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Cleopatras daughter, p.24
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       Cleopatra's Daughter, p.24

           Michelle Moran
 

  “No,” Horatia whispered. The midwives swaddled the crying infant in wool, and Horatia sat up on the birthing chair. “It can’t be!”

  “It’s a girl, Domina. A healthy child.”

  “But he wanted a son.”

  “So next time—”

  “You don’t understand!” She looked from the midwife to Julia in desperation. “He will never accept it!”

  “Of course he will!” Julia took the baby girl into her arms while the midwives packed Horatia’s womb with wool. “Look.” Julia stroked the little nose with her fingertip, then placed the infant gently in her friend’s arms. I had never seen her so tender with anyone.

  Tears welled in Horatia’s eyes. She took the crying baby to her breast, but the infant refused to suck. “She’s not hungry.”

  The eldest midwife smiled. “Leave it to the nutrice. That is her job.”

  “What will you name her?” Julia asked.

  Horatia was silent, stroking her daughter’s brow with two fingers. Then she said, “Gaia. Like the Greeks’ Mother Goddess.” She held Gaia for a little while, as the music and feasting went on below us.

  “You must wash, Domina. It isn’t healthy to stay here with all this blood.”

  Horatia passed her daughter to Julia, and then the midwives helped her into the bathing room.

  “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” Julia said.

  Gaia had the thick hair of her mother, and her dark eyes were already open.

  “Do you think that Pollio will be terribly angry?” I asked.

  “Probably,” Julia admitted. “But she’ll have a son next time. Do you want children?”

  In fourteen days I would be old enough to marry, and when my monthly blood came, to have children of my own. “Yes, but not for many years.”

  “I would like them now,” she confided.

  “At twelve?”

  “Horatia is only thirteen. And now she has a little girl of her own who will always love her. Who will never abandon her.”

  I was reminded of what Gallia had said about judging Julia too harshly, and suddenly I felt sorry for her. She had a father who valued her only for what marriage she could make, and a mother she could visit only in secret. Although my parents were gone, I had always known I was loved. And my parents had only ever left me in death.

  When Horatia emerged from the bathing room, she walked gingerly. The midwives were careful in their movements, slowly helping her into an embroidered tunic and heavy new palla trimmed with fur. Only married women wore the palla, and I could see the admiration in Julia’s eyes as the midwife draped her friend in the beautiful mantle. Horatia held out her arms for her new daughter, and I thought that Julia handed the infant back with regret.

  “May Juno bless her first day,” the gray-haired midwife intoned, “and may Cunina watch over the cradle.”

  “Will you go to him now?” Julia asked.

  “Absolutely not!” The midwife clicked her tongue. “Dominus must come to her in their chamber. He must accept his daughter first.”

  We followed Horatia down the hall to the chamber where she and Pollio slept. A slave was sent to fetch Pollio from the festivities, and we waited outside while Horatia sat on a chair with her infant daughter in her arms.

  “Is he coming to name the child?” I asked.

  “No. That happens in eight days with the lustratio. This is the tollere liberos.”

  There was no time to ask Julia what that meant. I could hear Pollio’s heavy footsteps on the stairs, and when he reached the landing, he looked expectantly at Julia. “Is it a son?”

  The midwife inclined her head. “Your wife is in there, Domine.”

  Pollio entered his chamber, and before the door swung shut behind him I could hear him demanding, “Is it a son?”

  Julia’s dark eyes flashed at me. “He doesn’t even care if she’s well.”

  “What a terrible marriage.”

  “They’re all terrible,” she said bitterly.

  “But yours won’t be.”

  She gave me a long, calculated look. “If my father doesn’t change his mind.”

  There was a shriek on the other side of the wall, then the door was flung open, and Pollio emerged. “Take it away!” he ordered the midwives. I looked inside the chamber, where Horatia’s daughter lay alone on the floor.

  “Pollio, please!” Horatia ran after him.

  “I said a son.” He turned on her. “Not a daughter. A son!”

