One of the coolest trips I’ve ever taken was visiting the Lily Library in Indiana, which housed most of the notes, outlines, and manuscripts for the Amelia Peabody and Vicky Bliss books by Elizabeth Peters. Peeking behind the scenes at the writing process of my favorite author…too incredible for words!
If there are any other nerds in the audience like me, feel free to spy on my writing process as I get started with the sequel to Ahead of Her Time!
March 4, 2020 – Here’s What I Have So Far:
Cleopatra stared at the sleek new MacBook in consternation.
“This machine is deliberately trying to enrageme,” she snapped. “Take it away.”
The last pharaoh of Egypt was sitting at my Grandma Mitzi’s desk in Connecticut. It was my MacBook before her, however. Mitzi would never own such a device.
The office resembled the rest of Mitzi’s sprawlingmansion. Every ounce was lavishlydecorated, and this particular room looked like Lawrence of Arabia served as the interior designer. It was all dark wood, dusty paintings of 19th century explorers, and red-tinged lamps.
“Your Highness, you’ve mastered every modern device but the computer,” I lied. “The lights, the refrigerator…”
“I do enjoy the perpetualillumination,” she admitted. “But what do I care for fire and food? Never before have I had to prepare what I eat!”
“Yes, I know how difficult it can be to make a sandwich.”
“The indignity,” she muttered. “Like a slave!”
“But you are the queen of Upper and Lower Egypt,” I rallied, trying to steer the conversation in a more productive direction. “There is nothing you cannot do! And in this time, a young person cannot survive without knowing how to use a computer.”
“I am not so young.”
“Trust me, Your Highness — where we are now, 29 is still young.”
Cleopatra turned a wary eye in the direction of the MacBook. “Tell me again what this machine does.”
I paused. “Consider this. How long does it take a scribe to write a court document?To carve inscriptions in tombs?”
“Those are two different questions. To prepare a tomb takes years, but court documents can be completed with immense efficiency.” She waved a golden hand. “A day, no more.”
I gently re-opened the computer, pulled up a word processor, and began typing. “Imagine if the same work took only moments.”
Cleopatra raised her royal nose in the air, unimpressed.
“That’s not all,” I continued. “This device contains all of the information in the entire world.”
Her head swiveled back in my direction. “This device? And why do you possess it?”
“The information isn’t only on this device,” I clarified, ignoring the veiled insult, “but it allows me to access all of the world’s information. It’s like—like a little machine that allows me to view all of the Library of Alexandria, without actually traveling to Alexandria.”
She blinked more quickly than normal.
“If it contains all of the information in the world, as you say… Does it know history? Can it tell me what happened after we fled?”
Silently, I pulled up Cleopatra’s Wikipedia page. She raised her eyebrows at the main image. Then, moving her lips as she went, she began to read.
Transfixed, she moved only a finger to indicate when it was time for me to scroll down. Every once in a while I caught a sly smile — the section on how she met Julius Caesar, enchanting him by rolling out of a rug, was one — but her face lengthened as she continued.
A few more scrolls brought the penultimate section into view. Demarcated in offensively bold letters and titled “FINAL DEFEAT,” I couldn’t help but wince at the humiliation of it all. Next to the text were paintings of Cleopatra (breasts bared, of course — no self-respecting classicist would paint anything so blasé as a shirt), a snake wound round her arm, inflicting the bite that would kill her.
“They look nothing like me,” she eventually said.
“Ironic, in a way,” I replied, trying to match her detached tone. “Since it wasn’t actually you to begin with.”
Only a handful of people know what really happened in those final hours. Historians believe Cleopatra and her husband Antony killed themselves à la Romeo and Juliet, both believing the other already dead, after their final defeat at the hands of the Romans.
The historians are right about Antony. They’d faint if they knew what really happened to Cleopatra.
In short, I saved her, bringing her back with me to modern times. There’s more to it, of course, but that’s another story.*
“Show me what happened to the worm, Octavian,” Cleopatra ordered. “He was assassinated, I presume? Brutally?”
I pulled up the Wikipedia page of her rival and conqueror.
“41 years?” She said. “He ruled for 41 years? And lived to be 77?”
An intense discussion of time had been necessary for Cleopatra to understand what jumping 2,000-odd years into the future entailed.Once I explained that Americans measured time like the Romans, the minor adjustments were easily comprehended.
“I’m afraid so. He presided over one of the most prosperous eras of Rome. The ‘Pax Romana,’ he called it.”
“The Roman peace,” she snarled. “Paid for with Egyptian gold.”
Despite her belligerent tone, her eyes were welling with tears, and I noticed she’d avoided looking at any photos of Antony. Rakishly handsome, the artists had done an admirable job of capturing his athletic figure and slightly tousled appearance.
