“Enough financials for now,” Cleopatra orders, waving a hand to her attendants. Papyrus records of tax and grain are swept clean from the table and swiftly replaced with platters of fresh dates, olives, and figs for the queen and her advisors. “Tell me of the Romans.”
A military captain stands and arranges markers on the map. “Pompeo has lost Greece,” he recounts, moving the figures around the continent to simulate battle movements. “And Cesare is in pursuit. Our last reports suggest Pompeo will arrive in Alexandria within a day’s time. If Cesare keeps his pace, and the gods will it, he should arrive no more than three days after.” He uses his staff to slide the markers to Egypt with the same precision Cleopatra uses to pluck the pit from a date.
“And they will surely not think of leaving Egypt out of their petty feud,” she muses, popping the fruit into her mouth and chewing it slowly.
“I suspect not, my queen.”
“Hm,” Cleopatra hums and reclines in her seat. Strategy, she liked to think, was her forte, but foreign conflicts could be delicate. She glances aside to her servant. “Nireno, you have experience here,” she starts, with a slight tone of amusement. “Whom do you see better fit, Pompeo or Cesare? Which is more worthy of Egypt’s loyalty?”
“I wouldn’t claim to know, my queen,” Nireno says, bowing slightly and wringing his hands in his typical nervous manner. “It seems foolish to choose between two such formidable opponents…I wouldn’t know the first place to begin.”
Cleopatra taps her chin. “Perhaps you have a point.” She turns again to her advisors. “What is your counsel, Captain?”
“Neither Pompeo nor Cesare have any business with Egypt. Their conflict is civil; until one provokes us, or the throne wills it, Egypt is neutral.”
“So she is,” Cleopatra nods, and sits forward again. Just as she reaches to grab another date, the chamber door erupts open with an overly dramatic flair.
“Playing war without me again, dear sister?” Tolomeo demands, striding in with his chest puffed, an arrogant grin, and Achilla trailing behind. “I’ll have you know, you’re not the only one who commands Egypt’s armies.”
Cleopatra turns calmly to her servant again. “Nireno, I thought I made it clear I wished to dine alone this afternoon,” she says, pointedly loud enough to be heard across the room.
Tolomeo slows his step and frowns. “You have an entire council with you, I’d hardly call that ‘ alone.’”
Cleopatra waves a hand. Her advisors and attendants all collect their things, stand, and depart the room, silently and swiftly, leaving only Nireno at her side. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she replies, nonchalant.
“Foolish girls belong at the loom, not the battle map,” Tolomeo insists, leaning over the table. He props his elbows up on the map and his chin in his hands and stares at her pointedly. “War is men’s business.”
Cleopatra makes a show of looking around the room. “We are not at war, boy. And I’m afraid I don’t see any men in here, except dear Achilla.”
Tolomeo stands up and puffs his chest out again indignantly. “You will show my general and your king some respect.”
“Am I not allowed to pay our general a compliment?” Cleopatra asks, eyeing her brother coldly as he begins to wander around the table towards her. “And anyway, someone must direct the military.”
“He who is blessed by Mars.” Tolomeo postures, gesturing grandly to himself.
“Or she who is blessed by Minerva.” Cleopatra mimics his gesture mockingly.
Tolomeo strides behind her seat and leans over the back, draping himself over his sister’s shoulders languidly. She sneers and swats his hands when they wander. “Our dear sweet princess of Egypt wouldn’t dream of making decisions on her own without first confiding with the king, now would she?” he coos into her ear.
“The queen makes decisions with the counsel of men of science and strategy,” she says firmly, standing and shoving him off. “Not childish boys who play hunt in the dovecot and think themselves seasoned warriors.” She folds her arms and looks down at her brother with irritation. “Now run along, and let me speak to one without distraction. I have a kingdom to run.”
His face pursed in anger, Tolomeo huffs and starts toward the exit with a dramatic flourish of his skirts. “Achilla, we go,” he says to the general, still standing at attention by the door.
“No, Achilla stays. I must speak with him.”
Tolomeo stops in his tracks and turns again. “He’s my general.”
“He is our general.”
“I won’t have you keeping him for yourself, you know,” Tolomeo warns.
“My, my, how protective. Are you worried I’ll have him for my harem?” Cleopatra teases, returning to her chair.
Tolomeo squints at her. “You don’t have a harem.”
“So what are you worried about? I only mean to discuss the Romans. Run along.”
“You’ll make no moves without my knowing, understand?” he warns, pointing at her sternly.
“Go out to the garden if you wish to play soldier so bad, we’ll only be a minute,” Cleopatra waves him off boredly. He huffs again and turns, storming out with a skirt flourish and a door slam. Achilla calmly watches him leave before approaching the table.
Nireno leans over Cleopatra’s shoulder anxiously. “My queen, is it wise to consult with Achilla alone?” he whimpers. “He will confide everything in the boy, there is no secret kept between them.”
“Hush, Nireno,” Cleopatra whispers back. “I am in control.”
“My queen,” Achilla greets, bowing slightly, as he reaches the table. “You wish to hear the whereabouts of the Romans--?”
“I am aware of the Romans already, Achilla,” Cleopatra interrupts, selecting for herself another date. “And I am decided already what is to be done about them.”
Achilla frowns slightly, confused. “What does the queen wish to speak of, then?”
She hums and picks out the pit of the date, then gestures to the platter, offering it to him. “What do you think of the boy?” she asks.
