Nobody was ready for the reopening of Marcus Considius’s shop. Rumours claimed him to be dead, the brutal peace installed by Germanicus allowing an illusion of normality to creep across the Aventine. Most people would prefer to believe that they could proceed with their miserable lives, trying to rebuilt something among the ruins of their suffering.
A life that included avoiding anything to do with the Considii.
His status as a newly-returned pariah did not last long. The olive oil lantern, lit every night in front of his door, attracted those that had lost everything during the remodelling of the Aventine. The word was spread among the plebs, the barbershop becoming a site of asylum and a focal point to a new resistance. Clients slowly returned, knowing that any change would come from between those four walls. Nothing would be worse than to be caught unaware of a new wave of troubles - that was how you got yourself killed.
“I don’t know if I will accept working as a porter at the port.” Declares the first client of the day, an Etrurian refugee, a new arrival to Rome. A growing group of plebeians sat at the entrance of the barbershop, gossiping as they waited.
“Caecinus, you work as a carrier for how many, five or six different patricians?” Considius pointed out as he sharpened his blades. “At a certain point, what is even the difference?”
“Everything! There are faces, names, whole identities driving every task. It is not simply a job, it is purpose for my life. I’m not just a stipend and a number, I am part of their lives.”
“And being a porter would not take that away from you? It is hard but honest work, a way to contribute to the State with sweat instead of blood.” The cold blades brushed against the warm skin of Caecinus, the dexterous fingers of Considius perfectly matching the facial curves and his expressive muscles. “You will still be an active part of the community.”
“There is little dignity in working for pay. Is that what I am to be? Caecinus, the porter; all the richness of the nature of a Roman citizen reduced to that.”
“If you put things that way, I can easily see your dilemma.” And so laughed the man; known as tonsore, tonsore of the Aventine and only after that Considius. “It eludes me how one may preserve their sense of self when they are reduced to a face and a profession.”
“Exactly, tonsore.” The other plebeian lamented on. “I do not want to be known for my work, I want to be remembered by the things that I am able to achieve in my moments of leisure.”
“Enough crying, Caecinus.” One of the men waiting shouted. “We are what we do, not what we claim we want to do! If you spend most of your day carrying grain and bricks for other people, you are a porter and a porter is what you are going to be! If you want to be anything else, spend more hours working on that!”
Caecinus span on his seat, rewarded with a scratch; a scarlet line across his cheek. Each plebeian stared the other down, a moment of tension quickly disarmed by loud laughter from Considius’ complaining client.
“Then you should call me Caecianus Somnus, for what I do most is sleep!” Voices cried in support. Surrounded by laughter and an empowering wave of human comfort, Considius resume his assault on the beard.
The mood of casual friendship was interrupted by the arrival of a tall and ripped man, caressing his beautiful curly hair as his penetrating green eyes inspected the interior of the shop. He entered, three construction workers with unfriendly faces escorting Considius’ client back to the streets of Rome.
Germanicus sat down on the barber’s bench, waving with one hand so the tonsore approached. He stroke his three-days beard.
“That boulder was lighter than I expected, Considius. You actually made all the way to the top and back. I’m impressed.” Lemurs whispered, their words taunting Marcus, trying to inspire violence. Lost in diverging thoughts, the fingers of the man caressing the various tools of his craft. The crime lord rambled on. “It is strange to have you back, especially when your miraculous recovery correlates with the death of my good friend, Titus Annius. A life paid for another, perhaps? The ways of the gods are capricious and a proper person should waste their mind contemplating infernal reasoning.”
Silence fell upon the store, Considius failing to react. The lack of words seemed to provide Germanicus with what he required; the man smiled as he fixed his gaze towards the plebeian and indicated his beard.
“My position demands a certain level of reasonable cruelty, as you witnessed first hand. That aside, it does not mean I am unable to feel sympathy for your or those that you claim to represent.” The leader of the collegium continued. “There is no need to prolong bad blood and conflict beyond what is strictly necessary, an example has already been made and both parties have already lost too much. I think we all learned a lesson about Concordia and harmony; what happened, happened, and we must move on.”
