THE SUNNY WALL by MOON 71
SUMMARY: Arriving in Babylon for Hephaestion's funeral, Cassander reflects on the loves, friendships and rivalries of his childhood…
RATING: Mild sex scenes
DEDICATION: For Balliansword – Cassander presents his compliments. I hope my version of him meets with your approval.AUTHOR'S NOTES: I've thought a lot about Cassander and decided he was really no better or worse than Alexander, and certainly no worse than the other "successors." His killing of Alexander's sons was brutal, but perhaps no worse than crimes committed by Perdiccas or Olympias in the bitter power struggles. As far as I know, everything we know about him is after he showed up in Babylon in his father's place, admittedly behaving like a rather gauche Macedonian in a Court that had grown and changed probably beyond his understanding – so far as I know, any "facts" about his childhood stem from Renaultverse and not reality. I also try to read between the lines with the ancient sources, not least because Ptolemy, by that time enemy of many of his old friends, was a big influence. If anyone does know anything of Cassander before this time in the ancient sources, please, please correct me! Personally I'd love to know just what he was thinking about stuck back in Macedon all those years… waiting his chance…
I never saw him again, not after he rode from Macedon at Alexander's side. I arrived in Babylon in time only for his funeral. A magnificent affair it was too, worthy of a demi-god – worthy, even, of the only man to win victory over the unstoppable Alexander.
"Alexander has petitioned the Oracle!" Iollas confided to me when relations between us had thawed enough for him to trust me with a secret he had heard while waiting upon the king. "And he's had an answer! Hephaestion is to be worshipped as a Divine Hero!"
I was surprised by the bitter note in my laughter – it had not been intended. Was it never possible for me to think of the affairs of Alexander and Hephaestion without cynicism? It had been once, at least where Hephaestion was concerned. "That doesn't surprise me," I said wryly, "Hephaestion always was Alexander's god."
Iollas stared at me in disbelief. So he, like the others, remained convinced it was the other way around. But that was all part of the act, the grand performance that was Alexander. I could have pressed my point, forced the truth down my brother's throat – but for what? To rebuild the wall of ice between us? I had never loved Iollas as I loved Nikanor, but I did love him – I realised that now, looking into his mild blue eyes. So I let it go. "It's no less than he deserves," I said with my more usual irony, "for putting up with the Golden Boy all these years…"
Iollas glanced warily about him. Then he looked at me, and in spite of himself, he laughed.
Hephaestion. Where to begin? At the sunny wall, of course. That wall where I spent so many mornings, resenting the sunlight and the warmth and the fresh air, bored and frustrated and bitter. It was where my father Antipater always left me when he came to Court, knowing I wouldn't willingly seek out the company of Prince Alexander and his friends.
Sometimes I had Nikanor for company. Of all my brothers and sisters, he was the one I loved quite unconditionally – the one who saw the every side of me, who knew and loved the real Cassander just as he was. He had a naturally friendly, oddly guileless nature and never seemed to get on the wrong side of anyone. I actually wondered if he was capable of earning someone's dislike even if he tried. Hopelessly honest though he was, he was also discreet; I knew I could tell him anything without it being repeated.
Iollas was not quite so simple. Unlike little Nikanor, he did not radiate manly health and vigour; he was weak and prone to coughing during the winter and never excelled in the gymnasium. On the other hand, he was clever and articulate where Nikanor could be slow, and he was charming, gracious and conscientious – self-consciously so, as he freely admitted. Once, in one of my furies against Alexander, I had called him The Official Kisser of the Prince's Backside, sick of what I saw as his toadying to the insufferable little Alexander. He had looked at me with eyes full of hurt. "Why do you have to be so unkind to me, Cassander?" he demanded, "is it so wrong that I should try to get myself the best position I can? Alexander likes me and he doesn't make fun of me for being a weakling – if I can get a good place at Court being helpful to him, why shouldn't I? You might be happier swimming against the flow of the river, but I'd sooner let it carry me where it will!"
