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Authors: Jo Graham

Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General

Hand of Isis (10 page)

BOOK: Hand of Isis

“Where’s Iras?” he asked.

“Here,” Iras said, coming out the door smiling as though her face would crack.

He bent to embrace her, and I felt a stabbing pain of jealousy run through me. Was it my imagination, or did he hold her longer than he held me? Was he pressing her a little closer?

“So what have you been doing, Dion?” I asked, pushing my hair back as we all went into the sitting room together.

“A little of this and a lot of that.” Dion threw himself into one of the chairs as though he hadn’t a bone in his body. “I’m teaching mathematics now to a bunch of snotty-nosed little boys, and I’m working with Philo in astronomy. He’s calculating the vectors of parabolic orbits, and how much speed you would need when accelerating away from a large body.”

Cleopatra had come in, and she poured watered wine for him. “And what can you do with that?”

Dion shrugged. “Go to the moon. Do you want to go, my Princess?”

Cleopatra laughed. “Is the moon made of silver, Dion, that I should replenish the treasury of Alexandria?”

“No one knows what the moon is made of,” Dion said seriously. “But if I had an engine of sufficient efficiency, I have the mathematics. Perhaps in a century or two it will be possible. Hero has done some very promising things with his aeliopile.”

“Aeliopile?” Iras sat down beside Dion on the nearest couch, reclining on the arm as she leaned toward him.

“It’s powered by the steam of boiling water,” Dion said. “It can make a ball spin faster than the human eye can see it, around fifteen hundred times per minute. It compresses air through a copper tube and expels it in a way that causes tremendous energy to be released. If there were a way to build a tube large enough that a vessel might be attached to it, then it might create sufficient force to lift that vessel clear of the air and into the aether that separates our celestial sphere from that of the moon.”

I felt a chill run down my spine, as though someone had whispered to me long ago
. I would build a ship of moonlight and silver, and we should sail beyond the baths of stars and far away, to strange islands in that ocean where men have never walked. . . .

I had lost the train of the conversation, but no one had noticed.

“And are you married, Dion?” Cleopatra asked.

Dion blushed. “Not yet.” He ducked his head, and I noticed that his eyelashes were thick and dark. “But I have a lover.”

“Oh!” Cleopatra leaned back in her chair, clearly enjoying being the picture of sophisticated adulthood. “Who is he? Tell us all about him.”

Dion looked up at her. “His name is Doriskos. He’s twenty-six, and he works in Pneumatics. He’s from Corinth, but he’s come to Alexandria to study. My parents don’t really know about him.”

“You look happy, Dion,” I said. It had not really occurred to me that while we were in Bubastis, Dion might have found someone. But of course he had. He was three years older than I was, and very handsome.

“I am.” Dion blushed even more. “There was never a more ideal erastes in the history of the world, and that’s saying rather a lot.”

“I’m very happy for you, Dion,” Iras said. Her voice was cool, and I was sure I had imagined warmth between them a few minutes before.

“I am too,” I said. But the jealousy did not die.

, we had worse troubles than Dion’s new erastes. It was true that Ptolemy Auletes had mortgaged the country to Pompeius Magnus. The Roman Gabinius had indeed defeated Archelaus in order to restore Ptolemy to the throne, but had practically destroyed the Royal Army in the process. It was necessary to keep Gabinius and his mercenaries on for still more pay until somehow the army could be reconstituted. In the meantime, the first of the hefty payments was due to Pompeius, through his banker, Rabirius Postumus. It amounted to a huge sum.

Still, the Ptolemies were not poor. Auletes scraped together the first payment from the treasures of the palace. Gilded lamps and golden plate, fine cedarwood chests full of treasures made their way to the docks for shipment to Rome.

Gabinius guarded them closely. He and his men were billeted within the Palace Quarter, in the barracks that should be reserved for the Palace Guard, if we
a Palace Guard. It made me more than a little nervous to think that we had Romans for our guardians.

“We’ve set the jackals to watch the henhouse,” Cleopatra said grimly, and said no more.

“We’ll find the next payment when the harvest comes in,” Iras said. “There will be export taxes on the grain. That will cover it.”