Marcus Considius did not give a reply, his callous hand gripping the left shoulder of the other man, his routine gestures instinctive and automatic. He raised his fingers towards the beard, crudely measuring it as he selected the right tool. The tonsore leaned towards a shining blade, sharpened a few moments before; a lemur limb stopped him, offering instead a blunt and rusty set of scissors. The spirits of the Underworld refused to be silenced, theirs the only voices that Considius paid attention to.
If Germanicus was still waiting for an answer, he kept it well hidden, eyes locked on Considius and his scissor. From his point of view a relation of dominance and submission had been established, the tonsore a broken man that had been dragged down to his proper place. The crime lord felt the rising tension as Considius reached for the back of his neck, a tap hinting that he should turn his head to the front. Feeling the scissors pressed against his cheek and Considius’ careful work, a satisfied Germanicus allowed himself to relax at the apparent impotence of the barber.
System shock made him open his mouth, desperately gasping for air.
The Tribune of Shades pinned him down with inhuman strength, keeping Germanicus steady on his bench, digging into his neck with the closed scissors. As the tides of pain seized his reality, Germanicus understood the malice behind the choice. Considius was not going for an easy kill, slowly tearing and shredding a path to the jugular, maximizing suffering and sparing no mercy. Without many options and tears on his eyes, the crime lord tried to call for his men, delirium making him see living shadows strangling them.
With a horrid wet sound, the tonsore pulled out his scissors. A gush of blood covered his face and clothing. Germanicus was livid, ready to fade into the Underworld.
“These are the only terms that I accept.” Considius hissed. “Your death and your secrets.”
The scissors descended with violence. Iron shards flew as it broke, forcing Marcus to close his eyes. He opened them to find no sign of Germanicus. In his stead, a tall blond woman, her cloak ripped by the blunt blade, her skin untouched and unbroken. As she turned on her seat, she shared a cocky smile, Considius noticed that someone had freed Germanicus’ thugs from the lemurs and spirited them away.
“Marcus Considius, I presume.” The woman raised her hand in greeting. “I heard about your new responsibilities and came to present myself to my latest…
She did not get to finish the sentence, interrupted by a ferocious punch that projected her out of her seat. Still clasping the ruined scissors, the Tribune of Shades pointed forcefully, his entire body shaking with anxiety. His eyes brimmed with power, losing colour and becoming a mesh of heavy grey and bronze; lemurs answered to the emotional call, shrouding him in his spectral armour of curses.
“I am Aeneid.” Lidia announced, adopting a pugilism stance and raising her fists.
“I do not care.” Considius growled with clenched teeth. “Germanicus was my prey, it was owned. What did you did with him?”
“Germanicus? Oh yes, you mean Pleuratus. Ridiculous name and awful taste, but Rome has nothing to gain with his death. You do not gain anything.”
“Where he is?” The Umbrae Tribunus charged towards Aeneid, howling his demands. “His acts against the Aventine and my family warrant all sorts of punishments. And then more!”
A cascade of tentacles tried to grab Lidia, the woman dodged, refusing to touch them or approach Considius. With her impressive speed, it would be all too easy to abandon the scene and escape, and yet, she always remained only two steps further than what was strictly needed, goading the lemurs. They were hungry for celestial touch, stretching themselves thin; just not enough to force Considius to close the gap.
“Horrible and unforgivable things have happened on your corner of the Urbe. Pleuratus might have done all his deeds on the behalf of another, but he is only the lackey of greater powers. He is more dangerous to them alive. Please, Considius.”
“What do you understand about what he did to us? You are guided by that patrician logic. You only see tools that you can use.” Considius finally advanced, spectres consuming all light in the interior of the shop. The walls seemed to contract and expand, with the effect of turning the barbershop impossible large. Recognizing the interference between their two Triumphs, Aeneid prepared herself against dangerous eventualities; Umbrae Tribunus exploited this moment of
hesitation to push Lidia towards a corner, joining hundreds of lemurs in a single fist of darkness.
