Palladius and Ravan were chatting quietly over their shared love of tlachtli. Behind them, Niobe snorted loudly — which led to an animated three-way discussion of techniques, teams, ball density, awards, rankings, and assorted other things that did not interest him.
From the corner of his eye, he saw the Vestal trying to suppress a giggle. She caught his look and laughed out loud.
She pressed fingers to her lips, blushing slightly. She leaned closer, whispering, “My apologies, but they sound exactly like Aemilia and Ruolan.”
“Virgo Vestalis Aemilia …?”
“Mmm. You wouldn’t know it to look at her, but she is passionate about tlachtli. She grew up in Tenochtitlan and her brother actually plays in one of the city’s leagues.” She tilted her head. “It is not a sport that interests you?”
“Ah, no. The ships in our collective were small. Wrestling, martial sports, knife throwing — ”
“Knife throwing? Are you any good? Oh, I’m sorry. That sounded insulting.”
“He’s very good,” Ravan offered from behind them, grinning wide. Micah rolled his eyes as Palladius chuckled and Ravan continued, “He can hit a bullseye the size of a dove’s egg at fifty paces. Pretty sure that’s what got him a spot among the Me’a.”
The Vestal’s eyes widened. “You are one of the One Hundred? That isimpressive.”
Heat spread up his neck again. “It is — I — not the knife throwing. That is not among the tests for the Me’a. If you must know, it was the camel race.” They were all looking at him expectantly, Niobe’s lips quirked up in an amused smile. She knew this story, and if he did not tell it, she probably would … and make him look much more heroic in the telling, just to see him blush and stutter. He sighed. “Training for the competition is difficult, as the tests change every generation. Three of them are drawn randomly from a sacred vase kept in the Beit HaMikdash HaSheni, the great temple in Jerusalem. The high priest drew knowledge of tradition, archery, and camel racing. I tested well enough in the first to continue on to the second. My archery skills were not exemplary, so I barely continued on to the third test.”
He paused, feeling her eyes on him.
Niobe leaned forward. “The camel race …,” she goaded.
“Well, now I must know what happened.” The Vestal turned in her seat, her attention focused on him.
“I came in last.”
She blinked. “Last.”
“One of the other riders was injured and fell off her camel. I stopped to help her, tied her to her mount, and led her to the finish. The high priest and the Sanhedrin ruled that I had shown compassion and true wisdom, that I exemplified the honor and self-sacrifice of the Me’a.”
“And so you are one of the One Hundred, chosen to serve the Republic and maintain the peace between the Republic and the people of Israel.”
He gave a curt nod, eyes dropping to the floor.
Micah suppressed a start when her fingers lightly touched the back of his gloved hand.
“Then I am doubly honored, for not only do I have the four finest lictores escorting me to Venus, but also one of the Me’a.”
And if Micah had not already been in love with her, he would have fallen in love with her then.
[End Part Five. Continue to Part Six.]
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published poems and stories can be found there.]