The Trial of Aeneid Part 3
Another day, another war.
Arpineia was lost in a thousand leagues stare, wondering about those truthful words as she finished this package. A worried Ovidia leaned over her colleague’s shoulder, examining her work and face, waiting for Arpineia to even acknowledge her presence.
“Is everything okay?” She asked. “You do not seen to be into it.”
“I’m fine, Ovidia.” Arpineia forced a smile as she closed the box and moved to the next one. “Just going through all we need to do today.”
“Are you sure? Because you have been absent-minded for the last few days.”
“I’m sorry; hope I did not get in the way.”
“We can do it on our own, you should go and get some rest.”
Arpineia turned and looked to the pile of care packages they had prepared for the soldiers. If the legions were going to march again - allegedly for peacekeeping, community-building and support efforts, - then their character should change. Ovidia came up with a magnificent idea: bless every soldier with a small care package of treats, charms or small homely comforts. The catch? The Vestal flame would curse anyone selfish enough to keep the items for themselves, but reward with good luck anyone that gifted them to someone else - another soldiers, an ally or some of the Cisalpine people that they would meet. This was also an excellent move to improve the reputation of Ovidia’s people; even as cute and adorable as Ovidia was, folks were always apprehensive around her collegium of Life and Death.
“I know this is important for you; do not worry, I will focus in being helpful.”
Worry distorted Ovidia’s face; there was more going on. Defeated, she gave up; they would talk later.”
A reluctant Canuleia joined the two Vestalis, together leading their junior priestesses and servants as they left for the pomerium. Reaching the city limits, they split into smaller groups, disappearing among the gathered crowd. Reports from the north stated that the Triumphant Aeneid had confronted Quirinus in front of the army; the resulting fracas caused such ominous dissent that Lucius Aemilius Papus had no alternative but return to Rome and consult the Senate.
Many were disappointed, a few reassured; the open Gates of Janus made it clear that war was to continue - in one form or another. Arpineia did not think about what was going on, greeting people and sharing care packages. She looked towards Canuleia, who seemed just as distracted as she was; the other Vestalis seemed always on the tip of her toes, inspecting the faces of allies and legionaries, as if looking for something or someone - and becoming visibly frustrated.
The odd behavior of the usually proper and patrician Vestalis was enough to tear Arpineia away from her languor. A wicked smiled conquered Arpineia’s face as she prepared to tease Canuleia; Arpineia stopped when she saw someone waving in her direction. Someone tall and blond.
“Fancy seeing you here.” Arpineia greeted Lidia. The Triumphant woman responded with a cocky smile but did not seem comfortable meeting her gaze back.
“Oh you know, duties and responsibilities.” The Vestalis studied Lidia as she mumbled. She had cut her hair short and rugged, covering a nasty patch of burned scalp with a cute little hairpin that evoked the feathers of a legionnaire helmet. That was not the only thing that seemed to evoke a more military presence; she whore her cloak not as an obscuring hood but like an officer’s sagum and had exchanged her pleasant and green tunic for a white angusticlavia with a single colored strip. “They seem to have increased lately.”
“Indeed, you seem to have become a veritable Symbol of War.” Arpineia responded with more bitterness than she intended. Lidia’s cheeks reddened.
“We could not longer sustain the lie, Arpineia. We must live in the real world, not in one spun from wishful thoughts.”
“So everyone says, and the people decided this shall be our path going forth.” Arpineia sighed. “I am sorry, I do not want to depreciate your achievements, but I am just not willing to give up on peace - specially when we never really gave it a chance.”
Lidia held Arpineia’s hand, her thumb caressing its back. “Things happened, and your deserve to know.”
The Vestalis looked at Ovidia and Canuleia while Lidia stared at the ground and narrated the latest developments in the Underworld, including the verdict of the Shadow Senate.
“What does that mean? That you have to take Quirinus place?” The Vestalis inquired.
“I have to assist and support the proper authorities - in this case, the consul Aemilius Papus. The dead jurors might have dismissed the accusations against me but everyone doubts my loyalty. So I have to go to Cisalpine Gaul and assist the legions; since we only have a consul and a lot of urgent issues in Rome, these new forces will be led by two praetors instead - my abilities will be essential for coordination between magistrates.”
“So, you gonna be punching instead of throwing lightning; other than that, all is going to remain the same?”
“I hope not.” Lidia finally looked into Arpineia’s eyes. “Look around, Vestalis. Most Romans and Latins were given leave to return to their homes and farms; this is an allied force of Italians and Gauls. These people are not conquerors, they are road-builders.”
“Are you just an extension of that man’s will? I thought you were your own person; I thought you would do more.”
“I am building institutional credibility and preparing the ground for others, Arpineia.” Lidia justified. “The rest of the Crows will continue their work, but we cannot be seen taking any overtly political or civic stance - specially one that would go against the magistrates that serve the People and Senate.”
“This does not seem right.” The inquisitive look in Lidia’s face made her put additional emphasis in the last word. “Everything is messed up! The man is dancing too close to tyranny and kingship. A single consul is just wrong.”
“The elections are a few months away, rushing them would be more disastrous than anything. He is already handing imperio over the troops to lesser magistrates, showing full respect for republican traditions.”
“Talking about traditions, why are we not bringing up the Dictatorship for a smooth transition? There you go, a position made just for these situations.”
Lidia looked embarrassed.
“I do not know for sure, but I was told that a Dictator demands a crisis; something hard to sell the Senate and People when we can dismiss a consular army, Sardinia is pacified, the pirates repelled and things are improving on every front.”
“Just because I understand why things are they way they are does not mean I have to find contentment on the status quo.” Arpineia grumbled. “This whole situation is very dangerous to the democracy of the Urbe. Even without an army, nobody can veto motions presented by Aemilius Papus. Civic vigilance is essential.”
Lidia put an arm around Arpineia and rested her head on her shoulder.
“Arpineia, you were hoping I would be the one standing up for that? That has to be the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard.” She chuckled. “I am serious, you thought I would be the one? I am only braving the way, raising my fists to protect the bright, intelligent, perceptive citizens that can actually preserve the Republic. People like you, one of the most influential and learned woman in Rome. You make the Urbe something worth defending. Me? I’m just a beast of burden carrying us there.”
“You expect too much of us, Aeneid.” Arpineia gently freed herself from Lidia’s attentions. “Things have a certain inertia, mentalities are entrenched. I have championed change my entire life. Things are supposed to progress, to become better; yet, they don’t.”
“I believe with my whole being that we can make the world better, bit by immeasurable bit.” Aeneid put her hands against her chest. “Accept hospitality and what people are willing to share and then repay it with unconditional warmth; I do not let my limited and biased perception stop me from believing that we can do good. I might not live to see it, but if I keep inspiring good, things will have to become good. Inertia can work in our favor too, Arpineia; it only works if we keep pushing.”
“Maybe you can do that; I lack that optimism, Lidia. I do not think I can live that way.”
“There is nothing special about me, my dear Vestalis.” Lidia smiled with an unusual purity - without even a hint of cockiness or sheepishness. “What I do - what I can do - is something anyone can reach for. Innate talent, wealth or bloodline, extensive training, they all give you unique strengths and flaws but they do not make you more than any other human being. You have the will to change the world and the drive to put your life on the line for what you believe. You got this.”
The Vestalis lips trembled, her eyes misted. Lidia kissed her cheek.
“Keep my Republic safe, will you?”