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27—26 BC

 BY THE next day, there was no one in Rome who hadn’t heard the news. Thousands of people flocked to the Senate, where Octavian had promised to relinquish his powers and resign his office in its entirety. Soldiers kept peace in the courtyard outside, where the men looked solemn and a few hysterical women were beating their chests. We stood around the open doors of the Senate, where a space had been cleared for us, and I heard Octavia say, “Make way!”

Vitruvius appeared with a young man at his side, and for a terrible moment I wondered if he had taken a new apprentice.

“Alexander, Selene. My son Lucius,” he said.

Lucius gave me a dazzling smile. He was shorter than my brother, but, like Octavian, he had small heels on his bright golden sandals. When I extended my hand, his kiss lingered. “So you are the one who is bearing my burden,” he said gratefully. “Without you, I would be chained to ink drawings and cement.”

I laughed. “It’s a pleasant burden,” I told him.

“Well, with someone as pretty as you watching over them, the builders must be begging for more work.”

Marcellus laughed at this empty flattery, but Lucius just turned his attention to my brother. “Alexander—”

“There he is,” Marcellus interrupted, pointing through the open doors into the Senate. “He’s taken the podium!”

Octavian was dressed in a plain white toga, and nothing on his person gave any indication that he was Caesar. He was flanked by Juba and Agrippa, and behind them stood the Praetorian Guard. Although Alexander and Lucius were whispering, everyone else in the courtyard was silent.

I had asked Julia whether her father was doing this because of the Red Eagle, but she’d only laughed. “There’s nothing he does without planning it first. He’s probably considered this for months. Years.”

“Then you don’t think he plans on giving up his power?”

Julia had given me a wearied look. “No,” she’d said with practiced cynicism. “He would only be doing this if he thought it would increase it.”

I didn’t see how resigning his office would make Octavian more powerful than he already was. But as he rose to speak, the senators began to revolt. They shouted for him to remain, citing the civil wars that had ripped Rome apart before he had taken power and swearing that this would happen again if he refused. Men pumped their fists in the air, cursing like sailors from Ostia. But Octavian raised his arms and the room fell silent.

“It is time,” he shouted, “for me to give up the reins of power and return the Republic to the citizens of Rome.”

“He can’t mean that!” Marcellus exclaimed.

Octavia twisted her belt strings nervously in her hands. But Livia was smiling, and I thought, Julia’s right. He doesn’t mean that.

“I believe we all remember my adoptive father, Gaius Julius Caesar, who stood before you only seventeen years ago in the purple robes of imperium, with a laurel wreath on his head. Notice that I come before you with none of the trappings of Caesar. I am a humble servant, one who remembers his history well.”

“Then you remember the civil wars!” a senator shouted.

“Yes,” Octavian conceded. “But I also remember my father,” he said harshly, “stabbed to death for attempting to build an empire!”

There was pandemonium in the Senate. A young boy in the doorway repeated Octavian’s words for those standing in the courtyard, and the frenzy outside soon matched the turmoil within.

Octavian raised his arms, and again the senators fell silent. “Having done what I can for Rome,” he went on, “I now lay down my office in its entirety. To you, the esteemed senators of Rome, I return authority over the army, the laws, and the provinces. You are free to govern not just those territories which you entrusted to me, but also those which I fought and won for you.”

Seneca leapt violently from his seat. “This is not acceptable!” he cried. “You fought against Antony, you crushed the kingdom of Egypt, you rebuilt our city and sent forces to police our dangerous hills. You took a republic in chaos and made it into an empire, and we will never allow you to resign!”

Vitruvius turned to Octavia. “Is he paying Seneca?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“He doesn’t have to pay him,” Livia snapped. “The senators don’t want a return to civil war. Without Octavian’s leadership, the clans will go back to fighting and tearing each other apart like wolves.”

“Let us take a vote!” one of the senators shouted.

There were hums of approval, and Octavian raised his hands. “Then I submit my departure to you,” he acquiesced.

Seneca addressed the chamber. “We are voting on the future of Rome,” he said. “There is not a man here who doesn’t know what Octavian has done for this city, for this empire, for all of you! Do you want to return to the days of anarchy? The days of civil war?” he threatened. “Octavian is not another Julius Caesar. He is something different. This is something different. We can share power, and for the first time in the history of Rome, create a joint way of ruling. So let us give him a name in honor of his difference, of his victories, and his sacrifices to build a better Rome. Let us call Gaius Octavius … Augustus.”

There was a roar of approval from the senators, and only a few men remained seated on the benches. From the platform, Octavian bent his head humbly.

Livia looked toward the sky. “He’s done it,” she murmured. The gods seemed to have been watching over her. “He’s made himself emperor.”

