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Cleopatras daughter, p.13
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       Cleopatra's Daughter, p.13

           Michelle Moran
 

  I looked from Tiberius to Gallia. “Who’s that?”

  Tiberius looked pleased with my ignorance. ”Who’s Sallust?” he repeated. “Only the greatest writer of Rome’s military history. Haven’t you read his Jugurthine War? or The Conspiracy of Catiline?”

  “No one’s interested in those boring works but you,” Marcellus said.

  Gallia cleared her throat before the argument could continue. “To the Campus,” she said.

  “If we make it there,” Julia grumbled. “Look at these people. They’re everywhere.”

  It was the second day of Octavian’s Triumph, and a parade had just passed by the Forum, where thousands of spectators had come for the entertainment. Children, chased by screeching sisters and brothers, ran between the columns, while mothers scolded and fathers laughed. There was no breeze as there had been in Alexandria, so the scent of incense from the Temple of Venus Genetrix lingered in the air along with the scent of ofellae, round pieces of baked dough topped with melted cheese. Men and women from every corner of the world were crowded together, and I recognized German and Gallic men from their height and flaxen-colored hair. Dark women from the southern parts of Egypt, balancing colorful baskets on their heads, wove lithely between groups of drunken men and Assyrian shopkeepers.

  “This way,” Gallia said, pushing back the strands that had escaped from her long braid. The sun was at its highest point, baking the stones beneath our feet so that even through the leather of our sandals we could feel the rising heat.

  “So what kind of exercise do we do?” I asked Julia.

  She sniffed dismissively. “It’s the men who exercise. And while they get to practice their sword fighting and horse riding, we get to sit with Livia and weave. Gallia will stay with us, and Octavia will be there with her girls, and Vipsania.”

  “But I don’t know how to weave!”

  “At all?”

  “Of course not.”

  “But what did you do while your brother exercised?”

  “I swam with him.”

  “In the river?” she exlaimed.

  “No. In the pools. Why would anyone want to weave?”

  “They wouldn’t,” she said grimly. “But Livia thinks it will keep us modest.”

  “Perhaps I can draw,” I said feebly, and indicated the leather bag at my side with my book of sketches and Magister Verrius’s scroll.

  But Julia warned, “She will teach you to weave even if your fingers bleed.” She looked up and sighed. “Here we are.”

  As the Campus Martius came into view, Alexander looked at me in surprise. Hundreds of buildings filled the horizon, jostling for space outside the walls of Rome. Marble baths nestled against the concrete walls of theaters, and giant arches competed for attention next to bustling forums.

  “Have you ever seen so many buildings?” my brother asked.

  “Not all in one place,” I said disapprovingly. We walked past the strangest jumble of shops—built without uniformity or any attention to design. From sweaty bakeries, men tried to tempt us with sows’ udders and crab cakes, while on the polished steps of the marble baths, merchants hawked Egyptian linen and scented oils.

  “That will be the site for Agrippa’s Pantheon,” Marcellus said, indicating a field strewn with broken columns and abandoned carts.

  “That will be a temple?” I confirmed.

  He laughed. “It doesn’t look like much now, but once my mother’s architect lays his hands on it….”

  I searched the streets for the Temple of Isis, but too many buildings were crowded together to tell them apart. “And what about the Egyptian temple?” I asked.

  “It’s just a few streets away,” Marcellus said eagerly. “Would you like to go?”

  “Absolutely not!” Gallia said sternly, giving me a dark look. “Caesar is waiting.”

  “But it’s on the way,” Marcellus protested.

  “So is the lupanar,” she said angrily. “Would you like to go there, too?”

  “I’ve never been inside the Temple of Isis,” Tiberius said suddenly, and everyone looked at him. “I think we should go.”

  “You see?” Marcellus said. “Even Tiberius thinks it’s a good idea. We’ll be quick,” he promised. “Alexander and Selene could show us what all of the strange paintings mean.”

  “And those masks,” Julia added. “Haven’t you ever wanted to go inside?”

  It was five against one. Gallia glanced at the guards.

