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Cleopatras daughter, p.26
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       Cleopatra's Daughter, p.26

           Michelle Moran
 

  “With so many soldiers watching the Palatine?”

  When we reached the bottom, he took the torch from me and we raced together through a cluster of houses. His scarlet cloak billowed behind him, and the way the moonlight crowned his long hair made him seem more handsome than he was before. We stopped at a house being watched by a group of guards, and Juba approached the first man.

  “Has a slave girl entered here?”

  “That is none of your business.”

  Before the guard could blink, there was a dagger at his throat and the other men withdrew. The torch extinguished itself in a puddle. “Let me repeat my question,” Juba said. “I come from Caesar’s sister Octavia, who would like to know if the Princess of Gaul, her favorite slave, was taken inside.”

  The other guards slowly lowered their swords, and the man with the blade to his neck swallowed convulsively. “Yes, she’s inside,” he whispered.

  Juba swept past him, and I kept several paces behind as he threw open the doors to Gaius’s house and shouted, “Gaius Tacitus!” There was the sound of shuffling in a chamber off the atrium, and slaves hid behind columns as Juba approached. “Gaius Tacitus!” he shouted again, and this time, Gaius appeared at the end of the atrium. His toga had been discarded, and he was dressed in his thinnest tunic.

  “Juba.” He smiled. “And the little princess of Egypt, already budding into a woman.”

  “Where is she?”

  “Who?”

  Juba crossed the room, and immediately, Gaius backed away.

  “You mean the Gallic whore?”

  There was a moan from inside a chamber off the atrium, and Juba shoved Gaius’s head against the wall. “Gallia!” Juba shouted.

  I rushed inside, where Gallia was curled up on the couch. Her pale skin was bared to the moonlight coming through the open shutters, and only her long hair covered her nakedness. “Gallia!” I cried, and she looked up at me with blackened eyes.

  “Selene.” She had fought him and lost.

  “She’s hurt!” I screamed, and rushed to give Gallia my cloak. There was no sign of the tunic she had worn to the wedding, or the handsome leather shoes that Octavia had given her. “Come,” I told her.

  But Juba warned abruptly, “Stay inside!”

  We listened to the sound of men scuffling, and when I tried to help Gallia to her feet, I saw that her ankle was swollen.

  “I’m sorry,” I told her. “I’m so sorry.”

  “It isn’t your fault.”

  “But I was there. I saw when Livia sent you.”

  “And how were you to know what this man would do?”

  “Octavia knew! She sent Juba, and if I had told her sooner….”

  There was silence outside, and then Juba appeared. “Gallia,” he said, taking her into his arms in a single sweep. She didn’t cry out, despite her bruises.

  “Please take me to Magister Verrius,” she whispered.

  I followed them out of the chamber and saw Gaius bent double, clutching his stomach. Blood trickled from his mouth and his wounds. I wondered how many women he’d forced himself on, and then how Juba would explain the murder of a senator.

  Outside the house, the guards shifted uneasily. “What … what happened?” one of them asked.

  “Go inside and find out,” Juba told them darkly. He carried Gallia to a house in a small copse of trees, where smoke coiled from the opening above the atrium. When he reached the door, he didn’t have to knock. Magister Verrius opened it and saw at once what had happened.

  “Gallia!”

  Her lip began to tremble, and Magister Verrius led the way through his atrium to a woman’s chamber where the scent of lavender hung in the air. Juba placed her gently on a couch, then followed me outside the room while Magister Verrius took Gallia into his arms. I heard her beginning to tell him the story. Then Juba closed the door and we were alone.

  “She should have said no to Livia!” I cried.

  “She’s a slave. She doesn’t have that privilege.”

  “But what if this happens to her again?”

  “It probably will.”

  I couldn’t understand Juba’s callousness. There was weeping on the other side of the door, along with exclamations of rage from Magister Verrius, who had never raised his voice to us in the ludus. “So how will you explain the senator’s death?”

  “I will say he challenged me. Only you were there to see it.”

  His dismissiveness riled me. “Don’t you care about what happened tonight?”

