"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.
Our discussion topics ranged from the latest gossip in the Subura and the homes on the Capitolene Hill, to the price of sandals in Lutetia, to what I had heard from the captains of grain ships docking at Ostia. Augustus set a great store by the personalities of each man and woman he dealt with, and some of my reports highlighted the foibles of the men he had dispatched to important posts. Livia was more interested in the gossip, using that to get a feeling of the mood of the people. Rome was almost never caught by surprise when these two were at the helm.
We concluded our business by late afternoon. The slaves were sent to write the letters being sent and I was wrapping up my own notes when Livia stopped me. "Phillippa," she said, that being the name I was known by in Rome. "You do not have many correspondents in Judaea or Syria, do you."
"Only a few merchant captains," I said. "Most of what I hear comes through the markets in Alexandria or off the docks in Tyre and Gaza." I gestured to show her what I thought of most of that news.
"No direct reports, then." She stared out the window thoughtfully for a bit. "I want to change that. I have been relying on the wife of the garrison commander in Sidon for most of my information, and her husband is retiring and moving back to Rome next year." She looked at me with those cold cold eyes. "I want you to set up a network of correspondents for me in Judaea. This will take time and you will need money to do it. I shall direct the Governor at Antiochia to make funds available to you." She favored me with a smile. "I will expect you back before the end of the sailing season next year."
"It shall be as you say," I said with a small bow.
"Good, good." She glanced down at a papyrus in her lap, one of those notes she and Augustus were always exchanging. They always discussed policies by exchanging notes. I had been a little surprised at this at first, but soon saw why. Writing it down forced them to marshal their thoughts and focus on the problem. And from their arguments and counter-arguments they almost always found a way to accomplish what they wanted, a way that furthered the greatness of Rome.
"I would like the first reports by this time next year," she said. "I do hate to impose on you, but I see no other way. I never trust someone I have not met. In that way we are alike."
"How else could we judge the accuracy of their reports?"
"Indeed. And so that means we will need someone to give us the reports you normally give while you are absent."
"I shall have someone take care of that."
"One more thing." She rolled up the papyrus in her hand and began tapping it against her leg. "I want you to draft that decree to census and tax the people, not one of the secretaries. Because of your heritage you have more of a way with words than they do."
"I can have a draft for you by tonight." She nodded, her mind obviously elsewhere. I waited to see if there was anything more, and then bowed and withdrew. Since I had talked with P'dania I had given the problem of my temporary replacement some thought, and I had a solution, but not a solution I think was expected.
The problem was that whoever gave the reports to Livia would be in a position to replace me. While I could take steps to forestall that, what worried me was that Livia would decide I was surplus to her needs and would retire me as she had retired several people who were inconvenient to her. Her methods were direct and very often lethal. But if P'dania Herself visited me to stress this birth, that meant it was someone the Everliving were willing to trim the rules closely with, and that meant I could have Them help me directly.
I returned to my rooms and spent some time going over the things I had been given to do, including the draft of the decree for the first census of the entire Empire in Roman history. After eating and finishing the rest of my work I pushed everything to one side. I lit my votive candles and made the proper prayers. And, as I expected, Athena appeared.
"I love it when you are being clever," She said by way of greeting. One thing about dealing with Her, She gets directly to the point of the conversation.
"Then You will be my replacement while I am in Judaea?"
Her face looked troubled and She shook Her head. "I cannot, Kalliste. I am needed in Judaea, too. But I have someone in mind who will, several someone's, actually. They should be here momentarily." There was a discreet knock on the door, not the public one, but the private one hidden behind a cabinet that led indirectly to the streets. I looked at Her. Only I and two others knew of that entrance, and Augustus and Livia were in another part of the building.
I opened the door slowly, wondering who I would find. With a start I stepped back in surprise. It was a face I had not seen in two or three hundred years at least.
"Well met," I said.
"Well met, indeed," Kassandra replied. "It has been some time, hasn't it, Kalliste." Before she stepped through the door she drew herself up. "I am Kassandra, eldest surviving daughter of Priam, King of High Illios and King of the Dardanians, and I seek guest privileges here," she said in the language we had used in Illios.
"I am Kalliste," I replied in the same tongue, "daughter of M'pha, daughter of L'risae, last of the Sea King's Children, and guest privileges are freely granted." I motioned her in. The formality was done, and we hugged. "And how have you been?" I asked still in the same tongue. "How is Delphi?"
"He still has use for me," she said, meaning Apollo, to whom she was beholden. "But enough, we will have time to talk later. I am here at His bidding."
"Which explains how you knew about that door." I turned to Athena. "You said "several someone's". Who else is coming?"
Athena smiled and said something I did not hear. And then Apollo Far-Seer was standing before us. If Athena was a woman of perfect form, Apollo, Her older brother, was Her counterpart as a man, perfect in form, perfect in features. All other men seemed diminished after you gazed upon Him. But I took little time to do that as both Kassandra and I gave Him our respective obeisances, she with prostration in the style of Illios, me with my hand shading my eyes in the manner of K'ftiu. I was suddenly aware of just how important this particular birth must be.
