The Trial of Aeneid Part 1

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The woman laid atop the Aqua Aquia. A bruised eye half closed; the other one empty as the skies above. Dark clouds had dispersed, delivering the world into brightness: from the radiant bronzed heavens to the torn red and green of her being, all the way down to the might slabs supporting the singing water. She laid there, half-gone, nibbling from some meat dish squeezed between half a bun. Even chewing was painful.

A spiral of smoke ascended towards her, a man draped in vibrant priest-like garb climbing as it became a gargantuan snake. Four others followed behind; all those that had joined her in the fight against the tyrant Quirinus.

Diodorus stepped forward, looming and sneering over the resting Aeneid.

“You were wonderful; even at the end.” The Hellenistic Magus admitted with a curt nod. The youngest womaen present - the Vestalis Arpineia - had her arms crossed and a deep frown marred her brow. “Oh, what are you eating? Meat? How quaint.”

The Vestalis relaxed and approached, taking a sniff of the light meal - Lidia’s sole reward.

“Pepper, wine, pine seeds and can it be… a touch of garum?” She turned to the thin Greek. “Isicia omentata, you should try it. They are good paddies, Diodorus.”

“Maybe we could all get some.” The balding barber suggested.

“No!” Lidia shouted, jolting herself up as if struck by Quirinus himself - only to fall on her back with a nasty thud. Considius and Sextus pulled her back to standing position, ignoring her meek protests. “We have so much to do.”

“You are in no condition to do anything.” Her knight slave declared with a rather matter-of-fact tone. “Just tell us what you need to get done.”

The gray titan and its tentacle-wrapped beard stirred, capturing everyone’s attention before projecting an image of a strange underground complex and what seemed like a ghostly basilica. Aeneid whimpered and raised her arms, prompting the monstrous giant to pick her up.

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“You are now real heroes of the Republic; we will be acknowledge as such. Everyone, trust Orcus and follow us.” Lidia endured the pain and turned towards Diodorus. “If I was amazing, you were nothing sort of spectacular.

Lidia made Orcus lean closer, stretching herself so she could hold Diodorus’ arm and caress his face.

“You are now real heroes of the Republic; we will be acknowledge as such. Everyone, trust Orcus and follow us.” Lidia endured the pain and turned towards Diodorus. “If I was amazing, you were nothing sort of spectacular.”

Lidia made Orcus lean closer, stretching herself so she could hold Diodorus’ arm and caress his face.

“You have excelled at this role; I’m proud to call you friend. I will not forget your commitment to our cause and what you risked when I needed you the most, Magus. If you ever need me again, I promise to be there.”

“All of us will be there.” Considius put his hand over Diodorus’ left shoulder. The Magus forced a smile, his eyes betraying how terrifying the proximity of the Shadow Tribune was. “I might not be quite as useful outside of the Urbe, but I will find a way to help - even if it is just binding wounds and offering haircuts.”

Diodorus smiled.

“Why does it seem you guys are kicking me out of town?”

Lidia raised her magnificent eyebrows.

“Diodorus, please, do not feel indebted. My help in Egypt was given freely.” A suffering cocky smile. “In either case, you more than made up for it today.”

The Magus’ smile turned sheepish.

“I would like to stay, at least for a while. I have met my fair share of people like you, but very few are as aware in the use of their gifts. I believe that even if with our disagreements, we still have much in common. I want to be part of this new group; it sounds like a great way to know all of you better.”

“Join us. Orcus, open the way.” The giant unclenched its jaw, letting it dangle as they sucked a gate to the Underworld. As they braced for the trip, Lidia noticed the approaching Arpineia. Raising her hand, she told her to stop. “You will be ripped apart, Arpineia. The Underworld is no place for someone like you. I will visit you as soon as I can; thank you for your service!”

They vanished in a blink, leaving a shaken and frustrated Vestalis atop the Aqua Appia.

*

Stumbling and tripping over each other, the Crows found themselves in a rather discreet region of the Underworld; no lemurs or spirits dared to haunt the territory claimed by the Triumphants. Ruined walls surrounded them - some sort of abandoned stronghold. Eyes wandered towards Lidia, everyone relaxing as she seemed to find comfort among the dead stones. The place resonated with their sparks, coming alive and growing into glory. A door formed and opened on its own, inviting them into a corridor of fluorescent light. Considius found himself unable to whistle, finding this quite an improvement over his previous Underworld experience. Diodorus, just a moment ago so eager to join the Crows, felt estranged from the shifting surroundings; he was utterly divorced from his element, swaddled by the dreams, hopes and subconscious of the Roman people.

For Lidia and Orcus this was home. Only one they knew, only one they cared about.

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“There. Can you hear it? It is finally fixed.” Lidia pointed to the entrance to another hall, her words complemented by a distant watery rush. Orcus took notice and led the five to a large room with three pools, walls lined with alcoves that offered some limited privacy. A single door led deeper into the strange complex - Sextus could not resist a peek, discovering a rich underground garden of curious plants and fungi. Pipes of all size cross the floor and the roof, turning the cold stone into an environment inviting for bare feet and skin.

