20th Perition, Abydos
The land we have taken and now traverse is full of long-locked, Levantine Hebrews, refugees pushed north by Darius, pushed west by me, and they are captive in the mysterious lands once sacred to Marduk, a god I honor. We approach closer with each march, the Legend: Babylon, to sink our teeth into its wealthy heart.
If any thought obscures the passion in my loins for Hestes it is this prize, the sheer will to win it. We taste gold in our mouths. I am awake at times in fever for him, and my flesh will not relent from its revolt against my choice, and I am weak. But I console myself with ambition, and at length, the fever flees me.
I generally care not for these large-lipped, hairy people, Levantines, but there is sensuality about them, an ease between their shoulders, a looseness in their limbs.
I walk among them, unknown. Apollion, now greater for his new appointment at my side, dressed as I, in the ragged silk of this nation, while Xanion, my cousin, plays at Alexander in my tent.
Philalexi, where do you sleep tonight! I cry out for him in the spaces of the silence. Apollion points: in a shaded yard, a brothel, with naked youths and girls, displaying themselves obscenely. As I gaze, one youth lighter in flesh than the others turns to me and smiles, muscular and glistening with sweat, with a challenge in his eyes. His flesh stands out from him, he aroused himself to bring an anxious buyer with the price of a loaf. My face grew hot, his smile, knowing, as his eye took in my dress, the tumult of my hair beneath its hood. He sees only a seeking buyer for his body. I am provoked by the frankness of this image, and covertly, drink it in and am quickened. Is this what Apollion wanted me to do, and so he leads me through the alleyways of iniquity?
And would I buy, for one moment in the silence of an evening, to pretend the one who handles me is this other, and this artificial act, some other?
I turn away. Later, at the tavern, Apollion went out, surprising for him to leave me alone among people. The Hebrews have left the tavern for their spring ritual of sacrifice; and when he returned, he brought with him a boy and a girl, the girl for him, I concluded. I was wrong.
"Aristos, they are for you. Clean, and young. Expensive. You will have to pay me later for this night. Do you wish one, the other, or both?"
I glared at him. "What have you done?" The children recoiled from my voice as though from the hiss of a snake.
"The right thing, Aristos. Take the boy, or the girl, they are your usual taste. Or I will get another for you. But you have to fix this madness in your flesh somehow. This is how."
As angry as I was, I could see his reason. He was trying to serve me as he knew how, and an assignation among the ranks would break my men. I had to be some anonymous Greek, taking an expensive virgin, to cure the madness over my loss of Hephaestion, or be lost to my kingdom. A small price to cure a lust.
"The boy, then. For an hour. Feed the girl, have her yourself or, perhaps - later," I replied abruptly. Apollion nodded, and the boy child followed my steps up the stair to our lodging.
It was luxury, without unnecessary cost. The child gasped when he beheld the trappings of my bedchamber. How would he feel if he knew he came to the bed of the king of Macedon and the lord of this place?
The king of Macedon. My tongue choked me in my throat. I turned, and he stood now naked before me, vulnerable, thin, but pure. I could no more want him than I could want food then; all but one appetite had fled me completely; and that, unslakable.
His loins were hairless, his face, unshaven, a child's. "How old are you?" I asked him. "Tell me the truth."
"I don't know, Lord."
"Do not call me Lord. My name is Ale - Aristos. Call me Aristos. Have you ever taken a man, then?"
"No - Aristos. I was just sold. My father did not bugger me. As I can show you "
"No. No need to."
"What is your name?" I asked.
He smiled, wanly. "Alexander." I looked up quickly.
"Yes. I was named for him, for the great general."
"I see. Have you ever seen him?"
"No, but his army is camped at Abydos, and they go to Didymos, I hear. I will see him soon enough."
"And is this what you would wish, for me to take you?"
"Yes, it is a large sum. Please. I will do all you wish. You may even strike me. But not too hard."
"That is what the men do, I am told, to the boys. It arouses them."
"That does not arouse me," I said flatly. "Sit down."
He sat, his child's sex unheeded, chaste, upon his thighs. Was this how I had looked, that day, to Hephaestion's hungry eye? Innocent, unspoiled, not yet ripe?
"You are very fair," he said to me.
"There is no need for that," I said. "I know my face, my body. You do not need to pay me back, with flattery."
"I am sorry, Lord." He lowered his head.
"You have never had a girl?"
He looked bewildered. "No."
"Do you wish to?"
"Yes," he said.
