Goddess

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Chapter 16

It only takes an hour or two for Gaius to arrange transportation back to Polonia. He actually buys a donkey and hitches it to a small cart that Tiberius and his family keep at their home. “This is expensive on top of everything else.” He sighs. I don’t bother responding.

The road to Polonia is just as miserable as the first time we traveled it. I try to look inconspicuous as we pass our fellow travelers. It becomes easier as night falls. As we ride, Gaius and I talk about Lucia’s situation, trying to come up with some way to help her. It seems incredible that they have captured her, when she has so much power. They must have devised some way to block her ability to invoke the gods. We discuss trying to rescue her from prison, but Gaius knows the kind of heavy guard she’ll be under, and he doesn’t think we can possibly succeed. I suggest an appeal to Gaius’s father, thinking maybe his political sway could help free Lucia, but we both know the Pontifex Maximus will want her dead at any cost.

Frustrated and close to tears, I begin to wonder whether the best way to help Lucia is simply to spare her from whatever horrible mode of death the Pontifex has devised. I suggest that I could invoke Diana, hidden by the crowds, and kill her before the executioner can. I expect Gaius to object, but after a long pause, he quietly agrees with me.

“You can do it pretty secretly,” he says, “as long as we get all the sacrifices and prayers out of the way before we reach the crowd.” It’s a sickening thought, killing her that way, but it’s the best idea we have.

It’s late by the time we pull our cart off the road. We feed and water the donkey and tie him up in the woods. I’ve suggested to Gaius that we spend the night in the clearing, which is still the safest hiding place I know. There will be something comforting about spending the night near Lucia’s fig tree. One more opportunity to celebrate her life.

Gaius brought along a small lantern to help us through the forest, but we find it difficult to locate the clearing, and we crash around quite a bit before we make our way there. As we push past the final branches, I see a face peering at us. It scares me to death until I recognize it.

“Ohmigods,” I shriek in a whisper. “Cassius?”

“Gods, it’s you,” he says. We have clearly terrified him. He looks as though he is about to faint. “I can’t believe you came.”

“It’s okay. We’re here. Let’s sit down,” I say, trying to calm him.

Cassius looks terrible. Since I’ve known him, he’s always looked robustly healthy, projecting the kind of confident air that comes from a totally untroubled mind. Now his face is gray under his tan, and he has deep circles under his eyes. His posture is totally different. He lets me lead him to the blankets he has spread out under the tree, and he slumps against the trunk as we sit with him.

“Cassius, what happened?” Gaius asks. “How did they catch her so quickly?”

Cassius shakes his head. He seems disoriented, as if he’s been ripped from the world he knew and dropped into one he doesn’t recognize. “We were exhausted. They were on us right from the beginning,” he says. “They had dogs, hundreds of men combing the forest. There’s a price of half a million sesterces on her head, did you know? They chased us relentlessly throughout that first day, and every time they cornered us, Lucia would pray to Diana and drop tree branches on them, rocks, whatever she had at hand. She kept them at bay. At nightfall, we climbed a tree to try to get some sleep, and they surrounded us. There must have been a hundred men. We were overwhelmed, so she set their clothes on fire. A certain percentage of them certainly burned to death. It wasn’t pretty,” he says. “These weren’t soldiers. They were just men from the city, looking to cash in on the reward.” Then he breaks off, unable to continue.

I take his hand and press it between my own, hoping to comfort him. “Go on,” I say.

“Well, we spent a terrible night. She was so upset,” he says. “She insisted she was going to give up, turn herself in, that she couldn’t live with what she had done. I told her it was them or us. I said, ‘After a couple more incidents like that, they’ll leave us alone for good.’ But she wouldn’t listen.” He breaks off again. “Then I tried to convince her that if we could make it to the ocean and find a boat, Neptune would take her wherever she wanted to go. It was no use. She had already made up her mind. She told me…that she was proud of what she had done to help Parcae win the war,” he says shakily. “She said that she would stand behind her actions, and if they wanted to kill her, so be it…and then she said, if she was honest with herself…” He trails off. “If she was honest with herself, she’s been waiting for this day since she was twelve years old. It’s so senseless!” he says. My heart sinks. Poor Lucia. I’m in so much pain for her.

