Almost immediately, I fall asleep. But it is an unpleasant sleep, I feel hot and constantly awake, despite the best efforts of those who keep waving cool air at me. On one hand, it makes me feel better, warding off at least sime of the heat, but on the other, they are people, human beings who should not have to do so much work for the slight comfort of just one.
By the time that morning has come, I feel even more exhausted. I don't want to rise, but it appears that I don't have a say in such regards. Several women enter, amongst them two of those who travelled with me. They bow, and one speaks: "Holy Majesty, the Pharaoh commands you to rise and attend him."
Immediately I sit up, incapable of banishing the image of those two dead eyes, staring at me all night long. I see them again, wondering for a moment how long it will take for decay to set in. My heart beats faster, I would rather never see that awful man again. But I can't avoid him, I have to be brave.
When I stand up, I feel dizzy. Somehow, servants catch me immediately, as though this is normal. They take cloths dripping with cold water, and wash the sweat away. With that done, I am dressed in purple, and hung with jewelry and my crown. I can feel my face being painted, but can't see what they are actually doing. I will have to trust in their competence.
As soon as I leave the bedroom, the litter is there again. It feels decadent, but I gladly recline as these men carry me. Peculiarly enough, their strange appearance is the only kind of men I have seen beyond the gate to this wing. Given that these are my chambers, they must be eunuchs.
Again I pass through the beautiful hallways of the palace, again going through the gates, but the rest is different. I take in the surroundings, with much more clarity than yesterday. The head hasn't come with me, and that is a true relief. Everyone I pass bows, and all avoid my eyes. So many of them, it is wrong.
Finally there is another set of doors, guarded by men in gilded armour, they are tall and have tall plumes on their helmets. They do not bow, but merely open the doors while bowing their heads. They appear like soldiers, but the appearance is disturbed by the slouchy way they stand. I might not be much of a military person, but even I can see that it's not what a royal guard should be like.
Inside, the first thing I notice are the large windows, overlooking the sea. But my eyes are drawn away from the blue, to the purple garb of the Pharaoh, and the source of soothing music. He is reclining, playing a gilded flute. He actually is good at it, and I start to wonder why Berenice used it as an insult.
At his side, there is a boy, I estimate him to be around eight, but I tend to be horrible at such estimates, so he could be any age really. He looks like my father, and like Berenice, so I guess that he's a brother. Not a very beautiful child, but he has a striking, pointy nose. I resist the urge to touch mine, although I am curious about it.
"Boy.", Father begins, "Where are your manners? You might be a prince, but your queen has just entered."
"She's not my queen. And she's just a girl. I don't bow to a girl, Berenice made me, and she was mean.", he replies, with a hint of anger.
While he speaks, I stand up, even if lying down is so much more comfortable, and I bow to the Pharaoh: "Father."
"Not now. I'm teaching your brother to behave.", he replies before turning back to the boy: "Ptolemy, you are my son, and your sister can tell you that I am loath to hurt my flesh and blood, but don't force my hand."
"Hmf, I don't wanna.", he crosses his arms in determination.
"Son, she is to be your wife, to bear your children and to rule by your side, like she rules by mine. Show her the respect she deserves. You have to live with Cleopatra."
"No. She is stupid, and when I am pharaoh, she will have to do what I want her to do." For some reason, I start to really hate him, and I fear that I can't hide the feeling from my eyes. If only looks could kill, that would be easier than finding a way to poison the brat.
“That’s not how I would say such things“, I reply with more than a hint of hatred in my voice, “I am your sister, and as our father says, I am the queen. Our father is a kind and forgiving man, and he is generous too. Yesterday he gave me a special gift, you should take care that another will not become deserving of such a present.“
My words seem to have some effect, and his large eyes widen, while I see a slight smile forming on the pharaoh’s face. I force myself to smile, saying: “Of course, I would much rather have a sweet brother for to be my husband and king when the time comes.“
Finally, the boy bows his head. I feel bad for making such threats to a child, but I saw no other way. And it seems to be working. Maybe I can spare him after all, after a bit of a re-education. The pharaoh breaks off the conversation: „Good, that’s the spirit. Now, go, I have things to discuss with your sister.“
The relief on my brother’s face is all too clear when he darts off, through the doors and towards what I hope to be tutors, even if they must be terrible to allow such behaviour. I follow him with my eyes, noticing that my carriers have also departed, leaving me alone with the king. His face hardens when the doors close: „Try to be kind to your brother, he has not seen you in years. But that’s not why I called you here.“
“What do you wish to discuss then?”
“Sit down, I know how exhausting it can be to stand all the time.”, I obey, glad to take an easier position. Something is wrong with me, that even standing up for any length of time is too hard. I will have to do something about that. “I am happy that you could come with me, when I was driven into exile, but it was not only the machinations of one traitor that did that. The same people still dwell in this city, they still are the army, and they still work in the palace.”
