The Kingdom of Mauretania, Romanized North Africa
Autumn 19 B.C.
I will never see my mother’s Egypt again, I think. The closest I will ever come to touching my native soil is to bathe in the same sea of green that caresses its shores. So, each morning, I go down to the water where the frothing waves tumble over themselves and the brine-scented spray leaves salty kisses upon my cheeks. Squinting into the brightness, I might imagine the lighthouse gleaming white in the harbor is a far-off vision of the Pharos of Alexandria. But the breeze that sweeps over the forest of ships’ masts reminds me that this is my kingdom of Mauretania. This wind carries with it no song of the Nile, but the melodic voices of my Berber fishermen, singing as they haul in their nets.
Returning to the palace, my skin tingling with dried salt water, I linger between the billowing white curtains of my chambers to watch my women gather henna in my gardens. They squat with their colorful skirts hitched up to their knees as they choose leaves for their baskets and cut efficient swaths with sharp scythes.
Standing beside me, stirring a dark green paste in a bowl, Tala says, “Best to harvest all the henna now before the rains come.”
She is my chief attendant, the woman who nursed my daughter, and the only one I trust to care for my little princess. As Tala stirs, her silver bracelets and beaded earrings jingle, outdone in their brilliance only by the indigo shawl draped over her hair, the dye from which stains her skin blue at the creases. “By the time we finish making you beautiful for the king’s visit, we’ll have used all the henna we have left in the store room.”
Though I’ve been married five years, my marriage to the king is only by contract.
Tonight will be the first time I take him into my bed.
This I must do if I want a life of my own, an escape from the emperor who forced my parents to suicide and made me as his war trophy. His possession. His mistress. The emperor will never believe that I do not belong to him unless he sees me as the true wife of another man. So if I will not make love to Augustus Caesar, I must make love to my husband.
Lavender perfume wafts up from the linens and a gown of gossamer white drapes over the chest at the foot of my bed. Every beeswax candle in the palace has been brought to my chambers as if to turn my bed into a sacred altar. But the preparations make me uneasy. “Must we go to so much trouble? King Juba is a practical man.”
Tala tests the henna paste against her wrist. “He is also a man preparing himself for you as a bridegroom. After his morning ride on his new stallion, he washed, sat in the steam room and had himself rubbed down by a Nubian slave before calling for a barber. He’s demanded a special dinner in your rooms and hasn’t let a drop of wine touch his lips.”
Warily, I ask, “How do you know this? Do you have spies in his chambers?”
Tala shrugs with insolent mirth. “If I reveal my sources you’ll think I’m easily replaced.”
“What if I paid you to tell me?”
She grins. “Never haggle with a Berber, Queen Selene. You cannot win.”
Tala is typical of my adopted people. Proud and resilient with a fierce sense of self. I’ve chosen to live amongst the Berbers and rule as their queen. I’ve chosen, I remind myself, to forsake my mother’s throne in Egypt and make my life here with a man who is my husband but, in many ways, still a stranger to me.
In making myself ready for him, I allow the servants to pluck every hair on my body below my eyebrows. I linger in a bath of honey and almond milk. Then the slaves dry me with warm towels. They massage lavender oil into the muscles of my arms and legs until I am so limp and lazy that I quietly acquiesce to the painting of Berber patterns on my nude flesh.
I allow this because I try to adopt the native customs of my kingdom whenever practicable. In this case the custom suits me, because Berber brides go to their husbands tattooed. As my husband is nominally a Berber, I hope it will please him.
While the henna sets, Tala urges me to play a game of Senet with her. I race my ivory cones against her ebony wheels until I emerge victorious, a thing from which I take great satisfaction because it is not in Tala’s character to let me win. When it is finally time to scrape the dried henna from my body, she reassures me, “The color will change in time. The tattoo will deepen, just like the love between a husband and wife.”
At this, I scowl. For though I’m the daughter of two famous lovers, I did not marry for love. By the traditions of my family, I would have married my brother Caesarion, the King of Egypt. When the Romans murdered him and conquered Egypt, I should have wed my twin brother. But when I came of age, the emperor wanted me for himself.
