SHE STRODE DOWN THE rocky path, her donkey trotting along in the cool morning as they rounded the headland and broke into a spill of sunlight. Below, a cove glimmered clear vibrant blue—mirror for the cloudless sky and white cliffs cutting pure lines against it. The air shimmered, humming electric with the fresh day.
Ariadne Demodakis stopped, filling her lungs with the air’s astringent tang, tingling with the brand-new, ages-old promise of dawn. Life surged in her, pulsing with the world’s heartbeat.
A shadowy twinge. She knew even as she savored this rare morning that it was only a brief reprieve from all those urgent voices clamoring for attention: the RP-Hansen’s victims, the healing experiments her scientists were running back at the lab, the communications conglomerates’ announcement that they were raising the already-dangerous transmission power on the remaining microwave towers, the latest plan to capture more shipping lanes by her father the Tyrannos—her jailkeeper. And this beloved island, her birthplace become her prison.
She took a deep breath and pushed those strident voices back inside a sphere of silence, summoning the cool serenity of a marble statue to smooth her face. Within that quiet, she had learned to find her freedom.
Today, this fragile glory of the dawn, wasn’t meant for shadows and clamor. The world even stricken was such a power of beauty it sounded her depths like a bell and she could only ring with it, send her voice pealing out to the earth and sea and sky in reverent praise.
Lifting her face to the sky, she turned slowly with outstretched arms, stepping to an ancient dance of thanks-giving.
A nudge at her back startled her. “Iris!” She turned to her donkey who carried the waterskins strapped to a pack saddle. “All right, no more dawdling.” She smiled and gathered the lead rope.
The path took them around another headland, dropping toward the village spread along a pebble beach. An old stone windmill spun its sails in the breeze, pumping water from an underground spring. The climbing sun was already heating the rock wall of Fofoula’s garden on the edge of the settlement, stirring scents of herbs and dust.
“Despoina Demodaki! You’re out early today.” Fofoula, drying her hands on her apron, hurried from her doorway with a glass bottle. “Did you bring more of the holy water?”
Ariadne filled the bottle with her activated mineral springwater. “Don’t forget, all you need is a small drink each evening, for the pain.”
“Despoina Demodaki! Despoina Demodaki!” Two little girls and a boy came pelting down the dirt road.
“The holy water. Mother says can you come?” The boy caught a breath, panting. The girls, suddenly shy, looked at the ground, gripping their skirts.
“Tell them I’m on my way.”
The children raced back toward the village square as badly-amplified bouzouki music broke out over the housetops.
“That Nikos!” Fofoula’s husband Yiorgos joined them, shaking his head. “He can’t wait to start the party.”
Fofoula touched Ariadne’s arm. “Come to the celebration. It’s Nikos’s name day.”
Ariadne hesitated. How long since she’d been to any kind of celebration? “Endaksi.” All right. “I’ll go.”
Low stucco houses closed in around them, laundry flapping from lines and chickens pecking the dry dirt yards. They passed the ruined, blackened walls of the old two-room school bombed during the Sons of the Prophet attack the year before. Beyond it, the new school gleamed in its fresh coat of white, with blue-painted door and lintels.
The villagers were already gathered in the dusty square, in front of the crumbling masonry chapel and the combined kafenion-grocery store. Nikos, the proprietor, was spruced up in a garish plaid jacket, mustache waxed to black points. He snapped another cassette into a battered antique boom-box, turning up the volume in a barrage of hissing tape and singing voices. Children in patched skirts and shorts wove screaming and laughing around legs as an old man danced by himself, eyes closed. Women with head-scarves sat on wooden chairs, whispering and laughing. Plates of cookies and breads, bottles and glasses filled a long table.
“Despoina Demodaki! Welcome. Welcome. You honor us.” Nikos hurried forward, hands outstretched.
Heads turned, voices dying, and Ariadne braced herself. All those faces, watching her. Curiosity, eagerness, speculation, caution, resentment against the rich crazy Demodakis in her dusty peasant skirt. . . . And the worst: reverence.
A matron rushed up, then dropped to her knees to grasp Ariadne’s hand and kiss it. “Despoina sancti! Efcharisto.” Thank you.
“No, no, Ksanthi! Please.” Ariadne tugged her to her feet.
“You saved my mother,” Kyrias Mamalakis insisted, clutching her hand.
“The chapel, too, by the Grace of God,” a younger woman piped up. “And the children have a new school, thanks to you . . . and to Tyrannos Demodakis, of course,” she added hastily.
“Pah! It wasn’t the Tyrannos who saved us from those filthy Turks.” A man in a fisherman’s sweater spat to the side.
“We send thanks to God for you,” Ksanthi added, still clinging to Ariadne’s hand.
“Please. This is Nikos’s party.” Ariadne managed a bland smile, nodding at the villagers.
“There would be no party, no village at all if you hadn’t stopped those boats and their bombs.” Kyrie Mamalakis had stepped up to take his wife’s arm.
