The Ending That Became a Beginning

So, as a start this week, I want to address the handful of Word Press readers who’ve stumbled on this blog from the greater internet. Hi, folks, I do see you, and I’m humbled that anyone would be interested in listening to me blather on about ancient history by choice, unlike, say, my husband, who was a captive audience even before the pandemic locked us all in our homes. For those of you who have less familiarity with me and haven’t been piqued enough to track down the books I’m constantly referencing, I’m an indie historical fiction author currently (as you see) enmeshed in the Ptolemaic Egyptian/early Roman Empire period. My book The God’s Wife is a novel told from the perspective of Arsinoë IV of Egypt, the younger sister of Cleopatra, and while the bulk of the story is strictly historical, my love of ancient mythology stirs in the mischievous gods of Egypt to keep things interesting.

If you’re interested in reading more, below is a link to my digital storefront, where you can find The God’s Wife for sale on all digital platforms. If physical books are more your speed (they’re mine), the paperback is also available on Amazon. And for this week only, I’m running a promotion where you can buy the ebook on any platform for only 0.99, if you want to take a leap of faith. And if you do, I thank you from the bottom of my ib.

But why am I bringing all of this up now? Well, because my long-gestating sequel to The God’s Wife, Daughter of Eagles, is about to be released next Monday (11/23/2020) on all the aforementioned platforms, and today’s entry is a bridge between my two books. As I mentioned in an early entry, a lot of the writing and editing process is about paring down a story to its essentials, and while the length of my upcoming novel will suggest I have little acquaintance with the concept, it is a big component of the exercise as a whole. Like I did for my mythology entries, we’re going to depart from history and into creative writing here. Today’s entry is the original epilogue I wrote for The God’s Wife, which was cut for stylistic reasons as opposed to a lack of merit. While Arsinoë is my narrator for much of her own story, the epilogue belongs to her Ephesian friend Nuray, the priestess of Artemis, who gives us a more detailed introduction to Aetia, who will be the protagonist of Daughter of Eagles.

As it should go without saying, mild spoilers below, so go read The God’s Wife first before you scroll any further…

The wind carries us eastward. I let myself be swayed by the motion of the ship as my young lady finds a spot on the rail to watch our progress. We are dressed simply, yet all eyes are drawn to her. They can’t help it — she is a quicksilver child who is rapidly becoming an incandescent woman. There will be fairer maidens no doubt, though none who can match her keen mind and vivacious spirit. Lady Arsinoë says her daughter was born with the bearing of Ma’at, the Egyptians’ goddess of justice and balance, who wears the feather of Truth upon her head. Though I confess my Greek roots lead me to see her more like Nike the Victorious than any god of Egypt, whose labyrinthine ways I am still learning.

I had never met anyone like the exiled Egyptian queen, with her eyes like sea-storm clouds and her unexpected wit that broke through her melancholy as sun through a mist. She came to us full of deep-dwelling secrets that I felt pulled to, yet almost afraid of. I heard talk that her sister, the other queen, was a powerful sorceress, but I looked into the face of the little queen who landed in Ephesus that day — our queen — and I felt there was a kind of witchery in her gaze as well. The gaze of someone who sees farther than the last horizon.

As she unfolded herself to us in the weeks that followed, I saw her kindness and fire through her solitude, and I was gratified whenever she turned to me for anything. She was not so much older than I, but I felt like such a child when she would get that distant look in her eyes. I knew she was homesick for Egypt, yet she did not appear to miss palace life or the role of a ruler. Everything I learned of her did not connect with the image Master Xenos had told us of before her arrival, that of an Amazonian war-maiden fighting for the throne of an ancient empire. And even as I began to peel back that image and learn of her deeper heart, some ethereal part of her spirit would rise up to surprise me anew. For no one could have been more astounded than I when she told us at that dinner that she was with child by the man I thought she held to be her enemy. My amazement hardly lessened later, as I observed her receive news of his death with dry eyes, or even as Aetia made her appearance and wrapped us all around her indescribably perfect fingers.

