Once, the wind rushing past stirred up only dust.
People walked by like shades at twilight.
The street feels drained, there must be something else.
So daydreams wind themselves like flowers into wreaths.
I keep on waiting, looking as though I'm about to
Find what I've been after, all my life.
"On the Avenue", by Jonas Aistis, translated by Vyt Bakaitis
Jack Ryan did not consider himself an idiot.
However, even though he had carefully researched the Lenin Komsomol submarine school while doing his CIA bio of Captain First Rank Marko Ramius, he had obviously missed an important component of its curriculum, i.e., the course entitled, "Evasiveness and Misdirection as a Tactical Resource."
Given his recent exposure to its most famous graduate, he now knew this course, or something very similar, must have been part of the curriculum. He also knew that Marko Ramius must have been its instructor. Either that, or the man had simply been born with innate talent.
In any case, there had to be some reason why Marko could make a statement that sounded like perfectly comprehensible English, but would turn out meaning something entirely different instead. Without even trying, Marko could be deeper than the ocean and more enigmatic than an ancient oracle. To put it simply, he was a living, breathing puzzle.
Ryan loved puzzles, and he especially loved solving puzzles, even if he didn't actually make his living out of doing so.
This particular puzzle, however, arrived at his doorstep at oh-dark-thirty. Put in civilian terms, this translated roughly as "four o'clock in the goddamn morning."
Awoken from a sound sleep, it took Ryan some time to get to the door, bumping into an antique sideboard along the way. The move to his grandfather's house had been recent enough that he still wasn't able to navigate safely in the dark. As a result, he was muttering and rubbing a bruised knee when he opened the door.
"What the hell? Marko?"
"Ryan!" came the reply, in a voice far too enthusiastic for the middle of the night. "I am pleased. Finally, you remember to use my proper name."
The CIA had given Marko the new name of Mark Raymond, but no amount of pleading or badgering on Ryan's part had changed his mind about the dangers of using his given rather than assumed first name.
After the third time he'd mentioned it, Marko had said, "Really, Ryan, you Americans make a pastime of these 'aliases', as you call them. All one has to do is visit a courthouse and say, 'I wish to be called 'Constantine' instead of 'Charles', and it is done. You even have a space on your legal documents for such things, so why should I not call myself Marko?"
This had, of course, given Ryan a minor heart attack until he had ascertained that no, Marko had not listed his real name in the "aliases" block on his recent rental application. Ryan had visions of "Captain First Rank Marko Ramius, guided missile submarine commander, USSR," written in neat block letters in the appropriate spaces.
"I am not stupid, Ryan," he had said.
Ryan didn't think he was stupid. He thought he was stubborn and bull-headed and . . . well, Marko. Besides, it damn well sounded like something he'd do.
But Marko was implacable as any force of nature, and as such, Ryan had given in to the inevitable. So, "Marko", it was.
Although at this moment, Ryan could think of a few other names to call him.
Luckily, Cathy and Sally were in Maryland visiting relatives, so at least he wouldn't have a disgruntled spouse and a sleep-deprived child to deal with as well. He motioned Marko inside. "Is everything all right?" he asked.
Raising an eyebrow, Marko said, "Of course. Should it not be?"
"Marko, it's four o'clock in the morning."
"Yes. It is."
Ryan looked heavenward and blinked a few times. "Would you like some tea or coffee?"
"No, thank you."
They say 'patience is a virtue,' but when dealing with Marko Ramius, it's more like a necessity on the same level as breathing. Ryan hadn't been the only one to discover this firsthand. There had, of course, been the extensive debriefing by the CIA, DIA, NSA, BuShips, SubLant and a host of other acronyms, all anxious to pick the mind of Russia's premier submarine commander just as they picked over the innards of Red October herself.
However, they had procured far more knowledge from the ship than from her former master.
Not that Marko hadn't cooperated -- far from it. But Marko Ramius had survived in a culture where giving more information than necessary was a good way to disappear, die from a brain hemorrhage, succumb to pneumonia, or a host of other unpleasant euphemisms. He told his interrogators what they asked, when they asked, but only what they asked.
In as few words as possible.
One of Ryan's acquaintances at the CIA had said it was like interrogating a lamp post -- a very dry witted, sharp-tongued lamp post.
