Gold and Pigsty Part 1/3

“I don’t know what his problem is.”

“Yeah, come on! It is just trimming his nails.”

“Never again, nobody that selfish is worth the effort.”

“A pity, because he is super cute.” 

“Salutations, Vestalis!” A heavy-breathing patrician entered the second courtyard of the College of the Vestals, past the private threshold. The man was flustered, face half-covered by a dirty wool cloak; he only had himself to blame, going around running in a toga. What non-sense. Why even have patricians if they are just going to behave like that?

“Salve, citizen.” The closest Vestal approached as the other adjusted her veil. “What is the urgent matter that brings you into the House of the Flame?”

“Well, not inside the House. They still allow this, right?” A nervous giggle as the man kept sweating. “It would not do if I worsened my position with sacrilege. Vae!” 

The patrician found his senses and presented a pair of scrolls—sealed, a senatorial and a personal seal on each of them. Biting her lower lip, the closest priestess folded her tunic and received the scrolls.

“Under which name and subject should I store them?”

“Gaius Numicius.” The man showed his iron ring. “It is my correspondence with tribal leaders of the Republic of Epirus. For my safety, they should not be on my person; for the interests of the Republic they should be entrusted to the Vestals.”

The two women exchanged glances; the man escaped was gone as quickly as he had rushed in. 

“I think he wanted Law and History.” The veiled priestess suggested.

“He should have learned to distinguish Department ribbons.” The colleague answered, picking the scrolls.  

“So, Epirus. Nice people, messy land.”

“So, Epirus. Nice people, messy land.”

Davinia stretched herself, shifting her weight and trying to find comfort in the floor. She held opened scrolls, comparing old seals of similar documents and using chair and benches as extra workspace. She was humming as she studied the intricate dialect of Greek in which they wrote the missives. Arpineia’s long suffering Second Class assistant was tidying the place, securing rarer scrolls at the same time she made sure that her superior was fed. Nibbling on some bread and minced nuts and olives, Davinia kept reading.

“Do you need help?” The Second Class Vestalis offered. “All my Greek is awful rote learning, but it will be another pair of eyes.”

“Mhmh.” Arpineia muttered between mouthfuls. “No, don’t. I need your brain, not your eyes. I got the crux of this. So, Epirus. Nice people, messy land, just on the other side of the sea. Lovely habit of throwing bricks at tyrants, less desirable Roman-killing history and ambiguous on Punics. They have secured their independence from neighboring hegemons and they are trying the beauty of a mixed constitution with checks and balances. Delightful development.”

“Vae, mostly. But I am sure a woman from Argos threw the tile.” The subordinate narrowed her eyes at the offhand manner her superior spoke of Pyrrhus invasion of the peninsula and how much the hegemon threatened Rome and Carthage. “I’m sorry, I’m sure that is irrelevant to the matter. Please continue.”

“All right, so they are trying to make that, but the Senate has been giving them the cold shoulder. Which is unfortunate; if these letters are accurate, they are emulating Etruscan-Asiatics democracies instead of the Hellenistic ones. The non-Greek majority of Epirus makes up the three most powerful voting blocks of the League; this community is off to a great start, and if it can survive past inception? They can become an influential member of the federation. But you know they won’t make it; not on their own.”

“Oh no.” The young girl covered her mouth, geopolitics hitting her like the rostra of a trireme.  

“Hum hum.” Davinia swallowed another piece of bread. “They’re right next to one of the three big hegemons and their self-governance is a challenge that demands an answer. But Rome can help. Senator Numicius has been communicating with Epirote diplomats in other Italian cities, trying to construct a case for Senate consideration. Very civic-minded of him; if plebeian solidarity may lead to Roman help, the role of the Senate is to advise the Peoples. How can they consider the issues and advise the proles and the plebs if they are just as ignorant?”

“That never stopped them before.”

“And it is beneficial to capitalize on resentment against Epirotes.” 

“It is understandable. The Peoples still remember how their relatives died to stop the invasion, the sacrifices of the allies and the awesome elephants. The resentment makes even the suggestion of diplomatic channels a political risk. Senator Numicius invoked our sacred duties and discretion for a reason; if word comes out that the Senate is dealing with Epirotes there will be massive upheaval, and not only among Romans. The social forces gave too much to protect Italia; there will be discord in the federation.” 

