For as far back as she could remember her father had always been bargaining with someone. What passing memories Cleopatra could piece together of her childhood were often conffettied with town cars pulling up to their brownstone building at midnight. There were plenty of her father's hurried departing kisses upon her forehead in the middle of the night as he rushed to another of his red-eye flights. Wiry bits of his stubble would scrape past her cheek along the way as he muttered his passing good-byes, suitcase already at the front door waiting.
His returns typically came on the back of many months away when he was exhausted from having utilized whatever resources available to him in order to seal his latest deal. Usually he returned home in the inky pre-morning hours when the proud city of New York finally managed to piece together some peace and quiet. Hastily forged alliances from California would accompany his return. These alliances would come with another borrowed dollar meant to sustain their company for what felt like just a brief second longer—prolonging whatever the constant hoard of spectators whispered to be the inevitable; their demise.
"It's not as if these fucking Ptolemies can last forever."
Although her father had tried his best to hide the harsh criticisms from her and her sibling over time bits of the public's true opinion of them managed to somehow trickle in.
"They're nothing but a bunch of drunken, inbred bastards."
As if overnight, her father's alliance to The Romans was added to the usual batch of slander circulated. Investors began losing confidence in them. Whatever other supporters her father had grew weary of their close relations with California. Even his own company began believing it was only a matter of time before they became a subsidiary of The Romans infamous greed.
It was then that she came to note the reality of their satiation in earnest. For all of their public sympathies The Romans were not lending Auletes any true aide at all. They meant to extend just enough rope to her father for him to hang himself with. By the summer before her thirteenth birthday that time had come; her father had borrowed too exorbitant an amount of funds which they would never have the means to repay given the current state of their company…
Securing the independence of their company would require much more tactical and aggressive bargaining from her father. Over the years she had watched him reduced to no more than another supplicant at the Romans' mercy—like so much of the rest of the world. In their abundant mercy, The Romans would extend their loan and terms just a little further with each of Auletes' requests and excuses when payments came due.
After all, her father had always been something of a sweet-talker.
That was how she would always remember Auletes Ptolemy.
Not for what the public made him out to be in his later years: The Piper, a nickname earned for his recent devotion to drink and music. She would not remember him for the lines that had become more noticeable at the corner of his eyes with every passing year. Not for the white hairs peppered at the corner of his temple and the nape of his neck. Nor for the strain in his voice when he addressed The Board in their morning meetings by the time he had come to call upon her help in the daily running of their company. And certainly not for the infamous drunkard and beggar that his enemies attempted to paint him out to be.
No, he would have never wanted her to remember him at his weakest moments.
"The amount of debt your father left behind nearly doubles over the annual profit for the past three years." One of the nameless suits was saying. He busied himself by scanning the pages as he spoke to the room without lifting his head, almost as if he himself were ashamed. "Auletes hadn't been exactly forthcoming with our position."
This time her father could not strike up another quick agreement with his collectors, nor could he conveniently arrange their financials to placate The Board for another quarter. Auletes had already stricken up his final dealings.
When Cleopatra had entered the conference room earlier that morning the news had been waiting for her among the empty chairs and buzzing florescent lights. It all settled into her like a stale cup of coffee; cold and slushing around in the base of her empty stomach.
"Your father was discovered this morning…there was no struggle."
She felt a faint sting of moisture rising up in her tired emerald eyes. Instantly, she shut them. She would not let the room full of men in suits see the silly girl cry. Without a doubt it was what the room full of older men had anticipated from her.
Some of them were maybe even hoping for it.
"Many of our partners will soon start demanding an explanation. The Romans will no doubt want their payment…"
The words of the suit ebbed in and out.
Her hands fisted themselves impatiently in the dark material of the skirt she'd thrown on that morning, as the suit continued his eloquent soliloquy. It was truly something, Cleopatra observed; complete with ornate hand gestures and dramatic pauses. Surly he meant to invoke a reaction from the group. What that reaction was however, Cleopatra was unsure of.
Panic perhaps, maybe even anger enough to band together, rise up against the situation. Rise up against her father's memory and ultimately rise up against his successor: her. Luckily, she was used to these types of theatrics and therefore, relatively unmoved by the display. Her father had taught her better than fall prey to her more basic reactions.
"Never let them see you fret, my dear. They are always watching."
"We are unable to locate his will at this time." Continued the suit. He removed his thinly wired glasses as he focused his stare on the young girl at the head of the table. "In the meantime we must brace ourselves to go public with the news of his passing. Prepare ourselves for the market and have statements ready for you and your siblings."
