Rome, 269 A.D
Marcus Lucius stood impassively as the priest dispatched the goat on the altar in the Lupercal Cave, the place where the she-wolf Lupa had miraculously nursed the abandoned babes, Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. The High Priest stood nearby, supervising closely to make sure the rites to honor the god Pan were performed properly.
Gaius Germanus, Marcus' cousin and best friend since childhood, stood next to him subtly admiring his own tanned, naked body from different angles, as the priest proceeded with the blood sacrifice of the dog. Marcus' eyes twitched, as the dog whined horribly even after its throat was cut. It was a great honor to be selected by the Luperci to run for the festival, an honor his father had campaigned for relentlessly, but all the same he liked dogs.
Two veiled figures approached the altar carrying salted meal cakes to be offered along with the blood sacrifices. The Vestal Virgins were revered for their purity, dedication, and service to Rome. Vestals were removed from their families while still quite young and committed to 30 years of temple service to the people of Rome. They were so revered and respected that a condemned man would be pardoned upon seeing a Vestal, even if he was on the way to his execution. They were untouched, holy. Marcus' eyes remained straight ahead as the priests gave the veiled figures a wide berth in the cramped cave, careful to be sure even their robes did not brush the Vestals in passing.
Marcus' lips pursed in annoyance when he felt Gaius, who was craning his neck to see the Vestals' faces, leaned over and nudged him with an elbow. Gaius had all the dignity and decorum of a young dog upon seeing an overturned food cart. Ignoring him, Marcus remained silent and steadfast, waiting for the completion of the ceremony.
The priest summoned the two naked young men to approach the altar. There, he dipped the ceremonial knife into the mixed blood of the goat and the dog. Chanting as he lifted the knife, the priest wiped the blood from the knife first onto Gaius', and then Marcus' forehead. Marcus could have done without this honor, but the rites of the gods were sacrosanct.
The other priest followed, echoing the chants of the first, holding a cup filled with milk. Dipping some white wool into the cup, he swabbed the blood off Gaius' forehead, and as the rites dictated, at this moment Gaius laughed loudly with a wide grin. Marcus bowed his head to allow the priest to reach his forehead with the wool, and prepared to force out a laugh to fulfill the rite. He had practiced laughing for this at home, because unlike Gaius, it was not in his nature to do so naturally. However, as he felt the milk-soaked wool swab the blood from his forehead, he looked up and saw the face of one of the Vestals watching him.
It was her. Julia. Clad in a white stola with the Vestal's girdle and veil wrapped around her beautiful face, but there could be no doubt. It was his beloved Julia. As children they played together constantly, Marcus bravely rescuing her from the Gauls who invaded Rome after hearing of her ethereal beauty. Gaius had played the Gaul marauder that threw her screaming over his shoulder and shouted that she would be his forever, but Marcus always found a way to save her and was rewarded for his valor with a chaste, yet sweet, kiss. When they were 10 years old, they went to her house to be told only that Julia had been sent to live with a relation in the countryside. The two boys never played those games again. It wouldn't have been the same with another girl.
Gaius started laughing again, seeing his cousin's blankly shocked face. Stuffy Marcus had finally seen what he had been nudging him about. The priest began awkwardly laughing, too, trying to prompt Marcus to fulfill his role in the ceremony, but still Marcus just stared. Then, too quickly for anyone but Marcus to be certain that it had happened, Julia the Vestal winked at him. A deafening laugh exploded out of him, crashing off the walls of the cave, and battering the occupants inside with its ringing echoes. Cheers went up outside. The ceremony was completed, now the feasting of Lupercalia could begin.
As the procession made its way to the feasting hall, Gaius couldn't stop talking out of the side of his mouth. "What a waste! Did you see her? Wow…" he hissed to Marcus, who couldn't stop looking at the back of her veil as she and the other Vestal led the procession. "Anyway, remember not to eat too much at the feast. We need to save our energy for tomorrow…" he said, grinning lewdly.
Gaius had also run for the Lupercalia celebration the year before. The day after the ceremony, the two young men would run through the streets and whip people with strips from the hides of the animals that had been sacrificed. The ritual was said to bring an easy birth to women who were pregnant, and fertility to those that wished to become pregnant. It was this second point that Gaius delighted in, for he took it as his personal responsibility and gods-given duty to go visit the high-born women who requested to be whipped and ensure that the night of Lupercalia brought them as much fertility as a virile young man could provide.
