A TIME FOR LOVERS

SUMMARY: A slightly different (less tearful) version of Alexander's wedding to Roxana. Love is in the air: Bagoas is reunited with an old flame, Hephaestion muses over his own marriage prospects and Alexander finds wedded bliss something of a shock. To Fredericka: your wish is my command.

DISCLAIMER: Not mine, not mine. I'm quite aware that Bagoas got up to something slightly similar to this when Alexander married Roxana in The Persian Boy but this strange article is completely my own.

RATING: T for mild sexual references

It was with quite genuine joy that Bagoas danced at Alexander's wedding to Roxana – the exquisite, liberating joy that came from relief. Since he had settled into life in the service of the Macedonian conqueror, he had been haunted by the prospect of this day. Not, as it happened, from any personal jealousy, but because he had feared the coming of a Greek or Macedonian queen, a protégée of the formidable Olympias who would storm in from the West to flush out the insidious Persian influences, starting with the very un-Hellenic eunuch concubine of the King. Bagoas had worked hard to please Alexander, to make himself trusted and valued, to quietly increase his power and influence while attracting as little unwelcome attention as possible. To lose all he had when Darius fell had been quite bad enough; who could have predicted that the barbarian who had vanquished him would want a eunuch? To start again, only to lose it all once more during the inevitable upheavals when Alexander married was simply too much to bear.

But then Alexander had stunned his army by marrying a princess from the ranks of the conquered, one who knew the ways of the Persian court and the ways of eunuchs and would almost certainly consider Bagoas part of the trappings of a Great King. So while many of the Macedonians grumbled and sulked, Bagoas danced with light feet and a light heart.

His performance over, he had skipped away to wash and change and then returned to stand dutifully behind Alexander's couch which he shared with his demurely veiled bride. On his right sat his father-in-law Oxyartes, looking smug; on his left, his lover Hephaestion, looking sedate. The favourite had apparently prepared himself well for this occasion and the inevitable baiting from his enemies, most notably Crateros, who was separated from him only by one of Oxyartes' brothers seated between them.

Oxyartes finished complimenting Alexander on Bagoas' performance and begged to return the favour. He clapped his hands and the music resumed but at a slower, more sensual pace as a new dancer floated into the room, shrouded from head to foot in multi-coloured veils. Every movement of this new dancer spoke of mystery, of promise, of absolute seduction. In spite of themselves the Macedonians, even the old veterans who had resolutely refused to appreciate Bagoas's performance, were captivated at once. Bagoas could see, could almost feel them awakening, shifting on their couches, leaning forward, eyes growing wide, mouths falling open. Crateros was gawping stupidly at the dancer; even the stoical Hephaestion was staring with his eyes sparkling and a faint flush dawning on his cheeks. But Bagoas did not have the time or the inclination to watch the guests any closer. He had just felt a sudden, overpowering jolt of recognition.

Somewhere in the back of his mind he noted a wry amusement. These Macedonians, who sneered at Alexander's infatuation with Bagoas, had no idea what they were drooling over. They genuinely believed they were watching a woman. But Bagoas was under no such illusions. Nobody else danced like that.

His heart thumping, he resisted the urge to clasp his hands together to stop them shaking. He should be overjoyed, after all. Yet to have him so close, on such a night… and maybe not even to have the chance to see his face…

"What's her name?" Crateros bawled over the music to Oxyartes' brother. The man smiled graciously and indicated that he did not understand. Grunting, Crateros leaned behind him and shouted to Hephaestion, "make yourself useful, Bridge-Builder – ask him what her name is!"

Hephaestion frowned, but obviously reasoned now was not the time to start a fight with his rival. In his heavily accented but quite passable Persian he repeated the question to Oxyartes' brother, received an answer and called back to his comrade, "he doesn't know."

"What!"

"I said he doesn't know! Nobody knows!"

"What sort of an answer is that?"

"Shut up and watch!"

Crateros' response to that was muttered too low for Bagoas to hear. Licking his dry lips, Bagoas watched the dancer with a hunger he had not felt in so long, though he could hardly see for the tears which blinded his eyes. The sudden influx of buried memories almost overwhelmed him.

