He almost died. He almost died — again.
The holy fire twisted in her chest. For so many years, Vesta’s fire had been a comfort. It made her feel safe, content. Now there was an anxiousness to it, a tinge of unhappiness.
As if it did not want to be part of her anymore.
At that, the fire churned hard. Exasperation and disappointment radiated outward from her heart, making her stumble.
“Domina?” He caught her arm, holding her upright.
She wanted to shake off his grasp, but, remembering him dripping blood, she could not.
He could so easily have been killed. In the crash. By the Imperialists. By a ridiculous feral pig.
All these years, the lictores as her protectors — as the guardians of the Vestals — had been a formality for her, a tradition carried over from the days before the Pax Romana. How long since one had died in service of the Vestals? Centuries. They had stood on guard during the Valentia Insurgency, but during the war the Imperialists had never dared to strike Roma itself.
But now — now — Ravan and Palladius and Niobe, all dead. For her. To protect her.
And Micah — noble Micah of the Me’a — was so certain of his impending death that he had confessed to an impossible love.
She closed her eyes, her breathing strained.
When she finally opened them, she gripped his arm hard and pushed up against him, tilting her head back so that she could look into his eyes.
“Micah, I need you to promise me something.”
“Promise me that you will not die protecting me.”
He opened his mouth, then closed it. A soft expression, a mixture of tenderness and compassion, crossed his face. “I cannot do that, Domina.”
“I forbid it!”
He reached down to brush a curl behind her ear. “I pledged my oath before the God of Abraham, and all the Gods of Roma. And even if you were not a Vestal, I would still lay down my life for you.”
She shoved him. His cuirass was hard, the titan-metal tougher than steel, and all she did was bruise her palms. He barely moved.
“I absolve you! I absolve you of your oath!”
Camilla shoved him again.
“You will not die for me!”
Damn it, she was crying. She hated herself for crying. She hated the Imperialists, she hated mad Taras, she hated Ravan and Palladius and Niobe for dying, she hated her mother for dying, she hated the Maxima for sending her on this ridiculous —
She was in his arms, his fingers gently stroking her scalp, while she wept all over his chest. “You will not die for me,” she blubbered. “You will not die for me. I could not stand it. You will not.”
She was still crying when he tenderly pulled her away from his chest and leaned down so that their foreheads rested together. He framed her face with his hands, his gloved thumbs tracing her cheekbones. “If I die, my only regret is that it will cause you pain, for that is something I never want to do.”
Her heaving sobs eased, turning to tears that rolled down his thumbs. She lifted her own hands from his chest and touched her fingers to his mouth. His lips pressed forward, kissing each of her fingers in turn. Her skin tingled.
Carefully, he curled her hands around her wrists and lowered her arms. Without a word, he rearranged the bag on her shoulder, took her hand, and led her west.
They walked, and they walked, and they walked.
All through the third day, and the fourth, and the fifth. They survived on pouches of foul-tasting nutrition water and hard slabs of nutrition bars that started to turn her tongue blue. They took shelter each night where they could: in the sprawling branches of a tree; inside a hollow log; beneath a billowing shrub.
And they talked, voices low, barely above a whisper. They talked of the birds and the trees, at first, and the hogs (“At least no predators have been introduced yet,” he commented). Then he spoke of the small trading collective in which he was raised, and his parents, and his sister and her husband and sister-wife (“They’ve settled in Placentia, so I see them often.”). She spoke of her parents and her childhood in Valentia, and her trip to Roma following her mother’s murder.
“My father fell into a terrible depression. He could barely eat. He was finally persuaded to travel to Roma, that he might consult with a priest of Dis Pater and possibly speak with the spirit of my mother.” She hesitated, then continued with Micah’s encouraging smile. “I accompanied him, but was not allowed to participate in the rite. I was eleven. I was angry and hurt. So I ran away. I’m not sure how long I wandered around the city, but eventually I found my way to the temple of Vesta. Her flame was so beautiful, so welcoming. I touched it. For the first time since my mother died, I felt safe.”
He pushed aside a low hanging branch while birds above them squawked in irritation. “I am surprised that you were allowed into the temple.”
“Maxima Lucia was on duty. She told me later that I had the look of a Vestalabout me. And when I was able to touch the flame without being burned, she knew that I had been called to serve. As did I.”
“And your father?”
“He never told me what happened during the rite. But he seemed … lighter. He returned to Valentia and eventually remarried. I have three half-sisters I have met only once.”
Micah scowled. “They could not be bothered to visit you more than once?”
She side-stepped around a gold-leafed shrub with white and red blooms. “In all fairness, I could have visited them, many times. They invited me to the wedding, to birthdays, anniversaries … but I was afraid. I was afraid to leave the temple.” She licked her lips. “I am still afraid.”
“I will do everything in my power to see that you come to no harm.”
“And that is what terrifies me.” She clutched the strap of the bag, shifting it on her shoulder. The flame curled through her heart. “My mother died to save me. I leave the temple, and now Ravan and Palladius and Niobe are also dead — saving me. I am not more important than them, not more worthy. I am Camilla Cornelia Catilina, citizen of the Republic, equal in importance to every other citizen.”
He stopped, silent for long moments as he studied the jungle around them. “You lessen their sacrifice with such thoughts.”
Camilla blinked. “What?”
He turned to her. There was anger in his expression, but also understanding. “Your mother chose to protect you. It was also her duty as your mother. Palladius and Niobe and Ravan chose to take an oath as lictores, knowing what might be required of them, and they fulfilled their oath, performed their duty. They found you worthy.”
Her lips parted and she breathed a low “Oohhhh ….”
They continued west for the remainder of the day, the tower close enough now that it loomed above the canopy, glittering, sprouting antennae in every direction. She followed him, turning his words over and over again in her mind and in her heart. As the sun dipped beyond the eastern horizon, they found a cave in which to take shelter.
She opened their last blue nutrition bar and broke it in half. As she held it out to him, she curled her fingers around his, trapping the bar between their hands. When he looked up, she dipped her head. “You are correct. I apologize, and I thank you.”
He tugged her arm closer and kissed the back of her hand. Her flesh pebbled at his touch and the brush of his breath.
She scooted closer and leaned down so that she could rest her cheek against his dark curls, now matted with dirt and sweat.
I could love you, she thought.
The realization brought no fear or anxiety. Instead, the flame in her heart pulsed with pleased surprise and joy.
And so she slept, cuddled up against Micah’s side, still holding his hand, a smile on her face.
[End Part Ten. Continue to Part Eleven.]
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A list of her poems and short stories can be found there.]