my gown and fill my nostrils with the scent of manure. I might as well learn something.”
She reaches for the handles of the plow while I try to warn her off. “Julia, you’d be surprised how much strength and steadiness it takes to keep the furrows straight.”
In spite of my warning, Julia’s hands both wrap round the wood, her knuckles tight as she marvels at the whole contraption. Then the oxen lurch forward. When the plow begins to move, Julia’s sandals wobble on the broken ground of the furrow. I reach to steady her, but my interference throws her off balance.
I stagger to catch her before she falls, but lose my own footing in a long slide that takes us both down with a dramatic splash in the mud. Julia wails and I am horrified. “Julia! Are you hurt?”
She looks up, her face a mask of dirt, her hair in filthy strands, one hand on her pregnant belly. “I think—I think I’m unharmed . . . just filthy .”
She begins to laugh, relieved, but when I join her she shrieks at me, “Why are you laughing? This is your fault, you cow!” With that, she launches a fistful of sticky earth that spatters my cheek and clings to my face. Howling, I crawl to her for vengeance, intending to shove her back down in the dirt, but I’m doubled over with laughter as she kicks at me, shouting, “You horrid Egyptian cow!”
I laugh harder, trying to grasp her legs so she can’t peg me with the hard sole of her sandal. Julia hoots, tears of laughter streaking her dirty face as we wrestle. Our poor guards think we’ve gone mad.
But we cannot seem to stop. My sides hurt from laughing, but every time I relent and try to help her up from the ground, Julia drags me back down and I am helpless to do anything but lie on the earth with her and laugh.
* * *
“THE emperor’s daughter is a menace,” Juba announces. He has caught me out in my rooms after my bath and now scolds me like a misbehaving child. “When the seas open again, we will have trouble as you have not imagined. We can only hope Agrippa hauls her away over his shoulder kicking and screaming . . .”
“The plowing was my fault, I assure you.”
“You’ve too much pride to lower yourself in such a way,” he insists. “Or you’ve changed very much, indeed.”
“I told you that I’ve changed.”
He comes closer and I see that he’s not as angry as he pretends. “I will say of the mud, however, that if you’re an example of its merits as a beauty treatment, I very much approve.”
His unexpected flirtation makes me smile. “Ouch! My face hurts from laughing too much today.”
“I never thought to hear you say such a thing, Selene,” he says, cradling my cheek in his palm, taking advantage of the new liberties I’ve granted him. In truth, I never thought to hear myself say such a thing. In my life, I’ve rarely laughed with abandon. Never kissed without consequence. Tragedy, sadness, and bitter rage have had the care of my soul.
I’m not sure I would recognize happiness.
But when my husband kisses me, I wonder if perhaps this is it. Here, so far from Rome, we may have found some happiness. It is not love, but it may be happiness. It may only be a happiness born of the things we do not ask of each other and the faults we overlook. It may be a happiness born of concessions, silence, and secrets. But if we are happy, it is such a precious and fragile thing that I must cherish and defend it against whatever may come with the arrival of spring.
WE welcome our son’s first Saturnalia with much merriment. At six months old, our little prince’s skin is as pale and translucent as alabaster. He now sits up on his own and makes a game of peeking between his fingers. He knows his name too. When I call him Ptolemy , he turns to look, and his eyes, like Juba’s, are an earthy amber brown.
To celebrate the season, Juba orders fresh pine cut from the forest to be made into fragrant wreaths for every door in the palace. We also use the