Common section


25 BC

 ON THE morning of our fifteenth birthday, Alexander woke me with a kiss. “Felicem diem natalem, Selene.”

I bolted upright. “What’s the matter? What?”

Alexander laughed. “Nothing! I’m wishing you a happy birthday. Julia and Marcellus are here. They want to take us to the Circus, and then to the theater.”

“Already? What time is it?”

“Almost noon. Good thing you weren’t meeting Vitruvius today. You must have had too much wine last night.” My brother grinned. We had stayed up long past midnight, laughing and talking, but most importantly, helping Marcellus plan for the Ludi Megalenses.

I rushed into a heavy tunic and cloak, sweeping up my hair into a loose bun, and while I dressed, Alexander regarded the handsome marble plaque of the Gemini.

“Do you really think the war will be over in six months?” he asked worriedly.

“I hope not. The longer Augustus stays in Iberia, the better for everyone.”

There was a knock at the door, and Alexander called brightly, “Come in.”

I’d expected Julia or Marcellus, but it was Octavia who appeared, carrying honeyed cakes and a letter. I glanced at Alexander, and he touched the bulla around his neck. While I would wear mine until the day of my marriage, he would offer his to the Lares today. As long as we wore our bullae, we were no threat to anyone. But what would Augustus do with us now?

“Felicem diem natalem!” Octavia exclaimed. “Fifteen years old and a new year before you.” She set the cakes down and smiled. “I hear that my son is taking you to the Circus. That doesn’t seem like much of a treat for Selene.”

I smiled briefly. “We’re going to the theater afterward. Marcellus says it will be a comedy.” I looked at the letter in her hand.

“From my brother,” she said meaningfully. “Seven came yesterday. One was for Agrippa, and a few were for generals in his army. But this one,” she said, taking a spot on the third couch where Marcellus used to sit, “might interest you. Perhaps you’d like to hear it?”

Alexander looked at me, and both of us nodded. Octavia unfurled the scroll and read:

On this, the fifteenth year of their birth, I hope you will wish the Gemini well. There is nothing nearly as momentous as the passing from childhood to adulthood, and it is an occasion that merits serious consideration. When I return, it will be my foremost duty to see that a good marriage is made. Be sure to warn the princess Selene, so that when the time comes she has made herself ready.

Octavia looked up at me with a triumphant smile.

“That’s it?” I panicked. “What about Alexander? What about our return to Egypt?”

Her smile faltered. “I’m sure that will all come in time. My brother’s still at war. When he returns—”

“But why does he have to wait? When Gallus committed suicide,” I challenged, “Augustus named a new prefect while he was still in Gaul.”

“That was a different situation,” she said uneasily. “For now, we should celebrate this news. Another wedding!”

Alexander reached for my hand. “And what if we don’t want to be married?” he asked.

Octavia frowned. “Every girl wishes to marry at least once. And what man doesn’t want to take a wife?”

“We don’t,” I said. “Alexander and I enjoy each other’s company, and I don’t see any reason why we should part.”

Octavia lowered the letter to her lap. “But this is good news, Selene. You’ll have a house of your own, like Julia and Marcellus.”

“Who love each other!” I protested. “You know better than anyone what comes of an unwanted marriage.”

She flinched, and though I regretted hurting her, it was the truth.

“And what will Alexander do,” I asked, “given to a girl he doesn’t even know?”

“Most husbands don’t know their wives. It’s an arrangement—”

“That we don’t want!”

She sat back, shocked by my reaction. But clearly Augustus had known, otherwise he wouldn’t have warned her to prepare me. “We shall discuss this in a few months,” she said. “But I see no reason why the two of you should have to be parted simply because you’ll be married.”

“What if one of us goes to Egypt and the other to Greece? Or what if Alexander isn’t sent to Egypt at all, and we’re sent to live at opposite ends of the empire? Livia might marry us off to anyone.”

“This is not a decision to be made by Livia. It is one my brother shall make.” She rose, looking deeply regretful. “I should not have read this to you. This day should be free from worry. They will be good matches,” she promised, “and happy marriages.” But I didn’t see how she could ensure that.

