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A little break

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It was late evening when he finally managed to escape to his room. The day has been a complete havoc as soon as the morning started, so full of questions, demanded explanations, idle talk, and endless stroked egos all around him. He felt drained just a few moments ago, as if his very soul was sucked out of him, but after one small glass of unmixed local wine he felt his muscles relax, and found himself mesmerized by the setting sun and the orange shade it threw over the whole room. It was so quiet, finally.

He felt languid as he slowly sat up from the enormous bed he laid on. What did he expect? To become cozy and unbothered when just a week ago he entered Babylon in a way that was...not humble in the slightest, and definitely noticeable. He was finally here, in the great city, a dream come true and yet- he barely saw anything of it. All he had around him these past few days were his ugly men ceaselessly giving him headaches.

As beautiful and grandiose as it was, the room was simply messy. Stuff, random objects, all the possessions of the king before him were brought up in one place, thrown around, neglected. He walked carefully around a fallen cup, and then around another one, until he reached a distinct and colorful pile. There was a big wooden chest and two smaller ones around it, silky materials and jewelry flowing from them. They definitely belonged to the queen, may her majesty rest in peace. He took one crimson garment and traced his hand over it; it was unbelievabley soft and pleasant to the touch. The sensation alone seemed to calm him, making him unwanting to let it go. He started digging into one of the smaller chests. It held a beautiful collection of cosmetics, some so strange he could only guess what their use were. His immediate thought was his mother; she would probably not appreciate it so much since the pigments were vibrant and thick, the way persian women liked them. It would attract too much negative attention at the poor, bland Macedonian court, and she definitely did not need it. But he always thought of her first.

This sort of stuff has been kept away from him all his life. If there was one thing everyone has been exceedingly desperate to teach him, it was that boys don't play with make up, or wear colorful dresses. Or dance, sing, cry, exist. Or that boys like him don't get to meddle in their father's plans, or even mother's, they sit quietly and wait to be killed. Well...it definitely didn't go that way.

He picked up a small and round container from the pile, and opened it carefully. It was a compact powder, a bright red to match the material around his arm. Truly, he didn't actually know its use, he just pressed his finger on it lightly, grabbing with his other hand a mirror from the place on the floor it fell at some point. He touched the area of his eyelid, tracing a red stain that faded around his eye as he went, making it look naturally brighter, bigger. Giggling as a little child, he switched the objects in his hands and did the same for the other eye. He looked even drunker than he felt; like a wild bacchante. He used the red in the same manner on his lips and watched as their curve became noticeable, almost shamefully so; perpetually cracked through the constant wind and sand, he actually forgot their shape. Like this, they looked full, inviting, like a performer's...a bit embarrassing for a king. He tried rubbing the pigment off between his fingertips but it seemed stuck to his skin. Anyone could tell it was expensive. The next item was another round container, with another sort of powdered substance, this time black. Ah, of course, any fool could tell it was used probably for the eyebrows or eyelashes. He stained his finger again and carefully, carefully brushed it over his eyes, his light, barely visible lashes becoming dark and apparent, like heavy curtains fluttering up and down.

His face looked... changed. Strange. Ridiculous. Beautiful? Staring at himself he could barely recognize the person he was seeing. It was a good feeling, like breaking free from himself. "Lay down that stupid lyre already, Gods be damned, you're almost fourteen." it was what his father once told him. A distant memory almost forgotten, replaying in his head as though it happened just yesterday, resurfacing as he was watching himself in the mirror. "You must decide whether you want to be a prince and heir to the throne, or a degenerate musician. Go ahead, the flute girls are waiting for you, if that's the only life you can handle. I will not be embarrassed by you, so don't disappoint me. Be my son, or be nothing at all."

So many years since his father passed away and his words would still haunt him from time to time, hurting him, making him hate himself. It wasn't enough, it was never enough. But his dad was no longer here now, and he was in Babylon, as a king, on the beautiful carpet of his new royal room, getting tipsy and turning himself into a courtesan. Tomorrow maybe he would send all these away, but today he could do whatever he wanted. He will give all these chests to Stateira, who was like a sister to him; she reminded him so much of Cleoparta, of how they used to talk until late at night about philosophy and horses and men and everything, just as Sisygambis was the almost exact image of his mother, only dressed differently. In the middle of the unknown, just as he was almost driven mad by longing for his family, he found a new one; such were the blessings bestowed on him by the Gods, and he couldn't have been happier. They made the echo of his father's voice become even more distant.

He stood up, unsure on his feet- he had another cup in the meantime. He found himself drawn to the long mirror on the wall behind him. His attention back to the crimson garment, he lifted it up with both of his hands and wrapped it across his body, with the skill only a little scared boy who used to run and hide in his mom's room too many times would have. He helped her arrange her hair and dress many times, so he knew his textiles. He took another material, white, and wrapped it again, hiding as much of his body as he could, but leaving visible only a slight movement, the idea of his torso. The absence of the armor terrified him. Without the hard layers of leather across his chest he looked small, fragile. Breakable. And so many wounds to prove this right. He was only 25.

