Chapter 4 from Disappearance of a Scribe

From the second novel in the Eye of Isis series.


His last remark had interfered with her dreams and was interfering again with her work the following morning. What did he mean, when, not where? She felt he was being unnecessarily cryptic. It annoyed her. Men were supposed to be simple and easy to manage. Every married woman she knew said so. Cleopatra had certainly played Caesar as well as her father had ever played the flute.

Yes, Tetisheri had endured an abusive marriage but here she was, a full partner in one of the most respected and successful trading concerns on the Middle Sea, a liberator of oppressed women wherever she found one, a valued friend of the queen, a servant to her country. She had traveled extensively. She spoke many languages. She was known to people in power the length of the Nile and she numbered among her business correspondents kings in, among other places, Judea, Tunis, and Cappadocia, traders from Corinth to Corduba, and people from every walk of society in between. By no measurement could she be construed as a victim. She feared that Apollodorus did. Or else he would have stayed last night. She had invited him to stay, in so many words. And he had walked away. She wanted to be angry with him. She wanted to be furious.

And yet she was uneasily aware that he might not be entirely in the wrong. With Cleopatra in hiding and Uncle Neb on a year-long voyage to Punt she had had no allies to protect her from a political marriage forced on her by her mother. Hagne herself had married for money, holding up her nose at her husband’s people, who, in her family’s opinion, had come from far too far up the river, who had welcomed his death, and who had lost no time in wiping the stain of his blood from her daughter by marrying Tetisheri to an impoverished noble who needed money to buy his way into the royal court.

It had been a nightmare of a marriage, but it had not broken Tetisheri. She could still laugh. She could still cry. She could still love.

She scowled down at the latest communication from the Nomarch of the Ibis, who was emoting all over his message about a late shipment of garum. Since he had some of the troops Caesar had left behind quartered in his nome she could understand his agitation over the shortage of something the average Roman considered essential to every meal, but really. She took up her stylus to write a short, pithy reply when there was a soft knock at the door. “What?”

She realized how bad-tempered her response sounded and turned to apologize. Nike stood in the doorway, back as straight (and as rigid) as an obelisk. Her expression gave Tetisheri to understand that she, Nike, would overlook her, Tetisheri’s, ill-mannered ill-humor this one time. “Aurelius Cotta has called and begs a moment of your time.”

Tetisheri said a very bad word. Nike put her nose even higher in the air. “I put him in the parlor. I will bring cakes and a cooling drink.”

“No cakes, no drinks. The last thing we want is to make Caesar’s legate comfortable in our house.”

Scandalized, Nike vacated the area with an outraged flounce.

Tetisheri, ruffled and determined not to show it, took time to neaten her desk and lock away her correspondence, including the aborted letter to the Nomarch of the Ibis. It was probably for the best. It would have been unfair of her to treat his concern as frivolous. She had learned from people who housed workers of any kind that food was invariably the single most important thing to everyone in employment. Soldiers and travelers from Rome required garum to spice everything but their wine. Miners from Gaul made a stew with herbs, marrowbone, and root vegetables, and wouldn’t go to work without the promise of a full bowl at the end of every day. Laborers and gladiators from Magna Germania refused to raise a shovel or a sword without a large mug of small beer to start and end their work.

Uncle Neb told a hilarious story about a group of laborers putting up yet another temple in the Port of Mumba, because evidently there were never enough shrines and temples in Mumba. The laborers had come from all over the East, bringing their various special talents in painting and carving and masonry with them. Their common staple was rice, which delighted the rulers of Mumba, who foresaw an easy, cordial relationship for the duration of construction. Not so easy or so cordial, as it turned out, because each group ate a different kind of rice and each cooked their rice in a different way. There weren’t quite riots but until the city fathers had adjusted the menu accordingly, work had not gone forward with the celerity it otherwise might. It had been, Uncle Neb said, a shocking demonstration of power on the part of the workers, although it would have cost you your life had you said it out loud within the walls of Mumba.

