Goddess

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Chapter 14

The trip back to the city takes only half the time we needed to arrive at the beach with our convoy. Although I know I’m supposed to worry about the battle for the city, which has surely commenced by now, I’m too flushed with our recent victory to feel any dread, and the horseback ride really is exhilarating. It took me a few terrified minutes to get used to the strange rhythm of a galloping horse. When I was little my father would only let me go up to a trot, and that was a long time ago.

When we draw close to the city from the southern road, we find the gates locked and guarded by a small group of young academy students I don’t recognize. Possibly they’ve just returned from the northern front.

“Turn around,” one of the unfamiliar students barks at us when we’re close enough to hear him. “There’s fighting at the harbor, and the city is locked down.”

“We’re here with crucial military intelligence,” Cassius explains. “We have to see the flamen immediately. We’re part of the war effort; we were stationed on the southern beaches. The Selanthi have landed there. We saw it ourselves.”

I notice Cassius leaves out the part about how they’re all dead. The omission does give the story a sense of urgency.

“That’s impossible,” says the boy, nonplussed. “Why would we have anybody on the south side of the city? Is this a trick?” The other students put their heads together in worried consultation.

“It’s no trick,” says Cassius.

“So why do you have a girl with you?” one of the students asks. “Shouldn’t she be fighting with the rest?”

“She had a fit of nerves,” lies Cassius. “She can’t fight. Our commander ordered me to bring her back.”

While I understand he’s improvising, I kind of want to kick him.

“You’re not wearing the academy’s wartime uniform,” another boy accuses him. This is a valid objection. Although the dress code for all academy students is generally a simple white tunic, the Academy of Mars students have now adopted red tunics and battle armor.

Cassius sighs in exasperation. “All right, look. Here’s the truth. I’m not in the Academy of Mars. I’m Cassius Apelles, I was in charge of the Vestal Virgin recruitment effort,” he says. “This girl with me is a Vestal, we work closely with the flamen, and we need to get to him now. I don’t know what else to tell you.”

“Have you ever even seen a Vestal Virgin?” another says. “She doesn’t have the hairstyle. She’s not even wearing a bridal gown. That is the weakest lie I have ever heard.”

“She’s incognito, idiot,” Cassius says. “She begged me to do her hair this morning, but I refused. What can I say?”

“There’s no way we had anyone on the southern front,” the first boy concludes. “I don’t know who you are, but turn around immediately or I’ll arrest you both.”

“There’s no way we had anyone on the southern front?” Cassius mimics, provoked. “I’m sorry, does your fantastic military education involve any courses on strategy? Do you expect the Selanthi to just come knocking on your city’s front door? That southern beach is a highly important strategic location,” he snits. “Or maybe you want to explain to Gaius that your tiny brain could not even admit a single doubt there could be a Selanthi attack from the south?”

“You know Gaius?” another boy asks.

“Yes. Gaius Valerius, boy wonder, most brilliant military mind of his generation, teacher’s pet, and total asshole?” Cassius asks, dripping with sarcasm. “That’s the one!”

The academy students look at each other. This description apparently rings true.

“Okay,” the first boy says. “I’ll escort you to Gaius so you can pass on this so-called intelligence. If he says you’re legitimate, fine. If not, we’ll arrest you.”

“Deal,” Cassius says. This is not a deal I would have made.

“Gaius will arrest us,” I whisper to him.

“I guess we’ll see,” Cassius says, dismounting from the horse and offering me his hand.

As we make our way through the city, explosions from the battle echo through the deserted streets. My stomach gives a nervous flip with each one, but after a short struggle and some deep breaths I’m able to control my fear. We approach the fifty-foot stone wall that protects the city from fighting in the harbor, and the battle sounds grow louder as we start climbing the narrow staircase.

Atop the city wall stand our archers, both the lady kind and the bow-and-arrow kind. The wall is built so fighters can take shelter from oncoming arrows but quickly dart into the open to fire their own. At regular intervals, reinforced towers provide safe havens for those who need to observe the battle, and we find Gaius behind one, dictating orders to other academy students. Although our generals control our troops, it seems the flamen has retained control of Diana’s Archers, so his academy students are the ones running messages and providing assistance to the girls.

