He, too, is Alexander

Author's Note: I fell in love with Mary Renault's Alexander trilogy way back in my teens and have been fascinated by the topic, and especially by Alexander & Hephaistion's relationship, ever since. It's kind of funny that what finally made me want to write them was neither Renault's novels nor Oliver Stone's movie but a couple of throwaway lines about Roxana in the (kind of) non-fiction biography of Alexander that Renault wrote, The Nature of Alexander. It's always all about Hephaistion for me, so this is me trying to figure out the balance between Alexander, his new wife, and his closest friend & lover.

[Roxana's] married life must have been measured in months. [...] For something like a year, she must have spent more time in Hephaistion's custody than in [Alexander's]. - Mary Renault, The Nature of Alexander, 1975 (p. 184 & 204)

***
Alexander had only been married to Roxana a short while before they left for India. As he prepared to ride towards the mountains at the head of half of his army, he left behind the other half to protect the non-combatants. They would take the longer but less strenuous route and meet again in India, if their guides were to be believed, securing supply lines as they went. However, as eager as he was to continue onwards, Alexander felt a much stronger reluctance to depart than usual. After all, he not only left his beautiful new wife behind, but commanding the hundreds of civilians that were part of Alexander's army as well as the soldiers that would protect them, was none other than Hephaistion, together with faithful Perdiccas.

They had been separated before, Hephaistion more than capable to fulfill his own missions on Alexander's behalf, even had Alexander not trusted him as much as he trusted himself. But Alexander was setting out on one of the hardest roads on their journey so far, across mountain ranges higher and more hostile than anything he'd ever faced, and hardships were always easier when shared - and there was no one he could share them with the way he could with Hephaistion. Everyone else, even his closest companions, always saw the King, looked to him for strength and leadership, but to Hephaistion he would always be Alexander first. After all, they were, and would always be, one soul in two bodies, as Aristotle had said, something no marriage could change.

So while Alexander was resigned to being separated from Roxana - just like the soldiers who came with him were leaving behind their campaign wives and concubines - he did not relish not seeing Hephaistion for what could be months. It probably showed in the way he clasped his friend's hand before giving him the kiss accorded to all royal kin. Hephaistion responded in kind, and Alexander felt the familiar desire to deepen the kiss and say their goodbyes as lovers, not just king and commander. Not that he would, they both knew better than that, but it was almost as good to read the same emotion in Hephaistion's expressive eyes.

"You know your people here will be looked after just as if you yourself were leading them," Hephaistion said, knowing he was stating the obvious. Then he added, more softly: "Your queen will be cared for, Alexander, you have my word."

"I never doubted that for a moment, dear friend. You are the only one I trust with all that I am, as you well know, and that now includes Roxana." Alexander smiled and embraced Hephaistion once more before jumping onto his horse - not Bucephalus, who also remained in Hephaistion's care, being too old now for such a strenuous journey. "I will see you again in India," he grinned and rode to the head of the column without another backwards glance. He thought he could feel Hephaistion's eyes hot on him like a fierce kiss until they turned a corner and were out of sight of the camp.

***
Hephaistion stared after Alexander and his troops until they had disappeared from sight, then he sighed and walked back towards his tent and the countless tasks awaiting him in order to get all the people now in his and Perdiccas' care - soldiers, tradesmen, women and children - on the road as well. He had meant every word he'd said to Alexander, as always, but this did not mean he was relishing the prospect of dancing attendance to Roxana. Alexander's first and so far only wife, who had burst into their lives like a whirlwind, had taken Alexander as much by surprise as his men, or so Hephaistion suspected.

There had been women before, of course, but not many, and none like this, none Alexander had ever considered marrying. Not with all the pressure he'd been under from all sides, but especially from his mother, to sire an heir before leaving for Persia, and not even once they reached the beauties of Babylon. Hephaistion smirked a little at the thought - it had not been a woman who'd caught Alexander's attention from among Darius' harem but the pretty eunuch Bagoas, who now was also part of Hephaistion's moving city. For a moment Hephaistion wondered where the Persian boy would stay now that his master was gone, and just hoped, for the sake of peace and quiet, that he wasn't part of Roxana's retenue. The new queen was definitely not one to keep her grudges to herself, especially not now that Alexander and his firm, protective hand, were far away. She was so much like Olympias in many ways, a thought that Hephaistion had yet to share with his king. He would - he always did - but Alexander had been upset enough over his mother's scornful reaction to his marriage, Hephaistion had definitely not wanted to add to it. In India, then - if they ever got there.

