Chapter 1: The Sputtering Flame
It’s hard to feel pure devotion when you’re five feet tall.
I stand beside the altar, stretching my arm up as high as I can, but I’ll never make it. Lucia’s candle is still a good six inches above my own, and my flame won’t magically leap from one candle to another, no matter how hard I pray. I try to stand higher on my tiptoes, but I wobble. Hot wax cascades over my hand, and I lose my balance.
“Idiot,” huffs Marta, as my foot lands squarely on her. She’s crouched below me with the incense in the traditional pose, but she immediately breaks the tableau in disgust.
“Olivia,” Lavinia says to me, “we have now proven that it is impossible for you to pass the flame in this ritual. So I hope you’ll finally stop begging me to let you try. Marta, please take Olivia’s place beside the altar, and we’ll resume.”
“Yes, Vestalis Maxima," I say. I kneel below Marta, disappointed. Prayer is impossible from down here, with the smoke from the incense stinging my eyes, and I know from experience that I’ll reek of perfume for the rest of the day.
“Try not to catch yourself on fire this time,” Marta says to me in an undervoice as she assumes my place at the altar. I glare at her in return, but she and Lucia have already resumed their ritual. I begin burning the incense, suppressing the occasional cough brought on by the smoke. The heavy scent makes me sleepy. To keep awake, I shift my position so I can stare directly at the holy flame of Vesta, burning in its exalted pedestal in the center of the main dais behind us.
“Oh holy flame,” Marta drones in the bored, almost sarcastic voice she reserves for prayer, “your everlasting nature fills us with awe. You burn eternally without fuel, unaided by our powerless hands. Your clean, bright light is purest fire, without a hint of smoke…”
Despite Marta’s uninspired delivery, my heart swells with love for my goddess as I listen to her prayer. As happens so often, I am mesmerized by the flame. It’s so blue in the center, so perfect, so lovely.
As I gaze at the flame, I begin to think something seems different today. Is the flame getting smaller? I wonder, watching it closely. No, it must be a trick of the light...
In a heartbeat I know that something is wrong. With a hiss and a pop, the flame gutters out, almost disappearing, and I stifle a gasp of horror.
The next moment the fire lights up again, burning as brightly as ever.
I look wildly around to see if anyone else noticed that our eternal fire was momentarily extinguished. The others are absorbed in the ritual. I just imagined it, I think, panic forcing me to deny what I saw. But a white wisp of smoke rising above the shimmering flame is proof.
“Olivia. Olivia.” Lavinia’s voice calls me to the present.
“Here, let me get her attention,” Marta offers, giving me a swift kick.
“Ow!” I yelp.
“Turnabout is fair play,” she says with a wicked smile.
“Girls,” Lavinia says, “that’s enough. We’ll try it again tomorrow. Take the things back to the storeroom and begin your afternoon duties. Lucia will assist those preparing for tomorrow’s ritual, and Marta and Olivia will meet supplicants in the Temple of Vesta.”
“Thank you, Vestalis Maxima,” I say, staring into the flame once again. It flickers at me innocently. I must have imagined the smoke, I tell myself. It’s impossible for the fire in the temple to go out. It has burned for over a thousand years without fuel.
“What are you staring at?” Marta elbows me. “Come help me get ready for the crowd.”
As Lucia begins clearing away the candles and censer, Marta and I prepare to open the heavy temple doors and let the first of today’s visitors in. The activity helps me shake off the last of my gravity.
“I bet they rue the day they matched a squat dwarf, a flat-chested stick insect, and a freakishly tall beauty as their next crop of Virgins,” Marta says.
I laugh. It is not the first time she has referred to me as fat or short, although the fat part is an exaggeration. Lucia is tall, probably over six feet, and she’s full figured and statuesque. Marta is of average height and is quite thin. And I am most accurately described as short and curvy. She’s right though—as a trio, we look awful.
“How desperate do you think this lot will be today?” she asks me.
“As always, I’m looking forward to helping our faithful with whatever challenges they face.” She’s heard this lecture from me many times, but I give it another try. “I want to serve Vesta in the best way I can, every day. What better way to serve her than to help people with their homes, their hearths, their domestic problems?”
“In my experience, people who need a sixteen year old girl to solve their problems for them are pretty much hopeless,” Marta says.
“Put your training into practice,” I urge. “We know the theology. We’ve cultivated favor with our goddess. We can help them build happier home lives.”