“So, they have to be reformed.”, I guess, I can’t really think of another solution.
“If we could, it would be perfect. But, as you know, we had to make arrangements to allow us to return here. Expensive arrangements.”
That must point to the Romans, I guess. And if it is called expensive, I guess that we are practically bankrupt. “We need income then, to pay for these?”
“Yes. And our present incomes are not enough. Many people do not like me, I know that all too well. They think that I am a bad king for not standing up to the Romans like they would have wanted. But that would only lead to war, and that in turn would mean defeat, and the end of our whole kingdom. The kingdom that I intend to pass on to you and your brother. And you should pass it on to your children in turn. The only way to do that, is to not fight the Romans, and if it comes at the price of a rebellious island, it is no true price.”
“I understand. There is a reason why one of their armies stands here, and they were not repulsed.”
“Yes. We do not have their strength at arms.”
“But we have our wealth, and we have our lands. Egypt is rich, and it can be strong enough to not be conquered.”
“I would agree, but the people do not love me. And they do not know you.”
“Perhaps they could come to like me, and they would be willing to help with our other needs. Our pecuniary needs.”, I suggest, even though I have the feeling that it might be dangerous.
Father however smiles again: “Yes, that’s what I mean. You learned their language, you might go to these barbarians, and go through their dreadful rites. Your ship will depart when you are ready.”
“I am ready when I must be.”, I say, “but there is one question I have. About the gift you gave me, how should I keep it? I do not want to dishonour you by casting it away, but I fear that it might become putrid.”
“Just have servants strip off the flesh, then it no longer smells.”, the creepy smile returns, the one I saw yesterday.
“I will do that then. Other than that, I should be ready to depart.”
“Excellent. Get to what those old priests keep hidden from us, I know that they have plenty of gold somewhere.”
There is something soothing about the movement of my ship on the river. It is big, at least, compared to most of the traffic, all of which moves aside for the galley. It should be easy for everyone to understand that this ship is important, the whole prow is covered in gold, shining brightly in the morning sun. The oars, which are in three layers but which I still have to count, are silver in colour. The carried room I arrived in stands on the deck, but I decided to lie outside, under a canopy of cloth of gold. I want to see my surroundings, this country, and I want to be seen. On the deck, there are a few dozen servants, and the music of a flute sounds continually from below it, in rhythm with the strokes of the oars. They appear to be widely spaced, and I get the idea that part of the rowers might be resting. Behind us, two more ships follow, they are of similar design, but don't have as expensive decorations as mine.As we pass through the harbour, I see dozens of ships. And this isn't even the great port, which I assume to be in the distance, near the massive tower that must be the lighthouse. It can be seen even over the walls of the city. I'm not much of an expert on walls, but it looks like they have seen better times. There are cracks in the stone and parts are covered by plants.On every ship we pass, all the passengers and crew bow to me, to my golden ship. On the shores the same happens, and I wonder if I should wave. I guess not, but I can't stop a smile from forming, this feels good. Almost as good as being away from that madman in the palace. I always wanted to sail up the Nile, to see Egypt, but I had never imagined it to be like this, with servants waving cool air at me, surrounded by gold and other signs of wealth. And especially not as the queen of Egypt. I wonder when and where this is, I know that the last queen was a Cleopatra, but there were many of them, and she is supposed to be beautiful, quite unlike the present me. It can't be later, but, as there are Romans here, who are very strong indeed, I think that I would either be the direct predecessor, or the one before that. My thoughts however don't get me much further, especially because the landscape draws all of my attention. There are fields everywhere, and ever more ships, ranging from small boats to massive ships sailing down the river. To Alexandria. I can't take my eyes off them, until I see something in the water. I almost gasp, a hippo. The first time I ever see a nile-horse in the wild. It swims away from my galley, even such a beast knows better than to be in the way of such a vessel.
The journey continues all day long, causing me to wonder how the rowers can keep going, without any breaks in the pace. Nothing disturbs the journey, although I keep looking around, and thinking. Night starts to fall, but not even that slows my journey down, somehow, all three ships keep going, even after I withdraw to my little room, after having finished a dinner of something that looks like a fine paste, cut into the shapes of animals. They all look identical, but each has a different taste, one that I can't quite place, but which I find myself liking. There is a sweet wine that goes with it, but I don't have much, I should prevent brain damage.
The night frightens me, I slept poorly the previous one, and the only thing keeping my fears and thoughts under control was the presence of others. Only, now I no longer am in the palace, amongst the servants. There are only a few with me, and I fear that they will also have to sleep. I wish that I had a larger ship, with the space for people to watch me all night long. I need the idea of people around me.
