As we return to the House of Vestals in the back of Cassius’s rented cart, I twist under the blanket to face the other girls.
“We need to tell the Vestalis Maxima,” I say.
“No,” Marta says immediately. “It needs to come as a complete shock to her if the flamens and pontiffs knock down her door and demand an explanation. We have to make it clear that she’s not responsible or supportive of our illegal behavior.”
“I agree,” whispers Lucia. “If everything goes well, we’ll tell her afterward, maybe.”
It feels all wrong to me to keep such important information from Lavinia. I know how betrayed and hurt she’ll feel when she learns about our deception, and the thought makes me miserable. I’d rather she heard it from us than from an enraged Pontifex Maximus.
Gaius is waiting for us when we return, having engaged some faster form of transportation than a rented cart and a tired old donkey. He takes us aside into a rarely used storeroom and begins giving us instructions for this evening. Where are your zingers when I need them, Marta? I think. Now we’re whispering in dark closets like it’s the latest in secret-conversation technology.
“You’ll meet us at the academy training center. Come as normal girls again,” he says above Lucia’s groans and wails of protest. “I don’t care how long it takes you to do your hair back. If the pontiffs and flamens don’t know who you are, it gives us an extra layer of protection. I’m going to introduce you as girls from the countryside, and I’ll call you by different names.”
“What’s my new name?” I ask, oddly excited to know what he has called me. He hands me a slip of paper. “Memorize these details,” he says. “Not that any of this will necessarily come up. But it’s good to have a backstory. I want to try to keep you anonymous as long as we can. Your transportation to the academy grounds has been arranged as well; you’ll arrive first. See you at seven,” he says crisply. Then he leaves us to our own devices. He is crazy and paranoid, but I am loving it anyway.
My new name is Octavia. Marta’s is Marcella. And Lucia’s is…awful.
Marta snorts. “Oh my gods, this is fantastic.”
“What? What?” says Lucia, snatching the paper away. She looks at it and positively shudders. “He has lost his mind,” she says in disgust.
We arrive at the academy training center and wait in the late afternoon sun for Gaius, Cassius, and the Flamen Martialis. About a half hour outside of the city, these grounds are normally off limits to anyone but students. They have a long, grassy plain, followed by a rocky beach and a small bay, all remote and shielded by cliffs from any wanderers or prying eyes. I’ve heard this is where they perform military training exercises. It’s an ideal place for experimenting.
“There they are.” Marta nudges me. Across the distance I can see our boys followed by a large group of priests, both flamens and pontiffs. “Gods, are they all coming at once?” I panic. I was hoping for a few minutes to gather my thoughts and take comfort in the presence of our friends.
I revive a little when Cassius gets close enough to smile at us, reassuring me with his eyes. Potential imminent death is apparently the farthest thing from his mind. The boy is downright unflappable.
“Gentlemen,” says the Flamen Martialis when they are all assembled, “thank you for your presence. As I have already made clear, the weapon we are about to demonstrate could give us a huge military advantage over the Selanthi. I anticipate that each and every one of you will find this method…unorthodox. You all know we have been reduced to desperate measures. I beg your indulgence and your patience as we struggle to cope with these extremely challenging times.”
“You all know Gaius Valerius,” he continues, “or have heard of his bravery at the Circus Maximus bombing. He showed extraordinary intuition and, incidentally, saved all of our lives. I know you will all remember his merit when he presents you with this new and startling discovery.”
At this point, the pontiffs and flamens are hanging on every word. They turn to Gaius expectantly. Even I am nervous, and I don’t have to say anything.
“Honored guests…,” begins Gaius, glancing at the Flamen Martialis. Good one. I would have no idea how to address this crowd.
“…accompanying us today are three young women who are currently our only chance for victory. As you know, the academy has succeeded in replicating the explosive powder that the Selanthi are so effectively using against us. This,” he says, holding up one of our bombs, “is an iron sphere filled with their explosive material. When it detonates, metal shrapnel will cause extensive devastation to whatever happens to be nearby. The hull of a ship, for instance.
“Our challenge,” Gaius continues, “is that we don’t have the ability to launch these with enough range or accuracy to really incapacitate the enemy. Or we didn’t. Have the ability, I mean. But these young women do. Um…perhaps now is a good time for a demonstration,” he says, looking at the Flamen Martialis, who nods.
“Lucretia, would you please step forward?” Gaius says.
Lucia shoots him a look of deep loathing, and the Flamen Martialis rolls his eyes. Everybody knows Lucia. She is unmistakable. I realize Gaius’s precautions were destined for failure, and I fight the desire to laugh out loud. I assume what I hope is a reasonable approximation of seriousness, accomplished only by biting down on my lips. Hard.
“Hello, everyone,” says Lucia, annoyed. “Would you please step a few yards back, just for your safety.”
Lucia straightens up, breathes deeply, puts her arm out, and pulls back an imaginary string. Then she lets it go. The bomb flies out over the bay, gaining incredible speed, and explodes violently just before hitting the water. If it wasn’t so scary, it would almost be beautiful in the fading light.
Marta, Cassius, and I are now used to these impressive displays, and we are at leisure to enjoy the various reactions of our audience. Most of the pontiffs look both aghast and overjoyed, as if they’ve been given a lovely surprise. Some laugh and clap their hands; others congratulate themselves and their colleagues. A few of the flamens, however, wear a darker aspect. Suddenly the Flamen Dialis, the high priest of Jupiter, steps forward.
