Lysandra’s right foot came out of her sandal as she took the bend at pace. A troop of Roman soldiers marching in the opposite direction on the dusty road laughed at her. One of them bent down, picked it up and gave it her.
‘Thanks,’ she mumbled, her face reddening.
As she knelt to put the sandal back on, someone wolf-whistled. It came from one of the stonemasons across the road who were carving a new statue of the Pharaoh. Now she bristled.
She confronted the foreman. ‘Do you mind? Can you please stop your men from behaving like that.’
‘It’s just a bit of fun, miss. The boys are just kidding around,’ the foreman replied, still chipping away at the stonework.
‘Perhaps if they spent more time concentrating on their work, this statue would look less like an elephant’s arse and more like my father.’
‘Father? … Holy sh.. Princess Lysandra! Argh!’ The foreman struck his thumb with his mallet. ‘But why are you out on the streets by yourself? Where is your maid?’
‘She will be here soon. Now just tell your men to behave.’
The foreman took off his hat and bowed to her. ‘I’ll see to it that the man who whistled is flogged.’
‘There’s no need for that. Just don’t do it again. It’s not right, whether it’s a princess or anyone else. Now, excuse me I must get on.’
The men went back to their work. She listened to the gentle chink of the mallets and chisels on the marble. It was a sound that she grew up with, a rhythm that was a part of her city. Usually she could spend hours watching stonemasons at work but not today.
She looked anxiously at the direction she had come from. Where is that girl?
Kaylah appeared from around the corner. ‘Princess, I’ll pop a kneecap or faint away if you don’t slow down.’
‘The sun waits for no-one on its journey across the heavens. Every moment we dawdle is a moment lost.’ Lysandra took Kaylah’s arm in hers and they moved off at a brisk walking pace.
In The Park of the Scholars the crowds thickened. A Hyskos grand master in a blue silk gown with an ebony tablet tucked under his arm strode ahead. Kaylah playfully elbowed Lysandra’s ribs as a group of young white-robed Greek scholars with satchels over their shoulders hurried past.
‘Now I know why you are so keen to come here, Princess,’ Kaylah grinned.
‘Kaylah, please, I have come with the purest of intentions.’ Kaylah had such a stupid look on her face that Lysandra couldn’t help but giggle. ‘Come on, we are dawdling again.’
They passed through the front gates and Lysandra whistled at the sight in front of her. A sprawling three-storied building with dozens of elegant granite columns filled the width of the plaza. Framing the gleaming brass doors were the two towering statues: Alexander on the left and Cleopatra the First on the right. Crowds were milling about in front of the doors. The snippets of conversations she heard in dozens of different languages thrilled her.
‘See, they haven’t even opened the doors yet,’ Kaylah said, catching her breath.
‘Come on, open up,’ Lysandra whispered under her breath. It was Thursday, her one day without any dull dance lessons, or instructions in etiquette.
A pair of muscular bare-chested men appeared on the balcony. One of them began to beat a a rhythm on barrel drums, while the other made a swelling sound on cymbals. The noise grew to a crescendo, then with a crash of drums and cymbals the percussion stopped and the bronze doors creaked open.
This part always made her pulse quicken. Crossing the threshold was like entering a different world. She followed the crowd in and looked up at the sign overhead:
WELCOME TO ALEXANDRIA LIBRARY, CENTRE OF THE WORLD.
Inside, shelves full of scrolls reached up to the ceiling. Librarians in blue togas scurried up ladders, bringing down scrolls for scholars sitting at benches. She tried to avoid the workers greeting visitors but bumped into Qadash, one of the oldest librarians in the place.
‘Princess, such a lovely surprise to see you here. What will it be today? There’s some new scrolls just arrived about the theatre in Athens, or a parchment from Nubia on a new method of applying kohl,’ he said in his drawn out monotone.
‘I was thinking something more in the mathematical line. Do you have any new works on astronomy?’
Qadash’s brow furrowed. ‘Astronomy? For a princess? Oh, very well. This way.’
Lysandra loved the quiet of this place. She treated it with the reverence of a temple. She and Kaylah followed Qadash to a chamber off the main reading hall. In the middle was a sunken pit, surrounded by steps that formed an amphitheatre. At middle of the pit was one of the Library’s wonders, an astrolabe, a spherical metal structure as tall as three men, showing the orbits of the planets, with the Earth at its very centre.
Qadash gave instructions to a junior librarian who moved one of the ladders, scampered up like a monkey and grabbed an armful of scrolls and put them in a basket. He made some marks in a register and presented them to Lysandra who had taken seat at one of the tables.
She whispered to Kaylah, ‘You know where I am. You don’t need to wait here. Just meet me near the foyer an hour before sunset.’
‘But what will I do in the meantime?’
‘You could read.’
Kaylah feigned a yawn.
‘Why don’t you flirt with some of those scholars?
