We arrive early the next morning to find Claudia and Drusilla, yesterday’s recruits, standing at the temple steps. Cassius is there, lifting their bags into his cart.
“I’ve spent all of yesterday with the academy’s maid service, putting the dorms into proper order for you,” he flirts, wearing a big smile as always. “You hardly even notice the smell anymore.”
They fall all over themselves laughing at him. It is obvious his charm is more effective on normal girls than Vestal Virgins.
“Ah, Marta, Olivia,” he says, as enthusiastically as if he hasn’t seen us in a year. With outstretched arms, he leaves the girls in the cart and comes to have a private conversation with us.
“Girls, I am now the unofficial liaison between these women and the Academy of Mars, and let me tell you, it is a nightmare,” he says, grasping my hands. “And none of them even live in the dorms yet. Trust me, you would rather ‘bivouac,’ to quote Gaius,” he rolls his eyes, “than to live in one of these rooms. I thought the Ceres crowd were roughing it, but you have no idea.”
“Don’t worry, Cassius,” I say. “Not all of these women are like Lucia. They’re not as sheltered as we are in the Vestals, and they probably do a good bit of their own housekeeping. They might even spruce the place up for you.”
“The food is unspeakable,” he whispers to us, wide-eyed. “I thought Mars boys were all rich; I’m not sure how they stand it. Bring some snacks tonight or I’m going to waste away.”
“It can’t be that bad,” Marta says as I snicker.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “We’ve got you covered.” I’ll make an effort to sneak something from our kitchens before we leave.
Over the next hour, a long line forms outside the temple as we prepare our offices and ready ourselves to open. Our Vestals are spread out all over the temple, processing applicants as quickly as they can. Soon, potential recruits arrive at the back office door, where Marta, Lavinia, and I are waiting for them.
It’s a tremendous asset to have the Vestalis Maxima in the room with us when we describe the Diana’s Archers program, as we have now officially dubbed it, to these girls. I get the impression that, though many were intrigued, far fewer would have dared join us had she not been there. With her official sanction, it doesn’t feel so much like we’re asking people to join a criminal organization. However, unlike these women, Marta and I understand exactly how far her protection goes. It won’t be enough to save us all if the religious establishment turns against us.
By the end of our very long day, we’ve gained a respectable crop of young recruits. The “but are you really” stare has proven at least somewhat effective, culling about one in twenty girls who confidently asserted their virginity at first. We assured the rest that they wouldn’t be able to dissemble, weeding out a few more. A few responded with long recitals of their past history, including certain ambiguous incidents, and asked us to be the judges. In those instances we protested our lack of qualification and let them decide for themselves.
“Awkward,” says Marta when the last new recruit of the day leaves our office.
Some of the recruits are packed and ready by the time we leave for the academy training ground that night. Marta, Honoria, and I, as the first three women to receive Lucia’s blessing, try to bless others in turn. Unfortunately, our test subjects only gain a few yards after we pray over them. The power of the blessing lessens dramatically if given by someone other than Lucia.
Cassius isn’t pleased, not only because it means Lucia has to personally bless hundreds of recruits, but also because we have forgotten his snacks.
“Seriously?” he asks us. “Do you know what I had for breakfast today? It was literally gruel. Like watery oats in some gray liquid. Do you know what we had for lunch? It was unseasoned goat meat with a flour dumpling and some desiccated, rehydrated greens.”
“The academy is a military institution,” Gaius says from behind him. “We practice austerity and discipline. You should just feel lucky that you get to skip the morning run.”
“Oh, did you intercede on his behalf?” I ask Gaius.
“I had a conversation with the flamen about it,” he says. “But I argued for the running.”
“Austerity!” Cassius says with a disdainful scoff. “Like any of you boys actually came to the academy with the expectation of being foot soldiers.”
Gaius flushes. “I suppose you think it’s cute,” he says, “not following military regulations. But the truth is you’re a liability, and the first time you disobey an order of mine I am going to have your ass.” Then he strides angrily away in the manner we’re all getting used to.
“That guy has a real flair for temper tantrums,” says Marta with something like admiration in her voice.
