The central forum of Mons Murcia was filled with citizens of every age, priests and priestesses and augurs, Senators and their retinues. They stood silent, eyes wide, anxious and hopeful. Lictores surrounded Vesta’s temple, facing outward, long pikes planted against the ground, swords and pistols and daggers strapped to their bodies. Micah stood with them, his face scratched and puffy with bruises.
The circular Aedes Vestae was of slightly different design than the main temple in Roma: only four fat columns held up the domed roof and the hearth was raised up on a platform, bringing the flames to waist height.
Camilla stood on one side of the hearth, Virgo Vestalis Minor Donata directly across from her. Camilla wore a borrowed gown and shoes and veil, its lacy edges touching her knees. The remaining eleven Vestals circled them evenly; there was no obvious empty place where Tullia should have stood. The priestesses chanted, falling deeper and deeper into trance as Camilla called forth the flame from her heart.
There was no punishing anger this time, no righteous rage, only warmth and love and a sense of homecoming.
With a sigh, Camilla lowered her fiery hands to the bare marble of the hearth. The naked flame settled onto the platform, took root, and flashed, rising higher and higher, nearly to the apex of the dome.
A ferocious cheer erupted from the crowd. It echoed around the forum, bouncing between the Comitium Minor and the temples of Venus, Mars, and Vulcanus. The Vestals sagged, touching hands and cheeks as they came out of trance, offering one another tired smiles.
Camilla bit her lip, feeling the emptiness, the cold, in her chest. After carrying Vesta’s fire through so much, it felt strange to not know its heat.
She looked up and found Micah among all the other lictores. Seeming to feel her gaze, he turned his head. He smiled and she felt her heart stutter and the emptiness went away.
“Vestal Camilla? A word.”
She pulled her attention back. “Virgo Vestalis Minor, yes, of course.”
“I wanted you to know ….” Donata frowned, inhaling sharply. “I wished to apologize and ask your forgiveness. I should have seen what was happening, I should have recognized the danger that Tullia posed. None of this should have happened.”
Camilla took Donata’s hands and squeezed them reassuringly. “No apology or forgiveness is required, Domina, but if it will offer you comfort, then I give it freely.”
The other woman blinked rapidly. She smiled, lips trembling. Pulling her hands free, she pressed stiff fingers to her chest, offered a quick nod to someone behind Camilla, and hastily moved away.
Camilla turned to find Micah coming up behind her. He lightly touched the small of her back, and her breath caught. For a long moment, she could only smile at him stupidly.
And then his hand was gone and his expression turned serious.
“I just spoke with Lictor Stellaris.” His jaw tightened. “Former Vestal Tullia has been captured.”
Camilla swallowed hard. “Treason, betrayal of her oath to Vesta, attempted murder of a Vestal — and complicity in the murder of three lictores and two fellow citizens. It is a harsh judgment that awaits her. Death in the jungle would have been a mercy.”
“It is justice. She acted freely, out of jealousy and greed, not because she was coerced against her will.”
Camilla watched as Donata and her sisters gathered handfuls of flame from the hearth and moved down the steps of the temple. The lictores stepped aside, creating narrow pathways. The crowd surged forward and then back, moving to create clumps in front of the Vestals as the citizens gathered to have their candles or herb bundles lit for their home hearths, or to seek Vesta’s blessing in the touch of her fire. Some were shouting, some praying, others silent in wonder.
Her gaze turned to the red-tinged sky. She could not see Terra Mater, but it was there, waiting. Home for the rest of her days, if she so desired.
“If I asked you to show me the moons of Iuppiter, would you?”
She felt him turn slightly, studying her.
“Yes, I would.”
She faced him, studying him in turn through the soft cloth of her veil. “And if I were not Virgo Vestalis Camilla, but just Camilla, would you show me the moons of Iuppiter?”
He smiled, and there was no hesitation, no apprehension, no doubt. “Yes, Camilla.”
She reached out, sliding their fingers together. Contentment and joy filled her, replacing that odd cold spot in her heart with a new warmth.
“… fact that a Vestal — a Vestal — could be so corrupted is — is ….”
Maxima Lucia trailed off. Her eyes were wide and confused, her skin tinged gray. She seemed to have aged a decade in the last month.
