The spectators cheered as the juggler hurled the fire sticks into the air. They soared into the darkening sky, spinning end over end. The juggler performed a tumble and springing to his feet caught the fire sticks before they hit the ground. Lysandra couldn’t help joining in the applause. She walked over and dropped a coin into the juggler’s cup. He gave her a startled look then broke into a broad smile.
‘Why thank you, miss. A struggling artist like myself truly appreciates such a generous donation.’
Marcus tugged at Lysandra’s sleeve and they kept on walking. ‘I thought you were trying to not draw attention,’ he said. ‘That coin you threw was a week’s wages for some of these people.’
‘Oh. Whoops. But you have to admit he was very good,’ Lysandra replied.
Marcus was right. She could not afford to be recognised. If word got out to her father she would be in serious trouble. Kaylah’s tunic was loose enough on her not to draw too many unwanted eyes. It was plain, a typical maid’s outfit, perfect for moving around the Red Quarter. Her own dress had been a tight fit on Kaylah. She wondered what the men carrying the palanquin would have made of their princess’ newly enlarged cleavage. It least it would have drawn their eyes away from Kaylah’s face, although the veil, which was Kaylah’s idea, had proved a useful addition to her attire.
They headed down the busy streets of the Red Quarter. Revellers were just starting to arrive. Factories and shops had only recently closed for the public holidays so there weren’t too many drunks at the moment, but there were still plenty of people out looking for entertainment.
Out the front of a bar a group of sailors burst into song. The words were something she wasn’t used to hearing at court but tonight with her senses alive she giggled at the lyrics.
Not far from the sailors, a man was performing in front of a small knot of spectators. He was blowing an instrument, performing a mesmerising melody. Marcus tried to keep moving but Lysandra pulled at his arm said, ‘Hold on, Marcus. I want to see this.’ She stood on her tiptoes trying to see over people’s heads.
The man was playing his instrument in front of a basket. As he played his tune something moved near the opening of the basket. The crowd stepped back as a dark brown cobra emerged, tongue flicking, body swaying in time to the music. Lysandra gripped Marcus’ arm.
‘Oh, this if fun,’ she whispered. ‘We used to get these entertainers at the Palace all the time. I know how it’s all done, but it’s gripping.’
The snake slithered down from the basket and raised its head. The hood of the cobra swayed rhythmically from side to side, seemingly staring at a short man in front of Lysandra.
The man screamed and ran, almost knocking Lysandra to the ground. The snake lashed out and tried to strike her. She twisted out of the way, rolled sideways and as she came up grabbed the cobra by the back of its neck and held it at arms length and let the snake charmer take it from her. As he did he gave her a wink.
Lysandra could feel her heart thumping against her ribs. There was a ripple of applause. ‘That’s a great act,’ said one of the spectators throwing a coin into the snake charmer’s plate. ‘The girl must be part of the show,’ said a sailor tossing in another coin. More spectators leaned over and dropped coins into the plate. It was soon filled to the rim.
The snake charmer took hold of Lysandra’s hand and lifted it into the air. The crowd applauded and cheered her. She beamed and bowed to the throng. The snake charmer addressed the crowd. ‘As I told you all before, not everything is what it seems. See this young serving girl. She has many surprises, no?’
The spectators cheered some more. Lysandra’s smile left her when she saw the look of disgust on Marcus’ face. It was time to get out of there.
‘Are you looking for trouble?’ Marcus said, leading her away from the crowd.
‘Sorry. But it wasn’t my fault the snake took a disliking to me,’ Lysandra replied. ‘Now which way is it?’
‘Not sure, but let’s get away from here.’
They walked quickly up the street. There seemed to be more people around now and the sounds of revelry had increased. From up ahead a man was being escorted out of a premises by a couple of doormen. They tossed the man on the ground and one of them gave him a kick.
Lysandra watched the men go back inside and noticed a hand painted banner hanging above the door of the premises. It was a badly drawn animal with a drop of water near its eye. She elbowed Marcus and said, ‘This must be the place. The Crying Jackal. Let’s go.’
