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KING PTOLEMY XII
It is the season of Inundation, the time of year when the Nile overflows its banks, flooding the fields and renewing them for planting. The royal palace is quiet. I, the king’s third daughter, called Cleopatra, am ten years old. I sit alone in my quarters, reading the scroll laid out on my table. I am nearly halfway through a history by my favorite Greek writer, Herodotus, when I hear a commotion in the forecourt. I abandon the scroll and step outside to investigate.
Glistening with sweat, a runner bows low before me and delivers his message. A lookout has sighted the royal fleet outside the entrance to the Great Harbor. My father, Ptolemy XII, the king of Egypt, is returning to Alexandria. This is the news I have longed for. He has been away for many months. Word reached Egypt that the king had left Rome, but much can happen to a ship crossing the vast sea called the Mediterranean.
A dozen runners have sprinted across the causeway from the lighthouse, the swiftest dispatched to the royal palace to relay the news to the king’s household, beginning with his grand vizier, Antiochus. The grand vizier is no doubt sleeping, having finished duck hunting in the cooler hours of the morning. He will not like having his rest disturbed.
Next, the king’s children are informed, starting with my older sisters, Tryphaena and Berenike, followed by me and then by Arsinoë, who is eight—two years younger than I—and, finally, the nurses who care for our little brothers. I hurry to look for Arsinoë. She is plump and affectionate but not the least bit clever. She will be glad to see Father, though he has never paid much attention to her. He had not wanted a fourth daughter.
I find Arsinoë playing with her pet monkey, Ako, under the watchful eye of her devoted bodyguard, Nebtawi. My sister has dressed Ako in a little kilt and is dancing it around like a furry doll. The monkey screeches, breaks free, and leaps onto me, flinging its hairy arms around my neck. Annoyed, I pry it off, and it scampers away, still wearing the ridiculous kilt. In two long strides Nebtawi captures the runaway and tenderly returns it to Arsinoë. My sister beams at her bodyguard. He is a short, muscular eunuch, and they are almost like father and daughter.
“Father is coming today,” Arsinoë announces. “I’ve already heard. Panya says I may wear a new dress and jewels but that I may not use cosmetics.” Her lower lip is already forming a pout. Panya has been my sister’s nurse since our mother died giving birth to Arsinoë, and she is very protective.
“You still have your sidelock,” I remind her, looking at the long lock of hair hanging from her head, the mark of childhood. “No cosmetics until it is cut off.”
“When will that be?” she asks, although surely she already knows.
“When you start to grow breasts.”
I lost my sidelock only a month earlier, though I was not quite ready. More than a little, but I wish to be taken seriously and not treated like a child.
“Your hair is growing faster than your breasts,” my sister Tryphaena had said with a sneer when I first appeared without my sidelock. My eyes had welled with tears, though I refused to let her see them.
I leave Arsinoë with Nebtawi and her monkey and consider visiting my older sisters to take the measure of their mood, but I decide against it. I am not at all fond of them, nor are they of me. Tryphaena is sixteen, Berenike fourteen, and they have been jealous of me for as long as I can remember. It is because of Father. Sometimes they hint darkly that I am not even his true daughter. “You are not like us, Cleopatra,” Berenike has said. They are right to believe that I am his favorite. But this is not my fault. I have done nothing to win his favor. Nevertheless, I avoid both of them.
They are probably taking their ease in the garden outside their quarters, as they do most days. Those two will not be happy to learn of Father’s return. The longer the king stays away, the more likely they are to find a way to put themselves in his place. Nothing would have pleased them more than to learn that he was lost at sea. But now he has come back, and they will be forced to put on a good face and pretend to welcome him. It will be an interesting performance to watch.
Our little brothers, one barely two years old and the other born after my father left for Rome and not yet weaned, are not old enough to care. It is the custom among royal families of Egypt to use names over and over, even within one generation, so our little brothers, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV, are named for Father. My mother, Father’s first wife, was Cleopatra V, and Tryphaena is known formally as Cleopatra VI. I am Cleopatra VII. The name means “Famous in her Father.” I believe it suits me best.
