Chapters 1 - 3
South of Egypt on the northern borders of the desert land, Kush, was a white marbled temple built by Egyptians, refurbished by Greeks, and now lived in by Nubians, native dwellers of the land, and in that temple they worshiped the cow goddess, Weyzero Chekerit (or Moon Lady in their language,) for she was the white sun who guarded against the darkness and chaos of night. On her one hand was a spear and on the other a bundle of grain stalk. She had the gowned body of an Egyptian, but the head of a cow, for mortals were not worthy to see her face in this life. Only males consecrated into the temple – priests, acolytes, and devoted worshipers, who endured celibacy to the end, were permitted to see a divine beauty incomprehensible in the next life and join the heavenly harem.
It was in this priestly circle that Zer was born, for after his father was slain in a rebellion his mother vowed to live the rest of her life as temple matron so that her son wouldn’t follow in his footsteps. Everyday she would help the priests and acolytes offer up daily sacrifices of bulls to her lady’s marbled feet. The moment Zer’s life changed forever was such another day.
The morning started with the white-wearing acolytes gathering around a fresh sacrifice donated by the local village, leading the beast slowly into the temple room and beneath the feet of the great statue, bending its head over a golden bowl. The priest then said the usual rite of prayers in the Nubian language,
Oh great lady of the night, ever watchful over the darkness that creeps and solicits us to err, grant us, we beg thee, thy heavenly guidance that we may never stray from the path of purity, justice, and a life most pleasing to thy heart. With this sacrifice of the bull, we sincerely hope to attain yet again your faithful, unceasing charity!
The acolytes held the bull still as the priest gently slit its throat with a golden dagger, pouring blood. The animal panicked and pained but at this point the acolytes had firmly gripped it; there was no escaping its divine destiny. But something happened that no one intended - black blood spilled forth from the animal, staining the marbled feet of Weyzero Chekerit, causing the acolytes to hysteria.
‘May the gods preserve us!’ cried one. ‘A curse has befallen!’
The bull was shaking loose from their grip. The priest was greatly concerned it would break free and thus took hold of its horns before it could gore him. ‘Hold it down! Hold it down!’
A spear ran through the bull’s heart, killing it immediately. An ancient man was standing there in robes of pure white, holding the shaft. ‘Brothers! Brothers!’ said High Priest, Mekkonnen, blind as a bat. ‘There is no need to panic! The beast is simply tainted by plague; don’t offer it’s blood nor eat of its flesh, for the lady does not deserve this refuse!’
The matron, Beshadu, was watching over the scene with horror, but also wondered where her son was to miss such an occasion never mind the morning’s sacrifice.
Zer was still fast asleep in his quarters, uncaring and unworried at the priestly state of things. He’d spent his whole life in the temple always wondering about the greater world beyond where he assumed more exciting things happened. His father was a warrior and that influence in blood didn’t stop at him.
‘Wake up!’ Beshadu cried bursting into his room. ‘It is almost noon and yet you waste the day away!’
Zer pulled the sheets over his eyes. ‘Mother, the sacrifices went on till midnight! Surely, I can get more rest!’
‘No!’ She began pulling his leg out of bed. ‘You entered this life now you must die in it!’
’Mother, you put me in this life!’
‘Yes, I did! And that’s why you’re going to do as I say!’
The boy lazily fell upon the dusty floor still covering himself with his sheets. Beshadu went to the window and threw open the covers to let in the sweltering Kushite heat. ‘Rise and shine! The sun god says hello and so you ought to!’
‘Hello sun...’ mumbled Zer. ‘Now step aside and give me the moon.’
Finally at her wit’s end Beshadu took a bucket of water from the cleaning fonts at the temple entrance, went back in, and poured the sacred wash over his head, waking him entirely.
‘And with that!’ she proclaimed. ‘You are a new man in a new day! Now wake up! There’s sacrifices to be made!’
Another day of prayers, penance, and offerings were made by the villagers who came and left the temple. Zer was an acolyte so it was his duty to help fellow Nubians understand their religion as well as aiding priests with bulls come time for sacrifices. All temple officials wore white, washed often, and scrubbed the floors with rigid discipline. The days were long and peaceful and often smelled of incense.
When sunset came and the temple at last cleared of visitors Beshadu called her son over, ‘Zer!’
The young acolyte was still washing his hands from bull blood. ‘Yes, mother?!’
‘Mekkonnen wishes to see you! Out by the Nile! Go out and help him clean the tunics!’
Zer was already tuckered out from all the incessant cleaning he had to do around the place - now he had to clean tunics, too. It seemed that nothing ever happened in his life but cleaning and sacrifices. There were no risks, no adventure and, if Zer wanted to be frank, no excitement, either. He envied much the religions of the world beyond the Nile where gods bestowed heaven to men of action like warriors, conquerors, and heroes. Here everyone was a pacifist.
Now that Zer thought of it - wasn’t his father muc the same before he passed away?
The young Nubian went out to meet the high priest sitting before the long river, scrubbing clean tunics turned grey and black ones to a more moderate colour. ‘Ah, there you are, my boy! Come! Come! Sit with me!’
Zer was concerned this was going to be a lecture on his duties as of late; the boy had been shirking on his obligations to the priesthood, playing or sleeping about when he should’ve been sacrificing.
‘I came to talk to you about all the shirking you’ve been doing lately.’
The boy sighed. ‘Yes, High Priest?’
