King Xerxes’s historian, Gobartes, records the king’s exploits in the battle of Thermopylae. After His Majesty’s glorious victory over the Spartans and allies, His Majesty wanted further intelligence, both as to the enemy’s infantry tactics and as to the nature of the enemy himself, who chose to fight and die to the last man.
The novel begins after the battle of Thermopylae, between Persia and the Spartans, has already taken place; the Spartans made a brave stand but finally lost. Though victorious, the Persian Xerxes is intrigued by the Greeks and wants to understand how they put up such a daring resistance—what kind of people are they?
A grievously wounded Greek was discovered on the battlefield, and Xerxes ordered that the man be spared and nursed back to health. Within ten days, the man can speak. His appearance is puzzling; he wore a helot’s cap yet carried the finest shield and armor and wore a Spartan helmet. His speech was also garbled: “a compound of the loftiest philosophical and literary language…intermingled with the coarsest and most crude gutter argot.” The historian begs His Majesty’s pardon for the “portions of the following transcription which will and must offend any civilized hearer.”
The wounded Greek is Xeo, upon whose tale the novel will be based. Xeo is an odd mixture of helot (slave) and first-class Spartan warrior—an incongruity that will not be explained until the end of the book. Similarly, his mixture of educated and uncivilized speech (humorously described by the apologetic historian) owes to a variety of influences in Xeo’s upbringing that the story will bring to light.