At the feast, Marcus and Gaius were escorted to places of honor where their young muscular bodies lay practically on display for the rest of the hall's admiration. Nearby, the priests and Vestals took their places along with various people of high rank or wealth. Marcus uncomfortably found himself seated naked next to the High Priest whose fine robes flowed around him as he lay on his side. Even while clothed, Marcus never knew what to say in conversation, much less with priests. Servants brought in rich dishes of decadent luxury, offering each to the lounging guests before placing them on the table. Wine flowed and soon the group was laughing as they called comments to each other across the table.
Marcus ate sparingly, though the rich dishes were the finest Rome had to offer. Julia sipped her wine and listened to the table's conversation. Marcus knew he shouldn't look at her too much, but he couldn't help himself. She bore all the delicate beauty that she had as a child, but now her features had grown into those of an extraordinarily beautiful woman. On occasion her eyes drifted over and he felt a rush of warmth go through him, hoping that his nakedness would not betray his thoughts. He turned away to listen to the conversation between the High Priest and Senator Tertius.
"The festivals keep the mob happy, and that is all Emperor Claudius cares about, but I would just as soon let the soldiers take wives if Rome needs more children. Lupercalia has become a farce. An excuse to parade young flesh through the streets in lewd ribaldry," Tertius said, taking a crab-stuffed lamb bladder from a plate and eating it whole. Marcus watched the delicacy slide down the corpulent Senator's gullet with some revulsion, but was careful not to let his disgust show outwardly. Tertius had opposed Marcus' receiving the honor of being a Lupercalia runner, largely out of spite, because Marcus' father had been granted the contract for building a new Imperial public bath instead of Tertius' brother.
"The festival pleases the gods, Senator. You ignore them to your peril," the High Priest replied piously.
"If we could take wives, I wouldn't mind a career as a soldier," commented Gaius, grabbing a handful of grapes and popping a few in his mouth. "Soldiers go everywhere in the Empire. I've always wanted to see Gaul, haven't you Sister?" he asked looking over his shoulder to where Julia sat next to him.
Julia's gentle smile, nearly hidden in her veil, made Marcus' heart beat faster. Then her lips opened and he found himself leaning forward almost against his will to hear what would come out of them, to hear her voice again. "I have heard that Gaul has many sights that are beauteous to behold, but before going, I should very much like to be sure I would be making a return trip, Master Gaius," she said, favoring him with a slight tilt of her head.
"Well, yes, we can't have the Vestal fire going out now, can we? That's why we would need Marcus to enlist, too. He's a terribly serious fellow, so nothing in Gaul would keep him from doing his duty to protect you," Gaius said, tossing a grape in the air and catching it in his mouth and grinning at his cousin.
Julia bowed her head, then lifted her face to look at Marcus, her soft lovely eyes alighting on him like a dove, making his breath stop. "You would not wish to see Gaul then, Master Marcus? Is your heart unmoved by beauty?" she asked.
Marcus' mouth dried up. His native language leaked out of his head, rendering his tongue useless, and he simply stared, eventually looking away from her for the sake of propriety. "Oh, Marcus has been moved by beauty more than a few times," Gaius covered, "the problem is, he just keeps on moving afterward…" he finished.
"It sounds like you would make an ideal soldier, then, Marcus," Senator Tertius offered, "no fears for a family holding you back. Say the word, and I will tell your father to release you from the family business and we will see you fit out as a centurion or better!"
"Thank you, Senator. If I decide upon a career in the military, you will be the first to know," he said, glancing to where Tertius waved to a servant to refill his goblet. "I know little of Gaul," he said quietly, glancing up to Julia who still watched him with mild interest, "but my heart will always belong to the beauties of Rome." The party murmured general approval to his sentiments and continued their celebrating.
On the following morning, after a brief bloodless ceremony, Gaius and Marcus prepared to run and whip the noble women, wearing nothing but their sandals. "You take those on the left side and I'll take the right. I've scouted out the route — you'll want to watch out for Agrippa's wife. She is pretty, but he travels a lot and she won't be satisfied with just one visit. The others are fine for a beginner like you. Just remember to pace yourself tonight — the god Pan is counting on you!" he advised Marcus, trying to be heard over the mob in the streets.
