“And to the Republic” by Rachel Kolar
I tried to keep my face calm as I read the attachment, even though on the inside I was screaming curses to Jupiter. I couldn’t send Antonia an email from work about the problem – centurions had access to the work computers of Republic employees, everyone knew that, and even though I’d been a model employee for my entire life you never knew when they were going to do a random sweep – so I waited until the end of the work day to call her. I didn’t hurry out the door, since that would raise suspicion. Instead, I stopped at the shrines as I always did, lighting my incense to Mercury for a safe commute and to Washington, Lincoln, and the paters patriae for the health of the Republic, before sliding behind the wheel of my car and punching my sister’s number into my cell phone.
“Hello?” Antonia’s voice was cheery. That wouldn’t last long.
“Hey, it’s Lavinia.” I unclipped the badge with the fire of Vesta from my jacket and slipped it into my pocket. “We need to talk.”
“We’re talking now.”
“Toni.” I tried to keep the annoyance from my tone, and the fear. “You’re being inspected next week.”
“What? Why?” There was a jagged edge of panic to her voice.
“I don’t think anyone suspects anything. I’d never have been allowed to see your name on the list if they did. This is a random inspection, and as long as we get your shrine up to date before Monday, everything should be fine.”
“How do you know it’s random? Maybe they’re testing you. Maybe the vestals bugged your phone.”
I bit back the first several responses that came to mind, most of which involved asking if she’d ever read anything on the Internet that she didn’t believe. “I know because this isn’t a movie. The department doesn’t work that way.” I paused. “I’d certainly never say that they’re giving me advanced warning with a wink and a nod so you can get your shrine in order and not be fined for some stupid technicality. I’d never say that.”
She snorted. “Well, it’s more than a technicality, isn’t it? I suppose you’re going to laugh when they throw me into the arena.”
I kept my tone light, the friendly, I’m-on-your-side voice that I used with every hostile citizen I was inspecting. It was the only way I could think of to keep from strangling her as soon as I reached her house. The arena? The Johnson administration had happened, for the love of the gods. “As long as you aren’t actually linked to any sort of terrorist organization and there’s no evidence that you’re planning a lone wolf attack, you aren’t getting sent to the arena.” Please let her not be planning a lone wolf attack. . . . “But people without a libellus go to prison camps, and they’re not the ones they use for citizens. It won’t be an issue for you, though, because we’re going to get everything sorted out when I arrive.”
“I’m not going to–”
“We’ll talk when I get there. Bye.” I hung up, my hands shaking. If I was lucky, this would be the kick Toni needed to break out of this stupid adolescent rebellion that she’d somehow carried into adulthood. If I was lucky.
I shook my head as I pulled into her driveway. She’d come around. She had to.
When I knocked, Antonia yanked the door open so violently that it bounced off her foyer wall. She didn’t start pacing the second I stepped inside, but she was bouncing on her heels, as though the effort to stand in one place was too much to bear. “Well? What are you planning? Can you just get them to call off the inspection?”
I sighed. “Yes, because that wouldn’t look at all suspicious. Let’s see what we have to work with, all right?” I glanced over her living room and frowned. There it was, the wall where every other household in the Republic kept its shrine – niches for the Olympian gods on top, niches for Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and the current president below. Most houses had a fifth for FDR, Kennedy, or Reagan – I could tell pretty much everything about a family by the icon or bust in the fifth niche – and there might be extra niches for Jesu or Martin Lucius King or some inoffensive foreign god like Gandhi. But there were always at least four.
Not Antonia’s. Her wall was bare.
I exhaled slowly. “This will be a challenge.”
“What did you expect? I didn’t suddenly get religion since the last time you came over.”
“You don’t need to shout. I’m right here.” I shook my head. “We’ll just have to fix this up. Do you want a bust of Washington, or the icon of him with a cherry tree? The easiest way to get Lincoln is the replica of the statue at his temple in DC–”
“I’m not putting up any shrines, Vin! I’m not going to lie!” She was full-on shrieking now, doing those giant gestures with her arms as though she was signaling me in semaphore.
“No one’s asking you to lie. It’s not a lie to put some icons on your wall. And I told you that there’s no need to shout.”
“It’s an implied lie. Why would I have the gods’ images on my wall if I didn’t believe in them?”
