فصل 04

کتاب: افسانه آکیلیس ( آشیل) / فصل 4

فصل 04

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Chapter Four

MEALS IN THE VAULTED DINING HALL WERE MY ONLY relief. There the walls did not seem to press in on me so much, and the dust from the courtyard did not clog in my throat. The buzz of constant voices eased as mouths were stuffed full. I could sit with my food alone and breathe again.

It was the only time I saw Achilles. His days were separate, princely, filled with duties we had no part of. But he took each meal with us, circulating among the tables. In the huge hall, his beauty shone like a flame, vital and bright, drawing my eye against my will. His mouth was a plump bow, his nose an aristocratic arrow. When he was seated, his limbs did not skew as mine did, but arranged themselves with perfect grace, as if for a sculptor. Perhaps most remarkable was his unself-consciousness. He did not preen or pout as other handsome children did. Indeed, he seemed utterly unaware of his effect on the boys around him. Though how he was, I could not imagine: they crowded him like dogs in their eagerness, tongues lolling.

I watched all of this from my place at a corner table, bread crumpled in my fist. The keen edge of my envy was like flint, a spark away from fire.

On one of these days he sat closer to me than usual; only a table distant. His dusty feet scuffed against the flagstones as he ate. They were not cracked and callused as mine were, but pink and sweetly brown beneath the dirt. Prince, I sneered inside my head.

He turned, as if he had heard me. For a second our eyes held, and I felt a shock run through me. I jerked my gaze away, and busied myself with my bread. My cheeks were hot, and my skin prickled as if before a storm. When, at last, I ventured to look up again, he had turned back to his table and was speaking to the other boys.

After that, I was craftier with my observation, kept my head down and my eyes ready to leap away. But he was craftier still. At least once a dinner he would turn and catch me before I could feign indifference. Those seconds, half seconds, that the line of our gaze connected, were the only moment in my day that I felt anything at all. The sudden swoop of my stomach, the coursing anger. I was like a fish eyeing the hook.

IN THE FOURTH WEEK of my exile, I walked into the dining hall to find him at the table where I always sat. My table, as I had come to think of it, since few others chose to share it with me. Now, because of him, the benches were full of jostling boys. I froze, caught between flight and fury. Anger won. This was mine, and he would not push me from it, no matter how many boys he brought.

I sat at the last empty space, my shoulders tensed as if for a fight. Across the table the boys postured and prattled, about a spear and a bird that had died on the beach and the spring races. I did not hear them. His presence was like a stone in my shoe, impossible to ignore. His skin was the color of just-pressed olive oil, and smooth as polished wood, without the scabs and blemishes that covered the rest of us.

Dinner finished, and the plates were cleared. A harvest moon, full and orange, hung in the dusk beyond the dining room’s windows. Yet Achilles lingered. Absently, he pushed the hair from his eyes; it had grown longer over the weeks I had been here. He reached for a bowl on the table that held figs and gathered several in his hands.

With a toss of his wrist, he flicked the figs into the air, one, two, three, juggling them so lightly that their delicate skins did not bruise. He added a fourth, then a fifth. The boys hooted and clapped. More, more!

The fruits flew, colors blurring, so fast they seemed not to touch his hands, to tumble of their own accord. Juggling was a trick of low mummers and beggars, but he made it something else, a living pattern painted on the air, so beautiful even I could not pretend disinterest.

His gaze, which had been following the circling fruit, flickered to mine. I did not have time to look away before he said, softly but distinctly, “Catch.” A fig leapt from the pattern in a graceful arc towards me. It fell into the cup of my palms, soft and slightly warm. I was aware of the boys cheering.

One by one, Achilles caught the remaining fruits, returned them to the table with a performer’s flourish. Except for the last, which he ate, the dark flesh parting to pink seeds under his teeth. The fruit was perfectly ripe, the juice brimming. Without thinking, I brought the one he had thrown me to my lips. Its burst of grainy sweetness filled my mouth; the skin was downy on my tongue. I had loved figs, once.

