“Cassius, I hope there’s a very good reason why I had to come all this way,” Gaius says, irritation in his voice. Then he sees us. “Why are they here?”
“Gaius!” Cassius says enthusiastically. “How are you? It’s been too long. How is good old Sextus Molestus?”
“Ha-ha. Sextus Tacitus. And I don’t have all day,” responds Gaius. “Make it quick.”
Cassius smiles, diverted by Gaius’s humorless manner. “Oh, you Mars boys are never any fun anymore. Like the war is going to be won or lost in the five minutes it takes to have a conversation. Okay. You are here because of these very special girls.”
Gaius looks at us in confusion. Cassius continues.
“You see before you a fully mature tree bearing fruit in early May. This tree began as a dried fig about twenty-four hours before Miss Lucia here asked our goddess Pomona to help it grow.” He pauses for effect, gives Gaius a dazzling smile, and waits for his grand announcement to sink in. “Oh, and Marta and Olivia have grown these two lovely anemones,” he adds as an afterthought.
Gaius stares at the tree, his face draining of color. He looks at it for a full two minutes before turning his intense gaze on us, his hand to his mouth. He’s silent for so long I think the tension will kill us all.
Then he snaps, fells Cassius with a brutal punch, and begins beating him senseless.
“You irresponsible…unbelievable…inexcusable lying ass,” Gaius rages at him between blows, as the three of us shriek in terror.
“Stop!” I beg him. “Please stop. We wanted to learn; he was helping us.”
“Helping you?” Gaius yells, totally unhinged. He gets up but lands one last kick to Cassius’s ribs.
“Ow,” Cassius says from the ground.
“You think this guy is helping you? He is getting you all killed, that’s what he’s doing! He promised me he would make it right…” Gaius trails off, breathing heavily. We are all too terrified to speak.
Then he pulls his knife out of its sheath, scaring us to tears, but it turns out he just wants something to point with. “This is what’s going to happen,” he says in a deadly tone. “You are my students now. We will meet in one week, fifty feet west of the junction between Via Flaminia and Via Callia, in the woods. Come in disguise. Cassius will join us, but he will do exactly what I say, and only what I say, or I will hand him over to the Flamen Martialis and demand he be summarily executed. You will not see him again until that time. Don’t be followed, don’t be obvious, and don’t”—he points his knife directly at me—“be stupid,” he finishes furiously. Then he turns and walks directly off into the forest.
“Uhh,” Cassius groans, and sits up. “He’s been working out.”
“Are you okay? What can we get you?” Marta says as we stand over him. His nose is pouring blood.
“I’m fine. It’s okay, just a broken nose, I think,” Cassius says, weak but reassuring. “I beat him in a wrestling match last year,” he adds, somewhat defensively, to no one in particular.
“Gaius is a strange guy,” says Marta. “I never really talked to him before the day at the circus, and he seemed normal enough then. Did you have any inkling he would try to beat you to death? How exactly did you think that would go? And what does he want?” In reply, Cassius just shakes his head.
“If you had asked me, Cassius, I would have warned you,” I say. “He’s not the most even-tempered person. But don’t worry, Marta. I think he has our best interests at heart.”
“I guess we’ll see,” she says darkly.
As it turns out, we don’t need Gaius to prevent us from meeting Cassius. After Floralia, our schedule is packed with Vestal duties: performing rituals, assisting with sacrifices, and attending supplicants. The temple is busier than I have ever seen it, and all day long I pray with wives, sisters, and daughters who want a miracle to end the war. Even though it’s only been a few days, the bombing at the Circus Maximus has shaken their faith in our army. How can they defeat such a terrible weapon? There is a special kind of despair in the eyes of the mothers. They know this war is coming for their sons.
Vesta may be fake, but when I pray with these women, I pray for real. Maybe someone will hear us anyway.
I still deliver Lavinia’s letters to Sextus Tacitus and the other pontiffs. Each day, when I emerge from the passageway into the Regia, Gaius completely ignores me. Although he doesn’t say anything, his posture is so rigid that he positively exudes fury. It’s clear he’s upset with me for learning to invoke the gods instead of pretending I never saw the lamp oil, and since I don’t feel any regret, I can’t take his anger seriously.
