By: April Hladis
Copyright June 2002
Warning: There is a measure of violence and a disturbing scene involving a corpse. If close relations between women are not your cup of tea do avoid this story.
Disclaimer: This is an original piece of fiction. All individual personalities contained in this story were created by me and bear no resemblance to X & G in any way shape or form.
A little intro: Well, it's been ages since I've posted anything new, till now. I wanted to move away from fan fiction and concentrate on characters of my own. The idea came to me from reading a very old book I found, (1855) called "The Testimony of an Escaped Novice" by Josephine Bunkleya wonderful book if you can find the unabridged version.
I've dipped a toe into the waters of Original Fiction. I hope I shall please with this modest offering :)
Comments? Questions? email@example.com
Very little documentation remains, yet the Vestal Virgins did indeed exist in Roman antiquity from 715 B.C. to A.D. 394. Six female disciples, at times vastly varying in age as one passed on and another came into the fold, made up this unique society. These women, carrying out their daily and seasonal rituals, were believed to be responsible for the success and well being of Rome.
Each Vestal was carefully selected from many applicants. Between the age of six and ten years old, a young girl was removed from her blood relatives and placed into this private circle. This child had to be free of any blemish, or imperfection in bodya perfect, lovely little girl.
For the next thirty years of her life she served faithfully, and without question, in all the tasks and ceremonies expected of her. Her servitude of thirty years was divided into 3 segments: the first ten years were the years of study, the next ten years were to put this study into practice, and their remaining years were set aside to teach the younger ones.
When a Vestal's thirty years were faithfully served, she had the choice to marry, though this was frowned upon by Roman society. The majority of these women opted to stay in the order; there is no evidence that this was a forced decision. She was perhaps more comfortable, after so many years spent in servitude, to remain with her fellow sisters in familiar surroundings.
If it were ever discovered that a Vestal strayed from her strict vows of chastity...well, her life would most certainly be terminated. This transgression was taken as a sign of ill fortune to befall their prosperous city of Rome. A pontifical court, made up of twelve pontiffs (priests), took little time to act upon such a drastic situation; the suspect would be imprisoned, tried and then with much pomp buried alive. Once the offending Vestal was disposed of, Rome breathed a heavy sigh of relief and could go about their normal daily lives again.
In 1,109 years of devotion to their unique duties only 22 Vestal Virgins were thought to be false to their vows. Of these 18 were put to death in the prescribed method mentioned above, 2 committed suicide, 1 was seduced by Nero, (her punishment, if any, is not recorded), and another became Heliogabalus' Empress; she died in A.D. 255.
Obviously, absolute virtue and devotion to duty was demanded of a Vestal Virgin at all times. In return she was allowed a measure of freedom and showered with profound reverence from one and all.
Yet, who were these women (most of them unknown) who dedicated, and in some cases gave up their lives to Vesta, goddess of the hearth? What thoughts or desires did they have?
As individuals, their lives remain for the most part a mystery.
"What is there in all Rome, so sacred and venerable
as the Vestal Virgins, to whose care alone the
preservation of the eternal fire is committed?"
The tiniest of breezes raised a light chorus of tinkling chimes that echoed sweetly through a concealed, leaf-strewn courtyard. Early morning sunshine had just begun to peek through its lazily swaying olive tree branches. Soon this ever-intensifying daylight will splash across the flowering garden below and dance about in tangled fragments of golden lace.
Bordering on either side of the garden stood five separate living quarters. A sixth dwelling, that offered a larger suite of rooms, remained somewhat aloof from the other more modest accommodations. It favored the loftier company of an enormous study that housed thousands of documents. These papers varied in importance and were entrusted into the care of the High Priestess and Elderess of Vestals, Carpeia Flavia.
In stark contrast to this peaceful setting a dark, towering, moss-covered stone wall surrounded the entire private community. The barrier was, of course, not assembled to keep the residents of the Atrium Vestae in; it had been built to keep the more curious out.
A pair of ancient hinges steadily groaned in squeaky agony as one of the inhabitants of this secluded society pushed open her bedroom door. Elegantly dressed in white flowing robes, a young woman eagerly stepped forward.
Delia, just entering her eleventh year of service to the Goddess of the hearth, reverently clasped her hands together in prayer.
"Noble Vesta, goddess of the hearth," she began softly, "protect us from harm, help to keep us content in the performance of our duties and may I prove worthy to serve you all of my days."
As Delia was about to close her door she saw Phyllis and Evadne, the youngest members of the community, running very quickly across the courtyard. Both girls' heads were topped with bright coppery red hair that sparkled in the light. They could almost be mistaken for twins if it weren't for the two years difference in their ages.
"Good day little imps," Delia called out before catching up to them, "Shall we be on our way?"
Giggling, the two children held out their small delicate hands for Delia to take and all three skipped down to the main gated entrance.
Frostily observing this trio of boisterous merrymakers from her chamber window, Elderess of Vestals, Carpeia Flavia frowned in their direction.
"What a dinagain! " Carpeia murmured contemptuously under her breath.
It was just the other day that the Elderess found Delia humming, rather loudly, as she raked leaves in their cloistered yard.
"Stop that preposterous noise at once!" the Elderess called out, much louder than intended.
Startled, Delia accidentally dropped the long handled rake-like tool she was holding.
"Elderess...?" Delia replied while quickly picking up her fallen rake.
Carpeia advanced towards the younger woman and hovered imperiously over her.
"With each passing season you have become more and more irritating," she announced in a modulated tone, "Is it too much to expect you perform your duties quietly child?"
Delia kept her large violet eyes focused on the ground in the manner expected of a Vestal of lower rank and tried not to smile. Carpeia doubtless had a bit too much wine the previous evening and now nursed an aching head.
"But surely a cheerful demeanor during the carrying out of one's labor brings us closer to our devotion?" Delia offered respectfully.
Carpeia glared down at her from beneath a formal veil of senior station. Delia stood at a conveniently lower height to notice some of the Elderess's premature gray hair escaping from that veil.
"If these odious affectations persist, I will have to report your ridiculous conduct to the Pontifex. Do I make myself clear?"
This disturbing threat forced Delia to look up and into Carpeia's narrowed blue gaze. From the expression on the Elderess's face, Delia was sure this woman would have preferred to carry out the punishment herself. However, their strict laws forbade anyone other than the Pontifex Maximus to render a penalty.
"Of course Elderess," Delia answered gazing down again, "I heed your warning and will be more vigilant in future."
Delia knew in her heart how important it was to present an admirable example to the younger disciples and tried hard to curb her natural gaiety...well, while Carpeia was close by anyway.
Having finished reprimanding her underling, Carpeia turned and walked away little suspecting that a mischievous pink tongue pointed rudely at her back.
Carpeia remembered this incident with growing displeasure only because Delia made her lose her tempersomething that she rarely allowed to happen.
"A mere two days ago," Carpeia muttered to herself aloud.
With these few words her attention immediately returned to the present. Delia was obviously bordering on disobedience and Carpeia quietly vowed to keep a wary eye on her.
"Oh please, may I open the temple gates today?" Phyllis asked excitedly.
"No Phyllis, she promised that I could open them," Evadne protested.
Delia smiled down at the girls and instantly poured her energy into a spirited imitation of Carpeia; complete with folded arms and an exaggerated expression of superiority on her face.
"A Vestal never begs for favors child," Delia purposely lingered long on this last word, "she waits to be invited," she then swept Evadne up and swung her around till both fell laughing onto the plush spongy grass.
Not far away from this lively scene, the brilliant whiteness of their newly restored circular temple sparkled in the sun. Its numerous marble columns resembled long pale arms stretching up towards a cloudless turquoise sky.
"Behold little ones, and observe yon unequaled phenomenon!" Delia said pointing towards the columned building, "Our most illustrious Elderess has personally cleansed each and every segment of stone to immaculate perfection... with her tongue," all three giggled merrily in the warmth of the sun.
Though she laughed and appeared reckless at times, Delia deeply respected the majesty of this hallowed tract of land. Even the life-sized sculptures of bygone prominent Vestals flanking the round structure seemed to emanate an inner glow. Delia's absolute favorite among these honored marble images was the statue of Hypatia Silvanus. Not only did it appear to be the most animated; it's where she always arranged to meet
"Still corrupting the innocent I see!"
Heavenly as ever, Victoria had gracefully strolled up a low hill and was heading towards the carefree troop. Delia sighed at this vision of loveliness and for a moment, she thought the wind had caught Victoria's long flowing gown. It seemed to billow about her in a soft cloud of white; though there wasn't enough of a breeze that day to turn a single blade of grass.
"Yes, and I'm having a rather good time at it. Care to join in?" Delia asked, patting the empty space next to her.
"It isn't proper to caper about on the ground. Shouldn't we be busily engaged in our sacred duties?"
Victoria wore her customary expression of composed solemnity firmly fixed on her angelic face. During their many years of living together in a sheltered community, Delia became quite adept at guessing whether her friend was serious or not. She could see from the slight crinkle about the eyes that her fellow novice was kidding.
Victoria dropped lazily down beside them on the green clearing; almost immediately Phyllis and Evadne tackled her. Both girls grabbed the unsuspecting woman around the waist and neck holding her down in a tight grip.
"Great Gorgons! You lion cubs are strong!" she exclaimed then struggled a bit, but not vigorously enough to actually escape the energetic pair.
Delia coolly eyed the playful battle without a hint of concern.
"Hmmmm...I do believe they have gained an advantage," she ever so casually informed her weighed down colleague, "It appears you are done for my sweet."
"The life is nearly squeezed from my body!" Victoria called out pretending extreme torment, "Won't someone please save me?!"
"Oh, I wouldn't think of breaking up such a tender display of affection," Delia nearly snorted from holding down a chuckle.
"Go ahead and laugh," Victoria jokingly grumbled, "you're not the one ensnared by these two wild beasts."
Delia grinned from ear to ear.
"Well, it serves you right my sweet; invoking foreign deities so near Her temple. Have you no regard for our Goddess's feelings?"
Victoria tried several times to get up only to be dragged down again. Delia snickered quietly and finally took pity on her friend's plight; she clapped her hands sharply to get the rambunctious children's attention.
"Sisters! It is time to open the gates!"
Delia unfastened then held out the bronze key that had been tied to a braided cord around her waist.
"Here Evadne," she said while handing her the key, "you unlock the gate and Phyllis you push it open, but do it slowly... all right?"
While Evadne solemnly received the sacred metal object, Delia wondered briefly if this small child could manage the heavy locking mechanism. With such tiny hands, it seemed impossible. However, from the fiery look in Evadne's dark determined eyes nothing would stop the eager young girl from accomplishing her task; also Phyllis would be there to assistif need be.
As the two little maidens excitedly ran up the temple steps, Delia helped Victoria to her feet.
"Do you remember the first time we opened the temple gates together?" Victoria asked as she straightened her clothes and fussed with the thin metal band that kept her golden hair in place.
"I do indeed," Delia interrupted Victoria's lively activity by lightly touching her arm, "You are just as lovely now as you were then."
These unexpected compliments always made Victoria a bit uncomfortable. She never thought of herself as beautiful, but Delia reminded her often and in superbly embarrassing ways.
"Come along," Victoria said blushing a little, "we mustn't be caught talking so long in the open."
They wandered over to the western end of the circular building at a leisurely pace where Delia's preferred work of art could be found. Their former Elderess Hypatia Silvanus stood nobly erect under a tree; her left arm thrust forward in a grand gesture as if addressing a large crowd. She appeared at once striking and artistically exquisite in every detail.
Delia stepped onto her low bronze pedestal and pressed a hand flat against the polished white marble throat.
"Her stone feels as warm as flesh." Delia ran her fingers carefully over the delicate contours of the statue's glossy neck. "Hypatia seems so alive does she not? At times I believe she longs to speak."
"No doubt to voice disapproval," Victoria moved closer and covered Delia's hand with her own gently taking it away from its idealistic study, "Have you not noticed how her eyes follow us?"
"No, but if that is so then her mute gaze takes the place of spoken adulation. Your beauty dazzles us all, why not the great Hypatia as well?"
Delia raised Victoria's fingers up to her lips and kissed them as if they were the most precious things in the world. Victoria drew in a quick breath, but not from Delia's touch; she thought she saw the statue's serene brow change into an angry frown.
"Please my dear, let's away from here. Our silent witness makes me feel uneasy."
She pulled Delia anxiously off the black metal stand by her wrist towards the main entrance to their temple.
"Oh Victoria, if only you were as certain as I that our dear immortalized sister would not be against the affection we have for each other. I just know Hypatia would approve if she were still with us."
Victoria didn't agree with Delia's fanciful notion. She had the dubious pleasure of serving under the venerable high priestess when a very young girl. Hypatia Silvanus was an ill-tempered woman with a loathsome pastime, a pastime the former Elderess practiced on her.
Hypatia hardly measured up to the idealized portrait of perfection Delia had conjured up. Victoria would never disclose the truth to Delia; she didn't want to destroy her friend's romantic daydreams.
Phyllis and Evadne meanwhile had successfully unlocked the iron gates and entered the temple. When Delia and Victoria arrived, they found the two children patiently waiting inside for further instruction.
"Well young ladies, does the fire yet burn in yonder hearth? Is Rome and all its rich, bustling inhabitants to remain safe and sound for another day?" Delia asked while smiling down at them.
The children only stared up at her somewhat baffled; Victoria coolly took Delia aside.
"You oughtn't to joke about our sacred trust here. It might raise an ill wind to blow out the flame. One of us will be declared impure."
"Oh nonsense!" Delia replied swiftly moving away from Victoria, "All because of a little innocent mischief? No my sweet, Vesta is everything good and kind. I do not believe she'd cause any of us harm over such a triviality. I do not believe her to be unforgiving as Carpeia teaches us."
"It is quite interesting that you feel free to express this view...Delia isn't it?"
Lord Lucius Ladonis, the Pontifex Maximus had suddenly appeared behind them. All four Vestals turned to face him at once and bowed, hands crossed over their breast in respect for his superior status.
"My Lord," Delia answered politely.
Lord Ladonis stepped forward, his sumptuous purple and gold edged robes rustling noisily as he moved, his black eyes fixed firmly on Delia.
"Do you intend to write these incompetent thoughts of yours into the order?" he asked in a threatening tone.
Delia stood silent for a moment and could hear Victoria's anxious breaths puffing close behind her.
"My Lord, I meant no disrespect."
"Then I suggest you learn to hold your foolish tongue!"
The Pontifex briefly looked past Delia to leer at Victoria, the taller and most stunning of the residents he was in charge of. He unconsciously licked his thin pale lips at the thought of savoring this young morsel...
"Are we free to go Lord?" Victoria asked a bit distressed that she caught him staring at her again.
Without answering, Lord Ladonis leisurely made his way to the centerpiece that housed the sacred fire inside its elaborately adorned grating. There underneath the ornate protective screen covering was Vesta's eternal flame, glowing undisturbed and well fortified. He carefully slipped in a few pieces of sanctified coal, closed his eyes, and murmured a short inaudible prayer.
"Now you may proceed with your duties," he said without turning around.
Victoria quickly ushered the little ones out first; Delia immediately followed them outside. When they were far enough away from the temple Victoria whispered nervously in Delia's ear.
"Do you see how he stares at me?"
Delia stopped walking and turned to her friend.
"What do you mean? How does he look at you?"
Victoria lowered her gaze and wrung her hands together.
"Like someone who is dying of thirst."
The arduous task of hauling water twice a week from a neighboring well was just about the only strenuous work they were required to perform. Each day their living quarters and various shrines had to be purified by a ritual sprinkling of water.
Delia headed the weary group trudging sluggishly back from the spring. She balanced a large terra-cotta water jar upon her hip; Victoria carried one close in front of her. Phyllis and Evadne shared the weight of a full jar between them.
"There is a possibility that Carpeia will ask the Pontifex to release our wraith from her commitment. He may already be baiting the hook for another pupil," Delia stated in between panting breaths.
"It isn't nice to call our Sophia wraith. She can't help being ill."
As tired as she was, Victoria defended Sophia even though this always irritated Delia.
"I personally hope Carpeia is successful," Delia rambled on, partially ignoring Victoria's admonishment and struggling briefly with her awkward burden, "we could use another pair of hands with these."
"I for one would not attach too much weight to that."
Victoria smiled at her own unintentional pun and peeked over her heavy load to see if Delia noticed. She hadn't.
"Our Sophia barely carries out simple tasks as it is," Delia continued, "Lately she's not even well enough to lift a spoon let alone know what it's used for."
Poor Sophia. She was much too frail and disoriented to do more than occasionally tend the small garden in the courtyard. Other than her sporadic visits to their garden, Sophia was rarely seen by day spending most of the time in her room with the windows closed and covered. Her deathlike pallor and habit of creeping about late at night earned her the nickname "wraith" by at least three of her fellow boarders.
"Yes...she worries me terribly," Victoria shifted her load to get a better grip, "I fear Sophia might hurt herself during one of her spells."
"I doubt it. She'll probably just wither away in that dark room of hers one of these days."
Delia couldn't help being indifferent to Victoria's concern. She viewed Sophia as a liability, nothing more. Victoria couldn't argue with her friend's theory; plainly this is what was already starting to happen.
"It is not what one would have expected from the energetic person she once was. Don't you remember?"
Delia sighed. Victoria wanted to reminisce about someone she cared nothing about, but graciously went along with it.
"No, it was too long ago. Tell me what she used to be like."
Victoria slowed her labored stride and smiled, visibly recalling Sophia as a younger woman.
"Sophia was charming, devoted, strong; very different than the way she is now," the slight smile faded from Victoria's lips, "Then one day without any warning, she succumbed to a dreadful fit of madness. We had the very best physicians brought in to tend her. They could do nothing for it."
Victoria said nothing more as the memory of a younger Sophia occupied her thoughts.
The small group arrived back at the Temple a bit latedue to the unplanned length of their conversation. But no one was angrily waiting there to penalize them. As a rule, Carpeia didn't attend this routine function leaving it instead in the hands of Victoria to make sure all was executed properly.
The daily ritual "sprinkling" ceremony began with Vesta's temple, then the shrine of Mercury, and ending with their living quarters. Making this assignment even more difficult was the fact that these heavy water jars could not be placed upon the ground; to do so was considered an impurity.
In order to ease their burden, each jar would have to be lifted up and fitted into special receptacles placed in various key areas. Dried palm fronds were also left conveniently in tall baskets everywhere to aid in carrying out this practice. Delia set her jar into one of the four bulky bronze receptacles that stood near the bottom step for this purpose and Victoria followed suit.
"Here little ones," Victoria announced taking out two thin branches from a basket and handing one to each child, "you may cleanse the temple for Vesta today. The water isn't too heavy for you, is it?"
"No, not at all!" Came the unanimous response.
"Very good my dears. Be careful now, don't douse the flame."
Feeling very important Evadne and Phyllis neatly dipped their branches into the water jar they were holding. Chanting a prayer and fluttering the wet palm fronds in an arc from right to left, left to right they made their way slowly up the temple steps.
"Waters of Neptune,
From pools fresh and clean
Cast out yon imperfections,
Make pure all flaws unseen."
Delia smiled after them.
"They are coming along so well. Are we to keep an eye on our girls?"
Phyllis and Evadne's words echoed clearly inside the great temple hall and out through the open gates:
"Waters of Neptune..."
"Give the children a few more moments on their own. They should feel that we trust them."
"Cast out yon imperfections..."
Their voices faded slightly as they moved further into the building. Victoria put a finger to her lips then started climbing discreetly up the stairs mindful not to make noise while doing it. She signaled Delia to follow and soon both women were standing somewhat concealed on each side of the entranceway.
"...From pools fresh and clean..."
The girl's voices grew louder as they neared the exit.
"Make pure all flaws unseen."
Not being immediately noticed by the preoccupied maidens, Victoria and Delia accidentally received a ceremonial "sprinkle" in their facesDelia having gotten most of the splash.
"Alas, I am drowned!" Delia declared feigning exasperation.
Phyllis exploded in laughter and the other two joined in the fun.
An all too familiar lilting voice suddenly called to her from far away breaking up their short-lived high spirits.
Way off in the distance she could see Carpeia, an official conveyance borne by two huge men and Aristes, a lictor who preceded the small party carrying a fasces.bound with bright red silk cord. The cortege may have been small, but it was grand. The bearers wore gold-bordered white tunics with a matching gold band around their curled tresses.
