In which Phoebe doesn't die in childbirth, and Charmian is raised by her mother rather than Asetnefer.
My mother was a slave who came from a village far up the Danuvius River, captured in the aftermath of a war that tore her away from her home and family. I do not remember a time when I did not know the story. It was one that she told me when I was still young enough to be put to her breast, alongside tales of the family she had left behind and of the gods she had worshiped in a land far away from a white city by the sea.
I was Egyptian. I was Greek. But I was also Pannonian. She made certain that I would never forget where I came from.
It set me apart from the beginning. But then, many things did.
My mother's name was Phoebe, and everyone in the palace knew of her. She was a favorite of Pharaoh, called to him time and time again, and there were those who looked down on her for it. Looking back, I see now that it was jealousy on most of their parts, but at the time I did not understand.
"I am who I am, my sweet," she told me once. "A leopard cannot change its spots, nor would it want to do so."
Iras and I would often play together in the courtyards, under the watchful eyes of our mothers or one of the other palace slaves.
We called each other sister, and my mother's eyes were distant the first time she heard us use that endearment for each other.
"She is, you know," she told me one night, as we sat by the fountain and stared up at the stars. "Your sister."
I tilted my head quizzically at her but did not speak. I knew that I did not need to say anything. She knew my mind better than I did at times.
"Pharaoh is your father," she continued, running her fingers absentmindedly through my fair hair, "just as he is the father of Iras."
"I know," I told her honestly. Somehow I had always known, that Iras and I were sisters in truth.
She smiled at me, and it was a sad smile. "I had a sister once," she said softly. Then she shook her head. "Come, little one, it's time for you to get to bed."
She reached out and took my hand, gently placing it on her stomach. I could not help but notice that it was not quite as flat as I remembered it being in the past.
"I am with child," she told me gently.
I did not ask any questions. In truth, I doubt that I had any. I merely stood there, my hand resting on her stomach, and smiled.
My mother's face was grey with grief, and at times it seemed as if she was avoiding everyone. Even myself.
On those nights, Asetnefer would take me home with her, to share a bed with Iras. She would leave us alone and disappear until late in the night, returning with tired eyes and often a frown.
I did not consider where she went at the time. Now, knowing that she had lost a son of her own before Iras and I were ever born, I suspect she spent those hours with my mother. Comforting her, perhaps, or merely making certain that she did not do anything foolish.
It lasted almost three months.
It was also the only time I ever heard my mother and Asetnefer fight.
"She is too young!"
I curled up tighter in my bed, trying to keep still. It did not matter. They would have not have noticed that I was awake even if I had moved, so caught up in their own argument.
Asetnefer's voice was calm and steady, but there was a hint of frustration in it that I had never heard before. "I have already offered him Iras to serve as a companion," she said. "It is only appropriate that you offer Charmian as well."
"I may call Alexandria home," my mother hissed, "but I am not Egyptian. I went to Pharaoh because I wanted to do so, not because of a need to serve."
"Phoebe," Asetnefer said, and I could not help but notice that the irritation and weariness in her voice was much more pronounced, "think for a moment what Charmian would stand to gain if—"
My mother cut her off. "I have already lost my son," she spat out. "Do not ask me to give up my daughter."
There was silence for a long moment. Then, in a voice as cold as clear well water, Asetnefer said just three words: "So be it."
I did not ask any questions of her. I did not have to ask. She took one look at my face and knew that I had heard.
"They are both your sisters," my mother said softly, her fingers running through my hair. "Iras and Cleopatra."
I nodded. "I know."
"Iras is being given to Cleopatra, to belong to her and be her companion." My mother tried to smile at me, but it was a sad smile that made my heart ache. "Asetnefer wishes to ask Pharaoh to give you to the princess as well."
I did not speak. Truthfully, I did not know what to say.
"I told Asetnefer that I did not wish for her to do so," my mother continued, her gaze still focused on my face. "Do you wish for me to tell her otherwise?"