The flamen intends to turn today’s class of new recruits back out into the city, with the cover story that they won’t be leaving town for a few more days while they’re training in first aid techniques. They’re going to sound out personal acquaintances, family friends, really anyone they can start a casual conversation with, and send any interested girls over to the temple. He’s heartened by the fact that almost fifty more recruits will arrive tomorrow morning, and he’s already started construction on more temporary housing. “We’re doing well, girls,” he tells us. “You’ve done such a good job. Thank Lavinia for me. You don’t know what it means that we might actually be able to defend our city. I can finally sleep at night for the first time in weeks.” He actually kisses each of us on the cheek. The tension I’ve been feeling all day suddenly lessens. If we’re making this much of a difference to the country, I think, surely we’re doing the right thing.
Before we leave for the night, Gaius wants to take advantage of the remaining light to have us try some drills where we all fire in concert. We need to learn to attain maximum coverage when working as a team by not firing on the same target. This mostly involves good communication, but there are a few simple rules to follow as well.
“Okay, girls,” the flamen says briskly as we successfully complete the drill. “We’ll—”
“Women,” says Marta.
“Excuse me?” says the flamen, taken aback.
“We’re saving the entire nation from an otherwise unstoppable threat. I think I would prefer you address us with something a little less condescending,” she says, bridling.
Gaius makes a small sound and puts his hand to his mouth. It might have been suppressed laughter, or maybe a gasp of terror. Or both. Marta glares at him.
“Um, okay, all right, er, women…,” says the flamen. “I mean, that doesn’t sound quite right, does it? What about…um…ladies? Is that one okay?”
“Ladies is fine,” I hastily assure him, with a warning glance at Marta.
“Okay, good,” says the flamen, relieved. “We’ll regroup tomorrow, ah, ladies. One of the lieutenants, Mettius Felix, will take you back to the House of Vestals. Good night.”
“Good night!” I say, extra cheerily, determined to show him that Marta’s bad attitude is hers alone. She is pushing it. If we were normal academy recruits, she would be severely punished for that kind of cheek.
Thanks to our undercover recruiting team and the attractive financial incentives, we’re able to average about a hundred new Archer recruits per day over the next three days. Although she was initially reluctant to let any of the other Vestal Virgins join the program, Lavinia was forced to allow five more of the older Vestals in their twenties and thirties to join. When asked by the others why only the older girls got to join, she responded, “Because they understand the risks.”
The addition of the five older girls is a huge relief to me and Marta, specifically because we are no longer required to continuously participate in the recruiting process and can now take regular breaks. Julia, in her official capacity as the Flaminica Martialis, wife of the Flamen Martialis, also joins the temple crew to add an air of authority to the program in Lavinia’s absence.
The next morning, a gray and tired Lavinia releases us from our temple duties entirely. “Take a few hours off, girls,” she says. “The others can handle things without us for the morning.”
As Marta and I sit on the temple steps in the sunshine, we debate what to do with our newfound freedom. Then we see a cart coming up the lane. Even from a distance we can see Lucia’s blond hair.
“Ladies,” she trills. “I heard that’s what we’re calling you now. It has been ages,” she exclaims dramatically, gathering us into her arms for an enthusiastic hug.
“How are you even here?” I say in confusion.
“I told the flamen that I left something important at the House of Vestals. And that I wanted to see you girls for a few hours. He couldn’t refuse me,” she says coyly. “I batted my eyes a lot.”
Marta tuts at this, but she is pleased, I know. Finally a few hours off, and we can have a conversation about something other than iron shrapnel.
“So guess what we’re gonna do,” she says. “We’re going to see Mother for lunch!”
I’m immediately enthusiastic about this idea. I need to see something other than the inside of the temple. I’ve almost forgotten the city exists. “Awesome!” I say. “Let’s go now!” I grab their hands in glee, and we head in the direction of the marketplace without a second thought.
As we round the temple corner, we almost run smack into Cassius. “Where are you three going?” he asks, startled.
“We’re going to have lunch with Silva Maximianus,” I explain.
“In the city?” he says incredulously. “Did Gaius say you could do this?”
“The flamen gave me a few hours off,” says Lucia. “Gaius doesn’t control my entire life, you know. I can do what I want.”
