“You will always love the wrong men,” Cassandra breathes. “And that will bring you nothing but sorrow.”
It’s Helen’s oldest darkest fear, and as Cassandra’s words draw it into the sunlight it melts away like smoke.
The corner of Cassandra’s mouth crooks up, a bittersweet struggle of a smile. Cassandra is not beautiful—Cassandra might have been beautiful, before. But the smile she tries to form is kind, the effort in it kinder still, and Helen values kindness so much more than beauty. Aphrodite is beautiful. Only Hector and Priam and now Cassandra are kind.
“And you?” Helen asks.
Cassandra will never speak of herself.
The war drags on, one year, three, five. Cassandra clings to Helen and tells her terrible things—Hector slain, his body stolen; Priam killed; little Astyanax killed; Hecuba and Andromache taken.
Helen wraps her arms tighter around Cassandra’s shaking body and tries not to take comfort in Cassandra’s terror, in the things that sound so deadly possible until spoken.
“Does it help?” Cassandra asks, turning her fear-bright face up to Helen. “You never call me only mad, or mock me; does it help you to hear what I have to say?”
Helen closes her eyes. “Yes.”
“It helps to say it,” Cassandra says, and lets her head settle again on Helen’s shoulder. “It helps to be listened to.”
“And you? What will happen to you?”
Cassandra never answers, but Helen keeps asking. She imagines Cassandra promising her that no harm will come to her, and wonders if that reassurance would be as terrifying as every tale of death is not.
“That won’t help.” Cassandra’s voice is very soft and very clear. Helen thinks of the day’s last gleam of sunlight almost disappearing below the sea, and the stillness of the night following.
Cassandra shakes her head. Her hair, wind-rough, drags across Helen’s throat.
Helen buys sweet things in the market (the whispers follow her there, words that bite into her spirit like poison) and brings them to Cassandra, who is scoured pale and thin with worry. Her screams wake the whole palace some nights, and Helen abandons diplomacy to defend her.
“I’m not hungry,” Cassandra says.
“Just a bite,” Helen says. She’d traded a bracelet for the little box of honey-drenched fruit. Even in wartime luxuries can be had, for a price; Paris taught her that. For herself Helen doesn’t care, but she will trade away all her jewels in turn if it tempts Cassandra to eat. She’d trade more, and count it cheap, to relieve Cassandra’s mind as Cassandra relieves hers.
Cassandra reaches out and takes a piece of fruit. The honey clings, sticky and golden, to her fingers, and Helen watches her lick them clean and tries not to care.
Helen turns, quickly, but the unevenness in Cassandra’s voice seems more likely to have been laughter than dismay. Cassandra’s eyes are luminous, unshadowed.
“Shall I tell you how Achilles will die?”
She hates Achilles almost as much as she hates herself, for the destruction they have both brought on the people of Troy.
How will he die? How can she hope? What use will whatever Cassandra tells her be, unless Cassandra means to promise her that Achilles will die at a great age, happily, in bed—which is impossible, surely. If the gods have any kindness at all, surely.
But the light in Cassandra’s eyes has spread across her face, and the line of her mouth holds like the string of a drawn bow, ready to move.
“How?” Helen asks.
“Paris will kill him,” Cassandra says.
It takes Helen a moment, and then she laughs, really laughs, the sound wrenched from the knot of worry in her belly to spill into the air. As if she’d just been waiting for—needing—this, Cassandra’s expression cracks open into a smile of her own, softer and less wild than the mirth that is emptying Helen out, leaving her light and giddy; the tears that stream down her cheeks seem to wash her clean.
Paris will kill Achilles? Paris who has half-tired of Helen now and never cared to defend her? Paris, selfish and vain and cowardly? That Paris, kill the most fearsome of the Achaeans—the most fearsome warrior that Troy has ever faced?
Cassandra steadies Helen when her laughter unbalances her, holds her once the storm has died down to tired giggling. She looks happier than Helen has ever seen her, tender and proud.
“I would like to tell you,” Cassandra begins, and stops.
The sun catches in her hair, bringing deep gleams of midnight blue and darkest wine out of the coiled mass of black. The sharp lines of her nose and cheek are outlined in gold.
“Tell me.” Helen means it as a question, an encouragement, but it isn’t one; gentle as it is, it’s a plea. She wants to know Cassandra as clearly as Cassandra knows her.
“When I was just grown to womanhood I caught the eye of Apollo himself,” Cassandra says, very slowly, as if she has to drag each word to her lips. It would be easy to dismiss this as more madness, but Helen, god-bartered herself, cannot. Something in Cassandra’s voice evokes the unforgettable weight of Aphrodite’s eyes on her. “He offered me prophecy, if I would be his lover. I could know everything that came to pass, and guide the kings of Troy in their actions so that Troy might be the glory of this age of men. I was tempted, I—I did not discourage him.”
Her voice breaks, and she looks away.
