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Authors: Emily Holleman

0316382981 (4 page)

BOOK: 0316382981
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The top of the temple pediment soared into view: bearded Serapis enthroned with three-headed Cerberus at his feet. As she climbed upward, the frieze opened to reveal the two nymphs, golden cornucopia in hand, flanked by a pair of splotched bulls. She should have been laughing at this cobbled-together god—part Osiris, part Dionysus, both Hades and Apis—but her skepticism failed her. Once she’d passed into the first colonnade, myrrh foiled the summer breeze. She could only imagine how the stench must already clog the inner sanctum’s air. The priests rejoiced in this addling. She could see why: it stoked her own terrors. Some deformity in the animal itself would taint her, no matter that these holy men tried to twist the omens in her favor. If the entrails were so perverted that any buffoon could see their ruin, she might lose the Alexandrians’ support before she’d even had time to clinch it. Then she’d have no choice but to sail up the Nile at once—tomorrow, even—to fight to receive her blessings in Memphis and Thebes, and she’d need a military triumph to prove that the gods smiled on her reign. No, that was weakness: to fear things beyond her control. The incense had muddied her mind—no man would tremble before spilt entrails if his nostrils filled only with ocean breeze.

But tremble they did. Nobles clad in violet and coral and vermillion cluttered the courtyard, crowding among the statues to assess their peers, each keen to note who had arrived to greet the new queen, and who had stayed away, praying for the Piper’s return. Stone and flesh both, these creatures remained aloof, untouched by the passion of their plebeian counterparts. Whatever allegiance they now pledged, they’d belonged to her father to a one. She hoped their loyalty to him would be as flimsy as his was to them.

As the sea of tunics parted, doubt nicked her heels.
You dare offer your name to the deathless gods?
Her mother’s voice. She batted it aside. Why should she be plagued by misgivings? For all his faults, her father had no qualms about assuming the crown—a crown he wasn’t owed. He’d never met a man or god who required his explanation. In his arrogance, he’d even named himself the New Dionysus, the most pompous of the Ptolemy epithets for the least impressive of its kings. And then she was at the altar steps, its ivory gates at last thrown open to her.

Steeling herself for whatever omens might come, she ascended to the sanctuary. Through the sodden air, she could make out only the god Serapis, glaring down from the altar, his beard and fruit basket trimmed with gold. He judged her harshly; perhaps he could smell her feeble faith. A shadow rippled beneath his gaze. She blinked until the high priest, his seven-pointed star dull in comparison, emerged from the incense-laden mist.

“Berenice the Shining One, daughter of Ptolemy the New Dionysus, son of Ptolemy the Savior, of the line of Alexander the Great, son of no lesser deity than Zeus Ammon himself,” the voice boomed. “On this day, you stand before Serapis, who is called both Dionysus and Osiris, to be crowned Queen of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms.”

She bent to kneel; the cold stone throbbed against her bones. In the corner of her gaze, a white heifer jerked her head against the lead. Dragged to her fate, the cow whined, wheezing through her nostrils. Berenice softened; dread rose in her throat too. So much rested on this moment. The twisting entrails might bless or damn her claim. Only the gods could curse her now and cast blackened guts in which any man would read poor fate. And then the city folk might turn against her rule—a woman’s rule against which they might already chafe. Weak, she looked up to the gap-mouthed god, eyes blank, lips parted to reveal a fleshy tongue.
Serapis, first among the immortal ones,
she loathed herself for pleading,
don’t let this priest of men stand between me and my birthright.

“Great Serapis. We offer you this heifer, the loveliest of the royal herd, to bless your daughter’s rule. We, your humble suppliants, pray that you might accept our sacrifice.”

The cow strained her neck away from the silver blade; she moaned as her blood spilled to the stone. While her corpse still twitched, a white-robed attendant cut the beast’s belly from sternum to udder, from left fore to right, from right hind to left. Skin peeled away, the entrails squirmed free. Berenice squinted at the pink coils; she could discern nothing unusual in them. Her clenched gut loosened. She’d heard of gruesome tellings, animals missing hearts or guts or ribs, but all the offerings she’d witnessed looked much like this: remarkable only for what was said about them.

