Excerpt from Lily of the Nile

December 7, 2010

Chapter One

Something coiled dangerously within the basket I carried, but I’d been told not to open the lid nor to ask what lurked beneath its woven reeds. The basket smelled of comforting cedar and lush figs, but it was embroidered with emblems of Anubis—the jackal-headed Guide of the Dead.

Anubis was a kind god, so I should have taken solace, but seeing him only magnified my sense of dread. Since we’d lost the war, Alexandria was quiet and filled with ill omens.

I had once been the safest child in Egypt, but the world held terrors everywhere for me now, and the twisting motion in the basket convinced me that I held treachery in my arms. I came to an abrupt halt in the middle of the avenue, beneath a marble colonnade that cast dusk shadows over the silent street. “I don’t want to carry the basket anymore,” I said.

“Sometimes we have to do what we don’t want to, Princess Selene,” our royal tutor said, daring to nudge me forward with his divination staff. That he’d poked me offended my royal dignity, but I knew better than to chastise Euphronius, for the old wizard was unusually anxious that day. The metallic scent of dark magic clung to his white linen kilt and wafted behind him as he hurried us along. He kept glancing back at the Roman guards who accompanied us at a barely respectful distance, and even though the sun was low and the evening cool, perspiration glistened on his bald head.

Euphronius lifted my littlest brother, Philadelphus, into his arms and urged us to walk faster. “Let’s hurry before Octavian changes his mind about letting you see your mother.”

I tried to keep pace, but the basket was unbearably heavy and my silvered sandal caught on the hem of my pearl-beaded gown. I heard the fabric tear but managed to regain my footing, albeit with a complaint. “I could walk faster if a servant carried the basket. Why should I have to?”

After all, I wasn’t just a princess of Egypt. Wasn’t I also queen of all Cyrenaica and Libya? I wore a royal diadem embroidered with pearls upon my brow. Why should I carry anything for myself much less something that frightened me?

“I’ll carry it for you,” my twin brother offered.

But Euphronius waved Helios away. “Princess Selene, your mother wanted you to bring the basket as an offering to your father. Will you dishonor Lord Antony by failing to provide for what remains of his soul in this world?”

Our wizard needn’t have used the blunt cudgel of guilt; the reminder that my mother had commanded me was enough to make me obey, but his mention of my dead father plunged me into a grief-stricken silence. My poor, disgraced father.

I first met him when I was four years old. He’d worn a sword on his belt, a tall horsehair-crested helmet, and sculpted armor beneath a bloodred cape; he’d terrified me. When his studded military sandals first thundered on the marbled floors, I’d cowered and cried. My mother had scooped me into her arms and told me not to fear, for my father had gifts for me and my twin, and a marriage proposal for her. The Romans were our friends and protected us, she had said.

But now I knew she had lied.

When the real Romans came—for that’s what Octavian’s men called themselves—they came to conquer. When the real Romans came, not even my father with his mighty sword could protect us, and unable to live with this failure, he plunged that mighty sword into his stalwart heart.

Now, without him, everything was crumbling. Our palace was overrun by enemy soldiers, my two oldest brothers were missing, and my mother was a captive. All I could do was stumble along behind our tutor, silenced by the enormity of our loss.

Conquered Alexandria’s spacious streets were empty. Only the awnings of the marketplace stood as a colorful reminder of the usual bustle of its merchants. Even the gold-domed temples were deserted and I wondered if the gods had abandoned us too.

“Where is everyone?” little Philadelphus asked.

“They fled,” Euphronius said curtly as we passed the rows of statuary inside the royal enclosure. “The people fled when they heard Octavian’s legions were coming. Those who stayed have shut themselves up in their homes, doors locked and bolted.”

“So only statues stand bravely before the Romans,” Helios said, and I felt him bristle. My twin’s dark mood made mine even blacker. With my heavy basket, I trudged up the marble stairs, unable to swish my skirts in the royal fashion I had practiced. There were no crowds to wave to me now anyway. We had come to my mother’s tomb where she had hidden from Octavian, but he had found her. Now it was virtually her prison.

