Lysandra felt almost invisible in her black cloak as she hurried in the darkness down the Avenue of the Pharaohs. The shadowy streets should have unnerved her but she was too excited about the lesson ahead to think about any possible dangers. She looked up at the constellation in the east. Guide me safely, crocodile, she said to herself.
She smelt the beggar before tripping over him. He smelt rank. She rubbed at her knee and had to scrabble around in the dark to pick up some of the items of her satchel that had spilled out. It was the third beggar she had seen since leaving the palace via the old tradesman’s gate in the western portal not long ago.
The beggar looked up at her with dark hollow eyes, his face covered in weeping sores. Lysandra mumbled an apology, threw him a shekel and continued towards the Park of the Scholars, trying to keep her footfalls on the smooth paving stones as quiet as possible. Up ahead she heard voices, singing and shouting to each other. She could make out the forms of three men, staggering in her direction. One of them was bragging about how much he had won on a game of chance. It was too far away to make a dash for the safety of the Library and she preferred not to have to deal with these men. There was an alley to her left and Lysandra stepped off the Avenue onto the Pharaohs and flattened herself against the wall of a building.
She could hear their voices clearly now.
‘Now boys, let’s put these winnings to good use,’ said one of the men.
‘Please can we try the Randy Leopard?’ said another.
‘No way, Hump the Hippo is the best place in this quarter. It’s down this way, boys. Follow me.’ The men laughed like hyenas.
A man stepped into the alley not far from her.
‘Hold up a sec, Kane. I need to spew,’ said a man out view.
Lysandra heard the sound of someone retching and the splatter of vomit on the roadway. She started to feel nauseous herself. The man who had appeared in the alley ducked out again and Lysandra wondered whether she return to the main road.
If only I could get past them I could make a run for it. But what if I bumped into them? Lysandra gripped her satchel tightly and paused, listening to the pulse throbbing in her neck. The sound of the retching had stopped and footsteps came back towards her.
She raced off down the alley as fast as she could then stopped as it branched off to left and right. Which way? Which way? The men’s voices seemed to be coming closer. She turned to the right and kept running. The alley twisted and turned so much that she became disoriented. In front of her the alley stopped at a wall. Above her she could see the crocodile again. Fat lot of help you were.
The alley where Lysandra stood was narrow and lamps burning with a red flame were positioned in many of the windows. Opposite where she stood a woman sat in a open doorway, the red light catching a bare breast poking out of a tunic, long bare legs visible beneath an impossibly short skirt. At least she knew where she was. I’m in the alley of the whorehouses.
The sound of the singing voices returned. As they approached, Lysandra flattened herself against one of the closed doorways, the rough hewn wood digging into her shoulder blades.
‘Welcome to the meat market, boys,’ said one of the men. ‘Looks to be a quiet night. We’ll get to pick the choicest cuts.’
The men staggered past without noticing her. The path was clear. Lysandra stepped out and was about to run back the way she came when one of the men turned and said, ‘Hang on boys, I’ll just hang a piss.’ She flattened herself again.
The man walked over to Lysandra’s doorway. She froze as he lifted up his tunic and started to piss against the door. Urine splashed over her feet and the bottom of her cloak. The man stood there with his eyes closed, gently swaying from side to side. She slowly stepped sideways and slipped the mask on. When the man finished he opened his eyes, looking straight at her.
‘Aaggh! Witch! Witch! Witch!’ he screamed, running to his companions and tripping over and falling flat on his face.
Lysandra bolted back up towards the Avenue of the Pharaohs, hearing the men cursing and laughing in turns.
* * *
When she reached the entrance near the East Gate, Lysandra felt ridiculous. She was late, she stunk of piss, her feet were chafing and her knee was sore. Away from the palace at night this whole thing sounded like a bad idea. She was about to turn away and go back home when a young scholar strode past her towards the entrance. It was Marcus. Perhaps this is not such a bad idea after all?
She watched Marcus’ lithe body disappear inside and decided to go in. The librarian minding the entrance was Qadash.
‘Ah, a Vulture. May I have your rod please?’ Qadash said in his most officious voice.
Lysandra reached into her pocket. She couldn’t feel the rod, She checked her other pocket. That was empty too. She gulped and searched both pockets again. What happened? It’s gone. It must have fallen out when I tripped over that beggar. I knew this was never going to work. She stood there mutely, tears forming in her eyes.
‘No entry without the rod. Now, do you have it?’ Qadash said, seemingly enjoying his position of superiority.
‘I…I must have lost it,’ she whispered.
Qadash stared at her quizzically. ‘I recognise that voice. Princess, is that you?’
‘Wait there,’ he said. He spoke to one of the librarians then beckoned her to follow him.
