Cleopatra’s Needle – Tom Howard
She ignored the New Cairo mayor sitting across from her until he spoke.
“We are honored by your presence so soon after your last visit to the Western Lands, Your Highness.”
Cleopatra, the forty-seventh pharaoh of that name, turned her attention from the gray skyscrapers outside the limousine window. The Royal Scribe sat beside her, his tablet on his knee. Natura, her niece and the Royal Handmaid, appeared deep in thought, but Cleopatra knew she, like the others, listened for an explanation of the unexpected trip. The Guard Captain, Rekeen, did not look at her. Of all her confidants, only he knew her true purpose visiting these chilly lands.
Never at her best after a long flight in her airborne palace, she forced herself to smile. The others relaxed. The mayor, a handsome, pureblood Egyptian from the Four Families of the Upper Nile, released the death grip on his knees. Of course, he was Egyptian. No outlanders held positions of authority within Cleopatra’s realm.
“I enjoy New Cairo in the spring,” she lied. “It’s so … industrious.” She hated the cold clamminess of the New World, still so called after centuries of colonization. Her people had moved Greeks and Roman slaves across the ocean to extract the New World’s bountiful resources. The pale immigrants had been fertile. They spread across the continent like ants.
She tugged her jacket, itching from the fur collar. Who would want to live in this dreary climate? At least Natura’s perky breasts were covered, one benefit of being in the cold.
Amonaton, her portly scribe, cleared his throat, a sign he wished to speak.
“Yes, Amon?” She fought an impulse to throw her entire council out of the vehicle and finish the mission on her own. A blackmailer had summoned her as if she were a servant, and these prattling sycophants were delaying his death and her return home.
Amon cleared this throat again. “Our spies found two branches of the Anhutsep cult here, Your Excellency. Will you attend their executions?”
“Anhutsep, the sky snake, supposedly Anubis’s daughter. New World commoners consider her a symbol of change.”
“Is she part of the Christo’s cult?” Natura asked, always eager to show her understanding of current events.
“No, no,” Amon said. “We’ve successfully stamped out those heretics. Soon we’ll do the same with the cursed Hebrews.”
The mayor said, “We only worship sanctioned gods, Your Majesty.”
Cleopatra fingered the cartouche of Bast, protector of pharaohs, hanging around her neck. “No executions. I’ll attend a few official functions the short time I’m here.”
She’d considered having the Royal Scribe, as her head of assassins, deal with the blackmailer, but she’d have to kill him afterwards, and Amon would be hard to replace.
“Perhaps you’d enjoy some rest and refreshments when we reach the palace, Your Highness.” Natura didn’t miss an opportunity to imply the pharaoh looked tired.
Although Cleopatra had lived forty years, she looked much younger, thanks to the Royal Surgeon. Kohl permanently lined her eyes, a tattoo done when she’d had her scalp depilated. Cleopatra glowered at her niece, but the girl had sense enough not to look up.
Since Cleopatra was the mother of three sons and no daughters for them to marry, her niece Natura saw her role as Royal Handmaiden as a stepping-stone to becoming queen.
Cleopatra had a surprise for her. As the current pharaoh, she intended to sit on the throne for many more decades. Her son would choose someone young and firm, neither of which Natura would be by then.
She ignored the girl. “What of the gold from the Southern Lands? Has production improved?”
“We’ve squashed the small revolts,” Amon said, “but the overseers say they cannot force more work from the natives, no matter how hard they discipline them. Perhaps we need slaves from the Eastern Lands. They are good workers.”
“Estimate the cost of transporting them,” she said. “Then I’ll make my decision.”
Turning her attention to the mayor, she set her real plan in motion. “I suppose one gathering in my honor would be bearable, Mayor.” Afterwards, she and the captain would slip away and deal with the blackmailer.
“Yes, your majesty,” the mayor said. “At your convenience.”
“This evening. Nothing too ostentatious.”
“Five hundred people?” he recommended, and she nodded. That should keep things going until early in the morning. She would contact the enemy, meet him, and kill him. She smiled.
The night wind had a bite to it, and Cleopatra appreciated the heavy cloak that hid her identity. She stood at the foot of a giant “Cleopatra’s needle” in the large city park. She hated the name; it created the impression that Cleopatra, like some menial, sat in her parlor darning socks in the evenings. The obelisks were named for a Cleopatra far of the past. The captain of the guard stood nearby, tall and broad-shouldered. She would have preferred to come alone. She rested her hand on the blade in her waistband.
