I am not used to being surprised. My mother is a goddess—why should our men not fear her, and honor my father, and expect great things of me? The boys in the dining hall tumble over each other, trying too hard to catch my eye. My spear and sword are feather-light in my hands and I keep up with my horse as we race down the beach, side by side. I play the lyre and my teacher has nothing to teach.
I am not surprised. Why should I be?
And then there he is.
He does not fit the mold and is painfully aware of it, fidgeting and forcing himself not to. He isn’t broad like the other boys, isn’t tall, isn’t brash. Large, dark eyes under a mop of unruly hair glance around, framed by lashes as full as a girl’s, always observing. I wonder what he sees—he does not smile the way the others do when they see me, he does not attempt to talk to me. He looks and then looks away, casts those large eyes down.
I remember his name. This is the first time he surprises me. The other boys have names, too, but I cannot summon them from my memory so easily. Not like his. Patroclus.
That is why I search for him after overhearing the master’s complaint to my father. He is small, wedged between amphorae, startled eyes like a doe’s—but he is not small when he speaks. There is a strength in those words, proof of his character. He calls me “prince” and I am surprised again. Not because he knows, everyone does, but because he does not seem to care. He only suggests to use it like a tool, something I have and not someone I am.
I am not used to being surprised. I find that I like it.
Therapon, I have named him, and now he is always on my heels, quiet when we are not alone, bright when we are. At first, I worry that as I grow to know him he will no longer surprise me, he will become normal, like everything else. Then, I discover that he does not. He sees so many things, with those large dark eyes, that I cannot and tells me of them—he has words for every color of the sky and sea, he knows the boys that we spend so little time with, he describes the music of wind and waves and rain on roof-tiles.
He says I have a better way with words than he does, but it is only true when we have company. He has been hated into silence by his father and will not speak if he does not feel safe. I am glad for my strength, glad for my skill, because I know I can protect him, and he knows it, too. Maybe I should tell him that I will also keep him safe in the presence of others, so that they might hear him—but I am selfish when it comes to him. I want his words to be for my ears alone.
If one day songs are written about my deeds, I would want him to do it. I know no-one else who can so carefully put to words the things they see, and I know no-one else who sees me the way he does, as someone I am and not something I have.
Still, when he leans in on the beach and kisses me, I am surprised again. It is my first, as it is his, and I have always known it would be him—I did not know it would feel this way. I have been warm, but not like this, and cold, but not like this, and full, but not like this. Then he pulls back and I register the smell of the sea, the angry lashing of the waves at the sand. I know what comes next. Not here, I think, not right in front of him. So I turn around and run.
My mother catches me on the garden path, growls, bares her teeth. I try to straighten my shoulders, but I am breathless in a way I’ve never been before. She tells me I must go and I have no words to object.
I do not ask Patroclus to come. This time, I am afraid that he will surprise me and say I can’t. I leave without saying goodbye, but I leave slowly, never spurring my horse to a gallop, dragging my feet through the dust after I dismount and continue on smaller paths. I am prepared to be late, I know Chiron will not turn me away. My mother is a goddess, after all. And if he will have me, then he will have us both.
There is no surprise when he does, only relief.
It is hard to know the most precious time of your life when you have not yet lived all of your life—but I cannot imagine a life better than the one we learn to live together, high up on Mount Pelion where my mother cannot see us. I feel a vague guilt when I think this, but it is true. She does not see the hours I spend watching him talk and listen and walk swiftly across the grass. She would say they are hours wasted. I know they are not, even if I do not know what comes a year from now, or two, or ten. I know I will not miss these hours; I will never wish that I spent them doing something else.
“You look older,” he tells me, and it surprises me, because I have only seen him.
“Yes. Do I?”
“Come over here,” I say, because I don’t know how to tell him, only show him. I have words for courts, and kings, and things, but not for him. The words I know are not enough.
I trail my fingers over his skin, softly, pointing at what I see, lingering in places, smiling at the sight of his large eyes growing larger, until he stops me. Things are changing, more than just our bodies, and there is enough time to let them change. We are not yet sixteen. One day my father will call us down, but we will have changed before then, and even my mother cannot stop it.
There are other things that can.
The messenger comes too soon, we are whisked away, and suddenly, the world moves fast around us. War beckons—not me, but him. My mother’s advice is fickle like the sea she carries inside her. First she wants me to go, not with him but for myself, to gain the honor that will make me a god. Then, she wants me to stay, not with him but for myself, or maybe for her. I do not understand. All I know is that she does not care for him, and she does not care that she rips me apart when she plucks me from the bed we share and drops me on an island.
