The second chapter of the second novel in the Eye of Isis series.
Apollodorus was waiting for her at the bottom of the marble steps that ran the length of the building.
He was facing the Way, a broad boulevard stretching the breadth of the city from the Gate of the Sun in the east to the Gate of the Moon in the west. A full plethrum in width, there were two central lanes for chariots and for people on horseback and tradesmen delivering goods in donkey carts. They were divided by a median planted with trees and shrubs and featuring fountains and benches, and bordered on either side by lanes for pedestrians. Here traveled the lifeblood of the city, slaves and servants laden with bags and packages, mothers scolding children into line, scholars declaiming to students, street vendors filling the air with their cries, trying to sell out before they had to pack up for the evening. At one time or another during every day, all of Alexandria was on parade along the Canopic Way. It was the best free show in the known world.
But Tetisheri’s eyes were on the nearer prospect, a figure she could recognize at any distance in any weather. She had never wondered why until this year.
He was tall but not so tall as to set himself too much apart from his fellow man. He was trim in figure but the muscle was there for anyone with the eye to detect it. His hair was fair and thick and clipped close as a soldier’s, as he had once been. His knee-length tunic was well made, of good material but dyed an unostentatious brown and girt with a plain leather belt with a plain bronze buckle. One hand rested on the hilt of the gladius that hung from his belt in a boiled leather sheath. His lower arms were bound with wide leather guards worked with the double-headed eagle of Thrace. The guards were oiled and supple but showed signs of scarring, which one could imagine had been incurred in battle.
The man, too, bore the scars of those same battles, old and white, one across an eyebrow, another down a cheekbone, another, deeper, one across a calf. It was an eloquent history of service under arms, although his face was otherwise curiously unlined. She realized she had never asked him how old he was, and that he had never volunteered the information.
He turned and she felt again that faint shock at meeting those clear green eyes, the color straight out of the olivine mines of Punt. Their gaze was so direct and so entirely without judgement that she felt she could tell him any black secret from her past and he would not condemn her.
In fact, she had, and he hadn’t.
He smiled at her, and such was the effect that it took a moment for her to remember that she had feet and that they worked. She paused one step above him so that she could look straight into his eyes and met his smile with her own. She saw the effect in his expression and thrilled to it. “Tell me you’re not here because I’ve been summoned anywhere.”
“I’m not here to summon you anywhere but to your dinner.”
“I am relieved to hear it.”
He laughed, a deep, attractive sound that resonated in her very bones, and attracted attention from women and not a few men passing by. They descended to the street and turned right.
“Do you mind if we make a quick stop at the Five Soldiers?” he said.
“You really are the perfect woman.”
She laughed, causing a man walking the other way to take a second look. She hoped she wasn’t glowing.
They crossed the Way at the first intersection, dodging a carriage carrying a group of sunburnt Romans the worse for wine back from the afternoon races at the Hippodrome. One of them hung over the side, calling out invitations to every woman he saw, young or old, pretty or not, to join them at their lodging to help them spend their winnings. Matrons glared and girls giggled and non-Roman men of every race and creed manifested a common cause in despising the lords and masters of the known world.
“At least no one’s throwing anything,” Tetisheri said.
“At least.” He looked down at her. “You look unaccustomedly sober. What troubles you?”
She told him of the thefts at the Library, and when he stopped laughing she said with asperity, “Yes, hilarious. I admit I laughed, too. But it is books of all kinds that are being stolen, Apollodorus, valuable ones, rare copies, irreplaceable and therefore priceless. Maps, too, copies that date back even to the days when some of the greatest scholars and artists lived and wrote. Sosigenes has scribes copying out Homer’s works because the shelf copies have disappeared right off the shelves.”
He shook his head gravely. “Terrible. Definitely, what the world needs is more copies of The Iliad and The Odyssey.” He caught her hand before it smacked his shoulder and tucked it into his elbow. “All right, all right. You’re going to do something about all this, I expect.”
“I suggested that a student be stationed at the doors of various collections to take the names of everyone who enters.”
“That will slow the thefts in the short term but determined and informed thieves will no doubt find a way around such actions.” He frowned. “Looking at it from the other end of the transaction may be more successful.”
He nodded. “Who receives the stolen goods? And why?”
