Authors: Vicky Alvear Shecter
Tags: #Historical, #Young Adult, #Romance
I stared, not knowing how to react to this strange admission.
“A curious, restless mind is good in a ruler,” she continued. “Perhaps not very conducive to sleep, true, but it does give you the ability to explore angles others have not yet considered.”
I sat on a cushion opposite Mother, and Hekate sauntered onto my lap. I touched the little cat’s emerald-encrusted collar in embarrassed delight. Mother claimed I was like her! Nothing could have made me prouder. Mother was famous for her quick mind and audacious risk-taking. When her rivals for the Egyptian throne exiled her, she raised an army on foreign land. She escaped assassination by hiding in a rug to align herself with Caesarion’s tata, Julius Caesar. And she had, with expert negotiations, regained many of Egypt’s lost provinces at a time when Rome took land rather than returned it.
“So tell me,” Mother said, snapping me out of my reverie. “What troubled you about the rabbi’s stories?”
“Why do men blame everything on women?” I blurted.
Mother’s eyebrows rose and she leaned forward. “Do they?”
“Yes! In the rabbi’s religion, they blame a woman for a mistake the
man made too. And … and look how we Greeks blame Pandora for all the ills of the world. And Iotape said that in her faith, the good god created man while the evil god created woman —”
“And what is Isis blamed for?” Mother interrupted.
My mouth hung open as I thought through all of the stories I had ever read or heard about the Great Goddess. I paused. “She … she is not ‘blamed’ for anything. She is honored for resurrecting her husband, Osiris, outwitting the Evil One, and protecting her son Horus so that he could rule Egypt, thus restoring order.”
Mother leaned back and smiled. She looked so satisfied I almost expected to hear her purr as loudly as Hekate on my lap. I smiled back, not quite sure why this answer pleased her so much.
“Now you see why Isis is my patron Goddess,” Mother said. “And why you must align yourself with the Great Goddess too.” She unfastened a chain around her neck and lifted the amulet I had often seen hanging between her breasts. She held it toward me. “The Queen of Heaven, the Lady of the Words of Power, is whom you must follow, not any of the lesser goddesses or gods. For you see, Isis alone is honored as not only an equal to her husband, but the one responsible for his resurrection. She is the true power of Egypt. One day you will become initiated into her Mysteries — as I was — and the Goddess herself will show you how you must live.”
The golden amulet, bearing the sacred Knot of Isis, glimmered in the light as it swung from Mother’s fingers. “Come, take it,” she directed me. “It is even more powerful than the emerald I know you never cared for,” she added with a rueful smile.
I scrambled to my feet, upending the cat. Hekate made a sound of irritation at the indignity. “I am sorry, Daughter of Bastet,” I murmured out of habit. I turned my back and lifted my hair while Mother fastened the golden chain around my neck. The amulet felt warm from Mother’s skin as it hung down almost to my waist. My throat tightened with a strange thrill, as if I had passed some sort of secret test. Mother turned me to face her.
“You are a true Daughter of Isis.” Mother closed her eyes and murmured a sacred prayer in the ancient words of Old Egypt — a language I would learn upon my initiation into womanhood. I closed my eyes too, feeling the power of her words pulsating in the air between us.
I will follow you, Mother, as I will follow Isis, unto my death
, I swore to her then.
May I live as you live, may I rule as you rule, may I die as you die
Sing O goddess, sing of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus —
that murderous anger which condemned Achaeans
to countless agonies and threw many warrior souls
deep into Hades, leaving their dead bodies
carrion for dogs and birds —
all in fulfillment of the will of Zeus
“Good,” Euphronius said, raising a hand to stop my recitation. “But before we move any further, let us discuss this murderous rage of Achilles.”
I groaned inwardly and sat back down on my short stool. We had gone through the entire
a number of times and were now starting again, this time reciting from memory. I hated it when Euphronius interrupted us to parse out every little line. I preferred it when we just focused on the
, the fighting, the great moments of sacrifice, bravery, and passion.
We sat in a small shaded garden outside the reading rooms of the Great Library. I stared up, squinting into the brilliant blue of the sky as waving palm fronds skewered fluffy white clouds. The intermittent calls of shipmen and merchants drifted in from the Royal Harbor.
“Now,” Euphronius continued, popping me out of my reverie, “how can Achilles’ great rage be the fulfillment of the will of Zeus?”
“Because everything that happens, even bad things,
be the will of the gods, otherwise they would not happen,” Alexandros said after our tutor called on him.
“Yes, but is there anything people can
when the gods have turned on them so viciously?” he pressed.
“No, there is no escaping the fates the gods have set for us,” I said, even though Euphronius had looked at one of the other children who
accompanied us in our lessons, sons and daughters of the most noble families of Alexandria. I responded out of turn because I was still mulling over what the old rabbi had said about “free will.” He was wrong. Fate set our futures.
