The Death of Cleopatra

The Roman stood at the very center of the throne room. His eyes scanned the chamber, taking in every carving on the columns, every piece of stone in the intricate floor mosaic. All his. Every grain of sand in Egypt was now under his control, and the thought made him smile. As requested, he was alone in the room, with only the stomp of his elevated sandals to keep him company. For he was a short man, a trait he had always found uncomfortable. His tall shoes may have compensated in his youth, but he would need them no more. He was now a colossus among men.

He casually walked to the golden dais. A beautiful motif of carved lotus blossoms encircled the platform and the entire structure glittered with gold leaf. The throne itself was delicate in appearance. Carved of wood with cushions of Tyrian purple, it was embellished with tortoiseshell and lapis. How many men have stood before it trembling over the last 300 years, the Roman wondered. It was amazing how little power the structure held without a king, or queen, upon it.

He settled onto the cushions. His simple Roman toga did not match any of the opulence around him, but he knew that it didn’t have to. His great-uncle, the powerful Julius Caesar, had made that mistake. He was too firm in his approach to power and the Senate had stabbed his dreams away. And the lesson was learned. The Roman had accomplished all that his uncle could not, and the people would not hate him for it. They would reward him. He closed his eyes and imagined the throngs shouting his name. “Octavius! Octavius!”

It wouldn’t be long before he returned. His triumphal parade would be a spectacle remembered for generations. Mountains of gold, hundreds of captured soldiers. But his heart trembled at the thought of his main attraction. She would be chained and forced to walk through the streets as the crowds spat in her path and pelted her with garbage. “You whore, Cleopatra!” they would shout. And she knew what was coming.

Cleopatra herself witnessed her sister in the same position not long ago, when the younger woman waged war against Julius Caesar and lost. It was Roman custom, and Cleopatra deserved nothing less. Octavius smiled. He would be seen as more powerful than Caesar and Antony alike, both of whom succumbed to her charms. And he would exploit it. His writers had long been spinning the web of propaganda against Cleopatra, and she had lost. She would now go down in history as the whore of the Nile.

“My Lord!”

Octavius opened his eyes in irritation and embarrassment. It was unbecoming of a Roman to be seen on a throne.

“I said I didn’t wish to be disturbed,” he growled through clenched teeth.

“Forgive me, my Lord, but you should come quickly. The Queen… there was an incident.”

The blood rushed from Octavius’ face. His jaw tensed as he rushed past the attendant. He sprinted to the elaborate mausoleum where Cleopatra had been holding funerary rites for Marc Antony. The large bronze doors stood ajar, a feeble flickering of torchlight escaping out into the night. A small group of soldiers were standing outside the structure, their faces betraying fear and shame.

Octavius didn’t need to ask what happened. He knew she was plotting it, but his men were supposed to guard against it. His gaze chilled them to the bone as he entered the mausoleum.

Cleopatra lay atop a polished sarcophagus at the center of the alabaster chamber. The room was beautifully decorated with garlands and dozens of potted plants. Low tables of food, amphorae of wine, and burning incense stood throughout the room. He knew it was all tested for poison, so how did she do it? He approached her body. Her two attendants lay at the foot of the sarcophagus, equally dead. Despite their still forms, the three women looked peaceful, as if they had simply taken a nap. Their faces were absent of all the pains of poison.

Octavius leaned over the Queen’s body. She was regally dressed in a gown of gold. Her most elaborate crown framed her beautiful Grecian features. Her eyes were accented with kohl, her lips, almost smiling, were tinted red, and her cheeks had a shimmer of gold. She truly did look like a goddess.

In her hands, she held the crook and flail of Egypt, the symbols of the pharaoh’s power. And then he noticed the pricks of blood on her arm. Snakebite. She had somehow smuggled snakes into the room. His frustration was slightly subdued by an appreciation of her cunning. He gave her one last look and sighed. There was nothing he could do.

He turned to deal with his incompetent soldiers when his foot struck a lever hidden among the plants. It sent one of the pots crashing to the floor. He saw it before he felt it, a dark slithering across the stone. He looked down at his ankle, where blood was already running down to his sandal from two points. He panicked. The snakes were still there.

