Cleopatra's Daughter, p.23Michelle Moran
“Magnificent.” He looked at his wife. “What did you think?”
Livia smiled weakly. “The beginning had a great deal of promise. Unfortunately, I found the end dispensable.”
Octavian looked down at Terentilla. “Inspired,” she told him.
I turned to my brother. “I’m leaving,” I whispered.
“You can’t go by yourself!”
“If you don’t want to come, Gallia’s in the atrium. She’ll take me back.”
“I won’t hear another poem about Egypt,” I told him.
“But Octavian will think it’s a slight.”
“Then you stay.” I stood without finishing my meal, and when I reached the atrium, I searched among the seated slaves for Gallia.
A boy rose from his stool. “Is there someone you’re looking for, Domina?”
“Gallia,” I told him.
“She isn’t here,” he said quietly.
“Where did she go?”
He hesitated. “With a man.”
He looked down at his sandals.
“I’m a friend,” I promised.
The boy looked deeply uncomfortable. “Yes. He brings her back here before Domina Octavia is ready to go home.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“You won’t tell her I told you?”
“Of course not.”
I walked the short distance to Octavia’s villa alone. Inside my chamber, I took out my sketchbook and studied the drawings. The foundling house was my favorite. It was just a plain villa, with a tiled floor and simple mosaics, but it was more important to me than Octavian’s mausoleum or the Temple of Apollo. There weren’t enough denarii from Alexander’s gambling to purchase the tiles for a single floor, and there would never be enough for the rest of a building, but with my finger I traced the balconies where I imagined the children would look out on the city. Some of the slaves who would be crucified at dawn might once have been foundlings. Perhaps they had even been daughters of wealthy patricians who hadn’t wanted to provide any more dowries, or sons of merchants who didn’t want to feed any more children. I imagined how different life would be for Alexander and me if we had been brought to Rome as slaves, and when Gallia returned with Octavia and the others, I didn’t mention her disappearance with Magister Verrius.
“You missed the best part,” Alexander exclaimed, bursting into our chamber with Marcellus.
“What? Another poem about Egypt?”
Marcellus collapsed on the third couch. “No. Maecenas mentioned the Red Eagle, and my uncle became enraged.”
“Really?” I put down my book. “What did he do?”
“He wants to set a trap for the rebel,” my brother said.
“But the Red Eagle’s unpredictable,” Marcellus added, “and never posts in the same place twice. So my uncle is going to have soldiers in plebeian clothes stationed across Rome.”
“And do you think it will work?” I asked.
“If the rebel tries to interfere tomorrow, it may.” Marcellus closed his eyes. “It’s terrible, isn’t it?”
“Terrible because you know who the Red Eagle is?” my brother asked.
Marcellus opened his eyes. “Why would you say such a thing?”
“Because we’ve heard you leave your room at night,” I said, and Marcellus grew suddenly pale. “And I saw a shadow move across the garden once. It looked very much like you.”
We both stared at him.
“I’m not the Red Eagle,” Marcellus said firmly. “How could I ever write such long acta? I can barely finish my work in the ludus.”
“But perhaps you know him.”
“Or her,” I suggested.
Marcellus looked from me to my brother. “Her? What are the two of you thinking?”
We were silent for a moment, then Alexander said, “Perhaps it’s Gallia, and you’re aiding her fight.”
“Against slavery?” Marcellus’s voice was incredulous. “Do you really think I’d be helping a rebel?”
“Where else could you have been going?” Alexander asked quietly, and Marcellus regained some of his color.
“To meet someone.”
“A woman?” I gasped.
He didn’t answer my question. “Sometimes I pay the guards. But surely you don’t think they’d cover for me if they suspected I was a traitor?”
Alexander and I were both silent. I crossed my arms over my chest, wondering which woman he could be meeting. A lupa? Julia? Some other pretty girl on the Palatine?
Marcellus leaned forward. “But do you really think it might be Gallia?”
“By herself?” my brother said. “It’s unlikely. But perhaps she knows someone with access to a great deal of ink and papyrus?”
Marcellus’s eyes widened, and I knew he was recalling the night his uncle had nearly been assassinated and Antonia had seen Gallia at the bottom of the hill. “Not Magister Verrius?”
My brother put his finger to his lips. “Who else has such resources?”
“Or access to the Palatine,” Marcellus realized. He looked at me. “Do you think it’s him?”
“You say you aren’t the Red Eagle. You haven’t told us where you’ve been going, but if we’re to believe you, who else could it be?”
Marcellus sat back against the couch, but didn’t rise to my bait. “It would make sense. But it could also be a hundred other people.”
“Which is why we can’t say anything,” Alexander said swiftly.
“You wouldn’t turn him in even if you knew, would you?” I asked.
Marcellus was thoughtful. “If I knew for certain who it was, and my uncle came to know….”
I looked to Alexander. We had been wrong to tell him about Gallia and Verrius.
“I won’t say anything,” Marcellus promised. “But it isn’t me.”
When he left, I studied Alexander in the lamplight. “Do you believe him?”
“I don’t know.”