There was a nod of her short black hair, styled into a sleek ebony bob just shy of the shadow of her collar bones. A thin gold band went across her head from ear to ear, holding a few wayward stands of her thick black hair in place.
When he focused his vacant stare on her, she thought perhaps there would be some sort of awakening of emotion within her as the news sunk in.
Her father was dead. He was gone.
"In your father's passing, Cleopatra, The Board is prepared to advise you on any proceedings going forward."
Her hands unfolded from over her lap as she cleared her throat. "I thank The Board for their support."
She was struck for a brief instant at the voice that left her lips and filled the room. The voice was notably unlike her usual tenor; it far too flat and leveled. Yet it was strangely fitting for her audience, Cleopatra settled. Overt bouts of tears and emotion would have probably not gone over well with The Board.
The standing suit finally set down the manila folder at the head of the table with an airy flop. He ran his hand back through a thicket of sparse black hair that hadn't been quite as greying when they had met last August.
"Our media team is working to keep the press at bay for as long as possible. At least until we locate your father's will. We have summoned his attorneys. They should be here within the hour. If you'd like to…"
She stood up suddenly, cutting him off. The pair of gold bangles she wore on her right wrist clattered together as she pushed her dark bangs away from her face, affording the room an unobstructed glimpse of her young, oval face. She felt the eyes of the entire room fall upon her; studying and awaiting her next move.
Cleopatra knew she processed strong features that many had called far too commanding for those of a woman—especially one so young. She had watched herself slip away from her youthful qualities at the beginning of adolescence. With each passing year, Cleopatra found she was powerless to halt the transformation. Traditionally the women in her family had smaller characteristics and avoided the more domineering features from their Macedonian ancestry. Instead, Cleopatra found she was growing into her father's thin lips and unable to escape the famous—and dreaded—Ptolemaic Nose.
But at least she had been blessed with her mother's almond-shaped eyes and general coloring, many reminded her. Not that Cleopatra could tell if they were lying; her mother had passed away far before she was capable of forming adequate memories of her or her reputed beauty. It was also rumored that she could credit her compact frame to some distant Persian lineage. As a whole her features came together pleasantly enough, she decided. They were thankfully not too rough, like her older sister Bernice's. But Cleopatra knew early on in her adolescence that she would never be considered classicallybeautiful, like her younger half-sister, Arsinoë.
And that morning it was clear to her even if she had been bestowed this classic beauty that she had so coveted growing up, it likely would not have helped in winning over the room full of her worse critics.
Surviving these men would require something of substance.
She summoned every bit of composure her father had ever taught her while every set of eyes in the room awaited her next move. She would have to rely on the array of other skills she possessed; wit, showmanship, grace and her resourceful intelligence.
"Please send word when they have arrived. I would like to greet them myself."
It took a moment for the room full of men to react.
"Yes, of course miss." One of the suits answered.
"Right away, miss."
Without a response, she worked herself from behind the table and toward the door of the conference room. In spite of the chill she had experienced on the car ride to the office the room felt suffocating warm. There was a tingling in her throat and a faint shake to her hands when she gripped her purse. Her cheeks felt warm and her eyes stung insufferably.
"We will send word immediately."
Cleopatra brought herself to voice a few choice partings to those around her as she moved to exit. It wasn't until she had nearly crossed the doorway when one of the men placed his hand on her shoulder. The unexpected human contact caused her to tense up considerably. Her thickly lined eyes peeked over her shoulder. Their first glimpse was of his goutily encrusted Rolex and the fat little digits of his hand adorned with gold rings. She had to will forward all of her composure to keep wrinkling the lines on her nose in annoyance.
His hand felt warm and stifling on her bare shoulder. Moist even with what she assumed to be profuse perspiration so early in the morning. Behind the gesture that he obviously hoped would pass for sincere compassion, Pothinus made an attempt to feign an extra layer of sympathy into his small, beady eyes.
The cold, hard eyes of a snake.
"My deepest, most heart-felt sympathies to you, Cleopatra. We all know how you loved your father."
She bit the tip of her tongue gently, mulling over the appropriate response. Finally an evenly placed "thank you" slipped out.
Had it been any other of her father's men reaching out to her she may have considered the act to be a genuine offering of condolences. But she knew better from this man. Pothinus' actions were a calculated measure meant to expose and disarm her. There was no secret that Pothinus thought her presence in that room to be a mistake from the very first moment she had entered it so many years ago at Auletes' side as his equal.
