Three warriors brought together on the plains of Troy, between city walls and the charred hulks of the Achaian ships.
Achilles stalked up and down in the middle distance, the fringes on his helm shaking with each step and his face set with grief. Hector, hand trembling, reached back to Deiphobos for his spear.
Nothing in his hand. No familiar weight of ash and bronze.
"Deiphobos," Hector said, jabbing his hand back again, but he knew now there would be no answer. The presence he’d felt at his side, the one who’d brought him out here and away from safety, was still there, but not the same. Not sweat and leather and human warmth, but the high cool chill of Olympus. Already reaching for his sword, he turned his head just far enough to see grey-eyed Athena staring back, implacable.
Achilles, teeth gleaming in a snarl, raised his own spear and charged.
"Next Zeus married bright Themis who bare the Horae (Hours), and Eunomia (Order), Dike (Justice), and blooming Eirene (Peace), who mind the works of mortal men…" --Hesiod, Theogony. Trans. Hugh G Evelyn-White.
Eunomia found Dike midway down the twentieth century, where the few thin strands of belief that still persisted were knotted into something stronger by the tides of war. She was on her knees in a storeroom, one hand pulling at the fastenings of a battered canvas satchel while the other sorted through an open first aid box.
"You can’t do it," Eunomia said.
Dike put a handful of thin paper packets ("for topical application, 5g sterile crystalline sulphanilamide") on to the floor beside her, next to a collection of brown glass vials. The top few packets slithered to the floor.
"It’s not just," she said, not looking up. The stiff buckle finally gave way, and she pulled the tongue free. "They interfere all the time."
Eunomia leaned against the door frame, and felt it shift from metal to marble and back again.
"Would you challenge the gods, then?" she asked. The blade of the question cut her as well, its edge undulled by all the years between then and now.
"It’s not just," Dike said again. She picked up the loose packets and sat back on her heels, finally staring up at her sister. "I just need to save one."
Eunomia didn’t ask which one. Dike was justice, and obligation, and loyalty. It was not just to be given away as a prize with no say in the matter; not fair to find yourself in a war for the sake of a brother who’d been a burning brand since his conception.
"The story is complete, gods or no," she said. The storeroom wavered around them, changing to a classroom, chalk dust hanging in the sunlight air; then the damp stone walls and smell of trampled rushes in a feudal hall, and finally the stones of a grave barrow and the ashes of a pyre cooling next to it, on the Trojan plains.
Dike opened her hands, letting the drugs fade back into the future. Their surroundings shifted again to the slopes of Mount Parnassus, hellebore, anenome and saxifrage bright and gallant against the pale limestone. In the distance, someone was singing.
"Then I’ll change its echoes," she said.
Erato, the muse of love poetry
Helen pulled her hand back from the water. The drops that fell were quickly absorbed into the waves, lost without trace, and the chill on her skin faded almost as fast. She rested her hand on the wooden rail of the boat and looked ahead into the dawn.
Alessandro was sprawled out along the prow, gaze fixed on the distant smudges of buildings emerging from the mists. What she could see of his face was lit up by more than the morning sun. He’d looked at her like that, too, when they met in the shadows of her husband’s court; but it was his voice that had persuaded her, not his face. Whispering into her ear, telling her of his home.
The smudges were more distinct shapes now, red and pink and orange like coral, but made rather than grown. A tall narrow tower with precise corners stood out above the haze, gold gleaming from the top.
The campanile, Paris had murmured. From up there you can see the whole city, a jewel, small enough to hold in your hand...
The rower behind her dug the blade of his oar into the sea with a splash. When Helen looked down again there were dozens of sharp glints in the water, like spears, and dark forms massing below them. She blinked again, and they were just fish, small and silver, scattering through the water.
Too late to return, now.
The gondola docked in front of the palace, a building decorated with stone carvings as fine and intricate as lace. There were people everywhere, and all of them seemed to be watching Helen. At the edge of the waterfront there was a smaller group, dressed in velvets and furs, with faces that were not just waiting but judging.
Paris scrambled out and hugged one of the women, saying something too quickly for Helen to comprehend. The rower busied himself with the mooring rope. Helen looked down at the water lapping against the wood of the dock.
"My lady," a voice said.
The face she saw when she looked up was a duller, older version of Alessandro’s; an everyday face, but kind. Oh, the heir’s my brother Ettore, Alessandro had said, rolling his eyes, So responsible... He was holding out his hand.
His grip didn’t waver, even as Helen hauled herself up to balance awkwardly on her split and scaled tail. He kept holding her hand even when she was on the dock and Paris gestured for women to wrap her lower half in salt-water soaked cloths, keeping her safely concealed.
"I hope you will be happy here," Ettore said.