Aristes was a slight man with thinning black hair, but he looked just as splendid and courtly in his gold-bordered bright white toga. He headed up the group carrying their symbol of importance like a fragile relic in his arms.
Victoria quickly took up the end of her gown and briskly mopped Delia's face dry before Carpeia was close enough to be aware of anything amiss.
"Do you suppose she heard us laughing?" Delia inquired softly, "I dread her lengthy lectures."
"Not to worry my dear, we were too far away. I believe she has something else in mind."
The procession made speedy progress; they came to a stop next to the temple steps. The brawny bearers then slowly lowered their burden to the grassy earth. Lagging behind, Carpeia hurried up the rest of the way waving a bulky leather envelope in Delia's direction.
"Delia, I have an urgent task for you," the Elderess announced crisply, "You are to take these documents immediately to Silenus Darius. He is to meet you at Pan's fountain in Rome."
Carpeia handed Delia the black pouch filled with important papers.
"Naturally, a dignified air is required of you; the gentleman's father passed on five days ago. See that you conduct yourself in an appropriate fashionif you possibly can!"
Delia just stared ahead, rolling one phrase over and over in her head.
'...At Pan's fountain in Rome?'
'At Pan's fountain in Rome!'
She was completely mesmerized. After those few, wonderful words were spoken Delia didn't hear anything else that followed.
She wanted to sing with joy! But hid her exhilarated feelings from the Elderess' fierce gaze and let her heart do all the warbling it wanted to from within.
Aristes came forward gallantly holding out his arm to help her into the flamboyantly decorated litter.
"Am I awake?" Delia whispered excitedly to Aristes as Carpeia took her leave down the hill.
"Well, I could pinch you to make certain, Delia darling," he whispered back, "but I would surely be put to death for my trouble."
Delia cupped her hand over her mouth to suppress a laugh that wanted dearly to escape.
The citizens of Rome smiled and nodded greetings, as Delia's small parade passed them by on the main street. An official visit from a Vestal was always a special event in the city and considered a sign of good luck.
"Aristes!" Delia called out in a rasping whisper.
Her faithful escort slowed his step so that he was walking alongside her conveyance.
"Is there something wrong my dear?"
"Oh no, I would just like to walk the rest of the way."
Aristes tapped the forward bearer on the shoulder to get his attention.
"Mmmmm...exquisite," he said patting the fellow's huge muscular arm again, this time lingering there a bit longer, "Our mistress prefers to walk."
The procession came to a smooth stop and Delia stepped out of the carriage aided once more by Aristes' free arm.
"Wait for us here," he said motioning to the men and then turned to Delia, "Shall we be off?"
"Lead the way!" Delia walked behind her escort, as was custom, not too fast and very dignified.
Rome was alive with activity as its residents went about there daily routine. Splendid homes of varying size and affluence nearly crowded out the main avenues and side streets. Aristes strolled ahead of Delia with a special flair brandishing his fasces for all to admire. Delia tried not to act like an excited tourist and retain a dignified air of a Vestal, but she was too overwhelmed by the sights and sounds. Her visits to Rome had been few and quite far between.
Silenus Darius, a middle aged elegant looking gentleman, was already waiting patiently for Delia to arrive at the appointed landmark in town. 'Pan's fountain' as everyone called it was merely a small bronze statue of a faun. He stood on one leg in an elaborately decorated marble basin with water spouting from his flute. The only outstanding feature about this structure was its heightnearly ten feet tall from base to the tip of its faun's horns. Nevertheless, Delia was as eager to be there as she would've been to meet Silenus Darius inside Caesar's illustrious palace.
"Yes. I am here to receive my father's will entrusted to the noble Vestal's care."
Satisfied with this answer, Aristes stepped aside and let Delia pass. She handed the leather bound packet of papers to Silenus.
"We extend our deepest sorrow to you on this sad occasion. Blessings upon your house, sir."
Curious passers-by had overheard their private exchange and collected into a small gathering to see what was going on.
Delia looked about and smiled graciously at this group.
"...Blessings upon all," she motioned grandly to the crowd.
"A-a-a-h!" they all sighed in one voice.
"Thank you. I must take my leave now. Blessings upon you and your sisters dear lady," Silenus Darius bowed to Delia then turned and walked away through the gathered onlookers with the envelope tucked under his arm. Aristes elegantly signaled the masses to stand aside and the small group reverently parted neatly to let them pass.
Victoria called softly, knocked on the ailing woman's door then opened it carefully. She entered carrying a small urn under her arm sprinkling water about and reciting the cleansing prayer:
"Waters of Neptune,
From pools fresh and---"
"There is a monstrosity you have all missed."
From inside the darkened room Victoria could just make out Sophia sprawled across a cot. Her head dangled upside down over the side face up with lusterless eyes gazing at her visitor.
"Excuse me?" Victoria asked a little shaken.
"There is a monstrosity you have all missed!" Sophia said a little louder.
Victoria nervously went back to her duties without answering.
"Waters of Neptune,
From pools fresh and clean...."
"Have you become just like the others, Vitria?" Sophia asked in a very desolate voice, "You don't believe me. No one believes me."
It had been ages since Sophia addressed her by that old pet name. It used to please; now it only made her sad. Victoria walked over and sat down on the edge of the bed.
"Sophia, please tell me what is poisoning your mind so that I can do something for you."
She helped Sophia sit up.
"You want to relieve my agony do you?" Sophia asked quietly.
"Yes dear, very much."
"THEN PURIFY ME!"
She roughly grabbed the urn from Victoria and deliberately soaked herself with the remaining water.
"Oh Sophia, look what you've done!"
Sophia sat quietly examining the spilt liquid's effects.
"You see Vitria," Sophia said holding up the ends of her sopping wet gown, "it doesn't work. Nothing can make me clean again...nothing...ever...will."
"Are we to leave for home right away?" Delia asked her escort.
Aristes glanced suspiciously over his shoulder at Delia.
"Why does your question suddenly worry me?"
Up ahead a handsome chariot with two horses securely harnessed sat tethered to a wooden post in front of an inn. Delia eyed it longingly.
"Well, I only ask because I want to know if there is time for a short ride."
Aristes looked at the chariot farther off, then at Delia.
"Have you taken leave of your senses? It is simply too dangerous!"
"Oh please Aristes, I promise to be very careful."
"After all these years you do not trust me?" she asked angelically.
"Alas, I do not my precious."
Ignoring his cautionary tone, Delia took his arm and directed him towards the inn.
"Just ask the owner for one short turn around the avenue and we shall go home immediately afterward, yes?"
Aristes looked into her sparkling lilac eyes and could refuse her nothing. He smiled then walked through the inn's entrance.
After her chores, Victoria decided to speak to the Elderess about Sophia's disturbing behavior. She neared the grand private suite that was used only during daylight hours. This is where Carpeia personally sorted, categorized and presided over endless stacks of important and semi-important documents. Countless wills, deeds, promissory notes, bills of sale, birth records, anything that a person needed to entrust for safekeeping would be methodically arranged on variously labeled shelves that lined the high walls.
Victoria paused in the open doorway calmly waiting for Carpeia to recognize her before being invited to enter. The Elderess sat at a long desk poring over a pile of papers in front of her. She knew a member of the order wanted to speak with her, but she always delayed looking up purposely to teach the subordinates patience.
At last, Carpeia took notice of her unofficial second in authority; Sophia being somewhat under the weather as always.
"Who is there?" Carpeia asked as she carefully leafed through some yellowing documents.
"It is I Elderess, Victoria, who requests an audience with you."
Victoria was well schooled in her twenty-one years of service. All of the formal response and inquiry phrases required of a lower placed Vestal were permanently inscribed on her brain. Carpeia, who was a stickler about such things, would only recognize these perfectly performed sentences.
"Enter," the Elderess declared haughtily.
Victoria walked into the room and stood before Carpeia hands folded one on top of the other above her waist.
"Elderess, I have come to speak of Sophia's health. She is unwell today."
"As she is each and every day! Is her condition a sudden revelation to you?" Carpeia shot back in a biting tone, "Do get to the point girl."
Victoria wobbled slightly in place from the unexpected show of bad temper. Could it be that Carpeia cared deeply about Sophia's illness and was merely expressing her frustration? Victoria studied her superior's icy unsympathetic blue eyes for a few moments.
No, her outburst did not come from that source. Carpeia turned her attention back to the papers in front of her on the desk.
"I am concerned that Sophia might cause great harm to herself."
Carpeia glanced up again from her paperwork with a wry smile curling one corner of her mouth.
"That would be the most practical road for our sister to take. Do you not agree?"
Victoria could hardly believe the unkind words she was hearing. She cautiously moved a little closer to Carpeia's desk.
"I respectfully beg to differ Elderess. Sophia requires close observation. Perhaps I was not entirely clear in my last statement."
Victoria paused half expecting Carpeia to say something to interrupt her, but this didn't happen. Victoria resumed her entreaty.
"I am afraid that Sophia may take her own life."
Carpeia suddenly turned her attention back to the stack of papers.
"That situation will sort itself out. Now, if you have quite finished I am very busy."
"But Elderess, if you could have seen her--"
Carpeia stood up and leaned heavily on the desk in front of her. The color in the Elderess's face deepened to a harsh reddish hue; her brows knitted into a highly agitated frown.
"I am very busy and you are wasting my time!"
Aristes emerged straight away with the owner of the fine horse-drawn vehicle.
"This delightful gentleman has informed me that he would be honored to drive you anywhere you wish to go."
Delia smiled her most gracious smile and accompanied the owner to his chariotjust out of her chaperone's hearing. Aristes saw that his charge would be well taken care of and decided to get a cool drink at the inn.
"Don't be long now," Aristes called to her before disappearing through the plain arched doorway.
Delia nodded and waved after him then continued her conversation with the owner.
"I should like to drive your wonderful vehicle alone..." she said boarding the chariot.
She plucked a long whip from its holder on the left and held onto the handrail at her right. The owner smiled and didn't feel reluctant in the least to let Delia go alone. After all, in his opinion, the Gods were already protecting her.
"Nestor and Pelios are good beasts my lady. Flick the whip over their heads to start them off and pull back hard on the reins to stop. A light tug on their reins left or right will guide them easily in either direction. Are you ready to go?"
Delia adjusted her shawl so that it wouldn't tangle and planted her sandaled feet slightly apart.
"I am ready!"
He untied the reins from the pole and handed them to her; Delia wound them securely around her forearm. A wild glint twinkled in her eyes as she flicked the whip loudly over the horse's heads.
The two dusky beasts fell half a pace backwards then sprang forward into action at an unexpectedly brisk rate. Delia was nearly pitched off the narrow platform but dropped her whip instead.
Aristes, in the meantime, sat quietly at a table where he rested his cherished fasces on a chair next to him. Some patrons stopped and were admiring it while engaging him in friendly conversation. A familiar face appeared once again in the tavern.
"Back so soon?" Aristes called to the man whom he'd just left talking to Delia.
"Back?" The owner of the chariot paused a moment wondering what Aristes was talking about, "Oh, I see! No we didn't go riding sir, that is I didn't go."
"Ah, she changed her mind then," Aristes said starting to get up.
"Not likely. The young lady is driving herself."
Galloping the matched pair through street after congested street, Delia made no attempt to slow down. Wildly steering the racing chariot left and right she made sharp turns with barely enough time to avoid disaster. People literally jumped out of her way and shook their fists as she sped by.
Never had Delia experienced such exhilaration before. Heart pounding like a hammer, she rounded the next corner a little too quickly; the chariot violently skidded left up onto the sidewalk, slamming its wheel against a low stone block wall. The force of impact made the vehicle bounce sideways into the dirt road again. Only momentarily slowed down it immediately began to pick up speed once more clearing a frenzied path down another side street on the way back to the inn.
"In which direction was she bound?"
Aristes and the unperturbed owner were now standing in the middle of a busy boulevard.
"That way," the man pointed calmly.
Aristes looked down a long avenue hand to forehead shielding his eyes from the afternoon sun.
"The coolness of your manner is most upsetting. Did I not make clear what the young woman's calling is?"
"She is a Vestal Virgin of course," he replied just as composed as before, "and therefore protected from harm."
Aristes gazed at him as if he were a simpleton.
"How fanciful of you my good man."
Raised voices clearly sounded in the distance. Soon a few people started running in different directions then a large crowd scattered as if a tidal wave were about to swallow them up. Delia promptly came into full view from a side street coming toward the two men at an incredible pace. She held the reins tight around each wrist; a stiff breeze tore at her hair. The once stark white robes Delia wore streamed furiously behind blending in well with the dirt road.
Aristes gaped wide-eyed at this thing coming at him with a kind of terrified awe. He wanted to flee for his life, but was rooted to the spot. The owner of the rapidly approaching vehicle just stood next to Aristes grinning.
The chariot was nearly upon the two men when Delia yanked on the reins with all her might. It spun midway to the right and came to a rough stop in a huge cloud of brownish dust. She hopped down and handed the reins back to their master who led his panting animals away.
Aristes walked up to his wayward charge, a hand poised smartly on hip.
"I suppose you are quite satisfied with yourself now?" he asked narrowing his eyes at her.
Delia was an absolute mess. Her carefully braided hazelnut hair had come undone, her garments were ragged and smeared with kicked up dirt from the road, and she'd lost one of her sandals. In answer, Delia smiled sweetly at Aristes and took his arm.
It didn't take Victoria long to excuse herself and back out of the study. Not quite as gracefully as one would have wishedshe tripped slightly on the raised wood plank across the threshold.
Once outside, Victoria shook her head in disbelief. Was Carpeia really cruel enough to let Sophia languish in her misery? She could always take up this situation with the Pontifex...but no. Victoria couldn't do that; she was too afraid of him.
"Delia, I'll discuss it with Delia when she returns."
Victoria walked back to Sophia's room to check on her again. She knocked softly on her door causing it to smoothly swing inward on its own.
The small band headed briskly home and with each step Aristes didn't let up on reprimanding Delia.
"...It isn't becoming to risk your life in such an undignified fashion. Don't you realize that little escapade of yours will surely get back to Carpeia? You might at least have given some thought to me whilst running over the good citizens of Rome."
"I didn't run anyone over."
"That is not the point Delia dear," Aristes huffed trying to maintain his patience, "I'll have a great deal of difficulty trying to explain it all away. The Elderess will surely want my head for this mess. By the by, have I remembered to thank you in advance?"
Delia stifled an intense urge to giggle.
"Fear not my friend," she said reaching out of her moving conveyance and touching his shoulder solemnly, "if Carpeia comes wielding her ax I promise to protect you."
It was this comical image of her own making that made Delia laugh out loud.
"You may snort all you wish young lady. I just might hold you to that promise!"
"I sense your mind is elsewhere Lucius."
"Is that so?"
Lord Ladonis took hold of Carpeia's face between his hands and drew her into another passionate kiss; she soon pushed away from him.
"Yes, and now I am certain of it."
At her statement, Carpeia was left to sit alone on her richly cushioned couch. Lord Ladonis had gotten up and strolled gracefully to the window that faced their flowering garden.
"Why bother me with your anemic passion?" she continued, "Half a heart's worth is next to nothing."
The Pontifex didn't answer right away. He glanced through her flowing window curtains and caught a passing glimpse of Sophia's door across the courtyard. It closed awkwardly as if Sophia knew she was being observed.
"Very well, you've made your point. Why don't we discuss your problem with Sophia instead?" he said still looking in the closed door's direction.
"Sophia grows worse each day I am told," she briefly reflected back on Victoria reporting Sophia's condition to her earlier; it worsened the Elderess's mood, "I would prefer her elusive presence to be a thing of the past."
Lord Ladonis turned away from the window and took his seat once again next to Carpeia. He stared at his companion with a weary expression on his face.
"How can I release the woman from her holy alliance with our order? You know the reason why she could not possibly be trusted on her own."
Carpeia shifted slightly and removed a cushion that had become uncomfortable then tossed it on the ground.
"There is no need to remind me. I am well aware of Sophia's...shall we say usefulness to us all these years," she leaned forward to emphasize her next statement, "Have you seen what she has turned into? Do you know what some of the others call her?"
"Wraith, I believe," he answered massaging the bridge of his nose.
"Just so," she said grabbing his wrist and pulling his hand from its drowsy activity, "and precisely why she must leave us. If Sophia begins raving to those few that elect to listen, who would believe her?"
"No, it is too much of a risk," Carpeia threw his hand away disgustedly. He stood up slowly and went to pour the both of them some wine. "People are more superstitious than you think; they listen to the deranged all too often."
Lord Ladonis held up an elegant porcelain wine decanter in Carpeia's direction and she nodded a speedy 'yes.'
"Something needs to be done about her. She has an unsettling influence on our community...on me."
Lord Ladonis walked back carrying a gold goblet in each hand and passed one to Carpeia.
"It is best her fate, like ours, be played out at destiny's pleasure--not before."
After sipping economically at the wine, Carpeia settled back into large green cushions and allowed the potent mixture to gradually flow into her bloodstream. Lord Ladonis kneeled down to catch the tilting goblet from her hand.
Ignoring the weak stream of wine spilling down, Carpeia grasped the back of his neck drawing him to her hungry mouth.
"There was a time when you thought differently, my love," she purred, "As you know, waiting is not my strong point."
Victoria entered Sophia's room. On the bed and scattered about the floor were shredded pieces of white cloth that she guessed had once been distinctive Vestal attire. Not far away, Sophia stood naked in a dim corner of the room; red hair wildly undone and flowing every which way, face haggard.
The madness that glimmered in Sophia's dark eyes frightened Victoria. It was times like this that made it difficult to recall them as once being placid and kind. She wanted to run out of there and bolt the door tight behind her. This creature left inside the locked room need never be seen or heard of again.
"I have been thinking," Sophia began abruptly and advanced toward Victoria, "I would like a new oil lamp for my grave. It has been said that old tarnished ones are supplied to the condemned. It is a disgrace, don't you think?"
Victoria opened her mouth to speak but nothing came out; she hadn't realized she'd been involuntarily holding her breath.
"I am entitled a new lamp with enough light to guide me on my overdue journey! Surely," Sophia continued, "my rightful punishment is taking longer than expected."
Sophia came to an unsteady halt in front of Victoria. Her head was cocked to one side as if waiting for an answer.
"My dear, you must get dressed," Victoria frantically searched her brain for something relevant, something meaningful that would distract Sophia from these sick fancies, "It is nearly time to inspect the garden."
Not a very original idea, but the only one that might make sense to her.
Sophia stepped back; an enormous smile parted her dry lips.
"Ah, of course...the garden," she giggled; bordering on the hysterical, "Mustn't forget the garden!"
She stumbled to a wooden chest on the floor next to her window and lifted the lid. Carefully folded inside was a new ceremonial tunic that Sophia promptly pulled out. It was beautiful, even in the semi-darkness. Standing erect again, she held the lustrous silver and black embroidered garment against her bare body.
"This ordinary rag is best suited for gardening, wouldn't you say?"
Not knowing what else to do Victoria helped Sophia to dress then walked her towards the door. Sophia looked weirdly regal outfitted in this formal costume. Victoria then peeked outside to make sure no one was around. Not a sound; the others were probably readying for the evening meal. Supporting the sickly woman under a very thin arm, she shuffled slowly to their lovely garden in the square.
Sophia stopped to kneel down near a bed of yellow crocus.
"Aren't they glorious?" she asked while caressing the firm petals, "The foulness isn't as noticeable with my beauties decorating them is it?"
"Yes, the flowers are quite nice," Victoria replied reassuringly but mystified as to what Sophia was talking about, "Wouldn't you like to take a few for your room?"
Sophia shoved Victoria out of the way and hovered protectively over the flowerbed shielding it partially with her body.
"Please Sophia, the others will hear you." Victoria whispered.
"Yes..." Sophia said trying desperately to collect her thoughts, "...the others."
Carpeia ensnared her stocky companion's leg firmly between her thighs.
"You see how my favorite wine made you come to your senses at last..."
The Elderess weaved her fingers through his thick brownish hair as she briefly met his lips.
"It is almost time we went our separate ways for the evening," Lord Ladonis whispered while seeking another kiss.
"Mmmmmmm," he sighed.
"Any complaints?" Carpeia murmured.
"None, but for the fact that our meetings lately are fleeting at best."
