The palace’s permanent residences were located in the large, central wing adjacent to the guest quarters. These larger suites and apartments were occupied primarily by King Priam's sons and daughters and their immediate families. In his doublet and leggings, with his short sword in its scabbard attached to his belt, Aeneas made his way down the dim, musty, oil-lit corridor of rooms, warrens and carrels that housed the members of the royal family. The week-long truce, which, at Achilles’ behest, the Argives had declared following the deaths of Patroclus and Hector, had nearly run its course. Yet neither side seemed particularly anxious to resume open hostilities. The Trojans sensed that the Argives were making use of the cease fire to hatch a new plan of attack while, for their part, the Argives surmised that the Trojans, under Aeneas' command and with Penthesileia's help, were planning some sort of lightning counter-offensive.
The loss of Hector and the theft of King Rhesus' horses had dealt two severe blows to the Trojan war effort. These losses were offset, to some extent, by the arrival of King Memnon of Ethiopia, a warrior nearly as mighty in the strength of his arm as Ajax and as skillful a cavalryman as Diomedes. In addition, the Trojans had gotten an unexpected boost when Xena had come on board as an intelligence agent and military strategist, the equal of Odysseus as a field tactician. Fortunately, Xena had few illusions when it came to personally engaging Achilles in battle. Xena may have had little use for the gods and may have believed that one's destiny was principally of one's own making, but Xena wasn't ignorant of the power of the Fates; and she knew, as everyone knew, how Achilles was destined to die and that the deed would not be accomplished by her own -- or by Penthesileia's -- sword.
With these considerations in mind, Aeneas was on his way to confer with Cassandra, King Priam's eldest daughter.
Cassandra was not the most beautiful woman in Ilium -- that distinction belonged to Helen -- but she was regarded as the most sensual and magnetic. She was of average height and had long, wavy, reddish-blonde hair which she often wore pinned up in a twist. Cassandra’s most striking features were her deep-set eyes, reddish-brown to complement her hair color, and her full, broad mouth with its firm lips and wide, bold teeth, a mouth that looked as though it were fashioned to be kissed frequently and strenuously. Not only mortal men but the gods themselves had become enamored of this austere woman whose posture and economy of movement, though dignified, tended to conjure, in many hearts and minds, the most potently sexual desire.
Cassandra's demeanor was bold yet receptive. She demurred but never cringed, gave ground but never flinched. Her gaze was piercing, though non-intrusive. Not a man in Ilium, not even the upright Hector, never mind the philandering Paris, who hadn't wished, at some point, that he might have had her for a lover and so have slaked the thirst of his carnal, though respectful, longings. Ironic, perhaps, that a war of such magnitude was, in part, being fought for the beautiful Helen, whose simple manner and friendly nature had never meant to occasion such a massive conflict, when it was Cassandra whose quiet, reserved presence reached, by the power of her personal charisma, far more deeply into men's souls, arousing passions and engaging energies of conquest and surrender which the Lady Helen, for all that she was the war's prize possession, never provoked.
The god, Apollo, had been ravening in his lust for Cassandra. He'd promised her his greatest gift, that of unerring prophesy, if she'd lie with him and submit to his caresses. He was even willing not to get her with child, a huge concession for a god of Apollo's stature. He wanted only to bed her for one exquisite night and to lie next to her in the morning after once again making love to her, this time in the unscreened light of day. Among mortals, who but Alcmene, Semele and possibly Leda had inspired such passionate devotion in a god, making the polished halls of Olympus seem like the clutter of a rummage closet? Lysippe? Hippolyte? Xena? Possibly, if Ares had been the equal of any of the three of these powerfully sensual women which he wasn't.
Cassandra had consented to Apollo's proposal and so had received the gift of prophetic utterance. But then she reneged on her promise, lying cold and disinterested in Apollo's arms while the god had striven -- in vain due to that coldness -- to have a limp, mechanical intercourse with her. It was clear to them both that the arrangement had been soiled from the start by the stain of mutual manipulation. Cassandra felt neither passion nor affection for Apollo, indeed, cared nothing for him, and had instantly regretted her bargain. Cassandra may have been a bit of an opportunist in the bestowal of her affections, but she wasn't a prostitute and could not bring herself to function in that capacity.
