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Cleopatras daughter, p.8
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       Cleopatra's Daughter, p.8

           Michelle Moran
 

  “And do they like it?” I asked curiously.

  “Better ask the slaves.” Marcellus laughed. “They’re the ones who end up taking it.”

  We crossed the atrium and reached another open-air space, the peristylum, where bronze sculptures peered from the shadows. There was a long garden in the center, and a fountain that channeled water through the mouths of marble lions. Several men reclined on benches, shaded by trellised vines and flowering shrubs. They raised their hands in quiet greeting, and Marcellus mumbled, “My mother’s builders.”

  At the end of the portico was the triclinium, where the household ate, and across the hall, next to the baths, were more chambers. “This is my room,” Marcellus said. “This is my mother’s.” He indicated a wide door painted with a garden scene. “These are for my sisters. And this is for you.” He opened a wooden door, and I heard my brother Alexander breathe in sharply.

  It was a magnificent chamber. Curtained windows opened out onto a balcony, where a variety of palms grew from painted urns. The room itself was unlike anything in Egypt, with three wide couches, instead of beds, and only one painting. But the furniture was unmistakably rich: four chairs inlaid with bone and ivory; a pair of lamps fashioned into triple-headed Cerberus, whose bronze serpent’s tail could be lit; a cedar folding stool; three tables; and three heavy chests. Everything had been prepared for three children, only Ptolemy had never made it to Rome. I blinked back my tears and tried not to think about Egypt. The northern wall had been painted with images from Homer’s epics, so that whenever we fell asleep our last thoughts would be on the greatest poet Greece had ever produced. I could pick out Agamemnon, Achilles, and even Odysseus among the painted men.

  “I thought we were prisoners,” my brother said.

  “In my mother’s house?” Marcellus sounded offended. “You are guests.”

  “Caesar killed our brothers,” I reminded him sharply. “And tomorrow, we will be taken through the streets.”

  Marcellus’s face became grim. “My uncle rids himself of anyone he thinks might be an enemy now or in the future. And he surrounds himself with useful people. He has a wife who is more like a secretary to him, and my mother advises him on matters of the Senate. He keeps Agrippa for his knowledge of war, and Juba for his knowledge of the people and for protection. Do you think he would have any interest in me if I weren’t my mother’s eldest son? I serve a practical purpose as well. But so long as you are here,” he said firmly, “you are guests.”

  Several slaves appeared behind us with the ironbound chests we had taken from Egypt. But before we could look through them to see what we had been allowed to keep and what had been taken, Octavia entered the chamber.

  “It’s time to prepare,” she said quickly. “Marcellus, take Alexander to your room and give him what’s been laid out on your couch. He may keep his diadem, but the chiton and the sandals must go.” As she turned to me, I noticed the strikingly beautiful woman standing behind her at the door. Her long hair was the color of honey, and Marcellus smiled winsomely as he passed.

  “Salve, Gallia.”

  She inclined her head slightly, and I guessed her age to be about twenty. “I am glad to see your safe return, Domine.” She used the word for master, which indicated her position as a slave, yet her tunic was embroidered with gold.

  “Selene,” Octavia said, “this is my ornatrix, Gallia. We are going to prepare you for tonight, and give you clothes that will be suitable for Rome.”

  “It is a pleasure to meet you, Domina.” When Gallia smiled, I noticed that she had the high cheekbones that artists in Alexandria loved to capture. She’s like a sculpture carved from marble, I thought, and wondered if she was one of the twenty thousand women Julius Caesar had brought back as slaves from his conquest of Gaul. She spoke Latin with an accent and pronounced her words with exaggerated care to make sure she was getting them right. “Why don’t you come with us into the bathing room?” she asked, indicating a room in the corner. Inside was a tub of heavy bronze. She turned a handle and a pipe that led from the ceiling released hot water into the bath. The mosaic floors depicted sea nymphs and mermaids, and a large mirror of polished brass hung on the wall. A small brazier was tucked away in the corner for colder nights when the chamber would need to be heated. Several stools were arranged before a long cedar table.

  Octavia led me to one of these seats, then studied me carefully with her pale gray eyes. “What do you think?” she asked Gallia nervously.

