Ways of the Gods
The Capitoline Hill of Rome was still the seat of the senate, and as such it was almost constantly abuzz with activity. As it had once been the heart of the sanctuary, life seemed to revolve around the hill, making it constantly alive with the sounds of travelers, petitioners, senators, priests, and people from all walks of life.
Albion Nassar, Senator of Rome and Archmage of the fledgling mage’s Guild, was not the biggest fan of crowds, but he recognized the usefulness of placing himself in the beating heart of the city. He kept an office but that was largely for formality, he was more often found in the open on the stairs of the senate building, speaking with his underlings, fellow mages, or petitioners. He wished to become consul, after all, and he needed to craft an image of a man of the people, particularly if his primary competition for the seat were to be Patricia Bellos, darling of the downtrodden, as he knew it would be. Patricia had the rather irritating trait of being naturally beloved. Her rather vocal push for economic reform had ensured that. The shift from scavenger economy to something resembling market capitalism had not gone smoothly for all, and Patricia had been the voice behind safety net programs for them.
Albion knew, of course, that beneath her kind demeanor was an almost terrifyingly shrewd woman who was not to be trifled with. Patricia knew that Albion had the mages and their supporters, he also appealed to the old upper class. She had, in turn, taken the common man to her cause, and Albion knew from experience that the two things least trusted by the common man was nobility and mages. After the civil war in Syracuse, tensions had always been palpable between mages and mundanes. Patricia had never had cause to incite action against mages, but she was perfectly positioned to if the need or desire arose. It was another bullet in the chamber for her, and Albion preferred his opponents disarmed.
Albion would need additional assistance and the news of late had piqued his curiosity. He had known about champions for over a year, ever since Aurelio Furlan and Salvatore Messana both came to Rome. What he still lacked, however, was information. So he had called an acquaintance to meet him here on the steps of the senate to discuss the matter.
“Good afternoon, Senator Nassar.”
The dry voice of Nora Newstar, Pontifex Maximus and nominal Pharaoh, met him as she climbed the steps towards him. True to her position, she kept herself elegantly dressed in ornamented whites and blues. Her hair, parted in the center, was unusually dyed with one half white and the other black as she seemed to prefer. Regardless of her dress and style, he was always caught off-guard by her youth. When they had first met he had reckoned her too young for the job. She had proven him wrong on several occasions, and he knew she had powerful protectors. Nora was on his list of people to not rashly be made into enemies, thankfully he had her as something of an ally.
“And to you, Pontifex” he smiled “I’m glad you received my invitation.”
“What’s this about?” Nora had an open disdain for small talk. He appreciated that, and while he preferred good banter he would indulge her for now.
“I wanted to discuss champions, Pontifex..” he said “you seemed the most qualified on the subject.”
“I’m not the most qualified, merely the most knowledgeable human…that I’m aware of.” She added the last addendum almost as an afterthought. “If you want more information I suggest you go visit a temple.”
“I’ve always preferred a human conversation partner.” He said, starting to walk with her down the steps and onto the hill “Particularly one I know so well.”
Albion knew Nora had no particular fondness for him. Few did. It did not bother him in the slightest though, fondness would only get you so far. It is good to be loved, but it is better to be necessary, a distinction that might cost Senator Bellos the race.
“Fine, what do you want to know?” She asked, and Albion smiled.
“I want to know how and why the contract is established, why a specific person is chosen and what the terms are.”
Nora made a soft snort of derision, and Albion passed per an innocently perplexed look.
“It’s not a business deal, Senator. The ‘contracts’ are rarely beyond verbal as far as I understand. As for picking the person…they want someone both attuned to them and well-suited for the task in mind. Aurelio is a hunter and a protector, two things associated with Diana. She would have preferred a virgin girl but didn’t have any on hand who fit the bill better.”
“So they choose by their own criteria?” Albion asked “Admittedly I did not think one could drop off a resume at a temple, but that seems far too…organic, too trusting.”
This time Nora did not try to hide her laugh, and he knew it was again at his expense. He didn’t care, he prefer Nora think of him too outside his depth. It might make her give more than she intended.
“These are gods. They don’t believe in safeguards or contingencies. They trust in fate, perhaps to a dangerous degree. If they feel right about something, if they have a gut reaction to it, they trust it. That’s part of why Diana chose Aurelio and why Minerva chose Salvatore. They knew when they saw them that it was meant to be that way.”
“Hmmm” Albion considered her words for a moment, a silence between them despite the noise surrounding them.
“I cannot say I am particularly fond of such a system.” He said “It seems so…one sided from the perspective of the gods. What if a man thought himself unsuitable for the position, or another thought himself more suitable?”
“You can feel free to argue the decision.” Nora shrugged “I can tell you from experience that arguing with a god is rarely a painless process. I think even you, Senator, would find the prospect terrifying.”