  “Don’t worry about them,” Marcellus swore. “They won’t say anything.”

  “Really?” I asked. “How do you know?”

  He turned to me and grinned. “Trust me.”

  Gallia looked at Tiberius. I suspected that if anyone would go running to Octavian, it would be him.

  “I’d like to go,” he said simply. “No one will find out. And if they do, you can just blame it on Selene and say that she took off running. That wouldn’t be so unlikely, would it?” he asked pointedly.

  Marcellus saw my discomfort and interjected, “Come on!”

  We walked briskly down several crowded streets, and I tried not to show my excitement. Despite Gallia’s misgivings and Juba’s anger, I would be meeting with the High Priest of Isis and Serapis.

  “Do you think this is a wise idea?” my brother asked in Parthian.

  “Of course it is.”

  “If Octavian finds out, he might banish the Temple of Isis from Rome altogether.”

  “We have to meet the High Priest, Alexander. If he can’t help us return to Egypt, then perhaps he knows someone who can.”

  “What?” my brother exclaimed. “Are you mad?” Marcellus and Julia both looked in our direction. My brother lowered his voice. “It will never work. Don’t even think it. You’ve caused enough trouble.”

  “For you!”

  He flinched.

  “Don’t you want to return?”

  “Of course. I’m the rightful King of Egypt.”

  “Well, you heard Octavian as well as I did. He plans to marry me off and keep you alive only so long as it seems merciful.”

  “He … he might change his mind.”

  “And if he doesn’t? Don’t you think we should have a plan for that?” I could already smell the strong scent of kyphi, just like in Alexandria. “I would rather risk my life trying to escape,” I said firmly, “than wait for Octavian to cut you down like Antyllus or Caesarion.”

  My brother didn’t say anything, but as we approached the temple, he hesitated. On the steps, a group of soldiers had surrounded a young man and woman.

  “Domine, this is not a good idea!” Gallia exclaimed.

  “Why? What’s the harm in a few soldiers?” Marcellus asked. “They’re probably just hassling a beggar.” He pushed his way through the crowd of onlookers, while Tiberius snapped, “Stand back.”

  “Domine, do not interfere!”

  “What’s happening?” Marcellus demanded.

  A gray-haired centurion at the edge of the circle studied Marcellus. “Who are you?”

  “Son of Caesar,” Tiberius announced proudly.

  The centurion looked at Octavian’s guards, who stood behind us. “And what are you doing here?”

  “That’s none of your business,” Tiberius snapped.

  “Who is the woman?” Marcellus asked.

  The centurion narrowed his eyes. “A slave. Claims this man is her husband and that the pair of them were freed.” He held up a small leather bag and shook it up and down. Coins clinked against each other. “Obviously stolen gold, probably from Caesar’s caravan.”

  “The one that was attacked last week on its way to the Temple of Saturn?” Tiberius demanded.

  The centurion grinned. “Very good.”

  “And she attacked it?” Marcellus challenged. He looked at the young woman, who made a pitiful sight in her ragged tunic and broken sandals.

  The centurion made a noise in his throat. “If not her, then him. And we have reason to suspect they were working for the
rebel the plebs like to call the Red Eagle.”

  “May I see the bag?” Marcellus held out his hand.

  “What are you doing?” Julia whispered. “You’ll get us all in trouble!”

  The centurion hesitated, then passed him the gold.

  Marcellus made a show of inspecting the leather. “She isn’t lying,” he said suddenly. “The gold belongs to her.”

  The soldiers raised their voices in protest, but Marcellus was louder. “This comes from the House of Octavia.”

  The centurion’s jaw tightened. “I believe if you take a better look, you will discover that you are wrong.”

  “No. I’m not.”

  “Are you saying,” the centurion’s voice rose angrily, “that the sister of Caesar gives so freely of her gold?”

  “No, I do.”

  The soldier looked at Gallia, whose face had gone pale, then at Tiberius, who maintained a careful silence. Suddenly, he waved his hand. “Fine. Less work for us,” he announced grandly. “Let them go.”