Beyond the door they could hear loud music coming from inside. At the entrance, a burly doorman, with a patch over one eye said, ‘What do we have here? A Greek scholar with his little serving girl piece on the side. No matter, what happens in the Jackal stays in the Jackal you know.’ He gave them a toothless grin.
‘So, stand aside and let us through,’ said Marcus.
The man slowly folded his arms across the chest while blocking their way. ‘There is one rule of entry to the Jackal. You lovebirds can do what you like, all the management ask is that you have evidence of some capital. We don’t want thieves or rogues in our establishment,’ the doorman said, spitting out the words slowly as if they were children.
Marcus jangled the coins in his pouch and produced one and handed it to the doorman who put it up to his mouth and bit down on it.
‘That’s what I mean by capital. Good lad. In you go,’ he said, stepping aside and pocketing the coin.
* * * *
The Crying Jackal was dark inside, just a few wall mounted oil lamps bathing the interior in a flickering golden glow. It was hard to make out faces clearly. Perhaps that’s the way they liked it here.
In a corner, a band of musicians were playing frenetically. Drummers were pounding out a powerful rhythm supported by percussionists on cymbals and tambourines. There were string players and flute players and it was so loud Lysandra could barely hear herself think.
Through the gap in the dancing patrons Lysandra caught a glimpse of the singer. She was a dark-skinned Nubian with a short tunic revealing long slender legs. Over her shoulders was a leopard skin cape. She sang in a deep and powerful tone and the performance was mesmerising. The patrons cheered hoarsely at the end of the song.
They took a seat near the end of the bar. ‘What would you like to drink?’ said Marcus.
The drums started to pound out another hypnotic rhythm. ‘I’d love some Phoenician firewater. I’m in the mood for it.’
Marcus raised an eyebrow. ‘Hmm. Phoenician firewater it is.’
Lysandra watched Marcus push his way to the bar. She admired his broad shoulders and his lean physique. She imagined running her hands over his bare chest and biceps.
He came back with the drinks and as he sat down she heard shouting coming from one of the gaming tables. Two men were throwing punches at each other, egged on by others. A fat man in a zebra skin cloak with a mass of gold jewellery was trying to intervene. The burly doorman with the eyepatch helped to break up the brawlers.
Marcus winked at her. ‘Here’s to the Crying Jackal, the cosiest establishment in Alexandria.’
Lysandra grinned and clinked her cup against his. She took a sip of the firewater and felt an immediate warmth in her chest and her mind seemed to become clearer. ‘Don’t tell me you’re frightened,’ she said.
Marcus took a long draught of ale. ‘I can handle myself,’ he said.
‘Really? Most scholars I’ve met aren’t that good at handling themselves outside of a debate.’ She took another sip of firewater. The room seemed to turn upside down for a moment before righting itself.
‘I’m a Lacedaemonian. A Spartan, that is. From the time I could walk I was trained as a warrior. Then one day I discovered books and found I had an aptitude for learning. My mother encouraged me and talked my father into sending me to a school in Athens before I was drafted in the army. I may love books but I still spend a lot of time training in the Gymnasium.’
Lysandra finished her firewater and felt a desire to grab hold of Marcus and kiss him. She leant forward but found herself kissing air. Marcus was standing up, scouting the room. ‘I’ll do some reconnaissance and see if I can find anything about this Tefas character.’
The band started up again and she felt as it the firewater was reaching down into every part of her body. She started moving her body to the beat.
Marcus seemed to have a talent for making conversation with strangers. She watched him move past booths filled with artisans from the workshops, clerks from the merchants’ offices, sailors and tradesman.
At the gaming tables people were playing knuckle-bones, Senet and dice games. There was a steady clink of coins. With a week’s public holiday declared for the next seven days because of the wedding, Lysandra wondered whether these people would have any money left after tonight.
Marcus was talking to the man in the zebra skin cloak who had tried to break up the brawl. He pointed to Lysandra and they both turned and looked at her. The man in the zebra cloak came towards her.