Therefore, even though Ryan was not an official employee of the agency, the CIA had been overjoyed when he'd volunteered to be Marko's case officer, helping him adjust to his new life in America.
It hadn't taken Ryan long to realize, however, that America would be adjusting to Marko Ramius rather than the other way around.
With a final lingering glance at the staircase to his bedroom, Ryan led the way into the family room, motioning for Marko to have a seat.
Marko, however, was staring at the wall in apparent horror.
"Ryan, that is a hideous painting."
Personally, Ryan agreed with him, especially since he hadn't yet decided what the subject of the painting was supposed to be. He certainly hoped it wasn't what it looked like. "It was painted by Cathy's aunt."
"Hmph. That does not make it any less hideous." He turned to Ryan and gave him one of his most scathing glares. "Why is it hanging on your wall?"
"It's considered the polite thing to do."
"It is polite to pretend this woman has any talent whatsoever? In the USSR, this would be considered subversive." He spared it another sidelong glance. "At best."
Ryan sighed. "OK, then, just think of it as a marital aide."
Marko's eyebrow rose upward.
"If I leave it hanging on my wall, I get to stay married."
Marko actually smiled at that, his eyes brightening briefly in response.
Ryan decided he liked that expression. He was entirely too solemn most of the time. "Marko, I'm assuming you didn't come here merely to criticize my home decor. Why are you here?"
"Oh, yes." Marko was again gazing in fascinated horror at the painting, but he finally turned to look Ryan directly in the eye. "Please be at my house two hours before sunset today. Bring an overnight bag."
Ryan counted to five slowly. "And why am I supposed to be at your house two hours before sunset?"
"It is July 23rd, is it not?"
"I believe so, yes."
Marko looked at him expectantly.
Ryan squinted and said, "Marko, I would love to play twenty questions with you all night, but I'm a little tired. Could you pretend I'm a stupid matros fresh out of sub school and just tell me straight out? Please?"
Marko heaved a disappointed sigh. "You will find out soon enough, Ryan." His eyes narrowed. "You will be there, no?"
"No . . . I mean, yes, of course, if it's that important to you."
"Very good." Without another word, he started toward the front door.
Ryan hastily followed, catching up to him as he was halfway across the front porch. "Ah, Marko?"
He turned. "Yes?"
"You realize you could have simply called to ask me that . . . at, say, a reasonable hour?"
"Of course. As I have mentioned before, I am not stupid. And, Ryan? Do not be late." He turned to leave, but looked back long enough to add, "And try to get some sleep before you arrive."
Not waiting for a reply, he walked with his brisk military stride to his truck.
Ryan muttered, "'And try to get some sleep before you arrive.' That's what I was trying to do, dammit."
He was walking back inside when he caught a glimpse of the bed of Marko's pickup truck just before it left the faint glow of the security lights.
It was filled with flowers, of all things, and what looked suspiciously like a wagon wheel.
What the hell?
The CIA had done their part in making sure that America's newest residents were comfortable and had provided Marko with a house and substantial piece of land along the seaside cliffs in Hancock County, Maine, not far from where they had sailed Red October for her final voyage up Penobscot River what seemed like a lifetime before.
Ryan had moved his family from London to his grandfather's place in Maine so he could be closer to his new charge. Regardless of what he'd said last night -- or this morning, rather -- he knew Marko was a man you had to talk to face to face. He'd never met anyone so adept at masking his true feelings in the spoken word, and since Ryan dealt with both politicians and spooks on an almost daily basis, that was saying quite a bit. No, if you wanted to get to the bottom of Marko Ramius, you had to look him in the eye and learn to read his face.
Not that Ryan had managed that trick yet. Obviously.
However, surprise nocturnal visits notwithstanding, Ryan found he enjoyed the older man's company immensely. They had spent countless companionable hours together fishing, mostly on Marko's new fishing boat. Ryan had even accompanied him on a cross-country trip, initiated very shortly after the CIA had offered to bury Vasily Borodin in a military cemetery and Marko had declined -- vehemently.
When he'd asked him about it later, Marko had been silent for so long that Ryan had thought he wouldn't reply. Eventually, he'd said, "I suppose they meant well, Ryan, but I could not allow them to dishonor Vasily in such a manner. They would have buried a brave man under a false name, and how can one mourn a good friend when it is a stranger's name on the gravestone? No, it is better this way."
