For could have been a minute or an eternity, I stared into the beautiful sinister eyes of my captor in confusion and disbelief and, for that same time, it felt as though the fates were breathing down my neck. What in the world was he speaking of? I had agreed to marriage with no one and Artemis had not informed me, even in the vaguest terms, that I was to be wed.
His smile was sharper than any sword and I felt my insides shrink "my half-sister asked me to intervene in this war on her behalf. I agreed but only on the condition that, in return, the most beautiful and defiant priestess of her temple be given to me in marriage. Consider yourself fortunate, mortal. There are not many women who have both the appearance and character to warrant the favour of a god"
Had I not been scared half to death, I'd have rolled my eyes. 'Fortunate' was hardly the word I would have chosen to describe myself at that moment but I now knew almost exactly how Cassandra must have felt when facing Apollo. The only difference being that the sun god was hardly portrayed as the type of man who would pin a woman to her bed by the neck.
Then again...what did I know? She had never described the whole incident to me in detail so he very well could have done such a thing to her.
The only fortunate part of this whole situation was that, because of his hand on my neck, I couldn't get enough air to actually speak so I had a reason not to respond.
A soft knock sounded at the door, followed by a familiar voice "Ismena? Are you there?"
My entire body immediately tensed and I bit back a curse.
Paris had always had impeccable timing but the situation was complicated enough without my having to worry about his sorry behind in addition to my own. A growl from my captor, however, reminded me that I was the only person in this room concerned about the presence of the younger prince and also the least able to act upon it.
In my current position, Paris should have been the least of my worries but I could no more envision him dead than I could fly and that was a surprise to me. As often as I had wanted to murder him since he had returned from Sparta, I could not actually picture what he would look like with his eyes closed and without that infuriating smile on his face. Nor did I want to.
"The world must be ending" I thought to myself and would have laughed hysterically had I been able.
"Who is that?" Ares growled and his hand tightened, making me choke and bruising my skin. Then he seemed to realize that he was preventing me from speaking and the hand loosened enough for me to breathe. "The chosen of Aphrodite" I knew better than to give him a name "we often speak at this time"
"Have you lain with him?" his voice became low, dangerous.
"Of course not!" I protested hotly "I am a devotee of Artemis and a close friend of his sister. Besides, he is married to Helen of Sparta"
"Stupid boy" he remarked, looking amused, and I dared to feel a little relieved "so my half-sister did inform you that you will be mine if I aid the Trojans in winning this war against the Greeks then?" his expression was completely unreadable and for once he actually resembled the statues carved in his supposed likeness. Though I doubted that even the most talented mortal sculptor would ever succeed in depicting the intensity of his gaze.
His words, however, made me feel like throwing up, screaming, and crying all at the same time and the thought of the gods using mortals for entertainment suddenly seemed very plausible. "No, she did not. This is but a game to you all and the world is your playing board so what need have any of you to inform the pawns as to where you will move them?" I spat back.
He glared at the door then, with grace that only a god could possess, rolled off of me and stood at my bedside, towering over me and fixing me with a menacing look. "When the battle is over and Troy has emerged victorious, you will be mine and then we shall see how long your fire lasts" he sneered then, with a brilliant flash, both he and his armour disappeared completely and I was alone in my room.
A mortal life could be compared to a flame, burning bright and hot for only a short time before being suffocated and finally severed by the cold hands of the fates, but that was not what he was referring to. No, the war god knew full well that I was mortal. Instead, he meant to test the endurance of my defiant spirit and the thought turned my blood to ice so swiftly that I started to shiver.
If Greece won, I would ostensibly be free but Troy would fall and take many of my people with it. If Troy won, I would never see my family and friends again because Ares would marry me by force and gradually wear my resistance down until he broke me. Neither of those possibilities was even close to appealing and I hugged myself as I hurried over to let Paris in.
The young prince looked more worried than I had even seen him in my life and he looked past me into the room, signalling that he had likely heard most of what had been said. He turned his head and his eyes searched mine for several minutes before dropping to my neck then he raised his hand and traced the skin where Ares' hand had gripped me. I could already feel a bruise forming in that very spot and the blood drained from Paris' face "who was he?" he asked quietly.
If someone had told me, only two days before, that I would actually be grateful for Paris' presence one day, I would have laughed myself to an early death. But being attacked and nearly strangled in one's own room by an immortal with a taste for violence and a flashpoint temper had changed things very quickly. By coming to my room unannounced when he had; the young prince had saved my virtue and, quite possibly, my life - which, considering his reputation, only served as further proof of the gods' fondness for irony. So I decided to ignore the fact that he had shown up at my door, uninvited, yet again and answered him in a voice that was much softer than normal "come in. The halls have ears and I'd rather speak of this inside"
Being the subject of many rumours, he knew this already of course but still managed to look surprised by my request and, had I been him, I likely would have been as well. It was not every day that someone who hated him asked him into her room. But he did as asked and, as he closed the door to ensure our privacy, I had to keep telling myself that Paris was mortal and wouldn't – couldn't – hurt me. Paris was safe. Ironic, I know.