“‘Why?’ Isn’t it obvious?”
“You mean to sell them for profit?” She nodded. “Well, yes, of course, that is the motive that would first spring to mind, but there could be others. Someone could want a particular edition of a favorite author to keep for their very own.” He grinned. “Or as an instruction manual ready to hand in pleasing one’s mistress. So to speak.”
He blinked at her innocently. “What?”
Still arguing, they turned left off the Way. The gymnasium was a single story building made of stone set back from the street with a double wooden door at the center. A frieze of open cutouts in a repeating Greek key design lined the walls beneath the eaves of a roof of terracotta tiles. Two highly polished bronze statues stood on marble plinths on either side of the door. One was the figure of a man in the act of throwing a javelin, the other of a man bent double about to hurl a discus.
A second frieze had been added below the first. This one was painted, an abstract design in reds and blues and greens and golds. It was very bright. “Dub went out of town again, didn’t he.”
“Unfortunately. This time it was an alleged artist who couldn’t pay his bill. We can’t watch Isidorus all the time. Alas.” He opened the door and held it for her.
Inside was a large room with a floor covered in mats. All four walls were lined with weapons and shields from every army in the known world, representing some that no longer existed. Outside at the back, Tetisheri knew, was another space as large again, this one covered in sand, reserved for group practice. Crixus and Castus were attempting to impart the intricacies of close work with spears to a class of young lordlings.
One she knew. Nenwef, friend to Hunefer, her late, unlamented husband. He saw her at the same moment she saw him. They exchanged a long, hostile look before he deliberately turned his back on her, wiping the blood from the scratch on his arm. The young man next to him nudged him and made a remark which made the group laugh heartily. Nenwef laughed, too, although the set of his shoulders told her he hadn’t appreciated the joke as much as the rest of them had.
Dubnorix lounged languidly against the opposite wall, watching without enthusiasm as two middle-aged men with matching paunches stepped cautiously through riposte drill, gladii held gingerly in their hands. The blades came together with a dissonant clang. One combatant dropped his sword and shook his hand, swearing. Drops of blood splattered his tunic. Dub rolled his eyes, pushed off from the wall, and sauntered forward to give instruction.
“Dear me,” Apollodorus said in a low voice meant only for her ears. “I suppose it would help if Titus could see farther than a hand’s width in front of his face.”
“The one who dropped his sword. A Roman, actually. A plebeian. I understand his father prospered in trade. Titus came to spend it all in Alexandria, as one does when one inherits wealth and isn’t allowed to use it to buy his way into the ranks of Roman patricians. Kyros is helping him buy his way into the ranks of Alexandrian patricians instead. Kyros being a scion of the Knife.”
“Ah.” The Nomarch of the Knife was as legendary for the number of children he had fathered as he was for his inability to provide for them all. His children were either married off or apprenticed as soon as they came of age, while he kept having more by new wives and concubines. Kyros appeared to be one of the eldest. “So these are some of your new evening classes?”
He nodded. “They’ve been so popular we’ve gone to three sessions a week. We’re overcharging to keep the classes small but we’ve still got waiting lists for all of them. At this rate we’re going to have to hire more instructors.”
One of the reasons the Five Soldiers was the most successful gymnasium in the city was the man standing next to her. Everyone wanted to boast of knowing him, of recounting the day in class when the renowned Apollodorus, retired legionary, friend and advisor to the Lady of the Two Lands herself, the man who had personally smuggled her into the private interview with Julius Caesar that had forever changed the future of Alexandria and Egypt—well. A man could dine out for a year recounting the day Apollodorus had personally demonstrated the proper grip on a gladius in thrust. But all she said was, “I didn’t know upper-class Alexandrians were so bloodthirsty.”
“I don’t think they are, as a rule. Mostly they hire out their mayhem. But I think the late war traumatized everyone.”
She was inclined to agree. The Alexandrine War had lasted four long, bloody years as Auletes’ children fought over the Two Crowns. The Roman cohorts marching in and out to support one claimant or another had not provided a sense of security. It was no wonder Alexandrians were lining up at the Five Soldiers Gymnasium to learn how to protect themselves. Certainly it was obvious that many of them could use the instruction.
