Mors in Nilo
Aboard the Ptolemais, state barge of the royal house of Egypt, a man and a woman lay together on a vast cedarwood bed canopied in silk the colour of the Nile itself, fugitives from the punishing afternoon sun.
'You are being childish,' he said, frowning. 'I can't stay here forever. I still have a war to win, which you know as well as I do.'
She levered herself up onto her elbow so that she was looking down at him. Anger forced the breath out of her nostrils in staccato puffs and her temples throbbed. She lowered her hand to the naked dome of her belly and thrust it towards him. 'Childish, am I? Your son – your only child, you insist - will be born in two moons at most and you tell me you planning to leave. You intend to disown him and make me out to be a whore before the whole world? Was that your intention all along?' She had no doubt that was what her enemies would say. Used and tossed carelessly aside until she was needed again – would that be Egypt's fate as an ally of Rome as well as her own?
He rose effortlessly, kicking away the linen sheets so that he could sit crossed-legged beside her. Even at nearly fifty-three, he was a finely built man, his firm muscles and taught skin a reminder of the decade and more he had spent rampaging across northern Europe at the head of an army. It had been a pleasant surprise to find him so on that night they met the previous autumn, when she had expected to be disgusted by the slackened body of a man so much her senior. He reached out and placed a long-fingered hand over the one she still held over their unborn child. Her heir, even if not his. 'That night you had yourself smuggled into the palace,' he said quietly, as if he had read her mind, 'I swore to you by my gods and yours that we would be allies, didn't I? Have I ever given you any reason to doubt my good faith? What kind of protection can I provide for Egypt – and my son here – if my enemies remain at large?'
'An excuse! They are surely nothing without their dead leader?'
His frown deepened. 'Pompeius may be dead, but he was my dear friend in comparison with the others that claim they represent the Republic rather than the disease corrupting it. I should have left months ago.'
She tensed even more, offended. He inwardly winced at his misstep. 'Then why didn't you? You made me queen again, as you promised. You killed my little shit of a brother, for which I will be thankful forever. Why didn't you then leave immediately? Why give me hope you would stay for the birth?' The rising volume of her interrogation made him wish for the thick stone walls of the palace back in Alexandria. The usual slaves hovering discretely around the edges of the high-ceilinged bedchamber were one thing, but several of his officers were also accommodated on the colossal royal barge, and this was the sort of conversation he would prefer them not to overhear.
'I wish that I could, Cleopatra.' In truth, the news born south by fast riverboat that Pharnaces of Pontus was attacking Roman territory and successfully resisting the attempts of his subordinates there to put him down had been timely. His unplanned sojourn in Egypt had provided him with a much-needed rest, not to mention the pleasure of this bewitching young woman's company, but he had no wish to be present for the birth: if it went wrong, the grief would be easier to bear at a distance. Both his first wife and his only daughter had died in childbirth; the last newborn baby he had held had been his tiny son, who had died in his arms thirty years before, silent and blue. No, better to leave as soon as they returned to Alexandria and offer copious sacrifices to Venus and to the strange dwarf god Bes, Egyptian guardian of mothers, instead. 'First, it seems I must defeat Pharnaces, and after that, when I've finished mopping up the last of the self-titled "best men" and am back in Rome properly for a while, I'll send word. Will you come to me then?'
'To be what, Caesar? Your exotic foreign mistress?' she said, tartly. 'You can pick up one of those at any good slave market.'
He sucked on his top lip impatiently: her temper was harder to overcome than Vercingetorix and he was out of practice in placating angry women. He resorted to unsubtle flattery. 'I'm afraid that just won't do, my love. Believe me, I have no intention of never seeing you again. If you don't come to me, I'll have to find some pretext to return to you instead – perhaps when I invade Parthia in a few years' time. I would rather not wait that long, however. And, of course, I'll want to meet the young fellow currently swimming around in there.'
Oh, that charming smile, those intense, ebony eyes. And his fingertips had begun sliding away from her belly to feather over her arm, then the undersides of her breast – fuller and more sensitive than ever before. If he had been an Alexandrian army officer – or a courtier or merchant prince or even one of the scholars at the Museion – he could have stayed with her forever. But she knew herself well enough to dismiss any idea that she would ever have found a simple man like that appealing. In front of her, entirely at ease despite his nakedness, was the most powerful man in the world: a thought which still sent a more powerful thrill through her than his caresses. Not only was he a mighty general and a cunning politician, he was the only man she had ever found whose intellectual abilities and interests matched her own. And there was a price to be paid – he had his kingdom to see to just as she did hers. She would have to let him go.
But not just yet.
She leaned into his touch, reaching out with her free hand to draw designs on his calf. He wriggled a little, as she had intended. 'I will come if circumstances permit,' she conceded. 'I would not mind seeing Rome again. My Latin has become rusty.'
The look of unfeigned surprise on his face delighted her. 'How can it be that in all the months I've known you that you never mentioned that you speak my language?'
