"'Piper'?" The green-eyed boy raised an eyebrow, still standing in the doorway.
The other girl, a long-haired fairer woman in tighter clothes and wearing much more makeup, came up beside Perseus. "Her pet name." She explained. "Hello, Perseus."
"Drew," Percy nodded in greeting. "How've you been?"
"Great." She flashed him a smile. "How was the battlefield?" She traced a scar on his collar bone, already very touchy.
The shorter soldier crossed his arms but didn't move away. "Nothing too serious. You all seem to be pretty busy," He gestured in the direction of the window, where bodiless arms waved money around and waited for bread to replace the coins.
"Ever since father got your recipes and actually decided to try them out, business has been booming." She replied, looking over at the crowd.
"We'll soon have enough money to open a shop closer to the castle, and then we might even be able to cater to the royal family!" It seemed as if the lovers had finished embracing. "It's great to see you, Perseus." Pyras – Piper – gave the boy a friendly hug.
"Likewise." He pecked her on the cheek and they both grinned as Jason fumed from the side. "Oh, this is going to be extremely amusing."
"Don't get any ideas," Her partner growled, pulling her away from Percy. "Don't you have somewhere to go?" He glared pointedly at his best friend, and then the doorway.
"Right. I have to go smell books, or something." The girls laughed and waved as he made his exit.
As he continued his way through the market, Perseus checked his pockets to make sure he had enough money for some kind of food or drink (thank Apollo he actually had some money tucked into one side of his robe) and began to look around the different booths.
"Perseus! Have you come to rob me again?" One old man joked as he set out more apples onto the counter.
Percy laughed and bowed slightly. "Old man, you really think so badly of me? I've learned better."
"Well then, mind helping me with my business? I can boast the catering to the soldiers of Macedon!"
He stared at the apples for a moment, wondering if it was worth it to buy apples and not as large of a traditional meal. "Oh, alright." He muttered, taking a single apple and in its place dropping two copper coloured coins.
"Come back soon, alright?"
"Hmm!" Percy replied with a mouthful of juicy green apple, already walking away.
As he continued down the road, he found himself meeting people who had probably lived there since before he was born to whom he had never before spoken. A cheese maker here, a pharmacist there, even a village doctor he'd never heard of.
He wondered if everyone was like this; living in a city in such close quarters with others, but never saying more to each other than a single 'hello'. They might not really have felt the need to, he supposed, munching thoughtfully with a hand in his pocket.
After finding nothing to do, he made his way towards a fountain at the edge of the market.
Some light-clothed children chased each other around it, laughing and screaming in excitement as they played whatever sort of game they had come up with. A few women, most likely the mothers, sat on the worn marble benches around the fountain and gossiped heatedly amongst themselves. Like the broken fountain, the women would occasionally break out in loud spurts of bubbling laughter.
Realising the danger of sitting nearby mud-slinging tots in a clean uniform, Percy changed his route to head instead towards one of the public libraries within the actual border of Athens.
For some reason he could never understand, he had always loved stories. Tales of heroes and villains and gods and battles, he had always been interested in since before he could speak. Although he found it difficult to sit in one place long enough to read a book, he enjoyed listening to the scholars and scribes who would come to teach random library-goers about anything they asked.
"—the Pharaoh, pronounced fey-roh, is the Eqyptian name for a king. Our king Alexander is the current Pharaoh of Egypt." An old man, hunched over the old podium, replied to a young aspiring historian seated in the front row of the makeshift class.
The entire group contained around forty or so people of all ages, men and women, and people of all races and religions. One dark-skinned woman with a scarf covering her hair raised her hand, and the old man nodded at her to speak.
"Sir," She spoke with an obvious accent that did little to muddle her speech, "I was just wanting to ask, is the equality that is practiced here also apparent in Egypt?" She spoke with perfect fluency.
"Your accent – are you Egyptian?"
"Half," She replied, nodding at the man.
"I'm assuming you have not been there since you were young, if you are asking an old Athenian this question."
She smiled. "No, not since I was a baby. But my mother tells me many stories."
The old man returned the gesture. "Well, in Egypt, they are trying to spread the ideas of equality more. There are still many differences based on the colour of one's skin, or their gender, or their religion, but it is fading with the migration of many other races. I suggest you visit within the reign of King Alexander, if you are thinking of visiting."
The old man turned to address the entire group after answering the question. Perseus seated himself in the back as he listened to the old wise man describe the world of Egypt.
"I am sure you have all heard of the beautiful architecture in the middle east, although much of it had been destroyed through wars and conquerdom," He continued, smiling.
This specific style of discussion also seemed to attract many here. A conversation where one spoke centrally, but anyone was able to contribute their knowledge at any time, was so different from how times used to be that people would join simply to be able to say 'I agree'.
In the larger cities, all the people seemed to be eager to learn from the older wiser men, who never turned people away and answered with the utmost sincerity, because education was so available. It was clear why Athenians always seemed so proud of their home city when elsewhere.
The best part was always randomly seeing some famous member of the royal family, or a renowned performer, or some respected scholar, pacing through the halls or examining a scroll on some subject. Everyone who came here came for the same purpose, and thus were all treated in the same way.
Perseus could remember the one time he'd met his king's tutor, the genius thinker and teacher Aristotle, at this very library when he was barely fourteen years old. He smiled to himself at the bittersweet memory.
"A soldier is one of the last kinds of people I ever expected to see in a library." The long-haired brunet said conversationally, walking side-by-side with the very soldier whom he spoke of.
"Don't you count as a soldier, sir?" The green-eyed male replied, with just enough sassiness so as not to count as being rude.
"I'm also a general and advisor to the king. It's in my job description to read and write and learn, even – especially during times of peace such as these. My knowledge is the king's knowledge; that is to say, I must work hard to further it."