Carpeia rubbed her supple body against him in a leisurely rhythm as her mouth joined his again...it took Sophia's unexpected screaming to break them apart.
"Curse that damn woman!" Carpeia gasped.
"Oh, I think the Gods have seen to it already dearest."
Lucius Ladonis casually readjusted his robes and stood up to sneak a quick look out of the Elderess's bedroom window.
"Ah, I see our Victoria is caring after her."
He devoted a few extra seconds interest to his favorite subordinate in the courtyard.
"I'm sure you'd rather she be your Victoria, wouldn't you? How I detest that primping prude," Carpeia added bitingly.
Lord Ladonis turned his attention back to Carpeia's reclining unclad figure and smiled.
"I do believe you're jealous of our little beauty. You needn't be. My heart has always been yours."
After so many years he marveled at how beautiful Carpeia's body still was, and how it stirred him and satisfied his desires. Lucius lay down beside her again and she immediately coiled herself around his body.
"With all harsh feelings aside, you must admit Victoria is a ravishing delicacy," he sighed, "no doubt she would make an excellent third to spice our pairing. I'm sure you've given some thought to her intriguing potential?"
"Observant bastard," Carpeia warbled seductively.
She crushed her mouth into his smothering any possible response, owing of course that he had one.
"Who's there?" Delia cautiously called from the stone footpath.
The bearers had just deposited her outside the main gate and she was about to make her way across the courtyard.
"Shhhh! It's Victoria. Come and help."
Victoria waved her uneasy friend over. When Delia saw who was creating the upset she threw up her hands in disgust.
"Sophia! I might have guessed," Delia stated flatly and knelt down next to Victoria, "What is it this time?"
"Do exercise some compassion, Sophia is not herself at all today."
Delia coolly took in the situation before her.
"Just like every day..."
Victoria overpowered her with a piercing gray stare.
"Very well then, what can I do to assist you?" Delia inquired half-heartedly.
"Help me bring Sophia to her room."
They lifted Sophia off the ground easily and started carrying the weakened woman back to her chamber.
"I know why you are being so good to me," Sophia announced, sounding fairly distressed, "You want to harm my beauties!"
She began to struggle against the firm hold on her.
"I won't let you do it!"
"What are you going on about?" Delia asked not expecting a ready answer, "You're not making any sense," adding, "as usual," under her breath.
"Sophia dear, we don't mean you or your little friends harm. We are just helping you back to bed."
Sophia burst into miserable tears.
"Yes, of course...I do realize that. I apologize."
"It's all right my dear. You're just a little confused, that's all."
"Humph," Delia sniffed, "only a little confused."
Victoria glared at Delia.
"Great Gorgons! It is hard enough to keep Sophia calm! Must you make silly comments?" Victoria didn't wait for an answer, "Come Sophia, we are nearly there."
Delia pushed open the chamber door and walked in sideways helping Victoria carry Sophia to her bed. They laid her down and covered her with a warm blanket; soon she was fast asleep. Victoria then looked at Delia and noticed the terrible condition her friend was in.
"Oh my! What happened to you?"
"Nothing much," Delia grinned impishly, "it got a bit windy in Rome, that's all."
"It must have been a tempest!" Victoria took Delia's hand and turned her slightly, "I dare say, you could do with a wash before dinner."
"Then perhaps a walk afterwards?" Delia quickly added.
Victoria smiled at the suggestion, though Delia didn't see it as a very happy smile. She often wondered what secret thoughts Victoria hid behind her somber gray eyes, but usually shrugged it off. This was a part of her friend's nature that Delia had long tried to figure out, but couldn't.
"Yes, that would be fine."
Victoria was still absently holding her hand. It was obvious that something deeply troubled her friend.
"I'm not really that hungry, are you?" Delia inquired gently.
"No, but we are expected to attend..."
Delia kissed Victoria's hand then left to bath and put on a clean white gown.
When she stepped outside again, early evening clouds had appeared overhead. Heavily scented flowers scattered about the courtyard saturated the warm air, and of course, an ever-present sound of light tinkling chimes. The absolute tranquility of their home was eerie at times, especially these milder nights.
Victoria was waiting for her nearby and they both walked into the dining hall togethernot hand in hand, as Delia would've preferred. Carpeia was about to begin the ceremonial blessing of their food.
"The next time you are this late," she said evenly, "you will both be barred from dinner for a week."
"I apologize, Elderess," the guilty pair answered in unison.
"Take your seats...Victoria, come sit next to me," Carpeia indicated the empty chair closest to her.
Victoria shuddered at the idea, but no one seemed to notice. She drew near and dutifully took a seat next to the Elderess.
"So," Carpeia began as she passed along a serving bowl filled with varieties of sliced fruit, "How fares our fairest of the fair tonight, hmmm?"
Victoria speared a small slice of pear in her plate and brought it to her lips oblivious to the Elderess's question.
"I'm addressing you Victoria."
She looked up to find Carpeia's full attention focused on her. Victoria nervously dropped her fork onto the floor.
"Now that was an inelegant thing to do," the Elderess, amused declared.
"I'm so sorry Elderess..." Victoria scrambled to collect the fallen flatware.
"Oh leave it, leave it child! Here have a clean one," Carpeia said handing her a fresh fork, "My goodness, you are in a state tonight."
When the Elderess smiled at Victoria the poor woman lost her new fork to the force of gravity too. She blushed deeply and miserably gazed down at the thing lying stupidly on the floor. Carpeia sighed heavily in mock concern.
"Observe Sisters how not to behave in public." the Elderess pointed out, "When asked a question one ought to answer to the best of one's ability. Apparently, Victoria has no best ability. Perhaps she has forgotten my question?"
Evadne and Phyllis giggled; Delia instantly left the table to get her very flustered friend another fork. She passed it to Victoria and in doing so upset the Elderess's wine goblet. The golden contents missed her gown, but splashed all over her frantically flailing feet.
"GET OUT, THE PAIR OF YOU!" she shrieked.
It was late in the evening when Delia met Victoria as she was coming out of a bedroom.
"I wanted to say goodnight to the girls before leaving," Victoria whispered, "They are fast asleep, poor things. The extra chores tired them earlier than usual I think."
Almost immediately Victoria wanted to take back her last sentence; it sounded as if she blamed Delia for the overload.
"I imagined it would be more difficult with my being sent to Rome and the wraith as useless as ever."
Delia saw that her friend didn't like what was said so she moved the subject along.
"Have you any idea what she meant by 'my beauties'?"
"Sophia always speaks of her crocus bed as if they were children. I believe she thought I wanted to take them," Victoria glanced around the square and lowered her voice even more, "We can't talk here."
Victoria grabbed Delia's hand then hurried across the courtyard. They rushed through the main gates and plodded a direct course to Delia's usual meeting place: the statue of Hypatia Silvanus. Delia followed Victoria's lead of silence up the long gloomy hill to their torch-lit temple. When they arrived at their destination, Victoria braced herself against a tree to catch her breath. With Hypatia's gloomy likeness looking down on them Delia waited anxiously to hear what could not be discussed back at their dwelling. Victoria nervously looked up at Hypatia's stony features. She could still feel the ugliness of that awful woman's touch so long ago...
"Carpeia has decided to do nothing about Sophia, absolutely nothing!" Victoria abruptly blurted out.
Unclear as to exactly what her friend was so upset about, Delia moved closer.
"But you've told me the best physicians had long ago been brought in from all over the"
"I tried to talk to her about Sophia's declining state this afternoon," Victoria interrupted, still out of breath, "Carpeia is willing to let Sophia perish, by self-inflicted violence if it comes to that."
"Perhaps the Elderess was in an unpleasant frame of mind when you spoke to her. I know first hand of her ill-humored moods."
"No Delia, this was quite different; she turned red as a berry and informed me that I was wasting her time," tears glistened in Victoria's eyes, "Sophia needs us now...more than ever. To turn away from her would bring a curse upon our sacred community."
Delia took her hand.
"What do you mean to do my sweet?"
Victoria looked away.
"The Pontifex must be petitioned, but I fear the man. He is Sophia's only hope."
Delia disliked Sophia and her deranged antics, but at the heart of the matter she was still a Vestal Virgin and Delia was obliged to assist a sister member.
"I'm not afraid of Lord Ladonis," she said gently patting Victoria's hand, "I will speak with him tomorrow on Sophia's behalf."
Victoria impulsively threw her arms around Delia.
"Bless you Delia," she stammered between tears of gratitude, "Bless you...many times."
Delia held her friend and prayed that her interview with the Pontifex wouldn't backfire on them all.
It was a fierce thunderclap that woke Delia from her heavenly dream. She yawned and left the comfortable warmth of her bed to look outside. A strong downpour had already formed many large puddles in and around the courtyard. Delia sighed; water would likely be getting in through open windows in the study and elsewhere. Dressing quickly she used her shawl as a cover and ran out into the pre-dawn rain.
A slight commotion caused her to stop in front of Sophia's door. She put her ear to it and heard muffled cries of distress from within. Delia took a deep breath and entered Sophia's room without knocking.
"They are drowning...drowning..." Sophia babbled almost incoherently.
On the bare floor the tortured woman sat, still dressed in her ceremonial gown. She was splattered with blood and dragged a fork slowly across the inside of her forearm.
In one bound Delia was on top of her, just managing to wrestle the sharp implement away and tossing it safely aside. For such a frail looking woman Delia was amazed at how strong Sophia could be in a fight.
Still breathing hard from the scuffle she carefully turned Sophia's injured arm over to see how much damage was done. In her madness, the woman had gouged her flesh in several deep rows from elbow to wrist. Delia hastily tore her shawl into long strips and began wrapping Sophia's mutilated limb.
"You have really sunk to the nethermost depths this time! Why did you do such a senseless thing?" Delia asked angrily.
Sophia wearily gazed up at her and smiled.
"The reason should be plain enough: I have no sense."
Delia almost laughed. In her brief moment of lucidity, Sophia chose to be witty.
"Very amusing," Delia stated dryly, "You realize there are easier ways to go about leaving our order. This isn't the most ingenious method."
Sophia looked on indifferently as Delia tied off a makeshift bandage then applied another.
"Will you see to them when I'm gone?"
Delia glanced up from the gruesome task; Sophia's glassy-eyed stare made her feel tense.
"What are you talking about?"
"My beauties, my children," she continued anxiously, "Will you see to them for me?"
Sophia started to pet Delia's cheek, but Delia recoiled from the unexpected contact.
"Children? Talk sense Sophia, you have no children."
A look of surprise flashed across Sophia's face, and then it relaxed into dull sadness again.
"Oh...you aren't supposed to know about that."
Delia's wariness had been aroused, but curiosity was stronger. She'd heard that mad people sometimes told a truth amongst the gibberish. This constantly wild concern for "children" was enough to make Delia want to probe a bit further.
"Maybe you could introduce me to these little beings one day soon?"
Sophia raised her eyes to meet Delia's. It appeared as though a small light suddenly danced in these otherwise dark spiritless spheres. Clearly, Sophia was pleased that someone had shown an interest.
"Yes, I would like very much for you to meet my beauties. I shall take you there myself."
Sophia stood up quickly and pulled the inquisitive attendant along with her.
"What...now? But I haven't finished binding your"
"Never mind," Sophia interrupted, "We aren't going far."
Blood smeared and sickly, Sophia barely managed to force Delia out of the room following close behind her. She pushed the younger woman into the driving rain towards her submerged and ruined crocus bed.
"Here we are," she announced sounding as if in a trance.
Sophia fell to her knees in the muck then began removing the bright yellow flowers one by one and depositing them on the marble path beside her. Then, placing the last drenched crocus with its equally sopping siblings, she sunk her hands deep into the soft mud. Delia watched her perform this task with growing impatience while sheets of water showered all around making it difficult to see. There didn't seem to be 'truth amongst the gibberish' this time.
"Please stop what you're doing Sophia, it serves no useful purpose."
As Delia was about to forcibly make the irrational woman stand, distinct shapes soon formed in the waterlogged earth. Sophia cleared away more and more wet soil until at last she lovingly removed the remaining layer of mud that covered these now recognizable figures as though folding back a warm blanket. A sickening odor wafted up from the overturned soil.
"Aren't they precious?" Sophia beamed, "I'm so proud of my brood."
The ghastly sight fixed Delia to the spot; three tiny human bodies in varying stages of decay lay side by side silently gazing up at her from their grave. Rain cascaded down on the small withered faces washing some of the remaining muddy residue away.
Slowly Delia rose then backed away from Sophia's hideous secret. At first a pitiful choking sound escaped from her throat then she paused. The brief interval passed in wild distortion as if this spectacle were taking place in a nightmare. All at once she felt a second wave of crushing emotion as she opened her mouth and screamed.
Delia turned and ran through the pouring rain nearly falling down twice; hysterically calling out to anyone in listening range. Before long she found herself propped up against Carpeia's apartment door trying frantically to collect her wits. The awful vision of what she had just witnessed repeated over and over until another scream violently rattled her vocal chords to their rupturing point.
Instantly the door opened inward causing Delia to lose her balance. She toppled forward landing hard at Carpeia's feet midway into her private hall.
"WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THIS?!" Carpeia shouted in extreme agitation.
Delia sputtered out an answer that was incoherent and anxiously embraced one of the Elderess's legs. Just then, Phyllis appeared at the entrance rubbing an eye and looking very sleepy.
"GET BACK TO YOUR ROOM AT ONCE!" she shouted at the young girl.
Phyllis spun around then quickly ran off. Carpeia liberated herself roughly from Delia's hold and stepped away.
"Stand up," she said aiming her icy attention at Delia, "I'll not tolerate any sniveling before me."
She did as she was ordered to do. With the help of Carpeia's sturdy doorframe Delia raised herself up out of the puddle she made on the elegantly tiled floor.
"T-t-the garden...look in the garden," she feebly stammered out and fell over in a dead faint.
"GET UP! GET UP!" Carpeia yelled and pushed at Delia's collapsed form with her foot.
Exasperated, she pulled the unconscious woman aside leaving her lying face down outside her door and hurried away to find Lord Ladonis.
Hearing raised voices Victoria hastened to the scene discovering her friend sprawled on the ground. She knelt beside Delia and rolled her over gently.
"Delia?" Victoria asked while lightly patting her cheek, "Delia speak to me..."
She gradually drifted back into consciousness. Finding Victoria looking down at her from above was temporarily confusing.
"Blessed be our Goddess!" Victoria exclaimed, "I thought we lost you!"
She took Delia into her arms completely overcome with relief, but Delia drew back from the fond embrace, her petrified violet eyes wildly darting about as if looking for something or someone.
"Where is Sophia?" she demanded in a tone Victoria had never heard until now.
"In her room as always. Why, what is the matter?" Victoria asked feeling a little hurt that her friend pulled away so abruptly.
"The obscenity," she answered in a thick scratchy voice, "in the garden...Sophia showed it to me."
Alarmed by these words Victoria let Delia go and sat up straight. Once released Delia immediately cowered against the wall shaking in her wet clothes.
"What is this? You're behaving as wildly as Sophia."
"It is a sign, I know it," Delia babbled frantically and pointed skyward, "We are all doomed!"
"Where is this thing? I'll go and see for myself."
Victoria made a move to get up but Delia tackled her back down.
"NO! YOU MUSTN'T LOOK AT IT!"
"Please Delia let me go, you're hurting me!"
Strong arms swiftly clamped around Delia's waist and she was unceremoniously hoisted away from Victoria.
"Calm yourself my child," The Pontifex stated quietly so that only she could hear him, "There is no need for histrionics."
He put Delia down, but held her firmly by the wrists.
"Now then, what is the upset?"
Delia collected herself somewhat and swallowed hard against the tightness in her throat.
"An obscenity is buried in Sophia's flowerbed."
"I will see to it," he smilingly reassured her, "The both of you wait here."
Lord Ladonis walked across the courtyard and seemed to search for anything that looked out of the ordinary. It had stopped raining and the sun was trying to break through a few sluggish storm clouds. Small puddles were scattered here and there; some deeper than others but aside from that most of the garden remained fairly intact.
"Come to me child," the Pontifex commanded, "Come look at the garden."
Delia was unwilling to obey; she backed up and found Victoria directly behind her.
"It's all right my dear," she said taking Delia gently by the hand, "We will go together."
Supporting her friend by the arm, Victoria helped Delia move toward the large patches of colorful flowers. When they got to the edge of the crocus bed, Victoria felt Delia tense up.
"No further please, I can't bear it!"
Victoria didn't have the heart to force her but the Pontifex did. He took Delia's hands and pulled her close to where he was standing.
"Look here child," he directed, "Is everything not in its right place?"
Terrified, Delia cautiously lowered her eyes to the ground. The grave had been filled in and the crocus blossoms were once again arranged as they used to beperfect and neatly grouped together.
"IMPOSSIBLE!" she shouted, "IT WAS RIGHT THERE, SOPHIA SHOWED IT TO ME!"
"BE STILL!" the Pontifex roared at Delia, then modulated his voice once more to address Victoria. "I suggest you convey our imaginative young disciple to her sacred responsibilities."
The look on Lord Ladonis's face was one of barely controlled fury. Victoria quickly led her away.
"My dear, you oughtn't to speak out with such passion," Victoria whispered, "It just isn't done."
Delia stopped walking to gaze coldly into Victoria's distressed steel gray eyes.
"You speak to me as if I were as addle brained as Sophia. No need to trouble yourself so, my sweet. I shall make every effort to conduct myself appropriately and coherently. Now if you'll excuse me"
Delia wrenched her arm from Victoria's grasp and vanished into her room to change her wet clothes.
In all her years living in the Atrium, Victoria had never been spoken to so harshly by anyone. As she stood on the marble path alone tears formed close to spilling over. Victoria didn't mean for her concern to come out in such an inferior way. It's just that Delia could be so emotionally undisciplinedwhich at times got her into trouble much too often.
"I hope it will never catch up with you."
While she was deep in thought a small hand slipped easily into hers. Evadne had been quietly watching Victoria's darkening expression with growing concern.
"Don't be sad," Evadne piped up gaily, "Vesta will forgive us for being late."
Victoria knelt down and enfolded the little girl in her arms.
Carpeia calmly went about her study arranging and rearranging papers as she always did during the morning hours. An eager tap on the doorframe instantly halted this tedious chore. Lord Ladonis swept into the room, quickly locking the door behind him.
"She knows," he announced gravely.
"Yes, I am quite aware of that," Carpeia admitted indifferently and continued sorting her papers.
"Well? What are we going to do about it?"
Carpeia placed a handful of documents into an orderly display on the desk and smiled at him.
"We let Delia make her choice."
Concentrating with all her might, Delia threw herself into the daily "cleansing" ritual in an attempt to keep the hideous image from returning. She even avoided the other's company, preferring instead to be left alone. Although traumatized, Delia was clearheaded enough to realize that things were not as normal as they appeared in the garden.
After finishing her duties at the temple, she made her way down to their living quarters. As usual, Delia balanced a heavy green ceramic jar filled with fresh spring water against her thigh.
"I know what I saw," she muttered under her breath, "I don't care what Lord Ladonis said. Three infants are buried in that garden."
When she arrived, Delia transferred some of the water to a smaller plain terra cotta container and began purifying Carpeia's rooms. She then proceeded to cleanse the sleeping chambers but something in the crocus patch diverted her attention. The usually firm yellow petals were browning at their edges and wilting. All the other flowers stood straight bright and healthy in the ground.
Delia walked directly up to Sophia's door; knocking before entering this time, she waited to be let in. Presently it opened; Sophia met her at the door wearing the same brightly decorated, but blood stained gown from the previous day. At first, Delia passed Sophia by without acknowledging her existence. Dipping her palm branch in the water, she began reciting their ceremonial prayer:
"Waters of Neptune,
From pools fresh and clean,"
"I have told Vitria what I think of this ritual," Sophia interjected, but failed to stop the incantation.
"Cast out yon imperfections
Make pure all flaws unseen."
She touched Delia's arm in a friendly way and smiled politely.
"I do apologize for this morning. My little ones aren't used to visitors; they are usually so well behaved."
Delia turned to face Sophia.
"You covered them up with earth again didn't you?" Delia asked bluntly.
Sophia was rather taken aback by this question and didn't know how to answer. Delia took a step towards her.
"And you also replanted those rain spoiled flowers as well, is this not so?"
"Y-yes, my beauties like them," she replied nervously.
