The route we take out of Polonia isn’t one I’ve ever traveled before, and it’s not particularly well kept. I’m being jostled horribly by the bumps in the road, and soon I stop attempting to look like potatoes and sit up, blanket wrapped around my head.
“Gaius?” I say tentatively, hoping to get some more information out of him, but I can’t get him to respond. He’s sitting with his back against the side of the cart, his hand on his forehead as though he is having the headache of his life. I decide now is not a good time for conversation. Since he’s obviously going to be unreachable for a while, I pass the time by pulling all the pins out of my hair.
I have no idea where we’re going, but it’s taking a very long time to get there, and sleep is out of the question. About six hours in, I begin praying to every deity I know to please, please get me out of this horrible cart. When we finally turn up the side road onto a sheltered hillside, it’s just before dawn. We stop in front of a small country house. Gaius hops out of the cart, stiff after our very long ride, and bangs on the door until a small older man opens it, peering sleepily at us.
“Get inside,” Gaius motions to me as he returns to the cart to pay our driver. I don’t have any luggage to grab, so I scramble down from the cart and walk into the house. The old man lights a candle for me to hold. “Thank you,” I say, and he smiles but doesn’t answer. Then Gaius pulls him outside for a few minutes of conversation on the landing. I try to listen, but Gaius speaks quietly and the old man has a heavy accent. They appear to have said good-bye, because the man hops into the cart as it trundles down the hillside.
“Gaius,” I beg as he joins me in the house and begins to light his own candle, “please tell me where we are.”
“We’re in a small vacation home belonging to another student at the academy, Tiberius Aquila. We don’t run in the same crowd, so it’s unlikely the pontiffs will question him,” Gaius says. “The caretaker and his wife are from some fishing village on an island off the coast, and their Parcaean isn’t very good, which is all the better for us because they won’t be asking too many questions. We need to hide.”
“Are they still going to try to arrest me?” I ask, frightened by the thought.
“They might. My lawyer thinks it’s unlikely they can prosecute you once you’re a private citizen, because you’d have to be referred to them by the regular courts on a matter of religious significance,” he says, examining the room and closing all the curtains. “They could still try to arrest you for some other crime. But I’m convinced that if we stay hidden, they’ll lose interest. It’s Lucia they really want.”
“Did Lucia escape as well?” I ask, stricken with guilt. It would be so wrong if I lived and she died.
“I hope so.” Gaius sighs. “Obviously, we didn’t have the means to marry you both. She’s on the run with Cassius now. We think her power and favor with the gods will be enough to protect her. In any case, I’ve done as much as I can.”
“But what will we do? Will we stay hidden forever? How will we live?” I ask. I realize I don’t know anything about what my future will hold, and I start feeling something like panic.
“I don’t know,” he says, suddenly irritated. “I don’t have the answer to those questions. I just spent quite a bit of time and money saving you from a death sentence, and I would have thought,” he flares, “that a thank you would be in order, rather than a thousand questions about how I will provide for you.”
“You did. You gave them your entire fortune. You gave up all your property for me,” I say, seizing this topic and trying to make sense of it. “What about your family? What about your father? How will they feel about all this?”
“Oh, thank you so much for bring up thatjoyous topic. That’s exactly what I want to be thinking about,” he says. I shouldn’t push it, as I can tell he’s starting to get angry. But I need to know. “You don’t think they’ll support our marriage?” I venture.
“No, Olivia, I don’t. There’s a pretty good chance none of them will ever speak to me again,” he says heatedly. “I don’t expect them to send their congratulations. Because I just gave away one-fifth of the entire family estate.”
“Well, who asked you to do that?” I shout, startling even myself. “Who asked you to give up your entire life? Who forced you to sign those documents? Did I twist your arm? Did I say, ‘Please, Gaius, give up everything you have to save me’? Because I don’t recall begging for your help.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Gaius passes his hand over his eyes. “How could I have been so stupid? I just assumed that you didn’t want to be blinded by a hot poker and buried alive!” he says to the ceiling in frustration.
“Well, you wouldn’t know, because you never asked me,” I say stonily. “Maybe I wouldn’t have let you go through with it. Maybe I would have said, ‘No, Gaius, I can’t let you do this. I made my own decisions, and now I’ll face the consequences.’ Or maybe I didn’t want to be married to the most overbearing control freak in the world.”
“You don’t understand. This isn’t just aboutyou, Olivia,” he says, grabbing my wrist to get my full attention. “I was there at Flavia’s execution. My family was in town that day. My father took us, like it was some kind of treat…” He trails off. “We had excellent seats.” Gaius pauses as though struggling to phrase his next thought. “I saw what happened to her,” he says carefully. “And I can’t live with that on my conscience. I won’t watch any other woman die that way. I’ll do everything I can to prevent it.”