“It will,” Cleopatra said. “But it won’t cover anything more.”

“Like rebuilding the army,” I said.

“There are the Royal Jewels,” Cleopatra said.

Iras bristled. “The Royal Jewels will not leave Egypt! Some of them are two thousand years old, meant to grace the necks of Pharaohs for all eternity on their funeral beds, plundered by the Persians and returned to us by the grace of Alexander! Auletes will send them to Rome when the seas freeze to ice.”

I was less sure of that. Auletes would do whatever he needed to.

Still, as long as we had them, we should use them. When the Alexandreia approached, I sent word to the Treasurer that all of the jewels suitable for a queen should be sent to Cleopatra’s quarters that she might choose which ones to wear for the festival. She was fifteen, and would be walking in the great procession with her father, as the heir to the throne should.

The Treasurer was taken aback by the request, so much so that he went straight to Pharaoh. We heard that Auletes laughed, and said that his daughter should have what she liked.

The next day the Treasurer came to Cleopatra’s quarters, with fifteen guardsmen and a dozen slaves bearing boxes. Piece by piece, he spread out the contents of the Treasury. I had no idea there was still so much.

Each piece was dazzling by itself. Together, it was almost unbelievable. There were broad necklaces that covered one from throat to waist, with counterweights in the back made of solid gold, pectorals of lapis and carnelian, earrings of glistening peridot, star rubies from India carved as scarabs and set into a bracelet, cabochon sapphires, and a gold ring for a man’s thumb bearing the cartouche of Seti the First. There were amulets of turquoise, strings of pearls from the depths of the Aegean, golden bracelets in the form of snakes, and a glass locket containing a lock of Alexander’s hair.

And of course there were crowns. She was trying on a very light golden one, a simple circlet with the rearing cobra of the uraeus in front, when there was a knock on the door. With all of the treasure spread out as it was, the guardsman challenged aggressively. “Who is there?”

“Pharaoh Ptolemy Auletes,” he said, and sounded amused. “Cannot I visit my own daughter’s chamber?” The Treasurer had them draw back the bar immediately.

I had not seen Auletes in person since we had left Alexandria for Bubastis, and I was shocked by the change in him. Auletes had always been a plump man with a ruddy complexion, a bit too hearty and cheerful, like a merchant trying too hard to strike a deal. Now he seemed older and grayer. Thinner, he should have looked better. Instead, he looked as though he had shrunk. Time had not been kind to him.

We all bowed to the ground, except Cleopatra, who bowed from the waist. He came over and raised her, so that we might stand as well, looking at the uraeus on her brow. “It suits you,” he said.

“Thank you, Father,” she replied.

“It takes a certain amount of cheek to want the entire treasury,” he said, but he was smiling.

“I suppose it does,” Cleopatra said. “But I would not have us displayed before all the world at the festival looking humble.”

“You do not look humble in the least,” he assured her.

She didn’t. Cleopatra was wearing one of the new chitons, violet cotton that moved like silk, with deep borders of violets and hyacinths, and over it all of the necklaces and bracelets she had been trying on, topped by a queen’s crown. Half-Greek and half-Egyptian, she was dazzling.

“They will never think us weak while I live,” she said.

Auletes smiled. “Or poor,” he said.

“It’s the same thing.”

I thought that he would laugh. Instead, his eye fell on me, poised as I was with a box of rings. “You seem familiar.”

I lifted my eyes to his. “I am Charmian, the daughter of Phoebe the Thracian, my Pharaoh, whom you may remember.”

He nodded, and raised one hand to touch my face. “I do. You have her eyes.”

“So I have been told, my Pharaoh.”

“Just that color,” he said, and I wondered for the first time if he had been grieved when she died. I had never thought about it before. “Are you content with your lot, Charmian?”

“Very content,” I said. “I could wish for nothing more in life than to serve the Princess Cleopatra as I do.”

“Charmian is dear to me,” Cleopatra said, coming to stand beside me, her bracelets clanging together. “She took an assassin’s knife for me in Bubastis.”

“Very like her mother,” he said, his eyes still roaming my face.

