In this short excerpt from Chapter Eight, 11-year-old Kleopatra and her bodyguard and companion, the teenage Libyan girl Mohama, sneak out of the palace in disguise to have an adventure, but encounter more than they bargained for.
Two girls, one tall and the color of polished mahogany and the other, small and peanut brown, stared at their reflections in the mirror. They had chosen the djellaba, the loose, drab dress of the Egyptian peasant, as their disguise of the day, and had selected the most unattractive ones that Kleopatra had hidden in her trunk. Kleopatra grimaced. With her androgynous child’s body, she looked like a common camel boy, whereas Mohama looked like an African goddess. With an envy that was not entirely chaste, she had stared at Mohama’s jutting, brown breasts before they were covered by the djellaba, wondering if her own little chest would ever own such imposing twins.
Mohama tied colorful scarves around their heads in the style of the desert people, and replaced Kleopatra’s fine leather shoes with the thatched, reedy sandals worn by the palace workers. She lifted up Kleopatra’s skirt and strapped a sheathed dagger onto her thin, childish thigh. She armed herself with two weapons, one tucked inside an underarm sling for easy reach, and the other, in a sheath buckled to her more well-developed and muscled loin.
Leaving Sekkie as a sleeping decoy in Kleopatra’s bed, they scampered down the servants’ stairs in the rear of the palace and into the great kitchens, ducking under hanging fowl and small game, past the rows of men still washing the breakfast plate of the royals and their guests, and skipping through the grain pantry where they stopped to collect baskets for shopping. With Mohama leading the way and Kleopatra assuming the mien of her humble assistant, they were soon out the back door, where workers unloaded produce-cars that delivered fresh foods daily to the palace. They quickened their pace, not daring to look back at the indifferent pair of guards from the Macedonian Household Troops who stood at the loading dock doors.
“Mohama!” one called out with grave authority. The princess’ feet stopped in middle step.
“Wait here,” Mohama said. She sauntered back to the dock to talk to the man, a husky Graeco-Egyptian with a dark mustache. Mohama cocked her head and smiled at the guard, with her hand placed firmly on her right hip. The princess was not accustomed to seeing her slave act coy with men, though Mohama seemed very practiced at this art. After a brief exchange, ending with a loud laugh from the guard, Mohama skipped back to the princess.
“Does he know who I am?” asked Kleopatra.
“Of course not. His name is Demonsthenes. He thinks you are my little cousin. He will believe whatever I say.”
“Why is that? Are you so clever?”
“He believes whatever I say because he wants to,” she answered cryptically.
They had no agenda for the day, only the desire to escape the court on a day of perfect weather in a city known throughout the world for its welcoming climate. Swollen clouds dappled the blue sky, moving with the sea breezes over the late morning warmth. The smell of jasmine struck their senses as they skipped along the Canopic Way. Free of everything, even her own identity, Kleopatra pranced alongside Mohama’s long gait, dodging the loping Egyptian women balancing huge earthen jugs of fresh drinking water on their heads.
Swinging their baskets through the Gate of the Sun they raced through the south-east corner of the Jewish Quarter to the foot-bridge that crossed the canal and into the more fashionable section of town where Greek aristocrats kept large, white Mediterranean houses built in the style of their homeland.
On the Boulevard of Herakles, a crowd of perhaps one hundred men peppered with a few women gathered in front of one of the larger mansions. Dressed in traditional Egyptian clothing, they moved about like a hive of nervous white-cloaked bees. Some faced the front courtyard, yelling angry words at the closed gates, while others gathered in small groups, talking excitedly among themselves. The horses and carriages and camels that had carried them into the Greek Quarter lined the street.
“Perhaps someone has died!” exclaimed the princess, quickening her pace, trying to ascertain the words chanted by the crowd. As they moved closer, she heard a man yell, “Show yourself to us, you coward!”
“They are calling someone inside the house,” she whispered to Mohama, who did not speak the language of the country that held her captive.
“Murderer! You must answer to the people!” shouted a young man shouted in belligerent but very correct Greek. His dress was of a fine quality linen belted with an embroidered sash. His sandals were leather. His face was recently shaven and his skin, oiled and smooth — signs that he had just visited that ancient practitioner of cosmetic arts, the barber. His skin shone in the moist heat of the noon sun. He smelled of high quality myrrh. Kleopatra recognized him as the son of Melcheir, the Exegete in charge of public services in the city. An educated Egyptian with command of the Greek tongue. Not the usual sort of person who attended a demonstration.
