The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 19

October 9th, 2024

The day of election had finally come to Rome. Amidst gathered crowds and held breaths, the Roman Senate cast their votes for who would be the next Consul, the one who would take over after Capitolina’s temporary rule had ended and would guide the Senate and with it Rome.

Catarina, begin Albion’s apprentice, had been invited to join the gathered crowd within the Senate chamber, and there she watched as the senators cast their vote and formally announced that Albion Nassar would be the next Consul of Rome. There was a great deal of applauding and cheering, even from his opposition, and Cat saw Senator Patricia Bellos clap politely along with them. While he wasn’t a king, and the Consul was meant to guide the Senate rather than command it, Albion was now undoubtedly the most powerful man in Rome.

Cat listened to his speech from the balcony seats of the Senate chamber with Rosa seated next to her. Though uninterested in politics, she had come on Capitolina’s request and was sitting through it with a bored expression on her face. It was a good speech, to be sure, but Cat’s mind was focused elsewhere. She thought of the Dragon of the World Tree, gaining its strength in the North. She thought of the people who might be able to help her reach it. And she thought of the jaguar spirits that haunted the distant forests of Central America. As her eyes wandered over the senate chambers, she caught sight of Albion’s assistant, Lutetiana, seated near the front. Popular rumor had it that Albion was dating her, or at least sleeping with her. Cat wasn’t sure whether it was true or not, but more and more something about the silver-haired mage set her on edge.

After his speech was done and another round of applause filled the Senate chambers the crowd rose to disperse.

“Come on,” Cat said to Rosa. “Let me congratulate him and we can get going.”

“Finally,” Rosa groaned. “This went on waaaay too long.”

“Hey, it’s an important event,” Cat scowled. “Not every day we get a new Consul.”

“I guess,” Rosa shrugged. “Come on, let’s get going.”

“Alright, alright,” Cat rolled her eyes as she went down to congratulate him.

She managed to work her way through a crowd to reach Albion, shaking his head and giving him a polite ‘congratulations’.

“Ah, Catarina, I’m glad I caught you,” He said, smiling at her. “I want to see you in my office in an hour, if you’re available.”

“I…of course,” Cat nodded. “I’ll be there.”

Despite Rosa’s protestation an hour later she was in Albion’s office, which was already being cleared as he began his move to the Consul’s chamber. Still they were alone when he sat at his desk and offered her a seat opposite himself.

“What did you need me for?” Catarina asked, curious as she took the seat.

“I may have won my position but I need to act quickly upon it if I wish to make an impression. To that end I am putting together a diplomatic expedition, and I want you to be a part of it.”

“An expedition?” Cat asked. “To where?”

“To the Alps,” Albion said. “Not too terribly far but important nonetheless. They form the bulwark against northern monsters and having their settlements join Rome will be a key part to securing the borders of the field.”

“I see,” Cat said. “But why would I be part of it? I don’t have diplomatic training…”

“No, and you will not be the expeditionary lead,” Albion said. “However, you are my apprentice, as well as a skilled mage and something of a celebrity. Your presence will add weight to the arrangements.”

“Who else is going?” Cat asked, still caught up in her surprise.

“Your friend, Ms. Kokinos, and your adoptive sister, Ms. Jazheil, will be there for protection. The chief Diplomat will be Giovanni and his secretary, Ms. Notaros.

“Kokinos…” Cat looked at him before realizing. “Oooh Rosa, right. Okay.”

“I’ll have a detailed outline for the expedition for you within two days, you’ll leave within the week,” Albion continued. “We can’t afford to wait around.”

“R-right,” Cat nodded hurriedly. “Thank you and…ah congratulations again.”

“Thank you, Catarina, you are dismissed,” Albion said, waving her off, and Cat got to her feet before bowing her head and exiting.

“Well, that didn’t take too long,” Rosa said, meeting her outside. “What’s up?”

“Think we’re going on a mission soon,” Cat grinned. “Diplomacy work in the Alps.”

“Not exactly my strongest skill,” Rosa frowned.

“Well, I think we’re mostly there for protection and prestige,” Said Cat. “But I need to tell Hanne and Schehera…oh! And Gisela as well, probably.”

“Ah right your creepy prisoner teacher,” Rosa said. “Gotta say you visiting her for advice has this creepy Silence of the Lambs feel to it, you know?”

“Not really,” Cat frowned. “Is that a reference to something?”

“Forget it,” Rosa said, waving it off. “Whatever, is she teaching you how to kill Nidhoggr?”

“Well…in her way I guess,” Cat struggled with a way to describe it.

“Well if you’re going to see your creepy teacher you’re not coming back in time for combat training,” Rosa frowned.

“Ya…sorry about that,” Cat said.

“Well that just means I’m going with you.”

“Wait what?” Cat stared at her.

“You heard me,” Rosa said. “I’m not letting you ditch me, so I’m going too.”

“B-but I’m going to my house…”

“Ya so? You let Gisela in didn’t you? If you say I’m not welcome I might just start taking offense.”

“Ergh it’s not like…ugh fine, whatever you can come,” Cat put her palm to her forehead. “Come on, it’s a long walk.”

 

Together the pair of them set off towards the edge of Rome, taking nearly two hours on foot to reach the front gate of the Aldobrandini household, and they were well into conversation by the time they arrived.

“Look, all I’m saying is you need to be more aware of your limited range,” said Cat. “A spear isn’t a sword so stop treating it like one.”