“There’s no way Gaius or the flamen would allow you to go to the city,” Cassius insists.
“Well, Gaius and the flamen aren’t here,” snits Marta. “And I guess we’ll do what we want.”
“Wait,” Cassius says, “are you going to eat food?”
“That’s what lunch generally means,” says Marta.
“Well, that sounds pretty good to me,” says Cassius. He chews on his lip for a moment, considering this.
“Excuse me,” Lucia says, “but I don’t remember inviting you.”
“Surely you wouldn’t deny me the opportunity to eat with Silva,” Cassius says, smiling. “I’ve heard she’s almost as beautiful as you, and just as charming.”
Lucia makes no further opposition to his company.
As we walk through the city, things seem unusually subdued. There are fewer vendors in the marketplace, and the shoppers seem to cluster in small groups, talking in low voices.
“The city feels strange today,” I say. “Where is everyone?”
“There’s a political rally beginning in a few hours,” says Cassius. “I think everyone is steering clear of public places. You know how the crowds get.”
We nod. The marketplace is part of a larger area in the city center known as the forum. Political speeches and rallies are often held here. It’s hard to do business when a particularly large crowd forms.
“My sweet girls!” Silva coos when we walk into her favorite restaurant. We are all swept into another hug. Everyone except Cassius, that is.
“Well, who is this young man?” she says. “Are you joining us for lunch?”
“Cassius Apelles,” he says with a smile, extending his hand. “I’m a friend of the girls. I see them quite a bit, as I’m an academy student. They were kind enough to invite me along today and save me from a solitary meal.”
“Well welcome, Cassius!” she says graciously. “Ladies, I have ordered all of our favorites. Let’s really eat. I am starving.” Lucia and her mother also resemble each other in their passionate love of food.
Cassius turns out to be a charming guest. Apparently I can add “Polonian gossip maven” to the list of his many talents.
“Did you see Clodia Longina at the Cerealis high banquet?” asks Cassius. “I presume you were there.”
“Yes!” Silva squeals. “Her new hairpiece?”
“Gods, it is dreadful,” says Cassius, waving his fork dismissively. “It looks like the backside of some animal.”
“Horsehair,” says our waiter, smirking as he refills a water glass.
“No,” say Cassius and Silva, wide-eyed.
I can tell Cassius is enjoying himself hugely. He is mimicking the tenor of Silva’s conversation beautifully, but I don’t get the sense that he’s patronizing her. Cassius seems to make a game of exploring other people’s worlds.
When we part, full of delicious food and still giggling from some mealtime joke, I say a silent prayer of thanks to Diana for this reprieve in our relentless schedule. Without Vesta, I often struggle to determine the appropriate god or goddess that should receive my prayers. Diana seems a convenient replacement. We certainly owe her a lot.
As we leave the restaurant, Cassius turns the wrong way down the street. “Whoops, did you get lost?” says Marta.
“No,” says Cassius. “I know a shortcut. Let’s avoid the forum. The rally must be getting ready to start by now.”
“Oh no, I’m going to try to swing by the fruit stall before it begins,” says Lucia. “Berries are in season. I want to take some back to the academy with me.”
“I really don’t think you’ll make it,” says Cassius. There’s something in his voice I haven’t heard before.
“It doesn’t hurt to try!” sings Lucia, and she skips quickly away in an effort to get to the forum as soon as possible.
“Not a good idea,” says Cassius as he runs after her, hustling to keep up. We follow them as quickly as we can, but we’re pretty full, so we lag behind. When we finally catch up, it’s obvious the rally has already begun. Lucia stands tall at the back of the crowd, and Cassius is talking to her anxiously, trying to get her to come away. As we approach, a wave of energy surges through the crowd, and it lets out a roar.
“Girls,” Lucia beckons to us. She finds a bench for us to stand on so we can hear the speech. It’s Senator Accius.
“Citizens,” he booms over the crowd, “a disease is growing on Parcaean society, a cancer that we must excise. I can personally confirm that what you’ve heard is true. The Parcaean army is recruiting women. The very head of our army, the Flamen Martialis, is performing the disgusting task of training young girls at the Academy of Mars. What do you say to that?”