Part of me wanted to tell her "yes." To ask that she let me do my duty, to serve the sister that I hadn't even realized that I had. I was Pannonian, but I was also Egyptian. I knew what it meant to serve.
Then I looked at my mother, truly looked at her, and her face told me everything I needed to know. She did not wish it, and I did not want to hurt her by telling her otherwise.
"No," I told her.
It was not the truth, but it made her smile.
Perhaps it was better that way. Perhaps not. All that I knew was that while I had lost my sister, she had gained one.
Sometimes at night, I couldn't help but lay awake and stare up at the ceiling. There was a hollow place inside of me that felt as if something was missing. As if something had gone wrong.
It was gone by in the morning.
Once I was older, I would most likely be given a permanent assignment. Until then, I did whatever was asked of me, trying to discover what I was most suited for.
I had some studies, an hour here or there when I was allowed to step away from my usual tasks. They were nothing like what I would have had if I was a companion to Cleopatra, but they more than what someone of my station typically would receive.
I did not ask any questions about who had arranged them or why. I wasn't certain that I truly wanted to find out, if I was honest with myself. Still, I learned what I could, my mind growing as well as my body.
That is who I was when the dreams started.
"Yes," I told her. "It has happened before."
Her face grew thoughtful, but for a long moment she did not speak. I shifted uncomfortably, not quite certain what to do or say.
"My mother's mother had the same gift, or so I was told as a girl," she said finally, shaking her head. "It is in your blood."
"What should I do?" I asked her.
She bit her lip. "Do not tell anyone other than me," she said. "There are some who would not understand, who would—"
She trailed off and did not finish, but I knew what she would say. I was already judged by others because of who I was and what I looked like. They did not need any other reasons to look down on me.
I'm not certain what she saw on my face, but my mother suddenly reached out to brush a strand of hair out of my eyes.
"This is a gift," she told me, quite seriously. "Do not let anyone convince you otherwise."
The oldest, Tryphaena, declared herself Queen and a coronation was soon planned.
No one spoke of the princess Cleopatra, and I wondered sometimes where she and Iras had gone. I knew they were not foolish enough to stay behind and risk death, but it seemed that no one knew anything of her. I merely hoped they were safe.
At night, I dreamed of blood.
Life in the palace itself did not change, for the most part. Not for the slaves and servants, at least. Who is sitting on the throne does not affect the everyday running of the palace.
I did my duties, day in and day out.
And if one day a sense of wrongness unlike anything I had ever felt before hit me like a physical blow, I did my best to hide it. Whatever it was that had happened, it was not in Alexandria.
I suspected that, if it was so important, news would reach the city eventually.
When the news came, I wished that I had not been right.
In my dreams, I had been with them, far away in Bubastis. I threw myself in front of the blade, protecting my sisters with my own blood, the willing sacrifice.
A beautiful girl stood nearby, young and slender, wearing a sad smile that reminded me of my mother. I had never seen Her before in my life, but I still knew who She was. Everyone recognizes the gods when they stand before you.
"The story could have been different," She said quietly, Her voice soft and clear yet filled with sadness. "You showed me that once, long again."
I looked down at my hands, drenched with blood. Like an offering. A sacrifice. "I should have been there," I said, and it was not a question. "I could have made the difference."
She smiled at me, Her eyes ancient despite the youth of Her face. "Perhaps," she agreed. "We will never know."
I shook my head. "I could have made the difference," I repeated, and it was not a question. I knew it as certainly as knew my own name. As I knew all of my names, everyone I had been and everyone I would one day be.
Then I would awaken and remember the truth.
The first night he called for my mother, she returned earlier than I had expected. I was still awake, not ready to go to bed and face the dreams that haunted me every night, when she slipped in with her himation draped over her shoulders.
Her face was troubled.
"Is something wrong, Mother?" I asked her, frowning.
She shook her head. "No," she told me.
