The Passing of Aegypt
The Queen's Barge drifted down the undulating river, the soft rustle of reeds whispering along the shore, punctuated occasionally by the sound of a bird taking to wing or the last calls of the peasants working the fields. After nine long months of journey, the craft finally drew closer to the delta. Already, the green along the riverbanks had begun to spread wider as the stark ecru hills and enveloping desert drew back.
Amarante watched the peasants gather at the edges of the dykes as the great floating mansion with its gilt roof and flying pendants, drifted by. Smaller boats swarmed in and around the craft, like hatchlings beside a mother duck. Some held the soldiers of the northern barbarians, looking hot and ungainly in the unremitting sun. No few of those barbarians had mocked the river at the start of the journey, and swam along the boats in the hot afternoons. But they learned Sobek still took his tithe. The Romans had left a few libations of their own at the Kom Ombo temple, and learned to be wary of the crocodiles.
They had learned, in fact, to be wary of much in the long journey from one end of the land to another, and back again. This was Aegypt: She swallowed whole armies and she seduced even her conquerors. These Romans had learned to respect the land of Pharaoh, if not to love it.
They had watched in awe at New Years, when the travelers spent fourteen days at the great Festival of the Beautiful Embrace as the Goddess Hathor traveled upstream to meet with the God Horus at Edfu. Their Roman General and her Greek Queen had made a point of equating themselves with the God and Goddess. Sothis had risen bright in the sky, a harbinger of another good year, or so the Priests said, though Amarante had seen how even their eyes looked to the Romans with worry.
She didn't like to watch the uncouth barbarians. They too often mistook culture for weakness, and flouted their ill manners and coarseness at every turn, as if it made them superior. However, in some of the other craft she could see the glitter of blue lapis collars, and the fine woven schenti wrapped around narrow waists, belted with gold and lapis. Beautiful young men of Egypt -- she would miss watching them ply their boats along side the Queen's Barge. They had given her hours of entertainment during the long voyage when she'd had precious little else to do.
The Queen, who called Amarante 'the pretty girl with the voice of a goddess,' hadn't wanted poems and stories read to her on this long voyage. She had other entertainments that kept her late into the night, she and her barbarian lover. But Amarante had already heard that the Roman would leave when they returned to Alexandria. And the Queen would not go with him. Some said she already held his child within her womb, a link that would forever tie Aegypt to Rome.
The fleet would, rumor said, anchor at Ankh-tawy tonight, a city nearly as large as Alexandria itself. The trip, though long and bothersome in many ways, had been peaceful compared to life in the capital with all its intrigues, fears, and old hatreds. While the others gathered at the bow to watch for the white walls and the great statues, she stared across at the last of Sakarra, the great ancient demesne of the dead. Giant statues lay fallen from their pedestals, and the sands had swept away the faces of some, leaving them blind and voiceless. She wanted to hear them whisper now, and saythat all would be well.
But they had fallen before Alexander and Ptolemy ever set food in this land. Looking at them, she knew everything would fall, and she shivered in the warm night. With little else to do on this journey, Amarante had spent most of her time watching the riverbanks, and imagining the life there... or not imaging so much as remembering. Her parents were Levite slaves in Alexandria. She had not seen them since the day her father had given her the last blessing of his god. "Be well, Amaris," he'd said. "Be wise."
The Egyptian priest had taken her to the temple of Isis, where they taught her to read and write, and to speak well. Amessis, they called her there, an Egyptian name. But the Greek Queen had seen her, taken her away to Alexandria, and called her by yet another name in her own tongue. Amaris, Amessis, Amarante: Sometimes she wondered what the Romans would call her--
No. It would not happen. But even as she thought it, she looked to the western desert -- the land of the dead -- and saw a Sacred Ibis fly into the setting sun. Footsteps came again a moment later, and she slipped back once more, knowing the sound of that heavy tread. She bowed her head as Caesar went by.
Some said that Cleopatra had seduced the Roman General. Some even said she had bewitched him... but Amarante knew the truth. They were both in love, though not with each other. They loved the power the other each represented; He was the new Horus, powerful and mighty, and she Osiris, a god going down to the world of the dead. And Ama knew, as the cupbearer let Caesar into the queen's rooms, that Rome would ravish Egypt tonight.
The sun drifted into the netherworld, and Amarante turned away.
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