Aeneid stood at the entrance, anxiety crushing her heart. The enormous Raven of the Underworld leaned against the woman, curiosity shining in its ruby eyes. The lofty specter of an impossible ancient man waited, extraordinarily fit for someone dead for one century, wearing consular symbols and garb.
"Lidia." The lemur that had once been Marcus Valerius Corvus called with a paternal warm tone. “It must be hard to return to this place after all these years. I want you to know that while Shadow Senate has yet ti recognize you, this was and will always be your home. You do not have to prove anything to anyone. We can postpone to a more auspicious day.”
The Raven cawed and gently pushed her forward. Aeneid lowered her hood and smiled, taking a moment to caress the bird’s feathers.
"I have to do this, I want to do this." Lidia declared as she crossed over. A soft hum permeated the air as the very walls reacted to her Triumphant nature; crystal spheres shone bright with light, the flooring warming up to a kinder temperature and the gurgling of water, it all reminding her of the hidden complexity needed to keep the site remotely habitable.
“It is good to see people around the Nest. This has been shut for too long." Valerius Corvus hovered towards the entrance. "It will take time for everything to be up and running, so I will let you explore for a while.”
"Is the Senate in session?"
"The Shadow Senate is always in session." A sigh the infernal consul.
"Some things never change." Lidia added with a smile, her eyes fixated in the cracks in the roof. The flapping of wings signalled the departure of her companions. She lowered her gaze, shamed. Everything in the Nest judged her, blaming the woman for its current condition. She found herself visiting the biggest section, the baths. A sad Lidia stared at the large pools; completely dry, no personal belonging or clothing hanging from the curved corners that offered some privacy. With loud echoing s a thin but determined water thread tickled from the tubes, luring her closer.
“It is a mystery to me how we still do not have these back in Rome proper.” The warmth of the water against her lacerated hands was reinvigorating, relaxing her with a simple gesture, evocative of better days. The baths, immaculate and decorated with vibrant colors, curtains of exotic cloth of the East marked this spot a world apart from the rest of the Nest. A toothless child sneaked in, dirty blond hair, awkward growth spurt; all she care for was to run between the curtains and spy on the guests. A man in the late forties laid in the largest pool, his eyes shut and his clothing scattered in the floor. The tale they told was one of violence and struggle, torn and stained with the blood of many.
“A bath is supposed to be a relaxing experience.” The man exuded in a tired but still jovial voice. “How am I supposed to do that with a spy around, Lidia?”
The child revealed herself, embarrassed as she struck the floor with her feet.
"I can’t stop thinking about something my parents said." She bumbled an excuse.
“What is so important that could not wait for another time?”
“The master will leave as soon as he is free!” She screeched with indignity that only a child can muster. “You will just rush out and become Keraunos, ready to beat up more bad men!”
Master Keraunos could not help but laugh at that. His true power was limitless patience; at least for Lidia's outbursts.
A gust of cold air permeated the baths, Keraunos had left the water. Dressing a light tunic and leaning over a cane, his face twisted in pain as he sat down in a bench; he pointed at Lidia, asking her to sit at his side.
“At the market some people called me and my parents servi - slaves." Lidia explained. "They tried to explain what it means but I do not understand! If am a servus of master Keraunus, that is good, for the master is the smartest person I know. Surely, he can explain it better. Please, master, teach me!"
Keraunos answer was delayed by a sad smile.
“Where I am from, slave - the equivalent to what the Romans call servi - are nothing but thinking tools and not considered people.” Lidia gasped in shock. She was a person! Her parents were definitely people that had made another person through their mutual love and respect! “That is not the case here, for every single free citizen might end up a slave through misfortune or their actions. Slavery is a transitory state, literally someone “whose life was spared”, that would have died and cannot continue to exist depending on another.”
The little child closed her mouth, thoughtful.
“I remember mom saying something like that. How master saved them and they had a life debt; without master Keraunos I would never have had been born and for that I belong to him.”
“It is not entirely wrong, but it far from the most accurate statement.” Keraunos nodded in agreement. “However, when you grow up you will realize the terms involved are more complex and how much I really own to your family."