Deidameia’s eyes and hair are dark, like his, but small and empty, and for a moment I am, too. I miss him more when I am with her; she is a poor reflection of him, and I am a poor reflection of myself. I curtsy, I cast my eyes down, I melt into the shadows of white dresses and veils. I do not know how I hold myself together. Maybe it is because my mother is a goddess. Maybe it is because I tell myself that he will come, he will come, he will see you again.
I have never felt powerless before, but I do now, and it is because he is not beside me. I am not surprised.
My strength comes back with a surge when he does, not a moment too late—I need it to explain, with words that refuse to leave my mouth, why I am here, and what I have done, and how I will be ripped apart all over again if he does not forgive me. There is a wildness in the way I look at him, I know. His large eyes see it, too. I drink them in, the darkness of his irises, the long lashes, the faintest spark of something that does not belong there, anger mixed with hurt. And then we both cry, and we are all right.
Of course, the war still beckons and the future calls for us. Odysseus arrives with Diomedes at his shoulder; my mother and he fight over prophecies, but the choice is mine. Except that it is not. I weigh the options on a scale that determines not just my life, but his as well. If I go to Troy, I die. If I do not, I wither. Chiron’s words are on my mind—that it is harder to be left on earth when the other is gone—and I know: whatever I do, I will be gone.
There is only one way out, and it is my mother’s. Troy will have to be the battlefield where I can claim my fame, earn enough for the gods to notice me. I will make them see, and maybe, maybe—maybe they will see him, too.
If they don’t, I do not want to be a god.
My resolve trembles when I see the sorrow in his face, as if he has already begun to mourn. The alternative to godhood is death, which has never been this apparent to me before, but I cannot think about it now. I must not be afraid, for both of us. As long as he stands beside me, I will prevail, and I will win eternity for us. Win, or die trying.
“Will you come with me?” I ask.
He does not hesitate to say yes, and I am not surprised.
I am surprised when he goes to the sea, scratching his hands raw on the rocks to seek out my mother. I am surprised that he coaxes the answers out of her, answers she will not give me. Hector. I repeat the foreign name in my head, as if the practice will make it easier to recognize him beneath the walls of Troy—to paint him as the one target I must always ignore. Patroclus looks at me eagerly, large eyes urging me to understand.
“And you think to steal time from the Fates?” I say.
“Ah.” I smile, slowly. “Well, why should I kill him? He’s done nothing to me.”
His eyes widen and his mouth drops open, just a little. I have surprised him this time—and this is what makes me sure, so sure, that we will steal the time we need, we will twist the prophecy, we will have hope.
Of course, there are times when I forget. Iphigeneia. The evening after the first raid, the bitter curling of his lips, the way he turns his eyes away. His first day on the battlefield. The dreams I start having, of my spear in Hector’s throat. My first word-duel with Agamemnon, as the soldiers grow restless and their promised victory does not come. The new prophecy, foretelling another death in our camp. Briseis, and her wish to have a child with the man who is mine.
Every one of these times, it is Patroclus who convinces me this is another thing we can overcome. He holds my face in his hands and looks at me with his doe’s eyes—my father calls him owl, and he sees as much as one, but he is a doe to me, soft and slender and sweet—and just before he presses his lips to mine, he says my name. First, we kiss open-eyed, and the spell of his eyes strips away everything that I am not. Bloody, bloodthirsty. Cruel. Murderous. Nothing beyond an iron-tipped spear and the sharp edge of a sword.
Then, as our eyes slip closed, he brings my hands to his chest, to his hips, and he reminds me what they are really made for: to hold him and touch him, to let my fingers play across his ribs, carefully, like the plucking of strings. I know every response his body has to my caresses, have long since mastered the art of making him sing—and moan, pant, writhe, and breathe my name. This, I think, is the only song I want written about me. This will forever be the most beautiful song of Achilles.
In this bliss it is not my hope that I forget, but my destiny, and that is when it comes crashing into me, like a wave swept high by a storm and suddenly released upon the coast.
Agamemnon takes my honor. He has been greedy, vain, and bitter since the war began. He cannot stand me. I cannot stand him. I have always thought I am not alone in this, but the men do not take my side, and it chokes me. After everything I have done for them, these ten years of my life I have given them, these are my spoils of war—betrayal and humiliation?
