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Vesta, goddess of the hearth, was taking her leisure in her garden when she was startled from her reverie.
"Auntie Vesta!" cried the cheerful voice of her uninvited visitor. "So good to find you here!"
The portly god who greeted her was Bacchus, god of wine. Vesta sighed and inwardly cringed. In truth, she would have preferred a visit from any other god, even Vulcan, who at least remained civil when he kept his temper in check. Vesta supposed Bacchus may have been tolerable when sober but it was a hypothesis that was impossible to test!
Still, she was the goddess of the hearth after all. She couldn't really bring herself to be a poor hostess, even to an unwelcomed guest.
"Greetings Bacchus, Son of my Brother Jupiter. May I offer you refreshment?"
"Refreshment? Refreshment, she says! That is precisely the matter which brings me to your abode!" the jovial god said to her breasts. "I knew you were the one deity in all of Olympus who would best appreciate my feat! Refreshment is the first thing to jump to her able mind and precisely the reason for my visit. Yes--refreshment indeed! Ha-ha!"
Vesta pointedly pulled up her toga, which had been showing more cleavage than she was want to, and looked disparagingly at the younger deity.
"Bacchus, you are clearly more drunk than is even your norm. Pray, speak your peace and the reason for your visit. I have no patience with riddles."
"Your pardon, Divine Auntie, please!" the round-faced god apologized, "It is but the excitement of my new creation which drives me to such ebullience while in turn it drives me to seek your wisdom."
So saying, he revealed a large earthen jug from the basket he carried and presented it to her.
"Not another of your spirits! By Jove, Bacchus, when will you be content with the grape? That nasty stuff you made from figs last century should have convinced you to stop this foolish experimentation! Wine of the grape is the only beverage you have ever produced that is fit for the table. So says the goddess of the hearth!"
"Not so hasty, my dear goddess," smiled Bacchus, "This is no experiment; it is a veritable miracle!"
"Really, Bacchus," Vesta objected, "If you must continue with your 'innovations' test them out on someone with a less delicate palate like Neptune or Pluto. That uzo stuff you made left my tongue numb! I'm not going to try any more of your ridiculous... oh my!"
Her protestation ended when she smelled the golden liquor that Bacchus poured into a crystal chalice. The odor was powerful yet delicate, intricate and all together divine.
"As I said," beamed Bacchus, "This is not my usual offering."
Unable to help herself, Vesta lifted the chalice and sniffed the golden liquid. The complex odors scampered through her nasal passages like happy children. The goddess' eyes went wide.
"Bacchus, what in the heavens is this?"
The rotund deity preened with pride.
"That, my dear Vesta, is pure, undiluted, fully fermented... ambrosia!"
"Fermented ambrosia?" Vesta asked, amazed. "I didn't think that was possible!"
"Damn near impossible!" exclaimed Bacchus, "I've been trying to do it since before Minerva was even a tiny crack in Dad's forehead!"
"And... does it taste like..."
"Well try it, Vesta, try it!" Bacchus pushed. "Words can't describe the taste!"
"Oh, yes... well then, try it I shall."
The goddess of the hearth raised the glass to her lips...
Portia sighed as the temple came into view. That was where she would stay the night. It was still about three hours until sundown, but the only other temple she could reach in that time was dedicated to Mars and she would have no hope of a good nights sleep there! So she had no choice but to impose upon the vestal virgins.
The eunuch guards looked mournfully at the scarlet sash around Portia's waist that marked her as a priestess of Venus. She smiled pityingly at them. They made no move to stop or question her; Any traveling priestess was allowed to seek shelter in the temple of Vesta, even a priestess devoted to The Goddess of Love.
The vestal virgins themselves were less likely to be so welcoming. The blonde girl who stood watch at the inner gates scowled at her. Portia resolved herself to put her best face on the thing.
"Greetings, servant of Vesta!" she exclaimed, "As a wandering priestess of your Divine Mistress' Kinswoman, I seek lodging for the night."
The girl made no attempt at all to sound civil in her obligated response: "Any priestess of the Gods of Rome may take succor at the Hearth of Vesta. Enter and be comforted."
Then she added with a biting self-righteousness: "Though I had always heard that the priestesses of Venus prefer other lodging."
This was true, of course. Portia had been on the road for 12 days now and each night she had had her pick of lodging. Everyone was glad to welcome a priestess of Venus. The only problem was, while they were glad to give her the best bed in the house, she was given little time to sleep in it. Inevitably, she was called on to perform her clerical rites. All of them. Often on damn near every member of the household. She had spent last night at a hostel of the Roman legions and hadn't slept a wink! The residue of the legionnaires' rites still clung to her in places. She needed a bath and a rest!