  “How old are you?” Gallia asked me.

  “I turn twelve in January,” I replied.

  Gallia stepped forward. “Almost twelve. Still, just a little bird.” No one had ever called me a “little bird,” and when I straightened indignantly, Gallia laughed. “No, it is good that you are so small.”

  “We want you both to appear as young as possible tonight,” Octavia said, busying herself with Gallia’s basket. She took out vials of antimony and saffron, piling them on the long table along with hairnets and pins with ruby tips.

  Not understanding, I looked at both women. “Why?”

  “So that no one feels threatened by you,” Gallia said simply. She lit a fire in the brazier and plunged a metal rod into the burning charcoal.

  “Do you wish to wear your diadem tonight?” she asked.

  I touched the thin band of pearls in my hair, remembering the time my mother had given it to me. “Yes.”

  “And your pearl necklace?”

  “Of course.”

  “Then they will stay. But the rest must go.”

  I stood and slowly removed my chiton and loincloth. I was not yet so developed as to need a breastband. Then Gallia pointed me to the steaming bath.

  “Inside. Do not wet your hair. It will never dry in time to curl it.”

  “But I already have curls.”

  “These will be smaller.”

  I stepped into the bath as I was told, and let Gallia rub lavender oil into my back.

  “Look at this, Domina!” Gallia turned to Octavia. “You can see the bones. What do they feed her in Alexandria?”

  “She has been on a ship for weeks,” Octavia reminded her, “and has lost nearly every member of her family.”

  “Domina will feed you well here,” she promised, motioning for me to stand. Then she started drying me with a long white linen cloth.

  I didn’t reply, knowing that if I did I would only cry. From her basket, Gallia produced a silk tunic of the deepest green. I lifted my arms obediently. She slipped the tunic over my head and fastened it at the shoulders with golden pins. When Octavia passed her a belt of light olive, Gallia held it in front of her and frowned.

  “Under the breasts, at the hips, or at the waist?” she considered.

  The women studied me, and now I really felt like Gallia’s bird, being preened for a life in a cage.

  “At the waist,” Gallia decided herself. “It’s simple.” She tied the sash above my hips, then slipped a pair of leather sandals on my feet. On my neck, she fastened a golden necklace with a disc that was hidden by my mother’s pearls. She didn’t have to tell me that it was a bulla. I had seen Roman children in Alexandria wearing the same protective amulet.

  “What about her hair?” Octavia worried.

  Gallia took the metal rod from the brazier and held it in front of me by its cool end. “Do you know what this is?”

  We had them in Alexandria. “A hot iron,” I said.

  “Yes. A calamistrum. If you will remove your diadem….”

  I followed her instructions and seated myself on one of the chairs. When Gallia was finished, Octavia said eagerly, “Now her eyes.”

  I had powdered the lids carefully with malachite, and lined them with antimony as Charmion had taught me. But Gallia wiped my eye makeup away with a cloth, and when she didn’t make any motion to replace it, I protested. “But I’ve never gone anywhere without paint.”

  Gallia passed a look to Octavia. “Domina,” she said to me, “that is not proper in R
ome.”

  “But I wore it every day on the ship.”

  “That was at sea. You must not look like a lupa in front of Caesar’s guests.”

  “A what?”

  “You know”—she gestured—“one of those women.”

  “A whore,” Alexander said from behind us, and Octavia gasped. “Sorry,” he said quickly. But I knew that he wasn’t. He was smiling, and Gallia nodded at him.

  “You look very handsome, Domine.”

  I turned. “Handsome? You look like you’re wearing a bedsheet. How will you walk? It’s ridiculous.” I spoke in Parthian, but Alexander replied in Latin.

  “It’s a toga praetexta. And,” he added indignantly, “it’s what Marcellus is wearing.” A red stripe ran along its border, but the material wasn’t nearly as beautiful as that of my tunic. Just then he noticed my red sandals, and whistled. “A Roman princess.” I glared at him, but he ignored my anger. “So nothing for your eyes, then?”

  “We want to remind Rome that she is a girl,” Gallia repeated, “not a woman in some dirty lupanar.”