Although this is supposed to soften me, I don’t feel any empathy. “You gave up your entire life, your family, just to save one girl,” I say, digesting this. I decide not to hold back anymore. He needs to face the truth. “The world is a scary place, Gaius. Bad things could happen to you, to me, to anybody we know, at any time, no matter how careful we are. That’s life. The sooner you can accept that, the happier you’ll be. And I’ll tell you another thing,” I say, calm in spite of my anger, “you have no right to control my life just because you think it needs to be saved. Now that we’re married, that’s something you have to understand. I’m a person, and I’ll make my own choices.”
He just looks at me, lost for words. “Okay,” he finally says.
“Good. So what do you want to do about tonight?” I ask, gesturing between us.
“What about tonight?” he says, confused.
“About us. About our wedding night,” I say. Although I’ve been attracted to Gaius in the past, he’s the last person in the world I want to be with right now. But I’ve been anxiously pondering it for the last six hours, and I’ve decided he will insist on sleeping with me. Marriages can be summarily annulled if they’re not consummated, and somehow I don’t think he’s getting his money back.
He gapes at me, astonished. Then he pulls himself together. “Olivia, I hope you liked being a virgin,” he says evenly, “because you’re going to be one a little longer.” He leaves for the main bedroom, slamming the door and blowing out my candle in the process.
Crap. I wait for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. I’m not banging on his door to ask him for a light. Carefully, I stumble across the living area, stubbing my toe on what I come to believe is a breakfast table. As I gain more vision, I notice a faint light coming from a nearby door, and I find myself in a small kitchen, where the embers of a dying fire are glowing in the hearth. Next to the hearth is a cot where the housekeeper probably slept, waiting for us. I still have my blanket from the cart, so I fling it on top of the bedclothes and settle down on it, falling into a dreamless sleep the moment my head hits the pillow.
I wake to rays of sunlight filtering through a small window above me. I can hear the muffled sounds of water splashing and assume Gaius has discovered a pitcher in his room, set out by our hosts in preparation for our arrival. I imagine he is shaving. I wish I had the same opportunity to wash, so I retrace my steps and find a hallway leading to a number of small bedrooms. I claim the biggest and find another pitcher waiting for me as well. Washing off the dust from the road is such a relief.
When I emerge from the bedroom, he’s sitting at the table writing a letter. He doesn’t look up as I walk in. “Did you sleep well?” I ask politely.
He ignores this. “Can you put together something for breakfast?” he asks in a clipped tone.
“Can I do what?” I say in surprise. “No, I don’t know how to cook. Why would I?” It occurs to me that I’m not particularly suited to housework. Vestal Virgins lead a very comfortable life. We have maids, cooks, and laundry women to attend to our every need, and all of our energies are directed to religious duties. The state pays for everything.
“Didn’t you grow up on a farm?” he asks.
“Well, yes,” I say, “but we had servants. My father did very well for himself.”
“Oh my gods, are you serious?” he asks, his head in his hands. “I should have asked for a discount.”
I roll my eyes at him. “Very funny. If you want breakfast, you’ll have to come up with a brilliant idea, because the only thing I can successfully make is sacrificial flour—”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say you can successfully make it,” he cuts me off with a tight smile. “But since I paid 830,000 sesterces for the privilege of your company this morning, I think youwill be handling breakfast.”
“Fine,” I snap and storm into the pantry for some inspiration.
After about fifteen minutes of rummaging, I produce some apples and a bag of dried plums and set them on the table, but I don’t join him. I just stand sullenly behind a chair, waiting for his next instructions.
“So, if it’s okay with you,” he says with ultimate sarcasm, looking up from his work, “I am going into the village to buy you something to wear. You can’t walk around in a wedding dress on a normal day. I brought things for myself, but my closet didn’t yield any women’s clothing on short notice.”
“Oh, can I come?” I plead, brightening up immediately and clasping my hands. “I’ve never been able to pick out my own clothes!” The prospect makes me giddy. I feel just like Lucia.
“You want to come into the village with me? What would you wear?” he prods. I ponder this, trying hard for a brilliant solution that would allow me to go along.
“That’s my point,” he says with finality. “While I’m gone, don’t open the door for anybody. Nona, the caretaker’s wife, will be here later this afternoon, but I should be back by then. If you see anybody who looks like they’re coming to arrest you, take this,” he indicates a bag of money on the table, “and run out the back. That’s the best advice I can give.”
I don’t know whether there is truly a chance that someone will come to arrest me, or whether this is Gaius’s typical paranoid overplanning, but it’s an unsettling thought.
“Stay out of trouble,” he says to me as he rises and folds his letter. Then he walks out the door without a backward glance.
With Gaius gone, I explore the house, which is really quite charming, although smaller than I would have expected. It’s built with the typical courtyard in the middle, so each room is open to the sunlight on both sides. There is also a beautiful patio on one side of the house, and I discover we have a breathtaking ocean view. With the weather so mild, I drag a bench into the sunshine and take a nap.