In Juba, the emperor found a man who was willing to pose as my husband. It was only as the spoils of war that I was given to this Berber king as a reward for his loyalty. In truth, I have many reasons to despise him–and not only because of our chaste wedding night and his willingness to surrender me into the emperor’s bed. I am acutely aware that my husband has, in his own way, been partly responsible for every tragedy that has befallen my family and me.
And yet, my resentment is tempered by the knowledge that I have betrayed him, too. Tonight we must forget these betrayals, so I want to be done with these endless preparations for an act that has been more than five years in the waiting. “Let us not speak of the love between a husband and a wife, Tala. There’s no need to fill my head with romantic notions. I’m no fearful virgin.”
“Then why are you sweating like one?”
Never cowed by my imperious nature, she speaks the truth. In spite of the coolness of the autumnal evening, my nape is damp. Fortunately, I’m not compelled to answer because we’re interrupted by the king’s slaves who beg admittance to deliver trays of food for our supper.
Tala makes them wait as she finishes dresses me. A touch of red ochre to my lips and I am left to recline upon cushions on the floor where I will receive the king. Meanwhile, my husband stands awkwardly in the doorway with his slaves and our dinner.
King Juba is ten years my senior and the years sit well on him. He’s a man with a head of thick dark hair and high cheekbones. I have always liked the look of him and I see that tonight he’s resplendent in a purple tunic, embroidered with pearls.
Perhaps my duty will not be so unpleasant.
When we’re alone, the king takes his place on cushions beside the low table. A flicker of lamplight shadows his eyes, so I cannot read his expression. I offer him first choice from the plate of lamb shank braised with quince and cinnamon, saying, “I hope I didn’t make you wait so long that it’s turned cold.”
Juba cocks an eyebrow. “Do you refer to our meal or to your bed?”
I smile at his cutting joke, for it reminds me that the king can be witty. Tearing a piece of warm bread from the loaf, I use it to scoop a little of the meat. The aromatic dish is delicious and I am grateful that he’s arranged for this private meal as I’m uncertain I could bear with any dignity the ribald jests of our courtiers who take an interest in our long-awaited reunion. It is already difficult enough to woo and be wooed without the eyes of others upon us.
“Will you have wine?” I ask.
The king shakes his head. “I had enough when we were apart.”
It is, I think, his apology for the way I found him when I returned to Mauretania. He was still abed, drunk to the point of illness. Nevertheless, I now fill his goblet near to overflowing, saying, “It is my opinion that tonight we should drink to excess. My parents formed the Society of Inimitable Livers…we should see whether or not it’s possible to imitate them after all.”
“As I remember it, the girl I married wasn’t overly fond of wine or frivolity.”
The girl he married was a fourteen-year-old captive too consumed with the fear of death to take pleasure in life. He has only known me as the emperor’s caged bird, a prisoner of Rome and of my own ambition. All that has changed. It must change. I gulp from my own cup then say, “I’m a woman of twenty years now. The girl you married is no more.”
He leans back, eyeing me carefully. “So I’m married to a stranger.”
“Aren’t we all?”
Juba gestures like an athlete in the arena who has been felled by a well-dealt blow. Then he lifts his goblet. We toast in honor of something we do not name. We drink to fill the silence. My husband is a learned man who knows well how to pass the time in banter, but the weight of what we’re about to do consumes our feeble attempts at light-hearted conversation. “Will you tell me what happened?” he finally asks, when the wine has loosened his tongue. “Tell me why the emperor has sent you back to me.”
Since I was a little girl, marched through the streets of Rome in chains behind a statue of my dead mother, I have been the emperor’s possession and obsession. Juba has always known it. What my husband wants to know now is why the emperor finally released me. And I don’t want to tell him. There are things that I cannot tell him. Things too painful to remember. Things he would never understand or believe. “Let it be enough to know that I’m done with Rome and Augustus too.”
Juba snorts. “Augustus could turn our kingdom into a Roman province with a snap of his fingers. He’s our patron, Selene.”
I do not need reminding. Everything my husband has ever done has been precisely calculated to please the emperor and I hate this about him. It is also what I hate about myself, for I have done the same. The memory makes me drain my cup, then pour more. Wine will make this night easier.
Come, Dionysus, and dull my senses.
“We owe Caesar our fealty,” Juba continues, as if trying to talk himself out of touching me.
Perhaps he feels as if he needs his master’s permission, which makes me insist, “We owe him nothing more than fealty. If he wishes, let him declare an end to the Roman Republic. Let him call himself King of Rome, the King of Kings. Let him rule the world from the Palatine Hill and settle the squabbles of all his client kingdoms. We can keep ourselves apart, here in Mauretania and reign in peace.”
Juba considers my words, staring at the rim of his cup. “It will be no simple thing. You’re a Ptolemy, born to intrigue, drawn to the center of political power like a moth to flame…”
It irritates me that he uses my legacy as an accusation, when it is my prestigious bloodline that helped secure his throne. “You’re the one who longs to return to Rome, not me.”
I think he might deny it, but he wipes the corners of his mouth with a napkin and says, “I dreamed all my life of returning to Africa as a king, never realizing that it would be an honorable sort of exile. I pine for Rome because that is the only home I have ever known. But this is our kingdom now and this must become a home for us both.”
His stark honesty softens me. He must sense it, for he offers me a hand and helps me to rise. My sweat-slicked palm slides through his grip and my cheeks flush. I’ve spent a lifetime masking my emotions, mastering my body down to the slightest tremble so as not to quail from the emperor’s touch. But I cannot seem to cool my blood, which now runs hot with anticipation.
There can be no going back from this.
Juba seems as anxious about the long-overdue consummation of our marriage as I am, and his voice becomes a hoarse whisper. “It doesn’t have to be tonight.”
He’s wrong. It must be tonight, before the emperor thinks better of having let me go. It must be tonight before I am again summoned to Rome to play another deadly political game. It must be tonight, before either of us loses our courage. So I tilt my face to him in invitation, sweeping my eyelashes low in the way I have learned excites a man. It has the desired effect. As if resolving an argument inside himself, Juba says, “Cleopatra’s daughter, you are lovely.” Then he catches sight of the pale henna designs on my hands and frowns. “But why must you come to me painted?”
Because I can never let you see me unmasked.
The henna is set. He cannot wipe the intricate designs away the way he wiped my face clean of paint the night we were wed. These tattoos are, for a time, an indelible part of me. A barrier that he cannot breach. The only defense I have.
“Tala said this ornamentation is for Berber brides.”
“But you are no maiden bride,” he replies, as if to shame me for having attracted the emperor’s lust. “These patterns only remind me I am not your first lover.”
It would be easy to let my temper boil with offense, but I am guiltier than he knows. I carry a secret love for a man whose name I cannot say, so my tart reply is without real venom. “Yet, I need no henna to remind me that your bejeweled hetaera still graces our court, well-rewarded for having prostituted herself to you. She cannot be the only one…”
My husband takes in a breath as if in preparation for a bitter rejoinder, but then chuckles. “Only you would think that one thing had anything to do with the other. A wife has a duty of marital fidelity; a man may take pleasure where he likes.”
It’s pointless to argue, for, in truth, I don’t much care where my husband takes pleasure. I know what it is to feel the true stab of jealousy, one that bleeds your soul. I have drowned in misery and longing for the man I love. Juba is not that man. Nor is the emperor that man. That man, my true king, the other half of my soul, may be forever lost to me. And because I must swallow that bitter draught down with all the rest of it, I ask, “Must we speak of duty and dishonor?”
My husband brushes an errant strand of hair from my eyes. “I would have this night be about neither.”
This night is about freedom. Perhaps, if I am honest with myself, curiosity, too. I enjoy the way my husband looks at me now, heavy-lidded with years of unfulfilled desire. He is well in his cups and I must be too, for I speak with brazenness. “Do the tattoos trouble you so much, or will we make a son tonight?”
Experience has taught me that the desire for a son, an heir, and a legacy that reaches beyond the tomb can be a potent aphrodisiac. My husband is not immune. His pupils widen, the flickering lamplight reflected in their dark depths and he draws me closer, his nose buried in my hair, inhaling the lavender perfume with pleasure. With vague amusement he murmurs, “It may take more than just one night…”
But that is more than I am willing to promise. “No. I need only open myself and invite my goddess into my body to make it come to pass. For I am a vessel of Isis and these things are in my gift.”
Then I kiss him, lest he say anything to change my mind.