Chapter 2 (part 2) 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 2)

“What are you working on?” Tetisheri said.

The queen watched the pot as it came back to a boil. “Dried powdered willow bark ground fine, pomegranate juice, and honey.”

“What’s it for?”

“A potion to ease menstrual cramps.”

Tetisheri smiled. “Not something I would have thought you stood in need of at present.”

“No,” the queen said, chuckling as she ran a hand over her swollen belly. “Not just at present.” 

“You’re big for five months.”

“It’s closer to six.” Cleopatra sighed and rubbed her belly again. “But yes, very big. All the women in my family show early on, or so my aunt tells me.”

The potion boiled high inside the pot and she stirred it down again. “I’m trying to come up with something that a woman can swallow without it making an immediate reappearance. The ancient texts agree that pomegranate reduces inflammations, and it certainly tastes better than any of the ingredients in the remedies Zotikos makes.”

“They’re that bad?”

The queen shuddered. “Which is what happens when you have a man brewing tinctures meant to be administered to women for women’s problems.”

Tetisheri grinned at the acid note in Cleopatra’s voice. “And the honey? A binding agent?”

“So you weren’t asleep during the entirety of Natan’s classes after all. I often wondered. That, and the willow bark is so bitter and the pomegranate is so tart. I thought the honey might make it a little more palatable. Don’t touch that.”

Tetisheri’s fingers had been hovering over a vial filled with some dark liquid. She snatched her hand back and looked up in inquiry.

“Enough and it heals,” Cleopatra said. “Too much and it kills. Taken orally, almost instantly. Over time, used as a topical unguent, it can also prove fatal.”

Tetisheri clasped her hands behind her back and maintained a respectful distance from everything in the room. “I knew you were skilled in potions and tinctures, Pati. I didn’t know you’d branched out into poisons.”

“I’m thinking of writing a pharmacopoeia. Merit-Ptah could do with some updating.” The queen covered the coals in the brazier and looked up. Her wide-spaced eyes were large and dark and thickly lashed, her nose long, her mouth wide and full-lipped, her chin strong. She wasn’t pretty, exactly, but there was an animated quality about every breath she took that drew attention and kept it. When Cleopatra Philopator caught your eye, you didn’t look away. “It’s been a long time, Sheri.”

“Well, you’ve been busy, Pati.”

“That I have. And you?”

“The business flourishes. Uncle Neb is just back from upriver. I left him gloating over his newest boatload of treasures.”

Cleopatra raised an eyebrow. “Did he bring back any books?”

Tetisheri laughed. “It would be as much as my life was worth if I told you that he had.”

With mock severity the queen said, “Are you implying I’m in the habit of commandeering trade goods legally acquired by my citizens?”

“I’m implying nothing, I’m stating a fact.” Tetisheri let their mutual laughter warm her for a moment. But only for a moment. “Not that I’m not happy to see you, Pati, but why am I here?”

Cleopatra stretched, rubbing her knuckles into the base of her spine, before opening the drawer of a small chest sitting on one of the shelves. She removed a small round, flat object and tossed it to Tetisheri.

Tetisheri had to fall back a step but she caught it neatly in her right hand. “Wouldn’t we have looked the idiots if I’d missed,” she said with some asperity, “crawling around on the floor looking for it.”

“Queens don’t crawl around on the floor,” Cleopatra said with her nose in the air. “We have minions who crawl for us.” She nodded. “Take a look.”

It was a coin, a brand new bronze coin, images clear, edges unworn, very shiny. On one side was a strongly drawn image of Isis suckling Horus. “Horus,” she said. “You’re very sure. Because Caesar must have a son?”

The queen winced and rubbed her belly again. “No, because this one is trying out for the Olympics before he’s even out of the womb.”

On the other side of the coin was a monogram shaped like a tree, with Cleopatra’s name and title spelled out around the rim. “Cyprus?”

The queen nodded. “We strike all our new coins there.”

“A new drachma?” 

The queen nodded. 

“That’s the second in two years.”

“I have to do something, Sheri. There hasn’t been an adequate supply of coins in circulation since Ptolemy X. If there is no coin to spend no one can buy, and that is not a recipe for a stable economy in the largest port on the Middle Sea.”

“Most of the coin we see is silver.”

