A novel from the acclaimed author of The Tiger Queens, for readers looking for “strong and determined female protagonists” (Historical Novel Society) and “a sprawling historical saga” (Renee Rosen)...
We are the women who loved Alexander the Great. We were lovers and murderers, innocents and soldiers.
And without us, Alexander would have been only a man.
Instead he was a god.
330s, B.C.E., Greece: Alexander, a handsome young warrior of Macedon, begins his quest to conquer the ancient world. But he cannot ascend to power, and keep it, without the women who help to shape his destiny.
His spirited younger half-sister, Thessalonike, yearns to join her brother and see the world. Instead, it is Alexander's boyhood companion who rides with him into war while Thessalonike remains behind. Far away, crafty princess Drypetis will not stand idly by as Alexander topples her father from Persia's throne. And after Alexander conquers her tiny kingdom, Roxana, the beautiful and cunning daughter of a minor noble, wins Alexander’s heart…and will commit any crime to secure her place at his side.
Within a few short years, Alexander controls an empire more vast than the civilized world has ever known. But his victories are tarnished by losses on the battlefield and treachery among his inner circle. And long after Alexander is gone, the women who are his champions, wives, and enemies will fight to claim his legacy…
CONVERSATION GUIDE INCLUDED
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Stephanie Thornton is a history teacher and the author of novels about the forgotten women of history: The Tiger Queens, Daughter of the Gods, and The Secret History. She lives with her husband and daughter in Alaska.
Read an Excerpt
Also by Stephanie Thornton
Cast of Characters
Further Reading on the Empire of Alexander the Great
Excerpt from The Secret History
About the Author
Alexander deemed himself a god, the mythic descendant of Achilles and the son of Zeus, and entire nations fell to their knees in ecstatic worship of him. But he was no god any more than we were nymphs and dryads, benevolent four-hoofed centaurs or vengeful three-headed chimeras.
He called himself Alexander the Great and claimed that he conquered the world. But he would have been lucky to conquer a stinking midden heap populated by swarms of biting flies had it not been for our cunning and daring.
Alexander founded cities of culture and learning, and named them after himself in a fit of hubris. But he razed more cities than there are stars in the sky, slaughtered their men, and burned their ancient palaces so that the four winds carried the gray ashes to rain down upon lands more distant than Alexandria-the-Farthest.
He claimed that the earth trembled, mountains quivered, and oceans overflowed their shores at his approach, but without us, Alexander would never have mounted a single golden throne or worn the coveted eagle diadem of Persia, much less the combined crowns of Greece, Egypt, and India.
Like Achilles, he sought glory and everlasting fame, and beseeched the gods that his name would echo throughout history. Yet so many of his baser deeds have been forgotten, or retold to forge him into a hero worthy of epic ballads.
But that is only part of the story.
It was because of him, and for him, that we did great, and also terrible, things.
Just as Zeus sat in his throne room atop Olympus, surrounded by the gods of violence and light, the goddesses of desire and the hearth, so too was Alexander surrounded by us.
We were murderers and poisoners, innocents and warriors. And without us, Alexander would have been only a man.
Instead, he was a god.
I thought the wedding feast a threefold gift from Olympus: We celebrated our newly made political alliances, dined on more Delian honey cakes than I could stuff in my cheeks, and witnessed the return of my golden brother from his scandalous exile. Yet in the days to come I would wonder if we had offended the gods or if perhaps the Olympians merely found our petty lives tiresome after the extravagance of the marriage ceremony. Regardless of the cause, the three old crones of Fate set their rusty shears to cutting countless lifestrings after that terrible day.
The morning began with a banquet of dried apricots, flat staititas topped with sesame seeds and goat cheese, and crusty loaves of olive bread meant to symbolize the fertility of the recently deflowered bride—one of my barely known half sisters—wed today to a dour client king of Molossia.
“You have honey on your cheek, Thessalonike.” The youngest of my father’s seven wives and his current favorite, Eurydice, pursed her cinnabar-stained lips at me from across the women’s table. “And I think you’ve had quite enough apricots, lest they make you plumper than you already are.”
I rubbed my sleep-heavy eyes and licked away the sticky sweetness with my tongue, earning stern glares from all my father’s wives and a lopsided grin from my half brother Arrhidaeus.
“Like a frog, Nike,” he said, bouncing in his seat and clapping his fat hands before him. The son of a common Illyrian dancing girl, Arrhidaeus was twice my ten summers, but his mind remained that of a child. Despite his towering height and broad shoulders, he was allowed to sit on the women’s side of the hall because none of the men would have him.
“Or a salamander.” I laughed, letting my tongue flick between my teeth until Eurydice kicked my foot beneath the table. I scowled, wishing my pretty stepmother were still confined to her chambers with her infant son, where she couldn’t nag me.
The last apricot drizzled with honey beckoned, so I shoved it into my mouth before Eurydice could swat my hand. This afternoon would include endless recitations of Homer’s moth-eaten poems and prizes of gold bullion for the finest sculpture celebrating the marriage alliance between Epirus and Macedon, but I was hoping to sneak away to watch the javelin throwers and pankration matches. If I was lucky, maybe the pankratiasts would break the rules and try to gouge out each other’s eyes.
If I were ever a naked and oiled pankratiast—which I never would be because I had the misfortune of being born both a girl and royal—the first thing I would do was go for the eyes.
In fact, Arrhidaeus had long ago shortened my name to Nike—the rest of my name proving too cumbersome—and it suited me to share the name with the winged goddess of victory, for like Nike I loved to win above all things.
“Come,” Eurydice said, standing and smoothing the elaborate pleats of her woolen peplos. “We shall continue our weaving until the men return from the arena. Then Philip has granted us permission to listen to the poets.”
I stabbed my finger inside an olive, wishing I could do the same to my ears when it came time for the recitation. I dropped the pit to the ground, then winked at Arrhidaeus before I crushed the salty green flesh between my teeth. My half brother didn’t notice, being too busy digging with a tiny silver spoon into a pomegranate. Eurydice swept off in a cloud of violet perfume. No one noticed—or perhaps cared—when I didn’t follow. My father’s youngest wife had pretensions of being a dutiful matron, but Eurydice was better suited to gossiping about the latest fashion of beaded girdles or how much her recent treatment of foul-smelling ceruse had whitened her skin.
“Follow me,” I whispered to Arrhidaeus, casting a furtive glance around the hall.
“Where?” he asked. His thick lips drooped into a frown as he gave up on the spoon and used his fingers to fish the last juicy red seeds from the pomegranate’s husk.
“To the arena,” I said, pulling him from the table even as he licked his scarlet-stained palms. “I’d rather pluck my eyes out than spend the day weaving.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Don’t hurt your eyes.”
“I won’t, my Titan, at least not if you hurry.”
My half brother grinned at my name for him. The Titans were immortal giants with tremendous strength (although they’d been overthrown by the Olympians, which I chose to ignore). Regardless, the nickname was kinder than the others my father’s court called Arrhidaeus: “donkey face,” “walnut brain,” and “half-wit.” Several of the nobles’ foulmouthed sons had felt the sting of my slingshot in response, so now they held their tongues when I was nearby.
I glanced at the courtyard’s columned entrance, the wilted olive branch that announced the birth of Eurydice’s son still tied to the plinths, and saw that my eldest half brother, Alexander, and his boyhood companion Hephaestion had arrived, their hair damp and complexions ruddy from the baths. Their heads were bent in deep conversation—one the color of a lion’s mane in summer sunshine and the other with curls as dark as a crow’s wing in winter. Their claim on each other’s affections was well-known throughout the palace and they’d walked in each other’s shadows since Alexander’s recent return to Aigai following his exile. Despite that, most of the women—and some of the men—now swiveled in the direction of my beautiful, scandal-laden brother, several holding chunks of bread suspended in midair as he and his friend passed.
Hephaestion’s chiseled features softened as he stooped to whisper in my brother’s ear before striding toward the table on the men’s side of the courtyard, its walls decorated with a fresco of a griffin attacking a stag. Alexander arranged himself stiffly on a dining couch, his tawny hair parted in a severe line down the middle, and his lips curved into a frown as he glanced at our father’s empty dais. My brother’s return had inspired continuing whispers that Eurydice’s newly delivered infant son would supplant him as our father’s heir.
Life had been simple until my father married Eurydice of Macedon, her belly already swollen with a boy child, or so she had crowed to anyone who would listen. Perhaps it was a result of the wine or the summer’s heat, but at their wedding ceremony Alexander’s blood had almost been shed after Eurydice’s father had offered a public prayer to Zeus to grant my father a new, full-blooded heir. Alexander, born of Philip’s Macedonian and Olympias’ Epirean blood, had leapt from his seat in a rage and thrown his cup of wine at Eurydice’s father, causing my father to draw his sword. There was a collective gasp of shock as my father lunged forward, presumably to stab his own son, but instead he tripped on the edge of his couch and fell face-first to the ground. In the outrage that followed, Alexander and his mother were forced to flee from Aigai, leaving me bereft of both a brother and the woman who had raised me after my own mother died giving me life.