  “Of course I do, or I would never have risked my life to kill Gaius. But aside from freeing every slave in Rome and joining ranks with a traitor, what would you like me to do?”

  I thought of the denarii Alexander had won at the races, but rejected the sum as being too small. Then I touched my mother’s necklace of pink sea pearls. The golden pendant alone could buy Gallia’s freedom; the rest could support her for many years. I unclasped my mother’s last gift to me, then handed it to Juba.

  “What am I supposed to do with this?”

  “You deal in old statues and jewels,” I told him. “I want you to trade it for me and buy Gallia’s freedom.” If Gallia was freed, she would never have to obey the commands of a citizen again.

  He raised a single brow. “And what makes you think that Octavia will accept it?”

  “The denarii from this necklace could feed half the mouths in the Subura.”

  “I doubt she needs denarii.”

  “Are you refusing?”

  He took the necklace and held it up to an olive oil lamp.

  “It’s real,” I told him.

  “I would expect no less from a princess of Egypt. Was it the queen’s?”

  I blinked away my tears. “Yes. But if Octavia accepts the payment, I don’t want you to tell Gallia who it came from.”

  “How charitable.”

  “It isn’t charity!” I was the reason for what had happened to Gallia. She had defended me once when I had refused to wear Livia’s beaded dress, and made an enemy of a woman who wished to see everyone else suffer. “I owe this to her,” I whispered.

  If it hadn’t been the start of Lupercalia and the beginning of a week’s holiday from the ludus, I would never have woken in time to meet with Vitruvius the next morning. When I opened my eyes, Alexander had already left the chamber, and the windows, which usually looked over a dark and richly wooded garden, were brightened by the winter’s milky sun. I listened for a moment for sounds outside my chamber, wondering what time it was and where everyone had gone. Did they know about Gallia? Would Juba be punished for killing a senator?

  I dressed as quickly as I could and simply pushed back my hair with my diadem. When I looked in the mirror, only the golden bulla stared back at me. I had traded my mother’s last gift for Gallia’s freedom. In everything he did, Juba was swift. Surely by now some woman was placing my mother’s pearls around her neck, admiring them in a large bronze mirror without ever knowing what they had meant. I closed my eyes to keep the tears from falling, and wondered whether Octavia had accepted the denarii.

  I opened my door and listened for Marcellus, but the halls that were normally filled with his laughter were silent. When I peered into the library, I saw Octavia and Vitruvius sitting together. As soon as Vitruvius saw me, he rose. “Octavia would like to speak with you,” he said quietly. I searched his eyes for some indication, but his face was a mask. When he shut the door behind us, I looked at Octavia.

  She motioned for me to sit, then she folded her hands and heaved a heavy sigh. “A terrible thing happened last night.”

  “Yes. Very terrible,” I said quietly.

  “But you may have helped save Gallia from death.”

  “I did nothing. It was Juba,” I said, just as it had been Juba who had saved Octavian from assassination.

  She studied me with her soft eyes. “And it was Juba who came this morning with enough denarii to manumit Gallia.”

  I lowered my gaze to my lap.


  “So I freed her.”

  I looked up swiftly.

  “I am ashamed to say that for all my charity, I was not as generous as you were to Gallia.”

  “It was my fault she went with Gaius. I should have stopped her!”

  “And defy Livia’s command?” Octavia laughed mirthlessly. “There’s nothing you could have done.”

  “We could have found her sooner!”

  “You found her before Gaius strangled her, Selene. And if he had succeeded, there would be no one in Rome to tell the tale. Do you think his guards would have given him away? His slaves?”

  “Where is she?” I whispered.

  “She will live with Magister Verrius now.”

  “And you aren’t angry?”

  Octavia didn’t say anything. She clasped her hands, then unclasped them. “I am sad that I had to tell Gallia she was free when it wasn’t my generosity that freed her. And I am sad that I will be losing my closest friend. I have been selfish in wanting to keep her a slave. Perhaps I have been selfish in many things.”

  “No. You are the spirit of Empanda,” I said earnestly, thinking of the goddess of charity. “And even Empanda must have coveted something.”

