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Cleopatras daughter, p.18
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       Cleopatra's Daughter, p.18

           Michelle Moran
 

  “They are preparing for the theater, Domina,” she said lightly.

  “Do you like my tunic?” Julia asked. She spun around, and there was no evidence on her face that she had been wearing red ochre just a few moments before.

  “Is that a new purchase?” Octavia frowned.

  “Yesterday. Selene has one as well. There’s enough material for Antonia, if you like.”

  Octavia smiled thinly. “Thank you, but I think something more modest suits her better.”

  Julia wasn’t offended. “So what play are we going to see?”

  “Amphitruo,” Octavia replied, her eyes searching the room as if she could sense that something was amiss.

  “And do you know who’s coming?” Marcellus asked, taking her arm and steering her from our chamber.

  “Agrippa, Juba, Maecenas, Terentilla. And, Julia, you’ll be happy to know that Horatia will probably be there with Pollio.”

  Marcellus glanced back at Julia, and his look was pitying.

  “Why? Who’s Horatia?” my brother asked.

  Julia’s gaze narrowed. “She used to go to the ludus with us. But Livia arranged her marriage last year.”

  “So what’s wrong with that?”

  “Her husband is a disgusting old man—and she was only thirteen.”

  I exchanged a look with Alexander as we left the chamber.

  “Why would Livia do that?” he asked nervously.

  “Because Horatia was my closest friend. She even taught me to swim,” Julia whispered, and her eyes shone with tears.

  “And for that she arranged a terrible marriage?”

  “She would have arranged a marriage with Cerberus if he had been available. And now Horatia’s pregnant with an old merchant’s child.”

  We reached the portico, where half a dozen curtained litters were waiting, and I shared one with Julia. We had taken an early meal in the triclinium, and the setting sun burnished our curtains red and gold.

  “If I were a better person,” Julia said suddenly, “I would never have let you paint my face.”

  “Why?”

  “Because if Livia ever discovered it, she would do the same thing to you.”

  I sat straighter against the cushions. “I would never let that happen.”

  Julia laughed mirthlessly. “There’d be nothing you could do. Even Octavia can’t change my father’s mind once it’s made up. And Livia’s there all the time,” she added, “whispering into his ear like Boreas.” I wondered how she knew about the Greek god of the north wind, and before I could ask, Julia said sharply, “I’m not a complete fool. I listen.” We rode the rest of the way in silence, and when we reached the Campus Martius and the litters stopped, Julia explained, “We walk from here. My father thinks it looks better to the plebs if we arrive on foot.”

  When the six slaves lowered our litter to the ground, I parted the curtains and was helped up by Marcellus. He saw the look on my face and asked, “A happy ride with Julia, then?”

  “You wouldn’t understand,” Julia said accusingly.

  “Oh, cheer up. Can you remember the last time we went to the theater?”

  “Before my father left for Egypt.”

  “That’s right. And even if Horatia is married to Pot-Bellied Pollio, at least she has the denarii to come.”

  “If she had any sense, she’d use it to buy poison for him.”

  Marcellus shrugged. “He’ll be dead before she’s twenty-five. And then she can remarry.”

  “The two of you are disgusting,” Tiberius said.

  I hadn’t noticed that he was walking behind us with his younger brother. Julia didn’t bother to turn around, but Marcellus said swiftly, “Perhaps your mother can marry you off to some old matron with a sagging cunnus, and we can see how you’d like it.”

  Seeing my look, Alexander cut his laughter short. “Octavian is in front of us,” I said in Parthian. “And everyone else.” Twenty soldiers were escorting us to the theater, and Octavian was flanked by Agrippa and Juba. Their long togas flapped in the late summer’s breeze, but beneath them, I could see the shadow of chain mail. Immediately, my brother sobered.

  We passed beneath a stunning marble arch into the theater, where terraced stone benches had been built into the hill. Behind them stretched a polished mosaic depicting the masks of comedy and tragedy. On either side of the theater were well-tended gardens and colonnades. Everything looked new, or at least well-preserved. “When was this built?” I asked Marcellus.