The priest cleared his throat and cast his eyes around the columned court. He looked to the heavens, and then down at the gathered fools. Finally, he spoke: “Glory to the gods. Serapis smiles upon this rule! The entrails are lush and red, the color of the bold, of the brave, of the great. Berenice the Shining One shall return Egypt to her days of glory!”

Relief flooded her veins; despite her mother’s warnings, she would indeed be crowned—with blessings. Amid the smoke and guts, a second attendant entered from the inner sanctum bearing the insignia of rule: the white diadem and the golden scepter. She could still picture her father wearing his as he disembarked from his royal barge. He was younger in her vision, she no more than a girl of six. And overjoyed, she’d leapt into his arms.

“In the name of Serapis, I crown you, Queen Berenice the Shining One, Queen of the Two Lands.”

The priest knotted the ivory ribbon tight about her brow. Her twin braids dug into her skull; she felt no pain. When she stood, she stood as queen.

The other ceremony, the one in Memphis—she wouldn’t fret over that. The Upper Lands had lain quiet for a generation. Her grandfather had crushed their hopes of uprising once and for all, burning Thebes to ruin; the dangers were here in Alexandria. The city folk had torn more Ptolemies from their thrones than the natives ever had.

As she crossed the outer court a second time, she met with murmurs that coalesced into halfhearted cheers. That didn’t worry her: the nobles would stand behind her. Their priest had blessed her claim, and besides, they’d no other choice. Her father had abandoned them. And when she descended back into the city, her subjects roared anew. Free of priests and nobles, entrails and omens, she delighted in this return march, in the drunken shouts of revelry, in the cool breeze lapping at her throat. She refused to be a cloistered queen, shut away in a gilded litter.

In the palace, her mother would be pacing the upper corridors; from time to time, her eyes would glint over the bloated crowds. The unflappable Tryphaena, too weak to join her daughter’s procession. “We can’t have you hacking blood upon the queen’s robes,” her unyielding eunuch had chided. And her mother had groused, “Why not? It’ll hardly add to the stain.” Berenice knew her mother hadn’t always been this way. There’d been a time, she reminded herself, when Tryphaena had held herself proud. Before her father had turned her out and bitterness had coalesced into fury gnawing away at her soul.

As Berenice passed through the royal gate, the world quieted. The palace, for one, looked unmoved by the day’s events. The twin sphinxes that guarded either side of the marble entrance stared ahead with blank human faces. Above, the cobalt frieze of Alexander’s defeat of the Persians gleamed in the sun. The great man himself, Medusa’s head writhing on his breastplate, appeared as eager as ever to strike his opponent from his horse. She could divine a single welcome difference: one of the four statue nooks stood empty. Where her father’s form had piped in marble remained only a barren block of granite. That was something, at least.

A gruff voice interrupted her thoughts. “A moment of your time, my queen.”

“Dio.” Berenice named the man before she turned. She was a great reader of voice and accent; the trick had often stunned her father’s advisers when she was a girl. Sometimes he’d bring her out, blindfolded, to guess the origins of his guests. At the time, she’d nearly burst with pride at the attention, but now it seemed nothing more than another of his foolish capers. Still, it proved a useful gift. Even if she’d overheard just a whiff of a sentence, nineteen times out of twenty she could name the speaker, along with his city of origin. “It is a pleasure,” she told Dio. “Walk with me a turn.”

“Perhaps this isn’t the proper time?” her adviser asked. He was a stout man, her Dio, with a bald pate ringed by a few dogged curls that refused to admit defeat. He had the look of a soldier gone to seed, the sort of man who enjoyed indulging in life’s finer offerings as he worked his way through middle age. There must have been a powerful frame somewhere beneath that barrel of a belly, but only traces of it remained. She trusted him, more fully than she did any other man. After all, he’d been the first of the Alexandrian nobles to defy her father and sow discontent in the city streets.

“This moment suits me as well as any other,” she told him as they passed along the public colonnades. Here and there, she’d catch sight of a servant shrinking from her sight. But perhaps she’d only imagined it. “Tell me, Dio: what is it that troubles you?” She slowed her pace, and looked him in the eye. “Your Alexandrians can’t be displeased with me—not yet. The diadem’s scarcely been knotted on my head.”

