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Cleopatras daughter, p.4
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       Cleopatra's Daughter, p.4

           Michelle Moran
 

  It was the High Priest of Isis and Serapis who broke the silence. “He has even saved our queen’s youngest children. Hail, Octavian the Merciful, King of Kings!”

  “Octavian the Merciful!” the people shouted. Then one of the men took up the cry of “Caesar,” and the Gymnasium reverberated with it.

  “What are they doing?” I shouted to my brother in Parthian, certain that was one language Juba didn’t know. “Why are they chanting his name? He’s a conqueror!”

  “And now he’s their savior,” Alexander said bitterly.

  “But our father.” My eyes burned. “Antyllus and Caesarion. Don’t they know?”

  “Perhaps. But they’re thinking of themselves.”

  Octavian held up his arms, and the cries immediately died away. Then Agrippa stepped forward and explained how the wealthy villas around the Soma now belonged to Rome.

  “The statues of Kleopatra and Marc Antony have been spared by a generous donation of two thousand talents. Those who would like to spare their own works of art, perhaps even their own villas, may have their chests of gold talents ready when soldiers come.”

  “Greed!” I whispered angrily. “Octavian will make them pay for the very bricks they’re walking on.”

  “But Alexandria is saved. The Museion, the Library—”

  “For whom? For what? These Romans don’t even know how to speak Greek!”

  The people beneath us were cheering, even the men who would pay two-thirds the value of their villas to Caesar in order to keep what was rightfully theirs. Octavian, flanked by Juba and another soldier, descended the steps of the dais. Immediately a path through the Gymnasium was cleared as the citizens of Alexandria stepped back.

  “Follow me,” Agrippa said gruffly, and I wondered if this was the moment when someone would attempt to kill Octavian. My father would have risked everything to do it, but as we made our way through the frightened silence, nobody moved. A child cried in his mother’s arms, and somewhere in the mass of people a man shouted, “Hail, Caesar.” But when we stepped outside the Gymnasium, Octavian’s cloak snapped in the breeze; he was still alive. No one had risked his life for my mother. I could feel the bile rising in my throat, and I didn’t even have the strength to hold Ptolemy’s hand as we made our way back to the palace. Soon, we would surely sail for Rome.

  “Is there anything I forgot?” Octavian demanded. Though he was small, he walked with confidence through the streets, unafraid of the dark corners along the Canopic Way. Forty soldiers surrounded him, their enameled cuirasses reflecting the light of the moon.

  “Nothing,” Agrippa promised. “It was the right decision to let the temples stand. The priests will never incite rebellion.”

  “And the people?”

  “They called you king,” Juba said. “They will find the gold talents to ransom their villas, I have no doubt.”

  Octavian smiled, but as we reached the palace, his steps grew uncertain. In the courtyard, a woman was screaming. She ran toward Octavian, and in a single, flawless motion his forty soldiers joined shields.

  “Caesar!” she cried. “Caesar, there is news!”

  “Put down your shields,” Octavian ordered.

  I glimpsed her face between the armor of two soldiers and cried, “Euphemia!”

  “Princess, your mother! You must come. She is dying!”

  Agrippa looked to Octavian, and neither of them stopped us when the soldiers parted and I ran with Alexander and Ptolemy through the palace. I don’t remember if anyone followed. Perhaps there were a hundred men, or perhaps we were alone when we reached the open door of my mother’s chamber.

  “Move away!” Alexander shouted at the servants. “Move!”

  Inside, there was a sickening silence. My mother, in her purple gown, lay peacefully on a couch in the center of the room, her smooth skin gilded by the candlelight. On the floor, Iras and Charmion rested their heads on two silk pillows, looking as though they might be sleeping.

  “Mother?” I crept forward, while behind us Octavian crowded the doorway with Agrippa and Juba. When she didn’t move, I screamed, “Mother!” My brother and I ran to her. “Mother,” I pleaded. I shook her by the shoulders, and the crown she had carefully placed on her head struck the floor with a hollow clank. Below her, Charmion didn’t stir. I took Charmion’s hands in mine, but the aged fingers that had taught me to sketch were cold. I grasped her arm and reeled back at the sight of two puncture wounds. “Alexander, she used a snake!” I turned and saw Octavian and Agrippa standing in the doorway, surrounded by soldiers.