“I would never have believed, Aulus, that you could watch this and think about military advantage,” he says coldly to the Flamen Martialis. “This defies a basic, fundamental law of our religion. It’s blasphemy, and it can’t be viewed in any other light. Our society would completely dissolve if we were to sanction this kind of behavior in any way.”
Marta and I both stiffen in fear. As the state’s high priest of Jupiter, king of the gods, the Flamen Dialis’s opinion has serious weight. Some of the other flamens are clucking angrily and nodding in agreement.
“With the highest respect, Gneus, you can stuff it,” says the Pontifex Maximus. “Quiet, everyone,” he says, “and let’s get something very important out of the way. I think we can all agree that if we listen to the kind of religious drivel just spouted here by our esteemed colleague, our society will be too busy getting destroyed by the Selanthi to have time to fall apart under the influence of a small group of corrupted, criminal women.”
Most of the pontiffs applaud this, and I can barely restrain myself from doing the same. This is huge. Flamens, although very much respected, are little more than religious figureheads when compared with pontiffs, who interpret and administer divine law. The Pontifex Maximus is the head of the College of Pontiffs, and his opinion is the very last word in national theological matters. Even though I’m pretty sure he just called me a criminal, it seems as if we’ve all been granted immunity.
“So exactly what kind of invocation is this young woman making?” asks one of the flamen. “Why can’t our soldiers simply be taught to do the same thing?”
“Ah,” says Gaius, “yes, there’s a very good reason why only the girls can do this. Through testing, we’ve discovered that launching and aiming the bomb requires an invocation of Diana.”
This draws mingled sighs and nods of understanding from our audience. “A shame indeed,” says the Pontifex Maximus. “But does Diana also explode the black powder?”
“No,” interjects the Flamen Martialis excitedly, clearly thinking this good news will smooth over any remaining hostility. “It only requires the invocation of Vulcan. It may allow us to detonate the Selanthi devices before they can reach our lines. That skill can be taught to any of our troops; we ran a test with academy students earlier today.”
“I’m sorry, but again I must object,” says the Flamen Dialis. “Are you seriously considering inducting the entire army into Vulcan priesthood? Giving ordinary men the power to invoke the gods?”
“Seriously?” asks the Flamen Martialis. “Yes I am. This has the power to neutralize a deadly weapon that is causing our army to sustain huge losses. As the Pontifex Maximus said, it’s time to make pragmatic decisions, not adhere to religious doctrine.”
“If you’re concerned about the consequences of teaching the troops, Flamen Dialis,” Gaius says respectfully, “we could always mix things up. Introduce all sorts of extra steps, special rituals, and so on. They don’t need to know how they’re invoking Vulcan. We could bury that phrase in a longer prayer if need be.” The Flamen Dialis is quiet, absorbing that possibility. Eventually, he nods his assent.
I hear Cassius make an impatient noise behind me. This is exactly the kind of thing he hates, purposely hiding information to manipulate people. I remember the day in the clearing when he refused to lie to us about Vesta.
“So what exactly is your plan, Aulus?” says the Pontifex Maximus, bringing me back to the present. “You must have something in mind. How are we going to proceed?”
“Are we all in agreement that the training of young women will go forward? That these girls won’t face any legal consequence for invoking a god or goddess in the service of the Parcaean army?” asks the Flamen Martialis. “I would like a unanimous vote before proceeding.”
All thirteen pontiffs and fifteen flamens raise their hands in approval. I look closely at their expressions. Some look positive, but most are unreadable.
“Thank you, gentlemen,” says the Flamen Martialis. “There is no longer any point in concealing that these girls standing before you are, in fact, Vestal Virgins, and this angle will work to our advantage. I intend to enlist the aid of the Vestalis Maxima in creating a respectable front for our recruiting efforts.” This gains some approving nods from the pontiffs.
“Before I reveal any further details, I must stress that our plan to train women must be kept in complete secrecy, for the safety of the girls themselves and also to maintain our element of surprise, as the city is surely harboring some Selanthi agents,” the flamen continues.
“Senators Accius and Spurius must be informed,” the Flamen Cerealis immediately responds. Other flamens break in with similar declarations. It’s not hard to see why they’re insisting. Flamens are paid well, but that doesn’t explain the fabulous wealth that most of them display in the city. Unlike the pontiffs, they are in charge of organizing religious events all year long, not only in Polonia but in other major locations. This means they have many favors to give, in the form of large government contracts to various festival vendors. Senators and flamens maintain a symbiotic relationship: a flamen grants favors to the senator’s political allies, and the senator ensures that the flamen receives generous kickbacks. They also pass various state secrets back and forth.
The flamens have reputations to protect. They don’t trust each other to keep this secret, so why should they look clueless when their colleagues are passing this valuable information on to their own friends?
Gaius is agitated, and looks as though he’s going to object, when the Flamen Martialis holds up a hand for silence. “I propose a compromise. I will personally address the senate,” he says. “The entire senate, not just those with political connections. I will wait two days, so anyone who wishes to have a private conversation before that time can do so. However, we must do our utmost to prevent the senators from sharing any information publicly. The military importance of this project is such that, if it were to be compromised, the country would once again be in danger of imminent defeat. I know you all understand me,” he says, looking at each face in turn. Finally, he nods. “Thank you for joining me today, gentlemen. I think that’s all we have to discuss.”
As our audience filters away, the Flamen Martialis turns toward us. “Good job today, girls,” he says kindly, which is generous since Marta and I didn’t even do anything. “I hope you weren’t in too much distress. Everything worked out well. Now, if you would please join me in my cart back to the House of Vestals, I have an appointment with the Vestalis Maxima. She will be expecting me.”