‘Now you’re talking. Thanks Princess, see you later then.’ Kaylah hurried off much faster than she had come in.
Qadash bowed and also left her. She took out the largest scroll from the basket and placed it on the table. She untied the delicate ribbon holding it in place. The title of the scroll was: Recent Commentaries on Babylonian Astronomy. As she smoothed out the papyrus she noticed her fingers were trembling with excitement.
She had no idea how long she pored over the scrolls. On the current one she was looking at, with the title Eclipse, was an image of three disks. The small disk in the centre was the moon; the one on the left with shadows was the Earth and the one on the right was labelled using an old Egyptian word. She put her finger on the image of the sun and whispered the word aloud: Ra!
Library workers had already lit the lamps when she was startled by Kaylah whispering ‘Princess,’ in her ear. She turned around to scold her but stopped open-mouthed when she saw the lanky form of Grand High Vizier Nuth step in between them, casting a shadow.
‘Princess, I suspected I might find you here among these …,’ Nuth picked up one of the scrolls and studied it disdainfully, ‘Astrological texts.’
‘Astronomical, and I can come here when I choose,’ Lysandra replied with a defiant tilt of the head. ‘Is it your habit to come to the library to spy on your princess? Have you nothing better to do?’
“Shh!” One of the librarians said.
Nuth continued in his hiss-like tone, ‘I am just doing what I always do, serving my Pharaoh and the Ptolemaic Dynasty. I wanted to ensure everything is in order, and that you haven’t forgotten your appointments for this evening.’
‘Oh, yes the banquet for that banker from the provinces. How could I forget? I wouldn’t miss such a thrilling event for the world.’
‘Good to hear, Princess. Your father is especially keen for you to attend.’ Nuth nodded and departed, his argon oil perfumes hanging in the air like a web.
* * *
The sound of tambourines and drums came as a relief after the dreary conversation at the dinner table. Lysandra pushed back her plate and serving girls cleared them away.
A dozen Assyrian dancers, accompanied by musicians, entered the banquet hall. The drum beat was hypnotic and the bare-breasted girls shook their hips at astonishing speed. They formed into pairs and tumbled over the floor, suddenly one would be tossed up in the air and spin and land on her feet in front of the dinner guests. Male dancers, torsos covered in oil, flexed their muscles and performed a dizzying routine of gymnastic stunts.
During a particularly frenetic dance, Lysandra noticed one old nobleman, who had been tossing back cup after cup of sweet Roman wine, gingerly get to his feet and start dancing stupidly with one of the girls. Some of the men, particular the Roman soldiers, egged him on.
‘It might be a good time to sit back down Heti,’ Lysandra’s father called out to howls of laughter. The old man had to be helped back to his seat next to his wife whose face had turned a bright shade of red.
Lysandra’s father clapped his hands and the music stopped and the guests went quiet. ‘I would like to propose a toast, to my soon to be wed daughter Princess Cleopatra and her fiancé, General Tullius of Rome!’
‘Cleopatra and Tullius!’ was echoed around the banquet hall.
‘And now,’ he continued, ‘I would like to invite one of our young noblemen to sing for us. Please make welcome, Khafis of Heliopolis!’
There was a polite round of applause. The Pharaoh turned around to Lysandra and gave her a knowing look.
Khafis ponderously got to his feet, his plump body making his movements anything but graceful. A harpist sat in a chair in the middle of the hall and plucked a scale. Khafis hummed a few notes then faced the guests and began to sing.
The song was The Princess and the Nightingale. Lysandra knew it well; everyone in Egypt did. It told the story of a nightingale that sings every evening to a princess. The princess becomes so enchanted by the beautiful song she bankrupts the kingdom to pay a Magician to turn the nightingale into a handsome prince. But the Magician was really an evil spirit and instead of a prince, the nightingale gets transformed into Seth, the old Egyptian god of chaos and violence.
Khafis’s voice was more buzzard than nightingale. If notes were nails he only ever hit his thumb. And he was far from a handsome prince. He had small eyes in a round face and still had food crumbs caught in his beard. His ample belly wobbled alarmingly when he moved. As he struggled through the high notes, Lysandra glanced across the hall to where some of the servants were standing about and saw Kaylah wiping tears from her eyes and biting her lip to stop from laughing.
Somehow, Khafis had got hold of a bouquet of flowers. He now approached the head table just as the song was reaching a climax. Lysandra tried to look anywhere else but it was difficult as all the guests were watching intently. The song ended and Khafis reached over and with a flourish offered her the bouquet. She felt as though she could slap his face with it but dutifully accepted the flowers and said thank you through gritted teeth. The guests got to their feet and applauded and Lysandra wished there was an asp nearby that she could clutch to her breast.
‘Now for the dancing,’ shouted her father and people got to their feet cheering and began to form into squares for the dances.
Lysandra excused herself and sought out Kaylah.
‘Thank goodness that’s finished,’ Lysandra said.
