Kat felt like a fish riding a bicycle as she trudged through the sand behind the silent and glowering Achilles and wished for about the kazillionth time that she had realized what the hell cute and totally messed-up Patroklos had been asking when she’d, stupidly, been all “all right by me” to his protecting Jacky. Who knew that meant Jacky would be whisked away to his tent and she’d be left best friendless to flounder along after Tall, Blond and Grumpy?
It was seriously a pain in the ass. They were almost to the Greek camp. The sun had set a little while ago and the scene on the beach in front of her was amazing, what with all the tents and torches and campfires. But the soft leather slippers on her feet were full of sand. The long dress/robe/toga thing she was wearing, while a great color and very flattering to her new young body, was also annoying as hell to keep lifted up so that she didn’t stomp on the bottom of it and fall on her face. Her hair was long and thick and, yes, quite lovely she was sure, but the breeze from the ocean had picked up and, as Jacky would say, was blowing her goddamn tresses across her face. Plus, she was hungry. And tired. All she wanted was some carry-out, a bottle of wine and a Top Chef marathon on Bravo TV.
When a bur worked its way inside her slipper, Kat decided that she’d had it. She stopped and cleared her throat. Achilles didn’t even pause in his trudge.
“Hey! You left me way behind,” she yelled after him.
He did stop then. She was pretty sure she saw his shoulders heave with what was probably a monstrous sigh before he turned around to look back at her.
She looked at him.
He looked at her.
“There is a bur in my shoe,” she called across the stretch of sand that separated them. “And I am tired of scrambling around back here trying to keep up with you.” When he made no response she rolled her eyes. “Your legs are longer than mine.” He still didn’t say anything. “What? Are you a caveman? A little help here would be nice.” She threw up her hands, completely exasperated.
Achilles walked slowly back to her. “You talk a lot,” he said.
“Yeah, well, you don’t talk enough,” she told him, and when he was close enough, she reached out and grabbed his arm so she could balance to take off her slipper and dump out about a gallon of sand.
Kat could feel his eyes on her as she peered into her shoe trying to find the bur, and she let him look. Finally she found it, plucked it carefully out of her shoe and then matter-of-factly grabbed him with her other hand so she could repeat the procedure on her other shoe.
“You do not fear me?” His voice was deep and somber, though he sounded absolutely perplexed.
Still using him as a balance, Kat slid on her other shoe as she looked up at Achilles. “Should I be afraid of you?”
“Women are afraid of me, whether or not they should be,” he said.
Shoes free of sand and burs, Kat stood up straight and breathed a relieved sigh before brushing her hair out of her face and saying, “You didn’t answer my question.”
His lips twitched. “As you did not answer mine.”
“You haven’t given me any reason to, so no, I don’t fear you. I mean, I’d appreciate it if you’d slow down, lend me an arm and help me wade through this sand, but slight rudeness doesn’t translate into fear in my mind.”
He stared silently down at her and she recognized an internal struggle reflected in the depths of his sea-colored eyes. Finally he offered her his arm.
“Thank you.” Kat smiled and slid her hand around his bicep and they resumed their trek to the Greek camp, this time with Achilles not acting like he was leading a death march.
“Melia seems to be a remarkable healer,” Achilles said.
“She is,” Kat said, not sure what else to say. Yeah, she’s a great ER nurse was definitely inappropriate. Then a thought struck her and she decided to go with it. “What kind of man is Patroklos? What I mean is, will he be good to her? And, uh, is he a patient guy, because Melia is a rather unusual woman.”
“That I have already discovered,” Achilles said. “And, yes, Patroklos is a man of honor.” He glanced down at her and added, “He is also kind.”
“And he’s not married already or anything?”
“So, how about you?”
“Are you married? Or anything?” Kat asked, even though she already knew the answer.
“No. I have no wife. Or anything.”
The silence stretched between them. Before it could become any more uncomfortable, Kat said, “I’m hungry. Do you think Agamemnon will feed us?”
“No,” he said. “We will not break bread with Agamemnon. He and I are not comrades. He commands my presence only to show he believes he has control over me.”
“Doesn’t he have control over you? He is your king.”
Achilles’ look hardened. “He is not my king.”
“Oh, well, then I guess I won’t worry about my stomach growling so loudly it embarrasses you in front of him.”
Achilles’ laugh seemed to surprise him as much as it did Kat, and he looked down at her shaking his head and smiling. “Princess, we won’t be in Agamemnon’s tent long enough for your stomach to complain.”
“Glad to hear it. I’m starved. Oh, and you should smile more. It looks good on you.”