After making a mental note to ensure that Bagoas was well-cared for, Hephaistion cleared his mind and focused his attention on the group of officers, administrators and scribes waiting for him. There would be plenty of time for thoughts of Alexander once they were on the move. For now it was time to be Alexander and arrange the best way to bring all his people safely into the unknown country across the mountains as well as ensure his army would not be without food or news from home. Setting up supply lines might not be glamorous, but without them no conqueror could hope to keep his conquests, and Hephaistion had already proven he had a good head for such things as logistics and diplomacy.

***
A few days into their long journey, Roxana had already started to become tired of life on the road. This was not what she had imagined when Alexander - handsome, victorious conqueror-king Alexander - had asked her father for her hand. She should have, of course, but a naive, romantic part of her had dreamed of capturing her husband's heart so much that he would find himself unable to leave her behind. Whether she had imagined herself sharing his life on campaign or him staying behind while others forged ahead, both had been the pipe dreams of a young girl. She could no more picture herself living like a warrior, like one of the fabled Amazons, than Alexander letting his men do the fighting for him, the way a Persian Great King would have.

But then, even the cool-headed, realistic part of her, raised in a house full of women with nothing to do but scheme for power and marriage, could not have imagined the fierce passion that impossible man, Alexander, had awakened in her. Roxana most certainly had not expected to fall in love with her husband - most wives that she knew weren't, marriage being a political instrument to form alliances more than anything to do with the two people actually in it. Yet here she was, surrounded by this strange people with its unfamiliar customs and uncouth language, every moment carrying her further away from everything she knew, and her heart burning for the man she'd only known for a couple of months and could barely speak with. Alexander's Persian was about as good as her Greek, and neither one of them spoke more than a couple of words of the other's actual mother tongue, mostly learned in bed when passion robbed them of anything else.

Which was the main reason Roxana decided to summon Alexander's second-in-command - or at least that was what she tried to tell herself when she sent one of her slaves to ask for Hephaistion's presence in her tent once they had stopped for the day. Everyone knew the General's Persian was uncommonly good for a foreigner so new to their lands, especially among the Macedonians who disdained everything they called "barbaric". However, if she was honest with herself, Roxana had wanted to have a closer look at the man ever since her wedding, when he'd served as Alexander's torch bearer, one of the few Macedonians supporting Alexander in his choice of bride. Her curiosity had only increased as she learned the stories and rumours and caught the occasional glance between the two men at dinner, the only opportunity she had to observe their reported closeness for herself.

To someone raised at court, even one as far away from Persepolis or Babylon as her father's, the fixed presence of the eunuch Bagoas in Alexander's chambers required no explanation, but Roxana had to admit that she was completely baffled, and unsettled, by Hephaistion.

***
Roxana's request took Hephaistion by surprise. His promise to Alexander had been an honest one, but he had imagined himself to keep it from afar, with little actual contact between himself and the queen. It was not in his nature to be bitter or jealous when it came to anything or anyone that brought Alexander pleasure. Be they trusted animal companions like Bucephalus and Peritas or people that captured the king's eyes and heart, the way Bagoas had in Babylon, the way Roxana had in Bactria. Still, when it came to Alexander's human loves, Hephaistion tended to keep his distance - aware that witnessing their closeness could be disconcerting to a lover, but also to spare himself any wistful nostalgia. It had been a long time since their relationship had been new and exciting - and while Hephaistion would not want things to be any different between them, cherishing what time and experience had allowed to grow, that golden time when they were youths only just discovering love and sex with each other was a memory that Hephaistion could not help but treasure.

