T heo knew the richest boys. Dio knew the handsomest boys and the athletes and musicians. Abraham knew the Jews, and some of the Nabataean metics and other Arabs. They went as a group of four from door to door, portico to portico, palace to warehouse.
They gathered a hundred and forty more young men, one and two at a time. It took days, precious days, and every armourer in Alexandria had orders for the finest armour, the lightest corslets with the best iron and bronze scales.
It was curious work that left Satyrus exhausted at the end of the day, full of minor triumphs and equally minor snubs and rebuffs – doors closed to him that he’d always imagined opened, a share of curses, but worst of all, the bored refusal of the rich – men who mocked him for his recruiting campaign, and men who questioned his sanity.
Croseus the Megaran, for instance, waited only to be told the magnitude of the threat before ordering his best things packed and taking one of his own ships for Corinth. ‘I owe this city nothing,’ he said. ‘Neither do you. Stop being foolish – you will not get my son to stand in the ranks. That’s for slaves and fools – poor men who have to do such things. Men like us don’t fight. Leon won’t be in your precious phalanx, I’ll wager.’
‘No, sir,’ Satyrus said.
‘See? Childhood fantasies. Myths. Like thinking that Alexander was actually a god.’ Croseus shook his head.
‘Master Leon will serve with the cavalry,’ Satyrus said.
‘Take your foolery and your rudeness and get out of my warehouse,’ Croseus said.
Again, he found his Macedonian friends vanishing like startled gazelles in a hunt down the Delta. Not all of them – Theo’s father was delighted to see his son in the ranks – but others spoke, quietly or openly, with derision, of the city and of Ptolemy. It was one of these meetings that showed that the war of the factions had reached explosive proportions.
Sitalkes was a young man that Satyrus knew from pankration. His father was an officer in the Foot Companions, a captain of ten files, who shared the name Alexander with most of the Macedonian men of his generation. Sitalkes stood in his own courtyard, enthusiastically nodding as Dionysius and Satyrus gave him the whole recruiting speech – and then his father came through the courtyard gates.
‘Well, well,’ he drawled. ‘Boy, are these your friends? Please introduce me, unless we don’t use such polite conventions any more.’
Sitalkes bowed. ‘Pater, this is Abraham, son of Isaac Ben Zion. This is Satyrus, son of Kineas of Athens. Dionysius, son of Eteocles; Theo, son of Apollion. All of them-’
Whatever all of them did together was not something in which his father took much interest.
‘You’re Satyrus? The famous Satyrus?’ The Macedonian officer nodded. He made a motion. Then he stopped and swallowed. ‘Well!’ He looked around his courtyard. ‘Hold on a minute, boys. I’m eager to hear Satyrus’s proposals, as is every citizen, I’m sure.’ The man’s heavy teasing had the same smell as his breath – red wine and garlic. He snapped his fingers and wine was brought, and he sent the wine slave away, but Satyrus noticed that the slave went and spoke to one of the Macedonian soldiers who loitered around the gate. The soldier put his shield against the wall and sprinted off down the street.
‘Wine?’ the officer asked.
Sitalkes appeared stricken. He tried to speak and then shook his head.
‘No wine? Perhaps you are too young to have a head for it. I hear you are a pankrationist. Go inside, boy,’ Alexander ordered his son.
‘No wine, thank you,’ Satyrus said. ‘I’m trying to convince Sitalkes to join the Phalanx of Aegypt.’
Alexander smiled – a false smile that made Satyrus’s guts roll over. ‘We’ll consider it,’ he said.
Abraham was already by the gate. Theo was on his feet, having caught on that something was not right. Dionysius sneered. ‘Macedonian debates must be like Macedonian flirting.’
‘Come away, Dio,’ Satyrus said.
‘No, stay,’ the officer said. ‘I love punishing unruly children.’ And when Satyrus dragged Dionysius away, the officer roared, ‘Close the gate!’
Abraham was ahead of the Macedonian gate guard all the way – he got his back against the gate, and he was bigger. And when the man went to grapple, Abraham gave him an elbow in the temple and down he went.
The officer thrust Dionysius from behind. ‘Go, then,’ he said. ‘Get your foreign arse out of my house and don’t come here again.’ Then he laughed, and even the laugh was surly. ‘I imagine you’ll get all the chastisement you have coming to you, Greek.’
Satyrus swept up the Macedonian shield by the gate and got it on his arm. ‘Run!’ he shouted.
Cyrus, his slave, needed no further admonition. Theo bolted through the gate, and Dionysius, seeing the gate guard put his hand on his sword, hesitated, and Abraham shoved him.
The gate guard tried to knock Theo down and Satyrus caught the man’s shoulder on the shield and turned it, then kicked out under the shield and knocked the man sprawling, and he was out of the gate.
‘What in all Tartarus does that madman think he’s doing?’ Dionysius asked when they stopped at the next corner.
‘He sent a man,’ Abraham said between gulps of air. They began to walk as they all gasped for breath and then Theo laughed. ‘What an idiot!’ he said. ‘Our fathers will bury him in court.’
Abraham shook his head. ‘He didn’t seem very worried about court. Listen – he sent a man!’
‘I saw it,’ Satyrus said. He was trying to think ahead. ‘We should go home by a different route, then we-’
‘My father will order him arrested,’ Dionysius insisted.
‘I don’t think…’ Abraham said, and then Cyrus, who was walking next to Satyrus, leaned forward to point at something on a roof and took an arrow in the neck. The boy dropped like a sack of flour, the main artery in his neck severed, his blood splashing like a badly sacrificed bull’s.
Satyrus looked around. ‘Cover,’ he yelled, and jumped under the overhang of the exedra of the nearest building.
Abraham copied him and Dionysius had the reactions of an athlete, but Theo had never been in real danger before and he froze in the middle of the street. There was the rush of feet behind them, and Theo cried out and went down. Satyrus saw the man who killed him – a mangy footpad who carefully put his sword in Theo’s eye as the boy thrashed on the ground.
‘Herakles!’ Satyrus yelled. Even as he shouted the god’s name as a war cry, he knew that Theo was dead. He threw himself forward at Theo’s killer in a muddle of conflicting thoughts – terror and a desire for revenge, expiation, some vague thought that with a shield he could cover everyone’s retreat. That was his thought as he got his feet on either side of his friend’s corpse and punched the bronze rim of his shield into the mangy footpad’s face. The man had no shield – all he could do was step back.
Just as he was taught, Satyrus stepped forward and drew his sword, then cut the man down with the back cut, the edge of his sword right in the man’s neck, and then Satyrus spun, ready for the next man, as an arrow thudded into the shield where his back had been seconds before.
The other two murderers ran.
Satyrus could see the archer up on the roof of the nearest house. The man wore Persian clothes, all in the dullest of colours, and he had a Sakje bow. He aimed carefully – the oddest feeling, Satyrus thought, to be so carefully singled out for death – and shot.
Satyrus moved the shield and ducked, and the arrow clanged against the rim. With a full-size aspis, he’d have been immune. With the smaller Macedonian shield, he had to react like a snake.
The man raised his bow again. Abraham was calling for help, shouting at the top of his lungs for the watch, and Theo was still dead between his feet.
Thump. The man was shooting for his head. Relentlessly. Satyrus felt an irrational desire to stand his ground and not flee back to the exedra – after all, fleeing the first time had killed Theo. And perhaps dying would solve it all – all the endless complexity.
Thump. He just barely caught that one – shot for his knees. His shield arm had no interest in death.
There were calls from the watch – a dozen armoured men running full tilt down the Alexandrion.
The archer shook his head in frustration, cursed and vanished across the roof line.
Listless, angry at himself and the world, Satyrus was interrogated by the officer of the watch – a Macedonian, of course – and then again by Theron when his coach arrived to take him from the clutches of the law, and again by Sappho when he arrived at home.
‘You’re lucky the watch officer was an honest man,’ Sappho said. ‘Or you’d be dead.’
Satyrus sat looking at his hands. He had blood under his nails. Theo was still dead.
‘They fucking killed him,’ Satyrus whispered.
Diodorus came in, resplendent in a bronze breastplate and a gilt helmet with a white horsehair crest and a pair of exotic blue plumes on either side of his head like ram’s horns. He had a dark blue cloak embroidered in gold laurel leaves, and the hilt of his long kopis was solid gold. He looked like a king, or a very great man. ‘Satyrus, there’s no time for revenge. How did Theo die?’
Satyrus was aware that somewhere, four troops of elite cavalry were training without their hipparch. He shook his head, and the anger choked him. ‘Thugs. Two-obol thugs. One of them got him, thinking he was me.’ He all but spat in disgust.
‘Ares and Aphrodite!’ Diodorus said, pulling off his helmet. ‘His father is going to wreck what’s left of the pro-Ptolemy faction.’
Sappho rose gracefully, put a hand on her husband’s golden armour and shoved. ‘Get out of my rooms,’ she said softly. ‘Come back when you have the temper for it. He’s been through a great deal, Dio – you are not helping.’
Diodorus grew as red as a piece of Tyrian wool – but he walked out through the door.
Satyrus ran after him. ‘No – I can do this,’ he said. ‘They were thugs – an assassination attempt, organized on the fly. We visited Sitalkes – a friend of mine from the gymnasium. I could tell his father was – turned. Already a traitor. Call it what you will. He wanted to kill us himself.’
Diodorus put a hand on his shoulder. ‘It’s not your fault.’
‘I know it’s not my fucking fault!’ Satyrus shouted. ‘I want this done! Over! Before they get you or Melitta or Sappho or the lot of us!’
A slave handed him a cold cloth without being asked, and Satyrus put the cloth to his face. With his eyes closed, he could see Cyrus’s body lying half in and half out of the gutter, the blood running out of his neck and swirling away with the bilge water and the urine and the faeces – and Theo’s blood creeping along behind. And then another stream from the almost-severed neck of the man he’d killed.
Theron came back with Philokles and Diodorus, now out of his armour and with an ancient mastos cup full of wine. ‘Sorry, lad,’ he said. ‘And you, wife. My apologies.’
Sappho nodded. ‘Very well.’
‘We need to know what happened, lad,’ Philokles said.
