Celeres Part 3
Such were the travels of Tabula Rasa through Magna Grecia; heavy on the purse, light in company.
He had crossed the suffering border territories and was greeted with peace and prosperity. Harsh exploitation of isolated communities and the Roman alliance bulwark had their benefits; trade was flowing south and war was merely a distant thought. The broken paths of the borderlands gave way to nice, neatly arranged roads. They did not connect people; they instead divided parcels and private farms. What had once been open to all willing to work the land had been replaced by little estates. Sextus mused about the familiar, twisted, aristocratic thinking that created such arrangements; how unhappy must you be that there are only so many walls you can put around your houses: so you decide to wall off the entire world. Sextus’ thought about the peaceful beauty of imposed perfection, how difficult it would be for Veiete terrorists to mingle in a land where everything was accounted for. He was distracted by unusual bustle and noise; a reinforced carriage, pulled by four oxen, approached. Its sole cargo was an enormous metallic coffer, decorated with young dolphin riders. Four men sat besides the coffer, their bluish-green uniforms marked by a white lamda - veteran Tarentine infantry.
This realization ignited Sextus’ heart; he pushed his horse, making it gallop towards the carriage. Such properness, such caution; it had to be a detachment from the Delphinian Mint, the treasury of the prestigious Temple of Poseidon. Alarmed shouting acknowledged his presence; three riders came from the hills and fruit-tree groves, quickly waylaying him. They wore more diverse clothing than their counterparts in the guard - either it was some Tarentine fashion or heraldry; Sextus could not tell. Tabula Rasa forced his protesting horse to stop, circling around to meet the opposing knights; his hand rested on his bound spear, uneasy but steady.
“Stand clear, vagrant.” A cloaked knight demanded. “You are intruding into proud Doric territory. We do not welcome your kind.”
“You have a long road ahead of you, don’t you?” Sextus narrowed his eyes as he made his
query. “All the way to Rome; it can’t be an easy feat.”
They reached for their weapons, no ambiguity in their aggressive stance. Sextus was able to get a good look; barely teenagers, much younger than him and not that comfortable on the saddle. People of some privilege, but unburdened by expectations of command - or the dubious benefits of authority. So, entitled loudmouths that expected the entire cosmos to wield to them. Of course they got upset when it did not meet their selfish expectations.
“Our business is our own; clear the road.” Another knight demanded.
“You are lay agents of Poseidon, carrying a freshly minted stash of didrachmas.” The nervous glances and hesitation confirmed Sextus’ suspicions; he doubled down. “As your people’s contribution to the war effort, at the behest of a dead consul.”
“There has been treachery!” A quiet but overeager knight slung his shield over his breasts; he drew his sword. “Look out for others!” Sextus lifted his hands to the sky, head turned down; an universal gesture of truce.
“Boys! Do you think Latin slaves are allowed to freely ride their master’s horses?” A grave old voice came from the armored carriage. A middle aged aristocrat emerged, someone of sharp features and a cultivated paternal bearing; he was doing a poor job at covering his stylish scale-patterned armor and dyed clothes - even his dirty gray wool cloak was expensive. “Look at his pose; that is a creature of confidence, used to meet challenges head on. Look at how well cared his horse and humble rags are; boys, have I failed in my lessons to you so much? Can’t you recognize a peer when it rides to your encounter?”
The young knights hid their fury beneath a coat of sheepish embarrassment; they awkwardly escorted Sextus towards the armored carriage, their nervous eyes on its precious cargo.
“You are being deceived; you are going to put yourselves in dire danger by continuing up this road.” Sextus warned the older man, taking his hat off and pressing it against his chest. He hoped this was enough to display sincerity. “It seems others know more about our Fate than ourselves.”
The older man leaned, fingers interwoven in distressed contemplation. “I am Cyberniskos, high priest of Poseidon and numismatic curator and scholar of the Delphinian Mint. To which patrician family we own the honor of this… warning?”
“None; my master is an acting agent the Roman state - so I call on no other affiliation than those the name Sextus and my citizenship imply.”