However, a summons from Alexander's wife was not something he could ignore, and so he found himself in the anteroom of her luxuriously furnished tent as the sun went down over the mountains. She made him wait a while, but her servants - mostly women she'd brought along from Bactria - served him watered wine, and he did not begrudge her this small display of her status as his queen. When the curtains to her inner sanctum parted, Hephaistion rose and bowed his head respectfully: "My queen."

Roxana's dark eyes were watching him without blinking, a sensation made even more intense by being the only part of her clearly visible in the gloom of the tent and the long veil she was wearing. It was the clothing of a demure wife but of exquisite make and cut, displaying both her figure and her wealth to best advantage. Hephaistion couldn't help but smile - she truly was a queen in the same vein as Olympias. Seeing his expression her brows tightened and she asked, her voice low but sharp as a knife: "Do I amuse you, General?"

He replied, choosing the Persian words carefully: "No, my queen. I was just thinking that Alexander has chosen well." He most certainly did not want to antagonise her, not after the promise he'd made and years of experience with people disliking him simply because of who he was to their king. He had been careful not to make an enemy of Olympias and he would do his best not to make one of Roxana.

"This opinion is not widely shared, I believe," Roxana finally replied, after mulling his words over. Obviously she was keeping a tight rein on her emotions and was giving just as much thought to her words as he did. Their situation was a strange balancing act, but so far she seemed to be content with seizing him up. Hephaistion simply returned her gaze, not challenging, simply waiting for her next move. That this move was to remove the veil covering the lower part of her face did surprise him, but he did his best not to let it show. She continued as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened: "But then, I have heard you usually take his side."

There was no need to spell out who she was talking about, the man inevitably in the forefront of both their minds, so Hephaistion smiled and honoured her with the truth: "People say many things, but this is true - I will always be on Alexander's side. At his back, when we're in battle. Or right here, while he forges on ahead. Wherever he needs me to be."

Roxana considered this and then favoured him with a curious half-smile before gesturing for him to take a seat while she did the same. When she replied, it was once again not how Hephaistion had expected: "You always call him 'Alexander', your king." It was a statement, yet the question behind it was clear.

"Not always. I do call him king when the occasion warrants it, just like I genuflect when he requires it from me. However, to me he is always Alexander first. It's what he prefers, has ever since we were boys together." He hoped she would not continue this line of questioning, for the sake of her pride as well as because he wanted to keep this fragile understanding they were building. So he changed the topic, deciding to cut to the chase after all: "I was surprised that you asked for me, my queen. If there is anything in my power I can do for you, just say so and I will do my best."

Her gaze sharpened again, and it was clear she knew what he was doing and was considering how to respond, whether to keep pushing. He saw the moment she chose to let it go - for now at least - written in her expressive face. "Very well, General, there is something I require your help with: When I see my husband again, I would converse with him. So, if you were in earnest with your offer, I would ask that you teach me Greek."

Truly, a remarkable woman, Hephaistion thought, and his answer came easily: "Of course, my queen. It will please Alexander greatly, he values conversation, especially with those he loves." This made Roxana look at him as if surprised, so he felt compelled to elaborate. "He did not like to leave you, so I promised him to look after you as best I could. And I think you won't find it too difficult - you already speak two languages fluently and Persian is much more complicated than Greek."

Her sudden laugh rang through the candle-lit dusk, another reaction Hephaistion had not anticipated: "That does not surprise me, considering the Greeks I've met thus far." There was no malice in her words, although there was a challenge in the way she looked at him. Before he could reply she rose, effectively dismissing him: "I will expect your presence when your duties allow, General."

***
Their first encounter had taught Roxana a lot, but it had also raised many more questions in her mind. The General remained an enigma, despite his ever-polite friendliness and the apparent willingness with which he joined her for language lessons. It was not every evening, but at least two nights a week he made time to come to her tent. Having set her mind on learning, she applied herself diligently, and as her Greek improved, Hephaistion sometimes even rode beside her litter, keeping up simple conversations with an apparently never-ending supply of patience at her mistakes.

Could his reason really be something as simple as a promise made to Alexander? It was impossible not to hear the affection in his voice whenever he mentioned the king, and after a few weeks of lessons Roxana found herself asking frequently for stories of her husband's youth. At first he was reluctant, claiming she should be the one doing the majority of the talking, but he seemed to enjoy talking about the king as much as she enjoyed listening. And, as she pointed out, listening was also an important part of learning. He grinned at that, his usual reaction whenever she said anything he considered amusing or witty.

