fantasy by Gay Degani
Amunet glanced up as a cold breeze filtered in from the harbor.
The reading room was dark now except for the lamp light spilling across the magic texts. Her father, the Great Library’s guardian, the Scorpion-Charmer, promised that if she studied the texts, worked hard enough, she would follow in his footsteps.
Behind her, the door to the forbidden chamber opened and her father staggered out.
She raced to catch him. “What has happened?”
He clutched her hand in a crocodile grip, pulling her with him onto the stone floor. “In the chamber—”
Then his fingers loosened and his breathing slowed to nothing. Amunet tried to rouse him; when she could not, she buried her face against his neck. After awhile, she kissed his cool lips, dried her tears, and taking the sputtering lamp, slipped into her father’s sacred workspace.
The chamber held the secrets of the hekua, the ancient magicians of Egypt. Its stone walls were decorated with spells and curses, eerie now in the flickering light. Amunet tiptoed to the carved alabaster altar; it was cold beneath her fingers.
Something warm bumped her leg and she leapt back. A cat? A monkey? Whatever it was retreated. Amunet drew in breath as a figure crept from the shadow of the table.
Amunet snapped up her hands, palms forward, and intoned the words she used when driving away vipers, “O Sekhmet, Eye of Ra, Great of Flame—”
Heavy dark fabric wrapped each leg, both arms, the torso, no skin showing except for the woman’s unpainted face. Her hair was a surprising yellow. The woman shouted back in a strange tongue.
Amunet stopped chanting. This was neither beast nor demon.
“Who are you?” she asked first in Greek, then Latin.
The woman answered in Latin. “My name’s Kristie Skola. How’d I get here? Why am I here? That old man—
“My father. I don’t know why he—”
“I can’t.” Amunet swallowed hard. “He is dead.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” Kristie leaned against the stone altar, glanced around, studied Amunet. “So this is—all real? You? This place? Where am I?”
Amunet, smoothing the front of her white linen tunic, said, “The great city of Alexandria. In the reign of Ptolemy XII and Cleopatra VII.”
“The reign of—” Kristie’s eyes glinted in the light from the lamp. “Stop it. Wait. This is one of Eddie’s pranks. It has to be because if isn’t, then your father pulled me here from the future.”
Amunet’s hand was hot on Kristie’s wrist, her voice urgent. “He could do that! He’s a magician. And if he brought you here, there is a reason.”
“I don’t believe it. Where’s Eddie? EDDIE!”
“Please, Kristie. You must be here to help us.”
“Help you what? I’m the history librarian at M.I.T.”
Amunet’s voice brightened. “Then you are the keeper of texts in your time?”
“Keeper of texts? Yeah, I guess so.”
“Cleopatra is in danger. Her brother no longer wants to share his throne with her. She is fleeing. Perhaps the reason—”
“No, no. I can’t help you. And how am I going to get home?”
“I can do that,” Amunet managed to say, though she had no idea how. “I am my father’s apprentice.”
Amunet pulled Kristie along the gallery past fat columns three stories high, each painted in rich aqua and red and yellow. A lush garden of palms lay on one side, huge rooms filled with rolls upon rolls of papyri on the other.
They rounded a corner and Kristie gasped. Through the portico, lit against the sky by torchlight, were the masts of hundreds of warships.
Kristie asked, “Are those quinqueremes out there?”
“Indeed; we are at war. Ptolemy’s navy—”
“What year is this? 48 B.C? ”
“Who fights against Ptolemy?”
Kristie grabbed Amunet’s shoulders. “You’re right. I can help. Take me to Cleopatra.”
A handmaiden escorted the two women into the queen’s palace chamber. Gowns and jewelry were strewn across an elaborate canopied bed. Servant girls busied themselves with packing crates. Rolled carpets and furniture crowded the door.
“This disturbance is uncalled for.” Cleopatra swept toward them. She was small and dark, the command in her voice absolute.
Amunet bowed deeply. “My Queen, forgive me, but the Great Library will be destroyed tonight. This soothsayer has seen our future.”
“Ptolemy’s ships outnumber Rome’s,” Kristie stammered. “To save himself, Caesar will burn Rome’s navy. The fire will spread across the harbor and into the Library.”
Cleopatra shifted her cold gaze to Kristie. “But the Library is made of stone.”
“It will burn, Pharaoh. It will.”
“I will have to deal with Caesar!” Cleopatra muttered. “But now, Amunet, go. Transfer what you can to the subterranean rooms. I will send guards to help.”
Amunet and Kristie raced from the room and down the gallery, barely noticing the burning ships on the water, the library dock aflame.
In the forbidden chamber, Amunet and Kristie piled ancient papyri into carts brought by the guards and hurried them down to the caverns with their precious cargo.
The heat and smoke thickened despite Amunet’s spell. Breathing became difficult, seeing impossible. When the last cart rolled away, there was no time for more to follow, for anything to follow.
“We have saved what we could,” Amunet said. “Thanks to you.”
“Do you know what this means?” Kristie’s face glowed. “In my time, we believe all the ancient texts are lost. But they are safe now underground. We can find them again.”
Coughing, choking, Amunet shoved Kristie toward the altar and began to chant. “O Father, servant now of Sekhmet, Eye of Ra, help me—”
Golden light flared and Kristie was gone. Home safely, Amunet prayed.
And the daughter of the Scorpion-Charmer turned to face the flames.
Copyright 2009 by Gay Degani
Gay Degani lives in California. She blogs about writing at Words in Place.