[The Roman Republic has spread throughout the solar system. But Imperialists lie in wait, preparing to strike ….]
“And this will bring her? You’re certain?”
“Of course I’m certain. You have my payment?”
“What? But — ”
“The rest when we have the Vestal.”
“ … And what will you do with her when you have her?”
“Well … I should think that would be obvious.”
“Camilla. Camilla, dear, have you heard anything that I have said?”
“Hm?” Drawing her veil tighter around her shoulders, Camilla tried to turn her attention from the Forum to Maxima Lucia. She enjoyed the view from this room, more so than the one from her own bedroom; there she could only look down on the gardens. Beautiful, yes, but she would rather watch the Forum. Late afternoon light slanted across the square, casting long shadows. A small crowd had gathered around an old woman who stood atop the rostra, waving her hands and shouting about some law or injustice, and a few of the people were nodding in sympathy. Senators and their retinues hurried up and down the steps of the great Comitium on the far side. Augurs and flamines and assorted temple caretakers in their traditional toga and laena milled about the steps and porticoes of the Aedes Saturni and the Aedes Castores. An industrial flitter buzzed overhead, a massive chunk of marble clutched against its belly. Camilla craned her neck, pressing her cheek to the glass to watch as it disappeared beyond the Forum, up the Mons Capitolinus to the massive temple of Iovis Optimi Maximi.
Sighing, she turned her gaze back to the heaving, colorful crowd and the gleaming, round Aedes Vestae in the center of the courtyard. The hearth’s dancing flames were just visible through the rings of delicate columns that held up its domed roof.
She had been tending that fire since she was eleven years old. It had given birth to every flame that burned in every hearth in every Aedes Vestae throughout the solar system. A chain of fire that linked every citizen, every city, every world to the flame at the heart of the Republic itself.
“Camilla, you are drifting away again.”
She huffed an exasperated sigh at herself. “My apologies, Maxima.” Gathering up the hem of her robes, Camilla resolutely turned her back on the Forum and crossed the room to sit in front of the older woman.
The Maxima tapped away at a tablet, four more scattered across her finely carved desk. A tray of half-eaten cheese and fruit and hardboiled eggs sat near one edge, threatening to fall off. Her graying hair was beginning to slip from its braid. Here, in the Vestals’ private apartments, her clothing was informal — just a plain white dress, floor length, long sleeved, and a white shawl that she could repurpose as a veil if needed — but she carried herself with no less dignity or authority than if this had been the formal opening rite of the Senatus Maximus.
The high priestess set aside her tablet, the screen going black before Camilla could see what was on it (not that she would ever have the nerve to peek). Searing blues eyes — the eyes of one who had spent decades tending the holy flame — settled on Camilla. “As I was saying, you are nearing the end of your dedication. You have faithfully served the twenty years required of you as a priestess of Vesta. So, you have a choice to make, as does every Vestal who reaches this point.”
“Retire, or renew my vows.”
“Yes.” The Maxima nodded gravely, the laughter lines in her mahogany skin turning down in seriousness. “Have you come to a decision?”
Camilla swallowed. “No, Maxima, I have not.”
“Ah.” The high priestess nodded. She settled back in her chair, hands folded neatly in her lap. “The anniversary of your dedication is next month. You will need to have decided by then: do you burn your veil or take it up again for the rest of your life?” Her expression gentled. “For some, it is an easy decision. Others find their heart pulling them in different directions at the same time. I do not envy you the difficult choice that you must make.”
“Very well, then. I believe that your watch is coming up. Let me know when you have decided and I will plan the rite accordingly.”
“Yes, Maxima.” Camilla stood, touched her hand to her chest in farewell, and quickly made her way back to her rooms. She nodded to a few of the other Vestals and the various servants and armored lictores as she passed them in the hall, distracted by the older woman’s words. Her heart was, indeed, pulling her in different directions; many different directions.
She shoved open the door to her apartment, tossing aside her shawl as she pushed through the next set of doors to her bedroom. This — this — was all that she had known for twenty years. This small quiet space of devotion and beauty at the center of a vast and ancient Republic, filled with billions of souls scattered across half-a-dozen planets and dozens of moons and hundreds of space stations and asteroids; merchants and poets and farmers and soldiers and pilots and explorers living out there, doing grand and great things out there, seeing grand and great things out there while she …
… she remained here, in this safe and quiet sanctuary, warmed by the love of a Goddess and her sister Vestals.
Camilla felt her stomach drop. The shudders started at the bottoms of her feet and climbed up her body. She clasped her arms tight across her torso, staring blindly out at the garden.
