Helenus asked a maid to fetch the queen and waited for her in the megaron, standing. His legs felt stiff, as if they were made of wood, and they were shaking slightly.
Andromache arrived immediately. He didn’t need to talk: there could be only one reason if he summoned her like that, if he looked at her like that.
“Is he dead?” she asked simply.
She covered her mouth with one hand and stared at him in fear.
“Where is my son?”
“Still training. Eudorus will fetch him” replied Helenus.
Andromache didn’t ask how the king had died or whether the war with the Triccans was won or lost.
She stepped forward and looked up at him with those large, brown eyes of hers. When she finally spoke, her voice was calm and resolute.
“You promised me something years ago, Helenus. Will you keep your word?” she asked simply.
His first impulse was to say no.
It was pointless to try. The Achaean warriors would never accept as their king a foreigner who couldn’t even throw a spear, who could barely assert himself, who was constantly upset. No matter how useful he might be as an advisor every now and then.
But he had promised her that he would try, she had put her trust in him, she counted on him. And he had told Aesacus that he would keep his word, years before.
And if he refused, he would be ashamed of himself – again.
“Yes, I will” he answered faintly.
She said nothing, but looked at him with gratitude.
“I cannot promise that I will succeed, though” he added after a moment.
Andromache lowered her voice to a whisper.
“You might have more allies than you think. I don’t think you realize how useful you were to Neoptolemus. Besides, we are not in a hurry. I am expected to mourn him at least until the next moon”
Twenty days. After that time, every Achaean warrior who wanted to take Neoptolemus’ place would propose to the queen.
He heard footsteps, and after a moment Eudorus and Molossus arrived. The prince didn’t seem to have received the news yet, because he ran to his mother with a broad smile. Andromache took him by the hand and led him away.
“Let’s inform the soldiers, now” said Eudorus curtly.
The few soldiers who had not accompanied Neoptolemus to Tricca had already gathered in the terrace. The arrival of a messenger and the interruption of the prince’s training had alarmed them. When Eudorus made the announcement, they didn’t look surprised.
While Eudorus spoke, Helenus thought about his next steps.
Should he make his intentions clear or wait until Andromache’s mourning was over? Should he speak to the other advisors to the king to see if they would support him or keep silent and surprise everybody?
In the previous years, he had thought so much about what to do in case the king died, over and over again. But he had never been able to reach a conclusion. Now he had to decide – quickly.
He was silent while he and Eudorus went back to the palace.
“You were really shocked by the king’s death. I had not foreseen that you would react like that” observed Eudorus when they were alone.
Helenus wondered why the Achaean was commenting on his reaction. His remarks were almost never casual. Whenever Eudorus spoke, he was usually going somewhere, a trait that he shared with Aesacus.
“I’ve lived in this city for seven years now, and I cannot complain about the way he treated me. Besides, this is bad news for Andromache. A widow, without brothers or a father, and whose son is still a child” replied Helenus.
Maybe he should discuss his intentions with Eudorus, it would be difficult to reach his goal without his help.
“That is always a dangerous situation. The queen needs to remarry soon” answered the Achaean.
They both fell silent. Eudorus stared at him, apparently waiting for him to say something about it.
Or rather, it seemed to Helenus, waiting for him to say one particular thing.
He decided to take the hint.
“I wish to marry her” he said, trying to sound defiant.
The Achaean didn’t look surprised.
“So you do” he said. “I thought that you might want to marry her. But then you looked so shocked when you learned about the king that I wasn’t sure anymore”
“I didn’t want the king to die. I wasn’t looking forward to this. And I don’t care for the throne. I just wish to protect Andromache and her son” explained Helenus.
He didn’t dare to ask Eudorus what he thought of his plan. He waited stiffly for the other to speak.
Maybe the Achaean would laugh at him and say that it was a ridiculous idea, and how could he even think about that.
And if he did, Helenus wouldn’t have any hope of succeeding.
Eudorus looked intently at him. After a long silence, he spoke.
“I am not against the idea. My father served Achilles’ father; Achilles and I grew up together like brothers and I served him and his son. I too want to see Molossus on the throne one day”
Helenus tried not to show his relief too openly. If Eudorus was on his side, maybe other Achaeans would be… maybe he had a chance.
“Besides, even if none of us likes it, things have changed. A king cannot just be a good warrior like it was in the old days. And one cannot deny that you are prudent and clever” Eudorus went on.
