Cleopatra's Daughter, p.6Michelle Moran
My knuckles grew white as I gripped the rail.
“Do you want to end up as a bloated corpse abandoned at sea?”
“Better than a corpse abandoned in Caesar’s prison!” But I turned from the railing and Juba got what he wished for. Alexander and I would be alive for Octavian’s Triumph.
AS THE ship approached a harbor for the first time in weeks, Alexander and I rushed to the prow.
“Is this Rome?” I asked. There was no Museion gleaming in the afternoon light, and the villas that hugged the vast stretches of shore were plain, without columns or ornamentation. There was nothing to distinguish one squat white building from the next except the colors of their wind-beaten shutters.
My brother shook his head. “Brundisium. I heard it’s another ten days by litter to Rome.”
Hundreds of soldiers waited on shore, their red standards emblazoned with a tall, golden eagle and the letters SPQR, for Senatus Populusque Romanas. Brundisium’s port was large enough to berth fifty ships, but there was nothing like my mother’s thalamegos. I could see the soldiers’ reactions as the ship came near, her banks of ebony oars catching the sun as her purple sails snapped in the wind. The men shielded their eyes with their hands, and they shook their heads in wonder.
Agrippa appeared with Octavian on the prow. Both men were dressed as if for war. To remind Rome that they’ve returned as conquering heroes, I thought bitterly.
“Caesar’s carriages are waiting on the shore,” Agrippa told Alexander. “The pair of you will travel with his nephew, Marcellus.”
I tried to pick out Octavian’s nephew, but Agrippa remarked, “Don’t bother.” There were too many horses and soldiers.
“Do you have your sketches?” Alexander asked.
“Yes. And do you—?”
Alexander nodded. He had hidden books from our mother’s library in his bag—a last reminder of her before we left her thalamegos to the Romans at Brundisium. I looked one last time at the polished decks as the tinny sound of trumpets pierced the air. Three of her children had boarded her ship, but only two had reached her enemy’s shore.
Octavian was the first to disembark, followed by Agrippa and Juba. When it was our turn to walk the wooden steps, Alexander held out his hand. I shook my head. “I’m fine.” But we hadn’t felt land in more than three weeks, and suddenly my legs gave way beneath me.
But it wasn’t Alexander who caught me. Instead, it was a young image of Hercules.
“Be careful.” He laughed. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with hair the color of summer’s wheat. His eyes were lighter than Ptolemy’s had been, a turquoise made even brighter by the darkness of his skin. I felt my cheeks growing warm at the sight of him, and he smiled. “Now, don’t faint on me,” he warned. “I’m the one who’s supposed to take care of you.”
“You’re Marcellus?” Alexander asked.
“Yes. And there she is.” He indicated a horse-drawn carriage.
“But that’s a king’s carriage,” I replied.
Marcellus laughed. “I wouldn’t say that too loudly. My uncle likes to think of himself as consul. If the people should get the idea he wants to be king, there’ll be another mess on the Senate floor.”
“Romans don’t want kings?” my brother asked.
Marcellus led us from the docks, and his toga flapped at his heels. “There was a time. But it has passed, and all they can think of now is a republic. Of course, there’s been a hundred years of civil wars with their republic, and the first end in sight was Julius Caesar. They all want a vote, but they vote for their own clans, and nothing but bloodshed ever gets accomplished.” We had reached one of the carriages beyond the shoreline, and as Marcellus held open the door for us, he said warmly, “Prince Alexander, Princess Selene.”
Inside, I looked meaningfully at my brother. Why were we being treated so kindly? What had Octavian written to his family from Alexandria? We listened while Marcellus chatted genially with Juba and Agrippa outside, and his voice carried far beyond our carriage.
“And the Egyptian women?” he was asking.
I could hear Juba’s wry laughter. “They would have swooned at your presence,” he promised. “Falling into your arms like the princess Selene.”
When my brother looked over at me, I blushed.
