Review coming soon! I’m not quite finished with this yet but so far it’s excellent. And I loved the book before it, so I anticipate it will be a great read. :-)
AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Sophia pressed her forehead against the chilled window glass of her private chamber and tried to capture a glimpse of life, far below and out of reach.
The harbor, more than one hundred cubits down, churned with boats whose sails flapped in the dying sun like the scales of white fish, and with ant-sized servants who scurried to deliver supplies to her lighthouse before its Keeper punished them for their delay.
On a white-cushioned couch behind her, one of Euripides’s plays called for her return to its lines of tragedy. She resisted. The words had already bled into her heart with remembrances she wished to avoid.
Enough foolishness. Shoulders back and eyes unblinking, she crossed the room to a cedarwood desk. Her astronomy charts covered the wall above, but it was a more practical papyrus that she spread on its surface. She weighted the top corners with two small statuettes of Isis and Osiris with a muttered apology to the gods, and let the bottom corners curl upon themselves. The late afternoon sun burned through the window, setting dust particles afire in the air and touching the lighthouse’s fuel consumption chart and the scrawled labor requirements. Sophia retrieved her sharpened reed and ink and added notations to the latest entry.
Work first. Then she could spend the evening brooding over Euripides’s plays, and even the past.
Behind her, sharp knuckles attacked the outside of her door. Only one person knocked like that, and only one person would bother to make the climb halfway up the lighthouse’s three hundred cubits.
The door flew open before she invited entrance. Her personal servant stumbled in, eyes wide.
Sophia jumped to her feet. “Romans?”
Ares leaned against a marble stand that held the sculpted bust of Plato, winded. The heavy-footed Roman legion marched into Alexandria several weeks earlier. Sophia had been waiting for war, as one waits for a ship returning from far-off trade. Knowing it will come, never certain when.
But Ares was shaking his head. “She’s here! She climbed over the – ”
Ares was shoved aside and another figure slid into the room. Sophia’s heart danced over a few beats, then settled into a staccato. The young woman before her smiled, the languid look of a woman who knows her own power. “Sophia–” she extended both her jeweled hands. “How I have missed you!”
Sophia let out her breath with one quiet word. “Cleopatra!” She waved to her servant. “Leave us, Ares.”
The boy backed out of the room.
“And not a word of this!” Sophia called after him.
When he had closed the door she took a hesitant step toward the younger woman. “How? Have you made peace at last with your brother?”
Cleopatra flung the question aside with a wave of her hand. “The little brat knows nothing of monarchy. It is those three leeches that hiss in his ears that are the problem.” She spotted the black and gold kylix of wine and brightened. “I am parched.” She crossed to the table and ladled wine into an alabaster cup. “The sea, you know.” She filled another cup and handed it to Sophia.
Sophia studied her, speechless. Her magnetic power seemed undimmed by her recent exile. Her white robe, trimmed in gold and purple, hung a bit more loosely on her frame.
“You are thinner.” Cleopatra sipped the wine and grimaced. No doubt it had been left too long in the bowl. “Will you never cease to fret over me, Sophia?”
Sophia’s breathing had returned to normal, and she found a place on the couch. “Sit. Tell me.”
Cleopatra came to her, dropped a knee to the couch, then curled herself next to Sophia like a leopard settling to rest. She lifted the skull of a panther from the low table before them and turned it around with her long fingers.
“Did you get in unseen?” Sophia asked.
“Apollodorus rowed me into the harbor in a small boat. We docked in the Eunostos Harbor, away from the crowds. I climbed ashore at the base of the lighthouse and circled to the door. I am safe here, Sophia.”
Sophia swallowed. “Why take such a risk?”
“It has been an eventful few days.” Cleo set the skull back on the table with a thunk.
“I thought you were in Syria.”
“I was. My little brother Ptolemy and his three sycophants are camped at Pelusium, with their armies ready to attack my troops. But I believe the gods have other plans.” She smiled again, the scheming grin Sophia had known and loved since Cleopatra’s childhood.
“What have you done?” Sophia closed tight fingers around the girl’s wrist, as fear clamped itself around her heart.
Cleopatra inclined her head and laughed, then stroked Sophia’s arm with her fingertips. “An opportunity has come to me on the heels of Ptolemy’s foolishness.”
“So what has your brother done?”
“The Roman Pompey fled to my brother, hoping for Ptolemy’s support against Julius Caesar. But Ptolemy’s three advisors decided they would rather gain the favor of Caesar. They greeted Pompey with a knife point.”
