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December, 29 BC

 “HIS WHEELS are smoking!” Alexander exclaimed, rising from our couch. “Did you see that, Selene?”

A sparsor rushed onto the tracks with a bucket of water and doused the chariot’s wheels while the driver made frantic motions for the man to hurry. Then the sparsor jumped back, and the driver continued racing.

“I don’t see how anything can be smoking on a day like this,” I said grimly, tightening my cloak around my shoulders.

Next to me, Marcellus waved his hand. “Oh, it’s not so bad. Wait until tomorrow.”

“What happens tomorrow?”

“From the looks of it, snow.” Julia shivered in her cloak. We had exchanged our silk tunics for cotton months ago, but now that it was nearing the middle of December, nothing seemed to ward off the cold.

“You mean there will be snow on the mountains?” Alexander asked.

“And everywhere else.” Marcellus held out his hand, and the mist left a fine sheen on his palm. “It would be a shame if it snows during Saturnalia. My mother says once it snowed for three days.”

I exchanged looks with Alexander.

“What’s the matter?” Julia asked. “Haven’t you ever seen snow?”

“Only when it was cooling our mother’s wine,” I admitted.

Marcellus laughed. “That’s it? But you must have tasted nix dulcis.”

I frowned.

“The sweet snow brought down from the mountains,” Julia prompted, “mixed with honey and fruit.”

Both Alexander and I shook our heads.

“Well, you haven’t lived if you’ve never tasted nix dulcis,” Marcellus said. “Perhaps there’ll be some in the markets before Saturnalia.”

“So what is Saturnalia?” Alexander asked.

Julia grinned. “On the seventeenth, we’ll go to the Temple of Saturn. And for an entire week there’s no work and no school. No one has to wear a toga, and even slaves can gamble.”

“Will the Circus be open?” Alexander asked.

I sighed impatiently, but Marcellus laughed. “It’s always open. And I’ve heard that if it isn’t snowing, the Pompeians will be sending up their teams to challenge Rome. We’ll have to come down to the stables in advance.”

“There’s also a feast every day for a week,” Julia added. “And people exchange gifts.”

“For what?” I asked.

“Just for fun! They’re only small things. Like pretty silks or statues. It’s really for the children.”

“And slaves change positions with their masters,” Marcellus added. “We sit in the atrium where the slaves usually dine, and they use the triclinium—”

“Not this year,” Julia warned. “My father forbade it. He also said the first feast will be hosted by Pollio.”

Marcellus groaned. “Why? He never stops talking, unless it’s to shove food in his mouth.”

“At least Horatia will be there,” Julia said glumly.

“And how can she move? She’s nearly due.”

“Pregnant women can still walk,” Julia retorted. “She might even have the child by then.”

It snowed on the seventeenth of December. Like a white linen sheath, the snow covered the roads and the rooftops; it froze the fountains and brought every kind of traffic to a halt. A bitter wind blew through the streets of Rome, carrying the scents of charcoal braziers. On the steps to the Temple of Saturn, I tightened Alexander’s hood around his face.

“Do I look like a gryphon in this thing?” he asked.

“No. You look like a prince of Egypt.” It was true. The heavy cloak was trimmed in ermine, and the soft white contrasted with his olive skin. Dark tendrils escaped from his hood, and they blew about in the wind, making him look like a statue of young Hermes. “It’s really cold here, isn’t it?” I said bleakly.

“It makes you wish we were back in Alexandria.”

“Many things make me wish that.”

As soon as Octavian’s ritual in the temple was finished, horse-drawn carriages took us to Pollio’s villa. The carriages were normally forbidden in Rome, but the streets were too slick to risk riding in litters. And because the skies were so dark, a dozen torchbearers lit the way. I huddled in my cloak, too cold to speak, and when I stole a glance at Julia, her red cheeks and bright nose announced her misery. I don’t remember ever feeling so happy to reach shelter as I did when we entered Pollio’s villa. A rush of warm air engulfed us, and the smell of roasted meat filled the vestibulum.

