Beguiled by Her Betrayer(7)By: Louise Allen
‘Chinese?’ That was Mr Bredon. Father must have got on to the theory that Egyptian writing was a form of Chinese. Or was it the other way around?
Cleo watered the donkey and tossed it the last of the wilting greenery she had gathered that morning by the waterside. She would fetch more tomorrow on her way back from the military camp. Her back ached and she leaned for a moment against the dusty grey rump of the little animal, scratching the spot on his back just where she knew he liked it. ‘Your work is finished for the day,’ she informed him. Now for supper.
* * *
Quin found Madame Valsac spooning honey from a jar into a dish with the concentration of someone who was bone weary, but was keeping going by a dogged attention to every detail. He had found his robe, clean and sun-dried, his mended underwear, a turban cloth and his sandals neatly piled on a bed that she must have dragged into the other room and made up by herself.
The donkey was mumbling the remains of its feed, the encampment was tidy in every detail and the trestle table was laid for a simple meal. And he had spent an hour or so doing nothing more taxing than listen to Sir Philip lecture on Egyptian antiquities and try to stay awake in the evening heat.
Quin changed into his clothes, made a sling out of the length of cloth and went back out, steadying himself against the momentary flashes of dizziness and cursing his weakness under his breath. There was a basket of bone-handled cutlery on the end of the table and he began, one-handed, to lay three settings.
‘No need for you to do that. You should be resting.’ There was no hint of weariness in the cool, unemotional voice, but she did not attempt to wrest the basket from him.
‘I have been resting while I conversed with Sir Philip.’
‘I doubt it was a conversation. A new audience always opens the floodgates. Here, sit down.’ She poured liquid into two beakers, pushed one across the table to him and sat carefully, as though her bones ached.
They probably do. How old is she? Quin wondered as he took the drink with a word of thanks and sat opposite her, trying to recall his briefing. Only twenty-three. He sipped. ‘This is good.’
‘Pomegranate juice.’ She sat for a while, her fingers laced around her beaker as though she had forgotten what it was there for. Then she took a long swallow and called, ‘Father! Supper.’ She lowered her voice. ‘It will take several reminders before he comes, you may have your peace until then.’ That faint dimple ghosted across the smooth, sun-browned cheek and her tired eyes narrowed. He had not seen a real smile from her yet.
‘How do you bear it?’ Quin asked abruptly and watched all trace of amusement fade from her face. The sooner he got her out of here and back to the sort of life she should be living, the better.
‘The heat?’ She was quick, for he could have sworn she knew exactly what he meant. How do you stand this life, that man, the loneliness, the constant labour? ‘I am used to it, we have been in Egypt for five years now and one learns to live with it when there is no alternative.’
Was she answering his real question after all? ‘What is your given name?’
The arched brows lifted in silent reproof at his ill manners, but this time she did not evade the question. ‘Augusta Cleopatra Agrippina,’ she said evenly and waited for his response.
Quin did not disappoint her. ‘Good God! What were your parents thinking of?’
‘We were in Greece at the time apparently, but Father was still in his Roman phase. I doubt Mama had any say in the matter. Look at it this way, I am fortunate that he had not become interested in Egypt then or I would probably be called Bastet or Nut.’
He had heard of Bastet, the goddess with the head of a cat, but, ‘Nut?’
‘The goddess of the sky who swallows the sun every evening and gives birth to it each morning. Father!’
Quin decided he did not want to contemplate the mechanics of that. ‘So which of your imposing names are you known by? What does your father call you?’
‘Daughter! Where are my towels?’
‘On the end of your bed,’ she called back. ‘He does not remember it most of the time, as you hear,’ she said to Quin. ‘He is in his head, in his own world. I doubt he recalls that Mama is dead, or my husband, most of the time. My husband called me Cleopatra, it appeared to amuse him.’
‘Queen of the Nile,’ Quin murmured.
‘Exactly. So appropriate, don’t you think?’
Queen of the Nile? Yes, very appropriate, Quin wanted to say, throwing her bitter jest back at her. You look like a queen with that patrician nose and those high cheekbones, that air of aloofness. A queen in exile, in disguise, in servitude. He was saved from answering by Sir Philip emerging from the tent, fastening a clean shirt with one hand and running his hand through his wet hair with the other.