“Why?” Lidia was as curious as she was unbearable. “Does it involve things like Libertas?”
“Liberty. Where did you hear that word?”
“Master Keraunos!” The girl pouted. “That is the word they say the most in the Nest! Liberty this, liberty that!”
The man laughed, feeling his bruised kidneys before continuing.
“They are not wrong, for Libertas is the most important thing in their world. Nothing defines Roman identity as the yearning and struggle for liberty.”
Lidia lifted an indicator towards her lips and nervously nibbled the finger.
“My parents say that as I was born a slave, I do not have liberty.”
“That is true, my child.”
“But I want to be just as free as the others!” Lidia demanded.
“There lies the cruel reality, Lidia.” Keraunos could not restrain another painful laugh. “No one is born free - slave or not. Our mothers risk their very lives bringing us into this world, both of our parents work to keep us fed, clothed, safe. Both them and the State invest in our education. Friends and enemies help us become ourselves. We truly become worthy of calling ourselves men and women when we realize how much we are each others masters.”
Lidia blinked, did not getting even half of it.
“Lidia, do you recall the aedile?”
"Yes, him." Keraunos proceeded. "As his client, it is my duty to present my respects and offer my services; it is his duty as a patron not to see me humiliated and assure I do not want for food or protection. Furthermore, Master Valerius owns his position and everything else to his father and must in every action he takes consider how it will reflect upon his family, at the risk of his life being forsaken. All of us contribute to the State, which in turn watches over the interests of us all, even the slave that has little besides their master. Servitude is part of human nature; only those that abandon their Humanity and hide in the world of beasts and monsters can call themselves unbound and unshackled.
The child shrunk, hugging her legs and touching the knees with the chin.
"Father told me something similar. The world existed before I was born and will remain long after I am gone. I must respect everything that those that came before did to offer us this opportunity, to allow us to live. I do not want to be a wild thing!"
"Your father taught you well."
Lidia would never forget that talk. Nor the great question.
"Is Liberty a lie? Since we are all each other's servi, nobody must be free."
"Liberty is truth, Lidia, maybe the only truth that descended upon this world from platonic realms." Keraunos countered. "Nobody is born free; fact. However, a virtuous human being works every single day so that when they rest at night freer than they were at dawn. The world is full of putative tyrants that see themselves as your master and want to steal your liberty. Liberty is something that you pursue, that we must fight for with each breath, that we must share. This is the weight that falls over the shoulders of heads of family, state and any person that finds themselves responsible for another: they must not only fight for their own personal Libertas, but assure that those that rely on them do not see their own liberty threatened.”
"How do I set myself free? How do I achieve Libertas?"
"Fight, fight and do not stop fighting." Keraunos revealed. "This is why I am here, sitting next to you; by talking with you about this, I am giving you freedom. No, that is not entirely correct; by letting you free yourself, I also set myself free - this is the true meaning of being a servus. Your life has been spared; due to circumstances outside of your control, you lost control over your own liberty. A master’s duty is to guide you back, help the slave once again become owner of their life and capable to decide the terms of their fight for Libertas. Anyone that delays or restrains someone’s return to freedom for their own selfish gains betrays the entire relationship. Dialogue, a good life, civic sense, communal sacrifice, curiosity for the surrounding world, all these set someone free. Little by little, the slave we all are becomes a Man. Our entire life we spend somewhere between servus and Vir. Or at least that is how the Romans see it."
Lidia stared at her master, burning with determination.
“I want to be a Vir. Why don’t you free me now, master Keraunos?”
“Lidia, listen to me carefully.” Attention given, the words engraved in her mind for the rest of her life. “The most cunning trick a tyrant can do is convince people that liberty is something that can be given, that there are people that can give or take it away. Whenever someone seeks to offer you freedom, that person only seeks to use you for their personal interests. True liberation can only be achieved by improving as a person, taking control over your life and struggling to make your dreams real.”
