On each side of him were other officers, their faces harder and more set than his, and they served as a frame to set him apart. Now a second set of trumpets sounded, and it was our turn to descend, so that Father could greet his guests and welcome them officially. All eyes were upon him as he carefully stepped down, his royal robe trailing behind him.
I made sure not to trip on it. The two men stood face-to-face; Father was so much shorter and smaller! Next to the husky Pompey, he looked almost frail. He had a pleasant voice, and normally it carried well, but tonight it lacked power. He must be terribly, terribly nervous-and of course that made me nervous, too, and nervous for him as well.
Pompey gave some reply, but his Greek was so accented I could hardly understand him. Perhaps Father did; at least he pretended to. More exchanges followed, many introductions on both sides. I was presented-or was Pompey presented to me? Which was the proper order? I knew that princesses-let alone kings and queens! He probably did not know all these things, being from Rome, where they had no kings. Instead of his previous response-a tepid smile-he suddenly bent down and stared right into my face, his round blue eyes just level with mine.
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I could tell he regretted allowing me to come; he did not wish to do anything that might call unflattering attention to us. I was surprised to see him, and I wondered why he was there.
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He looked completely out of place. Would Pompey stop and single him out, too? But luckily he seemed more interested in getting to the food in the next room. Everyone said Romans were most fond of eating. The boy, who was dressed as a Greek and holding the hand of a bearded, Greek-looking man, must be an Alexandrian. He was studying us the way I had studied the Romans. Perhaps we were a curiosity to him.
Our family did not make many public appearances in the streets of Alexandria, for fear of riots. We walked slowly, and—I hoped—majestically past him, and entered the transformed room where we would dine. Some late afternoon rays of sun were stabbing almost horizontally across the chamber, just at the level of the tables, where a forest of gold goblets and dishes was waiting.
It seemed like magic to me, lighted up like that, and it must have to the Romans, too, because they were all laughing with delight, and pointing. Pompey was not pointing, nor were his companions. He did not even look particularly interested; or if he was, he hid it well. We took our places; all the adults were to recline, while only the lesser folk would sit on stools-and there were very few lesser folk present.
My nurse had told me that in Rome both women and children were relegated to the stools, but neither the Queen nor the older princesses would ever tolerate that here. I tried to figure out how many couches were needed for a thousand people to recline, and knew it was over three hundred-and yet they fitted into this enormous room, with ample room left over for the servers to pass between them easily with their trays and dishes.
Father was motioning me to a stool, while Pompey and his companions spread themselves on the couches clustered for the highest of the high. Was I to be the only one on a stool? I might as well have worn a huge sign calling attention to myself. I watched while my sisters and stepmother settled themselves, daintily twitching their gowns and tucking one foot under the other. How I wished I were only a little older, and could be on a couch! I felt myself to be so conspicuous that I wondered how I would ever get through the meal.
My Past and Thoughts
Just then Father ordered the bearded man with the boy to join us; I saw him sending for them. I knew he was doing it to alleviate my embarrassment; he was always very solicitous of others, seeming to sense their distress even if they did not voice it. The man nodded, seemingly unperturbed at being assigned to our exalted midst. He must be a philosopher; they were supposed to take all things with equanimity. And of course the beard confirmed it. He propelled his son forward, pushing him before him, and a stool was quickly brought for him.
Now there were two of us. I suppose Father thought that would make it easier. Actually, it just drew more attention. Whenever he wants to know something-oh, say, how deep the Nile is near Memphis-he can just summon someone to tell him, even in the middle of the night! Meleagros stiffened; he looked as though he wanted to smack the Roman. Meleagros is most interested in unusual plants and animals, and I understand that several of you have been observing and collecting near the Caspian Sea-after you ran Mithridates off, that is.
But Mithridates was not the only one to be run off-so were we, by deadly snakes. I never saw so manyall different sorts, too.
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But perhaps you would like to see them? And so on. The polite conversation continued. The boy by my side was silent, just looking. What was he doing here? The wine flowed, and the talking grew louder, more animated. The Romans forgot to speak Greek and lapsed back into Latin. What an odd, monotonous sound it had if you did not understand it. And I had not studied it. There was little to recommend it; nothing important was written in it, and there were no famous speeches in it.
Other languages, such as Hebrew, Syriac, and Aramaic, were much more useful. And lately I had even decided to try to learn Egyptian, so that I could go anywhere in my country and understand the people. But Latin? That could wait. I watched my sisters, who were hardly bothering to hide their disdain for the Romans; when the conversation fell back into Latin, Berenice and Cleopatra just rolled their eyes. I was worried about it; what if the Romans saw them? I thought we were supposed to be careful about giving offense. Suddenly trumpets sounded and an array of servers appeared, as if from out of the walls, and snatched the gold vessels away, replacing them with more gold vessels, even more heavily engraved and jeweled than the first set.
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The Romans just stared-as I supposed they were meant to. But what was the point? Why was Father so anxious to show off our wealth?
Would it not make them want to appropriate it? This confused me.
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I saw Pompey looking dreamily at the enormous cup before him, as if he were visualizing melting it down. And then I heard the word Caesar, and it was linked with something to do with greed and needing money. I thought Pompey was saying to Father-I strained very hard to overhear-that Caesar whoever he was had wanted to take Egypt and make it into a Roman province, since it had been willed to Rome …. Now I could not hear what Father and Pompey were saying, and it was terribly important.
I tried to blank out the voice right beside me, but it was hopeless. I wish to study him, therefore I will be a physician. But Theophanes kept asking him questions. Did he live at the Museion, too? Was he interested in any special sort of medicine? What about pharmakon, drugs?