The senators resumed their seats, and only Seneca remained standing. “As for leaving office,” he continued, and a chorus of protests met the words, “we shall have a vote as to whether Augustus shall be allowed to resign.”

It was a grand piece of theater, and when all of it was done, we watched as Octavian reluctantly accepted control over the provinces of Syria, Iberia, and Gaul for ten years. Egypt would still belong to him, and the command of more than twenty legions was his as well. But the rest of the provinces and their comparatively small legions would be governed by the Senate, and they would be allowed to choose which praetors would oversee them. The celebration in the streets that followed was as loud and wild as any military Triumph. It was as if Augustus were coming home again victorious from battle.

In Octavia’s villa that afternoon, we prepared for a celebratory feast. Gallia arranged my curls into a loose bun and slipped pearl-tipped pins into my hair. I imagined how beautiful the pins would have looked with my mother’s necklace, then commanded myself not to think about it. Gallia’s freedom and happiness was worth any number of necklaces, and no necklace could bring my mother back. Gallia swept the slightest hint of malachite across my lids, then allowed me to wear a pair of pearl earrings Julia had given to me for Saturnalia. When Alexander saw me, he hummed with appreciation.

“Be careful,” he teased. “All of those senators will be here tonight, and they’re probably tired of looking at Octavian.”

“Did you even hear what was happening?” I asked critically. “Or did you spend the entire time talking with Lucius?”

“Of course I heard! He’s kept his power for ten more years, and we’re all to call him Augustus.”

I looked up at Gallia. “Is it true? Will even Octavia call him that?”

“Yes. Romans are always changing their names.”

I thought of the mausoleum that Vitruvius had already started to build, and all of the inscriptions that would have to be changed.

“So do you think he planned this?” Alexander asked, seating himself next to me at the mirror while Gallia perfumed my neck.

“Julia says he did.”

“So does Lucius.”

“And what does Lucius know?” I demanded. “He lives with his aunt.”

My brother raised his brows. “Not anymore. He’s been talking to his father. Octavia has said he can come and live here.”

“He’s quite the charmer.”

We sat together in silence for a moment. Then I glanced in the mirror. “Do you really think I look pretty?”

“Enough to turn every head in the triclinium,” he promised. “And me?”

I laughed. “You’re always handsome. And what does it matter? There’s no one you have your eye on.”

He smiled uneasily.

“Is there?”

“No,” he confirmed. “It would be foolish to begin anything. We don’t know what Octavian—Augustus—has in mind for us. He could give you to a senator as old as Zeus and me to a witch like Livia.”

“Don’t say that,” I whispered.

“It’s true. That’s why Lucius won’t stay with his aunt. She thinks she’s found a wife for him. Some horrible hag with a villa in Capri. And he’s only a year older than we are.”

“When will he come here?” I asked.

“This evening.”

“So quickly?”

“The more time he spends with her,” my brother said, “the more time she has to bring women home to meet him.”

“But Vitruvius has to approve any marriage.”

“Lucius says Vitruvius trusts his sister’s judgment.”

“So does he think he’ll escape marriage by coming here?”

“Perhaps. Not every man marries, you know. Maecenas didn’t have a wife for years. And Vergil’s in his forties and has never married.”

“They are poets, Alexander. And probably Ganymedes.”

But my brother didn’t seem bothered by the reference to the handsome Trojan boy who was abducted to Olympus to become the lover of Zeus. He simply shrugged. “Maybe.”

For the rest of the night, I studied Alexander. Even when Marcellus poured my wine and complimented me on my earrings, I watched the way my brother talked, how Julia laughed at everything he said, and how Alexander’s eyes never left Lucius. The only time their gazes were parted was when Augustus stood from his couch in the triclinium and declared that tomorrow, another startling announcement would be made.

Julia shook her head. “If my father weren’t consul, he’d be an actor.”

“Is there a difference?” Marcellus asked, and I detected a note of bitterness in his voice. He said he had forgiven his uncle for accusing him of treachery, but I wondered whether he could forgive him for sending guards to pull him out of the fornices.

“What do you think he’ll announce?” I whispered. I looked to Julia and Marcellus, but it was Lucius who spoke.

“War.” When everyone turned to him, he added, “My father says that Augustus wants a new triumphal arch. When he was asked what it was for, he said his continued battle against Gaul, and war in Asturias and Cantabria.”

“Vitruvius never told this to me,” I said, hurt.

“Augustus only asked for the arch this morning.”

“There is rebellion in Gaul,” Marcellus conceded. “And the Asturians have gold, while the Cantabri have iron. They’d be valuable territories. Not to mention that Cantabria is the last independent nation in Iberia that isn’t Roman.”

