ver the past two weeks, I’ve been concerning myself with research for my sequel to my first novel, JOCASTA. I am trying to fill out my two main characters, Ismene and Antigone. the latter being the one most known through literature, the former being the lesser-known sister. The story is from Ismene’s point of view, following in the style that I used for JOCASTA — taking a small character from Sophocles’ play and turning them into the main character.
In this scene, Antigone and Ismene are returning to their aunt’s chambers to see the new prince, Haemon. There’s a battle that Antigone is starting between the king and the queen and herself — the battle of not being replaced. Ismene begins to identify herself with being less of the monster that Antigone told her they were and more of a young princess of Thebes. In the back of her mind, though, she still keeps Antigone’s words close, refusing to dismiss them all together.
When they returned to Eurydice’s chambers, the crowds of people had mostly dispersed, leaving behind a few prominent members of nobility to linger in the parlor, discussing the great future of Thebes. One of the men guffawed and adjusted his toga around his shoulder, throwing the heavy material behind him to hang down his back, while carrying most of the weight of it on his left arm. Ismene couldn’t catch what they laughed about as she passed them, but upon hearing the mewling cries of her new, baby cousin, she forgot all about the boisterous nobles and immediately broke into a jog towards her aunt.
“Is he still okay?” Ismene wanted to know, as she leered over the bed, peeking down at the bundle that Eurydice so carefully nestled in the crook of her arm. “He doesn’t look as sticky and purple as before.”
The queen’s eyes slipped from Ismene to her sister as Antigone paused behind her. They way they stared at each other made Ismene nervous. “He is still okay, yes. The midwives insist that he stay out of the fresh air for a little while, until his breathing improves.”
“Is he sick, then?” Antigone asked with a tinge of hope buried deep within her words.
Eurydice shook her head, her damp curly hair sticking to her face. She still looked tired, her eyes watery and underlined with dark circles, skin clammy and pale. “He is not sick, no. He is a newborn, and sometimes, it takes them a little bit to adjust.”
“How do you know? You’ve never had children before.” Antigone had a way of speaking words that would burrow under the skin, even if it was not intentional.
Ismene covered for her sister’s crassness many times, and just as before, she quickly chimed in with a gentle reminder. “All women should know what to expect before they have a baby, right Aunt Eurydice?” Though she spoke to the queen, her bright green eyes shifted to Antigone in warning. Ismene wasn’t anyone to warn her sister about anything, but sometimes, she liked to try to calm her sister’s raging waters before they could capsize anything around them.
“Right, my darling. Just as you are now learning, I have learned.” Eurydice didn’t seem bothered by Antigone’s question, which settled the knot of tension tightening in Ismene’s stomach. “What have you brought?” The queen nodded to something behind her.
Ismene turned and put a hand over her mouth, laughing. “Oh! We forgot all about our gift, Antigone.”
Antigone didn’t speak. She kept her eyes on the infant, watching as it squirmed and made noises similar to the orphaned kittens that they found under the brush in the garden once. She only looked back at the tray when Ismene pulled on her sleeve. “Oh, yes. We’ve prepared you a track of breads and cheese. Without the servants to help.”
A smile tugged at the corners of Ismene’s lips, admiring the way her sister eventually found the pride in using one’s own hands to create something. “We did! Would you like some now? Can I hold the baby? I’ll hold him while you eat your snack?” The string of questions flooded from her lips, one after another.
Eurydice smiled and extended her arms and the bundle of baby towards Ismene. “Make sure you support his head.” As Ismene took the babe into her arms, Julea stepped in behind her to help adjust the infant comfortably.
When the child was settled, Julea stepped back, leaving Ismene and Haemon alone. She smiled down at the boy, born of his mother and his father and nothing more. She noted the way his eyes gleamed, the way his lips flushed with deep purple, and the way he cried like the kittens. Lifting her hand, she touched her own eyes and her own lips, comparing the two and finding no difference between this child born of Thebes and herself. “Hello, Little Prince.”
The doors opened once more, allowing Creon and a few of his guards into the room with the rest of the family. “The boys are on their way to see him.”
Ismene looked away from the baby and to her uncle, who glowed almost more brightly than her aunt, the new mother. His step was light and airy, and when he approached her, he leaned down to kiss the crown of her head. “Isn’t he beautiful? Our new prince.”
