Charis leaned over Cleopatra to grab her cup. “So, are you worried about going home?”
Cleopatra sipped her wine, and grimaced. The farther they got from Italy, the more bitter and watered down the wine became. “Worried?”
“Anxious. You haven’t been home since your dad got exiled. Are you worried that things have changed?”
“Of course they’ve changed. I wouldn’t be going home if they hadn’t.”
“Don’t play dumb with me.”
Cleopatra sighed. “Fine, fine. I’m not worried, per se. I anticipate that it will be… eventful.”
“Are you excited, then?” Charis pressed.
“No, I don’t think that’s quite the right word either. I mean, it will be nice to be back home. I do tire so of speaking Latin, it’s such a pretentious language.”
“Maybe it’s less the language and more the company you keep.”
“Maybe,” Cleopatra laughed. “Yes, then. I will be excited to get back home. I wonder if Kiya’s still around.”
“A friend of mine, when I was young.”
Charis snorted. “Young? You’re still young. You’re only fourteen.”
“Yes, I suppose,” Cleopatra admitted. She lay her head on the wall. The rocking of the boat was starting to give her a headache. “It will be strange to be back.”
Cleopatra said nothing, just closed her eyes. Her little brothers and sister must be so big now. Threats.
Charis changed tactics. “So, how was Rome?”
“It was fine, I suppose. I met Caesar.”
Charis raised her eyebrows. “The Caesar? Wow. What did you think of him?”
“Kind of pompous. Good at his job.” Cleopatra shrugged. “Dad says he liked me though, so I should play that up.”
“Gross. Isn’t he like thirty years older than you?”
Cleopatra wrapped her arms around her waist. “That doesn’t matter.”
“It can’t matter, Charis.”
“Okay.” Charis backed off. “Okay.”
Cleopatra sighed. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to snap. You’ve been good to me.”
“It’s okay. And it’s okay to be a little nervous, Cleopatra. You haven’t been home in years and years and the world is a little... dangerous right now.”
“Honestly, it isn’t even that. It’s just… her.”
“She has all the power in Egypt, currently. Things are going to change when we get home.”
“Isn’t that good?” Charis peered at Cleopatra. “You’re clever. You can talk to her, you can strike a deal for the sake of you and your father, for Rome and Egypt alike. If anyone can convince her, you can.”
Cleopatra did not respond. Things would certainly change when she finally went head to head with her sister.
Berenice tapped her fingers against her throne.
“And you’re sure that Father will be arriving soon?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ptolemy said.
“And… the girl… with them?”
“Fine. That’s just fine. Leave me. You’re dismissed.”
Her youngest brother scuttled off, probably to commiserate with the other younger siblings about how cruel Berenice was. No matter. Berenice could handle their childish whinging. It was her other sibling she was worried about.
“Queen, you have nothing to worry about.” Her advisor’s thickly accented Greek flooded her ears.
“Thank you, Kewab, but that’s not helpful.”
“Your sister is only fourteen, queen. You are far older, far wiser than her.”
“It worries me that the spies have not determined why they are coming back.” Berenice picked at one of the golden necklaces around her neck. “They might try something.”
Kewab put his hands on Berenice’s shoulders. “Your father does not—”
“My father isn’t the one I’m worried about. Cleopatra’s mind… I don’t know. We have not been together since she was a child, and even then she could create and convince any scenario to happen. She is a woman now, by law. She could be queen. And the fact that I don’t know what she’s planning… It is worrying.”
“Queen, you are too tense. Do you want me to fetch Archelaus?”
“My husband is useless in such matters. Let him remain with his priests and waste his life away in service of his precious church.” Berenice took a deep breath. “He will not be able to help me here.”
“Relax, queen.” Kewab barked something that Berenice didn’t understand at one of her servants. “I’ll have someone bring you a drink and some entertainment.”
Berenice fumed. “I don’t need to relax, I need to get ready to face Cleopatra. My mind against hers. It will change our lives forever.”
“Your sister is probably coming here to beg for a place in your court back.”
“She fled to Rome. You remember how good she used to be with languages; she could even understand your kind. She could’ve made alliances there. Maybe she comes to ask me to sign a treaty with Rome, give my lands over to them, to her.”
Finally, Kewab seemed to take her seriously. “When she arrives, we will arrange for a meeting between you two. You will show her that Egypt cannot be bought, not by Rome nor its senate. She may have grown while she is away, but she has no idea what you have become.”
Berenice took a deep breath. “That is true.” She straightened her back and arranged the rings that adorned her fingers just so. Her sister couldn’t beat her own royal power. Cleopatra’s mind was about to meet its match—their battle of wits would echo for all of history, Berenice was sure.
“Send the younger ones to their chambers, when my father and Cleopatra arrive.”
Berenice settled back, the weight of her jewels pushing her shoulders down. True royalty, she thought. Cleopatra wouldn’t know what hit her.
The night Cleopatra and her father arrived was relatively quiet. Cleopatra hadn’t spoken to Charis for hours, no matter what the handmaiden tried. She remained quiet.
Berenice, for her part, had been louder than ever. She had ordered her younger siblings to remain in their chambers until she and Cleopatra were done speaking. Her servants were prepared to treat her father as a king, for the meantime, while she forced Cleopatra to conform to what Berenice wanted for Egypt. She had a meeting room set up too. On Berenice’s side, brilliant tapestries and riches, brought from all over the world to show the kind of power that Berenice possessed. On Cleopatra’s side, nothing.
Berenice sat comfortably, on a padded cushion. Her advisor had wanted to wait with her, but Berenice refused. She was already conceding enough just meeting with Cleopatra as if they were equals. She didn’t want Cleopatra getting the wrong impression and assuming that Berenice saw her as a threat. Diplomacy and strategy were about power, strength, and confidence, and Berenice had all three. Cleopatra had none.
Cleopatra arrive far later than Berenice had been expecting, and when she peeked her head into the meeting room, Berenice was surprised to find she wore a simple, long tunic and that her long hair was done up in a fillet, and not adorned in glittering pins and jewels like her own. Although Berenice greeted her sister by her full title, Cleopatra refused to do the same. Instead, she just dipped her head.
Berenice smiled. She’d won. Cleopatra was admitting defeat and subserviency.
Cleopatra pushed open the doors the rest of the way and a swarm of Roman soldiers swept in, grabbing Berenice by her gold-laden arms.
“What’s going on?” Berenice tried to ask, but the soldier who stopped in front of her did not seem to hear, instead turning to Cleopatra and asking her something in Latin. “What did he say? Cleopatra! What did he say?”
Cleopatra did not respond to her sister; although she looked in her direction, she spoke in Latin, and without ever knowing what was said, Berenice died by the soldier’s sword.
Cleopatra watched the gold clank on the floor. It was a swift death. A merciful one, she thought. She let the soldiers drag her sister’s body out. Her father would regain her throne, and in a few years, if he hadn’t died, perhaps she would convince Caesar to lend her a hand with him too.
There was blood on the floor of the meeting room. Cleopatra made a note to ask someone to clean it up in the morning.
Charis met her on the stairs. “Cleopatra, I—”
“Sorry, Charis, can it wait? I’m exhausted.”
“But how did it go?”
“It went… well.”
“I knew it would. I knew you could outsmart her any day.”
Cleopatra knew it too. Just, sometimes fate needed a little helping hand. “Thank you. Goodnight, Charis.”
Cleopatra slept as she always did; shallowly, facing the door, her sandals still on, in case fate did not appreciate her trick as much as the kingdom of Egypt when it awoke the next day. Sometimes strategy was power, she thought, or cleverness, but other times power was power.
And now the power was hers.