Gaius Diocletianus lived a normal, if somewhat unfulfilling, life. He had married, briefly, a man named Titus Gordianus, but there had been issues in their communication that Gaius only wished he could have seen coming before it resulted in a fairly amicable divorce. He had turned to the local temple, but what use had Iūnō for a layman like Gaius Diocletianus? Gaius worked hard, hammering away at the dents in ship hulls that were too complex to be trusted to automatization. He kept spacefaring skips ready to hop between Earth’s surface and its moons, both the natural one and the somewhat larger artificial creation that had been build thousands of years ago as the Neoromans had realized the impracticality of travel between the Martian colonies and Earth.
It certainly made work easier for Gaius. Fixing a ship up well enough to hold out for Luna or Lunara was easy business; hard work, sure, but easy enough to do. He didn’t envy the poor bastards who had had to work on the Martian Freighters, when they had still been operating. He’d seen one once, almost been roped into working on it, when a rich man had visited their small port looking to have restoration work done. Never had Gaius been more happy to lose work to Caeso Septimius. The smug bastard had been up to his eyeballs in problems just trying to get the ship Earth functional, but to his credit he had managed to fix the ship.
Automatization was a beautiful thing, in many ways, but it could never replace the rush of seeing a craftsman fix the unfixable, and even Gaius had begrudgingly had to admit that the work Caeso had done on that freighter was a thing of wonder. That did not mean that Caeso was generally a good mechanic. No. He made sloppy decisions, always influenced by cost benefit analysis or making manageable workdays for employees that resulted in ships that needed repairs twice as often as Gaius’s work. Gaius knew men needed time away from work, of course; it was why he worked alone, for the most part. But the laziness of Caeso Septimius, the way he slithered in and sniped away customers from Gaius like a snake in the grass hunting mice, the way Caeso Septimius let his honeyed words talk louder than his work… Well, to say it grated on Gaius would be an understatement. No, Gaius liked to let his work speak for itself, and he liked to work more often than not.
On an average day, Gaius woke during the first hour of the sun’s light. It was better to do this than to risk needing to work by the light of neon tubes, in his opinion. He prepares a breakfast of milled oats, courtesy of the local granary, and sometimes when they’re in season he will add strawberries, as a treat for himself. The strawberries are, admittedly, an indulgence, but the addition of the sweet flavor brings out something in his morning that the oats, practical as they are, could never do on their own.
The next thing he does, on an average day, before he does any of his work, is make a quick prayer at his household shrine, as well as a small outpouring of wine. The wine was always red, as per the traditions, but usually whatever cheap wine Gaius happened to have on hand. Now, let it never be said that Gaius was a particularly religious or pious man. No, these prayers were a matter of practicality. Several years back a philosopher had come through town, speaking of an Age of Men, encouraging the locals to shrug off the yokes of the gods’ will upon their lives and steer their own fate. Iūnō Moneta, in all her fury, sent a plague of birds after the man. At first, all they did was flock. They followed him, wherever he went, quietly waiting outside buildings.
Then they began to call. Their cries went on at all hours, so that he could never sleep, because so soon as his body adapted to the calls they changes, as if the birds could tell when he was almost asleep. Of course, the birds could tell; and that was part of the curse that Iūnō Moneta had woven for this man’s impudence and irreverence. She had decided that she would drive this man to insanity, so that his ill fate would be his own, just as he wanted.
In the end, the birds circles closer, knowing the time was up, and they feasted when the poor man had blown his own brains out.
The way Gaius saw it, the man probably had it coming. Then again, after his divorce some may say Gaius had it coming too, so he always made sure to offer prayer and libations to Iūnō each morning, religious or not. It was just common, practical sense.
After he made his offerings, Gaius would spend a good portion of his day working straight through. Many men, Caeso Septimius included, spent their days broken into portions, or broke for a luncheon. Gaius did not, and he spend the third to eleventh hour hammering away at metal hulls, welding them to be airtight for safe space travel, eliminating them of contaminants to keep them safe for life. It was boring, dull work to many, but Gaius took pride in his ability as a shipwright. He was good at his job, and he spent his day almost exclusively doing it well.
At night, Gaius ate a much larger meal, courtesy more often than not of Titus Gordianus, with whom Gaius had at least stayed on friendly terms. Titus worried about Gaius and how much he worked, which was one of the reasons for the aforementioned dissolution of their marriage, but more than that he knew that Gaius would be too embarrassed to buy fish if he didn’t bring it by, and in an island town such as New Asti that was the only meat one could easily attain. Sure, Gaius could have become a vegetarian, but he worked long, and he worked hard, and the extra iron was good for him. So he ate whatever his once beloved husband brought him, and he read away at engineering magazines to keep up to date with new ships and models and parts, and then he slept, only to do it all over again the next day.
He usually would do this even on festival days, with the only difference being a larger libation during his daily prayers.
