As we walk back through the woods, we discuss what our next step should be. Gaius wants to bring the Flamen Martialis to our meeting place and give him a private demonstration, but we need to do it soon, and Marta, Lucia, and I won’t have another free day for at least a week. This means we need to involve the Vestalis Maxima in some way, or at least get permission from her for an afternoon off.
“Let me talk to her,” I say. “Maybe we can all get out of temple tomorrow afternoon by swapping turns with the other girls. I’ll come up with something.”
We retrieve our bags, and the boys wait in the woods until we’re picked up by a passing cart on its way into town. Then they walk behind us, keeping their distance from the cart, making it look like they’ve just turned onto the main road from the Via Callia and have no connection to us whatsoever. It’s easy for them to keep pace with us, and I know they won’t let the driver take us anywhere we’re not supposed to be going.
“You girls from the city?” Our driver asks, leering at Lucia.
“From a farm outside the city limits,” I say, using my father’s house as our cover.
“So you’re all sisters?” the driver asks.
“That’s right,” I assert, with a look to the girls that says to play along.
“Don’t look much alike, do you?” he asks, staring at Lucia some more.
“She’s adopted,” Marta says acidly.
That’s the hardest part about sneaking around with Lucia. Men notice her wherever she goes.
We stop the cart and hop off when we reach my father’s farm, paying generously for our ride. As we turn down the path to my father’s house, I resist the urge to wave good-bye to Gaius and Cassius. Our experience today has bound us all together, and it feels wrong for us to part without any sign of friendship.
“It’s late. They may not make it back to the city before nightfall,” I worry.
“They’ll be fine. You’re getting too attached to them,” Marta says. “Remember that we’re just convenient tools. Cassius’s quest for knowledge, Gaius’s need for military advantage…they’re using us for their own purposes. Don’t let them get under your skin.”
The thought saddens me.
My mother is waiting for us at the door. “Look at you girls!” she says in astonishment. “Olivia, I haven’t seen you wear anything other than white for six years. You look beautiful, or you would if you weren’t covered in dust.” She smiles. I’m wearing a pale-orange dress that Lucia bought a few years ago, and I agree it’s very pretty. It must be said that Lucia has good taste.
“I’ve had your room made up, and the baths are ready for you,” my mother says. She leaves us at my door and promises us hot water soon. While we wait, we pull a few stray pins from our hair and try to work out the last of the braids.
“Your home seems very nice,” says Marta unexpectedly. I’ve asked her to join me for a visit here at least fifty times, but she’s never accepted, which always hurt me a little. I wonder if she’s having painful memories of her own home, a town so far away she hasn’t seen her parents since they said good-bye when we were ten.
“And you get to meet my brothers and sisters!” I say happily. “After our baths, we’ll all have dinner together.”
“Ooh, is your oldest brother here tonight?” says Lucia.
“Yes, Marcus is here,” I say dryly. Lucia, unlike Marta, has accompanied me on many visits home. And taken every opportunity to flirt with my brother. And he has taken every opportunity to flirt back. It is deeply annoying.
My bath feels wonderful as I finally wash off the layers of dust and mosquito oil. I linger as long as possible, scrubbing the last little bit of dirt from my fingernails. I can hear preparations for the family dinner, and I realize how hungry I am. “We’ll do hair before we go to bed,” I say, “but now it’s time to eat.”
As my family gathers around the dinner table, we all bask in the happy glow of being reunited. Even Marta seems charmed, and she smiles whenever someone addresses a comment to her. Lucia is also in rare form.
“So, Marcus,” she purrs. “I hear you are going to apprentice next year. That must be so exciting.”
“Yeah, well, it’s not as glamorous as working in the temple.” Marcus smiles at her. “But if you come to see me at the store, it will be.”
“Ugh,” Marta and I say together. I am smiling, but she looks darkly at Lucia.
After dinner, my mother asks Marta if she would like to see the house, since it’s her first visit. Marta is delighted by this request and accepts happily. Lucia is claimed by two of my younger sisters, as she has promised to show them how to braid their hair up just like the Vestals wear it. And I stay at the table, grateful for the opportunity to have my father and brother all to myself.
“Well, Olivia,” says my father, “have you had any interesting supplicants at the temple recently? You always have some crazy story for us when you come home.”
