A/N: Woe, school has taken all the steam out of my writing engine! (And that heavy-handed metaphor is proof in itself!) Sorry for the lapse. Hope people can enjoy this chapter anyway.
Entering the Games in ancient Greece did not always mean personal participation. For example, Philip won the chariot race around the time of Alexander's birth because he entered the victorious team of horses (and driver); as many Alexander readers know, he was miles away on campaign and news of the victory was brought to him.
Yes, I have Hephaestion's horse named Pegasus here, just like in "Showtime!". Readers can link the two stories (or not) - whatever you like!
Chapter 4: The Games of Kings
Considering that they had just returned home, reunited with family, and started off a holiday, Hephaestion was not surprised in the least when Alexander stormed into the stables on their second afternoon back in Pella, dark as a thundercloud about to burst.
He fell in step easily beside Alexander as the latter stalked toward Bucephalus' stall, where the stallion, sensing his master's distress, was already snorting and stamping the ground. Patting Bucephalus' neck distractedly, Alexander began to prepare for the ride they had planned, but he got no farther than shaking out the saddlecloth with an angry snap before throwing the cloth back down and turning to Hephaestion.
His every action signaled anger, just barely suppressed. Only his eyes betrayed a flicker of uncertainty.
"I've been a fool, Hephaestion."
For a moment, Hephaestion just returned Alexander's gaze. In the next stall, his own stallion, Pegasus, had picked up the tension just as Bucephalus had and snorted softly, nudging Hephaestion's back, as if asking him to fix everything. Hephaestion patted Pegasus' nose, then reached for the forgotten saddlecloth, shook it clean again, and draped it over Bucephalus.
Alexander began pacing. This was a more familiar sight to Bucephalus than Alexander's outright turmoil when entering the stables, and so the stallion calmed. Hephaestion busied himself getting a fresh helping of oats for both horses from the stores in the stable corner.
Finally Alexander spoke, his voice very low. "I . . . haven't been pleasant company, these past few days."
From Alexander, that sounded too much like an apology for Hephaestion's liking. He shrugged as he finished pouring the oats, replying lightly, wryly, "Not your usual sunny self, no."
A half-hearted smile flashed across Alexander's lips, but his pacing never ceased. "I hope your homecoming was better than mine."
"I daresay it was," Hephaestion said simply. The thought of offering a sympathetic look or a few placating words did not even occur to him; this was just the truth. Then he smiled, seeing the horses' reaction - or rather, lack thereof - to his offer of a snack; in the wake of Alexander's distress, Pegasus paid no attention to the oats until Hephaestion himself offered a handful, and Bucephalus was completely ignoring the treat, snorting softly, trying to catch Alexander's attention. "After all, I'm not the one stomping around the stables and riling up my stallion."
Alexander's footsteps fell ever heavier. At last Hephaestion prompted quietly, "How was it?"
Alexander shook his head. "For a visit with Mother . . . It went well, all things considered. She seemed . . . pleased." Though Alexander's voice trailed on the last word, Hephaestion carefully kept his expression neutral until Alexander continued. "Then, I spoke with my father last night."
To Hephaestion, it went without saying that Alexander's recent gloom related somehow to one, or both, of his parents. It went without saying that of all of the Mieza students, Alexander was the most anxious to show his parents – especially his father – how he had matured, how much wiser and better he had become. It went without saying that Alexander had been reigning in all these tensions, since before they returned, since before Ptolemy started packing, since before Perdiccas even thought of bringing home a gift for his sweetheart. So he listened quietly as Alexander finally began to talk.
"He was holding an informal supper – Parmenion and Antipater were there, and a whole cadre of other officers. And foreign ambassadors, quite a few of them! At first they were talking politics; somehow they chatted their way to Aristotle; Father asked me a few questions about Mieza, what sort of things we're learning there, how we're all getting on, Aristotle's methods and so forth." Hephaestion patted Bucephalus' flank – the stallion was getting restless again as Alexander kept pacing. "But not a word about his plans to move against Byzantion and Perinthus sometime later this year. You must understand, Hephaestion – I thought, perhaps, he might want me to participate in the campaign – that perhaps that was why we were called back, really. Why else would we have such a long holiday in the middle of our studies? But all we talked about was Aristotle!" Alexander's voice rose indignantly. "And then, just as we started getting back to the politics, he interrupted, turning the conversation to the – to the Olympic Games!" Alexander took a deep breath. "He suggested – he suggested I go participate in the Games!"
