Ring of Deception

Dripping water hollows out a stone, a ring is worn away by use.

- Ovid

Emma Blackwell glanced up at the man entering the U.N.C.L.E. reception area through the fringe of her strawberry blonde bangs. She offered her subtlest yet most seductive smile to the slender blond man who approached the desk to receive his badge. Her eyes swept over him, her gaze lingering on his left hand, where the simplest of gold bands caught the fluorescent light of the room. At length, her green-eyed gaze settled on his famously seductive blue eyes while she plucked his triangular U.N.C.L.E. identification badge from the rack before her.

"Good morning, Mr. Kuryakin," she said, a warm smile gracing her coral rose lips. "Mr. Waverly will see you in twenty minutes."

The Russian agent nodded absently and left the reception area at a brisk pace.

Emma sighed, pondering once again the enigma that was Illya Kuryakin. She realized how fortunate she was to be one of the few who had been entrusted with one of the secrets of the Russian agent's past. He had told her how the ring had been given to him by his grandfather before he left for service in the Russian Navy. His grandfather had worn it for years, and now it was the last reminder Illya had of his relatives, lost in the war. It's so sad, she thought to herself. But what a fine time she had had comforting him about his losses. With a self-satisfied grin, she turned back to her surveillance responsibilities.

"Is Mr. Solo in his office?"

Lena Sorenstrom turned from the filing cabinet where she had been working to respond to the agent who had entered her cubicle. Sweeping her long, pale gold hair from her brow, she favored Kuryakin with a dazzling smile.

"No, Mr. Kuryakin, I'm afraid not," she replied in a Swedish-accented lilt. "He went down to the gym to work out for a while. But I believe he is to be in Mr. Waverly's office shortly."

"Thank you," he replied. "I'll look for him there, but we miss each other, you may tell him I will meet him in Mr. Waverly's office."

He graced her with the slightest hint of a smile, which she returned, magnifying it tenfold. Lena's sapphire gaze followed him as he left the little room, and she recalled a warm evening they had once spent together, one she hoped to someday repeat. If they did, perhaps she could convince him to share more of the personal secrets that he confided to so few at U.N.C.L.E. headquarters. One winter evening, as a cozy fire kept them company, he had told her of his youth, spent in a series of expensive private schools in Europe, an education funded by his family, former aristocrats of the old Russian Empire. After losing their fortune in the Revolution there had not been enough money to maintain their former standard of living, but they had managed somehow to fund their youngest son's education. He had explained to her how they had sold their family treasures to fund his studies at the Sorbonne, and had revealed to her that the gold band he wore was the last remnant of the Kuryakin family treasure.

Such a tragedy, she thought to herself. And how brave he is to carry on as he does. But anyone who looks at him can tell that he must have been an aristocrat. It's so obvious.

Illya found the U.N.C.L.E. gym crowded with trainees who were involved in practicing jujitsu. Various couples scattered around the room moved with precision in response to the commands of a petite Asian woman in the center of the room. She called out to Illya Kuryakin as he glanced around the room in search of his partner.

"Hey, Illya," she said good-naturedly, "Can you take a moment and demonstrate a move with me? These kids just aren't getting it."

"Certainly, Miss Murasaki," the Russian agent replied, slipping out of his black suit coat and leaving his shoes at the edge of the exercise mat.

He bowed formally to the woman and they engaged in the sequence of grasps and throws several times for the sake of her students. Kuryakin brushed himself off and bowed to her again. "I am looking for Mr. Solo, and we are wanted in Mr. Waverly's office shortly. Thank you for the practice, however."

"You'll find Mr. Solo in the locker room," Keiko Murasaki said, returning his bow. "Thank you for the assistance." She turned to the group of observers. "Okay, group. That's how it's done. Now go to it."

As her class went back to its practice, she straightened her gi and watched the blond man heading to the locker room. She found his enigmatic nature much more appealing than the pushy flirtatiousness of many of his colleagues. She recalled with warmth the time they had shared an intimate dinner at a Japanese restaurant hidden away on the lower East side. It was then that he had confided something of his unusual upbringing. It was hard to imagine what it must have been like for him, being separated from his parents during the war and then raised by gypsies. She would never forget the glow of his smoldering blue eyes as he had told of being taught the ways of the gypsy people, the adventures and hardships of their lifestyle. He had explained to her that the ring he wore had been given to him by the leader of their group as a memento when he had been reclaimed by Russian relatives who had searched for him for years after the war.

Such an extraordinary man, she thought. She hoped they could get together again soon, and she could hear more of his exceptional history.

An hour later, U.N.C.L.E.'s two top enforcement agents left the office of their superior deep in conversation.

"I can't imagine that Thrush could really believe that there would be an advantage to kidnapping Brigitte Bardot from the Cannes Film Festival," Illya muttered with some disgust.

"Well, if our Intelligence Section is correct, Brigitte is planning to act as a spokesman for animal rights. And with that Thrush plot to infiltrate the corridors of power in the world by chemically treating the fur coats worn by the wives and mistresses of the rich and powerful -- the one that Mark and April are investigating -- well, you can see why they want her silenced."

The Russian agent shook his head in disbelief. "It seems rather far fetched to me."

