The Sword and the Serpent

Book 2 of: The Kleopatra Chronicles

Led by Kleopatra, the victorious Egyptian armies from the South are ordered to disband by the Roman general who has invaded Egypt to restore Kleopatra’s father to his throne.

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Led by Kleopatra, the victorious Egyptian armies from the South are ordered to disband by the Roman general who has invaded Egypt to restore Kleopatra’s father to his throne.

Crushed, the teenage Kleopatra complies with his order. Her father, backed by the Roman army, battles Queen Berenike to regain his throne; BUT a new deadly threat arises from the Egyptian underworld. One so terrible it not only threatens Kleopatra’s Two Egypts but the entire world — and only Kleopatra, the avatar of the Goddess of Ten Thousand Names, can possibly stop it.

CHAPTER I
Kleopatra and the Cup of Good and Evil

Something flew overhead and the whole world turned as gray and chilly as twilight in a tomb. Kleopatra shivered and drew her shawl closer. That had only happened, she thought, when Seth Typhon had been stalking her, but the Lord of Chaos was dead and entombed in the rubble of the Labyrinth. She knew he was dead. She had slain him with her own hands in his crystal lair. So why did her bones suddenly feel like rods of ice even though the sun was blazing in a clear blue sky? Sighing and shaking her head, Kleopatra made her way through the legion’s camp. She did not need to look down to know that Kalos was plodding beside her. The black leopard never left her side. And she did not need to look behind her to see if Timoxenos was following her. The fiercely loyal sword-bearer was never more than a few paces behind her.

Veiled, with her blonde hair pulled back from her face in a tight bun, her slanting green eyes outlined with kohl, Kleopatra moved through the Roman military camp indifferent to the frank stares of the barbarian soldiers. Her gold diadem with its rearing lapis lazuli and carnelian inlaid cobra sparkled round her high forehead, and a collar of blood-red garnets cut a deep semi-circle over her elegantly draped blue himation and chiton — the costume of a well-born Greek woman with a taste for expensive antique Egyptian jewelry. The diadem and the gold serpents coiling round her arms had been gifts of Memnes, high priest of Heliopolis during her exile there after she fled from an Alexandria in revolt. Her father’s flaccid response to Cyprus’ annexation had unleashed a torrent of rage from the Alexandrians that manifested itself as a sea of rioters toppling over his statues in the Agora and Gymnasion. That was bad enough, but then the army revolted, and the Basileos was left with only five hundred pike men. Not nearly enough to defend the palace from the mob expected to descend upon them at any moment.  Ptolemaios bowed to the inevitable and prepared to flee from Alexandria. But not before he saw to Kleopatra…

Three years earlier… As the Basileos invested his two eldest daughters, Tryphaena and Berenike, with the co-regency, Timoxenos and Kleopatra had hurried along a gravel footpath through a rose garden above the canal. Timoxenos led the way with a large pack strapped to his back, his sword drawn and his eyes probing the shadows clinging like dark blobs to the bushes crowding the path. A marble shrine to Isis Pharia loomed out of the dark to Kleopatra’s right, its tall, slender columns gleaming like wet bones in the moist air. “No matter what happens, keep your head covered, Little One,” he had said, turning to pull her cloak’s hood down farther until her wide-eyed face was hidden deep within its shadow, and all she could see were her feet and a little of the pebbly path in front of them. “Like this, Timoxenos?”

“Yes, that is very good, Princess.  Now, stay close.” He had taken her hand, because he’d seen the lanterns moving through the part of the garden where they had entered from the palace, and they flew on winged feet to the stone balustrade overlooking the canal. They went down worn limestone steps to a landing where a small oared freighter waited. Timoxenos scooped her up and carried her onboard, then wedged her in among stacks of carpets. “You’ll be safe in here,” he promised. “Just keep your head down.”

But Kleopatra was tormented by sharp ripples of fear as they pushed away from the landing. The freighter set off down the canal that cut across the city before turning sharply east toward Eleusis, a suburb of elegant mansions and lush parkland, where, in happier times, wealthy Alexandrians went in their finest attire to cavort on festively decorated yachts and houseboats.

The freighter joined a long line of vessels moving down the canal from the royal quarter. Some of the larger ones, crewed by liveried slaves, shot by them in the dark.  From between gaps in the carpets, Kleopatra glimpsed fat, smooth-faced eunuchs in brocaded robes sitting amongst heaps of pilfered riches, or sharp-faced men with long, well-oiled beards and the wide brimmed hats of court officials exhorting their crews to row faster. Faster! Over the splash of countless oars, she heard the roar of an enraged mob. Kleopatra watched through a gap in the carpets as they slid past royal quarter. The street running along the canal was filled with people on the move beneath a river of torches. Kleopatra’s insides knotted.

They were heading toward the royal quarter.

“Mother Goddess, please protect my sister Tryphaena from all harm . . .

Don’t let her end like Mama . . .”

Somewhere ahead a splintering crash was followed by shrieks.

Kleopatra’s head whipped around to peer through another gap just as a large stone smacked into the boat ahead of them. A geyser of water, splintered wood and body parts rose into the night sky. Kleopatra murmured. “Isis, Osiris and Horos! Look at that!”

Torches and jars of naphtha descended on another boat that sped by. A wall of flame rose from the boat with a fierce roar, turning it into a funeral pyre. Kleopatra’s eyes flickered over the sight of shrieking, flaming figures hurling themselves overboard. The water hissed like a basket of serpents wherever they splashed in. A puff of breeze brought the stench of burning flesh to her nostrils and she retched.

Timoxenos’ face suddenly loomed overhead. “Are you all right, Princess?”

Kleopatra looked up, her face a pale oval mask in the dark, and robbed of the ability to utter a single word by what she had just seen, nodded quickly. The sword-bearer’s mouth quirked, “I am going to stack a couple of carpet rolls on top of your hideaway. Now, no matter what happens, you stay put until I come for you.” Then the night sky was blotted out and she went back to peering through the gaps in the carpets.

As they approached the stone pylons of the Kanopos Boulevard Bridge, Kleopatra heard. “Here’s another one! Let’s get it! On my command! Get ready! One, two, three!” Kleopatra had hugged her knees tighter to make herself as small a target as possible for the rain of boulders she expected to descend on their unlucky heads at any moment.

“Mother Goddess, save us . . .

Mighty Protectress, I don’t want to be crushed or burned alive . . .”

Kleopatra felt tears prickling under her eyelashes.

“Five! Six! Seven! Eight! Nine!”

Kleopatra squeezed her eyes shut, her body as tense as an overdrawn bow.

The sword-bearer’s voice boomed out. “Hail Artimidoros. Let me pass!”

“Is that you Timoxenos?” someone called out from the bridge.

“It is none other, my old friend!” Timoxenos replied, making his way forward and hauling his bulk up on the bow.

Kleopatra opened her eyes and squinted through the gap in the carpets. People crowded the bridge’s elegantly carved stone balustrade. More than a few were disheveled soldiers in orange and purple striped uniforms, shouting and gesticulating frantically. Some held large stones they had somehow pried loose from the bridge’s balustrade, and others brandished pitch-soaked torches that cast weird, flickering shadows on the bridge’s stonework. One, who seemed to be their leader, was sitting astride the balustrade with an arm hooked around one of the columns supporting the tiled roof that covered Kanopos Boulevard from end to end. Kleopatra saw the man put his cupped hand to his mouth as they glided toward the bridge. “Timoxenos, my friend, how are you doing?” he cried to the sword-bearer.

“Doing well, thank Ares! I am just trying to take these carpets to my estate.”

“I thought I’d heard you were settled upriver.”

“Just outside of Ptolemais.”

“Oh, that’s a good place. No, we’re not dropping rocks on him you fool. Timoxenos and I are old comrades! Aren’t we Timoxenos?”

“We go back a long ways, by the gods!”

“Go in peace my friend!”

As they passed beneath the bridge, Timoxenos said, “The gods bless you, Artimidoros!”

“May they smile on you, too, my friend! Look! There’s that dog Philamon who cheated me at dice!”

Kleopatra heard the tearing crash of a large stone shattering bone and wood somewhere behind them, followed by shrieks. Then they were past the bridge, but Kleopatra remained hidden in her cocoon of carpeting. The freighter went by the private landing of the temple of Thoth-Hermes where the king’s spy service, the Basilike Krypteia, operated with more or less fidelity and competence. They then passed the strangely abandoned customs gate and glided into the short, arched tunnel through the city wall. Kleopatra lifted the carpets covering her hiding place to look at the dark pillars that seemed to be holding up the night sky over the city and trembled beneath her thick cloak.