"Now Sophia," Delia began evenly, "you must tell me how these children came to be buried in our garden."
"I...I can't tell you..."
Sophia moved away from her interrogator.
"Tell me to whom they belong!"
"They are mine," a fluid voice behind her caused Delia's head to whip round.
Smiling, Lord Lucius Ladonis strolled confidently into Sophia's darkened room.
"Yours? This cannot be"
"Yes it would seem," he laughed, "however that is all I am prepared to say at this time. The question now is what is to be done with you."
"Done with me? What do you mean?"
Delia was naive when it came to this sort of thing. The full impact eluded her. Lord Ladonis folded his arms across his meaty chest.
"My child!" he laughed again, "The whole situation rests on what you intend to do."
She considered his mildly intimidating tone for a few moments and was still unsure what he wanted.
"But I don't have the authority to act alone my Lord, it is for the Elderess to decide." Delia replied nervously.
"I see that I must explain further," Lord Ladonis sighed then slowly walked in a circle around her as he spoke, "Sophia, whom I had advised similarly a long time ago, has obviously erred by sharing a very private matter with you concerning me. The strain of guarding this confidential information for so long has unfortunately taken its toll on our dear sister," he placed a dubiously kind hand on Sophia's shoulder, but addressed Delia, "Perhaps you wouldn't mind tending her and in the process keep this new found knowledge to yourselfalone?"
A look of alarm washed over Delia's face. She quickly realized she was being asked to suppress the incident completely.
"If I did this thing you are suggesting my lord, I would surely become as she is. In clear conscience I do not believe I could carry out such a task," Delia gripped the handle on her water jug firmly and looked down, "I respectfully decline your offer."
"Need I stress the importance of keeping this information contained within these walls?"
Delia didn't look up; she only tightened her grip on the clay jug.
"My lord, I am not capable of providing the service you ask of me."
"Are you saying that you refuse to keep still on this matter? Weigh very carefully your answer my child. The future of a community member close at hand rests upon it."
Delia focused her eyes on the ground, this time the threat was not as veiled. The many devoted years of joyfully worshipping Vesta; her fondest memories mixed with present and departed members of their order all flashed before her.
"I will not be a participant in your obscenity."
What followed was a rustling of fine crisp robes then a searing blow to the side of her face. Delia fell hard against the opposite bedroom wall where she dropped to the ground with a dull thud. The terra cotta receptacle flew out of her hands and rolled across the floor trailing its spilled contents in a long wet stain.
Sophia gasped and raced to Delia's motionless form. Lord Ladonis however stood fixed to the spot, his perspiring face a mask of crimson rage.
"INSOLENCE!" he hissed through clenched teeth.
Sophia sat beside Delia trying with no success to wake her.
"Oh do get up," she called softly, "a Vestal never sleeps on the cold ground."
Lucius Ladonis stormed over to Delia and scooped her into his arms. Before leaving the room, he scowled at Sophia.
"Foolish women," the Pontifex declared, "and I the bigger fool in my weakness for them."
He left Sophia alone to ponder these last words and stepped briskly across the courtyard carrying his limp burden.
"Is Delia angry at us?"
Victoria looked down at Evadne and smoothed a few feathered strands of hair from the little girl's eyes.
"I don't think so dear; it is best not to disturb her. She needs some time on her own."
"Wouldn't she feel better in our company?" Phyllis asked excitedly from behind her.
Victoria turned around and took her by both hands.
"I can't speak for Delia," she said lowering herself to the child's level, "but I feel rather good in your company."
Phyllis hastily kissed her on the cheek and ran ahead with Evadne. Victoria watched them for a time skipping and laughing together on the path that led home. She followed them back to the Atrium and every once in a while returned a wave to the two girls. Although Victoria acted as if nothing was wrong in front of the children, she had been fretting about Delia all day. The rambling story her friend told her made little sense, yet it preyed on Victoria's mind just the same.
Lord Ladonis carried Delia into Carpeia's rooms and deposited her on a bare table. The Elderess lifted a dangling arm by the wrist and then let go. It flopped lazily back to its original position and swayed there gently from side to side.
"The child appears to be dead. Is she?"
The Pontifex cupped his palm close to Delia's mouth.
"No. Our newest pest is still with us."
"Ah, then she is merely a victim of your temper."
He answered this by exchanging an annoyed look with the Elderess.
"We have much to do," he said indicating a more comfortable area.
They left Delia laid out on the side table and went to sit together on a fluffy guest couch.
"I take it then that she would not cooperate?" Carpeia asked with bored curiosity.
"Yes. It is regrettable that the sacred flame has to blow out," he sighed.
Not sounding particularly shocked at this news Carpeia rested her chin on her hand and heaved a sigh along with him.
"Just so. One could almost predict a great calamity befalling a certain nuisance."
She coolly glanced over at Delia who shuddered only slightly but didn't wake up.
The empty green ceramic jar rested in its holder, properly covered and waiting for the next time it would be needed. Victoria had observed Delia using this vessel earlier in the day so she assumed her friend had returned. Victoria headed directly to Delia's room and lightly tapped on the door.
"Delia?" she called softly.
Victoria listened for an answer. Not getting one, she pressed on.
"Delia dear, may I come in and talk with you?"
She tapped on the door again and waited patiently.
"You are talking to the wind, child. Delia is out...on an errand."
Victoria spun around so clumsily that she nearly bumped into Carpeia
"Oh...I...I didn't know she had gone," Victoria said trying to recover some of her dignity.
"See for yourself," Carpeia pulled up the handle and pushed open the door to Delia's sunny room, "Quite empty."
"Has Delia been sent far?"
"Hmmmm...how inquisitive it is."
The Elderess's air of haughty amusement humiliated Victoria even more. Carpeia always had a withering effect on her and she wanted nothing more in that moment than to sink into the ground.
"If you really must know, she was sent to Rome."
This seemed quite extraordinary. Delia wasn't fit for another trip to Rome so soon after the ordeal she had that morning.
Victoria revealed her conflict with this decision plainly on her face.
"Do you feel that I have not acted in our sister's best interest?" the Elderess inquired.
Although the question was put diplomatically, Victoria knew that Carpeia wasn't inviting her to offer a different opinion.
"No, no of course not. I defer to your greater wisdom Elderess," Victoria lowered her gaze away from Carpeia's blue penetrating stare.
"I'm glad you approve."
Carpeia moved nearer and boldly took Victoria's mortified face between her hands. She leisurely studied every curve and texture of her subordinate's features.
"You're a very beautiful, woman," Carpeia mused, "Do you know how lovely you are?"
Victoria blushed deeply from the compliment, though she began to suspect that the Elderess had much too much wine to drink.
"You are very kind to think so, Elderess."
"Ahhhhh, modest too; well...quite a charming combination."
She walked Victoria leisurely backwards into Delia's empty room, all the while gently clasping her face. Carpeia's voice changed into a soft and alluring tone making Victoria as uncomfortable as intended.
"Are you ever lonely child?" Carpeia purred.
Smiling, the Elderess then pushed the door behind her; it closed with a light
"I...uh...no, not especially," Victoria answered jumping nervously from the sound.
Drawing as near to her captive's lips as possible without touching, Carpeia continued to closely admire every inch of Victoria's exquisite face.
"One is inclined to assume," Carpeia murmured in a breathy voice, "that a lovely head as devoid of original thought as yours, would naturally choose to gravitate towards the simpler pleasures."
Not waiting or caring for a reply, she lightly brushed her lips against Victoria's and kissed her. At first, this advance stunned her subordinate, but slowly she relaxed into its breathtaking spell.
Carpeia was right. Victoria didn't have deep revelations or views on anything. At heart she was only a plain thinking country girl with a rather limited imagination.
Inexperienced, Victoria could hardly compete with Carpeia's aggressive skill at lovemaking. In no time at all she was so thoroughly spellbound by the gentle onslaught of tender caresses she nearly swooned. Carpeia continued to tease and lightly touch Victoria's warm lips with her own; then kissed them more passionately. The torrential pleasure caught the younger woman completely off guard.
Stifled emotions were coaxed from a hidden store of desire she truly believed Hypatia had killed in her ages ago. Victoria tried to return the ardent caresses, but only came across as a rather fumbling, inept amateur.
Carpeia maneuvered her prey onto Delia's small bed flicking her tongue and kissing rhythmically along the creamy chiseled neck. She then worked her way down to Victoria's thinly covered breasts, lingering there ever so briefly. She continued downward to a slightly exposed hip then maddeningly nibbled at its firm flesh. Victoria's heart raced wildly out of control, her hands flailed about in vein to grab something to hold on to. For a moment, she was sure she would go insane from the concentrated desire bubbling between her thighs.
In a flash, Carpeia tore herself away from the heated embrace.
"That will do for now," she said pushing the gasping woman aside.
Victoria barely managed to catch her breath.
"Oh really my dear, it should be simple enough for your weak mentality to grasp," the Elderess replied blandly smoothing out her robes, "I am weary of this little diversion."
Victoria blinked in startled disbelief and she began to cry. Pleased with this reaction, Carpeia chuckled heartily at the show of confused tears.
"Gracious me! It has been ages since I amused myself with an innocent! I have forgotten how absurdly sensitive they are."
"But you kissed me..." Victoria meekly blurted out in her misery.
Carpeia roughly seized Victoria's damp and trembling chin.
"Yet, I never said I loved you. If you must know my child, I've loathed you these many years, particularly your meager intellect," she let her go and stood up, "Ha! Imagine, one day this blubbering incompetent might become a High Priestess of Vestals. Gods protect us!"
"Please Elderess, please...no more," Victoria tearfully pleaded.
"Our little romp just now meant nothing to me, but poor dear Lucius will be thoroughly put out that I got to you before he did!" Carpeia broke into peals of laughter. "Go on," she managed to squeeze out between giggles, "leave me now."
Victoria moved off the bed, and quickly staggered away from her heartless tormentor. Once outside, she ran to her own room and fell into a wretched heap on the floor.
Some minutes passed in pitiful whimpers then a sympathetic hand started fondling her golden locks of hair.
"Oh Vitria, has Carpeia been mean to you?"
Victoria turned over; her red puffy eyes and tear-stained face answered Sophia's question.
"I was one of her victims you know," Sophia smiled sadly, "Even then she knew how easily I would play into her hands..." she stopped to think a moment, "...their hands."
"Sophia I'm not following you."
"All those promises, then nothing," she went on, "I didn't want to do it Vitria, she was the one who forced me."
"Forced you?" Victoria wiped her eyes, "To do what?"
"My little one...taken away...Elderess made me."
Victoria thought about this for a moment but could not fully concentrate on what Sophia was talking about.
"I'm sorry dear, I just don't understand."
Sophia frowned slightly.
"Delia knows. Delia can tell you," Sophia suddenly gave her an odd look, "You ought not to sleep on the floor."
Sophia exited swiftly from the room. Victoria got up and wearily dropped onto her bed. She lay there alone and exhausted wishing that Delia would come home from her errand.
"The problem has been dealt with," Lord Ladonis quietly announced, "We must follow her to Rome tonight, everything is arranged."
"Lanterns and bumpy roads, how tiresome," the Elderess sighed, "Well, I suppose it can't be helped."
"I have transport waiting for us outside; we'll have to hurry."
"One moment, I must leave instructions with Victoria. I'll meet you there."
Carpeia hurried to Victoria's chamber where she found the entrance open. Lying face down on her bed Victoria sat up instantly at the sound of the Elderess's familiar step.
"The Pontifex and I are called away on official business. Do you think you can manage things while we're gone?"
Victoria lowered her gaze; the encounter she had with Carpeia was clearly fresh in her mind.
"As you wish Elderess," she answered in a small voice.
Carpeia walked over and lifted Victoria's chin.
"Of course I would stay and dally again with you dearest, but duty calls."
She patted Victoria's cheek and left, snickering all the way across the quiet courtyard.
When Delia opened her eyes, she was greeted with a lighted nub of candle on the table next to her bed.
"My bed?" Delia asked herself.
She looked around and saw nothing in this bare room that was even remotely familiar. A loud clanging noise came from somewhere nearby followed by a flustered profanity.
"Hello? Who is that?"
More fumbling noises, then the sound of running feet which stopped nearby.
"Water dear lady?"
A guard appeared a slight distance away with a bright lantern and water jug. Something she hadn't seen before was now quite visible; there were bars on the other side of the room separating it from a dark hallway. Delia immediately jumped from her bed and hurried to the iron barrier.
"Where am I?" she asked grabbing at the cold bars.
"You are in the lower level of the Pontifical Council Hall my lady."
Panic numbed Delia's heart.
"Only the worst religious misdeeds are dealt with here," she paused to catch her breath, "Am I accused of breaking my vows?"
The guard silently passed his water jug to her through the enclosure and walked away.
"Wait! Who has charged me with this crime?"
Her words partially echoed off of the thick stone walls, the clearest one heard being 'crime'. She thrust her face in-between the limited space of the rough black metal bars trying to catch sight of the guard.
"WHO HAS CHARGED ME WITH THIS CRIME?!"
Victoria woke the girls earlier than usual. There was much to do with Delia still away and Sophia well...Sophia...
She opted not to disturb her.
The bell sounded at their main gate.
A hooded figure stood at the closed entrance; its hand reached up and pulled the gate cord again. Victoria walked quickly through the square to see to this person and possibly get rid of whoever it was.
"Municipal duties are not performed until the ninth hour," she said trying to sound as official as possible, "Do come back at that time."
She was about to turn from the visitor.
"Victoria!" the stranger whispered hoarsely.
Throwing back his hood Aristes stepped forward, a worried look of doom on his face.
"I have just come from Rome. Delia has been taken into custody," he said bordering on tears, "She is to face the Sacred Court this very day."
Victoria immediately opened the gate to let him in.
"But surely this cannot be, Carpeia told me that she is on an errand."
"You have been misinformed, I was sent on the errand. Delia had been seen arriving at the council hall prison last nightunconscious. I tried to visit with her, but the guards wouldn't let me pass."
Victoria's mind reeled with this dreadful news. Carpeia obviously lied, but why? Aristes composed himself and continued.
"I sent word to a friend who might help her, and I have my signed testimonial here. It'll prove to the council that nothing unseemly occurred when I was with her, but not one of the Pontiffs would see me. I fear help may come too late!"
'Too late' meant only one thing.
"I must go to her, I'll find a way to see one of the council. Give me the statement," Aristes handed her the rolled up document, "Will you look after Evadne and Phyllis for me?"
Though it wasn't a proper request to make, Victoria had no choice. Aristes nodded an emphatic yes.
"My carriage is at the end of the road," Aristes said while throwing his hooded cloak around her shoulders, "Hurry dear lady."
Victoria briefly touched his hand then ran to the waiting vehicle.
Lord Ladonis in yet another splendid purple and gold robe dramatically appeared, finding Delia in a deep meditative state of prayer.
"You still have ample opportunity to change your mind."
"I am innocent," she answered while turning around to face him, "The council will discover your plot against me."
"If that is what you believe then you delude yourself my dear girl," he spat out at her, "As sure as I stand here you will be cast down, down beneath the earth!"
He flamboyantly illustrated this threat by pointing to the stone floor.
"My lord, I will not compromise my conscience. Vesta shall protect me."
With hands clasped together once again, Delia closed her eyes.
"By all means, summon her aid," he laughed sarcastically, "Just bear in mind that our lady occasionally turns a deaf ear. GUARD!"
The loud rattling of keys rumbled through the corridor signaling his sure departure. Before leaving, Lucius Ladonis turned around to address her one last time.
"Incidentally, I knew of your secret assignations with precious Victoria at Hypatia's statue."
Delia instantly opened her eyes and looked at him in shock.
"You venerate the elegant image of our long departed Elderess don't you?" he continued, "Well my dear, one of those three bastard babes in the garden belongs to her," he chuckled a bit then added, "The Gods can only guess why she wanted me to service her. A pang of conscience no doubtshe preferred to bed with pretty little girls you know."
The massive reinforced door clanked solidly behind him; his spirited laughter faded away with each echoing footstep.
"But my lady it doesn't sit well with me to allow you to visit a tainted prisoner. My house would surely be cursed."
The guard at the Pontifical Council Hall had broken out in a sweat and mopped his sunburned brow nervously. Victoria smiled sweetly even though she had lost all patience with this man.
"Then permit me to ease your fears kindhearted sir. I shall bless you and your house twice before I descend."
The guard looked at Victoria rather skeptically but mulled over her suggestion.
"Delia would've easily handled this problem," she agonized to herself, " I am truly out of my depth."
She peeked over at the barred passage to his left. Those had to be the stairs leading underground to the stockade. Victoria worried silently to herself if Delia was warm enough or had someone to talk to down there. She couldn't imagine being imprisoned for even an hour without going mad.
"You say you will bless my house," he suddenly piped up, "and all the members of my family?"
With arms bent at the elbow, Victoria raised her hands piously in front of her. To add a little extra formality, she even closed her beautiful gray eyes.
"Goddess of the hearth, Goddess divine, bless this gracious gentleman, his home and loving family thrice. Protect them from evil and grace each one with prosperity."
"Oh dear lady!" he exclaimed and kneeled at her feet, "You are goodness itself!"
Victoria moved to touch his shoulder to get up, and when she did, he was beside himself.
"This is an honor I shall never forget," he quickly scrambled to his feet and showed her the way to the locked cells, "Take these stairs, but do be careful climbing down; they will lead you directly to your sister Vestal's cell block. Tell the sentry that Hector said you could pass."
Victoria smiled pleasantly at him and began her descent.
It was a long way down the jagged stone steps that led to Delia's section of the underground jail. In her haste Victoria literally collided into Lord Ladonis who was on his way up. He caught her effortlessly in his arms and took the opportunity to squeeze her hard against his body.
"Ah, an unexpected surprise! And a lovely one too."
Helplessly caught in his sturdy grasp she thought better than to struggle against him. He eyed her lustfully for a moment or two, which made Victoria even more uncomfortable than the crushing hold he had on her.
"Whom do you seek with such great dispatch, child?"
Not being a very clever person Victoria answered him honestly.
"D-Delia, my lord," she stuttered out.
He slowly loosened his grip allowing Victoria to breathe a little easier.
"Yes, yes the poor errant member of our family. How very commendable of you," he sighed then let her go.
Victoria rubbed an aching arm and looked straight at him wondering why he wouldn't let her pass.
"My lord do you wish anything further of me?"
Lucius Ladonis smiled and rudely studied her again.
"Why yes child, I do. Come with me."
He led Victoria to a lower level then walked her into an empty cell very much like Delia's.
"Sit there my dear," he said pointing at an unmade straw bed, "I have much to discuss with you."
With a great deal of apprehension Victoria did as she was told and sat on a corner of the filthy mattress.
"Lovely accommodations, wouldn't you say?"
She scanned about the dimly lit room knitting her eyebrows together.
"It is...rather bleak my lord."
"Precisely! And becoming an inmate here would be rather distasteful to you, is this not so?"
Victoria slowly got up from the bed.
"YOU WILL STAND WHEN I TELL YOU TO STAND!" he screamed, "SIT DOWN!"
Visibly shaken by his sudden fury she quickly did as she was told.
"Now," he proceeded in a calmer voice, "unless you wish to join Delia I suggest you hold your tongue and do as I wish. Understood?"
Victoria trembled all over. It was quite obvious that she would fully submit to whatever he wantedand this greatly pleased Lucius. She nodded yes without looking at him.
"Excellent," linking his hands behind him he began pacing back and forth in front of her, "First of all, I have rather strong reservations concerning today's intended visit. Although well meaning on your part I'm certain that the consequences of such a meeting would inevitably be...hmmmm...shall we say unwise?"
"I'm not sure I comprehend, my Lord," Victoria replied meekly.
"You are not to see Delia at all."
Astonished by this order she was about to speak up when Lord Ladonis shot a cautionary glance her way. Victoria kept her thoughts on the matter to herself and said nothing.
"So, we are in agreement then?"
For an ordinarily benign question Lord Ladonis made it sound like a command.
Many things ran together inside of Victoria's head at once leaving her at a terrible loss. The Pontifex and this dreadful situation outdistanced her middling intellectual capacity. Victoria had hoped that in some way she'd be able to help Delia. Now it became unmistakably clear that he wanted her to desert her friend.
"What is her crime?" Victoria asked timidly.
