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Cleopatras daughter, p.20
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       Cleopatra's Daughter, p.20

           Michelle Moran
 

  “And you think your father will want to celebrate after an attempt to assassinate him?” I asked.

  “Oh, it’s not a celebration,” Marcellus said. “It’s a tradition. Canceling the Ludi would be like canceling….” He searched for the right word.

  “The month of June,” Julia said helpfully.

  “Or deciding there will be no more Saturnalia. Besides, it keeps the people happy. All work is stopped on those days, and everyone comes with food and circus padding.”

  Alexander wrinkled his nose. “What is that?”

  Marcellus pointed to the bottom of the Circus, where men were carrying thick mats made of rushes. “Their seats aren’t covered like ours.”

  Trumpets blared, and as the announcer signaled the start of the race, the gates were raised and chariots thundered onto the tracks. Julia and Alexander yelled themselves hoarse with Marcellus, and I took out my book, opening to the sketches Vitruvius had given me of Octavian’s mausoleum. He wanted designs for inside the building, and, in all likelihood, nothing I produced would be used. But I was determined to surprise him. I would sketch such handsome designs that he would find them irresistible. Perhaps there were other architects he employed who were several decades older than I, but none of them had lived in Alexandria and seen what the Ptolemies had accomplished. None of them had studied in the Museion, or dedicated years to sketching the most beautiful marble caryatids and mosaics in the world. When I took out my ink and stylus, I noticed that Juba was watching me.

  “Sketching a new Rome?” he asked.

  “It’s a commission.”

  “Really? So you are being paid?”

  “No. I am doing it to be helpful.”

  Juba smiled. “Such a charitable nature, and not even twelve. Soon you’ll be passing out bread with Octavia.”

  “I noticed you thanking her this morning,” I retorted. “So you did appreciate the gift.”

  He raised his brows. “Of course. It’s the only portrait I have of my father.”

  I clenched my jaw, determined not to be goaded by him any longer, and for the rest of afternoon, I made sure he couldn’t see what I was drawing.

  CHAPTER TEN

  ON THE seventh day without the dole, there were riots in the Subura. Although it came as no surprise to anyone but Octavia, the people began breaking into shops, stealing food from vendors in the streets, and setting fire to taverns that refused to defer charges. As we sat in the triclinium eating oysters and thrushes, listening to sweet tones played by a slave girl on the harp, the Subura tore at itself like a rabid wolf. The hungry masses devoured anything that crossed their path—chickens, dogs, even cats. On the eighth night, when a soldier interrupted our meal to announce that a pleb had given up the bowman from the theater, I caught the triumphant look in Octavian’s eyes.

  “Reinstate the dole tomorrow,” he said. “Remind the people that I am paying for their grain with my own denarii, and tell them I have sold my statues to buy them food.”

  The soldier smiled. “Certainly, Caesar.”

  “And the criminal?” he asked, almost as though it were an afterthought.

  “One of your slaves. A kitchen boy, I believe.”

  Octavian grew very still. “Kitchen boy, or a man?”

  “Sixteen.”

  “And you are sure that it’s him?”

  “He escaped from the Palatine three weeks ago, and the plebs seem very certain. Even if it wasn’t, he’s still a runaway.”

  Agrippa rose angrily. “Well is it him, or isn’t it?”

  “It is,” the soldier said with more confidence. Octavian’s decree that slaves could not purchase weapons hadn’t mattered. There would always be dealers willing to sell anything for the right price.

  “Whip him through the streets,” Octavian said. “And tomorrow, crucify him next to the Forum.”

  Octavia gasped, pressing her silk napkin delicately to her lips, only this time she didn’t protest.

  “But how do they know the plebs aren’t lying, hoping he’ll bring back the dole?” I whispered.

  Marcellus’s usually bright cheeks had grown pale. “It’s possible.”

  “And if they tortured him,” Julia pointed out, “he might confess to anything.”

