CLEOPATRA: WHEN WE WERE GODS. Excerpt.

After the marriage ceremony, Ptolemy was banished to another palace in the Brucheion, while Cleopatra took up residence in her former apartments with Caesar. There he was attended by his staff officers and protected by his own legionaries while she, abandoned by much of the royal court and with her own advisers stranded at Mount Kasios, lived virtually as his queen. Or perhaps his concubine would be a better description.

Ptolemy and Pothinus kept themselves apart, attended by their own enclave of supporters and conspirators, protected by the Macedonian Household Guard, who were themselves kept under surveillance by a cohort of Roman soldiers.

And here am I, she thought, sleeping with the enemy and at war with my own people. She was at once both the betrayer and the betrayed. She had learned to detest Rome from a child and had pledged herself to break their hold over Egypt but instead she now found herself on the other side of the barricades, while her people threw themselves at the legionaries’ spears.

What does their queen do while they die for their city? I curl under the protective wing of this Caesar, laugh at his jokes, listen to his stories, take his seed. Am I just my father’s daughter after all or will I ever be the queen I dreamed of becoming?

She waited for Pothinus to make his move, as he surely would. If he won, she would be destroyed. If Caesar won, she would survive. The tension in the Lochias was palpable.

Only Caesar seemed oblivious to it.

***

At Caesar’s insistence they dined with the Regency Council each day but the food that Pothinus provided was not the kind to stir the juices; just moldy corn bread and small, greasy fish caught in the harbor. Instead of gold service the food was served off wooden plates; Pothinus claimed he had melted down the table settings to repay Caesar’s ten million dinarii.

The wine she would not have given to a thirsty dog.

They ate in the traditional Greek manner, the couches arranged around three sides of the dining tables. Only little Antiochus, being yet a child, sat on a stool.

At these gatherings only Caesar appeared to eat anything. Cleopatra knew this was a ploy because at other times Caesar had no appetite at all. His idea of a good meal was to tear off pieces of bread and cram them in his mouth while studying charts with his generals. Decimus Brutus told her that he once ate a piece of asparagus that had, by mistake, been covered in skin ointment instead of sauce and swallowed it without murmur.

Achillas picked at the fish. Arsinoë and her tutor Ganimedes exchanged conspiratorial glances and mouthed silent comments to each other across the table. Ptolemy ignored the food altogether. He had his head down and there were tears running down his face.

Pothinus saw this and shot a look of pure hatred at Cleopatra. Well, there is no need to stare at me like that, you piece of camel dung, she thought. You cannot blame me for the boy’s disposition.

“It seems your army is intent on war,” Caesar said to Achillas, as cheerfully as if he was commenting on a chariot race or the Games. “The question of the succession has been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction and yet they have marched on Alexandria and laid siege to the city.”

“It was not done on my orders,” Achillas said.

Achillas’ skin was grey and there was sweat on his forehead the size of dewdrops. His smile was meant to placate Caesar but it only had the effect of making his head appear like a death mask.

“The mob tried to storm the palace again today,” Caesar said to Pothinus.

“The actions of a few merchants and sailors are beyond my authority, Imperator.”

“It is more than just a few merchants and sailors.”

Pothinus shrugged. “The presence of Roman soldiers is a goad. I am sure the situation will resolve itself once they are gone.” When Caesar did not reply, he added. “Now that the matter of the succession is settled, you will not want to waste any more time in Egypt when you must have more pressing matters to attend to elsewhere.”

Caesar regarded him steadily. “It is for Caesar to decide which matters press upon him and which do not.” He bit off a hunk of bread with his teeth and washed it down from the wooden goblet at his right hand. How he could drink the vinegar that Pothinus had provided was beyond her.

Achillas could keep his silence no longer. “The talk in the bazaars is that Caesar is keeping the royal family hostage,” he said.

“Perhaps Pothinus can talk to the rabble,” Caesar said. “Calm the situation.”

“I cannot control what people say to each other when they are buying fish. “

“Strange. It seems the mob don’t listen to you or anyone else. Even to the king here.” He pretended to notice Ptolemy’s unhappy demeanor for the first time. “What is His Majesty sniveling about now?”

“He does not like the food, Imperator,” Pothinus said.

