Excerpt from Song of the Nile
Autumn 25 b.c.
My wedding day dawned rosy as the blush on a maiden’s cheek. Like the sun peeking between pink clouds to warm the sprawling city of terra-cotta roofs below, I must also shine for Rome today. As morning broke, I surveyed the middling monuments that blanketed Rome’s seven hills. I gazed to the Tiber River beyond, diamonds of dawn sparkling on its surface, and tried to see this day with my mother’s eyes.
She was Cleopatra, Pharaoh of Egypt, a woman of limitless aspiration. And I was her only daughter. She’d wanted a royal marriage for me. She may have even hoped my wedding would be celebrated here in Rome. But could she have conceived that this wedding would come to me through her bitterest enemy? In her wildest dreams, could she have imagined that the man who drove her to suicide—the same man who captured her children and dragged us behind his Triumphator’s chariot—would now make me a queen?
Yes, I thought. She could have imagined it. Perhaps she had even planned it.
Worn around my neck, a jade frog amulet dangled from a golden chain. It was a gift from my mother, inscribed with the words I am the Resurrection. On my finger, I wore her notorious amethyst ring, with which she was said to have ensorcelled my father, Mark Antony. It was now my betrothal ring, and I hoped it would steady me, for I was a tempest inside.
At just fourteen years old, I had neither my mother’s audacity nor the brazen courage that allowed her to so famously smuggle herself past enemy soldiers to be rolled out at the feet of Julius Caesar. I had heka—magic—but had inherited none of my mother’s deeper knowledge of how to use it. I didn’t have her wardrobe, her gilded barges, nor the wealth of mighty Egypt. Not yet. But the Romans often said I had her charm and wits and the day she died, she gave me the spirit of her Egyptian soul.
Today I would need it.
It was early yet in the emperor’s household; only the servants were awake, bustling about the columned courtyard, trimming shrubbery and hanging oil lamps in preparation for the wedding festivities. They were too busy—or too wary of my reputation as a sorceress—to acknowledge my presence beneath an overripe fig tree, where my slave girl and I made my devotions to Isis. My Egyptian goddess was forbidden within the sacred walls of Rome, but no one stopped us from lighting candles and using a feather to trace the holy symbol, the ankh, into the soft earth. The Temples of Isis might be shuttered here in Rome, her altars destroyed and her voice silent, but my goddess dwelt in me and I vowed that she would speak again.
Once we’d offered our prayers, my slave girl and I strolled the gardens with a basket because it was the Roman custom for a bride to pick the flowers for her own wedding wreath. The summer had been ablaze, so hot that flowers lingered out of season. I had my choice in a veritable meadow. Stooping down, I plucked two budding roses to remind me of my dead brothers, Caesarion and Antyllus, both killed in the flower of their youth. I chose a flamboyant red poppy for my dead father, the Roman triumvir, who’d been known as much for his excesses as his military talent. Finally, for my mother, a purple iris because purple was the most royal color, and my mother had been the most royal woman in the world. The sight of a blazing golden flower, the most glorious in the garden, reminded me of my beloved twin. But Helios was only missing, not dead, and I refused to tempt fate by plucking that flower from its vine. Helios promised me that we’d never live to see this day; he swore he’d never let me be married off to one of the emperor’s cronies, but the day had come and Helios was gone.
A startled murmur of slaves made me turn and see a shadow pass between two pillars. It was the emperor. Augustus. The first time I ever saw him, he was a dark conquering god, a crimson-faced swirl of purple cloak and laurel leaf, ready to mount his golden chariot and bear me away as his chained prisoner. Today he wore only a broad-brimmed hat and a humble homespun tunic cut short enough to expose his knobby knees. But the smile he wore with it wasn’t humble. This morning—the morning of the day he’d give me away in marriage—Augustus looked supremely smug.
He was without his usual retinue of barbers, secretaries, and guards. Even so, the slaves, including my Chryssa, all dropped to their knees and genuflected. He stepped over their prone bodies as if he were one of the Eastern rulers he derided for tyranny, for he was the master here. He owned everything in this garden: the Greek statuary, the marble benches, the colorful flowers, and the slaves. For four years now, I’d been his royal hostage and he believed he owned me too.
One day soon, I meant to prove him wrong.
“Good morning, Caesar,” I said, sweeping dark hair from my eyes.
Understand that the emperor wasn’t an imposing man. His power was all in the snare of his ruthless winter gray eyes which now darkened with suspicion, as if he’d caught me trying to slip past his praetorians with their crested helmets and crimson capes. “What mischief are you up to, Cleopatra Selene?”