It has also been the custom of the pharaohs since the earliest days of Egypt for royal brothers to marry their sisters. My mother was Father’s half sister. I remember hardly anything about my mother, except her lovely voice and her scent. Sometimes I catch a hint of perfume that brings back a memory of her as hard to grasp as a winter mist, and her absence often makes me feel alone, though there are people everywhere around me. Father later remarried, hoping for sons, but only weeks after the birth of Ptolemy XIV, the grand vizier delivered a letter to the queen from the king, divorcing her. The grand vizier made sure the former queen moved out of the palace at once, leaving the two youngest Ptolemies in the care of their nurses. I felt a little sad for her, but not much. My stepmother had a cruel mouth and no fondness for me or for any of my father’s daughters. And so no queen now waits to embrace King Ptolemy, but Father will not be lonely. At least a dozen young women of the court are eager to welcome him.
I return to my quarters. My servants, Irisi and Monifa, are not there. Monifa, who has been caring for me since my birth, is like a mother to me. Irisi is younger, closer to my age, but not close enough to be a true friend. Taking advantage of their absence, I choose a coarse linen tunic from Irisi’s chest and wrap one of her plain kerchiefs over my hair, fastening it with two of my own gold hairpins. With Monifa’s market basket slung over my arm as if I were going to buy bread, I slip out of my rooms. I want to be at the harbor when the royal ships arrive.
The king will not make his formal entry into Alexandria in the heat of the day. He will have ordered his ships to lie some distance offshore until the sun god, Ra, hangs low in the western sky and word of the king’s return has reached every quarter of the city and the excitement has had a chance to build. There is plenty of time.
But the grand vizier happens to see me and steps into my path. “Where are you going, Princess Cleopatra?” he asks.
“To watch for Father’s ship.”
Antiochus is tall and thin with a gleaming shaved head and ears that stick out like the handles on a wine jar. In the king’s absence the grand vizier has done hardly anything but amuse himself with hunting and gambling. I know he disapproves of my frequent escapes away from the royal quarter and into the world of ordinary Egyptians, but he has never tried to stop me. I am sure he will cause me no trouble, for I am aware of a few facts about him that he would prefer to keep secret. For instance, I know that he regularly pilfers the royal storehouse to pay off his gambling debts. We have an unspoken bargain between us. Antiochus frowns and moves aside.
The palace guards ignore me as I walk boldly past them and make my way through the back streets, avoiding the broad avenues. I have been making these unapproved visits to the marketplace since Father left for Rome. No one takes any notice of a ten-year-old girl dressed in servant’s clothes. If they knew my true identity, it would be otherwise. Princesses are not expected to roam the city alone, without a retinue of servants and bodyguards.
I can see that the royal fleet is still just a handful of dots on the horizon, well beyond the great Pharos lighthouse, which guides ships past the treacherous coast and into the harbor, but the whole city is already wide awake. Before the sun has climbed even halfway to the midpoint of the heavens, preparations are well under way for the king’s arrival. Assistants to the grand vizier sit beneath an awning in the marketplace, giving orders. Workers carry rolls of thick carpet for the king to walk on. Others are draping a special platform with silks from the Orient, attaching torches to tall poles, and hoisting bright pennants that snap in the stiff breeze blowing steadily off the sea. Welcoming speeches will be delivered from that platform by Antiochus and the highest-ranking noblemen. The crowd will be eager to hear news of King Ptolemy’s journey to Rome.
Before my father sailed for that faraway city more than a year ago, he had explained to me what he hoped to accomplish there.
