Author's Note: Yeaaaahhh. So, you might have noticed but it's taken me ages, this. Sorry. I kind of run out of steam, then had a load of new ideas about the plot as if I had been taking LSD or something (I haven't, more caffeine and nicotine). The next one should be too long after, life permitting as it's already partially written. Anyways, reviews would be nice as always but also as always, I have no beta, proofreader etc. therefore this chapter may lead to brain hurt of the confusing kind. I hope not!
Ouch! I had managed to prick my finger on the needle yet again. I was forced to supress the frustrated curses that formed on my lips and convert them into a single stifled and irritated sigh. It was only proper, after all seeing as I was currently in polite company, after all.
I turned over the small willow hoop that my embroidery piece was stretched out on to study the back of my handiwork and it turned out it was already a confusion of crossed threads, knots and pulls. The front was sadly not much better: my stitches were crude and of randomly haphazard size. Surely even a child would not prove to be such a novice I thought hopelessly.
The day before, armed with my needle and thread, I had uncharacteristically attacked my bare, unsullied cotton with aplomb - I had been determined to persevere and teach myself this particular art rather than just to surrender, as usual, at the first hint of failure. In retrospect, it had been a vain belief that fostering an interest in embroidery might actually make it less tedious for me. That previous and momentary enthusiasm for sewing had soon morphed into my usual defeatism. Hardly a surprise I suppose: I hated the quiet monotony of it; I disliked being terrible at it; I especially loathed being confined inside all day, trapped with so many other women, who literally had nothing to do other than make trivial small talk and gossip whilst carrying out such repetitive and wholly boring pursuits themselves.
Embroidering (along with weaving) was the primary daytime pastime for females of the palace it seemed. Day in and day out, they would while away the hours here in this room, without complaint. My eyes flickered up away from my work for a moment and I realised the group of girls sitting near the door (also Hetaerae themselves), looked comfortable and happy, far removed from how I was feeling. I was a bit of a misfit admittedly but I did not need an afternoon sitting in the Gynaeceum to tell me that.
The Gynaeceum - the room – was a place reserved for queens and princesses; ladies of the court; their own ladies-in waiting and Hetaerae. Classically, the women were kept in the Gynaeceum to protect them from non-kin males for their own safety. However, in my years at the palace - a more genteel time in the history of Troy where the men of the palace were said to be more respectful of the 'weaker' sex - its function was to simply keep the women out of the way whilst the men of the palace performed whatever daily businesses they were tasked with - it was just so the women would not prove to be a distraction for them: for what man wants the humiliation of a nagging spouse when he is trying to broker a merchant deal in court? What man attending the King wants the embarrassment when his immediate attention is diverted by the shapely bottom or a pendulous bust of a passing high-born lady? What man wants his wife around when he is seducing that pretty young servant that has just bought him some wine? The temptations they had to endure must have been very tiring for them, the poor lambs.
I did not enjoy being in the Gynaeceum, although this does not mean it was an uncomfortable place – it was in fact spacious but rather cosy, the decoration comfortably feminine in style. Sweet incense burning gave off a relaxing aroma and soft rugs in pretty light hues covered the floors. Gossamer curtains were hung from the ceiling here and there in case, for some reason, privacy was needed although I never actually saw any being pulled across to section off the room, it always remained convivial and open. Besides, the windows running down the length of the right hand wall continuously had their delicately fret-worked shutters closed for discretion anyway. These added a certain dimness to the room which was not conducive to any sort of closely-worked craft so the Gynaeceum was well lit from many oil lamps dotted around on tall stands and hanging from chains attached to the ceiling. It did secretly amuse me that despite these shutters letting through an infinitesimal amount of sunlight, most of the ladies present deliberately sat away from the windows. They mostly crowded the left side of the room, concerned that any rays, even such a miniscule amount, might darken their skin – it was fashionable for the upper-class woman for her skin to look as pale as possible, believe it or not, because a tan was so very common, especially for the hoi polloi of Troy. To be pale was to be superior. Vanity seemed to be engrained in these women and I wondered if this was because they had nothing else to think about in the vacuous caverns of their minds apart from the dreariness of sewing and weaving. Personally, I preferred sitting close to the windows with my legs daintily (for me anyway) tucked to one side atop a huge, comfortable cushion. The most enjoyment I gained from being there was the sweet breeze that flowed through the shutters. As a sun-kissed forehead or a freckled nose had never bothered me before, I was not about to let palace living change me so much that it would actually start being a concern once I was part of the royal residence, I thought stubbornly.
