Blessing of the Saintbymythtrav16©
Associate professor Cassandra Marsh stomped into her office, tossed a plastic folder of notes on to her desk and groaned in annoyance. She had just (finally) gotten rid of an insufferably persistent gentleman by acquiescing to his request for a date. Cassandra, or Cassie, as those she was closest to called her, sat down in the comfy leather chair that had been an office-warming gift from her grandfather and turned her eyes to the ceiling as she mulled over the prospective night ahead.
Cassie had never been good at dating, nor had she ever particularly enjoyed it. She was not averse to love or sex, in fact, she often dreamed of one day finding a Mr.Right and occasionally caught herself eyeing off a handsome stranger. But she disliked the sense of obligation to be good company that came with dating. Not to mention the thousands of unwritten dating 'rules' that she could make neither hide nor hair of. Cassie knew that she was not good company for would-be suitors. The few that did come back for a second date were quick to bail out when they realised that she was not easily claimed as a sexual conquest.
Only a couple of people knew that twenty-five year old Cassandra Marsh was still a virgin. She had come close to losing it once – four years ago she had been out on a series of dates with a man she'd met at college. On the sixth date, after driving her home to her apartment, he began kissing her with unsolicited passion while he slipped his hand up her skirt. She found the sensations of him stroking and gently probing her womanhood, through her panties, to be awkward and uncomfortable, but she let it continue until the situation became too unpleasant to bear. The man's response to her sudden display of reluctance was profane. "You must be fucking kidding me!" were the words that kept echoing through Cassie's memory. But ultimately, he was decent enough to cease his advances immediately, for which, Cassie later realized, she was extremely fortunate. The incident had prompted Cassie to wonder if perhaps she was a lesbian. The fact that she had never felt attracted to a woman, even though she had several beautiful friends, seemed to dissuade this theory, but nevertheless, it was a question that still played on her mind, from time to time.
As she forced herself to stop fretting about her upcoming date, Cassie turned her head and inadvertently caught sight of the ancient iron statuette sitting upon a modern pedestal, along the southern wall of her office. It was a sculpture of two people; a man and a woman, kneeling, looking into each other's eyes and holding each other's forearms. The figures were about eight inches in height, crudely moulded and almost featureless. They knelt upon a rough, but level iron base that was about an inch in depth. Though simple, the artefact had a genuine quality to it that made it a nice little piece.
Cassie sighed softly as she looked at the artefact, not in frustration, but in sorrow. The friend who had handed the sculpture over to Cassie, a wild-hearted archaeologist named Clara Roft, had been missing for several weeks. She had been working with a group of archaeologists who had stumbled upon the tomb of a medieval Persian noble; a man who just happened to bear the name Hal'hadin (English translation: Alladin). Then one morning the rest of her colleagues awoke to discover that Clara was gone. Since then, no one, not even her parents had heard from her. Tomorrow marked the four-month anniversary of Clara's last confirmed sighting. This was not the best time for Cassie to have to put up with a randy American trying to woo her.
"Bloody fool, girl," Cassie said softly, shaking her head as she cursed the cavalier lifestyle that, in all likelihood, had ended her best friend's life. Had circumstances been different, Cassie probably would have donated the artefact to a museum by now, or put it into the storage vault in the university's archaeology department. But silly as it seemed, Cassie's sentimentality would not allow her to part with the last thing her lost friend had ever given her. In a way, she hated the sculpture being in her office, as every time she looked at it, she felt a pang of despair hit her right in the stomach. Yet she could not get rid of the ancient piece.
Again, she shook her head, more vigorously this time, as she forced herself to focus on her work. She had to review her notes, and there were several points to research before she sat down again with the delegations from the foreign universities tomorrow. Now that her night was blown, she didn't have the luxury of time on her hands, either.