‘I told you before, Zer, outside the temple you need not be so formal. Anyway, I have gathered from the other acolytes you’ve been running off to the desert for the past few weeks now, returning back with game and forage. Why?’
Zer had to come clean with himself. ‘To be honest with you, Mekkonen, I find praying and fasting so difficult. I’d rather eat well and live out wild.’
The man snickered. ’You sound just like your father when he had to go offer sacrifices. Me and him used to say similar things when we were young, you know; so I guess I cannot blame you too much, for it is difficult to pray, and unless you pray for something relevant, you will not endure. The question, then, I want to ask, Zer, is - what do you want? What is relevant to you?’
‘I want to leave,’ the boy mumbled. ‘I want to be out there - in the world! Where all the empires clash and the great stories of heroes and men of stature are written! I want to be a part of something!’
‘But you are, are you not?’ He smiled. ‘You are here, praying for the welfare of others.’
‘It is not the same, elder! Here no one will notice me or hear my prayers for their sake. I will pass and fade from history and no one will ever know I existed!’
The old man sighed impatiently. ‘Then I’m afraid you have lost your focus, Zer.’ He pointed up to the sky. ‘What is the name of the sun god?’
‘Correct. And when Ra goes to sleep and the second sun takes his place, what is her name?’
He nodded. ‘They spin and they change, night and day, but always they are faithful to the eternal cycle. The empires you envy, Zer, they come and they go, but they are not faithful; when one dies, another takes its place. They all die, they all become history, but the sun and moon they spin forever - an eternal cycle.’
Zer thought about it awhile, still troubled.
‘Now tell me,’ Mekkonen said. ‘Which of these two are worth more pursuing?’
‘The heavens,’ the boy grumbled.
‘Correct. But I can tell you are not honest.’
Zer looked upon the Nile, trying to repress his frustration. Mekkonen sighed and threw his arm over him.
‘Look, my boy, I do not blame you too much for rebelling against the talks of an old man; when the children grow old they become brave, hungry, ambitious, just like the conquerors of the world. You are young, verile, and you want to have as many children as there is hair on your head!’
‘Elder!’ Zer was baffled.
‘It is only natural.’ He smirked. ‘You were born that way, as was all before you, as will all after you.’
‘Then… what can I do?’
‘You endure.’ The man turned serious. ’You say no to those passions that would chain anyone else. You turn to your lusts, your pride, your will to dominate and you simply say, No, I am the master here, not you!’
Zer thought on it awhile. Perhaps someone like Mekkonen could do that easily, but not him. ‘And what will I do,’ said the unruly acolyte, ’if I become weak? If I can’t say no to my passions?’
He grinned. ‘Then you simply pray.’
Later that night Zer prayed his vows of chastity to Weyzero Chekerit, to the moon outside his window, as all the acolytes and priests did before bed,
Oh, great lady of the seas and stars grant me steadfastness in my endurance, make me faithful by thee to whatever end thy plan for my steps. Grant me succour which no worldly doctor can offer and, at last, grant me purity white as pearls so I can give them to thee on the day of the heavenly harem as your unworthy husband.
He blew out his lamp and went to sleep, perhaps a little more renewed in his faith or perhaps a little more troubled - he did not know which, but he had to endure, regardless.
All was black until a great light appeared at the end of the tunnel. Zer ran to it unsure of what was going on but all the more frightful that if he remained in the darkness, something unimaginably more terrifying would eat him up.
A horseman stood on the other end wearing ragged black robes with a belt of skulls reachingbeneath his saddle. He was tall of stature with a broad build and a large, turbaned head. On a closer look, he had no skin; merely bones without even eyes to fill his holes. One half of his face was chipped by a long slash. He turned to the Nubian and grinned, saying only one thing in a language Zer did not understand,
‘انظر في الانعكاس’
The dream cut to a line of men; warriors, conquerors, and vagabonds all, each baggy in robe and wearing the skulls of their enemies beneath their saddles, as vicious and skinless as the first. They went out into the world, into civilisations far and wide - some the Nubian even couldn’t fathom - and set fire to them by arrows from their small, bent bows.
All died. All faded. This was the fate of the world.
Zer awoke in sweat and filth; not even the coldness of his still-wet sheets could cool his skin. From the sound of crickets in the reeds of the Nile outside his window he could tell it was still evening.
Lighting his lamp, he hastily got off bed and walked down to the temple main room to quickly pray before the marbled statue of Weyzero Chekerit, hoping to get a clear answer for this disturbance, something to discern - but found Mekkonen prostrated there, instead.
The blind man picked up the familiar scent. ‘Zer, is that you?’
‘Yes, High Priest.’
‘No one is here, boy. You can call me as I am.’
‘You are troubled. You usually say something cheeky by now. Is this still about the shirking?’
‘No, Mekkonen, it’s… it’s about a dream.’
‘Yes, I had a - nightmare of sorts. About a man in long robes and a line of men that came after him; a lineage, I think… and-!’
‘Did he say those strange words, as well?’
Zer looked at him, astonished. ‘How did you know?!’
The elder groaned as he struggled to rise on his feet. ‘Because I, too, had that dream.’
He nodded. ‘This is no ordinary nightmare. The fact that we both had it is a sign from Weyzero Chekerit that we are being called to prevent something serious. I did not recognise that man. You?’
‘Then our task is known. I must also ask, Zer; did this man face you directly in the dream?’