“Thank the gods,” Octavian said. He seemed to be suffering the worst of all. Beneath his woolen cloak, he wore three separate tunics, and there was a brace on his right hand, which Marcellus said stiffened every year with the cold.

Pollio spread his arms. “Welcome!”

“Take us to the triclinium,” Livia commanded. “My husband is in pain.”

“Of course!” as Pollio rushed to do her bidding, his heavy fur cloak fanned out around him. “Of course!”

We passed through the atrium, where elaborate braziers did very little to offset the frigid air. But when we reached the triclinium, Octavian’s shoulders relaxed. The room was as warm as any bathhouse. Flowers bloomed from precious gold vases, and garlands twisted around the columns as if it were spring.

“How extravagant,” Livia said critically.

“Where is Horatia?” Julia asked.

There had been no sign of the hostess, and as guests crowded into the room, Pollio hesitated. “I’m afraid she cannot be with us tonight.”

“Why?” Julia looked around. “Is she sick?”

“In a fashion.”

“She’s not having the baby?” Octavia exclaimed.

Pollio nodded as if he were embarrassed. “I’m afraid it is bad timing—”

“So why are we here?” Octavia cried.

Pollio frowned. “Because I promised to host Caesar on the first night of Saturnalia.”

Julia’s look was mutinous. “I want to see her.”

“I’m sorry, but she is in her chamber.”

“And what does that mean? That she should be shut up like some birthing cow while everyone else feasts?” Julia cried.

“Control yourself,” Octavian said firmly, “and take your couch.”

“But I would rather see Horatia. Please, Father. Please.”

Octavian looked to Pollio. “Will the child come tonight?”

“If I am lucky. Imagine having to pay for a feast for Saturnalia and a birthing feast as well.”

“Then perhaps my daughter can visit her. It’s a comfort to women in labor to have others in their chamber.”

I could see that Pollio wanted to object, but he nodded instead. “Yes…. Yes, of course. Up the stairs, to the right,” he directed.

Julia looked at me.

“You’re going to go with her?” Alexander exclaimed.

“Why not?”

“Because there’ll be blood. And sickness.”

“It’s a birth, not the plague.”

“Women don’t mind it,” Marcellus assured my brother.

I followed Julia up the stairs, and the pitiful sound of a woman’s cries led us to a dimly lit chamber at the very back of the house. When we opened the door, the stench of sweat made my stomach clench, and I wondered if my brother had been right.

Horatia gasped when she saw us. “Julia!” She was already seated on the birthing chair. She was entirely naked except for a palla around her shoulders. Midwives were huddled at the base of the chair where the child would drop through the hole into their arms. Horatia was breathing very heavily, and as Julia rushed forward, I held back. I had never before witnessed a birth.

“Horatia,” Julia said tenderly, and she wiped her friend’s brow with her hand.

“It’s coming,” Horatia groaned. “I can feel it.”

“Keep pushing,” a midwife encouraged.

“What have they given you?” Julia asked.

“A little wine.”

“That’s it?” Julia cried. “No verbena?”

“Nothing!” Horatia groaned, gripping the leather arms of the chair. “Pollio won’t allow it.”

“Those are peasants’ superstitions!” Julia shouted. She looked at me, and although I felt faint, I helped wipe the sweat from Horatia’s brow with a linen square dipped in lavender water.

“I should have used silphium,” Horatia panted. “I may never even live to see the new year.”

“Nonsense,” Julia said firmly. “You’re healthy, and this is only your first child.”

Horatia gritted her teeth, and when she screamed, I was sure her cries could be heard above the harpists in the triclinium. For several hours we remained like this, encouraging and fanning the air into Horatia’s face. Then finally one of the midwives cried, “It’s coming, Domina! Keep pushing!”

Horatia looked up into Julia’s face. “Thank you.” She began to weep. “Thank you for coming.”

“Don’t thank me! Concentrate!”

Horatia gripped the arms of the chair, and her face was a mask of terrible pain. Again and again she strained, screaming, crying, then finally pushing a child into the world in a rush of blood and water. I held my breath, and Julia cried out, “A girl! It’s a girl!”

