Sarah had brought her new daughter to the Co-op. The girl was little more than a tiny face attired in a pink cap and wrapped in a blanket. The women took turns holding her, talking about the birth with Sarah, and asking her what her plans were.
Finally Kalliste Periakes, the baby on her shoulder, asked the one question everyone had missed. "What's her name?"
"Her father wanted to call her Matilda," Sarah said. She made a face as the women around her burst out laughing. "I couldn't see saddling a young girl with a name like that, even if he is from Australia. I vetoed his second choice, too, Sheila."
"Sheila isn't so bad," Sheila Bernhardt said.
"My Dad was stationed in Australia," Sarah replied. "No offense, Sheila, but I wasn't going to name my daughter that."
"So what did you finally decide on?" Kalliste swung her dark hair over her shoulder with a practiced flip. "Hopefully you gave her a beautiful name."
"I gave her the most beautiful name in the world," Sarah said. "I named her Helen, after the world's most beautiful woman." She took her daughter from Kalliste's shoulder and held her in her arms. "Helen Carol Sanderson."
"Look at Kalliste's face," Anna said. "A quarter says she knows a story about Helen of Troy."
Several of the women laughed, but nobody offered to take her bet.
Kalliste stared at the baby with her too-wide eyes, her generous mouth in a slight smile. "I named my daughter Ariadne," she said softly. "That means princess. She was a beautiful baby, but I never thought to name her Helen."
She sat on one of the tables. "I have papers to grade for that evening Intro to Archaeology class I've been teaching, but in honor of Sarah's daughter I'll tell you a story about Helen of Troy, though she really should be called Helen of Sparta."
A perfect face, hair rich and golden, eyes deep blue and lustrous, and a figure that made men desire her from the moment they saw her.
I have had a fondness for the name since I beheld the first one in Vaphios. Of the children I have borne, none have been named Helen; who could hope to match the original? We would be pale imitations of her, just as humans are but poor imitations of Them.
Helen. A Queen in name, a Queen in spirit. She was Their tool, and she knew it. Well did she suffer the burden placed on her. Well did she accomplish Their bidding. And her reward? She was restored to the loving arms of her husband, restored to a kingdom diminished by war. But because of her, and what was done in her name, a people, a way of life, a way of thinking, lived on. By her acts, by the war that raged in her name, a catastrophe was assured that, yet, was the fertile soil for a way of life that has enriched the human race ever since. Few are called to perform the great tasks for Them, fewer still know the price to be paid before they start. Helen knew that price, and she met it with clear eye and courage to spare. Few women, few people, could do half as well as she.
I journeyed to Vaphios at the behest of the Lady Atane. My duties were simple, to groom Helen to be Queen. Her father held with the old ways; whosoever she married would be king. Others taught Helen to weave, to barter, to cook and do those thousand other domestic chores. I taught her how to be a Queen. I schooled her in the Mysteries, taught her to look past the surface, to judge fairly, to divine what other people held dear, how to hide her goals, but get others to work towards them for her. I taught her that some times you have to give before you can get--many a piece of silver has been made only after spending other silver. Helen learned well, and the lessons I would teach her in the morning she would use to good effect in the afternoon when learning the work of the palace.
At first Atane visited us every year, posing as an old friend of mine from K'ftiu. Later, in another guise, she revealed Herself to Helen at one of the shrines. She worked carefully with the child, imposing Her will subtly, making the child want to do things rather than simply compelling her to do them. Helen responded well, reserving her playful side for the times when we were alone, but being serious and attentive when out with the people.
By the time she was of age to wed Helen displayed the mature judgment of a woman twice her years. I had gone beyond being the priestess who instructed her, I was now her confidant, her friend and her closest advisor. But I kept my mouth closed, and chose to be away when suitors called upon her that summer.
Atane and I had discussed it years before. This was a decision Helen had to make on her own. And she chose well. She passed over Odysseus, who in any case had his eye on someone else. She passed over Agamemnon and a dozen others. As everyone knows, she settled on Menelaos, a quiet man of decisive authority who lived in his brother's shadow. It was a good match, and Menelaos quickly settled in to learn how to be King.
Three years passed, quiet years, but I felt as if I were outside on a summer day with the thunderclouds building above my head. That tingling feeling you get on such days never seemed to leave me. I had a good idea of what was going to happen, and I had a fair idea of what it meant. But I did not know when it would happen.
