Gold and Pigsty Part 3/3

Lycaro knocked on Davinia’s door, even if the rooster had yet to salute Sol. He shared his opinion on Arpineia’s eye bags and dark circles with a disapproving glance; a comb and a set of pins on his hands, the lictor greeted his mistress with a gentle wave.

“Where are you going with all these?” A grumpy Davinia muttered, horrified by her coarse voice.

“They expect a Vestalis, a herald of wisdom and flame.” Lycaro mumbled, holding three pins between his lips. “I’m gonna make sure they get one, instead of a bleary woman in need of sleep.”

Davinia groaned, dragging herself out of bed. She could only think about the thief and what they wanted from Tarracina.

“If you can do the six braids by yourself, I am not letting you go.” Arpineia smiled between smug pouting.“Ever.”

“I need not do them. I just need to make it seem like I did.” Lycaro nodded, setting two polished mirrors and attacking Davinia’s hair.

It was two different creatures that approached the docks, causing workers and sailors to turn their heads, awe and surprise sovereigns. A client of the publicani corporation operation docks was interrogating the night-guards (about some strange arson that happened in the wee hours). They dropped everything to welcome a Roman Vestal and her lictor.

“What word from the Urbe?” The client rushed, tucked sleeves and sweaty brow.”

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Lycaro did not let them address Arpineia directly, denying them the privilege he had afforded the local clans. The Vestalis averted her eyes as the lictor intercepted, extending the voting rod sideways and wiping his cloak just enough for the vicious head of his axe.

“I will need to check your records.” Lycaro commanded, before nodding to Davinia.“Oh, and another thing: your people and everyone else will take Vestalis Arpineia wherever she needs to go. Deny her nothing.”

Davinia kept walking, resisting a much-needed yawn. Warehouse's doors were opened before her, and a series of inspections did not uncover anything that could be a state gift: grain, smoked and fermented fish, vats of salt, planks of wood and bundles of drying leaves. Where could they be? Were the gifts still on the ships or had someone already taken them somewhere else?

“Has anyone unloaded the Epirote ships? ”

“Right here, Vestalis.” One of the dockyard workers pointed to a bundle of wool that escaped her attention. On top of it rested the treasures of Epirus: containers of cheese, racks of smoked eels, sealed amphorae of militites and the wild honey that granted its unique taste. There were some sacks next to it; Davinia opened them, her heart racing as she imagined incriminating items within. Chestnuts, dried grapes and pickled mushrooms.

“They are magnificent.” Davinia muttered after a sigh of relief. “Epirus gifts its heart, not it wealth.”

Whoever was dealing with Senator Numicius on the other side of the sea, they were wise and worth collaborating with.

The frown returned. Some nuts and aged milk would not attract a thief with such expensive toys. The two affairs could be unrelated, but her dormant investigative skills kept shouting at her. Odds suggested they were tied; she was ignorant of the how and she was taking a risk ignoring the connections.

Ties and tides flow both ways.

“Have the Epirotes been cleared from quarantine?”

“Yes, but they have refused the landing. We have been slowly bringing their resupplies and cargo, dividing them between the three ships.”

The strange behavior of the sailor struck Davinia.

“I must come aboard.”

The worker hesitated, confused at the request; Davinia clarified her demand.

“Get more supplies on a boat, along with whatever cargo is left. I will come alongside them.” Arpineia pulled her long dress, preparing to rush out. She stopped halfway, turning around and pointing at the Epirote gifts. “Wrap these up and tell my lictor about them. These will come with us to Rome.”

If the other workers were surprised by their august company, they did not hold a candle to the Greek sailors reaction when they saw a flame priestess in full regalia. They shouted at each other and at Davinia, throwing insults, blasphemies as well as utterly confused and puzzled exclamations; they gesticulated, punctuation lost in thick accents as they tried to make their perplexity known. As the captain of the ship approached Davinia, an aristocratic-looking fellow outmaneuvered him; rugged looks, built for muscle and war, wearing a heavy wool and pelt cloak. One of the few non-Greeks aboard.

“Priestess.” He nodded. “I am Tharyps, selected by the League as an emissary to your people.”

As he approached, Davinia embraced him, subtly lowering the man to her level.