Isidorus charged through the door in the back wall, spotted them at once, and broke into a trot. The light from the oil lamps that hung round the room shone off his scalp, which he had begun to shave when he started going bald. “Sheri, by Sobek’s balls! It’s good to see you, beautiful girl!” He picked her up as if she were a featherweight, which she knew very well she was not, and whirled her around and set her down again to beam up at her. “What brings you into this sweatshop full of pretenders, every one of whom you could take blindfolded? That is, if you’ve been practicing?” He frowned at her, and all that was needed was a curled beard and curlier horns to complete the resemblance to Faunus.
She was flushed and laughing. “I have, Is. I would not dare otherwise to show my face here.”
He beamed at her. “That is good to hear, beautiful girl.” He cast a disparaging look at Apollodorus. “It shows you have some sense.” He flicked her temple. “Remember, your most important weapon…”
“… is the one between my ears.” She’d heard the admonition often enough that she could recite it in unison with him. “I remember, Is.”
He gave a satisfied nod. “Good.”
Apollodorus winked at him and looked over his head at Dubnorix. He nodded at the back door and headed in that direction. Dub bestowed upon Tetisheri his most devastating smile, the one proven to make all the ladies go weak at the knees, excused himself and followed. His pupils, looking relieved, downed swords and headed for the refreshments.
“Are the classes for girls filling up, Is?”
“Of course. During the day only, so far, although Crixus says he is wooing some promising matrons by way of that dressmaker of his.”
Crixus had been laying romantic siege to a dressmaker in the Royal Quarter for months. “Any joy to be had there?”
Is waggled his eyebrows. “Let us just say there is a spring in his step this month that wasn’t there last month, beautiful girl. And how is your friend, our august queen?”
“Between rebuilding Alexandria and Egypt after the last war and being a new mother, she has her hands full.”
“And what does she hear from Caesar, that mightily victorious general and the father of her child?” Is held strict if nontraditional views on the responsibilities of parenthood, and in his view Caesar fell woefully short in this regard. It might have had something to do with the fact that Caesar had not bothered to wait upon Caesarion’s birth before leaving to put out some provincial fire. There were always fires in the provinces. There was not always a new child to welcome into the world, as Is had pointed out tartly on more than one occasion, Julius Caesar had cause to know.
Tetisheri returned a slight shrug, but thought it wise to turn the subject. Fortunately, Khemit’s account of her last investigation sprang readily to mind. “Is, do you remember a young man named Grafeas? He met friends here twice a week. This would have been about two years ago, when the war was still going on.”
“He was a scribe, of the Hall of Scribes, owned by Archeion. He was Archeion’s son.”
Is’s brow cleared and he snapped his fingers. “The young man who disappeared! Of course I remember. There was a woman nosing around, asking after him—”
His eyes narrowed, and he took a long, deliberate look at the fine chain that was all that could be seen of her badge of office. “Yes,” he said after a significant pause. “Khemit.”
So Is knows, she thought. And if Is knew, then Dub and Crixus and Castus knew as well. So much for the traditional secrecy shrouding the identity of any Eye of Isis. Aristander knew, too, but then the head of the Shurta always did. “What did she want to know?” she said, drawing his eyes back to hers, hoping that her expression was uninformative. It was something that required practice, of which she hadn’t yet had a great deal.
Is’s eyebrows drew together. “He was in my class—unarmed combat—and I gave her the names of his two friends who took the class with him.”
“What were their names?” They were in Khemit’s notes but even as new to the post as she was, Tetisheri knew to check everything twice, if not three times, if not every time the opportunity presented itself.
“They’re both here tonight. Ahmose is one of them. He’s still a student. Some real talent there. I’m trying to nudge him toward the Queen’s Guard.” He nodded at a young man in the long weapons class, notable for a musculature that was Achillean in aspiration. “The other is some scion of a noble house, and someone much more interested in his reflection than in blade discipline.” He pointed with his chin at the young man who looked like a ten-year-old boy standing next to Ahmose. “Nefer? Nitwit?”
With foreboding she said, “Nenwef, son of Menes of Thinis?”
Is snapped his fingers. “That’s it!”
At that moment Nenwef said something to Ahmose and sauntered over to the refreshment table set against the wall beside the door. He poured a large cup of water and drank it down in one long swallow. He looked over his shoulder at her and flexed a muscle. She kept her face expressionless.
