Horseless with no friend in the world.
Sextus sought civilization; he returned to the closest city – Venusia. He had risked too much facing the Samnites; infernal patrons and celestial enemies would not always intervene, he had to be prudent if he was to accomplish his mission.
The bustle of Venusia’s streets made Sextus wonder if he had arrived during some festival or holy day. A small but spirited carriage entered the city through the opposite gate, swiftly capturing the curiosity of the locals. His first impression was that some Italian had spent too much money on a deathtrap on wheels; that notion was quickly dispelled – no wealthy Italian would have a lictor as a driver. Guessing the identity of the passenger, Sextus tried to disappear amid the crowd; head down, hat-covered face, hunched spine and spear serving as a walking cane.
His attempt at discretion was foiled by the aggregating human mass. Sextus was dragged along the carriage, walking by as the driver dismounted and let the Numidian horses rest. As the door slid open, everyone’s gaze focused towards the stylized symbol painted on it: a bowl holding a rising flame. A youth with curly hair jumped out of the carriage, pulling her tunic down as she bent over and looked at something underneath the vehicle. She rose, whistling with sparkling eyes, hands joined with hips in a triumphant pose: “Tarpeia was right, this new suspension box is a wondrous little thing.”
Sextus redoubled his efforts at discretion, having recognized the woman as the Vestalis Arpineia. Unfortunately, the arrival of a priestess of Vesta only drew more people than the luxurious car, making it impossible for the slave to escape.
Sextus’ elusion efforts caught the attention of the lictors, their eyes appraising his potential as a threat. As he sped up, more heads turned towards him, forcing one of the bodyguards to lean and whisper at Arpineia’s ear. The Vestalis’ smile disappeared as she reluctantly approached Sextus; the crowd parted to welcome her.
The priestess stared into his eyes, barely reining her apprehension. The slave did not dare to meet her gaze, fingers clenched into fists as he shook - it was too soon a reencounter. Arpineia raised one hand towards him, only to halt mid motion and step back. Without a word, she returned to her carriage.
“Wait”, begged the slave. “I think we own each other a honest discussion about what happened.”
Arpineia turned around, daring to hope. Before Sextus’ resolve had a chance to falter, she placed a bundle of warped parchment in his hands.
A villa of Roman styling constructed near a newfangled amphitheater, part of an ambitious complex that sought to lure prestigious guests and wealthy travellers towards Venusia. It was a small house perfect for small gatherings; privacy served Sextus well as he waited in the atrium for the priestess.
His eyes wandered over the letters again.
My dearest Sextus Sergius, it is so weird to speak to you through letters, letters that I do not know where to send even if I were to dare and do just that. My problems seem so small when compared with fighting to protect everything we know from certain destruction. Canuleia and Gegania believe that I need to talk with someone about what happened in the Temple of Saturn. It pains me to admit, but even a self-assured cow like Canuleia, can sometimes be right. Probably nobody, much less you, will ever read these words, but it will bring me peace. I was torn away from my futile research by the most unexpected of visitors. Aeneid paid me a courtesy visit, under the pretext of checking on me and how I was dealing with my trials at the Temple of Saturn. She – and yes, she, the rumours about this Triumphant are true – is the more exciting person I had ever met. We were at it for hours. Today was a good day, in which I discovered very interesting things about me.
“She is ready to defy the negative influence of Quirinus Niger Fulminator that holds Rome in thrall.” The slave raised an eyebrow as the priestess went on. “She has big plans for me. Something about how infernal and telluric affinities are the perfect counter to heavenly thunder and I can buy her time. I cannot say I understand what she meant by that; but her need seems urgent.”
“I understand that part, but why you?” Sextus asked. “Why, of all people in Rome, she approached you? It is crazy dangerous.”
His eyes lowered, remember something he had read, his heart sinking into a quagmire.
Frustration kept piling up, Sextus, testing my willpower. Ovidia is quick to remind me that I am in the best position I can be, that we have the opportunity to do things outside of the reach of any other women in Rome. So what? I say that what we do is not enough! To my left I have you facing the Gauls, to my right Aeneid facing tyranny and protecting us from our worst excesses. And what do I do, Sergius? “A Vestalis should be above such concerns, a Vestalis should be above such concerns, a Vestalis should be wholesale focused with the preservation of the Roman culture, community and learning.” Am I to remain a recluse, copying old texts and assuring that no knowledge is lost to time? That is not why I became a Vestalis; I took this position to learn new things and to use them to improve people’s lives. I need to do something meaningful.
“Because I am the best she can get. I can recommend someone else, I understand if you cannot work with me.” Worry tainted the slave’s face; in her lonely impotence, Arpineia was easy to manipulate.
The two stared at each other, pondering how to even discuss such life-changing events - this time without burning bridges.
“How have you been, Sextus?” The priestess attempted to ease tension. “I would never have had pictured a city boy like you wandering up and down the peninsula.”
“That has become my duty.” Replied the slave, bluntly. “Such voyages are the means through which I will buy my freedom. That is all the satisfaction I need to get from them.”
They gave each other a side glance, Arpineia exploding in laughter as she tackled the man; Sextus feigned to be struggling to push her back.
“You don’t have to be alone.” Arpineia whispered as Sextus rolled his eyes on her hair.“It does not have to be me, there are others that care about you.”
Nobody knows what happened to you, Sergius; those that might know are not talking. Concern haunts me, almost ruining my offering in the sacred grove of the nymph Egeria. A swarm of butterflies surrounded my oblation of milk and honey. The auspices could not be better, I finally know what to do, but despite that, I was never so afraid. Someone must do it. I will prepare an expedition and restore the books of Numa Pompilius an expedition and restore the books of Numa Pompilius to the Roman people.
Those were the words of someone that never stopped being his friend. Silence descended between the two.
“I should not have argued with you about joining the war.” Arpineia’s eyes narrowed into two slits. “They say you were a hero; they say you saved us all.”
“I am no hero. I was foolish and I might have caused more damage than I helped. You were right, I should not have gone North.”
Sextus lifted his head and forced a smile.
“But I changed, you changed.” Smile turned into a frown. “My personal growth required me to give up all toxicity permeating my life, to carve my own path for liberation. You are one of the few things of my old life I want to keep.”
Arpineia did not contain her tears, biting her clenched fist; she did not dare to make any noise.
“Sextus.” The priestess, a mess of drool and snot. He had never had seen her like that - even when they recovered her brother’s scarf. “These months have been unbearable.”
“I missed you.” Sextus hugged Arpineia. “I’m sorry I did not try to reconnect before, I needed to find myself. Sort out who I really am away from my family and their expectations and demands.”
“It is Davinia and Sextus again! Nobody can stop us now that I have you by my side.”
“I hope Lidia does not ask anything risky from you.”
“Her name is Lidia? Interesting.” Arpineia took note. Reluctant, she freed herself from the hug and presented her palms in a deferential gesture. “If we are working together again, can I ask you a favor?”
“Arpineia…” Sextus shook his head, feigning disappointment. Some things never change.
“I face a disastrous problem that I cannot tackle on my own. Something kept under my care has been used to steal from the Treasury and Senate. This is a tricky case, and I need the best investigative mind that the gens Sergii has ever produced.”
Sextus clenched his fingers together in a pyramid.
“Tell me everything.”