“I disagree. In fact, that is not an acceptable position to take. Syracuse was part of that war, and we have been on and off allies since then. Epirote tribes did not even start the war; it was imposed on them by a tyrant. And even Pyrrhus role in the expedition was questionable; the last two Senatorial generations have downplayed the role of Tarentum in the war, even if they started it lured Pyrrhus with the fruits of our labor. Why Epirus’s plight is ignored, while patricians and Taras aristocrats dine in silver and marry into each other clans? It is all about class; that is the why the Senate tells the Peoples they should love Tarentines and hate the Epirote: they believe they have more in common with Magna Grecia aristocracy than with any other popular group.”

“Vestalis Arpineia!” The young patrician Second Class Vestalis protested. “That is unfair! Not everything is about class!” 

Davinia put down the scrolls, rotated and pointed at one of the few decorations of her cell: on opposites side to her official portrait, tucked between two scroll cases, a landscape painting of the Conflict of Orders of CDLXVII. A dedication to the previous owner was written on the frame. “To my Hortensia: everything in this city is about class - or the lack thereof.” 

“The Senate is overwhelmingly patrician; they love to associate and profit from their dealings with Taras. Whatever benefits come from a war with Macedon are nothing compared with the damage of increased class awareness and flow of ideas due to closer ties between Roman and Epirote tribes. They are failing their civic duty; the People, their best interests and those of the Res Publica are not being properly served.”

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“Fine, I concede that is a reasonable interpretation.” The younger woman accepted, recognizing an useless fight if there has ever been one. “Leave it to the Tribunes and Consuls, they can do something about the matter and not of them oppose intervention out of elitism. There are other reasons to be skeptical military campaign across the Adriatic, such as the way Rome disgraced itself at Illyria.”

“A family friend served there as capsarior; they told us all about it.” Davinia whispered. “It was a mess of villainy and opportunism, shrouded in ignorance and patriotism. It must never happen again.”

The other woman nodded in agreement. 

“How are we going to handle our pious commitment to Gaius Numicius? Should I make a copy of the letters and give them to Vestalis Canuleia so they are properly filed?” 

“In due time, but we still have work to do; Senator Numicius delicate position and civic heroism demands Vestal pro-activity. We must protect them from legal or political persecution.” Davinia picked one letter and showed it to her assistant. “See this? It mentions some gifts to the Senate on behalf of the League; however, that cannot be the case by the very virtue that Numicius is the only member in contact with them.”

“They must have sent them to Gaius Numicius! If anyone learns of that they can trial him for treason! If there is anything that gets Senate and Tribunes to agree is the condemnation of someone accepting brides from a foreign government.” 

“Precisely.” Arpineia rose. “The ship carrying the gifts has sailed to Tarracina; they are still waiting there, quarantined. I will go there, present these sealed letters and my Vestal status. If I claim the gifts for safeguarding at the Temple, there can be no doubt it was not the dealings of a private citizen.”

“Will you tell Senator Numicius?”

“Probably not, he must be in the middle of some silly plot, intoxicated with bravado and intrigue; who am I to disturb his cloak and pugio fantasies? He has someone people as intermediaries, maybe he has a bunch of clients hiding in smuggler caves or waddling through the nearby marshlands, trying to get to the gifts before anyone else notices the shady deal. No, I will do this by the Ten Tablets—for once.” 

She was lying.

“That is good enough for the rest of the Collegia, but what if someone external inquires about you, Vestalis Arpineia?”

They exchanged tired glances, knowing very well how moot explanations would be. 

“Just tell them I am inspecting the viability of the Engineering designs for the Pontine Marshes.” Arpineia reached for a case and unrolled a letter. “Nobody should have issues with me trying to get more farmland to feed this wretched cesspit.”

“Please write and hurry.” The Second Class Vestalis pleaded. “The only thing in these halls hotter than Fire is the gossip. Who knows what Canuleia may do if she suspects anything.”

*

With Arpineia accounted for, Promethia could get loose. Arpineia packed a light load, giving away the car in favor of two donkeys. She was not even one mark down the Via Appia when a horseman gave her chase; it was inevitable—she was trying to avoid a lictor or entourage, but if she was pretending to be on official business, it would raise eyebrows for her to be on her own.

