Thettalos smiled as he came down the steps of the amphitheatre. The tableau ahead of him was just so typical. Nikeratos was kneeling on the stage, his head bent over some contraption, earnestly discussing plans with the local theatre crew.
“I don’t know about that,” said the stage manager dubiously.
The beautiful acoustics allowed Thettalos to hear clearly what was being said. The man sucked air through his teeth loudly, showing his scepticism.
“Seems a bit chancy to me. We’ll try it if you say so, but I still think you’d be better off the other way.”
“Yes, but this way it goes higher and when the god comes down, we can bring him that way.” Nikeratos gestured with one arm, trying to indicate an arc.
“It would be a lot easier the other way.”
“Yes, but not as effective. This will work, provided the rope is strong enough and we have two men to work the different lines.”
There was that sound of tooth-sucking again. Thettalos smiled inwardly, tucking away the memory against some future time when he could use it... maybe for Creon in Antigone? Perhaps not.... The right character would come to him when he’d given it some thought.
He looked confident and relaxed as he approached the two men crouching on the stage, making their preparations for the festival. It was good to be working with Niko again. This time he was taking an active role in all the behind-the-scenes organisation, and the production would be the better for it. Thettalos knew Tyche, fickle goddess though she might be, was smiling on him by giving Nikeratos as second for this performance. After all, he usually was protagonist with his own troupe, and had been feted for winning all the major festivals at one time or another. He could have led his own company at this contest. Nikeratos would have been stiff competition. Together, however, they should prove an unbeatable combination, even if he did make self-deprecating remarks about grey hair and aged creaking bones.
Thettalos called from the first row as he approached the steps to the stage.
“Are you still arguing over the machinery? It’s getting late; we need to get ready for dinner.”
Niko looked up, and a smile of welcome broke through the concentration on his face as he looked across to his friend. Thettalos had kept his lithe figure as he’d matured. There was a dapper quality to him, not least because of the fine clothes he was wearing. Not that Alexander would be impressed by mere clothing. Niko had only met the king but once, as a youth. However, even before his recent campaigns his quality had shone through. A greater man than his father, for all Philip had been a strong king. Rather like Thettalos, who had long since surpassed his teacher. Niko smiled again, remembering their early years together, when Thettalos had been like a sponge eagerly absorbing everything. Now he led with the new ideas, which Niko sought to realise – like this new entrance for the second actor.
Niko rose from his crouch, and nodded to the stage manager, who bowed in return. He might be no actor but he had been in the theatre long enough to recognise his cue to leave.
“We don’t have to be there before sunset; there is plenty of time to wash and dress before then.”
“True, but I wanted to show you something before we go. I’ve had an idea.”
Nikeratos smiled inwardly to see Thettalos’ enthusiasm. He’d always had a rare intensity. Arm in arm, the two left the theatre and walked back to their lodgings, Thettalos outlining his latest innovation as they walked. When they entered the inn Thettalos called out loudly to announce their arrival.
“No need to shout,” came the reply. “I’ve been watching out for you.”
A woman appeared from the back room, drying her hands on a cloth.
“The bath is already in your room; I’ve just sent a boy up with the hot water.”
“Helen, love of my life. You are my favourite woman!” Thettalos bowed low and blew her a kiss.
“None of that,” she said sharply, although the wide smile on her face and twinkling eyes belied her seeming sternness.
Helen was very different from the downtrodden girl Niko had brought to Pella years ago. She would never be a beauty, but a life where she was valued had transformed her from the scrawny scrap she had been into plump confidence. Her glossy brown hair was intricately arranged. As befitted a working woman, her clothes were fashioned from sturdy cloth rather than fine linen, but they were clean and well-kept. The aging innkeeper had freed Helen and married her a few years ago, when, to everyone’s surprise, she found herself pregnant by him. She now clearly relished being in charge of the establishment. Her son would take over its running when he came of age, but he was still just a little boy. For now, Helen was the force to be reckoned with.
“We’ll go up in a minute, but I just have a little favour to ask first.” Thettalos donned his most charming expression, clearly wheedling.
“What are you up to now?” Helen asked with good humour. “Another of your entertainments, I presume!”
“Nothing of the sort,” said Thettalos. “I just wanted to borrow your Philias for a bit.”
“Borrow him? Why? You’re not planning anything horrible, I trust.” Helen’s protective instincts were immediately aroused.
“No, no, not at all. I just need him for a short space – in the play, you understand. I had an idea to use him in a scene,” Thettalos reassured.”
“I’m really not sure this idea of yours is going to work,” averred Niko.
