The site was not chosen by accident.
The hills over which the city of Veii once sprawled were mined by tunnels, open wounds left by the Roman conquest. Centuries might have passed, and yet the opportunity for scarring was never granted to the city.
Veii was once the richest community of the Etruscan League, perhaps of the entire peninsula. First among equals, maestros of culture and finance. Nobody expected the Gauls to defeat the “civilized people.” Nobody expected the scum that lived in a place called Rome to break free. Even as the city was taken, everyone expected the Romans would just leave their burnt and filthy hideouts and be assimilated by the grandiose Etruscan culture.
Nobody expected the stubborn determination of the Citizens of Romulus, who gutted Veii and butchered it for all that it had good, stone by stone using its carcass to give Rome a second foundation.
No longer the center of the world, why would the affluent and novelty-hungry elites even bother to rebuild Veii? They moved to Rome and beyond, taking away any chance the city would have to be reborn.
Nobody that expects anything chooses Veii; nobody chooses Veii. Only the most desperate of the dejected poor, people that the moment they have a piece of silver to their name depart to more auspicious slums.
It is not to say that nothing grows among sewers neglected for centuries, poisoned wells, ransacked buildings, feral dog packs and clogged aqueducts. One crop finds this soil fertile enough.
And so, the gathering came to pass. Hooded figures slowly made their way to a large underground chamber, created not by intentional engineering, but by the collapse of two major tunnels. Being this close to Rome made Veii the perfect hideout for those seeking to plant a knife in its vulpine underbelly.
They made a purple multitude, if one was feeling kind or colorblind. If you had to live in Veii you would have to make do with the cheapest dyes, and some probably just soaked their rags in something or someone’s blood. Discussion was well and alive, like barrels of pitch rolled along arguments, looking for a metaphoric spark. All they needed was a good kick and a target.
The bulkiest of the hooded men, with some actual purple pigment dyed in, stood over the gathering. A greasy beard poked out of his mask, refusing to be restrained. He tried to impose some illusion of order by punching the wall, causing dust and dirt to fall on the audience.
“How many times we have been over this? The Temple of Saturn is too hot, it is impossible to rob. Are you too dense to understand my problem with it? It is in the god-crammed Forum.” He shouted left and right, punctuating with additional punches.
“We have to keep trying!” Someone close to the front shouted back; the bearded one grabbed him by the tip of the hood and gave him a good shake.
“It is the third time this month that some idiot tried. Everyone has the same brilliant idea; everyone thinks they will be the one that makes it. The magistrates are distracted, they will never notice me. The Crows and Eagles are a thing of the past, I am stronger, faster and smarter than any Roman. Everyone of worth is up North with the legions, I can allow myself to be careless, foolish and stupid. The sheer arrogance. Is anyone here that much blind? Step ahead, if you want to be used for thunderbolt practice so badly I can make your wish come true!
“B-but Grand Veiente, we cannot free our brothers without money! The Carthaginians no longer want to have anything to do with us ever since that Sicilian fiasco, no matter how much we dye our hoods.” A dissident voice safely in the back uttered, receiving words and nods of agreement from his neighbors. “We can only deal with pirates, and they know exactly how much we need those. They keep raising the prices and show no intention of stopping soon. We need the Treasure that Roman greed begot. We have no other choice.
A long exasperated sigh.
“Put something in that thick head of yours.” The beard clenched his fists one against the other. “Unless you can wield the power of Tinia or withstand a thunderous discharge, you are not prepared even to steal a latrine in the Palatinate. Forget about the city of Rome entirely. I pondered about this for a long time and came up with an alternative.”
The Grand Veiente threw a silver coin towards some of the rebellious murmurs in the back.
“What is this?” One said, picking it up. “Is it meant to mean something to us? Seems like some Roman coin.”
“Wrong!” Shouted the Grand Veiente. “What is important is how non-Roman the coin is! Romans do not make coins, Romans use coins. This one, like all the others, are mined in the South and minted in either Sicilia or one of the Greek colonies. Since it all comes from the outside, all we have to do is intercept the silver while it is in its way to Rome.”
“That has to be even more dangerous than stealing from the Temple of Saturn.” Pointed out one of the women as she adjusted her hood. “Any coin shipment will be heavily guarded and their route and scheduled a well-kept secret. They will not send any auxiliary forces whose loyalty is not absolute, so it would be quite hard for us to infiltrate them or apply coercion.”
This seemed to satisfy the beard.
“Finally, someone here is thinking their plans through. You are correct, under normal circumstances this would be a futile attempt. However, we were able to come upon a secret weapon.” The Grand Veiente signaled towards someone outside the chamber, some poor half-dead miserable, legs and arms bandages that covered the burns but did little about the stinking ointments that were feebly trying to save his life. “This brother of us managed to grasp a boon from the latest fiasco. During the failed assault, they stumbled upon some Vestalis nailing some public announcements and official edicts. Without a Lictor bodyguard, it was easy to taker her as a valuable hostage.”