The party lasted longer than expected. She’d been tired after her long flight, and even more exhausted after half of New Cairo showed their respects. She ignored the warmed blankets in her bedchamber. She had a man to kill.
Days earlier, in Cairo, her director of espionage had delivered an urgent message. She quickly scanned his written report, nodding that she understood.
“No one else has seen this?” she asked.
“No, Your Highness. Such messages are brought directly to me.” An old man, he’d been a loyal servant since her father’s reign. He would be missed.
She nodded and excused him, signaling the ever-present Anon to kill him when he left. She’d need the name of the field agent, too. She read the message again.
Three cats bar the way, but Bast reveals all.
New Cairo archeologists have discovered an ancient container with three cats on the cover and the above inscription. It contains a scroll. Please advise in person, the third of Osiris, three a.m. at Cleopatra’s Needle in Central Park.
A man’s voice from the darkness jarred her from her recollections. “Good morning, Your Highness. Please follow me.” Without waiting, he strode off, and she hurried to keep up. She gave the captain a no-kill command. This man could be a simple underling. She needed to find and destroy the scroll.
After leaving the park, the stranger stopped at a warehouse door, allowing her and the captain to catch up. He was tall and pale and dressed in dark clothing.
She touched the handle of the sword, confident he would be no challenge.
“Do as I say,” the outlander warned. His beard held streaks of gray. He smelled of soap. Cleopatra had heard foreign slaves bathed daily.
They entered a large room, shrouded in shadow and empty from the sounds of her sandals echoing on the concrete floor. Against the far wall, two chairs and a small table sat in a circle of light. The purple tablecloth holding two glasses and a wine decanter made her angry. Only the royal family were allowed purple fabric.
“Please have a seat.” He waved her to a chair and ignored the captain.
Rekeen moved two paces behind her and stood at attention.
She remained standing. “Do you have my … possession?”
“Yes,” he said. “I’m Dr. Logan, an archeology professor at the New Cairo University.”
She didn’t care. “Give me the artifact.”
He laughed, pouring himself a glass of red wine. “I understand your haste, Pharoah. But you are not the only one who understands the importance of the three Basts.”
She turned to the guard. “Stand by the door.”
The guard moved out of earshot.
She took the offered seat. The wall behind the table appeared polished like glass, but she couldn’t see through it.
“The container with three Basts is a family heirloom,” she said. “What do you want in exchange?” She must discover what the outlander knew before she killed him. If he’d read the scroll and told anyone …
He poured her a glass of wine. “The original drafter must have made two copies, one for the pharaoh and one if something happened to the original.”
“I don’t care.” She ignored the wine. “State your price.” Something felt wrong. After decades of listening to people who wanted something from her, she understood their body language. The professor was lying. He glanced at the glass wall behind her and licked his lips.
“We know your secret,” he said.
She kept her face expressionless. The man wanted her to reveal something. She was reaching for the knife in her belt when something behind the glass wall crashed to the ground. Someone on the other side of the wall screamed.
The professor jumped to his feet and pulled a pistol.
She stood slowly. “What’s this all about?”
The captain of the guard stepped forward and pointed his sword at her. “Please sit down, Your Highness. Tell us what is on the scroll in the Bast box.”
Cleopatra couldn’t believe her ears. “Are you mad, Rekeen? You dare pull a weapon on the pharaoh of the known world? I’ll have you thrown into a pit of hungry lions.”
“Tell us the secret!” Rekeen shouted.
“You’ve done your job, Captain,” the professor said. “I’ll show her we’re serious.”
He shifted his pistol and shot Rekeen in the head.
There wasn’t a second scroll! This was all a conspiracy to make a fool of her. “Who put you up to this?”
Before the professor could answer, he jerked and collapsed onto the floor beside Rekeen. Another man dressed in black stepped into the light. He knelt to examine the professor and the captain before wiping the knife he’d used on the bearded man’s clothing.
“What is the meaning of this?” Cleopatra pulled her blade.
The stranger was an Egyptian, a young man with strong features. “You are a stupid cow.”
“How dare you? What are you doing?”
“I am saving your life, Highness. Now, come with me.”
“Who are you?”
Instead of replying, he lifted one of the chairs and swung it at the glass wall. The one-way mirror shattered, covering the floor with shards that glittered like black diamonds. In the brightly lit room behind the glass, dead bodies and broken cameras lay on the floor.
“Who are you?” she repeated.
“Perat, the protector of Bast’s secret. Someone wanted you to reveal the secret publicly.”
