“And what,” asked Philip, raising his voice, sparks fusing in his wine-lit brain. “Is it to you that I demand my rights? You should be grateful that I come to you at all. I have others I could turn to – I could divorce you if I wanted. Be grateful I keep you on.”
He had married her in passion, he thought, and now was left repent of it more with every day that went by, to mourn his bondage to the Epirote witch who had entranced him. He had been barely a man, when she had snared him, and now he was saddled with the sorceress and no feasible means of escape.
Olympias laughed, her voice teetering on the edge of hysteria. “Oh yes, you have others, of course, your pretty little farm-girl with her overbearing family. You call yourself king, Philip, when you can’t even stop your new-made kinsmen slandering my son!”
“Your son? Have you forgotten he’s my son too? And more I ever was to him, I taught him to be a man!” Anger and wine had brought a heightened flush to Philip’s cheek, his face reddened like the bruised flesh of a fruit.
“A man? You taught him that? And how, when you’ve no experience yourself?”
Furious now, his manhood insulted, he raised a hand to strike her but stopped himself; to do that would be to call down all her vengeances, and her being all she was, that was something he felt he could not afford.
Olympias glared at him, her red hair falling in ravaged wriggles about her body, bare shoulders tinted gold in the lamplight.
“You call him your son, o King of Kings,” Her voice dripped with venom. “And how, I wonder, when the fawning kinsmen of the sluts and whores you take up with would have you believe other. Why not take them at their word, my lord,” The titles of office slipped from her lips tainted with bare-veiled insult. “And disown him yourself.”
Philip stayed silent, perhaps flummoxed, perhaps refusing to acknowledge what he knew deep inside himself. No need; Olympias acknowledged it for both. She laughed, a thin, derisive sound. “He’s twice the man of you, and you know it.”
She raised herself from the bed and jutted a long finger at his face. “He took his man at twelve, you at fifteen; he won his wars in the time you were bare more than a schoolboy in Thebes, that Thebes you talk of so, when all the Hellenes know it a byword for incivility and roughness. He has outdone you already; all your men would follow him rather than you in the moment before death. You know it, and it pains you; you’re desperate to call my son your son, to say ‘I had a hand in this, miracle of nature that it is’, but you had no hand in this, Philip, and well you know it.”
The king’s face was drained, white and pale. She’d put her finger on the crux, and laid bare the deepest workings of his soul. It was true.
He would think of the stony grey eyes, so clear and hard, meeting his own and never once letting him gain a foothold. Then he thought he hated the boy, and knew how easily he could disown him; there were other sons, and time yet for more, with Eurydike, perhaps with others.
And he would think, in that split second, that it was right to do. But then he saw the lithe body, crowned with its golden wreath, falling shining into his arms from the back of the black horse, felt the tears running down his face, the sense of pride, or rejoicing in that moment.
He would remember, too, the way the boy’s men looked to him, full grown men of four and forty looking for orders in a nineteen year old mite, the joyous authority in his face as they followed him and he took the proofs of their love.
And then Philip knew, knew he could not let this boy go, his son, his son whose face showed the glory of a God, his son who seemed to have immortality. He knew that he needed his blood to run through this boy, foreign, alien as he was, because if not Philip who could have endowed all this, no mortal, surely – at least none he knew.
And who knew what happened in those woods, those dark and bloody rites Olympias revelled in? If once, he thought, Herakles and all the rest, if once it was possible, for mortal women to have sons fathered by the gods, then surely, surely it must be possible now.
And who could put it past Olympias to go so far? Who could put it past Alexander to be divine? None, at least, not he. And thus he craved to call Olympias’s child his son, and dared not disown him for fear of bringing down the gods’ own wrath (fear, too, that he refused to acknowledge, of losing a son who made him proud, of being left only with the idiot Arridaos).