“We have two perfectly good princes already.” Antigone reminded Creon. “Why do you keep acting as if they do not exist?”
Creon’s glow subsided some as he regarded the eldest of the two sisters. Stepping away from Ismene, he crossed the room to where Antigone stood, her shoulders pulled back, unwilling to show any sort of emotions that would belay her argument. “I am not acting any sort of way.”
Antigone scoffed and gestured to the baby with her hand. “You are. You just did. A new prince, as if my brothers aren’t good enough the way they are. They were born in just the same way with just as much pomp and carrying on.”
“So, I am not allowed to afford my son some praise, Antigone? You are being ridiculous.”
Creon frowned, crossing his muscular arms over his broad chest. Usually, he wore armor in favor of his silken togas and tunics. Today, though, he looked more the part of a king and less the part of a soldier, wearing crimson and purples, forgoing the cool metal of a breastplate and backplate. “You are, Antigone. You know that I love your brothers just as much as I do-”
“Me? Just as much as you love me?” Antigone laughed bitterly, shooting a glance to Ismene, who froze in place, infant still in her arms.
“Princess, perhaps we should return to your ro-” Julea’s words severed towards the end as Antigone blurted forth anew.
“No! No, I will not return to my room! Why doesn’t anyone else see what is going on? Why doesn’t anyone else see that we are slowly being put aside?”
“You are not being put aside.” Eurydice motioned for the tray to be taken away from her, and servants came to remove it and place it across the room on a serving table. “Antigone, you will stop all of this fretting. It does not become you.”
Antigone laughed again, turning towards the door. “To you, nothing becomes us. We will be replaced with new princes and princesses and cast off as my father was.” She didn’t give anyone a chance to respond as she slammed the door shut behind her, leaving the room.
Ismene listened until the sound of her sister’s footsteps faded down the hall. When she couldn’t hear her any more, she turned back to her aunt and uncle, handing Haemon back to his mother. “I do not think she is feeling quite well today. All of this baby celebration is a little overwhelming.” The excuse was not entirely untrue. Ismene never saw a prince be born before, nor had she ever seen the fanfare that surrounds it. If she felt overwhelmed, she knew her sensitive and sometimes overdramatic sister felt it a hundred times over.
Creon rubbed his face, the whole of his hand covering his nose and eyes. “Yes, yes. Why don’t you check in after her, Ismene? Give her a few minutes, and by then, she should be calmer.”
Julea curtsied to the room filled with royalty and backed towards the doorway. “I think I will go make sure he is all right now, if it pleases you, Your Highness?”
“Whatever you think is best, Julea. I’m close to giving up on the girl.” Creon sat on the edge of his wife’s bed and looked exhausted by his encounter with Antigone. Ismene could see it in the way his shoulders slumped. This is what Eteocles told her never to show — the weight on one’s shoulders. It is why she and Antigone always kept their backs straight and their chins up. They could not show anyone in Thebes the weight on their shoulders — a weight unmatched by anything anyone else had to carry.
Julea replied in the form of leaving the room and going after Antigone. Ismene looked on the king and queen as they looked on their newborn son. Suddenly, she felt very out of place, and without much of another word, she quietly turned and padded out the door and into the hallway, where the nobles still conversed about the kingdom and its new future.
Was Antigone right? Had they already been put aside in favor of this new prince? Has their succession to the throne been uprooted with the birth of Creon’s son? She paused by the nobles deliberately, pulling her chin up in just a manner that Antigone perfected, but Ismene still practiced. Though just a child, Ismene tried to look more than that — she tried to look like her mother.
The nobles paused, their words tapering to a halt, each turning towards the Princess’ direction.
Ismene waited. She wanted to see if it was true. She wanted to see if she had already been replaced.
One by one, the noblemen bowed their heads in her direction, greeting her with a respectful, “Your Highness.”
She smiled at each and every one of them, and bowed her head in return. “My Lords.” With that, she continued down the long halls, passing each long window with a light step. The sunlight dipped in through them, lighting the hall in sections of golden sunshine, bathing Ismene intermittently as she moved down the corridor.
“We have not been replaced, Antigone. Not yet.”