Despite his behavior, I politely greet him every time I pass. I sometimes see a muscle in his jaw twitch in anger, and this amuses me deeply, so I keep it up.
Lucia, Marta, and I busy ourselves at night with the very serious problem of The Hair. We devise various schemes for how we will arrive in the woods fully disguised and yet transform back into Virgins before our return. I doubt Gaius was thinking of this when he demanded we come to our meeting incognito, but the very act of changing our hair or dress would seem highly unusual to an observer, and that’s a big risk. Ultimately, I ask the Vestalis Maxima to grant us leave to visit my father’s house for the night. I write home, warning my mother to expect three tired, dusty girls in the evening after we spend our day off exploring in the countryside.
When the day comes for us to meet Gaius, we walk along the road out of town until we’re sure we can no longer be seen. Then we sneak off into the woods, changing into our non-Virgin outfits and yanking pins out of each other’s hair.
“Quit messing with it,” demands Marta as Lucia tries to style her hair into something you might see a city girl wear.
“I just want to tryit,” Lucia whines. “It would look so good on you. Don’t you want the disguise to look right? We can’t just let our hair poof out and go wild. We won’t look like Vestals, but we will look really, really odd.”
“We don’t have a whole lot of time for that, Lucia,” I say. “Unless we can hitch a ride on a cart going north, we have another forty-five minutes of walking ahead of us. And I don’t think it’s wise to be late.”
Lucia pouts but finally concedes. We pull back our hair and try to look as normal as we possibly can, and we carefully fold our bridal clothes and pins into our satchels.
When we finally arrive at the crossroads, there’s nobody there. “What did he say again?” I ask. “Fifty feet east or west? Into the woods?”
“Um,” say Marta and Lucia. Crap.
There’s a rustling behind us, and Cassius motions for us to follow him into the forest. Thank the gods.
“Gaius isn’t here,” he says. “Do you remember whether he said to meet fifty feet north or east of the crossroads? I think it’s one of the two.”
“We don’t know either,” I say.
Cassius snorts. He is about halfway recovered from his two black eyes, so his face is brilliantly yellow and green. “I guess it’s a little hard to memorize instructions when you’ve got a knife pointed in your face. Maybe he should think about that next time he threatens someone.”
“Where are we anyway?” Lucia says irritably. “This is all getting a bit ridiculous. I don’t see what was wrong with meeting in the clearing.”
“Lucia, I think this is going to get a lot worse before it gets better,” Cassius says. “Based on the location, there’s only one possible place we can be headed. And you’re going to need these.” He hands us each a small tin of something oily and smelly.
“Where are we going? What is this?” Marta asks.
“I hope I’m wrong, but I believe we’re headed to the site of an old Circus Maximus. The Circus Callia it’s known as now. It was built from wood, so the original structure no longer stands, but the track is still there. It was used until about seventy-five years ago, when they completed the circus in Polonia,” he says.
“Why is that bad?” I ask.
“The site of the Circus Maximus was always intended for the city proper, but this was a temporary structure until they could get the concrete and marble one erected,” he says. “Unfortunately the Circus Callia was built on a rather swampy stretch of land, and the mosquitoes were so horrendous, they poured a tremendous amount of money into getting the Maximus done early. The stuff in the tins is oil mixed with a plant extract that will repel them. You need to rub it on every exposed part of your body, especially your feet and legs.”
“Where’s my tin?” says Gaius, emerging from the trees.
Cassius scoffs. “Whoops, must have forgotten it. What a shame.”
“And where have you all been?” asks Gaius, annoyed. “I’ve been waiting for you west of the crossroads, as I told you. Girls, stash your bags under this outcropping,” he orders, indicating a pile of rocks that will conceal our satchels, “and let’s go.”
More merciful than Cassius, we share our plant oil with Gaius. Cassius was indeed right about our destination, and although the mosquitoes aren’t yet in full swing, there are enough of them to make the walk unpleasant. The extract works, but getting buzzed by their high-pitched whines is unsettling. Repressed by Gaius’s attitude, no one speaks until we emerge from the tall grasses onto a huge level plain, clearly the site of the old racetrack.