She did not recognize the rider. All lictors seemed the same to Davinia: patrician-passing plebs, beautiful and elegant, not very smart or skilled. The relatives you want to be seen in proximity to power but nowhere close to a fasce. This one was handsome but rugged, of a more balanced of built and posture. They wore an old soldier cloak decorated with a ring of goose and duck feathers; from their side swung two symbols of their status as lictor curiatus (a sacrificial knife and a voting rod) and an unpious-looking axe.

“Vestalis Arpineia, I presume?”

“You have me at a disadvantage.” Davinia complained.“You are not one of ours, are you?”

“I am yours, only.” The lictor corrected. “Lycalo of Aricia.”

“I don’t recall picking a personal lictor curiatus.

“I was selected and summoned by Vestalis Maxima Veneneia herself.” Lycalo pointed to a clasp with the sigil of bridge-makers: a bridge that also doubled as the hearth for a roaring fire. “She seems to believe a more conventional lictor would not do.” 

“Has she told you why?” A worried Davinia inquired.

“That all the muscle-for-hire and official lictors that escort you tend to die horrible and unexplained deaths.” Lycalo admitted, rubbing his facial hair.

“Then you understand why I make do without a bodyguard.”

“The chief Vestalis told me you would say that. Oddly, she also told me to mention I served at the sanctuary at Remi. I don’t see how that may be relevant.”

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Damn you Veneneia. No way she could ignore a direct assignment from her; Davinia knew this was Veneneia being nice and letting her take the hint: if she had to come down and tell her to moderate her behavior, there would be heavy repercussions. But she also sent her a man from Remi? Someone that had worked with their Arician cousins? The Vestalis Nemorensis were an odd, reclusive bunch that had no interest in administrative or civic duties. They were all Closer to the Gods, to the oak nymphs of the groves and their fellow priestesses of Diana and Proserpina. The anarchic enclave organized around the worship of the Triad goddess was rumored to be stewards of awesome knowledge about the Stars and the Earth; how could Davinia resist when Veneneia dangled Lycalo in front of her?

“You know I am said to be Closer to Egeria? How would you feel that compares with your previous service experience?”

Lycalo lifted an arm.

“I would be a bad bodyguard if I spewed the secrets of my wards. Besides, does the average Roman lictor has any idea what a Vestalis is doing and the principles behind their work?”

Good point. Arpineia accepted with reluctance.

“Fine, keep their secrets.” She pouted. Lycalo dismounted and petted their asinine companions.

“So, what about your own secrets?” The lictor changed subject.~“The channel inspection or terrain appraisal or whatever was that nice lady in your office mentioned? I guess that is not behind your journey.”

“I don’t understand what you mean.” A flustered Vestalis attempted to lie.

“Not a single shovel, a measuring rod, topographic marker or even a groma.” Lycalo concluded after a quick inspection of Arpineia’s luggage. “Seems like a more social event.”

At the guilty silence, Lycalo contributed with reassuring words.

“It will be safer for both if I know what to expect.”

“You said you are mine, so you report to my Department and my Department alone, correct?” Davinia probed.

“Department?” Lycalo was confused for a moment, reaching the obvious conclusion. “Oh, I see. Your College divides yourself in Departments. Yes, I suppose I am to help you do whatever is that you do.” 

Davinia let that go: she was too busy making the mental note that Vestals of Remi did NOT divide themselves into fields of civic service.

“All right, get back on your horse. On the way I will tell you how naughty I have been.”

*

Tarracina was only a settlement by the busy unity conferred by the natural safe harbour; once you abandoned the Via Appia you found yourself in a world of tricky wetlands, homesteads on  hills, pigsties and vegetable gardens in every convenient corner. Rustic walls demarcated propriety and gave some sense of identity and protection to the local clans. That vague commune was Tarracina. 

Davinia pressed onward, towards the modern-looking pier, supported by small apartment blocks and warehouses, hosting foreign ships.

“Where are you going?” Lycalo stopped his steed, putting on a helmet with an upper half-mask of a curious fox. “The animals are tired and you cannot be much better.”

“What are you doing?” Davinia replied, pushing her poor donkeys more.