He took a scarf with gracefully embroidered peacocks on it and covered his head, but loosely enough so that rich, ruddy curls could poke out of it and frame his colorful face. The look was complete, and it was not just for his own amusement; like always, he had a plan. These days he seemed like the only one not allowed to take a break, and he kept seeing his men come and go, sharing with him stories of the city, of the people, of the shops. He wanted to see the great bazaar too! How could a king rule a city he doesn't even know. How can he rule the people if he never walked among them, saw how they lived, how they acted. He hated court life. The life he wanted was out there!

He couldn't go out just like that and cause a commotion again, he figured that much. He would achieve nothing but look like a prideful fool asking for attention. So he thought about disguising himself, and if as a simple visitor man he would still be at risk then why not as a woman. If his friends knew, he would never hear the end of it. In their eyes associating yourself with anything womanly would be the worst punishment, but that's only because for them, women were only curves of bellies and legs, and the women they saw would be crude and violent; there were scenes made at parties that to this day he couldn't stomach. He could not find it degrading while his mother was alive, the most powerful person he knew. And his mother's workers, helpers, cooks, strong and wise, always full of song and stories. Sometimes he felt as if he and his men came from two different worlds.

As he regarded himself again in the oblong mirror, he thought to himself. Yes, this was him. Not good enough to be a man, neither to be a woman, but just enough to be a king. And tonight he will go see the people, and rejoice in the magic of the evening, even if he was alone. But he was never really alone though, wasn't he? As his mother used to tell him, his daimons will always be around, and protect him as long as he lived. And not only his daimons, by Gods, but Zeus did not let him lose his mind alone on this earth, and so now he would not go wander the streets alone tonight- and just as he was thinking about him he heard his voice come from the hall outside his room-- agapētós!

"Alexander, are you here? Hello? I have to tell you something that was just brought up, it's quite urgent, I--" As Hephaestion entered the room he took in the scene that was presenting before him, and after so many months spent in a foreign land he would have thought it was impossible to be surprised by anything anymore, but in this very moment he found out he was wrong. "What....Alexander, what the hell are you doing in here? That's a nice dress, but..."
"Thank you!" Alexander was all smiles and on the verge of tears from laughter. He approached Hephaestion and slapped away the document he was holding. "I have plans for us tonight. No, not that- I just want to go out too and see everyone, at least once. Please?"
"Go out, like, stroll through the city? That's crazy and it's not happening, it's dangerous and I will not have you get hurt again, at least for a month. Alexander, listen to me for once, damn it..."
"No one will recognize me dressed like this. Don't worry, Babylon is such a big city, when we entered i spotted so many merchant cars, just despatching their goods from all around, I saw there were Greek sellers, with their wives, and Greek travelers of all kinds, we can blend in the crowd just like everyone else. I found the queens garments and the ones who belonged to the king as well. I can give you this perfect blouse- look, it's a bit patched at the elbow, just enough so you can become a simple man, only a visitor, and I will be your wife. No one will know, they barely recognize you right now, with how rugged you look. You forgot to change your chiton, and your beard has grown so much it's almost covering your face, it's clear these idiots are getting to you too! Please, just this once... we have been in this palace the whole week, I am so tired, and depressed, will you leave me like this?"

Now, what could ever be more embarrassing than wearing an oriental piece of clothing, pretending to be some sort of cultureless Greek traveler, or whatever Alexander's drunken ramblings were about. It really was funny how his personality would split: he could be a demanding war commander, the persona he practiced since a little boy, and the one everyone knew about. The young man who understands fulfillment only through blood and broken bones, and praises himself for it; the very Greek culture he also suffered of. And then, the act nobody understood, the one everyone quietly feared and that distinguished him from the other merely butchers: the young and joyful Dionysus. The unpredictable and godly nature that was not learned, but innate to him. The desire to see the world and be free. When Hephaestion was young he trained day and night, with an anger he never truly understood. He would win contests, and be praised, but at the end of the week he would break, and quietly escape on horseback to run to the nearby mountains, imagining he would be far away in a distant land, careless and wild. He always thought he was alone in this, only to find that he was wrong. They really matched this way, forming what was probably the most unnerving couple in the world.