He rushed past the other plants in such haste that he tripped over one of the low tables of food. Another bite, this time on his arm. He saw the other serpents hidden throughout the room, agitated by the noise. Already he felt a numbness is his foot. He tried to stand but his leg would not respond. He collapsed again and shouted to his men.

“Get the serpent masters here now!” he commanded.

Two soldiers rushed into the chamber to carry their general out. Octavius looked up at Cleopatra one last time. Her delicate smile and serenity were a mockery of his exasperation.

“You bitch,” was all he could whisper as his soldiers dragged him away, his mind already light-headed with anxiety and the poison in his veins.

The Pyramid

1871 – East London

Charles huddled into his scarf as he walked down the narrow cobblestone street. As pretty as the snow was, he could do with less of it. His thick wool scarf had practically frozen to his face in the 10 minutes since leaving the pub, and he wasn’t even halfway home yet.

He knew the area of London well. Wapping. It wasn’t the side you wanted to be on in the daytime, much less at night. But the beer was cheap and it wasn’t too far of a walk from his closet-sized apartment. Unfortunately, it also meant that establishments were few and far between.

He passed countless old buildings and warehouses. The wind whipped into his eyes as he turned down an alley. Anything to get away from the brunt of it. He leaned against the brick building and took a few breaths. It took him a minute to see that the door to the building was ajar. Perhaps it was abandoned.

The door creaked as he pushed it in. The building looked like an old storeroom, though there was little in it. Cobwebs and dust surrounded everything he could make out. Large amphorae stood against one wall and moldy furniture and broken beams lay scattered throughout the area. He tried one of the chairs. It held. This place would serve nicely until he warmed back up. He noticed a metal sign under his foot. He brushed off the thick sawdust with his boot.

‘The Froggit & Froggit Co.’

Whatever it was, it looked like it either moved or shut down. No sooner had he dropped the old sign down that Charles heard footsteps approaching outside. He jumped up and hid amongst the large amphorae. Maybe the place wasn’t abandoned after all.

The door creaked back open. He huddled into himself and held his breath. Someone entered the building. No, several people. He heard hushed voices, though he couldn’t make out any faces. Black cloaks with abnormally large hoods concealed the new arrivals from his view. They proceeded quietly to the other end of the storeroom.

There, among some large statues and pieces of broken wood was a doorway on what appeared to be a heavily slanted wall. They opened it and headed inside. He hadn’t even noticed it upon his arrival.

Charles rushed out of the shadows as soon as the cloaked figures retreated. The rush of adrenaline had warmed him up rather quickly and he was ready to head out. He made his way for the exit and proceeded to open the door. And that’s when he realized the visitors had locked it behind them. His stomach sank a bit as he looked around. He tries to force the door but it was no use. His efforts made quite a bit of noise, all of which seemed to echo and expand among the lifeless expanse around him.

He had no choice, he would have to head to the other side and hope for another exit.

He made his way slowly. The floorboards creaked with every step. He was nearly at the other doorway when he realized it wasn’t attached to a slanted wall at all. The warehouse opened into a much larger structure. The small area he sat in had only been the entrance. The warehouse itself was very large, rising up several stories. A few plain windows broke the seemingly endless expanse of brick rising up to the ceiling. But there, in the middle of the cavernous building, stood a large wooden pyramid.

The slanted wall he saw was merely one face of the structure. An elaborate double door stood open where the cloaked figures had entered. Charles dared not follow, nor even approach. A flickering of firelight escaped from within. He walked around the pyramid instead, hoping to spot some back door to the warehouse. Whatever the pyramid was, it clearly didn’t belong in a dusty old building in Wapping. It was huge, its wood clean, polished, and painted. It looked new compared to the dilapidated surroundings it sat in.

With no escape route, Charles huddled in a corner of the warehouse, the abundance of old junk keeping him well out of sight. All he had to do was wait. His head still spun from the beer and his sense of time was impaired. It wasn’t long before he began to doze off.

He opened his eyes a few minutes later. Had it only been a few minutes? Something had woken him. Then he heard the sound of singing. The voices seemed faint and far away, but the chanting was unmistakable. The hymn flowed out through the open pyramid doors. It was beautiful, like the sirens of ancient Greece. They stopped and began again several times, as if the singers were practicing their song, while Charles drifted in and out of consciousness.