Satyrus had the force of will to make himself recover, to avoid the indulgence in passions that marked a weak man – or marked him any further. He didn’t sob. He told his story as best he could – again.
‘Theo’s father has two other sons, but he’s ready to go to war personally on this matter. He’s got a reward out for this Persian archer.’ Diodorus shook his head. ‘This is a bad time for Leon to be away.’
Philokles was interested in other matters. ‘You did not kill Theo, Satyrus. Listen to me, lad. Your illogic is overwhelming and very much a piece with your age. The assassins intended his death. It was their actions-’
‘Don’t treat me like a child!’ Satyrus said. ‘The assassins intended my death. I failed to read the signals – clear as trumpets on a summer day! And then, when the attack started, I didn’t help Theo – the youngest of us, and the least trained. And what of Cyrus? Doesn’t Leon teach us that slaves are men, too? Cyrus is just as dead as Theo – and his blood was just the same colour. Come to think of it, Theo’s killer bled the same – when I put him down. I’m sick of it. I’m no good at it and it goes on and on and the bodies just pile up. How many of my friends will die? Some fighting Stratokles, some fighting One-Eye – more to make me king of the Bosporus, perhaps! Fuck it! It’s just violence, on and on, bloody slaughter to the end of the world!’
Silence greeted his outburst. Theron winced. Diodorus shrugged and turned away, anger obvious on his face. Sappho wore an odd and somewhat enigmatic look.
Philokles actually smiled. ‘You are growing up,’ he said. ‘Some men never do. We tell children nice tales so they’ll learn – lies that often have truth in them. Fables. Some men cling to those lies all their lives, Satyrus. Lies about how one nation or city or race is better than another that justify killing, death, war.’ He sat straight. ‘Nothing makes killing right. If you wish to live a life of pure righteousness, I think you must turn your back on killing – on violence. On raising your voice when angry, on hurting others to accomplish a goal.’
Satyrus made a noise, and Philokles raised a hand, forestalling him. ‘Killing is always wrong. But many other things are also wrong – oppression, theft, tyranny, arson, rapine, on and on, the catalogue of human wrongs. When you turn your back on killing and violence, you also surrender the ability to prevent wrongs to others, because in this world, we stop oppression when we stand firm in our ranks with the bronze.’ He gave an odd smile. ‘You know what amuses me, Satyrus? What I just told you is what the elders taught in Sparta. I have spent a lifetime reading and listening and studying and hating war, and what it makes me become – and all I can say is that life is a choice, an endless series of choices. Men can choose to think or not to think. They can choose to lead or to follow. To trust or not to trust. You may choose not to take life – even not to fight. That choice is not cowardice. But that choice has consequences. Or you can choose to kill – and that choice, too, has consequences. When the blood fills your lungs and the darkness comes down, all you have is what you did – who you were, what you stood for.’
‘So what’s the answer?’ Satyrus asked. ‘How do I…?’ He couldn’t even enunciate his question. How can I stop seeing the corpses? How do I avoid the consequences?
‘Shall I just give you an answer, lad?’ Philokles got to his feet. ‘Or can you take the truth like a man? There is no answer. You do what you can, and sometimes what you have to. So – if I am to be your judge, putting your steel in that man-killer was no sin before gods or men. Nor can any man hold you responsible for young Theo – not even his father, whose grief is formidable.’ Philokles put his hand on Satyrus’s shoulder, and Satyrus didn’t shake it off, and Theron, who had been silent because Philokles had said everything he had to say, came over and embraced Satyrus.
Diodorus grunted. ‘I’m glad to know that my life is immoral, Spartan. What a fine thing philosophy must be!’ He shrugged. ‘But the immediate problem is that Stratokles, or somebody like him, is out there trying to kill the twins. Satyrus – no leaving the house, except with one of us. Understand?’
‘No,’ Satyrus said. He looked around at these men – these heroes. ‘No. If I’m a man – I can do this. You can’t nursemaid me. I can stay alive. I think I proved it today.’
Philokles nodded. ‘He has a point,’ he conceded.
The evening breeze whispered through the palm trees and the Mediterranean surf hissed against the gravel of the beach behind the main wing of Leon’s house, and the north wind carried the smell of the sea – rotting fish and kelp and salt, a smell that could sink to a miasma or rise to a wonderful scent of openness, blue waves and freedom.
Satyrus had a porch off his rooms that opened on the sea, and tonight he felt the need of it. He took a cup of wine from a slave and walked out into the breeze. Out here, in the dark, the sound of the sea was much louder.
‘When we first came here, I used to sit just like this and listen to the sea,’ Melitta said from a chair. ‘I used to imagine that the water coming up the beach was the same water that had passed out of the Tanais.’
Satyrus sipped some wine. ‘I still think the same thing,’ he said. ‘All the time.’
Melitta got out of her chair. ‘After the sea fight off Syria, I lay with Xenophon. It’s not his fault, it’s mine. I’m sorry. I told Sappho – I didn’t want you to hear it second-hand.’
Satyrus digested this in silence.
‘Say something!’ Melitta said.
‘Theo is dead,’ he said. ‘Killed by men sent to kill me. I left him standing in the street. I didn’t do it – I just let it happen.’
‘It’s not all about you,’ Melitta said.
‘No,’ Satyrus agreed, and drank more wine. ‘I’m learning that.’
‘I’m sorry about Theo. What did his father say?’ Melitta asked.
‘Nothing. He was frightened. Frightened! What is this city coming to?’ Satyrus took a breath and drank more wine. ‘Why Xenophon, though? I mean, he’s my best friend, you’ve spent my whole adult life teasing him and telling me about his shortcomings, and he’s enough of a gentleman to feel – things. You won’t marry him, I assume?’ Satyrus wished he sounded a little more adult.
Melitta was silent. Then she said, ‘I don’t plan to marry anyone among the Hellenes, Satyrus.’
‘Going to go to the sea of grass without me, Lita?’ Satyrus knew that he’d had too much wine.
‘If I have to,’ Melitta said. ‘I want to be a queen, not a girl.’
Satyrus shook his head. ‘That’s just where we differ, sister. I’d like very much not to be a king.’
‘You wallow a lot, you know that? It’s not all about you! You didn’t kill Theo. You didn’t kill your precious Peleus. Sometimes you make me want to punch you.’ Melitta shook her head. ‘You get everything I want – and you don’t even like it!’
‘After this campaign-’ Satyrus began, but Melitta cut in savagely.
‘After this campaign? After we sail to Rhodos? After we make war on Antigonus One-Eye? How long do I have to wait?’ Now they were shouting at each other.
Satyrus raised his hands, spilling some wine in his frustration. ‘What’s so bad?’
‘What’s so bad? How did you spend the day? Recruiting? To save the city from Demetrios and his one-eyed father? Was it frustrating? Did useless merchants turn you down? Fighting for your life against assassins? Lost a friend?’ She was shouting now. ‘I sat at home and wove some wool.’
He was silent.
‘In my spare time I worried that I was pregnant,’ she muttered. ‘I want to go and fight Demetrios. I want to ride free, or be a helmsman, or recruit young men to fight. But most of all I want the attention of the men and women worth a conversation. Tonight, I confessed my transgression to Sappho. Do you know what she said? Best not tell Satyrus until the battle is fought. Philokles treats me like a girl. Why? Because I have breasts and my body can make a baby! Why doesn’t somebody recruit me? Demetrios is going to have forty elephants and we don’t even have one, and by Apollo, I may be the best archer in this city. What are we doing about raising a corps of archers?’
‘Maiden archers?’ Satyrus said, looking to win a smile and failing utterly.
‘Is the loss of my virginity painful to you, brother? Was our family honour strapped between my thighs?’ Melitta swelled with rage.
Satyrus shook his head. ‘Stupid joke. Sorry, Lita.’ He made himself reach for her, refusing to be cowed by her anger and believe that she really aimed her darts at him, and she was in his arms, her head on his shoulder, and at the speed of their embrace they stopped being at odds.
Melitta rocked back and forth for a little while, and Satyrus watched the stars behind her head blur with his own unshed tears and then return to normal.
She stepped back. ‘I know it’s not your fault. But suddenly everyone in this house is treating you like a man. Whereas I get to be a perpetual child.’
‘I can’t get you a corps of archers, maiden or not,’ Satyrus said. ‘But when Leon lands his marines, I know a ship that could easily land one more archer. But Lita – this isn’t a fair battle. We’re the trapped dogs – Demetrios has everything his way.’
Melitta raised her chin. ‘I was there when we took two pirate galleys,’ she said.
‘True enough,’ Satyrus said, and kissed the top of her head. ‘Why Xenophon? He’s so nice – he’s going to follow you like a dog for the rest of your life.’
She shrugged. ‘Hard to describe, really. He knew that I had saved his life – thanked me for it. Comrade to comrade, even though he had fought like Achilles and I was a mere girl.’ She shrugged again. ‘And I saw – things. The same things – gods, you know as well as I. I was dead when your spear put that man down. I felt dead. And then – I was alive.’ She hung her head. ‘I don’t care a fig for my virginity, brother. But I agree that actions have consequences, and I insist that Xeno should not pay the price – the bride price or any other price.’
Satyrus slugged back his wine. When they were children, they had fought – and then one big hug and it was over. Tonight, he felt the loss of that simplicity, because she was closed to him on some level, and because no, he had not really forgiven her. But his failure to forgive her weighed on him, like a failed sacrifice.
She felt his hesitation. She stared at him.
He stared back. Once, they had been eye to eye. Now he was half a head taller.
‘Will you really help me get away?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ he said. He imagined her lying dead, trampled by an elephant as he had seen back in the great battle on the salt plains. He shook his head – too much wine. ‘Fuck it, Lita. Yes, you have as much right to lie with a man as I do to lie with a woman. I, too, have spent too much time with Hellenes.’ He smiled bitterly. ‘It’s going to be hard to talk to Xeno.’
‘Imagine how I feel,’ Melitta said. She rose on her toes and kissed his cheek. ‘Thanks,’ she said, and went back inside. She turned back and smiled. ‘I have a rendezvous for you. With Amastris. I was going to throw it in your face if you played high and mighty with me.’ She shook her head. ‘Which you didn’t. So I feel like a fool.’ She reached in her bosom and pulled out an oyster shell. ‘Tomorrow night,’ she said.