"She is accused of breaking her vow of chastity," he answered in a dry monotone.
"But that is punishable by death!"
"She couldn't have broken her sacred vows, my Lord..." Victoria thought about it for a few moments, "I know she couldn't have done such a thing!" She took out a rolled up document and held it out to him, "I have this signed statement from Aristes..."
He walked up to Victoria, grabbed the parchment out of her hands then slapped her hard across the face. She rubbed her cheek and gaped at him through startled tears.
"My dear, you must learn not to contradict me. It really is rather irritating," he tore up the testimonial without reading it, "Now, I suggest that you abide by my original suggestion and take leave of this place."
Victoria looked away. All hope lay in pieces on the floor.
"My lord, you are ordering me to abandon a fellow Vestal and my dear friend," she broke down in tearful anguish, "How can you demand such a thing and expect me to live with the treachery on my conscience?"
"I put it to you this way: Which is more valuable: your life, or ethics?"
Her cell door squealed open. Two guards appeared: one holding an official document, the other mutely dangling a heavy set of manacles.
"My lady, it is time. Please come with us."
The guard holding her shackles stepped forward; Delia took a step back.
"Are those necessary?"
The men exchanged a look between them and one nodded his head.
"I can leave them off until we reach topside miss. I will have to shackle you then."
As was her distinguished position in Roman society, the guards treated Delia accordingly. She led the way up the long flight of stairs; two sentries following half a pace behind.
News of the unfaithful Vestal's trial had spread quickly throughout the city. Hundreds of citizens jammed the public forum to witness this rare event. A few of the more prosperous residents even brought food and wine as if attending an open-air theatrical production.
Twelve Pontiffs, who were to conduct these proceedings, had already seated themselves comfortably on red cushioned chairs at court. Lord Lucius Ladonis, of course, being among them.
Somewhere below amongst the turbulent gathering Victoria watched and worried.
"Where is she? Where's that faithless wench!" a woman nearby shouted.
"Aye! Show yourself whore!" another echoed.
"Bring out the whore! Bring out the whore," an ever-growing rabble chanted.
All at once, a huge section of the mob moved aside causing an eerie stillness to come over the crowd. Victoria craned her neck along with everyone else to see what was happening.
Shackled and escorted by two guards the accused made her way through an army of hostile spectators; many of these spat and cursed at her as she passed by. Delia kept her gaze stubbornly fixed on the path ahead trying to ignore their cruel words and raised fists. Some of the more aggressive ones tried to reach out and grab at her robes or hair. A few were successful, but the guards held most of them back.
Her grueling march terminated at a small number of blindingly white marble steps that led up to where the pontifical council restlessly waited. She was then directed to stand in front of these men with her back to the crowd.
One of her guards handed the Pontifex a rolled up parchment and returned to his place by the prisoner's side. Lord Ladonis then began to read from this scroll as if performing on stage. His silvery voice throbbed with passion, eloquence, and feigned disappointment.
"Delia Varro, you are brought before us today on a very grim charge. How is it that a Vestal, a custodian of our divine trust, a keeper of the sacred flame in the temple of Vesta, be purported to have breached her holy vow of chastity?"
Spontaneous moans and groans echoed through the huge gathering of spectators in answer to his question. Some were deeply disappointed in such a blatant transgression; others sorry for Delia's predicament kept their opinion quietly to themselves.
"Carpeia Flavia, High Priestess and Superior to the Vestals has presented this court with firm evidence that causes us to doubt our sister's purity. Our good Elderess has set aside all of her natural compassion for a young subordinatethis alone demonstrates great courage," he paused here for effect, "Despairing over the appalling matter before us, she has made it her utmost priority."
Delia stood silently during this performance staring at the ground looking every bit the pathetic victim. Her lovely light brown hair had come down and drifted across her face; the once stark white gown she wore was now dingy and torn in many places.
"Attend child," he sharply addressed the accused, "your Elderess is about to speak!"
Before seating himself, Lord Ladonis motioned the High Priestess to come forth.
Entering from a strategic angle Carpeia, dressed in her finest white robes, fluttered into view. She glanced briefly at Delia with synthetic remorse.
"I thank the sacred council for allowing me the privilege of addressing this court and our noble citizens of Rome."
Carpeia's magnificently cultured tones wafted over the heads of commoner and highborn alike, charming her listeners and moving most to applause.
"Today is a grievous occasion in the ancient annals of priesthood. I Carpeia, your humble servant, have come to perform a duty that pains me to the very core." She sighed and wiped at a phantom tear. "An odious influence has wormed its way into our cloistered community!"
She looked about to observe any horrified effects her words might have had on the crowd; many seemed shocked. Satisfied, Carpeia continued.
"A supposedly dedicated disciple of Vesta," she aimed an accusatory finger in Delia's direction, "has committed a most despicable offense!"
The people roared their displeasure; a few shook closed fists at Delia.
"This information came to me by an anonymous source," Carpeia held up a forged letter, "enclosed in this communication are names of witnesses and the details of her wild escapades mere days ago."
She unfolded the piece of fabrication and read some of the so-called "evidence" out loud.
"Dressed provocatively she offered herself to the young men in your public market place! Spurned on by this vulgarity, she nearly killed innocent woman and children recklessly driving a chariot unescorted through your busy streets!"
Delia sprang forward, but was quickly caught and held in place by a guard.
Raised voices rumbled in and around different areas of the agitated assembly, slowly picking up volume as each recalled Delia's recent visit to town.
"People of Rome," Carpeia continued, "is this the conduct of a virtuous soul? I say emphatically NO!"
Once again, Delia struggled to break free of the firm hold on her.
"SHE HAS DISTORTED THE TRUTH!"
"Silence the prisoner!" the Pontifex ordered with a wave of his hand.
One of her guards instantly reached around Delia's neck and clapped a hand over her mouth.
The townspeople broke out in a rash of expletives, and someone threw a stone that narrowly missed hitting Delia in the shoulder.
Lord Ladonis rose to silence the mob.
"Quiet down good citizens!" he said raising a hand towards the crowd, then went on with the proceedings, "Thank you Carpeia Flavia. We appreciate the difficulty of your position in coming to address this assembly today," he turned his attention to Delia, "The accused will now have an opportunity to speak in her own defense."
Carpeia bowed and quickly exited as Delia was led forward to explain her actions. She looked into the impassive faces of these twelve men who held her life in their grasp.
The once rowdy audience below were waiting so quietly for Delia to speak that the light tinkling of her chains could be heard a fair distance away. She could almost feel the hundreds of angry eyes of the crowd behind her. Delia gazed down at the thick manacles on her wrists and then at the council members. As required by law she bowed in deference to her judges.
"Noble officers of the court, I stand falsely accused before this tribunal and these good people," she said gesturing to the crowd, "I have broken none of my holy vows. I have committed no unseemly acts in your market square or anywhere."
Delia's simple words and sincere demeanor warmed the few spectators' hearts that could hear the dulcet throb in her voice.
"Yes I foolishly allowed childishness to surface and impulsively drove about the city, but I am not placed here for this reason."
Lord Ladonis smiled confidently at Delia daring her to tell all.
"There are those in our order who wish me harm for what I have discovered," low murmurs arose from the crowd then died away, "Three infants are buried in the Atrium garden!"
At first, there was utter silence. Victoria, who had found a better location to observe from, covered her mouth and gasped upon hearing these words. It all suddenly made sense; the strained atmosphere, the "talk" she had with Lucius Ladonis in that cold cell. Delia's strange behavior...she cursed herself for being slow.
"What good is this new information?" Victoria thought quietly, "I am trapped into secrecy."
Someone further on in the crowd laughed, then another, and more joined in. Some started snickering; soon a sizable section of onlookers burst into peals of laughter.
Puzzled by this odd response Delia turned to the crowd.
"I SPEAK THE TRUTHHHhhhhhhhh!" she shouted at them.
She turned back to the judiciary; most were laughing as well, Lord Ladonis the loudest of everyone."
"WHY ARE YOU ALL LAUGHING?"
"Because my dear child, they do not believe such a far-fetched tale, and neither do I," one of the nearest council members answered.
Delia jumped forward and grabbed hold of his lavishly decorated purple toga.
"BUT YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND! I TELL YOU THERE ARE THREE INFANTS BURIED IN THE GARDEN!"
"Unhand me lunatic! GUARD!"
It took both guards to pull Delia off him and finally subdue her on the ground, but it didn't stop her from screaming.
"THEY ALL BELONG TO THE PONTIFEX! HE TOLD ME---!"
One of them closed a hand tightly over her mouth again to keep her quiet.
"Such nonsense," Lucius Ladonis waved her off without losing a beat, "Calm down citizens!" Lucius called to the audience. "As you can see gentlemen, she is poisoned by her own unbalanced reason. I believe you will all come to the same conclusion as I have: Guilty."
"Wait one moment Lord Ladonis," Mitelleus, an elderly member of the council held up his hand, "the girl has not yet been instructed to ask for someone to come to her defense."
"Thank you Mitelleus," Lucius replied sounding very irritated, "Protocol must by all means be observed. That is of course if she can refrain from shouting."
The Pontifex motioned Delia's guards to help her up. She glared angrily at him while trying to catch her breath from being forcibly held down.
"Well Delia Varro? You have heard what our distinguished senior council member has said. Plead your case calmly," he cautioned her.
She slowly turned to the large group of people below, carefully searching the crowd for a familiar face. When Victoria saw Delia looking her way she hastily crouched down and retreated behind a few spectators. She dearly hoped her friend wouldn't recognize her but unfortunately, she had. Delia abruptly turned her attention back to Lucius Ladonis.
"Don't you remember our old saying my lord: A Vestal never begs for favors," she explained in a tear-choked voice, "she waits to be invited? "
Mitelleus stood up and appealed to the public.
"If there is anyone who can confirm this woman's statement please come forward."
Most looked at one another and shrugged their shoulders, some just shook their heads, but Lucius Ladonis breathed a whispered sigh of satisfaction. He wasn't absolutely sure if Victoria was in attendance, though it did not matter. He knew she would be frightened enough to keep silent.
"Is there no one among you who will redress the charges against her?" Mitelleus asked again.
"Please my lord...I swear to you that I have told the truth!"
Delia attempted to move towards him but was once again controlled by her guards.
"I am sorry my child, there isn't anyone here who will verify your story."
Mitelleus made a small bow to Lord Ladonis and then sat down.
"It is time to take the vote," Lord Ladonis announced, "Those in favor of innocence, remove your seal of office and place it in my hand."
There was a long pause as Delia looked to these men for any sign of hope. Not one of them made a move to take the ring from their finger.
"Delia Varro," Lucius Ladonis declared in his most resonant voice, "The vote is unanimous. You have been found guilty of breaking your sacred vows."
"THIS CANNOT BE! IT CANNOT BE!" Delia cried out.
She would've dropped to the floor if it weren't for a guard on either side. They held Delia up under each arm and walked her forward.
"As prescribed by Pontifical law," he continued, "you will be taken tomorrow from your place of confinement and escorted to the Colline Gate, there to be entombed with prior transgressors of your kind."
Victoria, unable to bear hearing Delia's sentence of death, tried to push past some of the disorderly crowd but couldn't escape. She gazed up at her shattered friend and prayed to their Goddess for a miracle.
"What have you won by these lies my lord? In time I shall be vindicated," Delia declared through her tears, "I pity you."
The audience grew silent; every person within hearing distance locked eyes onto Lucius Ladonis waiting for his answer. He stared at Delia and for an instant a feeling of remorse lingered a little too close to his ruthless heart. He soon recovered his reason.
"Guards, remove the prisoner!"
The sheer magnitude of attendance for her punishment that following day was staggering. Yet, with this incredible amount of people packed into such cramped streets the only noise that could be heard was an occasional baby crying. The citizen's behavior had been so different from the previous day; one would think it was all a dream.
Then, as if an inaudible bell pealed, all heads turned in one direction. Preceded by a sea of purple clad pontiffs, a ceremonial litter with four bearers neatly cut through the crowded route. Hidden away from prying eyes, an unjustly accused priestess of lower rank lay tethered inside this conveyance, weighted down under several layers of heavy silk coverings. Instinctively everyone made a path just wide enough for the procession to pass and quietly fell in behind it.
From somewhere close by a single melancholy voice rose clear and strong out of the huge gathering.
"Arise and follow
Melt into one
My sail is set
For the elusive sun..."
The procession suddenly came to a halt. A few mourners picked up the lone thread and participated in the lament.
"Draw near spirit worn
Go onward with me..."
Soon, most of the crowd joined in the chorus sending a wave of song ahead to those who had been out of earshot.
"We will voyage together
Beyond many a sea."
The small parade then slowly proceeded on enveloped by this dispirited chant. Three of her four bearers blended their voices with all the others as well.
"Arise and follow,
Melt into one
My sail is set
For the elusive sun
Draw near spirit worn
Go onward with me
We will voyage together
Beyond many a sea."
Street after mournful street the spectators added their number to song until Delia reached the end of her journey. There was one last wave of voice then everyone fell silent. Inside their city walls, near the Colline Gate a 'Field of Sin' waited patiently for its next inhabitant. A small chamber had been dug into the mound of earth and a ladder placed there for descent.
Lord Lucius Ladonis motioned Delia's bearers to put down their burden and bring out the occupant. They immediately set to their task removing the heavy coverings and untying her fetters. She emerged sluggishly, nearly suffocated and shading her weary eyes from the bright morning sunshine. Her sheer burial gown was the last humiliation; Delia might as well have been naked.
"Delia Varro, we assembled of the Sacred Council do now commit your person to this underground cell."
He signaled for her to be walked to the edge of the ladder. Delia looked around somewhat confusedly at first then tried to clear her parched throat. Lord Ladonis raised his arms skyward and the other Pontiffs followed suit.
"I appeal to you great Vesta, absolve this court from liability. We have carried out our sacred duty and served you wisely. Accept this once faithful disciple into your home of sorrow oh Goddess divine. May her despoiled soul learn the error of its rash behavior through this most grievous punishment."
He lowered his arms and glanced over at Delia who hadn't listened to a word that was spoken. Her attention was fixed on the ladder and the dark hole it led to.
"Yonder is thy place of solitude," he bluntly addressed her, "Put a hand upon the rail and descend."
With that the entire Pontifical council turned away symbolically forcing Delia to complete the act of climbing down herself. Before doing so, she unsteadily shambled forward in bare feet to confront her audience. They even refused to give her an old pair of sandals to wear.
"I proclaim my innocence once more."
Delia placed a hand over her breast.
"This heart is spotless. I am to be put to death unjustly while you allow a villain," she thrust an accusatory finger at Lord Ladonis' back, "in the guise of piety to escape his punishment. I hold all here responsible for my undeserved execution."
She searched the numerous apprehensive faces staring back at her. Some of them had sadness in their eyes and others even shed tears.
"Curse every one of you to a life of torment."
Victoria suddenly broke away from the massive gathering and ran to Delia throwing her arms around her. For a few moments, the only sound was Victoria's hysterical sobbing. Delia unhooked Victoria's hands from around her neck and pushed her friend away grinning contemptuously.
"I am so grateful that you have come forward at last, my sweet. But as you see your kind gesture arrives too late."
Victoria made another advance toward Delia but was held angrily at arm's length.
"I love you Delia...please forgive me..."
Delia was momentarily stunned. How many times had Delia declared her love to this empty shell of a woman? Victoria never said 'I love you' to her or anyone she knew; now it rang hollow. She turned away and began her descent down the ladder. Pausing briefly she coldly studied her former friend's beautiful face for the last time.
"Of those gathered here today I despise you most of all."
She disappeared out of sight and soon afterward the terrible order was given to remove her ladder.
A few onlookers helped the hysterically crying Victoria away from the gaping hole for her own safety. Two men arrived with a large cart and promptly filled in her chamber entrance then beat the earth flat with the back of their shovels.
Victoria ran from those well-meaning people, fell to her knees and tore at the freshly laid ground with her fingernails. Lord Ladonis rushed immediately over and tried to restrain her.
"Delia forgive me, please forgive me," she wailed.
"Shut up! You are making a fool of yourself. Guards, disperse the crowd!"
Victoria whipped her body about so wildly he could barely hold on.
"I should be down there not her! Oh what have I done?"
Lucius gripped her wrists hard until the pain forced Victoria to quiet down.
"Listen to me witless girl, you had better make your mind up to accept what has passed. If not you will be sorry for it, I promise. Do you understand me?"
She understood plain enough.
"I made it so easy for you didn't I?" Victoria asked softly, "You used me to keep your ugly secret hidden."
"I would not want to further tax that pretty head of yours my dear, but of course you are correct."
The sudden lack of clatter behind Lord Ladonis caught his attention. Both gravediggers had stopped their work and were now staring at the noticeably agitated pair.
"What are you gaping at Nisus?" the Pontifex snapped at the older of the two men, "Finish up!"
He turned his focus back to Victoria and helped her to stand, then made a poor attempt at brushing her off. After taking a better look at the shredded garment she wore, he abandoned the effort.
"Shall we be on our way?" Lucius sighed in mild disgust.
He immediately yanked Victoria away and both figures soon faded from view.
"Hurry," Nisus suddenly barked, "time is wasting."
The small oil lamp they supplied emitted insufficient light. The bed was just as inadequate being too hard to be considered comfortable enough to sleep on. Delia picked up the chunk of bread left on her pillow and tapped it against the low table nearby.
"Stale bread too," she said to herself, "they have thought of everything."
She let it drop to the floor and settled in as best she could. The tiny lamp's flame flickered and dimmed, lightly casting two little dancing figures on the earthen wall in front of her.
"Good work girls! Don't forget the corners Phyllis," she called out to the shadows.
This minor instruction to the younger Vestals had always amused Delia to no end because their temple is round not square. How she and Victoria would laugh at their silly private joke.
"Shhhhhh, not so loud my sweet, the girls might hear," Delia said as she gazed lovingly into her dear friend's beautiful gray eyes, "They would never forgive us for making fun of them."
In the darkness, Delia imagined she could see Victoria blowing her a kiss. She placed her fingertips near her lips to return the gesture, but Delia's limp hand slipped down onto her lap.
It wasn't quite noon when they arrived back at their main gate. Exiting from the carriage first Victoria opted not to go inside and change clothes. Dressed as shabbily as she was, Victoria scrambled away in the direction of Vesta's temple. Lord Ladonis and Carpeia exchanged a bemused look between them and smiled.
"I do believe I take great pleasure in tormenting that girl," Carpeia stated as she watched her target run up the hill, "She cries so prettily."
Lord Ladonis stepped off the carriage and offered Carpeia his hand, which she took at once.
"And for most of our journey home too. I'd no idea you could be so verbally creative my dear," he said helping his accomplice down, "You had the poor thing completely defeated."
"Really Lucius, it was like swatting a dead fly," she began to effect an air of superiority due to the compliment, "but she deserved it; leaving everything to a mere lictor's charge! The stupid girl had no business coming to Rome in the first place. What on earth did she think she could do? The next High Vestal indeed!"
"True, she is rather lacking in intelligence, however, she has one or two saving graces."
Normally this statement would have infuriated Carpeia. Lord Ladonis looked over at her fully expecting to see anger but much to his surprise he found only merriment.
"How well I know," she answered with a sly smile.
Both girls could see Victoria in the distance and eagerly ran down to greet her.
"Victoria!" they both called together.
Evadne was first to reach Victoria but stopped short of tackling her like she used to do. The young girl could plainly see that something was very, very wrong. The once exquisite flowing gown Victoria wore the day before was now tattered and nearly unrecognizable. Its wearer didn't fare too well either. The tangled blond locks falling every which way and the dreadful look of complete desolation on Victoria's lovely face brought tears to Evadne's eyes. Phyllis wasn't far behind and tried to run up on the pitiful woman.
"No Phyllis don't," Evadne said as she took hold of her friend's arm.
"Why? What's the matter?"
Evadne quietly motioned toward Victoria who wasn't smiling or even appearing the least bit glad to see them. She was just standing there staring sadly down at the girls and not saying a word. Evadne drew closer to Victoria and cautiously took her by the hand.
"Great Gorgons," Phyllis observed, while borrowing Victoria's saying, "you look just like a wounded bird."
Evadne made a gesture to her little friend to keep still.
"Has Delia come back?" Evadne asked Victoria.
