I open my eyes to find myself lying in a pile of debris. Mettius and Gaius stand over me, checking whether I am conscious. When they see I’m awake, they try to help me up. I can hear the sound of my own breath, but I’m having trouble focusing on Mettius as he tells me something. “I’m going to get the flamen,” I think he says. Then he dashes off.
My brain has finally pieced together what happened. “Gaius,” I say, and then I stumble over some broken stone as I try to stand. “Gaius, I’m going to see if I can help any of them.”
“No,” he says immediately, and he tries to restrain me. But I’ve regained my focus, and I evade him. He lunges for me and grabs me around the waist. “Olivia, no. There’s nothing you can do. You can’t go in there.”
“I have to,” I gasp, wrestling free of him. He follows me shakily as I stagger back inside. “Olivia!” he demands. “No, you can’t. Please don’t.” And he cuts in front of me, holding his arm across my classroom door to block my path. “Listen to me. Do not go in there. There’s nothing you need to see,” he says desperately. But I grab his wrist and break his grip, and I’m through the door.
Gaius was right. There’s nothing here to save. I lean my weight against the doorframe and slide to the floor, staring, as he paces in the hall. All the girls that were so alive, so vibrant just minutes ago, lie broken on the floor. They are gone forever.
“Olivia,” he says, as though talking to a small child, “come away from there. Take my hand and let’s go.” So I let him lead me out onto the lawn. As we exit, the flamen and his entourage arrive and begin assessing the damage. I see a lot of very pale faces in the crowd.
Gaius and the flamen begin talking and gesturing, but I can’t absorb what they’re saying. I wander away aimlessly and somehow end up lying on the bed in my room. I’m there for what seems like a very short while, but the sun moves all the way across the floor before I can get up again. Gaius pokes his head in at one point, but clearly just to check my whereabouts. No one has any questions for me.
I decide to get some air, so I walk out along the training grounds. Then I find the road. Without really knowing it, I head for my father’s house. I don’t want to stay at the academy anymore, and I don’t want to be at the House of Vestals. Those are places my heart no longer recognizes. I want my real home.
It takes me over an hour to reach it, but when I finally see my house, I’m grateful to find my mother in front of it. She’s astonished when I run up and embrace her. I’m glad for a moment that she has the same curves I do, because hugging her is so comforting. “Olivia!” she says in surprise, “where have you been? I’ve been at the temple, and no one had seen you anywhere.”
“I was on a special project,” I say, “and I’m sick of it. I just need to clear my head for a while.”
“Come in and sit down,” my mother invites me, brushing a wisp of hair from my face, comforting me. As we sit by the hearth, my mother directs the servants to heat up some water for a bath. “You’ll feel better afterward,” she says.
Without the girls to do my hair after I wash it, I adopt Lucia’s strategy and tie it back with a scarf. Then I join my family for dinner.
“Olivia, is something wrong?” my mother asks. They all look at me with concern.
“It’s just…there was a terrible accident at the Academy of Mars today,” I say. “I heard about it, and I just feel awful. Lots of people died. A Selanthi weapon exploded.”
“A Selanthi weapon?” my brother Marcus asks, a hint of satisfaction in his voice.
“Yes,” I say, “and it’s tragic.”
“Too bad,” he says, but there’s gleam of triumph in his eyes. “Anyone you know killed?” he probes. “Did Marta make it? Did Lucia?”
“Well why would they be at the Academy of Mars…” I trail off. He knows too much. Suddenly I feel sick. “What have you heard?”
“It’s not what I’ve heard, it’s what I’ve seen,” he says. “I’ve been helping Titus and a few of his friends with their daily deliveries to the academy. We’ve paid some…extended visits, shall I say. It’s amazing how invisible you can be as a deliveryman, really. The things people say and do when they think you’re not paying attention. The things you can learn.”
“Like how to detonate black powder?” I ask slowly. I already know the truth, but I don’t want to believe it.
“Where to find it, where to plant it, how to blow it up…,” he says with poorly concealed satisfaction.
“Were you there?” I whisper. Nobody at the table moves. It’s hard to say how much they understand, but they know something terrible is about to happen between me and my brother.
“No,” he says with mock regret. “I had to be out in the fields today with our father, but I wished the boys success.”
“They killed thirty women,” I scream, launching myself across the table at him. My father scrambles to restrain me. “Olivia, please!” he says, frightened.
“They ‘killed’ thirty deadwomen,” Marcus says coldly. “For a woman to invoke the gods, the penalty is death. We just carried it out early, in the name of Mars Ultor, the avenger. And you should count yourself lucky you weren’t among them, Olivia.”
“I almost was!” I scream at him. “I was right outside the door! I could have died!”
“You should have died,” Marcus corrects me.
“I’ll kill you,” I scream, totally unhinged. I kick against my father to try to set myself free.
“Stop! Stop!” roars my father, and we habitually obey him. His face is a mixture of shock and confusion. “Olivia, is this true?” he asks me. “Are you really involved with those women down at the academy? Are you invoking the gods?”
“Yes,” I say defiantly. “And we’re going to save this whole ungrateful country whether they want us to or not.”
“The Parcaean army doesn’t need a few hundred women to win this war,” my brother snaps at me. “We have the strongest fighters in the world. We’re winning already without you.”
“Wrong,” I say. “And by the way, I don’t see you signing up to fight for this great nation of yours.”
Marcus raises his hand as though to slap me, but he doesn’t follow through. We’re all frozen in the deadly pause that follows. As I look at him I think, This is my brother, who used to make me straw dolls to play with when I was four. This is a boy who once walked six miles to get me hazelnuts because he knew they were my favorite.
“Stop it,” my father commands Marcus. “I’ll deal with you later.” Then he turns to me. “Olivia,” he says, “who led you into this blasphemy? Why would you consider doing a thing like this?”
“No one led me into it. I’m doing it because if I don’t, we’ll all die. I don’t have a choice. You have to understand that,” I plead. “The enemy is too strong. We have to fight. Even the Flamen Martialis thinks so.”