After all the opportunities I’d declined to run away from him, it was strange that he’d suspect me of it now. I wondered what accounted for his latest paranoia. “I’m only gathering flowers for my wedding wreath.”
I showed him my basket, and seemingly satisfied, he glanced over his shoulder through the open doors to where he received clients and other morning visitors. The tabulinum was now empty except for the clutter of scrolls, brass oil lamps, and busts of his ancestors, the Julii, each painted to create the most lifelike rendition. “Walk with me,” the emperor said, and I did, for no one refused him. “This morning I granted an audience to an ambassador from Judea, Selene. King Herod sends a last-minute wedding proposal. He wishes to take you as his junior wife.”
The mere mention of Herod’s name made my steps falter. The Judean king had been my mother’s rival and had long urged the Romans to exterminate my whole family. The news that he wished to make me, the last daughter of the pharaohs, a part of his harem, actually forced a gasp from my lungs. The proposal would have been more insulting if it were anything other than a pretext to kill me. Herod had already murdered his most beloved wife to make an end to her Hasmonean dynasty. He wouldn’t lose a moment’s sleep over my death. “Caesar, you cannot mean to give me to Herod. You swore to make me Queen of Mauretania!”
Augustus smiled. I think it pleased him to see me lose my footing, to see my confidence waver. “Trust in Caesar, Selene. You’re already promised to another and in such an important matter as your marriage, I wouldn’t cater to the whim of a Jew—even if he’s already proved his loyalty, and you haven’t. Yet.”
I breathed, realizing that he’d told me this only to frighten me. To remind me of his largesse. To make me gasp with fear and then relief. Though Augustus was more than twenty years my senior, no wicked boy plucking wings off insects loved cruel games as much as he did. He stopped beside a small sphinx he’d pilfered from Egypt to adorn his garden. “Be grateful, Selene. By the end of this evening, you’ll be the wife of a newly made king, and the wealthiest woman in the empire. Not even your mother could have asked for more.”
Of course, she did ask for more. Offering her crown and scepter to him in surrender, she’d asked that her children be allowed to rule Egypt after her. Then she took her own life. My mother’s suicide had been convenient for him in every way, and I’m certain that his advisers all breathed easier when she breathed her last, but Augustus had been shocked by her death. Shaken by it. Octavian always wants most what he cannot have, she’d said, as if she’d known that it would ignite an obsession in him. He’d wanted her alive. He’d wanted her as a trophy. He’d settled upon me instead. “Half of Rome will be here for your wedding, Selene. Let my enemies bear witness to how kindly I treat Antony’s daughter. Your father’s partisans may whisper that I’m the descendant of slaves, but let them see how the grandson of a rope maker now gives away a royal princess in marriage.”
There it was. The cavernous insecurity at the center of his character that drove his every action. It didn’t matter that he’d vanquished all his rivals. Not his ever-expanding imperial compound with its marble and showy gardens, not the mountains of gold in his coffers, nor the might of his legions would ever conquer his fear that somewhere, someone was laughing at him. “Are you sure it shouldn’t be a simpler wedding, Caesar? More in keeping with austere Roman values?” I asked, because I feared Roman crowds and knew from bitter experience that they could be dangerous.
He tilted his head, his eyes shadowed beneath the brim of his hat. “I mean for your wedding to be a spectacle and you’re too ambitious to want it any other way. Today will make plain to Isis worshippers who foment dissent in Rome and rebellion in Egypt that they dare not oppose me, for I have a Cleopatra of my very own. Remember our bargain. Marry the man I choose for you and do as I command. Glorify me and I’ll show mercy to your surviving brothers, your countrymen, and to those who worship your loathsome foreign goddess. Be my Cleopatra and one day your mother’s Egypt may be yours.”
By late afternoon, the slaves had stripped my room bare. The golden incense burners, the red and green tapestries, the painted oil lamps, and even the kithara harp I played to amuse the emperor—almost everything that had ever lent color or comfort to my room here—all packed into trunks and satchels. Turning my eyes to my dressing table, I thought of the loose brick beneath it, the one Helios used to pull out of the wall so that we could whisper to one another when the Romans slept. We’d never do that again, I realized. Even if the emperor’s hounds hunted down my runaway twin brother and hauled him back to the Palatine, I wouldn’t be here . . .
