The Queen of the Nile

The Queen of the Nile

Chapter 1
Cleopatra

41 B.C.

The sunshine was brilliant in summer. The sky was cornflower blue as if one petal was stretched so wide around the world. The fields were no longer swathes of rutted mud. Each one was a soft golden, ruffled by the light breeze. The hills beyond looked blue rising and falling in soft waves.

The air had a fragrance of fresh farro all around. 

Amid the wheat, I stand, my purple robes in stark contrast. An unseen wind moves my hair and also the endless expanse of honey coloured stalks. 

My prosperous kingdom! My abundant fields! Our abundant granaries!

I have to part with ten shiploads of grain harvest to the Roman empire.

That was the price for my protection and my throne. 

***

With Caesar gone, my murderous family would leave no stone unturned or think twice before poisoning me or driving a sword through me. Power of the throne was intoxicating. It was to me too.

Am I totally blameless? Hadn’t I joined hands with Mark Antony to execute my sister and rival, Arsinoe? My hands are smeared with the blood of my own.

I want to rule Egypt! At any cost! Egypt’s mine!

***

The sky slowly darkened to a midnight blue. It was a cloudless night and the sky was freckled with stars. The sliver of moonlight spilled into my room.

There was a brief splash of starlight from a shooting star. An omen! Good? Or bad? The stars speak to us. I have to consult my soothsayers tomorrow morning.

Across the expanse of land, the fire is burning brightly in the lighthouse. Balthazar makes sure of that, before every sundown.

What a magnificent citadel it is! 

My pride!

The Lighthouse of Alexandria! 

The perfume of the roses from my garden  takes me back in time. It comes as magical as any lute or harp would spill its melodies upon the summer infused breeze. 

***

Antony had sent for me at Tarsus. To honour me, he said. I was his ally to avenge the death of my Caesar against Brutus and victory had been ours. 

But, I made him wait. I delayed my voyage on purpose.

I’m a Pharaoh. 

The Queen of the Nile!

Did he think that he would summon me just like that and I would desperately set sail to meet him?

I wanted to laugh at the audacity of the man!

I was well aware of Antony’s love of spectacle, his fascination for Greek culture and their Gods. 

And of course, Rome’s interest in my riches was quite evident. 

I orchestrated an entrance into Tarsus, designed to awe Antony and his cohorts. I  had sailed into the city in an explosion of colour, underneath billowing purple sails. My love for purple was well-known and everything I owned was mostly in purple. Even the upholstery in my palace. 

I could tell right away that he was fascinated. 

The mighty Julius Caesar wasn’t immune to my captivating charms even when I was a young girl. 

Who is this Mark Antony! 

I am the enchantress of Egypt and I know how to get what I want!

Chapter II
Mark Antony

41 B.C

What a pageantry she arrived in! 

She was reclined like a goddess beneath a gold-spangled canopy, dressed as… Isis? Aphrodite? Both rolled into one! I was spellbound. This woman sure knew how to make an entrance!

Her galley looked like a picture perfect painting with young boys dressed like Eros, who stood at her sides fanning her. What a mesmerizing sight!

Her handmaidens were likewise dressed as… sea nymphs. Wondrous fragrances from countless incense diffused themselves along the river-banks.

I was lovesick from the moment I’d seen her alongside Caesar. She was a naive, young girl then.

Alighting on my shores now was a woman—seductive and enchanting. 

And those eyes! Hypnotic! I could drown in them and under the  layers of the charisma she exuded and never resurface. Had she cast the love spell on me? 

Who cares? Here was the most beautiful and powerful woman on earth! 

And the richest. 

***

After having refreshed from a sea journey, she met me at the senate hall. We had serious things to discuss. Even as she entered, my heart was galloping. 

I had a hard time keeping my composure. Yet, I wasn’t going to give in that easily. She took her seat regally after her handmaiden Charmion unclasped her robe. 

What a beauty she looked like tonight. Negotiations were far from my mind.

“You look most beautiful…different now”, I mustered the courage to talk.

“Have I seen you before?” She gave me a blank look which was like an arrow through my ego.

“Yes…in Alexandria…With Caesar.”

I was puzzled by this behaviour.

I was beginning to look like a fool. Not good at all if we were going to have  negotiation talks.

“It’s those uniforms you wear! You all look alike.” She shot me a look of superiority.

By Jupiter! The tartness of this vixen! She was shredding my ego ruthlessly!

