CHAPTER XXXV PYTHIA
No Longer Apollo’s
I, BALTHUS, continue the story of Pythia. The heavy sanctuary doors, well hinged and hung, swung open almost soundlessly. Two young women in white robes, one I had earlier met in her go-to-market dress, came out, both carrying luggage. There followed a taller woman head-to-heels in black, a black scarf over her head, a black veil. Mourning clothes of course, and appropriately so, although it would never have entered my farmer’s mind, this mourning for Apollo flown, the high priest dead. Well done, for they were also a complete disguise; one unchallengeable, for a widow in mourning is that, even for a Roman officer of a bit more than middling rank. Not finessed but trumped. She walked swiftly, proudly, carried nothing herself, nothing of her figure could be seen in this swaddling dress of hers, but she was neither fat nor awkward. Her walk told me she was at least suffering no impairment. It also told me, as she bore down on me, that she was determined, dominant, felt herself superior in the way that well born or noble people do, and that I would learn nothing she did not intend me to know, or to be ably lied to about. Here we were, one descent from the temple-like broad steps, a brisk walk across perhaps thirty feet of colored tiles, another twenty across the grass to where I was now properly on my feet. She did not look back. There she was, her arms folded as if some mother scolding a child, demanding,
I did not like her at all. Poor Mule. With this one he had some more imperious bloodlines on his hands, as if Livia Drusilla hadn’t been enough. Not that this one was Roman, for she had an accent, pleasant enough but mindful of an educated Gaul. Hers was indeed an impressive voice, throaty, resonant, attractively feminine I imagined that if we ever got into a pleasant conversation, which I doubted, it was as melodic as S. Cornelius, then acting Praetor, invited guest of the oracle, had heard it. He hadn’t mentioned the accent.
True Romans of the aristocracy tend to look down on far provincials, unless of the highest rank. He had either overlooked the former the better to allow his impulse of I sudden affection, or had surmised the latter. I had more time in Gaul than my boss, since Germany borders it and I had fought along side their legionnaire units, so I was sure he was either right, she was high born or that we had here quite an actress. Since I think little of actresses, all I have known have been whores, for no women appear on our legitimate stages but only in taverns and then mostly undressed, my dislike presumed she was the latter. Mine was no flattering view, but the once Pythia here, now but mortal and jobless, was not acting in a way that generated my compliments. I asked myself how she could be so cold, this just-rescued woman, yes, yesterday one of the most respected figures in the Empire, Apollo’s Pythia at Daphne, the oracle who knew what it was in men, perhaps the gods, that annealed their futures. I deserved grateful words! I don’t like bossy women, I’m a German farm boy who is inferior to any blue blood. I know that, but it rankles. I suppose it makes me feel better to take them down a notch or two in my thoughts. As women, I’d never met one who, blue blood aside, was my better. There! My confession. I still didn’t like her.
“ ‘Well’, what?” I was hardly going to be subservient.
“What are you going to do?” demanded yesterday’s Pythia, now a fled god’s widow, now still playing royalty in a mountain meadow a thousand miles from Rome
“About what?” I had acted like this with Tuisto, my brother, when he was old and I was young, say 8 years versus 12, perhaps I was being petulant.
She spread her arms out, hands upraised, “My dear god, our escort is a moron who has stolen some Roman officer’s uniform”
“Madam, save your insults for some one deserving them, I suggest yourself. Now, since I presume your information and intelligence, you know you may be in danger. I must get you back to Daphne and a guard, I must report on your status, and I must find something to do with you, one possibility for which is my charge. S.Cornelius, Quaestor, a recent guest of Pythia, acting Praetor at the time of the Cretan festival games, who asks you to be his guest for dinner”
“He sent you here just to ask that?” A raw edge to it, sarcasm, shock, but other meanings I couldn’t read.
“Originally, that is, this morning, yes. But with the temple arson, my own guess that ugliness against Apollo will not stop there. It’s your safety, not your dining, that’s my job right now. I am sure your priestesses here—by now they were on the grass, the heavy luggage happily set aside- have told you of the fire, as your clothes tell me of your knowledge of Apollonius’ sad death, for which death, Madame, I offer my genuine condolences. “
Quietly, “thank you” as reply
We walked in silence to Apollo’s temple, guards now around it to prevent further vandalism and to disallow entrance. Two priestesses, I recognized them as the other lyre players, were sitting disconsolate on the marble temple steps. Some townsfolk were loitering about, as is the case when disasters befall others; there is a pleasure in it not having happened to oneself, and for a dull life, there is a drama in events befalling others, whatever their pain.
