There was something about the air in Alexandria. It was said that the sea --- god, Poseidon, who lived near the Isle of the Pharos, blew a divine whisper over the town. Depending on his mood, he sent various sorts of weather. In the winter, the air might be arid and unforgiving, so dry that it left old men gasping for breath and wishing for the balmy ether of spring. In the summer, it hung over the city like a sea --- damp gum. Sometimes it was but a carrier of flies and dust, and sometimes the harsh winds of the African desert merely returned the sea --- god's breeze to its watery birthplace. But this morning, in spring disposition, the god murmured a smooth rhythm toward the jewel --- by --- the --- sea, teasing its way to the land, lifting the tender smell of honeysuckle from the vine, and filling the air with essences of lemon, camphor, and jasmine.
In the center of town, at the intersection of the Street of the Soma and the Canopic Way, sat the crystal coffin of the city's founder, Alexander the Great. The Macedonian king had lain in his final resting place more than two hundred years, his youthful mummy preserved against time so that all might pay tribute to his genius. Sometimes, the Egyptians would pull their sons away from the coffin of the great warrior, forbidding them to say the prayer of Alexander's cult taught in all schools, and scolding them for their allegiance to foreign blood. But the dead Greek had envisioned this paradise, outlining in chalk the symmetrical grid of streets. He had built the Heptastadion, the causeway that reached through the waters of the glimmering sea like a long, greedy tongue, separating the Great Harbor from the Harbor of Safe Return. Alexander's successors, the big --- nosed Greek Ptolemy and his children, had erected the Pharos Lighthouse, where the eternal flame burned in its upper tower like the scepter of a fire god, guiding ships safely into the low, rocky harbor. They built the great Library that housed all the world's knowledge, the columned promenades that lined the paved limestone streets and shaded the pedestrians, and the city's many theaters, where anyone --- Greek, Egyptian, Jew --- could see a comedy, a tragedy, or a special oration. All in Greek, to be sure, but every educated Egyptian spoke the language of the conqueror, though the favor was not returned.
The city was still a paradise, even if the once --- great Ptolemies had degenerated into a new species --- walrus --- size monsters as large as any creatures in the zoo, with appetites just as greedy. Sycophants who happily bled the Egyptian treasury to appease the new Masters of the World, the Romans. Every few years, it was necessary for the Egyptian mob to assassinate at least one Ptolemy, just to remind them that time brings down all races.
But on a day like today, where lovers nestled in shady groves of the Park of Pan, and stalky spring blooms jutted into a gaudy lapis sky; where falls of white bougainvillea toppled from balconies like rivers of milk, it was easy to forget that the House of Ptolemy was not what it used to be. Today, the god's sweet sigh brought everyone into the streets to enjoy the parks and promenades and open air bazaars. Today, everyone smiled as they inhaled the sea --- god's whisper. They did not care if it was Greek air, Egyptian air, African air, or Roman air. It had no national character. It simply filled their lungs and made them happy.
The Royal Family, whose ancestors had made the city great, saw none of this. The palace compound by the sea was a lone respite from the city's gaiety, its shutters closed tight against the delicious air and the extravagant day. Workers went about their chores in silence, heads bowed like fearful worshippers. A thick haze of incense hung about the ceilings of the cavernous rooms. All happiness had been shut out; the queen was ill, and the most famous physicians in the civilized world proclaimed that she would not get better.
Kleopatra watched from her vantage point on the floor as the shimmering doors opened and the king rushed the blind Armenian healer into her mother's bedchamber. The girl's eyes, sometimes brown but today green like baby peppercorns, widened as they met the milk --- white craters under the holy man's brow. With tattered garments hanging about him like feathers, he hobbled toward the child on what appeared to be two crooked sticks of kindling. Kleopatra leapt out of the way, barely escaping a swat in the head from his saddlebags. She climbed onto the divan where her sister, Berenike, and her half sister, Thea, sat locked in a silent embrace. Though neither moved, Kleopatra felt their flesh harden as she scampered to the end of the sofa and perched herself on its arm.
