It's hard to feel pure devotion when you're five feet tall.
I stand beside the altar, stretching my arm up as high as I can, but I'll never make it. Lucia's candle is still a good six inches above my own, and my flame won't magically leap from one candle to another, no matter how hard I pray. I try to stand higher on my tiptoes, but I wobble. Hot wax cascades over my hand, and I lose my balance.
"Idiot," huffs Marta, as my foot lands squarely on her. She's crouched below me with the incense in the traditional pose, but she immediately breaks the tableau in disgust.
"Olivia," Lavinia says to me, "we have now proven that it is impossible for you to pass the flame in this ritual. So I hope you'll finally stop begging me to let you try. Marta, please take Olivia's place beside the altar, and we'll resume."
"Yes, Vestalis Maxima, I say. I kneel below Marta, disappointed. Prayer is impossible from down here, with the smoke from the incense stinging my eyes, and I know from experience that I'll reek of perfume for the rest of the day.
"Try not to catch yourself on fire this time," Marta says to me in an undervoice as she assumes my place at the altar. I glare at her in return, but she and Lucia have already resumed their ritual. I begin burning the incense, suppressing the occasional cough brought on by the smoke. The heavy scent makes me sleepy. To keep awake, I shift my position so I can stare directly at the holy flame of Vesta, burning in its exalted pedestal in the center of the main dais behind us.
"Oh holy flame," Marta drones in the bored, almost sarcastic voice she reserves for prayer, "your everlasting nature fills us with awe. You burn eternally without fuel, unaided by our powerless hands. Your clean, bright light is purest fire, without a hint of smoke..."
Despite Marta's uninspired delivery, my heart swells with love for my goddess as I listen to her prayer. As happens so often, I am mesmerized by the flame. It's so blue in the center, so perfect, so lovely.
As I gaze at the flame, I begin to think something seems different today. Is the flame getting smaller? I wonder, watching it closely. No, it must be a trick of the light...
In a heartbeat I know that something is wrong. With a hiss and a pop, the flame gutters out, almost disappearing, and I stifle a gasp of horror.
The next moment the fire lights up again, burning as brightly as ever.
I look wildly around to see if anyone else noticed that our eternal fire was momentarily extinguished. The others are absorbed in the ritual. I just imagined it, I think, panic forcing me to deny what I saw. But a white wisp of smoke rising above the shimmering flame is proof.
"Olivia. Olivia ." Lavinia's voice calls me to the present.
"Here, let me get her attention," Marta offers, giving me a swift kick.
"Ow!" I yelp.
"Girls," Lavinia says, "that's enough. We'll try it again tomorrow. Take the things back to the storeroom and begin your afternoon duties. Lucia will assist those preparing for tomorrow's ritual, and Marta and Olivia will meet supplicants in the Temple of Vesta."
"Thank you, Vestalis Maxima," I say, staring into the flame once again. It flickers at me innocently. I must have imagined the smoke, I tell myself. It's impossible for the fire in the temple to go out. It has burned for over a thousand years without fuel.
"What are you staring at?" Marta elbows me. "Come help me get ready for the crowd."
As Lucia begins clearing away the candles and censer, Marta and I prepare to open the heavy temple doors and let the first of today's visitors in. The activity helps me shake off the last of my gravity.
"I bet they rue the day they matched a squat dwarf, a flat-chested stick insect, and a freakishly tall beauty as their next crop of Virgins," Marta says.
I laugh. It is no