Cleopatra's Heir

Gillian Bradshaw

Forge Books

Cleopatra's Heir
CHAPTER I
His side hurt. He was aware of that before he was properly awake: the pain stabbed into his mind even through sleep. He shifted position, trying to ease it, but that only made it worse. He rolled over onto his other side and drew his legs up, then lay still, muzzily aware of himself.
It was bakingly hot, and he was thirsty. His tongue hurt. His head hurt. The pain in his right side was like a knife. He was lying on a heap of something rough and hard and uncomfortable. All around him was a dense, hot, purple shade, and a thick, choking smell of myrrh which could not quite drown the competing scents of blood, urine, and hot cotton.
He fumbled weakly at the pain in his side, and was rewarded by an exquisite thrust of agony. He moved his hand away again, rubbing swollen fingers together. They were wet.
I have had a seizure, he thought guiltily, and I must havefallen on top of something. Mother will be angry. I hope she doesn't punish the slaves.
He felt for the fine gold chain around his neck, found it, hauled the little silk bag it held from under his tunic and pressed it against his nose and mouth. Peony root, cardamon, gum ammoniacum, bryony, cinquefoil, and squill: at least the latest remedy smelled nice. He drew in deep breaths of it and tried to remember where he was.
Dreamily, he thought of his bedroom in the palace. The floor was always smooth and cool underfoot, even in the hottest summer, and the polished marble was arranged in varicolored patterns, purest white, golden, deep, red-veined green. The bed was of cedarwood, inlaid with gold; in winter the coverlets were of quilted silk, in summer, of brilliantly dyed cotton. There was cool water in an alabaster jar, and a fountain played in the courtyard ...
... when he was younger there'd been swimming in the big bath-house, with its pools paved with lapis lazuli, and the water taps that looked like golden dolphins, and the painting on the ceiling of Dionysos covering the pirate ship with vines while the sailors, fleeing into the green waves, were transformed ... the water had felt so cool, so sweet, flowing across his naked flesh, swirling around his legs and arms ...
Swimming will aggravate your condition.
By Apollo, he was thirsty! Why was he lying here alone? Where were the slaves to fan him, anoint him with scented oils, bring him cool drinks in sweating goblets? Where were the doctors with their potions? Why had he woken up alone? Had he had the seizure somewhere private, where no one could find him? How long had he been lying here?
It was so hot. He couldn't think clearly. He had to get out of this purple shade; it was cooking him.
Caesarion sat up slowly, holding his sore side, and found himself inhaling purple cotton. He pushed it away feebly, then realized that it was a covering--the awning of his tent, of course; it kept the sun off during the day, it must have fallen down. He turned onto his left side and began to squirm his way awkwardly out from under it, still with one hand clutched protectively over his injured side. Rough sticks of firewood wobbled beneath him, then slipped. He rolled jolting down on top of them into a blaze of sunlight. The pain stabbed red-hot, and he lay still, panting in anguish. Above him the sky was cloudless, colorless from the fury of the sun.
He was lying on something knobbly. He looked down and saw that it was one of the guards. The man's throat had been ripped open by a spear-thrust which had broken his jaw, and his tunic was thick with drying blood.
Caesarion recoiled, scrambled off hastily, and stood on hot stone, staring down in horror, wiping his left hand convulsively against his tunic. Then his stomach contracted toward his throat. He sank onto his knees and pressed the silk bag to his face again, squeezing his eyes tight shut. No, he thought, No, please, not now, not so soon ... .
Nothing happened. No stink of carrion, no overpowering sense of dread, no memories. Only scorching stone against his knees, sun on his head, and the scent of the remedy. The ground was too hot to kneel on. He opened his eyes and stood up.
The dead guard was dressed only in his red tunic; his armor, weapons, and cloak were all missing. He lay upon his back,at an angle to the pile of purple-draped firewood. His arms had been at his side until Caesarion had fallen onto him and disarranged them, and one, jolted akimbo, still clutched a chunk of hard journeybread as an offering for the guardian of the Underworld. His eyes were shut, and one of the coins which had been laid upon them shone on the ground by Caesarion's feet. His name, Caesarion remembered, was Megasthenes; he was an Alexandrian of good family, twenty-two years old. He'd been specially selected for this mission because of his loyalty.
That loyalty had laid him on his funeral pyre. Caesarion glanced up at it: a stack of firewood, bulked up with camel saddles and grain sacks, piled six feet high and draped in the purple tent awning. He remembered now. Last night (or could it have been the night before last?) he had woken in the dark to the sound of shouting. He had jumped from his bed, fumbled in the dark for his spear, hadn't been able to find it. Someone had burst into the tent with a lantern, and he'd almost struck out before he realized that it was his tutor, Rhodon, who'd stayed behind in Coptos to get news. Rhodon was fully dressed, his normally sleek hair dusty and disheveled, his face pale and his eyes wild. He set down the lantern and grabbed the spear Caesarion had been searching for--it had been propped up by the entrance to the tent. "Here!" he'd shouted loudly. "Here, quickly!"
Caesarion had stretched out his hand for the spear--but Rhodon had leveled the point at him. "No," he'd whispered, and their eyes met and held. "Stand still."
"Rhodon?" Caesarion had said, unable to take it in.
"You're not worth my life," Rhodon said, with intense vehemence."You're not worth any more lives. There are already too many dead who were whole and healthy." Then he shouted again, "Here! He's in here! Quickly!"
Caesarion remembered screaming in outrage and hurling himself at the traitor--but after that ...
Bright, unnaturally vivid fragments: a dead sheep lying on an altar while a priest inspected its entrails; a butterfly fanning its wings on the eye of a corpse; the sound of a flute. There had been an ... interval, and he had woken from it injured.
He looked down at himself.
A clotted mass of dried blood glued his tunic to his right side, and a fresh red trickle was crawling down onto his knee.
I didn't manage to hit him, he realized heavily. He betrayed me to the Romans, and I didn't even manage to hit him--or die nobly. I had a seizure; I was stabbed sometime during the course of it; and I've been lying since in a deep stupor. They thought I was dead. They put me on the top of the pyre, with the dead guard--guards--around me.