“You can’t know,” she said. “Only the pharaoh has that knowledge.”
The man nodded. “And the secret’s protector. Now come with me.”
“I must contact my people,” she said. “My guards.”
“Stupid cow,” he said again. He ran for the door. “Who do you think wanted your secret exposed and you humiliated before the entire world? They are your family’s guards, not yours. This was all a trap—the note, the trip, this room. Now that they’ve failed to make a fool of you, their next move will be to kill you.”
In the alley, she caught up with him. She was tired, but her mind was abuzz with the events of the night. “Who would benefit from my secret being made public? The knowledge would destroy our way of life. The slaves—”
“Shut up,” the man ordered. “Stay in the shadows.” They were on an empty street.
She was surprised the sun wasn’t up. She felt as if she’d been awake for days. She took some consolation that her rude escort wouldn’t live to see another sunset. He’d called her a bovine twice. She’d enjoy seeing him suffer.
“Damn.” He grabbed her and shoved her into a doorway. He pressed up against her, forcing the air from her lungs and keeping her from slitting him open with her knife.
A vehicle bearing the city guard insignia stopped at the curb. She’d have them imprison this man and return her to the palace. Amon would uncover whoever was behind this stupid charade and kill them. Before she could call for help, her companion placed his hand over her mouth.
“What do we have here?” The guardsman left the car. He wore the dark green uniform of the New Cairo police. “A late-night party, citizen?”
Perat turned, his hand still on her mouth. “Sorry, officer. I didn’t realize we were past curfew. I wanted my money’s worth.”
The officer shined a flashlight on Cleopatra, still in her cloak. “I hope you didn’t pay much. Still, it is late, and I’m willing to share.” He smiled and unfastened his belt buckle.
Cleopatra froze. Was the city guardsman going to defile her? He wasn’t some outlander criminal, but a man of her own blood.
“I’m sorry, officer.” Perat pulled out his wallet. “Perhaps an offering would make sure the incident is forgotten. Don’t want the wife to find out.”
The guard smiled. “I’ll take that wallet, sir.” He swung his baton, catching Perat in the stomach.
The guard grabbed Cleopatra. Before she could pull her knife, the guard slapped her across the face. She froze. No one had struck her in her entire life.
Perat rose to his feet and wrestled the baton away from her attacker.
She pulled her thin blade and thrust it into the guard’s chest.
The man stopped, disbelief coloring his face. His face muscles slackened, and he slumped to the ground.
“Nice to see you’re not completely worthless.” Perat clutched his stomach.
She stared down at the dead body on the street. “Why did he attack me? Is he part of the conspiracy?”
“Your mayor’s city guard may be in on it.” He lifted the man’s shoulders. “But this man was just operating as usual.”
“He acted like a criminal himself!”
“Welcome to the real world, Your Highness. Now help me get his body into the car.”
“What are you going to do?” She lifted her attacker’s legs while Perat carried his shoulders.
“New Cairo is surrounded by water on three sides. Convenient for disposing of vehicles and bodies. Even if the authorities find him, they’ll think him a victim of organized crime.”
“Organized crime?” she asked. “New Cairo doesn’t have crime, organized or otherwise.”
Perat laughed. “New Cairo is the crime capitol of your kingdom, Cleopatra. Most of it controlled by the mayor. Now, get in the front seat.”
“This is some kind of nightmare.” She slid into the car. “We must reach the palace. I’m not safe here.”
“You’re not safe anywhere,” Perat said. “Not until I talk with my people and smuggle you out of the country.”
“Your people?” she asked. “Who are you?”
“I told you. I’m the secret’s protector. There’s one in each generation.”
“That’s impossible,” she said. “You’re a liar, a rude, arrogant liar.”
“You’re not supposed to know about me. I’m trained to defend the secret as valiantly as you.”
She shook her head. “You’re part of the conspiracy. You want me to tell you what the secret is.”
“Have it your way, Your Highness.” He stopped the patrol car at the wharf. “We’re here.”
She left the vehicle, wondering if she could escape from this madman. With no one to trust and nowhere to go, she waited as Perat pushed the patrol car into the river. Arrogant or not, he had saved her life. Perhaps several times.
He didn’t wait for the vehicle to sink beneath the water before he joined her. “Can you walk in those sandals?”
An hour later, she sat on a stone bench in a dimly lit tunnel and rubbed her blistered feet.
“Here.” Perat took a sip from a cup and passed her the hot, black liquid. “This will keep you awake long enough to find you a cot.”
“What is it?” she asked, too tired to argue.