The crowd roars in anger.
“Their presence at the academy is foul enough,” he continues, “but I can also confirm that these women are being inducted into a holy priesthood. They are invoking gods and goddesses. They are now as powerful as any high priest. And I say it’s a complete perversion of everything our society stands for.”
The senator tries to keep going over shouts of strong agreement from the audience.
“It’s clear that the flamen and his academics have completely lost their grip. They are so out of touch with reality that they haven’t even considered the consequences to you, the Parcaean men. Do you want your women to return home after the war and turn their weapons against you? No. Your wives will be gone. In their place, you’ll have deadly vipers. Would you dare let one of these women into your beds?”
Another roar from the men in the crowd confirms that they would not.
“But how did this happen?” asks the senator. “How did these women insinuate themselves into our military elite? That question is not hard to answer,” he says. “They used the weapon every woman is born with.” He allows a long pause for effect. “How did they so fully turn the heads of the foolish young rich boys at the academy? By climbing into their beds. How did they so befuddle our high priest of Mars? By performing the most despicable acts. These temptresses,” he continues, over the clamoring of furious men, “know the way to steal secrets, to gain power. They have all known since the beginning of time. And will we be defeated by them, Parcaeans? Will we win this terrible war to find ourselves facing another? A battle of the sexes? Will you allow yourself to be conquered by a gang of depraved, degenerate whores?”
The crowd erupts into another roar, as men in the audience call for action, even murder. As the crowd surges, it buffets against us, and I can barely keep my balance. I feel someone yank me from the bench. I’m too dazed to give any resistance.
Cassius keeps a firm grip as he drags us out of the forum and down a deserted alley. My ears are ringing from the crowd, and there’s something wet on my hand. Someone gives a choking sob, and I realize that I am the one crying. Marta looks deathly pale. Lucia tosses her head with a defiant expression.
“It’s ridiculous,” she declares. “Nonsense. No one will care that we’re women once they see what we can do to the enemy.” Nobody answers her.
Cassius holds me as I cry. “It’s all right,” he says, patting my back. “This is my fault. It was a mistake to let you come into the city. I’m so sorry.”
“Cassius, why would he say that?” I sob. “I thought the senators were supposed to be on our side.”
Cassius exhales slowly. “They are on your side. They’re so far on your side, they have already decided that Parcae will win the war. So now they’re making political hay out of your involvement. The crowds love it, as you saw.”
“But without us, Parcae would lose horribly,” I say. “Don’t the men understand that? Shouldn’t they be happy we’re going to fight?”
Cassius sighs again. “Unfortunately, Olivia,” he says, “those in power have been whitewashing the casualty numbers and inventing victories where none occurred. They’ve been convincing the public that we have a chance of winning since right after the first battle.”
“But why?” I ask, although I think I know the answer.
“They want men to sign up to fight, so they have to make the war seem winnable. No one wants to enlist just to be sent to certain death. They also don’t want anyone deserting or fleeing the city,” he explains. “But most men in the city are more rational than that crowd. And the senators don’t want you hurt, not really. They know how valuable you are. Did you notice how he didn’t explain about the aid program, or the Vestal Virgins? He doesn’t want to give them any actual information, just stir them up.” He pats me again and gives me another hug. “Don’t worry, Olivia, we won’t let anyone hurt you,” he promises.
“Chuh!” Marta makes a sound for the first time. We all look at her. “Right. Don’t worry, girls, no one will hurt you. Cassius is here to protect us. And then Gaius, and the flamen, and the academy, at least until the war is over. At least until the Parcaean citizens are nice and safe again. And by then, of course, those men will all forget that we ever left our fireside and everything will be fine,” she says.
“Marta, you can’t think like that,” says Lucia. “I mean, what choice do we have? We have to do this, for our country. It’s like Olivia said—it’s this, die, or become slaves.”
“You all can do this for the country. But based on what I’ve just heard,” she says, “you’ll still wind up dead.” Her voice shakes slightly as she tries to control her anger.
“Don’t forget the Pontifex Maximus is on our side,” I tell her. “It doesn’t get any more official than that.”
