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Cleopatras daughter, p.28
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       Cleopatra's Daughter, p.28

           Michelle Moran
 

  “Someday,” Marcellus whispered, “if I become Caesar, we’ll return Alexander and Selene to their thrones, and in return they’ll show us Alexandria.”

  Julia looked at her father. Now that winter was over, the color had returned to his cheeks, and he appeared strong. “That could be many years,” she said fearfully.

  “Already wishing death on Caesar? That’s how treachery begins,” Tiberius warned.

  “No one said anything about death,” Marcellus said.

  But Tiberius grinned. “I know what she meant.”

  “You don’t know anything,” Julia retorted angrily. “You smile and listen like a sickly cat hoping for a scrap of meat to run to my father with. You think I don’t know that you tell him everything we say?”

  He snorted. “As if I cared enough to do that. Try Juba. He’s the spy.”

  But Julia sat forward. “You hope that if you tell my father everything, he’ll trust you enough to send you to war alongside Agrippa. Maybe even make you a general, and you’ll never have to come back here.” She snorted. “But that’s never going to happen. My father will keep you here, dancing like his puppet until he’s gone. The heir.” She looked from Marcellus to Tiberius. “And the spare.”

  There was a crash of crystal on the mosaic floor, and everyone turned.

  “You stupid son of an ass!” Pollio shouted. He leapt from his chair, thundering toward the old man who cowered on the floor.

  “Please, Domine, I didn’t mean—”

  Pollio lashed out with his foot, kicking the slave squarely in the jaw. The old man fell back against the shattered glass, and Horatia rushed from her couch.

  “Please, Pollio—”

  “This is the finest crystal we own!” he shouted.

  Julia and Tiberius exchanged glances; their own bickering was silenced.

  “This asinus has broken one of my largest vessels. Octavia wanted to know why I have eels?” He turned to the guards at the door of the triclinium. “Take him to the pool!”

  The old man clasped his hands before his bloodied face. “Please, Domine.” His voice became hysterical. “Please! Kill me here, but not the eels.”

  I looked from Agrippa to Juba, desperate for one of them to do something. Then Octavian stood. He held his crystal goblet in front of him, dropping it on the floor and watching it shatter into a thousand pieces. No one spoke. No one even dared to breathe. Octavian proceeded to smash every piece of crystal on his table. The pieces scattered across the floor, and some of the children covered their ears at the terrible sound. At last, when there was nothing more to destroy, Octavian asked, “Will you be feeding me to the eels as well?”

  “Of course not, Caesar,” Pollio said.

  The old man had tears in his eyes.

  “How many men have you killed this way?”

  “Seven,” the old man whispered from the floor.

  “And all of them deserved it!” Pollio challenged, his chins wagging with indignation.

  “And this slave. Does he deserve it?” Octavian asked.

  Pollio considered his answer before speaking. “Not with an example such as Caesar before him,” he said wisely. He was not as great a fool as he looked.

  “You are generous, Domine,” the old man said. He trembled, and the sight was pitiful. Octavia turned away.

  “Yes, Dominus Pollio is very generous,” Octavian said. “So generous, he will be freeing you tonight.”

  Horatia gasped. But for the first time, Pollio had the sense to bow his head humbly and accept Octavian’s pronouncement.

  The next morning, on every temple door in Capri, the Red Eagle posted his first actum in praise of Caesar.

  It became the subject of every conversation for the next two weeks. Clearly the Red Eagle had come out of hiding now that enough time had passed since the kitchen boy’s crucifixion. But where was he residing on Capri, and how had he known what had happened in Pollio’s villa?

  “Perhaps it’s one of Pollio’s clan,” Marcellus speculated, dangling his feet in the swimming pool. The four of us were drying off in the sun. Since we were no longer in Rome, Julia and I were allowed to swim, but only inside the villa where no one could see us in our breastbands and loincloths.

