By Karen Essex
Published by Warner Books
August 2002; 0446530255; 400 pages
the 20th year of
The queen stares at the phalanx of whores as if she is about to execute a normal rather than deplorable duty of state. Silent, tense, confused, they await her inspection and her command.
Charmion, the weary sergeant, the old warhorse long attached to an unpredictable commander in chief, has herded them to Kleopatra's chambers in utter silence. A great feat of intimidation, the silencing of a gaggle of whores. But that is the way with Charmion, who executes every duty with a diligence unanimated by emotion of any kind. She retains an implacable expression even while carrying out the bizarre wishes of the sovereign to whom she has sworn her life. An aristocratic Greek born in Alexandria, Charmion is not tall, but casts the illusion of towering height. Her bearing shames the carriage of a queen, even of the queen she serves. Though she is fifty-one, her sallow skin is smooth. Three wrinkles, delicate as insects' legs, trace from the corners of her brown-yellow eyes. Her mouth is full, a burnt color, like a river at sundown. Two tributaries, both southbound, run from her lip-locked smile, tiny signals of age, a result of the anxiety she suffers over the queen's behavior.
Unlike the queen, Charmion dislikes all men. Wordlessly, she has endured Kleopatra's relations with Antony with lugubrious countenance, as if she has suffered all these years from an intense constipation. Antony, charmer of maidens, actresses, farm girls, and queens, never elicits a smile from the woman. In her youth, the queen heard, Charmion had bedded with other women, though she could never confirm the rumors. Of Caesar, and of the queen's relations with him, however, she had approved, though her sanction was expressed only by absence of criticism.
Charmion has dressed the prostitutes herself, forcing Iras, the temperamental eunuch, Royal Hairdresser to the queen, to weave tiny jewels and trinkets of gold into their locks. For a prim woman, she possesses a talent for seductive costume. Knowing the Imperator's inclinations, she has chosen many large-breasted girls. On the most obscenely endowed, she has encased their sumptuous glands in loosely woven gold mesh so that the nipples, rouged to an incarnadine red, appear trapped in an elegant prison, eager for release. "Antony shall enjoy that," thinks the queen.
The courtesans regard their monarch, wondering what kind of queen, what kind of woman, sends prostitutes to her husband, much less approves their comeliness before she allows them to go to him. The queen, nervous, reading their thoughts, attempts to cover her trepidation with characteristic chilling authority. She rises to scrutinize her troops who are wrapped not with the armor of war, but with the luxurious weaponry of seduction. Reddened lips, slightly parted. Little invitations. Nipples: crimson, erect, acute, like hibiscus buds against stark white skin. Bare, nubile shoulders soft as dunes. Teasing one, an auburn tendril; grazing another, a crystal earring, sharp as a dagger, threatening to stab the perfect flesh. Luminous, kohl-rimmed eyes; vacant eyes, eyes without questions. Eyes that do not accuse, do not interrogate. Eyes that know how to lie. A naked belly and then another, larger, stronger, with a garnet chunk-or is that a ruby?-tucked in the navel. And of course, the prize-the female motherlode, coy, apparent, beneath transparent gauze. Some shaven, some not. Good work, Charmion, she thinks. Like all men, her husband craves variety.
A detail: long fingers, slender toes, adorned with rings, jewels. Excellent. Ah, but not this one. "She must leave," the queen says sharply, not to the half-breed beauty before her with fat, choppy hands, but to Charmion, who waves the girl out of the room. Antony, connoisseur of the female form, dislikes "peasant digits."
"Have we more?" she demands of her lady-in-waiting, knowing how thoroughly prepared she is for any situation, any disaster.
"Yes, Your Royal Grace. There are twelve alternates in the antechamber."
"Bring me two thin girls. Boyish. Young, please. Two waif-faced pretties without inhibition."
With a nod, Charmion leaves the room, returning with twin girls of thirteen, draped in the simple robes of a Greek boy, with one small breast peeking from the fold. The androgynous creatures curtsy low, remaining on the ground until the queen passes them, rising only at the snap of Charmion's fingers. Compliant in nature, schooled in ritual. That should please her husband. A fine mix. "Yes, I believe we are complete now. Twelve in all.
"Ladies," she says in her most imperious voice. They stand at attention, but only Sidonia, the voluptuous red-headed madam of the courtesans, meets her gaze. "Marcus Antonius, my husband, my lord, proconsul of Rome, commander of the armies of the eastern empire, sits alone, inconsolable, gazing over the sea. He is despondent.
"I do not explain myself to the highest ministers in my government, much less to court prostitutes. But you, ladies, are the foot soldiers in my campaign. No longer are you mere vessels of pleasure, actresses in the erotic arts, receptacles of spilt semen. Today you are elevated. Sacred is your cause, urgent your mission. At stake is the Fate of Egypt, and your Fate and my Fate. At stake is no less than the world."