“You need to tell the crew of the other ships to look for stowaways. Oh, and no wandering alone, have them keep each other’s company.” She whispered on his ear before releasing him. A flustered Tharpys said something to the captain in their tribal dialect, Davinia composing herself.

“Now, show me the gifts the Senate gave you.”

Tharpys agreed, taking Arpineia down into the steerage of the ship. Davinia covered her mouth, eyes tearing up.

Samples of the true treasury of Italia, carefully packed and prepared for the journey across the Sea of Adria. Sets of Etruscan ceramic vessels, a veritable forest of adorable woodland animals; Oscan and Samnite clan tapestries, dyed with the rich and bright colors spewed by Dis Pater in Sicilia; golden jewelry from the Italian celts from the northern coasts. Tharpys was talking to her; Davinia heard nothing. Her hands caressed an intricately carved chest, opening it with a soft mechanical clang and revealing even greater bounty. Book after book, leaving barely a gap; Arpineia grabbed a bundle of them: songs. The Vestalis hummed them, as she opened a random book and reading the title: one of the modern plays—and one written and performed in Latin!

“Gens Numicii has accumulated art from Rome and all of its allies.” Tharpys explained. “They wanted to show their trust and support for democratic movement within the independent Epirote League; what better way than by entrusting their collection to the four peoples of Epirus?”

“I have seen your own gifts; they are just as delightful and will bring much joy.” Davinia presented a kind smile as she moved towards another sealed container. She covered her mouth, recognizing the familiar touch of canvas between her fingers. She unveiled it, already knowing the contents; Melantia was a genius and nothing delighted Arpineia more than the honor of posing for one of her paintings. “But why would you want this? I mean, I know why you would want a Melantia landscape, her boldness of color and composition is unrivaled, but… why? You could use supplies, equipment, or even silver for mercenaries.”

Tharpys nodded.

“Those things could help win a war, but would also render victory meaningless. A donation from a single patrician family will never be enough to secure freedom, not when your enemy is a hegemon; we either have the full support of Rome or not.”

“Still, why this?”

“There is a strong contention among our leadership that Hellenistic propaganda is just too insidious. What the hegemony cannot do military, they will accomplish culturally. This worries the non-Greek majorities, which do not want to see their cultural identities assimilated or appropriated. A show of Italian alliance, and how cultures older and new thrive and celebrated within a federal republic will do wonders to galvanize resistance. If it worked somewhere else, it can work here.”

Divisive politics are the same everywhere; Davinia loved glorious messes, with her natural suspicion of easy solutions. Autocracies are pretty simple: and both Epirote and Romans had strong opinions on them. Arpineia rubbed her eyes and turned to Tharpys. She held her mouth open, wanting to give some commitment, comforting words of support and collaboration. Instead, the only noise heard was the hush and cackling of sudden fire—and the screams.

The couple rushed to the upper deck. Davinia heart stopped as she saw one of the other ships: a pyre, burning beyond salvation as its crew sought mercy on the sea.

“You are in danger.” Arpineia told Tarphys, avoiding thinking about the wonders that may have been lost. “Get everyone out of the ship.”

The emissary told something to the captain, which in turn repeated it towards the sailors. Half of them rushed to the boats.

“I will stay with you.”

“Nonsense. Go.”

Tarphys would protest. They turned to see the second ship burst into flames: the sudden vacuum, a dreadful sound.

“By the Grace of Epeiros.” The emissary mumbled.

“Go!” Arpineia commanded. “I know fire, I can save the ship. Go!”

Davinia slid down back to the steerage, floating and darting as soon as she was out of sight. She pulled her uniform from underneath her clothing, stuffed her iron needle inside her scarf and delivered herself to Promethia. Closing her eyes, Promethia projected her Triumph outward, overwhelming reality around the ship. Any combustion would have to answer to her, bow to her igneous will. Davinia could feel her Sparkle straining, inverting as they used it against its bound affinity. Promethia held until she felt some paste trying to burn the hull of the ship. Could this be it?

“Why are you not going off?” Someone complained in Greek, followed by creeping realization. “Oh, no.”

A hand poked between oars, grabbing Circe by the neck and pushing her against the side of the ship. Twice her masked head and hull met.

