Chapter 2 (part 1) from Death of an Eye

The second chapter of the first novel in the Eye of Isis series, set in Alexandria in the time of Cleopatra.

2 (Part 1)

on the morning of the Tenth Day of the Second Week

at the Sixth Hour…

Nebenteru’s Luxury Goods boasted a prime central location on Hermes Street, which followed the docks lining the Port of Eunostos, which meant they could avoid the crowds and commotion of the Canopic Way by walking along the edge of the harbor. The manmade Port of Kibotos was behind them, Kibotos being the port of entry for the canal leading to the Nile, where all upriver traffic stopped to be checked by Customs for duty and by the Shurta for contraband. Coming up on their left was the Heptastadion, the causeway connecting the city with the Isle of Pharos. The island’s eastern end was dominated by the lighthouse, so tall and the flame of its light made so bright by reflecting mirrors that it could be seen from ships as far as ten leagues at sea. It could be seen from everywhere in Alexandria, too, and was the lodestone by which its citizens navigated about their city.

It was a day as beautiful as were most days in Alexandria, a city benefiting from an idyllic location between the stifling heat of the interior deserts and the cool, onshore winds of the Middle Sea. Sunlight skipped across the ripples of the water, the Pharos stood tall and proud against the blue of the water, and the air smelled of salt. Gulls soared and dived and called raucously to one another, second in volume only to the low, continuous roar of the streets of Alexandria by day. A fisherman was selling his early morning catch off the stern of his boat and was surrounded by a gaggle of slaves and housewives bargaining furiously at the tops of their voices for only the best shrimp and squid and fish for that evening’s dinner.  Stalls lining both sides of the street featured onions, leeks, and garlic, lentils, beans and spices, dates, figs, plums, pomegranates, melons and more. The latest in food and fashion from Rome, Athens, and Byzantium was hawked from the decks of larger ships, and the wealth of brightly colored fruits and fabrics were enough to blind the eye. 

The spaces between the vendors were as always well seeded with individuals hoping to gather a few coins in their bowls by magic tricks, juggling, acrobatics and anything else that might produce another coin in their bowls. There were many musicians with varying degrees of talent, like the young Greek man who tootled mournfully on a flute, in accompaniment with another young Greek who sang a song of losing his mother, his job, and his dog all on the same day. They were very attractive young men, which accounted for the circle of adoring young women surrounding them. Here a man aged either by nature or by craft cast a spell on a half-circle of rapt boys with the tale of Achilles before the walls of Troy. Some of it Tetisheri recognized from Homer, the rest, especially the addition of Achilles’ hand-to-hand battle with Ares over the favors of Aphrodite, was new to her and probably to everyone else on the street as well.  An older woman with soulful dark eyes read fortunes in palms under the baleful surveillance of a Jewish priest with long earlocks. 

There were cats wherever one looked, black, brown, white, striped tabbies and multicolored tortoiseshells. They begged the dairyman for milk and the fisherman for scraps. They twined around the ankles of the unwary, hissed at children who had the temerity to pull their tails, arched their backs and purred when their spines were scratched, pounced and played with a bit of string, and napped in the sun curled up on the wide ledge of a fountain or a half-wall of stone or a marble seat.

Roses bloomed everywhere, vying with bushes of rosemary and verbena and lavender to perfume the air. It was a city to delight every sense, and Tetisheri did not wonder at the dazed expressions of the visitors who wandered the streets.

Where a side street met the Soma a large wooden tray of artfully spilled unset gemstones perched on a sturdy metal tripod, towered over by two enormous guards armed with pilums, gladii, and long knives. Their job was to scowl menacingly in the background while the gem merchant, one Cordros, bargained deferentially with a young Alexandrian noble attired in silk tunic and kilt, who preened beneath a broad collar of gold and lapis beads and four broad beaten gold bracelets, one above and below each elbow. He was attended by ten or twelve of his closest friends, though none were as well dressed or as expensively adorned as he.

Tetisheri knew him and took care not to catch his eye. Cordros, a friend of Neb’s, winked at her on the sly as she passed. “My lord, you wound me to the heart! My prices are the best you will find from here to Rome itself! Fifty denariii for such a stone would leave me no profit at all—”

“Nenwef still spending his wife’s money as fast as her father hands it over to him, I see,” Apollodorus said. “Our esteemed King Ptolemy did the girl no favors in arranging that marriage.”

“Not so loud, you’ll be heard.”

“I don’t care if I am.” 

A man, an upriver Egyptian by the look of his headscarf, was sent sprawling from the door of a taverna. Apollodorus stepped in between him and Tetisheri as the taverna keeper spat at their feet. “No Egyptians allowed! Keep out!”

Apollodorus helped the Egyptian to his feet. “All right there, sir?”

The Egyptian, dark face made darker by rage, wrenched out of Apollodorus’ grip and shoved his way through the crowd. The Alexandrians and the tourists were largely indifferent, but across the street a group of Egyptians clustered and muttered together. Alexandria was a center of trade, scholarship, culture, and history, but beneath its glittering surface the city held its breath. For what? Until Caesar left? Until Ptolemy tried to kill Cleopatra and she killed him instead? Until the Egyptians rioted against their Greek lords? It had happened before, too many times to count.

