"I came here to win Helen's hand," he said, looking around discontentedly. "But it looks like I'll have a lot of competition."
"Does that bother you?" asked the young lady next to him. Her eyes were frank and curious as she looked into his, no hint of the dissembler before him. Not tactful, perhaps, but no gift for lying, either. Odysseus wished they'd put him next to one of the others. Iphthime, perhaps, who was more beautiful; or Clytemnestra, who was more entertaining.
"It doesn't bother me in the least," he said, except of course it did. If he beat Agamemnon to the punch, which he could, then that would make for a decidedly uncomfortable meeting next time. If he lost (deliberately, natch), then that would be decidedly embarrassing. Bit of a no-win situation.
"It should," said the lady, occupying herself with peeling a grape. Odysseus shook his head, more in irritation than anything else. "If you win, you'll have to deal with all the others. Probably in battle, too, and though Ithaca's no shrinking violet, I doubt you can stand up to the forces of Mycenae plus everyone else here."
It was on the tip of his tongue to protest that of course he could; he was Odysseus and if nothing else, he could probably talk Agamemnon out of it. But for a moment he was so surprised that he could only reply smoothly to her farewell, without thinking of a way to get her alone and quiz her on her knowledge of his military strength.
He watched her go, and when he turned back to the other guests Iphthime seemed a little less pretty and Clytemnestra a little more dull.
"I think you're right," he said to her eventually. "Marrying your cousin would be more trouble than it was worth."
"I knew you were clever," she said. "I think we are all too much of a hassle, personally. If I were a man, I'd wash my hands of the lot of us."
"All of you?"
"Well, Clytemnestra will always be the one who isn't Zeus's daughter, after all. She's never had much patience with Helen as it is; can you imagine another thirty years of being compared to her? No man would stand for it; no woman will, either. And Timandra's barely been married a year and it seems she already has a boy-toy. The rumours aren't repeated in Tyndareus's house, of course, but that doesn't stop them spreading. And as for me..."
"What spoils your chances?" he asked. She was no Helen (but Odysseus had realised fairly swiftly that it would be no picnic to be married to Helen), but she was lovely. It might be counted against her that she was quick-witted and quicker-tongued, for no man wanted a wife who was smarter than he was, but - she wasn't even looking at him.
"My father," she said, her voice weary. "He says no man shall marry me unless that man can race him and win."
Odysseus considered this. "Isn't your father Icarius? The champion runner?"
"Yes." She sighed, looking so dejected that Odysseus had to restrain himself from trying to tickle her. "No one has ever beaten him."
"He is the fastest man in the world," she said, some pride creeping into her voice. "He says only the man fleeter of foot than he is worthy of his daughter."
The comment rankled and Odysseus got up and left after a few more minutes. No one appreciated Ithaca, that was the trouble. He'd show her worthy. In all the contests for Helen's hand he would show her his mettle, his skill and his honestly - or dishonestly - magnificent brain. The son of Laertes was worthy of any woman.
With this in mind, just to make sure, Odysseus went to Athena's temple to pour a few libations. You know. Just in case.
Icarius had proved surprisingly spry for an old man.
"Old? Why, he's forty," she said. "You won't be as strong when you're forty."
"I'll bet you that you won't be able to string that bow of yours when you're his age."
"I'll take that bet. I'll fire it, even."
"We'll see. Hadn't you better be warming up?"
While Odysseus stretched, he eyed Icarius with the trepidation that was appropriate when approaching prospective fathers-in-law and no one else. Her father seemed to approve of him in a general sense, because kings didn't come along every day proposing to your daughters, but specifically:
"You're an uppity boy."
It would be unutterably idiotic to offend him, Odysseus told himself. You want to marry his daughter, even if you're not sure why. If you offend him he might well go to great lengths to trip you up and that will be more humiliating than (deliberately) losing to Agamemnon.
"Insult me again and I'll elope with her," he said. She was only a few feet away, she could hear him and he knew she was rolling her eyes. It didn't make the bulging of Icarius's eyes any less satisfying.
She came closer, looking infuriatingly serene in her sky-blue peplos. "Do you think you could have handled that better?"
"Only Athena could," Odysseus said piously, raising his eyes to heaven and hoping against hope that she was listening.
"And the other gods."
"And them. Yes."
"By the way," she said carelessly, "this isn't like Helen's...whatever Helen called it. Stud market. If you win this race, you don't get to back out of the betrothal. If you're not sure you want to marry me, I'd start running in the opposite direction right now."
Odysseus stared at her. One couldn't challenge one's potential bride to a contest of skill in retaliation for being called a coward. You couldn't. Really.
"I am sure," he said, biting each word out like they tasted sour.
"Good to know," she said, and walked away.
Of course, Odysseus won. That's how these stories go, because Odysseus is a hero generally (if not in this particular story). Of course he won, in all possible ways.
"It's not fair," he told her on their wedding night. "You know all my secrets now: the size of my military force, that Ithaca's actually much richer than I say it is - the size of my civilian force, if we're going to get into personal matters - " she laughed - "but I know next to nothing about you. Tell me your secrets, Penelope."
"My secret?" Her head was resting against his shoulder, she sounded half-asleep. Odysseus tickled her and found she was perfectly awake. After a period that was nothing but pleasure, he asked again.
"I wanted to marry you," she said. "Right from the very beginning."
"And I thought you were no good at lying," Odysseus said, smiling at her in the darkness.
"Am I lying now, or was I lying then? You decide, my dearest. One of them must be true."
It occurred to Odysseus, as Penelope fell asleep for real this time, that he had married a woman who was cleverer than himself. It disturbed him less than he had supposed it would. Who else, after all, would be worthy of Odysseus?