Dancing with the Lion: Becoming
Two boys, one heroic bond, and the molding of Greece’s greatest son.
Before he became known as Alexander the Great, he was Alexandros, the teenage son of the king of Makedon. Rather than living a life of luxury, as prince he has to be better and learn faster than his peers, tackling problems without any help. One such problem involves his increasingly complicated feelings for his new companion, Hephaistion.
When Alexandros and Hephaistion go to study under the philosopher Aristoteles, their evolving relationship becomes even harder to navigate. Strength, competition, and status define one’s fate in their world—a world that seems to have little room for the tenderness growing between them.
Alexandros is expected to command, not to crave the warmth of friendship with an equal. In a kingdom where his shrewd mother and sister are deemed inferior for their sex, and his love for Hephaistion could be seen as submission to an older boy, Alexandros longs to be a human being when everyone but Hephaistion just wants him to be a king.
"Strong, believable characters and a vividly-drawn setting propel this powerful novel about Alexander the Great's coming of age in ancient Macedonia." —Kate Elliott, author of Unconquerable Sun.
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Themes: celebrity / fame, child abuse / neglect, coming of age, domestic violence, family, first love, first time, fitting in, friends to lovers, legends, mentor / mentee, military, misogyny, pets, pining / UST, power imbalance, self-confidence, self-discovery / self-reflection
Chapter One: Runaway
His father would’ve been given his message by now. There was no going back, even had he wanted to.
Pulling off his sun hat, Hephaistion wove through the morning crowd, mount trailing behind. He’d set out at dawn with nothing more than his stallion, a pack for clothing and personals, his armor, and his hounds. His growling stomach reminded him that he should have packed some breakfast.
People thronged the narrow streets of the capital city: men at business, slaves on errands, and packs of laughing boys trundling hoops and scattering pigeons. Women headed to public fountains with pots balanced on their heads, whilst here and there a dog sat, awaiting its master. Someone’s fugitive goat had climbed a wagon to nibble at a spade-leafed fig. Overhead, the Mediterranean sun beat down like the judgment of Zeus. This was the time of year when armies marched and shepherds sheared their sheep.
The main road wound up to the royal palace perched atop a fortified akropolis, or high city. Pella’s akropolis was more a bump in the plain than a real hill, yet Philippos’s palace didn’t need height to impress. Hephaistion had heard it said this was the largest building in all Hellas. Maybe so. Portico columns rose up like ossified pine to a marble sky in garish shades of lapis and vermilion, and a gold-leaf Victory crested the monumental entrance. Hephaistion halted to gawk. The last time he’d visited Pella some years back, this place had been unfinished, squatting on the rise like the bones of some great beached leviathan.
Behind, someone cursed him for blocking the way, then shoved past. Embarrassed, he glanced about for a place to tie his stallion so he could present himself to the king. He should’ve stabled the horse at his family’s town house, but he had no intention of going there. His mother’s cousin would return him in disgrace to his father like a boy chased by a nurse instead of a youth who’d be sixteen come autumn. He should’ve been made a Page two years back; time and past time to fix that. He had a vow to keep and a vow to make. Then it would be done.
His father couldn’t make him forswear the king.
Alexandros entered the king’s study to find his father sketching battle strategy in a large sand crib set with terrain brush and tiny military figurines. Several officers looked on.
Seeing him, his father waved him over and pulled out an armless chair. “Sit.”
He did so as Philippos seated himself in the chair opposite, a chair with arms. “You’re getting old enough for a philosopher,” his father said. Alexandros’s brows rose. Was he to have an Athenian-style education, then?
And did he want one?
“Times change,” his father added. “Given current politics, I dare not send you south, so I’ve picked a man willing to come here.”
“Aristoteles of Stageira.”
“I’ve not heard of him.”
“Some say he was Platon’s best pupil, even if not his successor. I knew him as a boy; his father was physician to my father. You met him some years back, although you probably wouldn’t remember it. He came through Pella on his way to Asia after Platon died.”
That explained the choice. Yet the implications were tremendous. His father wouldn’t waste time and money on more schooling unless he was training an heir, not just a son.
Being prince didn’t mean Alexandros would be king. Kingship could pass to any royal Argead male, and his chief rival had always been his cousin Amyntas, son of his father’s elder brother, who’d been king before Philippos. When that brother had died on a battlefield, Amyntas had been passed over in favor of his adult uncle. A warrior people, the Makedonēs wanted a warrior king. The strongest.