“Right before dawn, she set out for the Temple of Venus. I begged her not to go, but nothing worked. It’s not as though I could have physically restrained her,” he says, “although I wasn’t above trying. But she’s stronger than I am,” he says regretfully. “The Pontifex Maximus was performing a daybreak ritual at the temple. I followed her there. She marched right up to him and hit him in the mouth. Knocked out two of his teeth. She started shouting to the women in the crowd, something about cruelty and hypocrisy, but she didn’t struggle when they arrested her.”

“That’s awful,” says Gaius, hand to his mouth. “I’m so sorry.”

We both look at him. “Thank you,” Cassius says. “I thought you’d be angry.”

Gaius just shakes his head.

“I’ve been praying for you to come, Olivia,” Cassius says, hushed. “I prayed to everyone I could think of. I even prayed to Vesta, on the off chance she is real,” he says. “Did you come to end it before they torture her?”

I nod, holding back my tears. “If we have to. I can’t think of any other way to help.”

“I know,” says Cassius. “I don’t know what else to do. If she won’t save herself, at least we don’t have to see her die in pain.”

“Maybe we should try to get some rest,” Gaius suggests. Cassius doesn’t object, but I can tell he doesn’t expect to sleep. I’m not sure I can, either.

Cassius pulls out his sleeping gear again and hangs up the hammock for me, but I insist that he take it instead. “I’ll be fine on the blankets,” I say. “You need more rest than I do.” He doesn’t resist.

I had put my hair up for our travels, but I take it down again so I can sleep. Otherwise the combs will pinch me. I wrap them up carefully in my bag. We’ll stay in our clothes tonight so we can escape quickly if we’re disturbed. When I lay down next to Gaius, he holds his arms out to me unexpectedly. “Come here,” he says. So I slide over to him. He pulls me close and rests his forehead on mine. The night is cool, so I press into him, grateful for his warmth. He strokes my hair gently until I fall asleep.

***

When I wake, Cassius is gone, but I’m still lying in Gaius’s embrace. I wriggle out from his grasp and start preparing for the day, washing my face and pulling back my hair. I put on my blue wrap dress. It’s a less flashy color, so it might help me pass unnoticed. But I really choose it because it’s my least favorite. I don’t think I’ll be able to keep whatever dress I wear today. There will be too many awful memories.

“Olivia,” Cassius says, emerging from the trees, “I’ve been in the city. They’re going to execute her today at noon.”

“Without a trial?” I ask, stunned.

“She’s killed so many people that they’re just dispensing with it,” he says. “And she’s clearly been invoking the gods.”

“We’ll want to hang back until the crowds have already gathered,” Gaius says, sitting up. Cassius nods.

We spend the next few hours praying to Diana, making sacrifices, and finally, invoking her. The boys give it another try, even though we know she probably won’t listen. We brought plenty of food to sacrifice, but I also pile a handful of Lucia’s figs on our makeshift altar. “From her,” I whisper to the small statue Cassius has placed there.

We kill more time by visiting our donkey to give him food and water. Then we sit in terrified silence until it’s time to go. Time seems to be moving both very slowly and terribly fast. We walk together to the forum, avoiding eye contact and keeping well inside the crowds that are already filling the marketplace. When we arrive I am surprised to see a lovely rainbow arcing across the sky, although it has not been raining. It’s perplexing until I realize that she has asked Iris for one. I strangle a sob that rises in my throat.

“Keep it together, Olivia,” Gaius tells me in a low voice. “You were the one who wanted to come here.” But his expression softens as he looks into my face. “You have to be brave for her,” he says in a gentler tone. “We’ll cry afterward, okay?” He lifts my chin, and I give him a small nod.

“Now,” he says, all business, “you’ll want to be close to the action, but behind the first row of onlookers so your face isn’t visible to the pontiffs. When the executioner comes out, the crowd will surge forward and get agitated. Right after that is when you can make your move unnoticed. Or,” he says resignedly, seeing my narrowed eyes, “do whatever you want, which is exactly what you always do. Let’s go.”