Such wisdom in one so young – I hadn't expected it. It silenced me, made me think. I could let go too; I could let myself be dragged along behind Alexander, I could stop fighting. If I did, not only would my father love me more, but I could guarantee good positions not only for myself and my brothers but for Cleon too. But I couldn't do it. The basic point of friction between Alexander and I still remained – even then, when we were boys, he needed to be our leader, and I did not like to be led.
My father couldn't understand my attitude. Looking back, I see him not as a cruel or divisive man or an unloving father, but rather as a tougher, more careworn double of Nikanor. Back then, I saw him as the author of all of my miseries. "Cassander, you are my eldest son," he would say, in that cold, patient tone that was somehow harder than a beating, "you and Alexander are closest in age…"
"Alexander is a baby," I countered, never able to hold my tongue, "he's two years younger than me and a spoilt brat into the bargain!"
"Alexander is a prince – the son of the greatest man Macedon has ever known," my father snapped, "and you would be wise to remember that! Instead of criticising him, you should be following his example – such moderation, and such dedication, in a boy his age is commendable, and something all of you should try to emulate."
"He's just a frigid little show-off," I declared. My father's eyes flashed dangerously, but he held his temper. In that he was truly remarkable – even with dealing with Alexander's poisonous bitch of a mother, I never once heard him raise his voice or curse her, even in the privacy of our home, where even my own sisters had been known to attach colourful epithets to her name. I suppose I should have admired that, but instead I came to regard it as a sign of weakness. Perhaps there was simply no common ground for my father and I – he was ice to my fire; one could only be the destruction of the other. And yet instead of keeping safely apart, we clashed together again and again, generating inevitable clouds of steam.
The sunny wall was our compromise, such as it was. I sat and waited for Alexander – if he came by I joined him; if he didn't, by midday I would slope off home, my duty done. It wasn't such a terrible punishment – some days I would bring some reading; some days I would have Nikanor's company. Then, one day, I had Hephaestion's.
I saw him first in the company of his father, Amyntor, who greeted me cheerfully. When I had first met Amyntor I mistook his overt friendliness for an attempt at seduction – I had been fourteen, old enough to catch a man's eye – but I soon realised he was just irrepressibly paternal, ready to make a fuss of any child who strayed into his path – and ready to regard anyone of eighteen years or less as a child, sexless, guileless, ready to be petted and kissed and teased. So when I saw Hephaestion with him I guessed he was his son; there was a strong resemblance, but more than that, there was such love and pride in the man that if Hephaestion wasn't his beloved, he had to be his child.
I watched Hephaestion with wry curiosity while Nikanor stared at him in awe. I had rather expected Hephaestion to be a coddled little darling with a father like that, but he was quite the reverse – confident to the point of cockiness, good humoured, comfortably sensual. "Joy to you, sons of Antipater," he greeted us cheerfully, smiling at me, then grinning at Nikanor, who was still gawping stupidly. "What are you reading?" he asked me, springing on to the wall between us before I could nudge Nikanor out of his stupor.
"Euripides," I replied a little reluctantly, wondering if he would think me a prig, though if I was I was no more so than Alexander, and less ostentatious about it.
"Iphigeneia at Aulis," he read the title aloud, "my father took me to see it performed. Do you really think she was replaced by a deer at the last moment?"
"I suppose Artemis might have had pity for her," I answered slowly, "though no-one else did. Euripides doesn't seem to think much of any of the heroes, does he? Even Achilles," I added with a certain satisfaction.
"I thought she would be saved at the last minute," Nikanor spoke up at last, "but by her father, not by Artemis. I didn't like the way it ended!"
Hephaestion turned and grinned at my little brother. I scowled, slapping Hephaestion's hand before he could slip his arm around him. He shrugged affably at me and kept his hands in his lap for the rest of our conversation, though he did try his luck once or twice on later occasions when he thought I wasn't looking.