"Should the little princess be present?” the Chief Surgeon asked the nurse, acting as if the child could not understand what he said. "The situation is grave."
Kleopatra's mother, Queen Kleopatra V Tryphaena, sister and wife to the king, lay listless on the bed, gripped by a strange fever of the joints. Frantic to keep his post, the Chief Surgeon had recruited physicians of great renown from Athens and Rhodes. The queen had been sweated, bled, cooled with rags, massaged with aromatic oils, pumped with herbs, fed, starved, and prayed over, but the fever won every battle.
"The child is headstrong," whispered the nurse. "No one wishes to hear her incessant screaming when her will is challenged. She is a headache. She is three years old and she cannot speak even one sentence of passable Greek." They must have thought she could not hear as well. Kleopatra jutted her bottom teeth as she did whenever she was angry.
"She is very small for her age. Perhaps she is slow to learn," the physician pronounced, making Berenike laugh. The eight --- year --- old sneered at Kleopatra, who glared back. "Her presence is always disruptive. I shall take it up with the king."
The king --- fat, melancholy, and agonizing over his wife's mysterious illness --- paid no attention to the physician. "The child is exercising the royal will," the king replied, his glazed, bulbous eyes staring at nothing. "Let her remain. She is my small piece of joy."
Kleopatra glowered victoriously at her sister, who kicked at her with a strong brown leg. Thea hugged Berenike tighter, stroking her long coppery mane, settling her. The physician shrugged. Kleopatra's father, King Ptolemy XII Auletes, had already sent five doctors into exile. Others he simply abused for not curing his wife. If Kleopatra's presence amused him, then all the better. Perhaps no one would be slapped or dismissed or become the target of his verbal spew that day. He was a king famous for his volatile temper. His subjects called him Auletes the Flute Player or Nothos the Bastard, depending on their mood and mercurial allegiance to him. He preferred Auletes, of course, and adopted it as his nickname. Like his subjects' loyalty, his temper was notoriously changeable. But no one doubted that the king loved his sister --- wife. It was said that theirs was the first love match in the dynasty in two hundred years. The queen's illness only heightened his choleric disposition.
The tonsured priest praying over the queen raised his slick head, astonished to see that the blind healer was to be given access to the patient. With the attending physicians, he stood stationary, a human shield against the execrable creature.
"Move aside, fools," said the king, thrusting his capacious royal body through the cluster hovering about the queen's bed. "This man is here to compensate for your ineptitude."
"But Your Majesty," protested the priest. "What unholy presence might this conjurer evoke?"
"Strip this idiot of the priest's robe and send him to the mines," the king said calmly, almost lightly, to one of his bodyguards. The priest fell to his knees, his face on the floor, murmuring low incantations to the cold, deaf surface. Satisfied with the effect of his threat, the king winked at Kleopatra, whose glowing child eyes smiled back at her father's weary ones.
Kleopatra wanted the healer to hurry his magic. She longed to see the queen once again sit up, put on her makeup and shiny robes, and take her place beside the king in the Royal Reception Room where the three princesses were allowed to sit from time to time while their parents entertained visitors from faraway places. Though Kleopatra saw her mother only at these occasions, she was awed by her ethereal beauty and by the songs she played on the lyre. Fair and delicate, Tryphaena was not a real person like herself or her father or her sisters, but one of the Muses come down to earth to make them smile.
Out of the healer's saddlebags came small statues of naked deities: one headless, one with fearsome eyes and a hawk nose, one with a crooked phallus. Kleopatra strained to hear the unimaginable secrets he whispered to them as he removed them from the bag. From the bottom of his sorcerer's well he produced a thick cluster of herbs, weeds, leaves, and roots, bound together into a ratty tangle, and called for someone to light it with fire from one of the queen's oil lamps.