Gaius places the bags he is carrying, which look extremely heavy, onto the ground with care. Then he hesitates, and takes one of the bags at least a hundred yards across the field, stashing it in a ditch. “Now,” he says when he returns, holding up a small parcel, “let’s get directly to the point. This small package contains black powder, the Selanthi material that makes things blow up. They’ve been launching it at our troops in battle. Our team has finally reverse-engineered it and begun to manufacture their own, but they have not yet successfully weaponized it. They can’t figure out how the Selanthi are triggering the bombs to explode from a distance. Only fire can trigger the explosions,” he adds. “It only needs to be a spark, but nothing else will work.”
Then he turns to Lucia. “I am going to place this package on the ground about five hundred yards away from you, in the middle of the track. Then I want you to try blowing it up with your powers. Wait until I return before you try,” he says warningly.
“Duh,” says Lucia.
After Gaius places the black powder in the field, he returns and looks at Lucia expectantly. It is clear from her previous successes that she probably doesn’t need to perform any special invocation, paean, or prayer. “Go ahead,” he says.
She stands very tall and very still, her eyes closed. Although I should be ready for it, I jump when I hear the loud boom that echoes over the plain. I’m elated at her success, but Gaius is calm. “Who did you pray to?” he asks.
“Vulcan,” she answers promptly.
He nods his head. “God of fire. That makes sense. Good. Now for the hard part.” He bends back over the bag at his feet and draws out an iron ball about the size of a small melon. “This iron ball is empty inside,” he says. “Our idea for beating the Selanthi at their own game is to trigger explosions inside the balls so they send shrapnel flying in all directions when they explode. Our first difficulty was figuring out how to ignite the black powder. Our second is how to throw these balls with enough range, accuracy, and power to actually harm enemy forces or smash through enemy ships. Our catapults just aren’t strong enough or accurate enough. Lucia, you need to make this ball fly all the way across the circus and into the trees on the other side. Can you do that?”
“Of course!” she says brightly, clapping her hands.
Gaius looks thrilled at this. “Let’s see.” He places the ball a few yards in front of her.
Lucia stands quietly, as before. She scrunches up her eyes in concentration. Then she holds out her hand and makes an arcing motion with it, left to right.
She opens her eyes. “Nothing happened?” she asks, disappointed. Then she actually pouts. “I asked nicely.”
“Damn!” Gaius says, frustrated.
“Hold on just a moment, Gaius. Who did you ask, sweetheart?” Cassius patiently inquires, with a kind smile.
“Iris,” she says, still pouting. “Goddess of rainbows.”
Marta snorts in laughter. I think she might choke.
“Do you think she was really the best person to ask?” says Gaius, surprised. “I mean, she’s a minor goddess. She’s not particularly powerful, is she?”
“Lucia just wanted it to look pretty,” says Marta, doubled over in laughter. “Idiot.”
“Well who would you have asked, Miss Superpowers?” Lucia demands.
“Mercury,” says Marta promptly. We all look at her. “He can fly, right? You know, the winged shoes? And he’s a major god.”
“Okay,” Gaius says. “Lucia, can you go ahead and try asking Mercury, please?”
Lucia nods, her eyes still narrowed at Marta. “We’ll see.” I hope she doesn’t fail on purpose just to show Marta up. First, she performs the invocation prayer. Then she stands tall and clasps her hands together. Next she tries standing up on tiptoe. Nothing. Her face falls.
“What did you try this time, honey?” Cassius says. “What did you envision?”
“I pretended the ball had little winged feet,” says Lucia. This sends Marta into more convulsions.
“That’s okay,” says Cassius, shooting Marta a look. “Maybe we just need to try another method. Mercury is the god of messages, right? Maybe you just need to imagine the ball sending a message over to the target.”
We all like this idea, but unfortunately it doesn’t work. Then we try every other possible angle we can think of for asking Mercury to make the ball fly. Cassius sets up his little altar and we make sacrifices of dried fruit, cakes, even wine, but nothing helps.
After an hour, Gaius is discouraged and Lucia is on the point of tears.