There was more than one guard, he saw that now. Another pair of feet stuck out from under the purple drapery beside Megasthenes' head. He walked slowly over to the still figure, bent stiffly to lift the covering. It was Eumenes, who'd commanded their small force. His left leg was almost severed, and there were stab wounds in his side and groin. His teeth were clenched and his face was set in an expression of agony; the coins on his eyes looked like beetles eating them. Caesarion replaced the covering with a shaking hand. His knees were trembling and he felt dizzy. He wanted to sit down, but the dead guards took up all the space on the edge of the pyre, and the ground was too hot.
There was a third body beyond that of Eumenes. He stumbled over to it, inspected it in turn. Heliodoros, the Cretan, stabbed through the heart. Odd that the mercenary should have died trying to defend Caesarion; he'd made it clear all along that he was only in it for the money. How would he collect his wages now?
He stood for a long moment, gazing at the mercenary's face. It was calm, the expression reflecting only a mild surprise. Heliodoros had been a handsome man who'd taken great care of his body, who'd combed his long black hair assiduously every morning and evening. Someone had combed it carefully now, and placed coins upon his eyes. His right hand clasped its chunk of journeybread, and his torn and bloodstained tunic had been carefully straightened. The body, like the other bodies, had not been washed--but then, the camp had been short of water even before an unknown number of the enemy arrived in it. The corpse had been properly anointed: scented oil gleamed on the calm face and made dark splotches on the scarlet tunic. At least Heliodoros and the others were getting a proper funeral.
Caesarion lowered the purple awning and raised his eyes to stare vacantly beyond the pyre. Red cliffs, dark, dusty soil, and the merciless desert sky. The sun was high; it must be about noon. Three dead bodies on the pyre. There had been thirty-eight people in the camp, not including himself: two files of royal guardsmen; Eumenes; Eumenes' secretary; Eumenes' valet; Caesarion's secretary and two attendants. Where were all the others? Where were the attackers? Who had arranged this funeral, then abandoned it with the pyre unlit?
It was too hot to light a fire now. Probably it had alreadybeen too hot by the time the pyre was arranged, and now they were waiting for nightfall. He turned and looked behind him.
The camp his own men had made was still in place, clustered around the stone rim of the cistern which had been dug into the ground by miners a century before. A few scrubby acacias and dead thistles testified that this was a location which occasionally saw water during the winter, but now it was August, and the dry air shimmered like a kiln. The small collection of canvas tents huddled against the base of the near cliff, which provided shade during the worst of the afternoon heat. His own tent, in the center, looked oddly deformed without its upper awning--no, a corner was missing, and the tent had been pegged down lopsided. There were scorch marks on the cloth, just visible through the blur of heat-haze. Rhodon's lantern must have tipped over and set fire to it. The baggage animals--camels, mostly--were tethered a little farther along, and were lying motionless in the puddles of shade at the cliff foot. There were no new tents, but there did seem to be a few more animals, and a collection of military cloaks had been stretched out from the cliff face to provide a little shade, secured to the rocky soil by spears. Shields propped against those spears provided a little more shade, all the shelter that was needed in this hot land. They were tall, oblong shields, red, decorated with unfamiliar motifs. He began to count them, then stopped resignedly. Those were Roman legionary shields, and there would be eighty of them: a full century. A tall standard stood before them, the Roman eagle almost unbearably bright in the noonday sun.
The Romans had traveled light, he thought, forcing a numband weary mind to reason about what he could see. No tents, just a few baggage animals to carry food and water for the journey. They had chosen the right equipment and right number for the task they had in hand. They'd known where they were going, and how many men they had to deal with.
Rhodon must have sent them a message as soon as the rest of the party left him alone in Coptos. No--even before that: there was not time for a message to have gone from Coptos to Alexandria and a force of men to have sailed up the Nile in response. Rhodon must have sent his message when the royal party itself set off up the Nile. He had waited for the Romans in Coptos, led them up the caravan trail on forced marches--by night, since no one traveled the Eastern Desert by day if he could help it--and brought the enemy into the camp during the hours of darkness. Probably the attack had come just before the dawn, when men slept most deeply. He must have given the password to the sentries, so that no alarm was raised until it was too late. Then he had run to find Caesarion, because he knew that the men would surrender if their king were captured or dead.
Eumenes, Megasthenes, and Heliodoros had fought anyway--but perhaps that was just out of confusion, because they'd been woken suddenly by their enemies and didn't know what was going on. The others had indeed surrendered. Rhodon could truthfully claim that he had saved them from exile or death, which was all that they could have expected with Caesarion. There were no Roman bodies on the pyre, which meant that the attackers had succeeded in their mission without losing a man. They would be pleased about that, and would treat their prisoners leniently; they had, in any case, no reasonto hate royal guardsmen who had no royalty left to guard. Probably Rhodon would be richly rewarded. Certainly the Romans ougbt to be grateful to him. He had eliminated a dangerous rival to their emperor, and secured them a chestful of treasure, without the loss of a single man.
Caesarion pressed the heels of his hands against his sore eyes. Rhodon had taught him philosophy and mathematics for three years now, and he'd preferred him to all his other tutors. He had liked Rhodon--liked his mordant sense of humor, his honesty, his penetrating mind and elegant wit. You're not worth my life.
No, he reasoned silently, passionately; no--but, Rhodon, it wasn't just me that you betrayed. It was all my ancestors as well; it was more! We in Egypt, we were last independent kingdom beside the Middle Sea. Now the Romans have it all. From this day the Greeks are a subject people. It should not have happened without a fight, Rhodon! It should not have happened through Greek treachery!
But there was no comfort there: Caesarion had failed, too, as ever. He had not fought: he had had a seizure. Now he was standing beside his own funeral pyre waiting for someone to notice that they'd made a mistake.
Were they all asleep? Hadn't they even bothered to post a sentry?