A black-headed gull that had been watching them with sharp grey eyes from the top of a mooring post cawed, its cry harsh and piercing.
Clio, the muse of history
Hetty swung her hockey stick up on to her shoulder and frowned at an inoffensive patch of ivy that was curling across the brick arch of the gymnasium. This whole inter-house rivalry had gone on quite long enough. What had begun as a childish squabble over who would share a study with whom had now spilled over into a school-wide argument, with everybody bent on expressing their own opinion. As the senior prefect of Wilusa House, Hetty felt she bore some responsibility, but she found herself at a loss as to how to intervene – particularly given her own games captain was one of the chief instigators.
She was still thinking when she arrived at the hockey field for practice and found the other girls in two clumps on either side of the field, glowering at each other. Nelly, who considered herself the injured party in the whole affair, was pacing up and down in front of one of the groups, holding forth in an aggrieved tone. Hetty sighed, and bent down to lace her boots.
"Awfully dire, isn’t it?"
Hetty looked up to see Helen, the cause of all the argument, standing in front of her. She looked cool and neat in her summer uniform – Helen didn’t play hockey – and sounded amused, but the face under the shady brim of her straw hat looked more than a little regretful.
"Silly little beasts," Hetty said. "And we’ve the match against Sparta this weekend."
Helen bit her lip. "Perhaps I should –" she began, but Hetty shook her head.
"No," she said, her mind quite made up. "They need to stop quarrelling themselves. But they need an excuse, and I’m about to give them one."
She strode out on to the field clapping for attention just as Paris arrived, laughing and breathless, hair tumbling loose on her shoulders.
"Don’t start without me! Look, I’m just putting –"
"Now." Hetty’s deeper voice cut across Paris’ light tones. "This has gone on quite long enough, and it’s dragging down the school. So Paris – " she turned, looking. "Nelly. Come here."
The two of them came, their respective followers trailing behind them.
"Right." Hetty, between them, leaned on her hockey stick. "Let’s settle this like gentlemen. A duel."
Both of them looked startled, but Paris was the first to speak. "A duel?" she said, incredulous, but Hetty was already overriding her.
"You’re all carrying on as if this were something important," she said. "If it’s that important, you should be prepared to fight for it."
Hetty had hoped was that the sheer ridiculousness of the idea would bring them back to the senses. Instead, to her disappointment – if not surprise – Nelly suddenly lunged at Paris, hands outstretched. Paris ducked, but not in time to avoid having her hair yanked.
"You cat!" Paris swung back wildly. Nelly stepped back and kicked out with accuracy.
Hetty scrambled out from between the combatants, rapidly re-considering the merits of her plan. Certainly, the other girls seemed undistressed, each cheering for their own fighter, but – Hetty shook her head. No, this had gone on too long for simple diplomacy.
But as the fight progressed it became apparent the advantage was all Nelly’s. Not only was she fast and nimble, as befitted the Argives’ wing forward. But Paris, a competent enough centre, seemed incapable of pressing Nelly, and flinched whenever she came close – no, surely not? The games captain, a coward?
Nelly grabbed Paris by her necktie and shook her like a rat, and Paris did nothing but hang there limply. Hetty opened her mouth to declare Nelly the winner, when suddenly a presence descended upon the field, and Miss Pallas, the games mistress, was among them, grey eyes flashing.
"Brawling in public! Bullying!" She swooped on Paris, pulling her away from Nelly and into the shelter of her arm. "Are you injured?"
Paris shrugged, looking dazed, but Miss Pallas was already turning on the rest of the girls. "I am appalled at your behaviour," she declared. "You are all to report to the Great Hall immediately – immediately! – while I take this poor child to Matron. And as of this moment, you are all on silence."
Hetty picked up her stick. In the distance Helen followed along behind Paris and Miss Pallas, her back rigid and unreadable.
Euterpe, the muse of lyric poetry
Andoro pushed away the mascara-wielding hand of one of the five make-up artists hovering around her to see Polyxena bouncing up and down, the stiff red layers of her tutu quivering with excitement. Since Andoro had last seen her she’d knotted tiny golden bells into her pigtails that tinkled with each bounce.
"What is it?" Andromache asked, amused.
Polyxena stopped mid-bounce and leant forward, bringing one hand up to her mouth as if guarding her words.
"Aki-kun isn’t going to perform," she hissed. Loudly. The make-up artists froze as well, and the man who’d been advancing on Andoro with an outstretched pair of hair-straighteners fumbled and dropped them with a clatter. Andoro waved them all away.
"Not perform?" she said. Polyxena had to be wrong, but Andoro felt hope rising inside her anyway. The women’s Red team had lost the last nine Kohaku Uta Gassen New Year’s Eve song contests, and would probably lose the tenth as well; but Aki, although young, was the strongest contestant on the opposing men’s White team. She forced her excitement down again. "Really?"
