"Tell us a story, Kalliste," Cheryl said. She was sitting on the opposite side of the loom from Kalliste and passing the shuttle back and forth.
"Yes, tell us," Jacqui said from the corner. She rose and padded through the door on her stocking feet calling, "Hey, everybody, Kalliste's going to tell a story." The Common Room, nearly empty a few moments before, began to fill. Everyone liked hearing Kalliste's stories.
"Tell us one of the spooky ones," Cheryl said as she put a chair down next to the wall. "You know, one of those stories with the Old Gods and mysterious portents."
"No, tell us a Christmas story," Anna said. She was a slight, dark-haired girl, with the hard eyes of one who had seen too much of life already. She ran the Women's Co-op, though today she was making tea on the stove in the Common Room instead of pouring over her ledgers. "You've never told us a Christmas story, Kalliste. Do you know any?"
Kalliste Periakes looked up from her side of the loom. She was a slender woman of indeterminate age with long cascading black hair and a thin face dominated by large eyes. Everyone in the Co-op knew she was a graduate student in Archaeology at nearby Northwestern University. A few knew that she had been born in Greece and that she spoke and read several languages.
"Anna would like a Christmas story, how about the rest of you?" Eager faces nodded from around the room. Chairs scraped and blankets were spread on the floor. Cups of tea or cocoa were handed out as people made themselves comfortable. "I know Cheryl likes the stories with the Old Gods." Cheryl smiled, looking down. Kalliste seemed to pause, though her hands and feet kept working the loom. "What about both?"
"Both?" Anna asked. She was fascinated by Kalliste's hands. The other girls had to watch the loom constantly when they took their turns working it. Kalliste never seemed to, and yet she always produced more cloth than anyone else.
"It's December," Cheryl said. "None of us have to be anywhere tonight, do we?" People around the room shook their heads. "I'm certainly not interested in going back out in that." She waved at the windows. Sunset was lost behind the clouds hanging low over western Chicago. Cars passed by with the steady thunk-thunk-thunk of chains.
"Tell us one that nobody's heard before," Anna said, still watching Kalliste work the loom. "If I hear one more cute little story about reindeer and jolly elves I'm going to throw up."
Kalliste smiled at Anna's comment. "All right." She settled back, her hands and feet still working the loom. "All right, you want a different story? This one is about the first Christmas. I can guarantee you haven't heard this before.
"And it came to pass in the days of Caesar Augustus that a decree went out that all the world would be taxed-"
At the command of Augustus I wrote that decree. In 50 years Rome had tripled in size. Kingdoms that should have taken generations to capture had fallen under Roman rule in months. Through diplomacy, bluff, guile, and naked military force Rome now ruled every land that touched the Middle Sea.
Augustus' wife Livia, ever mindful of the flow of denarii to and from the coffers of Rome, wanted an accurate count of everyone who was now a Roman. And so Augustus ordered me to write a decree that would place the entire Roman world on the tax rolls. I did so, and thought no more of it-one more decree that would be carried out scrupulously in some provinces, haphazardly in others, and not at all in more distant ones. But it was not my position to tell Augustus and Livia something they already knew. My job was to tell them the results of the Governors trying to carry out that decree, and which Governors had some of that tax money stick to their fingers.
The day before I wrote that decree I was listening to a trial in a court near the Forum. It was a glorious Spring day with just a hint of heat in the late afternoon to warn you of what Summer would be like. The prosecutor was just summing up his case-trials in Rome always produced great speeches-when I felt a familiar presence. I turned to look at the stranger who had accidentally jostled me, and found myself staring into the inhuman gray eyes of the Lady Herself, P'dania.
"Lady," I said quietly, starting to sketch a salute. She almost never came to see me directly, usually She sent Athena, Minerva to these Romans. In my nearly 1,600 years in Her service I could count on one hand the number of times She had come in person to give me a task. This had to be important.
She motioned me to desist. "Come," She said, gesturing towards the edge of the crowd. "Let us walk, I have a task for you."
I followed as the crowd opened in front of Her and closed behind me, the people listening intently to the peroration of the prosecutor. When we reached an open garden at the foot of the Capitolene Hill She set a casual pace.
"You must travel to Judaea," She said as we followed a curving path through the plants.
"How soon should I be there?" I asked. I automatically checked around me; this near the Subura there were any number of thugs willing to prey upon two women walking alone.
"You must be there at the start of the planting season next year," She said.
I could think of several practical difficulties that I would have to surmount. Livia had started having me watched-I had discovered her other spy network a year before and I was busy suborning it. Another of Augustus' grandchildren had died, leaving it more and more likely that one of Livia's issue would become Princeps-that is if the Senate decided there should be a First Citizen. Both Livia and Augustus were making sure the Senate thought that was a good idea.
There were any number of things like that I was working-relations with the Parthians were tense, tribes in Mauritius were raiding towns, corruption was flourishing in Iberia, all of the usual problems of a large and growing empire. I mentioned none of these things to Her. She had a task for me and that was all that was important.
"It will take some time to prepare to go," I said. "And I will have to find a plausible excuse for my absence, one that Livia and Augustus will accept."
"Livia will send you," She said. "Two of your months ago all of her spies in Judaea were rounded up and executed as spies of the Parthians. She will need someone she trusts to create a new one."
"Every single one of them was arrested?" She nodded. "I wonder how that happened," I said rhetorically. I already suspected the answer.
"A friend of yours took care of that," P'dania said with a smile, leaving me in the dark about just who had destroyed Livia's spy network.
"Of course I can't let on that I know," I said. "I am not supposed to know Livia has other spies." Judaea was one place I had not had a chance to place many people. The land was ripe for that sort of thing. The people there were willing to sell each other out with a fervor that truly amazed me. "Lady, when I am in Judaea, is there any particular thing You want me to do?"
"Assemble your network of informers first," She said. "And then stay there through the planting season, perhaps in the town called Jerusalem, perhaps in one of the nearby smaller towns. There is a baby that must be born and I want you on hand to make sure it happens."
My smile was faint. "Lady, not to remind You, but there is very little that stops a baby being born when it decides it is time."
"True," She said, returning my smile. "But that is not the difficulty. I anticipate there may be practical difficulties. The mother is very young, scarcely of age to bear children, and she married against the wishes of her family-those types of difficulties. I want you to make sure the only problems are the problems accompanying any birth. I know you have some experience as a midwife. That will help. Take care that the baby survives. That baby is very important."
"It shall be as You say," I said, bowing.
She put Her hand on my cheek. "This one is important, daughter, make sure things go well. Bless you in this undertaking."
I bowed once more. She gave me a smile, and then was gone, the air swirling in the space she had been. I walked back to my rooms in Augustus' palace thinking things through. The planting season in Judaea started around the Autumn Equinox. If She was expecting the child to arrive then, that meant the baby might not yet even be in the womb. And the mother was young. Young was a relative term, I was 16 when I bore my beloved Ariadne. For Her to emphasize the mother's youth meant that the mother had to be young indeed, perhaps barely more than a child. What kind of man would take a child to bed? I knew there were men who would; I hoped I was not dealing with someone like that. And this girl was pregnant? There was a particularly stern people living in Judaea, they might take exception to a very young mother. If I recalled right, stoning was just one of the ways they had of dealing with people who broke their many laws.
I met with Augustus and Livia early the next day, our usual meeting on the second day of the week. Say what you will about those two, but they did not take the running of the Empire for granted, not like some of their successors. The Empire worked because they took the time to make it work.
.... There is more of this story ...