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Cleopatras daughter, p.9
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       Cleopatra's Daughter, p.9

           Michelle Moran
 

  “You’d think you’d never eaten before,” I said critically.

  “I’m growing.”

  “Into what? Remember what happened to our grandfather.” He had grown to the size of a bull by the time he died.

  A slave came to fill our cups with wine, and Octavian whispered something into Terentilla’s ear. She giggled intimately, and his eyes lingered on hers. Perhaps this is why Livia has never given him a son, I thought.

  “And would you like to see what I picked up along my travels?” I heard him ask. Her dimples appeared, and when she nodded, Octavian snapped his fingers. “The chest from Egypt,” he ordered one of his slaves. “Bring it here.” Though he had eaten only a few olives and some bread, it appeared that he was finished with his meal.

  When the chest was placed on a table behind Octavian, Terentilla clapped her hands with joy. “Your treasures!” she exclaimed, and her long lashes fluttered on her cheeks.

  “A few,” Octavian admitted, and I was curious to see what he had stolen from Egypt. The slave who had brought the chest to the table produced one curiosity at a time, and Octavian named each one and then passed it around.

  “Shall I write down the names?” Livia asked eagerly. “In case you forget?”

  “Yes,” Octavian said, and Livia produced a scroll and a reed pen from a hidden drawer in the table. “This is called the Eye of Horus,” he said, and his guests made the appropriate noises of delight. It was a faience amulet, something that would have impressed a peasant farmer outside of Alexandria but would never have found its way inside the palace. I wondered where he had taken it from. “And this is a statue of the war goddess Sekhmet.” Terentilla thought it was the most beautiful image she had ever seen. When the statuette came to her, she stroked the goddess’s leonine face and drew her finger over the breasts.

  “Can you imagine worshipping a goddess with a lion’s head?” she asked Juba. “I’ve heard they have a goddess with a hippo’s head as well!”

  “Tawaret,” I said through clenched teeth. “They are old gods, and today the people worship Isis, who is no different from your Venus.”

  “I think what Selene is trying to say,” Juba interpreted, “is that the Ptolemies do not worship goddesses with animal heads anymore, but women with wings.”

  “I believe your Cupid has wings as well,” I said sharply.

  Alexander kicked my shin, but the men around the table laughed. “It’s true!” Vergil said, nodding sagely. Terentilla looked contrite, and I saw that she hadn’t meant any offense. But Octavian wasn’t interested in our banter. He had produced the sketch he’d taken from me on the ship, and Terentilla was the first to murmur her surprise.

  “What is that?”

  “An image of Alexandria by Kleopatra Selene,” Octavian replied, though when he looked at me there was no warmth in his eyes. “The princess appears to have great talent in art.”

  My drawing was passed around the table, and even Juba seemed impressed, staring at the picture for a second time. Livia made several markings on her scroll, misspelling my name with a C in place of a K. I didn’t believe there was any person left in Rome who couldn’t spell my mother’s name or mine in Greek, and I knew she did it on purpose.

  “The artist and the horseman,” Agrippa remarked. “A pair of very interesting siblings. I wonder—” His words were cut off by a commotion outside the doors of the triclinium. Guests sat upright on their couches; then the doors flew open and a soldier appeared.

  “What is this?” Octavian demanded. When he stood, Juba and Agrippa rose as well.

  “Forgive me, Caesar, but there is news I thought you might want to hear.”

  “Has our illustrious traitor been caught?” Juba demanded.

  “No, but one of the Red Eagle’s followers—”

  “Are the soldiers now glorifying him as well?” Octavian shouted.

  The soldier stepped back. “No. I—I meant to say the traitor. One of the traitor’s followers was discovered posting this on the Temple of Jupiter.” The soldier produced a scroll, and Octavian snatched it. “Another actum,” the soldier said. “And the symbol of the same red eagle at the bottom.”

  “Has the man been tortured?” Octavian asked.

  “Yes.”

  “And what has he said?”

  “That he was paid by a stranger in the Forum to nail it up.”

  “And who was this stranger?”