Euphronius approached the Roman guards. “Queen Cleopatra’s children are here to see her. The honorable Octavian gave his permission.”

One of the guards searched Euphronius. He actually put his unclean hands on our wizard’s holy person. I watched, aghast, trying to ignore the curious motion within the basket, an echo of the fear that snaked around my heart. Then the ill-mannered Roman guard approached me and I held my basket out to him, hoping he’d reach inside. Hoping that whatever evil spirit lurked there would fly out and strike him dead!

But the guard sniffed dismissively and waved me through like a peasant. It was the first time, but not the last time, I realized how easily Romans discounted a girl. Of course, my mother had learned that lesson long ago.

We found my mother in her tomb beside a wax statue of my father. She was setting out a meal for his ka, as if she were but a humble wife, and not Cleopatra, Pharaoh of Egypt.

Where my skin was fair, hers was a sun-kissed copper, befitting a ruler of a desert nation. Her hair was a curious mixture; dark strands shot through with bronze. And though her features were indelicate, her coloring was that of a golden goddess. Millions of people believed that she was just that—Isis reborn.

Candlelight glittered off the gilded walls of the tomb to surround her with an ethereal glow and for a moment, I thought she was working magic on my father’s statue. The common folk said that statues imbued with ka could be brought to life, but Euphronius had told us the rest of my father’s soul must pass through the gates into the next life, and my mother had agreed.

Now she turned to us with an expression of otherworldly serenity, which only added to my alarm, for serenity was never one of my mother’s famed characteristics. She bid her servants Iras and Charmian to take the basket from me, and I surrendered it eagerly. Then she opened her arms wide. “Come.”

We ran to her.

“The soldiers are everywhere!” Philadelphus wept, for he was only six years old, and frightened.

“Don’t cry,” Helios commanded.

“It’s all right,” my mother said, gently running her fingers over my little brother’s tearstained cheeks. “Kings and queens cry with family. Hide your grief from subjects and strangers.”

“The Romans won’t tell us anything,” I said, fighting back tears of my own. “Where’s Caesarion? Where’s Antyllus? What of our cousin, Petubastes? They’re all gone from the palace!”

“Petubastes is dead.” She answered simply, as if it would somehow hurt less. “And they butchered Antyllus as he begged for mercy at the foot of Caesar’s statue.”

We let out a sound of mingled anguish. Petubastes was a young priest of Ptah, no warrior at all. Antyllus was my father’s son by a Roman wife, but he’d come to live with us years before and we’d loved him. It was unthinkable that they could both be gone.

“How could they kill Antyllus?” my twin cried. “He’s one of them. He’s Roman!”

My mother pulled us tighter into her embrace, whispering, “For all his talk of Republic, Octavian is just a despot. He respects no law nor bond of kinship. You’d do well to remember that.”

“What about Caesarion?” I demanded to know of my oldest brother. “He’s King of Egypt. They can’t kill him too.”

My heart pounded as we waited for my mother’s answer. She didn’t meet my eyes when she spoke. “Caesarion is gone.”

Gone? What could she mean?

Sometimes it seemed that Helios inherited more Roman stoicism than even my father had possessed, for his jaw set in grim disapproval. “Do you mean he ran away?”

“Sometimes it’s better to fight another day,” my mother replied.

I felt my twin’s burning anger. Searching for a target, he rounded on Euphronius. “Why didn’t the people fight for us? Are they cowards? Do they hate us?”

The old wizard knew better than to speak without leave in the queen’s presence, so he busied himself lighting the alabaster divination lamps while my mother turned Helios’s chin and forced him to look at her. “Helios, I ordered the people not to fight. Once your father died, we lost all advantage. Resistance would have only made them burn the city. I know too well how the Romans love to burn things.”

They had burned her harbor, storage houses filled with books meant for the Great Library, and even her husband, Julius Caesar. She seemed to be remembering it all now, as she buried her nose in my hair. “Helios and Selene. My sun and my moon. Can it already be time to say good-bye? It seems as if Isis gave you to me just yesterday and not a decade ago.”

