A Perch of Her Own Part 1/3
Another month, another round of contracts had to be fulfilled.
And fulfilled they would be. The Vestals descended upon the camp outside the city, records under their arms and abacuses dancing at the rhythm of their restless fingers.
Davinia was there, her narrow eyes scrutinizing every ox cart, tapping every casket and sniffing the content of every sack; she was always among the first invited to survey these affairs—on behalf of “the common wisdom inherent to her heritage and upbringing.” It was a snub at her Italian and equestrian birth, one that the overwhelmingly patrician Vestalis felt could get away with—even against a Class I priestess. Arpineia did not mind; it was true and she was not ashamed of where she came from.
It is a common myth that the publicani, the emerging capitalist class, thrives because of market rational and an eye for supply and demand. However, there are not that big margins of error in public contracts, and if they stick to them, they gonna end up taking losses most of the time. If they break the rules and cut corners, they may suffer loss by losing contracts and dragged to court—if they were caught. So it is obvious what is behind the profits of every single successful publicani.
That was a truth engraved in Davinia’s brow: All publicani will steal if they think they can get away with it. Every single one of them won their contract by offering the State the cheapest service—which they got by following the greed in their hearts and the weight of their purses. A frown crept upon her attentive expression, refusing to leave as Davinia grabbed the nearest batch of uniforms, pulling apart flimsy stitching and poked patchy letter.
“You don’t seem satisfied with the offerings.” Flavinia, a tanned Class II from her former department, reported. “Can’t be that bad: I found no major issues in my carts.”
The frown of the equestrian Vestal intensified. Davinia’s stomach turned; she did not want to doubt the assessment of a fellow priestess but she had to. No way the bull was being sacrificed whole, the publicani must have kept the white fat and the juicy meat.
They were fine with debt, but loss was inadmissible.
If the goods were up to terms, that meant they were scamming and exploiting someone above them in the production line; as far as the Vestalis was concerned, that was also against the best interest of Senate and People. Davinia looked around, finding content Vestals and relieved merchants. A deep sigh; she rubbed her brow and pinched between her eyes. What could she do about those suspicions? She lacked the authority to investigate the matter, much less address it. All she could do was to advise the lawmakers—if, and only if, her Department had been called to speak on the issue.
The corners of Davinia’s mouth twitched with mischievous indignation. Misplaced avarice may have already cost much to others; she refused to let shoddy work endanger the life of those out in the borderlands.
She tapped the shoulder of the closest Vestal; Davinia was pretty sure her name was Paetina, an initiate from Law and History’s.
“Can you get me that set scales on those donkeys?” She was asking, but her tone let no margin for insubordination.
“I’m sure this is not necessary, Vestalis Arpineia.” Paetina suggested as she set the scales. Davinia ignored her meek protest, pouring flour from random sacks and slowly letting it fall on different scales.
It did not take long for her to detect impurities: they were paying for sand and gravy at the price of grain. She repeated the process, this time rubbing the different flours against her palm; Davinia snarled at the hard brightness of silicates.
“Bring me the records of the miller seals and those that contracted them. Check every single bag, sieve their content, and weigh again. Tell the merchants to find lodgings around the Urbe: nobody is leaving until all crooked sub-contractors have been found and fined.”
Everyone shouted around her: merchants and priestesses united in discontent. Davinia shrugged as her expression softened; only Paetina’s words reached her.
“That will take days! It will delay the entire supply train.”
Hesitation haunted Davinia for an instant; she found her center and raised her head.
“The legions, allies and refugees in the Cisalpine region are counting on this. These goods are their lifeline: if they fail, it can take weeks or even months before they can resupply. Who can they go for help? Venetii? Etruria? Illyria? No, it has to be us: we need to take care as they take care of us.”
Discussions did not cease, but the tone was more subdued. Hanging mouths and waving hands suggested charged responses; Davinia was already charging in the opposite direction.
“Yes, yes, I understand your concerns. Keep inspecting the deliveries, I assume full responsibility for the delay; handle the goods and leave the fascists to me.”
Quite pleased at the righteous strife she left on her wake, Arpineia almost floated towards the officers overseeing the fulfillment of contracts. She crashed back to reality, recognizing among them a familiar face. Head and shoulder above the tallest man, cutting an impressive figure in her military cloak and white tunic. Lidia.
Davinia’s heart raced, her gaze hugging the contours of her chin and the idle rhythm of her fingers. As her breath grew steadier, the Vestal was overtaken by uncanny apprehensions: something was off with Lidia; her hands and eyes twitched erratically at the bustling around her and she seemed only half-there as soldiers and merchants talked to her.
“Hello, soldier.” Davinia tried to sound as casually charming as possible. “Fancy seeing you back at the Urbe.”
Looking down at the priestess, Lidia seemed to be processing things rather slowly: she apparently had forgotten how to blink or how to do perform her indelible smile. As Davinia grew restless at the awkwardness, Lidia found the ability to feign the later.
“Vestalis Arpineia. I’m happy to see you.”
Davinia could believe in that. That was a version of events she could find joy in.
