I let my gaze run over the filled room, the men indulging themselves copiously in wine whilst the Persian women did a glorious, perfectly synchronized dance for the masses—the generals Persian and Macedonian alike. A dance so appealing, arousing, and beautiful; one of the same that had drawn me to my wife, a marriage with no political gain for a woman with beauty and spirit far beyond any I had ever seen before. The wine spilled liberally, and the room filled with boisterous laughs and conversation, some voices muted and some loud, raised in wine-induced high-spirits. The wine loosened my men, made them seem more rough and uncouth to the Persians, but I minded not. I knew that they needed their release, as I did at times—though not tonight.
The Persian nobles attending the gathering made clear enough what they though thought of the coarse conduct of the Macedonians thorough their polite silence and low murmurs in a language so few of my men had bothered to take the time to really learn. I had no intention to force them to, though they should have seen the necessity by now; I didn't know how long we would be in Persia, but it had already been long enough that learning the language would have seemed quite essential. Many of my Macedonian and Greek generals had learned the language; most of the soldiers had not.
This was the reason that none of the men nearby noticed what was undoubtedly quiet mocking of the Macedonian manner. The Persians would never say it out loud, of course. They had too much class and humility to speak up. In a sense, I admired them for it, yet it became so difficult to tell how to please them sometimes, and consulting Bagoas on the matter only went so far.
As I sat at the head table in my Persian robes, suggested mostly by Bagoas as fitting the Great King, the royal purple swathing my frame, I knew that some Macedonians were angry for the opposite reason. Often, I had heard talk from the Macedonians who had begun this long journey with me that I had become too Persian, and taking a Persian wife hadn't helped that any.
The long robes were quite a transition from the chiton I had often felt I had been born in, yet they were comfortable and even serviceable nonetheless. There were certain concessions I had to give to keep each side happy; though I was loath to think that I actually had to consider my people on different sides. Yet the Persians would never accept the Macedonians or the Greeks, though they kept up a socially acceptable façade, and the Macedonians would never fully accept the Persians, their front much easier to read.
So I wore the long, purple Persian robes to some occasions and the familiar Greek chiton to others. I invited only Persians to some gatherings, only Greeks to others, and included everyone in a manageable few. I appointed generals and regents of both races—all in the name of civility.
I wished they could learn to accept each other as I had learned to accept and even love the Persians. I wished I could meld the cultures, as I had always dreamed—as Hephaistion and I had always dreamed together, as our dreams were one. Yet they all thought as my tutor Aristotle was still content to think: the Persians were all barbarians, their ways uncivilized, graceless, rude; unacceptable. I could be King of All, yet I could not get a Persian and a Macedonian to agree on even the simplest matters.
The Macedonians thought so low of the Persians for performing the prostration, for lowering themselves so, even to a king. Yet it was simply their custom; they thought themselves no lower for it. The Persians were insulted that the Greeks did not have to perform the same tasks, that they showed so little respect to the closest thing we had to the Gods on earth—I, son of Zeus, so many had said.
Only Hephaistion would willingly bow to me without question. My other generals and trusted men would too, with a little explanation, but with Hephaistion, it was unnecessary. He would follow me to the ends of the world, and I him. It was our dream—not for me to rule our conquered world, but for us to rule, for we are one. He, too, is Alexander. No queen could ever rule with me the way Hephaistion does, though even Roxane is not a queen—not if I wanted the Macedonians to remain placated.
I sighed, taking another sip of my wine while the conversation flowed around me. Ptolemy was on one side of me, away from Egypt for the ongoing war and conquest, a Persian on the other, though they stayed in separate conversations, as usual. Ptolemy was one of the few who made the attempt with the Persians, yet it was futile most of the time, and we both knew it. I appreciated the effort from my old friend, all the same.