He stood, and the boys chorused their farewells. I thought he might look at me again. But he only turned and vanished back to his room on the other side of the palace.

THE NEXT DAY Peleus returned to the palace and I was brought before him in his throne room, smoky and sharp from a yew-wood fire. Duly I knelt, saluted, received his famously charitable smile. “Patroclus,” I told him, when he asked. I was almost accustomed to it now, the bareness of my name, without my father’s behind it. Peleus nodded. He seemed old to me, bent over, but he was no more than fifty, my father’s age. He did not look like a man who could have conquered a goddess, or produced such a child as Achilles.

“You are here because you killed a boy. You understand this?”

This was the cruelty of adults. Do you understand?

“Yes,” I told him. I could have told him more, of the dreams that left me bleary and bloodshot, the almost-screams that scraped my throat as I swallowed them down. The way the stars turned and turned through the night above my unsleeping eyes.

“You are welcome here. You may still make a good man.” He meant it as comfort.

LATER THAT DAY, perhaps from him, perhaps from a listening servant, the boys learned at last of the reason for my exile. I should have expected it. I had heard them gossip of others often enough; rumors were the only coin the boys had to trade in. Still, it took me by surprise to see the sudden change in them, the fear and fascination blooming on their faces as I passed. Now even the boldest of them would whisper a prayer if he brushed against me: bad luck could be caught, and the Erinyes, our hissing spirits of vengeance, were not always particular. The boys watched from a safe distance, enthralled. Will they drink his blood, do you think?

Their whispers choked me, turned the food in my mouth to ash. I pushed away my plate and sought out corners and spare halls where I might sit undisturbed, except for the occasional passing servant. My narrow world narrowed further: to the cracks in the floor, the carved whorls in the stone walls. They rasped softly as I traced them with my fingertip.

“I HEARD YOU WERE HERE.” A clear voice, like ice-melted streams.

My head jerked up. I was in a storeroom, my knees against my chest, wedged between jars of thick-pressed olive oil. I had been dreaming myself a fish, silvered by sun as it leapt from the sea. The waves dissolved, became amphorae and grain sacks again.

It was Achilles, standing over me. His face was serious, the green of his eyes steady as he regarded me. I prickled with guilt. I was not supposed to be there and I knew it.

“I have been looking for you,” he said. The words were expressionless; they carried no hint of anything I could read. “You have not been going to morning drills.” My face went red. Behind the guilt, anger rose slow and dull. It was his right to chastise me, but I hated him for it.

“How do you know? You aren’t there.”

“The master noticed, and spoke to my father.”

“And he sent you.” I wanted to make him feel ugly for his tale-bearing.

“No, I came on my own.” Achilles’ voice was cool, but I saw his jaw tighten, just a little. “I overheard them speaking. I have come to see if you are ill.” I did not answer. He studied me a moment.

“My father is considering punishment,” he said.

We knew what this meant. Punishment was corporal, and usually public. A prince would never be whipped, but I was no longer a prince.

“You are not ill,” he said.

“No,” I answered, dully.

“Then that will not serve as your excuse.”

“What?” In my fear I could not follow him.

“Your excuse for where you have been.” His voice was patient. “So you will not be punished. What will you say?”

“I don’t know.”

“You must say something.”

His insistence sparked anger in me. “You are the prince,” I snapped.

That surprised him. He tilted his head a little, like a curious bird. “So?”

“So speak to your father, and say I was with you. He will excuse it.” I said this more confidently than I felt. If I had spoken to my father for another boy, he would have been whipped out of spite. But I was not Achilles.

The slightest crease appeared between his eyes. “I do not like to lie,” he said.

It was the sort of innocence other boys taunted out of you; even if you felt it, you did not say it.

“Then take me with you to your lessons,” I said. “So it won’t be a lie.”

His eyebrows lifted, and he regarded me. He was utterly still, the type of quiet that I had thought could not belong to humans, a stilling of everything but breath and pulse—like a deer, listening for the hunter’s bow. I found myself holding my breath.

Then something shifted in his face. A decision.

“Come,” he said.

“Where?” I was wary; perhaps now I would be punished for suggesting deceit.

