"Yes, Kildar," Anastasia said, finally grinning.

* * *

The pouring rain of the night before had led to a cooler day but clear as a bell. The sun had just set, it was what the military called "early evening nautical twilight" and Mike referred to as "blue time." He wanted to arrive at just full dark and visibility was already a bit bad so he took the road down carefully. But he had to admit it was a beautiful evening for riding.

Dumbass was getting used enough to the routine that he didn't try to canter. This wasn't a run where he was going to get oat cakes and apples. This was work.

Mike ignored the fire burning on the dun. It was smaller than the Samman bonfire but, to someone who knew the processes and practices of the Keldara, an announcement of a ceremony of a different type. A group of young men were clustered there, one of them Kiril.

There was a younger Keldara female waiting by the door of the Mahona House when he arrived. Mike had requested that the minimum possible males be involved in the Rite and now getting the horse-holding duty was a perk among the younger Keldara girls. That way they got to peek without any fear of retribution.

The girl was smiling fit to burst but he just nodded at her sternly. Taking a breath, he pulled down the front of his jacket, strode to the door of the house and pounded on it sharply.

The door was opened by Father Mahona who nodded at the Kildar.

"I request the privilege of entering the home of the Mahona," Mike said.

"This roof is yours, Kildar," Father Mahona replied from within. "These walls are yours. This home is yours to enter."

Everybody at this point had the Rite down pat.

Everyone had been cleared from the main room of the House leaving only the principals: Mother and Father Mahona, Father Jusev the Orthodox Priest and Gretchen.

Anastasia had designed the wear for the Rite. While giving the girls some very graphic instructions, "theoretical" sex education in its true form, she had them measured. A renowned clothier in Paris custom-made the outfit Gretchen was now wearing. It was white but it didn't look, in any way, like a wedding dress. Covered in seed pearls, the front was a deep v that, in Gretchen's case, was almost too much of a good thing. The girl was threatening to spill out. The skirt stopped well above the knees revealing for the first time that Gretchen, yeah, had one hell of a set of legs. My God did she ever. Long, shapely and tapered they were works of art. On her feet were a pair matching white high-heels, also decorated with seed pearls and rhinestones.

The outfit was an invitation to rape and, to the Keldara, beyond scandalous, which was why Mike limited the number of people present to the bare minimum. He knew that the younger girls were probably peeking from every corner they could find, but he'd sworn not only vengeance but revocation of right to be in the Tigers for any young male who took a peek.

Having been a young male, he was pretty sure they were ignoring him. If he'd been as sheltered as the Keldara boys, he'd have given his left nut to see Gretchen in that dress. All the "bother" of the Rite of Cardane went straight out of his head and he knew he was embarrassing himself if anyone looked at the front of the very very tight, unpleasantly tight, pants.

"I am come to take my rights as the Kildar," Mike said, sternly, looking Father Mahona in the eye.

"The right of the Kildar is acknowledged by the Keldara and the Family Mahona," the Elder replied. "The Kildar is reminded of his duty to the future family."

"I acknowledge my duty," Mike said, turning to Father Jusev, the priest. "I have come to take my rights as the Kildar."

"The right of the Kildar is acknowledged by the church," Father Jusev said. "The Kildar is reminded of his duty of teaching," the priest added, swallowing nervously.

Father Jusev was an older priest, one who had started when the Soviets were at their height and a few of the priests from Tsarist times were still around. Back then you had to be committed to become a priest; it was a good way to get sent to Siberia. And there wasn't any such thing as a "liberal" Orthodox, back then the only people willing to profess a faith in a God who was communism's bitterest enemy were the true-believers. Those guys didn't tend to be "new-age."

Thus when the subject of the Rite had been brought up with him the first time, he'd just nodded. Not only was he aware that it was a tradition amongst the Keldara, it was a hell of a lot better than the way the tsarist lords generally treated it. Heck, the commissars hadn't been lily-white by any stretch of the imagination. And then there was the fact that the Kildar, while he didn't attend services much, was by several orders of magnitude his biggest contributor. He wasn't going to tell him that this was "sin" and that it would violate any future marriage compacts in the eyes of the Church. Not a guy who paid the tithes the Kildar did and, by the way, had a hundred and twenty dedicated shooters who knew where to find a backhoe.

"I acknowledge my duty," Mike said, turning to Mother Mahona. "I come to take my rights as Kildar." His tone in this case was much less stern.

"The right of the Kildar is acknowledged by the women of the Keldara," Mother Mahona said then winked. "The Kildar is reminded of his duty of gentleness."

"I acknowledge my duty," Mike said, then turned to Gretchen, dropping to one knee with difficulty in the tight pants and bowing his head. "My lady, I am come to crave a boon of you, one night of gentleness. May I have my time as is my right?"