The slip of papyrus leaf had two lines from Menander, and Satyrus smiled, because the lines named the hour to anyone who had seen the play.
‘By the steps of the Temple of Poseidon,’ Melitta said. ‘Do you love her?’
Satyrus looked at his sandals. ‘Yes,’ he mumbled. And yet…
‘Don’t be foolish, brother. Don’t get caught. I don’t think – I shouldn’t say this! I don’t think you’re Amastris’s first boy, man, what have you.’ She shrugged, clearly unhappy at having said what she had said.
‘What?’ Satyrus asked. ‘But-’
‘I’m sure it is different for men,’ Melitta said. ‘Listen – don’t go. It’s not worth the risk.’
‘This from my sister who wants me to smuggle her into the archer corps to fight elephants?’ he said.
She smiled. ‘That’s a hit and no mistake, brother. Very well – go if you must. But she won’t show. Not the first time. The first time will just be a test of your devotion, I’m her friend – I know these things.’ She turned and slipped away, leaving him with an oyster shell and a feeling of confusion.
The next morning, the wind still carried the sting of the sea in its tail, and it blew hard enough to cool the sweat on two thousand backs and breasts as they drilled without shade. Panion, the commander of the Foot Companions, stood at the head of the taxeis with Philokles and Theron and half a dozen Macedonian officers.
‘They’re absurd,’ Panion said, loudly enough to carry into the first three ranks. ‘Children and slaves. One-Eye’s veterans will go through them the way his elephants will push through our cavalry.’
His Macedonian officers laughed ruefully or disdainfully, depending on their faction. Philokles said something softly, and Panion shrugged. ‘Work as hard as you like, Spartan. I’ll put them in the second line, or somewhere where their flight won’t cost us much. Perhaps we can use them to carry baggage?’ He laughed, and the six Macedonians laughed again.
Philokles fingered his beard. ‘I need more sarissas,’ he said. ‘We don’t have enough.’
‘Ptolemy sent too much equipment off to Cassander,’ Panion said with a shrug. ‘Make do with what you have. After all,’ he said cheerfully, ‘if Ptolemy’s kingdom relies on this lot, we’re doomed.’
Philokles said something quiet, and Panion shook his head. ‘I think you forget your place. I am a Macedonian. Your people once had a certain reputation for war, I’ll allow. But I assure you, sir, that no amount of drill will make these slaves into soldiers, and that I don’t give a flying fuck for their morale.’ Panion looked around him and spat in contempt.
Later, he and his staff reappeared as Philokles forced the phalanx through another wheeling movement – badly executed, like every wheel.
This time, the Macedonian went along the first two ranks. He called every Macedonian out of the ranks. He stopped at Satyrus.
‘You?’ he said. Then, when he’d recovered his confusion, he gave Satyrus a smile. ‘You don’t belong here, with this rabble,’ he said. ‘Come with me.’
Satyrus could see Amyntas shuffling nervously among the young Macedonians. ‘What rabble?’ Satyrus said.
‘Aegyptians.’ Panion shrugged. ‘Good for farm work.’
‘Seems to work to train Macedonians,’ Satyrus said.
‘Yes,’ Panion said. ‘But they’re men, not slaves. These boys are Macedonians.’
Satyrus wiped the sweat from his eyes. ‘Not a one of them was born in Macedon, sir,’ he said, meeting the commander’s eyes. ‘I recruited them here in Alexandria. For this phalanx.’
Panion narrowed his eyes. ‘Another uppity Greek,’ he said. ‘Very well – swelter on, boy. Revel in your remaining hours.’ Then, louder, ‘You Macedonians, come with me.’
When Panion was gone, Philokles continued to drill the men, and as the shadows lengthened, he tried to provide the physical training that would allow Aegyptians to go up against men in the peak of fitness. They weren’t weak – many of them had fine bodies and heavy muscles from labour – but Philokles walked around, urging them to lift greater weights or run farther.
The men were listless – worse than usual – and when the sun touched the rim of the world, Philokles dismissed them, obviously keeping his temper in check. Satyrus fell in next to the Spartan as they walked back in the last light of evening.
‘Half of them won’t come back,’ Philokles said after they had walked a stade. ‘That fool, that posturing ninny. I should have put my sword up his arse on the spot.’
‘Philokles!’ Satyrus said. ‘Master, I have never heard you speak in this manner.’ He managed a grin, his first since Theo died. It had occurred to him that Panion might have had something to do with that death. ‘You are not always a philosopher.’
‘Do you know what the Macedonian officers discuss?’ Philokles said. ‘Putting on a good show. Fighting long enough to get the best possible terms from Demetrios. Remember what happened to Eumenes? When part of his precious Macedonians decided not to fight. It’s happening here, lad. Another week or two and our taxeis would be worth something, too. They shape well – better than many Greeks. Strong backs, these Aegyptians. But Panion just told them that they are slaves to him.’ Philokles spat. ‘Six weeks’ work, for nothing. And he took half of the cream of your boys. Every one of those Macedonian boys knew which end of a spear to wield.’
‘We still have the Greeks and the Jews,’ Satyrus said.
Philokles gave half a smile and put a hand on his former student’s shoulder. ‘So we do,’ he said. ‘I don’t think they’re enough, and I think that we need ranks and ranks of strong, faithful and courageous Aegyptians behind us, or it won’t matter. But I should swallow my own medicine and deal with these troubles when they present themselves. What do we do for sarissas?’
Theron leaned in. ‘For now, the first three ranks can use their hoplite equipment – all the Hellene ephebes have them, and even the Jews came with heavy spears.’
Philokles agreed. ‘Shorter spears in front is not a way to build the confidence of your front ranks, lad. Do you know what it is like to face a Macedonian taxeis? Unless they’re disordered, every file has six or eight spearheads sticking out in front. They move, just from the natural movement of the men carrying them – like the ripple of grass in the wind. Hard to face. Terrifying.’
‘You told me yourself that with an aspis and discipline, you had no problem penetrating the wall of spears.’ Satyrus had heard the tale of the fight at the fords of the Borysthenes a dozen times or more, from different men. He knew that Philokles and the elite men of two Euxine cities had held, and then beaten, a Macedonian phalanx.
Philokles made a face. ‘Veterans should know better than to tell such tales. We were lucky – and brave. There were good men in that taxeis – hard men, and men in the very peak of athletic training. I had ten Olympians.’ He looked out to sea, his spear-butt making a rhythm as he tapped it on the paving stones. ‘I was a younger man myself. Look at me! It has taken me six weeks just to get the lard off my stomach. Fifteen years ago, I’d have had muscles like your cuirass – like you have, wrestler.’ He pointed at Theron, who wore his chitoniskos off one shoulder, showing the near-perfect musculature of his torso.
‘We have Theron. He’s an Olympian.’ Satyrus was interested by the fact that he was now cheering up Philokles, a complete reversal from the day before.
‘Ahh, Theron,’ Philokles said. They were at Diodorus’s gate, which was the closer of the two properties to the drill field. ‘Three days until we march. Where are you heading, young man?’
‘A nap,’ Satyrus said. ‘I have this magnificent physique to maintain. ’
Theron slapped him on the back.
‘Don’t forget to appear at the gymnasium,’ Philokles said. ‘Read something before bed. I have never had a child of my own, lad, but when you speak of having a nap, I suspect that you have somewhere to go tonight. Hmm?’
Blushing, Satyrus hung his head, a complex rush of embarrassments flooding him.
‘Remember what Diodorus said. I do not, note, order you to obey his stricture – only to understand that disobedience will have consequences, for you and for others. Understand me?’
Satyrus wasn’t sure that he did understand, but he nodded anyway, gave a ridiculous smile and then bowed and retreated to his room, where he spent half an hour inspecting his tutor’s comment from any number of angles.
Moonlight would have helped both his mood and the physical difficulty of moving around, but the moon was dark and the stars weren’t much help as a thin haze made the night as black as a priest’s cloak. Satyrus clutched his chlamys tighter and moved carefully back and forth at the base of the steps to the Temple of Poseidon. Deep in the temple precincts there was light – and the soft sound of voices – but out at the edge of the steps there was just a vague glow and the voices sounded like a haunting, and he was afraid. It was foolish for him to have come. He saw assassins in every movement.
Satyrus was beginning to feel a fool. He walked back and forth again, listening for any sign of another person – above him, or perhaps a boat out in the harbour? But he heard nothing but the cry of a late-night gull and somewhere, far off down the curve of the bay, two voices raised in angry confrontation.
He looked at the sky. If there had been stars – the right stars – he could have told the time. The dark sky mocked his ignorance, and the night seemed to move along far more slowly. Satyrus sat on a step, feeling some lingering warmth from the heat of the day. For the thousandth time he thought of Amastris, and then of Melitta, and then of the marvellous machine in Abraham’s house – not that these thoughts were connected, but only that one followed another, and served to keep other thoughts at bay – just thinking that unlocked them like Pandora’s cursed box, and then he was seeing Theo with the dirk in his eye, and then the Sauromatae girl he had killed, and then he shivered.
Why would Amastris leave him waiting? He rose to his feet and walked over to the sea wall. The two voices down the coast were gone. He could hear a kithara playing.
‘My lord?’ came a voice from the top of the steps.
Satyrus jumped. ‘Yes?’ he answered.
‘I have a message, I think,’ the voice said.
Satyrus couldn’t see anything – the god might have been addressing him directly. That seemed unlikely, so Satyrus climbed the steps. He was careful, and he found that he had drawn his sword without thinking.
‘I am here,’ Namastis said. Closer, Satyrus could recognize the Greco-Aegyptian by the sound of his consonants.
‘So am I,’ Satyrus said. Now he could see the priest outlined by the pale luminescence of the white marble portico and the brightly coloured statues that glittered with gold even on the darkest night. ‘Good evening, Master Namastis.’
‘So!’ Namastis said. He sounded amused, a far cry from his daytime subservience. ‘I am asked to perform a task for the palace by a priest of Hathor, and look – I’m running an errand for a Greek.’ He reached out and placed an oyster shell in Satyrus’s hand.
