فصل 26

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فصل 26

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Chapter Twenty-Six

IN THE DISTANCE TWO MEN ARE WALKING TOWARDS US UP the long stretch of beach, wearing the bright purple of Agamemnon’s camp, stamped with the symbol of heralds. I know them—Talthybius and Eurybates, Agamemnon’s chief messengers, honored as men of discretion close to the high king’s ear. Hate knots my throat. I want them dead.

They are close now, passing the glaring Myrmidon guards, who rattle their armor threateningly. They stop ten paces from us—enough, perhaps they think, to be able to escape Achilles if he were to lose his temper. I indulge myself in vicious images: Achilles leaping up to snap their necks, leaving them limp as dead rabbits in a hunter’s hand.

They stutter out a greeting, feet shifting, eyes down. Then: “We have come to take custody of the girl.”

Achilles answers them—cold and bitter, but wryly so, his anger banked and shielded. He is giving a show, I know, of grace, of tolerance, and my teeth clench at the calmness in his tone. He likes this image of himself, the wronged young man, stoically accepting the theft of his prize, a martyrdom for the whole camp to see. I hear my name and see them looking at me. I am to get Briseis.

She is waiting for me. Her hands are empty; she is taking nothing with her. “I’m sorry,” I whisper. She does not say it is all right; it is not. She leans forward, and I can smell the warm sweetness of her breath. Her lips graze mine. Then she steps past me and is gone.

Talthybius takes one side of her, Eurybates the other. Their fingers press, not gently, into the skin of her arm. They tow her forward, eager to be away from us. She is forced to move, or fall. Her head turns back to look at us, and I want to break at the desperate hope in her eyes. I stare at him, will him to look up, to change his mind. He does not.

They are out of our camp now, moving quickly. After a moment I can barely distinguish them from the other dark figures that move against the sand—eating and walking and gossiping intently about their feuding kings. Anger sweeps through me like brushfire.

“How can you let her go?” I ask, my teeth hard against one another.

His face is blank and barren, like another language, impenetrable. He says, “I must speak with my mother.”

“Go then,” I snarl.

I watch him leave. My stomach feels burned to cinders; my palms ache where my nails have cut into them. I do not know this man, I think. He is no one I have ever seen before. My rage towards him is hot as blood. I will never forgive him. I imagine tearing down our tent, smashing the lyre, stabbing myself in the stomach and bleeding to death. I want to see his face broken with grief and regret. I want to shatter the cold mask of stone that has slipped down over the boy I knew. He has given her to Agamemnon knowing what will happen.

Now he expects that I will wait here, impotent and obedient. I have nothing to offer Agamemnon for her safety. I cannot bribe him, and I cannot beg him. The king of Mycenae has waited too long for this triumph. He will not let her go. I think of a wolf, guarding its bone. There were such wolves on Pelion, who would hunt men if they were hungry enough. “If one of them is stalking you,” Chiron said, “you must give it something it wants more than you.” There is only one thing that Agamemnon wants more than Briseis. I yank the knife from my belt. I have never liked blood, but there is no help for that, now.

THE GUARDS SEE me belatedly and are too surprised to lift their weapons. One has the presence of mind to seize me, but I dig my nails into his arm, and he lets go. Their faces are slow and stupid with shock. Am I not just Achilles’ pet rabbit? If I were a warrior, they would fight me, but I am not. By the time they think they should restrain me, I am inside the tent.

The first thing I see is Briseis. Her hands have been tied, and she is shrinking in a corner. Agamemnon stands with his back to the entrance, speaking to her.

He turns, scowling at the interruption. But when he sees me, his face goes slick with triumph. I have come to beg, he thinks. I am here to plead for mercy, as Achilles’ ambassador. Or perhaps I will rage impotently, for his entertainment.

I lift the knife, and Agamemnon’s eyes widen. His hand goes to the knife at his own belt, and his mouth opens to call the guards. He does not have time to speak. I slash the knife down at my left wrist. It scores the skin but does not bite deep enough. I slash again, and this time I find the vein. Blood spurts in the enclosed space. I hear Briseis’ noise of horror. Agamemnon’s face is spattered with drops.

“I swear that the news I bring is truth,” I say. “I swear it on my blood.”

Agamemnon is taken aback. The blood and the oath stay his hand; he has always been superstitious.

“Well,” he says curtly, trying for dignity, “speak your news then.”

I can feel the blood draining down my wrist, but I do not move to stanch it.

“You are in the gravest danger,” I say.

He sneers. “Are you threatening me? Is this why he has sent you?”

“No. He has not sent me at all.”

His eyes narrow, and I see his mind working, fitting tiles into the picture. “Surely you come with his blessing.”

“No,” I say.

He is listening, now.

“He knows what you intend towards the girl,” I say.

Out of the corner of my eye I can see Briseis following our conversation, but I do not dare to look at her directly. My wrist throbs dully, and I can feel the warm blood filling my hand, then emptying again. I drop the knife and press my thumb onto the vein to slow the steady draining of my heart.


“Do you not wonder why he did not prevent you from taking her?” My voice is disdainful. “He could have killed your men, and all your army. Do you not think he could have held you off?” Agamemnon’s face is red. But I do not allow him to speak.

“He let you take her. He knows you will not resist bedding her, and this will be your downfall. She is his, won through fair service. The men will turn on you if you violate her, and the gods as well.” I speak slowly, deliberately, and the words land like arrows, each in its target. It is true what I say, though he has been too blinded by pride and lust to see it. She is in Agamemnon’s custody, but she is Achilles’ prize still. To violate her is a violation of Achilles himself, the gravest insult to his honor. Achilles could kill him for it, and even Menelaus would call it fair.