“Because you wanted to show loyalty to the heritage of the Republic and all it stands for. Because you admire the ideals that the gods represent. Because they’re aesthetically pleasing. There are a thousand reasons, Toni, don’t be so bloody stubborn. Do you think the inspector is going to quiz you on what you believe?”
“No, because I’d be telling him what I believed by putting this crap on my wall. And then when he asks me to burn the incense to them so he can sign off on my libellus, I’ll pretty much be worshipping them, won’t I?”
“Toni . . .” I took a deep breath, trying to fight back the anger that was welling inside me. Anger turns the mind out of doors and bolts the entrance; Plutarch had never said anything more true. I needed my mind fully in charge of my mouth if I was going to talk some sense into her. “Every act of domestic terrorism for the past twenty years was committed by either a monotheist or a worshipper of a foreign god—”
“Oh, no they weren’t. There was that ecoterrorist and that crazy misogynist guy, and that was just this year, so you can stop quoting vestal brochures at me.”
“No, they still count. They paid lip service to the other gods, but in their hearts, they were monotheists. You must have seen pictures of their shrines on the news. The ecoterrorist had more incense on the Terra niche than on all the others combined.”
“But they weren’t monotheists, not really. I mean, they had other niches—”
“Well, you’re not a monotheist, either, so this is a moot point, isn’t it?” My voice came out more peevish than I meant, and I had to stop for a moment to collect my temper. Toni’s mulishness could get under my skin like few other things could. “The point is, terrorists always have something amiss with their shrines. Always. If you don’t have a shrine, they’re going to think you’re a Mohammedan or a messianist, or some other kind of extremist ideologue, and they’re going to treat you like one. You’ll go to a prison camp.”
“Then I guess that’s where I’m going.” She probably meant to sound grandiose and martyred rather than petulant. It didn’t work.
“Sure. It is.” The anger was trying to push me out now. “And have you thought about how that’ll affect Mother and Father? Or Justin? Or me? Hearthfire Security will never believe that we didn’t know about this even if I wanted to lie – which I wouldn’t, by the way. They’ll cut Justin’s veteran’s benefits and reassign me to one of the conquered Babylonian provinces. Do you have any idea what those monotheist barbarians do when someone asks them to burn the incense? And me a woman, no less? I’d be stoned in a week. But you’ll get to have your empty niches, I suppose.”
Antonia flushed. “You probably wish you’d reported me right away, don’t you?”
“I should have.” I shouldn’t have told the truth, it would only rile her, but the words slipped out. Immediately, I tried to smooth things over. “I can understand not wanting to have shrines to the gods, especially the ones who used to be human. They’re so fallible, all of them. Jupiter was a lecher, and Jefferson, Kennedy and King weren’t much better. Sometimes I just want to tear down all my shrines except Vesta’s and be done with it.” That was a lie, but I’d mastered the art of telling lies that put clients at ease, made them think I was sympathetic. I didn’t vote for him, either – if I could get away with not having a shrine to him, I would. I admire Marx’s ideals more than I’d like to admit – I wish I could set up a shrine to him, too. I worship Jesu, too – not exclusively, but honestly, I take better care of his shrine than any of my others. Clients who heard words like those were more likely to lower their defenses, see me as an ally, acknowledge that if I could be reasonable about this, surely they could, too.
Antonia was no normal client, though, and I could tell from her expression that my usual tactics weren’t going to work. “You want to just worship Vesta? Really? Didn’t I hear you telling Justin last Saturnalia that you wished they still threw monotheists to the lions?”
I mentally recalculated my line of attack, nodding thoughtfully for a moment to cover my hesitation. “True. Mohammedans and messianists blaspheme by putting one god above all, and that’s–”
“Yes! And yet you worship one! How could Martin Lucius King possibly be a god when he was a messianist?”
I rolled my eyes. I couldn’t help it. “Now you’re just being racist. King had an intense devotion to Jesu, but he wasn’t exclusive about it. His libellus was up to date.”
“His libellus was forged.”
“How much Fox News do you watch? Are you going to say Obama’s was forged while you’re at it?” My anger almost broke free, but then I paused. The forged libellus . . . “I need to go. We’ll talk about this later. Please at least promise me you’ll think about what I’ve said here, all right?”
Antonia sighed, rolling her eyes and tossing her head like a sulky teenager. “Fine.”
