فصل 13

کتاب: افسانه آکیلیس ( آشیل) / فصل 13

فصل 13

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Chapter Thirteen

THE NEXT DAYS PASSED QUIETLY. WE TOOK MEALS IN our room and spent long hours away from the palace, exploring the island, seeking what shade there was beneath the scruffy trees. We had to be careful; Achilles could not be seen moving too quickly, climbing too skillfully, holding a spear. But we were not followed, and there were many places where he could safely let his disguise drop.

On the far side of the island there was a deserted stretch of beach, rock-filled but twice the size of our running tracks. Achilles made a sound of delight when he saw it, and tore off his dress. I watched him race across it, as swiftly as if the beach had been flat. “Count for me,” he shouted, over his shoulder. I did, tapping against the sand to keep the time.

“How many?” he called, from the beach’s end.

“Thirteen,” I called back.

“I’m just warming up,” he said.

The next time it was eleven. The last time it was nine. He sat down next to me, barely winded, his cheeks flushed with joy. He had told me of his days as a woman, the long hours of enforced tedium, with only the dances for relief. Free now, he stretched his muscles like one of Pelion’s mountain cats, luxuriant in his own strength.

In the evenings, though, we had to return to the great hall. Reluctant, Achilles would put on his dress and smooth back his hair. Often he bound it up in cloth, as he had that first night; golden hair was uncommon enough to be remarked upon by the sailors and merchants who passed through our harbor. If their tales found the ears of someone clever enough—I did not like to think of it.

A table was set for us at the front of the hall near the thrones. We ate there, the four of us, Lycomedes, Deidameia, Achilles, and I. Sometimes we were joined by a counselor or two, sometimes not. These dinners were mostly silent; they were for form, to quell gossip and maintain the fiction of Achilles as my wife and the king’s ward. Deidameia’s eyes darted eagerly towards him, hoping he would look at her. But he never did. “Good evening,” he would say, in his proper girl’s voice, as we sat, but nothing more. His indifference was a palpable thing, and I saw her pretty face flinch through emotions of shame and hurt and anger. She kept looking to her father, as if she hoped he might intervene. But Lycomedes put bite after bite in his mouth and said nothing.

Sometimes she saw me watching her; her face would grow hard then, and her eyes would narrow. She put a hand on her belly, possessively, as if to ward off some spell I might cast. Perhaps she thought I was mocking her, flourishing my triumph. Perhaps she thought I hated her. She did not know that I almost asked him, a hundred times, to be a little kinder to her. You do not have to humiliate her so thoroughly, I thought. But it was not kindness he lacked; it was interest. His gaze passed over her as if she were not there.

Once she tried to speak to him, her voice trembling with hope.

“Are you well, Pyrrha?”

He continued eating, in his elegant swift bites. He and I had planned to take spears to the far side of the island after dinner and catch fish by moonlight. He was eager to be gone. I had to nudge him, beneath the table.

“What is it?” he asked me.

“The princess wants to know if you are well.”

“Oh.” He glanced at her briefly, then back to me. “I am well,” he said.

AS THE DAYS WORE ON, Achilles took to waking early, so that he might practice with spears before the sun rose high. We had hidden weapons in a distant grove, and he would exercise there before returning to womanhood in the palace. Sometimes he might visit his mother afterwards, sitting on one of Scyros’ jagged rocks, dangling his feet into the sea.

It was one of these mornings, when Achilles was gone, that there was a loud rap on my door.

“Yes?” I called. But the guards were already stepping inside. They were more formal than I had ever seen them, carrying spears and standing at attention. It was strange to see them without their dice.

“You’re to come with us,” one of them said.

“Why?” I was barely out of bed and still bleary with sleep.

“The princess ordered it.” A guard took each of my arms and towed me to the door. When I stuttered a protest, the first guard leaned towards me, his eyes on mine. “It will be better if you go quietly.” He drew his thumb over his spearpoint in theatrical menace.

I did not really think they would hurt me, but neither did I want to be dragged through the halls of the palace. “All right,” I said.

THE NARROW CORRIDORS where they led me I had never visited before. They were the women’s quarters, twisting off from the main rooms, a beehive of narrow cells where Deidameia’s foster sisters slept and lived. I heard laughter from behind the doors, and the endless shush-shush of the shuttle. Achilles said that the sun did not come through the windows here, and there was no breeze. He had spent nearly two months in them; I could not imagine it.

At last we came to a large door, cut from finer wood than the rest. The guard knocked on it, opened it, and pushed me through. I heard it close firmly behind me.

Inside, Deidameia was seated primly on a leather-covered chair, regarding me. There was a table beside her, and a small stool at her feet; otherwise the room was empty.

She must have planned this, I realized. She knew that Achilles was away.

