The Trial of Aeneid Part 2
The five Corvii stood in front of a tall, shining building; it was a stark contrast to the masses of indistinct lemurs that lived in spiritual squalor.
“It looks a bit like the Senate building.” Sextus remarked.
“I was here once, when I became the Tribune of Shades.” Considius pointed out. “Did not enjoy what I saw coming out from it. This place is not friendly to plebs.”
“Well, you are not alone anymore. They have to deal with us a group now.” Lidia murmured. “Besides, Quirinus is gone. They must acknowledge our legitimacy.”
“Wait, did I just happen to support a coup?” Diodorus asked more amused than annoyed. “Damn Lidia, I did not know you had that in you.”
“That would not be an unjustified observation.” Aeneid replied, climbing the first steps. “But this is no place for hindsight. Let’s go.”
The similarities to the Senate continued within. Many circular seats, painted walls with scenes depicting the history of the Roman Republic - from its rise to different dooms that would threaten to quench the flame of Libertas. It took a while for their mind to process, but the meeting hall had some bizarre geometry, seeming to twist around the corner of the eye, defying time and space to accommodate an impossible number of specters. Considius was quick to note that the odd architecture and material choice prevalent across the Underworld was present in this august building; the rising pillars were made of compressed crushed bone that seemed to fade and reform from dust, the chairs carved out of fossilized wood and the floor paved with the bleached, chiseled skulls of those that had died in the name of freedom, justice and virtue.
Two radiant specters presided over thousand years of kings, elders, heroes, monsters, generals and politicians. Consuls of the dead dominated center-space, no matter in which direction you looked; the curved roof allowed Celestial light to shine upon them as a blinding righteous column. They stood apart from the other spirits even as they stepped forward, their features much more clear and detailed, almost if they were alive and real - death no more than an inconvenience of circumstantial relevancy. One of the consuls waved towards the Corvii, a man bearded, elderly and fit, flanked by two enormous corvines of his own.
But, it was the other consul that opened the session.
“You have been called here to answer for your crimes; would-be guardians, false Corvii, betrayers of Eagles.” The specter accused them with a booming voice that seemed to come from the walls themselves. “Admit your guilt for the murder the appointed protector of Rome and surrender yourself to the mercy of its dreams and hopes.”
“That would be enough!” The consul with the birds interrupted. “I beg you, please accept my apology on behalf of my colleague, Triumphants of Rome. He seems to be acting under the misguided notion that I had not acknowledge you as my proper successors, as most exalted defenders of the Republic.”
“And that is supposed to validate their aggression against another dispenser of heavenly retribution? I think not, Valerius Corvus! You tipped your hand, revealing to this Senate how you will always be willing to turn a blind eye when it comes to your favored children. May I remind you that your duties to the Crows should be second to those to the people of Rome and its shades?”
Diodorus was amused by the endless bickering and infighting that all democratic bodies seemed to foster. He had missed it dearly.
Aeneid struggled with a nervous smile, eyes toward the floor as she advanced a couple of steps. Senatorial lemurs turned on their seats, a twinkle of madness as they felt the allure of a Celestial spark.
“Let’s cut the crap, shall we?” Lidia lifted her head towards the column of light. “This hearing is not about the actions of the gens Valeria, the Crows or any other of my companions and associates. It is about me.”
The two consuls looked at each other. The leading one gestured to the audience and Lidia.
“It is indeed. We cannot let this go on without proper retribution; it would put into question this government body’s capacity to safeguard the Roman soul. Imagine if you heard it yourself: a foreign power, a former slave, a non-citizen, coming from exile and murdering the Urbe’s protector - only to declare themselves the new shield of the Republic. How can any proper Roman not squirm under what could be perceived as a coup backed by a foreign king.” He then turned to one of the faded shades. “No offense, Servius Tullius.”
Discussion spread across the specters, a cacophony impossible to follow. Somehow they came to a consensus. The consul of the crows accepted the common decision with a defeated sigh. Lidia quietly whispered something to Considius.
“The Triumph of Aeneias, acting through the Celestial person of Lidia of Sparda, stands accused of murdering an unknown Roman citizen of undetermined affiliation that had taken upon themselves the mantle of the divine Quirinus in its aspect of Dark Thunderer. A jury will be chosen from members of the Shadow Senate, and the trial will begin immediately.”“I move to veto this motion.” The Shadow Tribune interrupted. “The People disagrees with these terms; holding a trial under those terms would not be auspicious for their interests.”
More squabbling; the other consul offered another rephrasing of the accusation. Another veto. More arguments. Consul proposed direct appointment of the jury by both parties; Considius vetoed it yet again. Lemurs and mortal went back and forth, the barber blocking the entire judicial process with a veto blockade.
