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Authors: Jo Graham

Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General

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BOOK: Hand of Isis
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After that, I did not dream so much, and they were not half so clear. Perhaps they had never meant anything at all.

T
HERE HAD BEEN RIOTS
in the city when the news from Cyprus came, but now there were rumors and counter-rumors, stories that Ptolemy had been paid off by Pompeius Magnus not to intervene in Cyprus.

At our lessons, we could hear the shouts as a dull and distant roar beyond the wall that encircled the Palace Quarter. Apollodorus had slept in the palace the night before; he did not dare leave and try to walk through the streets to his house. All night the mobs had been camped before the gates.

“Don’t worry, girls,” he told us. “Pharaoh has soldiers on every gate, and people will get tired of shouting soon and go home.”

They didn’t. The next night there were fires in the city, and none of the slaves would leave the Palace Quarter on any business after a man who was sent on an errand was set upon and beaten. Our lessons were quiet and tense.

“It’s because of the bad harvest,” Cleopatra said. “The flood was low last year, and the harvest poor. If the flood is good, things will change.”

Already the flood was late. Each year the Nile rises at the appointed time, in more or less accord with the heliacal rising of Sothis. It may be a few days more or less, but until the river begins to rise, everyone must wait. The flood comes pouring down the cataracts from the mountains far to the south of Nubia and Kush, bringing life-giving sediment to our fields. Alexandria is on the sea, and served by the canal to Lake Mareotis rather than the river, but the Nile is the blood of Egypt. We waited to see if the river would rise.

Because of the messengers, we knew one day before the people. The river was rising, but again the flood was short. Great stretches of fields escaped the Inundation, lying baked in the sun. Even with all of the floodgates open, even with each sluice and barrier wide, the flood was too little. It was the day the Queen and her children took ship to Rhodes. Everyone bustled about the palace, slaves and courtiers alike. On the afternoon tide the great ship sailed from the palace harbor, carrying the Queen, her two small boys, and Arsinoe away.

Iras and I looked at one another, watching the ship making for the breakwater, her mighty oars moving in unison. Another ship was being prepared by the docks.

“Do you suppose it is for us?” I asked.

“Not likely,” Cleopatra said. “I expect it’s for my older brother.” Ptolemy would want to keep the heir to the throne safe.

Cleopatra should have been sent with the younger children, but the Queen did not want her, and we hardly expected Pharaoh to remember. After all, she was no more than a piece in the marriage game, a third daughter of little account.

“Will Tryphaena and Berenice go?” I wondered aloud.

“I doubt it,” Iras said. “They will not want to.” Which was true. They were twenty-two and nineteen, and had factions of their own at court. “Where does the ship go?”

“Rome,” Cleopatra said, and I looked at her, startled.

She shrugged. “I know no more than you,” she said. “But where else would it go? My father has risked the peace of his land to keep faith with Pompeius Magnus. Who else should he appeal to for aid?”

Iras looked glum. “We should not have to owe them anything.”

“I know,” Cleopatra said.

“Maybe we will go with him,” I said. I was curious. I wanted to see this city across the sea that was the source of so much strife, much as a moth wants to see the flame of a lamp, not knowing what flame is.

I
T WAS PTOLEMY
who took ship with his heir, Pharaoh himself stealing away at night with portable valuables, bound for Rome and his ally. We did not know he was gone until morning, waiting in the half-deserted palace like an afterthought, left to the mob.

Cleopatra clenched her lips, and looked toward the window, toward the harbor where the ship’s sails were fast disappearing around the breakwater toward Pharos.

I put my arm around her. I had not thought that Auletes loved me. “Are you very hurt?” I asked.

“I’m angry,” she said. “That’s all.” Her shoulders were unyielding under my arm, and I moved it. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

Iras, more wisely, said nothing, but she shared a look with me behind our sister’s back.

“We won’t leave,” I said. “We’ll never leave you.”

Apollodorus burst in. “Are you ready?” He had a cloak about him, though the day was warm.

“Ready for what?” Cleopatra got to her feet, her long chiton pooling gracefully in a way mine never did.

The Jewish Quarter, I thought. If worst came to worst, Dion would hide us. We could go into the city unremarked as always. Dion would help us. We could wait until the fury of the mob was past.

“There is a ship to take you to Pelousion. Get your things.”

