The priest watched the dust scatter along the temple steps, stirred up by the day’s first breeze.
He wondered if his head would roll along the very same steps by day’s end.
It was his favorite hour. At sunrise in Rome, time felt stretched out before the sun’s golden rays—full of life, possibility, and today: love. He was slated to marry fourteen couples this morning, which was a record even for him. At least he hoped it would be fourteen. Due to the public nature of what he was about to do, it was likely that Emperor Claudius would arrive to thwart the event, possibly executing the priest for his troubles.
There were two reasons for potential bloodshed over these marriages. First, the Empire was under constant threat of war from all sides, and the Emperor believed that soldiers who were not in love were bolder in battle. Thus, Claudius had enacted a ban on marriage. Second, Claudius clung to the old pagan ways. February was the month for the ancient pastoral festival of Lupercalia. And so what the priest was about to do would be viewed as a terrible affront to the Emperor from both sides.
Yet the priest had made no attempt to conceal his plans. In fact, the temple steps were as public a venue as he could find. He was prepared to die for love and God.
Martyrdom, after all, was a powerful recruitment tool.
The first bride was lovely. Her eyes blazed with defiance over a smattering of youthful freckles. Her soon-to-be husband pushed his hair back over and over again: a small tic that showed his nerves. The priest scanned the crowd that was already beginning to gather. He wondered which had the groom more on edge: the threat of execution or the fire in the bride’s eyes.
The next couple hardly looked at the priest. From the moment they climbed the temple steps, they were touching. A hand on an arm. A soft touch of a cheek. Fingers entwined as the priest said the words. He would have admonished them for not giving the ceremony the proper degree of piety but reminded himself that these marriages were a means to an end. To send a message; to force a decision upon the people.
The carriage arrived just as the third couple was taking their place. The vehicle arrived with an armed retinue, spears and bows and horses’ hardware glinting in the morning sun. It was a rush of galloping hooves, creaking wheels, and a blast of dust that swept through the forum.
When the dust settled, there was silence followed by a forceful, rhythmic stomping of guards’ boots and spears.
The Emperor emerged from his carriage.
Claudius walked up the steps, the frightened couple skittering out of his way. The rest of the crowd kneeled or attempted to melt into side streets.The priest watched him approach and inclined his chin. The Emperor reached the top step, paused to stare into the priest’s eyes, then leaned in close.
The priest could feel his breath on his ear.
“Why do you insist on making me an enemy?” Claudius’s voice was low but calm. “We spoke about this, Father. For years you did this in secret and I could pretend that I did not know. But this? What am I to do with this?”
The priest tried not to recoil from the hot breath on his skin. He thought that no response was prudent.
The Emperor took a step back, gave him a tight-lipped smile, and turned slightly to address the crowd. He opened his mouth and then paused. When he closed his mouth, his jaw was tight and there was ugly resolve in his eyes.
The priest braced himself. He saw dust swirl on the steps, heard the rasp of the sword as it slid from the sheath, felt the bite of the metal along his throat. The ground swayed up to meet his body.
Then, before the blackness, the color red spread before him.
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THOUGHT PROCESS: I cheated a little on this one. Our prompt was: “a taxi, an old enemy, and Valentine’s Day.” There are a number of versions of who St. Valentine was and why we recognize the day of his name, but I decided to play with this version. The taxi was the carriage that Claudius arrived on (it is my understanding that true chariots fell out of use a few hundred years before Claudius), I gave the Emperor and Father Valentine a bit of antagonistic history for the “old enemy” part, and, well, the Valentine’s Day part is darkly evident.