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Nights in Susa

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Drypetis had always known her marriage would be an arranged one. After all, her father was Darius, Great King of Persia, and she and her elder sister Barsine were raised as a dutiful daughters and princesses. Still, she was only four when Alexander, the barbarian warrior from Macedon, captured them after the battle of Issus, and when he neither had them killed nor took the six-years-old Barsine as his wife, Drypetis started to wonder whether maybe marriage was not to be her lot.

In most other ways, her life did not change noticeably after they fell into the hand of the conquering Greeks. For a while they travelled with Alexander’s entourage in the exact same luxurious surroundings they had known before. Sometimes Drypetis would catch a glimpse of Alexander when he visited her mother and grandmother, and when Stateira died two years later he appeared genuinely sad at the royal funeral.

After they were almost injured in the looting of Babylon, the young emperor declared their entire household sacrosanct and set them up in the palace at Susa. Drypetis liked Susa, which was exactly the same as it had been under her father’s rule, so if it hadn’t been for the foreign messengers that came to her grandmother with letters from Alexander Drypetis might not have noticed that Darius was no longer king of Persia. When he died, Drypetis felt no real grief, having never really known her father except as a remote figure that sometimes dropped in to visit her mother. Still, she was a bit confused over Sisygambis’ affection for the new Great King, who, or so she heard whispered, lived for battle and blood. He even had a werewolf as a Mate!

The few shifters Drypetis had met had scared her. There had been the half-wild warriors that were part of the legendary Immortals, the elite of Darius’ vast army, and, most notably to her, Alexander’s general Perdiccas had protected them in Babylon. And from what she heard the king’s Mate was even bigger than Perdiccas, whose wolf-form had frightened her almost more than the looters. To even think of a king, with a shifter… Drypetis couldn’t form the words, the whole idea too strange and fearsome.

It completely eclipsed the fact that Alexander’s werewolf was male - having grown up around eunuchs, the princess knew that many men lay with boys. She figured that, if she were the wife of such a man, she’d rather share him with a boy than another woman. Still, a shifter was a completely different matter, and in her mind she pictured Alexander as half-animal himself and wondered how he could ever hope to rule ancient, glorious Persia.

While life at Susa went on as it always had, more and more stories about Alexander’s deeds spread as his army pushed ever further east. Thessalian riders returned, guarding caravans of goods destined for faraway Greece, and a never-ending stream of messengers formed a network between Alexander, always in the thick of things, never at the back, and his growing Empire. Drypetis heard that Persian boys were trained to become part of Alexander’s army, that he founded cities wherever he went, that he treated those who yielded before him with the same respect he’d shown Darius’ household. Sisygambis would sometimes read them parts of the letters she still exchanged with the King, always full of news not just of battle but of the strange lands he saw, the people he encountered. This was how Drypetis and Stateira, as Barsine was called in honour of their dead mother, learned about Alexander’s marriage to a Bactrian princess, their grandmother shaking her head at the foolishness of youth, smiling fondly as if the Macedonian was a favoured grandson.

Then the letters stopped for a while, until they finally heard that Alexander had turned his back on India and was returning to Persia. Drypetis could hear the disappointment in his words, and she was surprised when he explained that it had been the counsel of his werewolf Mate, Hephaestion, which had finally made him abandon his plans for further conquest. In her mind she had pictured shifters, especially one that was a general, to always want more blood, more victories, and not heed the lives lost in the process, not be the voice that made a Great King give up his dreams of conquering the whole earth. When she gave voice to these thoughts, Sisygambis smiled in that way that said her granddaughters had yet a lot to learn about the world and told her about the one time she had met Hephaestion and mistaken him for Alexander himself, so regal was his bearing and so civilised his manner.

It was this story that Drypetis clung to when official messengers arrived to announce Alexander’s decision to not only finally marry Stateira, but to hold a mass wedding between Greek soldiers and Persian brides - most notably between his second-in-command Hephaestion and Drypetis, daughter of Darius and princess of Persia. The command came in the form of a very politely worded request, but there was no question of denying it. The Great King of Persia had spoken, even if he was not her father but a Greek barbarian, and it was Drypetis’ duty to obey and marry the man chosen for her, just as she had always known she would.

When the king arrived the city was flooded with soldiers. Drypetis, sheltered within the palace walls, did not see them with her own eyes, but the servants were full of stories, and an air of excitement lay over everything as preparations for the grand wedding festivities went underway. The only Greeks the royal women saw were Alexander and his generals, who came to pay their respects soon after their arrival.