Euphronius turned to me. “And what happens when humans try to escape their fates? Someone
, this time, please,” he added.
“They either end up dead like Achilles or blind like Oedipus,” said Euginia, my sometimes partner in
“Yes. Now let us look a little closer at what we really mean by
,” Euphronius continued. But again my attention wandered. I looked over at Euginia, her black ringlets arranged prettily past her shoulders, cascading down her fine yellow linen tunic. How long did she have to sit still, I wondered, while her nurse used heated tongs to create those perfect curls? This detail of her appearance always fascinated me, for she did not seem to me a girl overly concerned with her looks. Especially since she played such a mean game of
Euginia must have felt me staring at her, for she looked at me and gave me a quick smile. I cut my eyes at Euphronius and made a face. Euginia looked down at the wax tablet on her lap, suppressing a grin.
“So, then, if punishment — great suffering and death — is the inevitable result of trying to escape one’s fate, why do men continually try?” Euphronius droned on. “What, then, should our role be in relationship to the gods?”
“Excuse me, revered teacher,” a voice said.
Euphronius’s white scholar’s robe whipped around him as he turned to face Mother’s lady, Iras.
“The queen calls for her daughter. You must come with me now,” she said, turning to me and inclining her head.
My heart soared with excitement, and I jumped up and raced toward her.
Alexandros rose too. Iras put a hand out. “I am sorry, young prince. The call is only for your sister.”
Alexandros looked at me, his face flickering surprise, hurt, and then anger in a matter of seconds. I shrugged at him, feeling guilty. I did not know why Mother was not including him.
“The queen instructed me to tell you that she would meet privately with you later, after the evening meal,” Iras said quickly.
Alexandros sat back down on his low stool, his back very straight, the tips of his ears red. I turned toward the columned breezeway connecting the Library with the palace, but Iras spoke again, signaling me to pause.
“The queen has one more request,” she said. “She asks you to select a female companion.”
I blinked. Why on Horus’s wing would she want that?
“You may choose one from this group or call for another.”
When I did not respond, she looked at me, her painted eyebrows raised as if to say, “
.” I looked back at the girls who had joined us in lessons today. Not all of them came regularly. Except Euginia. She came more than most.
“Euginia,” I said quickly, and saw the faces of the other two girls fall.
Euginia smiled at me, rose, bowed to Euphronius, and walked behind me as we made our way to the palace.
Iras led us past the queen’s chambers, through short, twisting flights of stairs and small, unfamiliar hallways. When we stepped through what appeared to be a hidden doorway, I found myself almost blinded by the bright sun shining over an enormous rooftop garden.
It was as if we had entered another realm, a floating world of lush green framed by the brilliant aquamarine of the bay behind the palace. Jasmine, delphinium, and rose blooms cascaded over giant, elegantly painted pots. Fan-shaped papyrus plants danced in the sea breezes. Trees, heavy with fruit — yellow citron, bright red pomegranates, gray-green olives, and purple-brown figs — scented the air.
“Ahhh, daughter,” Mother said from under a small golden canopy.
“Welcome.” Her sheer, pearly blue robe sparkled in the sun like sea foam. A beautiful, long-haired Egyptian girl plucked the strings of a lyre nearby.
I bowed my head as I always did when greeting her in a formal setting, though this was anything but. Still, it seemed the right thing to do. Euginia bowed to the ground beside me.
“You may rise,” Mother said distractedly. She smiled, and I felt my middle expand with warmth. I had not seen Mother smile much since Octavianus declared war on her months before. She and Father and all her ministers seemed forever in meetings as they prepared for Octavianus’s attack.
“Euginia, daughter of Hypatos. Welcome,” she added.
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Euginia replied in a somewhat strangled whisper.
“An interesting choice,” Mother said to me.
I did not know what she meant, but I never liked to appear ill-informed around her, so I kept my face expressionless.
“The Lady Iras will escort you out,” Mother said to Euginia.
Euginia and I exchanged a look. I knew no more than she did. I was confused, but she seemed terrified.
After Euginia left, Mother said, “Come. Let us bathe.”
? She stood, and I followed her to a more secluded corner of the roof, a deck facing the sea, giving me an astonishing view of Pharos, our Great Lighthouse. Its white marble glinted in the bright sun as immense plumes of black smoke billowed from the fires that burned day and night at its summit. I had never seen our Lighthouse from this height, and the magnificence of its colossal, three-tiered architecture took my breath away. Next to it, the ships moving in and out of our Great Harbor looked like ants crawling past the leg of a giant.
