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Nicanor

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Admetus was an upland baron from the hill country above Elimiotis, and all too aware of his precarious position within the new Macedonia. Accordingly, he had named his firstborn son for Philip’s victory over the Thracian king. At the age of twelve, this son, Nicanor, had been sent down to Pella for his education.

Five years later, Nicanor was among forty-nine other youths, travelling from Macedon to serve the king as royal pages. The journey had been a long and trying one, the commanders nervous of news both ahead and behind them, but they were nearing the main army now, having bypassed Babylon the day before. Others in the group had been distraught at not getting the chance to experience the great city, its high gates and squat towers clearly visible in the hazy distance, but Nicanor was secretly pleased. The sooner they reached the army, the better. The dust and heat of the Royal Road between the two rivers had done nothing to dampen his spirits; he thrilled to every tussock and ditch. He had spent the last few years hearing tales of Alexander and his exploits in the east. That night, as he bundled himself up in his bed roll, Nicanor reflected that very soon he would have the chance to be a part of them.

They had caught up with the army by the afternoon of the next day. Nicanor had never seen so many people in one place before. He tried hard to hide his astonishment in front of the others, but he was sure they all felt the same. In a whirl of activity they were taken to the pages’ quarters, introduced to the senior pages, assigned a roster of duties. There was hardly time to be nervous.

The next day, after the march, Nicanor and several of the other new pages had been set to polish up the king’s parade armour. Hegesimachus and Peithon, two older pages, were supervising them. Nicanor was quite scared of Hegesimachus; he was rather brash and loud. But he liked Peithon. Peithon seemed sensible.

Two of the other new pages – Glaucias and Polemon – were conducting a muted-as-possible shoving contest over just who received the honour of cleaning the king’s left greave. Hegesimachus thrust them quickly apart.

“To be new again! I tell you, after a couple of nights standing guard in the cold you won’t feel half so enthusiastic anymore!” he laughed.

Peithon snorted in reply. “You forget that I remember you when you were new, Hegesimachus.”

“So I speak from experience! Here, you do the greave and you do the helmet. No – mind the plumes!”

Nicanor had the other greave. He poured out a measure of oil and steadily began to rub it across the bronze with the cloth. He still couldn’t quite believe that the king himself had worn this…

“No, that’s too much oil,” Peithon said. He was sitting beside Nicanor, watching. “Here, swap. Take my cloth, I’ll take yours.” Peithon had the cuirass. Nicanor supposed that he wasn’t quite ready to entrust it to one of them yet.

“See? Just like I said,” commented Hegesimachus, leaning back on his stool. “Far too keen.”

Nicanor reddened and bent over his work, buffing vigorously.

Once Hegesimachus was occupied overseeing proper polishing technique on the other side of the tent, Peithon nudged him. “Ignore him. He’s just enjoying himself, lording it over the new boys. He’ll be telling you that Babylon didn’t impress him at all next. But he was exactly the same when he was your age. The first time he got to serve the king at dinner, he dropped the plate. He’s never lived that down.”

Nicanor huffed a laugh.

Peithon smiled and turned to the group at large. “I know it must all be strange for you right now, especially never having served in a proper court before. But you’ll get used to it soon enough. And Hegesimachus is right about one thing – guard duty is dull.”

Nicanor still wasn’t sure; he didn’t think he could ever get used to the idea of standing there outside the Great King’s tent, guarding the king, getting a glimpse of all the generals and envoys…

“What about seeing all the women the king goes to bed with?” said Glaucias, smirking, as Polemon elbowed him. They clearly had different priorities.

“Women? Unlikely!” scoffed Hegesimachus.

So there weren’t any women. As far as Nicanor was aware, there never had been. He could remember his father muttering to a guest-friend about it. To go from a king who took a girl to bed – and to wife – after every border skirmish, to one who refused even to wed before he crossed to Asia… it was absurd.

“Boys, then?” asked Polemon.

“Some.”

“Pages?” Nicanor asked, surprising himself.

“Some,” said Peithon again, this time with a smile.

Hegesimachus yelped. “Don’t go telling them that! They’ll be getting ideas. Last thing we need is some upstart usurping our hard-won places, seducing the king!”

Nicanor flushed crimson and ducked his head to hide it.

Peithon nudged him again. “Don’t pay attention, he’s just jealous because Alexander’s never looked at him twice.” At the corner of his vision, Nicanor saw Hegesimachus roll his eyes. “Besides, it’s unlikely. The king does take pages to his bed, sometimes, but not often and not for long.”

