The cart that will take me to my new home at the academy won’t be here for another few hours, so I decide to make a trip to my father’s house to spend some time with my family. I doubt I’ll be in too much real danger during the battles to come, but I can’t say for sure. And I’m aching for the comfort they always provide.
My mother embraces me when I enter, so happy to see me as always. I’ve arrived just in time for breakfast with my father and brother before they start working in the fields. They both greet me cheerily as well. My spirits lift immediately. This is what I need after the events of yesterday.
“Come sit down,” my mother says, pulling out a chair, “and have something to eat.” Even the servants seem glad to see me as they plate my food.
“What brings you all the way out here so early, Olivia?” asks my father.
“I just missed you all.” I smile. “What were you talking about before I came in? I’m sorry to interrupt.”
“Olivia, you would not believe it if I told you,” says my brother Marcus. “We were discussing a speech given in the forum yesterday. There are women training at the Academy of Mars.”
My heart sinks. I don’t know why I didn’t foresee this. “I heard the same thing. But can that really be true?” I ask him with forced skepticism. “That just doesn’t seem likely. Sounds like they’re trying to stir up outrage over a misunderstanding. I think there are some women down at the academy helping them with their record-keeping, that’s all.”
“No, it’s absolutely true!” Marcus insists. “Titus takes shipments of dried goods down there every day. He’s seen them milling around, and he talked to the cooks. There have to be at least five hundred women down there, maybe more.”
“I’m inclined to agree with your sister,” my father says. “I mean, what could women possibly contribute to the war effort?”
“They’re invoking the gods,” Marcus says darkly.
My father bursts out laughing. “And five hundred little girls are going to ask Mars real nicely to end the war then, is that the plan?” He chuckles.
“You never know,” I break in, surprising myself. “Maybe they have the ability to fight. Maybe they could really help the army,” I offer.
Marcus snorts. “Sure, women in the army,” he says. “Can you imagine Olivia in the army?” he asks my father.
“Oh, I forgot, which ones are the bad guys again?” my father imitates my voice, cackling with laughter.
“Maybe they’ll put her in charge of the supply lines. They’ll get ten thousand pounds of salt instead of flour,” Marcus says, snorting. “Remember when she forgot to order your hayseed?” he asks. This starts my father laughing even harder.
They’re referring to a time when I was nine years old, when I walked all the way to the store and then forgot what I was sent for. I had to go home to ask my father, and he reminded me that I was supposed to order three bags of flour for the kitchens, and also put in his yearly order for hayseed. But by the time I arrived at the store again, I had been distracted by other children on the road and then by some newly opening flower buds, and I had forgotten the hayseed altogether. They tease me about this every once in a while, and because my memory is my worst feature, I always cringe a little bit when it comes up. But I always thought their teasing was out of love. This morning, something feels different.
“Well honestly,” I say, a little hurt. “I was only nine at the time.”
“Or when she forgot to shut the calf up in the pen before the ritual at the Temple of Venus?” my father jokes, setting my brother off even more. That incident occurred when I was thirteen and caring for a sacrificial animal the day before I was about to participate in my first ritual. The calf escaped, and although I was severely punished by the Vestalis Maxima for my mistake, I can’t say that I was very sorry. It was a really cute little calf.
“But seriously,” says my brother, still chuckling and drying his eyes, “if they really are training women, they should watch out.” His face turns sober. “That’s an absolutely disgusting thought,” he says.
“They’ll be facing some real consequences.” My father nods. “I don’t know too many of our neighbors who would be comfortable living so close to the academy with that kind of perversion going on. The gods will smite them.”
“Or somebody else will,” says Marcus.
“Well,” I say suddenly, getting up, “I really can’t stay. I just wanted to say hello to everyone.”
“Olivia, are you going already?” my mother asks. “I hope we’ll see you again soon! Maybe I’ll come see you at the temple tomorrow.”
“Oh no, I’m sorry,” I say, “I won’t be able to see you tomorrow. The temple is a recruiting center for the aid program pretty much full-time now. But maybe in a few weeks.” I kiss her cheek. I should say something else to discourage her from looking for me, but I can’t think of anything.
I arrive at the academy dorms and find that Cassius has not exaggerated. These rooms are spare and tiny. They’re really only cupboards with beds. When I turn into my assigned area, I find Lucia on the top bunk, idly cleaning her nails. Her hair is down.
“I didn’t have anyone to put it up for me,” she explains when she sees me. “I took it down to give it a good washing and then I realized I was out of luck.”
“Do you want me to put it up for you?” I offer.
“No,” she says. “I thought the flamen was going to say something, but no one has said a word, so I’m going to keep tying it up with the scarves I got from my room. It’s fun to be able to wear something new.”