“Tryphaena,” Iras said. While I had been thinking of ways to survive, she was parsing out the politics of it. Tryphaena would declare herself queen. And what she might do with a younger sister she barely knew was an open question. House arrest, probably. But murder is tidy, and not unknown in the House of the Ptolemies.

“Pelousion?” Cleopatra said.

“Pelousion is fortified and loyal to Pharaoh. Come on!” Apollodorus urged. “Come, Cleopatra.”

W
E SAILED AT SUNSET
, under a leaden sky. Clouds had come in off the sea, and the variable winds hindered our passage. We beat out to sea on oars only, around the massive breakwaters. The sun slipped toward the sea, and Pharos kindled, bright flame flashing out over the waves, brighter than the dying sun, fire from heaven.

I stood beside the rail, Iras next to me, looking back. The waves lifted us and the ship swayed strongly in the currents around the islands, but it seemed a familiar kind of movement, more pleasant than frightening. I had only to look at Iras to know she was thinking the same thing.

My himation blew in the wind behind me. Something touched me, soft as a prayer, as the quiet part in the hymns to Isis when one waits, wondering if one imagined that one heard the music begin, or just anticipated it. The roofs of the city to the west were blue against the sunset, a haze of cooking smoke over the lands of people. A sadness took my heart.

“Do you think we will come back here?” I asked Iras.

“Of course we will,” she said softly, not in her usual tones. “We will all come back here together. You’ll see.”

I had no certainty of my own, and this one time I was content to rest upon Iras’.

Cats and Snakes

W
e arrived in Pelousion at night, after an uneventful voyage of a few days, and we did not stay long. Pelousion stands at the easternmost point of the Delta, where the farthest branch of the Nile flows into the sea and the coast begins to curve northward toward Gaza. While it is not so large a city as Alexandria, the greatest city in the world, Pelousion is of fair size.

It was there that we heard that Tryphaena had been proclaimed Queen in Alexandria, and that a Seleucid prince was on his way from Syria to marry her. Auletes, it was said, had been tepidly received in Rome, and he had not been allowed to address the Senate.

It seemed that the governor of Pelousion was also interested in walking a fine line between Auletes and Tryphaena, and was eager to have the Princess Cleopatra off his hands. It was only a few weeks before he gravely informed Apollodorus that he could not guarantee her safety in Pelousion, given the uncertain times, and that he advised her to seek sanctuary in one of the temples of the Delta.

I don’t know how Bubastis was decided upon. Perhaps Tryphaena cared little where this much younger sister went, as long as it was nowhere she could raise a faction. Perhaps she thought it wise to keep Cleopatra as a pawn, just in case. Or perhaps Tryphaena had nothing to do with it, and the estimable governor simply wanted us gone. In any case, it was decided that we should sail up the branch of the Nile that watered Pelousion, and go to the Temple of Bastet at Bubastis, there to stay for some indeterminate amount of time, perhaps forever. Should Tryphaena hold her throne and produce sons and daughters of her own, this sister would be well disposed of at the temple.

And so we came then to Bubastis, not knowing if we should ever leave.

Alexandria and Pelousion were Greek cities, modern cities laid out according to principles of geometry and urban planning, part of the great world that looked on the Middle Sea. Bubastis belonged to the Black Land.

Bubastis was old, older than it is almost possible to imagine. The first stones had been laid more than two thousand years before, and it had been the holy city of the Goddess Bastet for as long as anyone could remember.

Bubastis was also hot. It wasn’t the sea-cooled heat of Alexandria, but the heat of the Delta, humid and thick. The river ran slowly there, with snags and bars, and it twisted about, joining and rejoining in many channels as it made its way to the sea, creating tiny islands of reeds and palms. Waterbirds called in the dawn, great white ibis standing solemnly to let our ships pass. Occasionally, a hippopotamus would rear its head. I had not thought there were any still living so close to the abodes of men, and perhaps there were not on the Saite branch of the Nile, near Alexandria. But we were far to the east, and much farther south.

Fishermen poled along in little woven boats, looking like the pictures on the walls of temples. In the dawn, the river steamed, clouds of vapor lifting in the morning air.

The ship left us, the captain making time upriver, and Apollodorus, Iras, Cleopatra, and I entered together. It was just the four of us. We had left Alexandria with few servants, and they had stayed in Pelousion. Now it was just us.