“What are you doing?” Sextus whispered to Considius. “I appreciate this, but we cannot rely only in vetoing. Look at them, they are dead! They literally can go on forever and all you need to do is doze off for a second.”
Considius winked at Lidia, the woman winking back with her good eye.
“I do not need forever. How much time do you need to build a case?”
The trial, as it was only proper, was held in a public forum. There were seats for the jurors and a raised platform from which both sides would address the gathering mob. As everything in the Rome That Never Was, this could not be some mundane wood stage: it arched over assembled human spines, decorated with skulls fused together in an imitation of Janus and the two-faced nature of Justice.
The Crow sat on their corner, huddled around a contemplative Sextus; fingers entangled in a pyramid, eyes semi-closed. He raced through the entire collection of facts, laws, precedents and context; it was difficult to concentrate. Everyone was silent but screamed at him, their expectant gazes betraying their expectations. Lidia’s false relaxation asked justice and harmony from him - even if Sextus was sure she would not like the price that demanded. Considius’ confident profile demanded nothing but a win; such plebeian view of the role of the advocate; success was measured not in victorious verdicts but how often you presented the best possible case - and sometimes, the best possible case is still not a very good one. He was satisfied with Diodorus’ amused presence; he wanted entertainment and Sextus was confident he would deliver. As for Orcus, even the titan seemed conflicted.
Sextus caressed his frowning brow. He was working for the team but he was not working with a team; none of them were of any help - through no fault of their own. Thinking that way helped him deal with the frustration; it did not, however, improve Lidia’s case. Things would be different if Davinia was part of his defense team; the others knew he was an experienced lawyer but had no idea what that required. With his friend by his side he knew he would present to the court the best version of himself.
If he was down to such thoughts then there was nothing he could do to improve his case. He turned and climbed the stage with quiet resolve. In front of him stood the weird judges that Considius eventually agreed with: a king, three former consuls, two Latin nobles, a shade that had once served as dictator, two plebeians with no clients and - most curious of all - the nymph Adastreia. The prosecutor was the same consul that had been so adamant in punishing Lidia.
Sextus stood upright, stoic chin slightly raised; he suffered patiently as the prosecuting consul repeated the same accusations he had put forward in the Shadow Senate. A few touches to inspire emotion in the dead spirits, a few token insults towards Lidia, personal glorification of themselves and their politically and judicial career. Textbook stuff.
Finally allowed to speak, Tabula Rasa offered the crowd his opening statements.
“Much has been said about Quirinus and Aeneid, mostly assumptions; one particularly poignant accusation. You heard it from the consul’s mouth that Lidia is a foreign woman, unfit for the the power she wields; a point he will certainly keep pushing over the course of this trial. Anyone that has met this woman knows there is nobody that can match her love for the Republic and the Liberty and Hope it represents; she has been our ambassador to the four corners of the world, returned to us in our hour of need. And her talents? We should all be celebrating them; she had been wielding the Triumph of the Founder Aeneas ever since she was a young girl, and her skills have only improved over the years.”
Sextus noticed as the attention of the audience was drifting away, the opening statement long and pedestrian. Time to go for the throat.
“Much about the character of a defendant and the merits of their case can be inferred by the advocate that takes them as a client. And who took her defense? A slave? An unpolished youth? A nobody?” Sextus approached the jury; he stood in front of one of the shades, pulled a knife and raised his hand. He slashed across the palm, dripping blood in front of the specter, inviting him to a taste. As the lemur took shape and memory, Tabula Rasa had questions ready.
“Who are you?”
“Gaius Atilius Regulus, consul of the Roman Republic, last of my gens.”
“And who am I?”
“Sextus Sergius.” The specter smiled. “Esplorator. Hero of Telamon, Vanquisher of the Celts, Bulwark of the Republic.”
Man and specter traded glances, so much left unsaid. Sextus’ guilty held a grip around his heart; he could finally ask for the forgiveness he needed from Attilus Regulus. But he had paid the blood price for another.
“And I am defending Aeneid.” He turned to the mob, voice raised. “Who can deserve such patronage? A true paragon of Republican values, that is who.”
The mob cheered, the jury and the prosecution looked at each other in confusion. Sextus had caused enough chaos; time to finish it off - while he still had the support of the people.