At the mention of Delia's name a stabbing pain ripped through Victoria's heart. She grabbed at her chest and dropped sobbing to the ground. The girls quickly came to her aid; Evadne lifted Victoria's head onto her tiny lap with Phyllis helplessly looking on.
"What's wrong? Are you unwell?" Evadne asked while gently caressing Victoria's cheek.
She didn't answer coherently, she only continued whimpering.
"Come Phyllis, let's go tell the Elderess that Victoria is ill."
"No...please," Victoria reached up and took Evadne's small warm hand in hers, "stay with me...?"
"I trust the little ones didn't give you too much trouble."
Carpeia, surrounded by the usual mountain of papers on her desk barely acknowledged Aristes presence.
"They behaved perfectly my lady, as only one would expect."
"And what of Sophia?"
Aristes naturally knew of Sophia's illness through his many talks with Delia.
"She was peaceful."
"Very good. Thank you for seeing to everything in our absence; I realize how highly irregular it must have seemed to you."
"I considered it an honor," he swallowed hard before continuing, "My lady, what has become of Delia?"
Carpeia looked up at him; a bland expression trimmed her sharp features.
"Of course, you couldn't have heard. Delia was found guilty of breaking her vow of chastity. The matter has been dealt with in the traditional manner."
Just as Aristes was about to speak, Phyllis flew into Carpeia's study, high strung and out of breath.
"Elderess! Elderess, come quickly! Victoria is ill," Phyllis blurted out, "She's on the ground. We are unable to wake her!"
"Stay here!" Carpeia cautioned Phyllis. "Aristes, come with me!"
They rushed out of her study, through the main gate and up the hill that led to the temple. There, drenched in afternoon light, Victoria lay spread out across the main path. Evadne was bent over Victoria frantically trying to coax her to stand up.
"Leave her!" Carpeia commanded her subordinate, "Go back to the Atrium."
Evadne instantly got to her feet and ran back home.
Victoria was still breathing; her eyes open and dazed. Carpeia knelt down next to the young woman and grabbed her chin tilting the ashen face towards her. Victoria's wandering gaze met with a cold steady one.
"A tad too melodramatic, my dear girl," Carpeia whispered almost tenderly, "You won't escape this easily; I'm not quite finished with you yet. We have many avenues to explore, you and I," she let go of Victoria's chin and pushed off her shoulder to stand, "Pick her up," she casually commanded Aristes.
"But...but...it is forbidden to lay my hand on a Vestal. It is punishable by"
"PICK HER UP, THIS INSTANT!"
Aristes crouched down, then gingerly slipped a hand under Victoria's legs and the other supported her back. He lifted her up into his arms and started slowly down the hill. Carpeia rushed ahead of him to report to Lord Ladonis.
"She's...no...more..." Victoria mumbled against Aristes' chest.
He slowed his stride, but didn't answer.
A slight commotion caught her attention. Sophia pushed the window curtain asidejust enough to see what was going on. Aristes breezed quickly by, carrying something...large. She left her door wide open and followed him into Victoria's room.
"You shouldn't be in here!"
Aristes spun around awkwardly, still holding Victoria in his arms.
"SOPHIA!" he fired back in a rough whisper, "Don't creep around like that! I almost dropped her! And she's no feather weight you know!"
Sophia darted forward and together they deposited Victoria on the bed. With the last bit of his strength, Aristes hoisted Victoria's limp legs the rest of the way onto her mattress.
"There now," he breathed heavily as he backed away, "She collapsed on the hill," Aristes started to explain without being asked, "The ordeal in Rome was too much for her."
Sophia stared down at Victoria.
"Poor Vitria," she sighed, "Visits to Rome must be so tiring."
Aristes pulled her aside as if Victoria would overhear their conversation.
"No dear lady, it is what happened there that has upset her. Delia was executed today; the Elderess told me." His voice trembled as he continued, "I just know Lord Ladonis and Carpeia conspired together to do away with her."
Sophia knitted her brow and looked very confused.
"But Delia will be back soon, yes?"
It was all Aristes could do to stop himself from shaking her.
"Don't you understand what I've told you? Delia is no more. They killed her!"
He burst into tears and hurried out of the room. Sophia took little notice and turned her attention to Victoria's tattered garments. First she tried to loosen the rumpled shawl that was wrapped tightly around her body. Sophia then tried pulling the thing; it became an impossible task.
"I can't do this if you don't help me"
Victoria stirred. A fever smoldered in her brain; an image of Delia climbing down a long ladder...
"Delia..." she moaned.
Sophia looked down at her wondering what was going on. Victoria's eyes opened and stared, unblinking, up at the ceiling.
"What's wrong Vitria?" Sophia lightly patted her on the cheek. When this didn't rouse her, she waved a hand in front of Victoria's face. "Come, come, you're being very silly! Carpeia will catch you," Sophia paused and thought a moment, "and she might report you to Lord Ladonis and you wouldn't want that!"
It was obvious, even to someone as unstable as Sophia, that something wasn't right.
"I know! I'll get Delia and..."
She started for the door to get help then stopped in her tracks.
"But Delia isn't here."
The shutters on her windows were closed all that evening and most of the next day. Only one lighted candle glowed in Victoria's room.
"Her eyes will need to be bathed every quarter hour. Under no circumstances are those shutters to be opened. The bright sunshine may blind her."
Carpeia stood off to the side of the patient's bed with her arms folded.
"Why do they stay open like that? We close them, but she opens them again."
"Distress is usually the cause of this problem. More than likely something has deeply upset the young lady. Here, I have prepared a remedy for the ailment."
The physician handed Carpeia a small vile of black liquid and started to pack up his medicinal wares.
"Two drops in a small goblet of red wine at day, and again at night. See that she drinks it all."
Carpeia regarded this man with a steely gaze.
"Will she recover?"
He looked down at Victoria's lusterless face; her blank stare fixed firmly on the ceiling.
"She may come 'round," he answered in a bored tone, "but if she does not recover"
"Not recover?" Carpeia loomed unpleasantly over the stocky little man.
"If she does not recover, she will have to be cared for like an infant the rest of her life," the physician immediately shot back, "Best to make preparations early my lady. Medicine is not an infallible art."
He looked straight into the Elderess's frigid blue eyes challenging her to try to intimidate him.
Amused at his impertinence she backed down.
"Very well. I shall consider your professional advice."
"Send for me if there is no change in the next four days."
The physician slung his heavy medical bag over his shoulder and started to leave, then turned around.
"What she requires most is tenderness. Perhaps you should assign someone more qualified to perform this task."
He walked nonchalantly out of Victoria's room.
"Damn his impudence," Carpeia mumbled.
"How is our invalid?"
Lucius Ladonis had stepped into the room quietly and stood behind Carpeia.
"Still convalescing as you can see."
He strolled gracefully to Victoria's bed and held a hand mere inches above the occupant's face then snapped his fingers. Her glassy stare didn't budge.
"Do you suppose she could be faking the stupor she's in?" Lucius said eyeing the young woman warily.
Carpeia knelt over and locked her lips upon Victoria's ever so briefly. She drew back, closely observing her subordinate. Lucius Ladonis shot a startled look at his mistress; Carpeia didn't bother herself to notice him.
"If that were so," she stated in a bored tone, "it is the best bit of acting I've ever witnessed."
Victoria's chest rose and fell...hesitated...then rose and fell again. It was always the same pattern. When her eyes were bathed a few minutes later, she felt nothing. When they were bathed several times during the course of that day, still nothing. She had simply turned off.
The doctor's request to see Victoria after four days if her condition hadn't changed wasn't honored. Something had been making Carpeia very restless. To her, Victoria's impediment was insignificant compared to her own well being. She shivered, but the night was warm.
"It's like the night before Hypatia was eliminated...," she muttered audibly, "Oh really, it's a tad late for scruples!"
Carpeia put a hand over her mouth and chuckled, "What possible use would a conscience be to me now?"
She got out of bed and went to close her window curtains against the irritatingly bright shafts of moonlight peeking through. As she started to unhook one side of the frilly cloth...
A figure draped in white sat quietly on a stone bench near the garden. Its head was down and topped with long frost-white hair. Carpeia drew in a single sharp and gasping breath that the intruder overheard. It drowsily raised its head on a tilted angle toward her. This being appeared to be female. Her smallish face could barely be seen in the dim moonlight, yet it looked just like
The skin, a chalky hue.
The eyes appeared as dark holes.
Her lips were colorless and grinning.
Carpeia stumbled backwards from her window and the entity it framed so perfectly.
Her piercing screams woke everyone in the hemmed-in communityeveryone except Victoria who didn't turn a hair.
Lord Ladonis raced from his private elegant rooms and burst into Carpeia's spacious sleeping quarters. The Elderess lay in a ball on the floor near her bed shrieking.
"LUCIUS...IT'S HER...IT'S HER..."
She sat up and seized hold of his robes pulling him down to her.
"QUIET!" Lord Ladonis ordered in a grating whisper, "Do you want everyone to hear us?"
Carpeia tried to calm herself with very little effect; only the volume of her rapid-fire reply changed.
"Look there, I saw her, I saw her!" she pointed towards her window.
"Calm yourself, you're talking too fast."
He considered slapping her, but changed his mind. Carpeia breathed heavily, reining herself in enough to be heard.
"She is out there!"
He got up and walked to the window. The garden was as peaceful as usual, only Evadne and Phyllis were standing in the shadows outside wondering what was happening. Sophia's door was open slightly. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
"Young ladies," he called, addressing the sleepy children, "the day has not yet begun. Go back to bed."
Both girls obeyed and disappeared into their separate rooms. Sophia's chamber door closed soon after.
Lord Ladonis turned and found Carpeia sitting at the foot of her bed. She wrung her hands together nervously waiting for Lucius to talk. He walked over and sat next to her.
"This deplorable conduct doesn't become you my dear."
"We all have our moments of weakness," she answered in a strained voice.
"It must have been a dream that frightened you," he offered delicately.
Carpeia looked into his dark concerned eyes and simulated a bemused expression.
"Hardly," she took a deep breath before speaking again, "Delia was sitting in the square staring up at me."
Lord Ladonis started to laugh but the Elderess put a hand on his arm and squeezed it hard.
"STOP THAT!" she hissed through clenched teeth.
He flinched at the mounting pain and briefly glanced down at her whitened knuckles.
"Are aware that you're hurting me?"
She let him go and went back to nervously wringing her hands.
"My dear, you and I well know this image is an impossibility. I was at her burial after all."
Carpeia looked coolly at him. For a moment, Lord Ladonis was shocked to see tears pooling in her eyes. He had never seen this woman cry, ever. Her tears brimmed over and began to roll slowly down her face. Carpeia didn't pay these droplets any heed; they fell as if they belonged to someone else. Gallantly, Lucius took her hand and patted it reassuringly.
"The apparition wants my blood," she said directing a stony gaze at him, "Why not yours as well?"
"Because Delia is dead," he tossed her hand away, "she cannot harm us."
"We were spared Hypatia's wrath. The infant's..." A very sad expression intermingled with anxiety on Carpeia's face, "I suppose Delia was one too many."
Lord Ladonis fumed inside.
"I thought we promised each other never to speak her name again."
Carpeia leaned forward ever so slightly.
"Remember when you and that dreadful Hypatia conceived a bastard? You came to me for help," Carpeia's eyes were fixed solidly on his, daring him to silence her, "To me! I was just a pure, loving girl then..."
"Pure has never been a word that one would associate with you my dear. The price you required for not reporting me to the pontifical court was rather high. Your so called 'love' expresses itself in a rather distorted way, don't you think pet?"
Visions of the odious former Elderess Hypatia Silvanus flashed through Carpeia's mind. How, at her urging, the handsome recently appointed Pontifex Maximus squeezed the life from Hypatia's velvety smooth white throat.
"Oh Lucius, my loves are no different than your own," she caressed his cheek slowly, "Wasn't it sweet that you carried out that small favor...my adorable slave?"
Carpeia inched closer then bit into his lower lip. Lord Ladonis yelped and stood up angrily holding his injured mouth.
"DAMN YOU!" he glared at her, then quieted down into what seemed very near to despair. "You never really loved me. Not then, not now."
"But I do love you Lucius darling, in my own..."
A long shadow fell across the floor in her bedroom. It wandered briskly along the glossy boards and vanished. Carpeia froze in mid sentence watching the supple smudge as it undulated to the other side of her room and away. She ran to the window just in time to see her stranger in white disappear through the main bronze gates. Carpeia sank to the ground in an unconscious stupor.
At first, watching and waiting for Delia to materialize again nearly drove Carpeia to madness. In the daytime she kept to herself, preferring to stay in her room and only came out to take meals long after everyone else's plates had been removed.
Nearly a week passed with no sign of Delia's apparition anywhere. As each uneventful day had gone by it seemed certain that her ghost was undoubtedly the result of a very creative and lively imagination. Before long, Carpeia started to feel much stronger and thought it only fitting to catch up on volumes of backlogged paperwork. She took her time dressing before going to the study; even taking great care to neatly line her eyelids with coal black tint.
Once outside in the cool late evening air, Carpeia didn't care about grim formality. Instead of her usual measured stride she dashed exuberantly to her study, unbolted the heavy door, and slipped quietly inside.
A dark shape moved stealthily through the simple network of living quarters keeping close to the whitewashed façade. It didn't even pause when caught in a blinding shower of light flooding across the marble path. This fleetingly illuminated image sped past Carpeia's open study door and found itself once again in dusk. The indistinct figure continued to carefully feel along craggy walls until one of its pale hands fell upon a plain but well used handle.
A swift upward pull then...
Sophia's door opened easily, smoothly on its hinges. Not at all like her splintered hatchway, whose aged hardware had always signaled each departure and entrance with an excruciating fanfare of groans. There, sitting calmly on her bed and outlined in the satin yellow murkiness of candlelight was Sophia.
Sophia smiled pleasantly at the shadowy form and held out her hand to it.
"I've been waiting for you," Sophia said in a perfectly lucid tone.
Puzzled by this unexpectedly warm invitation, the apparition came forward into the light and timidly mirrored Sophia's friendly gesture. Their fingers touched. Sophia drew the entity closer and held the frigid hand between her own.
"This is an unusually cold night isn't it?"
Sophia stroked the icy hand fondly.
"Isn't it, Delia?"
The being sat itself down slowly on the bed next to Sophia.
"Yes," Delia replied softly, "very cold."
Carpeia feverishly worked all night and well into the next day leafing through stacks of papers piled on her enormous desk without a break. She managed to sort out and arrange most of her neglected paperwork, barked orders to the younger members of the community, and even found time to revise her cataloging system.
Sandwiched somewhere in-between all this hectic activity Carpeia made tentative arrangements for Victoria to be taken care of by a pleasant and willing matron. The sight of yet another slowly deteriorating resident made the Elderess intolerably restless.
Lord Ladonis had left early to set up this transaction at the middle-aged woman's rather rustic village and was due to return very soon.
"Only one more nuisance left..." she brooded silently to herself.
A small knock sounded on her doorframe. Carpeia looked up a little startled from being so deep in thought.
"Yes?" she asked knowing full well, as usual, that just outside her door a subordinate waited patiently to be invited in.
"It is I Elderess, Evadne who requests an audience with you."
Evadne stepped into the study and stood before Carpeia's desk hands folded one on top of the other just above her small waist.
"Elderess, I have come to inquire as to the state of Victoria's health," here the growing young girl paused, then became an anxious child again, "Is she to be taken from us?"
Carpeia guessed that Evadne thought Victoria would soon die. The Elderess turned her attention back to her papers. She carefully chose to only answer Evadne's second question and replied in a dispassionate tone.
"Yes, but not in the way you fear child. Our poor afflicted sister will be well cared for by a trustworthy widow. You need not trouble yourself any longer on her behalf."
Evadne, not sure how to receive this news, stood quietly trying to form her next question.
"Come, come is there anything else?" Carpeia asked impatiently.
"Yes," Evadne answered hesitantly, "I saw someone leave Victoria's room early this morning. Was it the trustworthy widow?"
The Elderess instantly stopped what she was doing and sat up straight aiming her full attention at the girl.
"Impossible child," Carpeia said while frantically laboring to sound calm, "Perhaps it was Phyllis you saw...?"
"No Elderess. It was a woman. A woman with long white hair."
Carpeia nervously moved some papers about and tried to appear in control.
"You are mistaken. There is NO ONE here that fits that description."
Evadne made an almost imperceptible quiver due to the Elderess's distressing attitude.
"But Elderess, I did see her."
Carpeia jumped up from her chair and slammed her fist down on the desk.
"WHY DO YOU CHALLENGE ME? I SAID YOU ARE MISTAKEN!"
Carpeia's thunderous outburst caused poor Evadne to spring backwards.
"I saw her "
The Elderess was fast on her feet. Darting from behind her table she grabbed the startled girl by the neck.
"I'LL TEACH YOU...!" she screamed and tightened her fingers around Evadne's slender throat choking off her air supply.
A swift blow to Carpeia's jaw caused her to instantly release the gasping child.
Lucius Ladonis helped Evadne up and got her out of the Elderess's study as quickly as he could. He closed the door then rushed over to Carpeia.
"ARE YOU MAD?"
Lord Ladonis took hold of Carpeia's stooped shoulders roughly turning her around to face him.
"Do you realize you almost killed that child?" he continued in a jagged rasp,
The sudden violent ordeal had caused Carpeia's veil to fall off and her silvery hair to become untidily tousled. She looked up at him, bitterness exaggerating her glazed blue eyes.
"And what is one more dead child to you, eh Lucius?"
A small dribble of blood streamed over her lower lip and flowed down to her chin as she spoke. Fury drummed in Lord Ladonis' temples at this new attack. Yet seeing his mistress glaring at him with such hatred, scarlet staining her perfect chin and not being wiped away, disturbed the Pontifex more than her harsh words. He reached into his elegant sleeve and pulled out a handkerchief then lightly dabbed her mouth with it.
"That would be one more too many my darling."
It might have been the constant sound of a kind voice or perhaps the tender kiss upon her brow that roused Victoria from her dormant state. She painfully turned her head towards a hazy figure sitting alongside her bed. Her lips trembled open to speak, but only a raw, grainy sound sputtered out.
"Shhhhh," gentle fingers glided over her forehead and smoothed back her uncombed golden hair, "Try not to strain your throat."
Sophia's thin, though less haunted features gradually came into focus. Victoria tried to speak again, this time sounding a little clearer.
"Yes Vitria, I'm here."
No simpler statement could have improved upon describing this woman. Though haggard and appearing much older than her thirty-four years on the earth, Sophia was indeed "here" in every sense of the word.
"Is this my room?" Victoria asked sounding a bit confused.
"Look about you."
Sophia helped her to sit up and held on till Victoria could get her balance. She looked around straining to make out the details of her few humble belongings. Some cherished trinkets rested neatly on the narrow windowsill; others stood on the low bedside table. Victoria's silvery gray gaze searched idly for a simple clay figurine of a bird that Delia gave her when she was a little girl, but didn't see it. Delia...
"What a dear child she was," Victoria murmured dreamily, "and those large unusual eyes. Do you remember them Sophia? So remarkable."
"Yes, I do very well. They still are."
It took a few moments for Victoria to fully comprehend what Sophia had just said. Her heart sank in her chest realizing that Sophia wasn't well at all.
"Sophia," Victoria tried to speak a little louder, but it only sounded more strangled, "Delia is dead. I helped them kill her..."
The weight of these words stopped Victoria in mid sentence and she turned away.
"No Vitria, Delia is as alive as you and I," Sophia took Victoria's face between her hands and tilted it back to meet her gaze, "It is the other two that are no more."
A dark shadow crept across Sophia's features. Her eyes then fixed themselves into an odd expression of liberation. Victoria immediately thought of Phyllis and Evadne.
"Not the girls...?"
"Oh no, the precious little ones are safe," Sophia's strange look changed back to its worn appearance as she let go of Victoria, "the other two."
Even though Sophia no longer seemed affected by mentioning this cryptic information, her emphasis on "the other two" made Victoria lean forward.
"My dear, I'm not sure if I understand you correctly," Victoria rasped, "are you speaking of the Elderess and Lord Ladonis?"
"And Delia is alive? Really alive?"
Upon hearing this, Victoria's thoughts were like storm waves on the ocean crashing together. When a question would arise from the depths of her confusion it was swiftly dragged down by another more violent swell. At last, the powerful meaning of the news settled into her consciousness.