‘I can’t very well read it in the dark,’ Satyrus said.
Namastis made a tapping noise and then a scuffing, as if he was carrying a staff and tapping his sandals. ‘I can light a torch in the outer sanctuary,’ he said. ‘Come.’
Satyrus climbed up to the portico behind the blackness that was the priest’s cloak against the white of the steps, and then he paused in the incense-redolent interior. He didn’t know his way and the priest vanished.
He wondered if this was an ambush. He was behaving like an idiot – in more ways than one. And Namastis – was it just coincidence? How would Amastris know of their connection? Satyrus grasped the hilt of his sword, and just then he heard a strong grunt as the Aegyptian blew hard on a spark, and in seconds a resin-impregnated torch burst into flame, with the heady smell of burning pitch.
The scenes of the temple interior sprang to life in the flickering light of one torch, but Satyrus glanced around, his head turning like a falcon’s or a hunting owl’s.
He sheathed his sword and his hand fell away from the hilt. He was, quite literally, starting at shadows.
He went over to the priest and stood with the torchlight at his right shoulder while he opened the shell and read the note.
Satyrus shrugged. ‘Let that be a lesson to me,’ he said.
The priest shook his head, saying nothing. Then he paused. ‘I could offer you a cup of wine,’ he said. ‘We’re not supposed to,’ he added, in a tone that suggested that this rule was not widely obeyed.
Satyrus shook his head. ‘No, thanks,’ he said. ‘I have been enough of a foolish boy for ten nights. I need to get some sleep before Philokles has me on the drill field in the morning.’
Namastis peered at him as if his eyes were weak. ‘You are with the Spartan? In the Phalanx of Aegypt?’ he asked. ‘I hear news of you every day.’ He smiled hesitantly.
Satyrus shrugged. ‘If it is still there in the morning,’ he answered.
Namastis nodded. ‘Yes. The Macedonians didn’t want to arm any mere native and now they seek to drive them all away.’
Satyrus had to laugh. ‘I don’t think it’s an organized plot, friend,’ he said. ‘Macedonian arrogance is sufficient. Panion came today and in one speech undid four weeks of Philokles’ work. And your countrymen aren’t the world’s best soldiers, either. Lots of obedience and not much spirit.’
Namastis rubbed his bare chin. ‘Would a priest of Poseidon be welcome in your phalanx, lord?’ he asked. ‘Satyrus?’ he said.
Satyrus shrugged. ‘My father had priests in his phalanx. In Greek cities, many priests serve in the ranks just like other men.’ He made a face. ‘I have no idea what the tradition is here.’
‘Then I will come tomorrow,’ Namastis said.
As Philokles had predicted, fewer than half of the Aegyptians returned to the ranks the next day, and those that came were surly and often stood immobile instead of exercising.
‘Why did you come, if not to work?’ Philokles asked one. The man carefully grounded his pike and walked off.
‘Look at the bright side,’ Dionysius said. ‘Now we have enough sarissas. ’ He shrugged. Dionysius was the least affected by the death of Theo. He’d never liked the boy and didn’t even pretend to mourn him.
Satyrus was working with the young men, practising with the hoplite arms most of them had – heavy shields, a handspan larger than the Macedonian shields and much deeper, so that they protected the whole body; shorter spears with heavy heads and long bronze butt-spikes, like those carried by Leon’s marines. They were practising a marine tactic – one that Philokles admired – a short burst of a charge from just three paces out from the enemy line. On board ship, this was all the deck space any marine ever had for a charge. On the battlefield, Satyrus reckoned, those three paces represented the length of the enemy sarissas.
He had bargepoles affixed to two-wheel carts so that the spears stood out two spans past the poles of the yokes. A line of these carts represented the enemy, and again and again the young men practised flinging themselves forward three steps, stooping low and shields held at an acute, uncomfortable angle – slam into the face of the carts, hopefully avoiding the tips of the bargepoles. And pushing the carts back.
Every fourth or fifth time, they managed it, and the carts rocked back. The other times, they tripped and fell, or someone got a bargepole in the head or lost his grip or the pace – ugly accidents, and reminders of what would happen when there were veteran killers at the other end of the bargepoles.
It was after one such disaster, with Theron berating a gaggle of Jews as if they were slaves and not the sons of four of the city’s richest citizens, when Satyrus saw that all the Aegyptians were standing still, refusing any further orders. It was a curious form of rebellion – the phalanx was voluntary, and any of them might have grounded their pikes like the first rebel and walked away.
‘Uh-oh,’ Abraham muttered. He pushed the helmet back on his head so that his arming cap showed white against his tawny skin.
‘Why are we working so hard, if all the Gyptos are going to quit?’ Dionysius asked. He took a pull from his elegant black canteen and then handed it around. It had straight unwatered wine.
Satyrus drank some anyway. ‘If Philokles were here, he’d say that if they mutiny, that’s their decision and not ours about defending our city.’
Dionysius looked far more capable than he usually did. He raised an eyebrow. ‘That’s a nice argument for the schoolroom, dear. But for a man who’s considering facing a line of spears, it doesn’t seem to me to carry much weight.’
Philokles was standing with his hands on his hips. His face was red, as if he was about to give way to anger. The Aegyptians moved as if a breeze was passing over a field of their own emmer, and a sigh escaped from their ranks, which were none too even.
And then a file of men in dark cloaks came on to the parade ground from the west, towards the temple district. Most of them – but not all – were of mixed birth. A few were marked by their features and their distinctive linen garments as Aegyptian priests. There were more than twenty of them, and they came to a dignified halt behind Philokles.
Namastis stepped out from the gaggle of priests. ‘Lord Philokles? The temple district sends its tithe of men who are citizens to serve.’
Another sigh escaped from the men in the ranks.
Philokles returned the priest’s bow. ‘Twenty willing men delight me, but the favour of the gods would delight us all.’
An older man wearing the curious long garment favoured by servants of the older Aegyptian gods stepped forth. ‘I may not serve under arms,’ he said. ‘But if I might address your men, you might find them better soldiers.’
Philokles frowned, and then stepped out of the command spot at the head of the square. ‘Be my guest, priest,’ he said politely. He walked over to where Theron and Satyrus were standing. ‘Can’t hurt us,’ he said with a shrug. ‘Perhaps he’ll help. I know him – Temple of Osiris. A fine speaker.’
Theron shook his head. ‘Strange, like all barbarians. Priests who won’t fight?’
Satyrus furrowed his brow. ‘You told me that in Corinth the priests of Aphrodite didn’t fight, but pimped for their priestesses who sold their bodies.’
Theron rubbed his nose and had the grace to look embarrassed. ‘Um – that’s true.’
Philokles and Satyrus exchanged glances, even as the older priest of Osiris raised his arms and began to speak.
Some of the men in the ranks looked inattentive, bored or even angry to be addressed by the priest – but a great many more listened as if receiving the words of the great gods themselves, and some fell to their knees until the priest was done speaking. One by one, five priests addressed them in Aegyptian. Then all five gave a benediction in Greek and in Aegyptian, and they went off to the side, where a stand of date palms offered some shade.
The priests of the Greek gods also offered benedictions, but when they were done, Namastis clapped his hands and slaves brought them shields and linen armour like the Aegyptians wore, and good Greek Pylos helmets straight from the forges.
Philokles looked around. ‘Harmless,’ he said. He rolled his shoulders as if taking the weight of his responsibility back. ‘Might even do some good.’
It had done some good. If the natives had ever intended mutiny – and none of the Hellenes knew them or their language well enough to know – they meant no mutiny now. Most of them began to drill with something like enthusiasm, and despite the fact that they were a thousand men short of their required size since the day before, Philokles led them through exercise after exercise with something like enthusiasm himself, and Dionysius shook his head in admiration at their first successful wheel all the way through a circle – a difficult manoeuvre even for professionals. Of course it was easier with half the men, but the spirit of the whole was different – profoundly different.
When the sun touched the horizon, Satyrus sought out the priest of Poseidon. ‘What did you do?’ he said.
Namastis shook his head. ‘I did very little. It had already been discussed – but meeting you last night stiffened my spine.’
‘What did the priest of Osiris say? It was like magic!’ Satyrus said.
‘Yes!’ Namastis replied. He glanced at Philokles. ‘He told them to act like men. That the eyes of the entire lower kingdom were on them. That they, and they alone, stood between the old gods and destruction.’
Satyrus shook his head. ‘Well, he’s a fine old fellow.’
‘Don’t patronize me, Greek.’ Namastis looked far more imposing in a linen corslet and a helmet than in his robes. ‘And don’t patronize him.’
Satyrus bit back an adolescent retort and nodded. ‘I won’t.’
Namastis shook his head. ‘It’s hard not to be touchy when you are half-caste. Listen – he also told them that Philokles is the very avatar of the war god – at least for now.’
‘My tutor?’ Satyrus laughed, but then he stopped. A great many scenes passed before his eyes in a few heartbeats. ‘That’s not altogether far from the mark,’ he said.
Namastis glanced over Satyrus’s shoulder to where a knot of fashionable young men waited for their friend but were too polite to break in on the two of them – or too disdainful of the Gypto. ‘You Hellenes are great fools,’ Namastis said. ‘He wasn’t speaking in allegory, Satyrus. He meant that Philokles is the very avatar of the god of war. Here. Now.’ The priest picked up his spear and swung it carefully erect. The full length of the pike made any sudden movement perilous.
A prickle at the back of Satyrus’s neck, and then the smell of a wet lion skin, and then nothing – a sort of absence of sense.
‘You are god-touched,’ Namastis said reverently. ‘I forget Hellenes are not all fools. My apologies, lord.’
‘Satyrus, not lord,’ Satyrus said, offering his hand.
Namastis took it, and clenched it hard – too hard, but a good try. ‘Men are hunting you,’ he said suddenly.
‘I know,’ Satyrus said. He actually smiled, like the hero in an epic, although his smile was more self-mockery than dismissal of danger.
‘No Aegyptian will help them,’ Namastis said. ‘That much I guarantee you. But the Macedonian faction intends your death. They have hired men. That is all we know.’
Satyrus favoured the hand all the way back to Leon’s villa by the sea.
