Three stuffed birds, a cow and a plush sheep lay across the temple floor, discarded from the altar in a fit of frustration. Over the passing months, Octavian had learned that there was nothing so disappointing as the state of the world remaining the same from day to day, with only minor fluctuations. Oh, he could tell if a raw recruit was fit for service to and the other mundanities that Camp Jupiter relied on the plush sacrifices for, but anything bigger was cut off from Octavian’s grasp in spite of his efforts. Different animals, different fillings, they all revealed the same lack of information. Besides, the lack of signs could mean anything from the Gods disapproved of Octavian’s ambition to that the world was in too much a state of panic everywhere. With a final resigned sigh, he placed the ceremonial knife into its sheath and prepared himself for his other daily duties. Senate meeting, perhaps lunch, perhaps some time spent in contemplation.
Breaking into his train of thought, a voice sounded from the entrance to the temple. “You know, you should be grateful that you’re trusted to do readings in private.”
Octavian looked up, his eyes meeting the speaker.
The voice laughed and continued, “You’d likely lose your position in the old days, taking auguries so selfishly.” It’s owner couldn’t have been more than seventeen, maybe eighteen, Octavian decided as the young man, and nor could his pants be any more worryingly tighter or shirt a more obnoxious red tartan. The hat and scarf looked even more ridiculous, and if this was what a hipster was, well, Octavian imagined the man could be the platonic ideal, down to the square glasses and messy black hair. Immediately, Octavian decided that the next time he took auguries, he should see when the trend would die out. Hopefully, the answer would be soon.
But the interloper had said the old days. A god, clearly, and to that extent Octavian restrained his reply. With a slow, forced smile he forced himself to speak. ”Would I now?”
“Oh,” the young man continued, now only inches away from the altar Octavian was standing behind. He had what looked like an attempt at a beard on his face, scruffy and poorly kept. “Well, for one thing, you’d be doing them outside the temple of course as not to get the place dirty with blood and profaning it like you are now. Not that blood’s the problem, but the profaning thing is.”
Octavian nodded slowly.
“Quite the bill to the butcher and you’d need a fortune to maintain the habit, as it were,” the visitor concluded as if he had just said that the sky was blue.
“I appreciate the history lesson,” Octavian replied, his displeasure at the lecture obvious. “At any rate, I wasn’t aware that we had guests of high status.”
“Of course you weren’t,” was the response, cheerful and upbeat. “I avoid this place like the plague!”
“Then what is your precise purpose here?”
“If someone is doing this much augury in one day, I’m naturally curious,” the guest explained, now leaning on the altar. It occurred to Octavian that he wasn’t that tall - maybe an inch shorter than himself. “I wrote the book on the stuff and I’m naturally curious about innovative methods such as what this entire camp as done.”
Octavian frowned. He knew his history, and he knew that augury and other methods of divination had been native to the Italian peninsula before Rome was a great city. “Book? Do you mean scroll?”
“Well, yes,” said the stranger with a shrug. His eyes glanced over to the pile of stuffed animals. ”Not that any survive, nor could they be read if they did.” He frowned for a moment, then straightened up, holding one of the plush sheep. ”Also had you taken a closer look at this you would have seen ‘expect a visit from an unexpected person.’”
“Can I ask who you are, if you’re going to criticize my work?” Octavian finally snapped, snatching the sheep back.
“Tages,” the stranger said, finally. ”Tarchies, to my own people but Tages will work fine.”
Oh. Octavian thought to himself. ”I wasn’t aware that Etruscans could cross into Camp Jupiter.”
“Please,” Tages rolled his eyes. “We used to own Rome properly when it was a bunch of waddle and daub on the Tiber and the forum was a swamp and we owned this place before Camp Jupiter moved here.” He paused, as if further explaining his ability to cross boundary lines would give too much away. “And besides,” Tages added, “I can’t resist the idea of an augur and priest named Octavian who has no relation to Venus Genetrix.”
“So you came all this way to be patronizing and mocking even though Rome engulfed Etruria?”
“No,” Tages corrected. ”I came to satisfy my own curiosity and to give you a friendly warning that won’t show up in those faux entrails of yours.”
“That would be—”
“Don’t divine so selfishly. What I wrote and what everyone knew is that augury will only give you the state of things as they are and will be in the future. Using it to check your own plans won’t work and it encourages fortune to work against you.”
Tages nodded. ”That’s all.”
“You still practice the art then?”
“Yes,” Tages said. ”And on actual animals, you’ll find, but I appreciate the cruelty-free approach that Camp Jupiter’s adopted if I’m to be honest.”
“You knew I’d ask that, didn’t you?”
“Lucky guess,” Tages said, and as he had been standing in front of Octavian, he disappeared entirely. No fancy flash of smoke or departing wind - simply a blank space where there once had been a - well - whatever he was classified as.
Octavian looked back over to the discarded stuffed animals, then brought them all back onto the altar and laid them out. There had to have been a missed detail somewhere - anywhere - he simply hadn’t looked hard enough.