Reluctant Goddess

Book 1 of the Kleopatra Chronicles

Princess Kleopatra’s tranquil teenage life is devastated when her father, the Macedonian Pharaoh of Egypt, is driven from the throne, and she is forced to flee for her life, dodging assassins and demonic attack. Egypt awaits the rise of one who can reverse its foretold destruction, and the Egyptian gods have their hopeful eyes on young Kleopatra.

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Kleopatra lives in an age full of magic, when the Egyptian gods and demons still roamed the Earth and interacted with people. Her idyllic teenage life is devasted when her father, the Macedonian Pharaoh of Egypt, is driven from the throne, and she is forced to flee for her life. With only a single loyal sword-bearer, she escapes from an Alexandria in the throes of a bloody revolt and undertakes a perilous journey through a kingdom cracking apart at the seams.

As Kleopatra dodges assassins and demonic attack, her beloved Egypt is on the brink of collapse. Egypt awaits the rise of one who can reverse its foretold destruction and restore order, and the Egyptian gods have their hopeful eyes on young Kleopatra. Bringing to life the actual historic events, people and places of ancient Egypt, J. Dharma Windham’s Reluctant Goddess, Book 1 of The Kleopatra Chronicles, explodes with action, mystery, and intrigue.

Chapter I: Divination

It was dark in Alexander’s tomb. The glow coming from the great conqueror’s crystal sarcophagus barely reached the marble walls but it was enough to light up the faces of the three girls leaning on it. The youngest of the three, Kleopatra, held a silver pendulum over a small round tile decorated with intersecting lines on the coffin’s lid over the Macedonian’s shiny gold breastplate. The fourteen-year-old studied it with a look of great concentration on her high-cheek boned face, now mostly hidden by a fall of heavy blonde hair. It was utterly silent in the burial chamber except for the soft hiss of the bronze oil lamps burning in the bottom of the pedestal beneath the translucent coffin.

“Is this my ka’s guide?” Kleopatra watched the silver teardrop shaped pendulum drift across the round tile. The pendulum’s pointy tip followed one of the lines until it got to the word Yes. It hovered there a moment then swung back to the center.

“What’s it saying?” Tryphaena whispered from the other side of the coffin.

Kleopatra looked up, her slanting green eyes two warnings. “She doesn’t like being called it.”

“Sorry,” Tryphaena said, instantly regretting her carelessness.

“But how do you know?” Berenike asked, snickering.

“Must you always be so difficult?” Tryphaena asked, turning and looking at her.

Berenike shrugged. “What? I just asked a question.” She drew her himation tighter around her shoulder. “I don’t know why we have to do this here anyway. It’s creepy.”

Kleopatra’s steeply arched blonde eyebrows drew together into a frown. Her older sisters could be so dense sometimes, especially when it came to hiera mageia, the sacred magic. How many times had she explained that her spirit guide preferred to be summoned here in the royal tomb?

“Put some more kyphi on the charcoals, and be silent or she will ignore us,” she said, and backed it up with a meaningful look.

Tryphaena took a fat pinch from the alabaster jar sitting beside the tile, the oracle as Kleopatra called it, and dropped it in the small portable brazier they’d set up on the lid. Kleopatra had just gotten the kyphi, the same incense used in the native temples to honor the gods, that day from a shop in the Portico of the Perfume and Unguent Sellers, and it was still damp. It hissed on the crust of white and red charcoals then tendrils of smoke rose into the air. The room seemed to grow darker a moment then the light coming from the coffin shone on Kleopatra’s high forehead, on her arm resting on its lid, and on the pendulum. The oracle was a round, dark shadow against the glowing coffin lid.

“Are you ready, Great One, to answer my questions?” Kleopatra asked, solemnly.

The pendulum swung across to Yes.

“Will my eldest sister, Tryphaena, daughter of Ptolemy, basileos of the Two-Egypts, win the contest to be next year’s kanephore?”

Kleopatra bit the corner of her full-lipped mouth. One had to be very specific when talking to spirits. They had no concept of time or space, and the name Tryphaena was not rare, since parents often honored the royal family by naming their offspring after its members, so it was best to make it as easy for them as possible to give an answer.

