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Cleopatras daughter, p.36
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       Cleopatra's Daughter, p.36

           Michelle Moran
 

  As we walked across the Palatine, I clenched and unclenched my hands. “So what do you think their villa will be like?” I asked.

  Alexander smirked. “Without any slaves? A mess.”

  “Octavia will have lent them some,” I said. “And I’m sure Julia took cooks from her father’s house.”

  “We’ll see,” he said eagerly as we came to their doorstep. A young slave I had seen in Octavia’s villa answered.

  “Salvete,” the girl said in greeting. The glow of the setting sun burnished the gold trim on her tunic, and I was certain it was a touch that Julia had added. She wanted even her servants to wear gold. “Please.” She stepped aside. “Come in.”

  Our small party entered the vestibulum, and Claudia made noises of appreciation. The floor was made from white Carrara marble, and the elegant murals and stucco decorations had been polished to a shine. Although many people had been here on the night of the wedding, few had taken the time to study the architecture, and as the young girl led us through the atrium, I could see Vitruvius appraising every niche and alcove. The judgment he passed must have been favorable, since he looked at Octavia and smiled.

  When we reached the triclinium, Marcellus and Julia rose from their couch, and Alexander whispered, “Look at the tables.” They were made from cedar wood and inlaid with both jasper and ivory.

  “Welcome, Mother,” Marcellus said jubilantly. “So?” he asked eagerly. “How do you like it?”

  “Beautiful,” she admitted. “All the marble and light. Especially in the atrium.”

  “Julia’s going to buy the rest of her furniture tomorrow. We still need a lararium and couches for the guest rooms. Please, sit wherever you’d like.”

  I had been worried about what the seating arrangements would be, but they were the same as for every other evening on the Palatine. Octavia sat with her daughter and son-in-law, and Vitruvius and Juba joined them. Drusus and Vipsania ate with Antonia and Tonia at their own small table, while the rest of us sat with Julia and Marcellus.

  “Your own villa,” I said enviously. “So what is it like?”

  “Wonderful,” Julia gushed. “No one to tell you what to do, or when to wake up, or where to go.”

  “And the pool overlooks the Circus,” Marcellus added. “It’s too cold for it now, even though it’s heated, but in the spring, you’re all welcome to come.”

  “It must be quiet in Augustus’s villa without me,” Julia said.

  Tiberius raised his brows. “Yes. There’s no one to pick on now but the slaves.”

  She laughed, and I thought, Already, marriage has changed her. She would never have let him have the last word before.

  “And have you seen the upstairs?” Julia asked me.

  “No, not yet.”

  “There’s an entire room just for bathing, and a chamber that looks out over the Forum. Come!” She stood. “Let me show you around.”

  “But what about your guests?”

  She waved her hand dismissively. “They won’t miss me during the gustatio. Let them have a few drinks and some oysters.”

  She took me up the stairs and pointed out the small details that she knew I would like: the onyx floor with its sleek fur rugs, the insets of blue and yellow marble on the ceilings. The tapestries, draperies, and awnings all looked new, and I asked her, “Who owned this villa before?”

  “Some old man who died without children. My father bought it for me six months ago and had all of the tasteless furniture removed. You should have seen what was here. Only now, there are no tables and almost nothing to sleep on.”

  I saw what she meant. In the bridal chamber, although the windows were beautiful and the floor had been polished, there was only a single couch.

  Julia saw my look and crossed her arms over her chest. “It’s worse than my father’s villa, isn’t it? Even the Vestals live better than this!”

  I was forced to agree with her.

  “Come with me tomorrow,” she begged. “We’ll go shopping in the Forum.”

  “I have to work with Vitruvius.”

  “What? Every day? No one has a better eye for design than you.”

  I hesitated.

  “Please. He’ll understand. Just tell him your next project is going to be my villa!”

  The next morning, we set out for the Forum. Alexander came with us, shadowed by two Praetorians, and Julia remarked, “I’m surprised you’re not with Lucius. I can’t remember the last time I saw the two of you apart.”