Julia and Marcellus were waiting for us in the atrium, and when they saw our faces, they wanted to know what had happened.

“A letter from Augustus,” my brother replied.

“Apparently, we’re to be married,” I said.

“To whom?” Marcellus exclaimed.

“Not Tiberius?” Julia asked in alarm.

I recoiled. “No. Livia would never allow that.”

“Well, so long as it’s not him,” she said brightly, “how bad can it be?”

“Think of Horatia,” I retorted, “or any number of terrible marriages. In Egypt, women are allowed to choose their husbands.”

Marcellus put his arm around my shoulders. “Just remember who is heir,” he whispered, and I smiled despite myself.

Aside from the contents of Augustus’s letter, it was a wonderful day, the best birthday I could remember having. As usual, Alexander won his bets at the races. It had rained the night before, but he knew which horses preferred wet tracks to dry, and after taking out the small scroll on which he recorded past performances, he bet on the Whites.

“Fifty denarii to the Prince of Egypt,” the bet-maker said, handing him a heavy red purse. “And another fifty for you.” He passed a second purse to Marcellus.

We took the winnings with us to the Forum, where we all bought nivem dulcem even though we were freezing, then washed it down with warm honeyed wine.

At the theater, Lucius critiqued the dreadful speech making and the five of us shouted, “Bring on the Bear!” It was an awful play, but none of us cared. We laughed at the senator who fell asleep in his seat, and at the woman whose snores were disturbing the actors. By the time Alexander and I returned to our chamber, the sun had long since set, and the guards looked ready to collapse.

“Felicem diem natalem,” he repeated, then embraced me tightly. “Sleep well.”

“Where are you going?”

He smiled.

“And you don’t think Octavia will know?”

“It’s just for one night.”

“It’s been many nights,” I said sternly. “The slaves talk.”

“Then let them. In six months,” he added darkly, “we’ll both be married. We might as well enjoy our freedom while we can.”

I watched as he disappeared down the hall, then shut my door and blew out the oil lamps. As I was closing my eyes, I imagined that I heard footsteps in the atrium, and I wondered if my brother had changed his mind. But the door didn’t open, and I fell into a deep sleep filled with strange dreams.

Then, suddenly, I awoke with a start. There was the sound of sandals slapping against marble, then a wail like the scream of a wounded animal tore through the villa, shattering the stillness. Doors were being opened and shut, and slaves were shouting to one another for lamplight. I rushed from my couch and put on my cloak, but I couldn’t find my sandals. By the time I found them, I could hear women crying and Vitruvius’s voice shouting orders over the madness. I fumbled with the door, unable to find the handle in the darkness, then flung it open and stepped into the hall.

Outside, Antonia and Tonia were already up, shivering in their heavy linen sheaths.

“What’s happening?” I cried. But neither would answer me. “Who’s screaming?” I followed their gaze to Lucius’s room, then cried out, “Alexander!”

Antonia reached out to stop me. “Don’t go in there,” she pleaded.

“Why?” Slaves were running with hot water, then Vitruvius appeared with bottles and bandages. I approached the chamber slowly, as if still in a dream, and when I saw what had happened, my legs nearly gave way beneath me.

“Take her away from here!” Vitruvius shouted.

A dozen different men were attending to Lucius, who had been wounded in the chest and was lying on the floor. But on the couch, still dressed in his white tunic and cloak, Alexander wasn’t moving. Several slaves stepped forward to take me away, but I shrieked at them wildly, “Leave me alone!” I rushed to Alexander and took him by the shoulders. Blood seeped through his shirt onto the linens. A deep gash ran along his neck, and when I felt his cheeks they were already cold. “No,” I whispered again and again. “No!” I screamed so that Isis could hear me.

Hands lifted me up, and men began saying things I didn’t understand. There was light, and I saw books and sketches. Someone had laid me down on a couch in the library. Gallia and Magister Verrius appeared, followed by Juba and Agrippa. There were times when I wasn’t sure if I was sleeping or awake. As dawn came, Gallia pressed a cup into my hands.