“So who does the king take to bed?” asked Polemon, boldly.

Hegesimachus rounded on Peithon. “I told you! They have designs!”

Peithon ignored them both. “Come on, let’s finish up here – I’ve got the famous guard duty tonight and I haven’t eaten yet.”

***

Two days later they came to a province called Sittacene. It was rich and fertile, lying on the left bank of the great river Tigris.

Here the army paused.

On the third day at Sittacene, Nicanor had his first tent duty. It was during the early evening, when the king had returned to the tent after a long day of army reorganisation. Nicanor had been put in with a number of older pages, and so far his only duty seemed to be to stand in the background and pass objects to them when required. Still, as he watched the older pages help the king change into fresh clothes, he couldn’t quite believe that he was finally here, actually in the presence of the king.

At the swish of the tent flap, Nicanor looked up in surprise. The king had stated to the guards that he wasn’t to be disturbed.

A man stood in the entrance. Tall, dark-haired, well-dressed, his right arm bandaged. Nicanor expected him to explain himself but instead he simply stepped into the tent with a weary smile and said, “This better be worth all the bother it’s put us to.”

The king closed his eyes and swore. “No reorganisation talk tonight. I forbid it.” He signed to one of the older pages. The page brought another chair. The tall man removed his cloak but did not sit.

The king called for wine. Nicanor busied himself fetching cups, but at the corner of his eye he was aware of the tall man rummaging amongst the letters kept on a nearby desk. Nicanor looked to the other pages, but they did not seem at all concerned.

The wine was mixed. The tall man held up a letter. It was still sealed.

“This one?”

The king glanced up.

“Yes, that one. Antipater forwarded it along. Come and sit down and read it; you’re giving me a cramp in the neck, standing over me like that.”

The man laughed but sat down, breaking the seal.

The king motioned to the page nearest to him. “Pour the wine and then leave us.”

Nicanor watched as the wine was poured out, then quietly followed the others out of the inner tent and past the guards. As he was leaving, he heard the tall man say “Alexander, this is mostly water! I need a proper drink after the day I’ve had, not this piss! Here, pass me—”

The tent flap swung to behind him, blocking off any further conversation.

Outside the tent one of the older pages – Alcetas, Nicanor remembered – turned to him.

“I guess we’ve got the rest of the night off. Not too bad for your first time!”

Nicanor nodded but said nothing. He went with the others as they made their way back to the pages’ quarters.

Finally, he could help it no longer and he spoke to Alcetas.

“Who was that?”

Alcetas looked at him sidelong. “That was Hephaestion.”

Nicanor wanted to ask more but another page began a conversation about the competitions to be held the next day. The conversation quickly devolved into an impromptu wrestling match. Nicanor gave up and went to find himself some dinner.

***

The next day, around evening, Nicanor was glad to be out in the air at last and away from the stink of the stables. He noticed Hegesimachus and Peithon playing knucklebones with several other older pages around a campfire outside the pages’ tents.

Peithon motioned to him. “Come, join us. You look like you need cheering up, and it’s always fun to watch Hegesimachus lose. He’s a terrible loser.”

Hegesimachus scowled. “And you’re an even worse winner.”

Nicanor watched them play a few rounds and fielded several questions from the older pages (they were eager for news from home, having been away so long, and also wanted to discuss the Greek situation), but eventually his curiosity got the better of him and he broached the subject he’d been pondering all day.

“I had tent duty yesterday…”

Peithon didn’t look up from the game. “Yes, I heard they were rotating you lot in. How was it?”

“Didn’t drop anything?” asked one of the other pages.

They all sniggered while Hegesimachus glowered.

“No…” Nicanor began. “Who is Hephaestion?”

The older pages exchanged looks. Hegesimachus leaned forward eagerly, pleased for any excuse to abandon the game.

Nicanor looked around, unsure what he’d said to cause this response. “Only he came in and started reading the king’s letters, and then the king sent us all out…”

Peithon turned to Nicanor. “He’s a Companion,” he explained. “He and the king, they grew up together.”

“Oh.” Nicanor paused. “They seemed very… familiar.”

Peithon shrugged. “At Ilium, Alexander laid a wreath on the tomb of Achilles and Hephaestion did the same for Patroclus.”

“And after the big battle, the first one, the Persian queen mother mistook Hephaestion for Alexander. She bowed to him. The king said don’t worry, it’s fine, he’s Alexander too. In front of everyone,” said Hegesimachus.