As they walked Lysandra gave Qadash an account of her journey.
‘Hmm, you need to be more careful, Princess,’ Qadash said.
They exited through a door and crossed an open courtyard. The beam from the lighthouse on Pharos slowly rotated across the night sky. Getting her story off her chest had settled her nerves, and the sight of that engineering marvel gave her a renewed energy. And of course, seeing Marcus had given her an extra good reason for being here. If she only kew the way she would have run past the plodding Qadash. They came to a two-storey colonnaded building at the corner of the courtyard and climbed a flight of stairs. About a hundred paces down a long corridor they came to solid door with a bronze plaque in the shape of a vulture. Qadash rapped on the door in a practiced staccato rhythm.
The door opened. Europhides poked his head out and bid her to come inside.
The room was well lit with alabaster lamps. Shelves of scrolls lined the walls. There were a number of small tables and benches in the room all facing one direction. Lysandra sat at a bench beside another Vulture, whose mask was a different pattern to hers. There were fifteen Vultures silently sitting at the tables. Evidently, Lysandra had been the last to arrive.
Europhides tapped his walking stick on the ground and gave them a broad smile.
‘Welcome Vultures. Now I would ask you to keep quiet and leave your masks on until I tell you. The first rule of this class is that you solemnly promise not to reveal the identities of any of your classmates to anyone outside this rooms. Raise your hands if you agree to make that promise. If you don’t I would ask you to leave the room now.’
A few people shuffled their bags or nervously shifted their feet. No one raised their hand.
‘Good,’ said Europhides, you may remove your masks and cloaks if you wish.
Lysandra was relieved. It was hot and stuffy with the mask on and she was struggling to see very well. She took off the mask and her cloak and gasped.
All the students were women. Some of them she even knew, and nearly all of them seemed to know her. Most bowed to her when she met their eyes. She wished they didn’t.
Just then there was a knock on the door.
‘Ah, that must be my assistant.’
Europhides opened the door and let the man in. ‘Please welcome, a senior scholar who will assist with the class, Marcus of Athens.’
The classed gave a small round of applause. Lysandra’s eyes met Marcus’s and she quickly lowered them to her writing scroll. She was sure her ears had turned red. If only I could put the mask back on.
Europhides leant on a table at the front and spoke in his commanding voice: ‘It is wonderful for you to all be here. I know for many of you it has been a struggle to gain permission to attend. I know that for others, they may might be attending in secret.’ Lysandra noticed Europhides turn his gaze towards her as he said this. ‘For that reason, the oath of secrecy is essential. So I’ll start this topic by asking you a question. Can anyone tell me what is in the sky but is invisible at the moment?’
The class fidgeted. One student ventured, ‘Clouds?’ Another said, ‘the wind,’ but Europhides said that wasn’t it.
Lysandra raised her hand.
‘Princess, what do you say?’
She felt the other students’ eyes on her but she focussed on Europhides.
Europhides clapped his hands. ‘Very good. Tonight we are going to talk about the sun.’
Lysandra picked up her stylus, ready to start writing.
* * *
At the end of the first session the students were given a new ivory rod, which would be the identification for the following lesson. Lysandra became used to the ritual. Every few nights she would dress in the cloak, go down the back staircase, through the unused old tradesman’s rooms and out the western portal.
Kaylah’s assistance in this enterprise was essential. She had ‘borrowed’ the caretaker’s key and had one of her contacts in the city make a copy. Kaylah had strict instructions to bolt the door to Lysandra’s chambers and refuse anyone entry. They had even practiced the lines she would say: “I’m not feeling well, I will come down in the morning.” Kaylah could make herself sound disconcertingly similar to Lysandra. Perhaps it was something about Kaylah’s singing voice – she could imitate a nightingale with ease.
Lysandra took a different route each time, and was getting used to the various alleys and back lanes between the Palace and the Library. She felt more confident now although on recent evenings she began to wonder whether she may have been followed. It started one evening when she had bent down to fasten a sandal. She was sure she heard a footfall just after she bent down. Later on she quickly looked behind her and thought she detected a movement. This had happened for a few nights and she became accustomed to it. As long as whoever or whatever it was left her alone she put it out of her mind.
In the Park of the Scholars she would sometimes fall in with other Vultures and would talk about the lessons and the homework they had been given. Then they would put on their masks and go down to the East Gate in silence.
Europhides instructed the Vultures in the mysteries of the cosmos. He recounted the days of his youth at a Pythagorean school in Athens and how the students pushed each other in their learning. It began to happen here too. The students were encouraged to speak up about their ideas and the projects they were working on. The Vultures would discuss each other’s work and the pace of the learning began to pick up.
