Puella Sordida

The shrine had seen better days.

The walls were thin and empty, a box that kept the sacred from the rushing engines that surrounded them. Arpineia found her breathing faltering, her discomfort growing; fetters weighed her mind as they forced her to wait.

Creaks and turns made Arpineia turn to meet her host. A young woman rolled in a chair, her back against the light as she searched for something. Arpineia blinked, focusing on what the other woman was doing; she could hear tendons stretching, knots being tied and leather straps brushing each other.

“You don‘t need to do that, keep yourself comfortable.” A metallic clang and something being locked and fixed, followed by a distracted “hum?”.

“I appreciate those are heavy and stubborn, and they can be quite tiring even when one is well-fitted. I am comfortable if you want to stay seated.”

The woman ignored Arpineia, approaching her with a determined limp; she refused to interpret the other Vestalis’ words as kind. Her eyes were angry and contemptuous as she tested the mount of her prosthesis with tentative steps.

“These are not made for your comfort, Vestalis; they meant for mine.”

Davinia lifted her head, turning her nose as she adopted a more dignified and composed stance.

“Right. Is my illustrious colleague ready to receive me? The day grows short and I would rather return to Rome today.”

The Class II Vestalis sighed at the request. Closer, Arpineia recognized the straw hair and pale skin of a bureaucrat, with green eyes precise and quick in judgment. Her eyes tapped on the wax tablet that hung from her hip. Everything she did sung how much she took issue with Arpineia presenting herself as a peer of Tarpeia; Tarpeia oversaw a real and productive Department, and who knew how Arpineia’s people squandered the money of People?

“It is unfortunate you had to wait this long. We use expect to receive a letter before any visit; perhaps something to consider the next time? I’m sorry, Vestalis Arpineia.” She was not, and it was not an invitation for further visits or a closer relationship. Tone and body language suggested that the Vestalis would rather Arpineia never return to the complex.

“Now this is spinning I can get behind.”

“Now this is spinning I can get behind.”

The inhospitable host led Arpineia down a rope-flanked brick stairway. The noise was deafening, the water collecting from multiple reservoirs; it congregated into a coursing, rushing stream, giving life and movement to different mill models — a history of the College of Engineering in canvas, frame and geared wheels.

“I can get behind this spinning.” Davinia shouted over the rumbling; the other Vestalis did not answer but Arpineia swore she saw the hint of a smirk. “I never got your name, sister.”

The host shifted her weight and leaned on the rope, resting while she repositioned her assistance leg. Between gentle taps and impatient groans, she indulged Arpineia.

“Minucia Augurinia.” She introduced herself, looking over the water and pointing at one of the newer mills. “That one is mine; I’m gambling my Class II promotion on it.”

Arpineia leaned, surprised at Minucia’s admission; despite her age, she was still a Class III Vestalis. Davinia took a leap of logic and assumed that her association with the clan Minucii delayed her development. The oddest class traitors of the history of the Republic, the Augurinii joined the plebeians and used their wealth and privilege to champion their causes. That plebeian defection may have turned them into a lineage of Mars-bound heroes, but it also made them an easy target for pettiness and slander. Their patrician kin had memories and denied Minucia’s contributions to the Republic. It was only in the last years that plebeian Vestalis like herself (and Tarpeia, but Arpineia believe her contributions as the real game-changers) opened the way for women of common birth to tend the flame.

And what contributions, what a talent! The model was harmonious, easy to scale and install, but even that was tertiary to the brilliancy of wheel design. The blades curved, cupping water and generating power with only six of them; a good thing, for Arpineia’s trained eyes recognized three different metals or alloys assembled on each of them, layered as shining leaves.

“Cute expensive thing.” She whistled. “That is quite close to the optimal wheel, the one that Apolonia described mathematically.”

“As close as we can get.” Minucia’s smirk returned. “For now.”

They made to the base level of the complex, flanked my piles of sawdust and sand raised on wooden platforms — an emergency measure in case of flood or fire, the final resort to restrict damage to the sacred perimeter. Minucia looked embarrassed.

“I realize we did not distribute them as the divinations for wave harmonics demand.” She apologized. “We would need to dig into the river-bed or raise the entire thing a dozen perches or even a whole actus. It is not safeguarded against earthquakes.”

“We need to discover which divinity we must appease with sacrifices.” Arpineia lamented. “The oldest records suggest a pregnant sow in honor of Moneta, but nobody ever confirmed it works.”

