Priam reminisces about his childhood, which Hecuba already knows about, but he pushes her to think about what it must have been like to be that child. As a child, his home was ransacked and his parents and older brothers slaughtered. Streaked with mud and dried blood, his filth makes him indistinguishable from the lowest-class child, something that his survival depends on amongst the other slave children. He remembers how narrowly he avoided a life of slavery, how the smell of it will never leave him, how it returns unexpectedly some days. He can see a life where he never reached the heights he has now.
He is faceless until his sister, Hesione, calls out his name—Podarces—and identifies him to Heracles, who has promised her a gift to take along with her as she is given to his friend, Telamon. Heracles, who says he is a man of his word, renames him Priam, meaning “the price paid,” so he can remember that before he was chosen, he was simply a slave. But this small allowance is enough, and Priam triumphs in the end. But even then, Priam never felt fully delivered, and still could not get the smell off of him.
This confuses and frightens Hebuca, but she hides it and continues to listen. Priam confesses that there are concerns he doesn’t share with anyone, ways in which the little six-year-old Podarces still lives within him. He must play a part constantly, but if and when he goes to Achilles, he goes as he is. Hecuba advises that Priam pause for now and go to his bath, while she sends for a servant to summon his sons and councilors so they can hear his plan.
An hour later, his children and his advisors are all gathered in the inner court. Of his original fifty sons, except for Helenus, only the weak ones seem to be left. They all greet Priam politely, but become alarmed once they hear about his plan, which contradicts everything they know about him. Deiphobus, the smoothest talker of them all, steps forward and tries to convince Priam to turn away from his plan. Priam argues that it is time for him to expose his own humanity. His sons turn to Cassandra for help, but she is uninspired by her god and grieving.
Polydamas, a wise Trojan who thought of Hector as a brother, speaks up. He praises Priam, and begs him to spare himself the pain and to “be kind to [his] old age.” Priam is pleased with the response, and acknowledges that it is true that there is a risk. But he wants to leave a living image, of something new and unheard of, an iconic act that could only be done by an old man: to ask his son’s killer for the body of his son. As he finishes, his voice breaks with tears. Everyone is moved and realizes that they have no choice but to let him move forward.
In the early afternoon, Priam dresses in a plain white robe and waits while the wagon is readied. At first, they bring out a beautiful, ornate cart, but Priam is furious, and orders them to bring the mule cart he demanded in the first place. Soon afterward, Somax, a stocky man about fifty years old, appears with a cart and two black mules. He is dazzled by the palace, having never interacted with wealth before. When he spots Priam, he is surprised by his age, but he understands that he is required to drive to the Greek camp.
Priam, seeing Somax, declares that he likes the look of him, seeing how closely he resembles the carter from his vision. He tells Somax that he will be his only companion, which surprises his princes, and then tells him that he will be called Idaeus for the journey since he will be taking the place of his herald, which surprises Somax. He doesn’t like this at all, however. Somax feels that it sets his life and its trials aside, making him angry, but he calms himself by paying attention to the mules. As he struggles with the request, the cart is being loaded with treasure that is laden with the hope that Hector’s body might be returned to them. When everything is finished, they pour out a drink offering to the gods. As that finishes, the carter sees what he believes to be a chicken hawk in the sky, but Helenus declares it an eagle and the court takes relief from what they assume is a sign from Jove.
At first light, Troy is loud and lively, but by the late afternoon, the streets are quieter and more melancholy, as the silence is broken by the cries of the wounded and the mourning. But everyone stills as the cart drives out of the palace and downhill towards the square. All eyes are on Priam, who is completely unadorned. They watch as the cart is maneuvered carefully across the city streets, staying silent and confused as the gates are opened so it can pass through. After it leaves, the crowd dissipates, and the princes go back uphill. Whatever happened is either over, or has just begun.
Priam's backstory is tragic, but it explains exactly why he might think that the gods intend for him to be a joke. If they have treated him so poorly once before, it could happen again. Priam's recollection of something that happened to him decades ago highlights how important the past is, and how sometimes it never truly vanishes. Just as Patroclus can never escape the reality of having killed his friend as a child, Priam can never escape the fact that he avoided a life of slavery only by pure chance.
His name is a testament to the way that he rose above his circumstances: even though it was chosen to humiliate him, he keeps it to remind him that the small allowance he was given was enough for him to work with. Heracles, as another demigod, acts as a parallel to the demigod that Priam is about to face (Achilles). And just like Heracles gave Priam to his sister as a ransom, Priam now needs Achilles to give him Hector as a ransom. For both scenarios, he cannot be wearing the full weight of his position, but needs to be himself. Back when he was a child, he needed to be a younger brother; now as an adult, he needs to be an old father, asking for his son back.
As we meet more of Priam's sons, the toll the war has taken on his family is evident. None of the sons who were true warriors are left, with only Helenus being left among the strong sons, and the only reason that Helenus is still there is that he is a priest and therefore can't be a soldier. His favorite daughter, Cassandra, isn't receiving anything from Apollo. This is interesting considering the theme of foreshadowing that runs throughout the novel. Cassandra is a woman who is cursed by Apollo for refusing his love: while she can still tell the future, nobody believes her. Despite Priam's skepticism, her predictions are actually always correct. So it is telling that she cannot see the future; one could read it as proof that the Trojans don't have much of a future in front of them.
Priam's desire to take the risk of meeting Achilles and do something unheard of reflects the uncertainty created by his childhood. Unlike most kings, who are sure of themselves because of their position, Priam's knowledge of the precarity of his power makes him hide behind that power. Being ransomed made Priam question who he was fundamentally without any of the royal advantages holding him up. In order to discover that man, he must humble himself. Priam wants to be remembered for the man he is, not the king. To be remembered as the man, Priam embraces his age rather than run away from it. He doesn't try to hide the fact that he is old, and he doesn't align himself with someone young, instead choosing an older man to drive him to the Greek camp.
From the carter's perspective, this is all extremely strange. The alternative view of the carter emphasizes how much of the story depends on interpretation. While to Priam and the reader, there is a solid reason for Priam humbling himself, to the carter it all seems a bit ridiculous. He sees a chicken hawk in the sky instead of an eagle because he doesn't expect to see an eagle. He sees himself as Somax, whereas Priam and the courtiers see him as a second Idaeus. They leave in the late afternoon, which, considering the Greek habit of comparing a man's life to the passage of a day, parallels how Somax and Priam are both in the late afternoon of their lives.