Keeping to the shadows, Gaius grabs my arm and slowly guides me out the temple door into the night. He soundlessly eases it shut. Then he leans against it, shaking, and presses the heel of his hand firmly onto a spot on his forehead. I’ve seen him do this before. He must get headaches there.
Though the night is warm, the chill running through me gives me goosebumps. What did I see? Could it have been real? Does the flame, the unquenchable holy flame, actually just burn atop a huge bucket of ordinary lamp oil?
“Gaius,” I say tentatively. He doesn’t respond. “Gaius, was that—?”
“Stop it,” he cuts me off with a sharp gesture. “Go home, Olivia, please go. Get out of here.” His voice has a frightened edge I’ve never heard before.
“But…,” I start to protest, but his expression tells me this is not the time. In a daze, I turn and wander back through the grove, running straight into the occasional tree branch. Instead of going to my room in the House of Vestals, my feet find another familiar path. I start heading toward my original home, my father’s farm, where I lived until I became a Virgin at ten years old. It’s only a half-hour walk from the temple, and I go there often on my free afternoons.
As I walk, I force myself to think about what I have seen, to process the implications. The sacred flame is a hoax. How stupid I am. How stupid we Vestals must look to the pontiffs and flamens and whoever else knows about this deception. My face grows hot remembering all the prayers I’ve offered, all the sacrifices I’ve made to a glorified lamp. But how far does this really go? If the flame is a hoax, what else is fake? I don’t want to believe it. I can’t accept it. There must be a mistake.
I decide to forget about the whole issue immediately and push it from my mind. Maybe there’s a logical explanation. Maybe it was a backup system to make the sacred flame look larger, hotter or something. Cosmetic. Whatever. The point is, having faith means not jumping to conclusions. I don’t need another crack in my spiritual foundation so soon after I’ve healed from the last one.
On my way, I pull the pins out of my hair in an attempt to get it down. Vestals wear an elaborately braided hairstyle every day. It’s made up of seven individual braids and takes at least forty-five minutes to create even by the most practiced hands. And it makes your head ache terribly. I fight the impulse to toss the pins into the woods as I walk.
When I reach the edge of our fields, I stop to gaze at them, taking deep breaths in an attempt to calm my racing mind. The young stalks are silvery in the moonlight, and when they flutter in the breeze, the effect is lovely. Ceres will be kind to us this year, I think. That is, if she even exists…I check myself. These thoughts aren’t helping.
I see the flicker of lights from the house up ahead. It’s late, but my family should still be up for another hour or so. I walk through the vestibule, pausing in the atrium to leave an offering to the household gods, and into the colonnaded garden where my mother sits next to a small outdoor hearth. “Olivia!” she says in astonishment when she sees me. “What’s going on? What happened?”
At first I think her alarm is related to my unexpected arrival, but belatedly I realize that I look like I’ve been rolling down a hill. My hair’s half down, my clothes are disheveled, and I’m ankle-deep in dust from the road.
“Nothing,” I say. “I just…needed the walk.”
“Sit down here,” she says, pulling over a chair. She grabs her brush from a side table and starts working on what’s left of my braids. We sit in silence, and I can hear the men in the next room laughing loudly. It sounds like my father and oldest brother, talking business with their friend and frequent guest, the local shopkeeper. I can hear the laughter but I can’t make out the words. Too bad, because I need a distraction. Despite my best efforts, the memory I’ve been suppressing for the last half hour won’t be ignored.
I was twelve when I had my first crisis of faith. In the two years after we arrived in the city, Lucia, Marta, and I lived in what seemed like a very large, very happy family. The older girls in training were all lovely, kind, and affectionate, and not just to us. Things were more relaxed back then, and they were always taking us on afternoon trips and day visits to the beach with the city boys or even boys from the academies. The Vestalis Maxima at that time was a jolly person herself who never really tried to put a stop to it; maybe she even lived a little bit just by watching them play. And the Pontifex Maximus then couldn’t even see past his eyeglasses. Marta, Lucia, and I spent many instructive, giggly hours spying on activities that probably weren’t described in the Virgin handbook.
