Sacred Fire

Artaxastra

[Note: Awarded First Place in the 2008 Literary Agon — Historia Category]

They do not love us in Memphis. My Lord lies near the Serapeum, and not a moon passes that someone does not remind me that we slew the God when we ruled, the young Apis bull who should have lived long and brought prosperity to the land. It was a hundred years ago or more, but in Egypt that is the blink of an eye.

They do not love the Parsa, but they love My Lord. It gives me pause to see him sculpted so, twice the height of a man, wearing the double crowns of Egypt. He is the Restorer, the heir of Amon, their true Horus who threw the Parsa out and returned Ma’at to the Black Land.

Perhaps that is what he meant and perhaps not, but I shall not argue against his divinity.

My Lord lies in Memphis in his stolen, splendid sarcophagus, because there is no place for him in Alexandria yet. No place, and Perdiccas is hot on our trail. By this theft Ptolemy has made war against him, and if he will hold Egypt he must fight Perdiccas when he comes, Perdiccas who claims the Regency and the arms of Alexander.

I have nothing to do in this. My place is with My Lord’s body. I shall abide in Memphis, whatever comes.

The courts of the House of Knowledge are cool and shaded, even on the hottest days. The Temple of Ptah is not the most fashionable, but it is in many ways the most welcoming, even though its best days are past. The date trees grow old and gnarled around a rectangular pool, its stonework crumbling just a bit with age. I was surprised to see anyone else there on this day of muster, much less a soldier whose face I knew.

He sat on the ground beside the pool, trailing one hand in the water, as though the sun flaring off the ripples of light could tell him something, and did not hear me approach.

“Lydias of Miletus?” I said.

He looked up and smiled, unsurprised as though he had expected me, as though I were an old friend just a few minutes late for an appointment. “Hello, Bagoas.”

“Why are you here?” I asked, and meant both still in Memphis with the muster going on, and in the court of the House of Knowledge. He was a plain man, I thought, not a scholar.

“I come here from time to time,” he said, looking around at the old trees. “And try to remember.”

I sat down beside him in the shade, the width of two men between us. “I remember too,” I said. “I will not forget My Lord, nor any breath of his while mine endures.”

“That too,” Lydias said with a smile. “And I am here because I do not leave today with the rest of the army, but tomorrow for Rhakotis. On business I may not tell you.”

“Ah,” I said, knowing that Ptolemy trusted his discretion. “And what is it you remember?” I did not think he had known My Lord well, only a common soldier in his service, or a troop leader, but he must have some story as all the soldiers did, of a forced march or a brave word, of a drink on the field or a kindness when he lay in the hospital. It does not grieve me to speak of My Lord, but pleases me to hear each bundled tale.

Lydias frowned at the pool, his hand stirring the water again. “I remember a boy who played the harp,” he said. “A boy who played the harp before the king, while the prince stood by, watching as if he had seen the other half of his soul. The gods meant him to be king, and so he was, even if it were over the bodies of his kindred, of his wife’s father, of his beloved.”

In the heat of the day I felt a chill run down my spine.

Lydias’ voice was soft, almost lost in the sound of the wind in the palm fronds above. “And I remember this place, and a prince I loved and served when Troy was no more. I knew, when General Hephaistion came to Miletus, that I must go. He had need of me again.”

I said nothing, frozen as one is when suddenly things do not go as one expects. He had loved Hephaistion, told me as much before, and I could bear no ill will for that. “Kalanos….” I said, thinking of the holy man who had followed My Lord back from India.

Lydias smiled. “He said things like this, didn’t he? Perhaps I listened too closely. Or perhaps I lost my mind in Gedrosia.”

There was nothing to say to that. Men had lost their minds, and worse. I understood that.

He looked at me sideways, his dark hair falling across his cheek, a plain man made beautiful suddenly by eyes full of light, impenetrable as the stars. “Do you know what I dreamed in Gedrosia, Bagoas?”

I shook my head.

“I dreamed of snow,” he said wonderingly. “I dreamed of snow in my veins, snow crusting my eyelashes, the mane of the horse beneath me. I followed my king through endless plains of snow, the horse picking his way around the dead, through whispering powdered winds until my woman’s body seemed to fray into nothing but wind, into silence and cold, a curved sword of steel and ice at my side. An endless retreat into nothing, into the heart of winter, a procession of shadows under a black sky. As though I stood on that plain of ice and reached back for me, drawing heat from Gedrosia.”

He is mad, I thought. As are we all, touched by that strange fire.

Lydias smiled. “Men think strange things when they’ve been out in the sun too long.”

“They do,” I said, somewhat inadequately. I had not thought him beautiful. I had not thought any man beautiful since My Lord breathed his last. I would not think that, not made for pleasure as I am. “Perhaps you should have been a priest instead of a soldier.”

“If Kalanos is right, should we not all play all parts?” Lydias straightened up, droplets of water falling from his hand. “I should play priest and soldier both, eunuch and prince, matron and camp follower and servant of the gods.”

“To what end?” I said, thinking of Kalanos burning himself alive. “And not have it be but senseless suffering?”

He leaned closer, but did not touch me. “You abhor the Lie,” he said. “Does not that sacred fire demand service, no matter what its form, should it be garbed as an Apis bull,” Lydias gestured with his head toward the tombs, “or as the sole god of Judah or as Magi’s flame? Are we not servants of the light together?”

“I am My Lord’s servant,” I said. “And nothing more.”

“And who does your Lord serve?” Lydias asked, drawing away.

I could not answer. I did not know. He had never told me what Amon had said to him at Siwah. Hephaistion had known, but I had not. I had reached for My Lord as a blind man reaches for fire, not needing to see its shape or form to be warmed by it. I did not need to know.

“You are above yourself,” I said, “to ask such questions.”

“I am above myself,” he said cheerfully. “I have been above myself since I left Miletus. So I have nothing to lose by reaching higher. And I had hoped we might be friends.”

“Friends?” My eyebrows rose. Many had asked me, and I had always said no. I should want no one, no one who was not My Lord, for all that I was not yet five and twenty.

“Friends,” he said. “Nothing more. You misunderstand me.”

“Oh,” I said, and felt myself coloring. “It is only….”

Lydias gave me a lopsided smile. “It is only that you are beautiful, and everyone would like to know what you are made of. But it was only friendship I offered, not patronage. I should think I would know better than that.”

“But you are a man,” I said more harshly than I intended. “Men do not call themselves friends to Parsa catamites.”

“Thais the Athenian is a woman,” he said, “and I do not disdain her friendship. Nor does Ptolemy begrudge it, knowing that I am no rival.”

“You would be mad indeed to be your own general’s rival,” I said.

“I would be,” he said. “And I trust that you grant that while I was not bred to courts and courtiers, I am no fool. But I should not wish to call on you if I were not welcome.”

I didn’t know why I’d thought his eyes were quite so dark in the bright sun. They were really an ordinary shade of brown, in an ordinary face. What harm could there be in conversation with someone who did not hate Persians, as the Egyptians here did? Not even the most jealous shade could grudge conversation, and My Lord had never been jealous, knowing that he excelled and having no cause to be.

“I will enjoy seeing you,” I said, “When you return from Rhakotis.”

 

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