“She is a Ptolemy,” said Cleopatra. “I would expect no less from the descendant of so many noble kings.”

Auletes laughed, a bark of actual mirth. “I do not mean to take her from you, Daughter. Winter does not meet spring without looking utterly ridiculous.” Cleopatra colored. “Go on then,” he said, gesturing to the finery. “Look as magnificent as you will. I am less Serapis these days than before, but with such a splendid Isis beside me the world will tremble. I would that I had the world to lay at your feet, Daughter.”

“I do not need the world,” she said. “Only Egypt.”

“Now you sound like our forefather Ptolemy Soter,” he said. “Who stole his fire and kept it.”

“There are worse things to do,” she said, and she smiled in return.

“Indeed there are, Daughter,” he said. Pharaoh turned, as though to leave. “The difficulty is keeping it.” He glanced at the Treasurer. “My daughter is to have whatever she wishes from the Royal Treasury, whenever she wants it, either treasures or money. You do not need to ask me. Her word is absolute.” He turned and walked out, leaving the Treasurer spluttering behind him.

Iras looked at Cleopatra, her arms adorned with twenty bracelets, wreathed in golden snakes. “I think you have bracelets enough now, my Princess.”

Flawed Alabaster

ight days later we attended the great festival. In the past I would have enjoyed it, the crowds, the people, and the holiday festivities. Almost all of the shops and businesses closed for the duration, and on the eve of the festival the city was alive with lamps, people running from door to door, bringing moon-shaped pastries of almond cream to neighbors and friends. The children were wild, of course, and their shrieks and games could be heard everywhere.

I, on the other hand, was dressing Cleopatra for the feast at the palace. She had a chiton of pale yellow silk worn with a massive collar of turquoise and peridot. Iras and I had matching gowns of saffron linen, our shoulders clasped with turquoise scarabs. One or the other of us would stand behind Cleopatra all of the time, tending to anything she might need, watching over her plate, and refilling her cup only from the common vessel. We would take turns, since the banquet could be expected to last three or four hours, start to finish, not counting the drinking and games of kottabos at the end.

If this were a Greek party, indeed she should not be present at all, but things were done differently in Alexandria. The Egyptians have never closeted their women, and in Alexandria unlike in many parts of the world, it was usual for respectable women to have their place at public functions and banquets.

The banquet room was huge, with a good breeze off the sea coming in through the spaces between the columns, and bronze lamps hung from each one, giving off the sweet scent of terebinth resin as well as light. The couches were arranged in multiples of three on the dais, with Pharaoh upon the best one. His queen was beside him on a couch of her own, and Cleopatra on the third. I noticed that the Queen did not look at all pleased, and resolved to watch carefully everything that made its way to the inlaid ebony table that sat at Cleopatra’s left elbow.

I watched for an hour or so, through the speeches of welcome and the propomata going around, oysters stewed in red wine with coriander, salt fish from the Bosporus, little bits of cheese rolled around coriander seeds and ornamented with dill fronds, and a great many other things. Then I traded with Iras, that she might stand and wait on Cleopatra while I went behind a carved screen that concealed the trays for dirty dishes, sat down on a stool, and ate a little.

When I came back, we were already into the second round of main dishes and the fish had been taken away. Cleopatra had a succulent slice of pork glazed in a reduced pomegranate glaze, but she was hardly eating it. This was the first time she had had people coming up to pay their respects to her throughout a banquet, and she looked mortally afraid of being caught with her mouth full.

Iras nodded to me, and we traded. Cleopatra had no wine in her cup, just water, and that came from a pitcher that Apollodorus held. I stood beside him, looking out over the hall. His new robes were lavishly embroidered, though there was a gray hair or two on his head now. I imagined the three of us had been enough to give him gray hair.

The Romans were seated together in a clump to the right. Gabinius was hard to mistake, with the crimson cloak of his office about him, even though they did not wear their harness. Most of them were reclining comfortably, talking among themselves and tucking into the pork with great enthusiasm.