“Maybe we should try something else,” I suggest. “Gaius, is there anything else Lucia might be able to help with?”
“No,” he says in an empty tone. “This was my one and only goal. We might as well pack it in and go home.”
“Wait,” she says fiercely. “We are not giving up. I know I can do it. Wait. I’m going to try something else.” She takes a deep breath and regains her composure, supremely regal in her stature and bearing. A calm expression passes her face. She raises one hand in front of her, fist clenched. We’re so quiet we can hear every mosquito for miles.
And the iron ball flies up across the field and into the tree line so hard, it makes a tremendous crash as it splinters one of the tree trunks.
We all scream in delight. “You did it! You did it!” I shout, hugging her. Even Marta is overjoyed.
“What did you do? Who did you ask?” Gaius says eagerly.
“Diana,” Lucia says.
“Of course,” I breathe. Diana. The Archer. Virgin goddess of the hunt. It’s absolutely perfect. Diana lives a free-spirited life: she’s a huntress who roams the woods with eighty virgin nymphs as companions, and her weapon of choice is a bow. She is also the goddess of the moon and the open sky. She’s known as a remote, inaccessible goddess who is not interested in the fates of ordinary men, and as Vestals we don’t worship her often. But apparently Lucia has made an impression on her.
Gaius is already fumbling to set up a makeshift altar, and Cassius is fishing in his bag o’ gods for a small Diana. I hope he has one. In the meantime, I start poking around in our own packs for offerings.
“Olivia,” Cassius says suddenly. “Do you know an ode to Diana? Because I don’t remember any.”
Gaius freezes and looks up. “I don’t either,” he says, panicked.
I sigh. This is a tough one. “Okay, give me a second,” I say. Then I recall.
“Dona cano divom, laetas venantibus artis, auspicio, Diana, tuo,” I begin to recite. “I sing in thanks for the gifts of the gods, and for those gifts, O Diana, which are under your auspices, for those skills in which hunters delight.”
Unfortunately for us, this is a long poem. But we’ve all agreed that Lucia doesn’t need to learn it. After I’ve taught them all six stanzas, we make sacrifices out of almost all the goods we brought, including the hooves of several recently slaughtered calves. “Ew,” I say, disgusted.
“As far as I’m concerned, Diana can have an entire giraffe,” Gaius says. “We need her. Come on, let’s pray.”
We all pray sincerely and devotedly to the altar of Diana. We also pray to the small altar of Vulcan that Cassius has fashioned, and we invoke them both. Then we line up, face the grassy fields of the Circus Callia, and ready ourselves for a challenge.
First, Gaius makes us each explode a small package of black powder by praying to Vulcan. It’s harder than I expected, but after about thirty minutes, we’ve all made a successful attempt. Now it’s time to try to make our iron missiles fly. This is the real test, and we’re all tense as Gaius lays out a practice ball for each of us. As it turns out, he had made an earlier trip to the field and stashed some behind a clump of grass so he didn’t have to carry them all today.
On my first try, my ball gives a small hop and then rolls several yards, which is more than I was hoping for. Marta’s rocks a bit as though she nudged it with her toe, but it doesn’t even roll.
When his turn comes, Gaius’s ball is totally still, and his face reflects his chagrin. Obviously embarrassed, he stands back to watch Cassius’s attempt. But it’s no better. Neither of the boys can get so much as a teensy rocking motion.
“I didn’t want to say it, but I was expecting as much,” I tell them. Marta nods in agreement. “Diana is an inveterate man-hater. Remember the story of Actaeon, the hunter who happened upon her in the woods while she was bathing? She turned him into a stag, and he was torn to death by his own hunting dogs.”
They look at each other, concern on their faces. “If only women can do this, how can it have any military value?” Cassius asks.
Gaius sighs heavily. “I hoped it wouldn’t come to this, but an idea has crossed my mind. That’s why I let Olivia and Marta come,” he says.
We both snort in irritation. This is news, that we almost didn’t make the cut. How generous of him to include us.
