Incomparably Cunning
by Roz McClure

There were decidedly too many people in Tyndareus' hall, Odysseus thought. It was noisy and odorous, and although it was full of great men, the more Odysseus grew to know them, the lesser they seemed. Agamemnon, for example, liked to pinch the slave girls. Now, what one does in his own palace is his business, but to ogle so blatantly in another man's home is simply tacky, especially when one's purpose for being in said home is to win a wife.

Of course, if Helen minded, she didn't show it. In fact, if Helen felt anything other than gracious amusement, she didn't show it. She perenially sat at Tyndareus' right hand, smiling at all the men and carefully showing favor to none. Odysseus leaned back in his seat and considered going home.

"Sort of a crock, isn't it?" The speaker was a dark-haired girl several feet behind him, who Odysseus vaguely recognized as Helen's cousin. She was not speaking to him, but to Helen's sister Clytemnestra.

"I suppose," Clytemnestra replied.

"I mean, we put dozens--scores--of men up here for Zeus-knows-how- long until Uncle Tyndareus finally decides which one wins Helen. Within a year, our new brother-in-law is killed and the whole business starts all over again."

"Perk up, Penelope," Clytemnestra said cheerfully. "We'll probably get husbands out of it, too."

"Mmm," Penelope said noncommittally. "Better get back to the table. Your father wants us to retain an aura of aloofness, and I think that red-haired fellow is eavesdropping."

Odysseus hastily busied himself with eating until the two women were safely seated beside Helen. He caught Clytemnestra's eye and smiled, and was pleased when she smiled back. There were other potential wives here, he realized, and ones that carried much less risk than the most beautiful woman in the world.


He watched the two girls for four days before deciding that Penelope was the one for him. Clytemnestra was rather too unbalanced, or so it seemed from where he stood: she glared daggers at Agamemnon when he drank the last of the winecask, and actually shouted at Diomedes for bad table manners. Also she once kicked a dog. Odysseus couldn't imagine life with her in Ithaca; either he or she would kill the other before the year was out. However, he could very happily imagine settling down with her cousin--he was surprised at just how happily. The more he watched Penelope, the more he appreciated her quiet intelligence (and sometimes outright wiliness). He was pleased with the skill with which she deflected the suitor's questions about Helen's intentions. She never lied outright, but kept hope alive in all of them so that Tyndareus made no enemies. It was, he thought, a trick almost worthy of himself.

Two days later, he noticed her at her loom and she so resembled Athena that the deal was done.

The next time her saw her, she was chattering in the gardens with Helen and Clytemnestra. Odysseus straightened his shoulders, steadied his breathing, and approached the trio.

"Penelope," he said, "may I speak with you where others may not overhear?"

"Of course, King Odysseus," she said, smiling. She turned to her cousins. "Please excuse us." Her voice was softer than it had been when she was talking to the women, and more flirtatious. Odysseus took another steadying breath and led her to a shaded marble bench.

Before he could speak, Penelope took his hand in hers and gazed into his eyes. "My cousins are honored that you grace their home with your presence," she said huskily. "They are impressed with your bravery, to have journeyed so far from, ah--"

"Ithaca," Odysseus supplied, amused.

Penelope's eyes widened, and she clasped his hand more fervently. "Ithaca! It is a great and distant land indeed! We have heard tales of its fabled, er--"

"Mostly rocks, actually," Odysseus said.

Penelope put her hand on his arm and lowered her voice ever further. "No matter what your land has to offer," she said, "I feel certain that my cousin looks on you with favor."

Odysseus peered over her shoulder. "Is that why she's kissing Menelaus behind that apple tree?"

Penelope whirled around and stared. "She's--oh, that Helen, she's trying to make you jealous! Ha! Ha! What a minx!"

"It's--" Odysseus began to say, It's all right, but a sudden thought occurred to him. "It's terrible," he said fervently, watching Helen and Menelaus and glowering darkly. "I can't believe the audacity of that man! Here is the woman I hope to marry, and he's kissing her in the garden--unchaperoned! How she toys with my heart! Oh, Aphrodite! How fickle a creature you have made woman!" He considered shaking his fist at the heavens as a finishing touch, but thought that might be a bit overdoing it.

He turned back to Penelope, who was looking at him with a raised eyebrow and a rising smile. "I may have to reconsider my opinion of you," she said. The huskiness was gone from her voice; she spoke in a clear and pleasant timbre.

"Please do," he said cheerfully.

"I don't think you intend to marry my cousin at all," she said.

"Not a bit."

"And in that case, your intentions in drawing me aside to speak in private--"

"Are effectively the same as those of Menelaus," Odysseus said.

Penelope's smile was luminous. "I'd hoped so."


After three days of langorous glances across the table, secret tete-a- tetes, and shared jokes, the pair encountered their first stumbling block.

"My uncle won't hear of anyone marrying before Helen," Penelope announced. She and Odysseus sat on the grassy hill overlooking Tyndareus' orchards. "I imagine that Clytemnestra and I are to be consolation prizes for unsuccessful suitors ."

"I'll have to win my way into his good graces, then," Odysseus said. "What does he need more than anything?"

Penelope rested her cheek in her hand and contemplated the view below her. "At the moment, a way to get Helen safely off his hands. He can't choose anyone straight off, not even Agamemnon, because the others would attack her husband and probably here as well."

"So he needs two things: a way to choose who Helen marries, and a way to ensure that the ones not chosen will accept the choice."


"Well, then," Odysseus said smugly, "I should think the solution would be obvious."

"Enlighten me."

"Helen chooses."

Penelope thought. "It does free my uncle from any political influences," she said. "But to keep the others from attacking Menelaus?" She drummed her fingers on her cheek. "The best way to get a man to do anything is to encourage him to hope," she said. "We have to keep all of the suitors thinking that they have a chance, and that's why they should--no, I've lost it."

Odysseus leapt to his feet. "Swear an oath!" he cried. "We make all the suitors swear an oath to defend Helen and her husband, if the need should arise. They have to do it before Helen chooses, so that she could really pick any of them. Or so they hope."

She was on her feet too, now, giggling happily. "And what to do about the wise, cunning king who devised this brilliant plan, and was so dreadfully spurned by the lady in question?"

"He'll have to content himself with the lady's cousin, I suppose," Odysseus said solemnly. "Shame she's not so bright."

"Shame he's not so handsome," Penelope said.

"They'll learn to live with each other, I suppose."

"Eventually," she agreed.

They walked hand-in-hand back to the palace.


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