Alexandros had stopped counting how often Amyntas had beat him up to remind him who was strongest.
Yet a king could indicate his preferred successor, and apparently, Philippos had decided to gamble on Alexandros. A slow boil of excitement started beneath his diaphragm. All his life, his mother had insisted the Moirai had chosen him for a great destiny. Goddesses of Fate, even Zeus bowed to them. Sometimes he was skeptical of his mother’s claims, afraid to believe; then came a moment like this, a twitch on his life’s thread making it momentarily visible like a snail’s trail when hit just right by the sun. Glimmering. He wouldn’t fail. He couldn’t.
To keep from letting his exhilaration show, he asked, “What does Aristoteles teach?”
“You can read the letter he sent. I’m having the old villa above Mieza repaired. You’ll study there, away from the bustle at court.”
And away from my mother, Alexandros added to himself, lips thin as he stared at the sand crib. It rested on an enormous table that took up half the room. When allowed, he watched his father try out tactics, and sometimes sneaked in after dark to play with ideas of his own. One day a month ago, he’d found an answering move waiting, so he’d replied. The next morning, he’d found a countermove, and had replied to that. This impromptu contest had gone on for days until his father had finally triumphed.
Now Philippos continued, “He wants schoolmates for you. ‘Discourse sharpens the mind,’ he says, or some such. I chose a few.” He listed names, all sons or brothers of important men. Alexandros groaned inwardly when Kassandros, son of the regent, was included. But one absence piqued his curiosity.
“Not my cousin?”
“Do you want Amyntas?”
“O Zeu, no!”
Philippos chuckled. “I thought not. Who else would you like?”
For a moment, his father looked as if he’d refuse, but Alexandros put on his best innocent face. “Very well,” Philippos said and wrote down Ptolemaios’s name on the wax board at his elbow. “Who else?”
“Erigyios.” Erigyios had shared his childhood lessons under his mother’s uncle Leonidas—a stern man overfond of Spartan training whom the boys had dubbed the Tyrant. Alexandros named two more as his father made notes, then Philippos looked up.
“That’s all?” He must have envisioned a longer list. Open and fraternal himself, he couldn’t fathom his son’s insularity, and told Alexandros so frequently.
“When will Aristoteles arrive?” Alexandros asked, to divert attention from his lack.
“Not for some months. He’s settling his affairs in Mytilene.”
Alexandros opened his mouth to ask more, but Eumenes, his father’s new, young Hellene secretary, appeared in the doorway, someone lurking in the shadows behind. “Philippos, sir. Sorry to interrupt but, ah, Amyntor’s youngest boy just arrived. He’s requesting an audience with you.”
The entire room quieted as the half-glimpsed figure stepped past Eumenes to enter the king’s study.
Tall and lanky, he moved with a grace that avoided adolescent gangliness, then halted to peruse king and officers with studied, detached interest. He reminded Alexandros of stable cats who wanted to be petted but wouldn’t humble themselves to beg. A closely clipped beard made him look older than Alexandros knew him to be, but the delicacy of his features was almost insipid: a Praxiteles marble rather than a man. The hair, however, caught Alexandros’s eye. He wore it long the way a boy might, or after the current fashion in Athenai: front clipped and caught by a browband whilst the back hung halfway down his spine like a black river.
So this was Hephaistion Amyntoros.
Philippos rose. “What are you doing in Pella?”
“I understood you sent for me to join the Pages.” The precision of his diction made him sound as if he’d grown up running about the Athenian marketplace, not the Axios River Valley.
“Didn’t Amyntor say he was keeping you home to work the ranch? Something about losing his good sons to my bad wars?” Standing in the background or sprawled on chairs, Philippos’s officers grinned.
Hephaistion didn’t. “That was his decision.” Lacking sensationalism, the full meaning of what he’d said took a moment to register with the king and the rest in the room.
“‘That was his decision’?” the king repeated. “Who decided to send you here then, boy?”
“You decided to send you here?”
“Oimoi!” Philippos turned his back, but Alexandros could see he was pleased. Old fox. This put Amyntor right where Philippos wanted him, and Philippos wasn’t about to send Hephaistion home but also wasn’t about to let Hephaistion know that. “Just what do you think your father will say about it, eh?”