She was homeless for the moment and, unknown but to the temple staff as the Pythia, thus to the rest of the world, much diminished. I presumed that whatever her earlier proud bearing, that she must be miserable. Certainly it was the case that as we walked, her two servants carrying her luggage, b I myself with one bag by no means light, that she walked slowly, carrying her own load which was depression. We had stopped at the temple steps, but the young priestess sitting forlornly on top didn’t take notice of the widow Pythia, covered in her mourning garb. Surely they could hardly fail to infer who this was, coming as we were from the direction of her sanctuary, the two priestesses and I carrying luggage. We stopped. Slowly the priestesses, came down the steps. They bowed, were very respectful, talked in low voices. I was surprised there were no hugs, woman to woman, but I suppose rank prevents that, or perhaps they were maintaining the rule that Pythia as such could never be acknowledged as such to outsiders. In that sense she maintained her mystery. I presumed that given her homelessness, Pythia no longer, she would be glad for an invitation that suggested a new direction, a new homeport
“Domina” I said as she returned to the foot of the steps, “My superior, S. Cornelius, Quaestor, whom Pythia saw in audience. I repeat his invitation to dine with him at his home in Antioch this evening. The day is getting on. A palace chariot is here for you. We can provide you clothes befitting one of high station, and such necessities as you require. The Quaestor, on behalf of the Governor as well, have the duty and the pleasure to assure your comfort and safety c until you can make plans for relocation.”
This was the first time I had examined her face, for she looked at me directly as she weighed her reply. She had, as rites of widowhood hereabouts required, smeared her face with ashes, although only the cheekbones and some forehead were exposed. Her eyes were bloodshot, her eyebrows ash-laden but her eyes were a bright blue. Fine features, probably good looking, but under ash, veil, head shawl and sorrow, that was only an estimate. But the blue eyes, manner, and accent suggested that she might be an educated Gaul, even though as for the accent was not as I had heard it when I soldiered on the near-by Rhine.
She spoke firmly. “Tell the Quaestor I thank him. Give me a moment now to consider what I must do. As for our conversations here together, mine with you, we need not make a charade of it, simply follow the understanding that Pythia remains in her sanctuary whereas I, who was one of Apollo’s many servants, am now relieved of my duties. On the occasion of crisis, some informality must be allowed. Therefore you may tell S. Cornelius that my given name is ‘Helen’. ‘Domina’, as you have properly used so far, will do for your addressing me. I know you are Balthus, secretary to the Quaestor. Please tell S. Cornelius that I am grateful to you both for your assistance to all of us who served the god. As for that invitation, I know that any visit, if it is to be made at all, must be delayed. If I can fit I in, fine, but there is much that I have to consider”.
I interrupted her, annoyed. A simple ‘yes, thank you, how nice’ is what she should have said. I have never liked the airs of Roman women, however purple their blood or elevated their titles. I had just possibly saved this woman’s life and she made me feel like a servant. When I carried her luggage I intended to be gallant, obviously she saw me as one more porter. I may not be classy but my rank also deserves respect, We have Druid priestesses back home, every bit as dedicated as a Pythia, but once you get their clothes off, they bounce, wiggle and moan like any other female, and yes I grant, a German forest and a Roman temple are not quite the same, so yes, whatever my emblems, medals, I’m no great shakes in high class, snooty I say, Roman eyes. That was what was so great about S.Cornelius, for all his class, he was courteous from the first, and we were now friends. As for this Helen here, she burned me with her lofty ways, - - so after all I had done, here now my eyes smarting from the smoke of the fallen temple timbers filling the air, always an eye out for some bunch of Daphne toughs bent on mayhem, I didn’t feel sugary, even though I knew she must be feeling pretty bad, however stiff and peremptory that upper lip of hers, I had an edge to my voice when I began,
“Domina, I appreciate your circumstances, but S. Cornelius will insist on helping. He is a fine man, and believe me, an invitation to his house is privilege. I’m sure he will be more understanding than I am, Domina, for he is better bred and kinder than I. Frankly, after all he has done, for the troops were first here on his orders as is my presence here, you owe him real thanks your evacuation, perhaps your life, for in Daphne when the arsonists are out so will be the assassins,. You and I both know it results from sticking that pig, Apollodorus. I think you owe S.Cornelius a positive ’yes’ rather than delay, although I can understand your situation. I know him well, I understand that Pythia had a considerable understanding of him. He can be an anchor, for you, Madame” (I reduced her rudely in rank with that title,) “in this misery. I’m no court Roman, Madame, I speak my mind. You would be foolish to play with the kindness of S. Cornelius.” I was impatient with her. I wanted to deliver this set of female goods to a lovesick Mule and get done with it.