Accidents happened, of course. Once, one of the girls was sent away for an extended period for her health, and returned with joyous tidings that Venus had blessed her aging mother with a new baby. But most of the girls never allowed things to go that far.
There was a lovely girl in the order named Flavia, and we adored her. She had black hair and pink cheeks, and laughter that rang out like a bell. Once, when a certain pontiff had come to inspect the temple, someone said something very funny to her. Her laughter carried all the way from the grove to the temple steps, and I saw it catch his ear. Then I saw him look very closely at her. Then he descended the stairs and went to talk.
This pontiff’s name was Florinus Festus, and he was not a pious man. He watched Flavia and eventually gathered enough evidence to prove her little transgressions, though she was still a virgin. He then threatened her with execution unless she gave into his desires. He had, he said, enough evidence to damn her—or to at least lead a jury into doing so—and she believed him.
The punishment for a Vestal who loses her virginity, no matter the cause, is to be blinded by a hot poker and buried alive. That law had only been invoked twice, both times early in the history of the order, and nobody took it seriously. But suddenly, for Flavia, it became very real. The Vestalis Maxima was aware of his blackmailing, but there was nothing she could do.
The situation became even more dangerous when Venus “blessed” Flavia with a pregnancy. She has never been my favorite goddess.
Florinus Festus’s wife was no fool. She paid his very own spies an incredible sum to collect the evidence of his long-term affair, which is how she discovered Flavia’s condition. Childless herself, she was enraged by the pregnancy, and demanded Flavia be charged with the crime of fornication.
The charge meant certain death for Flavia. Not only was there a mountain of evidence that Florinus had been sleeping with her, Flavia was by this time visibly pregnant. But there might still have been leniency for her, if we could have testified that she was coerced. In every other legal situation, a Vestal’s testimony is ironclad truth and cannot be contradicted; our state religion holds that Vestals are incapable of lying. But in a fornication trial, we have almost no rights at all. Fornication is the only crime for which one Vestal cannot testify in another’s defense.
At twelve I fully believed that no Vestal would ever even consider bearing false witness at a trial. But on the day Flavia was brought before the pontiffs, bound in chains and begging for mercy, I learned that I would say anything to prevent what was about to come. We all watched it, were forced to watch it, even at twelve years old. The executioner put out each of her eyes in turn as she struggled and screamed in terrible pain. The poker cauterized the wounds, so she had no chance of bleeding to death. She was then marched, in a procession, to her tomb. In a mockery of her fate, food and water were placed in an underground cave and she was sealed in, to suffocate, starve, or die of thirst if she failed to die of infection.
Vesta let this happen. She let her beautiful daughter die. Her religion even says that such a thing must occur, as though it’s justice.
“Mother…do you remember the trial of Flavia?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says, “but I don’t like to think of it. Let’s not.”
Sometimes it feels like for the last four years I’ve been thinking of nothing else.
Mother makes my father drive me home at midnight with his donkey and farm cart, and he doesn’t ask too many questions about my unusual nighttime visit. Fortunately, there’s moonlight. As we ride up to the entrance of the House of Vestals, I feel like a ten-year-old girl again, and I lean my head on his shoulder. I just want him to tell me that everything’s fine, and tuck me into bed, like a child. Instead he drops me at the door of the House of Vestals with an affectionate goodbye.
The next morning I wake Marta early.
“Wake up, please,” I say. “I need you. My hair’s come down.”
With an irritable sigh, she stretches and looks at me, bleary-eyed.
“You’re not kidding. It’s down. Did you spend half the night combing it out? And now you need me to do it from scratch? For Vesta’s sake. Fine.”