He pulled up a stool and sat at her table. Gold chains hung from his neck and gold bracelets adorned his arms. There was a scent of strong perfumes on him.
‘Hello, that man said you wanted to speak to me,’ he said. ‘You’re not a whore are you? I’m a happily married man I’d have you know.’
Lysandra had to check herself not to slap the man. ‘What’s your name?’ she asked.
‘My name’s Cal. I’m the proprietor of the Crying Jackal.’
‘You run a very busy establishment,’ Lysandra said.
‘Yes, and with so many people in the city for the wedding we are doing wonderful business. Do you want to work in the laundries, is that it? Or are you a cook or a cleaner?’
‘None of those.’
‘Oh, let me see, you are an entertainer from the provinces expecting to be the next big thing. We get those all the time. If so, you’ll need to talk to Gigi on her break,’ he said, pointing to the Nubian singer, who was shaking her hips while singing seductively.
‘I’m not looking for work. I just wanted to talk to a cook that once worked in the Palace.’
The man narrowed his gaze. ‘All our cooks are busy now. And I would never hire one who’d worked in the Palace. I like to keep well away from that place. Now you’ve taken up too much of my time already. Unless you have something else to say I must be on my way.’ The man stood and moved the stool back away from the table.
‘I want to speak to Tefas?’
The man stopped dead still. He gripped the stool and looked at her. ‘Who did you say?’
‘Tefas. He worked as a cook in the Palace over ten years ago.’
The band finished a song. The patrons roared their appreciation. When the applause died down, the man said, ‘I-I don’t know him. I really must go.’
‘That’s a shame. Because if you did know him, you could tell him that a princess is looking for him.’
Even in the golden half-dark the man’s face seemed to blanche and he fingered one of the bracelets at his neck. He sat back down on the stool and looked at her intently. ‘I know you. This is not possible. Are…you?’
‘Yes, I am Princess Lysandra.’
The man’s eyes filled with tears. He fell to his knees and said, ‘I am Tefas. Princess, I am so honoured that you are at my establishment.’
‘Please, don’t make a scene. Is there somewhere more private we can talk?’
‘Yes, come with me.’ She followed Tefas through the bar and the kitchen to a small courtyard crowded with amphorae and piles of storage boxes.
‘Let’s sit over here,’ he said, pointing to a wooden bench near a rhododendron bush.
As she sat down a black dog came up to her and nuzzled her hand. She patted it on the head and it wagged its tail in response.
‘It’s a friendly dog, is he yours?’
‘Yes, and it’s a she.’
‘What’s her name?’
She paused her patting. ‘Named after the city…I suppose?’
‘No. After your mother.’
Lysandra opened her mouth to speak but the words caught in her throat.
‘You see, your mother was very kind to us at the Palace,’ Tefas said. ‘She even spoke to us in the common tongue.’
She smiled at him. ‘I can speak it too. Not so well, just a little.’
Tefas’ eyes widened. ‘I cannot believe it. You are like your mother in more ways than one. I’m sorry for not recognising you straight away but now I see it you bear a striking resemblance to her. Now what is it you wanted to see me about?’
‘I want to know what happened the last day you worked at the Palace.’
Tefas sighed. ‘I was forbidden to talk about anything from that day. Why are you asking me this?’
‘If you had always believed what you had been told about someone you loved then found out it may not be true, wouldn’t you want to find out?’
A frown formed on Tefas’ forehead. ‘I understand, Princess. How can I not tell you, when you are so alike to you mother? Please promise that you won’t reveal it was me who tell you this.’
‘Of course, Tefas. You have my word,’ Lysandra said in the common tongue.
‘It was a normal day really. There was to be a dinner that night for an ambassador from the east. It was just a small gathering, with some members of the Royal household and a few minor dignitaries. In the afternoon, after we had cleared away the lunch things, I went up to the rooftop garden of the east wing where we used to gather the herbs. You know it?