“No,” Horatia whispered. The midwives swaddled the crying infant in wool, and Horatia sat up on the birthing chair. “It can’t be!”

“It’s a girl, Domina. A healthy child.”

“But he wanted a son.”

“So next time—”

“You don’t understand!” She looked from the midwife to Julia in desperation. “He will never accept it!”

“Of course he will!” Julia took the baby girl into her arms while the midwives packed Horatia’s womb with wool. “Look.” Julia stroked the little nose with her fingertip, then placed the infant gently in her friend’s arms. I had never seen her so tender with anyone.

Tears welled in Horatia’s eyes. She took the crying baby to her breast, but the infant refused to suck. “She’s not hungry.”

The eldest midwife smiled. “Leave it to the nutrice. That is her job.”

“What will you name her?” Julia asked.

Horatia was silent, stroking her daughter’s brow with two fingers. Then she said, “Gaia. Like the Greeks’ Mother Goddess.” She held Gaia for a little while, as the music and feasting went on below us.

“You must wash, Domina. It isn’t healthy to stay here with all this blood.”

Horatia passed her daughter to Julia, and then the midwives helped her into the bathing room.

“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” Julia said.

Gaia had the thick hair of her mother, and her dark eyes were already open.

“Do you think that Pollio will be terribly angry?” I asked.

“Probably,” Julia admitted. “But she’ll have a son next time. Do you want children?”

In fourteen days I would be old enough to marry, and when my monthly blood came, to have children of my own. “Yes, but not for many years.”

“I would like them now,” she confided.

“At twelve?”

“Horatia is only thirteen. And now she has a little girl of her own who will always love her. Who will never abandon her.”

I was reminded of what Gallia had said about judging Julia too harshly, and suddenly I felt sorry for her. She had a father who valued her only for what marriage she could make, and a mother she could visit only in secret. Although my parents were gone, I had always known I was loved. And my parents had only ever left me in death.

When Horatia emerged from the bathing room, she walked gingerly. The midwives were careful in their movements, slowly helping her into an embroidered tunic and heavy new palla trimmed with fur. Only married women wore the palla, and I could see the admiration in Julia’s eyes as the midwife draped her friend in the beautiful mantle. Horatia held out her arms for her new daughter, and I thought that Julia handed the infant back with regret.

“May Juno bless her first day,” the gray-haired midwife intoned, “and may Cunina watch over the cradle.”

“Will you go to him now?” Julia asked.

“Absolutely not!” The midwife clicked her tongue. “Dominus must come to her in their chamber. He must accept his daughter first.”

We followed Horatia down the hall to the chamber where she and Pollio slept. A slave was sent to fetch Pollio from the festivities, and we waited outside while Horatia sat on a chair with her infant daughter in her arms.

“Is he coming to name the child?” I asked.

“No. That happens in eight days with the lustratio. This is the tollere liberos.”

There was no time to ask Julia what that meant. I could hear Pollio’s heavy footsteps on the stairs, and when he reached the landing, he looked expectantly at Julia. “Is it a son?”

The midwife inclined her head. “Your wife is in there, Domine.”

Pollio entered his chamber, and before the door swung shut behind him I could hear him demanding, “Is it a son?”

Julia’s dark eyes flashed at me. “He doesn’t even care if she’s well.”

“What a terrible marriage.”

“They’re all terrible,” she said bitterly.

“But yours won’t be.”

She gave me a long, calculated look. “If my father doesn’t change his mind.”

There was a shriek on the other side of the wall, then the door was flung open, and Pollio emerged. “Take it away!” he ordered the midwives. I looked inside the chamber, where Horatia’s daughter lay alone on the floor.

“Pollio, please!” Horatia ran after him.

“I said a son.” He turned on her. “Not a daughter. A son!”

“But I will give you a son. Pollio, please, she’s ours!”

“She belongs to the gods.” He made his way down the stairs, and Julia rushed to Horatia so that she wouldn’t faint. “Take her to the dump,” Pollio called over his shoulder.

