Although we want to meet Cassius again the next morning, we’re once again busy with our Vestal duties before we can head to the games. I try to turn my mind to my work, but all I can think about is the clearing. As we grind more spelt wheat for the mola salsa cakes, I turn to Marta. We’re alone. I motion her into a pantry and close the door.
“Oh, real smooth,” she says. “Like someone would stumble onto this conversation and just go, ‘Hey, girls, lovely day for a darkened pantry chat, isn’t it? I bet this is all aboveboard! Carry on!’”
Damn. She does have a point. We ease back to our mortars and, feeling somewhat foolish, I whisper, “Do you think Cassius would meet us at the shore?”
“Let’s talk to him about it tonight,” she whispers back.
At ten thirty we head toward the market square, just in time to see the first of the pompa circenses pass by, the parade that announces the start of the games. The young boys, sons of Polonian nobles, pass by first, followed by the day’s athletes and charioteers. My favorite part is the satyrs, dancers, and musicians, who make up the liveliest part of the procession, but Gaius finds us and wants to head straight to the circus.
There must be a hundred thousand people out today to see the races, and the stadium is nearly full. We thread our way through the crowds, down to the very front rows in the box reserved for the heads of state, and wind up only four rows behind the stadium edge. These are prime seats. People look curiously at Gaius, including the Vestalis Maxima, but she won’t say anything, at least to him. She knows who his father is. I, however, could possibly hear about this later. This is kind of a risk to be taking, being seen with him in public. I’m still not quite sure how this all came about.
As we’re looking for the perfect spot we see Aelia and Alypia, my young friends, so we join them. Gaius insists on sitting next to me, placing himself at the very end of the bench. Fine, I think. But you’re going to get up every time I have to pee.
Then there’s a huge cheer, and a thrill runs through me as the first chariot race begins. We’re so close we can actually see the faces of the charioteers as they round the curve at breakneck speed. They look so calm. I’d be terrified.
After the chariot races comes the venatio, where they release live deer into the arena and men hunt them down for the audience’s amusement. I don’t care for these, as it’s sad to watch the deer die. Sometimes they do the hunt with bears, or even lions imported from distant lands, but that’s an enormous expense so it doesn’t happen often.
Whatever reason Gaius had for coming with us today, it wasn’t to talk to me. He sits very still, stretched up to his full height, and he’s watching the crowd far more closely than the races. Half the time he sits twisted around to see behind us. I don’t know who he’s looking for, and when I try to ask he holds up a finger as though he’s not to be disturbed. Eventually he says, “I can’t see any Selanthi in the crowds.”
“Oh. I haven’t seen any today either…ah, there’s one,” I say, pointing to a seat about fifteen rows behind us in the adjacent section. Gaius studies him intensely. Clueless as to where his interest stems from, I turn back to watch the race.
“Olivia,” Gaius says quietly, “if I get up and leave this bench without giving you a reason why, I want you to immediately take all the girls and go down there.” He indicates a small alcove in the stadium railing. It used to be a stairwell to the lower portion of the circus, I think, but the stairs were walled up for safety when they started releasing lions into the ring.
“Why, what’s going on—?”
“I don’t have time for questions. Donot disobey me,” he says tensely. So I pass the message down to Marta, Lucia, and the two younger girls. They look at me curiously, but I don’t have any answers for them. “We just have to do it,” I say.
Intrigued and unsettled, I look back up toward the Selanthian in the other section. He’s wearing a heavy cape, but that’s not unusual for his people: because of their colder climate, capes are part of their formal dress. As I watch he starts moving, fiddling with something under the cape. In an instant I feel Gaius vault from the bench and streak up the stairs toward him, taking them two at a time and bowling over people in his path.
“Come on! Now!” I say to the girls and yank on Marta, who grabs everybody else, and we make our way quickly down to the stairwell and out of sight.
Boom. We hear the sound of a massive thunderclap, at least I guess that’s what it is. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. At least twenty more rock us as we huddle together.
“Is it an earthquake?” Marta asks, terrified. No one can answer her. We all peer around the side of the stairwell to look. Smoke is rising from points around the stadium, and everyone is panicking. Thousands rush from the stands, and the exit points are blocked as the crush of people pushes desperately to get through.
“Should we try to escape? To go through the exits?” asks Alypia, wide-eyed. She’s holding Aelia, who is crying from shock.
I shake my head, trembling. “Gaius told us to come here. And we’d never get through. We’d be trampled.”
We hide for a long time, maybe more than an hour. When we finally emerge, smoke drifts in the sky and the crowd has cleared. I look up, and am shocked at what I see. The stadium is dotted with piles of unconscious or dead, now being tended to by dozens of medics or willing assistants. As we run up the first few stadium steps to get a better look, I see that most of the dead have simply been suffocated, crushed by the crowds.
“Oh my gods. We have to help them. Shouldn’t we help?” I ask Marta and Lucia.
“What could we do?” Marta asks. “Do you know anything about how to help injured people?”
“Olivia, you could pray with them,” Lucia suggests, touching my arm.
“I think most of these people are beyond prayer,” Marta says quietly, putting her arm around my waist. “Come on.” And she leads us up the stairs to a stadium exit that is not totally blocked. “The girls shouldn’t see this,” she says to me in an undertone. “And I’m not leaving you here.”
