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Cleopatras daughter, p.27
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       Cleopatra's Daughter, p.27

           Michelle Moran
 

  “It feels like home, doesn’t it?” he said.

  I sighed. “Yes.” The high calcareous cliffs with their lush vegetation plummeted into the sea, creating grottoes and bays where children were swimming or fishing along the rocks.

  “Someday, when we return to Egypt,” my brother promised, “we’ll commission a new thalamegos and sail like this up and down the coast of Alexandria. I’ll never get enough of the water.”

  Vitruvius came up behind us. “There it is,” he said, and I heard the love in his voice.

  Perched on a promontory so high above the sea that even the spray couldn’t reach its gardens, the Sea Palace looked like an eagle carved from stone. Marcellus was right. It had nothing in common with Octavian’s squat villa on the Palatine.

  “I don’t understand. Why doesn’t he rule Rome from here?”

  “Because alienating the Senate didn’t work very well for Julius Caesar,” Vitruvius replied. “I don’t think he wishes to repeat that history.”

  It was a shame. Slaves with bronze and ebony litters carried us to the palace, where terraced gardens looked out over the water, and the portico commanded a stunning view of sunlit vineyards and golden fields. I was the first from my litter, then Vitruvius.

  “It renews your faith in architecture, doesn’t it?” he remarked. He ran his hand lovingly over a caryatid, pausing to rest it on the figure’s marble cheek.

  “You built this, didn’t you?” I realized.

  He grinned. “My first commission. And I know that school is done for the summer, but if you wish, I will continue to tutor you here. There’ll be no measurements to take or mosaic flooring to plan, but the inspiration—”

  “Yes,” I said at once.

  He laughed. “We can begin with a tour.”

  Octavian stepped from his litter, announcing that dinner would be at sunset in the summer triclinium, and in the remaining time we could explore. Marcellus and Alexander wanted to go to the stables, and immediately Julia moved to go with them. Marcellus looked over his shoulder at me. “Aren’t you coming?”

  I glanced at Vitruvius. “To the stables?” I hesitated, watching Julia take Marcellus’s arm. “No, I … I’m going with Vitruvius.”

  “Then we’ll see you later,” Marcellus said easily. The pretty trio turned away, my handsome brother, Julia, and Marcellus.

  Vitruvius saw my face and promised, “There’s an entire summer to spend with them.”

  “And who wants to listen to Julia’s chattering anyway?” Tiberius demanded. I hadn’t seen him emerge from his litter, and I wondered whether he’d been hiding until his mother had gone inside. He looked to Vitruvius. “May I come on your tour?”

  “I didn’t know you were interested in architecture.”

  Tiberius shrugged sheepishly. “If Selene’s interested, I might be, too.”

  We followed Vitruvius into the palace, where the entrance tesserae of colored limestone spelled out the Latin greeting AVE at our feet. The halls were frescoed with scenes from the Odyssey, mainly images of sailors and ships. Once we reached the atrium, Vitruvius stopped, letting me stand long enough to take it all in. Long white curtains fluttered in the breeze, brushing against blue mosaic floors. Everything had been painted in shades of the sea: cerulean blue, deep midnight, turquoise.

  “It’s nothing like Rome,” I said wonderingly. The walls were ornamented with painted apses and niches. “And look at the marble edges on the pillars!”

  “And the painted ceilings,” Vitruvius added.

  “How were all of these made?” Tiberius asked.

  “The frescoes? Selene can tell you.”

  “By applying three coats of mortar and three coats of lime mixed with powdered marble. Then the artist painted on the wall while the mixture was still damp.”

  “You’ve learned a lot about this,” Tiberius remarked.

  “She’s a good student.”

  He nodded thoughtfully. “I’m not surprised. She’s my only real competition at school.” Although he was unbearably arrogant, I couldn’t help being flattered. “You should show her the library,” he said to Vitruvius.

  “That’s where we’re going.”