“I am going for the sake of Egypt,” he said. “Rome would like nothing better than to take over our country. They claim to have legal rights to it, and the Romans are formidable—they could do it easily. That would mean the end of Egypt as an independent country and the end of my kingship. There would be no more pharaohs ruling here, no more Ptolemies, only three Romans who hold all the authority—two generals and a public official. I spit on them! And yet I must fawn over them and pretend friendship. Those three men will determine what happens to Egypt, and I must convince them to support me as the rightful ruler of the land.”
Father spoke to me that night as he always did, using the familiar form, as a father speaks to his children. He took it for granted I would understand, though I was just nine years old when he left and not clear on the details. Now I wonder if he has persuaded those three men—the triumvirate—to recognize that he is Egypt’s true pharaoh.
It must have been obvious to everybody, not just my sisters, that I am my father’s favorite. “You are his precious jewel,” they say sourly, with curled lips. I do not disagree with them. They believe this not because he gives me costly gifts—he gives them such gifts too. They demand them! They believe it because I am the daughter he always chose to be by his side, who rode with him into the desert and sailed with him on Lake Mareotis, who accompanied him whenever he entertained visitors and cheered him when he was alone.
Monifa, who knows me as well as my father does, claims that he favors me because, of all his children, I am most like him. “You have his keen intelligence,” she once told me, “and his ability to persuade, as well as his strength of purpose.”
Her words fill me with pride, but I cannot resist pressing her to tell me more about my parents. “And my mother?” I ask. “Do I resemble her?”
“You do not look like her,” Monifa says firmly. “Your sisters more closely resemble her in their features.” Monifa no doubt sees the disappointment written on my face. “I see only your father in your eyes and the shape of your nose. But I do hear your mother in your voice. Her speech fell like music on his ears. It enchanted him and melted his heart. Yours does the same.”
Her answers delight me. I am pleased, of course, by my special status, but the situation could mean trouble. I know that being the favorite could put me in danger.
Here is why: Tryphaena and Berenike are determined to be next in line to rule Egypt. They talk about it constantly, saying such things as “When we are on the throne” or “When Father is no longer king.” They never come right out and say “When Auletes is dead,” but I know my sisters, and I am uneasy about their intentions. They may see me as an obstacle blocking their path.
“Auletes” is an epithet meaning “Flute Player,” a name bestowed on Father by his subjects, who did not intend it kindly. He prefers to be known as the New Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, the inspirer of ecstasy. Both names fit him well. He likes to play the aulos, a long, finely carved ivory flute, especially when he has drunk too much wine. Sometimes he dances in honor of Dionysus while he plays. He has been doing that for as long as I can remember. I love the music and dancing, but my older sisters are not amused. They call him Auletes behind his back, never to his face.
“He’s a fool,” says Berenike.
“A drunken idiot,” Tryphaena adds.
I disagree, but I say nothing. Father is certainly neither a fool nor an idiot, but he is a man of many contradictions. I would rather think of his intelligence and his good humor and forgive his faults. His greatest weakness is his fondness for grand feasts, which sometimes causes him to neglect his duties as king.
It is my sisters who are fools. They are jealous not only of me but also of each other. Tryphaena assumes she will be the next queen and boasts about the luxuries she will enjoy—as though she is not already completely spoiled! Her name means “Ostentatious Pleasure Lover”—fitting, I think. Although she is the eldest, she is not the ablest or the most intelligent of my sisters. That would be Berenike, who is also sure that she is the one who will be queen. I will not be surprised if those two someday tear each other’s eyes out in a jealous rage. It would be wise to gamble on Berenike. She has a ruthless streak that makes her more dangerous than Tryphaena.
I believe that someday I could become a great ruler of Egypt, better than my sisters can dream of being, but I must be careful not to let them know how I feel. I do not want them to see me as a rival for the throne and a threat to their plans. With Father away on a long journey, it would have been an easy matter for them to arrange my disappearance.
Now Father has returned. But is he safe, or are my sisters actually plotting against him? If they are, then my life, too, may be in peril.
© 2011 Carolyn Meyer