“Why, what is this, sisters?”
A babble of voices answered her. Her companions were arrayed in a striking tableau, some bowing, others kneeling, before a pair of strangers. She was alarmed to see Daphne’s gown rent and bloodied, though she seemed calm and no wounds were visible. More blood stained the ground nearby.
The newcomers were like none she’d ever seen before. One was of heroic proportions, easily eight feet tall, with a matronly figure. She wore a graceful gown, which exposed a large reddish gem in her navel, and went unshod. The other was even stranger, too tall to be the boy she rather resembled, but painfully thin, with a nose like a stork. She bore a large elliptical pearl on her forehead, and was draped in outlandish clothing.
All that was curious enough, but even more surprising, they both went armed: one with a helical spear, the other with a broad sword and decorated aspis shield. These they held with the easy competence of the veteran.
The babble had continued unabated while she took this in. As she clapped her hands smartly, it subsided, and both newcomers turned their eyes to her. “Come, come! We are all poets, are we not? Tell the tale properly!”
Chastened, her friends composed themselves and began to declaim in epic fashion, one speaker per stanza.
As the friends were taking pleasure in each others’ company,
Near the villa of their hostess, just outside Mytilene,
The crashing clamor of a chase came from the woods nearby.
Out burst a beast and charged at them, and wounded one thereby.
Behind it sped two goddesses: straight at the beast they flitted.
Evading one of them, upon the other’s spear ’twas spitted.
It burst asunder, flew to dust, and on the breeze it vanished.
Its soul she closed within a sphere, and to the heavens banished.
The hapless woman it had gored lay in her life’s blood wailing.
The mother goddess flew to her, with her companion trailing.
Close to her she knelt, and laid aside her sword and shield,
Her tears fell on the wounds, and all was in a moment healed.
All praise the sisters merciful, who from the monster fended
These poets of Mytilene, and their companion mended!
Praise all the gods and goddesses, and too the guiding lógos
That sent the warding pair to us, from distant Mount Ólympos!
She applauded in delight. “Well done, my loves! Very well done!” Bowing deeply to the strangers, she added, “You have all my thanks for protecting my friends, divine visitors, and for aiding our beloved companion. This is my home, and you are most welcome here.”
The taller one made her shield to disappear, and sheathed her sword. “We are no goddesses, but your offer is kindly taken. I am known as Rose, and my companion is called Pearl.” The other pushed her spear into the stone on her head, whither it vanished.
“I am called Psappha, and these are my friends Kleïs, Alekto, Mneme …” she introduced them all, then continued, “Not goddesses, truly? For you are surely unlike any mortals I have ever heard tale of. You are welcome, regardless. Now evening is coming on, and it is time for our repast, and for recitations of poetry, and singing. Please, join us.”
As they entered, she drew Daphne aside. “Are you truly well?”
A reassuring nod. “Shaken, but wholly restored. I have never been so frightened … I think I would have perished without her aid.”
She nodded soberly, relieved. “There was surely enough blood on the ground. Well, goddesses or no, we owe them our thanks. Here, go to my chamber and have my servant Xanthe sponge you clean, then take any gown you find pleasing.” Daphne nodded and hurried away.
Inviting her new guests to sit by her, she gestured to the waiting servants to lay out the evening meal. “Tell us of yourselves, strangers. Though you speak our language flawlessly, I think you are not Greeks.”
Rose chuckled. “Hardly! Neither Greeks nor any other kind of human. We come from … beyond the sky. Our Homeworld is far away, beyond the planets you know, circling a distant star; so distant, human eyes cannot even see it from Earth.”
Some of her friends exclaimed at this, but Psappha remained calm. She had seen too many things in her forty-odd years to be easily shaken. “So? Well, there are many things in heaven and earth. Was the beast also of your world?”
