CHAPTER THREE

ALEXANDRIA

July 1, 29 BC

 THE VESSEL that was to bear us toward Rome was my mother’s thalamegos, a ship so large that its pillared courtyards had once hosted my father’s mock battles on horseback. From the docks, I could hear the Roman soldiers exclaiming in delight over every small detail on board: the fountains and potted palms in the grottos, the ivory-paneled bedrooms with their gilded images of Isis, the cedar chairs and embroidered couches. But even though all of our trunks were packed, Octavian wouldn’t leave before the taking of the auspices.

Alexander and I stood together on the dock while Octavian held up a frightened quail. Juba passed Agrippa a newly whetted knife, and with a deft flick of the wrist, Agrippa slit the neck of the terrified bird. The quail’s blood dripped between Octavian’s fingers, staining them red before trickling onto the planks. The five of us looked to the augur, whose head was covered by a heavy linen cloth.

“What does it mean?” Octavian demanded.

The augur held up his hand and shook his head. “It must make a pattern first.”

Next to me, Juba smiled. “He thinks that by reading the splattering of some blood he’ll be able to tell us whether the gods plan to send this ship to the bottom of the sea,” he said in Parthian. “Of course, if the augur’s wrong, there’ll be no one alive to challenge him.”

“How do you know Parthian?” my brother whispered.

“I’m Caesar’s spy among the people. I wouldn’t be very successful if I didn’t know a few languages, would I?”

I suspected he was being sarcastic when he said “a few,” and suddenly I felt sick. “So you’ve been telling Caesar what we’ve been saying?”

“Why would I do that when nothing you’ve said has been of any interest? But the walls in Rome have ears, Princess.”

“Your ears.”

“And many others.”

Octavian was watching our exchange with interest.

“So you send men to their deaths,” I said to Juba. “To prison.”

“Only if they’re assassins. Why, you’re not planning to assassinate Caesar, are you?” His voice was mocking, but his dark eyes were serious.

“What’s happening?” Agrippa asked.

Juba’s eyes lingered on mine for a moment, then he turned and said pointedly, “I am simply warning the queen’s children that in Rome, many things will be different. I think they understand.” He smiled, but his words were directed at me.

The augur raised his hands to the sky.

“Well? What is it?” Octavian snapped.

“The signs are favorable,” the priest announced, and Octavian exhaled audibly. “Neptune blesses this voyage.”

Agrippa passed the augur a bag of coins. Then the three men escorted Octavian down the dock before I dared to whisper, “He’s heard everything.”

“There’s nothing we’ve said that’s been suspicious. Just questions.”

But Juba had looked into my eyes and known what I wanted to do. Octavian had murdered Antyllus and Caesarion. He had given my mother and father no choice but to take their own lives. Even Charmion and Iras were dead. After eleven months, it still hurt to swallow when I thought of them all resting in their marble sarcophagi inside my mother’s mausoleum. Seven days after Octavian’s speech in the Gymnasium, their funeral processions had wound through the streets of Alexandria, collecting so many mourners that the Roman army had needed every last soldier to keep order in the city. Now everyone was gone. Everything but a few chests of silks had been taken from us. And when my brothers each turned fifteen, what would happen to them? Death was inevitable, perhaps preferable to what we would suffer in Rome. And if death was inevitable….

We watched the soldiers as they tried to force a horse from the sand onto the wooden dock. The horse wouldn’t move. The men tried whistling to it. Octavian slapped its rear, and when one of the soldiers raised a whip to beat it, Ptolemy covered his eyes.

“Stop!” Alexander shouted. He crossed the pier and approached the men. “He’s just afraid of the water,” Alexander told them.

Some of the soldiers laughed. A fat soldier shouted to the one with the whip, “So beat the horse until it moves.”

“No!” Alexander said angrily. “He still won’t move.”

The man with the whip crossed his arms over his chest. “Why not?”

The fat one sneered. “Are you going to listen to an eleven-year-old boy?”

“He should,” I said quickly. “He knows horses better than anyone else.”

“So why won’t the horse move?” Octavian demanded.

Alexander’s hair was wet with sea spray, and in the bright summer sun his skin had turned to bronze. He was handsome, and some of the soldiers were leering. “Because he isn’t the lead horse. My father trained the lead. If you bring him, he’ll board your ship, and if the others are watching, they will, too.”

