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The morning after the party, we wake to find Lucia at the flamen’s kitchen table with Julia and Lavinia, poring over existing laws and scheming about improvements. The following weeks bring many changes to Parcaean society, and, at least to our female citizens, they are all very welcome.

Lucia’s first act as resident goddess-in-chief is to overhaul the Vestal Virgin priesthood. As it turns out, Lavinia had already discovered the sacred flame was a hoax, but she was not convinced it meant Vesta was a false goddess. Destroying the last of her faith is painful for me, but when we tell her Cassius’s story about the origin of Vesta, she is ready to accept the truth. Eventually she suggests disbanding the Virgins altogether.

“No,” I tell her. “You did a lot of good as the Vestalis Maxima. Don’t close your eyes to that.” I suggest that the program’s mission should become outreach to the community, and that the religious rites should be deemphasized. Helping the women of our community was the function of the Vestal priesthood that I always valued most highly. With our encouragement, and with the support of the flamen, Lavinia is eventually persuaded to return to her post and agree to run the Vestals for the rest of her term, but not without some important changes. The job of Vestal Virgin becomes a salaried position, and service becomes completely voluntary. All the current Vestals are given the opportunity to continue as paid employees, or to retire and claim the generous government pension they would have received had they completed their thirty-year term. Although Lavinia is concerned that she will have to train an entirely new crop of Vestals to replace her current staff, her fears turn out to be unfounded. After the announcement, many of the current Virgins stay on in their posts. And because the job has suddenly become so attractive, many eager young girls apply to fill the new vacancies.

Lucia is also careful to make it clear in our new charter that actual virginhood is not a requirement for participation in the order. And with the Pontifex Maximus on our side, the crime of Vestal fornication is written out of law entirely. In addition, the Vestals are newly empowered to bring charges against those who commit incidents of violence in the home and petition for divorces on behalf of women in distressed circumstances.

Although I’m married, Lavinia offers me a position with the Vestals once again. Instead of rejoining them, however, I offer to help her develop new training materials for the program, and she gratefully accepts. “You were so good with the supplicants,” she says. “I need your expertise.” So I stay on with her as an assistant and consultant.

In addition to shaking up the Vestals, Lucia interests herself in other branches of our state religion. She declares that women must be accepted as candidates for any academy or priesthood, and that all academy research must be accessible to the public, appointing Cassius director of the newly created Office of Transparency at the Regia. It is not long before our nation’s agriculture benefits from the wider use of technologies discovered at the Academy of Ceres.

Newly free and financially independent, Marta takes a long trip to the rural area where her family lives, and they enjoy an extended reunion. When she returns to Polonia, we rent a lovely apartment in the city with a backyard garden, since I am waiting for Gaius to finish his education. I’m so happy to have my roommate back, and since we can afford it, we hire one of the best cooks in the city, and several servants, including a maid to do our hair. I have a new appreciation for both of these conveniences.

Claudius Maximianus does not divorce Silva after her public declaration, perhaps feeling that having a woman once desired by Jupiter puts him in pretty good company. Although the Pontifex offers to build her a grand mansion fit for a goddess, Lucia moves back into her family home with her mother, and their principal occupation becomes going to lunch. They also still adore shopping, and often show up at our doorstep with armfuls of new clothing and proceed to dress us like dolls. Silva also chaperones us to all her society functions, where she is particularly attentive to Marta’s social agenda, introducing her to young men whenever she gets the opportunity. With much less to be bitter about, Marta actually becomes a relatively conversable and pleasant person, and I am truly pleased to see her so happy. She can still occasionally be caustic and irritable, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Cassius is always a welcome guest to us, and he comes to see us quite frequently after he returns to the Academy of Ceres and adjusts to his new post. He has mostly recovered from the shock of seeing Lucia arrested and almost executed, however, the experience has left its mark. Mostly this manifests itself in him giving us constant security tips. “Don’t go west of the Via Appia after dark,” he’ll tell us seriously. “I don’t like that neighborhood.” He also studies our apartment for safety flaws, convinced that our candle wicks are too long and will surely set the whole place on fire. We laugh at him, but he insists on being taken seriously, and we always have to send him away with many promises to be careful.