Apollodorus watched the group of Egyptians until they noticed him looking and broke off to go their separate ways. “Who’s the girl?” he said, continuing up the Way.

“What girl?”

“The young girl with the old eyes who answered the door.”

“Oh. Keren.”

“From Judea?”


“I thought so. All those dark curls. Another one of your runaways?”

“She wanted to be a doctor, not a wife. It wasn’t an option her father was willing to entertain.”

“How did she come your way?”

“Neb was homeward bound from Iskenderun almost two years ago. Someone told her to look for his sail and when he put into port at Jaffa to offload cargo, she stowed away on board. He didn’t find her until he saw Pharos.” She saw his smile from the corner of her eye and in spite of herself she smiled, too. “Well, all right. He didn’t allow her to be found until then.”

“What happened to the one before? The one from Persia who was fleeing a geriatric husband and his first three wives and their, what was it, twenty-four children?”

“Yasmin? Sosigines took her on his staff. She reads and writes Greek, Latin, and Persian, and he’s teaching her cursive Demotic. He says she shows real aptitude. She took lodgings with Iphigenia to be nearer the Library.”

“A scholar. I wonder how she managed that, given how cloistered the Persians keep their women.”

“She says her father thought education was a way to keep the women quiet.”

Apollodorus laughed out loud, a sound that had more than one woman look around and follow him with their eyes. “More fool he.” He stepped out in front to lead the way through a knot of Roman tourists gathered around a display of allegedly antique pottery and statuary featuring the entire panoply of Egyptian gods and goddesses going all the way back, according to the lively, sharp-featured proprietor, to the First Dynasty. The Romans, displaying that touching reverence mixed with inferiority with which they approached all things pharaonic, looked only too willing to believe him.

“Poor bastards,” Apollodorus said, still not bothering to lower his voice.

Tetisheri, knowing the proprietor, another and less savory friend of Uncle Neb’s, agreed with him but she had other, more pressing things on her mind. “How is she?”

“Big as a hippo.”

She quelled a giggle and tried to speak reprovingly. “This is not a respectful way of which to speak of our sovereign.”

“She said it first.” He glanced at her, a grin lurking at the corners of his mouth. The sun streaked his hair with gold. “Take an extra large carpet to roll her up in these days.”

She laughed outright at this and he paused in mid step, looking down at her. When Auletes had hired Apollodorus away from the Five Soldiers to be Auletes’ daughter’s personal bodyguard, Apollodorus had seemed so much older and more experienced. Now, he seemed oddly so much nearer in age and every bit as attractive as he had been when she was a moonstruck girl of twelve. 

Her heart skipped a beat. “What?”

“Nothing,” he said after a long moment in which she felt he spent an inordinate amount of time cataloguing features he already knew only too well. He moved on and she followed.

They passed still more docks facing the Great Harbor and still more shops and stalls and inns and tavernas that clustered opportunistically near the waterfront. They passed the obelisks, and the headquarters of the Queen’s Guard, where the bellows of sergeants and the stamp of feet and clash of arms drowned out everything else. A smaller company of Egyptians, none of them over fourteen and indisputably new recruits, was being drilled with sword and shield. They were assisted in this effort by a voluntary critique from some off-duty Roman soldiers. If she read their insignia correctly, they were part of the Veteran Sixth Legion, the legion Caesar had brought with him which had suffered so many casualties in the late war. 

“Put some shoulder into it, lad, it won’t bite you,” one of them said, and shook his head while the rest of his friends sighed and cast up their eyes when the recruit so advised hit himself in the head with the pommel of his own sword.

The sound of a sharp smack was followed by a yelp. The instructor drew his hand back for another blow, the round, slender stick in his hand whistling through the air to come down with another smack on the unlucky backside of the recruit nearest him. “Straighten up that line, you clumsy bastards! If your mothers could not teach you how to walk without tripping over your own feet, by Sobek’s mighty balls the Royal Guard will!”

“I’ve never seen so many upriver folk under arms,” Tetisheri said.

“One of her new battalions,” Apollodorus said. “She’s been recruiting all the way up to Syrene and Philae.”

“And they’re actually coming?”

“They’ll come for her.”

“They wouldn’t for Auletes.”

He looked at her, brow raised. “No. But they will for her. She is their very own Isis made flesh, after all.”

She knew what he meant. They had both been present three hundred leagues up the river in Thebes four years before when the queen had personally escorted the new Baucis bull to his home in the temple of Hermonthis (or Armant, as any Egyptian worshipper could and would tell you was its proper name). Every priest in Upper and Lower Egypt was present in full regalia and Cleopatra appeared larger than life beneath the Double Crown. All of them were attendant on the massive beast with the white body and the black face whose raiment nearly outshone the queen’s. But only nearly.