"Mithra, Baal --- Hadad, and Asherah who slew and resurrected him." The healer raised the torch, summoning the terrible gods of the east. Mithra, Mithra! Kleopatra prayed silently with him as he danced about the bed drawing circles in the air with his smoke stick. "Mother Astarte who creates and destroys. Kybele, goddess of all that is, was, and ever shall be," he invoked.
Suddenly he bent over as if in great pain, spewing guttural noises, thrashing in the air, warring with the unseen forces of the queen's illness. He carried on this way for what seemed to Kleopatra like a very long time. Then he raised his arms, ran to the bed, and passed out cold over the queen's delirious body. Kleopatra willed with all her might that the queen would open her eyes, but Tryphaena, lovely features bathed in the sweat of her fevers, did not flinch.
The king hung his great head as the servants carried the healer from the room. He called for his flute and began to play, offering a desolate melody to the gods in a final bargain to save his wife. Kleopatra wanted to be near him so she crawled to his feet, chasing with her fingers a bright green cricket. The king paused, and Kleopatra hoped he would pick her up. But she realized that he was waiting for the faint strings of the queen's song. They had played music together, he on the flute, she on the lyre, and often passed evenings in this pursuit. When his duet partner failed to move, he began to play once more.
One by one, the old women of the court, relatives whom Auletes sheltered in their dotage, came to keep vigil for the queen. With piteous eyes, they patted Kleopatra's hair, commenting on its lovely sable color, or kissed her forehead as they passed her. She knew that her father did not want the old ladies in the room. Auletes housed the dowagers in the family palace on the island of Antirhodos, so that they had to commit to a boat ride before they could interfere in his affairs. But they could not be kept from the chamber of the dying queen, where they burned herbs and incense and appealed in prayer to Isis, Mother of Creation, Mother of God. Four solemn --- faced red --- robed priestesses of the goddess came to inspire and anoint the ladies of prayer while the doctors applied compresses to the queen's hot brow and listened to her fevered murmuring.
"Lady of Compassion," cried the women in craggy aged voices.
"Lady of Healing. Lady who eases our suffering." As the queen's condition worsened, they made frightful appeals to the goddess's dark side, scaring the small princess, who clutched at her father's ankle with each rancorous invocation.
"Devourer of men."
"Goddess of the Slaughter."
"Destroyer of the souls of men."
"Destroy the Fates that conspire to seize the life of our queen and sister."
The Chief Surgeon wiped his hands on his apron. The king put down his instrument. Kleopatra stared at the sandaled feet of the two giants above her, wondering how toes got so big and skin so crusty.
"The queen's blood is poisoned by the high temperatures in her body," the Chief Surgeon said, more confident of his position since the foreigner's magic had failed.
The doctor's assistants walked solemnly from Tryphaena's bed carrying pots of contaminated rags, brown with sweat and dried blood. The surgeon motioned for them to show the contents to the king. Kleopatra got to her knees, sneaking a look at the putrid blood --- brown cloths. How could such ugliness come from her beautiful mother?
Trying to avoid the king's face, the Chief Surgeon looked to the ground, where he saw the little princess staring at his large feet. "I have bled her as much as I dare, Your Majesty. I cannot remove the fever. It is up to the gods now when and if we shall lose the queen."
The ladies fell into supplication. "O merciful Lady, Divine One, mightier than the eight gods of Hermopolis. Source of All Life. Source of All Healing. Do not take our queen Tryphaena." Despite their age, they beat their chests unmercifully, fists thumping hollow, sunken breasts.
Kleopatra waited for her father to dole out a punishment to the Chief Surgeon like he did the others. The doctor dropped to his knees and, with the impetuousness of a young lover, kissed Auletes' ringed hand. "Forgive me, Your Majesty, if I have failed you. I would happily pay for the queen's life with mine." Auletes did not respond.
The doctor seemed surprised that he had been sentenced neither to death nor to exile. He recovered his dignity with a nervous cough. "I must supervise the chemistry for the queen's sedatives. Her Majesty must be made comfortable on her journey to meet the gods." With a hasty prayer, the doctor excused himself.