The gods, as Cassandra well knew, would not willingly be denied. Apollo could have taken back his gift of prophesy. He was, after all, the Delphic oracle and could bestow and revoke such prophetic grants at will. What he did was far more cruel. Cassandra got to keep her prophetic gift. In fact, Apollo sharpened and magnified that gift so that Cassandra acquired the ability not only to discern the deepest needs and desires of men's and women's hearts, but also the facility unerringly to grasp the social, political and cultural implications of those needs and desires. In addition to her purely predictive powers, then, Cassandra came to have a profound understanding of why men and women, individually and collectively, did the insane, irrational, self-defeating things which they so often did and why it was that historic patterns and processes kept repeating themselves with tragic inevitability regardless of the participants’ intentions.
But then Apollo withdrew from Cassandra the ability to evoke in others the understanding of those things that she herself so clearly understood. Pettiness and opacity reigned supreme around her. Cassandra had but to sketch the results that would surely follow from a proposed course of action for her interlocutors' eyes to glaze over and their attention to wander and for shortsightedness and self-delusion to rush into the resulting gap until these debilities overwhelmed all other considerations. The arrogance, conceit and corruption of power was excruciatingly visible to her. She could see clearly how power, when corrupted by that arrogance and conceit, led, without fail, to its own demise; and she knew what steps needed to be taken to prevent power's corruption and demise. But no one would listen to her. No one heeded her warnings despite the fact that these warnings always came true.
"Do not permit Helen of the Dark Cheeks to remain within these walls," Cassandra had begged her father who, in all other respects, was, perhaps, the wisest man of her acquaintance. "Her presence will bring destruction upon this house and all who dwell within it. That which has been wrongfully taken must, with repentance, be restored." Yet Apollo's curse blinded the good King to the consequences of his second son's rash actions in cuckolding the proud and boastful Menelaus, and the King bade the lovely Helen remain at Ilium and, in line with the King’s kindly, expansive nature, he came to treat her with no less love than he treated his own well-loved daughters.
Eventually coming to terms with the knowledge that her warnings would not be heeded nor her insights into the workings of mortal souls be affirmed or in any way honored, Cassandra withdrew into an isolated space within herself, her heart a conventicle, her mind a prie-dieu at which she daily knelt and prayed, alternately to Mnemosyne for the soft balm of forgetfulness and to the Fates for the sharp sting of compassion, even as she remained outwardly composed and treated all comers with a quiet courtesy that never let slip a harsh or derogatory word. Of all the protagonists in the vast drama of Ilium, Cassandra alone grasped -- or grasped most fully -- the futility of mortal hopes and dreams, precisely because that futility was so emphatically and consistently denied by those around her. She knew the violent end she was to suffer, knew when, where, how and with whom that end was to come, and she was left utterly alone to face the prospect of death and obliteration without the comfort of a single witness or companion who might have borne with or uplifted her. A woman to rival and even, possibly, to surpass Antigone as Hellas' supremely tragic figure.
Aeneas knocked on the door of Cassandra's chamber.
"Enter," a voice within replied.
Aeneas turned the handle and went into the room.
Another oddity, Aeneas noticed, as Cassandra put aside her wooden sewing hoop and rose from her chair to greet him with a warm, sensuous smile: Cassandra's voice was lilting and high-pitched with a delightfully youthful vibrato, a schoolgirl's voice, innocent and expectant, with lyric charm, a voice so incongruous in contrast to the strong bones of and knowing look on her face. It was a clear, light and easy voice; the voice of a somewhat precocious soul, incapable of duplicity, who somehow appeared to remain buoyant and carefree in the face of life's chronic, enervating quibbles and disappointments. The sound of Cassandra's voice reminded Aeneas that sounds, no less than looks, could be deceiving though by no means intentionally so.
"Brother," Cassandra smiled and extended a long-wristed, delicately fingered hand, a hand as beckoning with earthly portents as her face, "how might I be of service to you?"