Now the ranks stare at her in disbelief, for what queen makes an army of whores? Puts the Fate of her kingdom in the hands of a dispatch of painted strumpets? "You must revive my husband. It is as simple as that."
One of the girls, the one with the tough stomach and bejeweled navel, struggles to stifle a giggle, but Sidonia sees the stern raised eyebrow of Charmion arched in warning. She slaps the girl, who crumples to the ground in tears. Sidonia bows apologetically to the queen, kicking the girl with a sandaled foot, reducing her cries to a choked dog-whimper.
The queen is amused but remains nonplussed-a countenance at which she excels, thanks to her apprenticeship with the late Julius Caesar. "Tonight, ladies, you serve one of the greatest men in history. His courage is legend. His conquests span the world. His loyalty, his heroism, unparalleled. But he sulks alone in his mansion by the sea. The mighty lion cringes and licks his wounds. He must rally. He must become a man again. And we know, ladies, don't we, what makes a man a man?"
Every whore smiles. For all their differences-the queen of Egypt and courtesan slaves-they share the same intuitive knowledge. What every woman knows. What every woman uses.
"I am aware that there is gossip. And I am aware of those who spread it. They will be dealt with. As for you, you are to let all those who visit your chambers know that your queen sailed home into the harbor of Alexandria flying the flags of victory after the war in Greek waters. You are to say that the Imperator, my husband, is your most virile and demanding client, that you have heard with your own ears and seen with your own eyes his plans for victory against Octavian, the fiend who will terrorize our world if his ambitions are allowed to go unchecked. As you know, I do not allow soldiers to have their way with court prostitutes, politically convenient as it would be at times. The Roman army, should it descend upon our city, will not follow these rules. I encourage each of you to meditate on the Roman reputation for cruelty and degradation to conquered women and then imagine your Fates, ladies, in the event that the Imperator does not overcome his depressed condition and refuses to defend you against the Romans.
"Therefore, you shall succeed splendidly in rehabilitating the manhood of my husband and you shall spread with conviction to every man, minister, artisan, and soldier alike who enters your bed that the great Antony fights a war the way he makes love-with vigor, with passion. That his prowess in the sport of war is excelled only by his prowess in the sport of love. Let the word spread to all corners of the city, and let it be heard by sailors who will take the tales to other ports. I know you have the power to convince. I requested not only the most beautiful of you for this mission, but the most intelligent. The most shrewd.
"As you are cunning, I shall make you a bargain. If you do your job to perfection, you shall be given your freedom after Octavian is defeated. If you fail and my husband remains in his tower sulking like a baby, you shall be put into the fields to harvest the crops, or sent to the Nubian mines. Let me be plain: If you betray the throne, if you are heard uttering one word about the Imperator's melancholia, if rumors of his ill-humor are traced back to you, if you do not follow my orders to the letter, you shall die, or wish you had." The smiles fade. To Charmion: "They may go."Copyright © 2002 Karen Essex
Reprinted with permission.
Embracing the fierce mission that will ultimately shape her into the Queen of Kings and Pharaoh of the Two Lands of Egypt, Kleopatra becomes the allyand the loverof Rome's most powerful men. She bears the empire builder Julius Caesar a son, the only son he will have. When Caesar is assassinated, she flees Rome in a daring escape and joins Antony, the courageous warrior who gives her his heart and makes her partner to his global ambitions. With Rome consumed by savage infighting, the two provoke Caesar's successor, Octavian, into a desperate war across land and sea for control of the empire.
But for a woman who gives free vent to her sexual passions yet lends a mother's fierce devotion to her four children, who vows to reclaim the throne of Egypt with the proud, ancestral blood of a Macedonian king, and who wages war against her own siblings with a Roman army under a Roman dictator's command, destiny will not be kind.
In the stormy wake of the decisive battle of Actium, amid a world where the glint of the sword holds ultimate sway, Kleopatra will write her own final act. Crowning one of history's grandest and most poignant love stories, she will choose sacrifice over dishonorand over the betrayal of the man whose fate has merged with her own.
A decade of research and travel has pulled back the veil of myth that has obscured the real Kleopatra for centuries, and the natural gifts of a brilliant novelist have made her subject's story come alive. The result is an enthralling retelling of history that will instantly takes its place as the definitive portrait of a monarch and a woman like none seen before her time or since.(back to top)
Karen Essex is an award-winning journalist, a screenwriter, and the coauthor of a biography about cult icon Bettie Page. A former executive in the film industry, she holds an M.F.A. in writing from Goddard College. She was born in New Orleans and lives in Los Angeles.