“You’ll find the king often sends us away when he’s with Hephaestion,” added another page.

“So that they can talk.” Hegesimachus smirked. The others laughed, even Peithon.

“You think that they…? Still?” Nicanor asked him.

Peithon chucked a knucklebone across at him.

“How would I know? Why don’t you ask them if you can join in next time, if you’re so interested?”

“Once I saw them kiss—” began Hegesimachus.

“No, you did not!” shouted one of the other pages.

“I did!”

“Maybe in your dreams.” The other page made an obscene gesture.

Hegesimachus made one back. “No one’s really seen anything. We had a bet on for a while, to see who could catch them at it. Waste of good money that was.” Hegesimachus flashed Nicanor a grin. “If you ask me, they probably sit and read Homer together.”

Nicanor wasn’t sure whether that was meant to be a joke or not.

***

The new pages quickly settled into a routine, Nicanor among them. By early next month they had come to the end of the Royal Road and were in Susa, the great capital and treasury of the Persians. Here the king seated himself on Darius’ throne with its golden canopy, and held sacrifices and athletic contests.

One night, while still at Susa, Nicanor was on duty in the king’s rooms with Alcetas and the others. The king was not present. The pages talked idly amongst themselves, disappointed that they’d been assigned to bed duty that night rather than to the royal banquet in the great hall.

There was a lull in the conversation. Nicanor tried hard to muffle a yawn. It was late.

All of a sudden the outer door banged open and shouting and laughter filled the room: the king, accompanied by several of his Companions, all of them flushed with wine and rather unsteady on their feet. Alexander, still wreathed from the dinner, called loudly for more wine and the pages quickly busied themselves.

Finally, several drinks and a spirited recreation of that night’s game of kottabos later, the Companions began to depart for their own quarters, still in good spirits, the noise of them fading away down the corridor.

Eventually, Nicanor saw, only Hephaestion remained, seated beside Alexander.

Alcetas moved towards Alexander, to ready him for bed, but Alexander waved him back. “It’s fine, douse the lamps then get off to bed yourselves.”

Alcetas glanced at the other senior page for a second, then signed to Nicanor and the others to start gathering up the discarded cups.

Nicanor was still on his hands and knees behind a couch, picking up the shards of a broken cup, when suddenly everything was plunged into gloom. He heard the door shut. The other pages, grateful to be gone, had left without him. He made to stand, clutching the pieces of shattered pottery to his chest.

When he saw what the two men on the opposite couch were doing, he quickly ducked back down.

That was no goodnight kiss between friends.

He silently placed the shards back on the carpet, careful not to chink them together. The king and Hephaestion evidently thought all the pages had left.

Then he heard, unmistakable, the voice of the king, low. “Come to bed.” A moan, followed by a sigh.

He had to stand up. He had to stand up now. If he stood up now he could perhaps pretend he’d seen nothing, heard nothing. On the other hand, the king had a foul temper when provoked and was known to be hard with his beatings.

Hardly daring even to breathe, Nicanor crouched, stock still.

He could wait. He could wait until they were asleep and then slip out. It would be embarrassing, to be seen leaving the king’s rooms so late, but he would live with it.

Then came the sounds of movement, as they presumably extracted themselves from the couch. Laughter, as they stumbled through to the bed chamber, knocking against furniture. More laughter. The creak of the bedframe.

“Mind my arm!” That was Hephaestion.

“Sorry, I forgot. Lie back, and— Yes. Like that. I want to—”

They both moaned then. Behind the couch, despite himself, Nicanor flushed. He wanted badly to see. The subject of so much camp gossip, and here he was, with it happening feet away from him. He had the advantage of darkness. If he moved just a little…

Carefully, quietly, Nicanor shifted, edging his way around the couch. He had a clear view through to the bed from there.

He needn’t have worried about being seen. Both men were occupied only with each other.

They were naked now, Hephaestion sitting back against the bedhead, Alexander straddling him, kissing him. It was difficult to see where they were connected, in the half-light, but the strokes of their joined hands and the rolling of their hips were plain.

Heart thudding, Nicanor watched.

“Do you want—” asked Hephaestion.

“No, not tonight, just like this, just— ah!”

Hephaestion wound a hand into Alexander's hair and jerked his head back roughly. “Come on. Ride me. Harder.”

Alexander complied, urging himself forward, clutching at Hephaestion’s shoulders, panting into Hephaestion’s mouth, gasping words that Nicanor tried not to hear.