Having accomplished the important task of sleeping, I next decide to test my household skills. Maybe I can discover some hidden talent to prove that I’m not totally useless as a wife. I’m in a tough situation when it comes to establishing domestic harmony. I owe Gaius a vast debt. By saving my life, he has lost much of his own. Something tells me I will be hearing about this quite a lot in the future. Will I have to serve him hand and foot? I wonder. Olivia, I paid 800,000 sesterces for you to live, go heat up some water, I hear his voice in my head. I emptied my entire savings account to buy your freedom, the least you could do is wash my clothes properly. Or the cooking. My family will never speak to me again, and I only get potatoes for dinner. The Vestal handbook did not contain any guidance that will help me in this situation.
In an attempt to remember any latent domestic abilities, I take stock of the pantry, where there are enough dried goods and root vegetables to potentially make a meal. If I knew anything about cooking, I would probably be set. We learned some theory in our Vestal training, but that was a long time ago and I’ve never had to put it into practice. It occurs to me that in order to actually cook anything, I will need a fire, so I set about making one in the hearth in the kitchen.
When Gaius returns, he finds me kneeling on the kitchen floor, making liberal use of the obscene language I used to chastise Marta about. “I should know how to start a fire!” I exclaim in frustration.
“Oh, isn’t there any lamp oil in the pantry?” Gaius asks innocently.
I can tell he means to tease me, and normally I would laugh. Instead, my throat tightens up. I am suddenly afraid that I might cry. My friends never experienced the kind of intense devotion that I felt for Vesta, so nobody can understand my loss. They don’t know how lonely it is to realize that your goddess, your constant source of comfort, has always been an imaginary friend.
Sensing that he has gone too far, Gaius softens his tone. “Don’t worry about it. The caretaker’s wife can show you when she comes later,” he says. Then he casts about for another subject. “Don’t you want to see what I bought you?” he asks, hoping to pique my interest.
“Ooh, yes!” I say with enthusiasm, collecting myself. I follow him excitedly into the living room and start poking around in a shopping bag he has returned with.
“There wasn’t much available off the rack, but I found a few things. Unwrap this one first,” he directs me. When I finally get the package open, I immediately hold up the dress so I can see it in the sunlight. It’s a pale-peach color, a sleeveless dress with a draped neckline. The fabric is gathered at each shoulder, and the bands are made out of some sort of silvery thread.
“It’s so beautiful!” I exclaim happily. “It’s such a pretty color.”
“Well, I had no idea what I was doing. I just remembered you wore that color at the Circus Callia,” he says. “There are two more,” he adds, indicating the bag.
The second dress is a light-blue wrap with more silver filigree where it ties at the waist, and the third is a similar design in sunny yellow.
“They’re all so nice!” I say in delight. “Look at all the detail. I love them. You must have found the prettiest dresses in the store!”
“Well, they had to be nice,” Gaius says dismissively. “I had to act like they were a big surprise for my new wife. It would have looked strange for me to ask for plain dresses.” Although he pretends otherwise, I can tell he is pleased.
As I poke around in the bag I discover he has also purchased underthings, which I am very grateful for. I also find the most modestly cut nightdress I have ever seen. “Yuck,” I say, holding it up. “You told them you bought this for your wife?”
Gaius ignores this. He draws a smaller package from the bag. “At the shop they said I had to get something for your hair,” he offers. When I unwrap the package, I find several decorative silver combs.
“They’re beautiful. Thank you. And you know what? I think these dresses will fit perfectly,” I say. “I’m going to go try them on.” And I hurry to the bedroom, arms full of my new clothes. I was right. They do fit. I put on the orange dress first, since it seems to be his favorite.
When I return to the living room, he is setting out a plate. “I ate in the village,” he says, “but I picked up some food for you.”
“Oh!” I exclaim, worried, “I have to go change back. I don’t want to get food on my new dress!” But he catches me by the shoulders and steers me to the table. “No,” he says, “you are a grown woman with an adult skill set, and I trust you not to spill food on yourself. Eat your lunch. The housekeeper could be here any minute.”
I approach my lunch cautiously at first. It seems to be some kind of spicy chickpea stew in a red sauce, and I eye it warily, as though it fully intends to splash all over me. But it turns out to be so good that soon I begin eating it with my usual gusto. As Gaius predicted, I do not spill on myself.
“Maybe it’s a good idea to put your hair up before Nona comes,” Gaius says, looking at me closely. “It looks pretty wild, as if you have been sleeping on it. Also, there seems to be a large chunk missing. Is that normal?”
“Oh, I sacrificed it to Neptune,” I say in explanation, my mouth full.
“I see,” he says, taken aback. “Why?”
“Didn’t anybody tell you what happened on the southern beach?” I ask, surprised.
“Yes, I heard all about it from Cassius,” he says, “but nobody mentioned sacrificing hair.”
So I tell him the story, explaining that we ran out of sacrificial food so I did the only thing I could think of. “I don’t really know why Neptune wanted my hair,” I say, “but we’re lucky he did.”