Now that I’m here, I might do the same.
“So Marta’s gone,” she says abruptly.
“Yes,” I confirm. I don’t know what else to say, so I move on. “Are the other girls nice so far?”
“I’m not surprised,” she sighs, ignoring my attempt to change the subject.
“Well I am,” I say, suddenly angry. “She made all these choices, took all these risks, and then at the first sign of trouble, she’s gone. She left you, she left me, and she didn’t even take the time to say a civil good-bye.”
“Typical Marta,” Lucia says.
“How can you say that?” I demand. “She’s always been there for us before. She’s taken risks for us, you know she has.”
“Listen,” says Lucia, swinging her legs to sit upright on her bed, “and maybe you’ll learn something. Marta has the two worst characteristics that could possibly exist together in the same person. She is a pessimist, and she is a perfectionist. If conditions aren’t exactly how she wants them to be, she’s anxious. If some kind of adversity occurs, she panics. And if it looks like things aren’t ultimately going to go her way, she’ll quit, every time.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I say. “What are you even talking about? When did she quit anything?”
“The shawl?” Lucia looks at me significantly.
“The blue shawl with the narcissi?” I ask. “She didn’t quit. She finished it. Then she made a beautiful sacrifice out of it. That’s how I knew she really did love Vesta.”
Lucia rolls her eyes so hard they almost fall out of her head. “That is so you, Olivia. Oh my gods, of course that is what you thought.”
“I don’t understand,” I say blankly.
“Marta hated Vesta,” Lucia asserts, glaring at me. “She resented her to the point of loathing. She never wanted to be a Virgin. She wants a normal life, a husband, a family. She wants that life so badly she can barely even live the one she has. I mean, you know what she’s like,” she says, irritated.
I can only blink. Marta with a baby. Marta playing with children, kissing a husband. The picture in my mind is absurd. I don’t know anyone less affectionate than Marta. “She seems so indifferent,” I say, confused. “And she never said anything to me about it.”
“Well of course she couldn’t tell you about it,” Lucia scoffs. “Come on. We all know you would have just made her read a devotional or something.”
This is painful, this idea that my closest friend would withhold her dreams from me. “So she told you this stuff?”
“Well yeah,” says Lucia. “She wouldn’t open up to me very often, but if I caught her in a mood, she’d acknowledge it in an offhand way. And don’t you remember how angry she would get when I flirted with men? Like with Marcus at your father’s house? It made her angry because it was shoving it in her face, something she would never have.”
“But she could still have those things!” I say. Marta will be forty when she leaves the Vestals. It’s old for a marriage, and for children, but it’s not unheard of.
“Yes, that’s my point,” says Lucia. “Why did Marta spend months of effort on that shawl? Who was it for? Where was she going to take it? I mean, I buy pretty things for fun, but I don’t spend hours every night embroidering them. That was for her future,” Lucia explains. “That was for the day when she could wear something other than a bridal gown. All her hopes were bound up in that shawl, and then she gave it all away. That shawl wasn’t a sacrifice to Vesta, Olivia. It was a surrender.”
“Oh,” I say in shock. This new perspective on Marta’s life is coming far too late for me to show her any kindness or sensitivity, to try to help her in some way. My eyes fill with tears.
Lucia looks at me and then looks away, still annoyed. She doesn’t attempt to comfort me.
“Olivia,” Gaius says, coming into our room, “I’m glad you’re here. You can shadow me for my afternoon classes and get up to speed on the curriculum. Er,” he says, seeing my face, “is everything okay?”
“Fine,” I assure him hastily, wiping tears from my eyes. “I’m ready. Let’s go.” I can’t look at Lucia as I walk past her.
I spend the afternoon with Gaius, learning the basics of camouflaging our positions while still finding good vantage points. “The Selanthi will be arriving in a huge fleet, and at least part of their navy will attempt to enter the cove directly and land their soldiers right on the beach. Once their men get on land, it will be more difficult for us to kill them before they breach the walls. Our troops stationed in the city will have to meet them in combat. So the entire idea will be to sink as many of their ships as possible before they get close enough to let their men out into their landing boats. That means that almost all of your work will be done at long range, and you won’t need to worry about being seen. However,” he pauses, “we can assume that at least some Selanthi will make it to the shores of Polonia, and that those troops will include archers. The normal kind of archers,” he adds. “If this happens, you’ll need to be able to hide yourselves from them while still blasting the remaining ships.”
I shiver as he shows the girls in his class how to shelter themselves from deadly arrows. In a little more than a week, we’ll be facing a live enemy. It doesn’t seem real.
In the evening, I join Lucia and Cassius for another round of firing drills. But he motions for us to stop after just a few minutes.
“Lucia, you blessed Olivia so Diana would hear her prayers,” he says. “Would Neptune listen too?”