Polyxena nodded, bells chiming in emphasis. "Really. He and Agame-san argued over who got Briseis-san as a lead backing dancer, because she’s been training with Aki-san, but Agame-san’s Chryseis-san had to go back to Hokkaido because her father’s very ill, and Agame-san said he had to have Briseis-san instead. She’s very pretty, don’t you think?"
Backstage gossip, surely. Andoro stood up, pulling her overskirt free from another persistent aide, and walked over to one of the stage monitors to check the countdown. Polyxena trailed in her wake. On screen, Helen, immaculate as always, sang a slow ballad for her lost home, while ribbon dancers wove patterns of regret in the background. Five more minutes.
"He’ll perform," she said, not looking behind her. Helen finished, and the hosts exchanged banter; nothing about Aki, but she found herself staring at the White team’s host. There was sweat on his forehead, and he stumbled on one of his lines. She tried not to make anything of it.
The voice that answered her wasn’t Polyxena’s. She spun round.
Heki smiled at her. "He won’t," he repeated, gently, and took her hand.
Andoro tightened her fingers on his. "So we have a chance?"
He kissed her on the hand, trained by years of performances not to disturb her make-up. "Please, do your best," he said, an answer in itself, and yet another aide was there, fussing and pushing him out of the way, ushering Andoro away through the wings and on to her entrance spot. She took a deep breath, checked ahead where the judges sat, waiting above the crowd like the gods on Olympus, and thought, for the first time, about victory.
They announced Aki’s withdrawal after her song, the White team host obviously distressed and the Red team’s offering relieved sympathies. Andoro fought her way through a crowd of dancers dressed as eggplants in shiny purple tuxedoes, each of them expressing their own opinion about the news, and found Kasando and Polyxena drinking sips of smuggled sake in a corner while the live on-stage feed played on Kasando’s laptop. Polyxena flung her arms around Andoro.
"Not yet," Kasando said, always pessimistic, but even she brightened up as act after act went on, with no Aki, and the Red team were obviously struggling. When Kurosu came out in Aki’s expensive firebird costume, belatedly, the wires designed to carry him down to the stage in a glorious entry of flames and smoke got stuck, leaving him hanging ("like a chicken waiting for the pot," Polyxena said). His performance, after that, was surprisingly competent; but he couldn’t hit the high notes, and he wasn’t Aki.
Kasando took Andoro’s cell phone away from her to text in her votes, ignoring her pleas that she needed it to find Heki. Polyxena had rounded up half a dozen junior dancers on roller skates and was teaching them a Greek circle dance. Andoro fought her way back through the crowd, looking for an unoccupied (and undamaged) bathroom.
Past Aki’s dressing room, door still shut and silent, and Andoro found what she was looking for. As she opened the door a woman walked briskly down the corridor, heels clicking. She was dressed in silver armour, a costume Andoro didn't remember, and dark glasses hid her eyes. Andoro slid the door shut behind her. She heard the woman’s footsteps stop, and a sharp knock.
Urania, the muse of astronomy
Outside the viewport the burned-out hulks hung in loose clusters, debris orbiting slowly around them and the blue sphere of the Earth watching above. Achilles let his fist thump against the bulkhead, controlling the impact, when all he wanted to do was rip everything apart. There was ash in his eyelashes when he blinked, all he could smell was melted plastic, and he ached, bone-deep, but none of that mattered anymore.
"Replay," he said to the AI, again, and for the thousandth time he watched Patroclus spin out of control in the Aspis, destabilised by a rogue AI, and then the unlucky shot from behind that knocked out all his shielding. Achilles made himself watch, as he hadn’t when it had all happened, as Patroclus tried to regain control and get closer to the Klisieh and safety. Fuel spilled silently into space and froze, the external lights on the Aspis flickered, candles in a strong wind, and Hector in the Harma came up from below like a shark and fired into the belly of the Aspis, splintering it into a thousand pieces.
Patroclus hadn’t died instantly. Achilles muttered to the AI, and it expanded all the data from the EVA suit, audio as well as visual, starting with the harsh claxon of the alarm after Patroclus’ helmet was torn loose. Ten seconds, and the water on Patroclus’ tongue boiled away, the soft tissues of his face bulging against empty space. Twenty seconds, and the oxygen probe alarms went off; forty, and he was convulsing and cyanosed. And then the seconds ticked off slowly, inexorably, while Patroclus’ heart – the heart Achilles had lain next to only two nights ago, listening to the warm solid beat through Patroclus’ chest – continued to beat. Until, at three minutes and eighteen seconds the arterial pressure fell below critical, and the blood boiled in his veins.