As the thief cursed and struggled, she could feel the heat as a circle of fire was carved in the wood. Circe groaned, a piece of hull projected at high speed hitting her stomach. Promethia released Circe, allowing her to fall into the waters.

“Have you cooled off?” Davinia’s head poked through the hole. “Have you had enough? Because I have: I am done with you!”

“You! Latin whore!”

“None of those is even an insult. You are so annoying!” Promethia barked back, studying the igniting paste. “You are a tricky one, what is this thing?”

No answer, no taunts. She looked down and saw that Circe had disappeared, diving under flaming debris.

“Where are you, you damned arsonist?” Davinia flew outside, skirting around the water, turning left and right. She got a glimpse of Circe, sneaking into the ship. Davinia followed, feet first. Promethia was hoping to deliver a kick, but her resonating Spark betrayed her; Circe grabbed Davinia by the legs, spun her along and threw her against the mast.

“Fascinating; you are much smaller than what you make yourself seem to be. No wonder small doses have such drastic effects on you.” Circle contemplated, rubbing her hurt neck. “But I admit, you have a surprising grip.”

“Congratulations, you have figured out my trick. Have that consolation prize; the emissary escaped and you cannot get him.” Davinia rose, posing victoriously.

Circe shrugged, waving her palm in two arcs, seven flasks between her fingers.

“I never wanted him; no emissary for me. I have no problem with Epirus; this is my one chance to get to the Numicii collection and you will not stop me.”

Seven flasks flew, a gasping Davinia darting to intercept them, manipulating air pockets and her own body to blunt their fall. Two flasks eluded her, breaking into noxious clouds. Armed with hindsight, Promethia pulled her scarf and wrapped it around her face.

“I won’t let you take it, thief.”

“You are annoying, but you are no idiot.” Circe hugged herself, and Davinia heard a snap—like stitches ripping or tear of leather. “You know I am here not to steal, but to destroy.”

“Then you force my hand.”

“Who am I to resent an animal for following their instincts?” Circe signaled a challenge for Davinia to come forward. “Go ahead.”

Circe was getting on her nerves, and that was on top of an unforgivable crime. Promethia tackled her down, punching and kicking as her enemy fell; biting her scarf and sweating, Davinia got the dreadful realization that Circe had been baiting her. She presented a token resistance, rubbing herself against her hips and arms. The coldness and sweet scent clinging to Circe’s body warned her, but it was too late. Davinia fell on her back with a powerless tud; Circe walked away, ripping color-painted patches of ointment from her arms.

“Sit.” Circe pulled another set of flasks, throwing them in random directions. “What a good girl you are.”

Davinia’s body refused to move, breathing was increasingly difficult. Yet, she kept bitting the scarf, knowing that if it got loose, all would be over. A torrent of purple and dark green smoke cradled her, turning the interior of the ship into some alien and forbidding.

“Just let go.” A warped deep voice suggested, echoing beyond meaning. “Rest and go to the depths. These crude trinkets will mark your grave.”

“They.” Davinia groaned between clenched teeth. “Are. Not. Trinkets.”

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“You are right.” The smoke cleared, Circe resurged. Her almost comedic mask had twisted. Longer snout, eyes burning like embers and dark tusks. Circe loomed huge, her arms muscled and hairy, fingers twisted and soaked in wine-dark fluid. Davinia found enough will to rise and attempted to gain some distance. Circe followed, her new gait uneven but powerful; the very planks creaked and broke as she stepped forward. “They are less than the games of children; they are as worthless as the barking of dogs. They are feeble attempts of animals that do not understand the weight of humanity’s condition. Of a people of imitators with pretensions. Their very existence is an offense and harms proper culture. It must be destroyed and forgotten, its creators need to accept their place in the world.”

Davinia whimpered as Circe lifted by the neck.

“Rut, breed, fight and look in awe. Welcome your yolk, beasts of Italia.”

No.

Davinia could feel her Spark slipping away, but even now it agreed with her rejection of Circe worldview. Reconciliation was at hand; weird, as Arpineia was still ignorant of the cause of the drift. Davinia embraced the Spark and became one with fire. They rejected Circe’s imposition.

