The Imperial Wolf
March 18th, 2023
Capitolina looked over the bookshelves that lined the walls of Nora’s study. She was more literate than most wolves, being able to read and write Latin and Italian. Still, it felt distinctly unnatural to her. Giovanni was the only wolf that could be truly called a scholar. Most of the books on the shelf were copies of old manuscripts written in Latin, Coptic, Farsi, and Greek. Many of them Capitolina had never read before. They were primarily religious texts and stories collected from various libraries for the sake of Nora’s new position.
“You can only ignore me for so long, Capitolina. I can’t imagine the bookshelf is that engaging.”
Nora was seated in an armchair behind her, legs folded and hands in her lap. She had made a habit of dressing more formally since being chosen as Pontifex Maximus, head of religious affairs in the city. Capitolina had chosen the title herself, though Giovanni had not been fond of it. Her current attire was a long skirt under a clean buttoned shirt and sharp jacket that she often wore when not performing official duties. She had managed to scavenge a number of longer more elegant dresses for performing actual rites. Clothes were blessedly not a rare resource in the city for scavengers.
“It’s about the government, Pontifex.” Capi really did like the title. The old Roman ones just sounded better in her ears.
“I’m doing my part already.” Nora said, her fingers were gently drumming the chair arm. “And it keeps me so busy I already needed to hire some help around the house to make sure I don’t forget to eat and sleep.”
“Well there’s a lot of debate these days.” Capitolina continued. “In regards to how the new government should be run. The current council can’t keep up with the population, and people are demanding greater oversight and better representation.”
“Well the council was never meant to be permanent.” Nora shrugged. “It’s only natural we’d grow out of it. I don’t see how that affects me other than changing who I might answer to.”
“That’s what I came here to talk to you about.” Capitolina said. “As the guardian of this city, I’ve seen it rise and fall many times. I’ve seen what works the best in times of chaos and destruction. I don’t believe that a democracy is what this city needs right now.”
Nora raised a skeptical eyebrow but remained silent.
“In my eyes Rome was best beneath a single authority, under a dictator legibus faciendis et rei publicae constituendae causa.” Without thinking, the Roman wolf slipped into the old Latin phrase. In her excitement, she had said it quickly, and the look on Nora’s eyes seemed to imply that she had not fully caught the words. “Ah, a dictator for the making of laws and the setting of a constitution…”
However, Capi had misread the expression on the girl’s face. It was not confusion, but disbelief and distaste growing in Nora’s eyes.
“No offense, Capitolina, but you’re a pretty bias proponent of autocracy, mother of Roman kings.”
“I’ve lived in Rome for centuries. I’ve seen its best and its worst.” Capitolina folded her arms.
“You tell us one thing, history another.” Nora said. “There were perhaps good Emperors in Rome, but even two thousand years later we have very clear memories of the bad ones. For every Marcus Aurelias there was a Nero, and I doubt Giovanni and the Vatican would be particularly fond of some sort of pagan king ruling over the Eternal City.”
Capi frowned. “Not a king, though I doubt the people would object to such a title. I wish to convince the council to give you imperium over Rome. That’s why I came today.”
Nora stared at her as if she’d been struck in the face. “I…I absolutely refuse, Capitolina.”
“Why though?” Capitolina demanded “You’re a popular figure in the city, people respect and listen to you, and perhaps most importantly, you have the bloodlines for it.”
“We’re done here.” Nora’s eyes narrowed as she stood up. Capitolina, not to be dissuaded, followed her. “Tell me I’m wrong, Nora.” She barked after her. Nora didn’t look back as she answered.
“Blood isn’t as valuable as it was two thousand years ago, Capi. Blood can be copied, bought, and traded. My lineage is nothing more than a cosmic joke.”
“Even so, there are few left with a claim stronger.” Capitolina said. She needed to convince Nora, to make her feel as she did. It was obvious to her, so why didn’t Nora see that the camp as it was now was unsustainable? They needed a strong ruler to make the decisions and organize the efforts.
Nora rounded on her, and the wolf visibly faltered in her steps behind her. She had never seen Nora this angry.
“I am not an heir to any Empire, Capi. I’m not some grand resurrection or a gift from the gods. I was born in a tube, an experiment, a test subject.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Capitolina shook her head, regaining her ground, ears pulled back. “You have the blood of Emperors and pharaohs. Rome needs you.”
“Your Rome doesn’t exist anymore, Capi!” Nora shouted. Capitolina’s ears went back and a pained look crossed her face, but Nora’s fury did not cool. “If the people of this new Rome want an Emperor then they can feel free to choose them! But I will not lay claim to any imaginary throne because I’m some newly-animated branch of a long-dead dynasty.”
“You can deny your worth all you wish, Nora. But did the Egyptian gods not name you their mortal representative? Does Kebechet not answer directly to you?”
Nora sighed, her anger abetting. “Heaven helped me I’ve tried to get them to stop.”
“You can be something great, Nora. It is not only your inheritance, but it is who you are. You can be a leader for this city and make it strong. The people would be empowered by you.” Capitolina said, placing a hand on her shoulder gently.
“Listen, Capi…” The old calm had settled on Nora’s voice. “I appreciate your belief in me…but I’m not going to ask people to proclaim me as Emperor because of what I am. Most don’t even know and I would prefer to keep it that way.”