Hours passed before Charles awoke. He slowly opened his eyes. His mind was still swimming with the memories of beautiful hymns and he felt very relaxed amid the strange surroundings. But all of that went away when he felt a kick on his boot. He quickly turned and looked up to see a group of men and women, dressed entirely in black. Their heads were shaven clean minus a single shock of hair which hung like a ponytail. They looked down menacingly at him, and it was only then that he noticed the large curved blades which they held in their hands.

Ignorance

“Get those paintings up!”

Athan looked up at the approaching voice. Commander Sola was a deceptively short and frail woman for the domineering personality within. She marched through the dilapidated gray corridor with hands clasped behind her back, her tight olive-green uniform glittering with gold medals.

All around them, workers quickly filled the numerous cracks in the wall with grout while painters were busy concealing the discoloration. Athan reached down into a wooden crate that was delivered just minutes before. It contained a stack of generic paintings, framed and ready for hanging. Beautiful seascapes, flowers, and galloping horses were prominent in the art, but it did not take a close examination to realize that they were not true paintings but reproductions printed on canvas. Athan hung the frames in a neat row against the still-drying wall of the corridor.

Commander Sola paced the room. She despised last-minute changes. Her radio clicked and she brought it to her ear. Athan couldn’t hear the voice at the other end, but he spotted the Commander’s black brows furrow.

“Alright, I need all painters out, and take this crate with you” her voice echoed. “Private,” she addressed Athan, “you have three minutes to finish.”

The young man nodded, pressed a few nails between his lips, and quickly hammered them into place. His comrades had vacated the little hall without a trace by the time the last painting was hung. And it was just in time. The doors at the opposite end of the hall opened without warning. The young man searched Commander Sola’s face for guidance. “Stay put and follow my lead,” she directed quietly as a small group of regally clad individuals entered the chamber.

Commander Sola bowed low to the middle-aged man at their head.

“Your royal highness,” she addressed him. “What a pleasant surprise it is to see you.”

“Sola,” the man acknowledged her, but his eyes fixated on Athan, who stood with his head bowed low. “Who is this?”

“Forgive us, your highness. We did not expect you to come through this way. This young man is one of the palace’s inspectors. He was just making his daily rounds to ensure that all is as it should be.”

“Ah,” the King replied, losing interest. “I don’t believe I’ve walked down this hall recently,” he looked up at the freshly hung art. “Who did these works?”

“These paintings were donated for display by the Royal Academy of Art. They were painted by the top students of this year’s class.”

“Amazing work,” the King observed. “Such talent.”

“Come through this way, your majesty,” Commander Sola quickly directed to the opposite end of the hall. “Surely you want to see more than a simple corridor. The next room has far grander works as well as another marvelous view of your fair city.”

“Then let us proceed.”

Athan dropped his shoulders with a sigh when the group left. He had never been so caught off guard by the royalty, but he knew Commander Sola would be pleased with their quick thinking. He left the hall in the opposite direction and entered a large room with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the city outside. Dozens of metal and glass skyscrapers reflected the brilliant sunlight, so that the city appeared like a jewel on the land. The streets between them were teeming with brightly clad individuals. Athan stopped to marvel at the scene.

The room’s opulence matched the beauty outside. The walls were decorated with carvings and gold leaf and the domed ceiling depicted an intricate scene from mythology.

Soldiers stood positioned throughout the chamber. One of them brought his radio to his lips. “Confirm royalty in west corridor.”

“Confirmed. Royalty in west corridor,” came a response.

The soldier nodded to his comrades and the door to the adjoining hall was locked. They began turning off the lights as they prepared to vacate the chamber.

One of the men pushed aside a large blue window drape to reveal a concealed lever. He pulled the gear down and Athan witnessed the now-familiar illusion of the window screen being deactivated. The brilliant city outside vanished as the windows darkened. Small stone buildings, identical and without character, now dotted the landscape. There was no sign of the majestic skyscrapers. The streets were empty save for a few patrols marching down the main avenues. The only other movement came from the countless wisps of chimney smoke.