Agrippa turned to look at the herd of horses shifting nervously on the shore. “Which one is the leader?”

My brother pointed to a large bay mount. “Heraclius.”

Octavian glanced at my brother. “Fine. Then bring him up.”

Alexander walked confidently toward the pack, and the soldiers’ murmuring died down. Upon seeing him, the horse immediately lowered his head, sniffing my brother’s outstretched hand for the treats he normally brought. My brother whispered something into Heraclius’s ear, stroking his wide flank with one hand as he took the horse’s reins in the other. Slowly, whispering all the time, he walked onto the dock, and Heraclius followed obediently.

“You can bring the others now,” Alexander said, and when none of the horses put up a struggle, Octavian studied my brother.

“I remember your father was a great man for horses,” he remarked.

Alexander looked away. “Yes.”

Octavian nodded. “Has everything been loaded from the mausoleum?” he asked Juba, and my father’s memory returned to dust.

“Every last talent.”

But the soldier with the paunch squinted in the sun. “Not the girl’s necklace. And what about the children’s crowns?”

“They’re simple bands of pearls,” Juba said testily. “Perhaps you’d like to take their clothes as well?”

“The children may keep whatever they’re wearing. I want to leave,” Octavian announced.

Alexander reached out to take my arm, but I stepped away.

“This might be the last time we ever see the Museion,” I said. Or the palace, or the Temple of Isis and Serapis. “I’ve never sketched Alexandria from the harbor,” it occurred to me.

“We’ll be back,” my brother said sadly. He looked beyond the water to the city of marble that had been built over hundreds of years by the Ptolemies. In the brilliant sunshine, the city rose like a blinding white beacon, home to the greatest minds in the world.

“I want to stay.”

“Octavian is already on board,” my brother warned.

“And who cares what Octavian is doing?”

“You should.” Alexander, always the practical one, added bitterly, “you’ve seen how it’s been these past months. Nothing happens for us now without his say.” He took little Ptolemy’s hand in his. But I remained on the pier, and only turned away when Agrippa said that it was time. He led the three of us to our cabin, the same one Alexander and I had shared when our mother took us to Thebes every winter.

“This door is always to remain open,” Agrippa instructed. “Do not close it. Do not lock it.”

“Even when we sleep?” Alexander asked.

“Even then. If you would like food, you may ask me. If you are sick, go to the railing, but never disturb Caesar for anything.”

Our room faced onto an open courtyard where Octavian was already reclining on a couch, scribbling across a scroll with his reed pen.

“Caesar spends most of his day writing,” Agrippa explained. “There is never a time when he isn’t busy. If he wants to hear noise, he will ask for the harp.”

Alexander and I both looked to Ptolemy. How would a seven-year-old child keep silent on a two-month voyage? And we weren’t even allowed to shut the door.

I sat on one of the cedar beds and pulled Ptolemy onto my lap. “You are going to have to be very quiet on this ship. Do you understand?”

He nodded, and his curls bounced up and down. “Will Mother be coming?”

I looked at Alexander.

“No, Mother won’t be coming,” he said softly. “Don’t you remember?”

Two small lines creased Ptolemy’s brow. “She’s with Father, in Elysium?”

“That’s right.” Alexander seated himself on the second bed, and we avoided each other’s gaze. Outside, Juba and Agrippa joined Octavian in the courtyard as the ship wrenched away from the port. With the door open, we could hear their conversation.

“It’s finally over,” Juba said, reclining on a separate couch.

“It’s never over.” Octavian looked up from his scroll. “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

“Then perhaps Plato was wrong, and you’ll forge something different. Who in Rome is going to challenge you now?”

Octavian smiled. “Antony did me a favor by getting rid of Cicero. He taught the Senate a powerful lesson. Seneca and the rest of the old beards will keep their silence.”

“For now,” Agrippa warned.

“Yes,” Octavian said, after a pause. “The danger is no longer with the old men. I must restore the prestige of the Senate. I must make equestrians’ sons want to be senators again.”

“That would mean convincing them to come out of the whorehouses first,” Agrippa said dryly.

“Then I will close the whorehouses!” Octavian flushed. “They are breeding grounds for rebellion.”