‘Yes.’ The teen was disturbed. ‘He was right in front of me.’
‘Then this is your task, after all, for I only saw his back. Weyzero Chekerit has given this mission to you alone - you must be ready to go out by morning.’
‘What?! And go where?!’
‘There are diviners in Egypt you ought to see, old friends of mine. They will tell you all you need to know to interpret this vision. They might be the only ones who can. I will give you a couple of drachmas to pay for whatever food and board you need for the journey, but please be frugal.’
‘Whoa! Whoa!’ The boy put his hands in the air. ‘This is all too much!’
’Weyzero Chekerit never has to make things easy; they simply are. Your task is to follow what’s been laid in front of you. Once you’ve got their interpretation, follow their instructions to - the - letter! And do not speak of this to anyone unless the diviners tell you to. Do you understand?’
‘Y-Yes, Mekkonen.’ He bowed his head.
‘Good. Then tomorrow you shall take the boat that we alway keep by the Nile and you shall row it all the way north to the city of Alexandria. You will find the diviners in the Temple of Horus not too far from the palace. The rest, then - will be up to you.’
When morning came Beshadu was already out by the docks, a bag of essentials at her feet. Zer was dressed in a fine white tunic that covered up to his elbows and down to his knees, belted by leather made from the sacred bulls. He wore Mekkonen’s trusty sandals, a simple blue cloth on his head, and carried with him his father’s old bow; he thought he’d need something should he meet bandits along the way.
‘It’s time for you to leave us, boy,’ said Mekkonen. ‘But know that as long as Weyzero Chekerit is with you, we will be with you in prayer.’
‘Elder.’ Zer shook his hand.
‘I told you before, as I tell you now, out here there is no need to be formal with me.’ He grinned. Zer did the same.
‘So... this is it, then? Any last advice on this dream business?’
’Do not kill anyone!’ he said quickly. ‘Violence, when taken out of self-defence or defence of others, can quickly become a delicious poison; you will enjoy it, be proud of it, and eventually be killed by it like your father before you - like almost I. If you should find that man in your dreams, do all in your power to convince him from the path he will take. If he learns violence from you, then you will most assuredly set down the path for him in return, and the world will suffer.’
‘And what should I do if I get lost? If I don’t know what to do next?’
The old man smiled and patted his shoulder. ‘You will be fine. The diviners will know what to say and Weyzero Chekerit will always be with you. Always. Pray for her guidance and pray for it often, for two lovers can never grow in closeness if they never speak to each other. So pray and pray often.’
‘Good. It pains me that you must part like this. I had wished you’d become a priest as your mother asked me to make you, but I see Weyzero Chekerit has other plans. And what am I to come between a god and her wishes? Good fortunes to you, Zer. The world is ready for you now; go forth and evangelize!’
The boy hugged him and went on slowly to his mother at the end of the dock - she couldn’t be faster with her embrace.
‘You come back here, do you understand?!’
’If you run into any trouble - anything at all - you come straight back to me quickly, okay?!’
She took hold of his face, brushing aside the locks of his long, dark hair. ‘Oh, my son… my sweet, precious babe… I had almost forgotten you were so big! It seemed only yesterday you were still suckling from my teats like a fat child!’
‘Mother!’ Zer exclaimed. She repeatedly kissed his cheek and hugged him again, tight as a cobra.
‘Please come back, cricket… Be safe out there!’
He sighed. ‘Yes, mother.’
After stepping into the small boat, Zer finally went up the Nile, rowing his long oar by himself. There was no great procession to honour him; just the respectful silence from all the priests, acolytes, and matrons of the temple waving goodbye. Zer thought - though maybe it was a grim thought, indeed - that it would be the last he’d see of them. He didn’t want to think that way, of course; he wanted to assume that this was a short trip; that he’d be back at the end of the week with a basket of fruits or maybe a jar of wine in celebration of a quick fetch task.
But he waved back as if it was, anyway.
Zer rowed all the way up the river for days only making stops to buy bread and goat cheese from passing merchants on the banks. When he needed sleep he simply landed on the shore and kept in his boat, hoping in constant dread he never nestled by crocodiles or a gathering of bandits looking for easy pickings. After another day of rowing the sight of the pyramids came into view - it was a sign that he’d finally arrived in the eternal lands of Egypt and that, though it was quite a few more days away, at least the trip to Alexandria was surer from then on.
He heard a scream.
‘Someone! Someone please help!’ cried a woman; the Nubian rowed as quickly as his skinny arms could take him and came upon a section of the Nile closely choked by reeds on both sides. He discovered from a few metres down, the scene of a robbery - a boat of two men and a veiled woman were surrounded by camel archers in baggy desert wear on the banks speaking in strange tongues that Zer couldn’t understand though eerily sounded close to the man from his dream…
The boy hastily strung his father’s bow hoping not to use it, but was realistic all the same.
The bandits shot the men where they stood like helpless lambs. Zer, raised all his life in the peace and tranquility of the temple, was at such a loss for words that men would kill each other like this that he froze in place. When the robbers finally turned towards the woman, the Nubian’s protective instinct couldn’t wait any longer - and he shot one of the riders from behind, piercing his heart.
Even Zer couldn’t believe what he’d just done as the man fell into the water. The other riders saw this and, seeing the Nubian by himself, turned their bows on him. Zer jumped into the Nile to dodge the arrows, swimming as deep as possible to avoid shots. The brigands were well-trained with their weapons but not even the fastest arrow can pierce the blue. Zer took out a missile from his quiver and put it in his mouth, swimming back up for air.