'I don't speak it very well,' she said, in perfect Latin. 'in comparison with my other languages. My father thought it of little importance, I'm afraid. I picked it up in bits and pieces.'
Curious to test her proficiency, he also switched to Latin. 'You came with your father, then, after he was deposed by your sister Berenice? What age were you? Ten?'
She tugged on his forearm until he consented to recline on his elbow again, mirroring her own pose. He curved his free arm around the traces of her waist, gathering her closer. 'Nearly twelve when we arrived, rising fifteen when we left. I grew into womanhood in your city.'
He smiled ruefully. 'And had I not been battling away in Gaul, we might well have met. That time feels like a dream: Pompeius was still my friend and ally then.'
'And my father's representative in his negotiations with the senate. He thought it a very fine thing to have a Ptolemy in his clientele. We were invited to his house for dinner every so often. I was told to say as little as possible – and, in any case, I was far too nervous to – but I remember that his wife was always kind to me.'
His hand twitched against her skin; when he spoke next there was a hollowness to his voice and his gaze shifted so that he wasn't quite looking at her. 'You met my Julia, then. I hadn't set eyes on her for four years when she died.'
'Yes. She was very beautiful. Her husband was extremely attentive to her, so much so that even I noticed a few guests smiling behind their hands. It was amazing to me – my family aren't exactly known for happy marriages.'
His distant expression didn't alter. 'Completely unexpectedly, they were like Paris and Helen from their first meeting. It made no difference that she was barely seventeen and he forty-six. It was the strangest thing – or so I thought then.' He smiled a little now, meeting her eyes again. 'My time with you has helped me to understand a little better. You share her vibrancy, her intelligence, her wit…'
'I was sorry to hear that her son died as well,' she said carefully, taking his hand and stroking his knuckles with the pad of her thumb. 'A grandchild would have been some consolation to you.' He pulled away sharply and she thought she had chosen her words poorly, but it was to replace his palm on her belly just where it pressed against his own.
'Was that him?' he demanded, his excitement causing the pitch of his voice to rise a little. 'Was that a punch or a kick? Can you tell?'
She smiled fondly at his enthusiasm. It seemed even a seasoned man of the world could still be enchanted by his own unborn child. 'I have no idea,' she replied, reverting to Greek, 'but he's doing that quite often now. I think you can be sure that your son will be as mighty a man as his father. Try pushing down just here…' And when the child kicked back in response, a broad grin exploded across her lover's face. He leaned in to kiss her deeply and they didn't speak again for some time.
'If our son is born safely,' he said eventually, 'I swear I will donate funds for the building of a temple to Isis in Rome. Do you think your goddess will accept a Roman's vow?'
'Certainly, but won't your famously hidebound Romans disapprove of such foreign influences?'
'Oh, I'm sure there will be murmurings from some of my fellow noblemen, but they will quieten down soon enough.'
She pressed boldly onto a subject she had not dared ask him about before: 'And your wife? What will she say when our son and I come to Rome?'
He looked at her blankly. 'It's none of her concern. You will be a visiting ally of the Republic. As dictator – or consul again, possibly, by then, I will naturally welcome you to the city. I have a fine villa across the Tiber that you might use.'
'What is she like? Calpurnia, isn't it?'
'Yes, but I barely know her. I've spent almost as much time in your company as hers, my queen. Since our marriage over a decade ago I've been in Rome for mere weeks.'
'You must have gained some impression of her – doesn't she write to you?'
He snorted softly, more at her dogged persistence than at the question itself. 'Sometimes, but I can rarely afford the time to correspond for fun. She's pleasant enough – and virtuous, more importantly. I hope to know her better after I return.' He lifted his hand to her cheek, as if to focus her attention. 'Cleopatra, I have no desire to discuss my wife in your bed!' He hooked his heel around her calf and gathered her back into his arms, relishing the softness of her. 'Come – we have a little more time before we need to rise and I can think of better things to do than talk. I shouldn't have brought up my departure until we returned to Alexandria.'
He found himself roughly shoved away. 'I am no weak Roman woman to be coddled and patronised, Caesar!' She manoeuvred herself – even at six or seven moons pregnant, she had found her movements growing more awkward – onto the edge of the bed, pushed aside the sheer linen curtains and held out her arms for the gold-embroidered robe her servant woman brought to her. 'I've rested enough. Charmian, prepare a bath.'
He bit back a pointless comment about her being ridiculous and decided on an orderly retreat for the time being. He dressed in silence, pulling on his white tunic with its purple stripe, which had been left carefully folded on a stool, and laced up lighter sandals than the hobnailed boots he customarily wore on land. His own valet, Meles, a sombre Spaniard of few words and even fewer facial expressions, approached with a basin of water and a comb. Caesar took this himself and carefully arranged his hair so that the cursed ever-expanding bald patch was obscured. As was his habit, Meles nodded slightly when this was achieved, but then made no move to leave.
'What is it, Meles?'