  Octavian didn’t appear concerned. He reclined on his couch and continued making notes for his next speech in the Senate. But I couldn’t stop thinking of the kitchen boy who’d been condemned to death, and the next day, after our time on the Campus Martius, I persuaded Juba to allow us to go to the Forum.

  “To see a dead man?” Julia complained as we made our way there. “What’s the purpose?”

  “I want to know if it’s really him,” I said.

  “And if it isn’t?”

  “She just wants to know,” Marcellus said. “I’d like to know as well.”

  “There will be no interfering with justice,” Juba warned darkly. He was speaking to all of us, but he looked at me when he said it.

  “We understand,” Marcellus replied. “We just want to go and see.”

  Julia sighed heavily, and we walked the remaining distance to the Forum in silence, trailed by Juba and Gallia. When we arrived, there was no mistaking what was about to happen. Hundreds of Roman soldiers stood outside the Senate, shields at the ready and armed with swords. The red plumes of their helmets drooped in the sun, and I imagined how hot the men must be beneath their armor. But none of them moved. Only their eyes roamed the Forum, searching for possible rebels in the crowd.

  “All of this, for an execution?” Alexander exclaimed.

  “The rebel’s supporters might try to save him,” Marcellus explained. “Or at least give him an easy death.”

  “Do you think that will happen?” Julia asked eagerly, glancing around the Forum.

  “I wouldn’t bet on it,” Juba said curtly.

  No one was allowed near the wooden cross, or the boy who would be bound to it. Juba led us to the steps of the Senate, where guards immediately cleared a space for distinguished witnesses. I felt a tightening in my stomach.

  “Is it him?” Alexander whispered at my side.

  The soldiers had whipped the kitchen boy through the streets, and his bare back was a bloodied mess. But even without shading my eyes from the sun, I could see that the slave had the same height and build as the masked bowman from the theater. “I don’t know. It might be.” I looked at Julia, who had purchased an ofella and was munching contentedly. “How can you bear to watch this and eat?” I demanded.

  “It’s just an execution. Most are done at the Esquiline Gate. This is the only one I’ve seen in the Forum.”

  “A rare treat,” Juba remarked.

  “I wonder why more aren’t done near the Senate,” she said.

  “Possibly because the Forum is a place of business, not torture,” he snapped.

  She popped a last piece of ofella into her mouth. “You’re probably right.” She turned to me. “My gods, just look at these people. All of this for a slave.”

  It didn’t occur to her that we were part of these people, watching as the accused assassin’s wrists and ankles were bound to the cross with rope, and listening to his shrieks of pain as he was hoisted into the air. When I buried my face in Alexander’s shoulder, Juba remarked, “What’s the matter? I thought you wanted to see this.”

  “I wanted to see if he was the bowman!”

  “And?”

  I nodded, unable to speak. He wouldn’t have heard me anyway. The boy’s screams were too loud, and as the cross was raised his body sank down on the sedile, a crude wooden seat that took the pressure from his wrists.

  Finally, even Julia had had enough. “We should go,” she said. “I don’t want to see this anymore.”

  Marcellus agreed. There was no sign of the Red Eagle. No indication that the kitchen boy’s death would be swift.

  “Imagine if he had tried to assassinate our father,” Alexander reminded me quietly as we left. “We would want him dead.”

  Bu
t Octavian wasn’t our father, and I couldn’t stop wondering what might have happened if I had simply held my tongue.

  There was no more talk of the Red Eagle on the Palatine, but Octavian gave a special address to the Senate and requested a force of soldiers whose sole duty would be to protect him. The Senate agreed, assembling a professional body of men that Octavian called his Praetorian Guard. But after several weeks without any new acta posted in Rome, everyone began to wonder whether the Red Eagle might have gone into hiding.

  “Why else would he be silent?” Julia asked on the way to the Ludi Romani. The streets were swollen with people carrying circus padding to the amphitheater for the start of the Games, and our litter swayed dangerously as the bearers tried to avoid a collision.

  “Perhaps he wants to distance himself from the kitchen boy,” I suggested, holding onto the wooden sides.