"I believe my cousin is a priestess here," Portia told the young vestal. "Since I was passing by, I thought it would be nice to renew acquaintances."
The diminutive door maiden raised an eyebrow. Clearly she had a preconception of what sort of families produced priestesses of Venus and they weren't the sort that produced priestesses of Vesta.
"What is the name of your cousin?" she asked.
"Marla," Portia answered, "Marla of Verona."
The flaxen-haired young lady got a rye look on her face.
"Marla is indeed one of our sisterhood," she conceded. "Given your familial ties, no doubt she will want to be the one to present you to High Priestess Palonia, so I will forgo that... honor... and deliver you to your kinswoman."
"Thank you," said Portia, "You are too kind."
The priestess of Venus followed the young vestal as she led her in silence. Portia didn't know why the vestal virgins had to be so uptight!
Well, that wasn't really true. At the very least she had a good theory. It had to do with the connection that all gods had with their clergy to some extent or another. Communing with Venus during the rites had certainly effected Portia herself. Her libido hadn't been nearly so strong before her initiation. She had likewise seen how her childhood friend Amacus had become more violent after performing the blood rites of Mars as the war god's vassal. Communing with a god inevitably lead you to acquire the traits of that god. Naturally, the vestal virgins acquired the traits of Vesta.
But Portia felt it went deeper than that. A priestess of Venus only tapped into the Divine Libido during the love rites. Apart from that time, Venus pretty much let her be. The Love Goddess couldn't very well have her clergy tapped into her psyche all the time, what with her colorful social life among gods and men. Day to day life would be constantly disrupted by the Goddess' Divine Orgasms.
But Vesta, Portia suspected, was such the control freak that she might very well require her priestesses to stay in constant communion with her. The constant contact with the goddess' psyche, along with her mandate of virginity, was bound to make anyone a bit... uptight. Portia worried what it might have done to Marla.
The young vestal led her to the kitchen where four other virgins were engaged in the unending task of preparing the hearth bread. The one that shared her honey-colored ringlets Portia immediately recognized as her cousin Marla, despite their twelve year separation.
"UmHm!" said Portia's guide, drawing the attention of all the bakers. "Marla, this 'priestess' claims to be your cousin and seeks lodging with us for the night. Since she's your kinswoman, I thought you should be the one to tell Mistress Palonia."
Four pairs of eyes seized upon the scarlet sash about Portia's hips and then three pairs went to the honey-haired vestal. Marla's eyes went to her feet and she blushed and generally acted like she needed to pee.
"I... I never expected to see you here, Portia," she said.
"Well, I didn't really expect to come here myself, but here I am," said Portia, quickly loosing patience with her cool reception here. She should have just spent the night in the woods but now that she had made her request she would be damned if she was going to back down in the face of prudish self-righteousness!
"Well, every priestess has the right to seek shelter in the house of Vesta," Marla said, more to her fellow virgins than to her cousin. It saddened Portia to be greeted this way. She and Marla had been friends in their childhood.
"Thank you for your hospitality," she said, nodding formally.
"Well, I... I guess we have to announce your presence to Mistress Palonia."
Marla looked resentfully at the door maiden, then bid her cousin follow her to meet the high priestess. Portia wished they would just skip the formal welcome that clearly no one wanted and just give her a loaf and a bed. She followed her reticent cousin and ignored the indignant whispers they left behind them.
"So you really like it Auntie Vesta?" Bacchus asked.
"It's amazing!" Vesta exclaimed, "Absolutely amazing!"
The goddess of the hearth finished off her goblet.
"It does go to the head, though, doesn't it? You don't intend to share this with mortals, do you?"
"Oh no, dear Vesta! Perish the thought!" Bacchus declared. "This is a treat for the gods alone. Do have another draught."
The god of wine filled her goblet.
"No, I shouldn't..." said Vesta with little conviction.
"But I need your guidance, Vesta!" Bacchus explained, "I plan to hold a feast for all the gods of Rome to share my creation, but I don't know what I could possibly serve to compliment ambrosia wine. More ambrosia seems redundant, but anything I could produce would seem so common next to such a wine. Then I remembered my dear Aunt Vesta, the finest cook in the heavens, the goddess of goddesses when it comes to laying out a fine repast. Surely you can advise me as to what meal could properly accompany such libation!"