By their joined skin Kat could feel the little jolt that passed through Achilles at her words and she wondered how long it’d been since the guy had been complimented by a woman. Then she remembered what the goddesses had said about him—that he’d taken no lover in years because women feared him, and she felt an unexpected little jolt of her own sizzle through her. This ancient hero and warrior—the man whose physical prowess people knew about thousands of years after his death—hadn’t had sex in years. Talk about starving…
“Rest assured, Princess, I will see that you are well fed when we return to my tent.”
Kat met Achilles’ gaze and the little jolt that had sizzled through her crackled and flared until she felt a lovely rush of heat begin deep inside her.
“I’ll count on it,” Kat told him softly.
Then they were both jolted out of their moment of intimacy by a shout of “Hail Achilles!” as a warrior in full armor saluted formally and then pulled aside the flap of an enormous tent for them.
Holding tight to Achilles’ arm, Kat stepped into a cacophony of exotic sights and sounds and scents. Right away Kat decided gold must be Agamemnon’s thing. The walls of the tent were scarlet, but practically everything else was gold gold gold. The thick woven carpets were gold. The chairs, most of which were filled with gray-bearded men wearing flowing robes and a bizarre amount of jewelry, were gold. The columns that held up the tent were gold. The goblets people were slurping wine from—gold. The three-tiered dais that was placed majestically at the rear of the tent, as if it were at the end of a catwalk—gold. And the pièce de résistance wasn’t the huge gilded throne that sat on top of that dais, but the old guy that perched on top of the throne.
He was big, Kat had to give him that, and he was wearing an enormous gold tunic-toga thing that looked like the mutant love child that would have been born if an Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra costume and a classic Liberace cape had been allowed to mate. Plus, he was wearing enough jewelry to make the other grandpas clustered around him look like cheap relations. Not to mention his (gold, of course) crown, which glistened in the torchlight.
But what Kat kept staring at wasn’t the gold or the jewels. What freaked her out more than any of the opulence was his hair. It was long—as in down to his chest. And it was obviously dyed a dark, very fake-looking brown. It was also curled into Shirley Temple ringlets that somehow joined his long, totally dyed beard that was also ringletted. His eyes were lined in black, setting off his drag queen appearance perfectly. Actually she was finding it difficult not to giggle at the ridiculous pomp and circumstance until he spoke and she felt Achilles’ arm turn from warm man to hard-edged steel under her hand.
“So good of you to answer our summons, Achilles. Though you are, as usual, late.”
Agamemnon’s voice was powerful and contemptuous, as if he were addressing an annoying child. Its effect on the gathering was instantaneous. The talking stopped as everyone’s attention shifted to Achilles. Kat couldn’t help but notice how many of the men’s eyes widened in shock as they took in the fact that her arm was wrapped through his. Automatically she lifted her chin and glared back at them. Hell, no, she wasn’t like other women, those shrinking violets who peed themselves over a few scars and some grumpiness. She’d be grumpy, too, if she hadn’t had sex in years. Crap. Now that she thought about it, she hadn’t had sex in years. At least not decent sex. And not with someone besides the Magic Tickler.
Then Kat realized that as she’d been babbling to herself no one else had been talking. At all. Achilles just stood there like a statue of himself. Agamemnon’s look was darkening and Kat braced herself for a kingly storm, when his expression suddenly relaxed and turned bizarrely jovial.
“Ah, we see why you’ve been struck dumb. You’re unused to escorting beautiful women. Imagine that the Trojans have been battling the mighty Achilles for nine years. Luckily for us they didn’t know it only took the touch of a woman to slay him.” Agamemnon chuckled cruelly and reached a hand out to stroke the young girl who sat in a scantily clad pool of gold silk on the floor beside his throne. The girl, who Kat assumed must be Briseis, was glaring at her hostilely, but she didn’t so much as glance at Achilles.
Kat could not believe what an asshole this guy was. And he was their king? Jerk. Bully. She seriously hated bullies. Well, as she knew from years of experience, when one was dealing with a bully it was best for one to show no weakness and to confront the asshole directly. Kat glanced around the room until she found the face she was looking for, and was relieved that he was one of the few men present who wasn’t laughing like a good little sycophant along with Agamemnon.
“Odysseus,” Kat said, raising her voice so that it carried over the laughter. “I was confused earlier today when you remarked on my father’s reputation for being wise and honorable and beloved by his people, as if that was unusual. Now I understand. They are traits that appear to be in short supply in your Greek rulers.”
“Impudent harlot!” Old Kalchas screeched as he popped out from behind the king’s throne. “She should be beaten for her disrespect!”
Several of the other men started shouting for her blood, too, but Odysseus’s raised hand stilled them.