Nick O'Reilly sat quietly in an English restaurant that was far classier than he was and, with a smirk on his face, wondered what the hell he was doing here. He had come over to England with two Yale professors and four other grad students as part of a conference of archaeological and religious scholars, being hosted at Cambridge. The subject of the conference was two sets of temple ruins recently uncovered in south-eastern China. The discovery radically challenged preconceived notions about how Confucianism expanded during the Han dynasty. Nick's role in the delegation had been changed at the last minute. He was supposed to have been an assistant to his mentor, Professor Hudson. But after Professor Hudson came down with a case of chicken pox that he had caught from his granddaughter, Nick was charged with delivering the professor's theories to the conference, himself.
It mightn't have been so bad except for that stubborn Professor Marsh, who aggressively argued with nearly every point that Nick posed. Nick fought for Professor Hudson's ideas as best he could, but the associate professor from Cambridge had come to the table well armed with intelligent arguments. She had a completely different school of thought to him and Hudson, she was unconceding and she was an infuriating intellectual opponent. And for some bizarre reason that rang all of Nick's bells. The fact that she was very good looking certainly did her no harm, either.
As soon as the conference adjourned for lunch, Nick sought the young professor out and expressed his desire to take her out to dinner. Her polite, but cynical rebuffs, seasoned with a dash of classic British wit, made him want her all the more. He asked her out again during an 'afternoon tea' break, and when the conference had adjourned for the day he followed her around incessantly. He teased her with a guilt-inducing description of the lonely night she was sentencing him to, until finally, on the threshold of her office, she indignantly agreed to a single date. Afterwards, Nick began to wonder if she would really show, considering how much he had agitated her.
But, true to her word, Professor Cassandra Marsh appeared in the restaurant entrance only ten minutes after Nick had been seated by the matre'd. Her expression was far from one of excitement, but at least it was a good deal friendlier than when they had last parted ways.
Her outfit seemed more appropriate for a woman heading to a business meeting than one going out on a hot date. In fact, Nick realized after a couple of seconds that her attire had scarcely changed since the conference. Her jacket and skirt were black instead of grey, but they were exactly the same style as the ones she'd worn earlier. Her white blouse looked identical to the one she'd been wearing earlier, too, although it did appear to be fresh. Her lipstick was a more noticeable shade of red, but apart from that, the professor didn't appear to be wearing any makeup. Nick didn't mind – this woman didn't need cosmetics to look good.
Behind her, a shiny mane of ebony hair extended all the way to the small of her back. It was not bound or styled in any way, merely well brushed, just as it had been when Nick had last seen her.
Knowing the Englishes' expectation of good manners, Nick had prepared himself to get up and help Cassandra into her seat, but as it turned out, he didn't need to – the matre'd escorted Professor Marsh to Nick's table and seated her himself. As she sat down, Cassie noticed that her date had shaved most of the stubble from his face, leaving only his thin van-dyke beard and was also wearing cologne. Cassie hated it when they made an effort – it made her feel more self-conscious, more obligated to be appealing.
After exchanging pleasantries, Nick and Cassie were each handed a menu. The wine list was also placed on the table for Nick's perusal. Nick successfully concealed his surprise at the prices before him and silently lamented the huge dent the night was going to make in his travelling budget. Although he was attending Yale, Nick was not a rich man. His attendance at the prestigious college was only due to an impressive scholarship and parents that had been saving for his education since his birth.
Several minutes later, Nick was somewhat relieved to hear his date order only a moderately-priced meal.
The dinner conversation was ramshackle, to say the least. Nick's contribution was what one would expect on a first date: a brief description of his family, his general interests, his minors in college, and what it was like growing up in a mid-sized Ohio town. Cassie, on the other hand, only talked about two things: archaeology and mythology. She discussed some of the digs she'd been a part of during her student years, but apart from that, the only personal detail Nick had learned about her by the end of the meal was that she was born in Bristol.
It was funny, really. Cassie wasn't a social misfit. She had many friends, both at work and across the globe, of both genders. She could discuss everyday topics quite easily, and had a great sense of humor. Nor was she an unusually private woman. But there was just something about the dating game that compelled her to revert back to 'mythology professor' mode at every opportunity.