"Brother-in-law," Aeneas mildly corrected, taking Cassandra's hand and standing his ground amid tapestry, carpeting and the lush valences of thick, floor-length drapes.
"Yet might I not call you brother?" Cassandra grasped Aeneas' hand.
"Very well; sister, then," Aeneas nodded. His strong, athletic presence, swarthy and graceful, emanating an intensity of power held in reserve, filled the room to Cassandra's silent, inward delight. She possessed the wherewithal emotionally to warm to a man of such noble stature if not the desire physically to embrace him or others of his gender.
"Won't you sit down?" Cassandra motioned to an easy chair as she herself went to recline on a chaise longue.
As Aeneas took a seat, he swept the scabbard of his sword slightly to the side so that its point wouldn't poke the rug.
"I see that the Corybantes have arrived," Cassandra smiled at this most noble defender of the rump of the House of Dardania.
"I expect we're in for quite a shindig when night falls," Aeneas gazed at the firmness of Cassandra's breasts, their shape and size, when exposed in outline beneath her sheer wraps, approximating Penthesileia’s in perfection; filling to the brim, with not a hair's breadth of shortfall or overspill, the bell of a crystal champagne glass.
"Perhaps it’s just as well. We're in need of some lively diversion," Cassandra said.
"Xena's here, and the gods know that she certainly has the capacity to shake things up," Aeneas let go a light chuckle.
Cassandra smiled. "As I recall, though, Xena had to be summoned and might not have come had Gabrielle refused to answer Penthesileia’s call."
"For all her diminutive stature, this Gabrielle appears to pack quite a punch," Aeneas said. "Our Warrior Princess seems rather mellow in comparison."
"For now," Cassandra said.
"Yes, for now," Aeneas nodded. "For now, Xena is operating under cover."
"Diomedes knows she's here. He hasn’t told Odysseus, but sooner or later, Odysseus will figure it out," Cassandra said. "You look tired. Something to freshen you up? A ginger tonic? A tumbler of Slivovitz?"
"No, no, it’s just from lack of sleep," Aeneas declined the offer. "There've been any number late night details to attend to since your brother's unfortunate demise."
"Why call it unfortunate? My eldest brother courted death until, at last, she relented and accepted his proposal. Come, what can I get you to drink?"
"Not a thing. Really. But you might tell me something. It's clear that we need to go on the offensive. We can't continue to sit back on our heels. A war of attrition will wear us down to the point of eventual defeat. The Argives have the resources to wait this thing out. All they need is the will."
"Is that what the King thinks?"
"Your father? In his heart, I think he knows it."
"You think it's time to take aggressive action, then."
"Good," Cassandra said, approving of the fact if non-committal as to the likely outcome of Aeneas' decisiveness.
"I could do with some advice," Aeneas said.
Cassandra gave Aeneas a sharp look. He was treading on thin ice and they both knew it.
"I need to know the most propitious time to lower the gates and go racing out to meet the Argives, blasting away with both barrels and giving them everything we've got," Aeneas said.
"You're the man in charge. Why are you asking me?" Cassandra said in a cool-tempered voice.
Aeneas took a deep breath and shifted his weight on the chair. "Are you aware of the distance, psychologically, that separates the second in command from the commander in chief?"
"It's this wide," Aeneas extended his arms to the side and, with the index finger of either hand, pointed to the opposing ends of the earth. "As Hector's attaché and then as his vice commander, I never realized that."
"But now that you're the man in the driver's seat, you do," Cassandra said.
"Well, I ultimately report to the King."
"Who'll abide by whatever course of action you deem best."
"And Xena?" Cassandra said.
"By nature, Xena's a bit of a loose cannon," Aeneas said.
"Mm," Cassandra smiled.
"But I don't expect her to subvert or countermand my orders. Xena knows what it’s like to be the one at the helm."
"Xena knows men. She knows how they think. She also knows my father and she’s got a soft spot for him. Know my father's heart and you'll know Xena's mind."
"The King's heart is in the grave with the wretchedly defiled body of his eldest son."
"Yet there are livelier hearts in Ilium these days," Cassandra’s lips flickered as she continued to smile. "Two of them are beating rather feverishly at this very turn of the sandglass."
