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Chapter 10

Gaius, Cassius, the girls, and I all pile into the flamen’s cart for the bumpy ride back to the house. For the first time in hours, I’m able to draw a full breath.

“Gaius, what were you thinking, giving me the name Lucretia!” is the first thing out of Lucia’s mouth.

“Why, what’s wrong with it?” he asks, surprised.

“It is an awful name! Terrible! Gross!” we all exclaim.

“Lucretia is my mother’s name,” he says mildly, raising his eyebrows. Nobody knows quite how to respond to this.

When we arrive at the House of Vestals, the Flamen Martialis leads us directly to Lavinia’s personal chamber, which is unusual. After a soft knock, she opens the door cautiously and peers out at us. “Aulus,” she says with pleasure, “I’ve been expecting you.” Then she sees us and gives a start. “Oh hello, girls, Gaius, and…?”

“Cassius,” Cassius helpfully supplies.

“Lavinia, we have a good deal to discuss,” says the flamen. “Let’s get comfortable.”

“Of course,” she says graciously. She leads us all into her antechamber, which is fitted out as a drawing room. I have never been in here before. I wonder how often she has private callers.

There aren’t enough seats, so Marta, Lucia, and I take small chairs, and the flamen settles onto a chaise. Gaius and Cassius stand behind him.

“Lavinia, my news will probably come as a shock. No doubt you are totally unaware that your three girls here have been developing a military weapon that could save the entire nation.”

“Indeed!” says Lavinia, with mild surprise. “Um…well done, girls?” she ventures to us. “So, are they new army recruits, then?” she asks the flamen with a smile. It’s clear she has decided that he’s teasing her.

“Lucia prayed to Pomona and grew a fig tree,” I blurt out. Then I blush, because that is sort of beside the point and the tension is getting to me. I wish this disclosure was just over with. “We can invoke Diana and Vulcan and explode bombs that the academy is making. We think only virgins can do it.”

“Let’s start at the beginning,” Cassius breaks in smoothly. He fills Lavinia in on the events leading up to today, making no effort to conceal that he taught us and encouraged our illegal experiments. As he speaks, Lavinia’s expression goes from concerned to horrified. By the time she learns of the Pontifex Maximus’s approval, however, she only looks grave.

“Thank you, Cassius,” says the flamen. “Lavinia, I’ll be blunt. We need to devise a false front for our recruiting operation of eligible young virgins to become our…lady archers, for lack of a better term. I need the Vestals to operate the recruiting effort, because no one will suspect you. And we need to start right away, tomorrow morning, if possible. Time is extremely limited.”

“I understand,” she says, recovering somewhat. “I understand the urgency. What is your plan for the false front?”

“I have none,” he says frankly. “My only thought was that we’d make the opportunity financially attractive. Maybe we could offer city girls fake government jobs, and then we could train them undercover at the academy.”

Marta tsks. Everyone looks at her, and I can tell she’s immediately sorry she drew attention to herself. But she speaks anyway. “It’s no good to expect any secrecy with hundreds of women carting to and from the academy every day. And what are they going to tell their parents? ‘Sorry, I can’t talk about my new job or tell you where it is?’”

“What do you propose, Marta?” says the flamen, surprised but willing to hear more.

“If we’re really dedicated to secrecy,” Marta says, “we need to make it impossible for anyone to follow these girls or kidnap them or even ask them too many questions. They need to live on the academy grounds full time until after the war is over, under heavy guard.”

“And besides,” Lavinia chimes in, “you’ll eventually have to send them to the front, won’t you?”

“No,” says the flamen decidedly. “All the young women will stay in the city.”

Gaius nods in agreement. “Vestalis Maxima, the war on the northern front is laying waste to the countryside. Our armies are destroying every farm, every field, and every valuable military asset as they retreat. The Selanthi aren’t interested in conquering a destroyed country. Soon they’ll sail for Polonia and attempt to take the city by sea. With their entire army in ships, they’ll be exposed targets. We plan to use our bombs to sink any vessel that attempts to offload soldiers onto our shores.”

“By the end of the day tomorrow, I will have packed almost half of my academy students off to the northern front to teach our troops how to explode the Selanthi bombs by praying to Vulcan,” says the flamen. “That means I’ll have capacity for about three hundred girls in our empty housing. We’ll need triple the space if we intend to swell our ranks to one thousand.”

“They can bivouac,” suggests Gaius.

“Um, what?” says Lucia. “What does that mean?”

