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Cleopatras daughter, p.31
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       Cleopatra's Daughter, p.31

           Michelle Moran
 

  He laughed. “It’s only Gaul. Do you know how many legions have been there before?”

  “But anything could happen. Why risk yourself like this?”

  “Because someday, if this is ever my empire, I will have to go to war alone. Without your father, or his generals, or Juba.”

  “And Agrippa?” Lucius asked. He sat next to my brother on Marcellus’s couch, where a heavy chest was being filled with sandals and clothes. Since he had moved into the villa and started attending the ludus with us, he and my brother had become inseparable, working on their poetry together, gambling at dice, even betting on the same horses in the Circus. I didn’t understand my brother’s fascination with him, yet Julia found the pair of them irresistible, laughing like a hyena whenever the three of them were together.

  “He’ll stay behind to govern Rome,” Marcellus said.

  My brother started. “But isn’t he—?”

  “The architect of my father’s wars? Yes,” Marcellus replied. “But someone needs to watch over the Senate.”

  “Agrippa went to Egypt,” I pointed out.

  “And every man who wanted Rome for himself was on the battlefield. Now they’re dressed in togae praetexta and call themselves senators.”

  I was impressed by Marcellus’s eagerness. Tomorrow he would be riding out with five legions to a war from which he might never return, yet there was only excitement in his voice. I thought of the dangers he would face and the painted Gallic fighters hiding in the thickly wooded passes. I was sure that Isis would never be so cruel as to abandon someone so young and filled with promise. But then why had she abandoned Ptolemy and Caesarion? Where had she been when Antyllus was murdered at the base of Caesar’s statue and my parents lost their kingdom to a thin, weak sapling of a man?

  There were tears from nearly everyone the next morning. Julia clung to Marcellus and wept. Then he whispered something in her ear and tenderly wiped away her tears with his finger. When he came to me, he didn’t whisper anything. I was ashamed to admit how afraid I was that he would never come back. But I refused to weep like a child.

  “What, no tears?” Juba asked. “He’s about to fight the fearsome Gauls and Cantabri.”

  “Isis will watch over him,” I said firmly.

  “Perhaps she can use her wings to fly us to Gaul.” Tiberius laughed. “Then we won’t have to worry about barbarians hiding in the trees along the road.”

  “Enough,” Livia said, and for once I was thankful to her. I could feel the sting of tears in my eyes, and Juba watched me curiously while Marcellus straddled his favorite horse. The Campus Martius was filled with onlookers waiting for the soldiers to begin their march so they could scatter laurel branches in their path.

  I was standing close enough to the horses to overhear Livia whisper to Tiberius, “I’ll be in the carriage. If anything happens, you know what to do.”

  “Of course,” he said curtly.

  “And you won’t be fool enough to stand in the way of any arrow meant for Marcellus. If the gods wish him to die, you must not challenge their will.”

  Tiberius looked at me and saw that I was eavesdropping. I looked away.

  Livia walked to Octavia and kissed her sister-in-law good-bye.

  “A safe journey,” Octavia said without conviction.

  Livia smiled. “Don’t worry for Marcellus. He’s a capable man. And, of course, I’ll watch over him like a son.”

  I almost protested, but Octavia had wept all morning, and now the tears came afresh. From atop his horse, Marcellus passed her a small square of linen, which she pressed to her nose.

  “It’s nothing, Mother. A short fight and then it’s over.”

  Octavia nodded, pretending to believe him, and as the legions moved out, Alexander put his arm around my waist.

  “He’ll be back,” he promised.

  “How do you know?”

  “Because Juba and Agrippa have trained him.”

  I watched Juba mount his horse. He had saved both Gallia and me from death, and I felt certain he would do the same for Marcellus. Women whistled in his direction, raising their tunics above the knee, and I suspected that some of them were lupae. “Why are they interested in him?” I demanded.

  “Because he’s handsome,” Alexander said.

  I gave him a look.

  “It’s true,” he admitted. “You may not like him, but the women of Rome obviously do.”