Alexander had been ordered home for the wedding, though our father utterly ignored him now that Eurydice had birthed his fully Macedonian son. Olympias remained in exile, abandoned in Epirus with only her devotions to Dionysus, her famed pet snakes (which I adored, especially the spotted leopard snake I’d taught to tickle my feet with its tongue), and her hopes of one day seeing Alexander on the throne to keep her content. And that meant Eurydice remained in control of my father’s household.
And in control of me, at least when she was paying attention.
We were almost to the doorway when a strong hand encircled my wrist. “Sneaking off again, Thessalonike?” Hephaestion’s voice held an undercurrent of laughter. “I should return you to Eurydice,” he said, popping a stray date into his mouth and chewing it thoughtfully. “I heard her mention an important tapestry, something about a design of Athena’s defeat of Enceladus involving thousands of very complicated and extremely tiny knots.”
I groaned and fell to my knees on the hall’s black-and-white checkered mosaic. “Please, no. I’d rather you killed me first.”
“No, Nike,” Arrhidaeus said with an emphatic shake of his head. “No killing.”
“Is my sister threatening another dramatic death?” Alexander asked as he stepped forward, his shadow falling on me. “What is it this time, Thessalonike? Impaled by Persian swords? Ripped apart by lions? Drowned by Scylla and Charybdis?”
“Nothing so glorious,” I muttered. “Death by weaving.”
Alexander, my golden half brother and descendant of both Heracles and Achilles, shared a grin with Hephaestion and laughed, leaving me scowling and Arrhidaeus’ brows knit together in consternation so I had to pat his arm to reassure him that all was right in the world.
“Are you two going to release me or return me to my doom?” I asked, folding my arms in front of me.
Hephaestion tapped his chin. “She’s a demanding little thing, isn’t she?”
“Always has been,” Alexander said. “When her mouth isn’t full of sweetmeats or honey rolls, that is.”
I stuck out my tongue at him. Some people stuttered in Alexander’s presence, fearing his mercurial temper and the aura of the gods that clung to him, but I’d spent the full ten years of my life in his mother’s household and knew that the man before me had recently been a boy who drooled in his sleep and kept a tattered copy of Homer’s Song of Ilium under his pillow, believing it would imbue him with the power of Achilles.
“If you’re going to continue insulting me,” I said, “then Arrhidaeus and I are leaving for the arena.”
“I’m sure that will go over well,” Hephaestion said, glancing heavenward. “Surely no one will notice Philip’s daughter at the men’s games.”
I narrowed my eyes in speculation. “They won’t care if I’m accompanied by my father’s son and heir.”
A dark cloud passed over Alexander’s features. I’d forgotten for a moment the talk of Eurydice’s son supplanting him, but the storm passed as Hephaestion threw his arm around Alexander’s broad shoulders. “You,” he said to my brother, “must accompany your father into the stadium, but perhaps Arrhidaeus and I can escort young Thessalonike.”
Alexander didn’t answer, but he looked past us to where my father entered the courtyard, every guest lifting a terra-cotta skyphos of wine in his honor. Before my birth, the poets claimed that the birds sang of Philip’s beauty, but now a livid pink scar ruined one side of his face, a battle wound from the siege of Methone that had also claimed his left eye as a spoil of war.
“If you go to the arena, go quickly.” Alexander’s own eyes—one the pale blue of a spring sky and the other the darker hue of an oncoming storm—remained shuttered as he tugged my blond curls, identical to his own. “Your secrets are safe with me, little sister.”
I shrieked with glee, then grabbed Arrhidaeus’ and Hephaestion’s hands and dragged them from the hall, my blue himation flapping behind me while Arrhidaeus’ chortles of laughter chased us on. Through the palace courtyard with its potted quince trees and then the apricot and pomegranate orchards, beyond the southern Sun Gate and the shuttered agora—its stalls closed in preparation for the glorious spectacle awaiting us—and then to the amphitheater nestled into the base of one of Aigai’s rolling hills, its autumn grasses muted to a dull gold. Crowds of men swathed in furs already jostled for the best view of the naked wrestlers and javelin throwers, but we found seats near the bottom row. My eyes bulged to see my eldest half sister, Cynnane, seated nearby with her husband, Amyntas, a lone woman among a sea of men, her crinkly curls somewhat tamed by a sheen of olive oil and her body dressed not in her customary short chiton but in a refined peplos that flowed all the way to her sturdy ankles. I hadn’t seen her since the birth of her daughter a few months ago, and women weren’t allowed in the arena, but Cynnane wasn’t a proper woman; she’d been instructed by her Illyrian mother in the ways of war, traditions passed down by the chieftains of their family for generations.
I ducked behind Arrhidaeus, glad for the shield of his hulking shoulders, for although being near Alexander never tied my tongue, I never failed to garble my words in Cynnane’s imposing presence. The meager autumn sun had scarcely climbed over the horizon when the music of lyres and horns proclaimed the arrival of the twelve gods of Olympus.
Before the athletics could begin, priests dressed in white chitons strained beneath the weight of a sedan chair carrying a life-sized statue of Zeus. The great god of thunder scowled above his marble beard of curls and massive bare chest, poised as if to attack us with the mighty spear clutched forever in his hand. Behind the gods and goddesses of the sun and oceans, death and love, wisdom and war, came a thirteenth statue, bearing a striking likeness to the ruined man of flesh and blood who entered the earthen floor of the arena. The spectators cheered wildly at the sight of my bearlike father despite his lame left leg, dressed in his customary greaves and boiled leather armor, his black beard trimmed to the sharpness of a spearpoint. I shrank back as his good eye scanned the arena, my heart thudding in my chest.
And, like the gods that surrounded him, my father decided he need not rely on mortals for protection. He raised a hand beneath his white chlamys, dismissing his seven Royal Bodyguards and leaving himself flanked by only Alexander and today’s bridegroom, two princes taking their places behind the battle-scarred warrior who had conquered Macedon and united all the Peloponnese people under his rule.
My father limped toward the center of the arena, lifting his arms and preparing to speak.
But a single guard doubled back from the entrance as the others exited, a black-haired man in a scarlet cape whom I recognized as Pausanius, my favorite of my father’s Royal Bodyguards. Pausanius had spent much of his time guarding Alexander’s mother, Olympias, before her exile and had often used his knife incised with spirals and concentric circles to cut my honeyed dates into bite-sized pieces. Now I thought that perhaps he carried some sort of urgent message. He came close to my startled father and embraced him. Then silver flashed in his hand like one of Zeus’ lightning bolts thrown to earth.
Philip of Macedon, my indomitable father with a face ruined from battle and a body riddled with sword wounds, gave a deafening roar as he clutched his ribs. Pausanius stumbled back, then ran across the open ground and through the doors of the stadium, the same entrance through which my father had just strode, ready to be enthroned as a god.
No one moved as crimson stained the ground. It wasn’t until an ocean of red spread from the vulnerable spot in my father’s cuirass and down his chest that the crowd began to scream and my mind made sense of what I’d seen.
My father had been stabbed and now his lifeblood lured Hades to drag his shade to the underworld.
In one terrible slow moment he fell to his knees in the dirt, clasping his ribs, as Alexander ran to him and shouts rang out across the arena.
I screamed, the never-ending sound coming like water from behind a broken dyke, and Hephaestion vaulted the short wall onto the arena floor. “Arrhidaeus,” he commanded over his shoulder, “take Thessalonike back to the palace. Keep her safe.” He called to my half sister with her wild hair even as her husband followed Alexander. “Cynnane, accompany them!”
I stood, transfixed as my father’s lifeblood poured in a torrent from his chest. I’d watched spotted goats and pristine white calves being sacrificed in the names of our gods, but never before had I seen a man die. Arrhidaeus slung me over his shoulder, but I twisted and strained for a glimpse of my father as the remainder of his bodyguards surrounded him. Alexander stood over our father, clasping the hilt of the decorated knife that had once cut my sweetmeats and now gleamed with our father’s blood. The air seemed to shift above Philip of Macedon and I knew he was dead then, his psyche released from his body like a tremulous gust of wind.
“This dagger shall usher one more shade to Hades before the day is done,” Alexander yelled. “Find Pausanius and drag the filthy assassin here so I might bury this blade into his belly as he did my father!”
He said something more, but I couldn’t hear—the crowd swallowed the sight of my brother, and my ribs slammed into Arrhidaeus’ shoulder as he bounded out of the amphitheater and over the cobbles, dodging children playing with hoops and sticks, gossiping slave girls carrying baskets and drop spindles, and donkeys pulling carts of unglazed pottery. Hot tears clouded my vision, but Cynnane loped after us, a drawn dagger in her hand.