My father doesn’t respond. Instead, he paces the length of the kitchen in agitation as we wait for his reaction. My mother and sisters are frozen in their chairs, not daring to raise their eyes to him, but I don’t look away. I watch his face for some sign of what’s to come, my heart racing. He seems to be reaching a decision.
“Olivia, I don’t know what twisted theology you’ve been fed, but you should know better than to get mixed up with these criminals,” he finally says, anger in his voice. “Six years ago I gave you to Vesta in the hope that you would bring us all honor and blessings from the gods. You’ve destroyed that hope and disappointed all my expectations. You’ve committed a horrible blasphemy at the academy, and you’re not welcome here anymore.” He won’t meet my eyes as he delivers this blow.
My mother lets out a wail of grief, but I’ve heard enough and I’m in no mood to comfort her. There’s nothing further to be said. I turn and walk out his front door with the knowledge that it’s for the last time.
I have nowhere to go. The House of Vestals, the academy, my father’s home…I never want to see any of them again. There’s only one place left. The place where all of this started, and my life changed forever. I head for the clearing.
My tears have left me with a severe headache, but the pain is soothed by the peace and beauty of the woods. I try to focus only on picking my way over tree roots and low branches, letting all my other thoughts fall away. But when I reach the clearing, I discover I’m not alone in my need for solitude. Cassius is here, sitting underneath the fig tree. He starts when he sees me.
“Olivia,” he says, “what are you doing here? Does anyone from the academy know where you’ve gone?”
“No,” I admit. “I didn’t think about it. I just needed to walk. I went to my father’s house…and now I’m here.”
“The light is fading,” Cassius says. “I just came for a little peace and quiet, to settle my nerves after...I was just about to leave. Maybe it’s best for you to stay at your house tonight, and I’ll walk back and tell everyone that you’re safe.”
“I can’t go back there,” I say, and the pain in my voice makes him look at me more closely.
“You’ve been crying,” he says. “Clearly, things didn’t go well. You told them about the attack?”
“I can guess their reaction. They’re in sympathy with Senator Accius’s rabid crowd.”
My eyes start to sting.
“Come on,” he offers, “come on home with me. We can talk about it as we walk.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” I say flatly.
“What do you think you’re going to do?” he asks. “You think you’re going to live here for the rest of your life?”
“No. But I need to be here tonight. I can’t stand the thought of going back there, dealing with all those people, answering questions. I just need some time to myself.”
Cassius sighs. “This is a really bad idea, you know.”
“I don’t care what the people at the academy think. They don’t own me,” I say with finality. “I’ll do what I want.”
As I speak, Cassius is up and rooting around in a hidden compartment under his experimental wheat setup. “I used to sleep out here when I was doing an experiment that required me take measurements every twelve hours,” he says. “It was too much hassle to keep coming out here morning and evening.” He pulls out a few blankets and begins to string a hammock between two of the trees bordering the clearing. “Unless you’d like to try to sleep in the fig tree,” he says.
“Thank you,” I say. “I need this. Thank you so much.” Although it’s not yet fully dark, I crawl into the hammock and curl up into a ball. It’s really very comfortable. Cassius lays a few of the blankets down and stretches out.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“I’m getting settled,” he says. “Do you really think I’m going to let you sleep out here all alone?”
“Please don’t,” I say. “You need to get back. I thought you were all concerned about the people at the academy not knowing where I am.”
“I’ll do what I want,” he mimics me.
I guess there’s no arguing with that.
As we lay quietly, watching the light fade, a thought strikes me. “How is your experiment going, Cassius?”
“Which one?” he says, momentarily confused. “Oh, the one with the wheat? It’s completely worthless now. I haven’t been out here to check on it.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, stricken that all his work has been for nothing.
“There are more important things to worry about, Olivia,” he reminds me gently. Cassius can go back to doing his experiments after this battle, I reflect. It doesn’t matter that this one failed. He can start over again. But what will I have left after we win the war?
For comfort, I soundlessly recite a prayer to Vesta. She’s not real, but she still feels like home. Maybe I can forget.
My sleep is unexpectedly restful and dreamless, although I’m disturbed a few times by a noisy owl. When I wake at dawn, I have a renewed sense of purpose. I can mourn my old life later, after the war is over. For now, I choose to rededicate myself to fighting. There really are no other alternatives, but it feels better than trudging back to the academy just because I have to.
“It was a nice rest,” says Cassius, “although now I am covered in dew.” He begins rolling up his blankets, and I hop down from the hammock so he can put it away. Then he stuffs his bag with figs from Lucia’s tree and gives me some to keep in my pocket as a snack. “Just don’t show anyone,” he says. “We don’t want awkward questions about why figs are in season four months early.” We take sips from the water jug he brought, and then we’re on our way back to the open road.
As we approach the academy from afar, I can see someone pacing at the gate. When we draw closer I see that it’s Gaius. He does not look happy.
“If you were in the army, you’d be court-martialed for this,” he says to Cassius with feeling.
“Lucky I’m not!” Cassius replies cheerfully.
“You know,” says Gaius, incensed, “when we started this program I begged the flamen to let me induct all the trainees. I said, let’s create some auxiliary rank, a little title so the girls can feel official. Let’s put them into the military environment, teach them about the consequences of going absent without leave, for example. It would give me such great pleasure to be able to throw both of you in jail.” As he finishes his speech, he looks at me for the first time.
“What’s up, Olivia?” he asks.
“I know who did it,” I say, looking at the ground. “I know who killed the girls.”
“Oh,” Gaius says, thrown off beat. “Well then, let’s go debrief,” he says, and without further comment he marches us across the campus to the flamen’s office.
The flamen is at his desk, poring over some maps and dictating to one of his assistants. When he sees us, a strange expression crosses his face. I realize that it is the first time I have ever seen him angry.
“Olivia,” he says, “this can’t happen again. We’ve all been beside ourselves with worry, and as you well know, this is a very important effort and we can’t afford to deal with lost women on top of everything else…” He trails off. My eyes have started to sting again. I must look like I’m about to have a breakdown.
Gaius clears his throat. “Flamen, Olivia says she has information about the bombing.”