Horatia fell on her knees. “Please!” she begged. “Take her to the Columna Lactaria. Give her a chance!” But Pollio was gone. She looked up into the face of the midwife. “Don’t take her away,” she pleaded, but the midwife had already gathered the child in her arms. “You can’t take her away from me!” Horatia shrieked.

Hot tears burned my cheeks, and I realized that my hands were trembling. “Don’t do this,” I said.

The midwife’s look was firm. “It’s Dominus who pays me. They are Dominus Pollio’s orders that I follow.”

“But don’t take her to the dump. She’s a child. She hasn’t done anything wrong.”

The woman’s smile was full of vengeance. “Neither did those two hundred slaves.”

“So what?” Julia cried. “Because slaves die, patrician children must die as well?”

The woman didn’t respond.

“Let me give you denarii,” Horatia said desperately. “Please. Just don’t take her to the dump.”

The midwife hesitated, then turned to the other slaves and snapped, “Go!” The women swiftly disappeared, some down the stairs, others to separate chambers. When the hall was empty, the midwife said, “Two hundred denarii.”

Horatia went pale. “That’s my entire dowry.”

“And this is your daughter’s chance at life. Maybe someone will take her, maybe they won’t, but at the dump the wolves will eat her.”

“Wait.” Horatia was trembling. “I will give you the money.”

Julia stared at the midwife, who looked back at us without any remorse.

“You are no better than a beast,” Julia said.

“And isn’t that what slaves are supposed to be? Beasts of burden?”

Horatia returned with several heavy purses, and the midwife stuffed them beneath her cloak. “How will you carry her?” Horatia asked worriedly.

“Just fine.”

But even if Gaia survived, she would likely end up in a lupanar, abused from the time she was old enough to speak. My mother had told me there were men who liked girls too young to understand what was happening to them. Tears rolled down Horatia’s cheeks, and Julia whispered, “Isn’t there someone who can adopt her?”

“How could I arrange it without Pollio knowing?”

The midwife pulled her cloak over the child, and I turned away from the terrible scene. While Horatia and Julia wept, I made my way slowly down the stairs. In the triclinium, the harpist was still playing, and Pollio was raising a cup of wine in toast.

“What happened?” Alexander asked.

“It’s a girl,” I told him.

Marcellus frowned. “Was she deformed?”

“No. Pollio wanted a son, so he ordered that she be put out.”

“As a foundling?” he cried.

I nodded.

Octavia rose from her couch and came over to me. “Where is Horatia?” she asked quietly.

I told her the story, even the part about the two hundred denarii and the Columna Lactaria. When I was finished, her face was hard.

“What do you think will happen to her?” I asked.

“The infant or Horatia?”

“Both,” I said.

Octavia drew a heavy breath. “If they survive, they will live the rest of their lives in terrible sadness.” She walked back to the table where Octavian was reclining between his wife and Terentilla, then whispered something into his ear. He glanced briefly at me, then rose from the couch.

“What is this?” Pollio exclaimed. “The dessert has not even come.”

Octavian’s voice was clipped. “I hear that your wife has given birth,” he said. “It would be rude of me to stay, when you belong with her.”

Pollio’s fat mouth opened and closed like a fish’s.

“Marcellus,” Octavian said sharply, “go and find Julia.”

Pollio looked around him. “But we cannot let Saturnalia be interrupted by women’s matters.”

“The children of Rome matter to everyone,” Octavian said coldly. “Even foolish men like you.”

Several dozen guests remained in the triclinium, but everyone who had come with Octavian prepared to leave.

“Congratulations,” Agrippa said, not knowing what had happened in the upstairs rooms.

Pollio’s face took on the color of unbaked dough. He led us through the atrium to the carriages outside. “Are you certain?” he protested. “It’s cold. Perhaps you would like to stay the night!”

Octavia turned and said quietly, “I’m sure your daughter would have liked to stay the night as well. When you shiver, remember how cold it is in the dump.”

On the ride back to the Palatine, I thought of Horatia’s daughter freezing beneath the Columna Lactaria while the rest of Rome drank wine beside crackling fires and ate roasted meats. And once all of his guests left, Pollio would probably climb under the covers next to his wife, demanding her attention even as her breasts leaked milk through her bindings. The thought made me wince, and while Julia wept softly, Alexander and Marcellus exchanged doleful looks.