I’m quiet as Marta works on recreating the complicated hairstyle. Each pin stings. At one point, she pauses. “Your hair looks so beautiful,” she says. “I love to see it combed out.” This is a rare compliment. Marta likes the color of my hair, brown with hints of gold that come out in the sun. She’s dark haired, and of course Lucia’s blond. Even in hair color, our trio doesn’t match.
“What’s wrong with you?” she suddenly asks me. “What’s up?”
“Nothing,” I say. Nothing you can help me with, I add silently.
The second she’s done, I’m up out of the chair and on my way. I need answers, and there’s only one person I can talk to. As I surface from the underground passageway into the Regia, I’m relieved to see he’s on duty again today. He’s sitting on his chair outside Sextus’s office, but instead of his usual careless sprawl, he’s got his head in his hands.
“Gaius,” I say.
As soon as he realizes I’m there, he has me by the elbow, dragging me down the hall and into a storeroom dimly lit by only a few rays of sunshine. The dust motes swirl around us as he shuts the door.
“I can’t believe you came here,” he says testily.
“We need to talk,” I say. “I need to understand more about what happened—”
But he cuts me off.
“No. We do not. We absolutely do not need to talk. Let’s never talk again,” he says and turns to leave. Then, as though he can’t help himself, he continues, getting more agitated by the second. “What were you thinking, Olivia? Why did you do it? If you needed to get in there so badly, why didn’t you just ask me? I could have gone for you, I could have even cleared it with Sextus!”
“I don’t know, Gaius,” I say calmly. “Why did I leave the wheat in the oven? Why didn’t you do your job and stop me from going in? Why does anything happen? The point is, it did, and now I need to know—”
“No,” he says, “you don’t need to know anything.” He puts both hands on my shoulders and bends forward to meet my eyes, as though talking to a child. “Use your head, Olivia. There are a dozen explanations for what you saw. Think some up. Pick your favorite, and go live happily ever after.” He turns me toward the door and gently attempts to guide me out.
But I resist. “I can’t! This is my entire life we’re talking about! How can I pray to that flame and take myself seriously now?”
“Unh,” he moans, leaning back against the wall. “Why me?”
His hand is on his forehead again. As I look at him, I realize how scared he is for both of us. He’s right; it is totally reckless for me to be asking these questions. But we’re alone in the closet. Surely it’s safe here. There is a long pause while I work out what to say.
“Gaius,” I say, “I have to know the truth.”
“I will tell you the truth, Olivia” he says, closing his eyes as he pinches the space between his brows. “The truth is you are hurting my brain.”
Sensing this is going nowhere, I leave him in the closet.
By the time I’ve returned to my room, I’ve cycled through so many emotions that I’m exhausted. I’ve just flopped on my bed when Lucia bounces in. “Market day!” she trills.
“Oh my goddess, I forgot,” I sigh from the bed. “I can’t believe Cerealia is next week.”
“Yes, and somehow, the Vestal Virgins are responsible for planning a feast of Ceres,” says Marta. “Tell the cult of Ceres to worship their goddess, and we’ll worship ours.”
I raise my head. “Suddenly you seem very interested in worshipping Vesta,” I say, smiling in spite of myself.
“Come on guys, it will be fun,” says Lucia encouragingly. “It’s a big deal for Olivia to plan her very own minor feast! And if it goes well, she might get an even bigger event to plan next year!”
“Goddess forbid,” I say, horrified.
“And remind me why I am doing this?” Marta gripes as she finishes dressing. “It doesn’t take three girls to make a trip to the market.”
“Lavinia said I could use you as my assistants,” I remind her. “And, if at all possible, I intend not to screw this up. And because of your deep love and affection for me, you are going to save me from inevitable failure.”
“And it will be fun!” chimes Lucia, bouncing around the room. “I love to shop!”
“And you love to flirt,” interjects Marta. “And I better not see any of that going on today, because I will literally drag you out of the market by your hair.”
Lucia ignores this. “Ooh, guess what,” she says. “I forgot that we’re meeting Mother for lunch in the city! Won’t that be fun?”