  “Or it could be anyone who heard the news from Pollio’s villa,” my brother said. In the days after Pollio’s slave had been freed, people as far away as Pompeii came to know of what had happened. We watched as Vipsania splashed at the other end of the pool, completely naked. Both Julia and I, though, now had something to cover. I noticed Marcellus was watching us with new interest—Julia in particular, whose wet band of cloth pressed against her breasts. I had the unkind urge to get up and block his view.

  “But if it’s someone who has visited Pollio,” Julia reasoned, “the person must be wealthy. Pollio doesn’t admit any other kind.”

  “What about a slave in his house?” I asked. “Or one from this house who’s been there?”

  But my brother frowned. “It wouldn’t be like a slave to compliment Octavian.”

  The speculation continued throughout the summer, and everyone was suspect, even Juba and Agrippa. But there were no more acta on Capri, and the Praetorian guard stationed at every temple door idled their nights away rolling dice and watching owls hunt for prey. By the end of August, Octavian announced a reward of five thousand denarii to anyone with useful information on the Red Eagle.

  “Who do you think it might be?” I asked Vitruvius. We sat in the library with the final plans for the Temple of Apollo. A grand staircase swept from Octavian’s home to the temple, where a vast library already housed his favorite literature. In a few days, when we returned to the oppressive heat of Rome, the last touches would be added, and the temple would be dedicated.

  “If I knew,” Vitruvius said, “I would be five thousand denarii richer. Now find me the measurements for the landing.”

  “Is there going to be a mosaic?” I asked eagerly.

  Vitruvius smiled. “We will include the one you sketched.”

  I gave a little cry of joy. After nearly a year of working with Vitruvius, this was the first design of mine he was going to use. I had sketched mosaics for Octavian’s mausoleum, and column designs for Agrippa’s Pantheon, but none of them had been included.

  “Don’t grow too excited,” Vitruvius warned. “We have to finish by October. And you’re going to oversee the laying of the tiles.”

  I didn’t care how much work it meant, or how many hours before the ludus I would have to rise to oversee the mosaicists’ work. When I told my brother, he stopped packing his trunk to look up at me. “And you want to do this?”

  “Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”

  “Because we’re about to return to the sweltering heat. How will you be able to work?”

  “It will be morning. And I don’t suffer the way you do.”

  “I’ll never understand it,” he said enviously, closing his trunk. “Only you and Octavian can endure it. Our mother would never have survived.”

  Alexander seated himself next to me. Two years ago, our mother and father had been alive. Ptolemy had been running through the palace halls with Charmion chasing after him, threatening to pinch his ear. There had still been hope of saving Egypt then. But now it was lost, and there was no telling whether we would ever return. “What do you think will happen if Octavian determines not to send us back?”

  “Exactly what we’ve thought all along. He’ll find us marriages and we’ll remain in Rome.”

  “And doesn’t that frighten you?”

  “Of course it does! But what can we do?”

  I was quiet for a moment. “If Caesar died,” I whispered, “Marcellus would return us to Egypt.”

  My brother’s gaze immediately went to the door. “Be careful, Selene. There’s no telling who’s listening in this villa. Marcellus thinks the Red Eagle is working with someone inside.”

  “Like Gallia?”

  “It’s possible.” He stood and opened the door. Whe
n he was sure there was no one outside, he closed it again and came back to my couch. “In five months Marcellus is going to have his toga virilis ceremony. Has he told you about this?”

  I shook my head.

  “At fifteen, every boy puts aside his bulla and becomes a man. Octavian will probably announce Marcellus’s official engagement to Julia, and if he does, it will be clear to everyone who his heir is intended to be. Octavian will want to catch the Red Eagle before this happens. He can’t afford to be embarrassed at such an important time. Be very careful what you say and to whom you say it.”

  “Why? You don’t think he suspects us?”

  “I don’t know. But even Agrippa’s and Juba’s chambers have been searched.”

  I made a face.

  “I know,” he said. “They’re desperate.”

  “Has Gallia’s name ever been mentioned?”

  “I don’t think so. But it’s impossible to know whom the Praetorian Guard are watching. Including Marcellus.”