Kleopatra knew her sister, Tryphaena, the eldest of the three of them at eighteen, wanted the prestigious priesthood more than anything, but their father had decided to hold a music and poetry contest in which girls from Alexandria’s wealthiest families would compete for that honor.

Please, Golden Aphrodite, make it so . . .

Smile upon Tryphaena and grant her wish . . .

She would make a fine sacred basket-bearer . . .

In her heightened state, Kleopatra watched the pendulum track along a line to the word Maybe.

Tryphaena’s face fell but she considerately held her tongue. Then it began to creep toward the word Yes. She made little clapping sounds with her hands. “I may still have a chance, after all!” she blurted out then put a hand over her mouth when she recalled Kleopatra’s admonition to be silent. “Sorry,” she whispered.

Now it was Berenike’s turn to have her question put to the oracle. Kleopatra drew a deep breath and waited for the pendulum to come to a standstill in the oracle’s center. “Will my sister, Berenike, second daughter of Ptolemy, basileos of the Two-Egypts, attain her heart’s true desire?” A mysterious question but Berenike had stubbornly refused to be more specific. That usually meant trouble for someone, but for whom? Kleopatra wondered. The pendulum swung to the word Yes at once.

Berenike’s sapphire eyes gleamed with greed. “Yes!”

Her sisters looked at her.

And now it was Kleopatra’s turn to ask her question. “Will I, Kleopatra, third daughter of Ptolemy, basileos of the Two-Egypts attain my heart’s desire and teach in the Mouseion when I grow up?” She watched the pendulum begin to swing on its long chain.

Please be merciful to your servant, Holy One!

When it stopped at the word No, Kleopatra’s heart plummeted.

Her oracle was rarely wrong.

She drew a heavy sigh. At least Tryphaena had a chance to realize her dream.

Berenike suddenly spoke up. “Let’s ask one more!”

Kleopatra shook her head. “No!”

“Why not?” the black-haired sixteen-year-old persisted.

“We’re not supposed to,” Kleopatra said baldly.

“What is the matter? Is the great magician afraid?” Berenike’s eyes issued a challenge her younger sister could not ignore despite her better judgment.

Kleopatra’s proud chin came up. “All right then, just this once.”

Berenike smiled. “Ask your friend who will be queen of the Two-Egypts.”

Tryphaena gave Berenike a sharp look. “Berenike . . .”

Kleopatra set the pendulum down. “Our sister will be basilissa, as you well know,” she said at once. She would have no part in helping Berenike needle Tryphaena, her favorite sister and best friend. Berenike could be such a harpy, but Kleopatra held her tongue because there had been an uneasy truce between them ever since their papa, annoyed at last by their squabbling, had threatened to take a belt to their backsides. Before that, they often got into fist fights, and Kleopatra emerged victorious from few of them. Certainly, no crown of laurels had awaited her after their last fight—only a strong poultice for a black eye.

Berenike spread her arms. “Of course she’ll be queen, so what’s the harm in asking?”

Tryphaena nodded. “Go ahead and humor her, Kleopatra.”

Berenike leaned across the coffin. “Just for laughs, ask about each of us.”

Kleopatra took up the pendulum. “Are you still there, Great One?”

Yes, came the reply at once.

“Will Tryphaena, eldest daughter of Ptolemy, be basilissa of the Two-Egypts?”

The pendulum traversed the oracle and stopped at Yes.

Kleopatra smiled inside. Thank you, merciful Isis!

“Will, Berenike, second daughter of Ptolemy, be basilissa of the Two-Egypts?”

The pendulum rocked back and forth then settled on Yes.

Bang! The whole room shook. The girls jumped at the sharp metallic sound.

“I am afraid, Kleopatra,” Tryphaena cried.

“What was that?” Berenike asked, looking around the gloomy room. She called out, “Hello?” An echo off the deeply carved marble walls was the only answer she got. The girls looked at the heavy bronze door, but not a sliver of daylight marred its surface in its heavy cedar doorjambs.