Truth be told Albion had never had direct contact with a deity. He had met spirits certainly, from the nymph Echo to his own pet demon, but he had never knowingly faced one high enough on the hierarchy of power to be referred to as a “god”.
“And what are their demands?” he asked “Aurelio was granted impressive powers and a magic bow. What does he give in return?”
“Ah, that one is easier.” Nora said, hands held behind her to keep her back straight. “From what I understand, champions are free to act on their own will and desires most of the time. The god in question did choose them for a compatible personality after all, however if the god needs something done then the champion does it. No argument, no fuss, they are to jump when told to jump.”
“That seems almost like servitude.” Albion frowned.
“Of a sort” Nora shrugged “it is the price of power. And they are called champions, after all. They represent a god’s will on earth, and sometimes that requires doing what you’re told. It’d be an issue if a god commanded them to do something horrific or illegal, but that’s a problem we’ve not faced yet.”
“That makes it sound like an issue to be faced in the future.”
“Well…” Nora trailed off her, voice becoming more quiet. “You and I were both there in the aftermath of the Hour of the Wolf Massacre.” She said.
Albion nodded. His nose still wrinkling at the memory of the sights and smells of the carnage and gore the ritualistic mass-slaughter had left behind.
“As you noted, we have evidence to suggest that was a…proto-champion of sorts. Obviously the deity who supports this cult is to be expelled from the city by any means necessary though.”
“Expelled?” Albion raised an eyebrow “Suggesting we mortals send a god into exile?”
“It’s not as hard as you might think.” Nora said “The gods need human worship to sustain themselves. Without it they wither and shrink. If this god can’t get a foothold in Rome they’ll be forced to seek more fertile ground for their fiendish death cult.”
“I see…” Albion said “The problem you could face in the future is if an established deity did not like the course the city was taking.”
“Something like that.” Nora said “a conflict between the desires of the gods and that of the city could be potentially disastrous depending on the size of their following and their influence in the senate.”
Albion folded his arms. “The gods are here to aid humanity, not to direct it.” He said “I’ll make sure my position on that is known before the race for Consul begins in earnest.
“It’ll win you points with the Catholics at least.” Nora shrugged. “Now, is that all you wanted me for?”
“More or less.” Albion nodded “I was curious about the relationships betweenmen and gods, the kind of playing field they’re on.”
“Looking to become a champion?” She passed a glance at him.
“Oh hardly.” Albion waved off the idea “I have no interest in becoming some Olympian puppet.”
“Then why ask?”
“Several reasons” Albion said “First and foremost is that willful ignorance is perhaps the world’s greatest sin. Champions are some of the most powerful people in the city, and it would be foolish not to know how they operate. Aurelio in particular is worth keeping an eye on. There is also the fact that the gods themselves are worth looking into. Knowing their intentions and their Modus Operandi might save us all a good deal of grief in the future.”
“So I see playing on the Capitoline Hill isn’t enough for you” Nora smirked “Now you want to play on Mount Olympus.”
“Oh hardly” Albion could not help but smile himself “I have no interest in the games of the Olympians or the Egyptian Ennead, they are far too large and too dangerous for the likes of me.”
He kept a touch of sarcasm in his voice. He enjoyed keeping Nora guessing about his true intentions.
In reality he was being honest. Attempting to manipulate one of the greater gods would only end in pain, death, and possibly an eternal and humiliating afterlife. No, that was not the goal for him. He lived in the mortal world with mortal people, but that did not mean the gods had no part in it.
“If that will be all, Senator?” Nora’s voice drew him back “I am a busy woman and I am needed elsewhere.”
“Of course.” Albion said, gesturing with an open hand for her to take her leave “Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. It has been…enlightening.”
Nora nodded and departed with a swish of blue dress as she moved back towards the temple complex, leaving Albion surrounded but alone on the Capitoline Hill.
All that she had said simply confirmed what he had suspected. He could never likely manipulate a god, but the aid of one or more could be invaluable to him. The trick was getting that aid without sacrificing too much of himself.
Being a champion was now firmly out of the question. He had no intention of being a servant or a pawn. He could brown nose if need be, respect those in positions of superiority, but there was something different about doing that to a god over, say, Capitolina Lupa. With the wolf of Rome he could eventually usurp her position as chief authority in Rome, but he lacked the delusions of grandeur to consider usurping a god.
Still there were other options to him. The Olympians were well-known and the most worshipped pagan gods in Rome, but they are not the only members of their pantheon. There are hundreds of Greek gods alone, and not all of them are as terrifying or as austere as Diana and Minerva. He smiled as he considered his options, there might be gods and goddesses out there who could be bargained with after all. They might not be on the same level of power as the Olympians, but even the smallest god could grant a great advantage.