Read Hand of Isis Online

Authors: Jo Graham

Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General

Hand of Isis (7 page)

BOOK: Hand of Isis

Queen of the Heavens bright

You come before the sun to show us

Hope of the coming dawn . . .

She stepped out of the shadows made by the moonlight through the sungate. I thought that She was young and slender, Her red sheath ornamented with gold beads and Her hair worked in dozens of braids, Her high, small breasts half-covered by the straps of the dress. “What do you seek, daughters of Ptolemy?” She asked.

I clutched at Cleopatra’s hand, wondering if she saw Her too. From the expression of utter terror on her face, I thought that she did. Iras looked disbelieving, as though of all things she had not really expected this to work. I looked at Cleopatra and she looked at me, each of us willing the other to say something.

Isis laughed, and Her voice was clear and soft. I thought, with some surprise, that She looked hardly older than us, a girl in the first flush of womanhood, serene and confident in Her own beauty, and exactly my height. “Are you so frightened, little sisters?”

“Yes,” Cleopatra said, at exactly the same moment I said, “No.” Iras said nothing.

She laughed again, and Her eyes fell on me, dark and warm and sparkling, as though I shared Her joke. “Why then do you call Me, daughters of Ptolemy?”

Cleopatra cleared her throat. “To ask You . . . to petition You . . . to make me Queen of Egypt.”

Her eyes grew serious then, and She put Her head to the side like a questioning cat. “No questions about lovers? No pleas for beauty or love, as young women most often do? ‘Make me Queen of Egypt’? Why should I do that?”

“Because she’s the best heir there is,” Iras said. “Because You love the Black Land, and Cleopatra will take the best care of it.”

She stopped in the shadow of the statue, one hand tracing the smooth carving of the knee, dwarfed by its height and weight. “Is that true, Cleopatra?”

My sister raised her chin. “I don’t know that I would be able to do everything, but I would try. I don’t think the others will. Great Lady, I promise You that I will try!” She leaned forward, and I saw all of the passion and intensity in her face, all of the will that I knew she possessed.

Isis turned, only Her hand still in the stream of moonlight, pacing as Cleopatra did when she worried. “Three hundred years ago, Ptolemy Soter came to this land. In that day, the Black Land was without a king, the line broken and the heirs slain, with no Horus to come forward and lead the people. He came with Alexander, who swept through like a cleansing wind, scouring the shadows that had gathered. But it was not Alexander who was truly Pharaoh. To be Pharaoh, you must Come Forth by Day.” She stopped, turning, and we heard Her voice out of the darkness. “The gods of Egypt offered a bargain to Ptolemy. He should keep Our enemies from Our door, and We would aid him. We would grant to him all of the powers that should go to Horus by right, and he would be Pharaoh in truth, Horus returned. But with the powers came the responsibility. If he would be Pharaoh, if he would be Horus, then he must guard the Black Land with his very soul, and he must seek no other treasure.” Her eyes lit on me, glittering. “And what do you think he did?”

I swallowed, but the answer was in my throat. I had known it forever.

Cleopatra said it before me. “I think he made that bargain gladly, Great Lady. And I think he fulfilled it all his life.”

She nodded, and Her smile was like balm. “He did. And since that day, the House of Ptolemy has ruled as the rightful pharaohs of Egypt. Eleven times Horus has descended to the Gates of Amenti as Osiris, and reigned in the world beyond. Eleven times the heir has ascended into daylight, Pharaoh of Egypt.” She raised a hand to forestall Iras’ argument. “Not that the succession has always been smooth, or that the heirs of Ptolemy have loved one another with true affection. But the line has not broken, and neither has the sacred trust. Until now.”

“With my father,” Cleopatra said.