Athan looked out at the bleak vista. He had once been a part of that life. He would still be huddling beside a feeble fireplace amid the approaching winter storms had he not begun working in the palace. The sight of his old life used to bring a pang of pity and sadness. Now, he felt only bitterness at the memory resurfacing. Like the soldiers around him, he turned and walked out of the room without a second look upon the landscape. They closed the doors behind them, already thinking of other things.

The Lake

Lauren walked through the woods, each step cracking the dried twigs that littered the area. The earth was dry and lifeless. Only the trees provided a sense of solace from the gray sky overhead. She tightened her cardigan against the chill air. The surroundings were unfamiliar. She could not even recall how she found herself among the trees. The bewilderment was not unlike the moment after waking from a dream, its details quickly fading away. She brushed the blonde hair from her face and continued forward, with only the sound of her crunching footfalls to keep her company.

The terrain remained unchanged in every direction. It wasn’t long before Lauren began to feel a sense of anxiety in the pit of her stomach. She had not gotten lost since she was a little girl, but the same sense of overwhelming doom she had felt then returned two-fold. There was no adult to help this time; she was completely alone.

It was unlike her to leave home without a trusty large purse of essentials, much less wander through unfamiliar terrain without anything at all. She rechecked her pockets for a phone or car keys. Nothing. Her pace increased as she made her way through the woodland. It was unusually cold for the time of year. She had just admired the start of autumn as she drove home from work a few days ago, yet here the trees were mostly bare, their leaves already dried and crisp.

“Hello?” she called out in desperation, her steps quickening to a jog. “Hello!” There was no response.

She spotted a glow through the gray trunks, the unmistakable reflection of water. It was a lake so still, it seemed like a giant mirror spreading across the clearing. Lauren ran to it and scanned the distant shoreline for a hint of houses, roads, or landmarks, but saw nothing more than endless woodland. She looked up at the sky in desperation.

Turning back to the forest, she instinctively took a step back in surprise. There was a bench just a dozen feet away. A cloaked figure sat hunched upon it, head bent down. She must have run right past it.

Lauren approached the dark antiquated bench. Even its bolts had long since rusted over. The figure remained motionless. Its cloak was deep burgundy, almost brown, and composed of thick, rich fabric with intricate patterns weaved into the exterior. The hood rose slowly to peer at Lauren, the stranger’s face hidden in shadow. The young woman froze in her path.

Old dark hands rose to pull the hood back, revealing an elder woman within. Her face was a dried riverbed of cracks. Her prominent nose came to a hook and her gray hair formed a neat bun. Her gaze seemed to penetrate Lauren, revealing the young woman’s every detail, every flaw. It seemed like ages before the stranger motioned to the spot beside her on the bench. The newcomer cautiously approached and settled onto the antique planks. There was no emotion on the wise old face beside her; the cloaked woman simply observed.

Lauren was about to speak when the stranger reached into her cloak. There was a tattoo on the elder’s wrist, a simple cryptic symbol resembling something like a stylized leaf or feather. The woman opened her rich covering to reveal an intricate picture frame lying on her lap. It sparkled with gold leaf in contrast to its monotone surroundings. Enclosed in the frame behind a pane of glass was a photograph. It was yellow with age and not any picture she had seen before, but there was no mistaking that the woman in the frame was Lauren herself.

The stranger rose casually and knelt at the edge of the lake. Her sinewy fingers placed the frame atop the water’s surface. It balanced perfectly as it floated from shore. Lauren felt her heart pounding as she watched the scene before her. The old woman remained silhouetted against the lake in perfect stillness while the frame continued to float down its watery path.

Lauren joined the stranger at the lake’s edge, but her eyes never left the distant frame. She could almost see herself behind the glass in place of the photograph, floating silently, staring up at the sky. The frame slowed its path and rotated calmly on the water. The old woman gazed forward with utmost concentration.

The frame suddenly stopped its slow spin and disappeared into the watery depths, sinking in silence. A heavy weight settled over Lauren. The old woman sunk her head, as if in disappointment.

Lauren’s fright and anxiety increased with every passing second. Her breath quickened, her chest pounded. Her thoughts became overwhelmed by dark memories, events that had long been forgotten. Each one refreshed the malice, jealousy, and anger she had experienced in those moments, and they settled upon her like a physical mass atop her heart.

The two women stood at the lake for some time, but nothing more was said. Lauren could only gaze up at the sky through teary eyes.