“That’s because you don’t know a damn thing about spears,” said Rosa. “I’m plenty aware of my range, I just need to work not to trip over you. I need some maneuvering room.”

“If I moved any further away I’d be leaving huge gaps for Hilde to exploit.”

“If you got any closer I’d have you buy me dinner first, seriously it’s too close.”

“It is not, you’re just not used to fighting in a group.”

“Ain’t that the truth.”

“Well like I said you…ah, here we are,” Cat said as she worked to unlock the gates, the key tied to the numerous magic wards protecting the front entrance as well as the physical lock.

As they stepped inside, Cat turned to lock the gate closed again as Rosa walked forward to view the manor atop the hill, giving an impressed whistle.

“Wow, you were more loaded than I thought, Cat,” She said.

“I’m not,” Cat blushed. “My family was, not that it means much anymore.”

“It means you’ve got this huge mansion,” said Rosa. “Seriously this is the kind of house that other rich people envy.”

“Oh, shut up and come on…” Cat said.

“Why don’t you live here again?” Rosa asked. “Hanne’s house is tiny, bet here you could give everyone their own wing.”

“Shut uuuup.”

“Seriously did you guys have servants?”

Cat clamped her mouth shut, keeping her eyes pointed forwards as they walked up the hill.

“You guys totally had servants. Wow, are you doing auditions for a new maid?”

“That’s not…you’re way off…”

“Cause I would totally do it if you paid me to live here on the side. Hell, I’d wear the frilly dress and everything.”

Cat paused mid-stride as the image filled her mind, but she pushed onwards as she tried to shake it from her thoughts.

“There were no frills! And I’m not hiring you to be a maid!” Cat shouted.

“I get it. Position filled,” Rosa sighed sarcastically

“You are just the worst sometimes…”

“Eh, you just need to lighten up,” Rosa shrugged as they stepped inside the manor. “So where’ve you got her locked up? The dungeon?”

“We don’t have a dungeon,” Cat sighed. “Gisela is probably in the study.”

“Well lead on, I’d probably get lost looking for it,” Rosa said, falling in behind her.

“I can only hope,” Cat said.

“See? That’s the spirit. No fun if I’m the only one giving,” Smiled Rosa.

Sure enough, they found Gisela in what was once her father’s study, which had been converted into a makeshift library while Gisela sorted through boxes of books and tomes. Cat made sure to check that the wards were still active before stepping inside.

“Glad to see you’re still here,” Cat announced herself as she stepped in. Gisela didn’t look up from where she was sorting piles of books.

“Welcome back, Catarina, I didn’t expect to see you until Friday. Some news with the election?”

“Albion won,” Cat said.

“Of course he did,” nodded Gisela. “And you brought a guest I see.”

“Ya, Rosa insisted on coming,” Cat rolled her eyes. “But I came to talk to you. Albion’s putting an expedition together that he wants me to be a part of.”

“Military? Diplomatic? Exploratory?” Gisela asked.

“Umm he said diplomatic,” said Cat.

“Who else is going?” Gisela never missed a beat as she asked questions.

“He wants me, Rosa, Hilde, Gio, and Gio’s secretary, I think.”

Gisela snorted softly. “Definitely at least some military component. That’s a show of force right there.”

“I mean…ya probably,” Cat frowned. “Point is I’m going so I’ll be missing some of your lessons.”

“Oh, I all but insist that you go,” Gisela said, finally looking up from her books.

“Wait…you do?” Cat asked, nonplussed.

“Of course,” Gisela nodded. “I think it will be an excellent experience for you.”

“Well…alright then,” Cat said, before she could ask more, Rosa stepped into the study.

“So you’re the prisoner then, Gisela right?”

“That would be correct,” Gisela turned to her, regarding her with cold eyes.

“I’ve been wanting to get a look at you ever since I heard you almost beat Aurelio,” Rosa said. “I’m not too impressed.”

“Think what you will,” Gisela shrugged. “I’m not particularly inspired to impress you.”

“Well as one champion to another I make it a point of comparing,” Rosa said. “Need to make sure I’m not being showed up, after all.”

“Well let me put those fears to rest, as a champion you’re still an amateur.”

Rosa’s brow furrowed. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me,” Gisela said. “You wield power like a child with a baseball bat.”

“Er…come on now…” Cat said. “Not in the study.”

“No, by all means this will suffice,” Gisela said. “Come, Champion of Ares, try to strike me.”

Rosa had moved forward before Cat could stop her, moving skillfully through the book tiles as she all but charged Gisela, fingers curling into fists.

“Dammit…” Cat sighed. “If you two break anything…”

Rosa threw the first punch, not with much weight or power as she tested Gisela’s speed, and Cat could only watch as Gisela not only deflected her fist skillfully, but with what looked like ease. Rosa drew back before pushing for another assault, her fists moving like a deft pugilist as she tried to strike at Gisela, but Gisela moved with a grace that seemed almost unnatural, deflecting every one of Rosa’s strikes. She wasn’t blocking them, it was clear from her movements and posture that she lacked the raw strength to intercept a direct hit, but with a blend of martial arts and divine speed she had made herself nearly untouchable.

“Damn, you’re quick.” Rosa pulled back, and Cat was shocked to see a smile on her face, “Like fighting an eel.”

“You’re trained at least,” Gisela said, flexing her hands. “Better than Aurelio certainly, though you lack focus and finesse.”

Rosa seemed about to charge again, but reined herself in as she uncurled her hands. “Heh well…if I tried to get any more focus, I think we’d wreck the place. Cat wouldn’t let me hear the end of it.”