So, after all, is it even possible to turn away from an erratic speech like that, especially coming from your beloved? Hephaestion was extremely tired, indeed. It really takes a toll on him, to always want to have everything under control, tame every beast in the building, be the protector from the second you grow out of childhood. And to see Alexander get injured in the process, it was the biggest burden of it all. He couldn't help but think that every little cut on his body was his fault. His biggest wish was to tuck him into bed and go get the whole world and then lay it at his feet. As long as he knew he was safe, he could bear anything. No wonder everyone thought he was mad. This little wish was nothing; no matter how ridiculous, he would give everything to see him happy. Also it's true, he's been cooped up in here, and truth be told, he really wanted to see the city too.

~~~

"It's so nice outside, really such a beautiful night...finally escaped that gilded royal prison." Hephaestion was now all dressed up, and stepped out with his pampered merchant wife, unnoticed by the passersbies in the palace. They supposed they were some business owners having a conversation with the king. Completely normal.

Since the days were all work, when night came he always hit the pillow and didn't wake up once before the sunrise. He missed it. Alexander intertwined his hands around his arm and walked, almost prancing, by his side. Silly child. He heard that there was a grand bazaar not far from the palace, and decided to follow the stream of people that seemed to be going in that very direction. On the sides of the walls there were torches hanged, illuminating the road ahead and the many people populating it. You could have never guessed how lively the atmosphere was just by sitting inside all day; it was almost overwhelming.

Alexander felt like he was intoxicated by the lights, the people, the sounds, screams of children, laughter of teenagers, remnants of wine. He was holding tightly on Hephaestion and at the end of the street he saw canopies and colors, and heard the noise intensifying with every step. Hundreds of stands and sellers calling and singing were suddenly surrounding him. Peeking out from the peacock scarf, he was looking at the variety of goods that were before him. A rowdy, burly man was calling to the people just beside him, selling chestnuts, roasted and salted, and wallnuts that were sitting in a rich pile, next to almonds, and all kinds of seeds, some of them he has never seen before. The man was filling bags for customers, expertly and fast, and catching the money from their raised hands and many thanks were exchanged every time.

Next, a seller was sitting behind a stall, smoking nonchalantly, while a working daughter and son were running around heaps of strange sweets that were offered, as diverse as the people present. There were little candied fruits, and hard candy, spiced with cinnamon and cardamom, and besides them powdered little gooey squares, a famous delicacy from the coast. Above all, the ones Alexander knew about and loved, were the syrupy, nutty, strange cakes made of many thin layers he's been offered before back then in Ephesus. When one bites into them, the sweetness oozes out of them, and the taste is otherworldly, of honey and fresh nuts. He watched them hungrily- he didn't bring any money, how stupid of him. He turned desperately to Hephaestion who was already holding a heavy pouch. As usual, he was ready for everything. The lazy merchant, observing them, saw the opportunity and gladly jumped into conversation.

"Ay, my dear lord, I beg you buy your beautiful young wife something, don't you see that she's desiring? If you don't hurry I will gladly give her anything for free, bless your green eyes, sweetheart. Here, take it" He slowly sat up and picked a piece of hard parchment and on it put three pieces of the dessert. "Take it from me, and don't tell your lord, and be honest to him, don't run to me for more candy now; I have my own family. Look at them, how eager they are to help their aging father." He pointed at the woman and the man struggling to keep up with the people's demands. The sweet talk was making Hephaestion apprehensive and angry, but Alexander took it, shyly, nodding slowly. He was too happy to mind, and his stomach was rumbling.

Just across, the colorful spices were mesmerizing, attracting everyone to them. The fresh black pepper and chili were so poignant one could feel their spiciness in the air, and the gold of the turmeric was simply blinding. A maddening perfume came from the various dried herbs, the rich one of the plants used in cooking and the sweet from the tea ones. From the stall next to it, Hephaestion bought for the two of them two bowls of soup, a recipe unique to the place, and as they sat and ate they looked at the people, obsering their style, the way they tied their hair, the way they wore their sandals, the proud way im which they talked. It was gorgeous in here, and so diverse.

From then on, there were textile houses, and in the light of the torches they flowed, in purples and reds and yellows, form above and below. Behind the sellers, working women were dyeing the materials, soaking the fabric in bright diluted pigments again and again, twisting and untwisting, hanging the resulted textile in the back of the shop, and an acidic smell could be felt. It was mainly a bright, reddish, kingly purple. They say the tyrians first invented the purple dye, extracted from the secretion of the sea snails found in that region. So many of the creatures lost their life for this piece of fabric alone; Alexander could only imagine such tedious work. From behind him he could feel himself being grabbed- two women were suddenly dragging him to their shop. He could see Hephaestion getting instantly defensive, even though these were just simple people. With a look, he told him: "This isn't the battlefield, relax dearest."

"Look, sister, a woman from far away! Where did you come from? Your skin is so pale and bizarre! Look, look, I have the perfect scarf for you. This gorgeous orange one, I just had it embroidered, with lions and lionesses jumping on a field. Try it now, don't be shy!"

Alexander felt attacked and didn't want to give away too much, so he kept quiet, giving the impression that he didn't really speak the language, and gingerly replaced his peacock head scarf with the new one. The colors complimented his hair and the two women were so pleased, that there was no option left but to buy it. It was interesting, buying goods like a simple person, just existing without being the center of attention for once. He was so happy with his new goods, even if he wasn't going to wear it again. Just a memory from his little adventure.

It was already late. The two of them were almost fully out of touch with the time, after having watched women manually paint pottery and plates, with learned mastery of generations, and having aquired several of them. The skills these people possessed were incredible. For someone who lived thinking that the only way to achieve greatness was through fighting, it was a new world. Most of these people, while they heard or were themselves present at his procession, didn't really know who Alexander son of Philip was, and their daily lives were unaffected by the change. Instead of making him uneasy, the thought was almost calming. The burden of being known by so many people was sometimes too much, even for a godling. While Alexander was still buzzing around through the stalls, Hephaestion was buying more sweets and fresh food for him, knowing he was starving. He wanted to give him a feast when they got back, to pamper him even more. He looked back at him, at how he jumped from one sight to another, and he seemed like a little child, happy, careless. Only a few weeks ago they were rubbing the clotted blood out of each other's hair, and sometimes that blood belonged to neither. He tried not to think about it, at for least tonight.