When we reached Octavia’s villa, Juba excused himself, but Agrippa and Octavian remained, settling with the rest of us in the warmth of the library, where Vitruvius’s plans were spread across the tables. No one said anything, until Julia broke the silence.

“What about a home for foundlings?” she asked.

Marcellus looked up from his place near the brazier, and Alexander caught my eye.

“A place where mothers can leave their infants and they can be adopted by freedwomen and citizens,” she said. “Selene has drawn sketches of what such a house might look like.”

“And how would that help Rome?” Octavian demanded.

“We would be saving lives. Roman lives,” Julia protested.

“And increasing the number of mouths on the dole,” Livia retorted.

“Not if citizens were to adopt the infants!”

“And who would want to do that?” Livia asked. “When a woman is barren, she takes a child from a slave. Why would she need a dirty foundling?”

Octavia recoiled. “I doubt that there was anything dirty about Horatia’s child.”

“How do you know? Did you see it? The child was probably deformed.”

“It was perfectly healthy!” Julia exclaimed. “I was there and so was Selene.” She turned to her father. “If there was a foundling house—”

“It would be too costly,” Octavian overruled her. “There is a Columna Lactaria for a reason, and the plebs are satisfied. We do enough by paying nutrices to suckle infants.”

“But most of them die!” Julia cried.

“Then that is the will of the gods.”

She looked at me, but I knew better than to speak.

“You do enough for these people,” Livia assured Octavian. “Free grain, free baths, even men who fight fires and patrol the Subura watching for crime. How much are you supposed to give?”

“As much as possible,” Octavia said.

“Then why don’t you fund this foundling house?” she demanded.

“If my brother thought it was a good idea, I would.”

Everyone in the library looked to Octavian, who was shaking despite the warmth in the room. “My wife is right. We do enough.”

Julia’s eyes shone with tears, and I saw Marcellus pat her knee tenderly.

“And Horatia’s child?” Julia whispered.

“It was a girl,” Octavian said simply. “The incident was an unlucky beginning to Saturnalia. But I plan to end this night with good news.”

I couldn’t imagine what kind of news could dispel the unhappiness that had settled over the library, but when Octavian looked to Agrippa, his general announced, “I am getting married.”

Julia gasped, and I wondered if she feared that she might be the bride. “To whom?” she ventured.

“My daughter Claudia,” Octavia said.

“My sister?” Marcellus exclaimed. He looked at his mother. “How come I didn’t know about this?”

Octavia smiled primly. “Well, now you do.”

For the rest of Saturnalia, Julia kept a vigil for Horatia’s daughter, going every day to the Columna Lactaria to search for her. For seven days we battled the wind and rain, holding each other on the slick cobblestones while Juba and the Praetorian shone the light of their bronze lanterns on the empty streets. But on the eighth day, Gallia demanded to know what Julia would do if she found the infant.

“I would bring her home!”

“What? To your father’s villa?” Marcellus asked. “Be sensible, Julia. Someone has taken her.”

“But who?” she shouted, and her voice echoed across the icy courtyard. The marketplace was closed for the last day of Saturnalia, and anyone with good judgment was at home, hunched in front of a brazier, cooking lamb in the kitchens and drinking hot wine.

“It might have been a well-meaning citizen,” Alexander said.

“But what if it was the owner of a lupanar?”

“Well, there’s no way of knowing which it is,” Juba said. “No one’s going to return her now.”

Julia stared at the column where thousands of women had left their infants over the years. The courtyard was silent.

“The rain is about to come,” Juba remarked.

We followed him back to the waiting carriage, and inside, Julia fretted over the night we had visited Pollio. “I should have taken Gaia from the midwife.”

“And what would you have done with her, Domina?”

“Found her a home!”

“With whom?” Marcellus asked. “Where?”

Julia looked at Juba. “What do you think has happened to her?” I knew why she was asking him. Of everyone in the carriage, he would give the answer that would come closest to the truth.