  The soldier shook his head. “He swears it was a farmer.”

  Octavian’s look was murderous. “The man who produces this cannot be a farmer. He is literate and has access to the Palatine. He is a soldier, or a guard, or a very foolish senator. The man is lying!”

  “Chop off his hand,” Livia said at once, “and nail it to the Senate door.”

  The soldier looked for confirmation from Octavian.

  “Yes. And if he still doesn’t remember who paid him to post this, then crucify the rest of him. Agrippa will make sure that it’s done.” When the soldier hesitated, Octavian said sharply, “Go!”

  An uneasy silence had settled over the triclinium. Octavian looked to the harpist. “Keep playing!” he commanded. The girl placed her trembling hands on the strings, and when Octavian resumed his seat, the room filled with nervous conversation.

  I turned and whispered to Octavia, “I don’t understand. Who is the Red Eagle?”

  Octavia glanced uneasily at her brother, but he was giving instructions to Agrippa. “A man who wants to put an end to slavery.”

  “Then he’s inspiring slaves to rebel?” I asked.

  Octavia shifted uncomfortably. “No. The attempts to do that have already failed. Slaves have no weapons or organization.”

  “So what does he want?” Alexander asked.

  “For the patricians to rebel. He wants men with money and the power in the Senate to put an end to servitude.”

  My brother made a face. “And he thinks that will happen?”

  Octavia smiled sadly. “No. The most he can hope for is a leniency of the laws.”

  “And if he thinks he will achieve even that, then he’s a fool,” Juba said darkly. “Rome will always have its slaves. Gauls, Germans—”

  “Egyptians, Mauretanians. If not for an accident of Fortune,” I said hotly, “you and I might be slaves as well!”

  Marcellus looked over from the table next to us, and I realized my voice had been louder than I intended.

  CHAPTER FIVE

  “THAT WAS very brave, what you told him,” Marcellus said.

  “Or very foolish,” my brother put in angrily.

  “Why? Isn’t it the truth?” I demanded. The three of us sat on separate couches, and Marcellus looked like golden-haired Apollo in the lamplight of our chamber. His strong, tanned arms seemed capable of anything. It was no wonder Octavian preferred him over his bitter stepson Tiberius.

  “It doesn’t matter if it’s the truth,” my brother warned. “You’re lucky Caesar didn’t hear you.”

  I glanced at the door. Soon Octavia would appear and order us to bed. “What do you think will happen to that prisoner?”

  “Exactly what my uncle said. His hand will be nailed to the Senate door.”

  “And Agrippa will do it?” Alexander asked quietly. He had removed his diadem, and his hair tumbled over his brow. He pushed it back with his palm.

  “Or someone else. But there is no one more loyal than Agrippa. He would strike down his own daughter if she threatened Rome. And they’ll catch this rebel eventually.”

  “But why does he use the image of a red eagle?” I asked.

  “Because the eagle is the symbol of Rome’s legions. He is trying to say that Rome is dripping with the blood of its slaves. The freedmen all think it’s very brave. But don’t ever use the name in front of my uncle. He thinks it glorifies the rebel’s cause.”

  “But if the senators haven’t rebelled,” I asked, “how has the Red Eagle gone against the law?”

  “By sneaking into the arenas and freeing g
ladiators. And by helping husbands and wives who’ve been separated by slavery escape.”

  “Escape where?” my brother exclaimed.

  “Possibly to their homelands. Gallic slaves were caught on the Flaminian Way a few months ago with enough stolen gold to return to Gaul.”

  I glanced at my brother, who must have known what I was thinking, because he shook his head sternly. But what else was there to hope for? If this Red Eagle was willing to help slaves return to Gaul, why wouldn’t he help us return to Egypt? Alexander had heard Octavian’s warning just as well as I had. The girl is pretty. In a few years, some senator will need to be silenced. She’ll be of marriageable age and will make him happy. And neither of the boys has reached fifteen years. Keeping them alive will seem merciful. And when it wasn’t merciful anymore? When Alexander came of age and posed a threat?