Kleopatra shook her head. “Nothing like that has ever happened before.” Then she looked down and her eyes widened and her hands flew up to her mouth. In her haste she had dropped the pendulum and now it was whirling around the edge of the oracle.

All three girls turned and stared at it. Kleopatra whispered, “Isis, Osiris and Horos, will you look at that!” The heavy piece of metal was going faster and faster.

“It’s your turn,” Berenike reminded her from across the coffin lid.

Kleopatra knew it was a mistake, knew she should have scooped up the pendulum and oracle, put them in their black pouch, and ended the divination, but Berenike’s smirking face impelled her to tempt fate. “Will I, Kleopatra, third daughter of Ptolemy ever be basilissa of the Two-Egypts?” she asked in a quavering voice.

The pendulum became a blur as it raced along the edge of the tile. Three sets of eyes watched over mouths opened wide in shock. It stopped suddenly on Yes, the chain sticking straight up in the air as if held by some invisible hand. Then Alexander’s armor-clad fist slammed into the bottom of the heavy transparent lid.

The girls screamed and bolted for the door and burst into the bright clear summer sunlight like a bevy of startled pintails exploding from a papyrus swamp at the approach of beaters. But instead of nets waiting to ensnare them, the girls’ sword-bearers were there with concerned faces and swords drawn to defend their young royal charges against any and all harm. Berenike rounded on Kleopatra. “You little ibis shit! I know trickery when I see it!”

Kleopatra looked from Berenike to Tryphaena. “As Isis lives in Philae, I swear I don’t know what happened. I am sure it was just a mistake,” she stammered.

“Of course, it is a mistake! Everyone knows I’m destined to rule . . .” Berenike stopped, her pale face turning red.

Tryphaena looked at her. “You were saying, sister?” she said quietly.

Berenike recovered quickly. “I meant to say that everyone knows that you will be basilissa of the Two-Egypts and I am to rule Cyprus with our uncle.” She jabbed a finger at Kleopatra. “But you will be sent to Parthia to marry some stinking Persian where you’ll pinch off stinking Persian half breeds! So don’t get any ideas, or I’ll beat them out of you!” Berenike punctuated each word with a sharp jab into Kleopatra’s chest.

“That’s enough, Berenike!” Tryphaena grabbed her younger sister’s wrist.

Berenike glared at Kleopatra. “She’d just better watch herself.”

Tryphaena released her hold and Berenike stalked off. “Hurry up, you blockheads,” she shouted at her sword-bearers and the litter-bearers waiting patiently beside her litter. Berenike angrily waved away the soldier who tried to hand her into her litter and clambered inside, but not without a last glowering look at Kleopatra. The litter-bearers grabbed the litter’s poles, hoisted them onto their shoulders and trotted away with their unhappy cargo. Neither Kleopatra nor Tryphaena were sorry to see her go.

Tryphaena gave Kleopatra a sympathetic look. “Are you all right, little sister?”

“One of these days I am going to beat her ass,” Kleopatra said, shaking her head.

“You’ve lost every time you’ve tried,” Tryphaena smiled.

Kleopatra dipped her eyes to hide her embarrassment. What her eldest sister said was true. Tryphaena took one of Kleopatra’s hands in hers. “Let me know if she bothers you, but I would stay out of her way for awhile.” Kleopatra knew good advice when she heard it. She would avoid Berenike’s part of the palace or places where she went.

Tryphaena gave Kleopatra a sisterly hug. “I want you to know that I don’t hold you responsible for what the oracle said, but I will be keeping an eye on our sister.”

“The fact that she said Berenike would be queen is proof enough that something wasn’t right. I should have never allowed her to goad me into asking more questions.”

Tryphaena rolled her eyes. “Berenike has always thought highly of herself—though only the gods know why—and I’d have done the same thing in your place.”

“Why is she always such a serpent’s egg?” Kleopatra asked.

Tryphaena sighed. “I think it is our mama’s death that changed her.”

“That was hard on all of us,” Kleopatra said, glumly.

“Death affects everyone differently.” Tryphaena climbed into her litter which had been brought up. She stuck her head out and gave Kleopatra a warm smile. “You stay out of trouble.” Her litter was carried from the royal nekropolis escorted by a dozen soldiers.

