فصل 14

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فصل 14

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Chapter Fourteen

DEIDAMEIA LEFT THE NEXT MORNING, AS SHE HAD SAID she would. “She is visiting an aunt,” Lycomedes told the court at breakfast, his voice flat. If there were questions, no one dared to ask them. She would be gone until the child was born, and Achilles could be named as father.

The weeks that passed now felt curiously suspended. Achilles and I spent as much time as possible away from the palace, and our joy, so explosive at our reunion, had been replaced with impatience. We wanted to leave, to return to our lives on Pelion, or in Phthia. We felt furtive and guilty with the princess gone; the court’s eyes on us had sharpened, grown uncomfortable. Lycomedes frowned whenever he saw us.

And then there was the war. Even here, in far-off, forgotten Scyros, news came of it. Helen’s former suitors had honored their vow, and Agamemnon’s army was rich with princely blood. It was said that he had done what no man before him could: united our fractious kingdoms with common cause. I remembered him—a grim-faced shadow, shaggy as a bear. To my nine-year-old self, his brother Menelaus had been much the more memorable of the two, with his red hair and merry voice. But Agamemnon was older, and his armies the larger; he would lead the expedition to Troy.

It was morning, and late winter, though it did not seem it. So far south, the leaves did not fall and no frost pinched the morning air. We lingered in a rock cleft that looked over the span of horizon, watching idly for ships or the gray flash of dolphin back. We hurled pebbles from the cliff, leaning over to watch them skitter down the rock-face. We were high enough that we could not hear the sound of them breaking on the rocks below.

“I wish I had your mother’s lyre,” he said.

“Me too.” But it was in Phthia, left behind with everything else. We were silent a moment, remembering the sweetness of its strings.

He leaned forward. “What is that?”

I squinted. The sun sat differently on the horizon now that it was winter, seeming to slant into my eyes from every angle.

“I cannot tell.” I stared at the haze where the sea vanished into the sky. There was a distant smudge that might have been a ship, or a trick of the sun on the water. “If it’s a ship, there will be news,” I said, with a familiar clutch in my stomach. Each time I feared word would come of a search for the last of Helen’s suitors, the oath-breaker. I was young then; it did not occur to me that no leader would wish it known that some had not obeyed his summons.

“It is a ship, for certain,” Achilles said. The smudge was closer now; the ship must be moving very quickly. The bright colors of the sail resolved themselves moment by moment out of the sea’s blue-gray.

“Not a trader,” Achilles commented. Trading ships used white sails only, practical and cheap; a man needed to be rich indeed to waste his dye on sailcloth. Agamemnon’s messengers had crimson and purple sails, symbols stolen from eastern royalty. This ship’s sails were yellow, whorled with patterns of black.

“Do you know the design?” I asked.

Achilles shook his head.

We watched the ship skirt the narrow mouth of Scyros’ bay and beach itself on the sandy shore. A rough-cut stone anchor was heaved overboard, the gangway lowered. We were too far to see much of the men on its deck, beyond dark heads.

We had stayed longer than we should have. Achilles stood and tucked his wind-loosened hair back beneath its kerchief. My hands busied themselves with the folds of his dress, settling them more gracefully across his shoulders, fastening the belts and laces; it was barely strange anymore to see him in it. When we were finished, Achilles bent towards me for a kiss. His lips on mine were soft, and stirred me. He caught the expression in my eyes and smiled. “Later,” he promised me, then turned and went back down the path to the palace. He would go to the women’s quarters and wait there, amidst the looms and the dresses, until the messenger was gone.

The hairline cracks of a headache were beginning behind my eyes; I went to my bedroom, cool and dark, its shutters barring the midday sun, and slept.

A knock woke me. A servant perhaps, or Lycomedes. My eyes still closed, I called, “Come in.”

“It’s rather too late for that,” a voice answered. The tone was amused, dry as driftwood. I opened my eyes and sat up. A man stood inside the open door. He was sturdy and muscular, with a close-cropped philosopher’s beard, dark brown tinged with faintest red. He smiled at me, and I saw the lines where other smiles had been. It was an easy motion for him, swift and practiced. Something about it tugged at my memory.

“I’m sorry if I disturbed you.” His voice was pleasant, well modulated.

“It’s all right,” I said, carefully. “I was hoping I might have a word with you. Do you mind if I sit?” He gestured towards a chair with a wide palm. The request was politely made; despite my unease, I could find no reason to refuse him.

