Authors: Emily Holleman
“Will Aspasia and Hypatia join me for today’s lessons?” she called after her tutor.
“Put your playmates from your mind.”
Arsinoe said nothing. She didn’t want her playmates anyway. She could renounce them if she must. She needed only Cleopatra. To her sister, Arsinoe might confess all, under the laurel tree in the forgotten gardens of Ptolemy the Potbelly. There they used to whisper away the afternoons, hidden from all interruptions. And she knew, with certainty, that Cleopatra would fix everything; she’d teach her how to impress the court. Her sister was the one who had convinced their father that Arsinoe needed a tutor of her own—that it wasn’t fair to leave her behind with no one to teach her every time Cleopatra sailed.
But as it was, her sister was a memory, nothing more. Arsinoe had only Ganymedes, so she needed to show him, to prove how much she’d changed. If he lost faith in her, she’d have no one left. Except maybe her fire-bearded guard. And who knew what had become of him? She’d seen neither hide nor hair of her Menelaus since he’d left her food on that first frightful night. She’d been a fool to think her recent victories would be enough. Myrrine was to blame; the nurse had been too free in her encouragements, too eager to pretend that the way she’d met her trials had been remarkable. And now, though attended, she felt lonelier than she had before.
The interior of Alexandria’s great library had been stripped bare of life. Arsinoe gasped at the metamorphosis. In the main gallery, where dozens of wizened scholars once bent, copying ancient scrolls to fresh ones, there sat nothing but rows upon rows of barren desks. Far across the sea, there must have been some parallel palace, bustling with all the disappeared: Aspasia and Hypatia; her two little brothers and her mother as well; her father’s guards, though she could only picture them as headless corpses; and these departed sages, the kindly men who’d doted on her and, in happier days, allowed her to braid their winding beards.
“Take a seat, my child.” Ganymedes guided her to an empty bench. Several scrolls were furled upon its companion table. They must have been abandoned as their readers fled. “Don’t dwell on what’s gone,” her eunuch counseled. “Your lessons still must be learned; more histories await your eyes. I’ll return with those scrolls in a moment.”
The eunuch scuttled off toward the scholars’ dormitories. Arsinoe couldn’t imagine what those chambers looked like now. Usually the building rattled with men drinking and eating and talking on divans, but she imagined that it, too, must lie empty, its cells and halls forsaken. Her eyes wandered over the scrolls; they were not ordinary texts but rolled with care and love and devotion onto rods of gold and silver and bronze. She traced a careful finger along one cold knob. A dark streak stained the metal; scholars flickered before her eyes, desperate in their flight. As one ancient ran, blood burgeoning on his tunic, he tripped and splayed his papers on the desk. Curiosity pressed her to unfurl the papyrus, to see what other evidence lay on the page, but she didn’t. That was why Ganymedes had left them there: to tempt her. She wouldn’t give him that satisfaction.
Her skin prickled. Someone was watching. She glanced about the gallery, half expecting to find a lingering fiend, blood-tried ax in hand, ready to kill her once and for all. Instead, a pair of familiar gray-green eyes stared back at her.
“Alexander!” She sprang up and rushed to embrace the boy. “My beloved Alexander!” she declared. Forgotten were the days when her entourage of girls had teased and taunted him. They’d called him Athena for his strange eyes and stranger presence in their female set. But that hardly mattered now. He was here, and he was
“Dioscorides didn’t make you return home?”
“My father told me if you were safe within these walls, I’d be as well.” Alexander shrugged his bony shoulders.
Her eyes narrowed at the boy. She recognized the rehearsal in his words; her own practiced phrases took on the same emphases, no matter how hard she tried to speak them plainly.
“And what of your mother, then?” she asked. “Didn’t she want you to join her in the countryside?” Arsinoe could hardly imagine Cynane remaining alone within the city walls.
—doesn’t much care what happens to me.” He met her eyes, daring her to fling back insults.
Arsinoe chewed her lip. She’d forgotten that Alexander was born a bastard; she didn’t put much stock in such distinctions. Least of all now, when Berenice had named her a bastard too. It was the father’s blood that mattered, not the mother’s.
“What have we here?” Ganymedes loosed a second set of scrolls onto the table. In the eunuch’s presence, her friend transformed. His shoulders slumped, his knees trembled, his gaze fixed on the stone. Her tutor had this effect on many of her companions. They were frightened of him. She was not.
“Alexander’s remained within the palace,” Arsinoe replied with a touch of glee. “Not all my friends have left me. Sometimes, Ganymedes, even you are misinformed.”
“You asked after Aspasia and Hypatia. I told you they were gone. This one’s name never passed your lips. I assumed you didn’t care whether he’d stayed or fled. Or died.”
She laughed in answer. Ganymedes enjoyed teasing her playmates, trying to turn them away from her. Besides, her own anger had turned against the eunuch—he’d wanted to make her feel lonely and forgotten. She pulled Alexander to sit beside her on the bench and bent to whisper loudly in his ear, “He wishes that we take him seriously. That is why he affects such low tones: he wants us to think him a man.”
“That’s enough, Arsinoe,” the eunuch admonished. “Alexander, you’ve made enough mischief for one lesson. Go make yourself a nuisance elsewhere.”
“If Alexander goes, then so do I.”
Her companion’s return had emboldened her. Her sister Berenice had power over her life and death, and might have her murdered as she slept, but what nastiness could Ganymedes—or any eunuch—inflict upon a Ptolemy? “If you wish to teach me, you must teach us both.”
To her surprise, her tutor smirked at her insolence. “If you wish to study with him, so you may. But see that the boy remembers that I’m no easy teacher. If he wants to learn beside one of the great members of the House of Ptolemy, he’ll do it well, and to my satisfaction.”
