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The Queen's Handmaid
By Tracy L. Higley
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2014 Tracy Higley
All rights reserved.
Alexandria, Egypt January, 39 BC
Lydia detached herself from the surge of chaos in the palace kitchens and slipped along the shadowed corridor, to a door in the south wall where a few coins would finally find their way into her palm. If she was not caught.
The shouts had come thirty minutes earlier. The Idumean governor of the north-country province of Israel was navigating his ship into the royal port. Slaves assigned to watch the darkening harbor scuttled back to the palace.
In the kitchens, Banafrit was barking commands at her frantic staff, her voice a whip-crack over slaves and servants alike who scurried to do her bidding. But Lydia's presence was neither needed nor expected there, and her secret errand would not wait. She risked a beating, or worse, but it was not the first time.
From somewhere in the cavernous palace came a haunting melody plucked on lyre strings, but the gray walls of the darkened corridor tunneled away from the sound to the south wall. Lydia sped forward on sure feet, sandals scuffing the stone floors. She could navigate these halls in darkness, and often did, to be alone with her thoughts.
The blue glaze of the jug she carried was smooth, but her fingers instinctively sought out imperfections, any trapped air or roughened clay that would render the piece less valued. A figure in the narrow doorway ahead shifted, the moonlight outlining wide shoulders and brawny arms.
At his sudden appearance, her back stiffened.
"You are late." He spoke in a whisper. The light behind him left his features undefined, but the voice was familiar.
In the harbor beyond, the eerie sound of a cat yowling for its next meal raised the hair on Lydia's arms. "I had difficulty getting away. We have a guest arriving—"
"Yes, Herod. The whole city is aware. But one politicking Arab need not disrupt all of commerce!"
Lydia bit back a sharp reply. Her small jug was hardly the stuff of exotic trade. She held the piece to the moonlight. "I gave this one shaded striations of blues and grays, and you'll see that the neck is quite delicate—"
"Girl, you know I care nothing about beauty." He snorted. "The only beauty I know is the lovely color of the obols your pieces fetch me." He jingled a pouch at her eye level. "Pity you can't work faster. Your work is always in demand."
Lydia handed him the jug and took the pouch from his outstretched hand. "Someday." She shook the coins as he had done. "When I have saved enough of this."
Though at the pace she found time to make pieces, she would be older than Banafrit by the time she broke free of palace service to open her own shop. If she survived that long. "Someday."
He shrugged and disappeared into the night with a disinterested wave and a muttered, "Until next week."
Lydia's free hand lifted of its own accord, as if to bid farewell to the jug that was a part of her, as all her artwork became.
She turned back into the corridor, and a flutter of white caught her eye. Her pulse jumped. "Who is there?"
Silence met her question. She tucked the money pouch with its scant obols under the folds of her outer robes and hurried forward, sliding her fingers along the length of the damp wall. Around the first corner a smoldering torch painted the corridor in a smoky half-light. Her quarry vanished around the next bend, but not before the jade-green robes and pale flesh had given her away. Andromeda.
Had the girl been watching? Seen the transaction in the shadows? Lydia paused in the hall, one hand braced against the wall and the other clutching the meager pouch. Cleopatra's anger knew no limits and was as unpredictable as summer lightning.
The scent of smoke watered Lydia's eyes and a chill breeze snaked through the hall and sputtered the torch, mimicking the beat of her heart. She swallowed against a bitter taste. She was so close to her goal of six hundred obols. She needed only to keep her head down and stay safe from Cleopatra's wrath until she earned a bit more. But if Cleopatra found out ...
She would not follow Andromeda. Better to tuck the pouch's dismal contents into the carefully concealed pocket of her sleeping mat, in the lower level of the palace she shared with two other servants, than to try to figure out the girl's plan. Lydia passed the smoking torch, rounded the corner hesitantly, but Andromeda was already gone, off to spread gossip, no doubt. The girl was younger even than Lydia, perhaps only fifteen years old, but never missed a chance to outshine her. Lydia escaped to her bedchamber, secreted away the coins in the straw, and hurried to the kitchens to assess the damage.
The palace kitchens bordered a spacious atrium with a central impluvium beneath the open sky catching rainwater. Tonight, at the four corners of the impluvium, four large bronze pots were suspended by chains over cook fires. The overflowing pots pitched and heaved like ships on tempestuous waves of fire. Heat radiated through the courtyard, barely escaping into the night air. No expense, no effort would be spared to impress Herod. Cleopatra had made her desires clear.
Around the fires, palace staff stumbled, shoved, and shouted. The raised arms of pretty serving girls rushed past with platters of delicacies, and new-muscled boys shouldered amphorae of wine in a parade of luxury marching toward the spread tables.
Lydia weaved through the bedlam to the huge kitchen off the atrium, following the sound of Banafrit's roar of impatience.
"What do I care about such nonsense tonight, girl?"