I lay down on my couch and looked at the ceiling. “So do you think the Red Eagle will save them tomorrow?”
“No. He has every legionary in Rome looking for him. If I were the Red Eagle, I’d disappear for several months.”
I dressed in the darkness, then crept through the atrium to the dimly lit library before dawn broke across the sky. I could see Vitruvius silhouetted against the lamplight, and with his sharp profile he reminded me of a bird. He looked up from his desk.
“Have they been killed?” I asked him.
Vitruvius furrowed his bald brow. “Who?”
“The slaves being held in the Carcer!”
His face became suddenly tender. “Executions don’t begin until dawn, Selene, but you can be certain that they will die. Those were the orders.”
“From whom? A group of fifty judices, not one of whom has ever known slavery? How is that fair?”
Vitruvius nodded slowly. “Many things aren’t fair.”
“But isn’t that what Caesar is for? To make things right?”
“No. Caesar is here to keep the peace. And if two hundred slaves have to die in order to keep the peace in Rome, then he is willing to sacrifice them.”
I stared at him.
“I don’t mean to say that’s my belief,” he added, “but that is what Caesar is thinking.”
I took a seat on the opposite side of his desk, but I didn’t take out my book of sketches. “Do you think the Red Eagle will save them?”
“No. And I wouldn’t mention his name in this villa. What began as an annoyance has become a real threat. The boy who was crucified made his attempt in the name of the rebel. You may think this man is brave, Selene, you may even sympathize with those slaves, but do not speak his name around Caesar or his sister.”
I was disappointed that Vitruvius didn’t understand, and when I returned to my chamber an hour later so that Gallia could arrange my hair, I told her what he’d said.
“No one knows whether that boy was working for the Red Eagle.”
You do, I wanted to say, but kept my silence until I could know for certain. Besides, if she had wanted to confide in me, she would have. “And the two hundred slaves?”
She lowered her head. “They were crucified this morning.”
I gasped. “All of them?”
“The smallest children were poisoned.” She saw my look in the mirror and stepped in front of me. “There is no use in letting this consume you,” she warned. “You are free, and if you keep away from trouble, perhaps Caesar will return you to Egypt. Then think of the things you could change.”
I closed my eyes and willed myself not to cry. Instead, I vowed that I would be the most talented apprentice Vitruvius could ever want, and that by my twelfth birthday even Octavian would see that I was useful.
December, 29 BC
“HIS WHEELS are smoking!” Alexander exclaimed, rising from our couch. “Did you see that, Selene?”
A sparsor rushed onto the tracks with a bucket of water and doused the chariot’s wheels while the driver made frantic motions for the man to hurry. Then the sparsor jumped back, and the driver continued racing.
“I don’t see how anything can be smoking on a day like this,” I said grimly, tightening my cloak around my shoulders.
Next to me, Marcellus waved his hand. “Oh, it’s not so bad. Wait until tomorrow.”
“What happens tomorrow?”
“From the looks of it, snow.” Julia shivered in her cloak. We had exchanged our silk tunics for cotton months ago, but now that it was nearing the middle of December, nothing seemed to ward off the cold.
“You mean there will be snow on the mountains?” Alexander asked.
“And everywhere else.” Marcellus held out his hand, and the mist left a fine sheen on his palm. “It would be a shame if it snows during Saturnalia. My mother says once it snowed for three days.”
I exchanged looks with Alexander.
“What’s the matter?” Julia asked. “Haven’t you ever seen snow?”
“Only when it was cooling our mother’s wine,” I admitted.
Marcellus laughed. “That’s it? But you must have tasted nix dulcis.”
“The sweet snow brought down from the mountains,” Julia prompted, “mixed with honey and fruit.”
Both Alexander and I shook our heads.
“Well, you haven’t lived if you’ve never tasted nix dulcis,” Marcellus said. “Perhaps there’ll be some in the markets before Saturnalia.”
“So what is Saturnalia?” Alexander asked.
Julia grinned. “On the seventeenth, we’ll go to the Temple of Saturn. And for an entire week there’s no work and no school. No one has to wear a toga, and even slaves can gamble.”
“Will the Circus be open?” Alexander asked.
I sighed impatiently, but Marcellus laughed. “It’s always open. And I’ve heard that if it isn’t snowing, the Pompeians will be sending up their teams to challenge Rome. We’ll have to come down to the stables in advance.”
“There’s also a feast every day for a week,” Julia added. “And people exchange gifts.”
“For what?” I asked.
“Just for fun! They’re only small things. Like pretty silks or statues. It’s really for the children.”
“And slaves change positions with their masters,” Marcellus added. “We sit in the atrium where the slaves usually dine, and they use the triclinium—”
“Not this year,” Julia warned. “My father forbade it. He also said the first feast will be hosted by Pollio.”
Marcellus groaned. “Why? He never stops talking, unless it’s to shove food in his mouth.”
“At least Horatia will be there,” Julia said glumly.
“And how can she move? She’s nearly due.”
“Pregnant women can still walk,” Julia retorted. “She might even have the child by then.”
