Authors: Jo Graham
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General
e came home to Alexandria, Cleopatra, Iras, Apollodorus, and I. I stood at the rail in the morning light, Sheba perched on my left shoulder like a child, watching Pharos rise out of the ocean to greet us. If we had thought it would be the same, we were wrong.
Cleopatra’s old rooms were not good enough for her, now that she was the heir to the throne. Instead of the comfortable old sitting room where we had had our lessons, and the little bedchamber off it, she had an entire suite facing the Royal Harbor, with a small dining room of her own, a grand bedchamber with windows to the sea, and best of all, an archive room with cubbyholes built in along the walls and a huge worktable, so that she might keep her own correspondence and studies in peace.
There was a bath chamber with a round pool about my height in diameter built of white marble. It was waist deep, or a little more, as I was not tall, and a bench ran around the sides. Above, an oculus opened to the sky. Peering up, I saw that there were two large mirrors suspended in it, with cords that came down from them. A little experimentation showed that they adjusted the angle of the mirrors, so that sunlight might be directed on the pool all day long to heat the water. I was more concerned that someone might climb in through the oculus, and made a note to myself to talk to Apollodorus about it.
There was also a separate room for me and Iras near the bedchamber, with a large comfortable couch and a small window that opened onto the terrace. I looked at it for the first time as we were coming through the rooms, leaving Cleopatra exclaiming over the archive room. A young slave girl stood on a stool, hanging pale blue linen curtains from the clips above our window. They billowed and trembled in the fresh sea breeze.
“Let me help with that,” I said, coming and holding the fabric for her.
She looked down at me, half-horrified, and I saw that she was a good two or three years younger than me. “Thank you. But you really shouldn’t. We’ve been told that you and Iras are the Princess’ handmaidens, and that you’re not to touch any of the domestic work. We’re to take instructions from you at any time regarding her things or her pleasure.”
“Oh,” I said, surprised. “Who told you that?”
“The Master of Pharaoh’s Household, when he assigned us this morning. He said that the Princess instructed that you and Iras were to be obeyed in all things, and that the guard should allow you access to the Princess or her rooms at any time of the day or night on any pretext.” She frowned. “That is right, isn’t it, Lady?”
“Yes, of course,” I said. I had never been addressed as “Lady” before. But then I had never before been principal handmaiden to the heir to the throne of Egypt.
I went and found Iras, where she and Cleopatra were investigating the bath chamber.
“Of course we can still use the main palace one,” Cleopatra said, looking round the pool with satisfaction. “And we’ll probably want to for hot water. But it’s nice to have, isn’t it?”
“Iras,” I said urgently, “did you know that we’re the principal handmaidens to the heir to the throne and have charge of all her things and household?”
Iras blinked at me.
Cleopatra laughed, splashing one hand in the water of the pool. She looked incredibly happy to be home. “Who else would be in charge of my household?” she asked. “Apollodorus is my Major Domo and you and Iras have charge of my rooms and my things. Who else should I trust besides you?”
“We’re fourteen!” I said.
At exactly the same moment Iras said, “But what about our studies?”
Cleopatra put her damp hand on Iras’ shoulder. “I thought you’d want to have lessons with me like you used to. But if you’d rather go to one of the symposia, I don’t see why you shouldn’t.”
“How will we have time for that when we’re running your household?” I asked, thinking of all the work involved in two sets of bed linens and the modest clothes we’d had in Bubastis. There were four beds now, fifteen windows, three dining couches, and the gods knew what else.
“Well, there are twelve slaves to help you, aren’t there?” Cleopatra said. “I mean, you’re in charge, but it’s not as though I think you’re going to do the wash yourself.”
“Go to the symposia?” Iras looked as though someone had just shoved a sticky pastry into her mouth and she was trying to swallow it all at once.
Cleopatra nodded. “I wish I could, but Father says it’s too dangerous. I can send for any scholars you recommend, though, for private lectures and lessons. You could pick out anyone you want who lectures two or three times a week and go, or go to discourses at the Library or experiments at the Museum, whatever you want. But if it’s really interesting, I want you to let me know so I can learn it too. Father’s got two or three people lined up already to teach me geography, literature, and rhetoric. And of course I’ll be going on with Aramaic.” She looked at me. “You can join me if you like, or not. I know Iras doesn’t want Aramaic.”
“I do,” I said. I grinned. “I don’t suppose that means Dion.”
“I don’t see any reason to change tutors,” Cleopatra said loftily, but there was a gleam in her eye.
I looked around the spacious rooms. They had belonged to Tryphaena before, when we were children. I suspected she was murdered here, though I really didn’t want to know exactly where. Everything was clean and light and airy, and so very big. Twelve slaves. Food tasters, laundresses, bath attendants, cooks, and carpet cleaners. “How in the world am I going to learn how to run a household like this?” I said.
Cleopatra met my eyes. “The same way I’m going to learn to be a queen. We have to grow up, Charmian.”
She looked at Iras. “And when I’m Queen, you will handle my correspondence and keep my purse, all of the diplomatic correspondence, and all of the money the Royal Household spends. Charmian will run the palace, all of the slaves and entertainments and banquets, all of the audiences and festival clothes and progresses, and the Royal Nursery.”
“Oh sweet Isis!” I said.
She put one arm around each of us and drew us close. “You are my sisters,” she whispered. “You’re the ones I trust. If we are the Hands of Isis, I need you. To make everything we said become true. It’s what you were born for.”