She still disliked the traveling, the inconvenience and dirt of it, and she missed Alexander quite a bit more than she would have expected. Still, somehow the hours spent with Hephaistion made time pass more easily. It was not that they became friends, both of them too careful to let down their guards around each other. However, the lessons were interesting and kept her mind occupied, and talking to him increased her understanding of the stranger who was her husband. There was history there, and a lot that remained unsaid, but she had always been good at reading between the lines.

She would have enjoyed seeing Alexander as a young man in Macedon, chafing under his father's firm hand and dreaming of conquests in far-away lands - but if she had known him then, he probably would not have looked twice at her. He'd been too busy learning how to be a soldier and a commander, with his mother always looking over his shoulder, and, Roxana suspected, not particularly interested in love. Or at least not the kind of love he'd shown her in the handful of passionate nights they'd shared after their wedding. Sometimes the General's voice would trail off and a particular smile would creep over his face, his eyes getting lost in the distance, and Roxana knew he remembered things him and Alexander had shared, things she would never be privy to. This was usually when she ended their sessions, and he never objected, taking his leave with impeccable politeness as usual and returning to his many duties.

***
There never seemed to be enough hours in the day as their convoy made its way through unknown territory, the demands on Hephaistion's time never-ending. He was glad to share the burdens of command with Perdiccas, with whom he had always gotten along very well, although most of the administrative tasks somehow ended up on his desk, while Perdiccas led their soldiers in securing the route. He complained about this, but his friend only laughed and invited him along: "Can't have you forgetting completely how to fight - with weapons, that is. I'm sure Roxana is keeping your wits sharpened for battle."

It was difficult for Hephaistion to explain the strange truce the queen and him had reached even to himself, so he did not even attempt to do so to Perdiccas. He only shook his head and readily joined in the next skirmish. Fighting was second nature to him, and he relished its relative simplicity. They left most cities and villages they encountered intact, forging alliance wherever they could and leaving behind loyal men where they couldn't. The fact that Hephaistion had the pleasure of receiving one of Aristotle's fond letters from his old teacher's home in Stagirus was proof of their success in keeping the supply lines open all the way to Greece. Even more welcome were news from Alexander and the prospect of their two armies meeting again across the Indus.

Bridging the mighty river left Hephaistion with little time to spend on further Greek lessons, but Roxana had progressed enough to read the letter her husband had sent along with the others for herself. "You now know Greek almost as well as I know Persian, my queen, " he complimented her honestly when he handed the letter into her eager hands, smiling when her face shone with pleasure. The fact that it was the prospect of seeing her husband again which caused this unusual moment of openness made him add: "Being able to talk to you will make his pleasure at seeing you again so much the greater. And he will be very proud of his wife, too - he's never been much good with languages, but maybe your example will finally give him the incentive he needs to learn how to speak Persian properly."

Roxana had regained control over her emotions again by now, but she still favoured him with a smile that reached her eyes: "He is very competitive, my husband, is he not?" It sounded like a secret they shared, this knowledge about Alexander, and Hephaistion agreed with a conspiratorial grin before taking his leave. He figured this was the closest to a "thank you" he could expect from the queen, and he was happy to take it. He hadn't done it for her, after all, but for the man awaiting them just on the other side of the river. Time to get back to work - Hephaistion had talked enough, he wanted to lay eyes, and possibly hands, on Alexander again.

***
When the two armies met, Alexander followed his usual routine of making the rounds amongst the men, reconnecting with loyal veterans and making sure the newer faces knew who it was they were following. As soon as that was done, however, he made straight to Hephaistion's tent where his generals and the rest of his most trusted companions waited. They, just as much as the regular soldiers, needed to see him and exchange tales of what they had encountered, re-forging them into the unstoppable force that had brought them this far.

