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Cleopatras daughter, p.34
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       Cleopatra's Daughter, p.34

           Michelle Moran

  “Their marriage was arranged years ago,” Juba said. “There’s no use staring.”

  “I wasn’t staring,” I said angrily.

  “Then what were you doing?”

  “Observing.” Before I could think of something far more clever to say, he was gone.

  His comment rankled me the entire night. I thought about it when I should have been asleep, and even turned it over in my mind the next morning while I should have been concentrating on what Vitruvius was teaching me. But when a commotion erupted in the atrium, I forgot about Juba entirely. I looked up at Vitruvius, and he rose from his chair.

  “Is someone shouting?” I asked him.

  “I don’t know.”

  We both went to see.

  “On every basilica,” Faustina was saying, “an actum as long as your stola. And news that Aquila has been murdered!”

  “In his sleep?” I cried, thinking of Julia’s request.

  “No.” She turned to me. “On the Aventine. Left for dead like a pig and not a single person willing to come forward as a witness.”

  “Is it any wonder?” Octavia whispered.

  My brother and Lucius hurried into the atrium. “What is it?” Lucius looked to his father.

  “Plebian justice,” Vitruvius replied.

  There were seven more acta between the time of Tullia’s trial and our progress to Capri in July. Agrippa’s soldiers stood guard at every temple and basilica in Rome, so the rebel began posting on the windows of merchants’ shops, making those shops instantly popular with the plebs. And when the merchants were threatened with imprisonment, he posted his next actum on the heavy cedar doors of Augustus’s villa. The sheet was taken down before any of us could read it, but enough slaves had seen it on Augustus’s door to send the story spreading like fire throughout the city.


  I COULD see the relief on Octavia’s face when summer finally came, and she could escape the plebian hostility for Capri. She’d said nothing to me about her charity in the Subura, but Vitruvius admitted that at some homes, people had begun to turn away her help, preferring to beg or steal for their food than receive it from a patrician.

  As our ship sailed from Naples to the little island where Augustus’s Sea Palace rose from the rocks, Alexander turned to me. “I wonder if the Red Eagle is following us.”

  I looked from the rails to Octavia and Vitruvius, who were sitting on the deck, shaded from the sun by a thin linen canopy. “Every home on Capri will be searched if he dares to post anything there again,” I told him.

  “I wouldn’t be surprised if they have soldiers in disguise across the island, waiting for him to make a mistake.”

  “It didn’t work in Rome.”

  “Rome isn’t an island,” my brother said.

  But after a week of sun-bleached days spent lounging in the Sea Palace, there was no sign of the rebel, and the men of the Praetorian Guard began to relax at their posts. They tossed dice, ate fish, and were willing to place bets on nearly anything, from the fastest-moving boats passing on the sea to the height of a palm tree.

  Without Augustus or Livia to watch us, there was almost nothing we couldn’t do. Even Tiberius and Drusus enjoyed themselves a little, joining us on Marcellus’s daily boat trips into the Blue Grotto, where Roman patricians had turned the sea cave into their own bathing pool. The walls were painted with images of Neptune rising from the waves, and small statues of the bearded sea god rested in niches carved into the rock. Toward the end of the summer, when Claudia became adventurous enough to come along, both Agrippa and Juba paddled with us to the cave.

  “What do you think makes the water so blue?” Claudia asked. It was as if something was lighting the sea from underneath, turning the water the brilliant shade of cornflowers.

  “It’s the opening down there,” Juba said from the boat, pointing to a gap in the rock that was completely submerged. “That’s where the sunlight enters and lights the water from below.”

  “First in!” Marcellus shouted, tearing off his tunic and diving into the water in his loincloth. Claudia immediately averted her gaze, but Tiberius and Drusus stripped off their tunics and dove overboard, too.

  “Are you coming?” Drusus called to Vipsania.

  She stood at the edge of the boat. “It looks a little cold.”

  “Nonsense!” Lucius exclaimed. “Let’s go!” He pushed Julia and Vipsania from the boat before they had time to take off their clothes, and Alexander followed.

  “Are you going in?” I asked Claudia, stowing my sandals in the prow of the little boat where they wouldn’t get wet.