✽✽✽

That seemed a lifetime ago, Kleopatra thought, when she strode resolutely through the Roman’s marching camp, looking neither to right or left. Back then she had been a fourteen-year-old girl afraid of her own shadow, a mere student of magike techné under the tutorship of Sosogines of Heliopolis. Not that she had ever been to Heliopolis, or anywhere else, before her exile. Before the night she fled from the City, her days had been spent haunting the Great Library’s echoing halls, or listening to lectures in the exedra that overlooked the little royal harbor, oblivious to what went on outside Alexandria’s royal quarter. When Timoxenos had announced the morning after they left Alexandria that their destination was the many fabled city of Heliopolis with its temple of the Sun where even then a golden Phoenix egg lay in its nest atop an obelisk in the temple forecourt, Kleopatra had felt great shivers of joy racing up and down her spine.  How she had longed to visit Atum’s temple and explore the temple library, which was much older than the one at Alexandria, and converse with the learned temple priests! Those two years at Heliopolis had been the golden time of her childhood, but that had all changed with the rebirth of the Phoenix, for the wondrous bird had declared that she, Kleopatra, third daughter of Ptolemaios, was the Avatar of Isis charged with the responsibility of restoring the principles of religion to a world lost to the darkness. The news had been carried down the Nile to Alexandria where it had been brought to Berenike’s ears, who was now Basilissa. Soon cavalrymen descended on the temple in Heliopolis with orders to kill Kleopatra, but she slipped away through a secret passageway to a canal and escaped to the Faiyum, then joined a caravan of Tuaregs heading for Hibis oasis at Egypt’s southern frontier. Her life since then had changed in ways she could not have foreseen. The timid little bookworm was now a confident young woman of seventeen, a valiant warrior and able commander. She had slain the God of Chaos and many of his kakodaimon followers, and then come north with an army of Tuareg and Ethiopian warriors and Greek cavalrymen to drive Berenike from the throne her sister had stolen from their father.

Kleopatra had changed in other ways, too. Her heart clenched at the memory of Masintha’s broken body and their last words before he died in her arms. She did not think she would ever get over the Tuareg prince. A cold rain of tears fell inside of her, although no one would have known it to see the serene face Kleopatra presented to the world. “Oh my love . . . My Masintha . . . Forgive me for failing you . . .  I beg of you . . .”

The whole camp, from the palisades atop the steep earthen ramparts to the officers’ tents crowding round the headquarters tent, was buzzing with the latest news. An emissary had come with a message from Berenike’s consort, Archelaos, announcing that he was coming to speak with the proconsul.

The sentries guarding the entrance to the proconsul’s tent nodded curtly when Kleopatra entered, just as her father was saying, “How would it suit us to speak with the man who violated the wishes of the people and senate of Rome by marrying the usurper?”

General Gabinius gave a careless shrug. “Why not hear him out? He may have something of interest to say.”  Ptolemaios stood across the table from Gabinius and his staff officers who were studying a large map unrolled across its surface.

Kleopatra stood a respectful distance behind her father. It was clear almost immediately that he had little say over how the war to reclaim his throne was being conducted. She watched as Gabinius’ stubby finger traced a line on the map from the Faiyum to Alexandria. “It would be nice if we had more cavalry to screen our advance.”  The Roman spoke in Greek, so Ptolemaios could understand him, since the Basileos didn’t speak Latin. Gabinius, like most upper class Romans, was fluent in Greek even though he, like most of his countrymen, didn’t think much of contemporary Greeks. It was the Greeks of olden times, men like Demosthenes and Aristotle that they idolized. These modern Greeks weren’t worth a small bronze coin.

Another Roman, much younger than the proconsul, volunteered, “I’ll take what we have and go ahead to make sure the way is clear.”

Gabinius grinned at him. “Spoiling for another fight, eh young Marcus?”

Marcus Antonius nodded. “The sooner we force a conclusion the better.”

“I agree, but I am concerned about our flanks,” Gabinius replied.

Kleopatra saw her chance and moved up to the table’s edge. “My Lords, I can take my cavalry ahead to make sure there are no ambushes.” Every eye in the room turned toward her. Kleopatra suddenly felt unsure of herself. “My foot soldiers will guard your flanks.”

Gabinius swatted her words away as if they were flies buzzing around his dinner. “We Romans would never allow a woman to fight for us. If your father chooses to let little girls do his fighting for him that’s his business, but that is not our way.”

Kleopatra jumped as if she had been scalded then turned to her father.  “Papa . . . ?”

“I am sure Lord Gabinius meant no offense,” Ptolemaios said quietly.

But Gabinius’ next words stung Kleopatra as surely as any bee sting. “See that your savages lay down their arms then return to their own lands, they’re using up valuable supplies. The Greek kleruchs will be incorporated into our auxiliary cavalry.”

“No . . . !” Her eyes flew to her father’s face in an instinctive, silent appeal. But Ptolemaios was staring across the table at the proconsul. “As I am the Basileos and the kleruchs dine from my table, they will serve under my command.” He said it with the air of a man who knows he’s on sure ground, but Kleopatra saw the little beads of perspiration on his forehead. Kleopatra stood silently at her father’s side, fighting to still the thud of her angry and resentful heart, and watched while Gabinius considered her father’s words.

After a few moments Gabinius shrugged and nodded. “Agreed, but you understand that I am still the supreme commander?”

“Naturally,” Ptolemaios replied blandly.

Kleopatra bit her lip. Her father wasn’t about to challenge Gabinius’ imperium, the authority invested in him by the god-cursed people and senate of Rome. No Greek king in his right mind would make that mistake, Kleopatra reflected. Not if he wanted to keep a crown on his head and a throne beneath him.

Ptolemaios patted Kleopatra’s hand. “It’s best if you leave the fighting to us.”

A cloud of despair and indignation filled Kleopatra’s chest.  “As you wish, Papa,” she said numbly. Not allowed to fight because of her sex? Her army dismissed as a band of savages because they are Ethiopians and Tuaregs? She wanted to shriek at Gabinius and tell him exactly what she thought of him (and Romans in general) but she held back for her father’s sake. She would never do anything to embarrass him, no matter how angry she got.

Gabinius’ next words to her father confirmed her worse fears.

“To ensure that there are no problems collecting the money you owe to Caesar and Pompeius, Rabirius Postumus will remain behind as your dioiketes.”

“My subjects will never stand for that!” Ptolemaios objected.

“Would your subjects prefer it if Egypt were Rome’s newest province?” Gabinius asked with careless cruelty. “Besides, it is Rabirius Postumus who has been underwriting your loans. He should be here to see that his interests are covered.”

Ptolemaios bared his teeth at the Roman. “If I didn’t know better, Lord Gabinius, I would think you are threatening me, a friend and ally of the Roman people, not to mention a client of Gaius Caesar and Pompeius Magnus.” He kept his voice steady, neutral.

Gabinius started to say something else, but a thin man standing next to Gabinius held up his hands. He had a beak-like nose, small brown eyes, and the quick jerky movements of a small bird. “It wasn’t the proconsul’s intention to threaten or insult you, Your Highness,” said Rabirius Postumus in smooth tones. “But, it is Pompeius’ wish that I be your dioiketes until the debt is repaid.”

Kleopatra drew a ragged breath. She was screaming inside her head.

No . . . no . . . no . . .

Tell them no, Papa . . . !

She wanted to tear her hair out. Couldn’t her Papa see that the more he gave in to the Romans the more they would demand?  She bit her lip until she was afraid it might bleed. Better that than say what she thought of the proconsul with the meaty face that was clearly red from too much drink.  In the few moments she had been there, he had drained two goblets of wine. A flood of rage boiled through her veins. How dare this barbarian pig treat her father like a pauper begging for scraps on a street corner! A god king descended from a race of kings!

Ptolemaios’ shoulders sagged. “As you wish, My Lord . . .”

Gabinius nodded. “Good. Well that’s settled.”

Kleopatra felt faintly sick. The reality of the bargain her father had made with the Romans was sinking in. With Postumus Rabirius acting as her Papa’s chief minister, the kingdom would be independent in name only. Her Papa and his family would be reduced to living on handouts in their own home, doled out by the barbarians. How humiliating!

Outside, brazen throated trumpets sounded.

A soldier rushed into the tent, panting, and snapped a crisp salute. “General, King Archelaos is approaching under a flag of truce!”

Gabinius nodded. “See that he is treated with all due respect.” He looked at his staff officers, and lastly at King Ptolemaios. “We’ll finish our planning after I have spoken with that scoundrel Archelaos.” The officers, as one, crisply saluted him, and he returned it. Gabinius left the tent, pulling his men in his wake.

Kleopatra walked beside her father behind the proconsul to the dais, where the proconsul’s curule chair sat beside the basileos’ throne. She glanced at her father, but he was staring resolutely ahead, as if he were a mariner studying a cloud on the horizon. Then they mounted the steps to the dais and Kleopatra stood behind her father while he settled his bulk onto his throne. An orderly handed a goblet of wine to Gabinius, who took a long pull from it.

“What a god forsaken place this is.” Gabinius wiped his face on a corner of his cloak. “Why anyone in their right mind would risk his neck for it is beyond me.”

Ptolemaios replied, “Egypt is like a fabulously beautiful and wealthy woman, skilled above all others in the arts of love and brilliant conversation. You’ll do anything for such a woman, especially after you have lain with her.”

Gabinius turned and looked at Ptolemaios. “Is it true what Phaedrus tells me, that the women here are the heads of the households?”

“Among the natives it is so,” Ptolemaios confirmed.