It was the best I was going to get. I drove home, murmuring prayers to Vesta under my breath. I might be able to save Toni despite my sister’s own best efforts. I wished I could go to my parents or Justin for help, but that was impossible – if I spoke to Mother and Father, they would know Antonia took her atheism seriously enough to break the law for it, and knowing that would strip them of the ignorance they could use as a shield when the public shame came raining down. And Justin . . . Justin would have no sympathy for our sister. Ever since he had come back from his second tour in Babylon, he’d taken his embrace of the gods to a level even I found unseemly. They were what separated the Republic from those Mohammedan barbarian bastards, as far as he was concerned, and that meant no worship could be too fervent. His shrine to Mars was so festooned with incense that I worried he would burn the house down, and he made pilgrimages to do homage at the Temple of Lincoln and the Washington Obelisk at least once a month. No, he’d turn Antonia in immediately, and possibly me as well for even thinking of covering it up. I was on my own.
But that might be all right. When I got home, I reopened the attachment and checked the schedule. Felix. That was promising. I didn’t know him well, but I knew the company he kept – Julian and Claudia and Marcus, people who somehow managed to afford expensive suits and high-end smartphones on a vestal’s salary.
It wasn’t hard to find an excuse to go to the archives the next day, nor was it hard to flip through Felix’s audits while looking like I was doing something licit. Some of them hadn’t received libelli, but a lot had. Not enough to be suspicious, and none with dead giveaway names like Ali or Peter – really, what were some parents thinking? – but enough to give me hope. I jotted down a few names and addresses, coughed and sneezed ostentatiously, dashed off an email about how I was going to stay home and rest the next day, and left.
The next morning, I arrived at each house on my list with my vestal badge and a brilliant smile. “Good morning! My name is Lavinia Smith from the Department of Hearthfire Security. I’m just here because of a missing piece of paperwork from your recent shrine audit. May I come in?”
Of course I could, of course, they all said, their voices metallically bright with fear and forced heartiness at the word “audit.” I made my way into each house in turn, glanced at what was generally a perfectly normal shrine, signed the form and had them do the same, thanked them for their time, and left. There was nothing too obvious at first; there was no law against having an overlarge, extravagant shrine to Jesu as long as one also paid tribute to the other gods, and an unmarried man might have a shrine to the birth goddesses because his sister couldn’t conceive rather than because he wanted to blow up an abortion clinic. I would have issued a warning to both of them, but that was more a sign of leniency on Felix’s part than outright corruption.
I was beginning to feel discouraged when I reached the seventh house on the list – Cassius Moore. The man who answered looked twitchier than most, but let me in.
“It’s just one form,” I said. “Here, if you’ll just–”
I paused. He’d moved his television in front of his shrine – he should have been written up for that alone – and was leaning against the wall with a forced casual expression. Subtle. Idiot.
“–if you’ll just sign here,” I finished, offering him the pen and paper. As he looked down, I craned my neck to see behind him, disguising it as a stretch.
Where the Lincoln niche normally stood was a bust of Robert E. Lee, the stars and bars hanging behind it. Of course. How many Brutuses and Cassiuses weren’t closet Confederates?
Still, I pretended not to have noticed, and I signed off and thanked him like the others, even though inside I wanted to drive back to the office and ram the man’s forged libellus down Felix’s throat. Lee! How could he let someone bribe him into overlooking a shrine to one of the most tenacious heathen cults in the Republic? As I walked back to my car, I imagined my heels striking against Felix’s face on the pavement, and Cassius Moore’s too, and Lee’s own, for that matter. Why Grant had allowed him to fall on his sword at Appomattox instead of taking him back to Washington for Lincoln’s triumph was beyond me. If the Confederates had seen their god paraded bloody and humiliated through the streets before his public execution, I imagined the shine would have worn off him pretty quickly.
Still, it was good news. I had to remind myself of that. When I showed up at Antonia’s door that evening with a suitcase full of icons of the old gods and the paters patriae, I didn’t have to feign my good cheer.
“I brought you these,” I said, holding out the case. “They’re that modernist crap you like, but they’ll be acceptable to the inspectors. Put them up for the aesthetic value and tell Felix – he’s the one who’ll be inspecting you – that they’re your shrine pieces. You’ll get a fine for having them scattered all over the place instead of in a proper shrine, but you won’t get a follow-up for something that minor.”
“I don’t want an icon of Jupiter.”
