Olympos nudged the fragments of midnight-blue glass together with the tongs. 'These mustn't be touched, of course, and your guards must be told not to admit anyone at all, sir, particularly not the cleaning slaves, who're stupid enough to try to dispose of them no matter what instructions they have. What about the body itself?'
'He can stay where he is until nightfall,' said Caesar, casting his eyes over the still form of the dead scribe. He observed its little finger twitch very slightly, which was common enough in newly-made corpses and didn't alarm him. 'After that, I suppose the poor fellow will have to be laid out in his own quarters until a funeral can be arranged. Thank the gods this boat is big enough for every man to have his own room! Can you do anything to delay decay a little, doctor?'
'If you're talking about traditional Egyptian embalming, Excellency, then I don't have the skill. Incense will mask the smell, but it's best for him to be disposed of as soon as possible. You Romans cremate, I understand? Palm trees are your best choice. Unless you want to take the easy option and let the crocodiles have him.'
Caesar was thankful that Faberius had already left: Olympos looked as if he meant his last suggestion sincerely. 'I don't think so, doctor. I'm grateful for your assistance. I will call upon you again when we have the opportunity to test the glass.'
Olympos nodded and turned as if to leave, but then paused. 'The queen must be told of this,' he said, not quite meeting Caesar's eyes. The little man was always abrasive and usually bold, but he was well-aware that Caesar wished to keep Celsus' death as quiet as possible. Caesar wondered whether he was also aware of his near-quarrel with the queen earlier in the afternoon. Gossip spread aboard this boat like a summer fever.
'I will tell Cleopatra what has happened myself,' said Caesar firmly. 'One last thing, doctor: who might be able to get their hands on a poison like aconite?'
'It would have been imported, since Egypt doesn't have the right sort of soil for the plant to grow. Readily available in Alexandria, like almost everything. I have some myself. It can be used as a treatment for several conditions in very mild doses. Someone with money, Caesar. I'm afraid that doesn't narrow it down much.'
Caesar thought for a moment. 'Is your own supply untouched?'
'Could the murderer have pilfered my cabin, you mean? I haven't checked my medicines for a day or so. I'll have to have a look and let you know if anything's gone astray.'
'You have an apprentice?'
Olympos' bushy eyebrows rose. 'Yes, but I've known my boy since he was seven years old. I know every detail of his business: he has no one to kill on this boat.'
The doctor nodded and withdrew.
Caesar listened, waiting for the sound of Olympos' footsteps to die away. He took one last sweeping look around the room, fixing the scene in his mind: nothing apart from Celsus himself struck him as out of place. A single scroll stuck out a finger's width further than it should; he coaxed it gently back into alignment with the others.
After a few words to the sentry on the door, Caesar set out towards the bow of the barge, where he could at least look out and take in the country around him. Every moment of inactivity chafed like another man's armour.
There was a spot on the port side he particularly favoured, where, at this time of the day, the shaded portico that ran around the edge of the deck cast a welcome shadow. He clasped the wooden rail with both hands and peered out at the shore, which was closer on this side than the other. He took pride in his eyesight, which remained keen and sharp, despite his age. Two boys, traditional linen kilts wrapped around their waists, could be seen leading a line of sturdy camels, each burdened with a stack of papyrus reeds. One of the boys pointed at something on the black river mud and both let out excited shouts. Realising it wasn't the sight of the royal flotilla that interested them, Caesar turned his head to see what they were looking at. A gigantic Nile crocodile was tearing at a substantial lump of grey flesh – a hippopotamus carcass. It was hard to estimate the animal's size at such a distance, but Caesar guessed that if he were to lay down next to it, the reptile would be more than twice as long. What a magnificent monster it was: if several of them could be captured and transported to Rome alive, they would cause a sensation. It was easy to see why Sobek, the crocodile-headed protector god, was worshipped so fervently here. So fervently, in fact, that there was apparently even a temple south of Alexandria whose priests cared for a whole bask of crocodiles, which were carefully mummified when they died. Cleopatra intended to visit this place, which was formally called Arsinoe, but informally known by Egyptian Greeks as 'Crocodilopolis', on their return journey. One of the little lads yelled again – a second, even larger, beast had emerged from the depths of the murky water and began snapping at the first, trying to force him to give way. For a time, the carcass was forgotten as the crocodiles became a whirl of ripping jaws and slapping, scaled tails, bloodying the muddy water. Caesar found himself watching rapt as if the beasts were two veteran gladiators putting on a demonstration at his school in Capua. The invader emerged the victor, tearing a vicious chunk out of his opponent's thick neck, which sent him slithering downstream. If he had been a dog, he would have gone whimpering. As the crocodile settled down to enjoy his meal, the boys continued on their way, chattering animatedly.