  Juba rushed to my side and felt for my mother’s heartbeat, then bent down and felt the necks of Iras and Charmion. “How do you know it’s a snake?” he asked quickly.

  “Look at her arm!”

  Juba rose swiftly to his feet. “There are asps in this chamber.” He turned to Octavian. “Seal off the room!” he ordered. “Selene, Alexander, Ptolemy—”

  “No!” I moved closer to my mother. “A snake-doctor could drain the wound!”

  But Juba shook his head. “She’s already gone.”

  “You don’t know that!” I cried.

  He looked to Octavian for an answer.

  “Find a snake-doctor!” Octavian ordered sharply.

  The white-haired soldier next to him didn’t move. “But, Caesar,” he whispered, “you have what you want. She’s dead. And in ten months you can march into Rome—”

  “Silence! Find a snake-doctor and bring him here at once!”

  Juba took my brother’s arm, knowing he would have less of a fight with him. “Stand at the door,” he instructed sternly. “There is at least one cobra in this room. Do not step inside.”

  We waited at the entrance to the chamber, and Alexander looked like one of my mother’s statues, thin and pale and immovable.

  “It was a lie,” I whispered in Parthian. “He was never going back to Rome in three days. He wanted her to die. He wanted her to commit suicide.”

  A snake-doctor arrived, and his black skin shone in the lamplight as he worked. My brother remained silent, and I could hear the rush of my heart beating as I watched him. He located the wounds on Mother’s arm and made a thin cut above the bites. Then he pressed his lips against her skin and attempted to suck the venom from her body. We watched for what felt like an eternity. Then, at last, he stood up. His lips were red with my mother’s blood, and I knew from his face that we were orphans.

  Alexander asked quietly, “Will our mother be buried in her mausoleum?”

  Octavian raised his chin. “Of course. She was the Queen of Egypt.” But there was no remorse on his face, not even surprise.

  “Will you really keep the children alive?” Agrippa asked.

  Octavian’s eyes swept over me the way they had swept over my mother’s treasure. “The girl is pretty. In a few years, some senator will need to be silenced. She’ll be of marriageable age and make him happy. And neither of the boys has reached fifteen years. Keeping them alive will seem merciful.”

  “And Rome?” Juba wanted to know.

  “In a few months, when affairs are settled here, we’ll sail.”

  CHAPTER THREE

  ALEXANDRIA

  July 1, 29 BC

  THE VESSEL that was to bear us toward Rome was my mother’s thalamegos, a ship so large that its pillared courtyards had once hosted my father’s mock battles on horseback. From the docks, I could hear the Roman soldiers exclaiming in delight over every small detail on board: the fountains and potted palms in the grottos, the ivory-paneled bedrooms with their gilded images of Isis, the cedar chairs and embroidered couches. But even though all of our trunks were packed, Octavian wouldn’t leave before the taking of the auspices.

  Alexander and I stood together on the dock while Octavian held up a frightened quail. Juba passed Agrippa a newly whetted knife, and with a deft flick of the wrist, Agrippa slit the neck of the terrified bird. The quail’s blood dripped between Octavian’s fingers, staining them red before trickling onto
the planks. The five of us looked to the augur, whose head was covered by a heavy linen cloth.

  “What does it mean?” Octavian demanded.

  The augur held up his hand and shook his head. “It must make a pattern first.”

  Next to me, Juba smiled. “He thinks that by reading the splattering of some blood he’ll be able to tell us whether the gods plan to send this ship to the bottom of the sea,” he said in Parthian. “Of course, if the augur’s wrong, there’ll be no one alive to challenge him.”

  “How do you know Parthian?” my brother whispered.

  “I’m Caesar’s spy among the people. I wouldn’t be very successful if I didn’t know a few languages, would I?”

  I suspected he was being sarcastic when he said “a few,” and suddenly I felt sick. “So you’ve been telling Caesar what we’ve been saying?”

  “Why would I do that when nothing you’ve said has been of any interest? But the walls in Rome have ears, Princess.”

  “Your ears.”

  “And many others.”

  Octavian was watching our exchange with interest.

  “So you send men to their deaths,” I said to Juba. “To prison.”

  “Only if they’re assassins. Why, you’re not planning to assassinate Caesar, are you?” His voice was mocking, but his dark eyes were serious.

  “What’s happening?” Agrippa asked.

  Juba’s eyes lingered on mine for a moment, then he turned and said pointedly, “I am simply warning the queen’s children that in Rome, many things will be different. I think they understand.” He smiled, but his words were directed at me.

  The augur raised his hands to the sky.

  “Well? What is it?” Octavian snapped.

  “The signs are favorable,” the priest announced, and Octavian exhaled audibly. “Neptune blesses this voyage.”

  Agrippa passed the augur a bag of coins. Then the three men escorted Octavian down the dock before I dared to whisper, “He’s heard everything.”

  “There’s nothing we’ve said that’s been suspicious. Just questions.”

  But Juba had looked into my eyes and known what I wanted to do. Octavian had murdered Antyllus and Caesarion. He had given my mother and father no choice but to take their own lives. Even Charmion and Iras were dead. After eleven months, it still hurt to swallow when I thought of them all resting in their marble sarcophagi inside my mother’s mausoleum. Seven days after Octavian’s speech in the Gymnasium, their funeral processions had wound through the streets of Alexandria, collecting so many mourners that the Roman army had needed every last soldier to keep order in the city. Now everyone was gone. Everything but a few chests of silks had been taken from us. And when my brothers each turned fifteen, what would happen to them? Death was inevitable, perhaps preferable to what we would suffer in Rome. And if death was inevitable….

  We watched the soldiers as they tried to force a horse from the sand onto the wooden dock. The horse wouldn’t move. The men tried whistling to it. Octavian slapped its rear, and when one of the soldiers raised a whip to beat it, Ptolemy covered his eyes.

  “Stop!” Alexander shouted. He crossed the pier and approached the men. “He’s just afraid of the water,” Alexander told them.

  Some of the soldiers laughed. A fat soldier shouted to the one with the whip, “So beat the horse until it moves.”

  “No!” Alexander said angrily. “He still won’t move.”

  The man with the whip crossed his arms over his chest. “Why not?”

  The fat one sneered. “Are you going to listen to an eleven-year-old boy?”

  “He should,” I said quickly. “He knows horses better than anyone else.”

  “So why won’t the horse move?” Octavian demanded.

  Alexander’s hair was wet with sea spray, and in the bright summer sun his skin had turned to bronze. He was handsome, and some of the soldiers were leering. “Because he isn’t the lead horse. My father trained the lead. If you bring him, he’ll board your ship, and if the others are watching, they will, too.”

  Agrippa turned to look at the herd of horses shifting nervously on the shore. “Which one is the leader?”

  My brother pointed to a large bay mount. “Heraclius.”

  Octavian glanced at my brother. “Fine. Then bring him up.”

  Alexander walked confidently toward the pack, and the soldiers’ murmuring died down. Upon seeing him, the horse immediately lowered his head, sniffing my brother’s outstretched hand for the treats he normally brought. My brother whispered something into Heraclius’s ear, stroking his wide flank with one hand as he took the horse’s reins in the other. Slowly, whispering all the time, he walked onto the dock, and Heraclius followed obediently.

  “You can bring the others now,” Alexander said, and when none of the horses put up a struggle, Octavian studied my brother.

  “I remember your father was a great man for horses,” he remarked.

  Alexander looked away. “Yes.”

  Octavian nodded. “Has everything been loaded from the mausoleum?” he asked Juba, and my father’s memory returned to dust.

  “Every last talent.”