“Um…then by all means, please tell us what you know,” the flamen says. I get the sense he does not want to handle a sobbing woman in his office. This has not been part of his military training.
“I didn’t…intend…to scare anyone,” I say in a small voice. “I was upset about the bombing so I walked to my father’s farm to see my family, just for a little while.” The thought of my family fills me with grief. Now I’m afraid I really will break down.
“Okay, Olivia,” says the flamen gently. “I understand why you left. Please continue.”
“I told them there was an accident, and then my brother…he somehow knew all about it. His friend Titus is the deliveryman who comes every day.”
“Uh.” The flamen exhales, hanging his head. “How stupid we’ve all been. We’ve worked with the same suppliers for years. We never had a second thought about their trustworthiness or their intentions. We’ve been idiots!” he slams his hand on his desk, channeling Marta. “So it was Titus?”
“Yes.” I give a small nod. “And some of his friends, from what my brother said. They worship Mars Ultor.” I should explain further, but I can’t bear to continue.
“Mars Ultor!” the flamen exclaims. “I’ve heard reports of some cults springing up. If we weren’t so preoccupied, I would have paid more attention. Righteous anger is a dangerous thing. It can get out of control fast.” He runs his hand through his hair, his distress evident. “And your brother?” he asks. “Was he involved?”
I’m finding it hard to speak now. I sit silently for a long time.
Gaius clears his throat and breaks in. “Sir, will you have Titus arrested? Since his friends are unnamed, he’ll have to be pressured to give them up as well.”
“I will immediately have him arrested on suspicion,” says the flamen, allowing this change in topic, “but it’s going to be very hard to manage a full investigation with everything else that’s going on. That may need to wait until after the battle.”
“But that doesn’t matter,” I say suddenly. Everyone looks at me. “You don’t really need evidence, right? You can fabricate it. You can buy witnesses. He has to die for this.”
The flamen stares at me in shock. I realize that everyone in the room has tensed, waiting for his response, which never comes. Instead, after a long moment, he changes the subject. “Olivia,” he says, his voice mild, “we’ve all been through a lot. Julia and Honoria have asked me to invite you to a small dinner they’re putting together tonight. They feel we need a few moments away from the war, and I would be very pleased if you would join us.”
“I would be happy to,” I say, thrown off by this unexpected offer.
“Thank you very much,” says the flamen. “I look forward to seeing you there.” Though his voice is kind, this is clearly a dismissal. I rise and hurry from his office, silently thanking Diana for helping me control my tears.
When I find Lucia, she’s in the dining hall having breakfast. She runs to me when she sees me walking toward her. “Where have you been?” she whispers.
“At home,” I say shortly. “I found out who was behind the bombing. It was Marcus and his friends.” I don’t think I can stand to lay the whole story out a second time.
Lucia blanches and stares at me. “No. That can’t be true. I’ve known him for years. He’s not capable of something like that!” she insists, hoping to convince herself.
“These past few weeks have shown we’re all capable of much more than we realized,” I say.
“Come with me,” she suggests, “and let’s talk about it.”
Lucia and I walk along the training center beach, which is empty while the academy prepares a special memorial service for the girls who died. As I relate my story from home, she squeezes my hand and laces her fingers through mine. Then she’s quiet for a long time. When she finds her voice again, she fills me in on the past day’s events. “The flamen gathered us all together yesterday afternoon and talked to us,” Lucia explains. “He told the girls what Senator Accius has been saying and said that anyone who wished to leave could do so. But then he talked about our importance to the war and how the fate of the country rests on us, blah, blah, blah, and only about a hundred girls left in the end. There are still enough of us to defend the city, and it’s possible some more girls will be arriving tomorrow, although after the bombing, I don’t know.”
“I wouldn’t, if it were me,” I say. “If I had never found out about Vesta and learned how to grow the anemone, I wouldn’t have dared to volunteer.”
“I know,” Lucia says. “You always saw yourself as a good girl. You always played by the rules.”
“Until I found out that the rules are crap,” I say, and she gives me a small smile.
The flamen’s home is not far from campus, but he has sent a few carts to pick us up anyway. As we all gather for the ride, I see his wife has only invited Lucia, Gaius, Cassius, Mettius, and a few of his other top aides. I feel even more honored to be attending.
“Welcome back, Olivia.” Mettius smiles. “I heard you went on a little adventure.” Clearly he doesn’t know the details of my meeting with the flamen or he wouldn’t have brought it up.
“I did!” I laugh with him. “But I’m safe and sound now.” I notice Gaius observing me closely as I reply.
The flamen’s house is magnificent, a beautiful home built in the modern style, light and airy. When we arrive, we all beg to be taken for a tour as dinner is being prepared. Julia, good-humored as always, is delighted to show us around. She leads us through the vestibule into the atrium, the central part of the house. As in all Parcaean homes, the atrium has a rectangular hole in the roof, and rainwater collects in a pool in the floor. The rainwater basin in my family home was decorated with a mosaic, but we had only a geometric pattern. I gasp when I see the flamen’s mosaic. It is an intricate and beautiful illustration of sea life, complete with a gorgeous orange octopus. “How beautiful!” Lucia says.
“Thank you,” Julia smiles. “This is my husband’s favorite piece in the house. I’ll show you all of our plaster frescoes, of course, but most of those involve Mars in some way. I think Aulus enjoys a little variety.”
Past the atrium is the peristyle, or colonnaded garden. Many of the house’s bedrooms and offices open onto this courtyard. “Your garden is looking lovely,” Cassius remarks to Julia.
“Aren’t you sweet!” she replies. “I’m very happy with it this year. Aulus wants a small fruit tree in the corner, but we haven’t been able to get one to live there.”
“Lucia can help you with that,” Cassius says, giving us an amused glance.
After the peristyle, the house opens onto a wooded lawn bordering a small lake. “It’s beautiful out, and there should be some moonlight,” says Honoria, joining us. “Later we’ll have stargazing and maybe go out on the water.”
Julia leads us to the dining room, where Gaius chooses the seat next to mine. When we’re all settled, the Flamen Martialis welcomes us. “Let us have some wine,” he says. “I’ve been saving these bottles for a special occasion. This is an excellent vintage from a region in southern Parcae. It’s not easy to get.”