As I rocked Aetia to sleep one afternoon, I asked Mudjet why a princess such as her lady would risk so much for a crown she didn’t want.

Because the gods of Egypt asked her to fight for them and their people, she answered simply.

How could she be so sure of them? I had wondered aloud, as I had spent years searching for signs from Lady Artemis to only be met by silence in her vast halls.

That was when Mudjet told me how the gods spoke to Arsinoë in her dreams, how she was beloved of many of them, but especially Set, the dark desert god. How their path had led her away from all that she had known, and how it had forged her like lightning into a great queen even as she lived in captivity and then exile. How she had lost Egypt’s kingdom to Cleopatra but had etched her name on the hearts of its people. How she had been defeated by the renowned Caesar in battle only to conquer him in the end.

Mudjet bent over Aetia’s head and kissed her affectionately. They say your father is a god now, nedjet, but he is only a Roman. Your lady mother is beloved of the gods of Egypt, who painted the stars before the universe took breath. What hope could he have had, trifling Roman god that he is, to withstand her ka’s radiance?

It was then that I truly began to understand. I saw through Mudjet’s eyes how Cleopatra was a queen out of legend, but Arsinoë was a queen out of myth. Cleopatra would walk the paths of history mixing with great lords and all would remember her deeds, important and insignificant alike. But her sister trod the airy flow of dreams, consorting with the gods and vanishing with a knowing laugh into time. A nereid dissolving in the stream of lost memories. 

I am pulled back to the present again by a silvery voice calling my name. “Nuray! Look ahead! Is that the coast?”

I walk over to stand at Aetia’s shoulder as she turns to me with an easy smile. Her light brown hair escapes its pinnings and shines with flashes of red where the sun touches it. The hood of her traveling cloak is hanging down her back, long forgotten.

“I believe it is, dearest,” I answer, giving her a fond look.

Her smile widens and her dark eyes, that set themselves off so strikingly against her otherwise paler features, dance with excitement. I worried that she was too young for this voyage, but Arsinoë overruled me as we discussed it during the summer.

She is fourteen this year, said the queen, glancing up at me from the table in her rooms where she sat hunched over a copy of Vergilius Maro’s Eclogues, translating the Latin verse into Egyptian. While I would not advocate many of the experiences surrounding my own fourteenth year to innocent children, travel and a greater sense of the world are most suitable to a girl of her age and temperament. With the proper chaperone, naturally.

I sensed something else at play as well. Do you think something is about to happen? Are you trying to send her away?

My lady frowned slightly in thought. Despite the disfigurement of her missing eye, she is still lovely. Her face remains fine-boned and her frame lithe. She still gathers up her dark, loose-curling hair — in which she claims to find gray strands though I see them not — in the same careless way every morning. Her right eye still carries the owlish look of Pallas Athene.

Finally she responded. I am not sure, she said. Octavian will make landfall in Egypt any day now, and I do not believe Antony can hold him off again. Actium broke the back of our navy and the army is short of trained men. I do not know what my nedjet’s brother-cousin will do when he is victorious, and I cannot be certain he is ignorant of our existence. It appears to be a prudent time for Aetia to test her wings somewhere other than Egypt.

What of you?

She gave a small shrug. Oh, I am fine. I have stood on the blade of a Julian before, I can handle myself. Besides, she paused, giving me a mischievous smile, I am not so very interesting anymore. But my daughter is the child of a god, so they say. The old stories say that the children of the gods are conceived and raised in secret, and then must go out into the world to fulfill their destinies. This parting has always been before us.

I looked at her, concerned. You speak as though this is a permanent voyage.

Nothing is certain in the Waking World, Nuray. Aetia is the song of my very being, but I have known since the first time I felt her kick in my womb that she was not born to be mewed at my side, whatever I might desire. Her father’s heart beats within her. To love that heart is to give it its freedom.