"This is something that you’ve lately observed?" Aeneas raised an eyebrow.
"En passant," Cassandra said. "What about the Amazons? Are Penthesileia and her sisters still planning to go out in a blaze of trepidatious glory?"
"As far as I know."
"Strange, she doesn't strike me as the type, Melanippe’s little sister. Truth be known, our Penthesileia seems to me well suited to live a long, productive and happy life. As different from her other sister, Hippolyte, as day is from night. But then...," Cassandra looked frankly at Aeneas, "war, like floods and fires, summon unknown creatures from the depths. So: what can I tell you? You plainly haven't come to admire my etchings."
"I want to know the optimum time to attack," Aeneas said.
"Ah, but you're not playing by the rules, dear brother," Cassandra's eyes lit with an inner glow of subtle humor. " If I were to tell you to burn our crops as the key to eventual victory, you're meant to respond by running off and sinking their ships. The way to have a successful interaction with me is to keep in mind that you don't ask and I don't tell. That way, the gods remain at bay and I'm left to lead the imitation of a life."
"Some of us had rather trust to mortal men -- and women -- than to place our faith and trust in the gods," Aeneas countered.
"Well, you're wise if not circumspect," Cassandra said. "Are you telling me that I'm to be believed if and when I say to you that the only way that the Argives will win this war is by stealth and not by force of arms? Don't forget that I'm a woman. What does a woman know of such things as the fate of nations and the passions of kings, their chieftains and generals, not to mention the perpetually unwinding skein of the Fates?"
"The Fates don't account for motives, they merely control outcomes," Aeneas said with assurance.
"Tell that to Xena. Who's also a woman, by the way. Tell Xena I said that she's on to something in her subterranean researches and that she should follow her nose as far as it leads her."
"I'm no slave of the gods. No more than Xena. Nor am I a sybarite in matters of the heart and mind. I know the curse you labor under. I know the risk I run when I consult with you."
"And that risk would be...?"
"Betraying the obligations of my office."
Cassandra chuckled. "Well, you're not a fool, I'll give you that."
"Good. Now we're getting somewhere," Aeneas said. "I have no illusions that our forces are ultimately a match for the Argives, even with Xena, Memnon and the Amazons fighting by our side. That's why we need the element of surprise in our favor, first to open a corridor to the beach, then, if we're brave, skilled and lucky enough, to hold it long enough to drive the Argives and their allies back to the stone pits of Attica and the olive groves of Mycenae. So tell me: when's our best hope of attack, while Selene is waxing in her final harvest orb or, eight or nine days from now when she's begun to wane?"
"Neither," Cassandra said with iron calm.
"Neither?" Aeneas said, a trifle taken aback.
"Neither at the waxing nor at the waning of the moon," Cassandra said.
"Then...," Aeneas stroked his beard and a light dawned in his dark, twinkling eyes, "it must be when Selene's at the full, when the seed that's growing nightly in her belly has run its course to term and her labor brings forth the fruit. We ride at the stroke of the full moon."
"You ride into the arms of death," Cassandra said.
"Yes, but who's?" Aeneas said.
"That," Cassandra mused, "remains to be seen."
A beautiful, enigmatic woman gives a warning. Those who fail to heed that warning suffer the dire consequences. The woman loses everything: station, possessions, identity, desire, hope. In the holiest place of her people, she is brutally raped by the strongest man on earth, then pounded senseless and left for dead. She recovers to be taken captive and made the slave and concubine of the king and supreme commander of the forces which annihilated her people, home and family. She bears him two children: twins. Upon his victorious return home after an absence of ten years, the king is murdered, in his bathtub, by his wife and her lover. They then murder the slave/concubine's two children before her eyes and finish by murdering her before being murdered, in turn, by the king's avenging son assisted by the king’s duplicitous daughter.
The woman is acutely aware of this unfolding train of events down to the last, excruciating detail. She can do nothing to prevent it. And the claws of each passing day rip another sheet of the calendar of her violent end inexorably off the wall.
|Continued - Chapter 50|
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