“You are at your power’s limit even in taking her. The men allowed it because he was too proud, but they will not allow more.” We obey our kings, but only within reason. If Aristos Achaion’s prize is not safe, none of ours are. Such a king will not be allowed to rule for long.

Agamemnon has not thought of any of this. The realizations come like waves, drowning him. Desperate, he says, “My counselors have said nothing of this.” “Perhaps they do not know what you intend. Or perhaps it serves their own purposes.” I pause to let him consider this. “Who will rule if you fall?” He knows the answer. Odysseus, and Diomedes, together, with Menelaus as figurehead. He begins to understand, at last, the size of the gift I have brought him. He has not come so far by being a fool.

“You betray him by warning me.”

It is true. Achilles has given Agamemnon a sword to fall upon, and I have stayed his hand. The words are thick and bitter. “I do.” “Why?” he asks.

“Because he is wrong,” I say. My throat feels raw and broken, as though I have drunk sand and salt.

Agamemnon considers me. I am known for my honesty, for my kindheartedness. There is no reason to disbelieve me. He smiles. “You have done well,” he says. “You show yourself loyal to your true master.” He pauses, savoring this, storing it up. “Does he know what you have done?” “Not yet,” I say.

“Ah.” His eyes half-close, imagining it. I watch the bolt of his triumph sliding home. He is a connoisseur of pain. There is nothing that could cause Achilles greater anguish than this: being betrayed to his worst enemy by the man he holds closest to his heart.

“If he will come and kneel for pardon, I swear I will release her. It is only his own pride that keeps his honor from him, not I. Tell him.” I do not answer. I stand, and walk to Briseis. I cut the rope that binds her. Her eyes are full; she knows what this has cost me. “Your wrist,” she whispers. I cannot answer her. My head is a confusion of triumph and despair. The sand of the tent is red with my blood.

“Treat her well,” I say.

I turn and leave. She will be all right now, I tell myself. He is feasting fat on the gift I have given him. I tear a strip from my tunic to bind my wrist. I am dizzy, though I do not know if it is with loss of blood or what I have done. Slowly, I begin the long walk back up the beach.

HE IS STANDING OUTSIDE the tent when I return. His tunic is damp from where he knelt in the sea. His face is wrapped closed, but there is a weariness to its edges, like fraying cloth; it matches mine.

“Where have you been?”

“In the camp.” I am not ready yet, to tell him. “How is your mother?”

“She is well. You are bleeding.”

The bandage has soaked through.

“I know,” I say.

“Let me look at it.” I follow him obediently into the tent. He takes my arm and unwraps the cloth. He brings water to rinse the wound clean and packs it with crushed yarrow and honey.

“A knife?” he asks.


We know the storm is coming; we are waiting as long as we can. He binds the wound with clean bandages. He brings me watered wine, and food as well. I can tell by his face that I look ill and pale.

“Will you tell me who hurt you?”

I imagine saying, You. But that is nothing more than childishness.

“I did it to myself.”


“For an oath.” There is no waiting any longer. I look at him, full in the face. “I went to Agamemnon. I told him of your plan.” “My plan?” His words are flat, almost detached.

“To let him rape Briseis, so that you might revenge yourself on him.” Saying it out loud is more shocking than I thought it would be.

He rises, half-turning so I cannot see his face. I read his shoulders instead, their set, the tension of his neck.

“So you warned him?”

“I did.”

“You know if he had done it, I could have killed him.” That same flat tone. “Or exiled him. Forced him from the throne. The men would have honored me like a god.” “I know,” I say.

There is a silence, a dangerous one. I keep waiting for him to turn on me. To scream, or strike out. And he does turn, to face me, at last.

“Her safety for my honor. Are you happy with your trade?”

“There is no honor in betraying your friends.”

“It is strange,” he says, “that you would speak against betrayal.”

There is more pain in those words, almost, than I can bear. I force myself to think of Briseis. “It was the only way.”

“You chose her,” he says. “Over me.”

“Over your pride.” The word I use is hubris. Our word for arrogance that scrapes the stars, for violence and towering rage as ugly as the gods.

His fists tighten. Now, perhaps, the attack will come.

“My life is my reputation,” he says. His breath sounds ragged. “It is all I have. I will not live much longer. Memory is all I can hope for.” He swallows, thickly. “You know this. And would you let Agamemnon destroy it? Would you help him take it from me?” “I would not,” I say. “But I would have the memory be worthy of the man. I would have you be yourself, not some tyrant remembered for his cruelty. There are other ways to make Agamemnon pay. We will do it. I will help you, I swear. But not like this. No fame is worth what you did today.” He turns away again and is silent. I stare at his unspeaking back. I memorize each fold in his tunic, each bit of drying salt and sand stuck to his skin.

When he speaks at last, his voice is weary, and defeated. He doesn’t know how to be angry with me, either. We are like damp wood that won’t light.

“It is done then? She is safe? She must be. You would not have come back, otherwise.”

“Yes. She is safe.”

A tired breath. “You are a better man than I.”

The beginning of hope. We have given each other wounds, but they are not mortal. Briseis will not be harmed and Achilles will remember himself and my wrist will heal. There will be a moment after this, and another after that.

“No,” I say. I stand and walk to him. I put my hand to the warmth of his skin. “It is not true. You left yourself today. And now you are returned.” His shoulders rise and fall on a long breath. “Do not say that,” he says, “until you have heard the rest of what I have done.”

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