A pillar encrusted with lapis lazuli cast my twin brother’s face in blue shadow as he asked, “Why are we saying good-bye?”

My mother’s eyes were calm, but her voice quavered. “You children must go to Rome, but I’ll be going somewhere else. Without me, Octavian will have less reason to kill you. Without me, he’ll need you.”

The dread that had coiled in my arms as I held the basket now slithered up my spine. I understood, for the first time, that my mother meant to die.

Helios must have realized it too, because his face instantly reddened. “You said that in three days’ time we’re all going to Rome!”

“I said that because the Romans were listening,” my mother murmured.

She tried to take Helios’s hands into hers. He pulled them away as if burned; I felt the panic that flittered across his face as if it was my own. It was my own.

“We haven’t much time now,” my mother said. “So listen well. When Octavian declared war upon us, he said that a woman mustn’t think herself equal to a man. This was the just cause for which the Romans claimed to fight their war, so it will be hard for you in Rome. They’ll try to make you forget who you are or try to make you ashamed. But you mustn’t forget and you mustn’t be ashamed.”

“You said we were all going to Rome,” Helios insisted, as if saying it again would make it true.

My mother pretended not to hear him. “Euphronius has taught you about the nine bodies, yes? Your father has been properly buried, so his akh, his spiritual body, journeys through the afterlife. Now I’m going to join him.”

I looked to where my father was entombed with his armaments. He’d been a bear of a man, a warrior with a thick neck and broad shoulders who had, nonetheless, bowed to me and called me his princess. Sometimes, after his battles, he would come home and grab me up, tucking me under one arm as he walked. Other times, he would even get down on his knees, pretending to stalk me like one of the great cats of the jungle. That was the father I’d lost and now my mother meant to stay here with him, in this tomb, forever.

Her handmaidens were already laying out her royal raiment. Not the royal diadem of House Ptolemy but the ancient, long-abandoned Egyptian symbols—the white bulbous crown of Upper Egypt and the small red crown of Lower Egypt, with the crook and the flail.

I realized I was crying only when my tears splashed onto the marble floor. “I don’t want you to die too.”

“Selene,” my mother said. “Soon I’ll meet the gods of the West and pass through the gates that lead to my destiny—and yours.”

I hated her distant stare. It was as if she’d already started on her journey. “Please don’t die,” I pleaded. “I’ll do anything you say.”

Philadelphus added his pleas to mine. “No, Mother, please don’t leave us!”

At this, my mother’s tears finally spilled over her lashes. She brought Philadelphus’s hands to her lips then kissed each chubby finger in turn. “Death, well done, is a gateway from this world into another. It needn’t be the end of anything. I’m not afraid, so you children mustn’t be either.” Then her lips twisted into a pained expression. “I keep calling you children, but I’ve never let you be children. You were born kings and queens from the start and now you’re as I was at your age; you see through wizened eyes. Especially you, Selene. It’s your blessing and your curse.”

“Your Majesty,” Euphronius interrupted. “The sun is nearly set. There isn’t much time.”

My mother slowly nodded, blinking her tears away. “Fetch my magician’s chest.”

“I can help you work the heka,” Euphronius told her as we gathered around the oil lamp.

“No,” she said. “Save your magic for the time ahead. I’ll use what I have left for the children.”

Then my mother stared into the flame as sweet smoke filled the tomb, the scent of light magic surrounding us. She took a more formal tone. “Tonight, I’ve a gift for each of you. To protect you when I’m gone.”

From the chest, my mother took a collar of gold amulet and placed it around Philadelphus’s neck. She touched her forehead to his and said, “Ptolemy Philadelphus, I give you my sight.” Then she whispered the spell over the amulet to imbue it with power. “Oh my father Osiris, my brother Horus, my mother Isis, I’m unswathed and I see.”

Philadelphus’s soulful brown eyes fluttered wide then he staggered back as if he saw something frightening. Helios and I both turned to check behind us, fearful that Romans had entered this sanctuary, but we saw only my mother’s handmaidens.