Is cocked his head. “You know him?”
“Want to talk to him?” Is half raised his hand to beckon Nenwef over.
“No,” she said. “I really don’t. He was a friend of Hunefer’s.”
Isidorus looked at her in silence for a moment. “Want me to throw him out?”
Some of the ice that had formed around her heart when she had seen Nenwef melted. “No, certainly not. His money’s good.” She smiled. “Or at least his wife’s is.”
He knew her well enough to recognize the effort that had gone into the smile. “The offer stands.” She said nothing more, and he shrugged. “Why all the questions about Grafeas?”
Nenwef stiffened. Interesting, she thought, and didn’t bother to lower her voice. “He’s still missing. His parents remain citizens in good standing of Alexandria, and they are owed answers. Did Khemit say why she wanted to know?”
He shook his head, and she read the message in his eyes easily. She didn’t have to.
Nenwef dallied over another glass of water before walking back to his class, ostensibly ignoring them both. He smacked Ahmose on the back and said something. Ahmose seemed to protest. Nenwef shook his head, and without taking leave of his instructors entered the door leading to the changing rooms.
Is shared the latest in local gossip while Tetisheri listened with half an ear, watching as Nenwef emerged again, now dressed in elaborate attire that was some clothier’s bright idea as to what the rich wore for street clothes. Nenwef always had dressed above his station and his purse. He waved at his friends and walked out the front door. He wasn’t moving slowly.
“Is the long weapons class over?” she said.
The door in the back wall opened and Apollodorus came in alone. He walked across to them with an unhurried gait, and smiled down at her. “Ready?”
She smiled at Is and followed Nenwef out the door. He was a diminishing figure at the corner of the Way.
The crowds had dwindled and Tetisheri saw Nenwef hail a cabrio. “Hurry,” she said.
“I want to see where Nenwef goes.”
They emerged onto the Way as Nenwef’s cabrio driver slapped the back of his horse with the reins.
Tetisheri looked up and down the street for transportation. A cabrio turned into the Way from Lochias. Apollodorus shouted and waved and he pulled up in front of them. “Where to?”
Tetisheri pointed. “Follow them. Don’t get too close.”
“Oh now, lady, but I’ve been at work since dawn and I want my dinner—”
Apollodorus climbed in beside her. “Follow them, and keep your distance.”
The driver gulped and clucked at his horse.
In a low voice Apollodorus said, “Why are we following Nenwef? I would have thought—”
“I mentioned a name to Is and Nenwef overheard me. He left in a hurry.”
“Why do we care?”
“It was the name of a missing man from one of Khemit’s cases. He was never found. In her report of the investigation she listed two of his friends. One of them was named Nenwef. Isidorus told me Nenwef was friends with this Grafeas. I want to know why hearing me speak his name would move Nenwef to quit his lesson early and leave in such a rush.”
Apollodorus grunted and settled back into the cabrio’s seat. It was a plank of unvarnished wood fitted snugly into the half circle shape of the back of the cabrio. The driver stood in front of them, holding the reins. A pair of shurta on patrol nodded at Apollodorus as they passed. A food vendor was hauling his cart towards home. A group of students oblivious to everything but a heated argument over the character of Euripides’ Medea (heartless mother or abused wife?) nearly trampled a rose garden planted in the median. An ibis that had been prospecting for bugs raised an indignant squawk and flapped off to try his luck on the shores of Lake Mareotis, narrowly missing one of the offending students with a healthy squirt of rich yellow excrement.
Tetisheri craned her neck to look ahead. Their driver was maintaining a discreet distance between Nenwef’s cabrio and their own. She relaxed back onto the seat. “By the way, how did you know I was at the Library?”
“I stopped at the house on my way back from the port. Nike informed me that dinner would be served promptly at Fourteenth Hour and that it was Nebet’s lamb in apricot sauce tonight and that if we wanted any of it we’d best not be late.”
“Was Uncle Neb home?”
“I didn’t see him. Is he away again?”
She nodded. “He’s on his way back from Puteoli.”
“What’s in Puteoli?”