The Nubian came out the right bank using the reeds for cover, and then when he emerged out of a split formation in the shrubbery, he had already drawn his bow before the bandits expected it- and shot another raider off his camel.
The four remaining brigands didn’t want to risk any more to this endeavour and retreated with what they had; a few ornaments of gold they took from the men they murdered, flying back to the deserts and foothills. The Nubian was surprised by what he shouldn’t have accomplished and exhaled a great breath of relief. He turned to find the woman still unhurt in her longboat; Egyptian rafts could stretch up to thirty meters when they went to war; this small one looked to be a leisurely cruise. ’Are you okay?’ he spoke to her in Egyptian; acolytes werewell-trained and well-groomed to cultural linguistics as one would never know if he had Egyptian, Greek, or Roman converts in their faith.
‘I’m fine,’ replied the veiled woman. By her white gown and finery she almost seemed like a noble of Ptolemy’s court, the current ruler of Egypt. ‘Though I do think they may try to come back.’
She’s right. Even if they had already filled their treasure hoards she is still a very young woman.
‘What is your name?’ said the Nubian.
‘Patra,’ the woman spoke holding her hands over her eyes. The sun rose behind Zer. ’But for you, my saviour, I’ll allow Cleopatra for now.’
‘Cleopatra?’ He smiled. ‘Like the Queen?’
‘Yes.’ She smirked. ‘Like the Queen. Yours?’
The sun shone all the brighter.
‘I am Zer! Zer Of Nubia!’
The Nubian and the so-called Egyptian queen sailed up the Nile towards Alexandria. Zer rowed while Cleopatra painted her eyes under her veil to a fine blue tint, leaning against a cotton rug - one of the only things not stolen by the brigands.
‘Why do you not row?’ Zer asked.
‘Because, my dear saviour,’ she said focused with a mirror, ‘I have more grave matters to attend. Besides you are the man; you were made by the gods for labour. We women are small, delicate things, and as such we must accommodate our tenderness, no?’
Zer almost forgot he wasn’t in the temple anymore; he was so used to seeing turbaned old women like his mother tending to wash altars and sing praises of glory during sacrifices, none of whom had any real concern for beauty or appearances. Not even the local village girls were as finely pampered as this one.
‘Tell me something, boy, why were you coming down the Nile by yourself, anyway? Are you a fisherman?’
‘No, my lady, I’m an acolyte. I was going to Alexandria because I have important business with - with someone important.’
‘Hmm, is that so?’
Zer understood she was only doing small talk; it still didn’t make it any less awkward for him who was now suddenly speaking two feet away from a fine beauty only twenty-two in years; just four older than he.
‘Nubian. Do you think I am beautiful?’
The question caught him by surprise. ‘What?!’
He turned around to see her face had been unveiled - a natural beauty slightly tanned in appearance looked back with an eager smile, heavy in makeup but still appealing in its courtliness, hair red as flame.
‘Yes,’ he spoke a little scared. ‘You... are.’
The Queen giggled and threw herself back on the rug. ‘That is good, then! My job is already half-way done!’
The Nubian thought of what she meant by that, pondering what heavy makeup might mean for a woman - then came to an unsavoury conclusion.
‘My lady do not tell me you are a… a woman of the night, are you?’
‘No!’ she cried aloud. ‘Of course not! The nerve of you, little man, to call me such! Be thankful that I am in a gracious mood and not have you flogged for insulting defamations!’
Why does she talk to me in this way?Is she really nobility?
‘My lady are you really of noble stock?’
Cleopatra threw her eyes to the sky and let off a tired breath. ‘My saviour you may be well-accustomed to combat but I see common sense is not your creed.’
‘What do you mean?’
The Queen looked at him with a glare and then speared her hands up to show golden bracelets and jewellery that didn’t seem there before. The Nubian’s eyes split open with awe.
‘Where did you get those?!’
‘Born with them.’ She grinned. ‘I told you before, Nubian - I am Cleopatra, the queen and ruler of all Egypt, the Nile, and all its constituents. Of the Ptolemy dynasty if you must know although I plan to change that very soon.’
Even now Zer found it hard to believe that somehow, out of some dumb luck or unusual providence, he ended up ferrying one of the most powerful rulers on earth - and just days after leaving home, too.
Or maybe she was just ill of mind?
‘Look, my lady - whoever you are, truly; I only mean to go to the Temple of Horus and move on from Alexandria. Whatever business you do have is yours alone.’
‘Very well,’ she said dismissively. ‘I do not fancy much small talk, anyway.’
The day went on without much banter. At times Zer’s arms would ache from constantly rowing and they simply had to stop and let the sun bathe them as he rested.
‘Ah, you worthless commoner!’ she cried. ‘I am scorching now because of your laziness!’
‘Allow me a moment’s rest,’ puffed the Nubian by the boat’s ridge. ‘I shall only be a while longer. If you want you can take the oar for awhile.’
‘I am the most powerful woman on earth, little man! I do not row for any commoner nor toil trouble too meagre of my stature!’
‘Then I’m afraid, my lady, you will simply continue to scorch otherwise.’
‘Stupid little man!’
They would row the Nile for nine more days in this fashion. When they could stop to rest their tongues it was only to eat or sleep and that wasn’t often considering the beasts of the water, the hippos and crocodiles, were growing in number as they got closer to the great city.