In truth, I’m not supposed to share any details about my visitors or their problems, but I enjoy talking about my work with my family, and I always leave out or change any personal details. This time, however, I don’t have any anecdotes to entertain with or any problems to ask their advice about. Any little household cares have been put on hold due to the current national crisis.
“It’s different now,” I say. “I haven’t done anything recently but pray, over and over again, for Vesta to end the war.” Both nod at this and look sober.
“Does that woman who gets knocked around still come?” Marcus asks.
“Yes,” I say hesitantly, wincing at his phrase. I feel a little pain in my chest every time I think of her.
“That’s too bad,” my father says. “What a shame it is to treat a good woman that way. She’s doing all the right things, praying to Vesta and asking for help.”
Marcus shakes his head. “You know, it’s really too bad she can’t find a way not to set him off. Figure out what’s making him angry.”
I frown internally at this. I don’t think Marcus quite understands the situation the way that I do. But how could he? Neither Marcus nor my father could ever hurt a woman. They can’t think like someone who would.
Then there’s a knock at the door, and Titus, the shopkeeper’s son, walks in. Tall and brawny, he cuts an impressive figure in the doorway, blocking it completely. As always, I feel a strange sense of unease in his company, as though he’s a slightly dangerous animal you wouldn’t want to provoke.
“Marcus, time to go,” he says. “Sir, good to see you,” he says to my father, pointedly ignoring me as he waits for Marcus to join him.
“Bye, everybody,” Marcus says briefly as he follows Titus out the door. My father glowers after them, eyes narrowed.
“What are they doing at this time of night?” I ask my father, curious about the reason for his mood. We are on good terms with Titus because he is the shopkeeper’s son, and Marcus will soon become their apprentice. But unfortunately he has a terrible reputation in the community. He’s wild and rebellious, and he’s committed at least a few drunken acts of vandalism that I know of.
“Titus has cleaned up his act,” my father says, although he doesn’t look happy. “He’s straightened out and found religion.”
“Oh…isn’t that a good thing?” I venture.
“I’m not comfortable with the nature of their worship,” my father says. “They’ve built an altar to Mars Ultor.”
“Mars the Avenger?” I ask, shocked. Our gods have many aspects, and you can choose to worship one of their specific incarnations. Mars is generally a god who promotes war as a means to achieve peace. But he has a dark side, Mars Ultor, the deity of waging war to exact vengeance. It is this specific aspect that Titus has chosen to emphasize in his worship. “But why? What do they need to avenge?”
My father shakes his head. “They’re angry young kids. Who knows why young men rebel? I just hope Marcus grows out of it soon, because it’s not good for him. He’s quicker to anger, to take offense. He fights me at every turn. I don’t know what to do with him.” He sighs, then rallies his spirits and gives me a tired smile. “Don’t worry about him, Olivia,” he says, seeing the concern in my face. “I’ll get him sorted out.” And he gives me a reassuring pat on the shoulder.
After the table is cleared, I say good night to my family and chase down the girls. Once I have extricated Marta from my mother’s twenty-minute lecture on vestibules and pried Lucia away from my newly braided sisters, we retire to my room for hair and bed. I do Marta’s hair. Then Marta does Lucia’s.
“You were awfully friendly with Olivia’s brother tonight at dinner, Lucia,” Marta says, and there’s something in her tone that makes me look up.
“Isn’t he cute?” says Lucia, smiling. “And I got a look at that Titus when he stopped in. He isn’t bad either.” Marta twists a pin, and Lucia says, “Ow!”
“Sorry,” Marta says. “Do you think that’s wise? Behaving that way? Looking at those boys as if they’re your playthings?”
“It’s fine, Marta,” I say. “Marcus isn’t under some kind of impression that Lucia will suddenly not be a Vestal. He won’t touch her.”
“I just think it’s sick,” Marta says. “Sick and wrong. Why does she have to flirt like that? Where is that going to lead?”
“You need to relax,” Lucia tells her. “You need to learn how to have a little fun.”
Marta says nothing, but the tension doesn’t lessen. We don’t say much more while Lucia does my hair. Once again, I attempt to avoid any further conversation by suggesting bed.
On our walk home early the next morning, I broach the subject of how we’ll get a free afternoon to meet Gaius and the Flamen Martialis. “We need to be out at the Circus Callia by three, so we’ll need to leave here right after lunch.”
“Well, whatever,” says Lucia irritably. “But I am not taking my hair down again.”