  It was magnificent. Heavy wooden shelves from ceiling to floor were crammed with scrolls. Seabirds had been carved into the wood of the ceiling, and beautiful urns filled the niches. Vitruvius explained how the shelves had been built, then took us through the triclinium and the guest chambers, pointing out small features like fluted columns and barrel-vaulted spaces painted in sea green and gold. Every room we entered was richly furnished. There were marble-topped tables and couches faced with bronze. Even the chairs were inlaid with precious ivory. When we reached my chamber at the top of the stairs, I saw that I would still be sharing with Alexander, but the room was so large that it was impossible to see all of its corners from the doorway. Straw hats and feathered fans had been laid on our tables, and thick leather sandals for walking along the rocks had been left out for us as well. I stepped onto our balcony overlooking the sea.

  “Is it as beautiful as Alexandria?” Tiberius asked earnestly from behind.

  I didn’t lie. “Yes.” I turned to Vitruvius. “How long did all of this take?”

  “My entire youth.”

  “And the most difficult part?”

  He indicated the immaculate gardens with their shady bowers and small marble temples.

  “Can we see them?” I asked eagerly.

  He led us down the stairs and through a pair of doors that opened onto a portico. There were gardens in every direction, some colonnaded, others terraced to the sea. Vines trailed from painted bowers, and, as we walked beneath them, he explained the difficulty.

  “A garden is like an onion,” he said. “It takes layer after layer to make it whole. First the earth has to be cultivated, then the landscape rearranged.” He pointed to thickets of myrtle and boxwood, then showed me the orchards where peach trees grew among lemons and figs. “But it’s the small details that make it complete.”

  Sea daffodils and lilies spilled from heavy urns. And where fountains bubbled merrily, Carystian marble gods raised their arms to the sun. As we reached the bottom of the garden, Vitruvius pointed to the heated bathing pool from which swimmers could look out over the sea. Even in Alexandria we had never had such pools. And there were many more things he showed me that afternoon that rivaled Egypt for beauty.

  When we returned to the triclinium in time for the evening’s meal, I saw that Alexander had put on a new tunic, while I was still in my traveling clothes.

  “So what did you do all day?” he asked.

  “Looked at architecture with Vitruvius and Tiberius.”

  Julia popped open an oyster. “That’s it?”

  “There’s a great deal more to the palace than you know,” Tiberius retorted.

  Marcellus raised his brows. “Such as?”

  “The slaves’ chambers,” I said. “And have you seen the baths that they use?”

  Julia laughed. “Who would want to do that?”

  “You might,” I said sternly. “They are some of the most beautifully frescoed pools I’ve ever seen. And their rosewater is better than what you use in Rome.”

  Julia wrinkled her nose. “Really? Why are the slaves living so well?”

  “Because we only come here once a year,” Marcellus guessed. “The rest of the time they’re doing as they please. Your father doesn’t call this the Land of Do-Nothings without a reason.” He smiled at me. “I’d like to see their baths.”

  “I’m sure Vitruvius will take you.”

  “Or you can.”

  Everyone at the table paused. My brother darted a look of warning at me. Then Julia said lightly, “You can take all of us. Tomorrow afternoon.”

  Marcellus shook his head. “I heard your father say we’ll be visiting Pollio.”

  Julia lowered the oyster in her hand. “What?”

  “Pollio is always lending money to the treasury,” he explained. “An
d you know he comes to the sea every year—”

  “So my father’s planning on spending the day with a murderer for a handful of denarii?” Julia cried.

  Marcellus put his finger to his lips, but Octavian was busy talking about antiquities with Juba. “At least you’ll get to see Horatia,” he offered.

  “And then what?” she hissed. “Ask if she’s enjoying the sea?” She pushed away her plate of food and stood. “I’m not in the mood for this anymore.”

  She left the triclinium, and Marcellus was caught between going after her and remaining with us.

  “Oh, just let her be,” Alexander suggested. “My sister can talk to her.”

  “Why me?” I exclaimed.

  “Because you’re a girl and understand these moods.” Since I had experienced my moon blood several months before, Alexander had suffered a few of my irrational tantrums.

  “Yes,” Marcellus pleaded. “Better you than us.”

  “And you wouldn’t rather go?” I asked temptingly.

  Marcellus shook his head. “She’s vile when she’s angry.”