"You simply lack imagination, my friend," Solo teased as he punched the "Down" button for the elevator. "A trip to the Riviera in the middle of February sounds awfully good to me, though. Listen, I'll go and pick up our cover materials. Will you get the tickets from the Travel office?"

Kuryakin nodded. "I'll stop in and grab some extra ammunition, too. You never know what to expect from Thrush."

Laura Taylor tried to keep her dark eyes from staring too openly at the enforcement agent who waited at her desk for the airline tickets that were being printed. Her longing might be too obvious.

"Are you anxious to hang out with the beautiful people?" She asked, hoping that he didn't notice the blush that had crept up in her coffee brown cheeks. "I hear that Liz Taylor will be at vacationing at Cannes this month with Richard Burton."

"Well, Laura, you know that Mr. Solo is more for that sort of thing than I am. I will probably content myself with a quiet corner and a good book, should we have any time for recreation."

Laura nodded as she pulled the papers from the printer and collated the sheets. It was sad, really. Few people knew, as she did, that Illya still grieved over the young wife he had lost shortly after their marriage when Thrush made an attempt on his life. She would never forget the sadness in his eyes as he had shared the story with her one night at a quiet little jazz club they had gone to in Greenwich Village. The poor woman had been just an innocent bystander, and Kuryakin had been helpless to aid her, injured as he was in the attack. He still wore his wedding ring in remembrance of her, but kept quiet about the whole matter most of the time. It was simply too painful for him to discuss.

"Here are the tickets, and your itinerary. Try to enjoy yourself, in spite of -- you know," she said, smiling in encouragement.

"Thank you, Laura," the Russian agent said with a hint of a smile. "I'll see you when we get back."

Oh, I hope so, she wished silently as he left.

"I'll need ammunition, Carl," Illya Kuryakin said after sharing greetings with the supervisor on duty in the Armaments and Munitions office. "And could you look over the infrared for my Special? It didn't seem to be functioning correctly on the range over the weekend."

Carl Benson nodded and glanced over the device, then pressed a button on the intercom . "Maddie, could you come here for a moment?"

A moment later a petite, raven haired woman in gray coveralls came to the desk. "Hi Illya," she said in casual greeting. "What's up?"

Carl presented her with the errant infrared attachment, which Madeline Porter took with her into the workshop area, leaving the two men to chat.

Carl Benson was a frequent beneficiary of Illya Kuryakin's suggestions regarding U.N.C.L.E. weaponry, and he enjoyed chatting with the Russian agent on a variety of subjects. Carl admired Kuryakin's steady temperament and intelligence. Once, over a late night beer he had urged the Russian to take advantage of Maddie's obvious attraction to him. It was a surprise to learn of the wife Illya had back in the USSR, a woman he neither loved nor missed, but whom he had married as a matter of political expediency. If he ever divorced her, he had explained to Carl in confidence, he would likely be compelled to leave U.N.C.L.E. and return to his homeland. The woman was the daughter of a highly ranked member of the Politburo in his native USSR, and the ring that Kuryakin wore was a reminder of the unwanted relationship.

Most men would just take off the ring and take advantage of the women who were available to them, and Carl had seen many throw themselves at the Russian every day at U.N.C.L.E. headquarters. He admired Illya's sense of morals, suffering loneliness as the price of faithfulness to a wife he did not love.

"I brought you a new scope," Maddie said, returning to the office. "The old one needs some repairs that you can't wait around for, I imagine. Carl will get a requisition form for you to sign."

As Carl Benson went to fetch the paperwork, Maddie Porter smiled slyly at the Russian agent and asked quietly, "Will I see you when you get back?"

Illya was about to answer when Carl Benson bustled back into the room. "Here we go, just sign here." Maddie sighed and returned to her workroom, still hopeful. She could never share Illya's secret with her superior, but she knew all about the Russian's loveless marriage, and had enjoyed distracting him from it several times in the past. She supposed Carl would be upset at the thought of his protégé seeing a married man, so she kept the secret to herself.

Four hours later Solo and Kuryakin settled into their seats in the First Class Section of the Air France jet bound for the continent. Illya, near the window, reclined his seat as soon as the plane was in the air and seemed determined to keep to himself for the trip. Solo sometimes despaired of his taciturn partner ever taking advantage of the social opportunities that presented themselves. His thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of a shapely brunette stewardess.

"Bonjour, messieurs. I am Desiree, and I will be attending to you gentlemen on this flight." She offered a hot towel to each agent in turn, smiling warmly first at Solo, then at Illya. She toned her smile down, though, when she spied the wedding band on the blond agent's left hand. "Can I bring you gentlemen a beverage, perhaps?"

After she had taken their orders and collected the towels, she made her way back to the galley. Solo turned to Kuryakin and asked, "Would you mind a friendly bit of advice?"

"Does it matter?" he muttered sourly. "You'll give it to me anyway."

"All I was going to say was that you are scaring women away in droves with that ring of yours. It was what, six years ago that you used that in your cover in the Valkyrie Affair. You hardly need it anymore -- we each have five other homing mechanisms we routinely carry these days. I hate to see you missing out on all the young ladies who are so obviously interested in you. Until they see that ring, that is."

"Oh I don't know, Napoleon," the Russian agent replied, his eyes twinkling as the stewardess returned with their drinks. " I think I'll keep wearing it. It just might come in handy someday."