Hephaistion didn’t seem troubled. “I don’t know, sir.”
“Well, I know.” Philippos turned back. “He’ll have a messenger here by noon, cursing my bones and demanding that I return you. What should I tell him?”
“Tell him it was my choice. You didn’t make me come. I wanted to be a Page; I came.”
Philippos’s officers muttered at the insolence, but Alexandros decided life in the Pages might be interesting with Hephaistion about.
The prince wasn’t a Page yet, but since leaving the tutelage of his mother’s uncle last summer, he often visited their barracks and counted time till his fourteenth birthday when he could join them. Not quite thirteen, he wore his hair in a boy’s braid still.
His father encouraged the association, calling it good for his bookish son, although his mother disapproved. She thought it beneath his station and he should be exempt, just as the elder princes of Sparta escaped the brutal training of boys. It was one of several quarrels between his parents. Their rows left him feeling tired and stretched, like a rag pulled between two dogs.
Now, Philippos stood with arms crossed, looking Hephaistion up and down as if purchasing one of Amyntor’s much-coveted warhorses, not sizing up Amyntor’s son. “Why did you disobey your father to come here? How do I know you’ll obey me any better?”
“I want to kill Illyrians.”
The answer was quick and intense, and the king nodded like a schoolmaster with an especially transparent pupil. “But I’m not at war with any Illyrians at the moment.”
“With luck, they’ll stay up in their mountain lairs a good long time, too.”
“Maybe.” Hephaistion had a hard stare, the kind that looked through and through until most men turned away. Philippos didn’t turn. “You owe me,” Hephaistion added, voice harsh but feet shifting. “You owe Agathon.”
A pregnant hush greeted that, yet Philippos just gave another nod and uncrossed his arms. “All right, you’ll get your chance at Illyrians, boy. You’re assigned to delta squad. They have duty tomorrow afternoon; that should let you settle in and get your bearings. Take your horse to the stables and present him to the horsemaster. Time off is your own except for meals and drill. As a Page, you’re under my command, and under my discipline too—don’t forget it—but Kleitos Melas is drill master. He’ll be delighted to get another son of Amyntor.” Sarcasm fairly dripped from that pronouncement. “Koinos Polemokratous is Senior Page. He’ll fill you in on mess, drill, and bed. I hope you traveled light, because one chest for clothing is all you get.”
Seeing that he’d won his petition, Hephaistion stood placidly, apparently unaware that assignment to delta was a bit of a joke on him, subtle punishment from the king. Philippos was always subtle.
Kassandros was in delta squad.
Deciding his father had finished, Alexandros ducked out a rear door. He should see his mother regarding this philosopher. Yet as he headed up the chief staircase of the public portion of the palace, his cousin Leonnatos ran him to ground on the landing.
Alexandros wasn’t sure if he liked Leonnatos. His cousin presumed, but he also accepted Alexandros’s presence in the Pages without resentment or patronizing—the sort who expected to be presumed upon in return. Alexandros had a difficult time condemning that disposition. His childhood friend Erigyios was with Leonnatos, and lame Harpalos too, son of the prince of Elimeia, an Upper Makedonian canton.
“What do you know?” Leonnatos demanded now.
“What do I know about what?” Alexandros asked.
“What do you know about Hephaistion?” Leonnatos spoke as if to a dullard.
“He ran away?” Alexandros wasn’t entirely sure what they were after. “My father won’t make him go home, though.” Alexandros said nothing of Hephaistion’s declaration that he wanted to kill Illyrians. It had seemed a matter deep and tender, and Leonnatos—who was neither—wouldn’t understand. Alexandros reckoned he’d said enough to satisfy their curiosity.
It served too well. They left, sauntering down the stairs and out the palace’s main entrance. Deciding his mother could wait, Alexandros followed, hoping the others wouldn’t mind. In fact, they didn’t seem to acknowledge him at all, like the family dog.
Crossing a well-tended park, or gymnasion, behind the palace complex, they spotted several Pages at exercise and called out in greeting. The others waved back. “Philippos isn’t sending him home!” Leonnatos was saying. “What’ll Amyntor do?”
“He’ll send my father a complaint, demanding Hephaistion’s return,” Alexandros replied, hoping to validate his presence among them by sheer wealth of information.