✽✽✽

Chapter II: Auletes

It is good to be alive, she thinks, surfing on the powerful thermals rising up from the rippling sea of sand dunes, coasting from one shimmering blue column of hot air to another. Her long, broad wings are perfectly suited for this type of flight—she can coast like this for hours. The widely spaced feathers on her wingtips provide the precise control that allows her to make a small course correction—and then she heads toward a high-hanging yellow curtain in the distance. With an ululating cry and the flash of scarlet and gold feathers, she catches another thermal, and she is borne ever upwards until the dome above darkens and the curvature of the yellow orange land increases as it falls away. Then she comes swooping out of the top of the upwelling column. Wings outspread and head thrust forward she soars through the high, deep blue sky. She is still far from the tall, yellow curtain when she sees with the keen sight of her kind what lies beneath it: a long caravan of camels, tied nose-to-tail, plod along a desert road urged on by little stick figures. It is their yellow dust she has been seeing. Curious, she cuts a broad figure eight over the caravan. Tearing through the diaphanous yellow curtain, with her powerful shoulders thrust forward and her wings angled back just enough to increase airspeed, she swoops into the sparkling air beyond and back again until she loses interest and moves on.

The caravan is soon left behind and forgotten.

Abruptly, the yellow-orange sand vanishes, replaced by green fields laced with a delicate tracery of silver irrigation ditches and high earthen embankments. The thermals here are less powerful, so she flaps her wings in slow, lazy movements that keep her going at a reasonable pace while she scans the ground far below. Over a dark blue lake, she marvels at the long line of barges streaming into it from a canal which vanishes over the distant horizon. There are more stick figures on the boats.

Her shadow slides over tall, white walls studded by square watchtowers, over the red tiles of a covered road, over the place where the road intersects a larger covered thoroughfare that runs east-west toward the twin harbors. Over ten-story buildings with broad pastel faces, through clear air spiced by plumes rising from a thousand smoking altars and perfume factories. Over buildings with windows open to the breeze and window boxes blazing with color and everywhere people. She takes it all in, tilting her head from side to side to get a better view of the busy seaside city of stick people.

She flies so fast she nearly misses the beehive-shaped hill with its Greek temple dedicated to the god Pan. She studies it as she flies by, approving of the tall, white Ionic columns and bronze-tiled roof. A flip of metallic wingtip feathers and she goes into a tight turn that takes her directly over the Paneum. She breathes in deeply, making the feathers on her chest expand as her lungs fill, intoxicated by the aroma of burning incense carried up in dark blue ribbons of smoke. With another flash of red and gold from her wingtip feathers, she makes a lazy arc around the lighthouse. When she finally comes abreast of the white marble tower with its bronze statue of Poseidon, she loses her beat with a screech at the glittering thing that sears her eye with the sun’s borrowed fire.

A few more strokes and she . . .

✽✽✽

“Kleopatra!” Her eyelids fluttered open and she stared at the ceiling for a moment. Someone knocked on the door softly. She rose and opened it for Timoxenos and a slave girl with a small covered plate in her hands and a smile on her face.

She stood aside and they came in. She followed, yawning and stretching like a kitten.

“I have brought your breakfast, Princess,” said the slave, carrying the plate to a small table. Kleopatra took her seat and waited patiently while the slave tasted the food. And then she ate, and the food was good but the dream was still in her head so she didn’t taste most of it. She’d been dreaming the same dream every night since her encounter with Wedjoyet.

What does it mean to have flying dreams? she wondered, uneasy now about the whole notion of flying, anyway. But somehow it seemed as if there was more to it than that. Perhaps she’d consult one of the court dream interpreters. There was always Sosogines, of course; he came from golden Heliopolis in the south where he had once been High Priest of the fabled Temple of the Sun.

Timoxenos was inspecting the shutters in her room making sure they were still locked and had not been tampered with. A couple of times she caught him looking at her, but his rough face never gave anything away, so she didn’t know what was on his mind. He would speak in his own good time, and she’d be his willing audience when he did.

