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A Spartan Courtship

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The breezes only brought more heat to the courtyard where the women were performing their duties, amidst much conversation on the pressing subject of Helen's suitors.

Penelope would have wished for other pursuits even as she wove the latest tapestry that had come to her mind. She had little interest in what Helen thought of the men, and resented the fact that all of the women had been asked by Tyndareus to refrain from wandering. Just because the uncultured men of the other kingdoms were everywhere did not mean that Spartan women should remain unseen.

"Tell us, Helen, who has your eye?" one of the women called, but Helen turned her attention away. Penelope thought better of her for the fact she did not speak openly of any of the men. Clytemnestra was being quite restrained, Penelope thought, in not pushing Helen to declare a preference in any fashion. Perhaps her own marriage to the forceful Agamemnon had tempered her blunt manner.

"As long as none of them act as Theseus did, I am certain Mother will come to consensus with Father over the course of my future," Helen finally said, when the gossip had droned on far too long for her ability to withstand it.

Yes, Penelope thought, Helen was being quite wise. She had to wed, before there was another kidnapping attempt, but she seemed well-aware that her marriage was a matter of politics more than pleasure. Then again, was there ever a marriage made of love, when that capricious emotion was as cruel as it could be joyous?

With the light fading, and the faint breezes all but dead, Penelope put away her tools of her trade, slipping away as the women prepared for the night. She was far from eager to rest, and while the women had been enjoined to stay away from the strangers, perhaps a youth could exercise their legs for a night's walk.

Odysseus stretched his legs and left from the dinner that had been hosted this night by yet another of the suitors that had descended upon Sparta like locusts upon the fields. It was not that he didn't find Helen as incomparable as the rest of his peers. It wasn't even that he deplored the travel that had been necessary to come here. No, that part had been the best of it all. Were it not for the fact that Laertes, his good father, had insisted Ithaca be represented, Odysseus would happily have been upon his ship, plying his trade, or subduing the crags of his island nation.

How was it that Sparta, so quick to reach military decision, was dithering so foolishly over the choice of a husband for one of its heirs?

Odysseus shook his head, for he knew the answer to his own rhetorical questioning. Sparta was strong, yes, but strong enough to withstand the might of all the kingdoms suing to have Helen for their queen? Tyndareus had four acknowledged heirs, for Sparta did not discount the daughters when sons' lives were often fleeting. Any man that wed Helen could, in due time, find himself ruling the country, for Agamemnon had his eyes set firmly on regaining Mycenae, and the brothers were both apt at finding trouble.

The Ithacan made his way through the streets, noting that despite the late hour, quite a few youths and men were out, either running or even boxing by torchlight at various points. It was no wonder that Spartan men were renowned as warriors if even the nights saw them set on training. Finding a good vantage point on the steps of a temple to Athena Promachos, Odysseus set about surveying the city under torch and moon, observing as was his wont.

Penelope smiled as she and her cousin Castor came to an end of their boxing, for he was not as gifted as his brother, and she had shown her skill well against him. However, now, she had more time to take in the fact they were being observed, and not by one of their own people.

"Cousin, one of the foreigners watches us," she said, not looking back to the temple after her casual gaze had swept past once.

"Well for you that I saw you leaving dressed as a youth, then, I say," Castor told her, dismissing it as nothing. Penelope gave a soft sound of dismissal to that.

"Am I not a daughter of Sparta? We are made as sternly as our brothers."

"Yes, but you, cousin, fall prey to more thought than muscle, and the brutes that woo my sister are likely to abduct our women to force the issue. You've no brothers to come and rescue you as we had to do for Helen," Castor reasoned with her.

Penelope did not argue that, making certain her figure was still disguised by the chiton. She did not fear discovery, especially in company of her cousin, but prudence was needed. Castor had the right of it, and she was daughter to the king's brother. She gave another look toward to the temple as Castor and she readied for the race back to the palace. Inwardly, for all that the men had been labeled as boors and brutes, this one seemed quiet and having an air of intelligence to him.

"Do you know which of the men that is?" she asked, curious now that the impression had lodged in her mind. Castor looked once in that direction, squinting against the glare of the torch held by the helot that had accompanied them, then shrugged.

"I believe it is the Ithacan. Odysseus, I believe they call him. A sailor, near as capable as Jason, or so they say."

Penelope put that name and praise in the back of her mind while they ran home, glad of the cooling the night had brought to the air.