Wine sounds like a great idea to me, and I let the servants give me a generous pour. After the toast, Gaius and I both drain our glasses as Honoria laughs.
“Be careful, kids,” the flamen says with mild alarm. “That’s stronger stuff than you might be used to.”
“Excellent,” says Gaius. “We’ll have two refills over here,” he says, motioning to the servants.
Then dinner is served, and it’s definitely one to remember. I’ve never seen so many dishes on a family table before. I’m so busy eating I forget to listen to my companions. When I finally tune in, Lucia is enthusing to Gaius about the lamb stew she’s trying, and Mettius is talking to the flamen.
“How long until the Selanthi arrive, do we think?” asks Mettius.
The flamen sighs. “Only four or five days. Soon I’ll be assigning groups of girls to their various battle posts. Our reinforcements from the north have already begun to assume their positions.”
“Enough, boys,” says Julia, waving her hands. “This is a war-free zone. Finish your meals. I’ve had the servants set out blankets on the lawn, and when you’re done we’ll all go out and enjoy the evening.” This means I might lose access to my wine source, so I motion for another refill. I’m starting to feel the positive effects already. For a few hours I can be free of the relentless anxiety pressing on me.
When we step out into the fresh evening air, I thank Julia from my heart for herding us all outside. It’s a gorgeous evening, clear and perfect. It’s warm, but there’s a gentle breeze blowing.
Most of our group is enthusiastic about going out on the lake in the small family rowboats, but I’m feeling a touch too dizzy to do much exploring, and it looks like Gaius is feeling the same way. The servants beckon us to a blanket they’ve spread out in a secluded area, and we lay out to gaze at the stars and, hopefully, stay anchored to the earth.
“Look at Cassius and Lucia,” he says, pointing to them. They are perilously close to tipping their boat.
“Mm,” I say dreamily. “They both shine in the moonlight. They would be the perfect couple. If their heights were reversed.”
Gaius laughs. It’s an unexpectedly happy sound, free of restraint and anxiety, something you would never extract from him sober. I’m thankful I had the opportunity to hear it.
As we watch the sky, we start quizzing each other on our knowledge of the stars. “There’s Ursa Major,” he says, pointing the constellation out to me. “The Great Bear. If memory serves, doesn’t it have something to do with your nymph Callisto that Marta was talking about?”
“Yes,” I confirm. “Jupiter saw Diana about to shoot Callisto with an arrow. So he took her and her son and placed them up in the sky as Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. I always thought it was a bit unfair,” I say, pondering this conclusion to the story.
“Why? He protected them,” Gaius says.
“I mean, it’s not like he did them a big favor. They were about to die, sure, but now they’re just stuck up there forever.”
“At least they look pretty,” Gaius says, contemplating them.
I close my eyes and lose myself in the haze of wine for a moment. I think of Lucia. What’s the point of being perfect? I ask myself.
“I would love to be up in the sky like that,” remarks Gaius. “You could see everything, know everything that was happening. What a comfort that would be.”
But I’m not really listening. Instead, I’m hazily thinking of the battle for Polonia, and what will come after. No point to being perfect, I think to myself.
I roll up onto my side and look at Gaius. His eyes are closed now. He drank twice as much as I did, so he’s probably as dizzy as I am. Carefully, I lean over him, so close I feel his breath on my face. My hair falls over my shoulder and onto his chest, and he absently runs his hand through it.
No point, I think.
As I lean into him, I brush his lips with mine, skimming them gently. For a moment, I think he will kiss me. Instead he inhales sharply and grabs my wrist. His grip is like iron.
“Ow,” I say.
“Can it be possible,” he says in utter astonishment, sitting up on one elbow, “that you have somehow forgotten that you are a Vestal Virgin?”
“No.” I look at him sadly. “But there’s really no such thing, is there?”
At that moment I hear Lucia calling us as her group walks up from the shoreline. “Olivia, time to go home,” she sings, drawing out the words. I hop up from my blanket, thankful to be able to avoid further conversation with Gaius, who is frowning at me. My happy haze of wine has vanished. Now I just desperately want to go home and sleep. And possibly cry.
On our cart ride back to the academy, Gaius sits in silence, avoiding my eyes. He is clearly disturbed by my attempt to kiss him. Belatedly, I remember that men can be punished for transgressions with Vestals, although I can’t recall a single case of that ever happening. Still, it’s not the kind of risk Gaius would normally take.
“What was going on with you and Gaius?” Lucia asks as we walk back to our dormitory. “It looked like he was trying to hold your hand, but you were twisting away. Did he make a move and you rejected him?”
“Ha-ha,” I say. “Like Gaius would ever try something.”
“You never know,” she says. “This morning he asked me about tomorrow being your birthday. I thought it was kind of weird that he would know that, like he had been paying attention to you or something.”
“What?” I say. “How would he know my birthday?”
Lucia just shrugs. “Their records on you, I guess? He was asking if you might have gone somewhere because of that, like to see the other Vestals or something. Happy birthday, by the way. I didn’t get you anything. I forgot with all the craziness going on.”
“So did I,” I say honestly.
But I don’t receive any birthday wishes from Gaius the next morning, when I report to him for another assignment. In fact, he appears to have dispensed with sarcasm altogether and has become downright unpleasant. He ignores me whenever possible, and when he does speak to me I get a few clipped syllables of harsh criticism. This is obviously a transparent attempt to rebuff further romantic advances, like he thinks I’m going to ambush him in the hallway and try to make out with him or something. I just laugh when he speaks to me this way, which only makes him angrier.
I decline to take another class. Instead, I request to spend my time assisting Lucia as she meets new recruits to bless them and show them the basics of invoking Diana. If there is another bombing, I want to share her fate, whatever that might be. Lucia is grateful for my company, which she finds much more stimulating than her Academy of Mars student chaperones. “They’re so stuffy,” she whispers to me. “None of them like to flirt.”