“I tell you, it will! Just wait until you see him,” said Thettalos. “Where is he?” he asked Helen.
“In back, as always.” She led the way down a passage into a large airy kitchen. It was a hive of activity, all carefully orchestrated to the inn’s profit. On the windowsill crouched a grey tabby, looking up at a dove perched on a small ledge fastened high on the wall. The cat’s eyes were intent; her tail lashed back and forth impatiently. Higher up a feathered tail twitched, with nerves rather than eagerness.
Helen’s sure hand lifted the cat off the sill. Ignoring the animal’s protests, she cradled her briefly in her arms, stroking soft furry ears and talking to her, before she bent and placed the cat on the step outside the kitchen door. Then she turned back and with her right arm reached up to where the bird perched. It hopped onto her outstretched hand. She brought Philias down, reached into her pocket, and brought out some oats in her left palm. The bird pecked at the grains, while she crooned to him.
“See!” Thettalos pointed to the bird’s leg, which was deformed. “He’s quite tame. Helen raised him from a fledgling. It’s not as if he were a wild bird. We could tether him to the myrtle and he’d be there ready for your entrance as Aphrodite. What could be more apt than a lame dove to watch her scene with Paris? The audience will instantly recognise him for the jealous Hephaistos, without need for anything else.”
Niko looked at Helen. Grain eaten, the bird had hopped up to her shoulder and from there to her head, where it was now pecking at some coral beads intertwined with the braid crowning her head. It might work at that, if the bird was as tame as Thettalos seemed to think. His deliberations were interrupted by a cacophony of barking, hissing and howls from just outside the kitchen door. The bird, startled, quickly flew back to its perch on the wall. Helen responded just as swiftly. A bucket of water was standing ready by the back door, which she opened without pause. In one decisive movement she emptied it over the animals on the doorstep. The cat screeched her protest and fled. Niko’s dog Tia crouched low to the ground and whimpered for a moment, before noticing her master looking through the doorway. She bounded up to him, greeting him noisily, while shaking the water from her fur. That left a third animal, another deerhound, barking at the entrance. He tried to follow Tia into the inn, sniffing eagerly at her tail.
“Oh no! Not you!” said Helen firmly, as she shut the door in the dog’s face.
“I didn’t know you had a dog, Helen,” remarked Niko.
“Not mine!” she denied. “I’ve never seen him before. Your animal seems to have attracted him round, and quite frankly, I’ve had enough of it. He’s been hanging round all day and it’s unsettling the whole household. “
Niko checked over his animal carefully. Yes, she seemed to be coming into heat. Bother! He hadn’t expected this just now.
“Don’t worry; I’ll shut her in our room for the evening.”
“See that you do. Now get away upstairs, you two. You’ll be late if you don’t and I’ve got work to do. You’re not my only customers.” Helen shooed them out of her kitchen before turning back to supervise.
Niko pulled a reluctant Tia with him as he and Thettalos went to their room, where a slave waited with water and cloths to dry themselves. A younger child had followed the older boy into the room. He was now standing at the table fingering the mask of Apollo that Niko had left propped on its top. Gordias looked up as they entered, his little boy’s face solemn.
“’lo. This is the mask – the one that sent you to my mother - isn’t it?”
Niko smiled at the young boy whose eager face was so like Helen’s.
“Yes that’s the one. It travels everywhere with me and has never done me false turn.”
“Is it really a god?” asked the child.
“No, just his mouthpiece.”
“Does it always make you do things?”
“Say rather, I normally serve through my acting, and the mask speaks to me when the god commands something extra.” Nikeratos answered patiently.
“Are you interested in acting?” asked Thettalos.
“No,” said Gordias. His tone was determined despite his youth. “I want to fight for King Alexander when I grow up.” The child-sized wooden sword tied round his waist with a piece of twine attested to a boy’s interest in fighting.
Thettalos and Nikeratos exchanged glances. Helen would undoubtedly have something to say about that ambition. Still, the boy was young, and it was a natural enough desire for any lad his age – especially given the clear intent of their king to campaign next year. The whole of Pella was boasting about his recent victories in the south and there was talk everywhere about his plans for the future. Even a four year old would hear.
“A noble ambition, worthy of every loyal Macedonian.”
Nikeratos contented himself with this platitude, before he turned to his bags to find a clean chiton, while Thettalos took the water from the slave and showed young Gordias out of the room. Both men made haste to ready themselves before setting off for the night. Helios was completing his day’s journey as they set out; Selene had only barely set forth. They walked carefully, avoiding suspiciously smelly damp patches. The city was crowded. Everybody had come for the games, and too many people living in too small a space left the streets filthy after the day’s celebrations. The faint mist that was rising carried the odour of dung from horses that had paraded through the main street in victory celebrations after the chariot races.