The smoke cleared, pushed out of the ship by a surge of hot air. Circe groaned in pain, her glove on fire. Tears dried as Celestial Triumph bled over the whites of Davinia’s eyes.

All she saw was targets. Everywhere, flames trapped, begging for the freedom to conflagrate.

Promethia scorched a path towards the humongous Circe, the desire to burn overriding Davinia’s sense of self-preservation. Tripping the thief with flaming kick, Promethia descended on her a torrent of high-heat, poor-precision flames. Whatever flasks remained unbroken, melted and spilled. With a panicked realization, Davinia was confronted with an irrefutable fact: if this continued, she would be the one burning the ship down.

She could hear a familiar laughter. No, no, please.

Her Spark vacillated, then regaining strength but resonating strangely to her. Seized. Conquered.

Davinia felt cold fingers caressing her face, another hand caressing the curves of her spine, another resting on her hip. A giggle and a playful nibble on her ear.

“Go away.”

“Oh? Just because you are not playing Numa? So clever, you even used your dear friend to play my part.” Tongue joined teeth. “Good work seizing thunder. You are so smart, it is really turning me on. Oh, but you are also so careless; the Triumph you have been using to keep me away? It seems to have issues with whom you are and is rebelling.”

“Go away, Egeria. I don’t want you in me.”

“Rude! Also, you may want to look down.”

Fututio, Circe had escaped. The thief leaned over the side of the ship and waved back at Davinia. She unbound her torso-bindings, letting a tube loose: filled with shiny blue-gray pearls. Circe threw it against the hull and disappeared into the water. The tube bounced twice, falling into the sea—and exploding. Water rushed to fill in the gapping whole, priceless paintings and books disappearing into the darkness as the ship sank. Davinia took flight, crashing and diving into the water. The Triumphant struggled to breathe, floating and barely sustaining lift. Her Spark glitched, and she did not understand why. She was the thief, the bringer of the flame, the awakener of the human spirit. Was she not? Doubt seized her as she struck the water once again. This was somehow Egeria’s fault.

Davinia gave up, swimming to the beach and hugging the rocks. She turned around, eyes swollen and vision blurred. She was startled as she felt a weight on top of her, six arms pinning her down. Egeria hanged in an arc, toothy smile close to her brow.

“Go away.”

“I must take you if I go.”

“No, leave me alone.”

Hands reached for the scarf.

“You cannot breathe.”

“I cannot breathe the smoke.”

“It is gone Arpineia. It is all gone.”

Davinia closed her eyes and punched the air, hitting something and punching more. She tried to get a flame on, but it glitched again.

It glitched hard.

She could feel her Stark rejecting her, turning on her, the Triumph lashing back. Davinia grew warmer, a primal instinct to burn, all-consuming. Material concerns gave way to idealism as reconstructed platonic objects swallowed all the real. Her scarf—or the idea of a scarf—got loose, another set of hands grabbing it.

“Let me burn. Damn you Egeria, I can burn and will do so without you.”

A broad figure loomed over her, fiddling with the scarf. They pulled the iron needle from the cloth. It mentioned two familiar words; her non-ears rang.

Something stabbed her. A flame, pierce. Fire, bleeding from a prick.

Her Spark weakened, the bound with the Triumph severed.

No more Promethia.

*

Davinia turned and trashed, lips trembling as sweat descended her brow. A blanked covered her and a dim candle offered a meek but hurtful light. Breathing was costly; the Vestalis threw the blanket to the floor and rolled, uncomfortable. Someone approached her, restrained in words but giving in works; they pulled the blanked over her and poured some water over her lips.

Arpineia moaned, turned again and dared to open her eyes; someone had brought her back to the inn. She could see Lycaro leaning over a writing desk, back turned as he faced the candle. Davinia wanted to say something, but she hesitated—not out of weakness, but of concern: something bout the situation felt odd. Narrowing her eyes, Davinia focused on Lycaro’s posture: he was bent and tense, knuckles arching over the table and his axe laying ready, within grasp.

Lycaro acknowledged Davinia’s movement.

“Answer me clearly and without deception.” The lictor’s voice was cold and serious; his fingers trembled and candlelight made him pale and intense. “Why do you disguise yourself as you do? What is your intention behind the way you choose to present yourself?”