So they had driven to Montana and taken the winding road up to Logan Pass on the Continental Divide. They had hiked to a secluded valley speckled with wildflowers and surrounded by snow-topped mountain peaks. Marko had set out two candles and a hand-carved wooden cross. His deft sailor's hands had woven wildflowers into a tiny wreath, and he had sung raudos or laments in a voice that could barely be heard over the moaning of the wind. Then, as the sun had begun its slow descent behind the mountains, Marko had poured Vasily's ashes from the urn and let the wind carry them where it would.
"Vasily hated the sea," Marko had explained when he'd finished. "In the Rodina, without the proper political connections, one does not choose one's occupation. Vasily was a man who loved the earth beneath his feet, yet he was forced to leave it far behind every time we sailed. He had always said the sea would kill him one day."
"Perhaps not the sea, but a seaman instead."
Marko had shaken his head. "Not a seaman either, but a minion of the GRU." He had sighed. "And yet, they are as cold as the sea and vastly more dangerous, so perhaps Vasily had been correct."
It had been a long walk back to the small RV Marko had rented, and the craggy peaks had cast their long, silent shadows across the trail as if to show them the way. They had looked back over the valley one last time, and Marko had said, "Now, when we see the grass and flowers and trees, we will see Vasily. Now, when we hear the wind, we will hear his voice. He will never see Montana, but we shall see and hear him amidst its natural beauty and know he is finally at peace. Vasily is part of this land now -- a land he would have loved -- and that is how we shall honor his name. His true name."
That had been only a month ago, and as Ryan drove up the long, winding driveway to Marko's house, the view of the setting sun through the trees brought the memory back with a stabbing poignancy. Perhaps Marko was depressed, or merely lonely? After all, Ryan hadn't visited recently, having been preoccupied with his writing and family for the last several weeks.
Ryan shook his head, smiling slightly. Given the events of this morning, however, if Marko was merely lonely, he certainly had a unique way of expressing it. He had no doubt Marko's visit did have a purpose, but Admiral Painter had been only partially correct with his comment about Russians and plans. Marko didn't make plans -- he didn't think on so small a scale. He operated on the level of a strategic campaign, achieving his objective through a series of operations, counter plans, and contingencies. It made it more difficult to ascertain just what his final goal was, but that's part of what made Marko so fascinating to him.
He braked the car to a stop and found Marko standing in front of his house, arms crossed uncharacteristically over his chest.
Nope. Probably not lonely but most definitely pissed. Ryan remembered a similar expression on man's face when they'd been discussing the state of medical care in the Soviet Union.
"Ryan. You are late."
"And 'hello' to you, too, Marko." The Marine Corps had taught him that when you're in trouble, always go on the offensive. "You were certainly busy this morning. Do you mind telling me why you stole a wheel off my wagon? The flowers I can replace easily enough, but what's with the wagon wheel?"
"Is that wagon used for hauling anything?"
"Well, no. I don't have anything to haul it with."
Marko nodded his head as if Ryan had answered his own question. "Then all is well. Everything should have a purpose in life, Ryan."
"But it does have a purpose -- it's . . . decorative. Or it used to be, anyway."
"Can it not be decorative with only three wheels and a few less flowers?"
Somewhere along the line, 'going on the offensive' had turned into 'strategic retreat,' and Ryan didn't even know when it had happened. He was very glad Marko was on their side now. Theoretically, at least. "Marko, when my wife sees that wagon, she's going to kill me."
"I had heard you Americans were a violent people, but I had thought it an exaggeration. Perhaps you should have chosen a less bloodthirsty spouse."
"Marko, it's just a figure of speech. What I meant was, she isn't . . . ." Ryan stopped as he saw the eyebrow make its slow rise. "Hey, you're messing with me, aren't you?"
"Why would I do such a thing?"
"I don't know. Perhaps because, 'Everything should have a purpose in life'?" Ryan said with his best Russian accent.
Marko laughed, clapping Ryan soundly on the back. "Come, Ryan, we have much to do before dark."
"Now, why was I afraid you were going to say something like that?"
