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Cleopatras daughter, p.25
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       Cleopatra's Daughter, p.25

           Michelle Moran
 

  He smiled. “So he is ashamed.”

  “Leave her alone,” Marcellus warned.

  “Does that mean you won’t help us?” Julia pouted.

  “Yes,” I said firmly.

  By the time we arrived home on the Palatine, half a dozen litters crowded the portico of Octavia’s villa.

  “The priestesses are here,” Gallia warned. “Be silent when you enter.”

  Juba and Tiberius followed us into the atrium, where the priestesses of Juno had arranged themselves around a brazier. Octavia held an unfurled scroll above the flames, while Agrippa fanned the fire with his hand.

  “What are they doing?” I whispered.

  Julia leaned over so that her lips were at my ear. “The scroll Octavia is holding is a calendar. When the priestesses decide there has been enough smoke, they will interpret the burn marks and determine which days are dies nefasti.”

  I drew away from her. “Bad-luck days?”

  “March, May, and all of June are unsuitable for weddings. So are the Kalends, the Nones, and the Ides of any month, and any day following those. And no one can be married on the day of any religious festival.”

  “Is it really bad luck?”

  She rolled her eyes. We listened as the priestesses chanted to Juno, the goddess of motherhood and marriage. Octavian, holding a wax tablet and a stylus, stood next to his sister. He was wearing a heavy fur cloak that was too big around his shoulders. I could see that he was bitterly cold, keeping away from the open roof, where rain was falling into the icy pool. His face had turned as white as his cloak, and the only color to be seen in it was the gray of his eyes.

  “That is enough,” one of the priestesses said.

  Octavia immediately withdrew the calendar, and the priestess who had spoken held it up to the dim light from above. The other women stopped chanting, and the only sound was the patter of rain.

  “Not February second,” she said.

  Octavian scribbled something with his stylus, and I noticed that the polished ivory brace on his right hand now extended all the way up his arm.

  “Is your father well?” Alexander whispered to Julia.

  She nodded. “He is like this every winter.”

  Even on the worst days in Alexandria, I had never seen my father look so weak.

  “Not February tenth,” the priestess said.

  Octavian made another mark on his tablet.

  “The best day in February will be the twelfth.”

  Octavian looked up from his tablet. “The day before Lupercalia?” he challenged.

  The priestess would have responded, but suddenly lightning cracked through the sky and thunder shook the walls of the atrium.

  “The augurs!” Octavian shouted. “Go to the collegium and bring the augurs!”

  Alexander turned to Marcellus. “What’s happening?”

  “Thunder,” he replied fearfully. “It’s a terrible omen.”

  Lightning flashed again, and the thunder clapped, bringing with it a fresh torrent of rain. Octavia said curtly, “Get to the library!”

  We crowded into the library, where Juba helped Octavia light the oil lamps until the paneled room glowed a burnished orange. The priestesses huddled together near the brazier, but it was the woman who had spoken who looked the most fearful. If the augurs came and declared that the gods were upset with her pronouncement, it might mean any number of terrible things for her.

  “What does this portend?” Octavian asked. He was looking at Juba, who had taken a seat next to the brazier. Outside, rain poured into the fountains and pool.

  “We should wait for the augurs,” Juba said.

  I was close enough to hear Tiberius whisper to Juba, “You don’t really believe it means anything? It’s the precursor of rain. That’s it!”

  “The augurs are coming,” Juba said firmly.

  “But you don’t believe them! Tell the truth. Even Cicero mocked the augurs.”

  “And Cicero ended his days with his head on the rostrum,” Juba said forcefully.

  Some of the priestesses whimpered, and an uneasy silence fell over the library. I imagined the augurs tucked in comfortably on their couches, buried beneath heavy piles of blankets until a slave summoned them into the rain and wind. What sort of mood would they be in when they arrived? Angry enough to condemn a priestess of Juno?

  When a slave appeared at the door, everyone sat up. “They’re here, Domine.”

  Octavian rose. “Bring them in!” He looked at Agrippa. “Nothing must go wrong with this marriage. It must be blessed by all of the gods.”