“Gods above!” Gabinius shook his head. His officers stood at attention behind him, the sun glinting on their bronze cuirasses. To Kleopatra’s secret amusement, they were clearly suffering in the Egyptian heat. She caught the young Roman named Marcus Antonius looking at her from the corner of his eye. Kleopatra frowned then reached down and scratched her black leopard, Kalos, behind his stubby ears.

There was another blast from great curling horns, and the gates at the end of the wide avenue that ran from the dais between the neat squares of legion tents were swung open.

Kleopatra stood on her tiptoes and craned her neck to see.

A figure in purple on a magnificent black charger rode into the camp with a half dozen attendants. He cantered alone down the avenue toward the dais, then stopped and dismounted. It was Kleopatra’s first look at her older sister’s consort. Archelaos handed the reins to a soldier and slowly mounted the steps to the dais then did obeisance to Gabinius. Kleopatra peered between the backs of her father and Gabinius to study the man who had come to parley with Gabinius. He was slender and dressed like a Macedonian nobleman, in a wide brimmed hat with a silver diadem, short cloak and red boots. But from his brown, sharp featured face, she guessed that none but Persian blood flowed through his veins, although his Greek was flawless.

“I am Archelaos, son of Mithridates Eupator,” he said in a dignified voice.

Ptolemaios surged from his throne. “What nonsense!” he exclaimed. “Your father was Archelaos the general! I knew Mithridates and his whole family, and you’re not . . .”

Gabinius cut him off. “Contain yourself, Ptolemaios.”

Ptolemaios sagged into his throne; whether from Gabinius’ pointed omission of his title Basileos or not, Kleopatra could not say. She hated the proconsul’s easy contempt for her father.  Her eyes bore holes into Gabinius’ back as she leaned over to whisper to her father.  “Be at peace, papa. This parley only signifies that Berenike knows that the end is near.”

Ptolemaios nodded his agreement but said nothing. Kleopatra gave his arm a reassuring squeeze then straightened and her gaze shifted back to Archelaos. So here was the pretend king of a pretend queen, a base pretend son of a genuine hero who had almost thrown off the yoke of Roman oppression of the Greeks a generation ago. Archelaos’ birthright was as spurious as Berenike’s claim to the throne. Leave it to my sister to choose such a creature for her bedmate, Kleopatra thought.

Gabinius didn’t seem to care one way or the other about Archelaos’ parentage.

“You should have stayed in Komana, Archelaos,” the proconsul said easily. “The high priesthood Pompeius Magnus gave you suited you much better than the punishment you will receive for violating the will of the people and senate of Rome.”

If Archelaos was disturbed by Gabinius’ words, he gave no sign of it when he got to his feet. “Your presence here in Egypt is unwarranted and illegal.”

Gabinius looked genuinely puzzled. “Illegal? How so . . . ?”

Archelaos said, “Your senate has not authorized your invasion. Indeed, I have it on good authority that you were expressly ordered not to leave your province to help this man, who is not a king in any sense of the word.”

Gabinius gestured toward Ptolemaios sitting beside him. “Ptolemaios is an ally and friend of Rome. As governor of Syria, it is my duty to see that he is restored to his full rights and privileges as Basileos of his kingdom.”

“You mean his gold has induced you to leave your lawful province to invade a sovereign nation that is not at war with Rome,” Archelaos replied sharply.

Gabinius leaned forward in his chair. “When you and your wife deprived Ptolemaios of his property, you declared war on the people and senate of Rome. The only course open to you is to renounce what you have illegally taken forthwith.”

Archelaos laughed. “Take care, my friend. Egypt knows very well how to defend itself from aggression, even by rogue proconsuls.”

Now it was Gabinius’ turn to laugh. “Not from what I’ve seen. One army sent against us at Raphia surrendered without a fight. We defeated the second one you led against us at Pelousion, and Berenike’s phalanxes ran away like fugitive slaves.”

“Then you won’t withdraw?”

“Not until you and your wife are punished for your crimes.”

Archelaos stiffened. “Then we’ll destroy you as an example to other evildoers.”

Gabinius wagged a fat finger at him. “Be careful with your threats, Archelaos. Those who threaten to destroy are themselves often in danger of being destroyed.”

Archelaos inclined his bearded head. “It is clear that we have said all that there is to say to each other. May Artemis punish your arrogance richly!” he said.

Gabinius gave a derisive snort. “In my experience, the gods always favor the side with the better army, which doesn’t seem to be yours, my friend.”

Archelaos bowed stiffly, then turned and left the dais.

 

A little while later, as Timoxenos was escorting Kleopatra back to her tent, he said, “I know it’s a hard blow having to disband your army.”

Kleopatra shook her head. “Gabinius can’t accept the idea of a woman leading men into battle, even me with all my military experience. It’s more than his little mind can comprehend.”

Timoxenos shrugged. “What else can you expect from barbarians?”

“Imagine dismissing my soldiers as savages!” Kleopatra said indignantly. “When the barbarians were still sleeping in straw and mud huts, the Ethiopians dwelt in fine cities, and in olden times Ethiopian kings ruled Egypt!”

Timoxenos smiled at the way she had said my soldiers. Kleopatra was justifiably proud of the noble warriors who had loyally followed her through Egypt to drive the usurper from the throne.

The sword-bearer laughed savagely. “I would take a Tuareg or Ethiopian over these motherless swine any day.” Then to emphasize the point, he spit on the ground as the Tuaregs did whenever they wanted to show contempt for a foe.

Kleopatra smiled at him. “Masintha would be proud of you.”

“He was a good man,” Timoxenos allowed.

“I hope these dung beetles leave as soon as they’ve restored Papa to his throne.”

Timoxenos shook his head. “Don’t hold your breath.”

Kleopatra frowned. What Timoxenos had said was true. Of all the successor kingdoms that had sprung up after the death of Alexander the Great, only Egypt now remained free, thanks in large part to her father. The rest were now Roman provinces. Was that to be her beloved Egypt’s fate, too? Was this the portent she had seen in the Cup of Good and Evil that Phoenix had shown her? In her mind was the dreadful memory of what she had seen: A fleet of burning warships encircled by another fleet, women and children hauled from their homes in Alexandria to be violated by grinning barbarians, a woman who looked like her mother weeping as she was stripped of her jewelry and clothes, then forced to walk naked down a long road before jeering crowds. Kleopatra gave a shudder.

Timoxenos touched her shoulder. “Are you all right, Princess?”

Kleopatra came to herself with a little start. “I . . . I was just remembering something I saw, Master Sword-Bearer.”

He studied her face closely. “The Dark One . . . ?”

“Infinitely worse,” Kleopatra replied cryptically. She fell silent, and Timoxenos knew better than to press her to say more. Kleopatra could be as secretive as a tomb.

“I hate these barbarians like the plague,” Timoxenos declared, looking around the camp.

“It’s a sad state of affairs,” Kleopatra replied with a heavy sigh, “but Papa needs them and the sorry truth is that we were losing when they showed up.” Her beautiful high cheek-boned face clouded over at the memory of the battle with Berenike’s army.

Timoxenos made a gesture of dismissal. “We would have managed somehow.”

Before Kleopatra could reply, someone called her name. A tall, powerfully built figure was coming after them. Marcus Antonius bowed when he caught up with her. The Roman had a noble appearance: his beard thick, his forehead large and his nose aquiline, giving him a bold manly look that reminded Kleopatra of Herakles. But he also had a boyish, lopsided grin that made her smile in spite of herself. His Greek was very good, too.  “I just wanted to tell you that I know what it’s like to be denied the glory of a battle.”

Picking her words with care, Kleopatra replied, “That is hard for me to believe, Lord Antonius.”

“Nevertheless, it is true,” he said ruefully.

Kleopatra’s full lips curved in a smile. “Well, I don’t doubt you will find many opportunities to cover yourself in glory while you are in my father’s kingdom.”

Marcus chuckled then his face grew grave. “Not likely, I am afraid.”

Kleopatra’s proud chin came up. “What do you mean?” Her tone was sharper than she intended, but she had had her fill of Roman talk of her people’s so-called cowardice.

Marcus shrugged. “If the gods are kind, there will be no more bloodshed. Anyway, it’s always a bad business when family members fight each other.”

Kleopatra nodded, conceding the point.

“I apologize for the proconsul’s harsh words.” Antonius said.

“It’s his place to apologize for his words, not yours,” Kleopatra said baldly. “But thank you anyway, My Lord.” Her face took on a hard, sharp-eyed look, like a hawk about to swoop down on a field mouse.

“You don’t mince words, do you, Princess?”

“As a matter of fact, no,” Kleopatra said. “My father is a god-king descended from Herakles and a race of god-kings. It is wrong for him to be treated like a beggar in his own oikos.” She used the word for home estate, which the kingdom was to the Basileos as it had been in all the successor kingdoms, the personal estate of the ruler. He was a landowner writ large. “Lord Gabinius would do well to remember that causing dishonor to another dishonors his own heart.”

“I quite agree, Princess Kleopatra,” Antonius replied, smiling.

Kleopatra raised an ironic eyebrow. “That is very good of you.”

“There will be no trifling with you, will there?”