Then, as quickly as the dancer had come, the dancer was gone. Calls for a second performance were politely ignored, as were the many wistful gazes turned towards the door from which the dancer had exited. Anxiety seized Bagoas. He longed to disappear through that door himself, yet what possible excuse could he make? To leave now would seem churlish at best, the abandoned lover running away in a womanish strop. The Macedonians and the Persians would finally find something they could laugh at together – a jealous eunuch throwing a tantrum. He stayed where he was.

Only moments later, the door was opened once more. Several people glanced over hopefully then looked away. It was only a tall, passably pretty eunuch, still slender but past his prime by Persian standards, dressed in a long turquoise tunic and loose jade green trousers. Oxyartes turned very slightly and smiled at the newcomer, who bowed deeply, then prostrated himself, unnoticed, before Alexander, before taking up his position by his master's couch. Oxyartes was having his little joke at the Macedonians' expense – let them search in vain for the beautiful woman who had danced for them; if they pestered, let them understand it had not been a woman at all. It was a safe joke because Alexander, who had readily taken a eunuch to his bed, could be allowed to share it if necessary.

Only then did the newcomer turn and see Bagoas.

The only sign of recognition was a sudden flash of his golden-brown eyes as they met Bagoas' black ones, a sharp intake of breath and a quick smile quickly hidden. Bagoas turned away to protect them both.

Mercifully, Roxana chose that moment to rise and exit with her women. Taking his cue, Alexander stirred on his couch, waited for some moments, then also got to his feet. His friends followed at once, offering words of encouragement. Hephaestion stood back, his face quite expressionless, his eyes downcast, waiting until Alexander called his name and held out both his hands for his lover to press. Only then did Hephaestion smile. He had a ravishing smile when he chose to use it, bright, warm, unexpected and quite sincere. Alexander held him where he was for some moments, talking too softly for Bagoas to hear; then, stretching upwards, he kissed Hephaestion chastely upon the lips. For the Macedonians, a warning that his beloved's status remained intact; for the Persians a warning that he considered this man his equal. Eyebrows were raised; scowls deepened. But no voice was raised in protest.

At last Alexander departed, insisting his friends continue to enjoy the party. Bagoas turned to follow him out, but Alexander halted him. "Its all right, Bagoas," he said gently, perhaps thinking he was sparing his feelings, perhaps simply not wanting him around when he joined his bride, "stay and enjoy the festivities."

Bagoas could have kissed him, though not for the reasons Alexander might have thought. The next few moments were the sweetest agony; he kept his gaze down and his body still. He was being an utter fool, a hysterical, dizzy-headed archetypal eunuch, fighting self-destructively against years of discipline and good sense. But he did not care, he did not care.

Very quietly, he withdrew, moving slowly, outwardly aimlessly down the corridor, a servant bereft of his master's orders, at a loose end. Only the tears sparkling in his eyes and his heated face might betray him, but he was ready for that, primed to dissolve into effeminate weeping and lamenting over the loss of Alexander to the marriage bed. Only when he reached a shadowy, forgotten corner did he stop and wait.

"Bagoas…"

The voice was soft and high and carefully controlled, the slight accent wonderfully familiar. Bagoas turned slowly, then could contain himself no longer and fell into the waiting arms of the tall eunuch in turquoise and jade. "Ara… oh, my beloved Ara…"

"Sweet, beautiful Bagoas…" Ara sighed, holding him close. For a moment neither said anything more; Bagoas raised his head with a pleading look and was rewarded with a deep, passionate kiss. Their training was so much a part of them that it came to the fore even when it was not needed; no man, no woman, not even a courtesan, knew how to kiss as a eunuch cut and trained only for pleasure. At last they drew apart, laughing breathlessly. "How glad I am to see you not only safe and well but flourishing," Ara told him, caressing his cheek, then his neck and shoulder with light, gentle fingers, "after the Great King fell… I feared…"

"Just as I did, when the Great King sent you away from… from me," Bagoas answered softly, "you were my first friend at Court, my only true friend… Ara, why did you never tell me? I thought you were merely instructing me in my duties, then I discovered you were training me as your replacement!"

"Would it have been any better, had I told you the truth?" Ara asked sadly.