Caesar remained at the rail for some time as Ra made his unvarying journey across the sky. It seemed appropriate to think in the language of the ancient Egyptian religion down here, where life hadn't changed for a thousand years. For the most part, he was undisturbed. Only once did the dutiful Meles venture out to ask if he needed anything. Blue began to give way to amber and pink and the foliage lining the shore merged into a single dark silhouette. He was gently shaken away from his thoughts by the sensation of his lover's small hand settling on top of his; he smelt the faint scent of camomile left from her bath.
'Have you been out here all afternoon?' she asked for his ears alone. He turned to look behind them. As always, the queen was attended by her favourite handmaidens, a courtier or two, and a couple of additional slaves in case she should need anything to be fetched, but at least they were hovering a courteous distance away from their mistress. One of Cleopatra's women – the one called Iras, he remembered, a pretty, dark-haired creature with mischief always twitching the corner of her mouth – had recent tear tracks staining her cheeks.
'I find it pleasurable to observe life in all its forms along your river,' he replied amiably, pleased that she had sought him out. She was unostentatiously dressed in a Greek-style white gown elegantly adjusted to accommodate her pregnancy and clasped at the shoulders by a pair of golden scarabs, their details picked out in lapis lazuli and tiny Indian rubies. It perfectly represented the fusion between the two parts of her kingdom, which was undoubtedly her design. The flat white diadem of her royal Macedonian ancestors was bound over her hair and knotted at the nape of her neck, where its ends hung down to meet the back of her dress. The contrast between the white and the shimmering black of her hair drew his eyes to her ears, whose attached lobes were hung with delicate clusters of tiny pearls. He repressed a strong urge to press his lips to the side of her neck; he had given her the earrings when he had learnt she was with child: he hoped that her decision to wear them was a sign that she came in peace.
She sighed and smiled, which he returned gladly with a warm smile of his own. She was close enough for him to feel the brush of her arm against his own. 'I have wished to return to Upper Egypt for a long time. Everything is very simple here: the Nile floods, crops grow in the black land, the people are strong, and their animals thrive and breed. I find it soothing to be away from the hubbub of Alexandria for a time.'
'Well, then, I'm delighted to have been able to help you find some tranquillity,' said Caesar, tucking her hand into the crook of his arm. 'What's wrong with your woman there?'
A wrinkle appeared between Cleopatra's brows. 'Nothing that shouldn't be wrong with her: she displeased me.'
'May I ask what her crime was?'
'She begged to leave my presence this morning, saying she felt ill. I found out later that she had, in fact, planned to meet some young man in secret. She's lucky I haven't packed her off back to Alexandria in disgrace. My women must be above reproach in their behaviour.'
Caesar wondered at Iras' naivety in forgetting that the queen's eyes and ears were everywhere. That the queen herself had taken a lover would naturally not mean that her women were allowed the same freedom. 'How foolish of her,' he said sincerely.
'Where's that old scribe of yours who follows you everywhere like a dog?' she asked suddenly, looking around. Caesar nearly laughed aloud – Faberius was, if anything, slightly younger than he was himself.
There was no help for it: he must shatter that peace of hers, although he tried to do it as gently as possible. 'I'm afraid he's investigating the sudden death of one of his junior scribes earlier this afternoon. The man may have been murdered.'
She shot him a look of alarm. 'What do you mean, Caesar?'
He related all the details of the story of their discoveries in the study, keeping his voice low. Cleopatra's retinue probably thought he was whispering poetry into their mistress' ear and laughing behind their hands at an old man's lovesick foolishness.
'And why are you so interested in the death of a servant?' she asked, with all the unconscious haughtiness one would expect of an eastern monarch – or a Roman patrician, for that matter.
'Celsus was a Roman citizen, Cleopatra, not a servant. But I'm interested in what became of him principally because his murderer is still somewhere on the Ptolemais – as are you and our child. We don't know yet whether Celsus' killer will strike again or whether he – or she – still has any of the aconite left. Keep your taster close at hand, please, until we get to the bottom of this.'
Her brow wrinkled again and she pursed her lips, both signs he recognised by now of her considering a matter carefully. 'You say the fellow's cup was poisoned? The cup he brought into your study with him?'
'Yes, most probably. As I said, Olympus suggested that we find an animal when we next dock to test it by licking the surface of the glass.'
'I don't see why that's necessary.'
Caesar frowned. 'I'm not sure the rats in the hold will oblige us, my dear.'
Cleopatra gave him a look of pure exasperation. 'Olympus is a physician. He has sworn by Apollo, Asclepius and the rest of his gods never to administer poison to any man, woman or child, or recommend that another does so. Naturally, he suggested using an animal for your purpose. You and I, Caesar, are bound by no such restriction. Order a slave to lick the cup and see what happens.'
Her callousness didn't shock him. Slaves were tools of their masters and mistresses and sometimes they could serve better by dying than by living. Nonetheless, he objected: 'I have few enough slaves with me as it is, Cleopatra. I would prefer not to sacrifice one of them when a stray hound from the next village will do the job just as well.'