To our surprise, the recruits keep coming, despite news of the bombing. We discover that the flamen’s official statement to the public was that a weapons test on the academy grounds went wrong, and a training class for the refugee aid program unfortunately took the blast. When the girls arrive on campus, they all learn the truth, but they are assured that security has doubled and that no other attacks will occur. And most of them believe it.
Lucia introduces me to each class of recruits, although there’s no real reason to. When the Mars boys are out of earshot, she tells them all the story of how I helped her discover her talent, and how we prayed to Iris and Mercury before settling on Diana. I’m pretty sure Gaius would not approve of this knowledge sharing, but the girls are fascinated by it, and both Lucia and I are proud of our discovery. I take a secret pleasure in not attributing our success to academy research.
On my second day with Lucia, I see a familiar face in the crowd. “Fausta!” I say, extremely surprised. “You’re here. What made you join?”
Fausta doesn’t look happy as she replies. “My sister died in the explosion,” she says. “I begged her not to come here, but she did.”
“Oh gods, I’m so sorry,” I say. My pain for her is immediate and overwhelming. “You were right, Fausta,” I say, dropping my voice. “You were right that we’re all putting ourselves in danger here. Why have you come?” I ask. There’ve been moments when I’ve wished more girls would have taken her view and stayed far away from the program.
“Yes,” she says, “I was right. As soon as the flamen came to tell us she was dead, I knew I was right. But there’s no satisfaction in it. My sister died because she wanted to do something worthwhile, something she could be proud of. They took that away from her. We should all show them,” she says, “that we’ll keep fighting. That they can’t stop us.”
“That’s right. We have to keep fighting,” I agree, strengthened by her resolve.
The next day a change occurs at the academy. As the Selanthi approach, the girls are assigned to various battle stations on the coast around Polonia. The Selanthi army will not all arrive at once, nor will they all land at the closest points for attacking the city. Instead, the flamen and our generals expect that part of their fleet will stop at more convenient landing points north of the city, so we have already apportioned our newly arrived troops to these strategically important locations. Some of the girls are also assigned to various ships in the Parcaean navy, but since this is a higher-risk assignment, they prioritize those that meet certain qualifications, like those who have siblings who aren’t involved in the war effort. I would be an excellent candidate.
Cassius and I are together when Mettius stops to give us our assignments. I am immediately glad to see we’re both in the same group, but Cassius’s face fills with dismay. “What is this?” he asks Mettius angrily. “This position is southof the city. There is no way this location will see any action. I want a reassignment.”
“You’ll have to talk to Gaius,” Mettius says. “He’s in charge of assigning trainees to their stations.”
“Come on,” Cassius says to me with purpose. We walk around the lawn until he catches sight of Gaius, who is handing out assignments in front of the training center.
“What is this?” he says, waving his assignment in Gaius’s face. “You did this on purpose. You want us to lounge around getting a tan on the southern beaches while our friends die in Polonia? How is that fair?”
“That southern location is, in fact, important, as you should have already gathered by the evidence before you, Mr. Empirical Scientist. Why else would we assign people out there?” Gaius says in a bored tone, not bothering to look up from his clipboard.
“Oh, I don’t know, so you can try to control every aspect of our freaking lives as usual?” Cassius says angrily, stepping closer to Gaius.
“Besides,” Gaius continues, unperturbed, “Olivia doesn’t have the range to be able to handle our northern locations.”
“Olivia’s range is excellent, as you well know,” Cassius hisses in Gaius’s ear. “This is some kind of retaliation against us, and I am not going to accept it without an explanation.”
“Fine,” Gaius almost yells, dropping his act. “You really want to know why you are assigned to the south, Cassius? It is because you are unable to comply with even the simplest instructions. You do what you want, when you want, and you’re completely indifferent to the consequences. You’re a liability, and you don’t belong in a military setting.” Gaius jabs his finger into Cassius’s chest to punctuate each accusation. “And I continue to see fresh proof that Olivia,” Gaius continues, pointing at me, “obviously has an insane death wish. And as I won’t have time to stop her from doing whatever incredibly stupid thing she’s going to try next, she’s going south where, if she tries hard, she might be able to live at least one more suicidal day,” he finishes with a furious wave. “That’s final. I control the assignments, and the flamen won’t overrule me. This conversation is over.” And he strides away angrily.
“Gods,” sighs Cassius, running his hand through his hair. “It sounds like we’re out of luck, Olivia.”
“It seems that way,” I say numbly. I can’t believe that after all I’ve lost, all I’ve sacrificed, I don’t even get to contribute to the war effort. Gaius tries to be cruel, but I can tell it’s mostly an act. He has now achieved it unintentionally by trying to keep us safe.
“What was he talking about with all that ‘death wish’ stuff?” Cassius asks.
“What? Oh. I tried to kiss him. Don’t tell Lucia,” I say, suddenly tired.
“Ohmigods,” says Cassius, hushed. He puts his hand to his mouth. Then he tries to suppress a laugh. “Did you really? That’s hilarious. I can’t believe it. What were you thinking?” he says, overcome by giggles.
“I wasn’t thinking. I was drunk.”
“Well, I guess we’ve all been there.” Cassius laughs, all sympathy. “What did he do?”
“He was mad.”
“Ha! You mean he was furious,” he commiserates, trying to suppress another bout of laughter and only partially succeeding. “Ha-ha. Well, trust him to turn down a pretty girl.” He wipes his eyes, then gives me a kind smile and pats my shoulder. This is one thing I like about Cassius. He knows when people need an ego boost, and he’s not shy about handing them out. “Don’t worry about it. He doesn’t know how to handle these situations. Mr. Lieutenant Bullshit is not really a smooth operator,” he says.
“Really?” I say. “Don’t all the girls like him? I’m sure he’s had lots of girlfriends.”
“That guy?” Cassius laughs. “If you think that guy’s not a virgin, I have a sacred flame to sell you.”
“Shut up,” I say, laughing with him.
“Ooh, did you guys get your little paper slips?” says Lucia, skipping up to us and waving hers merrily. “I’m right in front of the city.”
“Of course you are, you’re the city’s best defender!” I say admiringly. “But we won’t be with you. Gaius is sticking us on some beach in the south so we won’t see any action.”