  I supposed that Juba was somewhat attractive. His hair was thick and long, a rich color as dark as his eyes. His muscled thighs were exposed on the horse, and I imagined that his chest was just as handsomely sculpted. But he would never have the same easy laugh as Marcellus. There was no one like Marcellus, and as I blinked back my tears, my brother patted my shoulder.

  “Augustus doesn’t want anything to happen to him. Marcellus won’t see any of the dangerous fighting. But it’ll be lonely in the ludus,” he said understandingly.

  “And the Circus. And the triclinium.”

  “At least you have Julia.”

  She was my only consolation as the long months passed and Saturnalia approached without any hint that the soldiers would be returning home. We wandered the holiday markets together with Gallia and seven of the Praetorian Guards, but it was strange without Marcellus’s constant chatter and with no one to look pretty for.

  “When Marcellus returns home,” Julia said, pausing above a wide selection of wigs, “perhaps I’ll be blond.”

  I laughed. “What? Like a lupa?”

  “No, like Gallia! Look how beautiful she is.”

  “Because I am light,” she told Julia. “With blue eyes and pale skin. You are a Roman. Dark is your color.”

  Julia pouted. “Then how will I surprise him?”

  I glanced in the mirror above the shopkeeper’s head, wondering whether I would look good with golden hair. But the thought of wearing a slave girl’s shorn-off tresses turned my stomach. Marcellus is not for me, I thought firmly. If he comes home safe, it will be to Julia. But I couldn’t help feeling just a little triumphant that I would have something more than a new wig to show him when he returned. The construction of the theater had already begun near Octavia’s portico, and when given a choice of designs, I had asked Vitruvius to build something like the Circus, with three stories of arches veneered in white travertine and topped by Corinthian columns. He was allowing me to sketch every mosaic and all of the important friezes inside. I picked up one of the shopkeeper’s statuettes and smiled to myself.

  “What? Are you thinking of worshipping Roman gods now?”

  I looked down and realized that I was holding a statuette of Mars. “Of course not!” I put down the statue at once.

  Julia laughed. “He looks like Agrippa, doesn’t he?”

  The round marble face and short, cropped hair did look a little like him. “He must be a very loyal man,” I remarked. “All of this time your father has been gone, and he’s never once betrayed him in the Senate.”

  “Agrippa would lay down his life for my father. His eldest brother chose the wrong side in the war against Julius Caesar. He fought alongside Cato, if you can imagine, and when Cato was defeated, Julius Caesar took Agrippa’s brother as a prisoner. It was my father who intervened and saved his life, so Agrippa feels as though he owes him,” Julia said. “Sometimes, he comes to our villa just to check on Drusus and me. Of course, there’s the Praetorian Guard to watch over us, but he comes anyway.” She lowered her voice. “And he never betrayed me that night in the Circus.”

  I paused. “What night?”

  “When my father went searching through Marcellus’s room thinking he was the Red Eagle! Agrippa found us renting a room near the fornices and never told my father that I was there as well.”

  There was a sudden pressure on my chest so hard that it hurt to breathe. “You’re the one Marcellus was sneaking out to meet?”

  Julia giggled. “Didn’t your brother tell you?”

  “No!”

  “Well, you
should talk to him more often.”

  When we returned to the Palatine, I stormed into my chamber, startling Lucius and Alexander at their work.

  “What’s the matter?” my brother asked. “Shopping didn’t go well?”

  “You lied to me!”

  He scrambled to a seated position on the couch, scattering his scrolls from the ludus. “About what?”

  “You never told me Marcellus was meeting with Julia in the fornices!”

  “I just found out! Julia only told me a few weeks ago.”

  “Weeks?” I cried. “And were you ever going to tell me?”

  “He was waiting for the right time.”

  I glared at Lucius. “So you know about this as well? My brother tells you everything, but keeps his own twin in the dark?”

  “It wasn’t meant to be that way,” Alexander argued.

  “Then how was it meant to be?”

  Alexander moved across the room and shut the door. “He was meeting with her. I knew it would hurt you and I didn’t want to see you upset.”

