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Cleopatras daughter, p.32
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       Cleopatra's Daughter, p.32

           Michelle Moran
 

  “At least it’s not snowing,” Julia said. “Imagine what it must be like in the mountains of Gaul.”

  “How cold does it get there?” I asked Gallia.

  “Very bitter,” she replied. “When the snow falls, even the animals go into hiding. Every year there are children who starve for lack of food, and the old women without families are prey for the wolves.”

  Julia shivered. “No wonder my father’s letters are so pitiful. He’s sick all the time. And weak.”

  “The Gallic winters can do that. If he is wise,” Gallia said, “he will leave his most hearty men there and take the rest south toward Cantabria.”

  Julia looked at me, and I knew she was thinking of Marcellus. Somewhere in the cold mountain ranges of Gaul, he was suffering with Juba, Augustus, and Tiberius. Their men were probably wishing for the comforts of home, where holly hung in bright sprigs on their doorposts and the rich scent of cooked goose filled their halls. Some of them would never live to see another Saturnalia, and I wondered how Livia was managing in such a bitter place. Probably just fine, I thought acerbically. She has Augustus all to herself, and Terentilla is eight hundred miles away.

  When we reached the Forum, Julia wrapped her cloak tighter across her chest. “Perhaps we should have left this for another time. Let’s take the shortcut,” she suggested.

  Gallia led the way through the Senate courtyard, where despite the bitter weather, lawyers were arguing a trial. The heavily dressed men stood at two separate podiums, shielded from the light rain by a thin canopy. A crowd of onlookers had gathered, and I pulled at Julia’s cloak. “Do you think we should see what’s happening?”

  “In this weather?” she exclaimed.

  “But look at all the people. It might be another trial like the one for the slaves of Gaius Fabius.”

  Julia hesitated, torn between the warmth of the shops and curiosity. “Only for a moment. And only if it’s good.”

  We stood behind the platform in the space reserved for senators and members of what was now the imperial family. A young defendant had been placed between two soldiers, but it was obvious from her clothes that she was no pleb. The fur of her cloak brushed her soft cheeks, and the sandals on her feet were new and made of leather. Her long braid had been threaded carefully with gold, and no man would have passed her on the street without thinking that she was pretty. It was her lawyer’s turn to speak at the podium, and she listened with downcast eyes.

  “You have heard Aquila’s lawyer tell you that this girl was once his slave,” he said angrily. “You have heard him lie like a dog from his mouth and say that she was stolen from him as an infant. So how can Aquila tell that this girl is the same child he purchased fifteen years ago? Does she have the same plump cheeks?” he demanded. “The same fat legs and ear-piercing cry?” The crowd in front of him laughed a little. “And why has Aquila suddenly come forward now claiming that she is his former slave? Could it be that she is pretty?” The crowd shook their heads in disapproval, and a heavy man in a fur cloak narrowed his eyes at them. “Could it be that he has lusted after Tullia for months, and knowing that she is the daughter of an honorable centurion, he has decided that this is the only way to have her?”

  “Liar!” the lawyer for Aquila shouted.

  “I can prove to you that I’m not lying! This girl you see before you has never been a slave, and I will bring a dozen people who witnessed her birth and who will vouch for her identity.”

  “And who are these people?” Aquila’s lawyer challenged. “Slaves who can be easily bought off?”

  “Not as easily as judices,” Tullia’s lawyer retorted, and there was a stiffening of backs among the seated men. “It’s true. The midwives of Rome are slaves, but I will bring to you her mother, her father, even her aunts, and you will see the resemblance—”

  “They can see a resemblance between you and me!” Aquila’s lawyer scoffed. “See? We both have short hair and dark skin. Does that make me your child?”

  Several of the judices laughed, and an uneasy feeling settled in my stomach.

  “Tomorrow, I bring witnesses,” Tullia’s lawyer promised. “And when this case must be decided, I ask that you use reason. What man would wait fifteen years before bringing charges of kidnapping? Why Tullia? Why now? And remember,” he warned ominously, “that the next time a man wants to abuse a pretty citizen, she could be your sister, your daughter, even your wife!”