Not for the first time, the Achaean was paying him compliments. But Helenus could never really be sure that the other was telling the truth…
“But you will certainly face some opposition. Mantes will want to marry the queen too, that is for sure. Some people in the town still think that a good warrior will make a good king”
“I know that I might not succeed” he mumbled in response
“On the contrary. The queen is allowed to choose, nobody can stop her if she wants to marry you. The point is that you would get murdered. That’s how you will end up if you lose your battle for the throne, you should be aware of that” explained Eudorus with a shrug.
Helenus considered these words.
The days when he had wished to take his own life were gone. Still, there were things that he feared much more than death.
His episodes of melancholy and sadness, when he had to force himself to get out of bed, were much scarier. The idea that the time of sadness could come again and that he might not find the strength to fight it was terrifying. The idea that the sadness could come and never go away… oh, that was dreadful enough to keep him awake at night sometimes. He knew a kind of pain that could last for weeks, months, years. Death, as painful as it might be, would be quick in comparison.
Besides, how could he allow Andromache and her son to be in danger? He was her brother-in-law and formally he was still the king of Troy. And apart from Aeneas, who was far away by now, he was the only man in the family. He had a duty to protect her.
“And what if I don’t fight that battle? The prince could get murdered, too. Andromache does not deserve… I wish to spare her further suffering” he replied.
“Alright. It is your head, after all: it’s up to you to decide what to do with it”
“How do you think that I should proceed?” he asked cautiously.
“If you really want to seize the throne, you should decide what to do on your own” answered Eudorus with a smirk.
“That doesn’t mean that I cannot listen to what other people think!” replied Helenus, annoyed. He didn’t have time and patience for Eudorus’ little games right now.
“In this case… I suggest that we wait until after Neoptolemus’ funeral, then I’ll call a council. If the council supports you, you should be able to marry the queen without incident”
“And what will we do if the advisors will not support me?” questioned Helenus.
“In this case, I would ask the people. You could call a council of the householders”
“I don’t see how that would help!” objected Helenus. “The people would certainly choose Mantes over me! He is Achaean and he is a warrior!”
In addition, Helenus didn’t believe that anyone would choose him over somebody else. Not even he would choose himself!
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that. Remember that there are not just warriors in Buthrotum. Your advice has made us spare wealth and form new alliances. Many people might value that more than Mantes’ war enterprises”
This was hard to believe. But it looked like Helenus had no choice.
“Very well. I will make my intentions clear at the council” he said with a sigh.
“I will try to sound neutral at the council. If I side with you, Mantes could feel threatened” explained Eudorus.
Helenus eyed him suspiciously.
“For all I know, you could say the very same thing to Mantes as soon as he’ll be there” he muttered.
“Don’t worry, I will try to help you. I just don’t wish to be obvious. I would like to keep my head attached to my neck, if you don’t mind”
Helenus went back to his room and sat on the bed.
One moment he felt hopeful, the moment after the idea of seizing the throne sounded ridiculous.
Nobody would want him as a king. He would get himself killed. He would be unable to protect Andromache and her child.
And even if he succeeded, he would be unfit. He would make some terrible mistake and the people would revolt against him.
Why had he agreed to do this?
Helenus kept pacing in his room, repeating in his head everything he wanted to say.
The council would take place first thing in the morning and he couldn’t sleep.
If he failed, both he and Molossus would be doomed. If he failed, he would fail Andromache. In some way, he would fail Hector.
And he was great at failing.
But this was not a military exercise. These weren’t Ares’ games. He just had to talk at a council, as he had already done dozens of times. He didn’t enjoy it but he could do it. He had managed to keep Agamemnon in line when he was completely powerless. He could do this, too.
No matter how hard he tried to reassure himself, he still felt intensely sick when the morning came and the king’s advisors gathered in the megaron for the council.
They were all there. Eudorus, Mantes and his second-in-command Ismenos, two city elders and then Diagoras and Podargos, the two most prominent city notables.
“I called you to discuss an important matter” began Eudorus, standing. “The queen’s mourning will be over in a few days and then she will be able to take a new husband. It would be better to avoid a fight between her suitors: Buthrotum needs a new king as soon as possible. If any of you wishes to marry the queen, or if you know of another warrior or notable who wishes to, speak”
Mantes stood immediately.
“I wish to marry the queen. I have been leading the city’s army for many years now, I have proven my worth on the battlefield many times. I would be able to protect the city and to fight for it”
“I had no doubt that you would propose, Mantes. After all, the head of the army is always the most natural candidate. Are there other suitors?” asked Eudorus amicably.