Then my mother put a golden vulture amulet around Helios’s neck and he bowed his head, fists balled in frustration. “Alexander Helios, I give you my power, my sekhem.” She held his hand as she spoke the holy words. “The sovereignty of the whole world is decreed for him. May he war mightily and maketh his deeds to be remembered. His mother, the mighty lady Isis, protecteth him, and she hath transferred her strength unto him.”

At last, my mother came to me. She fastened upon my neck a small jade frog pendant. I squinted, for my brothers’ amulets seemed so much more impressive. Curious, I read the words carved on the frog’s green underbelly, and I arched a curious brow.

“Read it aloud,” my mother said.

My words came out bold and strong. “I am the Resurrection.”

In that moment, a power surged through me that I had never known. Magic.

The Nile’s green waves lapped at my consciousness, drawing me into the marshy reeds of a waking dream where life teemed. I saw the frog and the minnows, the life-giving silt settling onto the fields beyond, and everywhere I turned in the water, the birds flocked and water lilies blossomed. With my fingers, I traced lazy circles into the dream river bringing fish leaping to the surface. I passed dried brown foliage as I made my way to shore, and it sprouted green with life again. I gazed upon the washed-up carcass of a snake and it arose, coiled and shimmering.

It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, but the intensity was too much. My knees buckled under me. My mother’s guiding hands caught me to stop my fall. “Cleopatra Selene, I entrust you with my spirit, my ba. You are the Resurrection.”

I trembled, my mouth aquiver. “I don’t understand.”

“Which is for the better,” she said. “Because the Romans aren’t above torturing children for information. Your father would tell you to live as long as you can do so honorably. I tell you to live so long as you serve Isis. Worship her and follow her dictates. You will fall short; I often did. But still, you must try. Be charitable to the poor and the sick. Help the helpless and those in need. Be kind when you can and fierce when you must. Remember that Egypt and our very faith lives in you.”

Helios shook his head, not wanting to hear another word. I didn’t either. I wanted to make it all stop—to make everything go back to the way it was before Octavian came with his legions. But my mother made us listen. “There are only three kinds of ink that rulers use to write their stories. Sweat, blood, or tears. So choose your ink carefully, because one day Anubis will weigh your heart upon on a scale. If your heart is black and heavy with sin, it will go to the crocodiles in the hour of judgment. But if you’re faithful, Isis offers immortality.”

My mother drew us into her embrace one last time, then called for our tutor. “Euphronius, take the children and these wax tablets to Octavian. They contain my final wishes. Wait until it is too late for him to revive me, because he’ll surely try. His advisers will tell him to be glad that I’m dead, and he’ll know it’s better for him that I am. But there is something dark and twisted in that man. Octavian always wants most what he cannot have.”

Euphronius bowed low. “It will be my honor to keep you from his clutches, Your Majesty. I had hoped that in this River of Time, I could finish teaching the twins . . .”

“There wasn’t time, Euphronius. I understand,” she said.

The old man’s eyes glistened. “It shall all be done as you command.”

She reached for his hand—a rare gesture by the pharaoh, to touch someone outside the family. “Your loyalty has been worth more than all the gold in the world.”

Euphronius kissed her amethyst ring then withdrew as if all words failed him.

“Now take the children away,” she said.

Euphronius gathered the tablets and tugged me by the arm as I tried to stifle my sobs. I called out, “We could run away together. We could all go where the Romans would never find us.”

“Selene!” my mother snapped. “I’m going now to the only place the Romans cannot follow. You’re a Ptolemy, a queen, and a vessel of Isis. Remember it.”

As we left, my mother pulled the basket into her lap. She slid her arm beneath the lid and I heard the asp hiss. Then she whispered the last words I ever heard her say. “I may crumble away to dust, but my spirit remains. I journey home now, and though my lands fall fallow and my palaces turn to sand, Egypt lives a million years in me. I do not fear, for death is not the end of all things. I shall again warm myself by a fire, loved by a man, children upon my knee. In the Nile of Eternity, I shall live forever.