She was obliged to give herself a mental shake. She was stalling, hoping Cotta would grow tired of waiting for her and leave. He would instead be prepared to wait until the doors to the Underworld opened for both of them, and she knew that, too. She rose to her feet and looked at Bast, the slim, ebony cat with eyes as blue as Tetisheri’s own, who condescended to share Tetisheri’s home with the rest of them. “Well? Shall we find out what this Roman wants? Again?”

Bast, curled into a ball on the corner of the desk that received the most sun, yawned and stretched and moved sinuously to her feet. She gave Tetisheri her usual slow blink, the one that always found Tetisheri wanting, and leapt from the table to land soundlessly in front of the door. She looked over her shoulder and gave voice.

“We’re not in a hurry, remember,” Tetisheri told her. “Cotta needn’t think he has only to snap his fingers to see how high we’ll jump.”

Bast gave her an admonitory look and strolled from the room.

Tetisheri smiled. Bast would expect any audience to wait upon her presence until she chose to honor them with it.

In her turn, Tetisheri fussed with her stola, a loose-fitting, floor-length white tunic, and picked up her palla, a length of deep blue, finely woven linen, and took the time necessary to arrange it in a correctly draped fold around her shoulders. The obsidian amulet of the goddess Bast hung from a silk cord round her neck, and she checked to see that it was properly centered. She smoothed back her hair and stepped outside of her office, pulling the door closed behind her, to find Keren waiting for her in the hallway.

She was a slim girl with dark eyes, olive skin, a snub nose, and shiny black curls in a thick cloud around her face and shoulders. “Off to see the legate?”

Tetisheri sighed.

“Here’s some good news to temper this visitation by one of the self-proclaimed gods bestriding the Middle Sea.” Keren produced a scroll. “Uncle Neb is back, or so Simon says, who brought the message.”

Tetisheri’s face lit up. “Oh, good!” She reached for the scroll and broke the seal, reading it quickly. “He’s offloading the cargo at the Royal Harbor. He says they’ll bring the Hapi around to our dock when he’s done and to hold dinner for him.”

“I’ll tell Phoebe.”

Tetisheri raised an eyebrow. “Simon, hmmm?”

Keren might have blushed. She did toss her head. “I’m off to the Library. Yasmin found an old text in the archives that she says contains drawings of the human body in layers all the way down to the bone.”

“What fun for you.”

Keren stuck out her tongue. “I’ll be home for dinner.”

“Did you invite Simon?”

Tetisheri received no answer, just a back clad in gaily striped linen receding rapidly toward the front door. She smiled to herself and followed at a leisurely pace, pausing in the doorway of the parlor.

Gaius Aurelius Cotta, legate of Rome to the Court of Egypt and Alexandria, cousin to Gaius Julius Caesar himself, was very much at his leisure, sprawled comfortably in the room’s most substantial chair. He bore a superficial likeness to his cousin, with more hair. The real resemblance came from the fact that both were soldiers. Both men were at fighting weight, both never left home without a gladius strapped to one hip and a long knife to the other, and both studied a style of civilian dress that facilitated an ease of movement and the ability to hide any blood spilled during the day.

Of course, Cotta was made instantly identifiable by the scar on the left side of his forehead, inflicted by the downstroke of a sword held by an Arveni chieftain, a blow it was said had been meant for Caesar and that had been deliberately taken instead by Cotta. No attempt had been made to hide it, as Cotta had his hair clipped as close to his skull as Apollodorus did his. His tunic was knee length and belted beneath a toga draped over one shoulder and one arm in the approved Roman style. His sandals were serviceable. He wore a small signet ring on his right forefinger. Tetisheri couldn’t see the device on it from the door.

Bast was in residence in a chair opposite, delicately occupied with a thorough washing of her left front paw.

“Ah, lady,” Cotta said in Latin, rising to his feet and gazing with warm appreciation on her face. “Thank you for taking the time to meet with me as I descend upon you without warning.” His gaze traveled her from head to toe and back again, the glint of admiration in his eyes plain. “I see that I find you in your usual excellent health.”