“It means sleep outside, sleep under the stars,” explains Gaius. “The Selanthi will sail for Polonia without a doubt. They’ll be here in a few weeks at the most. It’s still May, the weather will be perfect.”

“Those other girls can do what they want, but if you think I’m sleeping in a gross buggy field, you’re crazy,” declares Lucia. Cassius smiles broadly at this.

“Anyway,” says Marta, narrowing her eyes at them, “Gaius’s description of our northern border suggests the perfect false front. We need a recruiting effort that will send girls on an extended trip. Why not advertise for young unattached women who can travel to aid the homeless war refugees? You know, cooking, cleaning, tending to the wounded and the orphaned children, that sort of thing.”

“I think that’s brilliant,” I say, impressed with Marta’s savvy. “I also do think that you will need to make it financially attractive, Flamen. I would say the yearly salary for a typical low-wage girl who comes to the temple is about two thousand sesterces. Make your commission one thousand, with half up front, and the opportunity will look very good to them, despite the danger involved in traveling up to the north.”

“Excellent,” says the flamen. “I don’t necessarily have the budget right now, since I’ve already given the order to requisition all the forges within a fifty-mile radius to start cranking out our iron bombs. But I will lean on the senate, and I don’t see how they can refuse me the funding. The pontiffs will back me,” he says. “Now we get down to the operational details. Our timeframe is very compressed.”

He pauses to organize his thoughts. “Lavinia, I will need to designate some executive officers for the project. Gaius will organize the training activities for these women.”

Lavinia nods at him. “Gaius has certainly proven himself capable.”

“Excellent. And I would like Cassius here to oversee the recruitment efforts. He obviously already has a rapport with the girls.”

Lavinia looks less thrilled with this choice. Cassius, after all, is the man who led her Virgins into sin and blasphemy. “Well, I am sure Cassius will try his best to handle this important responsibility,” she says coolly.

Even though he is behind me, I can feel him smiling at her. She lifts her eyebrows.

“Girls,” she says, “tomorrow morning please rise early to meet Cassius and discuss your strategy for recruitment. Then go to your temple duties and use that time to sound out potential applicants. We can recruit a few girls right away, if they seem trustworthy enough.”

“Good idea,” says the flamen. “And after your shift is over, I’ll arrange for a cart to pick you up and bring you back to the academy training grounds. We still have tests and studies to perform.”

“Ugh,” says Lucia dramatically. “We’ll be working all day without a single break.”

“Is that a problem?” says the flamen.

“You’ll have even longer days ahead of you, Lucia,” Gaius warns. “And by the way, I suggest you come to the training grounds disguised as normal girls again. Someone watching us from the cliffs or another distant point could still be able to make out your Vestal clothing.”

“Ugh,” we all say and look at each other dejectedly.

“I think, Gaius, they can leave the hair up this time,” says Cassius, the corner of his mouth twitching. Gaius looks annoyed, but makes no objection.

“Well, I have lots of letters to write tonight, it seems,” Lavinia says after a pause. “Lots of announcements about the new Aid to the Front program, funding requests, meetings to schedule…I’m afraid we have to say good night, unless anyone else has a further concern.” She looks around.

“Thank you so much for your help, Lavinia,” says the flamen sincerely. She nods and stands to show us out. The flamen kisses her cheek. Cassius gives her another dazzling smile and thanks her. Gaius passes without comment. “Hold on, girls,” she says before I walk by her. She shuts the door and motions for us to sit.

“Girls,” she says to us sadly. She holds my hand between hers, turns to touch Marta’s face, and embraces Lucia. She’s silent for a long time. “You’re not ready for what’s coming,” she finally says. Then she motions for us to leave, her head in her hands again.


As we ascend the temple steps in the brilliant morning sunshine, Marta, Lucia, and I ready ourselves for the difficult task ahead. During our preparatory talk with Cassius, we discussed how to broach this delicate topic with certain young supplicants, when we have only the barest suspicion that they could be convinced to join the war effort. Although he’s very experienced at divulging secret information, he doesn’t have a lot of specific advice. “Just go with your instincts,” he tells us.

“Very helpful,” Marta sniffs.

As we enter the temple and our eyes adjust, I can see it will be a busy day, which is good and bad. This will give us lots of cover for whisking girls into side rooms and having private conversations. But it also means that we’ll have to work doubly hard to get through the long line of customers who can’t be of any use to us.