All this happened as her sister’s wedding preparations ramped up. Visitors from across Egypt and the cities of the Mediterranean arrived in Alexandria. Guesthouses and inns were filling up. The brothels were doing a roaring trade and the streets at nighttime were busier than Lysandra had ever seen them. Between the wedding preparations and her studies, Lysandra found herself with precious little spare time. A little over a week before the wedding, her own presentation was due. She stayed late in the Library when she could but it was a struggle to keep up with the work and all the commitments at the Palace.
A week before her presentation, Lysandra was sitting on her private balcony in bright sunshine, reading some scrolls, when she heard a knock at her door.
‘Princess, can I ask you something?’
‘Yes, come in, Kaylah.’
Kaylah came out to the balcony and stood quietly by her side.
‘Sit down, Kaylah, what did you want?’
‘Oh, it’s nothing really.’
Lysandra motioned to a chair, which Kaylah sat on the edge of.
‘Well? You’ve distracted me from my work now. I won’t be able to get back to it unless you tell me.’
Kaylah fiddled with an earring and said, ‘I was wondering if I could have a few days off?’
‘Oh! It’s really not the best timing. Can’t it wait a week?’
Kaylah stared across at the city below. ‘It’s just that my mother is not coping too well at the moment?’
‘But Kaylah, I have this really important presentation coming up. I’m going to need your help until then. Look, after next week you can take some time off. How does that sound?’
Kaylah still didn’t meet her eyes.
‘I’m sorry, Kaylah. My answer is final. Will that be all?’
‘Yes, that’s then.’ Kaylah stood then retreated out of the room.
Lysandra couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a disagreement with Kaylah. She tried to focus on her reading but couldn’t. She put her scroll away and headed down to the banquet hall to listen to the music rehearsal. I’m the Princess, aren’t I?
* * *
Lysandra skipped down the road, keeping as clear of the nighttime revellers as she could. She found it hard to walk at a steady pace, her nerves about the upcoming presentation propelling her forward. If only she could memorise the first part of the presentation she felt it would go well. At Fishmongers’ Lane near the market she crossed the road to avoid the stench. As she turned the next corner a strong arm grabbed her around the throat from behind. She tried to scream but the man’s grip was so tight she could barely breathe.
‘Now keep quiet,’ the man said in thick Roman accent, drawing a knife with his other hand and laying it against her stomach. Lysandra’s temples pounded as the man dragged her down a laneway.
‘Wait till I tell the boys back at the barracks I got myself a Vulture,’ he said as he tripped her up and forced her to the ground.
Her heart was racing and she tried to swing an elbow the man but it was no use. The Roman was too powerful and had now let go of the knife and lifted her cloak and groped at her undergarment. No, no, no! Lysandra tried to scream and kick as hard as she could.
Lysandra heard the sound of scampering footsteps then felt a blow that took the wind out of her. She struggled to breathe but suddenly she was free of her assailant. She looked up and saw another man in a grey tunic wrestling with the Roman.
The Roman lunged forward and the other man ducked and cracked him across the face with a wooden staff. As her assailant staggered the other man slammed him into the wall then let fly with a flurry of punches to the head followed by a knee to the balls. The Roman fell to his knees and stared up at Lysandra, his face a bloody mess.
‘Bastard,’ she screamed as she swung her foot, hitting him squarely in the chin. He fell to the road, his head making a loud crack as he hit the ground.
Lysandra waited to see if the Roman would get up but he didn’t move. She was panting and tears were streaming down her face.
‘Are you hurt, Princess?’
Lysandra turned her attention to the man in the grey cloak. ‘I think I’m fine. I thank you so much. Words cannot convey how grateful I am.’
He fell to one knee and said, ‘I am sorry I didn’t get to you sooner, Princess. I hope you will forgive my negligence.’
Lysandra could barely believe what she heard. ‘What? Of course. You will be rewarded for what you have done tonight. Please tell me your name.’
‘My name is Ibbi and it is a pleasure to serve a Princess of Egypt.’
She readjusted her clothing and settled her satchel back over her shoulder. She was shaking quite badly and took a moment to wipe the tears from her face. Nothing was going to stop her from attending her class.
‘If you don’t mind Ibbi, could you please escort me as far as the Library?’
Ibbi bowed. ‘Of course, Princess. I’ll follow fifty paces behind as I always do.’
‘Yes, at least for the last few weeks.’
‘I see. Can I ask who sent you to check on me?’
‘Why yes, Princess. It was the Crocodile.’
* * *
Although Lysandra had spoken at grand occasions at court, nothing had prepared her for speaking in front of a room of critical scholars. Her stomach felt as though it were full of crawling scarab beetles. She cleared her throat. The room hushed.
