His face was grey, his shoulders hunched in exhaustion.
He looked older than she had ever seen him. His sparse hair was plastered to his head, and blood leaked down his right arm and dripped steadily off his fingers.
He had his officer drag her father’s ceremonial table – a rare treasure made from the trunk of a single tree from the Atlas Mountains – to the window where there was better light. Roman boots left muddy footprints across the alabaster floors.
Caesar was surrounded by a coterie of his commanders, studying charts of the palace and harbor. They had captured the Pharos island and wiped out the remnants of Achillas’s navy but Caesar had lost four hundred legionaries on the causeway.
“Imperator,” Ptolemy said as he entered, “we are relieved to find you safe.”
Caesar turned around. The shadow of a weary smile curled the corners of his mouth. “I can see you are, my boy.”
“You risk too much on our account.”
“Nothing is too much trouble for you. But I am sincerely humbled by your concern for my well-being.”
Cleopatra smiled. You will not have me throttled just yet, little brother. While Caesar lives, you can keep the executioner’s fingers off my neck.
He sent his officers out of the room. He let Ptolemy know he wished him to leave also. He left, albeit reluctantly. What is my brother playing at? Cleopatra wondered. Does he think to appease our Julius, my Julius, with his oily smiles and fawning words? Does he think that if he bends over far enough Caesar will steer the throne of Egypt inside?
The great doors closed. They were alone.
“I thought you were dead,” she whispered.
“And that would concern you?”
“You have become precious to me,” she said.
He grinned. “Come here, kitten.” He held her. He was shivering, his tunic freezing, ringing wet from the harbor.
“You should change out of these wet clothes,” she whispered. She ran a finger along the wound in his left arm. A gaping slash, caked all around with dried, black blood.
“They fought well,” he said. “It seems my sojourn in Alexandria is going to be longer than I anticipated.” He smiled but it was clear that he was shaken by the day’s events.
Despite this near-disaster his legend could only be augmented by what happened on the Heptastadion. He had cheated death by swimming in full armor the distance of almost one stadia to another Roman ship, while keeping one arm clear of the water to keep his battle plans from getting wet. Apart from the sword wound to his arm, the only other injury was to his pride, for he had lost his precious purple cloak, his personal emblem of rank.
He let her take him to bed. He was cold as a corpse and when she put her arms around him he curled into her like a child and slept. She stroked his thinning hair and whispered “Julius” over and over, like a prayer.
Caesar picked idly at his breakfast; some bread and a little ewe’s cheese, a flask of water. Cleopatra wondered how he kept his strength on such little sustenance. As he ate he interviewed his staff officers while Cleopatra had two of the palace slave girls attend her toilet in the next room. Neither were as skilled as Charmion or Iras but they would have to do for now. Her own servants, along with the rest of her retinue, were still stranded in the desert at Mount Kasios.
Then she heard another voice in the next chamber, and she recognized it immediately. “Ptolemy,” she hissed and got to her feet, pushing the slave girls away.
Caesar was studying a report from one of his officers, the wax tablet held idly in one hand. He looked hardly the Imperator now, just a man idly disturbed at his reading, dressed in a simple white tunic. Her brother stood in the doorway, ridiculous in a brocade gown threaded with gold, his hair pomaded and in ringlets. Sixteen years old and he already played the part of an Alexandrian fop off to the theatre.
“Ah, your Majesty,” Caesar said to him, his eyes still on the wax tablet.
“You requested my presence,” Ptolemy said. He saw Cleopatra standing in the doorway of the bedroom and gave her a smirk. There had been another riot on the Street of the Soma this morning and this might have cheered him.
“Caesar has welcome news for the King of Egypt. You are to leave the palace. I need you to go to your sister.”
Ptolemy’s air of perfumed arrogance fell away. His jaw fall open, a trap for the flies and midges.
“Don’t look so surprised. What better emissary can Caesar send to her than one of her own kin?”
Had Ptolemy ever been outside the Brucheion? she wondered. She doubted that he had ever ventured further than the gardens on Lake Mareotis.
“You will be accompanied by a squadron of the Palace Guard as escort.”
Cleopatra watched the play of emotion on his face.
“But why?” he said. Well, it was more of a whine really.
“You think Caesar enjoys being cooped up here? You must broker a truce so that I and my men can board our ships and go back to Rome in peace.”