“Olivia, you idiot,” she yells, grabbing my shoulders and shaking me.
“Whoa,” Cassius says as he attempts to separate us.
Marta drops her arms, but she’s not finished. “You will believe in our religious leaders until the day you die, you stupid child,” she says to me, breathing hard. “And I can’t stand one more minute of it. If you want to die, you can go be a sacrificial lamb. I don’t want any part of this. I won’t participate. And I don’t want to have anything to do with you either,” she says, glaring at Lucia. “Why don’t you understand?” she snaps. “No matter what country wins or loses, we,” she gestures among the three of us, “have already lost.” Then she swishes around and strides out of the alley.
“Ah,” says Cassius, looking after her. “Maybe she’ll come around by the time we have to leave for the academy tonight.”
“Not likely,” Lucia shakes her head. “You don’t know Marta. When she gets like that, there’s nothing you can do to change her mind.”
“Olivia, maybe you can talk to her,” Cassius says. “I’ll take you back to the temple.”
When we arrive back at the Temple of Vesta, Marta is nowhere to be found. Cassius has to take Lucia back to the academy for the afternoon, but I promise to bring Marta back tonight if I can. Marta, however, remains missing. Someone tells me she was seen having a private meeting with the Vestalis Maxima, but Lavinia is not at the temple today, so I can’t ask her. When Cassius returns to collect me for the evening, we’re forced to accept the truth. She’s not coming.
“What are we going to tell everybody?” I ask.
“I’ve already come clean to Gaius about the whole thing,” Cassius says. “He wasn’t happy. I think since Marta’s not here tonight, we’ll have to tell the flamen there’s a good chance she’s out for good. Damn!”
When we roll up to the training center, we see Gaius waiting for us, arms crossed. He exhales heavily when sees that we’re only two people. I hop out of the cart and go to him. “I need to talk to you,” I say. He motions me into the training center, and we find an unoccupied side office.
“I won’t recruit anymore,” I tell him. “I won’t do temple duty. I can’t look those women in the eyes and ask them to join us after what I’ve seen.”
Gaius nods. “Okay. Anything else?”
“Don’t punish Cassius for this,” I say. “We were going to go into the city with or without him. He just came to protect us.”
“Oh, I have no ill will toward Cassius, irresponsible ass though he is,” he says. “In fact, he did me a favor. I was very close to taking you myself. If you weren’t such essential personnel, I would have.”
“Why?” I ask, surprised.
“Because I think now, for the very first time, you understand why it was a bad idea to ever follow Cassius into that clearing in the woods, to invoke the gods. I think it has finally gotten through to you how foolish you were.” He puts his hands on my shoulders, like he did in the storeroom when we fought about the lamp oil. “And I hope in the future you’ll be less foolhardy. There are some things that neither I, Cassius, nor the Flamen Martialis can protect you from. Most of all, we can’t protect you from yourself.”
I can’t respond to this right away. I just look at him, struggling with a mixture of guilt and anger. For a moment, I see his point, but my temper finally wins. Chastising me because the world is unfair is just such a ridiculous thing to do. “I suppose you’d be happier if you all just lost the war,” I say resentfully.
“No, of course not,” Gaius says in a kinder tone, hoping to soothe me. “On the whole your experiments were a very good thing for the country. But that was a lucky accident, wasn’t it?” he asks. “It’s done now,” he adds when he sees the look on my face. “It happened. All we can do now is get ready for the aftermath. Okay?”
I nod slowly.
“By the way,” he adds, “since you can’t recruit, I’m going to arrange for you to stay here at the training center. I need more instructors, so you can help us with that instead.” He gives me a small smile. Then he awkwardly pats my arm and leaves me to my thoughts.
After I return to the House of Vestals that night, I stop into Lavinia’s chambers to let her know I’m no longer on temple duty, on Gaius’s orders. Then I return to my room, but Marta still hasn’t returned. When I ask one of the other girls, she tells me that Marta has requested an immediate transfer to a temple in the city of Appius, in south Parcae. Deeply saddened, I go back to my room and try to sleep, hoping to catch her when she comes in so we can talk. When I wake in the morning, she’s gone.