“It is the hardest thing you can do, for there are many temptations that seek to rob one of their liberty. Unless you dedicate your body and soul to be a Vir, it is impossible to know if the decisions you make are fruit of your free will or if you are just a fugitive, a slave to your own fear and delusions. The heaviest shackles are not clasped around your wrists but inside your mind.”
Aeneid rose, drying her hand against the cloak. She went towards the large atrium at the center of the complex, full of weirdly beautiful plants and fungi that grew in the gloom of the Underworld, disturbed only by spectral bugs. Still with Keraunos haunting her mind, she found herself thinking about other Lidia: always too tall for her age, short hair tied by a kerchief. The youth ran between the bushes, jumping over improvised obstacles.
Master Keraunos joined the scene. Diminished and with a full mane of gray, much more of his weight was supported by the cane. He joined her at the center of the atrium, coughing all the way. Lidia stopped her exercises, helping the elder to one of the benches.
“Your parents tell me that you grow stronger every day, that you run faster and further away. It brings warmth to my heart to see the virtuous woman you are becoming.” Pause for coughing. “I would be a liar if I did not admit to have some doubts about your education; your mother begged for forgiveness for not being able to teach you letters.”
Lidia cleared the sweat from her brow, her face reddening when confronted with her failure.
“I do not want to get my mom in trouble, master Keraunos. Believe me, she tried. I am the one unable to learn. If someone needs to be punished, it has to be me.” The silence that ensued established that Keraunos was not seeking excuses or someone to blame; he wanted to understand what was going. “The letters dance between my eyes, it is impossible for me to make any sense of them.”
“Reading is important, Lidia. Reading allows you to relate to others, discover the point of view of people one world always or beyond the veil of death. It is an important step to cultivate your Libertas and Virtus."
“I know, master.” Lidia nodded. “However, if you allow me, that is what books tell you. To me they offer nothing, only headache and confusion. What master Keraunos describes I see in the face of all those that I meet, I feel in the beating heart of every man and woman that I greet. I finally start to understand everything you have been trying to teach me about liberty.”
“Oh?” Keraunos feigned surprise. “And here I was thinking that I would not manage to teach you anything before dying. So be it; if books do not teach you anything, it falls to me to stop lazing around and earn the right to call myself teacher. Let me share with you what one hard life and many books drilled into me.”
"Thank you, master!" Lidia displayed genuine interest. "There is something that has been gnawing my bones: I see more and more people trying to find true liberation, gambling the liberty of others, slipping out of their path and conspiring to subjugate their peers and climb a bit more while replacing metal chains for golden ones. So many ways to defend it, so many versions of liberty, I am afraid of losing my perspective. How can I be certain that I am living a good life without trampling upon the freedom of others? How do I know I am Vir?”
Keraunos paused to contemplate the garden. Today, with decades of experience, Lidia knew that he was pondering which answer would fit the developing personality of the girl.
“Do you enjoy running, Lidia?”
“More than anything else.” That was the youth’s readied answer. “Nothing like the wind against my face, the changing scenery, new things at each moment, my racing heartbeat. Nothing pleases me like a good run.”
“It is obvious that athletic pursuits clearly give you pleasure and happiness.” The old man coughed. “However, when you get distracted or push yourself too hard, you might fall and get hurt, suffer from exhaustion and cause terrible pain by ignoring your limitations. Even what gives you the most pleasure can also inflict the worst suffering.”
Lidia nodded. It was obvious. What was Keraunos’ point?
“There it is: all you need to know to have a virtuous life. Keep this guide close to your chest and you will be an exemplary citizen.”
"That's it? All there is to it."
"The idea might be simple; trying to actually apply it to reality broke men and women wiser than I am." Keraunos was quick to add. "Focus in that that gives you pleasure, as well as that which brings happiness to others. Of course, never forget the specter of suffering. If something, no matter how pleasurable it might be at the moment, brings pain and torment to your or another, you must stop and change your course of action.”
Lidia looked at her fists, closing them.
"What if the only thing I am good at is violence? The only thing I can do is cause suffering."
Master Keraunos started coughing violently, almost falling from the bench. Lidia caught him, finding herself and the old man covered in his blood.
