Troy is built on uneven and rocky ground, and it is a city full of life. In this city, one man has been struggling with dark thoughts for the past eleven nights. Priam, king of Troy, has slept only fitfully, grieving for both his son Hector and for all of the other lives affected by the war. He grieves for Troy, which has been ransacked and will never be the same. In the silence of the chamber, he sees the air shimmer and knows a god is on their way. As he has gotten older, he has learned to stop resisting his abilities to perceive the gods, although he is cautious of them, since they can be manipulative.
Cassandra and Helenus, who is a high priest, are the only two children that have inherited his powers. Cassandra is an attention seeker and is half-crazed, believing herself to be a bride of Apollo, but Priam is too fond of her to hold it against her, although she does alarm him. In contrast, Helenus is Apollo’s priest. Neither of them is as open or as sensitive to the presence of gods as Priam, and Priam uses that sensitivity to catch the last echoes of a message.
After eleven days of fasting, he has finally received a reply from the gods. He had looked on as Achilles had killed Hector and then dragged his body away. Heartbroken, he rushed down to the gates and had to be held back by his sons; in grief, he covered his head in filth, thinking that the gods must mean that to be his only crown. He wonders if he is an abandoned child and if the gods have always planned for him to be a joke.
From the corner, he hears a voice telling him that he is wrong. It is the goddess Iris, who is seated beside him on the couch. She tells him that this is simply chance. He questions this, but then the servant stirs, and when he turns back to Iris, she is gone. But Priam’s mind feels clear nevertheless, and his spirits are restored. In his mind’s eye, he sees himself seated in plainclothes on the bench of a cart, with a driver beside him, and the bed of the wagon covered, but containing something he knows well.
He gets up fast, starting down the corridor in the early morning. He feels bold and sure as he goes to approach Hecuba, his wife. When he meets her, it is clear that she has been weeping: not out of grief, as Priam suggests, but out of anger at Achilles’s actions. She remembers how she carried Hector, how it is her flesh that Achilles drags across the stones, how she has grieved seven times for her sons lost in this way, sons she gave birth to. Her words distract Priam, but he presses on to argue his point. While he is not a warrior, he says, he has long been viewed as great, even though that is not necessarily correct. He shares the vision he had with her, and his interpretation of it.
Hecuba is skeptical, but Priam is firm, stressing the unusual clarity of his vision. He says that in the vision, during the night, the best part of his treasure is hidden underneath the wagon’s covering. But then it is no longer night, and as he looks behind him, there is Hector’s body. Priam concludes that what he must do is go to Achilles and trade the treasure for Hector’s body. Hecuba is furious and argues that Achilles is too monstrous to do something like that. Priam still insists that it might be possible.
Alarmed, Hecuba tries to talk him out of it, but Priam remains steadfast. He suggests that maybe Achilles will feel relieved by the chance of break free of being the hero in the way that he feels relieved by the chance to break free of being the king, and muses that that might be the true ransom he has to give Achilles. Hecuba, in turn, asks him what would happen if he was lost. She wonders if she’s being selfish, but Priam insists that they must leave things to chance.
The story now moves from the Achaean perspective (Achilles and the Greeks) to the Trojan perspective (Priam and the citizens of Troy), and makes it pretty clear that there is no clear good side in this war. While Achilles and the Greeks have been away from their home for years, Priam and the Trojans' home is being destroyed. Priam's affinity for the gods doesn't change this. In fact, the gods are responsible for their situation: while it's not mentioned over the course of the novel, the reason this entire war starts is because of the gods having a feud about which among them is the most beautiful (for more context, see the supplemental section in this guide on the Iliad.) After a long life of being more aware of gods than anyone else in his family, Priam has become in fact suspicious of the gods, rather than fond of them.
This is something that becomes clear with Priam's reaction to Hector's death. Priam covering himself in filth is a challenge to the validity of the gods' choice to make him king. It demonstrates how suspicious he is of the gods making him a "joke" and an "abandoned child" that he chooses to fast and humble himself before them: he doesn't trust them to make a fair decision otherwise. Even when he does finally receive a reply from the gods, it's not a guarantee that everything will go well. Instead, they offer him a vision that provides general guidance, but whose outcome still depends heavily on chance.
The difference between Priam's and Hecuba's actions shows the difference between how close they are to their sons and what their sons mean to them. Priam has been grieving and is overcome with sadness, but does not hold the same deep anger as Hecuba has for Achilles. Hecuba views Hector as hers in a way that Priam doesn't: she describes his dead body as her flesh, and her experience of being pregnant with and giving birth to Hector makes her relationship with him far more intimate.
Given her anger, it's understandable that Hecuba is skeptical of Priam's vision. She believes that his plan will fail because Achilles is incapable of doing something like giving back Hector's body. However, although Hecuba doesn't have the context to realize it, Achilles is also driven by love, even though his actions are wrong and misguided. But the strength of Priam's vision lets the reader know that there is a good chance that Priam will be able to recover Hector's body, and his choice to remain firm in his position shows that even though he finds the gods occasionally capricious, Priam trusts what they tell him.
Priam reveals his wisdom by arguing that both he and Achilles need a chance to break free. Neither of them is really responsible for this war, but both of them face the consequences and have to fit into the roles that they are assigned. Most of the time, Priam has to be the king and Achilles has to be the hero. Even in the stories that will be told about them in the future, those are the roles they will play. But Priam sees an opportunity for them to break that traditional mold, if only for a brief meeting. This, according to Priam, might be even more valuable than treasure. All he has to do is take a chance.