Minucia giggled, nervous and alarmed.

“Oh no, we are sacrificing a horse that has never seen light or mare to Maia.” Davinia raised an eyebrow; that was an odd choice. “It is an Etruscan thing. Tarpeia suggested we consult a haruspex from her hometown and that is what they suggested.”

“Why are you this far from anywhere, anyway?” Arpineia asked. “I took forever to get here; it keeps you away from your sisters. This is what I came here for: we miss your gals.”

We miss you so far as we end up pulling your weight in running public affairs. Arpineia appreciated the deflection, but she knows how damaging an isolated Engineering would be.

“These are communal lands that have been deemed unsustainable. The People does not let the Senate sell or rent them to private citizens.” Minucia explained. “Tarpeia saved the Temple a lot of money by moving most of our workshops here. All by citing common good.”

“But this place is so isolated! Engineering needs such fine tuned tools and expert crafters! How can you even get what you need? And what about all the work force for your foundries, workshops and warehouses? The nearest village is a day away.”

Minucia tapped on Davinia’s shoulder, pointing towards a multi leveled dock. Ships loaded with refined ores and bricks stood besides enormous rotating crane — including one that was able to lift an entire vessel!

“We are fine on our own. Tarpeia’s only complaint is that we cannot even be more self-sustainable and that she still has to leave the complex twice a month. And the food situation, of course; it is so bad we have to abandon the site during winter.”

Arpineia second-guessed her decision to talk with such eccentric character.

“Well, we are here.” They turned around a strange multi-chambered kiln and approached a long wooden building that stretched over the river. Minucia smiled nervous as she signaled Arpineia to enter. “Good luck.”

Temperature dropped as she entered the insulated workshop, the hammering of water against rocks, bricks and wood frame. The effect was similar but lesser to the underground ice houses used by the Department of Life and Death. Arpineia shivered, picturing nature breaking though and asserting its domain over human usurpation; she was dreadfully aware of how her safety against mercurial Gods depended on Vestalis’ engineering.

Three women stood in the middle of the room, backs against a massive board and spread around a long stone slab; It struck Davinia how similar it was to the food counters of thermopilia, with large uniform holes carved and isolated bottoms, where basins of bronze held water at different stages of ebullition. A tall, spindly woman with a shaved head loomed over the boiling symposium, one hand over a water clock and the other marking the occasional number on the board. An energetic partner danced across the room, stopping by each basin and gesticulating with intensive intent. Sour and focused, Tarpeia signaled back and pointed at different experiments; it baffled Davinia how young her peer looked: tiny, sickly looking and wearing baggy clothes and a loose apron; Tarpeia had the energy of an ant lifting a bull.

“Hello?” Davinia asked, her voice swallowed by the loud waters. As they kept working, Arpineia took a moment to study them. They were in the middle of an agitated discussion, using cave senses and cave signal language, rapid-firing questions and hypothesis at each other. Cave signs had lost relevancy and not all modern Vestalis took the effort to learn them. Those trained with the Department of Natural Resources were a notable exception to that sad tendency; the only thing worse than Viviana’s eyesight was her hearing. Any Vestalis that did not learn the cave languages, preserved by the College since time immemorial, denied herself the joys of Vivianas’s wisdom and friendship.

Davinia accepted the happiness of being unnoticed with a smile, following the silent conversation. Tarpeia alternated between pointing out to basins or verbalizing what Arpineia assumed to be the different heat sources: palm oil, olive oil, resin, coal, firewood. The wandering priestess displayed an incredible speleological vocabulary, replying not only with the status of the boiling water but also rambling into an unrelated hypothesis; Arpineia narrowed her eyes, barely keeping up with the frenetic surge of complex terminology, catching something about thermal dispersion, air flow, the possibility of impurities and irregular basins. The third Vestalis nodded as she noted whatever the other two said, giving the occasional wink or wave, asking her more eager colleague to slow the pace.

There was a loud whistling that caused the three engineers to jump to action. They rushed to a specialized chamber, slowly letting something ascend. Davinia gasped.

The Mule. The Seventh Braid. Or, as Class III initiates whispered, the Deathsphere.

A concave boiler rose, heating a bronze sphere that rotated at the pleasure of whistling nozzles. The three Vestalis gathered around it, sweating as they took notes. The engine was at its limits, shaking as it gathered rotational speed. They ignored it, continuing their effusive note-taking.

