As the evening progressed, the Forum slowly emptied. Ben Gideon and his comrades continued their slow patrol around the Aedes Vestae and Camilla kept her watch, swept the floor, and dusted the columns.
Twice she was called away from the flames: once to bless a newly-wed couple about to leave for their new home on Titan, and once to bless a newborn. Smiling, she lifted a handful of flame from the hearth, descended the steps, and passed it over the young couple and the infant. The baby gurgled and kicked his feet and spit up some of his lunch. His embarrassed parents stuttered an apology, but Camilla only laughed and tickled his chin.
Now, as midnight neared, only she and her three lictores remained, along with a handful of augurs chatting on the steps of the temple of Saturn as they watched the stars and birds.
Gathering her skirts, Camilla moved to the outer edge of the columns, expecting to see Portia and her lictores exiting the apartments. But there was no sign of her.
Camilla continued to wait.
Tapping her foot, Camilla motioned over the lictor. “Ben Gideon.”
He stopped in front of her at the bottom of the steps, one hand casually resting on the pistol at his hip.“Domina?”
“Could you please find — ah, never mind.”
Across the forum, Portia hastened towards her with unseemly speed, skirts lifted high, her lictores marching to keep up. Slightly breathless, Portia stopped at the bottom step, touching her hand to her breast.
“Salve, sister. I have answered Vesta’s call and come to tend her flame.”
“Salve, sister,” Camilla replied. “I have done my duty to Vesta and the Republic, and now leave her flame in your charge.”
Portia trotted up the steps and leaned forward, her green eyes wide. “Maxima requests your presence and that of Lictor ben Gideon immediately. I don’t — ” She licked her lips, leaned closer, and dropped her voice. Camilla had to strain to hear her words, even in the silence of the forum. “Something terrible has happened.”
Camilla frowned, her heart beginning to thump in her chest. “What? Portia, what is it?”
But the other Vestal only shook her head. Biting her lip, Portia disappeared among the columns.
Mouth dry, Camilla cast an uncertain glance at ben Gideon. His expression beneath his helmet was calm. Controlled. Carefully free of worry. He only raised a dark eyebrow, then turned on his heel and led her down the white marble path.
Fear. The air in the Vestal apartments was thick with anxiety and uncertainty.
It was there, in the hunched shoulders and quickened steps of the servants, the sideways glances and stiff backs of the lictores, and the complete absence of any Vestals. Anywhere. Not a flash of a white veil.
The other two lictores peeled away and, as ben Gideon led her through the hallways, she could hear rising voices. They grew louder the closer they drew to the Maxima’s office. Two of the high priestess’ personal lictores stood outside the door. At Camilla and ben Gideon’s approach, one turned to knock at the door and then pushed it open.
The voices stopped.
Camilla crossed the threshold, touching her hand to her heart. She barely heard the door close behind her as Maxima Lucia stood and the other nine Vestals turned to look at her, their expressions varying from angry to frightened to … jealous? Chief Lictor Jalair stood off to the side, helmet tucked under his arm. The metal beads woven into his long black beard glinted in the light.
“Camilla, the hearth fire in the Aedes Vestae Veneris in Mons Murcia has been extinguished.”
Camilla gaped at the high priestess and her sister Vestals. “The — the fire? Vesta’s fire?”
The Maxima lifted her chin. “Yes. Donata called me as soon as it happened. At this time, we do not know if the flame’s extinction was an unfortunate accident, deliberate blasphemy, or a sign from the Goddess herself.” She smoothed her gown and sat again. “All of the Vestals at the temple in Mons Murcia are being questioned, as are the lictores, the servants … everyone. In the meanwhile, the fire must be relit. For it to remain extinguished ….”
“Vesta’s fire is a sign of the Gods’ favor,” Camilla whispered. “It unites every citizen of the Republic to every other citizen.”
Aemilia’s voice was equally low as she spoke, curled up in a chair in front of the Maxima’s desk. “Not just the Gods’ favor, but their love for us, too. Every marriage, every child, every death is blessed by Vesta’s flames.”
“Camilla, you will carry the flame to Venus. We wi — ”
Her head reared up. “I?” she exclaimed.
“You.” The Maxima’s eyebrows drew down in a frown and the lines around her mouth deepened. “We will perform the rite immediately and you will depart within the hour.” Her gaze turned to the side, focusing on the man behind Camilla. “Lictor Maximus Jalair and I are in agreement, Lictor ben Gideon. You will accompany her, along with lictores Niobe, Palladius, and Ravan. If this was deliberate ….” Her voice trailed off.
Ben Gideon stepped forward. His only answer was to drop to one knee and press his fist to his chest, head bowed.
[End Part Two. Continue to Part Three.]
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published works can be found there.]