“I don’t see why not.” She stands over me, palms upraised, and gives me a similar blessing to the one she gave for Diana. “Oh noble Neptune, king of the seas, please hear my friend Olivia, and assist her with your mighty powers when she asks for your aid.”
“Very nice,” says Cassius, smirking at her transparent attempt at flattery. It’s almost funny, but the gods don’t care if your fawning is overdone or insincere. They’ll take adulation in any form. “Now, Olivia, can you please try to overturn that little blue boat out there by making the seas choppier in that area?”
“What a good idea!” Lucia says.
I don’t have much success at first, but after a formal invocation, a few sacrifices, and fifteen minutes of devoted prayer, I’m able to toss the little boat around in choppy waters. I don’t quite manage to capsize it, however.
“Great!” says Cassius. “We’ll have to explore this a little more. Lucia, you can bless me too, right? Neptune doesn’t care about my gender, I assume.”
“Or your virginity?” Lucia smirks.
“I certainly hope not,” Cassius says, winking at her.
“I bet.” Lucia snorts.
Gaius is making the rounds, and he reaches us. “What’s going on here?” he asks.
“Cassius was just admitting that he is a virgin,” Lucia explains sassily.
“I bet.” Gaius snorts. “Well, the more virgins around here, the better,” he says with a rare smile.
“Just bless me please, Lucia,” Cassius says, beckoning. When Lucia finishes her benediction, Cassius invokes Neptune and turns to the bay. We all watch as he creates a fair bit of turbulence around the boat, but nothing too dramatic. “Well,” he says, “it was worth a shot, I guess. Let’s turn in for the night.”
The academy dormitory that Lucia and I are staying in is part of a larger campus around the training center. Fortunately, we’ve got a room in one of the actual dormitory buildings, rather than the fields of temporary housing recently erected for the newer recruits. We’ve been able to amass around five hundred recruits in only six days, something everyone is overjoyed about. Cassius, true to his word, has moved the rest of the male academy students around so all of the housing areas are heavily guarded. “I can’t pretend it wasn’t a concern, surrounding fields full of young women with all these men,” he says, “but in this case, any inappropriate behavior would become obvious pretty quickly.”
As we walk, Cassius points out several large campus halls. During the day, all of the classrooms there are totally filled by the trainees and their instructors. “After you spend a few more days shadowing Gaius,” he says, “we’ll assign you a classroom of your own.” The thought of spending several days with Gaius lifts my spirits, but the reality of having to actually teach other girls makes my stomach twist.
Lucia and I enter our room silently when we reach the dorm again. When we’re settled in bed for the night, I have another question for her.
“Lucia,” I say, “I always thought Marta hated your flirting because it put you in danger.”
“No,” she responds. “My flirting isn’t anything to worry about. A little harmless flirting won’t have any consequences. You’ve been watching me do it for years, haven’t you?”
“I never understood why you would take the risk,” I say.
“There’s no real risk,” she says tonelessly. “The men you have to worry about never flirt. They never even talk to you at all. They don’t need to. They simply…inquire.”
“You mean they ask the Vestalis Maxima about you?” I say, appalled.
“They do,” she confirms. “They lose interest pretty quickly when they realize who Daddy is, though. But she tells me about them anyway, so I know which ones to avoid. I’d rather not be a temptation.”
“That’s foul,” I say. Suddenly I’m grateful to have been spared from any similar inquiries. “Would she ever allow someone to take advantage of us?”
“I’m sure she would never willingly allow it. But if they had enough leverage or political power, she might not be able to resist,” says Lucia. “You remember Flavia.”
I do remember Flavia.
“But Flavia was an anomaly,” Lucia says. “Most of the time, things never go that far. Flavia was a victim of circumstance. It never mattered whether she was a virgin.”
“It mattered that somebody important wanted her dead,” I say.
“Right,” Lucia confirms. “You remember what it was like when we were young. Everybody bent the rules. Nobody cared. I mean, of course you shouldn’t be flagrant. You shouldn’t be watched, you shouldn’t be obvious.”
I smile as a memory from the seashore comes back to me. “Didn’t you once tackle Cassius for brushing some hair from your neck?”
“Oh, Cassius.” She scoffs. “I was furious with him for being so presumptuous. I mean, he was already endangering all of our lives by teaching us to invoke the gods, but, you know, no big deal. Why not throw some fooling around into the mix?”
I have to laugh at this. “You weren’t worried about anybody seeing us?”
“No,” she says. “But being isolated with Cassius doesn’t mean I automatically want him to touch me.”
“I would never feel comfortable with something like that, even in private,” I say. “I would be too nervous about getting caught to really enjoy myself.”