He sighed, rubbed his mouth wearily, then stopped and looked at his hand: it was dirty with dried blood which had covered his chin. He moved his tongue furtively in his dry mouth, and, yes, it was stiff and hurt horribly. He must have bitten it during the seizure. A fine figure he would cut when the Romans finally realized their mistake. Here he was, "KingPtolemy Caesar," son of Queen Cleopatra and of the deified Julius--a dirty, bloodstained boy, barely eighteen, unable to speak clearly.
Maybe Rhodon was right, and he wasn't worth any more lives. He set his teeth against the all-too-familiar ache of shame. He had always fallen short of what he should have been. It wasn't anything new. He was obliged, still, to continue the struggle. He could not compound his failure by giving up. If he hadn't believed that, he would have killed himself when he first understood that his disease was incurable.
Dionysos! How stupid--he hadn't even died when he should. It was like some idiotic comedy, where the hero prolongs his death scene for so long that the rest of the cast pretend to club him over the head and set him on the pyre by force!
Except that the Romans still hadn't done so.
The Romans must have posted sentries. Romans always posted sentries. Antonius was very emphatic about that, and whatever else he was, the emperor Octavian was competent: he'd proved that by beating Antonius. There was no reason to think the camp was unwatched. The officer in charge had been entrusted with a task both important and delicate: he couldn't be a fool. He would undoubtedly have posted sentries even if he didn't have thirty-five prisoners and a treasure to guard. There were chests containing fifty talents of gold in that camp, enough to fund a small army for a year! Even if the prisoners were tied up, the Roman officer would have to take steps to see that his own men didn't pilfer it.
The gold had been in Caesarion's tent. Perhaps it was still there, and the Roman commander was sleeping beside it, as Caesarion himself had. Perhaps there were sentries there aswell, but they were sitting inside the tent, out of the sun. It was really the most sensible place to sit, if you were a sentry.
They must be tired after their forced march. It was a long way to Coptos, and farther still to Alexandria, or wherever the Romans had been when they received Rhodon's message. They had traveled a long way fast, they had accomplished what they set out to do, and now it was very hot and they were resting. No normal sentry would be standing out in the sun, paying keen attention to the empty desert. He would be sitting quietly somewhere in the shade, and if he was watching anything, it wouldn't be the funeral pyre. There was nothing to fear from the dead.
Caesarion stood still, gazing stupidly at the camp. He hurt, and he was so tired. He had done everything he could, and he'd been defeated: surely now he could rest? If the stone weren't so hot he'd simply lie down where he stood. Did he have to try to escape? He'd only fail. He was wounded, and he had no water. He didn't even have a hat to keep off the sun. He wasn't a healthy man to begin with, and he'd just woken from a major seizure. Even if the sentries didn't spot him, he wouldn't last long in the desert. He'd be lucky if he made it as far as the caravan track two miles away.
There were waystations on that track, though, where he could find water. Kabalsi, the nearest, was barely five miles from where he stood. He could walk to the port of Berenike in only two days. There was a ship due in Berenike any day now; they'd been waiting for it for half the month. At first they'd planned to wait in the port itself, but Eumenes had been afraid that news of the treasure would leak out and attract robbers. So they'd camped instead in the secrecy of the desert,and Rhodon had betrayed them--but the ship might be in port. It would have friends, supplies, money. It had all been arranged.
Caesarion felt his eyes start to run, and he struggled to swallow the tears down. The effort hurt his tongue. He wiped at the tears miserably; the moisture was strangely cool on his hot face. He did not want to go on--and yet he had to try. He could not simply give up when there was a possibility that he might escape. His mother the queen had commanded him to flee to safety while she herself stayed in Alexandria to lead the resistance to the Roman invasion. No one had any hope that that invasion could be turned back. She might be suffering the final terrors of the siege that very moment, her only comfort the thought that her eldest son was still free. She would never forgive him if he surrendered and died.
The pyre had been built on an expanse of flat rock in the center of a wide dry riverbed; the path down to the caravan track ran along the foot of the near cliff, through the middle of the captured camp. Caesarion gazed hopelessly at the rough ground between him and the more distant cliff opposite--then began to stumble across it. Megasthenes lay half on, half off the pyre, arms akimbo, on a scatter of wood. Caesarion bent down--painfully and stiffly because of his wound--and straightened the limp arms, then hunted for the coins and set them back on the sightless eyes. The body was too heavy for him to lift back onto the pyre, but he tugged at the purple awning until it slid forward far enough to cover the dead man's face. Megasthenes had died for him. He deserved his funeral.
He picked his way slowly over to the farther cliff, then began the hot trek along it, past the camp and on toward thecaravan track two baking miles and two hundred feet below. This cliff faced west, and, with the sun now just past noon, there was no shade even at its foot. The ground was uneven, strewn with rocks, and gave off a shimmer of heat. Caesarion walked very slowly, holding his side. Each step still jarred his wound horribly, and he felt sick and light-headed. He expected a sentry's challenge with each breath, and he began to count his footsteps for the grim satisfaction of seeing how far he actually got. One, two ... He supposed that he was sweating, but his skin was hot and dry as the stone around him: the air sucked up moisture before it could even form a bead. Thirty-five, thirty-six ... Herakles, the air was so dry it hurt to breathe. If only this were all over!
One hundred five, one hundred six ... Perhaps he should have walked into the camp and had a drink of water before setting out? No. He had nothing with which to draw it from the cistern, and somebody would be certain to notice him ... One hundred eighty-three, one hundred eighty-four ... He wondered how badly he was wounded. The bleeding had stopped again, the trickle drying into a cake on his shin and foot, so probably it wasn't as bad as it seemed. He supposed he could stop and look at the wound, but what was the point? Taking off the tunic would tear the fresh scab and start the wound bleeding again, and there was nothing he could do about it anyway ... Two hundred and fifty, two hundred fifty-one ... Somebody had probably poured myrrh into the wound, anyway. All the bodies on the pyre had been anointed, and the sweet aroma clung to him as he walked. Myrrh, according to all the doctors, was the finest of all antiseptics. The wound had already been treated, so there was no point lookingat it. Three hundred twenty-eight, three hundred twenty-nine ... Of course, he was a fool to worry about infection anyway: he was unlikely to live long enough for it to set in.