“Looking the part. Vestalis Arpineia, stop.” He pointed at a large building on flatland, fortified and gated with a lot of noisy animals and sitting right beside a dirt road. “There is an inn right there.”

“Are you kidding? I come from a merchant family: I don’t trust no innkeepers!” Davinia protested. “Besides, I need to talk with the community leaders.”

Lycalo wiggled his indicator twice at the inn.

“You will find them there, trust me. I know how things works in places like this.” Lycalo waved towards the docks. “There you will find the people in power—or at least those that make the money. But if you want to talk with the local representatives, they live there.”

With a inquiring smirk, Arpineia let Lycalo prove he was worth of being her Lictor.

The gates were half open, half-closed, puddles and mud sprouting under then. The smells, noise and warmth emanating from the animals kept in the safe courtyard overwhelmed them . People of all shapes and ages ran around, busy with livestock and routine repairs and cleaning.

“Well… it seems honest enough.” Davinia remarked as Lycalo helped her dismount. A man in his thirties dropped a bundle of hay and came to greet them.

“Stable for three and a room?” He asked Lycalo, noticing the mask and marks of office.

“Two rooms, on the same floor.” Davinia corrected. “And you can address me directly.”

“A priestess, humble me? Sure, sure. Will tell my moms and come back for your rides and luggage.”

Davinia did not wait, raising and eyebrow and narrowing her eyes towards Lycalo.~

“I may have made my own arrangements ahead.”

“How. We have been breaking our mounts backs riding here.”

“I have my own ways.”

“You are resourceful.” Davinia threw a satchel at Lycalo and slung the other over her shoulder.“Good thing you are working for me.”

“Just another civil servant, steward of the Flame.

They entered the inn. It was bustling with activity but almost deserted of guests. From the inside it looked like someone had built upon a meeting hall and communal kitchens, expanding it to accommodate three generations of three families and a couple of guests. The matriarchs stood around, supervising the bar, kitchens and the endless turmoil and toil that set the hours of home-life.

“I have to give to you, it is like a village under one roof.” Arpineia admitted, sitting in one table. She felt the wood, feeling the scratches and carvings left by children and their games. “I’m parched, but I see they get their water from wells. Get us a few glasses of diluted wine; I still have a lot of work to do.”

“Do you want me to ask for some boiled water for some energizing infusion, if you will be working through the night?”

“Oh no, please don’t! Maybe later when they have some cooking fire on. Just offer to help them get the amphoras from the cellar and, you know, give a look to see what water they are adding and how they are storing the wine.”

Relaxing with a moment to herself, Davinia pulled out her notes and focused in re-reading. She added some notes of her own. She felt herself observed;  stopping twice, she looked over her shoulder before returning to her letters. After the third time she caught the eye of another of the older adults, trying to hush down some patrons. He rushed towards the kitchen, returned with some hard-baked bread and fish paste and served it at the Vestalis’ table.

“I’m sorry priestess, please heed no mind.”

Davinia turned on her seat and leaned towards the kerfuffle. One of the other clients wore water-proof leathers and a dirty cloak; he kept his entire body shaven and had a face red from alcohol and shouting.

“You are okay with this! Your families are set either way, who do you care if they drain our lands?”

“Macillus, please. We all are together on this, what do we gain by poisoning our community?” The matriarch at the bar had engaged.

“You resent us, that is why! Because of how much we get from the marshlands and because you ignore the treasures within! You always looked down on us and you could not bear to see us succeed!”

“Friend, you have been suffering. How about I call your children and then, once you are rested we can talk about what we can do?”

“No! I know they sent someone from the Urbe, that they are carrying on with the irrigation plans. I want to give her a piece of my mind and you will not stop me. I will not see my kin destitute and have a bunch of outsiders move into our homes.”

Davinia crossed her arms, frowning.

“We will make him leave, Vestal.”

“No, let me listen.” Davinia replied.“I know my sisters have handled the engineering and viability studies. I want to know what the people fear for and the impact the project will have in their lives. This is a precious opportunity.”

She had said that, but it was harder to do than she proposed. A lot of the arguments—if they could be called so—were baseless and irritated her; some of them were downright patronizing. She loved the project, it seemed good for everyone, a promising development for all surrounding communities: a bounty of food and communion, a scarcity of disease and rot. They spent years developing the tools, comparing projects, devising solutions; returning repeatedly to the drawing board to make new pitches and to address novel problems. Who were they to doubt the hard work of her Collegia? They just happened to live here.

