The sweat had soaked completely through M’Lord’s undershirt. It was not just damp from his exertions, but totally wet, and not just under the arms (where one might expect it), but down his back and across his stomach too. I had warned him this was not the day to practice in armour. It was far too hot, I’d said. But M’Lord never listened to me where the arts of war were concerned. Instead, he’d just smiled and said that that was the point of it.
“One cannot choose what weather to fight in, Bagoas. You should remember that from our winter campaigns. They need to learn how to fight in the heat as well. My old Macedonian veterans know that already. Now the men Peukestis has been training need to learn it too.”
And he’d gone off. Alexander could have simply given the order for them to train; but that was never his way. Always what he asked of men, he was prepared to do himself. Of course, what he could do was more than anyone else, a fact he never fully appreciated. But then men round him always achieved more that they thought they could, because he believed in them so. That was why they loved him, and followed him.
So I waited, back here in his private quarters, knowing the state he would return in, preparing for the end of his practice with the new army recruits. And, as the sun descended, he arrived (as I have said earlier), soaked in sweat, but happy and laughing, pleased with his day.
“Bagoas, quick! Help me with these buckles!” he exclaimed lifting his left arm and trying to manipulate a strap one handed. “Ah…,” he let out a long sigh of relief. As I lifted the body armour from him, he began to scratch. “That itch has been bothering me all day.” It was no wonder, I thought, looking at the angry red bumps clustered on that patch of skin.
“Don’t scratch, Al’skander,” I said. “Scratching just makes mosquito bites worse.” They had clearly been irritated by his armour rubbing them all day.
“Is my bath ready?” he asked.
“Of course,” I replied, just a hint of indignation in my voice.
He smiled and mimicked, “Of course…. How do you calculate to the moment, when I will be finished training?”
This I did not answer, of course. It was not for him to know that a certain slave was accumulating the price of his freedom by sprinting back with messages at the end of each day. It was a wonder to me that he had not guessed; but in some respects, no matter his power and perspicacity, M’Lord always remained somewhat naïve about the ways of a Great King’s Court.
He eased himself into the large bathtub with a sigh. As the water settled round him I took note of the faint marks on his skin which would turn into black bruises before dawn. I left him to soak alone for a few minutes while I tidied away his dirty chiton. When I returned I brought a tray with wine and water. His eyes were closed; but he heard my approach and lazily held out one hand, into which I placed the goblet.
“Always, you know my need before I do,” he murmured. Then he drank deeply. As he handed me the now empty goblet his head lifted and those glowing grey eyes opened. His looked deep into mine, the message clear; and my heart sang with joy for what the night would bring.
For now though, I had other responsibilities. I knelt by the side of the tub, and began to bath him, soothing strained, overworked muscles as I used the cloth to rub away dirt. I knelt, waiting with the towel when he rose from the bath, and wrapped it round him. He would not allow me to dry his skin, waving me away as he preferred to dry himself. He always said it smacked of decadence when a man could not towel himself dry from his bath. The former Great King had not thought so (but then look what had happened to him).
Alexander stretched out on the bed, pillowing his face in his hands, and I climbed on top, flask of oil in hand.
“Not that scented oil,” he warned.
“No, M’Lord,” I reassured, “just olive oil.”
I began simply smoothing the oil into his skin, taking special care to moisturise dry patches. My hands stroked and caressed, then kneaded and worked his muscles in back and buttocks, loosening tension and kinks. I was enjoying the contrast between the pale skin of his back and my own slightly darker-hued hands when I realised how his breathing had slowed and deepened as he relaxed ever further. He was almost on the point of sleep; that would never do. I began trailing just my fingertips lightly down his back and up his sides. I fluttered them gently just below his shoulder blades; he twitched and muttered incomprehensibly. I traced them to the side and down to that sensitive skin at the inside of his arm. He groaned and shifted.
“You know that tickles.”
“Roll over,” I said. “You’re done on that side.”
He turned, resting head on a small pillow this time, freeing his arms to my attentions. I kneeled over his thighs and lifted his hands, soothing and working them in turn, left first, then right. No amount of massage would soften those calluses, formed since childhood. It was not until I met Alexander that I appreciated how soft Darius’ hands had been. Alexander had the hands of a man trained to do battle.
I warmed the oil in my palms before I trickled it on his chest, and down that faint line of hair that led down his belly to bushy groin. I put more force in my fingers, rubbing his muscles hard, then moved to concentrate on his thighs and calves. I was reluctant to stop. I had carefully avoided touching his most private area; that was for later. But inevitably my massage had stimulated and it stirred in response. Reluctantly I turned my gaze in the other direction, reached down, and drew one finger up the palm of his right foot.
His reaction was immediate. “Torturer!” He jackknifed up, reached for me, and flipped me over on the bed beneath him. “That was deliberate!” He was laughing, though, and I knew he was not angry.
“It is time for you to dress, Al’skander,” I protested. “You would not want to be late for this evening’s banquet.”
“Later,” he threatened. “I will have my retribution later.”
I helped him dress in his finest clothes, savouring the promise.