Knowing Your Place Part 1
White millstones grinding against each other, Promethia’s teeth complained as she soared through the sky.
“Can you please find me something? Anything?” She focused her thoughts, a demand clear. “I’m freezing to death here.”
“You, cold?” An amused bronzed laughter joined her mind.
“I cannot concentrate on comforting flame whens I am also flinging myself away from Terra’s deadly pull.”
“Such complaining is unbecoming of such talented young woman.” The simulated voice admonished her. “Don’t be a brat. Consider this just another trial.”
“Come on, these patrols are dull and a waste of my time. The time of us both, I might say.”
A moment of silence. You do not need sibylline prophecy to recognize an argument as pointless as this.
“Hundred feet or so from the II milestone of the Via Appia.” The metallic voice bounced on her head. “A devious obstruction of the road; an action betraying the most villainous intent.”
Rolling eyes were a dangerous proposition when flying seventy feet up in the air; Davinia resigned herself to a low groan.
“What? I thought this is what you wanted.”
“Spare me that prose. Specially when it is just the two of us; you are not going to stupefy anyone by slipping back to nonsense. Bloated Favonius, for such a wise being you blunder and blabber like Lidia.”
“Speaking of the Trojan woman…”
“Don’t even make me think about it.” Davinia mentally blocked any future inquiries.
“It is curious how you keep dancing around a topic you claim not wanting to accost.”
Arpineia was suddenly very interested in repeating the lyrics for the Carmina Flammarum over and over, darting towards her destiny as a chanting thunderbolt.
Six men and women dragged big logs and stumps across the tightly squeezed stones of the road. They blinked incredulous as a thin veneer of white smoke rose from the barricade, the only warning before it turned into ash. The wind gathered ashen remains into a gray and white arrow pointing towards a figure downwind.
Back turned, eyes up, hands resting on hips.
“It is her! Promethia!”
“She is just like me!”
“Of course, it had to be her. Who would else would have bothered?”
Davinia arranged her scarf as she turned.
“Good. I assume I do not need to tell you what to do now?”
The would-be bandits ran away; Davinia narrowed her eyes. Even if they scampered like spooked hares, they seemed to steer their course as if they were congregating towards the same direction. She would be wise to follow them in a less conspicuously manner, find out what drove them to such extremes.
Promethia closed Arpineia’s eyes. She visualized the warm footprints, the lingering heat of the vanishing bodies.
“Vestalis.” The awkward Greek pronunciation of the title distracted her. The metallic ring of Sybil’s voice clarified she would not be ignored. “There is something urgent that needs your attention.”
“How urgent it is?” Davinia questioned, frustrated. “I should really talk to those six once they are calm enough to speak but still too spooked for deceit.”
“It can slide into a matter of life and death. And you will not like it one bit.”
Promethia flew towards a modest lumber exploitation, a complex nested against pristine woods; it was its own world, isolated from winding trade roads and unwelcomed eyes by a modest hill and the surroundings wilds. The captive she carried told her its name: the villa rustica Valerianum, so named in honour of the owners of the propriety. Davinia frowned as they landed near the residential corner of the complex, releasing the man; he stumbled over the cobblestone and laid among the dust. The Triumphant crossed her arms, igneous stare directed towards the large oaken double doors. They swung open, a tiny bald man foreman rushing to meet the two unexpected guests.
“There you are, Semolus.” The taskmaster of the Valerianum made a motion to grab and lift the man; Promethia barely moved her head, her eyes as judgmental as Juno’s peacocks. The man froze in place, eventually moving a couple of steps back and assuming a rigid posture.
“We would speak to the owner.” Arpineia.
The foreman unchained a meek comment, further words arresting when Promethia raised her chin higher. Arpineia assisted the fallen man and locked elbows with him, rushing through the oxen’s barn and stables, settling on the visitor’s atrium. Flustered but still obligated to hospitality, the staff of the Valerianum scrapped some bread and dried fruits to serve the new arrivals. They interpreted Promethia’s curt demands and austere stance by summoning a richly-dressed but tacky middle-aged man.
“Valerius Lutata, I presume.” Promethia assumed, reading the man as a plebeian intermediary to the noble, multi-armed power-house that was the gens Valeria. She did not look at would-be-Lutata for confirmations, turning towards the captive she had dragged here. They nodded at each other, confirming such assumptions and whatever other topics they may have had previously discussed. “I brought your Semolus back.”
The man looked at the Triumphant and the man, confusion taking over his face as he repeated the gesture. Why had he been called here? To receive an escaped slave? Certainly someone else could handle that nasty business.
“I see. I’m sure we can put him back to work immediately. I thank you for recovering our man, Promethia. I’m sure you have other celestial matters to attend, just as I have more important tasks that demand my attention.”