They stood at the window looking out over the Forum. A good-sized crowd had gathered around a young man who stood atop the rostra, waving his tablet and shouting about some law with which he disagreed. A handful of Senators and their retinues lingered on the steps of the Comitium. Augurs and flamines and various temple caretakers in their traditional garb welcomed pilgrims to the Aedes Saturni and the Aedes Castores. A pair of industrial flitters buzzed overhead, massive chunks of marble clutched to their bellies. Smoke wafted gently from the dome of the Aedes Vestae. Camilla watched as an elderly couple approached the rounded temple; a lictor moved between them and the steps. A moment later, Portia descended, flames dancing in her palm.
Camilla hugged Lucia’s arm. “And Virgo Vestalis Tullia?”
The Maxima drew a ragged breath. “She has been dealt with in the traditional manner. Donata saw to it. Such a thing has not been done in — in centuries.” A long pause as Lucia seemed to curl in on herself. Then she shuddered, pushed back her shoulders, and gently withdrew from Camilla’s embrace. She moved across the room to her desk and slowly lowered herself into her chair. She dug through the tablets scattered there, glancing at one and then another; she neatly re-stacked them; all except for one, which she pushed towards the front of the desk.
Taking that as her cue, Camilla pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders and sank into the chair.
“How does it feel?” The Maxima gestured at Camilla’s bare head.
She ran a hand through her loose dark hair. “Strange. A bit uncomfortable, to be honest.”
The first hint of happiness returned to the Maxima’s face. “No doubt. But you will become used to it. After a while, you will forget what it felt like to wear a veil.”
Camilla did not want to disagree with the Maxima, so she simply folded her hands in her lap. Two days since the rite and her palms were still pink, burned from when she had dropped her veil into the hearth. She had felt a strange lightness, then, as if something was leaving her. And then the fire had hurt and she had hastily pulled her hands away.
“It was a beautiful ceremony,” Lucia continued. “The Goddess would not have taken your veil if she did not approve of your decision.” She dipped her head at the tablet she had placed in front of Camilla. “Your initial itinerary. Venus first, the main temple in Mons Murcia, and then the larger daughter temples in Urania, Rosa, and so on. I expect you will remain on Venus for some time.”
“Yes, Domina. And then?”
“Wherever you feel called to go. Or, if I should hear anything disturbing ….” Her voice trailed off again. The Maxima sat back in her chair. “If the Imperialists can corrupt one Vestal, they can corrupt another. And Vestals who have been approached or who know of a sister who has been — or who are simply concerned or unhappy or worried — are more likely to confide in one who understands the weight of their oath, who has worn the veil and tended the divine flame.”
Camilla picked up the tablet. “Gods willing, I will only hear quiet confessions of wanting to kiss the cute gardener or accidentally falling asleep beside the hearth.”
Lucia’s mouth twitched. “Gods willing,” she concurred. “And how is Lictor ben Gideon?”
Camilla felt a violent blush race up her neck and across her cheeks. “He is well. Thank you, Maxima, for assigning him to my guard.”
“Hmph. I didn’t assign him to anything. He volunteered. Maximus Jalair wanted to keep him here, but I persuaded him otherwise.” More of the color returned to her face and the lines around her eyes crinkled in happiness. “I hope that you will return and allow your sisters and I to stand as witness when you take your marriage vows?”
Camilla blushed harder. “We have not — that is — I am certain of my love for Micah, and I have no doubt of his love for me. But we still have so much to learn about one another. Likes and dislikes. Even little things like our favorite foods.” She paused, and the Maxima smiled, encouraging her to continue. “Traveling the Republic together will give us time, time to just be with one another, to learn about one another … to fall even more in love.”
He was waiting for her in the starport, his back to a sleek red and gold craft with sweeping wings. He stood straight, helmet tucked under his arm, titan-metal armor gleaming. The wounds on his face had healed and his dark curls danced softly in the wind.
He smiled when he saw her, his expression transforming from stoic to … to something close to giddy.
She felt a similar exhilaration in her belly and nearly tripped over her own feet.
Catching herself, she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and stopped in front of him. She looked up, he looked down. He caught the strand of hair and rubbed it between his gloved fingers.
“It’s … I’m still getting used to it.”
He grinned. “As am I. But I think I’ll like it.”
And then he bent his head down and their lips touched and his kiss was even sweeter than she remembered.
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. She has been published in a variety of venues, and a complete list of her publications can be found here. If you would like to read more stories of the Eternal Republic, check out “Rust” in Galactic Goddesses (Fantasia Divinity).]