The Wolves of Rome

Chapter 4

February 18th, 2023

The sun hung high in the sky overhead. Its warmth and light radiated over the ramshackle assembly of glass and metal, enclosing the patch of greenery Echo had spent the past few weeks clearing and preparing. Under her oversight, the survivors had established a small greenhouse within the barricades. In her mind, it had been too long since she had been truly helpful to anyone. It truly made her heart sing to know that she was finally getting to do some small bit of good rather than having others take advantage of her good nature.

“The irrigation system is finished, Miss Echo.” Came the voice of Alma, one of her helpers. “We’re starting the planting, and we thought you’d appreciate being there to oversee it.”

Echo simply smiled as the inevitable reply of “There to oversee it” tumbled out of her in her usual gentle lilt. With a nod, she followed her to where the others waited eagerly to start. It wasn’t exactly a large or varied crop they were planting this first time around, but it was vital all the same to lay groundwork for the crops to come.

At her approach, some of the others smiled, and then as one they all set to their work. It always amazed Echo to see how despite all their other flaws, humans could so easily band together and work toward a common goal. True, that wasn’t always for the better, but then it’s not as if anyone could have disputed the importance of farming food in a time like this, especially not with the aid of a nymph to accelerate growth times and crop yield.

Almost as if she had read Echo’s mind and heard her musings, Alma spoke up as she worked. “It’s nice to put down some roots again after all the mess and chaos that have been happening lately. I mean, yeah, we’re getting by for now just from salvage and scavenging, and some people would look at us and go, ‘Oh, the world’s ending and you’re messing around with a bunch of plants?’, but you know what? It feels good to do something constructive and work towards living after the end, right? It’s not like we can keep picking at bones forever, and crops like this can go on so long as there’s people to tend them. What else are we going to do anyhow? Just curl up and die?”

“Curl up and die.” Echo replied automatically with a nod before it dawned on her what she had actually said. She fell silent as embarrassment colored her pale cheeks over the clashing of her words and intent, earning her an accommodating smile from the woman.

“Don’t worry, I know what you meant.” Alma said, waving off the awkward repetition and adding a good-natured chuckle after. “It’s taken a bit to get used to your odd way of speaking, but I like to think I’ve gotten a good enough handle on you to know when it’s getting the better of you.”

“Getting the better of you”, Echo demurred as she gave her a timid little nod. If anything, she was thankful for how understanding the humans were about her condition, despite her own misgivings about it. Rather than deriding it or being spiteful, more often they joked about her repetition, or they found it endearing for how childlike it was and made a game of getting her to say amusing, and on occasion rather lewd, things. All things considered, Echo appreciated how she wasn’t ostracized for her curse, but her own insecurities and the occasionally patronizing manner in which she was regarded cast their share of clouds over what once was a naturally sunny disposition.

Seeing Echo’s darkening expression, Savio, another one of the workers, stood up and clapped his hand heartily on her shoulder. “Hey now, don’t make that face. This is a happy time, Echo! We’re starting to move forward and rebuild after the city was pretty well destroyed, and you’ve been one of the major forces behind it. So, have some pride, eh? You’re allowed to be pleased with yourself after doing something like this!”

Unable to turn away his infectious good cheer, Echo sighed in mock-exasperation and straightened herself up with a smile, “Something like this!”

“Hah! That’s more like it! Nymphs are supposed to be carefree and happy anyhow! Not all dark and gloomy!” Savio said. He laughed merrily and patted her back perhaps a little too hard, nearly toppling her as she mimicked, “Dark and gloomy-!”

With her mood evened out for the moment, Echo got back to work along with the rest, until something started to nag at her in the back of her mind. There was something else she was supposed to do today. There was some sort of meeting she had to make, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on whom it was with, where it was taking place, or even why she needed to be there. After some more idle thought however, it all came back to her in a flash, and it wasn’t long before she was gesturing in a panic while her mouth silently worked in a struggle to excuse herself. Luckily, Alma took notice of the poor nymph and gave her a look of concern. “Are you alright? What’s wrong Echo?”