Joyfully I notice that one of my favorite girls, my prime target for recruitment, is here already. “Claudia,” I greet her, “I’m so glad to see you. Are we going to pray for your brothers?”

“If you have the time,” she says. “I’ve come every morning for the last week. I just can’t stay away if there’s a chance she’ll hear me. I pray to Mars too, but somehow that doesn’t feel quite right. I’m so much closer to Vesta.”

“Oh, I know what you mean,” I say, hiding my discomfort. “Why don’t we go into a side room? There are some new devotionals we can read together.”

Claudia gladly assents, and I lead her down the hallway to the farthest office. When we enter, Lucia and Marta are already there.

“Oh, are we all going to pray together?” she asks.

“Claudia,” I say, suddenly feeling very uncomfortable with my duplicity, “I’m sorry I wasn’t totally honest with you just now, but I had a different reason for asking you back here today. We can still pray, but is it okay for us to ask you a few questions first?”

Claudia looks a bit uneasy about this sudden change in tone. I realize I’ve been too heavy-handed, and I hope we haven’t lost her. It must seem as though we’re planning to interrogate her for some crime.

“Claudia, you’re here because more than anything, we all want to help your brothers come home safely,” I say, hoping to win back some trust. Marta and Lucia give her reassuring smiles. “I only wanted to know whether you’d be interested in joining a special…club we’re forming to support the war effort,” I say.

“Oh yes,” she says immediately, brightening. “What is the club? Of course I want to join.”

Marta, Lucia, and I look at each other. The words are hard to find.

“Claudia,” Lucia says, “if helping your brothers meant doing something a little dangerous, would you still be interested?”

“Yes,” she says. “They’re in danger every single day. I wish that I could take just a little part of it onto myself. I can be brave.”

“Good! We feel just the same way,” says Lucia, clasping her hands. “We are doing a very secret job—something very important, something nobody can know about—and we need more girls to help us. For your safety, if you join us, you’d have to spend a little time away from your parents. You’d come stay with us instead. Can you do that?”

“Ah…I mean I guess it would depend on…I’m not sure,” she says. “Maybe if you told me what this job was it would be a little easier to decide.”

Marta, Lucia, and I exchange looks. I exhale slowly and turn to Claudia again.

“Claudia,” I say. “Are you a virgin?”

“Yes,” she says uncomfortably.

Without blinking, Marta, Lucia, and I lean forward in concert and stare at her.

“What?” she says, unsettled. As rehearsed, we keep staring.

“Yes!” she insists. “What is this about?”

When we tell her there is a secret weapon that we think only virgins can operate, she gasps in shock. At first she is disbelieving, and I deeply regret that we can’t give any small demonstration to her. But finally our words start to have their own impact.

“The Flamen Martialis is taking us under his protection. We’re going to train at the academy,” Lucia explains. “The Pontifex Maximus is backing him. All of the pontiffs and flamens had a unanimous vote. This is all totally legal.”

“Today is the first day we’re recruiting,” I explain, “so we’re not very good at it.” I look at her apologetically. “You won’t tell anyone, right, even if you aren’t going to join us?”

“Oh no, I won’t tell. In fact, I’m ready to sign up,” she says, thrilling us. We all jump up gleefully and hug her. “We need you so badly,” I say.

“Don’t worry,” she promises, “I won’t let you down.”

Before she leaves, we tell Claudia the cover story of how she’ll be going away to aid the war refugees. Then we give her a receipt she can cash for her signing bonus, which absolutely delights her. We forgot to use the money as an incentive, but upon reflection, I’m glad of that. I wouldn’t have wanted her to sign up for the wrong reasons.

After this incredible success, the three of us realize that we’ve left the other temple supplicants unattended for far too long. I make a mental note to ask the Vestalis Maxima for extra hands during our next shift.

After Claudia, I get a long string of older housewives, and I become increasingly antsy as the day goes on. Now that we’ve got something so important to plan, dealing with the ordinary household problems of our supplicants is extremely tiresome. I just can’t get interested in people’s domestic problems anymore, and praying to Vesta is hollow and pointless, no matter how hard I try to be sincere. I’m starting to feel like Marta.

We sound out two other girls, Drusilla and Fausta, using the same method that worked so well with Claudia. Drusilla seems convinced, and we even send her away happily with a signing receipt. Fausta is less receptive. My fear of blowing our cover returns with full force.

“I know it’s an extreme measure, Fausta,” I plead. “But you have to believe us when we say that without our new weapon, the Flamen Martialis and the whole College of Pontiffs think that we will absolutely lose this war.”