Three hundred ninety-four, three hundred ninety-five ... If he managed to get past the camp and the sentries, he was probably safe until nightfall. No one was likely to worry about him until they went to look at the pyre and found that he wasn't there. Four hundred. Then they'd chase after him, of course. Killing him was the whole point of their mission; getting the treasure, just an incidental benefit. He would have to find a hiding place among the rocks by the first waystation. No, he would have to keep walking for as long as he could; otherwise the Romans could post men at the next waystation in either direction and cut him off. Five hundred, five hundred and one ... Of course, they'd do that anyway. If he went to the waystations for water, they'd catch him; if he didn't, he'd die of thirst. Five hundred thirty-two. Apollo and Asklepios, his tongue hurt! If only he had some water, just a little water, to moisten it ... Five hundred sixty-nine, five hundred seventy. Oh, it was hopeless, useless! He wasn't going to get away. What was the point of struggling on, suffering the heat and the pain, when he was going to die anyway? Six hundred.
He stopped, breathing hard, and looked across to the opposite cliff, expecting to see the camp. It wasn't there. He blinked, then turned slowly about and looked behind him. Distance and the heat-haze had already reduced it to a pale blur under the red cliff.
His heart gave a jolt, and all at once he believed that the possibility was real: he might escape. For the first time, hebecame afraid. He turned away from the camp, and stumbled on.
The wadi widened as he descended, and eventually he picked his way across to the path, afraid that if he followed the left-hand cliff he might miss the caravan track. He tripped on the rough ground, jarring the wound open again. Another trickle of blood was oozing down his calf when he reached the path, and he paused to wipe it away, so that the Romans couldn't track him by the spoor--though, as to that, they'd know at once which way he was headed. There was no escape for anyone without water, and no water apart from that in the buried cisterns in the waystations.
The east-facing cliff provided some shade, but the heat was still abominable; it made his head ache until he barely noticed the pain in his tongue. He thought of stopping to rest, but decided that he couldn't risk it. The Romans would come after him as soon as it got dark, and the shadows were lengthening steadily. He plodded on, following the path now, telling himself that he'd already done the worst part.
By the time he reached the caravan track, he knew that the worst part was still to come. The pain in his head had grown so as to eclipse that in his side, and he felt desperately sick and faint. Kabalsi waystation was still three miles away.
At this point the caravan trail ran almost due south, and he lost the cliff and the shade it had provided. Now he was in the open, stumbling over a wilderness of beaten soil and dark rock. The sun beat against his scalp like a blacksmith's hammer, and the scorched earth flung its heat back into his face. He remembered one of the doctors his mother had consultedduring the first horrible year of his illness, when he was thirteen and she'd still expected that he could be cured. The man had recommended a course of purgation coupled with exercise, "to sweat the evil out of him." Caesarion had endured one foul-tasting laxative that made his guts cramp, and another vile potion to make him vomit, and afterwards had been required to run laps of the Garden Court in the sun. He had felt just like this then. On his fifth lap he'd had a seizure, which had at least ensured that that particular doctor was never consulted again ...
He stopped: his stomach was contracting upwards, and he smelled carrion. He sat down quickly, shaking with a profound sense of horror, a fear of something unimaginably worse than the quick death that pursued him, and felt for his feeble little amulet of herbs.
There was the sound of a flute. His mother, wearing the red serpent crown of Lower Egypt and a robe of gold and crimson, smiled at him from beside an altar. There was blood on her hands. A black lamb lay on the altar, kicking feebly, and a priest was examining its entrails. His head was shaven, and the white linen of his robe was spattered with blood. He looked up, directly into Caesarion's eyes. His own eyes were very black, like caves in his head. He opened his mouth to speak, but the sound that came out was the high whistling rattle of the sistrum. Suddenly the lamb was a man, and it wasn't its belly cut open, but his head. "You see here the ventricles of the brain," said a voice out of nowhere, and Caesarion looked at the oozing cavities in the pulpy gray mass before him. The victim's hand twitched. "He's still alive," Caesarion said in horror--and his tongue hurt.
He was sitting on burning stone. It was unbearably hot, and he was in pain. He groaned and bent over.
After a minute, he found that his fingers were looped in the gold chain around his neck, and he hauled the little bag of medicaments up and pressed it against his face. He sat quietly for a long time, breathing in the scent. The events of the past hours gradually reassembled themselves in his mind.
I tried to hurry, he explained silently. I tried to hurry, but it gave me a seizure. I had to rest. Mother, it was so hot, it hurt to touch the stones, and I was wounded ...
You could still walk? he imagined his mother asking. How bad was the wound, then?
I don't know, I didn't look. I tried to hurry, and I had a seizure ...
A bad one? Did you fall down?
No, it was one of the little ones. I just remembered things and didn't know what I was really doing. But it was so hot, and I feel so horrible, please, you must understand, I had to rest ...
If you don't hurry, the Romans will catch you and kill you. The ship is waiting for you in Berenike, Caesarion. It's only thirty miles or so, and there's water just a few miles farther on. You have another four or five hours before they realize you're missing. Four or five precious hours, and when those hours are gone, they cannot be called back. You must use those hours, Caesarion. I would use them. Your father would have used them. Do not fail me, my son. Do not fail me now.
Caesarion groaned and rose unsteadily to his feet. The caravan track swam before his eyes. O gods and goddesses, if he could only have some water!
Clutching his side, wavering like a drunkard, he continued on down the rough trail.
 
 
HE DIDN'T MAKE it to the waystation. The afternoon dissolved again into horror and stink and shards of memory, and when he came back to the present, the shadows were longer. He got up and staggered drunkenly on. Later he woke and found himself lying upon the hot ground. There were blue shadows all around, and the sun was going down. He tried halfheartedly to get up, and at once everything dissolved again.