“Right, because we’re so happy living as Vestals,” Marta says. “Our lives are perfect. We’re the experts.”
“You need to be careful,” I tell her. “The elder Vestals will report you to Lavinia if you keep slacking off. You’ll get another disciplinary hearing, and this time they won’t go so easy on you.”
“We’re just trainees,” she says. “We’re supposed to be bad at our jobs.”
I used to fear for Marta. Her attention wanders in prayer, she doesn’t feel any compassion for our supplicants, and I have never heard her utter a single sincere devotional to our goddess. But I’ve seen a deeper sign of faith. For years, Marta spent a good portion of her free time in needlework. As her roommate, I watched her sew for hours, and mostly she worked on a single garment: a beautiful blue shawl, hand embroidered with narcissus flowers, the kind with the white six-petal skirts and yellow centers. She worked on the shawl until I believed it was nearly finished. And one day, during our ceremonial offerings to the hearth, I looked up from prayer and there it was on the altar. She had given it to Vesta, to be consumed by sacred flame.
In that single act, Marta gave more to Vesta than I had given in my entire life. I turned to look at her and caught Lucia’s gaze instead, her eyes brimming with tears, looking devastated. No doubt she wanted to snatch it from the fire—it was such a beautiful shawl. Anyway, now I worry less about Marta’s favor with the gods and more about her favor with the Vestalis Maxima.
In the temple, we take our places at the side of the sacred hearth. “Don’t disturb anyone who’s in prayer,” I remind Marta as she leaves me. She tends to “accidentally” stomp on those unfortunate worshippers in the most direct route to her post.
It’s busy today. Because we’re located in the capital, Polonia, we run the largest Vestal temple in our country, and we always have crowds. Vesta is the most popular goddess in the entire country of Parcae, and her temple is viewed as the hearth of the nation. It attracts hundreds of the faithful every day. Most people just come to pray and leave offerings, but a few Vestal Virgins are always available for consultations.
When my first supplicant approaches me, I take her to a small office located off the main temple so we can discuss her issues in privacy.
“What can I help you with today?” I ask.
“I’m having trouble toilet training my son,” she says.
“Oh!” I say with satisfaction, “That’s a common enough issue.” I give her a number of practical tips that I have committed to memory from our child-rearing classes, but she fidgets through my instructions. As I describe how to bribe the child with sweets as a reward, she breaks through my recital.
“Sorry, but I’ve tried all those things already,” she says. “Can you suggest anything else?”
I spend a few moments wondering what else I can offer her, racking my brain about what my mother used to do with my younger brothers. But I’ve got nothing. “Um,” I say finally, “Would you like to pray with me?”
“No thanks,” she says, hastily rising from her seat.
I walk her back to the temple, hoping the rest of my afternoon will be filled with easier cases. Fortunately, my next client is a housewife whose chimney smokes excessively, so we say the proper devotionals and I refer her to a sweep I know in town with a good reputation. Then I get a would-be mother who is having trouble conceiving, which is an easy one: she’s in the wrong place. I pack her off toward the Temple of Venus. Sometimes people get lazy and don’t want to walk across town, but I’d prefer she see a real expert, and, you know, actually pray to the right goddess.
During a lull, I check in with Marta. “Everything okay so far?” I ask.
“Fine,” she says in a bored voice. “I got a woman who doesn’t get along with one of her household servants. I told her to fire him. What is it with the people who come here? I almost sent her to Minerva—that’s her last hope—to find a speck of intelligence.”
“Bet the Minerva people would love that,” I say. “Perhaps they’d even invite you over for a visit! Hey, you know what, too bad there’s not a goddess of competence you could swing by to consult.”
“There is. You’re talking to her,” says Marta.
As I ponder a retort, I see my next customer and my heart sinks. I already know what her problem is, but even if I didn’t, it’s written across her face in the form of a black eye.
We walk to the little office farthest from the main room, and I look over her face. “I know a doctor down the street who might be able to provide a salve for that,” I say.
“Thank you,” she says, although she doesn’t ask for the address. We do the only other thing she knows I can offer, which is repeat the prayers and study the Vestal devotionals that pertain to domestic harmony. Then I hold her hand while she cries. This is the way her visits usually go.
“Can’t you get a divorce?” I asked her the first time she came in.