“And you will have a different kind of rebellion on your hands,” Juba said. “The boys visit them because they have nothing better to do. But if you increase the Senate’s pay and power, they will think you are bringing back the Republic and they’ll leave the whorehouses on their own. That was what Caesar forgot, and what Antony never knew.”

The three of them looked into our cabin, and Octavian beckoned to Alexander with his finger.

“Me?” my brother asked.

Octavian nodded, and my brother stood.

“What are you doing?” I demanded.

“He wants me to go.”

While Alexander crossed the short distance between our room and where Octavian sat, Ptolemy cried sharply, “You’re hurting me.” I was holding him so tightly I was crushing his chest.

“Tell me about your father,” Octavian said.

Alexander looked back at me, wondering what kind of game Octavian was playing.

“He loved my mother,” Alexander replied.

“And horses.”

Alexander raised his chin, and the long white chiton he was wearing flapped in the warm sea breeze. “Yes. He taught me to ride as soon as I could walk.”

“They say your father held races every day of the week. Is that true?”

Alexander grinned. “Yes. There was nothing he loved more than the races.”

“Even his kingdom,” Octavian remarked, and I saw Alexander flinch. “Tell me about your sister. Did he teach her to ride as well?”

My brother’s voice was not so bright when he replied. “No. She sketches.”

Octavian frowned.

“Drawings of buildings and temples,” he explained.

“Bring one to me.”

Alexander returned to our cabin, and I shook my head angrily.

“Never!” I hissed. “Didn’t you hear him? He thinks our father squandered away his kingdom.”

“And what did our father like more than races and wine?”

I thought of my father’s last request, and sat back among the cushions.

“He asked, Selene. What if this is a test? Please. Give him the one overlooking Alexandria. The one you drew at the Temple of Serapis.”

Ptolemy looked up at me with his wide blue eyes, waiting for me to tell him to get my book.

“Selene,” Alexander whispered nervously, “they’re waiting.”

It was true. Beneath the potted palms of the courtyard, the three men were watching us, though so long as we kept our voices low they couldn’t hear what we were saying. “Pass me my leather bag.”

Ptolemy scurried across the bed for my bag. He handed it to me as if it were a rare and precious stone, and I took out the leather-bound book of sketches, with its title neatly penned by Charmion in gold ink. Her father had been a great architect in Egypt. When she was young he had taught her the beauty of building and the precise penmanship required of architects, and then she had passed these abilities on to me.

“Hurry,” Alexander implored.

I flipped through the pages and unfolded a loose sheaf. It was an image of Alexandria: her roads, her temples, the palaces that spread like the feathery wings of a heron across the Lochias Promontory. Charmion had taught me to pay attention to even the smallest details, and I had captured the sea foam as it broke against the Lighthouse, and the still faces of the marble caryatids that lined the Canopic Way.

Alexander snatched the parchment from my hand and returned with it to the sunny courtyard. Agrippa saw it first, then Juba, and by the time it made its way to Octavian, all three men had fallen silent. Octavian pushed back his wide straw hat to see it better.

“Your sister drew this?”

“When she was nine, from the Temple of Serapis.”

Octavian ran his finger over the drawing, and I didn’t need to lean over his shoulder to know what he was seeing. His eyes would be drawn first to the Lighthouse, whose four corners were crowned by bronze images of the sea god Poseidon. Then he would see the great statue of Helios, copied from the colossal masterpiece in Rhodes and straddling the Heptastadion. From there he would see the Museion, the towering obelisks taken from Aswan, the theater, the public gardens, and the dozens of temples dedicated to our gods.

“Your sister has great talent. May I keep this?”

From the cabin, I gave a little gasp. “No!”

The men turned, and Alexander said quickly, “She’s talking to Ptolemy. Of course you may keep this.”

I pressed my nails into my palms, a nervous habit I had picked up from Charmion, and Ptolemy asked, “What’s the matter?”

“Our brother is giving away my things.”

His little features were bunched up in confusion. “But we already gave away all of our things from the palace.”

“No,” I replied, barely containing my rage. “They were taken. And now Octavian wants this as well.”

When Alexander returned, I couldn’t bear to look at him.

“What’s the matter with you?” my brother whispered harshly, pushing back the hair that escaped from his diadem. “We’re not in Alexandria anymore.”