We waited in the outer courtyard of the temple, for we had arrived during the morning services, when the Adoratrice and her priests were busy with the rites of Bastet. I looked uneasily at Cleopatra.

She sat down on the base of one of the columns, her feet and sandals dusty from the street. Apollodorus shifted about. “This is what it is,” she said, looking around. Above, the courtyard was open to the sky, the color shifting to the opal of another stifling hot day. Under the pylons that marked the Inner Court, a lean tomcat stretched and settled down to wash, watching us with green eyes. “We’d better get used to it.”

The great columns were painted like trees, their capitals surmounted with palm fronds opening wide, their bases carved with stories. The massive pylons at the entrance to the Inner Court showed a Pharaoh in a starched linen skirt presenting gifts to Isis and Bastet, while Sekhmet stood behind him, her head that of a lioness.

Iras took a step toward it. She read hieroglyphics better than I.

“Who’s the Pharaoh?” I asked.

“?‘Osorkon Usermaatre, Great is the Soul of Ra,’?” she read. “Only eight hundred years ago.” She pointed. “There’s his cartouche, there. I think he rebuilt the temple after somebody damaged it in one of the wars then. There’s a story all along here.”

“Read it to me,” I said, coming closer. I could get some words, but not all of it.

Iras looked up the wall. “It says that he dedicates this wall in the twenty-second year of his reign, he and his wife Karomama, may their souls endure forever. That he has restored the worship of the gods and that he has followed the way of Ma’at in all things. He has restored the temples in Memphis as well, and has brought the sacred archives to safety. Over here he’s being presented to Bastet,” Iras said. “And he’s got the uraeus on his brow now, and he’s blessed by cat and snake.”

“By cat and snake?” I said.

“By cat and snake,” said a voice behind me. I spun round to see an elderly lady standing beside Apollodorus. At least I thought she was elderly. Her face was wrinkled, but her hair was completely black, hanging in heavy plaits around her head, each plait tied with gold wire and ending in green malachite beads. “But then I should not expect a Greek princess to understand. I imagine you have interpreters for that sort of thing,” she said in perfect Koine.

I flinched, half in surprise and half in confusion.

She was only a little taller than we were, but she seemed tall as the sky. “I am the Adoratrice. I understand that you seek sanctuary here.”

I opened my mouth and then shut it. I was the fairest of the three, and had been talking to Iras. She had taken me for Cleopatra.

Apollodorus spoke before we needed to. “Gracious Lady,” he said, “Pharaoh Ptolemy Auletes asks the Temple of Bastet for sanctuary for his daughter in this uncertain time.”

The Adoratrice snorted, and continued in her perfect Greek: “Ptolemy Auletes is not here, and I doubt he asked any such thing. But it is just as well you ask in his name, rather than that of Queen Tryphaena, as she is dead.”

Cleopatra gasped. Iras and I did not move.

The Adoratrice shot Cleopatra a dirty look. “Your handmaiden is unschooled, Princess,” she said to me. “Such gulping is unseemly. Tryphaena is dead. Killed by Princess Berenice, it is said.”

Spots of color showed on Cleopatra’s cheekbones, and though her voice was cool, it shook. “It is true I am unschooled as a handmaiden,” she said, “for I am Princess Cleopatra. Such strife between my sisters saddens me.”

The Adoratrice transferred her gaze. Cleopatra looked less a princess at the moment, seeming younger and sallower. “It is unlikely there shall be further strife between your sisters, Princess, unless you have other sisters. Berenice has proclaimed herself Queen of Egypt, and Auletes waits in Rome for Pompeius Magnus to give him crumbs from his table. Why should you be welcome in Bubastis?”

Apollodorus moved to speak, but Cleopatra forestalled him. “I have no faction,” she said. “And yet I may be of use to someone. Would you throw away out of hand a weapon that may prove useful, simply because you have no use for it at the moment?”

The Adoratrice looked at her keenly. “You are a very minor playing piece.”

“But not entirely inconsequential,” Cleopatra said, meeting her eyes.

“I shall not conceal your presence here from the Queen,” the Adoratrice said, and I let out a breath I had not been aware I was holding.

“My sister Berenice and I are on the best of terms,” Cleopatra said serenely.