Now it was her turn to look shocked. She could not believe what she was hearing.
“But I do not wish to leave the palace,” Ptolemy said.
“What has it to do with what you wish? You have a duty as a king! If this war continues your city is going to be destroyed, do you not care about that?”
No, he doesn’t, Cleopatra thought. It is written on his face as clearly as the hieroglyphs on Alexander’s tomb. He does not even realize that you are giving him back the throne, that you are set on betraying me.
“Your sister has murdered Caesar’s envoys. She has even quarreled with her general, Achillas, and her eunuch has had him murdered. You alone they will treat with reverence for you are their king. You will broker this peace for Caesar so he may return to more pressing matters in Rome.”
Achillas, murdered? Why had he not told her about this? There could only be one reason; after the defeat on the Heptastadion he had decided to abandon her. She could not believe he might prove so timid.
She looked back at Ptolemy. She knew what her brother was thinking. How would Arsinoë receive him, as her sibling and her king? Or as her deadly rival and immediately have him killed? His lower lip quivered, as if he had been smacked by his tutor for slowness; which, in a way, he had.
And in this way Caesar sets both our destinies.
She stood mute in her humiliation. Even Ptolemy seemed to be looking at her for guidance. How to comprehend this Roman’s treachery? But she would not give in to her anger, it was beneath her dignity as a queen. If she had learned anything from this Roman it was the art of politic, the separation of private feeling from tactical imperative. Why should Caesar protect her, after all? He had allowed himself to be drawn into a conflict for which he was totally unprepared. Perhaps he had been overconfident after his defeat of Pompey. He would no doubt return to Alexandria with a more significant force at a later date and settle scores. By then, she would be dead. Another puppet would have taken her place.
“The arrangements have been made,” Caesar said to Ptolemy. “You will leave at noon.”
He just stood there.
“Do you not wish to hurry on your way?”
“I like it well enough here,” Ptolemy said, fear making him bold.
“I have told you, what you like is of no consequence.” HIs voice grew stern. “You have your duty. A king does not skulk around his palace when there are matters of state to be attended to. Now go.”
Ptolemy was about to say something else but Caesar dismissed him with a wave of the hand. Her brother gave her one last look, as if he hoped she might somehow rescue him from his fate, and then he rushed from the room.
As soon as Ptolemy was gone Caesar looked up at her and smiled. “Good morning, kitten.”
I will not give him the satisfaction of seeing me grovel or rage, she thought. I will be calm, even in the face of this unspeakable betrayal. “Did the Imperator sleep well,” she said, “untroubled by his conscience?”
“Indeed he did.”
She watched his face, searching for clues to his intent. Clearly, he was not going to explain himself further. He wanted her to fathom it for herself.
He was still smiling, as if he thought himself inordinately clever. She crossed her arms and tried to re-assess what she had just seen and heard.
After a while, it came to her. “You have sent him to his death,” she said.
Caesar nodded as if humbly acknowledging the applause of the senate.
She had underestimated the mendacity of this Roman. He was playing a double game; if Arsinoë had Ptolemy murdered, then she, Cleopatra, must no longer share the throne with her brother. She would rule alone, as Caesar’s client. If Arsinoë was unable or unwilling to murder him, then Ptolemy must surely seize the opportunity to ride ahead of the army assembled outside the gates. Further, he had led Ptolemy to believe that he wished to quit Egypt, that he felt tired and defeated; a weakness her brother would think to exploit. In fact, Caesar wanted Ptolemy to attack him so he had just cause to kill him.
“You want to control Egypt but you have to be able to justify your actions in front of the Roman Senate,” she said.
“Your tutor said you had a quick mind. You learn very fast. I shall have to take care you do not overtake me one day.”
“You still have to defeat his army.”
The smile fell away. “I will not be caught on the Heptastadion a second time.” The wolfish smile returned as quickly as it had faded. “And what about you? Will you play the widow and throw your jewels on his pyre?”
“He is only a boy,” she heard herself say, almost as if she felt sorry for him.
“Who, if left to nature and his own devices, would one day grow up to be a prince of Egypt. If he had any sense at all, he would know he has to die.”
She closed her eyes. I wonder if I could learn to be this ruthless? “I wish this was over,” she said.
“It is never over, kitten,” he said to her, his voice suddenly gloomy. “If you wish to order the affairs of the world, it is never, ever, over.”