“He is dead?”
Cleopatra nodded. “And now Caesar has arrived here in the city.” She crossed one leg over the other and bounced her foot. “My brother’s men sent him Pompey’s head as a gift. Caesar was furious at his adversary’s ignoble death.”
Sophia slapped her thigh. “These barbaric Romans. Impossible to comprehend. They stomp all over the world with their insatiable lust to conquer, but when someone kills their enemy, they are angered.”
Cleopatra’s eyes glittered. “Yes, he sounds fascinating, doesn’t he?”
Sophia’s apprehension returned. . “What are you going to do?”
“Take advantage of the opportunity.”
“It is not safe for you in the city, Cleopatra. You must return to Syria, under the protection of your troops.”
Cleopatra removed her hand from Sophia’s arm and unfolded herself from the couch. “You would have me remain a child forever! I am no longer your student.”
Sophia stood as well, matching the fire in Cleopatra’s eyes with her own. “You are twenty-one!”
Cleopatra flung her hair over her shoulder. Her face was a mere handspan from Sophia’s. Her voice was low. “And I am Queen of Egypt.”
Sophia shifted away, but Cleopatra clutched at her, spun her back to herself. “Do not be angry with me, my Sophia. Tell me you love me still.”
Sophia sighed. I could never control her. “Would I have spent all those painful hours teaching you the languages of Egypt if I did not love you?”
Cleopatra lips formed a pout, reinforcing her youth. “You were well-paid by my father.”
Sophia touched Cleopatra’s cheek. “And I would have done it for nothing.”
The younger woman’s expression cleared. “There, now you have made me happy. Next you must tell me how beautiful I look in spite of my thinness, and then I will be satisfied.”
Sophia looked over the queen’s long reddish-brown curls, her regal features, the fine fabric of her robe and the twinkling jewels stitched to her headpiece and wrapped around her arms and fingers. “Cleopatra, as always, you are stunning.”
The girl fluttered her eyelashes playfully. “You have them all fooled, Sophia. But not me.” She pointed to Sophia’s masculine tunic, carelessly belted. “I know the real woman beneath all your manly clothes and your harsh manner. I know there is something good buried.”
Sophia’s inner restlessness stilled, as though she had grown cold. She nodded once, unable to answer, and then retreated to the couch. Let us speak of something else.
Cleopatra dropped beside her, and leaned her head against Sophia’s shoulder with a sigh. The sun’s last rays splashed through the west window and lit up the gold trim that edged her robe.
“What will you do?” Sophia whispered, knowing she would not like the answer.
Cleopatra did not lift her head. “Caesar is ill-disposed toward my brother and his advisors tonight. I will cause his favor to fall on me.”
“And how will you accomplish this?”
Cleo laughed. “I know it has been a long time, Sophia. But do not tell me you have forgotten how a woman can gain the favor of a man.”
Sophia pulled away from her. “No, Cleo. No.”
Cleopatra tossed her hair over her shoulder. “I have only this brief moment to gain his favor. My brother will surely arrive by tomorrow. It must be tonight.”
Sophia’s stomach clenched. “You are young, inexperienced. And he is a Roman!”
“The world is changing.”
Sophia exhaled heavily. “For over two hundred years your family has ruled Egypt. The Egyptians have come to accept that. And you understand their ways. You respect their love of knowledge, you share their desire to decipher the world. You have even embraced their gods. But these Romans, Cleo, they are crude savages, interested only in blood and victory and power!”
Cleopatra looked away, to the darkening window. “I think you forget how interested in power I am myself, Sophia.”
She traced Cleo’s strong jawline. “Born to rule. Raised to rule. Queen at eighteen.” And exile in the face of your brother’s treachery has done nothing to dull the hunger. “Can I not talk you out of this foolishness?”
Cleopatra’s lips twitched in amusement. “There we are. I knew you would come around.” She pulled Sophia toward her and once more leaned against her shoulder. “Just let me stay until the darkness has fully fallen.” She sighed deeply. “I am so tired.”
Sophia relaxed into the cushions and took the weight of Cleopatra’s exhaustion. The girl was asleep in moments, leaving Sophia to her own thoughts. She let Cleo sleep as the evening wasted.
Her hair hung over Sophia’s shoulder, where her own hair would have lain if she had not cropped it close to her head. She stroked Cleopatra’s robe with one finger, then draped the fabric over her own thigh.