  “In my breastband and loincloth?”

  “Why not?” I took off my tunic. “We come here every day.”

  She looked uneasily at Agrippa and Juba, who were already swimming.

  “Go,” I persisted. “Your husband doesn’t mind. Look at Vipsania. Do you think he would let his daughter do something dishonorable?”

  Claudia hesitated, then took off her tunic and slowly, timidly dipped her foot into the water.

  “What are you waiting for?” Marcellus cried, pulling her in.

  “Marcellus!” she shrieked, but once she was completely wet, she giggled. “It’s warm in here. Like bathwater.”

  “You see?” I told her. “It’s not so bad.” I slipped over the side of the boat and swam up to Marcellus. Immediately, Julia was at my side.

  “Can you imagine being here at high tide?” Claudia asked worriedly. “The water would rise and we’d all be trapped.”

  “It’s not high tide for another few hours,” Marcellus said.

  “Besides,” Julia added, “there’s a secret path over there to the mountain.” She indicated the end of the cave, where a limestone platform led to a series of steps.

  “Have you ever used it?”

  Julia shook her head.

  “Then how can you be sure it works?”

  “Because we saw a goat come through it once!”

  Claudia looked to her brother to confirm the story.

  “It’s true,” Marcellus said. “Ask Agrippa if you don’t believe me.”

  She swam away to her husband, and Julia said critically, “She’s so nervous.”

  “Like all my sisters,” Marcellus said. “Why do you think Antonia and Tonia aren’t here?”

  “Because your mother forbids it?” Julia guessed.

  Marcellus shook his head. “So long as I’m with them, they’re welcome to come. But they’re afraid. They’d rather be playing their lyres or planting boxwood in the garden.”

  Julia wrinkled her nose. “How boring.”

  “They’re like my mother,” Marcellus observed. “They enjoy the simple, quiet pleasures.”

  And there was something very endearing about their simplicity that evening while everyone played dice in the summer triclinium. Neither Antonia nor Tonia gambled, and Vipsania and Drusus were deemed too young to play. So the four of them sat together on a couch, quietly watching the roll of the dice. Only Alexander, Lucius, and Julia remained in the game. Marcellus whispered eager tips to Julia, and once in a while Juba or Agrippa would look up from their reading to see who was winning.

  Julia rolled, and Lucius exclaimed, “Four Vultures!”

  She groaned. “I’m finished.”

  “But no one’s thrown a Venus,” Lucius protested. “The next roll could be yours.”

  “It’s always the next roll with you two. You can keep my denarii in the pot.”

  “Your loss,” my brother said temptingly, but she didn’t care. He and Lucius battled it out, and by the time Lucius won, I realized that Marcellus and Julia had disappeared.

  I looked around the triclinium. “Where did Marcellus go?”

  “With Julia,” Tonia said. “Out to the gardens. I think they’re sitting in the gazebo.”

  “Which one?”

  “Near the statue of Fortuna. Would you like me to show it to you?”

  “Leave them alone,” Juba sa
id, looking up from his reading. “They’ve gone there for a reason.”

  “And how do you know?”

  “I have eyes.”

  I rose swiftly from my chair, and Tonia asked eagerly, “Would you like me to show you?”

  “Yes,” I said stubbornly.

  “You’re wasting your time.” Juba’s voice grew irritable. “If you think you’re in love with him, you’re no different from any of the girls at the roadside inns. Besides, it’s Julia he’s meant for.”

  “So everyone says.”

  “So Augustus says.” When Juba saw me pause, he added, “The letter came today. Octavia will probably announce it tomorrow.”

  Tonia was still looking up at me; her small hand reached out toward mine. “Shall we go?”

  For a moment, I didn’t answer. Then, when the mist finally cleared from my mind, I told her, “Just take me to the baths.”

  Tonia chatted about silly things along the way—what color the flowers should be on her balcony and which food I liked better, thrush or quail. She wanted to know if I had ever seen the animal called a giraffe, and told me that I should visit her uncle’s zoo in Rome as soon as we returned. Nothing she talked about was of any importance. She spoke only about simple, insignificant things, and for that I couldn’t have been more thankful.

