The Persian Boyby Mary Renault
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“Mary Renault is a shining light to both historical novelists and their readers. She does not pretend the past is like the present, or that the people of ancient Greece were just like us. She shows us their strangeness; discerning, sure-footed, challenging our values, piquing our curiosity, she leads us through an alien landscape that moves and
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“Mary Renault is a shining light to both historical novelists and their readers. She does not pretend the past is like the present, or that the people of ancient Greece were just like us. She shows us their strangeness; discerning, sure-footed, challenging our values, piquing our curiosity, she leads us through an alien landscape that moves and delights us.”—Hilary Mantel
The Persian Boy centers on the most tempestuous years of Alexander the Great’s life, as seen through the eyes of his lover and most faithful attendant, Bagoas.
When Bagoas is very young, his father is murdered and he is sold as a slave to King Darius of Persia. Then, when Alexander conquers the land, he is given Bagoas as a gift, and the boy is besotted. This passion comes at a time when much is at stake—Alexander has two wives, conflicts are ablaze, and plots on the Macedon king’s life abound. The result is a riveting account of a great conqueror’s years of triumph and, ultimately, heartbreak.
The Persian Boy is the second volume of the Novels of Alexander the Great trilogy, which also includes Fire from Heaven and Funeral Games.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Mary Renault including rare images of the author.
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The Persian Boy
A Novel of Alexander the Great
By Mary Renault
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1972 Mary Renault
All rights reserved.
Lest anyone should suppose I am a son of nobody, sold off by some peasant father in a drought year, I may say our line is an old one, though it ends with me. My father was Artembares son of Araxis, of the Pasargadai, Kyros' old royal tribe. Three of our family fought for him, when he set the Persians over the Medes. We held our land eight generations, in the hills west above Susa. I was ten years old, and learning a warrior's skills, when I was taken away.
Our hill-fort was as old as our family, weathered-in with the rocks, its watchtower built up against a crag. From there my father used to show me the river winding through the green plain to Susa, city of lilies. He pointed out the Palace, shining on its broad terrace, and promised I should be presented, when I was sixteen.
That was in King Ochos' day. We survived his reign, though he was a great killer. It was through keeping faith with his young son Arses, against Bagoas the Vizier, that my father died.
At my age, I might have overheard less of the business, if the Vizier had not borne my name. It is common enough in Persia; but being the only son and much beloved, I found it so strange to hear it pronounced with loathing, that each time my ears pricked up.
Court and country lords whom, as a rule, we hardly saw twice a year, were riding up the mountain track every few days. Our fort was well out of the way, a good place to meet. I enjoyed seeing these fine men on their tall horses, and felt an expectation of events, but not of danger, since none of them owned to fear. More than once they sacrificed at the fire-altar; the Magus would come, a strong old man who could scramble the rocks like a goatherd, killing snakes and scorpions. I loved the bright flames, and their light on the polished sword-hilts, gold buttons and jeweled hats. So it would all go on, I thought, till I could join them as a man.
After the prayer they would take the sacred drink together, and talk about honor.
In honor I had been instructed. Since I was five and had been brought out from among the women, I had been reared to ride and shoot and abhor the Lie. Fire was the soul of the Wise God. The dark Lie was faithlessness.
King Ochos was lately dead. If his sickness had killed him, few would have cried; but it was said that had been nothing much, it was his medicine he had died of. Bagoas had been highest in the kingdom, next the King, for many years; but young Arses had lately come of age and married. Ochos, with a grown heir and grandsons, had begun to trim Bagoas down. He died soon after this was seen.
"So now," said one of my father's guests, "the throne comes down by treachery, even though to the lawful heir. Myself, I acquit Arses; I never heard anything against the boy's honor. But his youth will double Bagoas' power; from now on, he might as well be King. No eunuch before has climbed so high."
"Not often," my father said. "But sometimes this lust for power will rule them. It is because they will see no sons." Finding me near him, he took me in his arm. Someone uttered a blessing.
The guest of highest rank, whose land was near Persepolis but who had followed the court to Susa, said, "We are all agreed that Bagoas shall never rule. But let us see how Arses deals with him. Young though he is, I think the Vizier has reckoned without his host."
I don't know what Arses would have done, if his brothers had not been poisoned. It was then he set out to count his friends.
The three princes had been much of an age. All three had been very close. Kings mostly change to their kin; Arses did not. The Vizier distrusted their private councils. Both the younger, without much time wasted between, got cramps in their bellies and died.
Soon after, a messenger came to our house; his letter bore the royal seal. I was the first person my father met, when the man had gone.
"My son," he said, "I shall soon have to go away; the King has called for me. A time may come—remember it—when one must stand for the Light against the Lie." He set his hand on my shoulder. "It's hard for you to be sharing your name just now with an evil man; you will not for long, God willing. And that monster can't hand it on. It is you who will carry it down in honor; you, and the sons of your sons." He lifted me up and kissed me.
He had the fort strengthened. It had a sheer cliff one side, and a gatehouse over the mountain track; but he had the walls raised a course or two, with better slits for the archers.