He raises an eyebrow. “The king?”
Achilla moves closer. He doesn’t sit down, but he does lean over the table a little, examines the fruit, and selects a fig. “What about him, my queen?” he asks before taking a bite.
Cleopatra chuckles, and tries again. “You’ve been a guard for a long time, yes?” Achilla nods.
“Since your father reigned.”
“Since Tolomeo was a babe,” Cleopatra points out. “When were you made General?”
“About ten years past, my queen.”
“And you enjoy it, yes?”
“It is a good position,” he agrees, chewing and wiping juice from his mouth with the back of his hand.
“You’re a very honorable man, Achilla,” Cleopatra compliments him with a smile. He nods in thanks. “And a patient one, to put up with such a boy.”
“He is…” Achilla trails off, picking his words carefully. “…still young. Other things make the position more tolerable,” he continues, giving her a look and leaning over the fruit platter again, this time grabbing a date.
Cleopatra laughs. “And a flatterer! Your wife is a lucky woman.”
“She would be,” Achilla agrees with a chuckle.
Cleopatra looks at him peculiarly. “You haven’t one?” Achilla rolls the date around in his fingers and shrugs. “Well, that’s certainly a shame.”
“Perhaps one day I’ll be granted one. The king ought to see to it.”
“Right,” Cleopatra nods. “He ought to.” She pushes her chair back from the table and stands. “Thank you for your counsel, General.”
Knowing his place, he finishes his last date and bows his head respectfully. “And what of the Romans?”
“Pay them no mind; so long as they have no conflict with us, they are strangers to us.”
Achilla nods. “Yes, my queen.”
“You are dismissed.”
Achilla turns and marches out. Once the door is shut behind him, Nireno whimpers again. “My queen, he will go right to the king and relay every word of your conversation.”
“It’s nothing Tolomeo doesn’t already know,” Cleopatra says assuredly, grabbing one last date before heading to leave herself.
“I believe you may overestimate your brother’s awareness.”
“Then it’s nothing he shouldn’t already know, and shouldn’t hurt him to learn.”
Achilla finds the boy in the garden, tossing stones at a palm tree. He manages a clean throw, knocking into a palm frond and scattering a few perched doves into the air.
“My king,” Achilla greets, standing at attention just past the center of the courtyard.
Tolomeo notices him and turns, losing interest in the next stone and casting it aside. “Achilla,” he starts, pacing over. “What is my sister planning?”
“Nothing, sir,” Achilla reports dutifully. Tolomeo scowls.
“Nonsense, she always has something up her sleeve.”
“What I mean is she plans to do nothing about the Romans,” Achilla continues steadily. “The queen does not plan to take sides in their conflict.”
Tolomeo scoffs and paces around the garden, simmering. “No welcoming parties? No warnings? No displays of Egypt’s might?”
“No, my king.”
“Treacherous snake!” he spits. “She invites them to invade!”
Achilla remains calm as he watches the boy storm about. “Egypt is neutral in Rome’s conflict presently,” he points out. “Pompeo and Cesare are both formidable generals. The balance of power between them is uncertain.”
“A familiar refrain,” Tolomeo comments. He turns and eyes his general carefully and approaches him. “But one must prevail in the end, no?”
“The gods have not revealed their fate,” Achilla answers, looking down at the king before him. After a beat, he concedes, “Pompeo is in retreat; he has suffered great losses in Greece by Cesare’s army. The tides may be turning.”
“Hm,” Tolomeo hums, continuing to pace. “What else did the she-beast have to say?”
“She does not think very highly of you, my King.”
Tolomeo scoffs out loud. “She’s been jealous of my throne since my birth.”
“She is firstborn,” Achilla points out, measuredly. “And she does not rule alone,” he adds. “Power rests in your hands as much as hers, my king.”
“It should be mine alone,” Tolomeo insists, turning swiftly and hopping up onto a bench. Now barely a head taller, he looks down at his general. “I want her gone from this palace.”
“That would be a…delicate maneuver,” Achilla cautions, sounding tired.
“It shouldn’t be. I command an army.”
“Who are loyal to the queen as well, sir.”
“Not if they know what’s good for them,” Tolomeo mutters. Achilla sighs quietly and begins to pace a little himself.
“The throne is officially shared between you,” he advises. “To try claiming it totally for your own would lead to civil conflict, which would render Egypt divided and weak.”
“And vulnerable to the Romans,” Tolomeo follows, his shoulders drooping a little.
“Or whomever the gods will,” Achilla nods. “If you have her head on a platter without the proper support behind you, you will be overwhelmed and destroyed.”
Tolomeo is quiet, thinking intently for once. “The king needs allies,” he concludes after a beat. Achilla eyes him carefully. “If Tolomeo is recognized by another great power as Egypt’s true ruler, then he will have support against the pretender, and may depose her,” he reasons, moving from one end of the bench to the other and back. “So Tolomeo needs an ally.” He stops in place with punctuation and makes eye contact with his general. “You say Pompeo is in retreat?”
“He is expected to arrive in a day’s time.” Achilla confirms, keeping his tone level.
“And Cesare is in pursuit?” Achilla nods. Tolomeo grins; He clasps his hands behind his back and puffs his chest up again, looking down at his general. “Well then, Achilla, I believe I have a plan.”
Achilla bows his head. “Yes, my king.”