  I suppressed a smile and stood. So long as we weren’t sitting at Octavian’s table, no one cared when we left the triclinium. I found Julia on the balcony of her chamber, illuminated by torchlight and watching the waves. “Marcellus?” she asked eagerly, and her shoulders sagged a little when she saw that it was me. “Selene.” Her pale tunic fluttered in the breeze, and I realized that her cheeks were wet.

  “I’m sure your father isn’t doing this to hurt you,” I said.

  “No.” She spun around. “Livia is. You think my father can’t borrow gold from a thousand other men? Why Pollio?” she demanded. “Why tomorrow, just as we’re free from the ludus and beginning to enjoy ourselves?” She stalked from the balcony, and I followed her into her chamber. Her eyes were brimming with tears. “I won’t go.”

  “Don’t give Livia the satisfaction,” I told her. “She wants to see you alone and upset while all the rest of us are out together. And if you don’t go tomorrow, she’ll know she’s found a way of excluding you. She’ll only do it again.”

  Julia sat on her couch. “You saw what she did to Gallia,” she said. “Without lifting a finger. If I go, she’ll only find another way to hurt me.”

  “Then tell your father!” I seated myself on one of her chairs.

  “Do you think he would listen?” She laughed scornfully. “I’m like one of his Setinum wines being aged to perfection. And when the time is right, he’ll sell me off to Marcellus.”

  “But I thought you wanted to marry him?”

  “Of course I do. But my father doesn’t care about that. I could loathe Marcellus, and we would still be married.” Her voice grew very still and frail. “You were lucky to have a mother,” she said. “Even if Gaia survived her first night at the Columna, she’ll never know her real mother. Just like me.”

  “But your mother is alive—”

  Her eyes flashed. “And banished from the Palatine! No one invites her to dinner for fear of displeasing my father. She has no friends, no husband. She doesn’t even have me. Do you know where she is right now?”

  I shook my head.

  “In Rome, suffering with the plebs. She doesn’t have the denarii to purchase a summer villa, and do you think my father cares? If I could, I would leave this island behind and sweat through the heat of Rome to be with her. Instead, I get to suffer here.”

  When she bent her head and I realized she was crying, I moved from my chair and put my arm around her shoulders. There was nothing to say, no way of changing Rome or her father. I simply listened to her cry, and was thankful I had come instead of Marcellus.

  Before we left for Pollio’s villa, an augur was summoned to determine whether the day would be auspicious for dining with a friend. We stood in the colonnaded garden beneath the increasing heat of the sun, waiting for a flock of birds to pass overhead so that the augur could divine from their pattern of flight whether this would be a dies fastus or a dies nefastus.

  Tiberius sighed heavily, and Marcellus looked immensely bored with the whole procedure.

  “Where are the damn birds?” Octavian swore.

  The augur shifted nervously on his feet. “I am afraid the gods do not work on mortal schedules, Caesar.”

  Livia pointed wildly to the north. “Blackbirds!” she exclaimed, and everyone turned to face the augur.

  Julia closed her eyes, and I could almost hear her thoughts. Please proclaim it a dies nefastus.

  The augur spread his arms. “There will be good fortune today!” he announced. “This is a fastus.”

  Tiberius stood swiftly. “Good. Let’s go.”

  I saw Juba smile wryly at him while Octavian gave his thanks to the augur. A dozen curtained litters were waiting for us outside the villa, and I shared mine with Julia.

  “I was hoping he’d declare it a dies nefastus,” I admitted as the litter began to move.

  “I knew he wouldn’t. All the augurs look at my father’s face before making a proclamation. If he doesn’t look as if he wants to go, then it’s a dies nefastus.”

  “So your father doesn’t really believe in it?”

  Julia’s eyes went wide. “Of course he does.”

  “But how—?”

  “He believes what he wants to. Just like you with your Isis.”

  “And what does that mean?”

  “Well, have you ever seen her?” Julia challenged. “Has she ever come to you in a moment of need?”

  “Isis works her miracles unseen.”

  Julia cocked her head and gave me a disbelieving look. “You believe what you want to.”

