A HEART DARKENED BY WINE
An original story by Ursula Kincaid
DISCLAIMER: This story is intended for mature readers only, in every sense of the word. There are scenes of an explicit sexual nature, that goes without saying, but there’s also a lot of classicism here. You’re probably going to find it boring. Oh, who am I kidding, you’re definitely going to find it boring. Think yourselves lucky though as this time I have avoided adding a shitload of footnotes... because, yes, as always with me nearly every sentence is a quotation or means something else (or both) and each was written for a very specific reason that won’t be obvious to a casual reader... oh and I should say my notes are available on request though, as always... what do you mean you don’t want them? Sheesh. Fine. Please yourselves... Hold on, where was I? Oh yeah, the following story is © 2016 and is written purely for entertainment purposes. It cannot be reproduced in any shape or form without the author’s prior consent. And this is where, in the spirit of a TV show that’s now nearly twenty years old (how is that even possible?) I usually say something isn’t harmed during the production of this story... but let’s be honest, myths can’t really be hurt, can they? Unlike hearts.
SUMMARY: The war for Troy is nearing its end. Thousands of soldiers and innocents alike have died over the last ten years; countless more are suffering greatly. Prince Hector has been killed, the Greeks are still stubbornly refusing to lift their siege of the city, and the recently arrived Amazonian war party has this very day been slaughtered by Achilles and his Myrmidons. Only one Amazon made it back to the city walls safely... and now she will be finally pushed to her breaking point by the mad princess of Troy, Cassandra.
FEEDBACK: I’m always happy to hear any feedback you may have, good, bad (so long as it’s not rude, of course) or indifferent. Although why anyone would send someone indifferent feedback, I don’t honestly know. “Hey, your story was... meh.” Anyway, please send any feedback to: email@example.com. Thanks!
STARTED: Thursday, December 4th, 2014
COMPLETED: Sunday, March 6th, 2016
SERIES: None, stand-alone.
One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life; that word is ‘love’. – Sophocles
Someone, somewhere, was crying out for a love that would not come.
Bremusa sent an unspoken plea to the Gods that the man would fall silent. His cries were working on her nerves. She stared out over the battlements, although in the gathering dusk all she could clearly make out were the white robes of the priestesses moving amongst the dead and dying who littered the sand. She shuddered, knowing that behind each the Keres hovered – waiting, hoping, hungry to take what was not quite yet theirs.
Far off in the distance the first fires within the multitude of Achaean camps were being lit and beyond those the wine dark sea beckoned. Bremusa began to count as each campfire flickered into life but quickly lost interest. She was finding it hard to concentrate on anything. Just as the anger and ferocity was seeping from her bones so was the world seeming to slip away from her focus. She knew it would pass, it always did. A bad night’s sleep, full of restless thoughts and harsh nightmares sent by the Gods, and she would be well again. Tired, aching, and still stricken with unwanted guilt, but thankfully clear-headed once again.
Besides, she thought, there were too many fires to count. And too many Achaeans to kill. She had never seen so many warriors, never been in the midst of such fierce fighting, and she had surely never felt so completely caught by a battle. There had been no time to think, no time to grieve her fallen sisters, no time to do anything but kill.
And for what? Only to leave more widows and orphans stranded in this life by sending yet more men to whatever awaited them in the next, or so it seemed to her. No ground had been taken, none lost. Agamemnon still threatened; Troy still stood defiant. In the waning light of the late afternoon sun, the Achaeans had finally tired of the slaughter and pulled back to their makeshift camps along the shoreline, leaving the Trojans and their allies to retreat once more behind the sanctity of their city walls. Envoys from both sides had gone out to collect the dead and wounded. As it had been every day long before she and her sisters had blindly followed Penthesilea to Troy, as it would be for evermore. This was the Gods’ cruelest trick, not in allowing men to wage war, but in forbidding it to ever end.
Her left arm still ached. Bremusa knew she had been lucky; the spear had been aimed for her heart. Even so, had it connected fully with her arm then it would most likely have broken the bone and laid the flesh open. Instead she was left with a cut, long and thin, but not deep enough to be of any great concern. The temple priestesses had cleaned it, anointed it within Hygeia’s sight, bound it with fresh linen, and that would suffice for now. She would be left with a scar but it wasn’t her first and no doubt the Gods would ensure it wasn’t her last.
She had been considered pretty once, perhaps not truly beautiful but striking enough so that she had never lacked for company. But the many women she had bedded were never lovers, merely distracting conquests. They were to warm her bed and her loins, never her heart. She had kept them all at a distance but still when they spoke of her between themselves it was never with animosity. Each of them had known she would never truly be theirs. There was a hardness about her, so they often whispered, that kept her apart from others.
Not many years had passed since those days, barely a handful, but Bremusa felt the weight of every single one. Now, if she ever considered her looks at all, then it was only to fret that the hardness was all that was left. She was still dark-eyed and buxom, her hair still blonde without a trace of grey, her back still strong, her figure still athletic, but she would no longer turn heads. There were too many scars, physical or otherwise.
Bremusa suddenly found herself thirsting for a drink. There is much in life that a good wine will dull, pain being the greatest of all, but Bremusa had always fought the urge to drink to excess. This day, with the sun setting far out where the sea met the sky, she considered it a fight she might want to lose.
That was a first for her. Yet another sign of how far she had fallen in a single day. She, Bremusa, daughter of Aegea, herself a daughter of Melanippe, descended from no less than the God of War. A princess nursed in the palaces of Themiskyra, born within the very gardens that nestled between the broad-sweeping streams of the river Thermodon. She had been raised to rule, shown how to lead, and like all of her sisters, trained to fight. And she did all three well, but it had never been enough. She had always wanted something more.
Bremusa had long since considered herself mortal in body only. But she had hoped to become immortal in the heart of another. Which was why she had been overjoyed to learn she had been chosen as one of the twelve Amazon warriors who would accompany Penthesilea to Troy, in answer to King Priamos’ desperate pleas for aid. She had believed she would win more renown fighting against the Achaeans there, had prayed that it would be so. All of the sisters chosen prayed for the same, of course, but while they asked the Gods for their names forever after to be repeated in song, or spoken of by allies and enemies alike, Bremusa had pleaded only that she would finally attract the attention of the one she had so long desired.
There was little chance of that now. She had never lost a battle before and never so badly. Until today, when Ares set about his work with a malicious glee, seeking out every one of her sisters with abandon and daubing them with a mark that would allow the Keres to find them and Hades to claim them.
Yet not her. She had not been taken, marked perhaps but not taken, not yet. She had been left out there alone, trapped beneath the cooling corpses of her sisters until the fighting around her ebbed away for just long enough for her to scramble free. Bremusa licked her dry lips, swallowed, and again felt that thirst.
The wounded man called out again. There were no words this time, at least not as so Bremusa could hear, just a long, despairing cry. She desperately wished that someone would quiet him, perhaps one of the priestesses who still scoured the battlefield for the injured, although few remained who had not already been found and brought within the city walls. She could see some of the devout women moving cautiously through the dead, their white robes starkly visible in the near-darkness. Perhaps they would find him; how could they not? With calming words and soothing touches, a talented priestess of Asklepios could do wonders. Failing that, a sharp blade would do better.
A wave of guilt followed that thought and Bremusa instinctively glanced around. She needn’t have worried, none of the soldiers left up here to guard the walls paid her any heed. Most hadn’t even looked her in the eye when she took her place at the ramparts. Such is the fate of one who survives when all around her die.
So much blood had been spilt and even now still soaked into the sand beyond the city walls, in pools so deep the baking heat of the day could never have dried it before the evening came. Bremusa had never seen the like. She had never joined a battle so large, so confusing, so unordered. Never seen so many warriors intent on death. Fighting was one thing, killing another, but both she could say she understood. This... this was madness. How could any sane person understand it?
As if to answer her question, Bremusa heard footfalls behind her, the approach sounding light and careless to her ears.
Damn her luck. She wanted to be alone and so, of course, she would not be. Such is the way of things with the Gods, Bremusa knew. They did not let mere mortals ponder too long on those things that only the divine understand, for that way madness truly beckoned. She half-turned away, not really wanting to acknowledge the approaching stranger, and rested her arms on the battlements. The stone had hung on to the warmth of the day, and the heat felt good on her tired skin.
“You look wearied.”
A woman’s voice, soft and cultured. On any other day, Bremusa would have already been smiling, trying to wear away at any playful half-meant resistance with honeyed words and gentle not-so-accidental touches. Today, after that battle and after such a fierce loss, her grief made itself known in a show of stubbornness.
So instead of speaking, Bremusa merely stared out at the darkening evening sky, which was deceptively calm. She guessed a rainstorm was on its way, which would no doubt be a welcome relief from the lingering heat and make the morning cooler too.
“Last night at the banquet you were quiet too, unlike your sisters.”
Bremusa sighed, and made no effort to hide her irritation. As always the Gods knew better than she and they tugged at her threads, pulling her back on the path they had long ago laid out for her. Men you could fight; the will of the Gods, never.
When she finally turned to see who had spoken, Bremusa immediately regretted her stand-offishness. She knew the woman, despite being a newcomer to the city of Troy. Everyone knew Kassandra, subject of whispers in taverns, gossip amongst soldiers, font of countless rumors. She was mad, they said, cursed by Apollon. Or sometimes, depending on who you talked to, another of the Gods. Or snakes, that was another tale, that snakes had been sent from Olympus to kill her but upon seeing her beauty the serpents had relented, instead licking her ears and sending her into a delirium that never lifted. Everyone told the tale slightly differently and everyone knew their own words to be the truth.
Bremusa only knew two truths for certain about Kassandra. She may have been mad but she was also beautiful. Bremusa had first seen her the night just past, standing beside her father, fidgeting constantly, as if there were other places she should be and she was impatient to be gone. Bremusa had been struck by her beauty even then, even if no one else saw it. Derimacheia and Antibrote and the others had all spoken in hushed tones of their disappointment the supposedly lovely Helen had not been present at their audience, but Bremusa had stayed silent, nervous in the distant company of King Priamos’ lost daughter.
Even if they had not been introduced at that welcoming banquet, even if she had never before laid eyes on her, Bremusa would have known this was Kassandra. There was no disguising the beautiful form she had been graced with, but neither could she hide her manner. The Gods gave with one hand but they took away with another. It was all a matter of balance, every perfection steadied with a mortal flaw, and if you were wise enough you accepted it as a reminder from the Gods that they – and only they – were truly divine.
Kassandra’s skin was like the finest Cretan marble, made all the paler by the harsh contrast of her eyes, which were as dark as dead bark from the oldest olive groves, and her even darker hair. Each tress, perhaps this morning woven tightly and neatly by a servant but since uncared for and now unkempt, was so black that it was honestly hard to tell where the strands ended and the darkening night sky began.
Her lips were the color of the reddest roses, stained by the wine she had drunk. It took Bremusa a long time to tear her attention away from those lips.
“I... I...” Bremusa began, hating herself for being so foolish. It was never wise to offend a princess, a mad one even less so. “I meant nothing in...”
Kassandra waved away the apology. She held a half-empty goblet in her hand and the sudden gesture spilt what little remained onto the dusty stone parapet. The dark wine ran down between the slabs, disappearing almost immediately, seeping through cracks. She seemed not to notice. The pristine white fabric of her robes stained with a dark red blotch, almost matching Bremusa’s own grey robes. Except one stain was clearly wine, the other blood.
There was a color in her lovely cheeks now, although whether that was embarrassment or just from the effects of the wine Bremusa did not know. She proffered the goblet to the Amazon. “Do you want some?”
Bremusa shook her head. She hoped that by saying nothing more Kassandra would grow bored and leave. Even as drunk as she was, as insane as she was, the Trojan princess would be able to take a hint, surely? Yet it seemed luck, already proven to be firmly against the Amazones this day, was the only thing that left Bremusa be.
Kassandra stepped closer, turning so that she too could rest her back against the battlements, and shifted a little to try to get comfortable. Once she had settled, she peered deeply into the cup, as if it held secrets even a God would want to know. After a while, she looked up at Bremusa, still grinning. “Probably just as well. Down to the dregs.”
Others may have thought she was well into her cups, but Bremusa had seen drunken women before, drunken noblewomen too, and, yes, even daughters of kings. Kassandra may not have been sober but she certainly wasn’t drunk. Bremusa could see through that act.
No, Bremusa thought, it wasn’t an act but a defense, one perhaps as sturdy and reinforced as the walls they stood upon. Now that she thought of it, Bremusa recalled how at the banquet last night people would avoid touching her, never obviously, always politely and with the utmost respect. As soon as she had moved on, as soon as the air she had walked through was clear and unclouded again, only then did they dare to breathe, only then did the furtive glances, the unspoken distaste, pass between the onlookers.
She carried with her her own personal miasma of untouchability.
There was her station, of course, that no doubt protected her. But there was also the armor of wine, worn, Bremusa suspected, partly to protect her, mostly to protect everyone else. To make it easier for Kassandra to forgive a thoughtless word, a careless gesture. It was all a pretense, like a thin and patchy woolen blanket on a cold winter night, almost see-through when held up to the light and practically useless, but one everyone still clung to, knowing that it was better than nothing.
Kassandra spoke again, her voice soft and low, but each word clearly thought about and chosen carefully. “You lost her today, the daughter of Ares.”
Anger flashed, which Bremusa quickly swallowed down. She stared out over the city she had sworn on a whim to protect. From here, so high up on the walls, far from the gates and the still bustling streets, the city behind her seemed unusually quiet, subdued even. War had returned to Troy, and it seems that as it came it pushed aside all joy and noise that greeted her and her sisters the night before.
The gratitude of these hard-pressed people had been overwhelming; so thankful even for just a dozen more warriors to defend the city. They had been feted, had songs sung to them. Strong drinks had been pressed into their hands, charms given to them, flowers from the royal gardens strewn before them, and Bremusa had had to fend off countless advances, most unwanted, a few that would have been welcome under different circumstances. Of course, some of her sisters hadn’t been so reluctant to taste the delights of Troy. Evandre in particular, ever a wild and carefree lover, had hopped from one warm bed to another. She had boasted of her tiredness this morning as they marched out to battle, of how little sleep she had been granted in the night, and how tame the women of this city had proved to be, tame but so eager to please their rescuers.
How they had laughed then, unaware and uncaring of what awaited them on the plains. Even shy young Derinoe had joined in, blushing like mad as she listened to Evandre’s bragging.
Bremusa wiped at her eyes, her vision suddenly clouded by tears once more. She knew the other soldiers on the walls nearby were looking at her, no doubt judging her for such weakness. None of them would dare say as much. They had all lost friends, lovers, wives, and they knew that pain she now bore.
A gust of wind blew along the battlements, stirring up the dust and sand that had settled between the stones. The breeze cooled the last of the sweat still clinging to Bremusa’s skin. She sniffed, smelling the strong sweet scent that breathes from off the sea. It felt like a storm was heading their way.
Over to the east, most likely in the large square before the temple of Apollon, the funeral pyres were being lit, one by one, as if in answer to the Acheans campfires. Penthesilea would be there, the others would not be so lucky. Then there was her, left alone of all her sisters, damned due to circumstance and cowardice. Through tears, she saw the smoke climbing up towards the darkening night sky, above the flames’ red wings which soared upward duskily. She would have sworn that even from this far away she could see ashes swirling amongst the plumes, like petals caught in the wind.
“Yes,” was all Bremusa finally said.
“You, not the others.”
Bremusa felt Kassandra’s hand on her arm and so turned back from the smoke of the funerary fires to face her. The fingertips felt surprisingly cool on her skin but still she couldn’t help shake them off.
“Like all things,” Kassandra said, that foolish grin back on her face, “sorrow is a gift.”
Bremusa laughed harshly. “Did the Gods tell you that or is it a teaching of your priests?”
“Does it matter? You lost her,” Kassandra repeated. “And now you seem lost.”
The Amazon shifted uncomfortably, moving a step away, then back again. She frowned. If Kassandra was truly as mad as everyone said, she controlled it well and hid it poorly. Or perhaps being mad gave her a little more insight into others. She had been touched by the Gods, after all, and who else but the Gods could understand life so clearly?
“I’m alone, not lost,” she said, knowing it was a lie even before the words came tumbling out of her disobedient mouth, “yesterday we were a dozen, now I am alone.”
Kassandra shook her head. “No, for you being alone is a choice, a punishment perhaps, for...”
“I don’t think so. You took that choice away.”
“Me? Possibly, I have a habit of doing that, not that anyone will listen. But you’re free to go, aren’t you? I’m not holding you here, I doubt I could even if I wanted to. There are plenty of other spots along the wall. But you won’t leave. You’ll want to, of course, but you’ll stay here and tolerate my idiocy.”
She seemed to have bridled at the interruption. Perhaps she found it harder than most to keep her thoughts in order. Her mouth flickered between a smile and a scowl, as if she couldn’t honestly decide whether the lost thought was worth searching for again. Kassandra must have decided it was pointless, as instead she ran her hand around the inside of the goblet and then sucked noisily on the wine-soaked fingers, grinning around them like a halfwit.
Still Bremusa could not bring herself to turn and walk away. This was her place, damn it, she had chosen it and had made it clear she wanted to be left alone. Why should she be the one to leave?
The silence lingered a little too long. What was it, Bremusa wondered, about this woman that made her feel so uncomfortable? Was it just the air of madness? Or was there something more that bothered her? She had to say something, anything, anything at all. Nothing came to mind. She found herself scratching idly at the bandaged wound on her arm and angrily pulled her hand away.
It was Kassandra who finally spoke. “Do you think me mad?” she said softly.
“No, I think you beautiful,” Bremusa blurted out. She sighed then, disappointed with herself. Ah yes, this was the Bremusa everyone knew, the true Bremusa. Nothing hidden, no subtlety to be found. So agile in battle, so graceful with a spear, so deft with a sword, so skillful with a lover, but always, always, so clumsy and awkward with words. She took a deep breath and then tried to make amends. “Perhaps in us that is where true beauty stems from. Perhaps to love another is to truly experience madness.”
