March 20th, 2023
With the clink of metal on wood Echo sat the tea tray down on the table. She had finished working in the greenhouse earlier that morning and was spending part of the afternoon at Nora’s home before going back. Nora hadn’t asked for tea while she was entertaining guests, but Echo made some of the best in Rome and she was more than a little excited to show off.
Kebechet had been there since before Echo had arrived. Echo was slowly growing used to the wolf goddess’ appearances at Nora’s home, consider she was her most frequent visitor. The pair of them were in Nora’s study, a cluttered room of books scrolls, pencils and loose paper that Nora refused to organize. They were standing over a large oak table, muttering back and forth to one another as Echo laid down the tea tray, so invested in their sketches and discussions that they didn’t notice her arrival until she had placed the tray before them.
“At the end of the day it’s really the architect’s decision, isn’t it?”
“A fifty-one degree upwards angle is simply more stately, my Lady.”
“We don’t have that much room, Kebechet. Demolition alone…”
“It is a long-term project.”
“It’s still basically a pyramid.”
“Is there something wrong with pyramids?”
“Ah…Hello Echo.” The pair of them both glanced up to look at her before glancing at the tea. “Oh, tea, brilliant.” Nora smiled as she poured cups for the three of them.
“Tea brilliant.” Echo agreed as she took her own cup, gently blowing on the surface to drink before glancing down at their sketches.
The table was covered in rough architectural designs, reference images of photographs from across antiquity, and scrawled notes in Nora’s poor penmanship. Echo even recognized a few of the pictured temples from Greece. It was comforting, if full of that biting nostalgia that one enjoys while simultaneously feeling very old.
“Sorry we didn’t notice you, we’re a bit…caught up in discussion about the temple.”
“About the temple?” Echo asked, sipping her tea.
Nora nodded, smiling. “We got approval for the first large-scale construction project, to begin when the population passes one thousand, which with the refugee rate should be within the year. It’s to be a joint cross-faith temple and water purification facility.”
“A joint cross-faith temple and water purification facility?” Echo’s confusion only grew as Nora spoke.
“I know it sounds odd, but Kebechet’s theory seems sound. So long as enough of the gods have their little piece of territory, they’ll send a little power to purify the river.” Nora said excitedly, flipping through the notes of her journal to where she had made recordings.
“It would have been more elegant if we could make contact with the spirit of the Tiber River.” Kebechet said. Echo didn’t like something about the way she spoke, low and slow, as if in mourning for something.
“The spirit of the Tiber River.” Echo nodded. She was Greek, technically, but even she knew of the famed river god Tiber, and she had wondered why he seemed to go unmentioned. Echo herself was a mountain spirit from Mount Kithairon, though even thinking of the place put a shadow over her mood. The only thing left for her on that mountain was tragedy and loss.
“The problem we’re facing.” Nora’s excited voice pulled Echo back into their conversation. “Is that Kebechet here has a bit of a bias when it comes to designing temples.”
“I am simply saying that pre-Ptolemaic temples had more refinement to them.” Kebechet said, arms folded stubbornly.
“Well I’m sorry to say that we don’t have ten thousand tons of sandstone.” Nora said testily.
“You could always…”
“For the last time the Flavian Amphitheater is made of concrete and we’re not scavenging it to make a temple.”
Kebechet frowned and Echo could not help but giggle silently. She glanced down at the drawings again, and she could see by the penmanship and designs which belonged to whom. Nora’s designs were less grandiose, more practical, and were covered in notes regarding which faiths might find certain architectural elements detestable. Echo quietly picked up a pencil and began to lightly draw on Nora’s rough sketch. It was an older version and fairly rough on its own, so she wasn’t worried about messing with Nora’s design. Quietly she began adding in small beautifying elements here, a pillar there. It probably spoke to her Greek tastes but she tried to keep it as neutral as she could.
Nora tried her best, but her design alone ultimately came across as utilitarian and boring, and there was nothing the gods would find more offensive than that.
Echo’s curse extended to her writing. If it didn’t she would have spent her life walking around with a marker and a dry erase board. However, over the passage of time she had found the little loopholes she could exploit to express herself. She could draw freely, even able to communicate a message, but spending your life playing Pictionary was just as frustrating to Echo as the constant repetition of speech. As with speaking, however, she could change the tone and voice of writing even if she couldn’t alter the message. Big bold words for emphasis, italics for surprise, and sometimes little hearts over her “i”s for affection. She did this for Nora’s notes, emphasizing the points she agreed with through repetition while leaving those she disagreed with blank. She worked for several minutes as Nora and Kebechet argued before the pair of them finally noticed her.
“Ah, seems our nymph wants to make contributions.” Nora said, looking over her work.
“Wants to make contributions!” Echo nodded eagerly, showing her where she had made notes.
“Hmmm…not bad…a bit Greek but more room for artistry and sculpture depending on what each deity preferred.” Nora muttered, looking them over.
“Deity preferred.” Echo nodded, message lost but trying to use her tone to set her mood.
“Well, I’ll work some of this into the final design.” Nora began picking up the loose sheets and then slid them into the bag. “I’m sure we can track down a small team of competent architects to look them over.”
“Look them over!” Echo beamed, glad to have contributed.
“Kebechet, I believe you have another council meeting up on the fill to sit in.” Nora nodded to her, and the goddess let out a sigh.
“Another evening of hearing them argue back and forth…”
Nora patted her shoulder comfortingly. “Best of luck to you, Kebe.”
Echo watched in silence as the goddess left, taking a position at Nora’s side as she sipped the last of the tea. She glanced at Kebechet’s abandoned cup. It was an odd sight, the water having been sucked dry, but all the tea residue left stained along the sides. Echo frowned; she should have known a goddess of pure water would not take well to tea.