It didn’t take them long to finish, like that, with stifled cries. When they curled together on the bed, face to face, whispering softly to each other, Nicanor finally looked away. He felt that he was intruding on something inviolable.

The bedside lamp burned low, shadows swallowing up the walls.

Eventually, they slept.

Nicanor waited, counting his own breaths. At long last, he moved, baring his teeth against the cramp in his thighs, and stood. He waited again, in the near-dark, until he was sure that all was quiet. Then he started for the door.

Halfway across the room he was grabbed by his hair from behind and dragged backwards.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” hissed the man behind him, shaking him. His head was forced up and he saw it was Hephaestion, handsome face twisted into a snarl. There was the glint of a knife in his other hand.

Nicanor coiled round, trying to free the grip on his hair. “I’m sorry, I, I didn’t mean—” he began, his voice high.

Quiet. Who sent you?” The knife was at Nicanor’s throat now, the point sharp against his skin.

His stomach dropped and he began to tremble. “No one. No one! I’m not— I was cleaning up and then the others left, and I didn’t dare stand up, not when— I never meant— I swear it! I swear by the gods!” Nicanor whispered urgently.

Hephaestion watched him for a long moment, eyes blazing. On the bed, the king slept on, snoring softly. At last, Hephaestion withdrew the knife.

“Get out. Get out, now.” Nicanor was flung to the floor and he scrambled up, stumbling, towards the door.

The door guards whistled and made vulgar comments as he passed, but Nicanor paid them no heed. He was too busy thanking all the gods above and below that Hephaestion had believed him an imbecile rather than an assassin.

He didn’t stop shaking until he got back to the pages’ quarters.

***

The next day was a torture. Not only did half the camp seem to know about last night and think he was the king’s new bedmate, but Nicanor was convinced that Hephaestion, having sobered up, would come to his senses and come looking for him to accuse him again. He fumbled every task he was set to, continually looking over his shoulder.

But nothing happened.

By the end of the day he was exhausted. He sat at the campfire picking listlessly at his dinner, unable to eat.

“You’d think he’d be happier, being so high in the king’s graces,” Hegesimachus was saying in a carrying voice.

Out of the corner of his eye Nicanor saw Peithon lean in. “Hush, let him be.”

Once Hegesimachus and the others had bored of him and turned to other gossip, Peithon came up to him.

“Mind if I sit?”

Nicanor shrugged and Peithon sat.

They sat in silence until Peithon nudged him. “So I’m assuming it didn’t end well, given your long face.”

Nicanor didn’t know what to say. Not only would Peithon probably not believe him, but he also didn’t want to tell him what had happened. What he had seen… he didn’t want it to be the talk of the camp. It was one thing to speculate and tell bawdy stories around the fire, but quite another to have witnessed it. He had seen their love, and he shouldn’t have. He regretted it intensely.

“I—”, he began, then paused. “No, not well,” he said, turning to Peithon with a small smile.

Peithon grimaced in sympathy. “Oh well. These things happen. Want a game of knucklebones?”

Nicanor sighed, feeling suddenly much older than his sixteen years. “No, thank you, I’ll go to bed, if it’s all the same to you.”

Peithon nodded. Nicanor left the campfire, making for the sleeping quarters. Above him, the sky was a carpet of bright cold stars. Nicanor breathed deep.

***

Days later, he encountered Hephaestion in the antechamber of the king’s tent just as he was entering with water for the bath. Hephaestion was leaving.

There was a long pause, as each looked at the other. Nicanor broke first, darting his eyes down to the richly furnished floor.

“I swear I’m not an assassin, I swear it, by any gods you would name, I would never— I’ve only ever wanted to serve the king,” he blurted out, clutching hard at the basin of water in his hands.

Hephaestion laughed. Nicanor looked up, surprised. “Calm down, boy, I don’t think you’re an assassin. If I truly thought that, you would not have survived the night. No, you’re no assassin.”

There was an insult there, but Nicanor bore it.

“I hear you’re quite well-known in the camp at the moment.” His tone was conversational – overly so. Nicanor flushed and said nothing. “Well, then. Let that be an end to it.”

Nicanor nodded fervently. “Yes. I— yes,” he finished, lamely.

Hephaestion studied him, weighing him.

“Good.” And then he was gone.

I won’t tell, ever, Nicanor had wanted to say, but hadn’t.

That night, as he lay on his camp bed, he remembered the way that they had lain together, afterwards, and he felt suddenly heartsick.

No, Nicanor swore to himself, he would never tell.