Kassandra looked surprised by the comment. The pretense dropped, the grin faded, the goblet almost tumbled from those cold fingers. She let out a pitiful little cry, as if with the act gone she no longer knew what to say or do. She was like the cheapest whore suddenly modest, frantically clutching at a gossamer veil that offered no protection.
Then after just the briefest of moments everything clicked back into place. She was smiling broadly, showing those wine-stained teeth again.
Bremusa turned away. Out on the battlefield, the only movement she could make out now was the occasional stirring of crows in the dim light of carried torches. A murder of them were waging their own little war over some remains. Why should the birds be any different to men, their squabble any less petty?
For so long now, day after day, warriors had marched out through the massive city gates to face Agamemnon’s invading hordes. Each day, some would return, many more would not. Would tomorrow be any different, she wondered? This war had waged longer than any war ever known, for so long that some Trojan children could not remember a time of peace.
She didn’t want to think about it anymore. But her mind rebelled against her and the memories wouldn’t leave her be. Even though she closed her eyes, Bremusa could still clearly see Clonie’s face contort in agony as her stomach was torn open by a spearhead. Then another spear, not thrown this time but thrust, had caught Bremusa herself. The blade had struck firmly against her bronze breastplate right over the heart, then skidded across to slice open her arm.
The force of the blow, delivered by a giant of a man, had pushed her backwards, making her stumble over her own feet. Then she was down on her back, landing so hard on the sand that the breath was knocked from her lungs and her sword from her hand.
Staring up into the blazing sun, Bremusa had seen the darkened forms of Evandre and Thermodosa step forward to protect her. Then young Derinoe had fallen hard across her, pinning her to the ground. Her legs had already been caught fast by something unseen and she could not have moved even if she had truly wanted to. Instead she had been tormented, forced to lie still while Derinoe gasped frantically for air. She could still see the look of panic in those brown eyes, could still taste the poor girl’s blood in her mouth, splashing across her face from that ragged throat wound. It surely could not have taken long but it still seemed to her that Derinoe had taken an eternity to bleed out. And in every single moment Bremusa had silently pleaded for the young woman to just hurry up and die.
Clonie may have been the first of the Amazones to fall, but the rest had followed after, so quickly even though they fought so hard. Even Penthesilea, the greatest queen of all the Amazon nations, she too had been struck down. Bremusa had not seen Penthesilea die – and she would easily admit that she was grateful for that, thankful that she had been spared from seeing such beauty bloodied and despoiled and finally taken form this world – but she had heard how it happened. Every warrior who had made it back to the safety of the city told a different tale, and the less they had witnessed the more outlandish their stories became. Bremusa had chosen to keep the truth to herself.
As if she could read her thoughts, Kassandra said out of the blue, “They say she was reckless. Those warriors who spoke of her to me, I mean.”
The anger sprang forward unbidden, bringing heat to Bremusa’s cheeks. She opened her mouth to speak, uncertain of what she hoped to say, but desperately scrabbling for some harsh and hurtful words. Nothing came to mind.
A Paeonian soldier, intent on lighting the torches along the wall, hurried past, not sparing either of them a second glance. He ran between them, forcing Bremusa to take another step back. At least the interruption dowsed her temper, giving her the chance to realize saying nothing had probably been the best things she could have done.
“Was she?” Kassandra pressed the point.
“I don’t know,” Bremusa said quietly. “I think she wanted to die.”
“Many do. Do you?”
She ignored the question.
“Most said Odysseus slew her.”
“Odysseus?” Bremusa spat over the side of the battlements. “At least Palamedes fought fairly.”
“Which is no doubt why he’s dead and Odysseus is very much alive. And why Odysseus will be the one of the two Achaeans remembered famously in years to come. History is just another prize to be taken by the victors.”
Bremusa shook her head vehemently. “No one will remember that liar, I am certain of that. But it wasn’t him, I’d swear to it. Most likely it was Akhilleus. He would be the only one who could have bested Penthesilea. He killed her... and many of my sisters too.”
“Hmm...” Kassandra murmured. “Perhaps that is how history will also remember him; a fine warrior for sure, but also an arrogant fool, a petulant barbarian, a rapist, and a coward too. Perhaps even his name will forever be remembered as the murderer of too many of both your sisters and my brothers, although somehow I doubt it, any of it. I’m sure he will long be renowned for his heroism by mortal and God alike, which disgusts me no less than the trickery of Odysseus disgusts you.
“My father should never have begged him for the return of Hector’s body. I told him he would regret it but he would not listen, he never does. No one does.”
The lop-sided grin had long since vanished, replaced by a faraway look. There was a sorrow there, Bremusa realized, hidden beneath the drink and mostly lost beneath the insanity. But everyone in Troy carried some sort of sadness about them. Everyone had lost something. Why should this woman be any different?
But she was different, Bremusa thought. There was no one in this world who could be more different. This princess of Troy had inherited more than most but perhaps she had lost more than most as well. Her oldest brother, a truly great and noble man, was now no longer destined to rule their father’s kingdom but instead to be forever enslaved in Tartarus. Her father had practically disowned her by all accounts, her presence only tolerated because of Queen Hekabe’s pleas. And who knew how many other siblings, loved ones, friends, she had lost?
Yet despite all of that, Bremusa thought, perhaps the loss Kassandra felt most keenly was that of her mind.
“I heard tell that King Memnon has sworn to kill Akhilleus tomorrow,” she said after a while, shrugging as if it meant nothing to her. “Perhaps he will.”
Kassandra scowled. “I don’t think so. Why would an Aethiopian, even one as blessed-born as their king, have any better chance of humbling the Achaeans than all those who have tried before? Princes of Troy, an Amazon Queen, even the Gods themselves, all have been found wanting against Akhilleus. Boasts made at a banquet are meaningless.”
Bremusa refrained from arguing. She had heard the Aethiopian king, who like her was a recent arrival and yet another of Troy’s seemingly endless allies, was a humble man. Even if he was not, she could not really cast stones. There had been plenty of bragging from the Amazones at their banquet the night before. Most of the women had seen the need to challenge the men around them in boasts, with only a few of the dozen remaining quiet. The painfully shy Derinoe hardly said a word all night, except for over-rehearsed greetings. The repentant Penthesilea spoke a little more but still not much and only out of necessity.
Bremusa herself, well, even if she had not been so taken with Priamos’ disgraced daughter, she would have only spoken when pressed to.
Each of the rest had made similar vows, swearing if not to kill Akhilleus then to defeat another of the great Achaean heroes, Aias, perhaps, or Diomedes. How foolish they all had been, Bremusa thought. This war had quickly made fools of them all.
The wind was really picking up now. The soldiers along the wall were all hunkering down, turning away from their watch so they could shelter more easily against the stone ramparts, drawing their cloaks up and around them.
“That poor thing,” Kassandra said. Seeing the Amazon’s confused look, she nodded towards the battlefield, far out.
Bremusa followed her gaze, using a free hand to shade her eyes against the dust that was whipping against the city’s walls. She saw a single mare, stark white in color but still barely visible against the blackness of the night, nudging what she could only assume was the long dead body of its rider.
“Perhaps you should claim it,” Kassandra said.
“Let someone else take her. I’m... not a good rider,” Bremusa confessed. “And I’ve never liked horses all that much.”
Kassandra smiled sadly, her eyes clouding with a faraway thought. “Hmm... well, in that way we are alike. Still, you could sell her easily enough.”
“So could anyone else. Don’t worry, someone will take care of her. Besides, I have no interest in money.”
“No? Then you’re defending our city just for glory? Most of our allies are, to hear them tell it...”
“You take me for a vain Myrmidon?” Bremusa interrupted, her temper flaring suddenly, just like the torches along the wall. “A fool who fights only for the sake of etching his name into history? That I would sing of glory, having learnt nothing from the grief of loss?”
With a sigh, Kassandra put her empty goblet down on the battlements and turned back to face her. “Not at all. I just wondered why you find yourself here, that’s all.”
“I...” Bremusa swallowed down her irritation once again. “I followed our queen.”
“Ah, loyalty then? Or perhaps devotion is perhaps a better word? Forgive me, but only a mere dozen of your number came to Troy’s aid.” She paused and gave Bremusa a quizzical look. “No, that’s not it, is it?”
“My mother is no doubt tending to the wounded. With my sisters... and...” Kassandra ran her tongue around her mouth, perhaps just trying to clean the last vestiges of wine from her teeth, but Bremusa suspected she saw a little distaste there. “And our beloved adopted sister, Helen, too.”
Bremusa was slightly surprised by the change of subject but she quickly realized it was probably the way of every conversation Kassandra was involved in, the madness saw to that. She would flit from one subject to another then back again, carelessly, like a summer butterfly.
“Should you do the same?”
“I should. As a priestess of Apollon, even a disgraced one, it is expected of me. I would if I were able to do so unnoticed, believe me. But my father would prefer I stay within the palace walls, confined to my chambers behind barred doors should my affliction make me... difficult. Ideally, if I promise him I will behave, I know he would rather have me attend the banquet tonight in his place. My father likes his guests to be graced with female company, even if we serve as nothing more than decoration.”
It was a question that had already been answered but Bremusa couldn’t resist teasing a little. “And were you behaving well enough for the guests last night?”
The smile returned, wickedly knowing. “Oh yes. I so wanted to meet the renowned Antianeirai. Many of us did, from the moment the heralds first brought word of your approach. I had to promise my father I would not speak a word all night other than to greet you all.”
“I thought you were just nervous at the time,” Bremusa said. “I knew no better and...”
“I’m sure. And I’m just as sure that many other guests delighted in making your ignorance short-lived,” said Kassandra hurriedly. She waved a hand idly, as if she could push the thought away just as easily. “It really doesn’t matter, I’m aware of how I’m thought of.”
“Not everyone thinks...”
“Please don’t,” Kassandra interrupted and this time the grin was plainly forced. “There was another name for all of you, spread among the serving girls in excited whispers, spoken by my sisters and their friends only behind firmly closed doors.”
“I know it. We hear it often. Tribades.”
“Well, I must confess it was another reason why many were anxious to meet your queen and her entourage. Do you mind the name?”
Bremusa shrugged. “I don’t care for it. But people will call us all manner of things; I have no say in that.”
“Ah, yes, well, we all may only make the choices the Gods allow, I’m afraid,” Kassandra said, glancing up at the night sky. “There’s a storm coming. A bad one.”
“Don’t be foolish,” Bremusa scoffed. “The sky’s clear. It won’t rain for days yet.”
She wasn’t sure why she said that. A little while before she had been thinking the very same thing, that the sudden chilly wind that blew against the city walls might bring a rainstorm with it. And now she thought the idea laughable. Why was that?
Strangely confused, with a strong feeling her thoughts were no longer truly her own, Bremusa turned back to Kassandra, only to see the dark haired beauty was staring out over the battlements. Perhaps she hoped to see that lost horse again.
“You never answered my question.”
Thinking hard, Bremusa frowned as she tried to figure out which question Kassandra meant. “I didn’t?”
“No. It really doesn’t matter. You won’t, even if I ask you a dozen times more. And I can think of better ways of spending the night.”
“I will, if you want...” she said without thinking, perhaps a little too hastily. Her face flushed in embarrassment.
Kassandra grinned that lop-sided grin of hers, evidently amused at the Amazon’s sudden discomfort. “Don’t worry, I know what you mean. So why then did you come to Troy?”
That wasn’t the question she had meant, Bremusa thought, it couldn’t have been. She considered answering anyway, repeating herself, but then decided against it. Damn it, why did she have to be so awkward in conversations, so slow at understanding other people? It was far easier to take a life than to connect with one, easier too to cripple a man than to talk to any woman, at least any woman who expected more than the simplest seductions. That was why she had always avoided the company of the hetaerae. Better to be thought a fool than to prove yourself one, that was at least one thing she had learned over the years.
But then Kassandra was something different, in many, many ways. There was some solace to be drawn from that, in how everyone else probably struggled to talk with her, maybe just as much as Bremusa was struggling right now.
“I already told you,” she said impatiently.
“So you did. You followed your queen. But you didn’t follow her out of a sense of duty, nor of devotion.”
“And it seems glory eludes you too, you’ve said as much. So why?”
For some reason Bremusa heard then the dead Penthesilea’s voice, each of the last words spoken ringing so clear in her head. She closed her eyes tightly but that only reminded her of the blood. The memory hurt so much. It was a stab of pain that pushed at her heart, like it no longer belonged where it lay behind her breast. But who, except the gods, could live time through forever without any pain?
She tried to concentrate on something else. She briefly searched the cityscape again for the funeral pyres but the night sky was now so dark it was impossible to make the smoke out. Instead she found herself watching all the activity in the streets below.
Troy was a vast and immense city, she thought, so full of life and light. The ever-greedy Agamemnon wanted to take it for his own; the abduction of Helen was just a convenient excuse for him to wage war. But the people within these walls – most of them city natives but some from the surrounding lands and many from even further afield – together seemed indefatigable. They would fight for King Priamos until the last, the walls would stand forever, and this city would never fall, with or without her presence... so why had she come here?
She knew but it was a question her heart wouldn’t let her answer. Not out loud, not now.
Enough was enough. She turned away, trying to end the unwelcome conversation. Kassandra was having none of it. She skipped around her on the battlements, dancing perilously close to the edge.
“Are you trying to anger me?” Bremusa said.
Kassandra now stood in front of her, blocking the path towards the nearest steps, and held her hands up placatingly. “No, no. I never try to anger anyone but somehow I still do. I always did, even before... well, ever since I was a child. My mother always swore I could anger even the dead if I wished.”
Bremusa took a calming breath and backed away a step. “I’m sorry.”
“I am not fit company, not tonight.”
Grinning again, Kassandra swatted the apology away. “I sought you out, remember? You’ve already told me you wished to be left to your own thoughts, so you have no need to apologize for my stubbornness. My mood has just soured like the wine in my belly, that’s all. More wine, then, that’s the answer.”
“I’m sure they would have some at the banquet still,” Bremusa said clumsily.
If Kassandra took that suggestion as an insult, she gave no sign. “Oh, countless casks of the very finest. But I fear I would not be welcome, not in this state,” she said, tugging self-consciously at the wine-stained robe she wore, “and not having drunk so much already. The drinking helps, you see.”
Bremusa was about to say she doubted that, but Kassandra then went on, changing the subject in that abrupt manner of hers. “I knew a soothsayer once,” she said, “although he was one in name only. Believe me when I tell you his talent stretched no further than his imagination and that proved remarkably limited, usually only leading him from one woman to seduce after another. He ended up being disbelieved by everyone at the end. I never thought I would understand him. Sad really.”
Kassandra sighed. “No matter. He would convince women that he could read the future, not in ashes or entrails or patterns in the clouds, but in the rumpling of the blankets on a bed. Only after spending the night beneath them, of course, always in the arms of the woman who wanted her future told.”
“And that worked?” Bremusa scoffed.
“More often than you’d think.”
“Did it work with you?”
Her face clouded, just for a second, then that fool’s grin returned. “He never tried. Very few do, they have no wish to taint themselves; you understand I’m sure. And those that do... well, let’s just say most offer trinkets I find no value in.”
Not quite understanding that, Bremusa frowned and opened her mouth to speak. The right words would not come. Frustratingly, no words at all would come. She knew she had never been blessed with intelligence – the older women in the tribe, those that raised the young, had often joked at her expense that Athena had been truly blind to her upon her birth – but this woman’s conversation left her bewildered.
“I believe I’m like you, and your sisters, Bremusa,” Kassandra said patiently, seeing the confusion. “I have no interest in any kind of sword play, not in my bed chamber.”
It dawned at long last. Bremusa felt like kicking herself. “But you are expected to marry...” she finally managed to say.
“It’s a distraction,” Kassandra said, “and not my doing. My father promised me to Eurypyplus, I have no choice in the matter.”
“If your father knows how you are...” Bremusa said tentatively.
“...then why would he do such a thing? And why would you agree?”
“It is expected of me. My father was understandably desperate to save our home and our people, and as a prince of Mysia Eurypyplus was able to present a whole army of his father’s soldiers to fight for us all.” Kassandra gave the smallest of shrugs, as if the matter was so inconsequential she couldn’t even make an effort to show as much. “I think my father sees it as offering so little and insignificant in return for another chance for Troy to survive. I am nothing to my father, a bauble to be traded for more soldiers to swell the ranks. But be assured, the marriage will never take place; Akhilleus’ son will make certain of that soon enough.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Oh, certainty comes with madness, believe me. Even if Eurypyplus was to live to see our wedding day, then know that he has even less interest in me than I in him. The marriage was a political move, nothing more, likewise forced upon him by his own father. Eurypyplus doesn’t care who he marries, as long as he can continue to sleep with whoever catches his eye. He has no shortage of lovers, even here in Troy.”
Bremusa nodded. “Evandre was much the same.”
“One of your sisters?”
“Oh yes. The only time she was happier than climbing into bed with someone was when she was leaving that bed for another. Lately she had been behaving worse than ever, careless even, I don’t know why. There were whispered rumors that her mother was seeking an alliance with the northernmost Amazon tribes and a marriage had been arranged, but Evandre refused to talk about it. It wouldn’t have stopped her; I doubt Aphrodite herself could have tired Evandre, not in a single night anyway.”
Kassandra gave a short and throaty laugh. “Distractions, you see? Sometimes that’s all we mortals can hope for,” she said. She glanced at Bremusa and bit her lower lip, obviously weighing her next words carefully. “Come home with me.”
Bremusa wasn’t sure if that was a request or a command; the way it had been said left her with some doubt. However the words were meant, she had not been expecting them. She could think of very little to say, so answered with a question. “Why should I?”
“Why not? Would you rather spend the night at these walls?”
Still Bremusa hesitated. Kassandra reached out to touch her arm again, so gently that the Amazon could hardly feel it. “I can offer you...” She left the words hanging, just for a moment, teasing just a little more. “...food to eat, a safe place to rest, and of course a warm bed to spend the night in.”
“Those are comforts I can find anywhere in Troy,” Bremusa said.
“Perhaps,” Kassandra said, nodding along. She caught her eye and smiled. “You seem uncertain.”
“Confused is nearer the mark.”
“Yes, well you would be.”
