Xeo tells Xerxes that his intent has been to convey “some poor measure of the soul terror and devastation which a vanquished population, any population, is forced to endure in the hour of its nation’s extinction.” Over the coming decade, there is much warfare between the various Greek city-states. But suddenly, Persia emerges as a terrifying threat known only as “The Fear.”
Xeo tells Xerxes these details because the Persian King has only witnessed such devastation from a safe distance. He hasn’t had to endure it firsthand, with consequences for his character that come through in his style of kingship. Persia is beginning to mobilize with the intention of overrunning Greece, a unifying threat for the warring states.
Xeo jumps ahead in his story to the age of 19. He is now in the service of Dienekes of Sparta and has been dispatched in attendance upon him and other Spartan allies to Rhodes, an island in Persian possession. He witnesses Persia’s might for the first time. He is particularly in awe of the fast warships and the tall Egyptian marines. Dienekes talks, through a translator, with Ptammitechus, or “Tommie,” who is a ship captain. The Greeks and Egyptians exchange jokes about each other’s customs and weapons. The envoy, however, is unsuccessful in its mission to gain the Rhodians as allies.
Xeo jumps to near-adulthood; he’s no longer Alexandros’s servant but has been promoted to serve the Spartan Dienekes. Various Greek city-states are submitting to Persia, believing they’ll be treated better as allies than if they must be vanquished by force. Xeo realizes firsthand what a fearsome threat the Persians are. Nevertheless, Persians and Greeks don’t display hatred for one another, but have some basic mutual respect as fellow warriors.
Xeo accompanies Dienekes when he is urgently summoned to Olympia. Xeo suspects that this has to do with a map of Greece and the rest of the world, which Ptammitechus showed to the Spartan leaders. He wants to impress on Dienekes the vastness of Xerxes’ territory and resources and to persuade him that there will be no dishonor in Sparta joining him voluntarily. Dienekes replies that Tommie has never tasted freedom, or he “would know that it is purchased not with gold, but steel.”
Dienekes’ reply to the Egyptian envoy—that they’re motivated by freedom, something the Persians can’t understand—sets up the traditional contrast between the democratic Greek West and the tyrannical East, a traditional read of the Greek-Persian conflict.
In Olympia, Dienekes shows Xeo the name of his dead brother, Iatrokles, recorded on the Avenue of the Champions. That night, in a disquieted mood, he leads Xeo to the Olympic stadium. As Xeo prepares warm oil for his master’s many aches and pains, Dienekes tells him a story of one of his many battles. Once during a battle against the Corinthians, he and his brother Iatrokles fought side-by-side against a seemingly unkillable foe. All of a sudden, Iatrokles’ squire, a Scythian named Suicide who was a “holy terror,” threw several javelins through the opponent, felling him at last.
Dienekes is a hardened warrior with many memories of battle. Here he introduces Suicide, a character who will recur later. Having been through loss himself, Dienekes seems to sense the scale of the conflict that’s coming and what it will ask of Sparta’s citizens.
Dienekes goes on to tell Xeo the story of his marriage to his wife, Arete. Arete had first been married to Iatrokles, but when Iatrokles learned that Dienekes had always had feelings for her, he promised that Arete could become his wife when Iatrokles was slain in battle. Not long after, Iatrokles did die in battle. Dienekes was devastated and couldn’t bear to marry Arete, until she boldly walked into the Spartan training grounds and demanded that Dienekes take her as his wife, so that her family would not be shamed. He did, but he and Arete have never been blessed with sons. Xeo wonders if this is the gods’ curse for “the selfish love in my master’s heart.”
For the first time, Arete, the novel’s most formidable female character, is introduced into the heavily male story. For a woman to enter the Spartan training ground would be an incredibly bold move. Yet it seems to have come with the price that their marriage hasn’t been blessed by the gods. Xeo sees Dienekes’ passion for Arete and fundamentally selfish and therefore displeasing to the gods.