“That’s not what the reports from the front are saying,” she says dismissively.

We look at each other. “Well, whatever you’ve heard, it’s wrong,” snaps Marta.

“What Marta means,” says Lucia, “is that the Flamen Martialis—”

“I’m not about to get involved with anything risky like this,” she cuts Lucia off. “I’m sorry. I won’t say anything to anyone, but in my opinion, you’re all taking a foolish risk, stepping out of your sphere. Stick with Vesta, not Mars.” With this, she rises and shows herself out.

This is our last consultation of the day, so we’re free to leave as well. Exhausted, we all trudge down the temple steps and make our way slowly to the House of Vestals to change. We’ve just dressed when we hear Cassius pull up in his cart.

“What?” Lucia says angrily. “We haven’t even eaten!”

Cassius isn’t sympathetic when he hears about our empty stomachs. “If I don’t deliver you right on time,” he says, “who knows which of my bones Gaius will break next?”

The cart ride to the academy is miserable. We stretch out on the blankets and try to nap, but the road is too bumpy and eventually we give up. But I’m heartened by the flamen’s smile when we finally arrive. I look to Gaius, half-expecting a smile from him too, but he is preoccupied with giving orders to academy students, businesslike as usual. I notice he looks especially handsome in the late afternoon light.

“Our girls had some success today,” Cassius announces to the group of students gathering around us. “Two new recruits to join us tomorrow.”

“That’s fantastic news!” says the flamen. “Are they really committed? Because my plan was to turn this first class into a network of recruiters—”

“Is there food?” Lucia interrupts rudely. In general, one does not interrupt the nation’s high priest of Mars when said priest is talking. But Lucia only observes social protocol when adequately fed.

“Well,” says the flamen, taken aback, “yes, but unfortunately it is all sacrificial, so—”

“Awesome,” says Lucia. “I’ll eat some, the gods won’t care.” And she goes to raid the altars for figs and wine.

Marta and I are hungry too, but we would never dare consume food earmarked for a god. We look sadly at each other.

“Um. Ahem. Well,” says the flamen, looking after Lucia with alarm. “I’ll go arrange to have a meal brought out here. In the meantime, ladies, please join Gaius and we’ll regroup on the beach.”

As we walk onto the beach, I see with surprise that the bay is now dotted with colorful little wooden boats bobbing in the water. “The colors mark their distance from the beach,” Gaius explains. “We’re going to try to quantify your range and accuracy compared with Lucia’s.”

Lucia is now surrounded by a ring of young academy students, some of whom seem to have procured a better meal for her than altar figs. She is laughing at someone’s joke, enjoying the opportunity to flirt.

The flamen joins our group and hands us each a small bag of nuts and dried fruit. “That’s all we had on short notice,” he apologizes. He really is a nice man. I notice that Gaius is not in the least concerned that we haven’t eaten. Typical.

“Ladies, I have a few people I want you to meet,” the flamen says. He introduces us to his wife, Julia, and his oldest daughter, Honoria. Julia is tall and fair, while Honoria has a lighter figure with dark hair and brown eyes. Both smile at us when they are introduced. “Isn’t this fun?” Honoria mock-whispers. “Daddy’s going to have us try the bomb thing too.”

“Oh great!” I say, glad to have some more female company out here on the beach, and truly curious to see if the flamen’s wife has any success, as a married woman.

“Let’s see if we can manage not to blow each other up!” she says gaily. “Ooh, there’s Lucia!” she says. “Come on, Mother. Let’s say hello. Gods, she’s as beautiful as I’ve heard.”

As they flounce away, Cassius comes up behind us fussing with a pen and clipboard, scribbling notes. “Olivia, Marta,” he says, “the record-keeping begins. Your ages?”

“We’re both sixteen,” I remind him.

“Family names?” he asks.

“Olivia Agricola and Marta Crispus.”

“Okay,” Cassius says to himself. “Vestal Virgins. And Flamen, your wife’s and daughter’s ages?”

“My wife is thirty-eight,” he says, “and our daughter is sixteen.”

“And your daughter’s a virgin?” Cassius asks.

Horrified, Gaius elbows Cassius in the ribs.

“Ow, back off,” Cassius says to him with an injured air. “This is important data we’re gathering here. I’m sorry, sir,” he says, addressing the flamen, “but it’s prudent to ask.”

The flamen purses his lips and looks at Cassius for a long moment. I hold my breath.