✽✽✽

After breakfast, Timoxenos escorted Kleopatra to the baths. He pulled the door open and went inside with Kleopatra on his heels. He stopped in the short entrance hall and listened. Running water. A woman’s voice barely audible above the water. A man’s voice answering—not a man but a eunuch: One of the neutered wretches that infested the whole palace like cockroaches in a larder. Timoxenos sucked his teeth, conscious of the eyes of the young girl behind him staring at his back. The thin clink of coins being counted into a jar made his eye twitch. “Wait here,” he said over his shoulder. He went into the room and the look on his face was anything but sociable. “What’s going on here?”

The attendants came up to him and bowed low. “Greetings, Great Lord…”

Timoxenos’ hand came up palm out. “Shut up and listen. Is anyone in here besides you two?” His eyes were as inviting as two chunks of grey granite.

The attendants looked at each other briefly before the eunuch chose to speak up first, “Why no, Great One.”

“Just us two,” added the woman, her round face all smiles. She assessed him the way a woman might examine a choice leg of lamb at a butcher’s stall on market day.

The eunuch’s smile had more honey in it than a beehive. “Same as always.”

Timoxenos quirked his mouth. “It’s never ‘same as always.’” He turned and nodded. Kleopatra came into the room with her robe shushing around her ankles and a smile on her face.

“Don’t mind Timoxenos,” she said with a ripple of laughter. “All morning he’s been as grumpy as that old tiger in papa’s zoo. I think I’ll make him listen to some of my poetry later. That should make him feel better.”

“Your fencing could use some work,” Timoxenos observed.

“You said I was better!”

“We’ve got in more of that patchouli oil you like, Princess,” said the eunuch.

“I’ve seen play actors fence better,” Timoxenos scoffed.

“And those Iberian sponges you asked for are here,” offered the woman, helpfully.

“That’s a horrid thing to say, Timoxenos!” Kleopatra stamped her foot. “I am not moving from this spot until you apologize, Master Sword-Bearer.”

He smiled at her. “Good. Wait here, Little One.”

He leaned his javelin against a wall while he ransacked the changing closet: ripping the tops off baskets, fanning a stack of neatly folded purple towels in his big hands, banging the brass chamber pot on the floor to dislodge any lurking scorpions, inspecting the walls for hidden panels—he knew a thing or two about those, by all the gods—and checking for spyholes. He came out of the dressing room thinking it was looking to be a nice routine day. Nothing wrong with routine. He had had plenty of its opposite in his life. He’d take routine any day. Perhaps he’d even have time to sharpen his javelins—not that they weren’t razor sharp already, but that was beside the point, wasn’t it?

“Your technique has gotten better, Princess Kleopatra,” he allowed.

Kleopatra drew her air sword and lunged. “Ha! Thank you, Master Sword-Bearer.”

She came out a moment later wrapped in a large, white towel, and went up to where Timoxenos swirled the pool water with his javelin.

“No snakes in there.”

“Even if there were, they would not harm me,” she said, confidently.

“Where your safety is concerned, Little One, I don’t have the luxury of faith.” He shoved aside huge feathery ferns and looked behind their hulking terracotta pots. Their voices bounced around the blue-tiled room, careening off frescoes and half a dozen squat columns decorated with mosaic images of the kingdom’s famous landmarks. One side of the room was open to a private courtyard. On his way out, he glanced up. No assassins or serpents on the gilded cedar rafters poised to strike at the first opportune moment. Kleopatra padded after him when he took his inspection out onto the lawn.

“I think faith is very important.” She sat on the edge of a fountain’s pool and studied her reflection in its shimmering surface awhile before disturbing it with her fingertips. A dark shape passed overhead and the courtyard went dark sepia for a moment, as if all the life had been sucked out of the place and everything in it. She momentarily shivered in the thin sunlight filtering through the palm fronds and roses in full bloom on their overarching trellises. Then the color returned as if life had just flowed back into everything like the sea returning during high tide, and her chills departed. A moment later the memory of them went, too. The peacocks that lived in the courtyard, descendants of those brought back from India by Ptolemy III Euergetes two hundred years earlier, ignored them. Occasionally one or two twittered resentfully at Timoxenos as he searched every bush and behind every decorated column. Not a nook or cranny escaped his attention. And all the while he had been chewing on her words.