“When I saw you then, you seemed…happier. Something wrong… now?” My turn to throw arrows.

“How odd of you to ask me this question! Caesar is dead…! He was like a husband to me.” She looked hurt.

“That’s an amusing thought! A Roman Consul with an Egyptian wife.” I had the last word this time.

She was speechless for once.

The silence in the room was deafening, when her advisor and negotiator spoke up.

“We will begin the negotiations now.”

“I, Mark Antony, Consul of Rome, guarantee that our armies will continue to protect and preserve the throne of Cleopatra, child of Ptolemy, Queen of Egypt”, my negotiator spoke up.

I looked straight at her, unblinking.

“What is your price?” Charmion was doing all the talking. 

“Her Majesty will guarantee ten grain shipments as revenue and 48,000 denarii a month to Rome as protection price.”

Negotiation and bidding concluded at 42,000 denarii a month to which both parties agreed.

Four legions of the Roman army were to be sent to Alexandria to protect Cleopatra.

“Oh, one more thing…” Cleopatra continued, not rising from her place, indicating that the conversation was not over yet even as I had stood up and was about to leave.

Curious, I raised an eyebrow at her, “And what’s that?”

“My son by Caesar is now four years old and he’s begun to ask questions about his father.”

“Really? How touching…” Was my tone mocking?

“He’s too young to understand now, but soon I must tell him that his father’s people don’t accept him as a true legal son.”

“That will never happen! The people wouldn’t like it.” I was firm.

“We have no political design, only the happiness of my son. A simple public declaration of paternity will suffice.” She was imploring and there was a vulnerable sadness in her eyes.

“What would I profit from that?” Negotiation meant business talk. I wasn’t going to show her that I sway in so easily to feminine vulnerability.

She seemed lost for words, so I made the first move. 

I moved close to her and whispered my terms which was audible only to her.

She looked me sharply in the eye and to my surprise, agreed!

But she still held on firmly to her terms.

“Declare my boy a lawful son of Caesar, and then…it’s.. possible! If I must prostitute myself for the good of my country and my family, I will. But the customer pays first, does he not?

“Oh, don’t you trust me?” I was going to make her pay for mocking me earlier.

“Not as much as I would like to. You look like a fox.”

“Caesarion can kiss my feet, eat mud off the streets of Rome and die in a gutter before I do that.”

She was going to get it from me real bad, queen or not!

I don’t know what hit me next! Her hand snaked forward and a crack like a whiplash resounded in the closed room. 

Before I could recover from the shock, I received another back-handed slap with the same rage. A royal slap!

Cleopatra needed me for protection, to expand her power and assert the rights of her son Caesarion, Caesar’s true heir. As much as I needed Cleopatra to fund my military endeavours in the East.

***

I followed her to Alexandria as per our ‘terms and conditions’.

Cleopatra was not done – throwing extravagant parties and dinners for the Romans, flaunting her riches by giving away furniture and riches. 

She drank and sparred with me and I was ambitious to surpass her in splendour and elegance, throwing my own parties that never quite lived up to hers.

Though it appears that our attraction was genuine, it was also politically doctored to harmonize well with the matters at hand.

***

In the open court of the complex that year,  the Alexandrians witnessed a silver platform, on which stood two massive golden thrones. I occupied one. And addressing her as the “New Isis,” I invited Cleopatra to join me on the other.

She appeared in the full regalia of that goddess, a pleated, lustrously striped chiton, its fringed edge reaching to her ankles. 

On her head she wore a traditional tripartite crown. 

I was dressed as Dionysus, in a gold-embroidered gown and high Greek boots… Our children occupied four smaller thrones at our feet.

We spent the most glorious of our days together in Alexandria, partying, drinking, playing jokes on people, masquerading the city as commoners and what not.

Days spent with Cleopatra were memorable. She was intelligent and interesting. A queen fit for Egypt! A brilliant strategist who had me and the mighty Julius Caesar begging on our knees.

***

But a day came, when back in Rome, my wife Fulvia died and I had to make my way back hastily. 

Octavian, Caesar’s nephew, the deplorable man that he was, wanted me to prove my loyalty to Rome by marrying his sister! I had no choice but to, after he threatened me with nasty consequences. After all, he was the ruler of Rome after Caesar’s death

***

37 B.C

I wasn’t going to be bound like a slave in my marriage to his sister and be treated like one by Octavian. 

I went back to Alexandria to be with Cleopatra. I needed her funds again for my military campaigns in Parthia. 