"You may, Kildar," Gretchen replied. She was clearly happy, her smile revealing deep dimples, but nervous as well. "May you remember your...duties in all things." She stumbled a bit on that line but all in all it was pretty good. Had designed the ceremony so that the young lady, who was going to be worrying about other things, had the least to do.

"I shall," Mike said, standing up and taking her hand. "I shall return with this daughter of the Keldara when the sun rises," he said, looking at the three. "I shall render my duty as tradition fits and no shame is had in this Right."

"No shame, only duty," Father Mahona said.

"No shame, only duty," the priest intoned.

"No shame," Mother Mahona said, winking, "only pleasure."

Mother Makanee had thrown that line in at the first ceremony and, despite Mike's quiet protests, it had remained.

He tried not to sigh.

* * *

"You've seen the place, of course," Mike said as they walked in the front of the caravanserai.

"I've been up here on cleaning duty," Gretchen said, looking around with interest nonetheless. "But I've never been in your quarters."

"Then I guess I'd better show you those."

Mike had had a small kitchen installed off of his bedroom. It was separated from the bedroom—which was more like a small suite with a king-sized bed, sitting area and small desk hardly filling it—by a three stool bar counter. The counter had been set for two in china and silver. There were two candles burning and a long-stemmed rose in a vase.

When they entered, Gretchen just craned her long and shapely neck around for a quick look, as if determining she knew where everything was, then walked over and perched on a stool at the small bar.

"You girls talk too much," Mike said, smiling and taking off his jacket. He donned an apron to keep any splatters off his shirt and trousers then pulled a bottle of champagne out of a bucket of ice. He opened it expertly, none of this silly blasting the cork into the ceiling, then poured a glass for Gretchen and one for himself. "Cheers," he said, clinking glasses with her.

"Eyes of the Father," Gretchen replied, then took a sip. "That is nice."

"So are you," Mike said, smiling. "All of the Keldara women are beautiful, but I've never seen one that looked so incredible in that outfit."

"I think you said that to Stella," Gretchen replied, but still smiled.

"Did not," Mike said, frowning. "Did I? Besides, I hadn't seen you, yet."

"So who is the prettiest Keldara girl?" Gretchen asked, tilting her head to the side.

"That's a dangerous subject on a night like tonight," Mike said, walking around the bar to the cooking area. He'd had that built onto the back side of the bar so he could talk with the lady while he was cooking.

All the ingredients were laid out; thank God at least he didn't have to prepare them. But he had to stop and think for a moment, looking them over.

Part of his regime in regards to the Rite was that it was a date. The Keldara girls did not date. Their husbands were chosen for them and they went to them from their father's arm, very much in the original tradition. Outside the variable of the Rite, they were supposed to be virgins. Oh, some weren't, Spring Festival was a time when some things went on that were generally overlooked. But they certainly did not date.

Mike, when faced by the necessity of the Rite, decided that it was going to be a date. The best date he could possibly manage. Of course, there was no real question how the evening was going to turn out, sexually. The girl in question was going to get laid, will she, nil she. So far it had always been "will she" but Mike was dreading the day that it was "nil she."

Mike had been on a lot of dates in his time. And he'd been a "bad" date occasionally, but rarely in the last ten years or so. It was a social dance and had certain rules that had to be followed. There should be food of some sort, light if the evening was almost certain to include sex. There should be conversation, also light for the most part. Various "romantic" aspects had to be observed. And if the male wanted it to be a "good" date for the female, he had better get her to talk about herself for the most part and make sure she wasn't playing serving girl the whole evening. If he wanted it to be good for the lady, he had to pay attention to her needs. And, generally, one of those needs was a day off from her "traditional" roles.

Women, even in modern societies, were traditionally viewed as the housekeepers. Especially so amongst the Keldara. Keldara males could barbeque but few could really cook. So, for the evening, Mike took over the cooking duties.

"You like Katrina the most," Gretchen said.

Mike wasn't going to look up to see what expression was on her face. He was busy trying to remember how to cook Shrimp St. Jacques.

One part of the Rite he was starting to have trouble with was the meal. He'd decided, early on, that every girl should have, at the least, her own "special" meal. But this was about his fifteenth "Rite" and he was starting to run out of easy dishes. His skills were mostly focused on the stovetop, stir fry and the various French equivalents. At this rate he was going to have to learn how to cook Lobster Thermidor or Chateau Briand.

"Actually, Gretchen," Mike said, still not looking up as he started the pasta, "while I like Katrina, my physical tastes are somewhat elsewhere. If I was asked to describe my dream girl she'd be, oh, tall with long shapely legs, a firm stomach, good, high, firm breasts, a pretty face, blue eyes..." then he looked up into hers and smiled, "and blonde hair."