Achilles cut off the suit data, but the monitors continued in a silent indictment. Hector had gone EVA himself, suit tether uncoiling behind him as he navigated to the suit and, piece by piece, disassembled it to take back with him, leaving Patroclus drifting free in nothing but a bloodstained thermowrap, his body battered into incomprehensibility.
The Trojans were already using the suit’s codes, cutting through the panicking Achaians and forcing them back, and back again. The AI showed Achilles the Troy orbital station, as fragile and as distant as ever, and all the conditional probabilities, calculated to five decimal places.
Fight and die. Run and live.
"What do you think?" he said to the AI.
"You know why we're fighting. Is it worth it?"
The AI hummed, indicating a need for further input. Achilles shook himself. Suddenly he wanted to run, physically, somewhere where his bare feet could strike the ground, until he was exhausted and the air burned clear down into his lungs. Ten years in space now, and no end in sight other than his own.
"I don’t mind dying if it means something," he said. The AI kept humming.
"Athena?" Achilles said. "Tell me what to do."
The death of Hector on the plain of Troy was considered throughout the classical world to be the acme of the tragic experience in literature, and the passage continued to be held in the same esteem well into the medieval period. An Irish scribe of post-Roman times, having copied out an account of a Latin retelling of Hector’s death, wrote a personal note in the manuscript’s margin: "I am greatly grieved at the above-mentioned death." – Thomas Cahill, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea.
Dike was weeping, her face red and blotchy, and her voice was choked with emotion.
"Why won’t it change?" she said, groping for Eunomia’s hand in the grass next to her. Eunomia squeezed it in reassurance, and looked up at the circle of muses.
"It’s Athena, isn’t it?" she said on her sister’s behalf. "Changing things?"
Melpomene pushed her tragedian’s mask back on her head and stared down at the two of them.
"What makes you think the events you describe were going to happen any other way?"
Dike sniffled. "Because they’re different," she said, voice breaking on the last word. Eunomia squeezed her hand again, and wondered if the muses would mind if she dipped a handkerchief in one of their sacred springs to clean her sister’s face.
Melpomene shrugged. "You wanted the same story." She reached up to pull the mask back into place. When she spoke again, her voice was cold and metallic. "Do you think the gods can undo their actions, once past? Can anyone?"
Dike covered her face with her hands, shoulders heaving. One by one the muses drifted away, uninterested in their younger and more limited half-sisters. A warbler chirruped from a low branch behind them.
Calliope was the last to leave. As Homer’s muse, she had declined to offer the sisters a story, but not unkindly. Eunomia tugged Dike to her feet and ducked her head in apology.
"I’m sorry," she said, but Calliope held up her hand, palm out. Eunomia halted.
"Go forward," Calliope said, her words chiming like bells. "You can always tell a new story."
Thalia, muse of comedy
"Hello?" Helen stepped hesitantly into the dusty room, her footsteps echoing. A few dozen scrolls were scattered carelessly on the low wooden table. "Is anyone here?"
No one answered, but the room didn't feel empty. Shrugging, Helen walked forward, looking down at the scrolls. She traced the edge of one with a finger, wary of damaging such a priceless object, and wondered what the marks on it were saying...
"Ah, there you are."
Helen jumped. Priam had come up on her before she'd realised. The lantern in his hand swayed to and fro, sending shadows bouncing around the walls. Priam's robes were torn and stained, and his hair dishevelled; he looked more than thirty years older than the kind and noble king she'd met when she first came to Troy.
"I am sorry," she said, but he had put the lantern down with a thump and was sorting through the scrolls, pushing them aside with irritated, jerky movements. "I was very fond of Hector."
Priam put his finger down on one of the marks in front of him and stared into the darkness in front of him. "So was I," he said, after a moment.
Helen swallowed, her throat thick.
"My son's body has lain outside these city walls for eight days and nights," Priam said. He was still looking into nothingness. "And yet it remains incorruptible, as fresh as the moment Achilles let out his life's blood. And, every morning in the Achaian camp, another corpse is found, drained white, with none of our soldiers to take account for it."
"I'm not sure-"
"It's happened before." Priam's finger tightened on the scroll. "The dead rise, but they do not remember the living. They destroy them, and of some they make more of themselves, until their black tide covers the earth. Unless they are stopped..."
He shoved the scroll away and gazed at Helen. "You beat your brothers at wrestling in the sports of your youth, and outran all comers at the games. Did you ever think there was more to you than some man's prize?"
Helen shook her head in denial, even as her heart beat faster. She'd beaten all that down inside her years ago, a battle more bitter than any ordained by rules or referees.
"Into each generation one girl is born," Priam said. "A Chosen one, with the strength and skill to hunt the vampires."
Helen, staring back at him, felt her hand tighten as if reaching for a weapon.
"The Slayer," Priam said, and let the scroll roll shut with a snap. "Cup of tea?"