The venerable senator signaled the first-speaker to address the assembled. Having received a nod of assent, he levered up his arthritic bones with a groan off the marble bench. He shuffled his way the needed sixteen paces, arranging his toga en route so its purple hem didn’t drag upon the smoothed limestone pavers.
While the old man made his way, a rustle of shifting bodies, robes, and scraping sandals spread throughout the chamber.
One senator quipped to his neighbor, “Publius, harken. The old farmer wishes to lecture us yet again.”
“Decorum!” demanded the first-speaker.
Finally reaching the semi-circular chamber’s acoustic sweet spot, the distinguished senator faced his peers.
“Colleagues, I wish to address the shocking cost of common bread I noted today in the marketplace. Given our Egyptian grain shipments are unaccountably late, the market shortfall has been fulfilled by the expensive grains from …” a rough cough interrupted the august senator, “our neighbor to the south—Libya.
“I find it sinister that, with their vile grain, another far more dangerous import has made its presence known within our city. I speak of human sacrifice, the most abhorrent of superstitions, and one this august body should outlaw forthwith,” the grizzled veteran farmer spat.
“Just two days ago agents of the Republic discovered yet another burnt offering, another sacrificed infant. With one hand, the Carthaginians steal from our pockets with their costly grain, while, with the other, they steal our infants to appease their abominable gods.
“This will not stand!
“This must not stand!
“Carthage must be destroyed!” the stomping, red-faced senator raged.
As Senator Marcus Porcius Cato made his way back to his seat, many knowing glances were shared, hidden smiles covered, all accompanied by a low murmuring.
“It seems old Cato can find both a conniving and blasphemous Carthaginian lurking under every rock,” one voiced while snickering to his neighbor.
Another senator quipped, “No matter the subject, he always finishes with that line, Carthago delendum est! He nags us like my damn mistress.”
The Roman Senate acknowledged the threat Carthage represented, In fact, of those present, fully one fourth backed Cato’s plea. Better, they had a plan.
Later that very evening, a group met at an empty storehouse in nearby Ostia, the port of Rome. Cato had requested their presence.
“Friends,” Cato began. “I believe we must form a faction to protect and preserve the mos maiorum, our traditional ancestral customs. I propose that we, together, vigorously act against any superstition which practices human sacrifice and any other abhorrent foreign practice. Are we in agreement?”
All nodded in assent.
“I am most gratified, friends, for your support. So also, may I suggest we refer to our faction as the Consilio ad Conservationem de Iure Naturali, the Council for the Preservation of Natural Law? This we can refer to in public as the CCIN.”
A hand raised to be recognized, and the career military officer Publius Cornelius Scipio said, “Cato, I wish to make suggestion.”
Certainly,” Cato encouraged.
“If we further abbreviate our name to simply CCI, ‘the two hundred and one,’ I believe the nature of our purpose will remain far more hidden.”
“Two hundred and one, I like that,” Cato said with approval. “And it holds a militaristic ring to it, all to better shield its meaning. So shall we be called.”
All grunted in assent.
Another asked, “Cato. You mentioned we must ‘vigorously act’ against human sacrifice and other abhorrent practices. What did you have in mind?”
Cato wolfishly grinned. “We must appoint one of our number to act independently against the abomination that is human sacrifice, and against any other abhorrent superstitions which might harm our most sacred customs, in order to preserve our fair Republic’s relationship with the gods.
“This sacred duty will be closely held. There will be no record made, no inscription cut, no celebration for the appointee of this sacred purpose. Yet, among our number, this heavy responsibility should be honored with a special title. I propose that designation be the lictor magicae.”
So it was agreed.
As the assembled disbursed, Cato signaled one to remain.
“Scipio. I wish you to accept the mantle of lictor magicae and destroy the source of these abhorrent sacrifices. Will you so swear?”
“Yes, venerable one. I do so swear.”
* * *
Shortly after this historic gathering, Cato died. But three years later, he got his wish as the mighty legions of Rome dealt the city of Carthage a mortal blow. Sacked, its population either massacred or sold into slavery, and its soil salted, Carthage had been leveled. The victorious Roman general, Publius Cornelius Scipio, earned the title Africanus as a result of this campaign. As much as Scipio relished the title, he had done so to fulfill his oath to Cato as the CCI’s first lictor magicae.
