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little profits that an idle king

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i.

Koson runs a respectable establishment, mind you. He doesn’t put up with what some of his fellow tavern-keepers do in the way of patrons, the trash and troublemakers who slouch at their tables only to cause trouble. No, he deals with them as he sees fit, bodily hefting them out of their seats into the storm outside.

“Apologies,” he tells his two remaining customers as he returns from getting rid of the most recent bunch of rabble-rousers (some bearded tough--and his cronies--who claims to be an Achaean king on a quest. Ha!). “It’s not often so rowdy.”

The dark-eyed woman is still bent over her needlework, undisturbed through all the commotion. She hasn’t looked up even to answer his questions—but her husband, a red-haired man with a foxlike face, has been watching the encounter with fascinated amusement, and laughs.

“Think nothing of it,” says Aethon of Crete.

ii.

They stay longer than they had planned, the man and his wife. They’ve come all the way from the south, they explain, and it’s the wrong season now to make the journey back, so Koson offers to let them stay in his home for a negotiable price.

At first this confuses them. It seems they expect Koson to house them for free, but they understand fairly quickly and work out a compromise. Aethon entertains the children by telling fantastic stories that he always denies come from his own imagination, and his wife takes in neighbors’ wool and spins fine, smooth thread.

Later, she shows them how to find beehives and, having smoked out the creatures, fearlessly plunges her hands into the hive to pull out honeycomb. Even her husband seems surprised at this, before he murmurs: “Your cousin Philonoe used to keep bees. I remember that.”

She smiles at him.

iii.

Koson senses this must be a second marriage for his visitors. The woman, especially; her face is worn with crow’s feet rather than laugh lines, but she smiles often enough when her husband is nearby. She has a careful and practiced hand with the children, and she might have raised one or two of her own, once.

And Aethon—he must have loved her long, perhaps even when she was married to another; always he watches her idly out of the corner of his eye, as though she might disappear if he stops looking. When he’s not telling the children stories, he alternates between speaking to them as adults who can understand anything and condescending outrageously. When he watches her with them, there is a bitter cast to his eyes.

They’re older than they appear to be, and younger than they think they are. Koson can’t help but pity them.

iv.

(On the day he means to depart with oar over his shoulder, Penelope meets him on the steps of the palace. A traveling cloak is thrown over her plain peplos, and a spindle hangs at her hip.

“I remember all too well what my husband told me when he left for Troy,” she says when he protests. “Wait until my son grew his first beard, and then leave this palace with the man who pleases me best. I intend to keep my promise.”

“But Telemachus—“

She cuts him off with a chuckle. “Telemachus might not have learned the ways of war from you,” she tells him, “but statecraft he mastered at my knee. He’ll be fine.”

“But—“

“You took twenty years to come back last time,” she says, and that might be laughter in her eyes, or anger instead. “How could I ever let you leave me again?”)

v.

When a bard from Achaea come to his tavern, Koson’s guests rise to meet him.

“Friend,” says the woman, “will you go to Ithaka, where Telemachus reigns?"

“I might,” says the Achaean, “What news should I take him?”

Koson, wiping tables, pays more attention. Odysseus’s tale has spread even this far north.

“Tell him—“ says Aethon, and considers Koson “—tell him his father flourishes among the Theosprotians, having yielded to their entreaties and wed soft-eyed Kallidike—“

“Oh, he has, has he?” interrupts his wife dryly.

“—and, now entangled in battle, plans to install their son as king.”

“Their son a king already?” His wife touches a hand to the growing swell of her stomach. “It’s not been two years since Odysseus left Ithaka.”

Aethon ignores her. “Tell him this, too, that Aethon of Crete expects his love for the news, and you shall have my gratitude.”

vi.

With his own hands, Aethon fashions a house for himself and his wife. She seems oddly critical of most of the details; he tells her, with what seems to be real regret, that no olive trees grow in this climate. But when he leads her there, inviting Koson along to admire his work, Aethon’s wife cries out with joy to see a loom set up by the front window.

Koson is, to his own surprise, sad to see them go. It’s more than the money they brought in by spinning wool and tales respectively; Aethon had been in the middle of describing the encounter between a foolish hero and a ferocious Cyclops, and Koson has been as anxious as the children to see how it all turns out.

“Nonsense,” Aethon points out when Koson mentions this. “We’re only a little down the hill. I’ll tell you the rest at dinner.”

vii.

“What will you name him?” asks Koson’s wife, already sure the coming child will be a son.

“Hmm,” says the woman, “Poliporthes, I think. For his father.”

Sacker of cities, Koson translates; an odd description of peaceful, merry Aethon, but how can he judge? Now, though, considering his friends’ pleasure, he dares voice the question he’s nursed for months.

“Listen,” he asks Aethon, “I mean no offence, but what is that contraption you carried in with you?”

Aethon and his wife look at each another, and, strangely, begin to deliberate between themselves.

“Tiresias said it would be called a winnowing fan. Surely that doesn’t count.”

“We could perform the sacrifices, of course, just to be safe—“

“But there’s no need to leave just yet—“

“None at all.”

Thus resolved, they turn back to Koson.

“It’s nothing, my friend,” Odysseus says, not quite repressing a smile. “Nothing at all.”