Drypetis was surprised to see that not all of the men that made up the Great King’s inner circle were Greek - some were Persian, other Medes and Bactrians. However, there was one man her eyes sought out before all, and although she had never seen him before, there was no doubt in her mind that it was Hephaestion who stood to Alexander’s right. The king himself was strikingly handsome with his unusual golden hair and the clear air of authority surrounding him, but Drypetis could not help but stare at the man who would be her husband in only a few days.

Hephaestion was taller than Alexander and more broadly built, and when she met his light, blue-grey eyes, Drypetis immediately understood why her grandmother had mistaken him for the king. She looked down right away, as propriety dictated, but something in the way he held himself, an aura of quiet strength paired with obvious intelligence, made her glance up again curiously. He was still looking at her, calmly and inquisitively, and before she realised it, Drypetis found herself nodding to him. In response Hephaestion bowed gracefully, with a smile that made his already handsome face beautiful, and Drypetis, her cheeks burning, was suddenly glad for her veil. All her fears and misgivings about marrying a man who could turn into a wolf vanished, replaced with a burning curiosity and something very close to anticipation.

They did not speak to or even see one another again before the wedding day, but on the night before Sisygambis took her granddaughters aside and told them that, because of the nature of Drypetis’ husband, their wedding night would be different. After years of listening to the women of Darius’ household, Drypetis had thought she knew what to expect, but now fear gripped her. Maybe, despite her positive impression of Hephaestion during their short meeting, marrying a man who was part wolf was something dark and wild after all, maybe even dangerous to a human.

It was with great relief, therefore, that she heard that the only real difference was caused by the fact that Hephaestion was already mated. She had known this, of course, but had never considered what this might mean. After all, Alexander already had a wife and a eunuch to cater to his needs, and he would marry the old king Artaxerxes’ daughter Parysatis on the same day as Stateira, which was much less than Darius’ had had and only to be expected. However, it seemed as if shifters did not take more than one mate as a rule, and so the wedding between Hephaestion and Drypetis happened at Alexander’s special request. Consequently, their wedding night would occur in adjacent rooms to allow for the werewolf’s need to be close to his Mate.

Drypetis sighed in relief. It was an unusual arrangement, but nothing compared to what she had feared. Hephaestion would remain in human form around her at all times - and apparently she wouldn’t even have to share her husband, except of course with the king. Drypetis glanced at her sister, but as always Stateira was completely composed, only the way she twisted her hands in her lap betraying that their talk concerned her at all. Impulsively Drypetis leaned close and kissed her sister’s cheek, glad that she would not face marriage on her own but with Stateira’s steady presence always near - even at night.

During the festivities, Drypetis couldn’t help but sneak glances at her new husband, resplendent in Persian garb, and whenever he noticed, Hephaestion would smile at her, reticent but warm. They had kissed during the ceremony, but it had been barely more than a grazing of lips, and as night approached Drypetis discovered that she felt slightly apprehensive after all. Still, she made sure none of it showed on her face when she was led to a splendid chamber adjacent to the king’s own rooms and finally left on her own, even her maids gone for the night.

Hephaestion moved so noiselessly, Drypetis would have missed his entrance if she hadn’t been facing the door. Her husband closed the door to the hallway, but before approaching Drypetis he opened another, smaller door, smiling apologetically as he explained that it led to Alexander’s bed chamber. Sitting up straight, Drypetis nodded her understanding, determined not to let her nervousness show. Something in Hephaestion’s gaze softened at this and he spoke softly, thanking her for accommodating his unusual needs, caused by Alexander’s wish for their bloodlines to be connected. When he mentioned the king’s name, Drypetis felt herself soften as well, so open and unguarded was the love she saw in those beautiful blue eyes.

Then he kissed her, very gently, and laid her down on the bed with great care, as if she might break. Having divested her of her clothes, Drypetis watched as Hephaestion stepped out of his robes as well, curiosity winning over apprehension. She liked his body, she decided, strong and muscular, yet also very graceful, every movement flowing into the next. Even the scars he had added to his beauty, and she traced them with curious fingers, meeting his smile with one of her own.

Still, even as her own breathing sped up under his thorough ministrations, Hephaestion remained collected and apparently unaffected. Finally, with an apologetic smile he lifted his head and closed his eyes, inhaling deeply the air that Drypetis imagined was moving from Alexander’s room to theirs. A growl, deep and dark, rumbled in his chest, and when he opened his eyes they were a startling sapphire blue. Despite Hephaestion’s careful preparations and her own intentions, Drypetis flinched at this clear proof of her husband’s nature, but quickly forced herself to relax.