Yet Leonnatos didn’t even let him finish before continuing, “Maybe Amyntor’ll recall the Europos cavalry regiment! By the dog, we could have a real feud here.”
Breath short from the struggle to keep pace, Harpalos said, “Don’t be daft. All that’ll happen . . . is Amyntor . . . will send the king . . . a letter telling him . . . to send Hephaistion home.”
Which was what Alexandros had just said. Pursing his lips, he wondered if he’d become transparent.
Harpalos was still speaking. “The king’ll tell Amyntor . . . ‘Take up the matter . . . with your son . . . not me . . . He came on his own.’ . . . And that’ll be the end of it . . . Amyntor’s pugnacious . . . He’s not stupid.”
Nobody slowed for lame Harpalos; they’d all learned better.
Still trying to inveigle his way into notice, Alexandros blurted, “My father assigned him to delta squad.”
This time, his ploy succeeded. The other three stopped dead and broke up laughing. “Ai!” cried Harpalos. “The king put him . . . in with Kassandros.” Slapping a hand over his heart, he staggered as if from a mortal blow, making Leonnatos and Erigyios howl louder. Then they began walking again. Alexandros had to hurry to catch up.
Reaching the Page’s dormitory, they found it deserted. Boys not on duty were out riding, hunting, or in the gymnasion. A long, single-story building, it held two rows of bedcouch cots flanking a center aisle. Each couch had a chest beneath, a shelf above, and wall hooks to hang armor. Alexandros plopped down on an empty one to lean against the white-washed, mud-brick wall.
“Actually,” Harpalos said, throwing himself across his own couch, “I’m not sure if it’s poor Hephaistion or poor Kassandros. Philippos may have put him right where he belongs: with the lackwits, egoists, and peacocks.”
“You know Hephaistion?” Erigyios asked.
“Sort of. Amyntor raises the best horses in all Makedonia, but you wouldn’t know that.” Erigyios suffered for his foreignness. “My cousins knew Hephaistion’s brothers, so I’ve met him. He’s not like the rest of his family. He’s got his nose stuck so far up his arse, all he can smell is his own shite.”
“Maybe he’s shy.” Erigyios liked to give others the benefit of the doubt.
“He’s not shy.” Harpalos sat up. “He’s shut-mouthed. You never know what he’s thinking. His great-grandfather came from Athenai and he assumes that means something.”
Hephaistion picked that moment to walk through the door, and Alexandros wondered how much he’d overheard. He carried a panoply of arms—fighting, not dress—a large pack, and a smaller bag that clanked with cooking gear. Two dogs followed him, but it seemed he had no servant, which was just as well. As a Page, he’d be doing his own body service for a while, in addition to the king’s. “Is one of you Koinos?”
At his voice, Leonnatos glanced over, then burst into laughter. It must have been the hair. Turning with an uncommon amount of poise, Hephaistion stared down the other boy until all trace of humor was wiped from Leonnatos’s mouth. “Is Koinos here?” he repeated.
Erigyios answered. “Koinos is at the gymnasion, I think. Come on; I’ll show you a cot.” He led Hephaistion down the aisle to a few empty spots near the middle. Their voices drifted back, too low to make out what they said.
Leonnatos was patting his hair and batting his eyelashes.
“Stop it! He can see you,” Alexandros scolded.
Coming back up the aisle, Erigyios frowned at Leonnatos. “Let’s go.” He called to Hephaistion, “Supper’s served at dusk; you can eat your portion where you like, but most of us eat here. You’re welcome to join a circle.”
Hephaistion glanced up—“Thank you”—then returned to the business of unpacking.
“See what I meant?” Harpalos said as they exited the dormitory. “Shut-mouthed.”
“Well you hardly made him feel welcome,” Erigyios replied.
As soon as the others left, Hephaistion tore off his fine leather browband, fingers raking out oiled curls to braid them into a single tail down his back, the way he wore it most of the time. Doffing the linen tunic, he replaced it with an old one of simple wool.
He’d dressed with care to see the king, but instead of making an impression, he’d come off looking like an arse. He told himself it didn’t matter; he owed his brother’s shade. Yet he felt it acutely.
Still, he’d sworn an oath, and he’d rather look like an arse than be an oath-breaker.
