Lysandra opened her eyes and wished she were still asleep. Her head pounded as though a team of stonemasons was carving a statue inside her skull. She could taste bile in her mouth. She tried to pull herself to a sitting position but fell back down.
A familiar voice reached her ears.
‘Kaylah?’ she croaked.
‘Oh, Princess, how are you? You look as though you’ve wrestled a crocodile,’ Kaylah said in her reassuring voice.
Lysandra gripped Kaylah’s arm. ‘I need something for my aching head,’ she said.
‘Jena, bring water and some of that ginger and aloe medicine,’ Kaylah commanded over her shoulder.
‘Ouch,’ whispered Lysandra. ‘Please not so loud, Kaylah.’
Kaylah nodded her head in understanding. They waited while Jena fumbled around in the ante room. Jena put the jug of water on the low table and began to pour it into a cup.
‘You’re spilling it everywhere, Jena,’ Kaylah yelled. ‘Put that down and get out of here before I slap you. Make yourself useful and take those clothes to the laundry.’ Lysandra put her fingers in her ears.
‘Sorry,’ Kaylah whispered.
‘How did I get here?’ Lysandra asked.
‘I was woken by a messenger late last night. One of the new Palace guards found you in the old tradesman’s quarters. He’d put you on a couch just outside your rooms. You were in a bad way, covered in puke and mumbling about Marcus. I woke Jena and we helped clean you up and put you in bed.’
‘Thank you, Kaylah. What would I do without you. Do you know who the guard was? I need to offer my thanks.’
‘No, I haven’t seen him before.’
‘What did he look like?’
Kaylah blushed. ‘I was too worried about you to pay him much attention.’
‘Medium. Very muscular. Brown hair with hazel eyes and a nice dimple on the left side of his face when he smiled.’
Lysandra raised an eyebrow. ’So you did notice him. That sounds like Ibby if I’m not mistaken. Kaylah, last night was terrible.’
With an effort, Lysandra pulled herself into a sitting position. Kaylah put some cushions behind her back. She told her all about her meeting with Tefas. How he had seen her father and the father of Khefas carrying out some kind of transaction just before her mother died. ‘What does it mean, Kaylah? Is my father complicit in my mother’s death?’
Kaylah burst into tears.
‘Kaylah, what is it?’
‘I don’t know, it just brings back memories of my mother. At least she had people she loved around her. Excepting me of course.’
Lysandra felt a pang in her gut that had nothing to do with last night’s alcohol. ‘Kaylah, I’ll never forgive myself for not allowing you to go and see her. I hope you’ll forgive me one day.’ She stretched out her arms and embraced Kaylah, her own tears sliding down her cheek.
‘I can’t even bear thinking about what you said about your mother. What are you going to do? Please don’t do anything rash.’
Lysandra held her close and whispered in Kaylah’s ear, ‘I’m terrified. Terrified of my father. Terrified of Khafis. I’m terrified of what happened to my mother. What might happen next? And there’s another thing. I think I have lost Marcus. I was angry with him last night and now I’m sure he hates me and will never speak to me again.’
‘That can’t be, Princess. I can tell that he loves you. Please talk to him again. If he loves you and is true, he will still love you no matter what.’
‘I hope you’re right, Kaylah.’
They sat there quietly, holding each other and rocking to and fro until they heard Jena dropping a laundry basket in the antechamber.
‘What time is it?’ asked Lysandra.
‘It’s the second hour past noon.’
‘Kaylah, I need you to run an important errand for me.’
‘Yes, Princess, but you need to get ready for the final wedding rehearsal. It starts in less than an hour,’ said Kaylah.
‘Kaylah, this is very important. Jena can help me with the wedding rehearsal. She’s not completely incompetent.’
‘I don’t know about that. But yes, Princess, I’ll do anything you ask.’
Lysandra took a sheet of papyrus from the low table near her bed. With a cloth she dried a spot where Jena had spilled some of the water. She dipped a stylus in ink and started to write. She wrote in hieroglyphs just in case. When she was done she blew the ink dry and rolled it into a scroll, tied it and handed it to Kaylah. ‘Now see that this gets into the hands of Europides at the Library.’
Drying her eyes with a cloth and placing the scroll in a hidden pocket inside her sleeve, Kaylah said, ‘Consider it done, Princess.’
Lysandra waited for her to leave then swallowed the cup of medicine. She refilled it and downed it again. Almost before she called out Jena came into her chambers.
Lysandra grimaced and gingerly placed her hand on Khafis’ arm and waited at the entrance of the banquet hall. Vizier Nuth called out in a loud voice: ‘Princess Lysandra of the House of Ptolemy and Khafis of Heliopolis.’ The guests applauded and Lysandra concentrated on walking the steps that she had been taught – each foot slightly crossing the other, with a momentary pause before she placed it on the floor.