Gaius and Cassius need all their strength to push through the still-growing crowd toward the front of the makeshift theater, until we finally make it to the front. The dais I remember so well is already filled with pontiffs and flamens. I see Lavinia toward the back, and it looks as if she’s been crying. She’s making no attempt to hide it. A small protest, I think.

Then, with a shock, I see Lucia tied to a post in the middle of the ring. Her clothes and hair are a mess after her desperate flight, but somehow, she looks twice as beautiful. Her arms are bound behind her in a position that looks terribly painful, but her face shows no discomfort.

My focus shifts to someone standing in the distance, straining against the rope barriers that are keeping the crowd at bay. My heart clenches in pain. Marta. I should have expected to see her here. I wish so badly that I could be with her now.

The Pontifex Maximus rises to address the crowd, holding his hands up. The crowd respectfully falls silent.

“Countrymen,” he says. “Today we take a stand to uphold the values and honor of the Parcaean people. Some call the woman who stands before you a war hero. But while she may have attained a temporary celebrity from the battle of Polonia, her true character has been revealed through wanton acts of depravity. She is accused of breaking her Vestal vow of celibacy, and her guilt has been confirmed in her immediate and cowardly flight. In her desperate attempt to escape justice, she illegally invoked our gods again and again, resulting in the death of many good, law-abiding citizens. She is demonstrably a menace to our peace and security. She cannot be allowed to live, for she will surely commit more acts of the most disgusting blasphemy.”

The crowd roars its approval of this speech, and I feel dizzy. Don’t faint, I warn myself.

“Her crimes are many,” the Pontifex continues, “and each one disgraces the office of a Vestal Virgin. The pontiffs have deemed it most appropriate to punish her as our goddess Vesta would desire, with blindness and execution by immuration.”

Wasting no time, the executioner immediately enters the ring and begins to stoke a roaring fire that has been placed there. When he is satisfied, he raises his iron weapon so we can all see the red-hot spike at the end. The crowd goes insane, and as Gaius warned, I am violently tossed around by the agitation of the spectators, their hunger for blood. I muscle through them until I have a clear view of her. Then I pray to Diana with all my might to hit her with a fist-sized rock I’ve been concealing in my dress.

Nothing happens.

Please, please, I pray to Diana. But she won’t hear me. I’m helpless.

Spectators in the crowd jeer loudly as the executioner advances on Lucia. I hear Gaius calling to me to invoke Diana, not realizing it’s useless. I’m desperate, and I’m out of ideas.

With a horrible scream, a small feminine form hurtles across the ring and knocks the poker out of the executioner’s hand. I gasp in shock as I realize it’s Marta. Still screaming, she kicks and claws at him, landing some well-placed blows and even drawing some blood before two soldiers pull her off. She struggles against them violently, but one of them clamps a hand over her mouth while the other restrains her with a length of rope. I see the executioner say something to her. I think he tells her “you’re next.” This can’t be happening.

His poker still red-hot, the executioner returns to the task at hand, now furious and looking as though he means to take it out on Lucia’s eyes. He raises his arm. Black clouds darken the sky as a furious gust of wind whips through the crowd, blowing so hard that the executioner takes a staggering step back to stay upright.

Then, with a mighty thunderclap that shakes the ground, a bolt of lightning streaks from the sky and strikes him dead.

As quickly as it started, the wind subsides.

No one speaks. No one moves. Thunder and lightning can mean only one thing: they’re the unmistakable sign of Jupiter. The stunned crowd is quiet for what feels like ages. Then a few terrified screams cut through the silence, and panic starts to set in. I hear lots of agitated shuffling from behind me. “Silence,” calls the Pontifex Maximus. He raises his hand. The crowd goes still. As the nation’s foremost religious expert, surely the Pontifex knows what to do. But I can tell otherwise. With my excellent view of the dais, I can see his face. He’s as clueless as the rest of us. The seconds pass, and he says nothing.

Whispers run through the crowd as another female form walks into the ring. I recognize Silva Maximianus, Lucia’s mother. She kneels before the Pontifex, then stands and raises a trembling voice to address him so everyone can hear.

“I…know what happened,” she says haltingly.