“No, because the man you are giving gifts to murdered our family!”

“Do you think if our father had won he would have kept anyone alive? Even Octavian’s heirs?”

“He has no heirs! Just a girl.”

“Then if he did?”

“So we’re alive! For now. And only because Octavian doesn’t want to parade three stinking corpses through the streets of Rome. Wait until the Triumph is over,” I warned. “Antyllus was murdered at the feet of Caesar’s statue, and Caesarion was beheaded. What do you think will happen to us?”

“Exactly what he said. We will be given away in marriage.”

“And how is that better than death? To marry a Roman?”

“Our father was Roman.”

“Perhaps by blood, but in every way that counted he was Greek. The way he dressed, the gods he worshipped, the way he spoke—”

“Not on the battlefield.”

I looked up, and Alexander’s light brown eyes were blazing.

“You didn’t see him in the stadiums,” he said, “preparing for battle or racing chariots. All he ever spoke was Latin.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Why would I lie? Our father was a Roman, even if he never put on a toga.” When I didn’t say anything, Alexander shook his head. “You are very stubborn.”

“And you are very trusting,” I said accusingly.

“Why shouldn’t I trust? We have no other choice!”

“Stop it! Stop it!” Ptolemy cried. He put his hands on his ears and screeched, “Stop fighting!”

Octavian had gone back to his work, but Juba looked up from his couch.

“You see what you’ve done?” Alexander said to me, casting a look over his shoulder. “Agrippa warned us to be silent.”

“Ptolemy, we aren’t fighting,” I said comfortingly. But he had put his head down on my pillow, and I could see that his pale skin was flushed. I placed the back of my hand on his cheek. “Alexander, he’s hot.”

My brother crossed the cabin to feel Ptolemy’s brow. “He probably needs sleep.”

But even though Ptolemy slept for much of the next few days, his cheeks remained flushed. Alexander and I devised quiet games to play with him, even while he lay on the pillows of his bed, but by the third day, he was too tired even to play.

“There’s something the matter with him,” I said. “It isn’t normal.”

“It’s just a fever,” Alexander replied. “We had it in Thebes. It’ll break with enough water and rest.”

So we brought Ptolemy fresh juices and fruit. And while he lay, I sketched my mother’s thalamegos. Alexander read from my mother’s library, scrolls she had chosen for the ship herself. But it hurt me too much to read them, and whenever he brought them back to our cabin I turned away so I wouldn’t have to smell the faint scent of her jasmine on the papyrus.

On our fifth morning at sea, Alexander lowered a scroll onto his lap. “Who do you miss the most?” he asked quietly.

I glanced at Ptolemy, to make sure he was still sleeping. “Charmion,” I admitted. “And Mother.”

My brother nodded.

“And you?”

“Petubastes,” he replied, and I could see that he was struggling to hold back his tears as he recalled the young priest of Ptah who had been our Egyptian tutor in the Museion. “And Father, of course. Have you seen all the statues they took from Alexandria? Octavian has them in the library, and there’s one of Petubastes. Juba is labeling each one for sale.”

“And what does Juba know about Egyptian history?” I demanded.

“He’s a writer.” I didn’t know where Alexander came by this information, but he seemed certain of it. “He’s already written three books on history.”

“At eighteen?” I challenged.

“Nineteen.”

“So he’s a writer as well as a spy.” I despised the Prince of Numidia, who had turned his back on his ancestry to become close to Octavian. But that afternoon, when I had run out of subjects to draw, my curiosity overcame my dislike. I had intended to keep away from my mother’s library, but I wanted to see what had been taken from Egypt.

When I arrived, the doors of the library were already thrown open, and light streamed from the windows onto the rich panels. Hundreds of statues and stolen shrines were pressed against the walls. But aside from marble faces, the room was empty. I stepped inside, then heard the swift footsteps of someone rushing to hide.

“Who’s there?” I demanded, and a man appeared at my mother’s wooden desk. I could see from his unmarked tunic that he was a sailor, and he was holding a statuette of Isis in his hands.

“Well, good morning.” He took several steps toward me and smiled. “The men were right. You are a pretty girl.”