“This one next to us is the son of the City Exegete, Melcheir. He must be here on his father’s business.”
“There is no official business here. Let us go quickly,” said Mohama. It was the first time Kleopatra had seen her afraid.
“No, let us investigate,” the princess countered. “Perhaps we will take information to my father that is valuable and we shall be rewarded.”
“If your father finds that we have been in the streets, you will be locked in your room and I will be dead. You know his rules. We must only go to the stables.”
“I will protect you,” the princess said with authority.
“Celsius. Celsius. Come out, Roman pig.” The men shouted the name again and again, the pitch of their demand escalating. “Show yourself, Roman fiend!” an old brown woman said.
“What is the trouble here, sir?” the princess asked the son of Melcheir. She used the native tongue to enhance her disguise.
“You have no business here, girl. Go on.”
“Sir, I recognize you for the son of Melcheir. My grandmother, Selinke, was your father’s wet nurse,” she invented, hoping the man would not deign to know the name of his father’s nurse.
The man sneered at the princess. “If you must know, granddaughter of a suckling cow, the Roman intruder who lives inside these gates and feeds his obesity on revenue earned from the bent backs of Egyptian workers, yesterday murdered an innocent household cat. We are here to make him answer for his crime.” The cat, the man explained, was a princely blue hair from the northern regions above Persia, and a favorite of the Roman’s Egyptian cook, who put out a special piece of fish every morning for the animal. “Yesterday, the cook was sick and the creature was summarily deprived of his sustenance. He made his way to the dining room crying for his meal. The fat man was hung over from his endless debauchery, and like all Romans, cruel. He threw the creature against a wall and killed it.” He returned his attention to the demonstration while Kleopatra translated the story for the incredulous Mohama, who hailed from a land where a cat was not a sacred animal but a nuisance.
A small militia of Egyptians rode towards the assembly at a speed too dangerously fast for a city street, the drumbeat of the horses hooves heralding their arrival. An outlaw army, thought Kleopatra, one forbidden by the king’s orders to gather. She had heard of such ragtag bands—groups of men of vacillating allegiances that organized somewhere out in desert regions or in suburban demes. Men who could be bought for any cause that had the funds to pay for their strong-arm services. What were they doing here in the elite Greek section of the city? How had they managed to pass through the king’s men at the Gate of the Moon on the south side of town? Had the city tribes begun to organize private militias against the king?
The horses kicked up the dry dust of the street, and Kleopatra took off her kerchief to cover her nose, letting her long brown hair loose like a woman in mourning. The men wore clean white uniforms that could not have endured a gritty morning’s ride from the regions outside the city. These were Alexandrians. Egyptian men, heavily armed and riding unrestrained through the Greek Quarter. Bandits, soldiers, who knew?
Mohama grabbed the princess so hard that her arm would have the red, swollen memory of fingers for days to come. “We are getting out of here.”
“I can take care of myself,” said Kleopatra, jerking her arm free. “If you are scared, you go.”
The crowd of protesters parted making a path for the cavalry. The captain of the militia rode to the gate of the house, reared his horse, and brought the animal’s hooves down directly on the wooden barrier, almost jostling it free. “We are not playing with you, Roman. Open your gates and answer to the people of Egypt.”
The captain forced his animal again to rear against the gate, this time, cracking the wood. Kleopatra felt an invincible pressure from behind thrust her into motion as the crowd, oblivious to the jagged edges, stormed the gate and crashed into the courtyard. Kleopatra looked right and left for Mohama, but the slave was not in sight. Helpless, she let herself be carried along with the mass to avoid being trampled by the men and the horses that held up the rear of the mob.
The crowd was momentarily lost for their next action. Everyone froze in an eerie moment of quiet, looking about for direction after this first victory. Suddenly, three Egyptian house servants pushed the Roman Celsius into the courtyard, surrendering him like an offering at the feet of the captain of the militia.
He reminded her of her father. Dark, obese, hairy eyebrows quivering together in fear. Fat arms his only shields against the protesters.
“Get up, Roman.” The son of Melcheir spoke to the prostrate man in his punctilious Greek.