Auletes remained standing, slumped, bewildered, unattended. Kleopatra picked up the cricket and offered it to her father. A sad giant, he shook his head and closed his eyes. Kleopatra settled between his feet, sheltering the cricket with her hands, thwarting its escape.
Fifteen --- year --- old Thea, the queen Tryphaena's daughter from her first marriage to a Syrian prince, held Berenike in her lap, her cat eyes darting from the little princess on the floor to the king. Kleopatra shuddered. Thea was the image of her mother, but a darker, shadow side. Her black hair fell extravagantly down the length of her back, for she did not yet bind it into the tight knot favored by adult women. Her white, even teeth were perfectly set against her burnished complexion. She had inherited the queen's aquiline nose and triangle --- shaped face, but her features were sharper and more acute than her mother's gentler angles. Her contrasts heightened her conspicuous beauty, whereas Tryphaena's softer attributes meshed into a timid gracefulness. Tryphaena, even when in perfect health, looked like an immortal creature merely visiting the harsh world of the living; Thea was clearly designed to live in the earthy, physical world. Though her time had not yet come, her body was developed and at odds with her childish clothes and undressed hair. Her young charms were bursting through the last vestiges of childhood, which she was ready to shed like a snake discards last season's skin.
Thea held Berenike tight, leaving Kleopatra to wonder what it felt like in that closed circle. "I will always take care of you, darling," she said into the child's ear. Thea's words were a song to Berenike, who adored her older half sister; her promises, a salve to Berenike's wounds.
"Now I will never know her," cried Berenike, who was precisely the age at which the queen should have begun to take an interest in her, though it was unlikely that this would ever have happened. Before she took ill, Tryphaena had spent her days playing music, reading books, and having earnest debates with the Sophists. Berenike liked to hunt small prey with her bow, wrestle with her pack of dogs, and chase the little slave brats through the courtyard with her sling.
Thea did not join in Berenike's activities, but was an enthusiastic audience for Berenike's feats, applauding any new progress she made with her weapons. Berenike dreamed of a day when she would be plucked from the nursery to have special audiences with her mother and show her how she could already hit the center of a target. But she had not had a conversation with her mother in more than two months, and her memory of the queen had already begun to dim.
Thea mouthed words of consolation, but she was not thinking about her mother or her stepsister. Thea pondered her own Fate. She was not the daughter of the king. She was not in line for the throne. Once her mother died, she would be sent to one of the outer palaces to live with the meddling old women who wailed in the queen's chamber, until someone in the king's service suggested a marriage to a house in a foreign land. Or until she was sent back to the court of her dead father in Syria, a country now occupied by Tigranes of Armenia, who was at war with the Romans. If the Romans won, which they always did, she might be thrown to one of them as a trinket, a small toy to quench their lusts. That was what she heard the brutal Romans demanded in victory, even from women of royal blood. No, there was nowhere for her to go.
To the astonishment of the ladies, Thea led the king from his post at the queen Tryphaena's bed. Undaunted by the disapproving stares of the wrinkled, fierce dowagers, she steered Auletes through their circle of worship and down the stairs to the level of the palace that housed his private quarters. She took him into his favorite room, the hunting room, and in a voice that she had never before heard come from her body, ordered his attendants to go away. They skittered to all corners of the palace to report what was happening.
Kleopatra sat alone on the floor, screaming words that she thought would make her father return. "Stop your gibberish," yelled Berenike. "No one knows what you are saying, you idiot." But Kleopatra could not stop, could not quiet the desire to bring her father back, to curl into his big firm belly. Berenike stood over her little sister, her long legs tall as smooth young trees. She crushed the cricket beneath her sandal, leaving Kleopatra to stare at the insect's smashed remains.
