the sons of dreams outlive the sons of seed

Inspired by this lecture, which is the source of most of the descriptions of Scythian clothing and customs.

As the city grew near, I thanked the water-lord Thagimasádas for removing my fear of the sea. It was a good thing that I had ridden down through the western route and sailed from Piraeus, instead of the Eastern one where I could have ridden straight into the city. This way, by the time I laid eyes on Alexandria-on-the-Nile-delta, I had already witnessed the great cities of Thrace, Macedonia and Greece.

I had not wanted Alexandria to be the first great city I set eyes on, and appear ignorant of the ways of city-bound people when I reached it. This way, approaching the harbour and passing past where a great mole and lighthouse were being built by more men than I had ever seen working on one labour, I knew something of cities. I knew that the walls, the noise and the constant stink made me long for home; my home which requires no walls but only fellow tribeswomen, our horses, and our bows. I wondered if he had felt the same, my father who left his stone palace to wander the Earth until he died.

Inside this city, I hoped, was someone who could answer that question, and the others like it.

It did not take long, once docked, for me to find someone to give me directions to the home of the man I was looking for. I had stabled my horse in Piraeus, not wanting to subject him to the sea-voyage, so I was on foot. I had practiced pronouncing the words in Greek: Bagoas eunoukhos, I said to a woman in the marketplace, and she looked scandalized at being spoken to, at which point I remembered I was still dressed as a boy. Not a very convincing one, in my own opinion: I have a deep scar down the left side of my face from a Cimmerian’s sword that, once noticed, dispels any hopes of appearing young enough to be untested in battle, even if I succeed in appearing more male. But the woman in the market seemed to believe it well enough.

Still, she clearly knew to whom I was referring, and gave some instructions in Greek, which I understood none of, accompanied by some theatrical hand gestures, which I understood some of. I wandered on her directions through the busy streets, occasionally trying my luck asking directions from others, and eventually found myself in front of a house that I should have guessed all along was his, because it looks out directly on the tomb. Nobody, except perhaps the groundskeeper, can walk with greater ease from his front door to the only walls that have ever had a hope of holding my father; and Bagoas the eunuch need not even do that to look upon it, but only gaze out his front window.

I knocked on the door. A slave answered, a small thin man in Persian dress, his face deep brown and lined with age and care. Not knowing what tongue the domestic help in this city might speak, I merely repeated the two words that had guided me here: “Bagoas eunoukhos?

The slave blinked slowly, taking me in in a way I thought, even in my present odd condition, was rather rude. Yes, perhaps I ought to have changed from my Greek boys’ clothes into the patterned trousers, tunic, cap and gold jewelry that would announce me as Scythian and, to those who cared to discern it, as female. But I had no other acquaintance in Alexandria to receive me as guest-friend; I had been hoping that the master of this house would be able to give me a place to rest, wash and change. or at least that he would if I managed to explain to him who I was. First, however, I needed to actually meet him.

The slave was still just staring at me, bemused. “Bagoas eunoukhos?,” I said again, and then in frustration, slipped futilely into Scythian to say, “I’m looking for Bagoas– bring me to your master, damn you!”

There was a strange pause, and then the slave laughed. As I stared in horror, he bent over and slapped his knee, practically wheezing with mirth. Then he straightened up, pointed across the way to the tomb, and said in Persian, “My master is over there.”

After I had apologized, at a rough estimate, somewhere between eight and eleven times, each in a version of Scythian littered a tiny bit more liberally with the Persian words, Bagoas finally stopped laughing. He ushered me inside with a casual ease that I had not felt from a man since leaving Thrace: Greek men think it polite to ignore women whenever they are aware of being in their company. Then I remembered, of course, that that is the entire point of a eunuch: to be permitted entrance into the private worlds of both men and women, living fully in neither.