  The judices rose, and the crowd began to disperse.

  “It’s over?” Julia exclaimed. “Why not bring the witnesses today?”

  “Because it is raining heavily now,” Gallia pointed out.

  Neither Julia nor I had noticed. We watched the soldiers escort the girl from the platform, and the eyes of the man in fur watched her hotly. She avoided his gaze, looking instead at the weeping woman still standing in the rain. Her mother, I thought sadly. Next to the woman a broad-shouldered centurion placed his hand on his heart in a silent promise. The girl seemed to tremble, then her legs gave way beneath her.

  “Tullia!” the man shouted, and I was sure he was her father.

  The soldiers lifted her swiftly back onto her feet, and the centurion spun around to the fat man in his furs. “I will kill you!” Her father lunged, but several soldiers moved quickly to stop him.

  “Let the judices decide!” Tullia’s lawyer pleaded.

  “He’s paid them off!” the father accused. “Even her lawyer knows that their pockets are filled with this maggot’s gold!”

  Aquila straightened his cloak. “Be careful,” he warned. “Masters can discard slaves who are no longer useful to them.”

  The two men stared at each other for a moment, then the centurion hissed, “If I were you, I’d watch myself. Even maggots have to sleep.”

  More soldiers rushed to separate them, splashing through the mud before violence could be done.

  “We must come back tomorrow,” Julia said suddenly.

  “You will not like it,” Gallia warned. “The judices have been bought.”

  “How do you know?”

  “You saw their faces. Who were those men laughing for?”

  “Aquila’s lawyer,” Julia realized. “But that isn’t fair!”

  Gallia turned up her palm. “It is foolish to think that rot can be confined to a single fruit. Once slavery is planted, everything decays.”

  We didn’t do much shopping. The rain was falling in heavy gray sheets, and when we reached the shop of a wealthy silk merchant, we huddled around his sandalwood brazier until the rain subsided and we could go out again. Julia purchased a few bolts of cloth in acknowledgment of his hospitality, and instructed him to send the bill to Augustus.

  That evening, in Octavia’s triclinium, Julia described what we’d seen in the Forum. As she came to the part about the judices being bought, Octavia sucked in her breath.

  “The judices of Rome are men from honorable patrician families.”

  “I’m only repeating what the lawyer said.”

  “And isn’t it suspicious that a man would wait fifteen years before claiming one of the prettiest girls in Rome as his slave?” Vitruvius asked. “Can it really be said that all patricians are honorable?”

  “Perhaps we should go tomorrow,” Agrippa suggested. He looked at his wife.

  “I wouldn’t mind the rain,” Claudia replied. “We could dress warmly. And our presence might inspire judices to act on their consciences.”

  I was surprised by the simplicity of her thinking. Assuming the judices had really been bought, no one’s presence would speak louder than gold. Agrippa might appear for one day of the trial, but how long would it hold his attention? And what would he do if the judices ruled that Tullia was Aquila’s slave? As Octavia had said, they were men from honorable families. Charging them with corruption would be a heavy thing.

  Before Alexander blew out the oil lamps in our room that night, I turned on my side to face him. “It’s a dirty system, isn’t it?”

  “No more
than in Egypt. And where’s the better way?”

  “Perhaps if they forbade slavery—”

  But my brother laughed sadly. “And do you think the patricians would allow that? All of their fields, which make them rich, would have to be tended by workers they actually paid.”

  “So what? They’re all wealthy enough.”

  “It would never pass the Senate. Even if Augustus paid the senators to vote in favor of banishing slavery, they’d be risking their lives. The plebs would revolt. The patricians aren’t the only ones with slaves. And in the end, what would it accomplish? Men would simply forbid their slaves from leaving on punishment of death, and the courts could run every day from now until next Saturnalia before they found judices willing to punish slave killers.”

  I was quiet for a moment, angry that he was right. “Are you going to come tomorrow?”