I walked back across my room, resisting the urge to hug myself again. I could not afford to show weakness now or else Ares would see that he had gotten to me and Paris would see me addled. The fate of my people now depended on my ability to be strong when I was at my weakest and I would not fail them. Even if it meant that I spent the rest of my life as a slave to a god.
"Have you ever seen a god, Paris?" I asked, in a voice that sounded distant even to me.
"No but I have seen goddesses" he replied softly, seating himself on the edge of my bed, and I chided myself for having forgotten the initial decision that had caused much of this mess in the first place. I also tried to ignore how he seemed to fit seamlessly into my surroundings, like a jewel in its setting, but my mind was all too eager to point it out to me. Wondering if it was a test the gods had devised for me to see if I would betray my city for the want of my personal freedom, I sighed heavily and suddenly longed for the days of my childhood when my mother had been alive and everything had been so simple.
I rose with the sun, bathed, dressed, went to the temple with my mother then to my lessons before returning home for the evening meal and back to the temple again for the evening rituals. It had been a comfortable routine for most of my young years until my mother had caught fever and died. Then I had spent virtually my entire day going between training at the temple and my lessons before moving into the palace with my cousin. That was when everything had gotten complicated. Suddenly, I'd had to grow up very quickly and reacted by walling myself off from all but a select few people. Especially a lithe and beautiful, dark-eyed, youth named Paris who had devoted himself to annoying me halfway to Hades and back.
That youth had grown into a man, in body anyway, and, in a strange twist of fate, he was the one person I could talk to right now who probably wouldn't be surprised by what I was about to tell him. Aside from Kassandra, who I would also have to tell in order to explain the bruising on my neck. That was a conversation I was not looking forward to. "Ares was here when I returned from dinner" I said blandly "that is why I am bruised. Apparently, he took enough interest in me that I was promised to him in exchange for a Trojan victory. If Troy wins, I become his mortal bride. If we lose, I will be free...I think".
He watched me for several moments then his eyes dropped to the now-vivid bruises that adorned my skin and his eyes darkened almost to black but he did not look frightened or disbelieving.
"Why did he let you open the door for me?"
"I told him you were the chosen of Aphrodite and that we were not involved in any way" I answered, walking over to the window and gazing out. The sun had set completely now and the sky was filled with stars. Somewhere beyond those brilliant stars were the gods, watching, waiting.
"And he believed you, despite you being a mortal?"
"It was the only reason he did not stay to kill you. That and he believes that I despise you" I glanced over my shoulder at him.
He stared at me in mute shock for several moments and I would have done the same if our situations had been reversed. When he did speak next, his voice was low "Ismena, you have threatened to kill me yourself on more than one occasion. Why the concern for my life now?"
A heavy sigh escaped me and I raised my hands to massage my temples, which were beginning to ache "Paris, as much as I do not agree with your womanizing and general lack of discipline, you are still a Trojan and I am loyal to my people and country. He would torment you until you begged him to let you die. At least, if I did it, it would be swift" I replied, just as quietly.
He seemed to consider this for a moment "If you wait a day, you will not have to worry about either" he said.
I turned to face him again, completely confused, and something in his expression made my blood run cold. He had not come to my rooms to ire me or bait me or even just to talk to me. There was a purpose for this visit and, instinctively, I felt that it was not a pleasant one.
"Paris...why are you here?" I was almost afraid to ask but nothing could have prepared me for the answer. Not even being half strangled by a god on my own bed.
"I wanted to see you one last time. I am to fight King Menelaus in the morning".
I thought I had misheard him or perhaps that was my subconscious denying what he had said "what?".
His face was deadly serious and there was no hint of teasing or mirth in the dark pools of his eyes as he rose from the bed and joined me at the window.
"I am going to battle against King Menelaus tomorrow morning" he repeated "my father has lent me his sword" and I stared at him blankly. He was mad, I was sure of it.
Paris was no warrior or general, that was Hektor's lot in life, and I had never seen him with a throwing knife, much less a sword of the kind his brother typically carried. Yet, in the morning, he would be fighting against a battle-hardened Greek king who had a bloodthirsty brother and nearly ten thousand soldiers at his beck and call. No gambler I knew would have bet on his odds of survival, no matter how drunk or delusional.
"You look at me as though I have lost my mind"
"You and many others have always spoken of how foolish I am"
"I was not aware that you had gone mad as well" I retorted "King Menelaus has fought and won many battles against other warrior kings. Men who live and die by their swords. What in Hades possessed you to...oh...never mind. The blonde wench who warms your bed"
"Her name is Helen and..."