Hephaestion was very handsome, even then. At sixteen he already had the grace and beauty of a man, not the awkwardness of a boy. His voice was deep and he had the shadow of a beard on his cheeks. Certainly he was desirable, but not to me. When it came to the male sex I preferred gentle, pretty boys – not girlish, but somehow innocent and unspoiled, something Hephaestion definitely was not.
Besides, I had my own beloved, who was everything I needed him to be, even if my father would not have approved of my choice. Cleon had been a childhood playmate before we had discovered passion together – his father's small holding bordered on our own large estate; they were Illyrians originally, but his father had served Philip in several campaigns and been rewarded with land and livestock. Cleon was, above all, a nice boy; not bookish or serious or proud as I was, but vigorous and adventurous, calling me away from my studies and my musings with his love of hunting and sports. He was an excellent archer and skilled with the spear, but above all he dreamed of joining the Foot Companions and marching with the phalanx. Silently I vowed I would get that for him – my influence might be limited, but either my father or Alexander could get Cleon the post he coveted, if I let Nikanor do the asking.
I told myself we were just sharing some boy's fun and I believed it, most of the time at least. It was only after we'd been intimate together out in the sunny clearing we favoured, with the sun highlighting the red in his golden-brown hair and making his green eyes sparkle that I felt a strange shiver run through my body and I could not help but kiss him with more tenderness than boys should. If he thought my behaviour uncharacteristically sentimental, he never said so; he would just smile at me and stroke my hair and softly say my name, and instead of separating to share wine and bawdy jokes as men did, we would lie quietly in one another's arms.
So I was well protected against Hephaestion's charms. Unlike Alexander.
Even so, I found I was dreading the first meeting between my new friend and the prince. I liked Hephaestion – he was someone to share things with; we talked of plays and books, of what we knew at that age of philosophy and geography. His Greek was fluent and he helped Nikanor and me with ours. And I liked the way he came to join me on the sunny wall and stayed there, instead of going searching for Alexander as his father surely expected he would do. He never even asked me about him, only, occasionally, about King Philip. I was happy to talk about him, a brave and charismatic man, clever in politics but manfully straightforward when it came to pleasure, something Alexander could never be. But surely, once Hephaestion met Alexander he would either fall under his spell or pretend to, as all the other boys did. Some of them genuinely loved him – and would want to be loved by him, I didn't doubt, though none of them were that lucky. Others were doing what my father wanted me to do – gaining his favour, to aid their future careers. Alexander made a great show of loving them all equally, bestowing his golden smile upon each of them, never failing to notice and praise their achievements. But not one of them could be called his beloved; he was chaste – hypocritically so, in my opinion, for unless Olympias was playing a joke on the King and passing off a girl as his son and heir, Alexander must have all the same urges and hungers and lustful thoughts as the rest of us. Nor would he consent to be anyone's eromenos – oh no, not the Golden Boy! He wouldn't lie down for any man!
Or so I thought.
Inevitably the day came that they met. We were on the sunny wall with Nikanor, though this time I made sure I was sitting in the middle. Hephaestion was reading aloud to us. Pindar, as I recall. It was then that Alexander clattered up with his usual group of toadies, all of them on horseback, armed for hunting. The prince greeted me with cold politeness, Nikanor with a benevolent smile. Then he looked at Hephaestion expectantly, waiting to be introduced.
"Hephaestion," Nikanor spoke up when I remained silent, "this is Prince Alexander, son of Philip… Alexander, this is Amyntor's son, Hephaestion…"
"Joy to you, my Prince," grinned Hephaestion, to my astonishment eyeing the blonde boy with the same speculation he did my Nikanor.
And to my further astonishment, Alexander flushed pink. "Alexander," he mumbled, then cleared his throat. "You may call me Alexander, son of Amyntor."
"Alexander, then," Hephaestion replied smoothly. Alexander continued to stare at him for longer than was polite, his grey eyes wide and misty. Hephaestion moved closer to admire the magnificent Bucephalus. "A beautiful horse," he observed, "my father told me how you won him."