Bucephalus prodded Alexander's side, snorting in sympathetic frustration. Alexander stroked the stallion's mane, but that edge of injured disappointment rang sharper than ever in his voice. "'Nimble and swift of foot,' he said. 'You'd win the foot-race for sure,' he said."
"And you said . . . ?" Hephaestion asked after a pause, sensing by Alexander's low, tight tone that he was coming to the crux of the matter.
"I . . . " Alexander put his balled-up hands to his head and let out a despondent groan. "I said: 'Yes, I would run – if I were to have kings as competitors.'"
Hephaestion knit his brow; so Alexander had let his emotions get the better of him during a diplomatic meeting. For all his reputation as a battle commander, Philip was equally a master of negotiation and manipulation, and would not have been pleased; moreover, he would have been decidedly unimpressed. No wonder Alexander was so upset.
Alexander continued talking, faster now, as if a dam had broken. "It's not that I'd mind going, of course. He even said he had a ship ready at our nearest harbor on the Aegean, all fitted out for me. But sending me to the Games? When he's planning a war?" His voice rose again; he returned to pacing. "What are we learning about old battles for, anyway? If he's going to go off and conquer other kingdoms without me –" Defiance flashed in his eyes. "I might as well insist that I race against no one less than a king!"
At this, an image abruptly came to Hephaestion's mind: the men at court – not those closest to Philip, but older advisors and lower-ranking nobles – when Philip first revealed that he did indeed intend to unite all Hellas under his rule: stunned silence, then wild uproar, protests as vehement and scandalized as if Philip had just announced that he would marry a Persian princess. "You said that right there, out loud, in front of all those advisors and delegations – didn't you?" Hephaestion asked, already knowing the answer and struggling to suppress the laughter bubbling in his throat.
Alexander nodded, and not entirely with repentance – defiance still flashed in his eyes. Hephaestion allowed a lopsided smile at this; Alexander's rebellious streak remained quite undamaged. "So how did he take your response?"
Alexander's eyes darkened. "He gave me a look – I couldn't quite read it. It was . . . distant." His voice dropped low in defeat. "I wanted to impress him – after two years away at school it shouldn't be so difficult; we've learned so much and discussed so many things. And now –" He shook his head.
"Now you've said something that sounds arrogant and childish," Hephaestion surmised, "when all you really meant was that you couldn't compete fairly."
"Exactly," Alexander fervently nodded. "I couldn't compete, because everyone else would let me win! There's no glory in that! On the battlefield, there wouldn't be such lenience from one's opponents! Commanders in war do not hold back!"
Suddenly his eyes widened, and a look of utter dismay twisted his features.
"What?" asked Hephaestion.
"I . . ." Alexander clapped a hand over his mouth. "I just realized . . . I mean, there were delegates there . . . from Athens . . ."
"Athens?" Hephaestion frowned; opposition to Philip and to Macedon ran strongest in that city-state, downright vicious what with Demosthenes' harangues –
"Yes, Athens," Alexander repeated. "And Perinthus being where it is –"
"The port through which Athens gets all her grains," Hephaestion mused breathlessly.
"Exactly!" Alexander groaned. "Of course Father wouldn't want to talk about the campaign in front of them!"
"Well . . ." Hephaestion tried to think of something, anything, positive to say. "You didn't mention anything regarding your father's plans, right?" When Alexander did not reply, he ducked his head lower so as to be able to see Alexander's face. ". . . Right?"
Alexander nodded miserably. "Right, I didn't," he muttered. "But with that outburst . . ." He put his head in his hands. "I'm not getting a command anytime soon, that's as certain as Olympus is high!"
Heaving a sigh, he folded to sit against the stall. Hephaestion gave Bucephalus a last pat and sank down beside Alexander on the rushes.