“Faith is important,” he conceded, “but we still have to be careful. A determined assassin with a knife . . .”

“No knife can kill me, Timoxenos.”

He turned and looked at her.

“Now, how by Hades do you know that?”

“Wedjoyet told me.”

Timoxenos nodded. Who was he to say otherwise? All he knew was on that day in the desert, he had sat on his horse watching his charge and the old woman amble off into the distance.

“How long do we have to be here? It’s hot out here.” one of the litter-bearers had complained.

“Shut your hole,” Timoxenos had said without bothering to turn around in his saddle. And the man of course had done just that. He may have been a litter-bearer but he was no fool. Timoxenos had silently agreed with him, though: it was hot but things could always be far worse. That had been the very first lesson he’d learned as a young man beginning a career as a professional soldier. Things could always go from bad to worse—in a heartbeat. With his eyes still locked on the two figures in the distance, he had reached for his water bottle and uncorked it.

It’s hot as Hephaestus’ hammer, he had thought, tilting up his face and pouring a little of the precious stuff onto it before taking a healthy swallow. Then he had almost gagged. Kleopatra and Senmonthis were gone. He’d put spur to flank and pounded across the desert following their tracks, then skidded to a stop where they ended. He’d looked and looked, but there had been no sign of quicksand, and the dunes weren’t even knee-high in this part of the Great Western Desert, so there was no chance of them having been swallowed or buried in a slide. And he’d scanned the horizon in all directions. No sign of them anywhere. He’d swung off his horse and torn off his helmet, sweeping armloads of sand into it. In a few moments he had dug a small hole, and in a few moments more, the hole was knee-deep. The sun had seared his flesh, perspiration stung his eyes and his throat was dry as mummy dust, but he kept digging. He had no idea why he was doing what he was doing, but it made as much sense as anything he’d seen that day. And one thing every soldier worth his pay knew was that in time of crisis it was better to do something than to do nothing. It had always worked for him.

An errant cool breeze had caressed the back of his neck, which had quickly taken on the appearance of a well-basted ham. He had stopped mid-toss to look around. Kleopatra lay on her back with an arm thrown across her eyes. He dropped his helmet and sprinted over to her with his heart in his mouth.

No, he didn’t doubt this strange child’s claims of talking to gods, or anything else she ever said. But there was more to it than she had let on, and the gold scarab was somehow part of it—a big part, unless he missed his guess, and he didn’t think he had.

“You’re not going to tell me, are you?” he asked, his flinty eyes on her face.

“I’ve told you all I can.”

She wasn’t about to break her solemn word to Wedjoyet, but she felt bad about keeping a secret from Timoxenos. He knew all her secrets, but he couldn’t know this one—not if she wanted them to stay on Wedjoyet’s good side, the side where she wasn’t running after you with her mighty war axe because you disobeyed her.

Kleopatra looked up at him defiantly, crossed her arms, and said, “I mean I won’t.” Her face took on the color of a peach. “I mean . . . I would tell you, but I can’t,” she said, miserably.

And then Timoxenos looked away and was silent and she was silent, too. Only the twittering of the peacocks, the water pouring from the gaping bronze jaws of lions standing on either side of the bath and the soft slap slap of a slave’s bare feet on the cool tile floor, with its mosaic of Aphrodite bathing in the sea, could be heard. The echoing silence between the two of them was broken by Timoxenos’ heavy sigh. “What would you have done if bandits had come along and carried you off?”

“I didn’t worry because I knew you would come for me.” She put her hands behind her back so he couldn’t see them tremble. Absurdly, her eyes filled with tears and she couldn’t keep her lips from quivering. She risked a glance at his rocky face and caught his alert grey eyes on her.

“At least you came out of it all right, Little One,” he said gently. Then he turned and left the bathing chamber, leaving her to the care of the bathing attendants.