“There’s more,” I offered, “if you scroll down a little further. It’s about your legacy.”
The sub-section began with a list of the (many) books and movies she’d inspired. Wild amusement crossed her face at the pictures of Elizabeth Taylor, bedecked in blue eyeshadow up to her eyebrows, but I could tell she secretly approved. When she really didn’t like something, there was no amusement involved.
I’d been comfortably scrolling, but my finger froze when I saw the next section. I deftly attempted to exit the tab, but Cleopatra slapped my hand.
“Ouch!” I cried. “It’s nothing. The article is almost—”
But the queen of Egypt wasn’t listening. Brow furrowed, she was already reading the damning words under “CONTROVERSY”:
“Many scholars believe Cleopatra tricked Antony into killing himself. With his death, she would be free to forge an alliance with Octavian. After all, she had already seduced two Roman rulers. What was to prevent a third?”
The air grew still. I was afraid to look at Cleopatra, for fear she might hit me again, but I was vaguely conscious of a strange clicking noise. Eventually, I realized she was grinding her teeth.
“So this is how the world remembers me? As a harlot?”
“No! If anything, the world respects the lengths to which you went to save your kingdom.”
The queen went silent again. I put a tentative hand on her forearm, and she turned a tear-streaked face toward me.
“I would have, though,” she whispered. “No, not to Antony! Never would I have hurt Antony. But I would have made peace with Octavian. If he’d been that sort of man.”
“It’s the past. And he wasn’t. Had you stayed, all that awaited you was a very public execution.”
I withdrew my hand, still tingling from her slap, as Cleopatra stared at the latest image on the screen. Called Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners, it was one of the most famous paintings of her. In it, she reclined regally on a couch while a slave fanned her. In the distance, prisoners were being given various poisons while she coolly observed the effects of each.
“I’ll…give you a moment,” I said.
Then I gently closed the door to Mitzi’s office, leaving Cleopatra to consider her story through the eyes of history.
“How she today is?” Marcus, another product of my misadventure into ancient Egypt, asked.
He and my grandma Mitzi were seated in the sunroom enjoying a cup of coffee. Grammar mistakes notwithstanding, I couldn’t help but smile at the sight of him.
An ancient Roman soldier of patricianorigins, he’d been in Egypt with Julius Caesar’s men. In a roundabout way, Caesar was responsible for bringing me there, too.
Wild as it may sound, my parents discovered an ancient spell meant to protect the Library of Alexandria. When they disappeared after reading it, everyone assumed they’d drowned. They were maritimearchaeologists, after all, and spent most of their lives in the Mediterranean.
It wasn’t until last fall — nearly two years after their disappearance — that I read the same inscription and found myself flung back more than 2,000 years in time.
I, too, failed to prevent the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. I was, however, able to save the queen of Egypt and her infant son from certain death at the hands of the Romans. I also developed a perplexing relationship with Marcus, whose death would have been equally certain had he remained.
“How she today is?” I repeated with a warm smile. “Linguistically, better than you. Emotionally…”
Mitzi pursed her lips. “It’s been months, Noor. All this moping…”
I fell into a chair opposite them. “Moping! Not a word you often hear associated with royalty.”
“Nonetheless, it’s what she’s doing. I don’t mind helping out with little Caesarion. None of us do. But she can’t live in the past forever.”
Linguistically, Cleopatra’s progress had been nothing short of miraculous. I shouldn’t have been surprised. She already spoke nine languages, and according to Plutarch, could turn her tongue “to whatever language she pleased,” like “an instrument of many strings.”
Compared to the other languages in herrepertoire, English was a piece of cake. The pronunciation still gave her some difficulty, as it does with most non-native speakers — there are just so many inconsistencies to grapple with. But the grammar and vocabulary were child’s play, considering she knew most of the “adult” languages from which English descended.
Marcus was having a slightly harder time. He spoke only Latin, so while English vocabulary was coming easily to him, he still tended to speak with Latin grammatical conventions, putting the verb at the end of the sentence.
Anyone who set eyes on him wouldn’t mind if he spoke gibberish. Appallingly beautiful, he could’ve just stepped out of an Armani commercial.
Thick, dark hair waved atop his brow. Lean muscles — which I found all the more attractive for their authenticity, not having been acquired in a gym — showed beneath his new cotton shirt. His broad smile revealed even, white teeth.
The ancients actually had great teeth, similar to ours. Their dentistry wasn’t as advanced, but neither was their sugar consumption. Early Americans, in all their wooden-toothed splendor, simply fell in an unfortunate time chronologically — after the introduction of sugarcane, but before the introduction of the Sonicare.
“The queen has no purpose here,” Marcus said.
I rewarded his grammar with a broad smile, and Mitzi broke in, “Exactly! She needs a goal, a purpose, a…”
“Job?” I asked.