“Um, of course we can stop to eat with your mother,” I say, unsure if I’ve been asked or told whether we’re going to meet Silva Maximianus for lunch. Lucia’s mother is as flighty and silly as she is, and lunchtimes tend to dissolve into gossipfests and giggles. I rather enjoy them when Marta’s not around, but when Marta does come she sits there looking sour and radiating disapproval and then giggling makes me self-conscious. Lucia and Silva are miraculously unaffected by Marta’s fun-spoiling powers.
After a quick breakfast, we set off from the House of Vestals into the city. I enjoy the market as much as Lucia does, but I go for the atmosphere rather than the shopping. It’s always loud and colorful, a whirl of spices and staples. But the sensory overload that usually thrills me seems oppressive today.
“Are you okay, Olivia?” Lucia asks when she notices my frown.
“I, uh…I can’t remember what stall we’re supposed to visit next,” I say.
Marta sighs. “Okay, what have we already done?” she asks, snatching the list from my hands.
“Ooh, look!” Lucia exclaims. “A fashion stall!” Marta and I both make a wild grab for her arm, but she’s gone. “Just look at this gorgeous fabric,” she coos as we catch up to her.
Marta has already had enough. “Lucia, every day for the last six years you have gotten up, put on your wedding gown as though it’s the happiest day of your life, and enjoyed another wonderful day as a bride of the state. And you will do it again every single day for the next twenty four years. You don’t need any more clothes. Let’s go,” she insists.
As Vestal Virgins, we wear the same bridal outfit and hairstyle each day, with no variations. The gown is made from a single piece of white cloth woven on a special loom, and cinched at the waist by a woven belt tied in an elaborate decorative knot. We wear it because we are technically married to our country until our thirty years are up. But in keeping with her sense of total entitlement, Lucia continues to buy shiny things that we have absolutely no reason or opportunity to use, and not just for herself.
“Lucia, I love the gifts you’ve given us, but we don’t need them,” I say, trying once more to call her attention from the fabrics. “Save your father’s money.”
“Oh, I have plenty of money, Daddy always gives me more when I ask,” she says, tying a gauzy scarf around my neck to admire the effect. “This is lovely on you, Olivia. It brings out the green in your eyes.” But I remove it and hang it firmly on the rack.
Marta and I are forced to linger by the fabric stall as Lucia browses, unmoved by our pleas. She can’t resist holding every piece of fabric across herself and hearing her beauty praised by the stall vendor. I can’t help watching her as we wait, because she’s irresistibly lovely. Every single pattern looks stunning on her, but then she seems to beautify anything she wears. A small crowd actually gathers to make suggestions and vote on their favorites.
“You know, I sometimes wonder if someone will buy her out,” I remark to Marta.
“If anyone would be willing to pay for a Virgin, she’s the one they’d buy, for sure,” Marta agrees.
There is one way that a Virgin can be released from her contract: she must be purchased. A strange way to end a “marriage,” I have always thought, but apparently that “bride of the state” metaphor goes only so far. Vestals can only be bought by a man who intends to marry her immediately, and he must pay an exorbitant sum, over a million sesterces. The cost is so high that it’s basically impossible.
“On the other hand, even if a man were rich enough to buy her, he could never afford her wardrobe budget,” Marta adds.
“Mm,” I respond. I’m no longer paying attention. For the first time, the idea of being released from Virginhood has captured my imagination.
I remember how astonished the older Vestals were when Lucia was delivered to the Temple of Vesta. I can’t believe it,Flavia had said to the others when she thought Marta and I weren’t listening. Lucia Maximianus is rich, gorgeous, the daughter of the most influential man in Polonia… and now she’s a celibate ward of the state. I was ten years old, and didn’t understand Flavia’s surprise. At the time, I thought worshiping Vesta was a woman’s highest calling. But for the first time, Lucia’s dedication to the Virgins strikes me as a terrible waste.