“Let me go,” I yelled, banging my feeble fists into Arrhidaeus’ back, but he ran on. It wasn’t until we were almost to the city’s Sun Gate that he paused, bent double and his chest heaving. I scrambled down, ready to lambaste him despite my tears, when a flash of color caught my eye.
A scarlet cape—my father’s Royal Bodyguard. I ignored Arrhidaeus’ bellowed protests as I darted down a side street toward the shrine of Aphrodite, Cynnane yelling behind me.
The sight of Pausanius’ dark shock of hair made me run faster than I’d ever run before. Ahead at the gate, another man astride a yellow mare held the reins of a second horse while hollering and beckoning wildly for my father’s murderer.
“Pausanius!” I screamed. I had no sword or spear, but I bent and heaved at his head a handful of pebbles from a potted orange tree, wishing for my slingshot and hoping to blind him if he turned at just the right moment. He turned, but only leered as the worthless stones showered the ground at his feet.
Yet whatever he saw behind me catapulted his expression into one of sheer terror.
He ran faster then, arms pumping as the waiting man kicked hard the ribs of the yellow mare and galloped out of the gate. Perhaps Artemis, goddess of the hunt, and Dike, goddess of righteousness, joined together to see justice done that day, for silver flashed from behind me and embedded itself in Pausanius’ thigh. He crashed into the cobbles with a howl of rage, clutching his skewered leg. And then Cynnane was beside me, her hair in ever wilder disarray and her dagger hilt empty.
“Blades are more effective than stones, little one,” she said with a tweak of my nose. “Remember that.”
A larger flash of scarlet and silver emerged from the main street and the remainder of my father’s guards hurtled toward Pausanius with their swords.
“Stop!” I shouted. The men hesitated, blades poised to strike, the bloodlust in their eyes making me recoil in fear. Pausanius cowered at their feet, the trembling mongrel curled into himself. “My brother Alexander commanded you to bring this criminal to him,” I said, gasping for breath even as I raised a hand to halt them. “He, not you, should punish Pausanius.”
A crowd had gathered, but Cynnane stepped into the fray then, bent, and pulled her dagger from Pausanius’ thigh. She wiped its blood on her peplos and resheathed the blade in her leather belt. “Do as the child says,” she commanded. “Pausanius of Orestis doesn’t deserve a quick dispatch to Hades.”
“We don’t take orders from a woman,” one of the men growled. “Or a girl.”
“Then I’ll slit you open from your eyeballs to your asshole,” Cynnane said, grasping the hilt of her dagger once again. “After which Hades himself can give you orders.”
“You’ll do as Alexander commanded,” I said. “For he is our brother, and your new basileus.”
No one moved for a long moment, but then the fury in the guards’ eyes banked, albeit grudgingly. “Do as she says,” the commander barked.
“Drag him through the gutters and hit his head against as many curbs as you can,” Cynnane said. “This one deserves a painful and creative death.”
Arrhidaeus broke through the crowd then and jogged to us, cringing and covering his eyes as the guards grabbed hold of Pausanius’ ankles and hauled our father’s murderer over the cobbles, leaving a sluice of crimson to mark their path back to the arena. I waited until they were gone, then sank to my knees in the street.
“Home, Nike,” Arrhidaeus said, shaking my shoulder none too gently. “Hephaestion said to go home.”
“Give her a moment,” Cynnane said, but her voice was kind. “It takes more than a breath to recover after you’ve first seen men’s blood spilled.”
Not just any men’s blood. My father’s blood. And his murderer’s.
I wanted nothing more in that instant than to be in my bed, with my shaggy goat, Pan, curled at my feet and my fat orange tomcat purring on my lap, a plate of honeyed apricots at my elbow and all of this a bad dream already fading into nothingness. Instead, I started to shiver, my teeth chattering as if an icy blanket had been wrapped around my shoulders.
“Take me home, Arrhidaeus,” I whispered even as he crouched down so I could climb onto his back. “Please just take me home.”
• • •
The gods granted Cynnane’s wish for Pausanius’ painful and creative death.
Pausanius had been dragged back to the arena for Alexander to mete out the sentence mandated for a king-killer. Buckets of chilled water were thrown to revive him so he might see himself stripped naked while five iron clamps fixed him to a rough-hewn plank at his ankles, wrists, and neck. The dagger he’d used to stab my father was tied around his neck, both as a reminder of his crime and also to taunt him as he was left to slowly starve to death, unable to seek solace in suicide. Children threw rotten onions at him and wild dogs nipped his bound heels, but he remained on exhibition outside the palace gates, shivering by night and mired in his own urine and feces as the days passed. I did my best to avoid the rotting heap of flesh, staying in my rooms and playing with my goat, my lazy orange cat, and the three-legged tortoise I’d recently rescued. Even still, I heard my slaves whisper that Pausanius lingered so he might greet the woman who ordered his assassin’s act. Yet not even Pausanius could hide from Hades forever. The moldering god of death finally claimed my father’s murderer as dawn streaked the sky with orange on the same morning that Olympias arrived in Aigai.
The return of Alexander and his mother had each ushered a man’s soul to the river Styx, so that superstitious minds might have wondered if perhaps my brother and Olympias had made a pact with the god of the underworld. My naive child’s mind was foolish enough to believe we’d seen the end of the bloodshed.
Ignoring the pike that still held Pausanius’ body, I ran to greet Olympias as her procession approached the palace walls, but she scarcely looked at me as she took Alexander’s hand and alighted from her ebony litter. The pleats of her peplos brushed her polished leather sandals, and her burnished copper hair was coiled into flawless ringlets and threaded to frame her face.
“There is much to talk about, my son,” I heard her murmur in Alexander’s ear, even as her eyes strayed to where Pausanius remained, the crows that had been startled away by her arrival daring to flutter closer. “You must speak to Antipater, convince your father’s general to throw his weight behind you to ensure the army’s support for your claim—”
“First we carry my father to his tomb,” Alexander reminded her. “Come dawn, I shall speak to Antipater and any other man you suggest.”
“Of course. And now I would pay my respects to the dead.”
I thought she meant she’d like to stand vigil with my father, but instead she flicked a wrist and a slave appeared at her side bearing a thin golden diadem on a cushion dyed with precious Tyrian purple. She placed the crown upon Pausanius’ rotting head and bowed over her hands. “I dedicate the blade you used against Philip to Apollo,” she said to the dead assassin, cutting the dagger free from his blackened neck. “Your praises shall be sung to eternity.”
I stared openmouthed at her, my mind churning to realize that Olympias approved of her husband’s murder. Even worse, the slaves might be correct in thinking she’d ordered Pausanius to kill my father. “Did you want my father to die?” I blurted out.
Olympias leveled an iron stare at me and I shrank back, wishing I could catch the words and swallow them.
“The poor dear is overcome with grief, isn’t she?” Olympias murmured to Alexander. “No, little Nike, I didn’t seek Philip’s death. But his tyrant’s blood has watered the earth. Life must continue.”
To the handful of gathered courtiers she offered a widow’s watery eyes. “The Delphic oracle once proclaimed to Philip of Macedon that the end was near, the sacrificer at hand. My husband believed this meant the war against Persia would soon be won, but such hubris challenged the gods, and thus, Pausanius merely meted out their justice.”
But she had praised Pausanius’ corpse. Olympias was the only mother I knew, yet my father’s words after her exile floated to my mind, that she was as slippery as the snakes that she cultivated. And even a venomous adder might sometimes be mistaken for a common grass snake.
But Olympias was the woman who had gifted me with tiny iron cages for my own menagerie of lizards, toads, and broken-winged sparrows. Surely she mourned my father’s death.
She slipped her arm through Alexander’s and drew him toward the palace’s main entrance, the rest of us following close behind. “There is still the matter of Amyntas, Eurydice, and her son.”
“You needn’t worry about Cynnane’s husband,” Alexander said. “But I shall not allow harm to befall a mother and her infant.”
Olympias’ lips thinned into a tight smile. “How benevolent of you.”
“I forbid it, Mother.”
“Of course, my son,” Olympias said. “I shall do whatever you deem necessary, yet surely it is far from wise to allow your closest rival and his mother to prosper under your roof.”
“There is no need to harm a child and his mother, her breasts still heavy with milk,” Alexander said, his voice hard as stone. “That is my final decision in the matter, Mother.”
I shuddered, chilled to the marrow of my bones at Olympias’ suggestion. I wondered then what she would have done had I been born a boy, a threat to Alexander’s place as Macedon’s heir. Would my name have been whispered along with insinuations of murder before I was old enough to toddle and talk?
For once, I was glad I was merely the worthless daughter of my father’s third wife.