Orcus entered the largest pool. They undressed Aeneid, gently washing her wounds and easing her into the warm water. Teeth clenched, Lidia let them do the required work, caring little for false ideas about modesty. She languished in the water, shaking and groaning; ooze and blood clouded the pool. Sextus stared at her marred body, horrified as Lidia floated amid the excreta; it had been a costly victory. The others had only known Lidia as Aeneid - an indomitable pillar of strength and a standard to rally to. He had been with her long enough to have seen her lost and tired, how she had been hurt by having her ideals constantly rejected by “common wisdom” and Rome.

Lidia’s body had paid the toll her quest demanded. Sextus had no idea for how long she had been on her own - the last, lonely Crow, cawing into the void. He had been the first recruit, such as he was; a burden, a broken and enslaved man, pitiful excuse for a partner. He stood on the sidelines as she rebuilt a lost lineage, gathering them together, shaping with her hands a new team and fanning dying ideals. Some of his doubts and frustrations must have permeated his stoic facade; Lidia waved at him, inviting them to join her. She looked re-energized, or at least capable of bearing the pain with more dignity.

“The water is perfect, what are you waiting for?”

Considius was eager to accept the invitation, dumping his clothes on the floor. The barber was so enraptured by the engineering featured that he ignored the intense heat; he dove in, delighted at the rush of water coming from the bottom of the pool.

“This must be what patrician life is like.”

“I wish.” Sextus followed, taking care to fold all clothes and store them in one of the alcoves. “I mean, I never saw something like this in the villae of my grandfather, granduncle or any of their friends. A mistake that needs to be corrected.”

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Diodorus dove in, splashing everyone and giggling happily. “Now this is my element! I’ve seen Greek palaces with nice pools, but this? This is like diving into ambrosia! Oh, what wondrous dreams Romans have.”

Diodorus dove in, splashing everyone and giggling happily. “Now this is my element! I’ve seen Greek palaces with nice pools, but this? This is like diving into ambrosia! Oh, what wondrous dreams Romans have.”

Lidia struggle a bit and rose, joining Diodorus in splashing the others. “Whatever you do, do not drink the water!” She warned between bursts of laughter. “It is from the Styx.” She flexed her arm, poking her bruised muscles. “That is how I managed to survive those insane blows.”

“Your better not be bathing before boxing matches.” Considius frowned.

“It would only matter if they managed to touch me!” Lidia shrugged. She noticed how quiet Sextus remained; she turned to Tabula Rasa with an inquiring expression.

“Sorry, I’m not being much fun.” The slave apologized. He followed up with a lie, a token attempt to save his master some face. “I am thinking about Arpineia and how much she would love this. Are you sure it was the right call to leave her alone? Just like that? She did such a good job assisting us.”

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“The Underworld is harsh enough for a Celestial like me, it would bear a mortal nothing but ill. You know how envious and wrathful the dead can be.” Lidia remarked, eyebrow raised. “Besides, you were the one complaining about getting her involved. Now you want her here?”

“Look, Lidia, just because none of us had a say in what kind of life we could have, is freedom of choice not what we fight for?” Tabula Rasa stood his ground, surprising everyone in the baths. “We carry our Fortuna, our star, and all we can do is bear it with dignity and grace. Arpineia? She should be able to decide if she wants to be involved with the Crow or not. But you took that from her when you pushed your personal goals and ideals upon her.”

“Sextus, you might think I was just using her…” Lidia slowly raised her hands, moving as she lowered her voice.

“I know Lidia, I heard your point. Yes, we needed her. You predicted we would need someone like her to diminish the power of Quirinus’ Triumph.” Sextus rolled his eyes. “And you were right. She saved the day, Lidia, she shielded Rome from the worst of lightning and thunder. And what we do? We cut her off abruptly? That was harsh and cold, that is not you.”

Diodorus took this opportunity to remain quiet. He would regret holding Arpineia’s truth a secret. Aeneid looked down, ashamed.

“I had my reasons, but I do not think you will find them satisfactory; I still stand by them. Your Vestalis friend faced a calculated risk when the future of the Republic stood on the line; casually hanging around the Nest or meddling in the affairs of Triumphants would be a rocky and suffering road that would only bring her misery - and an unnecessary one, at that.”

It was the first time any of them saw Sextus truly angry.

“And you make it worse by taking upon yourself to make those decisions! If you think your actions today will stop Arpineia, you know nothing about her.”

Lidia stumbled on the pool, rising with her mouth open, ruminating her words. The awkwardness was broken by the arrival of a dignified specter, the lemur of a lictor with full old republican regalia.

“I will make amends to Arpineia, Sextus. Later - as I told her.” Lidia got out the water. “Now, at the risk of sounding dismissive and not giving the issue the respect it deserves, we are being summoned.”