The huge sapphire in her golden diadem gave off flashes of blue which she could see reflected in the eyes of the guests. She heard whispers and sighs as she walked down the middle of the hall, her chiton a dazzling white courtesy of the liberal quantities of sulphur applied by the hard-working fullers at the Palace. Her braided hair fell over her chest drawing attention to her breasts, made to look larger by Kaylah’s skilfully placed padding. At her throat she wore a diamond necklace with one large ruby in the middle, drawing guffaws from the noble ladies who had already made a start on the wine. The applause went on for a long time. She flashed her most radiant smile to the guests, adding a wink when she saw Kaylah off to one side of the hall.
At the head table on the raised platform Lysandra took her seat beside Khafis. The empty seats to her left were for Cleo and her husband. Lysandra scanned the faces in the hall. The guests included just about every notable family in Egypt. She recognised many of the court and their families. At the tables near the front were wealthy merchants from Greece and Rome and ambassadors from many countries. Her belief about the sun being the centre of the universe was being challenged, for tonight at least, Alexandria was at its very centre. Far across to the left of the banquet hall she spotted Europides at a table with other scholars. She caught his eye and he gave her a little wave. Her heart caught in her throat when she saw Marcus at the table next to Europides. He was dressed in a wonderful blue chiton that showed off his arms nicely. He seemed absorbed in a conversation with a colleague and didn’t look up.
Trumpets blared and the guests got to their feet and stopped their chatter.
Grand Vizier Nuth announced in his loudest voice: ‘Please welcome the newly-wedded royal couple, Princess Cleopatra and General Tulius of Rome!’
There was a huge cheer. A troupe of drummers followed the royal couple. The guests shouted and stomped their feet and banged on the tables.
Khafis leaned over to Lysandra, his thick perfumes almost suffocating her, and whispered, ‘Tulius is a very powerful man. Your father has done a good job in selecting him for your sister’s husband. It’s a very good match for Egypt. There’s no point resisting Rome so why not join them.’
‘So, you don’t think love has any place in a marriage?’ Lysandra said.
Khafis grinned his hippo smile, clasping his hands to show off his array of golden rings. ‘Love? It has its place. But Princesses are far too valuable a commodity to the kingdom to be thrown away on such a folly as love.’
When the newly-wed couple sat down and the guests had taken their seats, a small army of servants came in with the food. Dish after dish prepared by the best cooks in the Mediterranean were brought in. There were stuffed pigeons followed by antelope steaks in garlic and pepper sauce. There was a dish of roast peacocks and crocodile steaks as well as broiled zebra tongues. Just when it seemed no-one could eat any more, four roasted wild boar were carried on poles by teams of servants and set down on special tables where they were carved by a Cretan master chef. The food was washed down by amphorae of sweet wine from Thrace. Lysandra had to keep waving away the servants wanting to refill her cup. She was determined to keep a clear head. Khafis more than made up for her, scoffing it down like a traveller at a desert oasis. At the end of the meal the tables were cleared away and figs and almond cakes drizzled in honey were brought in and heaped into mountains on golden plates.
Lysandra nibbled on one of the almond cakes. Tradition required the senior sibling of the bride to speak first. Although she had spent some time on the speech, she was nervous when Nuth quietened the guests and introduced her. She pushed back her chair noisily and got to her feet. A thousand eyes were on her.
She cleared her throat and spoke in a clear voice. She spoke first about her and Cleopatra running through the Palace as young girls – although she didn’t mention how everything changed after their mother’s death. She turned to more current matters. ‘This wedding that unites Egypt and Rome should mark the start of a new era. We at Alexandria are rightly proud of our city. Our great lighthouse warns the stranger of danger and our magnificent harbour welcomes them. Our Library houses a collection admired by scholars from all over the world. Now is the time we can look forward to making this resource accessible to all, men and women, girls and boys, from all stations of society.’ There was a murmur at this from some tables but enthusiastic applause from others. She glanced at her father and noticed the deep lines across his forehead. A shiver of apprehension ran through her. Next to her, Khafis coughed loudly. It was the reaction she hoped for. She finished with, ‘A toast to Cleopatra and Tulius!’
‘Cleopatra and Tulius!’
The guests were getting restless by the time Nuth introduced Khafis as the last speaker for the night. Khafis, slurring some of his words, spent most of the time congratulating himself and his family for footing the bill for the catering. At the end he invited everyone to come to the chariot races that his family had organised on the day after the next. ‘It will be free entry to all for not only will you witness a fine day of sport,’ he said, ‘but you will be enthralled by a heart-warming announcement.’
Lysandra didn’t like the sound of that. The guests loved it and applauded. Khafis was a master at making his family appear to be benevolent to the masses. Khafis put his hand on her shoulder when taking his seat. It made her skin crawl.