I gave her a doubtful look, and a hint of a smile played at the corners of her mouth. "No," she repeated, her voice a bit stronger. "Nothing is wrong, not precisely."
I crossed my arms in front of my chest and waited. If she had more to say, she would say it.
"Princess Arsinoe is now the oldest heir to the throne," she said slowly, carefully, as if she was considering every word. "She is over two years younger than you, still a child, but—"
She trailed off, but she didn't need to finish. I understood. It was not the first time it had been asked of me, after all.
"She is still old enough to begin forming her household, now that there are no others between her and the throne," I said.
"You are her sister, bound in blood," my mother agreed. "And you are no longer a child, for me to keep at my side."
The voice from my dreams echoed in my mind. The story could have been different.
I nodded. "I understand."
There were no protests, as there had been when I was a child. Arsinoe would be queen and, despite her youth, it was time for her to begin forming her household. She would not hold true power for some years, but she was all that was left. She and her brothers, one of whom would rule at her side when the time came.
I had some studies as a child, of course, after my mother begged not to lose me to Cleopatra. I suspect that it was always planned for me to join the house of my sister, one of my sisters, once I was older. It was not enough for my new position, though, so for the first few months I threw myself entirely into my studies. There was much I had to learn, if I was going to serve the girl who would one day be Queen.
It took time, but I grew to like Arsinoe. She was impulsive and somewhat selfish, but she was young. I preferred to think she would grow out of it as she aged, although I wasn't certain.
At night, I dreamed of shadows growing in the distance. I felt a chill when I looked at them and heard the sound of howling, like jackals in the night but not at the same time. A distant part of me thought that I had heard that sound before, a long time ago.
I turned, and She was standing there. "It is too late," she said, shaking her head. "It cannot be stopped."
Pharaoh put them off, time and time again, but it was clear that he could only buy so much time. He was crafty, his every move calculated, but his health was failing. He was running out of time, and everyone knew it.
Gnaeus Pompeius was no fool, as much as we wished he was. Arsinoe tried her best, but she was still barely on the cusp of womanhood. She played the lovesick girl as best she could, but there were times when her careful mask slipped.
If he hadn't noticed yet, the odds were good that he would eventually. And that could ruin everything, depending on the timing.
Arsinoe was my sister. I cared for her, and it was my duty to help her in any way that I could. But she was not ready to rule. We did not have time on our side, though, and I knew it. Ready or not, all of Egypt would soon be in her hands.
The story could have been different.
My dreams were filled with fire and death, a white city by the sea engulfed in flames. I did not know when or how it would come to pass, but I knew that there wasn't a way to stop it. Not this time.
"Babylon," I whispered, and I hardly knew my own voice.
It was coming.
In which Charmian asked for Agrippa to come back when she found she was pregnant with Demetria.
"Do you want me to write to Caesar and ask him to send Agrippa back here? There are plenty of positions with the legions here for a tribune."
I lifted my head. I did at least have enough pride not to have my sister send for him. If the father of her child could not be at her side, if Dion could not have the man he loved with him, then I did not deserve any different.
Except I wanted it. I truly did.
My hand drifted downwards, resting on my flat stomach. It would soon begin to curve as the child grew inside me, a visible sign of the changes happening within.
It would not be fair of me to ask for something my sister could not have. I was a servant of the gods, one of the hands of Isis. I should be willing to make the sacrifice.
"Charmian?" Cleopatra prompted, and there was a gentleness in her eyes that I had not expected. My doubts must have shown on my face more than I had meant.
I closed my eyes, trying to ignore the pang of guilt that I felt. "Yes," I said. "Yes, I would ask that you write to Caesar."
There were many reasons, some more selfish than others. It was clear that he had not wanted to be parted from Caesar's side, even though he had been told that it was a position of honor, protecting Caesar's newborn son. I did not want him to suspect there might have been another cause.
I should have known it would lead to misunderstandings.