  “Twenty-five years ago.”

  “By whom?”

  “Pompey. He was Julius’s great rival. Stone theaters were forbidden in Rome, so he built this outside the walls, and even then the people complained. So he added a temple.” I followed his gaze to the Temple of Venus, perched above the seats of the theater. “Notice how the seats are arranged?” he asked. “They’re supposed to look like a grand staircase to the temple.” He laughed. “It’s how he convinced them to build. The workers were afraid of angering the gods! Can you imagine such foolishness?” He had spoken too loudly, and his mother turned. Marcellus lowered his voice. “And that’s where Julius Caesar was killed.” He pointed to the rear of the theater.

  “I thought he was murdered in the Senate,” Alexander said.

  “Sometimes the Senate would meet here in the Curia.”

  “That’s why my father thinks it’s bad luck here,” Julia said suddenly. “And why he takes so many soldiers.”

  I saw no sign of Octavian’s nervousness as we approached the padded benches that had been reserved for us in the first row. Instead, he chatted with Terentilla, and I could see from the look on Livia’s face that a storm was about to break. As I took my place between Alexander and Octavia, I heard Livia suggest, “Perhaps we women should set an example for the rest of Rome and take our seats in the upper tiers.” When Octavian looked uncertain, she continued, “You are Caesar now. Women are not allowed to sit with men in the stadia. Why should it be allowed in the theater?”

  “Because we are the ruling family of Rome,” Octavia said, overruling her, “and we know how to conduct ourselves in public.”

  “My sister is right. Octavia is an example to all of Rome for charity and virtue. As are you,” Octavian amended.

  “And Terentilla?” Livia asked him with a sweetness that was terrifying. “Is she a part of this family?”

  Octavian set his jaw. “Anyone married to Maecenas is family.”

  A young girl was coming toward us, holding her swollen belly, and suddenly Livia’s mood brightened considerably. “Horatia!”

  The girl did her best to return Livia’s smile. Her seat was next to Julia’s, on the farthest end of the bench, but she stopped before Octavian to greet him properly.

  “Caesar, it is good to see you in fine health.”

  “And you,” he said briefly. “So where is Pollio, your husband?”

  “Speaking with a merchant, I believe.”

  Octavian appeared displeased. “Doing business in the theater?”

  “He would do business underwater in the baths if he thought he could make money,” she said with resignation. “I hope you enjoy the show.”

  I inhaled the warm scent of lavender as she passed, and when Pollio appeared, I held my breath.

  “Is that him?” Alexander whispered in Parthian.

  “It must be,” I replied.

  He waddled between the stage and the bench, shaking hands with everyone. His fingers were weighed down with heavy gold rings, and when he came to Juba, he held up his hands. “The Prince of Numidia,” he announced louder than he needed. “Do I shake hands, or bow?”

  Juba glanced at Octavian. “I believe we only bow for royalty, Pollio, and as yet, I am not the king of any kingdom.”

  Pollio held out his fat hand, and Juba took it without enthusiasm.

  “Livia”—Pollio breathed the word like a prayer—“you put Venus to shame.”

  The blatancy of the lie made Octavian frown, but Livia beamed. “An
d you could flatter the thunderbolts from Jupiter,” she said.

  Pollio moved to Octavian but didn’t attempt to shake his hand. “Caesar.”

  “I hear you are conducting business in the theater. Does this look like a market?”

  “Of course not. Forgive me.”

  “You are a very wealthy man. But that wealth comes from grain contracts granted by Rome. This is not the Forum. If you confuse it again,” Octavian said simply, “you will find yourself without any business at all.”

  As Pollio passed, I whispered to Octavia, “Is it an offense to conduct business in a place of entertainment?”

  “No, but Julius Caesar used to do business when he came to the theater, and it angered the plebs. The people must not come to associate this place with patrician wealth.”

  The orchestra began to play, and I glanced down the row at Tiberius, who was telling Vipsania something to make her laugh. On the other side of him, Octavia’s daughters were sitting silently, and I wondered if they had ever done anything in their lives that displeased their mother.