“You bet I wouldn’t,” Cat crossed her arms stubbornly.

“Heh, well your creepy teacher isn’t half bad,” Rosa smirked.

“Likewise…call me, impressed, Champion of Ares.”

“Call me Rosa,” she said. “And I’m going to call you Gisela since I’m not about to try to pronounce your patrons name.”

“Itzpapalotl,” Gisela said. “It sounds like it’s spelled…but very well.”

 

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

The Snake and the Mirror

Political Leverage

September 20th, 2024

Albion Nassar enjoyed his rare leisurely mornings, the few unscheduled morning hours where he could rest in his comfortable bed as the morning sun streamed in through the soft white curtains, where he could read the latest news, listen to the radio, and plan his next engagements over the coming busy weeks. Albion never truly rested, but there were times where he felt more…relaxed. Certainly helping this feeling of relaxation was the fact that his bed was no longer empty.

“Mmm, morning already?” Circe’s head rose groggily from the pillow, her hair a tousled mess of glittering silver that hung wildly around her shoulders. Of course, Circe never looked disheveled or unglamorous. She was a goddess, and thus even in the ugly first moments of waking she carried an impossible elegance and beauty to her. Her hair fell in such a way that it highlighted her eyes that flashed divine gold, and it tumbled over her shoulders in the perfect manner to draw his eyes down to where the light scattered over the flawless skin of her neck and shoulders, and where the soft white silk sheets had been drawn up modestly, but also teasingly, over her breasts. She was, at any given moment, like the subject of a Renaissance painting.

“I’m afraid so,” Albion said. “It happens every day right around dawn.”

“Disgraceful,” Circe tutted as she used her free hand to brush her hair temptingly from her shoulder. “I should talk to my father about that.”

“Do as you like,” Albion said, giving her a slight smile. “You always do.”

“Tending to business already?” Circe’s eyes moved towards the papers that Albion had been sorting through. They were documents that had been handed to him by one of his many eager understudies. The secretaries, assistants, and go-getters who could see where the political winds had been blowing were often more than eager to jump at his command, even if it meant jumping on the faces of their supposed candidates. Politics in this new Rome were fluid, there was little party loyalty beyond what power and charisma could afford. The only person with a larger powerbase than Albion was Patricia Bellos, but Albion had already proven that size wasn’t everything.

“It never stops,” Albion said, but it wasn’t a complaint. “Especially not with the election so close.”

In three weeks, the Senate would formally vote to decide who would become the first Consul of Rome. For the past year, Capitolina Lupa had been acting-Consul, but she had no desire to continue and Albion could see the strain of the position already acting on the shoulders of the proud wolf. Capitolina was a symbol, a battle standard to march at the head of a Legion; she was ill-suited to politics, and Albion had every intention of taking her place.

“Though I will be needing your assistance again today,” He added.

“You scarcely seem able to act without it,” Circe smiled at him, moving through the sheets to lean against his shoulder.

“Oh, I would be managing,” Albion said. “Though you have certainly made the process of becoming consul more enjoyable.”

“Is that all,” Albion saw her eyes flick dangerously towards him. “I am ‘enjoyable’?”

Albion didn’t miss a beat. “You, my beloved Sorceress, are nothing short of divine intervention in its most elegant form. Where Zeus might send his lightning bolts, you need only an opportune glance of the eyes to change the course of nations. As my divine aid, as my counsel, and of course as my lover you are without equal.”

Circe was never a woman to be underestimated. She was a man-eater and even as she grew more affectionate her traps and machinations grew more powerful. Albion had little doubt that if he let his guard down for even a moment he would be her gibbering love-slave, or perhaps more likely some mindless beast left to roam in her garden on Aiaia. He was no Odysseus to try and tame her, he didn’t have a Greek Hero’s strength or perseverance.

But Albion was willing to bet he could match the wits of even clever Odysseus.

“…Acceptable,” Circe said after a deliberately drawn out pause, giving him an affection kiss on the cheek before rising from the bed. “I’m going for a wash, don’t waste anymore of the morning, dear Albion.”

She gave him a final alluring smile before she sauntered off, giving Albion a full view of her divine body as she glided from the room. For all his planning, resistance, and tact in keeping himself in her good graces and keeping his mind on task, he allowed himself to occasionally indulge in simply admiring Circe’s beauty.

Albion had never been in love. A year ago, he would have found the idea laughable, and six months ago he would have thought that he was simply under Circe’s spell, but months in her presence had given him time to reconsider things. Albion didn’t simply love her beauty. Every man on earth loved Circe’s beauty, that was hardly enough for him to say that he loved the goddess herself. But over the last few months Albion had become familiar with her silver-lined tongue, her shrewd candor, and her truly exceptional cunning. He would have been attracted to these qualities in a mortal, but in the body of a goddess they were irresistible.

Albion rose form the bed and stepped to the window, looking out over Rome as the sun bounced shone over the waking city. Albion had never considered love to play any part in his future, and was more than happy to keep it that way. As a mage, he had a responsibility to continue his bloodline, and the closest thing in his mind to finding romance was choosing an appropriate partner with whom to produce an heir (Nora Newstar was the ideal candidate. Abigail White was too unpredictable and Catarina was still too young for it to be seemly) and his plans there had been stalled for the time being, but Circe had made him reconsider. He had expected for them to part ways after he became Consul. The goddess would become bored and the city would demand his full attention, but now Albion found himself reconsidering. What if he didn’t want her gone? He enjoyed her company, her barbs, and of course the incredible sex. He even enjoyed her treachery. She was a woman who challenged him, who demanded that he treat every interaction like disassembling a steel trap. It was exhilarating.

