"ancient of turn and tide"
Genre: Drama, Romance
Characters: Ensemble Cast
Summary: "I have heard it said that the Gods build up greatly what they mean to destroy in the brightest of flames."
Notes: This year I am playing around with the 50 sentence challenge over at another site - which prompts one to write four stories a month based on a set of fifty prompts. The fifty prompts result in one sentence each, and then a whole story is formed from the snapshots provided in those sentences. Obviously, this challenge will slaughter grammar, and bring out the seldom seen fandom from the muse - but is a fun and curious thing that has already been incredibly interesting. If you wish to, you can track my progress in my profile.
But, the challenge aside – these were written in loving memory of Elizabeth Taylor (February 27, 1932 – March 23, 2011). After so many years, it felt only right to try to capture her standard for a legend.
That being said, I am aware of the historical inaccuracies and omissions both, so feel free to read with your blind-eyes on, and enjoy the glamour. And as always, enjoy.
Disclaimer: Nothing is mine, but for the words.
"Then to Egypt we shall go," Caesar declared, his voice troubled as his eyes tangled with the smoke billowing to the heavens above; fed like the greedy tide itself on the fallen Roman men, the casualties of the plague of civil war – the same sickness which had struck the kingdom across the great sea.
Alexandria rose like a pearl out of the shimmering cobalt of the Mediterranean, proud and ancient as she held white hands to the heavens – Alexandria, where the Great Conqueror himself was seduced by the Nile, and where Kings and Queens were risen from legend and divinity, and felled without mercy or pity.
"They say he shed tears when the head of Pompey was presented to him," Apollodorus concluded his report to the exiled queen, who stopped her pacing as a twine of idea started to take hold of her mind - the idea of returning to her beloved city, and sitting at its head once more as the Gods had foreseen.
The ring was heavy in his hands, distracting him from Rufio and Agrippa's words of strategy, heavy memories (of his daughter, her life with Pompey her heart's delight, and her death in bearing the son that would have completed their happiness a black stain that lingered with both men), regrets, and the unending years of battle finally weighing heavily on him.
She thought that the trip through the halls of her palace would drive her mad – the sway of Apollodorus' gait was jarring, and her hold within the carpet too dark, her palms were sweating, and she knew that she looked a fright – but any physical discomfort faded when she considered the task ahead of her, her thoughts and fears cascading upon her with the heavy cost of failure.
It wasn't right, in a way . . . the man before her bore the quiet strength of battles won and triumphs untold, clearly, he bore the mark of the Gods as Alexander reborn, and to see him fall to his body's failings (for while the Falling Sickness was a stigma of divine favor, it was still a sickness nonetheless) sat ill with her, a discontentment which she could not explain.
Where the girl he had met the night before had been pretty in an unkempt sort of way – spark and wit lightening her with a glory that few women could claim (hair tousled and elaborate eye make-up smeared from her hidden journey down the Nile), the woman reclining haughtily before him now, (an arrogance born of confidence and an ancient mysteriousness), looked every inch a Queen as she held his gaze – something that even the most battle hardened Generals failed to do.
"Do you smell smoke?" the girl Queen challenged nonchalantly, her deceptively light words doing nothing to mask the bite to her tone – and the Roman men stopped their mad fluttering about their leader (like honey bees to their liege) to watch the showdown to follow as beyond them the Library of Alexandria burned.
Not even great Caesar could hold the port of Alexandria with merely two legions, and still she looked for a miracle the likes of which he had conjured so many of before – knowing that if he could divine such battles, then surely he could proclaim her Queen undisputed where her puppet brother (strings held tight by Pothinus' fatty fingers) would see dead without a thought for remorse.
"If I trust anyone in the world, I trust Antony," Caesar said fondly, drawing a smile from her at the ease of memory in his voice, "Indeed – I believe you would get along with him rather well, he can be simple minded, but his humour is genuine and his passion real – a rarity in our circles."
Nature had made him a hard man – with skin sun darkened from so many campaigns under its rays, and body lean and accustomed to the weight of armor - and she, like many others, found herself listening when he softly spoke (the tone of a man who knew that people would strain to listen), and yet, the words she fired in return were what won her her throne and then later her seduction (for what was love but a trade of feints and charges, a strategy as ancient as time).
Rufio held a firm hand on Agrippa's arm, restraining the man who trembled with rage at seeing Caesar kneel at the throne of the girl he had made Queen, for while his own sensibilities recoiled (Roman views on equality chafing beneath his own experiences – for he was a freedman by Caesar's will alone, and he understood), he found his heart going out to the child, as ready to give his sword in defense of her as he was of Rome.
"Unfortunately, such vicious gossip travels even quicker than you do," Calpurnia looked up fondly as Antony raced to her side, her eyes resigned and spirit sad as she whispered what all of Rome knew – for while she was used to her husband and his ways, this time he sank his roots deep into a 'marriage' more equal than any he had taken yet, and her position remained continual on downcast eyes and careful acceptance.