At lunch, I can’t seem to muster much enthusiasm for fun or gossip. The morning’s shopping distracted me for a while, but despite Gaius’s warnings, the problem of the lamp oil has returned with double intensity. I catch Marta observing me narrowly. “Did I do your hair too tight, or what?” she says.
As we prepare to leave the city, I stop. “One more thing,” I tell the girls. “I need to pray.”
Marta looks as though she’s going to object, but when she sees my expression she quietly follows me. My friends wait as I kneel in front of the Polonian Triad, a group of three sculptures depicting Mars, Jupiter, and Minerva.
“Oh holy triad,” I speak in a low voice. “If you’re real, please give me a sign.”
But nothing happens. I wind up kneeling in silence. The picture of devotion, I think bitterly.
Eventually I give up on prayer, and laden down with (Lucia’s) shopping bags, we stagger home to rest and recoup. Lucia flounces to her room and begins to organize her new things.
“I’m going out,” I tell Marta, hoping for some time to myself.
“I’m coming with you,” she says. I’m too tired to resist, so I let her follow me to the temple steps. We often come here to enjoy the sunshine and the view, and to have some time away from the other Vestals.
“It’s so beautiful,” I say, staring out into the distance. “I love being near the ocean.”
Per religious requirement, the Temple of Vesta is located right on the eastern edge of the city to symbolize the relationship between fire and the sun. This means we have an uninterrupted view of the sacred grove, some rolling hills, and beyond that, the sea. Polonia is the capital city of Parcae, our state, and it couldn’t be situated on a more beautiful location. Actually the location was chosen for military reasons, something about it being easier to defend a city on a cove rather than one exposed to the open sea.
“Ladies!” I hear someone call while ascending the temple steps.
“Oh gods, he’s back,” I say. Cassius again. I’m really not in the mood.
“How are you this fine day, Olivia? Marta?” Cassius settles in beside us and makes himself comfortable. “Having a bit of a crisis of faith, or so I’ve heard.”
“What?” I say, sitting bolt upright.
Marta does the same. “I knew something was up with you,” she says. “What’s going on? Beloved Vesta didn’t answer one of your many prayers? You’re still short.”
I don’t respond. I simply stare at Cassius, terrified.
“Ha! You didn’t tell Marta?” Cassius barks with laughter. “Gaius severely underestimated you. He thought Lucia would be in on it as well.”
“In on what?” Marta asks. “You have to tell me now.”
My heart is in my stomach. I don’t understand what’s happening, but I guess I have Gaius’s tacit permission, or at least acquiescence, or perhaps just his expectation, for me to share this with my closest friend.
I glance around us. The temple is deserted. A wind has picked up, making it hard for sound to carry. I lean my head as close to hers as it can go and still look natural. And I speak in a whisper.
“Marta,” I say, “what I am about to tell you could lead to your death.”
“Lay it on me,” she says.
At Cassius’s suggestion, the three of us take a walk in the grove, where I fill Marta in on the events of last night. She stops walking and makes me repeat myself several times when I get to the part about Sextus Tacitus and the lamp oil. I can see it’s a shock to her. Despite her lack of almost any outward sign of faith, I know Marta was devoted to Vesta.
“What do we do now?” she asks.
“That’s why I’m here, to help you understand,” Cassius interjects.
“Gaius sent you?” I ask.
“Well, yes, Gaius asked me to smooth things over. He knows we have a relationship,” Cassius says.
“Excuse me.” Marta butts in. “A relationship? Does that mean us thinking you are a huge pain in the ass?”
Cassius ignores this. “Most of the guys at the academies know you on sight, and they see us chatting. They know we’re friendly. Like you’re my little…pets,” he says.
“Ohmigods,” I say. Marta gags. We look at each other in disgust. If this wasn’t such a life-or-death situation, I think Marta might try to land a punch. But as satisfying as that would be, she’s not in a position to be making enemies now.
“Let’s get right down to it, ladies,” says Cassius. “Yes, the flame is fake, just like its supposed creator. Vesta is not a real goddess.”