✽✽✽

Chapter III: A House Divided

“Great Alexander’s Ghost! What is going on in my household?” Auletes paced across a fine mosaic of Alexander at Issus that decorated the floor of his throne room. He’d instructed the archedeatros to clear the place, and the chief steward had banged the royal scepter three times, calling for the under-stewards to show the basileos’ guests into the antechamber where cupbearers waited with refreshments. And before his daughters were admitted, Auletes had scratched signatures on several edicts, tossing each papyrus scroll into a wicker basket on the lovely rosewood desk he’d received from the king of Chin An.

When Auletes’ foot touched Alexander’s eye he stopped. He thought he’d gotten control of the fury gnawing at his stomach lining like a rat chewing its way into a freshly interred mummy case, but he was wrong.

“Fighting in the stairwell of our palace like god-cursed scullery maids! My human property hauled off to the catacombs without my permission . . . by my own daughter! Another helps this same property to escape, then manumits her, and all this under my own god-cursed roof!”

Auletes brought a hand up to smooth out his furrowed brow, and his diadem slid up to the hairline of his slicked-back hair. He wanted to tear the burdensome thing off and hurl it into the sea. There were times he would gladly trade everything for the life of an itinerant musician playing in some foreign city’s agora for coins from passersby, without a care in the world. Oh, that would be so sweet, he thought. Sweet as the very best Moringa oil, sweet as a new male lover’s love juice. But it wasn’t to be. He was as trapped as a slave in leg irons by the worst type of bondage—a crown. A golden ball and chain that eventually sapped the will of any man unlucky enough to have one. It ground you into the dirt until each waking moment was spent in a bottomless pit of black despair. The golden day you dispensed with food-tasters and Greek sword-bearers was the beginning of your rebirth into a man of happiness and rosy contentment. You felt better because you knew it was only a matter of time before the jackals closed in to tear the old lion into ragged red pieces.

They always did.

Kings and lions rarely died of old age or natural causes.

Auletes whirled on his daughters, pointing at them like a prosecutor in a Greek law-court.

“Know this, daughters: I will not stand for this! Isn’t it bad enough that our own people, Macedonians and Greeks alike, dwelling in our Alexandria by Egypt, loathe us? Haven’t you seen my horse troops going upriver to pursue native rebels and bandits? That’s not enough for you? There’s a Roman warship in our harbor. It brought a senator with his hand out for more of our gold. And that’s not even the worst of it. There are dogs in his Roman Senate that cry for our annexation. Where do you think that would leave you?” He glared pointedly at Berenike and she bridled.

“Why do you look at me with angry eyes, Father? It was Kleopatra who deprived you of your property!”

“But it was you who sent my slave to the catacombs in the first place,” Auletes shot back. “And you did it without my permission or my knowledge!”

“I did not mention it to you exactly because I knew that you have much on your mind.” Berenike half-reclined on a purple sofa with her legs crossed, absentmindedly playing with her pearl necklace, winding it around an elegant index finger. She gave her father an easy smile that nearly pushed him over the edge. “I did it for you, Papa.”

“Did you indeed, daughter?” he said, heavily.

Berenike laughed. “Nothing I say will convince you, but she’s the criminal, not me.” Berenike pointed at Kleopatra. “She bribed Lais the warden. Ask her!

Kleopatra opened her mouth to speak, but Tryphaena bravely interrupted. “That’s a lie!” She swiftly covered for Kleopatra and turned the tables on Berenike. “Kleopatra did not bribe the warden and Senmonthis escaped on her own.” Tryphaena saw no reason to volunteer that she was the culprit who’d paid for Senmonthis’ release. Papa could be so unreasonable sometimes. “Are you going to tell papa how you nearly killed Senmonthis or should I?” Their angry voices echoed around the room.

Auletes stared down at his feet. Report of Berenike and Kleopatra’s fistfight had, of course, been brought to his ears quickly. He’d been reveling with Eromenos when a servant had come up to the creaking royal bed and cleared his throat. Auletes had cursed, rolled off the cupbearer, then shoved the mosquito netting aside.

“If you don’t want a beating, this had better be important,” he had warned.

“Master, it concerns Kleopatra,” the man replied. The king looked over his shoulder and spoke to his bedmate. “No, you keep your ass right there.”