• • •
I stood behind Arrhidaeus in the funeral ekphora as my father’s court gathered in the main courtyard that night. Slaves bearing golden spears and arrows, ivory-studded armor, and silver shields emblazoned with Macedon’s star would carry my father’s final treasures to surround his golden larnax before his bones and ashes were forever locked in his tomb, its frescoes of Hades’ abduction of Persephone still damp to the touch. My father’s wives were draped in linens dyed with black oak apple and carried an assortment of golden urns, bronze pouring kraters, and a gilded Medusa head to protect the grave goods from robbers. It was only later that I realized two of the wives were missing from the flock of perfumed black women honking their noses into their sleeves.
Alexander lit a torch that illuminated our father’s body, wrapped in fine linen and crowned with a golden diadem of acorns and laurel leaves. My father had been gruff and sometimes even cruel in life, but my throat felt raw as I tried to swallow, remembering the man who had gifted me with a pony and a wooden sword, reenacted the battle of Thessaly from the day of my birth, and taught me to parry his blows with Alexander’s cast-off toy shield. I’d failed with the sword and shield, but the pony and I had become inseparable, the first in my little menagerie.
Next to me, Arrhidaeus began to whimper and the sounds quickly turned to ragged sobs. “I don’t want Father to be dead,” he whined. “And I don’t want him in the fire or alone in the dark.”
Alexander glanced back at us with irritation, but it was Hephaestion who approached, carrying a torch to cast us in light stolen from the sun.
“How are you faring, Arrhidaeus?” he asked.
“It’s dark and our father is about to be burned and buried,” I muttered under my breath. “How do you think he fares?”
Arrhidaeus cried louder, like a puppy being whipped.
“He should remain here,” I said. “I’ll stay with him.”
Hephaestion shook his head. “Philip was your father too. You follow Alexander and I’ll take care of Arrhidaeus. Maybe you can beat me at the discus again, eh, Arrhidaeus?”
If there was anyone who could best Hephaestion at discus throwing, it was Arrhidaeus, but even that didn’t soothe my brother’s sobs.
“You go,” I said to Hephaestion, then tugged on Arrhidaeus’ hand. “Let’s see if we can teach my goat, Pan, to carry our new tortoise on her head like a helmet.”
“A tortoise helmet?” Arrhidaeus said, rubbing his nose and leaving behind a trail of glistening snot. “That’s silly, Nike.”
Hephaestion winked at me. “If it works, perhaps I’ll ask Alexander to commission tortoise helmets for the entire army.”
Arrhidaeus’ crying eased enough for me to lead him away from the entourage with its flaming torches that would soon light my father’s pyra, but my cheeks flushed as I glanced back in time to see Hephaestion offer me a little bow.
Arrhidaeus and I had scarcely entered the palace corridors, freshly scrubbed with seawater and hyssop to purify them of my father’s death, when I plunged my brother into a hell worse than any tomb.
It started with a baby’s cry and a woman’s unceasing scream.
And the smell of fire.
Lit by the sickle moon, a burgeoning flag of colorless smoke billowed from above the nursery roof. Still holding my brother’s hand, I ran toward the nursery, but the plumes now swelled skyward from the children’s small tiled courtyard, with the fountain I loved to run through and the wicker cages of doves that pecked delicately at the sesame seeds I brought them. I reared back to see a pyra burning amid the juniper bushes and potted lemon trees.
And within the pyra, a woman I knew, in a blue peplos I knew, bound arms curved around a bundle I knew. Only now her violet perfume was gone in a cloud of embers as she writhed and screamed.
Bile rose in my throat as the breeze tossed the scent of burning flesh and cedar into the wine-dark heavens. The heat of the fire pushed me back and Eurydice’s screams and her son’s cries fell silent, replaced by the greedy crackle of flames and Arrhidaeus’ renewed howls.
Olympias stood before the conflagration, wearing an expression of ecstasy as shadow-flames danced on her face and her golden snake bracelets seemed to writhe up her arms. I choked and clamped my eyes closed, wishing I could unsee the image seared into my mind.
And I knew then that my father was right, that Olympias was worse than any viper.
“No,” Arrhidaeus shouted. “No, no, no!”
“Remove Arrhidaeus to his rooms,” Olympias commanded. I opened my eyes as guards stepped from the shadows and pulled Arrhidaeus back from the makeshift pyra even as he reached out as if to rescue the bodies from the flames. I ducked my head and turned to follow, my lungs screaming as I tried not to breathe, but Olympias’ voice stopped me cold. “You shall stay by my side, Thessalonike.” I cringed, my every muscle trembling as if Poseidon shook the ground beneath my feet. “One day you may be queen of Thessaly or Illyria or even Sparta, and this”—she gestured toward the pyra—“is a lesson all queens must learn.”
I had no choice but to obey, yet I set my gaze beyond the fire with its hisses and smell of Hades’ brimstone and desolation, trying desperately to ignore the blackened silhouettes—one tall and one so very tiny—in the middle of the flames. I’d harbored no love for Eurydice, but surely she hadn’t deserved to die. And her tiny son . . .
“Eurydice was a traitor,” Olympias said, as if reading my thoughts. “And traitors must die terrible deaths. Remember that, if ever you are tempted toward leniency for your enemies.”
“But Eurydice only wanted what you wanted,” I choked out, shocked at my own daring and stupidity. “To put her son on the throne.”
“Perhaps,” Olympias said. “And for that, I gave her the mercy of dousing the wood with olive oil.”
I was saved from having to speak, or perhaps from having my tongue chopped out, as Alexander barreled into the courtyard behind me, the disbelief on his face warped first by shock and then by rage. His wild eyes scanned the fire and he recoiled; then he drew his sword and pointed its tip at Olympias’ throat. “You’ve overstepped yourself, Mother!”
“You are supposed to be at your father’s tomb,” Olympias said. She tilted her chin back as if daring him to slit her pale throat. “This was to be done and the ashes swept away before you returned.”
“I forbade this!” he yelled, motioning at the pyra. “Eurydice and her son were as harmless as Arrhidaeus!”
My mouth went dry and it became impossible to swallow around what might have been shards of glass embedded in my throat. Arrhidaeus shared my father’s blood, but he was simple and illegitimate, surely no threat to Olympias or Alexander.
“You’re too soft, son of mine.” She spoke calmly, her voice almost drowned out by the crackling flames. “Eurydice was an ambitious bitch, and would have used her son to garner support against you and steal your father’s throne. This is my gift to you, Alexander. It is my name that shall be blackened with their deaths, not yours.”
Alexander seemed to hesitate, then growled deep in his throat and lowered his sword so fast that it clanged against the tiles. “If you dare touch Arrhidaeus, I swear I’ll build your pyra with my own hands.”
Olympias gave an elegant shrug, her copper hair still catching the light of the dying fire. “His mind and his bastard birth preclude his being a competitor for your throne. Keep him alive if you will.” I sagged with relief, but her next words stopped my heart. “My brother, Alexander of Molossia, has turned tail and run back to Epirus, but what shall you do with Amyntas? As Cynnane’s husband, he might set his sights on your throne. You still have the army to persuade—”
“The army is mine, for Antipater has sworn to throw his weight behind me. The men will do as their general commands.”
Olympias thrummed her fingers against her arm. “Antipater was always your father’s dog. I’m glad to see he shall be yours to command now. And Amyntas?”
“He fell on his sword this night,” Alexander said.
“At your request?”
The world went cold then, that my golden brother had widowed brave, beautiful Cynnane with a mere command. My fear and revulsion ripened, expanding in the night air until I thought I would choke on it.
Olympias smiled, an expression more fearful than if she’d ranted or raged. “Good boy. You learn quickly.”
But Alexander only glowered at his mother. “I’ll have your word right now that neither Cynnane nor her daughter shall share Eurydice’s fate.”
“Of course,” Olympias answered, as if granting a trinket. “Cynnane was a lucky woman to marry such a wise man as Amyntas. We must assure that she and her daughter are provided for.”
A strangled cry of outrage escaped from my throat and drew Alexander’s and Olympias’ attention. “Thessalonike,” Olympias said, in a voice I knew too well from all the times she’d caught me in the cellars, my cheeks stuffed with dried figs. “Return to the nursery. You shall not speak of what you’ve seen here.”
I nodded and turned to run as fast as my feet would carry me, but Alexander caught me by the hand. “Don’t touch me,” I hissed. I withdrew my hand in disgust and then I ran—away from them and the heat of the fire, from Eurydice’s shade and that of her son, back to my goat and my tortoise and my gentle brother, whose sobs still echoed down the hallways.
And I swore a solemn vow to myself that if Olympias was right and this was what it meant to be queen, I’d never allow the golden diadem to touch my head.
Lest I become a monster like her.