“She is of our people,” replied the other, taking some olives. “There are many like her … far too many. There was a great war, three millennia past and more. Most of our companions were … driven mad, in the final battle. They became as beasts, like the one we tracked here: misshapen, bewildered, without speech or self-control. They rampage through the world, harming anyone who comes near. We have been hunting them down and … bringing them peace, ever since then.” She shook her head sadly. “It is an endless task, and a painful one, but it must be done.”
Her companion nodded grim agreement to this. Psappha noticed she had taken no food or drink; Rose, meanwhile, had eaten her olives pits and all. “A tragic tale, indeed. And curiously apropos, for the poem I composed today speaks of those who fight in wars.” Seeing Daphne had returned, she took her lyre and strode to the center of the room. All fell quiet as she began.
Some say horsemen, some say warriors,
Some say a fleet of ships is the loveliest
Vision in this dark world, but I say it’s
What you love …
Reaching the conclusion, she bowed to her auditors, who applauded with enthusiasm. Rose joined them, nudging her companion, who belatedly put her hands together.
Returning to her seat, she attended to a poem recited by Philomela, then another by Daphne, and more. The visitors listened with appreciation, sometimes conversing in low tones. As another performer returned to her seat, Rose stood.
“Psappha, ladies … we are not poets as you are, but if you will, we would tell you of our people’s voyage here, and of the war we fought, and its aftermath.” As this was greeted with universal enthusiasm, they made their way to the center, and Rose began the tale.
Hear, women of Earth, of the Gems’ coming.
Hear of their intentions, and of Earth’s undoing.
Hear of the rebellion, and a Diamond’s shattering.
Hear of the Gem War, and corruption unending.
They continued, alternating stanzas … telling of their people, the Gems, and the fate they had intended for the Earth … how Rose had come to love the Earth and its people, and had tried to stop them. Of the army she had raised as other Gems rallied to her banner. How, after centuries of rebellion, she had slain their leader, the tyrannical Pink Diamond, and fought the devastating war that followed.
And how, at the end, the Gem queens in their wrath had blasted the Earth with a corrupting light, turning all their foes, even some of their own loyal followers left behind on Earth, into brute beasts like the one that had attacked them today. Only Rose, Pearl, and one other companion had been spared.
As they finished, the entire company rose and awarded them thunderous applause. Looking surprised, they bowed, then bowed again, until the applause died down and they returned to their seats.
She smiled. “I must disagree, Rose. You are indeed poets, and of the first rank. That was well told, an epic for all time.”
Rose smiled back. “You are too kind, Psappha.”
As evening turned to night, all the poets took turns reciting, singing, declaiming. Psappha sang an undisguised love poem to her beloved, who blushed at the attention. Those who had lovers, or hoped to, followed suit. At last Rose stood again, returning to the center and favoring her companion with an intense gaze. She sang:
If I could begin to be
Half of what you think of me
I could do about anything
I could even learn how to love …
A simple song, but heartfelt; and, for Pearl at least, heart-stirring; Psappha saw tears streaming down her cheeks as she regarded Rose. These women loved each other deeply, she suddenly realized; as deeply as she and her own lover did. No, likely more; while their own love already ran deep, they had been together less than two years. She knew much more was in store for them, as time went on.
Then she remembered that these lovers had known each other for millennia. How fathomless must their love be by now?
But … no. No, it was not that simple. Attending closely to the lyrics and searching their faces, Psappha understood that, while Rose loved Pearl dearly, she did not feel the utter devotion that Pearl felt for her. Perhaps she wished that she could; but she did not. And they both knew it. Psappha, who bore the scars of that imbalance from both directions, felt tears come to her own eyes for them.
But Pearl was no fool, to spurn the lesser portion that Rose could offer her. As the song came to a close, she ran to her lover, and they embraced to universal applause.
Then an astonishing thing happened. They glowed with white light, they became light, and merged into one. The light reshaped itself, resolving into a gigantic woman, even taller than Rose but more slender, and garbed much as Pearl had been. Both stones were present at forehead and navel as before, but transmuted to a pale pink color. Masses of hair cascaded down her back.
And then she opened her eyes … all four of them.