She inclined her head. “Aurelius Cotta.”

He took no notice of the frost on her greeting, but then he was adept at not noticing things he did not want to see. “Please, join me for a moment in this most pleasant room. Allow me to pour you some of this excellent fruit punch your servant brought to me here.”

She perched next to Bast, the straightness of her spine rivaling Nike’s own, and accepted a glass made of a thin, translucent alabaster that showed off the rich red of the juice to advantage.

“A cake? No? Ah well, you ladies are always looking after your figures. We soldiers require fuel and I must say these little cakes are a most delicious means of taking it on. You must prevail upon your cook to share the recipe with mine.”

Tetisheri sipped her juice and thought dark thoughts about Nike, and darker thoughts about Cotta, who dared to act as host in a home not his own.

He chatted, mostly to himself with occasional mono­syllabic noises from Tetisheri, about the news lately from Pontus, of Caesar’s five-day victory at the Battle of Zela, and the escape of Pharnaces II following the battle and his subsequent murder at the hands of his son-in-law, Asander. “And so back to Rome, I believe, with, alas, no visit to Egypt to break his journey.”

He bestowed a sympathetic smile on Tetisheri, who met it with one of her own. “My queen will be prostrate with grief.”

His eyes glinted with appreciation of her sarcasm. Not entirely devoid of a sense of humor, Cotta. It would be much easier to thoroughly dislike him if he were. “But will carry on with her duty to Egypt and Alexandria nonetheless.”

“As any responsible monarch would do.”

“Certainly those chosen by Caesar,” he said smoothly.

“And by Isis Herself,” Tetisheri said, just as smoothly.

He had the audacity to laugh out loud and, still laughing, offered to refill her glass. She shook her head and he refilled his own and sat back to regard her with a steady gaze that, while it wasn’t quite unblinking, was certainly alive to every change of expression on her face. “I hope the trade is going well?”

Bast decided that her paw was sufficiently clean. She placed her feet in a perfect square, curled her tail around them in a no-less perfect arc, and regarded Gaius Aurelius Cotta with a stare of her own. Hers was, in fact, unblinking. Cotta, wisely, pretended not to see it.

“I believe we are able to provide food and shelter for ourselves and our dependents for the foreseeable future, as well as accrue a respectable profit.”

Unperturbed by her tone, Cotta said, “I saw the Hapi dock at the Royal Harbor this morning and went down to give Nebenteru my regards. He tells me he can’t keep up with the orders for construction materials he receives from builders.”

Tetisheri felt that they had at last arrived at the reason for Cotta’s visit. In one way she welcomed it as it meant the time of his departure was that much nearer. In another, she was uncertain as to what, exactly, his true purpose was and she was wary of imparting any information that would help him in achieving it. A merchant’s life was by definition a competitive one. She also had a lively appreciation, first, of her responsibilities to the throne as the Eye, and, second, of Cleopatra’s opinion of anyone who abrogated said responsibilities either accidentally or deliberately.

Mostly she just wanted Cotta out of her house. “Does he,” she said in response to his last remark.

“It isn’t surprising. Much damage was done to the city during the late war, all of which your queen seems intent on repairing. The reconstruction of the Heptastadion is now complete, did you hear? In seven days, no less. Quite the undertaking, and very popular with the citizens of Alexandria.” Cotta smiled. “Your queen has earned a new title, did you know? Cleopatra the Builder.”

No, she thought, how could I possibly know what nicknames my own people are calling my own queen? “A compliment, I should think.”

“Indeed. I understand that repairs to the Pharos are also well underway. After that, I believe the next major project is to restore the warehouses that were burned?”

When your general ordered the ships in the harbor to be set on fire, Tetisheri thought. “There will be no replacing the books that were stored inside,” she said out loud.

He looked sympathetic again. “Unfortunately, I fear that you are right. I know Caesar regrets that no less than we do. Still, there are always new books to buy, as your uncle well knows.” He produced a twinkle. “He gave me to understand that a smaller part of his cargo this trip included books purchased in Rome from one Oengus, a bookseller known to him there.”