"Carpeia and Lord Ladonis are dead?" she asked evenly.
"One is dead, the other..." that strange demeanor overcame Sophia once more, "...the other will never come back to our reality."
Although Victoria had not gathered enough of her wits to ask for an explanation, it didn't matter. Sophia gazed past her charge and spoke in a voice that hardly seemed like her old frightened self.
"It happened three days ago. Delia walked into my room as I had anticipated..."
Having spent the past five days eating discarded food, seeking the shelter of dark alleys and secluded alcoves in town to hide, Delia couldn't be wearier. Sophia's warm room and comfortable chair were a welcome change. She sighed and removed the long white wig from her head; the pretense had not fooled Sophia. She felt that Carpeia, with her wits about her again, must have seen through this disguise as well. Delia looked at her other hand in Sophia's grasp and did not recoil from her touch as she used to.
"You expected me to come here. How did you know?"
Sophia stopped rubbing Delia's cold fingers and became very serious.
"I saw you sitting in the garden that first night. The sight frightened me until I watched you open the door to hide in Carpeia's study. Spirits can walk through walls and doors, is this not so?"
Delia nodded in agreement.
"How did you escape your tomb?"
The young woman studied the scraggly white wig now lying in her lap and smiled.
"You will know...in good time," Delia moved her attention to Sophia's questioning eyes, "How fares our dear Elderess?" she asked sarcastically, "Is she already laying plans for my second demise?"
"Carpeia has no knowledge of your trickery and is quite upset, though she takes great pains not to show it."
Delia couldn't help feeling pleasure at hearing this.
"I suppose you will ease her discomfort now by unveiling the truth, won't you?"
"I?" Sophia answered sounding offended, "I despise Carpeia."
Yes, there was a good reason why Delia hadn't pulled away from this woman. During their brief conversation, Sophia remained completely rational, insightful, and focused. Whatever it was that brought her back from so many years of madness, Delia felt thankful for it.
"Those poor babes buried under the flower bed," Sophia continued in a remorseful tone, "Long ago I discovered the creatures. I sent word to the Pontifical Council; Carpeia intercepted my message before it reached them. Then Lord Ladonis threatened me with my own disgrace. He knew it would guarantee my silence."
Sophia's expression darkened and filled with such grief that Delia squeezed her hand in sympathy.
"One of those infants is yours, isn't it?"
Sophia nodded, and her eyes grew hard and angry.
"I gave birth to my little girl but she was taken from me. They lied and told me she was getting the best of care. Carpeia had my baby killed the day of her birth and placed her with those other two unfortunates. I found them while turning the soil one day."
She swallowed hard and continued.
"Even in that terrible condition I recognized my sweet little girl. I just couldn't stand the weight of that knowledge," Sophia's voice lowered to a soft whisper, "Do you know that all three belong to Lucius Ladonis?"
The memory of him confessing his sin blazed in her mind.
'They are mine,' he had volunteered casually walking into Sophia's room.
"Yes," Delia replied bitterly, "he told me one was Hypatia's," she willed the tears that gathered in her eyes to go away, "the other, I assume belongs to Carpeia."
Sophia slowly nodded her head again.
"They both have much to answer for."
Delia found it hard to believe that this was the same woman she used to call 'wraith'.
"Sophia," she asked changing the subject, "what has happened? Why are you no longer ill?"
Sophia stared off thoughtfully trying to remember the exact moment when her insanity started to fall away.
"It began the day Aristes told me of your death. I can only guess that the shock was the cure. I am just as puzzled at the change as you are my dear, yet here I sit without the terrible confusion."
Sophia's gaze narrowed as she leveled it at Delia.
"If I had known what they planned for you I would have spoken to the council; even with my derangement upon me."
Delia's tears returned twofold and they began to flow down her cheeks.
"I can see it plain," Delia smiled a little through her tears, "a branded depraved criminal and a madwoman. What a pair we would have made in front of that pompous tribunal," She turned away as more tears fell from her eyes, "I'm so sorry Sophia..."
Sophia patted Delia's hand gently.
"Sorry? For what my dear?"
Delia could feel the trembling in her throat beginning and could barely get her words out.
"For meaning to frighten you tonight and for misjudging you...all these years..."
Sophia took Delia into her arms and held her tight. Some of the light colored paint she had on her face rubbed off onto Sophia's nightdress, but Sophia didn't care.
"Never you mind my dear. What you ought to do is leave this place and take Victoria with you."
Delia instantly stiffened at the mention of Victoria's name and pulled back.
"I don't want anything more to do with her!"
Sophia cocked her head to one side trying to understand Delia's anger.
"But I thought you loved each other?"
"Love?" Delia chuckled sarcastically, "Oh, I loved her and I believed that she cared for me." Delia's face contorted into pained anger, "I saw Victoria hide behind a crowd when a council member called for someone to confirm my innocence. I shall never forget the sight of her cowering form. I'll never forgive her."
Sophia closed her eyes and gasped softly.
"Oh Vitria, what have you done?" she opened her eyes and stood up, "Alas, this clarifies the mystery of Victoria's affliction."
Sophia took Delia by the hand, urging her to stand, which she did.
"Come with me my dear."
She brought along her lighted candle stub and led Delia to the door. Cautiously, Sophia made sure they were alone and slowly tiptoed out pulling Delia along with her.
Carpeia's study was bathed in light. The interior rumbled with activity, but it didn't seem to pose a threat. Sophia wasn't going far, quite near as a matter of fact. She grasped the bronze door handle and pulled it up with a quick jerk. The door swung inward on a darkened room.
"This is Victoria's bed chamber!" Delia whispered harshly.
Sophia pushed her through the entranceway then followed swiftly shutting the door behind them. Their candle flame danced on the short wick threatening to blow out then gradually steadied to its normal height.
Radiantly beautiful in the warm glow of candlelight Victoria lay motionless on her bed, a thick blanket drawn up around her. Sophia placed the candleholder on a low table next to Victoria's bed then hurried over to the window to make sure the heavy curtains were closed and fastened tightly. Delia walked slowly over to the stationary form. Victoria's gray sunken-in eyes were open.
She looked down at Victoria with a scowl on her face expecting the woman to rise up and say something at any moment. Sophia soon joined Delia and stood next to her.
"Well?" Delia addressed her former friend.
When she didn't answer, Delia poked her finger roughly into Victoria's shoulder.
"Why don't you speak?"
Neither action had any effect; the woman didn't stir an inch.
"What is the matter with her? Why is she just lying there like that?"
Sophia dipped a sponge into the water basin nearby and moistened Victoria's eyes with it. Fresh dewy droplets dribbled onto her face and ran slowly down one side of her nose.
"Victoria has been an invalid since the day she came back from Rome. As you can see she doesn't move or speak. She would stare at the ceiling for hours on end if one of us didn't close her eyes."
Delia leaned her painted white face down and studied Victoria's fixed expression carefully. Being this close to her caused an overwhelming pang of longing and loss; she then straightened up quickly.
"There is nothing I can nor care to do for her."
Sophia sighed and resumed the bathing task.
"Truly my dear, I thought that seeing her in this condition would give you a change of heart. Clearly I was mistaken."
Delia moved quickly towards the exit, and paused at Victoria's bedroom door.
"I know that you want me to be kind to Victoria Sophia, but I've lost the love I had for her," Delia pulled the long wig back over her hazelnut hair, "There is only revenge in its place now."
Sophia ran to her side.
"I don't believe you, not for an instant! You wouldn't harm Vitria...?"
Delia turned to gaze into Sophia's worried eyes.
"There are two evils among us that need immediate correcting. That one" she looked past Sophia and glanced briefly at the motionless occupant of the room, "will follow them."
Delia opened the door and slipped into darkness.
She stepped quietly to the open study entrance and peeked in at Carpeia. The Elderess was busily moving papers around and filing them into one of the numbered slotted bookcases along the walls. Delia noted that she was smiling.
A sudden feeling of being watched made Carpeia shoot a frightened look at the door. There standing in the brightly lit room was the ghost of Delia; tattered robes flowing about her.
"Will you not invite me in now Elderess?"
Delia folded her hands one on top of the other above her waist in a customary stance of reverence; the only difference was a leering grin on her face. Carpeia, too petrified even to scream, backed into the vaulted bookcase behind her; blue eyes wide open, and pupils dilated.
"No?" Delia said moving towards her, "But it is I Elderess, Delia, who requests an audience with you!"
"GO AWAY! DON'T COME ANY CLOSER!" Carpeia wailed in a panicked voice.
Delia ambled slowly over to the Elderess, arms outstretched to enfold her. Just as she was near enough to touch her, Carpeia fainted and fell to the floor. The loud disturbance stirred their sleeping community. Lord Ladonis was, as usual first on the scene, but not before Delia fled undiscovered from the study.
He rushed into the room to find the Elderess lying crumpled, face down next to her desk. Carefully, Lord Ladonis lifted her into his arms.
"My darling," he said patting her face gently, "wake my darling..."
Moaning pathetically, Carpeia came violently back into consciousness.
"GET HER AWAY FROM ME!"
"Calm down Carpeia, there is no one here but you and I."
The Elderess looked up at him. Lord Ladonis' features sagged and rippled molding into a very familiar face. It was Delia smiling down at her.
Carpeia flew into hysterics and wouldn't keep still. Lucius closed a hand harshly over her perfect nose and mouth causing the Elderess to gradually black out. She feebly struggled against his iron grip then went limp.
"I'm so sorry," he whispered sweetly, taking his hand away from her mouth, "I had to quiet you my dear."
Lord Ladonis stroked her cheek, tenderly soothing his unconscious mistress.
"You'll see. I'll bring back proof that Delia is dead and buried in her grave. I'll return with a lock of her hair."
He picked Carpeia up and carried her to her spacious rooms.
Delia overheard the whole event hiding just below the study window. She crouched low when Lord Ladonis transported his love out of the study and headed towards Carpeia's living quarters. Delia stared at the Elderess's door long after Carpeia's limp body had passed through it. There was a look on Delia's painted face that seemed almost inhuman.
"...There is only revenge in its place now."
She removed her sandals and walked barefoot through the bronze main gate and into the damp grass. Sleepiness weighed heavily on her and a run in the cool greenery is what she needed to revive.
"I must fasten Mercury's wing upon my ankle," she murmured softly, "I have no more time to waste!"
Delia sprinted now and then across the spongy meadows making her way in good time to the humble stone cottage of Nisus; Nisus the gravedigger. This plain, middle-aged man and his son Nestor saved her life. Though the event had only occurred less than two weeks prior, she felt as if more time had elapsed than that.
She looked up at the night sky. A three-quarter moon, and traces of dawn appearing on the horizon helped to light her way.
"It's not as dark as..."
She shook her head in an attempt to get rid of the memories of that terrifying day, but it proved futile. The vivid images co-mingled with her present thoughts until Delia was reliving her bitter punishment all over again...
A mountain of earth sprang up to the right of her grave again. It seemed to be piled higher this time, and not quite as neatly placed as it was before. Two men were working feverishly to remove sizable clots of clay from Delia's burial chamber. One was olderbald; the younger sported a thick swath of black hair on his head with bits of brown dirt in it.
"Go and keep watch. I'll do the rest," Nisus said giving his son a nudge.
Nestor climbed out as his father ordered and warily scanned the area for any unwanted guests. More dirt flew out of the hole, then
"DAMN ALL THE GODS!"
Nisus threw his shovel aside and started to dig away at the rich brown soil with his hands.
"What is the matter father?" Nestor called down uneasily.
"Help me Nestor...I can't find her!"
In their haste to get Delia out in time, the unstable ceiling of this death chamber had partially collapsed on her. Nestor jumped down and immediately burrowed into the earth alongside his father. Both men could barely breathe. Dust particles flew every which way taking up the already thin air of the dark passage. Halfway through, Nestor came in contact with Delia's arm.
"She's here!" Nestor squeezed out between labored breaths.
Nisus fumbled about in the dark until he could just make out the outline of her shoulder. Moving quickly he freed Delia's head and the upper part of her body while Nestor worked on her lower half. This proved to be almost impossible because the soft soil had compacted tightly around her hips. So tightly, in fact, that Nisus decided that they should both pull Delia the rest of the way out. The upper portion of her body lolled sickeningly to the side just before the men got a firm hold of each arm. A passing thought occurred to Nisus that she felt like a loose-limbed rag doll in his hands.
They tugged and pulled hard to loosen her from the earthen prison but she wouldn't budge. Nestor tapped on his father's arm.
"Let me try it alone."
Nisus moved out of the way while his son grabbed her tight under the shoulders. Planting his feet solidly he pulled with all his might. A dry tearing noise filtered out of the soil at her waist and suddenly she tumbled free. The new hole that was left quickly filled in again.
They carried Delia to where there was more room and laid her down gently in the bright light that trickled down into the deep cavern. Delia was smeared head to toe with mud. To say that she looked awful would have been a kind way of describing her.
Nisus cupped a hand over her mouth and waited to feel a breath. Nothing. She wasn't breathing.
"Get the water!" he said calmly without looking at his son.
Nestor obeyed and left his father temporarily alone with Delia. Nisus jammed his grimy fingers between her lips and forced her mouth open. He probed inside Delia's mouth to make sure nothing had gotten in there, then turned her over. He slapped her hard on the back a few times and cupped his hand near Delia's mouth again. Still nothing.
Nestor came back with the water and kneeled down next to his father quietly watching him try to revive the young woman. Nisus slapped her two more times and repeated the action of putting his hand to her mouth. Complete silence. He then tried the only other method he knew to help resuscitate someone who had stopped breathing: Nisus straddled her from behind and massaged up and down her back in a long deliberate motion. He'd seen this performed countless times on people dragged out of the water who were presumed dead. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not. Nisus prayed with every stroke that Delia would start to breathe on her own.
A few clear bubbles formed at her lips that neither man could see then she violently shuddered under Nisus' hands. Delia's back abruptly heaved up from the sudden rush of oxygen she drew in and Nisus hastily scrambled off of her. Rapid-fire hacking coughs came next, rocking Delia's body in sporadic fits.
Nestor joyfully stated the obvious and gently lifted Delia up laying her head over his shoulder. She coughed a few more times eventually settling into more of a normal breathing pattern.
Delia opened her eyes and frantically looked about. Without much of a warning she started shouting and pulled away from Nestor.
"I'M INNOCENT! I'M INNOCENT!" she screamed and clawed at the air.
Nisus caught Delia by her arms and held them firmly in his grasp.
"You are with friends. We know your Lictor, Aristes; he sent word to us..."
These words were warmly spoken in an attempt to quiet her fears. Delia stopped struggling and focused on the two men in front of her. She gradually began to realize that there was nothing threatening in these concerned faces. Nestor held out the water jug to her and she quickly snatched it from his hands. Delia gulped down several swallows and handed it back making sure she wouldn't accidentally touch him.
"We got you out just in time. You're safe with us now," Nestor offered, almost in a whisper.
Delia's voice seemed to be as far away as the look in her eyes.
"We must go now," Nisus put his hand on Nestor's, "see if we are alone."
Nestor climbed up the ladder and carefully searched the area above.
He climbed down halfway and held his large hand out to Delia. She stared at it then looked over at the older man; he nodded, smiling. Nisus helped Delia to her feet and she timidly reached for Nestor's hand. He held Delia's hand gently and guided her up the thin wooden rungs, with Nisus making sure she wouldn't fall backwards.
Once outside, with no one about, Nestor and his father breathed a little sigh of relief. The sun was high above the small cluster of trees lining the road. It would've been safer to travel at night under cover of darkness, but given this situation they had no other choice.
Nisus walked to his cart and held up a corner of the tarp stretched loosely over it.
"Quickly my lady."
Even in her hazy awareness of everything around her, she understood what he wanted.
"Where are you taking me?" Delia asked as she crawled under the rough canvas.
"A safer place," he answered while tying down the cover.
Both men then commenced to fill up the deep hole again. It didn't take long, being that they pushed most of the earth back into place. Nestor collected their tools fastening them securely to the outside of the cart.
"You have to remain quite still my lady," Nestor whispered close to the tarp, "Your rescue mustn't be discovered."
He lifted the long handles of their cart and began wheeling it slowly up the road.
The cart gradually stopped moving. They had arrived...where? How long the trip lasted, Delia couldn't begin to guess. The slight swaying motion had soothed her into a deep sleep.
Sudden gusts of cool evening air blew in through a folded over end of the tarp. Caring hands helped her up then out of the low flatbed vehicle. Delia became aware of someone else putting an arm around her then being led to an open front door.
"The poor thing is near naked and frozen stiff!" came a pleasant voice; a woman's voice, "Didn't you two think to put a blanket on the girl?" Her words weren't angry, just concerned.
Without answering her question, the men remained outside, wheeling their cart into its shed and unloading it. This woman enfolded Delia in the long shawl she wore and held her close within it.
"Don't worry dearie," the woman continued, addressing Delia this time, "Mena will help you inside."
Drowsy thoughts of: 'Who is Mena?' and 'Where is this 'inside'?' limped through Delia's mind. The only thing sure to her at the moment was that she was walking, walking into a welcoming yellow light.
"Set yourself down here," Mena said, while helping Delia onto a bed, "I'll be right back."
She slipped the shawl loosely around her confused charge then went off to fetch some hot water and a cloth. Delia in the meantime had focused her limited attention on the floorboards. Each board was tight-fitting and glossy. In her dazed condition, Delia imagined she was tiny enough to fall between those boards.
Mena had quickly returned with a bowl of water, a cloth and something for Delia to sleep in. She removed the shawl from Delia's shoulders and her thin tattered burial garment followed. Gently tilting the young woman's face up she was now ready to start cleaning off the mud.
"Let's get you nice and pretty, shall we?"
Delia looked at the woman speaking to her for the first time. Mena had the kindest expression on her face that she ever saw. The warm wet cloth pressed against Delia's skin and brushed delicately downward in short strokes working its way around to her legs.
Mena slipped a sleeping gown over her head and dressed her. She then helped Delia under the warm covers bringing the ends up around her chin. Mena smiled and kissed her cheek.
"Sleep now. If you need me I'll be right here."
As a child, the only one that ever tucked her in and kissed her goodnight was Victoria.
Tears welled in Delia's violet eyes and she started to cry.
"You're safe with us, my dear," Mena gently reassured her, "No harm will come to you."
Delia threw herself into Mena's arms and rested in their warmth.
Past images melted away as Delia stopped to catch her breath at the top of a rise.
This green hill overlooked a lone dwelling sitting in a sparsely wooded surrounding. A new morning sun crept through evening's inky clouds changing them to a lighter hue. Glittering dewdrops spotted the dull red-brown terra cotta shingles of this small home giving it a very peaceful appearance, but not for long.
The low door swung wide and flapped loudly against the rough outer façade. It was Nestor, Nisus' son toting a large wooden bucket at his side. He spotted Delia a short distance away coming towards him; her delicate form silhouetted by the pinkish light of early dawn.
"She's back!" he called into the open entrance.
Nestor dropped his bucket and hurried to meet her. Delia waved to him and walked a little faster; relieved to see a friendly smiling face. He caught her in his arms and hugged Delia close.
"I was...we were thinking about you!"
He lifted Delia effortlessly and carried the exhausted woman the rest of the way to his father's house. Nisus in the meantime had emerged with Mena and waited near the doorway to greet her. When Nestor arrived with his disheveled burden Nisus and Mena wrapped their arms around both of them.
"My dear child," Mena began excitedly, "we have been out of our minds with worry."
Nestor put Delia down carefully.
"Everything is going as planned," Delia stated firmly, "As I had hoped, Lord Ladonis wishes to visit my grave."
All three were slightly taken aback by her grim demeanor; it was Nisus who broke the silence.
"We are ready for him," Nisus reassured Delia, "Nestor and I have already received word to meet your Pontifex at the Colline this afternoon. You must've shaken him."
She took his large callused hands in hers and squeezed them tight.
"I owe you my life," Delia said in a softer voice, "All of you are taking a terrible risk. If anything should go wrong"
Nisus' eyes twinkled with a confident glow.
"Nothing will go wrong dear lady, you may be certain of that."
After he received word that the gravediggers had arrived, the Pontifex sent a formal and precise note to them with final instructions. Lord Ladonis then leisurely climbed into his lavishly decorated open carriage.
"To the Colline Gate," he directed the coachman.
