I know I’ve been doing a lot of sales pushing here recently, and I promise that’ll settle down again after this week, but I’m so excited to say that my third book, Children of Actium, is live and available for purchase at the digital provider of your choice and in paperback via Amazon! Links are below, as well as links for the ebook sale of the first two books in this trilogy—still only $0.99 each for one more day (2/4/2022)! Get the whole it and caboodle for under $5! Thanks to all of you for both your support of my books and for your continued support for this long-winded and blithery blog. I am truly grateful.
But in honor of CoA’s release and as thanks for aforementioned support, today’s entry is going to be a gratis preview for you, my kindly blog readers. Below you will find the entire prologue (as opposed to whatever Amazon is offering above) for CoA, to wet your appetites. We join the action in the kingdom of Mauretania, where a dying Cleopatra Selene receives an unexpected visitor…
I began coughing up blood two months, seven days, and six hours after the birth of my daughter. My husband, who believes all solutions can be found in the right book, scoured our vast library for remedies and brought the best physicians from all over the empire to examine me. But it was no use. My lungs grew worse, and my glorious curves wasted away until I seemed to subsist on air alone. I bargained with every god I could think of to give me more time, and when their silence deafened me, I screamed out in my sleep for my mother. When her name would fly from my restless lips, the servants would make signs to ward off the evil eye and I would have to pray none would think to mention my lapses to Augustus.
I’ve done everything the princeps of Rome has ever asked of me. We’ve been good clients to him. I wish Octavia was still alive; she would take my Dru and keep her safe. My son will be all right, but my little honeybee? I weep with fear for her. This is a dangerous world for girls, my mother used to say. She, who was brilliant and fearless, even she couldn’t save us or herself. What could I do—one not half as clever or brave?
Hagne, my companion, is dozing at my side, but I am wide awake. She scolds me when I’m like this, saying I only give speed to my illness. But the moon, my namesake, chases the sleep from my eyes, so I am wakeful when the draperies on my balcony move aside and reveal a dark figure standing behind them. I should be afraid, but perhaps my looming death has made me the reckless Ptolemy I was born to be at last.
“Who is there?” I ask the shadow. My voice is feebler in my ears than I would wish, though it is strong enough to rouse Hagne.
“It is only the wind, my lady,” she says, suppressing a yawn. “Go back to sleep.”
I ignore her and prop myself up on my elbows as best I can. Trying to remember how to be regal in the midst of my pernicious decay, I call out to the night imperiously, “I command that you show yourself!”
For a moment nothing happens, and I wonder if perhaps my loyal Hagne was right after all. I start to lie down again, but then pale hands move the curtain aside, and a tall creature in black steps into my room. The lovely hands reach up and fold back their hood unhurriedly.
“I live to serve, Your Majesty,” the slender woman who appears from beneath it says in melodious Greek.
She is my age, but taller, and her skin paler. Or it would have been once, before I became ill. Before, I always had rosy cheeks to set off my cascades of golden hair, the only beauty my death has allowed me to keep. Her hair is thick, too: light brown, though where it catches the lamplight it appears nearly as red as Livia’s. Her eyes are as black as her cloak above her high cheekbones and long nose, just as Anni described her. My dear sister once told me of my visitor’s sense of being that permeated the very air around her like a perfume. As if I needed to have heka explained to me.
She is as light as air and as sure as stone, yet having her in my kingdom is still unexpected. I must pray the woman that the world calls the Umbra Augusti is not here by his command. I begin to fear I have indeed been talking too loudly in my sleep.
“Aetia?” I ask her hesitatingly.
My question brings her deified father’s smirk to her lips. “Hello, Selene.”
Her kind tone melts some of my unease. “Augustus didn’t send you, did he?”
She gives her head a vehement shake. “Gods, no. I’m on my own business, which is usually so, as he would grumble to you. But you know as well as I how legends spring up with little regard for small things like the truth.”
I’m about to laugh when I remember Hagne and I turn to see her petrified with shock as if our interloper were a ghost. “It’s all right,” I assure her. “I will be fine for a while. Go rest.”