“Balthus I owe no explanations to you, none. You are doing as you were ordered. Mind your place. I will talk to your superior, yes, in due time. It is my courtesy to him that I tell you to convey my immediate message: I have matters more serious than dinners, or my own comfort , that I must address. I am obliged to explore new paths, probably find new gods, for Apollo is obviously weak and in fleeing has deserted us who served him. Pythia protected his temple, he himself could not keep fire away and yet Hephaestus, Olympian master of fire, was once his friend. I am not a weak woman, and will not have a weak god. I must find new clothes, whether for a new person or some refitting former ones I don’t know, for Helen again perhaps, who I was once and well known indeed. It is probably over your head when I say there is a kind of nakedness now. I was sometime ago free, and now am again free, or rather as free as heritage, history, name and inclinations allow. My ship sails on my winds, I, yes, I think likely, this Helen restored at its helm. Tell the Quaestor I do not rely on a man, any man an ywhere, as an anchor. With some men I am equal, with most I am their better. I know S. Cornelius well enough to know we shall have no problem with that. But Syria treats its women badly, these local chauvinists need teaching, if not the whip.
I am reminded that one petitioner came to Pythia from the Gnostic Christians. Pythia told the high priest Apollonius what Gnostics intended, and the priest told us. She foretold a future that is not for me to repeat, but to say there is much in this world that is wrong and remains that way. The Gnostics hold their Jesus high, and they hold women equal, Balthus, which you do not. They say their Jesus as man held himself only equal to Magdalene, a woman dear to him. The Gnostic high god has a partner in a woman whose name is Wisdom. Perhaps they conceive, as earlier people hereabouts did, that the hermaphrodite is sacred, being both man and woman. Perhaps that is the mystery of their high God, They have a great deal to teach, Balthus, even though the best of instruction takes untold time for slow or selfish learners. You, for example, do you think you can learn that any decent woman is your full equal, I do not speak of inherited rank, I mean fully, equally human with you? I very much doubt it
I asked myself, what was this woman up to anyway? If she had set out to irritate me further, I counted her a success. All right, let her hear it as she had put it, I was not going to put up with this highborn, and it could all be fake, nonsense
“Helen, honey, you asked what I really think, or could just as well think? I’ll tell you. For all I know you were never Pythia, that we left her spirit and body in that private Hadrian’s sanctuary, that you came along all dressed up widowy for a good ride on someone else’s reputation, that your friends the priestesses stuck with your luggage will get a cut out of whatever your take away from this con game. Implicitly, honey, you are an actress, not so pure, not so simple. Or, even if you did play Pythia for Apollo, that, yes, lovely resonating voice of yours was reading from a script based on intelligence your friend Apollonius gathered, for I do strongly suspect that every important client accepted or invited for oracular audience is carefully check out first, not that I begrudge you considerable insight into people, courtesy I allow, of both you and Apollo.
