September 22nd, 2024
The life of a shrine maiden began early in the morning. The sun was only beginning to send its light up in the east by the time that Megame was rolling out of bed. It usually took a moment for her to orient herself, her half-sleeping brain asking why she wasn’t sleeping out on the cold forest ground or in her familiar futon back home and half a world away. Megame had rolled instead out of a comfortable western bed to stand groggily, swaying like a tree in storm, in a room that was still somewhat unfamiliar.
A light clap of her hands to her face brought reality and memory back to her as she recalled where she was. She was in Rome, in the small second floor apartment of a townhouse in the inner city that she shared with her fox and companion, Hachi. Her room was small and relatively barren, the walls undecorated but the furnishings lovingly tended. She didn’t have much for herself, but she was proud of what she had.
After a quick hot shower (a blessing after more than a year traveling on foot), she was out in the apartment, pulling on the white kimono and bright red pleated hakama that were once merely for ceremony but seemed to have become her permanent uniform in the city. While she still had her old weather-beaten set from her travels, she had requisitioned more from the local tailors (With careful oversight from Inari-Okami) and they had cost no small amount given the current price of silk.
As she walked into the sitting room, she found Hachi asleep on the couch. It would have been cute to find her there in fox form, her bright red bushy form curled like a dozing cat, but she had taken human form and appeared more like a disreputable woman sleeping off a hangover. She was sprawled over the couch with her arm hanging off and her foot in the air, her head lost in the mess of her tangled black hair, and her long bushy foxtail lying limp over her back. Everything about her was askew, and Megame decided to take a moment from her morning routine to admonish the fox.
“Hachi!” She called, and with a grunt the fox woman snapped awake.
“Look at yourself! You look like a-“
“Like a woman who had a real good time,” Hachi said with a weary smile.
“You were supposed to be on patrol last night!”
“I was on patrol!” Hachi said defensively. “I was out with Cade until two! Then we just…went back to his place till…four I think?”
“Ugh you should’ve stayed there,” Megame leaned in before pinching her nose in disgust.
“You reek of booze.”
“These Italians make good wine!” Hachi said.
“That’s not wine I’m smelling.”
“Well funny story…” Hachi’s words were still slightly slurred “So apparently there’s this thing called ‘U-ui-su-…” She stumbled over her syllables as she tried to sit up, pulling her kimono back over her shoulders to retain some semblance of modesty.
“It’s whiskey and you’ve had entirely too much! It’s obscene!” Megame scolded.
“Not so loud,” Hachi mewled. “I’m hungover!”
“You’re not hungover, you’re still drunk!” Megame said, loud enough for Hachi’s ears to flatten in pain. Wherever she was in the haze between drunk and hungover, it was not a pleasant place to be. “What you need is a cold shower and new clothes.”
“Then help me to the bath,” Hachi complained, clearly intent on not moving under her own power.
“We only have a little shower here and I already used it,” Megame said. “You can get yourself into it. Besides you’re entirely too handsy when you’re drunk.”
“No, you’re just no fun when you’re sober!” Hachi objected. “Remember that time in…uuh…Beijing I think? With those refugees and we both got suuuuper drunk?”
“I really try not to,” Megame frowned. “That’s when I knew I would have to be the responsible one.”
“So be responsible and carry meeee,” Hachi waved an arm uselessly at her.
“Turn into a fox then! You’re too big and heavy when you’re human.”
“Mmmm, no,” Hachi put her hands over her tucked fox ears. “Can’t focus.”
“Uuugh, fine,” Megame rolled her eyes and with no small amount of tugging, pulling, and lifting, managed to lurch the drunken fox woman off the couch and into the shower, dumping her into the tub and quietly enjoying the animal shriek she gave when Megame turned on the cold spigot.
Once she was sure Hachi wasn’t going to pass out and drown, Megme left her to begin preparing her breakfast toast and packing her lunch, taking the extra time to make food for Hachi as well.
Troublesome though the fox might be, Megame loved her dearly and considered her the closest friend she had in Rome. Hachi had been at her side the entire length of her journey, and had saved her from danger on countless occasions. She was also a surprisingly wise ear to talk to and shoulder to lean on. She was, after all, ninety-seven years old by most reckonings. They were so close in fact that the kitsune had on more than one occasion joked that she was Megame’s ‘fox wife’, drawing from those old stories of young men seduced by lovelorn fox spirits.
Having fixed Hachi’s lunch and left it where the fox could find it, Megame left the apartment to begin her day out in the city. Moving from the wilderness to Rome had been a massive shock in many regards, but in others it had felt like coming home. She had grown up in Kyoto and the bustle and movement of an ancient city felt familiar, even if they were very different in setting. Her origins, combined with her unique style of dress and her actions in constructing the shrine, had made her something of a known figure in the neighborhood. People often stopped to wave or say hi to her, and every day she received a free loaf of bread from the bakery at the end of the street after she had helped him quell the angry wheat kami that had been souring his dough.