“What do you think?” Kleopatra asked flatly.

Antonius sighed. “I think I had better head back before Gabinius decides to give me latrine duty.” He bowed then walked away.  Kleopatra and Timoxenos watched him go.

Timoxenos frowned. He was afraid this would happen. Kleopatra was a beautiful young woman. It was only a matter of time before one of the barbarians started paying attention to her — the wrong kind of attention. I’ll slay the first bastard that tries to lay a hand on her, he promised himself, including this one. He knew the dilemma Kleopatra faced. Ptolemaios desperately needed Gabinius. Neither he nor Kleopatra could afford to offend one of the tribunes, especially one who happened to be a close friend of the proconsul.

✽✽✽

In the Roman camp, night had fallen at last. Kleopatra sat before her tent talking to several Tuareg and Ethiopian warriors in the wavering light of a campfire. A few Greeks were there too. “The immortal gods above! I’d rather be here with you, Great Egypt, than those stinking Romans!” declared one grizzled soldier, a loyal kleruch from the Faiyum, coming into the firelight, and the others nodded. Few Greeks, Egyptians or Ethiopians had any love for the Romans. The Tuaregs, of course, had no love for anyone but other Tuaregs, although they got along well enough with the Ethiopians after the peace treaty Kleopatra had negotiated between the two proud warrior races. The men listened intently while the Princess talked. “There are things I always want you to remember.” Kleopatra’s lilting voice floated through the warm night air as she spread her hands in an all-encompassing gesture. “All this around us is merely illusion. What you see is only one hundredth of what is actually there. The rest is hidden behind a curtain, so do not allow yourselves to be seduced by the glittering radiance of the material world. Only foolish men and kakodaimons tread that path, for they are overly indulgent, ignorant and malicious beings.”

Timoxenos stood in the shadows with his javelin cradled in his arms, listening, and watching how Greek, Egyptian, Tuareg and Ethiopian alike hung on his charge’s words. How easily she switched from her native Greek tongue to Egyptian, Ethiopian or Tuareg, he thought, her voice as melodious as a well-tuned lyre. He loved her like his own flesh and blood, like his own daughter who had been gang raped, then murdered by Romans years ago. Timoxenos brooded in the shadows. He would not let anything happen to this little one. The thought of any harm coming to her was more than he could bear. Goddess or no, her safety was still his chief concern. It always would be.

A young Tuareg warrior raised his hands like a schoolboy in a classroom. The sword-bearer recognized him as the youth he had caught spying on Kleopatra while she bathed, right after they set out from the Faiyum a lifetime ago. An enraged Masintha had been about to behead him when Kleopatra asked her soon-to-be lover to spare the young man’s life. She acknowledged the young Tuareg with a little nod. “Yes, Gilduptis?”

“Now that Seth-Typhon is dead, do kakodaimons still exist?” he asked shyly.

Kleopatra shook her head. “I do not know, Gilduptis, but as soon as I find out I will let you know,” she said with a little ripple of laughter that elicited smiles from the men sitting or crouching around the fire. They loved the young golden-haired Avatar of Isis as much as Timoxenos did, even if they didn’t always understand what she said to them.

A Greek soldier asked, “Is it possible to see beyond this curtain you speak of?”

Kleopatra brought a hand up and tapped her temple. “If you conquer your minds, you can not only pierce the curtain of illusion, but by doing so become gods yourselves. That is why you are here — that is your purpose in this life and the next until you finally learn the lesson you came to learn.”

“But how can we hope to do this, Great Egypt?” a native Egyptian soldier asked.

“By recognizing that from birth to death your activities are completely spiritual,” Kleopatra said emphatically. “Listen. I would not deceive you. Worthless orators and so-called wise men cannot differentiate between activities in this material world and similar activities in the spiritual world. They are like blind men trying to lead other blind men, but the road they are leading them down is the one that leads to heartache.”

The men crouched and sitting around the firelight stirred, then parted ways to admit Akanidad, the general of the Ethiopians. He was a big, handsome man with a broad, honest face and the bearing of a prince and a lifelong soldier. “Now that the Romans are here, what will happen, Great Egypt?” he asked.

Kleopatra looked thoughtful, or Timoxenos thought she did. It was hard to tell, even by the ever-shifting light of the campfire.

Kleopatra raised her eyes to Akanidad, then to the men gathered round her. “It is time for you to return to your lands,” she said quietly.

Ethiopian, Tuareg and Greek looked at each other in stark disbelief. There was a low muttering around the campfire. “Have we displeased you, Great Egypt?” a Tuareg asked.

A tear of utter hopelessness slid down Kleopatra’s cheek. “Not at all, my comrades.”  She tried to keep the bitterness out of her voice. “But the Romans do not appreciate or understand our spiritual quest. They are tied to the material world of illusion and chase the only greatness they know. Gold. They can not share the depth and wealth of our convictions and are not fit to fight alongside us.”

“Or will not have us,” a Tuareg said angrily.

Kleopatra could only nod. There were things she wanted to say, needed to say, to these fine warriors who had followed her blindly without ever once questioning her orders, but the words were gathered in a knot high in her throat, and would not come out.

Kleopatra bowed her head in grief. The silence that followed was too deep for tears. Several of her soldiers had moist eyes.  Kleopatra hadn’t thought it would be easy to tell her men to return to their own lands but she was determined that the order come from her and not the god-cursed Roman barbarians. All the same, despite the hundreds of torches in the Roman military camp, despite the blazing campfire in front of her tent, the night suddenly seemed darker.

CHAPTER II
Howls

Eos, Dawn Bringer, rose from her home on the shores of distant Oceanus and thrust long, rosy fingers high into the dark blue sky in greeting to her golden brother, Helios. The Roman camp stirred then came to life like ants emerging from their hive in the morning. Men called out sleepy greetings to comrades coming in from the night watch, centurions barked orders to legionaries, and breakfast fires were lit.

Kleopatra rose from her desk when her father came into her tent’s main chamber. Kleopatra’s loving servants, Eiras and Charmion, did obeisance at once to the Basileos, touching their foreheads to the rich carpets. The Princess went into a deep bow. “Good morning, Papa.”

“Have I come at a bad time?” Ptolemaios asked wearily.

“Of course not, Papa, welcome.” Kleopatra went up to Ptolemaios, gently took him by the elbow and propelled him over to a couch. “Would you like some breakfast?”

“Some wine would be nice,” Ptolemaios said, as he sagged into the purple cushions.

Kleopatra nodded at Charmion and Eiras. They leaped to their feet, hurried to a sideboard where a silver pitcher and expensive glass goblets sat, and began mixing the wine with honey and water. Kleopatra gave her father a sympathetic look. “What is troubling you, Papa?”

Ptolemaios ran his fingers through his graying hair. “I could just strangle that god-cursed Gabinius. I’ve had a belly full of his nonsense.”

Kalos got up from his basket, ambled over and rubbed against Kleopatra’s ankle. Ptolemaios frowned. He had not gotten used to the mysterious creature, a little black cat that sometimes morphed into a powerfully built black leopard. Timoxenos had told him how the leopard had slain the Ethiopian queen’s lion during the battle of Hibis Oasis. She doted on the cat, feeding him little treats of dried fish or fruit, brushing his coat while he lay in her lap, picking him up and nuzzling him. She was no less affectionate to Kalos when he was a leopard; wrestling with him or playfully tugging at his stubby ears, while his long, slender tail whipsawed. Now the cat stared at Ptolemaios with his inscrutable green gaze. Ptolemaios forced his eyes from the cat to his daughter’s face. “I sometimes feel as if I’ve gotten into bed with a basketful of venomous serpents. With the Romans it’s never a question of if they’ll bite you, but only when and how deeply,” he said with a tired sigh. “I wonder, daughter. I wonder if I have done the right thing, using Rome to recover my throne. I could have gone to the Parthians. King Orodes would have welcomed an excuse to sweep through Syria with his cavalry of cataphracts, but that would have virtually guaranteed that Rome would send an army to annex us. So I turned to my old patron Lord Pompeius. Through him I hoped to ensure our dynasty will survive, but I did not understand the price Rome would exact. I only saw the god-cursed prize.”

Kleopatra, her expression serious, said, “Papa, it is to be expected that you saw only the prize. That is only human. But the price of obtaining what you wanted is actually obtaining what you once wanted.” She paused for awhile deep in thought. “Not even those heroes who lived long ago and were the divine sons of the gods reached old age without first passing a life of hardship, destruction and mortal danger.”

“Have I done the right thing, then?” Ptolemaios asked soberly.

Kleopatra patted his arm. “You’ve done the best you could with a threatening situation.”

“Have I indeed?” Ptolemaios took the goblet Eiras handed him and took a reflective long pull from it. “This must be from around here,” he said appreciatively.

“Your expert tongue has not deceived you, father,” Kleopatra confirmed. “It comes from my estate in Herakleopolis.”

Ptolemaios gave a savage laugh, “If only we Hellenes could fight as well as we make wine.” As he talked, Charmion and Eiras were busy feeding a fire, stirring a pot of porridge, setting out plates on the low dining table surrounded by plush purple couches—a gift from Ptolemaios, as was the large campaign tent. Kleopatra saw Timoxenos’ bulk through the gauzy tent flap, a comforting sight in a camp full of coarse Roman barbarians.