The Roman tried to speak, but nothing emanated from his open mouth. His face was drenched with sweat, his thick flesh quivering, his breathing belabored, his throat muscles in wild spasms.
“Go through his house,” Melcheir ordered, ignoring the frightened man. “Take what you will of the riches the king stole from the people to give to this menace.”
The men and women, some on horseback, took flight into the house. Kleopatra did not move, her eyes riveted to Celsius. The Roman tried once again to speak, but appeared to have a sudden agony in his chest. He collapsed over his belly, clutching his heart.
“Get up, I say,” the son of Melcheir said in a chilling voice, kicking the Roman in the back.
The thud of the man’s foot against the Roman’s soft flesh scared the princess. She was torn between a desire to defend her father’s guest and desperation to keep her identity a secret. She was powerless against such a crowd. Her father would pay the price if the Roman was harmed, but what could she do? Announce to this mob that she was the daughter of the king?
Afraid to witness the Roman’s fate, Kleopatra followed the ravaging crowd into the interior of the house. She heard the crashing of plate and glass and the shriek of household servants, some who tried to hide under tables and some who joined the fray. A fat-faced man had a young serving girl pinned to the floor, tearing open the front of her dress and laughing at her nakedness. The princess reached under her long djellaba and felt the hilt of her knife. She wished with all her heart to drive the deadly steel into the back of the bully. But the man allowed himself to be distracted by the sight of one of his comrades making off with a bronze statue of the cow goddess, Hathor, and ran to catch up with him.
Some of the mob had stormed the kitchen and were throwing great jars of grain over the furnishings in the main hall. An old man urinated into a large urn painted with scenes from Egyptian myths, laughing as the yellow arc hit its mark. A militia man and a kitchen maid copulated on the Roman’s couch. The woman’s legs shot straight into the air while the man moved furiously on top of her. The woman seemed in a trance, making animal noises, oblivious to the girl who searched her expression for a clue as to how the rabid assault caused such frenzied delight.
An arm went tightly around her waist, holding her intently. Mohama’s voice whispered in her ear, “There will be time for that later. Let us get out of here.”
Gripping Kleopatra’s hand, Mohama led her back into the courtyard, where a group of men had hoisted the Roman high above their heads and were tossing his weight about from one to the other like boys with a bouncing ball.
“Take him to the king!” shouted the captain. “Let us show Nothos the Bastard what we think of his Roman friends!”
The men ran out of the courtyard, bouncing the Roman up and down, his arms jerking away from his body like a puppet whose master has lost control. His eyes rolled about in his head. He made no sound. When the men tried all at once to force their way through the gate, the body hit the top of the arch and fell behind onto the ground with a sickening thump. The captain stopped his horse where the Roman lay. He did not move. One of the men leaned down and picked him up by his shoulders. Still his expression did not change, his eyes open but lifeless.
“He is dead.”
“Dead? Do the mighty Romans die so easily? Does fear kill a Roman?”
No one answered the rhetorical questions asked by the son of Melcheir. The princess stared at the corpse, still holding the dry, cool hand of Mohama.
“Throw him inside and make the king’s gifts his funeral pyre. Let us take our grievances to the palace.”
Mohama pulled Kleopatra out of the path of the pall-bearers and out of the gate as the captain and his militia rode away with the mob trailing behind, some on foot, some on horse, a few on scraggly camels, some in the servant-driven carriages that had delivered them to the protest.
“They are going to the palace,” Kleopatra said as Mohama dragged her down the street.
“Yes, and so must we. We must get back inside before the trouble starts. Now come.” Mohama took her arm and tried to overcome her resistance, but Kleopatra was not resisting. She could not move. She gagged on the limestone dust kicked up by the horses, her chest wracking with cough as she tried to protect herself from the grimy stuff with the hem of her garment. A horrible acrid smell rose to her nose, pushing the contents of her stomach into her throat. She realized that she’d stepped in a mound of horse manure left behind by one of the militia’s mounts. She cursed, kicking the ruined sandal from her foot. Mohama jumped aside as to not become the target of the shit-soaked slipper.
“Come on. You must run, shoes or no. This is no time to act pampered.”
When they had gained a safe distance from the house, Kleopatra looked back and saw flames shoot from the interior of the courtyard like the arrows of the war god into the sky.