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Change of plans
Adherence to a strict itinerary was held in the utmost importance to Nikolai. Never to waste a moment, as the caravan returned to the airport, he spent the ride reviewing the next day's slate of appearances with an adviser rather than reflecting on the weight of the day, the frenzy of travel, or the restlessness of never-ending duty. Reflection would come in the morning. Before breakfast, before dressing, before so much as leaving the room he slept in. Every day, five precious minutes he devoted to meditation. Practices cultivated during his time in Siberia, long before destiny clawed him forward, yet after tragedy of betrayal shoved normal life from his reach.

For now, he dismissed the dream of solitude and reviewed the slate. Updates and briefings would coincide with breakfast, scheduled to take place about an hour before touching down in Riyadh. After yet another official arrival ceremony, he would visit the city's Holy Mosque and have a bilateral meeting with local officials. In the afternoon, another plane ride would take him to Hafar Al-Batin, where much of what occurred in Riyadh would be repeated. Finally, they would fly southwest for another droning series of ceremonies in Buraydah. Then end the day in Medina.

He needed to be in these cities. He needed to look these men in the eye until he was confident their hearts and loyalty continued to be his, but something tugged at the back of his mind. Another need. Obedient to the whispers in his mind, he swiped the DV map to the left, and followed the finger of the Persian Gulf to its end.

Kuwait City. The report landed on his desk, of course. As had the names of the soldiers who died in the action of upholding basic civilities. Their pictures still hovered on the edge of his memory. One young man had that same ornery glint in his eye as Garret once had, the friend who had unfairly forced his hand. Nik rested the tablet to his lap, and looked out the window a moment. Even in the cold of desert night a line of people had come to stand along the street to catch a glimpse of the motorcade's passage.

He swallowed the old taste of grief, and turned back to work, uploading a change of orders and thinking of the worthlessness of it all: untimely death. Men cutting down one another for fanatical, senseless reasons boiling from bigotry and intolerance. Al-Hasan's cause was absurdity personified, and although Nikolai's patience for this childishness was running dangerously thin, he was going to allow Mecca a chance to save itself. Or like their so-called God's wrath over the depravity of Sodom and Gomorrah, the city would meet obliteration.

At the airport, his staff sought confirmation of the sudden rearrangement in travel plans: an unannounced stop in Kuwait City. 'Why?' His chief of staff asked.

"I'm going to visit Amira,"
Nikolai said before ascending the plane's airstairs. "And her cousins,"
he added as derision deepened his voice. He generally disliked being forced into these kinds of situations, but now that he was in the game, he played to win.

An array of salutes and nods, and the team scattered in response, already moving heaven and earth to see it happen.

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