فصل 05

کتاب: افسانه آکیلیس ( آشیل) / فصل 5

فصل 05

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Chapter Five

ACHILLES STOPPED ME JUST INSIDE THE BRONZE-STUDDED doors of Peleus’ audience chamber. “Wait here,” he said.

Peleus was seated on a high-backed chair at the room’s other end. An older man, one I had seen before with Peleus, stood near as if the two had been in conference. The fire smoked thickly, and the room felt hot and close.

The walls were hung with deep-dyed tapestries and old weapons kept gleaming by servants. Achilles walked past them and knelt at his father’s feet. “Father, I come to ask your pardon.” “Oh?” Peleus lifted an eyebrow. “Speak then.” From where I stood his face looked cold and displeased. I was suddenly fearful. We had interrupted; Achilles had not even knocked.

“I have taken Patroclus from his drills.” My name sounded strange on his lips; I almost did not recognize it.

The old king’s brows drew together. “Who?”

“Menoitiades,” Achilles said. Menoitius’ son.

“Ah.” Peleus’ gaze followed the carpet back to where I stood, trying not to fidget. “Yes, the boy the arms-master wants to whip.” “Yes. But it is not his fault. I forgot to say I wished him for a companion.” Therapon was the word he used. A brother-in-arms sworn to a prince by blood oaths and love. In war, these men were his honor guard; in peace, his closest advisers. It was a place of highest esteem, another reason the boys swarmed Peleus’ son, showing off; they hoped to be chosen.

Peleus’ eyes narrowed. “Come here, Patroclus.”

The carpet was thick beneath my feet. I knelt a little behind Achilles. I could feel the king’s gaze on me.

“For many years now, Achilles, I have urged companions on you and you have turned them away. Why this boy?” The question might have been my own. I had nothing to offer such a prince. Why, then, had he made a charity case of me? Peleus and I both waited for his answer.

“He is surprising.”

I looked up, frowning. If he thought so, he was the only one.

“Surprising,” Peleus echoed.

“Yes.” Achilles explained no further, though I hoped he would.

Peleus rubbed his nose in thought. “The boy is an exile with a stain upon him. He will add no luster to your reputation.” “I do not need him to,” Achilles said. Not proudly or boastfully. Honestly.

Peleus acknowledged this. “Yet other boys will be envious that you have chosen such a one. What will you tell them?” “I will tell them nothing.” The answer came with no hesitation, clear and crisp. “It is not for them to say what I will do.” I found my pulse beating thickly in my veins, fearing Peleus’ anger. It did not come. Father and son met each other’s gaze, and the faintest touch of amusement bloomed at the corner of Peleus’ mouth.

“Stand up, both of you.”

I did so, dizzily.

“I pronounce your sentence. Achilles, you will give your apology to Amphidamas, and Patroclus will give his as well.” “Yes, Father.”

“That is all.” He turned from us, back to his counselor, in dismissal.

OUTSIDE AGAIN ACHILLES was brisk. “I will see you at dinner,” he said, and turned to go.

An hour before I would have said I was glad to be rid of him; now, strangely, I felt stung.

“Where are you going?”

He stopped. “Drills.”

“Alone?”

“Yes. No one sees me fight.” The words came as if he were used to saying them.

“Why?”

He looked at me a long moment, as if weighing something. “My mother has forbidden it. Because of the prophecy.” “What prophecy?” I had not heard of this.

“That I will be the best warrior of my generation.”

It sounded like something a young child would claim, in make-believe. But he said it as simply as if he were giving his name.

The question I wanted to ask was, And are you the best? Instead I stuttered out, “When was the prophecy given?” “When I was born. Just before. Eleithyia came and told it to my mother.” Eleithyia, goddess of childbirth, rumored to preside in person over the birth of half-gods. Those whose nativities were too important to be left to chance. I had forgotten. His mother is a goddess.

“Is this known?” I was tentative, not wanting to press too far.

“Some know of it, and some do not. But that is why I go alone.” But he didn’t go. He watched me. He seemed to be waiting.

“Then I will see you at dinner,” I said at last.

He nodded and left.

HE WAS ALREADY SEATED when I arrived, wedged at my table amid the usual clatter of boys. I had half-expected him not to be; that I had dreamed the morning. As I sat, I met his eyes, quickly, almost guiltily, then looked away. My face was flushing, I was sure. My hands felt heavy and awkward as they reached for the food. I was aware of every swallow, every expression on my face. The meal was very good that night, roasted fish dressed with lemon and herbs, fresh cheese and bread, and he ate well. The boys were unconcerned by my presence. They had long ago ceased to see me.

“Patroclus.” Achilles did not slur my name, as people often did, running it together as if in a hurry to be rid of it. Instead, he rang each syllable: Pa-tro-clus. Around us dinner was ending, the servants clearing the plates. I looked up, and the boys quieted, watching with interest. He did not usually address us by name.

“Tonight you’re to sleep in my room,” he said. I was so shocked that my mouth would have hung open. But the boys were there, and I had been raised with a prince’s pride.