"You could at least have let me say good-bye…"

"No, my love." Ara shook his head slowly. "I couldn't have done that." He drew back slightly, forcibly lightening the mood. "So… my beautiful one has attracted the eye of the barbarian conqueror! I hope he treats you kindly."

Bagoas glanced about them nervously. "Very kindly, almost too much so, sometimes it confuses me, causes me to let down my guard. This Great Iskander is a two-edged sword, Ara. He treats me, treats all his servants and soldiers with such familiarity, as if he were a doting uncle in whom we can confide all our woes, ask for anything, confess anything. But then one can so easily go too far, and he has a temper – a terrible temper…" He pressed a hand to his own mouth to stop his flow of speech. It had been so long since he had been able to talk this freely to anyone. "And you… I am glad to see you well settled, though I never expected to find you all the way out here… you still dance so beautifully, Ara…"

"A rare treat, my dearest. I am well past my best; certainly my pleasuring days are over. I keep accounts for Oxyartes, help to manage his estates… a world away from the glorious court of the King of Kings, but far better than being dumped in the harem, growing fatter and bitchier with each passing season…"

"I want to be alone with you!" The harsh whisper broke unexpectedly from Bagoas, startling them both. A fire lit in Ara's brown eyes, but he frowned.

"I want it too, Bagoas, you know I do, but think of the danger!"

"I don't care!" And in that second he didn't, not even if Alexander himself walked in on them. "Besides, on this night of all nights, this night of love, who cares how two unimportant eunuchs spend their time?"

oooo

They knew so well how to please one another. They kissed, they touched, they suckled, nuzzled, stroked and rubbed. They were gentle and patient, sensual and responsive. They needed none of the crude, aggressive thrusting and grappling of uncut men. When at last they were sated, Bagoas lay quietly in Ara's arms, letting his mind wander briefly back to times he wanted to forget. The days on his father's farm with his many siblings. The day he had been torn away from his family, only later realising he had been sold and cut with their consent, having attracted the eye of a wealthy and ambitious trader. Being initiated, not always kindly, into the world of sexual service. Then he reached memories he had banished because they had made him weak with longing and regret. The day he had met Ara, a eunuch not nearly as lovely of face as Bagoas himself, but so graceful, so accomplished, so perfectly poised, a eunuch born of the horse-breeding Uratians, the people over which Darius had governed before another, more homicidal Bagoas had made him Great King. The day, quite in spite of themselves, they had risked all to become lovers. Perhaps, knowing his days at Court were numbered, Ara had at last decided to indulge himself. If he was bitter that a man who had once cared enough for him to bring him away with him to his new life could so easily put him aside when he lost his youthful bloom, Ara never showed it.

They didn't talk of the future because they could not have one. Roxana might fail to please Alexander for long; she might prove barren or die in childbirth. Her father might accidentally offend the Macedonian or even turn against him. Alexander himself might fall. Alone, each of them had a chance, no matter what. Together, they had no chance at all. No doubt they would see each other again, but not like this. Probably never again like this.

"I won't say good-bye this time either," Ara said as they made their way from his room in the early hours, "but there is one thing I will say. I love you, Bagoas."

Bagoas caught his breath. For so long, love was a concept he had banished from his heart. Did everyone assume he loved Alexander, just because so many people did? Did Alexander assume it himself? What did any of them know? "I love you too," he heard himself say, strange and confusing though the words sounded to his own ears. And with a last kiss they parted, Bagoas lingering to watch Ara drift noiselessly down the corridor.

A hand came down upon his shoulder. "Bagoas…"

The Persian froze, nausea rising inside his body as he recognised the voice. He turned slowly, forcing his face into a mask. "My Lord Hephaestion," he murmured, bowing very low.

The Macedonian officer's eyes stared severely down into his, a deep, dangerous frown upon his handsome face. "Have you got something you want to tell me, Bagoas?"

Bagoas drew in a deep, steadying breath and squared his shoulders. So it was over. Well, he did not care. It had been worth it. Whatever fate awaited him now, it had been worth it, to be, just for a moment, only Bagoas, not Bagoas the eunuch, Bagoas the servant, Bagoas the Persian or just King Alexander's boy. But if he could save Ara, he would.