“Something wonderful from the Southern Lands. They roast the beans and grind them before cooking them in hot water.”
She took a sip and grimaced. “If you’re trying to poison me, get on with it.”
Perat smiled. “It’ll grow on you down here.”
“Where are we? Who are all these people?” Groups huddled together wore blankets and hoods to keep warm or disguise their features.
“Rabbis, escaped slaves, orphan children, priests of Christos, followers of Anhutsep. Most of them you’d have ordered killed without a second thought.”
She shook her head. The tunnels were crowded. Little fires burned in alcoves, and the smell of food cooking made her mouth water. “There are so many. I had no idea. They told me the undesirables had been wiped out or rehabilitated.”
“Your people want you to believe everything is clean and perfect, Your Highness, but they are lying to you. It’s only a matter of time before the Zionists band together with other undesirables and rebel.”
“My people?” she asked. “Aren’t you my people?”
“Look around, Cleopatra. How can you not be ashamed of our treatment of non-Egyptians?”
A baby crying in the distance distracted her. “I hate the New World,” she said.
Perat laughed. “This culling of undesirables is happening everywhere. Since I follow you to ensure you do not reveal the secret of Bast, I see many lands. The rebels are everywhere. The Southern Lands are ablaze right now. We’ll probably not receive shipments of their lovely beans much longer.”
She sipped the hot beverage, feeling its warmth spread through her. “The small rebellions were put down.” Her voice sounded small, almost pleading.
Perat waved at their surroundings. “You see what they want you to see. Does this look like a small rebellion? Open your eyes.”
Her cheeks flushed in anger, and she considered pulling her knife. “You’re one of the rebels! I’ll have you flayed in the public square.”
He shook his head. “This is how you thank someone who saved your life and possibly your questionable virtue?”
She thought about it. “Flayed.”
A little girl missing her right eye approached and stared at Cleopatra with her good eye. She chewed on a brown bar as she studied the two strangers.
“What does she want?” Cleopatra asked.
“They don’t often see one of the aristocracy down here.”
Cleopatra pulled her cloak closer. “Do they know who I am?”
“Not your name.” Perat smiled at the little girl. “But they can tell you’ve never worked a day in your life. They’re curious but will respect your privacy as long as you’re with me and the guards are looking for you.”
The little girl pulled out what she was sucking on and offered it to Cleopatra.
“What is it?” she asked Perat. She was hungry but not hungry enough to accept food from an undesirable. No telling what diseases she might catch.
“Cacao.” He took the offering and broke it into two pieces before handing one back to the girl. She smiled and ran back to her family. He broke his piece into two and handed one to Cleopatra. “Another nice surprise from the Southern Lands. They mix it with sugar cane and goat’s milk. Perhaps you should wait for your Royal Taste-tester to arrive with whoever is trying to kill you.”
Cleopatra grimaced and took the strange food. Before she lost her nerve, she popped it into her mouth. Who was this annoying man to think she was afraid of anything?
Perat chuckled at her expression of surprise. “Like with the coffee, our cacao supply may be cut off soon.”
She couldn’t believe how wonderful the cacao tasted as it melted in her mouth. What other things were the slaves keeping from her?
She swallowed, enjoying the blissful aftertaste. “Who wants to kill me?”
“Everyone you’ve ever talked to, I imagine,” Perat said. “But my money is on Mellon-Ra, your oldest son. He and your handmaiden have something going on. Looks as if they’ve decided not to wait for you to die of natural causes. Amon and Rekeen worked for him. They’d all have had fatal accidents in the next couple months if you hadn’t decided to take matters into your own hands.”
She took a sip of the coffee. The unfamiliar liquid made her feel more alert. “How do you know what goes on in the palace? How did you find this place?”
Perat sighed. “I’m a shadow, Your Highness. I’ve been following you for years without you knowing.”
She didn’t believe his wild claims of being her protector, but she was in his debt. He’d still pay for the bovine comment. “Okay, secret assassin, what do we do next?”
“I’ve sent word to my people. We must stay hidden until the mayor and your conspirators make the next move.”
She nodded. “What happened to the little girl’s eye? Scarred in a battle?”
“No. Probably disfigured by her parents to keep her out of your brothels. They start training them about her age.”
Cleopatra couldn’t believe her ears. “Brothels? But she’s so young.”
“Your countrymen think the slaves work better if they have access to copulation occasionally. Of course, they have to pay for it.”
She felt sick to her stomach. “You’re still lying. No parent would ever do that to their children.”