My pregnancy only showed when I was nude, so I was careful to avoid that situation with Agrippa. That isn't to say we did not celebrate his return, rather enthusiastically I might add. I simply kept more of myself covered than I normally did.
He did not say anything, that time or any of the ones that followed. I should have known better than to take that to mean he had not noticed.
I stood beside the bed in my room, my hands tightened into fists at my sides. He stood in the doorway, the look on his face one of hurt and confusion.
It had been almost a month since he had returned to the city, and I knew that I should have told him the truth long before then. The longer I kept it a secret, though, the more difficult it became to let the words escape.
I had more than one reason to feel guilty.
"What do you mean?" I asked, trying my best to keep my face shuttered.
Agrippa knew me too well for that. "I think you know."
I stared at him, my thoughts racing through my mind as quickly as the fastest chariot. He stared back at me.
Not for the first time when faced with him, words escaped me. Before I could find them, he turned and walked away.
I looked up from where I was sitting on his bed. "You asked me a question," I said quietly. "I didn't have a chance to answer."
Agrippa opened his mouth to speak. I wasn't certain what he was going to say, and considering our last conversation I suspected I didn't want to know.
I stood, unclasping my chiton and letting it fall to the floor in one swift motion.
He froze, although I suspected it was more surprise from my sudden nudity than anything else. "What are you—"
His words cut off abruptly.
I watched his face carefully, the way his eyes widened in realization as his gaze drifted over me. The differences weren't overly noticeable, not yet, but he knew my body well. He had examined almost every part of it over the past several months, with his hands and his mouth both.
Agrippa did not speak. His face was still, his gaze shuttered.
I did not say a word either. The next move was his.
Slowly, almost as if he was walking in a dream, Agrippa made his way toward me. He stopped just in front of me, close enough that I could clearly see when he swallowed. Then, still not speaking, he reached out and placed his hand on the center of my chest, just above my breasts.
He would be able to feel my heart beating, with his hand there.
His hand slowly drifted down to my stomach, resting on the slight roundness that was only just beginning to show. I met his gaze, not quite daring to breathe.
And then he smiled, a delighted smile that lit up his entire face. "You're—"
He trailed off, as if he couldn't say the words.
Hesitantly, hoping that I wasn't making a mistake, I smiled back at him. "Yes," I said simply, answering his unspoken question. "Yes."
Agrippa smiled at me, one of his hands reaching out to brush a few strands of hair out of my eyes.
"Bad dream?" he asked softly, his voice sounding loud in the stillness of the room.
I shook my head, not quite trusting my voice.
He furrowed his brow but didn't say anything else. Instead, he merely reached out to rest his hand on the swell of my stomach.
There was less than a month to go until our child would be born, and at times I felt like nothing more than a cow in a field. My body didn't quite feel like my own, with every movement I made taking more effort than I had ever thought possible.
Agrippa leaned forward to press a kiss to my forehead.
He must have known that my pregnancy had at least some tie to his being sent back to Egypt. We had never discussed it, neither of us wanting to put it into words, but he must have known. I had worried, all those months ago, that he would hold it against me—hold it against her—that he had been sent away from Caesar's side.
That worry was gone now, washed away by the devotion on his face as he held Demetria.
"She is perfect," Agrippa whispered, and I knew that his words were not meant for my ears. "Absolutely perfect."
Laying there in bed, watching Agrippa hold our daughter as if she was the most precious thing in the entire world, I knew that it was not truly love. Not yet. Still, there was something between us, a spark that had the potential to grow.
As he pressed his lips against Demetria's forehead, not a hint of a shame on his face, it was as if a thousand different possible futures sprang up in front of me. I could love him, if fate was willing to just give us enough time.
I could love him.
Both of us knew there was a good chance he would be asked to stay behind, to rejoin Caesar at his side. We had been given two years together. It would be selfish to ask for more.
And I had already been much more selfish than I should have been.
I reached down and rested a hand over my stomach. It had only been a month since I had a scare, my blood almost two weeks late before it had come on hard. It would not have been fair to him, not knowing that we would likely soon be parted, and it had been difficult to hide my relief. I hadn't wanted to have to make that decision, not again.
Two years. I had been given two years. I couldn't ask for more.
I closed my eyes, letting the rocking of the boat carry my mind away for a moment. I could feel a change coming, somewhere over the horizon, but I didn't know what it was. Not yet. Something was coming, though, that much I knew.
Babylon burned around me, like a funeral pier, as a great wave crested in the distance and threatened to engulf it. I sat astride a white horse, as a mountain exploded in the distance and fire fell from the sky, ravens flying through the air above me. Nine ships, painted black as the night, cut through familiar waves, as a bloody dagger spun in the air above them.
Then, suddenly, I stood on the edge of a cliff, looking down at a forest below me. A river meandered through the trees, and I was struck by the feeling that I had been there before. The wind blew through my hair, rustling it, as if someone was trying to get my attention. Without hesitation, I turned.
Isis stood beside me, not the young girl on the cusp of womanhood that I had seen in Bubastis all those years ago, but a woman my own age. She looked different, but I still knew that it was Her.
"He will have to make a decision," She said, and I thought that Her voice sounded sad, "as will you. The path is still open, but you must tread carefully."
"I don't understand," I told Her, shaking my head.
She smiled at me, and something moved in my chest. "You will."
I woke up in the early hours of the morning, just before dawn, gasping for breath as I tried desperately to push my dreams back down. It had been a long time since my dreams had come on so strongly, and I had no idea what it might mean.
I was alone in the bed. It took me a moment to remember that Agrippa was in the city proper, with Caesar. Where he belonged.
He will have to make a decision, as will you.
Shivering, despite the fact that it was not that cold, I wrapped my arms around my chest. I did not think I would get any more sleep that night.
I suspected that I would get much sleep for quite some time. Not until I understood.
Not until I knew that I'd made the right decision, whatever it might be.
The path is still open, but you must tread carefully.
In which the child born to Phoebe the Thracian beside the fountain in the Court of Birds was a boy rather than a girl.
I have always known that my mother had wanted to call me Charmian because of the joy she felt while she carried me in her womb. She had been convinced I would be a daughter, so that was the only name that she prepared.
She did not live long enough to know otherwise. She died beside the fountain in the Court of Birds, never knowing that the child she had given her life for was a son.
My name would have been Charmian, in another life. Instead, I was called Amyntas.
I would like to think that I was not treated any differently than my sisters, but I know that is not true. Even in Alexandria, with as many freedoms as she has, a man—or a boy—has more options than his sisters. I am ashamed to say that I did not truly notice, not at first, but as time passed it became clearer to me.
Apollodorus frowned when I told Cleopatra and Iras of the dreams that I had, but he did not say anything to me about them. I did not find out until later that he instead went to my sisters and told them not to encourage such superstitions, as it would make others look down on them.
I told Cleopatra that I would keep my dreams to myself in the future.
"No," she said firmly, a rebellious look on her face. "If your dreams come true, it is for a reason. I do not care what Apollodorus says."
"I do not want others to look down on you, sister," I told her gently.
Cleopatra glared at me. Or possibly it was at the world at large. "Let them try."
It was easy enough for Cleopatra to disguise herself as Iras in order to slip out, but a part of me knew that there was a reason Apollodorus insisted on her having guards around her at all times. I still thought it was unfair, just as she and Iras did, but a part of me understood.
That is why I did my best to protect her whenever we played The Game.
Looking back, I know that there wasn't any real danger just outside the palace. I was convinced at the time that I was the only thing keeping my sister safe during our excursions, though, not that I would ever had told her as much.
It made things easier, years later in Bubastis, that I had slipped so easily into that role.
When I heard Isis's whispered Now, I didn't hesitate.