“A freedman found her and took her home.”

“But how do you know?”

“Because no patricians live near the markets or would ever want to be caught there at night.”

“But what if it was a freedman with a lupanar?”

“Don’t you think it’s more likely that men of that sort were indoors, celebrating the first night of Saturnalia?” he asked. “Not standing in an abandoned marketplace waiting for foundlings, when those can be had any other day of the week.”

This settled Julia’s mind a little. But even when Alexander and I turned twelve on the first day of the New Year, she was quiet during Octavia’s celebration of our dies natalis.

“Tomorrow,” Octavia offered her kindly, “why don’t you come and help me prepare for Claudia’s wedding?”

Julia looked up from the crackling brazier, where cinnamon sticks burned among the charcoal to scent the triclinium. “What about your slaves?”

“Oh, they can do the tedious work. The cleaning, the cooking. But who will help me with the tunic and veil? There are only two weeks before my daughters come home from Pompeii and Claudia marries.”

So through the miserable month of January, while ice still covered the fountains and Octavian wrapped himself in furs, Julia helped Octavia prepare. On the way to and from the ludus, she told us about the jewels Claudia would be wearing, what her sandals would look like, and how her carriage would be decorated for her trip to Rome. But when I asked her why Octavia’s eldest daughters were living so far away, she looked from me to Alexander and hesitated.

“You can tell them,” Tiberius said on our way back from the ludus. “It’s not as though it’s their fault.”

Julia nodded uncertainly. “Octavia had to give them away in order to marry Antony. Then, when Antony left her, Claudia and Marcella chose to remain with their aunt in Pompeii.”

I was quiet for a moment. After all of the unhappiness my mother and father had brought into her life, it was surprising that Octavia treated us with any kindness at all.

My brother shook his head. “I have no idea why your mother treats us so well.”

“She loves children,” Marcellus said simply. “Wait until you meet my older sisters. We’re all very similar.”

“You mean they gamble?” Tiberius asked.

“He means they’re both blond with blue eyes,” Julia said, ignoring Tiberius’s quip. “They’re his only full sisters.” She turned to me and added brightly, “You should help us with the planning.”

“Oh yes,” Marcellus said. “It’s so much fun. Much better than watching the races, which is what we could be doing.”

Julia swatted him. “Alexander enjoys it.”

“Because he likes you girls. I can’t stand all the talk of hairnets and paint.”

“Come help us,” she begged me. “Vitruvius doesn’t need you every day.”

“He probably doesn’t need me at all.”

“Nonsense,” my brother said as we walked. Across the courtyard, Gallia and Juba were waiting for us, bundled into their warmest winter cloaks. “Just yesterday,” Alexander boasted, “he told her that when the weather turns, he’ll be taking her with him on his inspections.”

“A girl?” Tiberius cried.

“What does that matter?” Julia retorted.

“What business does a girl have with construction? Look at her! She can’t even lift a brick.”

“I can take measurements,” I said sharply. “And I can sketch a design for the flooring or the rooftop better than any of Vitruvius’s old men.”

Tiberius laughed. “So what is Vitruvius going to do? Introduce you as his apprentice?”

“I’ll be going in the mornings before the builders get to work.”

He smiled. “So he is ashamed.”

“Leave her alone,” Marcellus warned.

“Does that mean you won’t help us?” Julia pouted.

“Yes,” I said firmly.

By the time we arrived home on the Palatine, half a dozen litters crowded the portico of Octavia’s villa.

“The priestesses are here,” Gallia warned. “Be silent when you enter.”

Juba and Tiberius followed us into the atrium, where the priestesses of Juno had arranged themselves around a brazier. Octavia held an unfurled scroll above the flames, while Agrippa fanned the fire with his hand.

“What are they doing?” I whispered.

Julia leaned over so that her lips were at my ear. “The scroll Octavia is holding is a calendar. When the priestesses decide there has been enough smoke, they will interpret the burn marks and determine which days are dies nefasti.”

I drew away from her. “Bad-luck days?”