“Okay,” I agree. “We’ll have to do head scarves or something. It will look suspicious at this time of year to anybody who’s really watching closely, but we will probably get away with it.”
This morning, Lucia and Marta are due at a sacrifice being held at the Temple of Venus, in which they’ll play a small role. I’m going to assist Lavinia, the Vestalis Maxima, by copying out some of her official communications to duplicate them, since there will be multiple recipients and her time is too valuable for her to do it all herself. This will be an excellent opportunity to cook up some lie, if I can only get the inspiration.
As I sit with Lavinia, my mind races, but I can’t think of any possible reason why all three of us would need a free afternoon. There’s no marketing to do. Everything else we work on is in the House of Vestals, the temple, or the Regia.
There’s a knock on the door and Gaius enters, somewhat nervously, I think. Be cool, I want to tell him. He really is high-strung.
“Vestalis Maxima,” he says, inclining his head, “I come to ask an unusual favor. As you know, the Flamen Martialis and all the students at the Academy of Mars are busy to the point of distraction. I need to ask you for some additional manpower.” He hesitates. “We’ll be conducting some weapons tests out in the field today, and I need a few girls to take down measurements and make records of our findings, and maybe run the occasional errand. We can’t spare the men.”
This lie is brilliant because it’s so close to the truth.
“Well, thank you, um—?”
“Gaius,” he reminds her.
“Thank you, Gaius,” she responds, recognizing him, “for the opportunity to assist you and your colleagues during this stressful time. I am sure we can spare a few hands.”
“I was thinking Olivia,” he says. “She’s so handy carrying messages. And maybe her two friends could come. The younger girls may not have the patience for the detailed recordkeeping they’ll need to do. Three girls is the perfect number. ” He takes a deep breath, as he has forgotten to breathe during this obviously well-rehearsed speech. “Thanks so much,” he says, and before she can object to his particular choices, he has gone.
“Well, Olivia,” she says with a wry smile, “your advanced expertise in message-carrying is requested. When Marta and Lucia return, can you please ask them to accompany you and report to Gaius or one of these other young men? He didn’t say where you were supposed to meet him, so I guess you’ll have to go looking around.” Lavinia sighs. “I guess we can’t refuse anything they ask us for now.” She rests her elbows on her desk and cradles her head in her hands.
A few hours later I find Marta and Lucia trekking back from the Venus thing. “Gaius had a great lie, and now we’re assistants to the Academy of Mars,” I explain. “Cassius is going to meet us with a cart in a few minutes, and we’re going out to the circus. We can be Virgins.”
When we pile into Cassius’s wagon, he gives us some blankets to throw over ourselves. “Let’s not give anybody on the road any reasons to speculate,” he says. So we have a hot and itchy ride lying in the back of the cart. Really, this constant subterfuge is getting to be too much. We’re trying to save the entire country here, we’re not criminals, I think. Then I remind myself that we are.
Cassius has brought more plant extract for us, but the walk to the abandoned circus is as unpleasant as the first time, if not more so. The warmer it gets, the happier the mosquitoes are. Once we arrive, we busy ourselves setting up the altars, invoking gods, and making sacrifices, and then there’s nothing to do but wait for the Flamen Martialis to arrive. I have no idea what to expect from him, no guess about how he will react. I only know that when I deliver messages to him, he smiles at me. Promising, but not really much to go on.
“How will Gaius convince the Flamen Martialis to come all the way out here?” I ask. The flamen is the head of the Academy of Mars. I imagine his time is very precious, and wading through marshy ground to an abandoned circus is probably not high on his list of priorities.
“Gaius has gained quite a bit of goodwill at the academy since stopping the Selanthi with the bomb,” Cassius replies. “He actually earned an award for special merit, something they normally only give to soldiers in the field, but they didn’t have a ceremony because everyone is too busy at the moment. But he has their attention and their trust now.”
While we sit quietly, Cassius explains that if the flamen threatens to execute us for our crimes, the idea is that we should overpower him, run to the cart, and try to flee. He thinks we could make it for a few days and maybe get on a ship out of Polonia. “I have my entire savings in this bag,” he says, holding up his satchel.
As we stare at each other, awed and terrified by this possibility, we hear a distant crashing. My heart beats faster. Marta gasps. Lucia looks like she might faint. Cassius is his confident self.
“There better be a good reason we had to walk through this mosquito hell, Gaius Valerius,” a voice says.
“There is, Flamen, I promise you.”