  A thin actor in a toga came onstage through the curtained doorway. “We begin tonight as we begin all nights,” he said. “With a speech!” Several members in the crowd booed, and the actor smiled. “Perhaps you naysayers would like to give our orator a challenging topic, then?”

  Alexander grinned at me. “Is he joking?”

  “No. I think this is really what they do.”

  Several members of the audience shouted, “Athens!” Another shouted, “Make him talk about the beauty of baldness.” And when one called out, “The Battle of Actium,” I clenched my jaw. “How about the value of a cheating wife?” someone suggested, and the actor clapped his hands. “We have a subject!”

  I looked at Octavian, who seemed to be enjoying himself.

  A fat orator appeared from the left of the stage. “The value of being a cuckold,” he began, and the entire audience descended into laughter. “When the horns of cuckoldry grow on your head, think of all the uses they might have. You can defend yourself without a sword.” He made the motion of charging, and the audience laughed again. “You could impale your enemies—or scratch an itch.” He rubbed his head on his flabby shoulder. “There are a thousand uses for a horned man. Not to mention a horny woman.” He went on to extol the virtues of a well-practiced wife, but as he went on to say that men would have fewer duties at the end of a long day, audience members groaned and someone shouted, “Bring on the bear!”

  “I’m not finished,” the orator said angrily, but this only inspired the drunken men to further chants.

  “Bring on the bear! Bring on the bear!”

  I turned to Octavia. “Is there really a bear?”

  She laughed. “No. There used to be bears in these theaters. They could do tricks, but they became too dangerous and my brother forbade them.”

  “So what do they want?”

  “For him to get off the stage and let the play begin.”

  The actor who’d introduced the orator came out, and the fat man was led offstage to jeers and hisses.

  “I thought he was good,” Alexander said sadly.

  Next, the stage was filled with dancing nymphs. Two men appeared in the long-bearded masks of satyrs, and already the audience was laughing. One pranced, the other skipped, and a third masked man entered with a bow and arrow. The first satyr began to recite his lines, and as the third man pointed his arrow toward the audience, I realized what was happening.

  “Octavian!” I screamed before I could stop myself, and suddenly Juba was on top of him, pushing him to the ground. The actor’s arrow whistled through the air, shattering as it struck the stone bench where Octavian had been sitting.

  “In the name of the Red Eagle!” the masked bowman shouted.

  Then pandemonium broke out.

  Soldiers rushed the stage, but the actor was already gone, and people began fleeing from their seats. Soldiers made a tight ring around us, pushing us toward the exit.

  Alexander took my arm. “How did you know?”

  “I saw him nock the arrow.”

  “But he was just an actor!”

  There was the same panic in the air as there had been at the Circus—only this time, someone had tried to assassinate Caesar in the front row of the theater. Outside, there was no time to arrange litters. A cavalcade of heavily armed soldiers escorted us to the Palatine, and I could feel Julia’s fear as she pressed my hand. If her father had been killed, everything would have been lost: her villa on the Palatine, her marriage to Marcellus, the succession.

  Octavian walked swiftly between Agrippa and Juba, and no one said anything, not even the passersby on the streets. When we reached his villa, he led us into the library. Slaves rushed to light the candelabra, and when they were finished Agrippa locked the heavy metal doors. Juba poured cups of wine, and, for the first time, I heard Octavia weep.

  “This Red Eagle,” Octavian said, breaking the silence, “is now an assassin.”

  “I doubt this was the Red Eagle. He spoke with a Gallic accent,” Agrippa said.

  “So what stops this rebel from being a slave?” Livia shrieked.

  “Look at his acta,” Juba said. “Are those the writings of a slave?”

  “Then what are you saying?” Livia demanded, looking from face to face. “That this had nothing to do with that rebel?”

  Silence fell over the group again, until Agrippa said, “Yes. This was a slave hoping to share in the Red Eagle’s glory.”

  Octavian’s gray eyes flashed. “There is no glory in being a traitor,” he warned.

  “Of course not. But to the slaves—”

  “Tell me, what would happen if I had been killed?”