So there was truth to the saying that Sparta bred her daughters as tough as her sons, Odysseus decided, having watched the boxing match closely, and then the race. To most, he was certain that it had appeared to be but a youth and an older teacher. Odysseus, though, did not claim his patron goddess lightly. He adhered to the principles of wit, wisdom, and fitness that Athena embraced. There were certain differences in the way men and women carried themselves, though he had been uncertain until the running betrayed the smoother, less-jarring stride that a woman's hips gave. Here, the social pressures did not confine a woman to small, modest motions, and the boxing had done little to betray her.

Now, though, Odysseus felt as if he had a puzzle to solve, for he was intrigued by just who would be out after dark, escorted by a sole slave and none other than one of Helen's own brothers. That she had to be from the family of Tyndareus went without saying. He would merely have to narrow it down from there, based on her size, and a rough impression of her age.

Suddenly, this trip was not looking quite so boring, for what could be better for Ithaca than a woman who was strong in her own right to hold the throne while the king was at sea?

Ithaca, Penelope discovered, was a subject rarely written about in the various works she had at her disposal. So far, she had learned that it was remote, concerned itself with the sea, and the man she'd seen at the temple could claim descent from Hermes. This was quite a different claim from so many, who called to Zeus as a forefather, much as her own family did, though few ever mentioned that in regards to the current heirs of the land.

With the events taking more time than any would have thought to be gracious for any involved, Penelope found herself drifting near to the men on any pretext, curious as to why the man had been watching that night. Standing around to merely observe was not what she thought the suitors were known for, after all. Perhaps, if she were careful in her wording, she could manage to convince her aunt and uncle to host an event to be shared by women and men alike, to learn more of this Odysseus.

As tedious as the contests to prove bravery and skill were, Odysseus found himself competing with all his might and heart so that Tyndareus would look with favor upon him. The Spartans had solid ideas on what a man, or a woman, should be, which made Odysseus aware of how shrewdly he must play the game. He had no intention of courting Helen, never truly had, but he watched tempers flare and rivalries play out as the days progressed.

And he watched, carefully, at the palace, in the city, everywhere he went for the woman that disguised herself as a youth and had the temerity to box with Castor. In but a few days, he thought he had placed her, both by her build and for the curiosity that drew this young woman to see the visitors when they were being entertained.

At last a feast was declared in honor of the more domestic deities, though here in Sparta it seemed that even the domestic ones wore their most warlike epithets. With such a feast in place, in honor of Helen's coming betrothal and marriage, the women and the men were to be in one place openly.

Odysseus would not waste the opportunity.

Penelope moved with the grace of her training at sports, her eyes moving over those in attendance. She made note of those suitors who did live up to the harsh words cast upon them from her cousins, Castor and Pollux. Others managed to be less of a boor, but judging from the faces of those Penelope knew, were still boring. Many of these were from illustrious lineages, and no doubt were regaling their comrades with tales of their ancestors.

Her course, however, was not so random, for she soon was able to look Odysseus in the eyes for herself. Her gaze took in the weaving of his chiton, the way he stood, and most of all, she appraised the way his face was cast. Lines around his eyes that indicated an easy spirit of laughter, more at the mouth that said the man smiled often, and he seemed to be as aware of the room's inhabitants as he was of her in the way his own gaze moved.

"You are Penelope," he said, before she could introduce herself.

"And you are Odysseus of Ithaca," she countered, granting him a small smile in turn at his knowledge. "Why would a man pursuing my cousin have need to learn the name of any other Spartan daughter?"

"Because it is polite to know whom to ask for, should I be capable of entertaining your thoughts of marriage with myself," he told her boldly.

Those words would have made women in other cities blush, or even grow offended at the temerity. This was Sparta, though, and bold actions with wit and ease were welcomed. "Then, Odysseus, I pray you are as fleet of feet as your divine ancestor, for my father has his own challenges to meet, should you pursue such a cause," she answered him. "Of course, all those plans might fail you, if this matter concerning my cousin is ended in bloodshed."

Odysseus smiled broadly, looked across the room to where Tyndareus and Agamemnon sat together, perhaps plotting against such a thing. "I believe I should find our host soon, your revered uncle, and offer him a possible solution for averting bloodshed. Perhaps then he would put in a kindly word with his brother, your father. If, of course, you would not mind. It is to my preference, you see, that the woman who marries with me is fully willing in the matter."

She watched how his eyes remained on her face through those last words, weighed all the signs of truth-telling she could, and nodded once.

"I will pray you are cunning enough to do just so, Odysseus." With that, Penelope moved on, her heart light with the idea that a man that thought, that observed, and that would not cast her into subservience had chosen her as his match. All she needed to do was but wait, and she had ever been good at patience, when it was needed.