The runners were released and began their trek down the cobbled streets of Palatine Hill. Marcus ran carefully through the crowds at the start of the race, whipping all the outstretched hands he could as he went. In the faces of the women who asked for him to lash them, he saw hope in some, fear in others. Some asked him to touch their rounded bellies with the lash, which he did with the utmost gentleness and care. They were women who wanted children, wanted to survive to be mothers, wanted to be valued in a culture that demanded one thing above all: Rome was an empire ever at war, and she needed sons.
After the teeming masses at the start of the race, the crowds thinned a little and the womens' faces took on another look as they offered themselves for the lash. "Those that want a visit from you will stand right outside their homes, so you know where to go that night," Gaius had explained to him. As he ran the route, Marcus saw the truth in Gaius' words. Married women stood in their doorways, leaning out to caress his shoulders and chest instead of offering their palms flat and ready for his lash.
"Mmmm… is everything about you as long as those legs?" one cooed to Marcus, pulling him toward her with hands adorned with rings and bracelets. With a bland smile, Marcus lashed her half-heartedly and continued. Looking back, he saw Caius lashing a woman's thighs as she held her skirt up for him. It began to feel like a distasteful parody of passion, all these over-painted women flinging themselves on him like he should be aroused by such brazen behavior.
As he passed another doorway, he saw a small palm outstretched, almost completely hidden beneath a plain cloak. As he gently lashed it, the hand quickly snared the strip of hide and held it tight. Turning in surprise, he looked back to see what had happened. The woman used her other hand to take his and put it on her flat belly, as if asking the gods for an easy delivery for a child just conceived. Marcus looked up at the owner of the hands and was shocked to see Julia's face, nearly completely hidden within the cloak. "Meet me at here at sundown, Marcus. I need your help. Please."
Stunned, Marcus backed away and kept running, occasionally looking back to the now empty doorway. Had he dreamed it? He looked to where Gaius was now running his strip of hide between a woman's breasts as she squeezed them together and laughed.
After the race, the young men relaxed in the warm pool of the thermae reserved for the aristocracy, Gaius recounting all the homes he intended to visit that night. "Pilia, Octavia, Penelope, Livia, Hilaria… my god, the streets of Rome will flow white with my seed tonight!" he declared. Gaius leaned over to see that Marcus' face didn't change at his exclamation, and instead he continued staring at his feet under the surface of the water, deep in thought. "Then, I thought I'd go climb Mount Olympus and see if Venus or Diana would like to have a go…" he said, watching his cousin's face. Marcus grunted in absentminded agreement. "Or maybe just go straight to the House of the Vestal Virgins…" he said quietly, satisfied to see Marcus jump and give his full attention. "So, did you find any worthy candidates to service in the name of Pan tonight?" he asked, laughing.
"What? No," Marcus said irritably. "I don't know why you find a bunch of bawdy, desperate, middle-aged women throwing themselves at you so amusing," he growled.
"Uh huh… quite unlike the young, gorgeous and very, very blasphemously desirable virgin that you couldn't stop staring at last night," Gaius chuckled. "Forget Julia. Come with me to go fuck some eager women, and keep your cock and balls attached to your body." Marcus grunted again and launched himself out of the large bath, drawing the eyes of numerous bathers as the water ran down over his toned and darkly tanned body.
Taking a flask of scented oil, Marcus poured some in his hand and rubbed it onto his skin hurriedly, looking up in annoyance as Gaius sauntered over, dripping water everywhere. "So, don't come with me for a night of bawdy delights — just by leaving the pool, you've interested about a dozen here that could wipe that scowl off your face. Marcus, it's Lupercalia. Live a little," he said, straddling the bench where Marcus was diligently scrapping the oil off his skin with a strigil.
"I… I wish you well, Gaius, truly," he said, "But, I would be a poor companion for you, tonight. As you've often said, I'm too serious… even Julia used to say so." Marcus said, wiping his body off with a towel. "Do you suppose… at that age… she ever really wanted to…" he began before he trailed off, lost in thought. Dressing quickly, Marcus walked out of the bath house without another word. Gaius watched his cousin stalk away, his face fading into a rare troubled expression.