For Helen and Menelaos it was a time of peace and happiness. She bore him a daughter, a child so beautiful I could see the mother in the daughter. A year after that Menelaos assumed the throne upon the death of King Tyndarios. There were challenges to the borders of the kingdom as there always were when a new king took the throne, and Menelaos proved he had learned well the lessons of war. In those years he proved to all but his older brother Agamemnon that he was a king in truth as well as name. He ruled a happy, prosperous land, a land well respected by its neighbors, a land that fit his hand like the reins do that of the chariot driver. And like a good horse team, the land responded to Menelaos' guidance. And so the stage was set when Prince Alexandros of Illios came to visit.
Prince Alexandros was an older, rough-hewn man, square of face and body. He had a faint tracery of scars on his arms, and thick calluses on his hands that spoke of more familiarity with spear and shield than with plow and tiller. His beard, brown with flecks of gray, showed a line of white across his cheek from an old scar. His cape had been thrown back over his shoulder to reveal his broad chest and the rich fabric of his tunic. When he strode through the entrance hall at Vaphios he reeked of dust and sweat, and his sandals sounded hard on the polished stone of the steps.
Menelaos greeted him with the open warmth he gave to everyone. Together they talked of trade, of relations between kingdoms, and of more familiar things. Soon Alexandros' booming laugh filled the hall. We ladies of the court hung over the railings above the hall, watching this important stranger. Everyone knew he was from Illios. Rumor filled in where facts left off, and the rumors were many: that he was seeking an alliance against other kings, that he was here to negotiate the free passage of our goods to the lands beyond Illios, that he was after the hand of Helen's younger sister. The stories chased each other around the halls. None asked me, nor would I have answered. I did not have to guess, I already knew this was the man Atane had told me about.
I gazed upon him with some interest. This was Prince Alexandros, eldest son of King Priam of Illios. Years before he had led the fighting men of Illios south to fight under the banners of Muwatallis, the Great King of the Khatti. Stories were still told of that epic battle against the Pharaoh of Egypt outside the walls of Kadesh. For years the fighting men of the Argolid had boasted of what they would have done had they been there. Their longing for a chance to perform epic deeds drove the low scale warfare that so bedeviled their lands. And now Prince Alexandros was here, officially on a trading mission. In these times fighting men led the trade delegations. It wasn't like the old days, when unarmed merchants could sail the seas under the distant protection of M'Nos.
"Do you think him handsome?" one of the servant girls asked in a whisper after Menelaos and Alexandros had moved to another room.
Helen gestured us all back from the railing, and we retired to our quarters and our weaving. I took my place at the shuttle and resumed passing it back and forth to Riamare, a young lady from an up-country household.
"I don't think he's that handsome," Riamare said. "And he's older than I thought."
"His younger brother is more handsome," I said.
"Which younger brother?" Riamare asked sharply. "I hear King Priam has 50 sons."
"He has that many," I said, "but he only had five children by his wife. His younger brother, Prince Hektor, is as slim as a spear, and totally dedicated to war."
"He would fit in well here," Riamare said. "That's all the men here think about."
"They see no glory in trading wool for olive oil," Helen said with a sly glance at me. "And when did you see Prince Hektor, Kalliste?"
"I've seen him twice," I said. "Once I had to travel to Illios, and I saw him at a shrine. The other time he came to the House N'xos. He was escorting a group of women who had come for the Maenad Festival."
"An entire moon without any men around," a maid said. "How do they put up with it?"
"The women do just fine," I said. "There are things men do not know, and it is better that they do not." I knew more about the Mysteries than anyone present, and they all knew it.
"Maybe that's all right on K'ftiu where you come from," Molla said, smoothing her dress down over her very pregnant belly. "But--"
"You could have done with one less man in your life, Molla," one of the other maids interrupted, and everybody laughed while Molla turned bright red with embarrassment. There was a lot of doubt over who the father of Molla's baby was.
"It is not something you want to do just yet, Molla," I said. "Maybe later, when you have been married for many years, you will find a need to get out into the world. There are times I am glad I do not have a man in my life right now. I miss P'sero, of course, but that was then, this is now."
