Before everyone can disperse for the night, a helot boy brings a message from Dienekes’ house. To Xeo’s shock, the summons is for him. He follows the servant boy to Dienekes’ peaceful cottage on the outskirts of an adjacent village, finding Dienekes’ wife, the lady Arete, awake, along with her four daughters. With them is Alexandros’s mother, Paraleia. She immediately begins questioning Xeo about her son’s interrogation.
This is surprising because no one is supposed to know what’s discussed within the precincts of the Peers’ mess hall, but clearly Arete has her ways of finding out what’s going on. This is another hint as to how powerful she is behind the scenes.
Paraleia begins by asking Xeo who governs Sparta. Xeo quickly replies that the King, the ephors, and the Laws are in charge. Paraleia casts a fleeting smile at Arete and says, “Surely this must be so.” Xeo gets the message, “that if I didn’t want to find myself permanently back in the farmers’ shitfields, I’d better start coughing up a satisfactory dose of information.” He accordingly does. He tells Paraleia everything about his and Alexandros’s journey to Antirhion and how Alexandros behaved there. Xeo stands up under an hour of this interrogation, discomfited by Paraleia’s understated Spartan beauty as much as by the grilling. He also finds that it takes all his self-composure not to drift back in his mind to memories of Diomache and his mother.
Xeo gives the textbook answer to Paraleia’s questioning, but clearly he’s meant to know that the women are really in charge of Sparta. His interrogation parallels that of Alexandros hours before, and it seems to be nearly as harrowing. He has to draw on the kind of mental discipline Dienekes enjoins in order to resist being weakened mentally by the emotional pressure.
Finally, Paraleia concludes the interrogation by asking Xeo to evaluate her son’s andreia. Xeo points out that Alexandros was the only Spartan boy to dare follow the army, fully knowing that he’d face his mother’s wrath, as well as the Spartans’ punishment, upon his return. Paraleia accepts this “politic” response.
As Alexandros’s companion, he is able to speak to the boy’s strengths and weaknesses like few can. Paraleia is clearly concerned for Alexandros’s ability to survive in the harsh Spartan society. She is satisfied that he can pass muster, even if not in the most conventional way. This whole scene further shows how aware Spartan women are and how much they’re moving behind the scenes.
After Paraleia departs, Arete invites Xeo to stay for some bread and wine. As he eats, she asks him if he’s ever heard of Idotychides. Xeo says that he’s heard that Dekton, or Rooster, is the bastard son of this man, by a Messenian woman. He believes it because Rooster hates the Spartans. Arete reflects that, in contrast to the meanest of slaves, those slaves who are on the brink of freedom “chafe most bitterly” under their lot. Xeo realizes this is a perfect description of Rooster.
Arete befriends Xeo. It turns out that Rooster is Dienekes’ illegitimate nephew (Idotychides was Arete’s brother). Arete believes that Rooster’s sullenness is due to the fact that he’s half Spartan but relegated to helot status because of the circumstances of his birth. This again highlights the difference between him and Xeo, also an outsider, who deliberately sought out relationships with the Spartans.
Arete then asks Xeo if he knows what the krypteia is. It’s a secret society among the Peers—the youngest and strongest who make treasonous helots disappear. Xeo acknowledges that, given the kinds of treasonous statements he has heard Rooster make, the krypteia would be justified in going after him. Arete suggests that if Xeo were Rooster’s friend, he might warn Rooster to speak no more of such things.
Arete again shows how much Spartan women have their finger on the pulse of what’s happening in Sparta and are active behind the scenes. Rooster’s comments don’t go unnoticed and will likely get him killed; Arete clearly wants Xeo to keep an eye on her nephew.
Arete gives Xeo more wine and asks him about his past. Xeo talks about his own mother and the sacking of Astakos. He is unexpectedly moved when Arete remarks that he has had an unhappy life. She asks him why he chose to join Sparta, of all cities, and Xeo explains that while “other cities produce monuments and poetry, Sparta produces men.” The lady is moved by this.
Few have taken such a personal interest in Xeo, and he finds Arete’s motherly concern comforting after so many years of hardship and fending for himself. Arete’a failure to ever bear a son probably accounts for some of her emotional response to Xeo.
Arete then surprises Xeo by admitting that the Spartan Idotychides was not only Rooster’s father, but her brother; thus, Rooster is her nephew. This means that, as a bastard son of Sparta, he would be eligible for enrollment in agoge training and even to eventually become citizens, but Rooster has refused this when she has offered. He prefers to associate himself with the “meaner,” Messenian half of his lineage.
Arete confides in Xeo that she is related to Rooster; she no doubt takes a maternal concern for him as well. Entrance in Spartan training would be a lifeline for Rooster, sparing him scrutiny for his treasonous remarks, but he is proud of his non-Spartan lineage and refuses to align himself with the Spartan half.
Arete tells Xeo that the krypteia knows about Rooster’s identity and his allegiance. The watch Xeo, too, since he is well-spoken, courageous, and resourceful. She also tells him that Polynikes is one of the krypteia. She knows that war with Persia is coming. This war will be “a field upon which a man may display by his deeds the nobility denied him by his birth.” She wants Rooster alive when that war comes, and for Xeo to keep an eye on him. Xeo swears by the gods that he will do this.
Arete’s motivation appears to be that the coming war will give Rooster the chance to distinguish himself above and beyond the opportunities afforded by his background, and she wants Xeo to make sure her nephew gets that chance. It’s likely the only such distinction available to a male offspring of Arete’s family.
Before he goes, Xeo has a question, too, “for a friend.” He tells Arete about having been spoken to by Apollo. He wants to know if such a thing is really possible: “would a being of divinity condescend to speak to a boy without city or station?” He braces himself for mockery, but Arete responds from the heart, though she is no priestess: the vision of Xeo’s “friend,” she tells him, “indeed was of the god.” Immediately, Xeo is overwhelmed by sobs. Arete comforts him and will hear no apology for his “holy” tears. As Xeo leaves, she tells him that his “friend” must visit in person next time—she wants “to look upon the face of this boy who has sat and chatted with the Son of Heaven.”
Arete’s confidence as gained Xeo’s trust. He trusts her with the story of his vision and encourages him that he has indeed been sought out by Apollo. Xeo is overwhelmed both by Arete’s kindness and the assurance of the god’s care for him. This exchange strengthens him, and Arete becomes a confidant and mentor in something of the same way that her husband Dienekes has been for Alexandros. Arete’s words also confirm that the gods do not simply align themselves with the already powerful; they defy human rank and expectation.