Oengus was a dealer in fine manuscripts and had been responsible for finding a complete and unusually clean copy of the Theban plays in remarkably good condition. Sosigenes had nearly fainted when he saw them and Cleopatra had even been moved to reimburse Nebenteru’s Luxury Goods for the full purchase price. The plays now rested in a place of honor in the Library and were much studied by those masters who considered themselves sons of Melpomene.

Always supposing the plays were still in the Library. It occurred to her that it might be useful to know who the Alexandrian Oengus was, before Cotta recalled her to the topic under discussion. “But the larger part of his shipment was, of course, pozzolan from Puteoli.”

She tilted her head in polite inquiry. He was happy to enlighten her ignorance. “A volcanic ash, which mixed with lime and water serves as a mortar. When it sets, the walls it forms are quite literally immovable. It is much prized in seaside construction, as it stands up remarkably well to salt water.”


“Indeed, and rare, since the only known deposits are in Puteoli and Santorin.”

Ah. And now they came to the heart of the matter. “Rare indeed.” And since both were places under Roman authority, the profits—and taxes—accruing to the mining of pozzolan benefited exclusively Roman concerns. It was not a monopoly they would care to see challenged.

“I understand your queen has some interest in finding pozzolan deposits in her own country.”

And there it was. She returned his bland smile with one of her own. “Does she?”

“Well, and why wouldn’t she? There is so much to be done, so many streets and buildings and public facilities to be repaired, so many new buildings and temples to be constructed. It’s understandable she would be keen to find such a resource nearer to home.” He made an expansive gesture. “Granite, of course, Egypt has in plenty, as witness the many deposits in Syene.” No mention made of the ancient, awe-inspiring structures made of said granite that lined the Nile, as nothing could possibly compare to the modern roads and aqueducts of Rome. “But Egyptian cement is of an inferior quality. Or so those deposits found thus far have proven to be.”

She raised her eyebrows, and he laughed again. She was, of course, delighted to be able to afford him so much amusement.

“Very well, I see you will not be drawn on the subject, lady.” He drained his cup and stood up. Bast leapt to the floor and took up her place between them as if by right, staring up at Cotta. He looked down at her with amusement. “You have a fierce defender here, lady.” He raised his eyes to the pendant she wore. “Twofold, it would seem.”

“Bast blesses me with her favor.”

“I’m sure it comforts you to think so.” He shook his head. “Romans are god-ridden enough, Jupiter knows, but you Egyptians have us beat.”

Stung, she was betrayed into indiscretion. “In that as in so many things.”

He laughed again, looking and sounding enchanted to be insulted. It must happen so seldom as to be a novelty to him.

She saw him to the door, as one does when playing host in Alexandria, however reluctantly, and waited as he paused on the doorstep. The midday sun poured inside in a golden shaft, outlining his face and figure. He personified the future of the Middle Sea and very probably the entire world. Egypt was the past, Rome the future, if nothing other than by sheer force of arms, and Tetisheri was honest enough to admit it. It did nothing to ease her resentment.

He saw it and was disposed to be kind. He readjusted his toga, that emblem of the conquerors of the known world. “Should you fall into conversation with your queen, lady, I would appreciate your dropping the hint. For her ears only, of course.”

She did not insult either of them by pretending to misunderstand him, nor by pretending she would not report news of his visit to her queen. He gave her one long, last, lingering look, head to toes and back again, but he did not repeat the mistake he had made at their second meeting of touching so much as her hand. He could be taught, it seemed. Yet another thing to hold against him. He waved at the servant standing at the head of the horse harnessed to his chariot. “Come, Fulvio, we are away.”

Fulvio, fair and square and in appearance every bit the soldier his master was, stepped lightly into the chariot and waited only for his master to step up beside him before slapping the reins against the horse’s back. She and Bast stood in the doorway to watch them drive off.

She looked down at Bast. “Patronizing ass.”

Bast’s blue eyes laughed up her.

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

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