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Vistas of Sun and Smoke

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He said, once, shocked into it, “Philip’s dead.” It was as if he’d said, “The seas have dried up”, as unreal and devastating. For all these months of whispers, he hadn’t thought Alexander would do it, and had never thought anyone else would.

His mother, awkward in a saddle after so many years, stared stricken at his face, a dozen reprimands piled behind her pale eyes. Amyntor rode on, slung low over his horse, no eyes for wife or son: he had looked a man wounded to the quick, staring down at Philip’s body cradled in its pall, Antipatros had stopped his orders for a second to sweep a tender eye over him. He had been a guest-friend of the King, Hephaistion had known Philip before he knew Alexander, had meant to ask since he knew what such smiles meant among men, “were you, like we are? Were you?” but it had felt always an impertinence too great—if they had been, then still they had evidently stopped. At the very least his father had lost the King of his youth, for whom he had fought twenty years before retiring to a quiet home and growing children; at the worst, ah, but he could imagine it too easily, Alexander’s curls dimmed in the dust, those questing eyes caught in a blank stare. How small Philip had looked, how slack, stripped of the vitality of his lusts and rages and quick devious mind, like a bull brought to sacrifice. Wreathed is the bull for the altar, the seer had said—he’d had it from his father’s mouth, walking a distance together in the palace corridors, and immediately after it from Alexander. They’d thought it all too clear.

Amyntor was waiting in the courtyard as they rode up, his lathered horse being led away by the groom. He pulled his wife from her perch with hasty hands, swinging her down in his firm grip. “Tell the girls to pack,” he said, and she waited only to smile up into his eyes. His daughters were home, the younger to come to childbed, the elder while her husband went to Asia with the advance force—their lands were near Attalos’, the families tangled in a web of obligation. Their children were about the place, the eldest had peered with bright eyes out from his perch on a walnut tree to watch his grandfather ride thundering up. “You,” he said next, turning on his son.

Hephaistion came smartly to attention, alert like a cadet awaiting orders. He was the son of his father’s age—his earliest memories were of watching Amyntor emerge, inch after inch of scarred skin, from a suit of shining armour.

“What will you do now?”

With that commander’s gaze on him, it was easy enough to answer—he had never, it felt, had a choice, or not these half-dozen years. “I’m his man till death,” he said, and, because age crowded suddenly against his father’s shoulders and in the wrinkles beside his eyes, added, “It was never Alexander, sir, he wouldn’t do it.” Impossible to add that he’d been told as much, in midnight confidences; to say that Alexander had weighed carefully in a scale of advantages his own father’s death, and held it unworthy of the price, the blemish on his honour; that Alexander had cast his paternity off like a cloak grimed with battlefield mud. Amyntor had dealt fairly, always, with all his children; had crowded the rare belting from memory with frank conversation and careless love; had never sought to follow his son into adult mysteries like a nagging nurse-maid: it would, he felt even through the shifting horror of Philip’s death and Alexander’s kingship, be shabby to serve up to him tales of the clutches and traps the royals termed filial affection.

“No,” Amyntor said, and it felt again terribly wrong that he spoke with an old man’s quaver, “no, indeed. I got a look at him while they were taking Philip, and that’s not the look of a boy with his father’s blood on his head.” He straightened, fixed his son again with the old piercing gaze, “And he stands to gain nothing by it that he wouldn’t in time.”

“He gains the throne,” Hephaistion said. He had been home little enough, since the Karian misstep—useless to assume even his mother ignorant of the cause; that Amyntor had been summoned for an audience was plain fact.

“He’s Philip’s only acknowledged son,” Amyntor said, raising one open hand and curling the fingers in one by one, “he’s nineteen; he killed his first man at twelve; he’s a seasoned general the troops love; he’s been Regent before.” His fist swung down, closing on his sword-hilt. “He’s only gaining himself enemies and political vulnerability. Whoever did this had things in mind other than Alexander’s best interests.”

“Or likes intrigue too well to be politically discreet.” And that, he reflected, cheeks flaming, was more than a step too far: he had never quite learnt the trick of reserve around his parents; his sisters had teased him for it, when they were children.

Amyntor laughed, age easing a little further from his face, the curve of his spine, his hand trembling on his sword. “Or that,” he allowed, and, quieter, “You’re going to ride back to the Palace.”

A strange sentence, held suspended between query and command. His father had turned him loose long before he went to war, before he went to Pella, as soon he had done more than circle Alexander like a dog defending his territory wary of a strange incursion, given him into the hands of whatever fate awaited him. These last years, carving out a place at court and beside Alexander, he had held his face in unfading memory, so that it was a shock to see the subtle changes no other eyes noted. And now this severing of their lives.

He nodded. “And you?”

“Your mother’s brothers will be glad to house her as long as I need. And your sisters. And their children.” He sighed. “She’s not too big to move, yet, there’s that at least.”

“Nobody would think you disloyal.”

Amyntor laughed again. “Disloyal to whom? Philip? Alexander? Attalos? Olympias? No, the girls are to go off and live in your uncle’s home.”

“And you?”

“I shall hurry back as soon as best I can, lest we be called disloyal. And you, with your King, you’ll be careful.”

Hephaistion went to speak easy comfort, and found the words lodged in his throat. Of course I will. Father, who would think to kill me and survive it? They all know where my loyalties lie, sir. They’d thought at sun-up that they knew where Pausanias’ lay, they’d thought they knew what dusk would bring. He nodded assent.

His father stared at him a long moment limned against the sky, and moved swiftly forward. Hephaistion, long-used to cradling smaller bodies close, found himself crushed against his chest, a kiss pressed into his tangled hair.. Then his father was holding him at arm’s length, hands tight on his shoulders. “I’ll have them bring you a fresh horse,” he said, and, “I doubt any of you’ll get any chance at rest these next few days.”

The horse the groom brought him was a gift from Alexander, at his pride and prime of life, thundering down the slopes as if from sheer joy. The sunlight on his coat burnished him a bright gold, shining through the darkening fields: above and beyond, light caught on the roof of his father’s home; the palace in Pella was draped already in shadowed mourning. Philip was dead. Alexander was King.