“Precisely,” Mitzi agreed. “And I have just the one. Lilith, you remember Lilith? She watched you once when you were a baby. She has a clothing line now, and—”
“You think she should work in fashion?”
“Well, her style did reverberate for thousands of years, darling.”
“True,” I nodded. “But professional clothing today isn’t what she’s used to, is it? I mean, I can’t exactly see Cleopatra in a pantsuit!”
Mitzi refilled her glass. “I think what she wears is less important than what she sells. There is an added advantage to this arrangement.”
“Yes?” I sat down in one of the other overstuffed chairs in the sunroom. They formed a circle around a glass table, and oversized windows allowed light to slice through dusty particles in the air.
“Deplorableas its practices are,” Mitzi said slowly, “the fashion industry is notorious forhiring undocumented workers. It was one thing to get Marcus and Cleo on a plane; fooling the IRS is another matter.”
“Your friend will turn a blind eye?”
“I believe so.”
We sat in silence for a moment, remembering the heart-stopping flight out of Egypt on forged documents. We expected sirens and Interpolagents to raid the aircraft at any moment. One Interpol agent, Herr Feder, was already highly suspicious of Mitzi. He seemed to think she was a criminal mastermind, out to collect insurance money on all her disappearing relatives.
Thankfully, my reappearance put a definitive end to such inquiries (I hoped), but returning to Connecticut had been an unmistakable gamble.
We couldn’t live in Egyptian hotels forever though, and I could think of no better place for “immersion camp” than Mitzi’s quiet country home in Connecticut.
Plus, there had been a bona fidemedia frenzy when I reappeared. The sooner we got to a private residence, barring the metaphorical gates, the sooner life could go back to normal.
Cleopatra’s other rescuers — my lifelong confidant Harvey, as well as my two college roommates Shira and Viviana — parted ways at this point.
Harvey’s dad, whom everyone calls “the professor” due to his single-minded devotion to his work, would’ve gladly laid down his life for Cleopatra. Calling in favors with his friends at the university to get forged documents was nothing in comparison, so we were able to move with (cautious) optimism.
Shira went back to Israel, which wasn’t surprising, as she’d been “missing” for weeks after accidentally following me back in time.
I expected Viviana to go back to Italy, for she had been in a similar position. What I did not expect was for Harvey to join Viviana…not me.
“It’s not you, Noor. It’s her,” Harvey explained.
I had a moment of intense déjà vu. Harvey and Viviana had briefly dated the year before. When they broke up, hecandidly admitted that while Viviana lovely, she wasn’t…me. A moonlit kiss made his meaning quite clear.
And then I fled to ancient Egypt, where he found me some months later in a dalliance with a Roman soldier.
“Her, who?” I clarified. “Viviana?”
“What? Cleopatra,” Harvey said. “I’d go mad spending the summer with her, Noor. After what she did to that poor girl…”
I nodded. Cleopatra had willingly let her servant die in her place, in order to seal the ruse.
“I just need some space from it all,” Harvey continued. “And Viviana didn’t ask for this. She’s held up remarkably well, but…one of us should look after her. And Shira, of course, but it’s Viviana I’m really—”
“Fine. Go to Italy. Enjoy.”
I tried to soften the last word with a smile, but I’m not sure how well I succeeded.
It all worked out in the end. With three new people, including Cleopatra’s infant son Caesarion, Mitzi’s house couldn’t have accommodated anyone else.
I was still in my mom’s old room, and Cleopatra moved into the guest bedroom with Caesarion. Both rooms were on the second floor.
Marcus moved into the lone basement bedroom “for propriety’s sake,” as Mitzi put it. Marcus solemnly agreed, though I thought I saw his lips twitch.
He’d already proposed to me on innumerable occasions. I was 19, he was 22, if you did the math to convert the calendars. We were practically elderly by ancient marriage standards, yet he respected my protestations of youth.
Snogging and such were one thing, but marriage? No way. Not yet, if ever.
I must admit, despite my earlier irritation, that the adjustment was easier without Harvey hovering around like Banquo’s ghost.
Marcus disliked gyms, yet his upbringing forced him to remain active. To replicate the long marches his legion would take, always while carrying enormously heavy packs, he’d carry me on his back around the neighborhood for hours.
Peculiar we must have appeared, no doubt. My arms around his neck, more than once a passerby stopped to ask if I’d broken my ankle and needed assistance. Why else would a grown woman receive a piggy-back in broad daylight?
Eventually, though, the neighbors grew accustomed to the sight. Marcus was sublimely indifferent to the fond looks of the old ladies, and the envious looks of those considerably younger. I ignored them as best I could, planting my lips on Marcus’ neck when overcome by awkwardness, or some other emotion.