'Titus Faberius is waiting for you outside, sir.'
He smiled. 'Good. An hour or so of writing is just what I need.'
He found his chief secretary and friend of twenty years leaning with his back to the rail, writing case in his right hand, staring up into the endless blue sky. Faberius had as much silver as black in his hair these days and the beard he had worn so unfashionably for years had gone. His wife had died in the winter before Caesar had been forced to invade Italy, and he had begun shaving as an idiosyncratic expression of sorrow – mourners usually let their hair and beards grow.
'What is it you're looking at?'
'Ibis. It's been following the barge for the last mile or so. Keeps looking straight at me like I'm its prey.'
'That'll be the scribe-god, Thoth, Titus. He's keeping an eye on you.'
'I suppose I should be grateful, then. I wasn't expecting you for a while yet, Caesar. How's the queen today?' Faberius winked impudently.
'In her bath. I told her about Pharnaces.'
'Ah. I thought I heard raised voices. I assume she wasn't pleased?'
'To say the least. Tell me, Titus, was your Blossia irrational and unreasonable during her pregnancies? I don't remember Cornelia being like that at all.'
'I think it varies from woman to woman and I imagine sovereign monarchs feel they're entitled to be as irrational and unreasonable as they like.'
'In many ways, I'll be sorry to go – and no, don't look at me like that, not just because of Cleopatra. Look at this land, Titus!' He gestured at the dark riverbank and the desert hills beyond. 'Irrigation systems that have worked for thousands of years; granaries full and replenished several times a year; a purposeful, content populace. These peasants aren't turfed off their lands by rapacious senators and left to rely on state hand-outs, to be sure.'
'Thank the gods,' said Faberius. 'Alexandria's turbulent enough as it is without the kind of vicious scumbags you get lurking on street corners in the Subura.'
'It's turbulent, I agree, but with a little care and attention the citizens could be kept in much better order. Compare Alexandria to Rome, Titus – which looks more like it should be the world's foremost city? Here they have wide avenues set at right angles and even street lighting. Back home, you had better know exactly where you're going, or you might get lost in moments in all those winding little alleys strewn with shit. And the Museion! We need a library like that. Our own centre of learning constantly churning out ideas. It's about time Rome started producing scientists and scholars of our own, rather than relying on others. Why should our young men still have to go abroad to complete their education?'
'You sound like you would happily swap places with your queen in there.'
Caesar sniffed the air dramatically. 'Certainly not. I can't stand camomile in my bath.' He clapped his secretary on the shoulder, grinning at his look of disgust. 'Come on, Faberius. Can't have you standing here all day looking at wildlife when there're commentaries to write, can we?'
'No poetry today? I concede they serve a purpose, but, forgive me, Caesar, your commentaries are dull things to write.'
'Cicero said the ones on Gaul were models of clarity and efficiency.'
'Ha! You'll have to compose your own verses, Titus. None of the poetic muses are whispering to me today.'
The two Romans strolled towards the stern of the gigantic vessel, whose deck rested upon twin hulls, each with space for fifteen banks of oarsmen. These unseen men were in the process of propelling the ship south at a leisurely pace to the First Cataract at Syene, where they would turn around and ride the current back to the mouth of the Nile where it joined with the canal that led back to the capital city on the coast. Always a keen student of geography, Caesar was looking forward to visiting the spot on Elephantine Island where Eratosthenes had calculated the circumference of the world nearly two hundred years before. Behind them stretched a vast flotilla of smaller ships, each bearing a contingent of courtiers or Caesar's own soldiers.
They passed through a colonnaded hall. Fittingly, for the state ship of the first Ptolemaic monarch to speak Egyptian, the columns were topped with lotus-bloom capitals to resemble those of the ancient temples they regularly passed on the shore and were painted brightly in red, green and blue. Their soles smacked against a floor intricately mosaiced with a scene depicting the deeds of Alexander the Great. Around the edges of this space were several small rooms set aside for study or administration, should the queen need to attend to letter-writing or decrees while she travelled. Caesar had commandeered one of these as his own private workroom, to which he retreated almost daily to labour at one or other of his literary projects with Faberius. A legionary was permanently stationed outside to prevent Cleopatra's servants from disturbing his papers, but Caesar raised his eyebrows in surprise when he recognised the man on duty.
'Quintus Alfius? Since when do centurions in my legions have to endure sentry duty?'
The officer straightened and cleared his throat. He was in full parade armour – Cleopatra had insisted upon it for any of Caesar's soldiers stationed on the Ptolemais – weighed down by silver phalerae discs awarded for bravery and wearing the traditional transverse-crested helmet. 'Sir, I was just about to send for you. We found a body in your library.'
Author's Note: And suddenly a lovely, indulgent conversation between Caesar and Cleopatra turns into a murder mystery on the Nile... Not sure quite how that happened. Thanks for reading and please leave a review if you have time. Not quite convinced by this idea and all encouragement appreciated!