No more oyster shells came, and no fights with his sister, who was gone – visiting Amastris herself, or so Dorcus claimed. Satyrus went to sleep picturing elements of the drill.
And in the morning, the ranks were full. Two thousand Aegyptians, half-castes and Hellenes stood together in the ranks. Their armour was a patchwork, and their spears and sarissas were four different lengths, and most men had neither body armour nor cloaks – but the ranks were full.
Philokles asked the priest of Osiris and the priest of Zeus to address the men. Each offered a brief prayer. And then, when the priest of Zeus had intoned the hymn to the rise of day, Philokles gestured to Abraham.
‘We have no priest of your god, son of Ben Zion,’ Philokles said. ‘Can you sing a hymn or some such? This taxeis will use every shred of divinity on offer.’
Abraham nodded. He was in the front rank, beyond Dionysius whose beauty included the kind of fitness that caused Philokles to put him in the front. He shuffled forward past Dionysius – no easy task with an aspis – and stood in front. In a deep voice he began a hymn – Hebrew, of course. Fifty voices picked it up. Some sang softly, as if embarrassed, and some carefully, as if forcing the words from their memories. But they sounded well enough, and they smiled self-consciously when finished – just as the Aegyptians and the Hellenes had done.
‘If all the gods are satisfied, we need to do a great deal of work,’ Philokles shouted.
For the first time, his words were greeted with the sort of spontaneous cheer he expected from good troops.
At supper, back at Leon’s, Philokles shook his head. ‘We were down,’ he said. ‘Now? I see a glimmer of that fickle creature, hope.’
Theron grunted and ate another helping of quail. ‘When do we march?’ he asked. ‘And will we carry the baggage?’
Philokles shrugged. ‘I can’t believe the delays. Ptolemy hasn’t even decided on a strategy yet – he vacillates, so I’m told, between offence and defence, and he has twelve thousand slaves rebuilding the forts along the coast. And six thousand being gathered to support the army. We won’t carry the baggage – but if we have a defensive campaign, these men will melt away, priests or no priests. And if the campaign flares into sudden battle before marching makes them hard – again, I dread it.’ But after these words, he brightened. ‘But I tell you, gentlemen – philosopher that I am, something changed today. I felt it. I, too, will go to my task with a lighter heart.’ Philokles looked at Diodorus. ‘When do we march, Strategos?’
Diodorus was lying with Sappho. He looked up. ‘When Ptolemy is ready. When the storm breaks. When the Macedonian faction makes their move.’ He spread his hands. ‘Or the day after tomorrow. Is your taxeis worthy to stand in the line?’
‘No,’ Philokles said. ‘But give me twenty days of marching, and I might speak otherwise.’
Diodorus shook his head. ‘Ptolemy has all but given up. If Leon returned, we might act. All day long, Panion and the Macedonians of his ilk pour poison in his ears. I’m not sure that we’re any better off for Stratokles being off the board.’
‘If he is off the board,’ Philokles said. ‘The attack on Satyrus-’
‘Might just have been the work of the Macedonians,’ Diodorus said.
‘Too well planned. Footpads. Stratokles.’ Philokles flexed his muscles, reassured that they were returning. ‘Trust me, Diodorus. I know what the man does. I did the same once.’
‘For my part,’ Satyrus said, ‘I’d rather go and fight Demetrios than be afraid of going out of this house.’
‘Ptolemy is afraid they’ll sell him,’ Diodorus said. ‘Like Eumenes.’ He finished his wine and lay on his back next to Sappho, shaking his head. ‘Macedonians.’
A slave came in and whispered to Sappho, and she rolled over.
‘Coenus sends that our guest is awake,’ she said.
It took a moment for that information to penetrate the gloom of the dining hall.
‘Gods,’ Philokles said. And headed for the door.
Leosthenes returned to full consciousness without transition, Apollo having granted him life, or so it seemed to Satyrus. The scarred man lay on Coenus’s spare couch and smiled at the men in the room.
‘Friends,’ he said.
Coenus held his hand. ‘How did you come to serve that scum?’
Leosthenes shook his head. ‘Stratokles? For all his failings, he is a patriot for Athens. I am an Athenian.’
Philokles shook his head. ‘No wonder the Macedonians own us all, Leosthenes, if a man like you will serve a man like Stratokles because he is a patriot. He is a traitor twenty times over. And he’s trying to kill Satyrus – that’s Kineas’s son.’
‘Save your breath,’ Leosthenes said. ‘I will not defend him or Cassander either. I’m glad I have been taken by friends. And I tried to kill Kineas once myself – don’t try that argument on me. Nor will I betray the men who served with me, either.’ He managed a thin smile and shook his head. ‘Stratokles thinks he’s the smartest man in the world.’
Leosthenes was sinking again. Diodorus went and bent over him. ‘Listen, Leosthenes – your precious Stratokles is getting ready to betray Cassander, I can smell it. What does that make him? We need to know where he is!’
Leosthenes shook his head. ‘Glad to be taken by friends,’ he said, and subsided into unconsciousness.
‘Apollo!’ Diodorus swore. ‘Of all the useless fools to follow – and a man like Leosthenes, too!’
‘It is because men like Stratokles can attract men like Leosthenes that they are dangerous. Coenus, he must be watched. We cannot have him go back to Stratokles now.’ Philokles took a deep breath and met Diodorus’s eye.
‘If he went back, we could follow him,’ Diodorus said.
Philokles shook his head. ‘There are limits to the duplicity a man can practise and not be tainted,’ he said. ‘I have been past those limits and I will never go past them again.’
Diodorus nodded. ‘I thought you’d say something like that. Athena send we march before long – the sooner we’re out of this city and doing some honest fighting, the better for everyone.’
In the morning, Leon was back, and the house was full of sailors, and Satyrus found that despite his sister’s problems, he had no trouble embracing Xeno like a long-lost brother.
‘Demetrios has his army in Syria,’ Leon said. ‘He’s building up supplies in Palestine and then he’ll come for us. If he hadn’t had his cavalry beaten up in Nabataea, he’d be here now and we’d be wrecked. As it is, we’ve hope.’
In whispers, Xeno related how the Lotus had ghosted up the Palestinian coast and seized a message boat.
‘I’m off for the palace,’ Leon said. ‘Diodorus?’
The hipparch drank off his morning beer. ‘I’m with you, brother. Listen – I take it he’s coming by land?’
‘Best I can tell,’ Leon affirmed. ‘How’s Ptolemy?’
‘Panicking,’ Diodorus said, and then their voices vanished into the courtyard.
One hundred professional marines had a profound effect on the Phalanx of Aegypt, as they provided file-closers for every file and the drill smartened up immediately. And forty sailors joined them, most of them upper-deck professionals who owned some armour.
One of the sailors was Diokles. He attached himself to Satyrus as soon as he came on the parade square, displacing the Greek boy who stood in the second rank behind Satyrus with a polite nod and a gruff ‘On your way, then.’ The Greek, who’d been a little too shy of pushing forward for Satyrus, seemed happy to be moved to a place that was slightly less exposed.
Satyrus rammed his butt-spike into the sand and turned. ‘Good to see you, by all the gods!’ he said. He was surprised by the warmth of his own reaction.
So was Diokles, but he was visibly pleased. His hand clasp was firm. ‘Thought I’d try my hand at being a gent,’ he said with a smile. ‘Your uncle Leon asked me to look after you,’ he said.
‘Really!’ Satyrus said.
‘Fighting-wise,’ Diokles said. ‘What did you think?’
‘Shut up and listen!’ Philokles bellowed, and they were back to drill. They faced to their spear side and they faced to their shield side, they changed grips on their spears and raised and lowered their shields, they marched to the sound of pipes and halted to the shrill blasts of a whistle. In the afternoon, a man was killed when they practised a full-out charge and he got a butt-spike in the face from an incorrectly lowered pike. Anyone who was not sobered by that death was affected when the Spartan stood them in ranks in the setting sun and marched them past the corpse.
Even Satyrus, whose body was at the peak of training, was ready to drop.
‘We march the day after tomorrow!’ Philokles roared. His voice carried easily – one of the reasons men trained in the arts of rhetoric. ‘Phylarchs will attend me for instructions on what kit your men need to have. Water bottles! Hide or clay or bronze, I don’t give a shit, but every man must have a water bottle. A spare cloak! Understand? The Macedonians will have shield-bearers to carry their kit. Most of us won’t. That means we have to march light. Again – phylarchs will attend me. Very well – fall out by ranks and stack your sarissas. Carry on!’
Theron, who acted as Philokles’ second, began falling out the ranks. This process prevented the men from tangling the long pikes and becoming injured while being dismissed – a real difficulty. Philokles gathered the three hundred men who led files, closed files or led half-files – sixteen men to the file – and read off for them a list of basic equipment every man had to have: wool stockings, heavy sandals, a water bottle, a spare cloak, net bags for forage and a scrip or pack for gear, and other things.
Satyrus and Abraham and many of the other phylarchs carried hinged wax tablets for notes, and they pulled out their styluses and copied the lists, but not all the phylarchs could write.
‘I’ll post it at the temples,’ Satyrus said.
Theron, who had overseen the dismissal of the phalanx, shot him a grateful smile. ‘That’ll save a lot of crap, Satyrus, and no mistake. Make sure the priests know it, too – then men can ask for it.’
Abraham nodded. ‘I’ll take a copy for my father. He can see to it that a dozen copies go around the market.’
‘Some men in my file may be too poor to afford all this,’ one of the marines commented. ‘They seem like good lads, but half of them don’t even have sandals.’
Philokles shrugged. ‘I have to try,’ he said.
Abraham raised his hand. ‘Sir, I think that many of the merchants would help equip men – from pride – if they were asked.’
Philokles laughed. ‘Well, lad, you seem to have volunteered. Figure out a way to discover which men can’t pay, and get them kit. Pick four men to help you.’
Abraham shook his head at Satyrus. ‘Me and my big mouth,’ he said, but he looked more happy than chagrinned. ‘Busy?’
‘I have to cover the temples,’ Satyrus said.
Dionysius raised his hands in mock resignation. Then he smiled wickedly. ‘Cimon’s should donate!’ he said. ‘Perhaps we could have the words “House of a thousand blow jobs” embroidered on our armour.’