I could feel him smile on such occasions (his face being out of my eyesight). His grip would tighten, and he’d lean his head in my direction.
Yes, Harvey definitely would’ve been an encumbrance.
On one of our daily walks, not long after our conversation in the sunroom, I asked, “How are you today?”
“I am fine today,” he squeezed my right leg with the verb, proud of himself for remembering the order.
“Bene!” I squeezed his neck in return. “But seriously, how are you doing? Cleopatra and Caesarion need so much, I feel we’ve rather neglected your…emotional needs.”
A small puff of air indicated mingled amusement and exasperation.
Looking around before switching to Latin, he remarked: “Noor, I am not a woman, nor am I an infant. I’ve escaped death dozens of times. Had I remained…suffice it to saythat this is far more pleasant than death or exile.”
“I know, but—”
“Carpe diem!” he cried, breaking into a run. The phrase had been coined after we left, by his “old friend” Horace. Similar to Cleopatra, Marcus had Googled what happened to the people in his life. This particular phrase, which meant “seize the day,” seemed to have struck a chord.
“Does my contentment displease you?” he continued, not even breathing heavily. “Do you wish me to be sad?”
“Of course not!” I said, holding on more tightly as we rounded a curve. “I just want to make sure—”
“Rest assured, my love. You saved me from death or exile. Each day now is to be enjoyed, savored…”
I could sense where this was going, so I wasn’t surprised in the slightest when one muscled arm pulled me around his torso like a swing dancer. With my face now facing his, he planted a deep kiss on my lips, smiled in satisfaction, and returned me to my perch.
I breathe a sigh of relief as Noor, my erstwhile priestess, finally departs.
Even when I was a fugitive, on the run from my brother’s forces, I still had thousands of men at my command. The entire court was at my disposal, from the lowliest servant to the most battle-hardened soldier.
I choke back a bitter laugh. No one obeys me here, least of all Caesarion. At less than a year old, he cries constantly, echoing my thoughts exactly.
And Noor? She slithered into court claiming to be a priestess of Isis. If she hadn’t saved my life, I would’ve ordered her executed.
Now? Now they wanted me to get a job! Selling clothes, like a craftsman! The indignity is too much to bear.
I turn away from the computer, catching my reflection in the floor-length mirror, one of the few advantages of modernity.
Plagued by bevels and ripples, the mirrors of antiquity were like trying to catch one’s reflection in the sea. Here, I can admire my full lips and clear skin. Aside from my nose, which is slightly larger than expected, the rest of me is exquisite, exactly as a living goddess should be.
The house trousers I’m wearing, which Noor calls “leggings,” are deliciously indecent. Before arriving in Connecticut, I’d never worn trousers of any kind. They were the mark of uncivilized Germanic tribes; even the Romans scoffed at them.
And yet they permitted a freedom I found quite attractive. I cross and uncross my legs, admiring their contours as I move. I could never have completed such a simple act in the royal wardrobe. So inlaid with jewels, my gowns either permitted no movement whatsoever, or were so heavy, any movement would cause me to perspire unattractively.
The leggings were far too plain to be worn in public, of course. I’d already determined what I liked and disliked about modern fashions. Noor’s friend Viviana, the Italian, seemed to be the most avant garde in this area…
If I must become a craftsman, I concede, I could do worse than working with clothing. They could insist I take up farming.
Perhaps I could even get Noor to start wearing the light dresses that so flattered her at court. She’s almost as pretty as I am, but cares so little for her appearance…
I consider her features, so unlike mine, and yet striking in their own way. Like mine, her eyes aren’t just a color. Her eyes are active, like you can see her brain working behind them. I am certain you can see the same thing in mine. Active eyes are immensely attractive, for no one wants a dull companion.
She is slender, with a cute nose (curse her), and unruly hair of a lovely shade between gold and brown. She is so deadly serious for her age, and yet her hair belies her personality, winking coquettishly at the sun.
Yet she cares so little for her beauty, she may as well be hiding it! I made a few tactful comments about her appearance the other day, and she laughed.
“You know,” I sniffed, “that only children wear the sidelock. I hardly think anyone would mistake you for a child.”
“Sidelock? Oh, the ponytail?” Noor chuckled, touching the back of her head as she looked up from her book. “It’s OK! Anyone can wear one now.”
First she lies to me, then she laughs at me, now she contradicts me…How I’d relish sending her back to the palace dungeons.
My own hair was more beautiful — if plain — than ever. I’d always kept it short, donning extravagant wigs for public ceremonies. Long hair was simply too hot to maintain.
But I refused to be seen in public with my “pixie cut” after we were flung into this wretched pit of modernity.
Mitzi, Noor’s grandma, was the only one who understood. When we arrived in Connecticut, the first thing she did was book an appointment with her stylist.