“Well, it was a sacrifice for you,” Gaius says, “even if Neptune didn’t want it. People are usually grateful for sacrifices.” But I have stopped listening. I am focusing on my stew.
By the time I have finished eating, Gaius has stepped outside. I drag my chair over to the living space and grab my Vestal hairpins from my room. I also lay out my silver combs. Okay, I say to myself, you can do this.
Fifteen minutes later, when Gaius returns, I am still struggling to achieve even a basic style. He stops to watch me from the doorway.
“This is impossible,” I complain. “I’ve never had to do my own hair before. I can’t see what I’m doing. And how do you pin up hair that’s not braided?”
“Um,” he hesitates, “I think you need to start by sticking the pins in from the bottom, then pulling them up and pressing them down.” He walks over and begins scrutinizing my handiwork. “Here,” he says. He takes the pin from my hand and gently moves it to the right spot, pressing it down carefully.
“How do you know about hairstyles?” I ask, puzzled.
“I don’t, really,” he says. “I learned to do my mother’s hair when I was young. It’s kind of a long story.”
“Oh my gods,” I say, laughing. “I need to hear it. This is too bizarre.” I hand him another hairpin, because he seems to be having some success.
“When I was seven,” he begins, “my father took my brothers on a long trip, but I was too young to go with them.”
“You have brothers? How many?” I interrupt.
“I’m the youngest of five,” he says. “So they went away, and I was the only child left in the house. My mother started bringing me into her dressing room every morning so she could keep an eye on me while the servants did her hair. And I was totally fascinated by it. She had them do all this intricate stuff that involved a lot of braiding. It was like a little engineering project to me,” he explains. “So one day I asked the maids to show me how they were doing it. And of course they were all delighted by this. My mother just thought it was the cutest thing ever. They taught me how to do the hairstyle and let me practice until I could do it correctly. Then every day it was, ‘Gaius, come do Mommy’s hair,’” he mimics. “All the girls from the kitchens would come up to watch.”
“That is adorable.” I laugh. “You must have been so proud of yourself!”
“Well of course I loved all the attention,” he says. “Until my brothers came home, and then the teasing was relentless. They still bring it up,” he says ruefully.
“But I’m sure your mother treasures that memory,” I say. “Lucretia,” I add.
“Yes.” He smiles. “That’s right.”
Then he is quiet as he nestles my last comb in place. I am sure it is painful for him to think about his family. I wish I hadn’t mentioned his mother’s name. As he did earlier this morning, I cast about for a topic change.
“Do you think you could do the Vestal hairstyle?” I ask casually.
“No,” he says. “That’s some complicated stuff. Even the other Vestals seem to have trouble with it.”
“What makes you say that?” I ask.
“I noticed that sometimes when you came to see me at the Regia, your hairstyle seemed messier than normal, like someone put it up kind of carelessly or inexpertly. I think you had two different people doing your hair on a regular basis,” he says. “I imagine Marta and Lucia, although I don’t know which one is the messy one.”
“I know exactly what you’re talking about. That was Marta,” I say, laughing. “She can do it perfectly. She just doesn’t care.”
“Sounds like her,” he says with a half-smile. Then we’re silent. I miss Marta. It seems there is an embargo on every topic. I want to keep him talking, so I try to think of our future instead of our past.
“I have a question,” I tell him.
“Let’s hear it.”
“What was with that nightgown you bought? Are you ever going to sleep with me? Or do you not want to?” I ask curiously.
Gaius grips the back of my chair, appalled. “Just…like, get ahold of yourself,” he says. “My gods, what goes on at that House of Vestals?” He puts his hand to his forehead as though he’s going to have another headache. Then there’s a knock on the door.
It turns out to be Nona, the housekeeper. We welcome her in gladly, and although there is something of a language barrier, she very kindly demonstrates to us both how to light a fire in the hearth. Then Gaius leaves us in the kitchen, where she teaches me a simple meal and then helps me start a more complex one for our dinner this evening. She has brought us some lamb for a main course, and some berries for dessert.
Cooking doesn’t seem too complicated when Nona demonstrates it. I try to jot down as many notes as possible while she watches me curiously. Then I follow her around the house and watch her do her chores. I think this unnerves her a little.
At the end of her stay, I try to thank her, and she smiles as though she understands. Then she touches my dress and says, “Pretty,” and I thank her again. Before she leaves, she places two wine bottles on the table. Then she smiles at me knowingly and waves good-bye.
“What was that about?” says Gaius, joining me in the living room. “Why was she smiling at you like that?”
“I don’t know, but she left this wine,” I say.
“Wow,” Gaius says, picking up one of the bottles, “this is actually really nice stuff. I’m surprised they wasted it on a guest. This has got to be from the family’s reserves. You know what? I think they feel sorry for us,” he says.
“Why would they?” I ask.
