Pharaoh: Book Excerpt

Here is a brief excerpt from Pharaoh: Volume Two of Kleopatra, which chronicles the further adventures of the queen. The book begins with her meeting Julius Caesar, but this section takes place much later in her life, at a particularly tense and crucial time.

The queen stares at the phalanx of whores as if she is about to execute a normal rather than deplorable duty of state. Silent, tense, confused, they await her inspection and her command.

Charmion, the weary sergeant, the old war-horse long attached to an unpredictable commander-in-chief, has herded them to Kleopatra’s chambers in utter silence. A great feat of intimidation, the silencing of a gaggle of whores. But that is the way with Charmion, who executes every duty with a diligence unanimated by emotion of any kind. She retains an implacable expression even while carrying out the bizarre wishes of the sovereign to whom she has sworn her life. An aristocratic Greek born in Alexandria, Charmion is not tall, but casts the illusion of towering height. Her bearing shames the carriage of a queen, even of the queen she serves. Though she is fifty-one, her sallow skin is smooth. Three wrinkles, delicate as insects’ legs, trace from the corners of her brown-yellow eyes. Her mouth is full, a burnt color, like a river at sundown. Two tributaries, both southbound, run from her lip-locked smile, tiny signals of age, a result of the anxiety she suffers over the queen’s behavior.

Unlike the queen, Charmion dislikes all men. Wordlessly, she has endured Kleopatra’s relations with Antony with lugubrious countenance, as if she has suffered all these years from an intense constipation. Antony, charmer of maidens, actresses, farm girls and queens, never elicits a smile from the woman. In her youth, the queen heard, Charmion had bedded with other women, though she could never confirm the rumors. Of Caesar, and of the queen’s relations with him, however, she had approved, though her sanction was expressed only by absence of criticism.

Charmion has dressed the prostitutes herself, forcing Iras, the temperamental eunuch, Royal Hairdresser to the queen, to weave tiny jewels and trinkets of gold into their locks. For a prim woman, she possesses a talent for seductive costume. Knowing the Imperator’s inclinations, she has chosen many large-breasted girls. On the most obscenely endowed, she has encased their sumptuous glands in loosely woven gold mesh so that the nipples, rouged to an incarnadine red, appear trapped in an elegant prison, eager for release. “Antony shall enjoy that,” thinks the queen.

The courtesans regard their the monarch, wondering what kind of queen, what kind of woman, sends prostitutes to her husband, much less approves their comeliness before she allows them to go to him. The queen, nervous, reading their thoughts, attempts to cover her trepidation with characteristic chilling authority. She rises to scrutinize her troops who are wrapped not with the armor of war, but armed with the luxurious weaponry of seduction. Reddened lips, slightly parted. Little invitations. Nipples, crimson, erect, acute, almost like poinsettia blossoms, stark against white skin. Bare, nubile shoulders soft as dunes. Teasing one, an auburn tendril; grazing another, a crystal earring, sharp as a dagger, threatening to stab the perfect flesh. Luminous, kohl-rimmed eyes; vacant eyes, eyes without questions. Eyes that do not accuse, do not interrogate. Eyes that know how to lie. A naked belly and then another, larger, stronger, with a garnet chunk—or is that a ruby?—tucked in the naval. And of course, the prize—the female motherlode, coy, apparent, beneath transparent gauze. Some shaven, some not. Good work, Charmion, she thinks. Like all men, her husband craves variety.

A detail: long fingers, slender toes, adorned with rings, jewels. Excellent. Ah, but not this one. “She must leave,” the queen says sharply, not to the half-breed beauty before her with fat, choppy hands, but to Charmion, who waves the girl out of the room. Antony, connoisseur of the female form, dislikes “peasant digits.”

“Have we more?” she demands of her lady-in-waiting, knowing how thoroughly prepared she is for any situation, any disaster.

“Yes, Your Royal Grace. There are twelve alternates in the ante-chamber.

“Bring me a two thin girls. Boyish. Young, please. Two waif-faced pretties without inhibition, if you will.”