They just happened to live here. And that made their concerns important; Davinia reminded herself: she was no different, she also lived in the here and now—nobody exists in the “long-term” or cared for “eventually”. Why would she expect others to accept what she rejected herself? Lycaro sat down, worried hands tracing the contours of the wine jar as he eyed Davinia. 

She stood up; Lycaro made his desire to follow her clear.

“Be careful with what you say.” The lictor suggested. “Things are tense enough as they are.”

“I’m just going to listen.” Arpineia replied, with as much sincerity as she herself could believe in. 

Lycaro leaned over the table, brow resting against his upturned palm. 

“What are you trying to say, my good citizen?”

“What are you trying to say, my good citizen?”

“Excuse me.” Most of the inn held their breath as Davinia did not wait for an answer, pulling a stool and sitting right in front of the protesting elder. “I cannot help but overhear and once I heard what you had to say? I was quite taken. I came here to observe the lands that will be altered by the drainage and re-address the viability of the original projects.”  

“Let me save your time then.” The man groaned. “The project is bad. Go back to Rome.”

A sudden silent, disturbed only by the scratching of wood on stone as Lycaro rose.

“I am half-inclined to do just as you say.” Arpineia shrugged. “I have not realized how damaging to the environment and the local lifestyle our little pump would be.”

Everyone was incredulous. Davinia just could not sell an idea like that on goodwill alone; she advanced with a greedy smirk. 

“We are your biggest client.” Everyone relaxed, ensnared my the pragmatic sincerity of self-interest that Davinia emanated. “Our stipend is already stretched thin; Vae Vesta, what would we do if the reagents were to grow rarer—and expensive?”

“Yeah, that is how things are. You priestesses should know better than to mess with us. We hold all the dice on this endeavor.”

“You sir, have me defeated.” Davinia formed a pyramid with her fingers. “I will advise my sisters to withdraw their recommendations from the Senate’s consideration as soon as possible.”

Now it was the three inn-keeping families that were upset; their livelihood and future depended on the rising popularity of Tarracina—and that will not happen if it remained a disease-ridden, meager marshland. As the elder marshlander emptied another cup in victory, Davinia’s smirk widened as her eyebrows turned in worry. 

“However, we do not see any benefit in maintaining a relationship that is damaging for both parties.” Davinia unleashed the fullness of her equestrian breeding. “Perhaps an uninhabited place up north would see improvement through our patronage, and the learned hand of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources could preserve the divine beauty of those marshes, while providing with new settlers.”

The elder shifted on his seat, a bright beam of understanding piercing his drunkenness. 

“What are you going on about, Vestalis?”

“The tragedies of the last months have left entire Cisalpine territories depopulated and caused the flight of even more families. I heard that some refugees, unable to make to the urban centers of the South, have been surviving on the marshes. Not all of them want to return—or have something to return to—after the savagery of the Celt. So, maybe they would reward our support in this hour of need with better deals? There is only hoping.”

“But that can take years.” The elder gulped. “And you priests have such unique needs.

The pyramid dismantled in a spider-like fashion.

“Vae. What are you trying to say, my good citizen?” 

“I’m sure we can come with an agreement. For the here and now.”

“Please, do so. Reach out for my sisters in the other departments. It would be unseemly for us to mess with the marshlander way of life.” 

*

Afternoon of work gave way to a restless night. Davinia and Lycaro made their way to the courtyard. Four large tables and benches, rustic and made of varnished but unworked wood. A small frame covered in ivy was all that stood between them and the night-sky; potted flowers and aromatic herbs complemented the environment, making it a charming place to dine.

Davinia had carried reading material even to this place of secluded relaxation—the only true quiet corner of the inn. She kept working, pausing only for the occasional sip of the thick vegetable stew, a heartening meal flavored with fermented fish remains and doused on hard stale bread; enriched with the same potent herbs that gave magic to the night. Arpineia shifted uncomfortable on the bench; not so much the hard wood, it was the inquiring stares of Lycaro that distracted her from dinner and reading. The lictor had barely touched his stew, even if his glowing expression when smelling it confirmed their satisfaction with the food. 