Thea sat the king down upon the wide, soft pallet of his kills. She said, "I am a woman now, Father. Let me take away your pain." She opened the front of her white chiton and let it slide off her shoulders. The king looked into the wide eyes, identical to those of her mother, his wife, and then to the pair of dark nipples that crowned his stepdaughter's breasts. So like the queen's, but somehow more tangible thanTryphaena's lovely mounds, somehow more conducive to a large pair of rapacious hands upon them. He pulled the trembling girl onto his lap and closed his eyes, letting the heat of her lips dissipate any thoughts that might invade this god --- sent moment of solace.
The next morning, the king ordered breakfast for two. Thea lay upon a mattress of animal skins --- lion, boar, leopard, bear, and softest of all, panther --- lost in the luxurious pile and thick musk smell enveloping her. The king had risen and gone to his bath. She imagined herself Aphrodite after she had lain upon a bearskin with the mortal Anchises in his herdsman's hut while bees circled their bodies, though it was thoughts that buzzed about Thea's head. The day before she had wondered in agony about the destiny the Fates had assigned to her; today she was the lover of the king.
The first time, when wordlessly he mounted her, she believed he would snuff the life out of her with the pressure of his august stomach spreading over her small body. In the morning, she took him by surprise, mounting him despite the burning soreness she felt and making vigorous love to him before he could do the same to her. It was a trick she had learned from her mother. One day she had heard the gentle Tryphaena whisper about the problem of Auletes' formidable size to her lady in attendance, whereupon the lady imparted her best advice to the queen. Before he wakes, take the king's member into your mouth and ensure its sturdiness. Then mount him quickly and he will submit to you in the upper position and not wish to roll you to the bottom. Like Thea, Tryphaena was petite and did not enjoy her time under the girth of the king.
What must the talk be upstairs? And why should it matter? She had ensured her good fortune. She had made herself useful, replacing her mother in the eyes of the king, causing him no inconvenience upon the death of his wife. She was certain her position at court was secured.
A council of crones, the meddlesome great --- aunts of the queen Tryphaena, awaited Thea in the late afternoon as she, disheveled, exited the hunting room. They demanded, in the fearless way of women past the years of femininity, what business Thea conducted with her mother's husband.
"I am comforting the king," she replied sanctimoniously, brushing them aside and walking haughtily down the hall.
"Performing a duty of state, dear?" one of the ladies said sarcastically as Thea passed.
"Is there blood on the king's sleeping skins, dear?" taunted another.
"She is ruined now. The daughter of KleopatraTryphaena, a king's whore."
"Her mother's husband's whore."
"The state's concubine. Send her to the courtesan quarters for costume."
"A disgrace. No one will have her now."
They waited forThea to turn to them, to answer their accusations, to seek their help for her folly. But she continued to ignore them and walk down the hall.
"Your mother is dead. She died one hour ago."
Still she walked on. The women stared at Thea's long black mane swaying saucily as the girl marched away from their derision, into her future. Deflated by her dismissal, they gingerly knocked on the door to deliver the news of the queen's death to the king.
"You must call me Mother now, Kleopatra," Thea announced to the small princess. The child watched as the Royal Seamstress slipped a deep blue gown over Berenike's head. Heavy with jewels, the garment fell over the girl, its gems against the plush fabric like shining stars on a clear winter night.
"My mother is dead," replied Kleopatra in very precise Greek. "She died five months ago. She is buried in the royal catacombs near the temple of Isis."
It was the morning of the wedding. The black robes of mourning for Tryphaena, worn a shockingly short time, were to be replaced by ceremonial gowns so rich they were considered part of the treasury. Locked away in the national costume dock, they had been retrieved, refurbished, and altered very quickly for the occasion.
Kleopatra was next to be fitted --- a prospect she did not like. The miniature gown of heavy linen embroidered with golden threads rested on the mannequin, looking weighty and dangerous.
"Dear little Kleopatra," said Thea, kneeling to the child's level, conjuring with great effort her most solicitous voice. "Do help your mother out on her wedding day and do as you are told."
"My mother is dead. I saw her body."
