I must admit, even I was beginning to wonder if the other shoe was ever going to drop. But when it did, it was not alone. It was like a landslide of shoes that threatened to bury us, and each one had a soldier’s foot in it. Day after day they marched ashore until they filled the plain below the city, and the ships just kept coming.
I never expected to be the optimist who underestimated the danger. The wronged king would come in strength, that much was obvious. And, royalty being what it is, there was every chance that he’d have brothers or cousins ruling neighbouring kingdoms, who would send at least a token contingent to back him up. I’d expected maybe a few dozen ships. Not hundreds. Many, many hundreds.
It was suddenly clear why it had taken them so long to get here. With a dozen ships, they could have sailed within weeks. The force I had expected might have taken a couple of months to organise. But this… the ships were so thick on the water that their sails blotted out the ocean. It must have taken a year just to get word to all their homelands, let alone muster the armies and get ready to sail. Just keeping the ships from running into each other must have been a major effort.
After all that, the war was nearly over before it began. When our army went down to meet them, the troublemaker couldn’t avoid being with them. I heard he faced the wronged husband one-on-one, as out of character as that seems. Of course, I didn’t see it myself. No women allowed on the battlefield. But the next morning, the palace could talk of nothing else. Instead of dying honourably so we could send Helen back where she came from and be done with it, the weasel somehow survived. I couldn’t get a straight answer on how that happened. Rescued by a goddess’s pity? Sounds exactly the sort of crap he’d come up with to distract from his cowardice. However it happened, we lost our last hope of getting out of this war intact.
Win or lose, a fight this big will ruin us.
I can’t believe it. Or rather, I wish I couldn’t. Of all the selfish bullshit to pull. It’s like he was trying to bring disaster down on our heads. It was obvious that there would be repercussions. You don’t just abduct the queen of a major foreign nation like that without the king bringing every sword arm in his land to get her back.
But when he marches her into the city, everyone’s like, “Ooh, she’s so pretty!” Never mind the inevitable war trailing in her wake. I couldn’t just stand idly by. I had to get up in her face and denounce her. In retrospect I may have gotten carried away. Ripping at her hair and clothes was not part of the plan. It certainly seemed to take her by surprise. I don’t know what kind of reception she was expecting, after running away from her problems to make them our problems. Not that, anyway. I suppose he’d filled her head with all sorts of ideas about being welcomed and granted refuge from an unhappy marriage. And if not for me, that’s pretty much what she would have got. Not that the crowds knew or cared where she came from. To them, she was a welcome novelty, something pretty to gawk at.
Even if they had known where she came from, they would have forgotten by the time her husband showed up. I mean, if it takes him that many years to follow, you’ve got to wonder if he was really that into her to begin with. Maybe she had reason to leave. But she didn’t have to bring the trouble here. She must have known what would follow. Maybe she was just in denial. Maybe she hoped that her husband’s ship would sink and the rest would go home. Or maybe she’s never once in her life thought about anyone but herself.
So here we are, fleeing across the waves as fast as the wind will carry us. Her husband must have returned by now to find his bed empty, but I don’t know it that was days or weeks after we left. I keep looking for sails behind us, but so far so good. Maybe we’re far enough ahead to lose him. Maybe he won’t try to follow us. Maybe he was as tired of her as she was of him. I can’t imagine how that would be possible, but then I can’t imagine going on a trip while leaving a woman like that at home. Who knows?
I just hope I haven’t screwed up my longer-term plans. On the one hand, a certain amount of trouble is bound to follow. On the other hand, it may be too little to do any real damage to my enemies back home. An act this rash and impulsive may cement my reputation as someone not to be taken seriously. Then again, it might just be enough to seem dangerously incompetent. I don’t need that kind of attention either. And the king may never again trust me with the responsibility that leads to real power.
This trip has been fun, but it will be over soon. There’s a palace full of rivals waiting for me at the end of the voyage, and they’re not going to destroy themselves. I need to get my head back in the game.
Then again, there’s a beautiful woman waiting to thank me for rescuing her, right on this ship. It would be rude to keep her waiting.
I wouldn’t want to be rude.
The thing about beautiful women is, they never tire of hearing about it. But they hear it a lot, so the trick is to tell them how beautiful they are, in a way they’ve never heard before. Bonus points if they don’t see it coming. Catch their attention with a story that seems unrelated, and then BAM! Ambush compliment. Works every time.
So I spin her a sexy tale with a bunch of naked goddesses in it, who desperately need my help and promised me anything my heart desired. She’s not buying a word of it, but it’s holding her attention. I tell how I chose love over wisdom and power. Chicks dig that, and the queen is no exception. I tell her how the goddess of love promised to reward me with the most beautiful woman in the world. And then fate leads me here, to Queen Helen. BAM.
I’ve had success with this approach before, but never like this. Suddenly she’s all in on the fate stuff. Wants to run away with me. I mean, I knew her marriage couldn’t have been great, but she really wants out. And along I come, opportunity personified, and she grabs hold with both hands. That part’s not a metaphor.
The thing is, I was laying it on a little thick with the “most beautiful woman in the world” stuff. But lying in her arms, it didn’t seem far off the mark. If you’ve ever been in that situation, you’ll know why I couldn’t find it within myself to refuse her anything.
Anything in the world.
Look, it’s not my fault. I mean, what would you have done? A man is only flesh and blood. It would have taken a heart of stone to resist. And, if I’m honest, resisting temptation has never been my best thing.
See, I’d been touring around for a bit. Sail up to a new kingdom, present the best wishes of my homeland, ask a few questions about the ostensible purpose for my visit. Then enjoy the hospitality of my host for a week or two while making “further enquiries.” And the kings, for the most part, were good hosts. Not overly friendly, but unfailingly civil. Seems to be a point of pride with them.
Then, when I get to Sparta, the king’s out of town visiting family. The queen invites me to stay until he gets back. She’s a great hostess. Gives me a very warm welcome. Warm… soft… tender…
She said she’s never known a man like me. I told her I hear that a lot. The men she’s used to are all beard and bravado. They wouldn’t know subtlety if it punched them in the face. They’re always jostling with one another to be top dog, because it’s the only game they know. It would never occur to them that someone could be playing a different game. That even the top dog is still just a dog.
Their game never interested me. I prefer one where the odds are stacked in my favour. Who needs strength and honour when you’ve got cunning and creativity? They can have their swords and shields. I get more done with words.