'Then let me give you one of mine so that the matter may be resolved as soon as possible,' she said, and clicked her fingers. Iras trotted forward, clearly eager to be as obliging as possible. She bowed low. Caesar's breath caught – surely the girl's offence didn't call for such a harsh punishment? But he had guessed wrongly, and all Cleopatra said was: 'Go below and find the overseer of the rowers. Instruct him to have his laziest man escorted up to the Dictator's study off the Hall of Alexander at once.' Iras bowed low again and swept away towards the nearest staircase leading to the rowers' deck below their feet. The queen turned to Caesar again. 'Shall we?'
Some minutes later, they approached the doorway of the study once again. The legionary on duty, liberally decorated with battle honours like his centurion, sprang to attention.
'Anything to report, Minicius?'
'No, sir. Quiet as a tomb.'
Caesar couldn't repress a tight grin at the legionary's morbid sense of humour. 'Ha bloody ha, Minicius. Corpse still there, then, I take it? Not gone walkabout?'
'No, sir. Centurion Alfius said he'd have it shifted after nightfall, sir.'
'Excellent. There's a slave on the way up to us – one of the rowers. Make sure he's sent in directly he arrives.'
'Your Majesty,' said Caesar to Cleopatra, 'would you be kind enough to send for your physician so that he can witness our test?' The queen raised an eyebrow at one of the anonymous slaves and gestured slightly with her hand. He scurried off.
The study was shrouded in near-darkness, the sun now so low that the skylight was of no benefit. Celsus' form still slumped over the desk; stiffness had begun to set in, and one of his arms pointed towards the scroll shelf at an odd angle.
'Light the lamps,' ordered Cleopatra. The remaining slave, assisted by the handmaiden Charmian, proceeded to do so, until the shadows in the room danced in the dim light of twenty or so oil lamps.
'Mistress,' came Iras' mellifluous voice from the doorway, 'the slave is here.'
'Have him brought in,' said Caesar. Iras' eyes flicked to Cleopatra, who nodded assent.
The man was a hulking specimen stinking of sweat, whose highly developed shoulders and thighs suggested many months spent at his oar – but the densely layered net of fresh and old whip marks across his back explained why he had been offered up. His eyes went wide when he caught sight of his queen, then sank to the mosaiced floor. His hands were bound: perhaps the overseer had foreseen Cleopatra's wish. The legionary Minicius, who had escorted the wretch in, kept one hand firmly on his shoulder as he pushed him roughly to his knees.
Olympos strode through the door, raised an eyebrow at the scene before him and bowed his bald head to the queen. Immediately perceiving the solution Cleopatra had found to the delay, he withdrew the metal tongs from his bag once more and spread the pieces of Celsus' glass out on the table. It seemed that everything was ready.
'Very well,' said Caesar, keen to proceed. 'Your Majesty, if you would…'
But Cleopatra would not lower herself to speak to such a lowly creature herself and the order came from Charmian instead. 'Slave, you will touch your tongue to the surface of every piece of glass on the table. You are serving your goddess and should rejoice.'
The slave was permitted to rise. Many emotions played across his face: fear, certainly, and apprehension, but also a kind of awe. Caesar still wondered at the seriousness with which her people took Cleopatra's identification with Isis, great mother of Egypt and wife of Osiris. This man clearly believed Charmian's exhortation quite literally and moved to obey without question, no matter what might become of him.
His hands remained bound; he planted his bare feet far apart to balance himself and bent over the first piece of blue glass like a bird drinking out of a puddle. His tongue slid across the smooth service and Caesar held his breath, even though he knew the poison might not produce an immediate effect. The slave moved along the line of fragments, licking each one. Then he turned around and looked uncertainly around before lowering his eyes to his feet. No one moved.
'How long before you would expect the symptoms to be observable, doctor?' asked Caesar.
Olympos narrowed his eyes. 'Its potency will be less than when Celsus imbibed it, Excellency… Longer, perhaps. It's difficult to be sure. We must wait.'
And wait they did, as Celsus grew stiffer and the sky above their heads darkened enough to reveal the glitter of stars. A chair was fetched in for the queen. The slave remained standing before them, shuffling his feet a little, but otherwise unchanged.
The physician peered closely at the slave, adjusted the angle of his chin with a finger and made a noise of annoyance. 'Nothing, Majesty. The test is inconclusive.'
Cleopatra eyed Caesar. 'Perhaps we can now dine in peace?'
'Perhaps,' said Caesar, perplexed. His own father had died relatively young leaning over to put on his shoes. Could something similar have happened to Celsus? Struck down suddenly as if by some angry god?
One mystery certainly remained no matter how he had died, Caesar reflected: why had he been in the study in the first place?
Thanks for reading! Please leave a review if you have a moment. Next time, we'll see what Faberius has been up to.