We all looked at Octavian, bundled in his warmest winter toga and fur-trimmed cloak despite the mildness of March’s weather.

“If he goes to war,” Julia confided, “I only hope he takes Livia along with him.”

On the Ides of April, Julia got her wish. Not only was Livia going to travel with Augustus on the campaign to put down the Gallic rebellion, so were Juba, Tiberius, and Marcellus.

“You can’t go!” Julia said desperately, watching Marcellus pack for what might be two, even three years abroad.

He laughed. “It’s only Gaul. Do you know how many legions have been there before?”

“But anything could happen. Why risk yourself like this?”

“Because someday, if this is ever my empire, I will have to go to war alone. Without your father, or his generals, or Juba.”

“And Agrippa?” Lucius asked. He sat next to my brother on Marcellus’s couch, where a heavy chest was being filled with sandals and clothes. Since he had moved into the villa and started attending the ludus with us, he and my brother had become inseparable, working on their poetry together, gambling at dice, even betting on the same horses in the Circus. I didn’t understand my brother’s fascination with him, yet Julia found the pair of them irresistible, laughing like a hyena whenever the three of them were together.

“He’ll stay behind to govern Rome,” Marcellus said.

My brother started. “But isn’t he—?”

“The architect of my father’s wars? Yes,” Marcellus replied. “But someone needs to watch over the Senate.”

“Agrippa went to Egypt,” I pointed out.

“And every man who wanted Rome for himself was on the battlefield. Now they’re dressed in togae praetexta and call themselves senators.”

I was impressed by Marcellus’s eagerness. Tomorrow he would be riding out with five legions to a war from which he might never return, yet there was only excitement in his voice. I thought of the dangers he would face and the painted Gallic fighters hiding in the thickly wooded passes. I was sure that Isis would never be so cruel as to abandon someone so young and filled with promise. But then why had she abandoned Ptolemy and Caesarion? Where had she been when Antyllus was murdered at the base of Caesar’s statue and my parents lost their kingdom to a thin, weak sapling of a man?

There were tears from nearly everyone the next morning. Julia clung to Marcellus and wept. Then he whispered something in her ear and tenderly wiped away her tears with his finger. When he came to me, he didn’t whisper anything. I was ashamed to admit how afraid I was that he would never come back. But I refused to weep like a child.

“What, no tears?” Juba asked. “He’s about to fight the fearsome Gauls and Cantabri.”

“Isis will watch over him,” I said firmly.

“Perhaps she can use her wings to fly us to Gaul.” Tiberius laughed. “Then we won’t have to worry about barbarians hiding in the trees along the road.”

“Enough,” Livia said, and for once I was thankful to her. I could feel the sting of tears in my eyes, and Juba watched me curiously while Marcellus straddled his favorite horse. The Campus Martius was filled with onlookers waiting for the soldiers to begin their march so they could scatter laurel branches in their path.

I was standing close enough to the horses to overhear Livia whisper to Tiberius, “I’ll be in the carriage. If anything happens, you know what to do.”

“Of course,” he said curtly.

“And you won’t be fool enough to stand in the way of any arrow meant for Marcellus. If the gods wish him to die, you must not challenge their will.”

Tiberius looked at me and saw that I was eavesdropping. I looked away.

Livia walked to Octavia and kissed her sister-in-law good-bye.

“A safe journey,” Octavia said without conviction.

Livia smiled. “Don’t worry for Marcellus. He’s a capable man. And, of course, I’ll watch over him like a son.”

I almost protested, but Octavia had wept all morning, and now the tears came afresh. From atop his horse, Marcellus passed her a small square of linen, which she pressed to her nose.

“It’s nothing, Mother. A short fight and then it’s over.”

Octavia nodded, pretending to believe him, and as the legions moved out, Alexander put his arm around my waist.

“He’ll be back,” he promised.

“How do you know?”

“Because Juba and Agrippa have trained him.”

I watched Juba mount his horse. He had saved both Gallia and me from death, and I felt certain he would do the same for Marcellus. Women whistled in his direction, raising their tunics above the knee, and I suspected that some of them were lupae. “Why are they interested in him?” I demanded.

“Because he’s handsome,” Alexander said.

I gave him a look.

“It’s true,” he admitted. “You may not like him, but the women of Rome obviously do.”

I supposed that Juba was somewhat attractive. His hair was thick and long, a rich color as dark as his eyes. His muscled thighs were exposed on the horse, and I imagined that his chest was just as handsomely sculpted. But he would never have the same easy laugh as Marcellus. There was no one like Marcellus, and as I blinked back my tears, my brother patted my shoulder.

“Augustus doesn’t want anything to happen to him. Marcellus won’t see any of the dangerous fighting. But it’ll be lonely in the ludus,” he said understandingly.