I’d emerged from the salon with a head full of “extensions.” I’d never worn my hair so simply before, long and straight! Only ladies of disrepute wore their hair loose, and yet the style undoubtedly flattered me.
When in Rome, I thought cynically.
Mitzi arranged everything for my new “job.”
“You have no references,” she remarked, “and we can’t exactly put ‘last pharaoh of Egypt’ on the work experience section of your résumé. We’ll just have to be glad she’s taking you in at all!”
Mitzi insisted I be paid, badgering her old friend Lilith until she elevated me from intern to junior executive assistant.
I didn’t bother asking what an intern was. Based on Mitzi’s refusal to accept such an arrangement, I assumed interns worked in the public sewers, but didn’t bother to seek clarification.
“You’ll feel better once you have more control,” Mitzi assures me. I’m feeding Caesarion from one of the convenient pouches in the kitchen as she prepares lunch. “You’re used to controlling everything,” she adds, “and now you’re utterly dependent.”
I clench my jaw, and Caesarion lets out a little whine as I spill green purée down his chin.
Sensing my darkening mood, Mitzi hastens to add, “It’s not your fault, my dear. But a job will give you some pocket money, and financial independence is the first step toward modern freedom.”
“I know you mean well, Mitzi, but you are aware of how insulting this little speech is?” I wipe Caesarion’s chin before turning to her. “I have a treasury full of gold. I could fill this house from the basement to the attic with jewels, if I chose. That you should talk about how ‘good for me’ it will be to have a paltry ‘pocket’ full of coin…”
“It’ll be good for you,” Mitzi repeats, scraping the onions to the side of the cutting board. “And that’s that.”
Mitzi is the only one in this wretched house whose decrees I tolerate. I’ve never met anyone so old, and with age comes wisdom.
“Where am I supposed to be from, again?” I ask.
“Bulgaria. Not many Bulgarians in our area of Greenwich, so you’re less likely to be exposed that way.”
“Bulgaria,” I repeat the word, noting how similar it sounds to the Latin “vulgaris,” a word for the common people. “Is there not a place called Reginaville? Or Rexland?” I ask. “If we must use the Latin, that seems more appropriate.”
“Too late! Paperwork’s already been filled out,” Mitzi says, before giving me a softer look. “Just remember that your job is to help Lilith. She’s doing us a favor here, but we can’t count on it forever if you don’t earn your keep.”
“You look wonderful,” Noor repeats. “Just lie low until you learn the ropes. Try to be useful. It’s all you can do at a new job!”
“Lie low, as you did?” I ask, smiling despite myself. When our roles were reversed, Noor dropped into ancient Egypt with the subtlety of a thunderbolt.
Accused of burning down the Library of Alexandria, she claimed to be a priestess of Isis. Regaling me with “gifts” from the goddess — a phone, a pen, and a canister of pepper spray — she poisoned my sorcerer (on my orders), then saved Antony from a fatal poisoning sometime later…
Noor smiles back, then sees my gaze fall. She goes silent, too, respecting my mood…but only for a moment.
Giving my hair one last brush, she pats me with excessive familiarity on the shoulder. “Good luck on your first day. I know you can do this!” she smiles. “I’ll see you at 5.”
Mitzi escorts me to Lilith’s office herself. While I’d never tell her, I’m secretly relieved she does.
She’s taken me to “the city” before (to anyone in the area, there is apparently only one city worth mentioning, hence the definitive pronoun). Amid the mass of bodies and buildings, I’m doubtful I’d have been able to find the offices of À La Mode magazine without her.
Never before have I seen so many people! And they rarely move out of my way. They expect me to move for them!
“It’s rush hour, love,” Mitzi says, looping her arm through mine and gently pulling me out of the bike lane. “Think of it like a dance. Sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow. You’ll learn it soon enough.”
I have no idea what she’s talking about, but I refrain from saying so. I’m too busy glaring at the biker who nearly knocked me down. How dare he?
We eventually enter a building so tall that I cannot see the top. As the electric doors swing open, I repress a smile. The gates to my palace are far larger than these puny doors, at least.
The smell of the city — a nauseating mixture of stale urine, trash, and wet concrete — is immediately replaced by the slightly less repellent odor of false air. Air “conditioning,” they call it?
Mitzi announces our identity to one of the guards at the front desk. She slides over our drivers’ licenses, hers genuine and mine forged.
I note that her breathing becomes slightly shallower until the guard returns them, sliding them back across the granite counter along with two small pieces of paper.
“Put these on,” he says. “34th floor.”
“Thank you,” Mitzi peels the paper in half, sticking one side to my chest. When she does, I notice that the paper has my face on it!