“Everyone is confused in their dealings with me,” Kassandra said. “Part of my burden, I’m afraid. So let me be blunt. I’m offering company for the night too, both in and out of that warm bed.”
“Ah,” said Bremusa, slowly.
“Your clouds part. Just as those,” Kassandra gestured out over the sea to where the dark rainclouds were rolling in, “begin to gather. We’ll be lucky if we make it to the palace without getting drenched.”
Bremusa snorted derisively. “We’ll be fine.”
“Yes, you would say that.” Another of those quirky little lop-sided smiles graced Kassandra’s lips. She stepped closer, closer than she had before, tilting her head upwards so she could maintain eye contact. She had moved so near now that Bremusa could feel her hot breath against her neck when she spoke. “But no, we’ll be soaked to the skin, and you’ll warm yourself in my bed tonight too.”
“I’ll only lie with you in your dreams, princess.”
“Both actually. You have and you will.”
“Why?” Bremusa repeated. “What is there that I could possibly offer the lady Kassandra?”
“What?” She seemed caught off-balance for a second; not by the question but instead by the strong hand Bremusa had held out against her chest. She glanced down at that hand and blinked slowly, almost as if she couldn’t believe it was there.
With all the skill of a seasoned warrior, Bremusa pressed her advantage. She felt there was more to be learned here and she trusted her instincts. It was the same way in any battle; you always sought any weakness you could find, no matter how small and insignificant it might be. And once you found it, you exploited it.
She left her hand in place. Kassandra did not push any closer but she didn’t pull away either. “Well?”
“I would have thought that was obvious.”
Thinking of this as a fight was helping her, Bremusa realized. She felt strangely comfortable suddenly, like the calm she felt in the still before every battle. Perhaps Tyche had finally smiled upon her for a change. She wasn’t even concerned about touching this woman for so long, letting her hand rest where it lay, feeling the softness of the wine-stained robe, the gentle rise and fall with each breath against her hand, the soft and regular thumping of that heart.
So she ignored the counter, just as she would ignore a foe raining blows down on her shield. Those mattered not. Defending was easy, biding your time and waiting to strike the perfect blow was hard. “That’s not all, is it?”
She lowered her arm now, doing her best to make the movement appear natural but making sure that her fingers trailed slowly down the robe, barely passing between those small breasts before falling away completely. A sharp intake of breath was followed by the slightest of shudders.
Kassandra took a moment to compose herself before speaking.
“If truth be told, I am of little use in this war,” she said ever-so-slowly, shaking her head. “I cannot and will not fight. For the longest time I thought all I could offer were words and sadly I know anything I have dared to say has gone unheeded. But for the last few days I have begun to think differently. Now I can’t help but wonder if a distraction would be best, just for a night, one night, that’s all. Perhaps then I can say enough to be believed.”
“What do you take me for?” Bremusa bridled suddenly. “I have no interest in bedding a woman who acts out of some misguided charity! I told you, there are plenty of women in the city who...”
“No!” said Kassandra, just as sharply. She grabbed hold of Bremusa’s hand with both of hers and pressed the palm against her chest again. Her thumbs forced the Amazon’s unwilling fingers to flatten against the fabric of her robe, still surprisingly warm. When she spoke again, her hushed voice had a pleading tone. “You misunderstand me. If there is charity to be offered it is to me, and me alone.”
“Am I a distraction then?” Bremusa said.
“If you like. A respite too, perhaps.”
Kassandra didn’t answer at first. She took a step back, releasing her grip on Bremusa’s hand and letting it fall away again.
“A night when I am not alone, I think. I’m not sure. If I were any more sane, I think I would know for certain. But then I would not need to know, would I? Perhaps that’s why I’m seeking a distraction, just as you said. I can’t tell you how much a conversation in which I am not pitied would mean to me.” She grinned awkwardly again and now Bremusa would swear the color in her cheeks was not from strong drink. “Now, please, allow me the luxury of not humiliating myself further... my head is beginning to clear and I badly need more wine.”
With that, Kassandra brushed past her, heading for the steps that led down to the city streets. Almost immediately Bremusa noticed there was something different about her, she could see it in just the way she walked. Her manner was almost as carefree and as clumsy as before, when she had first approached the Amazon. Almost.
Bremusa thought she understood. Wine was needed and it could only be found in the city and in the city there were other people. The act had to be resumed, the mask had to be slipped back on. And it was a good act. Even now Bremusa could only see through it because she knew it was there.
Without thinking, she grabbed hold of Kassandra’s arm. “You can’t walk away from me. Not after saying something like that.”
Kassandra merely laughed and pulled free. She carried on walking away, calling out over her shoulder. “I already am. And you’ll come after me. Don’t argue, Bremusa, I know you will, even if you don’t yet.”
For a long while, Bremusa stayed exactly where she was and just stared after her. She felt the first smattering of rain against her bare arms and watched as Kassandra tilted her head up to welcome the downpour, perhaps eager to have her madness washed away. Although if insanity was anything like guilt, Bremusa thought, you could scrub and scrub in the purest and most heavenly-sent waters and yet never feel truly clean.
Bremusa knew she could change her mind still. She couldn’t help wondering if she chose to walk away now, would Kassandra turn to follow? Like a half-starved stray dog that she had been foolish enough to show some affection, would she now never be rid of Kassandra’s company? But she could try, all the same. She could walk along the wall to the north, away from the stairs, make her way down into the city somehow, and there find the nearest tavern. Then she could spend the night with the memories of her sisters instead, mourning her beloved dead.
The rain came on harder now, pattering against the balustrade, darkening the stone just in spots at first and then in larger patches as the ferocity of the storm grew. Bremusa was thankful that at least the rain was finally breaking the heat of the day; already she felt cooler. If she stayed at these walls much longer though, then pretty soon she would be soaked to the skin. She had to make a decision one way or the other.
Like Kassandra before her, she turned her face up to the night sky. She closed her eyes and inwardly begged for answer to come.
The Gods took pity on her. A single raindrop landed on her dry lips. She licked her lips slowly, remembering all of a sudden how thirsty she was.
She didn’t walk but ran. She caught up with Kassandra near the bottom of the stone stairs and hastily moved past, hoping to turn and block her way. But as she spun around, stepping off the very last stair, she lost her balance and almost fell.
“Be careful,” Kassandra said, grinning broadly. She reached down to steady Bremusa. Her hand still felt unnaturally cool on the Amazon’s tanned skin. “I wouldn’t want to lose you, not now.”
Bremusa scowled, not really listening. Looking down she saw that she still stood on the remains of a shattered shield, half-buried by the dirt. It was Phylacian, more than ornate enough to have once belonged to a great hero. A prize, perhaps, taken early in the war and long since broken and discarded. She couldn’t help but wonder if that was how the Gods saw all mortals.
Kassandra stepped past her, letting go of her arm only when she seemed absolutely sure Bremusa had regained her footing, and out onto the thickly-packed earth at the base of the city wall. She turned, walking backwards and not caring, and beckoning Bremusa to follow her with a curl of her finger. She was laughing into the rain, looking every bit as insane as people said she was, and that alone should have irritated Bremusa, but it didn’t.
Bremusa smiled... but only after she had made sure Kassandra could not see.
From the steps they made their way towards the center of the city, Kassandra leading and Bremusa following a little way behind. They didn’t say another word to each other as they walked. The streets were crowded, full of bustle and noise even at this late hour. There were soldiers everywhere. That was to be expected; Troy was a city under siege, after all. Even so, the soldiers were greatly outnumbered. There were noblewomen rushing to some secret assignation, numerous servants hurrying behind, vendors at countless stalls selling anything you would buy, drunks pissing over the same walls that cripples and beggars slumped against, and desperate families trying to make their way who knows where, the mothers struggling to keep up with their husbands and hold onto all their children at the same time. Most of these people were Trojans, but large numbers came from the surrounding towns and farmsteads, driven into the walled confines of the city by the Acheans, who were spreading further and further out from their shoreline encampment to forage. Many would probably boast they had razed their own homes and lands to deny the invaders anything of value, although Bremusa guessed those were convenient stories invented long after Agamemnon’s warriors had done their worst.
There were no dogs to be seen, which was unusual in a city of this size. No birds either, save those that had been caught, roasted, and were now hung for sale on the poles slung over vendors’ shoulders. Bremusa puzzled over that briefly before realizing most of the stray dogs and carrion would be feasting on the rotting remains outside the city walls. No doubt tomorrow the dogs would laze in the hot sun, their bellies full. The crows would return though, hungry again, never truly satisfied no matter how many foolish humans died on those plains.
Bremusa continued to follow Kassandra through the throng, not too closely, wanting to keep some distance between them. She was strongly aware that she was staring at the dark-haired woman, her thoughts wandering to the generous curves barely hidden beneath those wine-blemished robes. Bremusa fell back another pace or two and shook her head, hoping to clear her mind of such unwanted temptations.
She noticed how most people shied away from Kassandra. Not everyone though. The blind did not know any better, the beggars were desperate, and perhaps the cripples saw how she was broken too, just not as they were. It wasn’t as if the crowded streets cleared before Kassandra, as if she were a bireme cutting its way smoothly through the sea, but instead she moved in the way a thrown stone skipped across the water, never really stopping. She would smile and nod at a recognized figure, share brief words with one of the more insistent beggars, laugh at the overheard punchline to a bawdy joke shared between a trio of soldiers. But she never lingered.
She stole too, just once and in the same way she moved, scooping up a leather wineskin without even breaking stride. The wine-seller clearly noticed but said nothing and made no attempt to stop her, just turned away. If Bremusa had watched this scene unfold yesterday, before she had met Kassandra, then she might have thought the vendor had turned a blind eye solely because of the dark-haired woman’s nobility. She knew better now. It was that slightly distant look Kassandra often had in her eyes, like she was looking over your shoulder at something bearing down on you that only she could see. If that unnerved Bremusa, then it most likely terrified most other people. So she was allowed to steal. It was best not to attract the attention of whichever Gods cursed her, after all.
Bremusa stopped then. There was a brazier burning between the wine stall and another selling freshly roasted meat, and around the fire were clustered several foreign soldiers, dressed in a style of armor she did not recognize. They made room for her, some greeting her with nervous smiles. She scowled in return, only pushing her way through so she could drop the last of her coins onto the wooden planking that served as the merchant’s table. The Gods be damned.
The coins stayed were there were.
Bremusa caught the wine-seller’s eye. He stared at her for a moment, then shrugged and began a conversation with a drunken customer.
There was nothing more she could do, so Bremusa warmed her hands over the flames for a second or two before hurrying to catch up with Kassandra. She was suddenly feeling incredibly hungry, the strong smells of roasted goat-meat still hanging in the air. She felt her stomach rumbling. It was funny really. Less than half-an-hour ago Bremusa would have sworn she would never want to eat again.
Bremusa briefly wondered why she hadn’t taken one of the wineskins for herself. She had certainly left more than enough coins to pay for another. Not that she cared about the wasted money, she had felt weighed down by it, wanted rid of it. She supposed it was probably just as well. She wasn’t quite accustomed to Trojan wine yet; even their finest wines, reserved for the very best tables, struck her as too light and sweet. And the worst, the cheapest, the kind of dregs that the merchant behind them probably sold, proved much too bitter for her tastes. She longed for a strong ice wine, the kind the northernmost Amazon clans would trade at the beginning of every Spring.
She licked rainwater from her lips and tried to put the thought out of her mind. Good never came from craving something you couldn’t have.
As they wound their way upwards, the narrow streets began to widen, the crowds began to thin out. They had left behind the common areas of the city, and moved into the areas reserved for the nobility of Troy. The houses here were fewer in number, bigger, cleaner, quieter, with large well-kept garden areas. Even in war there were appearances to be kept up.
Pretty soon they were in the palace grounds. They were not challenged even though Bremusa saw plenty of heavily-armoured guards as they moved through the dimly torch-lit passages. Each time one recognized Kassandra they turned away, just as the wine-seller had. With her white robe so stark against the darkness of the corridors, she was like a shade sent from Tartarus. None of the royal guard wanted to see her, no one dared attract her attention, and so she went unnoticed.
They made their way past the brightly-lit banquet hall, where Bremusa had first laid eyes on Kassandra the night before. Here they stayed closer to the shadows, instantly freezing still whenever a door was opened and light briefly flooded the otherwise dim corridors. Bremusa wasn’t exactly sure why; she just obediently followed the Trojan princess, who gestured often that they should be as quiet as possible. The guards and servants might want nothing to do with her, even to the extent of ignoring her, but Bremusa guessed her family would act differently. What Kassandra had said earlier suggested that if King Priamos himself found his daughter straying from her chambers, especially in such a drunken state, then she would be harshly punished.
However, Kassandra needn’t have worried about being discovered. No one ever looked in their direction and there was certainly no way the pair could have been heard over the noise coming from the hall. Perhaps more allies had arrived, Bremusa thought, swearing oaths of loyalty to the city and its king. But she knew it was simply more likely the nobles of Troy were desperate to keep the allies already here happy and content.
Kassandra appeared to breathe a little easier once they were outside again, moving from the passageways that wound around the banquet hall out into a small garden. The rain was pouring down, making the ground beneath their sandaled feet sodden, and the wind had picked up greatly. A roll of thunder pealed across the sky.
Bremusa recognized these gardens from the night before. Her sister Clonie had dragged her out here during a break in the festivities, just for some peace and quiet, or so she had said. It was the kind of place Clonie had always liked; small and secluded, neatly kept pathways, rose bushes still in bloom and full of color, and a towering oak tree at the very center of it all. It was nature running free, but not wildly, instead guided by a very careful hand.
Last night, any tranquility the gardens may have offered to Clonie last night had been short-lived. She had been picking rose after rose, gathering a bouquet of the reddest petals, when the silence had been shattered by the arrival of Evandre and a giggling serving wench, who both disappeared together into the bushes. Playful laughter had echoed against the palace walls, spoiling both the moment and Clonie’s mood.
So they went one more night without speaking again; their last. They hadn’t spoken honestly to each other since before they had started on the march towards the borders of Troy. It had been in a garden then too, she suddenly remembered, although much grander and larger than this. They had smiled politely at each other, each of them not knowing truly what to say. Bremusa had known even then that Clonie was not cut out to be a warrior, which meant she would never be a lover either. A dreamer, Bremusa would have said callously, if anyone had ever asked.
They had spoken since, but never without another sister present. Last night Bremusa had been grateful for that, feeling ever awkward when alone in the soft-spoken Clonie’s presence. Now she only felt guilty.
Suddenly Bremusa was glad of the rain falling against her face.
She shook her head, brushing the thoughts away as best she could. But they clung to her, just like the wet strands of her blonde hair which were plastered to her face. She realized then that Kassandra was leading her through the garden to a more isolated building, free-standing and not part of the rest of the palace, even if it was clearly still within the high walls.
From some angles the building may have appeared pyramidal, most likely from the streets in the poor district further down in the city below, but from her vantage point Bremusa could see it was more simply constructed. They hurried through an arched doorway, Kassandra hastily pushing the door firmly shut behind them. The rain could be heard fiercely pelting against the thick wood, almost loud enough to make words go unheard.
“What is she doing here?”
Bremusa almost jumped at the voice. When she turned she saw the words came from an older woman, dressed plainly but in robes that were obviously well-tailored, with hair the same grey of a stark winter sky. She stood by the only other door, on the far side of the room, her boney arms folded across her thin chest and her lips pursed in obvious condemnation.
“Oh, go away, Admeta, please,” Kassandra said. She rolled her eyes, tilting her head to make sure only Bremusa could see the gesture, and then added in a whispered aside, “Don’t worry, she’s just my wardress, kept around to ensure I don’t wander too far or cause too much mischief.”
“I would worry she’s not being paid enough,” Bremusa made no attempt to lower her voice. Her words earned a smile from her companion, which for some unknown reason made her feel strangely proud.
“Indeed I am not,” the wardress replied haughtily before turning her indignation back to Kassandra. “Your father would not approve of this, my lady.”
“My father will not learn of this.”
“I will tell him!” Admeta said. “He has retired already but I will wake him and...”
“No, Admeta, you will do nothing of the kind,” Kassandra said. There was a forcefulness to her voice just then, one Bremusa had not heard before. “He needs his rest and you will not wake him from his slumbers.”
“I certainly should!” The wardress still found the nerve to protest but Bremusa could already see doubt clouding her face. She backed towards the open doorway, obviously intending to head back to the royal quarters in the main body of the palace.
Kassandra sighed. “Admeta, you will not get a bare ten steps outside that door before reconsidering...”
Her voice trailed away. It was too late, the elderly servant was already gone. Bremusa shook out her rain-drenched hair, using the collar of her robe to try to squeeze the water out from the tips of her blonde tresses. It didn’t help any, her robe was soaked through already.
“What if she does tell your father?”
“She won’t. And it matters not if she does. Soon, none of this will matter.”
Bremusa didn’t get a chance to ask what Kassandra meant by that. The wardress reappeared in the doorway almost immediately, scowling.
“You look a state,” she said.
Kassandra glanced sideways at Bremusa again and raised an eyebrow as if to say ‘I told you so’. “I’m sure I do. But then if I didn’t, what would you have to do? Or to complain about?”
“I have plenty,” the wardress said sourly, before realizing her mistake and adding hastily, “...to do, I mean, my lady.”
“I’m teasing, Admeta. Now summon up some help to bring hot water from the kitchens and plenty of it. My friend here wishes to bathe.”
Bremusa opened her mouth to protest but Kassandra waved her to silence.
The old woman didn’t move. “Bathing?” she said, her scowl deepening. “At this hour?”
“Has my father not told us we should show our guests every courtesy? Would you turn away a warrior who fought for us so bravely? One who has nowhere else to go, no one to turn to?”
The look on the wardress’ face said she would do exactly that, given the opportunity, but she didn’t dare argue any further. Their relationship was obviously close, enough so to allow arguing and talking back, something for which most servants would be at flogged at best, but also enough for Kassandra to tease her without losing any of her authority. All the same, that only went so far. And whether she was a near prisoner in the palace or not, Kassandra was still a princess of this city.