At first, the elderly man gazed back at his master with a quizzical look on his face.
"Do we not speak the same dialect friend?" Lucius Ladonis inquired calmly, "DRIVE ON!" he added in a thunderous tone.
The driver immediately raised his whip and cracked it over the horse's skittish heads. With a clean lurch forward, Lord Ladonis was on his way.
Sophia knocked on Carpeia's chamber door for a third time.
"Elderess, are you there?"
She put her ear to the door and listened closely. Not a whisper, not the slightest movement could be heard. Sophia took a deep breath and placed a hand on the door handle...
"Elderess, it is I Sophia who requests an audience with you."
Sophia was greeted with silence as she moved closer to the bed, and discovered it was empty. She quickly looked about the darkened room and saw Carpeia propped up by plump pillows stuffed behind her. The Elderess was sitting very still on her sumptuous guest couch facing the window; her silvery hair down about her shoulders.
Sophia walked cautiously to Carpeia's side.
Her cold blue eyes stared out of the window and were fixed on the small stone bench in their garden.
"Look down there," the Elderess whispered softly, "Do you see? Delia is in good spirits today. She's a pretty little thing, isn't she?"
Sophia slowly stood up and gazed out of the window as instructed.
"Yes Carpeia, Delia is very pretty. Very pretty indeed."
A little past the stone bench Sophia looked towards the bare flowerbed that once gave shelter to her "beauties". In the wee hours of the past two days she had exhumed each infant and lovingly reburied all three where they would finally lie together in peace: near the sacred temple of Vesta.
"Stop here," the Pontifex ordered his elderly driver.
The lumbering coach horses slowed to an even gait then came to a full stop. Lucius Ladonis stepped down from the vehicle and laboriously smoothed out a few unruly creases in his robes.
"I expect you to be sober upon my return!" he warned the old man without looking up at him.
The driver stonily watched Lord Ladonis walk briskly away then reached under his seat and pulled out a jug of wine. He yanked the stopper out of it, drank deeply, wiped his mouth, and made an obscene gesture in his master's direction.
A large cart filled with tools and a long ladder sat close to a freshly dug gravesite. Nisus and his brawny son Nestor bowed low as the Pontifex came into view. As always, Lord Ladonis was exquisitely dressed in luxuriously embroidered vestments.
"Bring me a lamp," the Pontifex commanded.
Nisus lit the oil lamp and brought it immediately to the Pontifex. Lord Ladonis made his way to the grave's edge then holding the lamp at an angle he peered down into Delia's lighted tomb. The entrance to the small chamber had been cleared of debris and was plainly visible.
"Ah! I see you have carried out my instructions to the letter. Excellent!"
Nisus, covered in brownish clay from hairless head to sandals, came forward and bowed again.
"Would your Eminence like us to test the ladder for you now?"
Lucius nodded and waited patiently as Nestor rocked it slightly to and fro making sure the ladder was firmly set in the soft earth.
"Ready my Lord," Nestor said blandly and held the ladder for him.
Lord Ladonis eagerly grabbed hold of the rough wooden railing and began his descent.
"Do be careful your Eminence," Nisus called out, "it may be a mite wet down there."
"Country boob," Lucius thought to himself and smiled, "he thinks me a womanish fop."
It was indeed damp and colder than Lord Ladonis imagined it would be. He carefully held out the lamp in front of him and turned toward the narrow chamber; its opening was barely wide enough for him to fit through.
The solidly reinforced earthen room instantly lit up as he stepped in. All of its contents were as undisturbed as they had been left, with one tiny exception; Delia's body was not there.
Lord Ladonis shouted angrily then quickly left the chamber. He backed out into the daylight.
"NISUS, THE GRAVE IS EMP"
Lucius turned just in time to see the bottom half of the ladder being hauled out.
"WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THIS?"
For a moment, there was complete silence. Terror gripped his frosty heart and his voice climbed to a higher octave.
"I DEMAND AN EXPLANATION!"
"Good afternoon my Lord," came the unruffled response.
A small face hovered over the opening directly above. Ruthless violet eyes glared down at him with a familiar contempt.
A cheerless smirk curled her lips, as she answered him sweetly.
"Yes my Lord. How nice that you remember me."
Sweat poured down his face, as the position he found himself in became more and more alarming. Delia was obviously very much alive and the reason didn't seem to matter to him at the moment. What Lord Ladonis wanted most of all was to be allowed to climb out of that filthy hole.
"Bless us all, it is my dear, sweet Delia! Our gentle Goddess has performed a miracle!" he crossed his arms and bowed his head to her, "Let us together bless this monumental occasion."
Airy laughter suddenly burst from Delia's lips.
"Still the same pompous blowhard," she giggled gaily then steadied herself, "Shelf your elegant speeches Lord Ladonis, there is no captive audience listening this time!"
Delia got to her feet and turned away from the mouth of the open grave. Nestor and his father were waiting for her signal. She only glanced at them briefly.
"Fill it in."
Delia barely spoke these words above a whisper. On her command, both men pushed their shovels into the loose pile of earth and threw it into the hole. A large clump of soil landed squarely on Lord Ladonis' head. Some of it fell into his eyes, but most of the reddish clay smeared down the front of his richly embroidered gown.
"THIS IS AN OUTRAGE!" he sputtered as bits of dirt mixed with saliva flew out of his mouth, "I AM A HOLY SERVANT...OF THE GODDESS...VESTA!"
Nisus and his son picked up the pace tossing more earth into the deep grave. The Pontifex made a frantic attempt to climb out, but was thrown back with a large spade full of dirt.
"STOP! STOP!" he screamed through the thickly raining clay.
Lucius scooped up the earth and tried molding the loose dirt to help him climb up, but the deep pit was too narrow to move around in. Every avenue of escape had long ago been thought of when this method of execution was devised. The original architect's plan made sure that the condemned had no way of avoiding their terrible fate.
"NISUS! NESTOR! I...I'LL GIVE YOU ANYTHING!"
He slapped at the narrowing clay walls in a vigorous frenzy as the earth closed agonizingly in on him. The air thinned and became clogged with grime kicked up by his effort to breathe in great gulps.
"PLEASE, PLEASE SPARE ME! I DON'T WANT TO DIE!" he coughed out pitifully.
Delia was standing off to the side of this activity. She wanted to clap her hands over her ears, but stubbornly made herself listen to his pathetic cries for mercy.
Lord Ladonis screeched in terror as the last bit of sunlight was about to be cut off forever.
That's when the shoveling came to a sudden stop.
"You don't want to die? How many innocents have your kind led to early graves my lord?" Nisus in tears yelled down to him, "It's known not one of them sniveled for their lives!"
A day, long ago, appeared in the old man's mind. He was a young man again, helping his father for the first time bury a Vestal alive. Nisus never forgot that poor woman's courage in the face of her barbaric fate. He swore right there he'd save as many as he could from this punishment.
Nisus pushed his son aside, took up a spade, and tossed a large clod of earth into the tiny opening closing it for good. Lucius hacked up wads of brown fluid but managed to sputter his last barely audible plea.
Nisus promptly shoveled the last load of earth into the grave. Delia thought she could hear one more muffled cry, but the ground being pounded flat with the back of Nisus' spade obscured it. He beat the uneven earth over and over then tossed his shovel into the cart. It landed with a harsh clang against some other tools resting there. He muttered something not loud enough to be heard then spat on the grave.
Nestor put a hand on his father's shoulder.
"Yes, I know," Nisus said patting his son's huge hand, "we must be on our way."
Nisus gathered up his wares and loaded them onto the cart, but made a space for Delia.
"One last time my lady," he said holding up a corner of the heavy canvas covering.
She turned towards the two men who waited patiently for her to climb under the cloth. Delia slipped into the cart and Nisus quickly tied the tarp securely over her. Nestor then lifted the long wooden handles and pushed their cart along at an unhurried pace. Delia closed her eyes; the rumbling of the wheels on chipped cobblestone almost made her feel human again.
Up ahead and resting idly on the side of the road was Lord Ladonis' lavish open carriage. The old driver sat slumped back in his seat snoring away. He was too drunk to notice or care about the gravediggers that clattered by. When questioned many days later about his master's mysterious disappearance, he told the inquiry council that after the Pontifex left the carriage he simply vanished into thin air.
The cart slowly glided to a stop in front of a small back door.
"We have arrived my lady," Nisus whispered as he untied a corner of the tarp.
Delia climbed out from under the covering and hugged the older man before he had time to protest.
"If I still owned my former status I could bless you both properly..."
"Never you mind dear miss," Nisus awkwardly returned her embrace, "it has been an honor to serve you."
Delia reluctantly released him then turned to Nestor. He stepped closer and gently took her hand in his.
"It was an honor for me as well," he said, and kissed her hand, "Will we ever see you again?"
Delia lowered her gaze and stared at the ground.
"It is possible, but unlikely."
She looked up into his affable face and he knew for certain that they would not.
"Thank Mena for me..."
Nestor nodded and let her hand go. He grabbed the cart's thick handles and started to wheel it down the road. Nisus quickly joined his son in making their way slowly back home. He turned to wave farewell to Delia for the last time.
She had been reluctant to ask them why they saved her life or why they'd want to help her rid their land of a corrupt high priest. The reason they helped had been made only too clear to her this day.
Delia waved back and sadly watched them walk out of her life. She pulled her shawl tightly around her and headed for a small door on the other side of the street. She tapped on it, but there was no reply. Delia knocked a bit harder and could hear faint sounds of activity.
The bolt slid angrily aside and the door opened, but just a crack.
"Come 'round to the front entrance whoever you are!" an irritated voice called out, "Everyone knows this is a private entrance! Can't you read the sign?"
A small plaque on the left of the back door plainly read: Deliveries and other inquires, please use main entrance.
"But I've come such a long way. Couldn't you make an exception just this once?"
There was a brief silence then the door flew open and Aristes anxiously stepped out into the afternoon light. A woman stood before him dressed in a drab gown of the lower classes. The long brown shawl she wore, used as a hood, obscured most of her face. He couldn't see who this was but Aristes recognized her voice. She then let her shawl slip down to her shoulders and it was indeed...
He said this word so softly that she barely heard him. Aristes grasped her by both arms and moved her in a slow dreamlike circle; disbelief quickly turned into a rush of emotions as he looked into Delia's smiling face.
"My girl...my darling, darling girl!"
Aristes pulled her inside his small home bolting the door firmly behind them. Once inside, he flung his arms around Delia and cradled the young woman in a loving embrace.
"You're saved! Nisus got to you in time! Thank the Gods!"
Aristes enfolded her in his arms so gently and with such honest affection, that it moved her to tears. He didn't say another word, he just held Delia close until she quieted down.
"We wanted to send word," she said at last, "but the risk was too great."
Aristes drew back to look at her.
"You're alive my dear, that's all that matters," his expression changed to concern and with it his tone of voice, "Lord Ladonis is away on an urgent matter, but he'll not be gone long. He must not find you anywhere near the Atrium."
"Don't worry Aristes, I will be sure to keep out of his way."
There was no change in her voice or expression when referring to the formidable Pontifex. Aristes had no reason to guess that the man was no longer a threat.
"Do you know of Victoria's illness?" he asked delicately.
"I was informed."
The mention of Victoria's name, however, made a definite change in Delia's attitude. Her sudden look of anger momentarily confused Aristes. He hadn't heard of Victoria's betrayal at the trial.
"Poor thing," he continued, assuming Delia's agitated mood was due to the nature of her friend's illness, "Even the best physician isn't sure of what it is. Carpeia seems to be suffering from an extreme ailment as well. Though, I have been told that the two are completely unrelated."
"Is she being tended to?"
Delia's tone was so cold that it unnerved her genial host.
"If you are speaking of Victoria, then yes, she is well cared for. Carpeia is altogether another matter; she was taken with a violent seizure this morning. I saw the litter bearers spirit her away to a hospice. I fear the lady is quite mad."
Delia adjusted her shawl and smiled, but it was far from a happy expression.
"Trust our dear Elderess to depart in such an eloquent manner."
"Yes," Aristes said adding to Delia's last comment, "her wild appearance made quite an indelible fashion statement. Raving maniac is sure to be the newest eccentricity to model one's wardrobe after."
For a moment, Aristes and Delia looked quietly into each other's eyes then exploded into laughter.
"Oh my darling girl, how I've missed you!"
He took Delia by the hand and led her to a chair.
"It's so good to see you too dear friend, but my visit can only be a brief one. I must be going, almost immediately."
Aristes sat down in the chair next to hers, the smile gradually disappearing from his face.
"I know this," he said timidly taking both her hands, "You've risked too much already to say goodbye...to me." His eyes welled up with tears.
"Dear Aristes," Delia brought his hands up and laid her cheek against them, "it isn't goodbyeno, not ever. I'll carry you in my heart, always."
"It's not going to be the same without you, you know," he replied sadly.
"Thank you for that," tears swam in her eyes threatening to fall, "It is time."
She kissed his hand, got up then moved toward the door. Aristes watched Delia walk across the room suppressing the urge to stop her. She was just about to leave when Aristes made a motion of reaching out.
"Where will you go?" he called after her.
Delia paused to answer him, but she didn't turn around.
"To the place where I have one more act to perform."
Before he could further inquire where this destination was exactly, Delia quickly glided out. The door closed on its own with a mild click.
She feverishly hurried through back alleys eventually finding her way to the main gates of the enclosed Vestal community. A light perfumed breeze from numerous flowers in their courtyard blew through the bars immediately greeting all visitors or those just passing by. Delia's shawl was pulled fast around her head as she reached for the cord just next to the heavy bronze gate; a pleasant tinkling chime announced her presence. Sophia quickly ran out to meet the unknown guest.
"I'm sorry to have to turn you away, but our Elderess has been taken ill and our youngest Vestals have been temporarily housed elsewhere so I'm afraid that"
Delia uncovered her head and Sophia nearly gasped. The smoldering anger in her lavender eyes frightened the older Vestal.
"Open the gate Sophia," she commanded in a calm voice.
"No...you have come to harm Vitria, haven't you? I can see it in your face! I won't let you!"
Sophia ran into Victoria's room and bolted the door shut.
"This locked gate won't stop me!"
Delia hurried to a plain wooden shed used to house tools for repair. She found what she was looking for there: a good size ladder lying on its side. Delia managed to drag the heavy wooden beast to the Atrium wall and lifted the thing up against it. She climbed as far as she could go and had to hoist herself the rest of the way to the top. Delia swung her legs over and sat atop the wall a moment looking down. It was a fair distance below to the courtyard and there wasn't much to break her fall. Delia threw her shawl over and she jumped after it. Landing badly, she rolled over twice before coming to a stop in a thick bed of colorful irises. She got to her feet and limped in the direction of Victoria's bedroom.
Delia wasn't badly hurt, only a scraped knee, but her anger had increased from the pain. She tried the doorknob and of course, the entrance was barred to her. There was only one logical way to get into this room: the window. Sophia had neglected to bolt the shutters. Delia pulled herself up and fell into the room startling Victoria's guardian. She righted herself and started to shamble closer but Sophia dramatically put a hand up.
"Get out of my way Sophia."
Delia took a few more steps forward then Sophia produced a small clay bird from behind her back. She held it out to Delia who appeared to be momentarily stunned by this action.
"Remember this? You gave it to her the first year you entered our order."
Delia carefully took the little clay sparrow from Sophia and stared at it.
"Victoria confessed to me long ago that it was the most precious gift anyone had ever given her. I'm certain she loved you Delia. See what betraying that love for you has done to her. Look at Victoria more closely my dear, isn't she paying a higher price than what you seek?"
Delia moved toward Victoria and scowled down at her. She seemed a bit paler than last time but her gray eyes were lovely as ever, staring unblinking at the ceiling. Delia reached out to touch Victoria's chiseled face with a very shaky hand. Sophia made a slight motion to stop her, but saw that Delia's gesture wasn't a threatening one.
Her fingers ran gently over the elegant contours of her former dear friend's features.
"Her stone feels as warm as flesh," she whispered to Victoria, "At times I believe she longs to speak..."
Delia suddenly yanked her hand away as if it had been burned and balled it into a fist.
"YOU HAVE SHATTERED MY HEART!"
She fell to her knees in tears. Sophia kneeled down next to Delia and put her arms around her.
"Victoria knows, my dear. She knows what she has done."
Sophia held Delia closer and tried to comfort her as best she could.
"Mightn't you one day lay aside these hard feelings and love her like you once did?"
"No Sophia," Delia said choking back her tears, "that can never be."
Sophia rocked her gently in her arms like an infant. Victoria loomed above them silent as the grave staring, like a statue, into space.
"Delia stayed till early morning and told me everything."
Sophia spared Victoria by not telling her all that happened, especially Delia's plan to kill her.
"They have both lost so much already, why make it worse?" she concluded quietly to herself.
The narration over, Sophia folded her hands in her lap and sat calmly in a chair next to the bed.
Victoria's head swam with this fantastic story. She hadn't interrupted Sophia during her account of these events, not even once. Victoria wanted to make sure she missed none of it.
"You related these things to me with believable energy Sophia," she began slowly, "But you see how inconceivable it is."
"So it would seem, but I have related to you exactly what Delia told me."
Delia's angry words, and her own miserable public show of grief flashed in Victoria's mind. Delia couldn't have known that she would be saved. Victoria was sure of that.
"Why would they risk their lives rescuing a condemned woman, let alone assist in doing away with a tyrant?"
"I have no answer to that my dear. Let us just rejoice in the fact that they did."
Victoria dearly wished that she had been born a much cleverer girl. She cursed herself that she was so dim. Her unsophisticated temperament could only grasp such things in small doses.
"Do you think they will continue to help others with a similar fate?"
"One can only pray that they will," Sophia stated gently.
Victoria looked down and studied her hands, soft hands that had never known mean labor.
"Where will they go Sophia, these lost women? What kind of life is waiting outside the only vocation they knew?"
Sophia imagined all sorts of menial drudgery in every common walk of life and didn't think a lengthy existence lay ahead for any of them. Not even for Delia who was possibly cleverer than most.
"A very different life I suppose."
Waves of emotion rocked Victoria and she dizzily teetered forward.
Sophia rushed over and helped a very weakened Victoria to lie back down.
"I should have waited till you were well enough...I ought to have let you rest."
Victoria sprang back up and grabbed hold of Sophia's arm.
"Where is she? What has become of Delia?"
"Delia left us two days hence."
Victoria made a feeble attempt at trying to leave her bed.
"It is important that you hear this first," Sophia placed a hand over Victoria's and held onto it tight, "Lord Ladonis's presence will likely be missed very soon. Delia took certain measures to make the Pontifical council believe that he stole all the coin reserves kept in his rooms and then fled the country."
Victoria struggled to stay calm, but was steadily losing control over her tangled nerves.
"Then she is waiting with a trustworthy friend nearby to see if her plan is successful?"
Sophia's expression remained unchanged from its look of heavy sadness.
"No Vitria, she has gone far away from all of us and will never return."
"But she may need help...I must go to her!"
"I don't believe that would be advisable. Delia is well provided for. I gave her numerous gold pieces to start a new life."
Victoria struggled helplessly about trying to get out of her caretaker's firm hold, with little effect.
"Please, I've got to find Delia...I have so many things to tell her..."
Exhausted, she sank back onto the bed and hid her face in a pillow. Sophia leaned down to whisper to her softly.
"Let her go Vitria. It is better that the poor girl finds her way alone."
She spoke so tenderly that Victoria turned to Sophia and fled into the shelter of her arms.
"Where has she gone Sophia?" she tearfully stuttered out, "Has she gone so far that I will never find her?"
Sophia held Victoria and absently stroked her hair.
"Perhaps, but not so far that she would forget you."
"What do you mean?"
"She has taken the clay bird with her."
Victoria's most prized possession; the simple little figurine Delia gave her eleven years before. Now it was certain in Victoria's mind that Delia still loved her. Smiling, Victoria closed her eyes and thought of Delia, as she used to be, capering merrily about on the fresh dewy grass with a bit of mischief in her heart.
"Wherever you are sweet Delia I'll find you. I just know I will, and we'll be the best of friends again...forever!"
Her destination was undecided as she journeyed through unfamiliar countryside. There was only one thing Delia was sure of: she was determined to cut all ties with the past. Before leaving she smashed a delicate clay figurine against a statue; a glimmering white statue whose stone was as warm as flesh.
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