“There is no such thing as a pure Argead,” my mother tells me, during one of our secret times. “Nor who is pure Makednian. You are half Epeirote, since I’m from there. Your Grandma is half Illyrian, only learned to read as a grown-up; that’s why it’s so special to her. None of it matters. Don’t listen to the codgers; they were wearing animal skins until the past few years and most of them still can’t read. Race counts for nothing, merit everything.”
My father agrees, says that’s one thing the southern Greeks have wrong. “Swear loyalty to me and you are Makednian,” is his rule.
I am five and he redraws the border south of Pharnasos, because all Thessaly is ours, when he gets home. He always brings gifts: scents and jewels and bolts of beautiful cloth for my mother and his other wives to make into clothes, fresh-painted toys for us kids, coins from wherever he has conquered. There will be a wedding, as he is taking another Thessalian wife, the niece of Jason.
“No, not Jason who got the Golden Fleece,” he says laughing when I ask, snuffing my hopes of getting my new stepmother to tell me Argonaut stories. “One named after him. A great warrior and commander to emulate; he tried to do what I am doing, and might have succeeded if he hadn’t been backstabbed. A king always has to look over his shoulder, for the jealous and the envious.”
I call Lanike’s brother Kleitos “Uncle” because she’s my nurse. He’s usually in my father’s retinue. Everyone calls him “the Black” for his black hair and dark grey eyes, and his sombre way. His black eyebrows are upswept on their outer ends like wings, under a straight line of black curls. He is so tall that when he tosses me in the air I feel like a bird.
He’s playing with Lanike’s three sons and me in one of the courtyards. I get two of my wooden toy swords. He gets on his knees to mock-fight me, leaving me big, slow openings. I find one, jab the point against his chest. He freezes with his eyes popping, dark against the whites, and clutches the spot. “Ai!” he cries in an actor’s voice. “I am struck a mortal blow!” He sprawls on the grass, dead still, eyes staring upward.
The sunlit day turns black in my eyes, and my body to stone. I don’t know where I am. From a thousand days’ march away I hear the oldest boy, Proteas, say, “Alexander’s killed Uncle, let’s all jump on him!”
“Uncle Kleitos.” I touch his shoulder. “Stop! Wake up!” The world is going black and white, my heart racing like the heart of the sacrificed goat shooting blood out of him, making his death come faster. He doesn’t move. They pile onto his chest, digging their little fingers into his ribs, smacking his face, tweaking his nose, making little-boy growls. I am sick. I want to scream but my throat and my mouth are bone. I grab his shoulder, shake him as best I can. “Uncle Kleitos!” It comes out half-gasp, half-shriek. I slap his face, punch his chest. “Wake up!”
The boys all freeze on their perches on him, and stare at me. He opens his eyes and sits up fast, tumbling them off him into his arms, his black brows knitting. “Sprout! What’s the matter? I’m just pretending!”
Relief roars over me like a wave, then turns to anger just as deep and strong. How could you pretend something so evil? I ignore his outstretched arms, feeling my fists clench. “Don’t do that!” I shout. “Don’t you ever dare do that again!”
He blinks, stunned, has no words. I’ve never seen a grown-up not know what to do before. Proteas looks at me as if I’m crazy; one of the others giggles a not-allowed-to-giggle kind of giggle.
“Sprout,” Kleitos says, in a voice like I heard one of the grooms use to gentle a spooked horse. “All right. I won’t. I give you my word.” He gives me his hand on it, too. Anger gone, I have only tears left. I go weak all over, want to lie down. He lifts me and holds me to him, and when that does nothing to make me stop, passes me to Lanike. I wail into her neck.
While I’m taking a breath, I hear him say “…such a delicate…”
“Oh yes.” Lanike’s voice rings all around and inside my head, since my ear is pressed to her collar-bone. “He’s all feeling. Unearthly smart, you know, and I think he even has a touch of prescience; his mother does. A great blessing for a king, but in the meantime, you never know when a child like that will see something that’s more than he can bear.” He adds his hand to hers, patting my back.
Kleitos is true to his word, as you’d expect from him. He never play-acts death at my hands again.