With a sharp knock at my door, the emperor’s sister marched to my side to attend me. It was a mother’s duty to dress her daughter for marriage and Lady Octavia was the closest thing to a mother that I had left in this world. She’d been my father’s wife when he embarked upon his grand love affair with my mother. But after my parents were sealed in their tombs, Octavia had collected all my father’s children. Though she was a rigid woman, I’d come to love her. Even so, it felt like betrayal to let her take my mother’s place on this day. We were awkward together as we hadn’t been in years. “Well,” she said, both hands on her fleshy hips. “Let’s get you ready, Selene.”
She used a special comb to divide my hair into the six segments of the tutulus, the traditional hairstyle worn by Roman brides. “What a vicious little comb,” I hissed, wincing as she tugged mercilessly. “Why is it shaped like a spear?”
“It’s to drive out ill fortune,” she said, cheerfully. “It’s also to remind us of the Sabine women, the first Roman wives, forced to wed at the tip of a spear!”
“That hardly seems like something to be remembered with pride,” I muttered.
Octavia only tilted my chin with a sentimental sigh. “Oh, Selene, you’re going to be a lovely bride. Your father was always given to emotion, you know, and I think if he saw you, it would bring a tear to his eye.” In spite of the many wrongs he’d done her, Octavia never spoke against my father, for which I was grateful. “I think you have Antony’s best qualities.”
This puzzled me because my father had been a big jolly man with a raucous laugh whereas I was slender and decidedly sober. “I can’t imagine how I’m like my father.”
“He inspired people and so do you,” she said. “My daughters imitate you. Your royal poise, the way you hold your posture, and your piety. Because you work so hard at your lessons, the little ones study more. It’s your gift, Selene. You lead everyone around you to aspire to something greater. Even me.”
I stammered, because it was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to me. “E-even you?”
As the emperor’s sister, Octavia had always held influence. Now that her son Marcellus had married the emperor’s daughter, Lady Octavia was the most powerful woman in Rome. Wearing her distinctively severe hairstyle with its knot over her brow like a crown, she lifted her chin. “As the emperor’s heir, my son is still young, untested. Marcellus will need guidance more than ever and I think I can help him. He and Julia need to win over the people so I’m going to find a way to fund a beautiful new theater as a gift to the city.”
“They’re fortunate to have an ally in you,” I said, knowing how this would irritate the emperor’s ambitious wife, Livia. Octavia had supplanted her role as First Woman in Rome. Truly, it was a new day.
Octavia seemed to feel it too. “You’ve made a good match, Selene! And your story sounds so romantic. Two scions of African royalty. Two orphans saved by the emperor and adopted into his family, only to become stewards over a new land. Why, if I were your age, I might even envy you this marriage. Your groom is such a handsome young man.”
“I’m familiar with his virtues,” I said, for Juba was no stranger to me. The deposed Numidian princeling was a scholar. Such a prodigy, in fact, that he’d been my tutor. Once I’d even counted him a friend. Now he was just the husband the emperor had chosen for me and the first step I must take on my path back to Egypt.
“You’re a lucky girl,” Octavia chattered on. “He’s going to be a splendid, civilized king. Rex Literatissimus, they call him. And such a fine specimen of a man—no woman in Rome can avoid following him with her eyes. But remember that he is a man. No sweet boy like my Marcellus.” Given the clumsy way her hands worked in my hair, and her unusually breezy banter, I realized that she was working up to something. “Selene, do you know what Juba will expect from you in the bridal bed?”
My cheeks burned. Everyone imagined my mother as a seductress with great knowledge of the sensual arts, but I’d been young when she died; she’d never shared any of that particular wisdom with me. “I—I think I can guess.”
Octavia now looked sour, as if she were about to face a torment of the spirit. “This is what will happen. When you’re alone in the bridal chamber, Juba will call you wife and draw you into his arms. But you mustn’t go willingly or he’ll think you’re a lupa.” A she-wolf, she said, but she meant whore. “You must shy away and struggle just enough to please him but not enough to make him angry. Then submit to him as your husband and your king.”
Helios is my king. The thought came to me so suddenly and unbidden that I feared that I’d said it aloud. My twin was the rightful King of Egypt and dearer to me than I could dare admit. Some said that it was for his sake that the city of Thebes had rebelled. I’d bargained for my twin’s life, so I’d have to submit to the emperor’s wishes and to Juba too. I’d just have to remind myself every day how fortunate I was not to be married off to old King Herod of Judea.