  I refused to dignify her insult with a response. Instead, I pushed open the curtains and looked out at the blue expanse in front of us. Villas were strung along the rim of the sea like pearls, bright white and gleaming in the sun.

  “You see that villa over there?” Julia asked. “That’s Pollio’s.”

  I had intended to be angry with her, but instead I inhaled. “The one as large as a city?”

  “Yes. And wait until we go inside,” she said resentfully. “It’s bigger than anything you’ve ever seen. Even the palace at Alexandria,” she promised.

  Julia wasn’t lying. Although his villa in Rome had been sprawling, Pollio’s villa on Capri had been built to house more than three thousand people, most of them slaves. The walk was more than a mile from his handsomely frescoed portico to the gilded triclinium, where the stars in the ceiling were made from silver and the sun on the wall from beaten gold. And as Pollio escorted us through chamber after chamber, he pointed out his newest purchases.

  “That is an authentic Myron,” he said, naming one of the most famous Greek sculptors in the world. “And that is my eel pool.”

  “Eels?” Octavia made a noise in her throat. “What for?”

  “Entertainment! Would you like to see them?” He didn’t wait for her answer before leading us to the far corner of the atrium to a vast pool large enough to fit a small boat. But no one would have attempted to sail on that lake. Beneath the murky waters, sharp-toothed fish writhed between the rocks. What sort of man kept eels for entertainment?

  I didn’t step to the ledge, and I noticed that even Marcellus kept his distance. “Where do they come from?” he asked.

  Pollio made a grand gesture with his arm. “All across Capri. I have my slaves find them for me.”

  “That must be very dangerous,” Juba remarked.

  Pollio smiled. “It is. Shall we see them feed?”

  When no one objected, he ordered a slave-boy to bring him a handful of rotten meat from the kitchens. When the boy returned, he was careful not to step too close to the pool.

  “Your meat, Domine.”

  “Go ahead,” he ordered the child, “throw it.”

  The boy trembled. “Me, Domine?”

  “Yes! This is Caesar who’s waiting!”

  The slave-boy moved timidly toward the ledge, then quickly tossed his handf
ul of meat into the pool. Pollio watched proudly as the eels swarmed around the offering, snapping their jaws and attacking one another in order to get to the food. Their teeth gleamed like small razors in the lamplight, and Octavia suggested faintly, “Shall we continue?”

  Pollio looked up. “Oh, yes. But did you see how they attack?” he asked Octavian eagerly. “They’re absolutely vicious creatures!”

  We walked past elaborate partitions made from ivory and a wooden chair whose back was carved in the shape of an eagle. “Every piece in this villa has a story,” Pollio boasted. “That chair once belonged to a Gallic chieftain.”

  “Vercingetorix?” I asked.

  Pollio looked surprised, as if a bird had opened its beak to speak to him. “That’s right. And over there is my newest addition,” he said. “A second library for my collection.”

  “What about a second triclinium?” Livia said shortly. “One that doesn’t require a litter to get there.”

  Pollio laughed loudly at what was obviously meant to be a criticism. “I already have two triclinia. Can you imagine the first villa to have three? Of course, if Caesar were to suggest it, I would be more than happy—”

  “My wife was joking,” Octavian snapped.

  “Of course.” Pollio laughed nervously. “Who could afford three rooms for dining?”

  We came to the summer triclinium, where Horatia was waiting patiently for her guests in an exquisite tunic of apricot and gold. Immediately, her eyes met Julia’s, and I could see that she wanted to speak privately with her, but she did her duty and politely escorted the guests to their couches. The tables overlooked the water, and the warm wind smelled of sea salt and wine.

  “Just like Alexandria.” My brother sighed, patting down his hair.

  “Did you spend your entire lives near the sea?” Marcellus asked. Julia and Tiberius seated themselves on opposite sides of him, while across the room, Pollio and Horatia would be eating with Octavian.

  “Every day. Playing in the water, collecting seashells by the rocks….”

  “I’d like to go to Egypt,” Julia said wistfully, and I wondered how many times a day she wished she were somewhere else.

 
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