"Before I answer, my Lord," he said quietly, "may I ask a question of you?"

Hephaestion's dark brows rose, but then his lips twitched in amusement. "Very well – but make it a good one."

"The Great King, my Lord Iskander… do you love him?"

Hephaestion's expression did not change. "Everyone loves Alexander," he said.

"But not as you do."

"No…" Hephaestion answered slowly, "not as I do."

"And… when you lie with him – "

"You're very bold tonight, Bagoas!"

"I have nothing to lose, my Lord."

"That remains to be seen. Go on, then."

"When you lie with Is – with Alexander – you lie with him as a man with his lover, not as a subordinate with his king? You lie with him in love, only for love, not from necessity, not for gain...?" Hephaestion was silent for a long moment. Then he answered with a nod and Bagoas added, "you are lucky, my lord. To be free to love the man you love, as well as to know that no matter how many others you might have to share him with, he will always love you best." He said no more. He would not confess his love for Ara to Hephaestion; he would not plead or weep. Either this man, in his own way as complex and enigmatic as the King himself, would understand, or he would not. Yet Bagoas could feel his heart squeezing tighter and tighter, could not let go his breath, though he was growing dizzy and his vision was blurring. He did not want to bring death upon Ara. He did not want to bring it upon himself. He was not a warrior, taking an almost suicidal glee in risking his own life again and again. He loved life, any life, even the difficult one God had chosen for him.

Hephaestion gave a deep sigh. "Get yourself to bed, Bagoas. You must be tired."

Bagoas let out a small, shaky gasp, swallowing tears of relief. Without knowing what possessed him, he flung his arms about Hephaestion's neck and kissed him full on the lips. As Hephaestion drew back with a short, breathless laugh, Bagoas scampered away.

oooo

The euphoria lasted approximately three days. During that time no-one but Roxana's women and a few ordinary body-slaves saw Alexander. Bagoas was never alone with Ara, his close encounter with Hephaestion was enough to check any romantic impulses, but it was enough to exchange a glance or two, to know he was there and that he was well. Then, on the fourth morning of Alexander's marriage, he was told to report to his master at once.

"My lord, I…" was all he managed to get out before Alexander had caught him by the throat and slammed him against the nearest wall, his grey eyes gleaming with a cold, deadly light, his pale skin flushed red with rage.

"You treacherous little whore!" the conqueror screamed at him.

Bagoas felt his knees grow weak. He had trusted Hephaestion! He had actually trusted that worthless barbarian! No doubt he had thought it a wonderful joke - let the stupid eunuch believe he was safe, then tell the whole story to Alexander and let him deal with the traitor! "My… Lord…" Bagoas whimpered.

"Did you really think no-one would tell me?" Alexander snarled, "they warned me about you and your kind, but I didn't believe it! Why should I believe rumours and gossip and spite? But its true, isn't it? You can't be trusted!"

"M-my L-lord, whatever Lord Hephaestion said…"

"He hasn't said anything yet! But he will when I get hold of him! Oh yes, he'll do a great deal of talking very soon! Give me one good reason why I shouldn't crucify you now! How far did it go? Did you do more than kiss him? Did he – he – take you?"

Bagoas was genuinely confused. "Take…? I don't…"

"Did Hephaestion have you? Did you lure him into your filthy bed while I was with Roxana? Stop acting the innocent, you wretched child, you were seen kissing him! What happened after that!"

The relief, the very absurdity of it, was so great Bagoas almost laughed. "No – nothing my Lord, I swear it! Take my life if you must, but I swear it! I only kissed him!"

"Why, damn you?"

He had to think quickly. "I was jealous!"

"Jealous…?" Alexander was so startled he loosened his grip on Bagoas at last and the look in his eyes became just a little more human. "Jealous… of my marriage?"

No. That was too easy. It might convince Alexander for a while but he would soon doubt it. He would understand from Roxana, if he didn't know already, that a eunuch or a concubine occupied a totally different place in the household of a king to a wife, that both Bagoas and Roxana knew their place and need never clash. A piece of advice Ara had given him when they first met came to the forefront of his mind. When you lie, make sure it's a lie they want to hear.

