11 Dystros

Aristes:

I am in doubt. The god is not with me.

We are at Ephesos, overlooking the town, and Parmenion has taken Xanion and gone to parley for their surrender. He has closeted himself with my cousin for many long hours since we have camped, and I know that he will come to me when he is ready. When no one comes, I know there is insurrection; and must remain calm. I had removed Xanion from his post, for the duration, and my decision was well founded then; but in the passing of the fever, I feel all have questioned me, and grow greatly uneasy. I await Parmenion, and I exchange meaningful and large looks with Apollion. No one speaks to Apollion either. The quietude is alarming; and I fear once again for my life.

What cause have I to fear? The regicide is executed, and the traitor at large is exiled. Why, then, do I feel the claws of unreason in my neck? Why does it seem that today I am no king, but a brash and violent boy, misled and ill-counseled, who has been placed in error at the head of this great assembly, who merely plays at king, and the gestures he makes toward these insolent officers are universally ignored? I grow not merely weary but afraid; I who most times feel no fear. And I fear the shadow of Parmenion on the door of my tent; for the news he will bring will be of no good import. I try to sleep and cannot, I shun the faces of those who look to me for divine confidence, for the god has fled me yet again. I am bereft.

The Companions return from the town; and their faces are set: Ephesos is defiant. Siege, then, I know their signal. Siege it is. This more than anything tells me that Darius's hosts are nearer and these have knowledge of how near. The towns would not resist if they did not think themselves capable of withstanding siege. I find myself enraged, and bloodthirsty at their defiance. Glad at their defiance, for now I have a reason to kill - - would they but give me reason. And their satrap will be in my hands before their starving people capitulate: crushed. I can feel his blood running on my hands; and hate as well this blood desire in me. But this, this is what I am; and I enjoy death at these times, the death that only I with the god behind me, as the wind, pushing, can bring to those who defy it. To those who defy me.

I wonder too, how I can be at one and the same time, so fearful and so arrogant? And if the god were to flee me entire, would I not be in the hands of my enemy, and subject to their utter lack of mercy, as they are to me now? Why does this not deter me from my position, and show a more compassionate side? And ultimately, I ask myself: what right have I to lay siege to Anatolia - it is not my land!

No, it is not my land, but it has been granted me entire, by the god. These cities have surrendered, without fight: Adramyttium, Sardis (the prize), Miletus, Magnesia, Troy, and even now Alexandria Troas rises as Alexandropolis in Thraxcia has risen, and Makedon now spans the nations of the Hellespont! Is that a dream? Is that not true? Has not Bel Marduk favored me, and Zeus, and Ares too? Was I not spared the certain death that falls to those who are poisoned with ergot? For it spares none; and this is known. It spared me; because of that divinity in me. I know as I equivocate thus in my own counsel, I am uncertain, and thinking further will not succor me.

Parmenion at length returns to me: I take audience with him alone. Rather than the aspect of grimness and ill portents, he wears a mischievous smile; and I am immediately curious. "I see you have girls attend you now."

"I asked Paulos to find another more pleasing shape to handle me in my recovery from poison," I acknowledged.

"And how well do they handle you?" his voice held a deep amusement.

"I am pleased with my decision," I spake.

"This is what I come to you about now, Basileus. There are those I wish you to see. I have been speaking with Apollion - and yes, Xanion as well, he knows you best of your cousins who still live… and do not be angry, Alexi, for I am older than your father. It is known that you seek a wife, and that you also seek to take a concubine for pleasure; some new sex of concubine."

I blushed furiously, Aristes. Yet this I could not deny - my bout of fever and attending to the insurrections and the little stupid laws of Hestes had put me off the goal. And he smiled broadly when he saw my discomfort. "Yes, some new sex of concubine. Female. But not --"

"Not one large of breast, nor one who may remind you of a particular female."

"Olympias, yes. Curse you, Parmenion, for your intelligence. I keep everything from you, and yet nothing is kept from you."

"I applaud your efforts, child, and so does Apollion. And I might add, though you don't wish to hear it, Xanion too. He knows that when you act like a rampaging bull it is because your lusts are choking you outright. He does not approve of your banishment of Hephaestion; all know how utterly he coveted you, but at length Xanion sees that it is your privilege as Basileus to banish those who defy you, and he will in time come to appreciate the imposition of order. It may take some time; he has grown too familiar with you to respect you as I do."

"There is too much humor in you to be serious in saying this, Parmenion," I scowled. "Whatever you have to say about women concubines, say it and be done. I am hot all over with the remaining fevers, and wish to douse myself at least once this night and grow completely cold."