Helenus had a very bad feeling. Yes, Eudorus had promised to speak in his favor, now it looked like he was endorsing Mantes. Maybe he was walking into a large trap.
Well, too bad. He had made a promise to Andromache and he had to keep it.
“I wish to marry the queen, too” he stated quietly.
Eudorus looked completely taken aback, so much so that Helenus felt like he had imagined their previous conversation.
The man was such an inveterate liar…
“But this is ridiculous! You’re a prisoner!” cried Mantes, standing again.
“Wait, Mantes” interrupted Eudorus, still sounding very surprised. “This is… really surprising and I am sure none of us expected that. But he has the right to plead his case. After all… he is now the queen’s prisoner, and she can free him”
Mantes sat back with a huff and crossed his arms.
“This city already has a king” began Helenus, walking to the centre of the megaron and feeling very self-conscious. “Neoptolemus has an heir, and in little more than ten years this heir will be a man”
He knew this speech by heart by now. He was oddly reminded of the days when he memorized writings at Hermes’ temple to copy them when he was at home.
“If I marry the queen, I will keep the throne until Molossus will be of age, and then handle the throne to him. As you know, I have sworn chastity to the Huntress and cannot have an heir of my own. Therefore, I would not be tempted to put my own heir on the throne”
With the corner of his eye, Helenus noticed that Diagoras was nodding slightly. Was that a sign of approval?
“And what would you do until then? What if we have to go to war? If I remember correctly, a priest of Artemis cannot kill!” retorted Mantes.
This was the most obvious objection. Thankfully, he had expected it.
“I acknowledge that this is a limit” admitted Helenus “But the city’s army doesn’t need me. It has been to war several times during the last year, and it has always prevailed, because you and Leocritus before you, can do your job. Still, if my presence were necessary, I could come to war. My bond to Artemis forbids to kill, not to follow the army”
He had remembered everything, he had managed to compliment Mantes. Helenus didn’t like him, but he was an efficient head of the army.
“You are not even of our kin; how should you reign over a city of Achaeans?” insisted Mantes.
This was another predictable objection
“This is not a city of Achaeans!” interrupted one of the city’s elders, sounding slightly offended. “We are Chaonians, and we live here too!”
“Of course, but he is neither Chaonian nor Achaean!”
“That’s not what you said before!”
“Esteemed advisors, please, keep your countenance!” yelled Eudorus. “Helenus was asked a question”
“I have been living in this town for seven years now” replied Helenus. “I see no difference between Achaeans, Chaonians and myself, because we all live in Buthrotum”
There was a long silence. Then, Mantes spoke again, very quietly.
“What can you do for this city that I cannot do?”
He had expected something of this kind, like why should we chose you over another? He had spent many hours thinking of a possible answer.
It was a difficult question because, truth be told, Helenus didn’t believe that he could be a better king than Mantes would be. Yes, he had helped the city with his knowledge, but that didn’t mean that he should become king.
It was pointless to try and convince the others of something he didn’t believe. So, he opted for honesty.
“I am in no way more deserving than you are. I value your prowess in battle, probably more than you value my own knowledge. But, should I become king, I can promise two things: I will listen to advice about matters I don’t understand… and Molossus will ascend the throne as soon as he will be of age. Can you promise the same?”
“I certainly don’t wish to harm the prince!” replied Mantes, offended.
“But what if you had an heir?” asked Eudorus.
“Well, in this case… I would want to see my own son on the throne” he admitted. “It is my right”
“I will have no son to put on the throne” Helenus concluded quietly.
For some time, nobody said a word.
Then, quite unexpectedly, Diagoras stood and turned to Helenus. His expression was grave, and he was silent for a long moment before finally addressing him.
“As much as I respect your knowledge on many matters, I must say that you wouldn’t be able to lead the army in battle”
Helenus felt a cold shiver running down his spine. He had thought that Diagoras might be on his side…
“So, I have to ask before I can make any decision” went on Diagoras. “If you were chosen, would you leave Mantes in his place as head of the army?”
“Why should I replace him? We have all seen that he can do his job” asked Helenus, confused.
He had just said that he admired Mantes prowess in battle…
“That’s not how battles for the throne usually end, with the winner allowing the looser to keep his honors” retorted Diagoras.
“I don’t see why I should do something so stupid. I hope you will forgive my extravagance” he replied sarcastically.
Diagoras made a grunt that sounded a little bit like a laugh, then sat back.
Eudorus had followed this exchange with a blank expression.