 

An hour later he was on his way towards the Capitoline hill. Albion always kept himself smartly dressed in a dark suit, pale blue shirt, and elegant tie. In the colder months, he wore a long coat that added to his image as a more cultured kind of mage. Rome might be embracing tis ancient heritage, but Albion was not about to start wearing a toga.

At his side was his campaign and work assistant, Lutetiana. He had suggested the name from his knowledge of botany, and Circe had been amused at the moniker and adopted it eagerly. She was dressed somewhat more loudly, her suit jacket and pencil skirt were both a soft lavender, and while her white buttoned shirt was pristine and buttoned to her neck, the lines of her jacket still deliberately accented her chest, just as her skirt drew eyes to her legs. She insisted on maintaining her hair color, but given the rising abundance of unusual hairstyles, a young woman with silver hair was not seen as too unusual. To her credit, her impressive appearance never overshadowed his own unless she was doing so deliberately. Eyes were kept on him, but so long as she stood at his side, they never left.

Many believed that they were having voracious love affair behind the scenes, and it was a rumor that Albion actively cultivated. For one it made it much simpler to actually engage in his relationship with Circe, which had become intensely physical over the last few months. It also actually improved his image to many. People disliked an asexual candidate, even being homosexual would have improved his standing in some eyes (Pontifex Nora’s relationship with the nymph Echo was something of a widely-accepted open secret). But a bachelor candidate with seemingly no interest in romance or sex was seen as untrustworthy, cold, and robotic. The rumored affair between Senator Nassar and his gorgeous assistant Lutetiana not only quashed those rumors, they gave him an edge. He was now the man every man in Rome wished to be.

Albion didn’t have any senatorial duties until mid-afternoon, but his real work had already begun. He was on the hunt, and he had his eyes set on some very particular prey.

“Roberto,” Albion said happily, hand taking hold of the shoulder of Senator Roberto Gallus of the third Equis District. “We had business today, I hope you hadn’t forgotten.”

“Oh, Mister Nassar, n-no I hadn’t forgotten,” Gallus was a rather round man, and his weaknesses extended well past his appetite for food. To his credit, he was still a stubborn idealist, albeit one for a pointless cause.

“Excellent, then walk with me,” Abion said, his hand strong on Roberto’s shoulder as he steered him away from wherever he had been going. “Now the rumors I’ve been hearing are that you’re still going to throw your vote in with Senator Willem.”

“I’m not going to discuss my vote with you,” Roberto said, and Albion released his shoulder without a fight as he stubbornly pulled it away. “We’ve been over this.”

“And yet you’ve ignored me at every turn,” Albion said. “Willem is a dead horse. He ranks under five percent confidence in every poll over the last two months.”

“You might not get it, Albion,” Roberto was putting on his best ‘brave’ face. It was an impressive attempt at least. “But some of us are more concerned with standing up for our vision of Rome than with a sure chance of victory. Besides, if I wanted that I’d throw my lot in with Senator Bellos, not with you.”

“A noble gesture, Roberto, to be sure,” Albion nodded. “But there is more to this than ideals, isn’t there? Come now, Willem’s views are vague and his platform insincere. I would laud his standing for his ideals if any of us knew what they were.”

Albion felt the subtlest tug at his wrist as Lutetiana stepped forward, just as Roberto was distracted by his flustering. Albion had been weathering the man down for weeks, but he was surprisingly resilient, and his one true skill was hiding what he didn’t want found. It had made him the last seal holding Willem’s fairweather supporters from flooding to his ranks, but if Albion misspoke or pushed to hard they would run to Patricia’s open arms instead. Some people needed to be intimidated or browbeaten, while others needed a subtler instrument. And there was no knife more subtle than Circe.

“Of course, what Mister Nassar means to say is that Senator Willem simply does not seem to have sufficient confidence in his own viewpoints,” Lutetiana had the tone of an aid doing damage control on her candidate’s comments, but Albion was content to step back and let a master work. The second Roberto’s eyes passed from him to her, they would never wander until she wanted them to. As she spoke, Albion could see the truths that she had fished out on her own, the artful deception she had engineered, and the cunning tongue of a witch-goddess at work.

“You have an admirable loyalty to your candidate,” Albion could read the translation in Circe’s words and Roberto’s face: He had other reasons for staying in Willem’s good books.

“He is an exceedingly charismatic man,” Willem likely had some hold on Roberto, either extortion or favors owed.

“But such a troubled campaign can bring so much undue stress on a man,” An affair? Roberto was married, but that wasn’t political suicide by any stretch. Hiring prostitutes maybe?

“And his home life,” Roberto’s wife was having the affair, and Roberto was hiring escorts as petty vengeance and satisfaction. Albion had to wonder how much of this Circe knew, or had she simply intuited upon meeting him?

Roberto’s eyes were lost in Lutetiana now. She was, at that moment, everything he desired. So long as he looked at her, his wife and the women he hired were only attractive in the ways they compared to her. She was now his ideal, and he was putty in her hands.

“But Senator Willem is not what is best for Rome, nor is he what is best for you,” She was what he wanted in Rome now, and he knew what he would need to get that.

With the subtlest gesture of the fingers, she called for Albion to speak again.

