Daughters of the Nile

Daughters of the Nile by Stephanie Dray Page A

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Authors: Stephanie Dray
resin to flavor our wine. Our halls are festooned with garlands and the trees on the grounds have been ornamented with little stars made of hammered silver. I take Dora and Pythia to my private altar to Isis. There I teach the girls to burn frankincense in her honor and we burn so much that fragrant blue clouds of it drift throughout the palace.
    It’s all very costly, but one cannot be stingy with the gods . . .
    This year we’ll celebrate more than just the Roman Saturn, whom the Berbers call Ba’al Hammon. My Alexandrians will also celebrate the birth of Isis’s son, Horus, who himself is a sun god. Some will honor the Haloea in honor of Demeter or the Brumalia for Dionysus. It’s hard to know which tradition they’ll embrace, for some Alexandrians consider themselves first Greek. Others Egyptian. Perhaps it is a vain hope, but I want them to consider themselves Mauretanians, now.
    One rainy afternoon I find Julia in the receiving hall surrounded by baskets of candles and ribbons and pastries. With the children of my palace, she kneels on the floor, the center of attention. Dora is with her, leaning against Julia’s pregnant belly as the emperor’s daughter teaches her to tie a bow onto a sprig of evergreen. Dora smiles, and with her lovely little face so near to Julia’s, in profile, they look like sisters. The thought wounds me. My daughter. My dearest friend. I cannot bear to think that the emperor is a common thread between them, so I tell myself they’re bound by no one and nothing but me. “What are you up to, Julia?”
    All the children bow to me as they are accustomed, given that I’m their queen, and this delights Julia. “Why, I’m telling your little subjects all about our days together in Rome. Do you remember how we used to make gifts for the street children on the Saturnalia? How we tied candles and bundles of spices or pastries onto evergreen boughs until our fingers were numb from the cold?”
    I do remember, though all such remembrances of Rome are tainted for me. “Did you tell them how you used to steal stewed plums from the pot of spiced wine?”
    “Oh!” Julia says, rocking back on her knees. “You’ve given me a craving. Can we have spiced plums for the Saturnalia? Or don’t you think the plums will taste so sweet if we don’t have to steal them from Livia’s pot?”
    “My plums will always be sweeter than hers,” I declare.
    Julia wants plums, so I give them to her. Wearing a freedman’s conical red pileus cap, as is the tradition during the Saturnalia, I serve plums at all our holiday banquets, and they taste sweeter than ever before. The Romans shout,“Io Saturnalia,” and I gather the children in my chambers, where I shower them with gifts, including masks of revelry. I give gifts to my courtiers too. A new set of alabaster lamps for my mage. A thick silver bracelet for Tala. A length of precious cloth for Chryssa. Gem-encrusted inkpots for my poet, Crinagoras, and a vial of perfume for Circe.
    Such gifts as these would be too humble for Julia, so I commission a play in her honor. It is a new version of The Trojan Women that makes us all weep. It’s one of our playwright’s best; everyone agrees that Leonteus of Argos has outdone himself.
    Later, still dabbing our eyes and weary with emotion, Julia and I huddle together on a couch by a burning brazier in my chambers, sipping warmed wine. Elsewhere in the palace, we hear revelry that will last late into the evening. I should be there with them in the banquet hall, celebrating with the king, but my quiet intimacy with Julia is a sweet respite. I give her a set of combs and ribbons in commemoration of the first gifts she ever gave to me, and she likes them very much.
    “You think me vain!” she cries, but she sets about putting them in her hair straightaway. “And here all I have to give you is the rights to quarry stone in Numidia . . . They fell to me somehow as a gift from Marcellus. I suspect that given all

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