“We don’t have unlimited ammunition, you know,” Gaius is saying to one of his helpers, “so go tell the girls on that side to be a little more discerning about what shots they take. They’re getting sloppy, probably because they’re panicking. Try to reassure them. Accuracy counts.”

“Yes, sir,” the boy replies as he hurries off to fulfill this request. As he leaves, Gaius turns to enter the tower but finds us blocking his path instead. Although I expect him to react badly, his face shows no dismay. Instead, he actually laughs.

“Of course. Of course you are here,” he says, shaking his head and smiling incredulously. “I can’t be mad. I’m not even surprised. What do you want? What can I do for you?” He spreads his arms wide in a welcoming gesture.

“Sir, do you know this man?” our escort says.

“Yes, of course, who doesn’t know Cassius!” Gaius says heartily, waving him away. “You may return to your post,” he says, and the boy begins to descend the stairs after a last uncertain glance at us.

“Gaius, I am here to give you important military intelligence,” Cassius says with aplomb. “And Olivia threatened to brain me if I didn’t let her come too.”

I smile guiltily at Gaius and give him a little wave hello.

“Oh, Olivia, did you want to join the battle, maybe find yourself an exciting near-death experience?” Gaius asks. He gestures to the ramparts. “Lucia’s at the south end of the wall. Why don’t you hop up on the ramparts and skip on down there. Sadly, I don’t have a bull’s-eye for you on short notice.”

I laugh heartily at this, and he looks skyward in disbelief.

“Gaius, your little plan backfired,” Cassius says. “Olivia and I have seen more action today than half these girls. The Selanthi attacked from the south. They sent about three thousand men to land there and rout you with a southern attack by land.”

This has an immediate effect on him. “What happened?” he asks in horror. “Gods, they’re all dead, aren’t they? That young kid I put in command?”

“Nope, everybody’s fine. The battle’s over, and we won,” Cassius says with his usual buoyancy. “But there’s something you should know. The Selanthi packed one of their ships with black powder, turned it into a massive bomb. You need to tell the flamen. Make sure they all know to explode any ship that seems to be isolated from the others before it reaches the harbor. Who knows if they’ve brought another explosive one.”

Without another word Gaius starts moving down the wall, hastily making his way toward the central tower where the flamen is surely observing. He has to duck behind every shelter and look to see if there are any threats on the ground before continuing. I’m sure this is some kind of military protocol. “I’m going to follow him,” says Cassius, “and see if they need anything. You better join Lucia. Be safe.” And he ruffles my hair affectionately before following in Gaius’s path.

Copying Gaius’s method, I make my way south on the city wall, sneaking behind archers and threading my way around piles of ammunition. It’s a bit scary, but I’m soon used to ducking as I sneak around. With relief, I finally see her crouching behind a shelter, blond hair shining in the sun.

“Lucia,” I call from the next shelter over.

“Olivia!” she says. “You made it! I’m so happy. Come over here, and we’ll be a little team.”

Once she has me safely behind her stone wall, she motions to the harbor below. With a shock, I see it’s now dotted with boats and Selanthi soldiers wading ashore. I immediately see there’s going to be a problem. The Selanthi uniforms are red. The Parcaean soldiers also wear red. From this distance, I can’t tell who is who.

“Um,” I say nervously. “Which ones are the bad guys again?”

“Do you know about the zones?” she asks, as she sends a bomb sailing into the fray.

“No,” I say. Apparently I missed this latest briefing.

“Okay,” Lucia says. “So our strength is our range. We can do a lot of damage to a large target like a ship, but we’re less effective at killing men on the ground. So our first job is to sink any warship that comes close enough to the harbor.”

“Why would a ship come into the harbor if they know we’re going to sink them? Wouldn’t they just send their landing boats ashore instead?” I ask.

“Because our navy has flanked the Selanthi fleet and are forcing them into the bay. They’re attacking from the east and south, essentially funneling the ships into the harbor,” she says, lining up another bomb. “That’s when we get them. The only way a Selanthi warship can evade us is if they turn around and head back north.”

“Aha,” I say, watching her land an excellent hit to a distant Selanthi ship, which immediately lists sideways and starts to sink. “Excellent. So we have to disable the big ships.”