I took part in both conversations when my opinion was asked, but my thoughts were elsewhere. On my dreams with Hephaistion—my largely failing dreams. Yet nothing seemed a failure where Hephaistion was concerned, and I would never give up. I had given up once, after I had killed Cleitus, but it was a mistake to be learned from, like everything else. Hephaistion had helped to pull me out of that as well, with much help from my beloved men, and from Bagoas.
My eyes traced across the room, across the liberal crowds, some seated on the couches while others stood in small clusters interspersed throughout the space. I sought out the familiar blue-eyed figure who had so been occupying my thoughts—but such was the case so often that it was expected. No matter what, my thoughts always returned to my beloved Hephaistion.
Yet he was not in the room. I knew it after just one sweep of the crowds with my eyes; I could recognize that body anywhere, I knew it as well as my own. I could recognize that hair, those beautiful kohl-lined eyes, that carefully muscled, tanned body, ever scar as familiar as the battle-scars I myself bore.
I always gave my love the choice of whether he wanted to come to gatherings in which his presence wasn't required, of course, but never had he failed to be present, even if I knew he didn't want to be. My Hephaistion made such sacrifices for me, endured the criticism and often blatant hatred from those who resented his closeness to me. Perhaps I had taken his presence for granted—I had thought that he would always be here, even if it wasn't required of him. Somehow, the thought that he wasn't troubled me—it sent the bottom falling out of my stomach.
Yet I knew that it shouldn't. Hephaistion wasn't much of a drinker and I had rarely seen him drunk; after a few occurrences in our youth, I had learned that the usually mild-mannered man could become violent and fiercely protective of me when his system was too plagued by alcohol. He, evidently, didn't quite like this revelation about himself and had cut down on the drinking after that.
Hephaistion drank for social reasons often, but rarely enough to get truly drunk. He had few friends outside of his own troops because of resentment of his position; I could even wager that there were assassination plots being considered for him, which scared me more than anything. I hoped that any to which the thought would cross their mind would be stopped by imagining my fierce anger if Hephaistion were to be murdered. I would hunt down the people responsible and have them executed within a second. Anything for Hephaistion.
And so, why would he want to be at these gatherings? Still, his absence perturbed me more than I cared to admit. He had never been absent before.
I leaned over carefully to Ptolemy and inquired about Hephaistion, asking if my friend had seen him. He shook his head and gave me soft answer, and I nodded dejectedly. Though these gatherings often left me little or no time to speak to my lover, his mere presence calmed me. The lack of it was getting me slightly jittery; I wanted to get out of the room and away from all the attention, yet I knew I could not. I was the king, and I had certain obligations. Hephaistion would be the first to tell me so, always more rational and level-headed than I, myself, was.
I sighed. Perhaps Hephaistion had fallen ill. He had seemed fine when I had spoken to him earlier, if maybe a bit tired, but I knew that sickness was a fickle mistress. I sent a silent prayer to Apollo for his health, thinking that perhaps it was just fatigue, and Hephaistion was resting. The gods knew he needed it; he worked himself harder than I did some days. Lately, he had been working himself harder than ever, with reason I saw not. Yet his troops were sharper than ever in war, so complaint seemed inappropriate.
The Persian women finished their last dance to a series of cheers and lewd yells from the Macedonians. I would have been ashamed if not for the fact that I knew the erotic power of these dances, Eros help me; they had drawn me to Roxane and Bagoas had certainly aroused me many a time with his dance, the way he could bend, manipulate, and gyrate his body into the most pleasing of positions.
Bagoas came out then, to perform the last dance before the entertainment would turn to music; I saw a few women holding lyres, kitharas, and other instruments at the ready to entertain the crowds as Bagoas's finished.
The dance began, Persian beads tinkling with his slow, amorous movements. I felt a swell of pride at the attention that he was garnering, though I had no right—it was no accomplishment of my own. Yet I could see even the men who I knew had no interest in members of the same sex transfixed by the movements of this beautiful, dark-haired eunuch.