"Then go," spake I, and produced a handful of coin, heavy. "Buy yourself back, and find a girl, and marry. This should be enough money. Leave me now."
The boy rose, gathered up his mean clothes, and stood, confused.
"This money " he stammered.
"Yours. Get a wife, find some work, a home, a farm. Or join Alexander on his march. It matters naught to me. Leave me now."
He left me in the gloomy apartment. I took to the bed, and placed a hand, trembling, upon my tortured flesh that rose in rigid revolt against me. Trembling. Alexander as a child. Slave in a brothel in Pella. Slave. Whore. The memories of childhood abashed and aroused me both. There came to me the image of the bare child, and then the sleek torso of my Erastes, his lips upon my neck, his arms gripping me tightly to him, possessive and forceful, drawing me down; and I was lost in reveries of lust.
And I came awake, unspent, alone.
The morning brought the call of duty -- I was awake as the dawn rose and before the cock crowed. Apollion soon brought breakfast to me. He cast a slight glance about the room. "Your night?" he asked.
"Restful. Solitary." I replied pointedly.
"Yes. What, tell me, does the expensive trade in virgin boys have to do with the taking of this city?" I hoped my voice would carry ire; but all it spake was bitterness and regret.
"Your health, Basileus," he stated simply.
"My health is sustained by the buggering of men-children while disguised as a tradesman?" I answered, querulous. Now my pique was evident.
"Perhaps your mind's health. There are a hundred of your best men who would break their own oath of service, and defy their own tendency, if only to bring your spirit, your god, back into you. That god, we think, comes from the bodies of your beloved, since you loved them so well " he ceased, and trailed off.
"You err," I growled at him, and fought the tendency to leap to my feet. I was furiously angry.
"Clearly." He met my eyes levelly.
We waited. One thing I loved in Apollion that I detested in his brothers was that he did not race to justify himself to me. He simply would wait; he knew my anger was almost always indecision; and his speech would not serve to decide me. How did he know this one thing about me no one else could ever learn, no matter how many times taught? "The truth, Apollion, you may not know, is it is not for lust that I pine. It is not the body of one that is a replacement for the body of another.
As before, where I expected Xanion or Seleuccus to interrupt, Apollion stayed quiet while I struggled with myself and my words. "And you did that girl give you the replacement for your girl at Troya you loved so well?" I challenged him. My mood was dark.
He opened his mouth, and then closed it. The silence lengthened.
"I am sorry, I know you meant to help me. But this does not help me! Cannot I just ask for the thing I require, instead of your guessing and trying to repair something wound you do not know is wounded?"
"What is it you require?"
"I require a wife, and an heir."
It was his turn to be angry, and he flushed with color. "What did you say?"
"Olympias writes me from Pella. She says that our kingdom is in jeopardy because I have not fathered an heir, along with many sly insults about my wasting my seed on a barren countryside. I am so tired, I cannot tell you."
"She commands you to father an heir? How can this be?"
"She presumes much. She presumes to be the king of Macedon. Perhaps I will let her."
"Basileus!" he cried out, anguished. His lack of love for my mother was well known.
"I jest. But I am tired unto death with her, and the simple thought that she insists on something I know all too well I must do, makes it harder to undertake. So I shall do it, but not in the way she imagines, nor would care for."
"And this is what you require?"
"But what of --"
"But what of my moods over Hestes' banishment? I live by my word, my word is intact. You know this."
"Your word is destroying your emotions. Does it destroy your judgement too?"
"How dare you!"
"Basileus, it is just us. I do not question your rightness to rule. I question the radical change in your mood, everyone does."
"What radical change?"
"There is no love in you anymore. You are surly, and if the word be known, at times unkind. Now, even your most trusted, fear you. There was no fear of you before."
"They fear me? How can this be? I never struck anyone in anger! I never shall!"
"You don't need to, Basileus. It is your eye."
"My eye! I am supposed to watch my eye for the men are sheepish that I am going to disfavor them? Since when have I ever done that! Six years I have led this army, and four as king, and never have I done that!"
"And all those years you have led these men and never have you sent your own beloved second into exile."
"Is he so beloved of all then? Is this it?"
Apollion set his mouth. "It is not for me to say."
"Say, say! Curse you! You are my own cousin, this is not a game of ranks! And Hephaestion your own cousin too. Since when are we no longer aristes to one another but some shadow play of ranks and favors?"
He lowered his head. "I am not sure you wish to hear this."
"Say! Or leave me now!"