"Of Lord Hephaestion!" he cried, "because you love him so! I thought your wedding night would be a chance for me to seduce him, to show you his faithlessness, because he would be jealous and unhappy at the thought of your marriage! I kissed him and then I ran away… and hoped he would follow! But he didn't," Bagoas added with elaborate petulance, "and then the next morning he called me over, slapped my face, called me a silly child and told me not to do it again!" He didn't need to force his tears; he was trembling from the shock alone.

Alexander's expression softened to that mixture of dejection and remorse which so often followed a violent loss of temper. He stroked Bagoas' hair, pressed a kiss to his brow. "Forgive me, my dear, but remember – no-one kisses Hephaestion but me. No-one kisses him…" for a second that dangerous glint was back, "no-one touches him, and no-one makes love to him. Everything I have, I would gladly give to my loyal companions. But Hephaestion is mine."

Then may God help Hephaestion, Bagoas thought with a shudder as Alexander dried his tears, gently soothed the skin on his throat and whispered more apologies mixed with compliments on how well Bagoas had danced on his wedding night. "And now, Bagoas," Alexander finished with a weary sigh, "prepare my bath and bring me some wine. With lots of water," he added, avoiding the Persian's gaze. "And a light meal. And if anyone comes asking for me, on absolutely no account are you to…"

He never got to complete the sentence; at that moment a servant appeared, announcing that one of the Lady Roxana's women was outside, enquiring as to the whereabouts of her husband.

oooo

Five days. Five days of nothing but drinking, eating, music and general revelry. Who could ever have thought that five days of pure hedonism could be so agonisingly dull? Alexander had told them to celebrate until he returned to them and celebrate they did, for five long days. But parties, Hephaestion noted as he limped wearily back towards his room, just weren't the same without Alexander's vivacious personality to keep them going, or his commanding presence to keep those attending being civil to each other. Once the novelties of exotic foods, singing eunuchs and dancing girls had finally worn off and the Sogdians and Persians had finally drifted away, to avoid fighting amongst themselves the Companions had begun drinking uncut wine and decided to re-enact the siege of the Sogdian rock. Unfortunately during the battle Hephaestion, chosen by a unanimous vote to play Roxana, had fallen off the stack of couches representing the fortress and sprained his ankle and by the time he had sobered up enough to notice it had swollen up and turned black and become excruciatingly painful. And to think he'd only stayed with the others that long so that Crateros couldn't accuse him of sulking like a spurned mistress in his room! They said pride came before a fall – he just hadn't known they meant it literally.

And now he could look forward to writing a letter to Aristotle, a letter representing Alexander's marriage to Roxana, of which he knew Aristotle would not approve, as a purely political arrangement and a deviously clever one at that, because he would miss his old tutor's letters if they stopped, even if their political views were becoming more and more opposed. More lies, after five days of faking a smile and pretending to enjoy the company of sycophants who saw him as a direct route to Alexander and fellow officers who thought Hephaestion one himself; of drinking with the likes of Crateros and Cleitus who he knew wished he wasn't there so they could get drunk in peace and complain about Alexander's Persian marriage. What I do for you, Alexander my beloved, Hephaestion thought wryly, what I do for you…

He allowed himself a rather crooked smile as he thought of Bagoas. Poor little bastard, he thought mildly, let him have whatever fun he could with whatever equipment he had left. He doubted Alexander would see it that way, but after the rotten five days Hephaestion had just endured, he didn't feel much like changing his mind. Alexander was something of a prude at heart; he preferred to view all sexual acts as of acts of love. He would somehow manage to convince himself, if nobody else, that there was always an element of reciprocated love between him and his sexual partners. Hephaestion was not quite so sentimental.

He had seen that other eunuch several times since; once he had actually been tempted to ask him about that mesmerising dancing girl at the wedding, but had put it out of his mind. He had never been quite so affected by a woman before and there was a very real chance if had asked Roxana's father pointedly enough the man might have at least formally introduced them, but Hephaestion had quickly put it out of his mind. Alexander would have gone mad.