“Why would an exalted personally as Lidia commit such a heinous crime? People and Senate of the Rome That Never Was, not only is Aeneid innocent of the accusation levied against her by the specters in the Senate, the crime described has never happened.” Incredulous and outraged mumblings. “During the course of this trial I plan to prove that there is reasonable doubt about the alleged murder; the fate of the wielder of the Triumph of Quirinus Niger Fulminator is unknown and has always been beyond the control of Lidia or any of the New Crows.” The prosecuting consul blinked his immaterial eyes, incredulous at the claim. Lidia barely managed to keep a straight face; she kept being told how good a lawyer her servant was - and yet, for some reason, she assumed that meant he would come out, be open and honest and convince everyone to see the truth.
Sextus refused to engage anyone, resuming his distant stoic posture; it felt to the prosecution to proceed with the trial.
“This is utter non-sense. How can Sextus even say such things? Everyone present can attest that they felt the disappearance of Quirinus’ powerful spark.”
“What a funny consul we shades have.” Sextus dismissed with a calculated shrug. “Could you sense a Celestial spark outside of the Underworld? Or above, in the living Rome? That is precisely what I meant; “fate outside of our reach”. It is besides the point: if Quirinus was not murdered, there is obviously no culprit; and as this argument shows, whatever happened to Quirinus, the circumstances are too strange and arcane, governed by forces beyond the control of Lidia - or any other mortal.”
Diodorus smiled, covered his mouth, leaned to the left and revealed an even wider smile.
“The defense is trying to obfuscate the issue, but Quirinus spark vanished suddenly - only death could explain such immediate disappearance.” The presiding consul pointed out, his displeasure obvious. Lidia and Considius exchanged complicit glances. “Look at the woman the defense is trying to portrait as beyond reproach: perhaps the jurors are, like me, wondering how she has obtained such curious wounds and burns; maybe Lidia enjoys dancing with bronze jewelry during thunderstorms. We would not know, because nobody really knows anything about her; she is a rogue element, someone that has been away from Rome for what, fifteen years?”
The eyes of the prosecutor landed on Diodorus.
“She might have been compromised; which foreign powers could be using her to spread discord among our democratic league? Who knows which of our enemies might have offered her solace and asylum.”
“Perhaps it is time the prosecution presents any evidence that supports such claims?” Sextus inquired, directing his attention to the jurors. “Or should it be noted that speculation is all they have to offer?”
“What better proof can there be than what transpired at the temple of Janus?” The consuls pressed. “That was mob rule, a perfect manifestation of the desire to destroy the peace that so many died for. Such enmity towards Concordia can only be justified if one is a terrorist or foreign agent.”
“Just speculation, it seems.” Sextus performed a short nod towards the consul, drawing a lot of laughter and insults from the spectral crowd. “It is well known that Quirinus and Aeneid did not see eye to eye on the issue of Gates of Janus, but to consider that a motive for murder? This Urbe was born from disagreements; not all have ended in kin-slaying.”
The jurors called for a break as tempers started to flare; as they retreated for deliberation, Sextus approached the Crows. Lidia was livid.
“Who are you? I… do not recognize you.” She blabbered. “What is this… thing? This is no Justice!”
“This is my ring, Lidia.”
“Boasting Bacchus, he is smiling! You are actually enjoying this.” Lidia blinked, incredulous. “I swear to the Manes, if you try another outrageous stunt... it will be my ring we visit next!”
The jurors had returned, willing to continue with the trial and wishing to hear from witnesses.
The prosecution called for Lidia.
“Lidia, Triumphant Aeneid, I can’t help but be mesmerized for your battle scars.” The consul started. “Could they have been obtained fighting Quirinus?”
“A lot of them were, indeed, obtained during our confrontations.” Lidia replied with great sincerity.
“I see. And was this an isolated event? Have you previously fought Quirinus over a disagreement?”
“I have. There was at least another instance in which we fought on the Forum. There are multiple witnesses to what transpired that day.”
“And the point of disagreement was the due punishment of a terrorist group, if I recall correctly.”
“The issue was the murder of a human being.” Lidia’s good eye closed. “A scenario similar to the one I stand accused of.”
“Quirinus is not on trial. You are, Lidia; the prosecution is pleased to confirm the existence of a previous violent feud between the two Triumphants.”
Lidia swallowed dry, gaze piercing the consul as he backed away. He met Sextus’ eyes as he approached, reluctantly putting Justice in the hands of his trained rhetoric.
“The defense acknowledges the fiery arguments between Lidia and Quirinus. However, we believe extra clarification is necessary.” Sextus cleared his throat. “The day of Quirinus supposed murder, you have met in an abandoned fort in the Veneti region?”
“That is right.” Lidia nodded.
“Why did you choose that place to fight Quirinus?”
“I did not.”