Alexander had, this whole time, been waiting outside the door. He had come up earlier, wishing little more than to say goodnight to his mother. On realising she was otherwise engaged, he had opted to wait, and speak with her when she was done. He had not realised it was his father, or he would have gone away, not wishing to be burdened with more knowledge than he need be. He had heard all their words, and they had struck him, renewed the queries of his soul.
Dazed, he slipped away, hurrying through the passages of the palace, quiet and stealthy as nightfall, some achievement on the heavy floors of Pella. Coming to his room, his eye was caught by a shape on the bed. As he neared, his mouth turned into a soft smile; Hephaistion had been kneeling on the floor, and had fallen asleep, his head resting on the coverlet.
He had been awaiting Alexander's return, knowing that he would want to speak of things and be calmed, as he always was after meeting with Olympias. Sleep had overcome him in the act.
Alexander sat on the bed, and nestled his long fingers in Hephaistion's burnished hair. Hephaistion stirred, and opened his eyes, raising his head.
"Alexander?" he said, in a voice blurred by waking.
"I'm sorry; I was waiting, I didn't mean to sleep." He unfolded himself and stood, making to go. Alexander motioned to the bed instead, and Hephaistion smiled, going to sit beside him. "It's late." he said, after a minute. "You should get out of that." he gestured to the heavy embroidered chiton Alexander wore; that night had been a state dinner, and he had been duly dressed up for it.
Alexander nodded, and slipped the chiton over his head, before getting into bed. Hephaistion followed, and the two lay together under the coverlet, Hephaistion now more awake, Alexander thoughtful and alert as ever.
"Did you speak with her?" Hephaistion asked, finding no need, now, for names. Alexander shook his head, and Hephaistion's face formed into a questioning expression.
"She was busy." Alexander explained.
"For so long? Why didn't you come back?"
"I thought it would be over."
"Who was she talking with?"
There was a pause. Alexander seemed to be evading the question. "You can tell me." Hephaistion said. "You know I long only to share your troubles, Alexander - burden me as you are burdened."
"Promise, then," said Alexander, tracing patterns with his fingers on Hephaistion's skin. "Not to be angry. That they were talking, or that I listened."
"Mother and father."
"Oh." Hephaistion's face fell.
"They spoke of me." In slow, halting language, Alexander told him what he'd heard, and Hephaistion found, as he did so rarely, that Olympias spoke truth, and for once he and she were in agreement.
"It's true," he said, after a while. "What she said."
"Then why are you sad? It was all in praise of you."
"I'm not sad."
"There's no use lying." Hephaistion said, with a sigh. "True friends share everything, after all."
"Yes. Except the past before they met."
"Except that. Tell, then, Alexander. Why does it sadden you?"
"It uncovered old wounds."
"Oh." Hephaistion understood instantly.
It would, he supposed, eat away at a man, not to know who had gotten him. He had no experience of the subject, nor did any of them - it was all right for them, all right even for other bastards - for Ptolemy, say - because at least they knew.
But with Alexander, it all hinged deeper, swept at the cornerstone of mortality to immortality. Son of God, or son of man, deity or human, mortal or with the burning soul of immortality.
He wanted to reach out his arms and clasp Alexander in them, to cry to him that to him, to him, Hephaistion son of Amyntas, Alexander had the god within him. You may be mortal, Alexander, oh you may be, and painfully aware from time to time of that, but on the battlefield you have held immortality in your hand, in those perfect moments free from fear and worldly cares, lived for the glory and the everlasting fame.
But he did not. Though in reality Alexander would have welcomed it as proofs of love, and kissed him and thanked him, Hephaistion could not quite believe it. And so he just sat there, and took Alexander’s hand in his, running his thumbs over the slender, bronzy skin. “You’ll know when the time is right.” he said. “The god will reveal himself.
Alexander smiled. “Yes.” And then he leaned across and pressed a kiss to Hephaistion’s shoulder and, laying his gold-capped head on Hephaistion’s chest, was silent, as Hephaistion stroked his fingers through the prince’s hair.