"Your flattery pleases me, Bacchus. You have your father's tongue. In truth, this wine of yours would do well to adorn any meal, but the perfect meal, ah, that only the goddess of the hearth can divine. Come, nephew. Accompany me to my pantry and together we shall set the perfect table."
Taking an indulgent sip from the chalice, Vesta strolled towards her kitchen. The god of wine hefted his jug and followed, a sly smile on his lips as he watched the gentle sway of Vesta's divine posterior.
Portia's cousin led her in silence to meet the high priestess of the temple. Clearly Marla was not happy about this little family reunion. Portia wondered if she had made a mistake. Halfway to Palonia's quarters, however, Marla's firm set shoulders seemed to slacken and then the girl stumbled. Alarmed, Portia put a hand out to steady her.
"Marla, are you all right?" she asked.
"Hmmm? Oh yeah, um, fine. I just feel a bit... strange, all of a sudden."
The vestal virgin blinked twice then grinned at her cousin.
"Where were we going?"
"Uh... to meet the high priestess?"
"Oh yeah! <giggle> that's right! We gotta tell Palonia that you're gonna sleep over!"
The grin on Marla's face got bigger.
"Maybe you can stay in my room and we can tell stories!" she exclaimed.
"Um, yeah Marla. That would be fun," said Portia, confused by her cousin's sudden change in demeanor.
Marla grabbed her hand and, swinging it back and forth, lead her the rest of the way to the chambers of the high priestess of Vesta.
They entered the conservatively decorated room to find a middle aged woman with dark hair held up with silver combs. She had a bemused look on her face as she stared off into the heavens. One sandal dangled precariously from her toes.
"Mistress Palonia," Marla said to gain her attention.
"Hmmm?" said the high priestess, "Oh... Marla. How are you, dear? It seems to have gotten awfully warm suddenly, hasn't it?"
"You know, I was jus' thinkin' that myself, I was!" Marla replied.
"I thought so," Palonia nodded. "Sooooo... whose your friend?"
"Oh yeah, <he-he> I forgot. This is my cousin Portia. She wants t'spend the night at the temple 'cuz she's a priestess."
"Oh how nice," Palonia said, "Greetings from the servants of Vesta..."
The high priestess' jaw dropped and she gawked at the red sash around Portia's hips.
"By The Holy Flame," she exclaimed, "Marla, did you know that your cousin's a whore?"
Both Marla and Portia blushed at the senior clergywoman's frank language.
"Priestess, m'lady," Portia corrected, "Priestess of Venus."
"Yeah right!" exclaimed Palonia, "I seen one a' those temples of Venus once when I visited the capital! People give 'em money an' the priestesses do all sorts of nasty stuff to'em. In my book, that makes 'em whores!"
"That's a common misconception, m'lady," Portia explained. "You see, we do not perform the rites in exchange for donations. All the gods demand certain things of their servants: Vesta commands that you maintain the eternal flame, bake the hearth bread, remain virginal, et cetera. Likewise, there are certain acts which Venus asks her clergy to perform. And of course, those that come to worship are inspired by the Goddess to give donations to Her glory and the maintenance of Her temple and priesthood. But it isn't a financial transaction. We do what we do because Divine Venus mandates it, not so worshipers will pay us. A temple of Venus is no more a brothel than a temple of Vesta is a bakery."
"Yeah, but what kinda goddess tells her priestesses to get all naked and do that nasty stuff?"
"Well, our Venus is certainly a free spirit," Portia admitted. "Not nearly so composed and proper as your Vesta."
"You can say that again!" Palonia said and Marla giggled wildly.
Portia was confused. Marla and Palonia were acting very strangely. Not like Vestal virgins at all. If she didn't know better, she would swear they were drunk.
"Hey Bacchus! My goblet's empty again!" Vesta called out.
"Oh dear, allow me to rectify the situation," said the god of wine, pouring another draft of the golden liquid.
"Thanks!" said the goddess of the hearth, "Now where was I?
"Cheeses, Auntie Vesta," Bacchus said. "Cheeses!"
Vesta rolled her eyes.
"I know it was cheeses! Which one? I got like three hun'red differnt cheeses! Iss like I was sayin' if yer gonna invite the whole lot of 'em over t'try yer wine, ya gotta start out with an appetizer. An whas gonna go be'er wif wine than cheese an crackers? I mean, there's a reason why it's a classic. Am I right?"
"Right you are as always, Lady Vesta," Bacchus agreed, saluting her with his cup.