“It’s an objet d’art. Come on, Toni, you used to have a portrait of Washington crossing the Rubicon instead of the Delaware in your dorm room just because it was clever. If you can do that, you can have an icon of Jupiter.”
I could see from the downward twist of Antonia’s mouth that she knew she was cornered. Gods, some people wanted to be martyrs. “It’s moot anyway,” she said. “I won’t burn the incense, and that means I won’t get a libellus. That’ll be more than a fine, won’t it?”
“Actually, no, you won’t have to burn the incense.” I wasn’t sure how to feel about the words – relief and disgust were warring heavily in my chest – so I focused on the happiness. No reason to choose misery.
Antonia froze. The sour look was gone. “What?” There was an edge of hope in her voice, for the first time since this had started.
“It turns out that Felix forges libelli. It’s despicable, and under normal circumstances I’d wring his neck myself before the centurions got to him, but it works out well for us. If you pay a little extra on top of the fine, he’ll sign it whether you burn the incense or not.”
Antonia frowned again, just slightly, but she didn’t get that waspish, combative look I hated. I bulled on, praying that I had her cornered. “I won’t lie, it’s probably only a temporary fix. Even if he doesn’t get caught, I’m going to report him eventually – he can’t keep doing this, it’s an insult to Vesta and our office – and that means you and everyone else he’s inspected will be audited. But it’ll buy us a good couple months, and maybe you can move to some province where they’re less likely to follow through.” I waited for her response, willing myself not to fiddle with my badge or my rings or do anything else that would betray my nervousness.
The little frown didn’t leave. She rubbed her eyes with one hand. “No, Vin. I’m sorry.”
No. No, no, no. Antonia never flat-out refused, she tossed her head and sulked and whined before finally caving in while finding some bullshit reason that she’d really won the argument after all. “This is it, Toni. I don’t like it either, but this is the only chance we have.”
“I know that. But it won’t work. I’m not going to do it.”
“You have to. Toni, just light the incense. Or pay Felix and he’ll tell everyone you lit it. It doesn’t matter, I promise it doesn’t. Most of the people who light the incense don’t care about the gods one way or the other, they just do it because they know what’s expected of them.”
“If you really think it doesn’t matter, why don’t you pay Felix yourself?” An edge of the old waspishness had entered her voice.
“Don’t be stupid.”
“Oh, come on, Vin. If it’s such a little thing that I should be able to betray my principles for the family, it’s minor enough for you to betray yours.”
“Principles. A fad is a principle now.” How could I have expected Toni to be reasonable? “This isn’t a game.”
“Oh, what, and I think is?” The ridiculous, exaggerated arm movements were coming back.
“You’re acting like it. And this isn’t college, either. You won’t flunk poli sci for refusing to write a paper on the Gettysburg Address and then retake it with a different professor. This is your life. This is our family’s lives. If you refuse to do the duties of a citizen, then they’ll send you to a non-citizen’s prison. They’ll torture you, Toni. They’re going to assume you know other extremists, and that means you might know terrorists, and an atheist is the same as a radical Mohammedan or messianist or Hitlerist to these people. Do you seriously think you’re going to impress them with your ideals in a prison camp? You’ll be burning incense in a week. Better to do it now while you still have all your fingers.” I forced my voice not to tremble, forced myself not to picture my big sister getting the treatment that I’d seen in certain photographs that weren’t released to the public.
“I can’t. It’s a lie. I can’t. I thought you’d understand that. You said yourself that you wouldn’t lie about me if you got caught.” Her face was white.
“No one cares that it’s a lie. No one cares what you actually believe. We just care that at the end of the day, you’ll be reasonable, because if you betray the Republic in something as little as this, who knows what else you’ll do?” I took her by the arm. “I don’t want you to go to prison. I don’t want Mother and Father getting interrogated about how much they knew and when they knew it, I don’t want Justin’s veteran’s benefits to be jeopardized, and I don’t want to go to Babylon. Whenever there’s a riot there, the vestal is always the first one to get stoned, or burned, or something. Always. This isn’t just about you.”
“I know that!” Her voice was shrill.
“I’m trying to save your life, Toni. But if you’d rather go to a camp, then go. Just don’t drag the rest of us with you. I’m coming over tomorrow after work. If you don’t have a shrine set up, I’m going to report you. It’s the only way they’ll believe that we didn’t know.” My hands shook as I pulled on my coat. “I’ll leave these icons here in case you decide to stop acting like a child.”