“You must be tired from your travels,” was the first thing he said to me after he had stopped laughing, as if it was of no concern to him at all to know sooner rather than later why a strange woman in boy’s garb, with a sword and dagger, had shown up at his door mistaking him for his own slave. “Please, bathe, and we will speak afterwards of whatever errand that has brought you here.”

It got stranger and stranger: he brought bathwater himself, along with oil that smelled better than any I had ever had in my life. I was too disoriented even to feel embarassed about being waited on by such an illustrious man; I just stared.

Once bathed, and finally dressed in my own proper clothes, I found Bagoas in the courtyard of the house, making up a plate of figs and cheese. He pressed a cup of water on me– water! It tasted nearly painfully sweet, after so long of mixing all water with wine to avoid fever. Seeing how quickly I drank it, he immediately refilled my cup. By this point it should have been embarassing; but there was something in the efficiency of his movements that made him more graceful when performing small services than a man of his age ought to be. He watched me drink out of the corner of his eye as if witnessing my refreshment was some long-forgotten pleasure.

“I must apologize,” he said, “for how I must have startled you. I keep no house-slaves; it comes of having once been made into one.”

“Pity is an admirable thing.” I did not point out, out of courtesy, that one rich man’s waiting on his guests himself does not prevent the losers of battle from being captured and sold, as is their fate decided by the gods.

“It is; moreover, I know too well that those who have no business of their own make it their business to know everything of their master’s affairs. I have arranged my home to be a place where great men can speak freely of matters that are not yet settled in their own minds, and find both good council and discretion.”

“Do you know King Ptolemy?” I asked. Being dressed now in my Scythian clothes, I had no fear of being thought too plain-spoken, since it was inevitable: a Persian would already think my native tongue rude, if just barely comprehensible, so he might as well form a judgement of my use of it, as well. If he thinks me barbaric, I had reasoned on the ship, so much the better: my pride in my people will be valued by the gods all the more in the face of scorn.

He showed no scorn; I thought to hope for the first time that his policy of good council and discretion extended to great women, too. “That is no secret,” he said, smiling.

“Is he a good ruler?” It hadn’t been the first question I’d planned on asking, but as I’d wandered the city, it had become the most urgent. It was my father had chosen this site, had laid out plan of the streets in barley-meal snatched by birds, but it was Ptolemy who had brought him back.

In all honesty: until that day, I had been certain that there was no city that could convince me to settle my people, once I was Queen. If some other nomad tribes adopted the ways of the Greeks, if they trapped themselves inside of walls and made themselves slaves to the same small patch of farmland forever, what is it to me? I would continue to lead my own tribe in the old ways, like my mother, and her mother before her.

And yet there is a feeling to the streets of Alexandria that is like none of the Greek cities: an elation shared between many peoples and languages, a breeze through the mind like the feeling of wind in one’s hair during a ride. I had spent so long learning the old ways of my mother’s people that I had forgotten that my father’s people had old ways too, even if he abandoned them. The ways of the Greeks, these new Egyptian Greeks who burn offerings at his temple and gather around newly-built buildings to debate the principles of architecture and mathematics and astronomy– those could be my birthright, as well.

And yet…

“Ptolemy is a wise king,” said Bagoas, interrupting the well-worn tracks my thoughts had taken ever since my mother fell ill, and the people began to look to me as leader in battle and in our wandering. “Of all those who would have taken the Empire, he chose best by choosing not to take more than he can handle. For this he will win everlasting fame, and the others oblivion.” He spoke in the knowing, almost exasperated tone of voice of someone describing a longtime friend, with whom one has quarreled much, but never more severely than the love of friendship can withstand.

“Did you think he ought to have taken more?”

“No. Every man must accept the gifts the gods give him, not the ones he would have preferred to have been given. Ptolemy is not Alexander.”

It was, oddly enough, the first time I had heard his name being pronounced in the Greek fashion that he must have used; my mother and the tribeswomen who had accompanied her all referred to her conquest in the usual way, Isakandar. Bagoas said it carefully, like holding something precious and breakable, a slight emphasis on the second syllable as if he must be careful not to forget it: Al_ex_ander.