He had known quick and easy in Rome and beyond – greedy women whom he could match in flare for seduction and cloak and dagger politics – and yet, here was the heiress of Alexander's dream, with a mind sharper than any tangible weapon, who kissed like a drowning woman, hands warmer than the sands that her people built their Empires on – and a part of him he thought dead (lost with Cornelia) spirited to life once more.
Fear had been absent to him for years (for as a General he marched with his men on foot as Alexander had done, his soldiers a truer marriage to his heart than any of his hand), and yet, he now felt true terror gust through him as he heard the Queen scream from the birthing chambers (remembering Cornelia who had died in birth, and Julia . . . his dear Julia) – somehow, in so short of time, the girl had endeared herself to him, and this was a battle he could not fight at her side.
Egypt had been as enthralling as her Queen, and he now found himself comparing the muddy Tiber to the jewel tones of the Nile, limestone Rome to marble Alexandria . . . divine kingship and rule to the ring of simpering men who stood opposite of him at every turn simply because they feared him – the embodiment of what they aspired to, but never could, be.
While she personally found the pitching of the ship over the Mediterranean to be nothing short of nauseating (not even caring if the wine was poisoned, as long as it would calm her irrational dislike of the waters), she found her heart twisting as she watched her little boy turn his face to the wind with a gaze like flint – as if he was challenging it – and in that moment, he was so much his father that she ached with the realization of it (the fear not of a Queen, but of a mother).
Rome – the mother of an Empire, untouched by an Emperor – was a fledgling city in comparison to her gilded home, still struggling to overcome its roots to achieve the beauty and grandeur that it's conquest after conquest had so afforded it.
Shrugging off flirting hands, Antony drew closer and closer to Caesar's side, his eyes captivated by the woman who headed the ornate procession through Rome's streets (as elaborate as any Triumph, and ten times as seductive to the people), seemingly cast from gold as Ra's wings enfolded Venus' body in a divine embrace (and almost instantly, Antony understood what had kept Caesar away from home for so long – with such a vision beseeching him to dream).
Brutus was silent as he bore Cassius' continuous urgings, his eyes troubled as he stared up at the statue of Cleopatra held in the temple of Venus; that seed of unease within him turning from ember to flame as he resolved in himself what must be done . . . for the good of Rome.
Caesar frowned as Antony gestured for yet more wine, covering his disapproval with light words as he said, "It will take a rare woman to put up with you and your vices, my friend."
"Don't you understand - kings are not elected, Gods are not decreed!" she exclaimed, letting her passions take her away until both men before her looked at her with her dream reflected in their eyes – Caesar seeing the world before him through one woman, and Antony as intoxicated on her passions as he was on any fine vintage.
"The women of Rome are in hysterics today – my, but what would my foes say if I turned away a crown on account of a woman's whims?" Caesar said softly, and from his teasing tone she knew that he was trying to ease her fears, but she didn't let him sooth her – not this time as she clung to him, sure that he was treading off to where she could not aide . . . and could not yet follow.
Their dream was killed – the seedling ripped from the earth before it broke the soil, and she raged at the barbarity of Rome, whose enlightened system allowed the little men to slaughter the god's own rather than admit to their divine gift – and thus stealing away that rank and rule which would have passed to her son . . . and oh Isis, but her son. . . what would become of him?
"If Caesar had named the child as his heir before he was old enough to protect himself, how long to you think Octavian would have lit the boy live – let you live?" and at the last three words there was something almost wild in Antony's eyes, something almost painedthat the grief in her recognized almost as instinctively as her own.
"I had once showed him the pyramids, you know," she whispered to the sleeping Caesarion, "here they burn their heroes on wooden pyres to forget . . . you will never be forgotten so, my son – I swear it."
After two years – two years of civil war, two years of Caesar's murderers still going free, and two longyears of facing off and catering to the increasingly ambitious Octavian – Antony still held on to the scrap of fabric he had taken from the Egyptian queen, the scent of her an oasis warm and ancient comfort to his senses.
"Soldiers do not fight for long when they are not paid," Rufio hissed when Antony remained unmoved by his words, deliberately refusing to bind a bleeding wound and seek funds in the land that Rome had long built its greatness from – all in the name of an infantile pride and stubbornness.
The people of Tarsus fluttered around the golden ship anchored in the harbor, and when Antony glared mutinously at the gathering, Rufio rubbed at his temples as he wondered why the Gods had cursed him to play the go-between to two such children.
"I will never be free of you," Antony voiced the confession with more feeling than he had ever prayed with as his fingers caressed the coins that loitered at her neck – drawing them away as he drew her close, determined that she should remember none other . . . just as he found himself lost, then so should she be adrift as well.