As he took her, Drypetis could tell her husband’s attentions were fixed on whatever was going on next door, with Alexander and Stateira, but there was something like sadness in his strange eyes, and almost in spite of herself she reached up and touched his face gently. Surprised Hephaestion looked down at her and turned his head into her hand, his focus back on her even as he rolled off her. Afterwards he pleasured Drypetis with a lot of tenderness, as if to make up for his shortcomings, and she kissed him with genuine affection when he finally took his leave.

Her suspicions about where he was headed were confirmed when Stateira joined her a few minutes later. A close look at her sister’s serene face told Drypetis that neither one of them was ill pleased with their new husbands, and they retired to the women’s quarters, leaving Alexander and Hephaestion to one another’s company. It set a pattern followed every time the king and his newly-appointed Chiliarch came to their wives, although Drypetis knew that Alexander’s visits were more frequent. But Hephaestion always was so considerate in his attentions, she could not find it in her heart to begrudge him what was, after all, only his nature.

Apart from this, life in the royal household once again continued almost unchanged. The only real difference was the presence of Alexander’s two other wives. Parysatis proved herself to be a sweet, quiet girl, raised as a princess just as Stateira and Drypetis had, but Roxane, the king’s first queen, could not have been more different, passionate and full of ill-concealed jealousy. Drypetis only felt it indirectly, yet she soon learned to give Roxane a wide berth in order to avoid her flashing eyes and sharp tongue.

It was on one such occasion that Drypetis fled to the night-cool gardens. The full moon was rising, and from her balcony she could clearly see the dark forest behind the palace. It was a peaceful sight, until the quiet was broken by the howling of wolves. Drypetis shivered, her reaction instinctive, and she realised what had caused Roxane’s foul temper this time. Alexander never visited during the full moon, and Drypetis had glimpsed some of the marks on his body afterwards, displayed proudly, their cause obvious to anyone with even the slightest familiarity with shifters.

Straining, she cast her eyes into the shadow of the forest, and soon she could make out shapes moving. Most of the Greek shifters were already in wolf form, the source of the howling, wild and almost joyful, but a glimpse of bright hair revealed the king, moving comfortably, fearlessly among the wolves who treated him with respect and deference. Then another human shape appeared from the trees, and Drypetis recognised her husband from the way he moved. For a moment she hesitated, considering retreat, but there was something captivating in the scene before her.

Hephaestion wore only a Greek-style chiton, which he shed with careless grace as he approached Alexander. There was no doubt where his attentions lay, and the king greeted him with a kiss that was intimate and deep. It made something inside of Drypetis ache, bittersweet, because she knew her husband would never react to her this way, yet unable to deny the beauty of the sight. Neither man seemed to notice the wolves around them, so lost were they in one another, and again Drypetis considered turning away.

Just then they broke apart, however, and with a slight shake Hephaestion simply disappeared. A giant wolf stood in his place, and Drypetis could not suppress a gasp. The tawny animal was as tall as Alexander, who stood right in front of it, not scared in the least when the wolf that was Hephaestion rubbed his face against the king’s neck before loping off into the forest. The rest of the pack followed, and Alexander gazed after them for a long while before sitting down against a tree. He was holding Hephaestion’s chiton and obviously settling in to wait out the night. Drypetis watched him a moment longer, then a long howl broke the darkness, which finally drove her back inside.

The next time she saw her husband she tried to find the wolf she’d seen that night, but with the exception of the moment when he scented the air for Alexander, she found no trace of him in the almost reverent way he treated her. Drypetis wasn’t sure whether to be grateful or disappointed - she might be the Chiliarch’s wife, but Hephaestion only had one Mate, and it wasn’t her. It was almost a relief when Alexander’s court left Susa for Ectabana and life in the palace returned to its familiar rhythm.

Hephaestion wrote to her a few times before she heard that he had fallen ill. Sisygambis told her not to worry, that shifters hardly ever sickened seriously, and news soon reached her that her husband was indeed on his way to recovery. Only then did the royal household travel to attend the games Alexander was holding to unite his people in celebration. Because of this Drypetis was in the palace at Ectabana when Hephaestion died.

Looking at Alexander’s frighteningly empty gaze as he clutched his Mate’s dead body, Drypetis’ heart clenched in sympathy - but not all the grief that filled her was for the king. Her marriage might have been an arranged one, but Drypetis mourned Hephaestion’s passing and wished with painful longing that she had been given more time to get to know the werewolf who had been her husband.