They call them "Hephaistion's boys." Never to his face, and never when they think he can hear, but he's known of it for a long time.
He thought himself sly at first, taking great care to present the illusion of variety in his household, mixing them in amongst the stocky Greeks and the doe-eyed Persians. But it didn't take long for someone to notice them, golden-haired and lean, like little jewels in a muddy creek bed. On campaign, when one isn't at battle, there is very little to do but observe and gossip. Now he knows he's fooling no one.
They come and they go like phases of the moon, but even when he tires of them he treats them with care. He sees they are well-placed, and that they don't go hungry. They leave with a purse full of gold, and memories of a kind master. They are all willing, because Hephaistion cannot bear for it to be otherwise.
They all look like Alexander at fifteen.
Both Alexander and Hephaistion have grown and aged, but the boy general will always be the standard, always be where Hephaistion would choose to halt time. Before wars and wives and pretty eunuchs, when they always had an hour for each other, and Alexander shared his bed with no one but Hephaistion.
But there is a world to be conquered, and adjustments must be made. Another sacrifice at the altar of Alexander, who is more like a god in that way than even he recognizes.
Phaidros had been a favorite, in possession of a spirit most slaves lacked, having it beaten or worked out of them. He was beautiful and mischievous, with an affectionate nature and an instinct for pleasure. Not simply a body, he soon became a comfort and a companion, and for the first time Hephaistion understood why the soldiers were constantly getting themselves in trouble with whispered bedroom confessions.
Hephaistion gave him gifts--jewelry and small trinkets, sweets and finery. Nothing too conspicuous, nothing that would draw too much attention and make him a target for jealousy. Phaidros was content to be discreet, as he well knew he did not enjoy the protection that came from simply being Hephaistion.
Parties and dinners that dragged on into the breaking day became an exercise in patience while Hephaistion thought longingly of his chambers and what awaited him there. Discretion borne of life at Pella compelled him to hide his frustration, drink more wine, and make sure Alexander was safe in the care of his body-slaves before venturing home. Such evenings seemed endless, bordering on intolerable, and Hephaistion often marveled over the change.
He craved Phaidros’ attentions in a way he'd long forgotten. How many years had it been since he'd desired the touch of a specific person who was not Alexander? Had he ever?
His desire only grew with time and denial, and it was then that discretion finally deserted him. It was hardly unusual for a man to claim a need for sleep, and leave the others to their boasting and their entertainment, but he felt Alexander's eyes on him as he left. Perhaps it was hubris that kept him from turning back. Perhaps it was love.
Two nights later, Alexander walked in on them--Hephaistion never for a moment then or afterward believed it an accident--and found Phaidros on his knees, blond hair sliding across Hephaistion's thighs in a pleasing rhythm.
A boy and his master.
A man and his lover.
Hephaistion froze, too surprised to do anything but tighten his grip on Phaidros' head until he stilled. Alexander simply raised an eyebrow, and waited.
Phaidros was dismissed, scurrying from the chamber like a scolded dog. When he was gone, Alexander simply knelt and finished what Phaidros had started. One golden head traded for another, but the difference was keenly felt, and the pleasure surpassed by far any Hephaistion had recently known or vaguely remembered.
Afterwards, they grappled and moaned on Hephaistion's sheets, the desire of youth sweetened by the knowledge of age. Hephaistion fell asleep with Alexander's hand tracing circles on his belly, and Alexander's voice murmuring in his ear. It was easy, in that moment, to not think of what he must do.
The next day Hephaistion sent Phaidros away. The boy wept, but Hephaistion was firm, and banished him with a kiss, and a ring worth more than his life would ever be on a slaver's auction block.
Alexander would have others, but Hephaistion would always come first; Hephaistion could have others, but none could come before Alexander.
This Hephaistion had forgotten, and Alexander had reminded him.
Now he knows better than to show too much interest in a single pretty face, a certain supple mouth. If a particular jewel lingers in his thoughts more than it should, he immediately puts it forever out of his reach. It is the only way.
"Hephaistion's boys." They say it and laugh, and make jokes about Hephaistion's appetites, and how quickly he grows bored of the same delicacies served day after day.
They don't see the other boy--the real boy--because he wears the body of their king.
Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms by Thomas Moore
Believe me, if all those endearing young charms
Which I gaze on so fondly today
Were to change by tomorrow and fleet in my arms
Like fairy gifts fading away,
Thou wouldst still be adored as this moment thou art
Let thy loveliness fade as it will
And around the dear ruin each wish of my heart
Would entwine itself verdantly still.
It is not while beauty and youth are thine own
And thy cheeks unprofaned by a tear
That the fervor and faith of a soul can be known
To which time will but make thee more dear.
No, the heart that has truly loved never forgets
But as truly loves on to the close
As the sunflower turns to her God when he sets
The same look which she turned when he rose.