‘Are you sure we’re almost to Alexandria?’ said the queen.
‘Yes, Your Majesty. According to this merchant’s map it should just be a day’s row from here and we’ll be seeing the sandy walls of that ancient city.’
‘Oh, thank the gods! And here I thought to spend a moment longer on this accursed boat!’
‘It has indeed been quite an experience.’ The Nubian grinned.
‘And what did you mean by that, little man?!’
’Why can you not call me saviour like you used to? I do not favour these new terms.’
‘Well it is what you deserve, Nubian! Oh, how I have planned your execution with bated breath! I shall see your head spiked atop the highest pyramid when we get there! You’ll see!’
Zer thought to retort but knew one of the greatest feats in a strong man was the ability to hold his tongue.
When the two finally reached the ports of the palace docks as Cleopatra ordered him they snuck crate by crate through the cargo drop area where Roman ships were anchored. Patrols came and went but Zer had a good eye for detail when it came to prey.
‘Wait why are we avoiding the Romans again?’ he whispered.
‘Just be quiet and get me into the palace unnoticed, Nubian! There are matters more important than you right now!’
It astonished Zer he had gotten this far without leaving the girl to herself, but, alas, even as incompatible as they were, a face like hers knew how to keep asking for help. He hated that he was so weak.
‘This way,’ he said. Cleopatra followed closely behind. The two got past the docking area and into the palace halls. Cleopatra had the Nubian carry the large cotton rug the whole time - her plan to capture the Roman general living there who went by the name Julius Caesar.
‘You roll me up in this thing,’ she whispered to Zer.
‘Just do it! It is not your plan but mine!’
‘Very well… then what?’
’You sneak into Caesar’s quarters. He gathers at noon to rest if my spies have it right. And when you see him in his quarters you will announce, By the order of Her Majesty I present to thee, o great Caesar - Cleopatra, sister of Ptolemy and Queen of Egypt!’
‘And what about you?!’ said Zer. ‘I put you in this rug?!’
‘You just set me down, roll me out, and close the door behind you. The rest I will handle from there.’
The Nubian didn’t know what to trust but had gotten this far; all he could do now was see it through. ‘Ok, then.’
‘Oh, and here,’ she said, handing him one of her golden bracelets. ‘For your work, Zer; I couldn’t have done this without you.’
She kissed his cheek and rolled herself with the carpet. Even now the Nubian was stuck in place - she had remembered his name.
‘Hurry up!’ she hissed.
Picking up the rug, the boy snuck about the halls till he found the room where Ceaser apparently stayed in. Letting off a nervous breath he opened the door, scaring a middle aged Roman on the other side.
’And who are you?!’ he spoke in Latin.
Zer, trying to recall his days of linguistic studies, summoned as best he could his knowledge of the Roman tongue. ‘By the order of Her Majesty I present to thee, o great Caesar - Cleopatra, sister of Ptolemy and Queen of Egypt!’
He rolled down the cotton rug and out came Cleopatra like a charmed snake, rising up as if from a box. The man whom Cleopatra named Caesar looked impressed, setting down his goblet of wine on a table. And with that the Nubian’s quest was done and he showed himself out the door to let the couple be. He walked out to a balcony from the palace heights and there he saw the wondrous view of ancient Alexandria: sandstone structures, long harbours, hieroglyphs to every wall, and a bustling trade market with people from all over the known world exchanging exotic goods and spices to the shingle of drachmas. He was finally in Egypt. The true Egypt.
In the abundance of the marketplace he forgot about going to the Temple of Horus and was distracted by all the wares he could buy with his shiny new bracelet. He sold it for a hefty price of a hundred drachma from some Greeks and made his way down the stalls looking for luxurious goods and things to take home.
He sat down and ate a banquet in honour of his great work rowing here and for once, as the cool sea breeze splashed upon his oily face stuffed with sweet pork, he thought life was good and that nothing wrong could happen.
‘Death to Rome!’ said an Egyptian from the crowds. ‘Death to Caesar!’
People started running for their lives as a mob of thugs suddenly formed from beyond the square. Zer looked out past his table to see men approaching the palace steps with swords, spears, and clubs. Thinking of Cleopatra he quickly ran back the way he came from.
The palace walls was besieged on all sides by rioters sparked from a vengeful Ptolemy hearing that his sister was now accompanying Caesar as he ordered not to. Romans and Egyptians battled for supremacy on the heights of the barrier; the locals had their number but the Romans had their armour and discipline, pushing off the constant hordes trying to scale the walls of their compound. Zer looked about the palace ground for what happened to his Queen, convinced the worst had already happened. At the last moment he spotted Cleopatra about to enter the throne room with the Roman man he saw before, escorted by legionaries and Egyptian royals alike.
‘My lady!’ he shouted.
The guards put their hands to their scabbards. Cleopatra turned to see her Nubian with surprise. ‘Zer?! I had thought you had gone already! Well thank the gods you’re safe!’
‘And you my lady.’ He smiled.
‘Is this your bodyguard my queen?’ said Caesar.
Zer thought to say, ‘no.’
‘Yes,’ said Cleopatra. ‘He’s with me. Come Nubian, let us be to shelter.’
The boy didn’t know what else to do so he followed her inside - worrying ever more for the fate of those diviners at the temple. Unbeknownst to him however he would be stuck in that palace for the rest of the year as the riots persisted.