"I am Cleopatra," my sister said, turning toward the man asking for her even as Iras started to step between them.
I flung myself between them, knocking both my sisters to the side as I got between the man and them. I felt the knife cut deep into my skin, my blood dripping to the ground like a sacrifice freely offered, and I didn't have a single regret.
Pharaoh studied me carefully, a thoughtful look on his face. "You seem familiar."
I lifted my eyes to his. "I am Amyntas, the son of Phoebe the Thracian, my Pharaoh, whom you may remember."
He nodded, his gaze not moving from me. "I do."
I thought for a moment he was going to say more, but he did not. Instead he studied me carefully for a moment, an unreadable expression on his face.
"I was told you took a knife for Cleopatra, while you were in Bubastis," he said suddenly.
A flash of surprise went through me, but I was careful not to let it show on my face. Instead, I nodded. "You were told correctly, my Pharaoh."
He met my gaze straight on. "Are you willing to die for her?"
"Of course," I said, startled. "She is my sister. I'm willing to do whatever it takes."
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a hint of surprise flash across Cleopatra's face as she glanced between Pharaoh and myself. It was only for a moment, not long enough for anyone else to notice, but I knew her well enough to see it clearly.
I was raised to be Cleopatra's consort three days later.
I expected that, if we both survived long enough, we would each find our own lovers. I could offer my sister that much, at least, a chance at freedom that she might not have had otherwise.
We were both aware that there needed to be an heir, preferably sooner rather than later. There were those who were not happy that Auletes had raised a son of the harem to rule at Cleopatra's side, despite the fact that he had come from similar beginnings. Our position was precipitous, and my sister knew it. A child would help strengthen it considerably.
But a child would also be a liability, depending on how things went. We had two brothers and a sister who stood to gain quite a lot if either of us were to be taken out of the picture. The time was not right, not yet.
Not with Rome hanging over us.
She was many things, but she would not be Berenice.
"An arranged marriage for Arsinoe would be best," Iras said quietly, as we discussed our options. "It would get her out of Egypt while gaining us political favor."
Cleopatra nodded, but she did not look happy. "I know," she agreed reluctantly. "I only wish she could have earned the favor of Gnaeus Pompeius. It would have made things much simpler."
"Or worse," I pointed out dryly, "if she convinced him to turn against us to put her into power."
"There is that," Cleopatra agreed, a hint of a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
I sat up in my bed, forcing myself to breathe steadily even as I felt my heart race in my chest. We had received news the evening before that Pompeius Magnus was on his way to Pelousion, and our talks had lasted late into the night as we discussed how best to handle his arrival. We could not afford to make an enemy of him, but at the same time we did not want to court the anger of Caesar either.
It was a thin line that we walked, growing ever thinner, and I could not see how it would end.
My mind wandered back to my dream, to the spinning sword and the wind through the world. I remembered the man that I had seen, who I had called to Egypt on the bones of who he had once been. Pompeius Magnus was not that man, of that I was certain, but I couldn't help but think that it was all related somehow. I just didn't know how.
We had a decision to make, and it had to be made soon. We did not have much time until Pompeius Magnus was in Egypt, and the decision had to be made whether to stand with him or against him. To attempt to find the money owed to him, so that he could continue his fight against Caesar, or to find another way. Another ally.
Killing him would probably have been the smartest thing we could do, but Iras thought that it would risk turning all of Rome against us. And I trusted my sister's research.
There was a great wind coming, blowing through the world as it had before and would again. The question was whether we would stand with it, with him, or if it would destroy us as so many others had been destroyed in the past.
It was all tied together, of that I was certain. Pompeius Magnus. Caesar. The spinning sword and the rushing wind.
Our fates depended on our decision. I knew it to be true. What I did not know was what decision would be the right one.
My world rested on a precipice. One wrong move was all it would take to send everything we had worked toward crashing down.
I had to be careful. We had to be careful.
Everything depended on it.