• • •
A letter came a few days later, on the morning my brother took control of the army. A dust-laden messenger launched himself from his nut-brown horse with a flourish, but it seemed only I noticed him, what with all eyes fixed on my brother and the aging general at his side. I still felt nauseated every time I looked at Alexander or Olympias and had set my eyes on everything except them to avoid the remembrance of the fire in the courtyard, the smell of roasting flesh, and the treachery that had shattered my innocence.
Antipater of Macedon, my father’s dog and a general whose many years and battles meant that his unfashionable beard was more frost than ash, had just finished a speech urging the army to love Alexander as they had our father. Alexander stood before them dressed in full battle armor: a leather cuirass on his chest, his fair hair hidden beneath a bronze helmet topped with eagle feathers and crowned by a gold sphinx, and his shoulders draped with a lion skin as his ancestor Heracles had once worn. It was Olympias who stepped forward to relieve the rider of his message as Alexander spoke to his men, something about spreading our father’s legacy and the might of Macedon across the craggy mountains and beyond the churning seas. I listened with half an ear while Olympias scanned the paper. A slight smile tugged at her lips as she took her place among the women and children once again.
And then she beckoned to me.
I hesitated before wading past Arrhidaeus and the remainder of my father’s wives (all of whom sat as far from Olympias as decorum allowed), ignoring their pinched lips and pale faces.
“The homeland of your mother revolts again,” Olympias said. “Its armies move against my son.”
I wiped my suddenly sweaty palms on my chiton. Surely Olympias wouldn’t hold me responsible for a rebellion in a land I’d never seen, even if I did share its name. My mother had looked upon me in my cradle from her deathbed and claimed that I was as strong as the Aegean waves that crashed on the rocks below her childhood home in Thessaly. Yet I was born on the day my father’s men conquered her homeland at the Battle of Crocus Field, and so he had decreed my name should be Thessalonike: Victory in Thessaly. Now the Thessalians revolted again, and I wished I knew some good words to curse them with. Too bad I refused to speak to Alexander or he might have taught me some.
Then Olympias smiled, a gesture that might have frozen the sun. She didn’t offer any explanation, only watched as Alexander led his men in the ceremonial march between the two severed halves of a recently sacrificed dog, its red and purple entrails spilling from the furry brown body. I looked away, recognizing the poor beast as one my orange tom had often taunted, my eyes stinging at the thought that the poor animal had been wagging its tail and eating a fine feast of minced liver only this morning. The army would be purified once the cavalry and infantry had passed between the sanctified dog as decreed by the oracles, and Alexander would officially take his place as their commander.
And then I knew why Olympias smiled so.
“Alexander will lead the army against Thessaly, won’t he?” I asked.
She didn’t glance at me, only nodded. “And he will rout them.”
I’d sought to curse the Thessalians mere moments ago, but I felt only one thing for them as the army raised swords, banging on their glaring sun shields and cheering their acceptance of my brother.
• • •
Regret and relief roiled deep in my belly as I watched Alexander leave our city, a golden lion at the front of a long line of shield bearers and foot companions, all dressed in greaves and leather breastplates, carrying lances and Macedonian sarissas, those deadly pikes made of sturdy cornel wood and tipped with iron that could pierce through the strongest cuirass. Their shields were freshly stamped with my brother’s newly claimed symbol: a sixteen-pointed star, one spoke for each of the twelve gods of Olympus and the four seasons, as if Alexander planned to harness all of those mighty powers. Alexander rode his black horse, Bucephalus, an untamed beast whelped in Hephaestus’ fiery forges that he’d broken as a young man and since taught to kneel in full armor, and the crowds threw fragrant jasmine petals into the air and chanted his name. And my golden brother threw back his head and laughed, a glorious sound that made the crowd cheer louder.
“I love Alexander,” Arrhidaeus said next to me, grinning his lopsided grin. He’d lost weight since the night in the courtyard and I’d had to give him my three-legged tortoise to coax a smile out of him, but now the parade distracted him and he clapped his hands. “Everyone else does too.”
I watched as Alexander threw his fist into the air, prompting a deafening cheer. It seemed Arrhidaeus was right; the army cared little for the recent murders and not even Achilles and Heracles could have looked more glorious as they strode into battle. A shudder passed through my bones as I remembered the way those brave heroes had perished. Only the gods knew whether my brother would follow in their footsteps, and I was ashamed to feel myself softening toward him, knowing as I did what horrors he’d sanctioned for his throne.
I longed to leave Aigai, to climb Egypt’s ancient pyramids and gape at Persia’s renowned Ishtar Gate, as Alexander claimed he would on this conquest, yet I could never leave Arrhidaeus. And a girl could never travel with the army, although I’d heard stories that King Darius of Persia kept his entire family with him when campaigning.
Alexander met my gaze and grinned, then beckoned to his newly appointed bodyguard: Hephaestion. My brother riffled in his saddlebags and pressed something into his friend’s hand, winking at me before turning away. Hephaestion guided his horse toward the shaded dais where I sat with the royal family.
“A gift for Thessalonike,” Hephaestion said. His slow smile was the one I’d seen prompt giggles from both the kitchen slaves and the stableboys, but I sensed he was laughing at me as he pressed the bulky package into my hands.
I looked down to see my eldest brother’s dog-eared copy of Homer’s Song of Ilium. I wrinkled my nose, prompting a laugh from Hephaestion.
“Surely my brother cannot bear to part with his precious book,” I said, holding the thing like a dead rat. I much preferred The Odyssey, with its tales of adventure and exploration.
“Alexander sleeps with that poem. It’s dearer to him than almost anything.” Hephaestion winked at me. “Except me, of course. Your brother bids you keep it safe for him; he shall order Aristotle to send him another copy,” Hephaestion continued. “He wishes you well versed in the accomplishments of the great heroes, for he claims he will one day rival even Achilles.”
“Something about animals would have been more interesting,” I grumbled. Maybe something on snakes or dogs. I’d already read Aristotle’s ideas in the History of Animals. I’d taken to heart his suggestion to crack open chicken eggs at regular intervals in order to observe the generation of organs like the lungs and the brain, a practice that had earned me a round scolding from the cook and a lecture about how only uncivilized barbaroi would keep fertilized eggs in their kitchens. I wondered if perhaps Aristotle had penned a manual on spear throwing or how to wield a sword, both skills that seemed suddenly practical in this upside-down world I now lived in.
“I had a feeling you’d turn your nose up at Homer, so I brought something else.” Hephaestion laughed again and tweaked my ear, revealing a lumpy burlap bag in his palm. I tore it open greedily, my bruised heart expanding at the honey cakes inside. “And you, little lioness, shall be full-grown when we see you again. Shall you honor Aphrodite with your beauty then or Athena with your wisdom? Perhaps Artemis, lover of animals?”
“All three,” I chirped proudly.
Olympias cleared her throat, bringing me back to reality. “That’s enough, Hephaestion,” she said sternly. “You shall dine on Alexander’s dust if you don’t follow now.”
And thus, Hephaestion bowed to us, kicked his horse in the ribs, and charged off, toward Alexander, Thessaly, and the victories yet to come.
I didn’t know it then, but it would be many years before I’d see Alexander again, at yet another funeral that would set the shears of the three Fates into a deadly flurry once more.
“Smile, Alexander,” I said, as he reined in his demon-horse Bucephalus amid the city’s death throes. “You craved a good fight since we left Aigai, and today you had it.”
Alexander glowered at Thebes’ stone citadel, looking far older than his twenty years. “Thebes underestimated me. I shall not halt the slaughter until the city’s blood stains Bucephalus’ knees.”
“That’s the last thing Ox-Head needs.” I wrinkled my nose even as Bucephalus snorted at me, baring huge yellow teeth beneath a ridiculous helmet of golden horns that made him look like a misshapen bull.
Artemis’ tits, but I hated that horse.
“The oceans could turn red with Theban blood and it still wouldn’t be enough,” Alexander said, nudging Bucephalus’ ribs and pushing forward into the city.
I looked to the heavens before I urged my horse to follow, for Alexander had a flair for the dramatic when he didn’t get his way. Thebes had dared revolt against Alexander after Thessaly had so kindly capitulated, quaking in their greaves as they watched Alexander cut steps into the supposedly insurmountable cliff face of Mount Ossa and lead his troops over the top, surrounding the Thessalians and prompting their generous surrender. They’d hailed Alexander as their basileus and heralded him as a hero descended from Achilles, which put him in a kinder mood when it came to sparing their people. Alexander had drunk his fill of Thessalian wine and boasted that there would be easy victories all the way down the peninsula.
That was before he ran headlong into Thebes and its Sacred Band, the elite military unit who’d snubbed their noses at him and called him an upstart barbarian. Of course, that same unit’s warriors now lay rotting beneath the uncaring sun.
Not that I was going to mention that to Alexander. The Sacred Band was past saving, but its city still stood.