  But the soldier with the paunch squinted in the sun. “Not the girl’s necklace. And what about the children’s crowns?”

  “They’re simple bands of pearls,” Juba said testily. “Perhaps you’d like to take their clothes as well?”

  “The children may keep whatever they’re wearing. I want to leave,” Octavian announced.

  Alexander reached out to take my arm, but I stepped away.

  “This might be the last time we ever see the Museion,” I said. Or the palace, or the Temple of Isis and Serapis. “I’ve never sketched Alexandria from the harbor,” it occurred to me.

  “We’ll be back,” my brother said sadly. He looked beyond the water to the city of marble that had been built over hundreds of years by the Ptolemies. In the brilliant sunshine, the city rose like a blinding white beacon, home to the greatest minds in the world.

  “I want to stay.”

  “Octavian is already on board,” my brother warned.

  “And who cares what Octavian is doing?”

  “You should.” Alexander, always the practical one, added bitterly, “you’ve seen how it’s been these past months. Nothing happens for us now without his say.” He took little Ptolemy’s hand in his. But I remained on the pier, and only turned away when Agrippa said that it was time. He led the three of us to our cabin, the same one Alexander and I had shared when our mother took us to Thebes every winter.

  “This door is always to remain open,” Agrippa instructed. “Do not close it. Do not lock it.”

  “Even when we sleep?” Alexander asked.

  “Even then. If you would like food, you may ask me. If you are sick, go to the railing, but never disturb Caesar for anything.”

  Our room faced onto an open courtyard where Octavian was already reclining on a couch, scribbling across a scroll with his reed pen.

  “Caesar spends most of his day writing,” Agrippa explained. “There is never a time when he isn’t busy. If he wants to hear noise, he will ask for the harp.”

  Alexander and I both looked to Ptolemy. How would a seven-year-old child keep silent on a two-month voyage? And we weren’t even allowed to shut the door.

  I sat on one of the cedar beds and pulled Ptolemy onto my lap. “You are going to have to be very quiet on this ship. Do you understand?”

  He nodded, and his curls bounced up and down. “Will Mother be coming?”

  I looked at Alexander.

  “No, Mother won’t be coming,” he said softly. “Don’t you remember?”

  Two small lines creased Ptolemy’s brow. “She’s with Father, in Elysium?”

  “That’s right.” Alexander seated himself on the second bed, and we avoided each other’s gaze. Outside, Juba and Agrippa joined Octavian in the courtyard as the ship wrenched away from the port. With the door open, we could hear their conversation.
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  “It’s finally over,” Juba said, reclining on a separate couch.

  “It’s never over.” Octavian looked up from his scroll. “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

  “Then perhaps Plato was wrong, and you’ll forge something different. Who in Rome is going to challenge you now?”

  Octavian smiled. “Antony did me a favor by getting rid of Cicero. He taught the Senate a powerful lesson. Seneca and the rest of the old beards will keep their silence.”

  “For now,” Agrippa warned.

  “Yes,” Octavian said, after a pause. “The danger is no longer with the old men. I must restore the prestige of the Senate. I must make equestrians’ sons want to be senators again.”

  “That would mean convincing them to come out of the whorehouses first,” Agrippa said dryly.

  “Then I will close the whorehouses!” Octavian flushed. “They are breeding grounds for rebellion.”

  “And you will have a different kind of rebellion on your hands,” Juba said. “The boys visit them because they have nothing better to do. But if you increase the Senate’s pay and power, they will think you are bringing back the Republic and they’ll leave the whorehouses on their own. That was what Caesar forgot, and what Antony never knew.”

  The three of them looked into our cabin, and Octavian beckoned to Alexander with his finger.

  “Me?” my brother asked.

  Octavian nodded, and my brother stood.

  “What are you doing?” I demanded.

  “He wants me to go.”

  While Alexander crossed the short distance between our room and where Octavian sat, Ptolemy cried sharply, “You’re hurting me.” I was holding him so tightly I was crushing his chest.

  “Tell me about your father,” Octavian said.

 
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