He woke again in darkness. It was cold, and his hands and feet were numb. There was a thudding behind him of camel hooves and the creak of harness. He knew where he was--lying in the middle of a caravan track, some distance from the nearest waystation--and he knew that his attempt to escape was almost over. It didn't seem to matter much, though. If he lay perfectly still, the pain was small and unimportant, and soon it would be gone. He'd always known that he would fail. Probably, he decided, it was for the best. Rhodon was right. He wasn't worth any more lives.
The thud-creak-thud of camels drew closer, closer still. Then, sharp and cutting and oddly unexpected, a man's voice exclaimed in horror, "There's a dead man in the road!"
Caesarion lay still, waiting. After a vague period, somebody touched his face, and a voice said, "I think he's alive." He closed his eyes.
He was aware next of water. It ran wonderful and wet into his dry mouth. He swallowed, and his tongue hurt so much it made him gasp, and the water went down his throat the wrongway. He coughed, hurting his side, and tried to drink while he was coughing, and got water up his nose, and sneezed. The water stopped flowing, and he made a noise of protest and reached for it with his hand, and it began again. Nothing, he thought, nothing in all the world is so sweet as water, not gold nor health nor love; nothing. He whimpered with pleasure. The water spilled down the front of his tunic, cold in the night chill, and it was deliriously wonderful.
"That's enough for now," said a voice, and the water stopped. Caesarion lowered his head, found that he was resting it on somebody's shoulder, but didn't move. He wanted to thank whoever it was for letting him drink before they killed him, but it seemed too much effort.
"You're just a boy!" said the voice, sounding surprised. I was eighteen in June, Caesarion thought indignantly, but his tongue hurt too much to let him say it. "What sort of people would abandon you in a cursed place like this, eh?"
Caesarion didn't answer. Some small part of his mind, however, was beginning to stir in puzzlement. The voice wasn't Roman. It had the wrong accent. It was saying the wrong things. Gods and goddesses, it wasn't even speaking Greek, it was speaking Demotic Egyptian!
"Let's get you up," said the voice. The speaker tugged at him, and he tired to oblige and stand up. His legs refused to obey him, and his teeth began to chatter. The speaker swore, and somebody else came over and took Caesarion's arm. An elbow caught him in the ribs, just above the wound, and he caught his breath in pain.
"What's the matter?" asked the voice. Then it repeated itself in Greek. "Can you understand me, boy? What's the matterwith you?" It had the singsong accent of Upper Egypt.
"'M hurt," mumbled Caesarion.
"Where?" the voice demanded.
"Siidge," Caesarion slurred. "M' sidge hurt."
A hand touched his side, drew back when he whimpered. "All right," said the voice gently, speaking Demotic again. "All right, all right. Menches, he's injured on the right side. Bring the donkey: we'll sit him on that."
The next thing he knew he was sitting astride a donkey. There was an arm around his waist, steadying him, and his own left arm was looped around someone's neck, his head resting on their shoulder. The person smelt of old sweat, dirty linen, and fish oil, but his flesh was warm. The night was very cold, so Caesarion did not try to pull away. The man started humming to himself, a soft, rhythmic tune which Caesarion didn't know. The moon was rising, and the desert was stark black and pale gray. Everything was wonderfully peaceful.
After a while, the donkey stopped. The smelly man pulled Caesarion off and lowered him gently to the ground. The dust was soft, but it was cold, and he curled up on his left side, shivering. After a while, somebody put a covering over him and he fell asleep.
When he woke it was hot again, and light. His mind was clearer, but he was thirsty, and very weary. It seemed to require a lot of effort even to shift position. He lay quietly for a time, his eyes open, staring blankly at a camel saddle directly in front of him. After a while he moved his head to look around.
He was lying under an awning which was anchored at two corners with camel saddles and supported at the other two bythin posts. Outside the makeshift shelter was sunlight, bare earth, and the motionless shapes of camels.
This wasn't anyplace he'd ever been before, any situation he'd expected. He thought of the man who'd supported him on the donkey during the night--the smell, the soft humming of a walking song. You're just a boy! he'd said, in Demotic and a tone of shocked surprise.
He had no idea who I am, Caesarion thought, bemused by the strangeness of it. I was lying in the middle of the caravan trail, and an ordinary caravan came along, and helped me because ...
... because I was lying there hurt and needed help. How strange.
It even seemed odd that at a time like this, with Alexandria under siege and Egypt on the brink of subjugation to Rome, there were still caravans on the trade routes--but the war had been going on for a couple of years now, and he supposed that merchants had to trade or starve.
So. What would happen now? Presumably the Romans would soon come along and ask the caravan master if he'd found any injured men. What would the caravan master answer?
Impossible to predict. He might hand over his find at once. He might ask for a reward. On the other hand, he might be afraid that admitting it would get him into trouble, and deny that he'd found anyone. He might decide to knock his dangerous acquaintance over the head and tip him down the next gully. I have not seen the man you want. Probably he died in the desert.
Or he might try to protect his guest. The smelly man hadseemed kind enough. Probably, though, the smelly man wasn't master of the caravan, but an assistant of some kind. He'd spoken Demotic, and even in Greek he'd had a native accent. A merchant able to mount a caravan from the Nile to the Red Sea would surely be a Greek, a member of the elite that had ruled Egypt for three centuries. Well, perhaps the caravan master, too, would be kind. A Greek ought to be sympathetic to a fellow-Greek in difficulties.
A lot depended, of course, on how the Romans actually phrased their question. If a couple of them tramped over saying that they were looking for a fugitive, that was one thing; if they marched up in force, saying that they were chasing the young king Ptolemy Caesar, and that to shelter such a personage was treason, that was something else. Even if the caravan master were patriotic, he was unlikely to risk his life for a cause that was already lost. Caesarion should keep his identity a secret--if he could.
