Bride of the Mediterranean
A Fang Fatales Vignette by Bernice Ravji
Cassandra breathed deeply, letting the smell of dust and parchment wash over her, and felt a billowing swell of contentment. She had arrived in Alexandria just over three weeks previously and had since spent several hours every night in the great library. In the early evenings, just after sundown, she would make her way at a leisurely pace towards the Museion. This city was both achingly familiar, reminding her of her own long lost home, and invigoratingly new. Being one of the most important port cities in the Mediterranean, Alexandria was abuzz at all hours of the day and night with markets and bars and people talking in a hundred different languages. For someone who couldn’t enjoy what the day time hours had to offer it was a rare treat to be in a city that felt like it never really slept.
Making a bee line for the section of the library where she had been researching for the last several days she still felt an ache of grief when her feet took her past the sad remains of the section burned by Julius Caesar’s forces during the civil war that had torn the city apart just a few years previously. The conflict had ended with the young queen Cleopatra VII on the throne and from everything Cassandra had heard she was an intelligent and diligent ruler which was something of a small mercy given the Ptolemaic dynasty wasn’t always known for producing level-headed individuals. Mind you, she reflected, with the penchant for inbreeding in that family it was nothing short of a miracle that any of them could string a sentence together let alone effectively rule a whole nation. But, despite having only a pretty shallow gene pool to work with, it appeared that young Cleopatra possessed a keen mind and a depth of ability that would hopefully steer Egypt into calmer political waters. With the Roman Republic starting to come apart at the seams a bit of savvy government was all anyone could hope for these days.
Arriving at one of the massive shelves stacked with row upon row of parchment scrolls, Cassandra happily let thoughts of civil wars and governance slip away as she prepared to immerse herself completely in Plato’s ‘Republic’. However, no sooner had she settled herself in a tucked away corner and found the section where she’d left off the night before than a pair of sandaled feet intruded upon her peripheral vision. Surprised and a little irritated, she looked up to find a man in royal livery staring down at her.
They eyeballed each other for a moment until finally Cassandra asked in exasperation, “Can I help you with something?”
The man spoke as if reciting something he had said a million times before to a million different people and which had long since lost any emotive context, “Her royal majesty, Cleopatra Philopator, Queen of Kings, Daughter of Isis summons you to a banquet at the royal palace tomorrow evening.”
Cassandra blinked then replied dryly, “‘Summons’? Not ‘invites’?”
The man did not deign to respond but instead pivoted on his heel and disappeared back the way he had come.
As she watched him disappear into the midnight gloom she heaved a sigh. She just wanted to read in peace but apparently the queen had other ideas. For a fleeting moment she wondered how to earth Cleopatra even knew she was here but then she shook her head at her own foolishness. It was the business of a ruler to know the comings and goings of people in her capital city, her life depended on staying one step ahead at all times. Cleopatra was playing to win and a random stranger showing up to read through the night in her library was not going to slip beneath her notice.
Returning once again to Plato she spared one last pained thought for what in the name of Athena she was meant to wear to dinner at the royal palace on such short notice.
The palace was nothing short of mind blowing. Having spent her formative years in a palace, Cassandra normally considered herself fairly hard to impress but this was something else entirely. Everything was larger than life. Columns towered so high they disappeared into the darkness above, huge burning brands cast flickering light across the floor while braziers filled the air with the smell of incense and cinnamon. A small army of slaves in crisp, white linen kilts washed guests’ hands and feet in rose-scented water as they arrived. Inside was a virtual maze of rooms offering everything from acrobats to massive tables groaning under every delicacy money could buy, from fountains of the best red wine to huge vats of Egypt’s beloved beer, from poets and musicians to baths filled with water in a variety of temperatures. Everywhere she went, the sound of voices and music echoed off the marble walls.
She had arrived late owing to the fact she had to wait until sundown and she had needed to have someone bring her a gown and fix her hair. Not feeling quite ready to embrace the striking, but revealing, sheer linen and silk ensembles she saw many of the Egyptian noblewoman wearing, she had instead decided to go Greek. The gown was cut from the finest snowy white linen that complemented her deep olive skin. A blood red motif had been embroidered around the edges and her long dark curls tumbled down around her bare shoulders, held back by a gold diadem. In her ears she wore heavy golden earrings adorned with lapis lazuli and on her fingers she wore rings to match. She may no longer be a princess, after all what was a princess without a nation or a family, but she still knew how to dress like one. It had been a long time since she had put such energy into her appearance. The familiar routine brought back bittersweet memories of her mother and sisters preparing for banquets at court, so many years ago.