  My brother wrapped himself tighter in his cloak. Although no rain had fallen yet, the wind was bitter. “He’s with his father. He wants to show him some things he’s written and ask for his opinion on finding a patron.” He looked at me. “Do you think there’s any hope?”

  “I don’t see why not. It’s not as though Vitruvius doesn’t have a patron himself.”

  “Yes, but it’s Octavia and he’s sleeping with her. We were hoping for a patron who’s content simply with art.”

  “Has he tried Vergil?” Julia asked. “Or Horace?”

  “They both have more than a dozen writers whom they help fund. And Maecenas is interested only in Ovid.”

  “Then why can’t we be his patron?” Julia asked suddenly. “Marcellus and I are married, and now both of us have our own funds.”

  My brother stopped walking. “Really?”

  “Why not? Octavia has her writers, and it’s probably time that I have mine!”

  My brother laughed. “Lucius will be absolutely beside himself.”

  “There’s only one condition,” Julia stipulated. “In all of his work, I want to be young and pretty, even when I’m old and fat.”

  “Eternally beautiful,” my brother said. “Duly noted.”

  When we reached the shops along the Via Sacra, Julia wanted to go into them all. By the afternoon, we had chosen nearly everything she would ever need: chairs and chests made of citron wood, tripods with heavy bronze basins for incense and whose legs were decorated with gryphons’ heads and claws, tables made of rosewood, ivory-handled mirrors, hip baths in the shapes of sea-dragons and swans.

  “Your villa’s going to be like the Royal Palace of Alexandria,” my brother promised.

  “Really?” she asked eagerly.

  “Prettier,” I said, though it disturbed me that I was beginning to forget what the rooms in the palace had looked like. Sometimes, when I took out my book of sketches and flipped through the pages, I was reminded of a chamber I’d forgotten entirely, or an alcove where Alexander and I had played as children. Sometimes I wondered how much Alexander remembered, but I was afraid of asking and upsetting him.

  “All right,” Julia announced. “Just one more thing. A tapestry for the atrium.”

  We followed her into a shop near the Senate, and Alexander nodded appreciatively. “Impressive.” On the walls hung tapestries and marble plaques depicting every sort of mythological scene. On one tapestry, Odysseus navigated his ship past the cliffs of Scylla. On another, Romulus and Remus fought about the walls of Rome. My brother stood immediately in front of a plaque depicting the Greek twins, the Gemini. “Like our mother used to call us,” he said quietly. “We should buy this for our room.”

  “Absolutely not! It’s too expensive.”

  “Then let me buy it for you,” Julia said. When I started to object, she shook her head sternly. “In three days, it’ll be your birthday, and this can be my gift.”

  “Julia, this is too generous,” I protested.

  “After all you did for me before my wedding? Nonsense,” she said, and snapped her fingers. The man behind the counter came over at once, and when Julia pointed to the marble plaque, his eyes went wide. “Have this sent to Octavia’s villa,” she instructed. “You know the place?”

  “Of course, Domina.”

  “And you see that tapestry of Venus and Vulcan? That should go to the house of Julia Augusti.”

  “This is a very kind present,” my brother said. “Between this and Lucius’s patr
onage, I don’t see how we can ever leave Rome.”

  She grinned. “Good. When Livia returns, I’ll need trustworthy friends on the Palatine.”

  CHAPTER NINETEEN

  25 BC

  ON THE morning of our fifteenth birthday, Alexander woke me with a kiss. “Felicem diem natalem, Selene.”

  I bolted upright. “What’s the matter? What?”

  Alexander laughed. “Nothing! I’m wishing you a happy birthday. Julia and Marcellus are here. They want to take us to the Circus, and then to the theater.”

  “Already? What time is it?”

  “Almost noon. Good thing you weren’t meeting Vitruvius today. You must have had too much wine last night.” My brother grinned. We had stayed up long past midnight, laughing and talking, but most importantly, helping Marcellus plan for the Ludi Megalenses.

  I rushed into a heavy tunic and cloak, sweeping up my hair into a loose bun, and while I dressed, Alexander regarded the handsome marble plaque of the Gemini.