Immediately, I turned to run. Then a streak of metal flashed in the doorway and someone’s arm lashed out. A heavy blade struck deep into the panels where the sailor was standing, and at once the man dropped the statuette. I didn’t move. I didn’t even breathe.

“I hope you are going to return that,” Juba said.

The man bent to collect the statuette, but as he replaced it on the table, his trembling hands knocked it over and broke a tiny arm. When he rushed to leave, Juba caught him by the neck.

“You will never touch anything that belongs to Caesar.” The man did his best to choke out a response, but Juba tightened his grip. “The next time, I will aim for your throat,” he promised. He shoved the man away, then turned his black gaze on me. “What are you doing here?”

“A scroll,” I lied swiftly. “I—I just wanted something to read.”

“So find it,” he said angrily, and made his way to the desk. He picked up the broken arm of the goddess and held it up to the light before discarding it into an empty amphora.

“No! Don’t throw it away.”

He looked up, and I could see that he did not wish to be disturbed.

“That’s a very old statue,” I told him.

“Well, thank you, Princess. Unfortunately, not many Romans are interested in purchasing broken statues of Egyptian goddesses. But since you’re so interested in art, why don’t you tell me which pieces you believe to be the most important?”

I had seen Juba in his fury, and did not wish to make “him” any angrier, so I pointed to a statue, and he raised his brows.

“Tuthmoses I?” Juba asked.

I was impressed that he could identify a Pharaoh whose reign had been more than a thousand years earlier. “How did you know?”

“I can read hieroglyphics,” he said curtly. “What else?”

I pointed to the bronze bust of Dionysus, and suddenly tears were welling in my eyes. I tried to blink them away before Juba could see.

“You can weep, but it won’t bring them back,” he said cruelly. “Kingdoms rise and fall on whims of the gods.”

“Isis has never turned her back on Egypt! She will bring me home.”

Juba’s voice grew threatening. “I would be very careful where I said that, Princess.”

But I raised my chin, determined not to be afraid. “I know about you. Julius Caesar killed your own mother and brother. But I’ll never bow to Rome.”

“How very brave.” Juba’s lips twisted into a sardonic smile. “Perhaps you’ll feel differently after the Triumph.”

I spun around and crossed the library. But before I left, I glimpsed the basalt statue my brother had seen of Petubastes. The priest’s face was beautiful even in stone, and a hastily chiseled inscription indicated the day of his death at sixteen years old. When I reached out to touch it, I glanced back and saw Juba watching me, then thought better of it and walked away.

Inside our cabin, Alexander was pacing.

“Where have you been?” he cried.

“In the library.”

“Well, I’ve been looking for you.” I followed his gaze to the bed. Ptolemy was a sickly color. He lay between the cushions, hardly moving. “He’s burning even hotter than before.”

“Then we must find the ship’s physician!”

“He already came.”

When my brother didn’t add anything more, I felt my chest constrict. “And?”

Alexander remained silent.

“And what did he say?” When Alexander only shook his head, I rushed to Ptolemy’s side. “Ptolemy,” I whispered, pushing his hair away from his brow. He was as hot as Alexander had said. Slowly he opened one of his pale blue eyes.

“Selene.” He reached out and placed his small hand in mine; the tears ran hot down my cheeks onto his palm.

For the next three days Alexander and I kept a constant vigil at Ptolemy’s bed. When Octavian took his meals in the courtyard, we didn’t join him. When the sailors spotted dolphins alongside the ship and pronounced it a good omen, we didn’t go to see. The three of us were the last of the Ptolemies. We had nothing more in the world than each other.

Several times a day, Agrippa brought trays of fruit, and once, when the physician said there was no hope, Agrippa found a slave in the galleys who had studied medicine in his native Macedonia.

“Caesar wants all three children alive for his Triumph,” Agrippa explained. “I will give you a hundred talents to cure him.” But even for the price that would buy his own freedom, there was nothing the Macedonian could do. Frustrated, Agrippa shoved a bag of gold at the man. “Take it!” he said angrily.

“But I can’t heal him, Domine.” He used the Latin word for “master,” and I could see he was afraid. “He’s too sick.”

“Then just take it and go!”

The man left the cabin before Agrippa could change his mind, and I buried my face in my hands.