Which, Bremusa supposed, explained the living quarters being so luxurious. If she had been asked, and if she had been foolish enough to choose to be completely honest, then Bremusa would have admitted she had pictured Kassandra’s chambers as being small, cramped and unpleasant. Although many of the rumours that circulated about the Trojan princess said she was kept confined and locked away from the world by her father, often over her mother’s protests, that evidently wasn’t true. Her appearance at the banquet the night before showed that much. All the same Bremusa had honestly half-expected to be walking into a room that was little more than a cell.
But instead of cramped and claustrophobic, she found large and spacious. Instead of a single room sparsely furnished, she found herself in a large living area, the thick stone walls almost a perfect circle. The only prison-like element about the room was the dim light and Bremusa could see that was because only a few of the wall sconces held lit torches.
Compared to the rest of the palace – or at least what little Bremusa had seen of it the night before – it may have been small and conservative, but to her it certainly seemed impressive. Richly appointed too, with a wide dining table in the center, circled by comfortable and well-padded chairs. Next to a curved archway, which had a light fabric curtain hanging over it and acting as a barrier, was a writing a desk covered with neatly stacked parchment scrolls and small jars of ink and sealing wax. Some recessed shelves, cut into the stone walls around the shuttered windows, contained a sundry of ornaments and decorations, including a badly damaged Trojan helmet.
Against one wall, near some narrow stone steps that presumably led to an upper level, rested a small altar to Apollon. The image of the God had also been defaced, almost as if someone had tried to tear it from the wall in a rage. Other than that damage, it obviously hadn’t seen any attention in some time, that much was plain to see from the dust.
It was a home that would certainly beyond the dreams and aspirations of nearly every Trojan subject, Bremusa thought. There were worse places to be held captive. But these chambers weren’t really Kassandra’s cage, were they?
The place was tidy too, which frankly surprised Bremusa. She thought it might have been just like Kassandra’s state of mind, cluttered and disorganized, perhaps a little too random, to the point of being deliberately so. Instead it appeared the chambers were clean and well-kept, save for the untouched altar.
No doubt Admeta worked to keep the rooms clean and tidy. Right now she was barking orders at other servants outside in a formidably loud voice. Soon a veritable army of servants were lighting the untouched torches, brightening the room considerably, and bringing food on platters to lay on the table.
Kassandra turned back to face her, frowning. “You seem uncomfortable.”
Bremusa evaded the unspoken question which went with that, instead choosing to counter. “I had expected your home to be different, that’s all.”
“Oh? How so?”
“More... chaotic,” Bremusa said hesitantly, shrewdly also avoiding any mention of the rumors that swirled around this woman like Keres around Helen herself, or of the idea that this would have been something like a cell. “Disordered, I guess.”
“Yes, well, sadly I am as much a servant to my family as Admeta is to me,” Kassandra said.
Bremusa moved a little way around the table. A small wooden statue of Athena rested in the very centre of the table, amidst the fruit that had already been brought out. Another servant stepped nimbly in front of her to place down another dish and she noted that he was very careful not to place anything near the sculpture.
That made her curious, so she picked it up. She held it loosely in one hand, turning it over and over, examining the simple craftsmanship. Perhaps she was imagining things in thinking the servants were cautious around it. There didn’t seem to be anything special about it; doubtless there were stalls in the market they had passed through that sold such icons by the dozen.
But it was a clear sign of Athena being chosen over Apollon and she couldn’t help but wonder why that was. “Perhaps I should not be here,” she said, glancing at the servants that bustled around them both. “You are betrothed, after all, to a handsome man of wealth and station.”
Kassandra stepped forward to take the statuette from her, gently but firmly. She held on to it for a moment, her eyes cast downwards upon it and her grip plainly becoming so tight that her knuckles turned a stark white. Then, after just a brief hesitation, she returned the statuette to its place on the table, ever so carefully.
Not just her imagination then, Bremusa thought.
“You fear reprisal?”
Bremusa took a few more steps around the table. “I fear you.”
That broke the tension. Kassandra smiled immediately, evidently pleased at the implied compliment. She glanced down at the distance now between them once again. “As well you should. I told you already, I am nothing to Eurypylus.”
“Men have killed over having such nothings taken from them.”
The smile widened into a grin. “I do believe you’re as skilled with your tongue as you are with a sword, Bremusa. At least I hope you prove to be.”
Bremusa could think of very little to say in answer to that. She felt her cheeks warm and hated herself for it. Never had she felt so foolish and awkward before another woman. What could that mean, what did it say about her?
“Make no mistake, Bremusa, daughter of Ares,” Kassandra went, on, stepping closer again, “it is not love that I’m after. I long ago realized that was out of my grasp, long before even the Gods began to torment me.”
“I told you that too. Company. Armor against the solitude, if that’s easier for you to understand. You’re having doubts.”
It was a statement, not a question. All the same, Bremusa had to deny it. “No, not...”
“Yes, you are. You wouldn’t be asking again otherwise. Will you at least try to relax?”
“You’re on your guard. I can understand that, given everything that’s happened. But you can trust me, Bremusa, and you will, eventually.” Kassandra sighed, obviously trying to let some of the tension out. “It will take time for the bath to be prepared. Please, sit, eat. You look exhausted.”
Bremusa was tired. She was certainly hungry too. At the mere mention of food her stomach protested. She took the proffered chair, self-conscious of the dirty robe she wore and the sweat and rainwater on her skin, but as hungry as she was she did not start eating right away. She waited until Kassandra had been seated. An attentive servant, a young dark-haired girl who had been carrying back an empty amphora from the room beyond the curtain – evidently where she would bathe come the time – took the opportunity to leap forward and hold the chair out for her mistress.
“Please,” Kassandra repeated as she sat, “don’t stand on ceremony. Eat.”
Bremusa reached for some of the chunks of goat’s meat, mindful of the servant’s eyes glaring at her, and began to eat. She wouldn’t worry about her manners any longer; her hunger wouldn’t let her. The meat was lean and flavored heavily, the spices strong and wild. Each portion left her lips and fingers greasy. There was fruit too, all of it fresh. Dates, figs, olives, grapes and apples. And wine. Plenty of wine.
It was a good spread, more than enough for both of them. Despite the decade-long siege there were still many ways of getting fresh fruit and grains into the city, although not many, and each time the amount seemed less and less. The Achaeans couldn’t be everywhere at once, after all, and there were long periods of time when some of the eastern and northern roads into Troy were kept open. Still, supplies into the city were an obvious raiding target for the invaders. No doubt the high society got their pick of the best goods coming in, long before any of the poor did.
Bremusa felt guilty all of a sudden. She paused with a chunk of meat almost at her lips. The feeling passed by just as quickly as it came along. She had eaten much worse and much less since leaving Themisykra. It had been a long road to Troy, after all.
If Kassandra noticed the momentary pause in Bremusa’s eating, she made no comment on it. Instead she frowned, glancing at the now empty dish that Bremusa had pushed aside. “Have you eaten since this morning?” she said. “Anything since before you joined the battle?”
As she couldn’t speak due to her mouth being full, Bremusa just shook her head. Truth be told she hadn’t eaten anything since at the banquet the night before. Even so, she hadn’t felt full when she had gone to her makeshift bed in the barracks of the royal guard. Uncomfortable in such society, in such a different culture, she had followed Penethsilea’s lead and so eaten little despite her hunger, assuming that was the respectful thing to do. And then she had thrown everything up first thing in the morning, terrified of the day that lay ahead. And she hadn’t eaten at all after that, fearful she would retch again in front of her sisters, even if there was nothing left in her stomach to come up.
Now she was making up for lost time. She pulled a dish overflowing with dried figs towards her.
Kassandra sent a sly smile across the table to join the figs. “Then you have an excuse for being with me, don’t you? If you still need it, that is.”
Bremusa again tried to avoid that subject and where it would inevitably lead. “Your father was not at the banquet tonight?”
“He is an old man, although I doubt even the Gods would dare tell him so. He tires easily.”
There were loaves on the table too. Kassandra broke one apart and offered a half to Bremusa. The Amazon shook her head again, despite smelling the tempting richness of the freshly baked bread, and chose to drink instead. She gulped down an entire goblet, adding more stains to her robe as the dark and sweet wine trickled from the corners of her mouth.
“I forgot,” Kassandra said, “your people don’t eat bread, do they?”
Bremusa noticed that Kassandra wasn’t eating anything, bread or otherwise. The servants made sure she was never short of wine, frequently filling her goblet as they bustled to and fro. It seemed like an endless procession of them, carrying jugs of steaming hot water into the room beyond the curtain and then hurrying back out with the empty vessels, presumably heading back to the palace kitchens for more. But whenever any of them noticed her goblet was nearly empty they would drop everything to find more wine for her.
She wondered if that was because the servants simply had instructions to do so or instead because they wanted to help her keep the insanity at bay a little longer. Or perhaps it was more likely that their mistress being drunk just made their own lives considerably easier.
“How much did you give him?” Kassandra asked suddenly.
Bremusa was confused by the question. “Who?”
That earned her a frosty look from across the table. “The wine merchant,” she said impatiently. “I know you paid him. You didn’t have to.”
“Yes, I did.”
“So how much?”
“All I had.”
“I don’t know,” Bremusa said. “I just felt... like I didn’t need it any more.”
“You’re right, you won’t.” Another of those infuriatingly sudden changes of subject followed on the heels of that, so quickly Bremusa couldn’t ask what was meant. “You never told me why you came here.”
“Like you, I didn’t want to spend the night alone.”
Kassandra smiled at that, but shook her head all the same. “That’s not what I meant. Why come to Troy?”
“You know why.”
“I know what you told me,” Kassandra said, pausing only to take another long drink. “You folllowed your queen. And she came to Troy’s aid because my father begged all nations and tribes for help against Agamemnon.”
“That’s...” Bremusa started. She wasn’t sure how to answer. She wasn’t sure she wanted to. “That’s not entirely true.”
“It isn’t? I seem to remember my father sending out the messengers...”
She was playing with her, Bremusa could tell, trying to tease the real answer out of her. But still she resisted. “Why do you keep asking me this?”
“Why do you keep refusing to tell me?”
Bremusa sighed. “I just meant I didn’t tell you that. I told you I followed my queen, that’s true enough, but not why she came.”
“And will you tell me now?”
She would. Bremusa knew now that there was no denying herself any longer. She doubted she could fight anymore, even had she wanted to, she was so tired of it all. She didn’t know if it was the comfortable warmth of these quarters, the fullness of her stomach, the lateness of the hour, the horrors of the day... or perhaps after all it was merely the strange sense of kinship she felt with this cast-aside woman. Whatever it was, she felt like she was done. She would unburden herself.
“Penthesilea did not come here to help, despite what she said.” She caught Kassandra’s eye, wary still of not what to say but rather how best to say it. “At least that was not her only reason, nor her first.”
Kassandra frowned. “No? Then what was?”
“You know of Herakles?”
The name seemed to surprise Kassandra, but the shocked expression was hidden so quickly that almost immediately Bremusa began to doubt it had ever appeared. “Who doesn’t?” she said.
“You don’t know the true story. Like Akhilleus, it is not a tale that will be recorded in the histories of man. It is a story we are told not to speak of, and of course that means everyone knows it and we all tell it. All the same, I imagine you would be first person outside of the tribes who learns of it.”
Before beginning her tale, Bremusa held out her empty goblet to the serving girl who was hovering behind her mistress’ chair with a near-empty jar of wine. When her cup was refilled she took a long drink and then wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. There is courage to be found in wine, Bremusa thought, any fool knew that, solace too, but deeper than both of those was the truth. But only if you wanted it.
“Late last year Herakles came to the borders of Themiskyra. Not as a hero, and he was not made welcome, but the Gods were behind every step he made. Even Ares, who is the one God who protects us, the one God who is all of our fathers, even he stood with Herakles. So no sister could defeat the son of Zeus, although many... too many... tried their best.
“Herakles was only interested in the girdle Hippolyte wore. It was her birthright, as the queen of the largest of our tribes, and it was a prize much sought after. Woven from the very stars themselves, crafted by Hephaestaus at the request of Ares, and he in turn presented it to her. But Hippolyte was willing to give it up, if it meant no more of her daughters would die. Penthesilea warned her not to, begged her to continue the fight no matter the cost, but her words fell on deaf ears.
“I don’t know why she gave up the girdle so easily. My guess would be that she felt betrayed by Ares. When the one God you truly believe in turns his back on you, how can you stand against anything?”
“Yes,” Kassandra said quietly, “I can understand that.”
“But that wasn’t enough for Herakles,” Bremusa said, ignoring the interruption. Even if she had to tell this tale now, she could not bring herself to look Kassandra in the eye while she did. Instead she gazed into her wine goblet. “He took her, against her will, shared her amongst his shipmates. Penthesilea could do nothing. Like all the others she had sworn to her sister that she would not interfere. She would never break a vow. When Herakles had sailed away, they say things returned to normal. I don’t think they did. How could they? They say it was less than a month later when the royal household went hunting. It was an accident, that was what we were told. Hippolyte died, shot through the neck with one of Penthesilea’s arrows.”
“And is that what happened?” Kassandra prompted gently.
“That’s what we were told,” Bremusa repeated tonelessly.
“Ah, yes, well, you’re telling this story to a woman who is greatly tired of what people say. So what do you know happened?”
Time for her own change of subject, Bremusa thought. Well, kind of. Perhaps this woman’s insanity was contagious somehow. “I know a priestess back in Themiskyra. An oracle, exiled from Delphi for... it doesn’t matter. She sought refuge with us, a long time ago, when she was young. She took to the life well, all things considered. Anyway, she once told me that the Gods ensured there were no accidents. I think she’s right. Hippolyte had wanted to die, ever since Herakles laid his hands on her, but she was too scared or too proud or too wary of defying the Gods to do it herself. So she asked her sister, who loved her dearly, and she made her promise.”
“And Penthesilea never broke a vow.”
“So...” Kassandra said, dragging that one word out, “...the best of the Antianeira came to Troy because one of their queens asked them to, and she herself came seeking redemption.”
“Yes. One way or another. That’s what I believe. It might not be true.”
“Does that include you?”
With some effort, Bremusa managed a half-smile. “Am I one of the best?”
Kassandra laughed at that and the tension in the room seemed to ease, just a little. “No, I meant did you only come here because you were asked? Come now, Bremusa. Even if I were to speak a word of this outside these walls, you know I am seldom believed. Don’t you trust me?”
Bremusa hesitated again. She glanced a suspicious eye up at Admeta, who it seemed had only returned to chastise the other servants into clearing the empty dishes from the table. That and to bring yet another jug of wine for her mistress, of course. The old woman didn’t look back at her.
“Don’t worry about Admeta,” Kassandra said. “She’s seen much in these rooms and heard more, but she’s never told anyone anything. She keeps my secrets, despite all her bluster. Oh, don’t argue, Admeta, you know it’s true.”
It was obvious Admeta had been about to deny what was said. She shut her mouth with a snap. “I never said a word.”
“And you never do.” Kassandra smiled kindly up at the servant, before turning her attention back to Bremusa. “So, don’t you trust me?
“No,” Bremusa admitted. “But I don’t trust myself with you either.”
“Is that right?” She flashed her another of those cheeky smiles that somehow Bremusa still wasn’t quite used to. Each would make her lose focus fleetingly, like in battle when a particularly hefty blow landed against her shield, unexpected and unavoidable, causing her to stagger backwards. Her mind went to that morning, the mighty blow of that spear against her chest had struck her down. She could still see the savage bearded grimace of the helmeted Cretan who thrust at her, him raising that spear once again as she fell over. Worst of all, she could feel the sharp talons of a baleful trio of Keres on her shoulders, dragging her down to the ground, gnashing their white teeth, grim-eyed, fierce, bloody, terrifying, fighting over her, their hot blood-drenched breath merging with her own, trying to wrap their great claws around her...
Kassandra spoke then, dragging her back to reality. “Don’t change the subject.”
Bremusa was glad to be tugged away from that particular memory. “I loved her,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.
It was all she could do to nod. She felt the pricking of tears at her eyes and hastily blinked them away.
“Some are already saying that your sisters fell as a punishment from the Gods, for daring to dress and fight as men do.” Kassandra spoke slowly, almost as if she didn’t want to hear her own words. Then she saw Bremusa glaring at her and so added, perhaps a little too hastily, “I don’t believe it of course. It makes no sense.”
Bremusa had bridled at the words. The ingratitude of it stung her. She and her sisters had traveled so far just to defend this land from the ever-reaching clutches of Agamemnon. This very morning they had marched forward under the banner of Priamos, spilt much blood, and all but she had died. And now to be told, even merely through rumored words, they were not fit to do so. It hurt.
But then it had hurt before. Whenever they had travelled to other states and cities, those ran by men, it seemed. She sighed, trying her best to rein in her temper. “I doubt my sisters’ names will be remembered at all, but if they are then certainly not by so many and for so long as those of your brave brother Hektor. Or even Akhilleus or that cheating bastard Odysseus. But I find it hard to trust any God that would punish me for fighting like a man and not do the same to others.”
“Others?” Kassandra frowned in confusion.
“One of the most common spoken rumours I heard when we marched into Troy yesterday,” Bremusa said, “was how the supposedly courageous and much admired Akhilleus, strongest and fastest of all the Myrmidones, had hid from this war amongst the womenfolk of Skyros. He spent months there, dressed in all the finery of a pampered princess, cowering behind the protection of the promises his mother had drawn from King Lycomedes. And yet he rewarded the trust and shelter given him by the royal court by raping his adopted sister.”
“Yes, I’ve heard that story too. Or some parts of it.”
Bremusa stared fiercely across the table at the dark-haired Kassandra. “Ask me then, how any God could turn against me for doing what I do, for being who I am? What God would dare punish me for being brave enough to stand fast against the world and yet reward Akhilleus for being such a man?”
“None that I would worship,” Kassandra said, nodding, “and sadly all that I know of. Will you mourn your sisters?”
“I do,” Bremusa said with a shrug. Her anger had faded away as quickly as it had flared up. It was like a torch thrown into the sea, burning brightly for just a short time, twisting over and over inside her, and then suddenly gone and all was darkness again. “But I won’t for too long. They deserve so much better than to be pitied by the likes of me.”