  But when Octavia gathered us all in the triclinium the next morning and announced that she had wonderful news from Iberia, my heart sank in my chest, and I wished I could have as simple a life as Tonia. Instead, I had spent the night hoping that Juba had been wrong, that he had only told me such things to try and torment me. But now, Marcellus’s long-awaited marriage to Julia was going to be made a reality, and Augustus wanted Agrippa to take his place in the ceremony on the auspicious day of December twenty-fourth.

  As soon as Octavia spoke the words, my brother looked at me, and Lucius patted my arm in an understanding gesture. For the next four months I would have to be cheerful and happy for Julia, and there would be a dozen things she would want me to help her with: tunics and cloaks, new sandals and bridal jewels. There was more news as well, but I hardly heard it. Marcellus was to be honored by being made an aedile, in charge of Rome’s public entertainments for an entire year, which would mean access to nearly unlimited funds in order to impress the plebs. When Tiberius heard this, he sat back in his seat and groaned. “I hope Augustus knows what he’s doing.”

  But the final news made time stop entirely. In honor of his service to Rome, Juba, Prince of Numidia and unswerving friend of Augustus, was being made King of Mauretania. It would be a client kingship in which he served the purposes of Rome, but even so, Mauretania adjoined his ancestral land of Numidia, where his father and grandfather had ruled before him. I met my brother’s gaze across the table, and while everyone celebrated the happy news, Alexander seated himself next to me.

  “You see,” I whispered in Parthian. “If it can happen for Juba, it can happen for us.”

  “Yes, but he’s twenty-two and he’s spent his life being useful to Augustus, serving him, protecting him, fighting alongside him. What have I done?”

  “Nothing. But you haven’t been given the chance!”

  “At least you have your work with Vitruvius.”

  I was quiet for a moment. “Perhaps that will be enough for us both.”

  We looked across the triclinium at Juba, who was being congratulated by Agrippa and Claudia. “As soon as you’re comfortable in your new palace,” Agrippa was promising him, “we plan on making the journey south for a visit.”

  But Juba laughed. “I don’t expect I’ll be leaving anytime soon. There’s the matter of a war in Cantabria to finish. I’m not sure how Augustus would feel about returning home to discover that I’d left him.”

  Julia and Marcellus were by themselves on the farthest couch in the triclinium, and I could see that she was weeping. He kissed the tears of happiness from her cheeks in a way that made my heart ache, and I reminded myself sternly, It’s about continuing to study with Vitruvius so that Augustus will let me return to Egypt; it’s not about falling in love with a Roman—however winsome he is.

  But it was difficult to remember what I had left to hope for as Julia dragged me to every shop in the Forum in search of the perfect bridal clothes. There had been a message from Iberia that whatever Julia wished for her wedding should be ordered, and that every senator in Rome would be invited to the celebration.

  “Look at all this cloth,” Julia complained in November, with only a month left before her marriage. “Wool, linen, heavy winter silks. How can any of these be used for a veil?” We had gone to shop after shop looking for something suitable, but she’d found nothing. She sat down on the shopkeeper’s chair while the old man scurried around us, presenting us with options.

  “There has to be something,” Lucius protested. “What about that red stuff over there?”

  “It’s too thick.”

  My brother held up a swath of red silk.

  “Too shiny,” she ruled.

  “There are no more shops,” Gallia reminded her. “What about inviting the merchants from Ostia to the Palatine?”

  “She’s already done that,” I said dryly.

  “Then how about choosing something from the one hundred shops we’ve already been to?” Marcellus suggested.

  Julia’s eyes filled with tears. “You don’t care what I wear.” She stood angrily. “I could show up in a peasant’s palla and it wouldn’t matter at all!”

  Marcellus exchanged a wearied look with me. “You’re right. It wouldn’t.” He went to her. “Because what matters to me isn’t the veil.” He lifted her chin tenderly. “It’s you.”

  Alexander whispered in Parthian, “You have to feel a little sorry for him. This is what the rest of his life is going to be like.”