"Oh yes, I…" Shaking himself, Alexander began to introduce his friends. Hephaestion greeted them amicably, winking devilishly at pretty young Hector who blushed harder than Alexander. "We were – about to go hunting in the hills," Alexander told him, "you're welcome to join us, Hephaestion."
"Thank you, Alexander," Hephaestion sighed, "but sadly we haven't a horse between the three of us!"
Alexander's eyes locked with mine. My dislike had never been one-sided; at first he had tried to patronise me as he did the others, but I would not be won over, nor did I bother to hide my resentment at the attempt. Everything was wrong between us; he was quick and restless when I was still; he had his head filled with heroes and gods and placed himself among them; I was no unbeliever, but I did not believe the gods much favoured one man over another, be he a peasant or a prince. If I had told him I sometimes believed the gods tossed down scraps from their table and let us snatch what we could, from one another's hands if necessary, he would have scorned me as a cynic and a boor. Now, though, the animosity had suddenly become personal. For whatever reason, he had decided he wanted Hephaestion, and I was in the way. At that moment I thought he might only want him because I had found him first, and I stared back at Alexander with contempt. In that, at least, I did him an injustice.
Finally one of the older boys, the ever reasonable Nearchos, sorted us out – I rode with Nikanor, son of Parmenion, a comely boy I'd always got on well with; my little Nikanor shared Hector's steed, the two of them giggling like infants when Nikanor wrapped his arms far too tightly about Hector's waist for safe riding; and Hephaestion – yes, indeed, the handsome Hephaestion was graciously invited to mount Bucephalus behind Alexander, a privilege not even Alexander's oldest friends had yet been granted! I hid a smirk as Hephaestion managed to get his hand on Alexander's thigh as he swung himself onto the horse's back. I had to admire his temerity. The prince coloured brightly, but Hephaestion behaved so innocently Alexander would have looked foolish chastising him. And so we all rode away.
After that day I was sure I had lost my friend. Alexander had astonished us all in his efforts to impress Hephaestion and monopolise his attention; Hephaestion received his advances with a lazy familiarity that positively scandalised us. Even so, I knew the power of Alexander's charm and I was certain Hephaestion would be smitten soon enough.
So I was left speechless when I arrived in the courtyard and found him waiting for me on the wall.
"Joy to you, Cassander," he called merrily, "I've brought back the play I borrowed! What's the matter?"
"I – thought you'd be with the Golden Boy," I muttered sullenly.
"Who? Oh, you mean Alexander?" Hephaestion grinned. "Is that what you call him? Not to his face, I'll bet! Very pretty, isn't he?"
"If you like that type," I replied coldly.
"You obviously don't," he noted, peering curiously at me. "You really don't like him, do you?"
"Do you?" I demanded before I could stop myself.
"Oh, yes," Hephaestion chuckled, jumping down to my side, "I like him very much!"
I stared at him in disbelief, then laughed scornfully. "Hephaestion, you have more inpudence than Eros himself!" I exclaimed, "but don't waste your energies on Alexander – he's as pure as Artemis! In fact he'd probably set his dogs on you for catching him naked!"
"You mean he's never had a lover? Not even another boy?"
"If he did, he must have strangled him afterwards, because no-one's ever said it," I smirked, "I heard his parents sent him a hetaera, a really spicy one too, worth a soldier's wages for a year – and he sent her away!"
"They should have saved their money and sent me instead!"
"Give over, Hephaestion," I jeered, giving him a playful shove, "you'll never get him!"
"How much will you wager?"
I eyed him shrewdly. "All right then, Perfect One - that play I lent you – in return for that cornel wood spear your uncle gave you!"
"Done!" Hephaestion cried. We gripped one another's hands. When Alexander came by – alone, for once – to fetch Hephaestion, I let them go, contenting myself with how much fun Cleon and I would have hunting rabbits with my fine new spear.