“What?” Lucia exclaims, displeased. “I’ll talk to him. He never refuses me. You have to be with me during the battle.”
But Lucia’s eyelashes are batted in vain that day. Gaius is unmoved by her pleas, and she can’t even get the flamen on her side. As the Selanthi draw closer, Cassius and I accept that I will never get to fire a single shot against the enemy.
The day before we expect the assault on Polonia dawns clear and unseasonably cool. Today we’ll leave the academy to find our battle positions, so we can settle in and be watchful as the time draws closer. Some of the groups who have stations far north of the city have already left, and all of the girls assigned to the navy are already at sea.
As Cassius and I help to load bags of provisions into the carts that will take us out of the city, we see Lucia walking toward us. “You have to come pray to Victoria before you go,” she entreats. We follow her to the lawn to find a massive shrine to Victoria, goddess of victory. A large crowd has already gathered around it, and they seem to be listening to someone deliver a prayer. Cassius elbows a number of people aside so we can both see. It’s nice to have another short person around to do all my pushing and shoving for me.
The Pontifex Maximus is here at the academy. The Flamen Martialis is standing next to him, listening respectfully with the rest of the crowd as the Pontifex entreats Victoria to bless us and guide us to victory in the coming battle. As he finishes, he looks into the crowd.
“Ah, Lucia Maximianus,” he says with a smile, “would you do me the honor of invoking our goddess Victoria to help us end this war?”
This draws gasps from the crowd. It’s one thing for the Pontifex Maximus to allow the academy girls to invoke Diana. But it’s quite another to actually invite a woman to do so. My heart swells with relief. The Pontifex understands. He really does support us.
We all watch as Lucia takes the ceremonial cloth and binds her wrist. “Oh, Victoria, as I lack your godly power, so I invoke your aid. Hear my prayer and make my will your own,” she recites with reverence. Then she prays that we will triumph over the Selanthi attack. I feel a surge of confidence that the battle will go our way. The gods don’t refuse Lucia anything.
As the crowd disperses, Lucia comes to me again and kisses me on the cheek. “Come back to me, okay?” she says fondly.
I hug her to me, suddenly emotional. “Please be safe,” I say. “Don’t take any chances.”
“Lucia, it’s highly likely that our battle group will be sitting around with our feet up, cleaning our fingernails out of sheer boredom,” Cassius says. “If you want to worry about someone, worry about Gaius and Mettius. We’ll be fine.”
“Okay,” says Lucia. “But just in case, you be careful too.”
“I promise,” says Cassius gravely, and Lucia gives his cheek a kiss as well.
When we return to our carts, several young academy students are waiting for us. “And you are…Cassius Apelles? Olivia Agricola?” one of them asks, checking his notes. The academy doesn’t accept students under eighteen, or I would swear this boy is younger than me. He has a slight build and is thin and very blond. “I’m Servius Mutius,” he introduces himself, “your group commander.”
“Attention, everyone,” Servius says to the fifteen girls and two academy boys that make up our battle group. “We should reach our assigned station within about three hours of travel time. This location is of great strategic importance, so I expect everyone to pay strict attention to all of my orders. As your commander I can revoke your right to receive the final payment on your academy contracts, so you’d all do well to listen up and execute my requests promptly. I’m sorry, is something funny?”
This last part is directed at Cassius, who is hiding a huge smile under the guise of scratching his nose. “Oh, not at all,” Cassius says, rearranging his face to an expression of respectful attention. But he can’t manage it for long. When Servius turns away, his irrepressible smile breaks out again.
“Gaius Valerius warned me about you,” Servius says aggressively, his eyes darting back to Cassius. “And you’d do well to follow all of my orders, or I’ll cut your salary as well.”
“It’s a good thing I’m not getting paid for this!” Cassius says gleefully.
“Knock it off,” I say, elbowing him. I don’t want him kicked out of this battle group before we even get started.
“You’re right, you’re right, Olivia.” Cassius waves me off. “I apologize. You won’t have any trouble from me, sir. Let’s get on the road.”
Servius frowns at him. “I believe I give the orders here, Cassius,” he says.
Cassius makes no reply. The muscles in his face are busy trying not to smile.
“Okay, everyone. Let’s get on the road,” Servius decides.
Our way south is made more difficult by the traffic. The city has been emptying of civilians as news of the impending battle spreads. Everyone who can afford to leave is doing so. We draw angry insults from our fellow travelers as our large, bulky, and incredibly slow convoy blocks their path. We must have been given the oldest and most lethargic donkeys in the fleet.
“Oh, don’t mind us, we’re only defending your country,” Servius yells to a wizened old grandmother making a rude hand gesture.
“Would you prefer it if some of us got out and walked, Lieutenant Mutius?” Cassius asks.
“That’s not a bad idea, go ahead,” Servius allows after brief consideration. Then he clears his throat awkwardly. “By the way, I’d prefer if you just called me Servius,” he says.
“No problem. Did I get your rank right?” Cassius asks with mild politeness.
“It’s Private Mutius,” Servius says crisply.
“Wait, you’re not even an officer?” Cassius laughs in astonishment.
“All academy students hold the rank of private for their first year,” I explain to him.
“Oh, of course,” Cassius says, pretending to be mollified. But he gives me a wide-eyed smile behind Servius’s back. “Highly important strategic location,” he whispers to me when the others are out of earshot.
When we finally turn down a side road to the southern beach, everybody sighs with relief. My feet hurt. I think I have a blister. The horrors of war have begun.
When we reach our location, Servius shows each girl what position she should take should Selanthi ships be seen on the horizon.
“What happens if they gain the shore?” one of the girls asks.
“Hold out as long as you can, and then run,” he says grimly. “We don’t have any troops to back us up.”
“Highly…important…strategic…location,” Cassius whispers in my ear.
After our lesson, there’s nothing much to do but set up camp and wait. It would be a nice opportunity to enjoy the beach, if it weren’t so unseasonably cold. The wind coming off the water is chilly. I wish I had brought some extra clothes. And the temperature only drops farther as the sun sets.