Cyberniskos’ eyes narrowed, as if the only thing more suspicious than a glory-hound was someone actively avoiding opportunities to cultivate personal honors. The guards riding the carriage murmured, wondering if this could be the infamous Sextus Sergius had that turned the tide at Telámon. It could not be; even if he had survived, they would not let him wander the peninsula in such disgraceful manner. He would be running for office or leading the charge!
“Ah yes, I can understand why our Northern friends would be worried. We are not blind to their efforts. And we will do our best to fulfill our obligations - as minor as they may be.
Jupiter Fulminator; Arpineia’s suspicions were vindicated. His friend was as sharp as ever. There was fraud afoot.
“May I have some words with you?” Sextus gave a side glance towards the guards. “In private?”
Cyberniskos waved at Sextus, inviting him inside the carriage. Tabula Rasa did so, tying his horse behind the vehicle and climbing aboard; he found it luxurious and allegedly comfortable - for all the pillows and tight fitting woodcraft, they were very reticence on trying Vestal or Etruscan suspensions. The bumps and noise were at least great for isolating them.
“I was there when Atilius Regulus died.” Tabula Rasa lifted his tunic, revealing the scars on his back. “Nomismata would be the last thing on his mind; did you not find strange that one of his last acts - in the middle of an uncertain, untimely campaign - was to issue more specie?” “I assumed as much; I am not inexperienced in such matters of government.”
“I would never imply as such.” Sextus apologized. “I was just unaware of how much knowledge you had of the timeline of events.”
“Etruscan culture has been for a long time part of our noble education; my parents saw to that, after seeing what ignorance cost us.” Cyberniskos dismissed the careless comment. “I am well aware of how your people handles such affairs; such suspicious details did not escape my attention. Of course, as much as I found it odd, it would not serve the interests of Tarentum to ignore the request; imagine if the war turned sour because we did not do or part; or worse yet, Atilius Regulus was offended and demanded further proof of our loyalties? No, we had to do it - but I made sure to came in person; I would not trust anyone other than me or my boys.”
“Your boys? Distant kin?” Sextus did not see the family resemblance; as common as adoption was back home, he knew how insular the nobles of Magna Grecia were and how proud the Tarentine were of the purity of their Doric line. That would be an exception worth noting.
“Oh no, they are not relations. It is a distressing common sight in Taras: all these poor aimless young men. All their talent is being wasted; they were raised to be great heroes, generals and rulers. But now? Everyone tells them their age is over and they are responsible for the many failings of Taras’ society. I welcome them at the temple and teach them the principles they need to thrive among the nobility. They are the best guardians we can have; they support the Gods and the Gods give them purpose.”
The best guardians the status quo could have; for sure many in Taras would disagree with Cyberniskos’ teachings. Sextus wondered how many of these poor, angry, aimless workers died in the silver mines for each one that was lifted to knighthood. “I see. I am not in position to comment on your security apparatus, so I trust your judgment implicitly. However, I have questions about how the silver is being transported. Why oxen and why not a boat?”
“Wise assessment, young Sextus.” Cyberniskos nodded in agreement, wearing the satisfaction of a professor that had found a receptive pupil. “It is prohibitively expensive and so dangerous that I would never risk it - unless the most dire circumstances demanded it; which was exactly what the original letter expounded. They had a compelling argument: Gauls and their pirate allies were harassing ships around Regium and they might have overwhelmed any fleet we could muster.”
Actual wisdom and the trappings of logic went hand in hand with the greatest lies.
“What is your next stop?”
“A road station two days from Aphrodisia; there is a joint social garrison that will take command over my boys and organize the rest of the voyage.”
“Wait, Venusia?” Sextus raised an eyebrow. It was true that thousands of veterans had farms on the region; it was one of the most well guarded branches of the Via Appia. However, his last visit to the city of Venus found the place deserted - way too many of the locals had been lured by the promise of glory and wealth, rejoining the legions. “Do you mind if I accompany you the rest of the way? I came
from that direction a few weeks ago and things seemed tense.”
