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"The Judgment of Paris"

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Andromache and Paris

At the Queen's Table,
     Princess Andromache,
          widow of Hector,
     bounces her toddler son 
          on her knee.

Over the course of the evening,
     one by one,
the twelve companions of Penthesileia
          drift over
     from across the room.

"You can hold him,"
     Andromache offers,
          to the delight and glee
          of the visiting Amazons.
"He is called Astyanax.
     After his father's death,
     this child is now 
     Troy's hope for the future."

Paris snorts.

"Alexandros!"
     Queen Hecuba barks
          a rebuke at her son,
     but Paris,
          playing with his food,
     shows no care for his mother.
Paris nods at Helen,
     nods at the exit,
          nods at Helen,
     nods at the exit,
and Helen ignores Paris
     with the grace and style of a goddess.

Andromache keeps one eye
     on the flirting couple
and one eye
     on the Amazon,
          scarred and tattooed Derinoe,
          who tosses Astyanax
               and catches him,
          and tosses him
               and catches him,
          as the boy
               giggles
               at the sensation of flying,
and Andromache measures
     which is more the cause of her distress
          and chooses Paris.
"Do you have a problem,
     Prince Alexandros?"

     Paris turns.
"With what?"

"Do you have a problem
     that my son,
     Hector's son,
     your younger brother's toddler son,
          is your father's heir,
          and future King of Troy,
     instead of yourself?"

     Paris laughs.
"King of Troy?
          Me?
     I was raised in the wilderness,
     ignorant of my royal bloodline,
          and to this day,
               I wince
               at princely titles.
The Fates dropped a golden apple into my hand,
  and for it
     Hera offered to make me
          the King of Europe and Asia!
     Athena offered to make me
          wise and powerful at war!
     Aphrodite offered me
          the hand
          of the world's greatest beauty,
       and only this,
          I judged,
       was an offer worth taking."

Paris extends his hand to Helen
     and she
          glances to a doorway,
          where a tall figure stands in shadow,
     and she
          takes Paris's hand,
     and she
          lowers her head,
     and she says,
          "You flatter me, My Lord."

They stand.

Andromache looks to the exit,
     to . . . who?
     Possibly a servant,
          but not Aethra.
     Helen's attendant
          was never so tall,
          was never so buxom,
          was never surrounded 
                by a haze of butterflies.
     Aethra never smoldered,
          practically glowing
               with impatience,
and so Andromache
     looks away
            with the discomfort
               of a mortal
       who has glimpsed a goddess
          out of turn.

     From the head of the table,
Queen Hecuba
          scowls,
     not at Paris,
               but rather,
          with a glare as sharp as a knife
     aimed at the threads
          of Andromache's voice.
Andromache's judgment of Paris
     is unwelcome,
          the queen says
          with the flash of her eyes,
     or rather,
Andromache's judgment of Paris's misjudgment:
     His choice to spurn Hera
          by ignoring the marriage vows
          of Helen and Menelaus,
               true,
               but also
          of Paris and Oenone,
               the kindly healer,
               the lady of the hills,
               the loving wife of Paris's youth,
                    abandoned
                    in favor of another's love.
     His choice to spurn Athena
          by doing something so unwise
          as to claim Sparta's queen,
               despite the sworn protective oaths
               of forty former suitors
                    with their fast ships
                    crewed by murderers
                    thirsty for the blood of revenge, 
          and to rob Menelaus of his treasures,
               the wedding gifts
               from so many kings and princes,
          and to run away across the sea,
               cowardly,
          to avoid an honorable fight.
     His surrender to Aphrodite,
          bringing war to Troy,
          bringing death to Hector,
          making widows and orphans of so many,
     all to no consequence for Paris himself.
Paris has never yet paid a bride-price
     for his stolen bride.

But Hecuba is right.
     This meal not the proper time to fight,
     nor this hall the proper battlefield,
     nor are these visitors,
          yet to be drafted into Troy's external conflict,
     the proper witnesses
          for Troy's internal wars.

These Amazons are honored guests.
     As Helen has been an honored guest,
          for the nine years and more,
          that the Achaeans
               have chipped away at the walls of Ilion.
     As Paris has remained an honored son
          to Hecuba
          to Priam
               despite the ruin
               he's brought
               into their lives.

     And yet,
Andromache persists.
     She pursues the departing couple
          despite the insistent table-pounding
          of her regal mother-in-law.
"Alexandros!
     If you have no issue with Astyanax,
  then what about my words amused you so?"

The prince,
     yawning as if bored,
          looks over his shoulder
               at his dead brother's widow,
          and sees an annoyance
     instead of a responsibility.
"I thought only this:
     You called Astyanax
          Troy's hope for the future,
     but that's not what Priam is thinking.
The Amazon Queen,
     she and only she
          is the one he invests
     with the future of us all."

Paris and Helen leave.

The woman shadowed in the exit,
surely Aphrodite,
     she who stalks the halls and galleries
          of Priam's palace,
     she who returns time and again
          to the edge of Andromache's vision
          or to her imagination,
has vanished,
     as gods always vanish
     after completing their tasks among mortals.

Andromache returns to her seat
     and glares at the king's table,
     and glares at Penthesileia.
"Who
     does she think she is?"

"She thinks she is Penthesileia,"
     Derinoe offers.

Andromache
     snatches her son
          from the Amazon's lap
     and marches
          to the front of the hall
          to confront the war-maiden who believes herself worthy
               to be Priam's new champion
               and Ilion's new protector.

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