“Oh, I don’t think it is the dead you pity.”
Bremusa’s eyes narrowed. “Is this sport for you? Are you intent on angering me?”
“Not at all. Merely on understanding you.”
They sat in silence for a while. Bremusa was no longer sure what to say. She felt like she had already said the wrong thing a dozen times over but familiarity didn’t lessen the fear of doing so again. She felt self-conscious again. To give her nervous hands something to do, she grabbed a bunch of grapes from a dish and began eating them, one by one, forcing herself to go slowly and methodically remove the stem from each.
After a moment, Kassandra swore as she noticed that she had spilt some more of her wine down her robe. That drew the disapproving glare of Admeta, especially when she brushed at the spill and only spread the stain further.
“I’m sorry,” Bremusa finally found the nerve to say.
Kassandra looked bewildered, as if she thought Bremusa was referring to the spilt wine. Then, as she pushed away the wet rag Admeta was trying to use to blot away the stain, her confusion seemed to clear. “Don’t be. You have nothing to be sorry for. Just tell me your story, Bremusa, in your own time. Tell me of your love for her.”
Bremusa paused with a grape halfway to her mouth. Now she had been asked so directly, she knew what she wanted to say, but she was still unsure of how to say it. So she chewed on the grape and thought. Nothing came to her for the longest time. How could she put what she felt into words? How she had loved another for so long, how her passion had gone unsaid and unnoticed?
“I remember...” she began, knowing she must at least try. “I remember the first time I saw her. I was barely fifteen, she no more than twenty but already a queen of her own tribe. King Mygdon had insulted our nation and, together with his dearest friend Otreus, had raised a mighty horde intent on subjugating us.”
She thought it best not to mention that a good third of the army had been Trojan, led by Kassandra’s father, back when he was not so old that he had to find others to fight his wars for him. Besides, it had all happened nearly fifteen years ago, and that was a lifetime for any warrior, even longer for a widow made from war. Kassandra would have just been a child at the time, maybe not even ten. She probably didn’t remember any of it, perhaps only aware that her father had been gone for a whole summer. Even if she did remember then chances were she didn’t care. Memories of old battles were like scars, Bremusa knew. They only really linger with those who bear them.
Telling Kassandra of King Priamos’ involvement in the war would have only made her uncomfortable. She wasn’t responsible for her father’s actions, no more than she was for those of her foolish brother Paris, or those of anyone else. After all, most people suspected she wasn’t even responsible for her own.
“And so, our queens met for a council of war and it was decided we should stand our ground, defend our lands, our people, our way of life. It’s funny how often a way of life becomes so much more important than the life itself.” She saw Kassandra frowning again and shook her head. “Sorry, it doesn’t matter. Just an idle thought. Anyway, the armies of all our tribes gathered together and marched to the very borders of Phrygia.”
“It was my first battle,” Bremusa went on. “I had trained for war all my life up until then, gone on raids and hunts and the like, but never before had I been in an actual battle. Now, looking back, it all seems so small and meaningless. Back then I was so proud to have been chosen as one of many. Foolish too, I suppose. I thought we could never be defeated. We may have been outnumbered but we were never outmatched and we fought like lions.
“On the second night, a small portion of our tribe’s forces were sent skirmishing, partly to hunt for food, mostly to see if we could learn anything of the enemy movements. I went with them. But we were ambushed in a valley to the east and had to retreat through an abandoned village. That was a mistake. It slowed us down. Before we could make it through the unfamiliar hovels and barns and sties, a horde of Phrygian cavalry cut us off. We had been drawn away and then surrounded, barely a hundred of us against countless men. We would have died that night, I am sure of it, if it were not for Penthesilea.
“The hovels in the village were burning, I don’t remember if we set them ablaze to add confusion or the enemy did so to force us out, but even with the light from all the fires it was a terrifying night. Arrows would whistle past you out of the dark, thudding into walls behind you. If you were lucky. I was so scared that one might find me and it sickened me even then to be so grateful when a sister standing near would fall, instead of me. Try as we might to see out into the darkness the flames meant our eyes couldn’t adjust quickly enough. One moment we’d be fooled by flickering shadows to our left and then the next soldiers would rush us from our right, and be on us before we could even give warning.” Bremusa shuddered. “I hate fighting at night still. Especially in confined places.”
“When we were reduced to a mere twenty in number, standing bloodied and worn in the rain, we knew we were done. Most of us wanted to charge the enemy, to meet Hades with our spears in our hands and our enemies’ blood on those spears, but a few of us spoke against it. I guess we preferred to stay alive as long as possible. It didn’t really matter. In all the confusion we no longer knew which way was which.
“The Phrygians attacked one last time and we fought as best we could. I lost my beloved aunt Prothoe that night, struck down by an undeserved swordblow. I was alone then, even as I fought alongside my sisters. Prothoe had raised me ever since my mother left me for the Elysian Fields on the day of my birth and now she was dead too. I knew I would follow shortly, I just knew I would. I tried to make my peace with it as I stabbed and thrust and hacked and killed. I think we all thought the Gods had planned for us to die then and there, in just that short space of time.”
She looked across the table, half-expecting Kassandra to interrupt, but nothing was said. Bremusa ate a few more grapes and washed them down with another goblet of wine before continuing.
She couldn’t believe she was talking this much. She, who was often considered the quietest of all the twelve sisters who had journeyed to Troy. Even the shiest of them, young Derinoe, so skilled with a bow, had spoken more, and only her queen spoke less. Perhaps she had drunk too much. This Trojan wine was growing on her; she noticed the bitterness in each cup less and less. She glanced down at her empty goblet.
“It ended shortly after the relief column found us,” Bremusa finally went on, “and Penthesilea was the first of them to reach us. She strode out of smoke and flame, so strong and proud, so agile, as comfortable in the midst of battle as a Cretan is in the middle of a lie. She seemed unstoppable, framed by the burning buildings behind her, striking down men without effort.
“There were other sisters with her, more than enough to drive the Phrygians back and rescue us, but Penthesilea far outshone them all. And as we fought, barely twenty feet apart in the dim light of the flames, she looked at me. Right at me. She was so perfect, so graceful, her eyes so dark and alluring, so confident, not even caring that she was still fending off attacks without even looking.
“She smiled. Actually smiled at me, like this battle was nothing, as if it was all beneath her godlike effort, and like she had come solely to save me. I think I fell in love with her right there and then. I could think of no one else even when war had ended, even when in the arms of anyone else. Even when I was promised to another.”
“Promised?” Kassandra said sharply, her brow furrowing.
Ah, Bremusa thought, now she really had said too much and she couldn’t blame the wine any more. It was simply her own carelessness. She felt her cheeks colour as she answered. “I was to be wed to Clonie.”
Kassandra was silent. If she was remembering how Bremusa had earlier been so hesitant over her potential marriage to Eurypylus, she made no comment on it. “Was...” she finally said, mulling the word over for the longest time. Bremusa was about to answer but then realized it wasn’t a question. But one followed, after a while. “She was a sister that fell today?”
There was more sympathy in those words than Bremusa expected. Or perhaps deserved. She gave a curt nod. “One I should have died for.”
Kassandra motioned for Admeta to refill their cups. “So we are alike then,” she said, “in more ways than it seemed at first.”
“I suppose so,” said Bremusa, reluctantly. “I should have married long ago, so I’m told, but I never wanted to. It would have been a marriage of mere convenience, arranged between the elders of Clonie’s tribe and those of mine. Clonie loved me, she told me as much, but she knew I did not, could not, love her. I think she suspected of my love for Penthesilea but she never spoke of it. I think... I think she hoped that given enough time I would come to love her.”
“And would you, do you think?”
Bremusa shook her head firmly. “There was only ever enough room for Penthesilea in my heart. I have seen the children of Gods, Kassandra, and I have fought against them, but she was the closest I ever saw to divine. And while she was beautiful in peace, you would only see her true beauty when she raged. No mortal man begat her; she truly was a child of the Lord of War. She was battle incarnate, fierce and hot-blooded, impossible to hold.”
Kassandra smiled upon these words, but not in amusement. She seemed pleased with what had been said. Or maybe just that it had been. “Sometimes when you speak, Bremusa,” she said gently, “there is a softness in your voice, one that belies the hardness of your manner. And that of your body.”
Bremusa grinned, shaking her head. She’d heard more clumsy efforts at seduction but not often, and not in a long while. The wine must be finally having an effect on the princess too, Bremusa thought. She certainly could hold her drink, that was for sure.
“And did Penthesilea love you?” Kassandra wanted to know.
That sobered Bremusa immediately, like a bucket of cold water thrown over her while sleeping. “I don’t know,” she said honestly. “I would like to think so. But I left it too late to ask. It’s all too late. Besides, she was betrothed to the youngest of us, poor Derinoe. It would have broken my heart to have come between them.”
“I doubt that. From what you’ve said, I think your heart has been broken for a long time since. You did not come between them and that is something to take pride in. But now you are alone.”
“More than you know. We have lost so many. Hippolyte through...” Bremusa paused, the words catching in her throat, “...fault of our own, and Hiera too. Our numbers grow fewer with each day, which suits the kingdoms of men.”
“Were you with her when she died?” Kassandra said, “Penthesilea, I mean.”
Bremusa shook her head. Damn it, she didn’t want to think about this once again. She knew the memory would never leave her, that it would haunt her until she died. Perhaps she would think of it too often for her own good, perhaps over time it would consume her. Right now she thought it probably would. But she just didn’t want to remember any of it yet again today. She wanted a warm bed, a good night’s sleep, and for this accursed day to be over.
“No. I didn’t even see her die. I saw her knocked from her chariot by a spear held by Aias...”
Kassandra hissed, a sharp intake of breath, but quickly waved the unspoken question away, motioning for Bremusa to continue.
“...by Aias, son of Telamon. She stood against him but he refused to fight. What more would you expect? His father murdered his own brother. Agammenmon delights in filling the ranks of his army with such ideals of manhood. It makes no difference. All that matters is he refused. Perhaps if he had not, Penthesilea would have lived. Instead I heard Akhilleus stood forward to take his place and her life.”
After a long drink, one that drained another full cup, Kassandra wiped at her mouth. Her hands were shaking, Bremusa noticed, ever so slightly. The fingers trembled as the cup was returned to the table. She wondered why that was. She doubted her words were having such an impact.
Kassandra must have noticed Bremusa staring. She clasped her hands together and hid them beneath the table. “How did you hear that?” she said, and there was a tremor in her voice too, although it faded fast. “Who told you it was Akhilleus?”
“You misunderstand me. No one told me. I may not have seen her die, but I heard it.” She had seen her queen flung bodily from her chariot, landing behind them all in a crumpled heap, shaken but seemingly unharmed. She had looked back just once, not wanting to break step with the first of her sisters approaching the Acheaen line of battle. Penthesilea had got one knee, straightened her helmet, and then stood. She had called out a challenge then, right before Bremusa had turned away.
“When she stood to face Aias, that was the last I saw of her.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “In this world, at least. But I heard her die. My eyes were caked with blood and I couldn’t turn my head, so all I could do was listen. She begged.”
“She begged,” Bremusa repeated, “for her life, on her knees, to a man who was not worthy. She was our queen, my love, and a daughter of a God, and yet she begged for mercy. If she could not stand against Akhilleus, can any of us?”
“Never mind, Akhilleus, he matters not. Nor does Troy.”
Bremusa glanced up at her through tear-wet eyes. “So says a daughter of Priamos?”
“I do,” Kassandra said. The smile she gave then was one of the kindest the Amazon had ever seen. “What only concerns me now is why any of this matters to you. Why stay? Why fight for us?”
“I follow my... I followed her...”
“And now she’s in the Fortunate Isles. You are free of obligations. So why stay now?”
“They tore out her eyes,” Bremusa said in answer. She saw Kassandra’s confusion and so went on. “The Acheaens, they plucked out her eyes so that even her corpse couldn’t bear witness to what they did. It wasn’t enough that they killed her. It never is for men. Once they knew it was Penthesilea that Akhilleus had struck down, they defiled her, taking in death what she would not give in life. They dragged her through the dirt just like they did to your brother, until not even the Gods could recognize her, and then they cast her body aside like it was nothing. Men like that should be defied.”
“I understand loss too,” Kassandra said, nodding in agreement.
“Do you now?”
“Don’t mock me. Perhaps I don’t understand it as a warrior does and perhaps I never could. As a sister though, I have seen more than my fair share. Troy lost a future king two weeks ago. Our army lost perhaps its only hope. Those things matter more than the mere loss of a brother, so they tell me.” Kassandra reached for her wine goblet but then seemed to change her mind. “But who cares what a madwoman has to say?”
Bremusa couldn’t answer that. Thankfully she didn’t have to, as just then, one of the younger serving girls parted the curtain and motioned to Admeta, who crossed the room to speak with her. There was a brief whispered conversation, the girl disappeared again, and Admeta returned to whisper in Kassandra’s ear. As she talked, she never took her eyes off the Amazon. Bremusa recognized the wisdom in that. After all, the hunter may have brought the wolf home, but that didn’t mean the sheep were happy about it.
Kassandra nodded at what Admeta said to her, then waved her away before rising from her place at the table. “It appears your bath is ready.”
“I’m...” Bremusa didn’t move from her seat. “I’m not sure I should...”
“Please, do. Rest assured my servants will take good care of you. You deserve it.” Kassandra approached her side of the table and held a hand out for the Amazon to take.
Bremusa hesitated just for little longer before taking the offered hand. She felt the soft skin beneath her own calluses and sighed when the long and supple fingers entwined themselves with hers. Her chair scraped against the stone floor noisily as she allowed herself to be pulled to her feet. Somehow still hungry, she grabbed an apple from the dishes on the table with her free hand, and then let Kassandra guide her across the room.
At the archway, Kassandra pulled back the curtain and ushered her through. Bremusa tentatively stepped through and then stopped immediately. She guessed that the chamber she now stood in was almost exactly square, built that way on purpose, to make the sunken pool in the very center the focus.
It deserved the attention. It was a beautiful pool, fitting for a princess of such high standing; a perfect circle cut into the stonework of the floor and dug into the earth beneath. It was lined with what looked like Cretan marble, each delicate slab placed so seamlessly it was near impossible to see where one ended and another began. Perhaps it was not as beautiful as those pools carved out by nature, like those fondly remembered bathing spots in Themiskrya, but she knew she would be demanding too much in saying so.
There were no windows in the room, perhaps to keep unwanted drafts out, but the few sconces on the walls did not hold torches. Instead the room was lit by a multitude of tallow candles, the dim, flicking light of which was reflected and amplified by both the white marble and the water.
She turned back to Kassandra. She wanted to say something, to tell her that this was too much for her, but Kassandra saw the hesitation and spoke first.
“Enjoy it,” she said. She slowly let go of Bremusa’s hand, but ever-so-slowly, letting her fingertips gently linger. “And then when you have finished bathing, I will take the very best care of you, believe me.”
The curtain fell between them, leaving Bremusa alone with the two remaining servants. Thankfully, Admeta was not among them. No doubt she would have found some way to take out her disapproval on the Amazon now that her mistress was no longer present. She wouldn’t put it past her. Nothing that couldn’t be argued away, of course; a too hard scraping of the skin, maybe, or an accidental splash of hot water in the face.
One servant remained by the jugs that were stacked beside the far wall, ready to add more hot water if needed. The younger looking serving girl, perhaps in her late teens, pale-skinned and with hair that could have not been more red had she been bathed in fresh blood, approached her slowly and slipped her fingers around the plain brooch that held Bremusa’s robe at the shoulder. There was nothing romantic in the gesture. Both she and the other servant avoided looking into her eyes at all times, as if her gaze was a deadly as a Gorgon’s.
Other than that, neither gave any sign that they were ill-at-ease with tending to her needs. Which was more than Bremusa could honestly say. Even though both servants were women, she felt awkward and uncomfortable with their presence here, especially when the redhead unclasped the peronei and gently pulled the simple robe away from Bremusa’s body. This was not the Amazon way. All of the tribes taught self-reliance and it was a trait prized even amongst the noblest of their number. No woman was asked to wait on another.
The redhead’s hands now dropped to unknot the belt from around Bremusa’s waist, and then she crouched to place both the belt and brooch to one side on the stone floor. She tugged at the rough woolen chlamys, pulling it down past the Amazon’s wide hips, gesturing then with a tap of her hand to tell Bremusa to step out of both the robe and her worn sandals. Her perizoma was tugged down then, leaving the Amazon naked save for the band of fabric that covered her breasts.
When the redhead rose she nimbly stepped behind Bremusa and reached for the strophion. Her fingers found one end of the wide band and untucked it. Again no words were spoken, but she indicated she wanted the Amazon to slowly turn around and around with the lightest of touches or two on the arm, and gradually the linen band was unwound. The bandaging around her left arm quickly followed suit.
Once Bremusa was completely naked, the servant took hold of her hand and brought her to the pool. The grip felt different to that of Kassandra, there was no tenderness, no kindness, just a gentle forcefulness. Neither servant had any choice but to serve her and they made sure she knew it, but they were also very careful so as not to cause offence.
She allowed herself to be guided through a gap in the candles, towards the hitherto hidden steps within the pool. She stepped into the water, gingerly, not because of a fear of the water’s temperature, but rather because she was terrified of losing her footing and hurting herself, or worse, embarrassing herself in front of these two women. Steam rose, swirling around her thighs as she lowered herself into the water, which was surprisingly, and delightfully, hot. Nowhere near hot enough to scald, that would have been impossible, but warm enough so that she almost immediately felt some of the tension in her muscles ease.
The redhead sat beside her and began to scrub at Bremusa’s arms, using a sweetly scented soap and a blunt knife to scrape none-too-gently at the tanned skin. Bremusa resisted at first but then, as she realized that despite her friendliness Kassandra might still punish servants, she let her have her way. No one would be punished on her account. When the servant touched the wound on her bicep, Bremusa couldn’t help but wince and pull away. The servant almost jumped out of her skin. She was so much more careful after that, her touch incredibly gentle when she took hold of Bremusa’s arm once again, now to lightly smear a strong-smelling ointment over the cut.