Abraham put a casual elbow in Dio’s side and then caught him. ‘That’s enough from you. You can write, I assume? You’re not just a pretty face?’
Dio made a moue. ‘All I ever wanted was to be a pretty face,’ he said. In fact, his face was red from sun and had the strange burn of a man who had been on parade all day in a helmet.
Satyrus took Diokles because the man was to hand and seemed determined to shadow him anyway. ‘Can you write?’ he asked.
Diokles nodded. ‘Sure – hey, maybe not my place, but Hades – ain’t we supposed to go straight back to your uncle’s?’
Satyrus shook his head. ‘Yes and no. Yes, we are – but this has to be done. Look, it’s just a run to the temples.’ He undid the wire that bound his tablets and handed a copy to Diokles. ‘Take this to every temple on the south side. Make sure it is copied fair and that you find some priest who has read it.’
‘You sound like a navarch I knew once,’ Diokles said. He looked at the Alexandrion suspiciously, but it was late afternoon and the streets were full of men and women of every stratum – hardly a threatening crowd. ‘All right, sir. Give it here. Where do I find you?’
‘Temple of Poseidon, last one before the sea wall. On the steps.’ Satyrus wanted to be off the street as much as Diokles wanted him off, so he put his head down and hurried through the errand, passing the list at every temple and watching as a clerk or an under-priest or an acolyte copied the list, bouncing up and down as he waited, watching the crowds from the relative invulnerability of many-stepped porticos.
The Temple of Poseidon was last, and he didn’t see Namastis, which made sense as the young priest had drilled all day. But the priest who copied the list was thorough and interested, able to memorize without effort, and Satyrus found himself standing on the steps watching the crowds. There was no sign of Diokles – and then he saw the man, well down the street, crossing from the Temple of Athena to the Temple of Demeter.
The shrine of Herakles beckoned to him from across the avenue. He had the time.
Satyrus crossed the street as quickly as possible and went up the steps, ignoring some acquaintance who called his name. He gave his list to an acolyte to be copied and then stepped into the precinct of the temple, searched his bag for a silver coin and found one, and made a hasty but exact sacrifice under the gilt statue of the master pankrationist, left arm stretched forward, right arm back and holding a sword, the lion skin of shining gold covering his back. He felt nothing untoward, except that the eyes of the statue seemed to be upon him, and he dedicated his sacrifice to the dead boy, Cyrus – Theo would have his own sacrifices. Satyrus thought of the young man’s eagerness to learn to sacrifice – it seemed as if that was so long ago, and he found that tears were running down his face.
Then he was back out of the precinct, and he went down the steps in a sombre mood.
‘Master Satyrus!’ called a voice, close at hand.
Satyrus felt that something was wrong. He felt as if the god had put a hand on his shoulder and turned him – indeed, he spun on the steps and stumbled when his right foot slipped off the marble step, and his side absorbed an impact – his ribs burned with fire. Only as the knife was withdrawn did he understand that he had been attacked.
‘Hades!’ a familiar voice cursed, and Satyrus got his hand on the attacker’s elbow. They struggled for the knife, and they exchanged blows – Satyrus took a blinding blow from the top of his opponent’s head and returned one with his fingers to his opponent’s eyes, and then the man broke his hold in exchange for the loss of the knife and bolted down the steps.
Satyrus was bleeding from his side. He put a hand to it, and it came away covered with blood, and he felt queasy.
Diokles appeared at his side. ‘I see him!’ he said.
Satyrus managed to get to his feet. ‘Follow him!’ he said. ‘See where he goes!’
Diokles hesitated. ‘But-’ he said.
‘I’ll be safe in the temple,’ Satyrus said. Suiting the action to the word, he dragged himself up the steps, leaving a trail of blood.
Diokles hesitated another moment and then raced away.
Satyrus was helped by many hands. In the end they carried him into the precinct and laid him on a bench. His side hurt, but the doctor who appeared in moments shook his head.
‘You’re a lucky lad,’ he said. ‘Skidded off your ribs. It’ll hurt for some days, but the bruise’ll be worse than the cut.’ He wrapped Satyrus in the temple’s linen, and Hama came with four files of cavalry to escort him home.
Hama was silent all the way home. Satyrus assumed that somehow he was going to be blamed, but he had drawn the wrong conclusion.
‘You’re hurt!’ Sappho said, when he came into the courtyard.
Diokles had managed to follow the would-be killer into the tannery district before he lost the man, and he stood in the middle of a dozen of Diodorus’s cavalrymen, describing the district while Eumenes of Olbia wrote his directions on a tablet.
‘I recognized his voice,’ Satyrus said. ‘Remember Sophokles?’
Philokles smiled ruefully. ‘Who could forget?’ He narrowed his eyes. ‘Really? Here?’
‘Yes,’ Satyrus said.
‘Don’t tell me!’ Sappho put a hand to her throat. ‘Where’s Melitta?’ She sent for Dorcus.
‘Speaking of armour,’ Diodorus said. He shrugged. ‘This was supposed to be a dramatic moment, but I think my thunder has been stolen somewhat.’
Dorcus returned. ‘In the bath, my lady,’ she said, grim-faced.
Sappho took a deep breath and let it out. Then another.
Diodorus embraced his wife. ‘I think we have to let Satyrus go his own way,’ he said.
Sappho raised her head. ‘Very well,’ she said. ‘How badly hurt are you, my dear? I assume that if you were dying, someone would have told me.’
Satyrus managed a smile. ‘It shocked me when it happened, but I assure you I’ve had worse in the palaestra.’
Eumenes stepped forward and saluted. ‘Strategos? With fifty men, I think I could find him.’
‘Hold that thought,’ Diodorus said. ‘Stay by me. I need to consult with Leon and with Philokles before I send a troop of cavalry into the streets, even for Stratokles.’
Satyrus hadn’t seen Eumenes in weeks, and he shook hands with the youngest of his father’s friends. ‘The gods keep you well,’ he said.
Eumenes grinned. ‘The gods need some help with you!’ he answered.
Diodorus stepped in. ‘I have a small surprise for you, Satyrus.’ He shrugged. ‘I hope that you like it.’ He led them all in from the courtyard.
In the main room there was an armour stand, and atop it was the helmet of silver that Demetrios had given Satyrus three years before. Now, under it, was a full-sized cuirass of tawed leather and alternating rows of silver and gilt-bronze scales – every scale a small disk, so that the whole looked like the scales on a fish. There was a gilt and silver vambrace for the sword arm and a pair of rich greaves.
‘I wish that Melitta had as good,’ Satyrus said. ‘Oh, that’s beautiful, Uncle. Who made it? Hephaistos?’
‘Much like,’ Diodorus agreed, pleased that his gift was so well received.
Philokles came in, still in armour, and glanced at the display. ‘Goodness, Achilles is going to fight right next to me. Young man, see that you don’t blind me.’ He turned to Diodorus and Eumenes. ‘So?’
‘Leon’s man followed the assassin,’ Diodorus said.
‘I think I can find him,’ Eumenes said. ‘I need fifty men.’
Philokles shook his head. ‘This whole city is right on the edge of a violent explosion,’ he said. ‘The news isn’t public, but two of our senior officers have fled to Demetrios – this morning. And just now, Ptolemy announced that he will march. We’ll set off tomorrow – the Phalanx of Aegypt at the rear.’ He smiled grimly. ‘If we send ten files of cavalry into the market, the war will start right here.’
Diodorus nodded. ‘I agree. What do we do?’
Philokles looked at Satyrus. ‘We ask our Aegyptian friends to find them for us. The tannery district is almost entirely native. The native populace is so disaffected with the Macedonians tonight that they may rise against Ptolemy himself – foolish as that would be, that’s where they are. Satyrus? Any ideas?’
Satyrus was looking longingly at his new armour. ‘Namastis – the priest of Poseidon. He’ll help. I wish I knew where to find him, but the temple is the place to start.’
Accompanied by Diokles and a dozen cavalry troopers whose military gear was inadequately disguised by borrowed civilian cloaks, Satyrus went to the Temple of Poseidon.
Namastis greeted him from the top of the steps, as if they’d made an appointment. ‘I heard what happened!’ the Aegyptian said.
‘That’s what I’m hoping you’ll help with,’ Satyrus said. ‘Listen – my uncles say our city is on the edge of civil war – Aegyptians against Macedonians.’
Namastis’s face closed. ‘I wouldn’t know anything about that, lord.’
‘Satyrus! Call me Satyrus, by the gods! By Poseidon Earth-shaker, priest, this is about our city! Your city and my city! Men are manipulating the thetes. Alexandria cannot stand without Lord Ptolemy. He is not the enemy. The enemy is Antigonus One-Eye and his army – if they come here, they will sack the city no matter what promises he makes.’
Namastis nodded. ‘I know that. But desperate men make poor choices.’
Satyrus shook his head. ‘These men who attacked me-’
‘Who are they? And why? No man of Aegypt would do it. I have let it be known – that is to say, it is known that you are a friend.’ Namastis looked deeply disturbed by his slip.
Satyrus ignored it. ‘They serve One-Eye. Understand?’
The priest shook his head. ‘No, I do not understand. Explain it to me.’
Satyrus had to smile. ‘To be honest, I’m not positive that I understand myself. One-Eye is enemies with Cassander, the regent of Macedon – yes? But it appears that they have a secret agreement – to give Aegypt to One-Eye.’
‘Yes – that’s a common enough rumour. Why kill you?’ Namastis asked.
Satyrus shrugged. ‘I’m an old enemy,’ he said. ‘My father and mother left me a claim to be king of the Bosporus.’
‘The king of the grain trade!’ Namastis nodded. ‘Ahh! But then, you are no more an Alexandrian than the Macedonians!’
‘What – do I seem to you to be an ingrate? A barbarian? I am a citizen. No matter what my birth. Don’t be as bad as the Macedonians, priest. So what if I was born somewhere else?’
Namastis grinned – the first honest display of emotion that Satyrus had seen him show. ‘So,’ he said. ‘And so. How can this poor and unworthy priest help you, King of the Grain Trade?’
Satyrus explained it to him. The priest listened carefully, and then nodded.