Cleopatra nodded. “And Roman. You don’t have to say it, Sheri, I know.”

“So.” Tetisheri tossed the coin back and Cleopatra caught it every bit as neatly as Tetisheri had.  “A new issue. A nice likeness, too, Oh Great Isis. I don’t know whether to bow or just abase myself before your image and be done with it.”

Cleopatra’s smile was only perfunctory. Tetisheri cocked her head. “What’s wrong, Pati?”

“Walk with me,” the queen said, and Tetisheri followed her out the door, Apollodorus falling in behind them. They went down the corridor, up some stairs, down another corridor, and up some more stairs to emerge onto a small balcony that overlooked the Royal Harbor. Pharos stood tall and proud across the mouth of the harbor, ready to light the way home when night fell. For now the cataract of sunlight at zenith flooded the shadows so that the warren of buildings that made up the palace seemed flattened, as if they were a two-dimensional map of themselves.

A striped awning had been unrolled to shade the balcony. There was a small table bearing a pitcher and glasses and a tray of bread and fruit and cheese. “Sit,” the queen said. Tetisheri and Apollodorus sat while the queen poured. 

Tetisheri accepted a glass and a bit of cheese and sat. The juice was cold and of some pleasing mixture of citrus sweetened with honey. The cheese was velvety smooth and slightly tart. The rounds of bread were still warm from the oven. For a moment the three of them ate and drank and admired the view. It was an oddly peaceful one, as land and seacape both were relatively deserted as Alexandrians broke their fast under shelter from the heat of midday. Even the gulls were silent.

The queen licked her fingers clean and drained her glass and set it down. “The first shipment of the new coinage went missing five days ago.”

Tetisheri, who had been on the alert since the queen had served them with her own hands, said, “How unfortunate.” She was unable to keep her tone wholly free of suspicion.

Cleopatra’s smile was wide and knowing and utterly charming. “How carefully disinterested you sound, my dear Sheri.”

“And how well you wear that cobra on your forehead, Pati,” Tetisheri said, and then cast an involuntary look over her shoulder. It was one thing to revert to childhood nicknames behind closed doors, and another entirely to use them where anyone might hear.

“Don’t worry, Iras and Charmion have instructions to ensure our privacy.” Cleopatra’s smile faded. “I tasked my Eye with finding the lost shipment.”

Tetisheri felt a sense of growing dread. “Not Aristander?”

“He knows, but in his office he is constrained to answer also to my brother.” The words “at present” were unsaid but felt by all three of them.

“And?” Tetisheri said.

Cleopatra looked at Apollodorus. “And the Eye was murdered very early this morning,” he said. “Near the Eunostos docks. Not too far from Neb’s warehouse, as it happens.”

Tetisheri did not make the mistake of imagining for one moment the queen had called her into her presence to accuse her of the crime. They had known each other far too long and too well. No, the queen had something else in mind and unfortunately, Tetisheri was horribly afraid she knew what it was. “Pati—”

The queen’s expression was inexorable. “We have to find that shipment, Sheri, and we have to find it immediately. I’ve already commissioned another issue but the people who stole the first can hide it away and start spending it when the second issue is in circulation, which will only lower the face value of both and upset Alexandria’s trade further. The plan was to exchange the old coin for the new, slowly, carefully, so there was no panic, so that the new currency has time to build in value and the old doesn’t loose its value too quickly. Remember what Sosigenes taught us when we were studying the ancient Greeks? Too much new currency dumped all at once into the marketplace is as destabilizing to an economy as too little.” 

Her eyes narrowed and her voice deepened. “And even if I had the new coins with me in the Royal Palace right now, every last one of them under lock and key, murder has been done. Murder, here in Alexandria, bloody murder of an Alexandrian citizen and further, of one of my closest and most valuable servants. This cannot, this may not, go undiscovered, or unpunished.”

“I agree, of course I do. But I’m not—”

“Apollodorus will aid you in your investigation. The body is with the Shurta, and Aristander has promised me personally that unless he is asked, he will volunteer no information about the murder or the investigation. To anyone. Other than yourselves.”

Tetisheri closed her eyes. “Please don’t ask this of me.”