Lydia hesitated in the doorway, jaw tightening. Andromeda had already found her way to Banafrit, to pour her poison into the woman's ear and try to curry favor. But Banafrit elbowed the girl away, bustling around a table littered with the remains of radish and carrot tips and greens and scowling at the noisy kitchen staff all at once.
The woman's gray-streaked hair was struggling free of its combs, and in the fire-heat, strands plastered her pink cheeks. Flour coated her left eyebrow, and she wiped the back of her hand across her forehead, the tan smudge like a scar.
Blustering as she was, Banafrit was the closest thing to a mother Lydia had ever known, though Lydia would never admit to the woman that she had constructed the role for her. Lydia belonged nowhere, but at least in this kitchen, she was acknowledged.
The older woman eyed Lydia in the door frame, glanced from her to Andromeda, and scowled once more. The younger girl seemed to understand where Banafrit's loyalty lay and slunk off to complain to a servant boy who was always hanging about her.
But it was another who greeted her, rising unsteadily from a chair against the wall. "Lydia, at last." He ringed a table of servants arranging pale-green melons on platters and came forward to greet her.
"Samuel." She held out welcoming hands to her friend. The aging man's usually laugh-crinkled face was somber, his white beard uncombed. "What brings you to the palace on a night such as this?"
"I—I need to speak with you—"
Banafrit waddled between them and swatted at Samuel in a familiar gesture born of years of acquaintance. "Be gone, old man. We've no time for lessons and studies here tonight. Herod will be wanting his food and his comforts, and we've nothing but slowwitted servants and lazy slaves about."
She cast an evil eye over Lydia, though a fondness lay behind her expression. "And you—why is it everyone wants to speak about you, to you? Haven't you duties of your own tonight? I should think that brat—"
"Cleopatra is readying her son herself this evening." Lydia idly rearranged some pomegranates and green grapes on one of the serving dishes into a more pleasing display, with complementary colors better balanced. "She wanted to remind him of the proper manners before a Jewish Galilean governor."
Samuel grunted. "He's not Jewish. And as for proper manners ..." He left off, with a glance at the ceiling and a shrug.
Samuel's hostility ran deep. Although he had been born in Susa, in what had once been the Persian Empire, he was intensely loyal to all of Israel, from whence his people had been exiled centuries ago. And Lydia was equally loyal to him. If Banafrit was mother, then Samuel was father. Though it was best to remain independent, to keep some distance. A battle Lydia continually fought.
"Banafrit is right, Samuel. I should make myself available for whatever is needed tonight. Our lessons must wait."
"Hmph, lessons." Banafrit poked a servant girl and handed her the fruit platter. "Why you want to learn to be Jewish from this man, I'll never understand. You're not even a Jew."
Lydia raised her eyebrows. "How do you know?"
Banafrit's glance flicked to Samuel, then away, as though the two held a confidence between them. "I told you I've no time for chatter."
But Samuel grabbed her hands, dwarfing them in his own large grasp. "No lessons tonight, Lydia. There is something important I need to tell you. Something has happened—"
"Ly—di—a!" The screech echoed through the kitchen chamber, familiar enough to freeze every servant and slave at his task.
Cleopatra sailed into the kitchen, raven hair unbound and streaming, dressed only in a white sheath. Her dark eyes were wild with anger or excitement, perhaps both. "There you are! I have been calling for you all over the palace like a peasant woman chasing down a wayward husband! I need you at once. Caesarion has hurt himself, and I am not even close to being ready to meet Herod." She gave a glance to Samuel, his hands still wrapped around Lydia's, and frowned. Then she spun and departed, her expectation clear that Lydia would follow on her heels.
Lydia tried to pull her hands from Samuel's grasp, but he held firm. "Not yet, child. I have something vital I must tell you. Something of your future—something that is past the time for telling."
Banafrit's never-ceasing activity stilled.
Lydia bit her lip at the intensity in his eyes. "What do you mean, past the time—?"
She snatched her hands from his. "I must go, friend. I will find you later." She fled the kitchen, but his declaration thudded inside her mind like an omen of destiny. Her future. And perhaps her past?
She wanted to reach back for the knowledge, but it was like grasping at a wave and finding only sea spray. When would she have another chance? The deep ache, with her always and all the more these past months, swelled against her chest, full and yet desolate.
She shook her head against the emotion and crossed the flame-lit kitchen courtyard. Her mistress was already gone. She hurried down the front hall of the palace, up the massive stairs, to the chamber suite of Cleopatra Philopator, reincarnation of Isis, Pharaoh of Egypt.
The white-kilted Egyptian guard nodded at her approach.
She rapped her knuckles twice against the wooden door but did not wait to be invited. Caesarion's wailing penetrated into the hall, and Lydia's instinct propelled her into the room.
"What is it, little cub? What's happened?"