It snowed on the seventeenth of December. Like a white linen sheath, the snow covered the roads and the rooftops; it froze the fountains and brought every kind of traffic to a halt. A bitter wind blew through the streets of Rome, carrying the scents of charcoal braziers. On the steps to the Temple of Saturn, I tightened Alexander’s hood around his face.
“Do I look like a gryphon in this thing?” he asked.
“No. You look like a prince of Egypt.” It was true. The heavy cloak was trimmed in ermine, and the soft white contrasted with his olive skin. Dark tendrils escaped from his hood, and they blew about in the wind, making him look like a statue of young Hermes. “It’s really cold here, isn’t it?” I said bleakly.
“It makes you wish we were back in Alexandria.”
“Many things make me wish that.”
As soon as Octavian’s ritual in the temple was finished, horse-drawn carriages took us to Pollio’s villa. The carriages were normally forbidden in Rome, but the streets were too slick to risk riding in litters. And because the skies were so dark, a dozen torchbearers lit the way. I huddled in my cloak, too cold to speak, and when I stole a glance at Julia, her red cheeks and bright nose announced her misery. I don’t remember ever feeling so happy to reach shelter as I did when we entered Pollio’s villa. A rush of warm air engulfed us, and the smell of roasted meat filled the vestibulum.
“Thank the gods,” Octavian said. He seemed to be suffering the worst of all. Beneath his woolen cloak, he wore three separate tunics, and there was a brace on his right hand, which Marcellus said stiffened every year with the cold.
Pollio spread his arms. “Welcome!”
“Take us to the triclinium,” Livia commanded. “My husband is in pain.”
“Of course!” as Pollio rushed to do her bidding, his heavy fur cloak fanned out around him. “Of course!”
We passed through the atrium, where elaborate braziers did very little to offset the frigid air. But when we reached the triclinium, Octavian’s shoulders relaxed. The room was as warm as any bathhouse. Flowers bloomed from precious gold vases, and garlands twisted around the columns as if it were spring.
“How extravagant,” Livia said critically.
“Where is Horatia?” Julia asked.
There had been no sign of the hostess, and as guests crowded into the room, Pollio hesitated. “I’m afraid she cannot be with us tonight.”
“Why?” Julia looked around. “Is she sick?”
“In a fashion.”
“She’s not having the baby?” Octavia exclaimed.
Pollio nodded as if he were embarrassed. “I’m afraid it is bad timing—”
“So why are we here?” Octavia cried.
Pollio frowned. “Because I promised to host Caesar on the first night of Saturnalia.”
Julia’s look was mutinous. “I want to see her.”
“I’m sorry, but she is in her chamber.”
“And what does that mean? That she should be shut up like some birthing cow while everyone else feasts?” Julia cried.
“Control yourself,” Octavian said firmly, “and take your couch.”
“But I would rather see Horatia. Please, Father. Please.”
Octavian looked to Pollio. “Will the child come tonight?”
“If I am lucky. Imagine having to pay for a feast for Saturnalia and a birthing feast as well.”
“Then perhaps my daughter can visit her. It’s a comfort to women in labor to have others in their chamber.”
I could see that Pollio wanted to object, but he nodded instead. “Yes…. Yes, of course. Up the stairs, to the right,” he directed.
Julia looked at me.
“You’re going to go with her?” Alexander exclaimed.
“Because there’ll be blood. And sickness.”
“It’s a birth, not the plague.”
“Women don’t mind it,” Marcellus assured my brother.
Horatia gasped when she saw us. “Julia!” She was already seated on the birthing chair. She was entirely naked except for a palla around her shoulders. Midwives were huddled at the base of the chair where the child would drop through the hole into their arms. Horatia was breathing very heavily, and as Julia rushed forward, I held back. I had never before witnessed a birth.
“Horatia,” Julia said tenderly, and she wiped her friend’s brow with her hand.
“It’s coming,” Horatia groaned. “I can feel it.”
“Keep pushing,” a midwife encouraged.
“What have they given you?” Julia asked.
“A little wine.”
“That’s it?” Julia cried. “No verbena?”
“Nothing!” Horatia groaned, gripping the leather arms of the chair. “Pollio won’t allow it.”
“Those are peasants’ superstitions!” Julia shouted. She looked at me, and although I felt faint, I helped wipe the sweat from Horatia’s brow with a linen square dipped in lavender water.
“I should have used silphium,” Horatia panted. “I may never even live to see the new year.”
“Nonsense,” Julia said firmly. “You’re healthy, and this is only your first child.”
Horatia gritted her teeth, and when she screamed, I was sure her cries could be heard above the harpists in the triclinium. For several hours we remained like this, encouraging and fanning the air into Horatia’s face. Then finally one of the midwives cried, “It’s coming, Domina! Keep pushing!”
Horatia looked up into Julia’s face. “Thank you.” She began to weep. “Thank you for coming.”
“Don’t thank me! Concentrate!”
Horatia gripped the arms of the chair, and her face was a mask of terrible pain. Again and again she strained, screaming, crying, then finally pushing a child into the world in a rush of blood and water. I held my breath, and Julia cried out, “A girl! It’s a girl!”
Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes