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Adore Our Own Athena

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Every morning, Penelope rises with the dawn to pour libation after libation to Athena. The priestesses know to be awake now, when she comes, though every so often there is a new initiate whose dark eyes are made darker by weariness. She knows the look; she has seen her own face in polished bronze and bowls of water.

"You must rest," says Parthenope. She strokes Penelope's hair with gentle, sure touches and Penelope finds herself weeping for hardly any reason at all.

"It is the strain," Parthenope explains, pulling Penelope's head down into her lap. "You are so accustomed to it by now that it seems like nothing. Think of it as a silent disease, with no symptoms until the day one simply dies."

"My husband loves Athena and glory more than he does me. Shall I die of a broken heart?" Penelope asks. She doesn't mean it, exactly; she is so desperately unhappy that she thinks it would be better to die than live like this forever. But there are so many things to do.

She closes her eyes against the dim light from the brazier. Parthenope's touch is soothing, even hypnotic, and Penelope is so very tired.

Parthenope snorts. "Not you. Our kind always survive."

"Our kind," Penelope repeats drowsily.

"We're not slaves to ourselves," Parthenope tells her. Penelope tries to raise her head, to protest at the word "slaves", but it feels too heavy and Parthenope is complimenting her, after all.

"I dreamt of Odysseus," Penelope tells her, a little sourly.

"Were you not happy?"

"Yes, until I woke up."

"Perhaps it was a true dream."

"Perhaps it was not," Penelope says, and sighs, not like a wistful young girl but like someone who is too exhausted to be angry.

"He might come home soon," Parthenope suggests.

"He might not." Penelope turns her face away. "We must have glory, us Achaeans, no matter the price! It's half the reason Helen ran away, you know."

"I know."

"Of course you do," Penelope says, not believing her. Parthenope begins to tidy her hair, smoothing it into something that resembles queenly. Her veil lies discarded on the bed and Parthenope picks it up, drawing it across Penelope's face.

"You look beautiful," she tells her. Penelope wishes she didn't; it causes so many more problems. "Now, let us pour libations to Athena."

"I can't help wondering," Penelope says when they are outside, walking primly toward the temple as if they were only maidens.

Parthenope tilts her head, listening.

"Has my husband done something to offend Athena? She is generous in her patronage," Penelope adds carefully, "but my lord and husband - "

"He is arrogant," Parthenope says. Penelope bites her tongue at the insult, for Parthenope loves her. "He is conceited and he is cocky, and those will be his downfall."

Penelope walks on faster, as if trying to ignore the words that fly after her. "Have you seen omens to prove that?"

"Anyone who knows Odysseus knows what he is," says Parthenope. She adds swiftly, "And loves him truly for it. If he has offended Athena - she will forgive him."

"I hope you speak the truth," Penelope says curtly. "But you are no prophetess."

"I am wise," Parthenope tells her.

On the way back to the palace, they walk along the shoreline. They always do. Penelope pretends that she loves the sea and the wind.

"I often contemplate the vastness of the ocean," she said once. "It is beautiful," she added, looking about as far from aesthetic appreciation as possible.

There have been storms, recently, the sufferance of which made Penelope take to her bed. "Illness," Parthenope told Eurycleia to tell Telemachus. Really it was a fit of melancholy, from contemplating the vastness of the ocean and the relative insignificance of a ship, even a fleet of ships. Walking on the beach now, however, leads them to find a fallen olive tree, its slender trunk broken by the power of a violent wave.

"There is your omen," says Parthenope. "Athena cannot act against Poseidon, whatever Odysseus has done to incur his wrath."

"I preferred uncertainty," Penelope tells her in her coldest voice.

They do not speak for some time after that.

It is the forty-third day of the twentieth year when Penelope is caught unravelling her shroud. The Suitors fling her, sobbing, into her chambers and she is horribly, sickeningly afraid of them for the first time. Antinous comes too close; he grabs the cloth of her peplos, tearing it, and ignores her scream.

Her maids stand and watch. It is for this reason, later, that Telemachus will kill them.

Her veil is crumpled on the floor and her face and hair are exposed like Helen's so often was, like a whore's, and Penelope tries to run. She takes a few steps and Eurymachus trips her; her chin smashes painfully on the floor and it hurts so much that Penelope's cry dies in her throat.

"What is the meaning of this?"

Somehow, Parthenope strikes fear into the Suitors' hearts where Eurycleia and Mentor - and Telemachus now, perhaps - do not. When Penelope raises her head, still trembling, Parthenope is the only person with her.

"You mustn't speak," she says with almost unbearable tenderness.

The pain in Penelope's jaw is too much for her to even consider it, and Parthenope practically has to lift her onto her bed in the next room. There, Penelope finds dreamless sleep - somehow - she thought she'd never sleep again. When she wakes, she can smile at Eurycleia; at Telemachus when he comes home from visiting his grandfather.

"We must go to the temple," Parthenope says to her that morning. "Athena will put the thought of another plan into our heads."

A few days later, Penelope conceives the idea of the archery contest. It seems so fine to her that she orders a barrel of their best wine to be sent to the temple.

And then - it all happens in such a rush.

Telemachus comes home, his eyes so much older, and Penelope prays to Athena that he may become older yet. And the archery contest went off without a hitch, until the beggar came, and then, and then -

"If it is Odysseus," Penelope whispers to Parthenope, "how will I know him?"

Parthenope surveys the floor below. "He is still handsome."

"There are many handsome men in the world," Penelope says. "Some fewer, now."

"He acts handsomely," Parthenope says, and watching the stranger greet the household open-handedly, Penelope has to agree. "And Telemachus believes it to be so."

"Telemachus has grown old and crafty these past few months," Penelope says. "But I am older and craftier still."

It is perhaps a reward for her faithful worship, but Athena puts the thought into her mind that she can ask about the bed, their secret from long ago. Penelope would have forgotten it, but their marriage bed is so sturdy that it has been a comfort to her, somewhere where her tears become lost and noiseless, a place of protection.

He answers correctly and it has been twenty long years since Penelope felt sick with happiness.

Later that night, after talking and lovemaking, Parthenope comes to see them.

"I did what I promised," she says to Odysseus, who is only half-awake. He bows his head awkwardly in place of kneeling. "I looked after her."

She turns to Penelope, who stares at her in bewilderment.

"I did what I promised," she says, smiling. "I brought him home."

The next morning, at dawn, Penelope and Odysseus and Telemachus all go down to the temple together, to pour libations for the greater glory of Athena.