Even in her fluster, the nymph still parroted “What’s wrong Echo?” as she forced herself to settle down and tried to make some gesture suggesting that she had to leave. To her credit, it only took two or three attempts before understanding dawned on Alma’s features, and she nodded slowly, “Ahhh… You’ve got somewhere to be? Well, we can probably take it from here for today. Go do whatever you need to. I’m guessing it’s important if you’re in such a state about it.”

With a hasty cry of, “State about it!” Echo gave everyone in the makeshift greenhouse a wave and went on her way. She’d forgotten the particulars of her meeting in all her rush and distress, so she simply followed wherever her feet pulled her. The walk helped to calm her a little. Most people were either at work someplace or still afraid to come out of whatever meager “homes” they scraped together in the ruins of Rome. Echo relaxed in the isolation. Even though she still only interacted with a few people, just being in the city itself was a bit overwhelming after all the centuries she spent secluded in her little grove, with only a narcissus flower for company. Of course, it wasn’t as if she were about to throw a goddess’ kindness back in her face after the trouble she went to in nudging the wayward nymph to rejoin the greater world, but it was still sometimes hard to adapt.

In time, she arrived at the place where she was to have her meeting with her new caretaker in the city. It occurred to Echo that the goddess hadn’t told her much, but even with what scant information she was given, Echo was eager, if perhaps more than a little apprehensive, to meet this new person. The rather officious nature of the building she entered only served to amplify both emotions and it still took a bit of self-encouragement to finally enter. If this person was a devout follower of the gods, she could well be turned out due to her unique circumstances. Or worse yet, she could be consigned to some cold, dark, isolated place where she wouldn’t ever see the sun or feel the wind on her face again! With such possibilities in mind, she forced herself to not even consider the absolute worst of what might happen given her nature as a nymph, with all the lurid fantasies and rumors that entails. Her head was spinning as she followed the sounds of voices ahead. Echo walked the halls of the mansion and tried to compose herself, but she was still in a fluster when she finally came upon her host.

The woman’s eyes were a pale blue, marred only by the dark circles under them that spoke of long nights ill at ease. The woman’s hair was stranger still. It was black interspersed with streaks of white. All of this surmounted a slender frame that nevertheless radiated a certain strength, both in her physical body and in her control over the room.

Only when the woman began to speak did Echo startle from the daze into which she had fallen.

“I still don’t think this is a good idea, Kebechet. If someone’s going to speak for the gods, you’d think they’d have a close relationship with them, and a fair bit of knowledge on each of them and their eccentricities. Not to mention the patience to deal with mediating between the gods and their mortal worshippers. I have none of that, and even aside from that I’m hardly the diplomatic type!” The woman said as she eyed Kebechet levelly, not withering before the hard stare the Egyptian wolf goddess gave her in return.

Even despite her inscrutable, nigh-emotionless mien, Kebechet nonetheless began to speak to the woman like a mother chiding their child into action. “Nora, like it or not you are our best candidate at this time. We concede that you’re not ideal for this position, but in the absence of one with such qualities as you described, then the current living Pharaoh will suffice.”

As the title drifted through the air between Nora and Kebechet, Echo stared at them both in surprise. Nora was the Pharaoh? That explained much about the strangeness around her, but somehow it just didn’t seem to fit in neatly inside her head. Even while she was in her seclusion Echo knew there hadn’t been a reigning Pharaoh for centuries, if not millennia. Now suddenly there was a person that was recognized by the gods as one? It was almost inconceivable, but so was the idea that Kebechet, much less any god, would lie about a matter like that. It wasn’t any less intriguing to her than anything else about Nora, but she certainly wanted to get to the bottom of just how this woman could have a claim to being Pharaoh.

While Echo dithered and reeled, Nora waited for Kebechet to finish speaking, but the nymph could tell by the tension in Nora’s firmly-set jaw and knotted brow that it took no small bit of restraint to keep her from jumping down even the goddess’ throat. “I’m the last one you need to remind of her origins and lineage, Kebechet, and I’m well aware of what weight they carry, but I didn’t come by it as honestly as people might like and neither was it-”

Kebechet cut Nora off with an air of finality, and if Echo didn’t know better, a hint of irritation over Nora’s reluctance. “Regardless, you will carry it out, and be our chief speaker. We have commanded it of you, and you are the only option available at this time. That is all.”