“I’ve learned beside her before,” Alexander spoke up. Arsinoe smiled at her friend’s retort. He sat taller now that she’d defended him, and he talked without a trace of the stammer that she and Aspasia had so often mocked. “The circumstances haven’t changed so much.”
“Then you were one of many, and if your recitations lagged behind some of the others—and believe me, boy, they did—it didn’t make much difference. If I should teach you two alone, the role of inspiration falls all the heavier upon you.”
The boy nodded solemnly, ready to accept the eunuch’s terms. This irked Arsinoe, how easily everyone swam downstream. She wasn’t so readily placated. She was itching, suddenly, for a fight. She’d been so pliant, so sweet; what good had it done her?
“If you keep taunting him, Alexander and I will simply go.” She slapped her hand against the table. She hit it too hard, and the rough cypress stung her palm. She bit her lip hard enough to draw salty blood; she wouldn’t succumb to tears. “Won’t we, Alexander?”
Her friend fell dumb. The eunuch spoke instead. “Sit. Your trials don’t excuse impudence. You aren’t an entirely dull child. I’d hoped these recent days would help you realize the importance of your studies.”
“He speaks the truth, Arsinoe,” Alexander agreed readily.
“How would you know?” Her eyes flicked from Ganymedes to Alexander, and back again. “Were you imprisoned in your chambers, or were the lives of a tutor and a playmate not deemed worthy of such interruptions? Did you watch as your guards were hacked to pieces? Did you beg an audience with Berenice? I endured all that alone. I begged and wheedled for my life alone. And now you—both of you—dare tell me how I must act. As though I were still that pampered child who you knew under my father’s reign.”
“Alexander.” The eunuch’s voice dropped to a low growl. “Leave us a moment.”
Her friend stood but he didn’t inch away.
“No.” Arsinoe took care to keep her own tone firm. She refused to sound like a whining child. “I told you, Ganymedes. Alexander stays.”
“If that’s what you prefer. I merely wanted to save you some embarrassment. If you’d prefer to flaunt your childish tempers for all of Alexandria to see, far be it from me to stop you.”
“No matter how I act, you call me a child. I speak to my sister, I plead with wit and wisdom for my life, and still I’m nothing but a child to you. And so what does it matter if I now rave in front of you and Alexander and all the city too? What punishment can you give me that will match the harm Berenice might inflict at any moment?” She spat her words, her venom. But it didn’t make her feel any better.
Ganymedes studied her for a long while. She refused to cower beneath his gaze. And then he spoke. “You wish that I would congratulate you, to pat your back and stroke your hair for not getting yourself killed. You wish me to tell you how wise and brave you must have been, how proud I am of my most brilliant student, whose remarkable knowledge of both the ancient texts and the human character has bought her life. You wish to bask in rosy words, my dear, and pretend that you live in some rosy world. I know that well.”
Arsinoe’s pride burned because the eunuch was right. She had wanted all that praise, and she wished she’d let Alexander run off that she might carry her shame alone. But when the boy squeezed his fingers around her wrist, she didn’t pry them away.
“That, my dear,” said the eunuch, continuing in this new vein, “would defeat the purpose. You’ve cleared one hurdle but a long race remains. To bask in each small triumph is not only foolish; it’s dangerous. Your victories bring you something far dearer than my praise: your life. How would you rather spend your days: at leisure, wandering and learning nothing, like some craftsman’s daughter, or with your nose buried deep in the great tragedies, your mind at work learning mathematics, and history, and Syrian and Hebrew and other tongues as well?”
She wanted to deny him, to banish him from her sight, to scorn him as he’d scorned her. To be alone, forever. But she could not. She needed what he offered. Education made queens. “I should like to continue my learning.”
“Very well, then.” The eunuch opened the first scroll. “We return to our study, then, of Polybius’s
of how the Romans conquered first Carthage, and then the Macedonians, and finally the Greeks. And what, from all those conquests, we here in Alexandria might learn today.”
he soot-faced woman balanced a babe on her hip as she spoke. Her other child, a boy, half of his face shielded by a filthy bandage, clung to her wrist. Perched on her provisional throne, Berenice struggled to catch the peasant’s words. In Thebes, so many long stades up the Nile’s stream, the accents grew thick, the men dark, the customs strange. Here she shed Alexandria’s diadem and wore the heavy double crown: the white vulture nestled between the red cobra’s coils.
Hordes from across the countryside had descended on the town to honor her arrival and heave home Alexandria’s rich grain, swelling the population to near its mythic proportions. But crowds could not disguise the city’s decay. The columns that rose along the avenue were charred, bleak reminders of her grandfather’s efforts to burn the last bastion of native rebellion to the ground. Even along the main streets many of the buildings had been picked bare; every stray stone that could be moved had been carted away. Only foundations and outer walls remained, their burnt-faced god-kings crumbling beneath the sun. And so despite the prostrated forms that greeted her litter, Berenice had felt relieved to reach the gymnasium, with its glimmering two-decked portico. Constructed for her foreign mercenaries, it was relatively untouched by decay. But signs of the city’s corrosion infested its walls too. Rot was written all over the face of the woman who pleaded for justice before her now.
Berenice believed that this peasant marked the fiftieth petitioner of the day, but she couldn’t quite recall. This airing of grievances was important—she knew that; it promised to endear her to the local populace. But after hours of listening to squabbles over cattle and crops, neighbors and priests, the provincial stories bled together.
“They yanked the suckling babe from my breast.” The woman’s hand cupped her infant’s head against her chest, as though to shield him from her words. The peasant went on in halting, careful Greek. “And they shoved me to my knees, and when I wouldn’t serve them, they gave me this.” She pointed to the bruise raised along her cheek. “And other marks I will not show before my royal queen. They forced themselves upon me and said I was lucky to be of use to the queen’s men.”