“Construction materials.” A brief silence, while she wondered how to put her question in the most delicate terms. There was much he couldn’t tell her of his service to their queen. In the end she decided on the straightforward approach. “You’ve been away yourself.”
“Have I?” He glanced down at her.
“I haven’t seen you for a ten-day at least, and you said you were coming back from the port.” In spite of herself she heard the note of accusation in her voice.
He heard it, too, and his grin flashed again. “You’ve been keeping count, Sheri.”
She turned her head so he wouldn’t see her blush.
It was late afternoon, that time of day when everyone was on their way home. They traveled the length of the city before their driver slowed. “He’s turning, sir.”
“Left or right?”
She looked at Apollodorus. “Into Rhakotis.”
He grimaced. “Which street?”
“Canal Street, sir.”
The street that followed the Nile Canal, which connected the harbor to the Nile. “Follow him as far as you can.”
Canal Street was half the width of the Canopic Way and crowded with shops selling everything to do with the construction trade. Here a small shop with a kiln taking up most of the room made and sold nothing but clay roof tiles. There a stall displayed racks full of hammers great and small. Progress was slower although many of the owners were preparing to close up shop. All of the shops had apartments over them, where most of the owners lived. Construction after the war was so fierce that the tools and materials of the trade were fetching premium prices, which made them targets of opportunity for every band of thieves in the whole of Alexandria and Egypt.
As they traveled deeper into Rhakotis, the houses on Canal Street became larger and spaced farther apart, with property going down to the edge of the canal, which they were now able to see. Gradually some of these homes became flanked with construction yards with walls around them and double doors made of solid wood with heavy bronze hinges and locks. All of the doors boasted at least two guards, heavily armed.
Their driver pulled up. “He’s stopped, I think. Yes, he’s paying off his driver and getting out.”
“We’re close enough to home,” Tetisheri said to Apollodorus. “We can walk from here.”
He nodded and got out. She pulled out her purse and dropped enough coins into their driver’s hand to make him whistle cheerfully as he maneuvered his equipage around to return the way they had come.
Tetisheri and Apollodorus found a shadowed corner across the street. Nenwef was haggling with the driver of his cabrio, a stout man whose face was turning a deep, dark red.
The cabrio had stopped before an impressive collection of buildings set beside an equally impressive length of the Nile Canal. The central structure was a house built in the classical Greek style. Both sides were covered with scaffolding all the way up to the roof. The front of the house, however, was free of construction debris and open to the admiring gaze of passers-by. There was much to admire. A carved pediment illustrated what appeared to be the entire life story of Alexander the Great, painted in colors that would have made Isidorus weep with envy. In one scene Aristotle lectured the young Alexander. In another Alexander dribbled out a handful of grain to mark the borders of the city, and battles, battles everywhere, from Halicarnassus to Hydaspes. Ptolemy I Soter appeared often, looking enough like Alexander to be his twin, although the sculptor had taken care to differentiate the two men by giving Alexander a helmet with wings and Ptolemy one with a hooded cobra, a broad hint at his future as the first Ptolomaic king of Alexandria and Egypt. The cornice framing the frieze, it went without saying, was elaborately keyed.
This masterpiece rested on not one but two rows of columns, the first Corinthian, the second Doric, one set back from the other on a deep porch. The columns were heavily illustrated with the histories of the various Ptolemy kings and queens, and again painted in bright, saturated colors, predominantly red and blue. A small drive curved around a garden oval, in the center of which a tall, elegant fountain stood. It was not yet in operation. Across the drive a broad marble staircase led up to the columned portico.
On the right was an enormous space twice the size of the house, surrounded by a brick wall that had been stuccoed and painted a soft cream, one could only suppose the better not to shame the grandeur of the main building. The massive doors were spread wide and looked into a yard filled with industry, carpenters, joiners, woodworkers, masons, painters and more hard at work at their individual crafts. On the left more buildings similarly stuccoed and painted stood. Warehouses, Tetisheri thought, as the estate evidently came equipped with its own dock, too, as manifested by the masts of several vessels visible beyond the roofs of the various buildings.
Apollodorus whistled beneath his breath. “That’s not a house, that’s a mansion.”
“That’s not a mansion, that’s a palace.”