He acknowledged our worship, and turned to Athena. "Sister. At your request, I am here. Let us see if we can fill in for Kalliste."
"Then let us get down to business," She replied. At her insistence Kassandra and I sat beside them. I spent the rest of the evening laying out who my informers were, what I thought was currently happening, what Augustus and Livia thought was happening, and highlighting the differences. These reports and my analysis were far more comprehensive than the reports I gave Augustus or Livia, but with reason.
Apollo nodded as my words ran out. "I can see why you are being so careful with your replacement. What happened to Gaius Drusus would be cautionary enough."
"Once is accident," Kassandra said. "Twice? Coincidence. Three times? After three times you know there is someone behind the action and you must act appropriately, and Livia has certainly cut a bloody swath through Augustus' family..."
"Truly," Apollo said. He looked at Athena for a moment. "Sister, we are in agreement. Kassandra and I will perform the duties here while Kalliste is busy in Judaea. We will have to spend some time with Augustus and Livia so they are used to us. I will have to deal with them directly as Kassandra will have to maintain the contacts Kalliste already has." He smiled in amusement. "It seems she has set things up so her friends expect to talk to a woman."
"Livia's other spy network is based around male slaves," I said, "and mostly eunuchs at that."
"Which explains why it isn't as good," Apollo said. "Nobody pays attention to lower-class women here in Rome. Very good, Kalliste, very clever." I flushed at the praise. "Now let us all be off on our tasks."
He and Athena stood, and after a moment They weren't there, the air swirling slightly behind Them. Kassandra and I turned to catching up on what each other had been doing since we had last seen each other at Delphi the morning the Great Alexander had occupied the city and looted the treasuries.
"Did you ever wish you had gone ahead and burned that damned horse despite what the people said?" I asked when the talk turned to Illios. The horse in question had been full of Argives, and had led to the destruction of Troy.
"They listened to me as well as they ever did," Kassandra said. "I've relived that night many times." She shook her head. "At first I thought it was Apollo's curse that nobody believed me. Later I thought they were just drunk with the idea that the war was over. It was, but not the way they thought."
"Too many died that last night," I said. I'd had my own narrow escape, having to kill an Argive who had tried to rape Helen. Menelaos had entered the room right after that, sparing both Helen and myself.
"So what have you been up to, besides traveling the wide world?"
"Just that. Assur, India, here and there. The Great Alexander dragged me around for a while, as did his generals." I turned up one foot. "These poor things have been everywhere. What of you?"
"Delphi," she said. "I have been the Pythia, and it is His will that I will be the prophetess for as long as Delphi lasts. I had not been away from Greece until about a hundred years ago. Someone else is the Pythia right now. He has me poking around these last few years, learning what I can."
"Have you been back?" I asked, referring to Illios.
"I don't think I could bear it. Have you?"
"I saw it from a ship. There is a new city growing there."
"City." Her eyes went blank for a moment. "The place for the new city is Byzantos, not Illios," she said in the language of Illios. "It will be a new Rome and will sit by the Golden Horn." She gave me a quick smile. "That happens," she said, switching back to Latin. "Someone says something, and it triggers His gift. Did you ever wonder why the priest at Delphi wrote down what I said and why the Pythia did not speak directly to the supplicant?"
"I was told it was to protect the sanctity of the priestess."
"I hadn't heard that," she said, laughing. "It is because of something you said when we were in Agamemnon's palace in Mycenae." She idly poured herself a cup of wine. I nodded at her lifted eyebrow and she poured one for me as well. "If I tell them directly, they will not believe me."
She nodded. "He has not seen fit to remove it, but now I know it is for my own protection. But if I tell the prophecy to a priest, then the supplicant hears it from him, and they believe it... or not, it is their choice. I make a game of it. I speak in my native language when I am in Delphi, and they need a priest to translate it to Greek."
"That could be awkward. Doesn't it sound like gibberish to most people?"
"There are some cults that practice that sort of thing," she said. "They speak in strange tongues, and people think they're hearing a message direct from Them." We both laughed at that. "But that has saved me more than a few times. At times it is good to be thought mad. That will save me in the future more than once." She laughed again and lifted her cup. "To Madness."
"Or extreme Holiness." I emptied my cup and refreshed them both. "I imagine as Pythia you knew most of what was going on in Greece."
"I had to. How else could I understand the questions I was asked? I like what you have set up here. You were always one to listen more to ship captains than I was. I will have to change that." She looked at the one or two things I kept as reminders of my journeys. "So tell me, what was he like, that holy man in India, The Enlightened One?"