“Yes,” says Lucia, “but eventually there will be something of a traffic jam as the harbor is clogged with disabled ships. Our navy will take care of any ships that try to go back out to sea. But those that do come into the harbor are going to send their soldiers to shore in landing boats. Our next job is to use the bombs to kill everybody on the smaller boats before they hop out in the shallows and start wading. Once the Selanthi get out of the boats, our normal archers will kill them, and after they reach certain point on the beach, our troops will handle them. The zones mean we won’t accidentally kill our own guys or waste our time on the same target. So, because I have the longer range, I’ll shoot at the big ships and you get the landing boats.”

“Okay, that makes sense,” I say with renewed confidence as I grab an iron ball from the cart behind us. “I noticed this on the way here. Why are some of the bombs wrapped up in smaller bags?”

“Oh, that’s so if the Selanthi scale the walls, we can grab some ammo and run,” Lucia says casually. I look at the sacks again, unsure if I could even lift one, and pray to Diana that the need will never arise.

Lucia and I make a pretty good team, and I soon establish a rhythm. At first, being so far away from the devastation we cause below makes it easy to pretend that we’re playing some kind of sport or game. That is, until the blood starts staining the bay. Suddenly, I’m hit by a wave of nausea.

“This is gruesome,” I say, trying to steady myself. I take a few deep breaths.

Lucia just shrugs. “It’s them or us.”

I can’t argue with her, but I’m not sure I can go on blowing people up. I take a break in the guise of scanning the bay for any stray targets.

As I search, I notice a large ship that made its way very far south before being finally disabled by Lucia’s bombs. It is sinking, but I see three landing vessels that are bobbing their way south without turning toward the city or the beach.

“Look at those guys,” I point them out to Lucia.

“Oh, they shouldn’t be a problem,” she says. “There’s nowhere for them to land. Everything south of the city wall is just rocks and sheer cliffs. They’ll be dashed against them by the waves. It gets pretty choppy over there.”

I have a bad feeling about those boats. They are obviously going somewhere on purpose. If sixty men have found some way to scale the cliffs, they could be up on the city wall in no time, and we’re relatively undefended except for our archer friends.

“I’m going to check them out,” I tell Lucia, and I grab one of the ammunition bags before she can tell me no. Gods, it’s heavy. And it only has three shots in it.

Our city wall is fifty feet high, and it dead-ends into a rocky cliff of about the same height. I hop off the wall and onto the top of the cliff, running along it and scanning the sea until I sight the three errant landing boats. They’re being dashed pretty ruthlessly against the rocks, but I see a sight that makes me catch my breath. Somehow, a few of the soldiers have begun scaling the cliff.

I put on more speed and run as fast as I can until I reach the ledge right above them. About five of them have already managed to cling to the rock face. Now that I’m closer, I can see they’re using some kind of metal hooks to hold on.

I’ll never be able to face the soldiers if they reach the top. My only hope of stopping them is to blast them while they’re still in the water. I fumble in my bag until I pull out a bomb, lob it into the air, and ask Diana to direct it into the first boat as I step away from the edge. I hear it explode with a sickening boom, and peer over the side. It was a direct hit. Disembodied limbs float on the waves. I think I might be sick. Don’t think about it, I tell myself. They’re here to kill you.

Without hesitation I toss my last two bombs over the edge and send forty more men to their deaths. That’s all the ammunition I have, but there are still five very angry Selanthi soldiers hanging on the rock face, slowly spiking their way up to me. What to do now? I think. I can’t let them reach the top. Panicking, I rack my brain for an idea. Then I see the rock sitting on the cliff’s edge.

I run to scoop it up. It’s quite a heavy rock, not something you’d want to drop on your foot. Definitely not something you’d want dropped on your head. I scurry back to the ledge and take aim, drop the rock, and ask Diana to knock a Selanthi soldier off the cliff for me. It makes contact with a horrible thud, and I watch the soldier fall to what will surely be his death, assuming he’s not already dead. My stomach twists, but I push that emotion away. I can’t afford any distraction.

More rocks, I think, and run frantically around the cliffs, looking for good missiles. I take out three more of the Selanthi easily by dropping rocks on them, but while I waste time hunting for more ammo, they’re slowly climbing higher. In fact, by the time I finish off the fourth one, the fifth soldier is so high up on the cliff that I can’t see him at all. I cast around for a final rock as I hear him driving his spikes into the solid rock a few feet below me.