“Well I guess we’ll find out, won’t we?” he says at last, the faintest hint of amusement in his tone. Then he walks away. Gaius cringes in mortification and presses his hand to his forehead as Marta and I giggle. We try to suppress it, but we keep setting each other off.

“Let’s get started then, shall we?” Cassius says cheerily, unperturbed. He motions us toward the altars, where we join Lucia and the others.

After a long period of rites, invocations, recitals, and sacrifices to Diana and Vulcan, Lucia personally blesses both Julia and Honoria. The five of us are now ready to try our skills.

After Lucia blasts the water around the farthest boats in the bay, everyone on the shore murmurs in appreciation. Then Cassius asks Julia to try. We’re all holding our breath to see if non-virgin women have the necessary skill. It would make everything easier if we had a wider pool of recruits. They give her a ball without any black powder inside, so there’s no danger of an accidental explosion, and we stand back to watch.

To our initial delight, Julia is able to send the ball several yards before it splashes down into the water. But then we remember she has already received Lucia’s blessing. And it turns out that a second blessing does nothing.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect,” I say to the flamen. “I mean, in a weird theological contradiction, Diana is also the goddess of childbirth. Would she hate married women or want to help them?”

“Remember Callisto,” Marta reminds me. “She was one of Diana’s virgin companions, but Diana tried to kill her when she discovered Callisto was pregnant.”

“Didn’t she break her vow of virginity?” asks Gaius. “Maybe that’s why Diana went so crazy.”

“No, not at all,” I insist. “She didn’t break anything. Jupiter coerced her.”

“Oh, that’s right,” Gaius says. Everyone nods. It’s not a surprising twist. It seems like at least half of our religious stories involve Jupiter taking some woman against her will.

After our failed experiment with Julia, the flamen asks everyone to spread out down the beach so we can all practice at once, since our time is so limited. We’re all surrounded by academy students taking notes. I notice Honoria is having no trouble with the bombs at all, and she appears to have excellent range. That should make the flamen happy, I think. Things would have gotten pretty awkward on the beach if she had failed.

After a while, Gaius comes to stand by us. His scrutiny makes me nervous. I send a couple of shots way off course, and then I fail to make my third bomb explode at all. It just plunks into the sea.

“You know,” sighs Gaius, irritated past endurance, “if you’re going to commit blasphemy and endanger your life and the lives of your friends, you should at least be good at it.”

“You step off her,” Marta whips around. “Let’s see you try one, huh? Why don’t you show us how it’s done?”

“Marta, I would think you’d show a little more respect to someone who saved your life,” Gaius retorts.

“Oh, that’s right,” Marta says. “Tell us again how your brilliant tactical thinking lead you to run face-first into a gigantic Selanthi bomb. Really great stuff. I hope they asked you to teach a class.” Gaius just clenches his jaw and looks skyward. Oh how I want them to continue. You do not get into a snide-off with Marta. Nine times out of ten, she will stomp you into oblivion. He deserves it.

“And speaking of deadly, life-threatening blasphemy, I believe it was you who let a tiny little woman get past you into the Vestal temple,” she continues.

“Excuse me, but are you calling hertiny?” he points at me. “Because if she ran full tilt into you, you’d be in a cast, I guarantee it. With those hips she could have broken down the door herself. No offense, Olivia.”

“None taken,” I say. I am snorting with laughter now. Oh gods. I am going to make them fight all the time.

“And speaking of stupid,” he says, inching closer to her and dropping his voice, “I am not the one who worshiped a fake goddess for the last six years. At least Mars is real.”

“Oh yes, Mars is working out great for you!” Marta exclaims with enthusiasm. “He’s so gratified by your devotion that he allowed your enemy to amass a five-to-one advantage and invent a deadly weapon! You know, too bad there’s not a god of competence you could consult instead,” she spits at him. Heh. I knew that was a good burn.

“Well, guess what, baby, there is one,” Gaius says. “And he prays to me.”

As he stomps off, Marta’s mouth hangs open, her expression a mixture of shock and disgust. “Did he just call me baby?” she asks me, appalled. “And by the way, Olivia, your burn sucks.”

When the light starts fading, the flamen calls us all in for a group meeting. “We’ve learned a lot today, everybody,” he says. “Olivia, Marta, and Honoria all have comparable range and accuracy, but Lucia’s is by far the best. Our next concern is whether you girls could bless our new recruits, or whether Lucia has to personally pray for every single one.”