“If that is the case, can you explain to the jurors what took you to an abandoned fort in the middle of nowhere?”
“I have been keeping an eye on Quirinus and I deduced he was going to commit atrocities against a group of concerned Italians that had united under the banner of the Bull.” Lidia explained. “I evacuated the mortals and waited for Quirinus; once he arrived I explained to him the situation and made clear that the Crows had returned and would not tolerate unnecessary bloodshed.”
“So only after you tried to settle things peacefully did Quirinus attack you.”
“Yes.” Lidia waved towards the jurors. “But I should have kept tying diplomacy; if I had gotten to him, all of this could have been avoided.”
“One moment please, Lidia.” Sextus interrupted her. “I would like to remind the witness and the jurors that a witness is a witness; they should refrain from acting as an advocate for the defense or prosecution.”
Lidia’s eyebrows almost popped out of her face; she clenched her fists.
Sextus did not even blink, continuing with his cross-examination without missing a beat.
“I too can’t ignore your wounds. That messy eye, those burns on your side, your impaired arm; anyone that has seen you at the gymnasium knows of your fighting ability. Anyone with your experience protected by the Styx should have gotten away grazed. Would you say that you got hurt this bad because you risked your defense when trying to talk Quirinus down?”
Awkward, Lidia looked away.
“Quirinus did not make it easy, but I tried. Minerva Capitolina knows, I tried.”
“That will be all for the defense. Thank you, Aeneid.” Sextus finished before Lidia could slip any word that might hint at the degree of preparation involved in taking Quirinus down.
Too bad about the next witness.
Orcus was called to stand before the court. At the request of the prosecution, they revealed to living and dead alike what they had witnessed: the grounding traps laid by Sextus and Arpineia, them jumping up on Quirinus and tearing him apart, Quirinus and Lidia falling down the Black Stone of the Forum.
Sextus was near the limits of his composure; that was a rather dark storm of evidence, straight into everyone’s mind. He would need to pull the best turnabout of his career.
Too bad the prosecution was not offering him any breaks.
“It seems our noble defense is not as virtuous as they would have the jurors believe.” The consul scoffed. “All those ways to counter Quirinus’ Triumph, that suggests planning and intent. The Crows planned to commit murder and Sextus was one of Lidia’s accomplices.”
“Such claims!” Sextus forced himself to laugh, ignoring the sweat running down his neck. “You are being ridiculous, painting my actions and those of my Vestalis friend as part of some malevolent conspiracy? Two individuals Closest to the Gods, one of them a priestess, are performing the proper appeasements and rites for the bizarre weather that threatened Rome. That is murderous intent?”
That did not seem to convince anyone, forcing Sextus to change tactics. He approached Orcus and asked him to show again the fight between them and Quirinus; slowly and with as many details as possible. Repetition gave way to horror, as everyone realized the cruel truth that Sextus and Lidia had suspected.
“What is the prosecution trying to convince us of?” Sextus uttered, his tone carefully lowered and poignant. “That that is what a human looks like? Perhaps our august consul has forgotten too much in their death; humans are not usually made of shadows and rage. People and Senate, we have been asking if, how and who murdered Quirinus. We should consider if he ever existed and what thing seized his place.”
The consul backed away, trying to recoup after shooting his own case on the foot. Sextus reciprocated the professional courtesy he had previously displayed, pouncing on him; Considius was called as a witness.
“I think there is only one last thing the jurors need to know: what exactly happened after Quirinus and Lidia disappeared below the Lapis Niger?”
“Not much.” The barber downplayed the situation, acting pretty bored. “I jumped in to assist Lidia in her fight, she was pretty banged up at the time and needed a breather. Tried to talk with Quirinus; the conversation was pretty one-sided, the damn thing just growled.”
“That is it?” Sextus raised an eyebrow.
“Oh no. He was already on the Underworld, so it was time for him to meet popular justice. I let my constituents loose on him.”
“Are you admitting to the murder of Quirinus, Marcus Considius?” The consul interrupted, willing to jump on top of any opportunity to save face.
“I wish I could claim that.” The Shadow Tribune raised his hands. “The guy, or thing, was a piece of work. No, it was the lemurs - many of themin the audience - and the Ghost of Romulus that finally punished him. If you want to ask anyone why they did it, just ask them.”
Sextus circled the audience with a dramatic gesture, finishing with his raised hand; his palm, still red.
“I still feel a bit woozy, but if the jury demands, I am willing to offer even my last drop of blood to inflame the shades; I am willing to give all I am in exchange for clarity.” He waited nervously to see if they would call his bluff off.
The jurors halt the trial and retired for deliberations.