Near sundown, Marcus draped a cloak over himself and walked back to the house where Julia had asked him to meet her. The villa was large and luxurious, though dark except for a light glowing dimly in an upstairs window. The street was empty, but filled with the noise of people celebrating in their homes and terraces. Steeling himself, Marcus stepped into the doorway and knocked. The door was unlocked and swung open slightly. He slipped inside and closed it, then after a pause, he locked it as well. Julia could be put to death if she were discovered meeting alone with a man.
"Hello?" he called quietly, his voice echoing across the deserted and dark marble entryway. Hearing no answer, he walked toward the stairs that would lead him up to the lit room.
"Upstairs…" came her voice in reply, and he ran up the staircase taking three steps in each bound. He found Julia standing in the middle of a large bedchamber, her hands clasped in front of her. He crossed the room in a few steps and stood before her, looking at her in the light of the lamp on a stand near the bed. He was torn between wanting to embrace her and wanting to avert his eyes out of respectful reverence. She was a vessel of the gods… and yet, she was his… his Julia. She slowly raised her hands and pushed her veil back down to her shoulders. "Thank you for coming," she whispered. "This is the house of a retired Vestal. She is staying in the countryside until the floods and the fevers they bring pass from Rome."
Her red gold hair was loose about her shoulders instead of tightly coiled in the braids of a Vestal Sister. He yearned to run his fingers through it, but he stopped his hand when he realized he had raised it without thinking. Shaking himself mentally, he cleared his throat, "Are you all right? Why are we meeting here? Don't you know that you could be—"
"Believe me, Marcus, if anyone is aware of the punishments to which the Vestal Sisters are subjected, I am," she said, turning her back to him and slowly gathering her stola up over her head and shoulders and dropping it on the floor. Marcus' questions left him, along with his breath, for her naked body demanded his attention not only for its beauty, but also for the cruel welts and bleeding gashes that covered her graceful back.
Anger flared inside him, and his outrage grew when he noticed the less obvious scars of healed wounds mixed in with the fresh ones. To say nothing of decency, it was illegal to shed the blood of a Vestal. "Who did this to you? Who dared—"
"The High Priest, of course. He is the only one with the right to do so. When a Vestal fails in her duties, or otherwise behaves in a manner unbecoming of her position, it is for him to… correct her," she said over her shoulder. "The correction is administered by the High Priest, who lashes the Sister from behind a curtain," she said, quietly. "The High Priest has punished me more severely and for smaller infractions than the other Sisters, ever since I reached maturity. After that time, he demanded that I strip naked before being lashed instead of remaining in my stola, saying that being clothed allowed me too much pride. It was not until recently, though, that he drew back the curtain and covered the marks he gave me with his… ejaculate," she said, turning and looking at him impassively, with terrible dignity.
"Julia… I…" Marcus choked, stepping forward and clasping her shoulders in his hands, both of them jumping slightly at the forbidden contact.
"Last night's punishment was for my behavior at the feast… for flirting with you," she said.
"But you weren't flirting! You barely spoke to—"
Julia's mouth quirked, "Of course, I was flirting with you, Marcus," she said, shaking her head. "Even 20 years and a decade of serving Vesta cannot change some things… I don't think I'm capable of not flirting with you," she said, a small smile growing on her lips. "I asked you to meet me here because I needed your help… because… I don't want to be a Vestal anymore," she whispered, shaking at the enormity of her words.
Marcus blinked. Vestals served for 30 years, and there was no leaving the order otherwise. What she was saying was treason, not that it mattered. She was Julia. "I'll help you," Marcus promised. "Gaius will, too… we'll both help you. Of course. We'll book a ship and—"
"No. I am under guard at all times, Marcus. I will be punished for giving mine a sleeping draught tonight, but I will not allow you or Gaius to suffer for me. If we sailed, your absence would be noted with mine, and so your families would also be punished for me. I cannot not allow this."
"In truth, I asked you here tonight because… I have come to the end my life. I know now that the High Priest means to have me and, based on his recent actions, he will likely take me very soon. After that, he will dispose of me when he grows tired of using me or when he needs a convenient scapegoat, no doubt by accusing me of losing my virtue. The punishment for loss of virtue in a Vestal, of course, is death. Probably within the year, I will be buried alive in a vault in the Evil Fields. So, you see, my death is coming soon, whether I like it or not."
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