Her name was Philomela. She had laughed about it, when she first introduced herself.
“I’m no nightingale," she had said, "nor any kind of famed beauty. Childbirth will do that, you know, and I was no lithe nymph even in my youth."
Her children had not survived, her daughter stillborn, her son dead within the year. She spoke of it casually, following a well-trodden path through the rough terrain of her old grief.
"I'm sorry," Relius had said, a little perfunctorily, and she had only nodded.
She was a weaver, the finest he had ever seen, and he said so, the second time he came to her market stall.
"You should have seen my mother-in-law's work," she told him. "Now there was artistry. But she never sold it, made only enough to clothe her own family. The family was rich enough, they said, that they didn't need to rely on women's work."
"Foolish," he murmured.
She grinned. "I thought so. I needn't care what they would think, now."
He bought ten yards of cloth, not because he had any need for it but because it would be a crime to leave without it. Then he hesitated, running his hand thoughtfully over the vivid lines of the pattern. One of the bolts was the wine-red that the queen favored, he noticed.
"Red is her garment, dark are her eyes," he murmured.
"She walks the mountains in glory."
He looked at Philomela, startled. "You know Callimachus?"
She smiled ruefully. "Not as well as I would like, but I know that one. I've always liked the stories of the old gods. They seem more real, somehow."
"They're more like us, I think. More human, less remote than the new gods. Perhaps that is why we don't worship them anymore."
She laughed. "Perhaps! It's true, I would rather be friends with some of them than ask them for favors. All the favors they grant seem to go poorly for the asker."
He liked her laugh, he thought. It fit her - not dainty or stifled, an honest laugh for an honest woman. She lived her life plainly, hiding nothing, her very soul open to a casual glance. What had he, who spent his life in the shadows, to do with such a one as her?
She must have seen his face change. "What is it?" she asked.
"Just a passing thought," he said. "I'm sorry, I should go."
"Come back when you can," she said. "It is good to talk to someone that knows the old poets, Relius."
At his surprise, she quirked an eyebrow. "After the last time you visited my stall, the chief gossip of the marketplace felt it was her duty to inform me of who you were. She seemed to think that such a sinister figure had hidden motives even for talking to a middle-aged widow."
Well, and so. "And if I do?"
"I suppose one of my neighbors is involved in a treacherous plot against the queen! Is it the potter? I've always thought he looked rather shifty!"
He laughed. "As far as I know, your neighbors are innocent of any wrongdoing. Would you have a drink with me tonight, after you are finished here?"
Both eyebrows raised, this time. "Ah. That kind of hidden motive. I'm rather out of practice, it seems." She paused. "Well, why not?"
That evening, after the better part of a flagon of wine and hours of poetry and jocular arguments, he took her hands in his. "Philomela," he said, "do you understand what you are getting into? Your gossip was not wrong. Even a walk through the marketplace becomes an investigation of the people's sentiment when I do it."
She looked at him levelly. "Do any of us ever understand what we get into? I understand enough. Kiss me, spymaster, and stop worrying, for once in your life."
What could he do but obey?
He had her investigated, of course. Just in case. She was as she claimed to be: a middle-aged, childless widow, supporting herself with the work of her hands. His agent’s report did not mention her sharp wit or her familiarity with the Poet of Chios, but then it hardly needed to.
He met with her again, and then again. She became his habit and he hers, as unremarkable and indispensable as her loom or his study. Their lives leaned into one another, largely separate but propping each other up regardless.
“The potter’s wife thinks I’m quite a fallen woman,” she said one night.
“She would do better to look to her shifty husband,” he yawned.
“Oh, she’s far too stupid a woman for that,” she said comfortably.
“Does it worry you, what they think?”
She gave half a shrug. “I’ve had my respectable years. There were days I thought they would suffocate me. I prefer this.”
The truth, but not the whole truth, he rather thought, though he wouldn’t press her. Condemnation stung even from the ignorant and small-minded, if you had to live with it every day.
He kissed her, instead, and ran his hand over her bare shoulders.
She told him, as the months passed, all the story of her life. Not the well-practiced version she told strangers at market, now - the truths she told him, she had never before admitted even to herself. How she had hated her father-in-law and despised herself for obeying him. How when her husband had died, last of his family and of hers, she had been relieved, though he hadn’t been a bad man. How she was happier now, independent and alone, than she had ever been as a wife or daughter. Or as a mother.
“And now,” she murmured, “I am not even alone. Now, I have you.”
And he had her. What did it matter to her that he had come from nothing, that all he had was by the queen’s generosity? He repaid her coin with his own honesty, and if he would not or could not speak of certain subjects, neither would he lie to her.
When the Thief of Eddis stole the queen and made himself King, Relius did not try to hide his fear from her.
“What do you think he will do?” she asked.