‘Oh, Princess, I thought you would never get away from there alive. It was funny at first but I didn’t like the way he was looking at you.’
Lysandra and Kaylah stood for a while watching the dancing. Some of the guests cast disapproving looks at her. Princesses were not meant to mix with servants, especially at banquets, but she didn’t care what they thought. The truth was that Kaylah was also her closest friend, someone she had shared everything with since she was a little girl. She was closer to her than her own sister. At that very moment she noticed her sister in the middle of the hall waving for her to come over.
‘I’ll see you later on,’ Lysandra said and went over to her sister.
Cleo took her hands in hers and kissed her on the cheek. ‘Sister, darling, you look ravishing tonight. All the young men are talking about you.’
‘You are too kind, Cleo. Of course not even Ra could eclipse your great beauty,’ Lysandra replied, noting the slight nod of approval in reply.
Cleo flashed her most decorative smile, ‘Now sister, I have a request to pass on. Go to the east balcony where a surprise awaits you!’
Lysandra could hardly say no. ‘As you wish, sister.’ She headed towards the exit. She turned and saw Kaylah keeping a close eye on her. That was some comfort at least. She pushed aside the curtain and stepped onto the east balcony.
* * *
There was a faint trace of a sea breeze that made it cooler than indoors, yet it didn’t make Lysandra feel comfortable. Instead, she shivered as though there was some mischief in the air. It was quieter too on the balcony, and dark, just a single oil lamp providing a flickering light.
She leant on the railing. From here she could see the blackness of the Mediterranean. The great lighthouse on the island of Pharos with its flame visible for miles was a reassuring sight. It made her remember the words of the song she had learnt as a child:
Welcome traveller, to our great city,
We share its marvels with great pride
Keep well weary traveller
And let this light be your guide.
Down near harbour was the hulking shape of the Library, lights still on in many of the windows. Who was there now and what were they studying? I wonder if The Vultures are out tonight?
A noise from the darkness made her jump.
‘Princess, good of you to come. What is it that fascinates you so?’ It was Khafis, his speaking voice clearer and more abrasive than his singing one.
‘The Library,’ she replied. ‘Some call it the centre of the world.’
‘Huh! That place is full of greasy foreigners. Many a good judge would call it a waste of public funds.’
‘Charming, Khafis. So why did you summon me?’
‘Hardly a summons, Princess. An invitation more like. It’s just that I have been doing a lot of thinking lately and making plans for my future.’ The lamplight flickered in his eyes. He was a difficult man to read.
‘That’s … interesting. Do go on.’
‘My father and I, and your father for that matter, agree that it’s time I found myself a wife.’
Lysandra raised an eyebrow. She could normally break a suitor like a papyrus reed. Khafis was different. His voice voice was confident, there was an assuredness in his manner.
‘I wish you well, Khafis. Coming from such a wealthy family as yours I’m sure there are any number of beautiful or even plain girls in Egypt that would claw each other’s eyes out to be your wife.’
‘You speak truly Princess, however none of them has the grace, status or beauty that would be acceptable to our family. None of them that is, except for you, Lysandra.’ Khafis beamed like a hippopotamus.
Lysandra had been expecting this but there was something in the way he spoke that unsettled her. It took her a while to think of a reply and she stammered slightly as she said, ‘But Khafis, you’re still young, surely you want more time to experience the world.’
He puffed out his chest and gave her a lurid wink. ‘I’ll tell you about about experience. I’ve been with whores from Saqqara to Libya and all places in between.’ He leaned in so close she could smell the garlic on his breath. ‘I know how to make a lady moan. You won’t be able to walk straight for a week after you’ve been with me.’
She felt bile rise in her throat.
‘Are you trying to impress me or disgust me?’
‘It’s not important Princess. Like it or not I won’t leave Alexandria without you as my wife.’
‘Looks like you’ll be here for a long time then.’
‘But don’t you see Princess? It’s all but decided. Your profligate father will agree to the match or our family will call in his debts. Your wishes are irrelevant.’
He gripped her in his strong arms and kissed her on the lips and forced his tongue inside her mouth. It made her want to retch. Lysandra pulled away and slapped him across the face as hard as she could with the back of her hand.
‘I’d rather be be a corpse than marry you. Don’t you dare come near me again,’ she shouted and ran back to the banquet hall.
As she pushed aside the curtain she noticed Vizier Nuth lurking in the shadows. He bowed and said, ‘Princess, is everything as it should be?’
Tears were welling in her eyes. ‘Oh, as if you don’t know what’s happening here.’
She ran into the hall. At the head table, Khafis’s father and her own father were deep in conversation. He beckoned her over and said, ‘Princess, I trust you found my son agreeable?’
‘Agreeable? Your son is a vulgar, disgusting tick on a fat donkey’s arse.’
The room went silent. Lysandra upended a servant’s tray full of wine goblets and ran out of the room, Kaylah’s footsteps echoing behind her.
To be continued…