I slammed the door behind me, slammed my car door for good measure, and did my best not to scream, to call down curses on Toni for being so damned stubborn or on myself for wasting so much time on a course of action that I should have known was futile. I couldn’t panic, I had to think, or Antonia would learn why the bulk of the messianists and Mohammedans gave in over a thousand years ago.
By the time I got home and knelt before my shrine, there were tears streaming down my face. No matter how hard I tried to hold them back, they kept coming. Antonia was my sister. She was my idiot sister, but she was my sister. I lit my incense before the icon of Lincoln and prayed that he would let her come to reason, that sister wouldn’t be divided against sister again. I lit my incense before the icon of Vesta and prayed that our hearth would remain united. I lit my incense before the icon of Washington standing beside the cherry tree with an ax in his hand and prayed that he would give me the courage to do what I must, to tell a painful truth, if it came to that. I reminded myself of Cassius Moore and his niche for Lee; Lee had chosen kin over country, and he had been a false god and a traitor. I had to do this. I had to.
I spent the next day in the office putting together the official reminders about what shrines were and were not permitted in February – Martin Lucius King and Harriet Tubman were official gods of the Republic, Benedict Banneker and Frederick Douglass were not formally recognized but were permissible, and Malcolm X could be respected as a man but never worshipped – but I couldn’t focus on my work. The words were wooden, and I welcomed the excuse to stay a bit late and revise, to give Antonia extra time to put her shrine up – something I knew she wouldn’t do. In a few hours, I was going to condemn my sister to imprisonment and torture. Before long, I was out of excuses. I packed up my things and drove as slowly as possible to Antonia’s doorstep.
I rang the bell, waited, rang it again. Knocked. Maybe she’d fled, run away to some country where atheists were welcome – of course, why hadn’t I suggested that? – but no, her car was still in the driveway. I called her and heard her phone ringing away inside, unanswered.
“Toni?” I tried the doorknob. It was unlocked. The door swung open, and I could see that she’d already put up the pictures – Jupiter scowled at me from one wall, Lincoln from another. For the first time, the tension in my chest began to unknot. She’d seen reason. Thank the gods, she’d seen reason.
“Toni?” I took a step inside, and that was when I saw her body slumped on the couch, the blood that had pooled on the floor beneath her, the hilt of the knife between her breasts.
I wish I could say that my first reaction was to wail her name, to fall to my knees in tears beside her body. The tears came later. Instead, when I saw her, my mind floated into a curious empty detachment, as though my emotions shut down for fear of overuse, and my oddly rational thoughts pierced my mind as sharp and cold and clean as icicles.
The first was, Of course she was lying out for me to find when I arrived. Couldn’t have done it after I left to call the vestals – then they would have found her, and that would have blunted the impact. Typical Toni.
The second: Of course she literally fell on a literal blade. No pills, no gun, no slashed wrists. Cato and Brutus and Lee actually fell on their swords, so of course she has to do it, too. Typical Toni.
The last, as I desperately tried to keep myself from acknowledging that I’d never see anything that was typical Toni again: She put the icons up. Our family can honestly say they didn’t know, and I can lie and say I didn’t either, and they’ll believe us. She gave us an out.
My eyes flicked back and forth between the icons and the couch. I didn’t want to look at her body, but I couldn’t stop. Instead of looking at her face, I looked at the hilt of the knife, at the suicide note on the cushion beside her– note? That thing’s a ten-page manifesto. Gods, Toni. If our positions were reversed, Toni wouldn’t have lied.
The thought hurt, but it was true.
The centurions would come soon with their questions, and I knew what I’d have to say when they did. I looked at the painting of Washington beside the cherry tree, and Lincoln, the most honest of the gods, and Hale, who would have given his life and more for the Republic rather than betray it as I had, in my own small way. I wondered if they would follow me to Babylon, or leave me there to die alone.
“All you had to do was light the incense,” I whispered. “Gods, you are such a child.”
About the Author
Rachel Kolar’s short stories have appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Leading Edge, Tales of the Talisman, and Plasma Frequency, among other magazines. She, her husband, and their two children live in the Baltimore/Washington area. When not writing speculative fiction or changing diapers, she enjoys playing complicated board games, baking, and getting far too excited about Halloween.