"Liar," Gretchen said, shifting a bit in her seat and trying not to smile.

"Au contraire," Mike said then considered for a moment. "On the contrary. That describes my dream girl. Well, she could be somewhat shorter and more rounded, that has its attractions. But the breasts, eyes and hair remain."

"So I guess you like what you see?" Gretchen said, shifting again to lean sideways. She'd meant for it to be coquettish but one of her breasts damned near slipped out of the not particularly restraining dress and she straightened, pulling at the edges of the dress modestly.

"I like it very much," Mike said, trying to give the impression he hadn't seen as much of that lovely lovely breast as, in fact, he had.

"But that also describes Daria and Anastasia," Gretchen pointed out.

"Neither of whom, my dear, were virgins when I met them," Mike said, bluntly.

"What is it with men and virgins?" Gretchen asked, sharply.

"Do you really want to know or are you just finding something to be unhappy about?" Mike asked. He was busy getting the alfredo sauce ready but he looked up again, curiously. Gretchen was acting quite the handful and he wasn't positive why.

"I'm sorry, Kildar," Gretchen said, looking down. "I apologize."

"Don't," Mike said, stirring in the parmesan cheese. "I've never been particularly happy about this Rite myself. As I've made plain many times."

"You don't like breaking in virgins?" Gretchen asked. "What, you don't want to bed me? Didn't you just say that I'm your ideal girl?"

"Yes, and I meant it," Mike said. "But it's supposed to be something the lady enjoys, not rape. And right now I'm getting the impression you're less than happy. I think at me but I'm not sure."

Gretchen looked away again and then sighed. Mike was trying very hard not to look at her body but the sigh was impossible to resist.

"Kiril is downstairs, isn't he?"

"Oh, so that's it..."

* * *

Kiril closed his eyes as Anastasia ran her hands down his body.

She had turned up out of the darkness at the fire on the dun, as she had since the first Rite, and taken him up to the caravanserai.

Mike thought that both parties should be "aware" when they came to the marriage bed. As it was his job to please Gretchen and teach her what pleased men, it was Anastasia's to do the same for her mate. Both were careful, however, to stay away from their actual interests which leaned, no hurled, in the direction of whips, chains and as much pain as possible. Mike to inflict, Anastasia to absorb.

"This is not the first time you've been with a woman," Anastasia said, sitting down on the bed next to him.

"No," Kiril admitted.

"So many lost their virginity on the Balkans trip," Anastasia said, smiling. "Before that all of you were virgins. Since..."

"So, you really don't have to do this," Kiril pointed out. "I mean, I'd love to, but..."

"Do you think I don't enjoy it?" Anastasia said, grinning. "For years in the harem all there was was Otryad and you don't want me to describe what a thrill it was lying with an old fat man who cared only for his pleasure. But part of my purpose is to teach you how you can please your wife, not just to take your mind off of other things."

"I really don't need my mind taken off of that, actually," Kiril said. "I'm probably more okay with the Kildar being with Gretchen than...anybody. Including, I know, the Kildar. I'm just saying, if you don't want to..."

"So thoughtful you are," Anastasia said, running her hand down his body again. "But I do want to. It has a special thrill, yes?"

"I...yes," Kiril replied as there was a knock on the door.

"Who in the..." Anastasia said, her face reflecting fury as she stood up and walked to the door of the suite. Yanking it open she was confronted by the Kildar, holding an obviously embarrassed Gretchen's hand. Gretchen was pulling at her dress front, trying to cover more skin and looking anywhere but at the two people in the room.

"Kildar?" Anastasia, in English, raising one eyebrow. "I take it the Rite is going somewhat Wrong?"

"You are one of the few people I know that can change languages just to get in a pun," Mike said, stepping passed her and closing the door, which was sound proofed. "Kiril! Come here!"

"Yes, sir!" the young man said, snapping to attention and practically marching over. He, too, was trying very hard to not look at his fiancée.

"Gretchen knows where my quarters are," Mike said, putting Gretchen's hand in his. "Get to it girl," Mike added, slapping the girl on the butt.

"Kildar," Gretchen said, pleading in her eyes.

"I like rape just fine, but I don't do it," Mike said, his face hard. "You two. Upstairs. That's an order. I don't care if you do anything or not, but if Kiril misses this opportunity, he's over the line between hardcore and stupid. Nobody will know but the four of us." Mike looked at the two of them, both wide-eyed and frozen, and sighed. "You'll have to cook your own dinner."

"I don't know how to cook that!" Gretchen practically wailed. "I'd never seen a shrimp before in my life!"

"There are other ingredients," Mike said, softening. "Go."

When the two stunned youngsters were gone, Mike looked at Anastasia.

"So, doing anything this evening?" he asked.

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