“Well it is his own soldiers who keep him from his shellfish and game birds. If they would relieve the siege he could dine on roasted giraffe if he wished.” Caesar put his hands on his hips. “I don’t understand why he makes such a fuss. When I was on campaign in Britain we chewed on nettles and drank water scooped from rock pools.”

“Like your ancestors?” Arsinoë said.

Oh, my pretty little sister, Cleopatra thought. Fifteen years old, swathed in silk, your lovely fair hair tied in a chignon, Caesar would have you on your back in a moment if you only showed willing. You could play him like a fish on a line. Yet all you do is antagonize him. Could you be any more stupid?

Caesar looked at her plate. “You have no appetite?”

“There is a smell in the room,” she said.

Caesar sniffed the air, with the lavish gesture of a man in a garden of roses. “All I can smell is the sea. You do not appreciate the salt air? For myself, I find it invigorating. In Rome the sea is too far away.”

“I would rather share my meal with a dog than with a Roman.”

The smile vanished at this deadly insult and he abandoned his attempts to amuse her. “I may grant you your wish.”

Arsinoë jumped up and swept from the room.

Caesar went to stand behind the stool where Antiochus was eating, head down, trying not to draw attention to himself. “If only all of Ptolemy’s family had his youngest son’s sweet disposition,” he said and tousled the boy’s hair.

Achillas and Pothinus shook their heads. Everyone knew that Antiochus was scared, not mellow. If he ever grew to be a man, Caesar might see a different side to him. There were no sweet dispositions at the palace at Brucheion and there hadn’t been for centuries.

***

“The thing I enjoy most about dining with your family,” Caesar said to her, after the others had left, “is the conversation.” He poured himself a little more of the vinegar that Pothinus was pleased to call a wine and drank without wincing.

“Among my own family,” Cleopatra said, “it was considered a good dinner if no one was murdered before the entertainments.”

“I have tasters to make sure the wine is not poisoned.”

“You mean it isn’t?” she said, tossing the remains of her glass out of the window.

“I am a soldier. I will drink anything. If Pothinus thinks to wear me down by starving me of luxury, he does not understand Caesar.” He regarded her thoughtfully. “Tell me, that man who was with Arsinoë. Is that her lover?”

“She is a princess of a royal house. How may she have a lover?”

“He seems very familiar with her.”

“He is her tutor. Ever since the first Ptolemy the daughters of the royal house have enjoyed exactly the same education as the sons.”

“Extraordinary.”

“You think a woman might not have the same wit as a man?”

“I think it would have to be an extraordinary woman.”

“Then our family has always had extraordinary women for no Ptolemy princess has ever struggled to keep pace with her brothers. Each of us has a tropheus to tutor us in the arts and sciences and later, if they are worthy, they may become advisers also.”

“So Ganimedes does not sleep with her?”

“Hardly.”

“What is so amusing?”

“Ganimedes is a eunuch. Like Mardian.”

His expression changed. He looked both disgusted and embarrassed.

“Why do you look like that?” she asked him, genuinely puzzled at his reaction.

“You and your animal gods and your eunuchs and your pre-occupation with death. My gorge rises in revolt.”

“It makes perfect sense if you …”

“A woman ruling men who have had their manhood razored away! It is … barbaric!” He slammed his goblet on the table and stormed out of the room.

Chapter 15

Winter storms lashed the Pharos. There was even white water in the harbor and the skies turned the color of lead. The streets by the docks were swept with lashing rain and salt spray. Caravans from Punt and Arabia still filed through the Gate of the Sun but the merchant galleys anchored in the Harbor of Good Return were effectively cut off from the Mediterranean until the spring.

The Egyptian army was now camped outside the city, twenty thousand of them, backed by two thousand native cavalry. Perhaps Pothinus and Ptolemy thought Caesar could be intimidated by this show of force. But Caesar did not seem much concerned. After all, he told her, I have over three thousand veteran legionaries, and eight hundred Celts as cavalry, as well as fifty triremes at the foot of the Lochias steps – and four royal hostages.

It was the first time he had admitted her true status.

Typical of him, she thought. His easy charm makes everyone in his privileged circle feel they are uniquely special to him. But whenever she felt herself – yes, admit it, girl – falling in love with him, she was reminded of his ruthlessness, and drew back. Too often she thought like a woman when she should think like a queen. She suspected he knew that, perhaps was even counting on it.