In a way, it was her friend Clara's fault. When they had first met, Cassie was a smart, sweet, but shy teenager. Several years of exposure to Clara's wild, rebellious nature had left a lasting impression on Cassie. Whereas once she would have kept any controversial viewpoints to herself, Cassie had come to realize that she was damned good at her chosen field, and her opinions deserved to be heard, if nothing else. And if someone challenged one of her ideas and she knew it was evidentially supported, Cassie would not go down without a fight.
Towards the end of the meal, Cassie and Nick stumbled into a heated argument about the subject matter of the conference. The last few bites of their meals grew cold as the local girl duelled fiercely with the young American over what people halfway across the world may or may not have believed two millennia ago. The tension in the air prompted some awkward silences at neighboring tables. Twenty minutes later, Cassie disarmed her opponent with an unshakeable argument, resulting in him magnanimously admitting that she had been right all along. Cassie was a humble victor. With only a polite smile, she picked up her fork and resumed her meal, scowling in distaste as she took the first bite as if to say, "Why is this suddenly so cold?"
Nick had been enlightened to some interesting truths about ancient China by the Cambridge professor, but his mood was sombre. The English rose didn't seem so attractive now that Nick had seen the apparent absence of romance in her heart. They each ordered a small desert to follow the main meal. Cassie initiated several short conversations about other mythological matters, apparently not noticing that Nick's effervescence had faded since the argument.
When the waiter delivered the check, Cassie took out her purse. Nick insisted that he would pay, to which Cassie responded that she would be happy to settle the bill. When Nick insisted a second time, Cassie didn't argue. Instead she flashed him a polite smile.
Once the meal had been paid for, Nick and Cassie headed for the door. They stood out on the street for a few seconds in awkward silence, making fleeting eye contact only a couple of times. Nick was about to offer his date a ride home, and if she refused, say his goodbyes. But before he got the chance, Cassie awkwardly blurted out an invitation back to the university, to show him the archaeology department's private collection of antiquities. Several months ago, Cassie's friends had explained to her that calling it a night as soon as you leave the restaurant was a major dating gaffe. She didn't feel comfortable taking this virtual stranger back to her home for a nightcap, but she was determined to improve her dismal dating skills. The university seemed a comfortable enough venue for the date's second act.
Nick chuckled softly at how this woman's entire life seemed to revolve around either archaeology or mythology, but he was pleasantly surprised by her attempt to prolong their evening together and gladly accepted the invitation.
Cassie had come by cab, but Nick had left his own rental vehicle in a car park not far from the restaurant. After making the short walk to the car park, the couple climbed into the three-year-old Mitsubishi sedan and headed for the university. Cassie drove, even though Nick was the only driver listed on the rental agreement. She knew the way to the university better than Nick, was more accustomed to driving on the left and had had less wine with her dinner.
Cassie's university key card gave her access to all the areas of the campus that might pertain to her field – even the radiology labs, in case she ever wanted to carbon date something. Within five minutes of parking, the pair had set foot into the 70-foot-long private gallery, containing ancient artefacts from around the globe. As they progressed from item to item, Cassie gave Nick a detailed description of the item's history and cultural significance. Now that she was sharing her wealth of knowledge with him in such a peaceful manner, Nick began to appreciate how brilliant this woman was. It was easy to understand now, how she had become a professor at such a young age. Despite the fact that she was still exposing nothing of herself, save for her academic prowess, Nick felt his attraction to her returning. He even managed to make her laugh when he playfully called a pre-columbian irrigation device an 'Inca Sprinkler'.
After they had done the rounds of the gallery, Cassie was still unclear as to whether she had satisfied her post-dinner requirements, so she invited Nick down to her office to show him the few pieces she had there. The fact that there was a coffee pot just down the hall meant that she could also satisfy her obligation to provide her date with a cup of coffee. She was reasonably sure that good dating manners required her to give him a cup of coffee after dinner (in lieu of any sexual favors).
After switching on the hallway lights, Cassie strolled over to the small kitchenette, filled the coffee pot with water and turned it on. There were only a handful of antiquities in Cassie's office, and the pot would take a while to boil, so the couple moved off to begin, and finish the short tour before they had their coffee.
