The first thing Helen of Sparta says to him, emerging apparently out of nowhere in the gardens of King Tyndaerus, is: “You’re in love with my cousin, aren’t you?”
Odysseus does not do anything as undignified as jumping in surprise. He is a full-grown man, and a king (or at least he will be, once Father decides to retire to his vineyards), and a raider of cities. He does perhaps…startle a little, though.
Consequently the second thing Helen of Sparta says to him is: “Zeus Thunderer, how you shout!”
Odysseus turns to study her. He knows objectively that she is said to be the most beautiful woman in the world, even if she doesn’t make him catch his breath and trip over his tongue the way Penelope does. At the moment, any Greek king would give anything to be in this garden with her, and all Odysseus can think of is that his mother gave birth to a girl-child, five years after he was born. If the child had lived, she would be as old today as Helen is now.
“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” he asks, intending to be kind. He knows, quite well, that her father has a great a fondness for her as any other man; Tyndareus has spoiled her greatly.
Helen frowns. “Shouldn’t you be loitering somewhere other than under my cousin’s window after dark?”
Odysseus is suddenly very glad the night hides his expression, but not for nothing is he known for his lies. “It’s also quite near your father’s chambers,” he reminds her. “I was hoping to have a word with him.”
“That’s very good.” Helen bobs her head enthusiastically. “I almost believed you.” She laughs. “Please don’t misunderstand. I really don’t mind. In fact I couldn’t be happier.”
“I am honored by your generosity, Princess Helen,” Odysseus says, not without irony.
“Not like that!” Helen breaks off, and tries again. “Penelope is far too wise and prudent to tell you this, but of course she favors your suit—“
“Yes! I just said so, didn’t I? The problem, though, is my uncle Ikarios. He does not.”
Odysseus, just having returned from yet another failed negotiation from Ikarios of Sparta, is all too aware of this fact. “Your uncle favors no one and nothing,” he says bitterly.
“Except my father,” Helen points out. “He’ll listen to my father.”
Which is not at all a difficult assumption to make, given that Ikarios depends on his older brother’s generosity to feed and house himself and his family, but of course Tyndareus doesn’t seem overly fond him of either.
The Princess of Sparta only grins wider when he explains this. “If only you could do something for my father in exchange, rid him of his greatest worry—which, at the moment, is my marriage—“
Odysseus can see where this is going. “—and in return, finagle a way for you to pick the suitor you favor.”
Helen’s face grows serious. “I wouldn’t make the decision carelessly, and certainly it would be no one who would make Father unhappy— but I only need to know that in the end, I had a choice. That’s all I want.”
There was a time when Odysseus would have thought a woman wanting a choice was ridiculous, but that time was before he had fallen in love himself. Now the thought of Penelope marrying him against her will, or worse, marrying another with equal reluctance, is repugnant. He would do much to spare the Princess of Sparta such a fate.
“I don’t think that would be impossible,” he tells her, and Helen beams in response.
The next time Helen of Troy catches him roaming around after dark, it’s equally inopportune. He’s dressed in a tunic so grimy he wouldn’t have let his dog touch it back home in Ithaka, which serves him well as everyday wear on the battlefield (a sensible choice; Penelope would never forgive him bleeding all over his best clothes). He finds it serves him equally well as a disguise to blend into the increasing numbers of beggars on the streets of Troy, and that is not surprising. There’s little to choose between when it comes to beggar and soldier, except the beggar has distinctly better odds of survival.
He’s about to give his mission up as hopeless and find Diomedes again when a woman’s voice behind him says: “You always were the most interesting of my kinsmen, you know.”
Odysseus, hardened commander of the Achaean forces, does not do anything as callow as jumping in surprise. He stills for an instant, and his fingers move towards the sword concealed at his hip. Behind him, the woman lets out a bark of laughter.
Of course, he reminds himself; death would frighten her no longer. He turns to smile at the woman before him, lovely despite the years that weigh so terribly upon her.
“Helen, Princess of Troy,” he breathes, and reconsiders. “Or perhaps not 'Princess' any longer. My sincere condolences over the death of Prince Paris.”
Her face is composed and utterly unlike the girl-child he remembers meeting in Tyndareus’s gardens so long ago. “Princess once more,” Helen tells him. “My honored father Priam has married me to his son Deiphobus not one week past.”
Odysseus considers this for a moment. “Clever of him. Little sense going to war for a woman not bound to the house of Troy, even if she is the most beautiful in all the world.”
Helen only shakes her head at the irony clear in his last phrase. “You too, Odysseus? You at least I would have surely thought above such foolishness.”
He supposes he deserves that.
But nevertheless: years have passed, and despite its perfection, all he wants to see in Helen’s face is echoes of Penelope’s. The color of her eyes has grown confused and inexact in his memory, the curve of her cheekbones and the sharpness of her smile equally obscured. He wants to go home.
“I’m here for the Palladium,” he says. No reason to mince words, not with Helen.
“Yes, of course you are. Was it Helenus who told you? Clever boy, to trade such a simple thing for his freedom; every man and woman and child in the city learns that Troy will not fall until the Palladium leaves with their first breath, you know.”
“So I’ve discovered. And still no one seems to want to share where such a marvel can be found.”
Helen tilts her head to one side, assessing. “You won’t leave until you have it with you, will you?”
“No,” he lies.
“Very well, then,” Helen says. “I’ll tell you.”
Odysseus raises his eyebrows. “You betray your new home so quickly?”
“Troy puts its faith in the Palladium. I put mine in the city’s real treasure: its people. It’s a gamble I’m willing to take to prove myself right.”
She comes closer then and lowers her veil slightly, enough to whisper the secret into his ear. Odysseus repeats every word of her directions to himself until he’s sure he knows it by memory, and then, with a mumbled phrase of gratitude, begins to shuffle away. It’s almost daybreak; they’ll be waiting for him and Diomedes back at the camp.
“Odysseus,” she says as he goes, once again; but this time, she speaks in a voice so terribly like Penelope’s it makes his heart ache, all the more because he’s afraid he might have forgotten the sound of his own name on his wife’s lips without even having realized it.
Despite himself, he turns and looks back.
“She was my cousin,” Helen says simply, as though it were an apology, and perhaps it is.
“You men have your bards to warn any challengers of your strength and your weapons,” she goes on. “I could hardly go into battle without observing the formalities. It wouldn’t be right. I would bring no glory to my name.”
There was a time when, dragged from his wife’s arms and his son’s cradle, he might have directed unjust anger at her, but he has grown all too familiar with desperation these last ten years, and loneliness besides.
“I don’t think that would be possible,” he tells her, and Helen smiles sadly at him. For the first and last time, he can see how a thousand ships could sail for love of her.