“By all means,” says the Pontifex, amazed, “please enlighten us.” I’m expecting him to recover his composure and pretend to know all about this strange event, but apparently he’s so lost he’ll take anybody’s direction.

Silva clears her throat. There is a long pause before she continues. “Lucia is not my husband’s natural daughter,” she admits, drawing murmurs from the crowd. “A few weeks before I was married,” she continues, “I was taking a country walk. It was a beautiful spring day.” Silva pauses to struggle with an emotion I can’t place, something like embarrassment. “There was a thunderclap…I was drenched in freezing rain from a storm that just…appeared from out of nowhere,” she continues. The crowd is hanging on her every word. “He rode down to me on a thundercloud,” Silva says, “just like in all the stories. Of course I know who he was. He was the most beautiful man I had ever seen…and I…well, it would have been foolish to resist,” she says defensively. I agree with her. We all know the religious texts. Jupiter takes what he wants.

“Then I was married,” she says, “and I was pregnant. As soon as I saw her I knew that she was his. So I gave her to the Vestal Virgins. I thought she was destined for a religious life.” She exhales heavily, obviously relieved to be free from the weight of her secret.

“But…why didn’t you tell anyone?” says the Pontifex, thunderstruck.

“I thought nobody would believe me…I was afraid my husband would divorce me,” she pleads. At this we all look for Claudius Maximianus. He is standing at the edge of the ring, and his expression gives me a totally inappropriate desire to laugh out loud.

“Well…,” says the Pontifex. “My stars.”

This seems like an appropriate response.

“I am a goddess?” Lucia says loudly, speaking for the first time.

“Technically,” says the Pontifex weakly, “you are a demigoddess. A half goddess. Guards, um, will you please untie our, um, holy goddess Lucia?” he asks. They hasten to untie her.

“So you have to do what I say now,” she prompts him.

“I am, er, at your command, your holiness—?” he grasps for some proper honorific.

“Just Lucia is fine,” she says, amused. “First, let her go,” she points at Marta.

The guards release Marta, who takes a shuddering breath.

“Hi!” Lucia says to her happily, giving her a big squeeze. “Now disperse the crowd,” Lucia says, motioning to the guards. She turns to the masses. “Okay, everybody, go away,” she says loudly, waving her arms, “or I will totally hit you with lightning and stuff.” The forum immediately empties as people leave with extreme haste.

Silva can’t contain herself any longer, and she falls on Lucia, weeping. I finally come to my senses and run to them, making it a group hug. “You’re alive!” I say through tears of joy.

“Yep!” Lucia says happily. Silva can only sob. Lavinia joins us as well, laughing as she runs from the dais to our outstretched arms.

“Marta,” I say when I’ve held Lucia long enough. I offer my arms to her as well. “You’re here. You came.”

“Yes,” she says, hugging me. “I came to kill Lucia before they could hurt her, and I assume you were planning to do the same.”

“What happened?” asks Lucia. “Why couldn’t you kill me?”

“Diana wouldn’t listen,” Marta says. “I didn’t know what to do, and then I just kind of…lost it.”

“No kidding,” Lucia says. “What a brilliant move, attacking the executioner. You were about to get killed yourself, idiot!” she exclaims, laughing delightedly.

The Pontifex Maximus anxiously clears his throat.

“You,” Lucia rounds on him, “can go. But take no further action in your official capacity until consulting me. I’ll deal with you later.”

“Thank you, Goddess Lucia,” he says with relief, and he backs away from our little group carefully before hurrying from the forum. The rest of the pontiffs and flamens follow in kind.

Our conversation pauses as Lucia gets a hug and a kiss from Claudius, who apparently bears her no ill will for not being his actual daughter. Then we notice Gaius and Cassius standing at the outside of our circle. Cassius impatiently picks through our small crowd to hold Lucia almost as tightly as I did. He buries his face in her shoulder.

“Oh,” she says, “the boys are here. Guess what, boys? It turns out I am a goddess.”

“Demigoddess,” Marta intones.

“What are you the goddess of?” Gaius asks her, smiling.

“Shopping?” I say, raising my eyebrows.

“Hairstyles!” Marta says, clasping her hands in mock ecstasy.

Lucia looks disdainful as we snicker at this. “Don’t make fun of me, or I’ll turn you all into rodents,” she warns.