  I was quiet for a moment. “And what does Marcellus say about marriage?”

  My brother gave me a long look. “Nothing you want to know about.”

  “So he’s in love with Julia?” I exclaimed.

  “I don’t know.”

  “But what does he say?”

  My brother hesitated. “That she is beautiful, and they have the same passion for the Circus.”

  “But she doesn’t even care about the Circus! She only goes for him.”

  “What do you want me to tell you, Selene? He’s mentioned that he thinks you’re pretty.”

  “He has?”

  “Many men think so,” he said dryly.

  “But what else has he said?”

  “That’s it. I’m sorry. You know whom he’s been promised to; you’re wasting your time thinking about him.”

  That afternoon, ebony litters were arranged to carry us to the ship. No one was particularly happy about leaving, least of all Marcellus, who couldn’t bear the thought of returning to the steam bath that was Rome.

  “If we had vacations like every other family,” he complained on the portico, “we’d be here until October.”

  “I don’t believe we’re like every other family,” his mother reminded him.

  “Yes,” Tiberius said mockingly. “There is the small matter of governing Rome.”

  “That’s what the Senate is for.”

  “So when you’re Caesar, is that what you plan to do?” Tiberius asked Marcellus. “Give the reins of government to the senators and sit back while they steer?”

  Octavian appeared, and everyone fell into an uneasy silence. “Wave good-bye to the Do-Nothings,” he said as he crossed the threshold of his palace. “This is the happiest day of their year.”

  Livia laughed, and Octavia smiled fleetingly at her brother’s strange sense of humor. But Marcellus crossed his arms over his chest.

  “I’m tired of the ludus,” he grumbled, and he turned to find a sympathetic ear in Julia. “I don’t want to wait until I’m seventeen to leave school. I don’t think I can stand it for another two years. Especially not when we could be here.”

  She patted his arm. “It’s better than hard labor,” she said teasingly. “Selene”—she turned to me—“why don’t you ride with your brother?” Julia climbed into a litter after Marcellus, and I watched their shadows on the curtain for a moment before my brother pulled me into a second litter.

  “Don’t obsess about it,” he said sensibly. “Just be glad he doesn’t want you.”

  I stared at him in amazement.

  “Well, how would that turn out?” he demanded. “What do you think Julia would do?”

  “Turn against me.”

  He nodded. “She’s not all pretty tunics and jewels.”

  “I notice you stare at her enough.”

  My brother laughed. “I have no interest in Julia. Trust me.”

  “Why? I thought you said she’s beautiful.”

  “She is. She also belongs to Marcellus. And no matter how much we may wish otherwise,” he said darkly, “that’s not going to change.”

  I thought of Julia and Marcellus laughing together in the litter next to ours, their shadows growing closer and closer, and tears of frustration blurred my vision. My brother put his arm around my shoulders, and I let my tears roll down my cheeks. Then I noticed I wasn’t the only one. My brother’s handsome cheeks were wet. But I was too absorbed in my own misery to ask why.

  CHAPTER FIFTEEN

  February, 27 BC

  A FEW months after our return from Capri, Octavian dedicated the Temple of Apollo, and the feast that followed lasted until the early hours of the morning. But it was nothing compared to the reception being planned for Tiberius and Marcellus, who had both turned fifteen recently and would now celebrate their coming-of-age during March’s festival of Liberalia. Julia insisted on new tunics for the ceremony, and wasn’t satisfied with the bolts of cloth we had purchased over the winter holiday.

  “This has to be something special,” she’d said as February drew to a close. She’d begged her father to let Gallia take us to the Forum Boarium, where barges from Ostia unloaded their goods. This way, we could barter for cloth before any other woman in Rome had a chance to see it. He finally agreed a week before Liberalia, and with seven of the Praetorian guards we followed Gallia into the cattle market.

  “How can anyone stand this?” Julia complained, holding up a ball of amber to her nose.

  “This was your idea,” Gallia reminded.

  “But look at these people. They’re so poor.”

  Gallia gave me a weary look. “Welcome to Rome.”