My new stepmother’s name is Nikesipolis. She is very beautiful, with big almond-shaped black eyes and arching brows that nearly meet in the middle. The whole Palace is garlanded with green wreaths and there’s feasting and dancing every night for seven nights. On the last day, with her hand on his, they cut the sacred bread with his sword, which makes them husband and wife. We kids run around through the tables and under the couches, wrestling with each other and the dogs. I overhear Philinna say softly to Nikesipolis, “Olympiada thinks she is the most beautiful woman in the Palace. Whatever you do, don’t say otherwise.”
I am six and my father is home from taming two upstart kings in Illyria. They move me into the men’s section, to a room that has a painted border along the top of the walls. It has curves that weave together in red, blue and yellow, with some black and some white. When I follow the pattern with my eyes it has stories in it, of waves and flowers, ups and downs, twists and turns.
My parents decide my room should get a mural. “We should hire someone from the school of Zeuxis,” my father says, “since he painted that perfect Pan.” Zeuxis was the greatest painter in Archelaos’s time, so Archelaos had him do the painting for this palace when it was built. It hangs in the King’s great-room and it’s so good that Pan looks like He’s about to leap out of it on shining hooves, landing with a clop-clop on the marble floor and dancing off to the music of His own pipes.
“He was not a muralist, he never painted big, and his school’s the same,” my mother says. We’re in their bedchamber; I’m playing with one of my toy two-horse chariots. “Children’s souls learn through their eyes. Do you want your son seeing everything in little squares? There’s a wonderful one at home who does whole walls that look like life itself; Arybbas will send him if you ask nicely.” Arybbas is the non-rightful King of Epeiros, who her brother Alexander will replace.
“Little squares!? You see the fresh work of Koiphos, student of Zeuxis’s student, right there!” I’m looking down but I can tell my father has flung out his arm to mean the wall beyond his side of the bed. “Is Hades not carrying off Persephone in a big enough way?”
“It should go floor to ceiling! You can’t make a good King with miniaturists! I’ll write Arybbas as his kinswoman, if you don’t want to.”
“My dear, he is in the men’s section now. I rightfully have more say in what goes on his walls.”
“Do you think I love him any less, and have any less concern for how he is raised, because his bed has been moved?”
Something in me makes me press the chariot-wheels against the floor so they squeak loudly against their axles.
“I think you would have your way in all things, even when you’re contending with a King.” He laughs at his own words.
She doesn’t. “I would have my ways in things concerning one who I carried in me for nine moons, who is the light of my life, and who barely sees you.”
I smack the chariot-wheels against the floor so they make a loud clack, not caring if I break them.
“Are you intimating I am not his father?”
Two pairs of sandaled feet quickly but casually pass me and go out the door. The servants, who were doing this or that chore. They know when to slip out. I feel the burning start.
It’s always like fire inside my skin, from head to toe, when they do this. Their words, meant to lash each other, lash me. When I was a baby, I’d scream and cry or stick my fingers into something I wasn’t allowed to until my mother yelled to Lanike to take me away. I’m too old to do babyish things like that now.
“Always that, ‘are you intimating I am not his father’? You make me laugh, Philip, so worried for the power of your seed you are. We are just talking about artists!”
I first learned to read the Iliad, not the Maxims of the Seven Sages as inscribed at Delphi, like most boys. But Leonidas has me into them now. I start counting how many of them my parents are breaking.
Find fault with no one... “You just want to rule more here, you vixen, in a Palace where you rule nothing except by seduction.”
Govern yourself... “If there is no one else around who rules well enough, yes, I do! And seduction—! You’re one to talk, you Royal-Boy’s-chiton sniffer.”
Master anger... “You up-country primitive man-tearing savage who slurps up blood like a dog!”
Restrain the tongue... “You limp-dicked fake Hellenizer whom Athenians all laugh at behind their hands!”
Despise strife... They circle like duelists, veins standing up in his purpled forehead, her glare like a snake’s when it’s coiled to strike, both flinging out words like javelins.
I feel as if the pain is about to burst through my skin, like flames. Then I remember: I know logic now. Inspiration lights my mind like Zeus’s bolt. I see how to not only stop them cold, but shame them into never quarreling again.
“I know the answer!” I yell, using the highness of my voice to cut through theirs. They both stare at me, startled. “It’s my wall. So I pick. And my choice is this: it doesn’t matter which artist does it, so long as he does a big herd of horses. There—settled—simple! So why do you two do this? You grown-ups are always telling us kids to govern ourselves, master anger, restrain the tongue, despise strife—but listen to you! You couldn’t even think of this yourselves, so you’re shouting at each other like drunken Thrakians. It’s so stupid. Stop it!”