I can tell she doesn’t trust me or my visitor, but Aetia produces an inviting smile that makes her fathomless eyes glow. “Don’t fret, my lady,” she soothes. “I’ll keep a good watch over your mistress.”
Hagne wavers a moment more, but I can feel the slightest suggestion of warmth emanating from Aetia, and because of this, I know her desires will triumph. “Send for me if you have need of me,” Hagne says reluctantly, gathering her skirts and departing to my adjoining rooms.
When she is gone, I can’t help grinning. “I never thought I’d witness someone employing heka again in this life.”
“Mine are not quite as your mother’s were, but they have their uses. You should be pleased in your lady; most people are much easier to move.”
“Hagne has been with me a long time. She doesn’t move for much—” But then a coughing fit overtakes me.
Aetia swoops forward to lay me back upon my pillows and smooths her cool hand across my forehead. “I confess I had hoped your illness had been exaggerated. Even if I should know better by this late time in my life.”
I sigh. “It cannot be helped much now.” I pause and look up at her, the secret daughter of my cunning Aunt Arsinoë. “It is good to finally see you face to face, dear cousin.”
Her silvery laugh rings out as she drapes her cloak over the chair at my side and arranges herself on it. The hem of her black chiton patterned with gold feathers makes her edges glow in my weary eyes. “Did Octavius tell you?”
“No, Antonia and Anni did. They felt I should know.”
“They were right. It pained me for many years to keep it a secret from them. I was relieved when I could confess all, and they in turn were very forgiving of my subterfuge.” Now it is her turn to sigh. “I’m forced to carry so many secrets.”
My heart aches for the faraway place her eyes go. I’ve seen that look before. “You weren’t completely mistaken. Augustus did tell me of you, but only later. He did it to try to dissuade me from naming my son Ptolemy, I think.”
“I’m glad he wasn’t successful.”
“I named him Ptolemy because my mother told me there must always be a Ptolemy. My brothers and uncles are dead, so the name must come to my Tolly.” I look into her dark, silent eyes. “I wish you’d come earlier.”
“So do I, but it was better I did not.” She glances about my room. “Better for you and Juba to rebuild your lives away from reminders of the past.”
“I’ve been very lucky,” I admit. “Juba and I, we have understood each other. What it means to survive the past.”
“I’m envious, cousin. To have had such a long, happy marriage.”
The soft pain in her voice also reminds me of my mother. Of the despair that spilled from her ka when they brought my dying father to us. “What of you, Aetia?” I ask her to chase this memory from my mind. “They say you were married to Vergilius Maro. That you are the real queen of Carthage in his Aeneid.”
“We nearly sit upon the ruins of that city, Selene. I think it is more proper to call you the queen of Carthage.”
“I suppose you’re right. But then I must hail you as the crown princess of Egypt,” I counter slyly, for my sisters have also told me of my aunt’s true fate.
She laughs again. “Very well, even if I have been running from that honor since I could gather my feet under me.”
I giggle with her, feeling the giddy joy I used to have when my sisters and I would stay up late gossiping. I do miss them. And then, I get lost in my cousin’s face. I get lost in thoughts of the brother we share. My poor Caesarion.
I shake myself from my past and return to Aetia, who has tilted her head to the side politely. “I’m sorry, it’s rude of me to stare. I was trying to see Caesarion in your face.”
Her eyes warm. “Any luck?”
“He couldn’t either. But in the end, I suppose it didn’t matter.”
“My Dru has his eyes, the Ptolemy eyes,” I murmur dreamily. “Like polished copper…” My thoughts trail off and my head feels unbalanced. Focus, Selene. “But you parried me with your quick tongue earlier. Were you as happy as Vergilius’ poem claims?”
She strokes my wasted hand in hers for a long time before she answers. “Far happier. Even my Vergilius didn’t have the wit to describe to the world how much I loved him.” She sighs again. “Love him still. For three years, my wild ka knew rest. Not before, not since.”
Tears pool in my eyes. “I’m sorry for the fever that stole him away from you.”