This day began to play out in much the same way. Gaius woke up at the crack of dawn and had finished his breakfast by the first hour. By the second, he had offered prayers and libations to Iūnō, as he always did. By the third hour he was well into work at his workshop, just below his home. On this particular morning, Gaius Diocletianus was working on a Viking Skiff, a small ship meant to hop between ships of a Viking city-fleet, as its hull had sustained significant damage when targeted by raiders a little over a week before. When the Viking city-fleet of Gardr had made dock in New Asti fixing the skiff had been one of the first priorities for the crew, naturally. Naturally.
So Gaius has managed to snag the work, because as much of a charismatic snake as Caeso Septimius may have been, it was well known that Gaius had the gentler touch that a Viking Skiff required. He was almost done, in fact, just under three days into the restoration, when all noises seemed to stop around him. When he looked up, he was surprised to see Minerva Novellum.
Almost two thousand years ago, the gods had reappeared, corporeal, in the flesh to humanity, after having left under mysterious circumstances almost two thousand years before that. Gaius had never cared much about history or religion, but this was the basest, most central history to his society, taught even before children were sent to kindergarten.
The gods abandoned Humanity, and then, in our hour of need, they returned. They walk among us, alongside those who rose to divinity in a direct but mysterious response to their renewal on Earth. Those gods form the basis for the modern societies, and it is due to their favor and their favor alone that humanity had managed to survive through the dark times.
This was as much as Gaius knew, because during the dark times ships were utterly inelegant, and prototypes exploded nearly as often as they succeeded. Nowadays, of course, such an explosion would be highly unusual, and would reflect particularly badly on the ship’s manufacturer. Gaius had never had a ship explode under his watch, and he found it extremely vexing that it ever could have been such a commonplace occurrence that it rarely registered as major news during the dark times.
All of this meant almost nothing though, because the simple fact was that most mortals still had almost no contact with the gods, Novellae or of one of the ancient varieties, and the fact that Minerva Novellam was standing in Gaius’s work area was nothing short of the most terrifying moment of his life.
“I have heard tell,” Minerva Novellam begins, “of a man in New Asti who fixes ships. Would that be you?”
“Aye, ma’am, although I am but one of two shipwrights for our small town.”
Minerva’s face pulls tight, almost into a sneer. “Quite.” She says, almost derisively.
“Was there a way I could be of your service, most revered weaver?”
“Did you know,” she continues, as if Gaius had spoken nothing, “that the original city of Asti was land locked?”
Gaius nodded, briefly aware of the shape before the Age of Tides.
“Good,” she said. “And were you aware that in Asti, the city for which you are named, it was myself rather than Iūnō who was honored as a city matron?”
Gaius thought to himself that that wasn’t exactly true, as Minerva Novellam had yet to be born when Asti still worshiped the old gods, but he kept that to himself and simply answered with a reserved, “No, ma’am, although I’m not one for ancient histories.”
“I see,” she said. “It has come to my attention that this is a direct slight against me.”
“But madame,” said Gaius, in terrified shock that pushed him past his better sense, “New Asti has worshiped Iūnō for almost five hundred years!”
“Yes,” she replied, disinterested, “and I have half a mind to sink it for five hundred more in retribution. But you, and you alone, little shipwright, may save your village.”
Gaius felt the weight of the demand upon him. When the gods presented an option in such a way, it was never really a choice that a mortal could say no to; not if they wanted to live at least. And even taking the deal the chance of survival was remarkably low. In his head, Gaius could already count himself among the dead of New Asti.
“I shall pay for the skiff you are working on,” said Minerva, “and work out its purchase from the Nords themselves. They inhabit the Gardr and they happen to owe me a favor.”
What Gaius wanted to say was “The fuck you will! I’ve worked hard on this skiff!” He wanted to laugh Minerva out the door. He wanted to whine, like a petulant child, “Why the fuck does it have to be me?” What he said instead was, “And what must I do, Oh Virgin Lady?”
“You must search for fulfillment for your soul.”
Not for the first time in this conversation, Gaius started. “I beg your pardon, ma’am? You do not seem the type to take such a… personal interest in your people.”
And it was true. Minerva was the least revered of the Neoroman gods, and not only because of Ovid. She could be cold and callous, when she liked, and Minerva Novellam was the absolute worst of the bunch.
“Oh, no shit,” Minerva said, incredulous. “You thought I was serious? I don’t do magical chosen one fetch quests. Especially not those who do not supplicate directly to me. No, you’re going to do something for me, and it will be glorious when the work is completed.”
Feeling emboldened by her candor, Gaius spoke his mind freely. “And why have you selected me, Minerva, oh Wise One?”
“Because you already have a skiff, and I need you to follow this compass.” She throws it at him. “It doesn’t work yet, but with enough magical exposure it should lead you right where I need you, and I guarantee you you’ll know what I want when you see it.” She frowned, raising her hand to her face and worrying her lip. “I don’t see much of a point to entertaining any more questions. Go, do my bidding, and I may spare your sacrilegious village. Fail and they shall not be so lucky, as I will strike them even from history itself for their insolence.”
And with a flick of her hands, his vision blurred.
Before Gaius could even blink, he found himself at sea, off the shore of New Asti.