  “That will do,” Octavia said sternly, and I imagined that a lupanar was a place where women sold their sexual favors.

  But Gallia only smiled. “He asked.”

  I went to Alexander and touched the golden disc at his throat. “So we really are Romans now,” I said darkly. My brother avoided my gaze. Then Marcellus appeared behind him, smiling in a way that made me forget we were prisoners masquerading as citizens. His freshly washed hair curled at the nape of his neck, and the color contrasted with the darkness of his skin.

  “You’re a goddess in emerald, Selene. This must be the work of Gallia. She could stop Apollo in his chariot, if she wanted.”

  “Very pretty, Domine.”

  Octavia looked from my brother to me. “Are they ready?”

  Gallia nodded. “They are as Roman now as Romulus himself.”

  Alexander risked a glance at me. We followed Gallia through the halls and out to the portico, where Octavia’s youngest daughters sat patiently in the shade. I couldn’t recall ever sitting patiently anywhere as a child, but these children were all sweetness and gold. Like their mother, I thought, and stopped myself from thinking of my own mother lying cold in her sarcophagus next to my father.

  As we followed the cobbled road to Caesar’s villa, Gallia explained, “When we reach the triclinium, a slave will ask you to take off your sandals.”

  “To wash our feet?” Alexander asked.

  “Yes. And then you’ll enter the chamber. A nomenclator will announce your arrival, and all of us will be taken to our assigned couches.”

  “Romans eat on couches?” I asked.

  “Don’t Egyptians?”

  “No. We eat at tables. With chairs and stools.”

  “Oh, there will be tables,” Gallia said easily. “But not stools, and chairs are only for old men.”

  “But then how do we eat?” Alexander worried.

  “While reclining.” Gallia saw our expressions and explained, “There will be a dozen tables with couches around them. Caesar’s couch is always at the back, and the place of honor is opposite the empty side of his table. Whoever sits there at Caesar’s right is his most important guest.”

  “Which tonight,” Octavia predicted, “will be the both of you.”

  “But we don’t know what to do!” I exclaimed.

  “Oh, it’s nothing,” Marcellus promised. “Just recline on your left elbow, then eat with your right hand. And if they serve the Trojan pig,” he warned mischievously, “don’t eat it.”

  “Marcellus!” Octavia said sharply.

  “It’s true! Remember Pollio’s dinner party?”

  “Pollio is a freedman without the sense to cook a chicken,” Octavia pronounced, and turned to us. “Here you may eat whatever is served.”

  Behind her, Marcellus shook his head in warning, making the gesture of throwing up with his hands. Alexander snickered, and I suppressed a smile. But when we reached the wide bronze doors of Octavian’s villa, I pressed my nails into my palms. I could hear my mother’s voice in my head, scolding me to relax my hands.

  “This is it,” Alexander said nervously. I took his arm, and as we crossed the threshold into the vestibulum, I was shocked by the room’s simplicity. There were no cedar tables inlaid with gems, or lavish chambers hung with Indian silks. A faded mosaic depicted a stage with tragedians, and on the wall an old mask from a comedy stared back at us with its sightless eyes and ghastly smile. As we passed through the atrium, there were candlelit busts of the Julii, but no great statues of Octavian or his family. Aside from the blue-veined marble of the floors, there was nothing to indicate that this was the home of a conquering hero.

  “This could be a merchant’s villa,” I whispered.

  “Or a peasant’s. Where is the furniture?” Alexander asked.

  But as we reached the triclinium and a slave hurried out to wash our feet, I peered inside and realized what Octavian had done. In every room a visitor might frequent, the crudest furniture had been used. But inside the summer dining room, where only his most intimate friends ever gathered, the tables had been set with silver egg cups and matching bowls. Maroon silk covered the dining couches, and lavender water trickled from a marble fountain. Because one side of the room opened onto a garden, long linen curtains blew in the breeze, keeping out the glare of the setting sun.

  “He wants the people to think he’s humble,” I said critically in Parthian.

  “Meanwhile, his friends are dining like kings,” my brother added.

  The nomenclator announced each person’s arrival, and when it was our turn, I noticed that every guest in the triclinium turned.