With a nod, Charmion leaves the room, returning with two twin girls of thirteen, draped in the simple robes of a Greek boy, with one small breast peeking from the fold. The androgynous creatures curtsy low, remaining on the ground until the queen passes them, rising only at the snap of Charmion’s fingers. Compliant in nature, schooled in ritual. That should please her husband. A fine mix.

“Yes, I believe we are complete now. Twelve in all.

“Ladies,” she says in her most imperious voice. They stand at attention, but only Sidonia, the voluptuous red-headed madam of the courtesans, meets her gaze. “Marcus Antonius, my husband, my lord, proconsul of Rome, commander of armies, Imperator, Master of the Horse under the late Julius Caesar, sits alone, inconsolable, gazing over the sea. He is despondent.

“I do not explain myself to the highest ministers in my government, much less to court prostitutes. But you, ladies, are the foot soldiers in my campaign. No longer are you mere vessels of pleasure, actresses in the erotic arts, receptacles of spilt semen. No, today you are elevated. Sacred is your cause, urgent your mission. At stake is the Fate of Egypt, and your Fate and my Fate. At stake is no less than the world.”

Now the whores stare at her in silence. For what queen makes an army of whores? Puts the Fate of her kingdom in the hands of a dispatch of painted strumpets?

“You must revive my husband. It is as simple as that.”

One of the girls, the one with the tough stomach and bejeweled naval, struggles to stifle a giggle, but Sidonia sees the stern raised eyebrow of Charmion arched in warning. She slaps the girl who laughed, and then bows apologetically to the queen. The girl crumples to the ground in tears. Sidonia kicks her with a sandaled foot and she is quiet, reduced to a choked dog whimper.

The queen is amused but remains nonplused—a countenance at which she excels, thanks to her apprenticeship with the late Julius Caesar. “Tonight, ladies, you serve one of the greatest men in history. His courage is legend. His conquests span the world. His loyalty, his heroism, unparalleled. But he sulks alone in his mansion by the sea. The mighty lion cringes and licks his wounds. He must rally. He must become a man again. And we know, ladies, don’t we, what makes a man, a man?”

Every whore smiles. For all their differences—she, queen of Egypt, they, courtesan slaves—they possess the same intuitive knowledge. What every woman knows. What every woman uses.

“I am aware that there is gossip. And I am aware of those who spread it. They will be dealt with. As for you, you are to let all those who visit your chambers know that your queen sailed into the harbor of Alexandria flying the flags of victory after the war in Greek waters. You are to say that the Imperator, my husband, is your most virile and demanding client, that you have heard with your own ears and seen with your own eyes, his plans for victory against Octavian, the fiend who has terrorized the Roman empire, and will terrorize the world if his ambitions are allowed to go unchecked. As you know, I do not allow soldiers to have their way with the court prostitutes, politically convenient as it would be at times. The Roman army, should it descend upon our city, does not follow the same rules. I encourage each of you to meditate on the Roman reputation for cruelty and degradation to conquered women and then imagine your Fates, ladies, in the event that the Imperator does not overcome his depressed condition and refuses to defend you against the Romans.

“Therefore, you shall succeed splendidly in rehabilitating the manhood of my husband and the you shall spread with conviction to every man, minister, artisan, soldier, alike, who enters your bed the news that the great Antony fights a war as he makes love—with vigor, with passion. That his prowess in the sport of war is excelled only by his prowess in the sport of love. Let the word spread to all corners of the city, and let it be heard by sailors who will take the tales to other ports. I know you have the power to convince. I requested not only the most beautiful of you for this mission, but the most intelligent. The most shrewd.

“As you are cunning, I shall make you a bargain. If you do your job well, you shall be rewarded. If you do your job to perfection, you shall be given your freedom after Octavian is defeated. If you fail and my husband remains in the Tower sulking like a baby, you shall be put into the fields to harvest the crops, or sent to the Nubian mines. Let me be plain: if you betray the throne, if you are heard uttering one word about the Imperator’s melancholia, if rumors of his ill-humor are traced back to you, if you do not follow my orders to the letter, you shall die.”

Smiles faded. To Charmion: “They may go.”


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