‘For the past six weeks I have been working on a theory about the movement of the heavenly bodies. From the evidence in the scrolls I have studied from Greece and Babylon, there is only one plausible explanation for the cycle of the seasons and the days and the nights…’
She continued: ‘My theory is that Egypt and our earth is not the centre of our universe…,’ there was a murmur from the classroom, ‘..the Sun is. The Earth and the planets must revolve around the sun, not the other way around.’
Arsinoe got to her feet. ‘No, that is not the way the gods made it. The journey of the sun god through the night sky is a universal truth and cannot be challenged. And you call yourself a Princess of Egypt!’
Others called out as well, although not all disagreed with her. They wanted to hear more and the specific sources she had used.
It was one of the liveliest discussions the class had ever had. Europhides had to bang his walking stick on the table a number of times to get their attention.
‘Students, I’m afraid our time is up and we must meet again three nights from now. I’ll see you then, and don’t forget to keep asking questions and keep your minds open. Oh, and Lysandra, please stay back. I want to have a word.’
Lysandra had a feeling she had got herself in trouble. She was starting to regret what she had said.
Europhides waited until the class shuffled out and smiled and sat down at the bench next to her.
‘I am sorry for upsetting the class, teacher,’ Lysandra said.
‘Nonsense,’ said Europhides. ’You presented a proposition and argued it with facts based on research. There is no shame in that.’
‘But perhaps I am completely wrong?’
‘Do you think you are?’
‘Honestly, I think I am right. How else could the seasons re-appear so precisely every year?’
‘I believe you are right. It’s going to take a lot more observation and calculations but I came to the same conclusions as you many years ago.’
Lysandra’s heart skipped. ‘Really?’
’Yes. But sometimes people don’t like to hear the truth, particularly if it is inconvenient.’
A wave of exhilaration passed over her. This was exactly how she felt. ‘That’s too true.’
‘You know,’ Europhides continued, ’about thirty years ago, when I first started teaching here, a student of mine proposed the exact same thing as you.’
‘Really? He must have been clever.’
‘She was clever. In fact it was her idea to start the Vultures. I think cleverness runs in her family.’
‘What makes you say that?’
When Europhides’ looked at her his eyes were moist. ‘If I’m not mistaken that young woman wore the exact same robes you have on at the moment.’
A lump formed in her throat. She stared down at the floor then back into Europhides’ deep brown eyes.
‘You mean … my mother…was a Vulture?’
‘The very first.’
‘Oh, this is wonderful.’ She put her hand to her face and felt tears running down her cheeks.
‘Teacher,’ she croaked, ‘there is one more thing I wanted to ask. Are you the Crocodile?’
Euripides looked at her with a smile still on his face. ‘That will be all Lysandra. I’ll see you in three days.’
On her way back to the Palace, Lysandra stopped suddenly and spun around. Although it was hard to see in the darkness, about fifty paces away she could just make out the shape of Ibbi.
In the old tradesman’s rooms Lysandra rolled up her cloak and tied it with a cord and slung it over her shoulder. She crossed the small courtyard, climbed the back staircase and after walking down two corridors came to the grand staircase to the wing of the Palace where her chambers were. She bounded up the stairs, clutching her satchel like a new born. She stopped with a start at the outer door of her chambers. Grand Vizier Nuth was standing there.
He bowed and asked, ‘All in order, Princess?’
‘Still spying I see.’
‘Just doing my best to serve the House of Ptolemy.’
‘Please Nuth, you must not tell father I have been out. I promise I haven’t done anything wrong.’
Nuth’s eyebrows arched like two startled cats. His thin lips curled slightly at the edges.
‘I live to serve, Princess.’
* * *
The next morning Lysandra slept late. Unusually, Kaylah had not woken her. It was kind of Kaylah to do that especially as she had such a trying day. The revelations Lysandra had about her own mother made her feel upset about how she had treated Kaylah. The poor thing had wanted to visit her mother and she hadn’t let her. Lysandra went to her outer chambers and had one of the housemaids summon Kaylah. She waited for her on the balcony.
A few minutes later Kaylah coughed. ‘Good morning, Princess. I hope you are well.’
‘I am, Kaylah. I’m happier than you could know. I wanted to say sorry for not letting you attend your mother last week. Please go and visit her for a few days. You can return the day before the wedding. And take these 20 shekels with you. Perhaps you can buy her some silk at the market.’
‘That won’t be necessary, Princess,’ Kaylah whispered.
‘I received a message from my brother this morning. My mother died of the coughing sickness last night.’
Kaylah turned and ran from her chambers.