  The man and woman rushed to thank Marcellus, but he shoved the bag at them and said forcefully, “Get out of here.”

  The group of soldiers dispersed, though I noticed that the centurion cast a suspicious look over his shoulder before leaving. The four of us watched Marcellus, and I suspected that behind us even the guards were passing questioning glances among themselves. It was Tiberius who broke the silence.

  “Well done. Perhaps if we make a visit to the Carcer you can free the rest of the slaves who are imprisoned.”

  “That was incredibly foolish,” Julia said. “Who cares what happens to a pair of runaway slaves? They were thieves.”

  “No. They were a husband and wife who wanted to be free,” I replied, and Marcellus’s light eyes met mine. “I think it was kind.”

  Julia looked from me to Marcellus and said hotly, “Are we going to the temple or not?” She marched up the remaining steps and Marcellus smiled at me.

  “Thank you,” he mouthed.

  “This must be quick,” Gallia cautioned. “One look inside and that is all. Caesar is waiting on the Campus Martius.”

  We hurried up the steps behind Julia, and as we passed beneath the arch, I blinked back tears. It was just like the temple in Alexandria. The cool interior was painted with the familiar images of Isis and Serapis, and bald-headed priests dressed in long linen robes were dispensing incense from gilded balls. A statue of the Mother Goddess, with eyes of sapphire and necklaces of gold, rose at the opposite end of the temple. Marcellus gave a low whistle.

  “Welcome home.” A tall man emerged from the shadows, and I saw Gallia tense.

  “The High Priest,” my brother said swiftly in Parthian. “Is that the one—?”

  I nodded.

  “Prince Alexander and Princess Selene.” The High Priest opened his arms in a gesture of welcome. “And you’ve brought your distinguished friends.”

  “How does he know you?” Tiberius was immediately suspicious.

  “He must have seen us in the Triumph,” my brother said levelly.

  The High Priest stepped forward. “Have you come to see Isis and Serapis?”

  “Yes,” I replied, and I struggled to ignore the overwhelming feeling of homesickness. The towering granite statues and pink-veined marble had all been shipped from Egypt. Even the statues in the cleansing pool had probably been sculpted by Egyptian hands. “Shepsit!” The High Priest snapped his fingers and a young woman appeared at his side. “Show our new friends around the temple.”

  The girl inclined her head dutifully. While everyone followed her, I remained with the High Priest.

  “Aren’t you coming?” Alexander called.

  “I want to place an offering. I’ll join you in a moment.” I saw the hesitation in his face, then Julia took his arm and he was gone.

  The High Priest looked down at me. “You read my note?”

  “Yes. That’s why I came.”

  “Then you understand what Caesar plans for you,” he said, directing me toward a room behind a beaded curtain. Baskets and chests filled the little chamber, and I tried not to think of how similar baskets had adorned our palace in Alexandria. “How long do you think it will be until Caesar decides to do away with the last of Kleopatra’s children?”

  “I—I don’t know. That’s why I’ve come to you. For help.”

  He smiled. “You want to return to Egypt?”

  “If our lives are in danger.”

  “Of course they are!” He moved closer to me. “What happened to your mother? Your father? Your brothers? What happened to the priests of Isis and Serapis in Alexandria?”

  I pressed my back against the marble wall. “They’re gone,” I whispered.

  “That’s right.” He stopped walking. “But I can help you escape.”

  I glanced at the beaded curtain. “To Egypt?”

  “Or India, or any place you wish.”

  “And how long would we be in hiding?”

  “Until your brother is old enough to raise an army and challenge Caesar.”

  “My father failed and he had half of Rome’s legions! What makes you think my brother would succeed?”

  The High Priest narrowed his eyes. “He might not. Perhaps in the very first battle he’ll be crushed along with all of his men. But what do you think Caesar will do if he remains here?”

  “He’s kept my father’s sons by Fulvia alive. I have older brothers—”

  “Who are not the sons of an Egyptian queen!”

  We watched each other in tense silence. Even amid so much incense, I could smell his fetid breath. Men with rotten teeth often smelled this way.

  “Do you value your life?”