It’s no use. I can’t find anything to use as a weapon. I stand very still as I wait for him to heave himself over the ledge. He’s quiet for a long time. We’re both waiting for the other to make a move. My heart is pounding in my ears.

With a sudden crash he hurls his torso over the ledge and brings his iron spike down in what might have been a lethal blow if I hadn’t screamed in terror and jumped about five feet away from him right before it made contact. I take a fraction of a second to collect my wits, then I run at him and stomp on his face as hard as I can. I feel the bone crack as I break his nose. Unbalanced by my attack, he loses his grip and falls off the cliff, yelling furiously until he makes impact.

There’s only silence now. I peer over the edge to check that he is dead. It looks as though he fell onto a rocky outcropping, and from the way his body is positioned, I’m absolutely certain he’ll never get up again. Suddenly I think I might faint, but I’m brought back to consciousness by a stinging pain on my foot. Dazed, I pull my hem up to take a look. He cut my toe, I think vaguely.

I breathe deeply as I try to put myself together, and stumble back toward the city wall, shaking. As I approach the edge, I realize something is different. There are no explosions, no arrows hissing through the air, no clashing of swords. I gain the ramparts and see a white flag of surrender flying from a distant half-sunken Selanthi ship. It’s over.

“Olivia!” Lucia waves to me, dancing on the wall. “Come down!” When I reach her, she folds me into a tremendous hug as I sob with relief. “We did it!” she says, grabbing my hand and leading me down the wall to meet our friends. She shouts joyfully to Cassius, and he actually picks me up and swings me around when we get to him, although he can’t do the same with Lucia.

“I can’t believe it’s over,” I say, my eyes smarting with tears.

“I’m so happy that I lured you girls into criminal activity,” Cassius says with a smile. “The payout was incredible.”

“Very true,” says Lucia, clasping her hands. “Very true. So, when are we gonna eat?”

***

The celebration after the battle is truly a night to remember. Not only are the Parcaean casualties for the battle extremely low, but not a single girl in the Diana’s Archers program was harmed, so there’s no guilt to temper my happiness at our victory. We spend the evening in the academy dining hall with Julia and Honoria, where Lucia and I are toasted at least a dozen times. The flamen and his staff have a great deal to take care of after the battle is over, but when they finally arrive around midnight, the flamen seeks us out and kisses us on both cheeks. Gaius even gives each of us a brief hug, which for him is going pretty far. As he holds me, I lean up to whisper in his ear. “I’m still alive,” I say playfully. I can’t tell if he smiles, but he tugs at my ponytail in response.

There is a different kind of joy when we return home to the House of Vestals around dawn, having been escorted home by several academy students. Lavinia sees us arrive from her office, and she comes out to greet us on the front porch, where we all cry.

“I’m so proud of my girls,” she says, hugging us tightly.

I wake the next day around noon and see that Lucia has fallen asleep in what used to be Marta’s bed, perhaps too tipsy to care whether it was her own. The sight makes me deeply sad. Marta should be here with us. We should be celebrating with her too. I feel a profound sense of loss.

“So what are we gonna do today?” I ask Lucia when she stirs.

“I don’t know,” she says, yawning. “I guess we have to do hair. There’s no excuse not to look like Virgins anymore. Then maybe we go to the market and see my mother.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I say listlessly.

“So, girls,” Lavinia says when she sees us emerge, properly dressed and coiffed, into the kitchens, “you should take the day off. You’ve earned it. But I don’t want you going into town.”

“Why?” I ask, disappointed.

“Lucia is a bit of a celebrity,” she says. “Most of the city wants to kiss her, but a small group wants to strangle her. Things could get out of hand. It’s best to lay low for a little while.”

“Ugh,” Lucia says.

“Going back to real life is going to be an adjustment, but it’s time,” Lavinia says. “Olivia, tomorrow you’ll have temple duty, and Lucia, I’ll have some things you can help me with in my office.” With that, she leaves us to our breakfast.

Lucia and I play with our food. “So that sucks,” Lucia says conversationally.

“Yep,” I agree. “Maybe we should just take some wine and go to the clearing.”