“You have a good head on your shoulders, Sextus. It would be my pleasure to have you join my boys. But before that, I have questions about your… status. Your place in proper society.”
“My freedom belonging to another, you mean?”
“Yes, I worry about you being a slave. What if something was to happen to you? Would I be indebted to your master? Or worse, would he be the sort to cause a scandal by pursuing a
“Do not fear for my well-being, Cyberniskos; friendship between our peoples demands that I see this situation to its resolution. And do not worry about my master; they do not share the same affection you have for those in my distressing position.”
“There it is; we have arrived.” Lidia cheerfully announced. She still held Sextus on her arms, having carried him for what seemed an interminable amount of time. He carefully opened his eyes, his head still dizzy. The woman helped him to his footing; Sextus let himself be pushed around, all his efforts concentrated in keeping his lunch inside.
He found himself looking at a burned down house, surrounded by dead trees and a blackened waste.
“Welcome home, Sextus.” Lidia smiled, sheepishly rubbing her neck.
The former patrician grew pale with horror. Lidia twitched at the increasing awkwardness. This woman bought him; this is how she lived.
His gaze felt upon her, bearing the silent weight of a thousand stone.
“It is out of sight, everything is cheap around here and it would hurt nobody if I got it. In fact, the family that lived here was very happy to get rid of it!”
The stare. It lingered.
“Cheer up, it is a start!” Lidia’s optimism would not relent; she hug-shoved Sextus towards the building.
Despite its atrocious state and dour exterior, the walls had endured the criticism of fire without compromise. The house had solid construction and the stones showed no damage more serious than scorch marks. The floral patterns of the entrance were damaged beyond recognition, but the atrium had been recently painted in warm and inviting red tones. The roof was being repaired; someone very talented at carpentry had got their hand on some nice Eastern tiles. The atrium led to destroyed rooms and a small nested garden; an olive tree and a rare citrus grew among a carpet of herbs and flowers - protected from the elements with landscaping frame of styles foreign to Sextus’ tastes. His shoulders lowered, tension was relieved. It was not much of a house; it had the makings of quite the home.
“I know, right?” Lidia almost danced across the atrium. “You are the first person I brought to my little nest.”
“Can’t wait to help you with this.” Sextus forced a smile.
“Oh.” Lidia’s expression lost a little of its shine. “How about we talk about that later?”
Odd stretch, but fine with him.
They moved outside, towards a small shack that served as workstation. Lidia cheerfully chatted while she worked, trying to salvage some planks and beams from burnt trees. She did not reveal much, no matter how much she talked. All Sextus could learn was that Lidia was a free-woman, a former slave that had grown up in Rome but spent the last fifteen years traveling across foreign lands - she was copiously vague about what she had been doing around the world, her personal connections to the Roman people or how she came to wield the Triumph of Aeneas, the Refugee Prince. Everytime Sextus dove in for more details, she dodged and turned it back on him, avoiding his questions with some of her own. And Lidia had no shortage of questions; she wanted to know how the Rome in which Sextus grew was, his views of the enforced peace, his relationship with his family, his ambitions and skills, and (whenever she could) she tried to snare something intimate that could paint a richer picture of him. Sextus did not exactly appreciate her scrutiny, but understood that since so much of his life and liberty was on her hands, the more he shared the better their relationship would be. Lidia surprised him by being as respectful of his boundaries as she had been secretive about her journeys. Sextus grew uncomfortable as she kept working, giving him no tasks at all -accepting only the small tokens of help that one would get from a courteous guest.
Night came and an ashamed Lidia admitted that she had no oil; she escorted Sextus to the only room that had four standing walls and a roof. A competent carpenter (Sextus assumed it was Lidia after seeing her work the whole day) had scrounged ugly but robust wood and made a bed and a couple of benches from it. Fabrics left much to be desired; a single wool blanket laid on the bed and a hemp rug and a hay pillow had been pushed against a corner. Comforted by the fact that Lidia was sharing this trial with him, Sextus released a mental sigh and prepared to sit on the rug. A sudden draft and he blinked, realizing that Lidia had used her Triumphant speed to undress and lay on the rug.