Bagoas's dance, though elegant and beautiful as always, held no appeal to me tonight. My thoughts stayed firmly on my missing lover. Hephaistion's absence was bothering me far more than it should. Perhaps this was another reason Hephaistion had not come; it was no secret, at least to me, that he disliked the boy, though he always acted perfectly civil to him. Hephaistion was the epitome of perfect Athenian politeness, and rarely spoke out to anyone, making him one of the few who could get along with the Persians.
I went through the rest of the party doing just enough to please the guests, but no more than I had to. I wanted to go see Hephaistion right at the moment I had noticed him missing, but I knew that I couldn't; the Great King was certainly expected to be present at all his own social gatherings.
I waited until the exact moment it would be acceptable to leave, when the other men began to slowly filter out, and I made a hasty exit, walking immediately to Hephaistion's chambers and completely bypassing mine. I ran into Bagoas on the way, and told him not to wait up for me. I intended to either have a long conversation with my lover, or at the least, sit with him, merely reveling his presence. It was absurd—we had gone on campaign separately many times and been apart for months, yet his absence from one party was sending me into fits.
I made my way down several familiar corridors before reaching the door to Hephaistion's chambers. Taking a deep breath, I knocked lightly at the door, waiting for him, or one of his servants, to answer. Yet Hephaistion had never been inclined to have many servants and often sent the ones he did keep away, so it would most likely be he who answered the door.
After a few seconds, Hephaistion had not come to the door, nor had there been any sound from inside the room. Ignoring the troubling feeling that arose inside of me, I knocked again, calling out Hephaistion's name quietly as I did.
I waited another few seconds for an answer, but when it became clear that there would be none, I reached for the knob. Perhaps Hephaistion had fallen ill and couldn't come to the door. The thought struck me hard, my worry escalating into a bit of fear as I tried the handle. Surprisingly, the door was not locked, which was good, because though I had a key, I was not carrying it with me.
I stepped quietly into the room and shut the door behind me, turning into the room to see Hephaistion lying on the bed on his stomach, his face turned away from me. He was wearing his Persian robes; he was one of the few Macedonians who would deign to wear them. After all, we were one, and if I could wear them, so could he. And I loved him all the more for it.
I let out a sigh of relief at seeing him; I was almost afraid he would have left his chambers for some reason and I would be unable to find him. He was, after all, fond of long walks or horse rides to clear his head. I was thankful that that was not the case; I needed no more distress that night.
"Hephaistion," I called again softly, moving a little further into the room.
He didn't reply or even stir at my words. He stayed in the exact same position, and I realized that he must be sleeping. I stared at him for a few seconds fondly, before I realized that I couldn't see the movement of his body from his breathing.
I took another step forward. "Hephaistion," I said again, panic edging its way into my voice. I could feel myself whitening, my breath catching in my throat. Not Hephaistion; he couldn't be dead, not my Hephaistion, my love, my everything. If he was dead, surely I was lost as well.
"Alexander," he said after a moment, still not moving. I felt the air rushing back into my lungs and my breath started up again, relief flooding through my body. I had been so afraid for a moment, but obviously the extra space provided inside the billowing Persian robes had masked his breathing for just a few seconds. I had never been so afraid in my life.
"Hephaistion, are you all right?" I asked, worried by my lover's lack of movement, the lack of expression in his tone. I was thrown off by the fact that I couldn't see his face, couldn't interpret what he was thinking.
Hephaistion let out a deep, long sigh and sat up, his back still facing me. "I am fine. Just not feeling particularly well," he dismissed quietly.
I moved closer, sitting on the other end of the bed. "Are you ill, my love? I can fetch a doctor," I offered, still confused by his uncharacteristic behavior. I was feeling guilty that I hadn't noticed any signs of sickness before.
"No, not ill. I'm just not feeling well. I'm sorry I didn't attend your party."
I shook my head as if to dismiss it before remembering that he couldn't see me from where he sat. "It's not a problem," I assured him, matching his quiet tone. "It's not as if you're obligated to attend. Though I do have to wonder why you stayed away this time, out of all the parties. What is it that ails you, my friend?"