“And the Circus. And the triclinium.”

“At least you have Julia.”

She was my only consolation as the long months passed and Saturnalia approached without any hint that the soldiers would be returning home. We wandered the holiday markets together with Gallia and seven of the Praetorian Guards, but it was strange without Marcellus’s constant chatter and with no one to look pretty for.

“When Marcellus returns home,” Julia said, pausing above a wide selection of wigs, “perhaps I’ll be blond.”

I laughed. “What? Like a lupa?”

“No, like Gallia! Look how beautiful she is.”

“Because I am light,” she told Julia. “With blue eyes and pale skin. You are a Roman. Dark is your color.”

Julia pouted. “Then how will I surprise him?”

I glanced in the mirror above the shopkeeper’s head, wondering whether I would look good with golden hair. But the thought of wearing a slave girl’s shorn-off tresses turned my stomach. Marcellus is not for me, I thought firmly. If he comes home safe, it will be to Julia. But I couldn’t help feeling just a little triumphant that I would have something more than a new wig to show him when he returned. The construction of the theater had already begun near Octavia’s portico, and when given a choice of designs, I had asked Vitruvius to build something like the Circus, with three stories of arches veneered in white travertine and topped by Corinthian columns. He was allowing me to sketch every mosaic and all of the important friezes inside. I picked up one of the shopkeeper’s statuettes and smiled to myself.

“What? Are you thinking of worshipping Roman gods now?”

I looked down and realized that I was holding a statuette of Mars. “Of course not!” I put down the statue at once.

Julia laughed. “He looks like Agrippa, doesn’t he?”

The round marble face and short, cropped hair did look a little like him. “He must be a very loyal man,” I remarked. “All of this time your father has been gone, and he’s never once betrayed him in the Senate.”

“Agrippa would lay down his life for my father. His eldest brother chose the wrong side in the war against Julius Caesar. He fought alongside Cato, if you can imagine, and when Cato was defeated, Julius Caesar took Agrippa’s brother as a prisoner. It was my father who intervened and saved his life, so Agrippa feels as though he owes him,” Julia said. “Sometimes, he comes to our villa just to check on Drusus and me. Of course, there’s the Praetorian Guard to watch over us, but he comes anyway.” She lowered her voice. “And he never betrayed me that night in the Circus.”

I paused. “What night?”

“When my father went searching through Marcellus’s room thinking he was the Red Eagle! Agrippa found us renting a room near the fornices and never told my father that I was there as well.”

There was a sudden pressure on my chest so hard that it hurt to breathe. “You’re the one Marcellus was sneaking out to meet?”

Julia giggled. “Didn’t your brother tell you?”


“Well, you should talk to him more often.”

When we returned to the Palatine, I stormed into my chamber, startling Lucius and Alexander at their work.

“What’s the matter?” my brother asked. “Shopping didn’t go well?”

“You lied to me!”

He scrambled to a seated position on the couch, scattering his scrolls from the ludus. “About what?”

“You never told me Marcellus was meeting with Julia in the fornices!”

“I just found out! Julia only told me a few weeks ago.”

“Weeks?” I cried. “And were you ever going to tell me?”

“He was waiting for the right time.”

I glared at Lucius. “So you know about this as well? My brother tells you everything, but keeps his own twin in the dark?”

“It wasn’t meant to be that way,” Alexander argued.

“Then how was it meant to be?”

Alexander moved across the room and shut the door. “He was meeting with her. I knew it would hurt you and I didn’t want to see you upset.”

“So better to see me embarrassed,” I said heatedly. “Better that I learn about it while shopping in the Forum!” Then another thought occurred to me. “So Marcellus isn’t the Red Eagle.”

“It’s still possible,” my brother said. “Haven’t you noticed that since he’s been gone, not a single actum has been put up?”

“It could also mean the rebel is smart enough to make it look like him.” I crossed my arms over my chest.

“I’m sorry, Selene,” my brother said quietly.

“I wonder how long they’ve been—”

“Only a few months before he left,” he assured me. “Before then, he was seeing a lupa.”

I gasped.

“Everyone’s done it.”

“Have you?” I challenged.

“Of course not me!” He glanced at Lucius. “I mean everyone else.”

I seated myself and closed my eyes, wishing that if I kept them shut, I would never have to see Alexander, or Lucius, or Marcellus’s bright face when he returned and whispered into Julia’s ear.

Lucius perched himself on the arm of my chair, and I opened my eyes. “Come with us to the odeum today,” he said.