The Chairman’s Oracle
They met in an upscale family restaurant on a cobble-stoned side street in Tivoli, a convenient location for both. Usually, their table conversation remained civil, sometimes even cordial, but not today.
“Signore Presto. Over thirty years ago I warned you about this l’uomo potente. You scoffed at my warnings, and what did you do? You dialed your phone and contracted a mercenary to do your dirty work. He failed miserably. Later, you contracted another, with the same result. Twice you shirked your responsibilities both to your famiglia and our Gathering.
“They, both, failed …” The bristling oracle emphasized with a sneer, daring to get a rise out the seated figure opposite—the chairman of the most powerful paranormal organization on earth.
“And still, to this day, you ignore my portents, choosing instead to busy yourself with your race cars.”
The chairman wanted to lash back, but was prevented by an extended open palm in his face—yet another slight.
“Well, Signore Presto, two days ago, this l’uomo potente, this American called Stone, participated in the murder of one of our own, a powerful adept, in Afghanistan.”
Now gouging her forefinger into the table’s fine linen tablecloth, “This wizard, Charles Smithers, fell before the American Stone and his own twin brother, Peter Smithers, the president and Lictor of Magic of TIIIS.
“Do you, Signore, know what that means?”
The oracle’s challenge was met with silence as the chairman instead examined the glittering facets of his cufflinks against the table candle’s flame.
As he continued to admire them, Giovanni Presto replied, “Signora Costa. I know of this Charles Smithers. He and our Gathering parted ways over a decade ago. So, if anything, his brother did us a favor by ridding the mortal landscape of a deranged adept. Do you wish me to send TIIIS a Thank-You note?” He concluded with an ingratiating smile.
The Oracle, Valeria Costa, who traced her lineage from the Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome, could not believe her ears. Annoyed beyond words, the attractive, middle-aged strega flicked an errant strand of her still raven-black hair behind one ear and sipped from her red wine. That pleasurable distraction somewhat blunted her dislike for the dolt opposite. She rallied again, as if dealing with a child, this time using verbal Crayons.
“Signore. Does it not occur to you as strange that Peter Smithers needed assistance in the fratricide of his own twin?
“Signore. Why do you think Peter Smithers chose Jonathan Joseph Stone join him?
“And, in case you haven’t noticed, Signore, this nascent alliance, between Peter Smithers and the American, is a clear indication that the carrier of the First Soul of Creation came to the aid of the most prominent member of TIIIS.
“Signore. What do you conclude?”
With a mild shrug of his shoulders, “I see this as Peter Smithers’ way of ridding himself of his wayward brother.
“On the other hand, the involvement of Stone in this family matter, I do find curious. What are your thoughts, Signora?”
Encouraged at this glimmer of intellect, Valeria said, “Signore Presto, Stone’s ‘involvement’ means that TIIIS recruited him. And, given the age of Peter Smithers, this makes Stone the most logical choice for the next Lictor of Magic.
“Consider Signore, for one moment, what it would mean for TIIIS if the carrier of the First Soul was also their Lictor of Magic.”
Warming to her subject, Valeria leaned forward and continued.
“The Americans have an expression for situations such as these; they’re called ‘game-changers,’ Signore. It is long past time that you kill this l’uomo potente while you still can, and above all, before he joins with a ley line. As a blood-bound amica of your famiglia, and treaty-bound ally in-good-standing of our Gathering, Stone represents a frightening nexus of power and talent that the Gathering cannot allow to mature.” The oracle concluded while wagging her finger in his face.
“Stone must be dealt with now.” She emphasized with a closed fist. “You must crush him like a snake.”
“You know, Valeria, you look magnificent when you’re passionate about something. A flush comes to your cheeks that I find quite irresistible.”
While the Chairman of CMES did not realize it, with that remark, he and his family just lost the services of the most reliable oracle alive.
Valeria for her part, sat back in her chair, took in his presence, sipped again from her family’s fine wine, and vowed that she would see him replaced. With the coalescence of that thought, Signora Valeria Costa, Oracle of the Temple of Vesta, already knew who would be capable of permanently removing her dim companion.