I nodded, and he drew the chair to him. His hands were callused and rough; they would not have looked out of place holding a plow, yet his manner bespoke nobility. To stall I stood and opened the shutters, hoping my brain would shake off its sleepy fog. I could think of no reason that any man would want a moment of my time. Unless he had come to claim me for my oath. I turned to face him.

“Who are you?” I asked.

The man laughed. “A good question. I’ve been terribly rude, barging into your room like this. I am one of the great king Agamemnon’s captains. I travel the islands and speak to promising young men, such as yourself”—he inclined his head towards me—“about joining our army against Troy. Have you heard of the war?” “I have heard of it,” I said.

“Good.” He smiled and stretched his feet in front of him. The fading light fell on his legs, revealing a pink scar that seamed the brown flesh of his right calf from ankle to knee. A pink scar. My stomach dropped as if I leaned over Scyros’ highest cliff, with nothing beneath me but the long fall to the sea. He was older now, and larger, come into the full flush of his strength. Odysseus.

He said something, but I did not hear it. I was back in Tyndareus’ hall, remembering his clever dark eyes that missed nothing. Did he know me? I stared at his face, but saw only a slightly puzzled expectation. He is waiting for an answer. I forced down my fear.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I did not hear you. What?”

“Are you interested? In joining us to fight?”

“I don’t think you’d want me. I’m not a very good soldier.”

His mouth twisted wryly. “It’s funny—no one seems to be, when I come calling.” His tone was light; it was a shared joke, not a reproach. “What’s your name?” I tried to sound as casual as he. “Chironides.”

“Chironides,” he repeated. I watched him for disbelief, but saw none. The tension in my muscles ebbed a little. Of course he did not recognize me. I had changed much since I was nine.

“Well, Chironides, Agamemnon promises gold and honor for all who fight for him. The campaign looks to be short; we will have you back home by next fall. I will be here for a few days, and I hope you will consider it.” He dropped his hands to his knees with finality, and stood.

“That’s it?” I had expected persuasion and pressure, a long evening of it.

He laughed, almost affectionately. “Yes, that’s it. I assume I will see you at dinner?”

I nodded. He made as if to go, then stopped. “You know, it’s funny; I keep thinking I’ve seen you before.”

“I doubt it,” I said quickly. “I don’t recognize you.”

He studied me a moment, then shrugged, giving up. “I must be confusing you with another young man. You know what they say. The older you get, the less you remember.” He scratched his beard thoughtfully. “Who’s your father? Perhaps it’s him I know.” “I am an exile.”

He made a sympathetic face. “I’m sorry to hear it. Where were you from?”

“The coast.”

“North or south?”

“South.”

He shook his head ruefully. “I would have sworn you were from the north. Somewhere near Thessaly, say. Or Phthia. You have the same roundness to your vowels that they do.” I swallowed. In Phthia, the consonants were harder than elsewhere, and the vowels wider. It had sounded ugly to me, until I heard Achilles speak. I had not realized how much of it I had adopted.

“I—did not know that,” I mumbled. My heart was beating very fast. If only he would leave.

“Useless information is my curse, I’m afraid.” He was amused again, that slight smile. “Now don’t forget to come find me if you decide you want to join us. Or if you happen to know of any other likely young men I should speak to.” The door snicked shut behind him.

THE DINNER BELL had rung and the corridors were busy with servants carrying platters and chairs. When I stepped into the hall, my visitor was already there, standing with Lycomedes and another man.

“Chironides,” Lycomedes acknowledged my arrival. “This is Odysseus, ruler of Ithaca.”

“Thank goodness for hosts,” Odysseus said. “I realized after I left that I never told you my name.”

And I did not ask because I knew. It had been a mistake but was not irreparable. I widened my eyes. “You’re a king?” I dropped to a knee, in my best startled obeisance.

“Actually, he’s only a prince,” a voice drawled. “I’m the one who’s a king.” I looked up to meet the third man’s eyes; they were a brown so light it was almost yellow, and keen. His beard was short and black, and it emphasized the slanting planes of his face.

“This is Lord Diomedes, King of Argos,” Lycomedes said. “A comrade of Odysseus.” And another suitor of Helen’s, though I remembered no more than his name.

“Lord.” I bowed to him. I did not have time to fear recognition—he had already turned away.

“Well.” Lycomedes gestured to the table. “Shall we eat?”