Ariadne closed her eyes and took a deep breath, fighting a shudder at the visceral memory:
The Sons of the Prophet attack boats breaching the outer islands’s defenses, intent on capturing and executing the blasphemous “Saint Ariadne” and stopping her father’s expansionist Med League. Thundering explosions, blinding flares, ground-shaking impacts of the missiles in the night. An urgent voice over the radio, “They’ve hit the village school, the headmistress is killed!” Her father’s calm response, “They’re entering the minefield waters now. That will stop them.” But it hadn’t. The pale blips on radar kept coming, winding through the labyrinthine safe passage past reefs and shallow mines that only the Med League navigators knew. A traitor onboard?
After that, memory blurred to frantic cries, orders, missiles launched but mostly intercepted, screams of wounded soldiers, and suddenly Ariadne was swept into a dark vortex of grief and rage and the force of a hissing subterranean power coiling up through her to explode outward in pulses of fury.
Blinding pain, then darkness. When she awoke, her father was staring down at her, the soldiers crossing themselves and whispering, “A miracle! Saint Ariadne.”
They told her that when she screamed and went rigid, the attacking boats veered off course into the mines and exploded, while the defense radar blanked out and the compass spun as if seeking reason. . . .
Ariadne shook her head. It was only coincidence, of course, one of the anomalous geomagnetic fields engulfing the island, though apparently only very locally. She had started tracking her increasing headaches and heightened sensitivity to sound and odd sensations, and now realized that they corresponded with the episodes of geomagnetic null phases.
“. . . grateful for your holy water. Efcharisto,” Kyrie Mamalakis was finishing.
She took another steadying breath. “Please, today is for Nikos.” Her bland smile in place, she moved forward with Fofoula into the village square.
A stout, graying matron pushed closer to Ariadne, smoothing her crucifix and necklaces of seed pods. “Well, well, you’re going to join in the fun? About time, Ariadne. We’ll have some dancing, maybe find you a husband.”
“Juliana, please don’t—”
“Hah!” A scowling matron rose from her folding chair. “The Demodakis doesn’t need a husband, when she can steal another woman’s as she pleases. Magdalena!” She spat and stalked off.
Ariadne went stiff. Biting back an angry retort, she raised her chin, daring the rest to accuse her.
“Tell that lazy Manolis of yours to eat a dish of bull’s balls!” Yiorgos shouted after the departing matron. “Then you won’t have such a sour face!”
Laughter broke out among the men, the women hiding smiles behind their hands. Ariadne let out a breath, envying Yiorgos his easy ways.
He was striding forward now, raising his arms, bellowing, “Where in Hades are you hiding the ouzo, Niko? You penny-pinching old fart! You think that name-saint of yours will bless you for another year if you keep us all thirsty?”
A roar of laughter, the men hustling Nikos into the shop. They emerged clutching bottles, grinning. Someone was pressing a paper napkin into Ariadne’s hands, with a powdered-sugar kourambeade.
The special cookie her American mother had learned to bake for celebrations, always letting little Ariadne help. She tried to remember her face so beautiful then, before the cancer ravaged it and then stole her away. Blinking quickly, Ariadne bit into the cookie, barely tasting its sweetness.
“Despoina?” A teenaged girl in the traditional head-scarf, lips bold with orange lipstick but trembling on a shy smile, was standing before her, holding a half-grown puppy. “Will you take him? He won’t eat, he needs your holy water.”
Ariadne—bemused in the uproar of music, laughter, shrilling voices, gesturing hands, darting children—found herself with an armful of wriggling fur, a pink tongue licking her hand.
A louder roar rolled over the crowd. A motor launch, speeding to the cove’s quay. A shout. Heads turned. Commotion at the cove end of the square, and a line of soldiers in blue strode into the open space, pushing through the villagers.
“Despoina Demodaki!” One of her father’s lieutenants stopped stiffly before her, the men falling into a row behind him. Sunlight glinted off the geometric white insignia on their shirts.
Voices died. Someone cut the music, echoes fading off the walls.
“A message came from the Tyrannos. You’re needed at the house immediately.” The lieutenant, expressionless, stared past Ariadne’s shoulder.
Vague muttering behind her. She pulled back her shoulders, chin lifting. Of course she was needed for her father’s schemes, not wasting time with her healing experiments. The soldiers avoided her eyes, stirring uneasily, and one of them furtively touched the holy medallion at his throat.
“Here.” Ariadne stepped past the lieutenant, thrusting the puppy into the nearest soldier’s arms.
The young man startled, stared down at the puppy, looked at Ariadne and broke into a grin. Stifled laughter from another one. The soldier with his armful shot a look at his superior’s livid face and sobered.
Ariadne turned back to the lieutenant. “I’m not done here.” She turned to the watching villagers and gestured at Nikos. “Music! Let’s dance.”
Someone snapped in another antique cassette, mandolin crying over the square, an old tune.
More strings, crescendoing. Ariadne lifted her chin, raising her arms and turning her head to one side. A man stepped up beside her, then two young girls. More of the villagers. A long straggling circle, arms out, linked.
Slowly, deliberately, they raised their right feet, crossed over, dipped. Rose and cross-stepped again. Swaying now, the music picking up tempo, momentum, knees bending, rising and swinging, hands gripping arms as they danced faster. Feet pounding up dust to glimmer in the sunlight.
The music swelled, ringing celebration from the house walls, lapping like the sea on the stony beach. The dancing circle ebbed and flowed to the surge.
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