Chapter 56 in my novel of a (former) Vestal Virgin of ancient Rome and her friendship with Julius Caesar.
On the Ides of Mars’ month, I climbed the Janiculum hill in the morning, to see the queen. “I have a favor to ask of you, O queen,” I told her. She was sitting in a sunny room, enjoying the expansive view from the window, as one slave cared for her feet, and another displayed a selection of jeweled earrings and necklaces which matched her attire for the day.
“Am I to be permitted to do you a favor at last?” she inquired, teasing me. “Name it!”
“I am going to see a man today, one who was my lover years ago, and I wish to look my best. I worry that I appear much older now.”
Cleopatra’s eyes lit up. “But Lucia, you are an ascetic! Now you see the contradiction in the teachings of your synod. On the one hand, you insist on sexual freedom, but on the other, you choose to dress in rags. What to do?”
“Soon I expect to leave the synod, for I wish to sail to Alexandria in the company of this man, and see what is left of the Library. Therefore I must reacquaint myself with the customs and strictures of society.”
“But also its pleasures,” said the queen. “Shall I dress you in the finest silk from the Seres and adorn you with jewels?”
“That delight I must decline, O queen,” I told her. “I have brought the fabric I wish to wear, and I ask your assistance, for in my life before the synod, I was never accustomed to dress myself.”
“You are a woman of mystery, Lucia,” she remarked as I opened the bundle with Danel’s gifts. “Let us see what you have here— fine quality, but dark colors, most suitable for a matron older than yourself. On the other hand, this yellow silk is exquisite. Charmian! Bring Polymele and Aristocleia. We have much to do!”
For the next two hours I was bathed, polished, perfumed (against my better judgment), trimmed, styled and draped by the queen’s women, while she watched critically and directed their efforts. Charmian admonished me to stop fidgeting. In truth, I was too tense to enjoy their ministrations, for my mind dwelled on the senatorial session in Magnus’ theatre. Would Caesar allow himself to be cut down there? Or would he attempt to arrest the conspirators?
Polymele gave me a fine linen tunic, and arrayed me in the deep azure robe. This was secured with Danel’s silver pins, which the women polished until they glowed. The yellow veil hung from a silver ornament in my hair. The queen pressed upon me a necklace of lapis and silver beads, which she declared a perfect complement to the dress, and a pair of leather slippers dyed a midnight blue. The final touch was the green cloth, wrapped about me as a cloak and fastened with my gold bee.
“You must not go on foot to this appointment,” she decided. “Bagoas will send you in a litter with my own men.”
Bagoas himself, the large bald man who kept the gate, entered even as she spoke. He was armed now; a swordbelt girded his hips and he wore a breastplate over his scarlet tunic. “My queen,” he exclaimed, “the city below buzzes with rumors that the Dictator has been murdered!”
Caesar had made his choice.
Cleopatra froze for a moment, then barked, “Where is my son? See to his safety at once, Charmian, bring him here! And you, Bagoas, tell me what you have heard.”
“My queen, nothing is known yet. I have sent Timocles running to learn more. In the meantime, the gates will be closed to all.”
In the sudden alarm, both seemed to have forgotten my presence. I quietly interjected, “O queen, if there is disorder in the city, and Caesar is dead, will any of his men concern themselves with your protection? Or will they instead look to their own advantage? And might the assassins stir the people against you? If these rumors are true, perhaps you should make ready to flee the city.”
“Lucia speaks wisdom, my queen,” agreed Bagoas. “I shall make discreet inquiries among the Shipmasters. I know several who ply that route, Aegyptian and Punic, if you distrust the Italians.”
“Not yet. If Caesar is dead, I must hear the provisions of his will,” insisted Cleopatra. “I must know whether he has recognized our son.”
“O queen,” I replied, “the man I hope to see today is a Punic shipmaster who voyages to Alexandria every season. He has reason to be grateful to Caesar. Shall I ask if he would accept passengers who can pay well for an immediate departure?”
Now she weighed me with the sagacity of generations of Ptolemaic sovereigns, well-schooled in the dangers of betrayal. I recognized that calculating look, for I had seen it more than once in Caesar’s eyes. At last she said, “You are kind, Lucia,” and with a little of her old humor, “Do you always repay favors so quickly?”
“I will leave you now,” I said, “with deep gratitude for your assistance. But mark this, O queen. Should you require a place of refuge in the city, come to the little house on the Aventine. My synod possesses the means to hide you securely and to exit Roma undetected. I regret that grown men cannot be admitted, but Bagoas is welcome, if he be not wholly a man.”
Bagoas caught my eye and nodded, curtly.
Charmian now appeared, with little Ptolemaeus Caesarion in her arms. He was a dark-eyed boy of about three, dressed in a snowy linen gown with a string of tiny amulets across his chest. She placed him on the floor, and alarmed by Charmian’s haste and concern, he ran to his mother, grasping her skirt and grimacing as though about to cry.
The queen lifted him and braced him on her hip, kissing his head. “My thanks for your friendship, Lucia. I shall not flee yet, for one move in the game yet remains. Farewell!”
Bagoas escorted me to the gate and handed me into a litter, looking grave. “The name of this man who sails to Alexandria, you will tell me now, Mistress?” he asked in a low voice.
“Shipmaster Azdrubal Mago, who lives in Trans-Tiber,” I replied.
“This man by reputation is known to me,” said Bagoas thoughtfully. “Mistress! Ask him about the passage, if you please, and quickly. If Caesar is dead, they will come for his son.”
