||The Masque of Agamemnon
Sean Williams and Simon Brown
Part 2 of 4
As the airlock cycled open, Agamemnon could barely contain his excitement. Clytemnestra laid a calming hand on his shoulder, ready to hold back her husband in case he leapt forward to greet their Trojan guest with one of his bear hugs. Clytemnestra admired the spontaneous bouts of affection Agamemnon was prone to inflict on visitors, but understood it might startle Paris out of his wits.
There was a hiss as the final hatch retracted, and a slim, short figure appeared. The stranger smiled nervously and held out a hand.
"Greetings, Achaeans. I am Paris of . . . umm . . . Troy."
The first thought that crossed Clytemnestra's mind was that Paris was absolutely sexless. She glanced at Helen to judge her reaction, and saw that she was equally intrigued.
Agamemnon strode forward suddenly to take the proffered hand in both of his, and shook it vigorously.
"Welcome to Mycenae, friend!" the Over-captain boomed. "I am Agamemnon!" He pulled Paris forward and quickly introduced the others. Paris shook hands with each of them.
Not sexless, Clytemnestra decided. Male, but underdeveloped. Hardly a man at all, really.
Agamemnon curled one arm around Paris' slim shoulders and led him away. "My captains are looking forward to meeting you," he said. "They are all gathered in the Mycenae's reception hall." He turned to Clytemnestra, who handed him a mask, which he in turn gave to Paris. "For the ball," Agamemnon explained.
The Trojan studied the mask, made in the shape of an apple pierced by an arrow, before putting it on. Agamemnon slipped into an arrangement of beaten gold and indicated that the others should do the same.
Disguised as a swan, Clytemnestra fell in behind the pair, followed by Menelaus, looking stoic beneath bull's horns, and Odysseus, faintly amused in a mask of stars. She was surprised when Helen-her mask a predictable and entirely appropriate cat-overtook her to draw level with Paris.
"Was your journey long and uncomfortable?" Helen inquired.
Paris offered his nervous smile. "I was asleep for most of the time, my lady, and never uncomfortable."
"Oh, good! Then you will be fine to dance!"
Agamemnon laughed. "We Achaeans love dancing!" he declared.
"Almost as much as we love making war," Menelaus said grimly, barely loud enough for Clytemnestra to hear.
Bernal's heart was beating so fast he thought he might pass out.
The first thing he saw, as he stepped through the airlock and gave his greeting, was an enormous male leaping towards him. Calling on reserves of courage he had no idea he possessed, Bernal awaited the onslaught, only to have his outstretched hand pumped like an overworked piston.
If all that had not been enough, Bernal's first close-up view of an Achaean convinced him to retreat to his own ship, but he could not escape from the vice-like grip that held his hand.
The creature was huge: a good two metres tall, and seemingly half that at least across the shoulders. Bernal heard it identify itself as Agamemnon in a voice so loud and low pitched it rattled his teeth. Then he was being introduced to a whole crowd of giants and shepherded down a passageway that was barely wide enough for he and Agamemnon to walk side by side. He found himself glancing up at the Over-captain's head, marvelling at its symmetry and its colours: the cheeks and lips were a bright crimson, the long hair and beard as black as charcoal, the skin as pale as cream. It was almost a relief when they donned masks, concealing their excessive features.
Another thing Bernal could not help noticing was the Achaean's odour: not rank, but very strong and very . . . masculine. He realised then that he could smell its opposite: something sweet, like newly-ripened fruit. He turned and saw the one called Helen matching his stride. She was not as tall as Agamemnon, but easily ten centimetres taller than Bernal himself. She was lithely built, and what he could see of her colouring was as exaggerated as Agamemnon's, including her long golden hair, which shone almost as fiercely and lustrously as the metal. Her cat-face was designed less to conceal her features than to enhance them; the silver whiskers danced with every word, and were quite hypnotic.
Helen asked him about his journey, and he answered as politely as his wits allowed him. Helen said something else, and there was a contribution from Agamemnon, but he was distracted by AlterEgo saying in his mind: Paris, your hosts are not breathing.
Achilles looked up in annoyance as the welcoming party returned to the hall. He had enjoyed being the centre of attention while Agamemnon was away; now he would have to return to being second in rank among the heroes-maybe third if the envoy from Troy was as mighty a warrior as his insecurity made him imagine.
What he saw set his mind at rest.
The tiny specimen was pallid and washed-out, barely there at all. What was his name? Paris? He looked like a ghost, but not the sort that would instil fear in anyone. The ghost of a sad, lonely child who missed its friends.
Achilles' lips pulled back in a smile as he moved through the throng to pay his respects to the visitor, leaving Patroclus to take his place.