I was not sat alone as Thais had taken it upon herself to sit with me. Although I had formerly found her a little irritating, I had soon learnt that she was quite kindhearted and I was thankful that I had a companion so I did not look like such a pariah. We had chatted occasionally although for quite a while now, Thais had been absolutely engrossed in her sewing and therefore silent. I knew she had set herself a target of where to be finished in her progress before the Gynaeceum vacated for the afternoon rest time so there she sat, studiously trying to reach her goal, frowning so hard in concentration that I feared her whole forehead would crack, with the tip of her tongue stuck out absently as she attempted some stitches much more elaborate than my own skill would allow. She resembled a little bird, all perched on her own pillow and I was a little envious of her resolve. "She will be determined and fearless" Cassandra had said about me. Hector's sister should have perhaps noticed that my indolence might get in the way.
At this time, the whole room was largely silent, apart from the noise of the Governess snoring softly as she lay on a chaise near to where the biggest group of Hetaerae sat (gathered around Acantha, of course). I am guessing that the position of Hetaire Governess was not too challenging as all she seemed to do was to nap or in her waking moments, continuously devour candied fruit. I actually found myself less malevolent towards her for a moment when I considered that sleeping and eating must result in such a boring life. Yet, as I observed the sight of her fat mass lolloping on the chaise (which was far from a pretty sight) and heard the grating noise of her snoring, it was not long until my silent loathing of her revived. Strange then, how this repellant spectacle and sound did not seem to bother Princess Andromache, who was also in the room, graceful and expressionless in a stout chair with a handmaiden sat at her feet. In fact, she was positioned nearly opposite me and to the left of the 'Mound of Snores'. Not even my presence appeared to bother her in the slightest, which I would not have expected (as her husband's new lover – or supposed new lover – I would have assumed that she would not stand the sight of me). The handmaiden was busy untangling a bunch of coloured threads whilst the Princess looked to be contentedly working on quite a large piece, possibly decorating a blue robe or cloak as it flowed from where she held it in her hand to across her lap then partially down her legs, like a fountain of stiffening water.
The Princess, her lady-in-waiting, Hetaerae, the Governess - for almost all of these women, it was obligatory to be present every day at the Gynaeceum. It was tradition and therefore automatically expected. Unlike me, many of these women had grown up in palaces or in a large house with their own Gynaeceum, therefore attendance was for them was simply a routine, typical part of daily life that was never really questioned. You are correct if you recall that as Hetaerae, it was not mandatory for me to spend my days there although I suppose it probably was presumed I would. Despite being allowed much freedom for women, almost all the other Hetaerae were in attendance. At first I thought of them to be foolish to frittering away their privileges but it quickly dawned on me that they attended the Gynaeceum to conform, to 'fit-in'. Even though I detested it, this is why I endeavored to attend the Gynaeceum myself, for at least for an hour or two, once-a-day as I could see such a strategy was not useless. One could definitely benefit from prominence in the Gynaeceum – there was camaraderie. The women there also seemed to partake in more applied accord - sharing skills, offering advice, even to the point of coming together to look after the children.
There was even a large corner of the room dedicated to the young daughters of Troy, laid out with nursing chairs, cots, blankets and toys where wet nurses and maids (occasionally the mothers themselves) looked after and played with the female infants and toddlers. I realised these children belonged to ladies of the court and that some must be the offspring of Hetaerae – therefore illegitimate but there were no obvious distinctions in this by the way the girls were treated. They were all looked after impeccably and were certainly not segregated. I do not know why but I did find some comfort in this. The male offspring were notably absent of course – the boy babies being taken care of elsewhere and the sons being actually schooled to be men of Troy.