“Yes,” Alexander replied. “You never come. And you’re the one who professes to like poetry.” Since Lucius had moved into Octavia’s villa, my brother had begun going with him to the local odea. The little covered theaters hosted musical competitions and poetry readings. And since Marcellus had left, my brother was visiting the odea even more frequently than the Circus. “Come on,” Alexander pleaded. “The one on the Campus is the prettiest little theater you’ve ever seen.”

“It might even give you some ideas,” Lucius prompted.

“Ovid is going to be there,” my brother said temptingly.

“And who is Ovid?”

Alexander and Lucius looked at each other. “Just the greatest young poet in Rome!” Lucius cried. “Come with us!” He took my arm, and I allowed myself to be led to the Campus Martius, where a small stone building welcomed visitors with a handsome mosaic and an ivy-covered arch. Because it was nearly Saturnalia, a green and saffron canopy fluttered over the crossbeams, invoking the colors of fertility and protecting the patrons from the December drizzle. Two men of the Praetorian Guard took seats behind us, and Alexander explained what was about to happen.

“Today is for poetry,” he said. “You see the young man with the red cheeks waiting to go on stage? That’s Ovid.”

“How old is he?” I exclaimed.


“And his family lets him perform?”

“Not everyone’s father refuses to acknowledge the value of literature,” Lucius said.

“What about Horace and Vergil?” I asked.

Alexander wrinkled his nose. “Augustus owns them. All they write is politics now. Ovid writes about what’s real.”

When I frowned, Lucius said, “Love,” then added quickly, “and love’s pain.”

I crossed my arms. “And you think I want to hear about love’s pain?”

“Shh,” Alexander said. “Just listen.”

Ovid took the stage, and immediately the patrons of the Odeum hushed. This was not like Octavian’s theater performances, where men stood from their seats and threw dates at the actors and chanted, “Bring on the bear.” The audience was composed mostly of young men. A few women sat with their friends, giggling and pointing, but everyone grew silent when Ovid declared, “I call this ‘Disappointment.’”

Several men chuckled.

“Why is that funny?” I whispered.

“Because he’s always talking about his triumphs,” my brother said.

Then Ovid began:

But oh, I suppose she was ugly; she wasn’t elegant;

I hadn’t yearned for her often in my prayers.

Yet holding her I was limp, and nothing happened at all:

I just lay there, a disgraceful load for her bed.

I wanted it, she did too; and yet no pleasure came

from the part of my sluggish loins that should bring joy.

The girl entwined her ivory arms around my neck

(her arms were whiter than the Sithonian snow),

and gave me greedy kisses, thrusting her fluttering tongue,

and laid her eager thigh against my thigh,

and whispering fond words, called me the lord of her heart

and everything else that lovers murmur in joy.

And yet, as if chill hemlock were smeared upon my body,

my numb limbs would not act out my desire.

I lay there like a log, a fraud, a worthless weight;

my body might as well have been a shadow.

What will my age be like, if old age ever comes,

when even my youth cannot fulfill its role?

The audience laughed uproariously, and Ovid continued:

Ah, I’m ashamed of my years. I’m young and a man: so what?

I was neither young nor a man in my girlfriend’s eyes.

She rose like the sacred priestess who tends the undying flame,

or a sister who’s chastely lain at a dear brother’s side.

But not long ago blonde Chlide twice, fair Pitho three times,

and Libas three times I enjoyed without a pause.

Corinna, as I recall, required my services

nine times in one short night—and I obliged!

Has some Thessalian potion made my body limp,

injuring me with noxious spells and herbs?

Did some witch hex my name scratched on crimson wax

and stab right through the liver with slender pins?

He went on to describe the shame of not performing, and I stared at my brother in disbelief. When Ovid was finished, the entire audience was on its feet.

Alexander turned to me. “Well, what do you think?”

“It’s disgusting and crass. Is this all that he does?”

“You didn’t like it?” Lucius exclaimed, wiping the tears of laughter from his eyes. “He has other material, too,” he promised. “Entire odes to his mistress Corinna.”

“The one he took nine times?” I asked dryly.

“It’s meant to be satire,” my brother said. “I thought you’d find it funny.”

“Perhaps I’m not in the mood.”

“But the theater is handsome, isn’t it?” he asked.

Grudgingly, I admitted that it was. For a little stone building crushed between two shops in the Campus Martius, it had a certain charm. It wasn’t anything our mother would have frequented in Alexandria, and she would never have condoned our enjoying coarse Latin poetry in a Roman theater with golden bullae around our necks. But then, our mother was gone, and Egypt had been swept up in Augustus’s new empire. Marcellus had been all that made my exile bearable. When I listened to him laughing in the halls of the villa or shouting at the teams in the Circus Maximus, I could forget for a while that Charmion and Ptolemy were dead, that I would never return to the Egypt of my childhood, and that my father’s memory had been expunged from Rome.