Davinia put herself between Lutata and Semolus.
“Was this man enslaved to you?”
“Yes, as I mentioned. What is the issue?”
Promethia lifted Semolus’ tunic, revealing cuts and bruises, testimonies of abuses old and new.
“Is this how you treat a human being that happens to be extremely indebted to you?”
The middle-aged manager face reddened.
“I swear by Sancus Fidius, I am not aware of any mistreatment going on the Valerianum”
“Mistreatment?” Arpineia left the word twirl around her tongue, jumping across her mouth as it twisted her face with disgust. “So if I go around the Valerianum I will not find other abused people? Or do you just abuse your slaves, and think that somehow lessens your crimes? Pretty convenient, I would say; keep them isolated from other communities and urban centers, limiting their mobility. And if they leave to demand their civic and human rights - which they have to, - you declare them as escapees defaulting on their debts, forcing them to run from magistrates instead of towards them.”
Valerius Lutata was spared the indignity of further lies by Semolus’ interjection.
“I told the Triumphant everything. How you prey on the urban poor, promising them a good life in exchange for a few years of indentured servitude in a peaceful pastoral environment, all according to the demands of Law and ever respectful of their Libertas. I bear the marks of that respect all over my body - as do so many others.”
“You can’t prove this! Nobody will listen to such words raised against an august agent of gens Valeria!”
“Oh, Semolus can.” Promethia eyes narrowed. “And I will see to it that Justice is done. And it will not stop here; I still cannot prove what Semolus has told me: that you resell their contracts, violating the spirit of this shameful institution, and have been smuggling slaves to the provinces and beyond.”
“I’m not a slaver!”
“Perhaps not.” Davinia conceded, following the spirit and the letter of the law - even if that meant going against her personal judgment. “But you are a sadist, and you will at least pay for that. These are human beings, entrusted under care. You had to get them back ot their feet; you treated them worse than one would a dog or a cart instead. They are not thinking tools.”
“I do not have to stay here and listen to this. Semolus, you still have debts to pay; go back to work if you know what is good for you. Salvé, Triumphant.” Valerius Lutata turned around, jumping in reflexive pain as he stepped on the surrounding stones. He looked down to find them glowing red, such intense heated halos embracing them; even staring made his eyes strain and head pang.
“You would not dare!”
“Oh, I am daring. You are coming with me.” Promethia extended her arm. “I am not taking any chances here; you will not hide behind the reputation of your patrons or turtle up with a small army of bodyguards and gladiators. I’m delivering you to the magistrates myself. ”
Ignoring the woman, Lutata jumped between the stones. The smell of burnt wood and crispy leather filled the atrium, the futility of efforts escalating into charred hair. Promethia crossed her arms as Semolus laughed at the undignified dance.
“You are in charge of your own fate; the fate you are allowed to choose is in which state I drop you at the Forum.”
Arpineia entered her private cell, dragging herself towards the water-basin; she dunked her head into the cold liquid three times before feeling satisfied. She let that water drip down her face while she tucked her hair. She stopped at “restrained”; “proper” would waste energy she did not have. She got herself half-dressed - a generous way of conveying she trailed a stola over her Promethian uniform. She blinked at the empty air, at the unlit corners of her room and at her empty walls. Those last ones were looking particularly supportive.
She just stood there, hair dripping wet, eyes vacant, arms dropped, brow locked in a wrestling match against plaster and bricks. One of her junior collegians entered her cell, nervously holding a pair of scrolls.
“The request for a permanent building dedicated to pre-marital schooling has been once again rejected, Vestalis Arpineia. I need this to be sealed and approved by a reverend First Class; then I can move with a recourse. I’m sure the Senate will be convinced this time.” The young girl kept talking, stopping when she noticed Arpineia’s refusal to move a muscle in acknowledgment of her words. She tip-toed towards Arpineia’s desk, stretched the scrolls carefully over a pile of other yellowing documents and backed away towards the entrance. “It is not that urgent, it can wait. I apologize for disturbing you.”
Arpineia stood against the wall for an absurd amount of time, listening as the Second Class Vestalis ran down the corridor.
“It must have been very stressful to you.” The Sybil remarked with the bluntness reserved for automatons and bad lawyers.
The Vestalis groaned. She turned her head, finally acknowledging the growing pile of work laying on her desk.
“Rest, handle all that.” The metallic voice suggested.
It was tempting. A knot formed in her stomach; everything she could accomplish sitting at that desk seemed futile, distant and ultimately of no consequence. She made a difference today; or at least she had chosen to believe that. It was up to the judicial system now.
“This can wait. I need to follow up on that mess at the Via Appia.” Arpineia reached for her scarf, wrapping it around her neck. She touched the needle hidden within.