“Can you lend me five thousand sesterces?” she responded bitterly. I still cringe whenever I remember asking her that question. It was so thoughtless. But Virgins don’t have to think much about money.
“It’s terrible,” I tell Marta when I return to her side. “It just keeps happening. What are we supposed to do for these women? When I ask the elder Vestals, they never have an answer.”
She sighs. “I don’t know, Olivia. Let them cry. That’s all we can do.”
“Much more of this, and I’ll need my own session,” I say.
“Well, don’t expect to cry on me,” she warns. “You get snot everywhere when you cry.”
Finally, the sun tells us it’s late afternoon, and thank the goddess, this shift in the temple is over. Blinking, we step into the dazzling light. In the distance, we can see the sea glimmer, dotted with the distinctive curved silhouettes of Selanthi trading ships. Suddenly, a handsome form comes into focus.
“Cassius,” I say. “Hello.” And I attempt to move on.
“Olivia!” he says expansively. “And how are we this fine afternoon? Did you have a nice session? Are you girls making mola salsa next?”
I blink at him some more. Like Lucia, Cassius is the kind of handsome that throws you off beat. Tan and strong, with wavy bronze hair and brilliant white teeth, he reminds me of a tiny Apollo. Emphasis on tiny. He’s built from a small mold, and though taller than me, can’t even match Marta’s height.
“Probably,” I say. “Yes. Yes, I think we are going to do the salsa later tonight.”
“Brilliant deduction,” says Marta, “as the next festival is in less than a week. Or have you been reading Olivia’s secret diary about our thrilling wheat-toasting adventures?”
Cassius laughs, as if Marta’s comment is the wittiest thing he’s heard in months.
“Come on,” I say to her. I don’t want to pursue this. Cassius is one of the boys from the local academies, and he’s always ambushing us and making weird, pointless conversation about the obvious. I would say he’s trying to flirt, except that’s dangerous, and no decent man would risk the consequences. In any case, I really don’t see the point of prolonging this chat.
“You lovely ladies have an excellent day!” he beams.
“Eff you,” says Marta. Good! She’s making an effort to censor her language down to at least quasi-Virginal levels.
Before we reach our room, I separate from Marta. I have another task to perform today, and it’s one I’m looking forward to. I trot through the grove back to the House of Vestals, where the Vestalis Maxima will be waiting for me.
“Thank you, Olivia,” says Lavinia when I bustle through her office door, and she holds out a packet of letters for me without looking up. “Take these over to Sextus Tacitus at the Regia, please. These aren’t urgent. You can leave them with his assistant.”
“Of course!” I say. “On my way.”
When I deliver Lavinia’s letters to Sextus Tacitus, there’s an underground passage I like to use. It connects the House of Vestals to another building, the Regia, which houses the group of thirteen very important priests known collectively as the College of Pontiffs. The passage is cool and quiet, and I enjoy using it, although my heart generally starts pounding about halfway through.
As I emerge from the staircase onto the Regia’s ground floor, he’s there waiting for me, sprawled in his chair outside Sextus’s office, running a hand through his dark hair.
“Hello, Gaius,” I say breathlessly. I hold the packet out. “Letter delivery as usual.” Believe it or not, I have rehearsed this line for the last ten minutes in my head.
He looks at me, unimpressed, and takes the bundle. “Letters! Miss Olivia, you shouldn’t have, what a treat,” he says, rifling through them and opening a particularly important-looking missive to scan it.
“Of course!” I say with a breathy giggle. “No problem. How are your studies going?”
“Fine,” he says, folding the letter and opening another. “But they would be better if Sextus wasn’t so busy right now. He really needs a second assistant,” he adds, more to himself than to me.
“Oh, that’s a shame,” I say, casting about for an intelligent response as he starts to read. “Maybe you need a break. You should get outside. The weather’s beautiful today.”
He looks up from his letter, eyebrows raised. He doesn’t respond.
Are we really going to talk about the weather? I think to myself, suddenly feeling trivial and intrusive. He’s obviously busy. I decide to cut my losses and run.
“Um, have a good evening!” I say quickly, and turn to continue down the hall.
“I’ll be sure to do that,” he responds in a bored tone, again preoccupied with reading.
As I continue down the hallway to make my other deliveries, I see Marta. She’s been watching me. I think she has her suspicions.
“You said hello to Mr. Charisma?” she asks me, with a half-smile.