“There are more important things than fighting, Papa,” Kleopatra pointed out.

Ptolemaios chuckled. “And yet I hear that you do it so well.”

“Only with much reluctance,” Kleopatra said evenly.

Ptolemaios gave a heavy sigh. “I am sorry about your men.”

Kleopatra lowered her eyes. She did not know what to say. It had shredded her guts to send her proud soldiers away. She had spent the two days since they left feeling a conflict of emotions that took her from joy at being reunited with her beloved Papa and despair over the brutal diminution of her role in his restoration. She thought she now understood how the native Egyptians felt when they were discriminated against in their own country, by a people who had only arrived a mere three centuries earlier.  At first, Egyptians had been barred from stepping foot in Alexandria or its two Greek sister cities, Naukratis and Ptolemais. Over the last hundred and fifty years things had gotten better. They now held high positions in the kingdom’s vast complicated civilian bureaucracy, and in the imperial army and royal navy, too.  On many levels, a fusion of the two races had taken place, resulting in buildings that were an exotic blend of Greek and Egyptian motifs. In the countryside, especially, there had been much cross-pollinating — native women with lusty Greek soldiers, resulting in a beautiful, quick-witted hybrid race blessed with honeyed skin and almond eyes. In the beginning, there had been strictly enforced laws against such unions. The two races even had separate court systems: the chrematistai, the judges who presided over the Greek law courts and their Egyptian counterparts the laokrites. But Hellenes were still at the top of the heap. Kleopatra thought it must be galling to be thought of as less than in your own land. She looked at Ptolemaios and said, “Like you, papa, I guess I always do what I have to do.”

Ptolemaios nodded so slightly, his head hardly moved. After a while, he said, “After we take Alexandria and I recover my throne, I plan to send to Ephesos for your brothers.”

Kleopatra considered that in silence. It was the first time her father had mentioned his other children since he’d returned from exile. It suddenly occurred to Kleopatra that she barely knew her half-siblings from his second wife. They rarely crossed paths, except for festivals when the royal family gathered in the Square Stoa in the Agora. Sometimes, she had glimpsed the boys, Philip and Magas, in the Gymnasion with their tutors, eunuchs who could presumably be trusted not to take advantage of impressionable young minds. Kleopatra could not fathom why anyone would ever submit to having his peos removed.

“What about Arsinoë?” Kleopatra asked suddenly. She had almost forgotten about her half-sister, a pale little girl with big brown eyes and long dark brown hair. Kleopatra tied to remember her age but could not.

Ptolemaios said, “That’s why I am here. I took the boys with me when I went away, but I left Arsinoë behind with her eunuch.” He suddenly looked stricken. “My spies have just reported to me that Berenike has imprisoned Arsinoë in the catacombs beneath the Akra. I fear Berenike will slay her before we take Alexandria.”

Kleopatra listened with cold fury. The catacombs beneath fortress Akra were reserved for the most heinous of criminals. They were a terrible warren of dark underground chambers hewn from the living rock, cold and damp, the dungeons small cramped spaces sealed with thick wooden ironbound doors. Above the catacombs was the Akra fortress where the royal armory and the household troop barracks stood. It was said that even the rats infesting the place could not escape from its stygian depths. Not that they would have wanted to with all those rotting corpses to feast on in the dungeons. It was a vile place to hold a little girl.

Kleopatra suggested that the Basilike Krypteia, the royal spy service, approach the jail’s warden with the offer of a generous bribe to secure little Arsinoë’s release.

Ptolemaios declared that impossible.

“The warden is a man named Lais who is as loyal to Berenike as a heel hound to its master. Berenike would make a point of matching our bribe then slaying your sister out of vindictiveness.”

Kleopatra nodded in agreement. “I am sure she would. What can we do?”

Ptolemaios wide blue eyes were on his daughter’s face. “Gabinius plans to strike camp and set out for Alexandria tomorrow. By my reckoning it will take him six days to get his army up there.” Ptolemaios reached over and took Kleopatra’s hands in his. He paused for a moment, solemn, and drew in a heavy breath. “My daughter, what I am about to ask you to do is more than any father should ever ask of a child, let alone a much cherished daughter, but I believe in my heart that only you possess the courage and wisdom to do this thing I must ask of you. Will you make the journey to Alexandria and rescue your little sister? For reasons that I cannot go into now, she is important to the long term health and security of our dynasty. I will do everything in my power to stall Gabinius until you have accomplished your mission. That is, if you decide to accept it.”

Kleopatra did not hesitate a moment. “How do I let you know I have succeeded?”

Ptolemaios reached into his robe and withdrew a neatly folded yellow and green cloth. “Make your way to the Lighthouse and hang this pennant from Poseidon’s trident on top of the copula.”

Kleopatra took it then her lips curled in a smile. “I will leave today, Papa.”

Ptolemaios nodded at his daughter. “I knew I could count on you.”

✽✽✽

Later that morning, Kleopatra appeared at Gabinius’ headquarter tent. Her flesh shrank at the notion of having to see the arrogant barbarian general again. Still, it had to be done. She must get to Alexandria and that meant going to the Roman’s headquarters tent and declaring her intention to leave. Just how free was she to go? She would know soon enough. The stern-faced guards at the tent’s entrance nodded Kleopatra in. She swept by them with her head held high, Kalos cradled in her arms.

Her father, Gabinius and Antonius looked up from the map on a table when she came in.

“I came by to say farewell.” She set Kalos down then went up to her father and gave him a hug.

“Where are you going?” Gabinius asked sharply in his flawless Greek.

Kleopatra looked over at him and said, matter-of-factly, “I am making a pilgrimage to the temple of Ptah-Hephaistos at Memphis.” It was a plausible lie. The temple was a popular destination for pilgrims seeking a boon, a cure, or the answer to a question from the god. The priests raked in the god’s fees, and the king took his cut.

Gabinius eyed her suspiciously, “But, why now, Princess?”

If it had been up to Kleopatra she would have ignored the Roman. Instead, Kleopatra looked up at her father. “It’s all right for me to go, isn’t it Papa?” she pleaded in a low coaxing tone for Gabinius’ benefit.

Ptolemaios smiled down at her like a doting parent. “Of course, you may go, daughter. But be sure to make an offering for our victory over the usurper.”

“That is exactly why I am going, Papa,” Kleopatra replied. She and her father were pointedly ignoring Gabinius, whose berry-hued face was growing more berry-hued by the moment. Kleopatra got the distinct impression that the Roman general didn’t like being ignored, especially by a Hellene. She turned and gave Gabinius her biggest smile. “Besides, I don’t want to get in the way of your war-making, My Lord.”

Gabinius laughed outright. “I see your father has talked some sense into you.”

Kleopatra batted her eyelashes at him. “I have seen the error of my ways.”

Behind Gabinius’ short, stocky form Kleopatra saw Antonius smiling broadly. He, at any rate, was not buying what she had said. But, for some reason she could not quite fathom, she did not think Antonius would say anything to his general.

Gabinius nodded, satisfied. “That’s good to hear, young lady. A well-born Roman woman would never be allowed anywhere near a battlefield. Stick to cloth weaving, dancing and learning the proper way to run a household, so you will someday be a good wife.”

Kleopatra dipped her eyes to conceal the contempt sparkling within their pellucid green depths. “I shall take these golden nuggets of wisdom to heart, My Lord.”

Gabinius looked over at Antonius. “Assign an honor guard to escort the princess to Memphis.”

Kleopatra rounded on Gabinius, her face pale and set. “I don’t require an honor guard to travel in my father’s kingdom.” Her voice was cold. How was she to get to Alexandria with god-cursed Roman soldiers dogging her steps, watching her every move, and perhaps carrying secret orders to arrest her if she strayed from her stated plan of visiting the temple of Ptah-Hephaistos? Another concern flashed into her mind. What if they had other orders: orders to do away with a difficult girl somewhere on the road to Memphis? Her father would be left at the mercy of his supposed benefactors. Maybe she should stay to protect him, but what about Arsinoë?

Gabinius said flatly, “No honor guard, no pilgrimage. It’s that simple.”

Kleopatra could hardly restrain herself. How dare this foreigner talk to her as if she were some lowly slave, and not the Goddess Isis and a Princess of Egypt!

Great Aphrodite, help me see a way out of this crocodile’s mouth . . .

Ptolemaios came to her rescue. “I appreciate your concern for my daughter’s safety, Lord Gabinius, but it is important that she make her pilgrimage to the temple of Ptah-Hephaistos to ensure our victory over Archelaos. I don’t see a problem with an honor guard, as long as they treat her with all the respect that is her due.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Gabinius said coolly.

Ptolemaios looked down at Kleopatra. “Go to Memphis and do what you have to do.”

An arrow of understanding passed swiftly between them. Kleopatra nodded slowly. Her father would look after himself while she set off for Alexandria to rescue Arsinoë. What evil times these are . . . ! Kleopatra thought.  She had expected a golden time of peace and plenty to descend on her father’s troubled kingdom after she slew the God of Chaos in his crystal lair, but things had only become more complicated.