One young man, though, only toyed with his meat. He was clean-shaven, with a square jaw and close-cut brown hair, and eyes that roved restlessly over the room and the diners. He took everything in, the lamps and the hangings, the duck being served to the Patriarch of Alexandria and the other Jewish notables instead of pork, the girls bringing watered wine around. But his gaze kept returning to the dais, to Cleopatra.

I sidled closer to Apollodorus. “The young man,” I whispered. “The one who is always looking. Who is he?”

Apollodorus had the knack of answering without seeming to move his mouth. “One of Gabinius’ tribunes. His name is Marcus Antonius. He leaves for Rome tomorrow.”

at the festivals, the finances of the realm were in no better shape. There was discussion of debasing the coinage by reducing the amount of silver in an Egyptian stater, the first time we should have ever deviated from the standard set in the time of the first Ptolemy. The Mareotic Canal required dredging, an enormously expensive task, but absolutely necessary to the economy of Alexandria and of all Egypt. If the grain harvest could not get to port, we should lose our most taxable export. Ptolemy chose the canal and defaulted on the third payment of the loan.

Pompeius Magnus’ reaction was swift and predictable. A month later his banker, Rabirius Postumus, arrived in person in Alexandria to collect the debt. I imagine he expected to be rebuffed, instead of given a royal welcome as though he were the dearest friend Auletes had. It was a matter of days before Auletes appointed him Chief Tax Collector of the realm, a position of tremendous authority with considerable scope for personal profit.

Iras was furious. She paced about Cleopatra’s sitting room, looking like nothing so much as Sheba lashing her tail. “I can’t believe he’s appointed that corrupt man to collect our taxes!” she said. “He’ll steal us blind, and our people too. What can Pharaoh be thinking?”

Cleopatra looked up from the scroll she was reading, a smile playing about her lips. “He has a plan, you know. He’s not stupid. He knows perfectly well that Rabirius Postumus is corrupt, and that he’ll steal everything that’s not nailed down. Just wait and see.”

“Do you know what the plan is?” Iras challenged.

“No.” Cleopatra closed the scroll, her pointer still in place. “But he’s not a bad ruler. He may not be a general, but he’s a Ptolemy. We’re clever, the three of us. Can’t you trust that we got it from somewhere?”

I half-thought it was only that she hated to think ill of him, but I was pleased when it turned out she was right. Within four months, Rabirius Postumus had made himself so hated in Alexandria that a mob attacked him and burned his house, and he fled with his life only because of the fortunate intercession of the Palace Guard.

“What can I do?” Ptolemy asked Pompeius Magnus in a letter. “I allowed your man free rein to collect the debt I owe you, but not only did he do no better than I have done, but he now owes his life to me. You must understand that we need time to repay you as you deserve.”

Whether or not Pompeius was comforted by this I do not know. Perhaps he was. He knew Ptolemy Auletes less well than I.

, I had other things on my mind. In addition to learning the running of Cleopatra’s household, I continued my studies. I did not have either the time or inclination to give them most of my attention, but I saw at least one tutor each day for an hour or two. And of course I had my lesson with Dion.

Afterward, while Cleopatra went to her father to discuss affairs of state, where she should be well guarded by Pharaoh’s own men, Dion and I could go about town. More often than not Iras joined us. Sometimes we walked in the parkland over the tombs of the Palace Quarter, but more usually we went to plays, or wandered about the city seeing the sights, shopping or dining off the street, or in one of the many neighborhood taverns that catered to a respectable crowd. There were lots of these, and as the city had quarters that held as many different kinds of men as there are on the earth, there was always something new to try.

There were Carians and Greeks, Lydians and Jews and Palmyrans, Romans and Numidians, Nubians and Babylonians, even Ethiopians with their spicy bean dishes that one ate wrapped in flatbread, and some Andalusians from far-off Hispania with their goat cheese and green olives. Once every ten days or so we stayed late into the night, laughing and disputing with Dion and his friends in a mock symposium on the nature of love, or the truth inherent in beauty.