“I can be what is best for Rome, Roberto,” Albion said. “And what is best for you. Willem shouldn’t be Rome’s problem, and he won’t be yours.”

If he wanted Roberto on his side then Albion would need to remove that blackmail, or make Willem persona non grata. Either was acceptable, and he would bring Circe along as well of course.

“I-I will…consider it, Senator Nassar,” Roberto said, but his eyes never left Lutetiana.

“I know you will,” Lutetiana answered for him. “And we will be grateful.”

 

 

Previous Chapter                                                                                                           Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

Where All Roads Lead

In the Hall of the Witch Queen

May 21st, 2024

“Albion Nassar.” The goddess Circe tested his name on her lips. Every word she spoke was like honey in his ears, and Albion knew he had to tread very lightly with this woman. Her gardens were full of the transfigured remains of those who hadn’t.

“It’s a nice name.” She turned her golden eyes on him. “Not Greek though.”

“Italian-Egyptian” Albion nodded.

The pair of them were seated in one of Circe’s many lounges. The sun had set outside and this was their first real chance to talk. After letting him in, pleased by his deference, Circe had allowed him time to bathe and change before meeting him for a chat and a meal. At the moment they were sipping some of Circe’s wine as their dinner cooked itself in the floor below.

Her manor was magnificent, everything at the height of opulence without being overwhelmingly ostentatious. The lounge was warmly lit by a crackling fireplace that cast it in a soft orange-red light, and the pair of them were seated in plush lounge chairs that faced one another across a low table.

Albion knew he was moving on very dangerous ground with this goddess. There were rules, both magical and social, that needed to be followed. He was a guest in her house, and was as such expected to partake in her hospitality. Refusing food or drink, while the safe route, would have insulted her. On the other hand, Circe was known for her poisonous nature when it came to offering guests any form of hospitality.

Thankfully, Nassar was more clever than most. After changing, he had kept a pill hidden in his mouth near the back of his cheek. The list of ingredients was long, but its most potent agent was an extremely rare herb that once went by the name “moly”. When the pill was crushed, it could successfully neutralize any magical agent that was consumed for the next twenty-four hours.
Albion had bitten down on it just before his first sip of wine.

He did not know if the wine or the food would be tainted, but he wasn’t taking chances, and he was sure he saw the smile on Circe’s lips grow slightly wider as he drank and did not transform into a hog.

If there was one word to describe the goddess Circe, it would be “treacherous”. Not in the sense that a turncoat or a traitor was treacherous, but in the way a mountain was treacherous. With every move, Albion needed to be sure of his footing or else risk plummeting to his doom.

“So tell me, Lord Nassar,” Circe said, wine glass held elegantly in her perfect hands. “What is it that lured you all the way to my little island?”

“You of course, Lady Circe.” Albion said, dragging his eyes from her hand. She truly was dangerous in conversation. Seemingly innocuous gestures drew his eyes deliberately to where she wanted them. She was a legendary enchantress on top of being a goddess, and while there were many things Albion had spells, potions, or wards for, some he could only deal with through pure willpower.

“No one has come calling for me in a long time.” She said, and his eyes were drawn to hers, seeing how the firelight danced in her radiantly gold eyes.

“More fool them.” Albion said. “And I imagine those that come have only things they desire of you. Craving the legends of your power, your potency, or your bed.”

“That they do.” Circe said as her smile shifted into a slight smirk. “And now they play in my forests.”

“Then I must ask, Daughter of Magic, has anyone ever come to offer you something?”

“They have.” Circe said, sipping her wine. “They offer jewels, gold, promises of faithfulness and their own supposedly potent virility. All promises made empty by the end.”

“I offer none of these things,” Albion said calmly. “As they are the offerings of fools. What use has the daughter of magic for gold and jewels?”

“Then what is it you offer, Lord Nassar?” Circe asked, lowering her glass as she folded her hands. “Save for a commendable boldness.”

“In a word, empire.” Albion said, letting the word sink in. He was pleased to see a note of surprise on Circe’s face, her eyes widening slightly as her smile dropped for just half a moment.

“…do go on.” Circe said, her smile back in place as she gestured for him to continue.

“I am a well-placed senator in Rome.” He said. “With Rome being perhaps the most powerful state on the planet at the moment.”

“I could challenge that assertion.” Circe said. “But I am impressed by the city’s progress.”

“You’ve been watching?” Albion asked.

“I do like to stay informed.” She said enigmatically. “But please, do go on.”

“Well as I was saying, I am a well-placed senator and the leader of all of Rome’s mages. Already one of the most powerful men in the city, I am now putting my efforts towards becoming Consul.”

“Consul? Well that is impressive.” Circe said. “But I fail to see how that affects me where I am.”

“I was hoping to recruit some…divine aid, as it were.” Albion smiled, refusing to let his growing fear show itself. The next few minutes would shape the coming years.

“Aha…”Circe said lightly, her smile returning as she drank her wine. “You wanted the help of a goddess in securing your position.”

“Every little bit counts.” Albion said.

“There are many gods.” Circe mused. “What brought you so far afield to find this one in particular?”

“An arrangement.” Albion said. “You see, many gods demand absolute service for their aid, something I’m not quite willing to offer. Of course you can’t exactly negotiate with an Olympian.”
“Ah,” Circe said. “But you believe you can negotiate with me.”

“I do.” Albion nodded. “Because you are an exceedingly intelligent goddess. However, there is another reason as well.”