“I know it is shabby work, but it is the best bed in the house.” She apologized.
“Lidia, this is ridiculous.” Sextus covered his face with his right palm. “You bought me; I am yours to command.”
“No! I do not buy you, I do not own you; I invested in restoring your liberty, with the hope that the process is going to elevate both of us.” Her eyes sharpness into daggers. “This does not make you a tool under me, to use as I see fit or to enrich myself with it. This makes me responsible for your spiritual and physical well-being as well as your recovery. And this includes seeing you are not denied anything - including rest. If this relationship is to work, we both have to internalize that the final word on your fate comes from you. Are we clear?”
“So what does that entails, exactly?”
“It means you will sit your ass on that bed and go to sleep.”
After much turning and worrying, Sextus endured the night. They woke to the smell of perfumed boiled water and fresh bread; he stumbled to the atrium, finding Lidia frowning before an uneven table, improvised from a plank and two piles of rocks. Waving in acknowledgment of the man, she embraced him and guided him to his stool. The breakfast was enough to bring a content smile to Sextus’ tired face.
“So.” Lidia’s unusual non-sense posture augured that she was going straight to the tense points. “I’ve been thinking; I want to listen to you and always act in a considerate manner. What would Sergius Sextus do, if means were not an issue?”
“I accepted your offer because you said I could still serve Rome by working with you. I am still committed to that.”
“Of course, but how?”
Sextus leaned over the dark perfumed water, hands tapping the wood. Good question, how? Lidia would not sit on her end of the table and wait quietly.
“Would you get another legion commission and join the fight up north?” She added, leaning over him. “Is that what Sextus would want?”
“I don’t think so.” Sextus admitted. “I had my share of heroism; I do not know how much good I did there. I would go again if I had to, but honestly? I do not hold anyone that would want to be there in high regard. It is good for wealth and glory, not for much more. I thought I needed to fight my way out, to escape my family by prestige of arms. It was a way out, and I would ride with the scouts all over again if that meant getting away from the Sergii.”
“When did you feel you were doing good in the world?” Lidia’s tone was soft and eager.
“At the Forum, specially during my teen years; I was struggling to get clients and patronage, so I was not particularly discriminating about the cases I took.” Sextus smiled. “Legal practice might be what I am best at.”
“So, you would like to go back to being a lawyer.” Lidia concluded.
“That would be only the beginning.” Sextus was now getting carried by the idea. “I want to take under my wing other unhappy patricians and equestrians, people that have the skills and knowledge to handle the public arena but resent the system and what it perpetuates. We will offer legal representation to those in most need; even if we had a properly egalitarian constitution and code of laws, people would still be marginalized for lack of a voice. The arcane mess we have to work with only makes that need more urgent.”
Lidia nodded, quite pleased.
“It seems we have a very clear goal; I should take you to a position where that can be made real.”
“Hold on Lidia, it is not that simple.” Sextus had to steer away from idealism and be the voice of reason.
“Sure it won’t.” Lidia raised her hands over the table, palms turned upwards as if delivering an invisible scroll to Sextus. “Please, tell me what we can do to pursue this path.”
“We can’t do this on our own. We need to extend our reach beyond Rome, make it clear to as many people as possible that our success is their success. Slowly, by our sheer numbers and popular cooperation we may be able to muster the resources others easily gather through wealth and tyranny. To defend the Res Publica we must implement its principles without hesitation or compromise - resisting the allure of inertia, greed and fear.”
“We need everyone. Get the Italians on board.”
Lidia nodded. “Get the Italians and we can make a stand.”
“Rome can’t free itself: its chains and means of liberation extend outward. Even the more autonomous neighbors still need to interact with Rome - and this means interacting with our laws(and our vices. If we cater to those in most need, we can become the best representation for them.”
“It all comes down to money.” Lidia muttered.
“Money, or the influence it can buy.” Sextus admitted, awkward. “And I seriously doubt you have either, Lidia. How many debts did you get into to take me? I am worried; we do not have much we can use for leverage. We are bound together now, and my affairs include handling your affairs. Lidia?”