  “But I will give you a son. Pollio, please, she’s ours!”

  “She belongs to the gods.” He made his way down the stairs, and Julia rushed to Horatia so that she wouldn’t faint. “Take her to the dump,” Pollio called over his shoulder.

  Horatia fell on her knees. “Please!” she begged. “Take her to the Columna Lactaria. Give her a chance!” But Pollio was gone. She looked up into the face of the midwife. “Don’t take her away,” she pleaded, but the midwife had already gathered the child in her arms. “You can’t take her away from me!” Horatia shrieked.

  Hot tears burned my cheeks, and I realized that my hands were trembling. “Don’t do this,” I said.

  The midwife’s look was firm. “It’s Dominus who pays me. They are Dominus Pollio’s orders that I follow.”

  “But don’t take her to the dump. She’s a child. She hasn’t done anything wrong.”

  The woman’s smile was full of vengeance. “Neither did those two hundred slaves.”

  “So what?” Julia cried. “Because slaves die, patrician children must die as well?”

  The woman didn’t respond.

  “Let me give you denarii,” Horatia said desperately. “Please. Just don’t take her to the dump.”

  The midwife hesitated, then turned to the other slaves and snapped, “Go!” The women swiftly disappeared, some down the stairs, others to separate chambers. When the hall was empty, the midwife said, “Two hundred denarii.”

  Horatia went pale. “That’s my entire dowry.”

  “And this is your daughter’s chance at life. Maybe someone will take her, maybe they won’t, but at the dump the wolves will eat her.”

  “Wait.” Horatia was trembling. “I will give you the money.”

  Julia stared at the midwife, who looked back at us without any remorse.

  “You are no better than a beast,” Julia said.

  “And isn’t that what slaves are supposed to be? Beasts of burden?”

  Horatia returned with several heavy purses, and the midwife stuffed them beneath her cloak. “How will you carry her?” Horatia asked worriedly.

  “Just fine.”

  But even if Gaia survived, she would likely end up in a lupanar, abused from the time she was old enough to speak. My mother had told me there were men who liked girls too young to understand what was happening to them. Tears rolled down Horatia’s cheeks, and Julia whispered, “Isn’t there someone who can adopt her?”

  “How could I arrange it without Pollio knowing?”

  The midwife pulled her cloak over the child, and I turned away from the terrible scene. While Horatia and Julia wept, I made my way slowly down the stairs. In the triclinium, the harpist was still playing, and Pollio was raising a cup of wine in toast.

  “What happened?” Alexander asked.

  “It’s a girl,” I told him.

  Marcellus frowned. “Was she deformed?”

  “No. Pollio wanted a son, so he ordered that she be put out.”

  “As a foundling?” he cried.

  I nodded.

  Octavia rose from her couch and came over to me. “Where is Horatia?” she asked quietly.

  I told her the story, even the part about the two hundred denarii and the Columna Lactaria. When I was finished, her face was hard.

  “What do you think will happen to her?” I asked.

  “The infant or Horatia?”

  “Both,” I said.

  Octavia drew a heavy breath. “If they survive, they will live the rest of their lives i
n terrible sadness.” She walked back to the table where Octavian was reclining between his wife and Terentilla, then whispered something into his ear. He glanced briefly at me, then rose from the couch.

  “What is this?” Pollio exclaimed. “The dessert has not even come.”

  Octavian’s voice was clipped. “I hear that your wife has given birth,” he said. “It would be rude of me to stay, when you belong with her.”

  Pollio’s fat mouth opened and closed like a fish’s.

  “Marcellus,” Octavian said sharply, “go and find Julia.”

  Pollio looked around him. “But we cannot let Saturnalia be interrupted by women’s matters.”

  “The children of Rome matter to everyone,” Octavian said coldly. “Even foolish men like you.”

  Several dozen guests remained in the triclinium, but everyone who had come with Octavian prepared to leave.

  “Congratulations,” Agrippa said, not knowing what had happened in the upstairs rooms.