They stayed that way for a long time, Alexander staring morosely at the floor, Hephaestion glancing over at him every now and then. Obviously there would be no ride anymore today, but Bucephalus sensed his master's mood and remained quiet, munching half-heartedly on the oats, nudging Alexander's shoulder gently from time to time.
Finally, though, Hephaestion stood up, stretching long limbs. "Well, you may not have won your first command. Yet. But you can still attend the Olympics."
Alexander frowned. "And compete, when all those people heard me expressly declare I'd never do it?"
"You didn't declare that. Not exactly," Hephaestion said, and suddenly grinned. "All you have to do is find a king or two willing to leave off all their negotiations and public appearances there, just long enough for a little competition with you."
Alexander seemed even more dejected. But then, he slowly raised his head, his grimace replaced by a pensive look.
Hephaestion was not sure what that look meant, but he continued lightly, "Even if there aren't kings, there will be other men of importance there. At the Games you could run into all sorts of people, I wager; not just athletes, but statesmen, too . . . And," he pointed out quietly, "it's not so rare for Kings to enter the competitions."
"Right," Alexander murmured. "My father holds three Olympic titles."
Now Alexander was staring straight ahead, seeing something far beyond these stable stalls.
He would come to a conclusion himself, no matter what anyone else said, so Hephaestion spoke on freely, an unconscious smile forming on his lips as he imagined what the renowned Olympics might be like. "You'll see the best athletes in all of Hellas competing . . . Who knows, you might even meet some famous winners from past Games! I heard they're awarded free meals for the rest of their lives in their hometowns, but some of them love their sport so much they enter again. Have you heard of Milo of Croton? My father told me once about him; he was a wrestling champion. He entered – and won – six times! That makes twenty-four years he held the title!"
Alexander nodded absently.
"And I'm sure there will be lots of traders there just for the event; you'll be sure to see things we haven't even heard of, from places even Aristotle might not know about! Ptolemy and Perdiccas will be pestering you for days to tell them all about it! Besides –"
At Hephaestion's sudden pause, Alexander finally pulled out of his reverie and looked up.
"Besides, you don't have to compete," Hephaestion concluded. At Alexander's blank stare, Hephaestion allowed a slow, small smile. "Just go and have some fun! There's no harm in that, is there?"
Alexander was looking at him very seriously, eyes wide and luminous in the setting sun. Hephaestion turned away before his smile could betray any sympathy, reaching instead for Bucephalus' saddlecloth.
As he was folding it back up, he suddenly he realized that, from another perspective, he had just suggested that Alexander spend the summer away from the rest of them, and with that realization came an unexpected twinge of something strange. He found himself wishing, quite unreasonably, that he had not said anything at all.
Pegasus sensed this disturbance that even Hephaestion himself could not understand, whickered questioningly, and nudged his shoulder. Blinking at his lapse, Hephaestion gave the stallion a small, distracted smile, shook his head to clear it, and reconsidered the journey, with one of Aristotle's favorite things in the world - logic.
Going to the Olympics would hardly relieve Alexander's misgivings about his standing with his father. Still, Hephaestion thought it was probably better for Alexander to take Philip's offer after all – perhaps Philip wanted to send Alexander as a representative of sorts? It was not war, it was not exactly a diplomatic mission, but Alexander was sure to meet many leaders at the Olympics, not only in politics but in all fields of science and art.
Even if he went as just another visitor, at the very least, it would give Alexander something else to think about. Between his mother, his father, and the pressures of being, in all likelihood, the heir to the throne (not to mention all the pressure Alexander insisted on adding for himself!), Hephaestion was sure that if he were in Alexander's place, he would have gone quite mad long ago. This was supposed to be a holiday, after all!
Alexander's somber, pondering expression told Hephaestion that he was about to give the Olympics a chance, and for that much, Hephaestion was satisfied.
Still, Alexander was never one to merely take other people's suggestions. When he finally spoke, his words caught Hephaestion completely off guard. "Would . . . would you like to go, too?"
I don't know, the conversation between them doesn't flow quite as I would like. Feedback/concrit/etc. is always welcome. (and might help get me some "flow" back too!)