He withdrew his head and directed the bearers to Mago’s house. I used the time to compose myself, for events were tumbling one over the next, and the future was uncertain. Caesar was gone, yet the thought of his apotheosis comforted me. Might he already be a god? I was tempted to use my token, but refrained, for if I wished to pursue life without the Goddess’ peculiar chains, I must learn to live in doubt, like other mortals.
The bearers hastened down the hill and reached Trans-Tiber. Three blocks from Azdrubal’s house, I spotted him, striding purposefully homeward, and frowning in concern. His hair was stippled with silver now, though his beard was still black. Forgetting that no lady shouts from a litter, I cried out for the men to stop, but they ignored me at first, as Az sped away. At last I convinced them to set me down.
“Shipmaster! Azdrubal Mago, wait!” He heard my voice; I saw him stop. Slowly he turned, and saw me pushing heedlessly through the crowd. His eyes widened in surprise as I rushed to meet him. Abruptly I halted, suddenly shy.
He caught me by the shoulders. “Mistress Clara! My Clara! By Tanith, I have missed you. It has been many years.”
“Yes, Shipmaster. I came to see you a few days ago, and Danel said you were expected soon, so here I am.”
“Danel! That shark chum! He had you in the house and did not keep you safe there— and you in rough straits, he said, poverty-stricken!”
I shook my head. “It was not so bad as that. As you see, I am wearing the gifts he gave me.”
Azdrubal eyed my necklace. “His and then some. Clara, do not keep me in suspense. Have you returned to me at last, or is this merely some business matter?”
“I love you, Shipmaster. Is that clear enough? But I do have business to discuss.”
“Ah Clara,” he cried, “I have much to say to you! But come in off the street. There is trouble in town, and panic, for they say that great Caesar is dead.”
The litter-bearers refused Azdrubal’s offer of payment. Surprised, he waved them off. Once indoors, he led me straight to his sleeping chamber, bypassing Danel’s excited greetings and urgent questions. There he kissed me, if not a thousand times, then a great many times, and remarked that I smelled very good. Only then did he demand explanations.
“I am angry with you, Clara, for staying away so long. Why did it have to be thus? I never intended to keep Maharbal from you, but I could not rear him here, for I am at sea much of the year. An infant requires women to see to his needs, women of his own kin. Therefore he has grown up in Panormus. I left him there, a few days ago. He asks after you always, but I can offer nothing.”
I caressed his cheek, touching the black beard. “I was keeping an oath, Azdrubal, and I was doing important work. There is much I cannot reveal, but I am a member of a school, a synod of women, who live apart from men, and we are not permitted to keep sons.”
“I always think of you as an Amazon,” he said. “Keeping a girl, but giving a boy to the father’s tribe.”
“That is so,” I said, much struck. “Have you Homer’s Aethiopis? I should like to check what he says about the Amazons.”
“Clara! Get to the point!” he commanded.
“My vow is fulfilled and I am freed from my oath. I want to see our son, and I want to sail to Alexandria, and visit the Library. I have an invitation from the queen.”
“Now I am enlightened,” he said angrily. “You wish me to provide transportation. You have no other use for me.”
“Untrue and unfair,” I replied. “Though I cannot marry you, it is not for the reason you think. Do you remember the year of Clodius’ great scandal, when he was accused of sacrilege?”
“Eh? That was nearly twenty years ago,” he said. “But yes, I remember the scandal. Clodius seduced Caesar’s wife. And one of the Vestals was caught with a lover, though some said it was none of her doing. They buried her alive.”
“Her name was Lucia. They buried her alive, but she escaped. Ever since then, she has lived a hidden life.”
Azdrubal stared at me uncomprehending for a moment. Then he said tenderly, “Oh Clara. Oh, my sweet love. This explains much. Is Drusus really your guardian?”
“In a way, he is,” I replied, “but not in the way you have believed. There is more. Someone of high rank may need to leave the city, soon and quietly. Could you convey such a person to Alexandria?”
“I could,” he said, “and I can easily guess of whom you speak. If Caesar is dead, the queen would be wise to take her leave soon. Cleopatra travels with a huge staff, dozens of people. There are cooks, and maids, and musicians and eunuchs. Much of my cargo is already spoken for. I can accept no more than five passengers now, and they must be satisfied with very few comforts.”
“What if she paid you to dump the cargo?”
Az looked offended at this. “Certainly not. I have cut an oath with those merchants.”
I nodded, pleased to know that he was still the principled man I remembered. “I must go to the Janiculum and see Bagoas.”
“So that is the source of your lapis necklace,” said Azdrubal. “This eases my mind, for otherwise it must have been the gift of a lover.”
“Of all men living, I love only you! Do you think that I have not missed you? Some days I thought I would go mad with longing! But the pain was too great. Even now, when I see you, I think of my son.”
He took my hands in his. “Our son,” he corrected. “You will not go to the Janiculum, Clara. You will stay here, in safety. I shall go and speak with this Bagoas, and with the queen, if she will see me.”
His words reminded me that I was no longer in Romalia. Once again, I was in the City of Men.
Copyright 2020 by Linnet Moss
This is “the END” but there is one more post with an Epilogue.
Historical note: Cleopatra really did have to flee Rome after Caesar’s murder, though she is believed to have remained long enough to learn the contents of his will. Instead of recognizing Caesarion, he adopted his grand-nephew Gaius Octavius, who thus became Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus. Eventually he received the title Augustus. We know him today as the first Roman emperor.