‘There are men who stand close to you all day,’ he said. ‘And you don’t know their names, or where they live. But they will spend the night searching on your behalf. Does that tell you something?’
‘It tells me that I should learn their names,’ Satyrus said.
Namastis grunted. ‘That would be a start,’ he said. He produced an oyster shell from under his robes. ‘I’m not sure that I should give you this, given what you have told me. Except that now I understand why the lady of Heraklea has to do with an upstart Alexandrian gentle man.’
Satyrus snatched the oyster shell, the conflicting emotions of the last one banished.
‘I am to say, tonight.’ Namastis raised an eyebrow. ‘I won’t ask if you will go.’
Satyrus took a deep breath. ‘That’s right, friend,’ he said. ‘Don’t ask.’
At the base of the steps he looked out over the sea wall and thought about his sister. Why can’t you be like this all the time? she’d asked at sea. He nodded and made the sign of Poseidon.
Eloping wasn’t as difficult as it might have been for another girl. First, Melitta wasn’t afraid of the world outside Sappho’s women’s quarters. She knew the streets and she had clothes in which she did not look like a rich Greek girl. Second, she had weapons and a strong desire to use them. Third, she had somewhere to go. Xeno had offered to meet her and be her escort, but that’s not what she wanted.
She dropped off her balcony on to the beach and froze as she heard movement to her left. Barefoot in the sand, she moved slowly and carefully back into the shadow of the house, at the same time drawing her Sakje akinakes.
She saw her brother drop to the sand from his own balcony and she almost laughed aloud – but she couldn’t be sure that they were on the same side when it came to her running away. She wondered where he was going, and then she caught a glint of gold. He was well dressed. Amastris.
She gave the superior smile of the sister, crouched down on her haunches and waited for him to vanish up the beach. When he was gone, his footsteps lost in the noise of drunken sailors, she picked up her armour and the leather wallet that held the rest of her boy’s clothes, and ran off along the strand, past the beached squadrons of Ptolemy’s fleet until she reached some lower and thus less opulent houses, where she cut inland. She leaned against a stable to clean her feet before pushing them into Thracian boots. Other expeditions in boy’s clothes had taught her that her hands and feet gave her away more than her breasts – carefully bound and now almost flat under her Sakje jacket.
Just short of the northern agora, she stopped, straightened her clothes and began to walk purposefully, like a man in a hurry. Not like a girl running away.
The agora was busy, despite the darkness, and she wanted to linger. There were torches everywhere and the heady odour of burning pitch filled the air along with the reek of patchouli and the smell of burning garlic and unwashed people. She wanted to be part of everything.
The night market was a strange world where the thieves and the pornai and the beggars ruled, where soldiers were customers and slaves paid to be entertained. In some ways, it was the daytime world stood on its head, as Menander had so rightly observed. Menander was sometimes a denizen of the night market himself, and his plays were full of night-market expressions.
She bought a skewer of meat – probably rats or mice – from a girl no older than five, who took the money with the concentration a young child gives to an adult task, while her mother serviced a noisy soldier in the booth behind her.
‘I couldn’t – I had to come,’ Xeno said beside her, and she looked up into his eyes.
‘You found me in the night market? You must be part dog!’ she said. She ought to have been angry, but instead she squeezed his hand.
They wandered from stall to stall, paid a blind singer with a kithara for his songs and watched a troupe of slave acrobats perform for free what their master charged heavily for them to perform at a symposium or a private house.
‘The archer-captain is sitting over there with his mates, drinking wine and telling lies,’ Xeno said with a smile. ‘I told him a bit about you – not about you being a girl, of course. About how you were small and you can shoot.’
She kissed him on the nose, as she had seen boys do with their men, even in public. ‘I take back all those things I say about you behind your back,’ she said.
Xeno winced. There was some fear in him, some hesitation, and it annoyed her.
‘Let’s go and meet this captain,’ she said.
They wandered across the agora, avoiding a deadly brawl so sudden and explosive that Xeno was splattered in blood and Melitta found that she had her akinakes in her fist before she thought to draw it.
‘This your little archer, Master Xenophon?’ asked a deep voice, while Xeno was still wiping the blood off his face. He was looking at the body as if he’d recognize the victim any moment, but he turned.
‘Captain Idomeneus!’ he said. ‘My friend-’
‘Bion,’ Melitta said, offering her hand to clasp the archer’s. He was a Cretan by his accent, and he looked like a caricature of Hephaestos – his face was handsome enough, but he was short and wide, with powerful arms and short legs. Indeed, he only topped her by a couple of fingers.
She must have looked at him too long, because he gave a fierce grin. ‘Like what you see, boy? My dick is short and broad, too. Hah!’ He had a mastos cup in his hand, and he drank wine from it. ‘No offence, boy. You can shoot?’
‘Anything,’ Melitta said. ‘I’ve been shooting since I was four years old. I can hit a target seven times out of ten at half a stade. I can-’
‘You can string a bow? Avoid bragging, boy, it’s too fucking easy for me to test you tomorrow. What kind of bow do you have? Let me see it.’ He didn’t seem drunk, but a whole life spent with Philokles had taught her that some men could operate efficiently through a haze of wine.
She took her bow from its gorytos and handed it over.
He whistled. ‘Sakje? Maybe you ain’t so full of shit, boy. It’s your size. Made for you?’
She nodded. ‘Yes,’ she said.
‘You Sakje, boy?’ he asked. ‘People going to come looking for you?’ There was something in his tone that she liked – a firmness that showed his command skills. So she told him the truth.
‘I have family here,’ she said. ‘They might look for me. Even if they find me, I doubt they’ll make a fuss.’
‘Rich kid?’ Idomeneus asked.
Melitta shrugged. ‘What do you think?’ she asked, trying to roughen her voice and sound tough.
The Cretan grabbed her by the ear and pulled her face close to a torch. She flinched, grabbed his hand in a pankration hold and rotated his arm, using the hand as purchase.
‘Whoa!’ the Cretan called. ‘Hold!’
She let him go. He rubbed his shoulder. ‘I think you speak like a boy who had a tutor,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to waste my time visiting magistrates and archons. And,’ he shrugged, his eyes flashing in the torchlight, ‘if I didn’t know better, I might wonder if you were a girl. Not that I particularly give a shit, you understand. Just that if an outraged father or brother kills me, I’ll haunt you. You as good as that bow says you are?’
‘Yes,’ Melitta said.
The Cretan shrugged. ‘Okay. I’m desperate, which this young animal has no doubt told you. We need archers the way a man in the desert needs water. You’re on. If your father comes for you, though, I’ll hand you over in a heartbeat. Understand me, boy?’
Melitta stood straighter. ‘Yes, sir!’
‘Pluton, none of my boys call me “sir”.’ Idomeneus grinned, his teeth glinting in the torchlight. ‘Can I buy you two a cup of wine to seal the bargain?’
Melitta wanted to accept, but Xeno shook his head. ‘I thought I’d go to the slave auction,’ he said.
Melitta flinched. ‘You know how Uncle-’ She reconsidered her sentence. ‘What do you want with a slave?’ she asked.
Idomeneus gave her a steady look. Xeno glanced around nervously. ‘I want a shield-bearer,’ he said. ‘I have all my share from the ship. All the rich boys have a shield-bearer.’
‘A fool and his money,’ the Cretan muttered. ‘Listen, boys – never buy anything at the night auction. Half those poor bastards were just kidnapped off the street, and the other half are shills who follow you home just to help their allies rob your house.’
‘I can’t afford anything at the day market,’ Xeno said. He was avoiding Melitta’s glares.
‘Go without,’ the archer-captain said, with all the firmness of age and experience. ‘Oh, fine. I’ll go with you – otherwise you’ll both end up on the block. Argon?’ he called, and another Cretan stepped away from a big fire, downed the wine in a cheap clay cup and handed it to another man.
‘With you, humpback. Who’s this boy?’ Argon was taller and handsomer and didn’t look very bright.
‘Bion – just joined. We’re going to the night auction. Come and cover my arse.’ Idomeneus grinned and the two men slapped each other’s backs.
The four of them made their way to the auction, where a deep throng of onlookers – many of them slaves themselves – gathered to bid on the dregs of the dregs of the city of Alexandria. Melitta was disgusted by the whole process – she shared her uncle’s views on every aspect of the trade. Most of the people on auction were hopeless – the kind you saw on the fringe of the agora in the daytime, begging and stealing, many scarcely capable of speech. They were scrawny, ill fed, most had few teeth and all flinched whenever a free man came too close. The only healthy, normal-looking specimens were children, and their version of normality was abject terror at being sold. One boy sobbed incessantly.
What kind of parent sells her child? Melitta asked in her head, but the answer was plain before her, as two of the children were auctioned off by a toothless bastard with an evil smile. The two children he sold were bruised and silent, watching the torch-lit crowd with all the interest of dead souls watching the living.
Melitta found that her right thumb was rubbing the hilt of her long knife. She wanted to kill the man.
The next lot was a single boy, the one who kept sobbing. Under his dirt and his scrunched, unhappy face he was healthy, blond and larger than most of the other children.
Xeno was shifting nervously, aware, like most boyfriends, that he had annoyed his lover, and unable to think of a way to make it right without giving up his precious project of buying a slave.
Melitta could read him so easily that it hurt her – hurt her opinion of him. But without weighing the morality of her actions, she smiled up at him. ‘Buy that boy,’ she said. ‘He looks strong enough.’
‘My aspis is taller than that kid!’ Xeno said, but he looked at the boy again. ‘He’s whimpering.’
‘Zeus Soter, he’s big, and in a few years he’ll be strong. Besides, he’s just the sort a certain uncle of ours tries to rescue. Don’t be a git, Xeno.’ Melitta tried to whisper, but the crowd was hooting for the next lot to be stripped – two whores being sold for debt.
Idomeneus caught something of what she said, because he leaned in. ‘That boy? He looks all right. I’ll go and look him over.’ The Cretan shrugged. ‘Boy that size is like having a kid, though. Have to teach him everything – but if he lives, a good investment.’
The crowd was so anxious to see the pornai that the hawker was having trouble getting bids on the blond child.