“I can’t.”

“You’ve been crying all night. You need fluid,” she instructed.

I drank, but didn’t taste anything. I could hear Juba questioning the slaves in the atrium, and when he came to me, I turned my face away.

“Selene,” he said gently.

I closed my eyes.

“I know you don’t wish to speak, but if we’re to find who did this—”

“Just tell me,” I whispered, “is my brother … is my brother gone?”

Both Agrippa and Juba were standing above me, but neither of them spoke.

I opened my eyes. “Is he dead?” I cried.

Gallia rushed to my side. “Selene, he was attacked. He had no chance.”

Tears blurred my vision, then suddenly my mind was as clear as ever. I remembered Augustus’s letter to Octavia. “You want to know who did this?” I demanded.

“Yes,” Juba said.

“Then find Octavia! Tell her to bring you Augustus’s letter!”

Juba frowned at me.

“Do you think I’m lying? Find Augustus’s letter!” I shrieked.

I heard a slave go running, and when he returned, Octavia was with him.

She handed the scroll to me with trembling hands. “What do you want?” she asked nervously. “What’s in the letter?”

I read the first line to myself, just to be sure I wasn’t mistaken, but it was there. On this, the fifteenth year of their birth, I hope you will wish the Gemini well. The Gemini. Meaning Castor and Pollux. The twin sons of Leda, and the brothers to Helen of Troy. Except Castor was killed, leaving Pollux all alone.

I continued reading, only this time, louder:

When I return, it will be my foremost duty to see that a good marriage is made. Be sure to warn Princess Selene, so that when the time comes she has made herself ready.

Tears burned my cheeks, and I looked from one face to the other. “A good marriage,” I repeated. “One! And why just one?” I shouted angrily. “Because he knew my brother would never be married!” When Octavia gasped, I sat up and read: “ ‘There is nothing nearly as momentous as the passing from childhood to adulthood, and it is an occasion that merits serious consideration.’ If these words aren’t a death sentence, then what is? He wanted Alexander dead! The last of the Ptolemies. Antony’s son. And at fifteen, a man!”

“No!” Octavia wouldn’t believe it. “No,” she whispered.

Agrippa said firmly, “We will find these men, and they will be tried.”

But it was a lie. All of it was a lie. Augustus had paraded us through the streets of Rome and made a show of raising us before the people. But always, in the back of his mind, he knew that my brother would never live to wear the toga virilis. First Caesarion, then Antyllus, now Alexander …

Thunder clapped overhead, and I heard Juba say, “Leave the princess alone. She needs her rest.” When Octavia hesitated, he told her firmly, “Go and tend to Lucius.”

My other half. My twin. “How will I live without him?” I whispered.

Gallia placed a warm cloth on my head. “By getting some sleep.”

“But I don’t want to sleep!” I sat up and searched the room desperately. “I want to see him.”

“He’s being dressed for burial.”

“Where?” I cried. “In an unmarked grave? Beneath a plain tombstone on the Appian Way?” I looked up at Juba. “You must have known about this,” I accused.

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Only one man on the Palatine kills for Augustus.”

His jaw worked angrily. “And that man isn’t me.”

“I want you to leave.” When he didn’t move, I screamed violently, “I want you away from here!”

Hurt flickered across his face, then he turned and walked toward the door.

“Juba!” Gallia called after him.

“What are you doing?” I demanded. “He knew about this. He probably planned it!”

“Don’t be a fool,” Gallia said strictly. “He would never do such a thing!”

“How do you know? Who else knows Augustus’s closest secrets?”

“His wife,” she said when Juba was gone. “Livia knows everything.”

“And Livia isn’t here!”

“But her slaves are.” She pushed me firmly to the couch. “They will find them,” she promised, “but you must rest. There is nothing you can do for him now.” Her voice broke, and though she turned, I could see that she was crying.

But she was wrong. There was still one thing I could do.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!