  The first augur who entered looked eager to please. He shepherded the others inside the crowded library, and addressed his first question to Octavian. “We are humbled to be of service, Caesar. Is it the thunder that brings us here today?”

  The priestess of Juno explained what had happened, and Octavian added, “As soon as she made the pronouncement, it came. There had been no thunder the entire morning. For days, there hasn’t been any lightning.”

  “And where did the lightning come from?” the augur asked.

  “The east,” Juba said.

  Octavian frowned. “I didn’t see that.”

  “Because you were writing. I was watching the skies.”

  The first augur lifted his arms. “Then it is a sign of blessing!”

  Octavia placed her hand on her heart, and her brother persisted, “Even though the chosen day is the day before Lupercalia?”

  A second augur nodded. “The gods have spoken.”

  Tiberius gave Juba a triumphant glance, but Juba was too polite to respond with anything but a curt nod. He’s lying, I thought. He doesn’t believe in this and just wants it to be done. No one can know whether it came from the east or the west. But no one said anything, and Agrippa’s wedding date was set for the twelfth day of February.

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN

  February 12, 28 BC

  CLAUDIA STOOD in the middle of her mother’s chamber while a dozen slaves rushed around, plaiting her hair into six even braids and fastening her crimson veil with flowers. She was giddy and shy, always blushing and surprisingly naïve for a nineteen-year-old woman. Perhaps because her skin was so light, every passing emotion colored her face a curious shade of pink. It would begin in her cheeks, then spread to her nose, her ears, and finally her neck. I noticed that Marcella had the same coloring, as if her face were an open scroll waiting to be read.

  “The Romans certainly do things differently than the Egyptians,” Alexander remarked.

  “Why? What do Egyptians do for marriage?” Claudia asked.

  “The bride and groom take a special bath.”

  “Together?” she cried.

  Julia smiled. “How lovely.”

  “How vulgar,” Livia retorted, but no one was listening. She had complained that my brother was allowed in the chamber while Claudia’s veil was being fitted, but Octavia had rightly pointed out that it was no different than watching someone put on a cloak. And there was no more skin showing on Claudia than if she had been mummified in linen like Osiris. Her long tunic was fastened at the waist by a girdle, and like a vestal virgin, she wore her veil so that it covered the rest of her body, including the top half of her face.

  “Don’t be nervous,” Octavia murmured. “Agrippa is one of the finest men in Rome.” She turned to Marcella, who was seventeen. “And you will be next.”

  Marcella nodded sadly.

  “You aren’t going to be lonely without me?” Claudia worried. “You can come and live with me if you get tired of Pompeii.”

  “And get in the way of your baths?” Marcella teased. “No, our aunt needs me.”

  “Then you will kiss her for me, won’t you? And tell her I love her, even as a matron?” I could hear that Claudia was about to cry, and her sister wrapped her arms around Claudia’s waist.

  “Of course I’ll tell her.”

  I noticed that Octavia’s eyes looked sad. After so many years of separation, she had ceased
to be like a mother to them. She had lost that special bond as surely as Horatia had lost Gaia.

  Claudia lifted the hem of her tunic so that she could walk without tripping, and a pair of crimson sandals peeked out. She held out her arms so that we could see.

  “Beautiful,” Alexander said.

  “As beautiful as an Egyptian bride?”

  “Even prettier,” he lied.

  We could hear the music and laughing from the atrium, where the pool was illuminated by floating lamps and the dusk was held at bay by hundreds of candelabra. There was no special procession as there was in Egypt. We simply walked with the bride to the granite altar that Octavia’s slaves had carried in. An ewe had been slaughtered earlier, so that the augurs could again declare this a favorable day.

  “Look at all the people,” Claudia said anxiously.

  Patricians from all across Rome had come for the evening’s celebration, and Octavia said, “This is an important marriage. If something were to happen to my brother, who do you think would take his place? Marcellus is still too young.” She squeezed her daughter’s hand, and Agrippa approached the altar with Octavian and Juba at his side. His eight-year-old daughter, Vipsania, stood on his right, looking curiously at the woman who was to become her stepmother.