“Tsh, tsh.” Aeneid let go, frowning eyebrows and biting her tongue as she regained her confident smile. As the spectral punch descended, she jumped, impelled by her Triumphant celerity, knee meeting Considius’ stomach and kicking him out of the shop. It was easy to turn the conflict into a speed race, pushing the other Triumphant through streets, down the hill, quick punches followed by sudden sprints. Cornering Marcus against a dead-end, she grabbed the man. She leaned her brow against his.
“Look at me. Is this the face of privilege?” A short shake-up. “I know what it is to lose everything, I know how tempting it is to punch your way away from self-pity. Will you listen to me?”
Considius pulled his head back to prepare a head-butt. With an audible sight Lidia pre-emptively struck him.
“I will admit, you are a strong one. But strength gives you no authority and I am surrounded by the fears and hopes of the people!” The shadow of Considius’ on the wall developed a new silhouette, lemurs feeding it into something titanic, singing a requiem for the mortality of Lidia and trying to suppress her Triumph. It was dangerous, the legitimacy granted to Umbrae Tribunus contested Aeneid’s vision by dimming her spark.
Such threat only made Lidia’s goal clear.
Sparks surrounded her eyes and feet, specters once again shrouding Considius’ face. The Tribune of Shadows attempted to flank Lidia with an attack in two fronts, fists covered in lemurs in an imitation of Aeneid’s cestus, other specters animating a copy made of living shadow. The alley distorted into the tunnels of the Underworld, the woman well aware that she would have a single shot. She grabbed the man and threw him to the ground, ignoring the shade and speeding towards the main streets.
The chase continued, the lemurs did not give up the hunt and inspired Considius to speed up, lending him more of their power. Aeneid accelerated just enough to stay at the horizon, a prize impossible to catch up to. Arriving to the walls of Rome, she was forced to slow down, inspecting for possible exits or a way to avoid the insane traffic, ubiquitous to the gates of the Urbe.
Marcus Considius approached from the top,
tentacles raising him like cables, penetrating the walls and pushing him towards them. More shadows took over the day, warning the woman about the urgency of retreat. An inelegant solution presented itself, inviting Lidia to run across the wall. And so she did, only to find her path cut down by lemurs. Tongue sticking out, she gained impulse by kicking the cold stone and jumped, trying to surprise Marcus through the air.
A shadow whip struck her face, tearing her hood. Lemurs drank her blood, lifting her with a greedy cut across her nose.
“For a moment I believed you untouchable.” Considius stopped for a moment to congratulate himself. One of the lemurs still held what remained of the broken scissors, pointing them towards Lidia.
“I take good care of my skin. Lower those Shades and I can share some tips with you!” She shouted, landing on a low roof and cleaning the blood.
“As a fighting taunt that is pretty lacking.” A new exchange of blows followed suit, forcing Aeneid to jump between buildings to dodge.
“What? Taunt? My offer was sincere.” A loose tile made Lidia slip, forcing her to awkwardly tumble back to ground level. Considius got too close, fists raised. Dropping her dominant hand in a hook, suddenly rising it straight towards Umbrae Tribunus’ chin. Such concentrated violence would ruin anyone’s day, even that of a Triumphant.
“Wait one second, I recognize that maneuver!” The stunned Considius recognized her despite her pale completion. “You are Lidia Bella!”
“That pun is something I regret every single day.” Aeneid gifted him a smile. “It is always a pleasure to meet a fan.”
“Fan? I lost the earnings of two months because of you!”
“Lesson one, Considius.” Lidia raised one finger and wiggled it around. “Never bet against me! We need to establish this early if we are to have a working relationship.”
The conflict between the two Triumphant seemed to be getting to a close for a moment, grey abandoning Considius’ eyes. The lemurs did not share the same feelings, still sensing the celestial promises that sprouted from the Triumph incarnated in Lidia. Spurned, they delivered another attack, so unexpected that it made Aeneid quiver.