Alexandros associated certain smells with his mother’s rooms: dried herbs, incense, beeswax, new wool, and just now, food. He squinted through early evening dimness to the table servants had stacked with cuttlefish in garlic, lettuce, figs, strong cheese, and bread.
He snitched a dried fig, and she slapped his hand. “Wait for the libation.”
Grinning, he popped the fruit in his mouth, giving her sticky kisses in greeting.
Tiers of candles lit the supper table, an oasis of yellow amid gray shadow. His mother, Myrtalē, stood tiny beneath them, pale hair shining and pinned in curls atop her head to add four fingers to her height. Making a libation to the gods, she sat him down to serve him herself.
He was too old to eat with the girls and little boys, but too young to dine with his father and Companions except for special occasions. Sometimes he went out to the Pages’ dormitory, but mostly, he ate with his mother, and sometimes his sister Kleopatra, who was almost twelve. Tonight, Kleopatra must be in charge of the children, and secretly he was glad. He loved these rare chances to have his busy mother to himself when she might entertain him with endless tales of gods and heroes. He’d first heard Homer on her lap. “You are born of Akhilleus’s line,” she’d finish. “Never forget it!”
From his father, he had the blood of Herakles and so of immortal Zeus, but his mother gave him descent from proud Akhilleus. She thought the latter the greater honor. “Herakles was stupid,” she’d say. “Big, brutish, and stupid. Akhilleus was beautiful, strong, and a great spear-fighter.”
Once, Alexandros had asked why, then, had Akhilleus tied the body of mighty Hektor behind his chariot to drag it in the dust? She’d answered, “Hush! Hektor killed the one he loved. Vengeance is sweet. Someday you’ll understand.” Alexandros had resented her words. He understood now but would never so disrespect the body of a worthy enemy. It seemed unkingly. He hadn’t told his mother this.
After serving him a generous portion of cuttlefish, she sat opposite to ask about his day. It made him feel important. Here, he was never too young or too precocious.
“Well,” he said, “Amyntor’s youngest arrived today.”
“Really? I didn’t think Amyntor planned to send him.”
“Amyntor didn’t. He ran away. Father’s decided to let him stay, but assigned him to delta squad: the one with Kassandros. Harpalos isn’t sure who’ll wind up the worse for it. I gather Hephaistion is . . .” He searched for the safest word. “. . . unusual.”
His mother reached for a fig. “It’d serve that brat right if he’s met his match.”
“Kassandros. I don’t know Hephaistion. I’ve met the father only a few times. He’s from Pydna originally—married a Paionian royal, a distant cousin of their king, Patraios.”
Alexandros stored away the information. “Leonnatos expects a major feud with Amyntor.” He didn’t necessarily agree but wanted to see what she thought.
She shook her head. “Your father doesn’t feud. He’d march the young fool home first.” If she and the king sometimes crossed spears over the proper raising of a prince or the freedoms she was due as a royal wife, when it came to politics, they tended to agree. “The boy’s not needed as surety for his father. Amyntor has less ambition than a clam.”
Having just taken a sip of well-watered wine, Alexandros snorted it out through his nose, all over her. She sucked in breath. “Oimoi! I’ll set a new fashion in purple spots.” Wiping futilely at the violet stains pockmarking her dress, his mother smiled with fond tolerance. “So tell me about the rest of your day.”
“Father’s found a philosopher for me.” Eyes on his hands, he turned them over to examine the ragged nails. Finally, he looked up.
Her chin was raised, nostrils flared. “Why wasn’t I consulted?”
“Father wanted a man who’d come here. He won’t send me to Athenai—thinks it too dangerous—so he’s having the old villa at Mieza fixed up. That’s where we’ll study. Some of the Pages are coming too. The man’s name is Aristoteles of Stageira; he studied under Platon. His father, Nikomakhos, used to physic for my grandfather, so my father knew him when they were boys.” He spilled these details as if enough words would quiet the volcano.
Chin lowered, she leaned back in her chair. “I know who Aristoteles is. Philosopher, true, but also Philippos’s spy at the court of the Tyrant Hermias; it’s not far from Troy. He’s making a deal to give your father a bridgehead to Asia. Things must not be going well, and Aristoteles needed to flee.”
Spy? Nobody had mentioned that to Alexandros, but he didn’t doubt her assertion. Few at court knew more than Myrtalē, and not necessarily because the king had told her.