The mob had meanwhile built triple barricades of stone blocks in the streets so the Canopic Way was no longer passable, nor the Street of the Soma. Caesar had likewise fortified the palace and set up his headquarters in the banqueting rooms. He spread his maps on precious ivory and rosewood tables and her alabaster floors resounded to the stamp of hob-nailed sandals as centurions ran in and out day and night with reports.

***

The wind buffeted the palace walls. The glow of the great fire inside the Pharos was the only light on this bleak winter night. She expected Caesar to take her, as he often did, in his rough soldier’s way, but tonight, for reasons she could not fathom, he was gentle and took his time.

She felt as if she had left her own body to watch their coupling from a high corner of the room. Their bodies entwined under the leopard skin covering on the bed, silhouettes in a primitive dance, while the lamps guttered in the draught from the windows.

She saw his shoulders and naked back, scarred by old wounds, raised above her like a lion contemplating prey. Her heels wrapped themselves around the base of his spine, rising to meet him. He moved in a gentle cadenced rhythm, waiting for her to respond.

Suddenly she was no longer observing, and she felt for the first time the tantalizing sensations of her own body. A surprising warmth rose from her calves and thighs to the pit of her belly and she found herself a part of this shadowy ballet. A roseate glow grew like an unchecked fire inside her. As she edged toward this unknown longing, her hands balled into fists in the coverlets. Her back arched and the muscles in her thighs cramped as the need became urgent.

The dark exploded into light, her surrender complete, and she experienced a new and breathless sensation of pleasure and release. As he finished she clung to him, her heart thundering, gasping for breath. When she closed her eyes there was no darkness, just a thousand colors, like the shimmering of silk.

And she slept.

***

She woke suddenly, remembered where she was, and what had happened. Caesar was asleep beside her, his arm flung carelessly across her breast, his head against her shoulder. She felt an upwelling of tenderness.

“Julius,” she whispered, running the tip of her forefinger along his cheek.

She heard shouting in the garden, the clash of metal, soldiers running in their heavy boots. Caesar was instantly awake. He leaped out of bed and with two strides he was at the window, staring into the darkness.

“What is happening?” she said.

“It is nothing,” he said. “My men are attending to it.”

A short while later there were footsteps in the corridor outside, and a fist pounded on the door. Caesar seemed unconcerned at this alarm. He casually slipped on his tunic.

“Enter,” he said, and crossed his arms.

A centurion strode in, holding a small sack. Its contents were dripping onto the carpets. Caesar nodded, and the man unwrapped the sopping bundle. It was a head, although scarcely recognizable. It was drained of all color and life, and blood still leaked from the severed neck veins.

Caesar turned to her. “Do you recognize him?” he asked her, as if it was some foreign dignitary he had spied at a state banquet..

“It’s Pothinus,” she said. And then, because Caesar did not respond, she added: “He’s lost a lot of weight.”

Caesar threw back his head and laughed. “Yes. And he used to be much taller also. Thank you, centurion. You may give it to the dogs.”

“There was a problem, Imperator,” the centurion said, uneasily. “Their general, Achillas. He was nowhere to be found.”

“Unfortunate. He must have been warned.”

He dismissed him. The man saluted and left.

Caesar turned to her. “Tonight, while we slept, there was an accounting. I would have preferred to have crushed the whole nest, but there you are.”

He planned this from the beginning, she thought. From the moment the Regency Council decided to kill Pompey, their fate was sealed. Caesar was no doubt privately pleased that the Council had done his work for him but he was always going to be a Roman about this. He would take revenge in the name of the Senate and then claim the victory as his own.

“You never had any intention of letting him live,” she said.

“Of course not. It’s a pity about Achillas though.”

His ruthlessness struck her with awe. He had dealt with his enemies, without rancor, and without signaling his intentions. I wonder if I could learn to be so pragmatic?

“What do you intend to do now?”

“Perhaps now Pothinus is taken care of and Alexandria has a new king and queen we can all get on with our daily business.”

“And me?”

“You have what you wanted, kitten. I have done your dirty work for you. I am sure you can handle young Pothinus now that we have disbanded the Regency Council.” He gave her a wry smile. “Can’t you?”

He might as well have plunged a knife into her belly. She thought he had finally accepted her as his lover and his ally, and now he treated her like some underling.

You have what you wanted, kitten.

No, Julius, not everything I want. Nothing like it.

 

 

CLEOPATRA, When We Were Gods

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