“Sure, whatever,” she says.

I am hopeful that Cassius will appear in the clearing again, but he doesn’t come to meet us. Maybe he’s already back in his classes at the Academy of Ceres. It’s astonishing how quickly my life is contracting back to its normal shape. All the new things we tried just don’t fit anymore, I think as I run my fingers through the leaves of my anemone.

“Do you think Cassius will still teach us to invoke the gods?” I ask Lucia.

“No,” she says without further comment. I have to agree with her. It’s probably best for us not to take any more risks. Still, my sense of loss is growing with each passing minute. We spend the rest of the day lying in the sun, drinking wine. Lucia dozes. I eat figs and try not to think about dead girls, disembodied limbs, or the families of dead soldiers.

When we return, we learn that the Pontifex Maximus has issued a general pardon to any woman who has invoked the gods as part of the Diana’s Archers program. He has also issued a statement that all female invocations of any god or goddess must immediately end, and that any woman discovered to have invoked one after this time will be executed. Given the circumstances, this is the best outcome Lucia and I could have hoped for. I offer a prayer of thanks to Diana for the continued safety of those who invoked her aid.

A lavish victory procession is held the next day, winding its way through the entire city as all of the citizens celebrate. The Vestalis Maxima forbids Lucia to attend, still concerned about her visibility, and I stay home with her for company. I don’t need to see it in any case. Wisely, the flamen has barred any actual Archers from participating. Instead, a large statue of Diana is carted around the city for general applause and adulation.

Cassius visits us at the House of Vestals after the parade is over, proclaiming that he has come for a “debriefing” on the day’s events. He reports that Servius was given a place of honor in the procession and singled out as a war hero for the crucial victory on the southern beach. Apparently Servius looked pretty uncomfortable with the situation, to Cassius’s great amusement.

“Aren’t you jealous?” I ask Cassius, wondering why he doesn’t want more credit for his quick thinking.

“No.” He laughs with contagious mirth. “Good for him. He seems like a nice kid. What an excellent way to begin his military career.”

The next major event that captivates the public is the trial of Titus, Marcus, and the rest of the Mars Ultor gang who bombed the academy and killed my class. I don’t obtain the Vestalis Maxima’s permission to attend the trial so much as I tell her I’ll be going, and she doesn’t put up too much of a fight. Instead, after a few minutes of arguing, she sighs, hugs me tightly and kisses my forehead, which I take to be permission.

I attend the trial from start to finish, and it seems the Flamen Martialis has put together a very good case against the conspirators, but whether it was by honest or underhanded means I can’t tell. A few angry protesters show up each day, shouting slogans from the cult of Mars Ultor in support of Titus’s murderous cause. But the majority of the public is so fiercely against them that they are sure to be convicted. Part of me wants a death sentence for my brother. The other part, the part that looks into his face every day and sees only my former playmate and helper, wants him to go free.

The bombers are ultimately sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Six months for every girl they killed, I think bitterly. This paltry sentence feels far worse than if the killers went free.

Unexpectedly, Gaius turns up for the sentencing and joins me in the stands when he happens to catch sight of me. After the verdict is announced, he studies my face, as though waiting for me to break down and cry. But to my surprise, I don’t feel sorrow, only a dull ache.

I also see my father at the trial that day, but I don’t approach him. His face is impassive as the sentence is handed down. It’s impossible to say how much he supports Marcus’s actions, and even if I could get him to speak to me, I’m afraid of what I might find out.

Our life in the House of Vestals isolates us from what’s happening in the city, and with Lavinia’s continued injunction against going to market, we’re not able to get any sense of the popular mood over the next few days. But it’s evident that Diana’s Archers are heroes to the women who come to worship at the temple. Many of them hope to get a glimpse of Lucia, but since she’s not allowed in public at the moment, I have to turn them away with a polite apology. “Oh, but you’re Olivia!” one of the women says to me as I explain about Lucia. “My daughter told me all about you. You’re Lucia’s friend, who helped her discover the secret of Diana’s aid.”

I hesitate to respond. The flamen told all of the participants in Diana’s Archers that they would risk death if they described the invocation ritual to anyone outside of the program. So far, no accidental leaks seem to have occurred. But I’m growing uneasy with the interest that many women are showing in the program. Now that it’s over, it has to stay over. The crowd at Senator Accius’s speech made that much very clear to me.

