Bernice looked down at her little sister, whose big brown eyes were, as always, brimming with unbridled curiosity.
“Do you know where Father is?” The eight-year-old scrambled up onto a chair next to her sister, peering hungrily at the figs that Bernice had halved for herself.
Bernice sighed, and pushed the plate towards her sister. “Go nuts.”
“Thanks!” With a gap-toothed grin, Bernice watched as her sister pulled a jar of honey out of her pocket. Clever kid, she thought. She’d planned to steal those figs before she’d even come up to Bernice in the first place. “So, do you know where Father is?”
“No, I don’t, and I certainly think you’re not going to find him sitting around eating my figs,” Bernice said pointedly.
“Do you think he’s with the new baby?”
Bernice stifled a laugh. “I doubt it. You know how Father is around babies. I don’t think he held you or Arsinoe even once.”
“This baby is a boy though,” her sister reasoned, and when her carefully calculated eyes met Bernice’s own, Bernice was once again unsettled by the worlds those round eyes seemed to contain. “And you and I both know that boys are different. Things are going to change.”
“Oh? What makes you say that?” Bernice swallowed her discomfort. This was her sister, after all, and since their mother was gone, it was her job to guide the child into the world of royalty they lived in. Bernice pursed her lips. She was old enough to know most of the truth, right?
“I’ve heard rumors, whispers. They were disappointed that Arsinoe was a girl, but now the new baby is a boy and everyone is excited—for me, especially, and for Arsinoe.”
“That’s not all you know. I know you. Tell me the rest of it.”
The little girl shrugged and stuffed a honey-covered fig in her mouth.
“One of my tutors told me that when I’m older, if I am ever to be queen, I’m going to have to marry the baby, just like Mother and Father, and that he’ll reign over me, and that my job will just be to have a bunch of sons, like Mother was supposed to do.”
Bernice opened, her mouth to speak, but her little sister wasn’t finished. “He told me that my job is to do whatever my husband asks and to never argue or fight and just to support his ideas, even if they’re lame or they suck.”
“What’s your question, then, if you know all that?”
“Well… is it true? Is that all I am to be used for?” The little girl wrung her hands anxiously. “And all these lessons and these ideas I have for our country and our dynasty, they’re all… for nothing? Like this stupid little baby brother who was just born and knows nothing about anything is going to be ruler over me for my whole life?”
Bernice bit her lip. “Well… under the rules of our empire, yes. That’s what a woman is supposed to do. But that doesn’t mean that is what you have to do,” she said quickly, watching her little sister deflate. “Just because that’s what is expected doesn’t mean that’s what is going to happen. The future is not set in stone, you know. The gods have not revealed their plan.”
“Then the gods decide our fates?”
“Well, I don’t—I mean, it’s not quite like that.” Bernice refused to let herself be unsettled by her sister’s steady gaze. “I think that we control our fates, to an extent. Only you can tell how your future is going to end up, you know?”
“Hmm.” The child did not seem particularly happy with this explanation. She stared at the plate of figs, mostly gone by now, with a fervid intensity.
“What do you think about that?” Bernice prompted.
“I still think it’s dumb. The whole men thing. Especially with the new baby. I wish he’d never been born. I wish he’d died. Maybe he should die now. It might be less cruel.”
“Surely you don’t mean that,” said Bernice, trying to give her younger sister a chance to amend a statement that Bernice knew she didn’t regret.
“No, of course not,” her sister said, with all the charismatic, diplomatic grace that had been drilled into them both, and her brown eyes widened into innocence. “Of course not. I love my brother.”
“As I love you,” Bernice ventured.
“As I love you,” her sister echoed. “I just hope he grows up and doesn’t turn into a man quite as hard-headed in his ideas as Father.”
“Maybe you can help with that. Maybe you can help raise and guide him.”
The little girl raised her eyebrows and ate the last fig. “You think? Maybe I can make him believe that I know better than him on everything and he should listen to me and do all the things I say.”
“That doesn’t seem very fair. That seems like you just doing to him what you just said you didn’t want him to do to you.”
“So… don’t you think you should be more polite?” Bernice honestly agreed with her little sister. From what she’d seen of the men in the palace, of her tutors and potential suitors, it seemed utterly ridiculous that one of them would automatically get dominance over her. Bernice put her chin on her palm.
Her little sister smiled at her. “No!”
Bernice couldn’t help but laugh. “Well, alright. I guess I can’t argue with that.”
“I just don’t think that I should have to do all that. I don’t want to be queen and have to listen to a king, especially if he’s just my stinky younger brother. I don’t want to be a wife who waves and supports and stuff. I just don’t like that future. Everyone keeps bringing up my own… superbience.”
“That’s what I said. And I just don’t want that.”
Bernice reached out and ruffled the curls on the top of her sister’s head. “Don’t worry, little one. You won’t have to go through that. I’m the eldest—I’ll take up the mantle after Father passes, one way or another, and I’ll keep our brothers in line. I’ll be a good ruler, so you’ll never have to worry about it. I’ll protect you.”
The little girl locked eyes with her, and yet Bernice got the impression that her sister was looking at something else entirely, something Bernice couldn’t see or even conceive of. “No, that’s not what I meant. I’m going to be the ruler someday, is what I meant. But I’m not going to be under my husband, or do what he says if I don’t think it’s right. I’m going to be the ruler of our entire empire, and I’m going to do a great job. They’re going to make busts and scrolls and coins and stones with my face and my name on it, like they do for Father, but better. I’m going to live forever, like the old kings and pharaohs did. I won’t be forgotten.”
Bernice stifled a grin and also the shiver that went down her spine when her sister spoke with such conviction. Such conflicting emotions, she noted. The notion that her little sister, the second born and another daughter to boot, would be renown for any reason other than a fortuitous marriage was ridiculous. The conviction was there though, and as much as Bernice wanted to avoid it, she knew her little sister was completely serious about making those dreams come true.
“Are you laughing at me?” Her sister pouted. “You’re the one who said we could decide our own fates.”
“No, no, of course not. And you can. You may just want to… aim a little lower, that’s all. I just don’t want you to get your hopes up.”
“I’m not,” the girl said crossly. She hopped off the chair. “If you’re going to tease, I’m going to go find Father all on my own. It doesn’t matter what he thinks. I’ll make him listen to me if I have to.”
Bernice stood as well, grabbing the sticky plate that had once held figs. “Alright, I’ll meet you for dinner.”
“Fine,” the little girl said, trotting away.
Bernice watched her sister go and couldn’t help but roll her eyes. She was too much like their mother—too ambitious, too forthright, too loud about her controversial opinions. She sighed. Her little Cleopatra had so much to learn about how to make a mark on history.