For dinner we were joined by several of Lycomedes’ counselors, and I was glad to vanish among them. Odysseus and Diomedes largely ignored us, absorbed in talk with the king.

“And how is Ithaca?” Lycomedes asked politely.

“Ithaca is well, thank you,” Odysseus answered. “I left my wife and son there, both in good health.”

“Ask him about his wife,” Diomedes said. “He loves to talk about her. Have you heard how he met her? It’s his favorite story.” There was a goading edge to his voice, barely sheathed. The men around me stopped eating, to watch.

Lycomedes looked between the two men, then ventured, “And how did you meet your wife, Prince of Ithaca?”

If Odysseus felt the tension, he did not show it. “You are kind to ask. When Tyndareus sought a husband for Helen, suitors came from every kingdom. I’m sure you remember.” “I was married already,” Lycomedes said. “I did not go.”

“Of course. And these were too young, I’m afraid.” He tossed a smile at me, then turned back to the king.

“Of all these men, I was fortunate to arrive first. The king invited me to dine with the family: Helen; her sister, Clytemnestra; and their cousin Penelope.” “Invited,” Diomedes scoffed. “Is that what they call crawling through the bracken to spy upon them?”

“I’m sure the prince of Ithaca would not do such a thing.” Lycomedes frowned.

“Unfortunately I did just that, though I appreciate your faith in me.” He offered Lycomedes a genial smile. “It was Penelope who caught me, actually. Said she had been watching me for over an hour and thought she should step in before I hit the thornbush. Naturally, there was some awkwardness about it, but Tyndareus eventually came around and asked me to stay. In the course of dinner, I came to see that Penelope was twice as clever as her cousins and just as beautiful. So—” “As beautiful as Helen?” Diomedes interrupted. “Is that why she was twenty and unmarried?”

Odysseus’ voice was mild. “I’m sure you would not ask a man to compare his wife unfavorably to another woman,” he said.

Diomedes rolled his eyes and settled back to pick his teeth with the point of his knife.

Odysseus returned to Lycomedes. “So, in the course of our conversation, when it became clear that the Lady Penelope favored me—”

“Not for your looks, certainly,” Diomedes commented.

“Certainly not,” Odysseus agreed. “She asked me what wedding present I would make to my bride. A wedding bed, I said, rather gallantly, of finest holm-oak. But this answer did not please her. ‘A wedding bed should not be made of dead, dry wood, but something green and living,’ she told me. ‘And what if I can make such a bed?’ I said. ‘Will you have me?’ And she said—” The king of Argos made a noise of disgust. “I’m sick to death of this tale about your marriage bed.”

“Then perhaps you shouldn’t have suggested I tell it.”

“And perhaps you should get some new stories, so I don’t fucking kill myself of boredom.”

Lycomedes looked shocked; obscenity was for back rooms and practice fields, not state dinners. But Odysseus only shook his head sadly. “Truly, the men of Argos get more and more barbaric with each passing year. Lycomedes, let us show the king of Argos a bit of civilization. I was hoping for a glimpse of the famous dancers of your isle.” Lycomedes swallowed. “Yes,” he said. “I had not thought—” He stopped himself, then began again, with the most kingly voice he could summon. “If you wish.” “We do.” This was Diomedes.

“Well.” Lycomedes’ eyes darted between the two men. Thetis had ordered him to keep the women away from visitors, but to refuse would be suspicious. He cleared his throat, decided. “Well, let us call them, then.” He gestured sharply at a servant, who turned and ran from the hall. I kept my eyes on my plate, so they would not see the fear in my face.

The women had been surprised by the summons and were still making small adjustments of clothes and hair as they entered the hall. Achilles was among them, his head carefully covered, his gaze modestly down. My eyes went anxiously to Odysseus and Diomedes, but neither even glanced at him.

The girls took their places, and the music was struck. We watched as they began the complicated series of steps. It was beautiful, though lessened by Deidameia’s absence; she had been the best of them.

“Which one is your daughter?” Diomedes asked.

“She is not here, King of Argos. She is visiting family.”

“Too bad,” Diomedes said. “I hoped it was that one.” He pointed to a girl on the end, small and dark; she did look something like Deidameia, and her ankles were particularly lovely, flashing beneath the whirling hem of her dress.

Lycomedes cleared his throat. “Are you married, my lord?”

Diomedes half-smiled. “For now.” His eyes never left the women.