She nodded. “Pharaoh is in Rome, the puppet of rich men, while his children slay one another. He bargains with his throne, hardly knowing what he does. If he sells Egypt to the Romans, there will be no more Pharaohs, and no more of this sacred trust. It will be as it was before Alexander, when the Persians ruled, and all that has been achieved, all that might be, will wither away.” She stepped forward again, and the moonlight lit Her, the lines of Her face graceful and young. Like us She had the long straight Ptolemy nose. “You are the children of Alexandria, born of Ptolemy’s stolen fire, and you do not know how rare the peace and freedoms you enjoy! In most of the world, men are killed for believing something different from their neighbor, or for having skin or eyes of a different shade, or for wanting something different in life. You do not know, in your innocence, how rare it is, how precious, this city where all of the peoples of the world mingle, and where anyone can believe what they will without fear. You know her beauty, her wealth, but you do not yet know her true treasures.”

“I do,” Iras said, and I started. Her voice was clear and strong. “I do. Alexandria’s treasures are her ideas.”

“Her freedom,” I said.

Isis looked at Cleopatra.

She answered, her voice low: “Her people.”

Isis nodded. “And that is the core of it. To rule the Black Land, you must love her. From Alexandria Queen of the Seas to the cataracts of the Nile, from the scholars and poets to the farmers in the fields, you must love her. Can you do that, daughter of Ptolemy?”

“Yes,” she said, and it seemed to me that Cleopatra stood a little straighter.

“It will not be easy,” She said.

“I have my sisters to help me.”

Her eyes glanced over us again. “You do,” She said. “And they can help you carry this burden, and walk each turn with you, if they are willing.”

“Willing to do what?” Iras asked.

“To be My hands,” Isis said. “To walk the Progress of Isis. This is no easy time, daughters of Ptolemy. The things that have been built are fragile indeed, and easily lost. Cities fall. Crowns fail. Even the gods themselves may die.”

“What can kill a god?” I asked, as I had never imagined such. Even in the stories where gods die, they are always reborn.

She smiled, but Her smile did not touch Her eyes. “You would call it Apophis, the serpent who devours all. Unbeing. Uncreation. Things becoming nothing. You cannot imagine what Nothing is like.” She looked at me again, and for a moment I thought She was unnerved. “When men destroy wantonly, they are the servants of Apophis. When men burn books for the pleasure in it, cut down trees to see them fall, kill because they enjoy it, and care for nothing but that the world should make a splendid conflagration, there is Apophis. And against that stands all that We prize, all love, all learning, all joy. All of the people of the earth, under heaven. From the frozen wastes of the north to the shores of seas you cannot yet imagine, every man fights Apophis when he builds and defends and cherishes. But when he tears things down, he opens a door. And he lets Apophis in.”

“And that is happening now,” Iras said keenly.

Isis nodded. “Again,” She said. “It has happened before, when all was very nearly lost, and all about this Middle Sea cities fell and men died, until there were only the remnants of people, living in hardship and pain, most without even the letters to write or more to give them hope than the vague memory of a time past when there was enough food. It could happen again. And We will do anything to avert it.”

“?‘We’?” I asked.

She smiled. “The gods of the peoples of these lands, We who love you. We do not want to see Our children suffer. Mother of the World you have named Me, and Mother I am. I do not want to see any people suffer.”

“The Black Land is a bulwark,” I said slowly, and it was as though I remembered something I already knew. “The Black Land is strong. It is here that You must make a stand.”

She beamed at me like a teacher when a very young student has found a difficult answer. “It is here. The ancient roots of the Black Land, and the bright beacon that is Alexandria. Together, this is where We must make Our stand.”

“I’ll do it,” Cleopatra said. “I’ll try my best. What do I have to do?”

“I will too,” said Iras. Her face was grim as a soldier’s.

“I will,” I said, and my voice was quiet. “What do we need to do?”

“You will know,” She said, and She glanced at me sideways, out of Her long painted eyes. “You will know.”

Before I could so much as blink, She was gone. We stood in the chapel, my sisters and I, holding hands. The moonlight came through the sungate, and the brazier smoldered sullenly.

Iras drew a quick, sharp breath. “Was that real? Did you see Her?”

“Yes,” I said.

Cleopatra nodded, and her face was white.

“She was beautiful,” I said.