Davinia trembled, dreading the release of the Deathsphere; she formed a fist, stress demanding she unleashed her Triumph and seized control of fire. Davinia calmed down and reached for her drenched scarf, fiddling around until she felt cold iron; she pricked herself on it, blood tickling as a valve released, reminding her of her mortality. Sure, a divine spark could save them in a snap, but save them from what? To be mortal was to be dying, Gods had no right to pull them from a state in which they wish to be; all Promethia would do is ruin their experiment by damaging their delicate instruments, or worse, by inserting errors into their data. Save them from learning.

A loud crack and an imperative descending wave from Tarpeia. At her signal the ground opened, the Deathsphere crashing down; in its anger the Mule unleashed blasts of deadly steam. The tallest Vestal dropped the water clock, pulling them to safety. Exhilarated, they hugged and laughed, celebrating their achievement; Tarpeia lost the smile when she noticed Davinia.

“Hello!” The eloquent and eager junior signaled her. “I am Horatia Barbata. I love your hair.”

Arpineia reciprocated with an awkward, kind smile. She was wearing a casual tunic, two braids holding her forest of hair, and even then she felt overdressed compared to her sisters. Their work clothes, short tucked hair and well-worn trousers spoke of a different world. Away from performative piety, fearful ignorance and the opportunity to hook the engines of progress to the wheels of society.

“Long-travel.” Davinia signaled back, struggling to put her cave teachings into a coherent message. “I hope I am not interrupting.”

“I’m glad you came.” Horatia was amazing at this, not missing a beat even when covered in sweat. “I love your work, you can even say I am your fan. Pity about the Department change.”

Damn, those hands could cut. And so could Tarpeia’s.

Her movements were ponderous and sharp, her message curated and direct.

“Why are you here? We will not be discussing funding for another season. This should have been a letter.”

“That is why I came here.” Davinia signaled back. “It worries me we have no relationship beyond those chance meetings. That path does not lend itself to shining.”

“I think you mean prosperous concordia.” Horatia suggested from the context. “Sorry.”

“Have I considered I like to be this far from Rome?” Tarpeia pointed out with stark gestures.

“Distance only makes relationships more important.” Arpineia pontificated, frustrated with the roaring waters. “Can we go somewhere else? I have intricate points to make.”

Tarpeia lifted a finger and held it for an intense second. The waters stopped. Arpineia looked around for panels and levers that might manipulate such massive volume.

“How did you time that, what is the trick?”

“No trick, only scheduling.” Tarpeia covered the hole that had killed the Mule. “We needed to clear some reservoirs to test some pump prototypes, so we used the opportunity to do some thermal capacity measurements.”

Davinia had approached the board filled with marks without realizing.

“Fascinating.”

“Yes, it is.” Tarpeia interrupted her. “But it is not why you came.”

“Right.” The moment, the opportunity she sought; it was happening now, but Davinia was having second thoughts. The argument sounded silly: “We should support each other because nobody else would.” Tarpeia and Engineering were doing well on their own. Arpineia was the one in need of assistance, why would they lend her a hand? Because they were the only plebeian Department heads? Ridiculous — even if that appeal to solidarity resonated deep in her heart. “I understand that you are pushing the limits every single day, that any moment you spend outside the workshop is an unwelcomed distraction; however, seclusion denies you opportunities.”

“I don’t see it that way.” Tarpeia signaled at Horatia, telling her to bring some joining tools and tubes. “We know we are making sacrifices by moving our operations here, but nothing as valuable as the work we can perform unrestrained. We get the same stipend here; the savings alone are reason enough to move.”

“I agree.” Arpineia sought to disarm her colleague with an early concession. “You should not divide your resources and people; you don’t need to that when our Department may act on your behalf. Is that not why there are seven of us?”

Tarpeia chuckled, turning to see that Arpineia was being serious and allowed an incredulous laughter.

“I’m sorry, I suppose you expect us to take your opinion on who to accept? To delegate crucial tasks to you? To let you represent us among peers and in Senate hearings?”

“Are they that crucial? I though Tarpeia just admitted they were worth sacrificing. Why is this proposal so unreasonable?”

“Fine.” Tarpeia put her tools down. “Go on. What would your people do for us?”

“Education, education, education.” Tarpeia smiled with warmth at Arpineia theatrics; she had no problem admitting she was good at them. “How many girls of all the sexes go through life without exploring their potential? Stuck in a farm somewhere, languishing in the Urbe, exploited in the battlefield; all this cruel system denies us the explosive intellects of our age — of any age. How many Ecellos, Aretes, Enheduannas, Damon and Hypathias could be nurtured in the arms of the Republic? How many have we lost already, because we never gave them an opportunity? I tell you what, none of them is going to Engineering if we don’t groom them from an early age; it is the Department with least retention rate and with an overwhelming majority of early retirements.”