I laughed and told her the story of the one they called Buddha. She told me one of the stories of when she was the priestess at the Games at Olympia. "I wish you could have seen it," she concluded. "I was the only woman among thrice a thousand men." She laughed. "Naked men, all of them very good looking. I could have scandalized everyone."
"And lost your Holy status," I said. I had heard stories about those games, but who hadn't?
"I prefer the Games at Delphi," she said. She held up the pitcher of wine, but after a moment's thought she returned it to the table. "Tell me, old friend, what is it you are supposed to be doing? I See you in Judaea, but I don't See why."
"P'dania has laid a task on me," I said. "She personally laid the task on me, not Britomartis or Athena."
"That explains why Athena and my lord Apollo are helping us. It must be important." She sighed. "Well, we will soon know."
Morning came far too quickly. Kassandra guised herself as an old woman, and as such I took her to meet some of my contacts. It was a slow process, but one Kassandra knew well from her service to Apollo. After three months she was well enough known to my contacts to be trusted by them.
The meetings with Augustus and Livia went as well as I hoped. Apollo had altered His guise to that of an old man. This was not lost on Livia. She could do away with me, but the man who would replace me was too old to continue for very long. It would be in her own best interest to keep me in her service.
When Augustus and Livia were comfortable with Apollo and Kassandra I took a military ship to Judaea. It was near the end of summer and when I arrived the land was just as hot and dusty as I remembered from when I last tramped here as a slave more than 900 years before. It made me wonder what people saw in this place other than a route to somewhere else.
Of course that was why it was important to have spies here. With good Roman gold in my purse, and a lot of patience, I spent the winter gathering the threads of correspondence that were the heart of my network. Traders and ship captains were paid for any gossip they brought with them. They quickly learned that the more their information confined itself to things like prices and costs, the more they got paid. Soon every ship leaving the coast carried information for me.
Livia had initially balked at keeping track of the price of sandals in Alexandria or what mutton fetched in Lutetia. But soon both she and Augustus saw that knowing those things told them more about the health of the Empire than the official reports from the Governors. People with full bellies and a plentiful supply of creature comforts were less likely to revolt than people who were hungry and poor. And, of course, during any exchange of silver for information the world's gossip came along free for the ride.
The treasures of any spy effort, though, are hard evidence about intentions. What was truly in a ruler's heart? What did that letter that was sent to the King of the Parthians really say? And when the Tribune wrote to his cousin the Senator, what was in that letter? Finding the people who have access to that information and the willingness to report it has always been the key to a successful spy network.
Thirty years with Rome had taught me that the people most likely to do this were the women who worked in the palaces and brothels, the serving girls, the slaves, the whores, those who fate had played with, women who I indebted to me by teaching them to read and write. They repaid this confirmation of their worth with what they found out. They took fantastic risks, but the information they provided cemented Roman rule for centuries.
My real mission in Judaea resumed at the beginning of the planting season when Athena met me in Jerusalem. I was staying at an inn next to the ruins of some palace or temple destroyed by the Persians or somebody many years before. She was waiting for me when I came upstairs from giving a reading lesson to one of the girls from the King's palace. I was not surprised to see Her--I had been expecting her most any day.
"Is your teaching is going well?" She asked.
"Tolerably well, Bright Lady," I said after giving her the salute. "If I was half as difficult a student as this one, then..."
"Britomartis said you were not any such thing."
"She is too kind." I removed my shawl and settled on the room's lone stool. "I was probably very difficult for Her to teach. Is the time of the birth soon?"
"It is. Even as we speak the couple is journeying to his home. Bethlehem is the town's name."
"Do they have any relatives there?"
"None that will admit them. She is considered too young by some, and that may cause problems."
"Then I should be there and make sure things go well." I hesitated. "Someone needs to teach my pupils while I am gone. That isn't as important, but it must be done."
"Britomartis will work with your pupils while you are gone," She said. "She is busy with another part of this right now, but she will be here tomorrow to teach them."
I quickly gathered my traveling things together. "Tell Her to enjoy Herself."
"Oh, no doubt she will," Athena said with an absolutely straight face, and then we both laughed. Brit would probably get up to no end of mischief with the girls from the palace, but they would learn from Her. For all of Her flighty ways She was a good teacher.
Bethlehem was your typical hill town, twice a dozen mud and stone houses along one street with a couple of inns, a small temple to the local's God, and a few other buildings. I soon saw that nearly everyone was related to everyone else, which is normal in those small towns. I secured a room at the inn, but only by paying an outrageous price and agreeing to share the room with three other women. In response to the decree I had written in Rome the place was filling up as people journeyed back to the city of their father to be counted.
And where was I to go? As I unpacked I pondered that question. Was I to return to the city of my birth? When last I had seen it, the city of my birth, my village, had been a smear of mud and stone erased from the face of the Earth with a finality by The Wave from the Isle of Dariapana, Thera to the Greeks, more than half again a thousand years before. Where, I asked myself, knowing there was no answer, where was I to go to comply with the decree of Caesar Augustus?