Not impossible, I say it now you’ve insulted me, I can imagine that you and stinky piggy Apollodorus were playing some kind of cooperative town-and-temple scam. I never doubted you put the arrows in that pork, and congratulations on it, but no high class woman in Rome can shoot like that, which are the airs you take on. I’d say the Amazon skills are more likely learned by a country girl from a barbarian tribe. In any event, whatever the sad story you fed to S. Cornelius about predatory piggy, it is possible you and he had a falling out, thieves do you know, and he paid your price for it. Now, the temple torched, you’re paying his and the town’s price for spoiling an highly profitable arrangement. Lets’ grant you were Pythia, now Helen whoever, you could be, as far as I know, some temple prostitute out of Athens or maybe Masillia (Marseille) who put the body work behind to use your brain and charm. I think the Masillia origins likely, because you look and sound Celtic or Gallic to me, so there is home port. So there, honey, I’d give no more than fifty-fifty you’re genuine. And I’ll tell S. Cornelius he’d best keep that possibility in mind when you come calling which I must ask, in spite of what I suspect of you request, since he’s my boss and wants too badly to meet you.”
“Balthus, you are an ill bred typically churlish peasant beneath the dignity of my reply. An ox out of your Suebian barn has more manners, so be it. You are what you are, whatever good and the obvious stupid of it, which is not my problem. Now I command you, no, I do not request, I order you to listen carefully so that you can repeat exactly to your superior, S Cornelius, why I am not dining with him tonight. A few day from now, perhaps, even likely. If so, I will ask him to tell me what you reported, if you got it right. So, so do what I tell you and save yourself more misery than your nature by itself brings on you. Do you understand?”
By Hecate of the crossroads, I hated this arrogant, domineering witch who, I had to hand it to her, had given me a good slice across the gizzard while retaining her kind of nasty dignity, quite well. I glared at her; spoke in a low growl,
“Madame, it is out of respect for the Quaestor that I do as you ask, tell me what it is you want me to relay” I felt sick, I was eating from the floor of the stables.
“First, tell him the obvious, I am too tired after all this to go anywhere but the near-by apartment of the young priestesses. I will visit the baths for a long soak. Likewise obvious, I need to clean up, find a proper dress, before I visit anywhere that out of respect for myself as well as any host, including the Quaestor. Thirdly, I need time to plan. It should be evident to you, even the clod you are, that I will not rely on anyone, not even the kindness of the Quaestor and the palace, to plan next steps, next stops for me. I am Helen. I choose. Those paths I told you about, Balthus, those future paths. Will you be able to remember what I have said so far, Balthus?
She raised her head back a bit, literally looked down that sharp Gallic nose at me, overbearing bitch, but she did have me by the balls and was twisting them. If she chose to complaint to me to S. Cornelius, given his lovesick state, she could put me right out of a career. I had insulted her of course, enjoyed putting her in her place, so I thought. Fact was, she did outrank me by far, and was quite able to use that advantage. I felt my jaw tightening, oh how I would have liked to knock her flat on that regal ass of hers, and growled a subservient—oh no, not for the first time has Balthus on his way up played the submissive toady- but to be forced into eating her manure, oh my, oh my, and may she be cursed to satisfy all her thirsts by suckling at the sweet tit of snake-haired Medusa, whose looks, as you know, kill.
“I will remember it, Madame, and… “ It was a pause intended to chill, “ much more”
“Very well then, here is the ‘much more’ of it you are to remember. And do try to keep your finger out of your soil-tipped nose while you tell your superior, will you? “ It was another quick slices of her, as she went dancing along, all quite lofty, this queen of oracular airs.
“Tell him the roads of the Empire are good ones, they lead a thousand places. I will heed that map. I must take some trial steps to learn what direction my feet must go. He will remember that phrase, understand it. Your Quaestor and I, Balthus, are both searching our compass. All this said, please thank S.Cornelius for his offer to dine. I have decided to accept, but by no means tonight. Tell the Quaestor that my new freedom probably will lead me to be impulsive, even foolish perhaps, so rather than set an evening, tell him I shall must do what is most convenient, albeit not indifferent to his hospitality. I will come for dinner soon. I will send him a note the night before. If I set at an inconvenient time for him,, so be it, depending on our moods we may or may not be pleased with one another. I am not at the moment in a situation where I can be entirely relied upon. Now that I am set free, Apollo after all is, the god of foresight, then test my own eyes for that vision. I want no bindings on my will or venture, however kindly offered. Do be sure to tell your superior that I understand more than he imagines, sympathize more than he could possibly expect. Tell him I anticipate we shall examine our charts and paths in company. Remind him to think back on Pythia’s words, for some apply to this now being Helen as well.”