Perseus nodded, listening to his superior speak. It was his first time meeting the general outside of their time in the military. He always looked so worn and weary and so he was not expecting a young man, donning average citizen robes and a leather bag of books, looking every bit the aspiring scholar, to walk up to him and introduce himself as his squadron leader.
"Although much of what I've learned is always somehow relayed by one of the other trusted advisors, I must do my best in helping the king."
"A soldier better than us all." Percy grinned. "Strong, handsome, and intelligent. Is there anything you cannot do?"
Hephaestion laughed. "I am flattered you think so, but I am not so well-endowed as you might think. I have my flaws."
"Few of them." He earned a smile for his persistence. "Are you returning to the palace now?"
The older man sidestepped to create space for an old man to walk through the marble-paved street. "I was going to, but I feel like eating something before returning to my post."
"Lazing on the job?"
"Something like that. Join me?"
"Oh, if you insist." He followed.
They walked for a few more blocks and the buildings began to get larger and more ornate, with prouder and richer people weaving their ways through the pillars and double doors. They were making good time. The sun was beginning to dip down behind the tallest of homes and the air was growing chillier, a sign the soldiers would have to return to the palace soon. A quick meal, and then back to work.
As they entered the richest part of the city, the leader of the pair ducked into a steaming establishment full of all kinds of people, most of whom were smoking from intricate foreign pipes and thus filled the room with their strangely sweet-smelling smoke.
They sat at a two-person table against a window at the back, furthest from anyone else in the room. Hephaestion set his bag beneath the table and sat across from his late-lunch partner.
"How is life as a soldier?" He asked, brushing a lock of hair behind his ear.
"I've gotten used to it," Percy replied. "I've actually been one since I was fifteen years old," He answered the questioning look.
"Fifteen?" The brown-eyed man's brows furrowed. "The legal age is sixteen, is it not?"
"At the time, it was the only option I had. There were no records or witnesses to prove otherwise, and so I joined under a false age." Perseus' companion listened intently as he spoke, prompting him to continue with his patient silence.
"It was difficult, at first, without a last name, but I had not joined with one so I could not make one up later on. I decided that, with my extreme skill that I would no doubt acquire—" this earned him a chuckle, "—I would make it so anyone who ridiculed me for my lack of heritage would be ashamed to lose to me."
A server brought them two plates – Percy guessed that Hephaestion was probably a regular – heaping with food, and the green-eyed boy was immediately glad that he had accepted the general's offer. Percy received water while his dinemate took wine.
"Are you sure you don't want any?" The brunet offered. After a moment of hesitation, he took a sip from Hephaestion's cup and found it to be the very same wine he had tasted on the king's lips a few hours ago. He frowned.
"Too strong?" Hephaestion asked concernedly.
Perseus waved him off and returned the drink. "I've just had too much wine today. I'll stay with water instead," He took a swig from his own cup to rid his mouth of the taste. No matter how hard he tried, it was difficult to forget the feeling of the king against him.
He'd gone much further before but still found he did not like the encounter, at all. His respect and admiration for the ruler had not diminished in the slightest; he just felt that he would always be a little more wary in his company.
He didn't realize he had stopped talking until he noticed Hephaestion's pondering gaze. "What?"
"You seem to be a much deeper person than you look." Percy tilted his head and bit his lip. It took the general a moment to realize how his statement could have been taken. "Oh my go – that was rude of me, I only meant–"
"No, no, its fine. I know what you meant. I get that a lot." He shoveled some food into his mouth and moaned immediately. "Hera in heaven, this food is amazing."
Hephaestion laughed. "I'm glad you like it. Many people are still reluctant to try foreign food, so I usually eat here alone."
"I'm sure you could get a beauty to accompany you if you wanted to. Or three," He said around his full mouth. Swallowing, he continued, "You're always by yourself, sir."
"I prefer it that way." At his companion's look, "What?"
He shook his head. "Nothing, nothing."
"What is it?"
"Nothing at all, my lord."
At his stubbornness, the older man sighed loudly, then glanced outside. He muttered a curse, earning the surprised attention of the boy before him. "The sun's about to set. We need to get back to the palace."
Perseus repeated the curse, louder and with more fervor, before inhaling the dish and putting his entire stack of coins on the counter.
The brown-eyed man hadn't even swallowed his mouthful of a drink before he was grabbed by the arm and pulled out of the doorway. They broke into a sprint as soon as they hit the streets.
"Oooh, it's cold." Percy said, turning a corner with the general close behind. "I don't think it's that big of a deal for a soldier to be late, but a general? Sir, you're setting a terrible example for your underlings."
"Please, just concentrate on the road." Hephaestion asked, and Percy chuckled from the urgency in his voice.
The guard at the gates let them through without so much as a word and they stumbled up the steps in a breathless heap.
"Thanks for the meal!" Percy called, running in one direction.
"I'll treat you next time," Hephaestion promised, running in the other.
"Wait!" Percy turned and came a few steps back.
"Oh, my bag!"
Percy launched the leather satchel at its owner. "Bye!"
Percy grinned at the sound of receding footsteps before being seized by the realization that he might actually be punished if he did not arrive back at the soldiers' camp on time. He picked up speed and cut through the kitchens (much to the chefs' protests and anger).
Still a quarter of a palace away, he climbed up a random balcony and cut through the dancers' rooms – "oh, sorry, sorry, excuse me, whoa, sorry, hi, sorry, bye!" – and sprinted through the unnecessarily complicated labyrinth of hallways until he could smell the stench of sweet, sweet soldiers' quarters.
The room was literally right at the end of the hallway. He could have cried with relief when he saw that there was no one but their own section inside, all waiting for the commander.
And then, he bumped into none other than Antigonus outside.
Thanks for reading.