Now, she pushed to her feet, stalking about the room. “That black-eyed dog.” She swept an arm across a table, smashing incense holders and a decanter of lilac water as he hunched down on the couch, making himself small. The smell of violets, myrrh, and lilac competed now with cuttlefish and garlic, turning his stomach. Ceramic shards littered the floor. “He can’t just take you away from me like this. Your education is my duty as well.”
Alexandros clawed at his hair. He daren’t tell her he wanted to go, needed to go; he was stagnating here like the Emathian marsh. All she could see was that Philippos had played a new tactic in their eternal war over him. “He can and he will,” he told her softly. “Please don’t fight it. He’ll just take it out on me.”
That wasn’t strictly true, but Alexandros had his own share of weapons at hand, and sometimes grew desperate enough to use them.
Shoulders slumping like a beaten boxer’s, she subsided. “Go.”
Chapter Two: Meeting
At sunset, Hephaistion watched boys pour back into the Page’s dormitory for supper, and they, spotting a new member, scrutinized him sidewise. A few sidled over to ask his name like dogs sniffing out new territory. The patronymic “Amyntoros” daunted most, even in this corps of Companions’ sons, children of the wealthy, landowning elite. It had always been so, and Hephaistion had come to view his father’s name like a charm. When he chose to wear it, he could be assured of quick service or a wide berth at the stables. When he didn’t, he was the same as any other mortal.
Sleeping cots served as supper couches, and soon five wobbly circles had formed up and down the dormitory, lit by flickering lamps and torches. Royal slaves, Thracians and Illyrians taken in Philippos’s wars, brought in trays of cheese and olives and boiled onions, bowls of gruel, and barley bread with which to clean their plates. If Hephaistion wasn’t openly included in a circle, he wasn’t excluded either, so he pulled his couch around to the edge of one. With over a hundred Pages in Pella, suppers were rambunctious, full of boasting about everything from battle, to hunting, to love.
A titan of a boy on the couch beside Hephaistion’s leaned over to point with his bread. “You’re in m’squad.” He spoke in Makedonistē, the regional patois. “I’m Airopos Amphoterou. They say you’re in delta.” Hephaistion nodded and Airopos went on, “You an athlete?”
“I race horses,” Hephaistion replied, also in Makedonistē.
“You don’ wrestle?”
“I wrestle. Pankration.”
“Oh.” That was obvious to anyone with eyes.
“You really don’ wrestle none?”
“Not if I can help it.”
Sarcasm seemed to confuse Airopos; had all his wits been knocked out in the sandpit? Their exchange, however, had won the notice of a handsome boy with short, curly dark hair. What Airopos lacked in keenness, Hephaistion suspected this one had and to spare, but it felt wrong, like sunlight on snow that will blind a man if stared at too long. He sat upright on his couch, which meant he’d yet to kill his boar and earn the right to recline. Half the Pages still had to eat so; Hephaistion wasn’t among them. “Wrestle?” the boy called now. “You think he’d risk that face in a sandpit?”
“Leave ’im be, Sandros. It’s his first day.”
“I was only trying to rescue him from your inane, meat-headed questions.” Sandros’s eyes sought out Hephaistion’s, but Hephaistion didn’t speak. Perhaps annoyed by the silence, or perhaps intrigued, Sandros patted his couch as one might invite a dog to come and sit. Debating whether or not to accept, Hephaistion finally crossed to take the spot. He didn’t know who this Sandros was, and doubted Sandros knew him, but perverse curiosity drove him to pursue the matter. Guessing something was up, the rest of their circle halted conversation to watch.
Running a hand up Hephaistion’s back, Sandros tugged at the thick braid. “O kalē.” O Beautiful One. “Why bind such hair?” Pulling off the tie, he unwound it till it hung loose about Hephaistion’s shoulders, and then he pressed a lock to his lips in a mocking, votary gesture. “Such splendid hair, as fine as flax.”
Skin crawling, Hephaistion bore it without moving, like a boy who tests his bravery by handling scorpions. Born under the sign of the Scorpion himself, he knew how to sting.
Next, Sandros traced the line of his cheekbone. “Your lashes put my sister’s to shame, o kalē. But this beard! It quite ruins the effect. Do you keep it to scratch the lips of lovers seeking kisses? Or to prove your manhood to those who chase after your sweet thighs?”