"Much to do" evidently entailed lugging mysterious baskets filled with . . . something . . . up a long, gradual incline to the top of a cliff. In a heavily wooded area. With lanterns. And candles, of all things. They were probably going to start a massive forest fire.
"Marko, remind me to take you to a department store someday. They have these nifty things called 'flashlights' that would make this trek a whole lot easier."
"Really? You Americans have access to such expensive things?"
Ryan stumbled over a log, swearing. "Marko, you're messing with me again."
"I did tell you not to be late."
"Well, maybe next time I'll actually listen to you."
"Next time, I imagine you will."
Marko disappeared around a bend in the marginal trail they were following, and Ryan stumbled over yet another half-seen obstacle. Looking downward to avoid another such mishap, he walked into what he thought at first was a tree.
As he held the flickering lantern higher, he yelled and backed hurriedly away, falling onto his buttocks in the process.
It definitely wasn't a tree. He didn't know what it was, but it definitely wasn't a tree. At least, not any more.
Marko appeared suddenly, as if by magic, with his candle in hand. He looked down at Ryan in obvious exasperation. "Ryan, what are you doing?"
Ryan didn't take his eyes off the thing. "Oh, I don't know, I thought I'd just sit here, relax, soak my pants in wet leaves for awhile . . . dammit, Marko, what the hell is that?"
"It is just a woodcarving."
"But it's huge, and . . . hideous."
A flash of teeth in the darkness. "It is meant to be. Many of the characters from Lithuanian fairy tales are creatures such as this. You see, in the village of Juodkrante, there is a place called Raganu Kalnas, or the Hill of Witches. It has dozens of such carvings -- witches, dragons, devils and demons, crouched like petrified tigers in the forest." He paused. "I brought my Natalia there once, in happier times, but I remember she had much the same reaction as you."
"That should be telling you something, Marko."
An odd expression crossed the lined face. "Oh, it does, Ryan, it does."
Ryan remembered the beautifully carved cross Marko had brought to Montana. "You made this," he said with sudden certainty.
"Yes. There was an old fisherman named Sasha in the village where I grew up. He always said that fishing and woodcarving went together like a man and a woman. He taught me the skill."
Ryan was impressed, as usual. "Marko, that's absolutely horrid. And you have the nerve to call my painting hideous."
He offered Ryan a hand up. "I did wonder if I could find a place for that painting here."
Ryan took the weathered hand and was hauled almost effortlessly to his feet. He brushed off his pants as best he could, picked up the heavy basket, and followed Marko up the hill. He didn't think he'd mind if he stayed a little closer this time.
There were at least half a dozen such carvings that they passed -- cackling witches, demons with distorted faces, an enchanted princess, and a dragon springing into the sky from a huge branch that arched across the path. It was almost otherworldly in the darkness, viewing them by lantern and candlelight, and Ryan was impressed again at the range of talents this man commanded.
Somehow, Ryan also knew he was the only other person to have witnessed these sculptures. "Thank you for showing me these. They truly are amazing."
"You are most welcome, Ryan, but they are not the reason I have brought you here."
On that ominous note, he crested the hill onto an open area covered in grass and rocks. Ryan could hear the sound of the sea crashing far below and realized they had reached their destination. There was literally nowhere else to go, as the large grassy area was surrounded on three sides by plunging cliffs.
There were two bare trees on the plateau. One was gnarled and twisted, facing the sea and bent almost horizontal by the relentless coastal winds. Marko had carved a bench into it with magical animals embedded along both sides, one group tied forever to the earth and the other straining toward the heavens. The detail was breathtaking, and Ryan traced the feathered wing of a soaring eagle with one finger as he looked out toward the sea.
"What a magical place," Ryan said quietly.
"Yes, it is," Marko replied, motioning for Ryan to place his basket down in front of the bench. He then walked toward the center of the plateau, holding his candle high. As he approached what Ryan had thought was another tree, he saw it was actually a tall pole with brush and deadwood piled around it.
And at the very top of the pole was Ryan's missing wagon wheel.
Grabbing a branch from the pile, Marko stepped back and lit the end with his candle. He must have coated it previously with some sort of flammable substance, because the branch burst into immediate flame and burned merrily in the darkness.
"Ah, Marko, what exactly are you planning to do to my wagon wheel?"
"The wheel is symbolic and part of the tradition. In any event, I am going to do nothing. It is you who will be setting it alight."