“Okay, everyone,” Servius says after we make a campfire dinner, “time to get some sleep. Grab your kits and spread them in a ring around the fire. The boys will sleep at the perimeter. One of us will be on watch at all times.”
I make an effort to spread my pack out close to Cassius. If something crazy happens, he’s the person I want defending me. And if we can’t sleep, at least we can talk to each other.
Two hours later, I’m still awake and looking at the stars, pointedly ignoring Ursa Major. We’re in a sheltered part of the beach, nestled up next to cliffs that provide some protection from the wind, but I’m still too cold to sleep. I roll over and look to where Servius is keeping watch next to the fire. He is slumped over in the sand, clearly asleep.
“Cassius,” I whisper. “Cassius.”
“What?” he responds. He sounds only partially awake. I drag my pack a few yards over to his.
“Are you cold?” he asks groggily. “I’m sorry, I know it’s cold. You can put your feet on me if you need.”
So I do. Somehow he’s toasty warm. I huddle in my blanket, squeeze my eyes shut, and try not to think about Lucia, Gaius, and all of our friends in tomorrow’s battle. They will be hours away, where we can’t help them.
I wake at dawn, stiff and miserable. I’m sure I won’t be able to get any more sleep, so I sit up to watch the sunrise. At least I can get some pleasure out of this glorified camping trip. While I’m waiting, I eat some secret figs I have stashed in my pocket.
The sunrise is truly brilliant, the sky streaked with pink and orange as the sea glitters. As I watch the light grow, I notice a small black dot on the horizon. A fishing boat, maybe. It’s headed north. The sunlight grows more brilliant as the object slowly draws closer, and with a chill I recognize the distinctive curved silhouette of a Selanthi warship.
“Cassius,” I say desperately, shaking him, “wake up. There’s a ship. It’s the Selanthi.”
“What?” he says in horror, jerking up and scanning the horizon. “Oh my gods. I think you’re right. Servius,” he bellows, getting to his feet. “All of you. Get up. There’s a ship.”
Servius gasps as Cassius yanks him off the ground. “But this is impossible. I can’t believe this is happening,” he says, blinking in confusion.
“Everyone, clear up the campsite,” Cassius orders our group, some of whom are still yawning. “Academy students, set up the altars and get them ready for sacrifice. Move!” he yells as they scramble to comply.
“Olivia, you’re with me,” he says, grabbing my hand and pulling me up the embankment. We climb until we reach the top of the thirty-foot cliff that surrounds the beach, where we have a better vantage point. Servius comes puffing up behind us. “What,” he pants, “are you doing?”
“I don’t understand this ship,” says Cassius. “What does this mean? Why is there only one? I don’t think three hundred Selanthi soldiers are going to take anyplace by storm, much less a location as strategic as this one.”
“It may not even land here on the beach,” Servius says. “I don’t think it’s heading for this shore. It’s going north. Whatever it’s doing, it’s totally unexpected. They were never supposed to get this far south. All of the information we have indicated that they wouldn't even reach Polonia until later today.”
“They’re clever,” says Cassius. “They outsmarted you. That is a lighter, faster model than their normal warship.”
“How are they going to get all the way up the coast and still be able to fight?” Servius says. “They’re going against the wind. Look, they’re rowing. They’ll be exhausted by the time they arrive at the city.”
By now, our entire battle group has scrambled up the path after us, frightened and unsure. “What do we do?” asks one of the smaller girls in a shaky voice.
“I don’t want that ship going anywhere,” says Cassius suddenly. “We have to stop it. Something’s not right. What reason would the Selanthi have to isolate a single ship? Why don’t the men on it need to fight? Oh my gods,” he says, turning pale. Then he laughs. “Do you know the answer, Olivia?” he asks.
“There’s black powder on the ship,” I say, suddenly understanding.
“I can’t believethey’re still using it,” Cassius says. “They know we can blow it up. It has turned into their biggest liability. They don’t have it on the battlefields anymore, which has been a huge advantage for our troops. I heard the flamen and Gaius discussing it last week. Now it’s a numbers game. But why they brought it on a ship…” He shakes his head in wonderment.
“If they know we can blow it up,” I say, “maybe that’s what they want us to do. Maybe the ship is a weapon.” We all consider this.
“If that ship is filled with black powder,” says Servius in awe, “it could flatten half the city. We have to stop it now. It’s almost in range. We can detonate it with one of our bombs.”
“No, wait,” says Cassius. “Look.”
In the fifteen minutes that have passed since we sighted the ship, another flock of Selanthi vessels has appeared on the horizon.
“These are traveling in a pack,” he says, “and I think they’re headed straight for our shore.” We all watch them in silence for a few moments. Cassius is right. They’re growing larger.
“I count ten ships,” Servius says. “Three thousand men. This isn’t the cleanup job Gaius sent us for. We won’t be taking shots at fleeing, half-disabled Selanthi warships. We’ll have to fight until we all die.” He looks very pale. “We just have to blow up the black powder ship first.”
“Gods, they’re smart,” Cassius says, not listening. “They’ve sent this tiny fleet ahead. They’ll dump a few thousand men, who will march to the city and attack from the south. They know we’ll have minimal defenses on that side of the city. It’s all about the element of surprise,” he pauses. “But we have an advantage they don’t know about.”
“What?” Servius says desperately.
“Neptune,” Cassius says, whipping out his invocation cloth and his small felt bag. “Make an altar,” he demands the academy students standing next to him. While they prop three stones together, Cassius shakes out his small statue of the sea god.
“Who has the food?” Cassius demands.
“Um,” one of the academy boys says in deep discomfort, “We just gave it all to Diana and Vulcan down on the beach.”
“You have got to be kidding me,” Cassius says. He dumps the rest of Lucia’s figs from his pockets onto the makeshift altar and says the invocation prayer to Neptune. Then I do the same.
“Olivia, pray for a current,” Cassius instructs. “Keep the black powder ship stationary.” So I stretch my hand out toward the ship, raise my eyes, and pray with all my might. Next to me, Cassius is doing the same. It’s hard to tell at first, but I think we’ve stopped its forward progress.
“Should we pull it backward?” I ask Cassius.