The guards at the gatehouse clearly expected them; one even remembered Thettalos from a previous visit, and the search before they were admitted was cursory. Niko could not help contrasting the relaxed and jovial attitude of these men with the closed and suspicious approach of the guards who had surrounded Dionysios years ago in Syracuse. For all Demosthenes loudly proclaimed Alexander a tyrant, the difference was plain to all honest men.
As they crossed the open courtyard between gatehouse and palace there was a commotion behind them. Barking announced Tia’s arrival as she raced up to them, jumping round in circles in her excitement. Bending Niko accepted her exuberant greeting, allowing himself to be licked, as he stroked her head.
“How did you get free?” he asked. “Wicked girl,” he said, but his heart wasn’t in the chastisement. As Tia responded joyfully to his gentle tones, Niko looked over at Thettalos apologetically.
“That latch on the door to our room was none too secure. I’ll have to take her back. There is no sense in us both being late. You go ahead and explain; I’ll be along later.”
“No need,” said Thettalos easily. “Alexander likes dogs. He’ll understand if we bring her along. This isn’t a formal meeting after all, just a supper with friends.”
On reaching the palace, men and dog together were shown into a room set with a table and chairs for the night. It was not the large formal chamber used for official receptions, but a smaller room, more like a study than a dining hall. Niko had heard of this room, with its mural of muses. He nodded respectfully to the image of Apollo, whose eyes seemed to follow him as he entered. These walls had already heard the greatest of poets and playwrights; he hoped he would not disgrace old mentors now long gone. In one wall niche stood a Hermes. In the niche beside it, Alexander had added Pan playing his pipes. Niko wondered at the audacity of this king who gave homage to Pan in the very presence of Apollo, though he supposed there was a kind of symmetry in having all three musician gods respected at the same time. The ledge in front of Pan held a shallow libation bowl. The remnants of incense burnt earlier still scented the room. A laurel wreath rested in front of Hermes. Nikeratos looked away to notice Thettalos contemplating the image of Apollo; he had the same look on his face he normally only wore when communing with his mask before a performance. Niko’s heart sank; he’d been afraid of something like this.
The room was empty save for Nikeratos and Thettalos, but as a slave took their cloaks they heard footsteps. A tall big-boned man stepped through the doorway, accompanied by a hetaira. A slave followed with a large embroidered bag which was set in a corner. Nikeratos had never met them; but he recognised Ptolemy from a procession he had seen two days before. Roused from his reverie, Thettalos drew Niko forward and introduced them; he had toured the northern cities many times over the years and had met several of Alexander’s friends.
“Who is this?”
Nikeratos turned round to find the king had just entered through another door at the rear of the room. He bent to hold his hand out to Tia whose tail wagged tentatively as she sniffed this new human. A few steps behind stood Hephaistion.
Thettalos stepped forward. “I am sorry, my lord, but she got loose and followed us. We didn’t want to be late. She is Niko’s dog, Tia.” He gestured his friend forward.
Alexander straightened. “A fine hound.”
“Thank you, my lord,” said Nikeratos.
“I have one of the same breed myself,” said Alexander, “though I’m not sure where he’s got to. Peritas went off exploring this morning and I’ve not seen him since.”
“I can take her back to the inn, my lord.”
“No need, said Alexander. “I am sure the food can stretch to one more. And, no need for formality. We are a small group – names will suffice.”
The room - quiet and empty when they had first entered - now was quite crowded. Slaves brought another trestle table and began setting up for the meal. More importantly, Alexander was there. The glory of the walls complemented his energy and enthusiasm. He took his natural place at the head of the table, commanding the attention of all, as huge platters of food were served.
“Good,” Hephaistion remarked as he saw them. “I’m famished; I was on duty all day, with no chance to eat.”
Alexander gave a hoot of laughter. “Never fear, I ordered your favourite, Hephaistion. And there is enough for you to have a whole chicken to yourself. The rest of us will make do with the boar.”
So saying, and with all eyes upon him, Alexander reached across, speared his knife through the roasted bird at one end of the platter, and held it out to his friend with a grand flourish.
“Just so, I give you your pick of the spoils of the feast.”
All in the room smiled, but Nikeratos shivered slightly. Just so might Herakles have bestowed a favour on Iolaus. He caught Thettalos’ eye and saw his friend nod slowly. Yes, he too had noticed: golden Alexander sharing his bounty with a faithful companion. A chicken this time, but what it would be in future only the gods could foresee. The portents looked fortuitous but it was never wise to tempt fate.