On the day before he was due to leave, a party of warriors rode up. Their letter carried the royal seal. We were not to know it came from a dead man's hand. Arses had gone his brothers' way; his infant sons were smothered; the male line of Ochos was wiped out. My father looked at the seal, and ordered the gates to be opened. The men rode in.
Having watched all this, I went back to some boy's business in the orchard below the tower. There was some shouting; I came to see. Five or six men dragged through the door a man with a dreadful face. Its center was red and empty; blood streamed from it into his mouth and beard. He had been stripped of his coat; both shoulders dripped blood, for his ears had gone. I knew him by his boots; they were my father's.
Even now, sometimes I think how I let him go to his death without a word, struck dumb with horror. I suppose he understood; when he spoke it was to the purpose. As they led him on, he cried at me in a loud harsh voice, horribly changed by the wound where his nose had been, "Orxines betrayed us! Orxines, remember the name! Orxines!"
With the mouth open and shouting, the face looked more frightful than before. I did not know I heard the words it uttered. I stood like a post, while they pushed him to his knees, and pulled his head forward by the hair. It took them five or six sword-strokes, to cleave through his neck.
While they were about this, they forgot to watch my mother. She must have run straight up the tower; the moment he was dead she leaped from it, so they lost their sport with her. She screamed as she fell; but that, I think, was because she saw too late I was there below her. She struck the ground about a spear-length away, and her skull burst open.
I hope my father's spirit saw her quick death. They could just as well have taken his ears and nose when his head was off. The Vizier, when they brought it him, would never have known the difference.
My sisters were twelve years old and thirteen. There was another of about nine, by a second wife of my father's who had died of fever. I heard all three of them shrieking. I don't know if they were left for dead when the men had done, or taken away alive.
At last, the captain of the troop set me on his horse and rode with me down the hill. Slung to his saddlecloth was the bloody bag with my father's head. I wondered, with what power of thought was left me, why he had had mercy on me alone. I learned the answer that same night.
He did not keep me long, being in need of money. In the dealer's courtyard at Susa, city of lilies, I stood stripped naked, while they drank date wine out of little cups, and haggled over my price. Greek boys are reared without shame and used to nakedness; we have more modesty. In my ignorance, I thought one could fall no lower.
Only a month before, my mother had scolded me for looking in her mirror, saying I was too young to be vain. I had no more than glimpsed my face in it. My new owner had more to tell. "A real thoroughbred, the antique Persian strain, the grace of a roebuck. See those delicate bones, the profile—turn round, boy—the hair shining like bronze, straight and fine as silk from Chin—come here, boy, let him feel it. Brows drawn with the fine brush. Those great eyes, smudged in with bister—aha, pools to drown love in! Those slender hands you won't sell cheap to sweep floors. Don't tell me you've been offered such goods in five years, or ten."
At his every pause, the dealer told him he did not buy at a loss. At last he reached his final offer; the captain said it was robbing an honest man; but the dealer said there was the risk to reckon for. "We lose one in five when we geld them."
Geld them, I thought, while the hand of fear closed the gate of understanding. But I had seen it done to an ox at home. I neither spoke nor moved. I begged for nothing. I had learned better than to hope there was pity in the world.
The dealer's house was strong as a prison, with courtyard walls fifteen feet high. On one side was a shed, where they did the gelding. They had purged and starved me first, which is thought to make it safer; I was led in cold and empty, to see the table with the knives, and the frame with splayed-out legs to which they bind you, with old black blood on it and dirty straps. Then at last I threw myself at the dealer's feet and clasped them crying. But they made no more of it than farmhands of the bawling bull-calf. They did not speak to me, just strapped me down, talking across me of some gossip in the market, till they began and I knew nothing, only the pain and my own screams.
They say women forget the pain of childbirth. Well, they are in nature's hand. No hand took mine. I was a body of pain in an earth and sky of darkness. It will take death to make me forget.
There was an old slave-woman who dressed my wounds. She was skillful and clean, for boys were merchandise, and, as she told me once, they thrashed her if they lost one. My cuts hardly festered; she used to tell me they'd made neat work of me, and later, she said giggling, I would be the gainer. I had no use for her words, and only knew she laughed when I was in pain.
When I was healed, I was sold at auction. Once more I stood stripped, this time before staring crowds. From the block I could see the bright glazes of the Palace, where my father had promised to present me to the King.
I was bought by a gem-stone dealer; though it was his wife who chose me, pointing a red-tipped finger from her curtained litter. The auctioneer had delayed and pleaded; the price had disappointed him. From pain and grief I had lost flesh, and no doubt most of my looks. They had stuffed me with food, but I had brought up most of it as if my body disdained to live; so they got me off their hands. The jeweler's wife wanted a pretty page, to set her above the concubines, and I was pretty enough for that. She had a monkey too, with green fur.
I grew fond of the monkey; it was my work to feed it. When I came it would fly through the air to me, and clasp my neck with its little hard black hands. But one day she wearied of it, and had it sold.