In exchange, I returned to her Cyprus, Crete, Jericho, large portions of Syria, Lebanon and much of Egypt’s eastern empire.

But the battle was an ill-fated one. I lost heavily and out of embarrassment, didn’t return to Rome, but sailed to Egypt.

I owed her a lot! I was going to grant her her heart’s desire. In a public celebration, I declared Caesarion as Julius Caesar’s rightful son and heir as opposed to Octavian.

A furious Octavian convinced the Roman Senate that I was under Cleopatra’s influence and that I would abandon Rome. I was stripped off all my titles and Octavian waged war on Egypt.

In the ensuing losing Battle of Actium, Cleopatra’s ships deserted the battle and fled to Egypt, and I soon managed to break away and follow her with a few ships.

With Alexandria under attack from Octavian’s forces, I hear a rumor that Cleopatra has committed suicide. I am  broken-hearted and as befitting a royal death, I fall painfully on a finest, the sharpest of roman swords. 

As I lie bleeding, I am simply told that the rumour is false… somebody has tricked me into taking my own life!

I ask them to carry me to Cleopatra.

In her arms I find solace as I lie dying…I’m getting weaker…tired…sleepy…

Chapter III
Cleopatra

30 B.C.

Octavian’s forces has reached Alexandria, and I retreat into my mausoleum. His men carried a bleeding Antony to me and he died in my arms.  

A member of Octavian’s staff secretly warned me that he was planning to leave for Rome in a few days, and take me and my children with him.

The following day, I shut myself away in the mausoleum with my two loyal maidservants, Iras and Charmion

I send a note to Octavian, who is by now  staying in Alexandria in my palace.

***

Antony is gone!

I miss the openness of my vast gardens, the River Nile, my gardens, my palace.

There is no space here. Nothing shines. 

The floor is slate gray and the walls dove. The dull beige  simply grew from the floor and stretched upwards to the matching ceiling.

My sallow eyes tilt towards the sun that remains on the other side of the narrow window. 

The city surrounds us with streets outside built for horses, carts, royal carriages and chariots now taken over by the Romans and Octavian.

Into this mausoleum, I’ve heaped all my precious gemstones, jewelry, works of art, coffers of gold, royal robes, stores of cinnamon and frankincense, necessities to me, luxuries to the rest of the world.

With these riches and fortune at stake,

If I were to disappear, if I were to die, the treasures of Egypt would disappear with me. 

I have laid a curse on them so malevolent that anyone who raids my tomb or steals from them will die a death unimaginable.

***

Chapter IV
Octavian

30 B.C

The very thought of Egypt’s treasures vanishing with her was a pure torture for me. I had to lay my hands on those riches…for Rome!

I had to meet her! She has sent for me with a note! Me! The Roman Emperor! 

Whore! Who does she think she is! 

And she has instructed me to bury her along with Mark Antony. What was that wretch up to now?

I made my way into her mausoleum hurriedly with my entourage.

How much it amused me to see her reduced to next to nothing. 

A stark prison-like room. Where was all the regalia and luxury she couldn’t do without! The room smelt of dank air. In sharp contrast to the frankincense and myrrh oil she was doused in. And those giddy incenses which smoked around her!

I almost smirked ! She was seated on her couch in simple white robes. 

Not purple? How sad is that! 

No garish makeup today? Oh yes…she was in ‘mourning’…or was she? 

I have a doubt that she had a hand in making Antony kill himself…after all she comes from a family of infamous murderers.

Caesar’s wife she called herself! 

Antony’s whore! A concubine who broke my sister’s heart. I’m going to wipe out her name along with her whoreson Caesarion…! 

The thorn in my side…

This  woman had mourned Antony by smearing his blood all over her and had  howled in a frenzied manner when his bloodied body was brought to her. She had scratched herself all over like a maniac.

The septic wounds had to be treated immediately. I had to send in doctors to treat her.

How troublesome!

No telling what she would do to me or to herself if she learns of my plans. She’s completely unpredictable and…mad!

I had to put on an act to lure her out. And fast.

I wiped the smirk off my face and approached her cautiously. 

“My condolences for your loss.” My tone was emotionless.

“He had a good death…”

“If there’s anything we can do for you… anything at all…?” How I hate to even put on a show of kindness for this woman.

“So kind of you to ask, Octavian.” 

Was there a hint of sarcasm in her tone?