“All right,” I said.

“A servant will bring your things.”

I could hear the thoughts of the staring boys as if they said them. Why him? Peleus had spoken true: he had often encouraged Achilles to choose his companions. But in all those years, Achilles showed no special interest in any of the boys, though he was polite to all, as befitted his upbringing. And now he had bestowed the long-awaited honor upon the most unlikely of us, small and ungrateful and probably cursed.

He turned to go and I followed him, trying not to stumble, feeling the eyes of the table on my back. He led me past my old room and the chamber of state with its high-backed throne. Another turn, and we were in a portion of the palace I did not know, a wing that slanted down towards water. The walls were painted with bright patterns that bled to gray as his torch passed them.

His room was so close to the sea that the air tasted of salt. There were no wall pictures here, only plain stone and a single soft rug. The furniture was simple but well made, carved from dark-grained wood I recognized as foreign. Off to one side I saw a thick pallet.

He gestured to it. “That is for you.”

“Oh.” Saying thank you did not seem the right response.

“Are you tired?” he asked.

“No.”

He nodded, as if I had said something wise. “Me neither.”

I nodded in turn. Each of us, warily polite, bobbing our head like birds. There was a silence.

“Do you want to help me juggle?”

“I don’t know how.”

“You don’t have to know. I’ll show you.”

I was regretting saying I was not tired. I did not want to make a fool of myself in front of him. But his face was hopeful, and I felt like a miser to refuse.

“All right.”

“How many can you hold?”

“I don’t know.”

“Show me your hand.”

I did, palm out. He rested his own palm against it. I tried not to startle. His skin was soft and slightly sticky from dinner. The plump finger pads brushing mine were very warm.

“About the same. It will be better to start with two, then. Take these.” He reached for six leather-covered balls, the type that mummers used. Obediently, I claimed two.

“When I say, throw one to me.”

Normally I would chafe at being bossed this way. But somehow the words did not sound like commands in his mouth. He began to juggle the remaining balls. “Now,” he said. I let the ball fly from my hand towards him, saw it pulled seamlessly into the circling blur.

“Again,” he said. I threw another ball, and it joined the others.

“You do that well,” he said.

I looked up, quickly. Was he mocking me? But his face was sincere.

“Catch.” A ball came back to me, just like the fig at dinner.

My part took no great skill, but I enjoyed it anyway. We found ourselves smiling at the satisfaction of each smooth catch and throw.

After some time he stopped, yawned. “It’s late,” he said. I was surprised to see the moon high outside the window; I had not noticed the minutes passing.

I sat on the pallet and watched as he busied himself with the tasks of bed, washing his face with water from a wide-mouthed ewer, untying the bit of leather that bound his hair. The silence brought my uneasiness back. Why was I here?

Achilles snuffed out the torch.

“Good night,” he said. “Good night.” The word felt strange in my mouth, like another language.

Time passed. In the moonlight, I could just make out the shape of his face, sculptor-perfect, across the room. His lips were parted slightly, an arm thrown carelessly above his head. He looked different in sleep, beautiful but cold as moonlight. I found myself wishing he would wake so that I might watch the life return.

THE NEXT MORNING, after breakfast, I went back to the boys’ room, expecting to find my things returned. They were not, and I saw that my bed had been stripped of its linens. I checked again after lunch, and after spear practice and then again before bed, but my old place remained empty and unmade. So. Still. Warily, I made my way to his room, half-expecting a servant to stop me. None did.

In the doorway of his room, I hesitated. He was within, lounging as I had seen him that first day, one leg dangling.

“Hello,” he said. If he had shown any hesitation or surprise, I would have left, gone back and slept on the bare reeds rather than stay here. But he did not. There was only his easy tone and a sharp attention in his eyes.

“Hello,” I answered, and went to take my place on the cot across the room.

SLOWLY, I GREW USED TO IT; I no longer startled when he spoke, no longer waited for rebuke. I stopped expecting to be sent away. After dinner, my feet took me to his room out of habit, and I thought of the pallet where I lay as mine.

At night I still dreamed of the dead boy. But when I woke, sweaty and terror-stricken, the moon would be bright on the water outside and I could hear the lick of the waves against the shore. In the dim light I saw his easy breathing, the drowsy tangle of his limbs. In spite of myself, my pulse slowed. There was a vividness to him, even at rest, that made death and spirits seem foolish. After a time, I found I could sleep again. Time after that, the dreams lessened and dropped away.

I learned that he was not so dignified as he looked. Beneath his poise and stillness was another face, full of mischief and faceted like a gem, catching the light. He liked to play games against his own skill, catching things with his eyes closed, setting himself impossible leaps over beds and chairs. When he smiled, the skin at the corners of his eyes crinkled like a leaf held to flame.

He was like a flame himself. He glittered, drew eyes. There was a glamour to him, even on waking, with his hair tousled and his face still muddled with sleep. Up close, his feet looked almost unearthly: the perfectly formed pads of the toes, the tendons that flickered like lyre strings. The heels were callused white over pink from going everywhere barefoot. His father made him rub them with oils that smelled of sandalwood and pomegranate.