I reached out and touched his back gently, only to pull it away as if burnt when the sinewy muscles there flinched almost imperceptibly at my touch. Never before had Hephaistion flinched away from me. I didn't know what to think, what to do.
The silence stretched on forever before he finally spoke. "Had I attended, would you be here in my chambers now, or would you be with Bagoas?"
I was taken aback by his words. I knew that he didn't particularly like the beautiful eunuch who often shared by bed, but he rarely spoke of it, or of the younger man at all. Yet the ring of his words struck true—had he attended the gathering, I would have seen no reason to visit his chambers; instead, I would have gone back to my own, with Bagoas present.
"Is that why you stayed here? To get my attention?" I questioned quietly, but there was no answer from him, so I pressed on. "You know you never need anything to get my attention, Hephaistion. If you feel I have been neglecting you—"
Hephaistion whipped around finally, his eyes bright with anger and sadness, all at the same time. "Does it matter what I think, my king?" he bit out after a second. "It only matters if you feel you have been neglecting me, which is obviously not the case, as you haven't deigned to spend time with me when not in war talks for months!"
I let his words ring through the air, bringing contemplation into my mind. I hadn't quite noticed it before he had spoken, but his words rung true. We didn't spend much leisure time together anymore, and it struck me that I hadn't spent the night with him in longer than I could remember. I spent nights with Roxanne, as was my duty, and with Bagoas, as he was always there…but not Hephaistion.
I moved farther onto the bed, cupping his cheek gently. He leaned almost imperceptibly into my touch, the movement silently encouraging me to continue. His eyes were cast away from mine now; I could tell that he was ashamed of his jealous outburst, but I blamed him not for it. I could blame Hephaistion for nothing.
"You know that I would rid myself of him in a second if I thought keeping him about would make me lose you. I care for Bagoas, yes, but never as I care for you Hephaistion, never. You mean everything to me. Without you, I'd be lost. I'm not your king when it comes to this, Hephaistion. I am your friend…your lover."
Hephaistion shook his head before I could continue. "No, Alexander, I could never ask that of you," he replied, his eyes still downcast. "You have the greatest capacity for love of any man I've ever met. You've never turned love away, and I shan't ask you to do so now. My jealousy was…improper. I apologize."
I put a finger to his lips. "Hush. It's never improper to tell me how you feel. You should have done so before now. You are the other half of my soul, Hephaistion. Without you, I am incomplete."
"You have seemed quite content remaining incomplete, then," Hephaistion pointed out, still sounding unhappy.
"Never, my love," I assured him. "Even when we are apart, I think of you. My thoughts are always drawn to you. My other lovers…they are just that: lovers. You are the one I truly love, beyond all others. It's always been you, ever since we were boys. No one can replace that, or you. Roxanne is merely a lover of obligation. A king needs an heir."
"And Bagoas? What of him?"
"He could never compare to you. You hold a part of my heart that he could never even hope to touch. That part of my heart will always be yours," I promised him, sliding my hand around to place my palm over my lover's softly beating heart. "Is not a piece of your heart the same for me?"
"All of my heart is so, for you. I've never taken another lover."
I placed a chaste kiss upon Hephaistion's lips. "You will one day," I said with conviction. "You will take a wife, and have children as well. Our children can play together, and our friendship, our love can live on through the ages."
Hephaistion sighed, melting into my embrace. He had told me once that he could deny me nothing. "Do you suppose so?"
"I know so. Our love is strong enough to survive a thousand deaths," I replied. I looked into Hephaistion's hopeful eyes, letting the strength of our love soak through our gazes. "Do you not feel it too?"
I saw tears coming to his eyes as my lips met his, our mouths moving together in the practiced dance, perfected by years of our unbreakable bond. I knew that my words had soothed the troubled Hephaistion, had been what he needed to hear. Every word had been the truth. I would mourn the loss of Roxanne or Bagoas greatly, but were I to lose Hephaistion, I would die as well.