“Oh?” Circe raise a curious eyebrow. “Do go on then, Lord Nassar. What truth about a goddess have you unearthed?”

“I believe you are very bored, Lady Circe.” Albion said, and he silently braced himself for painful divine retribution.

Thankfully, as he had hoped, none came.

“Bored.” Circe repeated the word idly, looking at her empty wine glass.

“Bored.” Albion nodded. “You have your sailors-made-monsters and the occasional ill-bred suitor calling on you every few years, but what fills your time in between? I think you desire more than company, you prefer clever company and a game to play.”

“And you think you can offer that to me?” Circe asked. “A game fit to amuse even a goddess? I am not some nymph so easily amused by the wiles of society. I am the daughter of Helios and Hecate, Sun and magic. I might not live on Mount Olympus but I am not to be underestimated.”

“I have no intention of underestimating you, Lady Circe.” Albion said. “I ask that you return with me to Rome, see the games I play and how far my reach can spread. Has any man offered you a hand in deciding the course a nation takes?”

“I cannot say they have.” Circe said. “Most petty kings who come to my door have the irritating habit of already being married.”

“Come now, Lady Circe,” Albion teased her. “We haven’t even had dinner yet.”

“I expect you have rules by which games are to be played.” Circe said as their wineglasses refilled themselves.

“Naturally.” Albion nodded. “But we have some time to work those out.”

“Share the basics.” She said. “So I have some idea of what I might be getting into.”

“Very well.” Albion began. “I would not be working at your bidding, you would be…like a treasured adviser. I take your thoughts and recommendations to heart, but they are not commands.”

“Oh they wouldn’t be commands.” Circe smiled “But you would find them very hard to resist.”

“I expect I would.”  Albion said. “Which brings me to the next rule. While we are free to nudge and influence by other methods, I won’t have mind control of any sort within the city.”

“Hardly necessary.” Circe said, running her hand along the table before moving it to her own leg. Albion’s eyes were drawn there as she ran it up her thigh. “Controlling minds is for the poor politician anyway.”

“Of course.” Albion said, forcing himself to meet her eyes. “And we need to keep your presence somewhat secret.”

“And why might that be?” Albion saw a flicker of annoyance in her eyes.

“Well, Lady Circe, this is not just my opinion but a known fact that your reputation in the outside world is less than sterling.”

“Bold for a man to say the aid of a goddess might weigh down his reputation.”

“One needs to reveal their allies carefully when it comes to politics.” Albion said cautiously.

“Though I won’t ask you to be invisible, merely to…take a guise.”

“As who?” Circe asked teasingly. “Your running mate? Your wife?”

“Were I so lucky.” Albion smiled. “My political adviser I think would suit you well.”

“So if I’m hearing this correctly.” Circe said. “You wish for me to come to Rome in disguise as your political adviser, and use a fraction of my tremendous power to manipulate and influence your opponents into becoming your allies and supporters. And in return I get…to hide in the shadows and do little but whisper in your ear.”

“Your power is prodigious and legendary, Lady Circe.” Albion said. “But sometimes the greatest challenges are not in finding the limits of your power, but how you can apply it when more stringent limits are put in place. When was the last time you felt truly challenged?”

“Several thousand years, it’s true.” She admitted, though she maintained an air of detachment. “So you think having such inordinate limits put onto my power is something to relish rather than an irritation?”

“Despite what common belief might tell you,” Albion said. “Becoming Consul takes more craft and skill than sundering a mountain.”

“And if you win?” Circe asked. “If you become consul with my aid? What then do I receive?”

“You will still be my adviser and close confidante.” Albion said. “And Rome and all of its growing holdings will be at our fingertips.”

Circe sat in silence for an increasingly uncomfortable few moments, eyes looking idly into the fire as she weighed her options and left Albion to sweat in his seat.

He retained his calm, however. Nothing would be served by showing weakness here. He needed to remain resolute if he wanted to convince Circe that he measured up to everything he had promised. The silence hung between them for quite some time before the goddess leaned back in her seat.

“No.”

She didn’t say it with any emotion at all, her face showing just her smile once again as she rejected him. Albion kept his face void of any thoughts as well as he repeated her response back to her.

“No?”

“You are clever, but you have wrapped yourself in your own cleverness. You would seek to make a goddess a servant rather than serve one, which is amusingly refreshing, but I am no fool. I get little but to make you stronger and myself weaker. You would be consul…But it does not do for a daughter of the sun to be in the shadows.”

Albion sipped his wine as he took the time to regroup and think of something else he could offer. He had hoped his first option would be enough, that he could tempt her with the lure of power, but if she needed more there were always other possibilities. He simply had to make sure he was not keeping himself vulnerable.

“You seek amusement, Lady Circe, and I believe I have someone you will find suiting your tastes quite well. Well most of your tastes.” He said with a smile. “There are an increasing number of young and impressionable magi appearing within Rome these days. I, in fact, have an apprentice of my own, but the number grows. If you were to return with me, there would be a veritable generation of young mages you could teach. Impressionable young mages with minds open to your lessons.”

Silence fell again between them as Circe stared at him intently. Albion sat there as still as he could. There had been talk of creating a group or a guild among the mages to help teach those finding themselves with magic and did not know to use it. If putting Circe quietly at its head was what it took to become the ruler of the city, it would be a fine trade.

“Very well.” Circe said, turning again to him with a smile. “I will join you in this venture, Lord Nassar. I will see you made Consul of Rome and in return you will offer me…this amusement.” She added with a smirk as she raised her full glass of wine to him, a toast which Albion gladly met.