"Damn right I'm right!" Vesta affirmed, "Now anybozy can jus' plop down a wheel of aged goat cheese, but it takes real skill to choose jus' the right cheese fer the wine. Now I've tried every single domesic wine wif yer cheese... No, wait a minute... I've tried every single domessic cheese wif yer wine... yeah... an' there all crap!"
"No!" Bacchus exclaimed.
"Yep!" she countered. "The Romans are great at architecsur but as far as cheese goes, they suck ass! <hip> 'scuseme. The gorganzola comes close but iss got an afertase like Vulcan's feet. I d'know what they wer thinkin' with that mozzarella shit. Maybe if you melted it on flatbread with some sorta sauce it would be worth eatin'... I dunno... but it goes wif wine about as well as Mercury's togas go with those weird sandals he's always wearin'!"
"But luckily, the republic's esspandin," Vesta continued. "I hadda try the local shit firs, a' course--loyalty and all that--but I say anyplace with a Roman legion posted there is fair game for Roman cookin', am I right?"
"Logical," Bacchus agreed.
"Essacaly!" Vesta nodded emphatically. "Now there's this lil' backwater part of the republic they call the nether-regions or sumpin' like that..."
"Sounds like my kind of place!" said Bacchus with a wink.
Vesta snorted and giggled.
"Bacchus yer jus' naughty! But anyway, they make this stuff they call gouda. I gotta wheel of it somewhere. Jus' a secon'."
The goddess of the hearth rummaged through her collection of cheeses while Bacchus enjoyed the lay of her toga as it draped her divine rump.
"Found it!" She declared and cut two small slices of the mellow soft cheese.
"Thank you," said Bacchus, accepting the morsel she sliced for him.
"No probem!" said the goddess, nibbling the cheese and washing it down with a large swig of the wine.
"Now thas much be'er" she declared and smacked her lips.
"So on to the main course?" Bacchus asked.
"Not so haysee, missser," Vesta objected, " I said be'er, I din' say it wasza bestests! There's at leass a dozen more I gotta try t'figure out the perfec match!"
"Sorry--I didn't mean to rush you. You know best, I'm sure."
"Damn straight I do!" Vesta bragged. "Iss a very delicate process. Which remines me: I gotta cleanse my pallet!"
She took another swig of the ambrosia wine, swishing it about in her mouth and swallowed it.
"Damn thas good stuff. On to the muenster!"
"Well, I guess we gotta make 'er welcome, right?" Palonia was saying, "I mean, thas what we do, isn'it Marla?"
"Huh?" said Portia's cousin, who had been admiring how the light on the high priestess' crystal-headed scepter sparkled. "Oh yeah, Divine Vesta proclaims that any priestess of any of the Gods of Rome shall be welcomed in the Temple of the Goddess of the Hearth. Iss a rule."
"Thas right!" Palonia declared, "An' rules are rules. Thass why they're rules. Am I right?"
"Yer right!" Marla declared, pointing emphatically at the high priestess, "Thass why yer the boss, cuz of all the right people, yer the rightest!"
"Thas' right!" Palonia agreed and both the virgins giggled.
"Ya know what?" said the High Priestess. "I wanna have a fessibal!"
"We can't have a fessivbal!" she said, "Iss not one of Vessa's holy days! I know cuz I'm in charge of the calendar this year!"
"Well shit! Vessa's got relatives, right?" Palonia pointed out. "We oughta show some respec' fer them too, right? I mean, by honoring Portia here, we're honoring you as well--Why shunza it be the same wif the godseses?"
The two virgins turned to Portia.
"Is it one of Venus's holy days?" Marla asked hopefully.
"Um, no, not really." Portia said. If it was she wouldn't have dared try to spend the night sleeping. "But... I do believe it is a minor holy day of Saturn, Vesta's sire and Venus' grandsire..."
"Great!" exclaimed Palonia, "We'll have us one of those warchamacallits that they had back in the old days!"
"A Saturnalia?" Portia asked, eyebrows raised in disbelief. Surely Palonia didn't know what she was saying. Saturn's rites made those of Venus look tame!
"Yeah, lesss have one a those!" Palonia exclaimed.
"Ummm, what exactly did you have in mind?" Portia asked delicately.
"Well, I think it involves dancing around a fire, an' we got us a fire, so we're set!" said the high priestess.
"I love dancing!" Marla exclaimed and clumsily twirled about.
"All right then!" said Portia, smiling at their innocence, "I guess I'm up for a party!"