  There was a sudden stop, and Julia jerked forward, steadying herself with her hand. “Be careful!” she screamed, tearing open the delicate curtains and swearing at the hapless bearers. When she’d twitched the curtains shut, she turned to me. “For three years now, the Red Eagle has appeared at the Ludi.”

  I gasped. “In person?”

  “No. He goes by night and posts acta on the Circus doors. Last year,” she whispered, “he freed the gladiators who were going to fight in the arena!”

  “So you think that there should be an end to slavery?”

  Julia looked at me with alarm. “Of course not! But imagine a man daring enough to free gladiators from their cells.” She sighed. “Spartacus was courageous. But the Red Eagle,” she whispered eagerly, “could be anyone. He might not even be a slave.”

  I recalled Gallia’s meeting with Magister Verrius. Since then, I’d tried several times to speak with her about the Red Eagle, and every time, she’d dismissed me with a wave. “It would be dangerous to fall in love with a rebel,” I warned.

  Julia laughed. “Plenty of women fall in love with gladiators, and most of the gladiators are criminals.” She opened the curtain and pointed to the merchants on the side of the road. “You see what they’re selling?”

  “Ofellae?”

  “No.” She made a face. “Look closer.”

  “Are those—?” I clapped my hand over my mouth.

  Julia giggled. The shopkeepers were selling statuettes of gladiators with erect penises. “Everyone knows that women lust after them.” She let the curtain fall back into place. “Even Horatia has had one,” she confessed.

  I leaned forward. “Without her husband knowing?”

  “Pollio has taken half a dozen of her slave girls. She deserves some happiness.”

  “But what if he catches her?”

  “It was only once. And he’ll never divorce her.”

  “How do you know?”

  “Because he told my father that he never wants anything but fourteen-year-old girls.”

  “And what does he think? She won’t ever grow old?”

  “Sure. But she will always be small. Like you.” I shuddered at the thought of a man like Pollio taking me to his couch and pressing his naked stomach against mine, just like the man on the Palatine. I will never let that happen to me again. I will follow my mother to the grave before I’m subjected to that. I suspected that Julia could read the disgust on my face, because she added, “Horatia swore that she’d open her wrists before she wed Pollio.”

  There was a shrill scream on the other side of the curtain, and Julia rushed to open it again. On the steps of a temple, an old man was thrashing two boys with a whip. They knelt on the steps of the temple and cowered, covering their heads with their arms.

  “Why don’t they run?” I cried.

  “They’re slaves.” Julia leaned forward to get a better view. “In fact, they’re Fabius’s slaves!”

  “You recognize him?”

  She threw a look over her shoulder. “He’s one of the richest men in Rome.”

  The cries of the two boys were terrible to hear. I covered my ears with my hands. “But what could they have done?”

  “To Fabius? I’ve heard it doesn’t take much more than rebuffing his advances.”

  “To boys?”

  “And girls. And widows. And matrons. Disgusting,” she said, and let the curtain fall into place.

  When we arrived, Agrippa made certain that Caesar’s box was ready, then returned to help us from our litters.

  “This is the new amphitheater,” Julia said eagerly. “I wonder what our seats will be like.”

  Members of Octavian’s Praetorian Guard escorted us through the crowd. Armed soldiers cleared away the plebs, but I noticed that Octavian still walked between Juba and Agrippa.

  “So what do you think?” a familiar voice asked, and when I turned, Vitruvius was standing with Octavia. He smiled. “Brand-new. Built by Consul Titus Statilius Taurus.”

  “It’s very handsome,” I said cautiously. The amphitheater towered above the Campus Martius, and even though it was swarming with people, its elegance was undisturbed. The ground floor was occupied by shops tucked neatly between the painted arches, and large columns had been carved like friezes into the sides.

  “But?” Vitruvius asked.

  “But I would have chosen red granite instead of limestone. The limestone will look dirty in a few years’ time.”

  Vitruvius smiled. “I would have to agree with you.”

  “Vitruvius tells me you have a strong understanding of geometry,” Octavia said, taking his arm, “and that he is exceptionally impressed by your designs for my brother’s mausoleum.”