  “Alexander Helios and Kleopatra Selene, Prince and Princess of Egypt.”

  There was a murmur of surprise, then the guests turned to one another and began to chatter eagerly.

  “Just follow me,” Octavia instructed softly, and Gallia departed to take her meal with the household slaves in the atrium. As we crossed the room, I saw Julia stand up from a table in the corner. She was Octavian’s only child, but she looked nothing like him, and I assumed she had inherited her looks from her mother.

  “Marcellus!” She smiled. She was wearing a tunic of the palest blue, and her dark gaze, cool and appraising, flicked in my direction. “Come,” she told him, and led him away, putting her slender arm through his.

  When I made to follow, Alexander pulled me back. “We’re not eating with them. We’re at the next table.” He indicated the couch where Caesar was scribbling something on a scroll. We would be sitting with Livia, Juba, and Agrippa.

  “Your guests of honor,” Octavia said.

  Her brother looked up, and a faint smile touched his lips. “Very nice.” He meant our clothes. He rose to a sitting position and the others around the table immediately did the same. “Almost Roman.”

  “They are Roman,” Agrippa pointed out.

  “Only half. The rest of them is Greek.”

  “But a stunning combination,” Maecenas said approvingly.

  Octavian rose, and the entire triclinium fell silent. “I present to you the children of Queen Kleopatra and Marc Antony,” he announced. “Selene and Alexander have journeyed from Egypt to take part in tomorrow’s Triple Triumph, a celebration of my success in Illyricum, my victory in the Battle of Actium, and the annexation of Egypt.”

  There was tremendous applause, and I refused to let my lower lip tremble.

  “And tonight,” Octavian continued, “there will be an auction for each of these prizes.” He snapped his fingers and a group of male slaves wheeled twenty covered statues into the triclinium. Some were very large, but others were no bigger than my hand. An excited murmur passed through the room. “Bidding, as always, will be blind.” He smiled briefly. “Enjoy your meal.”

  He returned to the table, and Octavia motioned that it was time for us to recline on the couches. It was impossible to get comfortable, and Juba smiled across the
table at me.

  “Just like a Roman now,” he said. “And I must say, a tunic suits you much better than a chiton. You’ve even donned the bulla.”

  I narrowed my eyes at him. “It belongs to Octavia.”

  “But you wear it so well.”

  Octavia smiled. “Alexander, Selene, I see you’ve met Juba. Perhaps you remember Maecenas as well.” Maecenas’s dark eyes hadn’t left my brother’s face since our arrival. “And this is Maecenas’s wife, Terentilla. A good friend of mine and a great patron of the theater.”

  When Terentilla smiled at us, a pair of dimples appeared in her cheeks. “It is a pleasure.”

  “And this is the poet Vergil, and the historian Livy.” That completed our table, and while women appeared with food in large silver bowls, Octavia whispered, “This is the gustatio.” I presumed that meant the first course. There was cabbage in vinegar, snails, endives, asparagus, clams, and large red crabs. Each person was expected to take what he or she wanted from the middle of the table, and just as in Egypt there were napkins, and spoons whose opposite end could be used as a knife. I chose several clams, and while I was wondering what to do with the empty shells, I saw Agrippa toss his to the floor. Alexander merrily followed his example, discarding his crab shells onto the tiles.

  “Alexander,” I hissed.

  “What? Everyone else is doing it,” he said guiltily.

  “But who cleans it up?”

  Alexander frowned. “The slaves.”

  Even Octavia was dropping her shells onto the floor, wiping them away with a flick of her wrist as she asked Terentilla to help describe the plays Octavian had missed while he was gone. There was talk of a play in which female actors had actually undressed on stage, and one at which the entire audience rose and walked out because the actors had been so terrible.

  When the second course came, Alexander said eagerly, “Look!” Slaves with large platters came to our table first, setting in front of us a variety of meats that would have contented even my father. There was roasted goose in white almond sauce, ostrich with Damascene prunes, and pheasants. There was even a peacock, served on a platter decorated with its own feathers. But when Alexander saw the thrushes in honeyed glaze, his eyes went wide.

 
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