Loudly, Ptolemy slapped his hand on the table, breaking the spell.
“Let me at that crackling,” he said. “That will be my share of the spoils – won by my own hand!”
So saying he pulled the platter toward him, hacked off a hunk of meat, and sliced neatly round claiming his share. When he sat back down again, fully a third of the crackling rested on his own plate.
“What, no more, my lord?” asked Thais.
“One mustn’t be greedy, my dear,” said Ptolemy. “Take only what you can comfortably hold, but keep it close. That’s my motto.”
His eyes creased with good humour as he looked down at her. She had a lush, rounded, very womanly figure, yet beside Ptolemy’s heavily muscled warrior’s body, she appeared almost sylph-like. Her smile as she looked into his eyes held warmth rather than artifice. Niko had heard Ptolemy brought her north as part of his spoils. Clearly that was false rumour; Thais had found her muse and followed of her own volition.
They dined well and in good fellowship. Hephaistion and Alexander recounted the afternoon’s races, which the king had presided over. Ptolemy had gone hunting instead, and spoke cheerfully of the sport he had found in the hills. Thettalos said little of his plans for the play, as was only fitting; one must not tempt the Furies. Instead, at Alexander’s prompting, he and Nikeratos both reminisced about their time in Syracuse.
After the meal had been cleared, Thais brought a kithara out from the bag she had brought. Plainly made, it nonetheless gave a fine sound. Smiling she played a simple accompaniment to a popular song. Her voice was pretty and the performance pleasing, but not exceptional. Niko knew he had heard better – more expert – renditions, although none from so charming a performer. He said so, and she nodded her head at the compliment, before asking for requests. Ptolemy called a suggestion and sat looking at her with satisfaction writ large on his face, clearly thoroughly pleased with his companion. Suddenly, a loud discord sounded and Thais stopped abruptly. One string had broken.
“I’m sorry,” she said, looking rueful. “I didn’t bring any spares with me.”
There was a brief pause, before Alexander spoke to a slave. A few minutes later the young man returned, carrying an old instrument carefully wrapped in fine linen. At a wave of Alexander’s hand, he approached Thais and bending before her, presented a beautiful kithara with inlaid scroll work and ivory keys.
“It has been some years since it was last used,” said Alexander, “but if it can be of use now, you are welcome to it.”
As she tuned its strings, Niko asked how she had come to learn the kithara. It was an unusual instrument for a woman. Thais explained it had been her father’s years before. Having no sons, and recognising his daughter’s interest in music, he had taught her the rudiments. It was one of the few belongings she had left from her childhood. As she referred to “moving into Corinth”, Niko realised Thais was skirting over how she must have become a hetaira.
“Of course, I cannot really do the instrument justice, as a woman,” she said as she finished tuning the last string. “I haven’t the strength to my arms. Still I do my best.”
With that she launched into a traditional ode, giving, Niko thought, a very creditable performance, all things considered. In the flickering lamplight, he rather fancied the muses in the mural listened intently, and smiled, judging her offering worthy. Thais was clearly far more than just a pretty face; but then, that was only to be expected. Looks might have initially attracted Ptolemy, but looks alone would not have kept his attentions for this long.
When her voice grew tired, conversation began. At first it involved them all equally, but Niko gradually fell silent as he watched Thettalos and Alexander together. Their humour and intellect complemented one another: brilliant general and brilliant actor. Each recognised in the other a man of ambition with the rare skill to achieve his goals. Alexander looked up suddenly, as if sensing the quiet attention, and caught Nikeratos’ gaze. By the lamplight Alexander’s eyes looked a deep blue-gray slate colour. Niko pondered how he had looked all those years ago, as a youth: vibrant, untested but full of eager potential, with piercing blue eyes. He’d remembered them a lighter colour. Alexander tilted his head quizzically and Niko caught a glimpse of bright fire flickering deep within. He shuddered at the realisation: Alexander had changeable eyes. It a clear sign of the god-touched destined for greatness, pulling fate within him in his wake – pulling Thettalos.
Niko looked to the other side of the room towards Hephaistion and Ptolemy, who had drawn apart from the rest. They were deeply engrossed in plans for outfitting a new phalanx. Hephaistion was the more elegant of the two, while, young man though he still was, Ptolemy simply exuded an aura of solid power. Nikeratos had heard the rumours; most people had. But if Ptolemy was Alexander’s bastard half-brother there was no outward sign of it. Hephaistion was more similar in feature to the king than the older man. Regardless, here in this room they clearly were simply two stalwart and hardworking seconds: their king’s right and left hands personified, no more, no less. To his own left, Thais lounged gracefully. She watched with a slightly mocking smile as her hand caressed an empty wine cup.