“We do not have much time left, Lidia. Soon you will have to take my place in the Corvi. And that is a mystery to which I never found a satisfying answer.” A sad smile. “I hope that you find in the heart of others that which has eluded me among scrolls and books. The only advice I can give you is that if you have to trade blows for something, make sure that it is the last resort and what you are defending is worth it. If you knock someone down with one hand, be ready to lift them up with the other.”
Aeneid crossed the atrium, lights appearing as she walked, some of the strangest vegetation wasting away as she approached. There were many exits; she picked the one most familiar to her.
The gymnasium was in worst shape than any of the other divisions. Half of one of the walls had collapsed, scattering weights and throwing disks and destroying various training dummies. A large cork board was covered in scrolls, some eaten by worms, others still keeping tabs on Triumphants, their tasks, registration of enemy confrontations and other notes. Or so she had been told; those were tasks for which Lidia needed others. Besides the board was something she did not remember, a new addition: a large map of the Mediterranean, crisis points marked as well as the last known positions of the Corvus. Aeneid confirmed that the last time the map had been updated, all the Crow were in Rome.
All but one.
One of the pins - one with a bone-white head - was fixed somewhere beyond the limits of the map. Lidia picked the pins one by one, leaving the map empty. She returned to the training dummies, raising the only one that remained whole. Verifying that her cestus was tight enough and cracking her knuckles, she gave herself permission to unleash her frustrations upon the poor target.
A teenage Lidia darted around, wearing a white cloak instead of her usual scarlet, switching between a blur and stasis just long enough to unleash powerful blows, keeping her frenetic pace for intense minutes. She stopped only when a bald man with the obvious bearing of a veteran entered the gymnasium.
“Where is master Keraunos, Nox?” Lidia inquired, out of breath and tired, hugging one of the training dummies. “He asked to review my development; I can barely wait to have permission to act outside of Rome!”
The man lifted one of the finger in order to interrupt the girl.
“Keraunos is too sick to test you.”
“What happened?” Lidia released the dummy, worried. “He was really looking forward to it.”
“He is old, Lidia. It happens to everyone; there is not much light or clap left in his spark. Just another reason for you to finish replacing him. I prepared a special surprise.”
The floor of the gymnasium shook, a stone pillar raising in the middle. The telluric intrusion started to fragment, slowly revealing an enormous humanoid creature: gray skin, elongated skull, enormous and pitch black eyes, long fangs and a disturbing tentacle-like beard. With an infernal scream they sealed the underground entrance.
Lidia jumped into their shoulders, laughing and swinging like a small child.
“Orcus! I saw how you faced those tomb raiders! It was amazing!” The creature spun its arm with inhuman articulations, managing to grab the girl. “Can you teach me something after the exam?”
The veteran Nox smiled, throwing a pomegranate at Lidia.
“They are your exam.” Lidia and Orcus fixed their eyes in each other for a moment; Orcus projected inside of Lidia’s mind an image of both of them fighting. Against what everyone thought possible, Lidia grew even paler, face seized by terror as she ran towards the nearest corner. The creature reached to their mouth with their claws, detaching the lower jaw and growing tentacles pushing it towards the floor. Their limbs spread as it felt to all four like some freakish spider.
“Good luck, Pars Alba. Your trial is simple: all you have to do is keep the fruit until the end.” Nox gave her his best wishes before turning into silvery mist.
Lidia was still trying to understand what was going as the impossibly wide of Orcus started to pull towards it all the content of the gymnasium: training dummies, weights, sweat-drenched clothing, replacement uniforms. Everything, including a stunned girl that was running in the same spot, searching for something that she could grab without dropping the pomegranate. Such a futile exercise! Lidia fought to sustain the same distance, but the suction was too strong, forcing her to run faster and faster in order to avoid being swallowed. Quickly that became insufficient, the girl noticing with horror as the distance slowly but surely shrank.
Admitting the futility of resistance and avoiding tiring herself for nothing, Lidia slowed down a bit, getting closer to Orcus. Exploiting the sudden acceleration, she jumped and kicked the creature right in the nostrils.
