"I'm through with men," Tasha said, slamming her books down on the counter of the Women's Co-op. "I mean it this time." She flung her coat in the corner and stood there peeling her gloves off with short angry jerks.
"Through with men?" Kalliste Periakes said from where she was sitting. She was a thin dark-haired archaeology grad student of indeterminate age. She pushed back from the table where she was helping Anna with the Co-op's books. "So you are now going to fall in love with women? Is that it?"
"No, not that," Tasha said hastily. She was tall and blonde in the Slavic way and at the moment she looked confused. "I've tried meeting men halfway, I've tried being accommodating to them, but... but... they're so... so..."
"Men?" Kalliste asked, smiling. With her generous mouth her smile seemed to light up her whole face.
"Yes... no, I don't know." Tasha seemed to deflate onto herself as she sank onto a stool in the corner. "I don't know what to do. It seems like every man I've met is a jerk." She laughed bitterly. "I should give up on love. It seems to bring nothing but pain."
"A woman needs love," Kalliste said. "Men?" She shook her head. "Most men do, too, though I think there are some men who find the love of their life in themselves. But a woman needs love. It makes her complete." She smiled at something, but her face was sad, too. "Love is special to a woman."
It is a hard thing to go through life without love. It is easy to love children, but another adult? After P'sero I did not truly love another for a long time. That is not to say I did not have children. I had one by Herakles--that was rape. I had two in Assyria--by-blows of my time as a priestess. I had one in the Indus, Mavra--that, too, was rape. I had two by the Great Alexander--that was at Her behest. I had husbands, too; I was really fond of Marcus Flavius, whom I married--I bore him three children. But that wasn't the love I remembered when P'sero and I were young and the whole world was contained in his eyes.
After the First Ecumenical Council I left Constantinople. The people in power were playing that favorite Roman game of murder and intrigue and I was too close to those in power. I had no desire to be swept up in a constant round of poison and double-cross. My limited knowledge of things military and my wide contacts in the trading world told me that the barbarians were knocking at the gates of the Empire, and they were determined to wallow in the luxuries Rome had amassed for 11 centuries. The whole Roman world was coming unraveled and I had no desire to be present when everything fell apart.
As I had the last time I saw this, when I was in Assyria, I journeyed south, down the sea route to the Indus. It was a far cry from my first voyage. Contact with the Indus was now a common thing, so this wasn't stepping off into the unknown like I had done so many long years before. But I wasn't sailing over a known course, either. The landmarks had changed, the people had changed, and the markets had changed.
As it always did for me, travel was a problem. I could not disguise myself as a man; the people who spin those fantasies have been drinking too much unwatered wine. I had no large household to slip into unnoticed, and I was not foolish enough to sail by myself. This time I went openly as a slave, a slave without a "protector" save a distant Emperor in Rome who would be displeased to see harm come to his "gift". Who could doubt those letters, slaves, especially women slaves could neither read nor write, could they? Suffice to say on a fine spring morning, with Constantine more or less still secure on the throne in his new capitol, I took ship down the coast of Egypt. I was just one of many "goods" being sent to a distant land.
The storm that caught us in the Arabian Sea was beyond description. For endless days we rode up one green wall of water and slid down the next. After the first day of forced inactivity I had to do something. I removed my slave collar and came up on deck to lend a hand. The skills I grew up with had not been lost these many years; when I took my turn with the sails the sailors stopped laughing. Though none of us could do much, we were trying and that was important. Days passed, days of howling winds and towering seas. We lost all track of time or place. There were only the sails, the tiller, the sweeps, and the buckets as we bailed.
The storm abated finally, as all storms do, and we fetched up on an island far to the south of our destination. We few survivors, 16 had left port and now four women and three men staggered ashore more dead than alive. As I surveyed what was to be my new home I could only reflect that I was truly beyond the reach of Caesar and his murderous kin. That was scant comfort, but it was all that I had. A shipwreck let me survive Caesar, now I had to survive the shipwreck.
We all bent to the task of living, salvaging what we could from the wreckage of our ship, and working hard to learn the wealth of our island. I thought of ships that had disappeared beyond the Pillars of Herakles, ships that should have docked at Gades, but did not. I had heard tales of a land far to the west, a land people had found because they were driven there by storms. I had dismissed those tales out of hand because I had never met a sailor who had seen that land with his own eyes. But after this voyage I changed my mind--there was likely considerable truth in those stories, scant good that those stories did me now.
A month went by, and another. The weather turned uniformly hot and muggy and the afternoon rains were only a mild relief. We built our huts, and while the men fashioned nets and spears from the remains of the ship, we women learned what was good to eat, and what was not. Fortunately I remembered enough from my previous time in the Indus to save us a lot of pain and aching stomachs. We did not live well, but we lived.
A year went by, we prospered after a fashion, and the other women paired themselves off with the men. As sure as the burning of a candle, children followed. I felt curiously alone in the middle of a growing village. I was alone until another storm washed over us.
When we went out three days later we found him, his dark hair matted with seaweed, his skin so smooth, and his eyes--what could I say about his eyes? I lost my soul in them. I looked at him and thought of P'sero. I thought of Marcus, I thought of fruit that had to be picked, weeds that had to be cut, nets that had to be mended and cloth that had to be woven. I tried as hard as I could to think of something else, anything else. I tried, and I failed. I looked in his eyes and saw a time when the world was young, and we, the Sea King's children, ruled it from the decks of our ships.
Though our hearts spoke to each other we had no language in common. It was not hopeless. I dredged a few words of his tongue from my distant past. As I nursed him back to health we learned from one another, he the rough patois of Greek, Egyptian, Latin, and something else we had grown to use in our village, I the beautiful rolling words of his tongue. Often during the day I found myself stopping what I was doing just to look at him. I wanted to be with him, to take care of him, to cherish him. I wanted to tousle his hair, and then smooth it back. I wanted to--and I told myself it was not possible. I could not because it was not fair to him. All too soon he would die, and I would be alone again, hurt by another loss.
I was digging in the village garden when I looked up and saw a familiar presence. Atane beckoned me from the trees bordering our village. I looked around and then put down my hoe. As I had all my life, I followed Her.
Her embrace was warm and gentle. "I have missed you, Kalliste," She said in K'ftiu.
"And I You," I replied in the same tongue.
"You have truly sailed a long way, this time." She looked around. "Were it possible I would almost think you had fallen off the edge of the world."
"Sailors have long wondered about that," I said. "Maybe we did, and this is paradise."
"I could get used to coming here," She said, looking around. "Blue sky, white beaches--if it were not so hard for me to come here I would stay."
"You could visit more often."
"I could," She sighed, "but I cannot. No, as always, I came for a very specific reason. I heard the anguish in your heart, and I had to answer. Mother laid a special charge on me concerning you."
I looked down, pretending to study a leaf. "Ease my heart?" I asked. Though I knew the answer, I had to ask. "In what way?"
"Too many times you have been unhappy in this world," She said. "I, and the others, have been the cause of your unhappiness far too many times."
There was truth in that, but what could I say? "I am in Her service," I replied. That simple statement, no more than the absolute truth, had carried me through more difficult times than I cared to remember.
"You are," she acknowledged, "and because of that mother has ordered me to lay upon you a task." She paused and looked around, smiling. "She wants you to be happy with him, Kalliste. She wants you to love him, to be his wife and partner in all things. It will break your heart when he dies, but the happiness you will have beforehand is important to Mother."
"But what about P'sero?" I asked. I could not refuse Her task, and my heart had leaped at the thought of it. But P'sero had been the love of my life.
.... There is more of this story ...