“This is exactly the kind of talk that gets the Department of Innovation and Progress in trouble.” Horatia signaled; there was no disapproval on her gestures and expression.

“It beats wondering what they even do.” The so far quiet Vestalis spoke; after the fact, Davinia insisted on learning her name: Calogera. “Except making a very strong case that seven of what should have been six was a poor decision.”

“It is a great idea.” Tarpeia admitted. “I would even drag myself to Rome just to see that happen; however, there is a critical flaw in such arrangement.”

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“Vae? What would that be?” Davinia asked, optimistic.

“None of you is competent enough to distinguish the talented from the entitled.” Tarpeia replied. “You think you are as learned as a woman can be, but you do not question; you only seek when you already have decided what you are seeking. This is not the Academia, this is the Vestalia: we formulate hypothesis and bring them to the flame.”

“I have scrutinized every sister that joined my Department.” Davinia lost her polite mirth. “And I offered alternative career paths to any of the Vestalis found lacking in piety and knowledge. I can understand your reticency; however, I am still a head of Department and I will admit insult to those under my rose.”

Tarpeia waved in dismissal.

“I do not mean to demean your work, I am just stating the matter of things.”

“I beg your pardon?”

The tiny Vestalis turned the wave around, encompassing the place.

“Our subject is fire; our business is fire. Each of our Departments is an aspect of fire.”

Davinia’s eyebrow and interest peaked. Vestalis were the flame; it was just not as prestigious a statement as it once was, It became an embarrassment, a rather crass reminder of a bygone era. It was all fine and well when the old Numaean kings and queens brought the College to early Rome, when their school of natural philosophy dictated all matter to be fire — everything that existed was a corruption, transformation or coagulation of essential flame.

Well, those were the days; when to be the flame meant to be a steward of everything. Too bad that had been mostly disproved in favor of indivisibles (atoms were pretty popular among the contemporary literature), or more distressing, an ignorant disgust for anything as ordinary as worldly matter. Arpineia and Ovidia played around the life-giving element of matter in their youth; she remembered it as gooey, sticky and fun to purify.

Tarpeia was no dummy; for her to speak with such passion about fire hinted at new data. Heretical thinking, maybe even a kick to the paradigm. Davinia’s hips rubbed together; nothing got her wetter than the prospective of a paradigm shift.

“We are the flame.” Arpineia repeated, feigning to be uninterested. “But what is a flame, anyway?”

“A flame is everything!” Tarpeia almost jumped on the bait. “The reason things move, change. The thing is, everyone has been wrong. It does not exist, it is not matter. It is beyond and between.”

Davinia was shocked. As someone that had been blessed with the Triumph of Stolen Fire, she knew Tarpeia was right; nothing is as scary to the inquisitive mind as certainty.

“So it comes from… somewhere else? A fruit of inward reflection, of so idea locked in wood and charcoal; a platonic form trapped and released?” One last question to clear doubt. There was a special sin, born from sincerity and clarity; truth should always be confided in hushed tones before it was allowed to take flight.

“Reaction! Energy! Power!” Tarpeia almost shouted. “This is what we are measuring; I may even say that is what everyone in the College seeks. Well, almost everyone, and that is why I can’t entrust education of Fabricatum Vestalis to you.”

Arpineia blinked, her figurative neck recoiling from the whiplash. Was everything an excuse to dunk on Innovation and Progress?

“We can do it.”

“No you can’t! You produce nothing yourselves. You are not the combustion, the ignition, the hearth, the fuel or the breath! All you can do is learn from others less than they know; if you we let you be the teachers of others, they will learn even less. Until nothing remains, or even worse, something indistinguishable from ignorance.”

“My Department is the indicator of the health of our fire.” Arpineia stepped forward, approaching Tarpeia with a challenge. “We are the flame, shining, bright, perpetuating itself and preserving the means to do so. We can do it, just as you can -- because you did it.”

Tarpeia turned away, continuing to work on tubbing.

“I’m sorry, I just cannot give you my resources and people just so you can squander them.”

“Let me prove it to you.” Arpineia turned to the board. “I can help you with this.”

The other Vestalis turned to each other.

“She is actually a good mathematician.” Horatia signaled.

“This is not something you can do with geometry and by drawing circles.” Tarpeia grumbled. “You don’t need good. You need one of the greatest Pythagorean mathematicians.”

Arpineia was already writing on the board.

“This is easy, actually.” Davinia looked around, looking away from her Etruscan annotation. “You were right, these formulae are intensive work. We need to solve these, and keep solving, and keep solving. It will take time, but we will get it. We will get a way to calculate the thermal capacity and how to quantify energy exchange. We can know fire.”

“Can you compute the equations into something nice?”

“Give me forty.”

Tarpeia cover her mouth, tears in her eyes.

“Days?”

“Decades.” Arpineia turned around. “It is not work for one woman, it is not work for seven; even seventy. We need to improve these numbers, we need to burn as one.”

Too much betrayal and outright manipulation.

“You are lying. These must be just gross approximations.” Tarpeia sobbed. “They told me you were petty and opportunistic, Arpineia. I cannot have this, I cannot have you delaying and impeding my work for some selfish reason. This is low, even compared to what they told me about you.”

“Tarpeia, I am not misleading you. You are right, it is bigger than any of our individual Departments, it may be the most…”

“Get out.” Tarpeia cried. “Leave my workshop!”

*

Why she even send this letter?

Why she even send this letter?

Night came. Tarpeia dismissed the other Vestals. In front of the board, Tarpeia sat and nibbled on some hard bread and olives. Despite Arpineia making her day sour, all that awesome data begged more impactful questions. Tarpeia leaned on the elegant math, replacing it with alternating values and solving the skipped variables. They were consistent with known studies and data that nobody else had access to: enough to get a crude, relative measure of temperature. Arpineia had looked at her data and computed a mode that might predict simple changes in closed systems.

That was never the issue, was it?

She knew Arpineia knew her stuff, that was what made her gritting so dangerous.

Tarpeia leaned back, staring at the darkness that had seized the workshop and the distant lock and turn of pumps. The loneliness was striking; she came from a big family and grew up in a construction guild, a place busy day and night. Everyone working and sharing their interests, helping each other and taking care of the people. Tarpeia expected the wealthy and prestigious Vestal College to thrive through deeper connections, an extension of her secular experience. She might picture classism and disappointment, but not this emptiness. Tarpeia looked back to the board filled with equations and measurements. She too was good at recognizing patterns and predicting outcomes.

The long road ahead would take her further and further into a state of mind she did not wish to embrace.

And yet.

She went into a foldable desk filled with belongings and opened an elm-wood box. Tarpeia rejected the fetishization and hoarding of tokens of affection, preserving only a key selection of correspondence that were better memories than kindling. She opened the letter she sought and approached the light.

Salve Tarpeia,

Congratulations on having your civilian work recognized as important as your priestly duties. Addressing such grievous injustice fills my heart with joy.

There are not other women like us within the College. We are breaking new ground and, for good and ill, everything about how we act and express our influence is establishing precedents for plebeian and foreign Vestalis. And everyone knows that.

They will use us, they will make our image into something that matches how they already think of us — and how they want people to see us for all time. They will try to throw everything at you they believe will make you distrust yourself: your experience, your youth, your class, your wealth. Stand by your work; it earned you a place at our table and established your authority on the field. Anyone that decries that with soft words and doubts has no place in your mind.

I can feel the love you have for your work, the sincerity you pour in every engine. And that is why I cannot give you more advice: to do so would make me join the ranks of the peddlers of doubt. We may seem similar in our background but we have a fundamental divergence: I am powered not by some passion or quest. I am a selfish being. I want to make the Republic better for me — in the self-centered belief that doing so will make it better for everyone.

That makes me more dangerous than the patrician opposition; they will close the door on you and give you an easy target to overcome, while I will be the friendly face that may be too wrong to even know she is misleading you.

Be selfish with your passions. You know best for you.

I am looking forward to the next twenty-eight years.

We are the flame.

Arpineia, Vestalis Class I of Innovation and Progress.

Tarpeia folded the letter and curled into a pensive posture. The flame has no choice but to burn, but nobody ponders how she feels. Arpineia ignited knowledge and Tarpeia could not just act in ignorance.

Why did she even send this letter?

Well, Arpineia was helpful enough to write the reason. We are the flame. We burn.

Tarpeia glared at the trapdoor that hid the destroyed Mule. Stand by her work? Energy, change, motion. Action.

She would fill these halls with noise and fire.