Ten years ago, before the lust and caprice of goddesses drowned the world in bloodshed, Kallikrates visited Troy as a humble sailor newly taken to the Greek seas. Then his ship had been welcomed, his captain a man of much status with the Trojan merchants. They remained a full month, long enough to enjoy a city at once familiar and yet touched with the exotic, straddling the line between godly civilization and eastern barbarism.
Most of the men exhausted their pay on cheap thrills, but not he. Kallikrates did not mean to remain a common galley man. The dearly bought lessons of his tutor had taught him to read, write, and know the constellations, and his heart was set on earning his own ship one day. So he saved his coin and sought the market leaders, gleaning their wisdom as he passed through one level of introduction after another.
His steps first crossed the path of the lady Charis at a lunar festival. Her father was a minor priest, known for both his corpulence and his debts. None spoke against him as such, for a fallen priest might still have some sway with the gods and was not one to be crossed; yet none were kind to him either. Beyond this censure the man had only managed to spawn three daughters. The eldest was unmarried despite her beauty, claiming the rights of an oracle despite her lack of prophecy. The youngest was joined with a prosperous family who dealt in rugs; the less charitable claimed she'd been sold to cover a loan rather than freely offered in matrimony.
But it was the second born Charis who held any standing with the community, and who served as the sole representative of her family at the city's festival. She was tall and stately, obviously a lady, and yet charitable to any who approached. As the festivities waxed into the night Kallikrates noted her lonely position by the matrons even as older girls danced about bonfires with some of his fellow sailors.
He'd approached and asked for a blessing.
She blinked in surprise. "You confuse me for my father," she demurred. "I have no sway with the gods."
"Do not speak so harshly of their handiwork," he answered with a wit he had not known existed till then. "Do you not know that the lady Artemis is fond of maidens? I am but a foreign Athenian, and yet I can recognize where she may have granted favor."
His words prompted a shy grin, and they might have gone further had one of the older ladies not chosen that moment to need a companion for the privy.
After that night he made it his business to seek her out, no easy feat for a man with little standing in a land not his own. But difficulty only whetted his ambition, and eventually he gained an invitation to a dinner she attended. Chaperoned only by a servant, Charis was more open to conversation, and what a mind she proved to have. One evening could not contain their discoveries, and he found himself meeting her in the forum as she ran errands, walking with her on the way to the temple, and attending every minor festivity she might grace.
It was a madness born of Aphrodite and yet blessed with Athena's logic, for Charis embodied the best of both gods. His plans had always been to cast his lot with Poseidon, and yet Kallikrates found himself considering a permanent residence in Troy. His connections were grown, there were places to be had, and most importantly, a lady whose importance he now valued as near equal to his own. The day he actually voiced his thoughts of emmigration to the Trojan harbor master was the one he realized her life now eclipsed his own in value, and nothing less than marriage would suffice.
He laid his heart bear to her that very evening, in the temple courtyard, and no Olympian nectar could rival the joy he drunk at hearing his own desires affirmed and mirrored. In a fit of wild extravagance he made an offering to the gods to bless their union then and there, and made plans to seek her father the next day.
The worried smile she tossed back at him in her departure was the last favor she was to give him.
When he approached her home the next day soldiers stopped him. At first he thought there might be some new business of finance to interrupt his plans, but then Charis's matron friend came to meet him from the house. "I am aware of your business, Athenian, and you are not welcome here."
He protested, begging for an audience, ready to promise anything. The old woman shook her head gravely. "It is no use," she stopped him, extending a scroll. "Charis asked me to give you this."
The letter was brief and polite, a reminder that she was dedicated to serving the people of Troy, with an injunction that he not give up his career with no hope of any reciprocal benefit. She wished him well.
He could not have replied even had he been inclined, for the lady retreated back into the house and the soldiers closed ranks behind her.
The letter he burned at the steps of the temple, daring the gods to punish him more than they already had. He returned to his ship and refused to leave it, wanting nothing more than a return to the lonely waves. In the ensuing years he churned like the billows themselves, gaining not just a ship but a reputation, enough to catch the eye of King Agamemnon himself. When the affair with the king's sister-in-law Helene and the Prince Paris erupted Kallikrates merely shrugged. What could one expect of Trojans? He gladly surrendered himself to a war that had brewed in his bosom for years.
It was a horrid time, but a good one for a man not afraid to make his mark, and Kallikrates earned both fortune and fame. He refused to take part in the horse business, wanting to meet his enemy head-on rather than play at such trickery, and had earned standing to back up his pride. Instead he led the fleet in to reinforce the saboteurs. By the time he and his men advanced on the city it was mortally wounded, hemorrhaging corpses, its wealth and former glory unable to staunch the madness of revenge. Too much blood had been spilt in this war to stop at anything less than a massacre.
He hadn't thought of her as anything but a distant, painful abstraction for so long that he never thought to seek her body amongst the dead. But days later, at a function given to demand the surrender of the few surviving city leaders, he was shocked to see her face. It was older, more harried, but still with a look of quiet authority that sent him seeking answers. Her sister's family, the rug dealers, had taken them in at their country estate when the Greeks advanced.
He bore the blood of her kin and countrymen, and stood to gain much from the destruction of her home. A crueler man, one as heartless as he'd believed himself to be, would have reveled in the chance to take his own back from a lady who'd robbed him of that organ to begin with.
Even as he enjoyed his fill of the spoils of war and consigned her to the punishment of her race, Kallikrates could not find it in himself to hate her. Aphrodite he cursed, and Helene he abhorred, but despite her humbled place Charis of Troy could not produce any fruits but respect.
It was surely too late to plough back that soil.
Yet, late at night in his ship's cabin, as he heard the men brag about their women and saw the shadows of fires still burning, a distant echo in his heart beat in time to the waves: What if?