A wild panic seizes me. Is this the death of my fame? Is this the death of my chance at godhood, my chance at eternity? Is this the death of my desperate attempt to keep us together, even after everything ends? I cannot let that happen. I will not let that happen. My, our, downfall will not come at the hands of the wretch Agamemnon, if it is decreed that it must come at all. My mother is a goddess, and I will win.
Patroclus surprises me again. If he had stabbed me in the chest it would have hurt less, I would have bled less. Why would he seek out Agamemnon? Does he not understand—he, who always sees everything? I want to scream it at him, I am doing this for you, for you, for us, do you not see, but then I look into his eyes and I know that he does not see. For once, he does not see. Not me.
I cannot speak of my plans to him anymore. I speak to my mother instead, and she tells me I am right, although she does not share my reasons. She promises her help. I know what Patroclus would say, I can conjure his face in my mind and the way he bites his lip in warning. She is a goddess, and ever-changing like the sea, and she has betrayed you before.
So have you, I think.
He thinks I do not care when the losses come. I turn away as they carry corpse after corpse into the camp and lay them to rest on their pyres, breathing in the salt of the sea until it mixes with the smell of burning blood and hair. I did not swing the sword or throw the spear, but these deaths are on me. Still, I force my limbs to stone, my face to a mask. I cannot turn back now. They will call for my help soon. I will save them, and in return the gods will grant me my wish. They will grant me him.
Hubris, his voice whispers in my ear, but I refuse to listen. Is this not what I was born for? To fight, to gain honor enough to lift me up among the stars? He will surpass his father. I will. I will be famous and happy, I will surpass even Heracles, I have promised myself and him so many years ago, and no-one will stand in my way.
They will call for my help and then it will end.
“Save them for me,” Patroclus says, and he kneels at my feet, which he has never done before. “I know what I am asking of you. But I ask it. For me.”
I look down at him, drawn to his doe’s eyes, and my head is no longer clear. For me, he says. He still does not see that I am already doing this for him. This is the only choice.
“Anything else,” I say. And he surprises me again.
My armor is too big on him, and despite his healer’s muscle he is too soft for the bronze—a doe, he is a doe—, but he is brave as he has always been and holds his head high when I slide the helmet down over his dark, unruly hair. The kiss we share is sweet, promising. I hold him close and tell him, breathlessly, that he must come back, because I have always come back to him. He nods. Then the lashes flash across the horses’ backs and they speed away. The sun ricochets off my helmet; for a moment, he is caught in its light. It is the image on my mind as I wait, a fragment of the future I dream of—him, and me, under a bright sun, as one.
The image crumbles to ashes when the makeshift pallet is set down before me. Menelaus tries to speak to me, but I do not hear. Odysseus stands behind him, but I do not see. Antilochus grabs my shoulders, but I do not feel. Patroclus’ eyes swallow me whole.
They are broken.
For a moment, I think nothing comes next. What can come next, after the sun has gone down for the last time? I am suspended in time, trapped in all-encompassing grief. Patroclus. I remember how it surprised me that I could remember his name, the first year his life touched mine. It is the only word I know now.
Anger releases me from my state of frozen shock. I scream. My throat is raw and bloody, but I do not stop until my voice gives out. I am vaguely aware of my body moving—in my pain, I am too fast for myself. A red veil falls before my eyes. When it clears, the tent is trashed. Shards of a bowl are on the floor, fruit spilled out and flattened, benches overturned, three of my spears stuck in the ground. The only place left untouched is the pallet with him on it, lying spread out on his back, and it does not look like he is sleeping.
I know what he looks like when he is asleep. I climb onto the pallet, gently rearranging his limbs until he is curled around me, our legs intertwined, one of his arms slung over my hip and his face buried against my chest. I pull a blanket over us both and shut out the world. I am selfish when it comes to him. He is mine. Death cannot have him.
Why, I whisper soundlessly against cold collarbones, must you always surprise me?
Do it again, I whisper soundlessly against cold ribs that used to house the warmest heart in all of Greece, surprise me again, come back to me. Surprise me.
He does not, and that is when I know it’s truly over.
I did not swing the sword and throw the spear, but this is on me. I have lost him. I have done this. And I was doing it for him, but not for this, not like this, it cannot be like this. I bury my head in the hollow between his collarbones; it fills with my tears, then overflows.
For the first time in my life, I truly understand the prophecies. I understand why heroes are never happy. Because they are not heroes until they face their destinies, and they do not face their destinies until they are prepared to lose—or have already lost. Together, he and I have stolen time from the Fates. Now they claim it. I touch my fingers to his eyelids and close them.
Hector falls, my spear in his throat. I am not surprised.