  “At the expense of a life?” She stood, and I wasn’t sure whose life she meant. That of Gaius, who had died by Juba’s sword, or Gallia, whose life had been given to slavery. “It is possible that Gallia will return,” she said. “But not before she has recovered.” I rose from Vitruvius’s chair and followed her across the room. At the door, she paused. “However, if there are other slaves you wish to free, Selene, I would save your denarii. Gallia may be a friend to me,” she warned, “but I am no Red Eagle.”

  I missed the Festival of Lupercalia. While Alexander and Marcellus sacrificed a goat in Romulus’s cave and watched while young men were putting on the skins of the sacrifice, running down the Palatine, and whipping anyone in their path with strips of goatskin, I sat alone in my chamber and sketched. From my room, I could hear the shrieks of the women. They were the ones who stood in the path of the whip to ensure fertility over the coming year, and when there was no more screaming, I heard Marcellus’s voice and assumed that everyone had returned.

  Alexander was the first to enter the chamber, and when I saw his face, I jumped from my couch.

  “What happened?” I cried.

  He laughed. “It’s not mine. It’s goat’s blood.”

  “What for?”

  “The Lupercalia! And if you hadn’t been sleeping, you could have come. But I felt too sorry to wake you.”

  “Sorry for me, or sorry for Gallia?” I demanded, and immediately he sobered. “You think you’re going to be King of Egypt someday, acting like this? After you saw what endless feasting and drinking did to our father?”

  “It isn’t endless,” he said quietly. “It’s just one morning.”

  “Which happens to come after a night of bloodshed!”

  “I heard what you did,” Marcellus whispered. “My mother said you bought Gallia’s freedom.” Behind him, Julia and Alexander both exclaimed, “You freed a slave?”

  “And Octavia let her go?” my brother pressed.

  “It appears that way.”

  “Do you think Gallia will return?” Marcellus asked.

  “Your mother said it was possible. If I were Gallia, I would leave Rome altogether.”

  “Livia was happy this morning. But when she hears what you’ve done, she’ll be beside herself,” Julia said fearfully.

  “Then no one will tell her,” Marcellus replied firmly. “Gallia doesn’t know who it was, and Livia won’t either.”

  But my brother scowled at me. “You never cared about the slaves in Alexandria.”

  “And in Alexandria, we had a kingdom. Here, what’s the difference between us and Gallia?”

  “Citizenship,” Julia said.

  “No,” my brother said. “A roll of the dice. We could just as easily have been made slaves.”

  “The children of a queen?” Julia exclaimed.

  “Wasn’t Gallia the child of a queen?” my brother asked.

  She made a face. “The Gauls are barbarians.”

  “And what if tomorrow your father decides that Egyptians are barbarians?” I asked.

  Marcellus and Julia were silent.

  “Please promise you won’t say anything,” I begged, but even though Julia nodded, I wondered whether she could keep such a secret.

  That evening, as we walked to Octavian’s villa, Marcellus waited until my brother was ahead of us to whisper, “You have a very kind heart, Selene.”

  I was glad there was only a sliver of moon. That way he couldn’t see the rush of blood to my cheeks.

  “I had always hoped to set Gallia free when I became Caesar. I wasn’t sure how my mother would take it. You’ve done what I was afraid to do.”

  “It was nothing.”

  “I don’t think so,” he said tenderly.

  Our eyes met, and I wondered for a moment if he was going to kiss me. Then Julia, in one of her new silver tunics, appeared on the portico, waving to us. Marcellus turned, and we said no more.

  CHAPTER FOURTEEN

  June, 28 BC

  GALLIA RETURNED before our summer progress to Octavian’s palace in Capri. With the entire villa in a state of upheaval, she appeared one morning at Octavia’s salutatio and asked whether she still had need of an ornatrix. Her blue silk tunic was sewn with seed pearls, and her long hair was swept back with a tortoiseshell band that gleamed in the bright light of the atrium. The bruises Gaius had left her with were long gone, and in their place shone healthy, pampered skin. As soon as Octavia saw her, she began to weep—tears of joy, and probably relief. She celebrated Gallia’s return that evening with roasted peacock from Samos and rare oysters from Tarentum.