Twenty years since her mother had been murdered. Her mother and hundreds of other mothers and fathers and children and teachers and priests and —
She dropped onto the window bench, legs shaking too badly to hold her upright.
No one had expected the Imperialists to strike in Valentia in the middle of a feast for Minerva. The schools had been emptied, the streets filled with parents and teachers and students who tossed flowers and seeds towards the statue of the Goddess as it was paraded around the city.
But they had struck, crashing a flitter packed with explosives into a crowded boulevard.
And then another.
All because a madman thought that he should rule in place of the Senate.
Camilla inhaled sharply, trying to quiet the shudders that threatened to tear her body apart.
That madman was fifteen years dead now, his followers executed or imprisoned or hunted to the frozen edges of the system where they could only look on in helpless greed and anger as the Republic continued, thrived, blessed by the Gods.
And she was here, safe and —
A knock at the outer doors.
Camilla bolted upright, praying that she had not screamed in fright.
“Domina? Your watch is about to begin.”
A voice. Male. She knew that voice. The lictor. Yes, that was right. Lictor Micah ben Gideon.
“One moment,” she called out. She heard her voice shaking and flinched.
“Domina? Are you well?”
“Yes! Yes, just a moment.” She ripped her dress over her head, threw open the door of her wardrobe, and hastily pulled out her formal robes. Long-sleeved white body suit, covering her from ankle to throat. White head covering, tucked into the suit. Loose white gown, tied with a white cord immediately below her breasts. Transparent white veil draped loosely over her head, reaching nearly to her elbows.
She frantically shoved errant strands of hair under the head covering as she made for the door, then realized that she had forgotten her slippers. Swearing under her breath, she ran back into her bedroom, grabbed the shoes from the wardrobe, and pulled them on one at a time as she hopped awkwardly towards the door.
Lictor ben Gideon had his fist raised to knock again when she yanked the door open. A pair of titan-metal swords crossed behind his shoulders and a pistol rested on his hip. Blue highlights edged his protective white bodysuit, the strips of his white leather skirt, and the seams of his titan-metal vambraces, greaves, and molded cuirass.
A pair of junior lictores hovered a few steps away, looking uncertain, their pikes resting on the floor.
One dark eyebrow quirked, disappearing beneath his silver helmet, bright blue horse hair plume arcing over it. He dropped the fist to his chest. “Domina.”
She tipped her head in greeting. “Lictor.”
Without a backward glance, ben Gideon turned and led the way towards the front of the building. Camilla fell in step immediately behind him, the other two lictores flanking her. Silently, the titan-metal of their greaves and vambraces not making so much as a squeak, they escorted her through the winding hallways to the front doors.
A second pair of lictores pushed open the heavy metal and wood doors at their approach. The bright orange-yellow light of dusk flooded the hallway. Camilla closed her eyes as she stepped through, giving herself a moment to adjust, to center, as she descended the well-worn steps. She opened her eyes when she reached the bottom, following Lictor ben Gideon along the white marble path that led from the Vestals’ apartments and offices to the temple in the center of the Forum.
The crowds parted before her, some cheering, some saluting, some just staring in awe. She kept her focus straight ahead, on the temple and Aemilia, three lictores already prepared to escort the other Vestal back to the apartments.
Ben Gideon stopped and moved to the side as they reached the bottom step of the round temple, saluting the three other guards. Camilla lifted her skirt, shoulders back, and ascended the dozen steps towards Aemilia. The young Vestal offered her an uncertain smile, barely visible through her veil.
“Salve, sister.” Camilla touched her heart. “I have answered Vesta’s call and come to tend her flame.”
“Salve, sister,” Aemilia returned the formal exchange. “I have done my duty to Vesta and the Republic, and now leave her flame in your charge.” With a last uncertain smile, the young woman scampered down the steps, was surrounded by her lictores, and made her way down the marble path.
Weaving between the thin pillars, Camilla slowly circled the central hearth, embedded in the marble floor and framed by polished black stones. There, the fire burned unceasing and without need of wood or other fuel; a holy flame, it twisted and danced against the bare marble. The entire floor of the temple was clean of dirt and smudges, and a handful of flat pillows were neatly stacked against one pillar beside a broom and some dusting cloths.
Satisfied that Aemilia had performed her duty, Camilla reverently approached the hearth. Kneeling on the hard stone, she pressed a hand to the middle of her chest. “Vesta, my heart is yours.”
Then she reached into the fire.
The warm flame curled around her hand, slipped between her fingers, and slid up to her wrist. She lifted her hand, watching the pale blue flame for long moments. Sighing, contentment filling her body, doubts driven away, Camilla returned the fire to the hearth and settled in for her night’s watch.
[End Part One. Continue to Part Two.]
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published works can be found there.]