I am dead. The world bore solemn witness to that fact. Even a child of unsteady gait, its world merely beginning to dawn, knows it. There are brave men who can take you into Augustus’ tomb and stand before the gods and swear that my ashes lie there in an urn next to my parents, grandparents, and Julius Caesar. My brother made me a god, so that I may always be with him and guide him as I did in life.
But I failed.
I left a mad brother alone to grow madder. I failed as a sister, a woman, an empress, a guide, and a goddess. The only thing I have succeeded at is the one thing everyone would swear I did not do: live.
But can a lie before the gods truly be a lie, if I myself am one of them?
Only the gods can make whole that which is long-dead. I hold a skeleton in my hands and must show to you the whole: organs, flesh, sinew, heart and mind. The long-dead must rise, look about with roving eyes, give voice to many tongues.
I cannot pin down my life, like the histories of Ovid or Virgil or even the silly frivolities written by my old Uncle Claudius. I can only bear witness to the atrocities I survived. I pray I may give voice to the many who did not. If I am blessed, perhaps I may do justice those who forever claimed a part of my soul.
A smattering of shoeless feet on stone pulls my attention from my ink and paper.
“My lady?” One of the priestesses hitches up her skirt to crouch by my side and peer into my face. A stone presses my gut: the weight of the past, crushing my insides. “My lady Drusilla? It is you, is it not? There have been rumors. Even here, we hear them.”
Rising, I nod.
“You wish to see the Oracle?”
After a moment shakes her head, clearing from it the jumble of questions she wishes to ask. “You have payment?”
I kiss the ring upon my heart-finger. My family’s sigil, the symbol of everything I have loved and lost. She reaches for it. I slide it from my finger and hold it forth; two-faced Janus, carved in carnelian stone, dangles over her eager palm. I am loath to let it go. I let it fall.
She turns without word, and I follow, peering through the shadow cast by an unknown future.
There is a chance I have come all the way to Seleuecia to be turned away with nothing, or to be told to search my own heart, as I have already done these many thousands of miles. Oracles never give straight answers. After all, human questions fall like snowflakes, millions and millions alike, and they melt away just as quickly.
“How did you come to be here?” the priestess whispers in awe as we move through stippled shadows.
My thumb rubs my bare finger. A crease in the soft inner skin marks where the ring sat for decades. I do not answer her question. I was shipped like cargo, senseless as wood. I had ceased to be responsive to the world, but for the enormous and terrifying feeling of responsibility for one tiny, holy life.
She respects my silence and asks nothing more.
We pass a line of whores, recognizable by their colors and clothing, huddled together. Nervously whispering, a few stoop to finger the hem of my garment. The priestess shooes them. Vendors crawl from corners to sell sweetmeats and dainty treats. Supplicants buy them for themselves or their children, or for the sibyl herself, to sweeten the words she might give. Workmen wipe the sweat of their brows with the backs of dirty arms. Clerks, cripples, soldiers, knives hanging from their belts, all await their turn. I have been hand-selected before people who have stood and sat and slept here for weeks. I keep my gaze carefully lowered, pulling my palla more closely around me. The color of this place is white. There is no purple, which I wore daily as a royal princess; here, it is the color of madness.
The nectar scent of honeysuckles accompanies a watery gurgle bubbling from a distant waterfall. The supplicants fall behind like ghosts and the cave of the prophetess lies ahead, a secret shadow, weighty as fate, toward which I know I must ascend. I am limb-weary, abraded from crossing the scouring land, but now I perk: this is a holy place; the farther we go, the darker the blooded smoke.
The priestess nods at me and steps back, leaving me. The smell of moist sweat and the urine of hundreds of people is thankfully overpowered now by the smoke.
I place a hand on the rock overhead and stoop, knees and back bent, to enter the cave. I choose my steps carefully up a carved path in the rock: a dry stream bed. Thoughts spin in fitful swirls. Will the oracle think me mad, as Mother did? Otherworldly, as my brother did? A fit heir, as Father believed? And all to what end?
I realize I am chewing my lip. The pain gives a sharp sort of pleasure, stinging, reminding me of temporal things. I feel reckless. Hot, impatient. Ready for answers. As distant music wafts on the air, barely audible, the holy feel grows heavier, footprint after footprint. Then the space opens.
There is unpolluted darkness, pure and deep. Then a light. Another, then another. A handful, then a swarm, like a river of bright orange stars. As I continue, the fires seem to grow until at last I can see candles, ringed with stones, surrounding a pool of mineral-smelling water. It is dark, but not the smothering, tomblike dark I half-expected. Glyphs paints the walls. A warm, ewe-like smell emanates from the dim shapes of women: a press of bodies all around. This place could not be more different from the clean, ordered temples of Rome. But such thoughts belong to the waking world, the world outside. The indistinct drone of revelers seems determined to talk and sing all night.
The altar is not carved in the shape of a bull or any other form: it is a simple slab. Atop it lies a spread of fruit, herbs, wheat, laurel, even shorn hair. Beneath these offerings I make out a sticky residue of old blood. At first I feel a slick of fear, but it falls away. This is hallowed ground. Earth itself, inviolate. The lip before the maw of Hades.
The sibyl and her worshippers move slowly, as if drugged by the muggy air, or perhaps truly drugged by the sweet velvet musk oozing from the earth. They glisten, steeped in their own sweat. The roots of the earth, the flickering drawings on the rock walls, all seem made of eyes, every one of them upon me, all-knowing. The shadows reflect watery trickles.
A rustling noise. A questioning voice. A surprising, quick movement. The sibyl rises. I know it is her: she is far older than the others, with white hair that hangs unbound and uncovered to her waist, like a girl’s. Her eyes are shiny stones.
My palms flutter to my chest when she speaks. Her words come in stilted, Hellenistic Greek. “Daughter of the Moon, you have lain exposed to sunset and moonrise and learned Night’s secrets. You have undergone many merciless journeys before coming to me here. But that is nothing to the travels you will embark upon.”
Her tone is familiar as if she knows me, knew me all along. I bow to her, but she takes a sharp intake of breath and steps backward. The ominous stillness warns me that there is another presence in the cave. I spin around. The golden tokens on every surface glitter with reflected flickers as candles and lamps waver in the sudden gust of wind.
A man stands behind me in the entranceway: handsome and unusually fair, yet storm-worn, with a face like fate itself. He moves with the confident carriage of princely lineage, his hair a mane of golden waves. A tingling starts in my toes and rises through my legs, spine, arms, revealing itself with a flush in my face. The smell of orange peels and almond oil fills my nose and I grow dizzy, a white-hot circling behind my eyes like too much sun. The finger of a god runs up my back, causing shivers as if I had set foot near a whirlpool with a black and sucking center. A lightness in my head and a surge in my ears; the living stone sings to my heart. I realize that at some point I have fallen to my knees. The abraded skin stings. I look up. The painted eyes of the cave rove over me.
No one else is here. No one at all.
And the long, pale dream of my life falls away. I have only just awoken.