“Wait until it becomes less obvious,” he says. “Wait for the other ships to pass it on their way toward us to the beach. They’re far away enough that they probably won’t notice it hasn’t made any forward motion.”
“Girls,” Servius clears his throat, “why don’t you spread out a bit to the battle positions I showed you yesterday, or as near as you can while keeping sheltered.” With a pang I remember my former students as the nervous girls embrace and murmur frightened good-byes. But I push the thought away. I can only save these girls by staying focused.
It seems like a long time before the warships have crossed behind the black powder boat. “Now,” says Cassius slowly, “ask Neptune to pull it into the rest of the Selanthi fleet. Right behind their center ship. As close as you can.”
As I humbly ask Neptune for the help we so desperately need, I close my eyes and think of Lucia. If only she were here with us now. This task seems impossible without her. When I open them again, our ship is slowly moving in reverse, drawing toward the others. But it’s far too slow. I feel a stab of fear. To hurry it along, we try reciting more paeans, more prayers. But nothing seems to work.
As crucial minutes pass, the massive Selanthi warships draw closer. Soon they’re so close I can almost see the ropes in the rigging, the oars in the water. “What do we do?” I ask Cassius, starting to panic.
“There’s nothing else to do,” he says frantically. “There’s nothing to sacrifice.” I can hear a note of helplessness in his voice. If Cassius loses confidence, you know you’re in a bad spot.
“Give me your knife,” I say to Servius, my voice high with fear. When he hands it to me, I grab a handful of my own hair and hack it off. Then I throw it on the altar.
“Why would Neptune want your hair?” he says, appalled.
“That’s all I’ve got!” I plead with the tiny statue.
“Look!” Cassius says. “I think it worked!” The ship is drawing more quickly toward the Selanthi fleet, almost close enough now to do serious damage. We watch, rigid with tension, as it finally closes in on them.
“Good enough!” shouts Cassius. “Fire!” and he waves his arms to all the girls waiting in the cliffs. One of the academy boys hands me a bomb, and I place it a few feet away from me. Then I take a deep breath, pull my arm back, and send it flying. A volley of bombs sails through the air toward the Selanthi warships.
The subsequent explosion knocks me off my feet, even from half a mile away.
As we struggle to stand, a wind rises and clears some of the smoke. The Selanthi fleet is no more than a gigantic pile of driftwood. And three thousand men are dead.
Overcome by the devastation, we stand together, unable to speak. Then Servius gives a shaky laugh. “It’s over,” he says. “I can’t believe you did it. You saved our lives.” He slaps Cassius on the back and nearly hugs him. “Oh my gods.”
“What’s that in the water?” I say suddenly, my ears ringing. Some kind of colorful banner seems to be gently bobbing in the waves.
“A parley flag,” Servius says with a grim smile. “A flag that indicates a temporary truce, that they want to negotiate. Looks like they anticipated their defeat, then. That was wise.”
“Why was that ship so far away from the main Selanthi fleet?” I ask Cassius. “What was their strategy?”
“Well, they couldn’t risk a ship like that in the actual battle for Polonia,” Cassius says. “So…it swings down here, comes up to Polonia from the south where no one is expecting it, and hopefully arrives unnoticed. Then they sail it into the harbor, flying the parley flag so no one will attack it…” He trails off.
“And the explosion flattens the city walls and kills all the Archers,” I finish for him, chilled by the potential outcome.
“We’ve got to tell the others as fast as we can,” Cassius says. “I’m going back to the city,” he tells Servius.
“On a donkey?” Servius asks, confused.
“No. I’m going to the road. I’m going to buy somebody’s horse, no doubt for twice the normal asking price,” Cassius says purposefully, making his way back to the path that leads to the road. We hustle to keep up with him. “Wait,” Servius says, “where are you going to get the money for a horse?”
“I’m carrying cash,” Cassius says.
“This was your plan all along!” I exclaim, smiling despite myself. “Invent some reason to carry a message to the city, then get into the fray.”
“Yes,” he says as we fight through tree branches. “But it turns out I didn’t have to invent a reason. Well, I leave you here,” he says to us as we gain the road.
“Good-bye,” I say brightly to Servius.
“Oh no, you’re not coming,” Cassius says to me. As I begin to object, he cuts me off. “Whoa there!” he yells, flagging down a traveler on the road, who pulls up his horse to speak to us.
“This is a national emergency. The Selanthi have attempted to land on the beach just a mile away from here. I need to ride to the city. Can I buy your horse?” he asks the older man.
“Well, now, I don’t know,” says the traveler with calm deliberation. “Seems like I’d be stranded here with no transportation. Rather inconvenient for me.” He pauses. “You can have the horse, but it’s going to cost you three hundred.”
“Unbelievable,” Cassius says. “Highway robbery. Sir, you are a true patriot.”
“Do you have the money or not?” the old man says, unimpressed by sarcasm.
“Here,” Cassius says, making a small withdrawal. He tosses his purse up to the traveler, who hops down and starts walking for the nearest inn.
“Completely outrageous,” Cassius grumbles. “Well, toodle-oo, Olivia!” he says, turning to me cheekily.
“Nope,” I say. “You are not leaving without me.”
“Oh? And what exactly are you going to do about it? Are you going to fight me? I don’t have the money for a second horse,” Cassius says in exasperation.
“Gaius said I wasn’t supposed to let you leave,” says Servius, but I ignore this.
“I will ask Diana to drop a tree branch on you and knock you out cold,” I threaten, “if you so much as put one foot in a stirrup.”
Cassius gapes at me. “You wouldn’t.”
“Try me,” I say, giving him a steely glare.
“You know, you should really be careful, Olivia,” Cassius scolds, throwing his hands wide. “This is exactly what Senator Accius was talking about! You’re a menace! There’ll be no living with you!”
“If you take me, from now on, I promise I’ll only use my powers for good.” I pout.
“And if Gaius puts me in the hospital,” Cassius says, “you’ll nurse me back to health.”
“Deal,” I say happily as he swings up into the saddle. I clamber up behind him.
“Have you ever ridden a horse before?” he asks. “Because we’re going to go fast.”
“Yay!” I say. “I love going fast.”