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Cleopatras daughter, p.29
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       Cleopatra's Daughter, p.29

           Michelle Moran

  Julia hesitated. “A … a man on the balcony.”

  “And what did this man look like?”

  “I couldn’t tell.”

  Livius’s eyes bored into mine.

  “I couldn’t tell either,” I added swiftly. “A bull was headed right for us!”

  “Why?” Gallia asked. “What has the landlord said?”

  “He tells us he’s never seen the tenant in that room.”

  “But someone must have rented it!” I exclaimed.

  Livius smiled slowly. “He says that money simply appears whenever the rent is due, and that men don’t ask questions in the Forum Boarium.”

  “That’s true,” Gallia offered.

  “It may be true,” Livius returned hotly, “but no man is invisible. Someone has seen him. Someone in that building. And when Caesar hears of this,” he warned, crumpling the Red Eagle’s actum in his hand, “the men he sends won’t be interested in excuses.”

  We began the walk back to the Palatine, and Julia whispered, “Marcellus and Alexander will never believe this. I told them they should have come with us instead of going to the Circus!” Her fear had turned to excitement with the appearance of the actum, and even though our shopping trip was aborted, she remained in high spirits. “We’ll return tomorrow,” she promised gaily. “And we can show them where we were almost killed!”

  “There may have been people who died inside that building,” I chided.

  “And there would have been two more if the Red Eagle hadn’t saved us!”

  When we returned to Octavia’s villa, Julia wanted everyone to know how we had almost lost our lives, and that evening in the triclinium, she repeated the story. “That’s when the Red Eagle saved us,” she said breathlessly.

  Her father lowered the scroll in his hands. “What?”

  Julia looked uneasily at me before turning to Octavian. “It was him. He shot the bull just as it was coming toward us. Didn’t the guards tell you?”

  I could see that Livia was growing enraged, but Octavian remained perfectly calm. “And how do you know it was the rebel?” he asked evenly.

  “Because the same kind of arrow was used to hold the actum to the door.”

  Marcellus whispered severely, “Stop talking.”

  But Octavian was already on his feet. Obviously the guards hadn’t told him. When they’d reported finding the Red Eagle’s apartment, they had failed to mention the fact that the rebel had saved Julia and me. Octavian seated himself on Julia’s couch and put his arm tenderly around her shoulders. “So he saved you.”

  “From death,” she said. “Right, Selene?”

  I nodded.

  “And did you get a chance to look at him?”

  I could see Alexander and Marcellus holding their breaths.

  “I … I don’t know.”

  “This is very important,” Octavian said gently. “See if you can remember.”

  Julia frowned. “Yes. Yes, I did. He had flaxen hair and strong arms.”

  Octavian stood. “Thank you,” he said. “Tomorrow, buy whatever silks you would like.”

  Julia grinned, clearly proud of herself.

  That evening, in the privacy of my chamber, I railed against Julia’s foolishness. “What’s the matter with her?”

  My brother sat on his couch and shook his head.

  “A man’s life is at stake!” I cried.

  “And it may be someone she loves.” He leaned forward, and his voice dropped low. “Marcellus wasn’t at the Circus this afternoon.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “We went together, then he asked whether I wanted to have a little fun. I thought maybe he meant he was going to visit the fornices, so I told him no, but he was gone for so long even Juba and the Praetorians couldn’t find him.”

  “None of them?”

  “Only seven were with us.”

  “So what did they do when he returned?”

  Alexander gave me a long look. “They warned him that if he ever did that again, our trips to the Circus would be finished.”

  “They must have been furious. But where did he say he went?”

  My brother turned up his palms, and I noticed how large his hands had grown. He was taller than me now. Women had begun to stare at him in the streets, and Julia liked to run her fingers through his hair and ask for his opinion on her tunics. I wondered what kind of husband he’d make, but couldn’t bear the thought of being apart from him. What if Octavian decided to send him back to Egypt and keep me in Rome? Or, worse, send us to opposite ends of Rome’s vast territories. He was watching me with the light amber eyes the two of us shared, and their expression was anxious. “He didn’t. Marcellus just elbowed me in the side and said, ‘You know.’ Is it possible he was the bowman, Selene?”