My eyes were suddenly drawn to the babies' corner. Most of the toddlers were taking a nap or laid out in a row under fleecy blankets on the floor. One girl's podgy little hands were raised to her temples during peaceful slumber in a kind of surrendering pose, the little fingers contracting and loosening as she slept. A wet nurse was suckling a small infant, who was only weeks old, discreetly covering her exposed breast and feeding infant with a gauzy scarf as she rocked the baby back and forth. Under the light material, I could see that the little one already had quite a head of fine, dark hair and I suddenly wondered if any of the children were illegitimates of Hector. I knew he had not fathered any with his wife yet but what about before he was married? What about dalliances with Palake servants? Both were feasible, seeing as the aristocratic men of Troy could seemingly please themselves and Hector probably took after his father – a man he bore a very strong resemblance to - and who had a reported reproductive flair in fathering fifty sons and who knows how many daughters. Who was to say the Prince did not take after the King in that respect, too? I was under no illusion that all of Hector's siblings were legitimate as one woman could not have physically been able to produce so many children in her lifetime, unless she gave birth to a large litter every few months like a rabbit, I scoffed to myself as I turned my attentions back on my embroidery that had been discarded in my lap in favour of my daydreams.
A baby that was previously asleep in a cot slowly stirred and began to emit a mewling cry. The noise jolted me out of my mental meanderings and perhaps a primal female urge from somewhere deep within made me look over concernedly to the corner. The very same urge must have struck the Princess as our eyes somehow met during this time. It was strange – Andromache's hazel eyes regarded me rather mildly so I found it difficult to tear my own gaze away. She smiled quite delicately before she actually spoke to me.
"Phile – may I take a look at your work?" she asked suddenly, although very politely.
I froze. How shaming it would be to present my mess to her, although I could obviously not decline her invitation! I could do nothing but slowly rise from my cushion and tentatively step over to her chair. For some reason, I felt like a child about to be disciplined, even though the Princess had given me no reason to think this. In fact, no other person in the room apparently found her invitation out-of-the-ordinary or suspicious like I did, as nobody seemed to look up from their tasks, not even Thais. Was it usual for the wife to speak with the Hetaerae? If so, had I been rude in not acknowledging her before? The protocols of the Palace were still mysterious and stressful for me. I held my embroidery behind my back, hoping Andromache would notice I was reluctant to show her and it was because I was embarrassed of it rather than out modesty. She did not. My heart sank as, after I had straightened myself out from a courteous bow of greeting before her, I saw she had her slender hand held out for it expectantly. I dutifully handed the small hoop of cotton and chaos to her, presuming that the Princess would laugh at it, frown in puzzlement or at least offer a few words of mocking critique. None of those things happened. Those wise l eyes actually seemed to appraise my work and the smile she still bore did not seem false.
"I am afraid I am not very good, my lady. I did not practice enough as a child". I mumbled nervously in excuse before she could speak again.
Andromache looked to me, a knowing arch of an eyebrow betraying her otherwise serene face.
She leant forward slightly and spoke softly, as if I were some sort of co-conspirator: "I grew up the only daughter in a household of seven brothers - I can assuredly say that I did not practice enough either! Whatever my brothers were up to seemed far more interesting."
It was whispered for the sake of confidentiality in such a crowded room, lest it belie the outward vision of Andromache's proprietary. The handmaiden at her feet heard of course and smiled to herself, no doubt having heard this little confession before.
I laughed a little I think, mainly out of relief that she was not as patronising as I had probably expected. I immediately felt a little more at ease.
Andromache looked to my sewing again: "He is a fine owl" she declared much more loudly about it and I have absolutely no doubt that was particularly for the benefit of the 'audience' in the room. She meant not to humiliate me and I was very grateful.
I had indeed been trying to recreate the image of an owl, although it was much more difficult to attain than I had imagined. I was quite taken aback she could see what my untidy stiches were supposed to resemble – even to me, it looked like a brown blob of gravy with two comically crossed-eyes. I thanked her graciously for her kind words, really not knowing what to say next. However, even though I had not witnessed her speaking much before, Andromache was clearly quite an expert at preventing a conversation drying up.
"He looks like the owl that lives in the Records Vault" she said pointedly, handing me back my hoop with a nod of reference "– do you spend a lot of time there?"
It seemed like an innocent enough enquiry although it did make me wonder what Hector had told her. I assumed he would probably never talk of me to his wife. Perhaps I was wrong.
"At the moment my lady, I try to split my time between the Vault, attending here and going for a walk in the South Courtyard after afternoon rest time". I answered honestly as she looked genuinely interested.
Just as I had finished my sentence, a jeering splutter was emitted from somewhere in the direction of the main group of Hetaerae, Acantha's little gang of course (probably Acantha herself – for who else would have had the audacity in the presence of the Princess?). I cannot lie; my feelings were hurt that someone would want to belittle me so much as to make me look like a fool in front of Andromache. Were the ways I spent my days that laughable? Did they all dislike me that much?