“It is an honor to be able to work with you, Lady Circe.” Albion bowed his head to her.
She rose from her seat, seeming to glide over the floor before sitting down on the arm of his chair, gently she reached out and ran a single long finger from his neck to the tip of his chin.

“Well then, Lord Nassar, we will depart for your Rome in the morning, but for now I would have you for dinner and then we shall have all evening to talk. I wish to see the other ways in which you can amuse me.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                      Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=17&sl=645

Where All Roads Lead

Lost Island of Aiaia

May 21st, 2024
It was not often that a senator left Rome on business. What business was there that could call someone from Rome out into the wilds of the barely-tamed Italian Peninsula? Most senators and politicians spent their days and nights exclusively in Rome, and most of the time Albion could be counted among them. Now, however, things were different, and Albion had business beyond Rome, beyond Italy even.To all who asked he was seeking some time off in the country. It was only somewhat unusual, and as Albion had worked tirelessly ever since first coming to the sanctuary so no one was willing to begrudge him a brief vacation. Patricia had, as expected, supported the idea. Obviously she would be using his absence to jump-start her campaign. It was, after all, hard to gain support when you were supposedly vacationing in some quiet country villa.

Albion was not going to the country. He had traveled west to the Tyrhennian coast and from there found a boat to take him to his true destination. He hadn’t needed a crew; he was the most powerful mage in Rome after all, and he could simply make a crew.

So it was that he lounged on a thirteen meter catamaran as it cut through the clear blue Mediterranean water. Around him minor spirits buzzed with work as they adjusted their course and the lines of the sails. Most were only barely visible, minor spirits flitting about the standing lines that had no mind of their own save their intended function.

“We’re on course with a steady wind, captain!” The sound of the bow cutting through waves was interrupted by the chipper voice of Suty, his personal attendant and daemon. She was his favored tool for most jobs, smart enough for complex tasks but with an infinite supply of loyalty so long as he indulged her occasional quirks. She looked like one expected a feminine demon would, her skin was grey save for the white runic markings across her skin written in no language he knew of (She insisted they meant “renewal” but he doubted she knew what was actually written there). The scleras of her eyes were black, and her irises bright yellow like a cat’s. She had a slim figure save for her broad hips and exaggerated breasts, designed with luring in hapless young men, and her hair was a shoulder-length curtain of jet-black interrupted by a pair of long curving horns that rose from her forehead.

Today she was dressed like a pirate, or perhaps more accurately like the picture one would find on a “Slutty Pirate Costume” in a less-than-reputable costume shop three days after Halloween, she was showing off a tremendous amount of smooth grey skin, particularly below her neckline, and with a skirt so short as to almost be redundant. So long as he indulged her quirks, he reminded himself, she was one of the most loyal daemons he had ever meant. He had the contingent command and binding spells in place, of course, but he preferred a servant that didn’t try to twist his every word and order back on him. At least she had stopped trying to seduce him. It wasn’t terribly uncommon for fledgling and hormonal mages to summon dameons like Suty as pleasure companions, but Albion had summoned her for her loyalty and base cunning, and he had a policy never to sleep below his station. Suty, of course, was free to test her wiles on others so long as it didn’t distract from her duties or reflect poorly on him. Catarina was her favored target these days.

“Very good, Suty.” Albion said “We should be arriving shortly, yes?”

“We are right on course and right on schedule, captain.” She grinned. Albion heard the sound of sails straining, and watched as Suty pivoted in place, eyes homing in on the minor spirit that had failed to properly give the sheet slack where it was needed. She pointed her hand as if holding a gun and snapped her fingers. The spirit, a mere ball of light and aether the size of a football, erupted into a puff of flame before disintegrating. Albion watched the light bounce off Suty’s face, twisted into a demonic expression of malice and contempt before shifting as smoothly as silk into her normal wide-eyed and chipper visage.

“Apologies, captain.” She said brightly.

“See that the next one does his duty properly.” Albion said.

“Aye aye, captain!” Suty saluted smartly with a distinct and deliberate bounce.

Albion smiled as she returned to her duties. He liked Suty.

It was another hour before their destination came into view. They had been sailing for nine hours now, but Albion had been prepared for several days. It was tricky work, after all, to navigate to an island that wasn’t supposed to exist.

As soon as the green dot on the horizon came into view, mist began to pour in around them. The spirits began to glow, acting as running lights to mark their passage as the fog grew thick around them. Albion kept his eyes on the horizon, to where the island, still visible, was growing steadily larger. Any satellite photo or passing modern vessel would have told him that there was nothing there, but there was an island to be found. It was an island that was only marked on a more ancient kind of map.

There was a magic in the mist, he could feel it already as it settled in around them. It’s what made the spirits glow and brought a nervous expression to Suty’s face. Albion, however, was calm. He had examined the field Angel had made over Italy, and while he could reproduce nothing of its caliber, he had managed to reverse engineer some of its properties and combine them with his own potent magic. It’s what kept their small vessel beyond the notice of sea monsters, and now what protected them from the mist. Albion could only guess at its function, most likely it was an amnesiac of some variety, one that would compel him to pass beyond the island and forget what he had seen. Albion, however, was not to be dissuaded; he had business on that island.
As they approached the rocky shore, the island growing larger in their view, Albion could see a light appear at the end of a small dock.

