فصل 27

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فصل 27

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Chapter Twenty-Seven

THERE ARE THREE SMALL STONES ON THE RUGS OF OUR tent, kicked in by our feet or crept in on their own. I pick them up. They are something to hold on to.

His weariness has faded as he speaks. “ . . . I will fight for him no longer. At every turn he seeks to rob me of my rightful glory. To cast me into shadow and doubt. He cannot bear another man to be honored over him. But he will learn. I will show him the worth of his army without Aristos Achaion.” I do not speak. I can see the temper rising in him. It is like watching a storm come, when there is no shelter.

“The Greeks will fall without me to defend them. He will be forced to beg, or die.”

I remember how he looked when he went to see his mother. Wild, fevered, hard as granite. I imagine him kneeling before her, weeping with rage, beating his fists on the jagged sea rocks. They have insulted him, he says to her. They have dishonored him. They have ruined his immortal reputation.

She listens, her fingers pulling absently on her long white throat, supple as a seal, and begins to nod. She has an idea, a god’s idea, full of vengeance and wrath. She tells him, and his weeping stops.

“He will do it?” Achilles asks, in wonder. He means Zeus, king of the gods, whose head is wreathed in clouds, whose hands can hold the thunderbolt itself.

“He will do it,” Thetis says. “He is in my debt.”

Zeus, the great balancer, will let go his scales. He will make the Greeks lose and lose and lose, until they are crushed against the sea, anchors and ropes tangling their feet, masts and prows splintering on their backs. And then they will see who they must beg for.

Thetis leans forward and kisses her son, a bright starfish of red, high on his cheek. Then she turns and is gone, slipped into the water like a stone, sinking to the bottom.

I let the pebbles tumble to the ground from my fingers, where they lie, haphazard or purposeful, an augury or an accident. If Chiron were here, he could read them, tell us our fortunes. But he is not here.

“What if he will not beg?” I ask.

“Then he will die. They will all die. I will not fight until he does.” His chin juts, bracing for reproach.

I am worn out. My arm hurts where I cut it, and my skin feels coated with unwholesome sweat. I do not answer.

“Did you hear what I said?”

“I heard,” I say. “Greeks will die.”

Chiron had said once that nations were the most foolish of mortal inventions. “No man is worth more than another, wherever he is from.” “But what if he is your friend?” Achilles had asked him, feet kicked up on the wall of the rose-quartz cave. “Or your brother? Should you treat him the same as a stranger?” “You ask a question that philosophers argue over,” Chiron had said. “He is worth more to you, perhaps. But the stranger is someone else’s friend and brother. So which life is more important?” We had been silent. We were fourteen, and these things were too hard for us. Now that we are twenty-seven, they still feel too hard.

He is half of my soul, as the poets say. He will be dead soon, and his honor is all that will remain. It is his child, his dearest self. Should I reproach him for it? I have saved Briseis. I cannot save them all.

I know, now, how I would answer Chiron. I would say: there is no answer. Whichever you choose, you are wrong.

LATER THAT EVENING I go back to Agamemnon’s camp. As I walk, I feel the eyes on me, curious and pitying. They look behind me, to see if Achilles is following. He is not.

When I told him where I was going, it seemed to cast him back into the shadows. “Tell her I am sorry,” he said, his eyes down. I did not answer. Is he sorry because he has a better vengeance now? One that will strike down not just Agamemnon, but his whole ungrateful army? I do not let myself dwell on this thought. He is sorry. It is enough.

“Come in,” she says, her voice strange. She is wearing a gold-threaded dress and a necklace of lapis lazuli. On her wrists are bracelets of engraved silver. She clinks when she stands, as though she’s wearing armor.

She’s embarrassed, I can see that. But we do not have time to speak, because Agamemnon himself is bulging through the narrow slit behind me.

“Do you see how well I keep her?” he says. “The whole camp will see in what esteem I hold Achilles. He only has to apologize, and I will heap the honors on him that he deserves. Truly it is unfortunate that one so young has so much pride.” The smug look on his face makes me angry. But what did I expect? I have done this. Her safety for his honor. “This is a credit to you, mighty king,” I say.

“Tell Achilles,” Agamemnon continues. “Tell him how well I treat her. You may come any time you like, to see her.” He offers an unpleasant smile, then stands, watching us. He has no intention of leaving.

I turn to Briseis. I have learned a few pieces of her language, and I use them now.

“You are all right truly?”

“I am,” she replies, in the sharp singsong of Anatolian. “How long will it be?”

“I don’t know,” I say. And I don’t. How much heat does it take for iron to grow soft enough to bend? I lean forward and gently kiss her cheek. “I will be back again soon,” I say in Greek.

She nods.

Agamemnon eyes me as I leave. I hear him say, “What did he say to you?”

I hear her answer, “He admired my dress.”

THE NEXT MORNING, all the other kings march off with their armies to fight the Trojans; the army of Phthia does not follow. Achilles and I linger long over breakfast. Why should we not? There is nothing else for us to do. We may swim, if we like, or play at draughts or spend all day racing. We have not been at such utter leisure since Pelion.

Yet it does not feel like leisure. It feels like a held breath, like an eagle poised before the dive. My shoulders hunch, and I cannot stop myself from looking down the empty beach. We are waiting to see what the gods will do.

We do not have to wait long.

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