“Diana is a shy goddess,” I say slowly. “Now that she’s given us so much help, I expect she’ll want a rest. We shouldn’t make too many demands on her.”

The woman just smiles at me. “I understand,” she says.

A few days after the verdict is announced, I finish my shift at the temple but decide to sit on the steps and enjoy the fading light. It’s a beautiful evening, warm and perfect. I think I see some early fireflies.

As I sit, I think back to the night when I almost let the mola salsa burn. How I prayed to Vesta so devotedly that I forgot about everything else. What prayer used to mean for me. Without meaning to, I rise and enter the temple again, wanting to be near the sacred flame, wondering if I can somehow feel that power again.

An altar has been set up on the dais in front of the flame, probably for some ritual taking place tomorrow. I lean on it as I stare into the fire. Suddenly, a noise frightens me, and I look up to see the Vestalis Maxima coming toward me from the dais. She must have entered through a back door.

Something is wrong with Lavinia. She wears an expression I’ve never seen before, as though she has just suffered a great emotional blow. “Olivia, we need to talk,” she ventures. Then she just looks at me.

“Of course we can talk,” I prompt her. “What’s going on?”

“I don’t have much power in the state’s religious hierarchy,” she begins carefully. “The pontiffs and the flamen can all overrule me. But that doesn’t mean I don’t know their secrets. I have my spies. I have ways to know their intentions. There’s something you need to know. You’ll find out soon enough. I wanted to be with you when you learn it.”

“What have you heard?” I ask, suddenly frightened. “Are they going to prosecute the girls? Diana’s Archers?”

“No,” Lavinia says, her voice growing thick, “the Archers are national heroes. They’re beloved by almost the whole country. However, the pontiffs are concerned that a dangerous precedent has been set. You and Lucia are widely known as the girls who experimented and discovered Diana’s powers. And your popularity with Parcaean women is still growing, despite all of our efforts to hide you away. The pontiffs need to stop it, and fast. You’re dangerous to them.”

I think back to my time with Lucia at the academy, and all the girls we told about our discovery, their fascination with the subject. In hindsight this seems like an egregious error in judgment. I remember the admiration in their eyes. Of course they’re still captivated by the story. What have we done?

“The pontiffs are struggling to turn the tide of your popularity,” Lavinia says, “and they’re desperate. They need to discredit you and Lucia, to hold you up as corrupted and unnatural women. They need you to look despicable in the eyes of the public, to show an unsavory side of you.”

“What are they going to do?” I ask, my mouth dry. “What are they going to accuse us of? Are they going to prosecute us because we invoked the gods?”

“No,” says Lavinia. “They won’t prosecute you for your discovery. You saved the country. You’re national heroes now. The public loves you. They would never support it.”

“Then what could they possibly accuse us of?” I ask.

“You know what the charge is,” she says softly.

And an icy cold grips my heart.

“Fornication,” I whisper. Gods, of course.

The worst part is, they probably won’t even need to work that hard to build a case. I think about all the times we slipped away to meet Cassius. How I spent that night with him in the clearing. How we slept near each other on the beach. And I think I might faint. Then an idea strikes me. “But I can prove I’m still a virgin!” I say. “I can invoke Diana.”

“No,” says Lavinia, close to tears, “if you try to invoke Diana they will kill you, no matter what you’re trying to prove. They can withhold permission for you to demonstrate your ability during the trial. Or they can convict you on a lesser charge of impurity and give you the same death sentence. They have dozens of options to show you in the worst, most sexually dissipated light, that you’re dishonest, irreligious, that you’ve broken your holy vow of chastity. They can find real witnesses or buy them. Probably they’ll do both. I’m sorry, but I won’t lie to you. I don’t have any hope that the fornication trial can possibly go your way, or Lucia’s way.”

“What about Marta?” I ask, chilled by fear.

Lavinia shakes her head. “They’re not interested in her.”

The temple side door flies open with a bang and makes us jump. For a terrible moment I think the pontiffs have come to arrest me, but then I see it’s Gaius, dragging a confused-looking man in a robe and carpet slippers. Gaius runs to us so fast that he almost slams into me at the altar.