“Sorry! Sorry!” Lidia screamed exasperated as she spun around its neck, trying to avoid the tentacles. She jumped on Orcus’ back, punching it violently; they groaned but kept swallowing with the same intensity. Giving in to despair, Lidia threw herself against the creature’s legs, applying her weight to force Orcus to fall. Watching as her examiner vacillated, Lidia sighed in relief and eagerly used her speed to jump between limbs, wounding them.
Orcus fell to the ground, granting Pars Alba the luxury of dreaming about victory. Lidia smiled, pondering if she should try to recover distance or continue to face Orcus. Her dilemma did not last long, the very floor betraying her.
Instead of raising from the ground, her examiner had somehow inverted gravity for one critical moment, throwing Lidia against the roof and lifting themselves. The effect ended as suddenly as it had been triggered, throwing the girl against the floor. Her senses drowned by the pain, took a while for her to realize two important things.
Orcus was once again sucking her in. She had dropped the pomegranate during the battle, the fruit happily rolling towards Orcus’ mouth.
“No, no, no.” Lidia begged, shaking as she tried to raise; all complaints were in vain, her examiner glad to eat the pomegranate.
It was over. She had failed.
Had she? Dis Pater no.
She was Vir.
Pars Alba frowned, pulled her white hood up and for the first time in her life flashed the cocky smile that would become the trademark of Triumphant Lidia. Evoking the absolute form of her divine spark, Lidia rushed towards the mouth of a shocked Orcus, eyes shining with white light.
A long silence ensued, the creature looking around the gymnasium. It took it great effort, but Orcus managed to fix their jaw back. Nox reappeared, arms crossed.
“I never thought it would take this much.” The veteran admired. “Color me impressed.”
A gust of wind broke into the gymnasium, a beaten Pars Alba stopping in front of them, eating from an open pomegranate.
“Your stomach leads to interesting places.” Lidia remarked. “That would explain a lot about how your missions tend to end.”
“Go get some rest, Lidia. Master Keraunos will want to know how well you fared.” Nox congratulated her. “Let’s go, Orcus.”
Initially following Nox, Orcus turned back; Lidia gave them a side glance. The creature shared an image of her, doing exactly what she was planning to do. Staring back into those deep black eyes, no words exchanged, Lidia understood that Orcus knew what she was planning to do; somehow they understood her and were trying to dissuade her.
“I must do this. I hope you and the others might forgive me one day.”
Orcus nodded with their enormous head, leaving Lidia alone.
The girl did not waste time. If Orcus had realized, it would not take long for others to follow suit. Master Keraunos had taught her that she had to find her own Libertas; no matter how much she tried, she felt that within Rome and under the service of the Corvi she could not develop further. It torn her heart from her chest, but maybe she could find her Libertas somewhere far away, in another corner of the world.
Lidia knew that if she hesitated even for a moment she would persuade herself to stay. Loyal to her resolution, she ran faster than she ever ran in her life.
Aeneid did not notice as tears started to drop. She barely noticed the training dummy breaking under her blows or the return of Valerius Corvus.
"You must have so many questions. About what happened after you left." The lemur consul remarked in a low, sweet tone.
"Only one." Lidia dried her eyes. "Why was I not able to say goodbye? I did not even give them an opportunity to let me go; all I did was run away. If I had said goodbye, I believe in my heart that they would forgive me, no matter how hard it would be for them."
Valerius Corvus smiled.
“You became a woman ten times bolder and stronger than anyone trained within these four walls. I look at you and I dare to hope that the Corvus will fly again, towards heights they never reached before. Wherever they might be now, I am sure that they would be proud that you are continuing their work.”
“Right, work. I forgot, there is always something to do in the Nest.”
"Rest is the domain of tyrants and the tyrannized. The free Man only has Liberty to keep working for."
“Not this Vir.” Lidia excused herself. “This has been a long day. Good night, consul. We start early tomorrow.”
She found no bed in the Nest, she found no bed in Rome.
Linens awaited for her across the sea, a warm bed in another company, in another continent.
She did fly high.
No chains held her down.