Thousands of Egyptians had lined both shores of the Nile and crammed into boats large and small that so crowded the river you could have walked across it without getting your feet wet. They were there to cry out as one their adulation to the Lady of the Two Lands. Their collective religious fervor drove many to faint dead away into the arms of their companions, to be revived later by a feast at Cleopatra’s expense which went on for days afterwards. It was a celebration to which the nomarchs in their annual reports to the crown attributed a dramatic uptick in births nine months later. All to the good, the queen would have said, as that meant more farmers, craftsmen and soldiers under arms nineteen years later.

Regardless, no one who was there ever forgot the sight—or neglected to say so over and over again—and no living Egyptian who had not attended more bitterly regretted any decision in their lives. Many of them were so struck by the queen’s appearance at that event that they followed her downriver to Alexandria, where she welcomed them with a tithe of grain and a one-time relief from their annual tax to help them settle in.

In fact, Tetisheri thought, before Cleopatra took her place on the throne of the Ptolemies, Egyptians had formed less than a third of the population of Alexandria, a city dominated by the Macedonian Greek ruling class and supported by the Jewish working and scholarly class. Now they were moving in to the city themselves, settling down, selling their own goods directly instead of through Alexandrian middlemen, drinking in Alexandrian tavernas—or trying to—and training in Cleopatra’s army.

Not everyone was comfortable with that change.

The extensive jumble of buildings that formed the Royal Palace gleamed richly in the noon sun, chiseled from limestone faced with marble and embellished with coral and lapis and turquoise and carnelian inlay. Elaborately carved columns supported bas-relief friezes depicting scenes from Atum creating Shu and Tefnut to Alexander scattering the grain that would become the de facto boundaries of the city, themselves painted every color of the rainbow. The mixture of dazzling white stone and garish rainbow paint was overwhelming, and when they entered through a small side door the relief was so abrupt Tetisheri closed her eyes for a moment to let them adjust. Apollodorus exchanged a nod with the guard, a grizzled Alexandrian Greek whose face she recognized but whose name she couldn’t remember. She followed Apollodorus down a long hall with guards stationed an arm’s length apart. They were, Tetisheri noted with interest, equally divided between Alexandrian Greeks and upriver Egyptians. To a man they looked narrow-eyed and suspicious, of Tetisheri and Apollodorus, and probably of each other as well.

Apollodorus went through another door and a series of connecting corridors less well attended, one of which went behind a false wall and another so dusty she was surprised at the absence of corpses, human and otherwise. Once she saw two slaves engaged in a furtive embrace in a dark corner, who broke apart and scurried off when they caught sight of Apollodorus and Tetisheri. Around another corner she saw a tall, thin man with dark hair cut in the Greek style in a nondescript tunic and sandals approaching from the direction they were going. She caught the impression of close set eyes and a long, sharp nose before he vanished into a passage that might have led outside and just as easily might not have, she was so turned around. A self-important steward clutching a ring with many keys on it stood back deferentially when he saw Apollodorus, his head bent as they passed.

They emerged finally into a rectangular hall so large and bare of furnishings that their footsteps echoed off the walls. Apollodorus opened another door to reveal a short flight of stairs leading down. It was dark and airless and would have been intolerable if they had not emerged almost immediately onto another floor lit by torches. It must have been ventilated by hidden ducts because the flames flickered and the air was much fresher. Eventually they came to a door set deeply into the wall. Apollodorus knocked.


He opened the door and stepped back to let Tetisheri precede him.

In spite of being mostly underground the room had a quality of muted light, in part provided by long narrow windows that lined the top of the exterior wall and admitted the salt tang of sea air and the sounds of waves lapping against rocks. Tetisheri thought the room must face the Royal Harbor and Pharos, and wondered if its light shone into this room at night.

It was a small, rectangular room. Shelves lined all four walls and were filled with a fascinating array of scrolls and wooden boxes and bowls of every size, shape and depth and large burlap sacks and tiny linen bags and a quantity of plain glass vials with cork stoppers, some of which were full of mysterious liquids and had been sealed with wax. Two long tables stood in the center of the room, their tops crowded with bowls and beakers and braziers. Everywhere there were strips of papyrus and scraps of vellum densely notated mostly—Tetisheri craned her neck—in Greek, but some in cursive Demotic as well.

A woman stood at the middle of one of the tables, tapping something from a square of paper into a bubbling pot set over a small brazier bearing a few glowing coals. “Thank you, Apollodorus,” she said without looking up.

Tetisheri heard the door close behind her.

Cleopatra Philopater Thea Noetera, seventh of her name, seventeenth of her line (or possibly eighteenth, depending on whether or not you counted Ptolemy VII), the Lady of Two Lands, the incarnation on earth of the goddess Isis, and absolute ruler of Alexandria and Upper and Lower Egypt (unless you counted her brother and co-ruler, Ptolemy XIV, and no one did, unless you were Julius Caesar, in which case everyone else did, too), fed the now empty envelope to the hot coals and took up a small metal spoon on a long handle to stir the contents of the pot. Her shift was simple but woven of the finest linen. Her hair was dark except when the light caught a stray auburn gleam and was held back from her face by a thin gold fillet in the Greek style.

There are now three Eye of Isis novels, most recently Theft of an Idol, which published on November 3, 2022.

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