“You will keep the door closed,” Agrippa said. “Caesar sickens easily. We must move the two of you to a different cabin.” But even though Alexander and I protested at this, Agrippa was firm. “Caesar wants you alive.”

In the end, it didn’t matter. Before a new cabin could be found near the royal courtyard, Ptolemy began to moan. I pressed his little hand in mine, and whenever the pain was too great, he bunched his fingers into a fist, squeezing his eyes shut as if he could squeeze out the world. He couldn’t eat, he couldn’t even drink, and by morning his small body lay rigid on the silk sheets of the bed.

“Ptolemy,” I whispered when he didn’t move. “Ptolemy!” I cried.

Alexander shook him. “Wake up! Ptolemy, we’re almost there. Wake up!” But even such a lie wouldn’t open his eyes. Although Alexander began to weep, I was too numb to cry. Perhaps the Ptolemies had angered the gods. Perhaps Juba was correct, and we would all die by Fortune’s whims.

I smoothed my little brother’s hair from his brow, then opened his fingers so they could finally relax. “My little prince,” I whispered.

But my brother stood up from Ptolemy’s bed in a rage. “What have we done? Why are the gods punishing our family like this?”

“Shh!” I said sharply. “Give him some peace! He heard enough anger in life.”

Alexander sank to the bed and put his face in his hands. “Why?”

I didn’t have an answer.

When the news was sent to Octavian, the Macedonian slave returned to collect Ptolemy’s body for a burial at sea. But Alexander stood guard in front of the bed.

“Only murderers are buried at sea!” he cried.

“I’m sorry, Domine, but these are orders from Caesar himself.”

“Then tell him no!” my brother shouted.

Agrippa appeared, and the Macedonian shook his head. “They want to keep the body.”

Agrippa stared at my brother. “We have many days left at sea, and no embalming materials to keep his body fresh. Let your brother rest with Neptune, Alexander.”

While the Macedonian wrapped Ptolemy in the sheets of his bed, I strained to see his golden head one last time, and the little lips that had so often trembled in fear. He’d been a timid child, and my mother’s favorite after Caesarion. I should have looked after him better, I thought. He was too young to survive so much upheaval.

We followed the slave into the crisp morning air, then through the royal courtyard to the side of the ship. All the important members of Caesar’s retinue were gathered. A priest of Apollo said several words in prayer, and each face was solemn, even Octavian’s. I held on to Alexander’s arm to keep myself from collapsing on the deck. And when the Macedonian dropped the tiny body into the sea, my brother dashed to the railing. “Ptolemy!” he cried desperately. “Ptolemy!” Agrippa held him back.

“Take him to the courtyard,” he instructed. “Find him some food and good Chian wine.” Several men escorted my brother away, but I remained on the deck, letting my hair whip in the wind, too tired to push it away.

He hadn’t even been given a decent burial. The blood of Alexander the Great and Marc Antony had run through his veins, and he’d been tossed into the sea like a criminal. But what better fate lay ahead for Alexander and me? Octavian had said he would keep us alive, but if he’d lied to the Queen of Egypt about leaving for Rome in three days instead of eleven months, what would stop him from lying to us? He was never going to parade my mother through Rome. I knew now that Caesar had tried it with Arsinoë, and instead of cheering, the people had revolted. They were shocked by such treatment of a woman, and the sister of the Queen of Egypt, no less. My mother had never faced any future but imminent death, and if Octavian hadn’t fooled her into taking her own life, he would have found someone to kill her. And once his Triumph in Rome was finished, why should our future be any different?

I thought of the many terrible ways there were to die, and wondered if Ptolemy had escaped worse pain. I put my hand on the polished rail. With one jump, there would be no more tears, no more loneliness.

“I wouldn’t think it, Princess.”

My back tensed. I had thought everyone had left, but I spun around to face Juba. In his vermilion toga, he looked more regal than Octavian in his homemade tunics and broad-brimmed hats.

“Have you ever seen the body of a drowned man?” he asked. “It swells five, even six times its size, then turns black until the skin peels away.”

My knuckles grew white as I gripped the rail.

“Do you want to end up as a bloated corpse abandoned at sea?”

“Better than a corpse abandoned in Caesar’s prison!” But I turned from the railing and Juba got what he wished for. Alexander and I would be alive for Octavian’s Triumph.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!