“When did you take my likeness?” I demand of the guard. “I see no phone.”
“Come on, Cleo!” Mitzi says, her voice going shrill. “Musn’t be late for your first day!”
Her grip is surprisingly firm, and I allow myself to be led away.
“That man!” I insist. “How did he do that?”
“There’s a little camera at the desk,” she says. “It’s another kind, but let’s not worry about that for now.”
“Fine,” I say, striding to the nearest elevator. I know of such things from our trip to the mall (a most astonishing place, though Mitzi wouldn’t buy me the fountain at the center).
“Not that one,” she says. “This bank doesn’t go to À La Mode. The other side.”
“Bank? A location for depositing money?”
“Oh, dear…We may have underestimated…But that’s us!”
A bell dings on the other side of the lobby as two metal doors whoosh open. The crowd surges forward, sweeping Mitzi and me along with it.
“Thirty-four, please,” Mitzi says. A bored businessman near the buttons punches it in, not bothering to look up.
“Tell me more about Lilith,” I say, hoping to distract myself from the rapid movement beneath my feet.
Mitzi gives me a tight-lipped smile as our fellow passengers eye me askance.
“One doesn’t typically talk in an elevator, dear, especially about people like Lilith.”
The movement slows, then stops for a few merciful seconds as three men exit. The doors swing shut once more, and I now have enough space to move my arms.
“What do you mean, ‘people like Lilith’?” I press. “What’s so special about Lilith?”
This time Mitzi flushes slightly, but the stopping of the elevators gives her an excuse to avoid my question. She moves out of the way as the ladies behind her exit, giving us curious looks.
Up once more we go, now accompanied only by one other individual.
“James! I didn’t even realize that was you!” Mitzi cries, kissing him on both cheeks. “James, meet Cleo, my granddaughter Noor’s friend.”
“I was wondering when you’d notice,” he says, breaking into a broad smile. “It was hard to miss the two of you, I must say.”
James is a handsome man some years older than I — closer to Caesar’s age than Antony’s. His accent sounds like Harvey’s. British. I remind myself. Tan and trim, he wears his suit with effortless elegance.
“It’s Cleo’s first day. She’s from Bulgaria,” Mitzi adds, as though that means something.
“Well, Cleo, it was a pleasure meeting you. Don’t hesitate to ask if I can ever be of assistance.”
The subtle ding of the elevator marks the end of his sentence with perfect timing. I give him my most regal smile, pleased to find someone behaving with proper decorum.
“Thank you, James,” I respond, with a graceful tilt of the head. “I will remember that.”
Mitzi gives a nervous laugh. A buzz of activity greets us as we exit. Women of Amazonian proportions — impossibly tall and slender — are garbed in colors and patterns I’ve never beheld. They rush this way and that, trailed by haggard slaves.
There are men present, too, but the proportions skew female, particularly among the Amazons.
“You’ve taken me to the right place, Mitzi,” I say, breathing a sigh of contentment. “Finally, finally! You’ve found my people.”
“Relieved to hear it,” Mitzi says, leading me toward a glass-lined antechamber. “This is the assistants’ suite. You’ll probably work from here. And Lilith’s office is just through there.”
I immediately feel at home. The walls are covered in art. Most of it is framed, rather than sculpted into the wall itself, but I admire the designer’s irreverence for modern trends.
In the corner, a cloth sculpture wears a half-stitched dress. My future employers are clearly influenced by the highest standards (i.e. mine). The sculptures in my palace were legendary.
Already feeling a sense of fondness for the mythical Lilith, I consider the various ways in which I can help secure her legacy.
“Why does she not use stone?” I ask Mitzi.
“Stone,” I repeat. “That sculpture won’t last 100 years.”
“Oh! It isn’t meant to. That’s a mannequin, darling.”
I give her a blank stare.
Mitzi looks around the empty room — two desks on either side of us, and Lilith’s empty office beyond — and decides now is as good a time as any for an explanation.
“It isn’t the sculpture that’s meant to last, but the clothes upon it. You’re working in fashion now, remember?”
“Of course,” I nod. “Nevertheless…”
“Just do what Lilith says. Here she comes!”
An outlandish figure approaches. Her hair is so blonde, it’s almost white. Her lips are at least three sizes too large, covered in a garish shade of orange. Enormous, black-rimmed glasses cover the top half of her face. Turquoise hoops dangle from long creases in her earlobes. I struggle to take in all the details. She reminds me of the abstract paintings Noor showed me, the kind that are all splotches of color with no real pattern.
“Mitzi, darling!” The figure approaches, taking Mitzi’s hands and kissing her on the cheeks. “Is this the girl you mentioned? Excellent! Girl, there’s your desk. Fetch me a coffee. And Mitzi, tell the girl to pencil you in for lunch sometime. Au revoir, love.”