“Well shit,” he thought to himself, because however much he didn’t intend to be placed in this sort of situation, Gaius Diocletianus knew better than to directly defy a god, regardless of whether they appeared to be in the right, which Gaius would firmly argue Minerva was not. New Asti had a temple to Iūnō, and it would have been simple process to employ one of the priestesses for something of this nature, given that it was their temple that had somehow offended Minerva. Hell, didn’t Gaius pay taxes so that the Mayor of New Asti would be the one to commune with the gods on his citizen’s behalf, when necessary? For that matter, hell, Gaius might as well sail right back to New Asti and demand that Aelianus Varius, in all his mayoral glory, take on this bitch of a task. Surely the mayor himself could have aquired a skiff, and Gaius could not believe that Aelianus Varius, for all his pomp and circumstance, had never driven a skiff. For that matter, even Caseo would have been able to drive a skiff, although Gaius barely withheld a shutter at the thought of his fate resting in Caeso Septimius’s hands. SO sure, maybe not Caeso, but surely there were other, more qualified, options from which Minerva could have had her pick.
But no, Minerva had chosen him, and shying away from work just wasn’t something that Gaius could do if he wanted to be able to look at himself in the morning.
So Gaius did what he always did when faces with a new job, and he evaluated the work he had to do. The obvious choice would be to turn immediately to Iūnō for guidance. After all, it had been her presence that had created a slight to Minerva Novellam, and so it stood to reason that Iūnō would be part of the solution. The problem with that assumption was that frankly, pinning down which Iūnō would be willing to help might be as much of an absolute clusterfuck as just trying to figure out the mess for himself. Still, it was the simplest option, and it could be taken as a slight against Iūnō not to take the matter directly to her. Yes, Gaius thought, that settled it, his first stop would be to visit Iūnō, although he couldn’t waste time visiting them all. He would visit Iūnō Regina, the God Queen herself, queen regent of Neoromae and Imperative Lady of the temple at Rome. He would visit her and, gods willing, put the entirety of this messy business behind him.
Still, he couldn’t hedge the entirety of his self on the aid of the gods; they were capricious creatures, and to leave himself to their whimsy didn’t sit right with a practical man such as Gaius.
No, he’d look further for his problems. As much as it pained him to reach out to the man, he did know a former priest of Minerva Polymitāriās, the Ornate Weaver, who may know how to appease the goddess. He would be the second line of action. A third line would rely on traveling and trusting that his skiff would lead him closer to a solving of mystery. It certainly wasn’t a perfect plan; in fact, Gaius could barely stand a plan with so many variables he couldn’t hope to account for. Still, it was a plan, and that was better than working utterly without a plan. He would have to work to refine it as he rode to Rome.
Starting a skiff was nothing like riding a bicycle, in that it was powered by a small fission engine rather than one’s legs, and in that the steering is controlled by a small metal rod wrapped in heat retardant cloth for comfort rather than a set of handle bars, and, perhaps most importantly, in that muscle memory can not save one from blowing themselves up should they forget how to properly service the engine.
All of these things roiled in Gaius’s mind as he started the engine of his skiff. He had, very briefly, owned a skiff of his own out of high school, and had ridden it every day when he was still apprenticing to learn the craft of fixing ships. Unfortunately, it had been years since he had used one. At first, it had simply been an inevitability of working in a shop under his own home. He didn’t go much of anywhere that could use a skiff, and Titus had tended to run food errands for the household even back before they had gotten divorced. Titus had, of course, gotten the skiff in the divorce, on account of the facts that Titus traveled quite a bit for his job and Gaius did not. This was all fine and well, and Gaius would not have even thought to hold onto the thing, as he had not found the time or reason to use it even in the tense years leading to his and Titus’s untimely separation. It had affected Gaius in virtually no ways, save that he had not had experience starting a skiff in a very long time, and now he would have to activate the engine of a skiff with virtually no practice in the last decade.
The skiff turned on with a muffled rev, and Gaius grabbed the helm and he was off.
It felt freeing, in a way, to be out on the sea again himself. Sure, he was on a quest that could destroy his town and almost everyone he’d ever cared about. Gaius couldn’t bring himself to wish a god’s destruction even on Caeso, despite his eternal loathing for the snake of a man. He found himself wondering if Titus would notice he was gone when he brought by dinner, or if his workaholic tendencies would finally catch up with him, leaving even his friends and family, or what passed for them, unaware of his disappearance until it was too late for it to matter, one way or another. Gaius knew this should disturb him; he knew this was the kind of moment a person in a book might take to reevaluate their life choices that had lead them into such an unsavory situation. But Gaius felt the salty mist of the sea on his face, and as he closed his eyes he felt the ocean’s gentle winds rustle his hair, and he let out a sigh of relief. He smiled. He was free, free in a way he hadn’t allowed himself since he left college. He allowed the throttle to loosen and he began to move, slowly at first but then faster, faster until eventually the only piece of his island home he could see was the toolbox he had left on the ship’s deck.Recommended1 Simily SnapPublished in