  My brother hesitated. “Vergil has a reading—”

  “And you would rather be at the odeum instead of watching a trial for a girl’s life?” I sat up on my couch. “Whenever Vergil is invited to the triclinium, you and Lucius hang on his every word,” I said accusingly. “What is it about him? He’s just an old Ganymede.”

  “You shouldn’t say that,” my brother replied.

  “Why? Isn’t it true?”

  “Yes. But he writes about male love in a way that makes it beautiful. If you read some of his works, Selene, you might change your mind.”

  I stared at him. “You aren’t in love with Lucius, are you?”

  My brother blushed.

  “With a man?” I exclaimed.

  “We haven’t done anything,” he said defensively. “Just kissed.”

  I regarded my brother. His namesake, Alexander the Great, had taken men to his bed and counted the soldier Hephaestion as one of his greatest loves. But he had also taken a wife and given Macedon an heir. “So what do you think you will do when Augustus returns and wants to arrange a marriage for you?” I whispered. “Refuse?”

  “No one refuses Augustus. So why spend my last free years—maybe only months—at a trial whose outcome I can’t change, when I can be with Lucius?”

  We stared at each other from our couches, and I tried to determine what I felt about this.

  “I’m sorry, Selene. It’s nothing I can help.”

  “Have you even tried—?”

  “Of course,” he said swiftly.

  “Why didn’t you tell me this before?” My voice broke.

  “I thought you’d be disappointed.”

  He waited for me to tell him I wasn’t; that his desire for Lucius was as normal as Marcellus’s desire for Julia. But I kept my silence, forcing him to explain.

  “There are many men who aren’t attracted to women. Look at Maecenas. You don’t think it’s a coincidence that Terentilla’s never had a child? Maecenas isn’t interested, while Augustus has her drink the juice of the silphium plant to keep her from getting pregnant by him.”

  “How do you know that?” I demanded crossly.

  “I heard it from Maecenas.”

  “So men who love other men pass on their secrets to one another?”

  My brother raised his brows. “Don’t women?”

  “And what does Vitruvius think of you two?”

  “He doesn’t know. Or maybe he doesn’t want to.”

  “So this is why Lucius didn’t want to marry,” I said.

  My brother nodded. “Yes. But unless he can support himself or find a generous patron, he will have to someday. And then we’ll both be miserable, instead of just one of us. That’s why I have to encourage his readings in the odeum. There’s nothing I can do about slavery, Selene. But I can help change Lucius’s life.” He held out his hand to me, and slowly I took it.

  “This isn’t how I imagined our lives would be when I was Queen of Libya and you King of Armenia.”

  Alexander laughed sadly. “Our father had great plans, didn’t he? The kingdom of Parthia hadn’t even been conquered and he crowned me its king.” We both smiled, remembering our father’s irrepressible belief in himself. “Do you think it’s fate that we’ll lead unfulfilled lives?”

  I drew back. “Of course not. Augustus may still make you king.”

  “After he’s married me off to some widow.”

  “But you’re a man! You can do as you please—send her off to the country or keep her in Rome while you return to Egypt. Maecenas is content enough.”

  “But what about you?” His voice was so gentle and full of concern that tears sprang to my eyes.

  “I don’t know.”

  “If you can forget Marcellus, perhaps you’ll find someone else.”

  “For what purpose? To have my heart broken again? This isn’t Egypt, Alexander. When Augustus returns, he’ll find me a husband that’s convenient for him, not me. It could be someone like Catullus or even Aquila. And there would be nothing I could do if he forbade me from visiting you in Alexandria.”

  “I would never return without you,” he swore.

  “Yes,” I said firmly, “you would. It’s your destiny.” I looked outside. The gardens, which shone blue and green every summer, were still dreary and soaked with rain. “I don’t think unhappiness is fated. Look at Gallia. She was forced into slavery and still found happiness.”

  “Because you freed her! But even as citizens we aren’t free. Everything we do, from the food we eat to the clothes we wear, is determined by Augustus!”

  “And you’ve always been the one telling me to be practical. But now look. You’ve lost your heart to Lucius, and it’s making you crazy.”