She had stolen time with him, she knew – nights where she forgot the crown on her brow and the plans within her mind until it was only her heart held before her for him to hold and to weigh; she had never expected to feel so, but she was blessed with the rare opportunity to rule and love jointly – and it was this that she tried to remind herself of when he set back for Rome once more.
Octavia breathed in deep as she once again tried to reach the man before her – but Antony was lost to her charms; his heart still caught in an unyielding hold all the way across the sea, and she could not even begin to unfurl the fingers that grasped him.
There was no divine blood in her veins to protect from the pain that ripped through her, no coolness of a Queen, or grace of Isis – there was just a woman who had been betrayed in the worst of ways . . . and left reeling from the blow.
"Oh yes – and now Octavian may wage war on you in his sister's name, and cast me as nothing more than the painted whore – thinkAntony, of what the longer repercussions of your actions are, don't you see that all of the power now rests within his hands – for you know well that Rome will not hesitate to wage war on one of her own!"
"I requested that Caesar kneel before me – I demandit of you," she spat, her hands clenching on the ankh and the crook in more than just rage, playing against the poised and regal image she normally presented as a sick and twisted satisfaction twined through her like a serpent at the incredulous (and pained) look on Antony's face.
Octavian gave a knife's edge of a smile as around him the senate rose in uproar – even the most staunch supporters of Antony falling silent as years of propaganda and careful maneuvering of single droplets became a deluge – one he firmly intended to drown his enemy in.
Antony had known the tides and turns of war - had seen the dieing and the living, the victors and those lost; and yet – his men were merely faceless phantoms to his mind, the Ionian sea around him a mere puddle that he had to cross to get to her . . . and it wasn't until he stood on the deck of the ship and looked behind him to realize the staggering impact of what he had wagered, and so dishonorably lost.
She found Antony inside the consuming shadows of her mausoleum, as dead within as she felt without; and something snapped inside of her as she rained blows on his skin, and insults on his ears – anything to get him to awaken to the living once more . . . anything to love and fight, even if it was only to return to death at her side.
"And what you ask of me is what I will never give," she looked Agrippa hard in the eye, knowing that Octavian himself would hear the storm of her words – for while her kingdom could fall apart around her, she could not offer up Antony in return for peace, not even for her throne and her life.
To hold Alexandria with a mere two legions was to court disaster (for such miracles could not be repeated); but as the people fled the sound of approaching troops, and the sands themselves quaked as the Gods sat opposite one another for their reckoning, Antony let himself believe in miracles once more – and if not in a miracle, then the possibility of an end . . . and an eternity spent with her as he could not spend in life.
There was no silence greater than that of an empty camp – the sun chasing the shadows from the sands to reveal abandoned fires and empty tents, the only body amongst the dessert's empty nothingness the dead form of Rufio – loyal to the last as he died protecting what he had been sworn to by Caesar, long ago.
Octavian's forces poured over the crest of the dune like raindrops from the heavens – and with his head held high, Antony charged the horde without an army at his back, determined to find an honorable end.
Cleopatra watched Antony ride out for the last time – taking in the proud set to his chin and the glint newly returned to his eyes – this is how she chooses to remember him, for this was what she had found in him to love so very dearly.
The length of her nights or days did not matter, they were empty without him – and as she took his last breath as her own, pressing her lips against his until he knew no more, she knew that she would follow soon behind him, just as he always had for her.
"You are no Caesar," Cleopatra hissed, her voice as venomous as a cobra as she let her eyes sing to Octavian of her hate, "to that man I would have bowed without being asked – you are not worthy even of me raising my gaze."
She felt as if she were the walking dead – her soul within Osiris' hands, but the thought of her son still running kept her alive – until she saw her dear child's ring heavy and unnatural on the hand of Octavian, and she felt even the last of her hate fail her as she grieved as both a mother and a lover – content now to meet those who had preceded her in death.
The prick of fangs was simply a tangible bite of everything unbearable running through her, but its sting was quick and its release was sweet – indeed, the play of shadow before her eyes danced with memories and illusions as she reached her hand out to take the one ghostly one offered to her was the death she had longed for (for she would not be dragged through Rome in chains where once she had descended like a Goddess through its streets).
"To this last, you are served," Charmion whispered, soothing her hand over the gold which cloaked her mistress, knowing that she would be blessed enough to awaken at the Queen's side once she, and Iras too, partook of the asp's venom.
Furious, Octavian paced before the tomb of Alexander as so many had before him, glaring at the Great Conqueror as if the death of his enemies were all his fault – in his rage striking out at the marble bust that kept faithful vigil, feeling a sick satisfaction sweep through him as the stone struck the ground, and shattered.
With the death of its favored Queen, the age of the Pharaohs was laid to rest as the land was swallowed within the jaws of the ever expanding borders of Rome – but there were still stories whispered, ancient tales told, and somewhere beyond the land of Osiris, these stories were all true to those who knew how to listen and speak the tales anew.