The trip down the Nile was quiet and thoughtful, Zer remembered. Night had fallen and the crickets were off to their usual beat. Even though the two liked to bicker, they still found time to just lay back and hear chirping.
‘Say, Nubian…’ Cleopatra was curious. ‘Have you ever been with a woman?’
‘Are you making fun of my virginity again?’
She sighed. ‘No! Not if you tell me.’
‘No, I haven’t been. Holy men don’t engage in earthly affairs.’
‘Are you sure? I’m sure there are religions out there that allow such things.’
‘Well, not mine. We have been told to keep our purity to ourselves till the day we expire.’
‘Because we have reserved ourselves for an eternal prize, a woman of exceeding beauty in the heavens.’
‘It sounds rather counterproductive; can you not find a pretty woman right now in this life?’
‘Yes, but none of them ar as beautiful.’
‘So? You will still get beauty nonetheless, and better yet that you do not have to stick to only one woman; you can have many kinds of beauties right here and now.’
‘But, I’m afraid, my lady, it’s not that simple. What you speak off are physical relationships. Nights by a woman’s side. Our lady Weyzero Chekerit is much more than that and our relationship to her is spoken deeper than just bonds in flesh.’
‘Then… who is she?’
Zer looked up to the heavens. ‘She is joy itself. Love itself. She did not make joy nor love - that credit belongs to the gods higher her station - but she is the bearer of their fruits nonetheless. Many people say that the moon is a second sun as potent as the first but one sight would prove them wrong for our eyes can look upon the moon but not the sun.’
‘And? What does that have to do with anything?’
‘Everything. We cannot be like the sun. Our sight is unworthy to look upon it. It is perfection, itself, but, we, as humans, are not perfect. We fall to temptations, to our anger, to our lusts, to pride, and it happens too often. We can never be perfect. But, in the gods’ strange plans, they allowed Weyzero Chekerit to be bor . She is not as high as they are for she was simply made to be the anchor for us to climb. Her at the sea of chaos we call earth we cannot swim up with heavenly gills, for we do not have them. But, through her, we can climb.’
Cleopatra thought on it.
’In short, Weyzero Chekerit is the moon, the little handmaiden of Ra. She is not as great and without the golden rays of Ra she herself cannot shine, but because she is not as great we can see her. We can see heaven.’
‘But that does not answer my question,’ she sai . ‘Why reserve yourself for her beauty when you could have beauty right here on earth?’
‘Because here all things die, my lady. They grow old. They wither away. And whatever beauty they did have passes with age. True, you could have many beauties here and now, but if you wait just a little - for in comparison to eternity this life is but a moment - you could have an eternal beauty that never expires. Far greater than anything this world can flaunt.’
The queen snickered. ‘And here I thought you were a pure man, Nubian! I see it was about physical relationships, after all!’
‘In truth,’ Zer said, keeping serious, ‘we do not know much about what happens in heaven - at least I don’t, but I know for sur only gods can give birth to other gods; we mortals are only but patrons and handmaidens to them if we are fortunate.’
‘And do you think about it?’
‘Being with Weyzero Chekerit?’ she spoke slyly. ‘Even a boy your age must have some imagination.’
The Nubian smiled. ‘I’ve been tempted to. But if a lady of purity expects us to be pure how can we betray her even with thoughts to her honour?’
‘Well, you never know - it might help with the loyalty.’
‘No,’ he said, smirking. ‘She is a lady of purity and so we must be pure ourselves. That is the only way we can honour her.’
‘And what about those who have children right here on earth? Will they fall to hades for fulfilling what their bodies were made to do?’
‘I do not know much about the fates of common men; I tend to focus on the consecrate , but, as I understand it, as long as they do their duty to the gods they ca rise to the heavens with us.’
Cleopatra immediately rose from her place and, surprising the Nubian, leaned two soft hands upon the shoulders of the sitting man.
‘Then let us do it, right here.’
‘Right here?! But we are in the Nile!’
‘It is night. No one will see.’
‘But what about the crocodiles and the hippos?!’
‘I am a goddess, Nubian, why should they hurt their lady? And that’s another thing - why wait for a hundred years for a god you may never receive when you can have a sure happiness right now in this boat? How many men can claim they’ve been with a goddess?’ She snickered.
Her dark pupils caught the Nubian’s eyes; he couldn’t help but stare deep into them, caught in their swirling vortexes, and how couldn’t he? A coyness like that deserved to be conquered.
The crickets chirped. The water lay still. A cock crowed.
Zer realised he was more perverted than he thought, and turned away. ‘No, I am sorry. I cannot do this.’
‘Oh?’ She stroked his cheek. ‘Are you sure? You may never get a chance like this again.’
Zer was embarrassed enough he thought of her that way, now he was thoroughly sure he didn’t want further temptations. ‘My lady, if you continue this conduct I shall jump into the river. Please cease.’
Cleopatra’s face turned to disappointment. ’And what about, Doing your duty to the gods? As long as you continue in my service, Nubian, you can still go to heaven afterwards.’
‘Again, my lady, I cannot. I was promised to Weyzero Chekerit and no one else.’
Finding no more reason to keep going, Cleopatra went back to the other end of the boat and leaned upon her rug. ‘Suit yourself, bore. I was only playing games, anyway.’