“I’m afraid I come as the bearer of bad news.” Davinia punted straight ahead. “We have found some irregularities and have to inspect everything; your know, just some extra oversight. For safety.” Fiscal and otherwise.
“Sure, right. Okay. Makes sense.” Lidia seemed to hunch at half-heard words, even as she stared back at Davinia. “We cannot left stone unturned, we have to check and check and check. If we don’t, it will be costly…” Her voice disappeared in a whisper. “Surely it will cost us much more later.”
Now Arpineia was alarmed. She had half-expected Lidia to jump on any prompt, that she would speechify on how publicani should take joy in the civic responsibility honored by those contracts, or how they held the haft of the spear defending the People or—if she was lucky—praise the College of Vesta for their blistering vigilance and incorruptible stubbornness. That the usually verbose Aeneid was struggling to string a single sentence was terrifying.
Davinia closed the gap between them, stopping short of colliding against Lidia’s torso; that forced the other woman to blink, breaking whatever spell enthralled her.
“Don’t see this as a delay; see this as what it truly is: a few days without war weighing your down.”
They stood there, ignoring the rest of the world as they took each other in.
“I would love that; more than I know.” Lidia kept the whispering.
For someone so used to control flame and heat, Promethea drowned in the blooming warmth of rushing blood. Davinia was the first to break eye contact. She immediately regretted it, reaching for her right arm, fingers trembling above the pale hairs of Lidia’s forearm and starved for the comfort of her hand.
Davinia’s timing was poor; two of the ox carts bumped each other—animals, merchants and soldiers were spooked loud. Lidia’s worries returned, making her turn so fast that she swatted the other woman’s hand away—or at least that was the only reality that Arpineia’s pride could accept. Adamant rejection was more than she could deal with today.
Her embarrassment diminished the blond titan and her anxious actions; Davinia’s crossed arms and pout communicated her growing vexation. She was less impressed by Lidia at each passing instant.
“Have you heard from Sextus?” Lidia changed the subject, regaining the attention of a shocked Davinia.
“What do you mean ‘Have you heard from Sextus’? Is he not bound to you? I should ask you that! Lidia, what have you done to my friend?”
“He went south, but I was hoping he would be back in time for the funerary club’s lunch. I know he was doing something for you, so I wondered if he could be busy with that?” Lidia sounded hopeful at the first sentence, but seemed worried by the time she finished the second; Davinia’s confusion overtook her face and darkened the conversation. The Vestalis’ synapses flared. Did the Sons of Veii cause trouble for Sextus? And what was that about a funerary club; how poor was Aeneid? How much of a messy disaster was this woman’s life? And why learning the hows and whys became her top priority?
“No, I have not seen him. Is that all?” The harshness of her words horrified Arpineia.
This sharp bluntness did not elude Lidia; she tugged her left elbow, nails buried enough to break skin.
“This feels weird; this is weird. I don’t like this.” Her eyes darted, betraying the anxiety of Triumphant of Aeneid’s exodus. “I feel like I screwed up, like I have done something terribly wrong… you are mad and I can think of a hundred reasons why I deserve that. I mean what I said before. I still want to be worth your trust and friendship, Arpineia.”
”Aeneid, of course.” Davinia mumbled, resisting her immediate urge to throw herself at Lidia; Latin was failing her. “I mean, of course I want to be your friend.” But… that seemed such a lacking descriptor. Her lips trembled as she ground words to dust; what had this woman gone through? How could she repay her back, and why she felt so indebted? What could she do that would ease her anxiety and bridge their worlds? And most important, how did she know she was being good to Lidia and not indulging on her own selfish desires?
Arpineia was dragged from her well of doubts by Flavinia shaking her shoulder; the Class II did not let go after she had Davinia’s attention. On her other arm she was dragging a dazed merchant and grasping two tiles, one them broken into crumbly pieces.
“Look at this!” Flavinia did not bother with niceties, her face red with exhaustion and indignation. Arpineia accepted the tiles and inspected them. “There is no way those could support the forces they will subjected to under.”
”Of course they can!” The captive merchant protested. “They were made and tested all according to the technical literature provided.” He shut up as the two Vestalis glared at him for even daring to bring out the state-of-faith literature in their presence.
In lieu of punctuation, Davinia carefully laid the intact tile on the ground. She gently dusted it off, removed any gravel and dirt that might leave it uneven and set it so it would be a square, perfectly aligned between her and the other two. Locking eyes with the merchant, she stepped on the tile: she dared him to flinch as it cracked into pieces.
“Where in Dis Pater are Tarpeia’s people?” Flavinia grumbled. “Why Engineering never sends anyone to these events? We need someone from that Department. Look at this! Even this cement looks weird when wet—we need an audit from Fabricarum to prove a breach of contract.”
Davinia was going to admonish Flavinia for bad-mouthing another Department of the Collegue, but part of her was just relieved: for once it was not her Department they were criticizing. It was good not be the butt of all jokes for one merciful hour.
“What do you think the consul will make of this, Aeneid?” Davinia said as she turned, only to find Lidia long gone. Her heart experimented the same process expertly demonstrated by the tiles.
“Right. I will write a letter to Tarpeia.” Davinia excused herself, nodding to Flavinia. “Move on to the next cart.”