“If we can teach women to aim these projectiles in large numbers,” Gaius continues, ignoring us, “that means we don’t have to pull men out of the army to train them. Even a thousand women with this skill would help swell our ranks, if this weapon turns out to be as deadly as I’m hoping. Of course, that’s assuming they canbe taught,” he says. He doesn’t look excited at the prospect. “Mind you, this would all be seriously illegal, and thus would require the approval of the entire College of Pontiffs and all the flamens, especially the Flamen Martialis.” Gaius glares at us accusingly, as though this is our fault. “Not that the word illegal has any special meaning to you.”
This is a stunning revelation. The thought that women, including Marta, Lucia, and I, could be instrumental in helping Parcae to win the war makes me thrill with hope. I desperately want to try. “We can,” I say stubbornly. “We don’t have a choice. We have to learn or die or become slaves.”
After this, all attention turns to me and Marta as we fervently try to gain even a fraction of Lucia’s skill. Gaius and Cassius try to make helpful suggestions. It is already late afternoon. We need a breakthrough desperately, because I don’t know when we’ll be able to get back to the Circus Callia again.
“Lucia, is there anything you did, anything you visualized, that helped you make the ball fly?” Cassius asks her.
“Um, well, I thought about her bow,” Lucia says. “That’s why I held my fist up, like this.” She demonstrates. “I pretended I was holding a bow. I guess we could even try pulling back an imaginary string.”
Encouraged, Marta and I try the bow technique. It helps tremendously. My ball flies more than forty yards, and Marta’s gains a good twenty. We both cheer and dance around each other, thrilled, but Gaius is unimpressed. “That’s great. If we can get the enemy to come up close for a hug, we can definitely obliterate them.”
“Good job, girls,” Cassius breaks in supportively with a smile. “We’re still making progress. That’s what’s important.” I’m so grateful to him for being here with us now. Gaius is a serious de-motivator.
“What if I asked Diana to help you?” says Lucia. “I think she would listen to me. I think we’re friends now.”
“Really? Will she let you do her hair?” gasps Marta in mock enthusiasm.
“Shut up,” says Lucia, “or I’ll ask her to turn you into a beaver or something.” Then she closes her eyes and stands close behind me, her palms upturned. “Dear Diana, please listen closely to my friend Olivia and help her when she prays to you. She’s special.”
“Thank you,” I murmur to her.
Then she moves to Marta. “Dear Diana,” she prays, “Please help my friend Marta, who is a horrible shrew but whom I love, by listening to her prayers. She obviously needs all the help she can get.” Marta snorts. I think she is simultaneously irritated and moved.
On our next attempt, our iron balls fly in a high arc across the circus, covering more than a thousand yards and slamming into the far distant tree line, as Lucia’s did. We’re all stunned. No one speaks.
“We did it,” Marta whispers.
“Oh my gods,” Gaius says fervently. “Wait here.” He goes running to his other bag, still hidden in the ditch on the other side of the track. When he returns, he’s holding another iron ball, identical to the first.
“Lucia, this is extremely dangerous,” he says to her carefully. “This is the finished weapon. It is an iron ball packed with explosives. You need to make it fly into the trees, and then detonate it. Please be careful. If this goes wrong, we could all die.”
“Duh!” she snaps. “Why does everyone talk to me like I’m an idiot? Don’t answer that,” she says to Marta, cutting off what surely would have been a snotty comment.
Gaius makes everybody stand as far away from Lucia as possible, going so far as to make us hunker in the ditch with the whining mosquitoes buzzing around us. We can only watch by peering over the top.
“Oh my gods, please don’t let her blow herself up,” he whispers, frantic with worry, his face in his hands. I think he needs to give her a little more credit. At this point, she’s proven she can handle herself. “Get down, everyone,” Gaius nags us.
Ignoring him, we watch Lucia straighten herself up, square her shoulders, and take a deep breath. She holds her hand out. She counts to three. As before, she propels the ball through the air toward the tree line. I try to watch, but Gaius shoves me down with unnecessary force, sending me rolling into the bottom of the ditch. There is a massive explosion.
As the smoke clears, I scramble back up so I can see the results of the detonation. Where there was formerly a distant grove, there is now a smoking pile of shattered trees. The extent of the devastation fills me with awe.
“Oh,shit,” Gaius says in disbelief. “We are going to destroy them.”