Cassandra began her tour with the first object to the right of her office door, a shabti (small wooden statue) found in the tomb of an Egyptian priest. Then she continued around the office, counter clockwise. Once again, Cassie gave Nick an intensive run-down on the objects' origins and cultural significance. During a lull in the conversation, Nick's wandering eye caught sight of an object resting upon a pedestal against the southern wall of the office. It was a pair of simple, but charming iron statues kneeling upon a rough iron base.
"That's a nice piece," he commented, gesturing towards the well-cleaned iron artefact. Cassie looked over at him, and when she noticed what he was referring to, she let out a solemn sigh.
"Yes... yes, I suppose it is," she responded in an insincere tone.
"What, you don't like it?" Nick replied with a slight chuckle, having paid more attention to Cassie's tone than her actual words. He was puzzled as to why Cassie would keep an object so prominently in her office if she didn't like it, but was moreover amused by this newly discovered symptom of her eccentricity.
"No, no... It's very nice," Cassie assured him, unconvincingly once again. When she saw the teasing scepticism in his eyes, she conceded and revealed the item's personal history. "It was a gift... well, rather, it was kindly given to me for study by an old and very dear friend. She's... she's been missing for some time now," Cassie explained, a hint of sorrow creeping into her voice. Nick's smirk quickly faded and was replaced by a look of pity.
"It's supposedly a relic of Saint Valentine," Cassie briskly changed the course of the conversation. "Though I've carbon dated it to well before the eleventh century BC. Do you know the story of Saint Valentine?" she asked. Nick simply shook his head softly. He did know a little about the Saint, but he also knew that Cassie desperately wanted to keep talking about inconsequential history. Somehow, he just knew.
"Well, actually, there were numerous saints named Valentine, but we generally agree that the most famous was an early Christian bishop operating out of Terni. Now, according to disputed legends, Valentine was originally an acolyte for the high-priestesses of Juno, in the pagan Roman religion. Supposedly, one of his duties was to care for this, Cassie said, gesturing towards the artefact. "It's a symbol of the forging of a bond between a man and a woman, and it played some unknown role in the temple's marriage ceremonies. Juno, as I'm sure you're aware, was the goddess of marriage; the divine wife." Nick nodded as he slowly stepped closer to the talkative professor.
"After he converted to Christianity, Valentine left the temple of Juno to go and live amongst the Christian underground," Cassie continued. "But before he left, he supposedly stole this artefact from the temple, so that he could use it to perform secret marriages for the other Christians. Jesus never gave any specific instructions on how to perform a wedding, so I suppose Valentine just stuck to what he knew. Except that he performed the ceremonies in the name of God, not the name of Juno.
"According to legend, the artefact had ceased to exude any power in the pagan temple, and had become largely ceremonial. But when Valentine started using it, the couples claimed that they could actually feel their 'two individual worlds becoming one.' The legend even says that during most of the ceremonies, the object briefly turned to solid gold, as God united the two souls with a bond of true love. Valentine supposedly proclaimed that this was evidence that Christian teachings were real; God could unlock the power of true love whereas Juno could not.
"Regardless of how much truth there is to the legend, one thing we are sure of is that the Roman government eventually tracked Valentine down and executed him for practicing Christianity. A few centuries later, after the entire empire had been converted, the church renamed February 14th St.Valentine's Day. In pagan tradition, it had been called Juno Februa, a holy day for the worship of Juno. They renamed it in recognition of the fact that Valentine had taken the holy union of marriage from Juno and claimed it in the name of God. By this time, the relic had disappeared and had all but been forgotten.
"Clara..." Cassie continued, the smile rapidly fading from her face as memories of her missing friend returned to her, "Clara found it in a secret vault within the basilica at Terni. Valentine himself may have been the one who sealed it in there."
"She sounds like a very resourceful woman," Nick finally spoke, trying to reinforce a positive image of Cassie's friend, at a time when she was beset with dark imaginings.