All the same, now might be a good time to raise the delicate subject of marriage. It wasn't exactly about desire for a woman, though Hephaestion was at least curious; it was more about being the oldest virgin in the army where women were concerned. Ptolemy's Thais and her friends kept dropping hints and he'd heard rumours some of the camp-followers had huge bets riding on who would finally deflower Alexander's favourite. Besides, his parents kept hinting at grandchildren…

Many of his contemporaries had children. And even Alexander was married now. Actually it was something of a relief to Hephaestion, though he knew no-one would believe him if he said so and he couldn't admit it to Alexander. At least he might finally stop having to read vitriolic comments about himself in Olympias' letters to Alexander, usually about his only sleeping with her son to gain his favour and forcing him – as if she really thought anyone could force Alexander to do anything – to remain a boy, sexually. Specifically, Hephaestion's boy. Apart from the fact that had never been the whole truth of their relationship, surely she must have heard of Bagoas and possess enough imagination to guess who did what to whom when they were together, even if she chose to ignore rumours of his fleeting affairs with other young men in the army where Alexander, as their general and king, certainly took the dominant role.

Yes, Hephaestion decided, it was time. Alexander had once hinted at a suitable candidate for Hephaestion's bride; but that had been some time ago and he had apparently forgotten all about it. Now was the time to remind him.

As he reached his room, he was surprised to see a young Persian woman, elegantly dressed and modestly veiled, who bowed low to him as he approached. Hephaestion stared. Surely Alexander hadn't…

"My Lord Hephaestion," she said in Persian, speaking slowly to assist his understanding, "I have come from the Lady Roxana. She… wishes to know if you can tell her the whereabouts of her noble husband, King Alexander."

"Alexander…?" Hephaestion was mystified. "Isn't he with…" he stopped himself. Of course she wouldn't be asking if he was still with Roxana. "I imagine he has retired to his room. Matters of state, perhaps…" In spite of himself, Hephaestion was a little hurt that Alexander had not sent for him if he had left his wife's rooms, but it was something he would have to get used to. The woman hesitated as if dissatisfied, but then bowed and left. With a weary shrug, Hephaestion entered his room.

"Hephaestion."

Hephaestion gaped stupidly at the figure standing by the bed. "Alexander…?"

A second later they had fallen into one another's arms. They embraced fiercely, wordlessly, before Hephaestion pulled back slightly, looked down into Alexander's eyes and then locked together with him in a long, passionate kiss. Within the depths of that kiss they rediscovered one another, reuniting and reaffirming their love after such a major change. All the warring emotions Hephaestion had pushed to the back of his consciousness from the day Alexander had announced his plans to marry surged forward then melted away, leaving him feeling light and dizzy, divested of a burden he had hardly known he was carrying. The king might be married to Roxana, but Alexander was still his. Once more, their love had endured a serious trial and survived, emerging stronger than ever.

When they finally parted, gasping for breath, Hephaestion felt a sudden rush of euphoria. Grinning playfully at Alexander, he touched his cheek. "So, my love," he whispered, "what is married life like?"

"Exhausting," Alexander groaned, leaning against him. For the first time Hephaestion noted the shadows under his lover's eyes, the pallid complexion, the bewildered frown on his face. "By Zeus, Hephaestion, are all women so… insatiable?"

Hephaestion choked back a laugh, seeing an opening. "You'd know more about that than me, Alexander," he noted meaningfully, "as you know, I have little experience of women. And I think perhaps…"

"Keep it that way!" Alexander cried with great feeling.

This time Hephaestion laughed aloud. "Alexander! You told me you were in love with Roxana!"

"I was – no, I mean I am – no, I – at least, I think I am! But – gods - women are so – so confusing! I didn't expect it to be like that!"

"Like what?" Hephaestion was genuinely confused.

"So… complicated! She's so hard to satisfy – how many times can a woman make love? And for how long each time? They're not human, Hephaestion! Don't they ever sleep? My body aches worse than it ever has after a long march or a battle! When I was too tired for more sex she accused me of growing tired of her! After four days! And when she doesn't want to make love she wants to talk! She won't stop talking… and asking questions and wanting to know everything… and when I didn't want to answer, she accused me of growing bored with her! I can't follow the pattern of her thoughts! Who knows what a woman is thinking from one minute to the next?"

Hephaestion was tempted to suggest after a mother like Olympias Alexander should have been better prepared, but he held his tongue. Now, of all times, Alexander would not react well to mockery. Instead he led Alexander over to his bed and sat him down, crouching in front of him to remove his sandals, then helping him shed his heavy Persian robe. "One of her ladies was outside, looking for you," he recalled suddenly.

Alexander sprang up. "You didn't tell her where I was!"

"How could I, I didn't know!" Hephaestion stretched out on the bed. "Come here to me, my love."

Groaning, the king settled himself between Hephaestion's thighs, curling up against his chest like a forlorn and bewildered child. "I got away from her yesterday – Aphrodite forgive me, but I had to – but I only got as far as my own rooms for an hour or so before she sent one of her women to find me…!" Suddenly a deep frown creased Alexander's brow and he raised his head to look directly at Hephaestion. "Which reminds me. I know about Bagoas, Hephaestion."

Hephaestion's amusement vanished. "What about him?"

"I know what went on between the two of you while I and Roxana were… otherwise engaged…"

Hephaestion desperately searched Alexander's face for guidance as to how he should behave, but his friend could put on a mask quite impenetrable even to him when he was really determined. "As to that, Alexander, I didn't think, under the circumstances… but after all, he's your boy and of course if you see fit to punish him then you must, but as to my part in it, I…"

"I haven't punished him," Alexander sighed, putting his head back on Hephaestion's shoulder, suddenly seeming to grow weary of the whole business. "It was stupid and reckless, but I can't blame him for being jealous."

"Jealous…?" Hephaestion echoed doubtfully.

"He told me that was why he did it to you."

"Did… did what…?"

Alexander laughed fondly. "My darling, you don't have to be so coy. I know he kissed you. I can't say I was pleased, but as it was only because he was jealous of you…"

"Oh, that!" Hephaestion sighed in relief.

Alexander sat back again. "What do you mean by that? Was he lying? Did anything else happen?"

"No, no, my love, nothing else," Hephaestion soothed, kissing Alexander's cheeks, then his lips. "A stupid impulse, that's all."

"You shouldn't have hit him, though."

"What…? Oh, no, no, quite right, it must have been too much wine."

"After all, he's only a boy, and a eunuch, they're so much more emotional… like women…" Alexander actually shuddered. Hephaestion closed his eyes and stroked Alexander's hair, feeling the full effects of the last few days drinking for the first time. Which little creep had gone telling tales to Alexander about his conversation with Bagoas? He'd find out soon enough, but first he had to get a moment alone with Bagoas – unseen by prying eyes – to find out exactly what lie he was involved in this time. Lies on top of lies on top of lies! How easy it had been when he had been a student in Mieza, in love with a pretty boy called Alexander, to disdain the squabbling and conspiring of Philip and Olympias and pledge to himself that he would never, ever lie to or hide the truth from his beloved!

As if reading his thoughts, Alexander slipped his hands up Hephaestion's chest to his shoulders and drew him down for a kiss, whispering, "sometimes I wish we were boys again, with nothing to worry about besides the work Aristotle set for us! Life has grown so complicated since then and I have a feeling that it will now get even worse!" He heaved a deep, mournful sigh, slipping out of Hephaestion's embrace to lie almost submissively on his back, arms outstretched in entreaty. "Make love to me, Hephaestion… gently," he added, his face constricting momentarily as if he was in pain, "treat me kindly, let me feel like… like your boy, your own Alexander…"

Hephaestion caught his breath, marvelling even now at the trust being placed in him. No other living soul, no wife, no lover, would ever see Alexander this vulnerable. Slipping off his own clothes, he kissed Alexander softly, then slid himself down on top of him. Whatever tricks Bagoas might possess, whatever womanly charms Roxana could offer, he'd challenge either of them to love Alexander as one would a boy, yet make him feel absolutely a king. A throbbing pain had begun behind Hephaestion's eyes, keeping time with the pulsing ache in his ankle. But now was simply not the time to tell Alexander he had a headache. If there had to be one more lie, at least this one was in a good cause.