I remember the first time the Lord of the Red Land came to me and whispered in my dreams with the breath of an airless desert wind pressing against the waters of the Nile. I remember the rumble of his voice in the back of his throat, reminding me that he is also the lord of thunder and of the wild desert storms. He was so unknowable, though I knew enough to recognize him for who he was — young as I was. Though even now, so many years later, I struggle to put it into words. As with many things that happen in dreams, the harder one works to pin them into place, the more they scatter. Perhaps that is why I have struggled so to make the plans I began in my haunted nights bear fruit in the Waking World.
The ancients likewise struggled to name his aspect: this mighty being who refused to come to them in a form they could understand. This warrior prince who did not take the forms of the animals they knew like the other gods, who claimed half of Egypt as his own. Priests argued amongst themselves as to whether he was a donkey or an aardvark, a fennec fox or a giraffe. Finally, a priest of Lord Ra serving in the reign of Djer is said to have ended the argument in the religious ranks with the pronouncement that since he was the Arbiter of Chaos, he assumed any and all forms to proclaim his superiority over mankind.
The priesthood was satisfied, but common folk will always try to put a name to their fears. They are the ones who invented the word they needed, free from the dictates of rulers and scribes. Thus this creature of fantasy and nightmare was branded the sha. Everything under the sun and nothing ever seen all in one. Ganymedes taught me about the chimera of Greece, the monster Bellerophon slew with the help of the flying horse Pegasus. He always said the sha was a chimera, or some other demon born out of the old gods that came before the Olympians imprisoned chaos and darkness. As if it were all that simple.
My Lord is so very old, he laughs when he hears talk of Zeus (or Jupiter for that matter), or their squabbling progeny. Family turmoil is terribly outmoded to him, though he has always been sympathetic to my concerns, for he knows the importance of vigilance in one’s own house. For in a world where brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts are all spouses and rivals, blood lives too close to hide much. We strive to be godly and in the end we are nothing but ugly grotesques of the holy ones. We insist on imitating them in the very things that cause them grief and expect to rise above consequence. Perhaps that is the only kind of immortality we are capable of.
I should perhaps begin by saying I did not want any of this. Many in turn will say I was clearly ill-equipped and out-classed by the other players on the gaming board we made of our lives. I have made so many mistakes and the damage — the damage wakes me in the darkest hours of night with sobs in my throat. I have never enjoyed games of chance and have not my sister's love of risk. Or power. I had to answer the call of my Lord or be taken at the flood. Often I have found myself with little else to cling to other than the will to see another sunrise bathe itself on the river’s edge. I was born a girl in shadows and I have struggled all my life to escape. In those longest ago days my greatest desire was to see my mother again. My nurse Baktka used to tell me that she had turned into a skylark and had flown away chasing the jeweled butterflies she wished to put in my hair. How I would have to be as swift as a kite if I wanted to catch her. I ran until my feet bled, though I was never fast enough to meet her. I had survival callouses on my soles by the time I learned that some things can never be recaptured. And yet I still find myself hoping her ka is as bold as the skylarks I hear singing in the reeds.
When my Lord speaks, I listen and he hears my voice when I answer, the voice of the invisible daughter. The youngest, the most insignificant. He came to me because I am the daughter of Egypt, I am Tjesiib Arsinoë Philoaígyptos, and I would fight for him and his people. Even if they had long turned away from him as a fratricide and usurper, a god whose name must never be spoken, and who must be exiled from the Black Land of his nephew by the power of a million burning wadjets. Even if I was only a half-native, raised to emulate a foreign conqueror and his worshipped liege-lord. My Lord came to me because he knew that even if my lips were white with fear, I would jump from the top of the lighthouse in Alexandria if it would save Egypt from its enemies.
My father used to curse his fate, saying he grew in the wrong womb. He made himself Pharaoh despite his illegitimacy, though it remained a lodestone around the neck of his reign until the day he died, spent of his strength and demanding tributes of love from the treacherous children he left in his wake. It was Cleopatra who had the foresight to give her and Ptolemy the epithet Philopator — "Father-Loving" — to prove she had been sincere with her deathbed prostrations. Ptolemy, for his part, always thought it was laying it on a bit thick. However, my sister was always difficult to read — maybe she had truly loved our father. With all the positions one could take in our family dramas, it stands to reason that possibly someone had ended up on the old pharaoh’s side.