I followed Lady Charmion and Mother toward a pool in the center of the terrace. Mosaics of the goddess of love emerging from the sea glimmered at its bottom. A canopy of white, gauzy linen shaded us from the worst of the sun.
Lady Charmion swept Mother’s robe off her shoulders as a servant rubbed Mother’s special scent — a heady mixture of lotus, rose, and other mysterious oils — into her shoulders and back. Another servant held a strigil to scrape off the excess oil.
“Your turn,” Lady Charmion said in my ear, and I jumped. In silence, she removed my tunic and had a young maid begin rubbing my skin with Mother’s oil. I breathed deep, drinking in her unique scent. The muted light streaming through the white canopy, the low female murmurs, and the soft music floating in from the adjacent garden gave the impression of being in a sacred sanctuary.
Mother stepped into the warm, scented water with a sigh. I twitched and fidgeted, wanting to join her. The sparkling water looked so inviting! When the cool metal of the strigil scraped my torso, I burst into a fit of furious giggles. I wriggled away from the woman’s ministrations and threw myself into the warm water.
“As impetuous as your father,” Mother said. “May the Goddess preserve us.”
“I am not!”
“And just as quick to anger too, I see,” she added.
“That’s not true … !” I began in an outraged tone, then realized I was only proving her right. So I lifted my chin and arched my left eyebrow. “I am more like you, Mother. I am a queen.”
This made both Mother and Charmion — who had joined us in the water — smile, to my great relief.
I swam toward a blue lotus that had been slapping against the sides of the pool. I turned to show it to Mother. But long, lean Charmion, her wavy dark hair covering her small breasts, was murmuring into her ear. Mother leaned back into her hands while her lady massaged her scalp. I stared at their easy intimacy, resenting how it excluded me.
I brought the bloom over anyway. Mother’s green-gold eyes sparkled as she accepted my gift. “Tell me, daughter,” she said, after sniffing the flower’s blue center, “why did you choose Euginia?”
I blinked, not knowing how to answer, not knowing what, in fact, I had selected her
“Choosing a lady should not be taken lightly,” Mother continued.
My jaw dropped, and I was glad to see that Mother’s eyes had closed again as Charmion’s nimble fingers worked over her scalp. I had chosen my “lady,” my consecrated companion for life? But the selection and ceremony was not to take place for another several years, when I passed from girlhood — and certainly not like this!
Charmion must have read my panic, for she murmured into Mother’s ear, “Sometimes, the attendant chooses the master. Is that not right?”
Mother laughed. “Yes. Well, however you came to that decision, you have made an excellent choice,” she continued. “She is one I would have chosen for you too.”
“Mother,” I ventured cautiously, “what does my choice mean?”
“To become your lady, Euginia will move into the palace and be educated alongside you. This great honor raises her family’s status. She will likely become your most trusted adviser and friend, someone who devotes her life to you in a sacred oath to the gods.”
“It is the process I went through,” Charmion added. “Though we started when the queen was a bit older than you are now.”
My mind raced with confusion. How was it that I had not been told I would be selecting my lady? Why was Mother breaking with protocol and having me do it years too early and with so little warning or preparation?
there someone else I would have chosen? I barely knew the other girls who floated in and out of our lessons and dinners. No. Euginia was as good as anyone else I could have selected.
“I have moved the selection process up because your father and I leave for Greece — where we will set up our war camp — in a matter of days,” Mother added, almost as an afterthought.
It took me a moment to understand what she was saying. “Wait. You are going
Father when he goes to war?”
Charmion’s hands froze and Mother sat up. With her hair smoothed back and her skin flushed from the warm scented water, she looked like a sleek and mysterious goddess of the sea. An angry one. “And why would I not?” she asked.
“Because … because you never went into war with Tata before. Because he is the general, not you.”
Mother’s face grew very still as her Horus stare pierced me. “Octavianus has declared war against me, daughter. It is my kingdom that pays for this war; it is my fleet that will protect the seas while your father attacks on land. And it is me that Octavianus wants to destroy so that he can plunder my beloved Egypt. Why should I
join him when there is so much at stake?”
“But … but you’re … you are not a warrior….”
“And if I were a king, would anybody question my presence at the general’s side? A good ruler protects her kingdom, no matter the cost.”
I nodded, my throat tightening. No matter the cost? Even if it meant her
? So many things could go wrong! Her ships could get lost in a storm. She could get a strange sickness and die. She could get run through with a sword!
Worse, I suddenly understood why Mother had pushed up the selection of my lady. She was tying up loose ends, making sure I had the right people around me should she not come back.
Mother must have seen the panic on my face, for she leaned toward me and stroked my cheek. “Do not worry, Little Moon. I have faced enemies far more dangerous than young Octavianus. We shall return victors. And sooner than you think.”