Ryan walked slowly toward Marko, knowing he was only delaying the inevitable. Forces of nature, etc. "Just for the sake of argument, tell me why I'm the one lighting it?"
"Because it is July 23rd -- Midsummer's Eve. Or as my countrymen call it, St. Jonas' festival."
Ryan stared at him blankly, bemused.
Marko took a deep breath. "You would call it St. John's festival, Ryan, and it is traditional for someone with the same name, or a similar name, to light the bonfire." There was a significant pause. "Your first name is John, is it not?"
"I'm surprised you even knew I had a first name," Ryan said dryly.
"Do not be impertinent."
"I'm not being impertinent," Ryan said. "I am merely considering the advisability of blindly following your orders when they don't directly involve submarines or imminent death by torpedo."
"I did give the correct orders at that time, did I not?"
"Since we're both still alive, I guess the answer must be 'yes.'"
"You will do it then?"
"Oh, what the hell. Just give me the damn torch." Ryan touched the torch to the brush and then stepped back hastily as it exploded violently into flame.
Marko grabbed his upper arm and pulled him bodily toward the bench. "I said light the fire, Ryan, not yourself."
Ryan reached up to feel if his eyebrows were still there. "I'm not sure a torpedo would have been much worse. What did you put on that thing -- diesel fuel?"
"Tar. A sailor knows it has many uses."
"Ah, yes, as an incendiary device. I think I read that someplace."
Marko sat down beside him. "There is a reason why wooden ships and fire do not mix, Ryan."
"I'll try to keep that in mind, next time I plan on building a bonfire on a ship." He shook his head, still bemused. Every time he thought he had Marko figured out, he would do something like this. "So, what else does one do on Midsummer's Eve besides singe the guests?"
"Eat, drink, sing songs, tell stories, and dance." He raised an eyebrow. "However, I am far too old to dance, and you are not pretty enough."
"That's good, I think. I'm a horrible dancer anyway," Ryan said, smiling. "I assume you have the eating and drinking part covered?"
"I do. Hand me the larger basket, please." Marko pulled out a number of dishes, all wrapped in linens with colorful patterns and geometric designs, some of them cocooned in a bed of hot water bottles.
"No wonder that thing weighed a ton. But at least everything is still warm," Ryan said. "Did you make all of this?"
Marko shook his head. "There is a woman in town who is also an exile from Lithuania, having moved to America when the Nazis invaded. She is an excellent cook."
"Ah, so you have met a nice woman. I'm glad."
"Yes, I have met a nice woman, as you say. She is also 80 years old, Ryan."
Ryan didn't know how to respond to that without sticking his foot further into his mouth, so he decided to simply enjoy the food instead. There was fresh rye bread and sweet cheese, potato dumplings filled with pork, fried mushrooms with onions, and beet soup. There was also an assortment of poppy seed and honey cakes for dessert.
Out of the other basket, Marko pulled out a bottle of Lithuanian pepper vodka, properly cooled in ice, which Ryan had never tried before. It went very well with the food, however, and Ryan soon found himself drinking more than was probably wise.
Having eaten his fill, Ryan leaned into the back of the bench, tilted his head up and sighed. The bonfire had died down to a more reasonable level, and now the abundance of stars competed with the dim quarter moon for his alcohol-hazed attention. He couldn't remember the last he'd felt this content and relaxed.
Marko's voice broke the companionable silence. "What is a dark table cloth covered with crumbs and a chunk of bacon?"
Still gazing at the celestial light show overhead, Ryan said, "The sky, the stars, and the moon."
"Very good, Ryan. My people are fond of riddles." He paused. "You must be also, since you work so diligently for the CIA."
Ryan waved a slightly unsteady hand. "I've already told you. I only write books for the CIA. I don't work for them."
There was a disbelieving snort from the darkness. "And I did not work for the Politburo, I merely sailed its ships."
Ryan grinned. "I see your point."
"Besides, if you do not work for the CIA, how could you be assigned as my 'case officer', I believe you call it?"
"Oh, I wasn't assigned. I volunteered."
"You volunteered?" Marko said it in the same tone of voice as one would say, "You walked through a vat of acid?"
"I've surprised you," Ryan said with certainty.