As we walk, we all feel very cold, and the young girls are shaking like leaves. After we reach the house, I put them to bed, even though they’re twelve years old and it’s early afternoon. We sit in their room with them, trying to be comforting. They’re as docile as lambs. You could take any one of us by the hand right now and lead us like children.
“What was it?” whispers Lucia. “What happened?”
But none of us can answer her.
When the girls are asleep, we go to find the Vestalis Maxima, who holds us all to her when she sees us, weeping. Everyone from our section is fine, she says. Whatever it was that made the noise and smoke didn’t happen there. We were so far below most of the crowd that everyone who tried to flee got stuck far behind the crush, where they were safe. Now it’s time, she says, to go to the temple and pray with the bereaved.
I don’t even have the means to comfort myself, much less a crowd of weeping people who’ve lost loved ones, but we head to the temple. It’s a very long day. We pray with them and hold their hands, but nobody can explain what’s happened. No one can give a reason for their tragedy. The world has gone mad.
Around five, we’re finally relieved by other Vestals. As we walk down the temple steps, we see Gaius in the distance, and as he’s the only person who seems to understand what happened today, we pounce.
“Gaius,” I call, waving him down. He’s obviously going somewhere in a hurry, but to my relief, he stops for us.
“Are you okay?” He asks us, looking us over.
“We’re fine. We’re confused. Please tell us what happened,” I beg.
“It’s a long story,” he sighs. “The Selanthi have a deadly weapon now, something that can create large explosions, a bomb,” he explains. We take in this vocabulary. “The peace talks were always going to fail. Everyone involved in them knew it from the first. The Flamen Martialis, the head of the academy, tried to convince the government, but they wanted to try negotiating.” Gaius scoffs. “There was nothing of real value we could offer them. They want Polonia. Their location makes it hard for them to trade with the southern nations. We offered them exclusive trade routes, their own port near the city, everything we could think of, but it wasn’t enough,” he says.
“Why do we have to do what they say?” says Lucia. “Can’t we just stop them at the borders?”
“Their forces outnumber us five to one,” he says, depressed. “The bombs they make can cause serious damage to our ships. They can also use them on land, launch them into enemy ranks using powerful catapults far more advanced than ours. They’ve tested this during some of our border engagements, and they’re deadly accurate.”
“What’s going to happen now?” asks Marta in a hushed tone.
“The Selanthi have declared war, and in the most offensive way possible,” he says. “They’re showy, and they don’t care about killing civilians. We knew it was coming today. We had a boy posted at one of the residences, posing as a servant. His grandmother was Selanthian and she taught him the language. Anyway, yesterday morning he overheard the decision to begin the war. He also caught one fragment of conversation that nobody could understand, because the Selanthi didn’t elaborate on it. They probably assumed they were being watched,” he says. “They said that they hoped the Parcaeans would enjoy the ludi today. Seems like an innocuous comment, but the way it was said, abruptly and off topic, seemed ominous to our informer.”
“But you understood,” I say. “You knew exactly what to do. You saved our lives.”
“I didn’t know. I made a guess. The others at the academy weren’t as interested in that comment as I was. I was sure the ludi had to be some sort of target and I’ve always been wary of their ability to cause incredible damage. I hate to see them in crowds, it makes my blood run cold. I’ve seen them hide stuff under their stupid capes, like knives they can pull at the beginning of a fight. Anyway, I knew I had to be there, to prevent what I could. The Selanthi I chased didn’t get far,” he smiles wanly. “And he didn’t have enough time to trigger his bomb and lob it into the reserved seats. They could have taken out the entire College of Pontiffs.”
“AND the Vestals,” Marta says tartly.
“So you saved the lives of everybody in our section, too,” I say.
Gaius shrugs. “I don’t know for how long. In a matter of months, it’s highly likely we’ll all be Selanthian slaves.”
We return to the House of Vestals for an early dinner, although nobody feels like eating much. The Vestalis Maxima gives us permission to skip over our normal practice time for rituals, since everybody’s packing up for Floralia. There’s still plenty of light, and there’s an unspoken agreement between the three of us that we’ll try to meet Cassius again.
We find him stretched out napping in the sacred grove at the edge of the temple yard.
“Well, girls,” he says, “the world has changed a little bit since we last met.”
“We were there, Cassius,” I say shakily, “and it was awful.”
“I know,” he says. “I was with the Academy of Ceres crowd. We were part of the opening ceremonies. We were all dressed up in our fancy special-occasion outfits, did you see us? We stayed to watch the races, but we had nosebleed seats. Probably the reason I’m still alive is that I can’t run in my dressy shoes.”
“Did anybody from the academy die?” I ask, aghast.
“Everybody’s okay,” he says cheerfully. “The gods were kind to us. And on that happy note, let’s go see some pretty flowers.”
As we walk to the clearing, we fill him in on Gaius’s explanations, but most of it he’s already familiar with, given his proximity to, and friendships with, the Mars boys. The closer we get to the clearing, the more my concerns fall away, and soon all I can think about is my anemone plant. I quicken my pace as I feel my excitement and anticipation returning. I can’t wait to see what my prayer has done.
When I finally see the clearing, I run the last few yards through the woods and skid to a stop, my eyes rooted on the spot where I know my anemone is waiting. Mine has five pink flowers. Marta’s has three. And…
We all give a collective gasp. Cassius actually falls to his knees. There, exactly where she planted it, stands Lucia’s enormous, vibrant, flourishing, thirty-foot fig tree.