Darkness, cold stone under her fingertips, shadows dancing on the walls, torches flickering in the downdraught of the tunnels. So cold, and damp as death down here, and it was long moments before her eyes became accustomed to the darkness. She heard them before she saw them, their sinuous coilings and cold slithering, as they retreated before the light of the torches. She felt her muscles freeze. She was unable to look away, her limbs paralyzed by the horror in the pit below. There were hundreds of them, countless deaths sliding upon and under, eyes glinting like chips of garnet. The executioner's storehouse. There an asp, its tongue flicking in and out of its slit mouth in agitation, sensing their presence. Its bite caused agonizing pain that spread to the whole body, and the affected limb was soon covered with ugly purple blotches and swellings. Its victim soon began to retch, and then lost control of bladder and bowels. An ugly death, reserved for criminals who were to be doubly punished. And there, its slender body banded with yellow and brown, the hooded cobra, the divine symbol of Upper Egypt, the royal emblem of pharaoh and Ptolemy alike. The Greeks called it basilisk, or little king. In the Book of the Dead the hooded cobra was the symbol for everlasting life. Its bite was deadly but relatively painless. After a short time its victim's eyes began to droop, and then they fell quickly into a deep sleep from which they did not return. The fangs left two small marks from their bite, but there was no other disfigurement to the body, granting dignity in death. It was the way chosen for her older sister, Berenice, after she had rebelled against her father and tried to usurp his throne. Now her father put his mouth close to his ear, she felt the wiry hairs of his beard tickle her face. "This is the world you have inherited," he whispered to her. "Every palace is filled with snakes, twice as deadly as these. You will live in such a nest all your life and you must learn to be as sinuous as these serpents, use your venom as wisely, and to strike without hesitation if you are to survive. Do you understand?" "I understand," Cleopatra answered. She was ten years old. From the Hardcover edition.Falconer, Colin is the author of 'When We Were Gods A Novel of Cleopatra', published 2002 under ISBN 9780609808894 and ISBN 0609808893.