She was still tired, but how often would she get a chance to see the vestals let their hair down? As if on cue, Palonia pulled the silver combs out out of her hair and shook out her long dark curls. Whatever was going on, Portia was going to go with it and see what happened.
"Lesss go t'the courtyard then!" Palonia exclaimed.
Portia followed the giggling, staggering vestals, shaking her head in disbelief.
What ever was going on with Marla and Palonia was obviously effecting the two priestesses keeping Vesta's Sacred Flame as well. They had piled on much more fuel than usual and built it into a raging bonfire into which they were staring and giggling. They had shed their robes of office and wore only the gauzy white shifts that served as their undergarments. Even in these brief outfits, they sweated heavily in the heat and the white fabric was plastered to their bodies as they sat sprawled before the fire.
When they saw the high priestess, the flame guardians leapt awkwardly to their feet and hunted guiltily around for their togas.
"Holy Shit!" Palonia exclaimed, staring wide eyed at the bonfire. "That is so cool!"
The two flame guardians stopped their attempt to cover up and stared at their matriarch, then collapsed in a fit of giggles. Marla and Palonia joined them. Portia couldn't help but chuckle herself.
"Najulia, Kalena," said Marla, "Thiss is my cuzin Portia."
"She's not a whore," Palonia clarified and then grinned at Portia.
"Nice to meet you, Portia," said Najulia. Her companion just blushed and giggled harder.
"Charmed, I'm sure," said Portia.
"We were jus' thinkin' that we should have a fessibal," Palonia informed them.
"Really?" exclaimed Kalena. "That would be so cool! Can we dance?"
"You bet yer bottom!" the high priestess declared. "Najulia! Ring the bell! Call everybody! We're gonna have us the bess damn fessibal ever!"
The flame maiden went to a white cord that hung beside the entrance to the courtyard and set a large bell to ringing. Soon, the three bakers and the door maiden staggered in, leaning on one another, their robes in disarray.
"Vassals of Vessa!" Palonia declared, "In honor of Our Lady's daddy Saturn an cuz Marla's cuzin is visitin, we're gonna have us a fessibal."
The virgins giggled and cheered. Portia was amazed. She had seen no evidence of wine about the temple but the vestals were all clearly plastered. If there was no physical explanation, it must be divine. But how on earth could Bacchus have influence on Vesta's clergy in Her very temple?
"Well, Bacchus m'boy <hic>," said Vesta, hopping up to sit on her kitchen table, "I gotta tell ya: I'm stumped! I've tried every stinkin' cheese in the pantry, every sor'a fish er fowl or <hic> flesh I can think of and they jus' don' do it! Lesss face it <hic> this stuff is jusss too damn good!"
The goddess took another swig of the golden liquor and smacked her lips.
"An I should know, right?" she continued. "I mean, you shaid sho yershelf, you did. You said, 'hey! I'm gonna have a feast an I'm gonna invite all the gods so they can try my new ambrosia wine--but what to serve? What to serve indeed?' An you said to yerself you did, 'I'm gonna go ask Auntie Vesta, cuz she's the goddess of the hearth and if she knows anything, iss how ta throw a dinner party!'"
"Thas'a you said an I'm very, very flazzhered. But I gotta tell ya, I'm stumped. You were cowin on me t' enlighshen you an' I jus' fell on my butt!"
The goddess wobbled a bit on her perch on the table and the god of wine stepped forward to place a steadying hand on her shoulder.
"Dear, dear Auntie Vesta, most divine of all the goddesses," he said, looking deep into her addled eyes. "You haven't failed at all!"
"I haven'?" she asked, confused. "But I tolya, I d'no wha you should eat wif yer wine!"
"No, but your mere presence has proven inspirational!" Bacchus explained, "Because spending the afternoon in your kitchen, watching you imbibe my remarkable vintage, you have inspired me to know the perfect accompaniment to ambrosia wine."
"I have?" asked the drunken goddess, amazed.
"Indeed!" Bacchus exclaimed, "There is only one thing so exquisite, so divine, that it would not be shamed to be eaten with such a beverage. I dare speculate that beside such a meal, even this, my greatest creation, might pale by comparison!"
"Yer kiddin!" Vesta said, gawking in unbelief.
"No dear Vesta, I am not! And the irony of it all is that this divine meal has been right before us all along!"
"Where?" asked Vesta, looking about.
"Why Vesta, gracious hostess that you are, you have already laid it on the table!"
Vesta looked at the bare table a top which she sat.
"Whateryou talkin' 'bout, Bacchus?" she asked.