The City was mourning the loss of a Consul.
Seeking answers to the unimaginable, the People sought communion with the divine.
The Vestalis rose to the occasion, leaving Rome in a pilgrimage to the black poplars of the Forest of Aricia. Incited by celestial inspiration, one of them left in a quest for lost knowledge of kings and the hundred fathers of the Romans.
In the second week of the expedition the sacred flame at the temple of Vesta grew wild and uncontrollable, seriously burning the Vestalis Maxima and endangering her life. The omens were not auspicious; the spiritual quest declared in failure.
As the City quietly prepared to bury an empty urn for the shade of the lost Vestalis, small feet dragged themselves back to Rome, arms locked around costly blood-soaked mysteries.
The Vestalis rose to the occasion.
The trio of senators moved through the crowded streets as fast as they could, their bodyguards and clients attempting the impossible task of diverting the flow of the unruly masses; their urgency only drew the curiosity of onlookers, earning them a growing entourage. While two of them were sensible enough to change to more casual and loose tunics, the leading senator pushed around in his toga, not so white anymore as the servants failed to keep it from ensnaring in the dirty and dust. They finally reached their destination in one of the major streets at the foot of the Palatinate leading to the Circus Maximus, where dozens of workers plastered and painted over walls of some dilapidated houses. Three lictors curiati and their men stood watch over the work site, quickly moving to stand between the senators and their wards.
“Salve, senatores. I’m afraid this endeavor is being directly managed by the priesthood of Vesta.” One unhappy-looking lictor curiatus explained.
“The priestesses are acting out of line, this must be immediately stopped.” The toga-wearing senator argued, causing the religious guardian to open his mouth in protest. Catching a glimpse a little girl wearing a crown of daisies and a tall and thin woman with long hair and a restive exasperated face, the senators forced their way ahead, without patience to waste any more time dealing with underlings.
“Canuleia, Ovidia!” One of the senators in casual garb called them out. “This sort of meddling upon the affairs of elected magistrates can’t stand. What is going on here?”
The tall one rolled her eyes, crossed arms and stepped back a couple of steps, revealing a third priestess; a small pear-shaped young woman with olive skin and members covered in bruises and cuts was too busy coordinating the workers and painters. Noticing the new arrivals, she turned to face them, her eyes and a wide smile shining through her exhaustion; the senators were shocked and baffled. She was loving every single second of that moment.
“Arpineia.” The senator with the toga stepped forward. “I should have figured that you had to be back. What you think you are doing?”
The radiant Vestalis inhaled deep, her words projected by soft but powerful vibrations of her vocal chords.
“Following divine providence and inspiration.” Arpineia raised her arms and cutting chin. The youngest Ovidia clasped her hands together, as the eyes of the tallest almost rolled out of their orbits. “Egeria spoke to me, giving me the knowledge we need to preserve our community and the unity between Peoples. She was particularly emphatic in the need to simplify and repeat messages that reinforce social solidarity and interest in political affairs.”
“Those are good news, Arpineia.” The silent senator finally spoke up. “However, if you are to act upon that which you have learned, you must go through the Consuls or at the very least through the Pontifex Maximus. They can properly seek the advice of the senatus and see that everything is done properly.”
“With the due respect, Senator, one of the Consuls is dead. The other is fighting up North, alongside our dear Pontifex Maximus and a third of the Senate. ”Arpineia lowered her arms, continuing on the same suave tone. “It could take months to do something in which every day counts. We must perform a call for action and fan the flame of civic spirit, and we must do it now!”
“Enough.” Said the toga senator. “As expected from an equestrian girl, you forget that acting recklessly with good intentions can and often is more damaging than going through the proper checks and balances even if that means waiting. Do not mistake consideration with hesitation, Vestalis”
“We can easily confirm if this action is guilty of overstepping legal bounds, Canuleius.” One of his peers interrupted, waving towards the tall exasperated Vestalis. “Historiae et iuris collegium, is that not under the care of Canuleia Vestalis? I do not think we can get a better jurist, given the circunstances.”
Not very happy, Canuleia put her hand over Arpineia’s left shoulder; the smaller Vestalis’ face twisted in pain.
“The actions of the Vesta priesthood have historical precedent and constitutional support on their side; as long as they use their own stipend and act through private individuals and propriety, they do not need to answer to any magisterial authority. Of course, the moment they need to use public resources, impose upon public affairs or need support from the coffers of the State, they might be acting unconstitutionally.”
“I’m satisfied.” The quietest of the senators acknowledge before departing. “I can’t wait to see what you youths are preparing. Vale, Vestalis.”
“Something about this stinks, Arpineia.” The toga wearing Senator Canuleius pointed his finger accusingly at the round priestess. “I will keep my eye on you and your Collegium and I will present a motion the moment you slip and give me a reason.”
Arpineia’s smile shrunk, pooling around her delightful cheeks until it vanished into a thin smirk of determination.
“This is going to get worse before it gets better.” Arpineia’s raised left indicator descried a wide circle as if encompassing the whole Urbe. “So, these?” Now it was the right indicator, a smaller more intimate circle that seemed to point to the Vestalis and their workers. “They are going to be part of the solution. No matter what some might think.”
Tensions were raising, everyone exchanging glances. Arpineia and Canuleius seemed moments away from openly challenging each other.
“It seems today everyone wants to quiz you in History and Law, Canuleia.” Little Ovidia spoke with her deep, strong voice. “Do you mind if I review a not so old case with you? I do not understand the intricate details, no matter how much I think about it.”
“Sure, my love.” Canuleia’s pained expression softened a bit. “What is it?”
“Why was then consul Publius Claudius Pulcher tried and found guilty of incompetence after he lost the Battle of Drepanum during the last war? I thought a commander could not be blamed by the whims of Fortune and by losing a well-fought battle, no matter what.”
“Oh. That.” Canuleia and her father traded glances. “Claudius Pulcher was not dragged to court for his defeat against the Carthaginians. It was because he failed to acknowledge the omens and mistreated the sacred birds.”
Arpineia’s face beamed once again.
“Would you, Canuleia, say that he got his due because he disrespected sacred chicks?” Once again rolling her eyes, the tall Vestalis nodded in agreement.
The senator finally conceded defeated and considered the value of a tactical retreat, giving a side glance towards the shapes and stains that the painters were spreading across the repaired walls.