“No parent should have to do that to protect their children,” he said. “Perhaps your time here will open your eyes, Pharaoh. Your world is corrupt and rotten. If it doesn’t change soon, you’ll lose everything.”
She sipped her cooling coffee and thought of ways to refute Perat’s words. His assertions could explain why her trips were planned down to the last detail and why she only met beautiful people and powerful representatives. Were her armies “training exercises” really frantic attempts to put down uprisings around the planet?
Or, as some small voice in the back of her mind prodded, was all this a plot to make her reveal the terrible secret of Bast only she knew?
Screams and popping noises in the distance brought Perat to his feet. “Damn. I thought we’d have more time. I hope you’ve had enough rest, Your Highness.”
“What is happening?”
People shouted and ran down the tunnels, leaving their blanket tents and fires unattended.
“The mayor suspects rebels have sanctuaries hidden in the old subway system. He’s sending guards into the tunnels looking for you.”
“Will they turn us in?” It’s what she would have done in their place. By sacrificing her, they could save themselves.
Perat shook his head and pulled her to her feet. “No. That’s not what undesirables do. Their loyalty and integrity to each other are what make them undesirable. That’s a lesson you could learn.”
She pulled away from him. Would these people really die for her, a perfect stranger? “What do we do now?”
“There are a million ways out of these tunnels. Most of your saviors will escape. Come on. We’ve got some climbing ahead of us.”
Hours later, Cleopatra sat in a small side tunnel, lit from daylight high above. Although it appeared the grill to the tunnel was rusted shut, Perat had opened it soundlessly and sat on a ledge while they caught their breath.
“If you are doing all this to make me reveal the secret of Bast,” she said, “it won’t work.” She’d lost her wig during their torturous climb up unending ladders and felt naked without it. “What were those explosions?”
“The conspirators are sealing the tunnels. If they find your body, they can say you were killed by undesirables.”
“But what about the people down here? There are children!”
“They want our secret badly. To them, slaves are expendable. My people should be waiting for us near here.”
“Our secret? You can’t know Bast’s mysteries.”
He wrapped his long fingers around her sore hands. “Like a lot of things you’ve learned tonight, the tales you’ve been told are not always true. You and I are never supposed to meet, but this could be a turning point in our history, Your Highness. It’s up to you.”
She looked away but didn’t remove her hands.
Perat continued. “When the wife of Ramses III gave birth to a son, the court physician sealed the birthing room and summoned the pharaoh. He grew insane with rage when he saw his son had been born deformed with an enlarged head and a clubfoot. Such a thing should be impossible.”
Cleopatra nodded. “Since pharaohs marry their siblings, we ensure there are no genetic defects introduced into the bloodline. If there are abnormalities, it was assumed the bloodline has been … tainted from an outside source.”
“Even though we know now other factors such as gamma rays or caffeine can also alter genetic material. The pharaoh’s wife hadn’t been unfaithful, but Ramses assumed the deformed child could not be his own. In his rage, he killed them both.”
The story unfolded in her mind. She’d learned the tragic tale from a scroll locked in her personal vault when she became pharaoh. Perat could not know what Ramses had done that dark night. Or what had happened next.
Perat’s words hit her like physical blows. “The royal physician ran to the slave pens and returned with a newborn infant. Ramses, mad with grief over what he had done, believed his wife had died in childbirth and accepted the baby as his own. The surgeon recorded the secret on two scrolls. One he had placed in the royal vault, sealed by the sign of Bast, to be read only by Ramses’ royal successors. The other, the doctor passed down to his descendants and tasked with protecting the secret. I am one of those.”
Cleopatra imagined blood on her hands, the blood Ramses had spilled in anger. She saw the little girl with the terrible scar. “Please, it’s not my fault.”
Perat stood. “Tell me where the surgeon obtained the child, your ancestor.”
“Please.” Tears dripped down her cheeks.
She sobbed. “The Hebrew slave pens.”
“Perhaps you can blame this cruelty and corruption on three thousand years of pharaohs, but Bast has brought you here for a reason. Free the people, learn about their lives and their dreams. Climb down off your maggot-infested throne and do some good in the world before it’s too late.”
She was exhausted, shocked at being so unaware of the world around her, and angry at being responsible for the entire world. She wiped her tears. Perat was correct. Something had to be changed, beginning with the descendant of a Jewish slave.
“If I’m to do this, I’ll need you to come out of the shadows and help me, secret assassin.”
Perat smiled and helped her stand. “That’s a good beginning, Queen Cleopatra, a very good beginning.”