The woman, whom I can only assume is Lilith, continues into her office. She’s trailed by a much younger woman, who sits at the desk opposite “mine”.
“First day?” The girl whispers. She looks like a younger, prettier version of Lilith. The vibrant colors make her hair and gently tanned skin shimmer. The thin layer of sweat merely adds to her glow.
“It is,” Mitzi answers for me, though my mouth was clearly already open. Then Mitzi turns to me and says in sotto voce, “I’ve never seen Lilith at work before! This should be…interesting. But the die is cast. I’ll pick you up this evening, Cleo.”
Mitzi leaves, and the girl across the room says, “Cleo! Like Cleopatra?”
I give her a tolerant smile. “The same.”
“I no longer have the coolest name in the office, I guess. I’m Strawberry.”
“Gwyneth got the idea from my mom,” she said proudly. “You know, Apple?”
The poor girl is clearly rather lacking in wits. I’m not surprised Lilith needed additional counsel.
“Peach!” Lilith sings from her office, just beyond ours. “When does James arrive? And girl, where is my coffee?”
“She knows it’s Strawberry,” the girl whispers. “Just one of her jokes. She takes her coffee with macadamia milk, by the way.”
This information passes over me with scarcely a ripple. I needn’t remember it because I would rather die than fetch a beverage for someone.
Clearly, both of these women have confused me for someone else. I decide it’s best to rectify the situation immediately, approaching Lilith’s office.
A continuation of her appearance, the room has the scattered look of a bohemian vagrant. Colorful fabric is draped across chairs, a litany of glossy magazines decorate her desk, and a perplexing blend of artwork assaults the eye. A marble statue of Hercules, tucked in the corner behind her desk, sports smiley-faced boxers and Ray-Ban sunglasses. A rococo painting of a fancy woman has a garish yellow line slapped across the center. Next to it, a painting of Medusa now features a giant, white rose where the famous face should be.
“Lilith,” I enter her office, seating myself in the chair across from her desk.“It was wise of you to hire me, although it is already clear you’re not familiar with…”
As I speak, Lilith holds out her hand and begins snapping her fingers.
I turn an icy glare toward the appendages. “That noise is intolerable. If you must make it, do it when I am elsewhere.”
Lilith does her best to raise excessively Botoxed eyebrows. “When you’re elsewhere, hmm? Well, that shouldn’t be a problem because you are FIRED.”
“Thank you. I can only assume ‘fired’ is a compliment, since fire is uniquely powerful and beautiful.”
“Shut up. And Blueberry, where is my coffee?”
The girl grovels and apologizes from the other room, her voice trailing off as she disappears down the corridor.
“Fired means dismissed,” Lilith returns her gaze to me. “Permanently.”
“You intend to execute me?”
“What? No! Jesus, just go!”
I grow very still, wrapping myself in dignity as I did with Ptolemy’s generals. Mutinous minions of my pathetic brother, only they dared challenge my authority so openly.
This seems to discomfit her. Good. I am about to warn her of what happens to worms who grow too bold when she asks a simple question.
“Do you know why I hired you?”
“To help you, of course. Generous of me, to lend you my superior—”
“I hired you because I can always count on Mitzi to give generously at the À La Mode spring gala.”
“I see. Cultivating relationships for personal gain—”
“Choose your next words carefully.”
“—is a shrewd and clever practice. There were one or two Romans…but of course I grew to care for them deeply.”
Lilith eyes me with a new, speculative gleam in her eye.
“Indeed. Perhaps it would be unwise to fire you, but this,” she waves a gaudily-ornamented hand, “this rudeness cannot continue in my office.”
“Very well,” I smooth the crease in my skirt. “Let it not be said that I was ever rude.”
At that moment, the man from the elevator — James — enters. Lilith’s face transforms from a dagger-laced scowl to a beatific grin.
“James! Darling, come in.”
They exchange a double kiss. I subdue the simmering rage threatening to burst forth at not having been greeted first, as is only appropriate, when Lilith delivers the ultimate humiliation.
“Leave us,” she waves a hand in my direction.
I let out a long breath, nod gracefully at James, and retreat. Sometimes it’s better to let your adversary think you’re more docile than you really are.
The way Cleopatra went on about her treatment at À La Mode, you’d think she spent the day hanging by her thumbs in Lilith’s dungeons.
My wandering consciousness returns to her monologue. “…to suffer such treatment! I! I! The queen of Upper and Lower Egypt! The heir to Alexander!”
I don’t point out that, historically, she’s fudging the facts on that last bit. Alexander the Great died childless, some 300 years before she was born. Although admittedly, “I’m a descendant of one of Alexander the Great’s generals!” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
“You don’t have to go back. Just tell Mitzi it wasn’t the right fit.”