  I thought back to the afternoon when the bull had been charging us and I had caught only the briefest glimpse of a man on a balcony. “His hair was golden. But I was too far away to see his face.”

  “Well, what if his performance in the ludus is just an act? What if he’s smarter than any of us give him credit for?”

  I thought of Marcellus—laughing, silly, always quick with a jibe—and shook my head. “He’s brash enough for it. But you’ve seen his writing in the ludus, Alexander. It can’t be him.”

  “Handwriting can be disguised.”

  “But you’re forgetting that there’s Magister Verrius as well. They both have the same light hair and eyes.”

  “Except Magister Verrius wasn’t the one who went missing.”

  “How do you know? He could have left the ludus as soon as we did.” We stared at each other in the lamplight. “Magister Verrius or Marcellus,” I said, “Julia has all but given him away.”

  “What do you think Octavian would do if it was Marcellus?”

  Fear, as cold as ice, traveled down my spine. “He would kill him,” I said with certainty.

  My brother closed his eyes. “You need to speak with her.” He looked at me, and his gaze became intense. “She needs to understand what she’s done.”

  As a reward for the information Julia had given him, Octavian allowed silks of every color to be brought to the Palatine, fresh from the barges of Ostia. Julia directed the merchants to Octavia’s atrium, where Livia couldn’t spoil the fun. But before she could begin choosing, I pulled her aside and whispered harshly, “I hope you understand what these silks cost.”

  Her black eyes widened innocently. “I only told him the truth. You saw him, too. He was probably a slave. He had hair like every other German or Gaul.”

  “With access to the Palatine, and Capri, and rich enough to keep apartments across Rome? What slave do you know who has that kind of wealth?”

  “I don’t understand.”

  “You’re not that foolish,” I said cruelly. “Of course you do. There are only two men on the Palatine who fit that description. Magister Verrius and Marcellus.”

  She blinked slowly, as if considering it for the first time. Then her eyes filled with tears. “No … It can’t be.”

  “Why not? Yesterday, while we were in the Forum Boarium, Marcellus disappeared from the Circus, and the gods only know where Magister Verrius was.”

  Her hand flew to her mouth. “My father would never suspect them—”

  “Of course he would. And even if he didn’t, then Juba would. He was there when Marcellus left and even he couldn’t find him. And Juba reports everything to your father.”

  “No.” She backed away from me. “It can’t be Marcellus. Why wouldn’t he tell me?”

  I raised my brows, given what she’d already done.

  She panicked. “But what does he care about slaves? He likes to gamble on horses and have fun.”

  “What about the Temple of Isis?” I challenged. “He cared about those slaves.”

  “Because they happened to cross paths! He’s rash and foolish.”

  “And idealistic,” I reminded her.

  “Why, Selene?” The distress on her face
was real, and I almost felt sorry for her. “Why did I have to tell my father?”

  “Whatever you do, keep your silence from now on.”

  “But what if it’s too late?”

  We both looked across the atrium, to where Octavia and Claudia were marveling over the different silks. Neither of them appeared worried. “We would know if Marcellus were being accused.”

  But when the festival of Liberalia came, I wondered whether I was wrong. Octavian was an actor. If he wanted to hide his suspicions from his sister, how hard would it be? He appeared in time for Marcellus’s dedication and seemed to be enjoying himself. He even led the way to the lararium, where Marcellus took off his bulla and offered it with wine and incense to the Lares, asking that the spirits guide his transition to manhood. But I noticed that Caesar’s arm was around Tiberius’s shoulders, and that Livia’s mien was less dour than usual. “Shall we proceed to the Capitol?” Octavian asked jubilantly.

  Julia was dressed in a silk tunic of the deepest red, and her hair was arranged in a golden net sewn with seed pearls. But even though Marcellus couldn’t keep his eyes off of her, she was pale with worry. “What’s the matter with my father?” she whispered. “Why is he so interested in Tiberius suddenly?”