  “So better to see me embarrassed,” I said heatedly. “Better that I learn about it while shopping in the Forum!” Then another thought occurred to me. “So Marcellus isn’t the Red Eagle.”

  “It’s still possible,” my brother said. “Haven’t you noticed that since he’s been gone, not a single actum has been put up?”

  “It could also mean the rebel is smart enough to make it look like him.” I crossed my arms over my chest.

  “I’m sorry, Selene,” my brother said quietly.

  “I wonder how long they’ve been—”

  “Only a few months before he left,” he assured me. “Before then, he was seeing a lupa.”

  I gasped.

  “Everyone’s done it.”

  “Have you?” I challenged.

  “Of course not me!” He glanced at Lucius. “I mean everyone else.”

  I seated myself and closed my eyes, wishing that if I kept them shut, I would never have to see Alexander, or Lucius, or Marcellus’s bright face when he returned and whispered into Julia’s ear.

  Lucius perched himself on the arm of my chair, and I opened my eyes. “Come with us to the odeum today,” he said.

  “Yes,” Alexander replied. “You never come. And you’re the one who professes to like poetry.” Since Lucius had moved into Octavia’s villa, my brother had begun going with him to the local odea. The little covered theaters hosted musical competitions and poetry readings. And since Marcellus had left, my brother was visiting the odea even more frequently than the Circus. “Come on,” Alexander pleaded. “The one on the Campus is the prettiest little theater you’ve ever seen.”

  “It might even give you some ideas,” Lucius prompted.

  “Ovid is going to be there,” my brother said temptingly.

  “And who is Ovid?”

  Alexander and Lucius looked at each other. “Just the greatest young poet in Rome!” Lucius cried. “Come with us!” He took my arm, and I allowed myself to be led to the Campus Martius, where a small stone building welcomed visitors with a handsome mosaic and an ivy-covered arch. Because it was nearly Saturnalia, a green and saffron canopy fluttered over the crossbeams, invoking the colors of fertility and protecting the patrons from the December drizzle. Two men of the Praetorian Guard took seats behind us, and Alexander explained what was about to happen.

  “Today is for poetry,” he said. “You see the young man with the red cheeks waiting to go on stage? That’s Ovid.”

  “How old is he?” I exclaimed.

  “Sixteen.”

  “And his family lets him perform?”

  “Not everyone’s father refuses to acknowledge the value of literature,” Lucius said.

  “What about Horace and Vergil?” I asked.

  Alexander wrinkled his nose. “Augustus owns them. All they write is politics now. Ovid writes about what’s real.”

  When I frowned, Lucius said, “Love,” then added quickly, “and love’s pain.”

  I crossed my arms. “And you think I want to hear about love’s pain?”

  “Shh,” Alexander said. “Just listen.”

  Ovid took the stage, and immediately the patrons of the Odeum hushed. This was not like Octavian’s theater performances, where men stood from their seats and threw dates at the actors and chanted, “Bring on the bear.” The audience was composed mostly of young men. A few women sat with their friends, giggling and pointing, but everyone grew silent when Ovid declared, “I call this ‘Disappointment.’”

  Several men chuckled.

  “Why is that funny?” I whispered.

  “Because he’s always talking about his triumphs,” my brother said.

  Then Ovid began:

  But oh, I suppose she was ugly; she wasn’t elegant;

  I hadn’t yearned for her often in my prayers.

  Yet holding her I was limp, and nothing happened at all:

  I just lay there, a disgraceful load for her bed.

  I wanted it, she did too; and yet no pleasure came

  from the part of my sluggish loins that should bring joy.

  The girl entwined her ivory arms around my neck

  (her arms were whiter than the Sithonian snow),

  and gave me greedy kisses, thrusting her fluttering tongue,

  and laid her eager thigh against my thigh,

  and whispering fond words, called me the lord of her heart

  and everything else that lovers murmur in joy.

  And yet, as if chill hemlock were smeared upon my body,

  my numb limbs would not act out my desire.