The afternoon turned dark, with a gentle, rain killing the heat. The others left to help with the evening meal or whatever household duties they had. I was on the point of leaving when Helen stopped me.
"He's the one, isn't he, Kalliste?" she asked, breaking the silence that had enveloped her the entire afternoon.
"What do you mean?"
"Prince Alexandros. That means it's starting, isn't it."
I looked around to make sure we were alone. "I believe so. Are you troubled?"
"No. I know what is to happen. The Lady told me a Prince would come from Illios and that I must go with him." She wrung her hands quietly, hands that were so like Atane's that I had long suspected who her real mother was. "Just like you instructed me, I haven't told Menelaos. I've tried to keep this to myself. Do I have to go with him, Kalliste? I don't want to leave Menelaos or my daughter."
I heard the step behind us and I felt the presence. The smell of olives and laurel filled the room. I turned, instinctively giving the salute. "Bright Lady," I said to Her in recognition.
Atane dismissed me to the corner of the room with a glance. "Daughter," She said to Helen, holding open Her arms. Helen came to Her obediently, and Atane folded the young woman into Her embrace. "You must go with him when he comes for you, Helen," She said quietly, stroking Helen's golden hair. "It is necessary."
Helen looked troubled. "I will go, Lady," she said. "But only because You command it."
"It must be done, Helen. On that you must trust me." Once again I was impressed with Her patience. I am certain She gave Helen some of Her strength, perhaps even a touch of Her knowledge. It helped Helen to believe in what she was doing, and to cooperate willingly and knowingly. Not all of Them are so thoughtful of their servants.
"But Illios is so far away," Helen whispered. "I know no one there."
"I will go with you," I said impulsively.
Atane looked surprised, but just for a moment. Then Her perfect face narrowed in concentration. "Your instincts are sound, Kalliste," She said at last, nodding. "Yes, go with Helen. Things may work out for the better if you do."
She released Helen. "Go, child, and prepare yourself. Go with him when he comes for you, but do not worry, you will see Vaphios again in a short time."
Helen sketched a quick obeisance, and hurried off to her bedchamber. Atane turned to face me, pride and concern writ plain on Her face. At that moment I knew for certain what I had only suspected before. "The daughter greatly resembles the mother," I said quietly.
A smile quirked across Her lips. "It is not quite what you suspect," She said. "We do what is necessary, you know that."
I could attest to that. "Does she know?"
"It is a secret that will stay in this room," She said. I bowed my head in acquiescence. Her guise and manner changed to that of an older woman, similar in dress and features to mine. "I would like to see this Prince with my own eyes," She said. Did I detect uncertainty in Her voice? Surely all of this was designed long ago, and well set in motion at this point.
"Is it wise, Lady?"
She paused, considering Her answer. "Wise? No. Call it... curiosity. That is something we do not exercise enough."
I filed that comment away with the others She had made about Them over the years. We strolled out of the room, falling easily into the semblance of two ladies quietly discussing House business. "How is Britomartis? I have not seen Her for some time."
"She is well," Atane said. "She asked me to tell you she looks in on you from time to time. She speaks often of those days in K'ftiu when she taught you to read, and..." We passed through the halls, two middle-aged women looking like we belonged to that palace and its extended family. Such were the comings and goings throughout the palace that without anyone noticing we were able to walk into and out of the room King Menelaos and Prince Alexandros were using. While we pretended to gaze at a wall-hanging at the far end of the room, She studied this prince from a distant land. Finally, satisfied with what She saw, She signaled me to leave. As unobtrusively as we came, we left.
Back in my room She resumed the guise the world saw: perfect features, perfect hair, gray eyes, and a bearing that was well-beyond regal; the statue they crafted of Her in Athens many years later was a close likeness. I shared with Her a little of the wine a servant had left that morning.
Curiosity won out over politeness. "Will he do, Lady?"
"He has the cold ambition we seek," She said with a nod. She stared into the wine cup as the silence stretched out between us. "Have you ever had to do something you found personally distasteful, Kalliste?"
"You mean besides that business with Ariadne and Theseus?" I smiled at her rueful grimace. "You and Your Mother have set me some hard tasks, Lady. Not all of them have been to my liking, that one perhaps least of all. But my wishes do not matter when I do Your bidding. I trust You and Your purpose."