Cleopatra leaned forward and slipped her hand into Tetisheri’s. It felt smooth and strong and warm. So did the drachma she pressed into Tetisheri’s palm. “There is no one but you I can ask this of, Tetisheri. I am surrounded by spies set in place by the Romans, by the nobles, by my brother, all of whom are watching and waiting for me to make that one slip so they can push me the rest of the way over the edge and applaud as I fall. If those coins are not found, this could be that slip.”

She would have said more when Charmion slipped out onto the balcony, gave Tetisheri a quick nod, and whispered something into the queen’s ear. The queen was instantly on her feet and in motion, prodigiously pregnant or not. “Tell her, Apollodorus. Tell her everything. She is to have immediate and unquestioned access to whatever she needs. Find the coin, find the thieves, and find the killer and bring all to me.”

“On the floor,” Charmion hissed. There was the sound of feet that sounded very much like soldiers marching. Tetisheri and Apollodorus both went from chair to knees in one motion, their foreheads pressed to the cool marble. Tetisheri slipped the drachma into the purse at her waist just in time.

“Ah, lovey, I was just in search of you.” The male voice was hoarse and a trifle high. Tetisheri, peeking over her arm, saw a tall man a little thick with age around the middle dressed in a white tunic with a purple hem. He had a beaky nose and his hair was combed forward to cover his bald spot. His scalp shone pinkly through the scant iron gray strands nonetheless.

Cleopatra’s voice was indulgent and more than a little suggestive. “And how may I serve the mighty Caesar?”

There was a loud smack, and after a stupefied moment Tetisheri realized that Julius Caesar had just slapped Cleopatra Philopator, the Lady of the Two Lands, seventh of her name, seventeenth in her line and the incarnation of Isis on the earth, on her behind. “You may get yourself to your bed, lady, and myself after you. We don’t have much time left to play, you and I.”

“Your son may take exception to that, my Caesar.”

A loud, neighing laugh. “My son will one day be a man and understand, my queen.”

This was more than Tetisheri ever wanted to know about her queen’s private life, and at the same time she had to stifle a highly inappropriate giggle. She sneaked a look to her side. Apollodorus had his forehead on his hands and his behind in the air, which prompted another stifled giggle.

“Who have we here?” Sandal-clad feed stopped in front of Tetisheri, and a dry hand reached beneath her chin and raised her inexorably to her feet. Dark, piercing eyes gave her a thorough and comprehensive look and warmed to what they saw. “Jupiter, look at those eyes. As blue as the sky at morning. And who might you be?”

“The one tasked with cooking your supper this evening, mighty Caesar, so if you don’t want her to poison the soup I suggest you let her be about her business.” Cleopatra nodded at Tetisheri, who abased herself before her queen once more before getting to her feet. She tried not to hurry herself out of their presence, not entirely successfully. “Apollodorus, to your station.”

“My queen.”

In the doorway Tetisheri nearly bumped into a second Roman, near to Caesar in age, his tunic white but without the purple trim, tall and with no spare ounce of flesh about his person. A long face descended from a high forehead that went all the way back to the nape of his neck. The hollows in his cheeks were cavernous, his lips a thin, clamped line. His deep set eyes were dark, and his burning gaze was fixed on the queen. In the brief glimpse she had of him Tetisheri could not tell if that gaze said more of disapproval or desire.

She slipped past him, only to trip over a third Roman in the hallway. This one was of an age with the first two but a little shorter and with more hair. He was dressed in a simple tunic belted at the waist, but the confident set of his shoulders and the proud carriage of his head said soldier. 

Impersonal hands caught her by the shoulders before she fell and released her the moment she regained her balance. Their eyes met and held for a brief moment, hers startled, his at first indifferent and then intent. She looked away and continued down the hall.

The great scar that notched the left side of his forehead betrayed his identity. Cotta, that would be, Caesar’s cousin who had been with him since Gaul. It was in Gaul, it was said, that Cotta had deliberately caught the killing blow by an Arveni chieftain meant for Caesar.

There was no more trusted member of Caesar’s retinue. Rumor had it he would be left behind when Caesar departed, stationed in Alexandria, ostensibly as Roman legate to the Alexandrian crown but really to safeguard Caesar’s interests in the Nile’s annual grain crops. 

Anyone who wanted a Roman triumph needed first of all bread made from Egyptian grain to feed the Roman rabble, and second, Egyptian gold to sweeten the Roman Senate.

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

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