I was still young, living from day to day. But when she sold the monkey, I looked ahead. I would never be free; I would be bought and sold like the monkey; and I would never be a man. In the night I lay and thought of it; and in the morning, it seemed that without manhood I had grown old. She said I looked peaked, and gave me a dose that griped my belly. But she was not cruel, and never beat me unless I broke something she valued.
While I lay at the dealer's, the new King had been proclaimed. Ochos' line being extinguished, he was royal only by side descent; but the people seemed to think well of him. Datis, my master, brought no news to the harem, thinking the only concern of women was to please men, and of eunuchs to oversee them. But the chief eunuch would bring us all the gleanings of the bazaar, taking delight in this importance; and why not? It was all he had.
Darius the new King, he said, had both beauty and valor. When Ochos had been at war with the Kadousians, and their giant champion had challenged the King's warriors, only Darius had come forward. He stood six feet and a half himself, and had transfixed the man with a single javelin, living ever since in the renown. There had been consultations, and the Magi had scanned the skies; but no one in council had dared cross Bagoas' choice, he was too much dreaded. However, it seemed that so far the new King had murdered no one; his manners were reported gracious and mild.
As I heard this, waving my mistress's peacock fan, I recalled my father's birthday feast, the last of his life; the guests threading up the mountain and coming in through the gatehouse, the grooms taking their horses; my father with me beside him, welcoming them at the door. One man had towered over the others, and looked so much a warrior that even to me he did not seem old. He was handsome, with all his teeth still perfect, and had tossed me up like a baby, making me laugh. Had he not been called Darius? But one king or another, I thought as I waved the fan, what is that to me?
Soon all this was stale news, and they were talking about the west. There were barbarians there whom I had heard my father speak of, red-haired savages who painted themselves blue; they lived north of the Greeks, a tribe called Macedonians. First they had come raiding; then they had had the impudence to declare war, and the coastal satraps were arming. But the news now was that not long after King Arses' death, their own King had been killed, at some public spectacle where, in their barbarous way, he had walked about unguarded. His heir was only a young lad, so there was no more need to be concerned about them.
My life went by in the small duties of the harem, making beds, carrying trays, mixing sorbets of mountain snow and citron, painting my mistress's finger-ends, and being petted by the girls; Datis had only one wife, but three young concubines, who were kind to me, knowing the master had no taste for boys. But if ever I waited on them, my mistress would clip my ear.
Soon I was let out on little errands, to buy henna and kohl and herbs for the clothes-chests, and such things beneath the chief eunuch's dignity; and would see other eunuchs shopping too. Some were like him, soft and fat with breasts like women's, and after seeing one, though I was growing quickly, I would eat less. Others were shriveled and shrill like careworn crones. But a few stood tall and straight, with some look of pride in themselves; I used to wonder what their secret was.
It was summer; the orange trees in the women's court scented the air, mixed with perfumed sweat from the girls, as they sat dabbling their fingers at the rim of the fishpool. My mistress had bought me a little harp, to hold on the knee, and bade one of the girls teach me to tune it. I was singing, when the chief eunuch rushed in, wheezing with haste and quivering all over. He was bursting with news, but paused to mop his brow and complain about the heat, making them wait. One could see it was a great day.
"Madam," he said, "Bagoas the Vizier is dead!"
The courtyard twittered like a roost of starlings. My mistress waved her plump hand for quiet. "But how? Don't you know anything more?"
"Indeed, madam." He mopped his brow again, till she invited him to sit. He looked round from his cushion like a market storyteller. "It is common talk at the Palace, having been witnessed by many, as you shall hear. You are aware, madam, I know where to ask; if it can be known, it comes to me. It appears that yesterday the King received Bagoas in audience. With men of such rank, of course, only the choicest wine is offered. It was brought in, poured already into cups of inlaid gold. The King took the royal one, Bagoas the other, and the Vizier waited for the King to drink. For some time he held his wine-cup, speaking of some slight matter and watching Bagoas' face; then he made to drink; then he lowered the cup again, watching still. He then said thus: 'Bagoas, you have been the faithful servant of three kings. Such a man should be marked with honor. Here is my own cup for you to pledge me in; I will drink from yours.' The chamberlain brought it to Bagoas, and brought the other to the King.
"I was told, by one who did me the honor to confide in me, that the face of the Vizier changed to the color of pale river-mud. The King drank; and there was a stillness. 'Bagoas,' he said, 'I have drunk; I am waiting for you to pledge me.' At this, Bagoas laid hand on heart, fetched his breath short, and prayed the King to pardon him; he had been taken faint, and begged leave to withdraw. But the King said, 'Sit, Vizier; the wine is your best medicine.' He sat, for it seemed his knees failed beneath him; and the cup shook in his hand, so that the wine began to spill. Then the King leaned forward in his chair, raising his voice for all to hear. 'Drink your wine, Bagoas. For I tell you this and I do not lie; whatever is in that cup, it will be better for you to drink it.'
"At this he drank; and when he would have risen, the Royal Guard stood round him with pointed spears. The King waited till the poison had taken hold, before retiring and leaving them to watch him die. I am told he was an hour about it."
Excerpted from The Persian Boy by Mary Renault. Copyright © 1972 Mary Renault. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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