“The spectres are still furious, I do not know what is going on! I never seen them so restless.” Considius shouted.
“They just remember my taste, everything is fine.” Aeneid forced her most confident smile, hiding the pain that she felt. “Follow me, Considius. Do not spare me for one second or they can turn against you. Chin up, such is the burden of the Infernii.
They climbed the walls together, trading blows all the way up. The lemurs looked more and more eager, failing to be hampered by human limitations; Lidia was growing tired, unwilling to lose more of herself to the Triumph. Marcus was worried, hoping that whatever Lidia had planned would work.
To his surprise she jumped from the walls, landing on a trash and dejections pile, crossing on her tip toes over the sewers and stopping at the borders between city, road and fields. An astonished Marcus observed as her right feet scratched a line on the grass.
The specters slithered behind the woman, ignoring the excrement of civilization in their pursuit, once again arming Considius with lemurs and animating a shadowy duplicate.
Aeneid lifted her palm and challenged him to advance, cocky smile and all.
Umbrae Tribunus crossed over the line, Marcus Considius arriving to the other side. The lemurs were not able to pass through, remaining bound to him through a spectral umbilical cord that slowly withered away. Under the implacable will of Apollo the lemurs moaned as they got separated from Marcus and was dragged back to the Underworld.
“You are a Tribune, Considius.” Lidia explained to the confused barber. “The powers entrusted to you are the same as your mundane orthologues, they do not extend beyond the sacred limits of Rome. Without the authority the lemurs elected upon you, nothing anchors them to the world of the living and there is nothing left to them besides surrendering to the fact.”
Marcus nodded, believing that made sense for the most part, despite the events with Atticus suggesting that there were exceptions to the rule. Lifting his head up, he noticed the shadows that darted across the ground, reforming the duplicate of Umbrae Tribunus. Aeneid’s expression was genuinely impressed.
“Amazing. How a little of my blood was enough to keep them cohesive for this long.”
The woman disappeared.
The shadow-tribune turned to the barber, the expression on his empty face composed of silent specters that was impossible to read. Fearing the worst, Considius did not hide his relief to see a cestus going through the duplicate, followed by the entirety of Aeneid. The eyes of the woman had disappeared behind scarlet and alabaster blurs, her gestures colored with an inhuman aura. The lemurs finally dispersed and she regained her usual expression as Marcus instinctively grabbed something that had collided against his chest. He found himself staring down at an amphora of Bruttium wine.
“I know that my motivations might not make much sense to you.” Aeneid held her hand out, offering a cup. “Fear and hope, you say, but above all fear. Good sense of purpose, but a reactive one; I focus only in one thing. I avoid suffering, in any shape and form.”
“I’m sorry, my friend.” Considius helped himself to the wine. “Did you take a good look at the Urbe? Suffering is everywhere.”
Lidia pulled the hood up in order to hid the loss of her smile.
“Sometimes there is no path for happiness, only choices between major or minor suffering. Pleuratus must live. For now.” She looked sadly towards Umbrae Tribunus, Marcus discreetly putting a leg behind the line she had marked, lemurs gradually responding to the call and preparing for an eventual offensive. “I know what he did, I know of his involvement in the disappearance of your family. Considius, I am someone that has to see the world beyond my fists; someone smarter than either of us will be required to solve this delicate trap.”
“I must try.” Exchange of nods showed how both agreed on that. “I cannot distract myself with banalities, I need to get my family.”
“I know.” Lidia breathed in. “The Shadow Senate wishes to replace you, there is a young man being trained to take your place. I saw enough of you to conclude that you are a touchstone for the plebs and a pillar of the community. I want to help you maintain this position, but for that you must act with the acumen that the office demands. If even I manage to learn anything, how easy it will be for Marcus Considius?”
“You are a good woman, Lidia.”
“Am I? I am this close of starting a war. Talk about avoiding suffering; I bite my own tongue at the hypocrisy. Tell me, Umbrae Tribunus; how much your blood boil for the opportunity to dethrone an oppressor?”