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Quid Igne?

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"I want Polyxena."

The line's always crackly when my father calls me. It's hard to make out his words over the rasp of rain on the grimy window.

"You want who?"

"Polyxena. Hector's sister." Then something about Troilus, and something about a temple. I get about one word in three, but it's not worth making him repeat himself. Achilles, hero of the War, man of honour (though he was draft-dodging in drag when he met my mother), never repeats himself. You're expected to be listening first time round.

"Polyxena?" I repeat, when the crackling settles down to silence. "Isn't she dead?"

"She's alive," says Achilles.

"She's the girl who told them about ..." About your heel, I don't say. Told them how you could be killed. Paris and Deiophobus, with their bows: or Apollo himself, if you believe what you read in the red-tops. I never believe anything with a by-line.

"And now to make amends," says my father. "I want you to do it."

"Do what?"

"Make the sacrifice," and suddenly his words are very clear. "Slit her throat and send her scurrying down to me."

* * *

I don't like the idea of slitting a girl's throat, never mind if she's responsible for my father's death. Turns out I'm not the only one. Next morning -- though it's dark enough for night, the sun never shines here any more and the rain comes down, and down -- there's a middle-aged woman waiting for me in my office, dressed in black: designer black, though it's stained with mud and crumpled with wear. Her face is crumpled, too, but that's just grief. I've seen a lot of that since the War ended.

I know who she is before she says a word, but I let her tell me anyway.

"I am Hecuba, who was Queen of Troy." She speaks like an oracle, like a woman who's used to addressing crowds. "All my children are lost to me, taken by the Greeks, hurried down to Hades: all my children save my daughter Polyxena, my last joy. Please, please don't take her from me!"

"I'm Pyrrhus," I say, though she has to know this already. "Achilles has asked for Polyxena, and I must honour his wishes: he is my father."

"He is dead," spits Hecuba. "My daughter is alive."

"Many are dead," I say. "Let your daughter be the last."

"Take me instead!" she pleads, and the tears start. I knew she'd cry. I don't offer her a tissue.

"Why would he want you?" I say. It's vicious, but it's true. She's not young: her body's slack with age and grief and all those kids. My father might welcome her death, but he'd cold-shoulder her ghost. Not like pretty Polyxena. (I checked her file. She's a doll.)

"Polyxena is young," sobs Hecuba. I don't want to be impressed by the way she holds my gaze despite the tears. "You might wed her. Any living man might wed her. Don't send her down to the dark, I beg you."

"It isn't my call," I say, and it's not really a lie.

* * *

Polyxena must've been watching my door, because the echo of Hecuba slamming it has hardly died away before she's cracking it open again, slinking in like a lady who doesn't want to be seen. Her hair is slick and dark with rain, but I know from the photographs that it's pale and fine when it's dry. Her dress is wet and clinging, too, which makes up for the high collar and the long skirt. Never mind if she doesn't want anyone to see her, she's a sight worth looking at.

"I'm sorry," I blurt out before she can say anything. Funny: it's not even a lie.

"Don't be sorry." She's hoarse -- she must have wept and wailed at a lot of funerals lately -- and she doesn't help anything by lighting up a cigarette. (I take the one she offers me.)

"My father --"

"I ... admired him," she says, staring out of my window at the rain, the ruins, the distant looming ships at the quay. "Your father. He was a great man."

"I know."

"If things had ... if the War had never happened, I would have wed him gladly."

I try to think of her as a stepmother. Can't. She's nothing like my mother Deidamia at all. My mother is like a statue, solemn, burnished, a work of art. Polyxena is no older than me: she looks very young, in a way I don't think I ever was, in her damp dress, with her pale skin and red red lips.

"If the War had never happened, we'd none of us be here," I say roughly.

"I don't mind. What he wants. That he wants me." She's smoked her cigarette to the filter: she lights another, hands deft, without looking down, and keeps talking. "I'd rather die a princess -- a virgin princess -- than live a slave amongst your ... amongst the Greeks."

"We're not savages," I snap. "You'd be --"

"Send me to your father," says Polyxena, lifting her chin. "I shan't flinch from it." Then, softly, "will you do it? Will you make the sacrifice?"

It's the only thing I can do for her.

"Tonight," I say. "At my father's tomb."