~~~

Indeed when they got back, Alexander wolfed down most of it. They also had some more drinks, just the two of them, in the royal room. They could hear some distant party happening downstairs, and they both excused themselves from it on account of being tired. They have been present the days before, painfully mimicking interest in the macedonian savagery as to not anger the others. Today could be skipped.

The make up on Alexander was rubbed off, with the pigment faded, but still slightly present, giving him a weird flushed appearance. If anyone were to suddenly walk in, they would think he was dying of fever, but to Hephaestion he just looked adorable. Even the wine seemed to taste better in this moment, though he had the same all week. He noticed that right now, he wasn't angry, or frustrated, or any of that; whenever he was around Alexander it was like a stone was lifted off his back. He felt way too old lately, just yesterday he found on himself a white hair, and he barely turned 29 this year. If he kept it this way he would die of old age before he even properly matured; it was a funny thought really.

"Why are you brooding like that for?" Alexander noticed that his partner got quiet. "Can't you relax, just this time, for me..." He got up clumsily and threw himself all over. "I'll help you relax... don't worry..."
"I don't think you're in a position to do anything, really." He laughed and grabbed the other, pushing him on the bed. "Just sit there like a good boy and get some sleep now, it's almost morning. You'll sleep the whole day off for sure." He tried to ignore the honeyed looks he was offered back. "Stop being silly, I'm tired myself, come on, sleep."
"And where will you sleep?"
"In my room, what kind of question is that."
"This is your room."
"..."
Hephaestion sighed. He really, really didn't want to fight him in this. Of course he wanted to be here but... There were a thousand reasons why it was not a good idea; and at the same time there were none at all. He sometimes wondered why he cared, when everyone already hated him so much. What was the point? Who was he trying to impress? He was literally everyone's biggest nightmare: always arranging the plans and having a word over the elders, and furthermore having the king's support in this, bossing every one of those assholes around, trying to make the army functional and pristine at all times like a maniac. Never had fun in his life, doesn't even like women, doesn't like being drunk, and above all he was rumored to torment the king at all hours. A very good reputation. These were his dear Macedonians, of course; he noticed that they might be biased though, since he was surprised to find the new additions were liking him quite a lot, and some of them were uncomfortably sticky even. Well, hated and loved at the same time, the same as Alexander himself after all.

"Please, please, why the hell do you worry so much? Fuck those nasty idiots!" He started laughing loudly. Reading his mind, as always. "They could start calling me an effeminate disgrace and a bed slave, the shame of two kingdoms, and I would not care. Who gave them their money? The glory? Gods, they would be nothing if it weren't for me, and they know it. All they know is to judge and complain, complain, complain! Well, what if I start complaining for once? To whom will they run, those cowards?" He was drunk and getting more and more agitated as he thought about it. "They aren't us! Yes! They'll never be like us, because we are gods, and they are mere mortals. They can't be like us!"
"Stop, Alexander, please just stop, you're yelling complete nonsense now, you'll wake everyone up!" He really was too loud, and saying things he shouldn't. "What kind of words are these? They're our people, our family. Hush now, come on, I'll stay."

Of course, no one could refuse him, and why should they? They both got into bed, absolutely exhausted, as though it all hit them at once- all the sleepless nights they've been through. The long curtains were drawn aside, and the windows open, just so a warm wind could hit them from time to time. The sky was turning a light shade of blue, the first sign of morning. In a few minutes they were fast asleep, and the pages knew better than to bother them. Yesterday was good, yes, and the city of Babylon was marvelous, true to its legends. Cuddled under the covers, they couldn't care less about tomorrow.