Even Psappha was taken aback. Everyone stared, awestruck.
Feeling a bit unequal to this, she rose and bowed. “Greetings to you, great lady. Do you … know us?”
The newcomer grinned. “Oh yes. Rose and Pearl are not gone, Psappha. They are right here.” She turned slowly, giving everyone a good look. “I am their fusion, called Rainbow. The fusion of two Gems into one is the most intimate communion our people know … the closest thing we have to human lovemaking.”
Shaken, she answered, “Then we are privileged indeed, to bear witness to such an exalted state of being. Join us, Rainbow, and be welcome.”
Nodding, Rainbow walked carefully back to the seat Rose had vacated, her head brushing the ceiling. Regarding the chair thoughtfully, she moved it away from the table and sat cross-legged on the floor. Psappha, who had been anticipating a crick in her neck, smiled at her gratefully.
“Your people are truly remarkable,” she murmured, pouring wine for the newcomer. Everyone was still staring. As she gave them a pointed look, they turned away, abashed; Kleïs turned to her neighbor, and a quiet conversation arose around the table.
Rainbow looked bemused, sipping the wine. “For us it is not strange, though our Homeworld utterly forbids such fusions, between dissimilar Gems. To us, it is you who seem remarkable. You learn, you grow … you change. You can become anything.”
Psappha was startled. “Your people do not?”
She looked sad. “Sometimes. Not often. Usually, a Gem knows her purpose from the moment she bursts from the ground, and follows it rigidly her entire life. Part of the reason Rose rebelled was to give Gems a chance to follow another path.
“Pearl was made to be a slave, a handmaiden to the highly ranked. All of her caste are such; on Homeworld, she would have stayed in that role forever. Now she is a soldier, and a very fine one. She saved Rose’s life a score of times during the fighting.”
“Many humans are like your Homeworld Gems,” Psappha noted. “They are trained to be soldiers, artisans, wives, or what have you; they fall into that mould, and never escape. Most never even think of escaping.”
Rainbow tilted her head, considering this. “We are less different than I thought, then. But I have more hope for you. I think it is mostly a matter of culture … of the society a person happens to be born into. We have seen more flexible human societies, in other times and places, where people could and did reinvent themselves, because such growth was permitted … even welcomed.”
“That is true,” she returned. “Consider our society here, on Lesbos. Women are educated, and not just for household duties. All you see here are poets; some of us are well known, our works celebrated no less than a man’s. We are less martial and more liberal than other Greeks, and I believe we are the richer for it. Some have even freed their slaves, as I did, having seen that they are no less human than we are, and no less deserving of autonomy.”
Rainbow nodded emphatically. “Exactly. Your people can grow, and so can your societies. Homeworld is all one society, and it will never change in any fundamental way. How can it? The Diamonds are immortal, and they will never permit change.” She nibbled a handful of grapes. “And that is why the people of Earth will someday surpass us. That is why I love your people so.”
Her face suddenly changed shape, expressing dismay, revulsion. She spat out the grapes, then her body turned to light again, and Rose and Pearl flew out of it.
“Oh!” Pearl shuddered. “I’m sorry … I’m so sorry, please excuse me …” She fled outside.
Rose climbed to her feet, shaking her head. “I’m sorry, Psappha. That was my fault entirely. I forgot that Pearl can’t abide the sensations of eating … it repels her.” She looked toward the door. “I should go after her. I’m sure she’ll be too embarrassed to return … I’d better take my leave.”
She turned, bowing to the assembled poets. “I’m very sorry, ladies, but we must go. Thank you all for sharing your art and your company with us this evening. It has been an unforgettable experience.”
As they returned a chorus of farewells, she turned back to Psappha, bowing again. “And thank you for your hospitality, Psappha. You are a truly remarkable human … it has been my great privilege to have met you.”
Psappha stood, offering her hand. “No more remarkable than the three of you, I am sure. I will never forget, either.”
Rose shook her hand, as equals do. “Farewell.” She turned, and strode into the night.