Alexander was just as glad to see them all again, his closest friends, most of them by his side since they left Greece, some even longer. Now India lay open before them, one last push, as he assured them, and the meeting ended with mostly happy faces. Alexander stayed behind, to no one's surprise, Hephaistion's presence filling the part of Alexander that lay fallow whenever they were apart. He could no more stop the smile on his face than he could stop the twinge of irritation when Hephaistion did not instantly dismiss his pages but wasted time ordering wine, food and a bath.

"Honestly, that could have waited until after," Alexander grumbled when they were finally alone for a moment - however, it came out only half-heartedly, because he was embracing Hephaistion and feeling strong arms come up to hold him just as tightly. "One could think you did not want to be alone with me."

Familiar laughter huffed against his skin, and Alexander just started to relax when Hephaistion took a step back as the pages returned with the requested items. "Patience, Alexander," he said with a mix of composure and amusement that went back all the way to Mieza. "They will be gone in a minute. I hope you will not mind me serving as your page for once, since I want you to myself for as long as I can."

The last words were hardly more than a whisper against Alexander's skin as the tent flap closed behind the last of the pages. A pleasant shiver ran down Alexander's spine and he smiled, although he was still a bit thrown by the change in the usual ritual: "You know I don't mind. But what has brought this on? We have all night, after all, plenty of time to get fed and clean later." However, he did not resist his friend manhandling him to the bath and undressing him with an ease born of long practice.

It was only after Alexander was immersed in hot water with Hephaistion perched on the edge that he answered the question Alexander had already half-forgotten under the touch of Hephaistion's lips and hands. "We do not have all night, my love - or have you forgotten, you have a queen now, awaiting your attentions…"

Alexander tensed - he had actually forgotten, caught up in the minutiae of camp life, and if there had been the slightest trace of bitterness or sadness in Hephaistion's voice, he would have replied that Roxana could wait until the next day. But the familiar voice was light, slightly teasing, and Alexander relaxed back into his ministrations. "But what of you - are you not awaiting my attentions, my friend?" he asked anyway, half-seriously, opening his eyes to meet Hephaistion's as a razor blade scraped gently along his neck.

Hephaistion continued his task, shaking his head at him with fond exasperation: "We will have our time, my king - but you took a wife, and she has the right to expect a visit from her husband after such a long separation." He grinned and leaned down to claim a kiss before helping Alexander out of the bath. "Especially since you can now actually talk to her and not just… fulfill your duties as a husband."

While they ate Alexander listened bemusedly as Hephaistion told him of Roxana's request for Greek lessons. He was not sure what to make of this strange alliance, but he was quite looking forward to seeing - and hearing - the results of Hephaistion's labours. "I think I should use you for diplomatic missions from now on," he mused, aware that his companion knew exactly what was going through his mind.

Hephaistion laughed and almost shoved him out of the tent. "Go. Go to your wife, Alexander - I will still be here tomorrow."

For once, Alexander obeyed, although he paused for just a moment outside the tent to kiss Hephaistion gently on the lips, not caring who saw and rewarded by warm eyes following him as he made his way to Roxana's quarters. She was waiting for him, just as beautiful as he remembered, and her greeting was in accented but perfectly understandable Greek. Alexander laughed, filled with pride: "Hephaistion did not promise too much, my queen. You already had my love when we could barely speak a word to one another, now it seems your beauty is by far not your only attribute…"

Alexander kissed his wife, and she responded with all the passion he remembered from before. It was Roxana who broke the kiss in order to look at him with those deep, dark eyes that suddenly seemed to know so much more: "He promised me also, your Hephaistion, that you would like talking - he knows you very well, my husband." Before Alexander could react with anything more than a rueful smile, she went back to speaking the language they'd already been fluent in on their wedding night.

Afterwards, Alexander rose to leave, kissing Roxana gently. He never liked the aftermath, a strange sadness weighing down his very bones - only when he had been with Hephaistion did he not feel as if his soul was sinking into a heavy, lonely place. Roxana watched him go with a thoughtful look: "They did say that he, too, is Alexander. I will not forget that, I think."

Strangely disconcerted, Alexander decided against going to his own tent and the waiting Bagoas. Instead he allowed his tired feet to lead him towards Hephaistion, as they always did, in the end.

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