Twenty families stood in the courtyard in front of Vesta's temple, with citizens gathered around to watch. On the dias stood the Governor, Uncle Octavius, with the white and red robed Vestales nearby.
Her twin brother Felis clung tightly to her hand. Not Vita, not Vita, not Vita, she could hear him thinking.
We'll still hear each other, she reminded him.
What if we don't? What if Vesta stops it?
She won't. She's the goddess of hearth and home and family.
But what if she does anyway?
Vita didn't answer. Felis wouldn't stop worrying, no matter what she said. If she was chosen, she would serve thirty years. One decade as student, one decade as servant, one decade as teacher. Vestal Flavia had just finished her third decade, and was standing next to Uncle Octavius, ready to relinquish her duties to the girl who was about to be chosen.
Please not Vita.
Vita wasn't afraid. Her parents and her uncle had spoken to her about it, and Vestal Flavia had as well. She understood what was expected if she was chosen. Vestal Flavia had answered all of her questions.
Please please not Vita.
The Vestal lifted the glass bowl, containing twenty tiles, and Vita's uncle put his hand into the bowl. He drew a tile and Vita suddenly knew by the way his shoulders moved sightly that it was her name on the tile and that...
... you think he didn't want you to be chosen? Why would he let your name go in the lots?
"Vita Aemilia," he read as he pointed directly at Vita.
I don't know! He said it was an honour! Vita kept her face calm, despite her panic. She wouldn't bring shame to her Uncle at such an important event.
Are you sure he didn't want you?
Her Uncle was stepping down off the dais, moving towards her. She kept her eyes on him even as her mother was leaning down to hug and kiss her, and her father was accepting the congratulations of others.
His shoulders slumped a little. The way they do when he gets bad news.
I don't want you to go!
"I take you, Vita, to be a Vestal priestess, who will carry out sacred rites which it is the law for a Vestal priestess to perform on behalf of the Thessalonikian people, on the same terms as her who was a Vestal 'on the best terms'" Her Uncle said. He took her by the hand.
Vita turned to her twin, who still gripped her other hand, and kissed him.
I'll always be with you. Let go, Felis.
Finally, reluctantly, he did, and then he clung to his mother and cried.
Vita had invited Rugal to reach into her mind to share the memory of her captio, her "capture" as a Vestalis, but she ended it here. The memory of Felis's pain was too strong - and too similar to what had just occurred - to relive it again. Rugal recognized this and pulled her closer physically while withdrawing from her mentally.
"They had to carry him home, because he wouldn't stop crying or looking through my eyes," Vita said. "He didn't stop until I was led into the temple and felt Vesta's protection descend on me. He didn't believe until that moment that she would allow us to stay bound."
"I can understand why your Uncle wouldn't have wanted you chosen. I wouldn't want such a thing done to a child I cared for. But why did he allow you to be a candidate at all?"
"It must have been for political reasons. It would have looked bad if he had not been willing to commit his niece to the service of the city. Even so, I was given the opportunity to refuse. They would not have entered my name without my consent."
"You understood what the vows entailed? At that age?" Rugal asked.
Vita laughed ruefully. "No. Of course not. How can a child of eight understand celibacy, or have a grasp of how long three decades really is? All I really understood was obedience and duty."
It was too much to ask of you.
Felis, go back to sleep.
You took the vows to protect the city, but now you are an exile. All your vows are doing is keeping you from happiness.
"You're frowning," Rugal said.
"Felis wants me to repudiate my vows to be with you." Vita said.
Rugal ran the back of his fingers along her cheek. "You know I won't ask that of you."
"I know," Vita said. "That is why I love you."