With that, the two of them made their goodbyes and started to take their leave, and it seemed it was only then that either of them realized they had a nymph playing voyeur to their rather heated discussion.

“My apologies.” Kebechet said, still rather terse as she coldly eyed Echo. “It seems you have another guest to attend to.” With that she bowed stiffly and left, leaving Echo with the enigmatic Nora.
Nora sighed, pausing a moment to rub her temples with her thumb and forefinger before looking up at Echo. There was the briefest look of surprise as her eyes passed over the nymph. Echo recognized this look, and it was one she was long used to. It was one thing to wear flowers in your hair, it was another to have them growing like a crown around your ears.

“Sorry about that.” She said more casually as she moved into the sitting room to take her seat in a large and aged leather armchair. “Please, take a seat; I’ll make us tea in a minute.”

“Tea in a minute.” Echo unwillingly parroted, before lowering her eyes from the curious look Nora gave her.

“Yes, that’s right. So what brings you here? Sorry, I have so many guests I can’t quite keep track of them all.”

“Can’t keep track of them all.” Echo replied, her face starting to burn as she hung her head. This was not the first impression she had hoped to make.

“Yes…are you alright?” Nora asked, concern in her voice as she leaned a bit closer. Echo could feel herself flushing brightly, only able to give a timid shrug as she replied “Are you alright?”

Nora gave her the same curious look for a grueling few seconds before a sudden light of remembrance came over her expression. “Ah, right, of course!” She said. She pulled a small leather-bound book, a planner by the look of it, from her pocket, thumbing through it quickly.

“Right of course?” Echo leaned a bit closer, trying to see what she meant.

“Are you…Echo, the nymph?” Nora asked her, eyes looking up from her planner.

“Echo, the nymph!” Echo smiled as she nodded eagerly, hoping to pass some thanks through her voice and expression.

“Good, good…oh, since you’re clearly bursting to say it, thank you.”

“Bursting to say it, thank you!” Echo agreed, giggling slightly at her phrasing.

“Well, that’s one difficulty out of the way.” Nora said with relief. “It will take some getting used to. You came to work for m-…you, yes?”

“Came to work for you, yes.” Echo smiled as she nodded, relieved she could drop the orphaned syllable.

“Well I think we can make that work.” Nora closed the book, leaning back in her chair. “I have many skills I can offer you, Miss Newstar.”

“I have many skills I can offer you, Miss Newstar.” Echo chirped, pleased she was being given this much freedom to speak.

Nora smiled back at her, she seemed to be enjoying it just as much. “I’m glad to hear it. I’d like to hear more about these skills. I have all the skills necessary for an excellent attendant.”

“I have all the skills necessary for an excellent attendant.” Echo blushed slightly, hoping she could live up to the standards Nora’s tongue was writing for her.

“Well let’s just make sure of that.” Nora grinned. “Let’s see. I need a good cook. I’m sure my cooking skills will be more than satisfactory.”

“I’m sure m cooking skills will be more than satisfactory.” Echo nodded. She knew how to cook well… given a vegetarian diet. Nora would have to find that one out the hard way.

“Well, I don’t need a maid but I could do with the place being looked after while I work. I just need time to see to my duties in the greenhouse, but it’s the least I can do, Miss Newstar.”

“It’s the least I can do, Miss Newstar.” Echo hung her head in apology, but Nora laughed it off.

“A bit too long for you?”

“A bit too long for you.” Echo smiled meekly as she nodded.

“That’s fine.” Nora waved it off. “Consider yourself hired, Echo. Like I said I’m not asking for a maid, I just need you to keep this place in shape in exchange for some room and board…and I can see now why you might need some supervision. Mouth like yours could get a girl in trouble.”

“Mouth like yours could get a girl in trouble.” Echo said, nodding sheepishly. Nora hadn’t said it with admonishment or irritation, but with a light jest to her voice and a quick wink that sent the color back to Echo’s cheeks.

Echo fidgeted slightly, unable to speak until Nora once more spotted the cue.

“Ah, of course. Thank you, Miss Newstar. I won’t let you down.”

“Thank you, Miss Newstar.” Echo appropriately echoed, beaming brightly. “I won’t let you down.”

 

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The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

((JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=8&sl=966 ))

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