She is everything I am not.
And yet despite their differences, Sophia always found herself more whole in Cleo’s presence. The girl was like pressed oil, filling in the cracks and brittle places of Sophia’s soul with something warm and smooth. When they were together, all the tension and anger that seemed to define Sophia ran out of her, leaving her feeling almost human.
Sophia had begun to doze as well when Ares’s knuckle-bruising knock again sounded at the door. She glanced down to Cleopatra, but the girl’s gentle breathing continued. She shifted her to the cushions, then slipped away to open the door.
“For the love of Isis, Ares, what is it now?”
He stepped in, one hand still on the door. “A message for you, Abbas.” He held a scrap of papyrus. She pushed him into the hall and half-closed the door behind them.
Ares had called her abbas since he was a young boy.. Whether the Egyptian word for “lion” was a compliment or a slight depended on each of their moods.
Ares peered over her shoulder, into her chamber.
“Well, give the thing to me, Ares! Don’t simply stand there!”
Ares sighed and held it up to her. “Brought by one of the Library’s slaves.” He stepped close and held the message to her eyes.
Sophia moved back a pace. “You don’t need to breathe all over me!” She snatched the scrap and read it, her pulse quickening at the request inked there.
“Will you go?”
She scowled at Ares. “Reading my messages now?”
The young man, though half her age, stood much taller than Sophia. He gave her one of his crooked half-grins. “It is a long climb.”
She shoved the papyrus back into his hand and turned away. “There is nothing in the Library that cannot be brought here to me. Send a message to Sosigenes that he may visit me here in the lighthouse if he wishes.”
“The message sounded urgent.”
She whirled on him. “Then I suppose he should run!” Ares pursed his lips, and Sophia exhaled. This boy knew her well by now. He had long ceased to be offended or intimidated by her moods. “Why can Sosigenes not send a report as usual?” she asked herself aloud.
“Perhaps he thinks it is time for you to emerge from hiding.”
“I am not hiding!” Sophia put a hand out to the door. “I rarely need to leave the lighthouse. Why should today be different?”
“Because today someone has asked.”
The door blurred before her. It was true, no one had requested her presence in the city for a great while. “They fear me.”
Ares’s laugh was soft. “Yes, the mighty Artemis, commanding the world from her high tower.”
Sophia’s lips curled into a sneer and she faced the boy again. “Which am I, Ares, a lion or a goddess?”
He lowered his eyes. “Both need sometimes to emerge from solitude.”
“Well, not today. Send the message to Sosigenes. And send ten drachma with it, to remind him under whose patronage he spends his hours.”
Ares bowed his head and turned to the ramp, his silence seeming to condemn her.
Sophia closed her eyes and pressed her fingers into the bridge of her nose. She disliked leaving the lighthouse, and it annoyed her that the old scholar would summon her. She pushed back the thought that Ares’s comments were the true source of her irritation, then reentered her private rooms and lit several lamps. The flames played on the deep reds and blacks of the room’s furnishings, on which she had spared no expense. The luxury of her chamber rivaled any in the palace. The money that flowed continually to the lighthouse enabled her to live as she wished.
She retrieved the wine Cleo had poured. At the window, she lifted the cup to the harbor in a silent salute, then sipped the wine, ignoring its bitter finish. Yes, I live as I wish.
And every day the ever-present sea breezes whispered in her ear like a spiteful friend who would never let her forget.
She spent an hour over the charts, fine-tuning the plans for the coming month, searching for the slightest opportunity to increase efficiency. When the first noises shot up the cylindrical core of the lighthouse, Sophia barely noticed.
Moments later she dropped her reed on the desk, startling Cleopatra. The girl gasped, then heard the shouts. She turned wide eyes to Sophia. “Who is it?”
Sophia tilted her head to the noise again. Her fingers tightened on her chair.
From her earliest childhood, there was nothing Tracy loved better than stepping into another world between the pages of a book. From dragons and knights, to the wonders of Narnia, that passion has never abated, and to Tracy, opening any novel is like stepping again through the wardrobe, into the thrilling unknown. With every book she writes, she wants to open a door like that, and invite readers to be transported with her into a place that captivates. She has traveled through Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Israel and Jordan to research her novels, and looks forward to more travel as the Seven Wonders series continues. It’s her hope that in escaping to the past with her, readers will feel they’ve walked through desert sands, explored ancient ruins, and met with the Redeeming God who is sovereign over the entire drama of human history.
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This was a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!