She pulled up short. The boy sat inconsolable in the lap of Andromeda. The girl's green robes were smirched with wetness, and her dark and stringy hair hung over his head.
Andromeda shifted her eyes toward Lydia and gave her a tight smile of challenge. It was no secret that Andromeda sought to replace her in Caesarion's affections. Already the girl cared for Cleopatra's newborn twins. Was that not enough?
The thought of separation from the boy tightened Lydia's throat. She should not have allowed herself to get so close.
But at Lydia's voice, Caesarion struggled free of the younger girl's arms and sped across the chamber, arms high.
Lydia caught him up in her arms. Tears sparkled in his dark lashes and ran rivers wide as the Nile down his cheeks. "Now there, what has happened?"
"I fell." He sniffed and pointed to a scraped knee.
"I was about to dress the wound." Andromeda's voice was buttery soft for Cleopatra's benefit.
Lydia set the boy down again. At seven years old, he was too big to carry. She needed to get Andromeda out before she mentioned what she had seen in the corridor. With a nod toward the girl, she said, "That will be all. I'm sure Banafrit needs your service downstairs."
Andromeda narrowed her eyes, glanced at Cleopatra on the far side of the chamber, oblivious in her wardrobe preparations, then strolled from the room.
For all the frenzied commotion of the lower-staff level, Cleopatra's multiroomed chamber was an oasis of peaceful luxury, with flaming braziers scattered against the walls warming the rooms and heavy tapestries at the windows to block the winter chill. The rooms were spacious and high ceilinged, the walls frescoed in golds and reds by the best Alexandrian artists.
Cleopatra herself was a thing of beauty, draping herself in her signature eclectic mix of jewel-like Roman purples and crisp Greek whites, with the Egyptian's cropped black wig, striped nemes head cloth, and rearing gold cobra shimmering at her forehead. Indeed, the meeting of these two leaders was a blend of nearly all the world—the Greek pharaoh of Egypt now sought by Rome meeting the Arab governor of a Hebrew province.
Caesarion was still crying, and Lydia dropped to the floor beside a warm brazier and pulled him to her. "Let us look at this knee. There, now that is nothing. Look. A scrape, and only a little blood clings to it. How shall you be a fine Egyptian soldier if you wail over such a small wound?"
He snuggled closer to her, head on her shoulder, and she sang softly to him, a favorite tune that always calmed his restlessness. Her voice carried, pure and gentle, across the chamber.
"I swear by the gods, Lydia, that voice of yours could charm a monster." Cleopatra laughed coldly and inclined her head toward Caesarion. "Or a monstrous child."
Cleopatra still fussed with the purple-edged toga she was arranging, and Lydia left the boy to cross the room and help. With deft fingers she draped the toga in the Roman fashion, tucked the ends snugly against Cleopatra's slim figure, and turned the woman toward the bronze.
Cleopatra surveyed herself and smiled. "Yes, as usual, everything you touch grows more beautiful, does it not? How could we possibly manage here without you?"
The compliment should have warmed Lydia, but she knew better than to believe it was born of affection. Cleopatra never allowed anyone to feel secure. Though only ten years older than Lydia, since Caesarion's birth, Lydia had seen her order the murders of both a younger brother and sister. And her second brother's death—
Lydia tried to refuse the memory, the soul-suffocating memory that crouched in waiting if she was not diligent in breathing it away. Cleopatra had followed in her father's royal footsteps, having watched him order the execution of her older sister, Berenice, while Cleopatra was still a girl.
Lydia returned to Caesarion, still cradling his knee, and pulled him to herself.
Cleopatra turned to her, eyed the two on the floor, and tilted her head. "You always find a way to look prettier than your station should allow, don't you? Is that one of my dresses you have pilfered?" Her mood had turned sour suddenly, as it often did.
"What? No!" Lydia smoothed the white linen sheath dress embroidered with delicate threads of blue. "No, I sewed this myself."
"Hmm. Well, you look too elegant to be a servant. I am sick of you and your ideas. Perhaps it's that troublemaker you spend time with, Samuel. I've been meaning to get rid of him. He's far too old to do much good at the Museum any longer."
Lydia opened her mouth, but there was nothing to be said. Better to ignore the threat and pray it was spoken without much thought.
Cleopatra observed herself in the bronze once more. "Well, this should be good enough to win Herod as a friend."
Friend? As the only living Ptolemy left, besides her son, she was a shrewd and wary ruler and no friend to anyone. Not even Marc Antony, who had fallen victim to her charms two years ago, after the assassination of his mentor and her lover, Julius Caesar. She had nothing left of Caesar but his son, and she had quickly understood the need to ingratiate herself to the next man in line to rule all of Rome. Antony's twins had been born to Cleopatra a few months ago, and she had only grown more paranoid since.
Excerpted from The Queen's Handmaid by Tracy L. Higley. Copyright © 2014 Tracy Higley. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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