“Ha. Ha!” Cleopatra lets out a slightly maniacal laugh. “Admit defeat? Again? No. I’ll see Lilith tarred and feathered, felled by a superior being.”
“Tarred and feathered?” My lips twitch. “What have you been reading?”
“That is immaterial. The point is, she will soon learn the folly of throwing jackets at the daughter of Isis.”
“Throwing jackets? Is that a metaphor?”
“No. She threw her jacket at me. Repeatedly. And assumed I would hang it up!”
“So you see. I shan’t tell Mitzi, as it is not my business to meddle in their relationship. But from you, I will need…”
She rattles off a motley assortment of items, none of which are inherently fatal. I decide to indulge her. As Mitzi said, it will be good for her to feel more in-control.
Also, I’m tacitly sympathetic to her cause. I don’t want to encourage Cleopatra’s rage — she has quite enough of that already — but I’ve always found Lilith a dreadful snob. She fawns over Mitzi, and treats me like a flea.
“You’re not going to kill her, right?” I confirm.
“Regrettably, no. Relax, Noor. You’ve trained me well. Merely a little poetic justice…”
Our chat ends when Caesarion wakes up from his nap. His wails rent the air for barely a moment before Cleopatra runs to fetch him. In the beginning, she seemed to think Mitzi and I were nursemaids, on top of everything else.
I smile, thinking how far she’s come, before I overhear her conversation with the one-year-old. She’s left the baby monitor in my room — one of those new ones with video, sound, and night vision capabilities — and I can see her soothing him in the rocking chair.
“And that, my son, is why vengeance is a noble act. Would that your father…”
Caesarion gurgles in response, happily holding her around the neck.
I turn off the baby monitor and head downstairs, where Mitzi and Marcus are sharing cooking duties and a bottle of wine.
“Julian,” Marcus says, slicing peppers on the cutting board.
“Julienne,” Mitzi corrects.
“Naming something that has been cut after Julius Caesar. Too soon.”
“To you maybe. Also, julienning food — that is, cutting it into long, thin strips — wasn’t named after him. At least I don’t think. Noor?”
I join them at the counter. “I don’t think so either. A bit like a Caesar salad. Probably named after someone else who cut food that way?”
“In other news,” I change the subject, “I heard from Harvey today. Apparently he’s going to Rome. Again.”
“To visit Viviana?” Mitzi asks.
“Indeed.” Silence fills the air before I add, “I’d like to go, too. It’s time I pick up the search for my parents.”
Marcus is unaware of the past romantic tension between Harvey and me. Honestly, we just kissed. It was more the profession of undying love, right before I was sucked back in time, leaving everything oh-so unresolved…
It doesn’t help that Harvey’s been my best friend, confidant, and partner in crime since before I can remember. I can’t just cut him out of my life and move on. He’s like family, in a non-blood related way.
He and Marcus know each other. They met during our wild time in ancient Egypt, and got on surprisingly well. I could hardly hide my newfound relationship with Marcus, and Harvey was a model of modern masculinity.
I’m fairly certain there would have been fisticuffs at dawn had he been born in any other century, but he respected my choices, didn’t challenge Marcus to any duels, and didn’t even get overly resentful in that awkward way that boys can.
I can hardly fail to show him the same courtesy with Viviana. I’ve had a valid excuse in staying away thus far — Marcus and Cleopatra desperately needed a crash course in contemporary mores, and the seclusion of Connecticut couldn’t be beat — but they’d adapted. More or less.
I had no idea how the time link worked, but it was safe to assume that the longer I waited to resume the search for my parents, the more likely something terrible would befall them. I’d dodged death countless times in my own few months in ancient Egypt. How could they survive years?
Yet I knew with certainty that they’d been arrested in ancient Egypt, escaped, and fled to Rome. But that’s all I knew.
“Roma?” Marcus says, his interest piqued.
“Thought you’d like that,” I smiled.
“It will be interesting, to see the change.”
Mitzi added. “You two go. Cleo will need someone to watch Caesarion while she’s at work, and I think she’ll need the moral support.”
I know she didn’t want me to, but I tell Mitzi about Cleopatra’s plan for revenge, and my own role in helping her.
“Don’t tell her I told you,” I add. “Just didn’t want you to be surprised.”
Mitzi’s wiping eyeliner from her eyes, having laughed so hard at Cleopatra’s description of her day that she’s crying.
“A little revenge won’t hurt Lilith. The girl pulled the wickedest pranks at school. Laxatives in teachers’ coffee was just the start of it. This might be nature’s way of self-correcting.”
“She won’t tell me what she’s planning, though. Should that concern us?”
Mitzi waffles for a moment. “What harm could she possibly cause with XYZ?”
What does Cleopatra do???????