Berenike rolled her eyes. Thea widened her patient smile. The Royal Seamstress winced, but did not remove her eyes from the garment she pinned at Berenike's side.
"Our sister is our mother now," Berenike declared, admiring herself in the mirror. "It is very simple, Kleopatra. Thea is to marry our father. When I was small, Thea and I used to pretend that she was the mother and I was her baby. Our pretend game has now come true."
"The aunties say it's all wrong. They say mother hasn't been dead long enough for father to marry," Kleopatra said, parroting what had been said in vicious, hushed tones, knowing she was not supposed to repeat it. "They say that mother is cursing Thea for doing this."
"Do they?" shrieked Thea. "What do they know, those old hags? Are you going to listen to them, or to your mother?"
"You are our sister. Our mother is dead," Kleopatra insisted.
"I am going to put an arrow through you, Kleopatra, if you do not stop saying that," said Berenike, lifting the sleeve of her gown and showing Kleopatra the muscles in her upper arm. "And you know I can do it. I am an Amazon princess and you are just a little four --- year --- old girl."
Kleopatra glared at the taller girl. Berenike was one to be feared. She had read the ancient accounts of the Amazons' training practices with her tutor, Meleager, who indulged her fascination, as it was the only way he could persuade her to read Greek. Convinced that she was descended from these mighty warrior women, Berenike put herself through the same rigors --- shooting, riding, swordsmanship --- and now she was as lean and muscled as any of the palace boys she challenged to wrestling matches.
"I have taken our mother's name, Kleopatra," Thea said insistently. "Henceforth, I am Kleopatra VI Tryphaena and I am your mother."
"You are Thea," Kleopatra countered, though this time in the Syrian tongue, a language Thea had heard in her childhood, but which she had long ago forgotten.
"Don't you do that!" Thea ordered. "You will speak to me in Greek or you will be silent."
Pleased that she had frustrated Thea, Kleopatra let loose a stream of dialogue in Syrian, all insulting, all aimed at Thea's face.
"Shut up, shut up!" yelled Thea. "Why do you speak these foreign tongues? What is wrong with you?"
Kleopatra smiled innocently. She did not understand how she knew the dialects; they were like magical gifts bequeathed to her during her sleep. Regardless of the language, Kleopatra looked into the eyes of the speaker and understood the meaning of the words. She was three years and a half before she spoke at all, but by the time she was two months shy of her fourth birthday, she was able to mimic full sentences in Egyptian, Syrian, Ethiopian, Troglodyte, Numidian, and Arabic --- the languages of the international cast of slaves and attendants in the palace. She did not adopt the heavily accented Macedonian Greek of her family; rather, she imitated the more refined speech of the scholars who visited her father. Word of her linguistic gifts had spread throughout the city like an outbreak of typhoid, and she knew it, taking pleasure in the fact that her sisters, who had thought her dim, were now made to hear others speak of her with awe.
"You are jealous," said Kleopatra quietly. "Because I am special and you are not."
"How are you special, you odd creature?" Thea seethed through her small teeth.
"I am the first of the Ptolemies to speak the language of the Egyptian people. The first in almost three hundred years to speak anything but Greek. That's what the Egyptians say. That I am an oracle." She saw Thea's mounting anger so she added, "Anyone can speak Greek."
Kleopatra heard everything the Egyptian servants said about her. They interpreted this case of a child of the Greek tyrants speaking Egyptian in a number of ominous ways. Perhaps it was evidence of further Greek oppression; the Ptolemies were breeding a new race of rulers who would pose as Egyptian sympathizers and deceive the populace all the more. Or, more optimistically, Egypt had not fallen to the cultural influence of the Greeks, but the children of the tyrants had finally succumbed to the irresistible Egyptian ways. Kleopatra did not know which was correct, but she liked speaking a language her sisters did not understand.
"No one can stand you, you obstinate creature,"Thea said, utterly exasperated. "I wish you were slave --- born and could be beaten with a whip like you deserve."