It must be said, for they would beg the clarification of me, that Cleopatra and Ptolemy were only my half-siblings. They, and their older sister Berenice, were the children of my father’s first wife, Cleopatra called Tryphaena, who was in her turn another bastard sired by my grandfather. In the tangled web of half-siblings and bastards every Ptolemy seemed to leave scattered about the throne of Egypt, even my father and stepmother were probably not sure if they were full siblings or not. Not that a small detail such as incest had ever concerned our House.
The Ptolemies had arrived in Egypt bearing the corpse of Alexander the Great with magnificent pomp and promptly took up the consanguineous practices of the ancient rulers of this land with an ease that scandalized their neighbors and made the tongues of their enemies wag. Like the old dynasties, their justification was to maintain the purity of their blood. The Egyptian royals meant to preserve the blood they believed they shared with Father Ra himself. The Ptolemies meant to sequester their Greek blood from the foreign blood of the Egyptians. Either way, the pharaoh and his family were to remain a breed apart. Numerous illegitimate children conceived with other Greek gentlewomen saved the Ptolemies from some of the more freakish physical deformities that plagued other Egyptian dynasties (though enough familial coupling resulted in all full-blooded members looking rather alike), but it could not save them from the special type of power struggles that occur when everyone is double or triple-related and everyone's claim is as good as anyone else's. The history of my family is not only written in the blood of kin-slain uncles, cousins, mothers, and children: it blots out the book until nothing remains apart from the damning red evidence that stains our fingers even as we seek to turn the page. To hold true to all that had come before, when my father gained the throne of his ancestors by the sword and by animal cunning, his first act was to marry one of his remaining sisters, my stepmother. They had their three blooded children and my father dallied with numerous other ladies and all was well until Cleopatra Tryphaena decided she could rule the kingdom just as easily as the brother-husband she had grown bored of. Indeed she thought she might do a touch better, so she watched and waited for a Ptolemyesque opportunity to be rid of him.
My father, while not a great king, did have some gifts of perception, and had realized earlier on than many that the rising power in our world was not a Greek city-state, but that of an upstart Etruscan replacement situated among seven hills that rose up on the banks of the Tiber River. The Republic of Rome had been gaining in prestige for several centuries, though that was nothing more than the blink of an eye to kingdoms that had invented writing and men whose ancestors had conquered the world with Alexander. My father understood that it was with Rome that he should breed friendships and did so with exemplary alacrity. Perhaps he succeed in this endeavor too well, for it was not long before his Rome-love provided the catalyst for revolution his sister-wife had been looking for. She rallied national discontent over the pharaoh seemingly bending his knee to a foreign land and swept him from power, placing Berenice on the throne in her father's stead. I believe my indolent, vain father never saw the betrayal coming.
My mother had been a second wife in name to the pharaoh at the same time, though in truth she was little more than a highly placed concubine in his palace. She had cleverly been sent to the pharaoh once upon a time as girl in the first blush of womanhood by the lingering Egyptian aristocracy, being that she was the daughter of one of the old ruling families clinging to relevance ever since the Macedonians had arrived and ground the remnants of the ancient kingdoms into the desert sand. And my father, drunk on his power, had forgone the general revulsion the Greek lords had for women with native blood and found himself taken for a little while by the slender maiden with the liquid sable eyes. I was born to her during the last few years before my father’s Roman sympathies led to the rebellion that ousted him from his throne.
When my father fled to Rome following his deposition, he was able to take very few people with him. Among a handful of loyal retainers, he grabbed my half-sister Cleopatra so that he would have control of a Ptolemy heir and a queen of the blood upon his return. Naturally his only son at the time, Ptolemy, was too well guarded. He also brought my mother so that she would speak to her Egyptian kin on his behalf. I went with them all into exile because my mother refused to leave me behind.