He began to tell me the stories of his day before we drifted off to sleep. At first I only listened, but after time my tongue loosened. I began to tell my own stories, first of the palace, and later small bits from before: the skipping stones, the wooden horse I had played with, the lyre from my mother’s dowry.

“I am glad your father sent it with you,” he said.

Soon our conversations spilled out of the night’s confinement. I surprised myself with how much there was to say, about everything, the beach and dinner and one boy or another.

I stopped watching for ridicule, the scorpion’s tail hidden in his words. He said what he meant; he was puzzled if you did not. Some people might have mistaken this for simplicity. But is it not a sort of genius to cut always to the heart?

ONE AFTERNOON, as I went to leave him to his private drills he said, “Why don’t you come with me?” His voice was a little strained; if I had not thought it impossible, I might have said he was nervous. The air, which had grown comfortable between us, felt suddenly taut.

“All right,” I said.

It was the quiet hours of late afternoon; the palace slept out the heat and left us alone. We took the longest way, through the olive grove’s twisting path, to the house where the arms were kept.

I stood in the doorway as he selected his practice weapons, a spear and a sword, slightly blunted at the tip. I reached for my own, then hesitated.

“Should I—?” He shook his head. No.

“I do not fight with others,” he told me.

I followed him outside to the packed sand circle. “Never?”

“No.”

“Then how do you know that . . .” I trailed off as he took up a stance in the center, his spear in his hand, his sword at his waist.

“That the prophecy is true? I guess I don’t.”

Divine blood flows differently in each god-born child. Orpheus’ voice made the trees weep, Heracles could kill a man by clapping him on the back. Achilles’ miracle was his speed. His spear, as he began the first pass, moved faster than my eye could follow. It whirled, flashing forward, reversed, then flashed behind. The shaft seemed to flow in his hands, the dark gray point flickered like a snake’s tongue. His feet beat the ground like a dancer, never still.

I could not move, watching. I almost did not breathe. His face was calm and blank, not tensed with effort. His movements were so precise I could almost see the men he fought, ten, twenty of them, advancing on all sides. He leapt, scything his spear, even as his other hand snatched the sword from its sheath. He swung out with them both, moving like liquid, like a fish through the waves.

He stopped, suddenly. I could hear his breaths, only a little louder than usual, in the still afternoon air.

“Who trained you?” I asked. I did not know what else to say.

“My father, a little.”

A little. I felt almost frightened.

“No one else?”

“No.”

I stepped forward. “Fight me.”

He made a sound almost like a laugh. “No. Of course not.”

“Fight me.” I felt in a trance. He had been trained, a little, by his father. The rest was—what? Divine? This was more of the gods than I had ever seen in my life. He made it look beautiful, this sweating, hacking art of ours. I understood why his father did not let him fight in front of the others. How could any ordinary man take pride in his own skill when there was this in the world?

“I don’t want to.”

“I dare you.”

“You don’t have any weapons.”

“I’ll get them.”

He knelt and laid his weapons in the dirt. His eyes met mine. “I will not. Do not ask me again.”

“I will ask you again. You cannot forbid me.” I stepped forward, defiant. Something burned hot in me now, an impatience, a certainty. I would have this thing. He would give it to me.

His face twisted and, almost, I thought I saw anger. This pleased me. I would goad him, if nothing else. He would fight me then. My nerves sang with the danger of it.

But instead he walked away, his weapons abandoned in the dust.

“Come back,” I said. Then louder: “Come back. Are you afraid?”

That strange half-laugh again, his back still turned. “No, I am not afraid.”

“You should be.” I meant it as a joke, an easing, but it did not sound that way in the still air that hung between us. His back stared at me, unmoving, unmovable.

I will make him look at me, I thought. My legs swallowed up the five steps between us, and I crashed into his back.

He stumbled forward, falling, and I clung to him. We landed, and I heard the quick huff of his breath as it was driven from him. But before I could speak, he was twisting around beneath me, had seized my wrists in his hands. I struggled, not sure what I had meant to do. But here was resistance, and that was something I could fight. “Let me go!” I yanked my wrists against his grip.

“No.” In a swift motion, he rolled me beneath him, pinning me, his knees in my belly. I panted, angry but strangely satisfied.

“I have never seen anyone fight the way you do,” I told him. Confession or accusation, or both.

“You have not seen much.”

I bridled, despite the mildness of his tone. “You know what I mean.”

His eyes were unreadable. Over us both, the unripe olives rattled gently.

“Maybe. What do you mean?”

I twisted, hard, and he let go. We sat up, our tunics dusty and stuck to our backs.

“I mean—” I broke off. There was an edge to me now, that familiar keenness of anger and envy, struck to life like flint. But the bitter words died even as I thought them.

“There is no one like you,” I said, at last.

He regarded me a moment, in silence. “So?”

Something in the way he spoke it drained the last of my anger from me. I had minded, once. But who was I now, to begrudge such a thing?

As if he heard me, he smiled, and his face was like the sun.

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