A shape bulked blackly against the light outside, and then a man crawled in under the awning, on hands and knees since there wasn't room to stand. He looked to be in his late thirties, lean, with a heavy-jawed face stubbled with unshaven traveling, and the dark brown skin and slightly kinked hair sometimes found in Upper Egypt. He was dressed in a dirty linen tunic, with a coarse linen shawl tossed loosely over his head to provide some protection from the sun. Everything about his appearance proclaimed him a native Egyptian, a peasant, so probably he was one of the caravan's drivers. He looked annoyed about something, and when his eyes met Caesarion's, he gave an irritated grunt.
"So," he said sourly, in singsong Greek, "you're awake."Caesarion recognized the voice: it was the speaker of the night before, the smelly man who'd supported him on the donkey. "Well, boy, there isn't any water. This thrice-cursed and god-hated place is out of it, and we can't do anything to clean you up. Have some beer." He held out a flask of coarse clay, stoppered with a stick wrapped in rag.
Caesarion remembered guiltily that Eumenes had been telling the men to drive the camels down to Kabalsi for water, to spare the supply at the camp. It seemed that they'd drunk the station dry. He wished they hadn't: he wanted water. Ordinarily he wouldn't have touched the thick beer favored by the native Egyptians, but now even that sounded delicious. He raised himself slowly up onto an elbow, began to reach for the flask, and found that the movement pulled painfully at his wounded side. He sat up properly and took the bottle with his left hand. The other man made a hissing noise through his teeth. He was staring at Caesarion's bloodied tunic.
"That doesn't look good," he remarked, gesturing at the injury. "What happened?"
Caesarion didn't know how to answer. He fumbled weakly at the bottle's stopper. The other took it from him, opened it, and handed it back. Caesarion drank greedily, hardly tasting the bitterness in the sweet fact that it was wet.
"Don't you understand me?" the other demanded sharply.
Caesarion lowered the bottle a moment and nodded cautiously. "Please," he croaked, manipulating his sore tongue with difficulty. "I'm thirsty." He glanced down at the flask, then, unable to resist, took another long drink. The beer stung his tongue and made it feel better at the same time.
"When we found you last night," said the other man softly,"I thought either you'd been robbed, or you were a robber."
Caesarion lowered the bottle and stared at him in consternation.
"You're not, though, are you?" said the Egyptian. "You didn't get that," he gestured again at the wound, "in any beating. That came from a spear or a sword. You're sunburned, too, like a man who isn't used to the desert, and that tunic's military, and top-quality cloth, too. Even last night, I thought it was a damned strange robber who goes about drenched in expensive perfume. The myrrh was for the cut, was it? Why didn't you bandage it properly while you were about it?"
Caesarion, affronted, started to set the bottle down, then snatched it up again hurriedly as it began to tip over.
The Egyptian gave a snort of amusement. "Nothing to say for yourself?" he asked.
Caesarion looked down at the dry ground. Was this fellow playing with him? Had the Romans been here already? Certainly they'd had plenty of time to reach the waystation; in fact, he should have realized that. Was this some cruel game? He'd thought this man kind, but he certainly didn't seem so now.
"Boy," said the Egyptian, not unsympathetically, "a troop of Romans passed us on the road two nights ago, marching so hard they didn't even pause to steal from us. Last night there was a fire off to the right of the trail--a big one, a couple of miles away up a wadi. Tell me the truth. You were in the queen's forces, weren't you?"
Caesarion gazed at him incredulously. The Romans had lit the pyre? Burned the bodies? As though nothing had gone wrong?
Maybe they hadn't noticed he was missing. The purple awning had covered the top of the pyre, and if they hadn't lifted it ... He'd disturbed Megasthenes when he fell off, of course, but perhaps the Romans had simply assumed that one of their own people had done that. Or perhaps they hadn't even noticed. He'd pulled the awning down again, to cover the guard's face. Perhaps they'd just assumed that all was well, and thrust in the torch. All that scented oil, those camel saddles and sacks of flour--the pyre would have gone up with a roar and destroyed all traces of his departure.
If the Romans did believe he was dead and cremated now, would they realize their mistake when they tried to collect the ashes for burial?
"You're young to be a soldier," the Egyptian was continuing insistently. "From the look of that cut, you weren't wearing armor, either. Are you slave or free?"
He stared in confusion, at first too preoccupied by his own question to take in this one--and then bewildered by the insolent implication. Finally his face stung with indignation. "Gods and goddesses!" he exclaimed hoarsely.
"Well?" asked the Egyptian, unimpressed. "I'll hear your story. If you're a slave, I want to know what's happened to your master."
"I am not a slave!" Caesarion cried furiously. His tongue was working again. "Zeus!" He set the beer bottle down with a thump. It promptly began to fall over. The Egyptian caught it, shook it, then drank down the last swallow of beer himself.
"So?" he asked, wiping his mouth. "Why weren't you wearing armor, then?"
"I was asleep," Caesarion said angrily. "Rhodon came, and ..." He stopped.
"Rhodon your lover?" the Egyptian asked, with interest.
If he hadn't felt so weak, Caesarion would have hit the man. That a native, a peasant, should say such a thing to him--it passed belief. The queen would crucify anyone who showed her firstborn such disrespect.
"Well, I don't believe that soldiers on active service usually have supplies of perfume handy," said the Egyptian, responding to the glare of outrage. "--Though if they do, it explains why the queen's lost the war."
Caesarion's rage died suddenly. "The war's over?" he asked faintly.
The other nodded, warily now. "So they were saying in Coptos when we left it. Alexandria's fallen. The queen's lover, the general Antonius--he's dead, they say, and Queen Cleopatra has been taken prisoner. No word about the boy Caesarion, but he never counted for anything anyway. Egypt is a Roman province now."
Caesarion bowed his head, pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. Alexandria fallen, Antonius dead, Mother ...
She'd always sworn that she would never allow herself to be taken prisoner, never grace a Roman triumph. She'd sworn to burn herself alive in her own mausoleum, together with all her treasures, before she surrendered to her enemies. How had this fate--this unspeakable ... How ...
His stomach was starting to rise. He snatched the remedy bag up to his face and breathed deeply.