"Before you make yourself cold with the god, Alexi, there is aught I request of you. I have these women available for your inspection. Small in breast, long in limb, limber, dark, and as much as I could hope to find, intelligent. Will you see them?"

"Where do you draw them from?"

"From the followers who agreed to reap; those of named family and provable virginity."

"Provable virginity? You proved them virgins? How?"

"You don't know how to prove a virgin, Alexi?" He laughed. "You prove a virgin by the great outrage they feel at being made to bend over and allow the hand of the therapeutis to enter them. If virgin, he can hardly perform the task. If screaming death and blood, then are provably virgin, if not, they are only possibly virgin. If they are pleased with the proceeding, then they are whores."

"You jest with me, old man!"

"I jest not, Basileus. If you would like to witness our proving of a virgin, I would gladly demonstrate."

"No - it sounds gruesome. And I didn't need a virgin concubine did I? Did I need one?"

"Yes."

"Why? Why is this so complicated?"

"You make it so. These people could never accept your liaison with any whore, with any unnamed peoples of Anatolia, or with any who were not pure."

"But no one is pure! I was never pure."

"It doesn't count, for a man." He chuckled. "Besides, in Makedon, who is pure? These are foreign lands, and they have foreign ways. I was first made impure before I took my first knife in hand, and before I owned a pair of boots. This did not keep me from belonging to the Aristos. But in Anatolia, the ancient land, there are great religious significances to these things as purity, of sexual congress, and concubinage. Each man of land and station has wife, concubine, and whore. And of satrapies, many wives, even more concubines (and their children) and as many whores as no one will find out about."

"Is that all the men do in this land? Whore and breed? No wonder they have no great temples!" I was amazed.

"Let us get on with this then. There are seven of these women, - girls more like, younger than you by a span of years. The youngest about twelve, the eldest, a miracle, is about the same age as you, and still - provably virgin. She was the most violent in her objections, it would seem she was a temple priestess before the satrap fled Sardis, and she followed the army with her fellow vestals. Unlike the Persian temple whores, these priestesses know no man, not in the usual way, although they may satisfy themselves in other ways not susceptible to break their virginity."

"A priestess. Comely?"

"You mean breastless? Practically. There are many of those flat-breasted females here, unlike in Hellas. I could not call her boylike though."

"What is this, boylike? You think I can only rise for the shape of a boy? I do not care particularly for boys and never have done!"

Parmenion raised his eyebrow to me. "Men, then."

"And do you call me a boy? Twenty-two summers and a boy?" I was seized by a sudden rage. "How old must I be before I am no longer a boy! Until at last I grow the beard that Philip always wanted? That, I will not do, and no one in my ranks will either! Beards are Greek, and we are not Greek."

"Calm yourself, Alexi. It is fearsome to meet the first woman who you may conquer abed; for it has never happened." This stopped me. "It doesn't matter how old, women are fearsome and unpredictable creatures, which is why we take our tutelage from men. If they were gentle and nurturing souls, we would not lay with our mentors so long as to hide from them. There is nothing truly of gentleness in woman, this is all too true. Do not cease to fear women!"

"Amazing," I spake again. "Well then, bring them to me, and I will forego my bath and sleep another hour."

And bring them in he did. I could see the priestess immediately, for she bore herself with a dignity unknown in these others. And her dress were simpler, she had not preened for this, nor did she intend to flatter me as conquerer. I do believe her intention was to be rejected from the position, since serving the servant of the god was something less than serving him directly at a temple. She may yet learn otherwise.

I was immediately drawn by the haughtiness of her, the flare of her nostrils as I paced across the floor. At each movement I made was some small movement in her; these other women, as though cowed, did not react. They were too young, too inexperienced, to be other than terrified in the presence of that which had descended on them as a plague; the conquerer Basileus.

I took a post at the far end, and leaned myself closely toward the shoulders of the first woman, whose head came up to my nose. Too small. And I inbreathed; the perfume of her was some sour musk, and no small smell of sweat; and I was repulsed. Her eyes were dull, and angry, and full of fear. I could not have this.

And the next, thin, thin as starvation - a broomstick to match the appalling thinness of Paulos the therapeutus. If he were to lay with her then one broomstick would crack the other and they would splinter into pieces! I smiled to myself, and did not bother smelling this second.