Lidia rose, barely paying attention as Sextus went on.
“I know exactly what you must do.”
“Lidia, please listen to me. This is a very serious and delicate issue that needs to be carefully examined…”
“Have you recovered enough to ride?”
The armored carriage made an awful time and an even worse voyage. The escorting knights went back and forth, resting in a forward camp overnight and rushing to meet them at dawn. The slow oxen were not spared; they were exchanged at way-stations and military garrisons when exhaustion crept in. Sextus tried to mingle with the security detachment the best he could, alternating between conversations with the priest of Poseidon, scouting ahead and taking draining naps inside the carriage. He found little in common with the Tarentine; their idolatry of Cyberniskos was only surpassed by their contempt for anyone that failed to meet their standards of behavior or that they - apparently arbitrarily - deemed inferior and uncultured.
He tried to understand what all these Doric youths saw on Cyberniskos. The man was the best companion the group had to offer; well educated in Greek scholarship, possessing an inspiring bearing and demagogic but inviting vernacular (that did a great job covering his worse aristocratic affectations). Sextus tried to ignore the casual awfulness and establish a friendly rapport, thanking Cyberniskos for their dedication to Rome. Regret has never been prompter.
“It is what makes more sense for the interests of Taras.”
“You have mentioned that before; what does that mean, exactly.”
“Well, things have only worsened as of late; people insist in making themselves miserable by challenging the natural order, the tendency of humanity to integrate itself in uneven hierarchies. Man is an animal guided by instincts, either they manifest as basic needs or more exalted morals; at the end of the day they need structure imposed upon them. The threat of Roman intervention helps squash those poor misguided individuals that would see us return to mob rule and a more even but unsustainable arrangement.”
“And yet the strength of Rome is maintained by its democratic elements.” Sextus frowned. “Because we share more of our burden.”
“It leaves so many people unhappy and alienated; is it a price worth paying?”
Cyberniskos disavowed the worst of his antidemocratic implications with a patriarchal tone. “The previous democratic regime threw the entire peninsula in turmoil; the return to oligarchic wisdom is the only thing keeping the peace - and the alliance.”
“The war was still the will of the Tarentine people, and they were the ones fighting it.” Sextus risposted. “Just as the People of Rome decided to reopen the gates of the Temple of Janus - on their own, through no imposition of a minority wielding disproportionate power.”
“Hum.” Cyberniskos assumed a very patrician expression of polite smugness. “I guess the future will bear the burden of that decision; until then, me and my boys will do everything to reciprocate Rome for all they do for us.”
You noble bastard; how many times had you used the Romans or the democratic partisans as scapegoats, to manipulate those denied power and wealth? Turned them against their natural allies and into bulwarks of the very systems that ground them up? Sextus was finding his stoicism tested; he had to change the topic of conversation. He reached into his purse and revealed one of Lidia’s strange coins.
“The Delphinian Mint is renowned for its collection of Hellenistic numismatic; have you ever seen such a coin during your time as its curator?”
Cyberniskos made a gesture to grab it; Sextus left him touch it, feel it - but he never relented control of it. He would not be gifting this token to such a man, not for even one instant. The Doric noble frowned at the two fingers that still claimed the coin, still trying to make as good an appraisal as allowed.
“Odd distribution of weight, I would say it was two sides pressed together, the silver provided by different sites.” He estimated, turning his head for a better look. “The relief print is perfect, either a very well made and expensive mold or a very steady and talented hand. There is little, however, that I can say about the tale this coin has to tell. I understand the engraving of “SOCII”, that is pretty obvious. The stylized horse and “CELERES”? I do not have any idea.”
Apparently Cyberniskos was not as learned in the ways of Rome or mishandling of power as he had claimed.
“The Celeres were three hundred knights that swore loyalty to Romulus and rode with him to the defense of Alba Longa. Theirs is a very interesting story. You see…”
Screams outside; the whistle of stones. The Veiete were attacking.
“Stay inside.” Sextus demanded, grabbing his hat and spear. With a last glance at cowering Cyberniskos, the knight whistled for his horse.