"I'm sorry," said the Egyptian quietly. Caesarion glanced at him quickly, then looked away again. His eyes were running,and he wiped them angrily without lowering the remedy. He could feel the seizure creeping toward him. Intense emotion often brought them on.
"So, you were of the queen's party," the other said, after a long silence. "What were you doing here?"
"Go away!" Caesarion ordered him indistinctly.
"There were nearly a hundred Romans in the troop that passed us," the Egyptian continued, ignoring it, "and they were in a tearing hurry. It must have taken something important to bring them so far inland, so soon--I never expected to see any of them, not until they'd settled the rest of the country. I'd guess you and some friends were sent in this direction on some important business--fetching or hiding something for the queen maybe?--and somebody told the Romans, and they hurried up and caught you, and there was a fight. They get the treasure--or whatever it was?"
"Yes," said Caesarion desperately. "Leave me alone!"
"Pity," said the other. "You're sure?"
"O gods and goddesses, leave me alone!"
"I'm sorry," said the Egyptian again, and went out.
Alexandria fallen, Antonius dead, Mother a prisoner--if what the Egyptian had heard was right, if she wasn't dead as well. He pressed his face against his knees, shaking. Even if she was still alive, she would die soon, she would die. She would never endure that, not to bow to Caesar Octavian, not to walk in chains in his triumph. She would die. It was all over. Why in the name of all the immortal gods hadn't he stayed on the damned pyre? Why hadn't he had the sense or the grace to die on cue?
He remembered her dancing in the shrine of Dionysos, deepin the heart of the palace. Dressed in pearls and the skin of a fawn, her hair twined with ivy, she had vine-stepped about the altar by torchlight to the wild music of the sistrum and the flute. She was all fire and grace. Antonius, who was drunk, had blundered into the dance after her--and she had somehow made even that look as though it had been planned, a nymph dancing with a bear, a dolphin cavorting with a ship, so that even accident became perfection ...
The scent of carrion, and an overpowering sense of horror. Mother was striding from the ship, wearing her purple robes and a gold-worked diadem. A woman flung herself forward out of the crowd, dressed in only in a tunic, her face and shoulders bruised. "Mercy!" she screamed. "Queen, my husband committed no crime!"
A fish was swimming in the deep green of a pool. Another fish lunged suddenly from among the weeds and seized it.
The man was tied to the table facedown, naked, his hands and feet secured to the table-legs with thick ropes. The back of his skull had been removed, and blood was trickling steadily into channels cut into the stone floor. "You see here the ventricles of the brain," said the doctor. He prodded the pulpy gray mass with a scalpel, and the man's hand twitched. "He's still alive!" Caesarion cried in horror ...
He was sitting under an awning. It was hot. His side hurt. He straightened slowly, then lay down on his good side, trembling with exhaustion. He still had the remedy pressed to his face, but he couldn't smell it: his nose was choked with tears.
Why had he been forced to remember such things, at a time like this? The queen was brave, brilliant, witty; her magnificence left men breathless with admiration, her ambitioncovered the world. To remember those things ... That man on the table had been a convicted criminal, condemned to death, and that woman's husband had been an enemy of the queen, executed at a time when the state was in danger. It was cruel ingratitude to rake up such things now, when the queen was either lying dead, or else a helpless prisoner. I'm sorry, Mother, he thought wretchedly. It was the illness that remembered it, not me.
It was no comfort. His illness had always been his worst, most unforgivable failure.
You must escape, his mother had told him, the last time they spoke together. That task was one he could still hope to complete. He must complete it. The knowledge that her son was still alive and at liberty was the only comfort he could offer the queen in her captivity, and his own survival the best memorial he could give her.
 
 
IT WAS LATE in the afternoon when the Egyptian came back: the shadows outside were long. Caesarion had slept, then woken with a raging thirst. When the Egyptian crawled in he sat up eagerly, but this time the man had no flask with him, only a piece of stale bread and couple of withered figs folded in a shawl. The Egyptian saw his disappointment.
"I told you: we've no water, and now we're almost out of beer," he declared, setting the food down. "We're saving our last pot of it for the journey tonight. You had more than the rest of us, boy: we gave you double rations this morning, and stinted ourselves.--What's your name, anyway?"
He suppressed a flash of irritation at the man's tone: hedidn't want this fellow to know who it was he'd been calling "boy." He considered answering truthfully, "Ptolemaios"--the name was common enough to attract no comment--but he wasn't sure he'd manage to answer to it. Nobody had ever called him Ptolemy: his nickname, Caesarion, "Little Caesar," had been used by everyone from his mother to the fishmongers on the Alexandrian quays--when they weren't calling him "king" and "lord," of course. He picked a name which sounded similar.
"Arion," he told the Egyptian.
"Huh. I'm called Ani." It was an Egyptian name, not even faintly Hellenized. "Arion," Ani went on, "would it be any use our sending up to that camp you came from to beg some water?"
"No," Caesarion replied, going cold despite the heat.
"They know we're around," Ani said reasonably. "They overtook us on the road. It's nothing to them if we take some water, is it? It's not as though they're planning to spend time up there. And we used the last of our own water this morning. It's a long walk to the next station if we have to go thirsty all the way."
"We were already almost out of water," Caesarion told him. "Eumenes was sending the camels down here to drink."
"Was he?" Ani cried irritably. "Well, bugger him! So, it's because of you that we're thirsty?" He was silent a moment, then said, "Your lot were up there for a while, were you?"
Caesarion hunched his shoulders uncomfortably. He was giving away more than he wanted to, but he couldn't think what else to do. He needed help from the caravan party if hewas to reach Berenike and the ship; he was too weak now to do it on his own. "Yes," he admitted.
"With a treasure. You said the Romans had taken a treasure."
It was Ani, Caesarion remembered, who'd brought up the question of treasure: it had apparently been the first thing he'd thought of when he understood that a royal force had fought Romans in the desert. He looked at the Egyptian with distaste.