  I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to guess.

  “You don’t think—?”

  I put a finger to my lips. “Not here.” I held up my green tunic to keep the hem from getting dirty as we walked, and I shivered in the cool March wind.

  “Would you like my cloak?” Marcellus offered.

  “Alexander is carrying one for me.”

  “Well, perhaps you should put it on. There are bumps up and down your arms.”

  I felt embarrassed that he had noticed such an intimate thing. My brother handed me my cloak. We had purchased enough cloth from the merchants of Ostia to outfit a garrison, and Marcellus smiled when he saw me in my new silk. “Very handsome.”

  “Julia’s cloak is new as well,” my brother pointed out.

  I glared at him.

  “The Princesses of the Palatine,” Marcellus flattered. “And what more fitting tribute to a pair of princesses than Liberalia?”

  He was joking, of course. As we reached the bottom of the Palatine, a procession of boys passed by pulling a cart with a towering statue of a phallus.

  “What is that?” I cried.

  “Haven’t you ever seen one?” Tiberius asked snidely.

  “The boys are the Salii,” Julia said, ignoring him. “Liberalia is a fertility festival.”

  “Like Bacchanalia back home,” my brother prompted.

  “But what are they singing?”

  “No one knows,” Marcellus said delightedly. “The song is so old that the meaning has been forgotten.”

  The young Salii were wearing the sort of bronze breastplates and shields that even Juba, who dealt in antiques, would have considered extremely old. No one had fought in such outfits for centuries, and I wondered how the boys could even walk. As the stone phallus rolled by on its cart, women tossed rose petals in the air, clapping and cheering as if the statue were the fertility god himself. Octavian had forbidden us from the festivities of Liberalia the previous March, telling us that we had only a few years to study in the ludus and the rest of our lives to celebrate Liber Pater and his splendid endowment. Now I saw what he meant. When we reached the Capitol, a second giant phallus had been decorated with flowers and mounted on the Tarpeian Rock. Julia giggled, and Marcellus asked my brother what he thought it would be like to have a pair of colei that big.

  “Painful,” he replied.

  “Not as painful as what’s about to happen.” Marcellus heaved a sigh. “Welcome to the Tabularium.”

  The Tabularium was a solemn place, with a façade of peperino and travertine blocks masking a stark interior of concrete vaults. It was the Hall of Records where Marcellus and Tiberius would proudly register themselves as citizens, but none of the men who passed us smiled. Liberalia meant nothing to them down here, where Rome’s scrolls were guarded like gold and the sun never penetrated its labyrinth of vaults. An old man in a toga took us into a chamber where the names of the most important clans in Rome were etched into the walls. He fetched the scrolls of the clans Julii and Claudii, and we waited in the dimly lit space while Marcellus and Tiberius read the names of the men who had come before them. A reed pen and ink were produced, and the old record keeper instructed each of them to sign at the bottom of his clan’s list. By the time we emerged into the sunshine, even Octavian had had enough of the gloom.

  “I should build a more cheerful office for them,” he mused. “Would you like to make that your first contribution to Rome, Tiberius? I will gift you the denarii to rebuild the Tabularium.”

  Tiberius was genuinely grateful. “I would like that very much.”

  Julia returned my panicked look. Then Octavian approached Marcellus and clapped him heartily on the back. “And what about you? What will be your first contribution to Rome?”

  “How about a new Circus?” Marcellus asked eagerly.

  Tiberius laughed. “Don’t you think you gamble enough?”

  Octavian was displeased. “Perhaps there is something else you would prefer.”

  Marcellus looked desperately from his mother to his uncle, considering their passions. “What about a theater?”

  Octavian smiled. “Better.”

  Tiberius clenched his jaw, and I saw Marcellus exhale.

  “The Theater of Marcellus. That shall be my gift to you.”

  “And Selene can design it!”

  Everyone turned. I held my breath while Octavian regarded me with his inscrutable gray eyes. “How old are you now?” he asked suddenly.