  Pollio’s face took on the color of unbaked dough. He led us through the atrium to the carriages outside. “Are you certain?” he protested. “It’s cold. Perhaps you would like to stay the night!”

  Octavia turned and said quietly, “I’m sure your daughter would have liked to stay the night as well. When you shiver, remember how cold it is in the dump.”

  On the ride back to the Palatine, I thought of Horatia’s daughter freezing beneath the Columna Lactaria while the rest of Rome drank wine beside crackling fires and ate roasted meats. And once all of his guests left, Pollio would probably climb under the covers next to his wife, demanding her attention even as her breasts leaked milk through her bindings. The thought made me wince, and while Julia wept softly, Alexander and Marcellus exchanged doleful looks.

  When we reached Octavia’s villa, Juba excused himself, but Agrippa and Octavian remained, settling with the rest of us in the warmth of the library, where Vitruvius’s plans were spread across the tables. No one said anything, until Julia broke the silence.

  “What about a home for foundlings?” she asked.

  Marcellus looked up from his place near the brazier, and Alexander caught my eye.

  “A place where mothers can leave their infants and they can be adopted by freedwomen and citizens,” she said. “Selene has drawn sketches of what such a house might look like.”

  “And how would that help Rome?” Octavian demanded.

  “We would be saving lives. Roman lives,” Julia protested.

  “And increasing the number of mouths on the dole,” Livia retorted.

  “Not if citizens were to adopt the infants!”

  “And who would want to do that?” Livia asked. “When a woman is barren, she takes a child from a slave. Why would she need a dirty foundling?”

  Octavia recoiled. “I doubt that there was anything dirty about Horatia’s child.”

  “How do you know? Did you see it? The child was probably deformed.”

  “It was perfectly healthy!” Julia exclaimed. “I was there and so was Selene.” She turned to her father. “If there was a foundling house—”

  “It would be too costly,” Octavian overruled her. “There is a Columna Lactaria for a reason, and the plebs are satisfied. We do enough by paying nutrices to suckle infants.”

  “But most of them die!” Julia cried.

  “Then that is the will of the gods.”

  She looked at me, but I knew better than to speak.

  “You do enough for these people,” Livia assured Octavian. “Free grain, free baths, even men who fight fires and patrol the Subura watching for crime. How much are you supposed to give?”

  “As much as possible,” Octavia said.

  “Then why don’t you fund this foundling house?” she demanded.

  “If my brother thought it was a good idea, I would.”

  Everyone in the library looked to Octavian, who was shaking despite the warmth in the room. “My wife is right. We do enough.”

  Julia’s eyes shone with tears, and I saw Marcellus pat her knee tenderly.

  “And Horatia’s child?” Julia whispered.

  “It was a girl,” Octavian said simply. “The incident was an unlucky beginning to Saturnalia. But I plan to end this night with good news.”

  I couldn’t imagine what kind of news could dispel the unhappiness that had settled over the library, but when Octavian looked to Agrippa, his general announced, “I am getting married.”

  Julia gasped, and I wondered if she feared that she might be the bride. “To whom?” she ventured.

  “My daughter Claudia,” Octavia said.

  “My sister?” Marcellus exclaimed. He looked at his mother. “How come I didn’t know about this?”

  Octavia smiled primly. “Well, now you do.”

  For the rest of Saturnalia, Julia kept a vigil for Horatia’s daughter, going every day to the Columna Lactaria to search for her. For seven days we battled the wind and rain, holding each other on the slick cobblestones while Juba and the Praetorian shone the light of their bronze lanterns on the empty streets. But on the eighth day, Gallia demanded to know what Julia would do if she found the infant.

  “I would bring her home!”

  “What? To your father’s villa?” Marcellus asked. “Be sensible, Julia. Someone has taken her.”

  “But who?” she shouted, and her voice echoed across the icy courtyard. The marketplace was closed for the last day of Saturnalia, and anyone with good judgment was at home, hunched in front of a brazier, cooking lamb in the kitchens and drinking hot wine.