“What?” Davinia blurted, swinging her half-empty bowel. “If you have anything to say, get on with it.”

“I am still thinking about that brutal shakedown.” Lydaro admitted. “Have not seen many priestesses being this cutthroat outside of the sacrificial altar.” 

“There are few like me.” Davinia laid the bowl on the table.

“I knew that. And it still surprised me.”

Davinia sighed. 

“Is this going to be a problem? Is this going to interfere with our work?”

Lycaro scratched his beard.

“No, I don’t think it is. I just want to understand why you did it. I want to know what drives my Vestal.”

Now it was Davinia that scratched her chin. 

“I get it, I understand why it may be puzzling. I did not have to do that, right? I could have kept my head down, went up with the Epirote affair and let the donkeys of progress take their course. A lot of damage would be done that could be avoided by getting the locals to talk with us.” Davinia looked away. “And if they may resent someone, which they were on the path to do, let them resent me instead. They will find calmer voices among Viviana’s people.”

Lycaro seemed to have found his appetite, attacking the stew with voracity. He abstained from commentary. Arpineia could feel emptiness on a full stomach as doubt gnawed at her. She wanted the best for her and everyone around her; she always pushed herself to learn more, to know more, to maneuver herself in a position where she could accomplish more. But a flaw laid at the heart of this belief: what if, after all she learned, with all she knew, even by being at the right place at the right time, she still acted ruinously? It was too dangerous to spend too much time locked inside one’s head.

“I want to preserve everyone’s prosperity and good fortune and do away with all ill. Am I wrong for wanting that? I don’t know but it is what I want; and that sometimes takes me deep into the woods.”

“Or the marshlands.” Lycaro added. “I believe you work to do good, but how can you do so if you are unwell?”

“Of course I’m fine, would anyone not fine do what I do!”

“There is a difference between being healthy enough to work and distract yourself from what wails you. That you can still do it speaks wonders about your stubbornness and mental endurance, but there is a price to pay for this.” Lycaro pulled out some notes from between his clothes. “Considering everything that happened, you just cannot be well.”

“What do you have there? Have you been investigating me?” Arpineia was shocked.

“I did not have to. When you are a Vestalis, your suffering is never private.” Lycaro unrolled the notes.

“What kind of lictor are you?”

“The one sworn to protect their ward: body, mind and spirit.” Lycaro started reading. “A public falling out with your support network. Lost apartment for some undisclosed reason. Held hostage during the terrorist attack on the temple of Saturn. Caught in Triumphant cross-fire. Became Closer to Egeria in the sacred grove. Last survivor of a doomed expedition. Closer to the Gods after contact with Forbidden Lore. Caught in Triumphant cross-fire—again. And should I add “Attempted foreign affairs as a private citizen to the list”? This is a terrifying list, and it is only what is public knowledge.”

“I do not know what to say, Lycaro. All those things happened, but I am fine.”

“One or two of those would be enough for someone to need help.” Lycaro rolled the notes back. “All of those? Within months?”

“Are you supposed to be help I need? I do not know you.” Davinia riposted.

“That is true. No, I’m not the help you need. You need community care, but I am here to ease your burdens—just a little.”

“I’m fine.” Arpineia repeated. 

“I believe you believe that.” Lycaro replied. “And you can be fine now. You are something else, Arpineia; If you set your mind in pushing through, you will. However, do you plan to shoulder the crises on your life with a Dictatorship? You will not be done with this or the next assignment and then plant cabbages. You have what, twenty-two years left of civil service? Please, even if you do not address your ongoing issues, please, agree that this is not a sustainable load.” 

“Those are Veneneia’s words.” Davinia pouted, eyebrows crushed into a single apprehensive line. “You are too tactful a person, you would know not to cross those boundaries on the first day we met.”  

“The Vestalis Maxima admires and loves you—in her scorching intense way.” Finished with his meal, Lycaro put the bowl down and left. “I am going to bed, Arpineia. You should not stay up late; you have a big day tomorrow, and you will not be dealing with peasants denied your opportunities for learning and study.”

A very reluctant Davinia admitted Lycaro had a point. She was here to stop fights, not to start them or pick on the disadvantaged. Shuffling over her work bag, she pulled out her uniform. 

Nothing like a night flight before bed.