The army was due to march in the next few days. She knew Alexander would come to visit her before they left. He had visited every few days whenever it was convenient on the route to Susa and kept the habit now that she and her household were settled in their familiar quarters once again.
It would be hard to see him go. She trusted that he would win his battles and conquer the territories he wanted to conquer and successfully rule them afterwards. To her, there was nobody who could have done it better: he had shown he could be the Great King. He already was. As long as he was the king, she would be safe.
As long as he was the king... His way of fighting his wars, as one of the men in the middle of things, made her worry: it would only take one arrow, one thrust of a spear or a slash of a sword to end him. If it did happen, then her safety and security—and that of her household, of her granddaughters—could be gone in a heartbeat. As long as he lived, everything would be fine. Soundlessly, she said a prayer for his health. He was strong and he was lucky, she needn't worry. She could write to him and he would respond and he would return to her one day.
She had happy memories of his visits to treasure while he would be gone. She picked up a piece from the board laid ready on the little table in front of her even now. She remembered the time when he had first played with her. One afternoon, she had been absorbed in the game with Dalir, her chief attendant, examining the pieces on the board and considering her options, when Alexander had been announced. She had known the move she had wanted to make next, but there had been something about the moves it would have left open for Dalir and where that would have left her that bothered her, but she hadn't quite been able to put her finger on what it might have been. She had shaken her head—she could always pick up the game later, after he'd gone, and maybe the answer would come to her fresh—and had focused on him.
Alexander had greeted her warmly, as always, and asked how she had been, if the princesses had been studying with the tutor he had sent. When he had proposed the arrangement, she had protested that princesses had no use for reading and writing, even less for reading and writing Greek. They had all the attendants in the world to read to them and scribes to write, but he had insisted, politely but firmly. He hadn't needed to say it but he was their protector now that her cowardl—but that was in the past now. Darius had failed in his duty as a son and the Great King of Persia and left them at the mercy of a barbarian. And that barbarian, Alexander, was her protector now. She hadn't expected it but he had been very respectful of her wishes and considerate about her and her household's wellbeing but the princesses learning Greek was something that was in his power to insist, so he did and she acquiesced. Being captured by his army had changed her life less than she could ever have imagined and she probably couldn't have expected to be treated well—at least not in the long term or without calculation for some other type of gain, of prestige, future partnerships or perhaps just a ransom, had she been captured by Darius's Persian enemies. However warm and comfortable her treatment now was, under Alexander, in this matter of Greek lessons she felt conquered. The arrival of the tutor reminded her of it every day. The tutor, a plain but polite young man, for a Greek, with an unpronounceable name, promptly arrived every mid-morning with tablets and scrolls and stayed for an hour or so. She kept her eye on them for propriety but didn't attempt to follow the lessons in any detail. She had appointed Soroush, the member of her household who best knew Greek, to listen in on the lessons. She had instructed him to report to her if anything inappropriate was said. Nothing had, so far, and the tutor would stay behind with them when the army left.
That afternoon Alexander had sat down opposite her, in the chair vacated by Dalir. He had admired the set—she had had it for years, it had been a gift from a distant cousin of her father's, at the time seeking to link their interests more closely. It hadn't been a successful partnership and after all that time she barely remembered what he had looked like. But the board and the pieces had survived and had followed her through her life from her father's house to her husband's, to the temporary household travelling with a Greek army and finally back to Susa. The pieces were beautifully carved, stained dark and shiny.
He had asked about the rules. With a little help from Soroush to translate, she had explained, the best she could. She had hesitated for a moment, then had gestured to the attendant to sweep the unfinished game off the board and re-lay the pieces to the starting positions. It had been easier to try to show, with their limited shared languages and his down-to-earth approach to things. He had listened carefully and picked up the basics quickly, getting the game going, but she could tell he wasn’t as absorbed as she was—it was a pity, for a moment she had hoped that this was perhaps something she could do with him, to help build a closer relationship with him. She had made her move, leaving her chariot exposed. He hadn't fallen into the trap, and had made a different move. She had been pleased to see this display of his famous vision. When she had made her next move, he had frowned.
"It's like a battle, yet not quite," he had said, "there are many different strategies to win but there are so many limits on what you can do to shape the field, no convenient hills or awkwardly placed streams."
It had taken another dozen moves to finish the game and she could tell his heart wasn't quite in it, although he clearly put some effort into his moves and his smiles and gestures while they played told her he was happy to spend this time with her. He hadn't played that game with her again, but sometimes, if he had arrived in the middle of a game, he had asked about what he could see on the board and sometimes even watched her to continue the game with Dalir before engaging her in a conversation.
Sometimes when he had visited her he had brought Hephaistion along. Knowing him better over time, she still marvelled how she could have mistaken Hephaistion for him that first time. Granted, when they were standing side-by-side, it was Hephaistion who was taller, handsomer and who more closely resembled the great Persian men she had known in her life. In idle moments she sometimes wondered how handsome he would look like in Persian dress. But looks weren't everything. After that first time, when she wasn't a newly captive woman trying to quickly make the most of a difficult situation, she could see past the looks and feel the charisma. Alexander, even in the nondescript Greek dress, had the presence of a great man, the Great King, in every step he took. He didn't need the trappings that men in her life had always seen as necessary when they stepped out of the privacy of their sleeping quarters. She was glad to see him starting to wear the signs of the power because it showed to everybody at first sight what she could always see. But even without them, he stood apart from the others.
Hephaistion had always been kind and respectful to her—she knew Alexander well enough to realise he wouldn't have ever brought Hephaistion along if that wasn't the case. A couple of times Alexander, busy elsewhere or recovering from injuries, had sent Hephaistion alone with a message and perhaps a small gift. And it had been Hephaistion on a recent visit who brought the new game that her granddaughters had been completely enticed by ever since. They had watched from a distance while she, Alexander and Hephaistion played one round, but once the two men had gone, they had raced the sticks around the palm tree so many times that they had lost count and started arguing about which one had won more games. At that point, she had ordered them to stop and the game was now sitting on top of a storage chest by the window. An attendant had fastidiously laid it out: all the hound and jackal sticks were standing straight and their heads were lined up in the same direction. It was a beautiful set: smooth wood varnished to shiny gold, features delicately carved and the palm tree and game markings meticulously painted on the board. It was perhaps a little plain for her tastes but it was excellent workmanship and she appreciated his attention to her. If anything happened to Alexander… it was not a thought she wanted to dwell on, but she felt confident that he would look after her interests, as much as he could. For Alexander, he might be the second self but it was clear his position wasn't quite that settled within the Greek army.
She shivered although the room was warm with sunshine before sitting up straighter and schooling her feelings under control. It was no use worrying about what might happen. Alexander would take his army onwards regardless, she would stay behind and be safe for now. Gods willing, she would see him again when he returned.