  When I looked to Vitruvius in surprise, Octavia laughed.

  “Oh, he is sparing with his praise. But he’s shown me your work.”

  “I’d like to see it,” Marcellus said.

  “Her sketches are in the library,” Vitruvius replied.

  Julia was silent. When we reached Caesar’s box with its wine-colored awnings and wide silk couches, she purposefully sat between me and Marcellus, turning her back to me to ask him, “So who will you bet on?”

  “We can place bets on gladiators?” Alexander asked.

  “Sure,” Marcellus said. Then he amended, “Of course, there’s no method to it. Not like what you’ve shown me with the horses. You simply pick a number—fifty, thirty-three—and if that gladiator survives, you win.”

  “Are there odds?”

  “Alexander!” I said sharply. “You can’t bet on men’s lives.”

  “I bet on them in the Circus.”

  “Those are just chariots.”

  Alexander looked abashed. “Come on, Selene. If I win, I’ll give you the winnings for your home.”

  “What home?” Julia asked.

  “Her foundling home,” Marcellus replied, but not so loudly that Octavian, on the couch next to us, could hear.

  Julia stared at me. “I didn’t know about this.”

  “It’s nothing,” I said quickly.

  “Marcellus knows about it.”

  “Because he saw the sketch. It’s just a place I imagined.”

  “For foundlings,” Marcellus explained. “She’s interested in charity, like my mother.”

  “How nice,” Julia said, but her tone implied otherwise.

  “It probably won’t come to anything,” I said.

  Julia folded her arms across her chest. “Why not?”

  “Because who would build a home for foundlings? And why would anyone listen to me?”

  “I might,” she said pointedly, and most likely for Marcellus’s benefit, “if I were Caesar’s wife.”

  I was silent.

  “You have such a very kind heart, Selene. I wish I were so good.” But I could see that she didn’t. She was content to eat ofellae during executions and step over wailing infants so long as Marcellus didn’t think she was callous. And although Marcellus would never criticize her, she couldn’t bear it when he praised me. “So are you betting?” she asked.

  I shook my head. “If Alexander wishes to be
t on death, then he can.”

  “Really?” My brother leaned back on the couch so he could see around Marcellus and Julia. “You won’t be upset?”

  I refused to answer him.

  “Oh, they’re going to die anyway,” Julia said.

  “And betting on it won’t make a difference,” Alexander pointed out.

  The bet-maker appeared, and from her couch in front of us, Livia said gleefully, “Twenty denarii on the first gladiator.”

  “To live or die, Domina?”

  “Die,” she said, and next to her, Octavian passed the man a heavy purse.

  “And for you, Domina?”

  Octavia considered. “The first five gladiators.”

  “Living or dead?”

  “Living,” Octavia said pointedly, and her brother smiled.

  When the bet-maker came to Alexander, I turned my face away.

  “It’s not nice, is it?” Antonia asked. She shared a couch with her sister and Vipsania. On the other side of them, Tiberius and his younger brother, Drusus, were rolling dice. “I try not to watch whenever the men die.”

  “Are they all condemned criminals?”

  “No. Some are slaves who were purchased for fighting. Aren’t there gladiatorial events in Egypt?”

  “No. We don’t kill men for sport.”

  “Oh, there’s women, too,” she said sadly. “And animals.”

  “Here?”

  “Sure. Look.”

  The trumpets sounded, and as the gates of the arena were pulled up, a group of sword-carrying men entered from beneath the amphitheater. They wore strange sandals laced up to the knee and short tunics, and I realized with a start that some were mere boys.

  “Who are they?”

  “Telegenii,” Antonia said. “The consul who built this amphitheater found them south of Carthage and brought them here to fight.”

  There was a loud gasp from the crowd in the arena as seven leopards were set loose.

  “They’re not going to kill the cats?” I exclaimed.

  “Certainly. Or they’ll be killed themselves.”

  I sat forward. “Is this what you bet on?” I shouted at Alexander.

 
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