There was no place for me to sit, so I stood. The floor was cold stone, and my feet were bare. There was a second, smaller door; it led to her bedroom, I guessed.

She watched me looking, her eyes bright as a bird’s. There was nothing clever to say, so I said something foolish.

“You wanted to speak with me.”

She sniffed a little, with contempt. “Yes, Patroclus. I wanted to speak with you.”

I waited, but she said nothing more, only studied me, a finger tapping the arm of her chair. Her dress was looser than usual; she did not have it tied across the waist as she often did, to show her figure. Her hair was unbound and held back at the temples with carved ivory combs. She tilted her head and smiled at me.

“You are not even handsome, that is the funny thing. You are quite ordinary.”

She had her father’s way of pausing as if she expected a reply. I felt myself flushing. I must say something. I cleared my throat.

She glared at me. “I have not given you leave to speak.” She held my gaze a moment, as if to make sure that I would not disobey, then continued. “I think it’s funny. Look at you.” She rose, and her quick steps ate up the space between us. “Your neck is short. Your chest is thin as a boy’s.” She gestured at me with disdainful fingers. “And your face.” She grimaced. “Hideous. My women quite agree. Even my father agrees.” Her pretty red lips parted to show her white teeth. It was the closest I had ever been to her. I could smell something sweet, like acanthus flower; close up, I could see that her hair was not just black, but shot through with shifting colors of rich brown.

“Well? What do you say?” Her hands were on her hips.

“You have not given me leave to speak,” I said.

Anger flashed over her face. “Don’t be an idiot,” she spat at me.

“I wasn’t—”

She slapped me. Her hand was small but carried surprising force. It turned my head to the side roughly. The skin stung, and my lip throbbed sharply where she had caught it with a ring. I had not been struck like this since I was a child. Boys were not usually slapped, but a father might do it to show contempt. Mine had. It shocked me; I could not have spoken even if I had known what to say.

She bared her teeth at me, as if daring me to strike her in return. When she saw I would not, her face twisted with triumph. “Coward. As craven as you are ugly. And half-moron besides, I hear. I do not understand it! It makes no sense that he should—” She stopped abruptly, and the corner of her mouth tugged down, as if caught by a fisherman’s hook. She turned her back to me and was silent. A moment passed. I could hear the sound of her breaths, drawn slowly, so I would not guess she was crying. I knew the trick. I had done it myself.

“I hate you,” she said, but her voice was thick and there was no force in it. A sort of pity rose in me, cooling the heat of my cheeks. I remembered how hard a thing indifference was to bear.

I heard her swallow, and her hand moved swiftly to her face, as if to wipe away tears. “I’m leaving tomorrow,” she said. “That should make you happy. My father wants me to begin my confinement early. He says it would bring shame upon me for the pregnancy to be seen, before it was known I was married.” Confinement. I heard the bitterness in her voice when she said it. Some small house, at the edge of Lycomedes’ land. She would not be able to dance or speak with companions there. She would be alone, with a servant and her growing belly.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

She did not answer. I watched the soft heaving of her back beneath the white gown. I took a step towards her, then stopped. I had thought to touch her, to smooth her hair in comfort. But it would not be comfort, from me. My hand fell back to my side.

We stood there like that for some time, the sound of our breaths filling the chamber. When she turned, her face was ruddy from crying.

“Achilles does not regard me.” Her voice trembled a little. “Even though I bear his child and am his wife. Do you—know why this is so?”

It was a child’s question, like why the rain falls or why the sea’s motion never ceases. I felt older than her, though I was not.

“I do not know,” I said softly.

Her face twisted. “That’s a lie. You’re the reason. You will sail with him, and I will be left here.”

I knew something of what it was to be alone. Of how another’s good fortune pricked like a goad. But there was nothing I could do.

“I should go,” I said, as gently as I could.

“No!” She moved quickly to block my way. Her words tumbled out. “You cannot. I will call the guards if you try. I will—I will say you attacked me.”

Sorrow for her dragged at me, bearing me down. Even if she called them, even if they believed her, they could not help her. I was the companion of Achilles and invulnerable.

My feelings must have shown on my face; she recoiled from me as if stung, and the heat sparked in her again.

“You were angry that he married me, that he lay with me. You were jealous. You should be.” Her chin lifted, as it used to. “It was not just once.”

It was twice. Achilles had told me. She thought that she had power to drive a wedge between us, but she had nothing.

“I’m sorry,” I said again. I had nothing better to say. He did not love her; he never would.

As if she heard my thought, her face crumpled. Her tears fell on the floor, turning the gray stone black, drop by drop.

“Let me get your father,” I said. “Or one of your women.”

She looked up at me. “Please—” she whispered. “Please do not leave.”