We disembark from the ship into Ephesus’ bustling harbor. A thousand little fragments of a life I thought I had forgotten come rushing back to me. For modesty more than concealment I gently pull up the hood on Aetia’s cloak, for which she throws me a petulant glance, as we make our way through the crowds, many of whom are funneling themselves toward the temple. We walk as pilgrims, but we seek other things than the proud face of my Lady, Artemis the Undying.

As the grand edifice of the temple looms into view, I am deluged in all emotions. I remember the uncertainty of my arrival here as a child, the comfort of routine in my life that followed, the joy of friendship I shared with Arsinoë and Mudjet later, the terror that precipitated our departure. What I feel isn’t even the aniseed flavor of nostalgia, rather, it is the lingering taste of a dream where everything is familiar but the pieces of the scene do not fit as one thinks they should.

I suppress a shiver as we scale the steps and enter the sanctuary, the knife edge of memories from that last awful day flashing through my mind. Lady Artemis stands unchangingly in her alcove as people move forward to leave offerings at her feet. I spy a megabyzos off to one side checking wicks in the lamps and move to intercept him.

“Galenos,” I say softly, recognizing his round, welcoming face.

He turns around and looks at us with confusion that disappears into astonishment. “Nuray, is it really you?” He reaches out to clasp my hands.

“Yes,” I say with laugh. “I’m glad you still know me, now that I am an old woman.”

“Old woman, bah!” he exclaims. “We must go find Master Xenos, he will be elated to see you are well. He had moments of great doubt for your safety after he allowed you to leave.”

I give a carefree shrug of my shoulders. “Now it is my turn to say ‘bah.’ He knows better than anyone the cleverness of my lady.”

“Indeed, if she and all of you thrive then she has learned her lessons well.”

“My mother enjoys pretending that she is artless, but she is as cunning as a jackal,” Aetia cuts in, glancing about the sanctuary coolly.

Galenos properly registers my young lady’s presence for the first time. “It is you, kore? Of course, I forget how much time has past. You must be almost the age your lady mother was when she came to us. Quite grown up!”

Aetia throws him a flippant grin. “Will you tell me, Sir Priest, how you recall me as a swaddled babe in arms and how I used to dirty my smock toddling around this little town?”

My friend was born under too sunny a star to be put off by her mocking adolescent tone. “I could, my lady, but I shall do you a turn better than that. I told your lord father of your impending arrival myself so many years ago, blessings be upon his Majestic Divinity.” The last bit he delivers with his own grin and slightly irreverent motion of his hands.

She laughs and gives a clap of her hands, her hauteur easily forgotten. “Ah, I’m glad the Greeks grow their priests as merry as the Egyptians do! Then you are an impartial judge, good sir! Tell me true, do I shadow the look of my father as much as they say I do?” She does a little twirl so Galenos can see her back to front.

“In frame I am much reminded of Her Majesty, Queen Arsinoë, my lady. But I see the Consul in your mannerisms, and of course, your eyes.”

“Galenos is tactful, kore. Anyone else would have not taken your sportiveness with such grace,” I say to my charge with a note of mellow reproach.

My impulsive Aetia is instantly contrite. “Indeed, sir, you should ignore my provocations. I’ve always been too changeable to be very good at being a proper princess.”

“It is quite all right, my lady,” Galenos answers cheerfully. “I am more pleased that you are still full of the spark that endeared you to us when you were small. Besides, all the Great Sea knows that the women of the House of Ptolemy are fire-eaters.”

“I’m always very careful to keep my dragon tail beneath my chiton,” Aetia replies with more mock dignity and another burst of her silvery laughter.