  “She’s lucky,” Julia whispered, noting the direction of my gaze. “Claudia will be good to her.”

  The laughter in the atrium grew muted, and senators in their best togas stepped closer to the altar to hear what was being said.

  “Ubi tu es Agrippa, ego Claudia.”

  “Ubi tu es Claudia, ego Agrippa.” Agrippa raised Claudia’s veil, and the entire atrium shouted “Feliciter!”

  “That’s it?” Alexander asked incredulously. “All of that preparation for this?”

  Julia raised her arms and clapped. “It’s done!”

  Flute players led the way to the triclinium, where the couches were draped in saffron-dyed fleece to match the bride’s attire. A tall spelt-cake had been decorated with flowers, and as I bent to inhale the fragrance, Livia said merrily, “Soon it will be you.” When I straightened, she called to the old man next to me, “Catullus, have you met Princess Selene?” The deep black of his eyes was masked by a rheumy film, and his hands shook with some ailment of age.

  The old senator lowered his cup of wine to smile. “A pleasure.”

  “Such a pretty girl, isn’t she? Her mother had four children, and probably could have had more.”

  Catullus raised his brows.

  “So tell me,” Livia said, “is it true that you are looking for a wife?”

  I felt the color drain from my face, and I was too terrified to turn or leave the conversation.

  “Yes.” The old man nodded slowly.

  “Well, perhaps you would like to spend some time with Selene.”

  My heart was beating rapidly in my chest.

  Catullus frowned. “Doing what?” he asked cautiously.

  “Oh, for now, just discussing a few things,” Livia answered.

  “And exactly what would he have to discuss with a child?”

  I had never been so thankful to see Juba.

  “My gratitude for your concern,” Catullus said swiftly to Livia, “but I believe I am wanted over there.”

  Livia watched Catullus leave, then fixed her gaze on me. “You will never return to Egypt.”

  “And how do you know she wants to return?” Juba asked.

  Livia laughed sharply. “Because I know this one. She would have tried to run away if she didn’t think my husband might return her to Alexandria.”

  Octavia appeared as silently as Juba had. “Livia,” she said sweetly, “I hope you’re not taking out your anger on Selene. It’s not her fault my brother has disappeared with Terentilla.”

  Livia raised her chin. “He’ll never leave me. Terentilla’s nothing more than a theater-whore.”

  “He left Scribonia,” Octavia reminded her.

  “Because I had something to give him.”

  “What?” Octavia asked. “A patrician name? Do you think he needs that now?”

  “I remember a letter once,” Livia said pensively. “I believe it was from Marc Antony, calling your grandfather a freedman and a rope-maker from the town of Thurii. Do you really think that without my family the senators will sit quietly—just sit—while the descendant of a rope-maker makes laws for them?”

  I recalled my father calling Octavian “Thurinus” once, and now I understood.

  But Octavia only smiled. “Yes. And when that time comes,” she suggested, “let’s hope your friends outnumber your enemies.”

  There was a loud cheer in the triclinium as the bride and groom took their first sips of wine from the same cup. I noticed that Juba had disappeared. Octavia held out her arm to me. “Shall we?” She led me to a table where Marcellus and Alexander were teasing Julia about how lavish her own wedding was going to be. But when Julia turned and smiled at me, I didn’t have it in my heart to be merry.

  The celebration carried on almost until morning, when Octavian returned and announced that it was time for the groom to lead his bride to her new home. Senators began singing crude songs to the blushing bride, and flutists and torchbearers led the way while the guests followed. When we reached the portico of Agrippa’s villa, my brother stumbled over the first step and fell.

  “Alexander!” I exclaimed.

  “What?” He giggled. Marcellus and Julia giggled, too.

  “The three of you are drunk!” I accused.

  “It’s the Falernian wine,” Julia protested. She looked at Alexander, still sitting on the first step of the portico, and they all collapsed into laughter.