Six days later, when the group of us had spent the day hunting and were lazing around our campfire, finishing off rabbit and venison, I saw Hephaestion pulling Alexander away into the woodlands. Following contentedly to watch my friend get his face slapped, if not his groin kicked, I saw instead Hephaestion kissing Alexander roughly and Alexander returning his passion, swooning against a tree like a giddy nymph when they finally parted, then gazing up adoringly into Hephaestion's eyes and pulling him down for another kiss. I had lost the bet, but I didn't care. I'm not voyeuristic by nature, and I stayed only long enough to see Hephaestion get the prince onto the ground and divest him of his clothing, in order to appreciate Alexander defeated by the same ordinary, mortal lusts as the rest of us.
Inevitably, Hephaestion had less time for me after that; I was saved from resentment by the fact that he did still seek me out quite willingly, and that he rarely talked about Alexander with me, but I counted each day of our friendship as the last until one day he came to me in a towering temper, kicking the sun baked wall several times before he would even speak.
"It's Alexander!" he snarled, when I asked him. "Who in Hades does he think he is, lording it over us?"
"He's always been like that," I declared, "Alexander the Golden Boy!"
"He was never like that with me," he answered sullenly, "at least until…" he looked at me then, a puzzled frown on his face. "Why don't the two of you get on?" he asked suddenly, "did something happen between you?"
I'm not quite sure why I told him all I did – there was no one particular time, of course, there always had been discord between us and the fact that our fathers seemed so determined to make us friends made it so much worse. Maybe, I actually found myself considering, if they'd left us to our own devices we might have learned to be cordial, at least tolerant of one another. He listened thoughtfully to me, neither protesting nor agreeing, while I itched to know what had gone wrong between them, torn between sympathy for my friend and spiteful pleasure against my nemesis.
"You and Alexander have more in common than you realise," Hephaestion observed at length.
I doubted that, but I let it go. "What happened?"
Hephaestion laughed bitterly. "He told me he didn't like my being friends with you."
I stared at him. "And what did you say?"
"I told him to mind his own business, of course! I thought he was just jealous at first – he is rather jealous, you know, but I quite like that, I don't know why… but then he said that I couldn't be your friend and his and I had to choose! So I said if that was what he thought I chose you, because you never tried to tell me who I could be friends with, and he said that in that case he didn't like me anymore and we weren't friends. And I said I didn't care, I was getting bored with him anyway."
I might have laughed at that, if it wasn't for the unhappiness I could see in Hephaestion's dark eyes. "Thank you," I heard myself say instead, "for standing up for me, I mean."
"Why shouldn't I?" He managed a rueful smile. "I am the Perfect One, after all!"
But he was miserable, and I could see it. For no reason I found myself thinking of Cleon, and what I would have done if he had asked me to choose between him and Hephaestion. Cleon was my social inferior, just a farmer's son who I had fun with. Of course I would have to say what Hephaestion had said; I couldn't tell a nobleman's son I was no longer his friend because some farm-boy threatened to withdraw his favours! But Cleon wasn't just some boy, he was… Cleon. And I didn't much like the thought of giving him up, at least not yet. We sat together in silence, letting the sun warm us.
We both looked up at the sound of Alexander's voice. I had never seen him looking so chastised, so utterly lost. I watched him with the curiosity I might have some strange and exotic beast. "Yes, Alexander?" I heard Hephaestion reply. Then he added coldly, glancing towards me, "I told Cassander what you said."
Alexander's eyes flashed at me; I pointedly ignored him. Then Alexander slowly approached his lover. "I shouldn't have said it," he said in a very soft voice. "I'm… I'm… sorry."
I could barely believe my ears, but Hephaestion was unimpressed. He nodded pointedly in my direction. I quickly fixed my eyes upon the ground, certain Alexander would explode and a fight between us would only cause more friction for me at home. But to my utter astonishment I heard Prince Alexander say, "I'm sorry, Cassander."