"Don't you try to hold out on me, boy," Ani said sharply. "I saved your life last night, if you didn't notice. Most caravan-masters find a boy lying half-dead in the road, they leave him there, you understand? Could be a decoy for robbers. I gave you water, put you on my own donkey, looked after you like you were my own. You can answer me."
"My debt is to the master of your caravan ..." began Caesarion coldly.
Ani seemed to swell. "I am master of this caravan! Who'd you think I was?" He glared. "You think because I'm an Egyptian, because I don't speak la-di-da fancy Greek like you, I'm nobody? Your debt, boy, is to me. What were you doing with that treasure, eh?"
Caesarion fought to master his anger: if he said what he wanted to say, the insolent peasant would probably abandon him here in this waterless place. "We were waiting for a ship," he admitted. "It was supposed to meet us in Berenike sixteen days ago."
"Ah," said Ani. After a moment, he added slowly, "I heard how the queen had all her ships moved over to the Red Sea last winter. They said she was planning to sail off to the East,with all her treasure, and make herself queen of somewhere else. But I heard that the ships were burned."
"Yes," agreed Caesarion distantly. "They were all in the harbor at Heroonpolis, and King Malehus of Arabia attacked them and burned them. But there were a few that were salvageable."
Ani nodded. "So she decided to move some men and some money out of the country, to provide herself with a bolt hole if she lost Alexandria? And your lot were sent to take the treasure to Berenike, so that it could be loaded on the ship without any danger of the Arabs or the Romans finding out about it. Only the ship didn't come, and the Romans did find out."
"The ship may be there now," Caesarion told him. He had to give this greedy peasant a reason to help. "We know it left Heroonpolis. It's been delayed, but it should be in Berenike now. If you can take me to Berenike--they'd pay you for it."
Ani regarded him suspiciously. "I suppose they might, at that," he admitted grudgingly. "Worth something to them to know that the Romans have the treasure. What sort of treasure was it, anyway?"
"Fifty talents of gold."
He whistled. "And you're sure the Romans got all of it? Your lot hadn't ... well, buried some of it, in a secret place?" He could not quite hide his eagerness.
"We didn't bury any of it," Caesarion replied with disgust. "It was royal treasure. It was supposed to pay men to fight for Egypt."
"Ah well," said Ani resignedly. "I'll have to make my fortune the hard way, then." He sat back, squatting on his haunches,and pulled thoughtfully at his lower lip--a peasant gesture, vulgar, like the man himself. "And you say there's no point trying to get water from your old camp?"
"We were almost out of water ourselves," Caesarion told him in a flat tone, wishing the fellow would go away. "Now there's a whole century of Romans there, and they have all our baggage animals in addition to their own. They're probably on short rations already."
"A whole what?"
"Century," Caesarion told him, with a faint sneer. "A division of a Roman legion. Eighty men."
"As I live, you may be a soldier after all! Very well, we'll have to do without water tonight. Do you know if there's still water at Hydreuma?"
Hydreuma was the next waystation, the last before Berenike itself. "There are wells there," Caesarion pointed out impatiently. There was, in fact, a small settlement. Eumenes had sent men there to buy vegetables.
"If your lot's camels haven't emptied them. Now, boy ..."
"Stop calling me that!" Caesarion snapped, finally losing his temper. "I'm not a slave! I'm a freeborn Alexandrian and ... and of good family. The queen herself sent me here. By Apollo! You Egyptian camel-driver, how dare you call me 'boy'!"
Ani's eyes narrowed. "Boy," he said deliberately, "are you able to walk to Hydreuma?"
Caesarion looked at the ground. He could feel his cheeks burning. He was certain that he could not. He doubted he could walk as much as a mile. What was worse, he had a nasty suspicion that if he tried, it would bring on a seizure. He'dhad a lot of seizures in the past two days, many more than usual, and he could feel them pressing on him like a physical weight, crushing him: he didn't know how many more he could endure. Besides, Ani would probably abandon him at once if he knew about the disease. People tended to think it was contagious. Even in the palace, slaves had spat behind their hands before they picked up something Caesarion dropped, and they threw out his leftover wine rather than drink it. Ani had, so far, said nothing about the seizure Caesarion had had earlier that day, which undoubtedly meant he hadn't noticed it. That was to the good.
"So," said Ani sweetly, "you need help from this Egyptian camel-driver, don't you? Not a very good idea to insult me, is it?"
"No," whispered Caesarion, trembling with humiliation.
The Egyptian waited a moment; when no apology was offered, he apparently decided to accept the admission instead. "How bad's that cut?" he asked briskly.
"I don't know," Caesarion replied faintly.
"Don't know? Didn't you even look at it when you put that myrrh on?"
"I didn't put the myrrh on."
"You wear perfume all the time, do you?"
Be still my heart; you have endured worse. "The Romans anointed me for the pyre. They thought I was dead. The cut can't be too bad: I managed to walk as far as ... I managed to get as far as the caravan track."
Ani was staring at him in disbelief. "They thought you were dead? And you got up and walked off?"
"Leave me alone!" Caesarion pressed his hands to his face,choking. Mother murdered or a prisoner, Antonius dead, Egypt a Roman province--and he had to sit here, enduring the insults of a camel-driving peasant! "It was hot, they were in the shade somewhere, they weren't watching the pyre anyway. O immortal gods, I wish I'd never woken up!"
"Now, boy!" exclaimed Ani reprovingly; and, to Caesarion's horror and disgust, patted him on the shoulder. "You don't mean that. You're a young man, you still have your whole life before you ... Here, let me look at what happened to you ..." He tugged at the tunic.
Caesarion shoved his hands away furiously. "Leave me alone!" He caught his breath, struggled with himself, and went on, more moderately. "If I take the tunic off it will start bleeding again. It's got myrrh on it, it can wait."
Ani sat back, frowning. Caesarion glared back.
"You can ride the donkey again," said Ani, after a silence. "I pray to the gods there's water at Hydreuma. Whether or not you're telling me the truth, that cut's not good. Now, try and eat something: it's going to be a rough night."
Copyright 2002 by Gillian Bradshaw