  “Do you really think the war will be over in six months?” he asked worriedly.

  “I hope not. The longer Augustus stays in Iberia, the better for everyone.”

  There was a knock at the door, and Alexander called brightly, “Come in.”

  I’d expected Julia or Marcellus, but it was Octavia who appeared, carrying honeyed cakes and a letter. I glanced at Alexander, and he touched the bulla around his neck. While I would wear mine until the day of my marriage, he would offer his to the Lares today. As long as we wore our bullae, we were no threat to anyone. But what would Augustus do with us now?

  “Felicem diem natalem!” Octavia exclaimed. “Fifteen years old and a new year before you.” She set the cakes down and smiled. “I hear that my son is taking you to the Circus. That doesn’t seem like much of a treat for Selene.”

  I smiled briefly. “We’re going to the theater afterward. Marcellus says it will be a comedy.” I looked at the letter in her hand.

  “From my brother,” she said meaningfully. “Seven came yesterday. One was for Agrippa, and a few were for generals in his army. But this one,” she said, taking a spot on the third couch where Marcellus used to sit, “might interest you. Perhaps you’d like to hear it?”

  Alexander looked at me, and both of us nodded. Octavia unfurled the scroll and read:

  On this, the fifteenth year of their birth, I hope you will wish the Gemini well. There is nothing nearly as momentous as the passing from childhood to adulthood, and it is an occasion that merits serious consideration. When I return, it will be my foremost duty to see that a good marriage is made. Be sure to warn the princess Selene, so that when the time comes she has made herself ready.

  Octavia looked up at me with a triumphant smile.

  “That’s it?” I panicked. “What about Alexander? What about our return to Egypt?”

  Her smile faltered. “I’m sure that will all come in time. My brother’s still at war. When he returns—”

  “But why does he have to wait? When Gallus committed suicide,” I challenged, “Augustus named a new prefect while he was still in Gaul.”

  “That was a different situation,” she said uneasily. “For now, we should celebrate this news. Another wedding!”

  Alexander reached for my hand. “And what if we don’t want to be married?” he asked.

  Octavia frowned. “Every girl wishes to marry at least once. And what man doesn’t want to take a wife?”

  “We don’t,” I said. “Alexander and I enjoy each other’s company, and I don’t see any reason why we should part.”

  Octavia lowered the letter to her lap. “But this is good news, Selene. You’ll have a house of your own, like Julia and Marcellus.”

  “Who love each other!” I protested. “You know better than anyone what comes of an unwanted marriage.”

  She flinched, and though I regretted hurting her, it was the truth.

  “And what will Alexander do,” I asked, “given to a girl he doesn’t even know?”

  “Most husbands don’t know their wives. It’s an arrangement—”

  “That we don’t want!”

  She sat back, shocked by my reaction. But clearly Augustus had known, otherwise he wouldn’t have warned her to prepare me. “We shall discuss this in a few months,” she said. “But I see no reason why the two of you should have to be parted simply because you’ll be married.”

  “What if one of us goes to Egypt and the other to Greece? Or what if Alexander isn’t sent to Egypt at all, and we’re sent to live at opposite ends of the empire? Livia might marry us off to anyone.”

  “This is not a decision to be made by Livia. It is one my brother shall make.” She rose, looking deeply regretful. “I should not have read this to you. This day should be free from worry. They will be good matches,” she promised, “and happy marriages.” But I didn’t see how she could ensure that.

  Julia and Marcellus were waiting for us in the atrium, and when they saw our faces, they wanted to know what had happened.

  “A letter from Augustus,” my brother replied.

  “Apparently, we’re to be married,” I said.

  “To whom?” Marcellus exclaimed.

  “Not Tiberius?” Julia asked in alarm.

  I recoiled. “No. Livia would never allow that.”

  “Well, so long as it’s not him,” she said brightly, “how bad can it be?”

  “Think of Horatia,” I retorted, “or any number of terrible marriages. In Egypt, women are allowed to choose their husbands.”

  Marcellus put his arm around my shoulders. “Just remember who is heir,” he whispered, and I smiled despite myself.