The third; hair of an uncanny lightness, and skin to match, she was heavier of chest than these others, and a strong scent lay about her - she had preened to flatter me. A pleasing scent, but soon it itched my nose. I smelled her, and in the smelling there was something sickening and sweet that cloyed at me. If she were my choice, then this little habit of body would have to go.

The fourth, tall - her eyes met my own, wide and abashed, and I could tell she feared me, and hated me. This hatred quickened me somewhat, and I found that her very height intrigued me. It was not small women then that I might find myself wanting, but these who could meet my eye. "What is your name?" I asked in Persian.

"Nasra," she replied. Her voice was low-pitched; abashed.

"And Nasra, how would you feel to serve Basileus in his bed and at his table, and at his person?"

She lowered her eyes briefly, and then raised them; resigned. "If that is what you would wish."

"What would you wish?" I enjoyed her voice, I disliked her indirectness.

"I wish to finish the reaping on my land and return to my father's house, but my father's house is in Sardis."

"Yes. Will you miss your father much to come with Basileus and be his favorite?"

"Yes, Basileus, I would miss him. He is old."

"Would you do this for me?"

"Yes."

"And would you do it weeping?"

Her eyes widened with now unrestrained tears. "Yes, I would do it weeping."

"Then return to Sardis," I said. "Parmenion, let them return." Parmenion led Nasra out then, and dismissed her at the door.

The fifth: the youngest, no doubt. I breathed her in, and there was nothing of scent in her, nothing of anything. She had the fat of the child on her, and while this was not so burdensome as the thinness of starvation to my eye, she had no shape of womanliness as these others; she had not yet entered menarche. To take her as concubine would be a crime to the god. "Let this child return to its mother," I said.

The sixth, older, but not that much more, with the first buds of her womanhood showing barely through the thin dress that held itself together meanly. There would be no way to tell if she would grow broadly in the chest - her hips promised future width, and this itself made her far too womanly already for me to enjoy. Not the sixth then.

The priestess, as I knew it would be, regardless of her reason or her defiance; and I felt, very strongly in fact, that the god was in her. The glare she afforded me as I approached her was sign enough that Bel Marduk regarded me with interest from behind the mask of her femininity. This, I would have and conquer.

"And you - your name?"

She did not falter, nor whisper. "Scheravasana, the daughter of he who gave Sardis to you, and who was the temple oracle who prophesied it."

"You!"

"Yes, I."

"Why did you come with us then, to do the reaping and to follow my column this long way to Ephesos?" I was amazed.

"Bel Marduk bade me offer myself to you. When they came to seek for concubines I offered myself. As I knew they would. It was a matter of marching, and waiting."

"You knew!" She nodded, briefly. "Then why did you not do this at Sardis?"

"You had not sent away your demon then. I would have been spurned, perhaps, killed, by him."

"Demon? What demon?"

"The demon you have sent from your bed." I gasped, abashed at the plainness of her bold words. I gathered myself. "Parmenion, feed these ones too thin, and return them to their fathers, intact. Pay them for their day as workers, and see they are well tended."

Parmenion nodded and gathered the girls with the sweep of his arm. His expression was complacent - he had known, and all was as he had expected. He knew he had selected the proper concubine for me when he had found the priestess of Bel Marduk from Sardis. He was wise in matters of religion, and her story confirmed him that their superstition was something I could not afford to ignore. But for me, it was not superstition, but truth.

She stood, fast, as the tent grew empty of all but we two. "There will be times," I spake to cover the silence, "when you will be my only attendant. Do you intend to kill me?"

"If Bel Marduk bids me to kill you I shall. But he would not do that."

"Why not?" I had been stunned by her openness. I sat down on my throne, and waited. She did not move forward nor react to my action, but considered within herself.

"You are the king of this land. It is written now. It is done. You conquer Darius and he is by now a dead man. You have only to learn the way of fatherhood, and of keeping the demon you banished far from your bed and body. I may serve to heal you somewhat, but I cannot make you develop love for women. There is little love in me for that."

"You know the ways of healing?"

"As many ways of healing as you know of armies and arrows," she said tightly. "Do you wish to take me now? If so, I must prepare for the sacrifice of my purity."

"No," I said quickly. "If this is repulsive to you, I do not wish it."

"It is ordained by the god. Therefore, I wish it. How I feel about it is just as insignificant as how you feel about executing a traitor. It is necessary; therefore I wish it."

"Just so!" I spake, once again surprised. "Then if you wish it, may I see you naked, so that I might get used to this." And she complied. I spent a great deal of time at this, accustoming my eye to the mere form. And that was my first night with my concubine; the regarding of her form.