“I mean, we arrive in the middle of the night by cart, you in a wedding dress with no luggage,” he says. “We’re clearly from money because we’re Tiberius’s friends, but you follow her around all day learning chores. I think they believe we’ve eloped or something, like a love match against our parents’ wishes, and maybe been disinherited.”
I laugh. “Well, that’s mostly right,” I say.
“Yes, that’s pretty much the story,” he agrees. “Let’s have dinner.”
Nona has set a table out on the patio for our evening meal, knowing that the weather will be beautiful. It’s such a gorgeous view that I vow to eat out here for the rest of our stay. Gaius pulls up one of the outdoor benches as I serve the lamb and pour some wine.
“I have more questions for you,” I say as we sit down to eat. “When exactly did you ask Sextus for the certificate to marry me, for starters?”
“I asked him the day Cassius invited me to the clearing,” Gaius says. “After I learned what he had done. Before that, I thought he had managed to convince you Vesta was real and everything would be fine.”
“Wait! I just realized something,” I say. “That’s how you knew my birthday. Because you needed it for the marriage certificate!”
“Oh, did Lucia tell you that?” Gaius asks. “Yes, that is why I knew. Sextus had to pull your file from the Vestal records. I asked him to draw up the papers because I said I was madly in love with you, and I bribed him ten thousand sesterces to keep the secret from my father. Naturally, Sextus understood why I didn’t want it to get around.”
“So what did he think when you didn’t marry me after all?” I ask.
“Oh, I told him I had chickened out, couldn’t part with the money,” he says. “Gods, he laughed at me. But I said I would keep the certificate just in case, and Sextus assured me it would still be valid.”
“But you didn’t have the money to buy me out,” I prompt.
“No, I did not,” Gaius agrees. “I had no idea what I was going to do should the need actually arise. I asked Cassius for his estate the day after the battle, assuring him that I would only present the document if I needed it to marry you. To his credit, he didn’t hesitate to sign it over, which is more than I can say for myself.”
I’m overwhelmed by Cassius’s generosity. Not one but two of my friends gave up their entire fortunes for my life. “And now he’s helping Lucia?” I ask.
“Yes, it’s his turn to worry about one of you, for a change,” Gaius says acerbically.
“But how did you know that they would ultimately charge me with fornication?” I ask.
“I didn’t know,” he says. “But you were uniquely vulnerable to that charge. If you incurred the wrath of the pontiffs, a fornication charge was the best way they could guarantee your conviction. On any other charge, another Vestal could testify on your behalf, and you know how they can’t lie,” he adds with sarcasm. “I didn’t know it would happen. But as it turns out, it was lucky I planned ahead. I needed to get you out of a religious order and into the status of private citizen. Then their decision to charge you with a Vestal crime would be meaningless. As I said, they can still try to get you into the civil courts, execute you for something else, but it will be harder. If we stay hidden they might lose interest.”
“So, if you don’t mind me asking,” I say after a little while, “how much money do you actually have left?”
“I have seventeen thousand sesterces sitting in a local bank account,” he says. “That’s it.”
“Well, that’s not so bad,” I muse. “I think that’s more than my father’s entire farm is worth.”
“Yep,” he says. “Solid middle class, baby.” And he winks at me.
“Do you know how stupid you sound when you call people baby?” I laugh, and he smiles. Good. I note that wine improves his mood tremendously. I’m feeling an increasing sense of gratitude for Nona as we work our way through the second bottle. Eventually, I lead Gaius back to the subject of our marriage.
“So,” I say, giggling, “isn’t it funny how you were so in love with me all the time I came to visit you in the Regia?”
“What?” he says, slightly irritated. “No, I wasn’t.”
“Yes, you clearly were,” I say tipsily. “You were all like, ‘Olivia, you’re so pretty, I wish you would marry me.’ And lucky for you that I did.”
“Not the case,” he contradicts me firmly, sticking to his story.
“And then at the flamen’s house, you just couldn’t hold out any longer. You were like, ‘Olivia, please kiss me, you’re so pretty.’” To emphasize my point, I make kissy noises at him.
“That’s not the incident I recall,” he says repressively, and I laugh heartily at this for a long time.
“But obviously you were totally attracted to me,” I say, enjoying his discomfort.
“Sorry to disappoint,” he says, “but no, I never thought about you that way.”
“Oh right, because this happens all the time,” I say, smiling in disbelief. “Boy meets girl, boy finds girl unattractive, boy cashes in entire fortune to marry girl.”
“The situation was a bit more complicated than that!” he protests. “Are you saying I would let a girl die a horrible death just because I wasn’t attracted to her? What kind of a person would that make me?”
Damn. This is sobering. I expected Gaius to deny his attraction to me, because I had teased him into a corner and he hates to concede any argument. But I didn’t intend to steer the conversation into “horrible death” territory. Now it’s all I can think about.
“What about Cassius and Lucia?” I ask. “How do you think they’re getting along?”
