When Xeo and Dienekes reach the command post, Xeo sees that the clean nearby spring is now gushing sulphurous water. Men are trembling at this supposed “prodigy” and singing hymns to the goddesses Demeter and Persephone. Dienekes comments that they need Diomache to intercede with the goddess. Xeo has never heard him speak of Diomache before.
This natural phenomenon is taken as another ominous sign for the Spartans. Dienekes would have heard about Diomache through Alexandros and Arete, though Xeo has seldom spoken of her.
Dienekes says it’s too late for him and Xeo to keep secrets from one another. He asks why Xeo didn’t run away in Athens, when Xeo accompanied him there on an embassy—he’d wanted him to. Xeo says that he’d tried, but “she wouldn’t let me.” He offers to tell the story. On the third evening in Athens, Dienekes had sent Xeo on an urgent errand to the seaport town of Phaleron, giving no details, just an address and a servant boy as guide. They are to deliver a letter to Diomache.
Dienekes reveals that he’d wanted to spare Xeo from the war. Xeo finally tells the full story of what happened with his cousin Diomache, who hasn’t appeared in the story since they reached the Athens crossroads as children.
Xeo and the boy locate the address, an apartment building in a seedy section of town. Diomache’s husband is reported to be at sea, and Diomache is not there. Neighbors direct them to a temple along the shore. As they go, the servant boy tells Xeo that many of these temples are asylums for cast-out wives. At last they locate the sanctuary of Demeter and Persephone of the Veil. The priestess who opens the gate finally admits them to a courtyard. The priestess takes the boy away to feed him, and finally Diomache enters, with two small daughters.
When Xeo last saw Diomache, she’d been promised shelter and employment by a wealthy gentlewoman. The surroundings suggest that her dreams haven’t turned out the way she expected. Demeter and Persephone are a pair of Greek goddesses, mother and daughter. Persephone was captured and taken to the underworld, and Demeter, in her grief, caused plants to wither and die. In response Zeus allows Persephone to return to earth for a part of which year, causing rejoicing, but each time she returns to Hades, Demeter mourns again and causes everything to fade and die.
Xeo had often imagined an emotional reunion between himself and his beautiful young cousin. Now, he is shocked by the sight of Diomache’s short hair and her overall appearance, which looks more like “a hard-used forty” than that of a 24-year-old. Xeo is further disheartened by the contrast between Diomache’s familiar, teasing tone and her haggard appearance. He tells Diomache he regrets not being there to protect her.
The long-awaited reunion isn’t anything like Xeo had imagined. Though Diomache acts much the same, Xeo mourns at the toll the years have taken on her.
Diomache sits beside Xeo. She reminds him of that morning long ago, when he’d set out for the market with his ptarmigan eggs. “The gods set our lives upon their courses that day,” she tells him, “from which neither of us has had the option to stray.” She opens the letter Xeo brought her, which is written in Arete’s hand, but she tucks it out of sight. Xeo studies his cousin, now noting the compassion in her eyes and her bearing, which is “spartan beyond spartan.”
Diomache believes that the gods have determined what has happened to them both. Ironically, though Xeo is the one who went to Sparta, Diomache looks the most “spartan.”
Xeo begs Diomache to tell him how she truly is. She laughs at her youthful foolishness and remarks that it isn’t a woman’s world. Xeo bursts out that he wants to run away with her and marry her. She tenderly reminds him that they’re both married. Xeo is upset by his cousin’s passivity, retorting that the gods want us to act and use our will, “not to buckle beneath necessity’s yoke like dumb beasts.” Smiling, she tells him that “this is Lord Apollo talking.”
Xeo still wants to fix Diomache’s plight, but Diomache has a more realistic outlook on their situation. She sees the influence of Xeo’s piety toward Apollo, which is more action-driven, while hers is more accepting of grief and struggle.
Diomache then tells Xeo a story that she’s only told her temple sisters and Bruxieus. After she was raped by the Argive soldiers, she had had an abortion, followed by a hemorrhage that nearly killed her. Bruxieus saved her life, and she made him promise never to tell. She’d wanted to die, but then she had a dream in which a veiled, compassionate goddess appeared to her. The goddess allowed Diomache to see her face, which was “beauty beyond beauty,” yet ever-present in the world. Diomache came to understand that it’s the job of human beings to embody that beauty in the world.
It turns out that Xeo isn’t the only one who’d had an encounter with a divine figure that determined the course of his life. The veiled goddess can be implicitly interpreted as Persephone. Though different, the two visions brought comfort to both cousins when they were on the brink of death and made them believe that each had a purpose to live out.
Xeo tells Diomache about his own boyhood vision. Diomache tells him that she forgot her own vision, living a hellish life in Athens, until the goddess led her to this temple. Now she serves the Veiled Persephone, who has protected her as Apollo has protected Xeo. She assures Xeo that everything he has done has, in fact, protected her. She tells him that Arete’s letter is a promise that Xeo’s death will be honored. As they take their leave of one another, Diomache tells him that they mustn’t pity each other; “we are where we must be, and we will do what we must.”
Diomache describes Persephone as the goddess who “passes from life to death and back again,” which describes Diomache’s life, having alternated between terrible suffering and peace. The goddess has finally led her to the place she’s meant to be, and she assures Xeo that he, too, is on the right path.