Lucia sighs. “Olivia, if someone powerful really wants to condemn you, they can do it. They can fabricate evidence. They can buy witnesses. The pontiffs always know their verdict before the trial even starts. So why bother being perfect?” she asks. “It doesn’t matter in the end.”
The rest of my time shadowing Gaius passes quickly, and I find the material easy to absorb. While he retains his customary reserve towards me, he also treats me with something like respect. And I happily observe that I am at least as pretty as most of the girls in his classes.
Gaius has adapted his teaching style to his audience, and he is much less severe than he would be if we were really academy students. Still, his tone has a certain authority that makes the girls treat him with a deference bordering on awe. It’s not a strategy that I can use in my own class. I’ll be a clueless sixteen-year-old girl, and I will probably have to teach at least some women who are older than I am.
One day, a young academy student steps into our classroom, hoping to have me carry a message. I’m about to comply when Gaius stops me. “Do your errands yourself,” he scolds the boy, who retreats hastily.
“I would have been happy to take his message,” I tell Gaius, surprised by his tone. “It’s no problem. What was that all about?”
“You’re my assistant,” he says pointedly, as though it’s obvious. “And I agree with Marta,” he adds, surprising us both with a rare moment of candor. “It’s wrong to ask you to save the nation and also take care of our chores.”
I smile at him, touched by this sentiment. As happens frequently now, I suddenly wish fervently that I was not a Vestal. How much I want to kiss him.
Gaius doesn’t return my smile. Instead he turns to organize the papers on his desk and clears his throat. “This is an awkward time to ask this,” he says, “but I haven’t eaten and there’s another class in fifteen minutes. Can you go get something from the kitchens?”
“Of course. With pleasure,” I say with another smile and start off to get his meal. I spend my walk to the kitchens wondering if anyone has a spare million sesterces lying around to buy me out of my Vestal contract.
That afternoon, Gaius asks me to teach a portion of his class under his supervision. I’m nervous, but I rise to the occasion, hiding my nerves and only making a few mistakes, which I immediately correct. He watches me attentively, and seems satisfied with my progress. After class, he tells me I’m ready to take on students of my own. “You’ll be fine,” he assures me, sensing my trepidation. “They rarely bite.” And I think I see him smile as I leave his office.
The next morning I am installed in my own classroom. I’m pleased to find that it’s located on the first floor of the main hall, at the end of a very long corridor. If I need to step out, I can walk a few paces down the hall and exit through a side door onto the grassy lawn. Despite the fact that I know I’m well prepared, something tells me I might need a few breathers on my first day.
I’m waiting nervously when Cassius leads about thirty girls into my room. “Everyone,” he says happily, “I am pleased to present you to your instructor. Olivia, these girls have just stepped off their carts. While I’m arranging for their things to be placed in their new living area, why don’t you give them a short introduction about the program?” And he leaves us there, beaming at me as he backs out the classroom door.
“Well hello, everyone!” I say, mimicking Cassius’s tone as though it will imbue me with some of his confidence.
These girls are looking a bit overwhelmed. They’ve all made a very scary choice. And now they’ve arrived in a strange place and been greeted by a strange, overly enthusiastic man.
“Um, don’t mind Cassius,” I say, looking after him. “He’s always that way. He’s in a perpetually good mood.”
“I don’t mind it,” says one of the girls, giggling. “He’s cute.” This sets the entire room off.
“And your name is—?” I ask, smiling at her.
“I’m Tullia,” she says. She looks to be about fifteen, with curly brown hair. She has a sweet smile.
“Nice to meet you,” I say, and then I hesitate, unsure how much to reveal. I decide in favor of honesty, hoping to win their trust. “I like the dark haired one,” I tell them conspiratorially. “Gaius.”
“Ooh, he is cute too,” says a small, blue-eyed girl from the back. This gives us all another fit of the giggles. Teaching a class of my peers might be easier than I thought.
“Did you all go to the Temple of Vesta for the aid program?” I ask, suddenly wanting to talk of home.
“Yes,” an older girl says. She looks to be about seventeen. “I met the Vestalis Maxima. She was so nice.”
There’s a knock at my door. Gaius peers in, standing with his colleague Mettius. “Olivia,” he says, “can I borrow you for just a moment?”
“Sure, Gaius!” I say brightly. All the girls laugh heartily when they recognize this name. Gaius and Mettius look confused as I usher them out and close the classroom door behind me.
Just in case we need privacy, I take the boys with me through the side door, and we step out onto the grass. “What can I help you with?”
“Olivia, the instructor who was going to take your class for the afternoon is sick,” Gaius begins. “So when you finish your work with them this morning, please take them over to—”
I never hear where Gaius wants me to take the girls. With a deafening blast, an explosion rips us from the ground and sends us flying.