Iras tilted her head. “I’m not sure I would say that,” she said. “She looked like Asetnefer, only older. Like She was from Upper Egypt, dark-skinned and tall, dressed like a widow in mourning, with a veil over Her hair.”

Cleopatra laughed. “That’s not what I saw at all, Iras! She was fair and plump, with Horus at Her breast and a himation around Her shoulders.”

“No, She wasn’t,” I said. “She was our age, and beautiful.”

We all stared at each other.

“I wonder what that means,” Iras said thoughtfully.

“We all saw something different,” I said, understanding. “Like the pictures on the walls.” I looked at Cleopatra. “You saw the Mother of the World with Horus, and Iras saw the Lady of Amenti. I saw Isis Pelagia, the Goddess of Love.”

“Each of us saw what we reflect,” Cleopatra said, her voice taking on the same tone that it did when wrestling with an interesting problem.

Iras put her hands on her hips. “So I wonder what happens now.”

“I don’t know,” I said.

, it seemed that nothing was different. The Inundation ended and the planting season began. Iras turned fourteen. Our days went on as they always had, until I began to wonder if it had been a dream and we had imagined it together at night in the chapel. We did not speak of it, not to one another and certainly not to Apollodorus. None of us wanted to be taken for fools.

News and rumors came from the north. Auletes had mortgaged Egypt to Pompeius Magnus for an enormous sum of money. He had bought Gabinius, the Roman governor of Syria, and marched overland against Pelousion with an army. No, surely that was not true. Archelaus, the husband of Queen Berenice, was in Pelousion with the Royal Army. He would hold Pelousion against any comer, fortified as it was. And everyone knew Auletes was no general.

In Bubastis, nothing changed. Bastet had a feast day in the planting season, when the statue of Her from the inner sanctuary was carried out in a great litter painted like a barge and carried on the shoulders of the priests to bless the fields. It was also known as a blessing on women who were with child, or who wanted children and were unable to conceive. Cats bear their kittens purring, and there is no animal who is a better mother. Consequently, crowds came from all around to line the streets where the barge would pass to receive Bastet’s blessing.

We had no parts in the festival, other than the work Iras and I must do in the kitchens afterward, cleaning up, so the three of us and Apollodorus hurried out to find a good place just outside the gates to watch the spectacle.

The story of Cleopatra’s generosity to the melon farmer had spread, and he was not the only one who offered us a place to watch the procession beneath a shop awning. Smiling, she took a place beneath his, bending down to talk to the little girl, whose eyes seemed clear and normal now. Iras and I looked out, trying to see where the music was beginning. There was a flourish of trumpets from the temple gates. The crowds pressed forward in anticipation.

A man shouldered his way under the awning, an ordinary man with a clean-shaven face, wearing the clothes of a tradesman. “Princess Cleopatra?” he asked.

Something seemed wrong to me, a prickling at my back, cold and sharp, as though someone had just laid a cool hand on my shoulder. Apollodorus was in conversation with the melon farmer, and Cleopatra was still bent over behind me, talking with the child. I felt rather than heard Iras half-turn. “I am Cleopatra,” I said.

She whispered behind me.

I flinched. I moved. I had half an instant before the knife went in. And then all was chaos.

Someone screamed, loud and high, like a seabird. Perhaps it was the child. I don’t know. Apollodorus cursed, and he grabbed at the knife, unschooled in war as he was, as it rose again dripping with my blood. It scored across his forearm, but he blocked the blade.

The melon farmer, half-tripping over me as I fell, lunged for the man’s knees, bringing him down in a cascade of rolling green melons, ripe and sickly sweet.

Cleopatra flung herself to the floor beside me, Iras landing on us both, covering us with her body. “Oh sweet Isis,” my sister said. “You took a knife for me.”

“Shut up and get down,” Iras said, her arms covering my face and her back sheltering Cleopatra’s bent head.

There was a great deal of screaming and cursing, but I could make little of it. It seemed to go on forever. Time seems to stop somehow in moments like these.

“Of course I did,” I said.

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