“To my lyre lesson. So, as you say, it will not be a lie. After, we will speak with my father.”

“Now?”

“Yes. Why not?” He watched me, curious. Why not?

When I stood to follow him, my limbs ached from so long seated on cool stone. My chest trilled with something I could not quite name. Escape, and danger, and hope all at once.

WE WALKED IN SILENCE through the winding halls and came at length to a small room, holding only a large chest and stools for sitting. Achilles gestured to one and I went to it, leather pulled taut over a spare wooden frame. A musician’s chair. I had seen them only when bards came, infrequently, to play at my father’s fireside.

Achilles opened the chest. He pulled a lyre from it and held it out to me.

“I don’t play,” I told him.

His forehead wrinkled at this. “Never?”

Strangely, I found myself not wishing to disappoint him. “My father did not like music.”

“So? Your father is not here.”

I took the lyre. It was cool to the touch, and smooth. I slid my fingers over the strings, heard the humming almost-note; it was the lyre I had seen him with the first day I came.

Achilles bent again into the trunk, pulled out a second instrument, and came to join me.

He settled it on his knees. The wood was carved and golden and shone with careful keeping. It was my mother’s lyre, the one my father had sent as part of my price.

Achilles plucked a string. The note rose warm and resonant, sweetly pure. My mother had always pulled her chair close to the bards when they came, so close my father would scowl and the servants would whisper. I remembered, suddenly, the dark gleam of her eyes in the firelight as she watched the bard’s hands. The look on her face was like thirst.

Achilles plucked another string, and a note rang out, deeper than the other. His hand reached for a peg, turned it.

That is my mother’s lyre, I almost said. The words were in my mouth, and behind them others crowded close. That is my lyre. But I did not speak. What would he say to such a statement? The lyre was his, now.

I swallowed, my throat dry. “It is beautiful.”

“My father gave it to me,” he said, carelessly. Only the way his fingers held it, so gently, stopped me from rising in rage.

He did not notice. “You can hold it, if you like.”

The wood would be smooth and known as my own skin.

“No,” I said, through the ache in my chest. I will not cry in front of him.

He started to say something. But at that moment the teacher entered, a man of indeterminate middle age. He had the callused hands of a musician and carried his own lyre, carved of dark walnut.

“Who is this?” he asked. His voice was harsh and loud. A musician, but not a singer.

“This is Patroclus,” Achilles said. “He does not play, but he will learn.”

“Not on that instrument.” The man’s hand swooped down to pluck the lyre from my hands. Instinctively, my fingers tightened on it. It was not as beautiful as my mother’s lyre, but it was still a princely instrument. I did not want to give it up.

I did not have to. Achilles had caught him by the wrist, midreach. “Yes, on that instrument if he likes.”

The man was angry but said no more. Achilles released him and he sat, stiffly.

“Begin,” he said.

Achilles nodded and bent over the lyre. I did not have time to wonder about his intervention. His fingers touched the strings, and all my thoughts were displaced. The sound was pure and sweet as water, bright as lemons. It was like no music I had ever heard before. It had warmth as a fire does, a texture and weight like polished ivory. It buoyed and soothed at once. A few hairs slipped forward to hang over his eyes as he played. They were fine as lyre strings themselves, and shone.

He stopped, pushed back his hair, and turned to me.

“Now you.”

I shook my head, full to spilling. I could not play now. Not ever, if I could listen to him instead. “You play,” I said.

Achilles returned to his strings, and the music rose again. This time he sang also, weaving his own accompaniment with a clear, rich treble. His head fell back a little, exposing his throat, supple and fawn-skin soft. A small smile lifted the left corner of his mouth. Without meaning to I found myself leaning forward.

When at last he ceased, my chest felt strangely hollowed. I watched him rise to replace the lyres, close the trunk. He bid farewell to the teacher, who turned and left. It took me a long moment before I came back to myself, to notice he was waiting for me.

“We will go see my father now.”

I did not quite trust myself to speak, so I nodded and followed him out of the room and up the twisting hallways to the king.

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