Still in patois, Hephaistion asked, “D’you gamble, Sandros?”
The gentle tug on his hair turned to a yank. “My name is Kassandros. Kassandros Antipatrou.”
Ah, the son of the king’s regent. Hephaistion glanced about. Silence had a way of catching, and they had quite the audience now. “D’you gamble?” he asked again, adding, “Kassandros.”
Given what he believed his due, Kassandros smiled as he toyed with Hephaistion’s hair. “Occasionally. Would you like a game of kottabos?” A courting game, kottabos was played by tossing wine lees at a target, the stakes usually kisses.
“I’ve another in mind.” Hephaistion slid away to rifle through the chest beneath his cot, retrieving a small bag, then snagging a squat table. This he set in the circle center and emptied the bag atop it: three walnut shells and an acorn. Snickers greeted him. The shell game was an old trick known to every legerdemainist from Skythia to Rhodēs. Only a backwoods idiot would assume he alone held the secret, and a backwoods idiot was just what Kassandros took him for.
Boys crowded about as Kassandros, puffed full of certainty, swaggered to the table’s opposite side. Hephaistion watched from beneath half-lowered lids. Torches cast everything in triple shadows that cut across their faces. Grinning, the regent’s son braced his knuckles on the table. “How much shall we bet?”
Hephaistion set a tetradrakhma between them. If not high enough to be suspicious, it was high enough to elicit a proportional bravado from Kassandros, who delved into his own trunk to match it.
Like the worst of tricksters playing to his audience, Hephaistion drew out his shuffling whilst watching boys hooted and laughed and called out suggestions, not all of which had to do with the shells. Finished finally, he leaned over, hands fisted against the low top. “Where is it?”
Still grinning, Kassandros tapped Hephaistion’s wrist, using patois in mocking triumph. “O kalē, it ain’t beneath the shells a’tall, but in your hand.”
“Of course it is,” Hephaistion replied in Attik-perfect Hellenistē, opening both palms to show them empty. Then he lifted the center shell to reveal the acorn. He’d never removed it. “You shouldn’t assume quite so much. Things aren’t always what they seem.”
The boys around them whistled and laughed and shoved at Kassandros in delighted victory-by-proxy, but the regent’s son pulled away, face progressing from white to pink to deep red. “Cistern arse!” One hand snatched for his tetradrakhma.
Hephaistion’s fist smashed down atop it. “I think not, o kuon.” O Dog. “I did win.”
“You cheated is what you did!” Kassandros upended the table. Shells, acorn, and coins flew. “You cheated!”
A barrel-chested young man intervened, pushing Kassandros back with rough authority. “Shut your babbling arsehole of a mouth, o kuon. If you broke that table, I’ll break your head. Go and sit down before I put a collar and a leash on you.”
It seemed black-eyed Kassandros had earned a nickname.
Grinning to himself, Hephaistion bent to collect his shells before anyone could step on them. Small, square hands pressed coins and a shell at him. He looked up into a pair of shocking eyes: brilliant lapis blue—that shade so clear it startled—deep-set beneath a fierce brow and wry with intelligence. Nonetheless, they gave the appearance of being vaguely unfocused, as if the mind behind them wandered. That, perhaps, owed to a physical peculiarity: the right pupil was preternaturally expanded so the whole eye looked dark. Unnerved, Hephaistion sat back on his heels, only then remembering to say, “Thank you.”
The other sat back also, moving with the succinct quickness of a small animal. “You’re welcome.”
Then he smiled.
This, Hephaistion thought, was what the word kharis had been coined for. Pure, raw charm, as thick and rich as Thasian honey. None but a flatterer would call him handsome, yet his dimpled smile compelled like a bewitchment, melting all Hephaistion’s habitual cynicism into an irrational desire to befriend him. Whoever he was. Yet he retreated into the melee before Hephaistion could ask his name.
Hephaistion might have followed, but the barrel-chested boy who’d tamed Kassandros squatted beside him. “There are stage entrances and stage entrances. That would’ve won a crown at the Dionysia. You must be Agathon’s brother.”
Hephaistion grinned. He’d lived his whole life in the shadow of his brothers’ infamous reputations. Mostly, he didn’t mind. “Hephaistion Amyntoros.