They both stand speechless. I feel the ecstasy of victory wash away the pain.
Her eyes, fixed on mine, change to the same deadly snake-glare she had on him. “How dare you speak to us that way! A child so small trying to rule over your parents who gave you life and slighting us with such insolence and presuming to command your father the King and your mother the Queen and…” It goes on unbroken.
He, without a word, yanks me up by one arm so fast I feel like it’ll come out of my shoulder-joint, throws me over his knee, and spanks me so hard my eyes go black for a bit. Tucking me up under one arm he flings me out the door like a used rag. Then they turn their eyes to each other as if to ask, “Where were we, my darling?” and go right on as if nothing happened.
The fire flares worse, sizzling my soul, my bones. I barely notice the butt-pain. I want to scream, but I am too old. I want to kill someone. A face leans over mine: Kynna. To her, my face is pure white, as she’s never seen in her life in someone who’s not deathly ill; she tells me later.
“Alé,” she whispers. I can’t get up, my legs palsied by the blow. She heaves me up in her arms, that aren’t that much bigger than mine but plenty strong, and gets me balanced on her back. She carries me to my bed. “Shh, Alé,” she says, putting her arms around me, even though I’m not making a sound. “Shh.” She strokes my brow, just like Lanike does. “Tell me what happened.”
Struggling to pluck the words out of the molten metal that is my mind, I tell her. “Why didn’t they listen to me?” I say. “Why wouldn’t they see sense?” That’s what bothers me the most. What is the point of all this philosophy I’m studying, of the Delphic Maxims and the Iliad, if this can happen? If I am so helpless, what’s the point of learning how to be right?
“Alé, yours is a good idea. It would be a beautiful painting, so it’s exactly what they should do. But you don’t understand. They aren’t really fighting about that.”
“They aren’t?” I say. I hear my voice quiver, make it stop. “But they said… what are they really fighting about, then?”
“Father wants your mother to be obedient like a Makednian wife. Your mother thinks of herself as good as him because she is his queen, and she’s from Epeiros. They have queens who really rule there.”
You just want to rule more here, in a Palace where you rule nothing. Kynna understands, I see, because her own mother is sort of the same, being Illyrian. In fact, she is a warrior, which mine is not. She’s told Kynna that she’ll teach her war when she gets old enough. She’s almost eight, so it’s going to be any day.
I can see no way to peace. “Why don’t they just be apart, then?”
“Oh no no no, Alé, you don’t want that. If they did, you’d be a bastard and you’d never get to be King.” So much for that idea. “Something else you should know before you try to stop them from fighting. They like to fight.”
“Like to?” How can you like to do that? What’s wrong with you? It so flies in the face of the Maxims, that they made Leonidas to teach me because they are sacred. My father and his army fought Onomarchos with wreaths on their helmets as a ritual to Apollo, Grandma told me; my mother gives Him oxen. Have they forgotten?
“I don’t know why, but they do. I’ll show you—here, ride on my back again.” Careful to put her hands under my thighs more than my butt, she carries me back to the royal bedchamber door. It’s closed now. “Listen,” she whispers.
I hear their voices again. But they’re not screaming stabbing words; they’re making the ecstatic sounds in rhythm, like a song with no melody or words, the song that will end with one big long one. The start of all people.
I am speechless all the way back to my bed.
“I still don’t want to see them quarrel like that ever again,” I say, after a while.
“I know, Alé.” Kynna’s voice is long-suffering. She’s been suffering this two years longer than I have. “So just do what I do: get away. You come to me, and we’ll take off and do something fun—go down to the stables and bother the grooms until they let us ride around the yard, or mock-fight, or play a game, or you can practice reading Homer and I’ll teach you the big words.” She knows what will make me happy.
She keeps her promise. She either comes and gets me, or I scratch on her door. When it’s very bad, she lets me sleep with her arms around me that night, my head on her shoulder.
I’m healed enough to walk again two days later. A half-moon or so after that, Koiphos comes and starts painting a big herd of horses, floor to just shy of the ceiling border. He does them in every position, grazing, frisking, whinnying, rearing, leaping, rolling, mounting, foaling, nursing foal, chasing, fighting. I fall asleep following their graceful lines by moonlight and they sometimes gallop into my dreams, knowing how beautiful they are. They are so beautiful, I sometimes cry.