  Julia calmed a little, but the crisis of the veil wasn’t resolved until eight days before the wedding, as we were bidding Magister Verrius farewell. Our days in the ludus were finished. Beginning with the new year, Alexander and Lucius were going to join Marcellus and Tiberius in a separate school for rhetoric, where they would learn how to speak in public and argue law cases. Julia would be in charge of her own house, a magnificent villa near Agrippa’s on the Palatine, and instead of studying Homer or Vergil, she would be holding her own salutatio, doing charity work, and commissioning buildings in her own name. Because school was finished for me as well, Vitruvius paid me the honor of asking whether I wished to study with him in the daytime and oversee some of the work on the theater, Agrippa’s Pantheon, and the new basilica being built in honor of Julia’s marriage. Only this time, when he asked, it was not because Octavia pressured him to.

  The six of us waved good-bye to Magister Verrius, and though Julia was the one who had enjoyed the ludus least, she blinked back tears as we crossed the courtyard toward Juba and Gallia for the very last time. Though Juba was king of a foreign land now and could have left our security to the Praetorian Guard, it was a mark of his loyalty to Augustus that he remained as Marcellus’s personal protector. Julia sniffed loudly, and when Marcellus gave her his linen square, she used it to dab at her eyes. “You know what this means, don’t you?” she wailed.

  “Our childhood has passed,” Alexander said quietly.

  “Who cares about our childhood?” she said heatedly. “There are only eight days to find cloth for a veil!”

  Marcellus gave Julia a desperate look. “Why don’t you go shopping with Selene,” he suggested. “Juba can take us back—”

  “We’ve been to every store,” I interrupted. “There’s nowhere in Rome we haven’t gone.”

  Julia’s look was miserable. Everything was ready. Her handsomely embroidered cloak of red and gold. A tunic woven from the finest silk. Her pearl-encrusted sandals, her bangles, her underclothes. Only the veil remained. Marcellus looked as if he were about to weep himself. And then I remembered.

  “I think I have something. In the chest I brought from Alexandria—some swaths of red si

  Julia gasped. “Can we see them?”

  I glanced at Marcellus, who smiled at me with the deepest gratitude, and I was forced to admit to myself that my revelation was not entirely altruistic. “Of course.”

  Marcellus exhaled audibly. “I’ll bet Selene has something that would be absolutely perfect.”

  Julia shot him a look, but when we returned to the Palatine and I opened the chest that had been locked for more than four years, she reached forward for the first swath of silk and exclaimed, “This is it!” It was the material left over from a chiton I had worn to my mother’s last feast. It had been the Feast of the Inseparable in Death, when my parents had invited everyone who had been close to them to dine one last time. I hesitated, wondering whether or not I should tell her.

  “You probably don’t want that one,” I said finally.

  But she had already draped it over her head. “Why not?”

  “Because it was the cloth I wore to my mother’s last dinner.”

  “The feast of a queen,” Julia whispered, regarding herself in the mirror. The red contrasted beautifully with her mass of black hair, and she didn’t care what the material had been for.

  “It might bring you bad luck.”

  “Nonsense,” she said. “That’s only superstition.”

  “Your father wouldn’t think so.”

  “And do I look like him?”

  No. She looked like the most beautiful bride who would ever be carried across the threshold of a villa. Pearls imported from the Indian Sea gleamed on her dark neck, and in eight days, when her hair was dressed in similar ornaments, Marcellus would be the envy of every man in Rome. I let her take the silk, but as she was folding it into a neat square for her seamstress, she sat down on my bathing room chair, and tears began to well in her eyes.

  “What’s the matter?” I exclaimed. “You have your veil. Everything is ready.”

  She nodded, as if she knew it was foolish to cry. “I know.”

  “Then what’s wrong?”

  She looked up at me, and her dark eyes suddenly appeared enormous, as if they belonged to a child. “She won’t be there,” she whispered, and immediately I was ashamed of my resentment. No one in the world knew Julia better than Marcellus. Her father, her stepmother, even her stepbrother only cared what happened to her so long as it advanced their will. In a world of pretty silks and pearls where everything was theater, Marcellus was her only real happiness, and her mother wouldn’t even be able to meet him on the wedding day. I took a seat next to her and offered her my hand. There was nothing I could say, so instead we sat together in silence and I thought of how selfish a friend I had been.

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