Marko sat back, a pole-axed look on his face. "Yes, you have, for the second time since I have known you."
Ryan was curious. "What was the first?"
"When some young, upstart American not only knew that I was planning to defect, but had anticipated my method of getting the crew off the submarine."
"And you're surprised that I volunteered to help you afterwards?"
Marko shrugged. "I am not always an easy man to get along with."
"You also have a massive gift for understatement." He smiled, making sure Marko knew he was joking. Mostly. "Admiral Greer offered me a position in the CIA, but I haven't made up my mind what to do about it."
"Ah, so you do not yet know your purpose?"
"I guess not." Ryan thought about ashes and loneliness and misdirection. "And what about you, Marko? What is your purpose now?"
"Hmmm. That is an easy question. You see, when I was a boy, I had many mechty . . . what is your word?"
"Daydreams," Ryan answered.
"Yes, daydreams. When I was a boy, I had daydreams of what I would become as a man. As I grew older, I had daydreams of the one who would be my companion in all things. And when I became a man, I had daydreams of how I would singlehandedly change the Rodina from within." He paused, looking into the flickering bonfire. "But when you get to my age, Ryan, you no longer have daydreams."
"And you think that means you no longer have a purpose?" Ryan shook his head. "I know half a dozen agencies that would kill to have you join them. . . ."
"No, Ryan, even if they could ever trust a traitor, that would be their purpose, not mine." He rose, unceremoniously hauling Ryan to his feet. "Come, you have not yet asked me the reason for appropriating your flowers."
Ryan was definitely getting better at Marko-reading, but he decided to allow the misdirection . . . for now. "Perhaps because I was afraid to ask, considering what happened to my wagon wheel. And, by the way, the correct English word for that is 'stealing.'"
"Really?" Marko cocked his head to one side. "Such a harsh term. Nekulturny."
Ryan laughed, following Marko as he picked up the lantern. "Uncultured, huh? You've categorized stealing on the same level as fly-fishing then?"
Marko shuddered. "Fishing without a boat is always uncultured, Ryan. No wonder you Americans are considered uncouth."
Thankfully, given Ryan's current state of unsteadiness, they only went as far as the tree line before they came across Ryan's flowerpots, lined up neatly in a row.
Marko put the lantern on the ground. "My grandmother was a firm believer in the old ways. When it became apparent my father would not remarry and have any other children after my mother died, my grandmother was quite distressed. You see, there is another old tradition linked with the Midsummer festival that is passed from mother to daughter, and she decided she would pass the tradition on to me instead, so I could teach my own daughter."
"Which you never had. I am truly sorry, Marko."
He waved a negligent hand. "It is no matter. What is past is past, and we can do nothing to change it." He turned his intent gaze onto Ryan. "However, I would like to teach you this tradition, so you can pass it to your daughter, when she is of age. In that way, I can still fulfill my grandmother's wishes and honor her memory."
Ryan was touched he would consider him for this. He nodded briskly. "Of course."
Even in the dim lantern light, Ryan could see the mischievous gleam that appeared in Marko's eyes. "Now, of course, tradition states that the wildflowers should be collected deep in the forest during Midsummer's Eve, but knowing your lack of wilderness skills, I thought this method would be best."
"You're trying to tell me I'm clumsy."
His lips curling ever so slightly upward, Marko replied simply, "Yes."
"Well, it is wise to know the ways of your opponent, is it not?"
Marko laughed. "It is. Although I would hope we are no longer active opponents. Come, pick your 'wildflowers', and I will cut some vines."
They returned eventually to the bench, flowers and vines in hand, and Ryan learned the fine art of weaving flowers into wreaths. Starting with a ring of sturdy vines, tied off with a strand of ribbon, Marko guided Ryan's hands during the process, speaking quietly as they worked.
"The legends say that a young maiden who weaves a wreath such as this on Midsummer's Eve and tosses it into a body of water will discover how soon she is to be married. If the wreath travels a long distance, it will be some time before she is wed. However, if the wreath is retrieved by an eligible man, she is destined to become his wife."
Ryan chuckled. "So I'd best wait a few years before teaching this to Sally."
"Yes, that would be advisable." He gripped Ryan's hand and said, "No. Like this. When I realized how similar it was to repairing a fishing net, it became much easier. In and around, but do not wind the stems too tightly or they will break." He gave Ryan's hand a final pat. "Now, try it on your own."