  “Of course.”

  “Then escape is your only option.”

  I searched his face. “And who would help us?”

  He reached out and trailed a bony finger along my necklace. “People who would do anything for the right price.”

  My necklace could keep a man fed for the rest of his life. It might very well buy a passage to India. But I could never give away my mother’s pearls. “And if I don’t want to pay the price?”

  The High Priest grabbed my wrist. “Everyone pays something.”

  “Take your hands off of me!”

  “Just give me the pearls,” he hissed. “I’ll have you free of Rome for the rest of your life.”

  “Step away from her!” Marcellus parted the beaded curtain. Julia stood behind him with four stone-faced guards.

  The High Priest dropped my arm and smiled blandly. “Did you enjoy your tour?”

  Marcellus glanced at me. “Has he hurt you?”

  “No.”

  He met the High Priest’s gaze. “Isis is not so beloved in Rome that her priests can afford to abuse Caesar’s guests.”

  “Is that what she is?” His smile widened. “A guest?”

  “Yes,” Marcellus said forcefully. He held out his arm, and I hurried past the High Priest.

  “Think about what I said,” the High Priest warned darkly. “It’s a small exchange for the protection of Isis.”

  Although the priestesses were shaking their gilded sistri in the courtyard outside, all I could hear was Juba’s voice in my head.

  “So was that part of the offering?” Julia asked archly when we reached the steps of the temple.

  My brother gave me a disapproving look, and I said angrily, “Don’t say it!”

  “It might have happened to anyone,” Marcellus said. “You just happen to have a queen’s ransom around your neck. Priests of every goddess are greedy.”

  I tried a smile, but it didn’t come out right.

  “Here,” he said compassionately, and offered me a small square of linen. As I dabbed at my eyes I could smell his scent on the cloth, and wanted nothing more than to weep into his shoulder. But Julia was there. And Tiberius.

  “You see what happens, going into strange places?” Gallia demanded.

  “I thought it was beautiful,” Julia
said to be contrary.

  “If you enjoy men dressed as jackals,” Tiberius said.

  “You liked the women well enough,” she challenged.

  Color tinged Tiberius’s cheeks, but no one mentioned the High Priest again, and when we reached the Campus Martius, even my brother forgot his anger at me. “Look at this!” he exclaimed.

  It was hundreds of acres of low-lying plains bordered on the west by the Tiber River, and on the east by the Quirinal hill. There was a space for horses and chariot races, a place where marathon runners practiced, and in a series of grassy fields hundreds of soldiers wrestled, and boxed, and played games with leather balls. I saw men who were oiled and sweaty from their exertions jump into the Tiber, and I thought, They must be brave not to have any fear of the crocodiles.

  “What are those buildings?” my brother asked. He pointed to a number of domed structures dotting the plains.

  “Stables,” Marcellus replied. “The Campus is where wealthy men keep their horses. There are baths inside them as well, for washing and changing. Those are my uncle’s stables.” He pointed to a large building near the river.

  As we drew closer, I could see that Octavia and Livia were already seated in the cool shade of the portico, working on their looms. The younger children were there as well; Antonia and Tonia patiently following their mother’s instructions while Drusus and Vipsania giggled. Octavian stood between Juba and Agrippa; all three men were dressed in short tunics, with thin linen belts around their waists and sandals whose laces crisscrossed up their muscled calves. But only Octavian wore a broad-brimmed hat in anticipation of an afternoon in the sun.

  “Alexander,” Agrippa said in greeting. “Since you are a horseman, we’ve decided on riding. Go and change with Marcellus and Tiberius. They’ll show you where the tunics are, and they’ll find you a sword.”

  But Alexander looked back at me. “What about Selene?”

  “Selene will be enjoying her time weaving,” Juba said.

  “But she doesn’t know how.”

  “What girl doesn’t know how to weave?” Livia demanded.

  “She’s a princess of Egypt,” Octavia replied. “Her mother taught her languages, not how to work the loom.”

  “Then perhaps her mother should have taught her some modesty so she doesn’t end up clutching a cobra to her neck.”

 
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