“There’s no scriptural precedent,” I say, laughing. “But I wouldn’t want to cross you.”

“That’s right,” she says haughtily. “I have lots of power, and I’m about to wield it. So, first things first.” She claps her hands. “Olivia and Gaius. Kids, I heard the happy news. Who wants a free divorce?”

I keep my eyes on the ground as I ponder this question. The thought of divorcing Gaius gives me a huge sense of loss. It’s not just that I’ve always been attracted to him. Gaius is smart, resourceful, and has a great deal of integrity. And he’s always been good to me when it’s counted. Despite our differences, I truly believed we were going to have a happy marriage. But he’s made it clear that I wouldn’t have been his first choice, and he needs to make this decision for himself.

Gaius is quiet for what feels like a very long time. Finally, he exhales in irritation, as though someone is asking him for a really annoying favor. He fishes in his pocket until he pulls out a small gold ring. “Olivia, would you make me the happiest man in the world or whatever,” he says, rolling his eyes, “and, like, continue to be married to me?”

“Ha!” I say triumphantly, pointing in his face. “I knew it! I knew you were in love with me,” I say, holding my hand out for the ring excitedly.

“If you’re going to be obnoxious about it, I can still take this back,” he says, yanking it out of my grasp. So I knee him in the crotch and snatch it as he goes down.

“Ooh,” all the women say, crowding around me and cooing appropriately. I hold it up for examination. It’s gold, and prettily worked so it sparkles in the sunlight. “It’s so beautiful,” I exclaim, overjoyed.

“You know, I think that’s real gold,” says Lavinia.

Silva nods in agreement. “Definitely.”

I smile joyfully, admiring my ring. Then a thought occurs to me. “Hey! I can’t believe you spent so much money without asking me!” I accuse him.

“Family…heirloom,” he coughs from the ground.

“Well, I guess that’s okay then,” I say, smiling at my ring some more.

“If it doesn’t work out, I’ll get you a quickie divorce.” Lucia winks at him from above. “So…can we eat?” she asks. “Would that be weird? They didn’t really feed me much in jail.”

“Yes, let’s all go out to eat!” says Cassius. “Unless…you two would rather be alone?” he asks, looking down at Gaius with concern.

“Oh, don’t worry,” I say sweetly to Cassius. “Gaius likes being a virgin so much that he won’t mind staying one a little longer.”

***

News of Lucia’s new status has spread through the city, so when we arrive at her favorite restaurant, the staff immediately clears the back room for our private use. The owner, a very nice man who has known Lucia and her mother for years, nervously offers to remove all the other customers as well. When Lucia smiles and assures him it won’t be necessary, he seems greatly relieved to find that she’s still the same person she was two weeks ago. Nevertheless, we receive the best service I’ve ever had in my life.

As the waiters are pouring out the wine, familiar faces appear at the door. Julia and Honoria run to embrace Lucia. “We’re so glad you’re okay,” says Honoria, muffled by a hug. “We didn’t come to the…thing today. We just couldn’t. And Dad stayed home too.”

I didn’t notice at the time, but now it occurs to me that the Flamen Martialis was not on the platform with the others. I realize this was his own form of protest: he wouldn’t preside at Lucia’s death. When he joins us, he looks rather uncomfortable until Lucia comes to him, welcoming him gladly.

“I’m so sorry, Lucia. There was nothing I could do…,” he begins, but she waves away further apology and gives him another hug, to his obvious relief.

As we sit down, our party quickly becomes the happiest one I’ve ever attended. It’s hard to imagine what could trouble any of us now that Lucia has so much power. Everyone smiles as we drink to Lucia’s safety again and again, and then everyone begins toasting my marriage to Gaius. Even Marta glows. Surprisingly, Cassius is the one person who doesn’t seem to be able to participate in our joy. Instead he sits exhaustedly with his head in his hands, his food untouched, completely unable to muster his usual smile. He doesn’t seem to have recovered from the shock of Lucia’s capture and near-death experience. Lucia laughs at him repeatedly and forces more wine on him, which he is finally persuaded to drink.