Too young, she had heard him whispering to a few of her father's aides once.
"We know in your capable hands we will carry on your father's legacy." Though the words were spoken firmly enough she knew they lacked true conviction.
Cleopatra had always known she couldn't trust that cold slab of lard, wrapped in a three-thousand dollar suit and too much expensive cologne. Now his bold-faced insincerity confirmed it. The winds of power were changing and men like Pothinus were quick to realign their allegiance in such times of uncertainty.
"Should you wish to visit your father," Pothinus was saying in a tone only audible between them. "He remains in his bedroom…Perhaps…"
Cleopatra pressed her thin lips together. "Yes, thank you."
With that she had pulled forward and away from him in one fluid motion. The gentle clattering of her bracelets filled the room as she exited into the expansive hallway without looking back.
Once in the hallway Cleopatra noted that the dim lights did little guide her to the main exit on the 38th floor of their building. None of the other offices were ever in use so early and this morning had been no different.
That was why when she had entered the conference room and noticed that her father's chair was empty she had thought notice out of the ordinary of it. As usual the drones had requested her attendance for their morning meeting prior to the opening of the market. They would want to go over quotes and earning reports, or any information they had gotten their hands on overnight—which had only been a few short hours ago. Dawn wouldn't be stretching awake for another hour at best. By the time the sun had risen her father would finally stumble out of his chambers. He would be aching for a cup of black coffee and a copy of The New York Times.
He would make it into the office sometime before noon complaining of a headache and barely moving through the motions of leadership. The last few years had taken their toll on her father more than he had cared to admit to anyone, even her.
She shut her eyes tightly for a moment as she walked the hall by memory. Truly, this morning was no different from any other.
Grief came like a massive tidal wave from out of the cold, dark abyss. It pulled at her from the waist, seizing her whole. She blindly reached one of her hands desperately for the wall of the hallway to keep from stumbling to no avail. When she opened her eyes the floor below her was blurred and ran together. It was cloudy with tears and coming up to greet her rapidly.
Cleopatra steadied herself against the cool wall. Hot, heavy tears pushed down her face with abandon.
How could you leave me alone like this?
The phrase ran through her head over and over until the words lost all of their meaning. For years now her father had ensured that Cleopatra was included in some of the day-to-day routines of running of the company. In the past year her father had even gone as far as publically making joint decisions with her and regarding her as his equal in all matters relating to their company. Her siblings were not options to succeed him when the untimely day of his passing came; Auletes had made no secret of this fact to her, or to his men.
Many had often criticized her open, unwavering loyalty to her father. Through his drinking, his constant bargaining with The Romans, and controversial business decisions. It was she who offered welcoming open arms to the exiled father upon her sister's assumption of power. She had been at his side to help him endure the passing of his second wife and as his health began to deteriorate after years of stress. His co-regent, Auletes had affectionately referred to her in their many private meetings over endless earnings reports and market quotes.
Cleopatra found her faith and loyalty in her father had always been properly recompensed. Until today. There, in a dark forgotten crevice of the hallway of his empire, came the harsh onslaught of awareness. Ultimately he had only repaid her loyalty with the abandonment many attempted to warn her against.
Why in all of his expansive tutelage had Auletes failed to mention that it could all come to a head so suddenly? Every piece of advice her father had given her, every lesson and wise word felt like it was slipping through her grasp like a dream in the threatening dawn. The more she chased after the memory of it the further it faded away from her. He never mentioned that the fear could be so crippling… That in the end there would be no one she could trust…
Cleopatra clamped her hand over her lips to silence the threatening sobs. She bit the inside of her hand until the cry stopped all together and the sharpness of her teeth became painfully prominent. She couldn't afford to have the sounds making their way down the hall and into the conference room filled with her enemies.
What would they think if they saw her now?
Her hand came tightly together into a ball as she slammed it into the plush carpeting below her. The desire to scream aloud was still strong. There had been no forewarning, nothing. She pounded her fist down several more times until the pressure of the continuous impacts began to sting. Cleopatra pushed her head back against the wall, letting out a sigh. Her hands slowly came up to cover her face. She attempted to wipe the streaks of eyeliner and mascara away, regretting layering it on so thickly this morning.
Enough of this weakness.
After a moment she moved to collect herself and stand. There was no use in dwelling in the unfairness of it all, the distant voice of reason rang out to her. It was unfair: life often was. Now she had been given a greater charge than to think upon the injustices of life. There would be plenty to occupy her time with now, Cleopatra knew. In an instant she had become head of her father's empire and only eighteen years old.