“Then what should we do?” Capitolina asked, her ears drooping. “We can’t just take a census on what government everyone in Rome wants.”
“People want fair representation, just laws, honest courts, and as many days off a year as they can get away with.” Nora said. “I’d say start there and work with the Council. If you want an Emperor then push for it, but I won’t be a flag for you to wave.”
“Nora…” Capitolina said “I’m not asking just because you have the right. You have all the makings of a great leader.”
“I will settle for keeping the peace between the faiths,” Nora said. “And leave the government to the people to decide.”
“As you wish,” Capitolina sighed, before turning to take her leave, her tail hanging low. “Have a good day, Nora.”
As the afternoon turned to evening, Nora stared at the book on her desk, her eyes glassy as she looked over the words but failed to absorb any of them. She had considered calling for Echo to fetch her a drink. An upside to the end of the world was a sudden rise in supply of available liquor, though they had been trying to staunch the flow into the Sanctuary. Instead she had settled for her favorite armchair and a book written entirely in Demotic script that was virtually impenetrable to her distracted mind.
She had meant every word of what she had said to Capitolina. The idea of cashing in on her unwanted “inheritance” was vile to her. Nora was no lost daughter of an ancient world, she was an escaped experiment, a lab rat trying very hard to forget her cage. So she kept herself distracted, kept her mind on her work and her new identity. No one needed to know and she rather hoped they never did. The wolves had smelled it on her instantly, of course. Capitolina and Kebechet had sensed her heritage, Roman and Egyptian, from the very start. It had made much more of an impact on Kebechet, and to this day Nora was resisting the jackal-eared goddess’s efforts to push her into power. Giovanni, Nora felt, was much less keen on Nora, but then again he probably smelled something different on her, an unnatural background and experimental birth. She smiled ruefully to herself. Perhaps it was telling that she felt more like Giovanni than the other wolves regarding her origins.
Her reverie was interrupted by the padding of soft footsteps at the doorway. Nora did not have to look up to know it was Echo, the only person who would make herself known without a whisper. She couldn’t announce herself any other way. Echo found herself mute most of the time she spent around Nora’s house. At first Nora had deliberately avoided speaking so as not to set off the flustered repetitions that seemed to embarrass her. To her surprise, however, Echo seemed to love to talk, even when she could only parrot Nora’s words back at her. Nora, for her part, made every effort to have an engaging conversation despite Echo’s impediment, or her curse as she preferred it.
“Evening” Nora looked up from her book at Echo.
“Evening.” The nymph chirped in reply, a smile on her face that promptly faded when she saw the expression on Nora’s face. Nora had hoped the day’s stress could be hidden a little, but it was likely that she looked a little grim.
Echo moved quickly to her side, hands behind her back with the expectant posture Nora had come to recognize as “How can I help?”
Nora looked up at her. One thing about having all the time in the world to initiate conversation was that it gave her a moment to appreciate Echo’s appearance. All stories had said that nymphs were beautiful women, but it took meeting one in person to truly appreciate that statement. Echo was round-faced with a smile like the sun, a head full of wavy hair the color of barley over vivid green eyes. She had flowers in her hair, actual growing flowers in her hair. That feature always made her smile. You could make statues from her figure, luscious and curved, and in fact someone probably had, but even they couldn’t do it justice. Nora simply hoped Echo didn’t notice her attentive eyes, or at least didn’t care.
“Just had a discussion with Capi, nothing to be worried about.” Nora said, placing the book closed at her side.
“Nothing to be worried about.” Neither Nora’s words nor Echo’s copied reply seemed to have reassured the concerned-looking nymph. Nora frowned. She had asked for an assistant, not a shrink. Though in all honesty there were likely few in Rome who needed a psychiatrist more than she did.
Nora sighed. “Echo there’s a lot more to me and where I came from when I hired you, and it might be better for both of us if we just kept this professional. Sometimes you’re going to run into things about me that don’t make sense, or you’ll find me in a state where I don’t want to be bothered. I’m not a flower that needs tending so just let me be and we’ll get along just fine. Understand?”
“Understand.” Echo smiled as she nodded, making her answer clear as she took a seat on the arm of Nora’s armchair.
“I suppose I’m not getting rid of you.” Nora smiled ruefully as she leaned back in her seat.
“I’m not getting rid of you.” Echo replied.
“Well then.” Suddenly sitting up Nora kicked out her legs and rose to her feet, leaving Echo looking at her sudden energy with surprise.
Nora intertwined her fingers, cracking her knuckles as she stretched her arms forward. “Mmmm I’ve been sitting down too long. I know a guy down on the Piazza Margana who makes the best eggless noodles in the sanctuary. Interested?”
“Interested!” Echo hopped to her feet and hurried over to join her.
“Good.” Nora smiled. “Dinner is on me tonight.”
“Dinner is on me tonight.” Echo nodded.
“I’m not having this debate again.” Nora teased, sending a blush of red across Echo’s face. Nora smiled, and honest smile that felt like pure relief on her face. There was something about Echo that could easily lift any weight from her shoulders. She wanted to thank her for it, to let her know, but the words couldn’t come together quite right.
“Let’s have a great time tonight.” Nora smiled.
“Let’s have a great time tonight.” Echo agreed.
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
(( JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=17&sl=619 ))