“The world’s two most beautiful people?” Gaius asks, raising his eyebrows. “I’m sure they’re having an incredibly easy time. They can flirt their way into anyone’s attic or cellar.”
At first, I laugh at this. Then, in the way only wine can cause, my laughter turns to sobs. I’m so scared for them. I’m so afraid I’ll never see Lucia again. Just like I might never see Marta, or Lavinia, or my mother again. I cry for all of them.
Gaius puts his arm around me and pulls me to his side. He lets me cry on his shoulder for a long time. I make his sleeve all wet.
When I open my eyes again, it’s early morning and I’m lying in a soft bed. A little investigation reveals that I’m in the small bedroom I chose for myself, and I’m still wearing my clothes from the night before, with a blanket thrown over me. Fortunately, either Gaius or I had the sense to take off my sandals.
My head is fuzzy and I’m terribly thirsty, so I grope my way over to the nightstand and have a drink. Then I splash water on my face. This revives me enough that I can change into my yellow dress. Next I creep into the kitchen for some food. I’m starving.
I find Gaius standing over the kitchen table, scribbling something on a piece of paper. He looks pale, and has dark circles under his eyes. “Oh,” he says, “I was just leaving you a note. I’m going out.”
“Where are you going?” I say, intrigued. I would love to get out of the house, and now that I have new clothes there’s nothing stopping me.
“I was going to walk on the beach,” he says, “but I was actually planning to go alone—”
“I’ll get my shoes,” I say happily and run to gather them from the bedroom.
The walk to the beach in the bright sunshine revives my spirits, and a brisk wind picks up when we reach the shore, keeping us cool. But I notice that Gaius isn’t enjoying our walk as much as I am. “Is everything okay?” I ask.
“Okay is relative,” he responds. “I’ve been thinking about where we go from here. Tiberius has been very kind to offer us this house, but it’s not a long-term solution, and our money won’t last forever. I need some kind of work, but I’m not sure what that will be yet. I don’t know how to farm,” he says. “The Flamen Martialis is trying to help me, but he can only give me indirect assistance. That’s what all my letters are about. He has several friends with large estates, and he thought they might take me on as manager, but that’s something I only have secondhand experience with. Besides, those jobs usually stay in the family,” he says dispiritedly.
“If this all blows over, could you eventually go back to the academy?” I ask, grasping for a solution.
He shakes his head. “I was in the room when the decision was made to prosecute you and Lucia. I was at that meeting,” he says. “The pontiffs and flamens know exactly what I did, and why. I defied them. It would be unwise to return, even if my father could get me back into the academy.”
It belatedly strikes me that not only did Gaius give up his fortune, he also abandoned what was by all accounts a very promising career to save my life.
“It’s going to be okay,” I tell him. “You’re so smart. You can do anything. All you need is an opportunity.”
Gaius gives a hollow laugh. I grab his hand and hold it as we walk, lacing my fingers through his. It might be my imagination, but I think I see an improvement in his gloomy mood.
We walk in silence, each lost in our own thoughts. I still can’t comprehend the reason for his astounding sacrifice. “Flavia’s execution must really have disturbed you,” I say after a while.
“Yes it did,” he says. “I can’t believe it didn’t make a bigger impression on you, given that your view was even better than mine. You were standing on the dais.”
“It did make an impression,” I assure him. “But how do you know where I stood that day?”
“I knew who you were before I ever started at the academy. I saw you at the execution first,” he says. “I saw all three of you. I heard you screaming.”
“And you remembered my face when you met me again, years later?” I ask, surprised. “That’s remarkable, unless you were looking at me for some special reason.”
“You were standing next to Lucia,” he says. “Everybody looked at Lucia, even at twelve.”
Oh, I think. Suddenly I decide I would rather wade in the surf than hold his hand. “I’m going in the water,” I say to him, untying my dress. Underneath it I’m wearing a white linen tunic that ends mid-thigh, a length that probably won’t offend Gaius’s sense of propriety. I hope. “Here,” I say, piling the yellow fabric into his arms. “Hold this for me.” He doesn’t object. I take off my shoes to carry them and step lightly into the damp sand, letting the tiny waves at the waterline run over my feet.
Gaius studies me as we walk. “What happened to your toe?” he asks, noticing my cut, which is still an angry red as it heals. I will probably have a scar.
“A Selanthian soldier cut me with an iron spike,” I say, like it’s old news. I told Lucia about my encounter with the soldiers on the cliffs, but it didn’t seem necessary to mention it to anyone else. I’m not eager to relive the experience.
Gaius gives a halfhearted laugh, as though this is a joke.
“That’s really what happened,” I tell him without emotion.
“No one could have gotten close enough to touch you,” he insists. He knows I’m telling the truth, but he’s making one last feeble attempt to convince himself otherwise.