Kleopatra bowed to Gabinius. “By your leave, My Lord, I go to make preparations for my journey.” And may a nice, fat-tailed scorpion find its way into your bed and bite you on your barbarian ass!

Gabinius merely nodded.

Kleopatra stood on her tiptoes and kissed Ptolemaios’ cheek. His arms went round her and she stepped into a crushing hug. “Go with the goddess, my precious daughter.”

Kleopatra raised her face and smiled up at him. “Don’t worry, Papa. I am the Goddess.”

Ptolemaios’ tall, heavy form stiffened at the strength in Kleopatra’s voice and his blue eyes looked half-frightened. Kleopatra carried the memory of what she had seen in her father’s eyes all the way back to her tent.

 

“Mistress, Lord Antonius has come with soldiers!” Charmion said in urgent tones. In the distance Kleopatra heard horses’ hooves and looked outside. Bright sunlight smacked into Kleopatra’s eyes like two fists. She blinked to clear her vision. Timoxenos was walking up to the Roman, who waited on a fine gelding that pawed the ground impatiently.

“He certainly is handsome,” Charmion said admiringly.

Eiras gave the redheaded Charmion a long, cool look. “I think he looks like an oaf.” Like most in Egypt, Kleopatra’s Ethiopian slave had a low opinion of Romans.

Charmion sighed. “That is one oaf I wouldn’t mind taking to my bed.”

Kleopatra studied Antonius. “He has a certain charm for a barbarian,” she allowed, grudgingly.

Antonius was accompanied by another officer, also on a fine horse, and a squad of ten infantrymen. Kleopatra looked over the legionaries. The infantrymen were well turned-out in dark red, knee-length tunics, red woolen cloaks, vests made of chain mail sewn to leather sleeveless waist-length undercoats, bronze helmets with neck protectors, plumes of yellow horsehair, and cheek flaps that tied under their chins. Each was armed with a short sword worn in a scabbard on the right side, a dagger on the left hip, and several javelins. Timoxenos had told her that Roman javelins were designed to bend at the head once they hit a target to prevent them from being re-used by an opponent. In Kleopatra’s judgment that was a silly waste of a javelin, but very little about these barbarians made sense to her. The legionaries carried large, curved, rectangular shields, their painted surfaces hidden beneath protective leather covers that only came off before battle or when passing in review before their commander. They also gripped poles with packs slung over their left shoulders. When it came time to ditch her escort, Kleopatra realized, she and Timoxenos were going to have their hands full. Kleopatra raked her fingers through the sleeping Kalos’ glossy fur. His eyelids slid open a crack, revealing two slivers of green glass that regarded her sleepily a moment before closing again.

Kleopatra saw Timoxenos nod and Antonius swing off his gelding and follow the sword-bearer to the litter. Kleopatra closed the curtains quickly. What did the Roman with the big jutting jaw want? Had Gabinius decided to forbid her trip after all? What if she was going to be arrested? She wouldn’t put anything past Gabinius and his henchmen.

“Princess Kleopatra,” Kleopatra heard Timoxenos say. “The tribune Marcus Antonius wishes to speak with you, if you will permit it.”  With a stab of panic Kleopatra opened the curtains and looked up at the Roman.

“Yes, Lord Antonius?” she asked, hastening to collect herself.

Antonius knelt on the sandy ground and smiled at her. “I have detailed Lucius Septimius to command the honor guard that will escort you to Memphis.” He gestured toward the other Roman officer still astride his horse.

Kleopatra’s spirits rose at the warmth in Antonius’ voice. He had not come to put a stop to her trip after all. She turned her face so it was in profile to Antonius, and heard him suck in his breath sharply. She did not desire him, of course; she had no use for Romans. All she wanted right now was to get the hell out of their camp and be on her way to Alexandria. But what woman ever disliked a handsome man’s eyes on her, even a barbarian man, Kleopatra reflected. She thanked the gods for having been given such beauty.

“Thank you for the escort, my lord,” Kleopatra replied politely.

Antonius smiled—an odd, sort of sad smile; his countenance grew solemn. “May Felicitas light your way to Memphis,” he said in a somber tone, blushing the rosy red of a school boy in love for the first time.

Kleopatra had to think about that a moment. Then it came to her: Felicitas was their goddess of good fortune. Antonius had offered her a benediction of sorts. Kleopatra focused the full power of her gaze on him. To her it was nonsense of course. She was the Avatar of Isis and a great warrior. She needed no protection from some barbarian goddess. Still, Kleopatra favored Antonius with a warm smile. She could not look severe at the barbarian cavalry officer gazing at her with adoring eyes. “The road between here and Memphis is well traveled by merchants and caravans and ordinarily free of bandits; even if there are bandits lurking along it somewhere, waiting to take advantage of a lone girl, I have no doubt that I would be well protected by the valiant soldiers your kind general has so thoughtfully placed at my disposal, but I thank you for your concern.”

Why make an enemy of him? Kleopatra thought.  She held out a hand and Antonius held on to it the way a drowning sailor might clutch at a piece of driftwood. Kleopatra let him cling to it. Antonius’ infatuation with her might be tedious, even dangerous, but it gave Kleopatra a strong hold over him.

Antonius laughed suddenly. “You’ve got a set of balls. I’ll say that for you.”

“What do you mean by that, Lord Antonius?” Kleopatra asked, widening her eyes at him in mock naiveté.

“Oh, nothing that you don’t already know, Princess Kleopatra,” Antonius replied cryptically. He released her hand and got to his feet, then headed back to his horse, his scarlet cloak billowing behind him.

“Farewell,” Kleopatra called after him in high clear tones. He waved without looking back and Kleopatra had the feeling he was laughing. No, she thought, the Roman wasn’t buying her cover story about a pilgrimage to Ptah-Hephaistos’ temple. Well, to hell with him and the camel he rode in on, then.

Kleopatra looked at Charmion and Eiras. “Go to the temple of Isis at Narmouthis and find Isidoros the priest. Tell him that I want you to stay there until I send for you.”

“But Mistress, we want to go with you!” Eiras cried in anguish.

“This is going to be a very dangerous journey,” Kleopatra replied, somewhat exasperated.

Charmion interrupted, desperately. “We are prepared to face any danger for you, Great Egypt!” Deep grooves of sorrow marked her freckled face. Kleopatra touched Charmion’s arm. “I will send for you after I have returned to Alexandria. Meanwhile, make daily offerings and petitions for my success.”

“But, Great Egypt…” Eiras began again.

“Enough! Do as I say!” Kleopatra replied sharply.

Charmion and Eiras bowed. “It shall be done, Great Egypt,” they said as one.

Kleopatra’s eyes flicked to Timoxenos. “Let’s get going.”

The sword-bearer nodded then briskly signaled the litter bearers. “Come on you lazy bastards, get moving.” They dutifully stooped to pick up the litter’s carrying poles, hoisted them to their shoulders and set off at a trot. Kleopatra stroked Kalos’ glossy fur as they were borne from the legion’s camp. She breathed a sigh of relief when they passed through the camp gates. Through a gap in the curtains, she saw the orchards and vineyards along the road to Memphis. Kleopatra edged the curtains open behind her and peaked through the gap. The legionaries were marching behind her litter with their javelins held over their shoulders, talking among themselves, their faces hidden in the shadow of their peaked bronze helmets. How, by all the gods, was she going to get away from these dung beetles, Kleopatra wondered. She reckoned that, between her and Timoxenos and Kalos, they could, perhaps, slay half of them. And who was to say which side the litter-bearers would be on?

Kleopatra nodded to herself. She did not know what she was going to do. Whatever she did, though, it had better be soon because once they passed the escarpment and were well along the road to Memphis, it would be impossible to double back and beat Gabinius to Alexandria; Arsinoë would be as good as dead. A river trip would be the fastest, but also the most dangerous with Berenike’s legions of spies, the river police, and every god-cursed guard at every river landing on the look out for her, so the river was off limits. That left the caravan route to Alexandria. Kleopatra chewed on a corner of her lip. Things were going to get rough quickly.

The sun’s orb was nearing its zenith, and the litter had taken a sharp turn in the road and begun the gradual ascent toward the escarpment in the northeast. Timoxenos dropped back on his charger so he was now riding beside the litter. “Princess . . . ?” he called out.

Kleopatra moved the curtains aside and smiled at him. “Yes, my Timoxenos?”

“Have you thought of our little predicament?” The sword-bearer spoke in halting Tuareg since the Romans, the educated ones, anyway, often understood Greek.

“I’ve been thinking of nothing else,” Kleopatra replied mildly.

His flinty eyes were fixed on her face. “Have you come up with a plan?”

Kleopatra shook her head. “Not yet.”

“Well, you better come up with something fast, because tonight we will be at Bacchias . . . then . . .”

Kleopatra finished for him. “It will be too late, yes, I know. Don’t worry, I’ll work something out.”

Slowly, Timoxenos nodded then rode forward to trot beside the Roman officer.

