|Keeper of the Bed Chamber by Jess Lea|
Ariston is a palace eunuch in the court of Cleopatra VII. Handsome, successful and vain, he is used to the advances of the women and men of the Alexandrian court, none of whom suspect his secret: that Ariston was born a girl. But what happens when the queen herself takes an interest? (F/F)
I can’t pretend I was discreet in my crush, laughing too hard at her jokes and loitering outside the most tedious diplomatic functions in the hope of winning a smile. And I daresay a few eyebrows were raised when she had me sit by her at dinner, where she could flick me with her fly-switch and pop olives into my mouth, while I fought back the urge to lick the salty juice from her fingers. Ridiculous, people sniffed, but what objection could they make? Everyone knew eunuchs were made to be harmless.
It was the evening meetings I especially longed for, when she would call me in to advise on the acquisition of some document or other for the Great Library, and regale me with stories of how her ancestors had filled the place to begin with. One dastardly old king wrote to all the world’s sovereigns asking to borrow their most treasured books for copying, only to keep them for himself; another sent his soldiers to storm foreign ships in the harbour and seize every volume on board. The curtains rippling in the breeze, the crisp smell of the scrolls in their leather casings, the thought of piracy… my imagination never needed much encouragement to run wild. Still, I never dared to hope for more than her conversation, which was worldly but never indecent, and the warmth of her hand against my lips as I said good night. Not until one very particular evening.
That night she received me alone. It was late, the vast marble chamber all shadows and jumping lamplight. I’d sent word that I’d brought something special.
“Alchemy?” she exclaimed. “Wherever do you find these things?” I unravelled the scroll and she leaned forward in her chair. Its arms were carved with the heads of lions; its legs ended in ivory claws. The queen’s hair was loose and drops of rose oil sparkled in it, making me breathe in deep. She crossed her legs and I heard the swish of silk.
“A rare specimen, majesty. Unearthed from a library vault in Memphis, and at least three centuries old.”
“You could say the same thing about your colleagues, Ariston. You do know these theories are impossible?” But she was smiling as she bent her head over the mystic symbols and the recipes for melding copper, zinc and mercury into gold. Cleopatra liked peculiar old volumes as much as I did, and could read them in nine languages. Her hair fell forward, caressing the back of my hand.