“Let’s take a walk.” Nora announced, as she packed up the last of her papers and folders in a satchel and threw it over her shoulder.
“Take a walk.” Echo nodded in agreement, stepping lightly at her side as Nora retrieved a light coat from the hook at the door, though she shrugged off Echo’s attempts to help her put it on.
“I’m not a maid.” Nora said flatly, leaving Echo to sigh as she was forced to comply “I’m not a maid.”
Echo wasn’t Nora’s maid, but she liked helping her. She hid it well but Echo could still see the weight she carried. Nora was Pontifex Maximus, and in the new world this meant much more than a fancy title. Nora was the arbiter between gods and man, two forces with tremendous egos and appropriately huge demands. Echo was still learning Latin, but she had learned that Pontifex meant “Bridge-Builder”. Never before had that title been so true.
There was more to her than her job as well. Many considered Nora an enigmatic figure, her origins and her ability to communicate with gods a distinct mystery to most. Echo was more intuitive about these things than most mortals. She could smell unnatural origins to her, but also a distinct antiquated smell to her blood. Her face was a Mediterranean blend of features, and Echo knew her long enough now to know her natural hair color was a dark brown and the paleness of her skin was more likely a condition than its natural shade.
Echo kept her eyes on Nora as they walked, so focused was her gaze that she practically jumped when Nora spoke next.
“Echo I’d like to talk about your past, if you’ll allow it, a nod means yes.”
“A nod means yes.” Echo nodded, though her voice had slowed somewhat from its usual gentle tone.
“The myth is true?” Nora asked.
“The myth is true.” Echo nodded. She knew this day would likely be coming.
“Juno cursed me when I tried to cover for Jupiter’s infidelity.” Nora said. And Echo took a deep breath.
“J-Juno cursed me when I…tried to cover for Jupiter’s infidelity.” Had it not been for the curse, Echo doubted she could have finished the sentence. It sounded so simple when plainly stated like that. As if simply saying no and refusing to cover for Zeus (She always preferred the more familiar Greek names.) had been the only solution she needed. In truth she had been manipulated. Zeus had asked Echo to entertain Hera while she was away. Echo, ever talkative, had eagerly accepted. At the time it had seemed an excellent opportunity, she had the ear of the Queen of the gods and the favor of the king. Of course she knew that Hera had a temper, but she had never met her in person before then, and Hera had seemed quite entertained when they spoke. Besides, could she even have said no? She was a minor Oread, a mountain nymph, and he was King of the Gods. How could she have ever refused? Everything had been going well until they learned that Zeus had used Echo as a distraction for Hera while he went to “cavort” with the other nymphs.
By the time Echo learned she had been manipulated, Hera’s wrath had turned squarely upon her. Echo never claimed to be bold, but she doubted any nymph or mortal would not have quivered under the furious stare of the Queen of the Gods. Her words came out a half-understood gibbering mess of fear, and Hera, in her ironic fury, decided to punish her for the perceived slight. Echo, who had loved to speak, sing, and chatter like a bird, was cursed to only ever repeat the last few words spoken to her.
“And the story about Narcissus was true?”
“The story about Narcissus was true.” Echo shivered as she nodded again. That particular misadventure had taught her the most important lesson of her curse; beauty alone did not count for love. She still had dreams of Narcissus’ impossible beauty, as his was a face that could leave anyone weak at the knees. Echo had wanted nothing more than to be noticed, to be acknowledged and loved, but Narcissus could not see past his own reflection in her eyes, nor see through her words deeper than the repetition of his own. If he had ever felt anything for her, it was merely what little of him she reflected, and he was quick to reject her. From what she had been told Nemesis had taken some measure of revenge on him for his pride, but that did little to heal the wound. She had lived on, abandoning physical form and existing as nothing but a musical disembodied voice across her mountain home. It was Echo’s lot to be loved only by those who loved themselves.
Her head sank, her footsteps slowing, the old blanket of sorrow beginning to weigh on her until it was suddenly interrupted. Nora’s warm arm slid across her back and wrapped around her shoulders. Echo looked up at her, face red as she realized her eyes were beginning to well up as Nora looked back at her. The young woman’s look of concern and compassion sent something meek and warm through Echo’s heart, and she saw herself reflected in Nora’s brilliant eyes. It was the same look, Echo realized, the same look the sun-faced and ivy-wreathed goddess gave her mere months ago when Echo had been rescued from the caves, when she had been pulled back into physical form and told:
“There’s something wonderful waiting for you in Rome. We want to hear you sing again.”
“Echo.” Nora said slowly, making sure to capture her gaze.
“Echo.” The nymph’s voice wavered as she spoke.
“It is my job to maintain the relations between the people of Rome and all the gods. It’s a big job but I accepted it because we need the support of the gods, but I won’t let them be abused…like I was.”
“Like I was.” Echo’s frown began to fade, even speaking like this Nora gave her room to make her words her own.
“You’re a citizen of Rome in my eyes, Echo, and you’ve been wronged. It might take some time, but I promise you, I’ll speak my own words again.”
“I’ll speak my own words again.” Echo blushed deeply, and before she could contain herself she threw her arms around Nora’s neck.
“Oof…” Nora grunted, she might look imposing now and then but she was quite skinny, and the taller full-figured nymph nearly knocked her clean off her feet with the force of her embrace. After regaining her footing she patted Echo’s head, lightly stroking her hair. “It’s a promise.” She smiled, and for once Echo was eager to repeat.
“It’s a promise!”
The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
((JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9042?chapter=20&sl=519 ))