In response, I tell him the story about how I lobbed the bombs off the cliff and dropped rocks on the remaining men. When I get to the part about the last soldier reaching the top and slicing my toe, he sighs. “I think you were the only girl in the entire battle who managed to get injured,” he says defeatedly. “But you did show good judgment. We’re all lucky you took that initiative. They could have done some real damage by attacking the girls on the wall.”
“Thank you!” I say, flattered by this unexpected praise.
He shakes his head, still meditating on the battle for Polonia. “We thought we were so well defended, but they kept surprising us,” he says.
“We surprised them right back,” I say, watching my feet as I wade in the shallows. I don’t want to think about the battle anymore, and he seems to understand, because he lets the subject drop. I can feel his eyes on me again as we walk.
“So why didn’t you marry Lucia?” I ask him, as though picking up a previous conversation. “You said you asked for the marriage papers after you saw her tree in the clearing. She was obviously the most valuable one, and you think she is the prettiest.”
“Everyone thinks she is the prettiest, Olivia,” he says with a small smile. “Don’t let it bother you. This is a fact of life you should be reconciled to by now.”
He’s right, but I won’t let him sidetrack me. “Answer my question,” I say.
“There are lots of reasons,” he says slowly. But he doesn’t offer any.
“Like what?” I prod.
“Well…,” he says hesitantly. Then he grows more decided. “I got away with marrying you because you’re not a major target. But they want Lucia badly. She’s a huge threat to them. She can singlehandedly create an army of deadly women. They’re all afraid of what she might do.”
“But you didn’t know that when you saw the tree,” I persist. “You had no idea she could do any of that.”
“I am blessed with incredible foresight,” he says with asperity.
“Uh-huh,” I say, unimpressed. I stop walking to lean down and run my fingers through the surf, and he waits for me as I pretend to try to unearth a seashell. “So what are the other good reasons?” I ask.
By this time he has marshaled his arguments. “I bribed Sextus to keep the secret from my father. But it would have been impossible to convince him not to tell Claudius Maximianus, Lucia’s father. He’s the wealthiest man in Polonia. They work together quite frequently.”
“Interesting,” I say, but I didn’t really listen. I’m intent on my plot. “Look at this cool seashell,” I say, beckoning to him. He leans over patiently.
“If your foresight’s so good, how come you didn’t see thiscoming?” I ask, splashing his face with seawater.
“Ahh,” he says, jumping back. Then he gives me a reluctant smile. I step out of the water and hold out my arms to him, and he hands me my clothes.
When we return to the guesthouse, I excuse myself to wash off the sand and sea spray from our walk. Although I don’t have any hot water, it’s warm enough that I decide to wash my hair too. Then I sit on the patio to dry it in the sun. I’ve put on my peach dress again, since it’s still clean from yesterday.
After an hour or so, I look into the house and see Gaius in his characteristic sprawl, lying on the living room chaise. It’s too short for him, so he rests one leg on the ground. He has been running his hand through his hair, and it’s all ruffled. He looks about as stressed out as I have ever seen him. I don’t understand how anybody could stay down when it’s this beautiful outside. That’s Gaius, I think. So worried about the future that he can’t enjoy the present.
I decide to join him, thinking maybe he could use a little affection. Gods know, I could. “Scootch,” I say, pushing his leg aside to make room for myself on the chaise. He does not respond.
“So,” I say, bringing my knees up to sit on them, “we did not get to finish our fascinating conversation of yesterday.” I lean my weight on my hands and walk up the chaise with my arms until my face is close to his. I have him trapped now.
“You were telling me how in love you were back when I used to deliver the mail,” I say.
“Still not true,” he says, smiling. He puts his hand on my waist. His grip is surprisingly strong.
“You can deny it all you want,” I say. I lean in closer to him, and he is very still as he looks into my eyes. He slowly runs his hand down my side to my hip. I think for a moment that he is going to kiss me.
Instead, he deftly flips me over and dumps me into the space between the chaise and the wall. I wedge tight.
“Augh!” I wail, half laughing. The more I struggle, the farther I sink.
“Oh no, are you stuck?” he says in mock concern.
“Yes! It’s not funny,” I say piteously.
“Bad things can happen to people at any time, you know, Olivia.”
“Shut up,” I say. “Get me out.” Then I squeak in horror as I see a spider crawling its way up the wall.
“It sounds like you might be in need of assistance,” he says, unconcerned.
“Eek! I am. There’s a big spider!” I squeal, kicking the chaise. If he wasn’t sitting on it, I could push it away from the wall, but he’s too heavy. “Please!” I say, terrified.
“Okay,” Gaius says, “since you asked so nicely.” And he leans over and scoops me out. I collapse onto the chaise next to him, breathing heavily. “THANK you,” I say.
“There it is!” Gaius says cheerfully. “That’s the appropriate response.”
“Oh,” I say, rolling over, still panting. “I get it. I see where you’re going with this. Are you really mad because I didn’t literally say the words ‘thank you’ after you married me?”