A band of musicians began to play and the bridal party came out for the formal dances. Lysandra was astonished when she noticed the band was the same one who played at the Crying Jackal. Soon Lysandra was able to slip away. She caught up with Kaylah near a table where sweet wine was being served.
‘What’s the heart-warming announcement?’ Kaylah said.
‘I fear it must be the wedding proposal. But it’s no proposal. It’s an ultimatum. Only two days! This is bad. I thought I might have longer. I must find Europides.’ Lysandra gulped her wine and surveyed the room. She saw him with a group of scholars dancing near the stage.
‘Good heavens. He’s dancing like a madman. Wait here Kaylah,’ Lysandra said, crossing into the middle of the throng of dancers.
People clapped and smiled as she passed them. She received cheers and greetings from everyone.
‘Bless you, Princess.’
‘We look forward to seeing you at the chariot races.’
Two young women from court giggled and one of them said, ‘Congratulations Princess on the big announcement.’
Lysandra managed to get away from them and found Europides who was shaking his hips and clapping his hands to the music.
‘Princess,’ bawled Europides. ‘Dance with us.’
Lysandra rolled her eyes and started swaying in time to the music.
‘Wonderful music,’ said Europides. ‘I have this theory that the rhythm of the music affects the natural rhythms of the body in a precise mathematical formula.’
‘So, you’re not really dancing but performing an experiment?’
‘Ha, ha. Maybe that’s it. This wedding has made me happy.’
‘You sure it isn’t just the Thracian wine?’ Lysandra said.
‘That too,’ said Europides, shuffling in a little circle.
‘Teacher, I need to know if Kaylah gave you a scroll.’
Europides stopped his gyrations and looked gravely at her. ‘Yes.’
‘Has it got any chance of getting through?’
Europides grimaced. ‘It’s almost impossible. It might have happened only once in your family’s entire dynasty.’
‘I feel my time is fast running out.’
‘How long are we talking about?’
Europides rubbed his chin the way he did when talking about some seemingly intractable problem. His eyes narrowed. ‘There’s too many nuances for me. I know what to do. I’ll get one of the leading local law experts onto it. I can’t promise but I’ll see what I can do.’
He held out his hands and took hold of hers.
‘Thank you, teacher,’ she said. Europides bowed then began twisting again when the band started playing a frenetic number. She stepped backwards and stood on somebody’s foot.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said.
‘No problem, Princess,’ said Marcus, beaming at her.
She turned away but felt his hand on her arm. ‘Princess, can we talk?’
‘Alright. There’s a balcony behind a curtain on the eastern wall behind the stage. Go there without drawing attention to yourself. I’ll meet you there shortly.’
After tossing back another cup of the Thracian wine and instructing Kaylah and Jena to keep watch, Lysandra headed towards the back.
The hidden balcony was near the stage, behind a large column carved with images of Bacchus. The balcony was off limits to the entertainers themselves. It was rumoured that Pharaohs of old would meet their lovers here.
The music was loud behind the stage. Even better. She struggled to find the curtain in the dimly lit area. When she did she noticed it was embroidered with images of lyres, pipes and drums. She looked around her and couldn’t see anyone. She took hold of the curtain and hesitated. What would she say to Marcus? Was she being utterly careless? But she so longed to talk to him. She took a deep breath and pulled backed the curtain.
Marcus was leaning against the railing. The small balcony had a fine view down to the harbour. Outside there were bonfires all across the city. The sound of merry-making wafted up from Alexandria’s streets. It seemed the whole city was celebrating.
She cleared her throat. ‘Marcus.’
He swung around and smiled at her. ‘Lysandra, I was so hoping I would see you again.’ He held out her hands but she didn’t take them.
‘I’m sorry for what I said the other night,’ she said.
‘There’s nothing to be sorry about. You had a terrible shock. To think that your father was involved with your mother’s death and that everything you had been told was not right – that’s a tough thing to try and comprehend.’
‘I was scared I’d lost you.’
The light of the moon lit up the left side of his face. His eyes sparkled. ‘Lysandra, I am like a Nile perch on the end of a fisherman’s bronze hook. You couldn’t lose me if you tried.’
Now she leant in towards him. His head tilted towards hers. She kissed him on the lips. ‘Marcus, you must know this is very difficult.’
‘I understand that, Lysandra. I love you and always will. I don’t know what life has in store for us but I know you will always be part of mine.’
They kissed again. His hand stroked her face. The band finished their song. They began a new tune. It was The Princess and the Nightingale. A tingle ran through her from her shoulder blades to her finger tips.
‘Please understand that I am working on something that will give us a chance of a future together.’
Marcus gripped her tightly in his arms. ‘This is wonderful. Please tell me what it is. I will do everything in my power to make it happen.’
‘There’s something that still needs to be done first. Will you be at the chariot races on the day after tomorrow?’