Alexander and Lucius tried their best to cheer me, and for a while there was news from Egypt that seemed hopeful. Cornelius Gallus, the poet and politician whom Augustus had set up as prefect over my mother’s kingdom, had fallen from favor and committed suicide. What better time to turn to me and Alexander than now, when Egypt was without a leader? But news arrived just as swiftly from Gaul that a new prefect had been found. So even as Saturnalia came and went, I found little to be happy about.

When my brother and I had our fourteenth birthday on the first of January, Julia presented me with a beautiful pair of gold-and-emerald earrings, but her generosity did nothing but irk me.

“We should go to the Forum,” she said eagerly, “and pick out a silk tunic to match them.”

“And who would I wear it for?” I demanded, ruining the light mood in the triclinium, where Octavia had hung Saturn’s sacred holly branches from the ceiling, and their waxy leaves reflected the lamplight.

Julia frowned. “What do you mean? For yourself. For Lucius.”

“All Lucius does is stare at my brother.”

Julia looked at the pair of them rolling dice in the corner of the triclinium. “So do you think they’re more than friends?” she asked.

I looked at her aghast. “Of course not!”

“They spend all their time together,” she pointed out.

“So do we,” I whispered. “And I’m not your lover. Marcellus is.”

She glanced swiftly at Octavia. “Please don’t tell her, Selene. She would never forgive me if she knew. Please.”

I wanted to reply with something cutting, to tell her that Octavia knew already, but the need in her eyes was too urgent. And why was it her fault that she was the one destined for Marcellus, and not I?

“So you don’t like the earrings?” she asked hesitantly.

“Of course I do.” I attempted a smile. “They’re beautiful.”

“Then we’ll shop for something to match them tomorrow!”

I tried to be in a better mood when we went to the Forum. Even though the weather was grim and a cold mist hung over the streets, I followed Gallia down the Via Sacra in my warmest cloak.

“At least it’s not snowing,” Julia said. “Imagine what it must be like in the mountains of Gaul.”

“How cold does it get there?” I asked Gallia.

“Very bitter,” she replied. “When the snow falls, even the animals go into hiding. Every year there are children who starve for lack of food, and the old women without families are prey for the wolves.”

Julia shivered. “No wonder my father’s letters are so pitiful. He’s sick all the time. And weak.”

“The Gallic winters can do that. If he is wise,” Gallia said, “he will leave his most hearty men there and take the rest south toward Cantabria.”

Julia looked at me, and I knew she was thinking of Marcellus. Somewhere in the cold mountain ranges of Gaul, he was suffering with Juba, Augustus, and Tiberius. Their men were probably wishing for the comforts of home, where holly hung in bright sprigs on their doorposts and the rich scent of cooked goose filled their halls. Some of them would never live to see another Saturnalia, and I wondered how Livia was managing in such a bitter place. Probably just fine, I thought acerbically. She has Augustus all to herself, and Terentilla is eight hundred miles away.

When we reached the Forum, Julia wrapped her cloak tighter across her chest. “Perhaps we should have left this for another time. Let’s take the shortcut,” she suggested.

Gallia led the way through the Senate courtyard, where despite the bitter weather, lawyers were arguing a trial. The heavily dressed men stood at two separate podiums, shielded from the light rain by a thin canopy. A crowd of onlookers had gathered, and I pulled at Julia’s cloak. “Do you think we should see what’s happening?”

“In this weather?” she exclaimed.

“But look at all the people. It might be another trial like the one for the slaves of Gaius Fabius.”

Julia hesitated, torn between the warmth of the shops and curiosity. “Only for a moment. And only if it’s good.”

We stood behind the platform in the space reserved for senators and members of what was now the imperial family. A young defendant had been placed between two soldiers, but it was obvious from her clothes that she was no pleb. The fur of her cloak brushed her soft cheeks, and the sandals on her feet were new and made of leather. Her long braid had been threaded carefully with gold, and no man would have passed her on the street without thinking that she was pretty. It was her lawyer’s turn to speak at the podium, and she listened with downcast eyes.

“You have heard Aquila’s lawyer tell you that this girl was once his slave,” he said angrily. “You have heard him lie like a dog from his mouth and say that she was stolen from him as an infant. So how can Aquila tell that this girl is the same child he purchased fifteen years ago? Does she have the same plump cheeks?” he demanded. “The same fat legs and ear-piercing cry?” The crowd in front of him laughed a little. “And why has Aquila suddenly come forward now claiming that she is his former slave? Could it be that she is pretty?” The crowd shook their heads in disapproval, and a heavy man in a fur cloak narrowed his eyes at them. “Could it be that he has lusted after Tullia for months, and knowing that she is the daughter of an honorable centurion, he has decided that this is the only way to have her?”