  There was an uneasy shifting in the room.

  “Juba,” Octavian said darkly, “why don’t you tell us? You’re well versed in history. What would happen to Rome?”

  “The thirty tribes would go back to fighting,” Juba predicted. “They would not accept Marcellus as heir, since he is too young, and the Senate would not accept Agrippa, since he is a descendant of freedmen.”

  “There would be chaos,” Octavian promised. “Instead of going forward, Rome would go backward. It may not have been the Red Eagle tonight, but the man is inspiring rebellion. And there are slaves and freedmen who are covering for him! A man doesn’t post a hundred acta without being seen!” He had begun to shout. “So perhaps we should see what our poor freedmen would rather have. Freedom, or food.”

  Octavia gasped.

  “We will stop the grain dole for ten days,” he commanded. “Tell them I must use the denarii to hire personal guards.”

  “But hundreds will die!” Octavia cried.

  Her brother sat back. “No one has ever died of a little hunger. Men can go for weeks without food.”

  “Not the elderly! Not the sick children!”

  “Then perhaps they should have thought of that before they helped a traitor,” Livia snapped. “This will turn the people against him,” she said eagerly, “and remind these freedmen why they will always need Caesar.”

  Agrippa looked distinctly uncomfortable.

  But Octavian was satisfied with his decision. “When they find the bowman, crucify him.” He stood, and that was our signal to leave. Agrippa unbolted the door and held it open. As we left, Octavian called my name.

  I turned, and my heart thundered in my chest.

  But Octavian was neither smiling nor angry. “You surprise me,” was all he said.

  CHAPTER NINE

  OUTSIDE, SOLDIERS surrounded Octavia’s villa, and there was no house on the Palatine that wasn’t under guard in case the assassin should reappear. As we entered the villa, Alexander and Marcellus spoke in hurried whispers about the assassination attempt. Then Octavia stopped suddenly. “Where is Gallia?”

  “I saw her with Magister Verrius at the bottom of the hill,” Antonia replied.

  “And what was she doing with him?”

  “Talking. I don
t think she expected us back so soon.”

  I looked at Octavia and saw the lines deepen between her brows. Perhaps Gallia wasn’t adept at writing Latin, but Magister Verrius certainly was. What if they were writing the acta together? Verrius knew what it was like to be a slave. He was a freedman himself, though he never talked about his childhood with us in the ludus.

  Marcellus looked from me to his mother. “What is it?”

  “Nothing,” she said sternly, dismissing us with a wave. “Go to your chambers.” But as as I moved to go, she held me back with her hand. She waited until everyone had left before saying, “You saved my brother tonight.”

  “I didn’t do anything. It was Juba.”

  “But you saw it first.” Her eyes searched mine in the torch-lit atrium. “How did you know?”

  “I saw him nock the arrow. Then his muscles tensed like he would really set it free.”

  Octavia nodded, and her eyes filled with tears. “Why?”

  I knew what she was asking. Why had I called Octavian’s name when his assassination could have meant my freedom? What had changed between the Triumph and today? I pressed my lips together and considered my answer before speaking. “Because he is our future,” I said carefully, and there was nothing I needed to explain. Without him, who knew what would happen to Alexander and me? And if another senator made himself Caesar, what would become of Octavia? Who would feed the poor and bring clothes to the Subura? There would be more bloodshed, more civil war, and the abandoned infants beneath the Columna Lactaria would be food for Rome’s dogs.

  “I am thankful to the gods for you, Selene.”

  I flushed.

  “Will you do an errand for me?”

  “Of course.”

  She took out a key and unlocked the doors to the library. The room was still unbearably warm, heavy with the scents of leather and papyrus. Moonlight silvered the marble busts on the shelves, and Octavia went to one of these statues and took it down. She studied the face by the light of a distant torch. The subject was a handsome man, with a strong jaw and a heavily curled beard. I thought it might be a statue of Zeus, but Octavia said quietly, “This is Juba’s father. I should have given the statue to Juba years ago, but I didn’t. Tonight, Juba saved my brother’s life. I want you to take this to him.”

 
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