  Marcellus continued, “There is some honor in what the rebel does. It’s only an accident of Fortuna that we were born on the Palatine. We could just as easily be living in the Subura, sleeping with the rats and begging for our food. Or we might have been like Gallia, and sold into slavery.”

  Alexander sat forward. “She wasn’t born a slave?”

  “No. Her father was King Vercingetorix.”

  “She’s a Gallic princess?” I gasped.

  Marcellus nodded. “When she was a girl, she was brought to Rome in chains, and years later her father was paraded in Caesar’s Triumph and then executed.” He saw my look and added quickly, “That would never have happened to an Egyptian queen. Vercingetorix was the leader of the Gauls. A barbarian. My mother told me that when Gallia came here, she knew neither Latin nor Greek.”

  “Then she isn’t twenty.”

  “No. I should say more like thirty.”

  My brother hesitated. “So then why did your uncle spare us from slavery?”

  “Because your father was a Roman citizen, and you carry the blood of Alexander the Great.”

  “Juba’s father wasn’t a Roman,” I pointed out.

  “No. His ancestor was the warrior Massinissa. But my uncle must be thankful he didn’t make Juba a slave. Juba saved his life at Actium, and there were many days leading up to the battle when my uncle feared he would be defeated.”

  Just as there had been many days leading up to the battle when my mother had thought Egypt could still be saved.

  An uneasy silence settled over the room. Marcellus cleared his throat. “So I saw your sketch of Alexandria,” he said. “You are very talented.”

  “You should see her other drawings,” Alexander added. “Show him your book of sketches, Selene.”

  I crossed my arms over my chest.

  “She has a leather book,” Alexander explained. “It’s not like anything you’ve ever seen. Go ahead. Get it,” he coaxed.

  When Marcellus looked at me, I went to the chest in the corner of the room and took out my mother’s present. His eyes widened in the candlelight, and when he held the book in his hands, he asked in amazement, “What is this?”

  “Calfskin,” Alexander said.

  “All of it?” Marcellus turned the pages, and I don’t know what impressed him more, my sketches or what I had drawn them on. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” he admitted. “Where did this come from?”

  “The library on the Acropolis in Pergamon,” my brother said.

  “The greatest library in the world!”

  “The second greatest,” Alexander corrected. “And when our family stopped exporting papyrus to them, they started using calfskin to make books like these.”

  “Books,” Marcellus said wonderingly.

  “There were two hundred thousand of them in Pergamon, and our father made a present of them all to our mother. She was reading them, one by one. A different book every night.” He looked at me, and I knew he was remembering our seventh birthday, when we had been allowed to choose anything we wanted from Pergamon’s library. My brother had chosen a book on horses, and I had chosen an empty book for sketches.

  When I looked away, Marcellus said quietly, “Queen Kleopatra was a remarkable woman.”

  “Yes,” Alexander said quietly.

  Footsteps echoed in the hall, and Marcellus stood. “My mother,” he said, returning my book of sketches to me. The door of our chamber opened, and Octavia’s face appeared next to an oil lamp.

  “Marcellus,” she said sharply. “What are you doing?”

  “Going to sleep.” He grinned back at us, then kissed his mother on the cheek. “I’ll see you in the morning,” he promised us. When he was gone, Octavia set the oil lamp on a table.

  Alexander and I lay back on our couches and waited to see what she was going to do. Despite the heat, I covered myself with a thin linen blanket. She came and sat at the edge of my couch. When I inhaled, I could smell her light scent of lavender. My mother had always worn jasmine.

  “How was your day?” she asked kindly.

  I shot a questioning look at Alexander. “Tiring,” I admitted.

  “It will be even more tiring tomorrow,” she warned. “I would like to prepare you for my brother’s Triumph, though it will only be for one day.”

  “I thought it was three.”

  “Yes, but you will only be a part of it tomorrow. In the morning, clothes will be delivered to your chamber. You’ll be expected to put them on, then ride behind Caesar on a wooden float. There may be chains as well. But I will not allow them to cuff your necks. That is only for slaves.”