  Unsatisfied with Gallia’s response, Julia turned to me. “Have you ever seen so much dirt? I’ll bet these people don’t even bathe.”

  “It’s their work,” I said. “They can’t help it, dealing with cattle all day.”

  “Even so.” She passed her hand in front of her nose. “If my father wasn’t so obsessed about his reputation among the plebs, he could have ordered the bargemen to just bring their cloth to the Palatine.”

  The odor of cattle excrement really was overwhelming. On either side of the road, concrete apartment buildings teetered three and four stories high, and I wondered how the inhabitants could live with such stench and noise around them. We passed the bronze bull that occupied the center of the marketplace, and Gallia warned us to watch for cutpurses.

  “You never know what sort lurks around here. And sometimes—”

  A woman screamed on the other side of the Forum Boarium, and suddenly people were running. Julia grabbed my arm. “What is it?” she cried.

  For a moment, we couldn’t see anything; and then a space cleared in the middle of the Forum, and Gallia shouted, “Bulls!” The guards fanned out around us, but as the two animals charged, the soldiers scattered.

  Julia and I pressed ourselves against the side of an apartment building. As the bulls drew closer, Gallia shouted, “Move!”

  But there was nowhere for us to run. I closed my eyes as the first bull charged past us through the open door of the apartment building, missing us by a hairsbreadth. But the second bull lowered its head. It had no intention of following its brother, and as it ran toward us, Gallia’s screams rang out like a whistle. Then, suddenly, the massive bull staggered, and from the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of a blond man with a bow and arrow on the balcony of an adjacent building. A second arrow pierced the air, then a third and a fourth. The bull bellowed with rage, turning to see where the attack was coming from. In those precious moments, a soldier leapt forward and speared the beast with his metal pilum.

  The bull collapsed at Julia’s feet, and when I looked up again to see the blond bowman, he was gone. But men were still shouting in front of us, and two of Octavian’s guards leapt over the bull and dragged us away from the building. Above our heads, the first bull was roaming the balconies.

  A crowd of shouting merchants were warning anyone inside the building
to flee. The bull didn’t understand its confinement, and in its anger it was pushing its horns into the rails and ramming the walls again and again. Then there was a terrible crack, and the bull looked up as if it sensed what was about to happen. The balcony gave way, and in a shower of concrete the bull fell to its death where Julia and I had been standing. There was a moment of shocked silence from the crowd, then a sound like thunder rumbled above us as the upper stories began to crumble.

  “Go!” one of the guards shouted, and the men ran with us before we could be engulfed in dust and debris. When we stopped to look behind us, the upper floor of the apartment building was gone.

  Julia began to shake. Our tunics were covered in dust, and merchants from across the Forum Boarium were running to see what had happened. “The man on the balcony….” She trembled. “He saved our lives.”

  We looked to the apartment balcony where the bowman had been standing, and one of the guards approached the building. As he reached the door, he stepped back quickly. “Gaius, Livius, take a look at this!”

  We followed the men to the door.

  Fastened with the same type of arrow that was used to fell the bull, an actum had been posted about the mistreatment of slaves on the Aventine. At the bottom of the sheet of papyrus, written in hasty lettering, the rebel had added:

  So long as freedmen and slaves are forced to live in buildings made of thin brick walls and concrete mixed with more water than lime, there will be deaths, and those deaths stain Caesar’s hands.

  There was a frenzy of excitement as people around us realized who the archer must have been. The guards Octavian had sent with us burst into the building and raced up the stairs.

  Julia gripped my hand. “Do you think he’s still up there?”

  “No,” Gallia said. “He’s probably long gone.”

  “But what could he be doing here?” I asked.

  “Many men keep several apartments,” Gallia said. “This could be his third or fourth home.”

  When the guards returned, they were carrying bottles of ink and a copy of the same actum that was posted on the door. The eldest of the guards introduced himself as Livius. His short gray hair exposed the hard, chiseled planes of his face. He looked first at Julia, then at me. “What did you see when those arrows killed the bull?”

 
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