My mother had always spoken fondly of him, though most of her tales weren’t fit for childrens’ ears; she had no Greek, and he no Scythian and only a few words of Persian, so they hadn’t exactly spent much time in conversion. She’d offered him the usual arrangement for our tribal liaisons: a girl-child will be her mother’s heir, a boy will be sent to the father’s tribe when he is old enough. I have no illusions about what would have happened had I been a boy, not yet old enough to take the throne when he died: I would be dead by poison or a knife in the back, just like the other two boys he fathered.

Bagoas was nothing like my mother. Both that he pronounced the name differently, and that he uttered it like a prayer.

He had invited me into his home not even knowing my name– and yet, perhaps some part of him had known something. I had planned a more elaborate speech, but it all escaped me in that moment; to put off the point for any longer would have been like telling a lie. “I am Sarukê, daughter of Alexander and Thalestris,” I said, and then abruptly could think of nothing more to say.

Which was just as well, because I was abruptly afraid that Bagoas might suffer some sort of fit. His breath came short, and he grabbed wildly at a chair and then the wall for balance. I lunged forwards to support him, and he grabbed my shoulders with hands that were much stronger than his delicate frame would have suggested. he pulled himself up, squeezing bruizes into my flesh, and he stared into my face; not seeing me, but searching for someone else.

Apparently he found him. Again he laughed– but we must make allowances, because those who have known both great misfortune and great exultation know that laughter is the only possible response to both. I did not know yet which one he considered my arrival to be– perhaps both. “I thought there were none left,” he said, not to me but to himself or the gods, and I knew he was referring to the son of Roxane and the son of Barsine. I thought he must have been jealous and afraid of being cast aside when they were conceived, but I now saw that their murders had been a great sorrow to him: they had been all that was left on Earth of his lover, or so he had thought.

His chuckle took on a hysterical edge as he said, “I remember hearing tell of your mother and her people– I had just arrived, and thought it was no concern of mine if the barbarian king fornicated with a–” he cut himself off. “Apologies. It is what I thought then. I remember it like another life, perhaps like the birds remember their time inside of the egg that birthed them.” Then he took a deep breath, and used my arm still steadying him to begin lowering himself down to the ground.

“No,” I said quickly, “It is not the custom of our tribes, and even so, I am not Queen while my mother yet lives–”

“Please, daughter of Alexander,” he said, his voice unsteady, his knees crackling loudly in the quiet room as he let go of me and slowly lowered himself into the Persian prostration. “Permit me.” He laid his forehead at my feet, and stayed there as if resting from a long journey.

So I allowed him to stay there, kissing the ground at my feet. We wanderers know enough of the customs of other tribes to know that kindness looks different among different people; to receive prostration was the most cherished gift I could offer him.

Once he finally allowed me to help him up, in return he offered me what I had come here seeking, knowledge of my father; and also what I had not known to seek from him, the quiet good council that he has made it his business to offer rulers wise enough to seek it. As I write this, aboard the ship that will take me back to Greece, I am no more certain of whether or not I will settle my people: but I am no longer concerned that I will be unable to hear the voices of the gods guiding me, when the time comes to make a choice. I told him he ought to write a book of his memories, and he laughed and told me I sounded just like Ptolemy.

When we head eaten, and talked long, and in the absence of a slave to do it he had tidied a bed for me in the guest-room himself, he appeared holding a jug of wine and a measure of incense, and gestured to me not to retire quite yet.

“Come to the temple,” he said. “It’s now the proper time to offer your father the rites of worship he is owed.”

I knew that he was a god, and worshiped here; but I knew nothing of how or when the worship was properly performed. “When are they owed?” I asked.

We stepped out into the twilight. In the red light reflecting off the harbour, the lines mapping Bagoas’ face looked less like one who has worried much, and more like one who has smiled much, and loved much.

“When I am happy,” he said.