Drifting from room to room and sipping from a goblet of spiced wine, she got the distinct impression that several guests were already well on their way to a night of debauchery and indulgence. Turning absentmindedly into one dimly lit room she was confronted by the sight of the Cretian ambassador getting very intimately acquainted with two beautiful young men she’d seen some time earlier performing a fire dance in the main hall. Noticing her enter, the ambassador’s face lit up hopefully and he gestured for her to join them. Cassandra declined politely and managed to back out of the room with a straight face before snorting into her wine glass.
Finding an unoccupied balcony, she let the cool night air wash over her as she gazed out over the city to the harbour beyond. Once upon a time, when she had been younger and recently turned, she would have seen such an occasion as this as a prime opportunity to enjoy a little sport. In those early years she’d enjoyed walking into a party and knowing that she could have any woman there, or all of them if she so desired, knowing that the humans could sense, albeit subconsciously, that she was powerful and other. She had felt like a beautiful predator in their midst, and she had been. But eventually the game no longer amused her, the people all looked the same and their attention stopped giving her the same thrill.
With a heavy sigh, she wondered what on earth she was doing here.
“Well I must say, that’s certainly not a sound one usually hears at these affairs.”
Cassandra turned to find a young woman leaning casually against the entrance to the balcony, an amused half smile pulling her mouth up at the corners. Caught off guard, Cassandra glanced at her goblet, then met the woman’s steady gaze, “I’m sorry…I’m just not much of a–”
The woman’s smile widened, “Oh please don’t apologise. This is all a completely tiresome bore but it’s also entirely necessary, I’m afraid.”
Cassandra found herself smiling back although with a touch of bemusement, “Well, I am obviously deeply honoured that her majesty was kind enough to extend me an invitation and, of course, her hospitality is legendary.”
The woman’s dark eyebrows shot up in amusement, “‘Legendary?’ Her majesty will be delighted to hear that, I’m sure.”
Cassandra regarded the other woman more carefully. She looked to be in her early twenties, appearing no older than herself. Her midnight hair fell in a rich cascade down her back and over her shoulders. She was dressed in the Egyptian fashion and she appeared perfectly at ease in the shimmering, transparent gown she wore that left very little to the imagination. On her arms she wore gold bracelets in the shape of coiled snakes and on her fingers she wore gorgeously crafted rings in the Greek fashion. Her face was fine-boned and appeared more Greek than Egyptian, her skin only a shade or two lighter than Cassandra’s own. While currently wearing an expression of gentle amusement, Cassandra could read in her dark eyes an unwavering confidence and iron will.
She was, in short, absolutely breathtaking and, equally, the air of power she carried with her was immediately noticeable.
Cassandra inclined her head, “Queen Cleopatra, I presume?”
Cleopatra pushed away from the wall and drifted closer, until she was within arm’s reach, “You presume correctly. And you are, I presume, the mysterious scholar who has been lurking around my library at night?”
Cassandra chuckled and cast her gaze out over the city, before meeting Cleopatra’s searching look, “Well, I wouldn’t say ‘lurking’ per se I–”
The other woman’s eyebrows once more arched, “No? I’m told you sneak in after sundown and emerge again before dawn to spend the day holed up in your villa. Is that not a little…lurky?”
Feeling like she was losing a battle she hadn’t realised she was in, Cassandra smiled ruefully and gave a slight shrug, “Yes, I suppose when you put it that way it does sound somewhat…lurky.”
Cleopatra nodded thoughtfully and took a sip from her wine, “Is there a reason you don’t just visit the library during the daytime like everyone else?”
Cassandra tried to read the other woman’s face, wondering how much she knew or suspected, but Cleopatra had been playing politics far too long to be readable so easily and her face showed nothing but polite curiosity.
“Would you believe me if I said I just like my privacy?”
Cleopatra squinted, pretending to think it over, “No, I don’t think I would.”
“I have an aversion to the sun. It makes me…unwell.”
Cleopatra nodded slowly as if digesting this nugget of information, “Ah yes, I’ve heard of such…people.”
There was a pause in which they both looked out into the night, each lost in their own thoughts, and then suddenly Cleopatra leaned in closer to examine the contents of Cassandra’s cup. She gasped in horror, “Your cup is empty, darling. How absolutely unforgivable. Come, let us rectify that immediately and you can tell me what it is you study during your long nights alone in my library.”
Placing a hand lightly on Cassandra’s elbow, she steered them both back towards the sound of music and activity, pausing on the threshold she grimaced prettily, “We’ll take the long way around I think, I already saw far, far more of the Cretian ambassador than I ever wanted to and it’s going to take more than one glass of wine tonight to help me forget it.”