“And the fighting?” Marcellus pressed.
“The gods were with us,” Agrippa replied.
“With us, or with you? They say the Egyptian fleet—” Marcellus cut himself off, and his voice grew serious. “I am glad to see you’ve returned safe, Uncle.”
“Marcellus,” I heard Octavian reply, “I hope you’ve been applying as much passion to your studies as you do to your gossiping.”
“Yes, Caesar,” he said quietly.
“Good. Then you may tell me what kind of ship this is.”
There was an uneasy silence, and I could imagine Marcellus’s extreme discomfort as he stood in front of Octavian. I pressed my mouth close to the window and whispered, “Thalamegos.”
“Selene!” Alexander mouthed, but Marcellus had heard and repeated the word.
“It’s the queen’s thalamegos, I believe.”
I could hear Octavian step back on the gravel. “He’s going to be your equal someday, Agrippa. A titan in the Senate and on the battlefield as well.”
I couldn’t see Agrippa’s face to know his reaction. But when Marcellus joined us in the carriage, he looked immensely relieved.
“I don’t know how I can thank you, Selene.” He took a seat across from me, next to Alexander. “I would have had to study ships all the way to Rome if you hadn’t come up with it.”
“Is he really so strict?”
“All he does is write letters and prepare speeches for the Senate. He wouldn’t leave Syracuse if not for his wife.”
Alexander frowned. “The city?”
“No. His study. He named it for Archimedes, the Greek mathematician who lived there.”
“But he doesn’t speak Greek,” I protested.
Although my brother glared at me, Marcellus only laughed. “It’s true. But everything is theater with my uncle. You’ll see.”
In front of our carriage, there was a confusion of voices. Then someone shouted and the crack of a whip set the long procession rolling. I looked at Marcellus and decided he wasn’t more than two or three years older than Alexander and me. He was dressed in an undistinguished white toga, but the fabric was superior to anything I’d seen Octavian wear. When he caught me looking at him, he smiled.
“So you are Marc Antony’s daughter, Selene,” he remarked. “Strange. There’s almost no resemblance between you and Tonia or Antonia.”
“Are those my father’s children with Caesar’s sister Octavia?”
Marcellus nodded. “Yes, with my mother.”
Alexander sat forward. “So you are our brother?”
“No. I’m Octavia’s son with Marcellus the Elder. It’s very confusing, I know. Prepare to be confused much of the time you are in my mother’s house.”
“We’re going to Octavia’s house?” I asked.
“Of course. You’re to live with us.” Marcellus saw the look I gave to Alexander, and shook his head. “I know what you’re thinking. Your father left my mother for yours. But don’t be nervous. My mother loves children. Of course, Livia won’t like you at all.”
“That’s Caesar’s wife?” Alexander asked.
“Yes. She doesn’t like anyone but her own sons, Tiberius and Drusus.”
I was confused. “I thought Caesar only had a daughter.”
“Yes. Julia, from his first wife. Then he divorced that wife and married Livia when she was pregnant with her second son.” When I inhaled sharply, Marcellus laughed. “It was a scandal. But now my uncle has two adopted sons.”
“Then they are his heirs?” Alexander asked, wondering whom we should be careful to impress.
“So is a senator a prince?”
“No!” Marcellus thought my question was wildly funny. “Didn’t your father tell you anything about the Senate?”
“Our mother forbade it. I don’t think she cared much for Roman politics,” Alexander remarked.
Marcellus sat back against the padded seat. “Well, the Senate is just a group of men from the most powerful clans in the Roman empire.” When I frowned, Marcellus said, “You know. Like the Julii and the Claudii. Or your father’s clan, the Antonii. They have to be at least ranked as equestrians first, and then there’s different types of senators. Quaestors, aediles, praetors, consuls. Of course, the consuls are the most powerful.”
I nodded, pretending to understand. “So what do they all do?”