Gaius returns to his studies at the Academy of Mars, which require him to live on campus and participate in the academy’s military culture. However, the Flamen Martialis grants him special leave, and he comes to the apartment almost every weekend to see me, although he insists that he’s only coming for the food.

Because Lucia has forced the Pontifex Maximus to return Gaius’s and Cassius’s estates, Gaius is once again unthinkably rich, and sometimes brings me a gift when he comes. I tell him I don’t need so many new things, but realize it is easier for him to convey affection through actions rather than words, so I yield. He likes to buy me pretty nightgowns or lingerie, which is our private joke, but it makes Marta uncomfortable. “You two are so awkward,” she scolds me one Monday after Gaius leaves. So I tell him to bring more daytime items, and he switches to jewelry, which I have no objections to. The hair combs are my favorite.

When the end of Gaius’s term arrives, he tells me that it’s time for me to meet his family, a thought that fills my heart with dread. Under the best of circumstances, Gaius’s marriage to the daughter of some unimportant farmer would not exactly thrill his parents, who would naturally try to match their sons with the daughters of pontiffs, rich tradesmen, or senators. When I express this concern to Gaius, he smiles. “Don’t worry,” he tells me. “They have four other sons who will surely make better decisions than I did.” This earns him an elbow in the ribs from me.

I have no idea what to expect from Gaius’s home setting, and if they are anything like him, I can only imagine an evening filled with brusque communications and ruthless efficiency. As we draw up to their manor home, I actually tremble in fear, and he gives me a smile and a reassuring squeeze. “It will be fine,” he promises me.

As it turns out, my fears are unfounded, and my new family members are all polite and well-mannered people. They offer me kind words of welcome, although I sense they feel a little standoffish. To help secure my comfort, Gaius is especially attentive and pleasant to me, which probably gives his family the mistaken impression that I have somehow revolutionized his personality. His mother, Lucretia, is especially quiet, and I’m too terrified to speak to her at first. However, I eventually gather my courage, and with a smile I ask her about Gaius’s adventures in hairstyling. Her eyes light up at this memory, and soon she is animatedly telling me all of her favorite stories from Gaius’s childhood, to my delight and his discomfort.

After we return to Polonia, I wake one morning and decide on a whim to walk to the Temple of Vesta. As I draw close I see a familiar form on the temple steps. It’s my mother. After a moment of uncertainty, I go to her, thinking to take advantage of this chance meeting for a few minutes of conversation. But when I reach her, I find she has been waiting for me. “Olivia,” she says, “I’ve been here every day looking for you. What are you wearing? Why don’t you have temple duty anymore?”

“I’m no longer a Vestal Virgin,” I tell her.

Her face falls. “I think your father might be unhappy to hear that,” she says.

“Why would he care?” I ask, a chill in my tone. “Didn’t I disgrace Vesta? Isn’t that what he said?”

“Your father…acted hastily,” my mother says. “He feels differently now. He’s sorry for casting you off. I think he was too proud to come here, but he sent me to find you instead. It’s going to be hard for him to apologize. But I want you to know…he was the one who turned Marcus in for conspiring to kill your friends. I think he feels that out of the two of you, Marcus is the true disgrace.” My mother sighs. In a flash of sympathy, I wonder what the last few months have been like for her. I reach out to embrace her, and she hugs me tightly as we both cry.

“I can’t believe he would turn Marcus in,” I say, shocked to my core.

“I know. But he did the right thing,” my mother says. “He loves you. He’s proud of the part you played in saving the city. I know it will be hard…but please come home.”

In the end, I can’t resist her. We walk together to the farmhouse, her arm around my waist. But when we arrive, he’s not there.

“I’m sure he will be home soon,” my mother tells me after checking the house for him. “Let’s wait in the kitchen.”

I pause in the vestibule to offer a prayer to our household gods before following her to the kitchen. We sit quietly as I adjust to the family home I thought I would never see again. As I look at my familiar surroundings, where so much love and laughter used to reside, I know in my heart that I can forgive my father. As we wait, I get up to stoke the fire in our hearth.

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