They couldn’t have been traveling very fast—not by litter, with ten soldiers tramping behind them — but it seemed to Kleopatra that they were racing. Ahead of them, through a gap in the curtains, she could see the limitless blue sky, and the stony ramparts of the escarpment in the distance. The litter bearers trotted at a brisk pace, almost as if trying to outdo one another for speed, their muscles bulging on their shoulders and arms. The road ran along the broad top of dikes separating empty irrigation basins that in a few weeks would be filled with water. As if she had fallen into a dream, Kleopatra turned her head and stared out through an opening in the side curtains. She was being carried past a long line of peasants trudging along the verge of the road, their bare feet raising a fine cloud of dust that stubbornly hung in the air. The men and women — all Egyptian or half-castes — balanced enormous bundles of reed mats on their heads.

Somewhere up ahead of her litter, Kleopatra heard a voice bellowing in barbarian accented Greek, “Make way! Make way for the Princess’s litter! Make way!”

Occasionally, they had no choice but to wait at a crossroads while a line of oxen, laden with timber or water bottles, passed by. Kleopatra heard more bellowing from the Roman, and smiled to herself. There are some things that even the Romans can’t scare into obeying… What did an ox care that the person yelling at it was a superior being from Rome?  Kalos raised his head and looked up at her as if he had read her thoughts and agreed with them, then lay his head down again and went back to dozing. The last of the oxen went by and the litter started moving forward again. The Princess saw more peasants hunched over, swinging mallets as they staked rush mats into place on the dike’s steep earthen sides. Near the mouths of the catch basins, where the floodwater was stored, the dikes were being faced with wood planks by more peasants. Each year, with the appearance of the Sothis star, the Nile rose up level with its banks and overflowed into a countryside checkered with basins to retain the floodwater and channels to carry it to the more distant fields. The Faiyum, like other provinces in the kingdom, was crisscrossed by a spider’s web of canals and cross channels. So important was the maintenance of the dykes, basins and channels, that regular tours of inspection were conducted by village and Nome officials, who reported to the Dioiketes in Alexandria—the minister in charge of the kingdom’s vast, complicated bureaucracy. Not a bad system, Kleopatra reflected. With the kingdom’s prosperity dependent upon the efficient use of the Nile’s bounty, what better way was there to manage it?

Whenever they crossed small bridges over canals, the tramp of hobnailed boots rang hollowly on wooden planks — an unwelcome reminder to Kleopatra of her babysitters. She reached for her leather shoulder bag and withdrew her Book of Shadows. Maybe I’ll find the answer in here . . . She unwound the scroll across her lap. And, as if in confirmation, in her head, she heard, the low, sweet voice of the land’s ancient heartbeat, which came to her whenever she needed strength. She let the skirling melody fill her with their comforting notes as she scanned the scroll for clues to a way to escape from the Romans.

✽✽✽

CHAPTER III
Bacchias

At Bacchias, Kleopatra and Timoxenos rode past two half-caste Egyptian peasant women chattering in the shade of a dovecote. They women stopped talking and stared at them as if they expected to see a plague of locusts in their wake. They kept on staring until the two strangers had gone on further down the small road toward the village’s center.

Timoxenos said, “We’ll get some water and food, then find a place to camp. I hope they’ll forget we were ever here, in case anyone comes asking about us.”

Kleopatra nodded. “They acted as if we’re bandits.”

Timoxenos nodded. “In this part of Egypt, we may very well be in their eyes.” He nodded to the narrow staircases that climbed the side of the buildings to the flat roofs, the only entrance to the homes. The few windows were small and narrow openings set high up near the roof for ventilation. No robber could get in unless he had wings. Which Kleopatra figured wasn’t likely, unless the robber happened to be a magician.

They rode down the street toward the crowded village market. While Timoxenos asked for directions, Kleopatra drifted through the small open-air square. She let the noise of people buying and selling wash over her as she passed merchants who tallied their coins, cloth sellers who fussed with bolts of cloth, and sellers of vegetables, as they called out their wares.

“Gourds!” A man held two up from a table piled high with them. A few feet away another man cried the virtues of his beer. “. . . Red and Black beer!” Kleopatra stopped at a poultry seller’s table. He was a heavy, red-haired Greek man who reminded her of a baboon. He was surprised to see an evidently well-born Hellene, a woman at that, in his small town market. He sat behind a table, a set of scales at his elbow and waited for her to speak. Kleopatra pondered the cuts of meat laid out before her. “I’ll take that goose.” Swatting at the cloud of flies that swarmed about the meat seller’s stall, she pointed to a row of birds hanging by their feet. There were ducks and pigeons, too. But after what she and Timoxenos had been through today, Kleopatra thought a roast goose for supper sounded good. The merchant grunted and wiped his hands on his bloody apron.

“What’s a well-born lady like you doing here?” the merchant asked, bringing down the bird and laying it out on the table for her to inspect.

Kleopatra wrinkled her fine upswept nose. The dead animal smell was nauseating.  “Just passing through,” she replied vaguely. What business was it of his, what she was doing in Bacchias?

The merchant placed the goose in the scale and weighed it. “Ten obols,” he said.

“That’s outrageous,” Kleopatra said with an angry toss of her chin.

The merchant grinned. “That’s my price. As you can see, I am the only butcher in this miserable little village.  If you don’t have enough money, maybe you have something else of value to barter.”  He grinned at her as if she were a particularly choice cut of meat.

Kleopatra did not like his tone, what he had said or how he was looking at her. In fact, she didn’t like anything about him, a rare occurrence in someone who prided herself in seeing the good in everyone she met. Her eyes hardened into emeralds. “And maybe I will cut your head off and stuff it with onions!”

The merchant’s mouth dropped open when she moved her cloak aside and he saw the sword in the scabbard. “Three obols and you can go home to your unfortunate wife tonight.” The look in her eyes told the man that this was no idle threat, either.

A smile, like oil spread across his dirty, red bearded face. He spread his hands. “Forgive me for my little jest, My Lady,” he said in unseemly haste. “Three obols will be fine.”

“Eukha’ristos eimi’” she replied, thank you in her native Greek. She counted out three small bronze coins decorated with the head of Zeus Ammon on one side and an eagle on the other. She tossed them onto the table then took the bird and left.

“Have a nice day,” the merchant called after her.

“Es Hai’dou bas’ke!”  Go to hell. Kleopatra tossed over her shoulder.

Timoxenos was coming across the square with a large pack on his back, leading their horses that were now also heavily laden with leather water bags and supplies.

She held up the goose. “We’ll be dining like kings tonight.”

The sword-bearer grinned. “All we need is a jug or two of some good beer.”

Kleopatra did not want to ruin his good mood by telling him about her encounter with the meat seller. He would lecture her about the need not to draw attention to themselves, and the futility of idle threats. She was glad to have the goose, though.

✽✽✽

That night they camped in a narrow, high-walled dry wadi. The small fire they had used to cook the goose cast shadows on the wadi’s steep sandstone walls. The horses were tethered to a nearby sage bush. “You know,” Kleopatra said out of the blue, “I think I understand my father better. It must be hard having to deal with the barbarians.”

Timoxenos was working on a piece of goose. He chewed thoughtfully for a moment then said, “The problem is that every Greek Basileos that has ever accepted their help has eventually regretted it.”

Kleopatra said, “But Papa has managed to keep them from taking our kingdom.” She rolled up shredded pieces of goose breast in the flat barley bread they had bought in the village. She broke off a small piece and fed it to Kalos, who sat in front of her, his watchful eyes on her greasy fingers. “Here you are, you little beggar.”

Timoxenos silently noticed how she said, our kingdom. Already his young charge was thinking ahead to the day when she would be Basilissa of Egypt. He tossed aside a leg bone gnawed bare. “So far your father hasn’t given them a reason to take his kingdom from him, but I guarantee you, they are thinking about it.”

Kleopatra shrugged but beamed at him over her cup of beer. “Let the Romans think and scheme and plan all they want. I will never let them take Egypt from papa,” she replied confidently.

Timoxenos drained his cup noisily, wiped his mouth with his cloak and looked at her. “I think if anyone can keep Egypt out of the hands of those whore’s sons, it is you, Little One. I don’t know why I think this, being only a simple soldier, but I do.”

Perhaps it was the beer, this was her second cup, but Kleopatra felt her face turning red in the dark. “Thank you for saying that Timoxenos. It means a lot to me that you believe in me.”

“When you get to be my age, Little One, believing in something . . . anything . . . becomes very important. When I was your age, I believed in nothing but my wits and the strength of my arm.” He paused a moment, perhaps embarrassed, she couldn’t really tell, then said, “Tomorrow, we’ll take the road north to Alexandria. If the gods smile on us, we will find a caravan to join so we won’t draw the attention of the accursed Eremophylakes.”

Kleopatra nodded. Their last run in with members of the special Royal Camel Corp had resulted in a bloody battle in which she had slain her first soldier.

She yawned. It was getting late and much had happened that day. “I am tired,” she announced. “I think I will go to bed now.” She wiped her hands clean on a napkin.

Timoxenos started to rise. “Do you need help . . . ?”