He raised his hand, fending off my fury. "You see! It is this. This is not the Alexander I know. The Alexander I know does not sit there and command in this arbitrary way. He listens, he asks, he encourages. Who is this cold and furious stranger I greet this morning, and every morning since the noumenion last? I cannot say who that might be."
I passed a hand across my face. The anger in me rose up like a striking serpent, and even I felt its coil in my belly, a stranger, it were a stranger to me. Who is this stranger? Something was rising up in me, some rebellion, as though the insurrection that began my reign was now interior to me, and was threatening to overwhelm the force of my reason. Never had I felt so divided within myself.
"Apollion " I took a deep breath. "I am overcome with a passion, and that is all. Has that not ever happened to you? The god has commanded me to send Hephaestion from me for a crime against me. But that god has not stayed my love for him. Do you not see that?"
"Yes, I see that. But you are the voice of that god. How can you be divided against it? If you wish him with you, why not send for him?"
"Because! Because it is wrong to do!"
"You are the law. If you wish it, you make it law."
"No, that is not how law works. Law is the will of the god, not the will of Basileus."
"How can this be? When you send us out, it is you who send us out!"
"No." I shook my head. "No, no, no."
"Who, then? Who sends us out?"
"The god. I am just his man. I do as I am bid. And this is as he bids."
"Then change it!" Now it was his turn to grow annoyed, and the more annoyed he grew, the more calm I became.
"So this is what you think being a king is. To have all power to simply wield as my desire drives me? Oh Apollion. Take my crown if this is what you think. Take it and learn otherwise."
"So you say you are bound, because the god commands you?"
"Yes. I am bound in ways that other men would find intolerable, and confining. There are times when I would far prefer to die than to rise in the morning to the task I am bid to do. Those days, those long days of fear and fatigue, I would rather die."
"And why don't you?" His voice was querulous.
"Because the god bids me rise, and rise I must. I am not my own man, nor ever have been. I am merely that which I am made to be, and bid to be."
"And if you were not?"
"If I were not " I smiled, returning once again to cherished reverie. "If I were not, we could return to camp now, and I could abdicate my place to - say, you. I would tell them all, 'I am going to Abydos to marry a Hebrew noblewoman and live as a tradesman. Apollion will lead you now. Look to him."
His face was impassive as I spoke. I waited.
"And would you do something like this?" he spake at last.
"Of course not. I could not. I could no more leave my place than the sun could refrain from its rise.
"Think on it, aristes. I am known. How long would it take for word to spread of this abdication? Do you think my removing myself would stay any of my enemy? Do you think it would alter the course set in motion by my family in Macedon? Do you think anyone would accept my choice? Of course not. I am either Basileus or I do not exist. This is the only choice I have. There is no choice of quiet exile or abdication. Even if there were to rise a contender for the throne, and I yielded to him, he would have my life, and that is how it is done. So what choice is there? I do as I am bid, and therefore, I lead."
"And as you lead, you must take a wife," he concluded, as always, simply and directly.
"And father an heir, yes. To be named for me. To carry this sword against my enemy, against our enemy, as the god wills. Time enough, now, for me to leave behind the indulgent pleasures of boyhood for duty; pleasures too long indulged, as I see it now. I had been warned of this; and did not listen. But now, now I am compelled."
I spake then, openly, and rushed forward with the heat of my garrulous mood. "I know that you are a good friend to Hephaestion, I do not hold that against you. I am a good friend to Hephaestion, and for all of my days he has been my closest companion, more than friend, and had he been a woman he would be the only wife I would take; but he is not. Nor has he the perspective of a woman, or of a queen of Macedon; and even in that, had the god blessed us in this way, he would not serve me any better than Olympias served Philip. She gave birth to me, and did not slay me in my youth; that is her service to Philip. Perhaps Hephaestion would have been no more useful, in female guise. As it is, he has been able to serve me in war, and -- personally. He is in part what I made him; had he not had the place I gave him, he would not have presumed so much, and been tempted to err against me. But this I cannot help now, except to keep him from me."
"And this is all, then. There is no more. Do you not love him still?"
"No - no more. Surely you see this?" My words were beseeching; but I could see that Apollion was now full of the disquiet that had mercifully fled me; and it came to me, gradually, that it had been many years since I had unburdened myself to my second. Hephaestion would not have tolerated this honesty in me, it was repulsive to him. He chose to ignore all of my cares, and dismiss them with a disinterested gesture, and thus dismissed, I did not dwell upon them. But here, here was opportunity rare to me, and welcome. I pressed the advantage of his confidence.