That was part of her new job here in the city of Rome. She had been officially appointed by the then-acting Consul and Wolf of Rome Capitolina as ‘Spiritual Ambassador’ of Rome after helping resolve an incident with a rampaging wind kami, though they had called it an eolian nymph. It was her job to act as mediator between the common people of Rome and the common spirits of Rome that inhabited it.
This position had also earned her the respect of the local spirits as well, though their greetings were often subtler than the peoples’. A warm breeze over her face or the falling leaves parting around her were a sure sign that the wind kami had seen her and given their greetings, just as the trees seemed to bend slightly to shade her face from the sun.
Megame walked with a quick step form her apartment towards her new place of business. What had once been only the Parco San Sebastiano (along with the Parco degli Scipioni and other reclaimed areas of greenery that had been combined into a whole) was now home to the Central Roman Shrine Complex. A large wooden temple built in a style mixing ancient Japanese architecture and classical Roman sensibilities, made almost entirely out of wood and salvaged stone without hint of glass or metal beyond use in ornamentation. Despite being new it already seemed quite old, and it had been built with care among the trees and plants of the park, with many more having been planted to spread the vegetation further. It was a green piece of naturalism in a decidedly artificial city, and Megame had chosen it for just that reason. Spirits were of nature, and therefore attracted to where it was densest within cities. At last count, the park and Shrine complex was the transient home to over forty major spirits and hundreds of lesser ones.
The entrance to the park and the shrine was marked by a tall wooden gate, made in the style of a Japanese torii, but not strictly the case. Gates had long since been used to mark the divide between the spiritual and mortal worlds by cultures the world over, so while the styling might represent Megame’s personal flare, the gate itself was a beloved feature of many of the shrine’s local spirits.
Waiting at the gate’s entrance for her was the other spiritual ambassador to Rome, though one who held much higher prominence in Roman society.
“Morning, Megame,” Pontifex Maximus Nora Newstar waved casually to her.
“Ah, good morning, Pontifex,” Megame inclined her head politely.
“It’s Nora,” She waved it off.
“As you wish,” Megame smiled. “How can I be of service?”
As Pontifex Maximus, Nora was the chief religious official in the new Roman government. She was to act as liaison between dozens of religions and cults to the various ancient spirits, Okami, and gods that lived and were worshipped in the city. She also acted as an arbiter with the gods themselves, resolving their differences with their cults and with each other. Her positions was in many ways similar to Megame’s, but while Nora worked with gods and city leaders, Megame’s worked between the small nameless spirits and the common people, promoting harmony between the mortal and the spiritual. It was why Nora operated out of the massive Roman temple, while Megame worked out of the smaller and more pastoral shrine.
“There’s been some trouble on the river,” Nora said. “It’s close to the temple but it seemed more like your kind of work, and when I asked Echo she agreed that I should see you about it.”
“Oh of course,” Megame nodded. “Let me make sure everything is in order here and I can see to it.”
Megame stepped into the shrine as Nora walked beside her, seeing to her morning duties and ensuring nothing had gone wrong during the night.
There was nothing of value in the shrine, and so Megame had little fear of potential thieves, and the watchful eyes of spirits would ensure that no such transgression would be tolerated. Still, the front door to the shrine itself needed to be open, the stairs needed to be checked for loose debris, and she needed to ensure none of the lesser shrines were knocked over by more energetic or mischievous spirits. After making sure everything was in order, she returned to Nora at the gate.
“So where are we off to?” She asked.
“Down to the river,” Nora said. “There’s been something of an uproar recently.”
“An uproar?” Megame asked.
“Well the Tiber river is the main source of freshwater in Rome,” Nora said “Making it an invaluable human resource. Unfortunately with more spirits moving in, a number of water spirits have been increasing, and they all want to stake a claim in the Tiber.”
“Staking a claim?” Megame asked. “But what about the native river spirit? Shouldn’t there be a spirit for the river specifically?”
“There should,” Nora nodded. “An ancient river spirit named Tiberinus. However, no one has heard from him or seen him since the Days of Revelation.”
“I see,” Megame said “So with that vacuum in the river, you have water and river kami trying to take his place.”
“Yes, and it’s becoming a nuisance,” Nora said. “If something isn’t done soon then they’re going to fight it out.”
“You’re right, that’s no good,” Megame said. “Spirits fighting can be very destructive, and the consequences if it happened in our water supply…”
“None of the gods I’ve spoken to are willing or able to keep them in line,” Nora said.
“Greco-Roman river spirits tend to be…wild. It will take a lot to bring them in line.”
“So that’s why you need me?” Megame asked.
“We need an expert, and that’s you,” Nora said. “I won’t lie it’s a big job.”
“Well, I’ll see what I can do.” Megame smiled.
The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa