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Cleopatras daughter, p.17
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       Cleopatra's Daughter, p.17

           Michelle Moran
 

  I stopped.

  Julia looked behind her. “What’s the matter?”

  In front of a towering column of the Forum, painted with graffiti and splattered with birds’ droppings, dozens of infants were lying in baskets. Some of them were wailing pitifully, others were holding up their arms to mothers who would never come. “What are these children doing here?” I cried.

  “They’re foundlings.” Julia made to keep walking, but I remained. “You know,” she said in exasperation, “children who aren’t wanted.”

  I looked to Gallia, who nodded sadly.

  “You mean, they’re just left here, to die?”

  Julia shifted uneasily. “There are wet nurses,” she pointed out. “That’s why they call this the Columna Lactaria.”

  “But only some of the children are being fed!”

  “Of course. How many wet nurses do you think there are who have nothing better to do with their day?”

  I stared at the tired women who were leaning in the shade and doing their best to feed the crying infants. “But what about the others?” I asked.

  “They die. They aren’t wanted, Selene.”

  Gallia saw my look of horror, and added, “Not all of them. Some are taken as slaves, and others will go to lupanaria.”

  “So how is that any better than death?”

  Gallia said quietly, “Even in the most wretched life, there’s hope.”

  Nothing like the Columna Lactaria existed in Egypt. There were herbs for women who wanted to be rid of pregnancies that happened while their husbands were at sea, and there were childless couples who were willing to adopt from unmarried mothers. Gallia took my arm and steered me away, but that evening, I couldn’t stop thinking about the abandoned children.

  “What’s the matter with you?” Alexander asked testily. “You’re supposed to be helping me with Homer.”

  I put away my schoolwork and took out my sketch book. I wasn’t in the mood for the Iliad.

  “Selene, how am I supposed to do this alone?”

  “You’ll manage. It’s not like we haven’t read it all before in the Museion,” I said flatly.

  My brother stared at me. “Is this about the foundlings? Julia told me—”

  “What?” I snapped. “That she didn’t look twice in their direction?”

  Alexander held up his hands in a gesture for peace. “I didn’t know.”

  “Well, you should. It was terrible, Alexander.” I blinked back my tears.

  “There were children in baskets?” he asked.

  “Everywhere. Just left out to die.”

  “Surely not all of them—?”

  “No. Some of them become slaves. And the unlucky ones end up in a lupanar.”

  “The Romans have strange laws, don’t they?” he whispered.

  There was a knock on the door, and I said angrily, “Let’s just pretend we’re asleep.”

  “Don’t be ridiculous. There are two oil lamps burning.” He rose from his couch and opened the door. “Antonia,” he said in surprise.

  She looked down at her sandals. Even for a small girl, her feet were tiny. “May I come in?” she asked. When Alexander scanned the hall behind her, she explained, “My brother is not allowed to leave his room tonight.”

  Alexander stepped aside, and Antonia entered and looked around our chamber.

  “Not much like Egypt, is it?”

  “Better than prison,” Alexander replied.

  She smiled fleetingly, and her eyes came to rest on me. “I heard you saw the Columna Lactaria today.” When I frowned, Antonia went on. “Gallia told me. My mother and I go every day to help them. She pays new mothers to suckle the infants.”

  “So that’s why they do it?” I left my couch and sat on one of the embroidered chairs, indicating that Antonia should do the same.

  She seated herself and nodded. “Yes. Some do it out of pity because they’ve just lost children of their own. But most of the women have their own babies, and they do it for the denarii.” She looked at me, and I had the strange sensation that she was trying to read my face. “Was our father charitable?” she asked quietly.

  I glanced at Alexander.

  “If that means emptying the treasury for his friends,” he said wryly, seating himself across from her on a chair.

  Antonia looked at me, and when I offered no reversal, she pressed, “So he didn’t help the poor?”

  “Only if they were part of his army. But he built villas,” I said. “Spectacular villas along the coast.” I could see she wasn’t satisfied with this, and I added, “He was passionate. He loved to gamble, and race horses, and make friends.”

  “So the two of you are more like him than I am,” she said, and there was the hint of resignation in her voice.

  I cast around for something else to talk about. “So why don’t you study with us in the ludus?”

  Antonia regarded me with her light eyes. “Because I study with my mother by doing charity work.”

  “But what do you learn?”

  “More than I would by shopping with Julia,” she said softly.

  Alexander laughed, but I tensed at the rebuke.

  “Oh, I’m not surprised.” Antonia waved her hand. “Everyone wants to be with her. She’s Caesar’s daughter. But my mother is as good a teacher as Magister Verrius. And when we aren’t reciting poetry together, we’re giving out bread in the Subura.”

  My brother frowned. “And you like it?”

  “Of course.”

  “So why does Marcellus go to the ludus?” I asked.

  “Because he will be Caesar’s heir. If he doesn’t ruin it for himself,” she added.

  Alexander leaned forward. “You mean the Red Eagle?”

  Antonia looked over her shoulder.

  “We won’t say anything,” I promised readily.

  Antonia hesitated. “Yes.”

  “But do you really think he could be the rebel?” I exclaimed.

  Antonia shook her head, and the ringlets that made her seem so young bounced over her shoulders. “No. He’s too rash. What interests him one day bores him the next. He doesn’t have the patience to make so many plans.”

  “But you think he could be helping him,” my brother prompted.

  Antonia looked down at her small, painted nails. “My mother says he is idealistic. Anything is possible. But even the mention of rebellion, and our uncle would send him to the island of Pandataria. If he was lucky.”

  “Is that a punishment?” my brother asked.

  She looked at him as though she couldn’t believe he’d never heard of it. “Yes. Hundreds of men—and women—have been sent to islands to starve, to scrape in the dirt or support themselves by diving for sponges. It’s better than being told to open your wrists,” she whispered, “and that’s what my mother says will happen to anyone who isn’t useful to my uncle. Men, women, senators, matrons. Look at your parents.”

  “Our mother died with the bite of a cobra,” I said sternly.

  “It’s still suicide. Livia’s father, my mother’s father, they were all forced to commit suicide. It’s how your life ends in Rome,” she said. “Unless you learn to be helpful in some way.”

  “And how will you help?”

  “I will marry who I’m told to for the good of Rome and be happy with it.”

  “Even if you don’t love him?” I exclaimed.

  “Of course.” Antonia watched us with her wide eyes, and when neither of us said anything, she added, “I hope you won’t repeat anything I’ve said.”

  “Of course not.” Alexander’s voice was firm, and when Antonia stood to go, he asked quietly, “Is this a warning?”

  I could see her cheeks redden even in the low light of our chamber. “I wasn’t sent by anyone.”

  “But this is your way of warning us,” he said.

  Her silence was as good as a yes.

  CHAPTER EIGHT

  BEFORE THE sun had fully risen above the hills, I dressed myself in a light tunic and sa
ndals.

  “I don’t know why you’re doing this,” Alexander groaned into his pillow. “It’s still dark outside.”

  “And this is the only time Vitruvius has for teaching me.”

  “But what do you hope to learn? You know everything.”

  I laughed, but quietly, so I wouldn’t wake Marcellus in the room next to ours. “Do you think I could build a temple myself?”

  “Of course not,” he mumbled. “That’s what workers are for.”

  “And how will I know if they’re doing it right?”

  Alexander opened his eyes to look at me. “You don’t really think you’re going to build?”

  “Why not?”

  He lifted his head. “Because we’re not in Egypt anymore!”

  “Someday we will be. And remember what Antonia said,” I warned. “It might do you some good to get up and come with me.”

  But he shook his head, and as he lay back down, I shut the door with more force than I intended. I made my way into the atrium, where clutches of lilies and sea daffodils trembled in the warm morning breeze. I could see candelabra burning in the library, and when I entered, Vitruvius motioned from his desk.

  “Come in,” he said wearily, and indicated a chair opposite him. While I seated myself, I saw him watching me, studying the Greek diadem in my hair, the Alexandrian pearls around my neck, and the Roman bulla below them. He heaved the weary sigh of a man whose patience has continually been tested, then folded his hands on the desk in front of him. “In addition to the Temple of Apollo,” he began, “which has taken up the better part of two years, I am working on Agrippa’s Pantheon and Octavia’s portico. Now I shall begin Caesar’s mausoleum. That leaves me very little time for anything else.”

  “I understand.”

  His dark eyes found mine in the dim light. “Do you?”

  “Yes. You are tutoring me as a favor to Octavia. But I’m not here to take up your time. I’m here to help you conserve it.”

  His brows shot up. “And how is that?”

  “By helping you design a mausoleum.” When I saw that he wanted to laugh, I added swiftly, “I know how to draw. I’ve also learned which kinds of stone are appropriate for building and where to use them.”

  “Black lavapesta?” he asked, to test me.

  “Flooring. It can be trimmed with white tesserae.”

  “Sarnus stone?”

  “Flakes can be used on a ceiling to create the impression of an indoor cave.”

  “Timber-framed rubble and mortar?”

  I grinned. “Houses too cheap to last the first winter.”

  Vitruvius sat back and unfolded his hands. “Where did you learn this?”

  “In Alexandria. We could choose some of the subjects we wanted to study in the Museion, and I chose architecture.”

  He watched me with interest. “And you’re determined, aren’t you?”

  “Yes. I know my drawings are pretty, but they aren’t accurate. I want to be able to draw real plans.”

  “That takes a knowledge of mathematics. Specifically geometry.”

  “Which I’ve learned.”

  “So why didn’t your tutors show you how to apply it to building?” he asked.

  “They would have, but my education in the Museion was cut short.” I didn’t need to say why.

  He sighed again, then held out his hand. “Let’s begin with the mausoleum.”

  Immediately, I opened my book of sketches to the page with the best drawing of my mother’s mausoleum. “She built it entirely of white marble,” I said, passing my book to him. “The floors had inlays of mother-of-pearl, and the columns were carved into caryatids.”

  He studied the image. “You say it was built entirely of marble?”

  I nodded.

  “And was there something in front? A tall, pointed pillar?”

  “Yes. Two obelisks. Both made of granite.”

  Vitruvius took out a stylus and began to write quickly. “What color were they?”

  “Red. Why? Does Caesar want obelisks?”

  “He wants exactly what he saw in Alexandria, with very few changes.”

  “I can tell you everything,” I promised, and by that afternoon I was so full of my own success with Vitruvius that I didn’t even mind when Julia insisted I paint her eyes exactly how my mother painted hers.

  “I want to look like an Egyptian queen,” she said, sitting in my bathing room while Gallia painstakingly beaded her hair.

  “You understand that before we go to the theater, Domina, all of these beads must be taken out?”

  “Yes,” she said impatiently. “But just this once…. And then perhaps Selene can draw me.”

  “I don’t sketch people!”

  “But you draw buildings,” she pointed out. “And how else am I supposed to remember this?”

  “I don’t know. Look in the mirror.”

  “Please,” she begged. “I can’t use a real painter. My father would find out. And after all this trouble Gallia’s gone to.” She pouted, and when I looked at Gallia, I saw that I had no choice. Julia would only make Gallia do it over again until I agreed.

  I fetched my book of sketches and cursed silently at the idea that one of my pages would have to be spent on Julia. And she would probably want to keep it as well, which would mean tearing a piece from the book.

  “Will it be in color?” Julia asked when I returned.

  “No. Black and white.”

  “But how will I remember the faience beads and paint?”

  “By using your imagination.” I twisted the cap off a bottle of ink and carefully dipped my reed pen inside.

  Julia studied herself in the mirror while I drew. “I should have been born in Egypt,” she said longingly.

  “Then you would be me, and would have lost your kingdom.”

  “But you’re happy here, aren’t you?” She looked back at me through a fringe of dark lashes, completely unaware of what Alexander and I had suffered.

  Gallia clicked her tongue. “She is a prisoner, Domina.”

  “But she’s living in Octavia’s villa,” Julia protested. “She’s going to the ludus and studying architecture.”

  “In Rome,” Gallia rejoined. “Her home is in Egypt.”

  Julia sighed. “My home should have been in Egypt,” she repeated as Gallia strung the last bead onto her hair. She rose from her chair and studied herself in the polished bronze. “No wonder you miss Alexandria,” she said thoughtlessly. The swath of violet silk she had purchased had been sewn into a pair of tunics, and while mine hung straight and shapeless as a stick, hers clung to the emerging curves of her body. I had combined red ochre with blue azurite to make a violet paint for her eyelids, and with the faience beads in her hair, she did look like a princess. “Give me your diadem,” she said suddenly, and when I hesitated, she frowned. “It’s just for the sketch.”

  I took off the pearl band that had once symbolized my right to rule over the kingdoms of Cyrenaica and Libya, and although Gallia’s eyes narrowed with disapproval, I handed it to Julia.

  She nestled it among her black curls. “Is this how your mother looked?” she whispered.

  I knew the answer she wanted. “Yes.”

  “And are you drawing the diadem?”

  “If you stay still.”

  “Should I sit or stand?”

  I hesitated, looking down at my drawing. “Keep standing. I’ll include your sandals as well.”

  I was surprised by how still she could be when she wanted something. She stood patiently while I drew the folds in her tunic, then turned quietly when I asked to see her beaded hair in profile. When at last I said, “Finished,” she clapped her hands together.

  “I want to see!” she exclaimed, and when I turned the book toward her, she drew in her breath. She looked first at Gallia, then at me. “Am I really that beautiful?”

  I set my jaw. “Ink drawings are always flattering.”

  “But you’ll color it, won’t you?”

&n
bsp; “With what?”

  “I’ll have a slave send over paints. Look how beautiful it already is, and think how pretty it will be in color.”

  A sharp knock on the door cut off my protest. “Quick!” I cried. “What if it’s Octavia?”

  But Julia didn’t move. “It isn’t. It’s Marcellus. Gallia,” she said merrily, “let him in!”

  I stared at Julia. “How do you know?”

  She smiled. “Because I told him to come.”

  Marcellus and Alexander entered, and when my brother saw Julia in my crown, he paused. “Is that your diadem?”

  “Just for a moment,” I said quickly.

  Marcellus gave a low whistle, and Julia turned for him.

  “Well, what do you think?” she asked.

  “As beautiful as Selene.”

  Julia’s eyes flashed angrily in my direction. “You mean you think we look alike?”

  “Of course. I mean no. You’re the most beautiful princess of all!” But he winked at me when he said it, and I felt a strange fluttering in my chest.

  She grinned. “And what do you think of my paints?”

  “I hope they wash off,” he said seriously. “Because my mother is coming.”

  Julia gave a small shriek of terror, then pushed my diadem at me and fled back into the bathing room. “Hurry!” she cried. “The beads!”

  Marcellus laughed while Julia scrubbed at her face. “What did you think would happen?” he asked.

  “She’s supposed to be doing charity work in the Subura. Don’t just stand there. Help!”

  The four of us rushed to take off the beads, and Gallia hid them in a small jar next to my couch.

  “Not with Selene,” Julia complained. “I want them!”

  “You should keep them here until my mother leaves,” Marcellus suggested. “Everything makes her suspicious lately.”

  Julia’s voice was resentful. “What do you mean?”

  Both Alexander and I caught Marcellus’s uneasy glance at Gallia. “Something about the Red Eagle,” he said.

  “What? Does she think he’s hiding in a jar?”

  “No. But trust me, it’s better this way.”

  Octavia opened the door to our chamber, then stepped back when she saw the five of us together. “Gallia, what is this?”

 
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