Galenos delivers us chattering to the priests’ dwellings and across the threshold of the high priest’s apartments. So little has changed that for just a moment I wonder if I have stepped back in time. Only the sight of the megabyzos keeps me tied to the present. His shoulders stoop a little more and he has grown more wrinkles, speaking to the years that have swum by us like summer fish. Yet when he sees us, the smile that breaks upon his face is the one that had soothed my trembling heart more times than I could count.

“My children, I have prayed that Artemis of the Sterling Feet would grant that I might see you again before I die. Great and good are the works of her hands and kindly does she hears the voice of her servant,” Xenos says as he embraces me. He then takes the hand of Aetia and bows his head. “Your Highness, I am glad to hold your hand in mine once more.”

“Master, it is beyond words to see your face again,” I answer him, my eyes welling up with happy tears.

“My dearest Nuray, long years have passed, yet this reunion makes me feel like a young goat once more! I could skip for joy!” He addresses Aetia again. “And you, little goddess, how goes your lady mother?”

“Well, sir. She weaves and dyes, and acts as though she does not speak nightly to the hoary gods of Egypt.”

I smile to myself, for I know that despite her feigned indifference, my young lady is devoted to her mother, whom she loves as a sage friend and a firm teacher.

“Ah, then she is as she was. Splendid! It gives me comfort that Rome can rut about the world like a spring bull and even Cleopatra can feel true love in her heart before the end, while our Lady Arsinoë sails above all as if she were Iris of the Golden Wings.”

“She thought our young lady here would benefit from visiting the land where she was born. We have come to pay our respects to you and to our old friend,” I explain, putting a hand on his arm.

“Of course, of course. It is good for you to see it, the tomb is lovely. We were most pleased.”

Xenos leads us out of his quarters and to the center of the temple structures. There sitting apart, is an octagonal mausoleum. Its sides are painted with images both Greek and Egyptian — fleet footed Ionian deer frolic in Egyptian reeds. Lady Artemis holds her bow in one hand and a lotus in the other.

“It is beautiful, Master,” I murmur, enchanted. “My lady will be so happy.”

He nods. “We could make no inscriptions as to who lies within, but the gods will know our excellent Mudjet without our aid.”

“It’s shaped like the sides of the Pharos lighthouse,” remarks Aetia, studying the tomb.

“Indeed, my young lady,” replies Xenos. “The inspired suggestion of one of our acolytes.”

Aetia walks up to the mausoleum door and loosens a small sheepskin sack filled with Egyptian beer from her waist. She opens it and flicks a few droplets at the stone walls before pouring the rest on the threshold. Next, she pulls out a small dagger. She makes a cut across her right hand and reaches up to smear some of the blood on the posts.

“Your sacrifice for us made us blood of blood, Mudjet,” she announces seriously to the mausoleum, the earlier levity of her manner gone and her dark eyes filled with all of the strength of her proud heart. “Thank you for your gift. Pray for us and we shall dance in the Field of Reeds together. My mother, your friend, looks for you in the eyes of the desert birds. Continue to watch over her.”

I join her and lean my forehead against the door. “I miss you, my friend. We think of you always and pray you think of us.”

I straighten up again and reach into my traveling bag for some strips of linen. Aetia shakes the last few drops of beer onto her hand to rinse it, and I bind the cut on her hand.

“Where to now, kore?” I ask as I tie the ends in a knot. “We’ll give Master Xenos a little more of our time, of course, but I know how ticklish your feet get without new adventures looming in the distance.”

“Rome is supposed to be lovely this time of year, why not call on my dear cousin Octavius?” She laughs when she sees the dismay on my face. “Oh, calm yourself, Nuray. I jest. I can think of nothing duller than a winter in Italy.”

“Then where?”

Aetia’s sharp, pale face glows. “I want to bathe in the waters of the Indus. I want to see elephants like Alexander did before his army turned back. I want to touch India.”

I sigh lovingly. “It is a long way, but I shall walk this path with you, daughter of kings, if this is your wish.”

“Just wait until my mother sees the tiger I will bring her!” Aetia announces with her father’s wicked grin.

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