I offered a near- flippant salute, I was on the edge of trouble but I have looked at sharper hostile swords than her tongue. So, I told myself, stay on this side of the edge but don’t step back from battle with this witch.
“ I have no doubt, Madame, you are smart, grand enough, and famous as well, if Pythia’s medals can be worn to decorate your Helen as well. With these, and whatever others skills you have….” I paused, not giving up on the alternative nastier thoughts…” so that you can make your way on most roads on the map of Empire. Even so, when a battle is lost, be glad for a loyal friend, Madame, which S. Cornelius intends to be. I was a soldier as is obvious, you see my Auxiliary Centurion badge here on my chest with other emblems. S. Cornelius as you know wears many medals, for he was a famous warrior, however modest he is. Your temple is burned, Apollo fled, I call it defeat. We have all known that. But in defeat know that strong companions are best, they help us help us plan next campaigns most clearly. Let me assure you Madame (I refused to give her the Domina title, what is she did prove a fraud?) S. Cornelius will be glad to learn you will join him. His house is well known. I will see to it that a palace chariot is sent here to Daphne to fetch you at a time and place you set. Allow me, Madame, do not disappoint S.Cornelius who, if I say so, very much admires you.”
She gave me a hard stare, glint behind the ash, “It’s a fool who admires someone he doesn’t know, hasn’t met, cannot imagine. As for you, ‘soldier’ –to use that rank in addressing me was insult –“ you push too hard. You may have defeats coming your way that you do not expect, and no, that is no oracle speaking, it is Helen whose other appellations, powers, might already be known to you if you set your history cap on your head” She paused, adding, “If the brain inside it is bright enough”
The bitch, , harridan, harpy and a match for Socrates’ wife Xanthippe to be sure. This homeless, jobless, god-deserted creature was almost amusing. I had relaxed into mere annoyance.. But I took care. Unless some other priestess had assumed her pose and loss, yes, she had been that famous oracle, high and mighty they are, and given the way things work, maybe really of nobility somewhere. As for the Helen stuff, that allusion that on its face was incredible, in this world one can never know. I told myself “be dubious, lad, but don’t push your luck. It’s a world full of bluff and wonders, the ridiculous and the dangerous. One thing for sure, this bitch princess, real or faked, had red-hot coals burning under her ash.
I was the one to take on the snotty look. “Whatever work you do, Madame, you are an indignity happening. I understand you completely, a regrettably simple conclusion.”
“You, Balthus, are a true disappointment. Useful yes, well intentioned sometimes perhaps, but as palace procurers go, you need first a whipping , then another whipping and then some Greek slave to teach you courtesy. Now, give your master this final message. I will come when I am ready, but so as not to be too impolite, it will be within the week. In the meantime, try to sift it through the manure pile that is your brain, that no man is my master, no man speaks to me rudely with impunity, and as for your “understanding” it smells of a North German stable too spoiled by Rome. ‘ She turned away, beckoned to the musician priestesses on the top steps, peremptorily gestured, as mistress to slave, to the girls carrying her luggage, pointed to the one piece I had set on the ground for that to be added to their load, and went off toward Daphne town.
I swore a few truths about spoiled bitches, went to retrieve my horse from the guard camp, sent one trooper off as a messenger to the Mule carrying my note saying that Pythia, now calling herself “Helen” was well and nasty, that he must dine alone tonight but that she would do him the favor of showing up at her sweet convenience within the week.
What a day! My horse retrieved, I rode back into the camp to look for that Spanish aristocrat, the young centurion in charge, to suggest we go into town for some wine. The sun would set soon. I told a trooper to set up a tent for me, mark it with two torches, and be sure there was a large wine flask inside for my return. The smoke from the temple embers still burning burned the eyes. Damn these people, arrow-pierced piggies, their arsonists, feuds, and and, yes she left me shaking a bit, this oracle. I’m’ not used to women calling my bluff or pulling rank on me, and pity the Gnostics for their “God is also a woman” creed. She will have them by the short hairs. This damn Helen, I had lost the battle. “Find her path” indeed. Next thing she’ll be a Mithraic high priestess, not one slaughtering bulls for initiation, but Helen herself cutting off some poort fellow’s balls at the sacrificial altar. I shivered. So did my balls.
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