It took several hard, rootless years, but my mother did as she was bidden and some well-placed funds from the coffers of Alexandria helped the exiled pharaoh rally the additional Roman support he needed for his invasion. These lords had no great love of my father, but they loved my gentle mother for her lineage. In the end, they were conservative enough to gamble on the evil they knew rather than the growing uncertainty of a land ruled solely by Greek queens.
It is true that these same lords had no doubt fanned the flames of revolt with Cleopatra Tryphaena that had deposed my father three years prior, though three years under Berenice, who showed both an inclination towards fiscal irresponsibility, and a disinclination to marry and produce an heir, had apparently given them second thoughts. Or least, those were the reasons my father gave out for his fickle people's change of heart. The alleys of Alexandria whispered the accusation of madness and quietly laid it at the feet of Berenice's unmarked grave, an accusation no one dared to utter aloud while my father still breathed. It is a terrible thing to accuse the blood of the king with taint. Indeed, Berenice's name was banished from the halls of the palace and the servants only spoke in the dead of night about the insanity of those three years. Of what had happened to my stepmother.
So my father sat upon the falcon throne once more, by the consent of Rome, as that flinty land stuck its hand deeper into the affairs of our kingdom. He was already tired of the Egyptian woman whom he had promised the native lords to marry upon his second coronation. He ignored my mother and made Cleopatra his co-ruler, though mercifully not his wife. This may seem like a shred of Greek restraint against a custom his Macedonian ancestors would have detested, but truthfully the failed rebellion of Cleopatra Tryphaena and Berenice robbed my father of more than his throne. He became a twisted, angry old man who loved nothing and trusted no one. He held to his new maxim until he died four years later, a bitter husk, and left his throne to Cleopatra and Ptolemy to hold together.
I also suspect that many of our troubles in those red years that followed the death of Ptolemy the Twelfth of His Name, who gave himself the deceptively lighthearted epithet Auletes — The Flute-Player — stemmed from Cleopatra’s resentment at our father for making her only a joint heir with our brother Ptolemy. She had ruled by the old pharaoh’s side as his co-ruler since the age of fourteen and thought she had earned the right to the throne of Egypt in her own name alone. As the funeral ceremonies were carried out and we all awaited news from Rome that my father’s will had been ratified by the Roman Senate, Cleopatra kept her own counsel in this matter. Though during this time, I saw several of her maids quietly disposing of a basket of elegant trinkets that had all been viciously smashed.
I was eleven when my father died and my mother had been dead since the spring after we had come home to Egypt, sick and full of grief. As I alluded to before, she departed my world suddenly, and left in her place my only full brother, also named Ptolemy to honor my father, born to her during our exile abroad. When a nurse brought him before us for the first time, Cleopatra had looked into his face full of babyish seriousness wrapped tightly in his swaddles and laughingly proclaimed he was the spitting image of Ptah, the Egyptians’ sculptor god who was depicted similarly mummy-wrapped. The name stuck and my beloved brother was Ptah to all of us ever from that day forth. Such things are essential in a world where so many people share names.
Ptah stood with me as we watched Cleopatra and Ptolemy crowned as co-regents, the Seventh and the Thirteenth of the Their Names respectively. My tutor Ganymedes stood on my other side, serving as a chaperon for both of us amidst the the throngs of lords and priests crowded into the greatest of the receiving rooms in the glittering royal palace of the Ptolemies, perched like the rest of the city of Alexandria on the back of the sea.
“Do you think we’ll be named princes and princesses, too?” asked Ptah, craning to see past all the adults’ heads, his short curls bobbing back and forth as his head weaved around elbows.
“Silly goose," I replied, smiling, "you are already a prince!”
“But I want to be a bigger prince!”
I knew what he meant, but changes in royal title are a bit beyond the comprehension of such a young child, so I scooped him up and promised him one day he would indeed be a bigger prince than he was at the moment.
Ganymedes frowned slightly. “I would sleep more restfully at night for Your Highnesses’ sakes if I thought your Most Blessed siblings were on better terms at this the most glorious beginning of their reign.”
“Do you think there will be trouble?” I asked him. A foolish question. With Ptolemies, one must always anticipate trouble.
He quickly shook his head. “This is not the time for such questions, Your Highness. All rests in the hands of the gods.”