They emerge into the field, waving bugs out of their faces and looking hot and irritated. The Flamen Martialis looks to be about fifty, with iron-gray hair cropped short. He is smaller and thinner than Gaius, but he is wiry and something about his frame suggests great strength. He has an aura of vitality about him, and his face is as kind as I remember.
He starts when he sees us, astonished at finding three Vestal Virgins in such an unlikely environment.
“Sir,” says Gaius, wasting no time, “as I said before, there is something you should see that could give us a serious advantage in the war, perhaps even lead to total victory. Lucia Maximianus is a Vestal Virgin whom you may already know,” he indicates Lucia, “and she has an ability we need to show you. But we need to beg your discretion. I will tell you before we begin that what you are about to see is entirely illegal.” He glances at Cassius. “We would never be taking these steps were the fate of the country not at stake.”
“Hello, Lucia,” the flamen acknowledges her politely. “Of course I know who you are. Gaius, if this activity is really crucial to the war effort, I will protect you from the legal consequences to the best of my ability. You have my attention.”
I feel a surge of hope. This is already going much more smoothly than I expected. Marta squeezes my hand, evidently relieved herself.
Gaius asks us all to stand very far from Lucia to watch her demonstration, although he doesn’t insist on the ditch this time. When she closes her eyes, raises her hand, and blasts some distant trees into oblivion, the flamen gives a strange bark of exultation, somewhere between a laugh and a shout, and shakes Gaius by the shoulder. “Who can do this?” he immediately demands, when he can breathe again. “Can we teach the entire army?”
“Um,” says Gaius, uncomfortable now. “Here’s the really bad news. Only girls can do it. Lucia throws the ball by invoking the goddess Diana. As far as we can tell, only women, and possibly only virgin girls, can ask her for aid.”
“What?” gasps the flamen. “Oh gods.” He is silent for a long time. We all wait on tenterhooks for his response.
“I don’t see that we have a choice,” he finally says. “I think we have to recruit as many women as we can collect and train them immediately. We only have a few weeks at most. But the College of Pontiffs and all the other flamens will have to be informed, and probably the Senate. And I will warn you now, I expect a mixed reaction. We won’t have an easy time gaining their approval.”
Marta, Cassius, and I look at each other with a mixture of elation and fear. Wherever this endeavor will finally take us, there’s no turning back now.
Before we leave, Gaius explains the full procedure to the flamen, including the invocation of Vulcan to explode the bombs. He then asks me and Marta to demonstrate our skills, and explains to the flamen that Lucia’s blessing was necessary to help us gain power. “We’re not sure yet whether these girls will be able to pass their skills on to other women, or if Lucia will have to bless every single one. That will be a logistical challenge. It’s also possible that married women could gain the same skill, but it hasn’t been tested. Obviously we’ve been severely restricted in what we could try without official sanction.”
“Obviously,” says the flamen. “But when I return to the academy, I intend to immediately test whether our troops could invoke Vulcan to explode the Selanthi bombs when they’re in the air, or even still in Selanthi hands. That could neutralize their current advantage.”
“What if the Selanthi can explode our bombs by invoking one of their gods?” asks Marta nervously.
We all look at her. “Then all is completely lost,” says the flamen after a moment of contemplation. “I don’t think they will, though. They clearly don’t use any religious invocation to explode their own. They have some sort of timing device, and sometimes it’s faulty. The bombs go off too early, or never go off at all.”
“There are too many unknowns right now,” Gaius says. “Sir, I suggest we return to the academy and start taking the necessary steps for testing and recruitment.”
“Testing, yes,” says the flamen. “Recruitment waits until our full disclosure to the college, which I will arrange for this evening before sundown. Lucia, Marta, and Olivia will meet us on the academy grounds for a demonstration.”
“Can Cassius join us?” I ask.
The flamen looks at Cassius as if noticing him for the first time. “If you wish,” he says kindly. “Who exactly is this person?”
“He discovered Lucia’s talent…” Gaius trails off, unsure how to frame this obvious lawbreaking.
“I’d like to be there, sir,” says Cassius. “I’m responsible for the girls. If they’re accused of breaking the law, I will interpose and declare myself the sole culprit.”
“That’s gallant of you,” says the flamen. “But I will warn you now that if certain pontiffs are…uncomfortable…with women invoking the gods, your intercession won’t save them.”
My chest tightens with fear again.