After our third course, Gaius displays some signs of unease as well. “Is everything okay?” I ask him with concern. In response he motions me to join him outside. I take his hand and follow him into a quiet garden next to the restaurant.

“Olivia,” he says when we’re alone, “tell me the truth. Are you really sure you want to stay married to me?”

“Yes!” I say, surprised. “Of course I do. Why?”

“Well, I know I haven’t been…particularly nice to you,” he says. “I’ve said some unkind things. It’s just that I’ve been under a lot of stress lately. But now that I don’t have to worry about that stuff anymore, I realize I didn’t handle certain situations…very gracefully.”

“Oh!” I say. “I know. Don’t worry. You were mean sometimes. But I knew your heart was in the right place, and I loved you for it—”

“Oh, I love you too,” he breaks in with relief, as though finally discharging a very important responsibility. I stifle the urge to laugh at him. I never thought Gaius would go this far out on a limb. This kind of behavior deserves positive reinforcement, so I hold my arms out to him, and he gratefully embraces me.

“Remember, ubi tu Gaius, ego Gaia,” I remind him as he holds me. “Where you are Gaius, I am Gaia. We said our vows.”

“Yes, but I don’t want any Gaia,” he says, pulling back to look at me. He takes my hand and studies my ring, as though afraid to meet my eyes. “I want an Olivia.”

This makes me smile.

“I love you,” he adds seriously, as though worried I didn’t hear him before.

“Like this is news?” I ask him, laughing. “Do something about it!”

And then, for the first time, I get to kiss my husband.

***

Our impromptu party lasts well into the night, and when Gaius and I finally rejoin it, we begin questioning Lucia on her plans for the future. “What about the Pontifex Maximus?” I ask. “Are you going to fire him?”

“No, I think I’ll keep him,” says Lucia to everyone’s astonishment. “He tried to kill me, so he’s extra afraid of me now. And he’s no dummy. You saw how he handled the war effort.”

“He didn’t become Pontifex by being honest,” says the Flamen Martialis. “No one does, really.”

“Exactly,” says Lucia. “He knows how to play the game. And now he’ll play for me.”

“You’re so sneaky,” says Marta appreciatively. “You might be smarter than I thought.”

“Duh,” Lucia says.

When we finally decide to turn in for the night, the flamen offers his spare bedrooms to all of us without a current home in Polonia. Julia thoughtfully reserves a suite in a more remote part of the house for me and Gaius. When we’re shown to our rooms, we politely thank her and watch her walk down the hallway. Then Gaius pins me up against the bedroom wall and immediately tries to kiss me. “Wait, wait,” I say playfully, grabbing our bag and going into one of the other rooms as he makes an exasperated sound.

When I return, I’m wearing the extremely modest nightdress he bought me. “Oh, what is that?” he groans, looking at me as I twirl for him.

“This is the nightgown you were so excited to see me in back at the village,” I say gleefully. “I have to be honest, I had no idea what to make of it. I’m still not sure what possessed you, given that you were so violently attracted to me all that time.”

“Ugh,” says Gaius, frowning at it. “Well, you have to understand,” he says to me, gathering me into his arms, “I tried not to think about you that way before we arrived at the vacation house. I cared about you, and I always found you pretty, but you had been a Vestal Virgin ever since I had known you. You were supposed to be pure and innocent, someone to be protected, not…” He searches for the right words. “You were supposed to be like a little sister, you know?” he says.

“Ick. No. Oh gods, please tell me you did not just say that,” I cringe. “How are you so bad at this?” I moan in despair, hitting him playfully with my fist.

“Well I don’tfeel that way about you now,” he assures me. “But besides, I was trying not to send the wrong message, you know? I didn’t want to imply that since we were married, you had to sleep with me immediately, which was the attitude you had about it on the first night. Anyway,” he sighs, “I assumed you wouldn’t want to. I had just spent the last several weeks being as horrible to you as possible, hoping to shake your interest. With any other woman, I would have succeeded.”

“I saw right through you,” I tell him.

“Too bad I can’t see through this nightdress,” he says sorrowfully. “I’ll buy you a new one tomorrow.”

“Or we could just dispense with nightgowns altogether!” I suggest, and he laughs as he pulls me in for another kiss.


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