“Oh, no, my queen. I assure you that my men are all quite content on this happy occasion. It’s the culmination of all our prayers.” His smile strained; his pate burned red. With Dio, that was the telltale sign of nerves.

“And yet?”

“And yet…your mother is proving difficult. It’s been heard, my queen, that she intends to purge all those who were once loyal to Ptolemy the Piper. I don’t need to tell you what damage that might do—”

“Then you have friends who support my father,” she answered. It didn’t surprise her.

“I might have friends who
your father. But my friendships matter little. What matters is that nearly every man in this city has, at one point or another, tied himself to every Ptolemy who has sat the throne. It would be cruel indeed to cut off heads for such casual affiliations.”

So he looked to her for assurances. Dio worried too much; she wasn’t bloodthirsty. She could afford to be generous in victory. “Tell your friends that I don’t intend to kill men who merely nodded in support of my father’s reign.”

“I knew you didn’t, my queen, but it will soothe many hearts to hear the words all the same.” He pressed her hand gently. As she watched him shuffle away, she wondered if there was some deeper root of his affections. She felt her face flush.

Upstairs, she returned to the Piper’s—
chambers, the chambers of the king. The gold-framed mirrors, set at angles along each wall, blinded her, fracturing the finely wrought furniture into countless iterations. Everywhere she looked, a dozen sets of eyes stared back at her. The writing table, with its inlaid pearls blinking against its ebony slab, was the only surface unsheathed in gold.
The Piper sleeps in gilded chains
. And Berenice had thought her mother had exaggerated.

“I imagined I’d find you here.” Pieton startled her as he often did. The eunuch had an uncanny way of entering rooms unnoticed.

“And I imagined my guards would block uninvited guests and leave me a few minutes of peace to enjoy my chambers.” Despite herself, Berenice took comfort in his familiar presence. With him, at least, she knew what to expect. Teasing aside, he cared for her. And his regard couldn’t be muddied.

“Your chambers? How quickly you appropriate your father’s things. The diadem becomes you. No wonder you spend your hours in this hall of mirrors.”

She smiled at the eunuch’s mocking tone.

“These rooms must satisfy for a time,” she answered.

“Meanwhile,” Pieton trundled on, “Egypt accrues countless costs: your guards, your coins, your emissaries. And word from Memphis is that the Nile doesn’t rise.”

“Nor should it. Thoth doesn’t start for another ten days. The Season of Inundation hasn’t even begun.”

“But it nears. And the priests of that city fret over the river’s low measure.”

“No doubt Psenptais stands first among the fretters.” Her father had vanished across the sea, but his allies might still act in his name. Surely his prophet would be eager to stir sentiment against her.

“He does, my queen, but his provocation doesn’t mean there’s no cause for concern. A low flood means—”

what a low flood means, Pieton.” Children starving in the streets, men fomenting their hunger into rebellion. She would have to visit the Upper Lands and bring grain and comfort to the dying. “But let us, for the moment, celebrate. On this day of all days…” For too long, she’d waited for this. She snapped her fingers at the serving girl waiting by the door. “Wine for the queen and her adviser, her chief adviser, her minister of coin.”

She found herself aching for the eunuch’s smile, and he rewarded her. Even now, his moods pulled at hers, like the moon tugging at the tide. Throughout the long middling years of childhood, after her mother had been shunned and her father had forgotten her for Cleopatra, Pieton’s grins, his kind words, proved her only nourishment. To the rest of the world, she’d shrunk away, an ungainly girl of nine, then ten or thirteen, discarded by the king. To everyone but Pieton. He’d coaxed her mind to fruition, stoking her interests and her hurts. His unyielding confidence had fueled her hopes, had persuaded her that someday, somehow, she might be queen. And now she was.

“To the double kingdom.” She raised her glass. When she met Pieton’s gaze, she saw no joy behind his smile. His mouth curled, but his eyes were dull slits in his girlish face. He twisted the goblet’s stem between his fingers. The satyrs piped round and round.

BOOK: 0316382981
5.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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