Helen reaches out, helplessly, and Cassandra leans into her and draws a deep shaking breath. And goes on, as if somehow Helen still has strength to offer her. “I should have, from the start. I have never had any desire for men. I thought—I hoped it would be different, with a god, or for such a gift. But gods in the shape of men are not that different from men, I found. I changed my mind, I was terrified, I—he released me. He said…”
It does no good to curse the gods, but Helen, soundless and raging, does. Cassandra trembles against her, the catch of her breath each time she inhales like a sob.
Shadows move across the stone under their feet. Finally Cassandra says, “He said I could have his curse instead of his blessing, for teasing him. Since I had wanted the gift so much.”
She is silent, then.
Helen wonders at the courage it must have taken Cassandra, when the things that might have been prophecy are nothing but a tangle of impossibilities and madness, to tell how it all began. How easy it would be to doubt her.
“I believe you,” she says, and Cassandra goes even more still. Tension and hope seem almost to leak from her into Helen where they touch. “I believe it, Cassandra, that everything happened just as you said.”
Cassandra draws back, entirely away. The air is sharp between them, but Cassandra’s gaze burns when it meets Helen’s: frantic, yearning, desperate and despairing.
“I believe you.”
Cassandra says, “I would tell you your future, if telling you would help.”
Helen has been in Troy for almost nine years. She wishes it were more, she wishes it were all her life. She wishes she had been a maiden of Troy and not a wife brought to it. She could love Troy, if things had been different.
“What do you mean?” she asks.
Cassandra’s smile is sad, and Helen wonders if it’s vanity or a fool’s hope to think that Cassandra might manage a smile at all only because it’s for Helen. “It would bring you grief if I told you, from now until it comes to pass.”
There are so many awful fates—Helen’s mind whirls between them, tortures, deaths, despair, and finally drops, weary of spinning, and she thinks of none of them at all. She imagines that the Achaeans might give up and leave her be, and Paris without his war might let her go entirely, and she might then be able to piece together a quiet life made of the reparations she owes everyone who has not thrown her over the walls these nine long years.
There is a change in the air, like storms just over the horizon.
Helen stops Cassandra at twilight with a hand to her wrist, and Cassandra stays, though the air is growing cold around them.
“When you said you had no desire for men,” Helen says carefully, “did you mean—women? or no one at all?” Her heart thuds drumlike in her ears. Five beats, before Cassandra answers, but it seems much longer.
“Women,” Cassandra says. “Sometimes.”
And Helen could leave it at that, Helen perhaps should leave it at that, while it still might be a question asked from nothing but curiosity. Helen’s love is tragedy and war and death, and Cassandra is already even more broken than she is. Cassandra should have someone pure and strong, not Helen who has come to Troy like a plague and has no strength left in her. It is selfish to want Cassandra, when Helen has done nothing for her, can do nothing for her. And it is frightening to think that perhaps Cassandra is so glad to have her as a friend that Cassandra might want nothing else, might be horrified at the idea of anything else.
Maybe if they lived in peacetime she might have left it after all. But Troy could fall the next day. Priam’s patience with Helen could prove less than endless after all, and he could turn her back over to Menelaus (and Agamemnon and all their armies) in exchange for peace. There are too many ways she might never see Cassandra again for her to stay silent.
She thinks about asking Cassandra whether they will grow old together, and doesn’t: whatever the answer, she has no wish to hear it, not from Cassandra, not in words that can only ever comfort one of them. (Helen thinks she knows the answer anyway; she hugs it to herself, a shadow she dares not let any light banish.)
So instead she says, “Do you think…could you care for me?”
Cassandra’s eyes focus through Helen on the far distance, a frightening look even though Helen has seen it before. “They will leave so much out of you when they speak of your beauty—they will praise the shape of your mouth but not the words it spoke in defense of a mad prophetess, or the cruelties it never said to her; they will praise the whiteness of your arms and never mention how gold they burned in the sun of your city and the time we spent on the walls; they will praise the color of your eyes and forget entirely that you saw me, you saw me. They will misjudge you entirely, you who are nothing but heart, they will call you heartless, they will forget everything.”
The words wash through Helen, and the bitter sweep past and are gone, leaving her with only the sweet.
“I will remember,” Cassandra says, urgent as a vow. She is here again, not the elsewhen of her madness. “I’ll remember who you are, Helen. You asked if I could care for you—I always have.”
She leans forward and kisses Helen, fierce and sharp, nothing that Helen had expected from her. It’s quick and brilliant and searing as lightning, and then over, and Cassandra whispers into the air between them, soft as she’d first said it all those years ago, “I told you you would always love the wrong men, and it would only ever bring you sorrow. That was true, and so is this—I am not a man.”
Helen breathes the words in, tastes them like dawn without any smoke in the wind. “Nor wrong,” she says, kissing Cassandra again, gentler this time, and Cassandra sighs against her mouth in what feels like relief and kisses back.