“Vestalis Maxima,” he says, huffing, “I can’t believe you’re here too. Gods, what a stroke of luck.” He shuffles an entire folder full of papers and begins laying them out on the table methodically.

“One declaration of property, estate of Gaius Valerius, valued at 800,000 sesterces, as assessed two months ago, herewith transferred to be held in trust by the College of Pontiffs, signed by me, dated, notarized.”

“What’s going on?” I say.

“One declaration of property, estate of Cassius Apelles, valued in the amount of 320,000 sesterces, herewith transferred to the ownership of Gaius Valerius, signed, dated, notarized, another declaration by me turning said property over to the college,” he lays the documents out. “Notarize this,” he demands the man in the slippers.

“I don’t understand what’s happening,” I say. It sounds as if he’s trying to buy me out of my Vestal contract, but that doesn’t make any sense.

“Quiet, Olivia,” Gaius orders me. “I’m trying to concentrate.” He takes a deep breath and turns back to the notary. “Contents of bank account held in the name Gaius Valerius, 30,000 sesterces, a note made out to the College of Pontiffs,” he continues. This is getting ridiculous. I open my mouth, but he cuts me off.

“A formal declaration,” Gaius says, holding up another, very official-looking document, “releasing Olivia Agricola to my future custody should our marriage take place within five days of the transfer of the amount of 1,150,000 sesterces to the college, signed by the current Pontifex Maximus, further signed by Pontiff Sextus Tacitus, and requiring your signature, Vestalis Maxima,” he says in an urgent tone, grabbing a pen from the notary and handing it to her.

“I…I don’t understand,” Lavinia gasps. “He would never sign…this is impossible…”

“Look at the date,” Gaius directs her. “It’s totally legitimate. He signed it almost a month ago. Sextus as well.”

“Oh my gods,” she says, breathless. “He signed it, but he didn’t know about it?”

“He’ll sign anything Sextus puts on his desk.” Gaius waves impatiently. “He never looks.”

“Stop. Stop. How did you get all this stuff? What is going on?” I say.

Gaius finally drops his obsession with handling paper to face me. “I have had this document since a week after you saw that lamp oil,” he says, holding it up. “I had Sextus make it for me, and bribed him to keep it secret, once it became perfectly clear that you don’t have a sensible bone in your body, and I knew,” he says forcefully, “that this day would come. So can we please get married now, Olivia, you unbelievablepain in the ass?”

Without further comment he pushes me to my knees in front of the altar and joins me there himself. What follows is the breathiest, most unintelligible marriage rite I have ever heard. I don’t listen as the Vestalis Maxima speaks. Instead I attempt to gather my thoughts. Am I getting married? And am I okay with it?

Ubi tu Gaia, ego Gaius,” he speaks, pulling me out of my daze. Then there is quiet.

“Olivia,” the Vestalis Maxima whispers. “It’s your turn, sweetheart.”

“Oh, um,” I say stupidly. “Oh yeah. Ubi tu Gaius, ego Gaia.

“Very good,” says the notary. “Gaius Valerius, nineteen years of age, wedded to Olivia Agricola, seventeen years of age, Vestalis Maxima officiating. Except, wait, doesn’t her father need to sign?” the notary asks.

“No. She’s a ward of the state. The Pontifex Maximus takes the place of her father,” Gaius says irritably.

“Right,” says the notary. “Okay. You are married.”

Gaius turns to Lavinia. “You can deny you knew she was going to be prosecuted?” he asks, getting to his feet. Lavinia nods.

“Good. Say we were so in love we begged you to marry us immediately. That should protect you from retribution. Say we left on our honeymoon or whatever. We’ll disappear.”

“Okay,” says Lavinia weakly.

“There’s another thousand in this for you if you stay in town and make this stick,” he says to the notary. “Contact my family’s attorney in Polonia; you have the address. Say good-bye, Olivia,” he orders.

“Good-bye,” I say, with one last look at Lavinia. Then he has me by the arm and is dragging me down the temple steps. I don’t know what to say or do. This all seems like a strange dream.

Gaius puts me in the back of an unassuming vegetable cart and throws some blankets over me. “Try to look like potatoes,” he says. And that’s the last word I can get out of him before our cart lurches off into the night.



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