Ryan soon found himself the proud owner of his own Midsummer's Eve flower wreath, and it didn't turn out too badly, even if he did say so himself. He placed the wreath on the ground at a safe distance from both the fire and inebriated feet, deciding he would give it to Cathy to explain the loss of her flowers. An explanation for the missing wagon wheel -- well, that he was still working on.
Marko rose to build up the fire and returned with another bottle in his hand. It turned out to be another Lithuanian spirit -- a black currant wine this time.
They shared the bottle, and Ryan listened as Marko recounted the old Lithuanian legends and fairy tales. Some of the characters, Ryan realized, were immortalized in oak on the hillside below. Marko had a definite gift for storytelling, his deep, rich voice weaving words like his hands wove wreaths. He told of ensorcelled princes and enchanted animals that brought either woe or wealth to unsuspecting humans. He told tales of wicked demons and witches, mighty dragons to be fought or fooled, vengeful fairy queens, and heroic princes.
The wind had picked up substantially, and Ryan could almost see the characters that Marko detailed flickering in the dancing flames -- dragons spouting fire, vengeful goddesses wreaking havoc, and demons rising from their abysmal caverns.
Listening to the mesmerizing voice that could so easily transform mythical creatures into near reality, Ryan finally understood why the officers of Red October would follow him on such a reckless endeavor. And what would happen now -- now that he had achieved that final goal?
"Such a waste," he said, when Marko paused to take a drink.
"What is a waste, Ryan?"
"You, not having daydreams. It's a waste." He reached for the wine.
Marko shook the bottle. "The bottle is empty, my friend. And you are already drunk."
"So, I'm drunk. That doesn't make me wrong. And you know something else? I don't believe you. It's not that you don't have daydreams." He poked an unsteady finger into Marko's chest. "You're afraid to have them. I just haven't figured out why yet."
Feeling suddenly dizzy, Ryan decided that resting against Marko's solid shoulder would be better than falling off the bench, so rest he did. And this way, at least Marko's shoulder would have a purpose.
He had it on very good authority that everything should have a purpose.
Marko settled Ryan more securely against his side and wished the bottle hadn't been empty. He was in dire need of another drink.
He knew he had been playing with fire by keeping the American so close, but he had not expected him to come to that realization so quickly. But Ryan . . . Ryan kept surprising him. No one but his Natalia and been able to surprise him so often, and he found he missed that certainty in his life -- the certainty that someone knew him so well they were able to surprise him.
Well, he would have no choice but to distance himself now. His honor would allow him to do nothing else. And as he had said, daydreams were for much younger men -- happily married men such as the one snoring softly against his shoulder.
The wind freshened briefly into a sudden, howling gust, then calmed just as quickly. Ryan stirred slightly at the sound.
"Go back to sleep, my Jonas," Marko whispered, "and dream your dreams for me."
The next day, Marko was forced to strengthen his resolve. He had to half-carry a muttering, stumbling Ryan down the hill at daybreak and into his guestroom, allowing him to sleep off the impending hangover. He left a note in case Ryan awoke earlier than he expected, and then he took his fishing boat out to seek solace from the sea.
Marko had always loved the peace he found on the water. When he was fishing, he did not have to plan, he did not even have to think -- he need only be. He could listen to the waves and the wind and let the sea take him where it would.
He had not been out long, however, before he saw something floating nearby in the water, half-submerged. It was too brightly colored to have originated in the ocean, at least this far north, and that was unusual enough that he reached for his boat hook.
When he finally maneuvered the boat close enough and retrieved the object from the water, he nearly dropped it again from sheer surprise.
It was Ryan's wreath, waterlogged and bedraggled, but still very much intact.
Marko sat down abruptly and laughed.
"And the sea will grant each man new hope, as sleep brings dreams of home," he quoted aloud.
Well, if the sea wished to send him this gift of hope, who was he to doubt the old ways? Even the Americans had an expression that said, "Anything is possible." Perhaps it was possible that he had found what he'd been after, all his life.
He would wait, for he was a patient man. And he would now hope, because he was a man of both worlds and still believed in the old ways and their legends.
But whatever the eventual outcome, it would be good to daydream again.*end*