I laughed humorlessly "of course. Helen. Helen the woman who looks like a statue and acts like a child. Helen who will sit and weep false tears while our people die protecting their loved ones. She did not grow up in this city, has not seen her peers turn from boys and girls into men and women, does not know the plight of the common people nor the fears that weigh on their shoulders and disturb their sleep at night, and she does not care. That spoiled brat cares for no one but herself. Not even you. She has walls around her, jewels and fine gowns to wear, a soft bed to sleep in, soldiers to die for her whose names she will never have to know, and a fair royal husband who is younger than her and foolish enough to believe the lies she whispers in his ears. The only reason she fears for you is because she knows that if you die, we will throw her over the walls"
"You mean, you will throw her over the walls" he corrected and I nodded "of course. Your brother and father would not mistreat a woman, no matter how manipulative she may be, but I have no such reservations and am strong enough to carry through with my threats. If you are killed tomorrow morning, she will follow you by no more than an hour"
"My father will put you on trial for murder"
"She is Greek, Paris. If he tries me, he must try his own son for every Greek soldier he kills. Besides, I could not be more damned than I already am" I pointed out and his expression became pained.
I noticed then that he had not defended her, had not declared her innocent of possessing the less-than-admirable qualities I had described, and the omission made me wonder.
"You did not let me finish my statement earlier" he said. I glared at him and there was more than a little ice in my reply "oh? Then, by all means, continue".
"Did it ever occur to you, even for a moment, that I might not be fighting for Helen?"
Honestly, it had not but I did not admit it because there really was little proof to the contrary. He had admitted his fondness for me and that he respected me for not being afraid to express my dislike for him and for Helen. He was also kind to my cousin and idolized his brother. But none of that was enough to sway my mind towards the thought that perhaps his family or myself or his country were reasons enough for him to go on this suicide mission. He had not thought of any of us when he had brought the Spartan back to Troy and married her, so why would he now?
However, the voice in the back of mind reminded me that Paris sometimes liked to play games to achieve some ulterior motive and I wasn't falling for this one. "No" I replied bluntly "you brought her back here and now her husband and his warriors have come to retrieve her as a pretence for war. They were looking for a reason to test our walls and you gave them one"
"Exactly" I frowned at him and he continued "I gave them a reason and now I am getting rid of it. If Menelaus kills me and wins, which he will, Hektor will return Helen to him and our honour will be restored"
"Paris...ten thousand Greeks did not come to our shores for Menelaus' wife. Even if you die and she returns to her husband, Agamemnon is not here because of his brother's marital problems. He comes for our city and its treasure. Your death will make no difference to him"
In truth, I had no idea why I was arguing with him because wasn't this what I had wanted all along? For Paris to go out and die for his part in causing this war? It seemed that I learned more about myself every time he visited and I definitely did not like what I had discovered thus far. One such discovery was that I did not wish him to fight Menelaus because I knew he would lose. Another more disturbing thought was that I actually liked it when he visited, liked our discussions even if half of them were spent threatening to harm him in various ways. I groaned inwardly. Perhaps I was wrong.
Perhaps I was going insane, not Paris. That would certainly explain why I was suddenly contemplating asking him not to fight in the morning and noticing how the light of the torches flowed over the contours of his face and arms. It would explain why I was suddenly seeing a beautiful man instead of the pretty boy I was used to.
Oh gods help me I thought, mortified. If anyone found out, I would never hear the end of it.
"To die fighting would be better than hiding behind our walls and my brother's men" he said finally and I prayed that my emotions were not visible on my face when it occurred to me that he had been watching me during my entire internal debate.
"Ismena, I came to you because your strength gives me hope. Helen touches my hair and face and weeps, telling me how hopeless it is and that she does not want me to leave, that she will be lost without me and perhaps that is true. But, though you point out the obvious and inevitable, you have not tried to talk me out of fighting tomorrow and I can go peacefully to my death knowing that, no matter what happens to me tomorrow, you will remain. You will take care of my brother, your cousin, and my little nephew. You will stand by our people, be brave for them, and defend them as you are able. I am glad to have known you" he told me then took up my hands and held them "I know that I am foolish and likely will not make any difference in the outcome of this war regardless of what I do but I have to try"
Tears sprang to my eyes but I blinked them away. I couldn't cry. Not now. Maybe when his body was brought back to us by the soldiers, cold and still, and his pyre was lit. But I would not shed a single tear until then. I realized that the real reason he had come to me was because he wanted my blessing. He wanted me to give him leave and I had no choice but to do so. Hektor was born to be a diplomat and a family man, any intelligent person could see that, so, by going to battle, he went against his very nature. In the morning, his younger brother would do the same and I could not find the words to scold him for it.
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, feeling the warmth of his hands around mine. Hands that were not made to hold a sword but would. "I still think you are mad" I said after a few moments then opened my eyes to look straight at him as was my wont "but, nevertheless, you have my blessing".