  “It might have been a well-meaning citizen,” Alexander said.

  “But what if it was the owner of a lupanar?”

  “Well, there’s no way of knowing which it is,” Juba said. “No one’s going to return her now.”

  Julia stared at the column where thousands of women had left their infants over the years. The courtyard was silent.

  “The rain is about to come,” Juba remarked.

  We followed him back to the waiting carriage, and inside, Julia fretted over the night we had visited Pollio. “I should have taken Gaia from the midwife.”

  “And what would you have done with her, Domina?”

  “Found her a home!”

  “With whom?” Marcellus asked. “Where?”

  Julia looked at Juba. “What do you think has happened to her?” I knew why she was asking him. Of everyone in the carriage, he would give the answer that would come closest to the truth.

  “A freedman found her and took her home.”

  “But how do you know?”

  “Because no patricians live near the markets or would ever want to be caught there at night.”

  “But what if it was a freedman with a lupanar?”

  “Don’t you think it’s more likely that men of that sort were indoors, celebrating the first night of Saturnalia?” he asked. “Not standing in an abandoned marketplace waiting for foundlings, when those can be had any other day of the week.”

  This settled Julia’s mind a little. But even when Alexander and I turned twelve on the first day of the New Year, she was quiet during Octavia’s celebration of our dies natalis.

  “Tomorrow,” Octavia offered her kindly, “why don’t you come and help me prepare for Claudia’s wedding?”

  Julia looked up from the crackling brazier, where cinnamon sticks burned among the charcoal to scent the triclinium. “What about your slaves?”

  “Oh, they can do the tedious work. The cleaning, the cooking. But who will help me with the tunic and veil? There are only two weeks before my daughters come home from Pompeii and Claudia marries.”

  So through the miserable month of January, while ice still covered the fountains and Octavian wrapped himself in furs, Julia helped Octavia prepare. On the way to and from the ludus, she told us about the jewels Claudia would be wearing, what her sandals would look like, and how her carriage would be decorated for her trip to Rome. But when I asked her why Octavia’s eldest daughter
s were living so far away, she looked from me to Alexander and hesitated.

  “You can tell them,” Tiberius said on our way back from the ludus. “It’s not as though it’s their fault.”

  Julia nodded uncertainly. “Octavia had to give them away in order to marry Antony. Then, when Antony left her, Claudia and Marcella chose to remain with their aunt in Pompeii.”

  I was quiet for a moment. After all of the unhappiness my mother and father had brought into her life, it was surprising that Octavia treated us with any kindness at all.

  My brother shook his head. “I have no idea why your mother treats us so well.”

  “She loves children,” Marcellus said simply. “Wait until you meet my older sisters. We’re all very similar.”

  “You mean they gamble?” Tiberius asked.

  “He means they’re both blond with blue eyes,” Julia said, ignoring Tiberius’s quip. “They’re his only full sisters.” She turned to me and added brightly, “You should help us with the planning.”

  “Oh yes,” Marcellus said. “It’s so much fun. Much better than watching the races, which is what we could be doing.”

  Julia swatted him. “Alexander enjoys it.”

  “Because he likes you girls. I can’t stand all the talk of hairnets and paint.”

  “Come help us,” she begged me. “Vitruvius doesn’t need you every day.”

  “He probably doesn’t need me at all.”

  “Nonsense,” my brother said as we walked. Across the courtyard, Gallia and Juba were waiting for us, bundled into their warmest winter cloaks. “Just yesterday,” Alexander boasted, “he told her that when the weather turns, he’ll be taking her with him on his inspections.”

  “A girl?” Tiberius cried.

  “What does that matter?” Julia retorted.

  “What business does a girl have with construction? Look at her! She can’t even lift a brick.”

  “I can take measurements,” I said sharply. “And I can sketch a design for the flooring or the rooftop better than any of Vitruvius’s old men.”

  Tiberius laughed. “So what is Vitruvius going to do? Introduce you as his apprentice?”

  “I’ll be going in the mornings before the builders get to work.”

 
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