“Meet in the Senate house. Argue about politics. Make decisions about taxes or free grain. My uncle pretends to be one of them, and they always vote for him as consul, or tribune, or censor. It doesn’t matter which. So long as the show continues and he’s still writing the script.” He began chatting merrily about what we would see in Rome, from the Temple of Venus Genetrix to Julius Caesar’s Forum, and for seven days, while the carriages rattled over the roads, he entertained us with stories. At night, when we stopped to sleep in the sprawling villas belonging to Octavian’s friends, I dreamt of Rome. I imagined how much larger it would be than Alexandria, and when the cry came up that we were in sight of the city walls, I threw back the curtains and held my breath. Alexander pressed his face next to mine in the window, then we both drew back.
“This is Rome?” Alexander asked uncertainly.
“The greatest city on earth!” Marcellus said proudly.
For as far as either of us could see, faded brick houses crowded together like cattle in their market-day pens. Posts, which Marcellus called “milestones,” indicated at every mile that Rome was just ahead, but there was no Museion rearing its marble head in the distance, no towering theater crowning any of the hills. A few marble tombs had been constructed on either side of the Appian Way, which seemed to be a favorite burial place for the Romans, but most of the markers were made from roughly hewn stone.
Marcellus saw my disappointment and explained, “Romans have been fighting one another for centuries. It wasn’t until Caesar that there were finally enough slaves and gold to rebuild. But there’s the tomb of Caecilia Metella.”
The tall, round building was perched on a hill, and though beautiful crenellations decorated its top, it, too, had been made of plain stone. There was a sharp twisting in my stomach, and I could see from Alexander’s face that he felt the same. This was the city whose army had conquered Alexandria. This was where Octavian had studied his Latin, and failed to learn Greek, but had amassed enough power to defeat my father and wipe the Ptolemies from Egypt.
“Someday,” Marcellus said, “everything you see will be marble. And those are Agrippa’s aqueducts.”
For the first time, Alexander and I sat forward, impressed. Arching across the horizon, so tall that the gods alone might have reached them, the aqueducts were the largest structures we had seen so far.
“What do they do?” Alexander asked.
“They carry water to the city. Agrippa has also built baths. There are more than two hundred of them now. My uncle thinks the only way he’ll remain in power is to give the people a better Rome.”
So while my father had been adorning himself with gold in Alexandria, drinking the best wines from my mother’s silver rhyta, Octavian had been working to improve his city. Was this why my father’s own people had turned against him? I could hear my father’s raucous laughter in my mind. His men in Egypt had loved him, adored him, even. There had been nothing he wouldn’t do for a soldier who’d fallen on desperate times. But the Romans he’d left behind hadn’t known this. They hadn’t known the man who could ride all day and still stay up until the early hours of the morning with me and Alexander on his lap, drinking and telling stories about his battles against the Parthians.
Our procession of carriages came to a sudden stop, and Alexander and I both looked to Marcellus. “Are we there?” I asked nervously.
Marcellus frowned. “We haven’t even passed the Servian Wall.”
“And then we’ll enter Rome?” my brother asked.
Marcellus nodded, then leaned out of the carriage. There was a commotion happening in front of us. I could hear the raised voices of Agrippa and Octavian.
“What’s happening?” Marcellus shouted. When no one answered, he opened the carriage door and I caught a glimpse of soldiers. “I’ll be right back,” he promised, shutting the door behind him.
“What do you think it is?” I asked Alexander.
“A broken carriage wheel. Or probably a dead horse.”
“But then why the soldiers?”
Marcellus returned and his look was grave. “You might as well get out and take in some fresh air. We won’t be going anywhere for a while.” He helped Alexander and me from the carriage, then explained, “Some sort of rebellion is going on inside the walls.”
“And now we can’t enter?” my brother exclaimed.
“Well, we could.” Marcellus ran a hand through his hair. “But it would be much more prudent not to. It’s a slave rebellion a few thousand strong.”