‘I sometimes used to go up there with my sister. I loved to chew on the mint leaves.’
‘I had just picked a bunch of parsley when I heard a chilling scream followed by a sickening thud. All I could think was that someone must have fallen. I looked over the roof and saw a body on the ground in the courtyard. There were people gathering around. Some of them were wailing. Then I heard someone cry out, “Queen Alexandria is dead.” It was heartbreaking.’
Lysandra gripped the fur on the back of the dog’s neck. ‘And then?’
‘I knew I had to find out what had happened. I climbed down the steps from the roof and took a shortcut through the servant’s corridor that runs behind the royal apartments.’
‘What happened next?’ Lysandra whispered.
‘As I ran down the corridor I noticed the door of your mother’s private apartments start to open. I was in shock so I stopped and crouched down behind some wooden storage boxes and peered around to see who would come out.’
‘Who was it?’
‘There were two men. One of them was Khouris, the father of Khafis, the other was…’
Tefas swallowed. ‘The other man was your father. He gave Khouris a large sack of some kind. Your father shook hands with him and Khouris ran down the corridor. Then your father came back towards my direction. As you can see I’m not a thin man and it was impossible for him not to see me. He was startled and reprimanded me. “Why are you skulking around here like a thief,” he said. “Go back down to the kitchens where you belong. And remember, you saw and heard nothing.” What else could I do but go back to the kitchens?
‘Downstairs the whole place was in turmoil. Some said your mother had jumped, others said she was leaning over and the balcony collapsed and they were rounding up the builders to have them executed. It was a truly awful time, Princess.’
Lysandra’s head was spinning. ‘You said it was your last day. What happened?’
‘Later that evening that viper of vipers came to my lodgings.’
‘Do you mean…Grand Vizier Nuth?’
‘Yes, that’s the one. Spawn of the devil. He told me to pack up and leave and never come back to the Palace or talk about what I had seen. He softened the blow with a bag of gold coins of course. It was enough to buy The Crying Jackal and start my new life as Cal.’
Lysandra was stunned. What was it that her father had done? And why was Khafis’ father involved?
From inside came was more raised voices.
‘We’d best go back, Princess. I know it’s probably not what you wanted to hear but I’m glad I have been able to get it off my chest.’
‘That’s fine, Tefas. I thank you for your honesty and bravery in telling me this.’
As they stood up, Tefas said, ‘I will bring you and your companion some drinks, on the house. What would you like?’
‘Make it a Phoenician firewater.’
* * * *
Lysandra stood, or rather, swayed, at the old tradesman’s portal on the west side of the Palace. She tried to put her key in the lock but the door seemed to keep moving from side to side.
‘Here, you do it Marcus,’ she said, slurring her words.
Marcus put the key in the lock. There was a distinct click and he turned the door handle.
He went to give her back the key and she closed her hand over his and slid it down her tunic onto her breast. She sighed and kissed him and ran her hands down his chest. With the back of her heel she kicked the door fully open.
‘Come on Marcus, let’s go inside. I’m ready for this now.’ She staggered backwards and it was only Marcus’ quick reactions that saved her from falling.
Marcus took his hand off her breast and pulled her to her feet. ‘Lysandra, you are beautiful and the most amazing woman I have ever met but this feels wrong. You are so drunk you are not yourself.’
‘What? Is there something wrong with you? Or with me?’ she said, accompanied by a loud burp.
‘Lysandra, I love you. One day something great will happen between us but not tonight. Please, you need to get back to your chambers.’ He slowly disentangled her fingers from his and edged his way backwards.
‘Go on, go away then. You don’t care about me at all. You’re no different to those other bastards like Khafis, Khouris and my father. You think women are no better than dung beetles rolling men’s shit. I don’t want to ever see you again.’
Marcus turned and left and she slammed the door behind him. She staggered over to one of the old tradesman’s tables and sat down and buried her head into her folded arms and sobbed. She wasn’t sure how long she had been crying but when she looked up the room was tilted at a ridiculous angle. She threw up then passed out.