HUS WE BEGAN
a new life. My apprenticeship had really begun in Bubastis, but now I had to take it up in earnest. That first night, as Iras and I sat in our beautiful new room, she said the first thing that brought a chill to my heart, and would ever after.
“Charmian, what do we know about these twelve slaves who work in her rooms? Were any of them previously with the Queen’s household?”
She didn’t mean Berenice’s people. Indeed, they had little enough reason to want to harm Cleopatra now. She meant the servants of Pharaoh’s wife, the mother of Arsinoe and her young brothers. The thing that now stood between them and the throne was Cleopatra.
If Auletes were to die, the throne would be held jointly by brother and sister monarchs, Cleopatra and the older of the two boys, another Ptolemy, known as Theodorus. But he was barely seven years old, and it would be a very long time indeed before he could be expected to wield any real power. Cleopatra could wield it in a year or two. She was nearly fifteen. If anyone had reason to hate her, it would be Theo’s mother, her stepmother.
I shuddered. “I hadn’t thought,” I said. “There could be.”
“We have to think,” Iras said, and I knew she was as irritated with herself as with me. “If we don’t think, who will? We’ll have to think about every slave, every craftsman, and every dish. Where did they come from? Who sent them? Whose hands have been on them? Every last one.”
“Forever,” I said. The weight of it hit me like a giant block of granite. “She has put herself in our hands for the rest of her life.”
Iras looked at me, and there was something of the soldier in her glance. “We’re Ptolemies too. Her job is to rule Egypt. Ours is to guard her and her children while our life and breath lasts.”
LEOPATRA HAD COME BACK
from Bubastis with three chitons, and none of them was fit for court. An hour after sunrise I had the best seamstresses in the palace in her sitting room, along with four cloth merchants highly recommended in the city. They spread their wares on couches and tables in a glistening array. There was linen of every sort, fine and light, in every pastel shade. There were bolts of printed cloth with designs of whorls and fish from the Carian coast, with bright geometric patterns from Meroe and Elephantine. There were wools from Tyre and Damascus dyed crimson, and the rich purple color that is worth more than gold. There were cottons from Hyderabad drawn so thin that the light passed through, making it look like a weft of silver, detailed with gold and silver embroidery in intricate borders a handspan deep. One merchant had even brought three bolts of fine silk from Chi’n, two years upon the road through Samarkand and Babylon, in a dark, rich turquoise embroidered with fantastic beasts.
Cleopatra looked about in a kind of dismay.
“You are dressing the heir to the throne of Egypt,” I said. “You are dressing a goddess on earth.”
On most of their faces I saw nothing but avarice, but one of the seamstresses nodded, a dark, wizened woman nearly seventy. “Then you will want this,” she said, picking up a length of plain white linen, light as a cloud and so fine that it seemed to have no texture. “This will hold a pleat the way the robes do in the old carvings: skirt and collar and cape. This will make you look like Nefertari, Great Ramses’ queen.”
Cleopatra held it up, and one could see her face clearly through it. “Am I not too fair for that?” she asked worriedly.
The seamstress came around the table and put her hand on Cleopatra’s waist, feeling the shape of her body beneath the loose chiton, squinting into her face gravely. “You’ll need a wig, but the queens of old always wore wigs. That’s the way it was done then. Half of it’s jewelry and bearing, Princess.”
Cleopatra nodded seriously. “Do you think I’m pretty enough?”
The seamstress looked her up and down, while the others hastened to assure Cleopatra that she was a vision of loveliness. “You could be taller,” she said critically. “You’ve got nice eyes, but the Ptolemy nose is unfortunate on anyone. Good skin. Nice hair, though a bit average. A good figure, though not enough breast to really shine. I can do something with you.”
“Good,” Cleopatra said. “Because you’re now the Royal Seamstress. After you’ve finished fitting me, I want you to do some clothes for my handmaidens. I think they’ve got nothing but the chitons on their backs.” She looked at me and Iras through the crowd of merchants pushing one cloth and another, over the three other seamstresses exchanging distressed glances. “Pick out whatever you want. Anything. Your word is enough for them.” Then she looked at the disgruntled seamstresses. “You’re going to attire the rest of my household. Come back tomorrow and Charmian will have my Major Domo for his fitting, and others that I require.”
They moved toward the door, and Cleopatra smiled at the seamstress with what was for once a genuine smile. “Let’s pick out some cloth.”
“I like this pink from Hyderabad,” I said, lifting a length. It was thin silk shot through with gold thread, a dark saturated pink like real roses. It would make her skin glow.
Dion turned up. Pharaoh’s guards called me over to the door to identify him as he stood behind crossed spears in the outer corridor. I almost didn’t recognize him.
“Dion?” I said doubtfully.
The boy I remembered from three years before was gone. He was seventeen now, and seemed to have shot up two handspans, tall and thin. He wore a neatly trimmed dark beard around the edges of his chin, and his short dark hair fell in endearing curls over his forehead. He was, I thought, breathtakingly handsome.
“Charmian!” He pushed past the guardsmen and embraced me like a kinsman. The top of my head barely reached his chin. He smelled like incense and old scrolls. His beard was scratchy against my face as he kissed my cheek. “It’s been so long. You’ve missed a lot of plays.”
“I imagine I have,” I said. Dion felt wonderful pressed against me. I had never thought he might. Before I had time to decide exactly what I thought, he let go much too quickly and stood back, grinning.
“Do you still want to learn Aramaic?” he asked.
“You know I do,” I said. His grin was catching.