He stood again and looked first at Mantes, then at Helenus.
“Now we must decide. But before we do: I think the most important thing is that we avoid a fight between the suitors and their supporters, at all costs. So, allow me to make a suggestion”
Helenus nodded. He wondered what Eudorus would say next.
“I believe that the best thing would be for both of you to take an oath on Athena, goddess of cities and kings” the Achaean went on.
“What kind of oath?” asked Mantes.
“First: if you don’t accept this council’s decision, swear that you will call a council of the householders to settle the matter. Second: swear that you will have mercy on your opponent if you win and stay loyal to him if you lose”
“I swear” said Helenus promptly.
“I swear, too” muttered Mantes after some hesitation.
Eudorus walked to the centre of the room.
“And now, let us raise our hands. As for me, I cannot decide which one of you is more worthy of the throne. Mantes is a brave and experienced warrior. In case of a war, he would be more than able to lead us. Helenus’ knowledge and clear-headedness have helped us greatly on many occasions. I think that you are both assets for the city. Who is for Mantes?”
Mantes, Ismenos and Podargos raised their hands.
They were three out of seven, since Eudorus didn’t want to vote. But if the other four all voted for him, then…
“And who is for Helenus?”
Helenus raised his hand, feeling slightly ridiculous. Diagoras and the two Chaonian elders did the same.
“According to this council, Helenus may marry the queen” declared Eudorus solemnly.
“This is absurd” muttered Mantes in a low voice.
“If you wish to challenge this decision, you can call a council of the householders. It is your right” replied Eudorus in a calm voice.
There was a long silence. What if Mantes decided to call the householders? What would Helenus do? The very idea of talking in front of all of the householders turned his stomach.
Mantes stood. He looked offended and glared dangerously at those who had voted against him.
“I wish to talk to you” he muttered to Eudorus.
The other advisors were very quick to leave but Helenus stayed where he was. Mantes had not declared yet whether he wanted to call the householders.
What if they fought? Helenus thought uneasily. It was forbidden to bring weapons to the council, but if they wrestled…
“Are you out of your mind, Eudorus. How can you not be able to decide between me and him? I consider myself betrayed” Mantes hissed.
Helenus expected Eudorus to reply in the usual sly way and he was very surprised when the Achaean snapped at Mantes.
“Mantes, you are my friend, but you are such a blockhead sometimes!”
Mantes opened his mouth, outraged, but Eudorus went on.
“Don’t you see that it is much better for us? The Chaonians, they are always complaining that Achaeans have all the power in this city, that only the warriors get to decide things, they are constantly stirring the pot in town. Sooner or later, they might even start a riot. And now? We give them a king who is not an Achaean, who is not a warrior! They will have to shut their mouths now!”
Helenus was speechless. He didn’t know whether Eudorus was speaking his mind or just manipulating the other Achaean. Or maybe both…
Mantes was following Eudorus’ reasoning with great attention.
“…and in little more than ten years, the city will go back to us” he concluded, impressed.
“I’m glad that you see my point!” exclaimed Eudorus. “So, do you want to call a council of the householders?”
“No, I will accept the decision” Mantes replied curtly. He nodded to Helenus ans walked away.
So it was done. He was allowed to marry Andromache and become the king.
He had kept his promise and he hadn’t disappointed her.
“I told you. He didn’t dare to go in front of the householders because he knew that he would loose” Eudorus commented smugly.
Helenus stared at the Achaean in disbelief. He didn’t know whether he should be impressed or disgusted.
He knew that Eudorus had been on his side, otherwise he would already be dead. Still, the Achaean had managed to lead the council in such a way that he would come out clean no matter what. That man was such a sly fox, he was… – he was like Aesacus, if Aesacus hadn’t been kind-hearted.
“Thank you for using me like a pawn in order to accomplish your schemes” he said sarcastically.
“Says the one who has been working his way through the council for years to take the king’s place, or do you think that I am as blind as the other idiots?” Eudorus snapped back. “And, may I add, you reached your goal just because of my good advice and my cunning. You are welcome! Consider it my payback for that night in Troy when you could have had me executed. Now we are all square”
Helenus took a deep breath. He thought that he would feel relieved – and he did in a way. But now that he had secured the throne, new worries were coming…
He needed to be alone with his thoughts.
“You were helpful, thank you. I wish you to keep your place. But I hope you know that I don’t like being manipulated” he said flatly.
“That is, provided that you notice” replied the other with a smirk.
A Stranger in the City – Chapter Twenty-Seven