“I like him!” I say, following her down the hall. “He’s not the friendliest person but he’s got a certain charm. You just don’t know him yet.”
“As rich as he is, I don’t imagine he’ll need much charm in life,” she says. “None of those rich boys will ever be real soldiers. They’ll get the cushy high-ranking jobs and be pontiffs or flamens someday, brains and talent not required.”
“I don’t think that’s true. You have to be smart to be a Mars student.” I say. “The ones assigned to the pontiffs have important duties, and they’re excellent at their jobs. They have to be, to stay in good standing at the Academy.”
“Oh yes, they have such valuable skills. I saw one of them taking dictation yesterday, and he knew how to spell every word. It was awe-inspiring,” she smirks. “I only caught him drooling once.”
Marta’s disdain for Gaius and his colleagues is typical of her general disdain for everyone, so it can’t sway my opinion of him, which is unfortunate. It would be better for me if she could talk me out of my crush entirely. Although he’s not particularly pleasant or conversable, Gaius has an air of capability that I wish I could emulate in my own Vestal duties, and which I find deeply attractive. And on top of that, he is not bad looking—when you can manage to coax a smile out of him, he is even cute. I am a Gaius addict, I think. But everyone has a guilty pleasure.
We do indeed work on the mola salsa that evening, as Cassius predicted. It’s an important powder, made of spelt flour and salt, that is used in many of our religious rituals and all of our public sacrifices. The powder is sometimes also formed into cakes. Making it is simple enough. Right now, we’re giving the grain, which has been brined and stored for months, one last toasting before we grind it into flour tomorrow. Tonight I’m supervising two of the younger Vestals-in-training, Aelia and Alypia, two girls both twelve years old.
Being with the younger girls is an unnerving experience, because they won’t refrain from a forbidden behavior: talking about boys. At first, I scolded them sternly for their inappropriate behavior and described the serious consequences if an elder Vestal heard them. But I’ve never been very good at keeping children in line. They know there’s absolutely no way I would tell on them, so they do it nonetheless, and I’ve finally given in. At twelve, they’re more curious than romantically interested, and I tell myself there’s not much harm. To tell the truth, I was the same way at their age.
Tonight, Alypia is trying to rank all the Academy boys we know in order of attractiveness.
“I think Cassius is the cutest,” she confides to us, and Aelia agrees to it. I frown at them repressively, but it does no good.
“And after him, the next cutest one is Tiberius,” she asserts.
“No way,” says Aelia. “His muscles are too big. He’s all muscly.”
“But women are supposed to like guys like that,” says Alypia. “And let’s see…Next there’s Petrus, Alanus, Mettius, and then Gaius.”
“Why is Gaius last?” I ask, too curious to keep my disapproving act up.
“Because he’s mean,” Alypia says. “He never says hi to me.”
“He might seem mean, but I don’t think that’s really true,” I say, calling up my favorite memory of Gaius. He had been Sextus’s assistant for a few weeks before I began to really notice him, but at first, I wasn’t impressed. He was so standoffish. Most times, when I delivered his letters, he barely even looked up at me. One afternoon, I had finished my rounds at the Regia and walked to the Senate to deliver a package to one of the clerks. I heard a voice calling me as I reached the top of the Senate steps. As I turned, I saw Gaius running up the stairs.
“You left this note mixed in with Sextus’s letters,” he said, holding a small piece of paper out to me. “But it’s addressed to the Flamen Dialis.” He was breathing a little heavily, which surprised me, as the Academy students do a tremendous amount of physical conditioning.
“Thank you. You’re all out of breath,” I said, taking it from him. “Have you been running around looking for me for the last half hour?
“I couldn’t find you in the temple or the Regia,” he said, avoiding a direct answer. “So I thought I would try the Senate.”
“Oh, that’s so nice!” I said. “You could have just taken it back to the Vestalis Maxima.”
“But wouldn’t that get you in trouble?” he asked.
“Well, yeah,” I said, “but that’s not your prob—”
I stopped myself. “I’ve been living with Marta too long,” I said to him. “I forgot that people can be kind and considerate. Thank you.”
“No problem,” he said, flushing. I thought he seemed a little embarrassed, but maybe he was just heated from his run. Then he nodded to me and started down the steps without another word. He never wants to waste time on pleasantries, it seems. But I was totally won over by his kindness.