“They would certainly have been nice to hear,” Gaius agrees.
“I mean, really,” I say, “you saved my life. I would have thought the ‘thank you’ was implied. Just saying the words is so insufficient.”
“But still,” Gaius says.
“Thank you very much for saving my life, Gaius,” I say politely.
“Anytime!” he says, throwing his arms wide. “Oh no, you’re all gross,” he says in a pitying tone. “Your dress is covered in spider webs. It seems like you should take better care of the pretty things I buy you, Olivia,” he says, brushing me off.
I am now recovered enough to resume my former position, so I pin him again. “You’re not getting away so easily,” I say. “You liked me when I delivered the mail.”
“It was good to have someone come and see me,” he says, smiling and brushing more spider webs out of my hair. I’ll take it. With Gaius, this is as close to a declaration of undying love as I’m going to get.
“And you ran all over the Senate to find me and return the note I delivered by mistake,” I remind him.
“Oh, that’s right. Well…I am a very nice guy,” he says, and smiles as I scoff at this.
“But did I have some big crush on you?” he continues. “No. Why would I do that to myself? A Vestal Virgin is a high-risk, low-reward proposition. Besides,” he teases, tugging a lock of hair behind my ear, “you weren’t even the prettiest one.” I laugh good-naturedly at this. Gaius laughs too, but his smile fades as he becomes preoccupied with removing something from my shoulder. He pushes back my hair, brushing my neck deliberately. Abandoning my dress altogether, he slowly runs a finger down my collarbone, sending a thrill through me. I meet his eyes and he grabs my waist, shifting me to his lap. I gasp softly in surprise as he leans up to kiss my neck. His lips have barely touched my skin when there is a knock on the door.
Startled, we both jump at the interruption and guiltily scramble off the chaise. Gaius motions for me to hide while he peers out from a crack in the door. Then he opens it wider. “Are you Gaius?” a young man’s voice asks. “Tiberius sent me. I have his letter if you would like to see it.”
“Thank you,” says Gaius, taking the letter and examining it. It must be legitimate, because he steps back to let the man inside.
“I’m Marius,” he says, extending his hand. “I grew up with Tiberius. He has sent some information for you undercover through me.”
“Welcome,” Gaius says. “This is my wife, Olivia. She’ll go get you something to drink,” he says, raising his eyebrow at me significantly. I smile at Marius and pretend not to hear him. In retaliation, he grabs my shoulders, turns me toward the kitchen, and smacks my rear, setting me off in the right direction. Ooh, he will pay for this, I think, narrowing my eyes at him as I slink off, humiliated.
I make a lot of noise banging around in the kitchen for show, and then I sneak back to the doorway and hold my breath, trying to catch their conversation. Gaius is speaking in very low tones, but luckily our visitor doesn’t feel the need to match his volume.
“They picked her up just after dawn,” he is saying. “Tiberius says they don’t have Cassius in custody, and as far as he knows there haven’t been any formal charges against him. But it could just be a matter of time.”
Gaius says something indistinct in response.
“It’s very likely they’ll do it tomorrow. Any trial would just be a formality. They want her dead as quickly as possible,” Marius says.
Gaius thanks him quietly, and Marius says his good-byes. “I can’t stay,” he says. “Sorry to bring you such bad news.” And Gaius walks him to the door.
They have Lucia, I think. I feel my heart breaking. This can’t be true. I’m so shocked I can’t even cry. Instead I pull myself together, pour a cup of wine, and walk back into the living room nonchalantly.
“Oh, is he gone already?” I ask innocently. “What was that about?”
Gaius is shaken, I can tell, but he puts on a casual air. “Nothing much,” he says. “Just some more job leads Tiberius wanted to pass along.”
“Did he say anything else?” I ask, a note of warning in my voice.
“No, that’s it,” Gaius says, not picking up on my tone.
“You liar,” I say, furious. “I can’t believe you would try to hide this from me. Lucia’s going to be executed, and you think I don’t even deserve to know?” I feel so betrayed by his deceit. “We have to go there,” I demand. “I have to be with her.”
“This is why you didn't need to know! This is exactly why,” Gaius says, matching my tone. “What good is it going to do her if you’re there? What possible benefit could it have to anyone?”
“I owe it to her,” I say, “to be there. I’m not going to sit here and wait out her suffering just because you think I can’t stomach it. I need to be with her when it happens, whether she knows it or not. You can’t protect me from this!” I accuse him.
“No. You are not going. I didn’t spend all that money just so you could walk right back into the city, right up to all the people who want to arrest you, to see your friend die and be a basket case for the rest of your life,” he says.
“My friend?” I ask him incredulously. “She risked her life to save the entire country, worked tirelessly beside you for weeks, handed you an incredible victory, and now she’s just my friend?” There’s nothing more to be said. I just stare at him. Finally, he breaks.
“I’ll go find a cart,” he mutters angrily, walking out the door.