She was shivering, like something just born. Always before, her hurts had been small, and there had been someone to offer her comfort. Now there was only this room, the bare walls and single chair, the closet of her grief.

Almost unwillingly, I stepped towards her. She gave a small sigh, like a sleepy child, and drooped gratefully into the circle of my arms. Her tears bled through my tunic; I held the curves of her waist, felt the warm, soft skin of her arms. He had held her just like this, perhaps. But Achilles seemed a long way off; his brightness had no place in this dull, weary room. Her face, hot as if with fever, pressed against my chest. All I could see of her was the top of her head, the whorl and tangle of her shining dark hair, the pale scalp beneath.

After a time, her sobs subsided, and she drew me closer. I felt her hands stroking my back, the length of her body pressing to mine. At first I did not understand. Then I did.

“You do not want this,” I said. I made to step back, but she held me too tightly.

“I do.” Her eyes had an intensity to them that almost frightened me.

“Deidameia.” I tried to summon the voice I had used to make Peleus yield. “The guards are outside. You must not—”

But she was calm now, and sure. “They will not disturb us.”

I swallowed, my throat dry with panic. “Achilles will be looking for me.”

She smiled sadly. “He will not look here.” She took my hand. “Come,” she said. And drew me through her bedroom’s door.

Achilles had told me about their nights together when I asked. It had not been awkward for him to do so—nothing was forbidden between us. Her body, he said, was soft and small as a child’s. She had come to his cell at night with his mother and lain beside him on the bed. He had feared he would hurt her; it had been swift, and neither spoke. He floundered as he tried to describe the heavy, thick smell, the wetness between her legs. “Greasy,” he said, “like oil.” When I pressed him further, he shook his head. “I cannot remember, really. It was dark, and I could not see. I wanted it to be over.” He stroked my cheek. “I missed you.” The door closed behind us, and we were alone in a modest room. The walls were hung with tapestries, and the floor was thick with sheepskin rugs. There was a bed, pushed against the window, to catch the hint of breeze.

She pulled her dress over her head, and dropped it on the floor.

“Do you think I am beautiful?” she asked me.

I was grateful for a simple answer. “Yes,” I said. Her body was small and delicately made, with just the barest rise of belly where the child grew. My eyes were drawn down to what I had never seen before, a small furred area, the dark hairs spreading lightly upwards. She saw me looking. Reaching for my hand she guided me to that place, which radiated heat like the embers of a fire.

The skin that slipped against my fingers was warm and delicate, so fragile I was almost afraid I would tear it with my touch. My other hand reached up to stroke her cheek, to trace the softness beneath her eyes. The look in them was terrible to see: there was no hope or pleasure, only determination.

Almost, I fled. But I could not bear to see her face broken open with more sorrow, more disappointment—another boy who could not give her what she wanted. So I allowed her hands, fumbling a little, to draw me to the bed, to guide me between her thighs, where tender skin parted, weeping slow warm drops. I felt resistance and would have drawn back, but she shook her head sharply. Her small face was tight with concentration, her jaw set as if against pain. It was a relief for us both when at last the skin eased, gave way. When I slipped into that sheathing warmth within her.

I will not say I was not aroused. A slow climbing tension moved through me. It was a strange, drowsy feeling, so different from my sharp, sure desires for Achilles. She seemed hurt by this, my heavy-lidded repose. More indifference. And so I let myself move, made sounds of pleasure, pressed my chest against hers as if in passion, flattening her soft, small breasts beneath me.

She was pleased then, suddenly fierce, pulling and pushing me harder and faster, her eyes lighting in triumph at the changes in my breath. And then, at the slow rising of tide inside me, her legs, light but firm, wrapped around my back, bucking me into her, drawing out the spasm of my pleasure.

Afterwards we lay breathless, side by side but not touching. Her face was shadowed and distant, her posture strangely stiff. My mind was still muddied from climax, but I reached to hold her. I could offer her this, at least.

But she drew away from me and stood, her eyes wary; the skin beneath them was dark as bruises. She turned to dress, and her round heart-shaped buttocks stared at me like a reproach. I did not understand what she had wanted; I only knew I had not given it. I stood and pulled on my tunic. I would have touched her, stroked her face, but her eyes warned me away, sharp and full. She held open the door. Hopelessly, I stepped over the threshold.

“Wait.” Her voice sounded raw. I turned. “Tell him good-bye,” she said. And then closed the door, dark and thick between us.

WHEN I FOUND ACHILLES again, I pressed myself to him in relief at the joy between us, at being released from her sadness and hurt.

Later, I almost convinced myself it had not happened, that it had been a vivid dream, drawn from his descriptions and too much imagination. But that is not the truth.

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