O
UR ROOMS FACED
one of the smaller courts, with windows and doors only on the courtyard side. The rooms backed up to one of the chapels along the side wall of the Sanctuary of Bastet. There was a small chamber for Cleopatra with a good couch, table, and chest, and a somewhat heavy and sprung couch in the antechamber for Iras and me. Apollodorus must sleep elsewhere with the male priests.

One of the temple slaves brought in an armload of linens and put them on the outer couch.

“Aren’t you going to make up the beds?” Cleopatra asked.

The girl blinked at her. “You have slaves of your own. It’s their job to wait on you. You’ll take your meals with the Adoratrice, but anything else you need, like your tiring and laundry, is up to them. That’s what you have slaves for, isn’t it?” She gave a very scanty bow and went out.

Iras and I looked at each other. Neither of us had made up a bed in our lives.

I picked up a handful of bed linens, my face scarlet. “Then we’d best get started.” The largest piece must be the undersheet.

Cleopatra hesitated, then plucked at one sheet. “I suppose we can figure it out.”

Iras snatched it from her. “We are not sunk so low as that! If it is necessity, let us make a pride of it. No one will touch your things except for us. Charmian and I can perfectly well learn to serve you as well as anyone. Better.” She grabbed up a load of linens and started sorting them out.

I followed. The long thin ones must be the curtains for Cleopatra’s window. I had seen the rod and clips in her room. By dragging the table over, I could stand on it and fix the curtains in the clips. I sweated and swore, balancing on the table, wishing I were taller, while Iras made up the bed.

Cleopatra hovered about, picking up one thing and then another. At last she said, a little sadly, “I have never thought of you as slaves.”

Tears filled my eyes, and I came down off the table and threw my arms around her. She bent her face against my shoulder. “I want to go home,” she whispered.

After a moment, Iras came and put her arms around us both, her long braided hair against my neck. “So do I,” she said.

“We’ll be the best handmaidens anyone has ever seen,” I said, a tear running down my nose and splashing on my sister’s shoulder. “There will never have been a princess in the world waited on like you. People will be amazed by us. You’ll see.”

T
HUS WE BEGAN
a new life. Each day Cleopatra rose at dawn to begin the Morning Offices with the temple’s acolytes. Male and female alike, they tended the statues in the sanctuaries, flinging wide the doors and sweetening the air with incense, bathing the statues of Bastet and all who shared Her temple, the statues of Nepthys and Horus in the side chapels, the old-fashioned statue of Isis Pelagia raised by Ramses III long ago in gratitude for his victory over the Sea People.

The morning hymns were sung. Iras and I were expected to join the others in the Inner Court and sing, and to join the temple servants in bringing the ritual meals to be blessed, that the gods might break their fast—bread and honey, melons dripping with moisture, fresh-drawn milk, fish or olives, and sometimes the flesh of a duck or a kid that had been dedicated for sacrifice. We carried them in all solemnity to the doors of the sanctuary or chapel, and handed them to the priests who waited within.

Since this was the Temple of Bastet, we were usually joined by a throng of Her sacred animals. Each morning, twenty or thirty cats would appear, ambling out of the shadows or flashing down from the rooftops, twining around our ankles adding their song to ours. Meowing, they leaped onto the altars. The milk and fish and duck did not last long, though they turned up their noses at the honey. Some of them, smaller kittens who could not yet jump up to the main altars, waited mewing on the floor while their mothers claimed a choice bit of duck entrails for them and dragged it down.

Needless to say, after the Morning Offices were completed, the next thing was to mop and clean the chapels entirely, getting the remains of the meal off the floor. Every last spot of blood and milk and honey must be scrubbed away by the temple servants, which in this case included Iras and me, while the Adoratrice, the priests, and Cleopatra retired to the dining room for their own breakfast, the Morning Offices having taken some two and a half hours after the sun rose. I hated this part of it, for the main statue of Bastet was not the common kind where she is shown as a smooth, sleek cat, but rather a seated queen with a cat’s head, the pediment completely covered with incised carving, perfect for getting tiny bits into where they should have to be scrubbed out.

When the temple and chapels were sparkling, the dining hall was cleared of the priests’ breakfast and the tables were laid again for ours. By this time the sun was high, and my stomach was invariably growling. The food was good and plain, fresh bread, honey, eggs, and milk and there was plenty of it. Still, breakfast was an ordeal for me.

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