AFTER HE HAD WASHED his stained hands and changed his bloodied clothes, Agamemnon called us all back to the marketplace. Artemis, he said, had been displeased with the bloodshed this huge army intended. She demanded payment for it, in advance, in kind. Cows were not enough. A virgin priestess was required, human blood for human blood; the leader’s eldest daughter would be best.
Iphigenia had known, he said, had agreed to do it. Most men had not been close enough to see the startled panic in her eyes. Gratefully, they believed their general’s lie.
They burned her that night on cypress wood, the tree of our darkest gods. Agamemnon broached a hundred casks of wine for celebration; we were leaving for Troy on the morning’s tide. Inside our tent Achilles fell into exhausted sleep, his head in my lap. I stroked his forehead, watching the trembles of his dreaming face. In the corner lay his bloodied groom’s tunic. Looking at it, at him, my chest felt hot and tight. It was the first death he had ever witnessed. I eased his head off my lap and stood.
Outside, men sang and shouted, drunk and getting drunker. On the beach the pyre burned high, fed by the breeze. I strode past campfires, past lurching soldiers. I knew where I was going.
There were guards outside his tent, but they were slumping, half-asleep. “Who are you?” one asked, starting up. I stepped past him and threw open the tent’s door.
Odysseus turned. He had been standing at a small table, his finger to a map. There was a half-finished dinner plate beside it.
“Welcome, Patroclus. It’s all right, I know him,” he added to the guard stuttering apologies behind me.
He waited until the man was gone. “I thought you might come.”
I made a noise of contempt. “You would say that whatever you thought.”
He half-smiled. “Sit, if you like. I’m just finishing my dinner.”
“You let them murder her.” I spat the words at him.
He drew a chair to the table. “What makes you think I could have stopped them?”
“You would have, if it had been your daughter.” I felt like my eyes were throwing off sparks. I wanted him burnt.
“I don’t have a daughter.” He tore a piece of bread, sopped it into gravy. Ate.
“Your wife then. What if it had been your wife?”
He looked up at me. “What do you wish me to say? That I would not have done it?”
“I would not have. But perhaps that is why Agamemnon is king of Mycenae, and I rule only Ithaca.”
Too easily his answers came to him. His patience enraged me.
“Her death is on your head.”
A wry twist of his mouth. “You give me too much credit. I am a counselor only, Patroclus. Not a general.”
“You lied to us.”
“About the wedding? Yes. It was the only way Clytemnestra would let the girl come.” The mother, back in Argos. Questions rose in me, but I knew this trick of his. I would not let him divert me from my anger. My finger stabbed the air.
“You dishonored him.” Achilles had not thought of this yet— he was too grieved with the girl’s death.
But I had. They had tainted him with their deceit.
Odysseus waved a hand. “The men have already forgotten he was part of it. They forgot it when the girl’s blood spilled.”
“It is convenient for you to think so.”
He poured himself a cup of wine, drank. “You are angry, and not without reason. But why come to me? I did not hold the knife, or the girl.”
“There was blood,” I snarled. “All over him, his face. In his mouth. Do you know what it did to him?”
“He grieves that he did not prevent it.”
“Of course,” I snapped. “He could barely speak.”
Odysseus shrugged. “He has a tender heart. An admirable quality, surely. If it helps his conscience, tell him I placed Diomedes where he was on purpose. So Achilles would see too late.”
I hated him so much I could not speak.
He leaned forward in his chair. “May I give you some advice? If you are truly his friend, you will help him leave this soft heart behind. He’s going to Troy to kill men, not rescue them.” His dark eyes held me like swift-running current. “He is a weapon, a killer. Do not forget it. You can use a spear as a walking stick, but that will not change its nature.”
The words drove breath from me, left me stuttering. “He is not—”
“But he is. The best the gods have ever made. And it is time he knew it, and you did too. If you hear nothing else I say, hear that. I do not say it in malice.”
I was no match for him and his words that lodged like quills and would not be shaken loose.
“You are wrong,” I said. He did not answer me, only watched me turn and flee from him in silence.
- The Song of Achilles
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