“… just whispers and rumors, nothing solid. It’s frustrating. Maddening, even.”
Micah nodded as he followed along beside Maximus Jalair, eyes constantly scanning the enclosed starport. The walls rose five stories on all sides, cutting them off from the rest of Roma and forming a rough rectangle. Lictores from various divisions patrolled along the top while maintenance crews fiddled with the half-dozen craft that filled the yard.
He shifted his helmet to his other arm, tracing the curve of a cheek plate with his fingers. “So the explosion on Io last month …?”
“Oh, that was Imperialists.” Jalair nodded, beads clicking. “Word is beginning to leak out that it was not a disaffected miner, as was originally reported. We caught one of their cell, but she is proving uncooperative. That’s the deepest they’ve struck inside the Republic since the Valentia Insurgency.”
Micah looked up as they reached the Virgo Secunda. Small for an intrastellar craft, but sleek and beautiful. The ramp was down, the two pilots already inside and prepping the ship. A handful of technicians wandered around and beneath the craft, checking and rechecking systems and fuel and the body of the ship as a whole.
“I admit, Dominus, that I fail to understand how a man who has been dead for nearly twenty years could still have acolytes.”
“Hhn. Taras was mad, but he was charismatic. And there will always be those who believe they have the right to rule absolutely over others, law and tradition and human dignity be damned.”
The doors on the far side of the field opened and Niobe stepped into view. Through the clutter of ships and technicians, Micah saw her pause, short pike resting against her shoulder, and look around. She gave a sharp nod and Virgo Vestalis Camilla emerged.
Micah’s breath caught.
She moved smoothly, elegantly, seeming to glide across the ground. Her plain white dress, falling to her ankles, brushed against her legs and hips, offering hints of the curves beneath. Her veil rippled in the wind, pressed flat against her chest and face one moment, swirling away the next.
Palladius and Ravan flanked her to either side, knives and swords and rifles strapped to their bodies.
The small party reached them and the virgin smiled at him through the fine cloth.
Micah’s tongue failed him. Again.
Tilting his head in respect, he gestured for the priestess to proceed him into the ship.
Her smile wavered as she looked up at the Virgo Secunda. Her eyes widened and he caught the faintest tremble in her hands as she lifted her skirt.
“You have nothing to fear, Domina,” he blurted.
She turned back to him and this time her smile was firmer, more certain. “Thank you, Lictor.” She dipped her head towards Jalair. “Lictor Maximus.” And then she slipped up the ramp and through the door, the three guards following.
Micah made to follow them, but a touch to his shoulder stopped him.
Jalair’s eyes were grave as he regarded the lictor for a long moment. “I have no evidence of Imperialist involvement in this matter, but … it’s them. I know it’s them. The pilots have already been instructed to fly dark and off the main routes to reach Venus. Escort craft will be waiting for you as soon as you hit the atmosphere. No communication until then.”
“May your God and all the Gods and ancestors keep you safe, Micah.”
With a last nod, he boarded the ship, sealing the ramp behind him.
The Virgo Secunda was a pleasure and courier craft, meant to carry Maxima Lucia on short jaunts to the lunar cities or one of the inner planets. It was not designed with four heavily-armed lictores in mind: the cockpit was tiny; the six passenger seats were spaced closely together; the kitchen consisted of a cooler, a heater, and a cabinet with a few prepared meals; and the bathroom was just wide enough for him to squeeze inside with his armor, but not his swords or pistols.
But it was fast and maneuverable, even in atmosphere, radiated little heat, and left virtually no chem trail, making it difficult to track.
A good ship for a covert mission.
“Lictor ben Gideon?”
“Yes. Yes, Domina, I beg your pardon.”
Within the relative privacy of the Secunda, the Vestal had dropped her veil around her shoulders. She sat across from him, tendrils of black hair curling out from beneath the edges of her head covering. The white dress gave her light brown skin an almost coppery glow. The corners of her eyes crinkled as she grinned at him, but there was still the faintest tint of fear in their depths.
“I asked if you had ever been to Venus.”
She waited, brows drawn together in an inquisitive expression.
“Io,” he finally answered, forcing his tongue to work. “Europa. Ganymede.”
“You’re from the moons of Iuppiter?”
“Originally. My family was part of a trading collective. We returned to Terra Mater when I was fifteen and settled outside Jerusal — ”
“Domina, lictores, please standby for departure.” The pilot’s voice echoed through the compartment.
From the corner of his eye, Micah saw Camilla’s hands clutch at her dress. Her smile was gone.
He leaned over, catching the scent of woodsmoke and flowers that seemed to follow her everywhere. “I have traveled in many ships, Domina. The Secunda will get you to Venus.”
She bit her lip, silent for a long moment. Around them, the ship vibrated as the atmo-engines warmed. “I have not left the temple for twenty years. Not since I took my vows. This is a new and … unnerving experience for me.”
“My first experience of Terra was the same,” he admitted. “It was too bright, too loud, too warm. I hid in my room for the first month.”
She swallowed and nodded.
The vibrations grew stronger as the atmo-engines kicked in and the ship rose vertically up from the field. Up and up it lifted. Micah swiped a hand across the bulkhead to his right. A flat projection appeared, showing the wall of the starport. He slid his finger towards the front of the Virgo Secundaand the scene shifted, showing the pilots’ view.
Roma spread out before them: the Forum, the temple of Iuppiter high atop the Capitoline, the glimmering Tiber snaking between the hills, the columned buildings lit in gold and blue and red.
Higher still, the ship slipping forward and then angling up. Steeper, the night sky surrounding them. The moon was a fat crescent, sparks marking the cities scattered across its surface.
A whoomp and Micah was shoved back in his seat.
From the corner of his eye, he saw the Vestal clutching the arms of her seat.
He did something then that he was never supposed to do. He reached across the space between them and touched her hand. She immediately twisted her fingers around and threaded them through his.
He could feel the heat of Vesta’s fire even through his gloves.
With a shudder, the ship left the atmosphere. Micah looked over at the screen as the last of the blue-white bled away and dark spread out around them.
Another hard kick as the atmo-engines cut off and the stellar drive powered up, pushing the ship out of orbit, pushing against the gravitational pull of Terra Mater.
“We are clear of the planet. Time to destination: nineteen hours, seventeen minutes standard.”
With a long, slow exhalation, the Vestal sank down in her seat. She closed her eyes, fingers opening and closing around his hand. Eventually, she slid them free and cupped them gracefully in her lap. “Thank you, Micah. That was very kind.”
Heat spread up his neck, and his tongue failed him again. He stammered, “No kindness, Domina. My duty.” He cleared his throat nervously and turned his attention to the front of the ship, clutching his helmet in his lap.
Nineteen hours ….
[End Part Four. Continue to Part Five.]
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published poetry and fiction can be found there.]