A woman descended the marble steps of the house, a sheaf of papyrus in hand, the skirt of her shapeless linen tunic kilted up to show strong calves in thick leather sandals. She wore a wide belt with pockets suspended from it. Nenwef saw her and ended his argument with the cabrio driver by turning his back on him and hastening away. The driver hurled curses after him, mounted his cabrio, and slapped the reins against his horse’s back hard enough that it snorted and lunged forward, barely missing a workman coming down the street with a box of tools on his shoulder, who added his own comments.
The woman paused on the bottom step. In her late thirties or early forties, she had thick black hair caught back in a knot that was more to do with being kept out of her way than with style. Her figure was thickset but not fat, her skin browned by the sun, and even at this distance Tetisheri could see that her jaw was heavy and her chin pronounced. She did not look pleased to see Nenwef.
“Greek, do you think?”
Apollodorus nodded, watching. They couldn’t hear the conversation but Nenwef looked excited, while she looked more and more forbidding. He spoke quickly, gesturing. She asked a question and he shook his head violently, shrinking from her. She grabbed his arm and asked again, and again he shook his head. She shoved him away from her, and came down the last step. He caught at the fabric of her tunic and she slapped his hand away contemptuously. It must have hurt because he cupped his hand reflexively and said something to her receding back. She paused to give him one look over her shoulder. He took a step back, still cradling his hand. She snorted, reached into the purse suspended from her belt, and tossed a handful of coins in his direction. They skittered all over the flagstones of the driveway. Nenwef scrabbled after them on one hand and his knees while she disappeared through the doors of the yard.
He got to his feet, carefully tucked away the coins, and looked around, evidently for his cabrio. He said something that looked like a curse and walked down the street the way he had come, cradling his arm.
Apollodorus pressed Tetisheri back into the shadow and she had just enough time to see the smile on his face before he kissed her. Startled at this public display of affection, she raised her hands to his shoulders as if to push him away before she realized the kiss was to put his back to Nenwef and conceal her from Nenwef’s sight. It would have been difficult to explain away her presence, and he would never forgive her having witnessed his humiliation.
She relaxed and let her hands slide up and around Apollodorus’ neck and found herself pressed into the corner where the shadows lay. His hand knotted in her hair to pull her head back and his knee pressed her legs apart, settling himself in between them, firmly, so there could be no doubt of his arousal. A hot flush of desire swept over her and she made a sound deep in the back of her throat. She raised up on her toes as his hand slid over the curve of hip.
Someone rang a bell loud enough to be heard over the thud of Tetisheri’s heart and they pulled apart and looked around. Tetisheri had to blink several times for her vision to clear enough to see the scene through the doors across the street, where everyone inside was downing tools and packing up for home. The woman with the belt stood just inside the door behind a scribe, who counted out a day’s pay into eager hands and marked each sum next to a name. The workers poured out into the street, walking in twos and threes, most of them making in the direction of the Way.
“Come on,” Tetisheri said. She reached for Apollodorus’ hand without looking. It slid into hers and she tugged him into the stream of workers.
Some of the men stopped for a drink at cafes and tavernas but enough of them continued toward home that she and Apollodorus could mingle without occasioning comment. By a miracle no one recognized Apollodorus. Tetisheri smiled at a young carpenter and that was enough to start a conversation. “We couldn’t help but notice the house you were working on.”
Someone snorted. “It’s hard to miss.”
His friend elbowed him in the side.
“Who is it being built for?”
The snorter spat. “The Master of Builders himself. I guess he’s decided he needs a house that lives up to his new title.”
“What are you complaining about?” his friend said. “His coin is as good as anyone else’s.”
“And the foreman? Who is she?”
“The lady Khadiga,” he said readily. “She’s not the foreman, she’s Otho’s contractor.”
The man walking next to him sniggered. “That’s not all she is.”
“Quiet,” the first man said, looking involuntarily over his shoulder. “I shudder to think what she’d do to you if she heard you say something like that. That is not a forgiving woman.” He looked forward again. “But she pays well.”
“Somebody does,” his friend said.
After which they seemed disinclined to pursue the topic any further, and turned the discussion firmly to speculating who would win the next gladiatorial contest in the Hippodrome.
There are now three Eye of Isis novels, most recently Theft of an Idol, which published on November 3, 2022.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.