Zer wouldn’t get much sleep for the rest of that night. If they hadn’t continued their usual bickering the morning after, he probably would have left her out of anxiety. To this day he’d never forget the way he thought of her, nor of those dark, vivacious eyes.
The palace was in shakes as the fighting continued outside. Guards were posted at every door in the hopes that sly murderers wouldn’t find their way in. Cleopatra nestled on her throne trying to contemplate the situation as Julius Caesar planned with his men on a war table across the room. Zer stayed by her side armoured with a vest usually given to charioteers, a scaly leather hauberk coated with bronze, making him shine out as if golden.
‘Tell me something, Nubian,’
‘Why didn’t you take me up for my offer back then?’
Zer choked. ‘Oh, this again?’
‘Nothing of import is happening right now. I might as well dally the time with your ramblings. So, why the boldness to refuse a queen? I could have had you killed, you know.’
‘I know, but it wouldn’t have moved me all the same.’
‘Because I didn’t have any guards back then?’
‘Because I’ll die first before I give up my sacred virginity.’
‘You and this virginity thing is getting old fast.’
The Nubian again held his tongue. Times like this reminded him of his talks with Mekkonen way back when he was twelve still learning how to fish.
‘Come on, boy! Even your mother knew this before you did! Cast your net! Cast your net!’
‘Well, I am not her! This is dull!’
‘Dull won’t matter when you’re starving!’
The two sat down by the Nile after having caught some fish with Mekkonen’s help. He put them through a stick and had them suspended over a bonfire giving one to Zer and one for himself. The two ate as they listened to the crickets.
‘What was she like?’ Zer asked suddenly. ‘Mother before father met her?’
‘She was... a small and humble woman.’ Mekkonen smirked. ‘To say the least. She knew what was practical and what wasn’t; which is probably why she resisted your father’s stubborn advances at first; the man only wanted one night’s embrace but she knew she had more dignity than that.’
‘What is being humble, elder?’
‘Being humble?’ The aged man looked puzzled for a moment; he looked out to the desert for an example. ’Being humble…. It is the strongest virtue. The best in all the world. Some say being humble is weak, cowardly, for the effeminate, but I tell you, little Zer, there is no greater strength! Humility is seeing things as they really are. It is not about boasting how much work one has done or how many virtues one possesses. No. Humility is standing before the gods and saying, Oh, gods of the seas and skies. I am but human. I am but man. I am not perfect; I am not like thou. Please bestow upon me thy graces that I may always be acceptable to thy loving eyes until, if thoust’ allow it, I am like thee.’
The Nubian child looked at him, confused. ‘So it is about long prayers?’
Mekkonen laughed. ’I suppose… But not always. It is about praying however. Always praying. Even if you do fall and, I don’t know any man who doesn’t, the worst thing you can do is stop praying. Only then, truly, Zer, will you be lost; will you become proud. And pride is the ugliest thing in the world. The most deluded thing in the world. The most pitiful thing in the world.’
‘How can I not be proud, then?’
‘Well, a very good exercise would be not to have the last word in an argument - unless you really have to. The point is not to dominate the other person for pride’s sake. It only shows inner weakness. Those who cannot conquer themselves within will turn outwardly to conquer others.’
With this in mind Zer in the present day made sure to take all the abuses from Cleopatra’s tongue with fervour, if only to exercise against the strength of his own pride. And with that he was satisfied even as she kept on probing.
Months passed by in the palace without much going on. The riot still ensued outside and Zer, still ever noble, stuck by Cleopatra’s side when Julius Caesar went out to gather his men. The two bloodthirsty royals had been having a good relationship just as Zer knew they would but his primary concern for now was figuring out where to go next with his dream.
After knowing Cleopatra long enough and realizing she could be trusted, Zer confided in her. She offered him her court magicians to interpret his nightmare, but none could, and thus Zer waded about in complete hopelessness of ever accomplishing his heavenly task. What little hope he did have was across the palace walls on the other side of the city but smoke climbed up the temple roof ever since that dreadful day, making the Nubian ever more anxious of the diviners’ fates.
On one hot day Cleopatra grew very bored as Caesar was out again and decided to test the Nubian’s adorable resolve; she dressed in a long red gown and ate fruit as she lounged on a couch by herself beside her bedroom window. The sun was at its hottest and all the other servants went out to have their baths.
‘Nubian!’ she called.
The boy appeared in armour and sweat. ‘Yes, my lady?’
‘Bring me a frond. Fan this heat off will you?’
After fetching what she wanted he stood there waving the big gentle leaf over her, sweltering all the while on his own.
‘You’re thinking about it aren’t you?’ she said.
‘About the fan. It is terribly hot isn’t it?’
‘Yes my lady.’
She looked up at him with flirtatious eyes. ’Is that all you thought about?’
‘What else would I think my lady?’ The Nubian was cautious now; when she started speaking in that tone he remembered so long ago, he knew something bad would come. Cleopatra gazed up at him; his face was upside down from hers as she lay on the couch.
‘Caesar will be gone awhile with his men,’ she said. ‘They won’t be back till evening.’
‘Yes I heard. He means to take the lighthouse across Alexandria.’
‘Exactly.’ She stretched up her hands over his cheeks. ‘Come here.’
The Nubian immediately looked away. ‘You know I cannot.’
‘Why? It is only one small moment. One time and then you can go back to your Weyzer-whatever and ask for forgiveness. She is a good god yes? I’m sure she’ll understand. Men have urges and it is only natural to use them.’