“It seems we’re expected, Captain.” Suty said, and Albion could still hear the slight tremor in her voice. She was not designed for battle, and did not enjoy the prospect of facing a more powerful mage.

“The Master of this island takes many callers.” Albion said “But I imagine they rarely leave.”
Suty gulped. Albion, however, had rarely been so excited. This would be the first real test for him in a long time.

As he stepped onto the docks, the minor spirits attending to tying off the boat, Suty hopped ashore with him.

“So try to show some decorum, for God’s sake.” Albion said. He wanted to make a good impression, after all.

“Oh right, of course, Master.” Suty curtsied as her pirate costume transfigured into her usual attire, the trim suit and skirt of a secretary. Of course, this being Suty, it was not the kind of secretary one would find in a legitimate office, but it was still something.

As they stepped towards the shores, they saw the trees rise high ahead of them, the thick forest broken only by a small winding path into the island’s dark interior. From within the forest came a multitude of low groaning roars, the indignant cries of a hundred wild beasts. Suty shuddered and hid slightly behind Albion.

“What was that, Master?”

Albion replied as if quoting verse.

“The roars of lions that refuse the chain,
The grunts of bristled boars, and groans of bears,
And herds of howling wolves that stun the sailors’ ears.”

“Wh-what?”

“You should read more, Suty.” Albion shrugged, before removing what appeared to be a tiny hand-sized obelisk from his jacket pocket. The surface was shining black, like obsidian, and covered in minutely carved sigils of power. Albion took a breath, feeling some of his power flow into it, and around him a perfect sphere of invisible energy began to form. It was a spell of his own design, and a particularly potent one. If he was right about this island, then even with nothing but a permeable field of invisible air around them they could not be touched. He noted, with pleasure, that the fog had been pushed to the edges of the sphere.

Without a moment of hesitation he set off into the thick wood, Suty hurrying in his footsteps, afraid of being left outside the field’s protection.

“Will this really protect us, Master?” She asked nervously, almost stepping on his heels.

“Try casting a spell in here, Suty.” Albion said. He saw out of the corner of his eye as Suty snapped her fingers repeatedly, clicking them but producing not spark like a bum lighter.

“Nothing, Master.”

“Precisely” Albion said “The rare case when the best offense is good defense. No mage can touch you when they can’t even form a spell.”

“But…” Suty began, trying to work things out in her head “Master…I’m magic…how am I in here?”

“Oh, I put wards on you for this.” Albion shrugged “I can’t very well evaporate my servants whenever I want some protection, can I?”

“I suppose not…”

They walked on, the thick canopy of the treetops casting them in darkness, their path unlit save for the faint glow of the unnatural mist to guide their way. On the edges of his vision, skirting the trees, Albion could see shapes moving in the darkness. Slouched predatory shadows watching them from a safe distance.

“Master…” Suty whined nervously “Lion claws aren’t magic…”

“Oh but they are” Albion said “On this island at least. Now do be quiet, Suty, you’re my foremost display of power, a first impression if you will, I won’t have you a gibbering wreck by the time we arrive or it will be the iron commands, understood?”

“Yes Master!” Albion watched her back stiffen as she took his words to heart. Disciplining a daemon like Suty was tricky work. A fool would have made her feel pain when disobeying without realizing that most of the time Suty liked it. He had found other solutions.

Just as he had hoped their path was unblocked and they proceeded unmolested through the forest. As they moved closer to the center of the island, Albion could feel more and more magic permeating the place. He could sense it in the mist, the air, and the trees as it flowed around them. It was without a doubt the most potent focus of magical energy he had ever felt, and that was a sign of one of two things:

Either this place was at a nexus of several potent ley lines (he had checked, it was not). Or it was inhabited by someone extraordinarily powerful and also very, very old.

Near the center of the island the forest cleared, the trees vanishing to reveal an open field in which an opulent mansion had been built, a large villa of white stone and red tiled roof, covered in lush ornamental ivy. It would have been the envy of rich millionaires everywhere, a perfect piece of architecture in almost total seclusion, the fields of verdant grass around it filled with all manner of tame animals.

Albion walked without hesitation towards the large oaken front doors, his gaze unmoving even as many of the animals turned to look at him with a distinctly intelligent awareness, Suty hurrying to never fall too far behind. He stopped just short of the doors, hands folded behind his back after making a few last-minute adjustments to his collar. Albion did always take some pride in his appearance.

He stood in silence for several minutes before the doors opened, swinging outward on silent hinges as they were pushed open by an unseen force, revealing the master of the island in the doorway.

She was, without question, the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. It was something Albion could not help but notice. If a woman was attractive then normally Albion would simply make a cold note of it along with all other characteristics and file it away in his mind. When someone’s appearance claimed his complete attention like this then Albion knew there was more than biology at work. Rather than worry him, it only made him surer he had found what he was looking for.

She was taller than he was by several inches, her head a lush bounty of silver hair despite her young age. She was dressed in a long blue-green dress that flowed like water around her legs but clung to her figure above. Her eyes were brilliant and unnatural gold, and in her hand she clutched a long wooden rod, carved into the shape of an animal’s clawed paw.

She stood waiting in the doorway, silent and expectant. Slowly, moving with steady grace, Albion bowed to one knee, taking her free hand gently in his and lightly kissing it before looking up to meet her gaze.

“Lady Circe” He said “It is an honor to make your acquaintance.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                                                      Next Chapter

The Cities Eternal©2016, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa
JP Link: https://www.jukepop.com/home/read/9551?chapter=15&sl=802