Thebes was an unwashed whore of a city, but I didn’t care to see the ancient stone polis razed as Alexander threatened just because they’d put up a good and honorable fight. This, the City of Seven Gates, had birthed my favorite poet, Pindar, yet I doubted whether I’d have time to sightsee at his former home or seek out his urn of ashes amid the looting and pillaging.
I reined in, waiting as Alexander barked orders at his generals, motioning with succinct gestures where to deploy the cavalry, shield bearers, and foot soldiers to finish securing the city. The sun gleamed off his hair and his golden soldier’s belt, earned when he’d killed his first man in the earlier battle of Thebes with his father. Alexander roared in triumph from Bucephalus’ back, the leopard skin he sat upon gleaming gold and his lion helmet seeming to preen in the sunlight. “Put the city to the sword,” Alexander yelled. “Thebes shall be scourged from the earth today, a warning to those who would declare against me!”
I might have pointed out then that these were Greeks, not cowardly Persians or stinking Latins, but being Alexander’s bodyguard meant keeping my mouth shut and perhaps impaling a few Thebans with a sarissa to keep them from stabbing him through his cuirass.
I cursed the Thebans under my breath; the stupid bastards should have surrendered when they had the chance and left me to my crates of wine and my copy of Plato’s Republic.
The cavalry and foot soldiers moved to the various districts they intended to plunder, black flags of dark smoke unfurling in the city’s western sections and making me shudder at the thought of what treasures the ravenous flames might be destroying. Alexander and I continued through to a newer neighborhood with less graffiti on the walls and fewer stray dogs lurking in the alleys, its wide avenues laden with twisting cypress trees and the polished marble facades of the well-to-do, similar to my father’s home in Macedon. A second of Alexander’s guards joined us: Ptolemy, officially the son of Lagus of Macedon but rumored to be one of Philip’s illegitimate sons, and a man with an appetite for women to rival even that of Zeus.
My sword aimed in front of me, I pushed through the open gates of a particularly graceful estate. An overturned basket of peas lay near the kitchen entrance and my horse sidestepped a dead slave sprawled facedown in a pool of scarlet. My ear picked up something different here, the angry barkings of what might have passed as raving fishwives.
“See what that’s about,” Alexander said with a wince. “Before my ears begin to bleed.”
I gave an exaggerated salute and dismounted, leaving Ptolemy with Alexander as I entered the courtyard.
“Throw her in with him!” a man yelled, standing next to two other mercenaries, thickheaded Thracians from the looks of their discarded crescent shields. The first gestured wildly toward a well situated at the corner of a tidy garden. The kyria of the house stood across from him, her lovely face an affectation of calm, yet the delicate matron clutched her ruined peplos at her shoulders, and two girls like miniatures of their mother cowered nearby. A trickle of blood from the corner of the mother’s mouth was already growing dark and her pale hair had fallen loose. The largest of the three Thracian brutes finished binding her wrists with a leather thong, then shoved her toward the well while the other two hefted thick paving stones into their arms.
“I don’t recall there being time for any unscheduled swimming, not while there’s an entire city to be sacked,” I said, lowering my sword as I strode into the garden. “It appears some explanation is warranted.”
Six heads swiveled toward me, and I’d swear relief flashed over the woman’s face. “This foul bitch murdered our captain,” the first man said, his eyes widening as he snapped to attention at the lion emblem of Alexander’s bodyguard on my golden helmet. His face was smeared with sweat and pockmarks, and his breath might have killed us all. “We’ve arranged for her to greet Charon the boatman on her way to the river Styx.”
Thracians were famed for being stubborn as mules and slightly less intelligent. A well-trained dog might have found a way to kill their captain and leave the world a better place.
I waved his boast away. “What I don’t understand is how a mere woman murdered one of your bravest commanders,” I said.
The man’s lips turned into a sneer as I removed my helmet and ran a hand through my sweat-matted hair. “You’re Hephaestion, right? Shouldn’t you be off protecting Alexander’s manhood?”
A second Thracian leered at me. “Protecting it by letting Alexander hide it up your arse? We hear he succumbs to your thighs every night.”
The slur wasn’t the worst I’d heard, but it made me want to bash some mercenary heads together. Apparently this one needed to learn that I didn’t take kindly to insults.
My sword was at his neck before he could blink. Men revered Alexander for his royal blood, but I still had to prove myself. I didn’t begrudge these Thracians their right to learn who I was the hard way.
“I have a better idea,” I said, keeping my voice low. “How about I hide this blade in your throat and save the rest of us from having to listen to your flapping tongue. A mealymouthed Thracian mercenary doesn’t get to insult Alexander,” I continued, reveling in his quick transformation from leering bastard to terrorized foot soldier as my sword tip nicked his neck. I leaned in close. “Would you like to take back what you said?”
Of course, the cowardly ass nodded, fairly pissing himself in the process.
“Perhaps the kyria . . .” I paused, waiting for her name.
“Timoclea,” she provided.
“Could better explain how she sent the Thracian commander to his death?” I asked. Timoclea’s brown eyes strayed to the well, and a slow smile spread across my face, although I kept the point of my sword cozy with the Thracian’s throat. “Let me guess. . . . Their captain never learned to swim?”
She lifted her shoulders in an elegant shrug. “The brute killed my slaves and cornered me in the house. . . .” Her voice trailed off, and I could well imagine what spoils the Thracian commander had availed himself of once he had her alone. Her chin jutted in defiance. “When he demanded the silver, coins, and jewels, I told him I’d dumped them into the well when you Macedonians arrived outside the city.”
“And then you accompanied him here?” I leaned forward so I could see down the well. It was wide and deep, but there was enough sunlight to make out a jumble of paving stones and, beneath them, what appeared to be a man’s leg, pale and fat like a dead trout. I grimaced and glanced back at Timoclea. “I believe you may need to dig another well.”
“What she needs is a grave,” the first soldier growled.
Gods, but these Thracians were thick-skulled and dim-witted. I wished I had a second sword to scratch this one’s throat. Where was Apollo with his plague arrows when you needed him?
Timoclea shrugged. “He leaned too close to the edge to catch a glimpse of my emeralds and pearls.”
Yet the paving stones atop his body were the work of a crafty matron. No doubt Hades was cursing the arrival of an ugly lout who only ever had a woman when he forced himself upon her. “The gods may yet smile on you, Timoclea of Thebes,” I said, lowering my sword to cut the thongs that bound her wrists. “I take you under my protection, for Alexander himself may wish to meet a woman of such rare courage.”
The Thracian idiots opened their mouths to protest, but I silenced them with a glare.
“And my children?” Timoclea asked.
“The girls too,” I said. The eldest reminded me of a younger version of Thessalonike, although I suspected if that were the case, she’d have helped to push the commander into the well and then celebrated with a plate of Delian honey cakes. “My sincerest apologies for the ill treatment you received. War is a grim business.”
Timoclea rubbed her wrists and beckoned for her children, nodding toward the angry black plumes billowing into the sky above the rooftops. “You soldiers destroy all you touch.”
“We’ve acquired the souls of butchers,” I admitted, trying to recall where I’d read that line of poetry. It really was quite good.
I sheathed my sword as we approached her gate, glancing at the mounds of corpses littering the streets. I swallowed a wave of revulsion. This was no fair fight of soldiers eager for Macedonian blood, but the slaughter of women and children.
“Close your eyes,” I commanded the girls.
They looked to their mother, their brown eyes dark with confusion. “Do as he says,” Timoclea ordered.
They did and I lifted them up, one in each arm. “Don’t look until I tell you to, all right?”
They nodded and squeezed their eyes tight. Alexander, resplendent in his purple chlamys and gleaming helmet atop Bucephalus, saw us then. Of course, old Ox-Head with his golden horns appeared unperturbed by the slaughter spread before him.
“Spare only the priests,” I heard Alexander order, his generals scattering like ants to do his bidding. The girls in my arms tensed as I set them down, their backs to the carnage.
“You can look now,” I said, then saluted.
Alexander gave a wry smile as his eyes flicked over Timoclea and her girls. “Lovely, but a bit too old and too young for me, Hephaestion. And I already have a mistress.”
Brilliant and handsome, charismatic, and courageous though he was, Alexander sometimes lacked a rather key trait: tact.
Ptolemy, mounted beside him, stroked his chin, looking over Timoclea like she was on the slave block. “I’d be happy to take her off your hands.”
“We travel the world not only to conquer,” I said, ignoring Ptolemy and giving Alexander a pointed look.
“You are correct,” Alexander answered offhand. “I travel and conquer so the world will never forget my name.”
“And so you will be remembered as just and fair,” I retorted, even as Thebes writhed around us in its death throes. “Before you stands a matchless Theban treasure.”
Alexander glanced about the citadel, but he must have determined that the killing, raping, and pillaging could go on without him for a few moments, so he dismounted, keeping Bucephalus’ reins loose in his hand while Ptolemy hovered nearby. “And who are you, kyria, that you have so captured Hephaestion’s attention?”
Timoclea clasped her hands before her as if welcoming him to a banquet. “I am Timoclea, the sister of Theagenes, who fought the Battle of Chaeronea with your father, Philip, and died there in command for the liberation of Greece. My husband died in that battle as well, leaving me to fend for myself these past three years.”
“She killed one of your Thracian captains,” I said, sensing Alexander’s growing impatience. “Lured him to her well with promises of buried treasure and pushed him in.”
Alexander cocked an eyebrow at me. “I assume he deserved it?”
“He did,” I answered.
“Rare courage for a woman,” he mused, rubbing his fingernails against the leather of his kilt. Crusted with filth and blood, they were in need of a good soak. War was a dirty business.
“Reminds me of a certain sister of yours,” I said. “Two actually.”
Alexander chuckled. “Cynnane has the courage of an Amazon.”
“And Thessalonike is a little beast. It seems a shame to see such courage put to the sword.”
“I agree, and I shall reward your bravery.” He nodded to Timoclea. “I grant you and your children your freedom, as a gift to my sisters.”
Somehow I doubted this Theban’s freedom was a fair trade for Cynnane’s dead husband, but it was too late to save Amyntas. The poor, doomed fool had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, married into the wrong family. Amyntas was lost, but the entire city of Thebes trembled with fear as she waited for the rest of Alexander’s swords to fall.
“It seems to me,” I said, halting Alexander’s departure, “that other Thebans might possess similar courage. The city is taken and the Sacred Band of Thebes is no more. Perhaps the inhabitants would serve you better alive than rotting in the streets.”
“Your heart is too tender, Hephaestion,” Alexander said, but his face softened. He surveyed the terra-cotta roofs spread before us, occasional screams making Timoclea’s daughters cower like mice. “I am victorious,” he said. “And thus I can afford to be merciful.” He beckoned to an approaching guard as he remounted Bucephalus. “Cease the slaughter,” he said. “The remainder of the city shall be taken as slaves. Spare the priests and the house of Timoclea.”
Tears welled in Timoclea’s eyes, the blatant gratitude shining there making me turn away. “Alexander,” I called. “One more thing?”
“I do have a battle to manage, Hephaestion,” he said, but he smiled at me from atop his horse. “What is it?”
“Spare the family of Pindar?”
“You and your precious Pindar.” He sighed, but his eyes sparkled with mirth. “I’ll save them, on one condition.”
“And what might that be?”
“That they promise to produce no more bad poetry.”
“Pindar’s poetry rivals Homer’s and you well know it.”
“Sacrilege!” Alexander shouted over his shoulder, laughing as he nudged Bucephalus’ ribs and galloped toward the citadel. Ptolemy followed behind him, but not before casting a lingering look at Timoclea, dark as a shadow and just as fast.
I watched them go, satisfied that I’d done all I could. Alexander was a man of extremes, burning bright as the sun over the rest of us mere mortals so that it often fell to me to rein him in, as pleasant a task as curbing Zeus’ temper. I’d been scorched by his changeable moods, but I was pleased enough with today’s outcome to promise myself a cask of my favorite burgundy Lesbos wine before falling onto my bedroll tonight.
And speaking of my bedroll . . .
I turned to Timoclea. “Now what shall you do?”
She rubbed her eyes, the first sign of weakness I’d seen from her. The vulnerability there made me want to cup her delicate cheekbone in my hand.
“Encourage my city to cooperate with your men.”
“To send us on our way as soon as possible, you mean.”
She offered me a wan smile. “Is it not one and the same? You seem a decent man, Hephaestion of Macedon, despite the company you keep.”
Beneath her ragged hair and ruined attire, there was beauty there, a touch of Aphrodite if the goddess ever found herself past the first flush of youth. After a day of killing and saving Thebes from being only a memory sung in the song of bards, I wouldn’t mind sharing that cask of burgundy wine, and perhaps more, with a woman like Timoclea.
I gave her the grin that never failed to make kitchen slaves eager to shed their chitons. “I’m so far from decent that I’d offer you more than just temporary protection, Timoclea of Thebes. A woman alone, needing a strong arm to protect her?”
“And you, a man in need of a woman in his bed?”
“Well, when you say it like that . . .”
But Timoclea of Thebes was no kitchen slave, and a piece of me would have been disappointed if she’d giggled and batted her lashes. Instead, she studied me. “And here I believed—as I think all of Greece does—that Alexander held the key to your affections.”
“Alexander and I learned the pleasures of the flesh together,” I admitted. This was a common practice, although typically it was an older man who would teach his eromenos about love. At seventeen, we had been deemed men, but like Achilles and Patroclus, our affection for each other remained constant even as we discovered the wonders of women as well. Alexander once claimed that only sex and sleep reminded him that he was mortal; add wine and books to that list and my vision of Elysium was complete. “We’re closer than brothers, but we’ve large appetites and neither of us wishes to eat from the same dish night after night.”
“I see.” Timoclea smiled. “While I don’t doubt that you could show an old widow like me a new trick or two, I have my daughters to care for.”
I’d expected her rejection, yet it still stung. However, I could have my pick of pretty chariot drivers and camp women eager for a roll in my tent, one of each even. Or perhaps I’d seek out Alexander tonight.
“Thank you,” Timoclea said. Then she stood on tiptoes and brushed her lips to my temple. “May the gods protect you, Hephaestion of Macedon.”
I gave her a cheeky grin, then mounted my waiting horse to follow Alexander. “Actually, I don’t think the gods know quite what to do with me.”
Her laughter followed behind me. Timoclea would return to her estate and raise her girls to sass their future husbands. And I would follow Alexander, as I’d always done.
• • •
We continued on our way after Thebes to Delphi to consult the oracle of Apollo before heading for fabled Troy and, beyond that, Persia, where Alexander hoped to lure Darius, King of Kings, into open combat.
We arrived at Delphi on one of the season’s unlucky days, at odds with the stunning vault of winter blue sky overhead and the crisp smell of cypress in the air. Yet Alexander had been in a foul mood even before we started marching.
“I don’t care for prophecies,” he said, approaching the famed Temple of Apollo, nestled like a hidden treasure at the base of rocky Mount Parnassus. The rest of his guards craned their necks to catch a glimpse of the fabled mountaintop. “I’d gallop right past Delphi if I could.”
“Prophecies are just words,” I said. “They can be twisted to suit your liking.”
“Tell that to Oedipus,” Alexander muttered. “Or my father.”
He was right of course; the power of words had ruined—and saved—many a man.
One glance at the homely woman waiting on the steps of Apollo’s temple and I was certain Alexander would have whatever prophecy he wished from her dry, cracked lips.
I, of course, was wrong.
“We’ve just marched from conquering Thebes.” Alexander wore his famous smile as he approached her after dismounting, the one that made everyone—even me—eager to do his bidding just for a chance to bask in its warmth.
“It matters not if you marched from Egypt itself,” the priestess said, crossing her arms over her board-flat chest. There was no doubt that we were addressing the Pythia, Apollo’s oracle, draped and veiled in sumptuous cloth of gold to honor the god of the sun, although surely even Apollo would have shuddered to behold her face. “There shall be no divining on so unfortunate a day.”
“Ah, well,” I said to Alexander, wrinkling my nose against the temple’s otherworldly, sulfurous scent. “You’ll have to wait until tomorrow for your prophecy.”
Alexander scowled at the Pythia. “You would refuse to scry for Alexander of Macedon?”
“That’s exactly what she said,” I answered for her. The priestess looked down her hooked nose at us, the effect marred by her pockmarked face and misshapen lips. It would have cost a fortune to muster the dowry to make up for her lack of Aphrodite’s graces, so it was likely that her family had married her to Apollo instead. Still, the cold fire that burned in her blue irises might have shriveled the manhood of any potential bridegroom.
“I command you to divine for me,” Alexander said, his hand on the hilt of his sword.
“There shall be no divining on the unlucky days,” the priestess said. “So Apollo has decreed and so it shall be.”
But Alexander was accustomed to both men and gods scraping to do his bidding, Apollo and his sun chariot be damned.
“You dare refuse the descendant of both Heracles and Achilles?” Alexander asked, his eyes narrowing dangerously.
“No man can command the oracle at Delphi,” the priestess said. “Lest he wish to incur the wrath of the twelve Olympians.”
And with those words, the Pythia instead incurred Alexander’s wrath. Deflecting Zeus’ lightning bolts would have been less painful.
“The gods favor me,” Alexander said, grabbing the priestess by an arm and dragging her into the temple. “And you will prophesize for me today.”
I heaved a sigh. “Bar the entrance,” I ordered Ptolemy, the lone guard not gaping over his shield. It wouldn’t do for word to get out that Alexander had manhandled the most famed priestess in all of Greece.