Kleopatra laughed. “I am not a baby anymore, Timoxenos. I can unroll my own bedroll.”

The sword-bearer’s face cracked a rare smile. “Of course, you can. Good night, Princess.” And the way he said Princess was like a caress.

Kleopatra unrolled her bedroll at the foot of the wadi’s steep limestone wall behind them, slid in, then pulled the covers up to her neck. Kalos made himself at home on her tummy, and it was hard to say which of them went to sleep first.

… Darkness and a sensation of falling, as if she were spiraling down a deep well . . . Kleopatra fell through time and space into the welcoming embrace of Hypnos, the god of sleep. Faces emerged from the dark: her mother, the beautiful Kleopatra-Tryphaena, dead for many years now; her gentle older sister Tryphaena murdered by Berenike, poor kindly Uncle Philip who had committed suicide after the Romans seized his island kingdom to exploit it for its wealth. Each face vanished as quickly as it appeared; phantom images of more or less happier times.

Kleopatra felt herself falling, her mortality peeling away from her like layers of clothing.

Deeper and deeper she went.

Then, a moment later, Isis stood on the Tuat. The smooth black plain of the cosmic manifestation stretched out in every direction beneath a black starless sky. Here in the Tuat were the abode of the Gods, daimons of every kind, beneficial and malevolent, and the spirits of the dead and the not yet born. It was Isis’ domain too; the place of her Goddess power, the place of her bliss. Isis called out, her voice floating away like a cloud of musical butterflies. “My brother, Lord Osiris, I stand on the place of our power. Will you come to me?” Her flesh gave off a soft golden glow as it did every time she was here or in the presence of supernatural being on the mortal realm.

A tall muscular form wearing a short white pleated skirt and the tall double crown of Egypt shimmered beside her. Isis stared up into the loving purple eyes of a beautifully chiseled, black face. “Lady Isis, this is indeed a pleasure!” said Osiris, in his lordly voice.

Isis moved into his strong arms and laid her face against his bare chest. “Brother, I have missed you so much. It is good to be here with you at last.”

“As I have missed you, Shining One,” Osiris replied, his voice low and resonant.

Isis looked up and their lips met in a hot kiss. Nothing had ever tasted so delicious she thought, as she fed on the full, soft lips. “Take me now, Brother,” Isis said longingly. A pavilion hung with fine purple silks materialized beside them. There was the soft strum of lyres and piping of an aulos pipe although no musicians could be seen. Osiris lifted Isis off her feet and carried her to a low golden bed, and there on the Plain of the Cosmic Manifestation they made love: two flames, one golden, one black, bending and coiling, and blending. Their cries of joy reverberated across the Tuat like thunder and Isis rode Osiris like the wind. She gazed down into the smiling, purple eyes of the deity who had first taken her, claimed her as his own and as his right, in Heliopolis a lifetime ago. Isis felt no hesitation. Was not Osiris her brother, and in the cosmology of the Great Ennead, her once and future husband?

Afterwards, Isis lay in Osiris’ comforting arms in the pavilion. “It is good to be with you once again, Strength of Ra.” She snuggled closer to him, marveling at the contrast between her pale skin and his ebony skin. “I could stay like this forever,” Isis murmured with a contented sigh. “Why don’t you return to the land of the living, Soul of the Most Holy Ra?”

Osiris gave a low chuckle. “I can never leave the Underworld. Sadly, that is my destiny, but yours lies in the land of the living. The world needs you more than ever.”

Isis nodded. “It hasn’t become any easier since I vanquished Seth-Typhon.”

Osiris tensed.

Isis turned and looked at him. “What disturbs you, Brother?”

Osiris was frowning. “I fear that Egypt is still in grave danger. The people have forgotten the principles of religion, temples are being violated by outlaws, and, as you well know, foreigners have now cast covetous eyes upon Egypt. Evil priests at your temple on Philae Island have substituted the gold bowls given to them for your cult by your ancestors with brass.” Osiris conjured an image for her of the place. Isis’ jaw line hardened at the sight of the unmistakable gleam of cheap brass where there should have been good buttery-hued gold. Maybe her mortal father was right when he said that men were little more than wild beasts. He was right about so many things.

Isis said, “Never fear, Brother. I will make that right.”

Osiris stirred. “It’s not just that, my beloved little sister. The Great Ennead has detected a mysterious new power that seems to threaten our very existence. Even Lord Thoth-Hermes has been unable to learn about this new peril.” Osiris sighed heavily; a long, drawn out, doleful sound. “We can feel it, but it is hidden behind a dark curtain we cannot penetrate. However, the fact remains as I have stated it.” Osiris fell into a frowning silence.

Isis said nothing. What was there to say? Life, it seemed, was an unending river of tears and struggle that could not be halted, even with the most cunningly devised dam.  After a while, she asked, “Is this my sad fate, then, to continually roll a boulder up a hill with no rest in sight? Don’t answer that. Let us put aside these dark thoughts for this brief, shining moment.” She kissed his arms, then turned and burned a hot trail of kisses down his throat, chest and hard belly.

✽✽✽

Kleopatra opened her eyes and sat up. The moonless sky was as black as ebony with an icy rime of stars. Sothis, her star, gleamed above the dry riverbed’s rim. Kleopatra turned her head to see Timoxenos squatting near the fire, staring out into the night. Kalos was beside him, also watching. Someone was laughing near the end of the wadi where it widened out into the desert. Then came another laugh followed by a cackle from the other end of the dry riverbed. There were more cackles and laughter coming from all directions. Kleopatra and Timoxenos were on their feet in an instant.

“What was that?” Kleopatra cried, her head whipping around.

“Look!” Timoxenos pointed. Dim shapes were on the move in the dark beyond the glow of their small fire — large four-legged creatures with a sloping backs, whose rear legs were shorter and heavier than their forelegs. Two stopped and stared at Kleopatra and Timoxenos. Kleopatra could just make out their broad heads with large eyes, thick muzzles and large pointed ears. With a loud curse, Timoxenos went for his javelin. Kleopatra snatched up one of the discarded Roman javelins and stepped into the proper stance just as Timoxenos had taught her: turned sideways with legs slightly bent and feet planted far apart. She held the weapon in an overhand position gripping its polished shaft hard, ready for the kill.  “How many do you think there are?” Kleopatra asked in an urgent whisper.

The sword-bearer counted silently. “There are perhaps half a dozen, possibly more.”

“Still far too many for us,” Kleopatra said. Over the hyenas’ cackling laughter, she heard their horses whinnying and stamping the ground. Kleopatra’s blood ran cold. Without horses there was no hope of getting to Alexandria before Gabinius and his legions. Kalos suddenly morphed into a low-slung, heavy-limbed, black leopard with bulging shoulder muscles and massive paws. He stood with his long tail whipsawing in agitation, hissing and spitting at the intruders. One of the horses broke free of its tether and galloped away. A moment later the night was ripped by a bloody scream. Kleopatra heard the terrible sound of flesh being ripped apart and bones being crushed. She strained her eyes through the black night. The hyenas were running with a bear-like loping gait, only a stone’s lob away.

Kleopatra swallowed hard. Hyenas had been known to kill lions. Now, here she was in a narrow rocky dry riverbed surrounded by who knew how many of the ferocious beasts! She kept thinking, Goddess Mother, No . . . This isn’t happening . . . !!! Kleopatra was sweating and shaking as if she had a fever. Then, unbidden came the land’s comforting heartbeat filling her with courage and certainty in the face of this new threat; a healing fury boiled through her veins. Thank you, Golden One . . .  To Kleopatra’s left, Kalos tensed; his long body dropped low to the ground and his eyes locked on the hyenas. One of the hyenas broke free from the group and charged the campsite. Kalos surged forward screaming his hate for the intruder.

Another hyena leaped out of the dark, its muscles in its heavy body rippling beneath its coarse, black-striped coat. Timoxenos’ javelin flicked through the night skewering the beast in the flank. It dropped into the fire and rolled around, its jaws snapping and slavering; its large eyes filled with malevolence. Kleopatra dashed forward and drove her javelin into its thick neck, killing it. From a distance, Kalos’ blood curdling roars ripped through the night. A hyena screamed then skittered off with the leopard on its back. Kleopatra whirled around just as another shape hurtled at them from the side. “Timoxenos, watch out . . .!” The hyena lunged out of the darkness and knocked the Sword-bearer down. Kleopatra hurled the javelin. It found its mark, but the hyena was far from dead. The growling beast was stubbornly tearing at the sword-bearer.  Kleopatra was on it in an instant with another javelin she had snatched up on the run. Screaming with rage, she drove the javelin into the hyena’s side over and over until it fell dead. The other hyenas began to run away, yelping.

Kleopatra yanked out her javelin and went to the edge of the camp to watch the spectral shapes merge with the dark as they sped away.  “You will not have us for your dinner!” she cried, “I have great power and will destroy all of you if you dare return!” Bone tired, Kleopatra collapsed on the sandy ground. “Holy Aphrodite! That was close!”  When Timoxenos didn’t answer, she looked over at him. He lay still, staring up at the sky. Kleopatra put her head back and shrieked.

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