“Where is the Vestalis?” A rebel inquired. “We do not need to rob anyone, we can demand a prisoner’s exchange!”
“A Triumphant took him away from her before she could be smuggled out of the Temple, and foolishly let our brother escape. You see, he had taken something from the Vestalis.”
The Grand Veiente revealed a signet ring with the sigil of a flame protected by an arc.
“Only the ruling consuls can order the coinage of a new batch of coins, and like any other official document issued by the Senate and the People of Rome, which has to be audited, authenticated and archived by the priestesses at the Temple of Vesta. The gods support ours endeavors, and they have seen that Gaius Atilius Regulus was taken to the Underworld. “Another glimpse of the signet. “With this ring, we can forge a letter from the dead consul, prepared and sent before his untimely death. In it he orders more coins to help with the war effort and establishes very strict instructions of how the delivery should be made and the identities of the escort force. Needless to say, they will be our own brothers.”
“Wow! That is quite impressive!” Another feminine voice interrupted. Everyone turned around, looking for its owner. They found a tiny and plump woman, that somehow had not been noticed until now. Even if she was wearing quite the nice hood and cloak, which happened to be dyed with an intense and expensive pigment. “That could actually have worked! I must confess, here I was, dismissing you all as a bunch of idiots. I should have known better than to underestimate other people.”
“Identify yourself!” Demanded the beard. The woman obeyed, the visage revealed disturbing everyone around her. The leader stepped back, as his gaze painted the gentle wrinkled face of an elderly woman.
The tender smile turned into a malicious smirk, the intruder throwing the hood towards the Grand Veiente, spinning her cloak in a wide circle, clearing a path. The terrorists seemed in shock, unable to do anything but express their surprise and horror.
“What are you doing here?”
“No, no, it cannot be you…”
“What are you even wearing?”
Each of them seemed to react as if they were seeing someone different but always familiar, giving in to chaos and failing in presenting a unified answer. Laughing at their lack of discipline, the intruder escaped the center of the chamber and revealed herself in all her glory to the Grand Veiente, touching her noise with the index middle fingers as she winked with her left eye.
After the event and comparing their notes, none of the presents would remember the same physical impression of the woman. However, they all could agree on what she was wearing. A white and blue tunic not long enough for all the women perceived, showing quite a lot of leg and leaving the arms revealed as it gently wrapped around her neck. The most curious element was her heavy, bulky scarf, a military focale of vivid dark red.
The paralyzed terrorists finally started reacting, snapping due to the furious commands of their leader.
“It is a trick! It is one of them! TRIUMPHANT! Do not let her escape these tunnels!”
“Come here, boys.” The invader invited. “I will be very displeased if anyone escapes.”
She did not show any terror, nor did she take any defensive stance or tried to evade the circle of attackers. All she did was lower her arms in a rapid arc, the sheer flow of power levitating her a few millimeters off the ground. The clothing of the closest caught fire, while the exposed skin of another one suffered as if boiling water had been spilled all over it. This caused other terrorists to hesitate. However, they would never have guessed that these were just the obvious collateral effects of her unleashing of power; she did not waste time reacting to their bumbling approach. The woman once again raised her arms and lowered her head, eyes semi-closed and blinking furiously. A fragmented crown of light arched over her head. The very air seemed to dry up, as if all the underground moisture had been sucked out of the tunnels.
The arms once again descended as the woman twirled around herself.
An extremely precise heat wave suddenly flooded the tunnels, triggering the most basic instincts of the terrorists. They ran away, trampling and stumbling over each other. As their strength was sapped away, one by one they gave in to unconsciousness.
Touching the ground, the woman shook her head, disappointed.
“This was quite anti-climatic.” She pouted, grabbing one of the hoods. She pinched it, the dye staining her finders and the fabric ripping apart. “How embarrassing, I had to pick up a fight with such light-weights.”
She shrugged. It was a good test drive for her abilities. All she needed to do was recover what she sought in Veii and this first outing would be a flawless success.
The Grand Veiente had fallen just like the others, the signet forsaken a meter away from him. As the woman lowered to pick it up, she sensed movement behind her. She tried to raise and turn her head as fast as she could, only to find herself facing the bearded leader. A quick and brutal headbutt left her dizzy, but she tightened her grasp around the signet, refusing to let go. All her world was pain and the smell of blood. Her opponent lifted her with only one hand, clenching her chin and pushing her against the wall. She struggled and kicked him, feeble attempts to free herself.