Andromache did not mock along with them. She too had heard the derision and did not look pleased with the insulting interjection either.
"Well Phile, I do not blame you. Spending all day in the Gynaeceum can be so dull; I find it can make one very small-minded if other interests are not explored." She declared loudly and emphatically so all could hear, in subtle defense of me. That certainly silenced Acantha's corner, I can tell you!
I was touched by her kindness and support, especially as it had been so unexpected. I smiled and nodded a quick 'thank you'. Andromache then went onto casually enquire what I had been reading in the Records Vault. This was difficult. If we had been alone with no prying ears to hear my answer, you must understand that I would have told her the truth; it was wrong of me to lie to a person who had been so genuine. Yet I admit that I did fib, only as I was fearful of more derision from the others. I told the Princess that I had been reading about Troy's own legends, the glorious ones that are sung about in the Great Hall. I told her that even though my father had told me the tales as I child, I wanted to refresh my memory.
The truth was, I had been reading medicinal and apocathary papers. The passages I had already learned from - mainly about practicing medicine using the physical resources of nature - were actually deemed as archaic, seldom used in favour of invasive wound stitching, uncompromising tourniquets or amputation and modern, magical potions dreamed up by male priests and superstitious gypsies. I had never been particularly ill in my life to side with one method or the other, although I remembered that as a child, whenever I was clumsy enough to be brushed by nettles or unfortunate enough to be bitten by an insect, mother always managed to find the right remedy to ease the itching and swelling using just the leaves and herbs in the garden. For every ailment nature inflicted, the perfect solution could be found there too. How did mother know such things? I assume that the knowledge was passed down through the generations, mothers to daughters. Using natural remedies for medicine was, I believe, always practiced by females until our society developed over hundreds of years from communing in small tribal settlements to eventually living cheek by jowl in sprawling cultured cities like Troy. The birth of the patriarchal society eventually discouraged and suppressed knowledge being handed down as I describe: in such a bustling, governed and hierarchical culture, women were required to look after their children, households and husbands, not to waste their precious time educating themselves or others. What mother knew and the sparse amount she had taught me about healing was a deep rooted but faint echo of times long past, discarded for the sake of progress. An unfortunate sign of the times.
My inspiration for this self-teaching was the dream I had, where I had been 'mending' Hector. At that time, I had assumed that the dream's meaning was just as black-and-white as physical healing. I thought that perhaps that it wasmy true purpose, seeing as I did not appear useful to my Kyrios in any other capacity: he did not require companionship, he did not want to be entertained, and he did not wish for a lover I had concluded, seeing as he had not come to me for any of these things, the reasons I was there for as his Hetaerae.
"It is admirable that you are broadening you horizons, Phile." Andromache praised.
In my mind, she was being too charitable of me. Thinking of Hector, I felt guilt about being the imposed 'third wheel' in her relationship with him, especially now Andromache had been nothing but congenial towards me. I could not help but lower my eyes glumly at this thought. As I held my hoop of sewing loosely in front of me in one hand, I traced the messy stiches with a finger from the other hand distractedly.
Andromache must have gotten the impression that I was still rueful for my poor skills at sewing I think, as she leant forward to say:
"Do not fret Phile. There is a new sewing mistress starting at the palace tomorrow, I think you will definitely …" she paused as if trying to find the right word, her eyes darting to the right for a moment and a strange knowing smile playing on her lips. The handmaiden, still dutifully untangling threads for her mistress did not look up but smiled too, as if she was in on some sort of secret. She quickly continued and I began to believe I had just imagined her suspect pause "…. well, I think you will definitely benefit from spending some one-on-one time with her. So I do hope I will see you here tomorrow?"
"Of course my lady". I agreed dutifully. I had to oblige, no matter what an unwelcome prospect it was. She was the Princess after all – and quite fairly believed my sewing needed practice, despite her praise. I could not have agreed more about that, I was just dismayed at the prospect of spending more time in the Gynaeceum. I was not quite yet resigned to such a dreary, hum-drum life. Perhaps I was more determined than I thought.
Footnote: a couple of you seemed pleased that I had portrayed Andromache as a nice lady, which I think she is and she certainly is in my story so I thought I would build that up a bit. Don't worry though, Hector lovers - he may be notably absent in this chapter (as he is in Phile's life at this time - he he!) but he's back for the next. Keep reading and don't give up on me! ;o)