  I lay there like a log, a fraud, a worthless weight;

  my body might as well have been a shadow.

  What will my age be like, if old age ever comes,

  when even my youth cannot fulfill its role?

  The audience laughed uproariously, and Ovid continued:

  Ah, I’m ashamed of my years. I’m young and a man: so what?

  I was neither young nor a man in my girlfriend’s eyes.

  She rose like the sacred priestess who tends the undying flame,

  or a sister who’s chastely lain at a dear brother’s side.

  But not long ago blonde Chlide twice, fair Pitho three times,

  and Libas three times I enjoyed without a pause.

  Corinna, as I recall, required my services

  nine times in one short night—and I obliged!

  Has some Thessalian potion made my body limp,

  injuring me with noxious spells and herbs?

  Did some witch hex my name scratched on crimson wax

  and stab right through the liver with slender pins?

  He went on to describe the shame of not performing, and I stared at my brother in disbelief. When Ovid was finished, the entire audience was on its feet.

  Alexander turned to me. “Well, what do you think?”

  “It’s disgusting and crass. Is this all that he does?”

  “You didn’t like it?” Lucius exclaimed, wiping the tears of laughter from his eyes. “He has other material, too,” he promised. “Entire odes to his mistress Corinna.”

  “The one he took nine times?” I asked dryly.

  “It’s meant to be satire,” my brother said. “I thought you’d find it funny.”

  “Perhaps I’m not in the mood.”

  “But the theater is handsome, isn’t it?” he asked.

  Grudgingly, I admitted that it was. For a little stone building crushed between two shops in the Campus Martius, it had a certain charm. It wasn’t anything our mother would have frequented in Alexandria, and she would never have condoned our enjoying coarse Latin poetry in a Roman theater with golden bullae around our necks. But then, our mother was gone, and Egypt had been swept up in Augustus’s new empire. Marcellus had been all that made my exile bearable. When I listened to him laughing in the halls of the villa or shouting at the teams in the Circus Maximus, I could forget for a while that Charmion and Ptole
my were dead, that I would never return to the Egypt of my childhood, and that my father’s memory had been expunged from Rome.

  Alexander and Lucius tried their best to cheer me, and for a while there was news from Egypt that seemed hopeful. Cornelius Gallus, the poet and politician whom Augustus had set up as prefect over my mother’s kingdom, had fallen from favor and committed suicide. What better time to turn to me and Alexander than now, when Egypt was without a leader? But news arrived just as swiftly from Gaul that a new prefect had been found. So even as Saturnalia came and went, I found little to be happy about.

  When my brother and I had our fourteenth birthday on the first of January, Julia presented me with a beautiful pair of gold-and-emerald earrings, but her generosity did nothing but irk me.

  “We should go to the Forum,” she said eagerly, “and pick out a silk tunic to match them.”

  “And who would I wear it for?” I demanded, ruining the light mood in the triclinium, where Octavia had hung Saturn’s sacred holly branches from the ceiling, and their waxy leaves reflected the lamplight.

  Julia frowned. “What do you mean? For yourself. For Lucius.”

  “All Lucius does is stare at my brother.”

  Julia looked at the pair of them rolling dice in the corner of the triclinium. “So do you think they’re more than friends?” she asked.

  I looked at her aghast. “Of course not!”

  “They spend all their time together,” she pointed out.

  “So do we,” I whispered. “And I’m not your lover. Marcellus is.”

  She glanced swiftly at Octavia. “Please don’t tell her, Selene. She would never forgive me if she knew. Please.”

  I wanted to reply with something cutting, to tell her that Octavia knew already, but the need in her eyes was too urgent. And why was it her fault that she was the one destined for Marcellus, and not I?

  “So you don’t like the earrings?” she asked hesitantly.

  “Of course I do.” I attempted a smile. “They’re beautiful.”

  “Then we’ll shop for something to match them tomorrow!”

  I tried to be in a better mood when we went to the Forum. Even though the weather was grim and a cold mist hung over the streets, I followed Gallia down the Via Sacra in my warmest cloak.

 
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