“I’ve spent most of the day with the Vestalis Maxima, working on technical details,” he continues. “Tomorrow is the formal beginning of the war refugee aid program, and that should bring lots of potential applicants to the temple. Olivia and Marta will continue to work to find more girls who want to join us. Lucia, Honoria, and the girls who have already signed on will come directly here tomorrow for training. Honoria has already been able to recruit five other girls that she knows personally.”

“Other flamens’ daughters?” I ask hopefully.

“No, unfortunately,” he says. “As it turns out, the other flamens aren’t anxious for their daughters to participate.” When he sees my unhappy expression, he hastens to reassure me. “Don’t worry, Olivia. As you yourself heard, we have the full support of the Pontifex Maximus. It’s likely they just don’t want their daughters in any physical danger.” He smiles.

“Our first class tomorrow will be starting a curriculum that Gaius has been working hard to design. They’ll have to go through some basic military training. We have to have them behaving like real soldiers by the time the Selanthi arrive. They all have to follow orders without question, for example. I don’t want any last-minute hesitation about blowing up enemy ships and costing enemy lives.” Gaius is nodding agreement. I have a moment of hesitation myself. If all goes to plan, it’s true we really will be killing people. The idea had not even occurred to me.

“And finally,” the flamen says gravely, “we have received news from our commanders in the north. All the evidence suggests that the Selanthi attack on Polonia will go forward as expected, and we may have as few as two weeks before the first wave arrives. Although we want to proceed with as much secrecy as possible, I’m afraid we’re going to have to start recruiting aggressively. Girls,” he says to me and Marta, “don’t be afraid to ask for participation. If our secret gets out, it gets out. You can expect some public outcry, but remember all the recruits will be here at the academy for their safety. They’ll be heavily guarded. Good luck tomorrow.”

On the road back to the House of Vestals with Cassius, Marta and I sit quietly, overwhelmed with the pace of these changes. This is a lot of responsibility to put on girls whose major goal used to be finishing a Vestal worship ritual without stepping on one another.

We arrive home to find that Lavinia has assembled the entire house for a meeting, almost two dozen girls in total. There are about thirty Vestals who attend the temple for the city of Polonia. We’re by far the largest establishment, and we’re also the only one with Virgins under twenty years old, because we’re responsible for teaching all the young trainees. Some of the girls will eventually transfer to temples in other parts of the country once they’ve finished their first ten years.

“Hello, Olivia and Marta,” she welcomes us. “We waited for you to begin.” Then she pauses until she is sure she has the group’s full attention. “Everyone, we’re about to enter a very stressful time in our history. Announcements have been posted all over the city for a new refugee aid program that the Vestal Virgins will be administering. From this point forward, all of our energies will be devoted to recruiting for this program.” Lavinia begins handing out paper as she speaks.

“The first thing you all need to know is that the program is entirely fake,” she announces and waits for her audience to react. All she gets is puzzled silence. “We are now part of a very important, and very secret, project for the Academy of Mars. Every single one of you will have temple duty tomorrow, and you will be evaluating applicants based on the list of criteria I have just handed out. The bottom line is this: if you follow this checklist to the letter, absolutely no one should qualify for the fake aid program.”

I look at my list. The criteria for the aid program are endless. The very first requirement is that you must be a virgin, although there’s no obvious relationship between one’s purity and one’s ability to provide aid to the orphans and wounded. Maybe everyone will assume the Vestal Virgins have a certain…prejudice. In addition, I see that you can’t be an only child, you can’t have brothers at the front, you must have both parents living, and then the list goes on for two more pages after that.

“Ladies, assuming someone passes every single one of these requirements, you will then lead them down the west hallway of the temple to take an eyesight test, which they will invariably fail,” Lavinia says. “Those who claim to be virgins will then be told that there is a second opportunity for them to contribute to the war effort, and they should be led into the back office, where Olivia, Marta, and I will be waiting for them. You won’t have any further responsibility for the applicants once they enter the back office, and you’ll return to evaluate the next woman in line. Any questions?”

I’m starting to feel pretty good about this scheme. At least rejected applicants will get some impression that the refugee aid program is real. It’s certainly got a thorough enough vetting process.

When she’s taken every question, Lavinia dismisses us. Exhausted, Marta and I fall into bed without further conversation. While I wait for sleep, odd unconnected thoughts pass through my brain. I suddenly realize that my days will be largely spent away from Gaius. Then I wonder if any of Honoria’s friends are pretty.

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