“Liar!” the lawyer for Aquila shouted.

“I can prove to you that I’m not lying! This girl you see before you has never been a slave, and I will bring a dozen people who witnessed her birth and who will vouch for her identity.”

“And who are these people?” Aquila’s lawyer challenged. “Slaves who can be easily bought off?”

“Not as easily as judices,” Tullia’s lawyer retorted, and there was a stiffening of backs among the seated men. “It’s true. The midwives of Rome are slaves, but I will bring to you her mother, her father, even her aunts, and you will see the resemblance—”

“They can see a resemblance between you and me!” Aquila’s lawyer scoffed. “See? We both have short hair and dark skin. Does that make me your child?”

Several of the judices laughed, and an uneasy feeling settled in my stomach.

“Tomorrow, I bring witnesses,” Tullia’s lawyer promised. “And when this case must be decided, I ask that you use reason. What man would wait fifteen years before bringing charges of kidnapping? Why Tullia? Why now? And remember,” he warned ominously, “that the next time a man wants to abuse a pretty citizen, she could be your sister, your daughter, even your wife!”

The judices rose, and the crowd began to disperse.

“It’s over?” Julia exclaimed. “Why not bring the witnesses today?”

“Because it is raining heavily now,” Gallia pointed out.

Neither Julia nor I had noticed. We watched the soldiers escort the girl from the platform, and the eyes of the man in fur watched her hotly. She avoided his gaze, looking instead at the weeping woman still standing in the rain. Her mother, I thought sadly. Next to the woman a broad-shouldered centurion placed his hand on his heart in a silent promise. The girl seemed to tremble, then her legs gave way beneath her.

“Tullia!” the man shouted, and I was sure he was her father.

The soldiers lifted her swiftly back onto her feet, and the centurion spun around to the fat man in his furs. “I will kill you!” Her father lunged, but several soldiers moved quickly to stop him.

“Let the judices decide!” Tullia’s lawyer pleaded.

“He’s paid them off!” the father accused. “Even her lawyer knows that their pockets are filled with this maggot’s gold!”

Aquila straightened his cloak. “Be careful,” he warned. “Masters can discard slaves who are no longer useful to them.”

The two men stared at each other for a moment, then the centurion hissed, “If I were you, I’d watch myself. Even maggots have to sleep.”

More soldiers rushed to separate them, splashing through the mud before violence could be done.

“We must come back tomorrow,” Julia said suddenly.

“You will not like it,” Gallia warned. “The judices have been bought.”

“How do you know?”

“You saw their faces. Who were those men laughing for?”

“Aquila’s lawyer,” Julia realized. “But that isn’t fair!”

Gallia turned up her palm. “It is foolish to think that rot can be confined to a single fruit. Once slavery is planted, everything decays.”

We didn’t do much shopping. The rain was falling in heavy gray sheets, and when we reached the shop of a wealthy silk merchant, we huddled around his sandalwood brazier until the rain subsided and we could go out again. Julia purchased a few bolts of cloth in acknowledgment of his hospitality, and instructed him to send the bill to Augustus.

That evening, in Octavia’s triclinium, Julia described what we’d seen in the Forum. As she came to the part about the judices being bought, Octavia sucked in her breath.

“The judices of Rome are men from honorable patrician families.”

“I’m only repeating what the lawyer said.”

“And isn’t it suspicious that a man would wait fifteen years before claiming one of the prettiest girls in Rome as his slave?” Vitruvius asked. “Can it really be said that all patricians are honorable?”

“Perhaps we should go tomorrow,” Agrippa suggested. He looked at his wife.

“I wouldn’t mind the rain,” Claudia replied. “We could dress warmly. And our presence might inspire judices to act on their consciences.”

I was surprised by the simplicity of her thinking. Assuming the judices had really been bought, no one’s presence would speak louder than gold. Agrippa might appear for one day of the trial, but how long would it hold his attention? And what would he do if the judices ruled that Tullia was Aquila’s slave? As Octavia had said, they were men from honorable families. Charging them with corruption would be a heavy thing.

Before Alexander blew out the oil lamps in our room that night, I turned on my side to face him. “It’s a dirty system, isn’t it?”

“No more than in Egypt. And where’s the better way?”

“Perhaps if they forbade slavery—”

But my brother laughed sadly. “And do you think the patricians would allow that? All of their fields, which make them rich, would have to be tended by workers they actually paid.”

“So what? They’re all wealthy enough.”

