“You were put on this earth to achieve your greatest self, to live out your purpose, and to do it courageously.”
Iras took a deep breath, tasting the dust kicked up into the air by panicked steps as dozens of servants moved about the palace. The battle of Actium had ended in defeat for Egypt. Marc Antony, royal consort, lay dead at his own hands. Iras knew, as everyone else in the palace did, that they were in the last hour of the Kingdom of Egypt.
The Romans were coming.
The castle was in a constant state of chaos. Slaves, servants, and soldiers readied themselves to flee or fight as they commanded. No one knew which would be decided, and many hoped that neither would. The hallowed halls that once housed Alexander and his generals stank of sweat and terror. All of Egypt held its breath in panic and fear. Iras could not blame them. No one could be expected to maintain civility as their world ended.
Except its Queen.
Iras was allowed into the royal chambers. She tried to stay calm. It would be unseemly for a handmaiden to be panicked. Any nervousness could have been attributed to the large wicker basket in her arms. It did not do well to appear nervous in front of the Queen.
Cleopatra Philopator, Queen of Egypt, sat calmly on the cushions of her bedchamber. She sat and waited patiently as Iras entered. Cleopatra made her decision. In the end, it was easily made. She hugged her three sons and her daughter, put the guards in their room, spoke to her slaves, and waited. It was the waiting, she found, that was killing her. Though, she supposed, that would pass too.
There was a silent dignity in choosing the moment and manner in one's death. It was the way of the old Emperors, before her family's Dynasty had claimed these lands in Alexander's wake. When the old Pharaohs' reigns ended for various reasons, they would commend themselves to have their soul and their reign judged by Anubis. It was also, the Queen mused, acceptable in Roman culture. In defeat, the patricians guilty of insurrection were able to take their lives. In taking their lives, the Emperors would safeguard their families and take their lands as wergild.
This, she suspected, was what Marc Antony had in mind that morning when he fell on his sword. His life for his family. His life for her and her children. The poor man forgot that he was not the true ruler of this land. She was the Queen, and the Queen had responsibilities.
Iras’ presence broke her reverie. She was a young thing who reeked of fear. Fear has many flavors, hers was acid-sharp like fruit gone overripe. She carried a wide wicker basket under the crook of her arm. The confusion the girl had when the Queen had asked for a basket of figs remained as she placed the basket down at the foot of the bed. To her, the Queen was calm. For all she appeared, the world was not falling down around them. Cleopatra saw the girl’s back straighten a bit, clearly trying to maintain some air of dignity in the face of the end. She walked out of the chambers silently.
And that, Cleopatra felt, was her role in all of this. While her home is crumbling, while her family either lay dying or under the threat of death, she had to remain calm for everyone else’s sake. It had been a role she had been trained for and had far too much experience in perfecting. The death of her Father, her two brothers with whom she ruled with, the Great Gaius himself, and Marc Antony. While everyone around her died, she remained constant in her decisions and her resolve. She had to.
In that silent moment, she made yet another decision. She stood up from her bed and removed the top of the basket. Amidst the pile of figs sat Death coiled. It hissed at her, as if in salutation. She, in turn, plucked it from the basket, stroking the back of its head. It knew what its role was to be in this, but it would fulfill it at her command.
She sat back down on the bed, the snake still clutched in her hands. It did not resist. Like Cleopatra herself, the snake was waiting too. She looked down on the snake, its tongue lashed out on her skin and the air around her to taste the temperature. Unlike her forbears in the Grecian line of Ptolemy, Cleopatra had studied the language and rites of Egypt, even so far as becoming a priestess—and many claimed the embodiment—of the Goddess Isis. She knew that the snake was special to her people. It was the symbol of Apophis, sowing Chaos among the reeds of the Nile and the streets of her country.
It was also the symbol of her Goddess. With the snake, Isis retained the True Name of Ra and took upon herself his power. It was Isis who brought her husband back from the dead. She had given Life where only Death should have been. With what Cleopatra planned to do next, she sought to do the same as Isis.
She took in a deep breath, calming herself. What she did now, she must do without hesitation. The Queen took the serpent to her breast and released it from her grip ever so slightly. Without speaking, she asked Isis to commend her gently to her husband's seat. She felt the serpent lash out at her. She felt the pressure of its fangs puncturing her flesh, its squeeze as its venom flooded her veins and polluting her life’s blood.
“Ah,” she said to herself. “There it is.”
The snake released its fatal grip. It slithered to her lap, and then down to the floor. From there, Cleopatra knew not where it would go. Its work had been done. As the venom coursed through her veins and her lungs struggle to catch a breath, Cleopatra knew what would happen. Octavian's armies would breach the palace. They will find her and the body of Antony. They will take her eldest son, Caesarian the son of Gaius Julius, and claim his life to assure Octavian's claims to his adopted father's titles. Her other children will live, forced to watch in Rome while effigies of their mother and father were paraded in Triumph. But it would not be them. She and Antony would be together again in Osiris' halls.
A short time later, the Romans breached the city and the palace. When they found Cleopatra, the Queen was lying peacefully on her bed. On her face was a small smile.
And the Kingdom of Egypt faded into history and legend, and so too did its last Queen.
Iras stood in the throne room as the Roman Legions took the palace. Gaius Octavian himself stood before her. He recognized her for what she was. She was a handmaiden of Cleopatra, priestess of Isis and now in the immortal halls of the Pharaohs. Octavian declared that she would accompany the body of her Queen to Rome, and stand with her effigy on his triumph.
She agreed, of course. She straightened her back, and never let the conquerors of her people ever see them slouch. Her Queen, in her presence and in her actions, taught her that one must always have dignity. Even as the Romans belittled her and her Queen, it was worth the sacrifice. She would live on.