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Damn Fish

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By Zeus’s balls, could Hephaistion fake food poisoning in order to leave early? A pox on proper supper parties. Alexander sought to impress the aristocrats in Miletos, so this one was staid and crushingly boring. Couldn’t they at least have a dancing dog or something fun? That he couldn’t share Alexander’s supper couch made it worse, but the spots around the king were reserved for important locals and the king himself had to show decorum, so he sat alone tonight.

Normally, Hephaistion wasn’t important enough to get his own couch at a state function. If he was invited at all, it was as the king’s guest. Yet tonight, owing to Miletos’s ancient friendship with Athens, here he was, one of Alexander’s token Athenians, though it was an ancestry he downplayed. What did he know about Athens? The other Athenians in this circle had actually been born there. It would be like Alexander claiming to be Illyrian because his grandmother was.

The largest public dining hall in Miletos’s marketplace was too small, so Alexander had erected his royal dining tent in the camp outside the city walls, sides rolled up to catch ocean breezes. It was a monster, able to hold a hundred couches, although there weren’t so many tonight, thankfully, just three circles of twenty-one each, making sixty-three guests, and their guests, if they’d brought any. Hephaistion’s circle included lower-ranked Miletians, Athenians, and few mid-level Macedonian officers, such as Perdikkas, Krateros, and Ptolemy. It wasn’t the king’s personal circle. That was for the highest ranking officers, the president of the Milesian assembly, the most important priests, and several other members of the Milesian boule, or ruling council.

Royal slaves brought around appetizers. A selection of the best treats the royal cooks could offer. Layered pastry with sliced vegetables—cucumber and artichoke—under soft cheese, lightly baked. A garlic dip with bread and olives. Fennel, leek, and radish mash. Some fresh spring greens with the dried local apricots and walnuts.

And fish. Everywhere was damn fish.

Hephaistion hated fish, whether out of stream, lake, or ocean, whether finned and scaled, or some mollusk, he didn’t care. He hated fish.

And there wasn’t a single, fucking land-meat option among the delicacies going around. Eel, tuna, octopus, mullet, grouper…even the salted sardines his father loved so.

By Zeus, where was some damn pork? Or even goat. He’d take goat over fucking fish.

He scooped up some of the greens and the cucumber and artichoke boureki, plus the garlic dip with cracked-wheat bread. And wine, of course. At least there was good wine.

Perdikkas, who had the couch beside his with a pretty girl he’d picked up somewhere, offered him a little plate of eel. “You don’t want some of this?” He was laughing.

“Fuck you,” Hephaistion replied, tying into the boureki.

Most of the intense conversation was taking place in the king’s circle. Hephaistion’s circle appeared largely bored, trying to make small-talk with strangers, or turning to private conversations with couch-mates, as Perdikkas was doing, or with friends, as Ptolemy and Krateros were doing. Unfortunately, Hephaistion sat alone tonight, and with Perdikkas involved with his girl, he didn’t have anybody to talk to. He could see Alexander at a distance, gesturing grandly and subsumed in some debate with the Milesian president of the assembly. Hephaistion wondered what his friend would do if he called over one of the pretty serving boys? Several had given him a sideways glance under lowered lashes. Would Alexander even notice? He had to admit, part of his motivation for what came next stemmed from the desire to know if Alexander would notice.

Beside the royal cooks and servants and some flute girls, the wine pourers were the sons of prominent Milesians. He stopped the next one who wandered by with a pitcher, holding out his cup for a refill and bestowing a wide smile on the boy. He knew exactly what that smile could get him, and the server—one of those who’d sized him up earlier—appeared a little dazzled. “What’s your name?” Hephaistion asked.

“Myron, son of Ermogenes, sir.”

“You don’t need to call me ‘sir’; you’re not one of my men.”

“Are you a taxiarch?” A brigadier of infantry, like Krateros or Ptolemy or Perdikkas. It would be a logical assumption, and the boy’s eyes fairly shown in admiration.

“Gods, no. I lead a file of men in the Hypaspists.”

Maybe he shouldn’t have said that; the boy’s face fell and he appeared ready to move on to offer wine (and flattery) elsewhere. Hephaistion clearly wasn’t as important as he’d hoped. But his mercenary reaction made Hephaistion feel less bad for using him to yank Alexander’s chain.

Putting a hand on his arm, Hephaistion said, “Don’t run off so fast. I’m not a taxiarch yet, but I grew up with the king.”

That got the boy’s attention again. “You did?”

“We went to school together; that’s why I’m here tonight. We’re old friends.” He gave Myron another alluring smile and charmed, the boy seated himself on the foot of the couch. He had lovely dark eyes and a blush in his cheeks from the room’s heat. Torchlight painted his dark curls with red. If a little plump, that was probably a function of early puberty, which also made him too young for Hephaistion's taste, but this was innocent flirtation. It might even boost his confidence to win attention from a Macedonian officer, however junior. Hephaistion leaned closer to his couch partner. “So is your father here tonight, Myron?”

The boy nodded to one of the men near Alexander’s couch. Following the direction of Myron’s finger gave Hephaistion an excuse to see if Alexander had noticed him talking to the boy, but the king was still speaking earnestly to a man two couches down from his.

On the couch next to his own, however, Perdikkas had certainly noticed Myron, and was giving Hephaistion a “What in Hades are you doing?” look. Hephaistion ignored him.

“Do you like sport?” Hephaistion asked, fishing for something to say. He had no idea how to go about seducing a boy because there had only ever been one boy he’d wanted to seduce and that had felt so natural, it had hardly counted as seduction.