  Aside from the contents of Augustus’s letter, it was a wonderful day, the best birthday I could remember having. As usual, Alexander won his bets at the races. It had rained the night before, but he knew which horses preferred wet tracks to dry, and after taking out the small scroll on which he recorded past performances, he bet on the Whites.

  “Fifty denarii to the Prince of Egypt,” the bet-maker said, handing him a heavy red purse. “And another fifty for you.” He passed a second purse to Marcellus.

  We took the winnings with us to the Forum, where we all bought nivem dulcem even though we were freezing, then washed it down with warm honeyed wine.

  At the theater, Lucius critiqued the dreadful speech making and the five of us shouted, “Bring on the Bear!” It was an awful play, but none of us cared. We laughed at the senator who fell asleep in his seat, and at the woman whose snores were disturbing the actors. By the time Alexander and I returned to our chamber, the sun had long since set, and the guards looked ready to collapse.

  “Felicem diem natalem,” he repeated, then embraced me tightly. “Sleep well.”

  “Where are you going?”

  He smiled.

  “And you don’t think Octavia will know?”

  “It’s just for one night.”

  “It’s been many nights,” I said sternly. “The slaves talk.”

  “Then let them. In six months,” he added darkly, “we’ll both be married. We might as well enjoy our freedom while we can.”

  I watched as he disappeared down the hall, then shut my door and blew out the oil lamps. As I was closing my eyes, I imagined that I heard footsteps in the atrium, and I wondered if my brother had changed his mind. But the door didn’t open, and I fell into a deep sleep filled with strange dreams.

  Then, suddenly, I awoke with a start. There was the sound of sandals slapping against marble, then a wail like the scream of a wounded animal tore through the villa, shattering the stillness. Doors were being opened and shut, and slaves were shouting to one another for lamplight. I rushed from my couch and put on my cloak, but I couldn’t find my sandals. By the time I found them, I could hear women crying and Vitruvius’s voice shouting orders over the madness. I fumbled with the door, unable to find the handle in the darkness, then flung it open and stepped into the hall.

  Outside, Antonia and Tonia were al
ready up, shivering in their heavy linen sheaths.

  “What’s happening?” I cried. But neither would answer me. “Who’s screaming?” I followed their gaze to Lucius’s room, then cried out, “Alexander!”

  Antonia reached out to stop me. “Don’t go in there,” she pleaded.

  “Why?” Slaves were running with hot water, then Vitruvius appeared with bottles and bandages. I approached the chamber slowly, as if still in a dream, and when I saw what had happened, my legs nearly gave way beneath me.

  “Take her away from here!” Vitruvius shouted.

  A dozen different men were attending to Lucius, who had been wounded in the chest and was lying on the floor. But on the couch, still dressed in his white tunic and cloak, Alexander wasn’t moving. Several slaves stepped forward to take me away, but I shrieked at them wildly, “Leave me alone!” I rushed to Alexander and took him by the shoulders. Blood seeped through his shirt onto the linens. A deep gash ran along his neck, and when I felt his cheeks they were already cold. “No,” I whispered again and again. “No!” I screamed so that Isis could hear me.

  Hands lifted me up, and men began saying things I didn’t understand. There was light, and I saw books and sketches. Someone had laid me down on a couch in the library. Gallia and Magister Verrius appeared, followed by Juba and Agrippa. There were times when I wasn’t sure if I was sleeping or awake. As dawn came, Gallia pressed a cup into my hands.

  “Drink.”

  “I can’t.”

  “You’ve been crying all night. You need fluid,” she instructed.

  I drank, but didn’t taste anything. I could hear Juba questioning the slaves in the atrium, and when he came to me, I turned my face away.

  “Selene,” he said gently.

  I closed my eyes.

  “I know you don’t wish to speak, but if we’re to find who did this—”

  “Just tell me,” I whispered, “is my brother … is my brother gone?”

  Both Agrippa and Juba were standing above me, but neither of them spoke.

  I opened my eyes. “Is he dead?” I cried.

 
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