THE SUN WAS STUCK overhead, a blinding smear in the washed-out sky, blazing into ravines to bake back from the stone. Peter stumbled again in the loose scrabble, cursing the worn soles of Marta’s dead husband’s boots. But they kept the thorn bushes from ripping his legs to shreds.
Rocks and thorns, that was about it, the odd twisted olive somehow finding a roothold in the blasted landscape. He stopped to let the donkey blow, both of them sucking in lungfuls of the searing air, Ariadne still slumped in the saddle, eyes closed. He mopped his sweat-slicked face and squinted up the steep ravine, Georgios clambering on ahead. Goddamn old goat. Peter tugged the unenthusiastic donkey through a narrow squeeze of white jagged rock, the ends of the duffel bag brushing the walls.
Georgios had stopped where the gap widened, by one of the little shrines that sprouted like mushrooms in the most unlikely spots. He crossed himself and climbed on quickly. Peter tugged the lead rope, glancing aside at the battered metal case holding a faded icon, wilting flowers, a bottle of oil, and a lighted glass lamp.
Up another steep chute onto an almost level slope, and here in the middle of nowhere a short graded stretch of ancient finely-cobbled Roman road. Then rough rocks again as they cut up and rounded a tight switchback. Stones skidded out from under the donkey’s hooves, Peter steadying it and pushing.
Ariadne stirred, blinking, looking around her with a frown. “What?”
“Here, we’re taking a break.” They caught up to Georgios on an open ledge dropping away to the craggy shelves above the sea. Peter pried Ariadne’s grip from the pommel and lifted her off the panting donkey.
She took a deep breath, drawing herself up and moving stiffly to where Georgios sat in a thin strip of shade against a boulder. Her legs were shaking as she lowered herself to the ground and closed her eyes.
Peter pulled out his binoculars to scan the white dazzle below, the long sweep of one steep headland after another down the coast. He zeroed in on Georgios’s cove and zoomed the lenses. He could almost taste the cool, rippling blue in his parched throat. The tilted freighter was a dark shape against the white cliff. Anchored next to it, the sleek lines of the hydrofoil.
“Bastards,” he muttered. Clenching his teeth, he scanned in blurry jerks up to the blocky shape of the house and sheds. Too far to pick up much. He was pretty sure the mercenaries couldn’t follow. He just hoped those villagers had enough sense to play it cool. He scanned the shimmering rock landscape below him, but couldn’t pick out any movement. The binoculars strayed back to the cove.
“Son of a bitch.” He swung around, rage swelling. “Hope you’re happy, Despoina. If you’d listened to me, we’d have been out of there, we’d still have Nereid, and we’d still have your laser.”
Georgios, holding a waterskin to her lips and urging her to drink, glared up at Peter. “You.” He spat to the side. “You do not use such a voice to the Despoinis. You, who come to our home with that whore and you make only trouble for everyone.”
“I make—?” He shook his head, muttering, “That’s great, that’s just perfect.”
Ariadne swallowed and pushed the waterskin weakly away. “Peter.” Her eyes were fixed somewhere past him. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t need it any more, or the magnetometer.” She closed her eyes and finished in a strained whisper, “Must go to the mountains. Whatever payment you want, later. I will replace the boat, but now it’s not important.”
“Not important!” He stood over her, fury cresting as she refused to meet his eyes. “Nothing’s important to you except your precious experiment and playing the great Saint Ariadne. Well, I’m not one of your peasants bowing and scraping. Ready to die for you, and you don’t even notice, don’t even bother thanking that pathetic old priest, gives you his donkey, probably the only thing he’s got.”
His hands fisted. “Nereid’s all I had. But that’s your answer to everything, isn’t it? Just buy it off.”
She didn’t move, slumped against the rock with her eyes closed, one hand touching that goddamn crystal pendant of hers.
Georgios lurched to his feet, gripping his rifle, stepping close to Peter to fix him with a fierce glare. “You’re like all the foreigners! You have no respect. I, Georgiou Petride, I have only one eye,” he jabbed a finger at his crusty eye patch, “yet I can see. She’s gifted with the holy touch. She suffers for it. She knows it will cost her pain, and yet she goes to the village last night and gives herself to heal those stricken with the plague. And you, what do you and that whore do, eh?”
He spat at Peter’s feet, raising the rifle. “She needs peace to seek strength from the Father and the Holy Virgin. You, she does not need. Go with the other godless foreigners, you are all Turks!” He stepped back, cocking the rifle.
But Peter was staring at the woman slumped against the rocks, his hands dropping as he let himself see the exhausted lines in her face, the sallow hue swallowing her healthy glow. She really could cure RIP-Hansen’s? No, it was just superstitious crap. But those other faint spells she’d had, after going into Tinos town . . . and then those hysterical radio reports about the miracle cures. And that wounded soldier, the first night on her island. Damn. Was he going nuts, too?
Georgios prodded his side with the rifle, hands shaking but face set in a determined scowl. “I tell you, leave her. I will protect her.”
Peter blew out a breath and shoved the rifle barrel aside. “Cut the crap, Georgiou.” He shook his head and said in Greek, “We’ll both protect her. So let’s keep on, eh?” Etse k’etse.
Georgios pursed his lips, hands tightening on the rifle. He shrugged, throwing his chest out. “I lead.”
“What else?” Peter muttered, “Blind leading the blind.” He pulled Ariadne brusquely to her feet and got her into the saddle. “You can hang on okay?” The words forced themselves out, grudging.
She nodded, rousing herself to thank him. He turned away, pretending not to hear, grabbing the lead rope and dragging the donkey on.
They climbed higher to the mountaintops, Peter sweating under the blazing blue sky. Endless tight switchbacks in glaring sunlight and shadow. Dusty heat and silence closed around them, not even a birdcall breaking through. Peter squinted up at the sky, out over the ocean. No sign of wings. Ariadne had said something about them—maybe lost without their geomagnetic navigation.
“Ariadne!” The voice came from up ahead.
Peter swung around to see Georgios coming back down the track with a big Greek in a sheepskin vest, high boots, and a twisted wood staff. The stranger came striding, strong teeth flashing beneath a long steel-gray mustache, arms flinging out. “My little Kri-Kri!”
Ariadne straightened in the saddle, blinking. Her face lit up. “Uncle Dmitri!”
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