The gentle lap of the water against the hull of the barge and its soothing back and forth motion was enough to send Cassandra into a kind of trance. She glanced over at her companion who was stretched out on the sea of cushions opposite. Somehow Cleopatra always managed to look like she had been gracefully arranged by a sculptor but without it feeling posed or self-conscious. Currently, she was stretched out languorously, light from the full moon casting her in a dream-like glow, a goblet dangled from one hand and her dark hair was splayed out on the pillows around her. As if sensing Cassandra’s gaze, she turned towards her.
“Cassandra, you’re missing the view.” She chided with a teasing smile.
Cassandra chuckled, “Am I? Forgive me.”
Cleopatra gestured expansively with her cup at the landscape slowly sliding past as they floated down the Nile on the Royal Barge.
“Rome may rule the world, Cassandra, but Egypt feeds Rome. Rome is nothing without Egypt.”
Cassandra gazed out obligingly over the landscape, “And you think Julius Caesar will soon rule Rome?”
The other woman shrugged and took a sip from her wine, “Who can know?”
Cassandra laughed, “Well it certainly seems like you’ve placed your bets on Caesar, you gave him a son after all.”
Cleopatra laughed suddenly as if Cassandra had said something terribly amusing, “Cassandra, please, don’t be so prosaic.” Sobering, she met Cassandra’s curious gaze, “I gave Caesar nothing. I gave myself an heir, an heir with a claim to the most powerful Empire in the world. A son of Egypt and of Rome.”
Cleopatra regarded her with an unreadable expression, “We all must make choices, Cassandra, queens more than most. But then I’m sure you know that already, don’t you?”
Cassandra looked away, “I have never been a queen and have been afforded very few choices, at least not in the things that really matter.”
“Yes, well, I’m not unfamiliar with that either.”
The silence stretched between them as the gentle splash of the oars filled the night. Cassandra thought of the night her foolish brother had returned to the city with someone else’s wife in tow. She’d been immediately ravaged by visions of the city’s destruction and the death or enslavement of everyone she loved. She’d tried to warn them of course, almost lost her voice begging her father to send Helen back to Menelaus but he hadn’t listened, hadn’t believed her. She’d thrown herself, weeping, at the feet of the statue of Athena in the temple but the goddess had been no more responsive than her own family. Her brother, sweet, brave Hector, had tried. He’d kept them safe through ten long years of horror and death but he couldn’t defend them from the will of the gods. She remembered her father bringing his battered, bloody body back from the enemy camp. His beautiful face ruined. She’d watched his pyre until it was nothing but embers. Visions of her own impending rape and enslavement dancing behind her eyes.
A soft voice brought her back to the here and now, “What are you thinking?”
Cassandra realised with embarrassment that tears were streaming from her eyes, she wiped them away swiftly, “Oh nothing. The past.”
Cleopatra placed her cup down and raised herself off the cushions. Silken robe swirling around her as she moved, she settled herself at the other woman’s feet, holding Cassandra’s gaze she gently wiped a tear from her cheek, speaking in a whisper.
“You mustn’t weep for what is past, Cassandra. You cannot help them now and they are at peace. They live in legend. We should all be so lucky.”
Cassandra searched her face, they had never explicitly discussed her past or what she was. Still holding her gaze, Cleopatra grazed her fingers down Cassandra’s arm leaving a trail of goosebumps, “Mere mortals cannot know the future, we can only truly exist in the now, in this moment. We are all of us caught in the tide of history. Choice is an illusion.”
Gently she eased forward, never breaking their eye contact, her body taut against Cassandra’s own. Cassandra heard her own breath quicken as she felt the heat of Cleopatra’s body wash over her. The smell of her, jasmine and honey, made her head spin and for a moment the sound of her beating heart made a very different hunger rear up in her but she smothered it quickly.
Any surprise she felt at the unexpected turn this evening had taken or concern she might have had at what consequences becoming intimately involved with the queen might have were completely obliterated when Cleopatra’s soft lips met her own. Under the curtain of her hair, with her warm body pressed against her own, the world contracted to just the two of them here in this moment bathed in moonlight. Briefly she felt a flicker of something in her mind, a flutter of smoke and death, but she pushed it savagely away, unwilling to be robbed of this moment by her cursed visions.
Cassandra ran her fingertips down the coffee satin length of the other woman’s bare back. Even this feather touch caused her to stir, murmuring sleepily. In the months she’d been here, in Alexandria, she’d never known Cleopatra to sleep more than three or four hours a night. It was like her vision for herself, her dynasty and her country would allow her only the barest respite. Many was the night when Cassandra would return from her own studies at the great library to find the queen still working into the pre-dawn hours, surrounded by papyrus and scrolls written in a dozen languages, a frown of concentration marring the perfection of her face, her hair a messy tumble. On such nights she would have to draw her away from the maelstrom of politics and the relentless minutiae of government and coax her to bed, if only for a few short hours.