The other servant, a blonde with tired-looking eyes, now also came forward and sat directly behind her, arranging several different small wooden bowls alongside the bath edge. As these were placed down beside her, Bremusa could smell a variety of the sweetest fragrances. One bowl was empty, which the blonde used to scoop hot water from the pool and wet the Amazon’s hair, over and over until the long tresses were thoroughly soaked through. Then the oils from the remaining bowls were poured liberally over her, the excess being brushed free with a fine-toothed bone comb.
Kassandra may have left her alone to bath and to be attended to, but she was not gone all that long. The curtain separating the two rooms was pulled aside as Kassandra entered, letting in a slow draft of chilly air. Bremusa’s wet exposed skin goosebumped almost immediately and she shivered, making the water ripple. Bremusa guessed the servants were not quite done with her but it made no difference; as soon as their mistress reappeared they gathered up the wooden bowls and Bremusa’s clothing and fled the room.
Bremusa immediately noticed that she had changed her robe, perhaps self-conscious of the wine stains on the one she had worn earlier. She now wore a flimsy gossamer-like robe, tied loosely at the waist and fastened at one shoulder by a single ornate golden clasp. The fabric was almost see-through. Whenever she would stand with the light behind her, Bremusa could clearly see she wore nothing underneath; no perizoma, no strophion, not another single garment, no matter how small.
Bremusa’s breath caught in her throat; she couldn’t help it.
Kassandra sat on the edge of the bath, kneeling and tucking her legs beneath her. Her feet were bare, the Amazon saw. She held a full wine goblet in one hand. She seemed to be much more careful with this one, not because she had sobered at all, but more likely because she was now so drunk she was aware of it and therefore over-compensating.
She let the fingers of her free hand make shapes in the water, creating carefree patterns that only she could see, dangerously close to Bremusa. Every now and then she would look up and admire the body that was barely hidden by the slick of oil on the water’s surface. Whenever Bremusa caught her in one of those glances, she thought she would look away, embarrassed. But Kassandra did not, just shared one of those irresistibly cheeky smiles, and instead returned her gaze to the water or what lay beneath.
Her hair had been much neatened, Bremusa saw, with a combed tiara of pure silver holding the strands away from her face. The silver caught the candelight whenever she moved, standing in such contrast to her jet-black hair. Which was probably why it had been chosen, Bremusa thought. No doubt that was the work of the insistent Admeta, more than Kassandra’s own doing. Admeta might not like the Amazon, or even her being here, but she wasn’t about to let her mistress continue to appear before a guest in such a disheveled state.
There was now a fragrance about Kassandra too, Bremusa realized. She sniffed, making no effort to hide her interest. Over the bathing oils that now coated her own hair, and the too-sweet wine, she now smelt a stronger perfume, citrusy and intoxicating.
“I imagine there’s a tale behind every one of those scars,” Kassandra said, after what seemed like an age.
Suddenly Bremusa was strangely self-conscious. Not of her nudity but instead of the toll life had taken on her body, of the damage others had done to it, as if the world was trying to mold her body into something more alike to her soul.
“None that I’d like to share,” she said hastily.
“No?” Kassandra gave her a small and playful pout. She let her hand drift alongside Bremusa’s thigh, her nails barely brushing against the skin.
The touch sent a shiver up Bremusa’s spine. Still, such ploys weren’t going to work on her, no matter what Kassandra may have hoped. “Scars are nothing to be proud of.”
“They’re nothing to be ashamed of either. You’re beautiful, but you don’t know that, do you?”
Now Bremusa felt her cheeks colour. “If you say so. “
“I do. But I could say it a hundred times and you wouldn’t hear it. I can’t help but think of when you were welcomed into the banquet hall last night. You were the most glorious thing I had ever seen. Don’t turn away, I mean it. You may have seen the children of Gods, Bremusa, but I’ve seen the beauty of the very Gods themselves. Believe me when I tell you that not one of them could compare to you.” She smiled and gave a little shrug, as if to say these heartfelt words that meant so much to her made no difference. “I’ve embarrassed you, I can tell.”
“No,” Bremusa said, perhaps a little too hastily, “not at all.”
“You’re a terrible liar,” Kassandra said. “But if it makes you feel any better, my judgement might be clouded.”
Without thinking, Bremusa was about to ask if she meant by the drink but before she could say anything Kassandra continued.
“By the war, I mean, and what’s to come. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.”
Bremusa frowned. She wasn’t quite sure what that meant. Not for the first time in her dealings with Kassandra, she found herself wishing she was ten times smarter than the Gods had made her. “If beauty could turn the tides of a war,” she said, after a while, although it felt like one of those sentences that could get away from her, “then surely Troy would already have its champion and this war would have been won years ago.”
“Helen, you mean?”
She nodded. “I hear she rarely leaves the palace. Funny, how we are fighting a war over a woman most of us have never seen. I haven’t yet but I suppose I will in time.”
“You won’t,” said Kassandra with that infuriating sense of certainty her voice sometimes had. “But she is certainly beautiful, in a way.”
“In what way?” Bremusa’s curiosity was stirred, although she tried her best not to show it. How could you not be curious about a woman – the only mortal woman, despite whatever Kassandra might claim to the contrary – whose beauty was supposed to rival that of Aphrodite? One who could steal hearts as easily as the Keres took souls from a battlefield? A woman whose face had launched countless ships from the shores of Agamenmon’s realm and thus brought such war and loss to Troy?
Kassandra sighed heavily, as if to say this was a question she had been asked a thousand times and she was tired of answering it. “There is a starkness about her, she’s never fully naked even when bathing. She is always clothed in lies and ambition, draping deceits around her like you would a robe.” She let her eye fall on Bremusa’s nakedness. “Well, like I would. She is beautiful, to be sure, but it is a beauty with a hidden danger.”
“She’s half-God. There’s nothing hidden about that danger.”
“No, perhaps not,” Kassandra said, her smile fading away. “Still, my foolish brother deserves her and all the misfortune she brings with her. I just wish they hadn’t brought it all with them to Troy.”
“I was just thinking almost the same thing.”
“Were you now? I must admit, I’m really not used to people agreeing with me. After all, I am the only one of my family to think such thoughts.” She shrugged away Bremusa’s half-formed words of sympathy then, her smile returning, although it was clearly a sadder smile now. “I was overcome with rage when I first saw Helen. Not at her, although she was the cause of my fury. I had warned them, I told them all what Paris’ foolishness would lead to, but no one would listen. I lost myself in my rage, tearing at her clothes and at her hair, scratching at her like a spoiled child denied a toy. But I was just a girl denied her future. Even my father thinks I am mad now. I used to have a father’s love; now I only have his pity. I could not even comfort him when he brought my brother’s body back into the city, he could not bear it. My father has sired many children, Bremusa. To be his least favourite among them all, even the bastards, is an accomplishment of which I am both inordinately proud and thoroughly ashamed.”
“Surely he loves you?”
“Oh, I doubt that. To a father growing old nothing is dearer than a daughter, but in the King’s eyes we are all wicked children, his disgraces. I am the wickedest of all or so he tells me, often enough. Many times in the past few days he has told me how he wishes I had been killed beside the running ships in the place of Hektor.”
“I’m sorry.” It was all Bremusa could think of to say. She felt so inept in this conversation, so awkward and out of place, flitting between not knowing what to say and saying something that she immediately afterwards knew was wrong.
“Don’t be. Only Hektor ever earned my father’s love and deservedly so. All the King’s other children, and believe me there are too many to count, are disappointments to him.” She frowned suddenly, the goblet of wine paused between her lips. She stayed that way for a moment and then took another quick sip. “No, I am forgetting Troilos. Everyone does. We lost Troilos early in the war, when I was still a girl, and I hardly remember him.”
She bowed her head. “There are stories surrounding his death too, whispers of the many horrors Akhilleus has brought to this war, but my father forbade us from speaking of them. Anyway, the rest of my father’s children are worthless. Paris especially. My only comfort with that one is that he won’t live to rule Troy. As for my twin, he’s a worse liar than me. He once begged me to teach him the art of prophecy, as if this... affliction... can be taught. I refused but it matters not. He tells everyone I taught him and they believe him, of course they do.”
Kassandra might have been crying; it was too dark to be sure and she had turned her head away. If she was, she did so silently, and she did not move, just sat hunched over her near empty goblet of wine.
As she often did when confronted by something she couldn’t truly understand, Bremusa did her best to make everything a little more simple. The physical to her was always simpler. She shifted position in the pool, turning so she could catch Kassandra’s free hand before she could pull it away from both her and the water. She pressed the pale hand flat against her own chest, holding it there, smiling when she felt Kassandra try to move her thumb out, just so she could feel the upper swell of her right breast.
“Should they?” Bremusa said. “Believe your brother, I mean?”
Kassandra’s head jerked up from where she had been staring at her own hand and where it rested. “No,” she said. “They do, but only because he promises them everything they want to hear and likewise he tells them such things only because they reward him with attention. He sings to them of the victories Troy will win, of the many Acheaen heroes that will be struck down in such glories.”
She had seemed to steady her breathing by now, so that it almost perfectly spread across the beatings of the heart she felt beneath her hand. “So of course they all laud him for his prophecies.”
“So this...” Bremusa began. She spoke slowly, choosing eventually to use the exact same word Kassandra had earlier. “This affliction you spoke of, is it...”
“Do you think this war has been worth it?” Kassandra interrupted hastily, pulling her hand away. She got to her feet just then, leaving her goblet of wine behind her on the stonework, and began to frantically circle the room, walking around and around the pool.
Bremusa may have found war easier than any conversation, certainly the subtleties of this particular conversation, but even she could tell the princess didn’t want to talk about her madness. Not now, at least. Instead she had turned to safer, albeit darker thoughts.
So she let her be. Nothing she could say would make any difference, after all. Bremusa suspected that this was a part of her madness, that in some way it prevented her from trusting anybody. Why would she? From what she had said during the night, no one trusted her.
She sank back into the cooling bath water and reflected on Kassandra’s question. Had it been worth it? Any of it? This night she stood as the only Amazon left alive in Troy. There would be no more roses for Clonie, no more frantic moments of stolen lust for Evandre, no more embarrassment for Derinoe, and no more glory for Penthesilea.
And yet she, who had never really been friendly, never allowing herself to get too close to anyone, was closer now to a madwoman than it seemed anyone else would ever want to be. The two of them had been brought together by loss and yet were still both warily keeping their distance. Was it merely guilt, she wondered? Neither had been able to prevent the death of loved ones. Kassandra had lost a brother dear to her and in doing so had finally been lost to her family. For Bremusa’s part, there were sisters who were stronger, wiser, more worthy, and still lay amongst the dead while she lay here in luxury. Were those deaths worth just another dawn in which the city of Troy stood free? There had been more lives lost over the years, so many more. Would history remember any of their names? And was that enough for her anymore?
The memory of the morning battle came flooding back to her. She wanted to fight it, tried to think of something else but it was no good. She was too tired and the memory was too strong; it wouldn’t leave her alone. She let her head sink back onto the edge of the pool, allowing the warm water to come up to her neck, and closed her eyes.
Was this war worth it to anyone caught up in it? As soon as battle had been joined this morning, the Amazones had strode into the Acheaen lines and she alone had killed at least half-a-dozen Locrian warriors outright without seemingly breaking a sweat. Countless more had died at the hands of her sisters. Was it worth it to those men? The Locrians had been slow and careless, clearly more interested in returning to their camps at the beach and the women there rather than fighting, or perhaps thinking of their homes and loved ones, so long since seen. It was strange, Bremusa thought, how this morning that same thought had filled her with disgust, but now, as the rage of battle had finally subsided from her limbs in the gradually cooling bathwater, she understood it more. Since the battle had ended, any anger she may have felt had long been replaced by sympathy.
It was just war. The lucky walked away from a battle unharmed, but they were incredibly few in number. The unlucky many died. Then there were the damned, those who had to either live a little longer but with what war had done to them, or worse, with what they had done in war’s name.
Lying in the pool with her eyes closed, listening to the crackle of the candles and the gentle padding of Kassandra’s bare feet against the stone, Bremusa finally admitted to herself that today she had been lucky. To survive any battle a warrior had to surmount a mountain of ill-fortune, no matter how skilled with a sword or spear they might be. The outcome was always in the will of the Gods. Perhaps that wasn’t true for damned Akhilleus, but he alone stood above mortal men. The only serious wound she bore was the shallow cut to her arm, already healing well. Other than that she bore only a few scratches from the battle today, a couple of scrapes, and plenty of bruising coloring the skin between. All of those would vanish soon enough, although never as quickly as she liked and certainly not as quickly as the usual aches and pains that followed a fight, but then those had been helped along today by the soothing hot bathwater.
The Locrians might have run. They had been so close to breaking, Bremusa had thought at the time, their morale weakening as the seemingly unstoppable Amazones attacked over and over again, wreaking havoc, slaying dozens of their number. From where she stood aboard her chariot, Penthesilea had killed more than all of her sisters combined.
Then reinforcements had come. The Myrmidones, the most feared of all the Acheaen contingents, had marched forward to bolster forward line and in doing so had kept the Locrians from fleeing. Perhaps they had been held in reserve by Agamemnon for such an eventuality, but somehow Bremusa doubted it. From what she knew of the greedy, power-mad king, he had little interest in tactics or strategy. It was far more likely that Odysseus had tricked Agamemnon in some way, forcing his hand and making him order the reinforcements forward. Or perhaps it was simply the vainglorious Akhilleus that had held the Myrmidones back, sulking again over some slight.
As the reinforcements joined the fight, so the tide of battle had turned. The Myrmidones, indeed led by Akhilleus, were many in number and their ranks were swelled even more by the men of both Telmonian Aias and the Cretan Idomeneus. And these were no battle-weary soldiers. The Myrmidones were disciplined, experienced and ruthless. Aias was a colossus of a man who towered above them all. Even Akhilleus, the accursed cowardly son of Thetis, was a relentless and untiring warrior in battle, agile and fast, much skilled with a spear and a sword.
The memory of that impossibly powerful spear blow now came to Bremusa once again, then her falling backwards, and that heavy weight of the dying Derinoe pressing her down into the dust. She had been thought lost by beloved Evandre and ever-loyal Thermodosa, and her misfortune quickly cost them both their lives.
Bremusa sat up suddenly, opening her eyes. No, she told herself. She could not, would not, think of this morning again, not if she could help it. The memory might haunt her but she would not give in to it. She was an Amazon, a warrior in her soul as well as her body. She could do nothing but fight it. She would not let it hurt her, not any more.
As if she could read her thoughts – and that was certainly something Bremusa would not put past her – Kassandra finally spoke as she circled the pool once more. “You and your sisters killed many Acheaens today, for which I owe you my thanks. It wasn’t enough though. Akhilleus still lives.”
Bremusa glared at her. She found anger swelling within her again and for once was grateful for it, if only because it would not let sadness do the same. She felt insulted but said nothing.
“Are you afraid of him?” Kassandra asked.
“I am afraid of no man!” Bremusa said between gritted teeth.
“Really?” said Kassandra from the other side of the pool. She offered a very weak smile and that, along with what she said next, almost dulled Bremusa’s anger. “I am scared of so many. And what of the other Achaens? What of Odysseus or...”
“Odysseus,” Bremusa spat. “He’s a liar and a fool, I told you that already.”
“So you did. But we speak his name now, while the names of better men will be swept away like dust.”
She was behind her now, still circling, but somehow Bremusa knew that weak smile was still present. Even if she couldn’t see it, she knew it was still there. It was where part of the mask had forever come away.
“Of course I am, I’m mad. There is another Aias,” Kassandra said quietly, “the lesser, from Locris.”
“I know of him.” Bremusa nodded. “We fought his countrymen today. Not him though.”
“No, I heard as much. Aias terrifies me.”
That puzzled Bremusa. Up until now, even to just a few words before, most of Kassandra’s ire had been levelled against Akhilleus. Understandably so, for without his rage the Acheaen horde would not be so feared by all. Yet there were warriors in that horde that most would fear more than Aias of Locris. The much admired Diomedes, Aias’s larger Telamonian namesake, the ignoble Thersites, or even the despised Odysseus; Bremusa would face down Aias before any of them, were she given a choice in the matter. She remembered how Evandre had laughed that morning at the news that the Amazones were to be placed against the Locrians in the battle lines, confident and sure of victory against such a lowly enemy, even if many of her other sisters took the placement as an insult.
So why was Kassandra now telling her that the Locrian Aias was the man she feared above any other? Kassandra had made another complete circuit of the pool before Bremusa could bring herself to finally ask the obvious question. “Why Aias? Why him and not...”
Kassandra ignored the question. “I hope he dies before this war ends, although I know he will not.”
“He will,” Bremusa said, snorting derisively. “I will kill him for you. Tomorrow.”
That made the smile turn a little sadder but perhaps a little sweeter too. She stopped in her tracks, turned to look down towards where Bremusa lay, and shook her head. The pacing soon started up again.
“Are you scared of dying?”
“Terrified,” Bremusa admitted. “Aren’t you?”
“Oh, there are worse things than dying, believe me.”
It was starting to make Bremusa dizzy trying to follow her as she walked around the pool. “Will you sit down? Please?”
Thankfully Kassandra did as she was asked. She stepped behind Bremusa and knelt down, picking up the comb that had been carelessly left by the servants earlier. She touched Bremusa’s temples softly with her fingertips, encouraging the Amazon to tilt her head back so it rested on her knees, and then began to gently comb the washed and oiled hair.
“Mmm...” Bremusa said quietly, “that feels good.” That earned a genuine smile of pleasure from Kassandra above her. Bremusa wanted to close her eyes again, lose herself in the moment, the soothing touch, but there was still a question to be answered. “It isn’t worth it.”
A look of confusion passed over Kassandra’s face. Her hands dropped away. “What?”
“The war, Kassandra. This war. Any war. It hasn’t been and never will be.”
“Then why do we see so many fought?” Kassandra said, her smile returning as quickly as it had vanished. She started combing the long blonde hair again.
“I don’t know. Maybe because occasionally a man will prove himself fool enough to challenge the Gods, convincing himself that this time, just this once, whatever he does will all be worth it. But it never is. The Gods are too smart to let we mortals best them and more than cruel enough to make us believe we can.”