As word began to spread among the carriages that there would be no progress for several hours, doors swung open and tired-looking men stumbled out onto the cobblestones. We approached a group of soldiers who were explaining to Octavian how it had happened. Agrippa and Juba stood on either side of Octavian, listening intently as the prefect described the scene just inside the walls.
“Many of them are gladiators who escaped from the training arena—the Ludus Magnus. It began this morning, and since then, more slaves have joined the rebellion.”
“And who is leading them?” Octavian demanded.
“No one. They’ve been stirred up by”—the prefect hesitated—“by years of listening to the Red Eagle’s messages, and now…. Now they’ve taken to the streets,” he finished quickly. “It’s nothing to worry about, Caesar. The rebellion will be put down before sunset.”
The prefect remained at attention as Octavian turned to face Marcellus. “Was there any trouble when you left Rome sixteen days ago?”
“None,” Marcellus swore. “The streets were peaceful.”
“I doubt there would be rebellion if not for this Red Eagle,” Agrippa said. “When we find him—”
“We will crucify him,” Octavian finished. “I don’t care that he isn’t leading these men. His messages will breed the next Spartacus. And remember,” he said darkly, “a third of Rome’s population is enslaved.”
Alexander whispered to Marcellus, “Who’s Spartacus?”
“Another slave,” he answered quietly. “Almost fifty years ago, he led more than fifty thousand of them in a revolt against Rome. When they were crushed, six thousand were crucified. Crassus refused to have their bodies taken down, so for years their crosses lined this road.”
Octavian looked out from our perch on this same road to the Servian Wall. Along the road, a soldier was fast approaching. His horse’s hooves kicked up clouds of dust, and when the horse stopped before Octavian, the soldier slid off and saluted.
I was surprised to see Octavian smile. “Fidelius,” he said swiftly, “tell me the news.”
Fidelius was young, perhaps seventeen or eighteen, and he began eagerly, “A thousand slaves have already been killed. The ones who remain are trying to find more men to join them, but they haven’t had much success.”
“Yet,” Octavian warned.
But Fidelius shook his head. “They are penned in by the walls, Caesar. The gates have held strong and your men are slaughtering them by the hundreds.”
“Good. And the legions understand they are to take no one alive?”
There was a moment’s hesitation before Octavian asked, “And your mother, Rufilla?”
Fidelius grinned. “Well. She sends you her love. And this.” He pulled a lightly wrapped package from the leather bag on his horse. It looked thin enough to be a portrait, and when he opened the linen wrapping, I saw that it was.
The color in Octavian’s cheeks rose slightly. “Very nice,” he said softly, studying the woman’s face inside the faience frame. She was pretty, with long black hair and a straight Roman nose. Octavian passed the image to Juba. “Put it away.”
Fidelius frowned. “My mother has missed you a great deal these months.”
“Has she?” Octavian raised his brows. “Well, send her my regards and let her know that I will be very busy in the coming days.”
“But you will see her, Caesar?”
“If I have the time,” Octavian snapped. “There is the matter of a rebellion and a Senate to placate first!”
Fidelius stepped back. “Yes … yes, I understand. The Senate has been tense while you’ve been gone.”
Octavian’s gaze intensified. “Really?” he said with rising interest. “And why is that?”
Fidelius hesitated, and I wondered if he had said more than he should have. “Well, the matter of the war. Not knowing who would win. You or Antony.”
Fidelius glanced uneasily at Agrippa. “And the succession. No one knew what would happen if both you and Antony were killed. A few names were mentioned as possible successors.”
Octavian smiled disarmingly. “Such as?”
“Just … just a few men from patrician families. No one with any real power.” Fidelius laughed nervously.
“Well, if the Senate thought enough of them to mention them, perhaps those men can be useful to me somehow.”
Fidelius was surprised. “Really?”
“Why not? Which men did they think might be good replacements?”
“Oh, all sorts of people were mentioned. Even my name was brought up.”
Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes