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Cleopatras daughter, p.38
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       Cleopatra's Daughter, p.38

           Michelle Moran
 

  “Yes. He owns the world now.”

  “But not you.”

  I looked up.

  “No one can keep you from drawing, Selene. No matter what happens, you’ll still have the support of Octavia and Vitruvius. And do you know what Julia and Marcellus are doing? They’re making plans to build a house for foundlings, and they say it’s in honor of you.”

  “Did they ask you to tell me this?”

  “No.” This time, his answer was firm. “But I lost a great friend, too, and some days, even when I don’t want to carry on, I do.” He blinked rapidly. “You know that Augustus arrives tomorrow.”

  Immediately, thoughts of Augustus’s death returned, and I wondered whether someone might assassinate him.

  “There are reports that he’s sick,” Lucius went on. “We all know that he’s never been strong. Even the mild weather in Iberia hasn’t been enough to keep him in good health. When he comes, please don’t do anything rash.”

  “What makes you think I would?”

  He gave me a long look. “You aren’t known for your prudence.”

  “Perhaps someone else will do it for me, then.”

  “You are the last of the Ptolemies, Selene. There is no one else after you whose veins carry blood of Alexander the Great and Kleopatra. Be careful, or everything your grandfathers fought for will be snuffed out.”

  “It already is.”

  “No. Not unless the last Ptolemy dies.”

  When word was sent ahead from the walls of Rome that Augustus was about to enter the city, we gathered in the Forum, and I thought of Ptolemies who had come before me and wondered what they would do. I knew what my mother had chosen, an honorable suicide over ignominy. But what would she have done if she were standing on the steps of Saturn’s temple, wearing a Roman bulla and waiting to greet the man who had murdered her family?

  I searched the temple steps for Juba, who had come here every month to deposit denarii in a treasury chest for Alexander and me without ever telling us. When I couldn’t find him, I asked Agrippa.

  “He’s been sent ahead to inspect the spoils. The Cantabri left behind thousands of statues.”

  “Why? Where did they go?”

  “They chose death over slavery,” Agrippa said solemnly.

  Next to me, Gallia’s blue eyes narrowed, and I imagined how difficult it must be for her to witness a second subjugation of her people.

  The war trumpets blared, and from the sound of the crowds lining the Vicus Jugarius it was evident that the army had arrived. I felt someone squeeze my hand.

  “He’s coming,” Julia said, but there was a nervousness in her voice that made me wonder how happy she was.

  Drums beat out a rhythm to the approaching horses’ hooves, and Octavia shouted, “There he is!” White horses with red plumage came into view, and then Augustus, the triumphant conqueror of foreign lands, appeared at the head of his army in a golden chariot. I could see at once that he had lost weight, but a muscled cuirass disguised his weakness, and the paleness of his face was covered with vermilion. Livia rode behind him in a chariot of her own, followed by all the generals who had really won the war. The crowd worked itself into a frenzy as thousands of Gauls rolled by in filthy cages and soldiers held up urns of gold, amphorae, and silver rhyta.

  Augustus stopped before the Temple of Saturn. Because no one wanted to hear the misery of the weeping Gauls, soldiers rolled the cages into the courtyard of the Basilica Julia, where they’d be kept until the prisoners could be sold. Augustus descended from his chariot, and the cheers that rose as his victorious generals gathered around him must have deafened the gods. Agrippa held out a golden laurel wreath, and I turned my head, disgusted by the spectacle. Instead I watched the soldiers outside the basilica as they attempted to organize more than five hundred cages. It was madness, and from my vantage point on the steps, I could see more soldiers hurrying from the basilica to help in the fray.

  But as I watched, I realized that the supposed reinforcements weren’t soldiers. The men were dressed as legionaries, in the right sandals, crested helmets, and scarlet cloaks, but black masks covered the top half of their faces. I gasped. The Red Eagle had come to free the Gauls! The men were working swiftly, opening cage after cage and instructing the prisoners to remain where they were until the signal was given. Somehow, the Red Eagle had come by keys, and as lock after lock opened, I could see the prisoners rushing to the sides of their cages.

  Then one of the soldiers on the temple steps followed my gaze and saw what was happening. “They’re escaping!” he shouted, interrupting Augustus’s Triumph. “The prisoners are escaping!” he cried.

  From across the courtyard, one of the masked men looked up and realized they’d been seen. “Go!” he shouted, and though he’d spoken in Gaulish, I was familiar with the word from Gallia’s reprimands. The doors were flung open and thousands of prisoners began to flee. Panic ensued in the basilica’s courtyard, and the liberatores discarded their masks. Soldiers, uncertain who was on their side and who wasn’t, fired arrows indiscriminately into the crowd. One arrow struck the rebels’ leader, and I saw him clutch his shoulder in agony.

  “He’s been hit!” I shrieked.

  Gallia rushed forward. “Come back here, Selene!”

  “But he’s been wounded!”

  It didn’t matter that I ran. Everyone was moving, and it was impossible to remain on the steps of the temple. Smoke rose from the rooftop of the Basilica Julia, and a woman screamed, “The basilica’s on fire!” While thousands of people ran from the flames, I rushed toward them. A woman with two children in her arms warned me to turn back, shouting that the fire would take the entire building. But I followed a trail of blood into an abandoned shop, and I heard a man behind the counter breathing heavily. I rushed to him, but as soon as he saw me, he turned his face away. “Go!” he growled.

  “I’m here to help you!”

  “How? By getting yourself killed?”

  “No! There’s a tunnel. It leads to the House of the Vestals, and from there you can escape.”

  “Then tell me where it is, and get yourself out of here.”

  “I can’t describe it. You’ll have to trust me.”

  He hesitated, and when he turned, I covered my mouth in shock.

  “Juba!”

  “Who did you think you would find?” he asked grimly. “Marcellus?”

  I ignored the sting in his words and bent over him. He was losing a great deal of blood, and I ripped my tunic to make a bandage. My hands trembled when I touched the heat of his skin. “But the man who saved us in the Forum Boarium was blond. Even Julia saw him.”

  “And there are such things as wigs,” he said sharply.

  “Then what about the actum while you were in Gaul?” I tried not to think about the sudden wetness on my tunic, though I knew it was his blood.

  “There are others who seek an end to slavery as well.”

  I was aware of my hair brushing his chest as I tied his binding. It took several knots before it stayed in place.

  “That’s enough,” he said gruffly.

  “Where is the point?”

  He drew my eyes to a bloodied shaft on the floor, and though my stomach clenched, I could see that its point was still intact. Nothing remained in his body, but if he wasn’t stitched soon, it might not matter. I offered him my arm, and he took it without complaining.

  “Can you run?”

  “Yes.”

  We rushed through the Basilica Julia. Smoke was beginning to fill the halls, and Juba leaned more heavily on me than he probably intended. I could feel he was weakening, and quickly I tried to recall one of Vitruvius’s sketches. The basilica housed law courts, offices, and shops, and the Vestals had wanted a tunnel from their temple so they could reach the shops without being seen. But to which shop had it led?

  “Are you sure you know where you’re going?” he demanded.

  “I’ve seen the sketch more than a dozen times.” I led him inside a s
ilk merchant’s taberna and looked around. The shop had been abandoned, and customers had fled without taking their purchases. I grabbed a woman’s tunic and flung it over my shoulder. I would change before we reached the Palatine.

  “Where is the tunnel?”

  “I don’t know! But it’s here.”

  Juba stepped behind the counter, where a heavy curtain covered the wall. With a flick of his wrist, he swept it aside, revealing an open door. He stepped inside first, and when he was sure that it was safe, he leaned on my arm and allowed me to guide him. There was nothing inside to relieve the darkness, and as we hurried, I felt my way along the wall.

  “You should change,” he said.

  I stopped walking, and though I knew he couldn’t see me as I undressed, my cheeks grew warm at the thought of him there. I remembered the last time I had stood in my breastband and loincloth in front of him. We had been in the Blue Grotto, and I had tried to keep myself from staring at his half-naked body in the water. “What should I do with the bloodied—?”

  “Give it to me. Now hurry.” As we continued down the tunnel, his breathing grew more labored.

  “Where will you go when we reach the temple?” I asked.

  “To the Palatine.”

  “And how will you explain your wound?”

  “The soldiers were shooting at everyone,” he said shortly. “They’ll simply think I was in their way.”

  “But will Augustus believe it?”

  He didn’t reply, though when we reached the end of the tunnel, I thought for a moment he might say something more. Instead, he reached down and offered me his dagger.

  “What’s this for?”

  “You don’t remember your first trip down the Palatine alone?”

  “But that was at night!”

  “And do you think that criminals disappear in the day? I’ll be behind you,” he promised. “But you must leave first. When the path is clear, I want you to whistle. Then start walking. All the way to the Palatine.”

  My hand trembled violently as I took the dagger. I slipped it safely beneath my belt, then opened the door and stepped out onto the marble portico outside the Temple of Vesta. I was shocked to see that the entrance was empty. Everyone has gone to see the fire, I thought. I whistled immediately, and when I heard the door open, I began to walk. Gallia knew where I had gone, and it was possible that Tiberius had heard as well. If I returned to the Palatine with Juba, only a fool would fail to realize what had happened.

  Throughout the city, men were rushing to the Forum. Even merchants were abandoning their stalls to see the fire that was consuming the basilica. It took all my resolve not to turn to see if Juba was still behind me. When I reached Octavia’s villa, there was no one on the portico, and I knew at once where everyone must have gone. But before I could reach the platform in front of Augustus’s villa, Gallia came running.

  “Where is he?” she cried.

  I thought of Juba bleeding inside his villa with no one to help him, and did my best to look unconcerned. “Who?”

  Gallia gave me a long look before whispering, “Juba!”

  I leaned closer. “How do you—?”

  “I have been in his confidence since the Red Eagle first appeared,” she said quickly. “Who do you think posted his acta while he was gone? Is he safe?”

  I told her what had happened, and her face went pale. “Stay here, and say absolutely nothing.”

  I panicked. “But where are you going?”

  “To find Verrius.”

  I mounted the platform and tried to avoid Augustus’s interested gaze. Immediately, Marcellus and Julia cried out.

  “Where have you been?” Julia exclaimed.

  “I was caught up in the rush,” I lied, hoping I was as good an actor as Augustus. “I didn’t know where you went. And when I looked back, everyone was gone.”

  Augustus studied me. It had been a year since he had last seen me. “They thought perhaps you’d been crushed,” he said.

  “Of course not! I escaped.”

  “But hundreds of people were trampled,” Julia said. “Did you see?”

  I shook my head.

  “Then you must have seen the Gauls escaping from their cages! It was the barbarian invasion all over again,” she said breathlessly.

  Augustus watched for my reaction, but I refused to give one. Then he turned abruptly to Livia and said, “I’ll be in my chamber.”

  Octavia rushed to his side, and I noticed that both Agrippa and Tiberius were absent.

  When Augustus was gone, I looked to Julia. “Is he sick?”

  “My father has been ill since Iberia. He says this afternoon will be the death of him, and he’s told Agrippa to find the Red Eagle whatever the cost.”

  “I heard the Red Eagle was wounded,” Marcellus added, “and Tiberius thought you ran after him.”

  “He’s a traitor. Why would I do such a thing?”

  “That’s what I said. But he thought you would try and escape from Rome.”

  Although all I wished to do was run to Juba’s villa, I remained on the hill and watched the fire burn. When at last even Julia was tired of the show, she asked Claudia whether there was to be a feast.

  “No. Your father needs his rest. Perhaps in a few days, when the Red Eagle is dead, there will be a celebration.”

  Julia looked at me. “Will you dine with us?”

  “Not tonight. I’m not feeling well,” I lied again.

  I hurried back to my chamber, hoping that Gallia would be waiting for me, but the room was empty. Then I spotted something dark peeking from beneath my pillow. It was a small black box. I picked it up and read the note that was attached. “In case tomorrow never comes,” it said. I opened the hidden box and took out a necklace of pink sea pearls—my mother’s last gift to me. The one I had given to Juba to purchase Gallia’s freedom. Tears blurred my vision as I put on the necklace. He must have left it in the morning, not knowing whether he would survive the day. And now, his fate was up to the gods.

  I paced my room, desperate for any news, and when Octavia returned, I asked if she’d seen Gallia.

  “She’s gone home,” she said, and I noticed the half-moons beneath her eyes. She looked drained, as if she’d stayed up for nights on end without sleep. “A fever is spreading through Rome,” she added, “and Gallia tells me that both Magister Verrius and Juba are ill. The physicians say my brother may be suffering from the same sickness. But you are safe.” She reached out and caressed my cheek. A tear wet her finger, and I noticed that she was crying as well. “Shall we pray?”

  I followed her into the lararium, where she lit a cone of incense and we knelt before the gods. She whispered her prayers to Fortuna, and I made my silent ones to Isis. I promised all sorts of things to the goddess, swearing to marry whomever Augustus chose, even if he was vile, so long as she would spare Juba’s life. And I vowed to endure my suffering in silence. I would not complain. I would not be embittered. If she would grant Juba’s health, I would never weep in self-pity again.

  But the night passed without word, and the next morning, Gallia was nowhere to be found. I paced the library until Vitruvius put down his stylus and insisted I go outside for fresh air. “If you are worried on behalf of Magister Verrius, you needn’t be. I saw him this morning and he looked well.”

  “You did?” I cried. “Where?”

  Vitruvius looked at me strangely. “On the Palatine. Coming from Juba’s villa.”

  “And what did he say?”

  “That Juba is ill.”

  “And was Gallia with him?”

  Vitruvius shook his head. “No. Not that I saw.”

  I hurried onto the portico, hoping to catch a glimpse of Magister Verrius, but the only person hurrying toward Octavia’s villa was Agrippa. When he saw me, he smiled.

  “Excellent news,” he said triumphantly.

  “Has the Red Eagle been caught?”

  “Even better. He’s dead.”

  I felt my heart stop in my
chest, but Agrippa went on.

  “Two men caught him last night attempting to post an actum on the Temple of Apollo. He was already hurt, but they ran him through with a gladius as he fled.”

  Suddenly the world was spinning. It was Alexander’s death all over again. “And is … is there a body?”

  “No. But judging from the amount of blood he left behind, there’s no chance that he survived.”

  He went inside to share his triumph with Octavia, and I held on to a column to keep myself from falling. I had to find Gallia. Gallia or Magister Verrius would know what had happened. I raced to the bottom of the Palatine without bothering to demand a guard. I banged on Magister Verrius’s door at the end of the street. When no one answered, I peered through the windows, and a child who was passing by stopped to stare at me.

  “There’s no one there,” he said.

  “How do you know?”

  “I live next door. They haven’t been back all night.”

  “What about this morning?”

  The boy shook his head.

  “Not even Magister Verrius?”

  “No.”

  I took the shortcut back up the hill. I didn’t dare to approach Juba’s villa, but I went to the Temple of Apollo to see for myself. A group of Praetorians were gathered at the entrance, and I recognized two of the guards as the same men who’d accompanied me to Alexander’s mausoleum. They were talking quietly between themselves, admiring the stain across the marble steps. It was just as Agrippa had described it. No one could lose so much blood and survive. I could feel my throat beginning to close, and the world was growing dark around me when the light-haired guard from the mausoleum shook my arm.

  “It’s only blood. Nothing to be worried about.”

  “Who stabbed him?” I whispered.

  “We did.” He pointed from himself to the familiar dark-haired guard beside him. “I expect we’ll both be amply rewarded.”

  I felt sick to my stomach. Suddenly, nothing made sense anymore. When I returned to Octavia’s villa, I shut myself in my room. Charmion, Ptolemy, Caesarion, Antyllus, Alexander, both of my parents. And now Juba; the man who had cared for me all along, protecting me, writing about the injustices I cared passionately about as well, all in the guise of the Red Eagle. It no longer mattered to me whether I lived or died. I lay down and closed my eyes, hoping that someone would steal out of the shadows as they had four months before, only this time, that it would be my life that ended.

 
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