  “Does that mean you will be coming with us to Capri?” Marcellus asked. We were sitting together in the triclinium, where Gallia had never been allowed to eat with us before.

  Gallia fanned herself with her hand. “You think I want to stay behind in this terrible heat?” she teased. Freedom suited Gallia: from the gilded ornaments in her hair to the expensive silk stola embroidered with gold. No one mentioned what had happened with Gaius, and Juba had not been punished for the killing.

  But when Gallia and I were alone together on the morning of our departure, I asked her quietly, “Have you been well?”

  She seated herself on my traveling chest, considering my question. “I have healed,” she said. “And, of course, it is good to be free. There is no one who can give me orders now,” she said firmly. “Only Caesar.”

  “And does Octavia pay you?”

  She smiled. “More than Magister Verrius makes at the ludus. And I no longer have to sneak away at night to see him. We are married.”

  I was shocked. “Since when?”

  “Since the week Octavia gave me my freedom.” But she put a finger to her lips. “It would not go well for his teaching if Livia discovered this. Caesar respects him, but Livia….” Her blue eyes narrowed into slits. “She does not approve of freedwomen marrying born citizens. I will try to keep it from her as long as possible.”

  “And will Magister Verrius come to Capri?”

  “Of course. Who would spend the summer here if he could escape it?”

  We left the crushing heat of Rome on the first of July, and it occurred to me that only a year ago Ptolemy had been alive. I thought of his dimpled smile, and the way his cheeks used to look like little apples when he laughed. But thinking about him only brought me pain, and I tried not to remember. Instead, I focused on the journey. It would be a long ride to the shore of Naples. We were setting out at night so that a formal send-off wouldn’t be necessary. This way, Octavian could leave without drawing attention to the fact that while the plebeians were suffering in the searing heat, the wealthy were escaping to their cool villas by the sea. Agrippa and Juba rode on horses ahead of the Praetorian Guard, and the sleeping carriages that followe
d behind them bumped along the cobblestones. We were the only people using the actual road. Few horses were shod, and to save the unshod horses’ hooves, most carriages traveled on the grassy shoulder of the Appian Way.

  Alexander and I shared a carriage with Marcellus and Julia. I watched with rising envy whenever Marcellus’s leg brushed against hers or he arranged a pillow behind her back. They played games with their eyes when they thought that no one was looking, and Julia smiled more than she ever did in Rome.

  “Wait until you see Capri,” Marcellus said as we left the stagnant air of the city.

  “Is it like the Palatine?” Alexander asked carefully. The last time Marcellus had been excited about a journey, we had arrived in Rome, where smoke belched from the cooking hearths and the temples were covered in graffiti. Now, I no longer noticed the crude drawings scrawled across the steps of the Senate.

  “There’s no comparison,” Julia said. “On the Palatine, my father pretends to be the humble servant of Rome. In Capri, we actually live like the ruling family.”

  “It’s my uncle’s Sea Palace,” Marcellus explained. “There’ll be a beach and horses, and we’ll take you to the Blue Grotto.”

  “Are the buildings beautiful?” I asked eagerly.

  “You’ll be sketching all day,” Marcellus promised. “Why do you think Vitruvius is coming?”

  “Possibly for your mother.”

  Marcellus laughed. “And for the beauty, too.”

  It was three days by carriage, but at twelve years old, we thought the journey endless. We made up games to pass the time, but mostly we looked out the windows and watched the sleepy towns and roadside shrines go by. Several inns advertised bread, wine, and a girl for the night, all for one denarius, but we never stopped in any of those places. I tried to read some of the scrolls that I had packed. I chose The History of Naples and The Guidebook to Troy, but reading made me sick, and even the fresh sea air couldn’t quell my nausea.

  When we finally arrived on the shore of Naples and stepped onto the ships that would take us to Capri, it was my turn to feel strong while the others held their stomachs and moaned. Alexander and I raised our faces to the crisp morning wind and closed our eyes.

 
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