I would never share this memory with the girls, however. I can’t set a bad example. Romance is off-limits. And I’m lucky I hold my tongue, because Lavinia walks into our kitchen the next moment.
“I’m here to observe, Olivia,” she tells me. “I want to see how the younger girls are getting on.”
“You’re very welcome,” I say to her, smiling. “Girls, let’s get started on the wheat.”
As we carefully spread the wheat onto the oven trays, making sure to chant the proper prayers over each one, my two young companions gradually turn rather pale and complain of dizziness.
“I’m not surprised to hear it, as half the pontiff guards are down with flu,” says Lavinia. “I’ll help you girls to the infirmary, and we’ll get you checked out. Olivia, you can finish this up alone, right?” she says, and then pauses to consider whether that statement is actually true.
“Yes,” I say. “I can finish it up.”
There’s nothing left to do but wait for the wheat to finish toasting. The wheat is baked in a small kitchen below the sacred fire itself, so divine heat from the everlasting flame will imbue it with special qualities, although we also load up the oven with a big wood fire since the flame is too small to really cook anything. I clean out the kitchen, organize the storeroom, and try to make myself useful, checking on the wheat once every half hour. Soon I’ve exhausted my cleaning options. Bored, I wander up to the temple and decide to use this time for special worship.
In the quieter moments, when I get a chance to reflect, the hearth of Vesta fills me with awe. We teach it as a reminder of the importance of home and family, a woman’s highest calling. It has burned for over a thousand years without any human aid or intervention. Except for today, a tiny voice inside me says. I immediately silence the thought and focus on more prayer.
As I worship, I reflect on my day. I begin to wish I hadn’t risen to Marta’s bait this afternoon, even if it was only in jest. It wasn’t faithful to Vesta’s calling for me. I also ask Vesta to remove the weakness for Gaius from my heart, because it isn’t quite Virginal, but even as I think the words I know it’s a false prayer. I don’t want to lose my crush. It’s the most exciting part of my day, and there’s no way I would ever let things go further than a simple conversation. So I offer a prayer of penance instead and then fall into a reverie of worship for my goddess, until the entrance of a pontiff alerts me that the temple is closing for the night.
Renewed in spirit, I step out into the cool night air and close the doors behind me. The moon has risen, and it’s so beautiful, I forget to watch where I’m stepping. The city is quiet, and I listen to the wind rustling the trees. As I step through the grove, I smell the smoke from a small fire burning in the distance and think how peaceful the night is. Suddenly I freeze. The fire. The oven. I forgot the mola salsa!
Gods. In a blind panic, I stumble back toward the temple. It’s too late. They will have locked it for the sacred rites, which are performed by the Pontifex Maximus or one of his crowd, and it is death for a woman to witness them. Death! I would rather be dead than be responsible for burning up that wheat. The three eldest sisters harvested it by hand last year. It was brined in salt carried from the purest ocean waters. The ships had to sail miles for it. We’ve prayed over it for hours.
I barrel through the grove and bolt straight for a side door of the temple I’ve used once or twice. I slam into none other than Gaius, standing watch outside it—he must be filling an empty space on the schedule caused by all the flu victims—and grab him by the front of his tunic. He looks at me in shock.
“The salsa! It can’t burn! It’s still in the oven!” I scream-whisper, and shove him to the side. I wrench the door open. He doesn’t even try to stop me, or maybe I’m just too fast.
As I fly down the side stairs and through a few unused offices I can smell wheat that may or may not be dangerously over-toasty. I slam through the kitchen door, throw open the oven, and jump aside for the super-hot blast of air. With protective gloves I ease the baking sheets onto the main table, one by one. They look good. They look fine. They are a little brown, that’s all. I feel my body sag with relief.
“Olivia,” someone whispers from the end of the hallway. “Olivia!”
It’s Gaius. As quietly as possible, I creep to the doorway and peer out. He beckons to me, and we slink around the corner, lurking in the shadows. I hear sounds and voices, and begin to seriously fear the consequences of being found.
To leave the temple we have to pass perilously close to an open door with a sightline directly into the main room. I don’t know how I managed to do this the first time without detection, unless my body reached super-human speed. We’re almost through the passage when I throw out my arm, stopping Gaius in his tracks.
Through the open door I see Sextus Tacitus. With a jar of oil. With a large jar of lamp oil, pouring it into a basin under the sacred everlasting flame.