“They are occupied with war, as you see.” She made a languid gesture toward the rest of the room. “Even your Thettalos, with his errands for Alexander. While we more ordinary people are left to amuse ourselves together.”
“A beautiful woman such as yourself could never be deemed ‘ordinary’,” came the gallant reply, “especially one so knowledgeable in the arts.” Niko reached over with the jug to refill her cup.
Thais gave a low rippling laugh, responding by holding out her goblet. Moving their chairs slightly apart from Thettalos and Alexander, they amused themselves by reminiscing about past performances both had seen or heard about. Like most hetairae she was a devotee of the theatre and spoke knowledgeably. In homage to Calliope, two like minds spoke in harmony, indulging in critical debate about the finer points of performance. Nikeratos thought it a tremendous pity she was just a woman. What an actor she would have made, had she only been born the right sex.
The lamp oil burned low and was replenished as the evening wore on. Wine jugs were refilled and emptied again. The pairs shifted and shifted again as conversation evolved. At one point Nikeratos found himself discussing his performance years before in Pella with Alexander, whose mind remembered every detail. Still later, he looked up from banter with Ptolemy to see Hephaistion in earnest conversation with the king.
“More planning for future conquest,” Niko commented, seeing the serious expressions on both men’s faces.
“Perhaps. More likely, Hephaistion just thinks it time to retire for the night,” answered Ptolemy.
“It is getting late,” said Nikeratos.
“And Alexander never spares himself. It is up to those around him to notice. But Hephaistion has a care for him.”
Thettalos approached Ptolemy, Thais by his side. They had been giggling together like children for the past half hour, obviously enjoying some game. Now, however, Thais touched Ptolemy’s hand.
“I grow weary,” she said. “You would not wish me to look hag-ridden tomorrow at the pankration. After all, we are due a special exhibition from Dioxippus. I must look my best for the man who won at the Olympic Games.”
“Indeed you could never look anything but beautiful, dear lady,” said Ptolemy.
“I too need my rest,” added Thettalos. “There is still much preparation to be done before the dramatic contests begin. Niko, shall we say farewell to our host?”
Compliments were exchanged as all bid one another goodnight. Thais’ instrument, carefully re-wrapped, was presented to her with ceremony. She had refused Alexander’s offer to keep the instrument he had lent – for sentiment, she explained.
Niko looked round for his dog. She had remained close to his side during the meal, enjoying the titbits he had thrown her under the table, and licking his greasy hands at the end of the meal. But he’d forgotten about her as the conversation began. She’d been curled up sleeping to one side of the room, the last he’d noticed. Now she was nowhere to be seen.
“Tia! Where is that hound? Tia!”
A whimpering noise alerted him. Nikeratos pushed aside the curtain to an alcove. She was there, crouched low, panting. Her head turned his way; her eyes looked up pleadingly at her master. Another deerhound crouched over her in classic pose, his hindquarters firmly locked with hers.
Alexander looked round his shoulder and laughed at the sight.
“So that’s where he’s got to! My own dog – Peritas”, Alexander added in explanation. “While we have been busy, our hounds found other entertainment.”
“Like his master he’s found a new conquest, one he will not relinquish easily,” quipped Thettalos.
Alexander laughed. “Leave her here, Niko. I’ll see she is returned to you the morrow. Who are we to part such well-suited mates?”
Shortly, Thettalos and Nikeratos were crossing the courtyard. They nodded pleasantly to the guards at the gatehouse, a different pair now. Thettalos stumbled slightly on the cobbled streets and held onto his friend’s arm for balance, as they retraced the path to the inn. He had drunk deeply, but Niko thought his happy spirits due more to the good company than the wine. Whatever his own reservations, there could be no denying Thettalos found this king an inspiration.
“So, where will we be travelling to next?” asked Nikeratos
“Ephesus,” came the prompt reply.
“At least that sounds more civilised than Caria,” said Niko.
“Yes, much better. I think I shall do Oedipus Rex. That will make –“ Thettalos broke off his sentence as Niko’s words fully sank in. He looked hard at his friend.
“We?” he asked.
“I thought I might come with you this time – on your errand.”
“I thought you had given up politics,” said Thettalos.
“He has rare quality, this king of yours,” said Nikeratos, “and I have never been to Ephesus. It will be a new audience for us to conquer.”