"Who is it?...oh!" The surprise on Cassandra's face was understandable, for she had not clearly expected to see me standing at her door with her baby nephew and we both knew I shouldn't have been there at all. However, with the rest of the family's attention focused on the battle outside our walls, I saw my chance to both consult with her on an important matter and let her visit with Astyanax.
Her face lit up when I held the baby out to her with a conspiratorial grin "good morning, sister. I thought, since the rest of the family is preoccupied, it would be a good time for you to see your nephew". She eagerly gathered him against her chest, looking him over and cooing at him softly while she crossed the room to sit on her bed. "Good gods, he has gotten big. You are taking a huge risk, Ismena" she warned, casting a concerned glance at me, and I closed the door then locked it before taking a seat next to her "your reaction is well worth it and, besides, there is a battle raging outside our walls. The king will be busy attending to war matters for the rest of the morning, at least. Especially since your younger brother has gone to fight King Menelaus for Helen".
Cassandra sighed, rolled her eyes, and shook her head "he will lose his nerve when it becomes apparent that he will die" she informed me then smiled down at Astyanax who appeared fascinated by her amulet "do not worry, young one, your uncle will return wounded but alive". Far from being worried, the baby was quite content in her arms and even smiled back at her as if he'd understood her words.
"Truth be told, the baby is not the only reason I came" I admitted.
She smiled seriously "I thought as much. As reckless as you can be sometimes, it is not like you to deliberately disobey the king's orders nor would I expect you to for the sake of my feelings. That you yourself come to visit is enough for me"
I gave her a stern look "you know full well what kind of fight I would raise if I was forbidden to come and visit you, Cassandra. However, the other reason for my visit is to tell you that I am unfortunate enough to have attracted divine attention"
Her face took on the pallor of alabaster and she opened her mouth to speak but no sound came out. From her reaction, I guessed that she had not seen this in any of her visions and part of me wished, belatedly, that I'd not mentioned it at all.
"The bruises..." she whispered after several moments, reaching up with trembling fingers to touch one of the marks that yet had to fade, and I nodded gravely.
"I am already regretting asking you this but who came to you? Surely it was not Artemis"
"No. A visit from my lady would have been most welcome. Instead, I returned from dinner to find none other than the god of war in my room and he would likely have strangled me or worse had Paris not arrived at my door for an unexpected visit". Even as the words left my mouth, they sounded ridiculous and, had someone come to me with such a tale, I'd have either laughed or accused them of being drunk.
Cassandra, however, had first hand experience with being, as Ares had put it, "fortunate to attract the attention of a god" and she was definitely not amused. "We are all doomed" she said suddenly and closed her eyes then drew a deep shuddering breath "I am going insane - seeing things that no mortal is meant to see, Briseis is...worse than dead, and you...gods, Ismena, when did this happen?!"
"Two days ago...the same day that the Greeks came ashore and Briseis was taken"
She shook her head again sadly and I sighed "to be honest, I knew the end was coming when Paris told me that he was going into battle" I said "this morning, I half-expected a messenger from the gods to appear and tell me that the underworld had frozen over, as well". Cassandra's eyebrows shot up and she gave me a look of such disbelief that I felt compelled to defend myself "I have to find something to laugh at, sister, or I will end up throwing myself off my balcony" I told her.
"How many times has he come to you?"
"In what form?"
"A young man in gold armour the first time and, the second time, the same man but in a cape of sorts, a kilt, and sandals"
"Aside from almost strangling you, did he touch you or force himself on you?"
"The latter, no, but, the second time he came, he kissed me" I must have blushed because her brow furrowed "what did he taste like?" she asked and I thought hard. The kiss had happened only a couple of hours before and yet I could barely remember that particular aspect of it. "I can't remember because my entire body felt like it was burning and freezing at the same time so I wasn't particularly focused on..." a whisper of a memory came to me then and I paused in momentary confusion then looked at her strangely "sweet but not cloyingly so. Like..."
"Nectar" Cassandra finished for me in a soft voice and her eyes were distant but her lower lip was trembling "that is what the gods drink"
"I suppose that's what it was then. But I found it odd that, when he pulled away from me, he seemed almost...afraid"
The words seemed to bring her back to herself and her gaze sharpened "the gods taste of nectar because they will consume it eternally. Mortals, however, taste of earth and ash because that is our ultimate fate. The gods cannot keep us from dying, Ismena, and your death is precisely what he fears"
"Why would a god care about the death of one mortal woman...especially a god of war who has had at least a hundred or so women by now?"
