Traveling with Marcus made Evie feel like her feet might fall off at the end of the day. He roused everyone before dawn and got them into a marching file, and they walked until the sun reached its zenith. They’d stop for a bit of wine, bread, and cheese, and then march some more. Marcus might not be an actual soldier, but Evie sure felt like she was in the army. Whenever they passed villages or other cities, Marcus would send a man or two ahead to scout the area and buy more provisions when necessary.
“I have to admit,” Evie said as they approached Naples, “he’s efficient.”
Tatius had not enjoyed the last four days. Despite his lanky build, he was slow on the road. He liked to say it was the mule slowing him down, that the beast was stubborn, but that excuse was dashed to bits when one of Marcus’s men took the rope and the mule matched the man’s pace. Since then, Marcus had taken to prodding Tatius verbally and physically. He walked by now, jabbing the farmhand in the back with the butt of his spear. “I’m going as fast as I can,” Tatius said.
“Not fast enough. Something tells me those symbols won’t last forever.”
“What does that mean?” Evie asked. Marcus didn’t answer, but set his jaw and stared forward. She stopped. “What do you mean by that? That I won’t be able to get back home?”
Marcus stopped and looked back at them. “Keep moving.”
“Not until you answer me. I didn’t know these things,” Evie held up my arm, “have an expiration date.”
“I don’t know how long they’ll last. But quests aren’t meant to be delayed. I don’t know why you even let this boy stay with us; he’s slowing us down. Slowing you down. Campania is still another day away–two if he doesn’t pick up his feet.”
“I’ve been traveling ten days already,” Tatius said.
Evie shifted her weight. “I keep him around because it’s his master’s mule. Besides, neither of us are used to walking so much in a day. Where I come from, we have–” She stopped, because she didn’t know how to describe subways and taxicabs to a Roman bandit dressed as a soldier. “This isn’t your quest, Marcus. It’s mine. I’ve hired you and the coin I gave you should be enough to pay for an extra day. Quit giving Tatius a hard time.”
Marcus shook his head. “The priestesses. Far as I’m taking you.”
“Right. Just like we agreed.”
The rest of the day, and half of the next, passed with more marching, though Marcus was gentler to Tatius. He only told him to walk faster instead of happing at him with the blunt end of his weapon. As they approached the city, Evie quieted.
“Are you frightened?” Tatius asked.
“I don’t know. I’m sure if there is some quest to fulfill, it’ll require more than walking from north of Rome to Campania. What if–what if I can’t do it, and I never get to go home again?”
“That may happen, but the gods will perhaps take into account that you tried. Well, Saturn probably wouldn’t.”
“I’m only mean that he’s rather stern, isn’t he?”
“Tatius! That’s not helping.”
“Sorry. Will you–” He adjusted his grip on the mule’s rope. “Will you send word to Publius Sepunius Columella either way?”
Evie stopped and turned toward him, mouth hanging open. “Tatius, are you worried about me?”
Tatius stopped too and looked up at the sky. Not a single cloud drifted by to distract him. “I–only because my master was concerned. And setting off as we did without the time to make a sacrifice or consult the augurs…”
Evie placed her hand on Tatius’s forearm. “I will send word if I can but I probably won’t be able to. I don’t know what’s coming and if given the opportunity to go home, I have to take it. Tatius, I don’t belong here. You didn’t see–didn’t see what I looked like when I arrived.”
“I know my master had to bring you clothes. You only know about some of our gods. Your accent is all wrong and you don’t know where some of the small villages are between the larger cities. I know you’re an outsider, but I don’t know from where.”
Or when, Evie thought. “Right. So I have to go back the moment the priestesses give me the chance–or I might lose it.”
Tatius hung his head. “I understand. Publius Sepunius Calumella will be disappointed.”
Tatius lifted one corner of his mouth to smile. “I haven’t got much of a choice. Just bring the mule here, bring the mule back. Probably won’t even make it back alive.”
“I don’t think I’ve heard you tell a joke. You shouldn’t. It’s weird, Tatius.” Evie smiled to him though.
“Are you two finished? The priestesses won’t wait forever,” Marcus said.