“Have a care, Kalchas. Athena has proclaimed Polyxena not just under her protection, but her oracle,” he said. “Remember, I witnessed Athena gifting her to Achilles, and there was no mistaking the Goddess’s will.”
“The princess is also under my protection.” Achilles’ voice cut through the angry muttering that had begun in response to Odysseus’s proclamation. “I have no wish to quarrel with any of you,” he continued, but Kat saw that it was obvious that he didn’t look at the king, purposefully excluding him in the “no wish to quarrel statement.”
“but if you so much as touch her, I will kill you.”
Kat’s eyes went to Achilles’ face. He said it so calmly, so matter-of-factly, but his expression was implacable, and Kat had no doubt that he meant exactly what he said.
Agamemnon’s patronizing laughter cut through the silence Achilles’ words had caused.
“Oh, come now, Achilles. Save your death threats for the Trojans. Well, all the Trojans except this small, soft-looking one. After all, we’re not threatening your new war prize. It is good that you found a replacement so quickly, and such a lovely one at that.” Agamemnon smiled at her and Kat’s smarm meter went to high. “You’ll need your strength on the morrow. I was visited by Hera today, and I believe that was a sign that our victory is close at hand. Tomorrow will be a great day for Greece!”
Kat had to work not to have her mouth flop open in surprise. Hera’s visit was a sign that the Greeks were going to win the war? She could only imagine the goddess’s reaction to that news. Kat had never heard such utter bullshit. No wonder this place had given birth to the mother of all rumors.
But the men bought every word of it and shouted in testosterone-filled response. Achilles waited until the tumult had died down and then he said a single word that appeared to shock the gold-loving king to his marrow.
Agamemnon recovered his façade of patronizing indifference quickly. “No?” He said with a sarcastic smile. “Is there a problem with the Myrmidons, Achilles? Some new sickness? I returned Khryseis, as you insisted. That stopped the darkness that had settled over our camp. Now what sacrifice do you ask of me?”
“I ask no sacrifice of you, Agamemnon. I simply ask you to fight your own battles.” Achilles pulled his arm gently from her hand and walked forward, addressing not the richly dressed old men in gilded chairs, but the young warriors who stood behind them. “Why is it that wars are talked about by old men, but fought only by young men? If I want a woman, I fight for her. If I want riches, I fight for them. If I want glory, I fight for it. I have never taken something for which others have fought and died.”
Along with everyone else in the room, Kat was mesmerized by Achilles. He wasn’t just a mindless killing machine bent on glory and fortune. Achilles was a leader of men, a king in his own right. He moved through the room until finally he was standing before Agamemnon’s dais.
“Perhaps it is time you fought for that which you would claim as yours, great king.” Unlike Agamemnon, Achilles’ voice wasn’t thick with sarcasm. It was firm and deep and honest. He held the king’s gaze easily using the truth, not demeaning tricks. “And perhaps it is time I rested. There is more to life than war.” He turned and looked back at Kat. “Today I have been reminded that Athena is Goddess of Wisdom as well as Goddess of War.”
“You cannot withdraw from battle!” Agamemnon exploded to his feet, all pretense of control gone. “I am your king and I command you to fight!”
Achilles turned slowly so that he was, once more, facing Agamemnon. “You are not my king. I have never sworn loyalty to you. I am the son of a king and I lead my own men. I am only here because of a youthful mistake.”
“Do you really believe you can run from your fate?” Agamemnon sneered.
“I have no intention of running, but I can tell you that I will fight again only when there is something worth dying for,” Achilles answered and then strode back to Kat.
“Stop him!” Agamemnon shrieked.
Achilles reacted instantly. He pushed Kat toward the tent flap, backing protectively in front of her while he unsheathed his sword and held it ready before him. Kat saw the warriors hesitate. That they didn’t want to fight Achilles was abundantly clear.
Suddenly there was a wild flapping of wings and a huge owl, white as untouched snow, burst into the tent. The men gasped as it landed in front of Achilles and stared at them, as if daring anyone to move.
Odysseus was the first person to break the silence. He took two strides forward and kneeled before the owl. “As you wish, my Goddess,” he said. Then he stood and confronted the room. “Athena’s will is clear. Achilles and the princess are not to be harmed. Should any of you wish to go against the will of my Goddess, you shall also have to go against me.”
That was the last Kat heard, because Achilles had backed their way out of the tent. Grasping her arm firmly, he steered her through the Greek camp, heading across the beach to Myrmidon territory.
She didn’t see the warrior, Talthybios, whisper into Agamemnon’s ear a story about a temple he had sacked earlier that day, and a princess who should have been very, very dead.