“Really? You must be the weakest Triumphant I ever heard about. You are nothing but cheap parlour tricks.” The Grand Veiente snarled. “This is exactly what I expected from a Roman. I do not even know if you are a woman or not, but wearing that face is not going to save you. What is what you people say? Ah yes. Memento Mori.”
As the man balanced himself to deliver a devastating punch, the woman took a deep bite into the hand holding her, forcing a release. The fist struck the wall, debris and dirt covering both of them. Trying to recover her breath, she tried to gain some distance. The terrorist leader chuckled and grabbed the points of her scarf, pushing with so much strength that her neck almost snapped like a dry branch.
“You used to have to be someone special to play the myths and receive a Triumph. I am surprised that someone would awaken a divine spark and still be so feeble.” The Grand Veiente declared. “It seems a poor receptacle ruins even the best grapes. Your festering city could not ask for a more fitting champion.”
He forced the woman to turn. The only hint of what was going to happen was her eyes rolling. A jet of flames was the answer to the insults, igniting his clothes and burning most of its torso. As the man struggled to avoid system shock, she put off the smoldering tips of her scarf. Finally free, she clenched over the Grand Veiente.
“Go ahead, she-wolf. You have claimed your prize. Leave.”
The Triumphant landed her sandal against the bearded face of the terrorist, pinning its head against the floor. She proceeded to make her position known.
“You know why you are nothing? I need you to understand before I can leave.” She uttered with soft voice, refusing the call of loud fury.
“Because of you. You took everything from us!”
“No, you gave it away. You threw it away, we took it just like any other people would take it. And even if you got it you would throw it away over and over again. And why do I know that? Because you are a little sad creature that believes that avoiding using excessive force is a show of weakness. You see us as tyrants and you do not want to free yourself; you just want to replace us.”
Even as he was struggling for his life, the Grand Veinete laughed.
“Oh, that is just so precious. You think you won.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“This is not your so-called republic, she-wolf. Do you think we need to sniff each other’s butts until we come to a consensus? I do not need or care for the opinion of these fools! I did not sit idle holding the signet. The letter was forged, the men picked and the plan was already set in motion.”
Her eyes narrowed as she applied more pressure with her foot.
“This could all end here.”
“What happened to withholding power?” He groaned.
“From where I stand? I would not need much to finish the job.”
“Go ahead. Show the sheepherders how hungry the wolves are.” The terrorist babbled on, unable to keep his eyes open. “Let them fear losing more sheep, let them unite for some wolf-hunting.”
“I’m just wasting my time...”
The woman turned away and left, trying to make her way out of the tunnels. Of course, it had to be tunnels again; nothing good happens underground.
Almost there. She could already see the light. Such a beautiful day, why did they insist in turning it miserable by hiding beneath the ground?
“You really need to be more aware of your surroundings.” A voice chasing after her pointed out. The Triumphant turned to face another woman, sweating as she leaned on the tunnel walls.
“I recognize you! You were the one actually saying something smart!”
“Forget about that.” The woman dragged herself closer, an inquisitive look in her face “Why do you look like me? That is what I am supposed to look like? I’m not imagining things, right? That is supposed to be me.”
“Pretty clever, don’t you think?” The Triumphant gave a little shake and a wink. “I wanted to be an inspiring.”
The other one was silent on how disturbing the pantomime actually was.
“Right. That. Forget about it, I followed you because I heard what you said.” The Triumphant’s face beamed with an almost childish eagerness, eyes sparkling in anticipation. “This is a way to do things different from the one I am used to; that was not the brutality and oppression I came to expect from your side. When I saw the Grand Veiente grab you, I was marked with the ease with which he did that to you; the fact that you were a Roman did not weigh in my mind. Our cells are filled with people like that. I always knew there was an alternative way to do this, that we are not supposed to escalate the savagery against each other as conflicts arise.
The Triumphant opened her arms as if to hug her, but she stepped back, hands raised.
“Do not get me wrong. I still despise your people; Veii is still a ruin. The Grand Veiente was right when he said we need to join together and put you down. I am not your client or you friend, I am someone that has decided that if we are to stand against Rome we have to offer something besides a replacement tyrant. “She opened her arms wide, as she also exposed her neck. “Perhaps this was not what you sought to inspire. Perhaps you should burn me right now.”
Her own face worn by another turned serious.
“What is your name?”
“Aritimesia.” She replied, defiant.
“You know something is not right in the world and you are trying to change it. I am happy for you, Aritimesia. I wish the best Fortune to you.”
The Triumphant climbed back into the light, a deep feeling of dread twisting in her stomach. She felt as if she was making a terrible mistake.
Turning one last time, back to the woman still shrouded by darkness.
“If he sent the letter to somewhere, it has to the Tarentum mint. You should start there.”
An exchange of nods, both wondering about the future.