  “Julia, Marcellus, Alexander,” Octavia snapped. “Get yourselves home.” Next to her, Gallia shook her head disapprovingly.

  “But the bride hasn’t even—”

  “I don’t care.” She cut off Marcellus’s protest, then looked down at me. “You may stay.” It wasn’t an offer. It was a command.

  Alexander threw a pleading look over his shoulder at me, while Marcellus helped him up and the three of them stumbled away.

  “You are the only one with any sense,” Octavia muttered.

  On the steps outside Agrippa’s villa, Claudia was crowning the doorposts with wool, then anointing them with wolf’s fat to bless her new home. When Agrippa carried her over the threshold, he was followed by dozens of drunken senators eager to watch him lay Claudia on her bridal couch and take off her girdle. I would have gone as well, but Livia’s voice cut through the merriment.

  “What’s the matter, Senator?” A thin man in a toga had just emptied his stomach into an urn. He rose shakily to his feet, and Livia told him, “You should get yourself home.”

  “And miss the untying of the girdle?” He gave a leering laugh and made to go inside, but Livia stopped him with her hand.

  “I will send a slave with you. Gallia,” she instructed, “take Senator Gaius back to his villa.”

  I saw that the senator was about to protest, until he caught sight of Gallia. Then his smile grew wider.

  Gallia hesitated. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have an escort of men, Domine?”

  “Not tonight,” he said eagerly. “And the bottom of the hill isn’t far,” he promised.

  Gallia searched for Octavia, but she had followed Claudia into Agrippa’s home. Without her, Gallia could never disobey Livia. “Of course, Domine.”

  Livia followed the pair of them with her eyes, and when the cheerful throng of senators and well-wishers reemerged, she took Octavian’s arm. “A successful night,” she said happily to him. “Shall we retire?”

  A cock crowed in the distance, and Octavian stifled a yawn. “It’s time.”

  Guests were summoning their litters, and tired slaves, who had taken too much wine, staggered beneath the weight of their masters. I heard exclamations of horror as one litter bearer or another fell down.

  Octavia turned to Juba. “Is it too late to ask you abo
ut a statue?”

  “I doubt I will be getting much sleep,” he replied. The disappearing celebrants were making enough noise to reach the ears of Persephone as they called to one another in the gloom and shouted for the slaves to be more careful.

  “It’s a gift I purchased for my daughter,” Octavia said. “But I’d like to know that it’s authentic before she takes it.”

  We walked together to Octavia’s villa, and I wondered if I should mention what had happened with Livia. But before I could say anything, Octavia turned. “Where is Gallia?”

  “Gone,” I told her.

  She frowned. “With Magister Verrius?”

  “No. Livia sent her with a senator to take him home.”

  Juba asked swiftly, “Who? Which one?”

  “A man named Gaius.”

  He exchanged looks with Octavia, who put her hand on her stomach. “Dear gods,” she whispered. “When did he take her?”

  “When everyone went inside to see Claudia’s bridal couch.”

  “I know where he lives,” Juba said at once. “Below the south shoulder of the hill. I’ll go.”

  “Wait! I know a shortcut,” I told him.

  “Where?”

  “Behind the Magna Mater.”

  Octavia gasped. “Through the woods?”

  “We used to use it on our way to the ludus. Before Juba started coming with us.”

  Octavia looked at him. “Do you know it?”

  “No one uses the woods,” he replied.

  “We did! Marcellus convinced Gallia to take us that way. I can show you,” I promised. “Gallia would never use it in the dark, but you’ll get down faster.”

  Octavia motioned swiftly. “Go. Both of you!”

  Juba didn’t protest. He grabbed a torch from a soldier and led me through the press of drunken men and litters to the Temple of Magna Mater. “So where is it?” he demanded. “I don’t see a path.” He handed me the torch, and I picked out the trail we had used every morning.

  I had never been in the woods at night, and I was thankful to have Juba behind me, despite his antagonism. “Over here,” I said, lighting the way. I remembered the night that Juba had saved me. “What if he attacks her on the road?”

 
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