With a small noise of contentment, Cleopatra turned in Cassandra’s arms, snuggling deeper into her embrace. A waft of frankincense accompanied her movement as her hair poured in thick, ebony waves across the pillow. Cassandra leaned in and kissed her neck then the curve of her jaw before whispering in her ear.
“Don’t go. Please.”
This elicited a heavy sigh, and the other woman pulled back to gaze up into her eyes. She stared at her searchingly for a moment before speaking.
“You know I must, my love. What choice do I have?”
“Stay here with me. What good will it do to go?”
Cleopatra’s mouth quirked into a small smile as she reached up to tuck an errant curl back behind Cassandra’s ear and let her hand linger, cupping her face.
“What good will it do? If not for myself and for my people, I owe it to my son. Rome and Egypt are his birthright. If I stay here, he will surely be robbed of them both. He needs to be near his father. People need to see that Julius Caesar has a son and an heir.”
Cassandra huffed in frustration and flopped back onto the pillow, staring unseeing up at the gossamer canopy of the bed. The smell of burning ships filled her nostrils and the screams of drowning men echoed in her ears. Bile rose in the back of her throat as the smell of blood mingled with the salty tang of the ocean washed over her. She squeezed her eyes shut and forced the vision away but it would be back. It had been dogging her for months, ever since she met the queen.
She felt Cleopatra shift beside her then her voice, soft as a whisper, in her ear. “We still have time, we have today, and that is all we can ask for. Why don’t you show me what I’ll be missing while we are apart, hm?”
Cassandra felt her breath catch and a wave of heat wash over her whole body but then she mentally slapped the sensation away. This was how Cleopatra always ended these conversations. Her well-honed ability to maneuver those around her until they were right where she wanted them had raised her to the throne of Egypt before she was even out of her teens but while that was all terribly impressive it also made her well-nigh impossible pin down on a topic she didn’t want to discuss.
“Stop it,” Cassandra grumbled, sounding a lot more petulant than she would have preferred. Cleopatra chuckled, knowing full well the effect she was having, but pulled back somewhat to stare down into Cassandra’s frowning face.
“What would you have me do, Cassandra? Stay here with you? Throw parties, while away the nights in lavish entertainments and just wait, wait for the Roman juggernaut to arrive at our door? Cower and plead and grovel before whatever arrogant patrician bureaucrat they send to tell me how to run my country? Thank them while they bleed Egypt dry? While they strip my son of his inheritance? While they demean me and treat me like just another slave of the senate and the people of Rome? Is that what you would have me do? You, of all people, should know that, no matter what we might wish, sometimes the tide of history cannot be turned.”
Cassandra turned her face away, tears pricking her eyes, in her head a storm of images, sights and sounds swirled dizzyingly. Smoke, fire, screams, the lightning strike of a viper, hobnailed boots on marble floors.
“They will never accept you. They cannot. You are anathema to them. Greek, Egyptian, a woman. You are the boogieman they tell stories of to scare their children. They won’t accept you and they won’t accept Caesarion either.”
There was silence between them for a moment and for one precious heartbeat Cassandra thought maybe, just maybe, her words had struck a chord but when she turned to look into Cleopatra’s deep, dark eyes all she saw there was firm resolve.
“They don’t have to accept me or my son. Only Caesar. Caesar is all that matters.”
A barrage of visions battered at Cassandra’s mind, a flurry of knives, the bloody ruin of a toga strewn across stone steps. Her voice came out in a broken whisper.
Cleopatra interrupted her with a finger placed on her lips.
“Hush, you know it won’t help. That’s your burden, as I have mine.”
For a moment, their eyes were locked and in her heart Cassandra knew that the inevitable drag of destiny would soon tear them apart. As she stared into Cleopatra’s beautiful face, trying to etch every single detail into her memory, trying to capture this moment so that she could carry it with her down through the yawning chasm of immortal centuries that stretched ahead of her, she could think of only one thing to say.
“I love you.”
Cleopatra smiled then leaned in until her lips were a mere hairsbreadth away, “And I you, Cassandra of Troy.”
As their lips met fully, Cassandra let the visions and the horrible certainty of the future she knew as clearly as she knew her own name be swept away by the touch of her and the heat of their entwined bodies and these precious moments where nothing in the world, not Rome nor Egypt nor Julius Caesar, mattered.
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