“Oh, I’m a big fan of the pankration!” and Myron fell to babbling about the most recent games there in Miletus, then waxed poetic about the legendary Theoganes and the rising star of Dioxippos. Hephaistion, who was no fan of wrestling or boxing, much less the pankration, tuned him out, but nodded in appropriate places. Finally slowing down, Myron scooted a little closer on the couch. “Do you complete in a sport? You look like an athlete.”

“I’m a soldier. My idea of sport is fighting well with spear and sword. Although I do run.”

“They say the king runs.”

“Yes. We race sometimes, mostly for fun.”

“I’m sure you let him win.” The boy was leaning even closer now. Hephaistion’s instinct was to lean away, but that would defeat his purpose. Myron smelled a little sour, unfortunately, probably from sweat in the hot dining room.

“I don’t let him win. In fact, if it’s a sprint, I usually beat him because I have longer legs. If it’s a long race, he usually beats me.” Hephaistion chanced a glance up towards Alexander’s couch, but the king wasn’t there. He must have got up to talk to someone in his circle.

“You’re actually willing to beat the king?” Myron asked, astonished.

Hephaistion opened his mouth to answer but a voice behind them said, “Oh, Hephaistion has no respect at all for my royal person.”

Myron actually squeaked in surprise and jumped a little. Hephaistion managed not to—barely. He’d forgotten Alexander’s ability to move soundlessly when he wanted to. Instead, he rolled his head back and looked up at his friend, smiling slightly. Alexander was quite clearly annoyed. “Who are you?” he asked the boy.

“Myron, sir. I mean, your lord king. Um, your highness?”

Alexander snorted in mild disgust. “Just Alexander. Macedonian kings don’t need titles.”

“Oh, but no Macedonian king has done was much as you have, my lord. Everyone says you’re the new Achilles.”

If Alexander wasn’t above flattery, he preferred it to be less blatant. Hephaistion had to bite his lips to keep from laughing at his friend’s expression. “Myron?” Alexander asked.

“Yes, my lord?”

“Get lost.”

The boy fled as Alexander stalked around to take his place on the couch, leaning back against Hephaistion’s chest. “What was that?”

“Wanted to see if you’d notice.”

“Fuck you. Why?”

“This party is boring.”

“So you decided to trifle with one of the councilmen’s sons for fun? You’re not usually cruel.”

“Oh, trust me, he was only interested because I said I grew up with you. Mutual usury.”

Alexander had been watching the room while they spoke in low voices, but now turned to look at Hephaistion. “You were trying to make me jealous.”

“Maybe. It worked, too.”

“Damn jerk.” He turned away again.

Hephaistion laughed softly and took a sip of wine. Then he said, “I know you can’t stay, but I just wanted a little of your time tonight since you dragged me here as your pet Athenian. You know I don’t like that emphasized. It fucking isolates me.”

“Actually, I invited you because I value your opinion and wanted to talk to you later about the various councilmen.”

“Then why am I not on your couch? It’s fucking hard to hear anything back here.”

And suddenly, Hephaistion realized that a lot of his restlessness was a sublimated feeling of being slighted. Alexander must have picked up on that, too, as he actually twisted around on an elbow to eye Hephaistion. Softly, he said, “I didn’t want to embarrass you by the implications of you sharing my couch tonight.”

“I share your bed. I’m damn sure they’ve heard about that.”

“I’m not. We don’t make a public production of it.”

“You’re on my couch now, which is pretty goddamn public.”

“Because you wanted me to be. You knew I’d come over here to find out what was going on.”

“You’re possessive like that.”

It was spiteful, and Alexander didn’t answer for a long moment. Finally, he said, “Do you want me to release you to take a boy, Hephaistion?”

“No.” He held Alexander’s eyes. In the dim light, they were the color of old iron, and just as hard. Hephaistion had to look down. “I belong to you.”

“And I belong to you. I always have and I always will—and I’m not the only one who’s possessive. Right now, however, I need to be the king.” And he twisted gracefully, rising to hop down and continue around the circumference of dining couches, talking to random people. Hephaistion knew it was to make his short residence on Hephaistion’s couch stand out less, but Hephaistion doubted it succeeded. The boy Myron was perched now on the foot of his father’s couch in the king’s circle, staring at Hephaistion with a peculiar blend of awe, resentment, and calculation, and a few of the councilmen shot Hephaistion glances, as if reassessing someone they’d dismissed as a minor figure.

“Psst,” Perdikkas said, motioning for Hephaistion to lean closer over the side of his couch. “You like baiting the bear, don’t you?”

“I was just bored.”

“No, you enjoy stirring shit to get a reaction out of him. Everybody thinks you ask how high when he says, ‘jump,’ but it’s really the other way.”

Hephaistion made a rude gesture but didn’t reply because a server had approached him, bearing a tray with a small dish. “The king sends these, with his compliments,” the slave said. “He’s sure you’ll honor his special regard for you by enjoying them.”

The small dish on the tray contained salted sardines.

Hephaistion stared at the damn fish, then glanced up, finding Alexander, who was back on his couch. He raised his wine glass towards Hephaistion in salute.

Hephaistion had to take the fish. And he had to eat the fish, because the king had sent them. Refusing them would be a grave insult.

And Alexander absolutely knew it, the fucker.

Beside him, Perdikkas was laughing too hard to speak.

Hephaistion accepted the dish and set it on the little table in front of his couch, then, very deliberately, picked up one of the sardines and popped it in his mouth.

The brine taste overwhelmed and the crunch of little bones almost made him gag. But he swallowed the damn thing. The gift given and accepted, most of the other guests had turned away, but Alexander was still watching, a big grin on his face.

“Fuck you,” Hephaistion mouthed, which only made Alexander grin harder.