"You're looking cheerful, m'boy," said Nestor as he passed. The elderly warrior was seated at a table, cleaning his fingernails with the tip of a dagger, his face concealed beneath a dove-shaped mask. "King Hector is no fool and his emissary will be no slouch, either. Tread carefully where this Paris is concerned, that's my advice."
Achilles dismissed the old man's words with a wave of his hand and did his best to ignore the irrational foreboding that swept over him.
"Dear me." Bernal sagged into the seat Clytemnestra offered him when the introductions were over. Achilles, Diomedes, Ajax, captain of this and that-the names had reeled inexorably past him, accompanied by features and bodies no less legendary. The masks only accentuated their superficiality: they were caricatures, grotesqueries, fit for waxworks and not reality. He wasn't surprised that they weren't what they seemed, because what they seemed was utterly preposterous. The fact that they weren't respiring in any way AlterEgo could detect only proved that his initial unease had been justified, even if it did little to explain what he was seeing. Extraordinarily lifelike environment suits? The results of severe bioengineering or advanced eugenics? Alien mimics?
But the masks themselves were magnificent, matching the armour worn by the males and the finery worn by the females. Everywhere he looked he saw another stunning example. Heads glittered with jewels, waved exotic feathers, even sported miniature plants in one case. They had certainly gone to a lot of effort-an effort which did not diminish as the masque continued.
Tables were carried in, laden with roast boar, goat and lion, and vegetables Bernal could not identify. The food at least looked real and his stomach rumbled. The giants swarmed around him, booming and hooting with their tremendous voices, every gesture exaggerated.
"I want out of here," he said to AlterEgo.
You can't leave yet, AlterEgo replied calmly. Not until the banquet is over, anyway. It would be impolite to leave any sooner-possibly dangerous.
"They'd take me prisoner?"
Worse; they might be offended. Can you imagine an army of these creatures attacking Cirrus to protest your bad manners?
Bernal groaned. He could imagine it all too well. As Achilles and his lads on the far side of the room struck up a chorus of a very martial sounding anthem, he swore to avoid causing a diplomatic incident of any kind.
"They still haven't said what they want from us."
Maybe no more than your gratitude, AlterEgo chided him. So cheer up, Paris. You are being an unpleasant guest.
A goblet of crimson wine appeared before him. He sipped at it and immediately pulled a face. It tasted like nothing so much as recycled water. A plate of sweet-smelling roast meat went past at that moment and he reached out and grabbed a slice, wincing as hot fat burned his fingertips. The meat possessed the intriguing, even poignant, flavour of stale ship rations.
Very odd indeed.
"Do you like it?" asked a voice near his ear.
He turned, startled, and almost touched masks with Helen. A whisker tickled him. "Oh, yes, very much."
"There will be speeches after the food," she said. Her eyes were very moist, he noted, and seemed to reflect every photon of light that touched them. "After that, there will be music."
"Wonderful!" He nodded, wondering what to do with the morsel of bland-tasting meat. Eat it? Probably for the best.
"We Achaeans love dancing." Helen repeated Agamemnon's declaration; but her inflection said something far different.
When the echoes of the horn had faded, Agamemnon climbed onto a chair and began to speak. Clytemnestra watched on, smiling at the audience before her, noting who seemed to be paying attention to Agamemnon and who wasn't. She knew her husband could be bombastic at times-and had little, really, to say-but he meant well. He always meant well. She committed to memory the names of those who looked bored; they would receive the edge of her disfavour another time.
Achilles was one of them. Always young Achilles. So valiant and strong, such a great warrior, yet so impulsive and restless, too. He was like a male wolf who itched to challenge the pack leader but was not quite confident enough to go through with it. So he chafed in second place, awaiting his chance.
He would never make as fine a leader as Agamemnon, Clytemnestra knew. Her husband had guided them well. Once the matter of the Trojans was resolved, none would dispute that.
The Over-captain ground to a halt and was cheered enthusiastically. The Trojan, Paris, winced at the noise. Helen leaned down to whisper something in his ear. He looked bewildered, but smiled anyway. Clytemnestra frowned. Damn that girl! A dalliance in the backroom of the barracks was all well and good if no one saw or knew, but here, with her husband just metres away, she was risking a terrible scandal.
And with a Trojan, too. Only Athena knew what Helen saw in him.
The horns sounded again, signalling the next stage of the masque. A quartet of musicians stepped from the wings and, after a brief tune-up, began to play. Tables slid easily aside to form an impromptu dance floor. Agamemnon stepped down from the chair with a flourish and grasped his wife around her waist. She kissed him joyfully on the cheek, already feeling the rhythm in her body. Couples moved around them, heading for the clear space, accompanied by the stamping of feet and chiming laughter from the women.