“If we’re lucky? Execute me given the merest pretext, then rule the country ably for the rest of his life. If we’re unlucky, he will drive the country into the ground, and the Mede will barely need to lift a finger to conquer us.” He laughed bitterly. “The true jest is that I personally would likely do better in that case than under a strong Eugenides.”
Philomela’s grip on his hand tightened. “A jest, you say? A poor one, then.”
“Such are all the jests of the gods,” he said wryly.
“Sometimes I wonder,” she said. “Would Mede rule really be so terrible? Worse than Eddisian rule?”
“But we are not under Eddisian rule,” he said. “We have an Eddisian king, but thus far, he does very little ruling. And if that changes, still he will be the king of Attolia, not just the lord of an Eddisian outpost. Mede - Mede would swallow us whole and never choke on the bones.” He paused. “Especially now. The Emperor was humiliated, and that, he will not forgive.” His poor country would pay in blood for the Mede’s mortification, before that reckoning was done with.
“And I suppose you cannot tell me how you are so sure.”
He nodded. He was sure mostly because one of his informants had spoken to a servant who had spoken to a slave that had been listening at the door when the Emperor’s heir had received news of Attolia’s alliance with Eddis and the expulsion of his brother’s army. The heir had sworn that he would have vengeance, sooner or later, “if he had to rip apart that Attolian whore with his own hands”. The language had gotten less temperate from there.
That report, and a few others of similar magnitude, Relius did not even dare leave in his own study. He kept them instead hidden behind a loose stone of his bedroom wall.
He wondered if the Thief of Eddis knew that hiding place as he had known so many of the palace secrets. He rather thought not. Eugenides would have acted on it by now. The thought was a little too satisfying.
“Is it true a guard punched the king in the face?” Philomela asked another night.
Relius groaned. “So it’s all over the city already? Yes, it’s true, but you would be doing me a favor if you discouraged the rumor. It makes all of us look weak.”
She laughed, assented, and turned the conversation onto other matters.
Later, lying beside her as she slept, Relius found his thoughts returning to the incident. He rather wished he had gotten to see the punch. By all accounts, Eugenides had gone flying.
There was something odd about the aftermath, though. A guard had lost his temper and punched the king - unfortunate, but knowing Eugenides, not particularly surprising. The king had attempted to use this to bring down Teleus - not altogether unpredictable. The queen had not outright denied the king’s logic, but had declined to hand over her loyal Captain - wholly foreseeable and expected. So foreseeable, in fact, that surely the king should have foreseen it. However the Thief had changed recently, Relius doubted he had become stupider.
Hours later, Relius finally fell asleep, still puzzling over the king’s intentions.
In the morning, Relius slept late, and Philomela slipped out before he woke. It was market day, he knew, and she needed to get an early start. He would see her again in two days time.
Perhaps he was getting old, he thought. Time was, he would have woken at the slightest twitch from a bedmate. Or perhaps he just slept better by her side. Perhaps one day, he thought wistfully, he could sleep every night by her side, and wake up together with her every morning. Perhaps one day, when the queen would no longer need him, she would grant him a pension and they could retire to the countryside and grow olives.
Folly, he knew. He would never survive to become useless. He would die as he lived, by politics and the queen’s will.
Two days later, Relius came to dinner at Philomela’s house, as they had agreed. The neighbors looked at him askance, as always, and as always, he ignored them. At dinner, there was plain, hearty food, fresh-baked bread, good wine, and good conversation; and after dinner there were sweet kisses. All as it ever was, and yet something was off, so that when Philomela grew sober and drew away, Relius found that he had been expecting it all evening.
“It has been a good year, has it not?” she asked him.
“Yes,” he said.
She smiled at him, but the smile was melancholy. “And this has been a good evening. I wanted to have one last time before we say farewell.”
He bowed his head. “Must we say farewell?”
“Yes. We must.” She was crying, he realized. “If you were anyone else, I would stay with you for the rest of my life, I think. But the queen’s Secretary of Archives has enemies, has secrets, has a life he cannot share with me, and I will not, I will not , be tied once again to something beyond all control.”
There was nothing to say. He would not leave the queen’s service for her, and she could not keep going as they were. They made love, one last time, and then Relius walked back to the palace. The olive trees gleamed silver in the moonlight.
Later, in the darkness of the queen’s prison, he wondered when he had become such a fool. Had she been a Mede agent already when they had met, or had the Mede approached her when their intimacy became known? How had she found the hiding-place in the wall? Had he glanced at it in conversation, and thus given away its location? Had his sleep been so deep because it was drugged, permitting her to search the room while he slept, without fear of interruption? Had she come into his rooms when he was out, unchallenged by the guard as a known quantity? What had the Mede promised her?
Freedom and independence, he rather thought. That had always been her buying price, she had made no secret of it. And he could never have given it to her, tied down as he was by loyalty and by ambition.
He would never know for certain. By the time he had been arrested, her ship had already left the harbor.