"Breathe, just like I told you!"
Had Hephaistion not been grasping the bedpost in agony, he would have reached for Kalanus' throat instead. "Shut the fuck up and knock me out already!"
"Ah, but you must be calm for the syrup."
He was hoarse from screaming, even though Kalanus had assured him that it had only been four hours since his labor began. "This is nothing, my friend," he said. "Now you must be calm."
"Bring me my sword and I'll show you calm!"
That was the last coherent thing he remembered. When he came to, the room was dark and smelled of fumigating herbs. Wisps of a pleasantly sluggish dream clung to his memory; he had been sailing through a treacherous strait, only to have his ship accosted by lovely mer-boys who wanted to know how the Great King Alexandros fared. Naked and oiled, he had replied, and ready for the skewer.
It really had been a very pleasant dream, but when he shifted against the pillows he was abruptly reminded of the sutures across his abdomen. He winced, and his slight movement drew the attention of the eunuch assigned to watch him. "Where is everyone?" he groaned.
"They are all celebrating," replied the eunuch. "Do you require anything?"
It was very strange. The last time Alexandros had been sitting there with the infant on his lap when he woke up. Now he had been left alone, and could not help feeling slightly ignored. "Was it a boy?" he asked.
"Oh, yes, it's a very fine baby boy."
The drugs Kalanus had given him had made him very sleepy, though when he drifted off he could not retrieve the threads of his earlier dream.
He was awakened by the shaft of sunlight that spilled across his bed as one of the eunuchs threw open the fretted screen. As he started to swear at the man, his feeble voice was drowned out by the commotion of Alexandros bursting into the chamber with the baby and three-year old Akhilles in tow. The toddler jumped up onto the bed, nearly landing on Hephaistion's abdomen, and hugged him.
"Look at him!" cried Alexandros, holding up the baby. "Isn't he wonderful? Alexandros Patroklos Amyntor—what a fine name for a prince!"
Their newborn son was, in fact, terribly cranky at the moment. "Let me guess, you've spent all night showing him to the troops?"
"Of course! They all said what a marvelous set of lungs he has. He's going to make such a fine little warrior." Alexandros bounced the infant in his arms, apparently oblivious to the bawling which made Hephaistion's head ache.
"Xandros, I think he needs his rest," said Hephaistion.
Alexandros handed the screaming infant off to the waiting wet nurse, who promptly bore him into the royal nursery. Grinning, he followed with his eyes until woman and baby disappeared from view. "Is there anything you'd like, darling?"
"Yes, Kalanus' head on a stake."
"Oh, don't be testy." Alexandros leaned over and kissed his forehead. "You look so ravishing this morning."
Hephaistion rolled his eyes. His lover was the only person who could say that to someone laid up in bed with disheveled hair, pasty skin and stale breath and make it sound halfway believable. "You're not getting any ideas, are you?"
"I've gotten another letter from Mother," said Alexandros.
"What does she want?" Hephaistion braced himself for the never-ending litany of complaints and demands.
"She wants me to send the latest Persian fashions to her. She says they flatter her so much better than anything her women have been able to come up with. I think I'll have Peukestas choose something for her."
This time, Hephaistion had swallowed his dignity and allowed the harem ladies to dress him so his stretch marks would not be so apparent while he worked to try to get rid of them. The voluminous robes felt strange and stiff, and the contraption they had strapped around his chest to support his enlarged pectoral muscles was truly frightening. At least Alexandros did not insist that he attempt breastfeeding. The other Companions, already insufferable, would never let him live down that horror.
There was also news of the little fruitcake. Bagoas had become a great favorite at the Makedonian court. He had adopted the name Eurydemos and was a terrific hit at parties where he demonstrated proskynesis in all its ass-waving glory. Hephaistion fought to choke back his laughter.
Alexandros mistook the gesture for one of concern. "Phai, I do believe you miss him."
"Oh, no, Xandros! I'm just so happy he fits in. I was so worried he wouldn't," said Hephaistion. "He should stay there as long as he likes!"
Akhilles had scooped up the ratty blob that was his Peritas toy, toddled over to the ridiculous Achaean warship cradle and shoved it in the new baby's face. "Mine," he said, and then proceeded to point to the rocking horse and make the same announcement.
Hephaistion frowned at him. "You need to learn how to share, young man."
"Oh, that's all right," said Alexandros. "Only one person can ride Bucephalas, anyway."
"You know," said Hephaistion, "I think Kalanus deserves to be rewarded for his efforts. When was the last time he saw his family?"
"I don't know that he has one," replied Alexandros. "He was a holy man for fifty years."
"Oh, well, then I'm sure he'd like to see his fellow gurus again. He'd have so much to tell them! Why don't we send him on a trip to India?" suggested Hephaistion. Yes, one-way, with guides who will promptly lose him. Making all the necessary arrangements would give him something to think about that did not involve his less-than-manly physique.
Hephaistion could not decide who was having more fun in the royal sandbox, Alexandros or his eldest son. Alexandros had recently gifted five-year old Akhilles with a toy shield that looked just like the one he had taken from Troy seventeen years ago and was showing him how to scale a wall.
"Now remember, we don't wait to see if anybody is following. If they're not weaklings they'll already be up there with you, right?"
Akhilles promptly banged his toy sword against his shield in agreement.
"Right! And what do we do if the scaling ladder suddenly breaks?"
Holding aloft his little sword and shouting an indecipherable battle paean, Akhilles hopped down inside the wall, right on top of the mud pie his little sister was making. Eurydike bawled, sounding just like her melodramatic fruitcake mother, who was still in Makedon.
Well, obviously nothing that makes any tactical sense, thought Hephaistion, rolling his eyes.
Alexandros was beaming. "Such a brilliant boy! Just like Daddy!"
For his part, Hephaistion was content to sit on the sidelines with Patroklos, who, being too young to fight on the "battlefield," had been left in the Achaean "camp." In front of them was the boy's favorite scroll, Lysis Makes a New Friend. Six months ago, Akhilles had declared himself too "grown-up" for Lysis books, preferring instead to read about his ancestor's exploits in the Iliad, and had given the entire collection to his little brother.
Four-year old Kyros, who was not interested in war games, was also listening to the story and occasionally eating sand. Not for the first time, Hephaistion wondered if one of the eunuchs had accidentally dropped the boy on his head.
After Patroklos, there had been no more children. Kalanus was taking an extended vacation at the court of king Porus, who had been secretly instructed to drop a cobra into the old man's sarong if he so much as breathed in the direction of Babylon.
"'Old Sokrates, seeing Lysis was very lonely, suggested he make friends with the new boy, Alexias, who looked really quite fetching in his new off-the-shoulder chiton—'" Hephaistion looked at the scroll again and suspected this might be a Lysis book meant for older readers.
"More!" cried Kyros.
"Um, all right. 'Alexias was a very amiable boy, and soon they were playing at oiled wrestling and such Spartan favorites as Sack the Helot and Hide the Spear—' Right!" Hephaistion snapped the scroll shut. "I think that's all for today. Patroklos, please stop picking your nose."
Alexandros, carrying a sniffling Eurydike with one arm and leading Akhilles by the hand, came over to them. "Our little warrior managed to capture the pretty Helen," he said.
In the clear Babylonian winter daylight, Hephaistion confirmed what he had noticed about his lover days earlier; the strands of silver in Alexandros' hair reminded him that neither one of them was young anymore. All their days of wandering and conquest had come down to this, sitting with their children in a courtyard many years and hundreds of leagues from Pella where they had begun. He gathered a deep breath and sighed.
"Is something wrong, Phai?"
Hephaistion looked up at Alexandros' beaming face. He doesn't notice and never will. "No, Xandros," he said. "Nothing at all."