she stood on the terrace of her father’s house, watching the wind shiver cat’s-paws over the translucent blue shallows at the foot of the cliffs. Soldiers stood stiffly at attention near the stone parapet, faces carefully blank and gazes fixed past Ariadne as she turned from the view.
Her uncle Stefanos strode past the line of soldiers, breeze ruffling his black slacks and white silk shirt, sapphire ring flashing. Beaky nose thrust upwards, he planted his feet and fixed a dark glare on Ariadne.
“You countermanded Constantin’s orders for the laser allocation.”
“We need to complete our study.”
“Your study.” He snorted. “Why can’t you accept the hand of God in this plague? Maybe you’d like to take over for the Lord Himself and feed them all with loaves and fishes? Here’s more for you.” He swung around and waved a contemptuous hand at the peasant boy, perhaps ten years old, and the crone in shabby black cowering on the terrace.
They were still wet from the antiseptic shower the soldiers sprayed on any of the pilgrims picked up by the patrol boats. They’d brought empty jugs in their leaking old caique, risking the closed border to beg Ariadne for her “holy water.”
She pulled her shoulders back, stepped past her uncle, and knelt beside the old woman, touching her arm. “How long has he shown the signs?” She reached to raise the boy’s lowered face, livid with the scaly red scabs and the blisters, the collapsed nose and the terminal-stage nodules swelling around his eyes and mouth. As she touched the boy’s face, the soldiers gasped. She had assured them that her researchers’ new studies and the epidemiology showed the syndrome was not contagious, though it seemed to build on a formerly inactive presence of Hansen’s bacteria. The triggering mechanism remained elusive, but Ariadne was growing more certain it was connected to the increased electromagnetic pollution and NeuroLink technology. The World Health Organization would not publish her lab’s results without extensive corroboration, so people still feared contagion and put misguided faith in the isolation camps.
The old woman was making the bottom-up sign of the Orthodox cross over her breast. “He’s been cursed for three months, Blessed One.” She sighed. “We think he was hiding the rash before that.”
Ariadne nodded, took the boy’s rigidly curled hands and examined the misshapen finger stubs, the proliferating skin masses turning his hands into lumpy mitts. She closed her eyes, darkness shuddering through her as the boy’s dread and heavy numbness invaded her own hands. She forced herself to maintain her contact, willing warmth and sunlight to reach him, but knowing that for this boy it was too late.
Taking a deep breath, she steadied herself, rose and gestured toward the nearest soldiers. “Please take them to the clinic. We’ll do what we can.”
The soldiers stepped back, away from the boy, and one crossed himself. Farther down the line, a different soldier stepped forward in a glimmer of sunlight catching his shiny purple socks—Yannis, who always flashed her his happy grin when he passed by on his duties. He kissed his holy medallion. “I’ll take them, Ariadne Sancti. I’m not afraid.”
The old woman scuttled forward on hands and knees to kiss Ariadne’s feet, and Yannis had to pry her loose, guiding her with the limping boy toward the terrace steps. Ariadne blew out a breath and turned to see her uncle glaring.
“You think what you’re doing helps these people? Poh-poh-poh! It’s only a distraction.” Stefanos stepped over to her, pushing his face close. “Now listen. Constantin will be home from Headquarters in a few days, and he expects to see some progress from his technicians on the laser weapon. Your pet healing experiments will just have to wait. He’s indulged you so far, allowing your specialists time with the laser, but that’s finished now. Constantin has completed security at the new facility and will relocate the laser there. For your safety, he’ll also relocate you to Headquarters.”
She jolted back from him, from the image of the squat, ugly fortifications he’d built at the port on Naxos. “I can’t live there! And what about the Hansen’s patients?”
“They’ll be moved to a proper isolation camp. You may continue to receive the pilgrims, under guard, and give them your holy water, but this science project of yours has gotten out of hand. It’s a waste of resources.”
“But I’m paying for the research myself—”
“Enough. You seem to forget it’s you these pharmaceutical mercenaries are after! And you ought to thank the Lord and the Tyrannos those cursed Sons of the Prophet haven’t made good on their new threats. You’d better put your heart into helping us build a strong nation that can protect you and our people.”
“My heart!” she cried, despite herself. “You’d like to own it, and my soul, too. Weapons and power! Taking over the shipping ports. That’s all you men care about.” A contemptuous thrust of her hand. “Can’t you see, none of that will matter if we can’t find a way to protect everyone from the unbalanced global fields and the electromagnetic pollution? This pandemic is only the first, but we’re making progress here, and if Father would only let me visit additional sites to test—” She bit it back. She was a prisoner here, if in a gilded cage, and soon to trade her island for a fortress of steel. Was it too late to escape?
“To test what?” Her uncle was eyeing her, close, suspicious. “I swear, Niece, if you’re hiding something. . . .”
She summoned the coolness of marble, made her face a stony mask. The wind plucked strands from her braid, whipping them across her uncle’s eyes.
“Christos!” He paced again, then turned back to her, his lips twitching with a reluctant smile. “Ariadne-mou. . . . God in His infinite wisdom has seen fit to entrust such a sacred gift to a mere koritsi.” A mere girl. “But don’t forget it’s the men who shelter you, who make your visions work in the world.” He strode off, followed by the rest of the soldiers.
The wind whispered, sang, howled. Ariadne stared down at the sapphire sea, waves crashing against the rock cliff at the breakwater. Lithos Athanatos kai Akinetos—their family motto, from generations of traders and gemcutters, to the new Tyrannos: Eternal and Unyielding Stone.
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