“So says an Amazon? A daughter of Ares, no less. What would you do without war?”
Maybe Kassandra was being insulting again or maybe she was just teasing. Bremusa couldn’t really tell. “I wish I knew. Only the dead have seen the end of the war.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s true. But at least our war will be over soon, Bremusa, believe me.”
Bremusa scowled. “I find that hard to believe. The Gods seem happy enough to let it continue. They’ve sent forth countless men to battle and so many loved ones have since welcomed home ashes in an urn, and yet they will not call an end to it all. There have been so many lives sworn away over the bloody pieces of a horse. So many lives lost over a daughter of Tyndareus. I fought today for a woman I’ve never seen, a woman not strong enough to protect her own virtue.”
“Sadly, not many women are.”
“My sisters and I are.”
“Of course, of course,” Kassandra said hurriedly. “But that’s not who you fought for today, Bremusa.”
“No. It isn’t. And she’s not who I’ll fight for tomorrow either.”
“So you blame her? Helen?”
“I blame him,” Bremusa said, “your brother, Paris. Men are to blame for all the ills in the world.”
“Would an Amazon say anything less, I wonder?”
Now she was being insulted, there was no mistaking the tone this time. Maybe Kassandra felt slighted by Bremusa’s scorn of her brother, despite her own earlier condemnation of him, and was responding in kind. That, at least, was something she understood. There were many of her sisters, from both those who had come to Troy and those who had stayed safe within the borders of Themiskrya, of whom Bremusa had little or nothing good to say. But she could say it; she had earned the right to do so. If anyone else said such, Bremusa would be the first in line to knock them down. It was a matter of family.
All the same, Bremusa felt her anger, never far from the surface, rise within her. Her cheeks flushed. She pushed Kassandra’s hands away angrily and immediately regretted it. Not for the first time Bremusa found herself wondering if she should not supplicate to Ares, as traditionally all Amazones did, but instead make some kind of small offering every day to Lyssa. If for no other reason than to hope the goddess would leave her be, just for a short while.
“Paris was a fool,’ she said after a heavy sigh, “and he stole another man’s wife while a guest in his house. That alone is reason enough to kill him.”
Kassandra sat back, placing the bone comb on the stone floor beside her. It made a sharp clicking sound, strangely loud in the suddenly quiet room. “And is it reason enough to kill everyone?” She waved the unspoken answer away, more interested in the answer to her next question. “Would you have done the same?”
Bremusa wished the hands would return to her hair. She tilted her head back again, almost willing Kassandra to reach out to her again, but it seemed she was not going to. “Would I try to kill Paris for stealing my wife? Of course.”
“No, I didn’t mean that. I’m sure you would. What I meant was would you have stolen Helen away? Leaving Penthesilea aside, for I’ll swear in you that was love and not lust, has there really never been a woman you’ve desired, Bremusa? A woman whom you ached for, one who you knew perhaps was bad for you but you still wanted so desperately to bed, even though you know you shouldn’t?”
Now her cheeks colored again but for a very different reason. Bremusa moved away from Kassandra then, deliberately putting some distance between them. She turned when she reached the far side of the pool, intending to face her, but found she couldn’t look her in the eye.
Kassandra was grinning. “Should I take your silence as an admission?”
“This is still a war fought by men, for one man’s pride,” Bremusa snapped, “another’s greed, another’s glory, and a fool’s love.” At best it was an evasion and she knew it, but she felt she had to say something, anything to push the conversation back to somewhere more comfortable for her.
“You’re wrong,” Kassandra said, matter of factly. “This is nothing more than a petty squabble between goddesses, we are merely playthings for their sport, and are lives are meaningless to them.”
Bremusa frowned, displeased. “It’s best not to say such things.”
That made Kassandra laugh. It wasn’t a pleasant laugh, more bitter and full of resentment than of joy. “One advantage, perhaps the only one, of being cursed is that the gods can do very little more to you. All the same, I imagine they’ll have their fun when our city falls.”
“Troy won’t fall,” Bremusa said determinedly.
“Not while you defend it?”
Kassandra smiled that sad smile of hers once again. “Then I am truly safe, Bremusa, if for only one night. And for the first time in a long time I have something to thank those goddesses for. Which of them in particular should I thank, do you think?”
“How would I know?”
“Oh, I think you know. You’re just too stubborn to admit it. Very well then, if the choice was offered to you, who would you honestly favor as the most beautiful?”
“I’ve never seen a god.”
“It’s not something you forget.” Kassandra briefly touched her temple with her fingertips but then saw the puzzled Amazon staring at her and so made an effort to let her hand drop.
“And without seeing them,” Bremusa continued, trying to pretend she hadn’t noticed the strange gesture and by the brunette’s obvious discomfort she was evidently not succeeding, “how can I possibly judge?”
“Yes, I suppose that’s true,” Kassandra said, nodding. Her hands were clasped together in her lap now, as if she didn’t trust herself not to reach up and hold the side of her head again. “Then which gift would you take?”
At least that was a question Bremusa felt she could answer. Still, she hesitated. She didn’t want to answer immediately and say the wrong thing, or worse, something foolish. So she gave the question some thought, staring at a trio of candles that were almost guttering out.
She must have taken too long thinking about it, or perhaps Kassandra had just grown impatient, for after a moment the brunette offered an answer of her own. “Athena’s gift would win for you, am I right?”
“What makes you say that?”
“Well, I don’t think you’d want to rule, no matter what Hera proffered you. Athena would grant you wisdom in battle and thus the chance to be the greatest warrior. Isn’t that important to you Amazones?”
“Maybe,” Bremusa said, although she wasn’t sure if she was replying to the choice of gift or the last question asked. “Or maybe I would make the same mistake Paris made and choose Aphrodite.”
“Really?” Kassandra seemed surprised. “Why would you?”
“Why wouldn’t I? To have a woman love me, a woman who is love in every sense of the word, and beauty too, and not just in form and face. A woman so divine she would see all my faults, my failings, and despite them all would still love me, would still reach out for me in the dead of night, and still long for me. How could anyone not want that?”
“Yes, indeed,” Kassandra said with a nod. There passed between them the known smile behind black masks. “You still have a choice, Bremusa. Or at least the illusion of it, which is more than I have.”
“A choice?” said Bremusa, not understanding.
“The choice to be honest, with yourself if not with me. Brutally so, just as a good warrior should be. You need to accept what you already know. Why the Gods led you to our city, to... here, and why they let you live this long, this one day more. Right now, Bremusa, you need to admit why you really came to Troy.”
Kassandra rose to her feet then, picking up the empty goblet and glancing towards the other room. She licked her lips, thinking perhaps of the wine that was out there, then smoothed down the gossamer-thin robe where it had wrinkled from her being seated for so long. Her lips parted just a tiny amount, as if there was something more that should be said. She stared into Bremusa’s light brown eyes, the two of them separated only by tepid water, dim candlelight and hesitation.
Then she was gone, the words unsaid, the curtain that separated this room from the next falling back into place and sending another gust of chilly air across the pool. Bremusa was left alone once more, and the only signs Kassandra had ever been present was the bone comb left on the edge of the pool, along with the faintest scent of oranges still hanging in the air.
The fleeting thought to call out after Kassandra crossed Bremusa’s mind, but it was gone before she could even draw a breath. That left only one thing she could do, but she knew as soon as she thought of it that it was the only thing she wanted to do. She was always better at action than at words, after all. She hastily pulled herself up out of the pool, knocking over some of the candles and sending a flood of water washing across the floor, extinguishing several others.
She padded after Kassandra hurriedly, not self-conscious of her nudity at all, and left a trail of wet footprints behind her. She passed through the curtain just in time to see Kassandra’s bare feet disappearing up the narrow stairs to her left. She followed the brunette up those steps, slowing slightly, being careful not to slip on the smooth stonework, and found herself in what must have been Kassandra’s bedchamber. There was a large bed occupying most of the room, covered in furs and woolen blankets, but she had no time to take in details.
Bremusa was close enough then to catch Kassandra just as she passed through another curtain. She snatched hold of her by the wrist, halting Kassandra’s progress just as she stepped out on to a small balcony that overlooked the gardens.
The cool night breeze immediately raised tiny goosebumps on the Amazon’s damp skin, making her shiver, but she ignored the cold, just as she ignored the falling rain, the stars in the night sky, the very Gods themselves would they dare to interfere. Only one thing mattered to her in this moment.
She yanked Kassandra towards her, not allowing her to pull away, not at first. Their bodies collided hard enough to knock the breath from Kassandra. Bremusa felt that hot exhalation on her bare shoulder, smelt the scent of wine within. Now too she felt the princess’ body pressing against her own, that body she had glimpsed in only stolen glances, always barely hidden beneath tantalizingly sheer fabric.
Kassandra turned her head away, but she was smiling now, a smile of joy and anticipation. It seemed that she was intent on enjoying the idea of being caught by her own prey as much as she had enjoyed the night’s chase. With her free hand, Bremusa reached up to softly cup Kassandra’s chin, slowly and gently turning her head back around, letting her know that she could still really pull away if she wanted to.
But she didn’t want to. Kassandra allowed herself to face the Amazon, just as she had allowed Bremusa to catch her, had made her want to catch her. It was all part of her madness, Bremusa thought.
The Amazon let go of her chin but only so she could run a thumb lightly over Kassandra’s wine-stained lower lip, entranced by the shine upon it. Bremusa leaned in, using her hold on the smaller woman’s wrist to pull her in even closer, so close, so tight, that it seemed their bodies would inevitably become one if it were not for that ethereally-thin robe between them. Kassandra’s breathing was short and fast now, her eyes lazily closing in anticipation.
Their lips barely met, for Bremusa had moved so gradually, and for an instant they stayed that way. Then the contact deepened slowly as Kassandra opened her mouth the smallest amount, allowing Bremusa’s tongue to edge inside. The kiss lengthened, and as it grew in passion she felt the smaller woman’s body respond, her nipples hardening under that flimsy shift.
Then Bremusa broke off the kiss, as deliberately and as unhurriedly as she had begun it. She didn’t want to, she wanted that kiss to last forever, until the very last stone of Mount Olympus crumbled to dust and the Gods themselves had faded from living memory, but she knew she needed to right now. She sucked Kassandra’s lower lip into her own mouth, just for a moment, and then pulled away.
She let go of Kassandra’s wrist and took a single step back. The night air felt suddenly cold on her stomach and chest.
Kassandra gave the tiniest of groans as their lips parted, a thin strand of saliva breaking between them. A sigh followed, easing out between barely parted lips, and it was a sigh heavy with wine-scented promise.
The rain was starting to fall harder once again and Bremusa shuddered as a cold gust of air brushed over her. The growing wind caught the leaves of the oak tree, such gentle rustling thought by some to be the whispers of Zeus, and just as she looked out over the center of the garden Bremusa saw a dove fly past, starkly silhouetted against the moonlight. Bremusa knew when the Gods talked to her. She was being told this was the right thing for her, for them both.
Kassandra turned away and pushed past the curtains to flee the rain. It was another invitation to follow, Bremusa knew, this one unspoken and with much more intent. But she waited. She looked up at the stars so far above, longing to follow Kassandra, to run after her again, knowing that even if she had somehow been clad in the beauty of a thousand such stars she could be no more beautiful, but she waited. Long enough to take a breath or two and maybe only to let the chase continue just for a little while longer.
When she did finally follow Kassandra into the bedchamber, she found her pouring wine from an amphora into another goblet.
“Does that really help any?”
“Hmm?” the frowning Kassandra said from behind the goblet.
“More than you could know.” She sighed and then shrugged as if she was searching for the right word. “It... distracts me.”
Bremusa stepped closer. “Yes, that’s right, you said that before. And that’s a question which you never answered, isn’t it? Is that all I am to you, a distraction? Just that? Nothing more?“
“Oh yes, Bremusa,” Kassandra said. Her bluntness surprised the Amazon. “And I to you. One last distraction for us each perhaps.”
At that, Bremusa’s hand decided the time was nigh. She took the goblet, prying it from Kassandra’s resistant grasp, and placed it on the nearest table without looking. The cup toppled over, spilling wine across the wood and dripping it on to the dusty floor. Her fingers then fumbled with the clasp that held Kassandra’s robe at the shoulder. The delicate robe fell around Kassandra, to the ground, fully revealing her gloriously naked body to the Amazon for the first time.
Bremusa caught her breath, the taste of it sharp in her throat. “My kaliste,” she couldn’t help but whisper, “my most beautiful.”
Kassandra laughed softly at that. “You really are a warrior, Bremusa,” she said, wrapping one arm around the taller woman’s neck and pulling her in close, “in thought and word as much as deed. An Amazon, a tribas, relentless, skilled, and demanding. Please... I need you now to show me how much.”
So another kiss followed, longer and deeper than the first, and with this one Kassandra responded more fervently, her lips finding the tongue Bremusa thrust inelegantly forward. The Amazon felt as if she would be made immortal with such a kiss, that Kassandra’s lips would suck forth her soul and claim it for her own, and she suddenly wanted that, wanted to belong to this woman, to give up her own body to her.
The kiss went unbroken as Bremusa placed her hands on the smaller woman’s waist, pushing her gently backwards, and Kassandra allowed herself to be guided, without looking, back to the bed and then pushed down onto the pile of soft furs. Nothing was said. Words were no longer needed. Instead there was that knowing, that indescribable connection two people can suddenly have when each knows exactly what the other is wanting
Bremusa fell with her, stopping her own descent by a carefully-placed hand on either side of the brunette’s slimmer body. She looked down upon Kassandra, smiling, but she straightened up to rest on her knees. She let her rough hands have free rein then, placing them at first on the pale skin of Kassandra’s stomach, just below the belly-button, the thumbs crossed and the fingers splayed – and that made her briefly think of the dove in flight against the moon again. Before she dared move, Bremusa sent another silent prayer to Aphrodite in thanks for allowing her this coming pleasure.
Then she began to move her hands up the stomach, ever so slowly, teasing every single sensation out of the experience she could, not just for Kassandra but for herself too. She greedily wanted every moment to last an eternity.
She was used to muscle and sinew, a skinniness brought on by exertion, a hardness brought on by the scars of old wounds. Instead she found softness beneath her touch, a skin unmarred by the ravages of time and battle, a plumpness almost. Her own hands, callused and worn, hardened by blood, found those that had never worked a day, had tended and cared, but never fought, and she pushed them up over Kassandra’s head.
Bremusa bent over her then so their mouths could find each other again. She no longer held Kassandra’s wrists, her hands instead returning to that soft stomach, but all the same the brunette did not move from the position she had been placed in, pressed against the soft furs. Lips, teeth, tongue, mingled together. Even when Bremusa began to pull away, Kassandra strained her neck forward, desperate for the lengthy kiss to continue and only falling back to the bed when she reluctantly had to come up for air.
As the dark-haired woman panted, Bremusa began to kiss her way down that delicate neck, starting at that soft jawline. At the same time, her hands reached up to cup the smaller woman’s breasts and as she did so she could not help but again marvel at the differences between she and Kassandra. This was a pampered body that so responded to her touch, a well-fed body, one that knew little of life but luxury. There was none of the leanness of hard living here. Yet despite that, and much to her surprise, it was a body that ignited a fire in Bremusa, making her burn deep within.
Kassandra’s breasts were perhaps a little too plump, although no doubt most suitors admired that. Bremusa massaged one ever so gently, making her groan softly at the feather-light touch, and then when the Amazon’s fingers found an erect nipple, Kassandra hissed through teeth still black with wine.
The look on her face, mouth slightly agape, the breathing steadily increasing in intensity, the eyes closed, head tilted back against the furs beneath, struck Bremusa as close to divine as it was possible to be. In beauty of face no maiden could ever equal her. An unseen smile played at the edges of Bremusa’s lips as she bent so as to lower her head again. That close, with her chin almost resting on Kassandra’s ribs, she could smell such a heady scent of oils, and she guessed the dark-haired woman must have bathed this day. Much earlier though, for there was a touch of ill-earned sweat beneath that scent, along with that ever-present truth of wine. Kassandra instinctively arched her back as she felt Bremusa’s tongue brush around a tender nipple, lifting her breasts with longing.
Bremusa slipped her hand down beneath her own body, between the brunette’s legs, easing the thighs apart. With even just the lightest of touches she could tell Kassandra was already wet with need. As Bremusa let her lips encircle the hardened nipple, she used her fingers to leisurely caress the smaller woman, causing her legs to slide open just a little more. Kassandra twisted on the bed again, raising her hips beneath the Amazon to push hard against the hand that could bring her to Elysium, no matter how fleetingly.
Gradually, almost to the point of being agonizingly slow, Bremusa eased a couple of her fingers inside Kassandra. She continued to gently tease the breast beneath her mouth for just a little while longer, then moved up the smaller woman’s body again, letting her lips trace their way with tender and unhurried kisses up the neck. All the time her hand thrust, still slowly, but quickening little by little. Kassandra turned her head to one side, her hands above her head now clenching into fists, tugging at the furs beneath her.
The dark-haired Kassandra was moaning loudly now, raising her hips in time with the movement of Bremusa’s hand, urging those fingers to plunge even deeper inside her, her inner walls tightening around them.
Bremusa looked down at Kassandra and, not for the first time, she felt herself thinking a goddess was trapped within the body that writhed beneath her. Perhaps that was how perfection walked upon the earth. Not perfection, the Amazon realized, no. That was the privy of the Gods alone. But to embody godhood, to try to reach that exalted status, that was what all mortals could aspire to. That need, that want, it made mortals more than divine and it cursed them too. Right now Bremusa knew she literally held that power in her hand and could draw the divinity forth from Kassandra simply through her fingers.
The princess of Troy turned her head back so she could look up at Bremusa. “Almost...” she groaned as their eyes caught. “Oh Aphrodite... please... please bless me...”
The wine was heavy on her breath and hot against Bremusa’s neck. “Sing, goddess,” she whispered through taut lips, but she spoke only to the body beneath her, “sing to me.”
And sing Kassandra did. A shriek of sheer unbridled pleasure that cut off only as the breath was gratifyingly pulled from her body.