  “My brother and I are thirteen.”

  “A very mature thirteen,” Octavia put in. “She designed the mosaic floor in the Temple of Apollo, and Vitruvius has her working on the Pantheon.”

  Octavian shaded his eyes with his hand. “So why didn’t Vitruvius tell this to me?”

  “Because she’s a girl,” Livia said, “and her place is at the loom.”

  “It’s a beautiful mosaic,” Octavia retorted. “Girl or no, her skills are useful to him.”

  Octavian considered this. “Where is he today?”

  “Working on the Pantheon,” she told him. “After that it will be the Basilica of Neptune, the Saepta Julia, your mausoleum, and my portico.”

  Octavian turned his attention back to me. “When do you come up with these designs?” he asked curiously.

  “In the morning, before ludus. Vitruvius takes me with him sometimes.”

  Octavian seemed to find this funny. “And what do you do?”

  “Measurements,” I said firmly, refusing to let him dismiss my work. “I’ve also laid tiles.”

  “What?” Livia sneered. “Like a mosaicist?”

  “Yes. If the mosaicist needs help or direction. I also want to learn for myself.”

  Octavian regarded me for a moment. “A princess who doesn’t mind work.” He looked meaningfully at both Marcellus and Julia. “Something my own family can learn from.” There was an uncomfortable silence before he added, “It sounds like Vitruvius is busy enough with his projects. If he wishes you to help with my nephew’s theater, I see no problem with that.”

  Livia’s mouth worked into a tense line, but Marcellus smiled triumphantly at me. On our walk to the Forum, where he and Tiberius would exchange their boyhood togas for the white toga virilis, he whispered, “That was very well done.”

  “What?” I asked guilelessly.

  “Your talk of laying tiles. My uncle tends to keep people around him who are useful.”

  “So you’ve said. And what about you?”

  Around us, flutists played, and children sang songs to Liber Pater and his consort Libera, whose blessings would make them fertile once they were married. In Alexandria, we knew Liber Pater as Bacchus, though I had never seen so many garlanded phalluses even in Bacchus’s temple. Marcellus smi
led conspiratorially at me, a flash of white teeth in a handsomely tanned face. “I’m his sister’s son. The heir and the spare”—he glanced at Tiberius—“remember?”

  Tiberius leaned over my shoulder and said softly, “Be careful. Your secrets are making Julia jealous.”

  I saw Marcellus tense, and when I looked behind me, Julia’s eyes were hard as stone. That evening in the triclinium, she wanted to know what we’d been whispering about.

  “Who your father will make his heir,” I replied.

  A harpist began to play, for wealthy patricians and their young wives had come to celebrate the heir and the spare’s coming-of-age. Julia moved closer to me on our dining couch. “And do you think my father suspects Marcellus?”

  “He’s giving him the denarii to build a theater. How suspicious could he be?”

  She nodded slowly. “So you weren’t talking about the Red Eagle?”

  I sat back. “Why wouldn’t I tell you?”

  “Maybe you think I’m not trustworthy anymore.”

  “If Marcellus ever said anything to me, you’d be the first to know.”

  She watched me suspiciously. “My father is a very good actor,” she said. “I’ve seen him lie to Livia as if his words were pure as gold.”

  “I’m not lying,” I swore. “I would tell you if I heard anything. Haven’t you asked Marcellus yourself?”

  “Of course. He always denies it.”

  “Well, Marcellus never confides in me,” I said glumly. “He talks to Alexander.”

  This settled her a little. “Just because my father was being generous today doesn’t mean he isn’t suspicious,” she admitted, toying with her food. I had seen Julia lose her appetite only once before. “Do you know what they call understudies on the stage?” She didn’t wait for me to answer. “Shadows. And if my father has even the slightest suspicion that Marcellus isn’t shadowing him, that will be the end. I will marry Tiberius, whether he’s my stepbrother or not, and Marcellus will disappear.” I realized she wasn’t angry with me so much as she was angry with herself, and her eyes gleamed with tears.

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