He’d swung out of the bed, heedless of his still-hard member swinging in front of him like a ship’s boom suddenly broke free in a gale. “What happened?”

The servant had told about the fistfight, and Auletes cursed the goddess Tyche as a faithless whore for giving him vipers for children. And that was before he’d even found out about the escaped slave. It was much worse for him after that. House slaves were expensive.

“Did you beat your sister?” Auletes wanted to shred Berenike.

“She pushed me down the stairs!” Berenike cried. “Isn’t that right?” she demanded of Kleopatra, who said nothing. “Well, I’d say her silence clears me of any wrongdoing.”

“Not really, Berenike.” Kleopatra rose from her sofa and went and stood before her older sister. “You’re still an uncivilized, debased person. Yes, I pushed you down the stairs. I’d do it again if given the opportunity.” Although Kleopatra’s voice was calm, her pounding heart made her dizzy, but she knew she had to confront her sister eventually. And it stung that she had lost the fight and would surely have ended up in a bad way if Timoxenos hadn’t come along, knowing better than to listen to her.

Auletes looked at his third youngest daughter with eyes narrowed in speculation. For the first time he recognized that Kleopatra might be stronger than Berenike. It came as a bit of a shock.

Berenike bolted up from her sofa to confront her sister.

“Bold words indeed, Kleopatra! Why don’t we test them right now?” Berenike wanted to rake her nails across that beautiful smug face, rip it into pieces like a grave-robber tearing a mummy apart to get at the jewelry, gouge the slanting green eyes out of their sockets and pop them like grapes.

Auletes and his daughters fell into an uneasy silence until Tryphaena spoke up.

“See, Father, how Berenike makes war on her family?” Tryphaena’s eyes snapped with anger, and then she laughed. “Really Berenike, you’re such an evil hippopotamus. It’s no wonder you’re so disliked.” Regal chin held high, Tryphaena spun around to walk away but tripped over a rug and crashed to the floor.

“Ha!” Berenike cried. “Rather than trying for kanephore, sister, you ought to consider a career as a circus clown.”

Kleopatra helped Tryphaena to her feet. “Only a debased creature like you would gloat over another’s misfortune. Any time you want to fight, you know where I am, Berenike.”

“Berenike! Stop picking on your sisters,” Auletes snapped. Then his eyes went to Kleopatra who stood beside Tryphaena with her strong chin thrust forward and her long gold hair swept back away from her face. “Did you free my slave? Now, don’t lie to me!”

“Yes, Papa.” Kleopatra looked down at the floor.

“I told you so!” Berenike crowed, pointing at Tryphaena. “I’ll bet anything Aristotle over there helped! I wouldn’t be surprised if . . .

“Berenike!”

Mouth open, she turned to him. “Yes, Papa?”

“Shut up!”

And she did.

“Kleopatra, you have trampled on my rights. Alexandria by Egypt belongs to me, and the Two-Egypts are my oikos.” Auletes used the Greek word for house in the sense of a personal estate. That’s what the kingdom was, after all, as it had been for all of the successor realms, the personal property of the sitting king or queen. “Nothing in this palace or this kingdom is bought or sold or given away without my permission.”

“Berenike beat her like a beast . . .” Kleopatra began.

“Silence!” Auletes thundered. “If you had a charge to bring, you should have told me, rather than take matters into your own hands. Therefore, you will forfeit one talent of good silver from your personal estate in Herakleopolis, plus the actual value of the slave.”

“Yes, Papa,” she murmured.

“Speak up, child,” he thundered, bringing tears to her eyes. “We’re not in the library!”

Berenike snickered, but otherwise held her tongue. It pleased her greatly to see Kleopatra squirming on the fishhook of her papa’s fury. With any luck, he’d beat her.

“Forgive my disobedience, Papa,” Kleopatra said, tears prickling under her eyelids.

“Your apology is accepted, but do not let it happen again. Do you understand me?”

Kleopatra noticed the tiniest note of something else in his voice, but immediately he shifted his attention to her sisters. “You two had better learn to get along. One day you’ll have to work together.” He paused to let his words sink in, but he didn’t think they did or ever would.

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