The City had mourned the loss of a Consul.
Seeking answers to the unimaginable, the People sought communion with the divine.
The Vestalis rose to the occasion, leaving Rome in a pilgrimage to the black poplars of the Forest of Aricia. Incited by celestial inspiration, one of them left in a quest for the lost knowledge of kings and the hundred fathers of the Romans.
In the second week of the expedition the sacred flame at the temple of Vesta grew wild and uncontrollable, seriously burning the Vestalis Maxima and endangering her life. The omens were not auspicious; the spiritual quest declared a failure. Funeral arrangements were made.
As the City quietly prepared to bury an empty urn for the shade of the lost Vestalis, small feet reached Rome, arms locked around costly blood-soaked mysteries.
The Vestalis rose to the occasion.
The trio of senators moved through the crowded streets as fast as they could, their bodyguards and clients attempting to divert the flow of the unruly masses; their urgency only drew the curiosity of onlookers, earning them a growing entourage. While two of them were sensible enough to change into more casual and loose tunics, the leading senator pushed around in his toga, no longer white, as the servants failed to protect it from dirt and dust. They finally reached their destination in one of the major streets at the foot of the Palatinate leading to the Circus Maximus. Dozens of workers plastered and painted over walls of some dilapidated houses. Three lictors curiati stood watch over the work site, quickly moving to stand between the senators and their wards.
“Salve, senatores. I’m afraid this endeavor is being overseen by the priesthood of Vesta.” One unhappy-looking lictor curiatus explained.
“The priestesses are stepping out of line, this must be immediately stopped!” The toga-wearing senator argued, causing the religious guard to open his mouth in protest. Catching a glimpse a little girl wearing a crown of daisies and a tall and thin woman with long hair and a restive exasperated face, the senators forced their way through, without wasting any time dealing with underlings.
“Canuleia, Ovidia!” One of the senators in casual garb called them out. “This sort of meddling upon the affairs of elected magistrates can’t stand. What is going on here?”
The tall one rolled her eyes, crossed arms and stepped back a couple of steps, revealing a third priestess; a small pear-shaped young woman with olive skin and members covered in bruises and cuts was too busy coordinating the workers and painters. Noticing the new arrivals, she faced them, her eyes and wide smile shining through her exhaustion; the senators were shocked and baffled. She was loving everything about that moment.
“Arpineia.” The senator with the toga stepped forward. “I should have figured that you would be behind this. What you think you are doing? Did your lose your mind?””
The radiant Vestalis’ words were projected by soft but powerful vibrations of her vocal chords.
“I follow divine providence and inspiration, and I lost whatever timidity I had left.” Arpineia lifted her arms and chin. The youngest - Ovidia - clasped her hands together, as the eyes of the tallest almost rolled out of their orbits. “Egeria spoke to me, sharing the knowledge we need to preserve our community and the unity between Peoples. She was particularly insistent about the need to simplify and repeat messages that reinforce social solidarity and interest in political affairs.”
“Those are good news, Arpineia.” The previously silent senator spoke. “However, if you are to act upon that which you have learned, you must go through the Consuls or at the very least through the Pontifex Maximus. They can properly seek the advice of the Senatus and see that everything is done properly.”
“With the due respect, Senator, one of the Consuls is dead. The other is fighting up North, alongside our dear Pontifex Maximus and a third of the Senate. ”Arpineia lowered her arms, continuing on the same suave tone. “It could take months to do something in which every day counts. We must perform a call for action and fan the flame of civic spirit, and we must do it now!”
“Enough.” Said the toga senator. “As expected from an equestrian Italian, you forget that acting recklessly with good intentions can, and often is, more damaging than going through the proper checks and balances even if that means waiting. Do not mistake consideration and respect for the mos maiorum with hesitation, Vestalis”
“We can easily confirm if this action is guilty of overstepping legal bounds, Senator Canuleius.” One of his peers interrupted, waving towards the tall exasperated Vestalis. “Historiae et iuris collegium, is that not under the care of Canuleia Vestalis? I do not think we can get a better jurist, given the extraordinary circumstances mentioned by Arpineia Vestalis.”
Not very happy, Canuleia put her hand over Arpineia’s left shoulder; the smaller Vestalis’ face twisted in pain.
“The actions of the priesthood of Vesta have historical precedent and constitutional support on their side; as long as they use their own stipend and act through private individuals and propriety, they do not need to answer to any magisterial authority, nor do they need to submit themselves to a Senate hearing or popular vote. Of course, the moment they need to use public resources, impose upon public affairs or need support from the coffers of the State, they willl be in violation of the constitution and mos maiorum.”
“I’m satisfied.” The quiet senator acknowledged before departing. “I can’t wait to see what you youths are preparing. Vale, Vestalis.”
“Something about this stinks of populist pretensions, Arpineia.” The toga wearing Senator Canuleius pointed his finger accusingly at the round priestess. “I will keep my eye on you and your Collegium; I will present a motion the moment you slip and give me a reason.”
Arpineia’s smile shrunk, pooling around her delightful cheeks until it vanished into a thin smirk of determination.
“This is going to get worse before it gets better.” Arpineia’s raised left indicator, describing a wide circle as if encompassing the whole Urbe. “Because of things like that, these?” Now it was the right indicator, a smaller more intimate circle that seemed to point to the Vestalis and their workers. “They are going to be part of the solution and not hide behind sacred walls. No matter what some might think, we refuse to be invisible.”
Tensions were raising, everyone exchanging glances. Arpineia and Canuleius seemed moments away from openly challenging each other.
“It seems today everyone wants to quiz you in History and Law, Canuleia.” Little Ovidia spoke with her ominous voice. “Do you mind if I review a not so old case with you? I fail to grasp the intricate details, no matter how much I think about it.”
“Sure, my love.” Canuleia’s pained expression softened a bit. “Which one would that be?”
“Why was former consul Publius Claudius Pulcher tried and found guilty of incompetence after he lost the Battle of Drepanum, during the last war? I thought a commander could not be blamed by the whims of Fortune that would lead to loss of a well-fought battle. No matter the circumstances.”
“Oh. That.” Canuleia and her senatorial father exchanged glances. “Claudius Pulcher was not dragged to court for his defeat against the Carthaginians. It was his failure to acknowledge the omens and mistreatment of the sacred birds that made him an impious traitor.”
Arpineia’s face once again beamed.
“Would you, Canuleia, say that he got his due because he disrespected sacred chicks?” Rolling her eyes, the tall Vestalis nodded in agreement.
The senator finally conceded defeated and considered the value of a tactical retreat, giving a side glance towards the shapes and stains that the painters were spreading across the repaired walls.