Bremusa could feel her fingers – three now and she was uncertain of when that change had happened – being squeezed so tightly as the smaller woman trembled as her climax overtook her.
Then Kassandra’s whole body abruptly relaxed beneath her. Her chest still heaved with the simple exertion of such pleasure and somehow she found enough breath to release a low and long groan. She shuddered gently once more and then her head lolled back on the furs, her heavy eyelids filled with fleeting dreams of Elysium. Bremusa could feel the tension seep out the brunette’s body, along with the need, if not the want.
And that being so, Bremusa offered her no respite. The Amazon slid back, pushing herself off the bed so that she landed on one of the thick wolf pelts that covered the cold stone floor. She stayed on her knees, taking hold of Kassandra’s hips so as to pull her nearer.
Her thighs caressed, Kassandra eagerly responded when she felt one of her legs being lifted and placed over a scarred shoulder. Kassandra must have then felt the Amazon’s hot breath on her shaven mound, for she twitched and her hips rolled, just a little. She tried to sit up, propping herself up on to her elbows, but Bremusa just grinned up at her and pushed her back down insistently without saying a word.
So close now, Bremusa reveled in the exhilarating scent of this crown princess of Troy. She could sense the heat emanating from Kassandra’s center, strong against her face, could feel the softness of one thigh against her neck. She bowed her head, her lips finding her lover’s folds as if she was guided to them by Aphrodite herself, and she sucked ever so gently. That made Kassandra moan loudly again and she bucked her hips upward in an effort to pull more of the Amazon inside her.
A royal order, perhaps, unspoken, and Bremusa obediently responded to it. Her tongue pushed past those swollen shores, thrusting inside Kassandra, driving the smaller woman crazy with sensation. Every movement, every breath, seemed to make Kassandra’s body surge before her.
Bremusa again pushed two fingers deeply inside her, feeling the slick tightness there. That allowed her to move upwards and to capture the swollen clit between her lips. She drove her fingers in and out of Kassandra rhythmically and slowly as she let her tongue circle the engorged clitoris, then sucked upon it again, just for an instant, then pulled away, letting her tongue linger.
As she turned her head to plant gentle kisses on the smooth skin of Kassandra’s inner thigh, she heard the woman moan again, a low and lamenting sound of disappointment. The Amazon’s lips curled into teasing smile. Bremusa stayed away for just a moment more, taking her time to plant another kiss... then another... before finally returning her attentions to the engorged nub, letting her tongue brush over it, gently at first, then with more passionate urgency.
Suddenly she sensed Kassandra was close again and so quickened her pace, thrusting with fingers harder, over and over again. She felt the heel of Kassandra’s foot stab into her back, felt one hand grab blindly at her head, the fingers trying to twist into her blonde hair for purchase. Kassandra wanted her closer, nearer, to be with her. Another scream of passion, a plea to the gods, louder and fiercer than before.
This climax was brought on quicker than the first but it was a stronger one too, as evidenced by the long string of curses that Kassandra let out as her body finally relaxed and sank back on to the bed. Kassandra really had needed this, Bremusa thought as she rose, and had needed it badly. But then so had she.
Kassandra lay panting, one hand reaching up to hold her head, the pale fingers now lost within the black tresses. Bremusa clambered back up onto the bed to lie beside her, grinning broadly. She fell back against the soft furs and stared up at the ceiling, listened to the sound of her lover’s breathing gradually slowing. She was surprised when Kassandra reached out for her, groping blindly for a hand. Their fingers entwined and they stayed there, hand in hand, for a long while.
Bremusa sighed, still reveling in the taste of her, the mere touch of this woman’s wetness that now cooled upon her lips, and that scent, both so familiar and so otherworldly at the same time. She could not think of tomorrow or what might come. She would stave off such thoughts as best she could. Here she would dwell, for heaven was in those lips.
After a moment she felt Kassandra stir beside her, her breathing nearly steadied and her needs apparently sated, at least for the time being. The smaller woman rolled over on to her side, propping her head up with one hand, the other reaching down towards the Amazon’s muscular thighs. Bremusa started instinctively when she felt those fingertips, still somehow unnaturally cold, brush over a scar.
Her response made Kassandra smile roguishly. The fingers brushed along the unevenness of that scar, which ran up the length of her bronzed thigh. It was one of Bremusa’s first wounds and also one of her worst, poorly stitched together by a terrified, clumsy sister in the rain after the maddened boar they had been hunting for the best part of a day had gored her in its death throes.
Then those gentle fingers had stroked slowly away from that first scar, up over Bremusa’s hip, only to find another on her abdomen. It was enough. Bremusa tried to push the hand away, ashamed of all the harm her body had endured over the years and how it marred what little beauty she may once have possessed. Kassandra ignored her, stubbornly keeping her hand where it lay.
“Don’t...” Bremusa began to say but the words caught in her throat. She felt the insistent pricking of tears and turned her head away.
Kassandra hushed her. Faults, after all, are mere beauties in a lover’s eye. “You’re beautiful,” she whispered, breathing ardent love for her, “all of you, every part of you, every moment.”
She shifted position slightly, shuffling closer, pressing herself hard against Bremusa. The Amazon felt her warmth still against that scarred thigh and could not help but be strangely proud that she had been the cause of such passion. The hand moved upwards, the fingers so light in their touch and following the long diagonal scar out across her stomach to where another barely showed, teasing Bremusa as they trailed away from where she really longed for them to go.
Those fingers had reached one breast now, grazing against the underside. They no longer traced a scar but instead moved across the discolouration caused by the spear blow the Amazon had suffered that morning. The bruise was dark and heavy, and spread across her chest like spilled wine. Kassandra’s hand paused there, as if she was unsure she should continue – like the next step was a prize taken in war, offered up willingly in surrender, and she was seemingly wary of such a gift – and her eyes flickered up from where she had been watching the gradual movement of her own hand, finding Bremusa’s eyes.
Whatever hesitation the princess may have felt did not last long. Bremusa felt Kassandra’s fingertips graze over a firm nipple, so briefly, and the Amazon gasped. She felt like her whole body was stretched taut, like a bowstring pulled back impossibly far, and soon she would either snap or let fly. For right now she somehow found the strength not to move, as much as she desperately wanted to arch her back upwards, to reach out for more of Kassandra’s touch.
Still the hand wandered higher, up towards the neck and finding another scar. One that had almost ended Bremusa’s life so many years ago, that would have no doubt bound her for Tartarus had she not been so quick to pull back, ensuring the sword blade only nicked the throat and not tear it asunder. Following the jawline, Kassandra’s attentions left the scar and moved up over the chin, her thumb now briefly running over the Amazon’s slick lower lip before moving on again, so now her hand cupped her chin.
Kassandra held her still, her grip suddenly tightening, and Bremusa gasped again, surprised by the strength found in those fingers. Kassandra’s eyes were fixed on Bremusa’s mouth, the lips parted, the breathing heavy. She spat then, directly into the Amazon’s open mouth, and whatever surprise Bremusa felt was replaced with outright shock. There was no time to protest. Kassandra was upon her again, kissing her passionately, sucking out the spittle, pulling Bremusa’s tongue deeply into her own mouth.
Then, just as suddenly, Kassandra rolled herself over so she rested on top of the Amazon. Her hardness, not in form but in determination, again surprised Bremusa. Kassandra stared into the Amazon’s eyes, smiling wickedly. Bremusa could resist no longer. Her hands rushed up to entangle themselves in the long dark tresses, pulling the young woman down upon her forcefully. Kassandra found Bremusa’s burning hot lips, her tongue darting between them, and she seemed to revel in her own taste that lingered there.
One of Kassandra’s hands now snaked beneath herself, pushing eagerly between their two entwined bodies to where soft curls of blonde hair waited. Her fingers pushed the glory from Bremusa’s loosening thighs, ever so slowly slipping between the wet folds she found there. Only then did she break the kiss they shared, and then only just for an instant, barely enough time to take a much-needed breath.
Bremusa reached between them to urge Kassandra’s hand deeper inside her. She twisted on the furs that covered the bed so she could push her hips upwards and almost made Kassandra fall to one side. She needed to feel the weight of this woman pressing down on her, on the hand that now pushed within her with such intensity. She was suddenly finding it hard to breathe and so reluctantly turned her head away despite the pulsing rush of longing. As soon as she did so Kassandra began to plant light kisses along her jawline, along the scar which ran down her neck, and each kiss she planted seemed to be in perfect time with the rapid thrusting of her fingers.
Closing her eyes, Bremusa could not help but moan with every thrust of Kassandra’s hand, with each kiss that seemed to burn upon her skin. Her limbs now felt leaden and yet on fire all at the same time, but when the smaller woman’s thumb finally brushed against her engorged crest she jolted sharply, letting out a short cry of pleasure.
Bremusa’s temples throbbed, her pulses boiled, and she felt the irresistible pulsing rush of longing. Her breaths were coming short and fast now, almost keeping with the rhythm of the rain. She held Kassandra tight, one hand twisted into her long black hair still, the other arm wrapped around her shoulders and clutching her so tightly, pulling her as close as she possibly could. “Yes...” she whispered, her lips almost touching Kassandra’s ear, her breath hot against the pale skin. “Yes...”
Earlier, when their love-making was just beginning, she had hoped every touch of it would last an eternity. Now, so close to her climax, Bremusa recanted. Each moment that passed without reaching the release she so desperately needed seemed like agony. Without thinking, she began to mumble a supplication to Aphrodite once again, begging for the Goddess to bless her with the gift she ached for.
And for once, finally, the Goddess of love did as she was bade. Bremusa saw flashes of light explode behind her closed eyes. Sweat broke, running upon her, and her body shook as if she was consumed by a sudden fever. She thrust her hips up abruptly and froze momentarily, even as those fingers continued to drive into her, before collapsing back on to the fur-covered bed.
As she tried to calm her labored breathing, all her heart shaken beneath her breast, she realized she knew why she came to Troy. She had learned, right then, at the very height of that pleasure that proved the Gods truly loved them all. She knew. She came for Kassandra.
* * * * *
Later, when the long day had finally caught up with them and tiredness meant they could do no more, Bremusa and Kassandra lay together. Sleep eluded them. Their love-making may have exhausted them both but something still kept them from their slumbers. They didn’t speak for a longest time either, perhaps because all the words they had shared before left nothing more to be said now, and instead had been content just to lie in each other’s arms.
It was Kassandra who finally broke the silence. She lay with her head resting on the larger woman’s shoulder, her pale body huddled and half-hidden beneath the thick pile of furs, with what little showing gleaming in the torchlight. She had one arm stretched across Bremusa’s breasts, her fingers idly stroking the skin around what would soon be yet another scar.
“Will you stay with me?” she said in a hushed tone.
“While you sleep?”
She nodded, a gesture Bremusa felt against her breast rather than saw, and then nuzzled even closer. “I worry that that I am as mad as everyone believes me to be.”
Her voice was quiet still, as if she feared she would offend Eos by speaking too loudly so early in the morning. Bremusa had no such qualms. “If you are, then it is a madness I am now comfortable with. And a madness that brought me nearer to Elysium.”
Kassandra let out a snort of laughter and slapped her playfully on her stomach, sharply enough to elicit a light yelp of pain. All the same, when she spoke next there was a touch of resigned sadness to her voice, one familiar to Bremusa now.
“You said you didn’t think me mad.”
“No. But I did, before.”
“Before I met you. I was told you were mad, everyone said so...” Bremusa’s voice trailed off. She was ashamed of herself suddenly and could feel her cheeks flushing. It was just another story bandied around the taverns of Troy, she realized now, and she had been a fool to listen. And an even bigger fool to believe such drunken tales. To cover her own embarrassment, she spoke again, perhaps a little too hastily. “So tell me about... I mean, tell me why everyone thinks you are...”
She felt Kassandra’s hot breath brush over her bare skin as she sighed deeply. “Would you believe me if I told you?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I? Even if you were mad, that wouldn’t make you a liar.”
“Then you are alone, Bremusa.”
“Yes, perhaps, but thankfully not right now.”
That earned her another smile but there was no humour behind it. “They say I know the future. Whatever I dream comes to pass. Whatever I say will be, will be. That I see things before they happen.”
“And do you?”
Bremusa frowned. “How then were you granted such a gift?”
“Oh, it was never intended as a gift, believe me.” With another soft sigh Kassandra shifted on the furs, rolling on to her back so she could stare up at the smoke-blackened ceiling. “I broke a promise to the Gods. A God. And it didn’t matter in the end. Apollon took what he wanted anyway and still he punished me for just daring to resist.”
“Oh.” It was all Bremusa could think of to say. She could have doubted what Kassandra said, any of it or all of it, and perhaps if she were a little wiser then she would have. After all, that a God would be interested in a mere mortal, even one as strikingly beautiful as Kassandra... no doubt most people would see such a thought as arrogant boasting. But she somehow knew Kassandra wasn’t proud of such divine attention. It wasn’t said like that. It was the truth, she could tell. She wanted to ease Kassandra’s pain in some way but nothing came to mind. Not for the first time this day, she felt powerless.
“Yes. There are none who feel remorse more than a redhanded thief. You don’t believe me, do you? No one ever does,” she added before Bremusa could protest. “I think that amuses the Gods, to have no one ever believe what I see or what I dream of, no matter how hard I try to convince them, and no matter if they even see it come to pass.”
“That’s why you don’t think of it as a gift?”
“I suppose. Partly. Mostly it’s just because when you know what the future will be, you realize whatever decisions you make aren’t truly your own.”
Bremusa tried her hardest to bite back the resentment she suddenly felt. “I’m not some puppet, moving only at the whim of the Gods.”
“No...” Bremusa said. Now she heard the uncertainty in her own voice. Her brow furrowed as she tried to think what this meant. “Wait... if you know the future, why do you ask questions? Why didn’t you know why I came to Troy. And why didn’t you try to stop me before I slipped on that shield? And...”
Kassandra rolled over on to her side again and hushed the Amazon with a finger gently pressed against her lips. “I may see the future, I can’t change it.”
“So you knew I would end up here?” Bremusa said.
“Oh yes. Before you even thought of coming to Troy, I dreamt of you, Bremusa. Although I must admit, my dreams aren’t always so... vivid.”
Bremusa grinned at that and it must have been the reaction Kassandra was hoping for, as it brought a brief but mischievous smile to her face as well. “Do you know what the great city of the Amazones is called, our only city?”
“Of course. Themiskrya.”
“Named after Themis.”
“Yes, yes,” said Kassandra with an impatient nod, “the Goddess of divine justice, I know. So?”
“She protects our city and in return we honour her as best we can. To do so, we try to make sure that everyone gets exactly what they deserve, just as she would wish.”
“Ah... I see.”
“I don’t think you do. Themis shows herself in two aspects, brought together as one. The sword...”
Finally, understanding dawned for Kassandra. She nodded slowly, the crestfallen look that had passed over her face a moment before quickly fading away as she thought about what was being said. “And the ability to prophesy...”
Bremusa smiled and stared into Kassandra’s dark eyes. There was a madness in those eyes. No, Bremusa corrected herself, not in, but behind. A little shard of discord, scrabbling to be free. It was as if Eris herself had claimed that body as her own, only to find the strong-willed Kassandra had other ideas. And now, stuck fast in a mortal frame, the enraged Goddess desperately sought to be released, or failing that, at least to make her presence known.
Perhaps that was why Kassandra really drank, Bremusa thought. Not to make her madness less obvious and more palatable to those around her but simply to keep the voices she heard dull, the visions of the future she saw blurred and indistinct, like the happy laughter of a former lover seen through tears.
She couldn’t imagine living like that, always knowing everything and never being believed – it would drive anyone mad... and it probably had. Bremusa sighed. Never before had her heart felt so broken into submission as now.
“I wouldn’t want that responsibility,” she finally said.
Kassandra looked puzzled again. “Responsibility? The only responsibilities I have are my daughterly ones, and even my father would have to admit I flout those as often as I can. This is no responsibility; this is a curse.”
“That’s only because you’re looking at the battle and thinking the wound causes the sword to swing,” Bremusa said. Seeing that her explanation only added to Kassandra’s confusion, she tried again. “You believe the future is already set, so when you dream you see something that will happen. Instead, perhaps that future is still uncertain, but whenever you dream you make that future...” She waved a hand above her as if she could pluck the right word out of the air.
“Coalesce?” Kassandra suggested, nodding along. She was thinking hard about what the Amazon was suggesting.
It was as good a word as any. “Yes. What if you dreamed of something and so made it true?”
“I... I don’t know...”
Bremusa pressed her point. “You think the Gods cursed you? Perhaps they did. But only because you might be more powerful than even them. What you dream, happens. You might even be making it happen.”
Kassandra seemed to consider that as if it the thought had never occurred to her before. “I wonder if that’s not true. Perhaps I’m more powerful than I believe I am. Perhaps the future is already set, which is why everyone is so insistent on it, and I see only what I long to see. And when I speak of it, no one else understands because they can only know of the future already written, but the Gods are busy rewriting the future just for me.”
She laughed again, then bent her head to kiss Bremusa briefly but passionately. “Isn’t that a thought? You’re cleverer than you like to let on, aren’t you, my Amazon?”
Kassandra rolled back over and sank back into the furs, her smile fading. “It doesn’t matter. Lately, I have begun to dream of horses. Rather, a single white horse, just the one. I see it running across the sand towards the city, in darkness at first, and then through flames. Every night I am plagued by the same nightmare.”
“What do you think it means?”
“Nothing, perhaps,” Kassandra said with the tiniest shrug, “but I fear it bodes ill for us all.”
“Maybe it doesn’t mean anything,” Bremusa said eventually, although even to her the words sounded unconvincing. The rain had finally stopped, she realized. A gentle breeze wafted in through the balcony, bringing with it the cold morning air and the barest scent of the roses from the garden below. “It could just be a dream, nothing more.”
“It could. And perhaps I won’t dream of it tonight. But even if I don’t, I worry there will be worse things to suffer through today than mere dreams.”
Bremusa smiled and pulled the dark-haired woman closer to her, hugging her as tightly as she could. “I don’t believe you.”
“No,” Kassandra said sadly, “you wouldn’t.”