When my little gray cat leapt onto the dressing table, upsetting a tray of hairpins and ribbons, Octavia cried, “Wretched creature! I won’t be sorry to see that beast leave with you. I can’t see why cats are sacred in Egypt. They’re nothing but mischief.” Bast took no notice of this insult, purring and burrowing into my arms while Octavia scowled. “Oh dear. I’m making a mess of your hair. My fingers aren’t as nimble as they used to be. I’ll let your ornatrix fix it.”
My slave girl fixed my hairstyle, and then we dallied until dusk, trying to decide between two pairs of sandals, one of which was prettier but pinched my toes. At last, Chryssa helped me into my wedding garments. The white muslin tunica and accompanying girdle. The floral wreath and the orange flame-colored veil. This was the garb of a modest Roman bride, but in spite of all the years I’d lived amongst my father’s people, it still looked foreign to me. When I glanced into the polished silver mirror, I groaned in dismay. Octavia had bound my hair in such a way that it smothered everything unique about me. The white muslin left me looking pale, hiding what beauty I possessed, and I was all but suffocated by the saffron veil. “It’s horrible.”
“No,” Chryssa said, softly. “You’re a beautiful bride.”
But this was something people said to brides, whether or not it was true. I pulled the veil away. “I need . . . something else.”
Chryssa’s eyes widened. “It’s almost time for the wedding. Half the city is at the gates.”
This did nothing to calm me. Roman weddings were supposed to be small and modest affairs, simple contracts that required only a few witnesses. Mine would be different. The guests would be looking to see if I was just a Roman girl, the daughter of Mark Antony, or if I was Cleopatra’s daughter, a sorceress whose blood made flowers grow, whose hands left crocodiles docile in her wake. As the foremost worshipper of Isis in Rome, stories about me had passed from temple to temple, tavern to tavern, and the slaves and the lower classes whispered that I might bring them a Golden Age. I’d emboldened them. Perhaps I’d inspired them. So maybe I need not fear the crowds; I wasn’t a prisoner anymore.
Be my Cleopatra, the emperor said, and one day your mother’s Egypt may be yours.
Augustus was a grand actor in a pageant of his own creation and the only way to remain in his favor was to play my role. He wanted spectacle? Well, I would give him one. With deep resolution, I unwound the braids that Octavia had so painstakingly fastened, brushing out my dark hair so that it curled and cascaded, loose and free over my shoulders. “I won’t be a Roman bride,” I said. “My mother was Pharaoh and I’ll let no one forget it.”
Chryssa’s mouth formed a circle of surprise when I threw open my wardrobe chest, giving no care to the fact that the slaves had carefully packed it for the journey. I rifled through it until I found a beautiful diaphanous gown that Helios had given me. Octavia had tried to make it modest with stitches and brooches. Now I refashioned it. Removing the pins, I wrapped the gown under my arms and tied it between my breasts in the knot of Isis, the tiet, a loop with trailing sides that was a variant of the ankh. My wide-eyed slave girl watched me as if I’d gone mad. “You’re going to give insult. You’ll anger the emperor!”
“I know him better than you do.” Since I was a little child, I’d learned to play all the emperor’s games; this was just one more. Be my Cleopatra, the emperor had said, and I was young and foolish enough to believe I knew what that meant. “Don’t stand there gaping, Chryssa. Help me!”
Reluctantly, she went to my dressing table, searching for the proper cosmetic pots, as I told her what to do. My mother had been a Hellenistic queen, and when she dressed for the civilized Greek-speaking world, she dressed accordingly. But she’d also been Pharaoh of Egypt. It was that reminder of Egypt I wanted now, so I urged Chryssa to draw on my eyelids with black kohl, the dark lines of the wedjat—the eye of Horus. Then she used the greens and blues and reds of Egypt to color my face. When she was done, I held up the mirror and peered at myself with the green eyes of a jungle cat, exotic and wild. “You need more jewelry,” Chryssa suggested, finally warming to the idea. “Something sparkling to go with your little jade frog and betrothal ring.”
I knew just the thing. Carefully wrapped in the bloodstained dress I’d worn as a prisoner, was a golden snake armlet with gemstone eyes that my mother left for me when she’d foreseen her own death. I retrieved it from under my mattress, where I’d kept the bundle hidden for years, and slipped the armlet up until it hugged my bicep, its history merging with my skin. The effect was dazzling and scandalous. “You look like your mother’s portraits,” Chryssa breathed.
But I saw in myself someone entirely new.
*****My review plus a giveaway is coming later today*****