Despite my fears, I allow myself to be undressed, and put abed for the night. One of the servants places herself on the ground, to stay in case I need her. But she will sleep. I try to force my thoughts to simple things, things that might distract me in some way. But nothing works. Every time I try to focus, I see it all again. The deaths, and everything else. I have to sleep, to escape into oblivion, but I can't catch it, and the harder I try, the more I remember, and the more awake I feel. I hear the beat of my heart, it seems fast, very fast even. I try listening to it, but once I do, once I follow the rhythm, I find that I can't. The timing between the beats is wrong, it keeps changing. And that in turn increases my fear. I touch my throat, it feels moist, and try to feel the beat. It is easy enough, but the frequency remains inconstant.
With a startle, I return to my senses, bathing in sweat. It's so hot, and pieces of images remain in my eyes. Heads. Just heads floating in a sea of blood. Heads with familiar faces, my mother. Each and every one of them is my mother's. Kind and harsh at once, her pleasant voice still echoes in my head. "God's punishment of you is just. You deserve this, sweetie."
Over and over again I hear it, while I try to force the memory away. But it won't go, it only becomes stronger. Until a voice breaks through it all: "Holy Majesty, is something the matter?"
I swallow, my throat feels so dry: "I had a bad dream, that's all."
"We will call a seer tomorrow, Holy Majesty, and he will explain this then. Do you wish for me to write it down?"
Argh. Normally I can get away with just some vague lies. But not now, some charlatan needs the details and for all I know, Father will hear it too. Or they'll use it to predict the future. It will be a bad omen for tomorrow at least. But I don't know if I can refuse. I have to, I need time to think: "That can wait until the morning, for now, I wish to sleep."
"As you command, Holy Majesty. Is there any other way in which I can serve you?"
"Yes, could you get me something to drink? I feel thirsty.', I reply, feeling pangs of guilt.
Mere moments later she gives me a goblet, and I eagerly drink the cool water. For a moment I wonder if it is safe, but it's better than nothing, and it seems unlikely that they would give impure water to the queen. Maybe I should demand all my water to have been boiled first.
The water seems to be absorbed by my dry lips and mouth, but it does make me feel better. "Thank you."
She is silent, and for a few moments I wonder if I did something wrong. Maybe I shouldn't have thanked her? Luckily, she soon speaks again: "Is there anything else you wish, Holy Majesty?"
"Yes", I say without thinking, "could you come here, to lie by my side? It is bound to be more comfortable than the ground, and I feel lonely."
I feel myself starting to blush. This is stupid. I should have more self-control, and certainly shouldn't be doing this. Again she is silent, I want to take back my words, to get myself under control. It's wrong to even think of something like this. Finally, hesitating words come, spoken almost as a whisper: "Thank you, Holy Majesty."
The girl lies down next to me, but still at a distance. I don't know what to do, it reminds me of the horror of the slumber parties from when I was a teenager, in bed with other girls, but mortally afraid of showing even a hint of my feelings, my desires, and most of all, what I would do while I would be asleep. I feel the same way now, only there is a second source of shame. I made this happen, with my own empty mind and stupid words. There are plenty of dangers without making more myself.
I turn to my side, facing her. I don't even know her name, or even if I should know it already. It might not be the first time, but that doesn't make it any better. Her breathing is tense, this is far from normal then. I messed up. She is pretty though, from what I can see, with a round face and large dark eyes. And her dark skin is so smooth, it makes me feel that all too common mixture of jealousy and admiration. The urge to put an arm around her rises, but I force it down. I have done enough to mess things up already, and what I just did is simply unacceptable, I shouldn't do anything more.
But still, she has such beautiful lips. It's shocking, I don't even know what my own look like now. I must have looked thoughtful, because she asks: "Is anything the matter, Holy Majesty?"
"Oh no. I'm fine. I was just thinking. Please, make yourself comfortable and go to sleep."
"Yes, Holy Majesty.", She shifts a little, and closes her eyes, leaving me with my thoughts. I feel lost, even my body isn't mine anymore. Even when I couldn't do anything in the hospital I wasn't this alienated. I don't know anything about my body, except for the little that I have seen. I wouldn't even know my face from that of a stranger. I presume that I look like my relatives, but that's far from something hopeful or good. But at least I'm not fat, quite the contrary. I don't even know how old I am. At least a teenager judging by my body, and younger than Berenice was. But that's all I know, all I can be certain of.
Again I feel hungry, I almost always am, but I think that I have to be careful with my food. I might be skinny, but I can't build up bad habits. Even if I could do with some chocolate, preferably in the form of ice cream. And I remember. This is Egypt, at least fifteen hundred years before America will be reached. At least fifteen centuries before chocolate. I am no longer home. This is no game, this is reality. I am in another world, one without all the things I care for. A tear wells up, no longer restrained by anything.