"Where are my nurses?" cried Kleopatra, suddenly afraid that she had pushed Thea too far. "I want my nurses."
"They are waiting for you outside this room, and you will not be allowed to go to them until you do as I say. You have exhausted every nurse assigned to you, you strange and terrible child," said Thea.
"And such a pretty little girl," said the Royal Seamstress in a singsong voice that only made Kleopatra angrier. The seamstress turned to the dress Kleopatra was to wear and lifted it from the mannequin. Then she turned to Kleopatra. "Come here, my pretty princess. Come and try on the beautiful little gown."
"No," said the child, adamant.
"Do you see how she is?" complained Thea. "As soon as she is left with a governess, the sneaky thing runs away, or yells at them in the tongues of the demons. She is not even above biting. The nurses give thanks to the gods when they are relieved of the duty." At present, Kleopatra was in the care of a skinny, sullen Egyptian nurse and two West African female slaves, fleet of foot, who handled her with trepidation.
"You are nothing but bad luck," said Berenike. "I think it was you who cursed our mother with the fever that killed her."
"I did not," said Kleopatra defensively. "The Egyptians say that I am gifted by the gods and that I will rise into the sky and become a star." Kleopatra hoped this was not true. She did not want to be a placid object whose only job was to shine in the heavens.
"I wish you would hurry up and go!" said Thea.
"I will not. Because my father would miss me too much if I left." Even the governesses said that. "I am his favorite, you know."
She had heard other rumors, too:
She was a newborn goddess. She was the savior of the Egyptian people who would wear Pharaoh's crown and drive the Greeks out of the land.That one she did not like, for that meant that she would have to cast out her own father. But she would not stop speaking the different tongues, for Auletes himself said that her gifts were a blessing. My princess is touched by the gods, he would say, for the Lord Dionysus speaks to us in all tongues. That is true, Thea would reply. But surely the princess Kleopatra must be instructed to hold hers.
Now Thea put her clenched fists on her waist and faced Kleopatra in a showdown. "Today is my wedding day. I do not have time to play your games."
Thea called the two attendants into the room. "She must be fitted into her gown, even if she has to be held down." The two women exchanged worried looks.
The seamstress held the gown high above Kleopatra's head. "Come, Your Highness," came the voice from behind the dress.
"Come, Kleopatra," Thea said. "Please do as you are told."
The small princess saw the dress coming toward her as if a monster in a dream, a big garish thing waiting to swallow her whole. She raised her arms, but when the fabric fell over her body it felt as if it singed her skin. Believing that it would set her aflame, she tore the gown from her little body before the seamstress could fasten it. She kicked the seamstress hard on the shin, stepped on the bare toe of one of the slaves, spat at Thea, and darted from the room.
"Go!" yelled Thea, and the two slaves ran after her. Thea, Berenike, and the seamstress followed, Thea ordering the hall attendants to pick up the princess's trail, and Berenike, cursing, hampered by the heavy gown tightly basted to her frame.
The child ran through the corridor like a tiny fox chased by a pack of hounds, flying down the stairs, where those on her trail stumbled over themselves. Running straight to the sealed chambers of the queen Tryphaena, Kleopatra pounded her small fist on the door until her hand throbbed. A tall slave scooped her up in his arms, holding her gently until she gave up her ineffective blows and caught hold of the man's chest hairs, clutching as if to a favored blanket.
By Thea's orders, Kleopatra was sedated with a potent infusion of valerian root that stank like rancid vegetables. Groggy, she was laced into her gown while Berenike watched, wearing the face of victory. Kleopatra noted this but did nothing; before she was completely dressed, she was asleep. Hours later she was carried into the ceremony, where she could not participate as planned, but slept in the soft arms of a big slave woman who sat on the floor in the back of the hall. When she awakened the next day, her half sister was queen.
Excerpted from KLEOPATRA © Copyright 2011 by Karen Essex. Reprinted with permission by Warner Books, an imprint of Time Warner Bookmark. All rights reserved.