After Tatius left with the mule, Evie followed Marcus into Campania proper. It was more beautiful than anything she’d ever imagined, but somehow she knew it fulfilled every part of a Mediterranean dream, even though it was on the Tyrrhenian Sea. Turquoise water, sailboats, and villas carved into cliffs were accompanied by the calls of gulls overhead, and a chorus of voices. Some advertised the catch of the day, others wares from all over the region. Wheat from Egypt. Pottery from Greece. Spanish leather.
“This way,” Marcus closed his hand around Evie’s elbow and led her through a maze of streets. Each time she was certain they’d hit a dead end, he turned into an alleyway that was so narrow it seemed to appear out of nowhere. It would widen and then lead to other alleyways that worked like capillaries, arteries, and veins carrying people, animals, and goods to and from the port. Evie imagined a great heart there, beneath the docks, pulsing. Marcus turned with her so many times that she lost track of which direction they’d come from, until they finally stopped before an archway over a door twice her height. “The priestesses are inside. I’ve fulfilled my part of the bargain.”
“So you’re just going to abandon me here?”
He shook his head, lips pressed into a thin line. “It is no abandonment. You paid me to take you to the priestesses.”
“You said you knew them. You have to at least make an introduction.”
Marcus sighed and approached the door, raising his fist and pounding on the wood with his whole forearm. For a moment, nothing happened, and Evie wasn’t sure if she would be happy about that or not. Would it be easier to just go back to Publius Sepunius Columella and try to find a job she could do for him? The door swung open and her wrist burned. Evie hissed and covered the marks with her other hand. Marcus turned toward her. “What is it?”
She uncovered her wrist, which looked red and angry, like the symbols had just been branded mere moments ago. “It hurts.”
“It would, wouldn’t it?”
Evie narrowed her eyes at him. “Why? Why should it hurt?”
“Means you’re on the right path, I bet. Come on.”
Evie didn’t consider herself a wimp but she wouldn’t have minded getting some sympathy from Marcus. Tatius would have shown empathy, she thought–but then, Marcus was a cruel mercenary, probably. Or brigand. She shouldn’t expect such kindness from him. She followed him through the archway, her cheeks heating up as she looked up at the barrel-vaulted expanse before her. The walls were frescoed with scenes of the gods. Evie couldn’t help but think how much Pete would love to get a team in here. If she ever made it home, she’d have to make sure that the museum got someone to come check this place out. Maybe she’d get to come back in two thousand years or so and see it with an archeologist’s eye.
“Marcus,” a woman in a dark blue dress walked up to them and regarded him. “You weren’t going to ever return here. On pain of death.”
Evie turned her head toward him so fast that her neck spasmed. “You–you said they owed you.”
The woman laughed. “We do! We owe him death. But,” she turned toward Evie, trailing cool fingertips down Evie’s arm to clasp her wrist. She pried Evie’s fingers away from the symbols and held them up close to her face. Evie examined the paint around the woman’s eyes. Tiny Roman numerals–just numerals here, I suppose–lined her brow. “But maybe we can find a way for him to settle this debt between us. Marcus, you will both stay the night.” She smiled to Evie, releasing her wrist. “I am Aelia, and you and I have much to discuss. You come with the gods’ blessing, on a quest that…” Aelia closed her eyes and inhaled a deep breath that shuddered her torso, “that will either save or doom you.”
Evie couldn’t look away from Aelia. Her low, soft voice, her painted amber eyes, her soft black curls that framed her face and rested weightless on her shoulders, entranced Evie. “Can you help me? Tell me what I’m supposed to do? And how to get back home?”
Aelia smiled. “There is only one way to go home. You must do as the gods ask, and you must have faith in them. I must consult with them–you will both dine and sleep in this temple tonight.”
“But–” Marcus said, but silenced himself when Aelia held up her hand, palm facing him. He nodded and Aelia waved that hand, beckoning three more young women. They kept their gazes down, but two of them led Marcus one way, and one of them led Evie down another corridor.
“You must bathe, then sup, then sleep,” the woman told Evie.
Despite how much she wanted to get home, Evie agreed. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a real bath. Food sounded great, and sleep in what she hoped would be a bed would be divine. Then in the morning, she could find out from Aelia exactly what she had to do to get back home where she belonged.