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the two-edged sword

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The wine-cups are full within Priam’s hall, the wind howling without, and words tumble from Cassandra’s lips. She does not mean to speak them, truly she does not, but they listen to her as little as anyone else in Troy and they will not be stopped.

“She will bring you great strife,” she tells Paris, and is not surprised when he only turns away and covers his ears with his hands. 

“You will bring her great sorrow,” she tells Hektor, and is surprised when he cups her cheek in his hand to soothe her. She had not supposed pity still had the power to wound her. 

Her brothers ignore her, her father clucks with disapproval, and her sisters sigh, “Oh, Cassandra, not again .” 

And yet Helen, golden Helen only inclines her head with an insolent smile. She raises her cup in what might be mere (more) mockery, but when Cassandra flees to the comfort of her room, Helen is there already, waiting. Her chin is in her hands, her legs crossed like a child’s; if not for the way that Helen’s curls hang like the smoke from Troy’s pyres, Cassandra might almost consider her beautiful.

“It’s not the first time I’ve been called Strife herself,” says Helen. “Do you know there are those who claim Lady Nemesis replaced my mother, just as Zeus Thunderer cuckolded my father, and so I destined to be destruction from the day I was born.”

“Did a prophet say that?” Cassandra asks, half-comforted by the thought of a stranger so far away suffering from her gift. 

Helen stifles a laugh. “My sister, Clytemnestra. After the seventh time I’d ruined her weaving out of childish curiosity and a pronounced lack of talent.”

Only a sisterly jibe, then. Cassandra had had those, once. Not anymore. She looks down at her hands, clasped and white-knuckled before her. There is no blood on them, not yet: not Coroebus’s, not Othronus’. 

“I won’t apologize,” she tells Helen. “No matter how angry you are.”

“My dear,” Helen replies. “I’d never expect such a thing. Not for merely speaking truth.”

The world is suddenly light and wonderful; Cassandra can breathe deep and full. “You believe me,” she says, on a rapturous exhale. Phoebus Apollo had been proven wrong after all.

“I do,” agrees Helen.

“Is it—is it because you are god-born, that mortal rules need not bind you?”

“If that were so,” Helen says, “there are a thousand things I should rather do with such ability. No, I’m afraid it comes only from common sense. Were you not a mere princess, the men of your father’s court would hear you and believe; were you not the child they remember, your mother and sisters would not bid you be silent. My cousin Penelope, when we were girls together in Sparta, would judge much as you did tonight.”

“Are all women so free, where you come from?” The Achaea Cassandra knows is a dreadful place, all blood and baths and bronze labrys, but if such things might be so, perhaps it does not deserve all the curses she calls down upon it nightly. 

Helen’s face stills. “Those that are,” she says at last, “have the wisdom to keep their silence and bend back down to their work, as does my cousin. They give their counsel behind closed doors, and want nothing more from life than what the gods can give.” Her voice turns wistful, and Cassandra closes her eyes to see the doors of Ithaca, barred as firmly to Helen henceforth as to one hundred suitors. “Those that are not, like myself, have no choice but to run mad. And someday soon I think I will; someday I will play with the lives of men as lightly as the rest of my kin.”

Helen’s voice is so unhappy that Cassandra, despite all the visions roiling in the corners of her mind, cannot help but sit down as well, and take Helen’s hand in her own. This hand, she thinks, will dress Paris’ corpse; this hand will be the last to wear the bracelets and rings of the Trojan treasure-holds. This hand is not unlike the one Phoebus himself held out so many years ago.

And yet Helen’s heart will ever be lonely. Cassandra understands something of that, cannot forget it no matter how she tries.

“It is not,” she offers gently, a lie and the first one she has ever spoken, “so very bad a way to be. You’ll see.”

Helen’s eyes shine with honest relief, and Cassandra knows, without needing to ask, that she is believed.