Of course, the Pythia realized this.
“Unhand the oracle,” she cried, her voice reverberating off the ancient temple walls. I hurried after them, cursing the heavy armor I wore, and found the priestess on her knees before Alexander, his sword pointed at her moon-pale neck. Assorted offerings lay piled against the walls: golden coins and yellowing knucklebones, ivory flutes and bronze figurines in an assortment of animal and human shapes, all given to the god of light, music, and oracles. Somehow I doubted whether Apollo would approve a sacrifice of his priestess’ blood.
“I will have a prophecy of victory against Persia,” Alexander threatened. The cool light from the entrance mingled with that of the flaming orange torches on the walls, the smell of sulfur stronger here. “If I have to carve it from your throat.”
I wanted to drag Alexander from the temple as he’d done the priestess and knock some sense into his thick skull, yet I recognized his tone and knew that his words were no jest. Only the night before, our two heads on the same pillow and our bodies slick with sweat, he’d murmured his dream to me.
“I shall surpass even my father, Hephaestion,” he’d said, staring up at the canvas ceiling of his traveling tent. “He only conquered Macedon and the Peloponnese, but I shall vanquish Persia, and beyond to the endless sea. Even the gods shall sing my praises into eternity.”
It was an improbable dream, but if any man could do it, it was Alexander.
Although murdering Greece’s most famous oracle might hinder those plans.
I gestured to the Pythia’s cedar and ivory throne, an ancient gift from the renowned King Midas, elevated over a crack in the ground that seeped foul-smelling vapors. Bug-eyed male figurines guarded the relic, their stone hands resting on the heads of tamed lions. “Might the oracle of Delphi make an exception for Alexander, descended as he is from the great Heracles and Achilles?” I asked. “Do we not head to Troy in the morn, Alexander, to vanquish the Persian king and offer his riches to Apollo and all our gods?”
“We do, and we require a fortunate prophecy to rally our men for our long campaign there.” Alexander’s sword didn’t move, and the oracle swallowed hard, raw hatred in her eyes. Then she turned and walked to her elevated chair, regal as a queen approaching her throne. She took her time arranging the folds of her golden peplos. With a final venomous stare at Alexander, she closed her eyes and breathed deeply, as if trying to gather Apollo’s wisdom from the very air. A trace of a smile lifted her lips; then her eyes snapped open and she stared straight through the man before her.
“The lion of Macedon is invincible,” the muleheaded priestess said, her voice smoother than the clearest honey. “As was Heracles before him. So Apollo has decreed and so it shall be.”
I rubbed my forearms to ward away the chill that rolled down my skin, for everyone knew that Hydra poison had killed Heracles despite his supposed immortality, eating away his skin and exposing his bones. I’d rather fall on my sword than watch Alexander suffer such a gruesome death.
“There, now,” Alexander crooned, oblivious to the prophecy’s double meaning as he sheathed his sword. “Was that so difficult?”
He strode toward the entrance without a backward glance, but the priestess still looked down on us from her throne, her face mottled with rage.
“I shall ensure that Alexander leaves the god of light a sizable offering,” I said, but received only a yellow gob of spittle heaved in my direction as thanks.
“Apollo shall not soon forget this,” she growled. “No one in the history of this temple has dared treat the oracle in so foul a manner.”
Apollo should have been glad his Pythia still possessed a beating heart, but I doubted whether the god or his priestess would view that as a boon after being insulted. Gods’ memories are perilously short regarding all the sacrifices made in their name, yet long when it comes to slights, be they real or imagined.
It made me ache for an amphora of wine—or maybe an entire krater—just to think about it.
I grumbled a prayer to Ares and Zeus and any god that would listen that Alexander would vanquish Persia, although I doubted whether even all of King Darius’ gold would placate Apollo.
And I wondered whether Alexander even cared.
“Perhaps Ahura Mazda will send a plague that will turn Alexander’s bowels to brown water and make his pretty face erupt with oozing boils,” I said, standing on stiff knees as the red-robed priest extinguished Ahura Mazda’s sacred flame and packed away the barsom, a twined bundle of myrtle and pomegranate twigs used to purify our prayers. I doubted whether the god of light and wisdom would hear my prayer, but at least it interrupted my mother’s latest tirade against the famed Macedonian and his invasion, namely its inconveniencing us from our seasonal palace rotation. Right now we should have been in Nebuchadnezzar’s famed palace in Babylon, but instead we were encamped on the stark plains of Issus. One might have thought we were in the deepest depths of hell instead of ensconced in a silken pavilion with eunuchs serving silver platters of sliced cucumbers and freshly curdled goat cheese while we were massaged, bathed, and doused in rose oil. I supposed the lack of saffron stems with which to paint my mother’s cheeks was an affliction too terrible to be borne.
My father was Darius III, the mighty King of Kings of the entire Persian Empire. He would win this battle against Alexander and we’d soon return to our dozen palaces. My mother would be happy then, but I might die of boredom.
“I told your father he should offer a reward of gold bullion for the heads of Alexander’s guards,” my mother said, pursing her plump lips as the priest departed and a servant rubbed swan fat onto her hands. I refrained from pointing out that the grease would have been better suited to oiling the bowstrings of my father’s archers. “Ptolemy and Hephaestion—how a barbarian and a catamite managed to save him at Granicus I’ll never understand.”
Alexander had driven his cavalry into our troops at Granicus and received an ax blow to the head; he’d been saved from feeding the vultures only by the stubborn metal of his helmet and his bodyguards who dispatched his attacker, Spithridates. My mother had proposed minting coins with Spithridates’ profile, but my father had contented her with promising to kill Alexander himself.
“Alexander’s bodyguards are sworn to protect him.” My sister, Stateira the Younger, glanced up from her charcoal sketch, this one taking the form of our grandmother. Our father’s mother, Sisygambis, was either 70 or 170 years old, and she sat in a corner with her wrinkled eyes closed, shrouded by winter’s early darkness. Too refined to snore and unable to rest while her eldest son battled for his empire, she’d spent the morning in private prayer and now I guessed that she feigned sleep to avoid this conversation—and the beauty regime—altogether. I wished I’d thought of that tactic first.
“The yona takabara”—a Persian slur meaning “the Greeks who wear shields on their heads”—“should die a thousand deaths for daring to invade our shores.” My mother lifted her head from her tasseled pillow and managed to sip lemon-infused water from the lacquered bowl held to her lips by another servant. As everyone from here to Babylon knew from all her grousing, her back had ached and her stomach had been sour these past days with her fresh pregnancy. A battlefield was no place for a mother and an unborn babe, but she had refused to tell my father of her condition after so many stillbirths and miscarriages.
Memories of another blue-lipped boy came unbidden. That terrible day still lived as fresh in my mind as if I were five again instead of seventeen.
“Persia is the most cultured civilization on earth,” my mother said to me, “and your father shall remain its King of Kings until his hair has gone white and his back is bent like a crone’s.”
But war had already aged my father and there were streaks of gray at his temples when he’d kissed us and ridden out that morning, flush from a fortuitous dream that the Macedonian phalanx was spread before him in flames, a sure sign of the Persian victory soon to come. So certain of his triumph was he that he’d seen no reason to discontinue the practice of allowing his royal wives, children, and imperial concubines to accompany him despite the close proximity of the battlefield. It seemed to me that he had chosen poor ground on which to engage the enemy, for the sea, the mountains, and the river Pinarus would force him to divide his army. When I’d mentioned it this morning, he’d only tugged the end of my long braid underneath my favorite hat, a gift from him for my seventeenth naming day, hewn from the gray hide of an old war elephant.
“A battle isn’t one of your machines to tinker with, Drypetis,” he said. “It’s made of men, not cogs and wheels, and men are capable of miraculous feats.”
So too were swords and the fearsome Macedonian pikes, shield bearers, and mounted archers, at least if the corpses from Granicus were any indication. That defeat smarted, but my father hadn’t led our troops at Granicus, so I held my tongue even as he winked and whispered in my ear. “Your mother wants Alexander’s head, but I’ll bring you back a Macedonian sarissa. You can examine it at your leisure, see how those wily Greeks reinforce the tips with silver.”
Mithra’s eyes, but I worshipped my father and wanted nothing more than to believe he was invincible. Yet I was no longer a child and recognized the very real possibility that today might end in disaster.
“They say Alexander claimed Midas’ chariot after unraveling the riddle of the Gordian knot by cutting through the cords of the cornel tree,” I said, searching for some topic to fill the encroaching silence.
“Only a brute would consider cutting the rope itself,” my mother said. “I swear that upstart Macedonian will never rule more than the backwaters of Greece.”
Excerpted from "The Conqueror's Wife"
Copyright © 2015 Stephanie Thornton.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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