Cleopatra had begun exploring the streets of Alexandria incognito shortly after her father was deposed. It had been, she saw now, relatively easy for the redundant princess to slip away from her retinue. Easier, at least, than it was now, with her elder sisters deposed, her father back on his throne, and herself as his heir. This was the first opportunity she'd had since her father's return. She told herself that this ruse was more important than ever, now. As the future queen, she needed to know what the people thought and said; she had the example of her father, deposed by his subjects, to prove to her that the goodwill of the people was vital. Yet she'd found herself lost in thought as she walked in the gathering dusk, and she'd barely noticed which turns she'd taken. Until now, when she found herself, unexpectedly, surrounded by shifting, blowing sand that stung her eyes. This was impossible, she thought. She was nowhere near the desert.
And, in fact, she appeared to still be on a street, although the buildings around her looked distinctly more like Egyptian temples than the homes and shops she ought to be seeing. How could she have gotten herself so lost, so quickly? And why was the wind so strong? She should have been sheltered by the buildings around her. Sand scudded over her sandaled feet, and she heard chattering that sounded, vaguely, like the Egyptian language, though unintelligible. A tiny creature that almost appeared made of sand scurried toward her. She watched mistrustfully; it looked like a scarab, but it kept growing in size as it moved along.
The walls to either side of her bore reliefs in the Egyptian style, but the inscriptions around them were in no language she recognized, with rounded characters, circular or made of curling arcs. Not Greek or demotic Egyptian, and certainly not the hieroglyphs that should have been around such carvings. What was this? "Is anyone there?" she called out.
As if in response, a form rose up from the sand before her. The size and roughly the shape of a man, it appeared to be made of sand just as the scarab had been. She must be seeing things, she thought. "Who are you?" she demanded, in Greek. "What's going on here?" The figure almost seemed to be gliding. "Who are you?" she repeated, this time in Egyptian. "Where is this?"
Duck! someone shouted. Startled, she dropped to the ground, even as she was looking around to place the voice. There'd been no direction to it, and it hadn't sounded at all muffled or distorted by this wind. Then an arrow that seemed almost to glow a bright green shot over her head and struck the man. Who hadn't been a man, because after the second arrow struck the form, it dissolved into sand and dust.
"Who's there?" she called again. She heard a thump behind her, and she rose and turned to face the source of it. The girl she saw was dark-skinned - possibly Nubian, she thought, or of mixed ancestry. Her hair was gathered behind her head with a green band. She wore a short, sleeveless green chiton, fastened at the shoulder and tied around the waist with gold, and an amulet of some smooth, clear green stone that seemed to be glowing faintly. She'd been on a ledge of rock, behind Cleopatra, who was now beginning to realize that nothing that had been behind her resembled any part of Alexandria, any more than the view before her had.
"Are you all right?" the stranger asked, in Greek. That wasn't the voice that had warned her to duck, Cleopatra noticed.
"Uninjured, but clearly I've lost my way."
"You have, but not exactly the way you think." The girl looked around, wary and alert. "It's probably safest for you to come with me."
"All right," she said, and then she gasped as a small, white creature jumped down from the rock as well. "Don't worry," the girl said. "He's on our side."
Cleopatra had hidden behind a tiny white-and-gold model of a pyramid with the creature as her rescuer - Heraeis - fought creatures that looked almost like men, but with eyes on their temples and flat blankness where faces should be, until finally the swirling sand they'd been made of turned into a creature that looked like Egypt's sphinx, but with the head distorted like the sand-creatures' had been. Cleopatra watched the other girl run and dodge and shoot, until finally a barrage of arrows downed the creature, which fell, thrashing, as the wind finally stilled. She watched Heraeis pick up some object that had fallen to the ground, as the desert with its bizarre monuments and stone walls enclosing nothing disappeared. In its place was a perfectly ordinary Alexandrian street.
I'll see her home, the white creature said - or didn't say. Its mouth hadn't moved, though it did seem to blink. And breathe. You should go home too, Heraeis.
"You think she has potential, then," the girl said, her expression unreadable in the moonlight. It had seemed to be day in the desert vision, Cleopatra realized. "Weigh your options before you let him talk you into anything," she added, lifting her head to address Cleopatra. "What you just saw was an easy fight."
"You do that frequently, then," Cleopatra said. This whole experience had caught her off-guard, a sensation she did not enjoy.
"Very," the girl said. "But now I need to go." Something shifted - it seemed almost like a flash of light, but one that didn't dazzle her eyes - and the girl was wearing a plain, ankle-length chiton of undyed linen. Her amulet was gone, but she held a stone that resembled it in her hand. "Take care," she added, and turned back down the street, the way Cleopatra thought she herself might have come.
"So," Cleopatra asked the creature. "Do you have a name?"
Not really. Heraeis calls me Sophos. Cleopatra got the impression it would have shrugged, had it had the right kind of shoulders. If you want to call me something different, feel free.
Cleopatra had intended to sleep on returning to her chambers, but the things the creature had told her before they even reached the palace had changed her mind thoroughly.
Sophos - the name didn't quite seem to fit a creature the size of a cat, though it was certainly knowledgeable enough - was clearly no earthly animal. The long ears made it resemble a hare, while the pointed ears above that reminded her of a cat. Why did it have two pairs of ears? Perhaps they helped with magic.
The magic it described was nothing like the curses and love-spells commoners used, or the drugs and potions of witches in legends. Sophos told her of a different system. The strange desert she'd wandered into, he said, was a sorceress's maze. She sat at the center of it like a spider in a web, waiting for people to stumble in. To fight them, he gave power to young girls. She wouldn't need to gather herbs, cajole spirits or chant spells; the power he gave her could be molded like clay, he said, to form weapons, heal wounds, create the tools she would need. At the heart of it all was a contract. He would grant her a wish, and magic. In return, she would fight sorceresses. When she asked how long, he'd tried to change the subject. For the rest of my life? she'd persisted.
In that case, she had better choose a wish worthy of a lifetime's repayment. She already knew she could not turn down this opportunity. She had seen her father deposed from his throne and driven from his kingdom, forced to beg foreigners for aid. They had lost territories, and pride, and come perilously close to losing independence; if the Romans had their way, Egypt would be a province.
She did not need, or want, to wish for the throne. For all her father's flaws, she loved him, and she was happy to wait her turn in hopes he would live to old age. She was his heir, though jointly with her young brother. That was sufficient. She might wish to rule well, but if so, she could still be deposed, killed by a relative - there was certainly ample precedent for that in her family's history - or simply die young. She might wish for a long and prosperous reign. An untroubled one. Was that possible? She might wish for unambitious siblings, but that was certainly impossible.
As the sky began to lighten to the gray that preceded the dawn, she reached her decision. The creature incongruously named "Sage" was stretched out on its side on her bed. Like a cat, again, she thought. I'm ready, she told it, in her mind.
You've settled on a wish?
Yes, she thought, and then she spoke aloud, so she would feel the reality of the words. "I wish for the abilities I will need to keep Egypt independent, restore it to its former glory, and rule it well, so that my name will always be remembered."