“It would never pass the Senate. Even if Augustus paid the senators to vote in favor of banishing slavery, they’d be risking their lives. The plebs would revolt. The patricians aren’t the only ones with slaves. And in the end, what would it accomplish? Men would simply forbid their slaves from leaving on punishment of death, and the courts could run every day from now until next Saturnalia before they found judices willing to punish slave killers.”

I was quiet for a moment, angry that he was right. “Are you going to come tomorrow?”

My brother hesitated. “Vergil has a reading—”

“And you would rather be at the odeum instead of watching a trial for a girl’s life?” I sat up on my couch. “Whenever Vergil is invited to the triclinium, you and Lucius hang on his every word,” I said accusingly. “What is it about him? He’s just an old Ganymede.”

“You shouldn’t say that,” my brother replied.

“Why? Isn’t it true?”

“Yes. But he writes about male love in a way that makes it beautiful. If you read some of his works, Selene, you might change your mind.”

I stared at him. “You aren’t in love with Lucius, are you?”

My brother blushed.

“With a man?” I exclaimed.

“We haven’t done anything,” he said defensively. “Just kissed.”

I regarded my brother. His namesake, Alexander the Great, had taken men to his bed and counted the soldier Hephaestion as one of his greatest loves. But he had also taken a wife and given Macedon an heir. “So what do you think you will do when Augustus returns and wants to arrange a marriage for you?” I whispered. “Refuse?”

“No one refuses Augustus. So why spend my last free years—maybe only months—at a trial whose outcome I can’t change, when I can be with Lucius?”

We stared at each other from our couches, and I tried to determine what I felt about this.

“I’m sorry, Selene. It’s nothing I can help.”

“Have you even tried—?”

“Of course,” he said swiftly.

“Why didn’t you tell me this before?” My voice broke.

“I thought you’d be disappointed.”

He waited for me to tell him I wasn’t; that his desire for Lucius was as normal as Marcellus’s desire for Julia. But I kept my silence, forcing him to explain.

“There are many men who aren’t attracted to women. Look at Maecenas. You don’t think it’s a coincidence that Terentilla’s never had a child? Maecenas isn’t interested, while Augustus has her drink the juice of the silphium plant to keep her from getting pregnant by him.”

“How do you know that?” I demanded crossly.

“I heard it from Maecenas.”

“So men who love other men pass on their secrets to one another?”

My brother raised his brows. “Don’t women?”

“And what does Vitruvius think of you two?”

“He doesn’t know. Or maybe he doesn’t want to.”

“So this is why Lucius didn’t want to marry,” I said.

My brother nodded. “Yes. But unless he can support himself or find a generous patron, he will have to someday. And then we’ll both be miserable, instead of just one of us. That’s why I have to encourage his readings in the odeum. There’s nothing I can do about slavery, Selene. But I can help change Lucius’s life.” He held out his hand to me, and slowly I took it.

“This isn’t how I imagined our lives would be when I was Queen of Libya and you King of Armenia.”

Alexander laughed sadly. “Our father had great plans, didn’t he? The kingdom of Parthia hadn’t even been conquered and he crowned me its king.” We both smiled, remembering our father’s irrepressible belief in himself. “Do you think it’s fate that we’ll lead unfulfilled lives?”

I drew back. “Of course not. Augustus may still make you king.”

“After he’s married me off to some widow.”

“But you’re a man! You can do as you please—send her off to the country or keep her in Rome while you return to Egypt. Maecenas is content enough.”

“But what about you?” His voice was so gentle and full of concern that tears sprang to my eyes.

“I don’t know.”

“If you can forget Marcellus, perhaps you’ll find someone else.”

“For what purpose? To have my heart broken again? This isn’t Egypt, Alexander. When Augustus returns, he’ll find me a husband that’s convenient for him, not me. It could be someone like Catullus or even Aquila. And there would be nothing I could do if he forbade me from visiting you in Alexandria.”

“I would never return without you,” he swore.

“Yes,” I said firmly, “you would. It’s your destiny.” I looked outside. The gardens, which shone blue and green every summer, were still dreary and soaked with rain. “I don’t think unhappiness is fated. Look at Gallia. She was forced into slavery and still found happiness.”

“Because you freed her! But even as citizens we aren’t free. Everything we do, from the food we eat to the clothes we wear, is determined by Augustus!”

“And you’ve always been the one telling me to be practical. But now look. You’ve lost your heart to Lucius, and it’s making you crazy.”

My brother turned away. “It would all be different if Augustus died in Gaul, wouldn’t it? Marcellus is old enough now to be Caesar and he would let us marry whomever we wanted. Then we could return to Alexandria.”

“Augustus’s letters to Octavia are always short,” I said eagerly. “And Julia says she heard that he spends most of his days sleeping. He isn’t strong.”

My brother raised his eyes. “From your mouth to Isis’s ears,” he whispered.

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