‘It is my lady. It is. But vows are vows also.’
‘If I asked you to vow to me that you’d take hold of the sun and bring it into the palm of my hand would you do it?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘That is impossible.’
She stood up from her place and again leaned her hands upon his shoulders. ‘Then how can you keep a vow as impossible as chastity? You cannot seriously believe you will never use your seeds do you? Even at night I bet impure thoughts creep at your slumber.’
‘They do. But I didn’t choose them; no man can, so how can I be at fault before Weyzero Chekerit?’
Desperate now Cleopatra took hold of his hand. ‘And what if I told you this was an order? That I’d have you killed if you didn’t comply with my command? Surely Weyzero Chekerit wouldn’t want her most noble acolyte to die so needlessly, correct?’
‘If a goddess is purity itself then there can be no contradiction from her followers, even in death. She is not a goddess of purity only when it is convenient; she is purity now. Purity tomorrow. And purity forever. If you kill me my lady all you will do is send me to her arms as a man who upheld her honour.’
‘You really are a stubborn one aren’t you? How many men can claim they’ve bedded with Cleopatra of Egypt?’ She smirked.
‘You could be Apordite herself my lady but the point is I have been promised to Weyzero Chekerit and only to her shall I surrender.’
‘Fine!’ Cleopatra stormed out. ‘You can forget about wearing that armour, then! I release you from my service! Starve for all I care! You are no better than a slave!’
The door closed before him and, Zer, tired and almost at his wit’s end, barely collapsed from the anxiety - he had passed another temptation, seriously having considered jumping out the window if things had gotten worse. But worse yet his resolve was getting weaker. If he was seriously tempted one more time he may even consider giving in.
The year was coming to its end. The rioters were starting to depart as news of Caesar’s reinforcements from the sea were about to arrive. The Romans in the palace were gearing up to meet their comrades and, hopefully, as Caesar had been planning for a while now, meet the Pharaoh, Ptolemy, at the Nile for battle.
’Nubian,’ he said in amateur Egyptian. ’Are you ready to go out with us?’
‘I’m afraid this is where my service to the Queen ends honorable Caesar. I have more pressing matters to attend to.’
‘A shame. I hear you Nubians are talented archers.’
‘Some of the best.’ He smiled. ’Land of the Bow the Egyptians call my country, Nubia. Next to the Cretans in Greece we’re some of the finest marksmen in the known world.’
‘All the greater loss for us, then,’ said Caesar. He patted the Nubian’s shoulders. ‘Safe travels with you.’ He turned down the palace hall to his second hand man, Marcus Antonius, and marched out with his Roman legionnaires for the Nile.
‘And here I thought you two would never get along,’ said Cleopatra skulking out of the shadows. Zer bowed.
‘No need to be so formal.’ She waved her hand. ‘Besides I haven’t earned it.’
‘With the way I’ve been treating you lately that is; it is hardly fitting for a queen to act this way to her subjects.’
‘That matters not. You are my queen regardless.’
‘Why do you say that? Why do you call me queen in good terms yet would never say the same of your Pharao, Ptolemy? Is he not yours to honour as well?’
‘He is, Your Majesty. But he is not to whom I speak right now.’
The woman smiled and closed the distance between them. ‘Then who do you choose? Me or Ptolemy? Caesar already made up his mind long ago. What about you?’
’To be honest my lady I do not know enough of the political situation. As a priestly figure we focus on more heavenly things - but, if there is one thing we could contribute to the earthly situation - is that peace is almost always favourable to war.’
‘That doesn’t sound very enlightening or new.’
‘If advice sounds tired and old to the ears my lady that’s probably because it works.’
She grinned. ’Well I guess this is it, then. Youhave to leave; for sure this time, right?
‘I have been shirking my duties for far too long now my lady. I can only hope those diviners are still working at the temple.’
‘Well listen if you should ever turn to divine help again, you can always come back here.’
‘Thanks but I’m afraid I’ve already tried all the magics your court has to offer.’ While Zer spoke truth there was a deeper motive tohis response: he was afraid of her, of Cleopatra, that she’d eventually win him over if he stayed long enough. It was not so much her that he was afraid of but what he could do.
‘Then what about trying things with the magi?’ she said.
‘Yes.’ She snickered. ‘In Parthia silly man. There are wise men there trained to interpret dreams and give advice to the Persian King. If you go to them, maybe pledge to learn their ways, they might give you the answers you seek. Hey maybe even adopt you to their ranks, the poor things.’
Zer laughed. Even now the Nubian couldn’t help but be impressed at her resourcefulness. ‘I shall consider it my lady.’
‘Then… will I see you again?’
Zer looked into her eyes; they didn’t seem to target him this time, more neutral, affectionate, true.
‘Probably never,’ said the Nubian solemnly.
‘You know,’ she said. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever met a man who didn’t want something I could give. Now that I recall it I don’t remember one instance when you asked something from me. Why?’
Zer bowed as proudly as one was allowed to be proud and still be holy. ‘Because we are priests my lady. We serve the soul not our bodies. Our reward is ultimately not here. It is up there.’ He pointed.
There was a moment before Zer snickered and she did too. With one last gentle look the Nubian said, ‘Goodbye my lady.’
When she saw at last the Nubian’s back finally go down the hallway the last thing Cleopatra could muster was a sad whisper, ‘Goodbye Zer.’