“Your well-being is my chief concern!” Horse shit! I will parade you naked in shackles on the streets of Rome! I will sell you to every whorehouse in Rome and make a spectacle of you with the generals and the senate!

“I’ve been so frightened, but not anymore…Antony painted you as a cruel monster, but I sense that you’re an honest man. I’m not wrong…am I?” She was begging for confirmation.

“No…” You are terribly wrong…but why will I tell you that? I almost burst out laughing.

“My children and I are perfectly safe?” How pathetic she looked. So helpless. At my mercy for her life and safety.

“You all are perfectly safe” How many lies will you make me tell, you wretched woman!

“Even Caesarion?” 

Was there a pleading in her voice? “Even Caesarion. Oh, he’s just a boy…no threat to me.” More lies.

“I keep my crown and remain Queen of Egypt?”

I gave her a slight nod. I’m getting exasperated from lying through my teeth. 

“I’m at peace. We shall be good friends.” Did she even believe that herself?

“We shall… As a friend, would you do me a favour?” Now let me see how you escape from my clutches and from your fate, you witch!

“Of course!” 

Was she so easy to deceive? She’s known for her slyness. What plan does she have in mind?

Without wasting a moment I blurt out, “Come with me to Rome! I would be eternally grateful if you bring the children along.” 

She looked indecisive. I was quite enjoying her discomfort.

***

Chapter V
Cleopatra

30 B.C.

The silver-tongued snake that he was! At last he couldn’t hold on to the pretense. My informants were right about him! How can I get out of this trap? A treacherous man… Octavian! I had to buy more time…

“I would very much like to. Perhaps next summer, when my mourning for Antony is over?”

“Then why not tomorrow? The winds are favourable for sailing and it would be a shame to delay.” 

My fate was sealed. The day came sooner than expected. Murders, betrayals, humiliation, revenge, power…I was getting tired of it all. Caesarion is my main concern now…

“Tomorrow then!” I have to act fast.

****

As soon as he left, I turned to Charmion. She had a questioning look in her eyes.

“Call for Balthazar, Charmion.”

Charmion must have gleaned my intentions. She was not my advisor for nothing. She had great acumen and was a strategist herself. An extension of myself.

Balthazar entered the mausoleum with a resigned look in his eyes. Loyal to a fault! What would I do without them? He knew what to do and what to bring if I summoned him from the mausoleum.

He placed a bowl of figs and a pitcher of milk in front of me. When I dismissed him, he had a helpless look in his eyes. 

He turned to go, stopped in his tracks and rushing towards me, fell at my feet and wept inconsolably.

“Balthazar! Control yourself! You’ll give yourself away! Go now!”

He steadied himself and exited the mausoleum past Octavian’s guards.

Charmion rummaged through the basket of figs and found the malachite which was cleverly concealed and camouflaged by Balthazar.

She  fetched a shell basin and dropped malachite into it. She sat down to make a powder out of them and poured some of the milk into it to make a fine paste.

She poured the paste into the pitcher and poured it into three goblets. For Iras, for herself and for me.

My death was going to be dignified!

Honourable! 

Exemplary!

I will preside over it myself and remain proud and unbroken to the end!

I wasn’t going to be paraded on the streets of Rome as a spoils of war and be defiled by the senate and the generals!

As I brought the goblet to my lips, I saw loyal Iras fall at my feet. She fell down dead with a very broken heart before she could even drink the potent liquid.

“My Queen, let me perform one last duty. Let me adjust the diadem on your forehead…”

Charmion was sobbing and weeping her eyes out. 

We brought the goblet to our lips..

Caesar was history, so was Antony..

But I… ? I will be a legend! 

Octavian shall not win! He may have conquered Egypt. But he will not get me.

I’m Queen Cleopatra! 

Daughter of the Nile!

I’m Egypt! I will forever be…Egypt!

***
AUTHOR’S NOTE:

  • Malachite contains 70% copper and is toxic to humans in raw dust form. Inhaling and ingesting it should be avoided.
  • There is considerable doubt about Cleopatra’s death. That she died of an Asp’s bite was debated in theory. A more potent poison would have been consumed. 
  • In this case, I have taken the liberty to imagine that Cleopatra killed herself with malachite powder and paste which was mixed along with milk to consume it.
  • Malachite was easily available in Egypt and was commonly used as jewelry by the royals and by temple deities.
  • Cleopatra used it as eyeshadow to prevent eye infections.
  • Wherever history was not documented accurately I have taken poetic license to fictionalize it. 

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