I couldn't help looking at him then. Just for that fleeting moment there was true empathy between us as neither of us could understand what had just happened. It was far too strange for me to consider crowing. "That's… all right," I mumbled.
Apparently satisfied, Hephaestion just nodded curtly and turned away. After a moment, Alexander silently retreated. Much as I hated him, I almost pitied him then; incurring Hephaestion's displeasure was a formidable thing. We continued in silence for a long time, then Hephaestion slid from the wall. "I'd better go after him," he said.
I nodded. "You really are the Perfect One, Hephaestion… I doubt he's ever apologised to anyone in his life before today!"
"I'm not the Perfect One," Hephaestion sighed, "Perfect Ones don't step in their own snares! I'm in love with him, Cassander," he told me despondently. "I suppose you think I'm an idiot."
"I…" I hesitated. Of course I should sneer at such sentiment, especially for someone like Alexander, who I'd always thought capable only of loving himself. But then I thought of the humility of Alexander's manner as he admitted – in front of me! – that he had been wrong. I wasn't sure I could have done the same if our positions were reversed. And then I thought of Cleon - Cleon with eyes the colour of springtime, warm, smooth skin, supple limbs and sweet lips. "No," I said, "I don't think that."
It wasn't that which changed things, no matter what Alexander or his friends thought. It wasn't jealousy; it wasn't suspicion that Hephaestion was really just a sycophant or even a spy. It was the next time I saw Cleon that did it.
Cleon and I had tried many things together, but I had never taken him. Being the superior, I supposed I had that right, but for reasons I was hardly sure of I had never asked it of him. But the next time we were together, lying in the meadow, eating bread and olive oil, he had taken the oil and poured it into my hand. When I stared at him in surprise, he took my hand and placed it between his legs. "Go on, Cassander," he breathed, "I've got to lose my virginity sometime… better with you than some drunken soldier out on campaign!"
And so I claimed him. It was wonderful, certainly. But it was more than that. We both knew he had done what he had done for other reasons than the loss of his innocence. And as we lay together, soaked in perspiration, he said softly, shyly, "I love you, Cassander."
And I, who had begun to doubt I could really love anyone, whispered, "I love you too."
And I was happy, happier than I'd ever been. Until I began to think. Since Cleon and I had become real, uninhibited lovers, I had found myself talking to him more and more, opening my heart to him in ways I had never imagined I could. Amazing, how that quiet, peaceful drowsiness that followed the intensity of passion could loosen your tongue. And Cleon surprised me with his insight and his empathy, and confided in me too. Which was fine for the two of us.
But then I thought of Hephaestion and Alexander, lying in one another's arms as Cleon and I did, whispering confidences, sharing their most private thoughts. And I thought of all the things I had told Hephaestion, how much he knew about me that I did not want Alexander to know. He wouldn't deliberately betray me, I knew that. But mistakes could so easily be made; many men had betrayed themselves in the arms of a woman or a beautiful youth before now.
And so I let our friendship cool. I never actually told him we were no longer friends; I just made myself less available, spending more time with Cleon or on my own and spurning the warmth of the sunny wall. Hephaestion never challenged me openly, never asked me what had changed me or if there was something he could do to make things better – perhaps he was afraid it was my turn to ask him to choose between Alexander and me. Perhaps he thought my friendly feelings ran deeper than I'd admitted and his confession of love for Alexander had hurt me. I'd never told him about Cleon – I wasn't ashamed of my beloved but I did not know how Hephaestion would react to him and I couldn't have borne Hephaestion laughing at him or making him the butt of other boy's jokes.
Occasionally, in the group of Alexander's friends or on public occasions, our eyes would meet and I would see the sadness in his, but I steeled myself against it. By the time he rode from Macedon with Alexander, we were hardly speaking. He wrote to me several times but I did not reply and the growing tension between my father and Olympias soon made his corresponding with me unwise.