I turned sixteen, and found that beauty had its own truth. While Dion might not notice me, leaning as he did on the arm of his newest friend, their brows bound with vine leaves, there were plenty of young men who did. My coloring was considered exotic, and even I could find nothing to dislike in my deep breasts and curving hips. Iras was taller and slenderer, and she did not encourage attention the way I did. I liked to see the way young men drew breath more sharply when I came near, the way a casual hand against their lap when leaning across a table would cause them to moisten their lips nervously. It was a kind of power. Was this, I thought, what my mother had felt when she captivated Pharaoh?

There was one in particular, a young scholar named Lucan who worked with Dion, who I thought beautiful. He had very full, very pink lips, and no matter how often he shaved a dark shadow showed around his mouth. When I watched his lips, he got nervous. Sometimes when we left dinner to begin walking back to the Palace Quarter, he would drop back to walk at my shoulder.

I did most of the talking, as at first he seemed to have little to say. He was working with a noted lecturer in Pneumatics, which seemed to involve the complex process of making automations that moved or made certain sounds when air was forced through various tubes and pipes, a very specialized form of engineering indeed. I gathered that Dion had lately become fascinated with it, but I found it much less interesting. It was, after all, impressive to own a mechanical bird that sang when you pressed a lever, but it seemed of less practical use to me than ships or canals. On the other hand, as Lucan pointed out, there was a lot of money in Pneumatics, as wealthy people wanted all manner of interesting automata.

He had a lot of money to spend for a young man, and took to bringing me little things—flowers or painted papyrus fans, things that I supposed would have been impressive to most young women. But most young women did not live among the riches of the Ptolemaic court, with the entirety of the Royal Treasury at their disposal. I was more interested in his regard than in his money. I did not need a well-off husband.

Unfortunately, what I did have was Iras. She stuck to me as though we were joined like twins, her arm around my waist as we reached the parks about the tombs. Everyone knew it was a popular place for lovers to go apart. I brushed her hand off, but she got between me and Lucan smiling and chatting, and then the moment was gone. Lucan and the others were off with Dion, who walked with his arm around his beloved’s waist.

I dragged Iras out of the earshot of the gate guards. “What did you do that for?”

“Do what?” Iras asked loftily.

“Keep me from going apart with Lucan. I’m sure he would have if we had been able to fall back together.”

Iras raised an eyebrow. “I thought you were interested in Dion.”

“I would be, if he liked girls at all.” I shrugged. “Lucan is perfectly nice, and he’s interested in me. Why not see what it would be like?”

“I see,” Iras said. “One man is as good as another. You must not care about Dion very much, then. I can see how your heart is broken.”

I tossed my hair back. “We’re not Greek maidens, bound to virginity as our only worth. We belong to Cleopatra. We’re slaves. Nobody expects us to stay virgin. And because we belong to Cleopatra, we can pick and choose as we want. We don’t need to lure rich husbands with our virginity.”

“Is that all it means to you?” Iras snapped. “You can’t think of any reason not to fall into bed with the first boy who likes you?”

“I don’t see why I shouldn’t enjoy myself,” I said hotly. “Of course I don’t want to get pregnant right now, but there are plenty of things you can do without getting pregnant. I’ve asked around.”

Iras’ lips compressed in a tight line. “I thought you had good sense. Are you determined to be a whore like your mother?”

I slapped her across the face. Then I turned from her in horror and ran inside.

for bed, one of the junior maidservants combing out her hair. She looked up at me as I stormed in, still shaking. “Charmian? Are you all right? What’s happened?”

I burst into tears.

Dismissing the girl, she got up and came over to me, sitting down next to me and putting her arms around me. “Is it about that friend of Dion’s you’ve talked about?”

I buried my face in her neck, nodding. I couldn’t answer.

“Has he hurt you?” she asked very quietly.

I shook my head. “No,” I choked out. “Nothing like that. It’s just that . . .”

Cleopatra took a breath. I felt her chest tighten beneath mine. “If it’s that you’re in love, and he wants to marry you, you know that I would free you if you wanted me to. I can do that. I would hope you’d stay with me as an attendant or something, because I would miss you. But I can’t fault you if you want to marry, to have children and a normal life.” She put her cheek against mine. “I expect Pharaoh would give you a dowry if it mattered to his parents.”

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