‘Yes, I will. Some of my friends and I have a part share in a racing team. Come and see us there. We would love for you to bestow your favour on our team.’
‘Yes, I will. But I must go now. People may be anxious of my whereabouts.’
‘Of course, Lysandra,’ Marcus said, holding her in his arms and kissing her on the forehead.
‘Just one more thing,’ said Lysandra. She embraced him tightly and kissed him on the mouth. Her tongue parted his lips and he responded. She ran her hands across his back and felt his muscles, taught and sinewy like the anchor ropes on a war-galley. That wasn’t all. She could perceive his manhood stiffening through his robes. She longed to touch it. With her whole being wrapped up in Marcus, she didn’t hear the muffled cough of Kaylah outside or even the curtain being dragged back.
The first she knew they were not alone was the sound of Nuth’s snakelike hiss. ‘This is most improper. At your sister’s wedding.’
Lysandra wheeled around. With Nuth was Khafis, a smile playing at his lips, and two of the Palace guards.
‘Guards, escort this man out of the Palace,’ said Nuth, his lips barely parting.
The guards grabbed Marcus by an arm each.
‘Hands off, I’ll see my own way out,’ said Marcus, pushing past the guards who followed close behind him.
‘It seems a good time for you to retire to your chambers for this evening. Before your father finds you here.’ Nuth said.
‘Why, what would he do, I wonder?’ said Lysandra, blood boiling in her veins.
Nuth retreated through the curtain leaving her with Khafis.
‘Why are you grinning? Aren’t you shocked? Disgusted?’ Lysandra spat at him.
‘I admit to being a little surprised but seeing your passions like this gives me great hope. No-one could ever accuse you of being cold. There’s one hell of a burning fire inside that pretty little body of yours. And when you come to realise the position you’re in, I will be the willing beneficiary of your redirected passions.’
The sleazy smile was too much. Lysandra pushed her way through the curtain and past the middle of the dancers. Kaylah fell in behind her. Lysandra stole a glance at her father at the head table. His look was one of malevolence.
Good! I’ll curse you all the way to the underworld. She ignored the murmurs of the wedding guests as she pushed her way past them.
Lysandra sat on the edge of her bed with a stylus and a sheet of papyrus in her hand. She preferred to be up here than mixing with the bunch of drunk, uncaring nobles or worse, dancing with Khafis down in the Great Hall.
She made a note on the papyrus. Kaylah cried out from the ante-room. ‘Princess, it’s…’
‘Your sister,’ said Cleo bursting through the doorway with a look that could kill an asp.
‘You prefer my company to your wedding?’ Lysandra said.
‘I was enjoying it until you had to try and ruin it. What have I ever done to you to deserve such insolence.’ Her voice was squeaky, not princess-like at all.
‘You might have noticed I was having a great time.’
‘How dare you, bitch. You always want to be the centre of attention. This wedding is not about you. Your time will come, very soon too that’s for sure. For goodness sake even that speech you made was ridiculous. What in the name of Serapis is wrong with you?’
‘Aren’t I permitted to speak my mind? Did you not notice there are guests from all around the world here? This is a celebration of our country. We should be proud of it.’
Cleo waved a finger in her face. ‘Lysandra, don’t you know who we are? We are not here to make public statements. Our opinions are of no importance to anyone. Our worth is in our wombs and what we bring through our marriages. I’ve brought Rome on our side. The greatest military power in the world. And what is your contribution? Kissing some deadbeat scholar from some dying civilisation. Our mother would be turning in her tomb because of the way you acted.’
Lysandra dropped her stylus and papyrus and stepped right in front of Cleo, her nose almost touching hers. She felt something steaming up inside her. ‘Don’t you dare say that about our mother.’
Cleo stepped back warily. She continued in a whisper. ‘I have an informant at court who told me that mother defied father by continuing to study and help other women to learn. She was so obsessed she took a scholar as a lover. She ruined the dynasty’s reputation. She was just like you. At least she made up for it by taking her own life.’
‘Are you stupid?’ Lysandra shouted. ‘Do you believe that oxen-shit? Mother didn’t take her own life. She was murdered.’
‘Shut up!’ Cleo shouted, slapping Lysandra across the face. Lysandra grabbed Cleo around the throat and raised her fist ready to strike.
‘Go on, what are you waiting for?’ Cleo spluttered.
‘Princess, no,’ pleaded Kaylah.
Lysandra stood there, fist raised for a minute. She waited as waves of anger swept over her. She let go of her hold. Red marks were evident at Cleo’s throat.
‘That’s better.’ Cleo gasped. ‘Now the chariot races are going to be very important for our family’s future. Make sure you do what is expected of you.’ She backed away and headed out of her chambers. Cleo’s thyme scented perfumes lingered long after she left.