“It is not a disguise.” Davinia groaned, each word pained and coarse. “It is a permanent scar upon my being, a reminder of my idiocy. I have no say in what others see—I’m not even aware of their perception.”

Lycaro took a deep breath, trying to relax.

“You really have no control over it?”

“As much control as I had over last night.”

“You mean three nights ago.” Lycaro kindly corrected, bringing more water to a parched Arpineia. “They knocked you out for a long time.”

Arpineia would say something, but anxiety still dominated her. Davinia reached for her neck, finding it bare. Her throat complained and she would have teared up if her body allowed. Lycaro understood, bringing her the scarf and the needle. Davinia people them from his hands, holding the bundled wool against her chest as she sobbed.

“I should have figured. You defied protocol constantly by wearing it; I dismissed it as a statement and did not see the relation.” Lycaro apologized; Davinia continued her lament. “It meant the world to you. It was your brother’s.”

Davinia finally cried. She tied the scarf around her left arm and changed subject.

“What happened to the emissary? Did they get away safely?”

“You need more help than I knew.”

“I should write a letter to the Senator. The Numicii will be displeased with Epirus; I need them to know the circumstances for their loss.”

“You are pushing yourself beyond straining. It is a miracle you are still alive.”

“Did you pack the Epirote gifts? I want to return to Rome as soon as it dawns.”

“Vestalis Arpineia, I cannot do this anymore.”

Lycaro and Davinia stared at each other, exhausted in body and spirit.

“You cannot do what?” Lycaro waved at her.

“This. I cannot be a part of your self-destruction.”

“We work well together.” Davinia admitted. “You were at my side when I had nobody else. You are a good lictor.”

“I’m a great lictor.” Lycaro correct. “And I know when someone is beyond my reach. You need people on your back, you need a community, you need support—and not the one I can provide.”

“Are you going to tell anyone?”

“Is that your main worry?” Lycaro sighed. “I told you, your secrets are safe with me. However, not sharing this with other people is an issue.”

Davinia fell back into the bed, too tired.

“I should let you rest.” Lycaro made his way towards the door.

“Lycaro.” Davinia mumbled under the blankets.”

“Yes, Vestalis Arpineia?”

“I’m sorry.” Davinia whispered. “It is too bad it didn’t work out; I enjoyed meeting you.”

“Vae, I also liked you. I guess that is part of the problem.”

Davinia was alone, but not for long.

“I like him too.” Sybil made herself known. “He is right, you know.”

“I know…”

“I was very worried about you.”

“I’m sorry this keeps happening.”

*

Her donkeys were ready and saddled, her belongings neatly packed—better than Davinia would have done on her own. Leaving the innkeeper clan a generous reward, she left in a rush: she wanted to make a good time to Rome.

Davinia had barely approached road connecting Tarracina to Via Appia when she was intercepted by Lycaro. They smirked at each other as the lictor removed his helm; neither of them would verbalize an acknowledgment about what was happening.

Still with the dumb grin, Davinia pulled a smoked eel out of the saddlebags and stuffed it in her mouth, letting it dangle.

Lycaro smile widened, the lictor pushing his horse and approaching the donkeys.

“Is that an ill-mannered attempt to avoid talking to me?”

Davinia muttered something incomprehensible, popping the smaller amphorae open. She soaked her index finger within, pulling it out and throwing honey at Lycaro’s nose.

“Ohe! You are ruining the gifts!” The lictor laughed.

Arpineia swallowed the eel.

“Let’s just have a good moment through this mess, shall we?” She chuckled, mixing some cheese and dry grapes and throwing it at Lycaro.

“Oh well, why not?” He caught it in the air, munching with delight. “This is very good.”

“Hum hum.” Davinia agreed as she too descended upon dairy and fruits. “What happened to being a great lictor?”

“Heia, I figured I cannot be that good. I had to pull my ward out of the sea on my second day on the job.” Lycaro shrugged. “I guess I will have to compensate being an acceptable lictor by being a good friend.”

Davinia pushed her donkey closer, awkwardly giving him an equalizing salty and honeyed kiss.

“I would love that.”