10. Serrae's choice

*

Serrae was walking in the fields when Timo returned the next day. But Aggi came running to tell her, and she turned her footsteps homewards. She walked slowly, her hands grazing the rough heads of the grain, filled with serenity from having made her choice.

When she got to the villa, Timo was out the back, with Iphis. Serrae found them under the pomegranate tree again, Timo tossing the Athenian beauty a swollen fruit. This time, Serrae did not see her own heart being tossed aside in his gesture. This time, she remembered that pomegranates were wedding gifts. She smiled fondly.

The fruit of the desert. He was offering Iphis salvation from the desert of her ruined hopes, her shaky prospects. What girl could refuse him? Me, the thought swirled through her mind. I am refusing him. But her soul remained calm and accepting of her destiny. She had fought it long enough.

Then he saw her.

Timo's eyes lit up, and he ran to pick her up and squeeze her in his arms.

"Kallos!" he cried, pressing his cheek to her, "How I have missed you!"

Serrae's resolve quavered. She would so miss his darling face, his gentle hands, his tender lips. Her hands trembled as they stroked his head. Why had Iphis' engagement been broken off? Why couldn't she have married some other handsome rich young Athenian? What does it matter, she told herself sternly, you have pledged yourself now. You will be free of everything but dance. Timo caught her looking to Iphis. Iphis noticed their combined gaze and drifted to the other side of the tree, out of sight.

"She has still had no offers," he said, discomfort pulling at his face. His hands squeezed her once more, then released her. Why did this news make her heart sink? It meant nothing to her. Timo would marry Iphis, and everyone would be happy…

"Would you be happy with her?" Serrae asked him, not bearing to meet his eyes. At their feet, the old fallen pomegranate fruit were falling apart, returning to the earth, disappearing.

"Serrae…" Timo whispered, his hands holding her shoulders tenderly. "We have always been good friends, Iphis and I. She will not be unhappy with me. But… No man will make her happy. Do you understand?"

At first she did not, and glanced at him with confusion marring her features. So Timo explained. There was indeed a reason why Iphis' engagement had been broken off. She was beautiful. She was rich. She was a citizen, she was from a good family. She was virtuous; she had never loved a man before. But therein lay the problem. She was perhaps too virtuous: her virtue would never be voluntarily be taken by a man.

"She didn't love him, Serrae," Timo whispered, his gaze fervent. "She couldn't. She couldn't love any man. She loved women. Her fiancé found out. He rejected her."

Serrae was stunned into silence. She found herself thinking, no doubt Iphis felt herself released. Marriage would be forced labour for her.

Except, Serrae knew that Timo would respect Iphis's wishes. And what other hope did she have? What other man in Athens would treat her as well?

Serrae kissed Timo softly on the cheek, and went to talk to Iphis.

-

The day that the Temple welcomed new pledges was an honorary festival day. It certainly looked the part. Iron wrought to look like blossoming petals held masses of incense, weaving the air with smoke and mystery, filling the spectator's heads with the cloying scent of divinity and carrying their thoughts to the gods. Preceding the procession, flutes and cymbals clashed and trilled, threading the atmosphere with strange and enchanting rhythms. Crowds lined the streets of the temple mount, and the priestesses had strewn the cobbles with flowers to soften the path of the procession of litter bearers. Crushed beneath their feet, the petals released a delicate perfume that merged with the scent of incense, making the air heavy with divinity.

Inside the veiled litters, the young women who were pledging their lives to the temple, who were becoming initiates this day, reclined in a state of composed, graceful relaxation, ready to start their lives anew, and cut all links with their past. Few worries troubled their minds. It was an honour to be accepted into the Temple house. An honour for themselves, and their families, and a gift to the gods. The great honour outweighed the little sadness there might be. Though solemn, the occasion was filled with great pride and joy as well.

"There she is!" Andronika whispered, pointing to the second to last litter. Hagne hugged her daughter tighter to her side, and kept her face smiling.

"Shh," Hagne whispered down to her, and the little girl jigged silently.

The litter bearers set down their load at the Temple steps, and the last two pledges stepped out onto silk cloth, their first steps in their new life, their old lives forgotten.

But it was not Serrae that descended from the litter. It was Iphis.

Serrae stood by Timo, smiling, and he looked at her and kissed her as any husband should kiss his wife.

The priestesses welcomed the pledges kneeling before them and began the ceremony to accept them as initiates. Each pledge rose from bent knee in turn and disappeared into the inner sanctum. The crushed petals lining the road drifted away in a playful breeze. The music grew fainter and fainter til it disappeared. The crowds breathed a silent, wistful sigh, and began to fill the sudden emptiness of the road.

Hagne, Timo, Serrae, and the children lingered. Lost in dreams of what might have been, Serrae relaxed back into her husband. Her mind and her soul were calm, assured with her choice. Timo's hands cradled her belly, minutely rounded with the seed of life growing within.

"I hope it's a girl child, he murmured.

"A girl child!" she cried, turning to him, smiling at his folly, "Why on earth would you hope that?"

He returned her smile tenfold, happy beyond measure. "Because then you will have a little girl to teach your dancing too, and all the other little girls around will want to be her friend so they can learn too, and they will beg you to teach them until you set up a dancing school."

She laughed at the foolishness. But as they wandered back down the road towards home, the idea blossomed as surely as the babe in her womb.