  “And then?” Alexander asked steadily.

  “You will return for the Feast of Triumph. It will be larger than what you have seen tonight. But you must be prepared to see things tomorrow. Things that will make you very upset.”

  “Will they spit at us in the streets?” I whispered.

  “I don’t know. The plebs are very angry. They believe what they’ve heard about your mother and father.”

  “Such as?” I asked urgently.

  Octavia’s shoulders tensed. “Such as your father wore a Greek chiton and put away his toga while in Egypt.”

  I raised my chin. “That’s true.”

  “What else do they believe?” Alexander asked.

  “That Antony instructed that he be worshipped as Dionysus. That he crowned his head in ivy and carried a thyrsus instead of a sword.”

  I could see my father in his robes of red and gold, holding Dionysus’s stalk of fennel just as Octavia had described. “All of that is true.”

  Octavia sat forward. “And did he really strike a Roman coin with your mother’s likeness?”

  “Yes. Three years ago,” my brother replied. “What’s so terrible about a coin?”

  When she didn’t answer, I asked sharply, “So is that all the Romans believe?”

  She hesitated. “There were rumors of dinners on the Nile….”

  “Of course,” Alexander said frankly. “Our mother and father had a club. The Society of Inimitable Livers.”

  “And what did this society do?” she asked breathlessly.

  “They had banquets on ships and discussed literature with philosophers from around the world.”

  “Then they changed it to the Order of the Inseparable in Death,” I added, “when our father lost the Battle of Actium. Now all of that is gone,” I said. “Just like our mother and father.”

  Octavia sat back and looked from my brother to me. She seemed to have trouble reconciling the Antony she had known as her husband with the Antony who had been our father. “So did … did your father spend a great deal of time with your mother?”

  I realized what was happening and felt my cheeks warm. She had loved him.

  Alexander answered quietly, “Yes.”

  “Then he didn’t spend all of his time with his men?” It was me she was asking.

  “No.” I was too ashamed to meet her gaze. “Are you glad that he’s gone now?”

  “I would never wish death on anyone,” she said. “When he left me,” she admitted, “it was a great embarrassment. All of
Rome knew I had been rejected.”

  I tried to imagine how she must have felt, abandoned so publicly by my father. Antonia and Tonia, my half sisters, wouldn’t even have known him, since he had come to live with us permanently when they were just a few years old.

  “My brother wanted him dead,” she confessed. “But I….” She hesitated, saying at last, “There wasn’t a woman in Rome who didn’t love your father.”

  “They don’t love him now,” I remarked.

  She stood up from my couch, then touched my cheek with the back of her palm. “Because they think he abandoned his people to become a Greek. But all of that is past,” she said tenderly. “What matters is tomorrow. Be brave,” she said, “and it will all end well.”

  When she closed the door, leaving the oil lamp near Alexander’s couch, I turned to him and we watched each other in the flickering light.

  “Our mother never came to us at night,” he remarked.

  “Because our mother was a ruler, not the sister of one.”

  “Do you think Father really loved Octavia?”

  It seemed cruel to say no, but Octavia was nothing like our mother, and I couldn’t imagine my father ever racing chariots with her on the Canopic Way, or spinning her in his arms whenever she won. “Perhaps he loved her kindness,” I offered, and Alexander nodded.

  “Marcellus has the same compassion, doesn’t he? And I doubt there’s anyone in Rome more beautiful.”

  I stared at him. “You’re not a Ganymede, are you?”

  “Of course not!” He blushed furiously.

  I kept staring at him, but he blew out the light, and in the darkness, I was too tired to argue.

  The clothes that were brought to our chamber the next morning were insulting. Alexander held up his linen kilt, and I crumpled the beaded dress in my hands.

  “Is this what Romans think Egyptians wear?” I asked angrily. The hills were still pink with the blush of dawn, but I could hear that the villa was already awake.

  “Of course,” Gallia said, and I could see that she wasn’t mocking me.

  “A thousand years ago queens wore beaded dresses,” I told her. “Now they wear silk chitons!”

 
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