Sometimes over the long, impotent, stifling years in Macedon while Alexander, Hephaestion and my own Nikanor and Iollas won glory and wealth and wrote home boasting of their bravery and their wonderful adventures, I could not help wondering if I had made the wrong decision. When I heard of the Susa marriages, I thought of my old playfellows living like gods and marrying exotic barbarian princesses, I actually went to sit on the hot, crumbling wall and let myself think about what it all meant and what it might have meant for me. Even if his grandiose posturing, his violent temper and his affected "pothos" had only been magnified a hundredfold by his endless victories, Alexander had never put Hephaestion aside. Gossip had it that Hephaestion still regularly shared his bed, in spite of all the concubines and boys and revolting little eunuchs the so-called King of Kings had at his beck and call. Whatever magic Hephaestion had worked on him that day by the wall, it was a lasting magic, more powerful than any spell Alexander's witch of a mother could weave.
Had I put my faith in Hephaestion, gambled on the strength of our friendship, might I have been one of those Companions gifted with some barbarian bride? Might Hephaestion's magic have been strong enough even to make peace between Alexander and me at last?
It was too late to know. Too late even to wonder.
It was strange to see so many faces I recognised as we gathered for the funeral, familiar and yet so altered, by wounds, illness, the scorching of the sun and the ravages of time. What a gulf now existed between me and the boys I had known back in Macedon – how much they had experienced, how much they had suffered and endured, while I was stuck back at home.
Cleon represented the greatest irony – I had got him his post in the Foot Companions and there he had excelled, getting a minor command and sending enough money, treasure and slaves back to his family to make them rich beyond their wildest dreams. We had managed to stay in touch, through Nikanor, and our attachment had not weakened; as with my brother, I was surprised to find I could still love, even after all the years of frustration. Cleon survived, even through the India and that disastrous desert march. The irony was he had been one of the men posted back to Macedon with Crateros, even while I was on my way to Babylon. But at least he was safe.
I watched as Alexander put the torch to the funeral pyre himself. As it exploded into flame we all drew back from the brightness and the heat – all except Alexander. Illuminated by the fire, his face was a terrible sight – he looked like a walking corpse, his eyes wild and haunted. I stayed well out of his sight, but where I could watch. Perdiccas stayed the closest to him – fancying himself the next Chilliarch, I thought, making himself indispensable – his eyes narrowed watchfully. Perhaps he thought Alexander might throw himself upon the pyre. Perhaps, indeed, Perdiccas should let him if he did – let the man put himself out of his misery. And good riddance, I thought, putting a hand to my throbbing head. It was still swollen and bruised from where he had banged it into a wall, just because I had laughed at the sycophantic grovelling of his Persian lackeys. At any rate, he would burn off his face if he stayed that close to the inferno – but I rather thought he might like that. His hair had grown back, but there were still scars near his temples where he had cut himself with the razor as he shaved it off. Iollas had told me what a mess he'd made of it.
I turned as I heard someone weeping softly behind me. Nikanor, of course. Nikanor, who, somewhere under his scarred, sunburnt, calloused skin still had the tender heart of a boy; Nikanor who had ridden out to meet me at the gates of Babylon and nearly pulled me from my horse in his excitement, covering my dusty face in kisses and calling my name over and over again. From what he had told me he and Hephaestion had not been particularly close during the years of campaigning – well how could they be, with Alexander taking up so much of Hephaestion's time? But as I turned and saw his glistening eyes in the firelight, I saw the shadow of our childhood, of the sunny wall, of a simpler, happier time. Perhaps he had dreamed of the three of us sharing a happier reunion than this.
Nikanor's tears sobered me, made me put aside my bitterness, my frustration and my future plans. I turned back to the pyre, feeling the heat on my face, hot as the sunlight in the courtyards of Pella. I thought of saying a prayer to the new young god, but I didn't. Instead I just tossed a small handful of sweet incense onto the flames, a gift to the mortal man. "Good-bye, Perfect One," I murmured, then took Nikanor's hand and led him away.