"Because, believe it or not, the gods are not immune to love"
Suddenly, the words I had spoken to Ares that morning hit me like lightening and my chest tightened so much that I could barely breathe "well I'll be a dead stinking corpse...".
"Eventually" she deadpanned.
We stared at each other for a minute then began to giggle and Astyanax, true to character, giggled with us.
That day, I did not wonder how long we would see the humour amongst our woes. Nor could I have known that I would never again hear Cassandra laugh.
A scant half hour later, having delivered Astyanax to my cousin for his feeding, I was racing through the halls to the side doors with Polyxena and Helenus on my heels because a guard had just announced that Paris had been brought back inside the walls.
We managed to edge our way through the others who had gathered to see his return but, when I stepped into view and for the first time since I had met him, Prince Paris of Troy looked ashamed and would not meet my gaze. His nose was cut and bleeding, his bottom lip was split, and his left leg had a long gash in it that had bled through the rudimentary bandage applied, I assumed, by one of Hektor's men.
As usual, Cassandra had been right. He hadn't won the battle but had run from it and, in doing so, had humiliated himself in front of both armies. My eyes settled on Helen, who was standing to the right of him and touching him anxiously, and I raised an eyebrow "are you waiting for Hades to rise and sweep him away? You had better mend that before it gets infected or he will lose his leg. A Trojan wife would already have his armour off and be cleaning the wound in preparation for sutures". My voice was flat and notably lacking in malice because I was not surprised either by his running away from the battle or the flash of panic in her eyes that indicated her inexperience with mending wounds. She will learn or he will die I thought as I left them to their own devices, with the intention of at least trying to eat.
Paris, I was sure, would not want to face me after making such a fool of himself in front of several thousand men and his entire family, save his eldest sister. Therefore, it was highly likely that our visits had come to an end and, for some unfathomable reason, the thought was accompanied by a tiny flicker of disappointment.
When Apollo began to descend from the sky and the battle was over for the day, the battered Greek army retreated after gathering their many dead and, inside the palace, one of Hektor's men sought me out in the reception hall. The soldier's face and armour were stained with so much blood that I knew I'd not recognize him clean but it mattered little. He looked young enough to be a new recruit and, therefore, would probably be dead within the week.
"Lady Ismena, your father asked me to give you this, if I lived"
As if from a distance, I saw my hand extend toward him and he placed a metal object in my palm, which I glanced at briefly, without really seeing it.
"He died in battle" I heard myself say and how my voice stayed so steady, I knew not.
"Yes, my lady. I am very sorry"
"Do not be. It was not your fault. Did he say anything of my sister?" I had not heard from nor seen my father in years so, even when I tried my hardest, I could barely recall what his face looked like. I also had no idea where my sister was and it occurred to me that, since she was only a year younger than me, she was likely married.
The soldier shook his head "no, he did not mention any other family. His body has been brought into the city for identification" he replied solemnly. "It would be pointless for me to go" I said, more to myself than to him, as numbness closed over my heart "I have not seen him nor my sister since my arrival in the palace and will likely not recognize him."
The man looked uncomfortable and I thanked him for delivering the message, at which he bowed respectfully and took his leave. After summoning a servant to fetch a messenger, I stood frozen in place until the young man arrived then I directed him to relay a message to my sister, whose name it took me some effort to remember, and gave him her last known place of residence.
"Ismena, what happened?" my cousin asked as she came to stand directly to my right, though I am sure she could guess. There was no reason for a soldier to talk to me nor give me something unless someone I knew had been lost. I opened my hand and stared blankly down at the ring my mother had given my father on their wedding day.
Soon after the messenger left, Hektor himself appeared and came straight over to us with a very grave look and I knew what he was going to say "Ismena..."
"I know. My father is dead"
I didn't remember exactly what was said afterwards or how I managed to get back to my rooms when my body and mind were so wound up with a thousand conflicting emotions. But I recalled one thing with absolute certainty. If Paris and Helen had crossed my path, I would have kept every single one of my past promises to kill them and a few more vultures on the battlefield would have eaten well that night.