‘I fucking hate seeing kids sold,’ Argon said. He spat at the man who had sold the two children, now standing at arm’s length from them counting his silver coins. The man felt the moisture and whirled in anger.
Argon didn’t move. ‘Fuck yourself, clod.’
The clod flinched and backed away. Argon was a big man.
Melitta nodded. ‘I wanted to kill him,’ she said.
‘Really?’ Argon asked. ‘Want to?’
Melitta realized then that she was in a different world – that Argon meant just what he said.
‘Three silver owls,’ Idomeneus said. ‘Argon, don’t make trouble. Bion, did you stir him up, the stupid lout? Argon, take a deep breath and back off.’ The Cretan shook his head. ‘He’s the kind of man who makes other people call us Cretans.’
Xeno handed the officer three big silver coins, and Idomeneus made them vanish. ‘Never flourish money like that at night,’ he said. ‘You boys should get some training in real life. Anyway, boy’s yours.’ He reached out and took a leash from the hawker. Xeno took it and pulled, but the boy didn’t move, and the crowd was howling for the prostitutes to be stripped.
Melitta put her arm around the boy’s shoulder. ‘Come on, boy,’ she said.
He sobbed and hunkered down.
Idomeneus picked him up as if he was made of feathers. ‘Let’s go somewhere bright and quiet and look at what you bought,’ he said. ‘Camp.’
Satyrus dropped from his balcony to the beach with a minimum of fuss, except for the pain in his side over his ribs, which burned anew as he hung from his fingers for a moment. Then he gathered the bundle he’d thrown from the balcony moments before and sprinted off down the beach, the sound of his feet covered by the shouts of the men and women on the beach.
The Golden Lotus was stern-first on the beach between the Hyacinth and the Bow of Apollo, her bow awash, ready for action in minutes, and her crew were drinking and enjoying the company of hundreds of Alexandria’s waterfront whores, who had turned the beach into an outdoor market, with wine and food and other delights for the thousands of oarsmen from Ptolemy’s fleet.
Satyrus had no difficulty slipping through them in a plain cloak, ignoring a few offers of companionship and his own sense of what he ought to be doing, and seizing hold of the rope that led to the ship’s boat, moored alongside the oar box. He pulled off his boots and climbed aboard, loosed the rope and rowed away.
Satyrus rowed across the harbour in the light of a new moon, the upside-down crescent that the Sakje and the Aegyptians both called the ‘maiden with her legs spread’. Whatever powers Sophokles and Stratokles possessed, Satyrus didn’t think they could track him across the harbour.
He rowed right past the guard post at the palace without a challenge – not the first time – and coasted silently into the tiny harbour, scarcely larger than a courtyard, where Ptolemy’s own barge loaded and unloaded. What he was doing was insane, but he was smiling, for the first time in days.
Her directions were specific – he was to come to the gate. Amastris had no way of knowing that the front gate full of Macedonian guards was the last place he wanted to be. He moored his boat at the trade dock and climbed the ladder to the pier, which was empty. Ptolemy had problems of his own – he was not going to fill his palace full of Foot Companions the night before he marched. Satyrus had bet on it, and his bet was coming up.
At the top of the ladder, he stripped off his chiton and pulled on the dun chlamys of a palace slave. Slaves seldom wore a chiton. He looked longingly at his sword, and then tossed it on top of his chiton. One thing no slave ever had was a weapon. Barefoot like a slave, he stole into the palace.
No one challenged him. There were slaves in every corridor, but they ignored him, although he got enough glances to see that many of them knew he was not one of them. Neither, however, did they seem inclined to betray him.
He passed through the court and the megaron, carrying a wine pitcher he found on a chest, and then he went out of the main entry under the wall painting of Zeus. He left the wine pitcher in the entryway and walked with his head bowed across the great courtyard towards the main gate.
The gate guard tonight were Cavalry Companions – the ruler’s own Hetairoi, and thus men he could have trusted. Many of them were friends of Diodorus, and although most were Macedonians, their fates were so tied to the house of Ptolemy that they would never betray him – or, by extension, Satyrus. He sighed for all his extra effort, and in between the beginning and end of that sigh, he spotted a slender shadow amidst the pillars and scaffolding of the new gate.
A man on guard laughed bitterly.
‘Or we’ll all die,’ he said, and his words carried clearly across the night.
Satyrus moved as quietly as if he were hunting ibex in the south, or deer on the Tanais. Twice, his bare feet touched gravel and he had to move yet more carefully – and then we was in the shadow of the new portico. In crawling under the edge of the scaffold, he managed to get sand under his bandage.
Nonetheless, he was able to come up to the pillars without being discovered, and he reached out just as she turned.
‘Don’t scream,’ he said.
She opened her mouth, put a hand on his chest and then put her mouth up to his. ‘You came!’ she breathed.
Her kiss was everything he remembered, and nothing, no shred of conscious thought, entered his head for many heartbeats. She kissed him for so long that he breathed the air from her lungs, and she took it back from him, and then she leaned back against the pillar as if all the strength was gone from her legs.
‘You are naked,’ she said.
‘I am pretending to be a slave,’ he answered. ‘Besides, my nudity shows my physique, and my physique shows that I am ready to do my duty as a citizen.’ Gods – he was parroting Philokles in the middle of kissing Amastris.
‘It shows more than that,’ she said. She ran a finger down his chest. ‘How did you get here?’ she asked, but her tongue didn’t let him answer, and her hand closed over his manhood, and she laughed into his kiss, a low laugh full of promise. Then, before things got out of her control, she took him by the hand and led him back, away from the gate, screened by the line of scaffolding, until they slipped by a pair of torch-bearers and under the columns of the main wing of the palace.
‘This is where you first kissed me,’ she said. That seemed to demand certain actions, and then they were moving again. Just the sight of her gold-sandalled feet seemed the most erotic thing he’d ever seen, and he followed her in a daze until they emerged from the line of pillars.
‘The gardens,’ she said, as they passed between the gateposts of entwined roses.
An odd, observant part of his mind noted that she knew the gardens very well, as she led him past the maze to an arbour adorned with a statue of a nymph – possibly Thetis of the glistening breasts.
‘I never thought that you would actually come,’ she said into his ear, and then licked it.
Satyrus picked her up and carried her to the bench.
‘Put me down!’ she said, but her voice was soft.
Satyrus pulled the golden pin that held the shoulder of her dress and began to kiss down her neck, over her shoulder, and without pause up the curve of her breast, even as he sat carefully on the bench. Training was good for many things.
‘Oh!’ she said. ‘Satyrus – no. Oh, I never thought that you would come.’
‘No?’ he asked, raising his head.
Her eyes sparkled in the near dark, reflecting distant torchlight like a thousand stars. ‘No,’ she breathed. ‘Not that sort of no. Or perhaps – I don’t know. Oh, my dear.’
She drew him down for a kiss, and wriggled off his lap on to the bench. ‘Where’s my pin?’ she asked.
He produced it, and she carefully thrust it through her gown without repinning her shoulder, and then she turned back to him. ‘I don’t want to lose anything,’ she said, her eyes as big and deep as night itself. Then she unpinned the other shoulder and put the pin in the same place, and turned to him with a smile that took his breath away. ‘Now,’ she said. ‘Gold pins do not grow on trees.’
The sun streaked the horizon as he rowed back, his mind buzzing, his shoulders curiously tired.
‘Make it possible for Ptolemy to give us to each other,’ Amastris had said. That phrase filled his head, and he rowed across the harbour at a speed that might have won a race.
The beach was silent, except for the snores of the oarsmen and their companions. A pair of women bathed in the sea as he rowed up, and one of them rose out of the water. ‘Aphrodite,’ she called. ‘Coming out of the sea just for you!’
Satyrus laughed. ‘I have nothing left to give that lovely goddess,’ he said, and both the girls laughed. ‘Nor have we,’ they called.
His good humour lasted until he climbed into his room, where Philokles sat by his empty bed.
‘Where the fuck have you been?’ the Spartan asked. And without listening to an explanation, Philokles said, ‘We were attacked last night.’ He shrugged. ‘I thought you were taken. Dead.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Satyrus said.
‘Dorcus is dead. Nihmu has a knife wound in her shoulder. Three men – in through the women’s quarters.’ The Spartan shook his head. ‘Gods – so you were gone all night – and Melitta too, unless her note is forged. She says she has eloped with the god of war, so Stratokles failed by the will of the gods.’
Satyrus ducked out of his room and down the hall, scattering servants. He went into Sappho’s wing, past the guard. ‘Auntie?’ he called.
Sappho emerged in a Persian robe, slapped him and then embraced him. ‘You were with a girl!’ she said. ‘Is this what we taught you? You smell of sex. You little fool!’ she said, but she hugged him all the tighter.
Satyrus wondered why he ever thought that he could get away with anything.
‘That’s quite the expensive scent,’ Kallista said from behind Sappho. ‘Were you with Phiale, by any chance? Why didn’t we think of that?’
He shook his head. ‘I’m so sorry!’ he said.
‘Now, if we could recover your sister, I could stop worrying,’ Sappho said.
Melitta lay under the stars, her two men’s cloaks crossed over her and her legs entwined with Xeno’s. His new boy lay on the other side, full of soup, asleep.
The boy was a sadder case than Melitta had guessed – mother dead, father dead – killed by their own owner. Melitta thought about the boy’s story, trying to piece together a six-year-old’s account of his life. Something rang – something was trying to fit with the rest of her head, like a piece in a mosaic.
Xeno was too adoring, and in some ways his adoration was more difficult than anything, but she had shot ten bullseyes out of ten at fifty paces by torchlight, and even the archer-captain of the toxotai was impressed with her – him. She had a place among the archers who were training to face Demetrios’s elephants. Xeno’s adoration seemed a small price to pay.
Melitta wondered what her brother was doing. In her rush to get free of the smothering confines of Leon’s house, she hadn’t thought about what it would be like to be separated from him, despite his many failings. He was, after all, her twin. Where had he gone?
Xeno was already snoring. She smiled at him – the bulk of him so familiar and so unfamiliar – and smiled at the thought that none of the other soldiers considered that there was anything remarkable in their sharing blankets and cloaks. She wondered how long she could keep up her role as a man.
As long as she could.