“The dead are never truly far from the likes of me,” she replies. “I cannot curse the fever, only the haste of Octavius that forced us to return to Rome too quickly. But you know that our princeps brooks no disappointments in this world.”
If there had been mere bitterness in her voice, I wouldn’t have been afraid. But the presence of the reckless fatalism we Ptolemies cling to when everything and everyone else fails us, that frightened me. That is poison that killed my mother as surely as the wolfsbane did.
But thinking of my mother’s death brings back memories of the awful days that followed it. I remember gripping Alex’s hand until I thought I would break his fingers, biting into my himation to stifle my sobs. I remember the gut-stabbing shame of the triumph, where I prayed Lord Geb would swallow me, and it is these grim shadows that reignite my terror for my daughter. The threat of her chained to a similar fate squeezes what little air has found my lungs, and I begin to flail like a drowning person. As if she understands the source of my panic, Aetia gently turns me over and massages my back, crooning an Egyptian lullaby my mother used to sing.
“Aetia!” I gasp. “I know it is a great thing to ask, but will you keep my Dru safe?”
She stops her song and squeezes my shoulder. “Of course, Selene. Why else do you suppose I have come?”
Her matter-of-fact reply silences my coughs in astonishment as she stands to retrieve a lamp. She places it down nearer to me and I imagine the light has dazzled my senses because I think I see a faint golden glitter on her palm as she releases the handle. She carefully lifts my head with her right hand and unfolds her left palm to me.
“You are close to crossing over; it should be visible to you. Do you see the ouroboros, Selene?”
My fading eyes widen as I see the golden snake on Aetia’s hand ringed with a flowing script that winds its way up her wrists. I look at her wonderingly, only to be greeted by scores of symbols and scripts spilling across her exposed skin in glittering arcs.
She patiently directs my attention back to her hand. “Can you read the name of the one who has marked me with the snake of infinity?”
I struggle to decipher the complicated heka-text written in half a dozen languages, but when I see what she wishes me to, my breath catches in my throat.
“I speak for the dead, cousin-mine,” she says quietly. “I swear on her ka I will protect Dru. Whatever the cost. Depart the Waking World in peace.”
She runs her tattooed hand over my hair as if to let my mother’s asp caress my fevered brain. The sedjeri have made the Umbra Augusti a gifted mimic, and when she opens her mouth to speak again, it is not her own silvery voice that falls from her lips. It is the voice I have loved above all others, the one I lost so long ago, returned to me in the slender throat of my clever cousin.
I have nowhere else to turn, senat-sat, my mother’s beautiful voice says. My daughter cries out to my ka from the Waking World. You must save my granddaughter, as you once tried save my son.
Save her from what? Aetia’s own voice surfaces to ask her.
I almost smile as my mother’s biting wit lashes back. You know quite well. The iait have given only to you the ka that can withstand the boy and his icy heart.
He grows old, Aunt. He’s not the terror he once was.
The heat of my mother’s sarcasm warms my cheek. Tell that to his poor subjects: the men afraid to strive lest they incur some honor he has not snapped up for himself and the women afraid to bare an ankle lest they be whipped as whores. The suspicious old king on his lonely throne, for the gods so love the old stories.
My cousin is a lioness, so she isn’t cowed by even a risen goddess like Cleopatra Thea Philopator. You know my heart, mewet-senat. You know the gods have elected me to bind up the wounds of the past as much as bridle my brother. I will see this thing you ask done.
My mother’s pleasure falls over the air like a sweet breeze. Thank you, Aetia. Seek out the ninety-ninth rw in the book your mother gave to Octavian’s redhead to accomplish what you must. Train her well for us, senat-sat. But go to my Selene first; her time is short.
The sun beyond us is rising, and I can feel sleep, or perhaps death at last, crawling up my exhausted limbs. “What did my mother mean?” I ask drowsily. “Train her in what?”
As I fall into my dreams, Aetia whispers in my ear, “In her heka, dear Selene. When the time is right, I will come for her and she will be the Ptolemy girl who will redeem us all.”