They danced. More to the point, they waltzed.
"This can't be right," Bernal muttered.
"I'm sorry?" Helen inclined her ear closer to his mouth, sending a wave of her scent wafting into his nostrils. The skin beneath his hands was warm and soft-unbelievably so. He wasn't so close that he missed the rise and fall of respiration, but not so far away that her chest didn't catch his eye nonetheless. She was as enticing a woman as he had ever met. If only, he thought, her make-up wasn't so severe.
Then he realised: it wasn't make-up. Her skin really was that colour. And her eyelashes. And her lips.
If only, he amended, she was real.
"Am I hurting you?" she asked, backing away ever so slightly.
"Not at all!" He was wood in her arms and she had sensed it. He tried to be gracious. "It's too much. All this-" He removed his hand from hers and waved at the hall. "It's overwhelming."
"It's not like this in Troy?"
She nodded. "I would like to see it, one day." Her eyes shone, and he thought he saw something akin to mischievousness in them. "Do you think that would be possible?"
The music changed tempo and he found himself drawn into a spinning whirlwind of limbs. This dance was unfamiliar. He found his close proximity to Helen-even closer now, with her hands on his lower back, pushing him to her-disconcerting. But even more disconcerting still was the sight of Agamemnon and his fellows and their dance-partners spinning by with only inches to spare. Afraid of colliding and being crushed like a puppy, he flinched at every close pass, and eventually closed his eyes entirely, letting Helen guide him to safety. Or not, as the case may be. If she failed, he reasoned, at least he would never know what happened.
"AlterEgo, I beg you-"
Not until we have worked out what they want from Cirrus. That's why we are here. We cannot leave until we know what is going on. Grit your teeth. And be on the look-out for any covert attempt to communicate. It may be that the masque is a distraction, a mask itself for some other truth. If Agamemnon won't talk to us, then maybe someone else will.
Suddenly Helen led him by the hand from the dance floor, weaving through her fellow Achaeans with the grace of a deer. He gasped in surprise, and she pulled him closer to her.
"Come with me," she whispered.
"Don't worry. I can tell you're not enjoying yourself. I know a place where you'll feel more comfortable."
Odysseus nodded in satisfaction as the pair, largely unnoticed under the cover of the dance, slipped from the hall. A flutter of feathers in his ear heralded the return of the owl, which indicated its own approval with a smug hoot.
"She's a wily one," Odysseus said.
"Menelaus sees." The owl nodded to a point across the room where the Captain of Sparta looked around for his wife and caught sight of her leaving with the guest. His face clouded.
"Will he follow?" Odysseus craned his neck for a better view.
The Captain waved a hand and Diomedes, masked behind an ivory skull, approached. A whispered exchange ensued, resulting in Diomedes leaving the hall. Menelaus sank back into his seat, glowered momentarily, then smiled as a servant offered to refill his mug.
"Good enough," the owl said.
"Where will she take him?"
"I've left that up to her. She deserves some autonomy, after all."
"As do I." Odysseus straightened his cuirass and stood. "I'm curious."
"Ever the hunter."
"Well, I was made in your image."
"Exactly." The bird nipped his ear affectionately. "So follow them and make sure nothing goes wrong."
Helen opened the door and nudged the Trojan ahead of her. The small room beyond was in darkness and she felt him hesitate. He was so timid, so unlike the men she was used to. Glancing once behind her, she closed the door on them both. Light instantly sprung into being. White light, almost cold.
"What the-?" Paris looked around him in amazement.
"Here we are, alone at last," she said, reaching for his hands and pulling him to her. Although he didn't resist, he exhibited little of the enthusiasm she had hoped for.
"Surely this is more to your liking?" The plastic walls and synthetic fabrics of the wrecked Trojan vessel they had recovered seemed unfriendly and sterile to her, but she assumed he would be more at ease in their presence. Indeed, the space was pleasantly cramped. There were a couple of large couches nearby for which she had bold plans.
Her hands caressed his wrists and forearms. His skin was rough, weathered by a sun she had never seen. He was undeniably masculine, although his stature belied it. She yearned to kiss him, this strange half-man from another world.
"Yes," he said, "I-"
"And me?" Her hands brought him closer, until he was forced to look at her. The fingers of one hand slid around his prickly scalp, tilted his face up to hers. The white light made his eyes glint. He squirmed in her grip-with lust at last, she assumed, slow to wake but no doubt as difficult to quench. "Am I to your liking, too, dear Paris?"
This story was originally published online at
Eidolon: SF Online December 1997.
©1997 Sean Williams and Simon Brown
Artwork ©1997 R&D Studios