  My brother turned away. “It would all be different if Augustus died in Gaul, wouldn’t it? Marcellus is old enough now to be Caesar and he would let us marry whomever we wanted. Then we could return to Alexandria.”

  “Augustus’s letters to Octavia are always short,” I said eagerly. “And Julia says she heard that he spends most of his days sleeping. He isn’t strong.”

  My brother raised his eyes. “From your mouth to Isis’s ears,” he whispered.

  CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

  BEFORE ISIS could make a decision about my brother’s prayer, she acted on one of my silent pleas. I was leaving the library, where Vitruvius was making the plans for the Pantheon’s final steps, when Octavia rushed in, too anxious to even realize I was there.

  “He’s back!” she exclaimed. “And they’re all over Rome. We finally have proof it wasn’t Marcellus!”

  Vitruvius rose from his desk. “Another actum?”

  “On the temples of Apollo, Jupiter, Vesta, Castor and Pollux, even Venus Genetrix. It’s short, just a few lines calling people to the trial of Tullia. But Marcellus isn’t here, and there’s not a chance in Hades he could have done it!”

  I rushed back to my chamber to tell Alexander the news, and my brother remarked, “So he wasn’t lying.”

  When Lucius met us on the portico, he grinned widely at me, as if he already knew what my brother had revealed about him last night, and that I had come to accept it. “I heard from my father about the actum. Now all of Rome will be at the trial.”

  “I should think the weather will keep some people away. The old won’t want to come. And certainly not mothers with their children,” I said.

  But my prediction was wrong. Despite the dampness in the air, there wasn’t any rain, and even matrons with babies on their hips came to see what had drawn the Red Eagle out of hiding. For months he had not posted a single actum. Whenever we went to the ludus, I glanced at the doors of the temples we passed and felt a keen disappointment. The Red Eagle’s absence had only made me more certain that he was Marcellus, but the latest message removed all possibility.

  Thousands of people had gathered in the Forum. Even Octavia had been watching the trial since morning. She explained to us what was happening, and when she saw that Magister Verrius had come with us, her eyebrows rose.

  “This case has implications beyond one little girl,” he replied to her unspoken question.
r />   Since the night of Magister Verrius’s arrest, Augustus’s spies had been following him constantly. If they hadn’t found anything yet, there was nothing to find. And now, with Marcellus in Gaul, the two men who had seemed most likely to be the Red Eagle were suddenly innocent. Alexander and Lucius stepped back, letting me stand in front of them so I could see what was happening. If a foreigner to the city had looked out over the handsomely dressed crowd of senators and their fur-cloaked wives, he would have thought he’d happened upon a theatrical performance. But the danger to Tullia’s life was real, and I wondered whether somewhere in the crowd, the Red Eagle was listening to her lawyer as he tried to persuade the judices of her freeborn birth.

  “I have brought before you the maiden’s mother, her father, two aunts, and an uncle who all swear before Juno that she is the daughter of centurion Calpurnius Commodus,” Tullia’s lawyer was saying. “Only purchased women have sworn that she is Aquila’s slave. Whom will you believe?” he demanded. “Citizens of Rome, or slaves?”

  “Correct me if I am wrong,” Aquila’s lawyer retorted, “but I believe you produced slaves as witnesses as well.”

  “With citizens! Where are your citizens?” Tullia’s lawyer challenged. “Not a single pleb has come forward to vouch for Aquila’s lies. Why is that?” The crowd began to hiss. “Perhaps Aquila spent all his denarii,” he speculated, “paying off other people.” He looked piercingly at the judices—a warning to them that if Aquila’s gold was in their pockets, they had better beware.

  The crowd raised fists of anger, shouting threats to the seated men in togas. I saw Aquila flinch as someone hurled a lettuce from the crowd and one of the judices was hit on the head. The judex rose in a fury, turning to the spectators. “Since you cannot behave yourselves, we are done for the day. Trial will resume tomorrow!”

  There was near mutiny.

  “Can he do that?” Alexander exclaimed.

  “Any of the judices can stop the trial,” Magister Verrius said. “I suspect they will deliver a verdict in the morning.”

  “And will we come to see it?” Julia asked.

 
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