When the dance had finished, Odysseus stood, his voice raised for all to hear. “We are truly honored by your performance; not everyone can say that they have seen the dancers of Scyros. As tokens of our admiration we have brought gifts for you and your king.” A murmur of excitement. Luxuries did not come often to Scyros; no one here had the money to buy them.

“You are too kind.” Lycomedes’ face was flushed with genuine pleasure; he had not expected this generosity. The servants brought trunks forth at Odysseus’ signal and began unloading them on the long tables. I saw the glitter of silver, the shine of glass and gems. All of us, men and women both, leaned towards them, eager to see.

“Please, take what you would like,” Odysseus said. The girls moved swiftly to the tables, and I watched them fingering the bright trinkets: perfumes in delicate glass bottles stoppered with a bit of wax; mirrors with carved ivory for handles; bracelets of twisted gold; ribbons dyed deep in purples and reds. Among these were a few things I assumed were meant for Lycomedes and his counselors: leather-bound shields, carved spear hafts, and silvered swords with supple kidskin sheaths. Lycomedes’ eyes had caught on one of these, like a fish snagged by a line. Odysseus stood near, presiding benevolently.

Achilles kept to the back, drifting slowly along the tables. He paused to dab some perfume on his slender wrists, stroke the smooth handle of a mirror. He lingered a moment over a pair of earrings, blue stones set in silver wire.

A movement at the far end of the hall caught my eye. Diomedes had crossed the chamber and was speaking with one of his servants, who nodded and left through the large double doors. Whatever it was could not be important; Diomedes seemed half-asleep, his eyes heavy-lidded and bored.

I looked back to Achilles. He was holding the earrings up to his ears now, turning them this way and that, pursing his lips, playing at girlishness. It amused him, and the corner of his mouth curved up. His eyes flicked around the hall, catching for a moment on my face. I could not help myself. I smiled.

A trumpet blew, loud and panicked. It came from outside, a sustained note, followed by three short blasts: our signal for utmost, impending disaster. Lycomedes lurched to his feet, the guards’ heads jerked towards the door. Girls screamed and clung to each other, dropping their treasures to the ground in tinkles of breaking glass.

All the girls but one. Before the final blast was finished, Achilles had swept up one of the silvered swords and flung off its kidskin sheath. The table blocked his path to the door; he leapt it in a blur, his other hand grabbing a spear from it as he passed. He landed, and the weapons were already lifted, held with a deadly poise that was like no girl, nor no man either. The greatest warrior of his generation.

I yanked my gaze to Odysseus and Diomedes and was horrified to see them smiling. “Greetings, Prince Achilles,” Odysseus said. “We’ve been looking for you.” I stood helpless as the faces of Lycomedes’ court registered Odysseus’ words, turned towards Achilles, stared. For a moment Achilles did not move. Then, slowly, he lowered the weapons.

“Lord Odysseus,” he said. His voice was remarkably calm. “Lord Diomedes.” He inclined his head politely, one prince to another. “I am honored to be the subject of so much effort.” It was a good answer, full of dignity and the slightest twist of mockery. It would be harder for them to humiliate him now.

“I assume you wish to speak with me? Just a moment, and I will join you.” He placed the sword and spear carefully on the table. With steady fingers he untied the kerchief, drew it off. His hair, revealed, gleamed like polished bronze. The men and women of Lycomedes’ court whispered to one another in muted scandal; their eyes clung to his figure.

“Perhaps this will help?” Odysseus had claimed a tunic from some bag or box. He tossed it to Achilles, who caught it.

“Thank you,” Achilles said. The court watched, hypnotized, as he unfolded it, stripped to the waist, and drew it over himself.

Odysseus turned to the front of the room. “Lycomedes, may we borrow a room of state, please? We have much to discuss with the prince of Phthia.”

Lycomedes’ face was a frozen mask. I knew he was thinking of Thetis, and punishment. He did not answer.

“Lycomedes.” Diomedes’ voice was sharp, cracking like a blow.

“Yes,” Lycomedes croaked. I pitied him. I pitied all of us. “Yes. Just through there.” He pointed.

Odysseus nodded. “Thank you.” He moved towards the door, confidently, as if never doubting but that Achilles would follow.

“After you,” Diomedes smirked. Achilles hesitated, and his eyes went to me, just the barest glance.

“Oh yes,” Odysseus called over his shoulder. “You’re welcome to bring Patroclus along, if you like. We have business with him, as well.”

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