“March, May, and all of June are unsuitable for weddings. So are the Kalends, the Nones, and the Ides of any month, and any day following those. And no one can be married on the day of any religious festival.”

“Is it really bad luck?”

She rolled her eyes. We listened as the priestesses chanted to Juno, the goddess of motherhood and marriage. Octavian, holding a wax tablet and a stylus, stood next to his sister. He was wearing a heavy fur cloak that was too big around his shoulders. I could see that he was bitterly cold, keeping away from the open roof, where rain was falling into the icy pool. His face had turned as white as his cloak, and the only color to be seen in it was the gray of his eyes.

“That is enough,” one of the priestesses said.

Octavia immediately withdrew the calendar, and the priestess who had spoken held it up to the dim light from above. The other women stopped chanting, and the only sound was the patter of rain.

“Not February second,” she said.

Octavian scribbled something with his stylus, and I noticed that the polished ivory brace on his right hand now extended all the way up his arm.

“Is your father well?” Alexander whispered to Julia.

She nodded. “He is like this every winter.”

Even on the worst days in Alexandria, I had never seen my father look so weak.

“Not February tenth,” the priestess said.

Octavian made another mark on his tablet.

“The best day in February will be the twelfth.”

Octavian looked up from his tablet. “The day before Lupercalia?” he challenged.

The priestess would have responded, but suddenly lightning cracked through the sky and thunder shook the walls of the atrium.

“The augurs!” Octavian shouted. “Go to the collegium and bring the augurs!”

Alexander turned to Marcellus. “What’s happening?”

“Thunder,” he replied fearfully. “It’s a terrible omen.”

Lightning flashed again, and the thunder clapped, bringing with it a fresh torrent of rain. Octavia said curtly, “Get to the library!”

We crowded into the library, where Juba helped Octavia light the oil lamps until the paneled room glowed a burnished orange. The priestesses huddled together near the brazier, but it was the woman who had spoken who looked the most fearful. If the augurs came and declared that the gods were upset with her pronouncement, it might mean any number of terrible things for her.

“What does this portend?” Octavian asked. He was looking at Juba, who had taken a seat next to the brazier. Outside, rain poured into the fountains and pool.

“We should wait for the augurs,” Juba said.

I was close enough to hear Tiberius whisper to Juba, “You don’t really believe it means anything? It’s the precursor of rain. That’s it!”

“The augurs are coming,” Juba said firmly.

“But you don’t believe them! Tell the truth. Even Cicero mocked the augurs.”

“And Cicero ended his days with his head on the rostrum,” Juba said forcefully.

Some of the priestesses whimpered, and an uneasy silence fell over the library. I imagined the augurs tucked in comfortably on their couches, buried beneath heavy piles of blankets until a slave summoned them into the rain and wind. What sort of mood would they be in when they arrived? Angry enough to condemn a priestess of Juno?

When a slave appeared at the door, everyone sat up. “They’re here, Domine.”

Octavian rose. “Bring them in!” He looked at Agrippa. “Nothing must go wrong with this marriage. It must be blessed by all of the gods.”

The first augur who entered looked eager to please. He shepherded the others inside the crowded library, and addressed his first question to Octavian. “We are humbled to be of service, Caesar. Is it the thunder that brings us here today?”

The priestess of Juno explained what had happened, and Octavian added, “As soon as she made the pronouncement, it came. There had been no thunder the entire morning. For days, there hasn’t been any lightning.”

“And where did the lightning come from?” the augur asked.

“The east,” Juba said.

Octavian frowned. “I didn’t see that.”

“Because you were writing. I was watching the skies.”

The first augur lifted his arms. “Then it is a sign of blessing!”

Octavia placed her hand on her heart, and her brother persisted, “Even though the chosen day is the day before Lupercalia?”

A second augur nodded. “The gods have spoken.”

Tiberius gave Juba a triumphant glance, but Juba was too polite to respond with anything but a curt nod. He’s lying, I thought. He doesn’t believe in this and just wants it to be done. No one can know whether it came from the east or the west. But no one said anything, and Agrippa’s wedding date was set for the twelfth day of February.

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